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Profound and Visionary

Serin Atiani and Matt Bowles
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire
Ed. David Barsamian
South End Press 2000

Eqbal Ahmad is one of the most profound and visionary activist-intellectuals of the 20th Century. Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire—the only book in print by Eqbal Ahmad, who passed away in 1999—is a collection of interviews with David Barsamian which blend terse political analysis, searing critiques of power, revolutionary strategy, and extraordinary vision.

Spoken with such genuine compassion, humility, and sometimes humor, Ahmad’s words are a delight to read. His analytical precision, eloquence, and uncompromising opposition to oppressive power make this book intellectually riveting for all readers and particularly inspiring for activists.

While describing himself as “very harshly secular”, Ahmad explains that being secular “doesn’t mean that you are irreligious or opposed to religion.” As such, he frequently praises various aspects of Islamic thought. In his discussion on the partition of Pakistan, Ahmad explains that:

    “The idea of Pakistan was very strongly opposed by the Islamic religious scholars of India…because nationalism proceeds to create boundaries where Islam is a faith without boundaries… Just as the greatest Judaic scholars in the 1920s and ‘30s did not support the Zionist movement. They thought it was inimical to the notion of Judaism, to the universal idea of being a Jew.”

Ahmad thoroughly critiques nationalism as “an ideology of difference,” explaining that a major problem for Pakistanis and other Third World peoples is that “we rejected western imperialism, but in the process we embraced Western nationalism lock, stock and barrel.”

Ahmad provides an extraordinary analysis of the post-colonial state, which he refers to as “a bad version of the colonial one,” arguing that:

    Nationalism contra Imperialism?

    “The colonial state was not about being of service to the colonized. It was about exploitation and extraction of resources. The post-colonial state is exactly the same…The propertied class of the Third World…is building a system of apartheid in which the poor are separated from the rich and the rich are connected to the West, to the metropolis.”

Ahmad offers some timely critiques of U.S. imperialism, the lexicon of terrorism, and the demonization of Islam—including a detailed analysis of the historical U.S. role in Afghanistan.

Just one of the many insights he provides is that “the notion of jihad as just struggle had not existed in the Muslim world since the tenth century, until the United States revived it during its jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.”

Another profound contribution is Ahmad’s insight into revolutionary strategy. An expert on both guerrilla warfare and nonviolent resistance, Ahmad argues that “the primary task of revolutionary struggle is to achieve the moral isolation of the adversary in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world.”

Ahmad critiques PLO resistance tactics, observing that “the violence [the PLO] were practicing was a violence of the oppressed, but it was not revolutionary violence… It was just not morally or politically rooted. It was psychologically and sociologically not selective. It was more an expression of a feeling than an expression of a program.” Ahmad goes on to suggest a range of tactics that could be used for more effectively resisting Zionist colonialism.

The conversational style of this book makes it especially engaging, personal and enjoyable to read. Some of the best aspects are the stories Ahmad tells about his personal encounters with Gandhi as a small child, then later with Franz Fanon in Algeria, and finally, about how he and Edward Said were dropped into Tunis to advise Yasser Arafat, who wrote down their advice but never took it.

Eqbal Ahmad: Confronting Empire is a brief glance at the activist life and the revolutionary insights of one of our most important intellectuals. Ahmad had a compelling argument for the necessity of resistance and the possibilities for social change. As he told his students: “My life and my teachings all point to two morals: think critically and take risks.”