An interview with

Eqbal Ahmad

by David Barsamian, August 4, 1993


Eqbal Ahmad is Professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He is managing editor of the quarterly Race and Class. His articles and essays appear in the New York Times, The Nation and other major newspapers and journals throughout the world. He writes a weekly column for Dawn, Pakistan's oldest English newspaper.


David Barsamian: The Indian Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, gave a speech at the Human Rights World Conference in Vienna in mid-June. He said: "India's commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, political and civil as well as economic, social and cultural, is unreserved and total. This commitment has evolved logically from the age-old ideals which have been the basis of our composite culture of the centuries." How does that track with India's record?

Eqbal Ahmad: Badly. Certainly very badly with the recent record. But I am delighted to hear that people like Manmohan Singh are reiterating India's commitment to respecting human rights and equally important that they are emphasizing the composite character of Indian culture. I think these two commitments must remain important. If people like Manmohan Singh continue to reiterate them, I would continue to hold hope in really difficult circumstances. But the actual record of India is abominable in the last ten years, and it's getting worse by the year.

DB Khuswant Singh, a columnist for the Hindustan Times, in an article entitled "India, the Hindu State," has this comment to make: "The most disturbing development in India is the increasing number of senior civil servants, intellectuals and journalists who have begun to talk the language of Hindu fundamentalism, protesting that religious minorities, particularly the Muslims, have pushed them beyond the limits of patience."

EA What Khuswant Singh is saying there is so terribly important and so true. It was in 1990 that I found myself shocked in a discussion with the Commissioner of the district of Faizabad, where the Babri mosque was. This Commissioner, the highest official in that particular district, was talking absolutely the language of the right-wing fundamentalist Hindu parties who wished to destroy that historic mosque. The result came two years later, in 1992, when a mosque built in 1527 was actually demolished by Hindu mobs led by the fundamentalist leaders. So what Khuswant Singh is saying is truly a frightening phenomenon and it is very often what I'm trying to emphasize is that their language of militancy and sectarianism is translated almost daily in Indian life in violent and destructive actions.

DB It should be pointed out that the mosque you mentioned is in the town of Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh in north India. That was very quickly followed by organized pogroms against Muslims in Bombay which was led by the Shiv Sena (a Marathi Hindu nationalist organization). There were many reports that the police and other military formations participated with the Shiv Sena in attacks on Muslims.

EA I think it is to the credit of a few investigative Indian journalists plus one or two Western journalists that they are the ones who discovered, through the monitoring of radio broadcasts, that the Indian police in Bombay were actually participating in the organization of the pogroms in Bombay. Remind yourself also of the fact that in those pogroms nearly 3,000 people were killed and people were dragged out of their homes and apartments and murdered.

DB Conventionally, when people in the West think of Islam they immediately think of Saudi Arabia and Iraq, Syria and Egypt, etc. They don't think of India as having a large Muslim community. But in fact it does, does it not?

EA India has at the moment possibly the second largest Muslim population in the world. I say "possibly" because Indonesia and India are neck to neck as holding the largest Muslim populations in the world. But if I could add something else, when people think of Islam and Muslims, they think normally of places like Iran and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and not of places like India and Indonesia. Secondly, when they think of fundamentalism, they always think of Islam and Muslims and not of other very menacing fundamentalist movements, such as the Hindu fundamentalists in India or the Christian fundamentalists in Serbia. So Islam is thought of in more than one distorted way.

DB It's interesting that you should point that out. During the siege and then deaths in Waco, Texas, the media constantly referred to David Koresh as a "cult leader" and the members of his group as "cult followers." They were never described as fundamentalist, militant Christians.

EA Absolutely. Similarly, quite frankly, if Ronald Reagan and his connections with the Moral Majority movement had existed in Egypt, we would clearly see them typed as fundamentalists, which they were. Ronald Reagan's rhetoric and policies to a lesser extent bore very much the stamp of Christian fundamentalists. The conviction, for example, that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire." It was a religious concept of evil empire that bore a certain similarity to Ayatollah Khomeini's description of the United States as the "Satanic Empire." But we don't quite see those similarities, do we?

DB It seems that would speak very much to the quality of information that the U.S. media and the Western media in general deliver to Americans on these issues.

EA It would refer also to the failure of the non-media institutions in this country to provide a correction to what the media does. The media have been historically, in the short history that mass media have in the world, about a hundred and fifty years, but during this period even the other institutions of society: the trade unions, the church, universities, professors, the schools, had provided a corrective to the vulgarization and distortions that the media have inevitably engaged in. What is very strikingly regrettable in our time is that institutions which were expected to have a deeper, more considered evaluation of events and cultures the world over are behaving like the media or are taking their cue, their understanding of the world, from the media. What I'm trying to emphasize here is that there has been a lot of emphasis in this country among critics about the failures of the media. The media have always been a very easy instrument for powerful forces to manipulate because they are a very shallow instrument, very easily manipulated. The newspapers are all dependent for publication on advertisements, therefore they are deeply organically linked to big money. They are dependent on powerful figures for news, therefore there are ties of dependence to institutions of power. If they don't, they feel they will be denied access to news. Media have been, from their inception, an institution deeply vulnerable to money and to power. Therefore, media's weaknesses are to be balanced by the maturity and strength of the more stable institutions of civil society: the trade unions, the universities, the churches, the political parties, and so on. What is really shocking and very upsetting, in fact dangerous, for the future of civilization, is that the media have become the definer of public discourse. There are no countervailing institutions which are challenging this hegemony.

DB There are of course magazines, like Race and Class, Z and others, but they seem to be operating on the margins.

EA Look, they are marginalized. Quite frankly, they are so marginalized that with the exception of people like you who have managed somehow to get occasionally on their programs on radio and television, these magazines--their ideas, their notions, their analogies--seldom enter into public discourse. You switch on a television and what will you hear? Dr. Henry Kissinger. Charles Krauthammer. Professor Brzezinski. William Safire. Tom Friedman of the New York Times, etc., etc. What newspapers and magazines will be quoted? The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, at best Foreign Affairs, all media that are somehow tied to big money and big power. So that the real concerns of people do not get translated in mainstream discourse. You are about to forgive me for using the word, but you are a marginal figure in the media. Your marginality merely confirms the freedom of press that exists in this country. You are a major legitimizing instrument. So am I. I'm very similar to you. My voice in the academy is very similar to yours in the media.

DB What advice would you give to people here or your students, for example, at Hampshire College, to try to find out independent sources of information?

EA Number one, read. Number two, intervene. For God's sake, let us not be only consumers of information. Each person knows some truth--and I really think that almost anyone who is listening to you and to me right now has some knowledge, some truth, some understanding of the world, that is different from that of the dominant media institutions. The moment you find that your truth clashes with what is being peddled as their truth, intervene. So learn, look for alternative sources, for without alternative sources, without pluralism, there is no democracy. But at the same time, without intervention of the public into power, without balances, without checks, there is no democracy. The notion of checks and balances has been reduced by the powerful discourse, by the hegemonious discourse, to the relationship of the Congress, the Executive and the Supreme Court. It has been formalized. Democracy consists of understanding it in broader terms. Checks and balances consist of public intervening to check and balance out the hegemonious, the dominant discourse of the media, the speeches of the politicians, the falsehoods that are being given to us as truths. Intervention is very important. The reason I am emphasizing intervention is that only when you get into the habit of intervening would you find the compulsion to know the truth. I.F. Stone used to do that. He taught us. Noam Chomsky does it now. Edward Said does it all the time. Because you want to intervene, because you have the habit of intervening, you want to find out the truth. The two things reinforce each other.

DB I've been familiar with your name since the anti-Vietnam War days. You came to the U.S. in 1958. In these decades that you've been in this country, have you seen an increase in intervention on the part of the public? Is there more democracy?

EA It is up and down. It's like the economic cycles. There have been periods of recession and periods of affluence. There was much greater intervention and liveliness during the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, the blacks and the whites who were concerned with racial equality, racial prejudice, enlivened massively, significantly and importantly the cultural and the political life, even the literary life of this country. It was followed by the peace movement, the movement against the war in Vietnam, that had that effect. The 1960s changed this country in very good ways. What is very surprising, in fact, what is very striking is that the establishment is recognizing that the 1960s seized this country in very important and good ways.

DB How do they do that?

EA Well, the culture is different. It has changed the culture of America. The women's movement came out of the 1960s.

DB But as Chomsky suggests, those have been cultural changes rather than institutional ones.

EA That is true. I don't think the politics of this country have changed very much, but culture has, and culture is important. In that sense those changes have been important. What is really important to note here is that those cultural changes produced the reaction. The reaction was Ronald Reagan and his Reaganism and his nearly twelve years of right-wing government in this country. That, first of all, wrecked the American economy. The economic wreckage is so massive that I fear whether or not the gains in other areas could be consolidated. There is a second thing they did: while wrecking the economy they also tried to turn the clock back on the achievements of the 1950s and the 1960s. In that they have partially succeeded. They have succeeded in the sense that now there is less liveliness, less dissent, less questioning in this society. We have a remarkable metaphor, a frightening symbol of what has happened to this country in Bosnia. For forty years this country's elite has mourned and apologized for the Holocaust that happened to the Jews in the 1940s. That Holocaust--horrible--, our failure--horrible--happened in wartime, when everyone was fighting for survival. Even then, one should have attended to that horror. And people have apologized for not attending to it for good reasons. And now in peacetime, at the end of the Cold War, in the heart of Europe, the most multicultural, the most multi-ethnic, secular, non-sectarian community has been destroyed before our eyes. No one has really made an outcry that this horror must be stopped. In fact, the United States and Europe, who had power to stop it, not only failed to stop but actually aided the aggressors by putting an arms embargo on the victims.

DB What do you think the response of the West would have been had those been pictures of synagogues and churches burning in Bosnia and Jews and Christians being "ethnically cleansed"?

EA I really don't know. This is a question you have raised that is so fundamentally important. Anyone who is listening to you must ask that question. I may be biased, I am a Muslim myself, but the truth is that every day in the media here, and by politicians, there is talk about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. And the other truth is, the most secular, multi-ethnic Muslim community in the world has been destroyed, in our time, before our eyes, in peacetime, in the heart of Europe, by a clearcut fascist Christian group which engaged in ethnic cleansing. These same people who have been silent, how would they have reacted if it were the Muslims who were doing the killing, the ethnic and religious cleansing, and Christians who were victims? It is a question that honestly you have asked. People who are listening to you now must ask. My answer is obviously clear: I suspect that there would have been an outcry.

DB You're in close contact with the progressive movement, for what it is, in the United States. What has been the perspective of your colleagues on the left on the issue of Bosnia?

EA It has ranged from a very microscopic minority being concerned to a large number of people trying very hard to look the other way to the group of people whom I found and find the most nauseating trying to justify their silence. The World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, the major churches in this country have sat through this holocaust. They have not even raised a voice. Their answer is, of course, that they did not wish to advocate intervention by the United States. But you understand that the media have distorted this debate. Intervention has never been the issue. The Bosnians never asked for American troops or American bombers. All they asked for was that the arms embargo on the victims, on the aggressed, on the invaded, be lifted. So all these churches--there are exceptions. The Mennonites and the Catholic Bishops Conference took a position, a mild one, but took one, in which they said that supply of arms to the Bosnians and lifting of the embargo was just cause. But everybody else kept silent. The issue was lifting of the arms embargo. In other words, while they opposed intervention they supported the idea of the West playing God. This to me is so incredible I can't believe it.

DB I want to get back to South Asia and your analysis of Kashmir and the situation there. It's been reported by a number of human rights organizations that there have been massive violations going on.

EA An uprising began in 1989. The Indian forces intervened. The uprising has continued. Violations by Indian forces have escalated to unimaginable degrees. But this is not saying very much. I should quickly recapitulate that Kashmir is a disputed territory. It's one of the first issues the United Nations took up after its founding. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India at that time, committed to the United Nations that India and Pakistan should hold a plebescite to allow the Kashmiris to determine their future. That plebescite has been denied to the Kashmiris. That is a cause of great anguish to the people of Kashmir. It has also been a cause of two wars so far, between India and Pakistan. Pakistan occupies about a third of Kashmir and India two thirds. The Pakistanis say, at least formally, that they are willing to hold the plebescite. India is the one which is now refusing to do so. The uprising is on the Indian side of Kashmir.

DB Is there a communal factor at work? Is there a Hindu-Muslim issue?

EA It is a Hindu-Muslim issue to the extent, although it must not be exaggerated, that the majority of Kashmiri population is Muslim, about sixty five percent, and about thirty five percent are Hindus. I said it should not be evaluated because my feeling is that had India had the courage to hold the plebescite in 1949, when it promised, or 1955, when it was scheduled, or even 1964, before the second major war between India and Pakistan over this issue, I think that the Muslim population of Kashmir would have voted to go with India. The people of Kashmir have become alienated from India for the reasons that you talked at the beginning. It is a country now in which Muslims are being massacred, in which Sikhs are being massacred, in which Christians are in jeopardy. As Hindu fundamentalists rise and the Hindu demands exclude minority groups, obviously Kashmiris have become more and more alienated from India. Primarily because they are a majority Muslim population who find themselves threatened. What they want, I think, is not joining Pakistan, but probably independence.

DB Let's talk about your native Pakistan. I was interested in your comment made in an earlier conversation that you feel that things have improved in the country in some respects.

EA First of all, they have improved to the extent that I am back there. I am spending more of my time in Pakistan.

DB That was something you couldn't do doing the military rule?

EA That was something I could not do for thirty years.

DB Because of the military rule?

EA Yes. In the first military rule of Ayub Khan, there was a warrant of arrest on me. In the second military government of Yahya Khan I was put on a death sentence. In the third military government of Zia ul-Haq I was a persona non grata for over eleven years. Now I am able to go back. Parliamentary government has been restored. It's at least formal democracy. I would like to see it become a truer democracy, but I would also like to see the United States become a truer democracy. What is more interesting about Pakistan is that greater freedom of speech and association has drastically reduced the power and influence of the Islamic movement. More people are able to speak out challenging the premise of fundamentalism, and fresh air seems to blow away the worst of religious right-wing thinking. I am mentioning this because countries like Egypt and Algeria, which are constantly facing the fundamentalist threat, should learn from it. A great deal of Islamic fundamentalism thrives on absence of freedom, as it did in the Iran of the Shah. Dissent has no place to go except the mosques. The answer to the fundamentalist divide is more democracy, not more dictatorship. The tragedy is that the United States government, while opposed to fundamentalism now, I say now because I'll come back to it later, supports dictatorships in Algeria, in Egypt and repressive monarchies in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. So the United States is actually supporting both fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist dictatorships in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Algeria. This has to stop. If there is a democracy, I think the battle can be fought in an open field and we are going to win. By "we" I mean the secular Muslim forces.

DB You write a weekly column for Dawn, an English-language newspaper. Can you pretty much write whatever you want?

EA I can write anything I want. I am also writing for some Middle Eastern newspapers, including El Hayat, which is one of the largest Arabic-language papers. In the Middle East the record is that about sixty percent of my columns appear and forty percent get censored out.

DB Those are in the Arab countries, you mean?

EA In the Arab countries. But in Pakistan, a hundred percent gets published.

DB Tell me what radio and TV are like in Pakistan. Can you have a discussion like this?

EA No. Radio and television are government controlled in Pakistan still.

DB So there really aren't any independent electronic media. Why do you think they give a little slack to the print media?

EA Interesting question. I don't know. Partly tradition. Partly the feeling that only about twenty percent of the population can read the print media because illiteracy is nearly seventy five percent in Pakistan. So no more than twenty percent of the population can read and write. Incidentally, I should say that the English-language media are more free than the local languages media.

DB Urdu and Punjabi?

EA Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Baluchi. All those languages. The media are somehow not more censored, but certainly more dominated by government point of view. They are poorer. They cannot afford the money. The live on government subsidies. Therefore the print will be much more conservative. English media are more free.

DB Neighboring Afghanistan in the 1980s was the focus of a multibillion not-so-covert U.S. operation in support of various mujahideen groups resisting Soviet occupation. What has been the legacy of the Afghan war on Pakistan?

EA Much worse than the legacy of the Afghan war in the United States. In the United States all you have are people like Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. You don't have to live with too much. Sheikh Abdel Rahman was clearly one of the great allies of the United States.

DB In the Afghan war?

EA Yes. They brought him for that reason. When I said that five months ago, no one was ready to believe it. Now the New York Times and Washington Post are finally publishing that information. It has become much too clear to suppress it. For Pakistan the effects are, number one, guns. We have now for a population of 110 million people about four million people who possess illicit arms. Secondly, and worse, there is a huge amount of gun trade going to India, to Sri Lanka, to other countries of the world from Pakistan. These are all American guns which are surplus from the war in Afghanistan. Thirdly, drugs. The drugs were very heavily promoted during the Afghanistan war. The CIA was very deeply involved in it. Once the war is over, the Soviets have been defeated, America has taken its profits, but the drugs are still with us. There is a lot of bitterness among the groups that were working with the CIA because now the CIA is trying to pay off people to stop the drug trade.

DB They're also trying to buy back the Stinger missiles at a huge cost.

EA I know. $55 million. But they won't get more than two or three.

DB What's the situation like in northwestern Pakistan, in the Peshawar area near the Khyber Pass, which was the center of the mujahideen movement?

EA It is something to go and look. The place reeks of drugs and guns and refugees. We have four million refugees. Americans and the Germans and the British and the French were all providing a lot of supplies to support the refugees during the war against the Soviet Union. Now the Soviet Union is over. America has its victory. The refugees have been abandoned. There is no money coming in. Pakistanis have to feed them. American aid to Pakistan has stopped. So it's a mess. But somehow we are trying to manage.

DB And inside Afghanistan itself, after the Soviet withdrawal.

EA There is a lot of fighting going on.

DB There is a civil war going on among rival mujahideen factions, many of them extremely fundamentalist.

EA All of them. There is no one who is not a fundamentalist in that war. The difference there is who is more fundamentalist then the other. All of them are former allies of the United States. All of them have been armed by the United States. All of them were described as "mujahid," holy warriors, by the United States. The same media which are now calling them fundamentalists called them freedom fighters only four years ago. The same media, including every television channel and every major newspaper, the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch--they all called them freedom fighters. Those same freedom fighters are now "fundamentalists."

DB In the north of Afghanistan, across the Amu Darya River, the River Oxus of ancient fame, there's been fighting in Tajikistan. Is that connected to Afghanistan at all?

EA Yes. The Tajikistan fighting is connected to Afghanistan. The Azerbaijan fighting is not connected to Afghanistan. Tajikistan was the only Soviet province where the CIA and the mujahideen group led by Hikmetyar had been able to fully infiltrate. That's the only province, the only state in the former Soviet Union, that was immediately adjacent, contiguous with Afghan territory. Hikmetyar's group had already infiltrated a lot of people there. A huge number of Tajik rebels, anti-Soviet rebels, had been trained in Peshawar and in Afghanistan under the supervision of the United States intelligence service. So they are all back now. It's a civil war condition. God knows how it will be settled. It's very bad.

DB What if any influence and reach does Iran have in these areas?

EA In the western part of Afghanistan, Iran has very large influence. The most extraordinary thing is that that is the part where a certain amount of peace has been consolidated. The Iranians kept drugs out of that area and kept an alliance there which somehow did not result in multiple groupings. There is a former commander of the mujahideen forces called Ishmael who has now consolidated a great deal of his power, pro-Iranian, in the western part of Afghanistan. That's where the Iranians are. In the rest of the country, no, they don't matter.

DB A large part of the Tajik population, I believe, is Iranian and Persian speaking.

EA Yes, but Iran's influence is minimal there.

DB Simply because of distance?

EA Number one, distance. Number two, religious affiliation. The majority of the Tajiks are Sunni. They are not Shi'a. There are too far away from Iran.

DB I'd like to move still further west, to the Middle East. Noam Chomsky tells how he has to give titles of lectures years in advance. He has one title that he says always seems to work for him, no matter how far in advance it's given. That's called "The Current Crisis in the Middle East." Why is the Middle East in seeming constant crisis?

EA For a number of reasons. First, and it's very important, the Middle East is the world area of convergence. Areas of convergence are always so strategic that nobody leaves them in peace. What do I mean by area of convergence? A lot of things related to world politics come together in the Middle East. Take into account the following: This is the center of energy for the Western world. For the West, economic and strategic interests converge in the Middle East. Take another one: Geographically, it's in the middle of everywhere. Africa and Europe and Asia, Central Asia and South Asia and Western Asia converge here. This has been known since Roman times as the crossroads of civilization. Convergence. Take a third one: Here the worst conflicts of our time are converging. Israeli Zionism and Arab nationalism. Secularism and fundamentalism. Nationalism and internationalism. All sorts of battles are converging in this region. The result is that it has remained in a state of total crisis. There is finally another important factor to be remembered. This is the last of the great non-Western civilizations to decline. Indian civilization had already declined by the seventeenth century when the British took over. By the eighteenth century it was finished. Chinese civilization was in a mess by the middle of the eighteenth century. Africa was way behind by the sixteenth century. The Middle East held out as the powerful center of the world right up to the nineteenth century. Remind yourself of the fact that it was after the discovery of the New World, just before the French Revolution, that the last Muslim armies had knocked on the gates of Vienna. So it's still a civilization that stands between recovery and decline. It's a kind of violent situation, a situation of deep confusion, uncertainty, not knowing which way this boat may turn. Hence the current crisis. Who knows how long it will last?

DB Secretary of State Warren Christopher, talking about U.S. policy in the region, said in late April: "I am determined that the United States not only seem evenhanded but that we actually be evenhanded." What's been the U.S. record in terms of being evenhanded?

EA Unevenhanded.

DB Can you be more specific?

EA I can be very specific in ten different ways. Take the most immediate. The United States pressured every Middle Eastern government and the PLO to come back to the peace negotiations without the Israelis respecting international law. The Israeli government deported more than four hundred persons, in December of 1992, from the occupied territories. Lebanon would not accept them. Therefore they are sitting in a no man's land for the last seven months. The United Nations passed two resolutions condemning Israel for doing this against international law. The United States government acknowledges, the State Department acknowledges, that the Israeli expulsion of these people, who have not been charged of any crime, who have not been tried of anything, they have just been deported on some sort of suspicion, without trial, without anything, is against the Geneva Conventions, against international law, against U.N. resolutions. After all that, the United States says to the Arabs, You sit with Israel while Israel continues to defy international law. That is not quite being evenhanded, is it?

Or take the negotiations themselves. In the negotiations, the Arabs have given everything they could give. The PLO is not represented officially. Jerusalem is not represented officially, which merely acknowledges Israeli control of Jerusalem, which is illegal under international law. The Palestinians in exile are not represented, apart from the PLO. And yet the negotiations are taking place. Everything in the negotiation process has been weighted in favor of Israel.

Or take, finally, that the current Israeli invasion of Lebanon was a violation of international law and of human rights in every sense of the word. The Prime Minister of Israel publicly stated and acknowledged that he was bombing the civilian population to create a refugee crisis for the government of Lebanon. The media, by the way, were so bad that they continued to portray the Lebanese resistance to Israel as somehow an attack on Israel, which it was not. Israel invaded the whole of Lebanon, made for 250,000 refugees, in punishment for Lebanese resistance to the occupation of the territory. The Israeli soldiers who were killed died on Lebanese territory, not in Israel.

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