An interview with
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
DB What if any influence and reach does Iran have in these
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
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,
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.