Dr. Akbar Ahmed is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has taught at Princeton, Harvard, and Cambridge Universities and has been called “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” by the BBC. He has also been a distinguished member of Pakistan's civil service, written several books and served as an executive producer for the movie "Jinnah". Here, he discusses his new book and the issues it addresses with Dawn.com.
Your most recent book, “The Thistle and the Drone” looks at how tribes in northwestern Pakistan are affected by drone strikes. What is the US, and Pakistan, policy alternative to carrying out/ covertly supporting drone strikes?
The Thistle and the Drone is the third book of my trilogy examining relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world after 9/11, which also includes Journey into Islam (2007) and Journey into America (2010)—a popular documentary accompanied the last. In this study, I focus on the tribal communities on the interstices, the borders between nations, and how they have become a target of America’s chosen weapon in the war on terror—the drone. Drone strikes are employed to resolve complicated problems on the ground.
They destroy entire communities and throw large swathes of population into turmoil. The US believes this is the easy way to keep “boots off the ground” and keep “America safe”. Americans see Pakistani leaders as pursuing a duplicitous policy according to Wikileaks. They appear to be complicit in making feeble protests, yet watching the increasing frequency of strikes that have killed so many innocent Pakistan women, children, and elders. There are peaceful and more effective alternatives to drone strikes and I have examined them in detail in my new book.
Besides being a notable academic, you have been a senior member of Pakistan’s civil service. How do you think the centre, as well as provincial government, can change its attitude towards the tribal areas and the communities who live in them?
Over the decades in the Civil Service of Pakistan and while conducting studies like the present one, I have come to the conclusion that there is an inbuilt bias in the bureaucracies of central governments to traditionally look down on the people of the periphery – whether the English in London looking at the Scots or the Pakistanis in Islamabad looking at the Baloch. Central societies view communities on the periphery as “backward” and “primitive”. This is based in ignorance and often arrogance. Some of the greatest Muslim names come from people of the periphery – great scholars, saints, artists, and in modern times, presidents and leaders.
In relation to the above question, the Political Parties Act still remains to be implemented in Fata. In your book, you argue that the tribal code is still strong and inspires much of the violence across the Muslim World. In that case, is replacing tribal structures with more democratic structures (such as through the Political Parties Act) a good idea?
Democracy must come to FATA and with it all the features of a democratic modern state such as regular courts, etc. In some profound ways the tribal code provided a rough and ready form of administration which may not find a place in modern society, but giving FATA all the privileges and rights due to other citizens of the state is long overdue. My memory of the tribal societies of Balochistan and the old Frontier are very pleasant – the people were mostly poor but were honourable, dignified and hospitable.
If you examine the reasons why some of the violence is being committed – and I have given actual quotes in the book – you will note their justification for the violence is straight forward revenge. It is shocking and tragic but they will even kill children and while doing so say – now you know what we feel when our children are killed. Revenge is a primary emotion not restricted to tribal societies. That is why Islam emphasises the importance of compassion above everything. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) said that compassion must trump even the need to take revenge.
The role of the Political Agent is extremely important in Fata. Many argue that political agents, in fact, have ‘too much power’. Having been appointed to this post yourself, do you agree with this view?
The Political Agent represents an imperial past and the office has had its day. Like all structures in Pakistan, tribal administration deteriorated over time and has served its purpose. Today you need the finest, most honest, and most efficient officers to serve throughout Pakistan – officers who will be accountable to the people.
What did you learn as political agent that you wish the Americans knew before they started the drone program?
I give details in my book of how good and effective political officers maintain law and order. The most important lesson was to work within tribal society and networks. Understanding culture and customs was crucial. The Americans arrived in Afghanistan clueless about tribal culture and history. Their enterprise was doomed from the start. Afghanistan is littered with the remnants of conquering empires from the past who all came and went. I would like your readers to look up my poem “At the Khyber Pass” which reflects on the rhythm of history.
Nato troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is set for 2014. What’s going to change in Waziristan once this happens? And how do you think both the Pakistan and US policy on drone strikes and military operations in the region will have to adapt to that?
The main irritant for the tribesmen in the region seems to be the presence of foreign troops. Once they leave things could potentially be calmer. But unless Pakistan swiftly follows up with strong and clear policies to bring law and order to the situation, it will not change much. There are genuine problems facing the tribesmen, and they need to be resolved by their government.
The US is carrying out drone strikes in Waziristan as part of its global war on Jihad, as you point out in your book. But the Pakistan Army is also fighting many battles in the region on the ground, such as in South Waziristan. How are the battles being carried out by the Pakistan Army on the northwest frontier different from the US ‘War on Terror’ efforts in the region? And is the Pakistan military’s role there justified?
These are important questions and I have tackled them in detail in my book. To answer the question think of the plight of the ordinary household head, mother of a family, or children in a settlement in Waziristan. They will say we are being attacked by drone strikes and Pakistan military missiles one day, suicide bombers the next and their tribal rivals the day after. Many have escaped to seek shelter as destitute refugees in neighboring towns. The Pakistan army is obviously conflicted as it is placed in the awkward position of confronting its own people. It is not a healthy position for it to be in for any length of time.
The government recently appointed a new governor in KP. Many have underlined that his strong point lies in his background – he is a native of Fata. How much of a substantial difference do you think he can make?
Appointing someone from the area has many advantages but also some disadvantages. While bringing joy to relatives, it brings despair to tribal rivals. Ultimately, senior administrators will be judged by how efficient and just they were, not what “baradari” they belong to.
Much of your work has shown the ‘Muslim world’ and the ‘Western world’ to be two distinct cultures. Do you think this still holds true in an era of globalisation?
You are right. Globalisation means the dissolving of boundaries. Today millions of Muslims live in the West but there is also a contradictory process of a revival of ethnic and religious boundaries. Muslims are constantly forced to redefine themselves, especially in the wake of 9/11. There is a widespread perception that Islam is an inherently violent religion. This makes dialogue between civilisations and faiths even more vital in today’s world.
You have often called for interfaith dialogue. What kind of organisations would represent both sides? Are there more than two sides?
It is important not to confine interfaith dialogue to one or two religions. Just as it is important for the Abrahamic faiths to talk between themselves, it is equally important for Abrahamic and non-Ahrahamic faiths to have cordial dialogue, especially in South Asia with Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. I have been very fortunate in finding some great spiritual leaders in interfaith dialogue belonging to all the great faiths. I was greatly honored when the National Cathedral in Washington, DC hosted an Evensong in my honor with over a thousand people present including imams, priests and rabbis. Elderly Muslims were crying when they heard the speeches as they said they had never imagined the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the Quran could be honored in this way in America’s premier church.
In the US and Europe, you’re a well-known academic in particular for your work on the Muslim World and tribal societies. Here, however, you are also well-recognised as the author of a biography of Jinnah, and the man behind the movie Jinnah. Tell us a bit more about that.
Yes. Wherever I meet Pakistanis they graciously express their gratitude to me for making the Jinnah film. I had spent a decade of my life in conceiving and completing the Jinnah Quartet which included the feature film Jinnah, the documentary based on interviews of people who knew or saw Jinnah, the biography which examined him from a sociological point of view and a comic book. In that way I hoped to reach different audiences to tell the story of Jinnah. I was the executive producer for both the films, raised the finances, and worked closely on the script keeping veto powers for the projects. We faced many challenges, but in the end, with the support of many well-wishers and friends, completed them. For anyone wanting to know more see the documentary "The Making of Jinnah".
In the biography, “Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity”, you believed in Jinnah’s project. With sectarianism and an increasing number of voices declaring Pakistan a ‘failed state’, how would Jinnah react to the current situation? And could he have done anything to change it?
Jinnah would be disgusted at the corruption, violence and injustice in Pakistan today. His whole struggle was against these scourges of society. Yet he would have fought against them and not taken it lying down. He was always a fighter and he believed in an ideal world. Pakistanis need to constantly follow his example to create a better Pakistan.
How would you define the ‘ideology of Pakistan’? And in what ways do you think people like Iqbal and Jinnah contributed to it?
I would define the ideology of Pakistan as the ideal vision of a modern state which balances modernity and tradition, the past and the present. This was a response in the late 19th century to British imperialism and it was embodied in universities like Aligarh created by Sir Sayyed Ahmad Khan. From that line of thought come the great modern Muslims like Jinnah and Iqbal. Within this framework, the Pakistanis of today must work out an ideology for the 21st century.
How exactly would you define “Islamic identity” in Pakistan? Can this be defined in a singular manner? How much would you link ‘Islamic identity’ to the ‘ideology of Pakistan’?
I define Islamic identity more in terms of culture and society than theology. Theological polemics I find simply lead to confrontation and even violence. To me Islam’s finest traditions are based in its inclusiveness and compassion – in that sense Islam is an embracing and kindly religion. In Pakistan today, Islam is being interpreted as an exclusivist and confrontationist religion. When examining Islamic identity, Muslims must never forget that the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) greatest name – given in the Quran – was a “mercy unto mankind”.