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Book Review

South Asia: past and future

Reviewed by Ishtiaq Ahmed


Book: Between past and future: Selected essays on South Asia 
Authors:Eqbal Ahmad, Ed Dohra Ahmad, Iftikhar Ahmad and Zia Mian, 
Publisher Oxford University Press, Karachi
Price: Rs 695.00

The late Eqbal Ahmad (d May 11, 1999) was the most internationally well-known anti-imperialist Pakistani, yet he remains little known within this country. He lived most of his adult life in the United States, where he retired in 1997, as a professor of international relations at Hampshire College, Massachusetts. He considered it his bounden duty always to stand by the oppressed and to protest injustice wherever it occurred on the globe. Such a commitment made him come out vociferously against the Vietnam War. As a consequence, he earned the ire of the US establishment which indicted him along with the Berrigan brothers, a pair of pacifist Catholic priests, on trumped up charges of a conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up the heating system of the Pentagon. The case was ultimately dismissed by the US judiciary. 
Eqbal was influenced by Marxism and radical Third World theories, but he never succumbed to dogma. Instead, he viewed such theories through his healthy and firm commitment to dearly held notions of democracy, human rights and freedom of speech and religion. Eqbalís activism is well documented: during the Vietnam War, and his part in the Algerian war of liberation, and indeed his hand in the Kashmir struggle of 1948. But having a common cause was not enough to win his approval. Thus he did not hesitate to criticise leaders such as Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat when he thought they were acting against the best interests of their people. Among his close friends were Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said. 

Drawing upon his knowledge of world history, Eqbal argues that Islamic societies were not always dominated by literalist versions of the sacred scriptures although the ulema represented a conservative view of Islam. There have been different types of dispensations ruling the Muslim world ranging from tribal chiefs to modern republics but certain legal codes and normative features have obtained in all Islamic societies However, the present type of crisis has not existed in the past. The Islamic movement of the masses seems to look back but its aim is to capture the future. Can it be harnessed for a progressive break with the past? He seems to pose this question but does not venture an answer. Elsewhere he comes out clearly in favour of respect for human rights and substantive democracy. 

Such a disposition cut him out as that rarest of beings, a true internationalist and a humanist. He wrote extensively on the issues that concerned him, mostly in the form of short essays in which theoretical paraphernalia was kept to the minimum. This was presumably because he wanted to reach out to as wide an audience as possible, rather than pander to the vanity of his academic peers. His style of writing is thus simple and the prose easily accessible to the average reader who is interested in contemporary issues but does not hold a doctorate in political science. 

In the foreword to this collection of Ahmadís essays on South Asia, Between past and future, the Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy most aptly describes him as a public intellectual. This collection brings together some of his essays, chosen by Dohra Ahmad, Iftikhar Ahmad and Zia Mian. It contains 44 articles subsumed under four parts: the postcolonial state, the shape of Pakistan, a sense of place, and the war at home. 

In the first part, on the postcolonial state, Eqbal Ahmedís understanding of the crisis endemic to the Third World is elaborated in theoretical terms. The bottom line is that the Western colonial intervention was a vitiating experience. It disrupted the natural rhythm of Third World societies, and therefore the Ďoriental despotismí that came to dominate these societies was essentially a product of imperialism and modernisation. In this regard he emphasises the need to examine the pre-capitalist society of a place in order to understand its present, and thence to chart the way forward into the future. But he does not make the mistake of romanticising pre-colonial society. Romantic revolutionaries wish to restore their countries to a pre-capitalist society, but contemporary revolutionaries want to experiment with alternative development based on ideas of equality and progress. But the means of doing this are problematic and poorly developed, and many of the empirically-oriented essays in this volume are illustrative of the tensions in the crises that plague Third World societies in general, Islamic ones in particular, and Pakistan specifically. 
Part two, focussed on Pakistan, brings out Eqbal Ahmadís commitment to Pakistani nationalism. In it he pays tribute to Jinnah as the leader whom the Muslims of the subcontinent chose to lead them towards a modern and progressive state, in opposition to the ulema who represented an archaic idea of Islam and social order. But his nationalist stand does not make him a West Pakistani chauvinist, and he reserves the strongest condemnation for Pakistani military action in Bangladesh, while expressing his natural concern for the Biharis with whom he shared a common ethnic origin. As a champion of nuclear disarmament, he condemns the Indian nuclear explosions as well as those carried out by Pakistan in May 1998. 

In the third part Eqbal Ahmadís focus is mainly on India and Kashmir. He argues that India, Pakistan and genuine representatives of the Kashmiris should reach a negotiated settlement. He correctly understands the disastrous consequences of the Taliban takeover in neighbouring Afghanistan. 

Part four includes articles devoted to various conflicts and also questions about the politicisation of Islam, the rights of citizens and the role of intellectuals in society. This section I found to be particularly interesting. Through a number of articles he examines the decline and decay prevailing in Pakistanís main industrial city of Karachi. An utterly incompetent ruling oligarchy of the military and civil bureaucracy has miserably failed to provide a proper climate for investment and development because infrastructure and institutional support are in bad shape. What are lacking are proper leadership and a centralised structure of activities. He next looks at the emergence of the MQM, calling it a case of a failed urban movement of protest (this, we now know, is not true Ė although in recent times the MQM has been primarily asserting its power and influence through the formal parliamentary system). 

Several articles deal with the menace of minority persecution, the harassment of women, and the rise of political Islam and its pernicious role in Pakistani politics. He condemns the use of violence in Pakistani culture, making interesting connections with the feudal heritage. Drawing upon his knowledge of world history, Eqbal argues that Islamic societies were not always dominated by literalist versions of the sacred scriptures although the ulema represented a conservative view of Islam. There have been different types of dispensations ruling the Muslim world ranging from tribal chiefs to modern republics but certain legal codes and normative features have obtained in all Islamic societies However, the present type of crisis has not existed in the past. The Islamic movement of the masses seems to look back but its aim is to capture the future. Can it be harnessed for a progressive break with the past? He seems to pose this question but does not venture an answer. Elsewhere he comes out clearly in favour of respect for human rights and substantive democracy. 

It is a pity that the book has been published posthumously. There are many points raised by him which require clarification and some can be challenged, especially his way of understanding oriental despotism. Perhaps the answers should be sought by continuing to engage ourselves in the burning issues of our own times on behalf of the oppressed and exploited. That would be the best way to pay respect to his legacy of an intellectual-scholar-activist. (Friday Times) ę

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