Akbar Ahmed has had a good homecoming. His message has been embraced by the Pakistani state: Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif presented him a shield at the National Defense University in December; and the Navy chief was so impressed with Ahmed’s latest book—last year’s The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam—that he reprinted it for the Pakistan Navy Book Club.
Ahmed, previously Akbar Salahuddin Ahmed or Akbar S. Ahmed, has probably written his best book yet—if not for its substance then for the kind of impact it has made, including in Washington, D.C., where he teaches Islamic studies as the Ibn Khaldun chair at American University. (Ahmed is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.) With a Ph.D. in anthropology, Ahmed’s mind is shaped by the discipline’s nonpartisan and nonjudgmental approach to the study of communities. He abhors labeling and stands apart when rivals go at each other’s throats with Manichean reductionism. He hates the metanarrative of “clash of civilizations” and tries, against all odds, to make religions communicate with one another with mutual acceptance.
His thesis, in his own words, is cast thus: “These suffering people [targeted by the war on terror] had one thing in common: they were all part of communities living on the periphery and margins of the state. Those who represented the center of the state usually called them ‘primitive’ and ‘savage.’ Some said their time in history was up.” Love of freedom; egalitarianism; a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans; a martial tradition; and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies Ahmed discusses in his book. “Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.”
In Thistle and the Drone, the tribal “thistle” that “bites back” has been framed in such a way that it cannot be ignored—like the way Pakistan ignored Ahmed’s earlier studies of its tribal communities. His campaign to make Islam understood through an interfaith TV dialogue did not succeed in the U.K. when he was Pakistan’s high commissioner there. Now, his broad acceptance of all faiths in his book is being well absorbed across the board following disenchantment with the solutions the U.S. sought through “unmanned aerial vehicles” or drones that kill with precisely-targeted “Hellfire” missiles.
An anthropologist knows his subject community more deeply than other researchers because he lives within it and identifies with it to a fault, as an extreme act of exorcism divesting oneself of the indoctrinated judgments imposed by society or state. Ahmed speaks for the “peripheral” people who live sandwiched between the central state and the rebellious “thistle” reacting against its intrusion. He warns against taking his views as judgments: “While explanations of the violence are provided in this book, they cannot justify or rationalize it in any way.” As he speaks for them, he reveals details so far hidden from view.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks by 19 Arabs were not merely an “Arab action,” as often claimed by Pakistani analysts, but were carried out by a group of individuals belonging to the alienated, “peripheral” community of southern Saudi Arabia. The Saudi province of Asir is populated by Yemeni tribes living on the basis of a tribal code shared by all “segmentary lineage”-based communities in the world.
Yeomen of Terror
According to Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard Nasir al-Bahri, a Yemeni born in Saudi Arabia, “95 percent of Al Qaeda activists were Yemenis, meaning they were either from Yemen, were ethnic Yemenis whose families had moved to Saudi Arabia, or were from ethnic Yemeni areas in Saudi Arabia, most prominently from the Asir region, or indeed elsewhere.”
Although the leader of the 19, Mohamed Atta of Egypt, has become the best known of the 9/11 hijackers, he was not the driving force behind the plot. He was your typical malcontent reacting to the perceived condition of the ordinary man in his native Cairo and “blamed the corrupt national leadership with its Western support for their miserable situation.” Contrary to claims made in Pakistan that the 19 had nothing to do with Pakistan, Atta arrived in Karachi, “still searching for a cause and met members of bin Laden’s group and was brought to Afghanistan.”
But, says Ahmed, 18 out of the 19 hijackers were “Yemeni tribesmen or descendants of Qahtan.” Ten were from the tribes of Asir, whose role in the 9/11 operation bin Laden himself acknowledged. The single largest tribe represented in the group was the Ghamdi tribe of Asir, with four members. The Zahran, Shahran, Abidah, Qahtani, and Jarrah tribes were also represented. “By providing their full names, [the hijackers] were giving a clue to their tribal identity and lineage,” writes Ahmed.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s founder, Bakri, attacked Jinnah as an infidel and an enemy of God.
The book goes on to describe and interpret at length the other “peripheral” communities at war with their central governments—Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, Nigeria, Algeria—and makes remarkable revelations about the uniformity of conduct among the tribal people fighting the centralized state across the Asian and African continents. To trap him with an exception, a TV talk-show host asked Ahmed whether Iran, too, was fighting its peripheral communities like Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. His answer was a bit of a surprise for the host: “Iran treats its Arabs, Kurds and Baloch the way Pakistan does its tribal people.”
The book records: “If Iran treats the Kurds, Baloch, Ahwazi Arabs, Turkmen, and Azeris harshly, it does the same to the Jews and Bahai. Take Pakistan as another example. Its recent treatment of its periphery in the [federally-administered] tribal areas and Balochistan is far from satisfactory and compromises the vision of [its] founder … its handling of Hindus and Christians and even sects like the Shia and Ahmadis is not much different.”
Ahmed catalogues several incidents of terrorism, including those caused by Al Qaeda-affiliated “nonstate actors” from the plains of the Punjab that the Pakistani state had been using in its proxy wars with the “peripheral” Taliban at war with the state after it joined the global war on terrorism following the U.N. Security Council’s Resolution 1373. This complicated the role played by the Pakistani military establishment in the undoing of the state’s internal sovereignty. Hina Rabbani Khar, former foreign minister, speaking at the Lahore Literary Festival last month bluntly stated: “The biggest threat to Pakistan’s existence are the nonstate actors created by the state itself to fight its proxy wars.”
Daniel S. Markey, a former U.S. State Department official, writes in 2013’s No Exit from Pakistan: America’s Tortured Relationship with Islamabad: “Fighters trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba routinely work with other radical groups focused on the Afghan front and beyond. Many of these groups are completely untethered, even opposed, to the Pakistani state. For instance, the Al Qaeda-linked perpetrators of the July 2005 London bombings trained in [Taiba] camps before carrying out their attacks. David Headley’s [Taiba] handlers also shared him with Al Qaeda, who sent him to conduct surveillance in Denmark—against the newspaper that had published what Al Qaeda considered blasphemous cartoons—in preparation for a planned attack. These facts belie the notion too often voiced by Pakistanis that Washington’s concerns about [Taiba] are overblown or driven merely by an eagerness to cultivate better relations with India.”
In Pakistan, Taiba now goes by the name of Jamat-ud-Dawah. In Afghanistan’s Kunar province, the perch from where Taliban terrorists target Pakistan, it still interfaces with Al Qaeda and works in tandem with it. Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad revealed this nexus in Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond bin Laden and 9/11 and was mysteriously abducted and killed by no-one-knows-who.
However, Ahmed’s focus remains on the “wrong” of America’s war on tribal Islam based on a lack of understanding of the affected people. When the TV host asked him whether America’s policy toward Pakistan was that of hatred aimed at destroying the country, Ahmed replied: “America’s policies are not based on emotion but rational analysis.” It is on a rational basis that Ahmed’s book challenges the U.S. drone aimed at the “thistle” of tribal Islam.
Crossfire of Civilizations
It is easy, therefore, to misunderstand Ahmed on either side of the divide among his readers: those who have welcomed his latest thesis, and those who have a history of denigrating him. “Liberals” have doubted his enterprise of championing Islam by “sucking up to the fanatics”; fundamentalists, on the other hand, have rejected his advocacy as “fake Islam in the garb of ‘Jinnah’s Islam.’”
Some years ago, Ahmed took on the “liberals,” decrying in The Friday Times “the failure of the elite to come to grips with the problems of Pakistan.” He wrote: “Many of its members, like Pakistani ‘liberal’ commentators, reflect ideas picked up from Washington or London think tanks. They simplify what is happening in Pakistan as an Islamic movement. Their analysis is replete with words and concepts … that explain little and add to the confusion. Not fully understanding the problem, like their Western colleagues, they are incapable of offering solutions.” Pakistan’s “liberals” continue to fail to see where Ahmed effectively supports their positions, especially when he takes on extremism of the Islamic faith while analyzing the worldview of Jinnah.
In the U.K., where he began his project of talking to Christianity on behalf of Islam, the aggressive local Islamists didn’t like it one bit. Islam giving itself over to dialogue with any other faith was unfamiliar to them. One such Islamist was Sheikh Umar Bakri, the unpleasantly frothy founder of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, the near-violent organization that damns everything if it is not khilafat. Bakri was quoted as calling Ahmed a “chocolate Muslim” and “an Uncle Tom” because of his “admiration of Western civilization.” Said Bakri: “He is a sincere Muslim, but sincerity is not enough.” In October 2001, Bakri established his own “sincerity” by sending his followers to Afghanistan for jihad.
Ahmed had suffered Bakri before, during the making of Jinnah, the movie on Pakistan’s very modern founder. Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s journal attacked Jinnah as an infidel and an enemy of God since he supported women and religious minorities, and advocated democracy. “Bakri saw [Jinnah] as a major ideological opponent,” says Ahmed. “After the American strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998, Bakri emerged in the media to claim that he represented bin Laden in Europe.” Later, when Ahmed started visiting Christian and Jewish gatherings to present the Islamic view, he was attacked by Hizb-ut-Tahrir in the press. “I was walking perilously close to fatwa territory.” He hasn’t relented: his book recounts how he spoke at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and condemned what had been done to the Jews. Many of Ahmed’s relatives were killed by Taliban leader Fazlullah in Swat, says the book, and their descendants residing in Islamabad today have vowed tribal revenge on the killer.
Minefield of Hyper-Asabiyya
Muslim readers ignored Ahmed’s earlier work Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise (1992) and failed to look at him as someone who understood the intellectual legacies of both the West and Islam enough to enter into a reasonable dialogue between what are being increasingly viewed as two opposed “logospheres” in our day. Paying tribute to the first great “anthropologist” in human history, Ibn Khaldun, who wrote in the 14th century, he explained the new radical identity crisis of Islam by extending his concept of “asabiyya” or identity. He felt that some among the Muslims had become extreme and wanted fellow Muslims to revert to the old asabiyya through violence. This violent principle of organization he calls hyper-asabiyya and rejects it out of hand as being against the spirit of Islam. To him, postmodernity bothers the West; but it completely confuses the Muslims who failed earlier to “climb out of the colonial period into the 20th century.”
But how much reconstruction Pakistan itself will need is anyone’s guess.
Writing on Pakistan, Ahmed puts his finger on the crux of the problem: “Every citizen must accept the challenge to take back and reestablish the writ of the state. But time is running out … The path ahead will be difficult and will require courage, wisdom, and compassion from the leaders of Pakistan.” As part of this holistic approach, he wants the Army to withdraw from the tribal areas at some stage; and he wants the reestablishment of the old system of self-governance based on tribal elders and religious leaders—as supported by the political agent with an anthropological, “nonjudgmental” approach to the peripheral society—tempered with “reconstruction” of its educational and health infrastructure.
But how much reconstruction Pakistan itself will need is anyone’s guess. The state has been evolving from a “soft” to “hard” Muslim identity and has come to the final stage of hyper-asabiyya because of the state’s policy of allowing a pre-modern interpretation of jihad. Most “nonstate actor” formations in settled territories proclaim that jihad is no longer the exclusive function of the state. The consequence is the “re-tribalization” of a rapidly urbanizing country, often called Talibanization.
Pakistan’s national consensus, as articulated by an all-parties conference last year, is avowedly pro-Taliban. It requires drone attacks stopped because they infringe on the sovereignty of Pakistan and cause impermissible collateral damage, swelling the ranks of tribesmen whose revenge is then visited on Pakistan. It holds that the war on terror (against the Taliban) is not, and never was, Pakistan’s war and was joined by then-ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf with treasonable intent. Consequently, Musharraf has become the symbol of the policy Pakistan has abandoned and should suitably face a case of high treason. Pakistan also demands, in unison with Al Qaeda, the release of Aafia Siddiqui, an agent of Al Qaeda, according to the U.S., from an American prison. It holds that the 2007 attack by the state on an Al Qaeda watering hole in the heart of Islamabad, Lal Masjid, was a criminal act. And it deems, as and when the Taliban deny responsibility for an act of terrorism, the “real” culprits as the “external enemies” of Pakistan (read: America, India, and, for good measure, Israel).
Both sides have espoused the Huntingtonian thesis of “clash of civilizations” or “West against the rest” that Ahmed and myriad European scholars of good standing oppose. The Muslim world is bristling with anti-West prejudices starting with a “crusades” complex rising from the reversion of the Muslim mind to the past. The “clash” may have poisoned the minds of some policymakers of the West but it suffuses the worldview of entire Muslim nations with consequences they have not yet analyzed as they fight their internecine national and sectarian wars and their refugee populations throng the borders of the West. This polarization may hurt Ahmed because what he says is still right.
For the first time, however, Ahmed has not run into opposition from the people of the faith he supports. Those who still doubt his credentials should go back to his book Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World (2001) and judge for themselves. That he is an apologist there is no doubt when he praises the conceptual excellence of Islam while rejecting the Muslim praxis.
On the question of Islamic punishments, he tried to disabuse the Western opinion about the supposed cruelty of the Quranic “hudood” by pointing out that the concept of mercy had so far prevented Muslim countries—barring, of course, Sudan and Saudi Arabia—from cutting off hands of thieves. Today in Pakistan, sentences of hand-cutting and stoning-to-death are routinely passed but, he would be dismayed to learn, the victims are let off after an average of eight to 10 years of imprisonment by the higher judiciary through what is known in Pakistan’s still “Westernized” judicial system as “due process.”
Thistle and the Drone is focused on the clash between the state and its peripheral communities. It maintains a dispassionate approach toward the dramatis personae of this game now enveloping the world—Ahmed is strictly “non-thistle” except over the American policy of “renditions.” What this book was not supposed to discuss was the fate of Pakistan as an ideological state irresistibly journeying to the hyper-asabiyya of the Taliban. Had it not been happening in other Muslim states, Pakistan would have been treated like an aberration; but it seems the world will have to cope with the current Muslim cycle one way or the other. Reading Ahmed’s erudite work will only be of immense help.
On the final page of the book, the message is that of compassion: “In asking God ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Cain is raising a question that is at the center of this study. Cain has just killed his brother, Abel—committing the world’s first murder. God’s answer is explicit and repeatedly stated throughout the Bible. It is an emphatic ‘yes.’”
From our March 22, 2014, issue.