MARK TURIN An Activist Intellectual Unintimidated by Power



In an era of increasingly specialised and specialist publications, it is refreshing (if not downright exciting) to read a work unhampered by disciplinary boundaries and totally free of jargon. 'Confronting Empire' is a collection of edited and transcribed discussions between the brilliant Eqbal Ahmad and radio producer David Barsamian. It is a demanding book, but for the right reasons. It reads easily and fluidly, and the only prerequisites are that the reader has an alert mind and is ready for an intellectual challenge.

© Mark Turin, 2001

Ahmad was born in Bihar, India in 1933 and died in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 1999. As a child, he met the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who, laying his hands on Ahmad's head told him to 'be a good boy'. A few years later Ahmad found himself accompanying Mahatma Gandhi on his travels for the better part of six weeks. Alongside such exciting encounters, however, there was also great sadness. Ahmad's early childhood was marked by the violent murder of his father and later by the Partition of India, after which he emigrated to Pakistan with his brothers.

Although Ahmad's life began and ended in South Asia, he became a true world citizen in the intervening years. He lived alternately in North America, North Africa, and South Asia, turning his incisive mind to injustices whenever and wherever he encountered them. In the course of these intellectual voyages, he came to know statesmen and activists such as Frantz Fanon, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Yasir Arafat, many of whom went on to become close friends. It therefore comes as no surprise that the inside cover of the book contains high praise from Kofi Annan, and that Edward Said has contributed a wonderfully-written and personal fifteen-page Foreword.

David Barsamian is an expert interviewer, comfortable discussing big ideas with intellectual heavyweights (having previously conducted interviews with Zinn and Chomsky respectively). Throughout the discussions, Barsamian steers a clear course: present, but not overbearing, articulate and ready to challenge any inconsistency, but never dominating. At no point will the reader forget who is interviewing whom, and credit should go to Barsamian for putting Ahmad at ease and letting him do the talking.

The structure of the collection, not to mention the manner in which Ahmad's agile mind literally hops from topic to topic, is strangely reminiscent of Kahil Gibran's The Prophet. The reader is presented with nuggets of perfectly articulated wisdom which can be dipped into, thought about, and digested when ready. To say that Eqbal Ahmad is more political than the poet Gibran would be a truism, but then Ahmad's thoughts are political in a non-partisan way. He displays no lasting allegiance to any party or movement, and criticises Henry Kissinger (whom he tried to kidnap) and Yasir Arafat (with whom he worked) in almost the same breath. As Eqbal sees it, we live in a political world, full of concealed injustices, and only clear thinking can cut through confusion and misinformation.

It is impossible to paraphrase Eqbal Ahmad and remain true to the original, so a few choice citations are fitting at this point. Regarding Indian independence and partition, Ahmad is full of original insight. He portrays Gandhi as an 'anti-imperialist opportunist who would do anything within the framework of his non-violent philosophy that would mobilize the masses' (page 4), and believes that the roots of the terrible violence that followed independence lay in the non-violence that Gandhi propagated. He follows Tagore's reasoning by arguing that 'nationalism tends to create emotions of exclusion and separation based on differences and not commonality' (ibid). A further point, noted by others, but rarely so succinctly, is that 'nationalism is an anti-Islamic ideology, because nationalism proceeds to create boundaries where Islam is a faith without boundaries' (page 5). No surprise then, when the World Bank gets an intellectual beating, an organization which, in Ahmad's analysis, believes that 'third-world countries don't need higher education, they need more literacy. Its policies are aimed at producing a relatively more skilled pool of workers and not people who can govern themselves' (page 20). Much of his thinking draws on explicitly Marxist modes of analysis, such as: 'Corporations now spend much less on human beings as units of production and much more on human beings as units of consumption. The major research in most corporations is on how to sell, not on how to produce' (page 149). Nothing escapes his reasoned critique, and with a few words he makes sense of whole nation-states: 'Russia is struggling haphazardly to become a capitalist society. They plunged, with the collapse of socialism, into the culture of greed that capitalism entails without the other two components that make it a working system, that is, managerial organizational discipline and productive capabilities. The result is that Russia looks increasingly like a second-rate third-world country' (page 125).

'We are living in modern times throughout the world and yet are dominated by medieval minds' concludes Eqbal Ahmad (page 85). Although too humble to say it of himself, Ahmad was an exception: a truly modern mind coupled with a compassionate soul. His thoughts are as provocative as his arguments are compelling. These interviews should be read. *

Ahmad, Eqbal, Confronting Empire, Interviews with David Barsamian. Foreword by Edward Said, London: Pluto Press (2000), 208 pages, 6 B&W photographs, ISBN 0 7453 1713 8

Mark Turin, MA is completing his grammar of the Thangmi language, spoken in central eastern Nepal. He is currently affiliated to the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge and working in the Digital Himalaya project.