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BOOK REVIEW: Past oppressing the present
Review by Touqir Hussain
Much of the Islamic world is resource rich, has been under western
domination for most of its modern history, and is struggling to
come to terms with a seemingly unjust international system, and
issues of national identities and nationalism, ethnicity, tribalism,
feudalism, social change, political reform and modernization. This
struggle is taking place simultaneously on two fronts, at home and
abroad, and is causing domestic disorder and global tensions. Akbar
S. Ahmed's book Resistance and Control in Pakistan addresses some
of these tensions with a case study of the tribal society of South
The subject is timely as it is important specially given the current
military operations in Wana which have provoked local indignation,
national controversy and international puzzlement. Much of the West
sees this unrest, and the one in the larger Muslim world, as a manifestation
of "fundamentalism", a term that sadly obscures the diversity
and complexity of Islam. And there is no better person to challenge
this simplistic, and indeed dangerous and subversive, notion other
than Professor Akbar S. Ahmed.
Described as "probably the world's best known scholars on
contemporary Islam" by BBC, Akbar Ahmed holds the Ibn Khaldun
Chair of Islamic Studies at an American university. Akbar was also
invited to join legendary figures of anthropology Hall of Fame as
part of the "Anthropological Ancestors" interview series
at Cambridge University in July of 2004.
It is indeed as an Islamic scholar and an anthropologist that he
brings a singular insight to bear on explaining contemporary Muslim
societies and the underlying causes of tensions that threaten their
own stability as well as of their relations with the West.
The book is the dramatic story of a revolt some 30 years ago by
a religious figure, the Mullah of Waziristan. As modernization and
economic development slowly comes in Waziristan, it conflicts with
the social and tribal structure as well as religious principles
and observances. "Contrary to conventional wisdom, society
does not always proceed on a lineal path forward when it is modernizing"
and falls back on traditional values in search of stability. The
conflict thus reinforces religion.
It is the story of a tribal society where the weight of the past
oppresses the present, and the continuity and change are locked
in a bitter contest. This struggle which Akbar S. Ahmed terms as
"resistance and control" typifies the internal contradictions
in the Islamic world touching on the deep rooted socio economic
structures and traditions. The exposure to the West externalizes
this reality affecting as well as reflecting the inner tensions.
The message of Akbar's book is intended for multiple audiences.
For authorities in Pakistan, currently engaged in military operations
in the tribal areas, the lesson to be learnt is as Akbar puts it,
"Unless the political leaders in Islamabad could evolve a strategy
for the Tribal Areas that was based in the understanding of its
history, culture and traditions, the confrontation would only add
to the sense of uncertainty, anarchy and chaos which was already
prevalent in Pakistan." It is the message beyond Pakistan however
that has wider implication and relevance to history.
The book demonstrates how Islam serves as the idiom for social
protest. It shows that jihad has come to voice material and spiritual
needs and becomes an instrument of many intangibles such as ambition
for power and control that are burnt into the human psyche. It therefore
transcends a purely religious significance. "It tells us more
about the Muslim society in which jihad is articulated than Islamic
theology or law". "Understanding of religion is not the
issue here, the affective and connotative power of its symbols in
The book has been revised in the light of 9/11 but the basic message
remains unchanged showing its remarkably prescient analysis prefiguring
the current historical tensions. It is unfortunate that these tensions
have come to focus, on both sides of the divide in this emotionally
charged war on terrorism that lacks understanding of Islam and of
terrorism, and have obscured the real issues confronting as well
as dividing the Islamic world and the West.
To resolve these tensions what is really required is a greater
effort by both sides at an improved understanding of themselves,
admission of their shared policy failures and recognition of their
mutual interdependence. Muslim scholars bear special responsibility
in explaining and defending Islam and the problems of the Islamic
world to the West. Highly acclaimed in the West, Akbar S. Ahmed
is one of the few such scholars. He knows and understands Islam
and, what is more, can explain it in the language and idiom of the
West whose values and assumptions he is familiar with. He is neither
confrontationist nor contentious and is a great conciliator and
synthesizer of ideas.
Akbar tells his readers in his books, and audiences in countless
lectures across America in academic institutions, think tanks and
to inter faith dialogues, that Islam is not the problem in the current
militancy nor is Islam intrinsically hostile to the West. The implicit
message is that if something is wrong with Islamic societies it
is because something is indeed wrong with the world.
And more importantly Akbar S. Ahmed has demonstrated that true
Islam, which is humanistic, tolerant and forward looking, is easy
to explain to his liberal and modernized audience. It is only the
narrow and obscurantist view of Islam, articulated in absolutist,
obstructionist and archaic jargon that is hard to communicate.
September 11 may not have changed the world but in exaggerating
the friction between Islam and the West, it has certainly stimulated
the latter's interest in the Islamic world. This process could lead
to a better appreciation and awareness of the world we live in,
a greater sensitivity of history, and the inequities of the international
order. It could also teach the US the limits of power like the Vietnam
experience did. Perhaps that is what the Iraq war might end up doing
eventually. So the real impact of the good work that scholars like
Akbar S. Ahmed aremight be felt only subtly and in the long run.
And it may turn out to be historical.