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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 Waziristan.

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 society is".

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.

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