Eqbal Ahmad: Political Predictor

Throughout the final years of Eqbal Ahmad’s life, he made accurate political predictions that would later shock and amaze his readers in the twenty-first century.

| October 2015

  • International Flags
    Some perceive Eqbal Ahmad as an uncanny analyst, others perceive him as a political guru.
    Photo by Fotolia/ksenona
  • Eqbal Ahmad
    A longtime friend and intellectual collaborator of Eqbal Ahmad, Stuart Schaar, takes a look at Ahmad’s impact on international relations and politics in “Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age.”
    Cover courtesy Columbia University Press

  • International Flags
  • Eqbal Ahmad

Political analyst Eqbal Ahmad was the first to recognize that former ally Osama Bin Laden would turn against the United States. In Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, former colleague and friend Stuart Schaar, analyzes the way Ahmad’s existence has flown through the current of modern history, and how his vision is still evident today. This excerpt, which is from the introduction, presents six predictions Ahmad made in his lifetime that later transpired at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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Eqbal Ahmad (1930?–1999), a brilliant professor and political analyst on the global left, saw trends developing in international relations that few others recognized. In the syndicated newspaper columns he wrote in the last decades of his life and some four million people read weekly, he offered his views on myriad subjects. He amazed his readers with predictions of future events that later transpired, making him into a guru for some and an uncanny analyst for others. Six examples suffice to illustrate his perspicacity, astuteness, and originality.

1.Years before it happened, he predicted the chaos that would follow if and when the U.S. military invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein. An extract from a December 20, 1998, essay that he wrote for the Karachi newspaper Dawn demonstrates his special skill. In a prescient analysis, he wrote:



Dictators rarely leave behind them an alternative leadership or a viable mechanism for succession. Saddam Hussein is not an exception. Disarray and confusion shall certainly ensue if he is eliminated. Iraq is a greatly divided country, with the rebellious Kurds dominant in the north and Shias in the south. With the one linked to the Kurds in Turkey and the other to Shiite Iran, their ambitions in post-Sad-dam Iraq can cause upheavals in the entire region. It is not clear that the United States has either the will or the resources to undertake the remaking of Iraq. If it does not, the scramble over Iraq may ignite protracted warfare involving Turkey, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kurd, Arab, Shia, Sunni, and, in one form or another, the United States. The fundamentalist brand of Islamism may thrive in such an environment. Islamism will find at least two major sponsors in the struggle for Iraq: Iran borders on southern Iraq, which is home to the most sacred shrines of Shia Islam and is populated largely by Shia Muslims. Iran’s influence may easily fill the post-Saddam vacuum, a development Saudi Arabia, the sheikhdoms of the Gulf, and the US shall find intolerable. Since none of America’s conservative Arab allies like Arab nationalism . . . they may counter Iran by promoting Sunni fundamentalism. Sectarian groups thrive in this brand of Islamism. Like Afghanistan today, Iraq may turn into a battleground of war parties backed by several states.

Eqbal wrote this essay a year before his death and five years before the United States, joined by a handful of other states, attacked and conquered Iraq. An insurgency then ensued, which intensified and continued after Saddam Hussein’s execution in 2006. As Eqbal predicted, Iraq faced civil war that its neighbors became involved in either directly or through internal proxies.

2. In Afghanistan, he saw the detrimental aftereffects of the U.S. organizing an international jihadist crusade there against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and predicted that blowback from those events would come to haunt the West in years to come. Before anyone else, he sensed that Osama bin Laden (1957–2011), the founder of al-Qaeda and initially America’s ally, would become its nemesis after the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan. In perhaps the best of his public lectures at the end of his life, before a packed house at the University of Colorado at Boulder on October 12, 1998, Eqbal analyzed the new U.S. foreign-policy paradigm of antiterrorism and predicted that bin Laden would turn against the United States. He did this well before al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center in downtown New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. “Terrorists change,” he argued.

The terrorist of yesterday is the hero of today, and the hero of yesterday becomes the terrorist of today. In a constantly changing world of images, we have to keep our heads straight to know what terrorism is and what it is not. . . . Officials don’t define terrorists because definitions involve a commitment to analysis, comprehension, and adherence to some norms of consistency. . . . The absence of definition does not prevent officials from being globalistic. They may not define terrorism, but they can call it a menace to good order, a menace to the moral values of Western civilization, a menace to humankind. Therefore, they can call for it to be stamped out worldwide. . . . The official approach to terrorism claims not only global reach, but also a certain omniscient knowledge. They claim to know where terrorists are, and therefore where to hit. . . . The official approach eschews causation. They don’t look at why people resort to terrorism. . . . [There is] the need for the moral revulsion we feel against terror to be selective. We are to denounce the terror of those groups which are officially disapproved. But we are to applaud the terror of those groups of whom officials do approve. . . . The dominant approach also excludes from consideration the terrorism of friendly governments.

Eqbal met bin Laden in 1986 at the moment that the Saudi was an American ally, recruiting jihadists to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Bin Laden turned against the United States in 1990, Eqbal pointed out to his audience, when the United States, in its buildup to attack Iraq, sent troops into Saudi Arabia, the home of the Kaaba in Mecca, where non-Muslims are not welcome. Just as bin Laden fought to get the Russians out of Afghanistan, by 1991 he wanted to get the Americans out of Arabia. In another venue, Eqbal described why bin Laden became an enemy of the United States:

[Bin Laden] was socialized by the CIA and trained by the Americans to believe deeply that when a foreigner comes into your land, you become violent. Bin Laden is merely carrying out the mission to which he committed with America earlier. Now he is carrying it out against America because now America, from his point of view, is occupying his land. That’s all. He grew up seeing Saudi Arabia being robbed by Western corporations and Western powers. He watched these Saudi princes, this one-family state, handing over the oil resources of the Arab people to the West. Up until 1991, he had only one satisfaction that his country was not occupied. There were no American or French or British troops in Saudi Arabia. Then even that small pleasure was taken away from him during the Gulf War and its aftermath.

Elsewhere Eqbal wrote that “for him [bin Laden], America has broken its word. The loyal friend has betrayed him. Now they’re going to go get you. They’re going to do a lot more. These are the chickens of the Afghanistan war coming home to roost.”

Eqbal described bin Laden as a tribal person who felt abandoned by the Americans after they had supported him and the jihadist movement in Afghanistan. Once the Russians withdrew, so did the Americans, losing interest in their once loyal allies. Working on the tribal principles of loyalty and revenge, bin Laden turned against the United States when it jettisoned the jihadists. Years before September 11, 2001, Eqbal explained the contradictions in the U.S. antiterrorist policies, educating as he spelled out how the new paradigm had developed and replaced the Cold War as the new integrating principle of U.S. foreign policy:

American operatives went about the Muslim world recruiting for the jihad in Afghanistan. This whole phenomenon of jihad as an international armed struggle did not exist in the Muslim world since the tenth century. It was brought back into being, enlivened, and pan-Islamized by the American effort. The United States saw in the war in Afghanistan an opportunity to mobilize the Muslim world against communism. So the United States recruited mujahideen from all over the Muslim world. I saw planeloads of them arriving from Algeria, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine. These people were brought in, given an ideology, told that the armed struggle is a virtuous thing to do, and the whole notion of jihad as an international, pan-Islamic terrorist movement was born.

3. Participating in a delegation of peace activists to meet Iranian revolutionaries after they forced the shah to flee in early 1979, Eqbal used Persian, which he had perfected at Princeton University, to converse with the new leaders of the country and listen to their plans for the future. He hogged the conversation, and some members of the U.S. delegation were furious with him for doing so. But in the end he was the only one, based on what he heard, to predict that Iran would become a highly authoritarian state, with a centralized religious command backed by machinegun-equipped revolutionary guards and a more pliant governmental structure without significant power.



4. Eqbal devoted a great deal of energy to defending Palestinian rights and included references to their plight in much of his writing and public lectures. His family in India and Pakistan had sensitized him at an early age to the suffering of others. His older brother Zafar, who raised him, became a Buddhist and stopped eating meat at home in reaction to the ethnic cleansing of Jews and Gypsies in Europe starting in 1938. The Palestinians appreciated Eqbal’s solidarity and invited him often to address their audiences. Because of his outspoken defense of the Palestinian cause, no major U.S. university would hire him for a permanent job. He traveled to the Middle East to meet with Palestinian leaders on many occasions. In a memorandum he wrote for Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat (1929–2004) and Abu Jihad (also known as Khalil al-Wazir, 1935–1988) in 1980 while visiting Beirut with Edward W. Said (1935–2003), Eqbal “sadly forecast the quick defeat of PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] forces in South Lebanon” by the Israeli armed forces. Eqbal told the two PLO leaders that their people could never defeat Israel militarily and advocated the organization of massive campaigns of civil disobedience and large-scale nonviolent actions to shake Israel’s legitimacy and fundamentally challenge its occupation of Palestinian territories.

5. Eqbal rejected analysis that placed the Cold War as the central feature of the world after 1945. He was one of the few political analysts to view the Cold War in terms of what it meant to its Third World victims. He derided the dominant viewpoint that it was a struggle between forces of freedom and democracy on the one side and totalitarianism on the other, and he raised questions about the validity of the notion that we should be grateful that the world was spared a third world war as a result of the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation between the two superpowers. Making an original contribution to international relations theory, he argued that a large part of Asia, Africa, and Latin America actually did experience a third world war as a result of the violence brought to bear on it during the Cold War. Eqbal lamented that frequent bloody regional and proxy wars took their toll wherein “an estimated 21 million people died, uncounted millions were wounded, and more than a hundred mil-lion were rendered refugees by what have been variously described as the limited, invisible, forgotten, and covert wars of the 1945–1990 period.” For Eqbal, the defining features of the post–World War II period consisted of national liberation struggles, revolutionary warfare, and counterinsurgency as people in the global South outside the United States and the Soviet Union faced constant assaults.

6. More than a decade before the outbreak of the Arab Spring at the end of 2010, Eqbal understood that young people would spearhead a revolt in the Middle East and North Africa that would challenge the old dictatorial order. In an interview he gave to David Barsamian that was published in the November 1998 issue of Progressive magazine, “Osama bin Laden Is a Sign of Things to Come,” he saw the inevitability of a large-scale Arab uprising:

The Arabs are, at the moment, an extremely humiliated, frustrated, beaten, and insulted people. If you look at the situation from the standpoint of the Arab as a whole, this is a most beleaguered mass of 200 million people. What is actually uniting them at the moment is a sense of common loss, common humiliation. This people has only two choices now, as its young people see it: It’s either to become active, fight, die, and recover its lost dignity, lost sovereignties, lost lands, or to become slaves

This statement offers an explanation of why so many Arabs resorted to terrorism, but it also helps us fathom why so many people in the Arab world took to the streets to bring down their dictatorial regimes in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

This is only a sampling of Eqbal’s insights, which gained him a reputation as an uncanny political analyst who saw trends emerging before any of his peers. Moreover, his mind was quirky, and you could never predict how he would react to issues, making interactions with him exciting events.

Eqbal’s Wide Contacts

The combination of originality, intelligence, and fearlessness in confront­ing power drew to Eqbal some of the major intellectuals on the left and prominent figures in a variety of fields in the United States, western Europe, Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. He socialized with writ­ers from around the world and learned from them. He was one of Ed­ward Said’s closest friends in New York City. He was also friends with Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), David Dellinger (1915–2004), Leonard Boudin (1912–1989), Howard Zinn (1922–2010), Richard Falk (b. 1930), Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (1929–2001), Janet Abu-Lughod (1928–2013), and many others. He corresponded with leaders of the international Left, and on the Indian–Pakistani subcontinent he knew and befriended the most gifted intellectuals, while political figures and military leaders courted him for advice. He also simultaneously served as a coeditor of the British journal  Race & Class, joined the editorial boards of the Paris monthly  L’Economiste du Tiers Monde (1972–1983) and the mass-circulation French fortnightly Afrique-Asie (1968–1983) published in Paris, and helped establish  Paki­stan Forum (1969–1977) but broke with its editors over ideological and personal issues. In 1979, he was a guest columnist for the New York Times. He later contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the Parisian periodical Le Monde Diplomatique. At the end of his life, he wrote weekly columns for the Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn and was a contributor to the London-based newspaper al-Hayat and Cairo’s  al-Ahram Weekly.

Eqbal Ahmad as a Critical Outsider and Witness

As a Pakistani spending most of his adulthood after 1957 in the United States, Eqbal lived on the frontiers of several worlds, which allowed him to see issues from new vantage points. Coming to the United States as a nationalist with left leanings, meaning that he had favored partition of India and the creation of Pakistan and had studied Marx and Lenin with­out becoming a Leninist, he gradually shed his nationalist identity and became a public intellectual with a global vision. Because he reached maturity outside the frameworks of Pakistan’s social and political con­straints, his place on the margins of different worlds freed him from the traps that surround those who work and live locally. He therefore approached the world with different assumptions than others. There lay his originality.

Much has been written about outsiders, exiles, strangers, and foreigners and their creativity or roles as gadflies. The sociologist George Simmel (1858– 1918); the philosopher and writer Colin Wilson (1931–2013), a twenty­four-year-old British angry young man; the writers Richard Wright (1908–1960), James Baldwin (1924–1987), and Albert Camus (1913– 1960); and the literary critic Edward W. Said (1935–2003), to name just a few, made the “otherness” inherent in alienation and exile a prototype for new insights, substantive change, and existential angst. More than a decade ago Judith M. Brown (b. 1944) wrote about Mohandas Gandhi (1869–1948) in terms of his outsider status following his return to India from South Africa, where he had learned mass organizing and developed his oppositional strategies to colonial power.

C. Wright Mills (1916–1962), the innovative and influential sociolo­gist on the left, has been labeled a “radical nomad” because he moved tire­lessly from one issue to another without settling down, which thereby helped him see reality in ways different from his scholarly peers. Mills, like Eqbal, bore witness by speaking out against injustice, calling attention to wrongs, and revealing hard truth to power. Eqbal went further than Mills in that he and a few others before him—such as the peace activist, labor organizer, and one of the initiators of the nonviolent civil rights movement A. J. Mustie (1885–1967) and members of both the Fellowship of Reconciliation, founded in 1916, and the War Resister’s League, established in 1923—helped secularize the Christian concept of witness and shaped it into a powerful tool for social change. Mustie, the tireless organizer, had tried a wide variety of ideologies, including Trotsky­ism, a fair sampling of Christian sects, pacificism, and so on, but even though early in his life he joined the clergy, he bore witness not to evan­gelize or to get people to become Christians but rather to obstruct the war machine and build an antiwar movement. David T. Dellinger, the editor of Liberation magazine and, like Mustie, an indefatigable peace activist, likewise radicalized the nonviolent resistance movement and willingly went to jail to prove his antiwar convictions.

Although the nonevangelical direct-action civil disobedience move­ment began in the United States way before the 1960s, Eqbal brought a fresh view of Gandhi’s strategy and tactics to the U.S. antiwar movement, mixed with a critique informed by the teachings of the 1913 Bengali Noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), which I discuss in some de­tail later in this introduction. Eqbal promoted peaceful nonviolent ac­tions (such as provoking mass arrests, staging sit-ins, disrupting the ev­eryday order of things) to protest escalating wars and manifestations of gross injustice.

As Don Will (1949–2014), the Pakistani’s late friend, explained, “Eqbal reversed the narrative of the Holocaust, by advocating marches and ship sailings of Palestinians to walk and sail back home and calling for them to organize a green, peaceful march from Jordan and .Lebanon into Palestine.”  Eqbal argued that the Palestinians should claim that they are committed to peace. You are making war. We do not want to use violence against you. Peacefully we will march against you. We will sit in. We will clog the roads, start a full scale movement, and dis­cipline the Palestinians not even to throw stones, intifada style, be­cause Israelis will use and justify bullets against stones. They will use soldiers against children. Don’t even give them that. . . . Israel will divide . . . as a society the way Americans divided [over Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent movement]. I would keep it divided until it makes peace.

As Cora Weiss (b. 1934), one of the founding members of Women’s Strike for Peace as well as the president of the Hague Appeal for Peace and Eqbal’s friend, wrote to me, “Eqbal’s legacy is significant. His lec­tures and articles will be read by generations to come. Facing an impasse, we still ask, what would Eqbal have done?”


Excerpted from Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age by Stuart Schaar. Copyright (c) 2015 Stuart Schaar. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
















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