Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – I

[To mark the Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, student and community activists organized a march. The march was followed up by a teach-in to connect Michigan’s Indigenous history with said march. Following is a report on the march. Next up will be a report on the teach-in.]

Art by Shebani Rao:


This has been a particularly tense Fall at the  University of Michigan (UM). From racist incidents, graffitis, and flyers, to the agitation against recent visit of Charles-bell-curve-Murray and the organizing and protests afoot right now for the likely visit by Richard Spencer–the campus is abuzz with discontent and activism. UM honors its greats with buildings named after them: James Angell, the architect of the anti-Chinese immigration Angell Treaty of 1880; the president of American Eugenics Society, C.C. Little; the anticommunist Harlan Hatcher, while ignoring that this campus, and the city, has had a long history of activism and resistance and a tradition of creative protest that’s alive and well


The Indigenous Peoples’ Day–the University, unlike the City of Ann Arbor, still recognizes it as Columbus Day– went unmarked last year at UM. But, this year, a coalition of students and community activist groups and individuals organized a rally, supported widely by others who helped with the crowd-sourced printing of flyers and the zine (drafted to pass around at the march), flyering, and blocking traffic on the day of the march.

The Indigenous Peoples’ Day: March of Indignation was designed as a historic “marching” tour, to sound-out an Indigenous Peoples’ history of UM, to remember and remind, to re-signify the landscape and familiar landmarks of the campus. UM is built on land gifted by the Odawa, Potawatomi and Ojibway people for the education of Indians. A plaque at a central location on campus commemorates the “Land Gift“. However, Proposal 2 limits affirmative action, in effect prohibiting the provision of equal educational opportunities to students of color. And yet, as the zine (see below) says, “this state law does not supersede the nation-to-nation promise made in the Treaty of Fort Meigs.”

Continue reading “Indigenous Peoples’ Day at the University of Michigan – I”

Who was Eqbal Ahmad?

I gave these comments at an AAAW event at Museo El Barrio some years back


I miss that which refused to become a commodity. I want that which cannot be assimilated in the histories of “Left” or “Dissent”. I seek that which dissented from participation in our purchasing power. Eqbal Ahmad is one such figure, I think – an essayist and speaker who left no one book for us to buy and put on our shelves; a thinker and activist who made no distinction between theory and praxis; a specialist only of resistance not of geography; a comrade for all, whether religious, academic, white or brown. His is not a history we can excavate from obscurity, because he was on the pages of New York Review of Books, New York Times, Left Review.

I encountered Eqbal Ahmad as a young man in Lahore, reading his sometimes weekly columns in the Dawn. I did not know him more than his sub-head, but I liked his columns. They always informed me of structural issues, drew my attention to histories elsewhere and had a clear moral eye towards critique of power. When, in the mid 1990s, I was an undergraduate in a small, white, liberal arts University in southern Ohio, I was assigned Edward Said’s Orientalism in a number of classes. I liked the book, but as a regular reader of British Orientalists in Pakistan, the book was not the revelation that it was for some of my class-mates. But I kept reading Said, and it was when I opened Culture and Imperialism and saw the dedication For Eqbal that I realized I needed to go back to reading the columnist. I followed Ahmad after that; reading his essays, or making vague plans of visiting him at Hampshire College where he taught. But I never managed it, before his death in 1999.


Ahmad was a prolific writer– and his Collected Works are proof. To illustrate, I will just cite one footnote from Edward Said’s 1989 essay “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocuters” in Critical Inquiry to give you a rough idea of Eqbal’s production. In Said’s essay, the first and third footnote is Fanon and the fourth is Ahmad, glossing this sentence:

“To have been colonized was a fate with lasting, indeed grotesquely unfair results, especially after national independence had been achieved. Poverty, dependency, underdevelopment, various pathologies of power and corruption, plus of course notable achivevments in war, literacy, economic development: this mix of characteristics designated the colonized people who had freed themselves on one level bit who remained victims of their past on another.”

The footnote reads (in its entirety): “See Eqbal Ahmad, “From Potato Sack to Potato Mash: The Contemporary Crisis of the Third World, ” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Summer 1980); Ahmad “Post-Colonial Systems of Power,” Arab Studies Quarterly 2 (Fall 1980); Ahmad, “The Neo-Fascist State: Notes on the Pathology of Power in the Third World”, Arab Studies Quarterly 3 (Spring 1981).”[^Footnote Said]

I think that is a pretty amazing sentence to get glossed by the thought of one intellectual’s work over two years.  Continue reading “Who was Eqbal Ahmad?”

Past Pleasant

The practice of publishing old texts is common in Pakistan; British-era district gazetteers and other colonial texts are routinely reprinted as de facto introductions to the history of the Subcontinent. The unwholesome after-effect of this is that colonial biases and frameworks remain uncontested and widely popular. There is neither any attempt to decolonise our history nor is there any awareness of what violence colonial knowledge practices have wreaked on writings about our pasts.

Seventy years after Partition, it is about time that readers and writers in Pakistan rethink and reimagine their histories. The past requires analysis in the light of new questions and new critical frameworks. We cannot be held hostage to British narratives about Muslim arrival in India as religion-inspired invaders from Arabia.

I have a review essay in Herald Dawn– How to counter colonial myths about Muslim arrival in Sindh— which is half book-synopsis and half review of an unpublished dissertation from 1973 Utah. Fun fact about 1973 Utah was that Aziz S. Atiya, scholar of Coptic Egypt and the Crusades made it his intellectual home after the President of University of Utah, A. Ray Olpin, invited him to direct the Middle East Center in 1965. They produced much important scholarship on Islam in USA though rarely get mentioned alongside places like Yale, Princeton, Chicago etc.


CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age

[We are excited to host this conversation on a very important book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report, by Professor Saba Mahmood.  The CM Roundtable is a series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. We thank each of our distinguished panelists for engaging in this public dialogue. We aim to have each roundtable available as a single beautifully produced e-book available at the conclusion– for classroom or referential usage.]

Saba Mahmood, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (2016)

Introduction by Durba Mitra


Schirin Amir-Moazami

Sarah Eltantawi

Humeira Iqtidar

Roundtable Introduction by Durba Mitra

Professor Durba Mitra is a historian of gender and sexuality at Harvard University. 



This interdisciplinary discussion of Saba Mahmood’s latest book, Religious Difference in a Secular Age: A Minority Report (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) highlights the significance of Mahmood’s work for diverse audiences. It was assembled to speak to the broad interdisciplinary impact of Mahmood’s scholarship— which has been the subject of much scholarly debate and has had an impressive reach across disciplinary and geographic divides. The roundtable features Professor Schirin Amir-Moazami (FU Berlin), a political theorist working on questions of gender and diversity in contemporary Europe, Assistant Professor Sarah Eltantawi (Evergreen State College), a scholar of religion specializing in North Africa, and Professor Humeira Iqtidar (King’s College, London), a political scientist who specializes in Islam in South Asia. By way of introduction to this roundtable on Religious Difference in a Secular Age, I want to think about Mahmood’s recent work through her larger body of scholarship and take a moment to situate Religious Difference in recent debates about secularism, law, and gendered power.

In her introduction to Religious Difference in a Secular Age, Mahmood argues: “The secular, in other words, is not the natural bedrock from which religion emerges…it is itself a historical product with specific epistemological, political, and moral entailments” (3). In her first book, The Politics of Piety (2005), as well as the widely cited May 2001 Cultural Anthropology article, “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent,” Mahmood argues against reductive critiques of Muslim women’s agency and the inadequacies of the normative subject of feminist theory to comprehend women’s lives in the context of postcolonial Egypt.

Mahmood provocatively confronts the “culture” problem that vexes feminist theory. She argues for a feminist methodology that takes into account the possibility of desire, self-making, and embodiment in movements and subjecthoods that so often bring unease to moralist understandings of agency in transnational feminist politics. Mahmood instead argues for a feminist project suspicious of liberal, and liberatory, promises of a staunchly secular feminism. Mahmood made this argument at a critical time, at the inception of the War on Terror in 2001, which deftly utilized the language of secular liberty to claim that religiosity was oppositional to the cause of women and national liberation (for example, in Afghanistan).

It was Mahmood’s critical gaze at this transformative historical juncture— the complications it posed for theory as well as for liberal and left political movements— that has provoked scholars across disciplines and geographies to read and debate loaded concepts like “custom”, “agency”, and “freedom” for our contemporary world. Mahmood emphasized the methodological power of the embodied concept of piety, now a key idea for what has become essential reading in a range of curriculum, from anthropology to women’s, gender, and queer studies. As scholars continue to theorize the problem of agency and the illiberal subject, one might rephrase the central problematic in Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age to engage these questions again, a decade and a half after her seminal 2001 article. What if “the secular” was not the “natural bedrock from which” feminism emerges?  Continue reading “CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age”