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.


Ahmad’s first piece of writing in the United States was an essay for The Nation (August 30, 1965) titled “Revolutionary Warfare: How to Tell When the Rebels Have Won”. He grounds that essay in his “own personal observation of the Algerian struggle” and proceeds to lay out a rather structured, bullet pointed reading of guerilla warfare in Algeria and Vietnam. In doing so, he directly critiqued W. W. Rostow, Dean Rusk and other “failed prophets” of Washington for their shoddy policy work. The war in Vietnam was lost, he said, in 1965, when the truth of that statement was not held in Washingtonn for another decade. He ends that essay with a quote worth quoting:

“I know how Asians feel about America’s action. They call it neo-colonialism; some think it is imperialism. I know this is very wrong because Americans are naturally sympathetic to peoples’ struggles for freedom and justice, and they would like to help if they could. I prefer the term “maternalism” for American policy in countries like Vietnam, because it reminds me of the story of an elephant who, as she strolled benignly in the jungle, stepped on a mother partridge and killed her. When she noticed the orphaned siblings, tears filled the kind elephant’s eyes. “Ah, I too have maternal instincts,” she said turning to the orphans, and sat on them.”

That essay, was read into the Congressional Record at the very first hearing on Vietnam and it proved to be a seminal essay for Noam Chomsky whose “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (February 1967) was the launch of that linguist as a war-critic.


Ahmad’s revolutionary praxis was to speak. He spoke most often at college campuses and most vividly at churches and mosques. He spoke to young students, and he spoke to citizens – and he spoke always to Americans in a truly engaged manner. He spoke a lot and he spoke everywhere. I have heard from a number of people that he was an electric speaker. Incidentally, it was his speaking (not his writing) that got him into trouble. J. Edgar Hoover announced on Thanksgiving Day 1970 that this “Arrogant, Self-Righteous Alien” wanted to kidnap Kessinger and blow up some pipes in the Pentagon. The unsuccessful trial against Ahmad lasted more than a year– and the Harrisburg 7 as they were called were freed with no charges. The whole thing was a suggestion that Ahmad made over dinner in Connecticut that they should take advantage of Kissinger’s ego and philandering and have him put under Citizen’s Arrest for crimes in Vietnam.


Ahmad’s was not only a writer and speaker on anti-colonial movements in North Africa, Middle East and America, he kept his critical eye trained on India and Pakistan– his place of birth and his nationality. In 1971, at the height of criminal proceeding against him, he wrote against the brutal military regime of West Pakistan in East Pakistan and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh. In the NYRB, he wrote a Letter to a Pakistani Diplomat:

“I know that I shall be condemned for my position. For someone who is facing a serious trial in America, it is not easy to confront one’s own government. Yet it is not possible for me to oppose American crimes in Southeast Asia or Indian occupation of Kashmir while accepting the crimes that my government is committing against the people of East Pakistan. Although I mourn the death of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes, and condemn the irresponsibilities of the Awami League, I am not willing to equate their actions with that of the government and the criminal acts of an organized, professional army. I do not know if my position would at all contribute to a humane settlement. Given the fact that our government is neither accountable to the public nor sensitive to the opinion of mankind, our protest may have no effect until this regime has exhausted all its assets and taken the country down the road to moral, political, and economic bankruptcy. However, lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.


How do I present Ahmad without making him into a commodity for you to buy? A book of essays? A wisp of ideals? I think I must tie him to some idea that I shall struggle to explain to you. I must articulate that he was counter to a culture in a specific key, a resonance that we must strain to hear. We must think back to the culture that he represented as a Perso-phone Urdu-speaker from Bihar, and that we need to pay attention to his particularity, his nuanced life.

I do not find it easy to salve his anti-Vietnam, anti-Zionist, anti-Indian military, anti-Pakistani-military intellectual positions, with his love for India, for Pakistan, and for America. I find it harder still to see in him a lover of Persian and Urdu poetry. Hence, I must turn to this difficulty and face it.

So, let me call him something that he will instantly recognize, if he hears me today.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Beirut, 1979 Meray Dil, Meray Musafir

we are burdened by fidelity
o world’s beloved;
does anyone treat
one’s lovers
as you do?
May your gatherings last beyond eternity;
we are but
a moment’s guest,
no matter.
(translation mine)

What does it mean to be burdened by fidelity to love. To do what you must, because you are obliged in love. Ahmad, the thinker, the rebel, the intellectual, was always working under the burden of his love – for his birthplace (in Bihar), for his community (Pakistan), for his comarades (in anti-imperialist struggles), and for his home (in America). His ethics is an ethics that comes out of love, and this enabled him to never turn his eyes away from what his love was enacting – what violence, what hubris. It enabled him to speak as only one who loves can speak to the lover – with deep awareness of an unbreakable bond, and a realization that nothing can be left unsaid, that the lover may be transient but the love remains, and if it is to remain, it must speak truth.

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”

CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age – Amir-Moazami

[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


Discussion by Schirin Amir-Moazami (FU Berlin)

Schirin Amir-Moazami holds a PhD from the department of Social and Political Sciences of the European University Institute in Florence and is currently Professor for Islam in Europe at the Institute of Islamic studies at Freie Universität Berlin. She published a book on the headscarf controversies in France and Germany and numerous articles related to questions of
secular orders and Muslims in Europe. Her research interests include Islamic movements in Europe, Secularism, Gender, Knowledge Production and Critical Political Theory. She is currently finishing a book manuscript under the title, “Interrogating Muslims: The Politics of Integration in Contemporary Germany”.



In times of religious terror, sectarian conflict, and a worldwide revival of racist movements that shout themselves into political establishments, liberal values and secular law currently look like the only suitable antidotes. Critical investigations of liberal-secular power in these times appear counter-intuitive. Saba Mahmood’s book Religious Difference in a Secular Age. A Minority Report is an invitation to pause and to step sideways. It is a reminder to not make short-hand conclusions, and to interrogate critically – yes still, again and all the more – the hegemonic powers of liberal-secular doctrines and the nation-state as part of the problem. The blending of historical and contemporary analyses is particularly helpful to graspthe longer term legacies of shortcomings and exclusions of both political secularism and institutionalized liberal norms within a nation-state framework and its expansive forces.. Religious Difference in a Secular Age is therefore a timely and thought-provoking contribution for understanding the historicity of contemporary predicaments of both political secularism and individual liberal rights.

Key to Mahmood’s critique of political secularism is that she unravels its built-in contradictions: the promise to universality and its simultaneous particular—i.e. Christian-Protestant—legacy; the claim to guarantee religious liberty and the necessary reliance on particular notions of what counts as proper religion; the state’s claim to neutrality and its inescapable involvement in shaping religious life, sometimes in its most intimate spheres. Mahmood’s most innovative contribution is investigating these contradictions from the margins, i.e. religious minorities. Taking Egypt as a point of departure, she shows how the internationalization of the legal category of minority as a “permanent institution” (Arendt) was based on a colonial civilizing project, which still affects the regulation of religious minorities today. Likewise, the reverse side of religious liberty’s promise to abstractness and universality consists in its entrenchment with liberal Protestant understandings of religion that travelled to the Middle East through Christian missionaries in the late 19th century. Continue reading “CM Roundtable II: Religious Difference in a Secular Age – Amir-Moazami”