By Khaled Ahmed
Akbar Ahmed has had a good homecoming. His message has been embraced by the Pakistani state: Army chief Gen. Raheel Sharif presented him a shield at the National Defense University in December; and the Navy chief was so impressed with Ahmed’s latest book—last year’s The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam—that he reprinted it for the Pakistan Navy Book Club.
Ahmed, previously Akbar Salahuddin Ahmed or Akbar S. Ahmed, has probably written his best book yet—if not for its substance then for the kind of impact it has made, including in Washington, D.C., where he teaches Islamic studies as the Ibn Khaldun chair at American University. (Ahmed is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.) With a Ph.D. in anthropology, Ahmed’s mind is shaped by the discipline’s nonpartisan and nonjudgmental approach to the study of communities. He abhors labeling and stands apart when rivals go at each other’s throats with Manichean reductionism. He hates the metanarrative of “clash of civilizations” and tries, against all odds, to make religions communicate with one another with mutual acceptance.
His thesis, in his own words, is cast thus: “These suffering people [targeted by the war on terror] had one thing in common: they were all part of communities living on the periphery and margins of the state. Those who represented the center of the state usually called them ‘primitive’ and ‘savage.’ Some said their time in history was up.” Love of freedom; egalitarianism; a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans; a martial tradition; and a highly developed code of honor and revenge—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies Ahmed discusses in his book. “Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the Americans discovered after 9/11.”
In Thistle and the Drone, the tribal “thistle” that “bites back” has been framed in such a way that it cannot be ignored—like the way Pakistan ignored Ahmed’s earlier studies of its tribal communities. His campaign to make Islam understood through an interfaith TV dialogue did not succeed in the U.K. when he was Pakistan’s high commissioner there. Now, his broad acceptance of all faiths in his book is being well absorbed across the board following disenchantment with the solutions the U.S. sought through “unmanned aerial vehicles” or drones that kill with precisely-targeted “Hellfire” missiles.
Continue reading at Newsweek Pakistan