EKBAL AHMED: A VISIONARY AND COMMITTED ACTIVIST
Eqbal Ahmed - As I Knew Him
by Pervez Hoodbhoy
Unable to fathom my grief when they finally wheeled him out of the intensive care unit, the nurse asked if he was my father. No, I said, he was the head of our clan. But there was little point in explaining this was no usual clan, has
no blood linkages, and knows no country, religion, or race. Its many thousand members are spread across the continents from Vietnam to the West Bank and Morocco, from India and Pakistan to Europe and North America. Their only bond is a shared belief in human dignity, justice, liberty, and all that is rich and precious in the human experience. Today they mourn Eqbal Ahmad, the man who brought them all together, and who they loved so much.
I had not heard of Eqbal Ahmad until I heard him speak in 1971 at an anti-war demonstration at MIT. As a student there, I had come to the US as a normal, apolitical, and indifferent product of Karachi Grammar School. But the cultural shock of immersion in the new society was that of being doused with a bucket of ice water. My eyes to the world had suddenly opened to fearful reality. The Americans were diligently carpet-bombing Vietnam with their B-52's back into the stone age, and the West Pakistanis were busy cleansing East Pakistan with a vigour that today would have done the Serbs proud. No Pakistani in Cambridge that I knew, student or immigrant, cared a hoot about Vietnam. And most
applauded the Pakistan Army's actions, rejected the harrowing tales of suffering and destruction, and argued that the photographs and TV footage were mere Zionist concoctions.
Eqbal's lecture left me thunderstruck. Never before had I seen such a devastating combination of knowledge, eloquence, and passion used with unerring precision to shatter the myths and lies that surrounded America's imperial adventure. The audience, almost exclusively American, hung on to his
every word as he alternately charmed, entertained, challenged, and educated them. When a crowd of admirers mobbed him subsequently, I too joined them. In the decades that followed, my relationship with him metamorphosed from
deep admiration into deep friendship, and then into a conviction that here was a man of the rarest quality with whom every moment spent would be a privilege.
In time to come people will write books on Eqbal. They shall doubtlessly tell how he was drawn into the Algerian war of independence from France, eventually representing Algeria at the Paris peace talks. They will recount the epic Harrisburg trial, where Eqbal and six others were falsely accused by a nervous US government of trying to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up the heating system of the Pentagon. They shall have to detail how leaders of revolutions in Iran and Palestine, Cuba and Chile, sought his advice, never doubting
the integrity and commitment of an internationalist for whom every country was his country. And, above all, his chroniclers shall tell us how hard he tried -- and failed -- to slow the moral degeneration and social deterioration of the country whose passport he held till his death, to stop the genocide being committed by its armed forces in Bengal, and later, to steer it away from the looming nuclear confrontation with its neighbour to the east.
Edward Said describes Eqbal as "the shrewdest and most original anti-imperialist analyst of the post-war world". True, but with that also came incorruptible ideals, and a willingness to pay the price of integrity. Once a close associate of Ben Bella, Eqbal started distancing himself as Algerian revolutionary ideals soured. The elegant Havana cigars that I once used to see in his New York apartment, a gift from Fidel Castro, stopped coming when Eqbal differed with Castro on his repression of domestic opponents. Relations with Yasser Arafat, who for years had eagerly sought Eqbal's advice and wanted to give him a seat in the Palestine National Council, plummeted sharply after Eqbal
became convinced that the US-sponsored Oslo accord would be a disaster for the Palestinians.
Ostracized by most of the American academic community for his passionate advocacy of Palestinian rights, Eqbal had remained an itinerant professor at several US universities for much of his life. He recalled that his colleagues at
Cornell chose to stand elsewhere rather than sit with him at the same cafetaria table. Finally, in 1982 Hampshire College in Massachussetts awarded him a full tenured professorship. Students, even those who disagreed with him politically,
flocked to his lectures and courses. A young Pakistani student recalls Eqbal's visit to the nearby Dartmouth College in 1992 to speak on Palestine. Her roommate, who was Jewish by birth and Zionist by conviction, started crying
during Eqbal's lecture because she thought he was biased. But he then gently spoke with her in Hebrew and swung her around to seeing different dimensions of the situation.
Brilliant speakers are rare, brilliant listeners still rarer. With Eqbal you could be sure that he not only understood what you had said, but also why you said it. This was why revolutionary leaders, kings and princes, presidents
and prime ministers, generals and admirals, all sought to talk to him. But such meetings did not leave him awed or intimidated. He was equally at ease with working people, children loved the attention he gave them, and even distant
relatives felt close to him.
In 1997 Eqbal retired from Hampshire College. He asked me to come to his festschrift, organized by the College and his many friends. Hundreds flocked to the event from the New England area, others from places as far as California,
Canada, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, and Pakistan. Noam Chomsky was to start it off on Friday evening with "The Prospects For The Third World And Abroad". But the numbers kept swelling until initial plans had to be abandoned and the
venue was switched to the college gymnasium which too was soon packed to capacity. My guess is that there were 2000 people there. It was Woodstock once again, I thought to myself.
The second day brought together some of the finest, best known, wittiest,
and committed intellectuals of the left. People like Edward Said, Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg (of the Pentagon Papers fame), Cora and Peter Weiss, Stuart Schaar, Richard Barnet, and others (like Mohammed Guessous of Morocco and Masao Miyoshi, a Japanese) who I had not known but found to be immensely engaging. Zinn was in terrific form as he related the days of the Daniel Berrigan's
hide-and-seek with the FBI and then Eqbal's famous Harrisburg trial. Cora Weiss was hilarious with "What If Eqbal Ran The UN", and I didn't know that Ellsberg could be so serious and funny as he was that day.
Yes, it was the Eqbal Ahmad clan which had come together at this occasion, and it left me slightly breathless. I knew that Eqbal had helped many people and engaged their affection and loyalty. What I simply did not know was they
were so many -- so different from each other and from so many different parts of the world and that they loved him so much. It wasn't just his students whose voice cracked from emotion, but also Edward Said, his closest friend and the
leading intellectual light of Palestine. I suppose what gave this celebration special meaning was that, in part, it was reliving the 60's and 70's of the Vietnam days and Eqbal's contribution in mobilizing the American resistance to the war. Certainly it was for me. For in truth, I may have been a very different person had I not encountered the Greats --Chomsky, Eqbal, and Zinn -- in my formative years at MIT. Therefore it was not easy to speak when Eqbal insisted that I do so. But he had introduced me in a way that left no choice but to comply.
The Hampshire celebration was the last high-point of Eqbal's life and marked his determination to spend almost all his time in Pakistan. Hitherto he had been splitting his time between teaching in the US, writing his newspaper columns, and working on setting up a university of arts and sciences in Islamabad, Khaldunia. This was a project which Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif ensured would not ultimately fly. How could you expect otherwise, people asked him, when you refuse to tone down your pen? He had no good answer, but
And then Death, that cunning hunter of Life, began pursuing her quarry in earnest. From the time she first cast her pale shadow, to the time she enveloped him in her bosom, was but a scant six days. Death is not only inevitable, it is also the defining moment of truth. I think that if you want to
know what a person was to the very core, you must know not only how he lived but also how he died. And so I want to tell you, the reader, how Eqbal Ahmad died.
When we took him to the hospital he was in an awful state, vomiting violently and feeling sharp pains in his chest. But there were quiet phases when he asked about the world outside. He shook his head in silent disgust as I told him
of the preparations to celebrate Pakistan's anniversary of the nuclear tests. "When you get well I'd like you to look at an article I've just written against the celebrations", I said. No, he replied, give it to me now. He carefully adjusted the intravenous drip to take hold of his pen, asked me to raise his hospital bed to a semi-sitting position, and then went through the article adding his editorial comments here and there. That's what he's done all his life, I thought to myself, helping others, concerning himself with their problems, worrying about where the world is going.
The next day medical tests revealed a large growth in the colon. It was a tense moment when the doctor came into the room. "Is it cancerous", Eqbal asked? I watched his face intently as the doctor silently nodded. There was neither
fear nor resignation, just brief reflection. Moments later he was fully engaged in discussing strategies for surgery.
Yes, it was painful, bloody painful as he lay in the ICU after the 3 hour long extraction of the cancer. As painful as you can imagine, and beyond that too. The morphine would knock him out for a while, but you could see the pain would
still be there. But he remained the quintessential Eqbal to the very end. His mind remained incisive, critical, analytical. He wanted to know about every medicine -- the dosage, the effects and after-effects. His wit survived the
pain. "Mrs Diamond" (his mother-in-law, now over 90 years old), he remarked to his niece, "is for all practical purposes indestructible". After one of his quips I remarked that his sense of humour too was indestructible. "It's a
useful thing to have sometimes", he said, "so I like to carry it along with me".
He knew he was dying but made no useless supplications, asked for nothing, expected nothing. His intellectual integrity and dignity remained intact till the very end. Let others apply soothing balm for themselves in whatever form,
indulge in whatever religious claptrap they believe in. He would have none of that for himself, but if others felt better he didn't discourage them.
The doctors were awed by him and the nurses fell in love. Eqbal must have been the weirdest patient at the ICU they have experienced in their lives. Strapped in a maze of tubes and wires, and hovering at the very edge, he still engaged
them, insisted on knowing everything, scolded one monumentally incompetent nurse who had stabbed him 5 times in search of a vein, praised the two good ones, but charmed even the one he had scolded.
It was 5:25 am, the morning of 11 May 1999, when he asked me to raise him into a sitting position. Moments later his ECG went flat. I saw tears trickling from one nurse's eyes when they finally covered him up. EKBAL AHMED: A VISIONARY AND COMMITTED ACTIVIST
Eqbal Ahmed Lecture by Kofi Annan
by Kofi Annan
The First Annual Eqbal Ahmed Lecture at Hampshire College, delivered in Amherst, 16 September, 1998
KNOWLEDGE AND CIVILIZATION
Students, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for that generous introduction. It is a very special
pleasure for me to deliver the first Eqbal Ahmad lecture here at
Hampshire College. Professor Ahmad is known to you in the five
colleges as a distinguished teacher whose intellect and example have
enriched your lives.
I know him as a public intellectual who crossed many boundaries to
engage in struggles for liberation and human rights; a fearless thinker whose analysis of world events has helped me to understand some of the issues with which the United Nations must grapple every day.
Among those issues, as this audience will know, is the threat of the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Last June, the world
witnessed with deep apprehension the decisions of India and Pakistan
to conduct nuclear tests. A new and dangerous source of instability
was introduced to an environment in which sentiments of rivalry,
suspicion, and mistrust were dominating all discourse. To the
outside world, it appeared that within those two nations, nuclear
nationalism had won the day. Voices of dissent were few and far
between. But Eqbal Ahmad's voice was heard by all who wished to
listen: warning Pakistan of the perils of following India down the nuclear path; urging leaders and citizens alike to choose reason over rage, moderation over might, the future over the past. It is that commitment to putting knowledge to the service of human kind, that example of learning infused with a moral conscience, that we honour today.
As students, you have been told, no doubt, by parents and teachers
that education is a great privilege; that you should be grateful for
the chance to improve your minds; that you should seize this
opportunity to expand your horizons. I do not fault you for sometimes
thinking that this is just a way of getting you to study. Sometimes
it is. But there is a deeper, more lasting truth to what they are
saying. Throughout history there has existed an essential linkage
between knowledge and the growth of civilizations. The relationship
between knowledge, its communication, and progress -- be it economic,
political or social -- has been permanent and organic. The educational
process as formalized through schools and colleges is at the heart of
Moreover, throughout history knowledge has been universal. Only with
the age of nationalism and imperialism was knowledge invested with
hard boundaries. In fact, knowledge has never recognized boundaries,
but rather defied all notions, past and present, of civilizations
The roots of Greek civilization lay deep in Africa. And we know how
the Arabs learned from Greece, India, and China, making their own
advances in science, mathematics, aesthetics, and philosophy; how the
European renaissance was assisted by the intellectual achievements of
the Islamic civilization; and how modern western art has been
influenced by the African and Japanese impressions.
History is witness to the fact that ambitions, interests and,
sometimes, ideologies clash. Civilizations rarely do. In fact, they
are based on the exchange of knowledge and artistic influence and, in
turn, nurtured by that exchange.
Today, therefore, I wish to draw your attention to the crisis of
knowledge in the Third World; to how that crisis feeds the view that
civilisations inevitably must clash; and to why restoring a global
culture of knowledge must and will be a priority for the United
Nations system of the next century.
The crisis in education in the Third World is, above all, a crisis of
priorities facing states with increasing responsibilities in an era of
decreasing resources. This is partly a problem of history. Third
world plans of education were drawn up, by and large, by colonial
powers whose outlook and needs were different from those of sovereign
states in the last years of the 20th century.
Yet, in the post-colonial period, expenditures on arms have far
surpassed those on books and teachers. Practically no attention has
been paid to reformulating educational objectives appropriate to the
requirements of these societies. What little attention has been given
to the educational enterprise has gone into the physical output of new
campuses and school houses. The need for renewal and reform is
greater than ever.
Our age -- the age of Globalization -- offers a unique opportunity to
reverse course. Globalization, as you all know, is a subject of much
discussion and research today. But there is a tendency still to view
the matter largely in economic terms. Globalization is affecting all
aspects of our lives, from the political to the social to the
cultural. Only knowledge, it would seem, is not being globalized. In
an age where the acquisition and advancement of knowledge is a more powerful
weapon in a nations arsenal than any missile or mine, the knowledge
gap between the North and South is widening. Alas, education often seems
the last priority, leading too many third world students to leave for
the West to acquire knowledge and education.
That is the tragedy of far too many Third World countries striving to
escape poverty and establish democratic rule. Too many regimes and
too many rulers govern by the gun. They allow only those investments
that will prolong their rule rather than provide for their peoples
progress. Indeed, education is often seen as the enemy of tyranny,
for it is the means of dissent and a tool of resistance.
We are all consumers of the products of modern science and
technology. However, a large part of the world has had no part in the
process of their discovery, invention and production. Unless we
embark urgently on a program of globalizing the generation of and access to knowledge, the unequal development of the world will only continue.
In recent decades, international agencies have accorded some
importance to encouraging primary and secondary level schooling. This
has some effect in shifting local priorities in favour of basic
education. Unfortunately, higher education continues to suffer from
neglect. Lack of resources have so drained third world universities
of good faculties that all of its Nobel Laureates in science have won
their prizes for research accomplished in the West.
That is why the United Nations will make universal access to
knowledge central to all our development activities. Next month,
UNESCO will host a World Conference on Higher Education attended by
more than 100 ministers = of education. Their mission will be to join 2,000
teachers, students and education experts in an effort to renew higher
They will seek innovative ways to stop the growing disparity between
North and South in access to knowledge through higher education. They
will strive to improve national educational systems as a way of
preserving our global diversity while opening new channels of
communication between peoples.
By complementing those efforts in our development and post-conflict
peace building work, we will help ensure that former combatants will
become future students; that for them, the first day of peace will be a day
for school; and that in those schools, they will learn to resolve
Although I have spoken so far in the context of post-colonial
societies, in important respects the challenge is universal. We live
in an age in which material imperatives tend to overwhelm the moral
and spiritual ones. This affects the learning environment in ways
that are harmful to societies no less than individuals. What can get
lost in such an environment is the essence of education -- its social
and moral imperatives. Not that one expression of knowledge is to be
implanted everywhere. Nor that one tradition of learning is to
dominate all others. Rather, I believe that every society must
restore a culture of knowledge that encourages the pursuit of ideas
and their application in fostering a universal understanding of the
meaning of civilization.
Civilizations have always been enriched, and not weakened, by the
exchange of knowledge and arts, the freer and more peaceable the
better. In the relations between nations, it is rather the lack of
education, and the dearth of knowledge which is a chief source of
dispute and conflict.
Ignorance and prejudice are the handmaidens of propaganda, and in
most modern conflicts, the men of war prey on the ignorance of the
populace to instill fears and arouse hatreds. That was the case in
Bosnia and in Rwanda where genocidal ideologies took root in the
absence of truthful information and honest education. If only half the effort
had gone into teaching those peoples what unites them, and not what
divides them, unspeakable crimes could have been prevented.
This is not to say that ideas and interests do not clash. They do,
and always will. But those clashes can and must be resolved
peacefully and politically. That is why the culture of knowledge which
we seek will advance not only development, but also mutual
appreciation between cultures. Perhaps there is no greater need for
such appreciation today than between the Islamic peoples and those of
the West. Too often, this question is discussed only through crude,
invidious generalizations about the beliefs of one group or the
behaviour of the other. Too often, the rhetoric of resistance from
one group or other is deemed representative of the views of millions.
What is ignored is the historic and ever-growing interaction between
peoples; the ways in which individual states -- regardless of
religious affiliation -- define, defend, and pursue their interests;
and the propensity of states as well as individuals to form alliances
and allegiances on other grounds than ethnic belonging or religious
What this history should and must teach us is that, alongside a
global diversity of cultures, there does exist one, world-wide
civilization of knowledge within which ideas and philosophies meet
and develop peacefully and productively. It is a civilization
defined by its tolerance of dissent, its celebration of cultural diversity, its
insistence on fundamental, universal human rights, and its belief in
the right of people everywhere to have a say in how they are governed.
This is the civilisation for which the United Nations labours and for
whose attainment a global culture of knowledge is necessary.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Socrates taught us that there is only one good, knowledge, and only
one evil, ignorance In that spirit, Eqbal Ahmad has pursued a life
of moral and intellectual engagement as teacher and writer. Not
satisfied however, to rest on his laurels, he has now dedicated
himself to narrowing as best he can the knowledge gap between North
He is working at establishing a center for higher learning in
Pakistan, to be named Khaldunia University, an institution that will
seek to build character no less than enlivening a tradition of
scholarship and critical thought. Many of you will know the symbolism
of naming a university for Ibn Khaldun.
This last great Arab historian of the Middle Ages was a globalist
long before the age of globalization. Born in Northern Africa, he
grew up in Spain and crossed many boundaries in search of knowledge
and service. He defined the aims of education in a timeless fashion,
insisting that knowledge knows no boundary, that its essence is man in
relation to his environment, that a people's well-being is defined by
its level of knowledge and its ability to utilize it in the real
He argued that civilisations decline when they lose their capacity to comprehend and absorb change, and that the "greatest of scholars err
when they ignore the environment in which history unfolds."
I can think of no higher ideal for scholarship, and no better model
on which to base the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, these are the
values that underlie all that we seek at the United Nations. It is this
unity of ideals, this common pursuit of peace through knowledge that
has brought me here today.