Dr. Akbar Ahmed is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has taught at Princeton, Harvard, and Cambridge Universities and has been called “the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam” by the BBC. He has also been a distinguished member of Pakistan's civil service, written several books and served as an executive producer for the movie "Jinnah". Here, he discusses his new book and the issues it addresses with Dawn.com.
Your most recent book, “The Thistle and the Drone” looks at how tribes in northwestern Pakistan are affected by drone strikes. What is the US, and Pakistan, policy alternative to carrying out/ covertly supporting drone strikes?
The Thistle and the Drone is the third book of my trilogy examining relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world after 9/11, which also includes Journey into Islam (2007) and Journey into America (2010)—a popular documentary accompanied the last. In this study, I focus on the tribal communities on the interstices, the borders between nations, and how they have become a target of America’s chosen weapon in the war on terror—the drone. Drone strikes are employed to resolve complicated problems on the ground.
They destroy entire communities and throw large swathes of population into turmoil. The US believes this is the easy way to keep “boots off the ground” and keep “America safe”. Americans see Pakistani leaders as pursuing a duplicitous policy according to Wikileaks. They appear to be complicit in making feeble protests, yet watching the increasing frequency of strikes that have killed so many innocent Pakistan women, children, and elders. There are peaceful and more effective alternatives to drone strikes and I have examined them in detail in my new book.
Besides being a notable academic, you have been a senior member of Pakistan’s civil service. How do you think the centre, as well as provincial government, can change its attitude towards the tribal areas and the communities who live in them?
Over the decades in the Civil Service of Pakistan and while conducting studies like the present one, I have come to the conclusion that there is an inbuilt bias in the bureaucracies of central governments to traditionally look down on the people of the periphery – whether the English in London looking at the Scots or the Pakistanis in Islamabad looking at the Baloch. Central societies view communities on the periphery as “backward” and “primitive”. This is based in ignorance and often arrogance. Some of the greatest Muslim names come from people of the periphery – great scholars, saints, artists, and in modern times, presidents and leaders.
In relation to the above question, the Political Parties Act still remains to be implemented in Fata. In your book, you argue that the tribal code is still strong and inspires much of the violence across the Muslim World. In that case, is replacing tribal structures with more democratic structures (such as through the Political Parties Act) a good idea?
Democracy must come to FATA and with it all the features of a democratic modern state such as regular courts, etc. In some profound ways the tribal code provided a rough and ready form of administration which may not find a place in modern society, but giving FATA all the privileges and rights due to other citizens of the state is long overdue. My memory of the tribal societies of Balochistan and the old Frontier are very pleasant – the people were mostly poor but were honourable, dignified and hospitable.
There’s a running theme in “The Thistle and the Drone” of the importance of the ‘revenge code’ amongst tribal communities in Pakistan. How does that fit in with the idea that many Waziristan based terrorists, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have continuously attacked innocents? And what reasoning do they use to justify it?
If you examine the reasons why some of the violence is being committed – and I have given actual quotes in the book – you will note their justification for the violence is straight forward revenge. It is shocking and tragic but they will even kill children and while doing so say – now you know what we feel when our children are killed. Revenge is a primary emotion not restricted to tribal societies. That is why Islam emphasises the importance of compassion above everything. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) said that compassion must trump even the need to take revenge.