Book launch: Religion not the root of clash of civilisations, says scholar

Published: January 9, 2014
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Ahmad’s book is an exploration of politico-religious dynamics of the little-known region. PHOTO EXPRESS

Ahmad’s book is an exploration of politico-religious dynamics of the little-known region. PHOTO EXPRESS

ISLAMABAD: Most of the post-9/11 Western discourse about the US-led war on terrorism has linked the factors of the conflict with Islam and religious extremism. Akbar S Ahmed, perhaps one of the most distinguished scholars of contemporary Islam, disagrees.

“Western scholars have emphasised Islam as the factor causing the clash of civilisations,” Ahmed said. “I am challenging this on the basis of my own discipline.”

His discipline is the study of tribal societies, and in his 2013 book, the scholar, who is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, has connected the conflict more closely with the gradual deterioration of the pillars that had previously supported tribal societies and the failure of the US and its allies to understand that the threat they are trying to obliterate might not be purely ideological.

The book, “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam,” was launched in Pakistan at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) on Wednesday, with an accompanying talk by Ahmed on the relationship between central governments and peripheral entities such as the tribal societies.

The thistle is a metaphor, originally used by Russian master Leo Tolstoy, that represents the traditional tribal society, while the drone is quite literally a drone — the most advanced killing technology of globalisation, Ahmed said.

He said his book focuses on “40 tribal societies, from Morocco right up to the Caucuses and down to the Philippines” and how suddenly these peripheral societies found themselves at the centre of a global war. The common denominator among these tribal societies is separate but similar codes based on honour, courage, revenge and hospitality.

The book is a combination of administrative experience as a political agent in Pakistan’s tribal belt, anthropological observations and recent research, all of which combined led to what Ahmed calls his “Waziristan model.”

In this model which is based around Waziristan in Pakistan, Ahmed said he identified three pillars that have helped tribal societies function and remain stable — the authoritative tribal elder, the mediating mullah (religious leader) and a political agent who represents the central government.

“What I noticed was the general decline in these pillars over the last few decades, not just overnight,” he said.

A weakened political administration, military invasion, drone strikes and the emergence of militant groups in the junior cadres that targeted the tribal elders since 2004 eventually allowed criminal elements and militants to first capture space in the tribal areas and later explode outwards to the rest of the country, Ahmed explained.

He said he was not against the state using force against those who challenge its writ, but noted that both, the olive branch and the gun approach have both been tried and failed in Pakistan’s tribal societies.

“You have to begin to think in more sophisticated ways, because this is the future of this land, this nation at stake,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed said the policy to address the issues of tribal areas from Pakistan’s government would have to be “holistic, long-term and painful” but for that national consensus has to exist.

As a suggestion, he said, a combination of strengthening and, if necessary, a reconstruction of the basic structure is needed, to check the violence internally.

Towards the end of his talk, Ahmed quoted Jinnah’s speeches to the Baloch and later to the Waziristan jirga after independence. The founding father had called them brothers and promised them the status of self-respecting citizens as well as education facilities; almost all of those promises have remained unfulfilled.

“So what happened? How did we let down the founding father’s wishes? How do we even face these people and then have the temerity to bomb them and blast them and consider them as traitors,” he said, raising the “uncomfortable questions” he is perhaps duty-bound to do as a scholar.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2014.

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