A critical thinker on world politics and the contemporary Arab-Islamic world, Eqbal Ahmad ( 1933 – 1999 ) wrote prolifically on a wide range of subjects. He addressed the rise of anti-colonial movements, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War from the standpoint of third world victims—in particular the legacy of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, nuclear proliferation, Middle Eastern and South Asian politics. He died in Islamabad on May 11, 1999 ; he continued to agitate against nuclear arms testing on the Indian subcontinent until the time of his death.
Ahmad was born in Irki, Bihar to an Indian Muslim landowning family. His father was murdered while parceling out the estate to landless peasants. Upon the partition of India, the remaining family members immigrated to Pakistan in a tortuous trek on foot.
Ahmad studied political science at Princeton University where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on the Tunisian labor movement. He received a Proctor Fellowhip, for excellence in graduate studies at Princeton. This work formed the basis of a lifelong interest in working-class politics. Along with Stuart Schaar, he wrote about North African trade union activists and progressive voices such as Tahar Haddad.
Toward the end of his life, Ahmad taught at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. In the 1990s, he attempted to establish Khaldunia University (named for the Arab historian, Ibn Khaldūn ), a liberal arts college in Islamabad, Pakistan, patterned on Hampshire College. The project failed. It was rumored that Asif Zardari , Benazir Bhutto's husband wished to build a golf course on the land, which was first granted by her administration.
Eqbal Ahmad insisted on the importance of democracy to developing societies, especially in the Muslim world. He wrote caustically of the dictators who rule the Muslim world, claiming that they serve not the interests of their people but their foreign benefactors. His writing on Pakistan explored the failure of democracy. He argued that a badly-run democracy was still better than an efficient military dictatorship and that the rise of fundamentalism in Muslim settings was a result of the failure of the state and the absence of meaningful secular alternatives. He also wrote about the rise of sectarian jihādī forces in Pakistan. One of his concerns was the increasing “Talibanization” of Pakistan from jihādī organizations and their patrons, which act as a state within a state.
Unlike many secular Muslim intellectuals, Ahmad took the Islamic tradition seriously and was well schooled in Islamic history and theology. He argued that any meaningful reform of Muslim societies required an understanding of the Islamic tradition.
Ahmad's prognosis for the immediate future was bleak. In 1984 , he wrote:
"Never before in the history of Islamic peoples had there been so total a separation of political power and civil society. In the breach there is a time bomb … For the majority of Muslim peoples, the experienced alternative to the past is a limbo of foreign occupation and dispossession, of alienation from the land, of life in shantytowns and refugee camps, of migration into foreign lands, and, at best, of permanent expectancy. Leaning on and yearning for the restoration of an emasculated, often idealized past is one escape from the limbo; striking out in protest and anger, for a new revolutionary order is another."
- Ahmad, Dohra , Iftikhar Ahmad , and Zia Mian . Eqbal Ahmad: Between Past & Future, Selected Essays on South Asia. Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2004 .
- Ahmad, Eqbal and Stuart Schaar . M'hamed Ali: Tunisian Labor Organizer. In Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, edited by Edmund Burke III . Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993 .
- Ahmad, Eqbal and Stuart Schaar . Tahar Haddad: A Tunisian Activist Intellectual, Maghreb Review 21, nos. 3–4 ( 1996 ), pp. 240–255.
- Barsamian, David . Interview & Tribute, Massachusetts Review 41, no. 4 (Winter 2000 – 2001 ), pp. 449–464.
- Bengelsdorf, Carollee , Margaret Cerullo , and Yogesh Chandrani , eds. The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006 .