Iraq and Islam: Emperor’s new muslins

by Salimullah Khan

‘Therein lies a great danger to world peace and sovereignty of nations. Moral rhetoric cannot hide the fact that caprice and self-interest rather than concern for international law or justice informs American policy and interventions.’
— Eqbal Ahmad

cover02EVER since September 11, 2001, if not earlier, the couple ‘Islam and terrorism’ became a media celebrity worldwide resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and thus leading many to wonder what is the link between the two. Taking ‘Islam’ for a signal beaming a fixed meaning, it was forgotten that like all signifiers it too is endowed with layers of meaning. It was taken by some others as just another word for evil. Samuel Huntington, vintage 1990s, is a good example of this first tendency. A second school found evil not in all of Islam, but discovered it in a variant only, namely in Wahabi Islam. Stephen Schwartz, a representative of the latter trend, even claimed that all suicide couriers (hijackers or bombers) are Wahabi. It thus helped him link Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Soon afterwards it was discovered that there were ‘good Muslims’ and ‘bad Muslims’. Even the leaders of anti-terrorist alliance, notably George Bush and Anthony Blair, learnt it by rote.
If there are good Muslims and bad Muslims, as Mahmood Mamdani wonders in passing, wouldn’t there be also ‘good Westerners and bad Westerners’? This simple inversion helps lay bare the absurdity of all ‘culture talk’. Just as imperialism cannot be reduced to good or bad Western civilization, so one cannot take terrorism (or for that matter Islamist politics) as an effect of Islamic civilization tout court. The politics of Western power (‘imperialism’ for short) and Islamic politics (‘terrorism’ for short) ‘are born of an encounter, and neither can be understood in isolation, outside of the history of that encounter.’
This simple argument carries also the burden of Eqbal Ahmad’s thought presented in a number of fora throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, in the wake of the clutch of revolutions in Iran and Afghanistan. ‘The idea of an Islamic global war,’ as Mamdani writes, ‘was not a brainchild of bin Laden; the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) hoped to transform the Afghan Jihad into a global war waged by Muslim states against the Soviet Union.’ If the CIA did not create the Taliban, it then adopted both bin Laden and Taliban ‘as alternatives to secular nationalism,’ ‘just as, in another context, Israeli intelligence allowed Hamas to operate unhindered in the first intifadah—allowing it to open a university and bank accounts, and even possibly helping it with funding, hoping to play it off against the secular PLO—and reaped the whirlwind in the second intifadah.’
What’s the point of it all? It’s, according to Mamdani, quite simple: ‘Contemporary “fundamentalism” is a modern political project,’ it represents no Islamic tradition. He summarizes the argument: ‘When the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, this new terror was unleashed on Afghan people in the name of liberation. Eqbal Ahmad observed that the Soviet withdrawal turned out to be a moment of truth, rather than victory, for the Mujahideen.’ Precisely when they were ready to take power they lost the struggle for foundation of that power, ‘hearts and minds’ of the people.
It’s true the Mujahideen and the Al-Qaeda were products of the cold war—‘trained, equipped, and financed by the CIA and its regional allies’. The Taliban, however, ‘came out of the agony and the ashes of war against the Soviet Union. ‘Born of a brutalized society,’ as Mamdani has written, ‘the Taliban was, tragically, to brutalize it further.’ As Eqbal Ahmad writes, in a 1995 essay, he is haunted by what an old man in Kandahar told him about the Taliban: ‘They have grown in darkness amidst death. They are angry and ignorant, and hate all things that bring joy to life.’

EQBAL Ahmad died in an Islamabad hospital in Pakistan on May 11, 1999. As he lay dying, his old colleague Ambalavaner Sivanandan, editor of the journal Race & Class, was soon to write in London: ‘Eqbal was a multitude of men—scholar, political analyst, teacher, diplomat, visionary—but, above all, a foot-soldier in the army of peoples everywhere.’ This is no less than the whole truth about Eqbal Ahmad’s many lives. A true multitude of man he was! This is all the more remarkable, coming out as it is from a co-editor with whom he lately as much as fell out flatly over an article that the acerbic Aijaz Ahmad wrote in which he attacked the prominent critic (also Eqbal Ahmad’s best friend) Edward Said, among others. Eqbal Ahmad used to co-edit Race &Class from 1983 to 1996.
‘Others have written about Eqbal in Algeria, Eqbal in Pakistan, Eqbal in Palestine, Eqbal in Iran, Eqbal in the US Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s,’ Sivanandan continued. ‘But little is known,’ he added, ‘of how in 1973 Eqbal rode into Europe and, scouting through France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Britain, gathered to himself and to the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam (which he set up as an independent wing of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington) a clutch of organic intellectuals and activist groups, given to the fight against imperialism and the struggles of liberation movements, and gave them wherewithal and the fillip to pursue their commitments and broadcast their visions.’
‘And he brought them together,’ Sivanandan tells us, ‘in seasonal seminars and conferences to exchange views, ideas and programmes and in ad hoc pressure groups to arraign and harry governments. In the process, he created a floating university which fostered a left culture free of petty sectarianism and an academic ethos free of self-aggrandisement.’
Eqbal was a political analyst of a very rare kind, it must be added. ‘He amazed his readers,’ as his old friend Stuart Schaar has written in a recent aide-memoire, ‘with predictions of future events that later transpired, making him into a guru for some and an uncanny analyst for others.’ To illustrate his ‘perspicacity, astuteness, and originality,’ or prescience in a word—Schaar has drawn our attention to a handful of his interventions. I propose to take up only one here.

LESS than a half year before his death, on December 20, 1998, the illustrious Karachi newspaper Dawn carried one more of his prescient essays, namely ‘After the Winter Bombs’. This was a little over five years before the United States, ‘joined by a handful of other states, attacked and conquered Iraq.’ Eqbal predicted what was likely to follow if Saddam Hussein were eliminated. If Iraq were to face a civil war it will also involve its neighbours, either directly or through proxies, he did warn.
On March 17, 2003, mere two days before U.S. and British troops attacked Iraq one Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi exile then living in the U.S. and who authored an indictment of a book, the best selling Republic of Fear, about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, though under the signature ‘Samir Al-Khalil’, was telling US journalists that a trifle earlier he had had informed the invaders of Iraq that they will be welcome in Iraq. Kanan Makiya, whom Eqbal Ahmad once characterized as a ‘stranger to integrity’, addressed an assembly of journalists in the National Press Club in Washington DC, only to boast that he had seen President Bush on January 10, 2003 to assure him that ‘allied troops will be greeted with sweets and flowers’ by an exuberant Iraqi population. This proved, eventually, to be a blow-job by now reading sadly as no more than an American tale of ‘illusion, self-delusion and folly’. In contrast, just as Eqbal predicted, an insurgency ensued, intensified and continued in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006. It so far shows no sign of waning. The emperor wanted to kill too many Iraqis in just one shot.
Eqbal Ahmad was reflecting on the deadly missiles that Bill Clinton found necessary to rain down on Baghdad in the winter of 1998. ‘The intent behind the bombing is,’ as Eqbal put it straight, with zero circumlocution, ‘murder—of Saddam Hussein, his family, and staff—and the destruction of his security services.’ This only put anew ‘the American proclivity to excessive violence’ on display. ‘Two administrations—one Democratic and the other Republican—dropped more bombs in Indochina,’ Eqbal reminded his some four million readers, ‘than were used in World War II, killing an estimated four million peasants.’ ‘In 1991,’ he went on, ‘under Republican President George Bush, 2,600 American warplanes dropped 88,500 tons of bomb on Iraq.’ ‘In 1998,’ as Eqbal noted, in throwing the winter bombs on Baghdad, a Democrat was emulating the Republican, ‘without, hopefully, matching the earlier levels of mass destruction.’
As a justification for hitting Baghdad, just before the assaults, Bill Clinton ‘turned up in Gaza and spoke sympathetically of the Palestinians.’ It was part of a concerted move, a ‘PR initiative’ of sorts. ‘Later, his war statement mentioned the holy month of Ramadan and his concern with Muslim sensibilities as justification for hitting Baghdad now.’ ‘Such palliatives cannot work while Jerusalem continues to be “Judaized” (an Israeli term), Jewish settlements expand onto Arab lands, and Israeli weapons of mass destruction hang over the Arabs,’ thus commented Eqbal Ahmad.
How prescient could analysis be is best illustrated here: ‘ [A]t the end of 1998 it is clear that even without the legitimizing framework of the Cold War, American interventionism is alive and thriving. With the exception of Britain’s symbolic participation, the United States has committed this aggression alone, as it did when Clinton ordered the missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan.’ What could the world power hope to gain from this? None, according to Eqbal Ahmad, who wrote: ‘The primary US objective in the Middle east is to maintain its hegemony there. That requires a measure of legitimacy for American power in the region and an environment relatively free of instability and popular discontent. The missiles of December will surely add to anti-American sentiments and political instability in the Middle East.’
Years before Saddam Hussein was to be actually killed Eqbal mused on what were likely to follow the ‘unlikely’ event of Saddam’s murder: ‘An American obsession will have been satisfied. Captain Ahab will get the great white whale.’ But can fulfilling an obsession be a viable policy objective, especially for a prince-emperor, of a commander-in-chief of the whole world? Clearly, no, it can’t be, as says Eqbal Ahmad: ‘In fact, President Hussein is the likely winner, live or die. If he survives, he will be a hero to the Arab masses. Dead, he will be a martyr. Not that people are pathologically inclined. Rather American double standards anger them. Moreover, they sense the great danger of living in the shadow of Israeli nuclear weapons.’
However bemused the Americans may be with their palliatives, their ‘sympathy’ for the Palestinians, their concern with Muslim sensibilities, and all that, it was obviously not going to be a plain brush-stroke on a virgin canvas. ‘Disarray and confusion shall certainly ensue if Saddam Hussein is eliminated,’ Eqbal Ahmad goes on record and adds an alarming note: ‘Iraq is a greatly divided country, with the rebellious Kurds dominant in the north and Shias in the south. With the one linked to the Kurds in Turkey and the other to Shiite Iran, their ambitions in post-Saddam Iraq can cause upheavals in the entire region.’
What options then transpired then for the US, under the circumstances? ‘It is not clear that,’ Eqbal noted, ‘the United States has either the will or the resources to undertake the remaking of Iraq. If it does not, the scramble over Iraq may ignite protracted warfare involving Turkey, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kurd, Arab, Shia, Sunni, and in one form or another, the United States.’ The only major sponsor Eqbal perhaps forgot to add here is Russia.
He, however, did not forget another major player, namely Islamism: ‘The fundamentalist brand of Islamism may thrive in such an environment.’ ‘Islamism will find at least two major sponsors in the struggle for Iraq,’ Eqbal wrote. ‘Iran borders on southern Iraq, which is home to the most sacred shrines of Shia Islam and is populated mostly by Shia Muslims. Iran’s influence may easily fill the post-Saddam vacuum, a development Saudi Arabia, the sheikhdoms of the Gulf, and the US shall find intolerable.’
Enter rebels of Sunni Islam then and there. Eqbal Ahmad could see the future of Iraq with a great prescience: ‘Since none of America’s conservative Arab allies like Arab nationalism (it favours secular government and Arab unity),’ he correctly predicted, ‘they may counter Iran by promoting Sunni fundamentalism.’ His prognostications transpired, no doubt, but what makes him uncanny is his mastery of a few pages of history: ‘Sectarian groups thrive in this brand of Islamism. Like Afghanistan today, Iraq may turn into a battleground of war parties backed by several states.’

WHAT have we here is a result, or rather a phenomenon which is best described a ‘symptom’, to borrow a term from the psychoanalytic canon. What elements, then, are contributory to its formation? Does a symptom have one unique, exhaustive cause or does it find in itself a plethora of determinants? The malaise we are in now, apparently for quite a long haul, warrants a multitude of determinants. It is rather a case of ‘over-determination’, as Freud would have said.
Over-determination, that hard nut to crack, is itself subject to an over-determined mode of interpretation. Jacques Lacan has stressed that over-determination is a trait common to all unconscious formations, which are invariably compromises. Such a compromise, inasmuch as it is a result of underlying conflicts, will produce a symbolic resolution. Jacques Lacan has written: ‘If for a symptom, whether neurotic or not, to be admitted in psycho-analytic psychopathology, Freud insists on the minimum of over-determination constituted by a double meaning (symbol of a conflict long dead over and above its function in a no less symbolic present conflict), and if he has taught us to follow the ascending ramification of the symbolic lineage in the text of the patient’s free associations, in order to map it out at the points where its verbal forms intersect with the nodal points of its structure, than it is already quite clear that the symbol resolves itself entirely in an analysis of language, because it is from language that speech must be delivered.’
For the benefit of the uninitiated Lacan also writes a further note: ‘To those who have not studied the nature of language in any depth, the experience of number association will show immediately what must be grasped here, namely the combinatory power that orders its ambiguities, and they will recognize in this the very mainspring of the unconscious.’ The reason for this is that the unconscious–of which the symptom (in the broad sense) is an expression–is ‘structured like a language’, and thus naturally constituted by elision and layering of meaning; just as a word cannot be reduced to a signal, a symptom cannot be the unambiguous sign of a single unconscious content. In this reading the present malaise we are in is such a symptom, indeed.
Over-determination, however, does not imply that a symptom (the dream, for example) may be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. Let’s stress it. Freud compares a dream to certain ancient languages in which words and phrases appear to have multiple possible interpretations: in such a language ambiguity is chiselled by its context, by intonation or by an extra sign. In dreams, the lack of determination is more fundamental, yet alternative interpretations may still be verified scientifically. Nor does over-determination imply independence or parallelism of multiple meanings of a single phenomenon. Chains of meaning intersect at more than one ‘nodal point’, as is borne out by free associations of the analysand; the symptom bears the traces of the interaction of diverse meanings out of which it produces a compromise.
Taking the hysterical symptom as his model, Freud shows that this ‘develops only where the fulfilments of two opposing wishes, arising each from a different psychical system, are able to converge in a single expression.’ This is not the place to wax on the intricacies of Freudian analysis though. I was only wondering,, if not tracking it all the way, how Eqbal Ahmad managed to lead what Stuart Schaar has called his ‘special skill’ to such prescient prognoses. ‘Cause toujour’, as the motto of causalist thought goes. It may mean ‘always a cause’ or just plain ‘keep talking’. ‘Flesh composed of suns. How can such be?’ exclaim the simple ones. But keep talking they must.

E Ahmad, ‘In A Land Without Music,’ in Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, C Bengelsdorf, M Cerullo and Y Chandrani, eds. (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 490-493.
E Ahmad, ‘After the Winter Bombs’, ibid., pp. 287-290.
J Lacan, ‘The function and field of speech and language in psychoanalysis,’ in Écrits: A Selection,’ A Sheridan, trans. (New York: WW Norton, 1977), pp. 30-113.
M Mamdani, ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism,’ American Anthropologist, 104: 3 (September 2002), pp. 766-775.
A Sivanandan, ‘Eqbal Ahmad: 1932-1999,’ Race &Class, vol. 41, no. 3 (2000);
S Schaar, Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

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