A Breed apart: The Waziristan Model
By F. S. Aijazuddin
Dr Akbar Ahmed is the West’s handiest portal to Islam. He is an educated Muslim, an anthropologist by profession. He is a broad-spectrum intellectual, equally at home with dispossessed tribals from Waziristan and with academics at candle-lit dinners at Cambridge. He is an inexhaustible speaker. There is probably no university worth its name in the western hemisphere where he has not delivered lectures in his one-man crusade to induce non-Muslim audiences to take a more accommodating view of Islam. He was even the first Muslim to speak at the Jewish US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. And he is a prolific writer.
The Thistle and the Drone is the latest of twenty or so publications by him, written over the past forty years. His credentials are formidable—too formidable for him not to be heard or read by anyone who seeks seriously to understand why modern Muslim societies remain stubbornly mired in tradition, rooted on the periphery of progress.
The Thistle and the Drone is the third of a trilogy. The first in this series assessed the attitude of Muslim societies to the West. Its successor looked at Muslim communities in the United States and the American perception of Islam. This latest volume has a broader sweep. It examines the relationship between the United States of America and the Muslim world—the confrontation in effect between one state and a pervasive theology that is now global.
Being an anthropologist, Akbar Ahmed uses four tribal societies—the Pukhtun, Yemenis, Somalis and Kurds—to make his case. The commonality he seeks to establish between these vulnerable minorities is their adherence to ‘an ancient code of honour embodied in the behaviour of their elders and, over the centuries, transmitted from generation to generation’. All four fit the description of the Scottish thistle—prickly, tenacious, defiant (hence the book’s intriguing title). He chose them in particular because all four have been victims of attacks by unmanned drones—three by US forces and the fourth on Iraqi Kurds by their own countrymen. It is an unusual angle of approach, as innovative perhaps as any similar anthropological study would be of the impact of equally silent German V-1 flying bombs on London’s East Enders during the Second World War.
In Dr Ahmed’s opinion, the ‘overwhelming dilemma for the modern states… is how to successfully balance the writ of the center with the needs of its periphery [minority groups]’. He condemns central governments for having ‘all too frequently resorted to brutal and unnecessary military action’, aided and abetted post-9/11 by the US.
The empirical evidence Dr Ahmed and his team of researchers offer is of forty country case studies ‘of peripheral societies and their relationship to the central state’. He presents his arguments skilfully, but he cannot disguise where his sympathies lie when it comes to deciding whether a Muslim should be viewed as a religionist or as a terrorist, or whether a tribalist is a traitor or a peripheral nationalist fighting for the freedom to survive.
It must have disturbed Dr Ahmed to include in this book the chilling statement made by former US senator and US presidential candidate Rick Santorum, in which Santorum defined Islam as the enemy in the war on terror: ‘We must educate, engage, evangelise, and eradicate … We are in a war, and theology is its basis.’ History has demonstrated that there is no victor in a war, only battlefields which are soon overgrown and graveyards which all too soon become saturated and overflow. Drones, like some military strategists, cannot think for themselves. They are programmed to destroy. They cannot distinguish between a terrorist and a civilian, which explains why during a three-year period from 2006 to 2009, for instance, out of 701 casualties, only fourteen were found to be militants.
Is war the final solution? Dr Ahmed, relying upon his experience as an administrator in Waziristan over forty years ago, offers his own Waziristan model, by which he believes local sources of authority could function productively when interacting with each other. It may work at a local level; to the US, though, Waziristan is and will always be just another foreign name, like ‘Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bananistan…’
On another, more frightening plane, Western ‘instant experts’ have suggested solutions that border on the bizarre. US Admiral Eric Olson, who gained fame when his SEALs unit captured and killed Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad in 2011, recommended that the US release into the Arab states cultural hybrids cloned from T.E. Lawrence. Lord Gilbert, a British former Labour defence minister, advocated the use of a neutron bomb whose lethal fallout would create an impassable border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, thus ending ‘terrorism in the region’. No wonder, under such leadership, American soldiers were committing suicide ‘at an unprecedented rate, nearly one a day by 2012’. Ironically, Dr Ahmed points out, ‘more American soldiers killed themselves in despair than had been killed in combat in Afghanistan’.
One suspects after reading The Thistle and the Drone that Dr Ahmed’s furtive aim is to rescue anthropology from oblivion, to demonstrate that it can be applied not simply to case studies but also to current affairs. His documentation of crimes against humanity in every continent contains enough material to keep researchers in the International Criminal Court in The Hague occupied until its next show trial. Meanwhile, the future of peripheral communities, of nations suffocating as they rasp to express their identity, will remain as long as human individuality survives. They must continue to subsist, as Ernest Renan once wrote, ‘on a daily plebiscite’.
Thistles can never shield themselves from drones. Tradition can never compete with technology. Waziristan leader General Alam Jan Mahsud told Dr Ahmed, with twin-edged prescience: ‘Pakhtunwali, the mashar, the jirga, and the Political Agent must return in order for the situation [in Waziristan] to normalize. Yet he also recognised that these institutions are “finished.”’
Dr Ahmed’s panacea, fermented in a US university laboratory, is for peripheral societies like the one in his Waziristan model to seek ‘wise and authentic tribal leadership, genuinely educated and scholarly religious leaders, and efficient and honest political officers’. That is a tall order. Meanwhile, while innocents there wait for a warning they will never hear, President Barack Obama continues to order drone attacks and to bask in the non-lethal radiation emanating in the White House from his unearned Nobel Peace Prize.
(The author lives in Lahore and is a columnist for Dawn , Pakistan’s main English-language newspaper)