Eqbal Ahmad and the plight of the Palestinians

For Eqbal, the personal and the political, politics and practice, were not separate but fundamentally conjoined

As Israel unleashed yet another vicious onslaught of colonial violence, there has been an outpouring of support among Pakistanis for Palestinians. Protests were planned and demonstrations took place both on the streets and on social media.

This wave of solidarity is not new, but stretches far back to people including Jinnah. But while many in the country look to influential local personalities for the expression and amplification of the call for Palestinian freedom from Israeli apartheid and occupation; while many express their disappointment with the silence on the part of academics and scholars concerning the brutalisation being exercised by Israel; and while many debate the formulation of opinions and advocacy for Palestine when they do not belong to it themselves; it is worthwhile to revisit a Pakistani intellectual whose work and life were not oblivious to the cause of Palestine and the struggles of the subjugated and the oppressed people across the world.

May 11 marked 22 years of Eqbal Ahmad’s absence from this world but his legacy looms large, especially when it comes to Palestine.

It is possibly more understandable for people like Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish to write about the “disappearance of Palestine,” the suffering of its people, and the faint memory of belonging that seemed too far away to be true. After all, they were the subjects of this tragedy. Theirs were lives marred and put into question by the events of 1948.

Eqbal Ahmad’s case was different. Here was someone who, despite his ample exposure to resistance, oppression and issues of dis-belonging, was never really directly affected by Palestine. Born three thousand miles away from the land, here was a man writing about it. What answers, analyses and observations Eqbal Ahmad made about the conflict come later. That he dared is of primary importance.

Who has the right to speak about this land? How do they speak about it? And why should they speak about it? These were questions with which Eqbal Ahmad, as an outsider, had to contend. His was in a position no different than ours today. Needless to say, he didn’t hold back. He thought out of the box and voiced those concerns. At the risk of being called a lunatic, he carried on.

From advocating a mass protest from Israel’s neighbours on its borders to suggesting that the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) create a lobbying organisation in the US, he suggested everything he thought was plausible. As a result, he was criticised by those who supported the state of Israel. But that was not all. In fact, it was the PLO, Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leaders from whom he faced the brunt of his criticism. The criticism was based on the premise that Eqbal did not understand the situation as he did not belong to the land.

The attack on Al Aqsa, Gaza and subsequent attacks on other Palestinian territories have led to a very interesting reaction. People have once again taken to book recommendations and what have you. Somewhere in all this, real lives seem to have disappeared.

However, Eqbal Ahmad knew what was at stake. On one end, it was his reputation as a sophisticated Princeton graduate, renowned academic and astute political science professor. On the other, was a chance to find a solution and an end to the oppression. The choice was obvious. He’d rather be called whacky than give up the opportunity to present ideas, no matter how outlandish that might lead somewhere.

The attack on Al Aqsa, Gaza and subsequent attacks on other Palestinian territories have led to a very interesting reaction. People have once again taken to book recommendations, factual summaries and what have you. Somewhere in all this, real lives seem to have disappeared. All of this has been academised way too quickly. Pain, infuriation and mourning have all too soon found citations to be buried in, theories to be leant upon.

While books and documentaries are of utmost importance to understand the issue at hand, at this point, it looks like a cop-out. Most of us have tucked our tears for later and have found in our bookshelves an apt distraction. Eqbal Ahmad knew that if one really intended to understand what the Palestinians have undergone, one needed to rediscover a part of themselves that had gone through pain — either of violence, or of dis-belonging, or of exile.

To find the capacity to feel a common emotion despite a different experience of oppression is what he believed to be the beginning of resistance. After having done that, to imagine this feeling metastasised to unbelievable proportions in order to understand the Palestinian plight; to make experience and not knowledge the centre of connection is what true solidarity entailed for him.

Over intellectualisation and obfuscation of the atrocities being committed by Israel against Palestine clearly run the risk of dehumanising the lives being taken and devastated. On the flip side, the silence of the academics is as brutal.

It is evident that for many academics, decolonisation is only a theoretical and conceptual tool, neatly separated from their own politics and practice which leads to a swift abdication of any ethical position on, for instance, what is happening in Palestine. How difficult or complicated is it for an academic to take an ethical position on a matter of supreme urgency and gravity concerning human lives, oppression and freedom?

The personal cost of opposing Zionism from within the North American academia may not be slight, and the courage it takes to do that cannot be slight either. Eqbal Ahmad proved that. Is it even possible to simply observe, dissect and intellectualise struggles of emancipation and crises of existential nature for intellectual consumption, without a position on it?

For Eqbal Ahmad, the personal and the political, politics and practice, were not separate but fundamentally conjoined. His life and work combined both. He was an intellectual, an academic, a scholar, a thinker, but he was also an activist, an organiser and a practitioner. This was his ethic and commitment. He bravely and actively took stand on the struggles of his day and stood by his positions even as risks to his career refused to fade; even as he was, as Stuart Schaar wrote, “snubbed and ostracised” by fellow faculty members at Cornell for his pro-Palestine stances and subsequently had days when he would have to eat all alone since “no one joined him even as the other tables filled up” and even as he was unsuccessfully threatened by the US with deportation.

As the world seethes with the rage, we must reckon and respond to the beckoning of intellectual honesty and a scholarship that does not observe the world from afar; that seeks to place itself within its lives and for those lives, a scholarship not just of theory but of lived intellectual integrity and an embodied politics; real, practiced, emancipatory, radical, and courageous.

The responsibility is immense, but a task that may be inconvenient and arduous is not necessarily a task that is impossible. Eqbal Ahmad’s life is a towering monument to this labour.

Kumail Haider Jafri is a third-year student majoring in literature at LUMS.

Hafsa Khawaja is a graduate student of Columbia University in South Asian history

Eqbal Ahmad and the plight of the Palestinians