March 18, 2013 by Tariq Khan
This past Thursday, March 14, I went with my father to an event at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC for the book launching of Dr. Akbar Ahmed’s newly released work The Thistle and the Drone. As I have not had a chance to read Dr. Ahmed’s book, I cannot yet offer any words in the way of praise or criticism of it. What I will address here is the discussion that took place at the event itself, and what that discussion says about the current state of respectable mainstream intellectual discourse concerning U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East, South Asia, and the “Muslim world” in general.
Dr. Ahmed is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University, and former Pakistani high commissioner to the United Kingdom. The format for the event was a panel discussion moderated by Ambassador Martin Indyk. Indyk is a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and he served as assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs under President Clinton. Also on the panel were Washington Post “On Faith” Editor-in-Chief Sally Quinn, and author Mowahid Shah, who is a former Pakistani Minister and Special Assistant to the Punjab Chief Minister as well as the first Pakistani American member admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar.
For those who may not be familiar, the Brookings Institution is one of the oldest and possibly the largest of the Washington DC think tanks. It has gained a substantial amount of influence with the American mainstream corporate media, U.S. policy makers, and the State Department. While it describes itself as non-partisan, it has a reputation for being DC’s liberal or centrist think tank, as opposed to far-right conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the (hilariously named) Center for American Progress, or the capitalist-fundamentalist Cato Institute. Brookings scholars are often treated as the “go to” experts by political journalists at the Washington Post, New York Times, and NPR. The reason I mention this is to suggest that the kind of discourse that comes from Brookings is representative of what passes as mainstream liberal and centrist thought in the U.S.
Dr. Ahmed made a compelling case that America’s so-called war on terror has actually become a war on the most marginalized, politically disenfranchised, economically underprivileged – and therefore least well-positioned to effectively advocate for themselves – societies in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Rather than waging a war on terror, argued Ahmed, the U.S. under Obama is conducting a war on tribal Islam. These tribal groups that have become the primary targets for drone strikes and other violence are marginal not only politically, culturally, and economically, but also geographically; occupying metaphorical and physical border regions and treated – both presently and historically – as outsiders by the dominant societies of their own countries. Dr. Ahmed did not say as much, but to put it in Christian terms, the U.S. is waging war on “the least of these my brethren.”
On this I fully agree with Dr. Ahmed and I am glad that establishment intellectuals have finally come around to see this point. What I take issue with is how he interpreted this fact. Rather than asserting the harsh truth, that America’s foreign policy toward the Middle East and South Asia is hypocritical, cowardly, immoral, and anti-democratic, Ahmed simply argued that it is ineffective for achieving America’s foreign policy objectives. Violence is not working, argued Ahmed, and is only “feeding the furnace of anti-Americanism in Pakistan.” Therefore we need what he called a “paradigm shift.” We must turn to anthropologists and other cultural experts who can learn the languages, cultures, and customs of America’s targets, and use the power of culture, education, and understanding to gain trust in places like Pakistan, and thereby reach America’s objectives in the Middle East and South Asia. Therein lies the weakness of mainstream liberal intellectual thought. What are America’s foreign policy objectives? The government and big business interests that dominate the formation of U.S. foreign policy goals are not interested in contributing to a more peaceful, just, egalitarian, democratic world. What they want is political, economic, and cultural hegemony in the Middle East and South Asia. When the U.S. talks about “helping” the Muslim world, what it really means is “control and subject” the Muslim world.
This is not unique to the present day; it is the tried and true language of empire. When France wanted to “help” Vietnam, what it really did was turn Vietnam into a repressive, impoverished colony that produced wealth for the French elite at the expense of the Vietnamese people. When Britain talked about “helping” India, what it really did was repress the population reducing people to exploited, impoverished laborers who would extract India’s natural resources and wealth for England. When it became clear that South Africa was rich in diamonds and other mineable resources, England became very interested in “helping” South Africa. This “helping” is often understood among the privileged beneficiaries of empire as a liberal or progressive project. “We are civilizing these backward people and saving them from themselves!” While conservative Americans pushed for the extermination of Native Americans (“The only good Indian is a dead Indian!”), progressives patted themselves on the back for offering alternative supposedly “humane” approaches such as kidnapping American Indians, separating them from their families, societies, and cultures, in order to assimilate Indians in progressive schools designed to “teach Indians to be like white people.” When conservatives said, “let’s kill these savages,” progressives said, “no, let’s civilize them.” Proponents of black chattel slavery in the United States defended the institution by claiming that it introduced these heathen black savages to Christianity thereby raising them out of darkness. In the language of Empire, more often than not, “help” translates to “control”.
Nowadays, American liberals remain fully committed to America’s imperial project, and they still see it as a “civilizing mission.” We have invaded the Middle East and South Asia to “democratize” these poor backward Muslim savages and save them from themselves. Sally Quinn of the Washington Post, who sat on the panel at the Brookings event, talked about the devaluation of women in tribal Islamic societies, arguing in true imperialist progressive form that, instead of sending drones, we need to send “a hundred more anthropologists like Dr. Ahmed” to help educate Muslim women. This was an extraordinarily condescending and oblivious comment, but it received wide applause from the well-meaning liberal audience. I guarantee that the majority of Muslim women trust the men in their communities far more than they trust any outside white liberal feminist who has condescended from her privileged American throne to teach them how to have “freedom.” It reminded me of my Iranian Muslim friend, who is a radical feminist, who was deeply annoyed by a well-meaning liberal woman professor who told her, “You’re in America now. You don’t have to wear that head scarf anymore.” Never did it occur to the liberal professor that my friend was well aware that she does not have to wear a head scarf, but she chose to wear it of her own free will, and my Iranian friend, who was far more of a feminist activist than the condescending professor, did not need any self-satisfied savior to come and free her from the oppression of head scarves.
Pakistani American Mowahid Shah, also on the panel, attempted to counter some of what the rest of the panel was saying. He tried to cut through the Imperialist language and get at the real issues that are at the root of the problems; one, America’s hypocritical and uncritical support for Israeli injustice against Palestinians, and two, the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. The moderator, Martin Indyk however, a longtime supporter of Israeli injustice against Palestinians, was not interested in letting the discussion move in that direction and used his position as moderator to keep the focus on scary Muslim suicide bombers and sexist Muslim men, as if the U.S. sends drones into South Asia for feminist reasons and as if suicide bombers just come out of nowhere for no reason other than that they were brainwashed by Islamic extremists. Indyk had no historical context, and Shah tried to provide that context but was not given much room to speak and seemed to have to fight to get a word in edgewise.
Sure, education is better than drones, but education for what? Sure, I would rather face a team of anthropologists than a team of torturers, prison guards, and killers, but what interests are the anthropologists serving? And after I reject them, how far behind are the forces of coercion? In part one of this piece I discussed the work of Edward Said. I talked about Said’s distinction between understanding “for the purposes of coexistence and the humanistic enlargement of horizons,” and understanding “for the purposes of control and external dominion.” Said argued that the role of the intellectual is not to be a partner of the state department, another tool in the empire’s domination kit, but rather the role of the intellectual is to be a brave critic of power, to tell the truth and expose lies. Anthropology was largely developed as a weapon of modern imperialism. (For those who doubt this claim, I suggest the book Skull Wars, by David Hurst Thomas, in addition to Said’s Orientalism). Some anthropologists have managed to break away from the old imperialist anthropological tradition and instead use their skills and knowledge for more ethical ends; David Hurst Thomas, David Graeber, and Helen Rountree to name a few. Yet many continue to advance their careers by attaching themselves to the State Department, the military, and the overall American imperial project.
I am not familiar enough with Akbar Ahmed’s work to say where he stands either way. I am only commenting on the discussion at the event. During the Q&A portion of the event, I raised my hand to try and ask a question, but did not get called on. I wanted to ask Dr. Ahmed, are you really talking about a paradigm shift, or are you simply talking about employing a more sophisticated, educated, effective, and pernicious system of domination in service to American empire? Are you working for a more just, peaceful, egalitarian, democratic world, or are you working to help the State Department more effectively control the Middle East and South Asia? When you talk about bringing in anthropologists and other intellectuals and experts to create greater understanding between the U.S. and South Asia – in the context of Said’s distinctions of understanding – what type of understanding are you working toward?