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Mainstream, VOL LV No 33 New Delhi August 5, 2017

Reinventing Eqbal Ahmad’s Thoughts on Middle East

Saturday 5 August 2017


by Ahmad Zaboor


Following the death of Eqbal Ahmad in 1999, Palestine lost a sincere friend. His insightful analysis, revolutionary writings, ideas “woke up the Americans’ conscience” as the New York Times put it. But his ideas still remain unexplored. He was neither a Palestinian nor an Arab, but his humanism propelled him to be the champion of the rights of the Palestinian people which at times earned him academic isolation. His biographer, Stewart Schaar, captures Ahmad as the ‘quint-essential oppositional intellectual, one who crosses boundaries, speaks truth to power, remained loyal to his cultural roots and Islamic traditions’. Eqbal along with Edward Said represented an alliance for the promotion of peace, social justice and liberation of Palestine. Below are some of his insightful thoughts on different aspects of the Palestine-Israel dispute that assumes significances in the present context.

Critique of Zionism and Arab Leadership

While for the world decolonisation was set in motion, a settler colonial state, called Israel, was formalised in 1948 with the Arabs flushed out, and none able to checkmate. It sought to eliminate the native population. The settlement expansion policy has been described by Edward Said as ‘discipline of detail’ which Arabs failed to comprehend. Zionism, wrote Eqbal Ahmad, was an extreme form of settler colonialism with violent dynamics. Loss of Palestine has been the outcome of the post-colonial condition. It was in the midst of most of the independent Middle-east countries that Palestine was occupied by the Zionists. The reaction of the Arab elite has been indifference, incomprehension, and incompetence. The dispossession of Palestinians has not just been an outcome of the power of imperialism, but also a function of the collaborator elite class devoid of any foresight. Zionist leaders worked within and without to create the structural framework of the new state and successfully linked its interests with those of Britain while they simultaneously crafted its institutions to exercise freedom from it.

On the contrary, Arabs utterly failed in both ways. The Arab leadership conceded the role of mid-wife to Britain without an iota of intros-pection. Refusal by America and Canada to let in the Jews during the Holocaust provided requisite legitimacy to make the Zionist state. The Arabs failed to comprehend the ‘intricacies of the expansion plan of settlements which became, step by step, Judaisation of the territories occupied. This outrageous phenomenon of physical expropriation of Palestinians was carried out ‘discreetly and circumspectly’.

Eqbal Ahmad with conviction asserts that the running theme of Zionism has been a rejection of the ‘Palestinian reality’. All this was achieved through systematic termination of leaders followed by decimation of cultural institutions which enfeebled the resistance, leaving the people demoralised. To make the occupied lands habitable, it induced immigration of Russian Jewry through covert and overt institutions. During the Cold War, the USSR caved in as Israel was regarded the only morally hospitable place for Russian Jews. Immigration proved beneficial for Israel as well as America which were bound by a hand-in-glove relation-ship. While Israel’s strategic arma-ment industry ballooned, conversely Israel became a conduit for ‘evading Congressional problems’ in America which was providing aid to counter-revolu-tionary movements.

Israel has finely interwoven its legitimacy with the American institutions of power, particularly the media, Department of Defence and the CIA. Israel and the US are now tied in multiple layers of relationship. The control over the media of Israel is not a question of Jewish control, but a much more complex system of the exercise of power and hegemony.

Rich Resource Base but Powerlessness

Although the Middle East has a rich resource endowment base and a strategic location, those have not translated into economic power and political clout for the Arab world. They own billions of dollars and the dollar owes much of its strength to this fact, but have no control over capital. Arab countries are littered with machines but are bereft of technology; the elite consume copiously without contributing to the production. The Arab elite is too dependent to initiate peace, too dependent to protect the state sovereignty, too corrupt to reclaim national pride and honour.

There have been more protests in the EU, USA, and Israel against the invasion of Lebanon than in any of Middle-East countries. Israel willingly takes the Jews in from the rest of the world, while denying a home to the nearby people and original inhabitants. It would be tempted to occupy more and more territories and subjugate more people.

The idea of Palestine remains, according to Eqbal Ahmad, a strong counterpoise to the idea of exclusionary and sectarian statehood of Israel of which the Palestinians are the victims. Despite the sufferings of Palestine over the decades, they have abjured the sectarian alternative of Muslims versus Jews. Therefore it is commending to find Muslims and Christians still fighting for a shared liberation.

Eqbal Ahmad found the monarchical rule and compromising elite the causes of recurrent defeats and recolonisation of the Middle East. Therefore, he believed radical democratisation as the only antidote. Israel has been in a denial mode from the outset about the conflict using various stratagems. The failure to acknowledge the interest of Palestinian existence lies at the heart of the conflict. Arabs are in a situation of powerlessness despite being strategically situated and in opulence. They can’t assert themselves as they are ‘prisoners of dependency’.

Eqbal Ahmad’s Critique of PLO

Israel had defeated its Arab neighbouring states, yet hope began to rekindle after the Palestine Liberation Organisation repelled an Israeli attack in the Kerameh refugee camp in Jordan. Eqbal Ahmad was ill at ease with what the PLO came to represent—the armed struggle which, he believed, was against the genius of the Palestinian conditions. For him, armed struggle was more about the organisation and less about arms, it was more concerned with out-administering the adversary but not out-fighting an enemy. The corner-stone of his strategy was to out-legitimise the enemy. The main task was to pinpoint the inherent contradictions of the enemy not only to yourself but also to the world and more importantly to Israel. Eqbal himself found the seismic foundational contradiction with Israel: it has been the manifestation and epitome of the suffering of mankind.

The mode of struggle, for Ahmad, has been, to a great extent, informed by the nature of the enemy. The colossal deaths in Algeria, fighting against French colonialism, was an eye-opener to him. He was aware of the asymmetrical power-positions between the Palestinians and the Israeli state. His support for the Algerian guerilla warfare in Algeria was total as France didn’t expel the Algerian people from there, while the situation was quite reverse in Palestine. There-fore it was easy to seek the moral isolation of Israel rather than the French Government in Algeria. By focussing on armed struggle the PLO was suppressing this condition by enabling the Jews to paint themselves as victims of Arab violence. The Zionist regime, aware of the fact that the moral underpinning of the Palestinian cause had to be undermined, portrayed themselves as the underdogs, striving for survival, and Arabs as the non-human two-legged beasts.

According to Edward Said, attainment of the hegemony of the Zionist discourse which demeans the Palestinian Arab reality has been an aspect of the Orientalist discourse. However, the function of moral isolation will work only when the regime is buttressed by moral values. This strategy would yield dividends. Isreal’s structural and institutional framework of democratic institutions is exclusive in nature. Israel, from the very outset, has sought to engage itself in the killing, massacre, exodus of the Palestinian people from their lands. Israel has continued to shroud itself in the image of victimhood not only of historical Christian but also of contemporary Arab violence.

But Eqbal had the brilliant knack of turning things upside down. He had conveyed this idea to the top brass of the PLO, but it failed to work out then. Fit the boats in Cyprus, Lebanon with people in ships holding placards with the message: “we are not going to destroy you, we want to go home”. Therefore the image of victims of exodus would backfire on Israel itself. Given the violent underbelly that Zionism represents, he was pragmatic enough to concede that Israel would kill some of the people on boats, but the ultimate fallout of this process, believed Eqbal, would be the splitting of the Israeli society and would continue to remain so until it makes peace. The PLO, by focussing excessively on armed struggle, has missed the long train of non-violent alternatives available to Palestinians. The foremost among them has been the utter failure to reach out to the American civil society. He favoured the organisation of ‘militant non-militaristic creative non-violent political strategy’ in occupied Palestine. He trenchantly posited that the Palestinians should have no problem in announcing the recognition of the state of Israel. But it should be eloquent and unambiguous. Israel of which period, whether it is Israel of the pre-partition plan, Israel of 1948, or else Biblical Israel. Because Israel is the only state in the whole community of nations which has no well-defined boundaries and continues to be in a fluid situation. The need of the hour should be to develop the viable alternative peace proposals that the die-hard Zionists may not accept, but the world may find them decent. Then the blame will shift to Israel.

This was the strategy he suggested to Yasser Arafat, but to his dismay, Arafat failed to execute it. For Eqbal Ahmad,Yasser Arafat and the people around him were in effect collaborating with Israel.

Israel Wins and Arabs Lose

Why is it that the Arabs always lose and Israel always emerges a winner? The reason is that the latter has the ‘discipline of detail’, as Edward Siad put it. The Zionist regime had an agenda of transforming Palestine into a Jewish state—with the clear objective of establishing its sovereignty over the land for which it followed a complex and an elaborate strategy. Acknow-ledging that monarchical rule and a compro-mising elite had been the cause of recurrent defeats and recolonisation of the Middle East, Eqbal Ahmad believed that ‘radical democratisation’ is the only antidote.


1. The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, eds., Carolee Bengelsdorf et al., Oxford University Press, 2006.

2. Eqbal Ahmad, Confronting Empire: Interviews with David Barsamian, South End Press, 2000.

3. The Question of Palestine, Edward Said, RHUS Publication, 1992.

The author is a Lecturer in Political Science, He can be contacted at e-mail ahmadzaboor[at]

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