Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Thistle and the Drone by Akbar Ahmed

Ahmed starts out reframing the way the West views the Muslim world. Instead of looking at interactions in the world as a “clash of civilizations,” he posits that we should be looking at the Muslim diaspora as a set of tribal communities in conflict with their central governments. While some may think this is accepted thought already, it certainly was not when we went into Iraq in 1990, nor in 2003. Ahmed makes a compelling case with examples extending from Albania and Turkey to China and Indonesia, highlighting different models of organization and center-periphery relationships that apply throughout this huge area.

Once the framing is stated, it almost seems obvious, which is perhaps the strongest argument for reading this book. Ahmed goes further to explain how the West has exacerbated regional tensions by inserting themselves into this conflict under the aegis of “the war on terror,” and turned the fight into a global affair against westernization and globalization as defined by Tom Friedman. The unintentional “bug splat” of drone strikes, or the civilian deaths coincident with targeted killings of terrorists, means tribal leaders have a moral responsibility to fight back, aligning with whomever has the strength and willingness to see that fight through. As long as the drone strikes and collateral damage continues, the fight will continue.

The author uses the metaphor of the drone to represent Western technology and power and points out that the thistle captures the essence of tribal societies. The thistle is prickly, hardy, and very hard to uproot. It has an unusual beauty, and it roots in poor soil. Long after all is destroyed, the thistle will abound. Ahmed tells us that the West was used in some cases by “central governments who cynically and ruthlessly exploited the war on terror to pursue their own agenda against the periphery.” We know it is true.
”It is in the interest of the United States to understand, in all the tribal societies with which it is engaged, the people, the leadership, history, culture, their relationship with the center, their social structures, and the role Islam plays in their lives, These issues are, in face, the subject matter of anthropology…Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as current military actions and policies are only exacerbating the conflict."

Ahmed has met Presidents Bush and Obama in his role as academic and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Bush’s administration, I felt, was spectacularly wrong because it was imposing a prefabricated frame of different cultures and societies…Obama’s administration was spectacularly unsure…Both administrations were driven by issues almost wholly on a political level, neglecting the moral and social dimensions and their implications.” Ahmed’s insights may be one of the reasons President Obama did not bomb Syria when the conflict began there. But much damage had been and continues to be done to the relationship tribal groups have with the United States. When the U.S. government put human and civil rights to the service of security, any admiration the U.S. had garnered began to erode.

Ahmed is a huge fan of America’s founding fathers, and the U.S. Constitution. He points out that America itself has wrestled with the center-periphery issue itself in dealing with Native American Indians. Benjamin Franklin wrote that Europeans could learn a great deal from tribal societies: when a Native American elder was offered the opportunity to have several of his tribe educated at a local Virginia college, the elder thanked the government and replied:
"Our Ideas of this Kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours…Several of our Young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly; were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counsellors; they were totally good for nothing… however…if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them."
The rise of “instant terror experts” that arose in and around the think tanks sprinkling Washington after 9/11 fueled a distorted view of Islam and seeded Islamophobia throughout the U.S., mistakenly defining Islam as the enemy in the global war on terror. Ahmed gives the U.S. Army credit for gaining a greater understanding of the importance of tribal culture as the war in Afghanistan dragged on, but the strategy of working with tribes as a partner came too late: “The United States did not have the time, the resources, or the temperament to create an effective and neutral tribal administration…”

The solution, according to Ahmed, is using the tribal structure and code to repair “mutations into violence:”
"If the tribal code promotes the notion of revenge, then it just as surely advocates the resolution of conflict through a council of elders based on justice and tradition…While the state must express its ideas of nationhood by providing education and other benefits to its peoples, the leaders of the periphery need to encourage their followers to participate in the processes of change and take advantage of them. The state must understand that its components have different customs and traditions, and it needs to acknowledge them, granting communities on the periphery the full rights and privileges enjoyed by its other citizens…however good the intentions on both sides, there is still the matter of how the each sees the other…each side must appreciate the perception the other side has of it.
"...People on periphery have been traumatized beyond imagination in recent years…They face widespread famine and disease and are voiceless and friendless in a hostile world…They have been robbed of their dignity and honor…Yet the world seems indifferent to their suffering and is barely aware of its scale…The test is to see a common humanity in the suffering of others.”
Ahmed is an academic and he writes fulsomely, with many examples and vignettes. The argument is strong and logical enough to be stated simply in a few pages, though, and we quickly recognize the value of this recast of the conflict in which we are embroiled. I really appreciate his taking the time to write his thesis and I come away with a fresh perspective and appreciation of conflict and amity in our world.

This book is Part III of a trilogy examining relations between America and the Muslim world. It is self-contained, however, individuals may find it worthwhile to look at Ahmed's previous work, Journey into Islam and Journey into America. Colonel David Kilcullen, author of The Accidental Guerrilla blurbs praise on the back: "...required reading..."

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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