July 23, 2007
Farid Esack here (that Muslim guy from South Africa). I am still around in Islamabad — my last few days — and I am still enjoying it as my two-month sojourn here draws to a close. Islamabad is not quite Pakistan, certainly not Karachi, where I lived for eight years as a madrassah student. But then, it is the best that this country can offer “Distinguished Visiting Scholars,” a title conferred upon both of us by the International Islamic University and which we graciously accepted by coming here, business class, and getting paying paid a princely sum by the standards of the people who clean our toilets, folks who have to deal with the consequences of our shit.
I just got in from Karachi and Lahore, and on my way to class I stopped at the office of Faruq Terzic (the tall Bosnian guy), who moaned about your blog. I am not really into blogs and was somewhat irritated at how curious and upset he was at what you had to say. Normally, I pay very little, if any, attention to what people have to say about me and would rarely, for example, read news reports on something that I have said or done. So I was kind of annoyed that he was so defensive about the International Islamic University. “OK,” I argued with him, “if you are so pissed off with As’ad AbuKhalil, why don’t you write to him?” Then he read some of your stuff to me, and I was troubled enough to come to my room here — the same place that you fled from 10 minutes after your arrival — and read your blog for myself.
Please allow me to be a bit blunt here: Although I’m not in the business of spending my time critiquing fellow left academics or intellectuals, I still live in a — possibly bygone — world of comradeship. After going through and reading the posts for myself, I couldn’t help but think how sadly irresponsible and utterly unprincipled you are. Going on and on about the supposed pathetic state of Pakistan by focusing on your lack of comfort at some hotel, your aversion to lizards, etc. (As’ad AbuKhalil, “Top Ten Reasons Why You Should Never Stay in This Hotel in Islamabad,” Angry Arab News Service, 17 July 2007) may be just foolish and a sheer waste of time (I keep thinking to myself if I know any left/revolutionary intellectual that would do this?), but the clear condescension displayed toward your audiences and the Muslim nature of the events/peoples was utterly contemptible. Again, what befuddles me is how can someone so well-versed in the politics of social change and grassroots activism write so irresponsibly. Where is the accountability to any sense of “real activism” on the ground?
It was rather disturbing to see you post publicly what a fellow activist had reportedly told you in confidence about strategies for approaching audiences here (“The Islam Factor in Pakistan,” Angry Arab News Service, 9 July 2007).
Your posts could damage the legitimacy this whole program in the eyes of the IIU students and faculty. I know for a fact that Junaid Ahmad tried hard to manage the situation for you here in Islamabad as best he could. But nothing Third World is good enough for the great As’ad AbuKhalil! How any character with leftist or progressive pretensions can speak of what essentially amounts to the “backwardness” of Pakistani society in a manner comparable to the worst of the neo-cons is beyond me (“I Am in Dubai Airport on Way to . . . Istanbul,” Angry Arab News Service, 7 July 2007).
You ramble about the advice given to you before your visit by a comrade (Junaid) — who it now turns out was rather mistaken in viewing you as such — about what of your ideas you should preferably not highlight that was simply intended as such. Wherever I go, I identify some of the local activists and ask for advice on how to approach my audience. It is something that I learned in my days in the trenches of the struggle against the apartheid — accountability and comradeship. And no, it is not synonymous with Stalinism, but instead simply understanding that there is something more to our struggles than blowing off steam and ego trips. If I do not like the advice offered by my hosts, particularly if it is offered months ahead of my visit, then I would simply call off the trip. Why go along with the supposed comradely advice for months and wait until you have collected the reimbursement of your business-class ticket to another exotic Third World destination and your honorarium? And as soon as you get into your $145-for-five-hours hotel you rant about how your style was cramped (“My $145 Shower,” Angry Arab News Service, 8 July 2007)?
Ah, the great jetsetter visits the Third World and becomes even more illustrious as he pisses on his own people.
At the end of the day, you have to decide whether you want to be a Christopher Hitchens/Irshad Manji lone ranger who just wants to be a contrarian for contrarianism’s sake, or whether you want to have some purpose, some accountability to real people in real movements that you say you support. If you want to be contrarian, then that’s fine too, but you should choose your battles and not piss in the containers that feed you. Activists like Junaid are in the vanguard of actual struggle involving real people and real institutions — however inadequate these may be — who provide intellectuals like you and me some space to speak to our people, “our” people as being not citizens of the Empire but its victims.
As’ad, my brother, we who, for many reasons, have “made it to” and “made it in” the world of power need to reflect a bit more on the supposed backwardness of the “Third World.” People here die of undereating because some of us who have made it to the “First World” die of overeating. There is a connection here. Let us not piss on people who pay the price for our comforts and for our “development.” They are our people.
Farid Esack, a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression and On Being a Muslim: Finding a Religious Path in the World Today. A former national commissioner on gender equality appointed by President Nelson Mandela, Esack was active in the struggle against apartheid in the United Democratic Front and the Call of Islam. His current major field of research and activism is the response of Islam to AIDS; he founded Positive Muslims, an organization working with Muslims who are HIV positive in South Africa.