Notes on Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone
1. Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone is his reading of the American War against Terrorism and its ambiguities. He is a former Pakistani Civil Servant, for a number of years Professor at American University, who identifies with the British administrative tradition and a distinguished academic anthropologist—which combined with a liberal humanist Islam and his own identity as an Pashtun aristocrat who knows everyone influences this very human book. His wife was a member of the Royal Family of Swat way into the mountains of Northern Pakistan and his father a senior civil servant. My favorite story is when I had him come as a lecturer to the Foreign Service Institute and was worried about him being late. Only to discover him sitting on a bench in reception because the secretary had not imagined that someone so fair-skinned might be named Akbar Ahmed.
2. The book is pervaded by nostalgia for the British system of indirect rule and particularly how it was implemented in the Pashtun areas by a succession of administrators. That system obviously worked for a time—but obviously wasn’t sustainable and as he admits didn’t always deliver happiness and prosperity for everyone.
3.The tribal peoples who were ruled through their traditional elites may have been manageable, but the same sense of deprivation of non-elites as in urban settings eventually undercut the system.
4. He correctly sees most of the social roots of the kinds of irreconcilable differences that fuel recruitment to alienated tribal peoples—more than to the precise content of Islam—and is able to document this from a remarkable number of such “peripheral” peoples—Pashtuns, Asiri Yemeni, Circassians, Chechen, Uighur etc. “An overwhelming dilemma for the modern states discussed in this study lies in how to successfully balance the writ of the center with the needs of its periphery. Experience demonstrates…that these states have consistently tilted against the latter…with the advent of 9/11 the center found a natural ally in the United States…This creates a dilemma for the United States itself.” As he phrases it the War on Terrorism had become a “war on tribal Islam” at least in Pakistan.
5. Akbar minimizes the complementary source for terrorism in displaced youth involved in migration to the west—which another body of comment such as that of Gilles Keppel focuses on. The truth is that both social backgrounds, the tribal and the migrant, lead people to the radical terrorist groups. In fact, as Ahmed points out some of the Muslim peripheral minorities are very much opposed to Islamic radicals. The Circassians in Israel for example. Further, Ahmed also downplays the extent to which the tribal identity is only one element influencing behavior. I am reminded by a comment by a Jain friend after an explanation of the cultural significance of “juta” food that has been touched by someone else and therefore could not be eaten — ‘but I still find myself finishing off my infant daughter’s plate.”
6. Nonetheless, the richness of the anthropological detail on Yemeni and Pashtun tribes makes the book very readable and valuable. As well as the many moral insights about the injustices which have been and are perpetrated against tribes on the periphery as well as there many cultural resources.
7. I can certify to much of the incredible detail provided — except Syed Qutb would normally not be considered the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, but rather a later and perhaps even somewhat deviant leader.
8. Ahmed argues correctly for a more nuanced and culturally understanding approach but the exact content of that approach need further refinement and I am sure he will give them in further books. However, since he admits that the traditional elites and structures are no longer there to deal with people who are out of control – exactly what strategy he would recommend other than denouncing those which abandon America’s moral “soft power” advantage is not clear.
9. In his last chapter which is an attempt to define a positive strategy for the US he does a nice job of depicting the extremes of anti-Islam which have certainly been seen in the US – as for example in the recent kerfluffle about a Palestinian origin baseball player. We should understand that Islam is a religion of 1.2 billion adherents or so – of whom a few thousand are involved in Terrorist activities – and has he indicates the bulk of those because of more specific parochial grievances against their home countries rather than general ideology. Again Ahmed does understate the specific angst of a small group of migrant and sometimes otherwise dislocated youth in the West which has played a disproportionate role in Western terrorism – if not really relevant in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and Mali.
10. Ultimately we all need a lot more understanding and ideally some understanding of the extent to which the US may be captive in the complex Center/Periphery problem in many of the world’s divided countries. Ahmed has some fairly strong ideas on what might be done in Pakistan – but this book doesn’t really focus on them so much as the tragedy of the overall situation.
Thomas Timberg is an economic consultant who has worked and lived in many countries around the world focussing on processes connected with economic development . More information is available on his website – www.timberg.us as well as the website of Nathan Associates with which he worked for many years and is associated.