Book review: The Thistle and the Drone by Abdul Quayyum Khan Kundi

Professor Akbar Ahmed, a renowned scholar of Islam, tribal culture and social science, recently published a book titled “The Thistle and the Drone”. The book offers historic perspective of tensions between the interests of a Superpower, a central authority and peripheral tribal interests. The nexus formed between the central governments and their US partners, with superficial knowledge of these societies, exacerbated the crisis rather than abate it. Author suggests that the breakdown of international law to preserve order and resolve conflict is bad news for the world unless efforts are made on urgent basis by all parties concerned to resolve it. The book is a good resource for government planners, social scientists and anthropologists to find workable ideas to bring peripheral tribes into the mainstream. The book is written from the perspective of a social scientist without giving sufficient consideration to the political aspect. For instance, the books does not elaborate whether rising number of Muslim populations in Western countries had any bearing to define the narrative of war on terror and adoption of clash of civilization approach. The author agrees that experts in the West used the ideas of civilization incompatibility to influence policies of their governments but still refuses to call it just that. Professor Akbar presents the idea that US drone operations have created conflicts between the center and periphery across the Muslim world. He does not comment whether this situation is deliberate or accidental.

Reading this book made me feel as if I am listening to a paleontologist who is commenting on the fossilized bones of a Dinosaur. He is praising the size and strength of those species but forgets that they are extinct and probably never coming back. Tribes regardless of their code of honor and independent spirit are a relic of the past. In the similar fashion the current format of a nation-state will evolve into something different as scientific and social knowledge progresses. Structures like European Union may be the new format of social organization. Tribes became irrelevant because they refused to reform from within. In Muslim societies tribes still exist because they have recently got independence from colonial rule and have since resisted adoption of new technology and scientific knowledge. Drones, terrorists and central authority has encroached on tribal domain and not receding.

At the advent of Islam in the seventh century the situation changed adversely for tribal culture. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) signed Charter of Medina with tribes of Yathrib that laid the foundation of a nation state where customary tribal laws were subjugated to a higher authority that provided equal rights to all citizens. Islam promoted an idea that tribes are a cultural entity with no overriding power over the universal political rights of community. It was this universal principle that still largely defines the sovereignty and a nation state in the modern world. In the 21st century, West wrongly considers Islam an advanced form of a tribal religion that has never evolved into a universal civilization. It is this tribal labeling that is presented as a proof that Islam and democracy are not compatible and that Islamic culture is a danger to Western way of life. American and European news media’s branding of terrorism as Islamic terrorism was also an effort to give credence to this view that terrorists are motivated by their tribal instincts, justified by the religion, to seek revenge. Unfortunately Professor Akbar’s book gives credence to this view.

Prof. Akbar in his chapter on Waziristan has rightly presented the historic political power structure as a balancing act between tribal Jirga (assembly of elders), Imam of the Mosque and Political Agent (PA) representing the federation of Pakistan. The ensuing war on terror brought three new players to this mix i.e. arrogance of a superpower in the form of drone strikes; military operations to contain the terrorists of TTP and TTP itself. These three new players destroyed the old power structure and the result is a chaos that no one seems to understand to propose a viable solution. The book proposes that the old three pillared system should be gradually reestablished in FATA. I was expecting him to offer a holistic solution that was more in tune with the changing times. In my view a time machine is impossible to build whether it is physical or social kind.

The three pillared system in Waziristan survived because illiteracy was kept terribly low at an average 5% and almost zero for the women folks. Someone who got past 12th grade preferred to migrate to larger cities not just for better career prospects but also to avoid dealing with backward practices that did not make sense to an enlightened soul. All examples of successful people quoted by the author in his book only visited Waziristan for annual summer holidays. And even those that did return after retirement were motivated to be adored by the tribe as a demigod rather than to serve people and help improve their lives. Another aspect missed by the author is that chiefs of these tribes lead luxurious lives with multiple properties around the country and driving expensive SUVs while their tribesmen could hardly afford three meals a day. Sons of these tribal chiefs get education in top universities of the world while the tribes remain illiterate and devoid of education. Why? Because with education the hold of the chief is weakened and customary laws are unacceptable. There is no evidence of a tribe in the world that is highly educated and still conforms to their centuries old traditions and rituals. Even one of the pictures in the book proves this point as Akbar Bugti, chief of his tribe, is shown receiving Jinnah in a western suit while his tribesmen wore traditional Baluchi dress. The author himself quotes examples of tribal chiefs feeding opium of honor to their tribesmen while at the same time their own sons engaging in criminal practices with impunity. The vesting of political authority in the Chief has worked against tribal interest as the Chief in most cases negotiates a deal with the center that safeguards their financial and political interest at the cost of larger interest of the tribe.

When it comes to offering a solution to the political crisis between center and the periphery, Professor Akbar wants to project a system from a distant past in to the future. In doing that he is assuming that somehow members of a tribe are a different species from the larger mankind and have not evolved with the advancement of scientific knowledge. Many members of TTP have confronted me on facebook when I spoke against their practices. These groups also use internet, youtube and twitter to project their views around the world. I will not be surprised if one of these days TTP brings down a drone and reprogram it to use it against American aggression. His example of an American handling of tribes is also not valid as almost all Casinos in America are built on tribal reserves and gambling is their main source of income.

The most viable solution available to Pakistan is to ensure that constitutional powers are exercised across its territorial boundaries including tribal areas. To enable tribes to catch up with other segments of the society an affirmative action plan has to be instituted to provide them scholarships and incentives. Those affected in the war of terror has to be compensated and provided help in rehabilitating back to their villages. Celebrating cultural diversity should not be equated with multiple systems of governance. One of the reasons for the demise of Ottoman Empire is attributed to the millat system in which each ethnic and religious group was allowed to dictate their own customary law superseding the law of the state. This created incentive for stronger groups to start rebellion against the state throughout its history. Finally Arab tribal resistance during the First World War was supported by British Imperial power and resulted in the demise of the empire after 750 years. Similar motive may be at play in calculated drone strikes in strategically important countries to redraw boundaries on the map.

Islam recognizes expanding circle of social responsibility. Center of this social dynamic is family then neighbors regardless of their religious affiliations and lastly those living in the city. Politically Islam instructs us to think beyond familial ties and work for universal principles of equality, social justice and human rights. The book proposes reestablishing a status quo in which tribal chiefs played a dominant role. That system did not work as evident from intermittent conflicts throughout recorded history. After almost 1000 years of political slumber Muslim societies are waking up to the fact that they need to develop a social order that is in tune with the needs of 21st century. We need new political models that are not clones of Western liberal democracy but are derived from the unique cultural and moral values of our own communities. I hope that will be the subject of Professor Akbar’s next book as knowledge of past without providing viable solutions for the future serves no purpose.

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