An eminent Pakistan-born intellectual on his native country, and on Islam as practiced in his adopted nation – Sweden; Interview by Mayank Austen Soofi
Ishitaq Ahmed is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science in the University of Stockholm. He is chief editor of Peace and Democracy in South Asia and writes a column in the Pakistani newspaper, The News International. Mr. Ahmed’s books include State, Nation, and Ethnicity in Contemporary South Asia and The Concept of an Islamic State in Pakistan: An Analysis of Ideological Controversies.
I'm with columnist Ishtiaq Ahmed - one of Pakistan's midnight children. Mr. Ahmed, welcome to Pakistan Paindabad. You were born few months before Pakistan came into existence in 1947. But now the midnight child lives far away in the cold lands of Sweden. How come?
After I did my MA, getting the first class first position in Political Science in the supplementary examination, I had a choice to either take the Central Superior Services (CSS) exam or join teaching. Being of a leftist conviction I decided not to sit in the CSS exam and chose teaching.
I taught between February 1972 and June 1973 at Rawalpindi’s Gordon College but became disillusioned with the atmosphere in that college. Just then my elder brother who had been living in Sweden for a long time visited Pakistan. We talked about my chance of getting admission to the PhD programme at Stockholm University and concluded that I should try to come to Sweden and try from there. That is how I landed up in Stockholm on September 26, 1973.
Is the academic life in sedate Sweden a nice cocoon from the harsh realities of Pakistan? Does it sound comfortingly unreal when you read unpleasant news coming from that part of the world?
Indeed, for me it has been good to settle down in Sweden and do research which keeps me connected with South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular.
I am quite used to thinking that the security and welfare we enjoy in Sweden is quite exceptional and out there the world is much more harsh and tough, but our prime minister, Mr Olof Palme, was assassinated on February 28, 1986 on a main road when he and his wife were returning home after watching a movie. Similarly our foreign minister Anna Lindh too lost her life at the hand of a demented young man on September 11, 2003. Both were without security guards and out in the town as private citizens; so the unreal world that we live in has received severe jolts at least twice.
Now, international drug mafias and other criminal gangs operate even in Sweden so that the vast difference between Sweden and other countries has begun to shrink.
You hail from Lahore. Once you were almost drowned in the city's fabled canal. Please be kind to share all the gory details.
This incident took place when I must have been seven or eight. It was a hot summer day when some people from our locality of Mozang went to the canal. Some of us did not know swimming but accompanied our seniors to the canal. I and a friend, Anas Ahmed , got into the water on the shallow side but for some reason were drawn into the middle. I remember both of us began to sink but held each other’s hand and shouted when we could pop our head above water. A man from our area, I don’t remember his name now, which is such a shame, but his face is etched on the eye of my mind and I can see him even now that way, came to our help and we were saved. I don’t think too much water had entered our bodies and we were saved at the very early stage. So, now I am here responding to your questions.
Thank God for that.
A Pakistani in Sweden
Mr. Ahmed, these are not the best of times. Pakistan is in the midst of US-led war against terror. In one of your columns, you noted that "any hope of changing the world for the better is very unlikely in the foreseeable future." Your pessimism was disappointing.
My pessimism unfortunately is there to stay for a long while until a new worldwide movement for peace, democracy and human rights emerges and can challenge brute forces both within national boundaries and in the international area. We need regional cooperation to offset the power and might of great powers and superpowers that dominate the world. Indeed within South Asian countries the ruling classes are the most heartless and they too have to be made to change their ways. I think this can be done through peaceful protest.
You are living in Stockholm since last 34 years. Islam is the second biggest religion in Sweden after Christianity. Often immigrants from Muslim countries are blamed for not trying hard to amalgamate with the secular traditions of Western Europe. Is that true?
Postwar Western Europe opened itself up for immigration which allowed people from the South to come and work and settle in the North. The underlying assumption was the basically secular and individualistic values that prevailed in the West would be adopted by the immigrants. Things remained rather quiet until the Iranian revolution. But thereafter Muslims fleeing from the reign of the Ayatollahs and later the civil war in Lebanon, followed by the invasion of that country by Israel resulted in large inflows of political refugees. Along with them, fundamentalist Muslims also established their influence in the West and thus started a process which resulted finally in 9/11 and later terrorist attacks in several West European cities.
It revived the undercurrent of suspicion and fear in Western Europe about the immigrant population – read non-whites but particularly Muslims- increasing to an extent that they can begin to change the demographic structure away from the old type of nation-state in which the local Christian populations were the overwhelming majority. Such feelings have been exploited by racist parties and now there is a discussion that if the immigrants want to live in the West they must adopt European values. The Muslims are often blamed most for resisting assimilation into a secular culture and there is some truth in it.
How do you view the hijab controversy? Is Europe getting hysterical in its pursuit of a perfect state of secularism?
I think hijab was never a problem in the West until the Islamists started using it politically. There has been a reaction and now in many Western countries the hijab is being blamed for the degradation of women. In this regard it is important to point out that the objection to wearing the hijab has been confined to educational institutions and work places. I agree with the European policy makers.
I understand it could difficult for Muslim immigrants to retain Islamic values as well as maintain a sincere respect for the liberal traditions of an adopted country like Sweden. Are the compromises worth it?
Yes, because like all other cultures Islam must also adhere to liberal and human rights values. Imagine Hindus saying that sati is part of their culture and the West should allow it to take place when a Hindu husband dies.
Is there a significant population of the people of Pakistani origin in Sweden?
No, South Asians in general are not to be found in large numbers in Sweden. I think there are some 5000 Pakistanis in Sweden. The same should be the strength of the Indian and Bangladeshi groups in Sweden.
Are your students in the University of Sweden mostly Europeans? What is the general impression of Pakistan among them? What do Swedes think of Pakistan?
My students are almost all Europeans. We do not discuss Pakistan or any other South Asian society so much because we don’t have courses on that region at the university. Unfortunately thus far there is little interest in South Asia.
How often do you visit Pakistan?
About once in two years.
In your columns, you have emerged as a passionate critic of religious extremism. You have advocated the promotion of a desegregated society where men and women could enjoy healthy relationships. Please tell us if you feel lonely having tea in a Karachi drawing room?
I am too old to mind having tea alone in a Karachi drawing room but I wish I had a more mixed group of friends to talk to and be close to when I was a young man. I think I speak for all those who are young and long for greater contact between men and women.
Author Arundhati Roy once described Pakistan as an imperfect dictatorship. But even the religious fundamentalism here seems imperfect. Else how to explain the success of Begam Nawazish Ali, a transvestite TV host?
Yes, I think Pakistani culture is not extremist and people have an amazing capacity to appreciate and live with non-conformist ideas and life styles. So many cultures and ethnic groups and local clans and cults are to be found that it is impossible to imagine Pakistan becoming a fundamentalist society in any lasting sense.
Pakistan's economy is shining. GDP grew by 8% in 2005-2006. Do you feel the impact of these figures in the country during your visits there?
Well, those who are rich enjoy even more amenities and luxuries than when I was in Pakistan. I really don’t understand how the poor and the unemployed manage to survive. Pakistan has become more brutal when it comes to the struggle for survival and street crimes have become more frequent and more heinous.
If President Pervez Musharraf leaves his posts at this moment, how will you evaluate his legacy?
I think he would be remembered for making an effort to save Pakistan going down the drain into the filth of fundamentalism.
You are as old as Pakistan. Whom do you think has done better in life - the midnight child or the fatherland?
I think I have done quite well, but Pakistan still has to make an effort to convert itself into a state where justice is done and nobody lives in hunger and fear.
Thank-you for the interview, Mr. Ahmed.
You are welcome, Mayank.