The death of Eqbal Ahmad on May 11 was an occasion of great sadness for those who had the privilege of knowing and working with him. Eqbal was associated with MERIP for many years as a contributing editor, but this affiliation hardly conveyed the key role he played in MERIP’s formative years. If we could designate a category for those whose example, encouragement and vision were crucial in transforming MERIP from an idea into a reality, Eqbal would be in the first rank.
I first met Eqbal in 1969, during the meetings, demonstrations and civil disobedience campaigns against the US war in Vietnam. Eqbal was a gifted orator whose sharp and articulate political analysis displayed serious scholarship as well as militant commitment to principles of political liberation. No one who heard Eqbal’s faultless phrasing and compelling cadence, his grasp of modern history with a distinctive Asian and African inflection, and his insistence upon responsibility and accountability from ourselves and from our adversaries in the seats of power, will ever forget the experience.
Eqbal was also distinguished by his extraordinary graciousness, warmth and generosity of spirit. In the late 1960s, he was teaching at the University of Chicago, active in the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars and constantly on the road participating in teach-ins against the war. Yet he was always ready to take time to talk when the opportunity arose, and to respond to our letters with comments that were remarkably comprehensive and thoughtful.
Eqbal’s enthusiasm and encouragement for MERIP stemmed from his abiding insistence that the antiwar and anti-imperialist movement must incorporate the Middle East, the Arab world and especially Palestine into its worldview. Eqbal brought to the movement the sensibilities of a staunch secularist steeped in his Indian Muslim culture and opposed to the politics of exclusion, whether rooted in religious or ethnic communalism or political ideology. His critique of power and his disdain for those wielding it was not limited to the likes of Henry Kissinger but included, in the very early 1970s, false saviors of “Arab socialism” like the Iraqi and Syrian Baathist regimes. Nor was Eqbal a naïve proponent of armed struggle, despite his firsthand engagement in the Algerian anti-colonial war and his strategic understanding of the Vietnam guerrilla war. He was a tireless proponent, deriving from his boyhood in Bihar in the era of Gandhi and his admiration for the African-American civil rights struggle, of massive militant civil disobedience as a crucial Palestinian strategy against Israeli occupation.
Teacher, friend, activist, scholar, orator and pamphleteer extraordinaire — we will all miss this good man.