Those hunting scapegoats for what's gone wrong with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, says Akbar Ahmed, should look to their local post-secondary social-science departments. Ahmed, a leading authority on contemporary Islam, says the years American academia spent neglecting things such as the role of religion in traditional cultures left a void that after 9/11 was filled by "experts" on terrorism who didn't know the first thing about the cultures they were pontificating about.
"The response was unfortunately colored through the prism of security and terror analysts," says Ahmed, a professor of international relations at American University whose April 14 lecture "A Failure of Imagination: Thinking About Culture, Tradition, and Society After 9/11," will highlight The West at War, a conference at St. Vincent College. "Because they were asking the wrong questions, they were coming up with the wrong answers."
Ahmed, formerly Pakistan's ambassador to the United Kingdom, is an anthropologist, author and leading authority on contemporary Islam, with speaking engagements and media appearances from the State Department to Oprah. He recalls being in Washington in October 2001, as the U.S. prepared to attack Afghanistan without understanding the country, he says -- "and the best book is written by an American!" he adds, referencing Afghanistan (1980), by Louis Dupree. Subsequently, U.S. invaders demonstrated ignorance of Iraqi nationalist pride and Donald Rumsfeld got flippant about the looting of national treasures. "It gave the impression of chaos, it gave the impression of not understanding local culture," says Ahmed. "This was a time when the social sciences should have stepped up and helped explain the world."
In academia starting in the '60s, Ahmed contends, the study of traditional cultures fell out of fashion; more recently, the siren song of globalization and the "end of history" overwhelmed regard for language, tradition, ethnicity and religion. Analysts focused on security, thus missing the real message in material such as addresses by Osama bin Laden. "Every second line he uses the word 'honor,'" says Ahmed. "That plugs straight into culture, religion, tradition."
Unlike the British, who in the 19th century created the School of Oriental and African Studies to prepare administrators culturally for their imperial duties, Americans have done little to win Iraqi hearts and minds. If government had sought guidance from the social sciences -- or academia had made itself heard -- things might have gone differently, Ahmed says.
"What was it all for?" he asks of the invasion. "If we get a stable, functioning democracy, it's worth it. If not, what was it all about? The great adventures nations plunge into need to be thought out."