Complete teacher in a divided world

March 17, 1995

Akbar Ahmed on the provocative social scientist Ernest Gellner. I first met Ernest Gellner 20 years ago. Based at the London School of Economics, he already had a formidable academic reputation, astriding several disciplines. He knew Muslim society through anthropological work in Morocco. I was doing a PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies and often attended his talks.

I had just completed an anthropological book. On one level it was a critique of the literature on the Pathans in north Pakistan. On another, it challenged some of the established notions of the discipline. One was that religion, in this case Islam, was no longer of any significance in explaining how people thought and behaved. In the case of the Pathans I knew this was just not correct. But I was a mere student. To mention belief, culture, tradition and custom was to risk being an outcast in academe. Iran, the pundits were telling us, was poised to become a major secular power in the shadow of the United States. The mullahs were on the verge of extinction; this a few years before Khomeini arrived in Iran at the head of the Islamic revolution.

The book was being considered by Routledge but they were apprehensive about backing an unknown horse. What if my ideas were all wrong? In any case I had no major publication behind me nor a name to back me. I was the classic outsider. In the context of my discipline, then, I was more: I was also the "cheeky nigger", daring to challenge the orthodox white establishment. Remember this was before such figures as Salman Rushdie and Edward Said burst on the cultural and intellectual scene.

Several reviewers had already expressed doubts about my work when Gellner was sent the manuscript. He not only provided an enthusiastic endorsement but agreed to write a scintillating foreword pointing out the significance of my arguments. For me, the rest is history. The book made a splash in the discipline. It was given the "star treatment" by Current Anthropology.

Gellner continued to come to my aid. On a BBC Late Show discussion hosted by Michael Ignatieff, at the height of The Satanic Verses controversy, Gellner neatly demolished the arguments of the eminent participants. Ian McEwan, Sir Frank Kermode and Antonia Byatt argued that Muslims were not tolerant and had no tradition of intellectual dissent. Gellner argued that one society cannot be judged by the yardstick of another.

A personal high point in my academic career came when I shared the same platform as Gellner. It was a rather grand occasion organised by the Royal Anthropological Institute to commemorate its 150th Anniversary. Sir Raymond Firth, a legendary anthropologist, also spoke. Gellner was typically provocative. Other disciplines, like economics and political science had failed to make sense of our world. Anthropology, because it examined society as an integrated whole, was ideally placed to do so. The journalists present, sure that they had the answers, were not convinced.

I publicly acknowledged Gellner at a function organised by the British Council in Cambridge to honour me. The high and the mighty attended. I was most honoured, I said, by their presence, but most of all by that of my guru. Naturally modest, Gellner looked uncomfortable. I do not think he ever realised the significance of his characteristic magnanimity. For me, he had lived up to an ideal of the teacher - bold, generous and sympathetic.

So much has changed in less than a generation. Being seen to be politically correct, the general loss of respect for authority figures and triumphant consumerism have combined to reduce the teacher to quivering impotency.

But Gellner remains impervious to the winds of fashion, exploring ideas wherever they take him. He took on Edward Said, the uncrowned academic king of Arab causes. The emperor, Gellner said, in a recent heated public exchange, had no clothes. Said, in effect, was saying little that was new or of worth. The champions of political correctness were up in arms.

The current debates place Islam very much at the centre of the storm. The world is simplistically divided between Islam and/versus the West and so on. I am often asked by the zealous to fall into battleline. When I am told a white man can never be sympathetic because I am black, a European because I am Asian or a Jew because I am Muslim I mention the example of Gellner. That, I believe, is the ultimate tribute in our dangerously complicated, and hopelessly divided world.

Akbar S. Ahmed is fellow of Selwyn College and a member of the Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge.

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