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SIS Professor's Book Explores War on Tribal Islam

By Antoaneta Tileva

Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies

Akbar Ahmed, Chair of Islamic Studies

“After 9/11, I dedicated myself to creating bridges of understanding between different cultures and faiths,” says SIS Professor Akbar Ahmed. In his latest book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Ahmed focuses on tribal areas in Islamic regions, the peripheral areas between states, and the communities living between borders.

This is the third of a series of four books by Ahmed with Brookings Institution Press examining relations between the West and the world of Islam after 9/11, with the forthcoming Journey into Europe completing the quartet that also included Journey Into America and Journey Into Islam. Ahmed, a leading authority on contemporary Islam, is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at SIS.

In the book, Ahmed provides an exhaustive survey of tribal cultures across North and East Africa, Yemen, and Southwest and Southeast Asia. The title of the book is a metaphor: the thistle was how Russian author Leo Tolstoy described the tribes living in the Caucusus in his book Hadji Murad, because—like the flower—Tolstoy found the people to be thorny and prickly. The drone, on the other hand, is a symbol of globalism and the epitome of technological development.

In The Thistle and the Drone, Ahmed explores tribal history, culture, code of honor, and tribal Islam—an Islam very different in nature from what the mainstream media depicts. Drawing on forty case studies that Ahmed and his team of student researchers interviewed and analyzed, Ahmed focuses on the dichotomy between center and periphery.

The first main finding of the book is that terror towards the West is perpetrated primarily by tribal people. The rhetoric used by Osama bin Laden and others is very tribal in nature, Ahmed says. Thus, he notes, “the West is fighting one kind of war when it is an entirely different kind of war to them.”

The second major point is that Ahmed believes that there is a way that the tribes can be pacified via peaceful and diplomatic means, citing the examples of the Aceh in Indonesia or relations between Scotland and England.

The central argument of The Thistle and the Drone is that the “war on terror” is ultimately a war between a central government and a periphery. In Ahmed’s view, the “center” is nearly always in direct conflict with the tribal societies—a war of the state vs. its domestic antagonists.

These tribal societies are often fighting against modernity or increasing encroachment upon their territories and way of life. “These tribes already have turbulent relations with the central government, which has failed to bring them into the nation, and the war on terror has only exacerbated this tension.”

This central vs. periphery tension is something Ahmed sees as fixable but not in how it has been approached thus far, particularly when it comes to drone warfare. “Drones have in essence become a symbol of Western arrogance. A far cry from the surgical-precision weapons they are described as, they have devastating moral costs.”

The Thistle and the Drone has received many honors; it was named a "Book of the Year" in the Times Literary Supplement, won the prestigious German Peace Prize at the 2014 Karachi Literary Festival, was shortlisted for the Coca-Cola Prize for Best Non-Fiction Book at the 2014 Karachi Literary Festival, and was named a finalist in the Political Science section for the Foreword Reviews 2013 Book of the Year Awards.