What inspired you to write the book?
My interest in tribal societies, especially those living on the periphery of the modern state, goes back to the time I joined the Civil Service of Pakistan. At one stage, I was political agent of South Waziristan Agency, considered one of the most difficult charges in British India. I found the areas of tribal societies were impoverished and neglected. Their treatment of women was terrible. Female literacy rate is almost zero. But it was only after hearing the violence and disruption stories of 9/11 that I was compelled to revisit tribal societies and give them a voice.
It offers a completely different paradigm of not only dealing with the war on terror but also winning it. My suggestions are not theoretical. They are based on my personal experiences. Besides, my excellent American research team and I were able to put together 40 case studies of tribal societies ranging from Morocco up to the Caucasus Mountains. This has allowed me to draw general principles that can be applied to creating a new paradigm.
How is this edition different from the previous two, Discovering Islam and Journey into America?
This book is a continuation of several themes which have preoccupied me regarding the nature of the relationship between center and periphery. It is different, however, because it is the third part of a trilogy of books that focuses on relations between the US and the Muslim world.
Did your diverse education help in gathering facts?
My diverse education has certainly made me sensitive to other cultures. I was a child when partition split and have terrible memories of the stories of bloodshed and hatred caused by people of different religions. I grew up in north Pakistan studying at Burn Hall, once in Srinigar but now in Abbotabad. Later, when my father got a job in the United Nations in Bangkok, I came across Buddhist culture and grew to appreciate its peaceful nature. I then came to England as a young man for my studies and again met people of different faiths and cultures. It led me to a great curiousity about other people. I was always guided by the great Sufi saying Suh-i-kul, or peace with all. It also led me to my PhD studies in anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I was thus able to interact with the tribes both as political agent and as an anthropologist.
Waziristan is generally described as a lawless area, or part of the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan. Is that an accurate description?
Yes and no. The tribal areas from the time the British demarcated them as a special administrative area have lived in a kind of administrative limbo. They are neither quite part of the whole nor independent of it. Councils of elders organised by lineage chiefs and other religious figures working together with the political agent have invariably managed to ensure a kind of stability. Kidnapping, rape, and murder were unheard of except as a direct consequence of blood feuds.
Of course, Waziristan has had a fearsome reputation in history because of its fiercely independent people. There were more troops in Waziristan in between the World Wars than the entire Indian subcontinent put together. Today, in spite of the regular drone attacks, heavy military presence, and attempts by the central government to calm the situation, Waziristan is in turmoil with militants running wild and playing havoc both in and outside the agency.
Your book communicates the importance of understanding the Muslim world. Any personal connect?
Yes, there is a deep personal connect. I was in class on 9/11 in Washington, DC, having just arrived at American University. As I have already been writing about the subject of the relations between the West and the Muslim world, I understood that Americans would find it difficult to make sense of the Muslim world and as Muslims were failing to explain themselves adequately. I felt it was the duty of every Muslim, in whatever capacity, to reach out to build bridges of peace, understanding, and love.
Where does ‘The Thristle’ come from? Explain the title of your book?
The title of The Thistle and the Drone is from two metaphors. ‘The drone’ is, of course, a metaphor for America's war on terror, and through that conflict, the age of globalisation. The thistle, invoking Leo Tolstoy's novel HadjiMurad, is a metaphor for tribal societies. The narrator of HadjiMurad, at the beginning of the story, is walking in the Caucasus and bends down to pluck a thistle. The prickly flower makes his hand bleed and by the time he pulls it out of the ground, it is destroyed. He then compares this tenacity and prickliness of the thistle to the Caucasian tribes resisting the invading Imperial Russian Army in the mid-19th century, something Tolstoy himself witnessed. It is thus no surprise that the tribal scots themselves use the thistle as their symbol, seeing in it their own prickliness, fierceness, and sense of independence.
Explain the concluding line of the last chapter of your book ‘Stopping a thousand genocide now?’
The Thistle and the Drone, in its final chapter, attempts to lay a path forward to ending the ethnic, sectarian, and religious violence found across the world, violence which in some cases can only be described as genocide. It is based in the great Jewish saying tikkunolam, to heal a fractured world.
Did u get a sense of satisfaction after completing the book?
I found the research and writing of this book to be the most emotionally draining of anything I have done because it so starkly brought me face to face with the dark side of human nature. I felt a sense of deep satisfaction that this book gives a platform to so many communities whose story has not been told loudly enough.
I am working with Indian director Manjula Kumar of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC to produce my play Noor. We are hoping to bring the play to India and Pakistan to promote good will between these two countries.