On Friday 17th October 2014, Fitzwilliam was treated to a lively discussion, provoked by the visit of Ahmed Rashid (English and SPS 1968) to take part in one of our series “In Conversation with the Master”. Undergraduate Grace Carroll (PPS 2011, MST 2014) here gives her response to the event:

Famous for his books on the politics and affairs of Central Asia – with special focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan – Ahmed Rashid spent much of his introductory talk looking at the repeated failure of modernisation and democratisation in that part of the world. He explored the role of Western states such as the US and the UK in accentuating the challenges faced by various countries in creating strong democratic institutions or modern economic structures. As a student whose subject focus has been war, revolution and imperialism, I found such a commanding yet accessible summary of events and issues facing the region very insightful.

Ahmed Rashid and the Master, Nicky Padfield

Ahmed Rashid and the Master, Nicky Padfield

The Middle East is currently dominating international news due to the activities of ISIS, in what many have seen as rather sudden rise to prominence. However, Rashid commented that these events are best seen as the cumulative result of years of chaotic, short-sighted foreign policy towards the Middle East by the West, frequently failing to take into account the particularities of a country’s political culture and recurrently pulling campaigns out too early, leaving a power vacuum. Citing the US’s haphazard policy in Afghanistan, Rashid described how the US granted local warlords the power to run the country whilst the Pentagon focused attention on the Iraq campaign – resulting in a chaotic political situation that was an incubator of tribalism and extremism.

I asked Rashid’s opinion on how the West could best amend its policy towards the Middle East & Central Asia. The dilemma faced by Western countries is how to bridge a difficult gap: avoiding imposing institutions upon a country in an imperial manner, whilst also not abandoning a country it has disrupted with little to no infrastructure or political culture to build democratic institutions or modern economic structures on its own. In his reply, Rashid stressed the need of a nuanced approach that was sensitive to the history and needs of each country involved, rather than setting short-term targets and emphasising low-casualty, high-impact campaigns.  To this end, whilst Rashid’s discussion was broad, it was not reductionist of the issues faced in the region, highlighting the differences between various states and their impact upon one another within the region that the West needs take into account.

web crop 22014-10-17 Ahmed Rashid in Conversation with the Master 031In discussing the frequent failure of the West in learning these lessons, Rashid presented a question that was especially pertinent: “How many opportunities can you not take?” He was referring to Western strategy, but the question touches far-reaching issues facing not just political leaders but everybody – especially we students. When asked about his time in Cambridge, Rashid spoke of the political fervour of the 1960s, describing how he and his allies in the Marxist-Leninist campaign occupied the Senate House in protest against the Vietnam War. Whilst his description of himself as a past Marxist-Leninist was met with some chuckles from the audience, and a wry smile from the speaker himself, it caused me to think about political engagement in Cambridge today. The youth of today is often criticised for being less politically engaged than previous generations, especially compared to the ardent protests of the 60s. Yet student politics is consistently passionate and powerful, albeit defined by different emphases and character. The Women’s Campaign, Amnesty International, the Cambridge HUB and many other groups are incredible at engaging students in focused issues and campaigns today. However, keeping in mind the idea of missed opportunities and Rashid’s description of the West’s frequent policy failures, as students we should continue to take an even greater interest in the world around us and combat issues of the future.

When discussing Pakistan, Rashid described a plethora of social issues that the country will face in the near future, such as rapid population growth, gender inequality and the approaching realities of water shortages. Fitzwilliam Honorary Fellow Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, speaking from the audience, raised the case of Asia Bibi, a Christian Woman from Pakistan who has been sentenced to death under the nation’s blasphemy laws and who has had her appeal to the High Court rejected. Student politics aims to improve the world we live in; to this end, it is important that as students we don’t now miss opportunities to confront issues that are facing countries’ futures such as those outlined by Rashid, and we must be constantly diligent in demonstrating the unacceptability of cases such as Bibi’s, maintaining pressure on not just our own governments but also others in order to do so.  It is important not to miss the multitude of opportunities we are presented with to engage politically in the world around us, joining campaigns, attending seminars or talks by fascinating speakers or delving into particular relevancies in our studies. It should be something we are proud for having done long after graduation.

The auditorium packed with students and alumni The conversation with Rashid on Friday was unique and valuable. It is easy to disconnect work, when preparing for a supervision, and the realities of what is being covered. Hearing such a personal insight into the events of Central Asia, from a Fitzwilliam alumnus, made what I study hit home, and I am incredibly grateful for the renewed sense of relevance it gave to what I study, and what I hope to pursue in the future.

This was a guest post by Fitzwilliam undergraduate Grace Carroll (PPS 2011, MST 2014).

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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