Tariq Ali: Islam Anti-Islam

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Tariq Ali is editor of London's New Left Review, a filmmaker and novelist, and has written more than a dozen books on world history and politics, including 1968 and After: Inside the Revolution (1978) and the 1987 Street Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties. He was prominently involved in 60s antiwar and radical politics; Jagger, a personal friend, is said to have written "Street Fighting Man" in his honor.

Though he was born a Muslim, in 1943, in what would soon become the separatist Islamic state of Pakistan, Ali says he was never a believer?in fact, he describes Islam as a stagnant, backward-looking and disastrously factionalized culture badly in need of its own Reformation. By the time he went to study at Oxford, he was well-primed to become a secular humanist, and a Trotskyist. This all lends him a unique perspective on Islam in world politics, evidenced in his provocative new book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (Verso, 342 pages, $22). (Note: Verso published my most recent book.)

By "fundamentalisms" Ali means an arrogant, rigid, world-dominant American imperialism?"the mother of all fundamentalisms"?on one side, and the equally rigid, regressive Islamic fanaticism on the other. He depicts much of current world events, including the attacks of Sept. 11 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the American empire's chickens come home to roost. He also, shockingly, opines that because Sept. 11 did the Islamic fanatics no lasting good and caused the U.S. no real systemic harm, the event will sink into "obscurity in the future. It will be a footnote in the history of this century. Nothing more. In political, economic or military terms it was barely a pinprick." He also says that whether Americans care to know this or not, much of the world's peoples?including some recent immigrants right here in New York City?rejoiced on Sept. 11.

He brings this contentious message to NYC this week. I spoke to him last week by telephone at his home in London.

You've just returned to London from a trip to Pakistan. How are people you know there reacting to U.S. intelligence forces seizing suspected terrorists in Islamabad, and General Musharraf's government allowing U.S. forces the right of "hot pursuit" into Pakistan's territory from Afghanistan?

Most people you speak to say we've lost our sovereignty. And that we've become a province of the Great Empire and they do what they want with us, and there's absolutely nothing we can do. When I talk to people who are not so passive, they say Musharraf will pay a very hefty price for this. The Americans will get bored with Pakistan, as they always do, and move on somewhere else, and he'll be killed. That's a common view, that his days are numbered.

He's been a "collaborationist," as you call him, with the U.S. for a long time.

Yeah. And his security is very, very heavy. He has three decoy cars. He never goes out not very heavily protected. There are rumors, which I couldn't confirm, that there's been one attempt on his life already. The fact that the fundamentalists killed the brother of the Interior Minister who's in charge of security was an indication that they're getting close... The big question arises, how are they breaching security so easily? And the answer is that they're getting help from within.

You write that fundamentalists have infiltrated Pakistan's military quite well, as well as other branches of government.

Pretty sure about that. Having failed to win the people, they then really did try to penetrate the apparatus. No one knows their exact strength. If you ask secular military officers, they say, "They're there, but we don't know."

The killing of Danny Pearl, in my opinion, could not have been done without the knowledge of the intelligence agencies. Any Western journalist, white-skinned journalist, who arrives in that country?not even white-skinned, any foreign journalist who arrives in that country and tries to investigate independently of the Ministry of Information and state agencies?is followed nonstop. They keep tabs on them. So the notion that they don't know who kidnapped Danny and killed him just beggars belief. It's just not possible.

What happens if Musharraf is killed?

Other generals will take over. What their orientation will be depends very much on what the United States is prepared to pay. I'm afraid it's the cash nexus which now accounts for loyalty. Even the generals hostile to Musharraf say, "Leave him alone. He's bringing in money and weapons." But when the time comes he'll go or he'll be got rid of. It's a very grim situation. The one thing the army has been able to do in the past is restore law and order in the country. This guy has not been able to do that. And the reason is that to do it means taking on the forces of religious fundamentalism inside the army, and that's a dangerous operation. The thing to do is to disarm these groups?which were created by the military. They know who and where they are. Why in the hell don't they stop them? That's the million-dollar question.

You would include the Taliban as one of the fanatical groups created and funded by Pakistan?

Totally. The Taliban could not exist, and in fact ceased to exist, once the Pakistani military withdrew their support.

And Al Qaeda?

This is the story I think Danny was investigating... I have a feeling he got too close to something. The story everyone wants to know is Al Qaeda's links to Pakistani military intelligence. Most people believe the links are there, and they were there on Sept. 11. Whether [the military] knew about [bin Laden's plans] no one knows. People don't even speculate?they don't want to know. But the links were definitely there. These people were going in and out of Pakistan, landing in Pakistani airports. The circumstantial evidence is there to suggest that Daniel Pearl had got close to this story, and that rogue elements within the intelligence agencies laid a trap for him and he fell into it.

The thing is, the United States must know this. This is the shocking thing. They must know it. Whereas Colin Powell has gone out of his way to say, "We know the Pakistan government was not involved." How do you know that? No one in Pakistan believes that. General Musharraf himself described Daniel as "an over-intrusive" journalist.

Meanwhile, just across the border, the alliance that's been set up to run Afghanistan is obviously a short-lived fiction.

Totally. Hamid Karzai?I honestly think his future is very limited. Either the poor guy will be bumped off, or they'll have to take him out and find him a job as a fashion model in New York and Rome.

He'd be very good at it.

He could walk the runway, show the latest shawls and caps. But I don't think he's got a future in Afghanistan.

What's the feeling about this in Pakistan?

Well, they're feeling, "We told you so." They warned the Americans behind the scenes what would happen if the Taliban was dislodged. This was a regime we could have controlled. Now there'll be Russian influence, Iranian influence, Indian influence, no one power will be able to control the situation and it's going to lead to chaos and intra-fighting.

Basically, the struggle?if one's being utterly straightforward and cynical?has been between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance regarding who runs the drug trade through which part of the world. The Taliban?until the United States paid them some hundreds of millions of dollars to stop in 2000?used to smuggle drugs out of Pakistan, through Peshawar and Karachi to come to Europe. The Northern Alliance drug trade came through the Russian mafia, Central Asia?Kosovo was the big base, and from there it went all over Europe. With the defeat of the Taliban, the Northern Alliance people are openly laughing. "We've now got the monopoly on the drug trade." The Russian mafia will be having a field day. Pakistani heroin traffickers are going to lose a lot of money now.

You, like many others, describe the Wahhabist Saudi elite as, in a sense, the "mother of all terrorists." They created and unleashed Osama bin Laden, they funded the schools in Pakistan where the Taliban were trained, they fund fanatical Islamist groups worldwide.


You say in the book that what's needed in Saudi Arabia is a revolution.

My own feeling is that the monarchy, this sort of Mafia-type family which the United States gave the franchise to run that part of the world, their days are numbered. And they know it. Which is why they're squirming. If you ask which country in the world was most seriously shaken by Sept. 11, the answer is Saudi Arabia. The country supplied the bulk of the hijackers who carried out the hits. Osama bin Laden had very close relations with the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki bin Faisal, who resigned as the head of intelligence in the last week of August. Very close personal friend of Osama's, responsible for sending him to Afghanistan, kept very close contact throughout Osama's exile...

So [after Sept. 11] they were incredibly nervous, fearful that if Osama was caught and killed there'd be mayhem in Saudi Arabia. But they were also very upset at the open criticism of them being voiced in the American press, especially The New Yorker, with its close links to the spooks. It was coming up with lots of material that could only have been supplied by spooks, and the Saudis knew that.

But the U.S. cannot overtly move against the Saudi royal family.

They can't. Who would then run that area? I mean, I'm sure there are think tanks considering it. One possibility is to balkanize Saudi Arabia and give the franchise to the holy cities [Mecca and Medina] to the King of Jordan's family?who technically should have them because they're the direct descendants of Mohammed?and give the oil wells to someone else.

The book's called The Clash of Fundamentalisms. In the U.S. we're used to hearing "fundamentalism" applied to Christians here, or more recently to Islamic fanatics. You say "American imperialism" is "the mother of all fundamentalisms." Explain that.

Well, I just thought that if we're talking about an outlook of the world which is incredibly rigid and refuses to see reason or think rationally, then, even though it's secular, the imperial outlook can be categorized as such. Also, it was an attempt to rap Huntington on the knuckles. [Former LBJ counterinsurgency expert Samuel P. Huntington, who argued in his much-discussed 1993 Foreign Affairs article "The Clash of Civilizations?" that, pace Francis Fukuyama, the fall of communism had ended the era of ideological dispute, but also ushered in a new era of cultural clashes between the democratic West and especially Islam and China.] This is not a civilizational clash. This is a clash between an imperial power and religious fundamentalisms which are nothing in terms of power compared to the imperial fundamentalists.

But Islam is a warlike construct, founded on conquest and expansion. Isn't it now simply a weaker imperialist impulse than the American version?

But while it was founded on conquest, it's Islam's tragedy that it conquered too much of the world too quickly. It had no time, like Christianity did, to develop before it became a major religion. It had to develop an ideology on the hoof. Within 100 years of Mohammed's death it had reached the Atlantic coast and the Chinese coast. Once it conquered, it became a very passive religion, especially in the Arab world. So when the Crusaders hit it in the 12th century, they were completely unprepared. It took them 100 years [to take back Jerusalem], and the leader who organized them used to constantly say, "Look at the Christians. They know how to wage holy war."

Then, in the 20th century, the first person to use the term holy war was Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser, who called the Afghan war [with the Soviet Union] a holy war. He said [to the U.S.-backed mujahideen], "Go back and build your mosques. This is a holy war against the infidel and God is on your side." So the jihad of the 20th century was launched by the State Dept. and the Pentagon!

But compared to the power of the United States, Islam is nothing. This Al Qaeda group is 3000, 4000 people at most. The thing is how to cut off the flow of young, middle-class professional kids to it. That requires a political solution.

Such as?

Two things. One, lay off Iraq. If they go after Iraq it'll just exacerbate the situation. I'm really frightened by that. Some group of martyrs will want revenge and try to outdo the Sept. 11 people, and God knows what they'll do.

But the most important thing that's driving people crazy is the Palestinian situation and the fact that the United States is openly backing Israel. There I think the only long-term solution is a sovereign Palestinian state. This is the last colonial struggle of the 20th century, and the Israelis just have to bite the bullet and move on.

You're a non-believing Muslim. There's an entire generation of younger Muslims who are very much believers, along a spectrum from being sympathetic to the current rumblings of worldwide jihad to happily martyring themselves for the cause. What do you say to them?

When I go to Pakistan, I meet quite a lot of people who are unbelievers, but would not say so in public. I think the hardcore of young believers, curiously enough, is in the West, in Europe and North America. I think one of the problems here is that being a hardcore believer has become part of identity politics. "This is our identity." With them I have arguments all the time... Some of them are listening and talking, but they balk when I say bluntly, "Look, I am an atheist. These are the reasons Islam has become totally atrophied as a religion. It's not had its Reformation. It's just stuck now. Using its old texts to move forward is not going to work."

...I hope that they are listening. I know that the situation in Palestine [for example] is awful. I have large numbers of Palestinian friends. But I do not like the strategy of using suicide bombers to kill civilians. I think it is counterproductive. I think that the only way the Palestinians can get somewhere is by winning over a sizable core of Israelis to their cause. Which will happen. These killings don't help. You say that and they scream, "You don't live here! You don't know what it's like!" This is absolutely true. On the other hand, I am not in favor of sending our young people to kill themselves. "They want to do it! They're despairing." I know, I know. It's an awful situation.

When you come to New York City, I'm wondering how people are going to respond to your notion that Sept. 11 was just a blip on the screen of history.

Well, I know it's difficult for people to accept that at the moment. But historically it will be seen as such. In terms of punishing the military or economic power of the United States it was barely a pinprick. Psychologically, and as a spectacle, it was amazing. But what they actually achieved, apart from changing the landscape of New York, was not very much in my opinion. The Muslims don't like this being said, either. They think it was a big hit.

Yet it did focus the Bush administration on an ongoing war on terrorism.

But they're just using the events of Sept. 11 to remap the world.

Well I think that's historically significant!

But the question is, were they doing this in any case, and did this just accelerate the process. I believe that's the case.

Tariq Ali will speak this Wednesday, April 10, 7:30 p.m., at the Brooklyn Ethical Culture Society, 53 Prospect Park W. (betw. 1st & 2nd Sts.). Call the Community Bookstore at 718-783-3075 for more information; with Edward Said on Thursday, April 11, 6:30 p.m., at Columbia University's Davis Auditorium, Schapiro Center, Rm. 412, W. 118th St. (betw. Amsterdam Ave. &Morningside Dr.), 854-7641; and Friday, April 12, 7 p.m., at the Socialist Scholars Conference at Cooper Union, 51 Astor Pl. (3rd Ave.), 817-7868.

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