Conversation with Tariq Ali (1).
Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. 5/8/03
Tariq, welcome to Berkeley.
Very nice to be here.
Welcome back, I should say. Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Lahore, long years ago in 1943, when it was still part of British India. When I was four years old, it became part of a new country, Pakistan, which very few of us imagined at that point would ever come to existence.
In looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
My parents both came from a very old, crusty, feudal family. My father had broken with the dominant ideology in politics of that family when he was a student, and had become a nationalist, a communist, fighting against the British Empire in India. My mother, too, belonged to the same family, and they met up; my mother became radicalized. My mother’s father, curiously enough, was Prime Minister of the Punjab. Even though my father was from the same family — even, if you like, from a superior branch — my grandfather said that his daughter would never be allowed to marry a communist. And so there were massive row going on in the family. This young couple was in love. Finally, my grandfather thought he would impose a condition on the marriage which would be completely unacceptable to my father. He said, “In order to marry my daughter, you have to join the army” (this was the British-Indian Army), imagining that my father never could; and he never would have. But then something else happened, which is that the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler. Once the Soviet Union was invaded, all the communists all over the world decided to back the war effort. So the wedding photograph of my parents is my father looking very jaunty in a lieutenant’s uniform.
So political opportunity made possible the marriage, in your father’s willingness to join the army. Tell us a little about your education, first in Pakistan and then here.
The choices were limited in those days, when I was growing up. One choice was to go to a very elite school, where the children of the aristocracy and the rich went. All my uncles had been there, but my parents said, “It’s a school which wrecks lives. You’re not going there.” So the other choice was a school run by Irish-Catholic missionaries. There was a whole network of these schools, which were far more democratic in the sense that lots of kids from different social classes went there. And that’s where I was educated. So one got a flavor of Catholicism and a Catholic education, but living inside a Muslim country.
You wrote in The Clash of Fundamentalisms, “How often in our house had I heard talk of superstitious idiots, often relatives, who hated a Satan they never knew and worshipped a God they didn’t have the brains to doubt?” Tell us a little about that. I know that your father, as a matter of form, permitted you to have some religious instruction, but you saw through it — and he saw through it, I gather.
Yes, well, one was growing up in a Muslim country. You lived in an Islamic culture. All the noises of the Muslim city were present. So there were no problems on that front. But there were many of us growing up — it wasn’t just me — who were not believers. My father at one point got worried — he didn’t really get worried, [but] aunts and uncles used to be heard whispering to [my parents] when they thought [the other parent] wasn’t listening: “At least give these children a chance! Don’t wreck their lives like you’ve wrecked your own!”
So my father, who was a very fair-minded man, said, “I think you should at least know the fundamentals of the religion so you know what you’re arguing against when the time comes,” and attempts were made to do this. But often I found that the people engaged to educate me were not that knowledgeable themselves. Even as a child, one could see through the hypocrisy, actually. Many of them were discussing the Koran when they didn’t understand it themselves, or what it was trying to say. This was very common in non-Arabic parts of the Muslim world.
So the attempts failed, and there we are: I grew up an atheist. I make no secret of it. It was acceptable. In fact, when I think back, none of my friends were believers. None of them were religious; maybe a few were believers. But very few were religious in temperament.
How do you account for the cosmopolitanism that was so much a part of your life? It became, at some point, a way for you to think? I want to know how that interfaced with Pakistani nationalism and whether you felt a strong identification with Pakistan.
We grew up in a town in Lahore, which had been one of the most cosmopolitan towns in India. Then you had the partition of India, and you had massive killings. This is not much talked about these days, but nearly two million people died, as Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs slaughtered each other to create this state. So I remember when I was growing up, I would be sitting in the back of the car, and my parents were driving, and there was a sadness of it in the early days, a sort of semi-permanent sadness as we passed a certain street. They’d say, “Oh, God, remember ’X’ used to live here.” And “X” was always a Sikh or a Hindu name. These were the ghosts who were in that city as I was growing up. So when you realized what had happened, how much killing had gone on, you did ask yourself, “Was it worth it?”
And then you had another problem, which was that the Pakistani ruling elite was an elite with so many chips on its shoulders that I call it one of the few elites with a permanent inferiority complex. It never succeeded in developing a Pakistani nationalism, so that when Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt in 1956, Pakistan, more or less, supported that. They were allied to the West, and were seen as a bridgehead of, first, the British Empire, and later the United States in that region. So Pakistan could never actually develop. And because it didn’t develop, we had no respect for them at all.
So there was a sense of alienation towards this state and its functioning, which in me was very strong from a very early age. I remember we used to say we wished our Prime Minister had been Nehru of India, because he believed in neutrality, trying to carve out a new politics, much more interesting … or Nasser, in Egypt. We were constantly looking at other parts of the world for leadership, never in our own land.
So Pakistan had no a real nationalism, and that had to do with Pakistan’s relations with the world.
Yes. It had to do with the fact that Pakistan, very early on, three years into its creation, decided that it was going to join the U.S. and British-sponsored security pacts, the first of which was the Baghdad Pact, which later became the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. It put itself in this part of this world strategically. Whereas India, a much larger country, had the self-confidence to talk to Russia and America as equals. Nehru was a very distinguished politician, respected by both the White House and the Kremlin. We said, “Why can’t we have leaders like that? Why do they have to hang on to the coattails of the West?” But that is the path they chose, and they stuck by it. The Pakistani army, still in power today, was a central conduit for the exercise of this power.
2-Coming of Age
Let’s go back to your education. You went to Oxford. You were a president of the Oxford Union. Tell us, in a nutshell, how that education at that time shaped your consciousness, because we’re talking about the sixties, really.
Before I went to Oxford, I went to a university in Pakistan. We were very lucky that our college, the government college in Lahore, had a principal who was incredibly enlightened. He would say to us, “Within the four walls of this college, you can think what you like, do what you like, read what you like, and I will defend you against all authority.” This, at a time when a military dictatorship had come into being and stopped politics. So we were very lucky. We couldn’t go out into the streets, though we sometimes did as a collective, but within the college the atmosphere was very enlightened, and there were study circles discussing Marxism, discussing Islam, discussing anything you care to think of. So that, already, was a good training.
But then, because I was very active and politically engaged at the time in Pakistan, the governor of the big province banned my speaking, even in the college. The principal was very upset he couldn’t stop it, and then, finally, my parents were worried that I’d be locked up forever if I stayed there, and they pushed me out. I didn’t want to leave the country. I’m glad I did, in retrospect. I didn’t want to. But they basically pushed me out.
So I arrived at Oxford. And here, books — which weren’t available in Pakistan or had been removed from the libraries — were suddenly available again. The atmosphere was very open, and I got engaged with the Left groups on the Oxford University campus very, very early on, and became very active. The Vietnam War was then beginning, and I was pretty obsessed by that war. It was my continent which was under attack. I knew we had to do something about it, and I got very engaged in helping to set up the anti- Vietnam War movement in Oxford, first, and then nationally.
When I did my finals at Oxford, I had a bet with a friend that I would bring Vietnam into every single answer. He said, “You can’t do it,” and I said, “I will do it.” He said, “They won’t give you a degree,” and I said, “I don’t care.” So I sat down and did that in philosophy, politics, and economics. One which drove my economics examiner nearly crazy was the question, “Discuss the cheapest forms of subsidized transport in the world,” and I recall writing in that that the cheapest form of subsidized transport was the helicopter journeys made from Saigon into the jungles. I said the big tragedy was that often the passengers didn’t return!
You’ve written a book about the sixties, but what I would like to get is a sense of what you feel is the main lesson of that period for you. We have generations now that think people who were in college in the sixties are old-timers. What in that period affected you and our generation profoundly, and in what way?
I was affected, also, by my origins and which continent I was coming from.
Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre decided to set up an international war crimes tribunal to charge the United States with war crimes, and I was one of the people selected to go to Vietnam and find the evidence, which I did in 1967, when I was about 23 years old. I was in North Vietnam while the United States was bombing that country. So you got a real feel of it. You saw casualties every day. We were almost bombed ourselves on two occasions. And that was very formative — very, very formative.
I came back to Europe and reported to the War Crimes Tribunal, and a big movement emerged in solidarity with the Vietnamese, in France, in Britain, and in different parts of the world. The key lesson one learns from that period is nothing will change if you just keep sitting where you’re sitting. You have to get up and move and do something, even if there are very few of you for a start. But the passivity which later overtook the eighties and nineties generation was very sad to see.
Now, of course, it’s a different situation again. We have a young generation for whom being engaged is socially acceptable again. For a long time, it was socially unacceptable for young kids to be engaged. Now, it’s suddenly acceptable again.
For me, the big demonstration [recently] against the war in Iraq, where a million and a half people assembled in London, was a wonderful occasion to see so many young people from the schools coming out. Kids invented their own slogans, and I couldn’t even get the references of these slogans! It was some pop song which goes, “Who let the dogs out?” and the kids were chanting, “Who let the bombs out? Bush, Bush, and Blair.” I said, “What are the origins of this?” and they said, “It comes from this song.” “What song?!”
So the cycle has come around again. I often wonder what many of my contemporaries who are now serving on half the cabinets in governments of Europe, who gave up on all that and thought, “Now the world has changed. It’s the end of history. We’ve moved on. There’s no alternative.” [I wonder] how they felt when they saw these amazing demonstrations in the United States and in Australia, Europe? I’m sure some of them must have felt a pang of conscience as they’re preparing to go to war. The sixties generation is now in power in most parts of the world; [I wonder] what they felt when they saw millions on the streets?
For me, the lesson of the sixties always was be active, be engaged, and try and understand the world. So it’s something I’ve not forgotten.
3-Writing, Culture, and Political Consciousness
You’ve raised two interesting points. One is this link between consciousness and activism. Let’s talk a little about changing political consciousness. You have done that in many formats — in film, in television, but especially in writing. Let’s talk a little about writing and the link between writing and making known a radical perspective on the way things are. You’ve written fiction; you’ve written nonfiction. What does it take to do that kind of work, and which of the two do you prefer?
It’s a difficult one. I decided to write fiction in the late eighties, early nineties, when politics was in the doldrums and very little was going on in reality. I wanted to pose a question, which had become important already in the late eighties and early nineties, which was, “Why didn’t Islam have a Reformation like Christianity?” I thought I would go to the roots of the problem, where the answer lay, and I went to Spain, which was under Islamic rule for four or five centuries. What happened there? As I traveled around Spain — and I spent months there, going to all the towns, imagining things — I felt I didn’t want to write a history, I suddenly wanted to write a novel. So I wrote Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, about the decline and fall of Islamic civilization and how it was defeated. And that process I rather liked; I enjoyed it. I finished doing that, when and the book came out, it was well-received. Edward Said said to me, “You can’t stop now. You’ve got to chronicle the whole damn thing. Don’t just stop at Spain. Do it all.”
So that’s how [I began] this set of novels I’ve been working on since ’89. It’s now known as the Islam Quintet — three of them have been done; two more left. It’s a very different way of writing, because when you’re writing a novel, you have an idea. I write stories within stories, and I go for the narrative. Yet often, when you’re writing, characters come out of you, somewhere within you, whom you were not even thinking about, and there’s a danger, sometimes, of them taking the narrative away from the way you’ve conceived it. So you have to control it a bit. But it’s very exciting at the same time; completely different from writing nonfiction.
It was all the work I’d done on that Islam Quintet which enabled me to write The Clash of Fundamentalisms.
And some of that mode of writing came into this book as well, because I’d done so much research on early Islam, the creation of dissent and diversity in it, that putting it down in this book wasn’t that much of a problem. I enjoyed writing The Clash of Fundamentalisms, because it was the first nonfiction I’d written for about twenty years, and I wondered whether I’d be able to. But it’s different from the nonfiction I wrote prior to the period I started writing fiction.
In what way is it different?
My nonfiction prior to this, because of the period in which it was written, the late sixties, the seventies, the early eighties, tended to be very … how should I put it? Very polemical in tone, very ideological, reflecting the period I was writing in and reflecting the ideas that dominated that period. And I guess the arrogance — that is the other thing which the sixties generation had, a certain political arrogance which was reflected in our writings, because we hadn’t suffered any defeats. In fact, we’d scored. The Vietnamese had actually won that war, and that victory had also formed our consciousness that it was possible to win. That informed the way we wrote; we were always looking for victories. Now I think it’s more reflective.
It’s interesting, because in The Clash of Fundamentalisms, you will be making a point and then you go to the poetry of the period. Tell us a little about that. Is there in the poetry an insight that allows you to make a point in a more compelling way? That was the case for this reader.
This is absolutely the case. And, more importantly than that, poets have played a very big role in the culture of the Islamic world, and also the non-Islamic world. If you take the role poetry played in Russia, both prior to the Revolution, during it, and after it, when Stalin had poets executed, the poets who survived said, “The one thing we cannot say about this regime is that it underestimates our craft!” In the West, poetry had become quite anodyne. There were very brilliant poets, but they didn’t have that central role in the culture. Well, in the Arab world, they did. In the world of India and Pakistan, poets had a very important role. I think it grows out of the fact that the oral cultural tradition was very strong in that world. The written word obviously predominated, but large numbers of people couldn’t read or write. When they went to hear a great poet recite, even if they couldn’t read or write themselves, that poem left a deep mark on them. Often these poems were sung by famous singers, so they had a very deep impact.
The poetry of Nizar Qabbani, which is in that book, is quite stunning. It’s funny, but just after the United States and the occupation armies occupied Baghdad, I had a message from one of the greatest living Arab poets, Sa’di Yusuf, who is an Iraqi poet who’s been in exile. He rang me and we met in London, and talked. His poetry used to circulate throughout Iraq, even though Saddam banned it. It never stopped circulating, as did the poetry of two other Iraqi poets, [Muhammad Mahdi] Al-Jawahiri and Mudhaffar Al-Nawwab. And he said, “Saddam understood the importance of poetry and would often say to us, ’Come to Baghdad and there will be a million people to listen to your poems. The blood on my neck guarantees your safety.’” And Saadi Yousef said to me, “When a head of state says that the blood on his neck guarantees your safety, it’s not exactly reassuring!”
So he said, “We didn’t go.” But, you know, he hates the new occupation. He’s writing more poetry, and it’s already been published in Iraq.
This tradition is very deep in me, because when I was growing up our house was a venue for poets and writers. They came and went, and, often, as a very young child, I would be sitting on the floor listening to people, very great poets reciting their poetry, so I was privileged. And then you could go to a poetry reading in a big open-air theatre. The poetry reading started after dinner, at 9 o’clock at night, a musha’ira, and it could go on until the early hours of the morning. By the end of it, the poets were reciting their poetry extemporaneously, inventing verses on the spot, and the crowds then made known which was their favorite poet. Often, poets too close to the government of the day were booed and heckled. So it’s a very different tradition than has developed in the West.
When I was writing this book, I remembered all that, and I know what part it played, so I inserted it in the book.
That suggests that in some ways our modern capitalist civilization, or whatever you want to call it, is inadequate, because part of the emergence and the consolidation of the American empire is a dumbing-down through a denial of outlets and opportunities for expression. It would be interesting for you to share with us your insights about the applicability of what you’re saying about fiction and nonfiction and poetry as an expression of protest and an analysis of reality when that is being dampened down. We’re not having those opportunities in the West, not so much as a matter of formal repression, but more a kind of repressive tolerance, as Marcuse would say.
I think this has gotten very pronounced since the nineties, in particular. The nineties of the last century were a decade when dumbing down became the form in most of the advanced capitalist world, including Britain. The BBC is still marginally better than most of the American networks, but I use the word “marginally” because if you live in that country and you see it every day, you see the big decline that has afflicted the BBC. Channel 4, which was set up in 1982 to be an innovative, critical television channel (it was set up by Parliament) — by the middle to end of the nineties had collapsed. A lot of experimental, very good work was done, but then it came to an end and it’s almost as if one can trace this end to the collapse of the communist enemy; that with the ending of that, it’s almost as if the rulers of this world, the dominant capitalist world, decided, “We don’t need to educate our citizens so much. We have nothing to be worried about. If you educate them too much, give them too many opportunities, make them too vigilant and alert, they might actually turn on us.” I’m not saying this is how they thought it concretely, but certainly that’s how it seemed to one, that that’s what they were trying to do. The dumbing-down seemed sudden, that one day the networks were actually quite intelligent, and then six months later everything had disappeared. There’s a very good Hollywood movie about it called Network, with Peter Finch, which describes the dumbing down in American television. But what happened in Britain has been every bit as disastrous.
To be cynical, I really do not believe that they want citizens in this world to think. They don’t want that. They want a population which is more or less servile, which listens to them, accepts all they say, a population which is obsessed with consumerism and fornication, and carries on doing that. That they don’t mind at all. That’s fine. But anything beyond that which challenges them, they more or less stopped. This has affected the way things are under the control exercised now within television — shocking even in things like theater. I remember in the sixties, seventies, eighties, if you were head of drama at the BBC or Channel 4, you could do what you want. You went with your instincts. In the nineties came focus groups and marketing. You have to do the thing which gets the highest ratings. They assumed that the lowest common denominator is what got the highest ratings, and so they all started doing very similar things. Diversity in television began to die.
Now, in your discussion of the Iranian Revolution, you talk about the emergence of an underground Iranian cinema when the Khomeini Revolution consolidated itself. These systems, whether in the Islamic world or in the [American] Empire, if we can make that distinction, have tendencies toward repression, but there’s always still hope. In the case of Iranian cinema, we’re seeing the expression of the dissent which the regime is trying to deny.
This is absolutely true. This vibrancy of the Iranian cinema reminded me very much of some of the movies that were coming out of Eastern Europe in the fifties and sixties — allegorical, very brilliantly done, very intense, saying something which made the viewer think. It wasn’t “feel good,” it was, “Think: what is this movie trying to say?” So the actual tone of most of them, good or bad, whether they worked or not, was incredibly intelligent because they were pitched at a very high level and wanted the cinema-goer to think, “What is the director trying to say?” The contrast with what was happening at that time here couldn’t be more pronounced.
The one big difference for me between, say, life in the United States and life in Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, or Damascus, or elsewhere in that world: there you have repressive regimes, but the character of the repression is such that it creates a very vibrant underground life, or even everyday life. If you go into a café in Cairo, or Damascus, or Saudi Arabia, the population, the citizens sitting with each other around the table, drinking coffee and talking, are engaged in discussion of everything — politics, culture, the latest novel by Moneve, the latest novel by Mahfouz. “What’s it like?” “Is it good?” “What is this corrupt politician doing?” That, you do not get in large parts of the West now. It’s as if they in the West have a self-satisfied and complacent citizenry. I’m talking about the majority, now, not the minority. And that is very different in that world, where people do talk, whether in the privacy of their homes, in cafés, on the streets, they watch, they look. They may be powerless in terms of changing governments, but they are much more alert than many, many people in the West, and that’s interesting.
4-Modernity and Islam
You’ve raised this question before; it’s a central question of this book: Why was there no Reformation in Islam?
The principal reason is that if you look at the two big regions and times when Islam could have been changed, one was the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal, from the ninth century to the twelfth century — big, big possibilities. That period was, in my opinion, the peak of intellectual achievement of Islamic culture, both in the Arab world and what was known as al Andaluce. This is where philosophy, science, everything was thrown into the melting pot. You ask yourself, why? The reason why it happened that way in this region is that Islamic thinkers had to engage on almost a daily basis with Christian and Jewish philosophers and thinkers and writers. There was an intermingling, a co-mingling of cultures, which meant that you couldn’t just abuse or cut throats, you had to engage. The governments were not wiping people out. That, if it had been allowed to go on, probably would have produced a Reformation of some sort, which would have changed the way Islam is viewed or views itself.
But that was physically exterminated and wiped out by the reconquest, when Jews and Muslims — and we worked very closely together — were asked to leave the peninsula, chucked out, or forced to covert to the Inquisition’s model of the Catholicism, which many of them did who didn’t want to leave homes. So that affected Islam very deeply. It never totally recovered from that. That was one big opportunity gone.
The second opportunity was during the Ottoman Empire. Now, this was a great, sprawling empire which lasted from the thirteenth century to the twentieth century, and it had many opportunities. It was shoulder-to-shoulder with Europe. It had big exchanges. But here, the domination of the state by the monarchy and the centralized character of the state prevented any independent initiatives. That’s the way the state was structured.
Secondly, the clerics played a very big role in determining ideology and innovation. For instance, when the printing press came into Europe, there was a reformist sultan in power in Istanbul on the Ottoman throne who said, “This sounds to me like a good idea. We should have a printing press.” And immediately the clerics and the religious officers came and said, “Remember Martin Luther? Do you know how many copies of Martin Luther were printed on these printing presses which wrecked Christianity? Do you want that to happen here?” And so he retreated. And that retreat [was even broader]; for instance, clocks were not allowed because they said time is circular. “You don’t need a clock to tell the time. When the muezzin calls the faithful to pray four times a day, that’s how you tell your time.”
So these are tiny examples, but that empire failed to modernize. One was a blow inflicted from outside Spain and Portugal, the other was a self-inflicted blow. And that’s why whenever I go into that world, I say, “Yes, the American Empire, the West, has done a horrible thing; but that’s not the total explanation.”
You write about the Muslim Brotherhood and its founder, “What Hasan al-Banna, the Brothers and their numerous successors today can never accept is materialism: not as a school of thought or a doctrine in the narrow sense of the word, nor even as a chance occurrence, but as an undeniable reality. Something that cannot be altered regardless of who rules the state… Thinking people search for truth in matter because they are aware that there is nowhere else for them to search.” Comment on what you said there. Is there anything you would add to that?
What can one add? For me, it’s so obvious as a lifelong materialist that that’s how to understand the origins of life, the origins of the planet, the origins of the universe; there’s no other explanation for it. You can totally understand the ancients trying to create their own image in the gods they believed in, and then the emergence of the monotheisms, in order to find in those times some other explanation which easily explained the world. The sort of beliefs I was most sympathetic to — I mean, at least I understood them — were those who tried to worship nature, because that was all-powerful: the sun, when it came out; the moon, what it did to the tides; trees on which food grew. That sort of worship you understand because that’s what keeps you living.
But then with the arrival of the big three monotheisms — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — that all began to change, and you began a totally different structure. The needs for these monotheisms were different: they were political needs, in my opinion. But the fact that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we have people who believe in creationism in this country — ! This is probably the most religious country in the advanced capitalist world; more people here declare a belief in the supreme being than anywhere in Europe or in the Muslim world. I find it incomprehensible that we are still at that stage where they still believe in [creationism]. Materialism is so evident to me; how can they not believe it? It’s beyond reason. It’s such a violation of reason. In many parts of the Muslim world, that’s what holds them back. Biology can’t be taught in many Muslim countries, because to teach it means you give people other ideas. When I was growing up, the one subject we were not taught, even in those missionary schools, was biology.
So in the end, is it really this inability to separate religion from the state in the Islamic world that is the key problem? Or is the problem of the Muslim world’s relation to the Western empire more important?
It’s a combination of both. The critique, therefore, has to be a dual critique, both of the empire, but also of the failure of these regimes in [the Islamic] world to sort out their own problems. You can’t blame everything, after all, on Western intervention. There’s a whole period in that world where they could have gone on their own. It’s true the empire intervened to stop them, but if they had behaved in a different way, they would have won. I’ll give you one concrete example.
In the late fifties, there was a wave of nationalist revolutions in the Arab world — Egypt, Iraq — and there was a real possibility of creating a single Arab entity, or a dominant Arab entity, the “Arab Nation,” which was the dream of the all the Arabs and their poets. There was first a union between Egypt and Syria in which the Egyptians should have shared more power with the Syrians instead of treating them as they did, seeing themselves as the dominant nation. Then you had a revolution in Iraq in 1958, and the new ruler of Iraq, Abdel Kerim Kassem, was a nationalist. Radio Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus were [all] preaching nationalist revolutions. The Saudi regime was trembling. The Iraqis proposed one Arab nation with three concurrent capitals — Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus — run as one entity, to be funded by Iraqi oil. Now, to my mind, if that had happened, it would have taken that world onto a different level altogether in terms of modernization, education of the population, etc., etc.
Why didn’t it happen? People say, “Ah, the Americans used Israel to hit the nations in ’67.” That is true, but that was already when the attempt to create a single Arab entity had been defeated. So between ’58 and ’67, there were real possibilities in that world which they didn’t take for foolish reasons, for reasons of political pride, narcissism, factionalism, stupidity. And we now pay the price for that.
5-Resistance to Imperialism
Looking at the empire, which is the other side of this Clash of Fundamentalisms work that you’ve given us, where do you see countervailing forces to America’s power in today’s world? Is Europe the possibility? Or is it some evolving consciousness emerging within the United States that could ultimately lead to a protest movement within the United States?
There is no single center of resistance. As far as the Middle East is concerned, what will determine the future of that region will be resistance in that region itself. In my opinion, over the next ten or twenty years, it’s not impossible that you will have a wave of pretty classical revolutions to transform those countries. The people are fed up. They might go through an Islamist phase. They probably will. They may not. It’s difficult to predict. And that resistance is very necessary as a wake-up call for citizens in the United States.
The Europeans are very angry about this recent war in Iraq, but by and large, they have never succeeded in opposing the United States since the collapse of communism. Prior to that, they did. The French were completely opposed to the Vietnam War, and no European country was involved in that war. The only backers the United States had on the battleground in Vietnam were a few South Koreans and Australians. No European country was involved, and it’s worth remembering that.
So there has been opposition before. The opposition this time, relatively speaking, is very strong on the ground, very weak above. The French and Germans opposed the war. Once the war began, they wished the United States Godspeed and said, “Finish it quickly”; allowed airspace and bases to be used. No attempt was made to stop it, except on a verbal level before it began.
So I am very dubious about the capacity of Europe, certainly at the present time, to develop an entity which can be an economic political rival, which would be very important, because that creates the space in which people like us breathe and live. But I don’t know whether that will happen. The United States, of course, is determined to diversify Europe to such an extent that it becomes a meaningless entity, bringing in all these Eastern European states. Whoever coined the phrase for them in the old days, “satellite states,” was very prescient. That’s all we can say. They remain that.
So then there is political activism. We’ve talked about consciousness, how it can evolve and can exist underground in situations of oppression. But how do we get back to the link to political action, to political activism? What will be the fuse, so to speak, that will create a situation where a consciousness that’s evolving, that may be underground now, that is shown in demonstrations, actually has political consequences that will change the direction, say, for example, of U.S. foreign policy?
The fuse often comes in ways that are unpredictable. The big fuse which stopped the Vietnam War was the inability of the United States to win that war — the fact that it was suffering defeats on the battleground, and the body-bag factor. Sometimes when I’m arguing with hard-core fundamentalists, Islamic ones, I [ask] what threatened the Pentagon more: a few idiots throwing bombs on it, a building which can be repaired within two weeks? Well, I think that did not threaten anyone. It’s just an act of stupidity, foolishness, politically. Compare that to the seventies when you had a quarter of a million GIs who had fought in the war — veterans on their crutches, with their medals, marching outside the Pentagon and chanting that they wanted the Vietnamese to win. What affects them more? Obviously, the latter, because that shows that the core of that state apparatus is infected with ideas which challenge the empire. Ultimately, that has got to be the route.
I’ve been reading about this lately, that when the United States occupied the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century, a group of intellectuals led by Mark Twain, and Henry James, and William James, and Thomas Dewy, and the cream of the American intelligentsia, organized the Anti-Imperialist League. There was a massive gathering in Chicago in 1898 or ’99, and within a year and a half, it had a quarter of a million members. So, that’s necessary for educational purposes.
What is necessary for what you are asking is a political party, because if these movements, whether it’s the Anti-Imperialist League or anything like it, are not reflected on the level of politics, then they will be ineffective, in my opinion. What is very noticeable is that this giant antiwar movement which erupted before the war in Iraq, which is unprecedented in world history, wasn’t reflected on the level of politics. The anti- Vietnam War movement was. I remember vividly the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under William Fulbright putting pressure to get the truth, and a whole wave of politicians, Democratic politicians, challenging the official view. Since 9/11, it’s been the silence of the lambs. They’ve given up, the Democrats, you feel. And sooner or later, if they can’t do it, something will have to emerge in this country which does reflect the view of a sizable section of the people. Unless that happens, I think we’re doomed. We have to find ways of doing that.
Will it be some failure of the American capitalist economy that is the ignition here?
It could be. It could be. Though, in my view, an economic failure becomes a radicalizing force only when an alternative exists. If there is no alternative way of functioning, and people know that such an alternative doesn’t exist, economic failures, recessions can lead to total demoralization, and also see the emergence of very, very xenophobic currents, where you find solutions for the economic crises in seeing which is the minority that we can crush, and blaming the problems of the system on ethnic minorities. That’s happened before.
So I think an economic crisis for the United States would certainly shake the system, but if a political option or an alternative to it doesn’t exist, they will recover and pull back. There are no final crises for these people unless there’s an alternative. The big difference from the twenties and the recessions and the economic crises of the twenties and thirties is that at that time, rightly or wrongly, people saw there was an alternative in the socialist or communist economic system. Now that is not seen as an alternative, because there is no alternative. So that’s the problem we confront. Many people are working to find an alternative to this way of functioning, the capitalist economy, which can win over broad support.
Where is the beginning of that agenda being written?
The beginning of that agenda is being written in the big mobilizations of the movements for global justice, which grew up in Seattle, then traveled across the Atlantic to Europe, then across the Panama Canal to Latin America. I mean, Latin America is the one continent which is in complete revolt against neoliberal economic policies. Virtually every country in Latin America has a movement, It is interesting that that’s where it’s happening. The World Social Forum, which meets once a year, is the place where many ideas are being hammered out.
If students were to watch this interview, how would you advise them to prepare for the future?
I would advise them not to trust their politicians. And I would trust them to doubt everything they see on the mainstream media and read in the press, to use their own brains and not accept what they are given as home truths, to ask themselves, “Could this possibly be true?” Always to question and to doubt.
We have a very clear-cut case in front of us. This government went to war to occupy a sovereign independent state, telling its people there were weapons of mass destruction, and that Saddam Hussein might give these weapons of mass destruction to al Qaeda. Sixty percent of the American population believed in the link between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein where none existed. Anyone with the slightest bit of real knowledge would know that Saddam Hussein was a complete sworn opponent of Islamic fundamentalists. They hate each other. No one in the rest of the world believes this except in the United States. No one in the rest of the world believed the story of weapons of mass destruction to the same extent as in the United States. It’s now turned out to be a lie: “There ain’t any.” And the neo-cons around Bush are saying, “Well, so what if we haven’t found any? We got rid of him and brought freedom to the people of Iraq.” But that “so what” is a very demeaning and debasing aspect of contemporary American politics. Unless the citizenry is vigilant and alert, they will carry on doing this. So my advice to students is, I know you’re under enormous pressures — financial pressures, pressures to find work — I understand that. But if you’re not engaged in challenging the lies of the system, what’s the good of living in this society?
One final question. Looking at your intellectual journey, what one or two themes do you think emerge that pull the ideas together that you’ve grappled with and continue to grapple with?
One of the ideas which played a very big part in my own formation [I learned from] the ideas of Marx and Lenin and Trotsky and various others when I was very young. From them, one learned and understood that the capitalist system was inherently unjust. Even with the best will in the world, it couldn’t become a just system, because it was based on the exploitation of the many by the few. That was its basis. We see this now reaching astronomical proportions, both inside the United States and globally. From that we learned that we have to have another system.
I was very critical of the Soviet Union from ’56 onwards. I said, “This system isn’t working.” I was quite young, but I could see that this wasn’t going to work. So what I learned from the failures and collapse of that system is that imposing that form of economic model without levels of accountability at every level, political and economic, is not going to work. So I became a believer in what I call socialist democracy. In my view, far from being the case that democracy is only compatible with capitalism, in fact, we see now that democracy is becoming incompatible with capitalism. Democracy will be only compatible with a system which is not based on exploitation. And that is something that I have believed in for a long time.
Tariq, thank you very much for sharing this time with us and sharing this account of your intellectual journey. Thank you.
Thank you very much.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.
1- Writer, broadcaster, filmmaker, and a major figure in the European New Left. He is the author, most recently, of The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity, and is an editor of the New Left Review. He’s on the Berkeley campus to deliver the 2003 Sanford S. Elberg Lecturein International Studies.