Nov. 12, 2008 - Issue #682: Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali: The time is right for a palace revolution
Renowned author and activist Tariq Ali comes to town to headline the Parkland Institute's annual fall conference
As the story goes, the Rolling Stones wrote their classic song of rebellion, “Street Fighting Man,” to honour the internationally renowned radical activist, author and atheist Tariq Ali after Mick Jagger saw him speak at a 1968 anti-war rally at the US embassy in London.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Ali has lived in exile since the 1960s in opposition to Pakistan’s then-military dictatorship. A longtime editor at the New Left Review, Tariq Ali has authored and edited numerous books on history and politics, including the classic The New Revolutionaries and more recently The Clash of Fundamentalisms, which investigates US power and its role in the creation of global terrorism.
A novelist, Ali has published four books of his “Islamic Quintet” which portray Islamic civilization counter to western orthodoxy, and the first two volumes in his “Fall of Communism” trilogy. Tariq Ali has also written stage- and screenplays, and is currently writing an opera about the late Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini. His most recent book is The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight of American Power.
Ali will deliver the closing keynote at the Parkland Institute’s annual fall conference, The Moral of the Story, on Sunday, November 16 (2:45 pm), speaking on western diversity and freedom of expression following the demise of the USSR, and how the market became supreme.
Tariq Ali spoke with Vue Weekly by telephone from his home in England a week before the recent American election. Here is some of what he had to say on Afghanistan, US hypocrisy and what the Obama presidency might mean.
Vue Weekly: Some say recent US airstrikes in Pakistan will quicken the rise of Pakistan’s Taliban to state power. Will they?
Tariq Ali: [The imminent fall of Pakistan] has been the standard view of many mainstream western journalists for five or six years now. And it’s completely misguided. I think the big problem in Pakistan is not the danger of Talibanization. These people who are pro-Taliban are a tiny minority. The real problem is the social break-up of the country as a result of incredibly difficult living conditions for the people. The notion that a group of Taliban or pro-Taliban or jihadi terrorists ... have the capacity to take Pakistan’s nuclear facilities in a country where the military is half-a-million strong is mind-boggling. It can’t happen.
VW: What effects are these attacks by the US having in Pakistan?
TA: [These attacks] are increasing Pashtun nationalism because [the strike zones] are the areas inhabited by Pashtuns. The second impact of this is inside the army, where it’s creating a great deal of anger amongst junior officers and ordinary soldiers who feel that they are being made to do the dirty work of the United States in Pakistan, instead of defending their country.
There is a danger if this carries on and isn’t brought under control by the new US administration after January, then you could have a destabilizing impact inside Pakistan itself.
I don’t think India has a problem [from such destabilization], but I think the real problem will be inside Pakistan where living conditions will get worse.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, this country is already in a mess. It’s occupied by the NATO powers, the United States principally, but Canada has troops there ... and all the reports coming out of Afghanistan from all sides indicate that this is a war that has gone badly wrong, that NATO has killed too many innocents in its bombing attacks, that the regime in Kabul is isolated and its reach does not really extend beyond Kabul, and that senior people inside the government [and] army are sympathetic to the neo-Taliban, the group that has re-formed itself with lots more support since the NATO occupation, which is why the United States and NATO are talking in secret negotiations with the Taliban, and why their puppet in Kabul, [President Hamid] Karzai, is constantly pleading with the Taliban to join his government.
VW: How does the Canadian military occupation affect Afghanistan?
TA: To be perfectly frank with you, if you questioned most people in Afghanistan, they would say they don’t see too much difference between the United States and Canada any longer. They feel [the same way] even about many Europeans—that they just do what the Americans tell them to do.
The last Canadian prime minister who tried to strike out an independent position for Canada was Pierre Trudeau. Since that time, things have got worse. Though after 9/11, Chrétien wasn’t as much of a Washington stooge as Tony Blair ... basically there was very little opposition from the Canadian political establishment to what was going on.
And you know, it’s now ironic that Stella Rimington, the former head of British intelligence, said that she thought it was a big mistake to over-exaggerate the impact of 9/11; she said it was a terrorist attack, nothing more than that, and that the “War on Terror” was a misguided notion. And these are some of the things that people like me were saying at the time, and we were denounced for this. But this is now common sense, certainly inside sections of the European intelligence community.
For Canada to show its loyalty to the United States by sending troops to Afghanistan in the big crisis after 9/11 is one thing. For it to keep its troops there once it became clear that these groups had no role whatsoever in finding Osama bin Laden, and basically were involved in occupying a country thousands and thousands of miles away, is something else. And if it ends up with the Taliban joining—or forming—the government in Kabul supported by the United States, then the irony will truly be beyond imagination, because it will show how far things have moved. Will Canada and these other European countries who support the United States then carry on doing so?
[Occupying powers] who created the problem, whose presence is exacerbating the problem, are not in a position to solve it because what the occupation of a country does is disrupt its organic development as a nation or a state. There should be an immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops both from Afghanistan and Iraq. That these countries will need some help is obvious. But this help should come from their neighbours. That is how and why the exit strategy needs to be organized.
VW: What western attitudes do you think help justify the illegal US-UK war in Iraq?
TA: Just think about it: over a million Iraqis have died, there are two-and-a-half million refugees. The social infrastructure of the country has been destroyed, there are unrecorded deaths beyond the millions, the condition of children is miserable and appalling—this happened as a result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. If there were no double standards in this world, Bush and Blair and the other leaders who went to war really would be tried as war criminals, because these are crimes. But it will never happen, because it’s the West that determines the rules, and it’s the West who sets up the court.
Milosevic of Serbia was tried for the events in Kosovo where the figures of death, appalling though they are, are at most, two-and-a-half thousand. How does that compare with what happens in Iraq? So it’s one law for a government which is not friendly with the US, and totally different laws for when the West goes in and does the business itself. And the same can be said for Afghanistan. The fact is that the deaths of Iraqis or Afghans or Pashtuns don’t matter in the Western world, by and large for most people, because they think that western lives are somehow superior.
There is a very deep racism that is involved in all this. There is no other explanation for citizens of the West not seeing the deaths of a million Iraqis as something to get worked up or angry about. If you compare that to the reaction when there were the terrorist attacks in the United States, and the people who died at the Twin Towers and the few in the Pentagon, the whole world was meant to go berserk, and if you didn’t go berserk to the extent they wanted you to, they questioned your credentials and said you were sympathetic to terrorists. But when you talk about a million Iraqis dead, and say, “What possible reason is there that there is not the same reaction, or even half of that reaction?” And the only possible reason could be that Iraqi lives, like Afghan lives, like Palestinian lives, simply do not matter.
VW: What about the estimated 1.5 million Iraqis killed by 13 years of US-led sanctions following the first invasion of Iraq?
TA: That was another atrocity which could not be blamed on the neo-cons or George W Bush and Cheney. Those were atrocities which were basically carried out by Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair—he was involved in that as well, not just the sanctions on Iraq but the weekly bombing raids that took place on that country for most of the Clinton administration.
Decent American liberals have a different attitude to when the Democrats do something to when the Republicans do it. If Obama, let’s say, sends as he’s promising to do, 50 000 more troops to Afghanistan, I fear the reaction in the United States will be muted on the part of the progressive community, compared to if George W Bush had done it. Let’s say that Bush, in a panic, suddenly said, “We’re sending 40 000 troops into Afghanistan,” there would’ve been incredibly strong criticism. If Obama does—let’s hope he doesn’t; let’s hope he sees sense—but if he does it, I think the criticism will be very muted. This is a big, big problem.
And it’s the same when Britain and Blair were involved in the invasion of Iraq and defended it with a real Christian vigour—I mean a fundamentalist vigour—a lot of people stayed silent: television commentators, newspaper journalists—whereas if the Conservatives had done it, these same people would’ve been really very angry. It took them about a year-and-a-half to get angry. [This hypocrisy] is not only lethal, but it encourages cynicism, despair, and in some cases, terrorism.
VW: What do you think accounts for the appeal of a neoliberal, right-wing Democrat like Obama among liberals and progressives?
TA: The stakes are high for lots of people who feel that if America elects a Black president, it will solve a lot of problems or it will be a sign that the past [of racial oppression and antagonism] now lies behind us. That is what people believe; I don’t think that this is true. One could argue that the Republicans in fact had more senior figures from the Afro-American community than the Democrats ever did: Colin Powell, senior figure in the US military [and] Secretary of State, Condi Rice, Secretary of State, Clarence Thomas, judge of the US Supreme Court.
It’s true [the Republicans] haven’t had a [Black] president. But in fact they’ve had Afro-Americans in these high positions in the American state means that [Obama’s presidency] is not that unusual. Of course, having a president like that will be a first, but I think people have to judge him on what he does, not what he says. In fact, he hasn’t said anything too radical, either. But what he does is going to be absolutely critical, and possibly in three or four years’ time, people will get over this and say, “Okay, so we had a Black president. What did he do for us?” I hope he does do something for the poor, but the indications are not good.
VW: What’s your take on the attention given to media critics of Islam such as Canadian Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble With Islam Today?
TA: When the ideological system and the media networks need such people as [Manji], they arrive and they emerge. And this applies not just to Islam and Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who produce the most appalling second-rate—if not third-rate—material based on a combination of encouraging ignorance, willful untruths in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, utilizing some episodes in their own past to make generalizations which don’t apply, and then are treated as if they were the modern Voltaire. Basically, when you have a wave of Islamophobia, these people play a very pernicious role, but are needed, and are used, and are promoted, and this happens systematically in the western world. Why these third-rates are published and treated like this is not a mystery to me, because [the elites] need them to, in order to maintain this new post-9/11 situation that “Even though not all Muslims are bad, Islam is a real problem.”
Now just think if anyone said that about the Jews today. We know what would happen. They’d be arrested in many European countries. They would be locked up. They would be charged with something or other and no one would touch these books. But it’s open game, it’s open house now as far as Islam is concerned, and anything goes. So Irshad Manji and her cronies can do what they want. People like this, I have nothing but contempt for. But the fact that the culture in which we live needs them and accepts them is in itself quite revealing. V
“The Moral of the Story,” the Parkland Institute’s annual fall conference starts Fri, Nov 14 (7:30 pm) at the Horowitz Theatre with the opening keynote by Megan Boler of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The conference continues on Saturday and Sunday with presentations by Nora Young, Murray Dobbin, Joe Brewer, Heather-jane Robertson, Dennis Soron and many others. For full conference information visit ualberta.ca/parkland.
Sun, Nov 16
(2:45 pm - 4:00 pm)
The Dictatorship of Capital: Its Impact on Politics and Culture
Horowitz Theatre, Students’ Union Building, U of A Campus
$15 / $10 low income
Part of The Parkland Institute’s Fall Conference, Nov 14 - 16
for details visit ualberta.ca/parkland
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