David Barsamian interviews Tariq
www.zmag.org, March 2006
Tariq Ali was born in Lahore,
then a part of British-ruled India, now in Pakistan. For many
years he has been based in London where he is an editor of New
Left Review. He's written more than a dozen books on world history
and politics. He is also a filmmaker, playwright, and novelist.
He is the author of The Clash of Fundamentalisms and Bush in Babylon.
His latest book is Speaking of Empire & Resistance. I talked
with him in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on December 16, 2005 during
the Perdana Gobal Peace Forum.
BARSAMIAN: Lawrence of Arabia wrote in
1920, "The people of England have been led in Iraq into a
trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour.
They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information.
It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed
for any ordinary cure.... Our unfortunate troops, under hard conditions
of climate and supply are policing an immense area, paying dearly
every day in lives for the willfully wrong policy." It's
interesting how history moves in cycles.
ALI: I've always argued that though history
never repeats itself exactly, it constantly echoes. And these
echoes of history are with us as long as the structures of the
world remain basically the same.
On May 1, 2005, the Sunday Times of London
published the Downing Street memo. It became front-page news in
Britain, but not in the U.S. Explain what it is.
The Downing Street memo is the record
of a set of secret conversations, which took place at the highest
levels of the British government and intelligence and civil services.
What the memorandum reveals is that from the beginning they were
determined to lie their way to war.
The date of the memo is July 23, 2002,
months before the invasion of Iraq.
Essentially these rogues were devising
a plan to go to war, setting traps for the Iraqi government. The
staggering thing is that despite the publication of the Downing
Street memorandum, Blair is still prime minister of Britain, Jack
Straw is still foreign secretary, and George Bush and Dick Cheney
are still running the United States. The public is so cynical
it doesn't much care.
Another stunning revelation that appeared
in the British press, the Daily Mirror, was that President Bush
proposed bombing Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arab satellite network.
Al-Jazeera posed a big problem-from the
beginning it provided alternative images. These images could be
seen in Europe. The number of European citizens, especially in
France, Germany, and Britain, buying Al-Jazeera cable sets so
that they could access the station went up by two million at the
start of the war. Even though people couldn't speak a word of
Arabic, they did not trust Western images and they wanted to see
And it was in order to destroy any possibility
of alternative images that the U.S. bombed Al-Jazeera in Afghanistan
at the start of the war there. They bombed Al-Jazeera positions
even though Al-Jazeera's directors had told them, "This is
where our offices are. Please make sure they don't bomb us."
Besides the murder of Tariq Ayoub, we have seen a senior Al-Jazeera
correspondent arrested in Spain and charged with terrorism on
the basis of information received from the U.S. We have an Al-Jazeera
correspondent arrested and tortured in Abu Ghraib prison and we
have an Al-Jazeera correspondent at Guantanamo Bay.
DB: On July 7, 2005 the London underground
and a bus were bombed, resulting in scores of deaths and casualties.
What has happened to civil liberties in Britain since the bombings?
TA: The London bombings were a tragedy
because innocents died and these young kids who carried them out
took their own lives. Senseless carnage on the streets of a city
which, by and large, had opposed the war. Nonetheless, one had
to ask, "Why did they do it?" And here you saw for one
whole week the British establishment and the entire British media
system closing ranks. I think, without blowing my own trumpet,
that I was the only person who wrote in the Guardian the following
day an article on the bombings, saying that this was a direct
outcome of Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. The Guardian,
to its credit, published this. But the letters columns published
attacks on me for days on end, without anyone being allowed to
respond. Normally after I make a public intervention, I get about
100 emails, sometimes a bit more, 80 percent usually in favor,
20 percent against. After this article, I got over 800 emails
and over 90 percent of them were in favor.
Within two weeks it became clear that
what I had said was right. The first opinion poll, published in
the Guardian, showed that 66 percent of the British public said
that the attacks on London were a direct outcome of the war on
Iraq. Then we had the leak of a letter written by the head of
the British Foreign Office to the prime minister's office a year
prior to the bombings saying, "I am deeply concerned that
our foreign policy and intervention in Iraq are creating havoc
inside the Muslim communities in Britain." Then we had a
special report, commissioned by the Royal Institute of International
Affairs, a semi-Foreign Office think tank. They said, "The
war in Iraq has created massive problems within Britain itself
and has threatened the security of our country." July 7 brought
all that to the fore. Blair's ratings are now down. He is a much
loathed and despised prime minister.
DB: And civil liberties?
TA: Blair, in order to show that he was
doing something, has waged a war on civil liberties. He has demanded
emergency laws and demanded that the police should be allowed
to detain and hold suspects for 90 days. The 90-day law was a
law of apartheid South Africa, which used to be criticized by
liberals and conservatives alike as something unacceptable within
a democratic state.
But there already is a law under existing
legislation whereby police can detain someone for 14 days without
access to a lawyer. The shoddy compromise was 28 days, not the
proposed 90. The parliamentarians who defeated the 90-day law
said, "We've defeated Blair," which is true. They humiliated
him. But for the police to hold someone for a whole month? Unheard
of. Habeas corpus suspended, the right to hold prisoners without
trial indefinitely? This is what is going on in Britain today.
Part of the lexicon of the war on terrorism
are such phrases as ghost detainees, extraordinary rendition,
secret flights, and secret prisons. This has created a brouhaha
in Europe and prompted a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice to explain the situation.
We know that Condoleezza Rice was subjected
to quite tough questioning, especially when she visited Germany,
because they had lifted a German citizen when he was vacationing
somewhere and had taken him to some prison. According to this
unfortunate German citizen, he was sodomized, tortured, and locked
up. Finally they realized he wasn't guilty of anything and had
to release him. He's now trying to sue the U.S. government. He
was kidnapped and the German government didn't lift a finger to
do anything. When Condoleezza Rice visited Berlin, the new German
chancellor, who supported the Iraq war, Angela Merkel, had to
confront Rice on this question because the German press was outraged.
There is outrage all over Europe. The
Italians, who have a pro-U.S. government, are nonetheless angry
that people are lifted off the streets of Rome and taken on planes
to Guantánamo, prisons in Egypt, or wherever. No one quite
knows. The European media have been very angry and say it's a
violation of human rights laws. Blair, of course, is the only
one who isn't angry because he's been fully collaborating with
this. Unmarked planes have been seen taking off from British airports
Some of the prisons they have been taken
to are in Eastern Europe. You will recall that throughout the
Cold War we were told Eastern Europe were satellite states of
the Soviet Union, they didn't have their own freedoms. Exactly
the same is happening now. It's just that they've become satellite
states of the U.S. In many cases the same people who were working
with the Russians are now working with the U.S. I wouldn't be
surprised if many of the prison guards and wardens are the same.
Eastern Europe dissidents who used to
scream and shout in order to get U.S. assistance-Václav
Havel, Adam Michnik, Lech Walechsa-where are they now? Why don't
they speak up? Michnik and Havel actually supported the war in
Iraq and presumably justified this as part of the fight against
"barbarism" or whatever. I don't know. But this is another
aspect of the situation in Europe, which very few people actually
Sectors of the U.S. elite are critical
of the Iraq war such as Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign
Relations and Colin Powell's deputy, Lawrence Wilkerson. Even
the New York Times. The gist of their critique, however, is based
not on the immorality or criminality of attacking a country, but
on the incompetence and ineptitude of the Bush administration.
Their logic is that if they had done it properly, we wouldn't
have any problems.
The people who only talk about ineptitude
are people who basically supported the war and now feel compelled
to come out against it because it's gone wrong. It's the fact
that they didn't expect a resistance. That's very, very dangerous
talk. It is no way to fight this crazed adventurism of the Bush
administration. It totally plays into their hands. They can then
point to these people and say, "They want us to send more
troops." And we might have a weird situation where many Democrats,
like Hillary Clinton and her gang, are attacking Republicans for
not sending more troops. Is this what the next political debate
within the American political establishment should be? We did
send enough troops. No, you didn't send enough troops. We did,
you didn't, we did, you didn't. Give us a break.
DB: In an article in the Guardian, you
write that "the argument that withdrawal will lead to civil
war is slightly absurd." Why do you say that?
Because a form of civil war exists already.
Whenever imperial powers occupy a country, historically speaking,
there is one basic policy they follow, which is divide and rule.
Usually they go for a minority ethnic community, give them all
sorts of privileges, and hope that will do the trick. In Iraq
the British did that with the Sunnis. It kept the Shia at bay.
It relied on the Sunni elite to do the trick for them, which worked
for a short time. The U.S. is relying largely on the Kurds and
collaborationist element within the Shia religious leadership
to do the business for them. I'm not sure it's going to work with
the rest of Iraq. But the notion that if they leave, there will
be a civil war is utterly ludicrous because it's their presence
that has created a civil war situation inside Iraq.
DB: Harold Pinter won the 2005 Nobel Prize
for Literature. His acceptance speech, "Art, Truth, and Politics,"
was a critique of U.S. power around the world. He says, "The
crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious,
remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them."
What kind of coverage did Pinter, who is British, get?
TA: Harold Pinter is probably the greatest
living playwright in the English-speaking world today. He is highly
respected in Britain, including by people who don't agree with
his political opinions. His speech was shown on Channel 4 television,
extracts were shown on the BBC. It was a very moving speech because
he was ill in bed. It was given massive coverage in the British
media and in Europe. I think it's been translated into almost
every European language. It was certainly publicized widely all
over Asia, Africa, and a big extract of Pinter's speech was shown
on Telesur, the Latin American TV channel. And I'm sure Al-Jazeera
broadcast it as well. The only country where this speech was not
broadcast or covered was in the U.S.
U.S. military power is unchallenged and
supreme. However, on the economic level, the U.S. is plagued by
a number of serious problems. Other than weapons and cultural
products, such as music, Hollywood films, and video games, there
are very few things made in the U.S. that people around the world
want. So there seems to be a paradox, perhaps echoing previous
empires, of great military power, on one hand, and an eroding
This is true and it certainly applies
to the British and the European empires of the 20th century. Though
in the case of the Germans, they were defeated not economically,
but militarily. But, by and large, empires extend themselves too
far, their economies begin to suffer, and there are rebellions
within. It's the conjunction of all these events which usually
helps to bring about the fall of empires.
The U.S. can't do this indefinitely, granted,
but it can do it easily for another 25 years. I think the alarm
bells are beginning to ring inside the U.S. because they are threatened
now not by this spurious threat of terror or tiny groups of religious
extremists, but by economic developments in East Asia.
The emergence of China as a very major
player does potentially threaten the U.S., though even here I
would advise caution. I have many colleagues and friends in the
American academy who sometimes get carried away by the development
of China. They sort of ascribe to the Chinese leadership motives
that are remote from Chinese thinking. The Chinese, after all,
are dependent on the U.S. market so this notion that they can
punish the U.S. just by withdrawing from the dollar reserves and
going to the Euro would punish themselves. If the U.S. imposed
tariffs on Chinese exports to the U.S., then the Chinese could
do something. But as long as they don't impose tariff barriers
and there is free trade taking place between both countries, then
the Chinese are not going to do anything, because the Chinese
economy is booming. The most dynamic capitalism you see today
is in China, not in the U.S., Europe, or South Korea even.
DB: Hurricane Katrina exposed enormous
fissures. in the U.S. Months after the hurricane, large sections
of New Orleans still do not have clean water, sanitation, electricity.
How was this seen in the British press?
TA: The European press, not just Britain,
are pretty obsessed with the U.S. because this is the empire before
which they scrape and bow. Anything that happens there is of enormous
concern. The coverage of the New Orleans events in the European
media was as if it was happening to their own countries. But they
were also shocked, just as for the first two weeks the U.S. media
was in a state of complete shock. Even journalists on Fox television
were reporting with real anger because they couldn't believe what
they were seeing and, like many Americans, had no idea that so
many black people lived in New Orleans. So this was a part of
the U.S., which they said was almost like the Third World. It
isn't almost. It is.
In this situation, what you see is a state
that cannot provide the basic amenities of life either to countries
it's occupying or to its own country. We know all this and there
has been endless stuff written about it. The thing is, as long
as no political, social, or economic alternative exists, they
will carry on getting away with it. Wouldn't it be great if in
New Orleans they stood independent candidates against the two-party
system and won. Just a small thing, but it would reverberate throughout
the U.S., saying, "You let us down and we're going to let
DB: How is fighting power today different
from the 1960s?
TA: It's very different in the sense that
in the 1960s and 1970s, and even the early 1980s, there was still
a lot of hope that you could get rid of this system and transform
it through a series of democratic revolutions or insurrections
or whatever. That no longer exists in large parts of the world.
So there is a general feeling that really we're stuck, there is
no real alternative to the system. That is the feeling in North
America, Europe, and large chunks of Asia and Africa.
Not in Latin America. Here you have the
beginnings of an alternative. This is why the propaganda war against
Chavez and the attempts to overthrow him make sense from the U.S.
point of view. Chavez is totally challenging the neoliberal economic
order. He quotes Simon Bolivar and numerous other leaders of Latin
American nationalism to say what needs to be done. And it's a
very clever, intelligent operation. He is using money from the
oil wealth of Venezuela, which has benefited the Venezuelan poor
enormously because they're lucky to have a government that doesn't
accept neoliberal jargon and neoliberal prescriptions. So you
have had in Venezuela a massive social expenditure on health,
education, creating shelter for the poor, land reform, giving
land to the peasant farmers, slum dwellers getting the right to
the houses they have built and the land on which they have built
them. All this is happening.
Gradually, news of this experience is
traveling through Latin America because ideas cross borders very
easily, they don't need passports. So Chavez and the Bolivarians
in Venezuela have become a pole of attraction for social movements
throughout Latin America. These, I would say, are social movements
which are movements in the genuine sense of the word. Every single
deprived layer is active in some way or the other.
Latin America, from that point of view,
is extremely important today in terms of offering some social
alternatives. One of the things they told me in Cuba, they said,
"We get fed up with these stupid articles in the American
press saying, 'After Fidel, Who? Miami? Raul Castro?'" They
said, "No, the answer is very simple. After Fidel, Hugo Chavez,
because," they said, "this is Latin America." This
continent has a habit of throwing up popular leaders who express
the aspirations of the poor.
Telesur TV, which you've been involved
in, went on the air in 2005. It broadcasts from Caracas and is
supported by the governments of Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, and
This is an idea that grew over the years.
I remember going to Caracas in 2003 to celebrate the defeat of
the coup attempt against Chavez. I said to them at a big public
rally where Chavez and others were present that one has to fight
on many fronts and one of the fronts one has to fight on is the
media front. And I said, "We have in the Arab world Al-Jazeera
and what we need in the Latin American world is Al Bolivar."
Afterwards, Chavez pointed out to me, "We can't call it Al
Bolivar because the Brazilians have no memory of Bolivar. He didn't
go there." So they called it Telesur instead. And together
with Eduardo Galeano, Fernando Solanas, many other intellectuals,
I'm on the advisory board. So when they ask us, we play an advisory
It's early yet to judge whether it will
be a success or not. They have not reached the level of Al-Jazeera.
Also, their project is slightly different from Al-Jazeera's. Telesur's
project is to unify Latin America, so it's critical of what's
going on, but at the same time it has a very constructive side
DB: The theme of the World Social Forum
is "another world is possible." What signs do you see
that another world is possible?
TA: The signs are there, largely in Latin
America. I have to say that in Africa and Asia there are not many
signs. There are some. You have the discontent of the Chinese
peasants now, who are demanding more and more social rights. You
have some social movements in India which have scored some victories.
But in terms of an overall alternative to the existing neoliberal
order, the big struggles that are taking place in Latin America.
So there are these possibilities. I don't exaggerate them. The
nice thing about the World Social Forum is that it's a gathering
of like-minded people who meet once a year or once every two years
and say, "Hi, guys, we're still around." Which is nice,
but it's not sufficient.
DB: What does the title of your book Rough
TA: "Rough music" is a phrase
that was popularized by the English historian E. P. Thompson who
said, "Rough music is the term which has been generally used
in England since the end of the 17th century to denote a rude
cacophony, with or without more elaborate ritual, which usually
directed mockery or hostility against individuals who offended
against certain community norms."
My book Rough Music is a rude cacophony
against Tony Blair and all the wielders of power and his embedded
journalists in the media who tell endless lies.
David Barsamian is the founder and current
director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado (www.alternative
radio.org) and the author of numerous books. His latest is Speaking
of Empire & Resistance, with Tariq Ali.