an interview by David Barsamian
The Progressive magazine, January 2002
Tariq Ali was born in 1943 in Lahore, in what was then British-controlled
India. He was educated in Pakistan and then at Oxford. His opposition
to the military dictatorship in Pakistan during the 1960s led
to permanent exile in Britain. He was active in the anti-war movement
in Europe during the late 1960s.
Ali is a longstanding editor of New Left Review and has written
more than a dozen books on history and politics. His forthcoming
book is The Clash of Fundamentalism: Crusades, Jihad, and Modernity
(Verso, 2002). He also has been working on two sets of novels.
Three novels of the "Islamic Quintet" have been published
by Verso: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin,
and The Stone Woman. They portray Islamic civilization in a way
that he says "run counter to the standard views." His
"Fall of Communism" trilogy has seen the publication
of Redemption and Fear of Mirrors. Ali's creative output extends
to scripts for stage and screen. A short play of his on Iraq was
recently performed at Cooper Union in New York. A veritable "all
'rounder," as they say in South Asia, he is currently working
on an opera on Ayatollah Khomeini.
In late October, he was detained at the Munich airport. "The
inspector's eyes fell on a slim volume in German that had been
given to me by a local publisher," he said. "It was
still wrapped in cellophane. In a state of some excitement, the
inspector rushed it over to an armed policeman. The offending
book was an essay by Karl Marx, On Suicide." Ali said he
was rudely instructed to repack his bag, minus the book, and was
then taken to police headquarters at the airport. The arresting
officer, Ali added, "gave me a triumphant smile and said,
'After September 11, you can't travel with books like this.' At
this point, my patience evaporated."
Ali demanded to call the mayor of Munich, who had earlier
interviewed him on the current crisis at a public event in the
city. The threat of the call was sufficient, and Ali was allowed
to continue on his journey.
Ali lives in London, and I spoke with him in late November
Q: A Pakistani general once told you,
Tariq Ali: "Pakistan was the condom that the Americans
needed to enter Afghanistan. We've served our purpose and they
think we can be just flushed down the toilet." That was in
the 1980s, when the United States and Pakistan funded and armed
the mujahedeen to defeat the godless Soviet Union. Is the United
States again using Pakistan as a condom,
Tariq Ali: I think the Americans fished out the same condom
but found it had too many holes in it. So they supplied a new
one, and they've gone in again. But this time they couldn't go
in with the Pakistani army, since the Pakistani army created the
Taliban and propelled it to victory. It could hardly be expected
to kill its own offspring. The U.S. forced the Pakistani army
to withdraw its support, which it did, reluctantly. But it had
to. Once Pakistani support was withdrawn from the Taliban, they
collapsed like a house of cards, though one hardline faction will
probably carry on in the mountains for a bit.
Q: Most Americans may not know the history of Pakistani-U.S.
support for the Taliban. In a talk you gave in late September,
you said, "People are taught to forget history." What
did you have in mind there?
Ali: In the West, since the collapse of communism and the
fall of the Soviet Union, the one discipline both the official
and unofficial cultures have united in casting aside has been
history. It's somehow as if history has become too subversive.
The past has too much knowledge embedded in it, and therefore
it's best to forget it and start anew. But as everyone is discovering,
you can't do this to history; it refuses to go away. If you try
to suppress it, it reemerges in horrific fashion. That's essentially
what's been going on.
It's a total failure of the Western imagination that the only
enemy they can see is Adolph Hitler. This is something that actually
started during the Suez War of 1956, what I call the first oil
war. Gamal Abdal Nasser, the nationalist leader of Egypt, was
described by British Prime Minister Anthony Eden as an Egyptian
Hitler. Then it carried on like that. Saddam Hussein became Hitler
when he was no longer a friend of the West. Then Milosevic became
Hitler. Now Al Qaeda and the Taliban are portrayed as fascists.
The implication strongly is that Osama bin Laden is a Hitler,
even though he has no state power at all. It's just grotesque
if you seriously think about it. In reality, the only player in
this game who was soft on the Nazis was King Zahir Shah, who then
sat on the Afghan throne. He hoped they would defeat the British
in India, and he, having collaborated, might share part of the
But the reason they can get away with it is that history has
been totally downplayed. We have populations now in the West with
a very short memory span. One reason for this short memory span
is that television over the last fifteen years has seen a big
decline in the coverage of the rest of the world. History, when
they do it, is ancient history, and they sensationalize even that.
Contemporary history is virtually ignored on television. If you
see what passes as the news on the networks in the United States,
there's virtually no coverage of the rest of the world, not even
of neighboring countries like Mexico or neighboring continents
like Latin America. It's essentially a very provincial culture,
and that breeds ignorance. This ignorance is very useful in times
of war because you can whip up a rapid rage in ill-informed populations
and go to war against almost any country. That is a very frightening
Q: Contrast the last wars of the twentieth century with the
first war of the twenty-first century.
Ali: One difference is that the previous wars were genuinely
fought by coalition. The United States was the dominant power
in these coalitions, but it had to get other people on its side.
In both the Gulf War and in Kosovo, the U.S. had to get the agreement
of other people in these alliances before it moved forward. The
war in Afghanistan, the first war of the twenty-first century,
shows the United States doing what it wants to do, not caring
about who it antagonizes, not caring about the effects on neighboring
regions. I don't think it's too bothered with what happens afterwards,
otherwise it would be more worried about the Northern Alliance.
The U.S. is telling the Northern Alliance to kill Taliban prisoners.
It's totally a breach of all the known conventions of war. Western
television networks aren't showing this, but Arab networks are
showing how prisoners are being killed and what's being done to
them. Instead, we're shown scenes that are deliberately created
for the Western media: a few women without the veil, a woman reading
the news on Kabul television, and 150 people cheering.
All these wars are similar in the way ideology is being used.
It's the ideology of so-called humanitarian intervention. We don't
want to do this, but we're doing this for the sake of the people
who live there. This is, of course, a terrible sleight of hand
because all sorts of people live there, and, by and large, they
do it to help one faction and not the other. In the case of Afghanistan,
they didn't even make that pretense. It was essentially a crude
war of revenge designed largely to appease the U.S. public. In
Canada in mid-November, I was debating Charles Krauthammer, and
I said it was a war of revenge and he said, "Yeah, it was,
so what?" The more hardline people, who are also more realistic,
just accept this.
And the United States has perfected the manipulation. The
media plays a very big, big role.
Q: In what way?
Ali: During the Gulf War, journalists used to challenge government
news managers and insisted they wouldn't just accept the official
version of events. It seems that with the war in the Balkans and
now this, journalists have accepted the official version. Journalists
go to press briefings at the Ministry of Defense in London or
the Pentagon in Washington, and no critical questions are posed
at all. It's just a news-gathering operation, and the fact that
the news is being given by governments who are waging war doesn't
seem to worry many journalists too much.
The task does really devolve to alternative networks of information
and education. The Internet has been an invaluable acquisition.
I wonder how we would do without it. Information can be sent from
one country to the other within the space of minutes, crossing
channels, crossing oceans, crossing continents. But still, we
can't compete with the might and power and wealth of those who
dominate, control, and own the means of the production of information
today. These are the five or six large companies that control
and own the media, publishing houses, and the cinema.
Q: Tony Blair has occupied center stage in the war on terrorism.
In many ways he is even more visible than Bush. What accounts
for Blair's enthusiasm for the war?
Ali: Blair does it to get attention. He does it to posture
and prance around on the world stage, pretending that he is the
leader of a big imperial power when, in fact, he's the leader
of a medium-sized country in Northern Europe.
I think Clinton certainly liked using him. But the Bush Administration
doesn't take him that seriously.
Q: Noam Chomsky points out that Britain did not bomb Boston
and New York, where major IRA supporters and financial networks
Ali: I think Noam's right. But to just even raise the point
goes to show that Britain isn't an imperial power and the United
States is. The United States is now The Empire. There isn't an
empire; there's The Empire, and that empire is the United States.
It's very interesting that this war is not being fought by the
NATO high command. NATO has been totally marginalized. The "coalition
against terrorism" means the United States. It does not wish
anyone else to interfere with its strategy. When the Germans offered
2,000 soldiers, Rumsfeld said we never asked for them. Quite amazing
to say this in public.
Q: In a recent article, you cited a poem by the tenth-century
secular Arab poet al-Maarri:
And where the Prince commanded, now the shriek,
Of wind is flying through the court of state;
"Here," it proclaims, "there dwelt a potentate,
Who would not hear the sobbing of the weak."
Talk about "the sobbing of the weak."
Ali: The sobbing of the weak today is the sobbing of the victims
of neoliberal policies. They consist of billions of people all
over the world. These are the people who leave their countries.
These are the people who cling onto the belly of a plane leaving
Africa for Europe, not caring if they are killed in the process,
and many of them are. This desperation is the result of globalization.
The question is, will the weak be able to organize themselves
to bring about changes or not? Will the weak develop an internal
strength and a political strength to ever challenge the rulers
that be? These are the questions posed by the world in which we
live. People are increasingly beginning to feel that democracy
itself is being destroyed by this latest phase of globalization
and that politics doesn't matter because it changes nothing. This
is a very dangerous situation on the global level, because when
this happens, then you also see acts of terrorism. Terrorism emanates
from weakness, not strength. It is the sign of despair.
Dear old al-Maarri was a great skeptic poet. He wrote a parody
of the Koran, and his friends would tease him and say, "al-Maarri,
but no one says your Koran." And he said, "Yes, but
give me time. Give me time. If people recite it for twenty years
it will become as popular as the other one." It was a good
moment in Islam when people were actually challenging authority
at every level. Very different from the world we live in now,
Q: And in this world, the United States is projecting a long
war on terrorism. They're talking about it lasting for ten or
fifteen years, and involving up to sixty countries. The Bush Administration
reminds us almost on a daily basis that the war on terrorism is
still in its earliest stages. What are the implications of that?
Ali: The main implication is a remapping of the world in line
with American policy and American interests. Natural resources
are limited, and the United States wants to make sure that its
own population is kept supplied. The principle effect of this
will be for the United States to control large parts of the oil
which the world possesses. There are some people who say this
war was fought because of oil. I honestly don't believe it. But
that doesn't mean once they have sorted out the first phase of
it, the war won't be used to assert or reassert U.S. economic
hegemony in the region.
They want to do it in the Middle East, as well. A big problem
in the Middle East is that the Iraqi state and Syrian state are
potential threats to Israel just by the very fact they exist.
Iraq also sits on a great deal of oil, and as that cutthroat Kissinger
once said, "Why should we let the Arabs have the oil?"
Since Israel is the central ally of the United States in the region,
the U.S. would like to weaken the potential opposition. Attacking
Iraq, and possibly even Syria, is one way to do that. This is
a policy fraught with danger for those who carry it out because
it totally excludes the reaction of ordinary people. Could there
be mass explosions? And if there are, then you will see countries
like Saudi Arabia going under. No one would weep if the royal
family were overthrown, but they would probably if it were replaced
by a U.S. protectorate or a U.S. colonial-type administration,
or the U.S. disguised as the U.N. Other corrupt sheikdoms, like
the United Arab Emirates, would crumble, as well. Then what will
the U.S. do? Have the Israelis acting as guardians of oil in the
whole region? That will mean a permanent guerrilla warfare. Or
will they have American and European troops guarding these regions?
That, too, would mean limited guerrilla warfare. The only way
they'll be able to rule is by killing large numbers of people
who live there.
Q: What about Iraq?
Ali: If they attack Iraq in the next phase, it could create
big problems for them. I'm sure that in Europe the anti-war movement
would just mushroom. The Arab world could really explode. That
is what their close allies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt are telling
them: Do not attack Iraq. The coalition will break up, and even
Turkey is saying that it will not be party to an attack on Iraq.
Probably the plan is to create an independent state in a corner
of Iraq, and then use that as a base to destroy Saddam Hussein.
If they go down that route, the world then becomes a very unpredictable
and very dangerous place. The one thing that it will not do is
curb terrorism. It will increase terrorism, because the more governments
you destroy, the more the people will seek revenge.
After flirting with neo-isolationism, the U.S. is now deciding
it wants to run the world. The U.S. should come out openly and
say to the world, "We are the only imperial power, and we're
going to rule you, and if you don't like it you can lump it."
American imperialism has always been the imperialism that has
been frightened of speaking its name. Now it's beginning to do
so. In a way, it's better. We know where we kneel.
David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder,