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The Troika of Imperialism, Petro-Sheikhs and Dissident Jihadis: On Tariq Ali.


Michael Berube, an English professor at Penn State University, has become quite a fixture in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In a recent article (“Ali vs. Hitchens: Battle on the Left,” 3 May), Berube tells us that he studies conflicts within the Left.

If Nader had got five percent in 2000, Berube would have been happy “not because I supported Nader, but because I wanted to see the Green Party hold a national convention, so I could watch the vegan-macrobiotic wing and the Mumia Abu-Jamal wing tear each other apart over health benefits for same-sex partners of replacement workers or some such thing.”

In many ways Berube’s callousness in this one sentence should anoint him as liberalism’s James Watt.

More than that, Berube’s derivative wit reveals his own Rorty-esque vision of politics: all these politics based on fractured identities provide fodder for humor, but they are not the universal unalloyed force that is the fantasy of some sections of the white Left. Messy lists of participants, movements and issues begone! The Left is strengthened by the vitality of these separate and interconnected struggles, not weakened by it.

This is not only a recent development, but, to take one example, the history of US communism during the Popular Front period is one of language-nationality clubs (Finnish Club, Yiddish Club) that allowed for the growth of the party’s influence and for the elaboration of linguistic and cultural traditions in an otherwise ravenous process of cultural assimilation.

But back to the Ali vs. Hitchens issue. I didn’t get to see Tariq Ali and Christopher Hitchens debate the events of the past six months, but I have read Ali’s new book (The Clash of Fundamentalisms, Verso, 2002) and many of the articles written by Hitchens on 9/11 and the Fifth Afghan War. Berube characterizes their differences in a pithy but misleading formulation, “The battle lines were clear from the outset: The Hitchens left is soft on American imperialism, and the Ali left is soft on Islamic radicalism.”

This is such an incendiary line that the Chronicle’s editors chose it as their pull quote. Hitchens is not “soft” on imperialism, for his current defense of the war indicates that he supports imperialist action if it produces liberal outcomes.

If intervention is able to dislodge the Taliban or Milosevic, then so be it, regardless of the cost to international norms or even of the nefarious motives of imperialism. There is nothing “soft” about Hitchens’ embrace of the USAF bombers as they ploughed their way through the Afghan countryside. He stood on the sidelines and cheered on the Special Forces.

For anyone who has read Ali’s large oeuvre, or even the many articles since 9/11 (written for the UK’s Guardian, and often carried on the Internet by ZNet and Counterpunch), the assertion that he is “soft on Islamic radicalism” is a strange one.

If by “Islamic radicalism” Berube means those trends in Islam that claim to return to the source, to the al-Quran and the era of anything upto the fourth Caliph (such as the Wahabbites and the Taliban), then there is no doubt that Ali is a resolute critic of these currents. If Berube means radicals who are Muslims, Ali is once more a forthright critic.

His book includes a moving letter to a young Muslim in England who challenged Ali about Islam. At the end of the letter, Ali offers the following program of action:

“We are in desperate need of an Islamic Reformation that sweeps away the crazed conservatism and backwardness of fundamentalism but more than that, opens the world of Islam to new ideas which are seen to be more advanced than what is currently on offer from the West. This would necessitate a rigid separation of state and mosque; the dissolution of the clergy; the assertion by Muslim intellectuals of their right to interpret the texts that are the collective property of Islamic culture as a whole; the freedom to think freely and rationally and the freedom of imagination” (pp. 312-313).

Such a powerful call to arms does not only beckon those who want to tackle Wahabbite terror, but also the terror of Hindutva, of fundamentalist Christianity and of Sharonism. The theo-politics of our times is well articulated by Ali, and it is far from the caricature made by Berube.

I. On Religion.

Tariq Ali’s book begins with a memorable line (“I never really believed in God”) and then launches into a careful discussion of his relationship with Islam. Although his parents rejected God for the Revolution, he did grow up in a milieu where Islam played an important role. Born just before the Partition of the subcontinent, Ali lived in a country designed to be for Muslims and so even his atheistic bent could not avoid the world of Islam.

But, as he notes, it was not until the Gulf War (what he calls the Third Oil War, although this neglects the so-called Drug Wars in South America that are also about oil) that he took an interest in Islam. Frustration with the deep hold the confessional elites held over Muslims, Ali asked himself a question that frames his approach to faith in his book, “Why had Islam not undergone a Reformation?” (p. 23).

His studies show us that for the first seven hundred years of its existence, Islam was a vibrant tradition – with a “distinctly Jacobin feel” in its early years (p. 24), Islam “prospered through contact with other traditions” (p. 38).

The contact came not only from Judaism and Christianity, but also from the work of philosophers from the old schools of Alexandria, from Neoplatonists (especially into Sufism), from an elaboration of the work of the ancient Greeks, and all this from the complex social world of Arab Spain and Arab Sicily.

We get a wonderful overview of the ambit of the Persian scholar Ibn Sina, of the Cordoban philosopher Ibn Rusd, of the Arab psychologist Ibn Sirin – the book is worth it just for these cameos. We might add to this list, the vibrant contact between Islam and the philosophical traditions of the subcontinent, notably found in the enlightened text of the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s reign, Ain-i-Akbari (1596) where the writer, Abul Fazl, offers a précis of the social contract almost a century before John Locke.

That Ali does not directly answer the question he sets for himself may appear as a weakness of the first part of the book.

I, however, tend to think that the answer is this: that Islam did have a reformation in spaces such as Cordoba or else in India, but the vicissitudes of history (namely, the reconquista of the peninsula by the newly united Catholic principalities of Aragon and Castile; or the rapine of English colonialism) weakened the progressive side of Islam and strengthened its conservatives (to be represented three hundred years later by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism and India’s Deobandis).

The “Ali left” adopts Lenin’s formula toward religion and our allies who are believers. “Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the creation of paradise on earth,” he wrote in 1905, “is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.”

The point is not to argue doctrine and to dismiss the importance of the spiritual and the religious, but it is to argue against the premise that religion must have a role in the secular domain of political life. The global left must be committed to institutional democracy (social and gender equality, economic progress in civil society and the actual institutionalization of popular power) and ideological democracy (the discourses of democracy, welfare, equality).

As we fight for this agenda, the Indian journalist and activist Achin Vanaik argues, religious systems must “learn their place in this new dispensation.”

Religions “have no inherent dynamic leading them to endorse or practically reinforce modern principles of pluralism and democracy. The world religions are historically shaped entities bearing the marks of that shaping. But this does not mean they are incompatible with these modern principles.”

Quite the contrary, it is the role of the secularist-socialist to engage with religious systems not to show their “inherently tolerant” nature (a liberal posture), but to fight to make them democratic and pluralistic if they are to be relevant in the modern world. So far the mainstream currents of the major religious traditions have failed to make their passage into modernity and a critique of them must not be confused as a dogmatic position against religion.

II. On Oil.

In American, “Saudi Arabia” is pronounced as “oil.”

We might say that the crisis of contemporary Islam began when oil gushed from beneath the desert floor to build, what Saudi Arabia’s most distinguished, but exiled novelist Abdelrahman Munif called the “cities of salt.”

Or else, we might say that it began when US President Eisenhower and the Saudi monarch signed a treaty in January 1957 that made the peninsula’s defense a part of the national security interest of the US. Whatever the origin of the crisis in what is so cavalierly called the Middle East, the role of Saudi Arabia as a central actor is hard to deny.

The Eisenhower Doctrine acknowledges that the Saudis are a fundamental pillar of US imperialism; Osama Bin Laden’s dissident activity across the world since 1990-91 is related to the rule of the Saudi family over the sacred sites of Islam; furthermore, the growth of militant, Wahhabite Islam across the oil lands and elsewhere is a result of the Saudi attempt to export its form of social conservatism to decimate its Nasserite (or radical nationalist) and Communist opposition. The tolerance of Arabia is a vital part of our current malady.

When Gamel Abdul Nasser’s Free Officers took power in Egypt in 1952, they sent a message across the oil lands that “Arab Oil is for the Arab People,” or as the Communist opposition put it without ethnic chauvinism, oil should be used in the people’s interest. This could not be allowed, neither by the current rulers of the oil nor by their imperial overlords.

Before the British Empire withdrew from active duty in west Asia, it erected a series of monarchies created from loyal Saudi nobles – such as the Ibn Saud clan (at the time only Sultan of the Nejd) to the head of Saudi Arabia (1915), and then the sons of the Hashimite Emir Hussein, keeper of the holy sites in Arabia, to the thrones of Jordan (Abdullah, in 1921) and Iraq (Faisal, in 1921), not to speak of the cultivation of friendship with the Pehlavi family in Iran (Colonel Reza Khan of the Persian Cossack Brigade created the Pehlavi dynasty after a 1925 coup).

It was in the vested interest of these petro-Sheikhs to continue in power, and they sold their secular legitimacy to imperialism as long as their thrones remained inviolate. This oily alliance cultivated and financed militant right-wing Islamic currents to undercut radical nationalism and Communism from Egypt to Iran and beyond.

The first major test of this strategy came during the CIA-Pehlavi overthrow of the left-leaning Iranian leader Mossadeq (1953): it worked, and it continued to work in Afghanistan (1979 onwards) and elsewhere.

Part 2 of Ali’s book (“One Hundred Years of Servitude”) provides the key to the growth of militant Islam, and thereby, the loss of the progressive dynamic within the tradition.

In the 18th Century, Ibn Saud of Nejd and Ibn Wahhab signed a mithaq, a binding agreement to eternity to harvest Ibn Wahhab’s spiritual fervor in the service of Ibn Saud’s political ambition.

“Thus was laid the basis for a political and confessional intimacy that would shape the politics of the peninsula. This combination of religious fanaticism, military ruthlessness, political villainy and the press-ganging of women to cement alliances was the foundation stone of the dynasty that rules Saudi Arabia today” (p. 75).

Drawing from the novelist Munif and the poet Qabbani, Ali offers a panoramic view of the devastation of the last century, from the consolidation of the Saudis (that “kingdom of corruption”) to the wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

The chapters are well written and analytically sound, but one misses the presence of the troika (imperialism, the petro-Sheikhs, the dissident Jihadis) if only to find them here and there as actors and not as bearers of the structural devastation of west Asia and north Africa.

In the section on Iraq, Ali argues that imperialist action is not antithetical to the “hegemon of Iraq,” or the “sword of Islam” in a pre-1990 poem of a Kuwaiti princess (p. 138), indeed that the punishing bombardment of Iraq “does not reduce but breeds criminality, by those who wield it.

The Gulf and Balkan wars are copybook examples of the moral blank cheque of a selective vigilantism” (p. 150), and again, “the combination of anger and despair will lead to more and more young people in the Arab world and elsewhere feeling that the only response to state terror is individual terror” (p. 153).

The bulk of the nineteen men on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia, armed not only with Wahabbism, but mainly with a deep antipathy to US imperialism (often transferred into hatred for Americans) – since the Saudi regime do not allow any expression of this animosity, the tactical means adopted by these powerless men was to be grotesque.

Given the prominent role played by imperialism in the construction of the crisis, it seems hard to imagine that it is the same imperialism that will now be able to fix things. This is where the Hitchens’ position is so very wrong.

The “Ali left”(if there be one I hold a card to it) attacks the troika of imperialism, the petro-Sheikhs and the dissident jihadis. Forthrightly secular, the “Ali left” fights orthodoxy of every stripe, every kind of fundamentalism, both the theocratic and the market variety at once.

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