An interview with Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali, an internationally renowned writer, was born in Lahore in 1943.
It was 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 the New Left Review.
He’s written more than a dozen books on history and politics. In his spare
time he is a filmmaker, playwright, and novelist. He is the author of The
Clash of Fundamentalisms, Bush in Babylon, and Speaking of Empire & Resistance,
with David Barsamian. His latest book is Pirates of the Caribbean: The
Axis of Hope.
BARSAMIAN: What’s your assessment of the opposition inside Afghanistan
to the occupation forces? The Taliban is now an umbrella for many different
ALI: I see nothing positive emerging there. I think one has to be very
hard-headed and realistic about this, that there are no secular democratic
forces in Afghanistan. You basically have rival ethnic groupings. Afghanistan
always was a tribal confederation governed by a king on behalf of all the
tribes. It has more or less remained that, except there is no king at the
head of it as such. The thing is, there will have to be power sharing.
Either that or little bits of Afghanistan will be clipped off, like Herat
in western Afghanistan.
I feel that NATO has created a situation in which all these groups are
becoming popular again as the only groups resisting. And if the secular
democratic forces, tiny though they are, in Afghanistan have been backing
NATO, it’s been a foolish choice on their part. They could have remained
aloof from this and held an independent position, but they didn’t. Even
many former Communists backed the American and NATO occupation of Afghanistan,
and they now have no credibility in that country at all.
William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” has gotten some attention
in recent years, “The center cannot hold,” etc. However, in “Meditations
in Times of Civil War” he wrote: “We had fed the heart on fantasies. The
heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
That could be a description for all empires as they begin their period
of decline. I think the U.S. empire has begun its period of decline. As
to when it will collapse is an open question, but certainly that has begun.
One can see it in the disasters that they face in Iraq, in Afghanistan.
You would have thought, and they thought, that American military and economic
power had reached such a stage that they could get away with anything.
But it’s not as easy as that. And their economic rivals—the Chinese, the
Japanese, the Koreans, this is the strongest sector, the Far Eastern sector—watch
the American empire stumbling from one disaster into the other and wonder
what’s going on with the imperial leadership.
I notice the journalists in the United States, Sy Hersh and others, are
saying this is the most brutal and stupid government we’ve ever seen. I
can understand their anger, but historically it’s not true. You have had
governments in the United States which have been even more brutal. After
all, the decision to nuke Japan was not taken by the Republican Party.
It was Truman’s decision which led to the loss of hundreds of thousands
of lives. I think it’s foolish to say that this particular Administration
is that much out of kilter. You go back to the 1840s, when James Polk decided
as president to invade Mexico. He invaded Mexico because they refused to
sell him California. And his equivalent to the weapons of mass destruction
was, “We’ve invaded Mexico because they’ve invaded us,” which everyone
knew was completely false. But he won and got away with it because that
was the tide of the rising empire.
Many people said after the Vietnam War, “This is it.” But after the Vietnam
War, China became a central ally of the United States, the Soviet Union
dissolved, and Vietnam today is a thriving capitalist economy. Hardly a
serious defeat for the empire. So I’m careful about what I say. But I do
think that the failure in Iraq and Afghanistan point to certain weaknesses
in this particular empire.
On Iraq, Robert Fisk says the United States is in a real quandary there
because it has to leave and it can’t leave.
There is no such thing as can’t leave. I think it can leave and probably
will have to leave, but it will have to decide what it is going to leave
behind. This is the big debate going on. Some critics of Bush from the
Democratic side, like Peter Galbraith, argue that Iraq should be divided.
That, in my opinion, would be disastrous because what you would then create
is a series of protectorates, with northern Iraq, the Kurdish area, becoming
an Israeli-American protectorate; the triangle, not just Sunnis, because
lots of Shi’as live there too, but dominantly Sunni, becoming a Saudi protectorate;
and the rest of Iraq being a Shi’ite republic closely allied to Iran.
Whether this Administration will even go that far or whether this will
be implemented by a new Democratic president remains to be seen. But I
think that is the solution they will favor to try and save face at home,
because simply to withdraw would be a political disaster.
The scale of the disaster for Iraqis is mind-boggling. Hundreds of thousands
have been killed, many more maimed and wounded, two-fifths of the Iraqi
professional class has fled the country, the external refugees number something
like two million, mostly in Jordan and Syria. The internal refugee crisis
may even exceed Darfur. The educational system has collapsed—two out of
three children don’t go to school, there is very little security. Nevertheless,
with this chaotic landscape, the Iraqi government somehow has cobbled together
a hydrocarbon law that will allocate the oil resources of the country.
They’ve done that because oil is the most important resource the country
has, and how it is divided is the central issue. Who has control of oil-rich
Kirkuk in the north for instance. The Kurds have been attempting to ethnically
cleanse the city of Turkomans and Arabs, and others. I don’t think that
is necessarily going to work without the backing of the United States,
but that is certainly what they’re playing at.
The key thing is that the situation in Iraq is a total humanitarian disaster.
The refugee crisis is worse than any we’ve seen in recent years. It is
a wrecked country. And it has been wrecked by the occupation, which is
why in every opinion poll which asks people, a majority reply, “We were
better off under Saddam Hussein.”
The Western occupation has wrecked it so much that people are now looking
nostalgically towards the previous era. Which is hardly surprising because
after the first Gulf War, when the electricity system, the water supplies
were cut off, it took Saddam Hussein’s regime two months to have everything
working again. Then they imposed sanctions to try and destroy it. But basically
there was no mass starvation, there was no big exodus. They got the country
functioning again. These people have not been able to do that. And this,
I think, is a damning indictment of this occupation.
Zalmay Khalilzad, of Afghan origin, was ambassador to Kabul, then to Baghdad,
and now has been appointed by Bush to be the representative to the United
Nations. He said in invading Iraq,”We have opened Pandora’s box.”
He obviously knows this is the case because he’s been there and can see
it with his own eyes. But does he draw any conclusions from that? That’s
the important question. This is a guy who wrote a pamphlet when he was
an adviser to Bush Sr. in which he first posed the question that, given
that the world is now uniform and capitalism is primary everywhere, is
it possible to assert U.S. hegemony without the use of force. Or will we
have to fight against other capitalist countries to make sure we remain
on top? And he said we have to use force. So he is one of the people responsible
for this new security strategy. But the fact that he sees it as a disaster
is very revealing.
If you have someone who is armed and has committed aggression, you would
expect that pattern would continue. I’m talking now about the United States
in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, when it comes to Iran, you believe that
the United States, even though it has deployed massive military forces
to the Persian Gulf region, is not going to attack Iran.
This is my opinion based on certain irrefutable facts. There are two ways
they could do it. There could be a surgical military strike on 150 different
nuclear sites that exist in different parts of Iran. They’re not all in
one place, so it would be a heavy bombing campaign, which would affect
the whole country. That is the only thing that is militarily possible.
It is not possible to invade Iran because the United States doesn’t have
enough forces to do so. They don’t have enough troops to run Iraq, leave
it alone and take over another country. So militarily, a land invasion
is totally excluded.
Second point. What would be the effect of an air strike against the Iranian
regime? The immediate effect would be the opening up of two new fronts.
The Iranians would then say, “Okay, the gloves are off and they would tell
their supporters in Iraq, “Fine, take them on.” They would probably say
the same to their supporters in Afghanistan. And possibly, though Hezbollah
in Lebanon is not totally under their thumb, they would say, “Open a new
front there.” So you have the likelihood that any attack on Iran would
completely destabilize large sections of that part of the world.
If I were a Pentagon general running the war in Iraq, determined to preserve
as many of my troops as I can, and a politician came and said, “Hey guys,
we’re going to take out the nuclear reactors in Iran,” I would say, “Just
a sec, Mr. President, or Mr. Vice President, or Secretary of State,” or
whoever. “Have you any idea of the costs we could incur on the battlefield
if this happens? We’re not prepared to do that.” I think you will probably
have a rebellion behind the scenes if this decision is taken.
Also the bulk of the Europeans are against it. The Germans are against
it, the French are against it, and even the British are not for it, to
put it mildly. So you would have an even bigger split than you had on the
Iraq War. At the same time, the Russians are selling the latest, most advanced
anti-aircraft technology to the Iranians quite openly. They’ve been attacked
for that. Because the last thing the old Soviet Union did was to develop
very high quality anti-aircraft weaponry, which they were about to give
to the Serbs, the Yugoslavs, but didn’t because they wanted a settlement.
But they’re selling it openly to the Iranians. So the Russians will certainly
not be in favor of it. The Chinese have signed a 30-year deal with Iran
to supply fuel and energy. They’re not going to be in favor of it. So it’s
the one action the United States could take if it wanted to totally isolate
itself and create disasters for itself.
I think one of the aims of this rocket rattling, which we’ve seen, is regime
change in Iran without any invasion of the sort, to say, “Ahmadinejad is
a figure who could bring your country close to destruction. Get rid of
Explain the Sunni/Shi’a divide. What is the main issue?
The Sunni/Shi’a divide is a division for the heritage of the Prophet Mohammed.
It’s a political dispute over the succession. The people who are now Shi’as
say that the caliph who replaced Mohammed should have been Ali, his son-in-law,
married to Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima. The others argue that the Prophet
had always said that the successor should be chosen by the umma, the community
as a whole. The community as a whole did meet and they didn’t vote for
Ali, they voted for Omar, who succeeded him and who was a very gifted political
and military leader. Probably the right decision was made. Then these internal,
internecine rivalries produced divisions and Mohammed’s grandsons, Ali’s
sons, were then encouraged to rebel against the legal caliph. He did what
most rulers do, which is to wipe out the rebellion. That became the big
thing—that the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein, had been killed. The other
wasn’t killed at all. He lived and died a normal death. He lived in Medina—he
was not even punished—and accepted the caliphate. But these people then
carried on a fight. So it was essentially a struggle for power.
Once you have this division early on in a faith, it is reproduced and reproduced
and reproduced. Of course, they have their different customs, different
interpretations of Islam. Some of them are so esoteric that it’s best not
to discuss them on a family show. But these have been carried on. Often,
until Khomeini’s revolution, the differences were greatly exaggerated.
Then the victory of the Iranian revolution brought this up again. But one
should remember that Khomeini’s victory was welcomed by Muslims everywhere,
Sunni and Shi’a. But the use of this particular faction of Islam has meant
that the Saudi monarchs and the Gulf States are very nervous, because in
Bahrain 80 percent of the population are Shi’a. In Saudi Arabia, in the
areas where the oil is, they are dominated by the Shi’a.
In Pakistan there has been a history of anti-Shi’a violence. Processions
are attacked, mosques are burned.
This is a very recent history. This is something which began in the late
1980s and 1990s. It never existed in the past. The Shi’as were part of
the Muslim community. Shi’as rose to quite high positions in the army and
the civil service. There were no big problems. This is the development
of Salafism and Wahhabism and religious extremism in Pakistan, which is
so sectarian that it regards Shi’as as non-Muslims, saying, “How can they
be Muslims. They believe in these imams. Islam doesn’t. Islam believes
in Allah and the Prophet. That’s all, nothing else between them.” Which
technically, of course, whether we like it or not, is accurate, if you
study the theology. So they say that Shi’as are not Muslims, they are apostates
and should be wiped out.
There has been a persistence of so-called theories about September 11,
2001. The Guardian recently reported that “more than a third of Americans
believe that either the official version of events never happened or that
U.S. officials knew the attacks were imminent, but did nothing to stop
them.” Do you run into these ideas in your talks ?
I encounter this, but largely in the United States, I have to say. I am
giving a talk and at the end there’s question time. And a plaintive voice
says, “Tariq, do you believe we did it ourselves?” I’ve argued in my book
Clash of Fundamentalisms, and I carry on arguing, that, no, this was not
an action carried out by the United States; that it’s a sign of total alienation
from reality to believe that the United States carried out the attacks
on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Then the conspiracists say, “But the
Pentagon wasn’t really hit,” and numerous other theories which they have
developed, which I find sort of psychologically interesting but politically
Psychologically they’re interesting as to why do people fall in love with
these theories? In the United States there is a deep mistrust of government,
for good reason, because this government—not just this government, but
historically many governments—have lied in order to get their way. But
I don’t think any government in the United States has actually carried
out actions of this sort against its own country. It would be crazy of
them to do so because the one thing about the United States is that it’s
difficult to keep things totally secret. If this had happened, it would
come out sooner or later. And if it actually happened, it would discredit
the entire structure of the American system and of politics in this country.
I certainly don’t accept any of these conspiracy theories which say the
United States organized these hits. Why the hell should it? It needs excuses
to go and make wars? It never needed them before. It’s bizarre.
In the Muslim world it’s different. One is blind anti-Americanism, not
being able to see that the United States hasn’t done that. The second is
an element of self-denigration, which is that we aren’t intelligent enough
to have done this. I remember after 9/11, I was approached after talks
by quite intelligent people. Middle-class doctors and teachers would stop
me on the street after I had given a talk and say, “Do you really think
that we were mentally capable of doing it?” And I said, “Well, actually,
the fact that this group did it shows that they were mentally not very
strong because it’s a foolish thing to have done. It hasn’t strengthened
them or their cause, it has weakened it. They will realize that one day.
But,” I said, “yes, technically they are perfectly capable of doing it.”
After all, the guys who trained these people as pilots said they didn’t
want to know how to take off or land but how to fly a plane in midair.
So, I said, “They knew what they were doing. And that certainly any fool
can do it. It’s not a big thing to do.”
And then the other argument comes up. “But can this one guy sitting in
his cave in the Afghan mountains”—I said, “It’s got nothing to do with
that. These are middle-class, trained, skilled people. These are not peasants
who carried these acts out; they’re educated graduates in the sciences
and medicine, in engineering. It’s a sort of political act, which they’ve
carried out. They are wrong, but they did carry it out. There is no dispute
“Why aren’t you so worked up about what’s happening in Iraq? Why don’t
you constantly maintain a barrage of propaganda on the streets against
that war and the killings there instead of spending so much time and energy
on these conspiracy theories?” That’s a question these people should be
asking themselves. Even if they were right, they should be against the
war in Iraq.
Do you think there is a racist factor at work here—3,000 Americans were
killed on September 11?
Yes, they were Americans. But there were also Indians, Pakistanis, and
many others from various countries working in the Twin Towers. But, of
course, in the empire, when an American dies, it means much more than anywhere
else. I recounted in Clash of Fundamentalisms a story of a taxi driver,
his SUV festooned with stars and stripes. When I asked him in October of
that year why he was festooned with stars and stripes and what he thought
about the whole thing, once he realized that I wasn’t an American, he said
to me he was pleased it had happened. He was from Central America and so
many of their people had been killed by pro-American governments that they
know what it feels like. I tried to tell him, “But this is not going to
get anywhere.” He said, “Yes, I know, but I still feel happy.” Latin America
is the place where it received the biggest support. The Muslim world was
in a state of shock because they knew what was coming.
The issue of the Armenian genocide lingers 90-plus years since it happened
in 1915 in Turkey. On January 19, 2007, Hrant Dink, a prominent, independent
journalist, was murdered in Istanbul. Turkey’s Nobel Prize winner Orhan
Pamuk has been threatened because he has spoken about the Armenian genocide.
Another writer and academic, Elif Shafak, has also been threatened.
I think there are two or three related factors here. One is that the national
state created by Kemal Ataturk—or the people even before him, the Young
Turks under whom the genocide was carried out on the Armenians—assumed
that the only way a national state would survive and be created in Turkey
was by removing all extraneous forces. And the Armenians were a large,
old, established community, especially in eastern Turkey. But, of course,
that imploded because the fact that Turkey became largely a Muslim state
after the expulsion of the Greeks, the genocide of the Armenians, etc.,
didn’t save it from that. The fight of the Kurds for their own autonomy,
meant that this problem couldn’t go away.
It’s now ironic, when you look back on it, that they did this. I said when
I was in Eastern Turkey, “Of course, your forefathers wiped out the Armenians,
which was a big tragedy, because if the Armenians had still been part of
eastern Turkey, how could you have spoken of Kurdistan, because they were
a majority? Certainly in Diyarbakir they were—the non-Kurds were a majority.
“So you would have been forced to live together and not become narrow nationalists.”
And, of course, there is no reply to that. There are all sorts of contradictions
in how and why that happened. But it was the deadly logic of ultranationalism.
That’s how it works in most parts of the world when people go down that
Why don’t they admit it? One, because for a long, long time they were ultradefensive
about it. Now I think the events are so far removed that there is a section
of the Turkish elite and political class that would probably admit it.
I once said to a senior Turkish civil servant, “Why don’t you admit it
and apologize? You didn’t do it.” But say, “Those who did it, it was reprehensible,
unacceptable, we apologize, we welcome Armenians to come back and see their
villages,” etc. He was very blunt with me. He said, “We cannot afford to
pay money out. If you accept the use of the word ‘genocide,’ then—thanks
to what the Germans in the reparation agreements with the Israelis over
the Holocaust—we are lumbered forever. We just don’t have the funds to
do that. Do not underestimate what I am telling you.” So I said, “What
if you referred to it as, ‘The mass organized killings of Armenians that
took place and were carried out by Kurdish irregulars were a tragedy. We
apologize for them’”? He said, “If that were the wording, I think you would
find many people in Turkey would accept it.”
The reason for those killings was to drive out a population. It wasn’t
in the sense that they are inferior, do you see? It wasn’t racial but ethnic.
They didn’t say the Armenians are inferior to us because they married lots
of their women. That was fine. But the killings took place for reasons
of nationalism and reasons of property. The Kurds were much poorer. They
were among the poorer sections of the community. Many Kurds grew rich from
the Armenian estates, lands that they had stolen. The great Turkish writer
Yasar Kemal has written in many of his novels about what was done by Kurdish
militias to the Armenians. So it’s something that is accepted and that
needs to be done. But I would argue that the Turks should go and say publicly,
“The killings took place.” If they don’t want to use the word “genocide,”
they should just make that statement and let’s see where it goes.
You’re now interested in a topic you’re calling the human rights industry.
What’s that about?
It’s the use of human rights. Obviously, we’re all in favor of rights for
people. All rights are judicial rights. They have to be fought for and
won. But an industry has grown up since the end of communism that uses
the concept of human rights—humanitarian interventions, military humanism—essentially
as the new ideology of the post-Communist world and to cater to the needs
of the U.S. empire. This has developed and mushroomed.
If you go to U.S. campuses, there are human rights departments. You never
had them before. So you have to ask, why at this particular time in American
history have these developed? Why didn’t Harvard create a center for human
rights in the 19th century when the memory of the Indians that had been
wiped out was fresh in American minds? Why now?
I call it the human rights industry after Norman Finkelstein, whose parents
were in Auschwitz, who wrote a book called The Holocaust Industry, which
is the uses that are made of the Holocaust in order to justify A, B, and
C. That, in my opinion, is something which is happening with the human
rights industry today, both on an ideological level and in the mushrooming
of nongovernmental organizations all over the world.
These are organizations that I have referred to as WGOs—Western governmental
organizations—planted in different parts of the world with money from Western
foundations and governments, which have bought over a large layer of the
intelligentsia in many countries and which remind me of the activities
of the Congress for Cultural Freedom during the Cold War, the money the
CIA poured into creating magazines, etc. This is something which needs
to be discussed, simply to make available an alternative view of this.
Because people say, “How can you be opposed to human rights?” We’re not
opposed to them. We’re opposed to the use that is being made of them and
the grotesque double standards that are employed in this situation.
David Barsamian is founder and director of Alternative Radio in Boulder,
Colorado. He is a radio producer, journalist, author and lecturer. His
interviews and articles appear regularly in the Progressive and Z Magazine.
His recent books are Imperial Ambitions with Noam Chomsky, Speaking of
Empire & Resistance with Tariq Ali, Original Zinn with Howard Zinn, and