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 world history and politics. In his spare time he is a filmmaker, playwright and novelist. He is the author of The Clash of Funda- mentalisms, Bush in Babylon, and Speaking of Empire & Resistance, with David Barsamian. His latest book is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Axis of Hope.
BARSAMIAN: George Orwell in 1984 said, Who controls the past controls the
future.” Talk about the uses of history in your part of the world.
ALI: I think it’s been obvious for quite some time, certainly since the
end of the Cold War, that throughout the world, history has been either
rewritten or forgotten. Many crucial things that happened in the 20th century
have been airbrushed out. This is something that irks a lot of people,
especially in the Arab world where a sense of history is quite strong.
Much of what is going on in the world today has historical roots. One has
to go back and see what these roots are because, unless you do, there is
no way of solving some of the problems that affect the world.
I’m interested that you use the term “airbrushed” out of history because
in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting he tells about a
Communist Party rally in Prague in 1948. Clementis, one of the Party leaders
was present and appeared in thousands of photographs showing him on the
balcony with top Party brass. Four years later Clementis was charged with
treason and hanged. His image was then airbrushed out of those photographs.
This is true and it happened all over Eastern Europe. The country which
made this into an art form—there were people trained in airbrushing people
out of photographs—was Stalin’s Russia. Of course, the prime target of
this was Leon Trotsky who, once he had been disgraced and exiled, had to
be taken out of all the photographs. This model was then taken up in different
parts of Eastern Europe, North Korea, and China. There were two processes
which took place: one was airbrushing people out, and the other was airbrushing
people in. People who had not actually participated in certain events were
painted in or their photographs were put in or fake photographs were invented.
We also see it in the many photographs which showed Ronald Reagan and Margaret
Thatcher in the 1980s meeting the originators of groups who are now on
the Most Wanted list of the FBI and the intelligence networks globally
that are rarely seen in the media today.
You would have thought that it would be obvious that when one is discussing
the origins of al-Qaeda or other religious extremist groups that you would
want to show how these groups sprang up. And in order to show these, you
have to show that they were central allies of the West in the jihad against
communism. They were greeted as founding fathers of their countries, and
they were given a lot of money. I remember Robert Fisk once saying, when
he was a reporter for the London Times reporting on the Afghan War and
witnessing atrocities being carried out by the so-called mujahideen, that
he referred to them as terrorists and was told, “You can’t do that. They’re
I did a book with Eqbal Ahmad entitled Terrorism: Theirs & Ours and on
the cover is one of those photographs that is rarely seen—Ronald Reagan
sitting with some of the leaders of the Afghan mujahideen.
It’s a very powerful photograph. There are similar ones of similar people
being received in 10 Downing Street by Margaret Thatcher—Pashtun religious
extremist leaders with their long beards being welcomed. What this shows
us is that yesterday’s allies are today’s enemies.
What is the relationship with Pakistan, particularly the Inter-Services
Intelligence, with creating the so- called freedom fighters who were recruited
from all over the Islamic world to fight the great jihad against the Soviets
in the 1980s?
The war in Afghanistan, from the point of view of creating a network of
religious terrorist organizations, was probably the most significant event
of the last 30 years. What is forgotten and what should never be forgotten
is that 90 percent of these groups were funded by the Saudis and the United
States indirectly. The money was channeled through Pakistan.
The dangerous thing about all that was that you had a situation where Afghanistan
became a vital recruiting point for all these religious groups, and they
actually developed a fantasy that they had won the war. This was a very
dangerous fantasy because in reality the war was won by massive U.S. military
and financial aid and the Pakistani military. Without that, the Russians
might not have been defeated on their own, though ultimately they would
have had to withdraw. But because these groups stayed in the background,
these jihadis actually thought they had defeated the Soviet Union. That
gave them this feeling, if we can defeat the Soviet Union, we can defeat
the United States. And if we can defeat the United States, we can introduce
a caliphate worldwide and take global power. It sounds slightly nutty,
and it is, but it is a belief that many young Muslims attracted to these
groups hold, saying, “We’re going to win one day.” That’s where the fantasy
In an interview I did with Eqbal Ahmad in 1998, I asked him to explain
his comment: “Osama bin Laden is a sign of things to come.”
Of course, Eqbal was based right in the heart of it and could see it all
happening. On the number of occasions I talked to him in his last years,
we were both very despondent of what was going on in that region. I remember
when I was in Pakistan in 1999, I was told that one of the most popular
names among middle-class families, in Lahore certainly, the majority name
used was Osama. This was well before 9/11, but this was when he had already
begun his jihad against the West and said that it was the new enemy. He
was very popular as a result. I remember talking to people and saying,
“Can this be true? Why is this?” And they said, “Because people think he
is the only one who says these things. And all our politicians and leaders
are totally complicit in the new world order and all the corruption that
flows from it. This is what is attracting young people to him. He is seen
There are reports of many thousands of madrassas in Pakistan. According
to Pervez Hoodhboy, many of these Islamic schools have replaced public
education because it’s collapsed. Poor people can’t afford to send their
children to school, but they have opportunities to send them to madrassas.
What do you know about them?
Let me start with a story. In the 1990s when my father died and I returned
to Pakistan for his funeral, as according to tradition, people come and
pay condolences for days after the death. An old family friend, who is
the governor of the North-West Frontier Province, came to console my mother
and me. We were talking and I said, “Tell me, what is the situation in
the North-West Frontier Province on the Afghan border?” He said, “I’m going
to tell you something which will shock you.” He said, “During and after
the Afghan War, these madrassas, religious schools, have been created.
There are hundreds of them dotted all over the country. No one is paying
any attention to them, and they are producing absolute fanatics. These
are the people we will have to worry about.”
Essentially, they were taught to read and write. But the ABC was quite
amazing. I can’t remember all of them—but for the Urdu letter K (kaf),
they said, “K is for Kalashnikov.” The Urdu letter J (jim) is for jihad.
And so on. It was a very carefully orchestrated religious education. People
told me in the late 1990s that if you’re a poor peasant or a worker without
a job, or even with a job, and the mullahs come to you and say, “We’ve
set up this school, education is free, clothes we will supply your child,
he will be given three meals a day, he will not starve. Give him to us.”
Families were happy to send their child to these religious boarding schools
where the level of education is abysmally low.
The only way you can close them down is by spending millions on creating
a state education network that offers free education and the possibility
of upward mobility for large numbers of poor kids and kids from middle-
and lower-middle-class families because education is becoming prohibitive
in this neoliberal world. You need a very strong state educational system
with a core curriculum for everyone, and with the teaching of English as
compulsory second language. If that were to happen, the madrassas would
empty very quickly. But there is no alternative for many people. They feel
that at least their kids will learn something. That’s how they think.
And some of that money for funding the schools is coming from Saudi Arabia?
Without doubt. The Saudis have been supplying money for this sort of activity
now for nearly 60 years. During the Cold War they were encouraged to do
so. In those days they supplied money for cultural organizations, i.e.,
religious extremist organizations, which promoted a particularly Wahhabi
and Salafi, in other words, a very sectarian ideology. And that carries
on to this day.
The Wahhabi ideology was named after Muhammad Wahhab, the 18th century
founder of this particular sect of Islam. It’s often described as misogynist
and homophobic and, as you said, sectarian. Are these fair descriptions
They’re totally fair descriptions of it. A more accurate description would
be that they’re Quran literalists. So everything that is written in the
Quran is what they believe in. This was a document produced in the 7th
century, and it reflected all the prejudices of that century, like the
Old Testament was written 1,000 years before that and reflected what tribal
society in that region was like. Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi religion,
saw the Ottoman Empire and felt that this was corrupt and not going in
the right way, just like literalists and born-again Christian fundamentalists
view the Bible literally. This, of course, does make them extremely sectarian
and rigid in their interpretation of the holy texts of Islam.
In October 1999 General Pervez Musharraf overthrows the civilian government
of Nawaz Sharif. The coup was welcomed by Washington. But now it seems
that the servant is letting the master down. In a March 1, 2007 editorial
entitled “Betting on Musharraf,” the Los Angeles Times writes, “Since 9/11
the United States has been trapped in an increasingly loveless marriage
with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Like many a miserable mate,
the Bush administration has been known to rue the failings of its partner
in private…. Such forbearance may be changing. In Islamabad, Vice President
Dick Cheney informed Musharraf that the United States ‘is unhappy with
Pakistan’s performance in fighting the resurgent Taliban.’” The editorial
concludes, “The U.S. may well be destined for a long marriage of convenience
with Pakistan. But its spouse need not necessarily be named Musharraf.”
It’s very interesting, language of that sort, because it is totally colonial
in the way they formulate all these phrases—that Pakistan is essentially
nothing but an American colony and its leaders are people whose only task
in life is to bow before the power of the United States. What they don’t
understand is that 80 percent of the population of that country is opposed
to Musharraf’s alliance with the U.S. So the guy has to walk a tightrope.
In fact, backing the United States to the extent that he’s done has led
to three attempts on his life, two of which came very close to killing
him. So these people should be a bit more grateful that this guy has really
almost sacrificed himself to help them out rather than using language like
this because he’s not killing enough of his own people. That is basically
what they’re saying, that we want you to kill more people in your own country.
He can’t do that. There are certain constraints and limitations.
Pakistan is not a country that will just accept endless killings of its
people. That’s the first point to make. Secondly, It’s important to understand
that privately, though not publicly, important leaders of the military
and civilian elite are extremely concerned at the way the United States
and the West are operating in Afghanistan. They warned the United States,
in a friendly way, that if you carry on like this, you risk making what
is at the moment a very limited insurgency into a full-blown war of national
liberation against foreign occupation.
This is exactly what’s happened. Even as we speak, news is coming through
from Afghanistan of American soldiers lashing out against civilians when
they couldn’t get the people who were firing on them. So once the population
begins to see the occupying army as an enemy, then that’s it. In my opinion,
the NATO occupation cannot last indefinitely. The only countries that can
use their influence to make sure that there is some stability and order
are Pakistan and Iran.
For the United States to antagonize both these countries is shooting itself
in the foot. They’ve said that their main aim is to capture Osama bin Laden
dead or alive, which they have failed to do. They can’t blame Pakistan
for that. It’s just wrong and foolish and ignorant of them to do this,
because they don’t know what the situation in that part of the world is.
I’m told senior American leaders used to imagine that all the Pashtuns
were Taliban and Taliban was a synonym for Pashtun. It wasn’t the case.
But the way they are operating might make that the case very soon, because
that puppet regime in Afghanistan of Hamid Karzai is extremely isolated.
His brother is well known as one of the most corrupt drug barons and arms
smugglers in the country. There is total disaffection and alienation on
the part of the population for Karzai and the people who are backing him.
This is not a situation that can last indefinitely.
Along the Pakistan-Afghan border is the North- West Frontier Province and
what are called tribal areas. Portions of the latter, such as north Waziristan,
are frequently described in the U.S. media as impenetrable, hostile terrain,
no one can get in there, it’s run by fierce tribal leaders. The Pakistan
army did attempt to go into that area and suffered hundreds and hundreds
of casualties, causing Musharraf to sign an agreement with the people there
to essentially leave them alone.
The Pakistan army was becoming incredibly unpopular in the North-West Frontier
Province and in the tribal region because they were killing people and
many innocent people died. So they were threatened by a full-scale tribal
revolt in their own country. Musharraf, in my opinion, had very little
choice but to do a deal with these people. One reason the Pakistani military
gave for the deal, they said, “All information which we used to get from
this region about the movement of various extremist groups dried up. And
we realized that what we had done was to drive these people into the arms
of the religious extremists. So we had to do something to stop it.” I honestly
do not believe that the Pakistan government had a serious option. If they
had not signed this deal, Musharraf’s position would have become quite
shaky in that country.
Since the creation of India and Pakistan into two independent states in
1947, the issue of Kashmir has been central not only in dividing the two
countries, but also in being the cause for two wars and numerous smaller
wars. In late 2006 Musharraf made a rather unusual proposal to the Indian
prime minister, Manmohan Singh, about Kashmir.
I think the Pakistani elite now understand that this is a situation which
cannot be solved unilaterally, that there has to be a deal between India
and Pakistan. The deal currently being proposed is a soft border between
the two parts of Kashmir, one occupied by India and the other occupied
by Pakistan, and the free movement of Kashmiris to any part of their country;
on Musharraf’s part, the withdrawal of all jihadis and the sealing up of
the camps on the border; and on the part of India, one hopes—this is what
is being argued—the withdrawal of the occupying Indian army and its replacement
by a garrison.
I hope this happens because this issue has led to innumerable deaths and
the lives of the Kashmiris have become absolutely desperate and miserable.
There has been a massive withdrawal from Kashmir by traders, doctors, and
teachers. The Kashmiri intelligentsia has moved out. That’s how depressing
the situation has become. The question is whether such a deal can be pushed
But in the long term what we need in the subcontinent is a South Asia union,
like the European Union or a version of it, where each country preserves
its sovereignty, but at the same time there is a total relaxation of trade,
borders, free movement, which can only help. Within that framework, the
Kashmir problem can be sorted out as well as the problem of the Tamils
in Sri Lanka and, no doubt similar, smaller problems in Bangladesh and
Nepal. I think this is the way in which the political elites in that part
of the world should move.
Sometimes when I say this, friends of mine say, “Oh, but, you know, it
will still be capitalism.” I say, “Yes, I’m afraid it will be because there
is no utopian solution there at the present moment and one has to work
with the material there is.”
What is very depressing is the caliber of the political leaders of both
countries, India and Pakistan. They are weak, they are visionless, they
are corrupt. They move about in a world dominated by money and they’re
quite happy to be part of that world. What that subcontinent needs is leaders
with a social vision, who are popular with their own people and can move
a process of a European Union-type solution forward.
In this proposal about Kashmir’s fate is anyone asking the Kashmiris what
No one is. I think the Kashmiris, if asked, would probably say, “We want
peace. We have had enough of war in our part of the world. We just want
a period to breathe again and then let’s talk about what we really want.”
My feeling is that the Kashmiris would probably also say, “We want independence,
but we don’t want independence with an army and all that. We want to be
free of both powers.” Most Kashmiris would probably accept autonomy guaranteed
by all the powers in the region so that this becomes a peaceful haven in
the subcontinent once again, which it used to be. It is one of the most
beautiful parts of the world.
In 2006 there were remarkable developments in Nepal. A long-standing so-called
Maoist insurrection toppled the monarchy of Gyandera. Do you see anything
encouraging from that?
It is quite an amazing situation that at a time when virtually the entire
continent of Asia was passive, Nepal saw this insurrection taking place,
led by a group which called itself Maoist. Initially this group was hard-core
Maoist, even sectarian in a foolish way. I think their very first program
said that they wanted to make Nepal a province in the People’s Republic
of China. And the Chinese said, “Please. The world has changed, we have
changed.” And they told the West, “This has nothing to do with us. These
are people living in the past.” I think the rebuff from the Chinese actually
educated these people a bit and they realized they had to deal with the
But the level of exploitation in Nepal of the poor had to be seen to be
believed. This was a country in which a tiny feudal elite with a monarch
at its head governed the country. The politicians caved in before it. Till
last year or a year and a half ago, it was considered perfectly legal for
these deeply religious people, the more reactionary elements, to say it’s
possible to lock a woman in a cowshed while she’s menstruating. This law
was only changed a few years ago. So the social backwardness of the country
was legion. It’s not surprising that an insurrection took place there.
How it moves forward now is key. I think the monarchy has to go, I think
Nepal has to become a republic. I think there has to be a constituent assembly
that develops and agrees on a new constitution. And I think it needs to
have a system where education and health are given to the poor. If that
doesn’t happen, you will see rebellions again.
The important thing to understand is that the success of the Nepali Maoists
or semi-Maoists or ex- Maoists, or whatever you want to call them, is that
it has given a further fillip and encouragement to Maoist and semi-Maoist
groups in India, Andhra, and other parts of that country where these groups
still exist. Very little is written about them. They are not as powerful
as they are in Nepal, just because India is a very large country. But this
notion that India, with a thriving middle class, should not blind to us
the fact that this is a minority of the country. The overwhelming majority
of Indians still live in abject poverty. And unless these problems are
solved, trouble lies ahead.
You mentioned the NATO presence in Afghanistan. How is Afghanistan related
to NATO? Is NATO becoming some sort of foreign legion?
NATO, of course, is now the enforcer of the empire when there is agreement.
When there is no agreement—to be fair, there was no agreement by the United
Nations Security Council to bomb and invade Yugoslavia. NATO did it. And
Iraq, neither the UN nor NATO agreed, so the United States did it itself.
But NATO is the collective enforcer of the West, the United States, and
the European Union. They agreed to take Afghanistan, and they did it.
But, of course, it’s a total disaster, because they don’t know what to
do. And it’s creating a crisis now, in Europe as well. The Italian government
resigned over this issue a few weeks ago. It’s been put back in office.
But that was the issue: the Italian presence in Afghanistan. It’s just
a joke what is going on there. They have no clear strategic, political,
social, economic goals in that country. It’s an occupation just for the
heck of it, to keep a puppet regime in power and to keep the Taliban at
bay. But the way they have gone about it has actually strengthened the
Taliban, who have now become an umbrella for a very large section of the
Pashtun population. It’s ironic that this was an organization created to
fight communism. Throughout the years when communism existed, it wasn’t
used once. The minute communism collapses, this becomes a police force
for globalization, for the interests of the West, and is seen as such.
That is how they are building NATO.
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, and Original Zinn with Howard Zinn.