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The Clash of Fundamentalisms

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
05.02.2003 | BOOKS

The publication of Tariq Ali's Clash of Fundamentalisms coincided with the war in Afghanistan. In its grasp, heat, and sweep, it helped fill the surge in demand for answers to newly energized questions about the relationship between Islam and the West. Its learned chapters on the history of Pakistan were and continue to be particularly appreciated.

The appearance of a paperback version on the eve of the second gulf war seemed another perfectly timed drop by Verso. Among the thickening clutter of academics and armchair experts pontificating on Islam and the Arab world, Ali stands out. Part Lawrence Durrell, part Edward Said, he executes scholarship and high journalism with the touch of an artist. It is a combination to be savored.

Readers shouldn't be scared off by the combination of the words "modernity" and "Verso" on the book's spine. Although Ali sits on the board at the New Left Review and is adept at high-flying theoretics, Clash is not a product of the academy; it is a rich panoramic of Islamic history, ancient and modern, and political economy, from the house of Saud to the isles of Indonesia. In recognition of the new edition, and befitting the varied nature of the book's 26 chapters, I recently sent Ali a scattershot of questions.

Q: So what's in store for Iraq?

A: Assorted Iraqi quislings had assured the White House that the US would, in the words of the unctuous Kanaan Makiya, be welcomed with "flowers and sweets." This did not happen. As we now know, the celebrated media-Pentagon re-enactment of the Iraqi equivalent of the fall of the Berlin wall (pulling down Saddam's statue) was carried out by US soldiers and a few hand-picked Iraqis. Saddam was unpopular, but the occupiers are hated. I have no doubt that a resistance will begin over the next months as it becomes obvious that the US intends a semi-permanent occupation via its military bases.

Collaborators will have to be protected from nationalist retribution. The refusal of the Iraqi people to set-up committees welcoming the occupation has been regarded by some soldiers and commentators as a sign of a "sick people." This was the line espoused by Tony Blair's favourite columnist, the ex-communist David Aaronovitch writing in the pro-war Observer. George Mellon in the Wall Street Journal wrote "after three decades of rule of the Arab equivalent of Murder Inc, Iraq is a very sick society." In Murdoch's flagship British paper, The Sunday Times reporter Mark Franchetti quoted an American NCO: "'The Iraqis are a sick people and we are the chemotherapy', said Corporal Ryan Dupre. 'I am starting to hate this country. Wait til I get hold of a friggin' Iraqi. No I won't get hold of one. I'll just kill him.'" Franchetti went on to describe how his unit killed not one, but several Iraqi civilians later that day. What we are witnessing is the re-colonization of Iraq--a mixture of Guantanamo and Gaza. The colonized are judged sick if they don't welcome the benefits of "a superior civilization." A colonial occupation usually leads to resistance. Iraq was occupied before by the British and the people, unlike many US citizens, have a historic memory.

Q: And what about those weapons of mass destruction anyway?

A: Hans Blix has indicated that this was a pretext to make war. It's obvious that Bush and Blair lied without shame. I guess in order to cover up their lies they might plant something to justify the war. Bush probably doesn't care, but Blair needs something to prove he was right. All one can hope is that sections of the media will expose all attempts to plant fake weapons.

Q: Will Tony Blair remain "on board" with the U.S. if it pursues a full-court press strategy around the world?

A: You have to understand Blair. He's not so much a poodle as a mastiff snarling at the leash. He was so determined to prove his loyalty to the White House that he dispatched a third of the British army to the country's former largest colony in the Middle East. London has acted as a blood-shot adjutant to Washington throughout. It will do so again. But if an Iraqi resistance gains ground rapidly, Blair will be in trouble. As it is many Labour MPs are worried by the rise of Shia fundamentalism. Blair was hoping to install a friendly Shia cleric (who had lived in exile in London for several years) in Najaf, but the mastiff's support proved to be the bite of death. The cleric was assassinated shortly after his arrival much to the discomfiture of British intelligence and their favored journalists who all wept copious tears at the loss of this gallant and enlightened soul.

Q: In the book you discuss what you call the "liberal super patriotism" currently found in the U.S. Is it really so different from the American patriotism of the past?

A: It's not so different. After all it took many years of Vietnamese resistance to convince US liberals that the war could not be one. And I think many would have supported the occupation of Iraq if it had been carried out nicely and multilaterally by Clinton backed by France and Germany. This did not happen and so those liberals who deserted to Bush are despised, Hitchens in particular. Others like Khalilzad, Karzai, Ajmi, Makiya are a slightly different breed: ideological collaborators of the Empire and hoping, no doubt, to serve it if the situation allows.

Q: Do you keep up with the cottage industry of books on Islam? What are your thoughts on Bernard Lewis? Here he's become a sort of popular court expert on Islam here in the U.S.

A: Bernard Lewis is not unintelligent, but his writings are instrumentalist, designed to serve the changing needs of the American Empire. His knowledge of the region is now rusty. As for the rest, they cater to the market. If you look at books being produced by academics in the Fifties and Sixties (when the enemy was Communism) you'll find many a defence of Islam and Islamists. It was Fukuyama (then a lowly State Department official) who advised Pakistan's Islamist dictator to turn his back on India and concentrate on links with the Gulf. It's a temporary phenomenon. They'll soon move on to something else.

Q: Your title is meant as a dig at Huntington, who has since backtracked from his "civilizational fault line" thesis.

A: [Huntington's book] was a polemic against Fukuyama. A faction fight between two leading state intellectuals. Huntington's thesis that a united front of Chinese and Islamic civilizations posed a massive threat to the West was cast in civilization language but he was really warning about the dynamism of the Chinese economy and the control of oil. He's readjusted his theses.

Q: You've been warning for years about the damage military rule has done to Pakistan. Does the threat of an Islamist revolution there continue to grow? Where do you see the country in 10 or 20 years, judging from current trends?

A: I think the military will not give up power. Will Islamists take over the Army? Its possible if nothing else changes. The Islamists in Pakistan have won support since the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Generals tell them to be calm since they think the West will withdraw from Afghanistan and then the Army can move its people back in, perhaps this time without beards. But if the Islamist penetration of the Army continues then over the next few decades they will be in a strong position.

Q: You mention the desirability of a South Asian Union. What are the preconditions for progress toward something like this?

A: There is one essential precondition: a secular government in India. India is the largest country in South Asia. It is the dominant power. It has to take the initiative, but the country is in a mess. A Hindu fundamentalist government in Delhi, semi-fascist rule in Mumbai and Gujarat. Not good. Sooner or later, however, a South Asian Union will become necessary. I just hope it happens before a nuclear exchange. That would be too heavy a price to pay for any such union.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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