Vijay Prashad vs. Michael Berube

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Sep 17 07:58:17 MDT 2002

Znet, May 24, 2002

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

By Vijay Prashad

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

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.


Louis Proyect

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