Tariq Ali's "The Clash of Fundamentalisms"
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Feb 17 14:56:19 MST 2003
When Tariq Ali spoke at the Brecht Forum in NYC in 1999 to promote his
novel "The Book of Saladin"--the latest installment in a quartet dealing
with Arabic civilization and Islam--I found myself mesmerized by the
portrait of a society that has gotten short shrift in a Western media
dominated by the likes of Bernard Lewis.
When I got around to buy "The Book of Saladin," I found myself
disappointed. Despite the eloquence of Ali's lecture, the novel never
really came to life. This, of course, might have been my own fault since I
find most historical novels to be stilted affairs, with their obsession
over period details and vain attempts to portray how people might have
spoken a half-millennium ago, etc. I remember saying to myself that Ali
would have been better off writing a straightforward account of figures
such as Saladin, Mohammad, etc.
Happily, Ali finally wrote that book. Titled "The Clash of Fundamentalisms:
Crusades, Jihads and Modernity", it is an attempt to explain the historical
roots of 9/11, the Kashmir conflict, the Palestinian Intafada and a number
of other questions that are tied in one fashion or another to Islamic
identity and politics. Speaking as somebody who has read nearly everything
that Tariq Ali has ever written, I can without hesitation state that this
his greatest accomplishment. Not only is supremely informative on matters
of deep importance to radicals in the East and West, it is written with his
characteristic grace and wit.
On one level, the Clash is a kind of FAQ. On so many questions about which
many of us have only the sketchiest understanding, Ali not only fills in
the detail, but also provides the all-important social and economic
context. "What is Wahabbism" is one such frequently asked question that you
can find an answer to in the Clash, with the kind of attention to questions
of class and power that is so sorely missing in the standard presentation:
"'Fanatics have their dreams,' wrote John Keats, 'wherewith they weave a
paradise for a sect.' The English Romantic poet was referring to the
Puritan religious sects that arose before, during and after the English
Revolution of the seventeenth century, but the words could apply just as
well to the desert preacher who made his way back to build his movement in
the area he knew best. In 1744 Ibn Wahhab arrived in Deraiya, another petty
oasis city-state in the province of Nejd. The soil was fertile and the
people poor. The city was known for its orchards and date plantations and
for its notorious bandit-emir, Muhammad Ibn Saud, who was delighted to
receive a preacher expelled by a rival potentate. He understood at once
that Ibn Wahhab's teachings might further his own military ambitions. The
two men were made for each other.
"Ibn Wahhab provided theological justification for almost everything Ibn
Saud wanted to achieve: a permanent jihad that involved looting other
Muslim settlements and cities, ignoring the caliph, imposing a tough
discipline on his own people and, ultimately, asserting his own rule over
neighbouring tribes in an attempt to unite the Peninsula. After lengthy
discussions, the emir and the preacher agreed to a mithaq, a binding
agreement, that would be honoured by their successors in eternity. The two
clauses inserted by Ibn Saud indicated what he had in mind. Spiritual
fervour in the service of political ambition, but not vice versa.
"Ibn Saud had realised immediately that the preacher's charisma was
infectious. Determined to monopolise both the man and his teachings, he
demanded a blanket pledge: under no circumstances should Ibn Wahhab ever
offer his spiritual allegiance and services to any other emir in the
region. Incredibly, for a man of religion who defended the universality of
Islam with a crazed vigour, Ibn Wahhab consented to abide by this
restriction. The second demand of the emir was downright cynical. However
bad it might appear, the preacher must never thwart his ruler from exacting
necessary tributes from his subjects. On this point, too, Muhammad Ibn
Wahhab accommodated his new patron, reassuring him that soon these tributes
would be unnecessary since 'Allah promises more material benefits in the
shape ofghanima [loot] from the unbelievers.'"
Woven through narratives such as this, Tariq Ali interjects himself as a
kind of archetypical figure in Islamic society, namely the skeptical,
left-leaning intellectual. Although he came from a secular family, his
father was determined that he learn to read Arabic in order to be able to
read the Koran in the original. Even if the holy book was filled with
falsehoods, it was part of the cultural heritage of Islamic peoples. In
describing his youthful resistance to such an onerous chore, Tariq Ali
would remind many formerly observant Jews of their own ordeals in learning
"On the dreaded day, the mullah arrived and ate a hearty lunch. He was
introduced to me by our old family retainer, Khuda Baksh (God Bless), who
had served in my grandfathers household and often accompanied us to the
mountains. Because of his status and age, he enjoyed a familiarity denied
to other servants. God Bless was bearded, a staunch believer in the primacy
of Islam; he said his prayers and fasted regularly but was deeply hostile
to the mullahs, whom he regarded as pilferers, perverts and parasites.
Nonetheless, he could not restrain a smile as the mullah, a man of medium
height, in his late fifties, exchanged greetings with me. The sky was
cloudless and the snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas clearly visible. We
took our seats around a garden table placed to catch the warming sun. The
afternoon chorus was in full flow. I breathed a delicious scent of
sun-roasted pine needles and wild strawberries.
"When the bearded man began to speak I noticed he was nearly toothless. The
rhymed verse at once lost its magic. The few false teeth he had wobbled. I
began to wonder if it would happen, and then it did: he became so excited
with fake emotion that his false teeth dropped out on to the table. He
smiled, picked them up and put them back in his mouth. At first I managed
to restrain myself, but then I heard a suppressed giggle from the veranda
and made the mistake of turning round. God Bless had stationed himself
behind the large rhododendron to eavesdrop on the lesson and was choking
with silent laughter. At this point I excused myself and rushed indoors.
Thus ended the first lesson.
"The following week God Bless, approaching his sixtieth birthday, dared me
to ask the mullah a question before the lesson began. I did. 'Have your
false teeth been supplied by the local butcher?' I inquired with an
innocent expression, in an ultra-polite voice. The mullah asked me to
leave: he wished to see my mother alone. A few minutes later he, too, left,
never to return. Later that day he was sent an envelope full of money to
pay for my insolence. God Bless and I celebrated his departure in the
bazaar cafe with a delicious brew of mountain tea and home-made biscuits."
Throughout the Clash, Tariq Ali pours withering scorn on various Islamic
"leaders" and bourgeois politicians, reserving his bitterest commentary for
those who disgrace his native country of Pakistan. From his unique vantage
point as son of the publisher of one of Pakistan's most important daily
newspapers, his contempt for the ruling cliques is bred by familiarity. As
"one of their own", this convert to revolutionary socialism remains
morbidly fascinated by their various foibles and stupidity:
"As I was waiting to get a flight to Lahore, I ran into an old
acquaintance, a distant cousin of my mother's and a colonel in the army. He
was uniformed, on his way back to GHQ after a spell at the Military Staff
College in Quetta. I had not seen him for several years. As he greeted me
warmly, I gave him a mock salute. He laughed. Six months before he would
have looked straight through me. Over breakfast he told me that he had just
finished reading Isaac Deutscher's trilogy: the three-volume biography of
Trotsky. I expressed amazement. He informed me that they had to study the
Red Army and he had found the books in the Staff College library. 'One
thing puzzles me greatly,' he confessed. 'Trotsky was a brilliant leader
during the Civil War. Tukhachevsky was a brilliant military commander. You
agree?' I did. 'Then explain why they didn't use the Red Army to defeat
Stalin.' I explained. 'I disagree with you,' he said. 'Bonapartism under
Trotsky and Tukhachevsky would have been much better than bloody Stalin.
How can you be so naive?'
"I began to laugh, slightly hysterically, which both annoyed and slightly
unnerved him. 'Can't you see the joke?' I said. 'Your commander-in-chief
banned me from returning here. I'm back because he's gone. We've just
witnessed a successful uprising that has removed your boss from power and
you're asking me why Trotsky didn't opt for a military dictatorship m 1923?'
"He became slightly defensive, but refused to budge. Some years later he
had to retire in a hurry for an act of sexual Bonapartism. He kept on
dispatching a junior officer on spurious missions in order to pursue an
affair with his wife. The guilty couple were discovered and the junior
dislodge my cousin's nose. His military career ended in disgrace. A pity.
In seven years' time one could have encouraged him to play Tukhachevsky
"The Clash of Civilizations" is filled with sharp-eyed vignettes like this.
It is certainly what one might expect from a self-avowed revolutionary who
went to the same private schools as the people who now misrule Pakistan.
Obviously anybody with this kind of class background runs the risk of not
being able to transcend it entirely. Indeed, throughout all of Tariq Ali's
writings, one gets a sense that he was never fully committed to the kind of
proletarian outlook that goes with the territory of October, 1917. He
always struck me as somebody "passing through" the revolutionary movement
in the late 1960s when both he and I belonged to the worldwide Marxist
party. Frankly, it did not come as a big surprise when he along with other
New Left Review figures cut their ties to the Fourth International and
launched successful careers as academics and journalists, no longer
constrained by the need to defend a party line nor show up for meetings
that conflicted with cocktail parties or movie premieres.
This proclivity accounts for a certain weakness in the Clash, namely its
inability to identify with or fully explain the thinking of the Islamic
masses who are far more important in determining history than any colonel.
For instance, Ali mentions that the Communist Party in Egypt numbered only
5,000 militants while the Islamic Brotherhood numbered 250,000 in its
prime. It would be most interesting to dig a little deeper into this
question, why a peasant or a factory worker would decide to align him or
herself with either current. To do that, it would require interviews with
common people that lacked the articulation and panache of the above-cited
Since Islamic fundamentalism is so stupid and reactionary in his eyes,
perhaps Ali feels no particular need to explain why somebody goes through a
conversion process. For myself, this is a much more interesting question
that I must confess relates to the impact that Malcolm X had on my own
radicalization. It is often forgotten that when Malcolm X was a member of
the Nation of Islam, he came out with boneheaded stupidities that are not
uncommon in the world that Tariq Ali so easily disparages.
One gets the strong sense, especially from the final chapter titled "Letter
to a young Muslim" that Tariq Ali considers the refutation of Islamic
beliefs to be a core element of a revolutionary agenda in the Mideast, East
Asia and Africa where fundamentalism is on the rise. I am not sure that
this should be the case, especially in light of what Lenin said in his 1905
"Socialism and Religion":
"But under no circumstances ought we to fall into the error of posing the
religious question in an abstract, idealistic fashion, as an 'intellectual'
question unconnected with the class struggle, as is not infrequently done
by the radical-democrats from among the bourgeoisie. It would be stupid to
think that, in a society based on the endless oppression and coarsening of
the worker masses, religious prejudices could be dispelled by purely
propaganda methods. It would be bourgeois narrow-mindedness to forget that
the yoke of religion that weighs upon mankind is merely a product and
reflection of the economic yoke within society. No number of pamphlets and
no amount of preaching can enlighten the proletariat, if it is not
enlightened by its own struggle against the dark forces of capitalism.
Unity in this really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for the
creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of
proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.
That is the reason why we do not and should not set forth our atheism in
our Programme; that is why we do not and should not prohibit proletarians
who still retain vestiges of their old prejudices from associating
themselves with our Party. We shall always preach the scientific
world-outlook, and it is essential for us to combat the inconsistency of
various 'Christians'. But that does not mean in the least that the
religious question ought to be advanced to first place, where it does not
belong at all; nor does it mean that we should allow the forces of the
really revolutionary economic and political struggle to be split up on
account of third-rate opinions or senseless ideas, rapidly losing all
political importance, rapidly being swept out as rubbish by the very course
of economic development.
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org
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