Tariq Ali's "The Clash
posted to www.marxmail.org on February 17, 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 the Arabic and Islam world--I found myself mesmerized by the portrait of a great civilization that has gotten short shrift in a Western media and academia dominated by the likes of Thomas Friedman and Samuel Huntington.
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 is his greatest accomplishment. Not only is it 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 Hebrew:
"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 against Kornilov."
"The Clash of Fundamentalisms" 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 Pakistani colonel.
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."