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Iconoclastic account of world affairs
on June 16, 2002
For those who want to understand how such seemingly disparate issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Kashmir question, and the situation in Afghanistan fit together in the Post-Cold War world this latest book by Tariq Ali is almost mandatory reading.
This is surely a very personal account of world affairs, and in many instances the author is driven just as much by his own convictions as by a desire to explain. For this is not an unbiased analysis. But to be fair to the author, the iconoclastic Tariq Ali makes no attempt to hide this and would be the first to admit that he has his own political agenda.
Readers who do not share Ali's political ideology, and this reviewer is one of them, should nevertheless not be put off by this. For the very value of THE CLASH OF FUNDAMENTALISMS is that it captures a mood, a mood prevalent among scores of people in what we like to call the Third World. And as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has explained in an entirely different context, moods are just as potent as driving forces for human behavior as the more focussed motivations.
Another quality that the author can not be denied is courage. The opening sentence of the first chapter is namely: I never really believed in God. Not many people of Muslim extraction would have dared to make such a confession, at least not since the Salman Rushdie Affair.
Tariq Ali is indeed not your average representative of the Third World citizen. Born in a family of feudal landowners in the Punjab province of British India, which was divided after the partition between Pakistan and India, his relatives played a role in politics before and after independence: a grandfather was chief minister, and others held senior positions in the armed forces or served in parliament. Ali's parents, however, became staunch Marxists, while he himself is a self-confessed Trotskyist. Since his student-days he has been at the forefront of many political activities at the extreme left of the political spectrum.
His family background and his own political activism have made Tariq Ali a uniquely well-connected man, and this book has benefited from that. Throughout the years the author has had access to the military and political establishment in Pakistan, worked for the Russell Tribunal, traveled in worn-torn Northern Vietnam and visited Palestinian refugee camps. He shows himself not only very well read in Islamic history, but is also conversant with the writings of political radicals of both left and right. He augments his account with examples from literature: critical writers such as Abd al-Rahman Munif and Nizar Kabbani are or were personal acquaintances.
All this makes his book an important read for everybody who wants to at least attempt to view the world through the eyes of `the Wretched of the Earth'.
In the first part Tariq Ali gives a genealogy of the heritage of Islamic civilization. Taking us from his personal introduction to Islamic learning, via the days of the Prophet Muhammad and early conquests to the crusades and the Ottoman Empire. This is followed by two more thematic chapters on the wide diversity of Islamic doctrines - meant to dispel the incorrect image of Islam as a monolithic bloc - and a very interesting discourse on gender issues in Islam.
In the second part of the book the author introduces us into the modern Middle East. Here Ali explains the way a puritanical strand of Islam ends up making common cause with the imperialistic designs of the West, and how the founding of Israel turned the Middle East into a political quagmire, both because of irreconcilable differences and outside manipulations. It is the author's accomplishment to give a readable account of how Zionism, the experiments with socialism in Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria, the trauma caused by the 1967 war, the rise and fall of Anwar Sadat and the Shah, have all been instrumental in creating a mood, which in 1987 exploded into the Intifadah. The result was that during the last decades of the twentieth century virtually the whole Middle East was submerged in an 'Ocean of Terror'.
In the next part, Ali shifts his attention back to his region of origin: South Asia. Because I am not as familiar with this part of the world as with the Middle East, I found this the most informative part of the book. The author explains how the tensions between India and Pakistan can be traced back to the undesired partition of former British India. During the run-up to independence the leaders of the Congress Party and Muslim League did not envisage the horror and atrocities to which they would expose the people they were suppose to represent. Later on it lead to a bloody war in Bangladesh, while Tariq Ali qualifies the Kashmir issue as the unfinished business of partition. Continued interference by the post-Word War II superpowers did nothing to improve the situation. Pakistani and Indian politics became already hopelessly corrupt, even before the situation got completely out of hand in Afghanistan.
While in the previous parts the author has tried to give an explanation for the rage that is holding large parts of the Islamic world in its grip, his final section starts with a chapter entitled `A Short-Course History of US Imperialism'. In many instances Ali hits the nail on the head - the doctrine of Neo-Liberalism is just as fundamentalist in character as Islamic radicalism. His comparison between the theses presented by two high priests of post-Cold War doctrine, Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, I found particularly insightful. But at the same time the author's personal political predilections come to the fore as he can not resist filling us in on the involvement of these two `state intellectuals' in some of America's unsavory political actions. Kissinger, Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright are taken to task for this as well. A few quotations from Leon Trotsky, by contrast, serve to present him as a visionary, and there is unfortunately also little or no real analysis of what made Marxism-Leninism fail in the end.
But in short, THE CLASH OF FUNDAMENTALISMS is a very valuable book for those who want to look beyond the scare mongering of myopic politicians and sensationalist media. In addition to that, is Tariq Ali an entertaining writer as well.