Tariq Ali on Fighting Fundamentalism

Tariq Ali on the Middle East, American Hegemony and The Rise of China

Tariq Ali: Al empires had their rivals, but the US is alone | Photo: Walter Craveiro/FLIP

Author, filmmaker and political activist, Tariq Ali has an uncanny ability to uncover connections that are not immediately apparent. Eloquent, learned and culturally astute, he is a man of crystal-clear intellect, and no one, it seems, can escape his critical gaze.

Ali visited Vienna on a cool and breezy night in mid-November.  As 19:00 approached, dozens of expectant faces poured into the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna’s 19th District.

“I will try to explain why this means a great deal to me to be here today,” Ali said in perfect, if ever so slightly accented, Oxford English. “I will try to be as hard-headed and realistic as possible on what is going on (in the world).”

Ali makes has dramatic appearance. At 63, his age is betrayed only by his silver hair and neatly trimmed mustache, so brilliant that they could have been painted on.

“In the last 25 years, the single most important development has been the emergence of China,” Ali continued, removing his glasses and swinging them about as he spoke, his rhetoric flawless and entirely unscripted.  “[This is] the workshop of the world.” While the world talks about the decline of the American empire – which he dismisses as far fetched – and the Middle East occupies the center of foreign policy, China has quietly grown into a giant. It has a very dynamic form of capitalism, said the Pakistani-born author of The Clash of Fundamentalisms, flowing from evidence to argument as if he were a talking book. And since there is no democratic accountability in China, it is easy, as with older forms of western capitalism, to put profit over people, continuing the long sordid history of worker exploitation.

“Texan businessmen sometimes envy (China) because they can do whatever they want!” Ali said.  The result is that this strong market system in China and the East is invigorating the whole region.

Ali continued to explain his worldview by regions, explaining how each one, despite their surging economies, had no chance of becoming a major threat to the US hegemony. “The Japanese economy is rising on the back of China… and Russia is stabilized by a neo-authoritarian regime,” Ali said, adding, “Putin doesn’t need the west.”

There is a big factor, however, which protects the United States against all economic rivalry.

“There is no power in the world that is capable… of defeating them (militarily). All empires had their rivals.  (But) the US is alone,” Ali said.

This was most recently illustrated by the lead up to the Iraq war, when the United States was able to invade the country despite opposition from European powers. This is, Ali said, because the EU is not a strong political entity, which also means that its politicians are sometimes afraid to criticize the US and its allies.

Few European leaders have raised their voices against US policies but 1970’s Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky was one of the exceptions.

“Bruno Kreisky was one of the only politicians of his stature who defended the Palestinians,” Ali said.  “There is not a single European politician who does this today.” In fact, said Ali, Western liberals are blind to the suffering of the Palestinians. “What is happening in Gaza today is a disgrace… (it) is like a ghetto!”

Suddenly a high-pitched voice penetrated the air, interrupting Ali in mid-sentence.

“But there are rockets there!”

Confusion briefly swept over the crowd as they attempted to locate the man who had so rudely broken their train of thought.  He was an older man, with long white hair combed over his balding head and a face as round as the frames of his glasses.  He repeated his statement, holding up a tape recorder the size of an answering machine.

Ali looked at the man, but maintained his calm, continuing to explain that criticism of Israel in the western press was very looked down upon, though it was often justified.

“If you look at the (Israeli Daily Paper) Haaretz website, you see far more criticism of what is being done by Israel,” Ali said.

“And now that you’ve provoked me I’m going to tell you some more things,” he said nonchalantly, eliciting laughter around the room.

Ali began relaying the story of the Israeli ‘refusenik’ pilots, a group of 27 Israeli Air Force pilots who, in 2003, became conscientious objectors when they refused to fly air-raid campaigns in the Palestinian territories due to mounting civilian casualties.

This made them immensely unpopular in Israel, with much of the press attacking them, prompting Yehuda Nuriel, a columnist for Ma’ariv, to publish a piece denouncing the pilots and speaking of the importance of fighting for the homeland.  It was by-lined A. Schickelgruber.

The column was very well received until, 48 hours later, someone pointed out to the Ma’ariv editor in chief that Schickelgruber was actually Adolf Hitler’s last name by birth, and that the entire text had been copied and pasted together from excerpts of “Mein Kampf.”  Nuriel was fired immediately, but his point had been made.

The man with the tape recorder began protesting loudly, and when shushing from the audience wouldn’t calm him, Ali placed his hands squarely on the podium and looked him straight in the eye.

“I know you don’t like it but it’s true!” Ali boomed at the old man, who through his protests and interruptions had revealed himself to be an old Austrian Zionist.

As far as a solution to the conflict is concerned, Ali noted that it is vital for “Israel’s own long-term interest to accept a settlement,” since the current situation is entirely untenable.

There are problems in other Arab countries too, however.  “One of the big problems now in the Middle East is that the people who resist imperialism have no social vision,” he said, referring to the region’s Islamist forces.

“There is religious fundamentalism all over the world… (and) discussion, democratic accountability are the way to deal with it,” he said.

It is also, according to Ali useless to wage war against terrorism. In fact, he maintained, the war on terror has created more terrorists. America should have gone by the British and Spanish example (of dealing with the IRA and ETA, respectively).

“Waging war will not succeed, and it has not succeeded in the past,” he said.

Ali also cautioned against the violent protests that took place in response to both the Danish cartoons and the Pope’s comments about Islam earlier this year. While he thought that voicing outrage was justified, the violent outcry could not achieve the protestors’ goals.

“I would encourage a protest that is effective rather than ineffective,” he said matter-of-factly and then smilingly added, “It has always been my philosophy of life.”

The evening ended abuzz, everyone contemplating what they had heard.

Almost everyone that is.

The old man with the tape recorder, his stuff packed up and coat on, stood by the door, waiting to plead his cause to anyone that could listen. Nothing from that evening, it seemed, had passed through his mind. When it became clear to him that no one would respond, he left the same way he had come: Alone.

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