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Tariq Ali in Conversation (Part II)

Publié le 1 novembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires
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In Part II of his interview with Tariq Ali, Lorenzo Buj asks the historian and novelist about his take on the meaning of Islamic jihad and his reaction to Iranian President Ahamdinejad’s recent visit to Columbia University, New York.

 Jihad for Mayor, end regentrification
Daquella Manera, Jihad for Mayor, end
regentrification
, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

Buj: What do you say to the idea that in Western Europe you had different kinds of legal jurisdictions? [i.e. that made economic/secular development possible] You had canon law, you had Roman law, you had local customary law. [i.e. In Islam the dialectic of jurisdictions is not possible because of the primacy of God’s law].

Ali: That is true, yeah, I think that is absolutely true that the domination of these [i.e. Islamic] societies by religion played a part without any doubt. I mean there are many examples of this from history. Every time you had a sultan who could think for himself and suggested why don’t we, look, the Europeans have invented the printing press, surely Islam doesn’t forbid the printing press, but they stopped it.

Buj: The Ottoman world didn’t permit the printing press until the nineteenth century, I believe.

Ali: Yes. So there were lots and lots of examples of where the religious, the clerics, in order to preserve their own particular privileges, the clerics refused to permit in the Ottoman lands, but I mean that was an ideological reason essentially. Even the system of rule in the Ottoman empire, which is very interesting in its own right, which was to run the state by a central bureaucracy under the control of the palace. The sultan was all-powerful and an aristocracy was not permitted. You know the only aristo[crat] was the sultan.

Buj: But a lot of civil servants.

Ali: A massive civil bureaucracy! And the civil bureaucracy was actually put in place by taking kids from all over the empire so they would go into—

Buj: The “devsirme” system.

Ali: Yeah, that system worked. It did create a bureaucracy that was almost above everything else because none of them—it was a clever operation—because they did not want a bureaucracy totally dominated by Anatolians, because this would privilege Anatolia, so they wanted a bureaucracy which reflected the needs of the empire. And not tied to a particular ethnic group or a tribe. It was quite interesting from my point of view.

Buj: The “devsirme” system is the so-called “tax” where you take one Balkan, Christian male youth [i.e. one per family] and ship him to Istanbul and convert him to Islam and train him and they become

Ali: Yeah, they become governors and you know—

Buj: Ottoman soldiers—

Ali: Big wigs, I mean the guy who ran Egypt. Muhammad Ali, was an Albanian taken by this system. And he finally became a semi-independent ruler of Egypt. So it’s quite interesting.

Buj: I’d like to read you a quotation of yours. You wrote, “Contrary to common belief, the concept of jihad as ‘holy war’ has a limited pedigree. After the early victories of Islam it had been quietly dropped until as a mobilizing slogan until revived by Zbigniew Brzezinski in the early 1980s…on the Pakistan-Afghan border.” My question is, really? What [i.e. what about those early days of Islamic conquest and] were the Ottoman sultans using as their ideological rallying cry when they [attacked Byzantium]? And if Brzezinski could appeal to this, it must have some basis. I mean, in the index to The Clash of Fundamentalism the term “jihad” I don’t think even appears. It’s there on the title page but not in the Index.

Ali: Well, I mean, the thing is I don’t take this term too seriously because there are many debates that go on in the Islamic world about what jihad is, and there is a strong argument which is that “jihad” in Islamic discourse—a majority view is that “jihad” in Islamic discourse means “struggle to improve yourself.” But there’s that [other] side to it too. The “holy war” thing was taken by Islam largely during the crusades because the crusaders said it’s a holy war, and so the Muslims in the Arab East replied in kind, saying fine, you have your holy war and we have ours and our holy war is “jihad.” So if you actually look at the history behind it it’s quite an interesting phenomenon, and the Ottomans when they were taking the bulk of their eastern European empire very rarely used that word, I mean they barely even used “Islam.” It was just, “we have replaced”—

Buj: Byzantium.

Ali: Their thinking was we have replaced Byzantium and we are going to be a big empire like they were. It was an imperial move by the Osmanli family. It was not a religious one. Obviously, the religious difference [i.e. between Islam and Byzantine/Balkan Christians] played a big part. But if you look at Spain and the whole history of Al-Andalus from the ninth to the sixteenth century it is not the case that the two big communities, Islam and Christianity, which divided Spain, I mean the Jews the third and smallest community were with the Muslims mostly, but often you find in the struggles that were taking place there was a Muslim ruler aligned with a Christian ruler against another Muslim ruler and another Christian ruler. So all sorts of alliances took place. In fact, the great Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun wrote that one big problem with Islam is that it has not been able to build a solidarity. And you had Moses Findley a great, great Cambridge ancient historian now long dead saying that the big problem with Islam is they couldn’t develop—he doesn’t use the word “solidarity” but he comes close—they couldn’t unite themselves. They were driven by factional strife from the beginning, and that is why they didn’t take the Western empire, Findley argues. If they had been united there is no reason why Rome shouldn’t have fallen to them either, because it was in a total state of collapse. So I think that the actual history of what happened rather goes against the view that Islam or jihad, or holy war could unite them. It didn’t.

Buj: I ask because I’m aware of this meaning of “jihad” as “struggle” or “self-improvement,” but a sceptic can make the claim that jihad is a kind of sixth pillar of Islam and it can mutate from a term meaning personal struggle and personal effort to some kind of political supremacism.

Ali: Well, there is [that]. I mean these are sort of these born-again Muslims who do it. And there are many others who argue against them. This is certainly the view of Islamic fundamentalists. Political Islam takes that view up. But not every Muslim and in fact a large a majority of Muslims are not part of this process. It is a tiny, tiny minority within Islamic culture, and these arguments go on all the time actually. I mean, martyrdom is in some ways a more significant idea in Islamic discourse than jihad, and who is a martyr and who is not a martyr, and if two Muslim armies are fighting each other, who is the martyr? This causes massive problems as you can imagine for the theologians, as is happening today on the Afghan border.

Buj: I want to ask you about what you wrote about the [historic] mosque in Cordoba, the agnosticism or the atheism you proclaim, and then your preference for the emptiness of that mosque as opposed to the plenitude and the kitsch of the cathedral built there too.

Ali: Well, this is an aesthetic judgment. But I will say, I was in the Kurdish capital in eastern Turkey, Diyarbakir, where I saw some ancient churches really going a long way back and they were just stunning in the way that they had been built. I can appreciate the Jewish synagogue in Cochin in India, which just as much as the Cordoba mosque appeals to me as a work of architecture. And of course this [i.e. the Cordoba mosque] was the center of the most interesting and appealing period in Islamic history, which is why I started writing novels about it. So it has nothing to do with religion but a great deal to do with history and architecture and aesthetics. Even the king of Spain when he went to see that mosque he said to the monks you have destroyed something which is beautiful.

Buj: What is you reaction to Ahamdinejad’s recent visit to Columbia [University]?

Ali: I thought Bollinger behaved disgracefully. You invite a head of state and then you try to tell your students that this guy is a total schmuck and he really shouldn’t be here but I couldn’t disinvite [sic] him. Basically it’s like a judge giving a jury advice on how to find someone guilty. That’s what Bollinger did and it didn’t go down too well amongst his own community. There was a gigantic turnout at Columbia just to listen to a guy who is demonized. I mean, I don’t agree with this guy [i.e. Ahamdinejad] as you can imagine, but on the other hand many of the things he said were not totally wrong. And six Iranian vice chancellors have now sent ten questions to Bollinger saying why don’t you reply to these on the history of Iran. Very, very intelligent questions. I mean, just purely even from the point of view of tactics and politics it has made Ahamdinejad enormously popular back in Iran. His popularity was way down. Every time they [i.e. the West] behave like this, they say “screw you, he’s our boy when all is said and done.” Then the other question is why do you just do this to someone who the United States perceives as an enemy at the moment? You have the Pakistani military dictator and its kid gloves and how pleased we are to have General Musharraf here speaking to us. It’s the grotesqueness of the double standard that operates. I’m sure that if the king of Saudi Arabia went to speak at Columbia probably Bollinger and his chancellors would sort of fall on their knees hoping the Saudis would give them money to fund a new bloody department. So it shows how debased the culture has become that a senior academic could operate in this way.

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