Le Panoptique

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Tariq Ali in Conversation (Part I)

Publié le 1 novembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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Over three hundred students, professors, and members of the general public packed into a former Catholic chapel at the University of Windsor last month to hear historian and novelist Tariq Ali lambaste the imperial wrong-headedness of American policies in the Middle East and around the world. Mr. Ali delivered his message in a voice whose suavity is coloured by British intonations and South Asian nuances. He pronounces “hegemony” with a hard “g” and never fails to remind audiences that a progressive, left-oriented politics in the twenty-first century depends on unswerving resistance to the “Washington Consensus”—a term that he mockingly and wittingly abbreviates to “WC” in his recently published Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope (Verso). Lorenzo Buj sat down with Tariq Ali at the University of Windsor.

A Syn, « Not My Government » Oakland
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Mr. Ali began his activism against capitalist hegemony and the U.S. imperium in the Vietnam and Lennon era, when he and the Beatle were fellow travelers in the protest culture. Like Lennon, Mr. Ali is also an artist in his own right. He has written a series of novels grouped together as “The Islam Quintet.” These look back to the cultural landmarks of Islamic history, particularly when Islam was itself hegemonic over parts of Europe. One such instance was the rich world of al-Andalus, or medieval Muslim Spain. The standard accounts claiming that the period was a tolerant, multicultural golden age for minority Jews and more numerous Christians has recently come under closer empirical scrutiny by Bat Ye’or and others. But Mr. Ali’s portrait of that time remains idyllic and appealing. As a novelist he has a sure and delicate touch, less acerbic than his comrade in belles-lettres and America-bashing, Gore Vidal.

Outside of their substantial literary merits, Mr. Ali’s novels belong to a politically correct philo-Orientalist genre that consorts well with a current taste for indigenous and diasporic voices. As one such voice, Mr. Ali is something of a unique case and yet also a very typical one: A Pakistani native from a well-to-do Communist family from Lahore whose religion ranged from the protocols of outward piety by the elders to the agnosticism and atheism of the young Tariq. Bourgeois communists are unique enough, whether found in Lahore, in Rome or Bologna, or in University English departments in Britain and America. What is typical, however, is that Mr. Ali can be a fierce critic of the corruption and opportunism of Musharraf, Karzai, or the Saudi royals, including their pandering to American interests; and he denounces Al Qaeda and the clerical regressiveness of the Tehran ayatollahs; but yet for all that he fails to locate the economic or political backwardness of these regimes in some of the core tenets of the Koranic world-view, instead preferring to hammer away at the larger evil of Western colonialism and interference.

While America has long been a “counter revolutionary state,” according to Mr. Ali, the “Washington Consensus” is more recent. It descended like a shroud in the 1990s following the fall of Communism. In the past two decades former socialists and left-oriented intellectuals have abandoned many of their convictions and signed on to neo-liberal economics and the fantasy of unipolar American military dominance. Christopher Hitchens is one such turncoat. The only righteous alternatives are found in forms of gringo rejectionism by Latin American leaders such as Chavez, Morales, Ortega, even Lula, and of course Castro—their ideological godfather.

None of these claims were surprising or totally off the mark. What did raise eyebrows, however, were two of Mr. Ali’s positions on the Middle East. First, he stated that Turkey is now run by an Islamist party but that this government can be reasonably compared to Christian Democratic parties in Europe. This raised my eyebrows and kept them high on my forehead when he followed up with the claim that under normal circumstances a Hamas administration or, should it happen, a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, would also be a parallel to European Christian Democrats. Somewhere in the course of such observations, which I take to be harmless only to the degree that they are broadly absurd, Mr. Ali said flatly that there are only two solutions to the Israel-Palestine conundrum: a two-state solution or a single state. These are common views and far from controversial. But Mr. Ali also stressed that the Palestinian people were part of the continuing outcome of Hitler’s genocide of the Jews of Europe. Once again, not an inaccurate thing to say according to many, but quite misleading in at least one historically significant way. Here Mr. Ali, the historian, finds himself in the same rhetorical camp as a politician whom he abhors ideologically: Iran’s Ahmadinejad.

Buj: We’re hearing a fair bit in North America about the coming of Islamic economics to the West and Sharia banking. Is such an economic vision a realistic alternative to capitalism or is it simply a disguise for another kind of capitalism? The other part of this question is that you have written about the Arab and Muslim world in the 1920s and ‘30s being caught between Enlightenment-inspired Marxism and reactionary populism as the only two alternatives for a political way forward, and yet having very little affinity for liberalism. Why would that be the case?

Ali: In my opinion, Islamic economics are largely fantasy. It’s part of a fantasy, which Muslim businessmen and the clerics who they are close to have because they want to give some alternative to the existing system. And so interest-free loans etc., which they talk about sound quite attractive but somehow it never works out like that because they always devise methods of getting the money back. Historically, that’s what they’ve done, and the big question is that [the] Islamic world is quite large and should be a perfect experimental territory for trying these things out; and then, if they work, say this is how good it is, but it’s never really been tried out in the world of Islam itself. So to be perfectly blunt with you, I don’t take any of this stuff too seriously. I mean the Koran itself, if you read it closely, is a document which could only have been produced in a society heavily involved in trade and commerce. There are many interesting things in it in relation to that, but I think there is a neo-liberal reading of the Koran as well: that it is totally in favour of free trade without any restrictions of any sort whatsoever, and it has astonished me that the neo-liberal geniuses who run today’s world haven’t made more use of this. I mean, for instance, if you ask Osama bin Laden “what would you do if you were running Saudi Arabia?”, he says we would privatize the oil, take it out of state control.

Buj: Historically, I see Islamic societies as having had consumption and not production economies. A lot of this was based on a slave economy, with African slaves coming out of sub-Saharan Africa into Muslim lands, and also the extraction of gold and war plunder, and the division of war spoils for which the Koran does make provisions. Is it fair to say that what’s important in Islam and what makes some forms of radical Islam attractive to the Western left is this idea that wealth is there to be redistributed? Capitalist countries actually produce wealth but other systems have not produced wealth as successfully as the West has in the last five hundred years under some of the same circumstances: slavery, plunder, and so on.

Ali: Well, in the first place, I don’t think that the bulk of Islamic societies were heavily dependent on slavery. Slavery existed and they took advantage of it, but I don’t think it can be argued that they were economically heavily dependent on it. The two big Muslim empires of the middle period, the Mughal empire in India and the Safavid empire in Iran or Persia, were not dependent on slavery at all. These were societies in which there was a strange sort of economic system, which was parasitic. It was parasitic in the following way: it was heavily dependent on the world of the peasants and the production of the peasants and the craftsmen in the cities, and trade. But at the same time the state never permitted the development of capitalism.

Buj: [You mean] private property?

Ali: Private property in land was permitted on a very tiny scale. It was the state that was the owner. This was also very noticeable in the Ottoman empire and of course people got around it, but by and large the state ownership of property prevented the development of capitalism or a proper feudalism in Islam as [opposed to what] you saw in Western Europe by and large where capitalism was born. That model didn’t exist in the Islamic world. But nor did it exist in Germany until the Meiji restoration [NOTE: I think Mr. Ali might have meant Japan instead of Germany] and nor did it exist in parts of Eastern Europe which were always run by absolutist regimes. So the actual birth of what we now call modern capitalism heavily depended on the irruption of feudalism and feudalism as a form of sovereignties. The feudal lords were very powerful and the king was agreed to by them. But it was these feudal sovereignties within which capitalism and crafts emerged and took advantage of the sovereignty that the feudal lords had enjoyed to fight for their own sovereignty within that system. That, you never got in Islam for a variety of reasons.

Buj: Because of the nature of religious law [i.e. and its primacy] in Islam?

Ali: I’m not so sure. I don’t think one can totally tie it to religion, because after all you had other parts of the world which were not Islamic but where capitalism never developed either. So I don’t think it is religion. I think the interesting question is why didn’t feudalism proper develop in these societies. There’s a big debate about that, with a massive literature. But why was it that the industrial revolution took place in Western Europe and not Eastern Europe? And, I don’t think religion had a part to play in it. I think it was essentially that the system that was set up by Islam—you know, one shouldn’t overestimate the actual originality of Islam. The fact that Islam grew so quickly and so massively in the first hundred years, unlike Christianity, is that it took a lot from the countries where it went. Islam in India took a hell of a lot of its property laws from pre-Islamic societies. Likewise in Persia and the Ottoman lands. None of these societies had feudalism in the proper sense of the word. And then Islam of course superimposed on that its own structure because they [i.e. Muslim conquerors] were largely people going from the outside and, therefore, they wanted to keep control and the way you keep control is you deny private property in land and you say it all belongs to God and the state or whatever, so I think it was for political reasons for which religion played a part as it did in every other society. (continued in Part II)

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