Tariq Ali: From Lahore to London, with Nasser and Trotsky

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Profile by Fatemah Farag
Source: ِAhram Weekly

 Along with everything else, 11 September and its aftermath reminded many people in the Arab and Islamic worlds of the existence, within the West, of anti-war, anti-globalisation and other progressive activists and writers, people who might be looked to for solidarity and the espousing of a common cause. And it is within the framework of this rediscovery that the time is ripe to take stock of Tariq Ali. No surprise, then, that despite the fact I came across his work years ago I only thought of making contact with him after reading an article in The Independent last October in which he recounted how he had been "profiled" in a German airport. It was a personal experience that immediately struck a chord: many people from the Arab world have faced the same interrogations as they dared to travel to Western airports.

Tariq Ali was born in Lahore in 1944, "when the city was still part of British India and before it became that new country called Pakistan." He was picking at his fish over lunch in London; tall, he was stooping over the plate. The night before this lunch appointment I had asked a British friend of Pakistani origin what to expect. "Sort of a cross between Marx and Ocalan. Very direct and lots of hair," he told me. And he was right, though what struck me most was his gait, incredibly long strides that I struggled to keep up with in an attempt to note everything he had to say. It was as if there was insufficient time, insufficient space to contain all that must be said and done.

"My family was a very old, decaying feudal aristocracy. But both my parents were radical communists. My father was very active in the movement against imperialism and in the course of that activity he read Marx. My mother's father was from Punjab and was constantly agitating against imperialism. They [his parents] fell in love -- it was not even an arranged marriage," he recounts. "My mother gave all her jewels to the party -- I wonder whose neck they ended up on."

The young Ali's first foray into activism gained its impetus from Nasser's Egypt.

"I became a radical during the Suez Crises of 1956. The government of Pakistan was supporting the British and Nasser was a hero for many Pakistanis. And so my first cry at my first demonstration would be 'long live Nasser and death to imperialism.'"

After Catholic school Ali studied at Government College, part of Punjab University, and was soon elected president of the Young Students' Union. "I became quite active; part of the anti- dictatorship left. One day we received news that Lumumba had been killed and I called a student meeting. No one had heard of him and so I spoke about how he was a great leader and most of the kids followed me into what became the first anti- dictatorship demonstration. We started by chanting 'Lumumba lives' and on our way back chanted for democracy."

The momentum generated spiraled into a heady anti-dictatorship movement and eventually an uncle who worked for military intelligence told Ali's parents that they had a big file on their son. "My parents did not tell me about this at the time but encouraged me to go to Oxford to study. And so I came to England and was not allowed to go back for many years."

Ali missed his friends, of course, and the food. "England was a culinary desert," he remembers with a shudder. But all in all his move to England was not a bad thing. He studied politics, philosophy and economics at Exeter College and joined the University Labour Club, eventually becoming president of the Oxford Union in 1965.

He read Isaac Deutcher, met the Belgian Trotskyist Ernst Mandel and engaged in the 1968 student movement that swept Europe. When riots took over the streets in Paris Ali headed 25,000 students in a march on the American Embassy in London decrying the war in Vietnam.

It was his activism in the anti-war movement during this time that secured his revolutionary reputation. He debated with Henry Kissenger and then British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart, was invited to dinner by Marlon Brando and travelled to Vietnam on behalf of Sartre and Bertrand Russell to observe a war tribunal. He was later to note that "it was the Vietcong guerrilla fighters who really set the example. When they showed they could inflict major defeats on the Americans, people all over the world said, 'if they can do it to the Americans, we can'."

But it was not to be. Ali eventually broke ranks with the Labour Party and later the International Marxist Group, and by the time the 80s hit something was obviously amiss. "I had realised that the epoch of socialist ideas had come to an end and something had to change. What that was, though, I did not know."

He became "apolitical", by which he means he wrote books, articles, commentary and produced television documentaries. He reassessed the developing world with Bandung File, for Britain's Channel Four, and collaborated on stage plays with Howard Brenton and on a film about Wittgenstein with the late Derek Jarman. His short play on Iraq was recently performed at Cooper Union in New York and I read somewhere that he is currently working on an opera on Ayatollah Khomeini.

He also became the editor of the New Left Review and began work on two novel sequences. In the first , the "Islamic Quintet", Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin and the Stone Woman have already been published by Verso. The second sequence, "Fall of Communism" includes Redemption and Fear of Mirrors.

But then, once again, events in the Middle East served as the impetus for more overt political action.

"It started with the Gulf War. The hegemony of specific ideas got me very angry: ignorant, war thirsty ideas."

The fact that he downplays his political activism may be attributed to modesty. His reputation as an orator and activist, though, is high. Ever since the anti-war movement in England began to gain momentum, Ali has been reporting as a faithful demonstrator while the consensus on his nationwide talks is that they are inspirational. "Whenever there is a war I become active. I hate the ignorance involved in waging war; it drives me crazy."

Ali has forged his post-9/11 positions at a time when many intellectuals across the globe have been torn by the double bind within which they find themselves, facing a stark choice between the fundamentalism of Bush or that of Bin Laden. It is a set of choices, however, for which Ali has only contempt.

"I despise people who become apologists for the US. I am at the same time deeply hostile to all forms of religious fundamentalism." Hence his conviction that the only "serious approach" to the 21st century is to walk that difficult line, opposing both religious fundamentalism and imperialism.

As the Palestinian Intifada enters its third year this week, and progressive forces in the Middle East continue to struggle to forge a position on suicide bombings -- a position that reflects both their politics and their understanding of the plight of the Palestinian people under brutal Israeli occupation -- Ali argues thus: "I understand the bitterness and despair that drives young people to sacrifice their lives for the cause. I am 100 per cent for the Palestinians, but the tactic is one I do not support. Not for moral reasons, but because it actually prevents something that is crucial: the importance of dividing the Israeli public so that a sizable section sees for itself that colonisation is unjustifiable. There is dissent in Israel. We need it more and more."

He points out that "however tempting... it [suicide bombings] can only be a very short-term method of struggle. It cannot achieve anything. Nonetheless I do not equate it with the state terror that has been deployed against the Palestinians for over five decades."

The day we met Ali had just finished a new book, Clash of Fundamentalisms, which has since been published in many languages and is currently being translated into Arabic by the Ministry of Culture.

"What people in the Arab world need is democracy. The freedom to try and experience different things. It is only through such experience that people can move on and arrive at new convictions and beliefs. Would it not have been better to allow a democratically elected FIS to come into power in Algeria? The best thing is always to get things out into the open. Keeping them underground is the worst option."

Lack of democracy in the Arab world is also a factor in his contemplation of any solution to the Palestinian crisis. "The Palestinians have been unlucky with their leaders. Unlucky is perhaps a wrong word because we know that some of the finest political leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) were eliminated by Mossad. Even so Arafat had a chance to show his people that the money poured in after Oslo was used for their benefit. Instead it was frittered away on foolish projects and Arafat began to behave like a tin-pot tyrant. The latest Intifada was certainly against Sharon, but it was also a protest against the Palestinian leadership."

For all this activity Ali knows that "we are in for some bad times. There is no immediate solution and the fact that the West has been unable to offer the Palestinians any kind of solution is a bad sign."

Further, "a war in Iraq will inflame the entire Arab world. The excuse is that Saddam [Hussein] might have hidden nuclear weapons or that he might manufacture them in the future. Might? The Israelis have nuclear weapons and Mordecai Vanunu, the courageous Israeli scientist who revealed this to the world, is still in prison. A quarter of a century in prison and Bush and his confederates want to invade Iraq? You do not have to be too sophisticated to see this as a grotesque display of double-standards. It's possible that after the Americans have occupied Iraq they will also put some pressure on the Israelis to accept the existence of Palestine, but as an Israeli protectorate. It will not work in the long run."

He had suggested earlier that there might be hope in the fact that "there is, increasingly, a tendency towards the emergence of big power blocks in the global political arena. Eventually you might have a European power willing to flex its muscles."

And as far as Palestine is concerned Ali notes that "the key to Palestinian emancipation is locked away in a safe in the White House. Israel is the strongest state in the Arab world, fully armed and backed by Washington. Of course, if the Arab world experienced what Europe did in 1848 -- a wave of democratic revolutions -- a new key would emerge, but till now this is a dream."

In the meantime any hope of progress must rest, as is always the case, with the voices of opposition. "Years ago, it was the members of the left that would stage demonstration. When I walked in a demonstration I would be greeting old friends. Today this is no longer the case. I find myself walking next to a new generation -- maybe not 'left' in the way we knew it, but progressive."

He muses: "I think it is no longer possible to say with absolute certainty -- as we did 20 years ago -- that the working class is the agent of change. There is no single agent of change. There are, however, coalitions of people who fight together for common values."

He stares at the now denuded skeleton of his fish.

"In politics, as in cooking, there can be no dogmas."



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