Islam's Divided Crescent
On September 23, 2001, midpoint between the horrific events of September 11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, the New York Times ran an intriguing headline. "Forget the Past: It's a War Unlike Any Other," it advised, above an article by John Kifner noting that "Air Force bombers are heading toward distant airfields to fight a shadowy foe flitting through the mountains in a deeply hostile land already so poor and so ruined by two decades of war that [it] is virtually bereft of targets." It was a poor headline for an article that began by noting the long history of conflicts among great powers over control of Central Asia, but it was a message with a significant degree of resonance.
History was often being ignored in the heated discussions of the coming war and the attacks that provoked it, of course, but usually without anyone having to instruct us to forget it. Pundits and politicians alike could draw on a long tradition of keeping the public ill informed about the role of the United States in the world. And once the "war on terrorism" actually started, those who tried to speak about a context for the attacks of September, or of how the history of US intervention in the world had produced rage and frustration that could help fuel such actions, were accused of justifying terrorism.
In The Clash of Fundamentalisms, a riposte to Samuel Huntington's much-discussed "clash of civilizations" thesis, Pakistani writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali sets the ambitious goal of challenging such organized historical amnesia--"the routine disinformation or no-information that prevails today"--and of speaking forthrightly about many topics that have become unpopular or even heretical in the West, as well as within what he calls the House of Islam. "The virtual outlawing of history by the dominant culture has reduced the process of democracy to farce," Ali puts it in one chapter, "A short course history of US imperialism." In such a situation, "everything is either oversimplified or reduced to a wearisome incomprehensibility."
Whereas Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis posits a cultural conflict between Islamic and Western civilization, and sees religion as "perhaps the central force that motivates and mobilizes people," Ali argues that economics and politics, especially oil politics, remain central to the friction between Western powers and states in the so-called Islamic world, particularly in the Middle East. He rejects Huntington's identification of the West with "human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, [and] democracy," and he reminds us of the vast disparities that exist among cultures and nations within the Islamic world itself.
Few people are better disposed than Ali to serve as a guide to the neglected and distorted histories relevant to the conflict in Afghanistan, the broader "war on terrorism" now being fought on numerous fronts by the Bush Administration, and the intimately related conflicts in Pakistan, India and Kashmir, which have recently put the world on a heightened nuclear alert. Ali, a longtime editor of New Left Review and Verso books, is the author of three books on Pakistan and has deep personal and political connections to the region. In The Clash of Fundamentalisms he surveys a range of regional and historical conflicts that remain open chapters, including the creation of Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, the unfinished legacy of Britain's brutal partition of India in 1947 and the fallout from division of the world by the colonial powers. The book is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of the nightmare of history from which so many people are struggling to awake, and deserves serious engagement and consideration. Ali broadens our horizons, geographically, historically, intellectually and politically.
Despite his obvious hostility to religious modes of thinking--defending against religious orthodoxy in favor of "the freedom to think freely and rationally and [exercise] the freedom of imagination"--Ali has a sophisticated appreciation of the many contradictory movements and ideas that have organized themselves under the banner of Islam. He can debate Islamic doctrine with the most ardent purists while at the same time dispensing with the simplistic (and all too often racist) caricatures of Islam that pass for analysis in the West. In The Clash of Fundamentalisms he takes the reader on a necessarily schematic and selective history of Islam, though one wishes he had provided more signposts for those interested in further study than the scattered and inconsistent references included in this volume.
Ali writes here of his "instinctive" atheism during his upbringing in Lahore, Pakistan, and of being politicized at an early age. His experiences then helped him understand Islam as a political phenomenon, born of the specific historic experiences of Muhammad, who worked on a merchant caravan and traveled widely, "coming into contact with Christians and Jews and Magians and pagans of every stripe." Ali writes that "Muhammad's spiritual drive was partially fueled by socio-economic passions, by the desire to strengthen the communal standing of the Arabs and the need to impose a set of common rules," thus creating an impulse toward the creation of a universal state that remains an important element of Islam's appeal.
Ali offers a fascinating discussion of the Mu'tazilites, an Islamic sect that attempted to reconcile monotheism with a materialist understanding of the world, including a theory of the atomic composition of matter; some of its members also argued that the Koran was a historical rather than a revealed document. "The poverty of contemporary Islamic thought contrasts with the riches of the ninth and tenth centuries," Ali argues. But he is by no means backward looking in his own vision. He is particularly scornful of the mythical idealized past valorized by the Wahhabites in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and other Islamic sects. "What do the Islamists offer?" Ali asks rhetorically: "A route to a past which, mercifully for the people of the seventh century, never existed."