Islam's Divided Crescent
Ali sees the spread of reactionary impulses within Islam in part as a response to "the defeat of secular, modernist and socialist impulses on a global scale." Various forms of religious fundamentalism, not only Islamic ones, have partially filled a void created by the failures of parties operating under the banner of secular nationalism and Communism in the Third World. These failures--his examples include Egypt and Syria--were connected to the limits of the nationalist leaderships themselves, especially their lack of democracy and suppression of religious movements by politicians seeking to preserve and extend their own power. But Ali also goes on to argue that "all the other exit routes have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American imperialism."
Consider, for example, the consequences of the US work to train and arm the Islamic forces in Afghanistan, the mujahedeen, to wage a holy war against the Soviet Union. A decade after the Soviets were expelled, the country "was still awash with factional violence," while "veterans of the war helped to destabilize Egypt, Algeria, the Philippines, Sudan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Dagestan and Saudi Arabia." The factional instability in Afghanistan, coupled with Pakistan's intervention, created the conditions that led to the Taliban's rise to power.
To discuss the US government's role in overthrowing the secular nationalist Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and supporting the brutal Shah for decades; in operating through the intermediary of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence units to back the mujahedeen in Afghanistan; in repeatedly downplaying serious human rights abuses by US "friends" such as Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq and Benazir Bhutto, whose governments actively sponsored the growth of the Taliban; and in lending support to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sarekat Islam in Indonesia and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan is not merely a case of obsessing about past wrongs. As Ali argues persuasively, the past is indeed prologue.
Ali has a sharp mind and wit. His mode of history telling is lyrical and engaging, humane and passionate. He repeatedly points to the lessons learned by people in the course of struggle, challenging the pervasive view that people can be liberated by those other than themselves, setting out his differences with the advocates of "humanitarian intervention." Ali writes that Western intellectuals have been far too quick to support US-led military interventions such as the Gulf War and to provide a liberal veneer of respect to wars prosecuted only rhetorically in the name of human rights and democracy but actually motivated by traditional "reasons of state." Where other people see closed doors in history, he sees roads not taken and paths that remain to be pursued.
Yet Ali spends too little time enumerating what some of those alternate paths might be, especially for readers who are new to the history recounted in The Clash of Fundamentalisms (certainly a significant section of his readership, given the intense interest in Islam, Central Asia, the Middle East and US foreign policy that has been so much in evidence in recent months). In his final chapter, "Letter to a young Muslim," Ali provides a thoughtful challenge to his correspondent, but I fear he has not done enough to convince his reader to change allegiances. He has more to say about the weakness of Islamism than about any alternative vision of how a more just world might be achieved. What would a compelling agenda look like in an era when, as he notes, "no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even pretends that it wishes to change anything significant"? What might a radical secular program consist of today? How does one effectively mount a challenge to the claim that there is no alternative to American-style capitalism, or that attempts at fundamental change will reproduce the horrors of the Soviet Union?
Indeed, The Clash of Fundamentalisms would have been stronger if Ali had engaged this question more thoroughly. Though he expresses contempt for the bureaucratic and dictatorial regimes that confronted the United States during the cold war, at times he gives the Soviet bloc more credit than it deserves. To suggest that China and the Soviet Union were "striving for a superior social and economic system" is to give those regimes far too much credit, and in essence to maintain some illusion that Stalinist authoritarianism was a real alternative.
Ali at times repeats himself verbatim and gets a few details wrong (such as misdating Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, rather than 1990). None of this takes away from the importance of his argument that we are not living in a radically new epoch in history, but in a period with all too much continuity to the one before September 11.