Islam’s Divided Crescent

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.”

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.

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