Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links
The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #98, October 2001. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.
This is an edited version of an interview that Doug Henwood conducted on his radio show ("Behind the News," Thursdays 5-6 PM Eastern time, WBAI 99.5 FM New York) on September 20, 2001. Novelist, political analyst, and filmmaker Tariq Ali was born in Lahore (and is the nephew of a former chief of Pakistani intelligence), but has lived in Britain since the 1960s.
Do you buy the official explanation of events?
I don't know, and I don't think anyone does. What is beyond a doubt is that the groups that carried this out were essentially middle-class professionals from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where bin Laden does have support, and does have cells. Whether he ordered it or not, we don't know, but certainly groups inspired by that philosophy seem to have carried it out. What interests me is that this was not an action which was carried out by illiterates from the mountains of Afghanistan, but by professional individuals from two close allies of the U.S.
Terrorism is moving up the socioeconomic ladder. What do
you make of this upscaling?
In Saudi Arabia - a repressive religious state where people are denied any secular openings at all - the opposition comes from people who speak in the name of a purer version of the same religion, and denounce the monarchy as hypocritical, in the pocket of the Great Satan. And that, in my opinion, is the cause of middle-class discontent, of their turning against their rulers and towards action of the most diabolical sort. The reasons are really political. They see the double standards applied by the West: a ten-year bombing campaign against Iraq, sanctions against Iraq which have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children, while doing nothing to restrain Ariel Sharon and the war criminals running Israel from running riot against the Palestinians. Unless the questions of Iraq and Palestine are sorted out, these kids will be attracted to violence regardless of whether Osama bin Laden is gotten dead or alive.
In response, the U.S. is turning to the very regimes that
provoke discontent, like Saudi Arabia.
This is what the U.S. doesn't understand. They claim the Saudi regime is moderate, yet this is a regime whose philosophy and religion - Wahhabism, a virulent sectarian strain within Islam - is what inspires bin Laden. He was a Wahhabi, brought up within Saudi Arabia. I see people who are now worked up about the Taliban, but I've been worked up about them for 10 years, but no one listened. Oh, they treat their women like shit - true, true, but some of the same things happen in Saudi Arabia. A woman cannot leave Saudi Arabia without having written permission from a male relative. She cannot walk around unveiled. She cannot drive a car. The head of the octopus is Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi religion and from there its tentacles have spread. They've been funding the most extreme fundamentalist groups all over the Islamic world for fifty years, backed by the U.S. government.
During the Cold War, the U.S. was quite happy to promote
religious alternatives to secular leftism. Are we dealing now
with the consequences of that?
Yes. We're dealing with the results of that. They're still backing the Saudi monarchy, because they don't trust anyone else to run the oil. All these groups were built up, funded, armed as a bulwark against Communism and secular opposition. Some of the best secular intellectuals in the Muslim countries have been killed by these people. In Afghanistan, you have a classic problem. Let's say you persuade Pakistan to topple the Taliban. What are you going to put in its place? All the secular groups have been wiped out, 80% of the educated women have been forced out, the last secular leader was hanged by the Taliban while the West watched passively, because he'd been a Communist. There's talk about bringing the King of Afghanistan back. This guy must be nearly 100 years old. [Memo from fact-checking: he's 87.] He's been sunning himself on the Italian Riviera for 50 years. He's quite a decent old buff, but he can't do anything. You need a coalition of secular forces to rebuild that country.
To many Americans, Islam has become the new Evil Empire.
What is the relation between political discontent and its religious
The Islamic world is no different from any other. All the wars and revolutions that shaped the 20th century had their influence on the Muslim world as well. One of the largest Communist Parties in the world was in the Muslim country of Indonesia. The most gifted intellectuals were in the Iraqi Communist Party - before Saddam wiped them out, at the behest of the U.S. This world has been like any other. Since the collapse of Communism, we see developments very similar to those in Western Europe: a lot of people become dejected, withdraw from political life, others move to the right, and you see the growth of new semi-fascist organizations. In Italy, just to give you one example, there are two fascist organizations in Berlusconi's government. This doesn't upset anyone. In the world of Islam, the groups which are like the fascists are radical Islamists. They have very similar philosophical beliefs about blood and soil and religion. And the causes are the same - the collapse of the left, big social vacuum, neoliberal politics. The old parties of the center-left and center-right are indistinguishable. And remember, the Muslim world isn't a monolith; in most countries, the Islamists are a small minority, including in Pakistan. The problem in Pakistan is not that the Islamists have majority support in the population - there's more religious zealotry in Israel than Pakistan. The problem in Pakistan is that they are strongly entrenched in the army.
And what could that mean?
I'm very worried about Pakistan. The Islamists, knowing full well that they don't have mass support, targeted the army. The question is do they have 15% of the army, or 30%? No one really knows. Gen. Musharraf, who's basically a secular guy and who wants to be friends with the U.S. again in hopes of getting some money, would like to have India sidelined, which is a vain hope. But in any event, he's given the U.S. access to Pakistani airspace. That will probably be accepted. If American soldiers use Pakistan as a base, though, I can't see the pro-Taliban elements in the army standing by idly. I really fear that a mutiny could spark off a civil war.
How shaky is the Saudi monarchy's rule?
Very shaky. The U.S., from its own point of view, should act with caution. If they start bombing Iraq again, the anger throughout the Arab world will be very great. Even though Saddam isn't very popular, people don't like other Arabs being victimized like this. You would have explosions in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. You might have these anyway, but these societies are powder kegs. The people of Saudi Arabia are very educated. They talk, they think, but they're not allowed any room to participate in politics. And on top of this, you have a corrupt monarchy who flaunt their wealth, whose princes appear in celebrity magazines in the West, in total contradiction to the tenets of their faith, so they're seen as complete hypocrites. People are getting angrier. People in eastern Saudi Arabia have never accepted this monarchy, which was imposed on them by the American oil company Aramco, which created Saudi Arabia in the first place. Serious politicians in the West should think about this. What we need in Saudi Arabia is a democratized secular state - but is anyone going to do it? No, because they're afraid that a democratic government might defend its own interest first rather than those of oil companies.
You have a regime which is totally corrupt, and you have a large political force which is unfortunately Islamist, because there's nothing else there. The regime has done a deal with the Islamists, giving them some power in cultural life, and the Islamists have in return agreed to let it stay in power. If new wars take place, there is no guarantee that the regime won't be toppled by an uprising. You have to understand, the Islamists are also inside the army. Remember Sadat was assassinated by army troops as he was reviewing them.
Should we prepared for the worst?
The worst would be that an expeditionary force enters Afghanistan. What if he isn't there? All he needs to do is shave his beard, wear an Armani suit, and hop on a plane out. He'd never be recognized. He could just disappear. Then what? What's the mission?
To root out evil, our president said.
That's not a very concrete objective. So you topple the Taliban regime. Then what? Who's going to run that country? It's very difficult to understand what their aims are. If this is just a feint, and the real aim is to topple Saddam Hussein, then anything could happen. Don't exclude big explosions following in different Arab countries.
Home Mail Articles Stats/current Supplements Subscriptions Links