The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

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Tariq Ali

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Robert Edric

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{ Critical Eye on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

Tariq Ali
Hull Truck, 23 November

Front of house welcomes a congregation of the usual suspects, as they busk, collect donations and press for signatures on their petition to stop the war on Iraq. Inside the theatre the audience buzzes with intelligent, radical discussion as they wait for activist, author and scholar Tariq Ali to take the stage. Suddenly he appears before us: a modest, handsome, patient-looking man, oozing wisdom and dignity from every pore.

A respectful hush settles on the room, as Tariq Ali begins to speak. His command of the spoken word is awe-inspiring, as is the clarity of his thought. No less inspiring is the range of his vision, which takes in vast swathes of the contemporary political landscape, while drawing parallels with diverse historical episodes, all brilliantly understood and carefully explained. He can take all of this baffling, complex material and render out of it a clear and logical argument. I wish I could take Bush and Blair by the lobes of their ears, drag them before him and force them to sit at his feet, listen and learn until they see sense, but I fear we might be there for rather a long time.

Tariq Ali's opening remarks on the current fire-fighters' strike earn him a spontaneous round of applause. He says the industrial action takes him back to the 70s and 80s, and to Thatcherism, when money and consumerism were permitted to dominate. He expresses his dismay at the contempt of the current Labour government, and his disappointment at their failure to put a stop to the prevailing effects of so many years of Tory rule.

He turns to discuss his new book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, which he explains he was motivated to write in response to September 11, its aftermath, and the gross oversimplifications of the Western media. Like any sensible, intelligent person, he felt the need to go beyond being told how to feel by the press, to endeavour to understand why things happen.

One year into the so-called 'war on terror', Tariq Ali sees the real challenge faced by the West to be the means by which the Afghan region might be stabilized. Compared to this, he says, defeating the Taliban would be a relatively simple task. Instead, it seems that America is preoccupied with remapping the world in order to fulfil its imperialist ambitions. With all of the old empires collapsed, only one dominant global power remains, and that is the United States. However, with the old enemy of communism long gone, America was left with a problem: how to win consent for American hegemony. September 11 provided the perfect opportunity.

The undeniably sad events at the World Trade Centre presented two possible responses: one was to see the attack as an act of terror, and thus hunt down, capture, try and imprison the perpetrators. The other was to define it as an act of war. The latter option, of course, gives America the green light to reshape our planet.

Tariq Ali challenges the widely held belief that Iraq poses some sort of threat to the West. While Bush and his allies insist this to be the case, weapons inspectors have suggested otherwise. North Korea have confessed to having weapons of mass destruction, yet America agrees to deal with them diplomatically, while threatening to annihilate Iraq, so why the double standard?

The answer involves oil. Already negotiations are taking place with the oil companies to guarantee rights as to which organizaton gets which slice of the pie once Iraq is conquered. Nevertheless, this is effectively smokescreened by declaring the planned invasion to be a war on terror.

Underneath the media images lies some sort of reality. Why is fundamentalism apparently a big force in the Islamic world, and what, or who has created this? According to Tariq Ali, it is America, through its wilful and systematic destruction of any radical alternative to its hegemony. First it attacked communism, and now it is the turn of Islam. Similarly, in Britain, Thatcherism has left behind a legacy where dissent is frowned upon, and New Labour seems desperate to carry on this trend. Tariq Ali asks why this current government has seen no resignations over principle. Clare Short keeps threatening to resign, and a few individuals have been removed or reluctantly forced to leave office, but no one has stood up and walked out in protest. While New Labour pander to heads of large corporations dissatisfied with their six figure salaries and share options, they stomp down on the fire-fighters, lest the working classes get ideas above their stations. They plead poverty when it comes to giving a decent wage to public sector workers, but seem ready and able to afford to go to war.

So what is the truth that lies behind the media stereotype of the angry Islamic mob, shouting and punching the air as they burn the Stars and Stripes in the street? Though there were small celebrations throughout the Islamic, and, indeed, the non-Islamic world when the Twin Towers were destroyed, Tariq Ali points out that this jubilation is not an indicator of strength, or threat, but one of weakness. The roots of fundamentalism lie in despair. When young people feel despair, whether in North Hull or North Cairo, they seek refuge. Some find it in drugs, others in the mosque, one of only a few doors open to them. Inside the mosque they are told their despair is caused by the grip of the West.

One has to wonder at the logic of a government who wishes to stop a perceived threat by bombing Iraq, an action guaranteed only insofar as it is sure to generate more despair-the root cause of the perceived threat itself. Since when has the invasion of a country been the solution to its problems? Wait long enough, and the young and the intelligent of Iraq will rise up. The best way to remove a dictator is to strengthen the people so they are capable of removing him themselves.

Ironically, the only Middle Eastern country in possession of chemical and nuclear weapons is Israel. Tariq Ali tells of a horrifying article in an Israeli paper that quite openly discussed how the clearing of Palestinians from the land might require similar tactics used by Germans to clear the Warsaw ghetto. He boldly suggests the world might make an imaginative leap, and try to see the Palestinians as the latest victims of the Holocaust. Today, 70% of Germans oppose the war on Iraq, yet our media calls them a bunch of wimps, simply because history has taught the Germans what not to do.

Tariq Ali reads from the poem, "Footnotes to the Book of Setback," by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. The poet writes, "Allah is not a blacksmith to beat swords." Here, in literature, we encounter the perfect, self-critical antidote against the media stereotype of the crazed fundamentalist, and, by implication, a stereotype of all Muslims. As I sit and listen I am reminded that literature, made by artists from all the nations of the world, has the power to transcend boundaries and conflicts, to build bridges and transform lives by its appeal to the radical power of the imagination. I think of William Blake:

Anger & Wrath my bosom rends
I thought them the Errors of friends
But all my limbs with warmth glow
I find them the Errors of the foe,


and hope that, somewhere, someone in Syria is reading his work. I leave the theatre, pausing to buy a copy of Tariq Ali's book, and add my name to the petition.

Read a book,
Write a book,
Grow words, pomegranates and grapes


Nizar Qabbani