SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 77, September 2003

The Clash of Fundamentalisms

By Tariq Ali

Verso, 2003, £10

Reviewed by

Jim Horton

TARIQ ALI’S Clash of Fundamentalisms, recently re-published in paperback, is a welcome contribution to the post 9/11 debates taking place on left.

Tariq Ali has been prominent in the anti-war movement and his book gives vent to his anti-imperialism. Targeting particularly "the most dangerous ‘fundamentalism’ today – the ‘mother of all fundamentalisms’," US imperialism, Tariq explains how it has used the tragedy of 9/11 to pursue a traditional far-right Republican agenda.

Written before the recent bloody assault on Iraq, Tariq’s book attacks Bush and Blair’s justifications for the war; and, anticipating current arguments over weapons off mass destruction, Tariq mockingly declares that all "the talk of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ consists of fairy tales designed to frighten the children/citizens at home".

This book is not primarily about 9/11 and its consequences, however, rather it surveys the history proceeding those events, what Tariq describes as a virtually "forbidden subject". Tariq refers to the "dead-end of market-fundamentalism", and warns: "If Western politicians remain ignorant of the causes and carry on as before, there will be repetitions".

Central to the book is an analysis of Islam, "its founding myths, its origins, its history, its culture, its riches, its divisions", and what Islamist politics represents today. In raising these issues Tariq aims to stimulate debate within and without Islam.

Tariq’s style is lucid and vigorous, dealing proficiently with a range of issues vital to an understanding of the world today. Combining historical analysis with personal reminiscences, Tariq takes the reader on a sweeping journey. No major area of the Islamic world is left untouched.

Although raised in an Islamic culture, Lahore under British rule, Tariq confesses to being an agnostic from the age of six and an atheist at twelve. His family were privileged landowners, his grandfather a leader of the landlords ‘Unionist Party’ and governor of the Punjab. Tariq’s parents were members of the Communist Party. We are also introduced to generals and ambassadors, who are relatives or acquaintances of the family.

Clash of Fundamentalisms provides a good outline of the origins of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, touching on many of the debates within Islam over the centuries. He traces the spread of Islam to Syria, Egypt and Iraq, and then to North Africa, Spain and India (and later Indonesia), and the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire. The bulk of Tariq’s text though details the more recent often symbiotic and perfidious relationship between many Islamic groups and imperialism.

There is a very useful chapter on the roots of Wahhabism, a particularly reactionary trend in Islam followed today by bin Laden and the autocratic regime in Saudi Arabia. Established in 1927, Saudi Arabia has its roots in the 18th century alliance between Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab and the bandit emir Muhammad Ibn Saud. The Wahhabis were defeated in the early 19th century, yet 100 years later they found themselves first in an alliance with British imperialism and later a willing instrument of US imperialism and an important bulwark against secular nationalism and communism.

Tariq correctly argues that all three of the major monotheistic religions can be understood only in their historical, social and political context, with religion politically exploited by those with vested interests. Islam itself has been through many different phases.

Islam went through a relatively tolerant phase during its period of rise and expansion, when its culture greatly surpassed that of the West. Islam reached its zenith between the mid-9th and mid-11th centuries. Later, partly under pressure from an expanding West, Islamic society declined and religious intolerance increased, although not without challenges from within Islam itself. Towards the end of the 19th century anti-imperialist trends developed, such as in Sudan and Iran. In the 1920s and 1930s there were divisions in the Arab world between supporters of communism and fascism.

Post world war two saw the growth of secular and radical nationalism, and strong communist movements, along with the encouragement by imperialism of the most reactionary elements in Islam. These reactionary elements were conscripted against radicals and the left, such as the Muslim Brotherhood against Nasser in Egypt, the Masjumi against Sukarno in Indonesia, Jamaat-e-Islami against Bhutto in Pakistan and bin Laden against Najibullah in Afghanistan. It was the workers’ movement, especially the mass communist parties, that felt the brunt of this reaction as imperialism helped install compliant autocratic regimes to defend its interests.

From the late 1970s, following the failure of Nasserism and Stalinism, there has been the rise of an ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ or right-wing political Islam. The 1979 Iranian revolution marked the beginning of this process. The revolution began as a workers’ movement with the masses striving for a ‘republic of the poor’. It was the absence of a mass revolutionary socialist alternative that allowed Khomeini to fill the political vacuum, but initially even he had to adopt a left, radical and anti-imperialist phraseology, before consolidating his rule and moving to the right.

Over the last decade though, in contrast to the radical phase of the Iranian revolution, the development of political Islam has been a right-wing phenomenon. The defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was a key turning point. Tariq details the triad of US imperialism’s employment of Islamic groups in an anti-Soviet jihad, financed with Saudi petro-dollars, and trained in the Pakistani religious schools. Following the defeat of the Soviet Union US imperialism was to reap a crop of hostile Islamic groups across the Middle East and Asia, as veterans of Afghanistan turned their attention to Kashmir, the running sore of Palestine, and opposition to US presence in the Holy lands. These groups found a ready echo among the seething anger and frustration of lives mired in poverty and humiliation at the hands of imperialism.

There are some weaknesses in the book, and Tariq’s analysis, while likely to be broadly accepted on the left, is not without controversy.

Tariq is scathing towards all establishment religions, rightly taking to task Islamic leaders who pursue neo-liberal economic policies while adopting the most reactionary interpretation of Islam to defend their own power and wealth. He calls for an Islamic reformation.

The Christian reformation marked the beginning of the ascendancy of capitalism in the west, but for historical reasons by-passed the Islamic world. In the post-second world war period secularism in the Islamic world gained mass support, but its failure to decisively break with capitalism allowed reactionary elements to come to the fore. Today it is correct to demand the separation of religion and state, to support religious freedom and tolerance while opposing the imposition of religious laws. Such demands should be linked to a programme of workers rights on pay and conditions, land reform, and the introduction of decent health, education and welfare provision. In a period of degenerate capitalism this means expropriating the big landowners and companies and the implementation of a democratic socialist plan of production.

Tariq refers to the narrowing of dissent and debate in a period where one ideology, capitalism, has triumphed over another, communism. While correctly pointing to the ideological dominance of the US, as the world’s dominant economic and military power, his emphasis is one-sided and references to communism are unqualified. Nowhere does Tariq explain that the former Soviet Union and other Stalinist states were not genuine socialism but planned economies ruled over by bureaucratic dictatorships. Genuine socialism requires democratic control and management by the working class. Without this, bureaucratic degeneration and capitalist restoration were inevitable. The collapse of Stalinism had a huge negative impact on the consciousness of workers across the globe, particularly in the neo-colonial world.

Tariq, as a once self-proclaimed Marxist, should understand this. But while avowedly anti-imperialist, Tariq himself seems trapped within the constraints of the post-Stalinist world. Unfortunately, while adopting a materialist approach to the issue of religion and capitalism, Tariq fails to advance a socialist solution and therefore leaves the masses in the Islamic world disarmed in the face of reactionary Islamic leaders and an increasingly belligerent imperialism.

On Kashmir, for example, he talks about ‘economic and political logic’ dictating the need for a voluntary confederation of republics. He calls on India, as the most powerful state in the region, to take responsibility for a peace initiative. He proposes the Asian states and China forego the mediation of the US and talk directly with each other on issues of trade and military reductions. While providing a devastating account of the role of imperialism in the Islamic world, when it comes to articulating a solution, Tariq appears to ignore the raging class divisions in these countries, and the class interests that lay behind the national conflicts, instead remaining within the confines of the capitalism he very eloquently condemns.

These weaknesses should not detract from what is a highly recommended account of imperialism and the Islamic world. Tariq’s book is a welcome antidote to mainstream propaganda and deserves serious study by all activists in the anti-war and anti-capitalist movement.


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