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Last year London historian, novelist, and playwright Tariq Ali published the nonfiction book The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihad, and Modernity, which posits that the imperialist inclinations of the current U.S. administration represents a greater danger to the world than Islamic fundamentalism. As the United States stands perched on the brink of war in Iraq, Ali will appear at the Walker Art Center on Tuesday to talk about the history of war and empire and how it relates to the current world situation. City Pages caught up with him at his London apartment last week for a 30-minute interview, excerpts of which appear below.
City Pages: What is the most important thing you think the American public is missing, what do they most need to know, with respect to the looming war with Iraq?
Tariq Ali: What I would try and inform them of is why people in so many parts of world see the United States government and its ruling establishment as a threat, and why this creates hostility, and in some cases hatred, for everything American. To explain that, you'd have to do what Mark Twain did at the end of 19th century, when he helped create the Anti-Imperialist League, which campaigned against America's imperialist thrust. Now we are a hundred years on, or more, and this imperial structure is very well established. Leaders don't even attempt to hide it; they say they will do what they need to do to guard what they think is their economic interest.
When I travel and encounter hatred for United States, I try to tell people that America is a contradictory society, and that there are people who are also pissed off and alienated from their government. This is important, because without the help and support of American citizens there is no hope. Without people rejecting this sort of government and imperialist adventure, we are doomed, because the U.S. can't be resisted militarily; it has to be resisted politically. So to create knowledge and resistance, I believe, is the most important thing.
CP: But in practical terms, how effective can an antiwar movement be if the U.S. is determined to follow its own agenda?
Ali: It depends on what stage it reaches. If a movement begins to affect the U.S. Army and Navy, and affect sections of people who work with the administration on the lower levels of government, it can be effective. That was what was effective about the Vietnam antiwar movement. But I find the current situation extraordinary. For Vietnam it took years before people started to march against the war. The U.S. sent in advisers beginning in 1961 and the movement only really grew about 1967, '68. This time war hasn't even begun and there is a quite sizable antiwar movement. People are aware and suspicious of the politicians, and that is a good thing.
CP: You wrote The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihad, and Modernity, which was published last year. How has the situation changed since then?
Ali: I think history has vindicated those pieces. I feel that the mother of all fundamentalists is U.S. imperialism imposing its will on the world and not giving a damn what the world thinks. Compared to Islamic fundamentalists, which is this relatively tiny group of people, this administration in Washington represents the real danger. This is the first time Britain and the U.S. are putting out a preemptive strike to remove a government, and once the precedent has been established, they can do it anywhere else.
Of course preemptive strikes have been carried out before; the masters were Hitler and Mussolini, who used virtually the same arguments the U.S. is using now. Mussolini invaded Albania because he said they were a brutal [regime] threatening its people, and after they went in, the Italian newsreels showed all the people welcoming their troops. Hitler, of course, took most of Europe. He said, "We are facing a threat from Czechoslovakia, and our German ethnic citizens are being harassed and attacked by the Czechs, and so we have no choice but to launch a preemptive strike." Likewise Poland. Now we are in the dangerous stage where the United States begins to behave in this fashion.
It is more dangerous because this is the first time in world history that we have the existence of only one empire with a military that is totally dominant. The annual military budget of the U.S. is $400 billion, and second is China with $40 billion, so there is that disparity. The United Nations has 189 or 190 members, and according to the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. has a military presence in 120 countries around the world. The scale of this is a unique situation.
CP: How has Islam changed since 9/11?
Ali: It hasn't changed much at all. There is more of a discussion going on since 9/11, but nothing fundamental has shifted in the Islamic world. They want people to know that people who believe in terrorism remain a small minority. There are large Islamic political parties in Turkey and Egypt--and there would be in other countries if they were legal--and these would be the equivalent of the Christian Democratic party in Europe or the Republican Party in America. They are the only people opposing this crazed consumerism and they get a lot of support as a result of that.
CP: Are they perceived by the U.S. government as the enemy?
Ali: Probably, but the principal enemy of the U.S. empire is democracy, which is now very difficult to permit in case they are nationalist and want to control their own government. We saw that Arab nationalism happen in the '60s; a number of brutal wars had to be fought to defeat them and many times the United States used fundamentalist Arabs to help in those wars. Today many Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan and elsewhere believe they will be working with the United States again in the future. They are quite open about this.
CP: What do you think will happen in Iraq?
Ali: I think you have to understand that, contrary to the propaganda, the Hussein regime is very weak--the army is weak, the weaponry is very old--and he doesn't have the power to resist the United States. So the key question is, How many civilian casualties in Iraq are necessary to permit a U.S. occupation? What do they bomb and destroy? It is not going to be easy to wipe out the Iraqi army, which is based in the cities, without killing tens of thousands of people. It is just incredibly cynical of American citizens not to care about other people being killed. This double standard makes people very angry, and if civilian casualties are high it will lead to a big, big growth in terrorism, as people despair and no one else seems capable of resisting the United States. When people despair they become completely irrational. So far from decreasing terrorism this war will lead to a big increase, and I think the war could well lead to a new nationalism in the Arab world that could sweep these regimes in the region aside. If people see the occupation of Iraq further strengthening Israel and hurting the Palestinians, this could happen.
If the U.S. planned to disarm the whole region of its weapons of mass destruction, it would be impossible for Iraq to resist disarming. But Israel has a huge stockpile of these weapons; they admit having them. It is that kind of huge double standard in that part of the world that makes people angry, and American people need to understand that. It is like saying, if you are white you are allowed to carry a gun, but if you are black, you can't.