Interview Tariq Ali

"That's Not the Democracy We Want"

In an exclusive interview with, Tariq Ali, author of "The Clash of Fundamentalisms" and renowned critical intellectual, talks about Islam and the West and about reforms in the Islamic world. Interview by Tareq Al-Arab

photo: DPA
Tariq Ali

​​Dr Josef Joffe, publisher and editor-in-chief of Germany's leading intellectual weekly 'Die Zeit' argues, that the Arab world „fell backwards" and has become impoverished mainly because it was unwilling to participate in globalisation. Do you share this point of view?

Tariq Ali: Let's just go through these countries in turn: Saudi Arabia – the Saudi monarchy which was handed the country first by the British empire and then by the American empire, backed with support initially by Britain, subsequently by the United States, military support…how can the people of the Peninsula be blamed for the Saudi family running it which was handed it by the United States like a mafia family? "This is your country, run it for us.

Keep the oil safe for us." These little sheikhdoms in the Arab world – imperial petrol stations – would be removed if it was not for western support. Or Egypt: how many billions of dollars has the United States given Mubarak to keep a reactionary government in power for one reason alone, that it made a deal with Israel? How can the Egyptians be blamed for it?

If you talk to people in Egypt, they will say to you, we want free elections. It's a puppet regime, why don't the United States push it to have free elections? Because they would lose. It's what Samuel Huntington is now calling the democratic paradox, that if you had democratic elections in the Arab world, a majority of these would produce governments that are hostile to the United States and their oil being siphoned off in the way it is. Then what would your ideologues say? You would have democracy, you would have governments which want control of their own oil. Then they'd have to be overthrown because it's not the democracy we wanted. This is the reality.

Of course in the Arab world you still have repressive regimes, and most of the mistakes the Arab leaders made themselves, but it's also a question of different imperialisms, first the British and then the American.

Do you see a new form of xenophobia rising in Europe?

Ali: Yes, I think this exists and I think this is an outcome of neo-liberal economic policies which have weakened collective solidarity in Western European society. Trade unions are much weaker than they were ever before, collective thinking, collective ways of operating are permanently under fire. Britain is the worst in this respect and so people are encouraged to be consumers. They are called customers. This is what is replacing citizenship, a form of consumerism. We are customers rather than citizens. And this leads people increasingly to the whole way in which modern capitalism is structuring itself to lead incredibly atomised existences. You think about yourself, full stop.

In this atmosphere there is a hostility to anything you feel might challenge your daily consumerist existence. Outsiders threaten it because you feel they are competitors. The west imposes legal and military sanctions against countries which do not accept the free market; and the movement of capital is sacred, but the movement of labour which should also be free is constantly stopped.

So capital movement has no restrictions but labour movement has restrictions: that's the way the west controls the world: "We will exploit you as much as we can but you can't come and be workers here because that affects the social fabric of our society", to which we say: "What you are doing globally affects the social fabric of Latin America, Africa, large parts of Asia."

Is the fear of Islamist terror in this context just a pretext? Would prejudices or even racism against the Arab world exist even without Islamist terror?

Ali: Since the end of the cold war the United States in particular has been looking for an enemy because unless you have an enemy it's impossible to justify the level of military spending or the priorities of the military industrial complex, which now dominates American economics and politics to a very large extent. In this situation it's not surprising that they used 9/11 to construct a new enemy.

And after 9/11 the whole world, the whole western world in particular, completely became uncritical of the United States for a while, then the Iraq war started that process again. But there is this xenophobia, the portrayal of Islam and Islamic people who are a potential threat, which is very foolish, but it exists. There is no doubt about it.

Current events may have weakened the reformist movements in the Islamic world, but are there still groups working for civil society in the Islamic world?

Ali: Yes, of course! You had elections in Pakistan many times. You had elections in Indonesia. You have a tradition of literature and poetry, especially in the Arab world, which is far more advanced than anything in the West. In some ways the repression forces people to go underground and they think in different ways, it also makes them more alert.

If you would tape record a conversation in a café in Damascus or Cairo or Baghdad today and tape record or film exactly at the same time cafés in the United States and then put them out then you would see what is being discussed in different parts of the world is very different. The Arab population is far more engaged, far more critical than its counterparts certainly in the United States and also in some states in Western Europe.

You read the poetry of Nizar Qabbani, of Saadi Youssef, of Mudhaffar al-Nawab, you find me their equivalents in the western world. I don't want to go too far, but what has Enzensberger written in Germany over the last 25 years? Nothing. Nothing which means anything. Instead the big trend of intellectuals in the west is to become people who are in the service in one way or the other of their respective governments.

The independence the intelligentsia used to have in Western Europe in the Sixties and Seventies is gone. France used to have Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoire, who is its leading intellectual today? Bernard-Henry Lévy, someone who does what is in the interest of French foreign policy. Let's get some sort of balance on this question of civil society and how it functions.

Who are the reformers in the Arab world?

Ali: The only reformers the west recognises are people who are complete stooges of the west, who are prepared to push through free market reforms. Those are the reformers, I don't accept that. I don't think these people do the Arab world a service. In Syria and in Iraq there were many, many problems under the Baathist dictatorship, we know that. But there are some things they have done which are not bad: the education of women, the integration of women in society, the health services that they have provided especially in Iraq – before the sanctions the country had one of the best health services in the Arab world. So they can't have it both ways.

Women in Syria and in Iraq were treated extremely well, educated, became doctors, teachers. You can walk in the streets of Damascus today and see large numbers of women wearing clothes of all sorts without their heads being covered. So what is this? I don't like these stereotypes of the Muslim world, each country has its different traditions.

What prospects have reform movements to succeed?

Ali: When I go to Arab countries, Egypt for instance, many good people have been so demoralised by what's been going on for the last twenty years that in this neo-liberal world, apart from individualism and consumerism, the global way this functions is by creating little non-governmental organisations which are given money by the West. These are groups of people who would otherwise be engaged doing something more useful, but they are paid big salaries to do research on gender relation on a cotton plant outside Cairo. Well, that's very interesting, but I'm sorry, academics in the universities should be doing this, not NGOs! It's a way of buying off people, this is not how civil society works.

Civil society would operate better if these people who are all in NGOs would form political organisations and offered alternatives to the religious groups and the corrupt regimes. That's the big problem in the Arab world today.

We have a set of corrupt venal regimes, most of them backed by the west, and poised against them in the field are the Islamists. But in the middle there is nothing. And that's the space which needs to be occupied by secular forces. I have always argued that secular intellectuals have to insist that they have just as much a right as the religious scholars to analyse and interpret the texts which are the common cultural property of everyone who lives in that region and break the monopoly of the clerics.

Interview: Tariq al-Arab, © 2004