Tariq Ali at Berkeley
By Ras H. Siddiqui
Tariq Ali (above) and audience
Tariq Ali, a name from the
past or one for the future? Whichever description is correct,
nobody knows for certain, but when you spend almost an hour
listening to this famous voice of the old Left you are bound
to be a little shaken. One of the most articulate people
around, the son of the late Mazhar Ali Khan and Tahira Mazhar
Ali is now an unbelievable 62 years of age and if communism
is now passé nobody seemed to notice at his book
reading effort at Berkeley, California on April 24, 2005.
Close to a 150 people gathered at a local church to listen
to what Tariq had to say, and if one has doubts about how
he once became one of a handful of voices that spoke for
the entire “Sixties Generation” in Europe, his
oratory skills alone will put those doubts to rest.
Introduced as “one of the world’s great public
intellectuals,” Lahore-born Tariq spoke for close
to forty minutes as he read from his books and also offered
a critical analysis of America’s current troubled
relationship with the world. He has had his old “Street
Fighting Years” republished with a new introduction,
and is busy promoting “Conversations with Tariq Ali,
Speaking of Empire and Resistance” (Ali and David
Barsamian). He also spoke a great deal about his fourth
book of fiction from his Islam Quintet series, this one
called “A Sultan in Palermo” based on Sicily
after the Normans took it over from its Muslim rulers. He
said that it was the Normans (who incidentally also conquered
Britain at around the same time) who were most impressed
by this Muslim city of Palermo then considered a jewel of
the Mediterranean. He added that a debate of that time (on
what should the population of Palermo do) was not dissimilar
to the debate taking place in the Middle East today.
Tariq painted a troubling picture of the United States today
and how there was no feeling here that the country was really
at war. “The war has been marginalized,” he
said. In the 60’s people were seen burning their draft
cards. Today, it is mainly a volunteer army which has been
fighting a war in its third year in Iraq and making its
presence felt elsewhere in the region. In the case of Iraq
the US seems to be fighting against a de-centralized resistance,
a determined resistance, a factor that was not expected.
He added that this resistance is both armed and unarmed.
“The bulk of the country wants an end to the occupation.
Till it comes, Iraq is going to be a mess,” he said.
As for the reason of the US presence in Iraq, it was for
the liquid gold (oil) under the ground there. “The
oil of Iraq is the common property of the Iraqi people,”
he added. According to Ali, the other reason for America’s
presence in Iraq and the region is Israel. The plight of
the Palestinians is a subject on which he spent a great
deal of time, and their struggle remains very close to him.
He said that even the Israeli press is more balanced in
its news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than
the press here in America.
He added that there were only two ways out of this problem.
1) A proper Palestinian State, or 2) A single Israel/Palestine
with equal rights for all who live there. The third path
of a never ending war was not working out because the Palestinians
refuse to be eradicated from history. He said that the only
way to solve this problem was via political solutions.
Ali also spoke briefly on Afghanistan and the tenuous hold
of President Hamid Karzai in that country where today even
“friendly” Taliban segments were being sought
to open negotiations with. And on Pakistan being presented
as a model for others in the region, he expressed his reservations.
Tariq lamented the lack of opposition to war here in the
United States today. He said that a great deal is being
written and said about Islamic Fundamentalism and Islamic
Extremism today. “Much of it is fabricated,”
he added. He also expressed his concern over the rise of
Christian fundamentalism in this country, the massive coverage
of the Pope’s death and the selection of the new Pope
who has spent a controversial youth in Nazi Germany. Tariq
also took time to praise the liberation theologists within
the Catholic Church and the fine work that they have done
in aiding the poor in Latin America.
In a lively Question and Answer session that followed his
book reading and speech, Ali said that blind faith could
lead one to justify anything (in any belief) and that the
Islamic world was not monolithic. A big fan of Iranian movies,
he asked those in the audience to see Iranian films today
and compare them to those that Hollywood was producing.
In closing one has to notice what Tariq Ali is writing and
saying, even when one does not have to agree with him. Only
two people of Pakistani-origin were present at this event
along with 5-6 Indians. The sizable Iranian, Palestinian/Middle
Eastern presence here amidst the old Berkeley Left was quite
noteworthy. But that is not surprising. Tariq Ali is an
atheist who stands up to defend oppressed people around
the world, particularly in the Middle East where they are
predominantly Muslim. His packaging may be all wrong for
the people whose rights he defends but one has to understand
why they look up to him.
His stature as a radical revolutionary may have diminished
with age and the march of history, but since when does standing
up for the little guy ever really go out of fashion? For
that reason alone and for his amazing intellect Tariq Ali
still makes his country of origin proud (even though neither
he nor the country will ever acknowledge that fact).