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.
Tariq 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).



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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