Writer, Broadcaster, Filmmaker, and Editor of New Left Review
Tariq Ali, political writer as well as filmmaker and novelist, in opening his Dr. S.T. Lee Distinguished Lecture, mused that he had hoped “never to write non-fiction again,” but that the events following September 11, 2001 had made it “impossible to remain aloof or removed” from the theater of world politics.
Fanaticism is etymologically derived from fanum, the Latin for temple. It was against this religious belief, says Ali, that The Enlightenment invented and prioritized the challenge of "reason." In spite of the violence of the European world (which is, undeniably, at conceptual odds with its "rational" challenge to fanaticism), Enlightenment thinking had a profound and far-reaching influence—in China, India, and parts of the Islamic world. Yet this was not a seamless system. The Enlightenment had its own critique from within, notably in the form of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who exalted the passion and belief of fanaticism as the internal strength to take on enemies and change the world. Rousseau's position is diametrically opposed to the passivity and stasis of the prototypical thinking subject governed by reason. This same debate that pits reason against fanaticism continues to resonate between the Western and Islamic worlds today, reaching its most spectacular pitch in the form of religious clashes.
The rise of Islam occurred with astonishing speed. In the space of 100 years, the Islamic world took over large parts of the globe, expanding westward toward the Atlantic and taking over Spain and Portugal with tiny armies of 1000 men. The duration of this dominion was as significant as the speed with which it imposed itself: for 400–500 years, Arabic culture dominated the Iberian Peninsula. In spite of this force of presence, the Islamic element was eventually pushed to the margins and finally expelled from Europe along with the Jews. For this reason, Ali argues, there could be no Islamic reformation equivalent to that of the Christian tradition, for it lacked the institutional stability to engage in any systematic reinvention.
The expulsions were, in Ali's view, the "death knell" of critical, creative thought in Islamic culture, which had been the purveyor of philosophy and other learned traditions to the West (Europe came to know Aristotle, for example, through the 12th-century translations of the scholar Averroes). Many Arabs and Sephardic Jews took refuge in the Ottoman Empire, which Ali calls the "last big chance" for Islamic cultural advancement. Yet the printing press, which could have had a transformative effect, did not make its way to the Ottoman Empire. This was because of a failure to separate state and religion, which, Ali says, allowed the fear of a "Muslim Martin Luther" to prevail in establishing a monopoly of information controlled by the Muslim state. This officially sanctioned obscurantism gave way to "deep fanatical currents." Ali hastens to note that Christianity and Judaism are not without their share of such currents, but that the "ghettoization" of Islamic culture made its fanaticism significantly more pronounced.
Meanwhile, capitalism grew and technology advanced, expanding outward and taking over the world. Ali points out that companies, which had been given the right to create their own armies, were the first to launch Dutch and British colonization. Today, the state, not companies, secures military occupation, and then the corporations move in. European imperial powers, notes Ali, claim civilizational reasons for colonization (rhetoric of superior culture, religion, Providence, God, conversion of natives). Yet these justifications serve only to obscure the reality of colonization as a means of acquiring comforts for the colonizing culture.
The United States has been an empire for some time (no real surprise there). It is a different empire, to be sure, without colonies (except, says Ali, its self-expansion within its own continent using rhetorical justifications of God and religion no different than any other imperial force). The Monroe Doctrine (1823) established America's hegemony over Latin America, ushering in a period of prolonged military intervention. That intervention was finally denounced by the decorated U.S. Major General Smedley Butler in his memoir War Is a Racket (1935) as nothing more nor less than a means of turning the entire continent of Latin America into a market for big U.S. corporations.
Today, the United States finds itself in the unprecedented position of being the lone global empire with an unparalleled degree of military and technological power. Before, empires coexisted in competition, jostling one another and forming alliances of rebellion against the others. Because no countervailing force currently exists to challenge the United States, Ali warns that the people in power have acquired a "semi-religious" belief in their own manifest destiny.
Ali cites the current Iraq war as a prime example. He argues that the United States government took Iraq precisely because it was known that Iraq was weak militarily and lacked weapons of mass destruction (countries that do have WMDs, such as North Korea, are treated with diplomacy, he notes, rather than military action). Ali refers to Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill (Simon & Schuster, 2004), which relates former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill's account of the lead-up to the invasion as a desperate effort by the National Security Council—spearheaded by Vice-President Dick Cheney—to find any glimmer of evidence of the purported weapons capacity of Saddam Hussein's regime.
If the bulk of the world's oil did not lie under Islamic lands, says Ali, there would be no political interest in the Middle East. If sanctions imposed on Iraq had not impeded America's access to that oil, ceding the advantage instead to Russia, Germany, and France—which could help explain the "principled" objections of these nations to war—then the U.S. might not have taken Iraq militarily. Unfortunately for the U.S., notes Ali, the Iraqi people did not come out "with sweets and flowers" to welcome as their liberators the troops. Instead, those troops have suffered nervous breakdowns in high numbers, and their injuries and deaths have been kept largely out of the public eye.
Turning to the war on terrorism, Ali suggests that the United States engages in "imperial fundamentalism" in exaggerating the threat that can possibly be posed to its power by its "big enemy" of two to three thousand al Qaeda members. Conditions in the Middle East have young people embittered and agitated, instilling a desire to join such groups. The United States only foments that desire by making more wars instead of finding a way to stem the tide of terrorist recruits, he adds.
Ali closed with a discussion of the increasingly one-sided news reportage by the United States media (and, to some extent, in Britain and Germany), which fail to present an alternative opinion to the people. The American liberal conscience, for example, is "totally blind" to Palestinian conditions and "dissociated" from the facts of Israeli occupation, which, if it pulls back to its 1967 limits, still leaves the Palestinians only 22% of the land, few prospects for improved living conditions, and no guarantee against atrocities committed by the fourth-largest military in the world. Ali describes this bias in media coverage as "extremely frightening," for it sets the mood and opinion of the public on the basis of a false perception of reality.
Ultimately, says Ali, criticism of empire must come from within. Just as the French protested Algerian colonization, so are Israelis beginning to decry the occupation of Palestine. Likewise, Americans joined protestors around the world in opposing the invasion of Iraq. Although this public resistance was not initially taken up by any sector of politics, Ali believes that it helped in eventually arousing Democrats to "find their tongues."
Quoting the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ali ends by reminding us that empires don't last forever:
The world's great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn;
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream. [...]
The world is weary of the past—
O might it die or rest at last!