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International Socialism, Summer 2002


Sam Ashman

Islam and imperialism


From International Socialism 2:95, Summer 2002.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Tariq Ali
The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity
Verso 2002, £15

You know how many people they’ve killed in Central America? You know? ... I feel sorry for the ones who died. That’s more than they feel for us. [1]

That is what a Latino taxi driver in New York told Tariq Ali shortly after 11 September when 3,000 died, and when ‘the world media, which cast their own discreeter veil over the daily violence in other parts of the world thus rendering it invisible, were drawn straight to the site of the outrage’. For those who opposed the US’s revenge bombing of Afghanistan it was never about denying the suffering of those who died in the twin towers. It was more a question of asserting that those who died beneath US and British bombs also suffered, and they suffered at the hands of a far mightier foe. Tariq Ali’s new book about Islam, which is really a collection of articles, takes up many of the questions raised across the globe in the wake of 11 September. It is a patchwork analysis, sewn together with personal reminiscences, interesting ideas and, crucially, opposition to imperialism. Towards the end is a chapter called A Short-Course History of US Imperialism, which in many ways is the point of departure which informs the whole. Tariq Ali’s book conveys three things. Firstly, neither Islam, Christianity nor Judaism has spawned cultures, civilisations or ideas which are monolithic or timeless. Secondly, Islam must be understood from a materialist perspective which understands class and the development of capitalism and imperialism. Thirdly, when we look at the world today the ‘mother of all fundamentalisms’ is US imperialism.

He is well qualified for the job. Tariq Ali writes as a veteran opponent of US imperialism and hails from a Muslim background of sorts, given that he was born in Lahore when it was under British imperial rule and shortly before it became part of Pakistan. His family, as he tells us, were privileged landowners, his grandfather a leader of the landlords’ Unionist Party and governor of the Punjab, his parents members of the Communist Party. When he tells stories of bumping into relatives or family acquaintances they are generals or ambassadors or such like – and he even has one uncle, a Pakistani general, with a very interesting interpretation of Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky.

The Clash of Fundamentalisms deals with the origins of Islam and the rise and fall of Islamic empires. There is doubtless much that is controversial in his short treatment, but he stresses both the diversity of Islamic traditions and their interrelationship with other traditions. The book traces how the Islamic world expanded to encompass Syria, Egypt and Iraq and then moved westward to conquer northern Africa and Spain, and eastward to conquer India. The conquest of Syria and Persia resulted in a cultural synthesis which produced a new Islamic civilisation absorbing arts, literature and philosophy. Gondeshapur in south west Persia became a centre for intellectuals, dissidents and free thinkers and the development of the philosophy of medicine, while Cordoba in Spain was notorious for dissenters and sceptics. Throughout the Middle Ages the Islamic world preserved ancient Greek thought, providing a bridge to the Renaissance. Poets, philosophers and heretics ‘expanded the frontiers of debate’ and some even questioned – before the European Renaissance – the oppression of women within Islam.

Later the Islamic Ottoman Empire opened up a new front in south eastern Europe – including Hungary, the Balkans, parts of Ukraine and Poland. By the 15th and 16th centuries the majority of Muslims lived under either the Ottoman Empire or the Mughal Empire in India. These societies, however, did not create capitalist relations of production and ultimately could not withstand the rise of Western capitalism. Tariq Ali writes that:

… in very different local conditions, the caliphates in Cordoba, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul, and later the Mughal empire in India, did not favour the creation of a landed gentry or peasant ownership or village communities. Either would have aided capital formation, which might later have led to industrialisation. [2]

The Mughal Empire was replaced by British imperialism. Direct rule was imposed following the mutiny of 1857, but merchant capital, in the form of the East India Company, had blazed the trail, and its offices in London are described as ‘the first headquarters of globalisation’. Defeat in the First World War marked the end of the Ottoman Empire which had joined the Austro-German alliance. The victorious powers in that war agreed that the Ottoman Arab states would be given formal independence, but under their ‘mandate’. Britain oversaw Iraq, Palestine and Eygpt. France did the same to Syria, the Lebanon, and the Maghreb. Rebellions in Iraq and Syria were crushed almost immediately.

Imperial influence spread to those areas which were not formally mandates or protectorates. Here the treatment of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia – Osama Bin Laden’s home state – is one of the book’s strengths. Wahhabism is a branch of Islam, and the official religion of Saudi Arabia and its ruling dynasty – one of the most repressive in the world, let alone the Middle East, but nonetheless a key US ally today because it guards 25 percent of the world’s oil reserves. It was inspired by the 18th century preacher Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, who sought a return to a mythical pure age of Islam. His philosophy only became a material force when Wahhab joined forces with a local emir and bandit, Muhammad Ibn Saud, who sought to rule over neighbouring tribes and to unite the Arabian peninsula which was then a remote and neglected outpost of the Ottoman Empire. The two formed a pact, and by the start of the 19th century Ibn Saud’s forces had taken control of a string of cities including the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. The rebellion was eventually crushed by Ottoman forces and the Wahhabis were pushed back to their home base, the Nejd. The story did not end there, however. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the emir of the Nejd, one of Ibn Saud’s descendants, became a convenient British client ruler. Saudi Arabia was formed in 1927 and US oil companies moved into the country in the 1930s – critically altering the balance of imperial power in the region. They and the ruling Saudi Wahhabis have been together ever since, the Wahhabi royals protecting oil supplies and providing a bulwark against Communism and secular nationalism. Tariq Ali writes, ‘The expeditionary force dispatched to Afghanistan to cut off the tentacles of the Wahhabi octopus may or may not succeed, but the head is safe and sound in Saudi Arabia, guarding the oil wells, growing new arms, and protected by American soldiers and the USAF base in Dhahran.’

Another strength of The Clash of Fundamentalisms is the way the analysis of events following the end of the Second World War brings together two areas of the world that are generally treated separately – the Middle East and South Asia. The violent processes which led to the formation of the states of Israel and Pakistan are described as different but comparable. The partition of India in 1947 left up to 2 million dead and 11 million refugees, and transformed the South Asian subcontinent. The state of Israel was formed a year later, and while the scale of deaths in Palestine was not the same as in South Asia, the Palestinians were left homeless and stateless in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria. Pakistan was supposedly a homeland for Muslims, Israel supposedly a homeland for Jews. Yet in both cases the founding fathers of these states were far removed from religion. Jinnah was an agnostic whisky drinker, while Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan were atheists. Religious fundamentalists in both cases were opposed to the formation of these states, though in Pakistan the Jamaat-e-Islami soon changed its mind. British imperialism played a central role in the foundation of both states.

The Muslim League would not have won its demand for a separate ‘Muslim’ state of Pakistan without the British. The league only adopted the demand in 1940 and failed to win mass support for it. In fact large numbers of Muslims looked to the Indian National Congress as it led the fight against British imperial rule. The league was formed by upper class conservative Muslims who pledged their loyalty to the British. This loyalty was especially important during the Second World War – the Congress launched the Quit India campaign but the league remained loyal to the war effort. The league’s loyalty was rewarded when the British left in 1947, dividing the subcontinent and making a ‘monsoon with red rain’.

The bloodshed did not stop with partition. Revolt, repression and war would lead to the formation of the state of Bangladesh in 1971 from what had been East Pakistan. The battle over the state of Kashmir, still claimed by both India and Pakistan, continues to take many lives.

Zionism was a secular nationalist ideology created in the 19th century by a small group of secular Jews who thought assimilation into European society was impossible and who began to raise money to settle Jews in Palestine. Britain pledged to aid the formation of a Jewish state in Palestine as early as the 1917 Balfour Declaration which was followed by the annexation of Palestine. Britain then created a nominally independent state of Trans-Jordan (which would later become Jordan) from eastern Palestine and kept the rest of Palestine under direct British control to facilitate a Jewish national home. Significant Jewish immigration began soon after. The first Palestinian intifada against this settlement took place between 1936 and 1939 and was crushed by 25,000 British troops, the RAF and the Zionist settlers together. The British then promised the Zionists their own independent state.

Both Israel and Pakistan emerged from these processes as grotesque societies. But while British imperialism was vital for their creation, US imperialism has been vital for their survival. Both became recipients of huge amounts of US aid in the post-war period as Israel became the US’s watchdog in the Middle East and Pakistan became the US’s Cold War ally in South Asia. The question of Palestine remains a thread which ties the states of the Arab world together. Tariq Ali describes Israel as the only remaining colonial power on the 19th/20th century model. He has even unearthed an interesting personnel overlap: General Zia-ul-Haq, dictator of Pakistan in the late 1970s and 1980s, was involved in the ‘Black September’ massacre of Palestinians in Jordan in 1970.

The Clash of Fundamentalisms then moves on to give a potted history of the rest of the Middle East. The book deals well with the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam Hussein, sanctions and the continued bombardment of Iraq. I found two weaknesses in his analysis of elsewhere, however. Firstly, the revolution which deposed the Shah of Iran in 1979 is rather badly described as ‘a revolt against History, against the Enlightenment, "Euromania", "Westoxification" – against Progress. It was a postmodern Revolution before postmodernism had grown fashionable.’ Now there is a large degree of poetic licence being exercised here, and it is certainly right to describe the Iranian regime as practising the ‘anti-imperialism of fools’. But the Iranian Revolution was the very opposite of the postmodern and it is a shame not to educate readers about this story. The revolution did not begin as an Islamist revolution to put Khomeini in power. Instead Khomeini succeeded in filling the vacuum that was created following a mass revolt, which after some 18 months of intense struggle, of mass street demonstrations and increasingly of political strike action, toppled the Shah. Elected strike committees took over important factories, and after the Shah fled, shoras (councils) spread from factories to offices, colleges and villages. Khomeini’s victory over the movement was not assured for many months, and was only completed on the basis of breaking this new democracy.

Secondly, the book shares a theoretical weakness which is evident on the left today – a sort of sentimental nostalgia for the old Soviet Union and to a lesser extent China. These states are seen as ‘no-go areas for world capitalism’ and bulwarks against US imperialism. So Tariq Ali writes:

Even though the Soviet Union had not represented a serious revolutionary threat for many decades, its very existence had given heart to anti-colonial resistance movements in three continents, enabled the Cubans and Vietnamese to resist and survive, armed the ANC in South Africa and provided European social democracy with a platform to wrest some reforms from the various capitalist elites. [3]

This may be understandable, given the brutality of US imperialism today, but it nonetheless rewrites history. The USSR was an imperialist power in its own right – its disastrous 1979 invasion of Afghanistan being only one example. Afghan Communists, who had built support in the army, took power in Afghanistan through a coup in 1978. They tried to impose change on the villages of Afghanistan – land reform and an improvement in the position of women – but without a mass base of support. They were seen as puppets of the Russians, and resistance soon began in the name of Islam. The Communists responded with mass arrests, torture and the bombing of whole villages. The Clash of Fundamentalisms condemns the repression used by this regime but argues that nonetheless ‘the PDPA regime had restarted the process of modernisation’. By late 1979 the regime was so hated that it was about to fall. The Soviet Union responded by invading Afghanistan in order to keep the Communists in power and to prevent Islamic rebellion spreading to what were then its Central Asian republics. The invasion meant that even the Communists’ supporters in the cities turned against them and towards Islam. Civil servants, many of whom supported the PDPA regime, went on strike against the Soviets. The book rightly points to how the US seized on this situation as part of its Cold War battle with the Soviet Union, funding Islamic resistance via the Pakistani state and using Egyptian and Saudi state intelligence networks. Nonetheless the resistance could win mass support because the mass of the population opposed the Russian invasion. There were two imperialist sides in the Cold War.

These are minor weaknesses, however, in a book that deserves a wide readership. If you are not familiar with the history of the Middle East and South Asia it provides a pacy introduction. If you are, it provides a timely reminder written with some style. More importantly, because Tariq Ali begins from opposition to US imperialism and to racism and inequality, he can conclude the book with a very powerful Letter to a Young Muslim. Here he argues that ‘the rise of religion is partially explained by the lack of any other alternative to the universal regime of neo-liberalism’, and that the ‘fundamentalism of the Empire has no equal today’. This is combined with a challenge to what Islamists have to offer in response – ‘a route to the past which, mercifully for the people of the 7th century, never existed’. This approach is critical for the left today, not only if it is to build opposition to racism, imperialism and fascism in Europe, but also if it is to rebuild its roots in the Middle East, South Asia and beyond. For these reasons, this book deserves a very warm welcome.


1. T. Ali, The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (London 2002), p. 292.

2. Ibid., pp. 47–48.

3. Ibid., p. 271.

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