by Mara Ahmed, with Judy Bello
Mara Ahmed and I were given the opportunity to interview Tariq Ali when he spoke at Hamilton College in Upstate New York on November 11, 2009, during his recent speaking tour of the United States. Tariq, a native of Pakistan who lives in England, is a well known writer, intellectual and activist. He has traveled all over Southwest Asia and the Middle East while researching his books. Mara, who is working on a film highlighting the opinions of the Pakistani people regarding the current situation in Pakistan and the Western initiated ‘Global War on Terror’, had a lot of questions for Tariq about the internal state of Pakistan. I wanted to ask Tariq for his opinion about the effects of American foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and what alternatives he thought might be available.
Mara: What is the role of Islamophobia in the Global War on Terror? Many American war veterans have described the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as imperialistic, racist and genocidal. Your comments?
Tariq: Well, I think Islamophobia plays an important part in things, because it creates an atmosphere in which people feel, “Oh, we’re just killing Muslims, so that’s alright.” And this situation is becoming quite serious in the United States and in large parts of Europe, where people feel that the fact that a million Iraqis have died is fine because they’re not like us, they’re Muslims. So, Islamophobia is becoming a very poisonous and dangerous ideological construct which has to be fought against.
It sometimes irritates people but I do compare it to the anti-Semitism that existed in the 20s and 30s and 40s of the last century. And I do wonder whether all the education that people are being given, and rightly so, about the killing of the Jews and the Judeocide of the Second World War is having an impact. What sort of education is it if they can’t relate what happened then to some of the things that are happening now. Education which just centers on one atrocity and that’s all, where people feel very opposed to that [one atrocity], but they can support other atrocities, is in my opinion not a proper education. And some of the level of ignorant comment on Islam and the Islamic world in the United States is deeply shocking. That’s all it is. It’s ignorance.
Mara: Do you think there is a difference between the United States and Europe?
Tariq: I think, on Islamophobia, not. I think there is a great deal of it in Western Europe. In countries like Germany, Italy, France it goes very deep; in Britain it exists strongly. I don’t think there’s any big difference. I think, curiously enough, because the United States, itself, is such a deeply religious country, that many people who are not crazies, but who are religious, accept the need for people to belong to whatever religion they want to as long as they believe in a God. Whereas, in Europe, which is much less religious, the Islamophobia can be much more pronounced.
Mara: What do you think of the Pakistani Army’s offensives in Swat and now in South Waziristan? Many Swat refugees have described heavy, indiscriminate bombing and shelling followed by Army sweeps, and they have talked about the villagers being the hardest hit, really, in these military operations, not the Taliban. Even after the offensives, there have been many gruesome revenge killings. What do you think about all of this, and are there any other non-military options in this situation?
Tariq: Well, it’s an open question as to what the military really wants to do. Is the military really just showing the United States “Look how tough we are. We are going in and doing things which we have to do to destroy the Taliban?” And they’re doing this largely to appease the United States, in which case all this makes sense, because the higher the casualty rates, the better it is, the more money they get. The fact is that most of the Pakistani Taliban groups don’t stay when the military comes. They disappear, because that’s how they function. So the people who get it in the neck are largely innocent. And this has been the report from both Swat and South Waziristan. I think it is a great pity that people in the United States, and certainly within the American establishment, don’t understand that that is what’s going on. They are making new enemies by supporting this.
The camps are full of people who are being treated extremely badly. There was a case I just heard about a few days ago. I’m trying to remember the name of the camp. It’s outside Peshawar. Well, the army went in, behaved badly, ended up firing, and killed 3 children. And the activist who sent me the blog said, “As I’m sending you this blog, I can see the funeral procession of these children taking place.” This is going to create a problem for a long, long time. There may be 2 million refugees right now within Pakistan, and this is not the way to do it, you know. It reminds me of Samuel Huntington’s advice during the Vietnam War, to create strategic hamlets and take people away from those who might recruit them. That’s essentially, I feel, what is going on. And it isn’t going to work. Lots of people in the camps are getting radicalized, and they can leave the camps whenever they want to. They aren’t policed permanently. I mean, just imagine what happened to the Palestinians in the camps from the 50s and 60s. Camps are not the sort of environment where people don’t get radicalized. So the same thing could begin to happen in Pakistan if the military carries on like this.
Mara: Who do you think are the Taliban? And do you see any differences between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban?
Tariq: Well, there’s a very big difference. The Afghan Taliban are fighting the foreign occupation of their country, and the Pakistani Taliban have decided to fight against local people in their own country and occasionally take on the Pakistani military. So, that is a very big difference between the two. The Afghan Taliban are trying more and more to win people to their cause, which means that the way they operate has to be different from what it used to be. In Pakistan the groups calling themselves the Tehriq eTaliban Pakistan are largely trying to teach the military a lesson and carry out revenge for what they’ve seen has been done against them. They have no desire to recruit large numbers of people. And, this is now getting mixed up with local tribal politics.
Mara: Some people maintain that there are certain elements of a class struggle in what’s going on in Pakistan. Do you agree with that?
Tariq: No. I don’t agree with that. I think that the Taliban occasionally kill a landlord because the landlord isn’t supporting them, and then they redistribute the land. But, if you’re a landlord who gives them money, they don’t touch you. So, it’s purely opportunist, and I think it’s very opportunist to see this as a form of class struggle. It isn’t. Essentially, what they attack are women, and they attack schools, not just women’s schools (there aren’t many co-educational schools in Pakistan) but all schools. So they see education as a threat. And that, to my mind, is incredibly backward – to deny your people an education.
Mara: I have actually written, myself, about what I see as a local form of home-grown imperialism, which I feel is at work in Pakistan. The Pakistani government and the elite are just so far removed from the lives of the common man, especially outside of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. They are just as far removed from their reality as the Americans are. I feel that there’s almost no difference. And the same kind of cavalier disregard for the suffering of ordinary Muslims is exhibited by the Pakistani elite as by the Americans. And this is why I feel that the razing of villages, the destruction of crops, and the migration of 2 million refugees is all acceptable in the name of ‘saving Pakistan from the religious extremists’. And then when some of these people migrate to the cities, for example when they tried to get into Karachi, the MQM told them they don’t want any refugees close-by. What do you think about that?
Tariq: Well, I think there’s an element of truth in that, that the Pakistani elite (the military/political elite) have disregarded their own people for so long now, that it would be a surprise if they behaved in a different way. But it’s not just Muslims. It’s the minorities as well. The tiny Christian minority, Hindus and Sikhs, they all suffer from this attitude. And I have written about this at length in my books, that I do regard this as one of the most corrupt and venal elites in the world, where there’s absolutely no regard whatsoever for the sanctity of human life or the sufferings of ordinary people. And, it gets worse. It doesn’t get better. Politics in Pakistan itself now, have become so linked to making money that each gang that comes to power says “Make as much money as you can. Don’t know how long we’ll be in power.” And this is what Zardari is doing now. This is what Nawaz Sharif has done before him. This is what the Chaudhrys of Gujarat who were allied with General Musharraf (and before him with General Zia) have done when they’ve been in power. Politics in Pakistan is both paralyzed and atrophied. It doesn’t move forward at all, and that’s very depressing.
Mara: Now I have some questions about democracy in Pakistan. The argument is often made that democracy is not possible in Pakistan on account of the feudal system, the high illiteracy rate and the lack of institutions that would support a democratic system. What do you think?
Tariq: Well, look. I don’t believe this because I think in the past people in Pakistan have shown that they are perfectly capable of making their voices heard. When there was an alternative, they supported it. I mean when the People’s Party won the elections of 1970, the people in the Punjab and Sind and in parts of the Frontier Province voted against their landlords. This means they can do it, because they were promised what, food, clothing, shelter, land reform, health, education. That’s what Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promised them. They believed him and they voted for his party. The fact that they’re illiterate doesn’t matter. You know lots of illiterate people in our part of the world are actually more intelligent than semi-literate or even sometimes literate people. They have a very strong political instinct. They know who’s on their side and who isn’t. They hoped that Bhutto would bring about these changes, but he didn’t. And that was a massive let down. The same is true of India. When Mrs. Gandhi imposed an emergency in the 70s, people voted her out. So, it’s not that democracy is totally dependent on literacy. That is not the case.
What is true is that the institutions of democracy in Pakistan are extremely weak. And, that is a problem. And, here I have to say that in the first phase of the new media which emerged in Pakistan, the discussions which took place in the media were very positive. Now they’ve been brought under control again. But that opening did help to transmit ideas and diversity into the country. As a whole, the entire movement to put the Chief Justice back into power would not have been possible had it not been for television, where the demonstrations were covered and people were interviewed. People were proud to be associated with that. Many illiterate people turned out to demand that the Chief Justice be put back into power. This was a struggle that had no link to religion or anything like that. It was a straight forward struggle for constitutional rights and the separation of powers. So, I don’t like anybody saying that our people aren’t ready for democracy. I would sort of rather say the opposite, that the elite in Pakistan have no respect for democracy. And it’s disrespect for democracy that makes ordinary people apathetic because they say it doesn’t make any difference now.
Mara: You just talked about the Lawyer’s Movement. Do you think that it still has a future?
Tariq: I don’t think so, because I think that once you have Zardari in power, and the Chief Justice formally reinstated, that movement has now lost its raison d’etre. The big tragedy for Pakistan is that no political party emerged out of that. Had it done so, we might have been better off now.
Mara: And then I have some questions about US foreign policy in the region. Recently a group of Pakistanis and Pakistani Americans, both students and professors, drafted a petition to urge America to end its ‘one leader’ approach to Pakistan, where individual political leaders and dictators have been supported by the United States government at the expense of Pakistani civil society. What are your comments?
Tariq: Well, my first comment is that the United States does what it regards as being best for the United States. So, they pick leaders they feel will do their work for them. They’re not that interested in Pakistan as a state or a country. They’re basically using it, and have done so right from the beginning. So, making these petitions to them indicates that people still have illusions that the United States somehow can do something it doesn’t want to do and has no desire of doing. I mean, I understand why people did that. But I think it’s accepting America’s imperial standing in Pakistan. Saying why don’t you do this? Why should they do it? Why shouldn’t our own people do it? All the United States can be asked to do is to stop supporting the military and corrupt politicians in Pakistan. And the rest, people will have to do for themselves.
Mara: Your comments about the Kerry-Lugar Bill.
Tariq: Well, the Kerry-Lugar Bill is a continuation of what’s been going on in Pakistan from 1951 onwards. Money is given. Money is spent. This time, it’s very open. It’s to bribe the Pakistani military to do the work which the Americans feel is best done by them, kill more people. Or it’s to give money to civil society – carefully chosen and begged to push through various initiatives in civil society. And, what will happen is that the bulk of the money will be confiscated by military and civilian elite groups. That’s what’s happened in the past, and that’s what will happen now. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zardari’s still in power when this money comes through, he’ll get a big cut of it.
Mara: Would you like to comment on Seymour Hersh’s recently published article. He talks about how the Americans have an arrangement to deploy a Special Services Unit to Pakistan should an internal dispute in the country put the nukes at risk. Do you think that is true? And do you think this is a good plan?
Tariq: I don’t think that it’s a good plan. But I think it may well be true because of the obsession with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, largely stoked by Israel which wants to be the only nuclear power in that region and doesn’t want any Muslim state to have them because they fear that they might help others in the Middle East, is crazy. I mean, the only danger in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is if the Pakistani military splits. And the only reason for it to be split is if the Americans put massive pressure on it, which became so unacceptable that the high command split and said we can’t do this. Were that to happen then the situation would be serious, and I’m sure the United States would try and do something to secure the nuclear facilities. But were they to do so, the wave of anger that would sweep the country, rightly or wrongly, would exceed anything we’ve seen so far.
Mara: Is there anything positive the US can do about Afghanistan and Pakistan, except the fact that they need to pull out? Can they do anything else?
Tariq: Well, they need to pull out, and they need to pull out sensibly, not like they did the last time, after defeating the Russians. And, as I’ve argued consistently now, for the last so many years, there needs to be an exit strategy that needs to involve the local regional powers. I think it would be wrong if the United States essentially handed Afghanistan over to the Pakistani military, like they did the last time, when they said “It’s your problem. Deal with it.” I think the Iranians, the Russians and the Chinese have to be involved. And if the Americans don’t involve them, Pakistan should, because it certainly is not capable of handling the situation on its own, economically or politically or militarily. So it needs to do that. And were that to happen, it would be something positive. As to what the United States can do, I mean its record in Pakistan has, so far, been abysmal. So, I think a period of withdrawal from Pakistani politics, once a strategic withdrawal has taken place, if it takes place, would be positive.
Judy: May I follow up on that question? Do you think the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has invited Pakistan and Afghanistan in as Observers, could be engaged to involve local powers in the Afghan recovery? Iran is involved and China and Russia are central players.
Tariq: It is a possibility, because the Chinese involvement is very crucial for economic reasons. We need to construct a social infrastructure in Afghanistan, and only the Chinese could fund it. But in return for that, the Chinese would demand total peace and an end to war. And that you can’t have unless the Pakistani and the Iranians and Russians guarantee it. So I think the Shanghai group could play an important role if the United States lets them.
Mara: What do you think of Turkey as an effective convener of economic cooperation in the region, and is it possible for the US to integrate that into their plans?
Tariq: I don’t think so. I think the Turks have enough problems of their own. And I know that the Turkish Islamists are NATO’s favorite Islamists. At the moment, this is the face of ‘moderate’ Islam as they show it. But these are people who have completely wrecked the Turkish economy by large scale privatizations, which have led to a worsening of conditions. The withdrawal of the state, and local Islamists willing to help with medicines etc. is, I think, dangerous. I think these are things that should be done by the state, and not by any one organization in order to bolster support for itself. So, I don’t think the Turkish model is a particularly good one. And I don’t think that the United States is going to use the Turks in this region. There are some Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan, but Turkey isn’t taken seriously. It is seen globally as an American puppet state, which it has been since the Second World War.
Mara: And then my final question is “What do you think is India’s role in whatever is going on in Pakistan. You know, a lot of people say that they are the ones that are supplying some of the arms and ammunition to the militants. That is the rumor. And, what do you think is their long term strategy? I assume that they wouldn’t want an unstable Pakistan right next door?
Tariq: I don’t think India wants an unstable Pakistan right next door. But, on the other hand, they haven’t made any serious efforts to help stability in Pakistan, given the way they’ve operated in Kashmir. But, you can’t ignore what the Indian military has done in Kashmir. It’s like a colonial occupation, with rapes, brutality and torture, which has created a situation where Jihadis sent in by the Pakistani military have won limited support in some regions because Kashmiris are so fed up with what the Indians are doing. So, unless and until that particular problem is sorted out, I think it’s not going to be easy. I think ultimately, one day, we have to think of South Asia as a region in which the main countries collaborate with each other.
And the exit strategy from Afghanistan could involve some settlements along these lines, a no-war pact between India and Pakistan and an opening of trade. I don’t think this confrontational situation, which both militaries sometimes encourage to help their own vested interest, is good in the long run, for either country. India is a huge country. Militarily, they could crush Pakistan. But they’re not going to do it because that would import instability into the Indian Federation. They don’t want Pakistan. The Pakistani military needs the threat of India, in order to justify the wild military spending that takes place in that country, and so the money spent on social projects is very limited. I think it’s in the interest of the entire region to, if not to denuclearize it, certainly to make it pacific and peaceful, and for the states to work together. I think it has to be done.
Mara: Thank you very much.
Mara Ahmed is an activist filmmaker based in Rochester, NY. Her documentary “The Muslims I Know” was broadcast on PBS in the greater Rochester area in 2008. Judith Bello is an activist and blogger.