The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 18, 2003

A non-European perspective on the crises of contemporary Islam
M. L. Raina

The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity
by Tariq Ali. Rupa. Pages XXXII + 428.
Rs 295.

The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and ModernityBY a strange happenstance I was reading Tariq Ali’s novel The Book of Saladin in a Boston suburb while Bush, Blair and Rumsfeld were pounding Iraq into pre-history. Ali presents the legendary Kurdish warrior, warts and all, and sets the theme of the present book: two fundamentalisms, call them jehadi and Crusading, ignobly clashing over the cities and sands of one of the greatest civilisations of the world.

At first the title might tempt us to recall Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilsations, but no two books could be more different from each other. Huntington writes from the rarified elevations of the Euro-American-centric moral ground that he feels threatened by radical Islam. Ali, a product of the post-colonial grinder-mixer of cultures, has a wider-angle view that allows him to see across civilisational divides. Huntington is professorially detached, Ali compulsively engaged. The two speak to different constituencies.


Tariq Ali says nothing that was not known already. Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong covers much the same ground and provides a better account of the Muslim countries’ search for a place in the world. Ali, however, gives a non-European perspective that neither Islamic fundamentalists nor crusading American zealots care to remember. This enriches our understanding of the crisis of contemporary Islam, its permanent schisms and, what is more to the point, its involvement with the politics of terror.

"Islam," says Ali, "had always prospered through contact with other traditions. Its origins lay in close contact with Judaism and Christianity." But the fragmentation of its unified structure into sects and groupings cast it into a limbo of hopelessness. The more rigid sects like the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere grew into a militant proselytizing force spreading terror in the non-Islamic world and breeding the likes of Taliban and numerous Lashkars in places as far apart as Chechnya, Afghanistan and Kashmir.

He brings to light — again not for the first time — the fact that Muslims and Jews together fought the Christian crusaders long before the machinations of the British created the Palestine problem, and reveals the nexus between Western economic interests and political intrigue in West Asia. But what stands out in Ali’s chapters on Islam is the emphasis he gives to its non-fundamentalist strain, ranging from the earlier apostasies of Ibn Rwandi of Baghdad to the tolerant acceptance of dissent by the Sufi sect of the creed. These branches of Islam still retain a potent influence in some parts of the world, Kashmir, for example, making it difficult for us to answer why insurgency gained ground there.

A cultural feature discussed by Ali and normally neglected by the more politically correct liberals is the whole question of sodomy and its relationship to women in general. "Islam’s strictures on homosexuality are almost pathological," he writes and connects these with the restrictions on women. This taboo takes many forms, a mild acceptable one being the mystical celebration of male bonding.

Ali exposes the downright economic greed of the western powers, which is usually masked in idealistic terminology. While many western analysts see through the fog of this terminology, Ali speaks from the inside, having witnessed the militarisation of his native Pakistan and the recent appropriation of Afghanistan and Iraq, to say nothing of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. He is not taken in by the democratic rhetoric in which the ulterior American imperialistic designs are clothed.

This fact is further examined in Ali’s chapter on the nexus between oil, imperialism and the so-called spread of ‘freedom and civilisation’. With the enlisting of Israel in the ‘civilising’ mission it is not hard to see the ultimate design of the exercise. Ali is good on Zionism, on the collaborationist character of the military rulers in Pakistan and the acquiescence of satraps like Hamid Karzai and the successive ruling cliques in Kashmir.

He is equally perceptive on the Islamic revolution in Iran and the American designs on the ‘empire of evil’. In all these events he discovers a western, mostly American, conspiracy to culturally and militarily subjugate Third World countries. He offers an effective antidote to the peddlers of ‘democratic reform’ in the West who have been hyperactive during the Iraq invasion.

Ali’s knowledge of Arab writing that he brings to bear upon his argument is impressive. No commentator has found Munif’s Cities of the Salt as authentic a mirror as he does. Very few western writers use Third World literature in the way Ali does. This gives to his potted histories (that is essentially what these chapters are) their felt substantiality.

Appended to the chapter "Marginal Notes on the Character of Defeats" is Nizar Quabbani’s long poem Footnote to the Book of Setback about the 1967 Arab humiliation. This poem is both a dirge and a call to action. "We want an angry generation/to plough the sky/to blow up history`85." The poet was exiled from Egypt but the venerated singer Umm Kulthum sang this poem and touched the nerve of a defeated generation. Political interventions by poets are not rare in cultures that suppress dissent, as many Arab regimes still do. Ironically, it was left to the American military to ‘blow up’ Iraq’s history, revealing the empire’s ugly face.