22 July 2003

When fundamentalisms clash

By Tapani Lausti

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

As the US/UK neo-imperialist front declares itself as a democratic, liberatory force, the rest of the world looks at this spectacle in wonderment. The American commentators, on their part, fail to comprehend the depth of suspicion towards US intentions spreading to most corners of the world.

In a recent article, William Pfaff described US-European seminars and conferences where American participants completely failed to understand European unhappiness with George W. Bush's foreign policy. Combined with the American public's ignorance of the Arab and muslim world — as described recently by Edward Said — a frightening cocktail of fear and myopia emerges.

Tariq Ali is well-equipped to offer useful background to many misapprehensions prevalent in today's world where information is generally distorted by sloppy journalism and intentional spin. A London-based Pakistani writer and activist, Ali is thoroughly familiar with both muslim culture and western policies and their histories.

In this book, Ali offers a readable history of many confrontations between islam and the western powers. The fundamentalisms he describes are religious and imperial. He criticises Samuel Huntington's concept of the "clash of civilisations" as "politically convenient" : "Islam was seen as the biggest threat because most of the world's oil is produced in Iran, Iraq and Saudi-Arabia." (p. 273)

Ali shows that the world of Islam has not been monolithic for over a thousand years. He writes: "Over the last hundred years, the world of Islam has felt the heat of wars and revolutions just like every other society." (p. 274)

He also reminds readers how after the Second World War the United States backed the most reactionary elements as a bulwark against communism or progressive/secular nationalism: "Often these were hardline religious fundamentalists: the Muslim Brotherhood against Nasser in Egypt; the Sarekat-i-Islam against Sukarno in Indonesia, the Jamaat-e-Islami against Bhutto in Pakistan and, later, Osama bin Laden and friends against the secular-communist Najibullah." (p. 275)

Ali paints a picture of a totally opportunistic US policy of self-interest, where idealistic concepts like democracy and liberty are twisted which ever way seems most convenient: "The result is a mishmash of cynicism, despair and escapism. This is precisely an environment designed to nurture irrationalisms of every sort. Over the last fifty years, religious revivalism with a political edge has flourished in many different cultures. Nor is the process finished. A major cause is the fact that all other exit routes have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American imperialism." (p. 281)

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