Tariq Ali, in this exclusive interview, seamlessly switches from contemporary historian to scholar-at-large to polemicist to raconteur, as he tackles many of the impinging issues of our times. By SASHI KUMAR, Frontline
He was in southern India after nearly 30 years. He had come to Kerala to deliver the Chinta Ravindran Memorial Lecture at Thrissur. My friend, the well-known writer Paul Zacharia and I were showing him the sights and we had just been to the site of the archaeological dig at Pattanam near Kodungalloor where he saw the unearthed pottery and artefacts that were reconstructing the fascinating story of an early society in these parts, already in maritime contact with West Asian ports and ancient Rome. From there we proceeded to the nearby Cheraman juma masjid, considered the first mosque in India, and perhaps the second in the world, dating back to A.D. 629. There was only a little evidence of that ancient patrimony left; the quaint old native structure had been all but pulled down some 50 years back and a more commodious, more standardised edifice built around it. All that was left were some pillars, a section of a doorway, another of a beamed ceiling and a crumbling staircase leading up to the attic, all in wood. But a photograph of the structure, as it was in 1905, hung on the wall.
When the president of the mosque’s governing body, Dr Mohammed Sayeed, who had come to receive his celebrated guest, introduced himself, the guest accosted the host with no preliminaries. What you have done is terrible, he said, you have destroyed history. If one felt a quick tensing of the atmosphere with this opening remark, it was short-lived because the president, a genial, enlightened person and a general surgeon by profession, couldn’t agree with him more. Yes, he readily admitted, he and the other office bearers continued to bear the burden of that guilt. It was done, perhaps a bit unimaginatively, he conceded, to accommodate more people at the Friday prayers. They had already decided to right that wrong and reconstruct the original structure; and they could because they had the architectural drawings to scale intact with them.
That was an interesting take on heritage over religiosity from one who, by nature and upbringing, was an unbeliever. “I never really believed in God” are the opening words of the first chapter of Tariq Ali’s The Clash of Fundamentalisms. “Not even for a week, not even between the ages of six and ten, when I was an agnostic. This unbelief was instinctive. I was sure there was nothing else out there except space. It could have been my lack of imagination. During the sweet, jasmine-scented summer nights, long before mosques were allowed to use loudspeakers, it was enough to savour the silence, look upwards at the exquisitely lit sky, count the shooting stars and fall asleep. The early morning call of the muezzin was like a pleasant sounding alarm clock.”
Although his family came from a feudal background —his maternal grandfather being the Prime Minister of the Punjab before the Partition—both his parents were active communists and atheists. His father, Mazhar Ali Khan, was a renowned journalist in Pakistan. What is less known is that he was a national backstroke aquatic champion and Tariq Ali himself is an avid and accomplished swimmer. (His one request before he came on this visit was that his schedule provide for a daily swim, preferably in the sea in Kerala. That, of course, was not possible because the monsoon Arabian Sea is hardly swim-friendly, and he had to make do with a swimming pool in Chennai where his skill and stamina in the water were truly impressive for one who turns 71 this October.) His mother, Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, has been an activist, championing women’s and workers’ rights.
Tariq Ali was born in pre-Partition Lahore and even in his teens was participating in the agitation against the military dictatorship of General Ayub Khan. Tipped off by an uncle who worked in the military intelligence that he may not be safe in Pakistan, his parents moved him out to England and Exeter College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics from 1963 to 1966 and was elected president of the Oxford Union in 1965. It was during this period that he met Malcolm X. He plunged into the anti-Vietnam War struggle and became a recognised face across the world. He was said to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger’s (of Rolling Stones) “Street Fighting Man” and John Lennon’s (of the Beatles) “Power to the People”. The title of his autobiographical work, Street Fighting Years, was perhaps a doffing of the cap, in response, to Mick Jagger.
He was a passionate admirer of Che Guevara and almost courted trouble with the Bolivian authorities himself when he went to attend the trial of Regis Debray at Camiri in 1967. That, he told us on the ride back from the Cheraman mosque, was perhaps his closest brush with danger. He had, in fact, been entrusted with taking photographs of the army officers present at the trial and was at it when one of them walked up to him, snatched the film roll from his camera, exposed it and warned him that he would be shot if he pointed his camera in their direction again. More was to follow. For some reason, the Bolivian militia suspected that he was one of Che’s former bodyguards and detained him for questioning. They remained unconvinced despite his producing his passport to prove his identity. When you are in such dire straits, he mused recalling the incident, you get some rash flash of courage, which led him to tell his interrogators that if they tortured him the whole night and he could speak Spanish by the morning, he would be grateful to them for the rest of his life.
He remains an ardent admirer of the Bolivarian revolution, a trenchant critic of imperialism, and as opposed as ever to, but perhaps now a shade resigned to, Zionism. He is a prolific and prodigious writer across a range of genres covering history, political analyses, novels and screenplays. Among his works of non-fiction are Can Pakistan Survive, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Leopard and the Fox, The Stalinist Legacy, 1968: Marching in the Streets, Nehrus and Gandhis, Bush in Babylon, Conversations with Edward Said, and The Obama Syndrome. His fictional and satirical works include Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, Iranian Nights, The Book of Saladin, The Stone Woman, The Illustrious Corpse, A Sultan in Palermo andNight of the Golden Butterfly.
He is a passionate film-maker and had set up an independent production company, Bandung, in the 1980s which made docu-features for Channel Four in the U.K. He has, for several years now, been on the editorial board of the New Left Review. The radical of the 1960s has probably morphed, without by any means mellowing, into a public intellectual of the Left on the world stage. In this conversation, which unfolded like a grand, if freewheeling, tour d’horizon, Tariq Ali seamlessly switches from contemporary historian to scholar-at-large to polemicist to raconteur, as he tackles many of the impinging issues of our times.
Sashi Kumar: Tariq, what I broadly wanted you to look at—and you must have thought about this—is the emerging world order. We know that since the collapse of the Soviet Union it is a unipolar world and that U.S. imperialism has been on the ascendant. Do you see a qualitative difference, of late, in the nature of that imperialism, the nature of U.S. exceptionalism as it has been demonstrated? How do you see the medium- and long-term future?
Tariq Ali: I think we can’t get away from the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of that world, created an opportunity for the United States to assert world mastery. And it has done so effectively. People sometimes imagine that because the U.S. has suffered setbacks here and there, it is on the decline. But I don’t accept that. I think that the U.S. is still in a very strong position ideologically and militarily. It has the power to do more or less what it wants in most parts of the world. It can’t do that with China, because China is its principal economic rival even though it is not a political rival. Even as we speak, the Chinese Vice-Premier is in Washington telling the Americans that their relationship should be like a stable wedding. And then he actually joked and said, but not a wedding like that between Rupert Murdoch and Wendy [laughs]. So I don’t think the Chinese have any plans to challenge the U.S. on any level, unless their interests are very directly involved, in which case they’ll obviously defend them. So I think American hegemony is pretty well established. You have pinpricks in the Arab world, and then you have a sort of more organised resistance from South America, from the Bolivarian republics. But, by and large, there is no real challenge to the U.S. and I think all the theories of U.S. declinism, starting from before the Cold War—Paul Kennedy’s book and then subsequently more radical books that have been written by Giovanni Arrighi, Vijay Prashad, Radhika Desai and other good people with whom I normally agree—I think they overplay this card of the Americans being in irreversible decline. I don’t believe it and I think it is foolish to believe it because if you think that the decline is automatic and irreversible, it makes you passive. One might just wait for it to happen.
But what about Chalmers Johnson and his blowback theory? You have yourself highlighted this, if I am not mistaken, in your Clash of Fundamentalisms…
Yes, Chalmers was absolutely right about that. That there would be some response. But the response has been very inchoate. It’s not a serious challenge. And I’ve always argued that 9/11, of course, was an amazing spectacle in the Debordian sense—you know, it was the world of the spectacle—but in very concrete terms, what did it do? Of course, the tragic death of several hundred people in the twin towers. But effectively it gave the U.S. the pretext to invade Iraq, to occupy Afghanistan. So if you draw up a balance sheet, it actually strengthened the Americans. It hasn’t weakened them, and terrorist attacks of this sort generally do have that kind of impact. They are not affected by it.
So the fact of the American empire being overextended, as you pointed out, and therefore the longer it keeps it up the stronger the retribution, is not a likely scenario in the foreseeable future?
No. And I think that the retribution that we talked about was small groups of angry, bitter people who want to have their revenge. And the only way they can do it is by making themselves suicide bombers or by carrying out acts of terror. The American empire, like all empires, can outlast that. You know that India has not been particularly challenged by acts of terror that have been carried out in this country. They don’t make any huge difference. They just strengthen the repressive apparatus of the state
WORLD CAPITALISM’S DEPENDENCE ON THE U.S.
This strident imperialism is accompanied, paradoxically, by a crisis in capitalism. And also, one would think, in more recent times, a kind of contradiction and tension within the capitalist fold itself, in the U.S. and Europe. Do you see that in any way affecting the nature of American imperialism?
Well, I think the fact that the U.S. is the only dominant power in the world today, the only imperial power, means that there is no such thing as inter-imperialist contradictions. Because there aren’t other imperialists. The European states, I have referred to increasingly as vassal states or tributary states. In that you can put Japan as well. So the major economic bloc, or one of the major economic blocs, the European Union, works under the influence of the U.S. They can’t do without it. America has played a huge role in reviving European capitalism historically, and there’s absolutely no indication that any of the European countries are in a situation to challenge the U.S. even if they wanted to. They are completely dependent on the U.S. ideologically and militarily, and they work very closely with it economically. Japan likewise. So that takes out a huge chunk of world capitalism.
The only country they don’t control, of course, is China. And this is not unimportant. China, from that point of view, is the only seriously sovereign independent state in the world. There are a few others, but, by and large, China is the country which the U.S. doesn’t control, though the interdependence between the two has to be noted. I mean, if the Americans decided to go for economic isolationism, the Chinese economy would suffer drastically, though the Chinese are now saying that they are not as dependent on the U.S. as they were 10 years ago. They have expanded to other continents. They have very good trade relations with South America, with Africa; they are trading with India and expanding their economic interests in parts of Asia. In Japan they are not allowed to do it because of the Americans. So they are much more confident than they used to be. There are contradictions, obviously; at some stage the Chinese economic interests will clash with U.S. economic interests. But these will, I think, be sorted out at the negotiating table. No one is going to make war.
CHINA: MIMICKING AMERICA
And that clash, again, doesn’t have the nature of an ideological tension because, as some say, China has gone down the capitalist path the whole hog. Or, is there still an element of an ideological divide there?
I don’t think there are any signs of an ideological divide. If you talk to Chinese intellectuals close to the state as it exists at the moment, they just want to be like America. They mimic America and the West quite blindly. I was reading, not so long ago, about these new towns that they are building—they had built a small town where the houses were built like Swiss chalets, and no one was buying them, and they are surprised! I mean, why would the Chinese want to live in Swiss chalet-like houses when their own traditional architecture is pretty good? So this mimicry has gone pretty far and, ideologically, you have worshippers of Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek who are very close to the state and the needs of that regime. So I do not see any ideological challenge. The only ideology they can come up with now is Chinese nationalism.
And then they do silly things like they did when the Nobel committee gave the Peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, who was, in my opinion, a rogue on the American payroll, who had publicly stated that it would be better if China had been occupied by imperialism…. I mean a sort of deeply unpleasant figure made into a human rights martyr by the Chinese arresting him. When they wanted to react to the Peace prize, the only thing they could think of was launching the Confucius Prize, which made absolutely no sense and people the whole world over laughed at them. They run away from the idea of having a prize named after some more modern Chinese scholar like Lu Xun, for instance. And when you think back on the history of that country, within the Chinese communist leadership and the party, attacking Confucius was part and parcel of your everyday education as party cadre, because all the backward traditions of China like fatalism, not resisting, and so on, were ascribed to Confucius. And now Confucius is the only Chinese they can think of! It shows actually a total vacuum of ideology, and the only way they can even think of filling it is with nationalism. There are many disturbing signs in China. There are people within the Chinese leadership who, at least in private, talk about the Kuomintang regime and Chiang Kai-shek quite favourably. I mean, this guy was a total butcher and a murderer, but that is linked to their nationalism.
SHIA-SUNNI DIVIDE SAPPING ARAB UNITY
Do you see pan-Arab nationalism as a countervailing force, or the Bolivarian nationalism you mentioned earlier as another oppositional force, and what are the prospects of these consolidating into a viable front against the U.S.?
My opinion is that we need to build regional blocs so that the world’s only empire, when it is dealing with a country, is not dealing with that country alone, but is dealing with a bloc of countries. As you know, even the bloc can be expanded when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asked France, Austria, Portugal and Italy to stop Eva Morales’ plane and these countries capitulated, the whole of Latin America protested, not just the Bolivarians. They said this was intolerable behaviour. So there is a sense of pride. I think the Bolivarian model is a good model both for South Asia and the Arab world, but there are no signs of that happening. In the Arab world today, the big success of the American empire and its allies has been to create, or, if not create, certainly exacerbate, a Sunni-Shia divide. And this divide actually has sapped Arab unity. It’s a similar divide that, you know, was created in India before the British left, or even while they were here, constantly playing minority religions against majority religions and vice versa and pushing in that direction for a long time. And the Americans, by destroying the Iraqi state completely and handing over power to the Shia clerical parties, then made it into a Sunni-Shia question, whereas if they had kept the old state you might not have had that. So all early attempts by Shia radicals and people of Sunni origin in the first year of the occupation to fight together were very brutally broken up by squads, created with the help of the U.S., “disappearing” Sunnis off the streets, making it seem as if it had been done by the Shia; a lot of black operations went on, you know, real operations of cleansing sections of Baghdad, the ethnic cleansing, which made people think ‘Oh, we are under threat from the Shia’ or ‘we are under threat from the Sunni’, not that ‘we are occupied by the American empire’. This has been a huge problem which is now expanding to the region as a whole and has to be counted as an American success.
PROTESTS WITHOUT A COUNTERVAILING STRUCTURE
When we speak about West Asia, there is a sense of the Arab street—the politics of language may also be at work here. Is there anything approximating to that happening in Europe or the U.S.? Would you say the Occupy Wall Street and similar movements are equivalent expressions of the popular mood against the U.S. state?
The Occupy movement in the U.S. was essentially a cry of despair from young people saying “enough”. But they couldn’t go beyond that. They devised some clever slogans: the 99 per cent versus the 1 per cent. But of that 99 per cent, how many turned up? Hardly any. So the Occupy movement in the U.S.—maybe in some parts it was better than others—was effectively a symbolic movement. It was a fight between symbols. The Occupy movement had better slogans, but by and large the state could end the occupation of the Zuccotti Park in New York very easily, without any broad layers of the population coming out in support. These occupations which make a virtue of being leaderless… that may or may not be a virtue. But what certainly is the case is that they are also clueless on political levels. This is so not just in the U.S. This applies to one of the largest movements we have seen in Europe, which is the Indignados in Spain, which was again about occupying big squares.
The situation is very different in Greece and is becoming different in Turkey now. Turkey is quite an interesting case where debates are taking place on what their demands are going to be, and they did come up with demands. So that’s a step forward. And then, of course, within the Arab world you have continued turmoil, both in Syria and now in Egypt, where the military has taken over. The question to be posed to the Egyptians is this. Their courage is not in doubt—but the question I posed to the young people marching in Egypt just now in a short piece I’ve written is the following: You demonstrated, protested all over the country. The result? The military took away Mubarak. You came out in even greater numbers because you were disappointed with Morsy who you had elected yourselves because he let you down on virtually every front, and your protest and your resolve were so strong that the military took him out. What if the military now behaves in exactly the same way as Mubarak and Morsy? Who is going to remove the military? You see, without a countervailing structure, a political movement, a political party, or whatever else they want to call it—committees for the revolution, I don’t care—but unless they create that, it will end very badly. So this is very tricky, in my opinion. They have the right to do it, but it is a very dangerous thing in this day and age—we are not now talking about the 1950s—in the 21st century, when you have to depend on the military to achieve your demands!
RESISTANCE IN THE AGE OF INFORMATION
There is the dominant, all-too-obvious fact of the military-industrial complex using military intervention to achieve goals by the U.S. At the same time, you also find the instrumentality of the media very strongly present today. There are those who have suggested that we have actually gone through a paradigmatic shift from the idea of the Industrial Revolution to the information revolution and that the premises of the two are totally different. And phenomena like Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and the WikiLeaks before that, and the role played by the big companies like Google—the Siren Servers as someone called them—seem to be dictating public opinion, setting the public agenda, in a far more crucial manner than before. Do you think we are therefore into a post-ideological, technology-driven or technology-mediated world where the rules of the game have changed, and our concepts of resistance must also therefore change?
I think this is partially true. There’s no doubt about that. There’s been a huge shift and the technological revolution which Capitalism has carried through—largely, it has to be said, American capital on the west coast; the creation of Silicon Valleys, their being mimicked in countries like India, and to a lesser extent in Brazil and China —has transformed the parameters of how we operate. Because speed has become a key phenomenon; we have to do everything quickly. This is certainly influencing politics as well; virtually all the politicians now tweet and have Facebook accounts. But, deeper down, what is it going to change in terms of transforming society? It will be used, obviously, as a mechanism to inform, to advise, to mobilise. But beyond that you will still need structures, real structures, not virtual structures, in order to bring about change. I mean, this does make it easy to mobilise, but with the surveillance now carried out by Western intelligence agencies and their native counterparts, young people have to be aware that everything they do in times of crisis will be monitored. Their cell phones will be monitored, their e-mails will be monitored, they will be picked up and locked up. So it’s not a protection necessarily. And who knows, Sashi. At a time it might be necessary not to use these modern links, but go back to more traditional ways of informing: word of mouth, leaflets, coded messages. This might be necessary to avoid the surveillance of the state. Of course, not everyone is a Snowden or an Assange who knows encryption and how to keep safe with that. I don’t think there is any method which is completely impenetrable. If there is, it is a very small number of people who know it.
On the other hand, these same instruments have enabled mobilisation as we have seen in the Arab Spring. There is also a sense of a de-massification of the political process. For instance, there are those who think that in the future we may not be going to the polls, to the polling booths to vote, as we do now. You may be doing it virtually, voting online.
That’s very dangerous. I know people are talking about that. The possibilities for large-scale chicanery are there. I am strongly in favour of very modern methods, but people have to go and vote themselves. I mean, otherwise this will then become a total gimmick. States themselves then are capable of multiplying the figures to show that our population is active, but in a different way. And how many people in India are illiterate, leave alone having computers or cell phones, and that is the case in many other parts of the world. So I think this change is important, but one shouldn’t overestimate it. When it comes down to it, it’s a way of intercommunications, and communicating. And that people have done since time immemorial as best as they can. Now we have the most advanced way, but it doesn’t invalidate the need for politics and political organisations. The media of course is a different thing. You asked about that, and, as we know, the corporate media now sees its function as being a pillar of the state and helping that state. That’s its main objective—acting as propagandists for its economic policies and its wars. And the bulk of the world media does that. There are no major exceptions here.
AN AMERICAN GENERAL IN AL JAZEERA OFFICE
We have had some reason for hope about the media because there were indications of a global media not of a Western origin or make emerging—there was Al Jazeera, about which you have written optimistically or hopefully; there is Telesur in Latin America. However, we find that with time some of this hope seems to be souring. Now the real hand behind Al Jazeera seems to be emerging, and its own motives and vested interests seem to be surfacing, sometimes in terms of promoting the interests of one Arab country vis-à-vis another. We saw that happening adversely in the coverage of Libya, and now you see that in Syria. It seems to boil down to who pays the piper calling the tune.
Yes, I think the Al Jazeera example is a very interesting one, because during the first year of its presence the government did not intervene. The only thing made clear to the people there was, we don’t want you to mention Qatar or its internal politics, which was hardly a problem. Their coverage of the rest of the world, the rest of the Arab world, was pretty objective and made them indispensable. They transformed the viewing habits of the region and it really did enhance consciousness, though some people were critical of them from the beginning, saying it would end badly. But I don’t agree. I think the first phase was very important. And then there was the role they played in the Iraq war, when they had 20 different crew all over Iraq with the best reporting of the war on the Arab language Al Jazeera. When I asked the station chief at the time, Wadah Khanfar, who was subsequently removed, whether there was any censorship, he said, “No, not from our government, but once, the peons came running and said ‘Sir, the Americans are entering the compound’.” Then an American General in a command car followed by jeeps entered, walked into his office, pointed his finger at him, and said, ‘The story with which you have been leading your news bulletins since this morning, Why?’ Al Jazeera crew had captured an American military unit targeting a car and destroying it and in the car was a couple in the front and two children at the back. So he said, ‘We haven’t manufactured this incident, General. It’s your soldiers who carried it out.’ And the General said to him, ‘Maybe they thought they were terrorists. How come you didn’t explore that?’ Then Khanfar said, ‘We will happily get you to answer that if you want, but this was captured, and it’s a very important story and we are going to carry on showing it.’ He then asked the American General, ‘Why did you kill our chief reporter in Baghdad when we gave you all his coordinates and said that’s where we are. You targeted and killed him.’ So, the Americans watched it very closely, put pressure on the Emir of Qatar to sell it, privatise it. They had found Israeli and Saudi buyers. But he didn’t do that and in fact Hugo Chavez told me that he was in Qatar at an oil conference and the Emir had told him this and he told him, ‘Don’t sell it, for God’s sake. It’s the best thing your country is producing.’ So that phase was fine.
But once Qatar decided after the fall of Mubarak to get heavily involved and to replace Egypt and other fantasies, then Al Jazeera became completely instrumentalised; and an instrument of Qatar state policy, which was to back the Muslim brotherhood and the Sunni rebellions against these countries and effectively become a tool for U.S. wars in the region, and its viewing has dropped right down in the Arab world.
Soon after I first saw Al Jazeera and went there to be interviewed, I went to Venezuela in 2003 and there was a big conference. And at this conference, at which Chavez and other regional leaders were sitting, I said, ‘Look, we need a counter media. Why not create a cable station which serves the needs of the continent as a whole?’ I said it might be quite funny to call it Al Bolivar. And so they laughed and joked, but then Chavez called me and said, ‘Actually this is a very good idea, but we can’t call it Al Bolivar because Brazil then feels excluded; we all know Bolivar but he had no impact there, it’s a Portuguese business. So, we will think of a name but this is great.’ And then I became one of the founder-directors, you know, a nominal position, of the board and we used to meet once a year to discuss how it was going, and so on. And I remember going there when the channel was launched, and there was excitement. They could have been better I think. One thing Chavez said to me. He said, ‘We cannot do what Al Jazeera does. Of course, we cover stories, but I am reluctant just to become a megaphone attacking other South American governments, because our aim is to unite, whereas Al Jazeera shoots from the hip sometimes. And there is no Arab unity whereas here we want to create South American unity.’ And I think they have been partially successful. The station is still not as good as it should be. But it’s a start.
I suppose Chavez in Venezuela must have been even more sensitive to this because they had a coup there which was literally propelled by the private television media.
The private television networks, and one in particular, instigated the coup and were involved in its planning. There is this really wonderful documentary, “The Revolution will not be televised”, made by an Irish team which happened to be there, which tells the story very well. The role of the private media in Venezuela has been despicable, and you know, not just on this level of organising coups, which is a very serious matter. And yet, none of them was taken off the air when the coup failed. That’s interesting too. They were exposed, attacked and allowed to carry on, which is very generous, I think, of the regime. In any other country, the reaction would have been very different.
The other thing private television in Venezuela used to do was that their comic programmes showed the Chavistas and Chavez himself as monkeys—they are shown as a sort of uncivilised, uncouth, because the Venezuelan elite, with a slightly lighter skin than most of the population, have a very deep awareness of this colour difference. So Chavez was seen as a Zambo, a mixture of native, of indigenous and slave blood. So they wrote him off. Never trust a Zambo, they said. So this went very deep.
NO COMMUNIST ENEMY, NO DEMOCRACY
In the new moral universe, if I might call it that, the liberal democratic values that had a particular meaning until now seem to be acquiring new connotations. For instance, the concept of the freedom of the press—the perception of the First Amendment in the U.S., and of press freedoms in Britain too—or the concept of the rule of law…. While these are vaunted principles that are showcased and celebrated, they, at the same time, acquire a sinister note when they are stood on their head and used for very different ends. Can you, if you agree with this perception, address this subversion of liberal democratic norms.
Yes, in my opinion these liberal principles were at their peak during the Cold War, and the aim was very clear: to show the world, to show their own citizens and to show the citizens of countries like the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe that this was the difference between them. We have freedom and democracy and a free press, and you are oppressed. And it worked. I mean, it was true, it couldn’t be denied that the system of the monopoly of information held by the single-party state was a disaster story. So this was partially successful in that regard. But once the Cold War ended and there was no communist enemy left in the world, they didn’t need to prove anything to anyone; so they reverted to form. They did what they used to do and they more or less, in the bulk of cases, eliminated debate. You very rarely see a serious discussion on BBC television or CNN or most of the channels. There are a few programmes, you know, one or two programmes in the U.S. and none in Britain that I can see and the same in France and Germany now. Very little serious debate takes place challenging the fundamentals of the new order. So, the use of 9/11 both to invade other countries and also to curtail the rights of their own citizens by creating an atmosphere of fear has been successful. I mean, there’s no habeas corpus in Britain today. Anyone can be arrested under the Terrorism Act. The same in the U.S.
So we are entering a new phase. The German magazine Der Spiegel described Obama’s regime as an example of ‘soft totalitarianism’. I think that is accurate and I think what we are witnessing increasingly is the hollowing out of democracy and of the effective establishment of dictatorships of capital, keeping the party system and elections in force, but with more and more of these things losing meaning. So people feel that if party A is defeated which is centre-left and party B is elected which is centre-right, it is really not going to make much difference to their lives, because these parties all behave in the same way. This is now a universal phenomena and there has been very little challenge to these measures in terms of mass demonstrations, mass appeals. A minority, of course, is resisting, but by and large the political parties and the media networks that support them have accepted all this and even promoted it as necessary to live in the modern world. So I think democracy itself is on the wane.
If I might apply liberal democratic principles and the aspirational values accompanying them to the Arab Spring in West Asia, it would seem that the people out on the streets are fighting for precisely these liberal democratic values. But then what happens in the interim or intervening period is that the organised political parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, come to power through elections, and then that’s not acceptable. Is there a danger of this craving for liberal democracy making this a mock revolution, or a mock upsurge?
It wasn’t just that they were arguing for—they were arguing for a democratic constitution which is, you know, perfectly justified, and they were asking for liberal democratic norms to be established in Egypt, but they were also asking for social justice, and an end to the neoliberal system, and many of them were demanding opening up the border with Gaza, breaking its isolation and, if necessary, reneging on the Israel-Egypt pact. The last is the big concern of the U.S., and the Muslim Brotherhood had agreed that they were not going to tamper with that; they carried on just like before. This is what these young people are demanding. And in these last set of demonstrations which toppled Morsy, they had pictures of the U.S. Ambassador marked out with a cross, pictures of the U.S. Ambassador with Morsy, for the first time taking the struggle a bit forward.
Then of course, they are realising who is going to do this, as I said before. It’s the army. That is a huge problem and this will come to a head again when the army carries on in the same way, or people close to it. You know, it’s always very dangerous to depend on the military institution to basically run your politics. I remember in Pakistan, when we had the first military dictatorship in October 1958, we were so stunned. But life went on as before until we realised there were so many restrictions. There was a poetrymushaira in Lahore and we were young university students, and some of the poets were in prison and the ones who were not in prison came to speak, and one of them, a Punjab poet—a very famous Ustad Daman—started singing about bird song. And we said, ‘screw the bird song, look, the country is under dictatorship’, and he glared at us. And then we said—this was all in Punjabi—‘say something at least, something’. And immediately a spontaneous verse came to him, which was ‘Hunh ho gayan maujan i maujan, Jidr tako Faujan i Faujan’, which I translated as, ‘Now each day is sweet and balmy, wherever you look, the army’. And the whole place erupted! And that night he was taken off to prison for two weeks. And when he came out, he came to our table in the cafeteria and said, ‘Now you so-and-sos, the next time you tell me to say something, you say it’ [laughs]. So, you know, any of us who have had experience of military rule will turn our backs on it. In the Arab world it’s absolutely true that the army, because of the way recruitment was opened up after the British or even in their last days, many radical middle-class people joined the armies. So, in Egypt and Iraq you had revolutionary cells inside the armies and they took power—the Nasserites in Egypt and Abdul Karim Qasim in Iraq. But that was a completely different phase, both domestically for them and globally. In this day and age, the Egyptian army is a huge machine kept going by American money, with its own property and industrial outfits. It’s not going to fulfil any of the demands which the young people want. So the question will arise who will they support in the next campaign? The Brotherhood will be there unless it’s foolish to boycott the elections; the regime, the old regime, will have its candidates. Who is going to represent these people who have actually toppled two governments? That’s the question.
IMPERIAL PETROL STATIONS IN THE GULF
We have seen much of the Arab Spring take place in countries where Baathist, socialist regimes, often led or enabled by putsches by the army, were in power. We have not seen it extend, although there have been periodic upsurges in Bahrain which have been suppressed, to the Sheikhdoms in the Gulf where, one would imagine, the need for change is even more acute. What do you attribute this to?
I think of the peninsular states, the only real countries are Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The little Sheikhdoms which have sprung up are basically imperial petrol stations created by the British empire and carried on by the U.S. and given lot of weapons, but ultimately protected by imperial powers. The Americans will stop any attempts to topple these regimes. You know, their largest military base is in Qatar—Al Udeid. So they have direct imperial protection. Saudi Arabia is a different case. Here too, they have military protection from the American empire, but being a proper country, they have a huge native population. But they have never allowed their army to consist exclusively of Saudis, because they were very scared that there might be a coup. So they used to have mercenary armies consisting of Pakistanis; I don’t know whether Indians were involved. The Saudis were very very nervous in the early days, especially after the triumph of Nasser and Arab nationalism. They are still like that, but given that the Saudis want the Sunni-Shia war, the oil areas in Saudi Arabia are largely populated by Shias. The Wahabis are a minority. So, if they are going in this direction they might provoke an uprising in their own country and that the Americans will move in to stop, like they did in Bahrain.
Or is it that their welfarist policies have worked? People get money even if they don’t work, they have handsome doles and the average citizen is not inconvenienced. There is no poverty as we know it elsewhere.
No, no, no, at that level any citizen of Saudi Arabia gets free medicine and all that, but there is repression—religious repression, political repression…. Money can’t buy everything. The fact that you had upsurges even in this huge royal establishment occasionally is an indication that they are not happy. I remember, Sashi, a very senior Saudi woman in London, whose father worked for the Saudi state for many years loyally, saying to me that when she rang her home on 9/11—this is real elite society—and wanted to speak to her sister and discuss the fact that most of the guys who had done the business in America were Saudis. And she said that before she could speak to her sister, she got the niece. And she said, ‘Where’s your mother?’ And she said, ‘Aunt, you are ringing me on this auspicious day and you want to speak to my mother? Not a word to me? Not a word of congratulations as to what our mujahideen have done to this empire?’ So this fact that they are servile to the U.S. also creates this ambiguity. They hate themselves for being so and the CIA were shattered by the tapes of their surveillance of the Saudi Arabian princes ringing each other up and roaring with laughter saying, ‘They think they are wonderful, see what this Osama has done’; because they all knew him, of course. So that shook the Americans and the only time you saw concerted criticism of the Saudis in the American press was in the weeks following 9/11. Then slowly things returned to normal.
THE BETRAYAL OF PALESTINE
This brings me to the issue of terrorism—its real and imaginary aspects. But before that, in the whole new West Asian ferment, has the Palestinian struggle been marginalised?
One has to face facts. I think the Palestinian national movement has suffered a huge defeat. This defeat has been brought on it not just by the Israelis, but by its own leaders. When Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, he was signing the death warrant of Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian sovereignty, and Hamas has not been able to break from this position at all. One thing that might irritate the Israelis and the Americans is that they were hoping that with Morsy in power, he would police Hamas for them, and there were signs that this was beginning to happen. Now, you know, it’s a new ball game again.
But, to return to the Palestinians, the late Edward Said described the signing of the Oslo Accords as the Palestinian equivalent of the Treaty of Versailles. And he was absolutely right. I defended him completely. He was attacked viciously by the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] leadership. One of Yasser Arafat’s advisers, Nabeel Shaath, when asked to comment on Edward Said’s attack describing this as total sell-out, said, ‘Well, Edward Said has his own opinions, but Yasser Arafat is not going to write an essay now in literary criticism.’ But Edward was proved totally right. The Israelis used the accords to crush the life out of the PLO. The European Union and the Americans helped—the European Union by providing the PLO with money so that the level of corruption inside the PLO high command reached heights that would even shame India and Pakistan, where we know that this goes on endlessly. And they were not ashamed. I have a Palestinian poet, a good comrade and friend, who said that he was shocked when he went back to Ramallah after the accords to find people he had known and grown up with within the Palestinian leadership busy building houses. Most of the money they got they stored away or used to build huge mansions for themselves so that the average Palestinian was left with very little. So they gained nothing, and now there is no chance whatsoever of any serious independent Palestinian entity in the region. That is gone. All they would get are the equivalents of, you know like the Portuguese had Goa, little Goas in different parts supervised by the Israelis and it is better not to have that. And I have been arguing now for years that there is no hope of an independent, sovereign Palestinian state and that what the PLO or Hamas should do, or if not them, the Palestinian from below, is to say publicly to the world: ‘We have no state, there is no Palestinian authority. The only authority is the so-called Israeli Defence Force. So we are dissolving the Palestinian Authority and we are citizens of this part of the world, of Ramallah, of Gaza, of Nablus, East Jerusalem. Do with us what you will.’ And also say that they are quite prepared to be part of a single state, an Israeli-Palestine state which has equal rights for everyone, and not an apartheid system. I can’t see any other alternative. Anything else will be just miserable.
I think it’s very sad that they’ve suffered this defeat, but here we have their own leadership to blame. We can’t just blame the Americans and the Israelis; obviously they do what they do, but that they always did. It’s the sort of suicide of the Palestinian leadership that has led to this impasse.
Post-Arafat, or even when Arafat was alive?
Very much when Arafat was alive. Yes. It didn’t happen after his death. After his death it became very open. And he still had something to him. But, of course, he signed the accords.
CHAVEZ’S DEATH, A CONSPIRACY?
This may be a good point to look at some of the conspiracy theories that have done the rounds. One, on the death of Arafat, and the call for exhuming his body for a post-mortem to find out whether he was poisoned. Two, on Chavez, we have been getting snippets of information that he also might have been poisoned. Would you have any information on the inside track you would like to share on either of these?
Well, in the case of Arafat, I don’t know. I can’t see any reason why the Israelis would want to poison him. You know, he was not well, and he was doing what they were asking him to do; not doing it as shamelessly as his successors, but doing it nonetheless. So why bother to kill him? I am not convinced by that.
In the case of Chavez, the honest truth is that we don’t know. There is absolutely no doubt that Chavez himself thought that he had been infected with this particularly fast, wild form of cancer while having sexual intercourse with an American. I mean, Chavez was not married and he did sleep with women. And before he died he said to people close to him he was always uneasy about her. Now, we still don’t know whether that’s true or not, or whether it is technically possible to infect someone with this particular form of cancer. I did ask a senior Western doctor who is not the least bit involved in politics whether technically it was possible.
And she said that, technically, these days more or less anything was possible, but that she would have to know more about the details. But Chavez felt that because there was no genetic trace of cancer, neither side of his family had ever had it, and this suddenly hitting him and then the speed with which it travelled… but, you know, that can happen. So the honest answer is I don’t know. I am not in a position to say, but certainly within the Venezuelan leadership people believed that this happened. It wouldn’t surprise me. Let me say that, Sashi. But we have no evidence.
HOLLYWOOD AND ALTERNATIVE CINEMA
Moving on to the other arm of imperialism, which is the cultural hegemonic aspect, Hollywood, for instance, also seems to be working in tandem with the designs of the U.S. state. This has become peculiarly acute of late with Hollywood literally road-rollering the other film industries in the world. How do you see the future cultural milieu?
I think American soft power is the strongest it’s ever been; that the emergence of the U.S. as the world’s only global imperial power, the victory and triumph has led people who shouldn’t identify with it to say, “OK, the game is up, let’s just do what they want.” I mean, you’ve had a complete self-destruction of the cinema industry in Europe. The French government still subsidises its films, thank God. But what the French film industry produces is largely rubbish. Mimicking Hollywood effectively—that is what they are doing on every level: smultzy films, crime thrillers, action movies. Some French actors have emerged as international celebrities in this sort of action movie milieu.
Apart from Hollywood movies dubbed into French or German which you get on televisions in hotel rooms in Europe…
Exactly. Most French cinemas are showing Hollywood films. The same is true in Germany and Italy. So, all these countries which had a strong tradition of independent film-making , whether it was social realism in Italy, whether it was the new wave in France, whether it was the neo-expressionism of Fassbinder and people in Germany… that has gone. So, cinema as offering independent voices and engaging at a slightly different level than the popular cinema doesn’t exist in many parts of the world. The British have no film industry of their own, they’re just a branch of Hollywood.
In India, tragically, we notice the same thing. Here we, of course, have Bollywood which too is now moving in the direction of Hollywood, going by what you were saying the other day [Tariq Ali is referring here to a roundtable discussion with a group at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai] the old Bollywood dramas at least used to be dramas about social tensions in India, however badly they were portrayed, and some of the songs were quite moving. That’s all gone now, and it’s the sort of films that are really being made for a narrow section of the population, still escapist as ever, but this escapism is now far removed from the lives of ordinary people; because ordinary people here could sympathise with a poor girl, a peasant girl falling in love with a rich guy or vice versa. That was the kind of dream some of them had. But now what is being portrayed on the screens is way beyond that, and I think we really need to recover a serious film industry in a country as large as India. Small, low-budget but important films can and should be made and among the countries that have resisted this and produced real, what we used to call auteur, cinema is Iran. There is a wave of films, some good, some not so good, but there is now a very serious body of work. The nice thing about Iranian cinema is that quite a few of these directors used to work in tandem, like Jafar Panahi’s film Crimson Blood for which the script was written by Kiarostami. They were both going on a motor bike and saw this poor guy holding up a rich jeweller in a posh part of Tehran and police cars and they stopped and asked what was going on. Then they heard the story and Kiarostami did the script and Panahi did the movie. Wonderful, film-makers collaborating like that. It does take you back to the early days of filmmaking in the Soviet Union which also produced very fine cinema.
Paradoxically, though, some of these Iranian film-makers who are trailblazers need the U.S. to come to their rescue and champion their cause because Iran deals harshly with them, keeping them under house arrest.
I know, this is a tragedy, but it’s interesting that these films are all being produced by film-makers who grew up under the clerical state. It’s almost as if having this kind of a state forces you to think in ways which you wouldn’t if there were total and complete freedom. It’s like that great East European cinema of the 1950s and 60s produced by state-subsidised industries. Here, the state subsidises filmmakers. I met an Iranian documentary film-maker whose father was a very poor muezzin in a mosque, one of nine children, and he just started following film-makers around, learnt the art like that and started making his own documentaries. And one of the documentaries he ended up making was interviewing two or three prostitutes in Tehran with their faces covered over a year and then editing it into a film, and some of it is very funny because the prostitutes reveal that business is especially brisk immediately after religious events or religious festivals and how they hate it when a young mullah with a—how did she describe it?—with a 10-pound beard falls on top of you and stuff. So, quite a hilarious film and very brave of these women to talk. So, underneath the clerical regime there is a lot of buzz, and the film-makers have benefited from it.
And then Taiwanese cinema has produced some masterpieces;, the Chinese too have produced some good films —I mean, not those sort of mad fantasy things like leaping dragons and whatever; but there have been good cinema in Taiwan, in Thailand, on the so-called margins of the film world which dominates the world. And side by side with that, Sashi, Hollywood itself in the age of Obama has become propagandistic, producing stuff like these appalling films made by Bigelow.
The local people don’t exist at all in the first film, The Hurt Locker, and in the second film (Zero Dark Thirty) it is just open propaganda for the capture of Osama bin Laden, you know, made with the help of the Pentagon. How else could they have made all this rubbish? So, whereas during the Bush years, when George Clooney and others made the odd Syriana, or take Good Night, and Good Luck, just making you think a bit—What’s going on? What are the questions being posed?— But under Obama, all these film-makers, with the exception of Oliver Stone, Soderbergh and one or two others, have just fallen into line. It’s very sad to see, but this is probably going to get worse now, because it will make it difficult to be critical when you have another President.
AMBASSADORS’ OFFICES ON SALE
The true colours—and no pun intended—of Obama being exposed is another striking thing, isn’t it? The fact that many liberal figures in the U.S. are reluctant to speak out against him because they think that, normatively, emotionally, they should be seen as supporting him vis-à-vis Bush, whereas he could be a shade worse on some matters…
On some issues he’s much worse than Bush, yes.
The latest we’ve just heard is that all it takes to be a U.S. Ambassador is to have donated something like $1.7 million to Obama.
Exactly. And you know 1.7 million is not such a huge sum of money these days. As you say, it’s…
Crony capitalism and it is the sale of offices. If you donate, you can have an Embassy. But what is funny is that this is the way the U.S. treats the world. I mean, this joker they’ve appointed to the British Embassy, you just have to look at him and you’ll burst out laughing… this is the U.S. Ambassador. Obviously what this means is that work will be done by the First Secretaries and the people underneath. The State Department civil service will do all the work. But if I were in the State Department I’d be really angered, you know, for professional diplomats to be faced with these clowns all the time. They are a joke, but this is what they feel they can create. Who cares? If someone wants to be an Ambassador to Belgium or Austria or France and live in a big house, give it to him, what difference does it make?
BEHIND THE RHETORIC OF TERRORISM
So you have so many such things in your face and against democratic principles. Why is it that the citizenry at large within the U.S.—outside they can’t help it—seems to go along or, by and large, be indifferent to this? An obvious reason is that there is this whole alibi of terrorism, that terrorism is round the corner, and so people say, “Yes this is bad, but that is worse and therefore we have to accommodate to abridged freedoms these days.” What is the reality of the terrorist rhetoric and what is the hype? Where would you draw the line?
Well, look, just before we come to the question of terrorism there was a lot of protest against George W. Bush, both on the Iraq war and afterwards, both in Europe and in the U.S. In Obama, the American empire found its most inventive apparition. He is perfect for them, in terms of who he is, what he does, how he operates—absolutely perfect for them. When I wrote The Obama Syndrome, a lot of liberals in the U.S. including friends got angry, and said that I had gone too far, but every single thing I wrote has come true, and worse. So, it’s not that Americans are incapable of protesting. They prefer to protest against Bush and when American liberals found that their own man was not much better, they just retreated, not able to do anything or say anything, and retired into a sort of apathy, making bad excuses for this guy. So he’s actually helped to drown dissent in his own country for which the people in the ruling class would be very grateful to him forever.
Now to come to the question of terror, when we discuss terror today and link it to Islam, then that enables you to effectively tarnish a whole religion. I mean, there have been Christian terrorists or Catholic terrorists in Ireland. No one ever denounced them for being Catholics or being Christians. So that’s the dangerous side of this, which has created a wave of Islamophobia and given regimes excuses to just carry out massive repression in the name of fighting terror, like the Indians do in Kashmir nonstop, and other governments in other parts of the world. So the use of this word has now become open season, you know, it’s open season on the Muslims.
But you’re not extending this to the clash of civilisations concept…
No, not at all. No. No. I’m completely opposed to that. But, in terms of terror itself, you saw the birth of terrorism in the 19th century by anarchists, who were very successful—that is, from their point of it; I don’t support this myself. They targeted kings and queens and presidents all over Europe and there was a sort of incipient hysteria at that time. Then you had actual terrorist groups during the fight against imperialism in India. You had terrorists in Bengal, terrorists in Punjab, and they said they were terrorists, they defended terror as a tactic. It has existed through recent history of the last few centuries. So, why does it break out again in the 20th century and the 21st century is what Chalmers Johnson, the American political scientist whom you mentioned, explained: that this was the beginning of blowback, that we’ve gone around and done this to their world and some of them are now… Chalmers actually predicted that a group of terrorists would probably attack the U.S. It was inevitable, he said, because of what they were doing and when no other power can act. There was no terrorism of this sort during the Cold War. It’s worth thinking about that. When the Americans were fought, they were fought where they were. Even when they did a horrific thing like back the massacre of a million communists in Indonesia, no Indonesian communist living in exile thought ‘I’ll go and throw a few bombs in the U.S.’. This is an ultramodern phenomenon which is the result of America’s own wars in that region. All these terror groups which are now wandering around the Arab world or Pakistan were American allies in the battle against the Soviet Union, and people forget that too easily. Now they feel betrayed by the power they backed. And so they go and carry out these meaningless actions. Of course, 9/11 was sensational. There’s been nothing like that ever again, even just talking about these terror groups. These two brothers in Boston was a sad case of two kids just completely gone wrong, but they can’t blame that on anyone else and they’re American citizens anyway. So nothing like 9/11 has happened again, though there have been odd instances in London and Madrid and these two countries have tried to jump on the 9/11 bandwagon, calling this their 7/7 or whatever, but it’s not worked. The attack on the empire was the big event. And that has never been repeated, and I think it’s unlikely it will be. So it was a bit of a one-off.
FREEDOM FIGHTERS OR TRAITORS?
If we might now just look closely at this phenomenon of Snowden who has taken the world by storm in spite of the Obama administration, and before that the Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks phenomena… In the absence of mass movements, is this the way the opposition to the empire is likely to happen in the future—this kind of technologically leveraged action?
Well, without a mass movement nothing real can happen. But the fact that these individuals working in these places and having access to secret documents get angered by what they are watching or witnessing or doing, that they finally break, this is a long tradition in American history now—it certainly spans the 20th century.
In spite of a Whistleblowers Protection Act in place…
Yes, completely useless, completely useless. And they are describing him as a traitor, not a whistle-blower. But who has he betrayed really? He’s effectively made information available to the American public. So I think this will go on. They can’t stop it, because they are so dependent now on modern information technology and they need new young people. And if they had vetted Snowden what would they have found? Nothing. A guy who had fought for them, who has been badly hurt in a war, so what else could they find? So it’s foolish to think, as some do, that we are not having careful vetting. These people change, consciousness changes. And this has what has happened to Snowden. I have described him as a freedom fighter. These are the genuine freedom fighters working inside countries which proclaim freedom to be their goal and then punish people who actually show the population what has been done. You are being spied on. And I think the last opinion poll showed that the majority of Americans supported what Snowden had done. So the campaign against him is being increased all the time. But I think it will happen like that, you know. There will be others who will come, and even if they capture Snowden and punish him as they are doing to Bradley Manning, it won’t help them at all. People will still carry on doing this as long as these appalling things are being done. We will see how he will get now from Moscow to Venezuela or Bolivia. Both the countries have offered him asylum. The air in Bolivia, in La Paz, is very thin. So I would advise Caracas myself… [laughs].
A related aspect is the very spurious role of the big digital corporations like Google or Yahoo or Microsoft who have made their metadata available to the U.S. National Security Agency and the secret service establishment, betraying, in the process, the fiduciary trust of the people when they place their information online. This also runs up against the idea of finance capital having autonomy of movement, transcending, or irrespective of, the state… I think that lie was also nailed…
Yes, it’s total and complete nonsense. And this incident and others before it proves this. The minute the state demands it, these companies cave in. That is the way they have operated. Yahoo is now saying that we tried to resist and said we are not going to do it, but they did it. They all did it. And the lesson should be very clear to everyone from all this—don’t put on the computer anything you don’t want read. Soon after the Iraq war broke out, I was going on a train journey to speak at some meeting in Britain and a very senior person at that time in the New Labour whom I knew was sitting next to me and she was sympathetic enough and she was chatting to me and she said, “By the way I don’t need to tell someone like you, I assume you know, that all your mail accounts will be read. I said best of luck to that, what else can I say? There’s nothing I write that I don’t say in public. She said, well, “you’re lucky, but there are others….” It’s horrible this happens, but I’m saying I don’t care, and if they read my private letters to close friends, so what? Let them. I have no particular problems with that. But it is horrible and she said it’s utterly awful, despicable what they’re doing. So we know they have been doing it.
There is a long tradition of this in the U.S. During the Vietnam War, the Quantel programme of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) infiltrated groups and put spies in them and carried out a calculated, planned destruction of the best people inside the Black Panther Party. Literally. Brutal police executions. So, one shouldn’t be surprised. This is the logical outgrowth of all that. Some American Senators have been angry. But by and large Democrats have been defending it. Dianne Feinstein, one of Obama’s favourites who sits on all these committees, has defended it.
PAKISTAN AND INDIA
Finally, coming to the South Asian subcontinent, with the change in the political leadership in Pakistan and Musharraf under house arrest, what do you see happening to Musharraf? Secondly, how do you see India-Pakistan relations proceeding from here?
As far as Musharraf is concerned, he did a very foolish thing, to put it mildly, when he decided to imprison the Chief Justice, and effectively suspended his functioning. And they say that this was a breach of the Constitution, which it was.
They have just put the death penalty back on the statute book. Do you think this is aimed at Musharraf?
I hope not, but, you know, it could be. It would be totally absurd to hang him. I know that there are some people who say the military hanged Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. So the fact that civil society hangs a General is not such a bad thing. But I think these crude acts of revenge don’t really help anyone. If Musharraf is to be tried, he should be given a fair trial and sentenced according to what he did as Chief Martial Law Administrator of the country.
He is being charged with treason.
Yes, he is being charged with treason. Whether the military will allow him to be hanged is also a different matter. But I think he will now face a trial and that’s as it should be. He was very foolish to go back. The military told him not to go back. Pakistani politicians said ‘don’t come back’. These people, once they’ve been in power, are surrounded by sycophants who say, ‘No Sir, why don’t you go? Millions will greet you.’ And they fall into the trap. Here you have a bad example of Facebook, on which he had tens of thousands of followers who said we are waiting for you and they didn’t show up. The new government is a government not really new, we know most of them from when they were last in power. It’s a different gang, also very engaged in making money. For me, the only interesting thing is whether they will abandon making money for themselves and rule on behalf of their class as a whole, or just carry on making money for themselves. That could be an interesting difference with Zardari. They are privately saying to people that we’ve learnt the lessons, we’ve made mistakes, and we want to rationalise and modernise the country. We will see what happens.
On relations with India, Nawaz Sharif’s position always has been, to be fair to him, that trade relations should be really increased, opened up, that we don’t need a state of war, that we should try and institute free travel between the countries. I think he will probably try that again because he is effectively a businessman. He sees that business links between India and Pakistan will benefit both countries, Pakistan probably more, and that we should open the gates.
In fact, when he built Lahore airport which now has eight planes landing at this huge big airport, a very nice airport, his hope was that a lot of people from Amritsar and East Punjab would come and travel from there. So he is in favour of that. But whether he will find an Indian counterpart who favours it, I mean, he was very friendly with Vajpayee. And, in fact, Vajpayee could move in that direction because he didn’t need to be defensive at all. No one could accuse him of being soft on Muslims, whereas the Congress will be very defensive, and their coalition. But that would be a start. What the military in Pakistan will say is another question. But they are busy now, they have their own problems. And Nawaz has been elected with sizeable vote. So I think he could push that through. And once they have their own President in power in September and then are running the country, my own feeling is that is the way in which he will move, and that would be positive.
Thank you very much.