Fettered Histories, Tariq Ali’s Clash of Fundamentalisms


Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia
by Ahmed Rashid; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

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

We might say that the problem began when oil gushed from beneath the desert floor to build, what Saudi Arabia’s most distinguished, but exiled, novelist Abdelrahman Munif called the “cities of salt”. Or, we might say that it began when President Dwight Eisenhower and the Saudi monarch signed a treaty in January 1957 that made the peninsula’s defence a part of the national security interest of the United States. Whatever the origin of the crisis in what is so cavalierly called the Middle East, or West Asia, the role of Saudi Arabia as a central actor in it is hard to deny. The Eisenhower Doctrine acknowledges that the Saudis constitute a fundamental pillar of U.S. imperialism; Osama bin Laden’s dissident activity across the world since 1990-91 is related to the rule of the Saudi family over the sacred sites of Islam; furthermore, the growth of militant, Wahhabite Islam across the oil lands and elsewhere is a result of the Saudi attempt to export its form of social conservatism to decimate Nasserite (or radical nationalist) and Communist opposition. The “tolerance of Arabia” is a vital part of our current malady.

When Gamel Abdul Nasser’s Free Officers took power in Egypt in 1952, they sent a message across the oil lands that “Arab Oil is for the Arab People”, or as the Communist opposition put it without ethnic chauvinism, oil should be used in the people’s interest. This could not be allowed, neither by the current rulers of the oil nor by their imperial overlords. Before the British Empire withdrew from active duty in West Asia, it erected a series of monarchies created from loyal Saudi nobles – such as the Ibn Saud clan (at the time only Sultan of the Nejd) to the helm of Saudi Arabia (1915), and then the sons of the Hashimite Emir Hussein, keeper of the holy sites in Arabia, to the thrones of Jordan (Abdullah, in 1921) and Iraq (Faisal, in 1921), not to mention the cultivation of friendship with the Pehlavi family in Iran (Colonel Reza Khan of the Persian Cossack Brigade created the Pehlavi dynasty after a 1925 coup). These petro-Sheikhs, keen to continue in power, sold their secular legitimacy to imperialism as long as their thrones remained inviolate. This oily alliance cultivated and financed militant right-wing Islamic currents to undercut radical nationalism and Communism from Egypt to Iran and beyond. The first major test of this strategy came during the Central Intelligence Agency-Pehlavi overthrow of the left-leaning Iranian leader Mossadeq (1953): it worked, and it continued to work in Afghanistan (1979 onwards) and elsewhere.

So our current predicament, after the suicide attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 (or 9/11), is one that is forged by the alliance of U.S. imperialism, the petro-Sheikhs and the virulent currents of militant Islam. This troika brings untold grief to the world’s people, and it promises, in its so-called clash against one another, to undermine the importance of a genuine people’s struggle against the cannibalisation of the world in the interest of capital.

DRIVEN by the desire to publish topical books, publishers offer a slew of texts on 9/11 and its aftermath. Writers who cover the general area have produced some wonderful accounts of this history and its current shape, and of these writers two Pakistani nationals are especially notable: Ahmed Rashid and Tariq Ali. Between 9/11 and the start of the Fifth Afghan War (October 7, 2001), Rashid’s Taliban: Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000) topped The New York Times bestsellers list. The most accessible study of the former rulers of Afghanistan, Rashid’s book allowed many people within the U.S. to understand those who would soon become their foe. In many ways, Rashid’s new book, Jihad, continues the work.

Going north from Afghanistan, Rashid takes us along the retreat routes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda – to meet the militant Islamic organisations of Central Asia, from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to the Tajikistan-based Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). Most people know little of this region, a zone of lore and legend, but since 1991 it has become a hive of disputation between the mullahs and the nomenklatura, between different social theories for rule and rebellion. This conflict speaks to the question of Asian instability, and Rashid is right to encourage us to know about the present history of the region rather than go misty-eyed about the Silk Road.

From Tariq Ali, meanwhile, comes an extraordinary book, perhaps his best. The Clash of Fundamentalisms contains a sweeping secular history of Islam, a witty biography of Ali and his important family, and an astute analysis of the political destiny of a region that stretches from the Arab lands to South Asia. This is the book that would have been written by that other great Pakistani thinker, Eqbal Ahmad, had he not died just a few years ago. From Ali, we get a sense of the mutual constitution of terror by the unholy troika of U.S. imperialism, the oligarchies of oil and the jihadi dissidents.

Tariq Ali’s book begins with a memorable line (“I never really believed in God”) and then launches into a careful discussion of his relationship with Islam. Although his parents rejected God for the Revolution, he did grow up in a milieu where Islam played an important role. Born just before the Partition of the subcontinent, Ali lived in a country designed to be for Muslims and so even his atheistic bend could not avoid the world of Islam.

But, as he notes, it was not until the Gulf war (what he calls the Third Oil War, although this neglects the so-called Drug Wars in South America that are also about oil) that he took an interest in Islam. Frustrated with the deep hold the confessional elites held over Muslims, Ali asked himself a question that frames his approach to faith in his book: “Why had Islam not undergone a Reformation?” (page 23). His studies show us that for the first 700 years of its existence, Islam was a vibrant tradition – with a “distinctly Jacobin feel” in its early years (p. 24), Islam “prospered through contact with other traditions” (p. 38). The contact came not only from Judaism and Christianity, but also from the work of philosophers from the old schools of Alexandria, from Neoplatonists (especially into Sufism), from an elaboration of the work of the ancient Greeks, and all this from the complex social world of Arab Spain and Arab Sicily.

We get a wonderful overview of the world of the Persian scholar Ibn Sina, of the Cordoban philosopher Ibn Rusd, of the Arab psychologist Ibn Sirin – the book is worth it just for these cameos. We might add to this list, the vibrant contact between Islam and the philosophical traditions of the subcontinent, notably found in the enlightened text of Akbar’s reign, Ain-i-Akbari (1596).

That Ali does not directly answer the question he sets for himself may appear as a weakness of the first part of the book. I, however, tend to think that the answer is this: that Islam did have a reformation in spaces such as Cordoba, but the vicissitudes of history (namely, the Reconquista or the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from Muslim control by the newly united Spanish Catholic principalities of Aragon and Castile) weakened the progressive side of Islam and strengthened its conservatives (to be represented by Wahhabism 300 years later).

Part 2 of Ali’s book (“One Hundred Years of Servitude”) provides the key to the growth of militant Islam, and thereby the loss of the progressive dynamic within the tradition. In the 18th century, Ibn Saud of Nejd and Ibn Wahhab signed a mithaq, a binding agreement to eternity to harvest Ibn Wahhab’s spiritual fervour in the service of Ibn Saud’s political ambition. “Thus was laid the basis for a political and confessional intimacy that would shape the politics of the peninsula. This combination of religious fanaticism, military ruthlessness, political villainy and the press-ganging of women to cement alliances was the foundation stone of the dynasty that rules Saudi Arabia today” (p. 75).

Drawing from the novelist Munif and the poet Qabbani, Ali offers a panoramic view of the devastation of the last century – from the consolidation of the Saudis (that “kingdom of corruption”) to the wreckage of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The chapters are well-written and analytically sound, but one misses the presence of the troika (imperialism, the petro-Sheikhs, the dissident jihadis). They are of course to be found here and there as actors and not as bearers of the structural devastation of West Asia and north Africa. In the section on Iraq, Ali argues that imperialist action is not antithetical to the “hegemon of Iraq”, or the “sword of Islam” in a pre-1990 poem of a Kuwaiti princess (p. 138), indeed that the punishing bombardment of Iraq “does not reduce but breeds criminality, by those who wield it. The Gulf and Balkan wars are copybook examples of the moral blank cheque of a selective vigilantism” (p. 150), and again, “the combination of anger and despair will lead to more and more young people in the Arab world and elsewhere feeling that the only response to state terror is individual terror” (p. 153). The bulk of the 19 men on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia, armed not only with Wahhabism, but mainly with a deep antipathy to U.S. imperialism (often transferred into hatred for Americans) – since the Saudi regime does not allow any expression of this animosity, the tactical means adopted by these powerless men was to be grotesque.

The last section of the book takes Ali back home to the subcontinent. Here he offers an analysis of the links between Pakistan and the U.S., and their effects on Pakistani society, Afghanistan and on Kashmir. As the Left took Afghanistan (before the Soviet Army intervened), “the Cold War had reached the Pamirs. The temptation to provoke, isolate and defeat Moscow proved too strong. A squalid military dictator [Zia] became the instrument through which this campaign would be conducted. Everything else was subordinated to this single aim. In order to defeat the Soviet Union, two countries – Pakistan and Afghanistan – were totally wrecked. Fundamentalist Islam and heroin production grew apace” (pp. 189-190). The dynamic of Afghan modernity, unleashed by the Daud coup of 1973, and of Pakistani modernity, set in motion by the students’ and workers’ rebellion that overthrew the Ayub dictatorship in 1968, stalled in the interest of U.S. imperialism.

NORTH of the Amu Darya and of the Pamir Mountains, if Tariq Ali followed the footsteps of his fellow Pakistani, Ahmed Rashid, he may have been able to take his analysis further. Central Asia, then part of the Soviet Union, became part of this story once more – the tale of U.S. imperialism, the petro-Sheikhs and the dissident jihadis. Insulated from the world of the Saudis because of its place within the Soviet Union, Central Asia became tied economically and politically to the federation rather than to its neighbours to the south and elsewhere. Ahmed Rashid makes much of the Soviet attack on religion in the region, as well as of Stalin’s attempt to divide the peoples of the region into non-homogenous ethnic republics. Nevertheless, even he admits, “For all the repression they brought, the Soviets also carried out progressive reforms, in the availability of mass education and health care, the growth of industry, the development of mechanised methods of farming and irrigation, and the creation of a communications infrastructure that was fully integrated with Russia” (p. 37). At the Baku Congress in 1920, Comrade Narbutabekov laid out a path for the Communists in Turkestan: “Let me tell you, comrades, our Turkestani masses have to fight on two fronts: against the reactionary mullahs in our midst, and against the narrow nationalist inclinations of the local Europeans. Neither Comrade Zinoviev, nor Comrade Lenin, nor Comrade Trotsky knows the real situation, what has been going on in Turkestan these last three years. We must speak frankly and paint a true picture of the state of affairs in Turkestan.”

Not two decades later Narbutabekov fell victim to the purges, but in his important speech he laid out the potential for Russian chauvinism. Indeed, two years after Baku, Lenin warned: “The ‘freedom to secede from the union’ by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great Russian chauvinist – in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is.” Rashid does not go into these details of the contradictions of Soviet policy, so that it appears as if the problems in Central Asia are now a gift of the Soviet past.

Indeed, one of Rashid’s central points is that the suppression of Islam and the state control of the economy produces militant Islamist movements such as the three that he studies: the IMU, the IRP and the Hizb ut-Tahir (HT). Sharif Himmatzoda, a former IRP military commander during the IRP-led war against the state from 1992 to 1999 and now member of the ruling government, told Rashid: “The peace process in Tajikistan can be a model for Central Asia if all parties are willing to build peace just as we were. But governments in the region have to change their attitudes towards Islamic movements to give them a legal, constitutional way to express themselves and play a role in state building. If they don’t do so, people will join the extremists” (p. 109).

Drawing for this sort of political assessment, Rashid argues: “The rise of the IMU, the most powerful Islamic militant group operating in Central Asia today which carries out yearly incursions in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and elsewhere in the Ferghana Valley, can be directly linked to [Uzbekistan’s President Islam] Karimov’s refusal to allow Muslims to practise their religion and his extreme attitude to all religious expression or political dissent” (p. 85).

Certainly religious intolerance provides extremists with fodder, but Rashid does not analyse adequately the different valence between the right to worship and the entry of religious parties into state governance. If we set aside the challenge to secularism such a policy might entail, the three jihadi groups analysed in the book fail to offer anything constructive. “The new jihadi groups have no economic manifesto, no plan for better governance and the building of political institutions, and no blueprint for creating democratic participation in the decision-making process in their future Islamic states” (p. 3), and further, “[The HT] address international problems of the Islamic world such as the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the so-called ‘Zionist conspiracy against Islam’ rather than the concerns of the people of Central Asia: rising prices, unemployment, and the lack of educational facilities” (p. 123). From the world of “traditional Islam” we get no sense of a political agenda either, and the only examples we have are from those such as Himmatzoda who was once a jihadi himself. There is, therefore, no reason for the regimes to vouchsafe permission for religious groups to enter the world of governance. That they must allow freedom of expression is, of course, a necessity.

If the jihadis do not pay too much heed to the concrete problems of Central Asia, they do, as Ahmed Rashid documents, promote the Wahhabite agenda of Saudi jihadis. Indeed, diasporic Palestinians founded HT in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 1953 to promote an Islamic renaissance akin to that of Wahhabism. While the two streams worked together for decades, they separated on tactical questions: while the Wahhabites call for guerilla warfare, the HT is committed to peaceful transformation (p. 118). Even in Central Asia, where HT has many adherents, they are unable to keep track with their two other Islamic rivals, the IRP (once a guerilla force) and the Wahhabite IMU. Tohir Yuldeshev, the leader of the IMU, conducted campaigns against Uzbekistan from guerilla war-torn Tajikistan, then (after the accords in that country), moved to Afghanistan, and finally into the shadows of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Saudi, Iranian and Turkish money poured into the IMU via the ISI as young IMU fighters trained at the madrassas in northern Pakistan. “Yuldeshev began to receive large donations from this Saudi-Uzbek trade and business community through an influential businessman who had close contacts to some of the Saudi princes, including the head of Saudi intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal” (p. 141). Juma Namangani, the military head of the IMU, “had money from the Saudis” (p. 142), and, Rashid alleges, may have received clandestine assistance from a Russian government eager to foment troubles in Central Asia so as to assert its role as the protector (p. 178).

FOR Rashid, the solution to the malady in Central Asia is threefold: more democracy in the republics, with an accommodation for moderate Islamic parties; intervention by the U.S. and the United Nations to create some form of stability; finally, International Monetary Fund-World Bank loans and programmes to facilitate social development. It would take too much space to go into the intricacies of each country, so let me just take Uzbekistan as an example to show the limitations of Rashid’s framework. Without doubt, Islam Karimov has devastated the opposition and erected what amounts to a one-party state (although he has not elevated himself to an icon like President Niyazov of Turkmenistan). In April 2001, as in 1995, the IMF did close its office in Tashkent, but not on account of the human rights situation. As Rashid notes, the agency left “harshly criticising the regime’s lack of reforms” (p. 81). What Rashid does not report is that even as Uzbekistan’s population is in distress (with 80 per cent unemployment in the Ferghana Valley), a small cottage industry among IMF economists studies the “Uzbek Growth Puzzle” (a good summary can be found in Jeromin Zetterlmeyer’s essay in the September-December 1999 issue of the IMF Staff Papers). Strong state control by Karimov has ensured growth, even as this has failed to provide equity for the population. IMF representative Christoph Rosenberg said, in April, that his agency departed because Uzbekistan’s “is not a business climate conducive to foreign investment” (p. 179), or, in other words, to the wiles of European and U.S. firms. When the interests of imperialism shifted after 9/11, the IMF and the World Bank returned to the country regardless of whether there was any change in the democratic situation. So the IMF-World Bank are not viable agents of regeneration.

In the case of Uzbekistan, Rashid accepts that the U.S. is not an impartial actor: “The United States, initially a sharp critic of Karimov’s abysmal human-rights record, has all but ignored the issue since 1996 and increased investments in the region owing to concerns about Afghanistan, a desire to isolate Iran, and fears about the growing Russian influence in Central Asia” (p. 82). In 1995, just as the IMF withdrew from Uzbekistan, the US military signed an agreement with the Uzbek military to conduct joint exercises in the Ferghana Valley, a perfect place to have trained for the Fifth Afghan War (Rashid is wrong to say that these exercises only began in 1998, p. 83, because the first round took place in 1996 after the December 13, 1995 treaty), just as Uzbekistan joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s Partnership for Peace. <U.S.-Uzbekistan> trade increased as well, from $50 million in 1996 to $420 million in 1997. After 9/11, on October 5, 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Tashkent and secured permission for U.S. troops to use Uzbek bases; two days later the parties signed a pact that established “a qualitatively new relationship based on a long-term commitment to advance security and regional stability” (p. 184). In other words, U.S. imperialism has, for the first time, a permanent military home and the ability to leverage this military force into political capital in the region. All talk of the Shanghai Five (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, China and Russia) or of other regional approaches to solve problems are now shelved in favour of U.S. intervention as the so-called “mediator”. Furthermore, Rashid’s own account of the “New Great Game” (both in this book and in his earlier Taliban) stress the economic interests of U.S. imperialism, both for the oil reserves and for the natural gas fields (those in Turkmenistan alone are said to be the seventh largest in the world). Interests of this nature colour the intervention of the U.S. government in conflicts in Central Asia.

Rashid’s framework occludes U.S. pressures that exacerbate crises. From him, we are left with the very best of liberalism, with a sense that economic reforms of the IMF variety and democratic reforms of the U.S. brand will undermine the basis of the militant rebels. Rashid’s wonderful material is lessened by a framework that is unable to show us how U.S. imperialism, for instance, is part and parcel of the problem and that its institutions (such as the IMF) will not help solve the Central Asian imbroglio.

If only Tariq Ali had looked over the manuscript of Jihad before it went to press. Here is his assessment of our problem: “[The] abdication of its traditional role by a corrupt and decaying state [he writes of Pakistan, but it could be any of those in the region] combined with the fundamentalist neo-liberal economic prescriptions handed down by the ayatollahs of the IMF and World Bank helped to unlock political Islam” (p. 195).

The IMF, the World Bank and U.S. imperialism are no allies in the war against intolerance. The clash of fundamentalisms tends to deafen the wisdom of people around the world. The task now is to unlock that wisdom and reject both fundamentalisms.

Vijay Prashad is Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Programme, Trinity College, Hartford, United States. This review originally appeared in Frontline, the fortnightly magazine published in India.

Prashad can be reached at: Vijay.Prashad@trincoll.edu


Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).