CULTURE

Sept. 11 and what it sowed

The war in Iraq is over, but obsession with America lingers on. In a sense, this is inevitable. America is the elephant on the sofa and the rest feel like squashable midgets. As for the Left, the issue has become a near-existential one. «Tell me your America and I will tell you where you stand,» Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian a year after the US terrorist attacks. To be sure, belonging to the «America-had-it-coming» school is often seen as an essential part of what it means to be a leftist these days. Tariq Ali is no exception. Hence, no one in a Greek audience seemed to be taken aback on Monday when the Pakistani-born, Oxford-based journalist, novelist, and political activist flung most of his verbal vitriol at the United States. «The US used 9/11 openly and shamelessly,» Ali said, adding that the Iraq campaign is only the first chapter of an audacious imperial agenda that the Bush administration has set itself in the wake of the terrorist blitz. (In his book, Ali takes this to extremes, describing the attacks as «a gift from heaven for the administration.») The Iraq war was about many things and not just about oil, Ali told the audience. It was primarily about «projecting America’s imperial power.» Like the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he explained, «the Iraq war was a way of saying ‘This is what we can do,’ or even that ‘We can do something even if the whole world is against us.’» The occasion was the presentation of the Greek translation of Ali’s latest book «The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity.» The event was organized by Agra publishers at the Stoa tou Vivliou in downtown Athens. The book reinforces Ali’s status as an outspoken critic of fundamentalism. Empires in history, he said Monday, all share a fundamentalist trait as they believe that «anything we do that is in our interest is justified morally and politically.» In that sense, Western fundamentalism is no better than the Islamic one. To be sure, the editor of the New Left Review drew a distinction between the «official America» of CNN and FOX TV and the «unofficial» one – the scores of people who took to the streets to protest the belligerence of their government. This was the second time that the author had visited Greece. Ali, who was ejected from his homeland in the late 1960s because of his opposition to the dictatorship, first came here three days before the 1967 coup to attend a major peace rally. On Monday his words flowed easily, and were as easily digested by a clearly devout and receptive audience, making his task look more like a preaching-to-the-converted act. The US administration did not get all of Ali’s wrath. France and Germany, the once-vociferous critics of the US plans, got their share too. «The minute the bombs started to hit Baghdad,» both states caved in. French President Jacques Chirac opened up France’s air space for US military planes and wished «swift success» to coalition troops, while Germany’s Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer hoped for the «rapid collapse» of Iraqi resistance. Satellite states «Why bother to protest the war in the first place?» asked Ali. «The time to oppose a war is when the war starts,» he said, adding that he was unhappy to see the major Western European states imitate the jailhouse habits of the formerly captive eastern ones. «At least these are used to a satellite role,» he scoffed, noting that the disappearance of Europe’s oppositional role has disillusioned the younger generations who are demonstrating en masse against US militarism. Asked about the effectiveness of America’s Mideast intervention, the author asserted that far from eradicating terrorism, America’s arm-twisting provides an ideal recruitment base for extremist groups. Draining the swamps that nurture terrorism can only be achieved by eliminating «the causes of discontent,» said Ali, who has described the visible violence of September 11 as a systemic response to the invisible violence on states such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya – much of which he sees as emanating from the US and Russia. As he writes in «The Clash of Fundamentalisms,» no tragedy ever takes place in a vacuum. Rather, each «is conditioned by its setting, local and global.» This, he made clear, does not mean that terrorism is morally or politically justified, but that one can understand why some people are desperate enough to resort to it. Asked by Kathimerini English Edition whether the West should be promoting democracy in the Middle East, Ali seemed to have little praise in store for Western-style liberal democracy. Instead, he found fresh grist to attack the «Americanization of world politics.» «Democracy in the West is the weakest since the 1930s,» he said, and, observing that capitalism has undermined accountability and democracy in the West, he raised the question: «Would you really like to impose this on Arab states?» Dismissing the possibility that some may, in fact, prefer an imperfect democracy to all non-democratic alternatives, Ali went on to argue that democracy in an oil-rich state is a dangerous option for the US as the people of that state might well elect a Muslim party. «And how would the US respond to that?» he asked. «Perhaps, with another regime change?» «If the US controls the oil supply, then it does not mind who is in charge,» the eloquent speaker explained before he hammered at Washington’s double standards by saying that it has done nothing to promote democracy in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Concluding his criticism of Western intervention, the author said that «attempts to impose a system from the outside will never work… You have to allow people to deal with their own dictators.» Having ruled out outside interference, one would have expected the author to offer some more prescription or guidance than a vague «the best educator is one’s own experience» axiom. There wasn’t any. Critics or, worse, victims of thuggish regimes will find little comfort in the book itself: «Sooner or later, the ring of corrupt and brutal tyrannies around Iraq will be broken. If there is one area where the cliche that classical revolutions are a thing of the past is likely to be proved wrong, it is the Arab world. The day the Mubarak, Hashemite, Assad, Saud and other dynasties are swept away by popular wrath, American – and Israeli – arrogance in the region will be over.»