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Friday, 6 June 2014

The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihad and Modernity. By Tariq Ali

The vocabulary of politics has always been rife with buzz words. Vigilante, extremism and other such phenomenons have certainly left an indelible impact on high power politics and inter-state ties, thereby having its underpinnings  on world order. Every religion is inherently rigid in one way or the other; therefore, elements of fundamentalism and obstinacy creep-in somewhere along  the line.  
Islamic Fundamentalism has been a bogey , to say the least. In fact many see extremism and Islam as hand in glove. This is something exacerbated and based on farcical analysis, but this write-up  doesn’t aim at challenging the very assumption. Many scholars have looked at the anatomy and nature of Islamic fundamentalism. The work that this piece looks at is one of Tariq Ali’s famous works “ The Clash of Fundamentalism: Crusades , Jihad and Modernity. Tariq Ali is a renowned scholar with visible leftist leanings. He has written extensively on world history and politics. His leftist proclivities; atheist make-up and the fact that he has been very critical of the West makes this an interesting study.
However, before going into the review itself, it is imperative to briefly tell readers as to what this book is addressing. Firstly, it sheds-light on the evolution of Islam right from its inception till contemporary  times. How fundamentalism took shape? What has been Islam’s take on various aspects, ranging from private affairs to diplomatic gimmicks  . There has been an accentuation on the Middle East. This is because Tariq Ali had to bring everything within the ambit of American and Israeli foreign policy. A closer review will make up the subsequent part of this write-up.
The ill-fated events of September 11,  2001 became the launching pad for the book in a way. Ali , from the very outset positioned himself as one who was critical of the behemoth empire  of the West in particular the United States. The prologue not only gave readers a framework of the book, but also posed pinching questions. Why was the Western centre of gravity attacked by erstwhile sidekicks? Why there was jubilation in many countries when the news of the cataclysmic events reached every nook and corner of the globe? Ali squarely put the mantle of responsibility on capitalism. One should not be surprised, given his leftist tilt, so to speak.  The prologue entailed a bit about his background, especially his averseness to religion right from the start. This gives readers some confidence when he chastises  the West on being stern on Islamists. His criticism is hence free from emotions or closeness with Islam.  In fact, the first chapter is regarding his upbringing; it is aptly titled “Atheist Childhood”. Herein, Ali frankly described his detest for Islam and its incumbent practices.  Ali’s tutor of the Quran and his uncle were compelled to give up on inculcating in him the love lost for Islam. Such is his link with the very religion even to-date.  The author rightly pointed out that many were critical of his family being away from religion. “But these children should be given  a chance… They must be taught their religion.”  This fascination with “must” continues to haunt Islam today. Perhaps this word becomes the launching pad for fundamentalism. Ali ended the chapter by terming the  Gulf War of 1990 as a milestone, for he started to seriously show keenness in studying Islam through various prisms. For the consumption of readers , a succinct survey of this lengthy book is the needful.
Ali’s analysis of the swift rise expansion of  Islam was coherent and well-knit . He started off his description from the 8th year of the Islamic Calendar i.e. AD 629, when Hazrat Muhammad mandated the destruction of a Meccan Goddess . One can debate on many views that Ali proponed during the course of the chapter. Though, we agree that the Prophet had a tactically shrewd mind , but never did he conceal or delay his message for tactical gains. He also did not consider truces with the polytheists as bitter pills.
Thereafter, Ali  lucidly and briefly delved on the rise of Islam across the globe.  He looked at the swiftness by which Islam spread. Ali attributed this to many factors, to include sympathy towards the invaders and battle-field deployments.  The meteoric rise in the imperial stretch of the Muslims was quite assiduously explained by Ali. The frenzy of the Muslim conquerors was very much akin to that of any other imperial power. For avid readers and aspirant critics, his chapter on the response of Chrisitanity to the ever-expanding Islamic jaggernaut , must not be skipped.  Ali rightly pointed out that regional Muslim kingdoms had need-based ties with the non-Islamic world.  Readers would find it easier to grapple with the tug-off war between the Crusades and the Muslim over the city of Jerusalem by reading this chapter, for the account is a short one. Jerusalem remained within the realm of the Muslim until the dawn of the twenteith century. Subsequent events are well-documented. Again, he shifted the discussion back to the sprawling rise of Islam ; this time he looked at the forays of Islam in Asia.
As regards Islam , Ali broached upon the rise of heresy; the bickering  within various sects, most notably the anatomy and rise of the shia strand in Islam. However, the chapter is a  mere narrative of the historical evolution of debates, dissent and heretical elements.  The chapter on women and their untamable desires  is certainly a good inclusion; however, Ali by picking up a few verses shows Islam as a monster for women. This has indeed meant that the exalted status given to women in many respects was deliberately circumvented. However the author can get away with it , for the chapter was on Islam and women’s  sexual proclivities.
The fact that the Saudi Clout has been way too potent or rather a crutch for Western Imperialism, his chapter on the genesis of Wahhabism is a must read. The excursion to glory of the Wahhab-Saud nexus was unbridled; however, they were overhauled by the Ottomans. Ali found another reason to castigate imperialism. He rightly attributed the re-emergence of Wahhabism to the British.  Thereafter,  Ali tried to develop a linkage between elements of international diplomacy and the rise of vigilante. How the dominant Western powerhouses poured-in money which expedited the expansion of monarchy in Arabia. The decade preceding the Second Great War provided a preparatory period for the elongated Cold- War politics and the role of the then newly-freed Islamic states.
Ali, one must admit, took a rigid stance against  capitalist imperialists, especially the United States. He allowed visceral to cloud his analysis. The subsequent, paragraphs will just briefly touch upon a few thoughts of the author on  Middle Eastern politics post World War II; USA’s preponderance and lastly, the case of a nuclearized South Asia.
The rise of Islamic obduracy  in the twentieth century is a direct product of the simmering conflict between Israel and Palestine. This along with other conflicts which have marred stability , were explained just in light of capitalist undercurrents. Zionism was seen as a movement espoused by the strategic interests of the Western imperialists. In other words, the blame for all the wrongdoings in the Middle East to-date was squarely put on the US and its allies. This is where Ali needs to be questioned. Isn’t the international system anarchical by its very nature? Wasn’t the Soviet Union equally interested in creating spheres of influences? Wasn’t the Soviet Union hell-bent upon increasing their cache of ICBMs, SLBMs and other deadly weapons?  It is noteworthy that superpowers are exploitative in nature and they leave no stone unturned to outwit their competitors. If Ali labels the United States as imperialists then certainly  USSR was second to none, but that’s a debate which merits another write-up.
Ali’s analysis on South Asian politics was rather na├»ve. Especially , ascribing the fall of Field Marshal Ayub only to the strength of the student movement is way too simplistic. There were many other factors, which led to his political capitulation, one being the burgeoning crisis in the Eastern wing of the country. Ali, tried to gloss over the fact that USSR  invaded Afghanistan, which pushed Afghanistan into a perpetual quagmire; he was insistent upon blaming the US for de-shaping the erstwhile centre of the Great Game. Ali perhaps could have explained as to why the conflicts between India and Pakistan continued unabated. Certainly, Soviet clout was never used to mediate, barring Tashkent. Russian-made  MiGs kept India steadfast, and who can forget the Soviet’s role in the breakup of Pakistan in 1971. Though, one should agree to most of his assertions about the US, but there are certain analytical exaggerations.  The United States was, during the Cold War era acting in the pure action-reaction syndrome, an important concept of International Relations. However, Ali failed to delve on the diplomatic and military incursions made by the Soviet Union, be it in Vietnam, Korea or the Middle East.
In sum, despite the fact that there are some issues of unwarranted berating, the book provides a very good analysis of Islam, its rise; the induction of fundamentalism and heresy. However, the best part of the book is the focus on various issues of international politics and foreign policy. This shows how Islam and Muslim states have been used as a plank of superpowers’ expansionist  designs. For all those who aim to learn a thing or two about Islam’s socio-political evolution and the role of Muslim States in global politics must read this book. There were other chapters in this book, but in the interest of time were not scanned through in the review. However, that does not mean that those were less important, in fact the analysis on the Iranian Revolution must be carefully studied.