Fighting Talk

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Review of 'Conversations with Tariq Ali', Tariq Ali and David Barsamian, The New Press £8.99

In a world of war and empire the voice of Tariq Ali could not be more welcome. This volume of interviews, conducted between November 2001 and late 2004, offers a dissection of US imperialism - its history, its strategy, its flunkies - and the resistance it provokes.

Ali manages to be rigorous and hard-hitting while lyrical and often funny, whether he is discussing Pakistan ('the condom the US needed to enter Afghanistan') or Tony Blair (the Pentagon's 'Trojan mule'). He is especially good on the history of Pakistan - the legacy of the British Empire and partition, the history of military dictatorship, and the country's role as a US satellite.

The interviews pick up recurring themes: the ideology of humanitarian intervention; the subservience of the media; and the fostered ignorance of history and the world outside the west. Of US television, Ali says, 'It's as if the only way they can teach geography is by bombing countries. You don't know where Afghanistan is? It's here, look, we're bombing it.'

He comments on everything from the significance of the Russian Revolution to the American fear of an emerging superpower in the Far East. He deals with Afghanistan and the Taliban, takes in Indonesia and the Balkans, and discusses Latin America - the greatest fissure in the White House project. Ali explains how the past destruction of opposition currents in much of the world created 'the monster the US now pretends is a massive enemy'. But he asks, 'How is Al Qaida a big enemy? At most they have 2,000 to maybe 3,000 members.'

He returns again and again to Iraq, Palestine, the world of Islam and the dynamics of resistance - slating the apologists for empire, the 'embedded intellectuals', and their mantra, 'We're different from the Arab world.' Ali suggests, 'If the Middle East were peopled by Buddhists, you would have a massive offensive against Buddhofascism...

'Go into any tea house or café in any Arab capital and you will hear the most vicious and savage criticisms of the Arab regimes. This is a much more politically conscious population than that of the United States... All this talk about taking democracy to the Arab world is such a pile of crap.'

There are digressions on Kipling, Conrad and V S Naipaul, and repeated returns to the poets of Palestine, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Some of the asides are especially pleasurable - on the fondness for bacon of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, or the insecurity of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, 'so popular that he refuses to be guarded by a single Afghan'.

But the overriding theme is this: 'Empires always act in their own interests; they have no other motivation... The notion that empires act out of an enlightened interest in the state of the world has always been nonsense.' This should be required reading for columnists on the Guardian. The conversational style makes the book an easy read, like hearing a succession of Tariq's tirades - lashing out at Israel's attempt to crush the Palestinians and obliterate their past, or lampooning the 'house Arabs' who serve the empire.

Regular readers of this magazine will disagree on one or two points, but it hardly matters here. Ali's conclusion is what counts: 'Occupying empires perpetually provoke resistance, and eventually this resistance has an impact inside the empire itself... The idea that you can have an empire that seeks to dominate the world with no resistance is laughable.' Laugh with him.