“Pakistan governments have been incapable of defending their own people” – Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali - Author, socio-political activist

Tariq Ali - Author, socio-political activist

Following is an excerpted interview Citizen Radio had with Tariq Ali, a celebrated intellectual and the man who famously debated Henry Kissinger. A world-renowned socio-political activist, Tariq Ali talked with Citizen Radio on 08 April, 2009.

Tariq Ali spoke about a range of subjects from the definition of Socialism to his discussions with Malcolm X and how he thinks atheists and religious people can work together to make the world a better place.

The following transcripted post is mostly restricted to the interview parts that focused first on his explanation on “socialism” and then on Taliban, Pakistan and its related issues.

Jamie Kilstein: Recently, on FOX News – and actually all news stations – we’ve kind of been hearing Obama denounced as a Socialist. They’ll be like, “No one wants socialized healthcare,” or “socialized banks,” and I think, for the first time, there are some people who are like, “Yeah, we do. We kind of do. That sounds really nice.” But Obama didn’t have anyone who represents single-payer healthcare at his health conference, and the banks are getting our money, and we’re not getting anything in return. So first, I wanted you to give the actual definition of Socialism because I think it’s mischaracterized a lot here, and second, why you think decrying Socialism has been such a successful scare tactic in a country where rich-poor divide is so large.

Tariq Ali: There are many definitions of Socialism. The simplest way to define it, I guess, would be: the ownership of public utilities and things important to the economy and the land by the state in the interests of the common people. I would go beyond that and say where public utilities are owned by the state, my definition of Socialism would also include the people, who work in these utilities, playing a part in determining how they are run, and not allowing the state to nominate bureaucrats to them. That has never really happened anywhere, but given the crisis into which Socialism fell in the ‘90s, I think you need more and more democracy at every level of functioning.

So, the second thing I would say on that is Socialism, and Socialist values, are designed to serve the needs of ordinary people, and not to those whose only interest in running the economy is to make profits. We’re now at a time where everyone is attacking greedy bankers, but – you know – attacking greedy bankers is fine, the problem, however, is systemic. It’s not just the bankers. It’s how these banks are produces. It’s which politicians, and which political parties, gave the green light for these guys to do what they could do without any regulation at all. Socialism would not be in favor of any of that. So this idea that there is somehow a totally free market, in which all the players in this market, start at the same starting point is nonsense. It’s the rich who control it. And Socialism challenges that.

I think the old slogan is not such a bad one if you think about it: To each according to his or her need, from each according to his or her ability. I mean, it’s rather a utopian thing now, but what’s wrong with that?

Kilstein: Right, right. Like, sharing? Making sure we’re all good? Do you think they’re purposefully just not showing that side to it?

Ali: Well, I think the way the media functions increasingly is that it is very rare to find dissenting views regularly on the media if you listen to the network news. I don’t even now talk about FOX, which requires a laboratory of it’s own (laughter) to analyze, but-

Kilkenny: I don’t think people understand the history of Pakistan, or the nature of the relationship between the United States and Pakistan. So if you could talk about that relationship, specifically the late Benazir Bhutto and the current president [Zardari], and also how Zardari is seen from within Pakistan.

Ali: Well, I think people inside the United States should be aware that their country, and its embassy, is a very big player in Pakistani politics. This is a country, which in my opinion, the United States – through misguided policies – has wrecked over the last 60 years. They’ve backed every single military dictatorship. They have prevented the organic development and flow of democracy and democratic values. They did it for one reason during the Cold War period. They’re doing it for another reason now. Very little happens in Pakistan without the approval or green light being given by the United States. That is one thing that should really be understood.

You ask about the current president of Pakistan, Asif Zardari. In my view, the guy’s…I mean, how to describe him? I mean, he’s a dickhead. (laughter) He’s corrupt. He’s heavily into making money. The only reason he’s president is because he was formerly married to Benazir Bhutto. And when she was assassinated, they found a will that she had written, which was disgraceful, really, handing over the party to her son, and saying that until the son comes of age, his father (her husband) will look after the party. I mean, it’s like treating the party as a piece of property.

Kilstein: House sitters do that, yeah.

Ali: Yeah! It’s just crazy. And this is accepted. No one really challenges it. I mean, it’s being challenged now in Pakistan, but it’s accepted, and the United States decided that they were going to work with this Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan, and try and get it to do deals with the army to move them forward. Well, that’s now imploded because having Zardari as president is just crazy, actually. The guy – I mean, you can sort of judge as to what he is – that when he visited the United States, prior to the elections, before the elections took place in the United States, he met Sarah Palin. And he said to her, in public, “You’re absolutely gorgeous.” So, you know, people wondered where this was going to lead to.

And then he met Obama. This was a private meeting. But I have it on very good authority that the three times he addressed Senator Obama (as he was then,) he called him “Senator Osama.” And one of his minders, with Zardari, kept whispering, “It’s not Osama. It’s Obama.” So this is the guy who’s currently the president of Pakistan.

Kilstein: I’m glad Michelle wasn’t in the room.

Ali: He’s wanted for – he’s being charged with – murder. He’s been accused of murdering his brother-in-law, Benazir’s brother, who was killed when she was Prime Minister, and all the circumstantial evidence points in his direction.

He made a fortune when she was Prime Minister last time, and he’s carrying on running the country in exactly the same way. It is sometimes said that the people deserve the government they get, but I promise you that in the case of Pakistan, it isn’t true. The people really deserve something better. This is not what they deserve.

Kilkenny: And as far as the presence of the Taliban, what do you think is a bigger threat: the Taliban or poverty?

Ali: I think poverty is the big threat. I pointed out in my book [The Duel] that the United Nations development figures for Pakistan show that over the last twelve years, 60% of the children born in Pakistan are born severely or moderately stunted because of malnutrition. Now, anyone looking at these figures would be screaming in anguish, saying, “What the hell is going on?” Why is this the case? Do any of the politicians talk about it? No. They really don’t talk about it. Does the United States talk about it? No. They’re worried about the Taliban only because they have occupied Afghanistan. That war is spiraling out of control for them. The spillage from that war is beginning to affect Pakistan.

Kilstein: Right, and you’ve talked about how poverty actually leads to recruitment. Where they will go to these poor people’s doors, and say, “I’ll take your son, and bring him back with an education,” right?

Ali: Yeah. Imagine the United States – let’s say there’s no public education at all—I mean, I know it’s bad in the States (laughter), but it does exist. In Pakistan, there is no public education system worth talking of. So a cleric, a mullah, a priest, comes to the house of a really poor family, looks around, the family’s got five or six kids (three boys, three girls,) whatever. And he says, “Give us a boy.” They rarely take girls. “Give us a boy. We’ll educate him. We’ll clothe him. We’ll feed him. And he’ll return to you a fully formed man.” What they don’t say is, “We’re going to brainwash him. We’re going to…” in some cases, not all cases, “teach him to use weapons.” They don’t say that, and some of course don’t do it. Others do, do it. The family is so relieved that its kid will be fed, clothed, and educated, that they say, “Okay, take our boy.”

Now, the only way to stop this is by creating a strong state, public education system, funded by the state to build five or six large teachers’ training universities in the country, teach people how to be teachers. I’ve been arguing this until I’ve been blue in the face. People just don’t listen. And the notion that the way you deal with the situation is by killing people is crazy. You have to have a long-term alternative.

Kilstein: I was wondering what you thought of the Pakistani government conceding to the Taliban, and letting them carry out Sharia law in the Swat valley. And then before, would you be able to describe the Swat valley because I think a lot of people just kind of assume it’s always been this terrorist cave force – similar to the border of Afghanistan – but it wasn’t that, right?

Ali: No, the Swat valley, I know it well. I’ve been there, stayed there, it’s one of the most beautiful parts in the country. The people who live there are incredibly poor. They are peasants. Some belong to tribal groups. For a long time, it was ruled by a hereditary ruler, who had complete power, when the British ruled that part of the world. Now, it’s more democratic. But the fact is that these armed religious gangs have been allowed – by successive governments in Pakistan – to become too strong. They haven’t been challenged when they should have been. I’m totally opposed to going and bombing people and killing innocents. Don’t get me wrong on that. I’m really opposed to that and it makes me very angry. But Pakistan has had governments which have been incapable of defending their own people, either against armed religious gangs inside the country, or against United States drones and stuff like that. A government in a state that cannot defend its own people is in very serious trouble, and I think they could have handled the situation in Swat very differently. If they had helped people and organized them to defend themselves – the idea that most people want to be ruled by this small group of Taliban in Swat is totally wrong.

Kilstein: There was a huge – there was an exile – or people just fled, right?

Ali: A lot of people fled because they didn’t want to be ruled by these people. It’s a tiny part of the country, but it’s symbolic.

Kilkenny: The excuse for expanding the covert operation within Pakistan now is that we can’t let the Taliban get a nuclear weapon. Do you agree with that?

Ali: No. I think this is one of the stupidest, fear mongering things which is said on western television networks. It goes like this: Pakistan is a nuclear state, it has Jihadi extremists inside that state, and the big threat is a Jihadi finger on the nuclear trigger. And the Israelis, who are a nuclear state themselves, push this line endlessly.

Now, look at the situation. It is true Pakistan is a nuclear state. It is also true that the Pakistani military is half a million strong, that these nuclear facilities are amongst the most heavily guarded facilities in the country, just like they are in the United States, in Israel, in India, in China, in Russia now. So the notion that any armed group of extremists could even get near these facilities is a joke.

But let’s suppose they do. All the nuclear weapons require codes to be fired. These codes are now imbedded in all these weapons. There’s a handful of top military people who know what these codes are. There are also rumors, by the way, that the United States defense intelligence agency has its own personnel in there. This has been denied, but it wouldn’t totally surprise me if it were true.

So there is no problem on that front unless the Pakistani military splits. Were it to split, then all bets are off. And the only reason it would split is if the United States expanded the war into Pakistan, making it extremely difficult for lots of nationalist-minded military officers to go along with this. Because there is that current and they say, “Well, it is our country. Why is the United States using our military bases to bomb our own people?”

What I am saying to you is now news to the administration. There are intelligent people behind Obama, who know all this. And that is why its puzzling as to why they trying to destabilize the country.

Kilstein: Do you think that’s the reason that you wrote – I think you wrote this in the Guardian – after comparing Dick Cheney to Dr. Strangelove, (laughter) you wrote that even he was skeptical about going in. And with Pakistan, it has all of the American trigger words to go in: Middle East, extremists, and so forth. Do you think that’s the reason Cheney, and some of the more hawkish figures didn’t want to go in, that they just knew it wasn’t a threat?

Ali: A) They knew it wasn’t a threat, and B) They knew that it would destabilize that country, and it might spiral out of control. And that’s what would happen if the Pakistani military split, which is why it’s really difficult to fathom what are Obama’s aims in that region. Why is he escalating the war in Afghanistan? What could they possibly get out of it?

If the idea behind it is to have a friendly government in Afghanistan, which would permit the United States to keep military bases there forever, that’s never going to happen. You have the Secretary General of NATO, not a very intelligent guy, called Jaap Scheffer, whose publicly been saying that the reason we’re in Afghanistan is nothing to do with Afghanistan. It’s a country on the border with China, and China is going to be an important rival of the west, and so we have to have military bases there. He actually said it! Assuming that the Chinese are blind, or deaf, or they can’t see what’s going on under their noses. (laughter)

Kilstein: I wanted to ask you an atheism question. When I first lost my faith and started reading up on it, it was actually right around the time (probably because I’m very impressionable) when Dawkins, and Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens really made a move to kind of counter all of the Bush, religious-right extremism. Sam Harris, who’s a New York Times bestseller, and one of the most prominent atheists, one of his main arguments against religion was – he used September 11th as an example – where he said if you look at the hijackers of September 11th, they were middle class, they were well-educated, and the one thing they all had in common was religion. Therefore, it was 100% religion that led to the attacks. It was nothing socio-economic.

Ali: I honestly think that that’s such a load of nonsense. The motives of these bombers were not religious. They were political. They were determined to hit the United States. After all, what were the motives in most of the guys who carried out these hits? They, and their leaders, were fighting with the United States twenty years previously against the Russians in Afghanistan. They weren’t religious motives then. They were political motives. And they were political motives when they decided to hit the United States.

A very intelligent American, Chalmers Johnson, wrote a book called Blowback, published a year before the 9/11 hits in which he pointed out that we’ve been doing such horrible things to the rest of the world, do not be too surprised if one day some of the people we’ve been mistreating come here and have a go. He actually wrote that! And the book was denounced, where it wasn’t even mentioned in reviews: “Oh, here’s another nutty, west coast professor.” Well, this nutty west coast professor isn’t just a professor. He used to be a very senior CIA consultant in the ‘50s. Immediately after 9/11, his book really shot to the bestseller list because they said, “God, this guy knew.” But you know, he’s a bright guy, but it didn’t require too much intelligence to know that if you carry on doing what the U.S. has been doing…I mean, it’s what Martin Luther King said, “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world is my own country.” And he was knocked off soon afterwards, but people know that.

So to come back to your question, the guys who carried out the hits of 9/11, the biggest motive was political. The thing about them, and even that I don’t think is religious, is that they were prepared to sacrifice their own lives to be successful. Now, suicide terrorists, or suicide bombers, in most cases are not religious. The Tamils [Tamil Tigers] in Sri Lanka, who had been fighting against the Sri Lankan government, and whose specialized in suicide attacks, did it for political reasons. The Palestinians do it for political reasons. So to try and say that the reason one is opposed to religion is because religion pushes people into carrying out these attacks, the obvious answer to that this is a tiny, infinitesimal minority within a particular religion, which is stated. They, themselves, say they’ve done it for political reasons. I mean, they use a religious rhetoric, but lots of people do that. Born again groups here do that. But essentially the motivation is political.

There are good reasons to be an atheist, but using 9/11, or similar events, to justify atheism is slightly ridiculous.

Kilstein: Do you think that we should be focusing on 100% denouncing other religions (again, for that balance,) or – Allison and I just went to Riverside Church where we saw Desmond Tutu speak out against the death penalty, and that’s where King also gave his Beyond Vietnam Speech – and it was wonderful. Even in the opening remarks, they said, “We welcome people of all faiths, we’re 100% here to work for social justice.” Do you think there should be more of a teaming up effort between these progressive churches that work for social justice and the secular movement?

Ali: I think there should be. As you probably know, I’ve been an atheist since a very young age, but that never stops me from working with some religious groups who are doing good. Just a few days ago, I was in Long Island, speaking at a Unitarian congregation on Afghanistan, telling them what was going on. I do the same with other groups, including Muslim groups, Jewish groups. We live in a world where people do believe. So simply becoming atheist, or secular fundamentalists, and saying, “Unless you agree with us on God, we’re not going to do anything together,” is slightly crazy. It’s sort of behaving like religious people. I think that’s dangerous.

You talk about Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King. You know, great guys. I can tell you that the guy, who really helped me understand what the United States was, was also a religious guy: Malcolm X. I was very young – 20, 21 – and I was at Oxford, studying, when Malcolm came to give a speech. It was quite funny, after the speech, he got a standing ovation from all of us, and he came and sat next to me, and said, “Was that okay?” and I said, “Was that okay?! (laughter) See what the response is…”

Tariq Ali is the author of the new book, The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power

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