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Tariq Ali on Political Activism from Pakistan to Vietnam to Iraq

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A conversation with writer and activist Tariq Ali on more than four decades at the forefront of the antiwar movement. Ali has written more than a dozen books on world history and politics as well as five novels, and scripts for both stage and screen. [includes rush transcript]

We turn to Iraq where back to back suicide car bombings today killed at least 18 people and wounded more than 30 in central Baghdad.

The cars blew up nearly simultaneously amid heavy traffic in a street that passes an interior ministry office. Police said several children are among the dead. The double bombing comes a day after another blast in Baghdad killed five Iraqis and injured Four American contractors.

The latest violence comes just days after the second anniversary of the fall of Baghdad last weekend. To mark the occasion, up to 300,000 Shiite Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad on Saturday calling for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, the release of Iraqis from US-run prisons and for the speedy trial of Saddam Hussein.

This week, with his popularity rating at one of the lowest in his presidency, President Bush defended the invasion of Iraq in an address before thousands of US soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas. He said, “The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad will be recorded, alongside the fall of the Berlin Wall, as one of the great moments in the history of liberty.”

Joining us today to talk about Iraq and much more is novelist, historian and political activist, Tariq Ali.

  • Tariq Ali, novelist, historian and political activist. He has written more than a dozen books on world history and politics, including, “Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq” as well as five novels, and scripts for both stage and screen. He is one of the editors of New Left Review. An updated edition of his memoir, “Street-Fighting Years: An Authobiography of the Sixties,” is being published this month by Verso as well as “A Sultan in Palermo,” the fourth volume of his “Islamic Quintet,” an award-winning collection of historical novels. A new collection of interviews with David Barsamian titled “Speaking of Empire and Resistance” was recently published by The New Press. Website: TariqAli.org

Tariq Ali Profile
Tariq Ali has been a frequent guest on this program for many years, analyzing US foreign policy, the attack against Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and critiquing the so-called war on terror. But Tariq Ali is so much more than an author and analyst–he has spent more than four decades at the forefront in the global antiwar movement.

Tariq Ali was born in Lahore–in British-ruled India which is now a part of Pakistan. He attended Catholic school before going on to study at Punjab University. He was elected President of the Young Students” Union where he organized public demonstrations against Pakistan’s military dictatorship. He was eventually banned from participating in student politics.

His outspoken views were becoming dangerous in Pakistan and he risked imprisonment. After graduating from university, his uncle–then head of Pakistani Military Intelligence–told Tariq’s parents to send him abroad. He traveled to Britian to study politics, philosophy and economics at Exeter College, Oxford.

At Oxford he joined the University Labour Club and was a committed member of its Socialist Group before becoming President of the Oxford Union in 1965.

With the Vietnam war at its height, Tariq Ali earned a national reputation through debates with figures like Henry Kissinger and then-British Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart. He protested against the Vietnam War, led the now-infamous march on the American Embassy in London in 1968, and edited the revolutionary paper Black Dwarf, where he became friends with numerous influential figures such as Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

40 years later, Tariq Ali continues his lifelong struggle against US foreign policy across the globe. He has written more than a dozen books on world history and politics as well as five novels, and scripts for both stage and screen. He is one of the editors of New Left Review. An updated edition of his memoir, “Street-Fighting Years,” is being published this month by Verso as well as “A Sultan in Palermo,” the fourth volume of his “Islamic Quintet,” an award-winning collection of historical novels. A new collection of interviews with David Barsamian titled “Speaking of Empire and Resistance” was recently published by The New Press.

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StoryJun 03, 2011Seymour Hersh on the Arab Spring, “Disaster” U.S. Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Looming Crisis in Iraq
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by novelist, historian, political activist, Tariq Ali, one of the editors of the New Left Review. He’s written more than a dozen books on world history and politics, including Bush in Babylon: The Recolonization of Iraq, and now three new books have come out: Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties with a picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the cover, Tariq Ali: Speaking of Empire and Resistance, and his novel, A Sultan in Palermo, all out now this week in this country. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tariq Ali.

TARIQ ALI: Very good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, the latest on Iraq, your reaction, and I want to talk about your history of activism.

TARIQ ALI: Well, the savagery and the chaos in that country shows no sign of abating since the elections. The new president, who has been appointed, Talabani, he may be a Kurd, and he is, he is a Kurdish tribal leader, was on the payroll of the CIA, the Israelis, took money from Saddam Hussein, the Iranians. So, he will be a very willing president for Zalmay Khalilzad to run from the Embassy in Baghdad. And I think what that demonstration stressed a few days ago is that most Iraqis, whatever their ethnic origins, with the possible exception of the Kurds, want the occupying forces out of their country. It’s elementary. And once these forces are withdrawn, then the Iraqi groups will have to sit down and talk to each other, the nonviolent resistance groups and the armed resistance groups, and see how to take the country forward. But as long as the occupation is there, it becomes very difficult for people to even talk to each other seriously about the future of that country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to talk a little bit about the memoir, Street-Fighting Years. Many people are familiar, obviously, in recent years with much of the work that you have been doing in terms of criticizing empire, but the long history that you have had as a political activist is perhaps not known by some of our younger listeners, and if you could talk a little bit about the book and why you decided to write it at this time?

TARIQ ALI: Well, this is a new edition of a book, a lot more material has been added. I published the book and got it out, because precisely lots of young activists today want to know what the past was in relation to me. And so, there’s a lot of material in the book about Bolivia, about being mistaken for Che Guevara’s bodyguard and being arrested for a night and, you know.


TARIQ ALI: In Camiri, where — not far from where Che was captured. We were there in 1967 to observe the trial of Regis Debray, who had been arrested, and I got picked up because I had long moustaches and long hair. They accused me of being a Cuban guerrilla. So I said, “If you torture me the whole night and I can speak Spanish in the morning, I’ll be grateful to you for the rest of my life.” And then there’s a lot about Vietnam, which is the event which really shaped me and moved me. I went to North Vietnam, you know, suffered heavy U.S. bombing, saw what was going on in the country, and then when we came back, Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, and Jean-Paul Sartre, his French colleague, decided to launch an unofficial war crimes tribunal, where we brought evidence from Vietnam at a time when no one was admitting in officialdom that atrocities were taking place. This was prior to the My Lai Massacre and Sey Hersh’s reports. So when we came out with this, it was impossible to find space for the tribunal. And the Swedish prime minister said come and have it in Sweden. So that’s where we did it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, just one second, because we want to actually go back in time to a video clip from decades ago. This is you, Tariq Ali. We go back now to you as a political activist in 1967. Maybe you can set the scene for us. This is from that tribunal that you talk about. It took place in Stockholm, Sweden, where the legendary British pacifist Bertrand Russell had organized representatives from 18 countries to participate in war crimes on Vietnam. Among the dozen judges on the Russell Tribunal, as it would later be called, were the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, leading feminist intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, and distinguished radical historian Isaac Deutscher. Is that how you pronounce it?

TARIQ ALI: Isaac Deutscher.

AMY GOODMAN: Deutscher, Deutscher. Let’s go now to that videotape.

TARIQ ALI: The town was on fire; incendiary bombs had been used. When we walked in, we had to walk, in most cases, over embers which had been lit, and we had to walk fast because our feet, while walking in these embers, were feeling hot. It had been impossible to visualize the agony of those under attack from a cozy office or from a cozy home in Western Europe. One was face-to-face with a situation which the Vietnamese told us has existed ever since the United States first started the bombing. They said, “Tell us, comrade, do you think what the United States is doing to us today, do you think the use of napalm, of phosphorus, of fragmentation bombs, of all of the other insidious devices they have invented, do you think that the United States would use them in Europe today?” And it was extremely difficult to reply in the affirmative.

AMY GOODMAN: A young Tariq Ali, testifying in front of the Russell War Crimes Tribunal in 1967, talking about a village you visited where a U.S. raid destroyed 200 homes.

TARIQ ALI: It doesn’t stop. And what we also talked about at the tribunal were the incredible number of instances of torture used by U.S. troops against the Vietnames, which no one even bothers to deny any longer. So, what happened in Abu Ghraib was not new. It’s just that people have very short memories and forget what happens when a colonial war is being fought.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The tortures and the assassinations in the Phoenix Program, right?

TARIQ ALI: Exactly. Very carefully targeted, orchestrated. I mean, one of the people involved in creating these programs, in locking people up in strategic hamlets, was, of course, Samuel Huntington, then a leading official involved in the Vietnam War. And they were constantly trying to find ways of isolating what they used to call “the people from the armed resistance.” In the end they couldn’t do it. And as we’re seeing in very different circumstances in Iraq, which is not a repeat of Vietnam in that sense, where we — these Iraqis fight under very different conditions and with no international support at all. They’re still finding that the problems remain the same.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if they remain the same, you have been an activist for 40 years from Pakistan to Britain, Vietnam to Iraq, do you give up? Do you give up hope?

TARIQ ALI: One doesn’t give up hope, no. I mean, you know, no one believed — no one imagined that anyone would have the nerve to resist the occupation of Iraq. If you look back at what was being said, if you look at that incredible documentary made about Al Jazeera, The Control Room, when the fall of Baghdad is announced, 99 percent of the Western journalists covering the war rise to their feet and cheer. They didn’t know what was going to happen. And the Iraqis took everyone by surprise, including some of us, who never thought that resistance would develop so quickly. And it exists now on several levels, and it’s pretty ugly at times. There’s no good denying that. But it’s a response to an ugly occupation. And until foreign troops remain there, it is not going to end. So, from that point of view, I think there is hope that the people of that country don’t like being occupied, and whatever their ethnic, whether they’re Shia, Sunni or whatever, they will want a free country without any foreign troops present.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In your travels and speeches to the younger people in this new generation of activists, what is your sense of what is the difference in terms of this movement and this tide of resistance in countries around the world, versus what occurred in the ’60s?

TARIQ ALI: Well, in the '60s, there was a big feeling that we could actually change the world, transform it for the better, whether you were struggling against bureaucratic regimes in Eastern Europe or capitalist regimes in Western Europe or the third world or Bolivia. That was the belief: that if you got off your chair and went and became an activist, you could actually transform and change the world. I think that is more difficult to evoke at the present time, where the victory of capital seems so total, except in Latin America, where if you see what's going on in Venezuela, what’s going on in Bolivia, what’s going on in Ecuador. So I always say to activists who are not Latin Americans, outside Latin America, that is the laboratory. That’s where the key struggles are taking place today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Tariq Ali. Three books out, a very prolific writer: Street-Fighting Years: An Autobiography of the Sixties, Conversations with Tariq Ali: Speaking of Empire and Resistance, and a novel, A Sultan in Palermo. And that does it for today’s show. Special thanks to Anthony Arnove and the young man who came up to you, Tariq, and said that his father had filmed you at that war crimes tribunal some almost 40 years ago. And that’s where we got the film.

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