Tariq Ali Interview Transcript: Interview conducted on 1st June 2019.
Vilayat Khan: So, let’s start with Corbyn and the Labour Party. How would you assess Corbyn on Brexit?
Tariq Ali: I think Corbyn’s position is correct. I think to make Brexit into the major divide of the British politics is crazy. Given that whatever finally happens, whether it’s Brexit or Remain, the problems of ordinary people, working people are not going to be solved. Brexit is very much a debate, I think, within the elite, and I think people voted, large numbers of people voted for Brexit to kick the establishment and to say you can’t get away with everything.
No one was expecting it, and it happened. And I think the principal reasons are the austerity measures, a feeling that Europe is interfering too much, and of course the Right wings campaign. It was a right wing campaign but lots of non-right-wing people voted for it.
And ever since it happened a large chunk of the English establishment has been trying to reverse the referendum. So that’s what is going on, and for Corbyn it’s a serious problem because half of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, especially in the north. So he can’t ignore them. The choice, which the right of the Labour party is offering him is to agree to a second referendum now, campaign around it and Remain, and basically ignore the Labour supporters in the north, in other words, send some working class supporters in the arms of the Brexit party. That’s unacceptable.
It’s a very difficult position for him but I think it has been a correct one until now. I support it.
The big question is that the political insurgency of the young that led to Corbyn’s victory twice in the Labour party is something the establishment can’t get over, it’s too much for them to take. Not so much because of domestic policies, because the feeling in the country as a whole is that the railway privatization just hasn’t worked, it was wrong; that the stealth privatisation of the National Health Service is a disaster; that the utilities should be taken back by the state, and used in the interest of the population.
The key thing for the establishment is that Corbyn is anti-war activist – hostile to NATO, hostile to America’s wars, and they can’t accept a prime minister who has these positions. It’s as simple as that. So all sorts of threats have been coming against him, both from right-wing politicians and from the British army. You know, we assume that in countries like Pakistan the army is interfering in politics. Here they don’t do it, usually, openly. But in the case of Corbyn, they did it openly. The Chief of Staff went on Breakfast time television show and said, “If Corbyn becomes prime minister, we can’t rule out mutinies inside the army”.
VK: In terms of the opposition to Corbyn, how do you see the way the media in the UK are presenting Corbyn and the Labour Party?
TA: The media is like in the worst authoritarian countries. The British press, including The Guardian, has been really awful.
And it makes you think, it really does. When I say this, people say that you exaggerate. It is a slight exaggeration of course, but it's like what it must be like for people who live in a one party state. You know they complain about China but the British media is not that much better. I mean, in fact, on some levels the Chinese media has more diversity in what they can see on television.
Here if you look at the mainstream media you know already that you cannot rely on the Daily Mail, Murdoch’s press and the Telegraph (though this is a large bulk of the print media) as well as Sky TV, but if you look at the liberal - or so called liberal- media, you will see that the coverage by the Guardian (which is very important, especially for Labour supporters), and by the BBC ,which is a state network, has been absolutely appalling.
Yesterday the Murdoch paper, The Times, had a report, which was lies from beginning to end, saying Corbyn is looking very frail, hinting that he’s suffering from dementia – just complete and total bullshit, it’s lies.
In today’s Guardian there was an article about MP Chris Williamson who they’ve suspended on stupid grounds because he said “I think we’ve gone too far in accommodating to this anti-Semitism campaign”, which is the view of large numbers of Labour’s Jewish supporters. Big attacks on him all over the media! And he has been suspended again by the Labour party. It’s non-stop, the media campaign against Corbyn.
VK: Do you think it’s had an effect?
TA: I think, undoubtedly, it has had an effect. We can’t exclude that possibility. Whether the effect will be lasting or not, I don’t know because when I think back on it… much of the liberal media was against Brexit, yet people went and voted. The entire liberal and right-wing media was against Corbyn being elected leader of the Labour Party; ran huge campaign against him, he won.
So my feeling is that though it had some effect, the main effect has been to neutralise the big support for Palestine in different parts of Britain. The demonstrations have been, relatively, small in size given the atrocities being carried out by Israel. So it’s had that effect.
I think come a general election when Labour’s manifesto will be qualitatively different from that of the Tories, something which couldn’t be said in Blair or Brown’s time, then you’ll see, you know, public opinion shifting again.
After the European elections, people were saying, “Oh! Labour’s finished because the Brexit party”… you know Labour’s up again, the Brexit party is behind. That was a one off result for the European elections again by people angry that the referendum results had not been pushed through.
The conservatives are going to fight basically a very right-wing campaign against Corbyn, then we will see what these middle of the road right wing Labour MPs do? Are they going to defend their party and their leader against Boris Johnson’s conservatives or not? And a lot depends on what Farage and the Brexit party do. If they put up a hundred candidates and save conservative seats and there is no deal with them by the Tories, I mean Labour will win. I think there’s a very good chance that Labour will be the largest party in the new parliament. So it’s not impossible that Jeremy Corbyn will be in 10 Downing Street, I mean he has spent his entire life with the likes of me and others standing outside Downing Street, (laughter) now he could well go inside, unless they do something drastic to stop that. You know, I don’t even want to think about that.
VK: Yes. I have been seeing you and Corbyn at protest against Imperial wars, for Palestine and other issues since I was a teenager. I think the first one I went to I was 14 and I think Michael Foot was there too and Tony Benn. A Marxist teacher of ours took the whole class there. I don’t know how he got it past the administration. You touched on Palestine. So, again in the context of the UK, and broadly, I think there’s a move to define any critique of Israel these days as an instance of anti-Semitism, can you comment?
TA: Well! I think it's a ploy which the Israeli foreign office and Israeli embassies all over the world work on, especially in the West where there is a guilt complex about what was done during the Judeocide of the Second World War. And so there should be, as appalling atrocities were committed back then, but for heaven's sake, it's not the Palestinians or the Arabs who committed them.
These atrocities were committed by mainstream Western, so called, civilisations, and these acts of barbarism were carried out against the Jewish people of Eastern and to a certain extent Western Europe. If anything, the Palestinians are the indirect victims of that genocide, because they’ve been forced out their homeland, they’ve been forced to give space. They’ve not even been given an equal state with Israel.
And as far as anti-Semitism is concerned, it has always existed in the Christian world. It’s part and parcel of the sort of struggles which went on between these cultures and religions for a very long time. I think we have to differentiate between historic deep-rooted anti-Semitism and the philosophical anti-Semitism that grew up in Europe with and after the big depression and which led to what happened in Germany, Italy etcetera, and led to people backing it. French anti-Semitism, which was very deep-rooted was philosophical. There is casual anti-Semitism today, and very little in my opinion... all the figures show that only a tiny number of people in the Labour party or other parties are anti-Semitic.
The most serious problem is that we have suffered a huge defeat in Palestine and what angers me is the failure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to admit their responsibility for this defeat. They actually collaborated with the Americans and Israelis to inflict this defeat. They had hopes that they would be given a few crumbs. And now with Netanyahu re-elected, Trump and his family in charge of US policy towards Israel they have not even been offered little Bantustans.
The last offer from Trump’s son-in-Law Kushner is insulting. He told them “here have a bit of money and forget about a Palestinian State”. It’s true that’s all they’ve been getting since the Oslo Accords is money and a few projects here and there.
The ordinary Palestinian people have suffered. But now it’s beyond Oslo. There is no chance, I think, of any viable, even a tiny viable Palestinian state coming into existence. And for the PLO leadership not to understand this and declare that there are Palestinian authorities is a fiction. There has never been Palestinian sovereignty. The Israel Defence Force is actually in control, and PLO collaborated with them in locking up Palestinian people while many PLO leaders and deputy leaders in these circles were making a lot of money. That’s the reality of Palestine.
So we shall see. The situation is very depressing which is why solidarity is more needed than ever before. But when you show solidarity you end up being accused of anti-Semitism.
The German government is historically directly responsible for the genocide of the Jews and indirectly for the punishment of the Palestinians. Their saying that the Palestinians have no right to struggle peacefully - which is what they have done by declaring any campaign for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) illegal, is shocking to me. No other European country has quite done that. Though The French are close to doing it.
It amounts to saying to Palestinians that they have been crushed, but won’t be allowed to fight back. If they fight with guns and hand for their liberation they are called terrorists. If they fight as part of the BDS campaign then they are anti-Semites. That is what is going on.
VK: The Palestinian struggle is on the backfoot beacause as you’ve pointed out collaborations going back a few decades, uhh, in a sense the armed struggles in Kurdistan, a lot of people have, I mean, the International Brigade was formed to fight ISIS, but there was also American involvement. So, I mean how do you see that? Do you think it is too early to access it? Do you think that's a victory for socialism?
TA: There is no unified Kurdish struggle. The Kurdish organisations in Turkey and Syria have always been different from the Kurdish organisation in Iraq. Effectively, the Iraqi Kurds have always been led by Tribal leaders. And these tribal leaders opportunistically decided to collaborate with the Americans and the Israelis during the war against Iraq waged by the United States from the first Gulf war onwards. They enjoy semi autonomy but effectively as a sub colony of Israel and the United States. The Turkish Kurds, who were dominated ideologically and politically by Abdullah Öcalan’s party were not on this line for a long time. They were socialists, anti-imperialists, always on the left, progressive. With the formation of the HDP [ Peoples' Democratic Party] leaders have emerged which I would describe as decent, progressive, left leaning liberals. It was good to create this party and try to unite with the Turkish left and Turkish trade unions.
But I remember, soon after the Iraq war erupted, I was in Diyarbakir attending big Kurdish event, and for two hours I argued with them on the Iraq war. They supported it. Most of Turkey didn’t. The Turkish parliament initially, voted against allowing US troops to go through Turkey. But the Kurds in Turkey supported the war.
Why? They said, ‘it’s the enemy of our enemy.” I said, “Your enemy, you said, is the Turkish government they are members of NATO.” They replied, “Oh no no! Forget that”.
But now we’ve seen what has happened in Northern Iraq. So I said, you’d rather then be ruled by the Americans and Israelis than with Turkey in a country where half the population of Istanbul is Kurdish. Its crazy! Absolutely crazy! They said, “Yes.” I mean latter they changed their mind. But we had a very very sharp discussion … and it was mainly the young who were on this position that “come what may. You know this is the way we are going to go”. The older Kurds at that event were much better.
So now with the Syrian business, with the left divided, and it’s become very clear to anyone who doubted it: the Americans and the West were involved from the very beginning, you know. They took the struggle over very rapidly, very quickly, and made it into a struggle with weaponry to try and bring down the Assad regime. I mean, I had never had any time for any of these regimes, Assad or Saddam, but that’s not the problem. We didn’t oppose the Iraq war because we thought that Saddam’s regime was a model regime. And the same applies to Syria. But the people got caught up and supported this business of imperial intervention because of the way Assad operates and functions. And then there was a lot of pretence on parts, certain parts, of the left that somehow Syria was different because there were small left groups involved. But you know the left wing groups should have asked themselves, “Who’s supplying us with funds and weaponry and what is going to be the logic of this?”
Effectively, the Americans did deals with Al-Qaeda and slightly more moderate versions of Al-Qaeda and set up an Islamic opposition to Assad. And they failed in that. Syria is the only thing they failed because the Russians intervened and the Iranians: hence, the hostility to Iran and Russia in the Western media. It’s got very little to do with Putin or anything else. It’s a fact that these powers are asserting their sovereignty and supporting regimes which they had good relations with, i.e., they are behaving like Americans but from the other side.
So, let’s talk about Rojava now. I was never totally taken in by it, I have to be honest with you. It was good… how can one grudge the many experiments and innovations including the tiny bit of autonomy they have gained. But I did say to many of the Kurdish leaders from Rojava, “effectively, you are being used by the Americans.” And they said, “We know, but we are using them as well.” So I said given the relationship of forces my dear friends, who will triumph in this who is using whom business! And that has been unfortunately proved right.
Also, the fact is that for the Kurds, and I said this to both the Turkish Kurds and the Rojava people, the Kurdish leadership. I said, “for the United States if it comes to a choice between the Turkish government regardless of who it’s led by and you people, they will back the Turkish state. It’s very important for them strategically, even more so now. And Turkey is a member of NATO. How can they support you? They’ll support you for opportunist reasons to put pressure on that state, but they are never going to give up on them. That’s it.”
They said, “Yes! but things have changed.” Anyway, the debate goes on, but I can’t see the likelihood of any positive development. The most the Kurds will get is what they got in Northern Iraq – effectively, an American-Israeli protectorate. Like Jordan!
VK: You lived through a time of left guerrilla war and anti-colonial movements, which were actually successful in getting state power. As a strategy how do you see such movements today, you know for Latin America even Pakistan?
TA: Look, I think we have to understand that the last decade of the 20th century changed everything. I would say that if you look at the 20th century as an epoch of war and revolution which was Lenin’s phrase we have to look at 21st century effectively as an epoch of struggles for hegemony and counter revolutions. The whole context has changed. The big triumph of capitalism, globally, the collapse of Soviet Union, the turn of the Chinese communist party towards the capitalist route, all this has had a huge impact on the relationship of forces.
I am not one of those who think that the United States is on a decline or suffering a defeat. I don’t believe that. It’s largely wishful thinking. I think that the United States is stronger than they’ve ever been before: that their hegemony extends all over the world. Obviously, there are tactical and strategic differences within the western powers. No one doubts that the EU is firmly in the camp of the United States – they may disagree on sanctions against Iran for their own reasons. That has always happened. In terms of global domination, the US dominates.
In my opinion the strategy of American imperialism since they have entered the Middle East during the first Gulf War (the Kuwait episode) is to divide the Middle East up into little tiny state-lets. And this is very strongly backed by the Israelis. The peninsula model of the UAE is one that they like a lot. Because the smaller the state, the easier to control and easier to build up rivalries between these states so they never can unite.
It is exactly the opposite of Arab nationalism, Arab communism, Arab socialism: Nasser’s dream to have a United Arab Republic with three concurrent capitals, Cairo, Damascus Baghdad. For a time in the 60s, it seemed this might be a possibility. But it didn’t happen, largely because of the Egyptian errors and mistakes on serious levels. But in any case it was a dream, a utopian dream but a good one and within this context it was believed that the Palestine issue could be solved by struggling for Palestine to be part of the United Arab State. Now we have more and more divisions being created and the smaller a state, the easier the US hegemony or domination.
Now, so when people ask me as my position on Pakistan after the creation of Bangladesh I reply that if Pakistan carries on treating its minorities like this then there is no reason why Sindh should not become independent or Pashtunistan and Balochistan. Well, as far as Pashtunistan or Balochistan are concerned I can see that since progressive possibilities have been wrecked by the victory of the clerics in Tehran, and by the complete chaos that developed in Afghanistan some progressive people have ended up feeling they are better where they are.
That Pashtun nationalism is again becoming a strong force is good, in my opinion, they are linking up with Pashtun and others across the country. I will talk about that in a bit. Sindhis didn’t have any alternative of this sort of linking up with a portion of their ethnicity in other parts, but they were very much against the centre given the way their province was being ruled. I remember in the 1980s during the height of Zia’s repression, in the interior of Sindh there was a slogan saying Indira Gandhi Zindabaad [long live Indira Gandhi], you know, which must have shaken the ISI [Inter-services-agency] to its core (laugh).
VK: I remember in my village, when I used to visit, effigies of Zia were burned almost every day, secretly, quickly in the village square.
TA: He was hated. Absolutely hated. So that period I think has come to an end. And therefore, operating in the same way is not going to achieve the same goals. Let’s take Balochistan for a start. I know that the government behaves stupidly, there is no reason for such repression there. The government has dominated Balochistan instead of working with people there. Occasionally, some reforms have been given, but as far as independence is concerned, while discussing the issue publicly and in some cases privately with Baloch independentist leaders I asked them how they would operate in case by some freak chance they get an independent Balochistan, and where would the balance of power be. Because ultimately they could just become part of the Gulf nexus with the Americans helping them. And they reply that this was fine with them. They would rather be an American colony, effectively, than be with Pakistan. I told them then that I found this wrong, politically, because it was not going to take them further, and that in any case independence was not going to happen because the Pakistani state had nuclear weapons. So neither America nor any other power was going to come and destroy the state. Therefore my advice to the Baloch was to struggle for maximum autonomy and democracy within the state, the existing state that they have. And I reminded them that they would not be able to do that if they had in their head this idea that they are going to become independent. This strategy applies to most of the Arab world by the way and to the Kurds. But it applies even more in Pakistan.
Now if you look at what’s happened in Pakhtunkhwa, I think that the emergence of the PTM [Pashtun Tahafuz Movement ] is one of the most positive developments in the country for a very long time. It’s the emergence of a large movement defensive in character, saying : ‘Enough is enough, please stop killing our people, stop killing us, we’re not your enemies, your enemies are the people who are destabilising your state and these are people who you armed yourself ! It's not us, we just want to be left alone’. What more are they saying? They are just arguing for their democracy and democratic rights. Totally correctly. And they got people elected to Parliament. And the Pakistani state apparatus, which learns no lessons at all, wants to make life more and more difficult for them. Just crazy! Of course, the rationale for the Pakistani state is that sooner or later the Americans will go (from the area). There will be a sort of fight between Pakistan and India over who controls Afghanistan, and Pakistan has to make sure it controls it. Therefore, supporting the Taliban groups and the Jihadi groups is necessary, because they are what India can never take from Pakistan. So everything else can be sacrificed for this purpose. I can’t see any other rationale. And it’s a stupid rationale, because it’s all about basing the future on a number of things which we do not know whether they’ll happen or not.
VK: What options do activists have in parts of Pakistan when they are being summarily arrested and some are being killed...civil movements are not permitted always…?
TA: Let’s discuss it. I mean… let me just say it…I think it will be a real strategic and tactical blunder, for either the PTM and its allies or the Baloch groups fighting for independence … struggling against repression to take up arms because a) where would you get these arms from? We know who the main supplier of arms in the world is today? It’s the United States. The Chinese are certainly not going to help you, nor the Russians. They’ve learned their lessons in Afghanistan.
They don’t want to get involved in the Pashtunistan side and the Chinese are notorious for not interfering. So leaving aside the international conjuncture, even as a struggle that can liberate the minds of people I think that is very foolish. Because once you begin the armed struggle as we have seen in Syria, that’s the latest example, a powerful state can crush you. More people will die. True, you’ll throw a few bombs and kill them as well, but where is going to end up. If there is any serious thought or discussion about taking up arms against the Pakistani state, I would be very strongly opposed to that for all the reasons I have said. We are living in a completely different epoch now; this is not going to get you anywhere. This is simply going to give the ISI an excuse to really go and wipe you out, and don’t imagine that they can’t.
VK: So you think...lets just compare a few of the struggles we have been talking about. Palestine, Eqbal Ahmad long ago suggested a civil rights movement, non-violent, we talked about the Pakhtun struggle in Waziristan and elsewhere in Pakhtunkhwa, the Baloch struggle, so you are suggesting that tactically at this historic moment, that non-violent, civil movements that aim to link up across struggles and build unity and then political negotiations are the best options?
TA: I am suggesting that. And I am suggesting that not that I’ve become a pacifist or that. I am suggesting that because we have to ask the question, the old question:
Let's say a tiny group launches an armed struggle, who will benefit? The people? I don’t think so. There’s absolutely no guarantee that they will benefit. A few groups will raise probably money to buy weapons. When an arm struggle begins, even in incredibly positive circumstances, political debate and discussion and democracy go out of the window because the decision then are made by the leaders of the armed struggle. Nothing else is permitted; it’s a battle against the enemy – real or imagined – for life or death. And many a liberation group in South America in the 60s and 70s has been destroyed by all this.
So I think that it’s a foolish idea, irrational in the present circumstance and self-destructive. It’s not going to work. That’s why the BDS campaign against Israel for Palestinians has been one of the biggest success stories of global struggles in recent years. And you’ve to learn from that. I mean you really have to. It’s going to be a long struggle but you have to educate people. One has to look for allies in the country concerned. Therefore I’m glad to hear that there were big PTM meetings in Karachi and Lahore. Of course Karachi has a huge Pashtun population, I am aware of that. But in Lahore, there were large numbers of Punjabis, according to the reports I received from those who went to that meeting. You know…
VK: Yea…I was there, I was, I mean it was familiar faces, but yeah…
VK: But it’s impossible…some groups, some areas are not interested in the plight of others...
TA: But it was important that meeting…
TA: They could not do that for Bangladesh by the way.
VK: Oh really,
TA: During the Bengalis repression…the breakup of Pakistan period. When you think back on that, Pakistani state should really learn and avoid these mistakes. …[pause]. They don’t. They still boast about that. They still think that had it not been from India, they would have won. And all this stuff! But, anyway, what happened then was that only a handful of us from West Pakistan made public protests, a handful who were outside the country. There were people in West Pakistan who raised the issue privately in their houses saying that it was a tragedy, so we must find ways of supporting and helping our Bengali brothers and sisters. But publicly, nothing was done because Bhutto had decided to support the crushing of Bengalis. And once the largest progressive party had done it, no one opened their mouth. That was a huge tragedy for Pakistan. Many of the hopes that people had about what could happen in the country after that election disappeared very quickly. The PPP became a hugely chauvinist party defending what was done in Bengal. Most of them did defend it. So, only a handful of us, Pakistanis living abroad, showed solidarity with the Bengalis. It was Eqbal Ahmad; Feroze Ahmed, a Sindhi; myself, a Punjabi; Aijaz Ahmad from a refugee family, and others...we published documents, we published…
VK: Aijaz Ahmed, of CPI (M), the theoretician?
TA: He is now in the [United] States. He has left India.
VK: Ok. But Aijaz Ahmed. Okay. wow. Some big big intellectuals there…heavy-weights
TA: But you know we just did carry on publishing arguments and stuff like this and I spoke at lot at Bengali demonstrations in London at that time.
VK: And I did have one question, this is a fitting moment, written in my notebook a few weeks ago when you agreed to this interview ... and that is...you grew up in Lahore with people around like Habib Jalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sibte Hassan, fiction writers like Manto, poets like Saghar Siddiqui (who would be somewhere around the area of your family house) and painters like Sadequain...So I mean when you left this incredible creative space and space of solidarity as well… how did you feel when you came to Europe. It must have felt provincial in comparison?
TA: Well! Look, when I came here that space was already taken by the military dictatorship.
TA: Sibte was in prison. Faiz was in prison. Many other comrades, intellectuals were either in prison or underground or had fled. So the struggle against that dictatorship was partially a struggle to regain that lost space that we had had. And that’s the reason my parents sent me out because they were very fearful that if I stayed, I would be sent to prison, my studies would be affected etcetera. Nevertheless it is true that till that event, which was in late 1950s, Lahore was intellectually a very liberating city, and even after the dictatorship there were memorable events. I remember a mushayra [public poetry recital] I attended in those times during which the great Punjabi poet Ustaad Daman, was reciting poetry like:
Hun chirhyaan thar that uth gayaan
The birds are now littering and fluttering away
And me and a few others shouted, “Say something, for God's sake!” Kuch tey kaho! Say something” [say something about the current dictatorship]. And Ustaad Daman had a very pale look on his face. He immediately devised two lines, which went like this:
Hun ho gayaan maujaan hi maujaan
Jidhar tako faujaan i faujaan
Which I translated as:
Now each day is sweet and balmy
Wherever you look, the army.
But he was picked up the next morning and locked up for a week. And they beat him. So the next time he came to the café where we all used to sit in Lahore, we came and we said, “Ustadd jee salam, Ustaad jee salam.” He said: Kairha Bainchod see jihne kaha, kuch te kaho, agli dafa aap thanay jana [‘Were you the fxxkers who shouted ‘say something’...next time you go yourself to the Police station and take the beating’]. [laughter].
So that was part of the tail end, if you like.
VK: Right. Can I follow up quickly on that?
VK: I’ve seen that. Of course, I’ve gone way after the tail end to live in Lahore, but you feel it, you hear of it, and you see reminisce of it. And then of course, I, you know, I’ve also grown up here in North London - where you live - and I’ve always seen you coming from that Lahore, I see you belonging, coming from that, in terms of your project as a writer, as an intellectual, I connect you with those writers - Faiz, Habib, Sibte, Manto and other, I mean you came to the UK but you're bringing that project of that generation here, you carry that tradition on in a new setting. Do you feel that?
TA: I feel that still.
TA: I feel very much part of that world …
VK: I mean public intellectual, from that generation… the way you’ve written, topics you’ve chosen, your prose and the central role that poetry plays in your political writings, very similar to that generation and their legacy.
TA: Yea! this is all true...and I’ve never given up on that. And I still have an incredibly deep attachment and affection for Pakistan and its people principally.
VK: But Tariq sahib, what do you see as your role as an intellectual and activist?
TA: My role is, I don’t want to be some portentous or pompous, simply is, to tell the truth as I see it.
I never ever write to please someone or to win a prize. I’ve never done that all my life. It’s not what interests me. So my ideas have always been linked to thinking of ways of intervening, and if they take you even a step forward it’s better than a step backward.
So, the break with Pakistan geographically, and moving to Europe, didn’t change me really, because the Vietnam war was going on and solidarity with that war became a central issue. And Oxford was quite tame compared to Lahore in many ways. But at least, we could read books which were not available in Pakistan, where books had been banned, or not allowed into the libraries etcetera. So, I didn’t feel such a break intellectually because there were small groups of leftist at that time, groups that became much larger after 67, 68. And where else would I have met Malcolm X but in Europe ? From where else could I have gone to Vietnam on behalf of Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal? Or met him, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir ? So, I guess, I was always an internationalist.
In Pakistan, internationalism was largely centred, for my generation, on the Chinese revolution. I was almost six when the Chinese Revolution happened. It was a huge thing across Asia and on the big May Day meeting in Lahore in that year 1949 slogans were “Cheen Ka Rasta Lainge Hum Cheen Ka Rasta.”[China path, we will take China’s path]. And later, when the Chinese regime was friendly with Ayub for its own badly opportunist reasons, Habib Jalib reminded us that this country was going through a revolution; in his very famous poem, “Mushir” [Advisor], about Ayub Khan’s advisor (it was written basically on Altaf Gohar - who was an advisor to Ayub Khan and is set up with him ‘advise’ Ayub) Jalib says,
Mey ney us sey yeh kaha
(This is what the advisor says, he said, to Ayub)
Cheen hamara yar hey
Us peh jaan nisar hey
Laikin jo hey wahan nizam
Uskey paas na jaeyo
Us ko dur sey salam. (Laughter)
[‘China is our friend,
we will give up our lives for her,
but the system they have there,
let's stay clear of that,
from far off say, ‘salam’ [to China]’.]
That you know showed that the people still remembered what this revolution meant. Of course, today it’s completely changed, but still. And the liberation of Vietnam was also a big thing for all of us. On the 7th may 1954, when the Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu a distant relation of mine who’s a film director –a completely apolitical fellow–his son was born that day and he named him Ho Chi Minh.
TA: This was the general feeling that we are all Asians. And look what these guys are doing, defeating a big European power. So, I didn’t feel any big shift in Oxford because of internationalism I was involved in. And then, of course, I went back in 1969 and toured both East and West Pakistan. That’s when it became very clear to me that these two parts weren’t going to stay together. They had totally different political, economic, cultural and linguistic trajectories, and it was going to be very difficult to bridge the gap in between. You needed a very enlightened leadership in West Pakistan to keep the two parts together. And Bhutto could have played that role, but he didn’t.
VK: I’m sticking to your youth in Lahore. I mean your father, Mazhar Ali Khan, and your mother, Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, who were very involved in mainstream media and in your mother's case activism for a while, but when there was pressure from the state...they formed alternative forms of media, and you’ve continued that work as well. So how do you see the role of media, alternative and mainstream? How can we as a left use it creatively? What can we do with publishing newspapers, now blogs? You have a TV series, so can you say something about your involvement in that over the decades?
TA: Well, look! It’s a question of trying to see what’s available. I mean the Pakistani left was lucky that from 1946-59 they had a chain of newspapers called ‘Progressive Papers Limited’ which was set up by the left – Mian Iftikhar-ud-Din, Faiz and my father, and some others. They felt that a new country’s going to shape up, like it or not, and there was a need to set up a completely new newspaper, and Jinnah actually lent them support. So, he agreed to be a founder of it. It was packed with left-wing intellectuals. ‘Pakistan Times’ was launched first, which was the largest English daily in the country, edited first by Faiz and then by my father, and for a long period together. Then Imroze was launched, an Urdu daily, edited by Chiragh Hassan Hasrat, a complete master of Urdu prose, and later by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi; and finally Lail-o-Nihar was launched, a monthly edited by Sibt-e-Hassan. A very high level of political culture and literary culture was involved in these enterprises and they were incredibly popular. The Americans hated these newspapers and magazines because they were anti-imperialist. And one of the first acts of the military dictatorship was to take these papers away. They were nationalised, taken over by the state; my father walked out, so did others. That was that. And then later, he set up a weekly magazine.
Here, in Britain, I was very involved. We felt in the late 60s, that we needed a weekly newspaper or a fortnightly, whatever we could manage; and that’s what we did with ‘The Black Dwarf’ and later with ‘Red Mole’. These papers were read by a lot of people who were not on our wavelength politically, because they just offered different, alternative news.
Nowadays, the big success story at the mainstream level is “Mediapart” in France, which was set up by the former editor of ‘Le Monde’, Edwy Plenel and others. It is the best investigative daily paper but it’s online and not printed. I think that it is a good way. So technologically it is becoming much easier to produce alternative media. However, the danger in it is that because it is easy, you don’t do the same amount of research and homework which is necessary to develop a paper with skills. In the United States, there are online alternative magazines like ‘N+1’ and ‘Jacobin’. In Britain… I don’t think much really. There is nothing much at the moment but we have done it in the 60s and 70s.
And I still think that a successful intervention has to be both political and cultural. The ‘New Left Review’ which we kept going for a long period is all about that. And we are also running Verso Books, which is attached to it. Both have been my main site of intervention for many years. In television, again it was pure luck that I helped to set up TeleSur ages ago in Venezuela. It was my idea and comandante Chavez liked it and we set it up. Many years later, they asked me to do this interview show called “The World Today” which is now temporarily suspended because of the sanctions. We can’t get any funding at all because of the sanctions. This type of shows circulate so much. I used to get letters after the show from really all over the world – South Africa, Pakistan, Australia, Africa. That’s what I mean by saying that it’s become much easier to do this.
VK: Okay, I mean, once again, you talked about the cultural and political fronts, and that we need to work on both. Of course, that was the strategy that your mother and father’s generation was also engaged in - that was what Ustad Daman, and Habib Jalib and others did...
TA: Yes! Very much so! But you know that also happened because the left had a set of very powerful intellectuals. You know, poets, intellectuals, not just in the Indian sub-continent but globally, poets like Nazim Hikmet in Turkey and Pablo Neruda in Chile, and many others. In virtually every country the left produced novelists and poets. That is now really on the decline.
VK: How do you see the future of internationalism ? In the times you describe there were meetings between Faiz, Neruda and Hikmet on internationalist platforms…
VK: You talked earlier about Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal which was another manifestation of it. But now in Pakistan for example, internationalism is certainly on the decline. The younger generation does not look really concerned with it. So how do you see internationalism today ?
TA: Well! I must say that the campaign against the Iraq war reignited internationalism. The huge demonstrations which took place in most parts of Western Europe and the United States brought people once again in touch with each other. And I was myself travelling everywhere till last year (now I have cut down travelling). Last year I was in Wisconsin at an event and I travelled later to Mexico (I went there last October) to sort of celebrate the victory of Obrador but also talk with comrades. So I feel very much in contact with friends and colleagues and comrades all over the world. But it is also true that the mass consciousness we witnessed during the Iraq war, the anti-war mobilization has declined. Look at what is happening in the Yemen now ! It’s appalling, really appalling. The Libyan adventure by NATO produced chaos in that region. But I worry now that large numbers of young people have got caught up with other campaigns, which they are happy with, which are not unimportant, campaigns like ‘Extinction Rebellion’. They are showing an interest but not in what is going on now but what might happen in the future, which is shortsighted I think. But you can’t ignore it because that is the consciousness today. It’s a generational difference. The same goes with Palestine. Not so long ago people used to show huge solidarity with the Palestinians. Scotland and Ireland have retained this solidarity, but in England it’s on the decline. So you know, my lesson is that sometimes in the worst of situations the best thing is to not exaggerate and say things are going well, and that the American Empire is being defeated. But you can be most effective only when you understand what the real situation is. As far as that layer of the left which operates basically on the assumption that the American empire has died or doesn’t exist, I must admit that I have no time for them at all.
You know, quite a lot of them then go into all sorts of different routes and movements. Like the Kurds for instance, caught up by their own, failing to see even part of their Kurd population extends towards the main Turkish cities. And this is why I used to ask them what they were going to say to hundreds of thousand of Kurds who live in Istanbul or Baghdad. Both are mixed cities. And one can argue with the Pashtuns in Pakistan in a similar way today. One can ask those who really think it's possible to get independence (which is foolish) what will happen to the Pashtuns who live in Karachi. What are they going to be part of? You have got to think outside yourselves; it’s not just you. Try and win allies in the region where you are.
VK: You mentioned Commandante Chavez a little while ago. Now, it looks like there is a big retreat in the Latin American left, there’s also a coup attempt. Can you just comment on that?
TA: Yea, I was there. The worst defeat that we’ve suffered in Latin America is Brazil where we have a semi-fascist leader elected helped by the state apparatus, the judiciary to get rid of Lula. I’ve been critical of him but I must recognize that he was, at least, understanding of the mistakes that he’d made, and he would have won again, had they not locked him up on fake charges. That’s now become public knowledge. But the Brazilian Supreme Court will still not release him, even though the scandal has become public of how he was set up by the magistrates and judges in that country. So, there we have suffered a defeat.
In Venezuela, the regime made its own mistakes on the economic front, in my opinion. But as they were trying to get back on line the Americans imposed sanctions, and embarked on an open campaign of regime change. In Honduras, the progressive government was removed by the United States via a military coup d’état. So, they’ve gone on the offensive there. I remember Chavez used to say to me : “When Fidel and I talk, we say thanks to the Arab people who are fighting back, because the Americans are now concentrating on that part of the world. They have left us alone for the time being.” But not any longer, because this has always been for the United States a crucial, strategic part of their indirect empire. And they’re determined to get it back. Guys like Pompeo and Bolton, who are total rogues and scoundrels talk like this quite openly. That’s one reason why liberals don’t like them. They don’t have any notion of human rights. They just say : ‘This is in the US’s interests’, and it has nothing to do with anything else. The liberals at least used to put up a camouflage, arguing that they are fighting for a commendable cause. When they invaded Afghanistan they said it was for women’s liberation. And a lot of the NGOs are playing to it. That’s another disarming feature of the left which should not be underestimated. Every part of the third world has been NGO-ed, to basically buy off the best activists. And give them money to do little things, which are perfectly all right. They are not scandalous. But they are not given money to organise proper movements.
VK: I was looking up at the National Awami Party [A Pakistani political party at its height in the late 1960’s and early 1970s] documents and their internationalism is so clear. There were anti-imperialist days, messages of solidarity to different struggles in almost every meeting. We have lost that.
TA: Yea, Pakistan was very much like that. I remember going to Peshawar in 69 or 70, and they’d organised citizens welcome for me. Afzal Bangash read a speech (I used to have it somewhere framed) welcoming me in the name of anti-imperialism. People knew what’s going on in the world and people were very aware of that. You know, Habib Jalib’s poem on Vietnam:
Aye Dunya k haqparastoon Khamosh kyun ho, bolo
Insaniyat ki baqa hey, Vietnam jal raha hey, Vietnam jal raha hey
‘Hey, you truth lovers of the world, why are you silent ? Say something!
Humanity should survive, Vietnam is burning, Vietnam is burning’
And then warning them
Hushyar raho yeh aag barhtey barhtey tum tak pohanch na jaye
Barood ka yeh badal tum peh bhi phat na jaye.
‘Be careful, otherwise this fire will also reach you,
and this gun-powder cloud might explode in your face’
I did a speaking tour with him, where he would recite poetry and I would make speeches in Pakistan in 69. We toured all over Pakistan. I think we visited 25 places and then he would say, “Tariq! Tum takthey nahi”
And I would say, “Mey Jawan hoon abhi.”
He would then say, “Yar! Mey tou thak gaya hun, tum boli ja boli ja rahay ho.”
[Habib Jalib addressing Tariq Ali: “Tariq! Aren’t you tried?
And I would say, ‘I am still young’
He would then say, ‘I am tired, but you keep on talking and talking and extending the meeting’]
But that was the last big anti-imperialism phase in Pakistani politics that had reached its peak in both East and West Pakistan.
VK: We have to work to revive that, Tariq, I think.
VK: A little bit, a little bit.
TA: yes, yes, we have to try.
Transcript by Fahad Mehsud.
Tariq Ali is a writer, journalist and filmmaker. He worked with the independent television production company, Bandung, which produced programmes for Channel 4 in the UK during the 1980s. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio and contributes articles and journalism to magazines and newspapers including The Guardian and the London Review of Books. He is editorial director of London publishers Verso and is on the board of the New Left Review, for whom he is also an editor. He has written more than two dozen books on world history and politics, and seven novels, including: The Clash of Fundamentalisms (2002); Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power (2008); The Obama Syndrome (2010); and The Rivals (2014). His series of historical novels about Islam are collectively known as 'The Islam Quintet'.
Viliyat Khan is a poet and aspiring urdu novelist based between London and Karachi.