Islam’s Imams


Trying to come to grips with the shocking glee he witnessed in populations abroad in response to 9-11 (which he sees as a mere historical blip), Tariq Ali refocused his manuscript. His new book is a wide-ranging, often brilliant collection of essays, originally to be called Mullahs and Heretics, offering a kind of crash course in the political history of Islam. Positing the Western capitalist economic system dominated by the U.S.—with its IMF “ayatollahs” and drive to privatize the globe—as a form of fundamentalism as relentless as the Islamic variety, he redubbed his work The Clash of Fundamentalisms. But it’s almost as if the title is wagging the book, since it is often less about the clash of these two “fundamentalisms” than it is about their collusion—which continues even in the face of Bush’s war against terror.

Challenging the conservative social critic Samuel Huntington and the “Civilization-mongers,” Ali demonstrates that Islam is not monolithic: From its origins and its early golden age in Spain down to the present day, he finds ample foils among Islam’s poets and heretics for today’s “imams who teach by rote in the hole-in-the-wall mosque-schools in the cities of Western Europe and North America.” But the 20th century reveals a pattern whereby relatively secular forces within Islamic societies have been largely displaced by an irrational and intolerant fundamentalism often nurtured and fostered by British and U.S. interests. Long before jihadists were sent into Afghanistan to wage war against the Soviet Union, Western policy was helping sultans and monarchs destroy their secular opposition, leaving space only for an Islamism whose repressive code of conduct served well to head off any reform. Ali sees an Islamic world today stultified and desperate for “new ideas more advanced than what is currently on offer from the West.”

An editor of the New Left Review (and filmmaker, historian, novelist, and dramaturge) born and educated in Pakistan, Ali enlivens chapters on the history of the subcontinent with anecdotes from his own coming-of-age and involvement in the struggle for democracy there. His chapters on the Middle East and what he terms “the oil wars” (1948 and 1967) bring to light seldom discussed history.

Ali writes lucidly, interweaving his political history with passages from the literature of many Muslim countries, making The Clash of Fundamentalisms a compelling point of departure for further study of the culture and politics of Islam.