‘You say you want a revolution’

Tariq Ali interviewed by Toby Manhire for the New Zealand Listener, March 19 2011

My last encounter with Tariq Ali did not go so well. I was comment editor at the Guardian newspaper, and had invited him to write on events in Pakistan. An email flew back. No. He certainly would not. The recent appearance in the paper of a piece by Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, had been a “disgrace”, and he “would feel out of place on your pages these days”. My effort at an explanatory, conciliatory response went unans–wered.

Nearly a year later, waiting on the line in New Zealand as his phone rings in north London, I’m a bit nervous. One of the most respected figures on the British left, he has since written a number of times for the paper, so that’s repaired, but is he still furious? Ali roars with laughter at my jitteriness – he’s not holding a grudge, but he hasn’t changed his mind about Zardari. “The guy’s a total crook and a rogue and a joke, and I just felt, if people like that want to get in the Western media, they should pay for it. It should be an advertisement.”

Ali has never been one to pull punches. Politicians in Pakistan, his country of birth, come in for excoriating criticism. The country has suffered a succession of “wretched governments, corrupt, miserable, totally isolated from the needs of their people” – but in this they are far from alone.

Ali is a novelist, intellectual, historian, commentator, activist, polemicist, filmmaker, editor – well, how long have you got? It is as a speaker, however, that he comes to New Zealand this month, to deliver the 2011 Sir Douglas Robb lectures at the University of Auckland. He is unlikely to be Rodney Hide’s idea of a jolly evening out, but Ali, author of more than 30 books in five decades, has become something of a living treasure among lefty thinkers the world over. Here is Noam Chomsky’s emailed assessment: “Tariq Ali’s incisive analyses of world affairs, and in particular his unrivalled insights into what has been happening in Pakistan, have been of inestimable value for those who hope to understand what is happening in the world. Enriched by deep historical knowledge and immersion in literary culture, and enlivened by brilliant writing, their contribution has been unique.”

Ali’s mane of thick black hair has become a mane of thick silver hair, but his speeches are as barnstorming as ever. The sentences emerge from his mouth print-ready. Today, however, as he talks from the study in his home in Highgate, his sonorous flow is interrupted by a booming cough. A product of the bitter British winter, presumably? No, it was brought on by the lecture last night, at Tate Modern, on Spinoza. “There were lots of questions at the end, so I’ve been talking too much.”

One of Ali’s Auckland lectures, he promises, will be “very dynamic indeed”, focusing as it does on the string of recent Arab uprisings, from Tunisia, to Egypt, to Libya and beyond. “It’s pretty amazing what’s going on, actually,” says Ali. “Nobody imagined that the domino effect would be so sensational. Now the Arab world is absolutely up in arms. All these imbecilic neocons who said, ‘Oh, but the Arabs, the Muslims aren’t interested in democracy’, are looking very stupid, actually.”

Ali says actually a lot. Filling out each of the word’s four syllables, ac-tu-al-ly underlines an argument, a kind of coda, a there-you-have-it.

It’s not just the neoconservatives who are left looking stupid, Ali reckons. So, too, are the liberal interventionists – aka the liberal hawks. These politicians and pundits, among them Tony Blair, Michael Ignatieff and Christopher Hitchens, argued, nominally from the left, that the benevolent state should be bold in foreign policy and take action beyond its borders. Emboldened by experience in the former Yugoslavia, they provided much of the intellectual ballast for the UK-US invasion of Iraq.

The 2011 Arab uprising explodes “one of the big arguments used during and after the war and occupation in Iraq, by lots of people who supported Blair”, says Ali. “They would say in private, ‘Oh, but we had to do it, Tariq, because there’s no chance that the Iraqi people were capable of toppling Saddam.’ That particular argument looks utterly stupid now, doesn’t it?”read more