Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Interview with author and activist, Tariq Ali

Posted in activism, atheism, Barack Obama, BTR, Citizen Radio, politics, religion by allisonkilkenny on April 8, 2009

tariq_061229102525399_wideweb__300x375Citizen Radio interviews Tariq Ali, celebrated intellectual and the man who famously debated Henry Kissinger. A world-renowned activist, who the Rolling Stones named the song “Street Fighting Man” after, Tariq Ali spends the hour talking with Citizen Radio.

Tariq Ali talks with Citizen Radio about a range of subjects from the true 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.

Listen here. Transcript is posted below. Please feel free to repost both the interview and transcript, but please credit Citizen Radio.

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

Citizen Radio airs every Wednesday on BTR. Episodes available 24/7 in our archives.

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.

Read the rest of the interview behind the cut.

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.

Ali: And what’s wrong with having a health service where the same quality of service is provided to you as long as you’re a citizen of the country, and regardless of your class? Whether you’re rich or poor, you get the same health service. What’s wrong with that? And if that is Socialism, great. Wonderful.

But I think most people’s idea of Socialism in the United States is of what existed in the Soviet Union and the Communist ___, and people have a very blurred idea of what that was about. Dictatorships, this, that, and the other. Well, that is not what Socialism means or entails.

Kilstein: Do you think that the media is kind of purposefully – because you never hear that side of it, for example. I’m trying to figure out why people keep falling for it. There’s part of me that just thinks that a lot of us are probably smarter than that, and we’re not just getting the right information. When people say you would get free health care. I mean, has this just been going on for so long? Because we weren’t around when Communism and Socialism was a bad thing, so to us, it’s new.

Kilkenny: You mean helping people?

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-

Kilstein: Yeah, we don’t need to count that

Ali: But let’s take the main network news. It’s virtually the same. And people should be asking themselves: how come these are two supposedly independent companies with no links to each other, how come when they report the news, they have the same priorities? They start with the same item, whatever it is. No one asks that, but people should. And the reason they do is that the values these networks espouse are largely corporate values. They are owned by gigantic Capitalist companies, and they defend the interests of those companies. So putting out ideas, which actually question that and challenge that, is not part of their agenda, which is why they, constantly now, and what is fashionable, the bonuses. Well, it’s true that the bonuses are obscene, but they’re the result of an obscene system. And it’s the latter thing that they will never show. And these bankers are so pathetic. They’ve been made into scapegoats. Not one of them has the guts to say, “Okay, we did it. You let us do it. You encouraged us to do it. Why didn’t you stop us when you could? Why did you wait this long?” Say that to the politicians.

I mean, all these jokers Obama has appointed as his economic advisors are the guys responsible for this.

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?


(image from warchat.org)

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 publically 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 denounces, 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 attack, 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…”

Kilstein: It’s always the good ones that ask that, I realized.

Ali: He came to me because of my name, which is a Muslim name. And he said, “Hello, brother. Brother Tariq,” and I said, “Malcolm, I have to be straight with you. I’m not a believer at all,” and I said, “I come from that culture, but many of us are not believers,” and he laughed and said, “I know, I’ve just come from that world. (laughter) Lots of people have said that to me.” But you know, we sat and talked, and he explained to me how the United States functioned. I’ve written about this in one of my books. We talked for two or three hours, and then as I was getting up to go, I just said, “Okay, Malcolm. Great meeting you, and I hope we meet again.” And he said, “I don’t think we will.” And I said, “Excuse me?” And he said, “You know. I think they’re going to kill me.” I said, “Who is going to kill you, Malcolm?” And you know, a thought went through my head, saying either this is a very great man, or a hustler. You know, who talks like that? And I sat down, and I said, “Who is going to kill you?” He said, “Well, there are a number of possibilities: the Nation of Islam, or the state or a combination.” I said, “But why?” And he said, “Didn’t you hear the speech I made? I’m now talking about black and white people uniting with each other to fight against the system. And that’s too dangerous for them, so they won’t let me live.” Look, I understood what he was saying. I didn’t really believe it, and this was – I think – October or November, and the next February I was – I told lots of friends at university that – we picked up a copy of the Guardian, and there on the front page was Malcolm X Assassinated. I tell you, I just wept. Lots of my friends wept. And I said, “God, he was right.”

So, he was religious. I think this idea that religion per say – I mean, it’s a right of people to believe in what they believe, and when they do things that are unacceptable, then you argue with them, you criticize them, you fight them, and the same applies to people who are atheists.

The Russian leadership were atheists and did lots of horrible things. So one could argue if you exactly the same sort of argument as these guys are using, saying that Stalin was an atheist, and he ordered the death of lots of people, and this is a problem with Atheism. It’s just nonsense.

Kilkenny: Do you think a one state solution is realistic with Israel and Palestine, or that a one state solution would inevitably lead to bloodshed?

Ali: I think, sooner or later, there will have to be a one state solution. The Israelis have destroyed every single chance of two states, and a two state solution. So then what else can we do? We have to go for a single state solution. That will only come if the Israeli population decides that they do not want to be part of an ethnic state in which being a Jew gives you privileges. I mean, that is a form of apartheid.

A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a South African member of Mandela’s first government, who was minister for defense and intelligence, Ronnie Kasrils, who is a Jew. He said publicly, at this meeting, “Look, we know what apartheid is. We fought it. And when I took a whole group of activists: black, and white, activists from South Africa to Palestine, they same back stunned, saying this is much worse than what we experienced.” So I think that campaign has to start. Until it succeeds, you won’t get a single state, so you can’t impose this state by force. Nobody can. I just hope that the generations to come will see that ultimately it’s the only way for people to live. And so you have a joint Israel-Palestine for Jews, Muslims, Christians, non-believers, Atheists, whoever.

Kilstein: Just because you brought up Malcolm X, I wanted to ask you – with Obama, you always hear the question about what Martin Luther King Jr. would think of an Obama presidency, but you’ve never really heard what would Malcolm X think? What do you think he would think of that, or would he just look at him as another president that you have to hold accountable?

Ali: I don’t know. These are very difficult questions to answer. I think both Martin Luther King and Malcolm would have been very surprised that a person of color has been elected president of the United States. That would have given them a shock, but they would have been pleased about that, and then would have said, “Okay, we’ve crossed that particular barrier, now let’s talk politics.” And you judge a person, as they always said, not on the basis of his or her color, but on the basis of what they actually do. And not by what they say. I think they would have then turned a very clinical gaze – both of them in their very different ways – and judged Obama by what he was doing, and not doing.

I think it’s obvious, even though he’s only been in power a short time, he’s been very disappointing both on the level of the economy – I mean, to hire these guys responsible for creating the mess when –even within his own Democratic party framework – he could have hired Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, who have at least come up with a few new ideas for them to implement. And carrying on Bush’s war in Afghanistan, escalating it, destabilizing Pakistan, talking like a hawk, half threatening Iran, half cajoling it, it doesn’t make sense. It means they really came to power without any clear ideas of what they were going to do. They just thought they’d stumble on. Most of his appointments are very disappointing.

You know, there’s a big economic crisis right now, and he’s got a big chance to turn everything around. It’s very rare that a political leader is given a chance to look at the vistas before him and say, “I’m going to change all that,” and actually do it. People now are ready for change in the United States. They don’t like how the system is functioning, but I don’t think these guys are going to do it. It’s the Wall Street system they keep defending.

Kilkenny: You’ve already talked about this, but you were very active in the activism community. Why do you think – in regards to what we’ve just been talking about with the economy, with the political situation – that there isn’t more activism especially with younger people on campuses?

Ali: It’s a very difficult one. People are scared. They know that when they leave campuses, they need to get jobs. They don’t want to take risks.

But just leave the people in the campuses to themselves, it does amaze me that the American population at large isn’t getting more angry; that groups aren’t being set up in different towns and different states, saying enough is enough, this is what we want. You know, we want a public transport system, we want a free health service, we want more money on education, we want money spent on public utilities, not on wars or bailing out fat cats. That is a bit surprising, that this isn’t picking up. Maybe it will because the big changes we’re seeing in South America came because of giant social movements from below, pushing their leaders and throwing up new leaders. That isn’t happening here, but I guess it will.

It’s a sign of how atrophied politics in the United States have become over the last 25-30 years, people are quite alienated from the system, but not in an active way. In a despairing way, saying, “Oh God, they’re just politicians. What else do you expect?” It’s a sentiment I understand, but it’s very negatives in a way.

Kilstein: Do you think one of the reasons might be that the – all right, for example AIG and the bankers. You actually had a lot of Republicans vote to tax their bonuses, or to tax 90% of their bonuses, because there was such public outrage. And it worked. They didn’t want to do it. And the Republicans were decrying it years ago, saying, “Do you want the government to say how much you make? Do you want them writing your checks?” I know, years ago, when I was looking for reasons to be lazy and apathetic, I would always just say that the protests don’t work. Do you think if they got more coverage from the media – I feel like when the media shows protests, they just try to find the craziest protester-

Ali: They do.

Kilstein: and they show that to try and make the whole thing look silly. When the conflict in Gaza was happening, we went, and there were tens of thousands of people that shut down traffic in New York, and it got no coverage. It got a little local coverage. But do you think if we actually saw what was happening, and saw even these protests of eight people in hearings where people are getting arrested, and there was more coverage, that might inspire people to be more active?

Ali: I think it would. I think the media is a big problem. But at the same time, we now have computers, and we have cyberspace, and we have the web, and we’re all told about the big role Moveon.org played in funding Obama, even though it was a tiny percentage of the money he actually did get. But what that shows is one does have to use new methods to mobilize people. One can’t depend on the media. You’re right. They don’t show anything. If they’d really shown what was happening in Gaza, there would have been an outcry in this country. People would have said, “Enough’s enough.” They’d have put pressure on Congressmen. So there is a strong element of truth in that.

Kilkenny: There was an interesting article in the New York Times about the future of war, how it will be small, covert, airborne, and I was wondering if you could give your opinion on how we as an international population can react to something that’s done in secrecy? How can we protest or prevent a war that’s covert and so small?

Ali: I think, the same we do when the war is big. You provide information, you tell them what’s going on, and slowly things begin to come out. Even in the case of Gaza now, Israeli soldiers are beginning to talk about what they did. So, for the first time, the New York Times is reporting atrocities committed by Israelis on its front page!

Kilstein: Shocking.

Ali: Yeah! They’ve never done that before. So you see, things can move. The fact that Israeli soldiers themselves are saying they destroyed a family because they didn’t answer their questions, they killed an old woman on the street. We know all this. The Palestinians have been saying this for years, but suddenly people are noticing because it’s beginning to affect the Israelis. So it’s very difficult for them to get away with a covert war for too long, especially now that we have alternative media.

That is a big advantage: the indie media movement played a big, big role in making it possible to spread the news. So I’m not saying we can rival the global media networks. Obviously, we don’t have that arm, but at the same time, we can put out an alternative view. Whenever I appear on Democracy Now, or a show like that, I get emails from all over the world. I just got one from France saying, “Hi, I just switched on Democracy Now today and saw your interview.” This is an old friend of mine in Paris, so one shouldn’t underestimate our own strength.

Kilstein: How would you describe your job as a writer?

Ali: I write fiction and non-fiction both. Let’s not talk about the non-fiction today because that’s written in very different circumstances, but when I write fiction, the aim is to try and appeal to an audience, which is not one’s usual audience, to sort of entice people, who are not even political, to try and read a book. My writing is very much determined by that. I hate writing jargon. I don’t like writing like sort of desiccated academic, using a private language to impress one’s friends. I don’t – I really don’t like that. I think it’s very mean-spirited, people who do that. You have to write clearly, and lucidly, and I use a lot of poetry, a lot of literature, when I write my books because that’s the way I think anyway. I just hope it reaches as many people as possible.

Often I get emails, saying, “God, we didn’t know that this Arab poet you quoted existed,” or things like that. So it does work. Anyway, that’s how I do it.

Kilkenny: What makes you happy?

Ali: Many things. Sometimes if you see a very strikingly good movie, it makes you happy, you go to a concert and the music is great, you’re happy. In political terms, what really makes me happy when I see people working together, acting collectively, realizing their strength, and winning their demands. And that makes me really happy, and that’s what they’ve been doing in South America, and that’s what they did in Pakistan a week or so ago, when you had half a million people threatening to lay siege to the capital of Pakistan unless a very courageous chief justice was restored. And the United States blinked, and then instructed their stooges in Pakistan restore the chief justice. For the last four days, the country has been euphoric, celebrating on the streets. And it’s a nice feeling.

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  1. […] Read the rest of the interview behind the cut. […]

  2. Manila Ryce said, on April 11, 2009 at 5:57 am

    Just got around to this. What a great interview. Couldn’t find a damn thing to disagree with him on.

    I’m also glad you guys brought up the topic of religion and progressive politics with Tariq. Have you heard the debate between him and Hitchens? Fantastic as well.

  3. allisonkilkenny said, on April 11, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Thanks Manila! I have not. I’m going to Youtube it immediately.

  4. Lamont Cranston said, on April 11, 2009 at 10:12 am

    The schools Ali mentions would presumably be the madressas the CIA founded in the early-1980s, with the help of Saudi money and Pakistans ISI, to train terrorists to fight in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

  5. allisonkilkenny said, on April 11, 2009 at 8:42 pm

    Lamont — From the same interview:

    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.


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