Tariq Ali, a co-editor of New Left Review, is the author of The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power as well as more than a dozen other books.
Raza Naeem: Given that much of your recent writing has focused exclusively on Latin America and the Middle East, why this sudden motivation to write about Pakistan?
Tariq Ali: I explain the reasons in the preface to the new book. Given the centrality of the country to the US ‘war on terror’ it became necessary. I’ve never stopped writing about Pakistan.
RN: Since much of the book consists of articles you have published before, is this book meant specifically for a Western audience, like so many others being published about Pakistan?
TA: Not true. Extracts from the work in progress were published before the book came out. This is normal.
RN: How will you respond to many of your detractors who have always said that blaming everything on the United States is one of the classic excuses and conspiracy theories for the Left in order to absolve themselves of their own failures and responsibilities?
TA: I don’t blame everything on the United States. Anyone who reads the book will see that it is a critique of a corrupt and callous native ruling elite. I don’t talk about conspiracies. Everything written in the book is attested by facts.
RN: Did the early evolution and politics of the founding party, the All-India Muslim League, point towards the post-independence dependence of the ruling elite on American patronage?
TA: Yes. They were so dependent on the British and used to taking orders that they felt orphaned and needed a new parent. From the very beginning.
RN: Do you think the history of Pakistan would be different had it chosen to ally itself with the Soviet Union, instead of the US?
TA: Alliance with the Soviet Union was never even a remote possibility. What progressives demanded was non-alignment and neutrality,
RN: In what ways was Pakistan’s most recent military dictator Pervez Musharraf different from his predecessors Ayub, Yahya and Zia?
TA: He did not ban books; he authorised the licensing of the private TV networks and only began to repress them (via the MQM) in his last phase. The new networks and the freedom they enjoyed played a big part in aiding the lawyers movement. This new media, however, appears to have capitulated to the new regime. Critical voices are necessary regardless of who rules. But there were crucial similarities between Musharraf and his predecessors as well. Coming into politics, patronising a Muslim League, etc.
RN: You have devoted a long chapter of your book on the rise and fall of the Bhutto family. Do you think that the PPP is well-equipped to steer the country away from the flight path of American power and, if not, is there any real alternative to the PPP from the Left in Pakistan today?
TA: No. The PPP has become a single-family party. There is no left alternative in the country either. We suffer from the worst of every world.
RN: You have admiringly spoken of the lawyer’s movement and the role of such stalwarts as Aitzaz Ahsan of the PPP, but there is no mention of other social movements like the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab in Okara and the peasant uprising in Hashtnagar in NWFP, which has been spearheaded by the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party for the last 30 years. Has the Left been a total failure in Pakistan? Why?
TA: I devoted a whole chapter to the Okara peasants in Clash of Fundamentalisms. What was the point of repeating it in this book? And Hashtnagar I wrote about in a previous book on Pakistan. The Left has always been weak in what is now Pakistan. This is for a variety of reasons which I have written about in various essays and books.
RN: You have cited numerous regional poets and writers in your book which shows that Pakistan is blessed with gifted and independent thinkers who are not always in thrall to the ruling elite. What hope and alternatives do such writers and intellectuals give to the people in the presence of corrupt generals and politicians?
TA: They are the voice of the people in bad times when the country is trapped between dictatorship and political corruption.
RN: The Duel has been banned from being imported in Pakistan. Why do you think your book has been banned?
TA: Ask Sherry Rehman (former Minister of Communications & Broadcasting) and Rehman Malik (Interior Minister).
Raza Naeem is a doctoral student in History at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, focused on the communist movements in the Arab world and Pakistan.