Is Tariq Ali the most famous Brit-Pak of them all? Hanif Kureshi and Lord Nazir Ahmed might dispute the title, but Tariq has been there for five decades lecturing and hectoring with the smooth tones of a former Oxford Union president. As global policy-makers reduce the 180 million-strong nation of the whisky-drinking, bacon-and-egg scoffing Jinnah to one half of the ugly acronym Af-Pak, can Tariq Ali provide a guide to help Pakistan avoid descending into the category of failed, pariah state? As India relishes the global humiliation of its rival and Islamist ideologues mobilise, organise and kill in their ambition to reproduce the Khomeini revolution and impose a fully Islamist state in Pakistan, can the fluent words of Tariq Ali offer solutions?
Originating from an upper-class elite journalist family in Lahore, he has been an adornment of the British political scene since he first organised the great teach-ins at Oxford University in the 1960s. The then Labour government’s Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, went to try and argue the case that the Vietnamese Communist Party was not a south-east Asian version of liberal democracy but that if it took power would open concentration camps, shut down all free journalism, abolish trade unions and install a nasty dictatorship. Ali argued for Ho Chi Minh. What the Labour Foreign Secretary predicted came to pass. But then as now the future was unimportant. What counted was to be against the US. This remains Tariq’s cause. If it were not for America, Pakistan would be at peace with itself and the subcontinent’s four nations spewn or hewn out of the British Empire would be co-existing in harmony.
Everyone who has encountered Tariq or heard his marvellously humorous caustic invective from a platform comes away charmed and impressed by his wit, his reading and his culture. All are in evidence in The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (Simon and Schuster, £17.99), the third of the three books he has written about Pakistan. Unlike the dry dogmatic tirades of his old comrades in the International Marxist Group, this account is a joy to read. Tariq Ali has met and talked to every important player in Pakistan in the last half-century and he has endless quotations from the great poets, women as much as men, of the region.
Pakistan remains a country of many contradictions. While the most brutal repression of women takes place in remote mountain districts, its major cities throng with women in all positions of power, film and media as well as culture, dressed not in the anti-woman garb of Islamist ideologues who seem to think that faith is expressed by how you dress, but in the most stunningly modern fashion on offer anywhere in the world. Pakistani journalists are among the most rumbustious in the world. Pakistani trade unions, although suffering from all the usual splits and divisions and personal fiefdoms of modern trade unionism outside a few European countries, are free and lively.
Far from being a failed state, Pakistan has not gone the way of authoritarian communist dictatorships like Milosevic’s Serbia. And unlike the sad drabness of Cuba, where there are fewer cinemas today than when Castro took power, Pakistan’s writing and popular culture bursts with excitement and passion and is available to all.
Yet the country remains utterly distorted by the overwhelming dominance of its military. Two-thirds of Pakistan’s official national budget goes to the army. As in the Turkey shaped by Ataturk, the army is a political and economic force as much as a defender of the nation. Sadly India, which hardly gets a mention in Ali’s book, insists on maintaining 500,000 occupying soldiers in Kashmir. This provides the justification for a huge Pakistan military presence.
The flower of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, entrepreneurs, professionals and much of its small middle class long ago decided, like Tariq Ali, to make their lives in Britain, America or Canada, rather than stay and help shape their own country. Thus, the essential source of nation-building, the best and the brightest of its own citizens, have never been available to create the modern Pakistan that Tariq rightly appeals for in this splendid polemic.
Ever since his glory days at Oxford in the 1960s, Tariq has blamed America for all the world’s woes. It is the comfort blanket of 20th-century leftism and the hope of 21st-century Islamism and its fellow travellers in the anti-Western comment pages of the press. In a world view that stretches from Gabriel García Márquez via John Pilger or George Galloway to Tariq Ali, with a more nuanced engagement from Jürgen Habermas, the belief is advanced that if only the US did not exist there would be happiness everywhere in the world. Of course, America has major interests. So, too, do India, China, Russia and Britain, all of which have in varying degrees meddled in Pakistan rather than offer a helping hand to a better future.
In a sweet renunciation of his classic Trotskyist formation, Tariq Ali ends his book with an appeal that the nations of the region, including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and China, should form some kind of South Asia union. But for that to happen, Pakistan, which lies at the heart of the great powers of the region that are reinventing a new version of the great game, has to feel secure. India’s refusal even to negotiate an extradition treaty with Pakistan and the relentless anti-Pakistan propaganda in the Indian press make this difficult to see happening. Afghanistan refuses to recognise its border with Pakistan and refutes any idea of adequate border patrols and frontier security. No border is satisfactory to those who think that on the other side of it lie profit, land and power. It took three horrendous European wars before Germany would finally accept the Rhine as its border with France.
As India proclaims enduring hostility to Pakistan and refuses all the offers of talks from either the unlamented former President Musharraf or Pakistan’s new leader, President Zardari, the reaction in Islamabad is to become more defensive and more nervous, and the army’s offer to provide security trumps the political desire to negotiate a new deal. This might be changed if the powerful and influential Pakistani diaspora, particularly in Britain, were willing to accept a greater responsibility for the future of the country, to which many still remain attached.
People of Pakistani origin in Britain are still called immigrants. It would be more accurate to describe them as semigrants – those who remain linked to their country of origin despite having physically moved to a new homeland. The practice of cousin marriage and the blurring of the fake frontier between so-called forced and arranged marriages means that Pakistan village life is reimported into the settled immigrant communities of Britain every week. The same is true of India and Bangladesh, and the practice of taking children out of school to go back to Pakistan or the continuing connections made by the presence of Pakistani TV in many households as well as the morning papers of Pakistan on sale in the newsagents of Bradford and Birmingham continue to form this semigrant Brit-Pak community in a way that few policy-makers understand.
As Tariq Ali rightly points out, 70 per cent of all Pakistani women are illiterate. The provision of schools for girls in Pakistan could now be a huge national project for Britain’s Pakistani community with the help of government and charitable aid donors.
One of the five pillars of Islam is charitable giving and there could be no greater charitable cause for British Muslims than to open and fund schools for girls all over Pakistan. Some of this work is already undertaken but it is piecemeal and erratic.
The other major contribution would be to invite Pakistani politics to turn away from Islamism. Tariq Ali dismisses almost frivolously the notion of jihadi Islamist politics in Pakistan. He sees no real threat in the development of Islamist terrorist attacks because they cannot fundamentally overthrow and displace major state power. This is true but misses the point. The Pakistani-originated jihadi attacks in Mumbai are still reverberating months later. The jihadi attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team undermine Pakistan’s resilience by removing the pleasures of the nation’s favourite game as it is denied international cricket tours.
I am writing this in India. Every day, there are passionate denunciations of Pakistan in the media and rumbling threats about missile attacks on Pakistan to punish it for hosting the camps from which the Mumbai killers were dispatched. Yet it requires little training to fire an AK47 into a random crowd or still less to put explosives into a waistcoat and kill a Jewish granny or child waiting for a bus in Israel.
Precisely because these attacks are random and not state-threatening they fundamentally alter the nature of bilateral relations. Just look at the security controls now in place in Britain to get on to an aeroplane and one day perhaps to board a train or enter the Tube if another terrorist attack takes place. Islamist ideological terrorism has fundamentally altered the nature of relations in the Middle East. Just about everyone agrees that Israel needs to move back to its 1967 borders, but this will not happen if Israel believes that the lands it has to evacuate to create a viable state for the Palestinians will be turned, as was Gaza, into a zone for thousands of rockets to be launched against its towns. Again, for Tariq Ali all this is somehow the US’s fault, but he might also wonder whether the denunciations of the enlightenment duality of liberal market economics, rule of law, parliamentary democracy and freedom of expression which his politics has stridently voiced over the decades might not have made a small contribution to the present mayhem.
Admonitions apart, his book remains the best and liveliest account of the Pakistani dilemma available. A great deal is available on the web from writers in the region, but for those who do not have time to bury themselves in these chronicles, Tariq Ali’s book is a masterful account.
But for Pakistan fundamentally to change there will have to be movement from within the country itself. Perhaps a 50-year ban on its elite and upwardly mobile citizens leaving the country might do the trick. After all, the great struggles for freedom and democracy in Britain or France or America or almost anywhere in the world could not have happened if Cromwell, John Stuart Mill, Emily Pankhurst, John Maynard Keynes and Clement Attlee, or Margaret Thatcher or even Anita Roddick, had all gone to live somewhere else like Tariq Ali rather than stay and forge and form their own country.
Britain, of course, has had the pleasure of Tariq’s lively contribution to our debates over the last five decades. His first books from Pakistan were banned there by the absurd military dictators who took over because of the failure of corrupt politicians to introduce any effective reform.
Now Tariq’s books can be read anywhere in Pakistan. I hope this one is. Its blueprint for a South Asian union of nations is inspired by the European Union itself. Much as Britain’s and Europe’s ultra-Left join the Tories and the extreme Right and neo-protectionist Labourites in deriding the construction of Europe, the fact is that the EU model of breaking down frontiers and building up liberal market democracy has worked to overcome the nationalism that is hindering similar developments in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Perhaps in his final years in the public eye, Tariq Ali can be named by the European Commission as a special representative to go and preach European values to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. His verbal and journalist fireworks have made him famous. Can he spend his last active years working to help Pakistan to a better 21st century? Or is the pleasure of polemic and the delight of denunciation of the US and the West where Pakistanis like himself live incomparably freer lives than they can chez eux to be his only memorial.