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Tariq Ali – The Clash of Fundamentalisms – George Collins Book Club Review

The George Collins Book Club

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Tariq Ali – The Clash of Fundamentalisms

“Despite the differences between [the three monotheistic religions], they are all affected by the world around them. Times change and they change with them, but in their own way. A striking feature of the present is that no mainstream political party anywhere in the world even pretends that it wishes to change anything significant…over the last fifty years, religious revivalism with a political edge has flourished in many different cultures. Nor is the process finished. A major cause is the fact that all other exit routes have been sealed off by the mother of all fundamentalisms: American imperialism.”

The morning of September 11th, 2001 lives eternal in the collective American consciousness. Any American alive and aware on that day can tell you every small detail about where they were and what they were doing when news of the towers crashing down hit them. Previous generations had Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy as their own traumatic generational hallmarks, and 9/11 characterizes 21st century geopolitical dynamics in the same way those events did.

I had just entered third grade when that fateful day occurred. It may have been my first exposure to the realities of the world beyond the American bubble. What followed was the disastrous Iraq War, a conflict I could not wrap my head around at the time, but then neither could most adults in the country. American media bombarded households with propaganda about a group of people darker than me attacking America because they hated our freedoms. We were told these barbarians survived under oppressive tyrants in barren countries shrouded in rigid adherence to medieval superstition and traditions and didn’t know the sweet taste of democracy’s milk. These images still dominate the minds and discourses of Westerners who glare down their noses at the backwards “Islamic world”, a term meant to cram 50 countries ranging from Morocco to Indonesia into a single reductionist category.

How true is this duality? Is the Muslim world as deep in the pits of antiquity as we’re often told? Is the cliché “Clash of Civilizations” as much of a clash as Western media suggests? Can Muslims integrate into the West without issue or are they forever doomed to their primitive ways? Scholar and activist Tariq Ali attempts to answer these monumental questions in The Clash of Fundamentalisms. It may have been published sixteen years ago in 2003, but the insights are more prescient than ever in 2019 as the Brexit Party gains traction in the United Kingdom on an anti-immigrant platform and United States President Donald Trump inspires rampant xenophobia. That these issues still influence dialogue across borders and oceans sixteen years later is at once fascinating and unsettling.

Ali’s stated objective is to provide a history of Islam through a political lens rather than a theological one. This means divorcing the Koranic believer’s history from the secular explanations for the religion’s manifestation in various parts of the globe. How is it, for example, that Islam could become a core component of cultures as ethnically and geographically different as the countries of West Africa and the Indonesian archipelago? How could it manage such a meteoric rise in a giant sandbox filled with scattered tribes worshipping different deities? Were these events the machinations of an all-powerful god as the Wahhabis suggest, or is it just easier to create large political units using a common religion than to reach compromises between competing tribal belief structures?

The latter analysis better explains the rapid spread of Islam relative to its Abrahamic siblings, and the sheer geographical scope offers a rationale for how fundamentalist Wahhabis in the Arabian Peninsula share the same basic faith as the Sufi mystics of northern India despite the two groups loathing one another. This type of historical review offers a fascinating look at one of the world’s dominant faiths through a more objective lens, and this analysis provides a solid foundation for understanding the political dynamics of Islam’s interactions with today’s world.

Regardless of one’s outlook on rampant Islamophobia in the United States and Europe, it cannot be denied that many Muslim nations wallow in a dark age from which they have yet to emerge. This stagnation prevents many Muslim countries’ from reaching favorable relations with Western powers. Western commentators, especially those in the right wing, often frame this dilemma in fatalistic terms: the Muslim world is doomed to remain in this backwards state, never to return to its golden medieval years when it spearheaded advances in medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and other fields of knowledge left behind by the collapsed Greco-Roman societies. A reformation is needed stat, but one can recognize this need for a transformation while discarding the illogical fatalism of the xenophobic right wing.

All religions experience evolutions and reworking in some capacity. Folklorists’ analyses of religion and mythology have crafted a teleological progression that most faiths seem to follow. A rough outline of the Abrahamic faiths’ coming of age could be depicted as:

– Birth
– Spread through consolidation and assimilation of smaller faiths
– Establishment as a dominant regional force
– State hijacking of religious messages for political gain
– Further spread with the resources of this newfound state backing
– Incorporation of regional variants through wider geographic scope
– Emergence of calls to return to a mythic “golden age”, especially when faced with waning political or military dominance over rival faiths
– Suppression of knowledge and creativity with imposition of strict theological constraints
– Reformation; loosening of restrictions in response to the need for technological advancement
– Replacement of faith with secular principles of governing and societal organization

That’s about where it stops for the mighty Abrahamic triumvirate in the 21st century. It could be argued that Christianity is slipping back into the age of repression with the rise of radical religious political forces in major centers like the United States, but it is difficult to gauge how much influence these forces will have in the coming century at this point. Through a teleological lens, many Muslim societies now sit where Christianity did at the same age. If Islam’s birth can be traced to around the 7th century C.E., its current age could be listed at about 1300 years in Gregorian terms, right around the time that Christianity was waist-deep in the suppression stage as the Catholic church dominated Europe with religious superstition and Scholasticism and the Pope won over the King in every dispute between the two or their small fry.

These same dynamics can be found over many Muslim countries of the world today (with notable exceptions in places like Indonesia and Pakistan where the leadership instead employed Islamist rhetoric to channel nationalist fervor while remaining secular in their governance). Iran is the only official theocracy on a planet of almost 200 countries. There the clerics, headed by the Supreme Ayatollah, can override any decision made by the secular executive or legislative branches. Saudi Arabia governs according to the principles of Wahhabism, a radical 18th century interpretation of the Koran that calls for a return to Islam in its original 7th century form.

The brutal monarchy still performs public executions while its royal family gorges on oil wealth. Terrorist organizations like Al-Qaida and the Islamic State (ISIS) hide behind fabricated divine pathos to promote a modern holy war in a way reminiscent of 12th century European crusaders whose palms were greased to pillage “The Holy Land.” These organizations are rightly criticized for their brutal treatment of women, but let’s not forget the epidemics of “chivalrous” European knights in the middle ages who abused their status to violate women and extort from the underclass.

In Islam’s current state, we see a repeat of the marriages between political and religious forces that characterized medieval Christian Europe. The younger sibling has reached the rebellious teenage stage, and his older brother loves to dump on him for it while forgetting his own adolescence wasn’t a spitting image of godliness. Thus, our interpretation of Islam’s current state need not be a fatalistic condemnation, but rather an acknowledgement of these dark practices and an encouragement of reformation. Ali calls on both the leaders of the Muslim nations and Muslim youth to recognize and respond to this need by taking pride in their identity and working to improve their countries.

One may ask why it has taken so long for Islam to find that reformation? Marty’s Ninety-Five Theses kept Christianity’s dark age relatively brief, yet Islam continues to crawl through the sludge with no light at the end of the tunnel. The West needs to look in the mirror for this answer. The Enlightenment Age principles the Western world uses to smash religious fundamentalism has mutated into a fundamentalism of its own, what Ali calls the fundamentalism of American imperialism or what other scholars have termed “the cult of modernity.”

Anyone who calls themselves a socialist for five minutes understands the uphill battle in convincing the world there really is an alternative to predatory capitalism. Mention Marx’s name in the United States and you’ll be driven out of the joint by a mob packing chromes. Even tenured Marxist economists at universities aren’t safe as an epidemic of questionable firings by center-right administrative staff sweeps the nation. Socialist scholars like Pankaj Mishra remind us that capitalism spread outside Europe in combination with jingoistic imperialism. Slavery, genocide, resource pillaging, crushing multi-lateral debt, and ongoing military conflict over resource control make one hell of an Irish Bomb Shot cocktail. Black and brown populations across the world never had the chance to develop independently of this system, leaving their societal endgames lost to eternal speculation.

In rejecting any semblance of an alternative to its sacred values of vapid self-interest and pursuit of wealth, Western capitalism became the monster it sought to vanquish. New methods of structuring society are deemed heretical and thrown out of the room with enough force to knock a moose dead, much like the heresies of the Catholic church or the Iranian clerics. This system continues to be forced on black and brown populations all over the world against their will like the proselytizing of the first imperialist missionaries, creating the nationalist fervor we associate with unstable countries drawn along colonial lines.

The Muslim world bears at least some responsibility for its descent into dark age backwardness, but the anger and rage exhibited by those we label the Enemies of Freedom is best explained as a reaction to a global social order imposed by those who worship at the base of the Magic Money Tree (as our own Steve McAuliffe would call it). If it takes two to tango, then this clash of fundamentalist ideologies is a match made in the deepest pits of hell. Right wingers may find themselves sympathizing with this explanation. Don’t like the “coastal elites” in San Francisco, New York, or Seattle calling you backwards and uneducated because of where you live?

The young Muslim in the diner down the street knows your pain Joe.

Our Muslim counterparts are working hard in their own countries to establish more secular regimes and movements and reclaim the pride felt by Muslim societies in the medieval times. Share their stories of success. Reach out to them to know how best to support them. We as progressives must destroy this “Clash of Civilizations” falsehood.





By George Collins

2 thoughts on “Tariq Ali – The Clash of Fundamentalisms – George Collins Book Club Review

  1. Hi George, another excellent review mate, I’m enjoying your book club. Couple of things off the bat I wanted to pick up on:

    “American media bombarded households with propaganda about a group of people darker than me attacking America because they hated our freedoms.”

    Yes, you heard that a lot, didn’t you? Still do in fact. And it has always annoyed me, because it’s very effective propaganda, being such a simple, memorable idea. At the same time it’s completely illogical. They hate freedom? Really? Who hates freedom? Certainly not ‘us!’ Therefore ‘they’ cannot be like ‘us,’ not ‘people’ in the way that we are, because the love of freedom is a human quality, and ‘they’ don’t have it. That’s the process we call ‘othering’ in action right there! Just from a simplistic four word claim, “they hate our freedoms.”

    And I felt this way for years about it, annoyed, but lacking an effective counter-argument, because saying, “That’s a ridiculous oversimplification. The reality is much more complex. Look…” is not an effective argument with the sort of people attracted to ridiculous oversimplifications. Or perhaps I should say vulnerable to them. No, your counter-argument needs to be as close as possible to equally simple, and as devastating as soon as it is comprehended. And on this one, last year I finally came up with it, and here it is:

    They don’t hate your freedoms, they hate the way you keep them to yourselves!

    That is the fundamental truth at the heart of the matter. With the obvious blip of WWII, America’s record in the world over the century has been one of setting up and propping up brutal dictatorships, and opposing virtually every people’s movement they saw. They have consistently supported military juntas and vicious terrorists against democratic forces all over the world. Of course once you go down that road it leads you to question the notion of ‘American Innocence,’ a very necessary thing to do, which is why I think it’s an effective argument – it’s superficially simple, but it leads you to question a lot of assumptions once you’ve grasped it.

    Second thing, and this is a very minor quibble, and it actually simplifies (and therefore strengthens, see above) your argument:

    “If Islam’s birth can be traced to around the 7th century C.E., its current age could be listed at about 1300 years in Gregorian terms, right around the time that Christianity was waist-deep in the suppression stage as the Catholic church dominated Europe with religious superstition and Scholasticism and the Pope won over the King in every dispute between the two or their small fry.”

    Your arithmetic is out buy a hundred years. Islam uses the ‘Hijri’ calendar, which begins its count from the Islamic New Year in 622 CE. During that year, Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca to Yathrib (now Medina), so in fact it’s almost 1400 years. However, because that is a lunar calendar, a year is roughly 11 days shorter than a Gregorian year, so Islam is actually in it’s fifteenth century already (it started in 1979). But that means you can point out that in Christianity’s 15th Century, we had the Spanish Inquisition! And thanks to Monty Python, that is a reference everyone will get. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the correction Derek! The Inquisition somehow escaped the brain when I was writing tbis, but the timing is a perfect alignment.

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