Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tariq Ali: Keeping the leftist spirit alive

Tariq Ali: Keeping the leftist spirit alive
Mariel Grazella, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | Tue, 10/18/2011 10:04 PM
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JP/ Mariel GrazellaJP/ Mariel GrazellaFor Tariq Ali, Britain’s foremost leftist, democracy in Indonesia is comparable to a rolling walnut hollowed out by self-serving politicians who have failed to cater to their people over the years.

Instead of working on real solutions to tackle the chronic problems plaguing the country, including rampant corruption, the “political and money elite”, regardless of their political color, seek to further forge their dominance over the nation.

“And that makes democracy itself just an empty shell,” the editor of The New Left Review said.  

“You take a walnut and roll it on the ground and there’s nothing in it. That is what democracy is today.”

He points out that the fretting of the elites over money and power were symptoms of the global triumph of capitalism, which has been increasingly “under fire as people see that it is not fulfilling their needs”. And this is not restricted to Indonesians.

“All my life, I have argued that the capitalist system does not satisfy the needs of the majority of the people,” he said. “And even as we talk, there are young people in the United States occupying Wall Street and other parts of the country.”

Dissatisfaction over money-hungry elites, according to Ali, has also become one of the pull factors of fundamentalism for youth in countries such as Indonesia seeking to break the political status quo that disfavors the people.

“It’s the symptom of the insecurity of the people and the lack of any real alternatives,” he told The Jakarta Post during his first visit to the country.

As the man behind dozens of books and novels broaching Islamism, fundamentalism is Ali’s cup of tea.

In his 2003 book The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity, Ali included a letter which he dedicated to young Muslims. However, the British university graduate advocates an “Islamic Reformation that sweeps away the crazed conservatism and backwardness of the fundamentalists”.

He said that he wrote “Letter to a Young Muslim” to “convince young people that seeking an identity that is exclusively religious never helped them a lot because there are many other questions that remain to be answered”.

After all, he added, fundamentalism would only “break up” the nation by interfering with the personal lives of people.

“[Fundamentalists will] insist that women wear this and women wear that. And that is not the tradition of Islam in Indonesia. It has never been because Indonesia is a multicultural country,” he said, pointing out the other religious groups that make up this country.

That is why Ali said the government must stop “backing” fundamentalists. The fight against fundamentalists would be hard if people were in it alone.

A WikiLeaks document mentioned that the National Police had funded an Islam Defenders Front (FPI) group to act as their “attack dog”.

“People can do it but it is a hard fight because the fundamentalists are well-organized and they know exactly what they want to do”.

The government should also bring to justice all those who have committed crimes against humanity dating as far back as the 1960s, he said. Leaving those cases unresolved while letting further abuses occur have made people fear opposing fundamentalist groups.

Fundamentalism is having an alarming rise in Indonesia, with terror groups launching suicide bomb attacks against the police and houses of worship. Hard-line groups have also attacked Ahmadiyah followers who practiced a different brand of Islamism from the mainstream.  

“I sometimes joke with Indonesian friends that it should change its name from Indonesia to Indo-amnesia because it will not settle accounts with its history,” he told the Post.

Although his books touch on Islamism, Ali is a self-proclaimed materialist who analyzes “society on the basis of what exists and not on imaginary things”.

“I am very interested in the history of religion because it has dominated the world for over 2,000 years,” he said. “I’m not a believer in it but [religion] is important to understand and analyze.”

His brand of approach toward Islamism, sharp yet devoid of impassioned fanatism, was forged during his youth. Born in Pakistan in 1943 into a prominent family, Ali followed in the footsteps of his left-wing parents.

“I’m never impressed by important families; mine or any other. And so that has never bothered me,” he said. “I think that the most important thing is to remain true to yourself and to maintain a sense of integrity.”

During his student years at Exeter College in Oxford, England, Ali was a dedicated member of a socialist group before heading the Oxford Union in 1965. In the heated era of the Vietnam War, Ali got attention when he debated political heavyweights such as Henry Kissinger and Michael Stewart.

It was his firm stance against capitalism that attracted the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, whom he regularly had discussions with. Yet, under the anti-Vietnam War mood of the 1960s and 1970s, there was “nothing huge” about his friendship with them.

“It’s just that we live in this world of celebrities so it seems huge. But at that time, it didn’t seem huge,” said the writer whose book Street Fighting Years features an interview with the iconic couple, in addition to their photo on the cover.

Similarly, he does not view his role as a muse for The Rolling Stones’ song “Street Fighting Man” and John Lennon’s “Power to the People” as something to gloat about.

“It was nice but it didn’t mean much because you didn’t take it personally. It was for the [anti-war] movement as a whole. That’s how I took it,” he said.  

And as the lyrics of “Power to the People” shout “Well you get on your feet/And out on the street”, Tariq, who has kept his sturdy physique and mind, said he was not about to renounce his activism although he was well over 60 years old.  

He still actively contributes to various publications such as The Guardian in addition to penning books. One of his latest dissects Barack Obama’s US presidency in The Obama Syndrome.

“Well, because I think that there are lots of problems with the world in which we live and I saw absolutely no reason to change my views,” he said.

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