Back in 2001, during an anti-war demonstration in London, Tariq Ali had an encounter with two young Muslims who were shocked to learn that an anti-imperialist of his stature sets no store by religion, any religion.
Those young men were at a loss to understand how a person of Muslim background without faith in Islam could stand up to the crimes, excesses and injustices perpetrated by big powers in the Muslim world.
Later, he wrote an open letter which is a critique of extremist religion as well as American imperialism.
Every time the West intervenes in Muslim countries it sets them back many decades. They intervening powers create exploitative economies run by corrupt politicians on American life-support and unstable, undemocratic governments to do their bidding. This has caused massive discontent among people and they have increasingly turned towards extremist strains of politicised religion to fight American imperialism.
This is ‘anti-imperialism of the fool’. They cannot improve anything by going back to a mythical past which did not even exist for seventh century Muslims, if the ‘Emirate of Afghanistan’ (under Taliban), Saudi Arabian radicalism and Iranian clerical system are examples to go by.
He rejects the notion that Muslims must imitate Western neoliberalism to modernise themselves in order to be able to fight the global hegemony of big powers. Rather, they must find new ways and ideas which are more advanced than what’s on offer in the West.
Yet he does not elaborate except for advising Muslims to support separation of politics and religion, let go of mystified theological debates that serve no tangible purpose to improve peoples’ condition, and instead pay attention to things that matter, by which he means working for the establishment of equitable economic systems and providing people with basic human rights to education, health and food.
Enlightenment in the lands of Islam will not come from the West; they will have to work for it themselves. The internal debates about the role of religion in politics and public space will determine which course Islamdom takes, and he hopes Muslims will not waste any more energies on theological wranglings, sectarian fights and trivial things but get down to business sooner rather than later.
The letter gets somewhat confusing when he mentions celebrations by some Muslims in the wake of 9/11 attacks and says this has nothing to do with religion. He points out to similar reaction among other people like the congratulatory emails that went around in Russia and the case of Argentine students who walked out of the class when their professor criticised Osama bin Laden.
This behaviour is credited to the disenchantment people feel worldwide with the American Empire. 9/11 attack was not a “cause to celebrate”; it actually showed “terrible weakness” of the Third World in the face of American imperialism.
For Tariq Ali, it is still the economy, stupid. Nothing else matters.