Tariq Ali, Bush In Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq (Verso Books, 2003)
The war in Iraq is not going well. The US administration thought it would conquer Iraq and everyone there would welcome them as “liberators.” That hasn’t happened. What was promised to be a two-week offensive to remove a brutal dictator has turned into an American occupation that is resisted daily by a diverse group of Iraqi guerilla forces, and not just by remnants of the Ba’ath Party. Two to four G.I.s are being killed everyday by this resistance, most foreign aid workers have left town for fear of their safety, and Bush wants more and more of our tax dollars to pay for the occupation.
Tariq Ali has published a new book to say that he is not surprised. In Bush In Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq, the Pakistani-born, London-based writer and antiwar activist argues that the national trauma of 9/11 has been used as justification for a bold imperialist agenda abroad. This agenda is clearly articulated by The Project for a New American Century, which, of course, is a non-profit educational organization. The Project argues that American hegemony is good both for America and the world. The occupation of Iraq, as such, is a clear demonstration of American imperial power enforcing its will. But, despite such grand proclamations, the simple truth is that no one likes to be occupied, even if it is for their own good. Resistance, moreover, is a hallmark of the history and the consciousness of the Iraqi people— one need only to look at the history of the Arab world to understand this. The current occupation is likely doomed because of this history, but its consequences nevertheless will mark the 21st century that we have only just begun to live in.
Amidst all this doom and gloom, Tariq Ali’s Bush in Babylon is actually uplifting. He has successfully separated the Iraqi quagmire from all distracting notions of Osama and jihadi terror by providing us with a detailed and appropriately secular history of Iraq, as well as the Arab countries, as they emerged from the belly of the British Empire and slowly but firmly became part of the American imperialist project. We see how various “jackals” and “racketeers” secured a succession of Arab defeats to the West, but not without the resistance of a full cast of characters including King Ghazi whose anti-imperialist radio station led to his deposition by the British in the 1930s. We encounter Khalid Ahmed Zaki, the Iraqi Marxist intellectual killed in action in 1968, and Saadi Youssef, the exiled Iraqi poet living in London who currently continues to inspire resistance through his poetry, which reaches Baghdad through the Internet. Sourcing noted historians such as Hanna Batatu and several Arab poets, Ali shows us that Iraqis have always resisted foreign control, and that their own internal divisions have often prevented effective resistance to autocratic dictators.
What is refreshing about this book is that Ali identifies himself as unapologetically sympathetic to the Arab nation and to its ability and right to self-determination. It is almost a revolutionary act of writing to expose us to the history of civil society and political ferment in Iraq. The U.S. government and most of the mainstream media in this country has glaringly ignored the voices (and recent deaths) of Iraqi civilians, declaring them unfit to rule their own country since Saddam has been ousted. To counter this racist attitude, Ali gives us an intimate look (including photo portraits) and shows an excitement about the past in order to fill in the gaps and possible misperceptions in our imagination about present day Iraqi resistance. These are not the Arabs on camelback in Lawrence of Arabia, they are 20th century intellectuals, kings, and Marxists who played an important role in the history of the modern world.
Ali offers this history as a warning to both the imperial ambitions of the United States as well as to the splintered opposition groups currently resisting the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He concludes his historical synopsis with a rally for the global anti-war movement, which emerged most publicly last February 15, as a demonstration that a historically unprecedented number of people worldwide did not accept official justifications for war— that the secular Ba’ath Party of Iraq was connected to al-Qaeda or that “weapons of mass destruction” existed in the region. He proposes a re-founding of Mark Twain’s Anti-Imperialist League (first launched in 1899), in order to carry forward today’s anti-war movement on a global level. As such, he is full of hope for the future. Iraqis will resist foreign occupation and we can play our part by resisting imperialist aggression.
What Ali does best is to admire and encourage civilian participation in politics, to resist injustice when necessary. His sentimental description of Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) activities in particular makes me want to get up and organize. But Ali also leaves many of his thoughts unfinished. In particular, I would have liked him to articulate his dynamic of local resistance joining global resistance because he tends to conflate the anti-war movement with the anti-imperialist movement, the beginnings of which may already exist within the nexus of organizations comprising the anti-globalization movement (or the pro-global justice movement). Yes, this may seem confusing. But it is important for Ali to articulate his perspective clearly or it will get lost in the white noise. One can be against American imperialism, and therefore against this American war in Iraq, but not necessarily against the use of war to topple a brutal dictator. How do we remove unpopular regimes when even Iraqi history has shown that those who resist such power are tortured, killed or exiled? All accounts of public opinion have shown that Iraqis believed that the invasion was probably necessary to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
If Ali were to argue the necessity of a nonviolent global movement, then how is he to justify his sentimentality for Iraqis who are arming themselves and are risking their lives to get the Americans out? In what cases is violence acceptable? If you allow for Iraqi violence to resist invaders, would you allow for violence amongst rival Iraqi factions vying for power in the new regime? It’s also unclear how an anti-imperialist league can resist some of the most powerful machinations of imperialism, specifically those that yield domestic comforts. To begin with, we will have to pay more for oil.
It gets complicated. Even if one does not have all the answers, it is important to raise the questions. And Ali has thought deeply about these matters. Though he doesn’t dwell on his own history in the book, he grew up in Lahore, Pakistan with communist parents. When he was in college in the ’50s, he organized public demonstrations against Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship before he was banned from participating in student politics. After college, his uncle, then head of Pakistani Military Intelligence, told him to go abroad because his radicalism was becoming dangerous and he risked imprisonment, and so Ali went to Britain.
Ali thus understood firsthand how difficult it was to resist a U.S.-funded dictator who has tremendous resources and the infrastructure to crush dissent, and I would have liked to hear about his own past. Ali does, however, situate himself in the present and in an opposite position to his former colleague Christopher Hitchens. In not so many words, he laments the loss of the Hitchens writing during the first Gulf War, and shows us how Hitchens of late has become a neocon. “What happened to him?” Ali asks. 9/11 happened to him, he tells us. And in this example, Ali offers us a choice. 9/11 happened to us all. We can go either way.
Mridu Chandra is a filmmaker and writer living in New York.