The Duel

February 15, 2009 at 3:29 pm (Uncategorized)

Every little while, Tariq Ali writes the same book about Pakistan. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – time passes, and the account needs to be updated. In 1970, he wrote Pakistan: Military Rule or People’s Power, in 1991 Can Pakistan Survive? and in 2008, Ali has written,  The Duel.  Ali writes in a clear and  entertaining style, with an insider’s knowledge, which occasionally comes across as namedropping, but unfortunately many of the stories Ali tells, are becoming a little too familiar

Tariq Ali was born in 1943 in Lahore, India, now a part of Pakistan.  Ali’s family was a part of Pakistan’s intelligentsia, and it’s clear in the various accounts of his life he has published, they were well connected. As such, Ali is well situated to write this account.  

The Duel is an account of Pakistan’s history from its origins within sections of the Muslim middle class to the post-Musharraf intrigues.  Ali makes clear repeatedly throughout the book that Pakistan’s rulers have been less concerned with creating a land of pure than enriching themselves. 

Ali argues that the origins of the drive for Pakistan was among sections of the Muslim elite who feared that in an independent India, they would lose out to the Hindu majority. This manifested itself after partition when the Pakistani ruling class made clear that, unlike Israel which advertised itself as a Jewish homeland, it was not to be a Muslim homeland.  Muslims in India were encouraged to stay…in India.

After the death of the founding father Jinnah, Pakistan fell prey to a succession of corrupt civilian rulers before the army took over. Alternation between corrupt military leaders and corrupt civilian politicians seems to be the pattern since then.

Ali is also clear though that despite the venality of those who find themselves in office, the aspirations of the masses are the same as elsewhere. Education, health care, some sort of accountability in government.. Although Pakistan is often seen as breeding ground for political Islam, Ali argues that the fundamentalists have never had the popular support of the country and that it is the government which has supported and nourished these creatures.  At a speech in Toronto a few years back, Ali suggested there were more fundamentalists in Israel and the U.S. than in Pakistan, which for many is a somewhat Polyannaish appraisal.  

Ali does an especially effective job on demolishing the democratic credentials of the Bhutto family. Ali Bhutto, Benazir’s father, whom Ali knew, may have employed a radical vocabulary, but his conduct towards what was then East Pakistan showed his true colours. Ironically, it was Bhutto in the mid-seventies who began the pandering to the Islamic fundamentalist community with the banning of alcohol and a prohibition of an unimportant  Islamic sect long viewed as heretics by some zealots.  

After her father’s death, Benazir took up his democratic rhetoric. When Benazir became Prime minister in 1988, her mild efforts to reform Pakistan were stymied by the conservative elements in the country, but she quickly became absorbed into the culture of graft. Her marriage to Asif Zadari, later known as Mr. Ten per cent, which was allegedly his cut of any financial maters going through his office, deepened her difficulties. Most terrifyingly, Ali provides an account of the possibility of Benazir’s complicity in the death of her brother Murtaza who was gunned down by police in 1996. (this account is supported by Muttaza’s niece Fatima who now lives in the U.S.)

Ultimately, the final nail in the democratic mirage of the PPP is that in her testament, Benazir simply willed leadership of the party to her son. No election, no discussion. Becuase of  her’s son’s youth, and utter inexperience, her husband Asif Zardari. Ali disputes that Pakistan is a failed state, but insists it is a dysfunctional one. The Duel is a compelling and informative account.

Of course, it is the conclusion where Ali stumblers. In his youth, Tariq Ali was a leader and shining star in the Trotskyist United Sectariat of the Fourth International and its British section the International Marxist Group. In 1981, when the IMG dissolved and entered the Labour Party, Ali broke with the USec, later referring to himself as being more influenced by the dissident Trotskyist historian Isaac Deutscher. A few years later, Ali wrote an apostate novel Redemption which satirized and poured scorn on the pretensions of Trotskyism.

I’m not aware of whether or not Ali still refers to himself as a socialist. I suspect he does, but his entire political framework is as a radical democrat. Like many leftist political writers, Alexander Cockburn and Doug Henwood come to mind, he is eminently skilled at demolishing an opponent’s arguments and pointing out the hypocrisies in others. Where he stumbles is when he puts forward his own programme, which contain democratic reforms, but seem unwilling to address the larger issues of class within the entire sub-continent.  These points aside, The Duel is a solid overview of the issues, problems and dangers of the sub continent.

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