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Tariq Ali Speaks in Seattle on War

by Kirsten Anderberg Saturday, Dec. 13, 2003 at 3:14 PM Seattle, Wa.

Tariq Ali, author of "Bush in Babylon," spoke in Seattle recently about Arab culture, American history in the Middle East, ways to thwart being called an anti-Semite for criticizing Israeli policy and more....

Tariq Ali Speaks in Seattle

By Kirsten Anderberg Copyright 2003

Tariq Ali’s visit to Seattle on Dec. 6, 2003, for a book signing and lecture, had a solid showing of support for his work. At a ticket, the place was still packed to standing room only. Mr. Ali is the author of the books “Clash of Fundamentalisms,” and “Bush in Babylon,” and has been outspoken in his dissection of the Middle East conflict. Ali is an eloquent speaker, relying on practicality, and the speech patterns of a common person, rather than a pretentious intellectual (i.e., you can understand him). He utilizes American and world history, and international news (that Americans are often so ignorant of) to make his points, giving practical advice to Americans, as to what their part is in all this. He understands Americans are walking around in a media-induced haze, muttering “But we are innocent victims of terrorism,” and he addresses this haze with sound information about why we are perceived as a bullying enemy to much of the world.

Mr. Ali began his lecture by talking about the Arab world, and why it is so resistant to the American occupation. There has been a long history of oppression in the Arab region, due to the American interest in that region’s oil. The Arab world watched American interests play out in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, thus there is obvious skepticism regarding the touted goal of democracy in Iraq now. Mr. Ali said that political freedom of speech was banned so heavily in public arenas in the Arab world with American oil interests in it, that the political discussions ended up centered in the mosques. Since that was one of the only venues where political discussion was allowed, Mr. Ali says it is no surprise that the revolts are coming from the mosques.

Mr. Ali talked about how Americans tend to insulate in a uniquely ego-centric manner. I know that we are taught as young children in U.S. public schools, that the world revolves around America, as “the world’s only remaining Superpower.” The little Americans know of the Arab world, we learned from racist Disney cartoons, and reruns of “I Dream of Jeannie,” while she is in Baghdad visiting relatives! Mr. Ali pointed out the fact that the Arabs that Americans tend to dismiss as backwards or in need of liberation, know much more about America than Americans know about the Arab world. Studying sociology in college, I became aware of the phenomenon that the oppressed always know the oppressor better than the oppressor knows the oppressed. It is clear to me that America uses this image of a backward Arab world in need of American salvation, for America’s own profits and economic gains through access to Arab oil. It is easier to rob an area of its natural resources if we can pretend we are helping a backward people (reference the taking of American Indian land here in the U.S.). Mr. Ali suggested that 6 TV cameras be put in cafes overseas, in cities like Cairo and Beirut, and that 6 TV cameras be put in American cafes in New York, L.A. ,etc. Now, let’s see what the two groups talk about. On the whole, the non-American cafes will be discussing politics and international issues. Americans would be discussing movie stars, MTV, fashion, and internal American politics. And this American culture is policing the world?

Mr. Ali said that poetry is “a big deal” in the Arab world, in a different way than in America. He said we do not understand the power a poet can have. In the Arab world, he said a poem will come out, and the poem will make it to many cities within a day, then songs will be made of it, and people will sing it, and it can then be banned as contraband. Poets can be powerful, and we have seen this throughout history. When Ali was talking about the Iraqi poet Saadi Yousef, he said Yousef “lost his temper and wrote a poem.” Due to the popularity and power of poetry, poems can be grounds for exile, as Yousef has demonstrated.

Mr. Ali said the picture of Rumsfeld, smiling, shaking the hand of Saddam, back when Saddam was our ally against Iran, should be reviewed often. He reminded us that the U.S. is responsible for putting the Shah back in power in Iran. He said that America has been ruling by force, and has a history of leaving nothing behind once done. He said when Rome was conquering things by force, they left roads behind. When Britain invaded India, they left railroads, yet only 3% of the population was educated. He said that empires only do things that serve their own interests. And Ali believes America’s interest in the Iraq invasion was, and is, to establish itself as an Imperial power, not to help or democratize Iraq.

Mr. Ali said that resistance is necessary or else the U. S. will think it can do whatever it wants. And he said resistance is growing worldwide to the American invasion in Iraq. He said ordinary Iraqi citizens HATE the American military. They do NOT look at them as welcome liberators. And that there is a rise of resistance within the Arab world, as well as dismay within the engaged American troops, over this war. He said that Europe is also distancing itself from allegiance to the U.S. over this. He said that even though Europe and America share the same economic systems, Europeans do not pay for education, medical care, or public transportation. He said that the majority of Europeans, including Italians, are nonreligious. Yet 90% of Americans say they believe in god. As well as 70% of Americans believe in angels. The more you look at basic American beliefs, the more I think I am in a country of complete lunatics! Mr. Ali said that what Americans do here in America matters to the rest of the world. He said as Americans, we are at the center of this. And that the American decision to go to war has affected the world.

As I have tried to talk to my fellow Americans about what we are supporting in Israel via the Wall, Sharon’s noncompliance with peace accords, etc., I often am derailed with cries of anti-Semitism. It is quite frustrating. I try to distinguish the facts, explaining I am critical of American support of Israeli political policies, not about the Jewish religion. Yet I still run into this roadblock a lot. I asked Mr. Ali how to thwart the cries of “anti-Semitism” when trying to talk critically about Sharon and American policies in the Middle East. Mr. Ali said that the Israeli papers are much more critical of Israeli policies than American papers (which is very telling). He also said that the UK’s Guardian had much more in it than the U.S. papers on the conflict. He suggested I reference Israeli press in my arguments as a way around anti-Semitism remarks. He suggested I reference the Israeli paper, Haaretz (, for my arguments. I asked if Israeli papers could not be anti-Semitic. People laughed, but that was a serious question. I am not sure why just quoting an Israeli paper would relieve me of being called anti-Semitic when I openly critique American-Israeli policy. But it is an interesting angle. After the lecture, I talked to a Palestinian man who was staffing a table of information. He gave me two copies of The Washington Report, a glossy magazine with the byline “Telling the truth for 20 years…Interpreting the Middle East for North Americans.” Their website ( is very informative, and the magazine is packed with intelligent critique of the war and American policies abroad. The evening stimulated discussions in the Seattle community afterwards, and I am glad to have been hooked up with Haaretz and The Washington Report. These are two new resources for me, that I look forward to utilizing more. American press is just not making the cut nowadays on these international issues.

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