May 30, 2020
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Ali vs. Hitchens: Battle On The Left

If Tariq Ali is burdened by a surfeit of principles, Christopher Hitchens is burdened by a principle without a braking system.

Ali vs. Hitchens: Battle On The Left

Over the past five years, I've begun to catalog and dissect all the myriad divisions on the left -- between intellectuals and labor, identity politicians and aging New Leftists, Judith Butler and Martha Nussbaum, In These Times and Social Text. In fact, just as I was deciding that I had to write my next book on the topic, the endgame of the 2000 presidential election pitted Naderites against Goreans, and I began to hope that Nader would pull 5 percent of the national vote and qualify for matching funds in 2004. Not because I supported Nader, but because I wanted to see the Green Party hold a national convention, so I could watch the vegan-macrobiotic wing and the Mumia Abu-Jamal wing tear each other apart over health benefits for same-sex partners of replacement workers or some such thing.

Then, while most of the left was still assessing the damage wrought by 2000, the terrorist attacks of September 11 divided the anti-imperialists on ZNet from the liberal internationalists at Dissent -- and from pretty much the rest of the country. So, when I heard that Tariq Ali and Christopher Hitchens would be debating "The Left and the War" at Georgetown University in mid-April, I dropped everything and made the four-hour drive from State College.

The Ali-Hitchens Fight! In this corner, the prolific Vanity Fair and Nation columnist and sometime CNN welterweight, Hitchens, notorious among liberals for his attacks on Bill Clinton, notorious among leftists for his support of the war in Afghanistan; in this corner, Ali, the renowned New Left Review editor, novelist, playwright, and filmmaker from Lahore via England, weighing in with a new book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, soon to be notorious for its disturbing jacket images of George W. Bush as a mullah and Osama bin Laden as a U.S. president. What better occasion to take the pulse of the left?

The battle lines were clear from the outset: The Hitchens left is soft on American imperialism, and the Ali left is soft on Islamist radicalism. Ali argued that the United States should have devised "a measured and essentially police response" to the September 11 attacks, centered on apprehending bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership, but avoiding wider U.S. military action. The current war against terrorism is really a "war to promote terror," he said: It won't "stop the flow of young people to terrorism," especially among the volatile middle classes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It will produce blowback for decades to come, and American leftists must protest. "What you do matters," Ali urged. "There is no other countervailing force." A stirring conclusion, I thought, to a not-quite-convincing speech.

Hitchens began by citing the Ayatollah Khomeini's infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and argued that American imperialism cannot be portrayed as morally equivalent to such Islamist radicalism; that the victims of September 11 were killed not by "subjects of empire," as Ali had written in his book, but by "henchmen of the advocates of Shariah law"; that there is a civil war in Islam between moderates and those who would visit the dictates of Shariah on Muslims and non-Muslims alike; that the left can make no compromises with the latter. In response, Ali demanded that the left support "the power of the people to overthrow their own oppressors."

The opening statements, complete with insults, took an hour. At one point, Hitchens insisted that there could be "no intelligent and no principled way" to oppose the struggle against Al Qaeda, whereupon Ali replied, "If we are talking about intelligent and principled debate, I don't intend to learn any lessons from you." On to the questions.

One young man asked Ali an incisive two-parter. First, what about his claim that nothing had changed in Afghanistan as a result of U.S. actions? Would he stand by that even with regard to Afghan schoolgirls? Second, if the United States had responded to the September 11 attacks with police action, and failed to capture Al Qaeda's leaders, at what point, if any, would a military response have been justified? Ali replied that the military response has failed, so it would seem appropriate to try other means. That didn't quite answer the second question, but the lacuna was overshadowed by the fact that it also never addressed the Afghan schoolgirl issue.

Twice, Hitchens was challenged for slandering Islam. He made a halfhearted appeal to the golden age of Islam, but mostly he took such criticisms as opportunities to call the Koran a "10th-rate penal code" and to suggest that, if the book indeed represents the word of God, "then it was a very bad day for Him." As if to reassure everyone that he was engaged in an equal-opportunity offend-a-thon, Hitchens opined that God was also having a bad day when He dictated the Pentateuch and most of the New Testament.

As the evening wore on, and Hitchens combined aggressive secularism with sublime disdain, I asked one of his friends whether Christopher might not consider hiring media consultants from Al-Jazeera to help him with his self-presentation. "And I say this," I whispered, "as a lifelong agnostic."

Much of the support Hitchens lost over religion, he regained when he asked one questioner whether anyone involved in the liberation struggles in South Africa or Chile would crash planes full of civilians into buildings full of civilians. "Can you imagine," he queried, picking up speed and heat as he went, "can you imagine Nelson Mandela or Salvador Allende giving that order?" It was easily his best moment. Then he followed it with a biting contrast between Arab support for Palestinian suicide bombers and Desmond Tutu's personally preventing members of the African National Congress from "necklacing" an informer -- and suddenly, just like that, there was a split between Hitchens and Ali on Palestine.

Hitchens condemned suicide bombers and Ali asked him incredulously how he could support U.S. bombings in Afghanistan but not the Palestinian resistance. Ali then worked himself into a remarkably tangled position, first declaring that Palestinians have the right to resist Israel by any means necessary, then insisting that he does not necessarily support the right of Palestinians to resist Israel by any means necessary, and finally proclaiming that the principle of resistance must be that the oppressed seek to win over the population against whose government and army they are fighting. Ali thus moved from Malcolm X to Mahatma Gandhi in less than five minutes, offering in his final argument the grounds for condemning the suicide bombers he had refused to condemn in the first argument.

An hour later, at a post-debate dinner, I ran into a similar impasse. Ali had just finished summarizing his recent essay "Who Really Killed Daniel Pearl?," and arguing, quite compellingly, that it was never plausible that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency did not know who had done so. Outraged that the United States had already exonerated both General Pervez Musharraf and the intelligence agency, he implied that we were once again bedding down with a corrupt client state.

I was sitting across from Ali and could not waste the opportunity. "I've read your essay, which was terrific, and I've followed your critiques of U.S. complicity with this and that -- most but not all of which I sympathize with," I said. "But I wonder what would constitute an appropriate response to Pearl's murder on the part of the United States?"

"Well," he replied, looking keenly at me, "I'm certainly not calling for sending in fighter jets." I said I hadn't thought he was. He suggested more U.S. pressure on Musharraf, then added the proviso that the many Taliban sympathizers in the intelligence agency are waiting to dispose of Musharraf the minute U.S. support is gone.

By that point in the evening, however, I had decided that the problem with Tariq Ali's anti-imperialist left is not a lack, but a surfeit, of principles. An oppressed people must overthrow its own dictators; the Palestinians have a right to resist oppression, even though we may not support specific uses of that right; the aim of resistance is to appeal to the people whose government and army you are fighting; U.S. intervention produces blowback, particularly when it is, as in the case of Daniel Pearl, not interventionist enough.

Hitchens's arguments were systemically more coherent, and yet problematic in their own way. His troubles are the troubles of the liberal internationalist who doesn't say where his commitment to foreign intervention might end, and on what grounds. There is no question, for example, that liberal internationalists can find a plausible moral basis for action against Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. But then, there is no question that arguments about Milosevic can also be deployed with regard to Saddam Hussein's treatment of his nation's Kurds. Surely that is why an otherwise decent leftist like Michael Walzer would sign up for Bush's planned invasion of Iraq? Having set out to dispense justice around the world, American interventionists are on a dark and unpaved road trod by many leftists, progressives, and liberals before who believed, every step of the way, that this time, the Force would be used for good.

Although Christopher Hitchens is not likely to do an about-face and support Star Wars, liberal internationalism will have to think more clearly and speak more loudly about its own limits, and its opposition to imperialism. For if Ali is burdened by a surfeit of principles, Hitchens is burdened by a principle without a braking system. Ali does not tell us how to proceed when the "organic opposition" to a despotic regime turns out to be composed of Islamist radicals; Hitchens does not tell us how to proceed when a secular democracy turns into a unilateral global cop.

The after-debate dinner, billed as a bacchanal of loquacious leftists, turned out to be rather a sober affair. Hitchens and Ali left shortly after midnight, in good trim and with faculties intact; the only people left at closing were me and three or four writers and editors -- and even we were talking more like color commentators than combatants. But then again, I thought as I wended my way back to my hotel, these are sobering times. After September 11, Daniel Pearl, the Passover Massacre, and the siege of Jenin, no one on the left feels like ordering another round of the same.

(Michael Bérubé is a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University at University Park)

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