CWI Material from the MIR (predecessor of Socialism Today), on Islamic Fundamentalism. Originally published September 1993.
What does Islamic fundamentalism represent? Can it provide a way out for the masses of the Middle East, north Africa and elsewhere?
Nick Wrack looks at its implications for the struggle for socialism.
The rise of fundamentalism
Islamic fundamentalism is a growing trend throughout this key strategic and economic region for the advanced capitalist countries. From the challenge of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and the bombing campaign of Gama’a al-Islamiya in Egypt, to the increasing support for militant Islamic groups in Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied territories, imperialism and the governments of the area are facing a rising tide of opposition expressed in the language of Islam.
The US decision to intervene in Somalia was partly motivated by the fear that, as the country disintegrated, Islamic fundamentalism could provide a rallying point for the population. Situated opposite the Arabian peninsular, an Islamic regime in Somalia could pose a direct threat to the interests of imperialism.
Ironically, the intervention of the US and the UN has served to strengthen the fundamentalists. General Aidid, whose standing has been greatly enhanced by the UN attacks on him, is increasingly using Islamic rhetoric to bolster his position. Rallies in south Mogadishu have become radically Islamic, with imams from the fundamentalist Ittihad movement urging jihad, or holy war, against the US.
A similar effect can be seen in Lebanon. The barrage of missiles fired by Israel in July on the Shi’a Muslim south, forcing 400,000 refugees to flee, will drive many recruits into the ranks of Hezbollah.
It is not surprising that the radical anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Islamic preachers finds receptive ears, whether in the Palestinian camps or in the slums of Cairo. The idea that the US, and the West in general, is at war with Islam is confirmed in their eyes by the Gulf war and the continued sanctions against Iraq. They compare the recent bombing of Baghdad with the reluctance to defend Muslims in Bosnia. They see the massive aid given to Israel and the fact that after twenty months of peace talks there is still no sign of an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza or the West Bank.
The rulers of the Arab countries are condemned for their capitulation to imperialism. Rulers like Mubarak of Egypt are rightly seen as pliant tools in the hands of US imperialism. Egypt receives $2bn per year in aid from the US - only Israel receives more - ensuring its complicity in imperialist aggression like the Gulf war.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is a consequence of the horrendous living conditions facing the overwhelming mass of the populations, due to the exploitation by imperialism and the inability of the weak national rulers to develop the economy, combined with the absence at the moment of any alternative movements which appear capable of leading a struggle for change.
The 1980s economic boom in the advanced capitalist countries was in large part due to their intensified exploitation of the colonial and ex-colonial world. Through their domination of world trade the imperialist powers forced down the price of raw materials exported by these countries, including the price of oil, thus depriving them of essential revenue. When these countries turned to the IMF and the World Bank, loans were only granted on the basis of severe austerity measures.
The economic recession at the end of the 1980s exacerbated the problems for the colonial countries, as imperialism tightened its squeeze. The collapse of Stalinism has given much freer rein to imperialism, removing any limited room for diplomatic and economic maneuver which the colonial countries had before. The collapse of the planned economy has also had an affect on the consciousness of the masses in the region. While the fundamental strength of the working class internationally remains intact, the apparent failure of ‘socialism’ has served to confuse many workers and youth and led them to look for other solutions.
Any attempt to seek an explanation for the growing support for the various forms of Islamic fundamentalism in the religion of Islam itself would be futile. Such an explanation will only be found in the social and economic conditions of the area. It reflects the desperate searching on the part of the oppressed masses for a way out of the seemingly eternal hell of poverty, hunger, unemployment and disease.
Marx described religion as "the sigh of the oppressed". Lenin explained that "the deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparently complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism".. In the absence of any worldly salvation many seek solace in religion. When the religious leaders include in their sermons attacks on the ruling elites and urge a struggle against them, even when this is couched in religious phraseology, it seems to echo the thoughts of the oppressed masses themselves.
The teachings of Islam can be interpreted in different ways according to class interests
In calling for a return to the pure ‘fundamentals’ of Islam they argue for a purging of all Western, alien or non-Islamic influences which have corrupted the culture and led society astray.. Thus, their religious fundamentalism is mixed up with a radical anti-imperialism, to which the oppressed masses bring their own interpretation.
Common to all the fundamentalist organizations is the aim of establishing a completely Islamic theocracy or religious state in which the Sharia, or Islamic law, would be enforced. As in Iran this would include the enforced Islamic dress code such as the wearing of the veil for women, and the segregation of the sexes in education and other institutions. Marxists are completely opposed to any attempts to subject people to religious laws against their wishes. While defending the right of everyone to practice the religion of their choice Marxists stand for the complete separation of church and state.
Islam itself is not intrinsically any more radical or reactionary than other religions. The social content and outlook of any religion will be determined and altered by the changing conditions of society. Like all religions the teachings of Islam can be interpreted in different ways according to the class interests of those who seek to utilize it.
While the development of Islam and its teachings, and the split into the different branches of Sunni, Shi’a and others, is not completely irrelevant to an explanation of Islamic fundamentalism, these factors are subordinate to the wider class struggles within society and of necessity must reflect them, albeit in a distorted fashion. In Saudi Arabia, where Islamic law is enforced, both the dictatorship of the Saudi royal family and the developing opposition’s arguments for democratic reforms are justified in terms of the Koran.
The fundamentalist leaders of the different groups represent sections of the bourgeois or petty bourgeois. The Muslim Brotherhood opposed the secular Arab nationalism of Nasser, the Egyptian leader from 1954-70, and the land reforms and nationalizations he implemented. In Syria they consistently opposed the reforms of the Baath government based on its abolition of the private ownership of industry and land reform, calling for jihad against the Assad regime. Like all the other fundamentalist leaders they condemn atheistic communism and are virulently anti-socialist. Consequently, although for much of their history they have been suppressed by the Egyptian government, they have also been encouraged as a counterweight to the secular left and Communist Party.
In Afghanistan various Muslim guerrilla organizations fought a counter-revolutionary war, financed and trained by the CIA, to defeat the former Stalinist Najibullah regime. These forces represented the reactionary landlord class which opposed the reforms carried out by the regime. The fundamentalist state of Saudi Arabia is one of the USA’s most loyal client states in the Middle East.
However, Islamic fundamentalism is not a homogeneous phenomenon. When it develops as a movement basing itself upon the poor and oppressed, and begins to reflect their desire for change, it becomes a strange hybrid combining contradictory and opposed class interests. On the one hand are the interests of the reactionary leaders, who base themselves on the continuation of capitalist, and in some cases feudal, property relations. On the other hand is a revolutionary desire to change society on the part of the oppressed which can only be satisfied by Sweeping away all vestiges of capitalism and feudalism.
The Islamic fundamentalist groups, whose basic aim of the establishment of an Islamic state is thoroughly reactionary, can appear as a radical force only in the absence of a mass socialist movement. This is especially because of the demise of the region’s Communist Parties following the collapse of Stalinism but also due to their past failure to lead the masses to power.
Throughout the region there have been many occasions when the working class, despite its relatively small size, has had the opportunity to overthrow capitalism. But under the direction of Moscow, which did not want socialist revolutions to take place, the Communist Parties of the Middle East were led to support bourgeois nationalist movements and so derailed many revolutionary situations.
In Iraq in 1958, when the bourgeois democrat Kassem took power, the CP emerged from the underground with a mass following. In 1959 they led a May Day demonstration of half a million workers in Baghdad. Instead of leading a struggle for power they gave their support to Kassem and when he was toppled by a military coup in 1963, over 5,000 communists and their supporters were slaughtered.
In Sudan in 1969 the CP backed a military takeover led by General Numeiri. Despite having a million members out of a population of only 14 million, in 1971 the CP and trade union leaders were arrested and executed. The Numeiri dictatorship increasingly relied on Islamic rhetoric to maintain some support, introducing the Sharia in 1983. Numeiri was overthrown by a revolutionary uprising in 1985, but once again no organization was capable of giving a lead. In 1989 another coup brought the present Islamic military regime to power.
Arab nationalism, which under Nasser won mass support, also proved ultimately incapable of standing up to the power of imperialism. Because Nasser was not prepared to completely break the power of the capitalists and landlords, Egypt remained subservient to the interests of imperialism.
With the failure of secular Arab nationalist movements and the betrayal of the Communist Parties, sections of the working class and peasantry have looked to the various Islamic organizations as a vehicle for change. In this sense the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is an expression of the impasse of capitalism in the region and the need for the oppressed masses to find a way out.
Were Islamic fundamentalism to come to power in any of the countries where it is now developing as a force, the most likely case being Algeria, it would not solve any of the economic and social problems facing the masses. With no coherent economic or political program to change society, the Islamic fundamentalist leaders in power would inevitably try to attack the democratic rights and living standards of the workers and peasants who helped to bring them to power.
However, it is not pre-ordained that the reactionary class elements in the leadership of the Islamic fundamentalist movement would triumph in the course of a revolutionary process. In such a situation Islamic fundamentalist movements combine both revolution and counter-revolution and the question of which predominates and is finally successful depends upon the balance of class forces within society. A key factor will be whether there is a Marxist organization with a clear program, capable of developing into a mass force, and able to lead the working class and poor peasantry to power.
Where such a party does not exist, or fags to utilize the revolutionary developments to win the mass of the working class to its banner, then the basis would be laid for the counter-revolutionary element within Islamic fundamentalism, based on the middle classes and landlords, to secure victory for reaction.
This is what happened in Iran where the revolution of 1979 brought the mullahs to power. Even here, the ultimate triumph of the counter-revolution was not easily achieved and was only possible due to the abject failure of the Communist Party, known as the Tudeh, and other left forces.
The Tudeh party had in the past developed a mass following. In 1946, having led massive strikes, the CP were brought into government, compromised and then thrown out. On the basis of revolutionary events in 1951, the Tudeh party regained mass support. But it failed to utilize this, instead backing the bourgeois democrat Mossadeq, and by 1953 the Shah had been reinstated by a CIA-backed coup.
In the revolution [in 1979] which toppled the Shah, the working class, especially the oil workers, played the decisive part. The Shah of Iran was a client of US imperialism, presiding over a repressive regime in which opposition was prohibited. From October 1977, throughout the whole of 1978, there was an escalating wave of demonstrations and strikes culminating in an insurrectionary movement in February 1979.
Given the repression of the Shah’s regime one of the few places where dissent could be expressed was in the mosque. Albeit in a distorted and inchoate manner, the mullahs reflected the discontent of the masses. Their radical sermons were interpreted by the masses in their own way. The mullahs themselves were opposed to the Shah because of the confiscation of church land, and due to their link with the bazaar merchants who opposed the foreign domination of industry and trade. In the absence of any alternative leadership, the mullahs were able to assume a key position in the fight against the Shah and ride to power upon the backs of the working class..
In the revolution which toppled the Shah, the working class played the decisive part.
Had the working class been conscious of the power it had in its hands and organized itself to defend that power, the beginnings of a socialist workers’ republic could have been established. An international appeal to the workers and poor peasants throughout the Gulf region, the Middle East and beyond, appealing also for support from the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, would have won an enthusiastic response and ensured the success of the revolution. Unfortunately, due to the absence of a genuine Marxist organization, the workers’ movement at the critical moments remained rudderless.
The Tudeh played little role in the events of 1979, simply tail-ending the actions of the Islamic clerics around Khomeini. At no time did the Tudeh put forward the need for soviets, or workers’ councils, to be set up to organize the revolution and to defend its gains. Instead they declared that "the political programme of Ayatollah Khomeini... (was) in accordance with the position it had itself adopted".. (Morning Star, 27 January, 1979). In this way the Tudeh reinforced the position of Khomeini rather than explain the reactionary nature of his program and the interests which he represented.
Once in power there was an immediate conflict of interests, reflected within the clergy itself. The Islamic Republican Party established by the clerics of the newly-formed Revolutionary Council was connected to the old petit bourgeois and the bazaar merchants, who stood for the protection of private property and a government based on their interests. While aiming to represent the economic outlook of this conservative strata, the clerics had to take account of the popular resentment of the masses to the merchants and landlords and their demands for change.
Khomeini immediately tried to restrain the working class and contain their aspirations to overthrow the economic system. However, in the initial period, faced with the enormous strength of the workers’ movement, the new regime was forced to go much further than it wanted. Within four months, banks, insurance companies and major sections of industry were nationalized with no resistance from their owners. Strikes and factory occupations developed despite the pleas for restraint from Khomeini. Where the bosses fled the workers started up production on their own and demanded that the government nationalize the plants, which it was obliged to do. The newly established Islamic government had to tread very cautiously so as not to provoke the working class into opposition. In March 1979, thousands demonstrated against proposed laws enforcing women to wear the veil and the regime backed down.
The class character of the new regime was clear from the beginning. On the day the insurance companies were nationalized a bill was published setting up courts with the power to impose ten-year prison sentences for "disruptive tactics in factories or worker agitation". Gradually the regime was able to consolidate itself. The Islamic Republican Guard was used to suppress the left organizations. Clerics were appointed to run the factories taken over by the workers. By May 1983 the Tudeh, which had been the only ‘Marxist’ party to be officially legalized by the revolutionary council, was banned and its leaders arrested.
The regime relied heavily on anti-imperialist rhetoric to win support, especially utilizing the American hostages in November 1979. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 the masses rallied to defend the revolution. The regime, given room for maneuver, was able to go onto the offensive against the opposition. The veil was enforced in 1981. By August 1982 all secular law was null and void and the Sharia was implemented. By 1982 40,000 teachers had been purged. Thousands of working class oppositionists were murdered.
The opposition to the regime is becoming more open.
The Iranian regime under Khomeini, and then Rafsanjani, being unable to provide any solution to the economic problems of capitalism, entered crisis. Splits emerged within the regime between those such as Rafsanjani, who wanted to turn more towards the western capitalist powers for trade and economic assistance, and those who reflected more the revolutionary traditions of the mass of the population. The regime has to walk a fine tightrope between trying to arrive at an understanding with imperialism and using anti- imperialist rhetoric to keep the support of the masses. This attempt to face both ways at once is encapsulated at the luxury Hotel Azadi in Teheran. In the lobby there is a sign saying ‘Down with the USA’, but at the reception desk guests are told that bills can only be settled in US dollars.
The continuing anti-imperialist fervor of the masses was shown by the demonstration of one million in Teheran at the outbreak of the Gulf war, demanding joint action alongside Iraq against the US. This was despite the eight-year long war with Iraq in which 400,000 Iranians died. If the regime does not take this attitude into account it could unleash a movement which would cause it to fall.
This is all the more the case given the growing discontent. While 20% of the population own 49% of the country’s wealth there are up to 15 million unemployed out of a population of 60 million. Youth in particular are hostile to the regime with its strict moral code in addition to the economic catastrophe: 60% of the population is under 20 years old. These youth have no recollection of life under the Shah and see only the miserable conditions that the present regime brings, placing the blame on ‘the turbanned ones’.. The mullahs have been warned by Ayatollah Mi Khamenei to abandon their expensive homes and BMWs or risk facing the wrath of the people. They have become the nomenclature of a religious dictatorship.
While the habit of referring to the lavatory as ‘dafar-e-imam’, or "the immam’s seat", may reflect a subtle form of subversion, the opposition to the regime is becoming more open. Strikes have taken place, including strikes of the oil workers in early 1992, and riots broken out in a number of cities. In an attempt to clamp down on the growing unrest the regime has reconstituted the ‘baseej’, its irregular shock troops. The dissatisfaction with the regime extends even into the police and the conventional security forces. On occasions the police have intervened to prevent the Revolutionary Guard detaining women for infringing the dress code.
Given the developing unrest and discontent with the regime it is only a matter of time before the working class regroups and asserts itself more determinedly. With the absence of an organized opposition it is possible that a new movement of the working class will manifest itself initially under the banner of a wing of Islam, couching its demands in Islamic terms.
The Iranian revolution, with the overthrow of a powerful pro-western monarch and its seeming ability to stand up to imperialism over the last fourteen years, has attracted many in the Middle East to the banner of fundamentalism. As the opposition to the Islamic dictatorship in Iran develops, the real nature of the regime will be seen not only within Iran but elsewhere in the region and its power of attraction will diminish.
In Algeria, the FIS was originally formed in 1981 as a religious organization, sanctioned by the FLN government as an outlet for religious sentiment to counter left-wing opposition and maintain stability. During food riots in October 1988 the FIS acted as a restraining influence. But in 1990, when the ban on political parties was lifted, the FIS transformed itself into a party, attacking government corruption.
In the local elections of June 1990 the FIS won 54% of the vote, taking control of 32 of the 48 regional authorities. In the first round of the general election, held in December 1991, the FIS won 47% of the vote, gaining 188 of the 231 seats in which there was an overall winner, compared with only 23% and 15 seats for the ruling FLN. Faced with the prospect of a fundamentalist victory, the military intervened to annul the election in January 1992 and, in March, banned the FIS. The FIS has since developed a guerrilla organization capable of taking on the government forces in two-day gun battles, with between 10,000 and 15,000 armed activists. It has made inroads into the military itself.
If the FIS came to power it would act as a catalyst throughout the region.
If the FIS were to come to power in Algeria it would act as a catalyst for fundamentalist movements throughout the region, threatening the regimes in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and as far away as Jordan.
Support for the FIS comes not only from those drawn by its fundamentalist religious appeal but even from sections of the secular urban population, where its support rests more on its reputation for incorruptibility and out of hatred for the country’s FLN rulers.
The FLN has squandered the revolutionary authority it had previously earned. In an eight-year long war they united the Algerian masses in a revolutionary struggle for national independence against French imperialism, which was eventually forced to withdraw in 1962. There was widespread support for the idea of socialism which was proclaimed in the constitution. However, the failure to defend the living standards of the population, the brutal repression of any opposition, and the rotten corruption of the government served to discredit ‘socialism’ and created fertile ground for fundamentalism to flourish.
The economy is in absolute crisis with 70% of foreign exchange earnings serving its $27bn foreign debt. Unemployment is over 30%. Food subsidies were cut in 1992, putting basic needs beyond the reach of many.
There are undoubtedly many who fear and oppose the establishment of a fundamentalist state. On 2 January 1992, after the landslide vote for the FIS, the Socialist Forces Front (FF8), based mainly in the Berber-speaking Kabylie area, organized an anti-fundamentalist demonstration in Algiers of over 100,000. Although the FFS had won only 7% of the vote it gained 25 seats, more than the FLN, sweeping the board in the Berber-speaking area and winning some seats in Algiers. The demonstration drew in participants from all over Algeria - Arabs and Berbers, workers and sections of the middle class, school students and the unemployed. There were a large number of women and some of the FLN and UGTA, the main trade union federation, took part. They chanted, ‘No to fundamentalism! No to dictatorship!’
The FFS was well-placed to transform itself from a party based on the Berbers into a national alternative both to the FLN and the FIS. Had it been capable of explaining a program for the socialist transformation of society it could have won support from the discontented masses who had turned in desperation to the FIS, as well as those who feared what the advent of the FIS to power would mean for Algeria’s secular traditions.
Unfortunately the FFS posed no clear alternative, even trying to silence the more radical elements on the march. Although the FFS denounced the suspension of the elections it has not called demonstrations or protests since. The Communist party, called the Party of Socialist Vanguard (PAGS), welcomed the coup!
In March 1993, around 100,000 marched in the center of Algiers. Chanting ‘Neither Teheran nor Khartoum’, they protested at the growing wave of terrorism carried out by the FIS-backed guerrillas. Although the demonstration was organized with government help, with state companies closed and thousands of employees given transport to Algiers, many demonstrators also chanted anti-government slogans, showing that they supported neither the government nor the fundamentalists.
The experience of Islamic fundamentalism in power in Iran demonstrates its ultimately reactionary character. If it comes to power elsewhere the working class and poor peasantry will learn from bitter experience the need to search for new means of struggle, just as the Iranian workers are now having to do. Islamic fundamentalism in power under conditions of international recession would be extremely unstable and would very quickly begin to succumb to the antagonistic class pressures within society and start to split.
The only way of ending the horrific conditions faced by the masses, whether in Iran or Algeria, is not through the false demagogy of the Islamic clergy but through the program of revolutionary Marxism. The freeing of these countries from imperialist exploitation cannot be carried out by the Islamic fundamentalists. This task rests with the working class, drawing behind it the poor peasantry and leading the struggle for the socialist revolution.
Even where the working class constitutes only a small proportion of the population it plays the decisive role by virtue of its role in production. Throughout this region there exists a powerful working class with a revolutionary history. The Egyptian working class, with 23 unions affiliated to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, has 5 million organized workers. In Algeria in March 1991, although affiliated to the ruling FLN, the UGTA organized a two-day general strike, the first since independence in 1962, in protest at price rises. (The FIS boycotted the strike claiming it was simply a struggle between wings of the FLN). It will be through strikes and demonstrations, general strikes and insurrections that the working class will strive to change society. It is necessary to build strong Marxist organizations in all of these countries so that revolutionary opportunities are not lost as in the past.
The revolutionary socialist transformation of society in north Africa and the Middle East can only be carried out by the conscious action of the working class armed with the program of Marxism based on an international perspective. Marxists have to find a way to reach the predominantly young working class, including the ranks of the unemployed and the peasantry, in all the countries of the region.
The rise of fundamentalism is a complicating factor for the struggle to transform society.
By raising the clear program of Marxism it would be possible to build the basis for mass Marxist organizations. A fight for democratic demands - the right to vote, to organize, to strike, to freedom of religion - together with such demands as a shorter working week and a sliding scale of wages linked to prices, would win widespread support. By linking these demands to the call for a revolutionary constituent assembly and the establishment of a workers’ government, based on the expropriation of the land and industry from the big landowners and capitalists and the introduction of a plan for organizing and developing the economy, mass revolutionary organizations could be created.
The rise of fundamentalism is a complicating factor for the working class in its struggle to transform society. But with this program, and by exposing the inadequacies of the policies of the fundamentalist leaders, the masses who at this stage are looking towards them could be won away and form part of a mass force for socialism. The working class of Algeria, Egypt, Iran and the other countries of the region will rediscover their revolutionary traditions and move to overthrow their corrupt governments and the domination of the imperialist powers.