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Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left

By Peter Taaffe

Islam – radical and right-wing

Therefore, before proceeding to analyse their positions, it is necessary to clarify our attitude to ‘political Islam’. What is sometimes called ‘fundamentalism’ is often referred to within the Moslem world as ‘political Islam’. This is adequate for bourgeois professors and commentators, as well as some on the left, but for the CWI it does not accurately describe the political antecedents as well as the position of different Islamic groups within the current political spectrum.

Some of the trends and organisations within the mass movement which led the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the Shah were examples of what we mean by ‘radical Islam’ or ‘radical Islamic fundamentalism’. Those who supported these ideas when questioned as to what kind of society they were fighting for usually said they wanted a ‘republic of the poor’. However, the world background against which the Iranian revolution took place was entirely different to the present one. Then, the Stalinist states – with a planned economy and the totalitarian regime – existed. This, together with the evident bankruptcy of landlordism and capitalism in the neo-colonial world, radicalised the oppositional movement to the tyranny of the Shah and the Iranian elite who had fattened themselves on Iran’s huge oil reserves. This opposition was largely based among the urban poor in Tehran in particular, as well as the half-starved Iranian peasant masses. The ‘model’ of a planned economy in the background gave the movement a pronounced radical and ‘left’ character.

So powerful was this trend that it compelled the Iranian regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in its first stage to adopt a very left radical phraseology and a virulent hostility to imperialism, particularly US imperialism. This was matched by actions which led to the taking over by the state of a majority of industry. There appeared at one stage the possibility of Iran establishing a deformed workers’ state in the image of Moscow, with a planned economy, albeit with a totalitarian political regime where power was concentrated in the hands of the mullahs and the Moslem clergy. However, the revolution stalled. An incipient civil war has ensued between different factions of the Moslem clergy. The centre of gravity gradually moved in a rightward direction. This in turn has led to the privatisation of formerly nationalised sectors.

Today in Iran, there is a ferocious struggle between different wings of Islam. At the bottom of this is a conflict between a right-wing clergy which is determined to hold on to the levers of state power and sections of the bourgeoisie, probably supported now by a majority of the population and those who wish to move in a more ‘modern’, that is Western capitalist, direction. Young people in particular are in open revolt at the suffocating conditions imposed upon them by the mullahs and their ‘religious’ police.

In contrast to the early radical phase of the Iranian revolution, the rise of Islam and what is now called ‘political Islam’, particularly in the Arab world, in the last decade is mainly a right-wing phenomenon. The development of these organisations, and their embrace by more and more sections of the population including big sections of the middle class in countries like Egypt, is partly a reflection of the failure of earlier Arab movements, and partly a conscious effort on the part of imperialism and their local satraps – the feudal, dictatorial Arab regimes – to use Islam against the left and radical forces within the Middle East.

In a searching article in the New York Times (carried in the International Herald Tribune on 3 December 2001), Saad Mehio gave a graphic description of how the past use of Islam by these regimes, fully supported by US imperialism in particular, had recoiled on them with fatal consequences. Posing the question of what comes after bin Laden and the Taliban, he concluded: "Probably more Talibans and new Osama bin Ladens." And the reason for this phenomenon "involves the immoral, unscrupulous and irreligious exploitation of Islam as a political weapon – by everyone. The West, the United States, Arab and other Moslem tyrannies have all used the weapon of Islam. And they are all paying their different prices for it."

He describes how Islam was conscripted to combat ‘communism’ – a broad definition to include anybody who was on the left or a socialist, not just Stalinists – during the Cold War. The ability of imperialism and its local Arab agents was enormously facilitated by the failure of Arab nationalism and of Stalinism. Mass communist parties, in countries like Iraq and the Sudan, had the opportunity of taking power but failed because of their false Stalinist policies. This together with the collapse of the ‘socialist model’ in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, symbolised by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, led to the rise of the right-wing Islam. Mehio comments: "The policy of using political Islam as an anticommunist tool was a crucial reason why so much of the Moslem world came to be dominated by stagnant, undemocratic but stable (or so it seemed) and adequately pro-Western governments, on the one hand, and the traditional forces of political Islam reconfigured for the latter half of the 20thcentury on the other."

He goes on: "The crowning achievement of such a party was the defeat of the modernising alternative: those movements that hoped to avoid aligning with either the Soviet Union or America to develop their societies along secular lines by, ideally, even more democratic means and to substitute nationalism for colonial humility and Islamic traditionalism. Such movements were sometimes called Nasserite, after President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt. He struggled against the Moslem Brotherhood for most of his political life. The Nasserite space has been shrinking in the three decades since his death."

Nasser’s heir, Anwar Sadat, and the Egyptian ruling class as a whole, decided to move in a directly opposite path of his patron and predecessor. He consciously fostered the growth of Islam, as a counterweight to nationalism and the left, and also sought the embrace of US imperialism. The Egyptian regime is propped up to the tune of $3 billion of US subsidies every year. Sadat’s actions recoiled on him in the most deadly fashion; he perished at the hands of the very fundamentalists he had helped to foster, because of his agreement with Israel.

Israel fosters Islamist groups

To a greater or lesser extent the Arab elites followed in the footsteps of Sadat in nurturing their own native breed of Islamic fundamentalism, exemplified in the financing (with petro-dollars) of about 7,500 religious schools in Pakistan, India and the Arab world. These schools taught the most backward isolationist interpretation of the Qur’an and Islam and were the bases from which the Taliban sprang to wreak such havoc in the lives of the Afghani people, which has resulted in the present catastrophe. Even the dictatorial regime of Pervaiz Musharraf, after witnessing the deleterious effects of the obscurantist mullah-dominated madrassahs, made noises during the conflict about the need to curtail them. Mehio comments: "The regional system [in the Arab world] that Washington had nurtured during the Cold War but then left to its own devices after 1989 was seen to have turned into a hatchery of human missiles and suicidal rage directed against the United States itself."

However, it was not just the US but its local Middle East agents, the Israeli ruling class, which also fostered Islamic groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as counterweights to what it perceived in the 1970s and 1980s as the more radical, secular Palestinian organisations, such as Fatah or the PFLP. Robert Fisk underlined this point when he wrote in The Independent: "Hamas, the principle target of the Sharon ‘war on terror’, was originally sponsored by Israel. Back in the 1980s when Mr Arafat was the ‘super-terrorist’ and Hamas was a pleasant little Moslem charity, albeit venomous in its opposition to Israel, the Israeli government encouraged its members to build mosques in Gaza. Some genius in the Israeli army decided that there was no better way of undermining the PLO’s nationalist ambitions in the occupied territories than by promoting Islam.

"Even after the Oslo agreement, during a row with Mr Arafat, senior Israeli army officers publicly announced they were chatting to Hamas officials. And when Israel illegally deported hundreds of Hamas men to Lebanon in 1992, it was one of their leaders, hearing that I was travelling to Israel, who offered me Shimon Peres’s home telephone number from his contact book" [5 December 2001].

Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza are of a pronounced right-wing political persuasion. They are very different to the Islamic militants who fought the Shah of Iran and who existed in the immediate period after the Iranian revolution. The same goes for the bulk of the Islamic political organisations throughout the Middle East – in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan and, above all, Saudi Arabia. The growth of right-wing ‘political Islam’ in these and other Arab countries is due, for the reasons described above, to the failure of other models, but is also a direct result of the involvement of an estimated 30,000 Arabs who fought with the mujaheddin in the struggle against Soviet forces in Afghanistan between 1983-89.

Many of these believed that their support for the mujaheddin was crucial in setting in motion a movement which culminated in the defeat of ‘communism’ and the humbling of one ‘superpower’, the Soviet Union. Many US Cold War strategists reinforced this idea and are paying the price now in the activities of al-Qa’ida against all aspects and symbols of US power. However, it was not the mujaheddin or the 30,000 Arabs who fought with them that led to the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

This was the result of the atrophy, the slow decline, of the ‘Soviet Union’. The tendency in the 1970s and 1980s was for the planned economy to disintegrate under Stalinist, obsolete bureaucratic rule. However, the support of world imperialism, particularly US imperialism, was the crucial military factor. This was facilitated by massive airlifts of weaponry, supplied by the US and financed by $2 billion of Saudi and US funds. Arab fighters were also offered discounts by Saudi Arabian airlines on the Riyadh-Peshawar route.

This Arab ‘foreign legion’ had nothing in common in its social composition and ideology to the International Brigade which fought on the side of the republicans in Spain in the 1930s. One expert on al-Qa’ida comments in the Financial Times: "Some came [to Afghanistan] with the intention of staying one month. Quite a lot of Saudis would come for their holidays. If you had spent some time with a whore in Bangkok, you could come to fight the jihad to purify yourself."

The social origins of the leading group which formed al-Qa’ida are crucial because of the role that it played in sustaining and organising the Taliban. This in turn is important because of the mistaken idea, perpetuated by some on the left, that in some way the Taliban and al-Qa’ida reflect the national liberation struggle of the Afghani people and the Arab peoples.

Yet, as has been well documented, bin Laden comes from a rich Saudi/Yemeni family. He inherited $300 million at the age of ten – on the death of his father – as his share of what is today a $36 billion family business, the Saudi bin Yadin group. Some of this personal fortune was used in the war against the Soviet Union to finance Arab fighters. In addition to this, the Islamist organisations which are linked to bin Laden can today draw on funds estimated at between $5-16 billion. The Financial Times comments: "Much of this has been donated, particularly from Saudis and from Kuwait, the source of millions a month."

This money has not come from the most oppressed strata of the Arab world but from the Islamic elite. Again, the Financial Times comments: "A lot of his money comes from disgruntled Saudi merchants." A former Gulf banker, Jean-François Cesnec, an expert in Arab politics and finance, has also pointed out: "A ‘mule’ will draw sympathetic merchants in Jeddah, collecting $5,000 from each. They never give more than $5,000 a time so you have to go and see them regularly."

Al-Qa’ida – not a genuine national liberation movement

This is part of a requirement under Islam for rich Moslems, that of zakkat – charitable donations calculated to 2% of a person’s income – which are made to ‘good causes’. This has redounded to the benefit of bin Laden. And it is not just rich Saudis or Yemenis who form the ruling group of al-Qa’ida but similar types were drawn into its ranks from nationalist Islamist movements in the Arab world and elsewhere. Thus Ayman al-Zawahari was a surgeon from a rich Egyptian family in Alexandria. He had fought in Afghanistan and had become leader of Jihad, the Egyptian Islamist group which was responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

After the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, many of the victorious Arabs went back to the Middle East and North Africa where they were greeted as ‘Islamic heroes’. This in turn led to the filling out and growth of Islamic organisations of a right-wing character, such as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria, as well as the Islamic Group and Jihad in Egypt. Their fire was also now directed against their own governments, the ‘godless bedfellows of the ultimate enemies, the US and Israel, the crusaders and the Jews’. However, a ruthless repressive policy was pursued by these regimes and, particularly, by the army and their secret services, typified by the brutal civil war in Algeria which has resulted in over 100,000 people being killed.

These facts underline the conclusions made in previous CWI statements that bin Laden and al-Qa’ida do not represent a genuine national liberation movement even in a mangled, distorted fashion. They are from the rich, semi-feudal elite in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Arab world and their ‘programme’, in so far as they have one, means turning back the wheel of history to the 7thcentury. Their particular obscurantist brand of Islam, Salifism (also known as Wahhabism), which developed in the 18thcentury, sees ‘unbelievers’ as all whom do not subscribe to their narrow definition of Islam, including other Moslems. These are, therefore, candidates for ‘elimination’.

One of bin Laden’s early mentors was the Palestinian, Abdul Assam, who saw Afghanistan as the vortex of militant Islam. It was an obligation, according to him, that every Moslem should fight there. But this was only the first step: "Jihad will remain an individual obligation until all other lands that were Moslem are returned to us so that Islam will rein again; before us lie Palestine, Bokara, Lebanon, Chad, Eritrea, Somalia, the Philippines, Burma, Southern Yemen, Tashkent and Andalucia." As Justin Marozzi comments: "Never mind whether the peoples of those countries actually want such a return to Islam. Why consult when Allah is on your side?"

This messianic, almost pre-medieval, philosophy is at the heart of bin Ladism and al-Qa’ida. Ultimately, of course, bin Laden is an expression of the Arab world’s oppression at the hands of imperialism, which even affects, psychologically at least, those from privileged layers. But his movement is not a real bourgeois-national liberation movement.

In some senses his ideals and recipe for the ‘future’ are a return to pre-capitalist forms of society. His opposition to the House of Saud, fellow members of the Wahhabi Islamic sect, and his determination to overthrow the Saudi regime has as its aim the replacement of the present theocratic ‘fundamentalist’ Saudi regime with an even more ‘fundamentalist’ one.

When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, for instance, in 1990 bin Laden offered his armed militants to the Saudi royal family to defend the kingdom if Iraq invaded his ‘homeland’. Instead, foreign troops – US forces in the main – were stationed on ‘Islam’s holy soil’, which contains the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina. The Saudi regime, at the highest levels of the military and particularly the intelligence service, sponsored bin Laden but his movement has inevitably been turned against them: "The Saudi policy of riyalpolitikwas intended to shore up the kingdom’s legitimacy through the funding of militant Islamic groups. Since these very organisations are dedicated to the overthrow of the Saudi royal family, which they regard as guilty of apostasy, it has been a policy as hollow as the regime which embraced it. How long before the mobs tear down the palace gates in Riyadh and beyond." [Financial Times, 17 November 2001]

Right-wing ‘political’ Islam

The CWI’s opposition to the ideas of right-wing ‘political Islam’, and particularly the variant of bin Ladism, is absolutely clear. However, this does not in itself solve the problem of how to reach and convince workers who are presently under the banner of Islam. Many of these workers in key areas of the Arab world or in Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines are attracted to Islamic ‘fundamentalism’. Even the defeat and death of bin Laden, or the ignominious capitulation of the Taliban, will not automatically or immediately lessen the grip of Islamist ideas on big sections of the masses and, particularly, on frustrated poverty-stricken youth.

In South Asia, home to 40% of the world’s estimated 1-1.2 billion Moslems, millions of young students are imbibing the teachings which helped to give rise to the Taliban in the early 1990s. Indeed, the number of madrassahs in Pakistan, which ideologically fuelled the Taliban movement, is dwarfed by the more than 15,000 madrassahs – up from about 9,000 in the late 1960s – throughout the world.

However, in approaching the masses influenced by these ideas, as in all questions, socialists and Marxists must avoid the pitfalls of opportunism or ultra-leftism. Our approach, following that of Lenin and Trotsky, is not to attack Islam or other religions in our day-to-day work from a philosophical point of view, but to point towards the class contradictions in ‘Moslem societies’. A picture of class divisions in society can be drawn out of the Qur’an, as much as out of the Bible.

On the other hand, we should avoid an opportunist adaptation to Islamic ‘leaders’, particularly to self-appointed ‘community leaders’ in many countries in the industrialised world and in ‘Moslem societies’ who very often are drawn from privileged layers, merchants, the middle class and bourgeois elements. We also oppose aspects and interpretations of Islam which maintain and justify the ruthless oppression and subordination of women to men, even if this brings us into confrontation with ordinary Moslems as well as Islamic leaders.