Scratch the surface of a Radical
Islamic society and you will witness its antithesis deeply
permeating its every aspect
Mehrdad and Yassamine Mather
August 10, 2005
The last three decades have witnessed a relentless growth
of Islamic movements, so that, today political Islam is an
undeniable reality on the world scene. The
events of September 11, 2001 and since have given it further
prominence. From the Middle East to North Africa and South
Asia, it has, in its various manifestations, become a major
player that needs to be analysed both politically and theoretically.
The contradictory nature of political Islam means that such
analyses must deal with it not only in relation to the interests
of capital, but also in relation to the challenge it poses
to socialist ideas.
In many countries, the movements of political Islam raise
their flag as that of ‘seekers of justice’ and
aim their propaganda at the poorest and most deprived sections
of society. They, thereby, present themselves as a rival to
the forces of socialism and the left. The formulation of a
strategy to respond to this challenge requires a deeper understanding
of the background to, and reasons for, these developments.
This article presents some preliminary theses, based on a
necessarily limited and general outline of the characteristics
and peculiarities of the Islamic movements.
Amidst the ravages of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,
then, political Islam is on the rise, and its supporters portray
it as the ideology of the poor and the dispossessed. They
promise ‘a better life’ for the ‘disinherited’, ‘less
inequality’, and the ‘end of corruption’ through
the rule of ‘sharia’a’ (the religious state).
Yet in Iran, almost twenty-six years after coming to power
with similar promises, Islamic government has become synonymous
with greed and corruption. Super-rich clerics and their immediate
families have replaced the ‘corrupt Royal court’ and
its entourage. The poor get poorer while the rich get richer.
(Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the Islamic regime’s previous
president and likely to be its next president, is ranked the
forty-third richest man in the world by Forbes Magazine.)
What, then, is the basis of the political economy of Islamic
fundamentalism? How does it gain its supporters amongst the
poor and the ‘dispossessed’? What is the relation
between the promises of equality in the rule of sharia’a
and the real politics of Islamic governance within the world
From the 1970s onwards, as Islamic societies of the periphery
were incorporated ever-deeper into the world market, the centre-periphery
crisis in these societies entered a new and qualitatively
different phase. The fluctuating, but, overall, downward trend
in the price of raw materials, including - for most of the
period - oil, on which these societies depend, speeded up
the widening of inequality in social, economic and cultural
development; the accumulation of foreign debt; and the increasing
inability of such states to control and restrain the spiralling
crises they have to confront.
A modern phenomenon
The ‘revolutionary Islamic movement’ is a contemporary
phenomenon. Whatever may be the indirect or minor influences
of past Islamic movements on it, it is attached by an umbilical
cord to the form of world capitalism that has developed in
the last three decades. The social roots of the ‘political
Islamic movements’ are, essentially, the uprooted --
those who, for a variety of reasons, have been waylaid on
of socio-economic development; and, to whom the new structures
have brought nothing but bankruptcies and ruin. Despite variations
in its social fabric in different circumstances, the pan-Islamist
movement in all the more-or-less developed countries of the
periphery (with a few exceptions) has recruited among four
First are the urban uprooted and deprived. They belong to
the explosion of people with no stable relation to the expanding
peripheral-capitalist system of production and distribution.
These apparently ‘cursed’ people have in common
a peasant ancestry, taking ‘refuge’ in the dirt
and mud surrounding such cities as Cairo, Algiers, and Teheran.
They are futureless, hopeless, degraded, and without identity
or rights. In Islamic societies, the urban destitute form
the social layer most ready to take up the Islamists’ banner.
They make up the main social base for the ‘political
Islamic movement.’ They also generate its explosive
Second are middle layers belonging to pre-capitalist structures.
Such people have been bankrupted or marginalised by the spread
of capitalist structures and their fate is to struggle harder
only to sink into greater poverty. They are important in helping
to organise the Islamic movements, and in welding together
their socially disparate supporters.
The third layer comprises sections of the merchant and industrial
bourgeoisie left outside the circle of power. They find themselves
in unequal competition with a bourgeoisie privileged by being
close to (and reliant on) a state, the rationale of which
has been to orchestrate development from above.
societies where the bourgeois state (rather than being the
product of capitalist development) imposes the growth of capitalism
from above - and where the relation between power and capital
is turned upside down to the extent that it is easier to rely
on power to make money than on wealth as a gateway to power
- those layers of the bourgeoisie excluded from power can
count on being permanent losers. This fate places manufacturers
and merchants in the same camp as the ‘wretched of the
earth.’ Such people not only fill the coffers of the
Islamic movement, but can also, for a period, help to increase
the attraction of pan-Islamism to the justice-seeking poor
by setting up charities, interest-free loan accounts and other
Fourth are intellectuals whose social standing has declined,
who have lost out, altogether or at least to some degree,
during the formation of the new political and civil structures.
These intellectuals find their influence and privileges vanishing.
They are increasingly isolated. Whether or not in priestly
clothes, whether young or old, whether or not - objectively
- their re-emergence would answer a structural need, they
will use the religious movement to re-establish their place
in society. They provide the leadership cadres of the movement,
those who pack the ideological baggage and map the political
strategy for the ‘Islamic movement.’
The pan-Islamist movement, in its rebellion against the
hopelessness capitalism has engendered, rests on the rejection
of enlightenment. The ideologists of this rebellion have to
close their eyes to the future, turn their backs on reality
and take refuge in myths.
This obscurantism, ironically, brings
today’s uprooted poor together, under one umbrella,
with yesterday’s rich. It is an Islam based on resurrecting,
from a vast store of stories and myths, ideas that promise
the end of misery for all those on the scrapheap. It insists
there is no alternative to a movement that is foreign to common
sense and free thought in all its forms. It treats as enemies
all who favour scientific thought and who question the so-called ‘certainties’ (tashkik).
In this view any attempt at enlightenment, whether of yesterday
or today, is a devilish plot to be fought at all costs.
Against class-based line-ups
The pan-Islamist movement is a furnace in
which class line-ups must melt. The non-homogeneous (multi-class)
mix in the Islamists’ camp
dictates a policy of denying class war, or at least marginalising
it and removing it from the immediate agenda. Such a non-class-based
social bloc, based on religious cultural unity, has no other
way of surmounting the class antagonisms within it between
the hungry and those with full bellies.
Here and there, ‘the
war between poverty and wealth’ becomes a weapon for
the movement to browbeat its merchant fellow-travellers when
they become restless, or to loosen their purse strings. But
in general, sharia’a remains firmly on the side of ‘unity’ and
those who ‘split’ (monafegh) are worse than those
who do not ‘believe’ (moshrek). It has an uncompromising
enmity towards communism or any other political creed which
defines society by its class boundaries and perceives class
confrontations as inevitable.
No national boundaries
At every level the new ‘Islamic movement’ is
the rising of those who not only see themselves as alienated
within their own national boundaries, but also of those who
have (they think) discovered the source of their destitution
and bankruptcy outside these boundaries. From their beginnings,
therefore, these movements face outwards. The foreign enemy
is seen as the root cause of all evil; in creating the mechanisms
of depravity and misery, it ensures that all Muslims suffer
‘Political Islam’, accordingly, cannot confine
itself within national boundaries. To aspire to set up anything
less than a world Islamic power, based on a world Islamic
will, would be to acknowledge ultimate defeat. This is the
logic behind the rejection of the legitimacy of all the civil
and secular systems that sustain nation states, and of all
international treaties and agreements between nation states.
It is the context that explains the inherent contradiction
involved in simultaneously opposing both imperialism and world ‘arrogance’,
and also nationalism. The Islamic movement may here and there
support tendencies aiming at independence and even isolationism.
Yet it is emphatic in its rejection of nationalisms that counterpose
the nation against the umma (Islamic community).
The pan-Islamist movement - however its elements
Islam’ - opposes democracy in all its forms. The movement’s
beliefs, class make-up and historic direction come together
to reject popular sovereignty and the right of the people
to determine their own destiny by majority vote. It is forced
to locate the right of sovereignty above the heads of ordinary
people, to make it the overarching authority that must resolve
the movement’s internal and external contradictions.
Divine rule, where all rights belong to god, is the only realm
where there are no tensions and dissent. And it is only the
divine that can give away this or that right on earth to the
chosen people - whether the Islamists in question wear clerical
or civilian apparel.
Who is invested with this divine gift? This is a matter
the ‘chosen’ must settle amongst themselves. The
right of people to vote on a one-person-one-vote basis can,
at best, only be accepted once. This is in regard to the initial
decision -- for or against the Islamic Republic. Thereafter,
the only political function of the people is to express their
allegiance (beia’a) to the chosen (nokhbegan).
Democracy is an institutional mechanism to establish a legal
basis for government. Islam, however, recognises only particular
personages - a governor, vali or caliph: it does not recognize
institutions of government. Yet, in practice, it must institutionalise
the right to make decisions by a small coterie of nokhbegan
and religious authorities (mujtahed) - i.e. those who have
the ability and ‘knowledge’ to interpret divine
law for any given circumstance. Recognition of those who have
this ability is also in the hands of those who have proven
their ‘knowledge’ beforehand. Thus the question
-“who decides?” - comes full circle.
Even outside the question of political power
and of government, the pan-Islamist movement cannot accept any rights
citizens. And, even if we put aside the fact that Islamic
sharia’a considers women as half a man (a destiny considered
entirely compatible with ‘justice’), women will
do little better in the utopia that the Islamic movement is
advocating. The sanctity of the family is basic to the reconstruction
of this ‘paradise lost’, and the values cementing
it together require an unambiguous definition of a woman --
one that begins with her as a wife and ends with her as a
Outside the Islamic framework lies the world of corruption.
No matter how much political Islam shouts about human rights
and the miracle of womanhood, it cannot acknowledge values
which cross the boundary into this world. Sometimes this or
that religion may be favoured for political purposes, so that
its adherents may be afforded a status equivalent to Muslims.
But for the most part non-muslims are second-class citizens
or worse. Those who belong to proscribed religions, such as
the Baha'i, are directed to repent or die. If today religious
apartheid is put on the shelf, tomorrow the conscience of
a powerful and dominant Islam will not rest until the non-Muslims
find their ‘rightful’ position. If non-Muslims
are today exempt from paying the religious tax (jezzieh),
they will only have this added to future debts.
In sum, the sovereignty of the people is a concept alien
to the pan-Islamism movement, which, most ominously, will
actively seek to destroy it altogether.
Jihad and terrorism
The pan-Islamism movement is a ‘Jihad.’ The
uprooted who decide that a ‘wheel that does not turn
for their needs should never turn’, and who do not see
any reason to decry the ruination of today if it leads to
the utopia of tomorrow, can have no other recourse but to
the sword. No open and free environment, no democratic system,
no legal testament can guarantee their goal.
Even if pan-Islamism
can, in some circumstances, gain power through legal means;
whether or not it is suppressed or allowed to grow; whatever
its place in a particular balance of power: it has in general
entered an arena of war where pulling the trigger is a daily
duty. Recourse to terrorism in all its forms; the semi-military
organisation of that part of the social base that can be
mobilised; the creation of professional military institutions;
to infiltrate and recruit in the armies of Islamic countries:
these are all acts which cannot be stopped or even delayed.
Jihad is a road which will take pan-Islamism to the promised
The growing crisis and the steady weakening of governments
increased the intervention of global capital in the internal
affairs of Islamic countries. This process reached a point
at which the finance and economic ministries of many Islamic
countries turned into impotent operatives for the decision-making
centres of global capital. They bowed to major and crisis-provoking
restructuring of the socio-political life of their countries.
They presided over policies that caused massive unemployment
and attendant despair; chronic inflation ravaging meagre savings;
acute housing shortages leading to running battles between
the guardians of the city and the never-ending waves of migrants;
and non-existent healthcare facilities that transform hospitals
effectively into morgues.
The savage demands of the International Monetary Fund and
the credit limitations imposed by the World Bank, forced peripheral
governments to turn on their own people. What little remained
of state largesse, in the form of subsidies, dried up. Millions
were made destitute, unprotected against misery, famine and
disease. These were the people who carried Egyptian, Tunisian,
Moroccan and Algerian pan-Islamism on their shoulders. The
scholars of Islam would do better - and would save their institutions
(official and unofficial) much money - if, instead of looking
for the footprints of political Islam in history, they would
wend their way to the archives of the IMF and its financial
networks. There they would find the directives that cast light
on the cause of the plight of their people.
Crisis of political hegemony
The centre-periphery crisis of capitalism
is the prerequisite for unrest and mass uprisings in Islamic societies.
general crisis cannot of itself direct the revolt organically
in a particular way, whether towards pan-Islamism or, perhaps,
progress and socialism. Without a particular set of circumstances
in the political and ideological sphere, and in the arena
of class conflict and social relations, pan-Islamism would
not have been able to grow into a broad mass movement.
understanding of the distinctive features of those circumstances
involves analysis of a particular crisis of political hegemony
within the framework of a general crisis of ideology. To
begin from basics, this would necessitate a rounded discussion
the particular way politico-ideological structures in peripheral
societies grow. This is beyond the scope of the argument
here, but a few reminders may be useful.
First, although in the majority of societies under discussion
the capitalist mode of production dominates, the bourgeoisie
has not fully developed as the hegemonic class. The immaturity
of the bourgeoisie in these social formations shows itself
best in its anaemic political and ideological personality.
For this reason, the dominant ideology, the prime requirement
of which is the securing of the voluntary assent of the masses
to the existing social order, at best contains only elements
of bourgeois thinking. It is made up of an amalgam of nationalism,
religious dogma, elements of petit-bourgeois ideas, paternalistic
and tribal values, along with some aspects of liberalism.
Second, the acceleration of structural changes very quickly
upsets the class-political line-ups and in uniquely new divisions
and allegiances. The ruling ideological amalgam, discussed
above, is not only incapable of fulfilling the task of gaining
the assent of the masses, but also loses its effectiveness
even within the ruling bloc.
Not surprisingly, therefore,
any attempt to remodel and renew this doctrine has the effect
of reducing further its influence on one section of society
just as it appears to increase its capacity to influence
other sectors. In other words, the more it becomes aware of the
need to update its ideology, the more the bourgeosie both
loses its ability to universalize its essential ideology
paradoxically, provokes confrontations amongst the subordinate
Third, the end result of such a process, especially if it
coincides with a major collapse of the government’s
economic programmes, appears in the form of multi-dimensional
changes in the various political structures. Inside the ruling
bloc the crisis surfaces as one of hegemony, which not only
causes a series of changes in the balance of power, but also
often leads the purging of - or even a bloody suppression
of - some of the ruling factions. This, in turn, reduces more
than ever the hegemonic political influence of the ruling
bloc on the masses, diminishing its social base even further.
But at the opposite pole, the working class is powerless
not only because of its relative youth and political immaturity
but also because it lacks an effective ideological base. The ‘Marxism-Leninism’ packaged
in the ‘Academies of Science’ of the ‘socialist
bloc’, in conjunction with various theories of the ‘non-capitalist
road to socialism’, in no way served to unite the working
Quite the opposite. These theories rationalized the
splitting of the political and trade-union movement into
small groupings, and the collapse of other sections of workers
passivity or open surrender. In some countries the communist
and worker parties went as far as liquidating themselves
and amalgamating with the ruling party (e.g. in Egypt). In others,
there was an inexorable process distancing the mass of workers
from worker-based political organisations.
To complete the picture, there was systematic police repression.
Taken together, all this explains why, at a time when conditions
for the growth of the class pole opposing the bourgeoisie
were at their best, the working class remained weaker and
more helpless than ever. This catastrophic balance between
the two main class poles in society promoted not so much political
paralysis as a vacuum -- both of political representation
and of legitimacy. In such situations the voice from the minarets
gains an ear. A multicoloured amalgam of social layers is
attracted by the invitation to a jihad, apparently taking
its ideology from ancient tales and sayings, but actually
resurrected on the ruins, chaos and wretchedness of today.
We have argued, then that the current conjuncture of political
and economic crises provides the necessary pre-conditions
for the mass pan-Islamist movement in peripheral Islamic societies.
But this is not the full explanation for the explosive growth
of this phenomenon. To understand how pan-Islamism is a credible
government-in-waiting in a number of counties, and indeed,
has taken over power in some, we must consider a number of
First is the presence of an official religious establishment
with a network of mosques and schools; an abundance of paid
cadres; firm roots, to some extent independent of state power;
the ability to be in direct daily contact with people; and
finally certain legal and political immunities, and numerous
social and legal privileges. Whatever control is exerted on
the official religious establishment, it remains the main
ideological arsenal and the durable political background of
Second, we must consider the ruling political administrations’ attitude
to religion. In most Islamic countries, despite the gradual
separation between the state and the religious structures
- and all the ups and downs in the relations between them
- some form of working alliance has always been maintained.
The prime purpose of this has been to oppose the left and
the workers’ movement.
At every juncture where the workers
and democratic movement have made advances, threatening the
despotic and authoritarian systems, the religious apparatus
has joined the army and police as an arm of repression. In
return, from time to time, the state has acted to spread the
network of religious schools and mosques; to facilitate the
establishment of workplace and neighbourhood Islamic societies;
and to promote the religious establishment’s political
influence by means of cultural, devotional, and charitable
Finally - in conditions of a single-party state
- there has been toleration of the quasi-party activity
of religious fractions inside the ruling party and government.
Without a serious analysis of the role of the state in Islamic
countries, and without considering the relations between
religion and state, it is impossible to understand how Islamic
became so defenceless in the face of growing religious obscurantism
and backward-looking political movements.
The third factor is the effect of imperialist policy during
the Cold War. Throughout it, one of the major weapons of imperialist
powers against liberation movements (and movements for freedom
and socialism) in Islamic countries was religion. In using
religion to stupefy the masses and to denounce opposition,
imperialism was both resourceful and relentless. It used the
religious weapon (through groups, parties and men of influence)
to provoke splits in the working-class movement, sabotage
progressive and nationalist movements, and even to destabilise
anti-imperialist governments or those allied with Soviet Union.
An incomplete list might include the following. First, the
assistance given to the rise of Ekhvane Muslemin (Muslim Brotherhood)
against Nasser’s regime in Egypt and the Ba’ath
Party in Syria. Second, support for the Islamic Amal in Lebanon
as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organisation
and progressive Lebanese leaders and parties. Third, the strengthening
of the Fadaiyan-e Islam, and mullahs such as Ayatollah Kashani,
in opposition to Dr Mossadegh’s government and the Tudeh
(Communist) Party in Iran.
Fourth, the massacre of half a
million communists in Indonesia. Fifth, the mobilisation
of semi-military parties and organisations in Afghanistan and
the provision of unlimited support to their efforts to overthrow
the Marxist government. In so using religion, the imperialist
intelligence networks may rely on facilities provided by
countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or on their own agents
sent directly, to create or to infiltrate religious groupings
or parties. Their support can take different forms, but
important point is that they played a central Cold War role
in increasing Islamic religious influence in Islamic societies.
We see the grave consequences today.
The fourth point is the effect of regional political crises
on the overall growth of the pan-Islamist movement. The deadlock
in Arab-Israeli relations in general - embracing the questions
of Palestine; the occupation of Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian
land; and the persistence of military mobilisation and sporadic
military confrontations - has aided the pan-Islamist movement.
Nothing damages the standing of secular Arab nationalism more
than the humiliation of Arab governments by Israel.
The blind ‘non-conciliatory’ attitude
of pan-Islamism when confronting ‘Jews’ seems
well justified by the Camp David Accord and by other such
retreats - the most recent of which is the creation of minuscule
bantustans as a sop to Palestinian nationalism.
the task of untying these religious knots, left and progressive
forces have shown chronic weakness. This is the background
to the way in which events such as the assassination of
Sadat, the blowing up of US and French marine headquarters in Beirut,
and, perhaps most critically, the Intifada itself, have
turning points. While the basic crisis remains unsolved,
the pan-Islamist movement will continue to fill the political
A fifth facilitating factor was the Iranian revolution of
1979. The coming to power of the first Islamic government
to place pan-Islamism at the centre of its political and ideological
agenda was crucial in the spread of ‘political Islam.’ Nor
could the Iranian government remain even momentarily content
with exercising indirect influences on the Islamist movements.
From the beginning it did whatever it could to influence them
directly and take over their leadership.
All the Islamic movements
were supported financially, logistically and by military training.
Many groups and organisations were overhauled. Where necessary,
the Iranian regime called on radical factions within Islamic
organisations to split. It involved itself in an extensive
organisation of terrorist and jihad-like cells, and embarked
on an intensive drive to shape an Islamic international. Finally,
it pursued an eight-year war with Iraq which was, above all,
concerned with the ‘export of the revolution’ by
The Islamic Republic of Iran is not alone today in ‘exporting
the pan-Islamist movement.’ Other states, such as Saudi
Arabia and Pakistan, are also actively making a bid to take
over the leadership of the Islamist movement, to influence
its policies and to spread religious illusions and superstitions.
Sixth, we must consider the effect of the collapse of the
Soviet Union and, especially, the coming of Bush’s ‘New
World Order’, the after-effects of which will, for the
foreseeable future, feed blind radicalism and militant ‘anti-imperialist’ -
the Islamists prefer the term estekbar (loosely translated
as ‘arrogance’) to ‘imperialism.’ In
the conditions we have been outlining, legitimacy for pan-Islamist
and similar movements comes when the prevailing gunboat diplomacy,
and outright colonialist policies, of the USA and its allies,
turns them into movements for gaining identity, prestige and
In devastating the kindergartens and hospitals of Iraq,
US and Allied planes lined up many millions of the downtrodden
masses behind the Omar Abdel-Rahmans and Ali Belhajs of this
world. The spokes people of world imperialism cannot claim
innocence as they denounce the dangers of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and
warn of ‘fanaticism’ endangering the security
and stability of world civilisation. They know better than
anyone that the global capitalist system has itself created
the conditions for Islamic fundamentalism and fanaticism.
They are the agents of another of history’s ironic twists,
through which the third industrial revolution has attached
a backward-looking child to the maternal skirts of capitalism.
How is society affected?
The effect of all this is to grind away at
the potential for class action, for democratic movements, and for
advance, as society becomes increasingly polarized and, at
the bottom, destitute - as it faces grave psycho-social problems.
From economy to politics, science and culture, wherever Pan-Islamism
treads, it leaves a trail of conflict, contradiction and crisis.
Its ruinous effects on secular life vary in extent and breadth
at different stages of its development, and may at times even
be self-negating, but there is a recognizable pattern to its
development. We turn now to review this, first in conditions
where the movement is in opposition, then when it gains political
Political Islam in opposition
Political Islam splits civil society at every
level while leaving state structures intact.
In the first instance every type of class organisation,
institution, political party, trade union and guild is split
in half along confrontational religious lines. Islamic labour
and peasant unions and guilds stand opposed to their non-Islamic
equivalents. Nothing escapes this split, not even bourgeois
class organisations and societies.
Fissured into Islamic and
non-Islamic categories, the sub-groups glare at each other
across an ideological divide that causes major transformation
in the social class line-up. New - fundamentally non-class
- blocs are formed. Labour-power lines up with either ‘Islamic’ and ‘secular’ capital
under the umbrellas of ‘Islam’ and ‘secularism.’ Meanwhile,
in society beyond the state, an embryonic form of Bonapartism
emerges, offering an alternative future state formation. The
potential for progressive class action is systematically eroded.
Simultaneously democratic structures and institutions
are similarly split: the ideological weapon creates Muslim societies
of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, students, or women
- distinct from non-Muslim groupings. The Muslim doctors can
no longer defend their professional needs alongside non-Muslim
doctors. Worse, their duty to combat atheism and blasphemy
overtakes every other duty.
Civil society is fractured into the Islamic and non-Islamic:
the divide rips apart everything from trade unions to professional
organisations. This is the most profound and dangerous consequence
of the pan-Islamic movement. It mobilises one section of society
against another. This division even appears in some industries
in core capitalist countries. The inevitable and tragic effect
is to create artificial alliances throughout society, on the
basis of sex, religion or ethnicity. Woman is set against
woman, teacher against teacher, worker against worker.
Where Muslim women organise separately from other women,
not only do they enfeeble the women’s movement in its
struggle for democratic rights, they even compromise its ability
to hang on to past achievements. We see the tragic sight of
a woman who has lost all rights voluntarily saying ‘yes’ to
her slavery. All this faces the democratic movement with its
greatest dilemma. As its potential is eroded, a territory
is created where the seeds of a future religious despotism
Paradoxically, the more the masses occupy the stage the
greater the power of the leadership. Indeed there is an inverse
relationship between representation and mass mobilisation.
The leadership of these movements feed on mass activity. Their
power becomes more concentrated and unassailable in direct
relation to their ability to bring the masses on to the political
scene. The appearance of the masses, in these circumstances,
signals not the exercise of their collective will but rather
their political disrobement.
Where the masses are reduced
to the umma (family of believers) of the iman - where, in
its ideal form, they are the disciples of religious authorities
(marja’a), then the more they make their presence felt
in the political arena, the greater the authority of the leaders,
imams and clergy. The role of an individual with his/her democratic
rights in society, and the state, fades. The democratic base
of society is weakened. The roots of future religious despotism
are established and foundations of an ultra-centralized, leader-focused
political structure are laid.
In a society giving birth to a radical Islamic
movement, the cultural make-up is the first victim. The cultural
disintegrates into numerous ever-smaller, conflicting formations,
united only by belief in the absolute. This calamitous process
effectively closes the route to cultural advance. Scientific
thought, experimental sciences, philosophy, as well as values
emanating from these, are walled off by absolutist cultural
structures. The quest for the absolute - the struggle to annex
knowledge to an integrated and dominant ideological monopoly
- becomes the governing, social ethic.
In addition there is a return to the most extreme paternalism,
superstition and machismo, deepening the roots of the ideas
that will ultimately create, and secure, the ultra-conservative,
absolutist, and despotic structures of the Islamic state.
In this process, not only is the value-system of society overturned,
but cultural, educational and ethical structures are overhauled.
Muslim schools, Islamic social gatherings, and so on, reappear.
The intellectual potential of society is gradually eroded.
Thought, in all its manifestations is enslaved to belief
and Islamic ethics. Sceptical questioning - essential to
and philosophical thought - is rejected as a tool of the
devil. Combine these pressures on independent thought with
attacks on modernism and everything new, and the elements
of a sterile and rigid intellectual life are all in place.
Instead we have a situation in which intellectual servitude,
demagoguery and obscurantism can breed; and in which religious
despotism can grow.
More insidiously still, the psychological
potential of society becomes poisoned, and with disastrous effects.
mixture of absolutism and power-worship, juxtaposed with the
placing of a monopoly belief at the centre of the social value-system
of a polarized society leads to a cult of violence. The ideological
process numbs the senses, creating an acceptance of a militaristic,
This can be expressed as the exhortation
to the violence of the jihad (holy war); as the amre be ma’aruf
(or duty to punish those who do not observe Islamic laws);
as the cult of martyrdom and the ‘blood’ (witness
the fountain spewing blood in the ‘Martyrs’ Cemetery’ in
Teheran); and as the self-mutilation associated with the mourning
of saints and martyrs. All these, and other things, create
an atmosphere where acts of violence and the shedding of blood
become a social norm.
It is in this context that the deliberate burning of the
Rex Cinema in Abadan by Muslim revolutionaries, which cost
600 people their lives, should be seen. Later, came the immolation
of over thirty Turkish secular intellectuals in Sivas, and
the knifing to death of Croatian workers in Algeria. A culture
is being created based on hatred of ‘other’ human
beings. A mentality of mistrust, fear, tension, and friction
permeates society’s every cell.
Hand in hand with this
goes the culture of spying and prying into the life of others
at home, work, school and college. One section of society
spends huge amounts of time and energy reporting the ‘misdeeds’ of
the other. The corruption of family, human, professional and
other relations cannot be underestimated. It is indeed ironic
that a religion dedicated to making the family the pillar
of society rips family ties asunder by getting one member
to interfere with, even spy on, another. A culture is built
There are other negative outcomes. The situation increases
the power of the male, the khan, and the mullah; leads to
unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom; encourages crude
populism; promotes the reduction of difficult concepts to
simple absurdity; and creates fertile ground for the rise
in religiosity and belief in the supernatural. Ultimately
this leaves social mistrust and creates the basis for future
ideological and police-military repressive institutions.
In power: the political sphere
Once pan-Islamism creates a state in which
religion rules, its effect on the environment is immeasurably greater
longer-lasting. Some of these effects will undoubtedly survive
long after the Islamic regimes return to the grave from which
As we have seen the roots of what becomes the Islamic State
are established before political Islam comes to power. Fundamental
changes in polarising society differently -- in class
politics, in cultural and intellectual life, in social psychology
and in the system of social ethics -- have already taken
place. Ideological and political values that have stubbornly
survived for centuries are now co-opted into service. What
we now see is, in effect, an overwhelming tendency towards
the abolition of the modern state - to the extent that its
main indicator, its secular superstructure (the separation
of politics and ideology, especially religious ideology) comes
Sharia’a law displaces secular law. A system of law
based on the parliamentary vote, rationality and contemporary
human needs is replaced by one held to be sacred and eternal.
A process is unleashed to overturn the general structures
of political power, giving the ideological institutions pivotal
positions in the exercise of that power. The traditional role
of the state is overturned, and it is transformed from the
mechanism for the control of the country’s socio-economic
tensions into the cause and perpetuator of those tensions
and social crises.
The contradiction between a religious-ideological
state and its secular, material, rational base creates a situation
of permanent crisis. A religious despotism is established
in which the ruling Islamic power creates a new legal system,
where the right to govern at every level (legislative and
judicial) is held to be divine - exercised solely on god’s
behalf by certain sections of the clergy. The modern capitalist
state’s formal equality of citizens before the law is
abolished. It is replaced by a legal system where the ‘government
of the ruling Ayatollahs’ stands above, and in authority
over, the masses.
In power: the enlarged and interventionist state structure
Three aspects of this greatly enlarged and
more interventionist state structure must be examined.
First, what in effect happens is that civil society is more
or less abolished. One part of it is absorbed into the state
itself, while the rest disappears. Underlying this process
is the denial of the independence of the private from the
public sphere. Islamic government recognises no such boundaries.
No part of life is considered private and outside the control
of divine rule, and that of god’s representatives. This
totalising conception underlies the need to bring the very
concept of civil society to an end. The sector reconstituted
accepting the ruling ideology is organically incorporated
into the state. The sectors that persist in their secular
existence are annulled.
Civilians are mobilised in readily available gangs to attack
bookshops or dissident groups - the ‘mobilisation of
the dispossessed’ (basij mostaz’afin), involving
millions. Islamic societies are set up and Islamic Shoras
(committees) of -- for example -- workers, craftsmen,
tradesmen, commercial people, are created around mosques,
Hosseiniehs, the institutions of Friday Prayer, etc. All this
allows the Islamic state to spread its tentacles into every
It is a rare trade organisation, cultural grouping or political
gathering that can escape this fate. The paradox of complete
absorption or total abolition is enacted with increasing determination
and force, the deeper the ruling Islamic regime digs in. Ultimately
even those institutions to some extent independent of parties,
trade unions, etc., are abolished, or at least transformed
into appendages of the police-security apparatus, or of the
management of the office or enterprise. The remnants of civil
society, in short, are militarised - or vaticanised - playing
their role for the state in policing or ideological control.
This process encourages a ballooning of bureaucracy; reduced
productivity; obstructionism; the multiplication of centres
of power and of parallel institutions; and corruption, bribery
and nepotism. While state bureaucracy is greatly expanded,
its power is paradoxically eroded. The greater the power of
the state, the more ‘private’ that state becomes.
Not only is the modern state abolished, the state that replaces
it becomes the representative not of the general interests
of capital, but rather of the particular interests of specific
The second phenomenon consequent on the new state structures
is the depoliticisation of the masses. Pan-Islamism in power
politicises the whole of society and maintains it in a state
of constant mobilisation. One section of society imposes state
control, the other opposes by whatever means it can. Society
is driven in two opposing camps: the religious and the secular.
however, this permanent politicisation tends to create its own
opposite - through exhaustion comes depoliticisation.
Once depoliticisation spreads to both camps in a society
with an atomised class formation and political base, the longer
term potential for change and progress towards democracy
seriously weakened. The future for these societies is truly
The third point to be commented on concerns the inequality
of citizens before the law. The equality of citizens forms
the legal basis of the modern state. This too is negated in
Islamic societies where the interference of ideology creates
several legal layers in society - for example, there are separate
inheritance laws for men and for women; for Muslims and for
non-Muslims. Radical Islam creates citizens equal when it
comes to obeying laws but not when it comes to changing them.
Man cannot reject laws that have been divinely ordained (and
as they have been interpreted by the mujtahed - the learned
In power: the economy
Perhaps more than in any other field, the
rise to power of the pan-Islamist movement brings the societies it
into conflict their own material infrastructure. If the main
role of the state in all societies, including Islamic peripheral
countries, should be to ‘recreate the external conditions
for production’, the ‘Pan-Islamist state’ in
practice tends towards multi-dimensional and permanent economic
crisis. In particular, the ideological Islamic state cannot
use to the full the various levers with which most states
regulate the economy - the law, money and force.
To look at all three in turn. Ideology weakens the use of
the law, one of the most important interventionist tools in
the hands of the state. The law’s rational, objective
elements become overshadowed by ideological and political
considerations. As a result, the secular and ‘rational’ economic
sphere constantly finds itself in opposition to (essentially
ideological and irrational) law, and slips out of the latter’s
Ideology limits and obstructs the workings of the laws of
capitalism too, including its fundamental law of value. The
equality of a commodity in exchange is eclipsed by its inequality
in ideology: the law of value is constrained or made conditional.
Hand in hand with this limitation goes a certain liberalism.
Ownership is valid so long as religious tax is paid and it
has been obtained by ‘legitimate’ (mashrou’)
An ideological element thus enters both into ownership
and into the exchange of property. A property used for un-Islamic
purposes (e.g., brewing) or for which religious tax has not
been paid is illegitimate and cannot be exchanged. Commerce
is also affected by ideology (some commodities, such as alcohol, ‘immoral’ literature
or films, videos, many articles of clothing, etc, cannot be
bought or sold).
On the question of money. This vital lever of state intervention
in the economy faces a similar fate. Money essentially loses
its function to fulfil the needs of production and circulation.
Instead, the religious-ideological state uses money to answer
its political and ideological needs. The volume of money in
circulation is allowed to expand at an uncontrolled rate -
dictated by political considerations.
Consequently the money
supply is no longer a stabilising but an anarchic element
in the economy. This process allows huge quantities of money
to accumulate in a few private hands, creating equity that
then confronts the state, vitiating its control, and even
determining its actions. As in the case of the law, money
is used to offset the contradictions between the ideological
state and its material-economic base; and in the process
comes to function as its own antithesis - destabilising rather
stabilising the economy.
As to the use of force, its function in a Radical Islamic
government as a purely repressive tool is even more obvious
in the economic sphere than in others. Force is not deployed
as it is in a ‘normal’ capitalist state - to suppress
the conflicts and contradictions between the various sectors
of the economy, and to paper over cracks so that conditions
for the reproduction of capital are optimized.
is used to suppress the conflicts and contradictions between
the economy as a whole and the ruling political power. The
use of force, whether material or ideological - that is
whether taking the form of expropriation, legal suspension, fines,
imprisonment, etc, or of denunciation as diabolic and un-Islamic
from the pulpit -- has one consequence: it creates massive
insecurity in the economic realm.
The result is the creation of a complex web of non-economic
structures, entwined with a parasitic and unaccountable structure
of capital. A powerful defensive perimeter is then built around
this alliance protecting it against both the ideological-material
coercion of the state and against blind economic forces. This
huge mafia-like structure has, at one extremity, the ‘bazaar’ and
the mosques, and, at the other, the armed forces and the religious
courts. Such is the inevitable fate of societies unfortunate
enough to live under a pan-Islamist regime.
There are further effects of pan-Islamic rule on the economy,
which go beyond its enfeebling the state and which have even
more direct effects on the potential of these societies for
economic development. We need to look at investment, human
resources, the labour code, and science and technology.
In these societies, both internal and external capital fights
shy of investment in long-term projects. Domestic investment
is discouraged by the fall in the rate of capital accumulation.
One factor in this is the expansion of an interfering, totalitarian
and highly expensive state. A huge burden is placed on the
gross domestic product and value-adding activities, which
hinders the possibilities of capital accumulation in line
with developmental needs. The impact on the state sector is
decisive and disastrous.
The effect on the private sector is less, but considerable,
leading it essentially to shun investment in productive industries.
It is affected by the prevailing insecurity brought about
by the ideological-political policies we have discussed. Instead,
capital is drawn into quick-return transactions. It also tends
towards less accountable areas. All this means that the private
sector, prompted both by the most efficient pursuit of profit
and by non-economic considerations, tends to eschew productive
investment in favour of playing the stock market, hoarding,
speculation, buying and selling, real estate and land transactions,
and so on.
Meanwhile, general economic conditions mean that the ability
of the state sector to invest in vital parts of the economy
is also progressively eroded. Sectors of the economy dependent
- because of low profitability or poor development - on state
investment therefore also fare badly. Increasing inequalities
and imbalance is caused in an economy already suffering the
uneven development of a peripheral capitalist economy.
Foreign sources of investment are even less likely to respond.
In addition to the economic factors we have discussed are
political factors, amongst them an insecure legal-judicial
atmosphere, and Radical Islam’s adventurist foreign
policy. And there is a further element: the deliberate use
of the economic weapon, including official sanctions, by core
capitalist countries to control crisis-provoking Islamic governments
acts as`a barrier to the entry of international finance into
Where investment does take place, it is highly
calculated and of a politico-economic nature. Thus Japan
and Italy have tried to ensure their future supplies of oil
Iran by investing in petrochemicals or other strategic goods.
But even here, where they are securing their supplies against
present and future rivals, advance payment has been extracted
in the form of oil sales, itself fulfilling the need to
secure oil stockpiles.
On human resources: this most vital of all factors in economic
development is also exhausted under Radical Islamic governments.
The productivity of manpower under capitalism is intricately
linked with skill levels, education, research, etc. A secular,
scientific and experimental environment encourages their development
which in turn serves to refresh that environment. But the
Islamic government crushes this through the pressure it brings
to bear on secular life (including schools, universities,
scientific and research centres).
The regime confronts science
with belief (maktab). Its ceaseless interference in secular
life even forces many of those who already have skills to
flee the country or to abandon productive economic activity.
The Islamic state thus not only fails to recreate a qualitatively
advanced workforce, but deskills the existing labour force,
hampering the ability of the economy to expand. Nor does
this environment attract foreign workers of sufficient calibre,
who also have to cope with limitations on foreign exchange.
In Islam it is not the function of the state to regulate
labour through a labour code. The usual legal framework designed
to deliver a labour force that is not unduly worn out is thus
absent. The equal exchange of labour power is replaced by
the law of ‘rental’ of labour where the contract
is between the individual and the owner without regulatory
intervention. Where a labour code has been legislated, as
in Iran in 1992, it has been under intense pressure from workers,
and after great procrastination.
Science and technology is an essential ingredient of economic
development, but, in radical Islam, this too succumbs to the
blows of ideological control, especially at the university
and technical college level. The return to the amalgamation
of religion and the state prevents the flowering of science.
The potential for domestic technological development is at
best confined to selected areas. Foreign technology is also
largely inaccessible for political and foreign-exchange reasons.
Moreover, the absence of a sufficiently advanced domestic
technical skills-base limits the potential benefits of imported
technology. So the result is to deny society one more key
lever for economic development.
In short, Pan-Islamism in power is ruinous for the economy.
Though retaining capitalism as the dominant mode of production,
capitalist development is slowed down in certain fields without
being able to resurrect some pre-capitalist forms of production.
Thus the inherited multi-structured economy (containing elements
of pre-capitalist economy in the midst of a dominant capitalist
economy) is faced both with paralysing contradictions and
internal anarchy; and with the existent unequal development
of international capitalism, now accentuated to breaking point.
The peripheral economy, as it comes under Islamic rule,
cannot escape the additional disruption involved in its
relationship to the core countries - a relationship crucial
for the external reproduction of capital that is so vital
for such an economy. The net result is to push the economy
into reverse; wear down the superstructure and infrastructure
of the economy; dry up the economic resources and future
potential; and finally mortgage not only the present but
also the prospects
for a recovery. Pan-Islamism in power creates the conditions
for the Islamic societies to sink in a sea of poverty and
In power: culture, social psychology and social
In the sphere of social psychology,
all those elements in Radical Islam that, before achieves power,
have already begun
to transform the system of values, the intellectual structures,
and the cultural face of society now come into their own.
The two opposing cultural camps, each reacting to the other
and rapidly moving towards the extreme in their positions,
define themselves as the negation of the other. Each camp
- the Pan-Islamist counterposed to those against Radical Islam,
the religious against the irreligious or even anti-religious
- creates its own separate systems based on absolute values.
Anyone not a fervent believer in Radical Islam is a heathen
and a devil. Conversely, any Muslim is a murderer, oppressor,
plotter, etc. While one camp looks on the exposure of a few
strands of a woman’s hair as prostitution, the other
denounces any attempt at defining morals in private and sexual
life as fanaticism and backwardness. In practice, this process
manifests itself as a strange whirlpool of false pretensions
to religiosity, institutionalised hypocrisy, nihilism and
immorality, pulling equally in opposite directions.
A further feature of this tragic cultural transformation
is the way it acquires a repressive police function. The culture
of Radical Islam, in becoming the official culture, is absorbed
into the political structures of the state. Non-Islamist culture
enters the realm of the forbidden as a ‘anti-culture’,
a ‘cultural enemy’, a ‘cultural danger’ and ‘cultural
corruption.’ It is unceremoniously removed to the realm
of the forbidden. Both cultural trends - the Pan-Islamic and
its counterpoint - become completely subordinate to ideology
in a process that follows an almost inevitable path towards
an atomised society.
The faster the official culture takes shape, the more it
is equipped with repressive tools. The greater is the absorption
of ideological structures into the state, the greater is their
control of cultural life. The more education becomes part
of the ruling religion, the faster the news media become schools
of indoctrination, entirely lacking in diversity. In short,
secular life comes under increasing ideological control and
greater pressure. And the opposite is true too. Social opposition,
reactions of discontent, criticism take the form of ‘cultural
attack’ and ‘cultural confrontation.’ Culture
becomes totally politicised.
In the absence of a political opposition with any influence,
popular protest is either explosive (this is the usual form
it takes) or it manifests itself in an individual and atomised
cultural form. There develops both an open and an underground
war over everyday-life issues. There are major conflicts in
which, using primitive weapons, opponents of the ruling culture
mock its many manifestations - the dress code, the ‘pagan’ national
festivals that provoke street battles, the duality of home
and public life and morality.
Scratch the surface of a Radical
Islamic society and you will witness its antithesis deeply
permeating its every aspect. The irony is that Radical Islam,
which emerged as a movement for ‘cultural revolution’,
finds itself surrounded by a ‘counter-cultural revolution.’ History
mocks the very imams who are the epitome of absolute power
by having them humiliated in running battles with rebellious ‘youth.’ The
ruling mullahs are forced to admit that the cultural assault
by the ‘enemy’ (read: the young who have known
nothing but the Islamic regime) is the greatest danger they
and the ‘Islamic revolution’ face.
Opposition atomised: the challenge for the left
But there is a danger signal here for progressive forces
too. This backward turn in the social struggle, from one which
is conscious, and organised on political lines, into an atomised,
individual, absolutist, cultural battle, without clear class
aims and lacking any real political consciousness, simultaneously
wears down the cultural potential of Islamic societies and
drains them of political health. The sad reality is that even
when the religious-Islamist governments are overthrown, the
future looks bleak.
What progressive and stable socio-political
system can take root in a society mired in uneven development,
polarized and depoliticised, where public discourse is populist
or demagogic? Social and moral indifference, negativism
and nihilism, hypocrisy and pretensions to religiosity, rule.
Paternalism is in command and the dominant relationship
society is that between the follower and the followed, the
disciple and the mujtahid (religious authority). Such societies
have sunk into a lumpen, get-rich-at-all-costs mentality,
glorifying both money and violence, aggressive towards the
weak yet simultaneously characterized by sycophancy and
How can a society which has fallen victim to pan-Islamism
throw off this massive dead weight of cultural psychological
trauma? What is to be done? Our purpose here is to issue an
invitation - for a dialogue over one of the most vexed questions
of our time. What are we to do about a blind and reactionary
revolt of the downtrodden?
A child of our time and a product of the ruinous effects
of advanced capitalism in Islamic societies of the periphery,
Radical Islam confronts the left with its most difficult challenge:
how to respond to a reactionary, grass-roots movement, arising
out of desperation - a movement which destroys class, cultural
and even psycho-social potential, leaving society disarmed
and ill-equipped meaningfully to confront its own ruinous
state. The actual response of the left has not so far been
edifying. Both in the region, and at a global level, it is
paralysed by a phenomenon that presents a contradictory challenge
to its instincts.
Here is a movement with claims to a mythical past, but born ‘out
of time’; a movement promising to lift millions into
a just future based on that illusionary past. It is born into
a present characterised by increasing polarisation of wealth
and poverty, of development and backwardness, which consigns
millions to the rubbish heap in advanced capitalism’s
backyard. At one level the movement consists of the most downtrodden
in society, crying out for their rightful share; on another,
it tramples on those very structures and social formations
with the potential for progressive change.
On the one hand,
this movement espouses anti-imperialist slogans, on the other,
it destroys the class which can truly organise to overturn
imperialist domination. It saves the capitalist mode of production
from the onslaught of those who want to tear down its ramparts,
but at the same time it disrupts capitalist accumulation and
provokes the wrath of global capital. It mobilises huge numbers
around the slogans of ‘equality of the Islamic umma’ (community)
and an end to hunger, and yet its policies drive society into
ever greater unequal development, poverty and social polarisation.
It calls for ‘independence’, and sacrifices all
political freedoms. It calls for ‘freedom.’ and
enslaves the female half of the population - not to mention
minorities and all those who think differently. In the name
of the right to cultural independence it discards universal
rights and justifies despotism, forcing a grey uniformity
In the name of participatory democracy it makes
millions assent to the increase of absolutist power over them
- seemingly giving a willing ‘yea’ to slavery.
People are increasingly mobilised and politicised only to
end up being pulversied into individual units expressing their
opposition in a depoliticised culture of negativistic rejection;
and a movement that declared itself the anti-corruption movement
to end all such movements itself weaves corruption into the
very fabric of society.
There have been two basic reactions to Radical Islam, the
first a policy of political alliance; the second one of confrontation,
with the aim of bringing about its ultimate destruction. With
the end of the Cold War, the first response -- from the
point of view of the left -- has faded. But at its height
both left and right followed the hallowed doctrine of ‘uniting
against the common enemy.’ Radical Islam was both anti-capitalist
and it was anti-communist, so at no stage was it short of
potential allies -- whether from the Soviet bloc with
its blind ‘anti-imperialism’; or from the imperialist
countries, with their virulent anti-communism.
On the left
there were different attitudes to the potential alliance.
Believers in the ‘non-capitalist road to socialism’,
for example, saw it as strategic and unconditional; for others
it was tactical, dependent in the longer term on the attainment
of proletarian hegemony within the revolution. But there were
also perceived advantages in an alliance for capitalism, which
was itself instrumental (directly and through client states)
in bringing anti-communist Islam into being and encouraging
its growth as part of its policy to contain the working-class
movement. The methodology of both left and right has been
identical: you identify your opposite - anti-imperialism for
some, anti-communism for others -- and ally with its
opposite. For the left, it is important to recognize, however
belatedly, that this method never had much to with Marxism.
It was, rather, a product of Stalinist distortions - vulgarised
further in the light of the revolutionary peasant movement
After the Cold War
When the end of the Cold War took one bloc out of the equation,
both right and left turned to a policy of confrontation. In
general terms, two main trends can be discerned in the way
the surviving (capitalist) bloc, and its allies, faced Radical
Islam. The first was to liquidate it ideologically; the second
to combine pressure and threats with appeasement and aid to
force it on to a path of ‘reform.’ Neither was
new. Both had, for example, been practised by the builders
of the modern state in Islamic countries earlier in the century -- by
Ataturk in Turkey, by Reza Shah in Iran, by Bourghiba in Tunisia,
in post-war Syria, and even in Pakistan (ostensibly an ‘Islamic
state’), and so on. What is new is the vigour with which,
and the scale on which, these policies are being pursued today.
Modernisation and the formation of the modern state in the
countries listed above involved, above all, a process where
social institutions and values had to be secularised; where
rationalism replaced hadith (actions or sayings of the Prophet
and the imams) and where laws that can be changed replace
immutable divine law (sharia’a). Those hoping to reform
Radical Islam argue that pan-Islamism is a cultural movement,
and a reaction to the formation of the modern state. These
states overturned social structures too rapidly, provoking
a blind and angry reaction. As these people were unabsorbed
in the modern state their political reaction against that
state has taken a religious form.
Those who argue thus remind the proponents of the policy
of the whip that belief cannot be suppressed through repression.
The answer, accordingly, is to put a brake on change, and
introduce certain reforms favouring religion, while retaining
the overall framework of the modern state. The ploy is to
change the ruling bloc in such a way as to broaden the social
base of the regime. An alliance is sought with one section
of religion against another. The resulting political stability
is thought to weaken the appeal of Radical Islam, and marginalising
it in the political equation. It is vital, however, to keep
the new Islamic allies away from the key centres of power
(the army, the security apparatus, etc.). Examples where such
policies have been put into practice are Jordan, Yemen, Pakistan
and, earlier, Egypt.
A variant of this policy is proposed for those countries
where neither the prospects of a coalition government exist,
nor is the secular state viable. This is to abandon the quest
for modernisation and leave the task of amalgamating the national
capital with global capital - that is the task of reconciling
the capitalist infrastructure with aspects of religious culture
- in the hands of reformist Islam. The aim is to stabilise
the political structure of society while avoiding the dangers
of outright modernisation. Unlike the first proposition, which
holds that the rigidity of sharia’a cannot cope with
the changing needs of a modern state, this one believes that
religion and capitalism can be reconciled. The argument between
these two interpretations is ongoing.
The two views share a common core. They rely on Islamic
reformists to secure the interests of the West - in the one
argument as a junior partner to secularists; in the other,
in their own right. The task of making the political and economic
structures of capitalism compatible with indigenous culture
(in a country of the periphery) is, in both cases, given over
to reformist Islam -- though it is understood that some
outside pressure must be brought to bear on religious thought
to force it to seek accommodation with secularism and take
the road to transformation. Needless to say neither policy
ever operates in its pure form. Specific conditions impose
some degree of compromise between the different roads (in
Algeria or Egypt, for example), resulting in highly complex
policies, and, in some cases, repeated U-turns.
Wrong analysis, doomed policies
Such policies are all likely to fail, in the main because
they do not address the root cause of Radical Islam. The movement
is not a reaction against the modern state. It is a product
of the effects of the modern state in a peripheral country
in globalised, late capitalism.
The reformers who see the pan-Islamist movement as a cultural
phenomenon, a reaction to the formation of the modern state
and the over-hasty destruction of traditional structures,
are on slippery ground. They mistake cause for effect and
cannot explain why this ‘reaction’ occurred in
the 1980s - in some of the countries involved over half a
century after the modern state was established. Nor can they
understand the explosion taking place today, when, thirty
years ago, Radical Islam was effortlessly crushed by Nasserism.
Our argument is that Radical Islam is a reaction to the
effects of particular forms of modernisation, not to modernisation
per se. This is not a trivial difference. For one thing, understanding
it profoundly affects the strategies needed (and discussed
below) to overcome political Islam. The idea that its successes
simply represent a social reaction to secularisation ignores
the fact that virtually all these societies are multi-cultural
formations, in which advanced capitalism exists precariously
alongside pre-capitalist and even tribal structures.
sections of society are not at all averse to modernisation.
Theories dependent on the idea that Islamic countries are
simply backward ignore this complex cultural reality. Moreover,
examples of the failure of the policy of accommodation abound.
Appeasement has not diminished the spectre of Radical Islam
in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia fed and helped create Hamas and
FIS to counter radicalism, only to find they have become
a radical threat to their sponsors. The appeasement strategy
is doomed in practice, just as it can be shown to be mistaken
The Iranian left
According to sections of the Iranian left, faithful to a
highly formalistic, deeply rooted economism and a crude statism,
any government that increased state ownership at home, and
sided with the so-called ‘socialist bloc’ abroad,
was a natural ally of the world proletariat, regardless of
the degree of participatory democracy it permitted or the
relations of production it established. State ownership was
even identified as the criterion for ‘socialist’ transformation.
An alternative view, more recently in vogue, rightly rejects
such statist economism, but only to replace it by another
one-sided view, this time immersed in a cultural interpretation.
Culture and ideology are considered the essential elements
of Radical Islam, and also the route to its negation. One
such interpretation combs the past in search of anti-orthodox-religious
elements in national culture. One favoured source is Islamic
mysticism, but there are also pre-Islamic movements, such
as Manichaeism and Mazdakism. Egalitarian and humanistic elements
in mysticism are brought in to confront official organised
religion, and to create an alternative to it.
In contrast, there are those who declare that there is nothing
in national culture on which to build. This argument, made
by many prominent thinkers of the ‘new left’,
claims that democracy will never take root in Iran and similar
societies unless cultural backwardness can be confronted.
Total secularism and modernism is their solution for a free
and democratic society and economic growth. Such concepts
as mystical ‘love’ and ‘self-sacrifice’ are
seen as a total negation of nature: they cannot be the building-blocks
of a socialist future. ‘Love’ is inseparable from
the love of god, they argue, and at its core lies a death-worship.
Such thinkers advocate a total rejection of national culture
and union with world culture.
These are both intellectual movements seeing culture as
central and defining the task as the creation of a new one.
The latter group claims to follow Heidegger -- but they
are not particularly faithful to him, since they propose to
build a new culture from scratch, rejecting all existing culture.
The effect of such a strategy is to separate the intellectual
completely from society. And, despite their claim to articulate
a radical left solution, they echo the liberal cry that it
is not possible to have democracy, or take steps towards socialism,
in societies on the periphery of world capitalism, especially
in countries where a tradition based on religion exists.
The international Left
Interestingly the positions taken by the left outside Iran
have similar overtones. A few diehards continue to cling to
the economist view that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my
friend.’ This was most clearly demonstrated in the position
taken by some on the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, and during
the Second Gulf War. The folly of this philosophy was best
illustrated by the way all but an unrepentant few have now
had to eat their words about this policy as they applied it
to Iran. Others take a pragmatic line, seeing their alliance
with pan-Islamism as tactical and temporary. They argue that
it is important to unite against imperialism at this juncture,
and deal with future rifts as and when they arise.
those who took this ostrich-like view in Iran are, unfortunately,
no longer in this world to see the folly of their ways.
Those (particularly in the Palestinian movement) who think
might work this strategy more successfully (and less fatally
to themselves) should remember the innate enmity of Radical
Islam -- itself a brittle coalition of antagonistic class
interests -- towards any ideology that looks at the world
through class spectacles.
The third view is even more pernicious.
It wraps its intensely racist theories in seemingly libertarian
words. Let each people follow its own cultural norms, it holds.
By rejecting universal human rights this view is, at best,
a form of vulgar populism and, at worse, dangerously racist,
confining large tracts of humanity to permanent exclusion
from rights enjoyed (as rights) by others. Not surprisingly
they found themselves, at the 1993 Vienna UN Conference on
Human Rights, sharing a platform with some our planet’s
most vicious regimes.
We have argued, then, that Radical Islam is of our time -- a
child born not ‘out of time’ but rather out of
today’s profound economic, political and ideological
crisis. In relation to this, the ‘cultural’ crisis
is not so much a cause as a blindly reactionary effect. Radical
Islam is not a response to the modern state, modern culture
or the separation of the religion and state, but rather to
mass unemployment, destitution and hopelessness brought about
by the modern state.
It is not so much a reaction to the essence
of modernism but to the ravages of advanced capitalism in
a part of its periphery. Those thrown on to the rubbish
heap of history claw at the nearest available ideology at
when liberalism, nationalism and known forms of socialism
are all sinking in a quagmire. The past rules the present
in those societies not because of its robustness, but more
because of the feebleness of the alternatives.
It is, therefore, futile to imagine that any project that
does not offer a fundamental solution to the political and
economic crisis can forestall the genesis and growth of such
blind and ultimately destructive movements. It is also clear
that any political solution must be accompanied by a cultural
renaissance congenial to human feeling, intellect and thought.
This requires nothing less than a full-scale ideological spring-cleaning
for the left. The three major planks on which the left must
confront the pan-Islamist movement are: first, the formulation
of an independent and radical economic programme; second the
development of a coherent political platform; and third, a
thorough overhaul of its own system of beliefs and ideas about
A radical economic alternative to neo-liberalism
Where advanced capitalism is polarising
the world into extremes of affluence and poverty that now transcend
one cannot talk of an independent economic programme that
does not challenge neo-liberalism at every level.
confronting the so-called structural adjustment policies
of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which
are bringing about the destitution of millions in the North
as well as in the South. It is on this ground that the left
must distinguish itself from the liberals who also seek
woo the masses breaking away from Radical Islam. In the
South this means a number of things.
First, key sections of the economy need to be in public
control, which is not necessarily the same as state control.
It has to be promoted as the most suitable form within which
the labour force can be directly involved in production, with
a major input into meaningful decision-making. Second, the
producers must control the means of production not just in
legal terms (such as an article in the constitution) but in
real political and practical terms.
Third, the right balance
must be created between central planning (without which
it would be impossible to overcome the inequalities) and decentralised
workers control. Fourth, the system of social security must
improve the quality of life -- something that cannot
be achieved without the working population controlling state
expenditure, in particular with regard to welfare, subsidies
These, and other similar, economic policies are crucial
if the left is to unite with, and mobilize its main social
base -- the downtrodden. Only with a radical programme
addressing the root cause of mass destitution, confronting
the core-periphery contradictions, and showing how to overcome
uneven development, can the left attract its natural class
allies away from the clutches of Islamic obscurantism.
Clearing out ideological baggage on the left: alliances
and cultural heritage
As we argued in part one of this essay, the Islamic movement
filled a vacuum created by the ideological feebleness of the
two main social classes -- the native bourgeoisie and
the young working class. But we must also confront the fact
that the left, as it exists in these countries today, is singularly
ill equipped to lead the implementation of the programme outlined
A major rethink is necessary if the left is to fill
this ideological vacuum before those who would promote bourgeois
alternatives have produced new prescriptions with their
already sharpened pens. Without such a rethink the left can
no hope of truly representing the interests of workers,
organising working-class struggles, and becoming integral
to a genuinely
mass force in those societies. Two aspects of this need
particularly urgent reappraisal, the first relating to alliances,
to the cultural inheritance of the left.
It is time the left returned to a class-based analysis of
historical development, too often ignored in the recent past.
It must make all alliances with political forces and organisations
conditional on the true class interest of the working class
it claims to represent. For too long it has made the most
incredible contortions to justify its support and alliance
with a variety of unsavoury groups.
A crude anti-imperialism,
devoid of any class analysis, fed at times by the totally
discredited theories of ‘non capitalist road to socialism’ have
underlined these justifications. The support given to the
Islamic Republic (a regime which systematically and brutally
destroyed all the working-class and democratic organisations
and structures that grew out of an anti-capitalist revolution)
was, in some places, given out of sheer pragmatism or even
opportunism; in others, from a genuine but misguided anti-imperialism.
The left has to wake up to the fact that in the interface
between the ravages of advanced capitalism in the South (and
also the North) and the weakness of the working-class alternatives
(organisationally and ideologically) a whole series of movements
and insurrections will arise with ‘radical’ and
even ‘anti-capitalist’ content.
The left of today
and tomorrow faces movements, often from below, fuelled by
desperation, and containing a bewildering intermix of progressive
and reactionary elements. To steer a course of solidarity
and alliance in this morass requires a clear vision of the
left’s future, based on a clear understanding of where
the interests of the working class lie. The experience of
the Iranian revolution, and of other major twentieth-century
revolutions, clearly points to the fact that all alliances
and solidarity must be subordinated to one consideration only:
does the policy serve the true interests of the working class?
Without a thorough reappraisal of its cultural and intellectual
heritage the left will remain marginalised in the huge battles
ahead. The ideological vacuum will be filled by various bourgeois
alternatives: liberal here, totalitarian and fascistic there.
The left, on both sides of the North/South divide has a long
way to go. Meanwhile, the cultural and human ravages of advanced
capitalism will continue to be met by the opposite but equally
appalling ravages wrought in the name of false utopias, generated
from the turbulent depths of the despair of the ‘wretched
of the earth.’
This article was first published under the title "Political
Islam’s relation to Capital and Class" in issue
36-37 (2005) of Journal Critique.