Issue 257 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stop the war


Phil Marfleet looks at the appeal and limits of Islamic activism

The bankruptcy of nationalist regimes gives Islamists new opportunities

Islamic 'fundamentalism' has drawn millions of followers. Its call for opposition to the west, and to corrupt and dictatorial regimes, has often seemed the only voice for change across the Middle East and Asia. But the movement has invariably failed its supporters. Time after time it has risen in popularity, only to collapse and to return to the margins of politics. What accounts for its ineffectiveness and for this see-saw history?

'Fundamentalism' is better described as Islamism or Islamic activism. It is a modern movement. Contrary to the prevailing view in the west that its origins lie in 'medieval' times, it began little more than 100 years ago. For its founders, the main task was to oppose the effects of European colonialism in the Middle East.

In 1882 British troops occupied Egypt, and it became clear that soon the whole region would be divided into new states run from London and Paris. The first Islamists set out to rally support for a struggle against the occupation. There is no doubt that in this sense Islamism originated as a movement of resistance. Its key figure was an Iranian cleric, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. He was bitterly opposed to the construction of states based upon borders said to represent 'national' differences of language, lineage or race.

Afghani argued that people of the region had a common religious belief, and that by acting together as Muslims they would be able to throw off the yoke of colonialism. In a key founding statement he argued, 'Islamic society stands witness to the fact that Muslims do not recognise unity on the basis of tribe, colour or race. It is only the religious brotherhood that counts.' On this basis he argued for 'pan-Islam'--a unity of all Muslims--and agitated against European rule in Egypt, Turkey and even India.

Then, as now, there were many versions of Islam. Afghani accused local rulers of having distorted the faith. He argued that by compromising with the colonial powers they had betrayed religious principles. Unity and liberation could only be achieved by reference to the founding principles of Islam as set out in the Koran and accounts of the first Muslim community--the umma founded by the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century.

These ideas influenced all subsequent Islamist currents. So too did Afghani's political strategy. This had little to do with the mass of people he wished to summon into action, for he spent most of his time calling upon them to follow 'enlightened' thinkers like himself and pressure local rulers to oppose the colonial powers--a hopeless task, for, as he also pointed out, the kings and pashas were deeply involved with the forces of occupation. Afghani was an elitist leader, calling for action but never trusting the mass of people to act for themselves.

All Islamist leaders have conformed to this pattern. Without exception they have talked of change, but have never organised collective action based upon struggle from below. This is an outcome of their own specific interests. From the first, the Islamists have been led by men of the commercial middle class, and sometimes by professionals such as lawyers and doctors. Ever fearful of mass action, they have both argued for change and resisted it. Anxious that their own privileges should not be threatened, they have often expended less effort on agitation than on containing the movement from below.

This is a key reason for the pattern of rapid rise and fall--but there is another explanation of almost equal importance. During the 20th century struggles for change in the Third World were led mainly by secular nationalist and Communist currents. These also offered visions of a better life after colonialism but when nationalists and/or Communists came to power they brought disappointment and disillusion.

Nationalism in the Middle East

This has happened time and again across the Middle East. In the 1920s, after years of anti-colonial struggles in Egypt, the nationalist Wafd Party set up a phoney independent government--in reality it was run by the British. Soon hundreds of thousands of its disillusioned supporters had deserted to join the Muslim Brotherhood, a new Islamist organisation which accused the Wafd of betrayal and called for unremitting struggle against the occupying power.

For a generation the brotherhood dominated Egyptian politics. It organised marches and protests, and set up a vast network of welfare organisations, becoming almost a state within the Egyptian state. But by the 1940s, when Egyptian workers moved to the left and there were repeated mass strikes, the brotherhood grew fearful. Its leader, Hassan al-Banna, declared strikes haram (forbidden by Islamic law), and his newspaper carried a regular column 'exposing' Communist activities. When Egypt entered a revolutionary crisis Banna sought a deal with King Farouk, the British pawn hated by the mass of Egyptians, and the brotherhood never recovered. The experience of the brotherhood confirmed that Islamism was a form of nationalism. It was not, as some of its opponents on the left argued, a 'fascist' movement. Unlike fascism in its European heartland, the brotherhood existed because of the reality of imperialist power. Its problem was that, as a highly conservative nationalism, it could never effectively confront that power.

In the early 1950s a new secular nationalist current under Nasser promised sweeping change. After only 15 years this project also collapsed. There was ferment in Egyptian society, with repeated mass strikes and huge food riots. Millions sought a radical alternative, but the nationalists were now discredited, while the Communists had long since liquidated their organisations on the basis that the Nasser regime left nothing further to be desired. The scene was set for return of the Islamists, and within a few years they were again the dominant force in national politics.

Cario, 1981: President Sadat is shot by six of his army officers
Cario, 1981: President Sadat is shot by six of his army officers

A new and more intransigent Islamism emerged. This maintained that the Muslim Brotherhood had been far too tame--what was required was a struggle to seize the state from impious rulers, and to make it the base for new struggles against the west. Radical preachers attracted huge audiences to the mosques and large numbers of young people signed up for jihad. They soon found they were not needed--the Islamists preferred an underground organisation of tiny cells of activists.

On the basis of this conspiratorial strategy, in 1981 Islamic Jihad assassinated President Sadat and left millions asking about their own role in 'liberating' the state. One of the key figures in this episode was Ayman Zahwahri, now said to be the dominant influence upon Osama Bin Laden and a founding figure of the activist network al-Quaida.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 seemed to offer something different. For the first time an Islamist leader appeared to align himself with the masses, as Ayatollah Khomeini invoked Iranians to mount strikes against the Pahlavi regime. It was a brilliant and successful manoeuvre. Khomeini had spent most of his life compromising with the regime and opposing independent activity. Now, with the left paralysed by uncertainty, he swept to leadership of the movement. His first act in power was to turn upon the revolutionary forces, bloodily suppressing the workers and national minorities whose struggles had made the revolution possible.

The Iranian events were another confirmation of principles underlying the whole Islamist experience. Attached to the middle classes, Islamist leaders were incapable of acting in the interests of the masses. Although they might borrow the language of radical change they were wedded to the status quo, and the deeper the crisis the more they struggled to save the capitalist system from those who challenged it from below. The Iranian Revolution was a tragedy for those on the left who had believed Khomeni's radical rhetoric--they were the first to the gallows.

Still, the bankruptcy of nationalist regimes gave Islamists new opportunities. In 1992 the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of Algeria won a general election against a deeply corrupt nationalist government. The FIS had already demonstrated mass backing and now had a licence to take power. It wavered, unable to detach itself from a regime with which many of its leading members had their own relationships. The hesitation was fatal--the army took power and initiated a campaign of repression which has cost tens of thousands of lives.

The case of Afghanistan demonstrates only a variation on the familiar pattern. The rule of the Communists in the 1970s had been conducted in the interests of Russian foreign policy. When the regime proved unpopular Moscow ordered an invasion, proving to all Afghans that the Communists were no different from other imperialist forces they had confronted for generations. Among the mass of Mujahadeen fighters was a small current of genuine Islamists--young men committed to the prospect of establishing an Islamic state. Many had been drawn from across the Middle East--like Zahwahri they had records of activity in Egypt, North Africa or the Gulf states.

They reproduced in the Taliban all the contradictions of the movement evident for a century. They 'opposed' imperialism, while at the same time they eagerly took weapons and finance from the US and its allies. They talked of 'liberating' Afghanistan, while they crushed resistance to their own rule in areas freed from Russian control. They declared a state based on religious harmony, while they ruthlessly suppressed those adhering to Islamic traditions other than their own.

Since its failures in Egypt, Iran, Algeria and elsewhere Islamism has become more conservative and the contradictions in the movement are more severe. No one argued that Hassan al-Banna of the Muslim Brotherhood was a creation of the British, or that Khomeini was a tool of the CIA. In the case of the Taliban there is no doubt that the US and the Saudis were present at the birth of the movement.

Bin Laden is a multi-millionaire and his al-Quaida is financed by businessmen and governments across the Islamic world. He can achieve nothing for the mass of people. His prominence demonstrates above all the extent to which secular alternatives have failed the masses--and how vital it has become to establish a movement for change which rests upon the struggle from below.

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