Islamism: A symptom of the decomposition of capitalist social relations

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Not for the first time, capitalism is justifying its march towards war by invoking the idea of a 'clash between civilisations'. In 1914 workers were marched off to war to defend modern 'civilisation' against the Russian knout or German kaiserism; in 1939 it was to defend democracy against the new dark age represented by Nazism; from 1945 to 1989 it was to fight for democracy against Communism, or for the socialist countries against the imperialist ones. Today the refrain is 'the Western way of life' against 'Islamic fanaticism', or 'Islam' against the 'crusaders and Jews'.

All these slogans are rallying cries for imperialist war; in other words, for the military struggle between competing bourgeois factions in the epoch of capitalist decay. The article that follows is a contribution towards demystifying the idea that militant Islam is something outside of and even against bourgeois civilisation In it we shall attempt to demonstrate that, to the exact contrary, it can only be understood as a product, a concentrated expression, of the historical decline of this same civilisation.

A second article will look at the marxist approach to the problem of fighting religious ideology within the proletariat.

Marx: capitalism undermines religion

Marx saw religion as the "self-consciousness and self-feeling of man who has not yet found himself or has already lost himself again". Religion is thus a "reversed world-consciousness ... the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality"[1] However it is not merely false consciousness, but a (distorted and self-defeating) response to real oppression:

"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the sprit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people" (ibid).

In contrast to those eighteenth century philosophers who denounced religion as simply the handiwork of imposters, Marx insisted that it was necessary to expose the real, material, roots of religion in given economic relations of production. He was confident that humanity would eventually succeed in emancipating itself from all false consciousness, and reach its full potential in a classless world communism.

Indeed, Marx stressed the degree to which religion was already being undermined due to capitalist economic development. In The German Ideology, for instance, Marx states that capitalist industrialisation was successfully reducing religion to a transparent lie. To liberate itself, the proletariat needed to shed the illusions of religion and all such obstacles to its own self-realisation; but the fog of religion was being rapidly dispersed by capitalism itself. In fact, Marx thought that capitalism itself was undermining religion to such an extent that he sometimes even spoke of religion being already dead for the proletariat.

Limits of bourgeois materialism

Later marxists noticed that once capitalism ceased being a revolutionising force in society by 1871, the bourgeoisie tended to turn back to idealism and religion. In their text The ABC of Communism (an extensive elaboration of the 1919 programme of the Russian Communist Party), Bukharin and Preobrazhensky explain the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the old feudal Tsarist state. Under the Tsars, they explain, the principal content of 'education' was religion: "the maintenance of religious fanaticism, the maintenance of stupidity and ignorance, was regarded as a matter of great importance to the State" (ibid., p250). Church and state were "compelled to join forces against the labouring masses, and their alliance served to strengthen their domination over the workers" (ibid.p249). The emergence of the bourgeoisie in Russia saw this newcomer eventually pushed into headlong conflict with the feudal nobility - which included the church, because the bourgeoisie coveted the fabulous revenues extracted from the workers by the church: "The real basis of the demand was a desire for the transfer to the bourgeoisie of the revenues allotted by the State to the church" (ibid.).

Like the young bourgeoisie in Western Europe, the rising Russian bourgeoisie pursued its campaign for the complete separation of church and state with great vigour. Yet nowhere was this fight carried through to the end, and in each case - even in France, where the conflict was particularly bitter - the bourgeoisie eventually reached a compromise with the church: provided the latter now acted as a buttress of capitalism, is was permitted to join the bourgeoisie and conduct its religious activities. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky attribute this to the fact that

"everywhere the struggle being carried on by the working class against the capitalists was growing more intense... The capitalists thought it would be more advantageous to come to terms with the church, to buy its prayers on behalf of the struggle with socialism, to utilise its influence over the uncultured masses in order to keep alive in their minds the sentiment of slavish submissiveness to the exploiting State".

The bourgeoisie of Western Europe thus made their peace with the religious establishment, while privately remaining materialists of sorts, in many cases, for a time. As Bukharin and Preobrazhensky put it, the key to this contradiction "lies in the exploiters' pockets". In his 1938 text Lenin as Philosopher, the Dutch left communist Anton Pannekoek explains why the 'natural-science materialism' of the rising bourgeoisie had a very short life expectancy:

"Only so long as the bourgeoisie could believe that its society of private property, personal liberty, and free competition, through the development of industry, science and technique, could solve the life problems of all mankind - only so long could the bourgeoisie assume that all theoretical problems could be solved by science, without the need to assume supernatural and spiritual powers. As soon, however, as it became evident that capitalism could not solve the life problems of the masses, as was shown by the rise of the proletarian class struggle, the confident materialist philosophy disappeared. The world was seen again full of insoluble contradictions and uncertainties, full of sinister forces threatening civilisation. So the bourgeoisie turned to various kinds of religious creeds, and the bourgeois intellectuals and scientists submitted to the influence of mystical tendencies. Before long they were quick to discover the weakness and shortcomings of materialist philosophy, and to make speeches on the 'limitations of science' and the insoluble 'world-riddles"".[2]

While this trend was already occasionally noticeable during capital's ascendant phase, it became the rule with the dawning of capital's decadent epoch. Because it has reached the limits of its capacity to expand, capitalism in decadence has essentially been unable to create a world fully in its image: it has left whole regions backward and undeveloped. This economic and social backwardness is the basis for the grip that religion still exerts in such areas. The Bolsheviks themselves were confronted with this, noting in their 1919 programme that the fact that they felt compelled to include a section in this document specifically addressing the problem of religion was "an expression of the backwardness of Russian material and cultural conditions".

The bourgeoisie's reliance upon idealism and religion is particularly apparent in the decadent epoch when bourgeois optimism has been exposed; we can see this in the case of Nazism, which reveals a tendency towards profound irrationalism. In the final stage of capitalist decadence - capitalist decomposition - these tendencies are writ large, with even some members of the bourgeoisie (such as the billionaire Osama bin Laden) apparently believing in the obscurantist reactionary creeds they espouse. As Bukharin and Preobrazhensky note, appropriately: "if the bourgeois class begins to believe in God and the heavenly life, this merely means it has realised that its life here below is drawing to a close!"

The flowering of irrationalist movements among the masses in the most deprived regions is increasingly acute in the period of decomposition, where the lack of any future for the system becomes apparent, and social life under capitalism in the weaker peripheries tends to disintegrate. All over the world, as in the last days of previous modes of production, we have the rise of sects, apocalyptic suicide cults, and the various 'fundamentalisms'. 'Islamism' is very clearly an expression of this general tendency. But before charting its rise, we need to look back at the historical origins of Islam as a world religion.

On the historical origins of Islam

At its point of foundation in seventh century western Arabian Hejaz region, Islam, to express it very briefly, was the product of the synthesis of Judaism and Byzantine and Assyrian Christianity with ancient Persian religions and local monotheistic creeds, such as the Hanifiyya. This rich mix was adapted to the needs of a society in the midst of an immense social, economic and political turmoil. Dominated by the city of Mecca, the Hejaz was a major trading crossroads for the Middle East of this period. Arabia as a whole stood between the great Persian (Sassanid) and Byzantine (Eastern Roman) empires. The Meccan ruling class of this society encouraged visiting traders to place idols of their personal pagan gods in the Ka'ba, a local religious shrine, and to worship there whenever they visited. Wealthy Meccans made a comfortable living from this idolatry.

For about 100 years, Mecca was a prosperous society run by a tribal aristocracy and making some use of slave labour, vigorous far-reaching trade and the additional revenue from the Ka'ba. By the time Muhammad reached maturity, however, Meccan society was in a deepening state of crisis. It began to openly break up, threatening to collapse into a war without end of its constituent tribes.

Just outside Mecca and the region's second city Yathrib (today's Medina), were the fiercely independent and austere Bedouin nomadic tribes, who had initially benefited from the enrichment of the region's urban centres; they were able to borrow from rich townsfolk and increase their own standard of living. Eventually, however, they were increasingly unable to repay such loans - a situation that was to have explosive consequences. The disintegration of the tribes now really gathered pace, in both the cities and the desert oases, as the Bedouin were "sold into slavery or at any rate reduced to a dependent status... The tribal limits had been overstepped".[3] To elaborate:

"Inevitably, along with this economic and social transformation, there came intellectual and moral changes. Shrewd men were seen to prosper. The traditional virtues of the sons of the desert [the Bedouin] were no longer the sure road to success. Greed, and an eye to the main chance, were much more useful. The rich became proud and overbearing, glorying in their success as a personal thing - no longer a matter for the whole tribe. The ties of blood grew weaker, giving way to others based on common interest" (ibid.).

Furthermore: "wickedness triumphed at home. The rich and powerful oppressed the poor. The immemorial laws of tribal solidarity were broken daily. The weak and the orphan were sold into slavery. The old unwritten code of decency and morality was trampled underfoot. The people no longer even knew which gods to worship" (ibid.).

In a society where religion was the only possible means of rationalising daily existence, this last statement is highly significant - indicating that the society was in a serious social crisis. Islam refers to this period in Arabia as the jahiliyya, or era of ignorance, in which, it claims, there were no limits on debauchery, cruelty, unlimited polygamy and widespread female infanticide.

Arabia at this time was riven by the rivalries of both its own warring tribes and the feuds and ambitions of neighbouring civilisations. There were also other, more global, factors at work. It was known in Arabia that the mighty Persian and Roman empires were in serious trouble both internally and externally, and might fall; and many in Arabia "thought it heralded the end of the world" (ibid., p65). Much of the civilised world also stood on the brink of chaos.

Engels analysed the rise of Islam as "a Bedouin reaction against the settled but degenerating" townspeople, "who at that time has also become very decadent in their religion, mingling a corrupt nature-cult with Judaism and Christianity".[4] Born in Mecca in 570 AD, but partially raised in the desert by Bedouin, and profoundly influenced by the range of worldviews that Arabia - especially the Hejaz - was awash with, the thoughtful Muhammad was the ideal vector for the resolution of the crisis of social relations his city and region faced. He was the 'man of the moment', when his ministry began in 610.

All Arabia was ripe for change; its condition called out for the emergence of a pan-Arabian state, capable of overcoming tribal separatism, placing society on a new economic and therefore social and political foundation. Islam proved to be the perfect vehicle for achieving this. Muhammad told Arabians that the growing chaos of their society was the result of them turning away from God's laws (Shari'a). They must submit to these laws if they were to escape eternal damnation. The new religion denounced the cruelty and internecine squabbling of the tribes, proclaiming all Muslims not only as brothers, but also as men and women who had the obligation to unite. Islam (literally submission to God) declared that God (Allah) demanded this. Islam also outlawed debauchery (alcohol, swearing and gambling were prohibited); cruelty was prohibited (slave-owners were encouraged to free their slaves, for instance); polygamy was limited to four wives per male believer (all of whom must be treated equally in all respects - leading some to argue that in reality the practice was outlawed); men and women were given distinct social roles, but a woman was permitted to work and to chose her own husband; and murder was strictly prohibited, including infanticide. Islam also taught Arabians that it was not enough to pray and avoid sin; submission to God meant that all spheres of existence must submit to God's will - i.e., that there was an Islamic framework for everything, including the economics and politics of a society.

In the conditions of the time, it is not surprising that the new religion soon attracted masses of adherents, once the initial attempts of the Meccan ruling class to physically eliminate it had failed. It was the perfect instrument for the overthrow of Arabian and other nearby societies. This Muslim 'golden epoch' could not last forever. Muhammad's successors, the caliphs - selected to rule the Islamic world due to their supposed fidelity to Muhammad's message - were eventually replaced by increasingly corrupted dynastic rulers, whose principal claim to rulership was hereditary. This transformation was complete with the accession to the Caliphate of the 'Umayyad dynasty (680-750 AD). Nevertheless, it is clear that the rise of Islam did originally express a forward-movement in historical evolution, and it is from this that it derives its original strength and depth of vision. And even if the Islamic civilisation of the mediaeval period inevitably failed to live up to Mohammed's ideals, it still provided a framework for many dazzling advances in medicine, mathematics and other branches of human knowledge. Although the oriental despotism upon which it was founded was eventually to reach the sterile impasse to which this mode of production was condemned, at its high point it made western feudalism appear crude and obscurantist in comparison; classically, this was symbolised by the huge gulf in culture between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the days of the crusades. We might add that there is an even greater gulf between the zenith of Islamic culture and the ignorance-worshipping fundamentalism of today.[5]

The Bolsheviks and 'Muslim nationalism'

But if marxists can recognize a progressive side to Islam in its origins, how have they analysed its role in the period of the proletarian revolution, when all religions have become a reactionary obstacle to human emancipation? A brief examination of Bolshevik policy in this regard is instructive.

Less than one month after the victory of the October 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks issued a proclamation, To All the Working Muslims of Russia and the East, which declared that it was on the side of the "working Muslims ... whose mosques and prayer-houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled upon by the by the Tsars and oppressors of Russia". The Bolsheviks pledged:

Your beliefs and usages, your national and cultural institutions are forever free and inviolate. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the mighty protection of the Revolution and its organs, the Soviet of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants.

Such a policy marked a distinct change from that of the Tsarists, who had attempted to systematically and forcibly (often violently) assimilate the Muslim population, following the conquests of Central Asia from the sixteenth century onwards. Not surprisingly, this caused the Muslim populations of these lands to cling firmly to their Islamic heritage. With a few notable exceptions, the Central Asian Muslims did not actively participate in the October revolution, which was overwhelmingly a Russian affair: "The Muslim national organisations remained onlookers, indifferent to the Bolshevik cause".[6] The prominent 'Muslim communist', Sultan Galiev, of whom more in a moment, stated some years after the revolution:

"In making the balance sheet of the October revolution and of the participation of the Tatars in the latter, we must admit that the working masses and the Tatar disinherited layers did not take any part".[7]

The Bolsheviks' attitude to the Central Asian Muslims was formed by both internal and external forces. On the one hand, the new system had to come to terms with the situation in the overwhelmingly Muslim lands of the old Tsarist empire. The Bolsheviks were convinced that these Central Asian lands were both strategically and economically essential to revolutionary Russia's survival. When some Muslim nationalists revolted against the new government in Moscow, the response of the authorities was in many cases to take the most brutal measures. A rebellion in Turkestan, for instance, resulted in the city of Kokand being razed by military units of the Tashkent Soviet. Lenin sent a special commission there in November 1919, "to restore", as Lenin put it, "correct relations between the Soviet regime and the peoples of Turkestan".[8]

One example of this approach towards the Muslim regions was the formation of Zhendotel (the Department of Working Women and Peasant Women) to work among Muslim women in Soviet Central Asia. Zhendotel focussed especially on the problem of religion in this extremely economically backward region. In its initial period, Zhendotel was noteworthy for its patient and sensitive approach to the delicate problems it attempted to deal with. Women organisers for Zhendotel even donned the paranja (an extreme form of Islamic veiling, completely covering the head and face) during discussion meetings with Muslim women.

While some 'Muslim nationalist' organisations rallied briefly to the counter-revolution during the 1918-1920 Civil War, most came to grudgingly 'accept' the Bolshevik regime as the lesser of two evils, from their point of view, after suffering the depredations of Deniken's counter-revolutionary Whites. Many of these 'Muslim nationalists' joined the Communist Party, and not a few soon occupied senior governmental posts. Yet only a small number seem to have been convinced of the validity of marxism. The famous Tatar Sultan Galiev was the Bolshevik representative on the Central Muslim Commissariat (formed in January 1918), a member of the Inner College of the People's Commissariat for Nationalities (Narkomnats), chief editor of the review Zhizn' Natsional'nostey, a professor at the University of the Peoples of the East, and led the left wing of the 'Muslim nationalists'. Yet even this leading figure among those recruited from the 'Muslim nationalists' was at best a 'national communist', as he himself testified in the Tatar newspaper Qoyash (The Sun) in 1918, explaining his adherence to the Bolshevik Party in October 1917: "I come to Bolshevism pushed by the love of my people which presses so heavily on my heart" (Sultan Galiev?, op.cit.).

On the other hand, the Bolsheviks understood that their revolution needed to be joined by those of workers in other countries, if it were to survive. The failure of the revolutions in developed Western countries (especially Germany) caused them increasingly to turn towards the possibility of a 'revolutionary nationalist' wave in the Eastern hemisphere. They recognized that this would not be proletarian, but, as the first signs of the retreat of the world revolutionary wave, and the growing isolation of the Russian revolution emerged, the Bolsheviks increasingly inclined towards the opportunist notion that it could in some way prepare the way for proletarian revolution. For the moment, though, the 'Eastern question' - 'national liberation' struggles in the Middle East and Asia - was seen as the means to pry the foot of British imperialism off the neck of Soviet Russia.

The Comintern and Pan-Islam

This is the context in which Bolsheviks led the Comintern to form its evolving attitude towards the movements of Pan-Islam. At its Second Congress in 1920, the Comintern signalled that it was beginning to bend to the tremendous pressures exerted upon it by the forces of counter-revolution both inside and outside Russia. Opportunistic concessions were made all along the line, in the vain hope of lessening the hostility of the capitalist world to Soviet society. Communists were ordered to organise in the bourgeois trade unions, to join the openly pro-imperialist Socialist and Labour parties and to support the so-called 'national liberation movements' in the underdeveloped countries. The 'Theses on the National and Colonial Question' - justifying support for 'national liberation movements' - were drafted by Lenin for the congress and adopted with only three abstentions.

Nevertheless, the Second Congress drew the line at collaborating with Islamists. Lenin's 'Theses' declared:

"It is necessary to struggle against the Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asiatic movements and similar tendencies, which are trying to combine the liberation struggle against European and American imperialism with the strengthening of the power of Turkish and Japanese imperialism and of the nobility, the large landlords [khans], the priests [mullahs], etc".[9]

Although he voted for the resolution, Sneevliet, representing the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia), asserted that a radical mass Islamist organisation existed in the Dutch East Indies. Sneevliet claimed that Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union) had 'taken on a class character', by adopting an anti-capitalist programme. These "communist hajjis" [those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca] were vital for the communist revolution, he stressed.[10] This was merely the continuation of the policy developed by the old Indonesian Social-Democratic Union (ISDV) that later formed the major portion of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), formed in May 1920. Indonesian marxists had an ambiguous relationship with radical Islam, right from the start, as the ICC has pointed out elsewhere:

"Indonesian members of the ISDV, like Samoen, were simultaneously members, and even leaders, of the Islamic movement. During the war [World War I], the ISDV recruited a considerable number of Indonesians from Sarekat Islam, which had some 20,000 members... This policy prefigured, in embryonic form, the policy adopted in China after 1921 - with the encouragement of Sneevliet and the Comintern - of a united front even to the point of a fusion of nationalist and communist organisations (The Kuomintang and the Chinese CP)...

Significantly, within the Comintern, Sneevliet represented the PKI and the 'left wing' of Sarekat Islam. This alliance with the classic indigenous Islamic bourgeoisie was to last until 1923".[11]

Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East

The first application of the 'Theses on the National and Colonial Question' was the so called Baku (Azerbaijan) Congress of the Peoples of the East, held in September 1920, more or less immediately after the conclusion of the Second Congress of the Comintern. At least one-quarter of the conference delegates were not communists, including open anti-communists, bourgeois nationalists and Pan-Islamists. Presided over by Zinoviev, it called repeatedly for a 'holy war' (Zinoviev's phrase) against foreign and domestic oppressors and for workers' and peasants' governments throughout the Middle East and Asia, as a means of weakening imperialism, especially British imperialism.

The Bolsheviks' scheme was to form an 'unbreakable alliance' with these disparate elements, with the principal aim of loosening the imperialist ring around Soviet Russia. The opportunist core of this policy was showed by Zinoviev at the opening session of the congress, when he described the conference delegates and the movements and states they represented as Russia's 'second sword', whom Russia was 'approaching as brothers, as comrades in struggle'.[12] This was the first ever 'anti-imperialist' (i.e., inter-classist) conference held in the name of communism.

The pioneer US communist, John Reed, who attended the congress, was sickened by its proceedings. Angelica Balabanova relates (in My Life as a Rebel, p. 318) that "Jack spoke bitterly of the demagogy and display which had characterised the Baku Congress and the manner in which the native population and the Far Eastern delegates had been treated".[13] An Appeal from the Communist Party of Netherlands to the Peoples of the East Represented in Baku appears in the French language edition of the Comintern's record of congress proceedings and was presumably distributed to the delegates. This asserted that 'thousands of Indonesians' had been 'united for the common struggle against the Dutch oppressors' by the Pan-Islamist Sarekat Islam, and the Appeal was certain that this Pan-Islamist organisation joined with it in greeting the congress.

At the congress, the Bolshevik Party's Radek openly evoked the image of the conquering army of the former Ottoman Muslim sultans, declaring: "We appeal, comrades [sic], to the warlike feelings which once inspired the peoples of the East when those peoples, led by their great conquerors, advanced upon Europe".[14] Within three months of the Baku Congress, which had lauded the Turkish nationalist Kemal Pasha (Atatürk), the latter had murdered the entire leadership of the Turkish Communist Party.

By its Fourth Congress in 1922, the Comintern had revised its programme even further. Introducing the 'Theses on the Eastern Question' that were unanimously adopted by the congress, the Dutch delegate van Ravesteyn declared that 'the independence of the Eastern world as a whole, the independence of Asia, the independence of the Muslim peoples ... means in itself the end of Western imperialism'. Earlier at the same congress, Malaka, the delegate from the Dutch East Indies, had repeated that communists there had worked closely with Sarekat Islam, until the two groups quarrelled in 1921. Malaka declared that the hostility to Pan-Islam expressed in the theses adopted by the Second Congress had damaged the position of communists. Adding his own support for close collaboration with Pan-Islam, the delegate from Tunis argued that, unlike the British and French CPs, who were inactive on the colonial question, at least the Pan-Islamists united all Muslims against their oppressors.[15]

The fruits of opportunism

The opportunist drift of the Bolsheviks and the Comintern on the colonial question had largely been based on the idea of finding allies against the imperialist encirclement of Soviet Russia. Leftist apologists for these policies argue that they did help the Soviet Union to survive; but, as the Italian communist left recognized by the 1930s, the price paid for this survival had been the transformation of the very function of the Soviet power; from bastion of the world revolution it had now become a player in the games of world imperialism. The alliances with the colonial bourgeoisies had helped to drag Soviet Russia into the game, and this at the expense of the exploited and the oppressed in those regions, as the fiasco of Comintern policy in China in 1925-27 illustrated so clearly.

The abandonment of Marxist rigour on the question of Islam was thus part of this general opportunist course. It has also served as a theoretical justification for the overtly counter-revolutionary attitudes of modern leftism, which has argued again and again that the likes of Khomeini and bin Laden are somehow combating imperialism (even if they perhaps combat it with the wrong methods and ideas).

It should be noted that the Bolsheviks' attempt to flatter the Muslim nationalists could also be combined with a false radicalism which sought to stamp out religion through demagogic campaigns. This was particularly characteristic of Stalinism during its 'left turn' at the end of the 20s.

During this period the patience and sensitivity of Zhendotel were thrown out the window, as frantic campaigns for divorce and against veiling were initiated. In 1927, according to one Trotskyist account:

"mass meetings were held at which thousands of frenzied participants, chanting 'Down with the paranja!' tore off their veils, which were drenched in paraffin and burned... Protected by soldiers, bands of poor women roamed the streets, tearing veils off wealthier women, hunting for hidden food and pointing out those who still clung to traditional practices which had now been declared crimes? On the following day the price for these impatient, sectarian actions was paid in blood, as hundreds of unveiled women were massacred by their kinsmen, and this reaction, fanned by Muslim clergy, who interpreted recent earthquakes as Allah's punishment for the unveilings, grew in strength. Remnants of the Basmachi rebels reorganized themselves into Tash Kuran (secret counter-revolutionary organisations) which flourished as a result of their pledge to preserve Narkh (local customs and values)".[16]

This was as far from the original methods of the October revolution as was the Baku Congress with its gibberish about Holy War. The great strength of Bolshevism in 1917 had been its commitment to fighting alien ideologies by developing the class consciousness and class organisation of the proletariat. This remains the only basis for countering the influence of religious or other reactionary ideologies.

'Islamists': from the margins to the mainstream

From the above we can see that the question of 'political Islam' is not a new one for the proletariat. Indeed, many of the 'modern' Islamist groups can be traced back to the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimuun), which was founded in Egypt in 1928, and has since expanded to over 70 countries. The Ikhwan's founder, Hassan al-Banna, proclaimed the need for Muslims to 'return' to the 'straight path' of orthodox Sunni Islam, as the antidote for both the corruption that had grown up since the 'Umayyad caliphs and as the path towards the 'liberation' of the Islamic world from Western domination. This struggle would make possible the establishment of an 'authentic' Islamic state, which alone could resist the West.

The Ikhwan claims to follow in the footsteps of Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah (1260-1327) who opposed the attempts of Hellenised Islamic thinkers who attempted to reduce Islam and Islamic government to a function of human reason. Ibn Taymiyyah argued that an Islamic ruler had an obligation to impose God's laws on his subjects, if necessary. Ibn Taymiyyah's Islam claimed to be very pure, stripped of all modern accretions. The Ikhwan modelled itself on the puritanical Salafiyyah (purification) movements of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, who also attempted to apply ibn Taymiyyah's ideas.

In practice, however, the key to the Ikhwan's success has been its extreme tactical flexibility, being prepared to work with any institution (parliament, trade unions) or movement (Stalinists, liberals) that might advance its project of 're-Islamicising' society. Al-Banna made it clear nevertheless, that the Islamic state his movement sought would prohibit all political organisations. Sayyid Qutb, who succeeded al-Banna as leader in 1948,[17] equally denounced "socialist or capitalist 'idolatry'" - i.e., putting political goals before God's laws. He explained further:

it is necessary to break with the logic and customs of surrounding society, to construct a prototype of the future Islamic society with the "true believers", then, at the opportune moment, engage in battle with the [new] jahiliyya.

By 1948 the movement had grown tremendously, having between 300,000 to 600,000 militants in Egypt alone. Fiercely repressed by the state in late 1948/early 1949, the movement survived and rebuilt. It briefly allied itself with Nasser's Free Officers Movement, which staged a successful coup d'êtat in July 1952. Once in power, Nasser imprisoned vast numbers of the Ikhwan and outlawed the movement. Although technically still outlawed, the movement has been permitted to successfully stand for parliament and controls a number of Islamic NGOs. It has accrued much support among poor urban masses through the provision of social services not supplied by the state.

The Ikhwan's success is an ongoing reference point to more recent 'fundamentalist' groups - many of whom have split from it, claiming that it has moderated its rhetoric and actions since achieving mass support and parliamentary seats. Groups inspired by the Ikhwan exist throughout the 'Islamic world' - not just in the Middle East, but in Indonesia and the Philippines and even in other countries where Muslims do not form a majority of the population. Overwhelmingly, however, these groups resemble more the Ikhwan as it was originally (a violent terrorist outfit), rather than the comparatively 'moderate' force it has evolved into. And, in all cases, these groups are able to exist only due to the material support of one or other state which is manipulating them for their own foreign policy ends. Thus, the foundation of HAMAS (the Islamic Resistance Movement) in Gaza was funded by Israel, which hoped it would counter-balance the PLO. But both HAMAS and the Islamic Jihad organisation (which in recent years has apparently merged with al-Qa'ida) have co-operated with the PLO and other Palestinian nationalist organisations - which have themselves, in turn, been manipulated by outside powers such as Syria and the former Soviet Union. The Algerian Islamist GIA (Armed Islamic Group) has been more or less openly funded and supported by the US, in an effort to weaken French challenges to the sole remaining superpower. In Indonesia in the recent period, Islamist groups have been manipulated by military political factions to alternatively help bring to power and dethrone the country's president. And, most notorious of all, Afghanistan's Taliban was created in Pakistan by the US, which successfully pitted them against its former Islamist allies, the disparate mujahedeen fractions, who were dragging Afghanistan towards utter chaos. The United States actively supported the activities of Osama bin Laden against Russian imperialism providing a platform for the group now known as al-Qa'ida. Ironically then, Islamism is in no small part a creature of the very thing it claims to combat the most: the hated USA.

Further variants on the original model are provided by groups drawn from members of the Shi'a sect of Islam. As the most populous Shi'ite state, Iran has been the source of this variant, which includes groups in many countries, but most notably in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran itself has been described as 'fundamentalism in power', but this is misleading, for the regime came to power more by default than by the actions of an 'Islamist' group. Certainly, in the early years of the Khomeini regime, there were successful attempts to build support for the state through mass mobilisations in support of an impossible 'return' to the conditions of seventh century Arabia. However, it is important to understand that Iran's mullahs (clergy) only came to power due to the tremendous political weakness of the Iranian proletariat; Iran's oil workers, for instance, had struck for an overall total of six months in the country's pivotal oil industry to break the power of the Shah's regime. As the only 'opposition' force that was politically clear in its objectives, and able to legally function, the mullahs were able to seize control of the confused mobilisations against the Shah. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the Khomeniites could only take power after fundamentally distorting the Shi'ite doctrine that all worldly authority is to be resolutely opposed by Shi'ite believers, following the disappearance of the twelfth Shi'ite religious leader several hundred years ago.[18]

Once in power in February 1979, the mullahs used every opportunity to expand their influence in other countries, by training, arming and supporting a host of Shi'ite Islamist groups outside the country, such as the Hezballah (Party of God) militia in Lebanon, which has always been Khomeniite. It has been rewarded for this with strong material support from Iran from 1979 onwards, as well as from Syria, Iran's ally.

Afghanistan provides further variants - more than one for each of that country's major ethnic groups. Despite the commitment of all these Afghan groups to the notion of one united Islamic (in fact, 'Islamist') state, all of them have found it extremely difficult to unite for very long - especially when they succeed in eliminating common opponents. Murderous infighting, following the collapse of the pro-Russian regime in 1992, convinced US imperialism to cease supporting them, and to produce a new, more single-minded force, the Taliban, whom it hoped would provide a more stable pro-US regime. Not a single one of Afghanistan's disparate 'Islamist' fractions is innocent of mass murders and the most horrendous acts of cruelty, including rape, torture, mutilations and the massacre of children - not to mention their role in the international drug trade, which has made Afghanistan the biggest single exporter of raw opium (unprocessed heroin) in the world.

Space limitations make it impossible to survey all the various permutations that abound. As we have seen, however, the Ikhwan created the paradigm, the model of the modern 'Islamic fundamentalism'. 'Shi'ite' as well as 'Sunni' versions of these groups exist, but not one of them is opposed to capitalism and imperialism, but are totally integrated into the existing world 'civilisation'.

'Fundamentalism': Spawn of dying capitalist civilisation

Faced with the bourgeois propaganda about a 'clash of civilisations', a mortal struggle between the 'West' and 'militant Islam', which is spread as much by the 'Western' side as by the followers of bin Laden, it is very important to show that present-day Islamism is a pure product of capitalist society in its epoch of decay.

This is all the more crucial in that the nature of Islamist movements is not fully understood by the groups of the proletarian political milieu. A recent article, for instance - 'Islam and Capitalism', in the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party's journal Revolutionary Perspectives[19]- agrees that Islamism reflects the inability of capitalism to entirely eliminate pre-capitalist vestiges, and also that there was never any real 'bourgeois revolution' in the Islamic world. The article then goes on to argue:

contrary to some assumptions that Islamism is the pure reflection of the capitalist mode of production, it is not. It is the confusing expression of the co-existence of at least two modes of production.

The article also states that Islamism "evolved into an ideology capable of maintaining the capitalist order with non-capitalist ideological and cultural measures". It is asserted:

"Contrary to Christianity, Islam did not go through a long process of secularisation and enlightenment... The Moslem world remained relatively untouched in a historic sense and succeeded even in the era of capitalism to guard its old identity die to the inability and unwillingness of capitalism to eliminate the pre-capitalist structures of the society: consequently, God did not die in the Orient".

As proof of these claims, the article reports on the continued existence of what it terms the "ancient community of clergies with strong links to the Bazaar", which "managed to stay unshattered" by modernising pressures. As a result, the article argues, "the Islamic periphery has to contain two modes of production and cultures in its heart". Islamism derives its strength from this duality, which enables it to appear as an alternative to state capitalism. Despite being "the masterpiece of the capitalist order", the article adds, Islamism is this "ironically in contradiction with the same order in certain levels". This is mistaken. It is true that no mode of production exists in a pure form. Slavery has existed at various times in all forms of class society. Britain, the oldest capitalist state, is yet to finish off its aristocracy completely, to give just two examples. It is also true that capitalism's entry into the regions dominated by the Muslim religion was late and incomplete, and that there was no equivalent of a bourgeois revolution there. But whatever vestiges of the past hang on and encumber these regions, they are totally dominated by the world capitalist economy, and are part of it.

The Bazaar in the modern 'Islamic world' is not outside capitalism, any more than that living relic the Queen of England or that other leftover from feudalism, Pope John Paul II, are. Indeed, the bazaaris, the capitalist merchants of the Tehran bazaars, were a vital bulwark of the Khomeiniite push in 1978-1979 in Iran, and remain a vital capitalist fraction. The disagreements - at times expressed physically - between the bazaaris and more Western-oriented, even secularising fractions in the Iranian regime are contradictions within capitalism. Although these conflicts can have a debilitating effect on the country's capitalist economy, they are immensely beneficial politically for the bourgeoisie as a whole, since they draw Iran's proletarians off their own class terrain, and into the false game of supporting either the 'reformist' or the 'radical' fractions of Iranian capital. This is very far from the 'non-capitalist ideological and cultural measures' of the article in the IBRP journal.

Moreover, the bazaaris' relationship to direct political rule is nowhere as strong as it is in Iran, due to that country's distinctive history and even brand of Islam, so the Iranian case cannot be used to prove that Islamism is somehow 'pre-capitalist'. Rather, the common feature of all the lands of Islam is the very effective harnessing of aspects of society emanating from the pre-capitalist past to serve the needs of present day capitalists. Thus, the Saudi royals, Gamal Nasser, Indonesian political fractions and others have alternatively used and discarded thoroughly reactionary but nonetheless capitalist Islamist groups that talked of reintroducing pre-capitalist society, in order to pave their own way to power as a wealthy capitalist class. In no way, furthermore, can it be any different. Capitalist factions everywhere are never shy - especially in the era of capitalist decadence - of mobilising the most backward-looking elements for their own, very modern, purposes. German capitalism proved that with Hitler. Just like the Islamic Brotherhood, the Khomeiniites and Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler dredged up a hotch-potch of reactionary remnants of pre-capitalism, to serve the interests of his ruling class. Islamism is not different in this respect. (Indeed, Islamism borrows heavily from Nazi ideology, particularly with its wholesale adoption of the idea of a world Jewish conspiracy. Furthermore, this scraping of the racist barrel is another mark of the contrast between Islamism and the original teachings of the Koran, which preached tolerance towards other 'Peoples of the Book').

In all its forms, Islamism is in no way in contradiction with capital. It certainly reflects the economic and social backwardness of the lands of Islam, but it is completely a part of the capitalist system and, above all, of capitalism's decadence and decomposition. We can also add that, far from being in opposition to state capitalism, the idea of the Islamic state, which justifies state interference in every aspect of social life, is a perfect vehicle for totalitarian state capitalism, which is the characteristic form of capital in the decadent epoch.

So-called Islamic fundamentalism developed as an ideology of a part of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, in their struggle against the colonial powers and their collaborators. It remained a mostly minority movement until the late 1970s, since it was overshadowed by nationalist and Stalinist ideologies and movements. These movements have attained real force in countries where, in general, the working class is relatively small, young and inexperienced. The Islamists proclaim themselves "the champion of all oppressed people" (Khomeini). In Iran, for instance, the Khomeiniites succeeded in drawing the mass of destitute Tehran slum dwellers into their movement in the late 1970s, by falsely claiming to champion their interests and referring to them as mustazifeen, a religious term for the destitute and oppressed. Decadent capital's descent into the further, ever deepening misery of decomposition has only magnified the plight of such layers. The Islamists' earlier marginalisation now works in their favour, since they can now appear credible when they claim that the reason that all secular creeds (from democracy through to nationalism and marxism) have all 'failed' is that the masses ignored God's laws. The same explanation has been used by Islamists in Turkey, to 'explain' the August 1999 earthquake in that country, and was used earlier by Egyptian Islamists following an earthquake there in the 1980s.

Such an appeal often has a galvanising appeal on layers of the population most subjected to poverty and despair. To the ruined petty bourgeois, to the slum dwellers with no hope of a job, even to elements from the working class, it offers the mirage of a 'return' to the allegedly pure state founded by Muhammad, which supposedly protected the poor and prevented the rich from making too much profit. In other words, this state is presented as an 'anti-capitalist' social order. Typically, Islamist groups assert that they are neither capitalist nor socialist, but 'Islamic', and fight for an Islamic state on the model of the old Caliphate. But this whole argument makes a mockery of history: the original Muslim state existed long before the capitalist epoch. It was based on a form of class exploitation, but, like western feudalism, had not perfected the enslavement of man to profit in the way that capitalism has, nor could it have done within its historical limitation. Today, however, whenever radical Islamic groups take control of a state, they have no alternative but to become the overseers of capitalist social relations and thus to strive for the maximisation of national profit. Neither the Iranian mullahs nor the Taliban could escape from this iron law.

This perverted 'anti-capitalism' goes along with an equally perverted 'Muslim internationalism': the radical Islamic groups of the world claim to owe no allegiance to any particular nation state and call for the unity of all Muslim brothers across the world. Here again both these groups and their bourgeois opponents portray them as something unique - as an ideology and a movement that transcends national frontiers to form a fearsome new 'bloc', threatening the West in a similar way to the old 'Communist' bloc. In part, this is because they are virtually inseparable from the international criminal networks: gun-running (which now almost certainly includes the trade in 'weapons of mass destruction' - chemical and nuclear means) and the drug trade. Afghanistan in particular is a pivotal link here, as shown earlier. Within this, bin Laden's 'imperialist warlordism' might be seen by some as a new offshoot of 'globalisation' (i.e., transcending national barriers). But this is true only in so far as it expresses a certain tendency towards the disintegration of the weakest national units. The 'global' Muslim state can never exist, for it will always founder on the rock of competing Islamic bourgeoisies. This is why, in order to fight for this chimera, the 'mujahadeen' are always obliged to join in with the imperialist great game, which remains one of competing national states.

The 'holy war' proclaimed by the Islamic gangs is really a cover for the old unholy war fought by competing imperialist powers. The real interests of the exploited and the oppressed of the world lie not in a mythical Muslim brotherhood, but in the class war against exploitation and oppression in all countries; not in an impossible return to the rule of God or the Caliphs, but in the revolutionary creation of the first really human society in history.



1 Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 1966 Ann Arbor edition, emphases in original

2 Anton Pannekoek, Lenin as Philosopher, 1975 Merlin edition, pp. 26-27

3M. Rodinson, Mohammed, Penguin, 1983 edition, p. 36

4 Engels to Marx, 6 June 1853; see also the footnote to section one of his 'On the History of Early Christianity', in the Collected Works, vol. 27.

5 Saladin was not only far more cultivated than the boorish Richard; he was also far more merciful towards non-combatants than the Crusaders, who were notorious for massacring entire populations (and Jews in particular). And although friend and foe alike compare bin Laden to Saladin, it would be more accurate to compare him to the Crusaders against whom he claims to be waging his jihad. For instance, bin Laden issued a fatwa in 1998 supporting Sheikh Omar 'Abdul Rahman, convicted of the first bombing of the World Trade Centre: "The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies, civilians and military, is an individual duty for every Muslim". The September 11 slaughter and suicide attacks against Jewish civilians in Israel have been justified in similar terms.

6 Alexandre Bennigsen & Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, Islam in the Soviet Union, Pall Mall Press, 1967, p. 81.

7 Alexandre Bennigsen & Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, Sultan Galiev: Le père de la révolution tiers-mondiste, Fayard, 1986, p. 78

8 See Alexandre Bennigsen & Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, Islam in the Soviet Union, Pall Mall Press, 1967, pp. 85 & 98 and Richard Pipes, The Formation of the Soviet Union: Communism and Nationalism, revised edition, 1955, p. 155.

9 Jane Degras (Ed.), The Communist International 1919-1943, Vol. 1 1919-1922, Frank Cass & Co., 1971, p. 143; Alix Holt & Barbara Holland (Eds.), Theses, Resolutions & Manifestos, Ink Links, 1983, second edition, p. 80.

10 The Second Congress of the Communist International, New Park, 1977, Vol. 1, pp. 150-55

11 ICC, The Dutch and German Communist Left, Porcupine Press, 2001, pp. 52-53

12 Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, New Park, 1977: 14; see also E. H. Carr (A History of Soviet Russia, Macmillan, 1978, Vol 3, pp. 26-70.

13 For more on these allegations, see E. H. Carr, Op. Cit, pp. 263-66.

14 Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East, New Park, 1977, p. 51.

15 Degras, Ibid, p. 383

16 Cited in Alexander Bennington and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, Islam in the Soviet Union, Pall mall Press, 1967, pp109-110

17 Hassan al-Banna was assassinated by the Egyptian secret police on 12 February 1949, following the assassination of the Egyptian prime minister by Ikhwan militants on 28 December 1948

18 Essentially, Khomeini squared a theological circle, by ruling that a pious religious figure with a bloodline that could be traced back to Muhammad could serve as a sort of 'regent' (velayat-e fageh) in a Shi'ite Islamic state, while believers waited for the eventual 'return' of the Twelfth Imam.

19 Revolutionary Perspectives No. 23, pp. 16-19