Political Islam: A Marxist analysis

This is the final installment of a two-part article. The first part appeared in ISR #76

THE REVOLUTIONS and mass protests that spread across North Africa and the Middle East are, at their core, democratic, secular, and (largely, though not exclusively) peaceful. These movements have confounded many a Western commentator rooted in Orientalist views of Muslim majority countries. Contrary to their propaganda, these movements are not clamoring for an Islamic state, and it is not the parties of political Islam that have played a key leadership role. Rather, the Islamists have been one among several forces, including secular, democratic, liberal and leftist groups and coalitions, that have participated in actions against U.S.-backed regimes; demonstrating quite clearly the plurality of political visions in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

Part one of this article showed how traditions of secularism and the separation of religion and politics have long been a part of the political culture of the “Muslim world.” It also argued that the rise of political Islam is historically new and contingent upon various contemporary factors. As laid out in part one, the first of these factors is the part played by the West, and the United States in particular, in fomenting Islamic fundamentalism as a means to thwart radical secular nationalism and communism. Part two examines the other conditions that enabled the parties of political Islam to grow.

The failure of secular nationalism
The rise of radical secular nationalism in the post–Second World War period marked a progressive turn in anti-imperialist politics in colonized nations. From Indonesia to Algeria, a new generation of secular-minded political leaders at the head of popular anti-colonial movements swept aside the old order and introduced a series of reforms. However, not all Muslim majority countries experienced similar developments. This trend appears in Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia, Algeria, and Pakistan, but not in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, for instance. In the latter, secular nationalist and leftist forces, to the extent that they existed (as in Yemen and to a lesser degree in Saudi Arabia) were pushed back by Western-backed monarchs. Nevertheless, this development was highlighted in the previous article in order to point to the fact that secularism was arrived at and developed in various Muslim majority countries, albeit in ways different from the European experience. Here we turn to the failure and decline of these movements.

In a nutshell, secular nationalism was unable to realize the radical economic and political promises made to its polities. The case of Egypt illustrates this point vividly. In 1952, Nasser and a secret association known as the “Free Officers,” following on the backs of workers strikes and student uprisings (as well as region-wide anger over the Palestinian issue), led a rebellion against King Farouk and deposed him. Once in power, they initiated a series of reforms that in essence destroyed the old system that was dominated by feudalism and bourgeois mercantilism.1 They undertook a program of agricultural reform, industrialization, and the nationalization of various sectors of the economy; they abolished the constitutional monarchy and established a republic, but concentrated power in their own hands. They also passed pro-labor laws in response to the strikes and demonstrations of the early 1950s. Perhaps most importantly, the Nasserists were able to finally rid Egyptian society of British control; the culmination of these efforts was the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. When Nasser defeated British, French, and Israeli opposition to the nationalization of the Suez (with the support of the United States and the Soviet Union), he became a regional hero, and Nasserism from then on was viewed as a model for emulation in the rest of the Arab world.

In 1957, Nasser called for the establishment of a “socialist” order in Egypt. What he meant by socialism was unclear and it varied depending on the context in which he spoke about it.2 In practice, Nasser, who emerged from the middle classes, led a program that curbed the power of large capital through nationalizations and concentrated economic planning in the state.3 Arab socialism in practice was state capitalism; it involved state planning combined with authoritarian control and the use of repression to quell opposition. Politically, Nasserism sought to unify and regroup Arab territories into one nation and overturn the arbitrary divisions imposed by the allied powers after the First World War. The principal enemy was imperialism, particularly U.S. imperialism, which emerged as the dominant power in the Middle East after the war. While Nasser sought military and financial support from the Soviet Union, he was by no means a stooge of Soviet interests. Nasser’s main counterpart in the East was the Arab Baath Socialist Party of Syria and its various branches in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. These parties had a similar orientation and class base, but they never achieved the same prominence as Nasserism. Other examples of secular nationalism in North Africa and South Asia include the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria, Sukarno in Indonesia, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan.

However, postwar secular nationalism, despite its radical promises, was ultimately a middle-class ideology that served the interests of this class. State capitalist measures, while moderately successful for a period, were unable to seriously address class inequalities and produce real economic change. Furthermore, various countries would go into crises in the 1970s that state capitalist methods were unable to resolve. The result was increased unemployment and growing class inequality—conditions that were only exacerbated with the introduction of neoliberal reforms.

On the political front, Israel’s defeat of neighboring countries in 1967, annexing their territories in a matter of six days, dealt a deathblow to the political legitimacy of Arab nationalism. As the French Marxist Maxime Rodinson puts it,

Both Nasserism and Ba’thism failed to achieve Arab unity and to resolve the problem of Israel and the Palestinians. Nowhere was economic performance brilliant, and Nasser’s Egypt in particular sank into destitution and cultural decline. The new classes in power were often painfully reminiscent of the old. The June 1967 fiasco raised the question of the adequacy of old ideas for solving the pressing problems of the day. Every major problem, every failure, every crisis that arose...led to feelings that something was lacking in nationalist ideology, that other important ideologies should be looked to as sources of fresh ideas.4

The ideological vacuum created by the collapse of secular nationalism and the search for “fresh ideas” created an opening for the Islamists. While the far left could have occupied this vacuum, as the following section will show, they squandered their credibility and thereby ceded ground to the Islamists.

Again Egypt demonstrates this dynamic well. At about the same time that the economy began to decline, Islamic Associations (Jamaat Islamiya) started to emerge in student circles in the main cities. The regime of Anwar Sadat, helped nurture and support the development of these groups, in an attempt to make a sharp turn away from the secularist and statist policies of the previous period. These associations recruited students who were growing increasingly disillusioned with left politics, and trained them in the “pure Islamic life” at summer camps. In order to gain broad support in a climate where the left still had influence, they offered what they called “Islamic solutions” to the crisis facing Egyptian universities. For instance, students had to deal on a daily basis with an inefficient and overcrowded transportation system. For women, this was particularly difficult as they were often harassed in these situations.

The “Islamic” solution was to transport women in minibuses brought explicitly for this purpose. Once this alternative mode of transport became popular, however, the Islamists restricted this service to only those women who wore the veil. The privatization of transport was thus a way of responding “Islamically” to a social problem, and of placing women students in situation where they had few choices but to adopt the veil. A similar approach was used with dress and gender segregation.5 It was a combination of social services and moral instruction that advanced the agenda of the Islamic Associations. Soon chants of “Democracy” began to clash with “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) at student demonstrations. In a matter of a few years, the Islamists were dominant on campuses and the left were forced into hiding.6

A similar dynamic can be seen in other nations where secular nationalism and the left lost political credibility, albeit at different points. Thus, it was only in the late 1980s and 1990s that Hamas was able to successfully challenge Palestine Liberation Organization dominance in Palestine. Yet, it was not a forgone conclusion that Islamists would occupy a vacuum created by the collapse of secular nationalism. If there was a political alternative to the left capable of leading working class struggles, it was the various Communist Parties (CPs) in the region.

The failure of the Communist Parties
In the twenty years after the Second World War, mass movements swept the Middle East and North Africa. In three countries—Egypt, Iran, and Iraq—the working classes played an important role in the mass mobilizations. In the context of rising class struggles, religious and sectarian divisions were sidelined, and the parties of political Islam like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood saw their influence wane.7 Additionally, in countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Sudan, the CPs played an important role in leading student, peasant, and workers struggles.8

Yet, despite these successes, the CPs were severely hampered by their adherence to Stalinist politics.9 They vacillated back and forth on various important questions. When the Soviet Union declared support for the United Nations partition plan for Palestine, despite massive popular opposition to this plan in the Arab world, the CPs went along with it. Later when the Soviet Union changed its position and turned against Israel, the CPs simply followed suit. They would also shift between support for and opposition to nationalist parties as Soviet policies changed. After the Second World War, and with the onset of the Cold War, the Soviet Union advised the Arab Communist Parties to sever popular front alliances with bourgeois nationalist groups and to assert their independence. In practice, this meant opposition to radical Arab nationalism, which had immense popularity among the population. The CPs took a stance against Nasserism and Baathism.10 In Algeria, the CP supported the integration of the Algerian masses into French life, which put them on the opposite side of the struggle for national liberation led by the FLN.11

In the 1960s, they once again switched their position to accommodate Soviet directives. The CPs of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan issued a joint statement in 1964 calling for “closer unity and cooperation between all the patriotic and democratic trends and…all the national forces of the Arab liberation movement.”12 In practice, this meant that the Syrian CP declared the Baath Party one of the “basic revolutionary forces.” They then entered the regime and gave up all political independence. Similarly, the Iraqi Communist Party aligned itself with the Baath Party and by association the war against the Kurds and the repression of the Shia.13 All of these disastrous shifts delegitimized the CPs in the eyes of people who had once turned to them for leadership. Additionally, the parties’ uncritical support for various “revolutionary” nationalist parties and regimes meant that when radical nationalism went into decline, the CPs too suffered a loss of credibility. As Phil Marshall notes, “[b]y the late 1960s communist strategy had evacuated the Middle East of any coherent secular alternative to nationalism—and had done so at a time when the region was about to move into a period of increased instability. This left an increasingly disillusioned population without a point of reference for change and opened a political space which religious activism soon started to occupy.”14

Economic crisis and the class basis of Islamism
In addition to the political crisis that secular nationalism faced, the 1970s saw the emergence of economic crises that state capitalist economic systems were unable to deal with effectively. Additionally, the turn to neoliberalism and the institution of International Monetary Fund (IMF) structural adjustment programs meant that various states were no longer able to deal with social welfare needs. It is here that Islamist organizations with their vast charitable networks were able to make inroads. The dynamic can be understood as follows:

As a result of structural adjustment, state capacity to co-opt oppositional movements declined and services were increasingly restricted to urban middle class and elite areas. Income distributions polarized. Structural adjustment meant that states were unable to provide previously established levels of services or to ensure adequate supplies of commodities…. The political and moral vacuum opened up great opportunities that were seized by Islamists, who established a social base by offering services that the various states have failed to provide.15

The main recruits to Islamism in the early 1970s were urban educated youth. Between 1955 and 1970, population growth in the Muslim world approached 50 percent.16 By 1975, with urbanization and literacy growing steadily, 60 percent of the population was under the age of twenty-four. While this group, which hailed from families that had recently moved to the cities, had access to education thanks to the reforms instituted by the secular nationalists, they had few opportunities for economic advancement. In some cases, states offered jobs to these new graduates and were able to absorb a section of them into roles as state bureaucrats. Yet, as stated above, even this avenue became tenuous as IMF policies of liberalization and government cuts instituted in countries such as Egypt and Algeria lowered salaries for the intellectual bureaucrat, who then had to find a second job as a taxi driver or night watchman at an international hotel to survive.17

The frustration and political discontent that grew from this situation then led these students toward Islamist ideologies. While many of them had been attracted to nationalism and communism, the failure of these ideologies combined with economic hardship pushed them in the direction of Islamism. A sizable number of these young intellectuals, educated in government schools following a Westernized curriculum, came from the sciences (engineering in particular) or from teachers’ training schools.18 The typical Islamist of this era was an engineer born sometime in the 1950s whose parents were from the country.19 Gulbadin Hikmatyar, the leader of an ultraconservative faction of the Afghan mujahideen, was trained as an engineer; Hacene Hashani, the spokesperson for the Algerian Islamic Salvation Movement (FIS) in 1991, was an oil engineer; and Ayman al-Zawahari of al-Qaeda was trained as a medical doctor.

As such this intellectual leadership held a modern urban worldview. Thus, the rise of contemporary political Islam is not the reemergence of a medieval clergy crusading against modernity, but rather a modern urban phenomenon born of the crises created by capitalism.20 As Chris Harman puts it, “Islamism has arisen in societies traumatized by the impact of capitalism—first in the form of external conquest by imperialism and then, increasingly, by the transformation of internal social relations accompanying the rise of a local capitalist class and the formation of an independent state.”21

If the urban, educated youth became the cadre base of the newly emerging Islamist movement, other classes that were threatened by capitalist modernization also drifted towards Islamism. Chief among them is the devout section of the middle class who is another mainstay of the Islamist movement. One section of this middle-class bloc consists of the descendants of the mercantile classes of the bazaars and souks, another of the newly wealthy professionals, flush with money from jobs held in various oil-producing countries.22 The international Islamic banking and financial system spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, discussed above, was able to finance and promote the interests of this middle-class base.

If urban-educated youth and the devout middle class are the main forces behind Islamism, other classes also support them. At times, in countries like Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, these two classes have received support and funding from landowning classes whose power was diminished by the nationalists.23 At times, they have also had the backing of the big bourgeoisie.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Islamists made headway among yet another class—the very poor. This includes people who are either declassed refugees, urban slum-dwellers, or people who are historically oppressed and exploited due to their religion. For instance, Hamas has recruited heavily from the refugee camps created by Israel, and while it has the support of business people, the middle class, merchants and the wealthy, its leadership and cadre are largely drawn from the refugee camps.24 This is true too of Hezbollah, whose mainstay is the Shia poor who live in the outskirts of big cities like Beirut in what is known as the “belt of misery.” Similarly, the Sadrists in Iraq, both in the 1990s and today, draw much of their support and muscle from the slums of Sadr City.

The devout middle class, which sometimes has the backing of other sections of society, typically tends to be more conservative in its orientation and constitutes the “moderate” Islamist wing. While they share the vision of creating an Islamic state, they prefer to do so under conditions of social stability that advance their economic interests. The urban youth, on the other hand, displaced from the middle class due to a lack of opportunity, tend to be open to more confrontational and violent tactics; they constitute the “radical” wing of the Islamist movement. At times, these two groups have cooperated with each other, and at other times they have gone their separate ways.

Typically, the moderates advocate an Islamization of society from the bottom up through the use of strategies such as preaching and the establishment of social and charitable networks. They also seek to pressure political leaders and enter into political alliances to promote Islamization from the top. They are sometimes open to revolt, but only when all peaceful methods of protest have been exhausted. The radicals, however, advocate the concept of revolution, that is, the forceful overthrow of the existing political regime and its replacement by a radically different system.25 At times, those who begin as moderates get radicalized in the context of political persecution. Thus, Sayyid Qutb, an influential Islamist theoretician who belonged to the moderate Muslim Brotherhood, took a radical turn in 1954 after he was imprisoned and tortured by Nasser’s government.

These vacillations are typical of movements led by the petty bourgeoisie because, as a class, it lacks the social weight to bring about effective political and economic changes. Placed in a context of economic crisis, the Islamists often make vague anticapitalist appeals against poverty and greed, and combine it with attacks on “Western values” and imperialism. In reality, however, this is not anticapitalist ideology. With few exceptions, Islamists are in practice strong advocates of capitalism and neoliberalism and therefore cannot offer real solutions to the people who turn to them as a political alternative.

In sum, the confluence of several political and economic developments in the late 1960s and early 1970s laid the basis for the growth of political Islam. These include, first, the part played by imperialist nations, particularly the United States, in bolstering the parties of political Islam; second, the failure of secular nationalist movements, and the consequent inability of Stalinist parties to offer an effective alternative; and third, economic crises in various countries that state capitalist methods were unable to resolve and which neoliberalism exacerbated. All of these factors came together at various points and helped to propel Islamism onto the world stage.

Political Islam: Mixed fortunes
Over the last three decades of the twentieth century and into the new millennium, the parties of political Islam have been able to advance and position themselves as players on the political arena. Both the moderate and the radical wings have seen successes, yet they have also experienced setbacks and defeats. For instance, after the Afghan mujahideen defeated the Soviets in 1989, the politics of radical, violent Islamism gained legitimacy. Yet, when the Afghan Arabs returned to their home countries and carried out a program of violence such as in Algeria and Egypt in the 1990s, their credibility declined considerably in both contexts.

Similarly, the electoral approach suffered a set back in 1992 when the FIS in Algeria was not permitted to govern after winning elections. This pattern continued with the Turkish case in 1997, when the Islamists were forced from power by the army. Yet, in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was able to win elections and come to power. Similarly, Hamas achieved an electoral victory in 2006.

This pattern of ascendance and decline is likely to continue until a left alternative can present itself and arrest this dynamic. The Islamists are able to tap into the real anxieties and economic insecurities faced by the vast majority of people. Their charitable networks, funded by petrodollars, offer a level of relief to those whose lives are devastated by neoliberalism and imperialism. Yet, they have no real solutions to the crises endemic to capitalism. Once in positions of power, they have floundered and have often been unable to prevent the outbreak of violence and chaos by the more radical elements bent of ridding their societies of “impious” influences. Their puritanical laws and edicts have alienated the very people who had once supported them, paving the way for their decline.

Political movements led by the middle classes cannot offer real solutions to the problems faced by the vast majority. As Chris Harman argues,

Islamism, then, both mobilizes popular bitterness and paralyzes it; both builds up people’s feelings that something must be done and directs those feelings into blind alleys; both destabilizes the state and limits the real struggle against the state. The contradictory character of Islamism follows from the class base of its core cadres. The petty bourgeoisie as a class cannot follow a consistent, independent policy of its own. This has always been true of the traditional petty bourgeoisie—the small shopkeepers, traders and self-employed professionals. They have always been caught between a conservative hankering for security that looks to the past and a hope that they individually will gain from radical change. It is just as true of the impoverished new middle class—or the even more impoverished would-be new middle class of unemployed ex-students—in the less economically advanced countries today.26

These contradictions were played out in Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Sudan, and elsewhere, revealing the bankruptcy of Islamist politics. Yet, at the same as Islamists in these countries started to discredit themselves, in others such as Lebanon, occupied Palestine, and Iraq, the Islamists began a process of ascendancy. In short, from the 1990s to the present, we have seen a contradictory dynamic of decline and ascendance. This dynamic will continue into the future until such a point when a real left-wing political alternative is built.

The recent revolutions and mass mobilizations sweeping the Middle East and North Africa have strengthened the existing left and created the conditions under which such a viable new left can be born. These struggles have completely shattered the radical Islamist argument that acts of terror by individuals and small cells is necessary to rid Muslim societies of pro-imperial leaders and have instead put on the map a different model for social change. Egypt and Tunisia have shown that mass, nonsectarian rallies and demonstrations can succeed in toppling dictators. At the same time, the practice of the Muslim Brotherhood since the fall of Mubarak in Egypt—its backing of the army, which seeks to put the genie of revolution back into its bottle, and its opposition to new protests to ensure the fulfillment of the revolution’s goals—reveals better than any example today the limitations of political Islam. (See Mostafa Omar’s article in the current issue of the ISR.)

In the coming months and years, a new left will undoubtedly begin to emerge, as it has already begun to emerge in Egypt. However, the Islamists will continue to be players on the political stage; it is therefore necessary to have a method by which to access these parties and their actions.

Imperialism, the left, and political Islam
While the shape and form of imperialism has changed since the early twentieth century, powerful nations led by the United States still assert their domination around the globe. They do so economically through institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, or World Trade Organization, politically through pliant local rulers, and militarily through the occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine (not to mention the hundreds of U.S. bases scattered around the world). In this context, Marxists should take a principled position against imperialism and must support the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.

In concrete terms, this solidarity with anti-imperialist forces means on some occasions offering critical support to the parties leading these struggles. When organized against imperialism and oppression, Islamists sometimes deserve the support, albeit critical and conditional support, of the left. Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 was one such moment. Such resistance should be defended on the grounds of the right of nations to self-determination. The U.S.-backed invasion of Lebanon was an act of imperialist aggression that would have advanced the U.S./Israel agenda. Hezbollah, widely supported by Lebanese of all religious backgrounds, dealt a blow to this agenda when it militarily pushed back the Israel Defense Forces. This is a step forward not only because it upholds self-determination, but also because any struggle that weakens the Zionist colonial enterprise and by extension the United States—the world’s biggest, best-armed, and most violent imperialist power—is a victory for ordinary people around the region, and around the world. This does not, however, mean that the left is obliged to support Hezbollah in its wrangling for political power, such as its military operation in Beirut in May 2008. While we should defend their right to hold on to their arms against a U.S.-backed puppet regime and Israel, and their right to contest elections and demand modifications to Lebanon’s confessional political system, we may not support their particular tactics to realize these goals, and we should not paper over their reactionary views on women, gays, and lesbians.

Similarly, Hamas’s struggle against Zionism is worthy of support, especially when it has the backing of the Palestinian people. This flows from an understanding that the resistance of a colonized people, no matter what form it takes, should be supported, particularly when left alternatives have discredited themselves (popular support for Hamas rose only in conjunction with the betrayals of the secular left). Furthermore, the Hamas of 1987 is not the same organization today. It has gone through many shifts in response to the day-to-day challenges of fighting Zionism and imperialism. One of these shifts is the downplaying of its Islamist ambitions and a corresponding emphasis on its nationalist politics. Writing in 2000, Khaled Hroub, one of the movement’s closest political observers would note:

Hamas’ doctrinal discourse has diminished in intensity since the mid 1990s. And references to its charter [its 1987 founding document] by its leaders have been made rarely, if at all. The literature, statements, and symbols used by Hamas have come to focus more and more on the idea that the core problem is the multidimensional issue of usurpation of Palestinian land and the basic question is how to end the occupation. The notion of liberating Palestine has assumed greater importance than the general Islamic aspect.27

By 2006, and with the victory of Hamas in the January elections, this trajectory had reached such a level that Hroub and other commentators genuinely questioned whether the movement was the same as that begun in the late 1980s. This does not mean, however, that Hamas has abandoned its reactionary politics. While it ran women candidates in the 2006 elections, it still believes in sex segregation as well as archaic notions such as women’s place being in the home. The left should not minimize these differences. In short, a concrete analysis of the politics and strategies of Islamist organizations are necessary before a position of support or denunciation can be pronounced.28

Additionally, the left should uphold basic democratic rights and support Hamas’s right to take political power after having been elected by the Palestinian people in free and fair elections. Consequently, we should stand opposed to U.S. and Israeli efforts to isolate them and collectively punish the people of Gaza. Part of the equation is also the consideration that allowing Hamas to rule unhindered would show that it, like other Islamist parties in power, would not really have a solution to the problems faced by the Palestinian people. This vacuum could then potentially be filled by a secular left committed to more effective strategies for liberation that linked the Palestinian struggle with those of Arab workers and oppressed throughout the region, regardless of religious affiliation.

In Iraq, the right of Iraqis to resist U.S. imperialism in any way they see fit should be defended. This does not, however, mean support for the forces and groups fighting on the ground at all times. During the early stages of the resistance, Shia and Sunni were both involved in the struggle, and the possibility of a united national liberation movement had potential. The high point of this united struggle was the solidarity shown by the Shia when Sunni fighters were attacked in Fallujah. Until 2005, Moktada al-Sadr had the support of sections of the Sunni population, and the beginnings of a genuine nonsectarian national liberation struggle existed in Iraq.29 After that, however, the situation degenerated and sectarianism became rife. All the forces involved in the resistance mercilessly slaughtered and displaced innocent civilians. The Sunni forces also began to collaborate with the United States through the so-called “Awakening Councils.” In such a situation, where the resistance has disintegrated into sectarian violence and deal-making with imperialism, it would be wrong to offer support to these forces. After 2008, many groups, including Sadr’s Mahdi army, went underground. Sadr reemerged in Iraq in 2011 to win credibility for his party in mainstream politics. However, the possibilities for the birth of a genuine national liberation struggle that includes Shia, Sunni and Kurds, and that can rout the remaining U.S. troops and establish an Iraq independent of U.S. dominance, seem unlikely in the near future.

The same is true of Afghanistan. We must support the right of the Afghan people for self-determination, and consequently we are unalterably opposed to the U.S. occupation. However, the Taliban who are leading the struggle against the U.S./NATO occupation are neither a genuine national liberation movement nor an anti-imperialist force. Based among the Pashtuns, who constitute about 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population, the Taliban is a highly sectarian organization that has little appeal beyond this ethnic group. Their narrow and rigid interpretation of Islam, which favors Pashtun cultural practices, has little to offer the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and other ethnic minorities. In fact, non-Pashtuns seem to prefer the United States to the Taliban.30 Thus, the prospect of the Taliban building a genuine national liberation struggle that brings together all the people of Afghanistan is extremely unlikely.

Even among the Pashtuns there was a generalized discontent toward the Taliban’s reactionary politics, so much so that this section of Afghan society also welcomed the United States at the start of the 2001 war. However, the destruction and lawlessness created by the occupiers and their allies the Northern Alliance has created the conditions where Pashtun farmers and displaced rural workers started to turned to the Taliban. Today’s Taliban has a different rank and file makeup from the forces that emerged from the Afghan-Soviet war. Yet, its politics still remain reactionary.

The Taliban is also not a principled anti-imperialist force. In addition to its willingness to negotiate with the United States in the 1990s, the Taliban has close ties to Pakistan and can act as a conduit of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. As discussed earlier, Pakistan nurtured and cultivated the Taliban, and, even today, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, maintains strong ties with the Afghan Taliban.31 In a region destroyed by three decades of war and civil war, with an economy dominated by opium production and sale and negligible industry, the political forces that come into being inevitably enact the agendas of greater powers. The Northern Alliance is backed by India and the United States, and the Taliban was and continues to be Pakistan’s entry into Afghan politics. In short, it does not represent the hopes of the Afghan people for national liberation. For all these reasons, socialists have little reason to offer support, even of a critical kind, to the Taliban.

In general, Islamists might at times fight against imperialism, but they are not principled anti-imperialists. If we look for historical examples we can find cases where the Islamists have organized against imperialism and where they have collaborated with imperial powers. For instance, a leading figure in the 1930s revolt against British control over Palestine was the radical Sunni clergyman Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, and the rebellion gave momentum to the radical Islamists.32 The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, despite their original aim to be a non-political group, took an anti-imperialist stance and organized against the British. Similarly, Khomeini at the head of the revolution that deposed the U.S.-backed Shah, dealt a blow to U.S. power in the region after 1979. In other words, Islamic fundamentalists sometimes find themselves in situations where they have to organize against imperial powers.

At the same time, however, we also find instances of collaboration and cooperation with colonial powers. For example, Said Ramadan who was instrumental in building Muslim Brotherhood branches from North Africa to South Asia, struck a series of deals with the West. He is even believed to have been a U.S. agent.33 Khomeini, who famously denounced the United States as the “great Satan,” took part in the CIA orchestrated demonstrations in the 1950s against Mohammad Mossadegh.34 When the United States sent troops to Lebanon in 1958, and Britain to Jordan, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood joined in on their side to help crush the nationalist uprising in both countries. In short, we often find that Islamist groups are self-serving entities that are not principled anti-imperialists. We should therefore not make the opposite mistake of offering support to all Islamists at all times. Instead, a concrete historical analysis and a case by case assessment is necessary to determine when to offer critical support to the parties of political Islam.

Today, the ravages of imperialism and neoliberalism are plain to see. While tens of thousands have lost their lives in the U.S.-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, millions more suffer under the daily depredations of the free market. But there is a major reconfiguration of forces taking place in the region. Secular nationalism, with its considerable mass appeal, was the main driving force of change in the area in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, there was a concerted effort by the Arab regimes to stabilize the region and part of that effort lay in supporting “Islamist” forces against secular nationalism and the left.

The revolts of the past several months seem to indicate a break with the status quo of the last two or three decades. The mass movements that have developed across the region are aimed against the dictators that have come to rule with impunity. They also are rebellions against the political and economic system that has become known as neoliberalism. These revolts have raised fundamental questions about the character of the economic distribution of wealth—that is, who rules and in who’s interest. A genuine solution that links the struggle against the ravages of both capitalism and imperialism in the Middle East can only be forged by rebuilding the left. As the various struggles from Pakistan and Iran, to Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt show, the system forces ordinary people to fight back. It is in this context that both the existing left can grow and strengthen its bases, and a new left can emerge. Such a left can not only pose a different kind of leadership against imperialism, but also organize against the priorities of neoliberal capitalism and the local ruling classes that benefit from it. This is the challenge of new millennium.

  1. Tareq Ismael, The Arab Left (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1976), 79.
  2. Ibid., 89.
  3. Ibid., 79.
  4. Maxime Rodinson, The Arabs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 115.
  5. Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 82.
  6. Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), 153.
  7. Phil Marshall, “The children of Stalinism,” International Socialism Journal, 68, 1995, 118–9.
  8. For a discussion of these struggles, see Walter Lacqueur, Communism and Nationalism in the Middle East (Whitefish, Mt.: Kessinger Publishing, 2010).
  9. Tareq Ismael, The Communist Movement in the Arab World (New York: Routledge, 2005).
  10. Ibid., 21.
  11. Ibid., 19–20.
  12. Ibid., 55.
  13. Marshall, “The children of Stalinism,” 122.
  14. Ibid., 120.
  15. Paul Lubeck, “Antinomies of Islamic movements under globalization,” Center for Global, International, and Regional Studies Working Paper Series, available on line at www2.ucsc.edu/globalinterns/wp/wp99-1.PDF.
  16. Kepel, Jihad, 66.
  17. Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998), 49.
  18. Ibid., 50.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Chris Harman, “The Prophet and the proletariat,” International Socialism Journal, 64, Autumn 1994, available at www.marxists.de/religion/harman/index.htm, 8–10.
  21. Ibid., 9–10.
  22. Kepel, Jihad, 6.
  23. Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game, 161–62.
  24. Khaled Hroub, Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide (London, Pluto Press, 2006), 69 and 125.
  25. Roy, Failure, 41–2.
  26. Harman, “The Prophet and the proletariat,” 23–4.
  27. Khaled Hroub, Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000), 44.
  28. See also Deepa Kumar, “Behind the myths about Hamas,” International Socialist Review, 64, March–April 2009.
  29. Patrick Cockburn, Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr,the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2008).
  30. Anand Gopal, lecture at the Socialism 2010 Conference, Chicago, June 17, 2010.
  31. Miles Amoore, “Pakistan puppet masters guide the Taliban killers,” Times of London, June 13, 2010, available on line at www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/afghanistan/article7149089.ece.
  32. Jonathan Schanzer, “Palestinian uprisings compared,” Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2002, 27–37, available online at www.meforum.org/206/palestinian-uprisings-compared.
  33. Dreyfuss, 72–9.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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