THE Muslim men and boys stand around waiting for the procession to begin, some of them holding cutthroat razors.
Some of them have patches shaven on their heads already, like the tonsures of Christian monks except that the bald patches are at the front.
Then you see them take razors to each other again, this time hitting with the razor to puncture the shaven patch on the skull so that the blood spurts out and runs down their faces.
The men receive the blows willingly, and some ecstatically; the children are unwilling. One little boy starts to cry.
Then they beat themselves on the heads to make more blood flow. Eventually the procession becomes a cascade through the streets of men with their heads, faces and clothes covered in their own blood.
It was the single most startling scene in The Sword of Islam. These were Shi’ite Muslim fundamentalists in Lebanon. They are only one spectacular part of a powerful wave of ultra-reactionary Muslim fundamentalism that is sweeping the Middle East.
It is a major force in Egypt, where millions of Christians are increasingly subjected to sectarian oppression. It is making itself felt even in Turkey, which has been determinedly secular since Kemal Ataturk stabilised the modern Turkish state in the early ‘20s.
The Shias are a minority Muslim creed with a bias towards politics and militarism. But fundamentalism is a force also among the Sunni Muslims. The assassination of Egyptian president Sadat was the work of Sunnis, out for revenge on Sadat for making a peace treaty with Israel.
The fundamentalists present themselves as a revolutionary force and they appeal — with increasing success-to the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. They want not only an Islamic revolution in the Middle East, but-as one man told the TV cameras — a world-wide Islamic revolution.
What that world would be like can be seen today in Khomeini’s Iran.
Where, at the tail-end of the 20th century, has this popular movement of vicious medieval obscurantism and social, political, moral and intellectual regression come from?
From the failure of the so-called “Arab Revolution” of the 50s and 60s. After the Israeli citizen army defeated the combined armies of the Arab states in 1948, a powerful movement of Arab self-reappraisal and self-criticism developed.
It helped crystallise nationalist officers’ movements within the armies which overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and the Iraq; monarchy in 1958. When Egypt’s president Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 and then survived the combined Israeli-French-British invasion that followed (essentially because the US would not back the invasion), radical Arab nationalism was given a tremendous boost.
State capitalist regimes developed in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, calling themselves socialist. But everywhere these bureaucratic statist regimes failed to deliver a decent life to the masses.
Israel’s crushing defeat of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the June war of 1967 shattered the mystique of Nasserism. The US-backed Saudi Arabian monarchy, the steady source of a continuous religious infection, survived and prospered on petrodollars. In the ‘70s, under Nasser’s successor Sadat, Egypt swung back to private capitalism. Sadat hypocritically sponsored a ‘return to Islam’ and thereby helped seal his own doom.
But more than the debacle of radical Arab nationalism was needed to breed fundamentalism. There was also the virtual collapse of Arab socialism.
The Egyptian Communist Party accepted Nasser’s state capitalism as socialism, and dissolved itself into his state “party”. The Iraqi CP might have made a socialist revolution in the five years between the monarchy’s overthrow in 1958 and the bloody Ba’ath-army coup in 1963, but failed utterly.
Together with all the smaller socialist currents, including the Trotskyists, they pander to the idea that the existence of Israel is central to the problems of the Arab countries and that a big part of the solution is the overrunning and destruction of Israel.
Operating within states which were truly and fully independent in the political sense, they yet continued to stress “anti-imperialism”. But the only possible “anti-imperialism” in the circumstances was working-class socialism, aimed against the native ruling classes and military elites too.
The dominant Stalinist “socialists” rejected this and argued that the “bourgeois and anti-imperialist national-democratic revolution” had to be finished first. The result was that they had no answer to anything. And they talked the same classless, national-populist “anti-imperialism” as the nationalist officers and all sorts of middle class demagogues.
They become the mere tools of Arab populist nationalism. They become part of the roadblock to the development of the masses.
Seeing no way out, the oppressed turn increasingly to mysticism and religion. In their own way the mullahs mean business, as they show every day in Iran.
The Shia clergy is a tightly organised hierarchical force with many of the characteristics of a revolutionary party. They are against the modern world and therefore against the Wcst. The West is imperialist, and so inchoate, classless anti-imperialism easily merges and blurs into hostility to the West and to the modern world, or to what the Iranians call the USA, ‘The Great Satan’.
So instead of the ideas and programme of revolutionary socialists influencing the desperate proletarian and semi-proletarian masses, it is the ideas and programme and the quasi-medieval consciousness of priests.
One of the most clear-cut ideas expressed by fundamentalists in the tv programme, The Sword of Islam was the (untrue) notion that Israel has survived and triumphed because the Jews remained true to their religion while the Muslims fell away. The answer therefore is for the Arabs to return to Islam.
All the signs are that this is a movement that has far from run its course.
In 1920 Bertrand Russell said of international Bolshevism that in terms of militancy and the combination of passionate faith, the will to subvert the old order, and capacity to organise a mass movement to change the world, nothing like it had heen seen since the early eruption of Islam from the 7th century onwards.
He could not have foreseen that the decline and incapacity of the degenerate successors to that Bolshevik movement would help generate a new upsurge of pure Islam.