What is Islamic fundamentalism?

Submitted by AWL on 24 February, 2004 - 2:31

The term "Islamic fundamentalism" first became common during the Iranian revolution of 1978-79. The Western-backed Shah (who had been put in power by the CIA) was overthrown by an enormous popular revolt, one element in which, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, expressed itself through the largest traditional religion in the country, Shi'a Islam.
In fact, political movements inspired by Islam, calling for a return to "Islamic values", go back much further. In Egypt they go back to the 1930s at least, with the formation of the Moslem Brotherhood.

But throughout the Moslem world - from north-west Africa to Indonesia - radical political movements which look to Islam have flourished in the last two decades. They are not a uniform phenomenon: there are different "Islamist" groups, distinguished both by the particular Moslem sect from which they draw inspiration (the Moslem Brothers, for instance, are Sunnis), and by more modern ideological features. The largest Islamist groups are in Algeria - where a raging civil war has left thousands dead, and where the "fundamentalist" party won an election in the 1990s only to have the results disallowed by the government; Egypt where Islamists assassinated President Sadat in 1981, and more recently murdered tourists in Luxor; and Palestine where the hard Islamic groups, especially Hamas, have been rivals to Yasser Arafat for some years. In Lebanon, too, "fundamentalist" groups, sometimes backed by Iran, have been a major factor, including in forcing Israel to withdraw from the south of the country.

It is important to distinguish these groups from more general religious feeling in Moslem countries. Not all Moslems are "fundamentalists", by any means. In some Middle Eastern countries, traditional representatives of the mosque have been prominent opponents of the hard-line groups. Many writers prefer to use the terms "political Islam", "Islamist", or "Islamic revivalist" to refer to the modern phenomenon of political, militant groups which are prepared to use violence to achieve their ends.

The Islamist groups have grown up in countries which in the 1950s and 1960s experienced waves of radical but secular nationalism. Arab nationalist governments, most prominently that of Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt, seized power, usually from the old colonial authorities, and carried out radical reforms - like redistributing land and nationalising foreign companies. A similar movement briefly flowered in Iran in the early 1950s under Mossadeq, but was overthrown with American insistence - installing the Shah. Even the Shah, however, attempted serious land reform and a programme of industrialisation. In Algeria, a long and brutal war against French colonialism brought radical, secular nationalists to power. These nationalist movements inspired the emergence of a distinct Palestinian nationalism after 1967, which coalesced around the Arafat-led PLO.

But in one way or another, the nationalism of the post-war period failed. Frustrated, the masses began to look to alternatives. Strong Islamist movements vied for influence with Stalinist parties, in some countries - for instance in the Sudan - long before the Iranian revolution. But when the Shah was overthrown, it was as if the genie was fully released from the bottle.

In none of the countries where Islamic parties have been strong was it simply, as the media often suggests, that the masses flocked to them in droves. The Iranian revolution, for example, was not made by Khomeini and the mullahs alone. The Shah's defeat was the result of a powerful movement of the urban poor on the one hand, and other forces on the other, principally would-be Marxist guerrillas, the so-called Fedayin, who fought pitched battles with the Shah's troops, and an enormous, paralysing general strike of the working class, especially in the oil fields. Khomeini's domination, and the consolidation of his Islamic Republic, was not a foregone conclusion, and was not created easily. Khomeini first had to defeat the left and the militant working class.

That he was able to defeat both was in no small part because the organisations of the Iranian Left misunderstood what they were dealing with. They saw Khomeini and the Islamist movement as allies against "imperialism" who could be supported. They did not recognise Khomeini's forces as another, reactionary movement which was their embittered enemy. In effect, groups like the Fedayin handed Khomeini the rope with which he could hang them.

Mass support for the Iranian mullahs came from the dispossessed poor. But the leadership of the movement came from traditional ruling classes - in the bazaar, and from the mosque itself - whose privileges had been undermined by the Shah's attempts at modernisation. The victory of the Khomeini faction in the Iranian revolution represented the revenge of the traditional ruling class - over the new bourgeoisie represented by the Shah, but also over the working class.

Elsewhere, the pattern is a little different. In Lebanon, and among the Palestinians, support for, and the personnel of, the militant groups, comes especially from poverty-stricken youth living in squalid refugee camps, disillusioned with the failures of their secular political leadership. In Lebanon, from the mid 1970s onwards, society came close to collapse as a terrible sectarian war escalated out of control, fed and exacerbated by outside influence, mainly from Israel and Syria, both of whom financed and supported internal allies.

In Algeria, the fundamentalist movement grew from hatred of the bureaucratic dictatorship of the regime which had come to power after defeating the French. As independence failed to deliver what the masses wanted, religion was offered as a plausible alternative.

The growth of these backward-looking, reactionary movements was fostered by the contradictions and disappointments of capitalist development, and the corruption and brutality of the the old powers that be, domestic and foreign. Sometimes, indeed, there was an extra twist: Sadat in Egypt encouraged the growth of fundamentalist groups, believing they could act as a counterbalance to the left. He paid for this stupidity quite literally with his life.

Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad gain strength from the intransigence of Israel. The more resolutely Israel resists the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people, the more fertile the soil for Hamas - and the more distant real peace and reconciliation will become.

But the Islamist groups, however understandable their support, are a frighteningly reactionary outgrowth of the defeats of an earlier age. The Islamic Republic in Iran meant terrible repression, especially of women and national and religious minorities. The Palestinian Islamist groups view the crisis and their oppression through religious spectacles, seeing "the Jews", not the Israeli state, as their enemy, and advocating a solution which would "crush" or drive out "the Jews". Democracy would play no role.

Indeed, one of the features of Islamist groups is that, unlike old-fashioned nationalists, they make no claim to be fighting for "democracy", unless it's a vaguely defined Islamic one. Their political programme allows no space for those who disagree, little but - in the most benevolent versions - toleration for minority religions (still less atheists!), or women who don't want to wear the veil, or homosexuals, for example. Again, it's important to understand that these objections to the Islamist programme are not just "Western" prejudices, or some kind of cultural imperialism. Within these societies, there are many militant activists who oppose, at the risk of their lives, the bigoted excesses of the fundamentalist movements. Many opponents of the Algerian Islamists, for instance, are radicals, feminists and socialists equally opposed to the government; many of those have had to flee to exile.

Just as in 1979 many on the Iranian and international left saw Khomeini as an ally, there are those today who think a common struggle with Islamists, against "imperialism" or "Zionism", is possible. But this idea reflects a sort of inverse-racist romanticism, rather than a realistic assessment.

The Islamists' goals are quite different to ours, and as Iran tragically showed, socialist, feminist and working class militants are among their first victims.

The train of thought of those who want to side with the Islamists today - while criticising their "tactics" - seems to be that if we see thousands of people militantly demonstrating against "imperialism", or - more concretely - the brutality of the Israeli state, those demonstrators must be "on our side".

It is of course painful for socialists to think that they are not. But that there are lots of them and that they have suffered is no guarantee of their progressive or democratic nature.

Fascism in its full-blown form is a mass movement which draws its mass support from victims of oppression. That is what makes fascism particularly dangerous.

Is Islamism fascist? It is not the same as the fascists in advanced capitalist countries with powerful labour movements, like Germany or Italy, in the inter-war years. But reactionary movements which have much in common with fascism, or might be termed "fascistic", are possible in the "third world". In terms of their programme and the social forces they represent, the Islamist groups are indeed fascistic. (Of course, there are different Islamist groups; the old-style Muslim Brothers in Egypt and Sudan are positively moderate in comparison to the new types).

But they are "against imperialism"? Khomeini in Iran said he was "against imperialism" as he was using his shock-troops on the ground (very fascistically) to slaughter the left. Indeed, the Left was identified with imperialism, because socialism was a product of godless western culture.

Whether we call it fascism or not, there are strong parallels between modern "fundamentalist" Islamism and fascism. They are mass movements on a reactionary basis, whose programme is to destroy democratic rights. In some cases, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, they suppress individual liberties more broadly and more ferociously than any fascist movement ever has. In the case of Israel, the Islamists seek to suppress a whole nation.

Old-style Palestinian nationalism, the generation that produced Arafat, whatever its deficiencies, at least attempted to distinguish between Israel and Jews. The "secular democratic state" was a bad slogan. But it at least went some way to saying Jews had a place in Palestine. The programme of the Islamists is relentlessly opposed to all Jews.

To suppose that any mass movement which appropriates some of the symbols and language of radicals and socialists is necessarily "progressive" is ignorant, romantic - in fact, a kind of inverse racism.

Of course it is depressing that such movements are reactionary. Of course we want to understand why so many oppressed people, especially young people, might want to sign up with them. Socialists want to win those people away from the Islamists.

But equally, socialists wanted to win the oppressed people in Germany who were attracted to the Nazis away from Hitler. They couldn't do it by pretending the Nazis were somehow progressive because of their mass base or their agitation against the imperialist Treaty of Versailles - still less by pandering to the prejudices the Nazis appealed to.

The notion that the reactionary Islamist movements are somehow "on our side", or that the suicide attacks on America somehow represent the "oppressed", is an insult to the many socialists and democrats in those countries who are fighting both oppression and the Islamists, and who understand rather more clearly than most British leftists what the Islamists represent. Those socialists and democrats need our solidarity, now more than ever.