Political Islam as clerical fascism

Submitted by martin on 8 September, 2008 - 4:21 Author: Martin Thomas

Examining Gilles Kepel's comprehensive history, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Harvard University Press).
"Left-leaning Arab intellectuals have traditionally regarded the [Muslim] Brothers as a populist movement... [with] similarities to the workings of European fascism during... the 1930s...
"In the eyes of leftist intellectuals, both among Muslims and in the West, Islamist groups represented a religious variety of fascism...

"But gradually, as Islamist numbers increased... the left discovered that Islamism had a popular base; consequently Marxist thinkers of every stripe, casting around for the mass support so critical to their ideology, began to credit Islamist activists with socialist virtues..."

Kepel reports this shift of attitudes in a dispassionate way. But the facts assembled in his book give a verdict. The recent granting of political credit to political Islam by would-be Marxists reflects those leftists' loss of self-confidence, in an era of bourgeois triumphalism, rather than any shift to the left by the Islamists.

Political Islam, or "Islamism", as a political movement or congeries of movements, is distinct from Islam as a religion. Before the late 70s, in modern times, if a government called itself "Islamic" or "Muslim", that was a vague gesture rather than a ferocious commitment. The only large exception was Saudi Arabia, a peculiarly archaic state.

Modern political movements, using modern political mechanics to convert society to an Islamic state, absolutely governed and permeated by revivalistically-rigorous Islamic doctrine, were levered into life and prominence in a sequence of three big turning points, 1967, 1973, and 1979.

The theory had been prepared before then. Hassan al-Banna and Mawlana Mawdudi, the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jamaat e-Islami in India (later Pakistan) began activity in the late 1920s. Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologist who has become the main literary inspiration for "harder" Sunni political Islam, wrote his books in the 1960s and was hanged by Egypt's secular government in 1966. Ruhollah Khomeiny formulated his thesis of direct political rule by senior clergy in 1970.

But the movements were weak. In Iraq, for example, the Shia-Islamist movements which now dominate politics there had originated in 1958-63, but until the 1970s were small circles of clerics and theological students, concerned mostly with pious discussion among themselves. They kept a low profile as much because they knew their ideas would seem uncongenial to the wider population as for fear of repression.

"The first Islamist onslaught", writes Kepel, "was against nationalism. The 1967 defeat [of the Arab states by Israel, in the war of that year] seriously undermined the ideological edifice of nationalism and created a vacuum to be filled... by Qutb's Islamist philosophy".

The rise of political Islam was also (so it seems to me, though Kepel does not spell this out) based in part, paradoxically, on the relative successes of Arab nationalism. Over the two decades before 1967 the Arab states had won political independence, and legislated land reforms and nationalisation.

Many of the cadres of political Islam would be young men from rural backgrounds who - thanks to the "successes" of nationalism - had become the first generation from their families to go to university, to live in big cities, and, often, to travel the world as migrant workers, especially in the Gulf.

Paradoxically, the cadres of consciously backward-looking political Islam would come from among the most "modernised" or "Westernised" people in their countries. They had been roused up and tantalised by nationalism and its promises - but also dashed down by them. "Qutb spoke to the young, born after independence, who had come along too late to benefit from the vast redistribution of spoils that followed the departure of the colonial occupiers".

Bourgeois nationalism must always create disappointments. What led to special tumult in the Arab world, rather than a "moderate" disillusion and "settling-down", was the peculiar attachment of Arab nationalism to an unrealistic (indeed, reactionary) objective, the destruction of "Zionism" (the Israeli Jews), and the peculiarly extreme conjunction, created by the oil economies, of seething poverty with vast wealth controlled by various species of bureaucratic "crony capitalism".

In 1973 the Arab states warred with Israel again, coming out of it a bit better, but not well enough to rehabilitate the nationalists. Oil prices and oil revenues increased hugely. The Saudi regime started pouring funds into promoting Islamic rigorism internationally.

"Prior to 1973, Islam was everywhere dominated by national or local traditions rooted in the piety of the common people", with a "motley establishment" of clerics who "held Saudi-inspired puritanism in great suspicion".

Now, "for the first time in 14 centuries, the same books (as well as cassettes) could be found from one end of the [Muslim world] to another... This mass distribution by the conservative Riyadh regime did not... prevent more radical elements from using the texts... to further their own objectives".

In the 1970s, and into the 1980s, "conservative governments on the Saudi model [and often with US approval] encouraged Islamism as a counterweight to the Marxists on university campuses whom they feared". There was "re-Islamisation" from above, even in countries where grass-roots Islamist movements were weak or repressed.

World-wide, far beyond the Arab domain, "all Muslims were offered [and many, not just political Islamists, accepted] a new identity that emphasised their religious commonality while downplaying differences of language, ethnicity, and nationality". The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (an alliance of states) was set up in 1969; the Islamic Development Bank, in 1975.

In 1979, political Islam took power in non-Arab Iran, and became the banner of a long war, with popular support, in non-Arab Afghanistan, against the USSR's attempt to subjugate that country militarily.

The Shah's brutal modernisation "from above" in Iran had created mass discontent. While in most Sunni countries, the religious establishment was diffuse and heavily controlled at its higher levels by the state, in Shia Iran the clerics had an organised hierarchy outside state control.

In Sunni political Islam, the main leaders had been (and would continue to be) laymen. Khomeiny created the first political-Islamist movement using clerics as cadres, and proposing not just an Islamic state, but a state ruled by clerics.

He also introduced social demagogy, otherwise a thinner seam in political Islam than in the European fascism, or even clerical-fascism, of the 1930s. "Neither Mawdudi nor Qutb gave any explicit social content to their theorising".

The Iraqi ayatollah Baqi as-Sadr, uncle and father-in-law of the current Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al-Sadr, had in 1961 published a book on "Islamic economics"; but the main distinctive upshot has been the rise of "Islamic banking", now a reputable sideline in the City of London.

All Islamists thought that "the coming reign of the sharia... would be built upon the ashes of socialism and of a Western world completely devoid of moral standards"; but it was Khomeiny who introduced a specific appeal for an "Islam of the people" and to the "disinherited" (mustadefeen).

Still, for Khomeiny, as Kepel notes, "the disinherited" was "so vague a term that it encompassed just about everyone in Iran except the shah and the imperial court... includ[ed] the bazaar merchants opposed to the shah". The main actual measure for the poor of Khomeiny's Iran would be distribution of state subsidies to the families of Islamist "martyrs".

Socially, Kepel sees political Islam as resting on two distinct groups - the "devout middle class", both traditional-mercantile and modern-professional, who feel mistreated by corrupt secular-nationalist state bureaucracies; and the young urban poor such as the Algerian "hittistes" (from the word hit, meaning wall: young unemployed men leaning against walls).

That small-bourgeois/ lumpenproletarian alliance has also generally been the social base of fascism.

Political Islam, however, has a vast range of variants, from middle-class movements confining themselves to mild pressure-group politics (Kepel cites the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, friendly to the monarchy) to plebeian "takfiris" for whom all outside their own ranks, even pious Muslims who deviate slightly, deserve terrorist chastisement.

Kepel sees the search for a middle way and a broad alliance, necessary to any successful political-Islamist movement, as ultimately unviable. He concludes that political Islam reached its high point around 1989 - with the USSR's retreat from Afghanistan, the temporary triumph of an Islamist regime in Sudan, the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad among the Palestinians, and Khomeiny's death-decree against Salman Rushdie - and has mostly declined since. He cites the defeat of the Islamist-terrorist "ultras" in Algeria and Egypt as evidence.

The trend, he argues, must be for the devout middle class to be co-opted and pulled towards parliamentary democracy, on the lines of the Turkish Islamists, and for the "ultras" to be isolated.

In 2008, eight years after Kepel published the first edition of his book, his conclusion looks implausible. Political Islam has had some defeats, but its success in Iraq shows it still has great vitality.

Kepel's error, I would guess, is shaped by a certain disdain: he just cannot believe that many people, in the Arabic and Muslim cultures which he loves, can be lastingly seduced by such crudities and brutalities.

What is true, surely, is that those cultures contain many strands utterly alien to political Islam. The assertion, common on the left, that hostility to political Islam implies de facto hostility to most Muslims, is untrue.

On those strands, a working-class socialist movement can build, answering the social questions which political Islam so obscures, on condition that the socialists acquire the self-confidence to brand the clerical-fascists for what they really are.

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