Marxism, the Arab Spring, and Islamic fundamentalism - Joseph Daher (extract) 2017

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The revolutionary process in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has suffered through a period of defeats and setbacks since the heady days of 2011.1 Progressive and democratic forces have been or are being squeezed by two counterrevolutionary forces—the existing regimes and various strains of Islamic fundamentalism—and their imperial and regional supporters. The regimes were and are the main threat to the revolts. At the same time, Islamic fundamentalist movements have to be understood as a fundamentally reactionary political force throughout the region.

This counterrevolutionary role necessitates a reevaluation of much of the Left’s analytical understanding of, and strategic approach to, Islamic fundamentalism. The Left must stake out a position independent of both the existing regimes and Islamic fundamentalists, based on a program of democracy, social justice, equality, and liberation and emancipation of the oppressed. Why use the term “Islamic fundamentalism”?

Organizations such as the so-called ISIS,2 al-Qaeda, the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah have differences in their formation, development, composition, and strategy. Nevertheless, they share a common political project, despite their significant differences. As Marxist scholar and commentator Gilbert Achcar argues, all variants of Islamic fundamentalism share a common reactionary and sectarian goal of establishing “an Islamic State based on the Sharia”3 that preserves the existing neoliberal capitalist order.

This unites Islamic fundamentalists from their gradualist to jihadist wings. Thus, for example, the former deputy supreme guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Khairat al-Shater declared in March 2011, following the overthrow of then President Hosni Mubarak:

The Ikhwan are working to restore Islam in its all-encompassing conception to the lives of people, and they believe that this will only come about through the strong society. Thus the mission is clear: restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception; subjugating people to God; instituting the religion of God; the Islamization of life, empowering of God’s religion; establishing the Nahda of the Ummah on the basis of Islam. . . . Thus we’ve learned [to start with] building the Muslim individual, the Muslim family, the Muslim society, the Islamic government, the global Islamic state.4

Similarly, the Lebanese Shia fundamentalist party Hezbollah (founded officially in 1985) has consistently expressed the view that an Islamic state is its preferred political system. It argues, however, that because of the country’s political constitutional arrangement that apportions political power by sect and ethnicity, its implementation is impracticable at the moment. That, however, has not prevented Hezbollah from opposing several proposals to secularize the Lebanese state, calling them all anti-Islamic.5 For example, it has denounced civil marriage as “an implementation of atheism.”6

Islamic fundamentalist groups use different strategies and tactics to achieve their objectives. As Achcar argues, “Some have a gradualist strategy of achieving their program within society first, and in the state thereafter, while others resort to terrorism or state implementation by force as is the case with the so-called Islamic State.”7 The gradualists like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, or Iraq’s Dawa participate in elections and in existing state institutions. By contrast, jihadists like al-Qaeda and ISIS consider these to be un-Islamic, and turn instead to guerilla or terrorist tactics in the hope of eventual seizure of the state. Among the jihadists, there are debates and divisions on the tactics and strategies to achieve their goal of an Islamic State. In various contexts and historical periods, the different currents have sometimes collaborated and at other times competed and even clashed with one another.

Despite their strategic differences, they all share a reactionary and authoritarian political program and vision of society. This can be seen quite starkly in their attitude toward women. All trends of Islamic fundamentalism promote a sexist vision that endorses male domination and restricts women to subordinate roles in society. First and foremost, they define women’s primary function as “motherhood” and, in particular, inculcating the next generation with Islamic principles. They impose clothing and behavior supposed to preserve women’s honor and that of the family.

Any straying from such norms and restrictions they consider a concession to Western cultural imperialism. For example, the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has warned against following the Western version of gender equality, saying it has led to corruption.8 The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood denounced a 2013 UN report that called for the state to recognize marital rape as a crime, ensure equality between men and women in marriage, divorce, and matters of inheritance, and end polygamy and dowry as an attempt to “undermine Islamic ethics, and destroy the family.”9 These “conservative strictures on the role of women,” Adam Hanieh argues, “are an integral component of broader counterrevolutionary goals,” and rightly concludes that “the position of women is thus a key barometer for the health of revolutionary process.”10

Islamic fundamentalists hold similar reactionary views of LGBTQ populations. For example, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah accused homosexuals of “destroying societies.” He described LGBTQ people as a foreign import that threatened Islamic society with moral deviance and weird lifestyles.11 Similarly, the Egyptian Salafist Sheikh Youssef Qardawi, who is a reference point for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has repeatedly described LGBTQ people as “sexual perverts” and called for their collective punishment, including putting them to death.12 Finally, Islamic fundamentalist movements have targeted religious minorities in their own countries and promoted sectarian discourses and behaviors against them. ISIS has carried out, for example, campaigns of murder, violence, and repression against Christians, Yazidi, and other religious minorities in the territories it occupied in Iraq and Syria and launched terrorist attacks against Copts in Egypt and Shias in Iraq.

While Islamic fundamentalists are united by this reactionary worldview, socialists must recognize the differences between gradualist trends of Islamic fundamentalist movements such as Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side, and jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS on the other. They are not the same, and socialists must approach them differently. It is possible to imagine unity in action with gradualist trends in specific contexts for precise and short-term objectives. Socialists could and did work with the Brotherhood in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the eighteen days of mass mobilizations against Mubarak. It is, however, simply impossible to envisage similar collaborations with al-Qaeda and ISIS. In Syria, these groups attacked activists for raising nonsectarian and democratic slogans.13

At the same time, socialists should not pursue long-term political alliances with gradualist trends of Islamic fundamentalist movements, especially when they are much larger. The danger in such a situation is that socialists will put themselves under the thumb of a more powerful and reactionary movement, and instead of winning adherents away from it, will at best only provide it left political cover to the detriment of the growth of the Left as an alternative.

Islamic fundamentalism, Islam, and Islamophobia Socialists should, however, be careful not to conflate Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. Instead we must make a sharp distinction between the religion Islam and fundamentalist groups. If we fail to do this, we risk falling into the Islamophobia fostered by the American and European ruling classes and their media. Islamophobia is a form of religious bigotry mixed with racism directed against the Muslim population.

The imperialist powers have increasingly relied on Islamophobia since 9/11 to justify their so-called War on Terror. They characterized this as a “clash of civilizations” between a “Christian/secular, civilized, and democratic West” and a barbaric and violent “Muslim World.” Marxists must challenge such Islamophobia. Instead we must defend freedom of religion, and at the same time the right of oppressed groups to self-determination. In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx argued that we must reject state interference in matters of belief and worship.14 We must, therefore, see rules about the wearing of the veil, whether imposed by fundamentalists or legally restricted in Europe, as a reactionary act that goes against women’s right to self-determination.

We also must reject Islamophobic claims that the roots of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and other fundamentalists can be found in the Koran. Such groups and their actions should be analyzed as the product of international and local social, economic, and political conditions in the present time, not as the product of a text written 1400 years ago. Do we explain the US invasion of Iraq by the religious beliefs of George Bush (who reported that God told him in a dream to invade Iraq)? Of course not. We instead explain Bush’s war, his motives, and their ideological justification as the product of American imperialism.

It is thus necessary for Marxists to analyze Islamic fundamentalist groups by looking at the contemporary socio-economic dynamics that produce them and see their program as their attempt to provide reactionary solutions to real problems in society. In his article “The Attitude of the Workers’ Party towards Religion,” penned in 1909, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that if we do not use this historical materialist method, Marxists would mirror the flawed method of bourgeois ideologists who explain religious belief through the alleged ignorance of the masses or some mystical characteristic imputed to an entire people.15 Such approaches today lead to an essentialization of “the Other,” in this case “the Muslim.”

The roots of Islamic fundamentalism What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism? The first thing to note is that such fundamentalism is an international phenomenon, not something unique to the Middle East or other societies with predominantly Muslim populations. We have seen the development of similar political currents like Christian fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, and Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, that all have their own peculiar brand of right-wing politics. But none of them, despite their call to return to an earlier golden age, should be seen as fossilized elements from the past. They may employ symbols and narratives from earlier periods, but all these fundamentalisms are the product of modern societies.16

It is interesting to note that throughout the world, fundamentalist and conservative religious movements have supported neoliberal policies while advocating increased charitable work, leading some scholars to talk of “a smooth alliance between neoliberals and religious fundamentalists,” which could be characterized as “religious neoliberalism.”17

Islamic fundamentalism grew out of the Middle East’s specific political and economic conditions, where imperialist powers have had an essential and ongoing impact on the region’s states and political economy. Following the discovery of oil in the 1920s and 1930s in the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, imperialist powers saw the region as a material prize to be fought over. As Adam Hanieh argues, these powers saw the region as playing “a potentially decisive role in determining the fortunes of capitalism at the global scale.”18

Western imperialist powers, principally the United States, played a key role in shaping the region’s rentier states, especially the Gulf states like Saudi Arabia that generate revenue by renting their oil and natural gas to international oil conglomerates. Since the 1980s, these states have adopted a neoliberal model focused on speculative investment in search of short-term profits in the unproductive sectors of the economy, especially in real estate.

The United States has used its strategic partnership with Iran (until the overthrow of the shah in 1979), Israel, and Saudi Arabia to dominate the region. It backed them to confront Arab nationalist regimes like Egypt under Gamal Nasser, the region’s communist Left, and various popular and national struggles, which generally sought greater sovereignty, social justice, and independence for their countries from imperial domination. As part of this effort, Saudi Arabia fostered and financed various Sunni Islamic fundamentalist movements, most particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, to counter the nationalists and the Left.

The United States, with the help of its allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, pumped billions of dollars into the training and arming of Islamic fundamentalist fighters and groups from 1979 onward. They backed such groups in Afghanistan in an effort to weaken its Cold War enemy, the Soviet Union. Al-Qaeda grew out of this process. American imperialism helped conjure into being the most extremist wing of the Islamic fundamentalism that would later turn on Washington.

Israel used a similar strategy in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, particularly in the Gaza Strip, by repressing the national and progressive forces of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) while it turned a blind eye to the expansion of Islamic fundamentalist competitors. The Iranian Revolution’s overthrow of the shah’s regime and subsequent establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 boosted Shia fundamentalist movements in the region.

The crisis in the Arab nationalist regimes opened space for fundamentalists to flourish. Egypt and other states abandoned their previous radical social policies and anti-imperialism for two key reasons. First, they suffered defeat at the hands of Israel. Second, their state capitalist methods of development began to stagnate. As a result, they opted for a rapprochement with the Western countries and their Gulf allies and adopted neoliberalism, rolling back many of the social reforms that had won them popularity among workers and peasants. In turn, the regimes turned on the Palestinian national movement reaching an accommodation with Israel. At the same time, all the Arab nationalist regimes, and others such as in Tunisia, deliberately supported Islamic fundamentalist movements or allowed their development against leftist and nationalist movements. In Egypt, for example, following the death of Nasser in 1970, the new regime led by Sadat established a tacit alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood against nationalist and progressive forces in the country. The last significant development that fueled the rise of fundamentalism was growing political rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Each instrumentalized its own sectarian fundamentalism to achieve its counterrevolutionary objectives. First, they used it to divert popular classes from pursuing their own political and socio-economic objectives and, when challenged by popular opposition, tried to divide and conquer it along sectarian lines. Second, they used fundamentalism to mobilize support both within their country and their competitor’s bloc to increase their power in the region. These were the modern historical material conditions that gave rise to both Shia and Sunni Islamic fundamentalism.

The class basis of Islamic fundamentalism The historic social base of Islamic fundamentalism from the dawn of the twentieth century onward is the petty bourgeoisie. Of course, each country’s fundamentalist formations have their own particular history, but they do all share roots in various elements of the petty bourgeoisie. In Egypt, for example, it grew among the rural elements of that class that moved to the cities amid the economic and social changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Once urbanized in the 1980s and 1990s, its leadership tended to come from professional layers such as doctors, engineers, and lawyers. It found increasing numbers of adherents among the educated youth left without a future by the regimes’ adoption of neoliberalism.19

Just like the petty bourgeoisie in general, Islamic fundamentalist organizations are pulled in two directions—toward rebellion against existing society and toward compromise with it. Either way, their reactionary project offers no solution to sections of the peasantry and working class that are attracted by it. Islamic fundamentalist parties seek to reestablish the Ummah, a religio-political entity that would gather all Muslims and transcend the cleavages that divide them today. Class struggle is therefore seen as negative because it fragments the Ummah.

Over time, the fundamentalists’ petty bourgeois leadership has increasingly deepened their ties to the bourgeoisie even as they attempted to preserve their cross-class base of support. Saudi Arabia played a key role in this process. It provided the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and other groups with privileged access to business and employment opportunities during the 1970s and 1980s oil boom. This situation accelerated the process of embourgeoisement of the fundamentalist movement. More and more capitalists began to play a leading role inside the movement.20 The Egyptian secret services had identified around nine hundred companies belonging to members of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood.21

In Lebanon, Hezbollah underwent a similar transformation. Originally it possessed a petty bourgeois leadership and cadres that attracted a popular social base among the Shia middle classes and poor. Over time, a Shia fraction of the bourgeoisie in Lebanon and in the diaspora became increasingly influential in the party. Hezbollah now has a major base of support among Shia businesspeople as well as among the upper middle classes, especially elite professions.

Their increasingly bourgeois funding sources explain the fundamentalists’ support for the capitalist system and its current neoliberal regime of accumulation. They receive donations not only from various states, but also private religious donations (the zakat) from private networks made up of bourgeois and petty bourgeois sectors of society. For example, Hezbollah receives massive funding from Iran as well as the Lebanese Shia bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie.

Hezbollah also gets “donations from individuals, groups, shops, companies, and banks as well as their counterparts in countries such as the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe and Australia.”22 With their bourgeoisification, Hezbollah owns “dozens of supermarkets, gas stations, department stores, restaurants, construction companies, and travel agencies.”23 Similar dynamics can be found among some branches of the Muslim Brotherhood. All of this serves to integrate the fundamentalists into the existing order. The tensions between the fundamentalists’ increasingly bourgeois leadership on one side, and its social base in the petty bourgeois and impoverished sections of the peasantry and working classes on the other side, have produced contradictions in their political program and activities. On the one hand, they profess a commitment to equality and social justice that they address mainly through top-down charitable projects. On the other, they advocate neoliberal economic principles and denounce social movements from below, especially the trade union movement.24

These contradictions run right through fundamentalism’s theory and practice. For example, the founder of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Mustafa al-Sibai, argued “the socialism of Islam leads necessarily to the solidarity of various social categories and not to the war between classes as communism.”25 His 1959 book, Socialism of Islam, put forward the idea that social equality can be achieved by appealing to an individual’s moral obligation to donate to the poor instead of governmental and social reforms like progressive taxation, nationalization, and establishing welfare state programs.Sibai’s vision for an Islamic socialism was however a purely rhetorical maneuver used to contend with the rising influence of the country’s Baathists and Communists.26

With the retreat of Arab nationalism and the Left, Islamic fundamentalist thinkers abandoned such radical rhetoric and increasingly stressed that the solution to the problem of poverty lay in a return to Islamic values and tradition. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nahda, argued, “We need to emphasize that poverty, in the eyes of Islam, is linked to unbelief,” and went on to state, “We (the Islamic fundamentalist movements) are the guarantor of a particular social order and of a liberal economic regime.”27

A similar trend can be found among Shia Islamic fundamentalist figures and movements. For example, during the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini presented Islam through the lens of social justice, praising the oppressed poor and condemning the rich, the greedy palace dwellers, and their foreign patrons. He used this rhetoric to mobilize the urban populace against the shah’s regime. But after Khomeini consolidated the new Islamic regime and repressed his competition on the left, he abandoned this egalitarian rhetoric to depict the free market as an essential pillar of society and to extol private property. He transformed his definition of “the oppressed” from an economic category describing the deprived masses into a political label for the regime’s supporters including wealthy bazaar merchants.28 He also stressed that the regime sought harmonious relationships between factory owners and workers and between landlords and peasants. The regime even ruled that land reform should not limit ownership, since such restrictions would violate the sacred rights of private property enshrined in sharia.

Neoliberalism and charity

Islamic fundamentalists have supported neoliberal policies and built charitable organizations to fill the vacuum left by the destruction of welfare state programs. They use these to win people’s allegiance to their reactionary project. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the best example.29 Hassan Malek, a businessman and ranking figure in the Brotherhood declared in 2012 that the former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s neoliberal policies were sound, and that only corruption and nepotism marred their implementation.30 Recognizing a potential ally, the Cairo investment bank EFG-Hermes set up a meeting in June 2011 between fourteen international investment funds and the Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater. The investors declared that they “were positively surprised to find some of the ideas shared by the Brotherhood to be mostly capitalist in nature.”31

The Lebanese party Hezbollah has also consistently endorsed free-market policies and defended private property, despite also professing a commitment to social justice goals. Hezbollah has supported policies such as privatization, liberalization, and opening up to foreign capital. It in no way sees these in contradiction to its purported commitment to social equality, despite the poverty these policies have caused.

The fundamentalists have used charitable organizations to address the social impact of neoliberalism. While these organizations cannot overcome poverty, the fundamentalists have used them to win hegemony among sections of the popular classes. Often they have worked out agreements with the state to direct funds into their charitable organizations promoting Islamic principles. 32 In Egypt, as the state has cut back the welfare state, the Muslim Brotherhood has used its huge network of organizations to spread their fundamentalist principles among sections of the subaltern classes.

Similarly, Hezbollah won leadership among Lebanon’s Shia population through a combination of consent and coercion. On the one hand, it won support by its provision of much needed services to large sections of the Shia popular sector, and, on the other, through repression of those who defied its moral norms and political dictates. It combined consent and coercion through its domination of the armed resistance against Israel. Hezbollah has thus managed to establish itself and its fundamentalist ideology as the dominant force among Shias in Lebanon.

Geopolitics, Islamic fundamentalism, and the Arab Spring

Imperial and regional powers have used Islamic fundamentalists to increase their influence and diminish that of their opponents in the Middle East. Iran has backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia Islamic fundamentalist organizations such as al-Dawa in Iraq. Saudi Arabia supported the Muslim Brotherhood until 1991, and then various Salafist movements after that. Qatar replaced Saudi Arabia as the Brotherhood’s main supporter after 1991 and at the same time bankrolls other Salafist organizations. These capitalist states do not support the fundamentalists for religious reasons but as a way to increase regional power, weaken their opponents, and highjack or repress democratic social movements from below.

For example, Qatar has used the Muslim Brotherhood during the uprisings in the MENA region to expand its political and economic influence in the region. They recognized that the Brotherhood was a safe alternative to the decaying structures of the old regimes. It hoped to replace the old dictators with a procapitalist fundamentalist ally. With these it hoped to stabilize the region after the uprisings and expand its regional role at the expense of other Gulf Powers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This explains Saudi Arabia’s recent push to isolate Qatar.

Imperialist powers have also backed fundamentalists for their own purposes. The United States was favorable to the Brotherhood’s election to government in Egypt and Tunisia during the MENA uprisings, seeing them as a way to stabilize and preserve the existing order under a new leadership, recognizing that, in the words of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Tancredi in The Leopard, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”33

The United States hoped the Brotherhood would follow the precedent of the Recip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. Erdogan’s regime is procapitalist, sometimes collaborates with US imperialism and certainly does not challenge it, and remains a loyal member of NATO. But the AKP is different from the Brotherhood in significant ways. It is not an Islamic fundamentalist party but a conservative, nationalist, and authoritarian one. Thus, in its first years in power before its crackdown after the recent coup attempt, it managed to win support from liberal and even leftist sections of society for its effort to reduce the army’s power in the country.

The AKP also came to power in a nonrevolutionary situation and was able, at least for a time, to establish more stable hegemony over the country. As a result of these differences, the Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia was unable to replace the ancien régime or win hegemony among the popular classes. Nevertheless, it is significant that the United States saw the Brotherhood as a possible solution to stabilize the states in Tunisia and Egypt threatened with revolution.

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