Political Islam, class and capital. Part 2: Manifestation of centre-periphery crisis
Illustration by Ardeshir Mohassess
Despite claims to the contrary, political Islam is a child of late capitalism, growing where capitalist development is more advanced. There are three elements, the juxtaposition of which allows the “Islamist movements” to appear on the scene as a government in waiting:
The center-periphery crisis in world capitalism that has uprooted millions
The political crisis in countries with a majority Muslim population, derived from the crisis of class hegemony
The presence of elements within society, which turn this force into one on the threshold of power. Religion used both by ruling circles and imperialism to oppose the workers and democratic movement inside the country and against progressive and liberation movements globally.
In Part I of these theses, I sketched out the main features, which mark out and characterise political Islamist movements. These characteristics, seen in the context of more general trends in the world today, provide a basis for discovering those conditions that create, nurture and spread these movements. These can be grouped under three headings:
- the centre-periphery crisis in global capitalism
- crises of political hegemony
- facilitator elements
1. Centre-periphery crisis
This centre-periphery crisis (sometimes known as the North-South crisis) in global capitalism is at the core of the roots of the genesis of the political Islamist movement. It is probably correct to say that the political Islamist movement would never have become a broad mass movement without feeding on this crisis.
It must not be forgotten that until the 1970s the movement had remained purely an ideology, unable to break out of the cells in the religious seminaries or the back rooms of the bazaars.
Political Islam could only have developed in those societies in the periphery of the capitalist world that are fully integrated into the globalised processes of production and exchange. Moreover, Political Islam could only grow and expand if these societies are restructured through neo-liberal policies and the accelerated process of accumulation by dispossession.
Political Islam could not have emerged if there did not exist hundreds of millions of people who have been uprooted from their livelihood. And it would not grow without the existence of hundreds of millions of people who have been excluded from the reproduction mechanisms of the capitalist system; those who have been thrown into oceans of poverty and squeezed into the mushrooming slums the world over.
Discontent and rebellions, with a potential of donning the cloak of political Islam, grew wherever Islamic societies in the periphery were incorporated into the world market, and to the rate in which capitalist social relation grew rapidly, painfully, ruinously, and left its victims to their own fate.
Wherever the regional process of reproduction of capital was incorporated in the world market – planting inequalities, imbalances and economic, social, political, and cultural divisions – the ranks of political Islam drew closer together and its explosive potential became greatest.
Finally, angry masses cry out under the flag of “liberationist” and “anti-imperialist” Islam in ever-greater numbers precisely where global capital, in transferring itself into the Islamic societies of the periphery, has implanted the cruelest social, economic, political structures.
From the 1970s onwards, as Islamic societies of the periphery were incorporated deeper into the world market, the centre-periphery crisis in these societies entered a qualitatively different phase. This was characterised by:
- Fluctuations and an overall downward trend, in the price of raw materials, including oil, on which the economies of these countries depend
- Accumulation of foreign debt, transformation of the financial system into a powerful mechanism of exploitation, and shifting a vast part of population into permanent debt
- Increasing incapacity by states to reproduce social structures and to fulfill their function of controlling and restraining crises. From these years onwards, the crisis never left the throat of these societies
- Speeding up of inequality in social, economic and cultural development; sharp increase in poverty and social exclusion amongst the majority of population
- Increasing intervention of global capital in these societies. This process reached such a state where the budget and economic ministries of many Islamic countries was turned into impotent operatives for the centres of decision making of global capital. They simply bowed to the huge and crisis-provoking restructuring of the socio-political life of their countries.
They obediently presided over policies that caused massive unemployment without hope or prospects, chronic inflation ravaging meager savings, acute shortage of housing leading to a constant running battle between the guardians of the city and the never ending wave of migrators, and non-existent health care facilities which translated itself into long queues into hospitals which effectively were morgues.
The savage demands of the International Monetary Fund, and the credit limitations imposed by the World Bank threw peripheral governments at the throat of their own people. What little remained of state largesse in the form of subsidies dried up.
Millions upon millions were made destitute. These were the people who made up the social base of Islamic movements and carried their political flags in countries from Egypt, Tunis, Morocco and Algeria, to Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan.
Those scholars of Islam would do better, and save their institutions (official and unofficial) a lot of money, if instead of looking for the footprints of revolutionary Islam in history and bygone epochs, bend their path to the archives of the IMF and the financial network under its command. They will find there enough directives, orders and warnings to light their path.
2. Crisis of political hegemony
The centre-periphery crisis of capitalism forms the prerequisite for unrest and
mass uprisings in Islamic societies. However, the crisis cannot directly and organically direct this mass revolt into, say, pan-Islamism, or for that matter to a progressive and socialist or democratic mass movement.
Without the intervention and juxtaposition of a particular set of circumstances in the political and ideological sphere and in the arena of class conflict and social relations, pan-Islamism would not have been able to grow into a broad mass movement.
The particular set of circumstances amounts to a political crisis: its distinct feature is a crisis of political hegemony in the framework of a general crisis of ideology.
At its most basic this revolves round the particular, and unique, way politico-ideological structures in peripheral societies grow, which is outside the scope of this argument. A few reminders would, however, be useful:
Although in the majority of societies under discussion the capitalist mode of production dominates the bourgeoisie has yet to reach its ultimate development as the dominant class in these social formations. The immaturity of the bourgeoisie in such societies shows itself best in its anaemic political and ideological personality. For this reason, the ideology dominating society, whose prime duty must be to gain the voluntary assent of the masses to the existing social order, at best contains only elements of bourgeois ideology.
The dominant ideology in these societies is made up of an amalgam of nationalism, religious dogma, elements of petit-bourgeoisie socialism, paternalistic and tribal values, and some aspects of liberalist political economy.
The quickening of structural changes rapidly upsets the class-political line-ups and creates novel divisions and line-ups. The ruling ideological amalgam is not only incapable of fulfilling its tasks of gaining the assent of the masses, but loses its effectiveness even among the ruling bloc.
Not surprisingly, therefore, any attempt to remodel and renew this doctrine has the effect of reducing even more its influence on one section of society, just as it appears to increase its capacity to influence other sectors. In other words, the more it becomes aware of the need to update its ideology, it not only loses its ability to universalise, but paradoxically provokes minor ideologies into confrontation.
The end result of such a process, especially if coincident with a major collapse of the government’s economic programs, appears as multi-dimensional changes in the political sphere and its various structures:
Inside the ruling bloc, the crisis surfaces as one of hegemony, which not only causes a series of changes in the balance of power, but often leads to the purge or even a bloody suppression of some of the ruling factions. These in turn reduce more than ever the political influence and hegemony of the ruling bloc on the masses and shrink its social base even further.
On the opposite pole, the working class too is powerless, not only because of its relative youth, political immaturity or its weak political and economic organisations, but also because of its poor social class-consciousness and lack of an effective ideological base.
The versions of “Marxism-Leninism” which was packaged in the various Science Academies of the “Actually Existing Socialism”, in conjunction with the various theories of the “Non-capitalist Path of Development”, had one function: to split up a large section of the political and trade union movement of the working class into small groupings. A further section was pushed into passivity or frank surrender.
In some countries, the communist and worker parties went as far as liquidating themselves and amalgamating with the ruling party (eg, Egypt). Elsewhere, the mass of workers simply distanced itself from worker parties and political organisations.
The picture is completed by systematic police repression explains why at a time when conditions for the growth of the class pole opposing the bourgeoisie was at its best the working class remained weaker and more helpless than at any time.
This catastrophic balance between the two main class poles in society, produces a vacuum: one of political representation and of legitimacy.
It is in this vacuum that the voice from the minarets gains an ear. A multicoloured amalgam of social layers are attracted to the invitation to a jihad which is supposed to extract its ideology out of ancient tales and sayings and resurrect it on the ruins, chaos and wretchedness of today.
I have argued that the temporal juxtaposition of a particular political and economic crisis form the necessary pre-conditions for the formation of mass pan-Islamist movement in Islamic peripheral societies. Such a conclusion, however, would be incomplete if we are to explain the explosive growth of this phenomenon.
To understand how the pan-Islamism is a credible government-in-waiting in a number of counties, and indeed, has taken over power in some, we must consider a number of facilitating factors:
The presence of an official religious establishment
With a network of mosques and schools, abundance of paid cadres, social roots, which are firm, and to some extent independent of state power, Islamists can be in direct daily contact with people. These establishments also benefit form certain legal and political immunity as well as numerous social and legal privileges in Islamic societies. Thus, whatever control is exerted on the official religious establishment, the latter remains the main ideological arsenal and the firm and durable political backing for political Islamist movements.
The ruling political administration’s conduct towards religion
In most Islamic countries, despite the gradual separation of state and religious structures, and despite all the ups and downs of the relations between these two, some form of alliance and compromise has always operated and been maintained between the two.
The prime purpose of the alliance was to oppose the left and the worker’s movement. In every juncture where the workers and democratic movement made advances and threatened the authoritarian systems, the religious apparatus joined the army and police as an arm of repression.
Such a blessing meant that during certain periods the state undertook to spread the network of religious schools and mosques; help out with the setting up Islamic societies at work and neighbourhoods; assist the religious establishment to gain political influence by means of a variety of cultural, devotional, and charitable organisations; and finally, in conditions of a single party state, tolerate the quasi-party activity of religious fractions inside the ruling party and government.
Without an analysis of the role of the state in Islamic countries, and without considering the relations between religion and state in these societies, one cannot understand how they became so defenseless when faced by the onslaught of religious obscurantism and backward looking political movements.
Imperialist policy and action during the cold war
There is little doubt that throughout the cold war one of the major weapons used by imperialist powers against progressive movements in Islamic countries was to use religion both to stupefy and to denounce. In this imperialism did not deny itself any expense or effort.
They used the religious weapon to split the working class movement, sabotage progressive and nationalist movements and finally destabilise anti-imperialist governments or those allied with Soviet Union.
A partial list might include:
- Hoisting the Muslim Brotherhood against Nasser’s regime in Egypt and the Ba’ath Party in Syria.
- Supporting the Islamic Amal in Lebanon as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organisation as well as Lebanese progressive individuals and parties.
- Strengthening the Fadaiyan-e Islam and mullahs such as Ayatollah Kashani in opposition to Dr Mossadegh’s government and the Tudeh (communist) Party in Iran;
- The massacre of half a million communists in Indonesia.
- Mobilising and organising semi-military parties and organisations in Afghanistan and giving unlimited support to them for the overthrow of the Marxist government of the country.
Whatever the particular incarnation of these forces, they played a central role during the cold war in spreading Islamic influence.
The effects of regional political crises on the overall growth of the pan-Islamist movement.
Such deadlocked crises as the Arab-Israeli question and the issue of Palestine, and the occupation of Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian land have all helped the pan-Islamist movement.
Nothing could have damaged the standing of Arab nationalism more than the humiliating defeat of Arab nationalist governments at the hands of Israel. Few events could have justified the blind “non-conciliatory” altitude of pan-Islamism when confronting “Jews” than the Camp David accord and other such humiliating retreats the latest of which creates minuscule Bantustans as a sop to Palestinian nationalism.
The chronic weakness of the left and progressive forces to find ways of untying the various knots in the region could only lead to the questioning of their legitimacy.
It is in this context that events such as the assassination of Sadat, the blowing up of US and French marine headquarters in Beirut, and perhaps most critically the intifada, become turning points.
While such crisis-laden processes remain unresolved, the pan-Islamist movement will continue to fill the political vacuum.
The Iranian revolution and the export of the revolution
The coming to power of the first Islamic government was crucial for the spread of “revolutionary Islam”.
The effect of this on strengthening the roots of the pan-Islamist movement everywhere and making it more determined to aim for political power cannot be understated.
The Islamic government in Iran, however, could not remain content with these indirect influences on the Islamist movements. From the first days it did whatever it was in its power to influence them directly and take over their leadership.
Without exception, all Islamic movements were supported financially, logistically and by military training. Many such groups and organisations were overhauled. On other occasions, the Islamic regime called on more radical factions to split.
It involved itself in an extensive organisation of terrorist and “jihad-like” cells, and embarked in an intensive drive to shape an Islamic international. Finally, it pursued an eight year war with Iraq. This was an exercise in the “export of the revolution”, employing what the regime at that time said was the most suitable form: military machine and terror.
Today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not alone in “exporting the Islamist movement”. Other states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan or Turkey now bid to take over the leadership of the Islamist movement. The regimes of these countries by providing financial and military support try to channel these movements towards their political aims for achieving supremacy and hegemony in the region. Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, Nigeria, and many other countries are now the scene of direct interfere and fierce rivalry of these regimes
Bush’s New World Order and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The after-effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and what has surfaced as the New World Order will for the foreseeable future feed all forms of Political Islam from the “Islamic nationalism” to the “jihadist” anti western uprisings and to the more fascistic one.
Legitimacy for Islamist and similar movements comes when the prevailing gunboat diplomacy and outright colonial policies pursued by the USA and its allies, turns some of them into movements for gaining identity, prestige and pride, and others into movements for taking power and establishing their own Islamic State.
The US and its allies did not only plough the kindergartens and hospitals of Iraq, but lined up millions and millions of the downtrodden masses behind the Omar Abdel-Rahmans, Ali Belhajs, Osama Bin Ladens and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadis.
Global imperialism has no right to pretend innocence and denounce the dangers of “Islamic fundamentalism” and warn of “Islamic fanaticism” endangering the security of the world. The global capitalist system has created both the rational and agents of political Islam.
Observe history’s joke. As capitalism staggers into a new industrial revolution, it drags its bastard child – political Islam – behind it, kicking and screaming all the way
This article first appeared in Iran Bulletin in 1993 and lightly revised in 2016