Political Islam, class and capital Part 1: what are its common features?
By Ardeshir Mehrdad
Illustration by Ardeshir Mohasses
The last three decades have witnessed a relentless growth of Islamist movements, so that today political Islam is an undeniable reality on the world scene. The events of September 11, 2001 and since have given it further prominence. From the Middle East to North Africa and South Asia, it has, in its various manifestations, become a major player that needs to be analysed both politically and theoretically. The contradictory nature of political Islam means that such analyses must deal with it not only in relation to the interests of capital, but also in relation to the challenge it poses to socialist ideas.
In many countries, the various movements of political Islam raise the banner of ‘justice seeking’ targeting the poorest and most deprived sections of society. Thus they present themselves as a rival to the forces of socialism and the left. The formulation of a strategy to respond to this challenge requires a deeper understanding of the background to, and reasons for, these developments. This article presents some preliminary theses, based on a necessarily limited and general outline of the characteristics and peculiarities of the Islamist movements.
What are its common features?
Despite their apparent diversity political Islamic movements have a number of features in common. It is a child of advanced capitalism, attracting all those social layers threatened by the modern state. It is virulently anti-secular, and intolerant of the non-self. It is against enlightenment, and implacably antagonistic to democracy and popular representation. Inherently multi-class, it divides society across class lines. It cannot be bound by national boundaries, nor is it bound by any man-made legislation – hence its recourse to extrajudicial means and frank terror. Let us briefly outline its main features:
A modern phenomenon
The “political Islamist movement” is a contemporary phenomenon. Regardless of any indirect or minor influences from past Islamic movements, its umbilical cord is essentially attached to the developments in world capitalism in the last decades.
These movements grow in precisely those countries where capitalist structures (particularly in its peripheral form) are more advanced: It is in Egypt, Algeria, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan (and least in the Arabian Peninsula) that it has found mass following. What links Turkey and Egypt, is their economic similarities, rather than geographic, historic or even cultural ties.
Those political thinkers who see contemporary Islamist movements as a continuation of the independence movements of early and mid 20th Century encapsulate the elephant in its trunk. Those that see its roots in the far distant Islamic era are hoplessly attempting to make the elephant fly!
A rebellion against the modern state
The preliminary nature of this article comes from the fact that current debates are still in their infancy, and many of the trends and events in the Islamic world have a long way to go yet before reaching a critical mass. They are as yet too young to reveal their inner core in its entirety. Thus any analysis must be considered as an attempt a discovering the inner logic of the subject and the methodology for a more wider study.
The Islamic movement as defined at its broadest level is not a cohesive integrated whole. Within this general term many different currents, trends, policies, structures and spheres of influence operate. Serious organisational and politico-ideological line-ups have already taken shape. At one end it links up with Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence, at the other end it surfaces under the umbrella of Khomeinism.
Yet, the Iranian ambassador was not too far off the mark when he politely commented: the Saudi monarchy and the Islamic Republic of Iran are the two wings of Islam. If we recognise that the Islamic movement is not a religious or ethical movement but one that is intensely political, and if we consider that the general meaning of this movement is the intermingling of Islam and politics, or more correctly the amalgamation of Islam and political power, then it is obvious that despite all its variety, this movement rests on a single base.
Moreover, the abstracted inner core of this amalgamation of religion and state is also similar: In backward societies such as Saudi Arabia, the purpose is to maintain the decrepit and outdated structures holding up that society, in more advanced societies such as Iran it is aimed at breaking up and destroying modern structures. In short at the most abstracted level the two wings are united by the amalgamation of religion and state and the backward looking content of this amalgamation.
On concrete analysis where conflicting interests interplay, however, the abstract similarities become very diluted. From the point of view of world capitalism, the amalgamation of state and religion (even when backward looking) is in itself neither good nor bad. If in a concrete analysis this amalgamation gives greater political stability to the feeble superstructures of the Gulf States, and thereby help them along in the path to greater integration in the capitalist global market, then all is well and good. No moral or legal obstacle must prevent the protectors of oil deposits to continue to protect the holiest of all religious shrines: the Ka’aba.
Conditions are different in the more advanced (and in particular non-oil producing) countries. Here, the process of the reproduction of capital is increasingly integrated into the world market, more complex, multidimensional and deeper. In such a state a backward looking force, at the very least, will inflict instability, insecurity and disruption . A capitalism trying to rein in its crises at the global level may find this too high a price to pay.
For the worker and communist movement, too, these movements presents an important challenge. Those countries where the capitalist relations have spread, where modern classes have formed and where a large labour market had developed carry a far greater weight than a society still stuck in tribal relations.
The communist and labour movement will receive a major blow from the muddying of the class barriers and the spread of regressive and obscurantist trends amongst the millions of deprived and destitute in the more advanced countries of the region. These blows are independent of whether the socio-political structures in, say Saudi Arabia, will remain backward, is reformed or is overthrown.
These points make the Islamic movements in the more advanced Muslim countries of central importance for imperialism and progressives alike. Therefore the current article will deal with those movements which call themselves “pan-Islamist”, “revolutionary Islamic Movements” or “Islamic movement for Jihad”. The essential features of these are as follows:
Roots in the uprooted
The social roots of the “Political Islamist movements” are essentially the uprooted. these are those layers and classes who for a variety of reasons have been waylaid from the main and developing path of socio-economic progress; those for whom the thriving new structures brought nothing but bankruptcies and ruin. Despite variation in the social fabric of the movement in this or that country the Islamist movement in all the more or less developed countries of the periphery (with a few exceptions) has recruited among the following layers:
The urban uprooted and deprived: That explosion of people with no stable relation with the expanding peripheral-capitalist system of production and distribution. These apparently “cursed” people have in common a peasant ancestry which has taken “refuge” in the dirt and mud surrounding such cities as Cairo, Algiers, and Teheran, futureless, hopeless, degraded, and without identity or rights. In Islamic societies, the urban destitute form the social layer most ready to take up the Islamist’s banner. They make up the main social base for the “political Islamist movement” and also generate its explosive power.
Middle layers belonging to pre-capitalist structures: Those who were bankrupted or marginalised with the spread of capitalist structures and whose fate is to struggle harder only to sink into greater poverty. These layers have an important role in helping Islamic movements organise and in welding together its disparate supporting elements in society.
Sections of the merchant and industrial bourgeoisie left outside the circle of power: These are those who are forced into an unequal competition with a bourgeoisie that is privileged in being close to (and reliant on) a state. A state whose task was to orchestrate capitalist development from above.
It is worth noting that in peripheral societies, the bourgeois state, rather than being the product of capitalist relations, itself imposes capitalist growth from above. Here the relation between power and capital is turned upside down to the extent that it is easier to rely on power to make money than on wealth as a gateway to power. This is where those layers of the bourgeoisie who have been excluded from power can count on being permanent losers. It is this fate which places respectable manufacturers and merchants in the same camp as the “wretched of the earth”. This group not only fills the coffers of the Islamic movement, but also for a period plays on the justice seeking ideals of the poor by setting up charities, interest free loan accounts and similar means to increase the attraction of pan-Islamism among the poor.
Intellectuals who lost their standing: Those who lost out (or at best dropped a few steps) when the new political and civil structures are being formed. These intellectuals find their social standing, influence, and privileges vanishing and themselves increasingly isolated. Regardless of whether dressed in priestly clothes or not, young or old, or whether their re-emergence answers a structural need or not, they will use the Islamic movement to step into the arena. Without the increasing power and influence of such a movement their chances of coming out of the closet into the limelight and to regain their identity and renew their social standing must be dim indeed.
This last provide the leadership cadres of the movement. It is they who put together the ideological baggage and political strategy for the “Political Islamic movement”.
Rejects the secular
The “Political Islamist movement” is as incapable of attracting some layers in society as it has ability to attract others. It is this feature which makes it imperative for the Islamic movements to create cracks in class line-ups and which turns the Islamists into a permanent force for social tension. It is no secret that the “political Islamist movement” suppresses one section of society at the same time as it is mobilising and organising other sections. Even when not actively engaged in physical suppression, the Islamic movement is aware right from the start that it must ideologically suppress those social layers which, because they have grown out of the heart of new structures, breath secular air. Intolerance to other religions and pressures on their way of life follows the same logic.
The political Islamist movement is a resurrection against enlightenment. The movement is rebelling against a cruel and blind fate imposed by peripheral capitalism. Yet in this rebellion their only weapon is to close their eyes to tomorrow, to turn their back to obvious reality and to take refuge in myths. Ironically it this obscurantism which binds today’s uprooted poor with yesterday’s rich under the same umbrella.
This Islam has no choice but to resurrect those ideologies from among the vast heap of stories and myths which promise the end of the misery for all those on the scrap heap.
It is precisely for this reason that this Islam must lead a movement which is foreign to common sense and free thought in all its forms. Furthermore, this Islam must place those who favour scientific thought and question so called “certainties” (tashkik ) on the same level as its enemies. Any attempt at enlightenment, whether yesterday or today, is a devilish plots, to be fought at all cost.
Against class line-ups
The political Islamist movement is a furnace in which class line-ups must melt. The non-homogeneous (multi-class) mix in the Islamist’s camp dictates a policy of denying class war or at least marginalising it and removing it from the immediate agenda. This is essential as otherwise a non-class based social bloc made on religio-cultural line-ups cannot survive class antagonisms and the pact made between the hungry and those whose bellies are full is bound to crack.
If here and there the war between “poverty and wealth” becomes a weapon to browbeat its merchant fellow travellers should they get unruly, or to loosen their purse strings, “sharia’a” remains firmly on the side of “unity” and those that “split” (monafegh) are worse than those who do not “believe” (moshrek).
Here too lies the root reason for its blind enmity with communism or any other political creed which defines society by its class boundaries, and perceives class confrontations as inevitable. Furthermore, for the same reason, this enmity is turned into a religious duty.
No national boundaries
At every level the “political Islamist movement” is the uprising of those who not only see themselves as rejected and foreign within their own national boundaries, but also of those who have (in a sense) identified the source of their destitution and bankruptcy outside those boundaries. For this reason at their most embryonic form these movements face outwards. The foreign enemy is the root cause of all evil, and in creating the mechanisms of depravity and misery all Muslims suffer injustice equally.
For such a movement to be bounded within a single national boundary is tantamount to suicide. Furthermore, to set up anything less than a world Islamic power and a world Islamic will is to succumb to ultimate defeat within and without national boundaries. Here lies the logic behind their rejection of the legality and legitimacy of all legal, civil and secular systems in the world and their non-adherence to all international treaties and agreements.
This context also explains the inherent contradiction in simultaneously opposing imperialism and world “arrogance” and nationalism and national movements. The Islamic movement may here and there support tendencies aiming at independence and even isolationism. Yet it is emphatic in its rejection of that nationalism which opposes the nation” against the “umma” (Islamic community).
Against democratic forms of government
The political Islamist movement opposes democracy in all its forms. Every shade and interpretation of “revolutionary Islam” concludes by rejecting democracy. This movement cannot except popular sovereignty and the right of the people to determine their own destiny. It cannot accede to the majority vote.
Neither its beliefs, nor its class make-up, nor its historic direction can agree with such rules. This movement has no choice but to raise above the heads of ordinary people and above its internal and external contradiction the right to sovereignty. Divine rule, where all rights belong to god, is the only realm where there are no tensions and dissent. And it is only the divine that can give away this or that right on earth to his chosen people – whether dressed in clerical robes or Islamists in civvies.
Who takes hold of this divine gift is a quarrel which the “chosen” must settle amongst themselves. The right of people to vote can at best only be accepted on the basis of one person one vote for once only [for or against an Islamic Republic]. Thereafter, they have no other function than to express heir allegiance (beia’a) to the chosen.
Moreover, if democracy is an institution, and government a legal institution, Islam does not recognise anything but a governor, vali or caliph, all of whom are real personages. Islam does not recognise institutions of government, only governors.
In practice, however, this movement must institutionalise the right to make decisions by a small coterie of “chosen” (nokhbegan) and religious authorities (mujtahed) i.e. those who have the ability and “knowledge” to interpret divine law for any given circumstance. The recognition of who has this ability is also in the hands of those who have proven their “knowledge” beforehand. Thus the question of who decides comes full circle.
Against citizen rights
Even outside the question of political power and of government, the political-Islamist movement cannot except any rights for its citizens.
Even ignoring the fact that Islamic sharia’a considers women as half a man (in their view a destiny entirely compatible with “justice”), women will do little better in the utopia that the Islamic movement is digging. In this paradise lost, the sanctity of the family forms its basic brickwork, and the values binding the utopia together cannot be defended without a clear and unambiguous definition of a women which begins as a wife and ends as a mother.
Outside this narrow framework lies the world of corruption. No matter how much revolutionary Islam shouts about human rights and the miracle of womanhood, it will never accept to enter this world of “corruption”.
Finally, if there is anything left of citizen’s rights, the “revolutionary Islamic movement” cannot grant it without religious considerations.
Non-Muslims (or when this or that religion is favoured for political purposes, all those outside that religion) are second class citizens, provided of course they do not belong to proscribed religions such as the Baha’i who are required to repent or die. If today religious apartheid is put on the shelf, tomorrow the conscience of a powerful and dominant Islam will not rest until the non-Muslims find their “rightful” position.
If non-Muslims are today not asked to pay the religious tax (jezzieh), they will only have this added to future debts.
To sum up, these restraints make the political-Islamism movement not only a movement alien to the sovereignty of the people, but more ominously a movement for its removal, for an outright banishment of this right.
The tragedy is that this task is to be done at the hand of the people. Themselves
Jihadist and terrorist strategy-tactics
The political Islamism movement is a “jihad“. The uprooted who decide that a “wheel that does not turn for their needs should never turn”, and who do not see any reason to decry the ruination of today if it leads to the utopia of tomorrow can have no other recourse than to the sword.
Which open and free environment, which democratic system, which legal testament, will allow them to achieve their goal?
Whether political Islamism can gain power through legal means or not, whether it is suppressed or allowed to grow, whether in the balance of power it has the upper hand or not, it has entered an arena of war where the pulling of the trigger is a daily duty.
The recourse to terrorism in all its forms, the semi-military organisation of that part of the social base which can be mobilised, the creation of professional military institutions, attempts to infiltrate and recruit in the armies of Islamic countries, are all acts which cannot be stopped or even delayed.
Jihad is a road which will take political Islamism to the promised land.
This article first appeared in Iran Bulletin in 1993 and lightly revised in 2015