Political Islam, Part 3: How it effects society
Illustrations by Ardeshir Mohassess.
An illegitimate child of advanced capitalism, Political Islam has profound effects on the society that gives birth to it both before and after victory. A contemporary phenomenon, it is reborn out of time centuries after its life-springs have dried up. This is the life-burning, ruinous and totalitarian mark the movement leaves wherever it places its seal.
These can be summed up as a fundamental fracturing of civil society from top to bottom into believers and unbelievers, the merging of part of civil society into political society and the elimination of the rest, an almost total mobilisation and politicisation of society, wearing it down, depoliticising it and leading to creeping corruption, major disruption of capital accumulation, and finally to the elimination of rational thought, replaced by received wisdom.
The effect is to grind down the class, democratic and cultural potential of an increasingly destitute and polarised society facing grave psycho-social crisis.
From economy to politics, science and culture, wherever Political Islam has trodden, it has left a trail of conflict, contradiction and crisis. While its ruinous effects on secular life varies in extent or breadth at different stages of its development, and at times even contradictory, a recognisably unified pattern and content emerges.
I will review these effects first in conditions where the movement is in opposition and next when it gains political power.
Political Islam splits civil society at every level while leaving state structures intact.
In the first instance every type of class organisation, institution, political party, trade union and workers guild, is split along religious lines. Islamic labour and peasant unions and guilds confront their non-Islamic equivalents. Nothing escapes this split, not even bourgeois organisations and societies.
Reborn in their Islamic and non-Islamic varieties they glare across an ideological divide. This divide causes major transformation in the class line-up in society. New class blocs are formed.
These new blocs are fundamentally non-class, cutting through class divides. Labour power lines up with either “Islamic” and “secular” capital under the umbrella of “Islam” and “secularism”. Meanwhile outside the state structure and in society, the embryos of Bonapartism as the alternative shape of the future state forms.
Thus the class potential, the perceived potential for class conflict, of these societies is systematically eroded.
Simultaneously democratic structures and institutions are similarly split: the ideological weapon of Islamism creates Muslim societies of doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, students, or women in distinction from non-Muslim groupings. The Muslim doctor can no longer defend their professional needs by the side of non-Muslim doctor. Worse, their duty to combat atheism and blasphemy overtakes every other duty.
Civil society is fractured into the Islamic and non-Islamic: the divide rips apart everything from trade unions to professional organisations. This is the most profound and dangerous consequence of the pan-Islamic movement.
One section of society is mobilised against another. This division even appears within some social groups and associations in capitalist core countries, such as exclusively Islamic women and student organisations.
The inevitable and tragic effect is to create artificial line-ups on the lines of sex, religion or ethnicity: women against women, teacher against teacher and worker against worker.
Where Muslim women organise separately from other women, not only do they enfeeble the women’s movement in its struggle for democratic rights, but under the paralysing pressure of ideology, they even lose the ability to hang on to their past achievements. We see the tragic sight of a woman who has lost all rights voluntarily saying yes to her slavery. This faces the democratic movement with its greatest dilemma.
Thus the second effect is to wear down the democratic potential of society. It is in this chasm that the roots of religious despotism is planted.
Masses and Leaders
Paradoxically, the more the masses occupy the stage the greater the power of the leadership. Indeed, there is an inverse relationship between representation and mass mobilisation. The leadership of these movements feeds and grows on mass activity. Their power becomes more concentrated and unassailable in direct relation to their ability to bring the masses into the political scene.
Where the masses are reduced to the “umma” (family of believers) of the Imam, where in its ideal form they are the disciples of religious authorities (marja’a), then the more they make their presence felt in the political arena, the greater the authority if the leaders, imams and clergy.
The role of an individual with his/her democratic rights in society and therefore in the state is eroded and with it the democratic base of society is weakened and shattered.
In this process the roots of tomorrow’s religious despotism are implanted, and the structure of tomorrow’s ultra-centralised and leader-centred “political power” is laid today.
In a society giving birth to a Islamic fundamentalist movement, culture is its first victim. The cultural sphere disintegrates and polarises into numerous minor, conflicting and growing poles which, despite any differences, are united on one premise: the belief in the absolute. This calamitous process effectively closes the route to any cultural advance.
Scientific thought, experimental sciences, philosophy, as well as values emanating from these are isolated and walled off by absolutist cultural structures. The quest for the absolute, to integrate, to annex, to dominate and monopolise, and the power struggle become the ethical norms governing society.
If we add to these a return to the most extreme paternalism, superstition, machismo …, we will discover the deepening roots of what will ultimately create, and make durable, the ultra conservative, absolutist, and despotic structures of the future Islamic state.
In this process, not only is the value system of society overturned, but cultural, educational and ethical structures are also overhauled. Everywhere Muslim schools, Islamic social gatherings etc. reappear.
The intellectual potential of society is also gradually eroded. Thought, in all its manifestations is enslaved to belief. Questioning, doubt, scepticism – essential elements of scientific and philosophical thought are rejected as tools of the devil. Combine these pressures on independent thought with the daily attacks on modernism and the new the elements of a sterile, and rigid intellectual life are there.
In place comes those elements where intellectual slavery, servitude, demagoguery and obscurantism breed and in which religious despotism can so easily grow.
More insidiously, the psychological potential of society becomes poisoned.
Violence and the cult of violence becomes the dominant mentality when the corrosive mixture of absolutism and a worship of power, is juxtaposed with the centrality of belief and is given free reign in a polarised society.
The process numbs the senses to violence and habituates a militaristic and police mentality.
At its most obvious level the exhortation to violence in the form of jihad, amre be ma’aruf (duty to warn those who do not observe Islamic laws), the cult of martyrdom and the “blood” (witness the fountain spewing blood in the “Martyr’s Cemetery” Teheran), the self-mutilation associated with the mourning of saints and martyrs… all create an atmosphere where the shedding of blood and of violent acts become the norm in society.
It is in this context that the deliberate burning of Rex Cinema in Abadan by Muslim revolutionaries which burnt to death over 600 people should be seen. Similarly we witnessed the immolation of over 30 Turkish secular intellectuals in Sivas (1993), and the knifing to death of Croatian workers in Algeria (1994) and many more atrocities since.
A culture is created based on hatred of “other” human beings. A mentality of mistrust, fear, tension, and friction permeates society’s every cell.
Hand in hand goes the culture of spying and prying into the life of others at home, work, school, and college. One section of society spends an enormous amount of time and energy spying on and reporting the “misdeeds” of the other. The corruption of family, human, professional and other relations cannot be underestimated.
It is ironic that a religion dedicated to making the family the pillar of society tears apart family ties by getting one member to interfere and even spy on another: a culture is built on treachery.
- Increase in the power of the male, the khan, and the mullah.
- Unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom.
- A populism which acceded to populism.
- A reductionism, where concepts are reduced to a simple absurdity.
- A rise in religiosity and belief in the supernatural.
Ultimately what is left is mistrust at every level. More destructively, the embryos of the ideological and police-military repressive institutions of the future Islamic government are laid in this atmosphere. These institutions in turn metamorphose into the central core of the repressive apparatus of the future religious despotism.
After gaining power
Once Political Islam creates a state where religion rules, its effects on the environment is immeasurably greater and longer lasting. Some of these effects will undoubtedly survive long after the Islamic regimes return to the grave from which they rose.
The roots of what is to become the Islamic state are already taking firm hold before Islamism comes to power. Fundamental changes in polarising society in the political and class arena, in the cultural and intellectual and psychology, and also in the system of values and ethics of society have already taken place.
Political power and the State structure
Political structures have been overturned in multifaceted and fundamental ways. Elements, which for centuries have survived deeply and stubbornly in the ideological and political superstructure of society, are now co-opted into service.
What takes place is the abolition of the modern state, to the extent that its main indicator – the separation of politics and ideology – is abolished. The secular superstructure comes under ideological siege:
Sharia’a law displaces secular law. A system of law based on the parliamentary vote, rationality, and current and living needs is replaced by one which is sacred and eternal.
A process is unleashed which overturns the general structures of political power, and in which ideological institutions occupy key positions and become the pivotal links in that power.
Such a development overturns the traditional role of the state. The state is transformed from the mechanism for the control of the socio-economic tensions of the country into the cause and perpetuator of tension and crisis in society.
The contradiction of a religious-ideological state with its secular, material and rational base transforms it into a state of permanent crisis.
A religious despotism is established: The ruling Islamic power creates a new legal system where the right to govern at every level, whether legislative or judiciary, is a divine right, solely to be exercised on god’s behalf by certain sections of the clergy.
In this system the modern capitalist state’s formal equality of citizens before the law is abolished and replaced by a legal system where the “government of the ruling Ayatollahs” or other clerics is distinct from the governed masses.
A Bonapartist power bloc is formed. The ruling Islamic power brings together a power bloc made up of conflicting social classes which while trying to maintain its broad social base assures itself of the ability to remain relatively independent from class tendencies in society.
Two features gives this type of Bonapartist regime relative durability; the ability to resort to religious demagoguery, and the fact that it surfaced in conditions of an ideological and political vacuum [see Part I] where its political and class manoeuvrability is greatly eased.
The other face of such an uneven and tension-prone bloc is usually a charismatic and powerful leader who can control the tensions and prevent the bloc from disintegrating and imploding.
A greatly enlarged and interventionist state structure. Civil society is abolished; one section is absorbed in the state while the rest is destroyed. No civil society is allowed to survive outside the state.
Underlying this process is the denial of the independence of the private from the public spheres. Islamic government knows no bounds. No part of life is considered private and outside the control of divine rule and that of god’s representatives. It is this totalism which underlies the order for civil society to be abolished:
Every sector that has been reborn on the basis of accepting the ruling ideology is organically incorporated and integrated in the state. Those sectors, however, which persist on their secular existence are crushed and annulled.
As a consequence of this process those forces bearing the weight of government are organised in extensive and interlocking structures. Civilians are mobilised and organised in highly mobile gangs ready to attack bookshops or dissident groups, millions are recruited in the “mobilisation of the dispossessed” (basij mostaz’afin), Islamic societies are set up and Islamic Shoras (councils) of workers, craftsmen, trades, commerce etc are created around mosques, the institutions of Friday Prayer … and allow the Islamic state to spread its tentacles into every home.
It is a rare trade organisation, cultural grouping or political gathering that can escape this fate. The paradox of complete absorption or total abolition is enacted with increasing determination and force the deeper the ruling Islamic regime digs its roots. The process ultimately abolishes even those relative and limited independences of party, trade union etc. institutions or at the very least transforms them into an unconditional appendages of the police-security apparatus or the office or enterprise management.
In short what remains of civil society does so in a militarised, or Vaticanised form which takes on the role of police or ideological control for the state.
Simultaneously, the process encourages a ballooning of bureaucracy, reduced productivity, obstructionism, multiplicity of centres of power, parallel institutions, corruption, bribery and nepotism, and… While state bureaucracy is greatly expended, its power is paradoxically eroded. The more “political society”, in Gramscian terms, absorbs and subsumes “civil society” (again in Gramscian terms) within itself, the more privatised and monopolised the State becomes. Thus, through these processes, not only is the modern state abolished, but the state, as the agent of securing and maintaining general condition of social production could be severely dysfunctional.
Depoliticisation of the masses: Pan-Islamism in power politicises the whole of society and maintains it in a state of constant mobilisation. One section at its side imposes state control and the other, on the other side, opposes by whatever means at hand. Society is rift into two opposing camps: religious and secular. This state of permanent politicisation paradoxically wears down society and creates its opposite: a depoliticisation.
Once depoliticisation spreads to both camps in a society where class and political atomization has taken root, the longer term potentials of these countries for restructuring and change and for lifting themselves up and moving towards democracy are seriously weakened. The future horizon for these societies is truly dark.
The religious and gendered apartheid system: The equality of citizens forms the legal basis of the modern state. This too is negated in Islamic societies where the element of ideology creates several legal layers in society (e.g. inheritance laws for men and women and for Muslims and non-Muslims).
In the society radical Islam creates, citizens are equal when it comes to affirming laws but not when it comes to negating them. Man cannot reject laws which have been divinely ordained (as interpreted by the mujtahed – the learned mullah).
The rise to power of the Islamic fundamentalist movement brings it into conflict, perhaps more than in any other field, with its material infrastructure. If the main role of the state in all societies, and hence in Islamic peripheral countries, is to “recreate the external conditions for production” the “Pan-Islamist state” embroils the economy of the country under its control in a multi-dimensional and permanent crisis.
Principally the ideological Islamic state cannot use to the full the various levers usually employed by states to regulate the economy: namely the law, money and force.
The law: Ideology weakens the use of this, one of the most important tools in the hands of the state to intervene in the economy. The rational and objective elements in law are overshadowed by ideological and political considerations. The result is that the economic sphere which is rational and secular is constantly in opposition with the law (in this case, often irrational and ideological) and slips out of the latter’s control.
Ideology limits and obstructs the workings of the laws of capitalism, including the law of value (fundamental to the capitalist economy). The equality of a commodity in exchange is eclipsed by its inequality in ideology.
The law of value is undermined, constrained or made conditional. Hand in hand with this limitation goes a certain liberalism.
Ownership is valid so long as religious tax is paid and it has been obtained by “legitimate” (mashrou’) means. An ideological element enters both ownership and exchange of property. A property used for un-Islamic purposes (e.g. brewing) or for which religious tax has not been paid is illegitimate and cannot be exchanged.
Commerce is also bound by ideology (some commodities – alcohol, “immoral” literature or films, videos, many articles of clothing etc. – cannot be bought or sold).
Money: This vital lever of state intervention in the economy too faces a similar fate. Money essentially loses its function to fulfill the needs of the production and circulation. Instead, the religious ideological state uses money to answer its political and ideological needs.
The volume of money in circulation is allowed to expand at an uncontrolled rate dictated by political considerations. Consequently the money supply is no longer a stabilising but an anarchic element in the economy.
This process allows huge quantities of money to accumulate in few private hands. This equity then confronts the state, not only cancelling out state control, but in turn acting as a lever on the state.
As we saw in the case of law, money is roped in to suppress the contradictions between the ideological state and its material-economic base. It is turned to its antithesis: serving to destabilise rather than stabilise.
Force: In an Islamic government, the function of violence as a purely repressive force is obvious in the economy more than in any other field.
Here force is not acting as in a “normal” capitalist state to suppress the conflicts and contradictions between the various sectors of the economy, and to paper over the cracks so that conditions for the reproduction of capital and the economy is optimised. Instead it is used to suppress the conflicts and contradictions between the economy as a whole and the ruling political power.
Force, whether material or ideological, that is whether taking the form of expropriation, legal suspension, fines, imprisonment – or by denouncing in the pulpit as diabolic and un-Islamic – has one consequence: it creates massive insecurity in the economic realm.
The net effect of this process is the erection of a truly complex web of non-economic structures within which a capital which is both parasitic and without identity is entwined with important state functionaries. A powerful defensive perimeter is then built around this alliance protecting it against both the ideological-material coercion of the state and against blind economic forces.
The huge mafia-like octopus with one end in the “bazaar” and mosques and the other in the armed forces and religious courts is an inevitable end for societies unfortunate enough to live under a Islamist regime.
There are further effects of Islamic fundamentalist rule on the economy which go beyond its enfeebling of the state in performing its key function of controlling the economy. The potentials of these societies for economic development are also ruined:
Investment: Both internal and external capital fights shy of investment in any long-term projects:
Domestic investment is dealt a particular blow by the fall in the rate of capital accumulation. One factor in this is the expansion of an interfering, totalitarian and highly expensive state. A huge burden is placed on the gross domestic product and value added which hinders the possibilities of capital accumulation in line with the development needs of the country. While effecting the private sector to a lesser degree, its impact on the state sector are decisive and disastrous.
The private sector essentially shuns investment in productive industries – effected as it is by the prevailing insecurity brought about by the ideological-political policies outlined above. Instead capital is drawn into the less insecure quick-return profitable transactions.
Moreover, capital tends to be drawn into hidden and out of sight areas where it is less likely to be traced. It is these elements that cause the private sector, moving independently from the negative process of accumulation, and prodded by non-economic consideration, to run away from productive investment into playing the stock market, hoarding, speculation, buying and selling, real estate and land speculation etc.
Meanwhile, under the influence of general conditions of the economy, the ability of the public sector to invest in many vital parts of the economy is also progressively eroded. Thus those sectors of the economy, which because of low profitability or poor development depend on state investment are also starved. Increasing inequalities and imbalance is caused in an economy already unevenly developed as a peripheral capitalist economy.
Foreign sources of investment are even less likely to respond. The economic factors enumerated above are confounded by a series of political factors. An insecure legal-judicial atmosphere, negative non-economic factors, hand in hand with an adventurist foreign policy is enough to cut foreign capital’s appetite for investment.
There is a further element: the deliberate use of the economic weapon and official sanction by core capitalist countries to control the crisis-provoking Islamic governments erects a formal barrier to the entry of international finance into these countries.
Where investment does take place, it is highly calculated and of a politico-economic nature. Thus Japan and Italy have tried to ensure their future supplies of oil in Iran by investing in petrochemicals, or other strategic goods. Even here, where they are securing their supplies against present and future rivals, advance payment has been extracted in the form of oil sales, itself fulfilling the need to secure oil stockpiles.
Human resources: this vital resource for economic development is also exhausted under radical Islamic governments. The productivity of manpower under capitalism is intricately linked with its accumulated potentials and qualities – skill levels, education, research etc. These form essentially in a secular, scientific and experiential environment. The conditions for their survival is the recreation of such an environment.
The Islamic government crushes this through pressures it bears on the secular life (from schools to universities and scientific, research intellectual centres). This regime confronts science with belief (maktab).
Its ceaseless interference in secular life even forces large sections of existing skills to flee the country or to abandon productive economic activity.
The Islamic state not only fails to recreate a qualitatively advanced workforce, but changes the existing labour force into an unskilled, unstable force of poor quality which hampers the ability of the economy to truly expand. Foreign workers of sufficient calibre are even harder to attract for similar reasons, and also because of limited foreign exchange.
Labour Code: In Islam it is not the function of the state to regulate or deliver labour power. Thus the usual legal framework ensuring that the labour force is not unduly worn out is absent. In Islamic societies the equal exchange of labour power is replaced by the law of “rental” of labour where the contract is between the individual and the owner without the intervention of any laws or regulations. This too contravenes the law of value. Where a labour code has been legislated, as in Iran in 1992, it has been under intense pressure from workers and after great procrastination.
Science and technology: This essential ingredient of economic development succumbs to the blows of ideological control on educational establishments and especially at the university and technical college level.
The return to the amalgamation of religion and state puts a brake on the flowering of the scientific shoots in society. The potential for technological development at home is severely limited and at best is confined to selected areas.
Foreign technology is also largely inaccessible for reasons of politics and shortage of foreign exchange. Moreover, the absence of a sufficiently advanced domestic technical skill limits any advantage that could be taken from imported technology.
The result is to deny society one more key lever for economic development.
In short: Political Islam in power is ruinous for the economy. Though retaining capitalism as the dominant mode of production, capitalist development is slowed down in certain fields, without being able to resurrect some pre-capitalist forms of production.
Thus the multi-structured economy which they inherited (containing elements of pre-capitalist economy in the midst of a dominant capitalist economy) is faced, on the one hand with paralysing contradictions and internal anarchy. On the other hand the already existing unequal development is accentuated to break point.
To this one must add major disruption in the process where the peripheral economy (now under Islamic rule) is amalgamated in the economy of core countries; that is, a disruption in the conditions for the external reproduction of capital, so vital for peripheral economies.
The net result is to push the economy into reverse; wear down the superstructure and infrastructure of the economy; dry up the economic resources and potential; and finally mortgage not only the present but see the prospects for a recovery recede in time.
Islamism in power creates the conditions for the Islamic societies to sink in a sea of poverty and destitution.
Culture and social psychology
All those elements which disrupted and changed the system of values, intellectual structures, and the cultural face of society before radical Islam achieved power reach their final genesis.
Each camp – pan-Islamist or against radical Islam, religious or irreligious and even anti-religious, create their own separate systems based on absolute values. In these systems everything is reduced to the two colours of black or white.
Anyone not a fervent believer in radical Islam is a heathen and a devil. Conversely, any Muslim is a murderer, oppressor, plotter etc.
If one camp looks on the exposure of a few strands of hair in a woman as prostitution, the other denounces any attempt at defining morals in private and sexual life as fanaticism and backwardness.
Translated into practice, this process manifests as a strange whirlpool of false pretensions to religiosity, institutionalised hypocrisy, nihilism and immorality sucking in both poles to an equal extent and with equal inevitability.
There is also another face to this tragic transformation of cultural society: its resurfacing in a police-repressive guise. The culture of radical Islam has now become the official culture and transformed into the political superstructure of the state and, indeed, absorbed into the state.
Meanwhile non-Islamist culture is banned as an “anti-culture”, a “cultural enemy”, a “cultural danger” and “cultural corruption”. It is unceremoniously removed to the realm of the forbidden.
What this means is that both cultural processes – pan-Islamist and its counter-culture – are removed from the cultural world and absorbed in various ways in a polarised political sphere. They become totally ideologised in a process that follows an almost deterministic path ending in an atomised society:
The faster the official culture takes shape and the more it is equipped with repressive tools.
The greater the absorption of ideological structures into the state and the greater their control of cultural life;
The greater education is absorbed into the ruling religion, the faster the news media are turned into religious schools under monopoly control;
In short the more secular life comes under ideological control and under greater pressure;
To the same extent social opposition, discontent, reactions and attacks take the shape of “cultural attack” and “cultural confrontation”. Culture is totally politicised.
In the absence of an opposition with political influence, wherever popular opposition does not take an explosive shape (which is the usual form it takes) protest manifests itself in an individual and atomised cultural form. This becomes both an open and an underground war in every arena of ordinary life.
This is a war where on a huge scale, and using primitive weapons, the ruling culture and system of values are mocked: from the dress code, to the battle in the streets on “pagan” national festivals, to the duality of home and public life and morality. Scratch the surface of a radical Islamic society and you will witness its antithesis deeply permeating every aspect of life.
It is ironical that radical Islam, which came out as a movement for cultural reform, and saw its mission as a “cultural revolution” finds itself surrounded by a “counter-cultural revolution”. It is also a mockery of history that the very imams who are the epitome of absolute power are brought to their knees in a running battle with rebellious “youth”. What an irony for the ruling mullahs to admit that the cultural assault by the enemy (read the young who have known nothing but the Islamic regime) is the greatest danger they and the “Islamic revolution” face!
The danger signal for progressive forces is also here. This backward turn in the social struggle from one which is conscious, organised and on class-political lines into a atomised, individual, absolutist, unorganised, cultural battle, without clear class aims, and lacking any true political consciousness simultaneously wears down the cultural potential of Islamic societies and drains the political health of that society.
The sad reality for these societies is that even when the religious-Islamist governments are overthrown, the future looks bleak. What progressive and stable socio-political system can take root in a society saturated with unevenness; polarised and depoliticised; where political discourse is populist or demagogic; where social and moral indifference, negativism and nihilism, hypocrisy and pretensions to religiosity rules; where paternalism is in command and the dominant relationship in society is that between the follower and the followed, the disciple and the mujtahid (religious authority).
A society sinking in lumpanism, the get rich mentality, commerce, the glorification of money…and also violence, aggression, cruelty, squashing the weak; and simultaneously humbleness, sycophancy, flattery, opportunism…
How can a society which has fallen victim to Political Islam throw off this massive dead weight of cultural psychological trauma? (Part 4)
This article first appeared in Iran Bulletin in 1993 and lightly revised in 2016
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