Islamic Fundamentalism - A Capitalist Ideology

It is not surprising that the effects of the world crisis lead people to seek desperate solutions to the dire situations in which they find themselves. It is easy to understand how they become embroiled in a reactionary response like religious fundamentalism. Christian, Hindu and Islamic fundamentalists are all cashing in on the poverty, insecurity and social fragmentation that the capitalist crisis has created. With the collapse of Stalinism (so-called “communism”) and the daily depredations of capitalism before their eyes, it is not surprising that many opt for a force which claims to provide a ‘third way’ out of the crisis. By claiming to be something new or different, yet extremely familiar, it is understandable that the universal, easy and quick answers of Islam are taken up.

In Britain, this has meant the rise of such movements as Hizb ut-Tahir (Liberation Party). Its posters have been seen from Bradford to Birmingham, and major meetings have been held from Essex to the North. Recently such groupings held a major rally in London to promote conversion to Islam and its political extensions. A similar organisation, the Islamic Foundation, were the animators of the demonstrations against Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, and its public burning. This is an organisation intimately linked to the Pakistani Jamaat Islami and Afghan and Kashmiri groups. These groupings are now said to be making huge inroads into British mosques and have taken over most of the Muslim societies in Universities.

In an interview with the Guardian (7th February 1994) a Birmingham Muslim had to say this:

No matter how much I want to be British, I never will be because of my brown skin. I used to see everything as blacks versus whites, but now I see the struggle as Muslims against non-muslims.

Islamicist politics is providing an ideology giving Muslims, many of them working-class, an identity and a series of easy answers to the situation in which they find themselves - the oppressed victims of racism, as well as exploited, and seemingly with little hope in these times of crisis. Other political forms, the left, in particular, is seen as having failed them. Unemployment in Britain is highest amongst Asians and racism is still endemic to the UK, no matter how much law this capitalist country might put onto the statute book.

The reactionary and divisive politics of Hizb ut-Tahrir are illustrated in the following quotes from its leaflets:

The idea of a democratic society is deceptive, dangerous and unworkable. The party [ie. Hizb ut-Tahrir] considers it is haram [forbidden] to establish or participate in parties which call for capitalism, socialism, secularism, nationalism or any religion other than Islam.
We are surrounded by a sea of Kafr [unbelief]. Kafr thoughts, practices and Kafr systems of life…
The Muslim umma [community] has been seduced, tricked and subverted into a disastrous friendship with the Kafr… so that our anthropological distinctness has been submerged and eradicated until all that is allowed to remain is a romantic appraisal of our Islamic past in museums of mankind and other Jew-designated mortuaries of wisdom.

These ideas have not suddenly appeared from nowhere and for no reason. The crisis of capitalism and its effects felt throughout the world, Muslim countries, as well as countries with a sizeable Muslim community, can be seen to have no small part in the rise of this political form.

Political Islam

In 1928 the Muslim Brotherhood was formed by the Egyptian teacher Hassan al-Banna. Its political basis can be seen from these quotes from its ‘Credo’:

5. I believe that a Muslim has the duty to revive the glory of Islam by promoting the renaissance of its people and by restoring its legislation. I believe that the flag of Islam should dominate all mankind, and that it is the duty of every Muslim to educate the world in the rules of Islam. I promise to struggle as long as I live to achieve this goal and to sacrifice all I have to this mission.
6. I believe that all Muslims form a single nation, united by the Islamic faith…
7. I believe that the secret of the Muslims’ backwardness is their estrangement from the religion, and the basis of that reform should be a return to the precepts and judgements of Islam…
Islam founds the state on principles of justice, establishes government in term of clearly defined rights and allows each member of the various clases his due…
Ever since the Oriental nations foresook the teachings of islam and attempted to substitute others which they believed would help solve their problems, they have been caught in a morass of uncertainty and have suffered bitter defeats; the price for deviation has been high…
The gulf that political and social events have opened up between the Muslims and their faith is wide… [they] are at war with their faith; they break their own sword and freely hand a dagger to those who would bring them down, by cooperating with those who seek to demolish the religion which is the very foundation of their regimes and the source of their strength…

There is a firm belief in the class system. In the Umma, or community of Islam, class society is simply accepted as a natural order. The politics of the Brotherhood is one of domination seeking not only to regain domination of Arab and other Muslim countries but then to take it further, against the domination of alien political ideas and those who sponsor them. The domination of the Muslim world by the unbelieving foreigners is seen to be reversible only by a return to the principles of Islam.

The Failures of State Capitalism in the Middle East

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood attempted to gain power and to pursue its aims of an Islamic state through its growing contacts with the ‘Free Officers Movement’ led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. He had been told by one of their number to gain as much sway as possible within the armed forces to complement the growing influence of the Brotherhood within the unions and the wider working class, urban and rural. One of the main points of contact between Officers and the Brotherhood was Anwar al-Sadat, later to be killed by an Islamist. The Free Officers came to power in 1952 using the help of the Brotherhood. Rather than adopt the policy of a move towards an islamic state they used the slogan - ‘Religion is for God and the nation is for all’. In 1954 the new regime attempted to gain control of the movement from within, they failed and after an attempt on the life of Nasser, the Brotherhood was repressed, six of their leaders being executed.

The Brotherhood expressed the political and economic aspirations of sections of the petty bourgeoisie attempting to gain an element of power through the support of the largely rural poor. But the army, through Nasser, expressed the desire to move from the restraints of the past and to become more aligned with the cycle of accumulation going on within the world, seeing the Egyptian bourgeoisie as unable to fully exploit the potential of the Egyptian economy, particularly in the face of foreign domination of the economy. Nasser, and later his Arab Socialist union (later the National Democratic Front or Party), followed a largely state capitalist programme. Politically, pan-arabism and Egyptian nationalism sat well within that political economic process. Similarly, Syria and Iraq saw the rise of Ba’athism (1), a union of Michel Aflaq’s arab nationalism (2) and Akram Hourani’s state capitalism. By 1963 Syria had become an essentially military led state, the civilian branch of the Ba’ath being sidelined. Ba’athism and Nasserism vied for the political leadership of the Arab world for some years, combining state capitalism and arab nationalism alongisde a marginal inclusion of mentions of islam and anti-communism. Ba’athism had three aims:

  1. The Arab Homeland is an indivisible political and economic unit, and it is impossible for any one of the Arab countries fully to realise the requirements of its life in isolation from any other Arab country.
  2. The Arab nation is a cultural unity, and all of the differences existing between its sons are accidental and spurious and will pass away with the awakening of Arab consciousness.
  3. The Arab homeland is for the Arabs and they alone have the right to manage its affairs, dispose of its wealth, and direct its destinies.

The attitude towards communism was expressed thus:

We represent the Arab spirit against materialistic communism… which strangles both the human being’s freedom and his ethical values.

Both Ba’athism and Nasserism can be thought of not so much Islamist as Arabist political forms. Islam was used as a cultural flavouring to the political ideology of these formations, giving the population a feel that the state of capitalism of such countries as Egypt and Syria were their own, Arab state capitalisms. Rather than the convenient political economic form for the military led bourgeois control of the countries. The dominance of the military is an indication of the relative weakness of the bourgeoisie in these countries, the military supplying the core of power around which the state capitalist body politic could be organised.

The state capitalism of regimes such as Nasserist Egypt failed in its overall objectives. Between 1952 and 1971 the domestic economy expanded just over 3.3 times whereas income per head increased only by just over 2 times (3). The effective decline was the result of a population expanding faster than the economy. But there were other problems. From 1967 to 1973 expenditure on arms went up 6 times in pursuit of the war with Israel. In addition, although Nasser had attempted to bring in reforms of the economy there were still bourgeois and bureaucratic interests acting as brakes on growth.

In 1970 Nasser died and Sadat came to power. He was to introduce the policy of Intifah, ‘the open door’, whereby foreign capital was welcomed, the state sector (which had been large) was to be reformed and the political and economic alignment of Egypt was to move from close ties with the USSR (to which state it had mortgaged its cotton crop for forty years!) towards the US and its reactionary clients in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and the like).

Islam and Imperialism

The position of Egypt found within wider imperialist relations, though, was not seriously altered by Nasserist Arab nationalist postures, merely taking Egypt from the orbit of one imperialist power bloc, the US-UK, partially into another, the USSR, to return to the US fold under Sadat. Under Mubarak the benefits of that closeness with the US can be measured by the $4 billion per year in US aid.

Elsewhere the relationship between Islam and imperialism is not the simple matter many might think. The US, in particular, may brand islamist movements and islamic governments as dangerous or terrorist but that is not a uniform state of affairs. Thus, Sudan and Iran are seen as enemies, as are such organisations as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and so on. But the US (and the UK) actively aids the FIS in Algeria as part of its imperialist competition with France. Pakistan under Zia ul-Haq moved towards shariah law and other islamic social measures and was firmly within the US bloc. It was downgraded because of its attempts at an indepedent nucleare policy but after Zia’s convenient murder it was readmitted to the fold under Benazir Bhutto. Iran following a similar nuclear policy has been ostracised, having a trade embargo placed upon it (see Workers Voice 79). Saudi Arabia is one of the firmest and most favoured of US allies yet its ruling elite use the Wahhabi sect and its ‘fundamentalism’ as the state ideology (4). Throughout the world the relationship between Islam and imperialism has little if anything to do with Islam as a religious or political force. There may be statements from major imperialist powers along the lines of Islamism as a new ‘evil’, but such assertions only serve to cover what are relations driven by the needs of imperialist interests.

Islamicists from Nasser to Sadat

In the 60s the Muslim Brotherhood had achieved a considerable size, especially in those supporting rather than belonging to the organisation. However, the attempt to gain at least some power as a political movement through its support of the Free Officers (5) had been stopped and the Brotherhood crushed. A new tactic was adopted, a move towards tactics of propaganda and education, giving birth to the ‘takfir wal hegirah’ (anathema and withdrawal) strategy. This was to give birth to a number of different political offspring. On the one hand it gave rise to the groups adhering to a hard-line approach, eventually spawning the Gama’a al-Islamiyah, the current major islamist terrorist grouping in Egypt. Sadat was assassinated by Islamists such as these. He had always been close to the Brotherhood from the early days of the Free Officers and brought it into parliament under cover of other parties. This was not only an expression of his own closeness to the Egyptian right wing but also an attempt to buy off the islamist constituency. He had done so after 1977 when, under pressure of the burgeoning crisis, he had nearly been toppled as its effects bit deeply into the Egyptian economy. Rather than quieten things, the increase in the islamic tone and content of laws strengthened the Islamists, both moderate and extreme.

In addition, there was the application of the strategy of withdrawal, whereby the supporters of the Brotherhood began the building of an economic power base. By 1988, 500 islamic enterprises, often small, had total assets of $8 billion. In May 1988 there was a mass withdrawal from state banks. Investment organisations such as ar-Rayyan and as-Sa’ad, had assets of $4 billion and $3.2 billion respectively (the financial bubble of the 80s was later to burst under such promises as a 25% return on investment).

The power of such organisations as the Muslim Brotherhood stems from the inability of the state to answer the economic needs and the political aspirations of the population as a whole, let alone the urban and rural workers. The heirs of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, like Nasser before them, have always resisted the expansion of the political base. Each attempt to bring in new support for the NDF by allowing potential opponents either into the ruling party or its ‘loyal’ opposition has ended in a tragedy for it. Any expansion in the political base with a route to even limited political expression has always come to an overthrow of the ruling elite, the armed forces and its bourgeois allies.

Gama’a has grown because the Brotherhood has been seen as tainted by both moderation and too close a relationship with the power structure, even though it seems that current attempts by the Brotherhood to re-enter parliament will be blocked yet again. So the Gama’a grows the way the Brotherhood once did. It recruits their cadres from the huge numbers of graduates who are unemployed and then gains rank-and-file support from the incredibly poor rural proletariat, the labourers and the like. As the IMF decreed state withdrawal from benefits and services given to the destitute the Gama’a stepped in to give minimal support. Unemployment is at least 17.5% of the labour force. For Gama’a ‘Islam is the solution’. One farcical notion being that a much needed housing programme will be financed out of savings on the police budget because in the paradise of the islamic state there will be no crime.

Islamists Politics in Iran

The overthrow of the Shah in 1979 put islam on the world political map. The Pahlavi regime was repressive and exploitative. The regime certainly managed to alienate large sections of the population. Support for it was limited, only certain sections of the intelligentsia, professions and bourgeoisie could be counted upon. Ranged against it were the small working class, the unemployed, and a variety of elements of the middle classes.

The history of enmity between the Pahlavi regime and one section of the ulama was long. This section of the clergy represented the older entrenched social system, having been powerful through their control of the legal and educational frameworks. This control was continually attacked under both Shahs (Reza Pahlavi, an army officer, seized power as Shah in 1921). They were also prosperous, for example being large landowners in certain areas (Azerbaijan and Isfahan). Part of the Pahlavi’s modernisation involved such measures as the 1959 Land reform which threatened to break up the large estates of the ulama and redistribute them amongst the peasants. With the 1963 ‘White Revolution’ measures which included such things as a national Literacy Corps and women’s suffrage, these set the seal on greater antagonisms between the Pahlavi’s and traditionalists now led by Khomeini.

The foundation in 1971 of the Religious Corps and the Religious Propaganda Department, seeking to substitute state agencies for the ulama, these antagonisms developed further. What should be remembered, though, is that not all of the ulama belonged to this tendency. There were those who managed to reach an accommodation with the regime. The most well known of them being such figures as Shariatmadari.

Prior to the revolution, following the attempted levelling of shanty towns around Tehran and the violent opposition to that attack, the mujahidin (ayatollahs etc.), made a call to all sections of society, from the richest to the poorest, to oppose the regime. These ayatollahs were led by Khomeini but he was known only to a few within Iran. This was bolstered by what some have described as anti-imperialism, in reality simply anti-western ideas, criticising the regime for its US alliance and its implicit support for Israel, as well as the ‘foreign domination’ of the economy. The mosque held sway among large sections of the population. The city workers were often newly urbanized, drawn from rural workers educated in the islamic schools, the rural areas being dominated by the mullahs. Similarly the middle classes were only partly secularised, deep influence continued through the mosque. In some cases radical movements arose such as the Sazman-i Mujahidin-i Khalq, mainly middle class students, having politics based in Islam (although radically interpreted) and leftism.

Major participants in the overthrow of the Shah did not initially include the ulama. They may have provided much of the framework of discontent but not active leadership within those events. The initial impetus came from the various Mujahidin, Fedayin, Kurds. It was mass demonstrations and the strike by oil workers which led the Shah to leave the country in the tender care of the Bakhtiar, the Prime Minister. Only later, did the ulama using the opportunities provided by events, oppose the continued pressure of the fedayin and the independent movement of the masses. They organised the IRP (Islamic Republican Party), closely linked to what was later called the Pasdaran-i Inqilab (Revolutionary Guards), armed and instructed through the mosques. In addition, others drawn from the ranks of the urban and rural poor and unemployed, were known as hizbollahis, from the slogan ‘hezb fagat hezbollah’ - no party but God’s party, ‘rahbar fagat Rohallah’ - no leader but Rohallah (Khomeini).

The provisional government comprised Bazargan as Prime Minister, representing the modernising wing, and the mullahs led by Beheshti. This was set up after secret negotiations had been held involving Bazargan, the army generals, Beheshti and Brzezinski of the USA.

Once the IRP had been established in power such organisations as the Mujahidin could be dispensed with. Thus from 1980 onwards they, and others who posed a threat to the ulama, and Khomeini in particular, became the victims of the Pasdaran. ‘Justice’ was served up in an horrific way by ayatollahs such as Khalkhali, Iran’s own Judge Jeffries - known as the ‘cat strangler’ (6). It was not uncommon for children and, for example, teenage Mujahidin girls to be hanged from lampposts.

The first to go were the liberals of Bazargan’s National Front, the grouping backed by the USA. Then in 1981, after a period of tension between the Mujahidin and the Islamists the term monafegin (splitters or hypocrites) was applied to them, gun battles occurred between the Pasdaran and the Mujahidin, their leader Rajavi left the country. Lajevardi, a former shop-keeper, was employed as a prosecutor to deal with them.

Even if a 12 year old is found participating in an armed demonstration, he will be shot. The age does not matter.

Mussavi-Tabrizi, an ayatollah was part of the team

They will not be allowed to go to jail… they will be tried in the streets… sentenced to death the same evening and executed.

They were quickly broken by the combined power of the various arms of the solidifying islamist state. The Tudeh, close supporters of the ulama, were the last in this line of former allies to be destroyed in the consolidation of power. They were decimated in 1983 after British Intelligence handed over a list of Soviet agents within this ‘official’ communist party.

At each stage the Majilis split, with a ‘liberal’ wing opposed by the ulama. The mujahidin had originally supported Khomeini and then Banisadr. The Tudeh, and the Fedayin (majority faction) supported the ulama in the split with Banisadr, only to become an opposition to the ulama at a later date.

The March of Islam

Everywhere the origins of Islamist political movements are the same. In Egypt the Brotherhood began from a framework of teachers, clergy and other middle class elements. They gained a following among the urban and rural workers on the back of poverty and the resentment of foreign domination of both the economy and the body politic. They organised through the religious schools, universities, poor relief agencies, even the labour movement. Their attempt to gain power and achieve a state based on the Koran through an alliance with Nasserists failed, leading to the destruction of the movement. Its remnants were to be bought off by Sadat, leaving the field free for the formation of the Gama’a.

Algeria - the FIS

The FIS and the GIA in Algeria have certainly learnt from this and their own experience. There has been little or no truck with compromise. Over 40,000 have died in this bloody civil war. It is clear, though that it is a war which cannot be won. Its only certainty is the self-destruction of both the military led governmental faction and the ulama led opposition. There have been offers of peace and power sharing. In the winter of the 1993-4, offers were made by the government of FIS control of certain ministries in a united government (but not defence, foreign relations and the interior) on condition that the President is named by the military and terrorism is abandoned. In January 1994 FIS boycotted the conference called to discuss these matters. Zeroual, the military leader, was then named President and responded by promising an eradication of terrorism but also that the door would remain open to dialogue. That summer a second attempt was made, with the release of two FIS leaders, Madani and Benhadj, into house arrest as some negotiations were undertaken.

By the end of October these had broken down, the two were re-arrested and Zeroual spoke on TV of the extermination of terrorists. Then in June 1995 it came to light that secret talks had been held about FIS being allowed to take part in Presidential elections in November. By July these were said to have broken down through FIS intransigence. The islamists seem to have taken the lesson from Egypt that no compromise is possible, that complete power is the only route, as in Iran. But the success of Zeroual in getting a respectable electoral turnout in the November elections has meant that they will have to rethink that strategy.

Neither East nor West

Islamist politics presents itself as a ‘third way’ in political terms, that it is revolutionary in opposition to capitalism, socialism and nationalism. It is nothing of the sort. It is and will remain reactionary and capitalist. It presents no challenge to class society. On the contrary it thrives on offering equality only after death. It represents no alternative system of production. On the contrary multinationals are more than happy to do business with those regimes which are wholly or partly Islamic. They see the advantage of dealing with regimes which keep firm control of the working class, and offer up an ideology which diverts them from their own interests.

Similarly the bourgeoisie in many countries have used islamic ideology as a position to fall back on as state capitalism fails in the current crisis of world capitalism. Here we can see Islam as what it is - an ideology for the bourgeoisie, for the interests of that class, but promoted within the working class to stop them looking towards their real material interests. The Islamists may point to the Qur'an and its prohibition of usury as some sort of proof of its anti-capitalist nature, but wealth and poverty are conditions written into the Qu’ran. In an obvious way we can point to the mullah millionaires in Iran, the princes of Saud, the corruption of Sudan and the financial dealings of the Egyptian Brotherhood to belie that notion.

Within the world as a whole Islam is in no way a political form independent of imperialism. As we have shown here the Islamic Republic in Iran was originally assisted by the USA and later got material assistance from British Intelligence. In Algeria the FIS has only been able to sustain its campaign of armed resistance thanks to the support of the same two powers who are themselves aiming at undermining the domination of French imperialism in North Africa.

The plight of women has been clearly outlined above, far from being granted some special respect, all they gain is a position of codified inferiority legislated by the Quran itself. The shit about defending female dignity through medieval dress codes belongs to the Dark Ages. For workers Islam is no different to any other capitalist ideology. Poverty is a matter of divine will and the poor, being numerous, are not only consigned to poverty but are also intended for the slaughter of the battlefield.

Marxism has something quite different to say on these matters. The class structure of society has nothing whatsoever to do with divine design. It is the product of history. The exploitation of workers is not sanctioned by something otherworldly but is the result of the operation of capital, the capitalist system and the class at the head of that - the bourgeoisie. The central contradiction of this society is not a war of black against white, nor of muslim against non-muslim. It is the class war. Only the ultimate victory of the working class will banish the poverty, the famines and the wars of capitalism. When these are finally buried so will the religious fundamentalism which feeds on them.



(1) Ba’ath meaning Renaissance or Resurgence.

(2) Alfaq: “Islam in its pure truth sprang up in the heart of Arabism and it gave the finest expression of the genius (of Arabism), and it marched with its history and it mixed with Arabism in its most glorious roles, so it is impossible for there to be a clash between nationalism and religion for nationalism is its likeness, springing from the heart and issuing from the will of God, and the two walk together embracing especially if the religion represnts the genius of nationalism and mixes with its nature.”

(3) Figures calculated from the IMF 1982 yearbook, quoted in ‘Power and stability in the Middle East’. ed. Berch Berberoglu.

(4) Saudi Arabian sources have recently criticised the costs of the alliance with the US, complaining of the enforced buying of arms, effectively aiding the continuance of the US arms sector, troubled by the depression of arms sales and the precariousness of the US economy as a whole. Also Saudi conservative and radical clerics alike have rounded upon the Saudi regime for its ‘sham’ fundamentalism, particularly the ruling families false morality, visiting and enjoying the ‘fleshpots’ of the decadent west while a different law rules at home.

(5) The Nasserist movement had the hopes of a wide variety of political formations pinned to it. Not only did the Brotherhood have hopes, the Egyptian Communist Party dissolved itself in support of it. The British had originally supported the Brotherhood to counter the effect of the ECP in the middle class students.

(6) “Human rights mean that unsuitable individuals should be liquidated so that others can live free…” “Those who are against killing have no place in islam…”

Friday, December 1, 1995

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.