Between ritual and revolt

Issue: 112

Chris Harman

A review of Ali Rahnema (ed), Pioneers of the Islamic Revival (Zed books, 2006), £18.95

The great threat to civilisation is, according to George W Bush, ‘Islamofascism’. Many liberals who do not agree with Bush on much else and even some groups who claim to be part of the revolutionary left share this analysis. They lump all strands of political Islam (or ‘Islamism’) together, designate them as ‘fundamentalism’ and treat them as an evil at least as great as that of the IMF, the World Bank, the Pentagon, the WTO, structural adjustment and NATO combined. In doing so they show their complete ignorance of the history of political Islam and of the myriad of different organisations and beliefs that fall under that title today.

For this reason alone, the new edition of this book is welcome. Its essays dissect the contrasting approaches of eight of the most significant figures to develop political Islam.

The pioneer is usually seen as Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (Afghani for short ), born in Iran in 1838-39 and then living variously in Turkey, Afghanistan, Egypt, India, the Arabian peninsula and briefly, London and Paris. He came to adulthood at a traumatic moment for the more intellectually concerned members of the middle class in the vast region that stretched from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal. Its rival states had, not long before, shared some elements of a single civilisation, in which a layer of religious scholars (the ‘ulama’), trained in classical Arabic and referring to the same classical texts, administered the traditional civil law (the ‘sharia’) as well as preaching in the mosques. But that civilisation was now being destroyed from outside.

Britain, which had begun its encroachment into Muslim-ruled India in 1757, completed its takeover of the subcontinent with the annexation of the kingdom of Oudh (sometimes spelt Awadh) in 1856 and the bloody crushing of the rising (the ‘mutiny’) of 1857. France had begun grabbing Algeria in 1830 and was soon casting its eyes on Morocco and Tunisia. Tsarist Russia was continuing a century long southward march to grab the Caucasus and historic centres of Islamic culture like Samarkand and Bukhara. In 1882 Britain seized control of Egypt so as to enforce payments of the ruler’s debts. It would not be that long before the whole vast region was under foreign rule. The result was not only poverty for the lower classes; there was also a deepening sense of humiliation for the middle classes, including the clerics, as the Europeans who lorded it over them treated them as ignorant inferiors. Out of this emerged two often intertwined strands of ideological opposition—nationalism on the one hand, political Islam on the other.

Afghani and those influenced by him like the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh could see that to develop resistance the Muslim lands had to learn from the technical and scientific advances of the West. Islam, they argued, is not superstitious like Christianity, with its belief in miracles and its myriad saints who are supposed to be able to intervene magically on behalf of their worshippers. But they refused to accept that capitalist values, with their commodification of all human relations, were intrinsically superior to the Islamic ones.

One of their central concerns was to work out why the Islamic lands had succumbed to the West. Their conclusion was that the Islamic societies had become weak during centuries of despotic rule. The only way to reinvigorate them was to go back to the values of the ‘pure’ Islam of the time of the prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors (the ‘four righteously guided Caliphs’). In this way, it would be possible to construct a society which avoided the all too obvious horrors of the capitalist West but which was able to incorporate its scientific insights.

It is this project which, in one way or another, different versions of political Islam have been trying to implement ever since.

But it is a project which is necessarily subject to very different interpretations.

There was, for instance, the question of what the original Islam was. All agreed it was based on the Quran and the hadiths (the sayings) and sunna (reported actions) of the prophet. But there was already a great debate at the time of the formulation of Sunni Islamic orthodoxy 1,200 years ago about how these were to be interpreted. Some scholars are argued that the Quran was the word of god and had to be taken literally even when it did not seem to make sense: if it seemed confusing to humans that was because we could not possibly decipher the mind of god. Others argued, by contrast, that god, as all-perfect, could not possibly be irrational and that therefore, where the words of the Quran, read literally, contradicted reason they had to be read allegorically in a rational sense.

There was the question of what was most important—keeping strictly to religious rituals or abiding by the values embodied in the religious teaching, above all the value of resisting oppression.

Then, there was the question of how to apply the original doctrine today. Thinkers like Afghani and Abduh argued that modern society was so different to that of the prophet, early 7th century Arabia, that a new interpretation (‘ijtihad’) of the written doctrine was necessary—a break with the practice of Sunni Islam (although not Shia) since the 11th century when ‘the gates of ijtihad were closed’. Others regarded this as a heretical break with pure Islam.

Finally, there was the question of whether Muslims joined with others fighting against oppression from Western imperialism, or whether they saw them as an enemy who would pollute the minds of other Muslims.

These issues have divided different proponents of political Islam ever since. They mean there are different directions in which political lslam can go. At one extreme are puritan doctrines, based upon literalist interpretation of the texts and a stress on the perfection of rituals. ‘Degeneration’ in Islamic societies is seen as a result not of the existence of oppression or exploitative classes, but of moving away from what are seen as religiously sanctified practices (women not wearing the veil, drinking alcohol, looking at pictures that are deemed to be ‘graven images’). This prioritises attempting to ‘purify’ the behaviour of people while maintaining a conservative attitude to oppressive social structures. It also necessarily leads to narrowing down the forces prepared to struggle for change, since not only does it rule out joint struggle alongside groups of the exploited and oppressed who are not Muslims, but it also means attacking those who practise different versions of Islam. So Zarkawi, who proclaimed himself leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, issued a call for war against ‘Shia idolaters’ and ‘apostates’—a position then criticised by Bin Laden’s lieutenant Zawahiri as detrimental to ‘Muslim unity’ in the struggle against the West.

At the other extreme are interpretations like that developed by the Iranian Islamist Ali Shariati, who put the stress on political and social activity directed against oppression and the state, so inspiring sections of the left in the revolution which took place in 1979 (two years after he died).

Most of the thinkers dealt with in this book took an ambiguous position, seeing a role for reason, ijtihad and political and social struggle, but repeatedly reverting to literalism or a stress on ritual purity. In different ways this was true of Maududi and the Jamaat-i-Islam in the Indian subcontinent, of Khomeini in Iran, and of Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This was because each developed a project for political change which left intact the central features of the existing social structure—symbolised by their insistence that support for private property was a central tenet of Islam (as if the private property of the modern billionaire is the same as the private property of the 7th century nomad). This was facilitated by shying away from a challenge to the structures that created oppression and putting the emphasis on personal behaviour.

Such a programme could mobilise sections of the classic petty bourgeoisie and the new middle class, and draw many of the urban poor behind them, while at the same time leaving room for deals with sections of the bourgeoisie proper or the state. Such deals could be accompanied by attacks on religious minorities (Muslim as well as non-Muslim), on those alleged to have infringed sexual norms (non veil wearing women, gays, ‘adulterers’ and so on) or on the left. In such cases those whose starting point was a reaction against the imperialist destruction of the old Islamic societies ended up allying themselves with sections of the ruling classes from those societies—and through them on all too many occasions with imperialist actions against nationalist and left wing movements. So it was that in the third quarter of the 20th century political Islam was often characterised by its willingness to physically attack the left—and it still is today in some important cases.

It is this record which supposedly left wing talk of ‘Islamofascism’ rests on. But such talk misses out a central point. The behaviour of imperialism continually causes many of those with Islamist ideas to react against the compromises with the old ruling classes and imperialism that they themselves once accepted. Witness the way in which those who worked with the CIA in Afghanistan have turned against imperialism because of the behaviour of the US in Iraq and the continuing oppression of Palestine. That is why some of those from Islamic movement like the Muslim Brotherhood who were fighting the left 40 years ago are now prepared to march act alongside it against what they can see is a common enemy.

This does not mean that all Islamist organisations automatically act in a progressive fashion. Far from it. Some remain wholeheartedly on the side of reaction (although this does not make them necessarily ‘fascist’, any more than conservative Catholic theology makes Christian Democrat parties fascist). Others can claim to act against imperialism, but then do things that disrupt the anti-imperialist movement (as with the behaviour of Zarkawi in Iraq). Their characteristic methods of struggle are still those which turn away from direct class conflict -which is why they oscillate between individual heroic ‘martyrdom actions’ (often with no concern for civilian casualties) on the one hand and attempts to permeate existing capitalist states from within. And their attempts to bridge the class gap between Islamic capitalists and Islamic workers and peasants mean that some of them may well work against the left (including the Islamic left) on behalf of the Islamic bourgeoisie at some point in the future, just as Khomeini did in order to consolidate his power after the Iranian Revolution.

But this does not make them all a single, homogeneous Islamo-fascist force. It means, rather, that their followers can be pulled in different directions, and the degree to which this happens depends in part on the reaction of the left. Where the left is uncompromising in its anti-imperialist struggle and attempts to draw in the masses influenced to greater or lesser degrees by Islamic religious ideas, it has the chance of isolating those Islamists who would do deals with state and the bourgeoisie to smash the left. Where the left itself unites with the state and imperialism in order to attack supposed ‘Islamofascism’, it makes it easier for the most reactionary interpretations of political Islam to have an impact.

In the essay in this book on the Egyptian Islamist Qutb (executed by Nasser in 1966), Charles Tripp draws out the ‘communitarian’ character of his thought.

‘In common with many communitarian thinkers,’ Tripp writes, ‘Qutb was dissatisfied with the utilitarian philosophy of hedonistic egoism. Although it had apparently contributed to the material success on which the power of the west was founded, he believed not only that it led to deplorable moral conduct, but also that the conception of society that underpinned it was, in the final analysis, a soulless, rootless and empty one… He was therefore searching for something that would meaningfully fill the void, a lost harmony and an implicit faith.’

There is a problem with this approach which is not something peculiarly Islamic. It is common to all forms of communitarianism today, just as it was to romantic reactions against the destructive effects of capitalism in the first half of the 19th century. It is that there are diametrically opposed ways of seeking to counter with ‘community’ the atomism, the disorientation and the rat-race mentality built into present day society.

One is to try to restore an imaginary communal past by attacking some of the superficial features of a society whose productive base has been transformed by capitalism. This was characteristic of what Marx and Engels called ‘feudal socialism’ and ‘petty bourgeois socialism’ in the Communist Manifesto and it is characteristic of a big section of political Islam today. Faced with the complete destruction of the old society by more than a century of capitalist development, this trend tries to reimpose certain old social practices while leaving intact the various processes of capitalist exploitation and accumulation that have undermined them.

The second is to retreat from existing society, so as to try to establish harmonious, communal enclaves of the pure outside of it. This was the path of the utopian socialists in the 19th century, of the counter-culture communes of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it is the path of some of the non-violent Islamist sects today.

But a third is to move forward to revolutionary reorganisation of society, so that the ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. There are trends within political Islam which are capable of moving in this direction, The task of the left is not to spurn them out of hand as ‘reactionary’, still less as fascist, because they do not like capitalist ‘modernisation’. There have to be strategies and tactics that try to draw them into common struggle against imperialism and capitalism, so leading them to break with those who share their religious language but draw completely opposite conclusions from it. Every time sections of the left repeat the neocons mantra about ‘Islamofascism’ they make this task more difficult.