Islam through the looking-glass

Issue: 104

Anne Alexander

A review of Gilbert Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (Monthly Review, 2004), £12.99

This collection brings together more than 20 years of articles on the Middle East by Gilbert Achcar, a Lebanese socialist currently living in Europe. They lay bare the workings of imperialism in the conflicts of the Middle East, providing a forceful rejoinder to apologists for US power, even if some of the other arguments are more problematic, particularly the analysis of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’.1

The book opens with US imperial strategy for the Middle East. ‘In the beginning was the “open door” to oil: this is how any history of the steadily tightening US hold on the Middle East ought to begin’.2 Control of Middle Eastern oil has always been the bedrock on which the US has constructed its shifting local alliances. Israel assumed its current role as America’s watchdog after the US lost hope of taming Arab nationalist leaders, in particular Egypt’s Nasser. Military credits to Israel rose from $500,000 in 1960 to to $90 million in 1966, the year before the Six Day War and the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

But US policy faced a double crisis in 2000, despite securing a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and enticing the Palestinian leadership to surrender its vision of Palestinian statehood in return for Bantustans on the West Bank. The Oslo peace process had broken down in as Israel tried to drown a new Palestinian uprising in blood. Meanwhile, US planners searched for a convenient way to end the embargo on Iraq, and thus open the door to the modernisation of the Iraqi oilfields—Iraq’s reserves will be crucial to satisfying global demand for oil over the next 20 years unless significant new finds are made. In this context, Achcar argues, 11 September was a ‘terrific windfall’ for George Bush, allowing the US to shake off the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ and invade Afghanistan and Iraq: ‘As with Saddam Hussein in 1990, one could say that if Osama bin Laden had not existed he would have to have been invented’.3

It is Western imperial needs for oil, insists Achcar, not Arab culture, which has produced the tyrants who rule the Middle East. The imperialist powers have continued to prop up or impose dictators and kings in preference to freely-elected, but anti-Western or nationalist governments: ‘There is no need to go back to the 7th century to understand this Arab exception. The second half of the 20th century provides perfectly adequate explanations’.4

The section on Afghanistan begins with Achcar’s response to the Soviet invasion in 1979. Unlike many on the left, who backed the USSR’s intervention, Achcar argued forcefully that the presence of Soviet tanks would only strengthen the Islamist rebellion against the Afghan government. Achcar and Tariq Ali were the only two voices in favour of the resolution calling for immediate Soviet withdrawal at an international meeting on this issue in 1980. Afghan resentment at the Soviet invasion had strengthened the Kabul government’s Islamist opponents, the Mujahadeen, by the time Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev managed to extricate the USSR from the conflict in the late 1980s. His increasingly desperate attempts to find a client capable of stabilising the war-torn country have a familiar ring to them. As long ago as 1985 he organised a loya jirga or assembly of notables to pick a suitable candidate to rule Afghanistan, just as US commanders did in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion.

Achcar’s writings on Palestine cover a similarly broad scope. He tracks the PLO’s long history of compromise, step by painful step along the road to Oslo. The ‘peace process’ of the 1990s betrayed the promise of the first intifada, as the Palestinian leadership ended the uprising to begin years of tortuous negotiations, only to emerge with the Occupied Territories filleted by Israeli military roads and squatted by hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers.

The final chapters of the book focus on Iraq. There is a note of hope in the form of a letter to those opponents of the war who were disorientated by the ‘Pentagon’s carefully scripted scenes’ from the ‘so called liberation of Iraq’. ‘Each passing day shows how right the anti-war movement was’.5 Achcar’s prediction that the US would find itself bogged down ‘in a country that cannot be hidden from the world—unlike Afghanistan’, has proved accurate.

The strength of this book lies in its broad scope. These articles are too short to discuss the complexities of Middle Eastern history in any real depth, but they do give a valuable perspective on the impact of imperialism across the region. But where Achcar is dealing with the issue of ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, his condensed and truncated arguments often present a distorted picture.

He rightly recognises the diversity of Islamism. Different historical experiences have shaped the Islamist movements of the Middle East and beyond so that even groups sharing the same name and a linked history, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria, ‘have different underlying political content and functions, determined by their different immediate objectives’.6 He identifies the pivotal role which the lower middle class plays in most Islamist movements, although, as Chris Harman has demonstrated, the class base of Islamism cannot simply be reduced to ‘the petty bourgeoisie as described in the Communist Manifesto’, as Achcar suggests.7 He also points to a key reason for the rise of Islamist movements: the failure of secular nationalists to meet the aspirations of their followers for economic and political development. Political conditions across much of the Middle East have favoured the Islamists as the Stalinist Communist Parties ‘have totally discredited themselves with a long history of selling out popular struggles’.8 Faced with falling living standards and a corrupt political order, sections of the lower middle class, which two generations ago would have embraced secular nationalism, have turned instead to Islamism.

The flaws in Achcar’s approach stem from his conception of Islam. He relates the contradictions of 20th and 21st century Islamism to the character of the Muslim community in 7th century Arabia. He characterises Islam as ‘a political religion in the etymological sense of the word’, referring to the origins of the word politics in the Greek word polis, meaning a city-state.9 He argues that the precepts of Islam have no answer to the problems of the modern world: ‘Islamic fundamentalism poses more problems than it solves. Although Islamic law is several centuries younger than Roman law, it was produced by a society considerably more backward than ancient Rome’.10

It is true Mohammed was the founder both of Islam as a religion and of a state, in which he combined the roles of temporal and spiritual leadership. Jesus, by contrast, was a member of a subject people, living under the rule of a great empire, which allowed local rulers to govern in the name of Rome. Yet it would be wrong to see the historical experience of Jesus and the early Christians as being the determining factor in relations between church and state. Changes in the economic and social fabric of European society were more important in shaping the role of the church as an institution than the text of the Gospels.

The same is true of Islam. Any historical account of the development of Islamic law will show that the major schools of law were codified several centuries after the prophet’s death, in Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate, by most tokens a society more advanced than not only ancient Rome, but also most of Europe at the same period. The law schools of Sunni Islam, so called because it recognises as a part of its religious canon the sunna of the prophet, or his practice in daily life, bridged the gap between the relatively simple law codes of the early Muslim community and the complex legal system of later periods.11 Far from remaining static, Islam developed in response to changing social conditions.

Religions do have a history. As sets of ideas they are not infinitely malleable—some developments are more likely to happen than others. Yet they are characterised more by flexibility than stability. How else could the world religions survive so long in so many different social contexts—assuming we don’t believe that they were divinely inspired?

The history of the nationalist movements in the 20th century is also more complex than Achcar allows. Nasser, for example, whom Achcar dismisses as using Islam ‘to cover his right and left flanks’, had a complex attitude towards his own faith. He was personally a devout and conventional Muslim, but politically he was an implacable enemy of Islamist groups, and also brought in a legal code which lifted many obstacles to women’s participation in politics.12 Iraqi nationalist leader Abd-al-Karim Qassim brought in a secular law code for personal status issues in 1959, thus allowing civil marriage, divorce and inheritance. The law remains technically in force today, despite an attempt last year by Islamist members of the US-appointed Governing Council to get rid of it.13

The fatal flaw in the nationalist movements of the Middle East was not that they were insufficiently radical over the question of religion. Rather their weakness lay in the fact that they could not deliver social liberation—freedom from poverty as opposed to the freedom to issue postage stamps and fly the national flag—within the confines of the nation state. The seeds of socialist revolution lay dormant within the national liberation movements, but they never germinated.14 It was once the promise of national development had failed and the left had become discredited by aligning itself with the state that Islamism won a mass audience.

As the attitude of much of the French left to the ban on the hijab shows, there is a pressing need for clarity on the nature of Islamist movements. Unfortunately, although much of Achcar’s perspective on the Middle East is valuable, on this particular question his ‘Marxist mirror’ often throws back a distorted picture.


1: Achcar’s translator uses the phrase ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ throughout the book. I prefer to use the term ‘Islamism’, which emphasises the differences between modern radical Islamic movements and Christian fundamentalist groups. Chris Harman discusses the use of this terminology in more detail in C Harman, ‘The Prophet and the Proletariat’, International Socialism 64 (autumn 1994), p8.

2: G Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (London, 2004), p9.

3: As above, p39.

4: As above, p74.

5: As above, p264.

6: As above, p48.

7: As above, p51, and C Harman, as above, pp9-19.

8: G Achcar, as above, p55.

9: As above, p49.

10: As above, p52.

11: Albert Hourani provides a good introduction to this period of Islamic history in A Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (London, 1991).

12: According to his most recent biographer, Said Aburish, Nasser also championed reform of the great mosque university in Cairo, Al-Azhar and attempted to create a fusion of Islam and socialism. S Aburish, Nasser (London, 2004), pp200-201, 237.

13: G Butti, ‘25% Women in the Transitional Assembly? Only if the Men will Get Round to Signing the Transitional Constitution’, Iraq Today, 8 March 2004,

14: Tony Cliff’s classic study, Deflected Permanent Revolution, analyses the contradictions of Third World revolutions. Although the main focus of Cliff’s work was the Chinese and Cuban revolutions, his insights can also be applied to the Iranian Revolution, as Chris Harman discusses in ‘The Pr#het and the Proletariat’. T Cliff, Deflected Permanent Revolution, 4th ed (London, 1990), and C Harman, as above, pp37-48.