Chris Harman


Islamism: An Analysis


First published on Chris Harman’s Back Pages, 2 March 2009.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

(This was part of the original draft for my book The Prophet and the Proletariat of 1994, available at

Variously described in the West as “Islamic fundamentalism”, “Islamicism”, “integrism”, “political Islam” and “Islamic revivalism”, these movements stand for the “regeneration” of society through a return to the original teachings of the prophet Mohammed.

The rise of these movements has been an enormous shock to the liberal intelligentsia and has produced a wave of panic among people who believed that “modernisation”, coming on top of the victory of the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, would inevitably lead to more enlightened and less repressive societies. [i]

Instead they witness the growth of forces which seem to look back to a more restricted society which forces women into purdah, uses terror to crush free thought and threatens the most barbaric punishments on those who defy its edicts. In countries like Egypt and Algeria the liberals have often lined up with the state, which persecuted and imprisoned them in the past, in the war it is waging against Islamist parties. But it has not only been liberals who have been thrown into disarray by the rise of Islamism. So too has the left. It has not known how to react to what it sees as an obscurantist doctrine, backed by traditionally reactionary forces, enjoying success among some of the poorest groups in society. Two opposed approaches have resulted.

The first has been to see Islamism as Reaction Incarnate, as a form of fascism, or at least ‘barbarism’. It is an approach which much of the Iranian left came to adopt after the consolidation of the Khomeini regime in 1981-2. And it has been accepted by much of the left in Egypt and Algeria. In Egypt the left, influenced by the mainstream communist tradition, effectively supported the state in its war against the Islamists n the early 1990s.

The opposite approach has been to see the Islamist movements as “progressive”, “anti-imperialist” movements of the oppressed. This was the position taken by the great bulk of the Iranian left in the first phase of the 1979 revolution, when the Soviet influenced Tudeh Party, the majority of the Fedayeen guerrilla organisation and the left Islamist People’s Mojahedin all characterised the forces behind Khomeini as “the progressive petty bourgeoisie”. The conclusion of this approach was that Khomeini deserved virtually uncritical support.

Both positions are wrong. They fail to locate the class character of modern Islamism or to see its relationship to capital, the state and imperialism.

Islam, religion and ideology

The confusion often starts with a confusion about the power of religion itself. Religious people see it as a historical force in its own right, whether for good or for evil. So too do most bourgeois anti-clerical and free thinkers. For them, fighting the influence of religious institutions and obscurantists ideas is in itself the way to human liberation.

But although religious institutions and ideas clearly play a role in history, this does not happen in separation from the rest of material reality. Religious institutions, with their layers of priests and teachers, arise in a certain society and interact with that society. They can only maintain themselves as society changes if they find some way of changing their own base of support. So, for instance, one of the world’s major religious institutions, the Roman Catholic Church, originated in the late ancient world and survived by adapting itself first to feudal society for 1,000 years and then, with much effort, to the capitalist society that replaced feudalism, changing much of the content of its own teaching in the process. People have always been capable of giving different interpretations to the religious ideas they hold, depending on their own material situation, their relations with other people and the conflicts they get involved in. History is full of examples of people who profess nearly identical religious beliefs ending up on opposite sides in great social conflicts.

This happened with the social convulsions which swept Europe during the great crisis of feudalism in the 16th and 17th century, when Luther, Calvin, Münzer and many other “religious” leaders provided their followers with a new world view through a reinterpretation of biblical texts.

Islam is no different to any other religion in these respects. It arose in one context, among a trading community in the towns of 7th century Arabia, in the midst of a society still mainly organised on a tribal basis. It flourished within the succession of great empires carved out by some of those who accepted its doctrines. It persists today as the official ideology of numerous capitalist states (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Iran etc.), as well as the inspiration of many oppositional movements.

It has been able to survive in such different societies because it has been able to adapt to differing class interests. It has obtained the finance to build its mosques and employ its preachers in turn from the traders of Arabia, the bureaucrats, landowners and merchants of the great empires, and the industrialists of modern capitalism. But at the same time it has gained the allegiance of the mass of people by putting across a message offering consolation to the poor and oppressed. At every point its message has balanced between promising a degree of protection to the oppressed and providing the exploiting classes with protection against any revolutionary overthrow.

So Islam stresses that the rich have to pay a 2.5 percent Islamic tax (the zakat) for the relief of the poor, that rulers have to govern in a just way, that husbands must not mistreat their wives. But it also treats the expropriation of the rich by the poor as theft, insists disobedience to a “just” government is a crime to be punished with all the vigour of the law and provides women with fewer rights than men within marriage, over inheritance, or over the children in the event of divorce. It appeals to the wealthy and the poor alike by offering regulation of oppression, both as a bulwark against still harsher oppression and as a bulwark against revolution. It is, like Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, both the heart of the heartless world and the opium of the people.

But no set of ideas can have such an appeal to different classes, especially when society is shaken by social convulsions, unless it is full of ambiguities. It has to be open to differing interpretations, even if these set its adherents at each other’s throats.

This has been true of Islam virtually from its inception. After Mohammed’s death in 632 AD, just two years after Islam had conquered Mecca, dissension broke out between the followers of Abu Bakr, who became the first Caliph (successor to Mohammed as leader of Islam), and Ali, husband of the prophet’s daughter Fatima. Ali claimed that some of Abu Bakr’s rulings were oppressive. Dissension grew until rival Muslim armies fought each other at the battle of the Camel resulting in 10,000 deaths. It was out of this dissension that the separation of the Sunni and Shia versions of Islam arose. This was but the first of many splits. Groups repeatedly arose who insisted that the oppressed were suffering at the hands of the godless and demanded a return to the original “pure” Islam of the prophet’s time. As Akbar S. Ahmed says:

Throughout Islamic history, Muslim leaders would preach a move to the ideal ... They gave expression to often vague ethnic, social or political movements. ... The basis was laid for the entire schismatic gamut in Islamic thought from the Shia, with its offshoots like the Ismailis, to more temporary movements ... Muslim history is replete with Mahdis leading revolts against established authority and often dying for their efforts ... Leaders have often been poor peasants and from deprived ethnic groups. Using Islamic idiom has reinforced their sense of deprivation and consolidated the movement. [ii]

But even mainstream Islam is not, in its popular forms at least, a homogenous set of beliefs. The spread of the religion to cover the whole region from the Atlantic coast of north west Africa to the Bay of Bengal involved the incorporation into Islamic society of peoples who fitted into Islam many of their old religious practices, even if these contradicted some of Islam’s original tenets. So popular Islam often includes cults of local saints or of holy relics even though orthodox Islam regards such practices as sacrilegious idolatry. And Sufi brotherhoods flourish which, while not constituting a formal rival to mainstream Islam, put an emphasis on mystical and magical experience which many fundamentalists find objectionable.

This has been true of Islamic revivalism over the last century. It arose as an attempt to come to terms with the material conquest and cultural transformation of Asia and North Africa by capitalist Europe. The revivalists argued this had only been possible because the original Islamic values had been corrupted by the worldly pursuits of the great medieval empires. Regeneration was only possible by reviving the founding spirit of Islam as expressed by the first four Caliphs (or, for Shiites, by Ali). It was in this spirit that Khomeini, for instance, could denounce virtually the whole history of Islam for the last 1,300 years:

Unfortunately, true Islam lasted for only a brief period after its inception. First the Umayyids [the first Arab dynasty after Ali] and then the Abbasids [who conquered them in 750 AD] inflicted all kinds of damage on Islam. Later the monarchs ruling Iran continued in the same path; they completely distorted Islam and established something quite different in its place. [iii]

So, although Islamism can be presented by both defenders and opponents as a traditionalist doctrine, based on a rejection of the modern world, in reality things are more complicated than this. The aspiration to recreate a mythical past involves not leaving existing society intact, but recasting it. What is more, the recasting cannot aim to produce a carbon copy of 7th century Islam, since the Islamists do not reject every feature of existing society. By and large they accept modern industry, modern technology and much of the science on which it is based – indeed, they argue that Islam, as a more rational and less superstitious doctrine than Christianity, is more in tune with modern science. And so the “revivalists” are, in fact, trying to bring about something which has never existed before, which fuses ancient traditions and the forms of modern social life.

This means it is wrong simply to refer to all Islamists as “reactionary”, or to equate “Islamic fundamentalism” as a whole with the sort of Christian fundamentalism which is the bastion of the right wing of the Republican Party in the US. Figures like Khomeini, the heads of the rival Mujahedin groups in Afghanistan or the leaders of the Algerian FIS may all have used traditionalist themes and appealed to the nostalgia of disappearing social groups, but they also appealed to radical currents produced as society has been transformed by capitalism.

Traditionalist Islam is an ideology which seeks to perpetuate a social order which is being undermined by the development of capitalism – or at least, as with the version promoted by the ruling family in Saudi Arabia, to hark back to this order in order to conceal the transformation of an old ruling class into modern capitalists. Islamism is an ideology which, although it appeals to some of the same themes, seeks to transform society, not to conserve it in the old way. For this reason, even the term “fundamentalism” is not really appropriate. As Abrahamian has observed:

The label“ fundamentalism” implies religious inflexibility, intellectual purity, political traditionalism, even social conservatism and the centrality of scriptural-doctrinal principles. “Fundamentalism” implies rejection of the modern world. [iv]

But, in fact, movements like that of Khomeini in Iran have been based on “ideological adaptability and intellectual flexibility, with political protests against the established order, and with socio-economic issues that fuel mass opposition to the status quo”. [v]

Yet there is often a blurring of the differences between Islamism and traditionalism. Precisely because the notion of social regeneration is wrapped in religious language, it is open to different interpretations. It can mean simply ending “degenerate practices” through a return to the forms of behaviour which allegedly preceded the “corruption” of Islam” by “cultural imperialism”. The stress then is on female “modesty” and the wearing of the veil, an end to “promiscuous” mixing of the sexes in schools and workplaces, opposition to Western popular music and so on

But regeneration can also mean challenging the state and elements of imperialism’s political domination. Thus the Iranian Islamists did close down the biggest US “listening” station in Asia and seize control of the US embassy. The Hezbollah in the southern Lebanon and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza have played a key role in the armed struggle against Israel. The Algerian FIS did organise huge demonstrations against the first US war against Iraq – even though these lost them their Saudi funding. Regeneration can even mean, in certain instances, giving support to the material struggles against exploitation of workers and peasants, as with the Iranian Mujahedin in 1979-82.

The different interpretations of regeneration naturally appeal to those from different social classes. But the religious phraseology can prevent those involved recognising their differences with one another. In the heat of the struggle individuals can mix the meanings together, so that the fight against the unveiling of women is seen as the fight against Western imperalism, the corruption of natinal states that collaborate with it and the abysmal poverty of the mass of people.

Yet beneath this confusion, there are real class interests at work.

The class base of Islamism

Islamism has arisen in societies traumatised by the impact of capitalism – first in the form of external conquest by imperialism and then, increasingly, by the transformation of internal social relations accompanying the rise of a local capitalist class and the formation of an independent capitalist state.

Old social classes have been replaced by new ones, although not instantaneously or in a clear cut manner. What Trotsky described as “combined and uneven development” has occurred. Externally, colonialism has retreated, but the great imperialist powers – especially the US – continue to use their military forces as a bargaining tool to influence the production of the Middle East’s single major resource, oil. Internally, state encouragement – and often ownership – has led to the development of s ome large scale modern industry, but large sectors of “traditional” industry remain, based on vast numbers of small workshops where the owner works with a couple of workers, often from his own family. Land reform has turned some peasants into modern capitalist farmers – but displaced many more, leaving them with little or no land, so forcing them to eke out a livelihood from casual labour in the workshops or markets of sprawling urban slums.

A massive expansion of the education system is turning out vast numbers of high school and college graduates, but these then find insufficient job opportunities in the modern sectors of the economy and place their hopes on getting into the state bureaucracy, while eking out a living with scraps of work around the informal sector – touting for custom from shopkeepers, acting as guides for tourists, selling lottery tickets, driving taxis and so on. The crises of the world economy over the last 30 years have aggravated all these contradictions as urban rich increasingly lap up the luxury goods available on the world market, creating growing resentment among the casual workers and the unemployed.

Islamism represents an attempt to come to terms with these contradictions by people who have been brought up to respect traditional Islamic ideas. But it does not find its support equally in all sections of society. For some sections embrace a modern secular bourgeois or nationalist ideology, while other sections gravitate towards some form of secular working class response. The Islamic revival gets sustenance from four different social groupings – each of which interprets Islam in its own way.

i. The Islamism of the old exploiters: First there are those members of the traditional privileged classes who fear losing out in the capitalist modernisation of society – particularly landowners (including clergy dependent on incomes from land belonging to religious foundations), traditional merchant capitalists, the owners of the mass of small shops and workshops. Such groups have often been the traditional sources of finance for the mosques and see Islam as a way of defending their established way of life and of making those who oversee change listen to their voices. Thus in Iran and Algeria it was this group which provided the resources to the clergy to oppose the state’s land reform programme in the 1960s and 1970s.

ii. The Islamism of the new exploiters: Second, often emerging from among this first group, are some of the capitalists who have enjoyed success despite hostility from those groups linked to the state. In Egypt, for instance, the present day Muslim Brotherhood “wormed their way into the economic fabric of Sadat’s Egypt at a time when whole sections of it had been turned over to unregulated capitalism. Uthman Ahmad Uthman, the Egyptian Rockefeller, made no secret of this sympathy for the Brethren”. [vi]

iii. The Islamism of the poor: The third group are the rural poor who have suffered under the advance of capitalist farming and who have been forced into the cities as they desperately look for work. Those who live in the slums and shanty towns of the ever expanding cities of the Muslim world have lost the certainties associated with an old way of life – certainties which many identify with traditional Muslim culture – without gaining a secure material existence or a new stable way of life.

It is the state which has carried through the “land reforms” which have created capitalist agriculture and the “opening up to the world market” that has further hit the poor. It is very easy for the ex-peasants to identify the “non Islamic” Western life styles of those who run the state for their own misery. But it is not only hostility to the state that makes ex-peasants receptive to the message of the Islamists. The mosques provide a social focus for people lost in a new and strange city, the Islamic charities the rudiments of welfare services (clinics, schooling, etc.) which are lacking from the state. So in Algeria the growth of the cities in the 1970s and 1980s was accompanied by a massive increase in the number of mosques: “Everything happened as if the paralysis in education and Arabisation, the absence of structures of culture and leisure, the lack of space for public liberty, the shortage of homes, made thousands of adults, youth and children disposed for the mosques” [vii].

In this way, funds which came from those with diametrically opposed interests to the mass of people – from the old landowning class, the new rich or the Saudi government – could provide both a material and a cultural haven for the poor. “In the mosque, everyone – new or old bourgeois, fundamentalist, worker in an enterprise – saw the possibility of the elaboration or realisation of his own strategy, dreams and hopes.” [viii]

This did not obliterate the class divisions within the mosque. In Algeria, for example, there were innumerable rows in mosque committees between people whose different social background made them see the building of the mosques in different ways – for instance, over when they should refuse to accept donations for the mosque because they came from sinful (haram) sources. “It is rare in fact for a religious committee to accomplish its mandate, fixed in principle at two years, with the harmony and agreement recommended by the cult of the unity of the divine which the muezzins chant without cease.” [ix] But the rows remained cloaked in a religious guise – and did not stop the proliferation of the mosques and the growth in the influence of Islamism.

iv. The Islamism of the new middle class: However, neither the “traditional” exploiting classes nor the impoverished masses provide the vital element which sustains revivalist, political Islam – the cadre of activists who propagate its doctrines and risk injury, imprisonment and death in confrontation with their enemies.

The traditional exploiting classes are by their very nature conservative. They are prepared to donate money so that others can fight – especially in defence of their material interests. But they are wary of putting their own businesses, let alone their own lives, at risk. And so they can hardly be the force that has torn societies like Algeria and Egypt apart, caused a whole town, Hama, to rise in revolt in Syria, used suicide bombs against the Americans and Israelis in Lebanon – and which caused the Iranian Revolution to take a turn much more radical than any section of the Iranian bourgeoisie expected.

This force, in fact, comes from a fourth, very different stratum – from a section of the new middle class that has arisen as a result of capitalist modernisation right across the Third World.

In Iran the cadres of all three of the Islamist movements that dominated the politics of the first years of the revolution came from this background. Writing of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran, Abrahamian comments that many studies of the first years of the Iranian Revolution have talked of the appeal of radical Islam to the “oppressed”, but that it was not the oppressed in general who formed the basis of the Mojahedin; rather it was that very large section of the new middle class whose parents had been part of the traditional petty bourgeoisie. [x] Moaddel has shown that more than half the MPs of the ultimately victorious Islamic Republican Party of Khomeini were from the professions, teachers, government employees or students. [xi] In Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s, Roy notes:

The Islamist movement was born in the modern sectors of society and developed from a critique of the popular movements that preceded it ... The Islamists are intellectuals, the products of modernist enclaves within traditional society; their social origins are what we have termed the state bourgeoisie – products of the government education system which only leads to employment in the state machine… For them, the problem is to develop a modern political ideology based upon Islam, which they see as the only way to come to terms with the modern world and the best means of confronting foreign imperialism.’ [xii]

In Algeria the most important recruitment ground for the FIS was among Arabic speaking (as opposed to French speaking) high school and university students, and that wide section of youth that would have liked to be students but could not get college places. [xiii]

The Islamic intellectuals in Algeria made careers for themselves through their domination of the theological and Arab language faculties of the universities, using these to gain control of many of the positions as imams in the mosques and teachers in the lycées (high schools). They formed a network that ensured the recruitment of more Islamists to such positions and the inculcation of Islamist ideas into the new generation of students. This in turn has enabled them to exert influence over vast numbers of young people. The students, the recent Arab speaking graduates and, above all, the unemployed ex-students formed a bridge to the very large numbers of discontented youth outside the colleges who found they could not get college places despite years spent in an inefficient and underfunded educational system.

‘Integrism gets its strength from the social frustrations which afflict a large part of the youth, those left out of account by the social and economic system. Its message is simple: If there is poverty, hardship and frustration, it is because those who have power do not base themselves on the legitimacy of shorah [consultation], but simply on force ... The restoration of the Islam of the first years would make the inequalities disappear.’ [xiv]

In Egypt the Islamist movement first developed some 65 years ago, when Hassan al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood. It grew in the 1930s and 1940s as disillusionment set in with the failure of the secular nationalist party, the Wafd, to challenge British domination of the country. The base of the movement consisted mainly of civil servants and students, and it was one of the major forces in the university protests of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

But it spread out to involve some urban labourers and peasants, with a membership estimated to have peaked at half a million. In building the movement Banna was quite willing to collaborate with certain figures close to the Egyptian monarchy, and the right wing of the Wafd looked on the Brotherhood as a counter to communist influence among workers and students.

But the Brotherhood could only compete with the communists for the support of the impoverished middle classes – and via them to sections of the urban poor – because its religious language concealed a commitment to reform which went further than its right wing allies wished. Its objectives were “ultimately incompatible with the perpetuation of the political, economic and social status quo to which the ruling groups were dedicated”. This ensured “the liaison between the Muslim Brotherhood and the conservative rulers would be both unstable and tenuous”. [xv]

Radical Islam as a social movement

The class base of Islamism is similar to that of classical fascism and of the Hindu fundamentalism of the BJP, Shiv Sena and RSS in India. All these movements have recruited from the white collar middle class and students, as well as from the traditional commercial and professional petty bourgeoisie. This, together with the hostility of most Islamist movements to the left, women’s rights and secularism has led many socialist and liberals to designate the movements as fascist. But this is a mistake.

The petty bourgeois class base has not only been a characteristic of fascism, it has also been a feature of Jacobinism, of Third World nationalisms, of Maoist Stalinism, and Peronism. Petty bourgeois movements only become fascist when they arise at a specific point in the class struggle and play a particular role. This role is not just to mobilise the petty bourgeoisie, but to exploit the bitterness they feel at what an acute crisis of the system has done to them and so turn them into organised thugs prepared to work for capital to tear workers’ organisations apart.

That is why Mussolini’s and Hitler’s movements were fascist while, say, Peron’s movement in Argentina was not. Even though Peron borrowed some of the imagery of fascism, he took power in exceptional circumstances which allowed him to buy off workers’ organisations while using state intervention to divert the profits of the large agrarian capitalists into industrial expansion. During his first six years in office an specific set of circumstances allowed real wages to rise by about 60 percent. This was the complete opposite to what would have happened under a genuinely fascist regime. Yet the liberal intelligentsia and the Argentine Communist Party were still capable of referring to the regime as “Nazi Peronism”, in much the same way that much of the left internationally refers to Islamism today.

The Islamist mass movements in countries like Algeria and Egypt likewise play a different role to that of fascism. They are not primarily directed against workers’ organisations and do not offer themselves to the main sectors of capital as a way of solving its problems at workers’ expense. They are often involved in direct, armed confrontation with the forces of the state in a way in which fascist parties rarely have been. And, far from being direct agents of imperialism, these movements have taken up anti-imperialist slogans and some anti-imperialist actions which have embarrassed very important national and international capitalist interests.

The American CIA was able to work with Pakistan intelligence and the pro-Western Middle East states to arm thousands of volunteers from right across the Middle East to fight against the Russians in Afghanistan. But these volunteers returned home to discover they were fighting for the US when they had thought they were fighting “for Islam”.

Those on the left who have seen the Islamists simply as “fascists” have failed to take into account the destabilising effect of the movements on capital’s interests right across the Middle East, and have ended up siding with states that are the strongest backers both of imperialism and of local capital. This, for instance, happened to those sections of the left influenced by the remnants of Stalinism in Egypt. It happened to much of the Iranian left during the closing stages of the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s, when American imperialism sent in its fleet to fight on the same side as Iraq against Iran. And it happened with some former left wingers who refused to oppose the US wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.

But if it is wrong to see the Islamist movements as “fascist”, it is just as wrong to simply see them as “anti-imperialist” or “anti-state”. They do not just fight against those classes and states that exploit and dominate the mass of people. They also fight against secularism, against women who refuse to abide by Islamic notions of “modesty”, against the left and, in important cases, against ethnic or religious minorities.

The Algerian Islamists established their hold on the universities in the late 1970s and early 1980s by organising “punitive raids” against the left with the connivance of the police, and the first person killed by them was not a state official but a member of a Trotskyist organisation; another of their actions was to denounce Hard Rock Magazine, homosexuality, drugs and punk at the Islamic book fair in 1985; in the Algerian towns where they were strongest, they did organise attacks on women who dare to show a little of their skin; the first public demonstration of the FIS in 1989 was in response to “feminist” and “secularist” demonstrations against Islamist violence, of which women were the main victims.

Similarly, in Egypt, the armed Islamic groups do murder secularists and Islamists who disagree strongly with them; they do encourage communal hatred by Muslims, including pogroms, against the 10 percent of the population who happen to be Coptic Christians. In Iran the Khomeini wing of Islamism did execute some 100 people for “sexual offences” like homosexuality and adultery in 1979-81; they did sack women from the legal system and organise gangs of thugs, the Iranian Hezbollah, to attack unveiled women and to assault left wingers; and they did kill thousands in the repression of the left Islamist People’s Mujahedin. In Afghanistan the Islamist organisations which waged a long and bloody war against the Russian occupation of their country did turn their heavy weaponry on each other once the Russians had left, reducing whole areas of Kabul to rubble.

In fact, even when Islamists put the stress on “anti-imperialism”, they more often than not let imperialism off the hook. For imperialism today is not usually the direct rule of Western states over parts of the Third World (the occupation of Iraq is a very important exception, not the rule) , but rather a world system of independent capitalist classes (‘private” and state), integrated into a single world market. Some ruling classes have greater power than others and so are able to impose their own bargaining terms through their control over access to trade, the banking system or on occasions crude force. These ruling classes stand at the top of a pinnacle of exploitation, but those just below are the ruling classes of poorer countries, rooted in the individual national economies, also gaining from the system, increasingly linking themselves into the dominant multinational networks and buying into the economies of the advanced world, even if on occasion they lash out at those above them.

The suffering of the great mass of people cannot simply be blamed on the great imperialist powers and their agencies like the World Bank and the IMF. It is also a result of the enthusiastic participation in exploitation of the lesser capitalists and their states. It is these who actually implement the policies that impoverish people and wreck their lives. And it is these who use the police and the prisons to crush those who try to resist.

In this situation any ideology which restricts itself to targeting foreign imperialism as the enemy evades any serious confrontation with the system. It expresses people’s bitterness and frustration, but evades focusing it on real enemies. This is true of most versions of Islamism, just as it is true these days of most Third World nationalisms. They point to a real enemy, the world system, and on occasions they clash bitterly with the state. But they absolve from responsibility most of the local bourgeoisie – imperialism’s most important long term partner.

A study of Khomeinism in Iran by Abrahamian compared it with Peronism and similar forms of “populism”:

Khomeini adopted radical themes ... At times he sounded more radical than the Marxists. But while adopting radical themes he remained staunchly committed to the preservation of middle class property. This form of middle class radicalism made him akin to Latin American populists, especially the Peronists. [xvi]

And Abrahamian goes on to say:

By “populism” I mean a movement of the propertied middle class that mobilises the lower classes, especially the urban poor, with radical rhetoric directed against imperialism, foreign capitalism, and the political establishment ... Populist movements promise to drastically raise the standard of living and make the country fully independent of outside powers. Even more important in attacking the status quo with radical rhetoric, they intentionally stop short of threatening the petty bourgeoisie and the whole principle of private property. Populist movements thus, inevitably, emphasise the importance, not of economic-social revolution, but of cultural, national and political reconstruction. [xvii]

Such movements tend to confuse matters by moving from any real struggle against imperialism to a purely ideological struggle against what they see as its cultural effects. “Cultural imperialism”, rather than material exploitation, is identified as the source of everything that is wrong. The fight is then not directed against forces really involved in impoverishing people, but rather against those who speak “foreign” languages, accept “alien” religions or reject allegedly “traditional” lifestyles. This is very convenient for certain sections of local capital who find it easy to practice the “indigenous culture”, at least in public. It is also of direct material interest to sections of the middle class who can advance their own careers by purging others from their jobs. But it limits the dangers such movements present to imperialism as a system.

Islamism, then, both mobilises popular bitterness and paralyses it; both builds up people’s feelings that something must be done and directs those feelings into blind alleys; both destabilises the state and limits the real struggle against the state.

The contradictory character of Islamism follows from the class base of its core cadres. The petty bourgeoisie as a class cannot follow a consistent, independent policy of its own. This has always been true of the traditional petty bourgeoisie – the small shopkeepers, traders and self employed professionals. They have always been caught between a conservative hankering for security that looks to the past and a hope that they individually will gain from radical change. It is just as true of the impoverished new middle class – or the even more impoverished would-be new middle class of unemployed ex-students – in the less economically advanced countries today. They can hanker after an allegedly golden past. They can see their futures as tied up with general social advance through revolutionary change. Or they can blame the frustration of their aspirations on other sections of the population who have got an “unfair” grip on middle class jobs: the religious and ethnic minorities, t hose with a different language, women working in an “untraditional” way.

Which direction they turn in does not just depend on immediate material factors. It also depends on the struggles that occur on a national and international scale. Thus in the 1950s and 1960s the struggles against colonialism and imperialism did inspire much of the aspirant middle class of the Third World, and there was a general feeling that state controlled economic development represented the way forward. The secular left, or at least its Stalinist or nationalist mainstream, was seen as embodying this vision, and it exercised a degree of hegemony in the universities. At that stage even those who began with a religious orientation were attracted by what was seen as the left – by the example of the Vietnamese War against America or by the so called cultural revolution in China – and began to reject traditional religious thinking over, for instance, the women’s question. This happened with the Catholic liberation theologists in Latin America and the People’s Mojahedin in Iran.

In the late 1970s and 1980s the mood changed. On the one hand there was the beginning of a global wave of disillusionment with the so called “socialist” model presented by the Eastern European states as a result of the killing fields of Cambodia, the mini-war between Vietnam and China, and the move of China towards the American camp. This disillusionment grew in intensity in the later 1980s as a result of the changes in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR.

It was even more intense in certain Middle Eastern countries than elsewhere in the world because the illusions had not merely been a question of foreign policy. The local regimes had claimed to be implementing nationalist versions of “socialism”, based to a greater or lesser extent on the East European model. Even those on the left who were critical of their governments tended to accept and identify with these claims. Thus in Algeria the left in the universities volunteered in the early 1970s to go to the countryside to assist in the “land reform”, even though the regime had already repressed the left student organisation and was maintaining police control over the universities. And in Egypt the Communists continued to proclaim Nasser as a socialist, even after he had thrown them into prison. So disillusionment with the regime became also, for many people, disillusionment with the left.

On the other hand, there was the emergence of certain Islamic states as a political force – the seizure of power by Gadaffi in Libya, the Saudi-led oil embargo against the West at the time of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, and then, most dramatically, the revolutionary establishment of the Iranian Islamic Republic in 1979.

Islamism began to dominate among the very layers of students and young people who had once looked to the left: in Algeria, for instance, “Khomeini began to be regarded by layers of young people as Mao and Guevara once had been”. [xviii] Support for the Islamist movements went from strength to strength as they seemed to offer immanent and radical change. The leaders of the Islamist movements were triumphant.

Yet the contradictions in Islamism did not go away, and expressed themselves forcefully in the decade that followed. Far from being an unstoppable force, Islamism has, in fact, been subject to its own internal pressures which, repeatedly, have made its followers turn on one another. Just as the history of Stalinism in the Middle East in the 1940s and 1950s was one of failure, betrayals, splits and repression, so has the history of Islamism been in the last quarter of a century.

The contradictions of political Islam

The contradictory character of Islamism expresses itself in the way in which it sees “the return to the Koran” taking place. It can see this as through a reform of the “values” of existing society, meaning simply a return to religious practices, while leaving the main structures of society intact. Or it can be seen as meaning a revolutionary overthrow of existing society. The contradiction is to be seen in the history both of the old Islamic Brotherhood of Egypt in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and in the new radical Islamist movements of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

The Muslim Brotherhood grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s as it picked up support from those disillusioned by the compromises the bourgeois nationalist Wafd made with the British. It was further aided by the gyrations of the Communist left under Stalin’s influence, which went so far as to support the establishment of Israel. By recruiting volunteers to fight in Palestine and against the British occupation of the Egyptian Canal Zone, the Brotherhood could seem to support the anti-imperialist struggle. But just as the Brotherhood reached its peak of support, it began to run into troubles. Its leadership based themselves on a coalition of forces – recruitment of a mass of petty bourgeois youth, links with the palace, deals with the right wing of the Wafd, plots with junior armed forces officers – which were themselves moving in different directions.

As strikes, demonstrations, assassinations, military defeat in Palestine, and guerrilla warfare in the Canal Zone tore Egyptian society apart, so the Brotherhood itself was in danger of disintegrating. Banna himself condemned members of the Brotherhood who assassinated the premier Nuqrashi. After Banna’s death in 1949 his successor as “supreme guide” was dismayed to discover the existence of a secret terrorist section. The seizure of power by the military under Nasser in 1952-4 produced a fundamental divide between those who supported the coup and those who opposed it until finally rival groups within the Brotherhood ended up physically battling for control of its offices. “An all-important loss of confidence in the leadership” enabled Nasser eventually to crush what had once been a massively powerful organisation. [xix]

But the loss of confidence was not an accident. It followed from the unbridgeable divisions which were bound to arise in a petty bourgeois movement as the crisis in society deepened. On the one hand, there were those who were drawn to the notion of using the crisis to force the old ruling class to do a deal with them to enforce “Islamic values”; on the other, there were the radical petty bourgeois recruits wanting real social change, but only able to conceive of getting it through immediate armed struggle.

The same contradictions run right through Islamism in Egypt today. The reconstituted Muslim Brotherhood began operating semi-legally in the late 1960s, turning its back on any notion of overthrowing the Egyptian regime. Instead it set its goal as reform of Egyptian society along Islamic lines by pressure from within. The task, as the supreme guide of the Brotherhood had put it in a book written from prison, was to be “preachers, not judges”. [xx]

This meant, in practice, adopting a “reformist Islamist” orientation, seeking an accommodation with the Sadat regime. In return the regime used the Islamists to deal with those it regarded, at the time, as its main enemies – the left: “The regime treated the reformist wing of the Islamist movements with benevolence, as the Islamicists purged the universities of anything that smelled of Nasserism or Communism”. [xxi]

Egypt was shaken by a wave of strikes, demonstrations and riots in all its 13 main cities in January 1977, in response to the state putting up the price of bread and other main consumption items. This was the largest uprising in the country since the 1919 nationalist revolt against the British. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Associations condemned the rising and sent messages of support to the state against what they called a “Communist conspiracy”.

For such Islamist “reformism” what mattered was changing the morals of society, rather than changing society itself. The stress iwas not on the reconstitution of the Islamic community (umma) by a transformation of society, but on enforcing certain sorts of behaviour within existing society. And the enemy was not the state or the internal “oppressors”, but external forces seen as undermining religious observance – in this case “Jewry”, “the crusade” (meaning Christians, including the Copts), “communism” and “secularism”. The fight to deal with these involved a struggle to impose the sharia (the legal system codified by Islamic jurists from the Koran and the Islamic tradition). It was a battle to get the existing state to impose a certain sort of culture on society, rather than a battle to overthrow the state.

Such a perspective accorded neatly with the desires of the traditional social groups who back a certain version of Islamism (the remnants of the old landowning class, merchants), with those who were once radical young Islamists but who have now made good (those who made money in Saudi Arabia or who have risen to comfortable positions in the middle class professions) and to those radical Islamists who have lost heart in radical social change when faced with state repression.

But it does not fit at all with the frustrated aspirations of the mass of the impoverished students and ex-students, or with the mass of ex-peasants who they mix with in the poorer parts of the cities. They are easily drawn to much more radical interpretations of what the “return to the Koran” means – interpretations which attack not just extraneous influences in the existing Islamic states, but those states themselves.

Thus a basic text for the Islamists in Egypt is the book Signposts, written by one of the Muslim Brothers hanged by Nasser in 1966, Sayyid Qutb. This does not merely denounce the bankruptcies of the Western and Stalinist ideologies, but also insists that a state can call itself Islamic and still be based on anti-Islamic barbarism (jahiliyya, the name given by Muslims to the pre-Islamic society in Arabia).

Such a state of affairs can only be rectified by “a vanguard of the umma” which carries through a revolution by following the example of the “first Koranic generation” – that is, which withdraws from existing society as Mohammed did when he left Mecca in order to build up a force capable of overthrowing it.

Such arguments went beyond seeing the only enemy as imperialism, and instead, for the first time, attacked the local state directly. They were very embarrassing for the moderates of the neo-Muslim Brotherhood, who are supposed to revere their author as a martyr. But they have inspired many thousands of young radicals. Thus in the mid-1970s one group, al Taktir Wal Higra, whose leader, Shukri Mustafa, was executed for kidnapping a high religious functionary in 1977, rejected as “non-Islamic” existing society, the existing mosques, the existing religious leaders and even the neo-Muslim Brotherhood Its attitude was that its members alone were genuine Muslims and that they had to break with existing society, living as communities apart and treating everyone else as infidels.

At first the Islamic Associations in the universities were very much under the influence of the moderate Muslim Brotherhood. But their attitudes began to shift, particularly when Sadat began the “peace process” with Israel late in 1977. Soon many of the university activists were embracing ideas in some ways more radical than Shukri’s: not only did they turn aside from existing society, they began organising to overthrow it, as with the assassination of Sadat by Abd al-Salam Faraj’s Jihad group in October 1981.

Instead of the assassination leading to the Islamists being able to seize state power, the state was able to take advantage of the confusion created by the assassination to crush the Islamists. As thousands were arrested and many leaders executed, repression significantly weakened the movement. However, the causes which had led so many young people to turn to the Islamists did not disappear. By the end of the 1980s the movement had regained confidence and was starting to grow rapidly in some quarters of Cairo and Alexandria. This was coupled with an effective terrorist campaign against the police and the security forces.

Then in December 1992 the state launched a new and unprecedented campaign of repression. Slum areas in Cairo, such as Imbaba, were occupied by 20,000 troops with tanks and armoured cars. Tens of thousands were arrested and death squads set out to kill those activists who escaped. The main mosques used by the radical Islamists were blocked with concrete. Parents, children and wives of activists were arrested and tortured.

Again as in the early 1980s the campaign of state terror was successful. The Islamist movement was not able to, and did not even try to, mobilise support in the form of demonstrations. Instead, it moved to a totally terrorist strategy which did not seriously shake the Mubarak regime, even if it did virtually destroy the tourist industry.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has continued to behave like a loyal opposition, negotiating with the regime over the gradual introduction of the sharia into the state legal code and holding back from protests at the repression.

The story of the rise and radicalisation of Islamism in Algeria is similar in many ways to that in Egypt. The Algerian dictator of the late 1960s and 1970, Boumedienne, encouraged moderate Islamism as a counterbalance to the left and to his historic opponents within the liberation movement that had ended French colonialism.

In 1970 the state initiated an Islamisation campaign under Mouloud Kassim, minister of education and religion, which denounced the “degradation of morals” and “Western influences” behind “cosmopolitanism, alcoholism, the snobbism that consists in always following the West and dressing half naked”. [xxii]

Thus in the city of Constantine, one study tells:

Integrism replaces among large sections of Constantine opinion the traditional conceptions by the popularity of a new Islamic vision standing for a resurgence of the Community of the Prophet. This integrism gets its strength from the social frustrations which afflict a large part of the youth, those left out of account by the social and economic system [xxiii]

The regime was losing control of the very mechanism it had encouraged to deal with the left. Instead of controlling the masses for the regime, Islamism was providing a focus for all their bitterness and hatred against those leaders who harked back to the liberation struggle of the 1960s but who had grown into a comfortable ruling class. The regime began to turn against the Islamists imprisoning certain of their leaders in the mid-1980s, with the regime’s head, Chadli, accusing the imams of “political demagogy”. The effect, however, was not to destroy the Islamists, but to increase their standing as the opposition to the regime.

This became clear in October 1988. All the bitterness against the ruling class and the regime exploded in upheaval very similar to that which was to take place in Eastern Europe a year later. The movement, beginning as a series of spontaneous strikes in the Algiers area, soon turned into massive street clashes between young people and the police:

The revolt shook the regime to its core. As in Eastern Europe all sorts of political forces that had been repressed now came out into the open. Journalists wrote freely for the first time, intellectuals began to speak openly about the real condition of Algerian society, exiled politicians of both left and right returned from abroad, a women’s movement emerged to challenge the regime’s Islamic family law, which gave women fewer rights than men. But it soon became clear that outside the Berber speaking areas the Islamists were the hegemonic force among the opposition. Their influence was in many ways like that of the “democrats” in Eastern Europe and the USSR in the following year. The tolerance shown to them by sections of the regime in the past, and the support they continued to get from some powerful foreign states (for instance, finance from Saudi Arabia) combined with their ability to articulate a message that focused the bitterness of the mass of the population:

By their number, their network of mosques, and their tendency to act spontaneously as a single man, as if obeying the orders of a secret central committee, the Islamists appeared as the only movement capable of mobilising the masses and influencing the course of events. It was they who would come forward as the spokesmen of the insurgents, able to impose themselves as future leaders of the movement ... Not knowing who to talk to, after quietening its machine guns, the regime was looking for “leaders”, representatives capable of formulating demands and controlling a crowd as violent as they were uncontrollable. So Chadli received Madani, Belhadj, and Nahnah [the best known Islamist figures]. [xxiv]

So influential did the Islamist movement, now organised as the FIS, become in the months that followed that it was able to win control of the most important municipalities in the June 1990 local elections and then the biggest share of the votes in the general elections of December 1991, despite being subject to severe repression. The Algerian military annulled the elections in order to stop the Islamists forming a government. But this did not stop the massive support for the Islamists creating near civil war conditions in the country, with whole areas falling under effective control of Islamist armed groups.

Yet the rise of Islamist influence was accompanied by growing confusion as to what the FIS stood for. While it was in control of the country’s major municipalities between June 1990 and May 1991,

the changes it brought about were modest: the closing of bars, the cancellation of musical spectacles, campaigns, at times violent, for “feminine decency” and against the ubiquitous satellite dishes that “permitted reception of Western pornography” ... Neither Madani [the FIS’s best known leader] nor its consultative assembly drew up a true politico-social programme or convened a congress to discuss it. Madani limited himself to saying that this would meet after they had formed a government. [xxv]

What the FIS did do was show opposition to the demands of workers for improved wages. In these months it opposed a dust workers’ strike in Algiers, a civil servants strike and a one day general strike called by the former “official” union federation. Madani justified breaking the dust workers’ strike in a newspaper interview, complaining that it was forcing respectable people like doctors and professional engineers to sweep up [xxvi]

Such a respectable stance fitted neatly with the interests of the classes who had financed the Islamists from the time of the land reform onwards. It also suited those successful members of the petty bourgeoisie who were part of the FIS – the professors, the established imams and the grammar school teachers. And it appealed to those in the countryside whose adhesion to the former ruling party, the FLN, had enabled them to prosper, becoming successful capitalist farmers or small businessmen. But it was not enough either to satisfy the impoverished urban masses who looked to the FIS for their salvation or to force the ruling class and the military to sit back and accept an FIS government.

At the end of May 1991, faced with threats by the military to sabotage the electoral process rather than risk a FIS victory, the FIS leaders turned round and “launched an authentic insurrection which recalled October 1988: molotov cocktails, tear gas, barricades. Ali Belhadj, the charismatic Imam, launched tens of thousands of demonstrators on to the streets. For a time the FIS took control of the centre of Algiers, supported by vast numbers of young people to whom Islam and the jihad seemed the only alternative to the misery of the society the military were defending.

In reality, the more powerful the FIS became, the more it was caught between respectability and insurrectionism, telling the masses they could not strike in March 1991 and then calling on them to overthrow the state two months later in May.

The same contradictions have emerged within the Islamist movement in the decade after, as guerrilla warfare grew in intensity in both the cities and the countryside. There was a major radicalisation of the FIS and a fragmentation of its rank and file. The detention of thousands of members and sympathisers in camps in the Sahara spread urban terrorism and rural guerrilla warfare. Two rival armed organisations emerged, the Armed Islamic Movement and the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA which were soon at each others’ throats.

As against the presumed “moderation” of the MIA, which “only” executed the representatives of the “impious regime”, the GIA opposed an extreme jihad, whose chosen victims were journalists, writers, poets, feminists and intellectuals , unveiled women and ‘moderate’ Islamic imams.

The state was easily able to infiltrate the GIA groups, encouraging its activists to carry through ever more bloody actions – and when its could not get the groups to do so, dressing some of its own soldiers up as Islamists to do so. Fourteen years on, the state is in complete control, the FIS has adopted the road of conciliation and the GIA has been utterly smashed.


[i] Thus a perceptive study of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood could conclude in 1969 that the attempt at the revival of the movement in the mid-1960s “was the predictable eruption of the continuing tensions caused by an ever dwindling activist fringe of individuals dedicated to an increasingly less relevant Muslim ‘position’ about society.” R.P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London 1969), p.vii.

[ii] A.S. Ahmed, Discovering Islam (New Delhi 1990), pp.61-64.

[iii] Khomeini, Islam and Revolution (Berkeley 1981), quoted in A.S. Ahmed, op. cit., p.31.

[iv] E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism (London 1993), p.2.

[v] E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism (London 1993), p.2.

[vi] G. Kepel, The Prophet and the Pharaoh, Muslim Extremism in Egypt (London 1985), p.109.

[vii] A. Rouadia, Les Fréres et la Mosque (Paris 1990), p.82.

[viii] A. Rouadia, p.78.

[ix] A. Rouadia, p.78.

[x] E. Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (London 1989), pp.107, 201, 214, 225-226.

[xi] M. Moaddel, op. cit., pp.224-238.

[xii] O. Roy, op. cit., pp.68-69.

[xiii] M. Al-Ahnaf, B Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit.

[xiv] A. Rouadia, p.136.

[xv] See R.P. Mitchell, op. cit., p.38.

[xvi] E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism, op. cit., p.3.

[xvii] E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism, p.17.

[xviii] M. Al-Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit., pp.26-27.

[xix] R.P. Mitchell, op. cit., p.40.

[xx] Book by Hudaybi, quoted in G. Kepel, op. cit., p.61.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] A. Rouadia, op. cit., p.20.

[xxiii] Ibid., pp.145-146.

[xxiv] M. Al-Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit., p.79.

[xxv] J. Goytisolo, Argelia en el Vendava, in El Pais, 30 March 1994.

[xxvi] El Salaam, 21 June 1990, translated in M. AI-Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit., pp.200-202.

Last updated on 9 December 2009