Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Islamic movement: blow to imperialism

First Published: Unity, Vol. 3, No. 2, January 18-31, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Over the past year, world attention has been called to the Islamic movement sweeping the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Islamic forces led the popular revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran. Moslem guerrilla groups in Afghanistan are entrenched in a war against the Soviet Union. Late last year, Moslem students attacked U.S. embassies in Iran, Pakistan and Libya.

The current resurgence of Islamic religious and cultural traditionalism has become a militant expression of anti-imperialist sentiment.


Islam is one of the major religions of the world. It is embraced by over 750 million people in 70 countries, mainly in the third world. It is the dominant religion in the Arab countries in the Middle East and north Africa, as well as in Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Indonesia. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Pakistan and Kuwait are governed by some form of the Shar’i (or Sharia – Islamic religious and legal code).

Islam has been closely connected to Arab history for many centuries. The religion has its roots in the Arabian peninsula, where the Prophet Mohammed was said to have received his revelations from God in the 7th century.

Since the caliphs were both religious and political rulers, Islam has historically played a role in Arab affairs. Many Arab countries were not secularized until the 19th and 20th centuries, when Western colonial powers came to dominate the Middle East. Some countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were never secularized and are still governed by orthodox Islamic royalty.

The colonialists invariably tried to suppress the Moslem religion as part of their policy of national oppression. The French colonialists, for example, systematically destroyed Moslem schools in the Middle East in the 1800’s.

Because Islam exists principally in the third world, the Moslem people have generally been oppressed by colonialism and imperialism. Thus Moslem religious groups have often played a progressive role in supporting national liberation.

Islamic movement today

The current Islamic movement is a religious and cultural movement that aims to apply traditional Islamic values to the functioning of society. Its political thrust lies in its rejection of foreign domination, especially Western foreign domination, because the Western powers brought cultural decadence to the Moslem world. The Islamic movement has been taken up fervently in a number of countries and is having a big impact in the Middle East.

The most dramatic case is the Iranian revolution. Islam was a source of national unity for resistance against the Shah and U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, the structure of the Islamic Shi’ite community served as an organizational vehicle for the revolution. The Shah had outlawed all political opposition, but he could not outlaw Islam or close the mosques. The 180,000 mullahs (priests) acted as a network of leaders and organizers. Through them, information could be quickly disseminated to every village in Iran. The mullahs also used the mosques to organize; they would turn out the lights so the SAVAK (the secret police) could not see the people speak out against the Shah.

Islamic traditionalism

There are different tendencies in the Islamic movement today, including fundamentalists who promote the strict adherence to traditional Islamic law in all aspects of life; and reformists who seek ways to apply Islam to suit the contemporary needs of third world countries.

The issue of Islamic traditionalism has stirred much controversy in the U.S., largely due to the Western media’s portrayal of the Islamic movement as “religious fanaticism” and “backward.”

The U.S. press has given a lot of publicity, for example, to some aspects of the Shar’i which appear to be quite harsh, like the stoning of adulterers and the cutting off of the hands of thieves. In practice though, these sentences are infrequent and in most cases are modified – in Saudi Arabia, adulterers are “stoned” with pebbles from a distance, so that the punishment is more humiliation than it is physical. In any case, sentencing in the Islamic states is far less severe than the torture and murder which existed under the Shah.

It is also untrue that the Islamic movement’s rejection of Western influence includes a rejection of modernization and industrialization. Most Moslem countries want economic development and technological progress, but they want it independent from imperialist control. In a May 1978 interview, the Ayatollah Khomeini stated, “I have always insistently demanded the economic and social development of my country. But the Shah, carrying out the policy of the imperialists seeks to maintain Iran in a backward state . . . .We desire an industry that should be fully national and independent, one integrated into the economy of the country and harmoniously balanced with agriculture in the service of the people. We do not want an industry that is dependent upon foreigners.”

Undoubtedly there are also incorrect and backward aspects to Islam. For example, Islamic religious teachings subordinate women to an inferior status, call for their segregation from men in social institutions, and legalize polygamy (although it should be noted that the Iranian revolution widened the scope of democracy and improved the position of women). Ultimately, social oppression will not be eliminated through religion.

Anti-superpower thrust

But in the contemporary world today the Islamic movement is playing an anti imperialist role against the two superpowers. The Islamic movement identifies strongly with the Palestinian struggle and OPEC, and stands for national independence.

The U.S. has been badly shaken by the Islamic upsurge. It has been a clear target for mass outpourings of hatred and defiance, due to its historical plunder and domination of the Middle East and its backing for Israeli Zionism and the Shah of Iran.

The Soviet Union on its part is also extremely worried about the Islamic movement. On the one hand, the Soviets try to court Islam, to take advantage of anti-U.S. sentiment. On the other hand, the Soviets are increasingly attacking Islam, calling Moslems “reactionary” in order to justify its own hegemonism, as in Afghanistan. The Soviets are particularly worried because there are 50 million Moslems in the Soviet Union – mostly oppressed nationalities – and they are a potential source of internal rebellion.

The future of the Islamic movement is not altogether certain, for the situation in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region is volatile and complex. The situation in Iran is not yet stable, as there are internal national divisions, and it is not clear how the government of the new Islamic Republic will actually function. In each country, the Moslem movements share the stage with complex national and political forces. But it is clear that the Islamic movement has emerged as a force in the third world, and will have an impact on the international situation for some time to come.