Islamism: Political Ideology and Movement

Beginning with the invasion of Egypt by the armies of Napoleon in 1798, which began the modern involvement of the West in the Arab world, until the present, Arab-Islamic nationalism has assumed three successive, though somewhat overlapping, forms: liberal nationalism, Arab socialism, and Islamism.

Liberal nationalism as a political movement was epitomized by the statist, national-development regime of Muhammed Ali in Egypt, with its goal of overturning "Oriental feudalism," and its (ultimately failed) project of modernization, and capitalization. Ideologically, this liberal nationalism sought, in the writings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, to unite the Muslim nation, the umma, to resist Western imperialism by reconciling Islam and modern rationalism, through which a powerful Muslim nation could be forged; a vision elaborated by Muhammed `Abduh who believed that reason and (Islamic) revelation, Islam and modern science, were reconcilable, though this required the dismanting of the traditional social, economic, and political institutions of the Muslim world, which were -- in his view -- perversions of Islam. (It is worth noting that `Abduh's disciples, like Qasim Amin, championed the emancipation of women, with his claim that the Shari`a provided a basis for the equality of women, which he viewed as crucial to the progress of human society.) What is significant about these ideologies and political projects is that they were integrally linked to the process of capitalization which had spread from Europe to the Islamic world; that they were inseparable from the project of bourgeois revolution, anti-feudalism and national economic development, that was the hallmark of ascendant capitalism. Perhaps the last gasp of this liberal nationalism in the Islamic world can be seen in political movements such as the Wafd in Egypt, and its leader Sa`d Zaghlul. As the heir to `Abduh, Zaghlul and the Wafd also sought to create the conditions for a modern, democratic and bourgeois state in Egypt. But, while Muhammed Ali in the early nineteenth century was prepared to directly challenge Western imperialism, which mobilized to crush him, the Wafd in the 1930's compromised with British imperialism. That compromise demonstrated that the project of capitalization and industrialization in predominantly agrarian societies, like those of the Islamic world, would henceforth break with the liberalism of the Arab-Islamic nationalists of the ascendant phase of capitalism.

The precursors of Arab socialism were those political movements in the 1930's that modeled themselves on Italian fascism and German Nazism. Movements such as the Green Shirts of Young Egypt, or Antun Sa`ada's Parti Popular Syrien were determined to break with the dominant British and French imperialisms in the Middle East, and to embark on a statist project to promote capitalist industrialization. The failure of German imperialism to overcome its Anglo-Saxon rival, led nationalists like Michel Aflak and his Ba`ath party in Syria and Iraq, and Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers in Egypt to embrace "socialism" as the route to industrialization and modernity, and to align themselves with Stalinist Russia in its conflict with the West. All these movements were resolutely secular in their ideology, often with Christians, like Sa`ada and Aflak, providing the leadership. The Arab nation, not the Muslim umma, provided the social base which these movements sought to mobilize in the interests of the statist-developmentalist model that they instantiated. Nasser's Arab socialism, and its alliance with Russia, epitomizes this futile project. It yielded neither national economic development, nor the elimination of Western imperialism from the Arab-Islamic world. Sadat's bold transfer of Egypt from the Russian to the American camp, the peace treaty with Israel, and Cairo's subordination to the World Bank, IMF, and the other institutions of American global hegemony, signified the failure of Arab socialism to accomplish what Muhammed Ali had failed to accomplish more than a century earlier. Into the void created by the bankruptcy of Arab socialism there stepped a new political ideology and movement: Islamism.

The precursor of contemporary Islamism was Hassan el-Banna's Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (founded in 1928), which, unlike the liberal nationalists who sought to reconcile Islam and modernity, or the Arab socialists who were resolutely secular, was determined to reject modernity and restore the rule of Islamic virtue. Yet Islamism first came to state power not through the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (decapitated first by the Wafdist regime, and the British, and then by the Nasserist), but in the rule of the Shi`ite Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. While Khomeini sought to rally the Shia of the Arab world to his cause, the fact that the Shia were a minority, scorned and hated in the (majority) Sunni world of Islam, severely limited the success of Khomeini and the Iranians. New, Sunni, versions of Islamism, would prove more successful in mobilizing masses of Muslims in both the Arab world and in Central and South Asia: The Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, Islamic Jihad and al-Gama al-Islamiyya in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Oslama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. While Islamism appears to be an ideology and political movement that is adamently opposed to modernity, and which seeks to reinvigorate traditional Islamic beliefs and institutions, it is very much the product of the destruction of the pre-capitalist Arab-Islamic world, and both as ideology and political project is irretrievably stamped with the imprint of modernity and capitalism. (In this respect, Islamism has much in common with Nazism, with its ideological recourse to a pre-capitalist Gemeinschaft, and Aryan religion, even while it instantiated the most brutal realities of capitalism and imperialism in its social relations and political project.)

This integral connection between Islamism and capitalism can be seen in the two dimensions of Islamism as ideology and political project. Despite its appeals to Islamic tradition, Islamism constitutes a form of proto-state or state racism. Here, we are not speaking of racism in the ordinary language sense, where it is a matter of color (blacks, whites, etc.), but rather as any ideology predicated on a bifurcation, a cut, in the social fabric based on birth, on biology, genetics, as qualities of one's very being, as opposed to cuts in the social fabric based on beliefs, world views, or -- as in Marxism -- the social relations of production (class), which is the antithesis of the biologization of cuts in the social fabric of humanity upon which Islamism is based. The misogynistic vision of women as biologically inferior, integral to the ideology of the Taliban and al Qaeda (and which has no basis in traditional Islam), the yellow badge that the Taliban regime imposed on the Hindu minority in Afghanistan, the reconceptualization of the umma on genetico-biological bases, as opposed to a community of belief, which is integral to the world view of bin Laden and Islamism, all attest to a racialization of Islam at the core of this ideology. State racism and the biologization of social relations are integral to the obsession with "purification" that animates Islamism -- not the purification of the individual's soul, but the purification of the social fabric itself. The discourses of purification which characterize Islamism, are themselves the ante-chamber to ethnic cleansing and genocide. The fate of Hindus in Taliban Afghanistan (a minority of only several hundred), or the Shi`ite Hazaras facing ethnic cleansing, foreshadows the catastrophe that would await the Copts of Egypt (a minority of six million, itself an ominous figure) were the Islamic Jihad to take power there. This state racism, and biologization of social relations, are features of one dimension of capitalist modernity, its dark side, epitomized by Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Dresden and Hiroshima, all the quintessential products of high capitalist civilization, and inseparable from it. The development of Islamism attests to the spread to the Arab-Islamic world of the same capitalist social relations and ideologies, albeit in historically and culturally specific forms, that have shaped the capitalist world in its phase of decadence.

Despite its claim that its political project is simply to effect the withdrawal of the West from the soil of the "Muslim nation" (now re-conceived biologically), and its subsequent purification, Islamism can only hope to achieve that goal (futile though it is) by attempting to compete with its Western enemy economically and militarily. Such a project means not the halt to the capitalization of the Islamic world, but its completion, its apotheosis, by Islamist regimes themselves. Thus the Khomeini regime in Iran, after the overthrow of the Shah, has developed the oil industry, integrally linked to the global capitalist economy, and necessitating a brutal regime of exploitation of the proletariat, and developed industries and scientific institutes for the production of weapons of mass destruction to elevate it to the staus of a major regional imperialist power. The Ayotollahs have taken the path of capitalist scientific, technological, economic and military development, which, despite their protests of Islamic purity, will complete the destruction of the traditional Islamic world of the Iranian past. The same imperatives are at work in the Sunni branch of Islamism represented by al-Qaeda -- though it is still only a proto-state. Bin Laden's project to eliminate Western imperialism from the soil of the Muslim nation seems to entail two short term goals: using the Taliban regime in Afghanistan as a beach-head to destabilize and overthrow the secular Pakistani regime, assume state power in Pakistan, and with it a nuclear capability on the basis of which to project "Islamic" power; overturning the Saudi regime, dependent as it is on the US, and thereby control of much of the world's oil supply. The question is not the probabilty of the success of this project (probably minimal), but rather its inherently capitalist nature or class content. A nuclear capability (an Islamic bomb), and control of oil, require the very capitalist technology, science, and social relations, against which the Islamists verbally rail, but which is inseparable from Islamism as a political movement and project.

In analyizing Islamism as a political phenomenon it is necessary to focus on three distinct, but inter-related elements: The socio-economic conditions that provide the fertile soil within which such an ideology and political movement can take hold and win popular support; the social classes and strata that are the bearers of this ideology and the cadre and leadership of this movement; the class content of this socio-political phenomenon. The socio-economic conditions that breed Islamism are the impoverishment and desperation of masses of people uprooted from a pre-capitalist or village and artisanal existence by the development of capitalism, even as this latter is incapable of providing employment for a newly urbanized and rapidly growing population condemned to inhabit the shanty-towns around the sprawling capitalist metropoli -- a mass of people lacking the education without which a life of quasi-permanent unemployment and marginalization is all they have to look forward to. This is the outcome of the trajectory of capitalism in the Third World in general, and the Arab-Islamic world in particular, and it provides the socio-economic conditions for the spread of Islamism. The classes and strata that provide the cadre and leadership of Islamist movements are the petty-bourgeoisie nd the intelligentsia. It is not a coincidence if the ideologue and organizer of al Qaeda (bin Laden's chief lieutenant) Ayman al Zawahiri, was a prominent surgeon, a child of a leading family of the Egyptian intelligentsia. While the popular support for Islamism comes from the very poor, the leadership and cadre of this movement is highly educated, a product of the secular world of medecine and engineering, for example. Yet the class provenance of the cadre or leadership of a political movement, does not determine its class content. That most crucial element for an analysis of Islamism, as we have argued above, is capitalist in its class nature; an expression or manifestation of capitalism in determinate historical and cultural conditions: the Arab-Islamic world in the epoch of globalized capital and American hegemony. Islamism is the violent and brutal reaction to that hegemony, one that portends mass death or brutal oppression for the populations of that world, an outcome that can only be averted by a class struggle to overthrow the very capitalist social relations that have generated it and of which Islamism is the current local manifestation.

Mac Intosh

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