What is the nature and function, in the contemporary Muslim world, of the political movements claiming to be the one true Islamic faith? These movements are commonly designated “Islamic fundamentalism” in the West, but I prefer the phrase used in the Arab world: “Political Islam.” We do not have religious movements, per se, here – the various groups are all quite close to one another – but something much more banal: political organizations whose aim is the conquest of state power, nothing more, nothing less. Wrapping such organizations in the flag of Islam is simple, straightforward opportunism.
Modern Political Islam was invented by the orientalists serving British colonialism in India and was adopted intact by Mawdudi of Pakistan. It consisted mainly in “proving” that Muslim believers may only live under the rule of an Islamic State – anticipating the partition of India – because Islam cannot permit separation of Church and State. The orientalists conveniently forgot that the English of the 13th Century held precisely such ideas about Christianity.
The heralds of “Islamic Renaissance” are not interested in theology and they never refer to classic theological texts. For such thinkers, an Islamic community is defined by inheritance, like ethnicity, rather than by a strong and intimate personal conviction. It is a question of asserting a “collective identity” and nothing more. That is why the phrase “Political Islam” is the appropriate designation for such movements.
Of Islam, Political Islam retains only the shared habits of contemporary Muslim life – notably rituals for which it demands absolute respect. At the same time, it demands a complete cultural return to public and private rules which were practiced two centuries ago in the Ottoman Empire, in Iran and in Central Asia, by the powers of that time. Political Islam believes, or pretends to believe, that these rules are those of the “real Islam,” the Islam of the age of the Prophet. But this is not important. Certainly Islam permits this interpretation as legitimation for the exercise of power, as it has been used from Islam's origin to modern times.
In this sense Islam is not original. Christianity has done the same to sustain the structures of political and social power in pre-modern Europe, for example. Anyone with a minimum of awareness and critical sense recognizes that behind legitimizing discourse stand real social systems, with real histories. Political Islam is not interested in this. It does not propose any analysis or critique of these systems. Contemporary Islam is only an ideology based on the past, an ideology which proposes a pure and simple return to the past, and more precisely, to the period immediately preceding the submission of the Muslim world to the expansion of capitalism and Western imperialism. That religions – Islam, Christianity, and others – are thus interpreted in a reactionary, obscurantist way, does not exclude other interpretations, reformist or even revolutionary. Not only is the return to the past not desirable (nor actually desired by the peoples in whose name Political Islam pretends to be speaking); it is, quite simply, impossible. That is why the movements which constitute Political Islam refuse to offer a precise program, contrary to what is customary in political life. For its answer to concrete questions of social and economic life, Political Islam repeats the empty slogan: Islam is the solution. When pushed to the wall, the spokesmen for Political Islam never fail to choose an answer harmonious with liberal capitalism, as when the Egyptian parliament grants absolute freedom of maneuver to landowners and nothing whatsoever to the peasant farmers who work their land. In their unhappy effort to produce an “Islamic Political Economy,” the authors of manuals on the subject (financed by Saudi Arabia) have only succeeded in applying a coat of religious whitewash to the most banal tenets of American liberalism.
The indifference of the regime's hard right wing to the social problems facing the country's working class gave rise to the “reformers” whose aim has been to moderate the harshness of the theocratic dictatorship, but without renouncing its basic principle – the monopoly of political power. Recognizing the extent of the Islamic Republic's economic disaster, the “reformers” have made the pragmatic decision to gradually revise their “anti-imperialist” postures. They are in the process of reintegrating Iran into the commonplace comprador world of capitalism on the peripheries. The system of Political Islam in Iran has reached deadlock. The political and social struggles into which the Iranian people have now been plunged might soon lead to rejection of the very principle of “wilaya al faquih” which places the clergy above all other institutions of political and civil society.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has conceived no other political system than that of a one-party dictatorship monopolized by the Mullahs. False comparisons are frequently made between the Islamist parties and the Christian Democratic parties of Europe (i.e., if the Christian Democrats have governed Italy for 50 years, why shouldn't an Islamist party govern Algeria and Egypt?). But once in power, an Islamist government immediately and definitively abolishes any form of legal political opposition.
Contemporary Political Islam is not the outcome of a reaction to the so-called abuses of secularism, as often purported, unfortunately. No Muslim society of modern times, except in the former Soviet Union, has ever been truly secular, let alone offended by the daring innovations of any atheistic and aggressive power. The semi-modern States of Kemal's Turkey, Nasser's Egypt, Baathist Syria and Iraq, merely subjugated the men of religion (as often happened in former times) to impose on them concepts aimed solely at legitimizing the State's political options.
Political Islam is in fact nothing other than an adaptation to the subordinate status of comprador capitalism. Its so-called “moderate” form therefore probably constitutes the principal danger threatening the people concerned since the violence of the “radicals” only serves to destabilize the State, impeding the installation of a new comprador power suitable to the designs of the “moderates” beloved by the West (those of Iran are a good example). The constant support offered by the pro-American diplomacies of the Triad countries (U.S., Europe and Japan) toward finding this “solution” to the problem is absolutely consistent with their desire to impose the globalized neoliberal order in the service of dominant transnational capital.
The combination of neoliberal economy and political autocracy is perfectly suited to the dominant comprador class charged with management of societies at the contemporary capitalist periphery. The Islamist parties are all instruments of this class. This is true not only of the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations considered moderate, and whose close ties to the bourgeoisie are well known. It is equally true of the small clandestine organizations which practice “terrorism.” Both are useful tools of Political Islam, and the division of labor is highly complimentary between those using violence and those infiltrating state institutions (especially education, the judiciary, the mass media and, if possible, the police and military). For all such groups and activities, there is one objective: seizure of state power, although on the morning after the anticipated victory, the “moderates” will put an end to the excesses of the “radicals.” Immediately after the Iranian revolution, the Mullahs massacred the left-wing militants (Fedayin and Mojahedin) who had attempted to make common cause between their populist, revolutionary aims inspired by Socialism and the deeper mobilization of Political Islam. Without the Fedayin and Mojahedin, the triumph of the “Islamic” revolution would not have been possible. Since then, the Mullahs have recruited and trained millions of political terrorists from among the lumpen proletariat in order to enforce its rule.*
The existing power structures against which the movements of Political Islam are hurling themselves are the compradors, the national bourgeoisie of the region, fully subordinate to the diktats of neoliberal globalization. The comprador classes are not particularly democratic, even when they offer the gift of parliamentary elections which they call “multi-party,” and they often rely on the pretext of Islamic terrorism to justify their refusal of meaningful democracy (as in Algeria).
What this means is that the contest between the compradors and the Islamists is only a conflict between factions of the ruling class – a struggle for power, nothing more, between opposing leaders and their clients. Depending on the circumstances, the shape of the conflict varies from extreme violence, as in the case of Algeria, to dialogue, as in Egypt, where the government holds direct talks with the Muslim Brotherhood. Both sides in the conflict utilize Islamic demagogy in their attempts to capture for their own benefit the allegiance of the politically confused populace. Contemporary popular political confusion closely resembles that which followed the failure of hopes based on the populist nationalisms of the previous era (Nasser, Boumedienne, Le Bass). This time it results from widespread recognition of the social destruction wrought by the neoliberalism of the ruling comprador classes.
Popular political confusion in the Islamic world is in no small part due to the extreme timidity of the critique that the left had addressed in the previous period to the ruling forces of national populism. Yet the bourgeoisie in power is by no means secular. It pretends to be as “Islamic” as its adversaries, for example by enforcing many of the precepts of Islamic law – especially in the domain of the family – thus gradually making the ruse into reality. The resulting “compromise” solutions inevitably augment the dominant neoliberal and antidemocratic order. Thus the dominant international political and economic powers, led primarily by the U.S., see no inconvenience in the exercise of power by Political Islam. This says a great deal about the hypocrisy of Western advocacy of “democracy” and demonstrates that, contrary to the Western ideological equation of “market” and “democracy,” the two principles are in fact in direct conflict.
The diplomacy of the G7 powers, particularly that of the U.S., knowingly chooses to support Political Islam. The G7 lends such aid and assistance from Egypt to Algeria. In Afghanistan, U.S. support took the form of describing Afghan Islamists as “freedom fighters” against the horrible dictatorship of communism, which was in fact an enlightened, modernist, national and populist despotism that had the audacity to open schools for girls. Western leaders know that Political Islam has the virtue – for them – of making the peoples concerned helpless and consequently ensuring their compradorization without difficulty.
Given its inherent cynicism, the American Establishment knows how to take a second advantage of Political Islam. The barbaric “drifts” of the regimes that Political Islam inspires – the Taliban, for instance – are not drifts at all, but actually fall within the logic of their programs, and can be exploited whenever imperialism finds it expedient to intervene brutally, if necessary. The “savagery” attributed to the peoples who are the first victims of Political Islam is likely to encourage “Islamophobia” which may facilitate the acceptance of a “global apartheid,” the logical and necessary outcome of an ever-polarizing capitalist expansion.
Western support for Political Islam has thus gone to the grotesque extreme of furnishing weapons, financial backing and military training to the agents of Political Islam. In the case of Afghanistan, the pretext was “fighting communism,” but the odious behavior of these Islamists (closing schools for girls opened by the terrible “communists”) apparently gave no cause for regret – neither to the Western governments supporting them, nor to Western feminist organizations. Those the West called “Afghan freedom fighters” (in fact, hoodlums trained by the CIA) and “volunteers” (Algerian, Egyptian and other Muslims), nowadays fill decisive roles in military-terrorist actions around the globe, including major U.S. cities. Support for Political Islam has included the illusory rubric of “political refugee” status, offered by the U.S., Britain and Germany, which has given the militants of Political Islam the power to organize and command their operations from abroad, thus maximizing efficiency and minimizing risk.
The ideological accompaniment to this alliance between the Western powers and Political Islam is an endless campaign of legitimation in the Western mass media, usually turning on an illusory distinction between “moderates” and “radicals,” or a pious chant of praise for the virtues of multi-cultural diversity, so dear to Americans, as everyone knows. Such forms of “respect” for diverse “communities” are very useful for the management purposes of neoliberalism and globalization, because they do not imply any confrontation on the terrain of real challenges. The “communities” in question play the game of neoliberalism, shifting the debate, if and when it occurs, from the real and practical problems of the here and now into the harmless celestial regions of the cultural imaginary.
Political Islam is thus in no way the adversary of imperialism, but is, quite the contrary, its perfect servant. This fact does not prevent Western ideologues and opinion-managers from resorting, whenever necessary, to the fairytale formulae of Islam as an implacable enemy of Western modernity, the “clash of cultures” so dear to Samuel Huntington and his CIA patrons. Such wars occur only on the imaginary plane, whereas in the real world, the victims of the “communities” represented by Political Islam suffer terribly under very real blows. The ideological war, furthermore, provides yet another cover for military-political intervention by the U.S. and its subaltern “allies” when and wherever the need might arise.
We should not be surprised that the U.S. is pleased by the services that Political Islam renders to its project of world hegemony. With the exception of Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon (pre-911) and the Taliban (post-911), no movement of Political Islam is designated as an enemy by Washington. The pre-911 designation of Hamas and Hizbollah by the U.S. State Department as “terrorist organizations” was clearly an accident of political geography, since both are opposed to the state of Israel, which evidently takes precedence in U.S. considerations over everything else. Hamas and Hizbollah are the only manifestations of Political Islam fighting foreign military occupation, whereas the others direct their violence only at their compatriots. Double standards and hypocrisy – can we expect anything else from the imperialists?
In order to sustain and extend its hegemony the United States must always give supreme importance to its military interventions. We forget this at our peril.
Gabi Christov helped with translation of this article.
* For an analysis of the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath, see CovertAction Quarterly, No. 37, pp. 52-60.
“Political Islam” appears in CovertAction Quarterly, No. 71, Winter 2001, pp. 3-6.