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Socialism and Islam

Jessica Squires

August 27, 2013

It’s been a dozen years since the “war on terror” and two years since the start of the Arab Spring—including the latest phase of the Egyptian Revolution that toppled President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Western pundits have often reduced these developments to a “clash of civilizations,” of secular freedom versus Muslim dictatorship. Canadian generals call the people of Afghanistan “scumbags,” while Prime Minister Stephen Harper claims that “the major threat is still Islamicism.” How do we explain Islamist organizations and how can we best show solidarity with those resisting Western imperialism?
Imperialism and Islamophobia
The idea that Islam is dangerous is simply Islamophobia, which exists in order to divide people in the struggle, and to justify colonial oppression and war. The backdrop is the decline of US power in relation to other world powers, and its continuing struggle to remain on top economically and militarily.
Like other religions, Islam is incredibly diverse. It has a rich history and can even be seen to have parallels to some developments in Christianity. This is important because one of the most common strategies used to denounce Muslim groups and movements is to paint them as a rigid monolith, with no sense of history, uniqueness, or context.
During the first phase of the “war on terror,” Islamophobia was used to justify the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq—claiming Islam is a monolithic and reactionary religion that led to 9/11, and that Muslim women are incapable of fighting for their own rights. This ignored the rich diversity of Islam, obfuscated the role of the US in funding Osama bin Laden and in arming Saudi Arabia, and denied women’s self-emancipation in Muslim countries and in the West.
In the second phase of the wars, Islamophobic ideas were used to justify the continuing occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. In this phase, Western elites spread the notion, again, that all Islam is the same, and thereby justified fighting against resistance movements in the occupied countries because of their Islamic content.
Now, new contradictions have emerged in government reactions to the recent wave of uprisings that began with Arab countries and the Middle East. In reaction to the Arab Spring, Western governments paid lip service to revolution while trying to hijack it—from “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, to using the Muslim Brotherhood to enforce neoliberalism in Egypt.
Marxism and religion
Islam is a religion and as such is a set of ideas—an ideology—that more or less cohesively says something or argues something about the world and how it works. In analyzing religion, Marxism begins with the material context that gives rise to religious ideas. As Marx wrote, it is not consciousness that determines people’s reality, but people’s reality that shapes their consciousness. This is not a static or one way process: people’s ideas influence their activity, and when people collectively act to change the world their consciousness changes through the process. Actions and ideas have a dialectical relationship which has shaped human history.
Marx famously wrote that religion is the opium of the people, but that is not all. The actual passage reads: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” At the time opium was widely used to ease pain and help people cope with suffering, and that was what Marx meant—and the political conclusion was not to denounce religions people turned to, but the capitalist system against which they were reacting.
The early 20th-century Russian communists also came to understand the role of religion in a nuanced way. Vladimir Lenin wrote in a 1909 pamphlet entitled The Attitude of the Workers’ Party Toward Religion: “We are absolutely opposed to giving the slightest offence to their religious convictions... infant-school materialists.... The deepest root of religion today is the socially downtrodden condition of the working masses and their apparent complete helplessness in the face of the blind forces of capitalism, which every day and every hour inflicts upon ordinary working people the most horrible suffering and the most savage torment, a thousand times more severe than those inflicted by extraordinary events such as wars, earthquakes, etc.”
The important thing about ideas is always their impact on reality, and on actions. It is not abstract, and the Russian communists understood this. In his article “The Bolsheviks and Islam,” British socialist Dave Crouch cites a declaration called “To all the Muslim workers of Russia and the East,” which was issued by the fledgling Soviet government on 24 November 1917: “Muslims of Russia…all you whose mosques and prayer houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled upon by the tsars and oppressors of Russia: your beliefs and practices, your national and cultural institutions are forever free and inviolate. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the mighty protection of the revolution.”
The effect of Bolshevik policies was to ally the revolution with progressive Muslims, and other religious minorities, who sought social justice—and that had a radicalizing impact on struggles around the world, including on anti-imperial struggles.
Stalinism and pan-Arab nationalism
But the Stalinism counter-revolution crushed the Russian Revolution, and undermined other revolutionary struggles. Stalinism also turned revolutionary theory on its head—advocating alliances with the “progressive bourgeoisie” and condemning religion—which shaped the development of resistance movements.
Under pan-Arab nationalism, dominant in the region in the 1950s and 1960s, the influence of Stalinism saw the identification of state control and power with socialism, repression of working-class and socialist organisations, nationalist projects versus workers’ internationalism, etc. So we saw that unions in Egypt under Nasser were subservient to the state; that the regime under Gaddafi became increasingly repressive; the list goes on.
The failure of Stalinist-influenced pan-Arab nationalism to confront imperialism increasingly led people to see Islam and Islamism as sites of resistance to repression and places to organize for democracy—similar to the 1950s US anti-racist organizing taking place in the Baptist churches of the southern states. As Gilbert Achcar has pointed out, and Anne Alexander has emphasized, “a key reason for the rise of Islamist movements was the failure of secular nationalists to meet the aspirations of their followers for economic and political development…as the Stalinist Communist Parties ‘have totally discredited themselves with a long history of selling out popular struggles.’ Faced with falling living standards and a corrupt political order, sections of the lower middle class, which two generations ago would have embraced secular nationalism, have turned instead to Islamism.”
Islamism is a term that often refers to political Islam—a perspective held by some Muslim groups that seek to control or influence state power and in some cases to convert the state to one they would consider Islamic.
To understand the full nuance, think of how the National Assembly in Quebec displays a cross, but the Christian church, although it shares a certain part of its history with Quebec, does not dictate how the state behaves. The Quebec government is not Christian. In the same way, some Islamic groups seek to control the state, but not necessarily to convert it: they promise to uphold religious freedoms, for example. An example of this is present-day Turkey, which is in the hands of a majority Muslim parliament, but which is also in a country where state-led oppression of Islam was the norm for decades. On the other end of the spectrum, we see the Saudi monarchy, one of the closest allies of American imperialism in the Middle East, which is based on the extremely conservative Wahhabi Islam, as was bin Laden and as is al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda shares some of its religious beliefs with Wahhabism, the state religion of Saudi Arabia. The kingdom of Saud arranged with the clerics of this practice, which is very conservative, that if they would back their instatement as monarchs over the entire area they would promote it as the state religion. But bin Laden criticized the Saudis for their allowing the US to establish military bases there. He also criticized the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of betraying jihad. Al Qaeda is not an organization with a social aim; it does not provide social services or any focus for organizing mass resistance.
There is also a diversity in the relationship between Islamism and Western imperialism. On one side, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are allies of US imperialism. On the other side, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and Hizbullah in Lebanon have a history of opposition to imperialism.
After the nationalist leader Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized Iran’s oil, the West orchestrated a coup and installed a brutal dictator, the Shah, in 1951. In 1979 a revolutionary movement overthrew the Shah, a huge defeat for imperialism that, in the process, also briefly witnessed the formation of democratic councils called shorahs. But the left was split between isolated guerrilla tactics and Stalinist subordination of the movement to the “progressive bourgeoisie”—allowing Ayatollah Khomeini to usurp the movement, using a conservative interpretation of Islam as cover for a continuing capitalist policies.
The Society of the Muslim Brothers was founded in 1928 in Egypt, as a social organization—preaching Islam, teaching the illiterate, setting up hospitals, and launching businesses. At the level of the leadership, the Brotherhood’s goal is to install the Qur’an as a way of ordering everyday life, through participation in parliament through elections. It was repressed under Nasser and Mubarak and formed the largest opposition group. What matters is not the Muslim Brotherhood’s particular perspective on Islam or how it would impose Islamic values in power, but rather its class alliances and its approach to workers’ movements—which has typically been to stand back or even advocate repression.
Hamas was the result of the First Intifada. Founded in 1987, Hamas enjoys its popularity in large part due to the fact that, in the 20 years between its founding and the 2006 election, it was the only organization providing any kind of social services to a population ground down by Israeli occupation and apartheid policies. Hamas’ election victory in parliamentary elections in 2006 exposed the limits of the democracy the West claims to espouse, because the election, declared by many international observers to have been completely legitimate, was not recognized—because the US, Canada and others didn’t like the result.
Similarly, Hizbullah in Lebanon has been popular because of its social organizing role. Like Hamas, Hizbullah first emerged in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Its 1985 manifesto listed among its goals giving the people the chance to choose “with full freedom the system of government they want,” while not hiding its commitment to the rule of Islam. Like Hamas, Hizbullah organizes an extensive social development program and runs hospitals, news services, agricultural centres, and schools—and achieved international acclaim for resisting Israel’s assault on Lebanon in 2006.
But a feature of Islamism—like pan-Arab nationalism—is its cross-class alliances trying to control the capitalist state, rather than working-class organizations trying to overthrow it. While the base of Islamist organizations includes poor and working-class people who want a better world, their leadership simply wants state power under the language of Islam—which will inevitably lead to compromises with capitalism and imperialism. This contradiction makes them vacillate and unable to provide a real alternative. Recently we’ve seen the leadership of Hizbullah support the repressive Assad regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood vacillate from opposition to complicity with the military regime in Egypt.
Egypt: strategy and tactics
As Hosni Mubarak imposed greater and greater neoliberal measures and kept the country in a decades-long state of emergency which prohibited protest and strikes, the Brotherhood became, more and more, a force that many in Egypt saw as a means of resistance against their own state. For this reason many of its activists were persecuted under the Islamophobic “war on terror”, and while many on the left supported Mubarak’s attacks on civil liberties, the Revolutionary Socialists (RS) defended Islamists.
The Brotherhood formed part of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, although it was not consistently allied with workers and the poor who wanted economic reforms. During the 2011 revolution the Brotherhood played a limited role; it was only when many of its youth joined the revolution that the leadership was pushed to eventually support it.
However, once Mubarak fell, the Brotherhood moved quickly to negotiate with the new regime, because its goal is not economic or social reform but political influence in the Egyptian state. The inevitable splits between the leadership and the younger sections of its membership were emerging long before that point and, from that point forward, emerged more strongly than ever. RS continued to support strikes and protests against the military regime, working with Brotherhood activists while pointing out their conservative leadership. When the Egyptian state cracked down on the Revolutionary Socialists and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood joined in the campaign, its base defended the RS because of its history of defending civil liberties.
When the 2012 presidential runoff pitted the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi against Ahmed Shafik from Mubarak’s regime, the RS called for a critical vote for Morsi, but from the start was part of the organized opposition to the Brotherhood’s failure to deliver the demands of the revolution, its demonstrated adherence to neoliberalism, and its complicity with Israel. Morsi, having come to power on a wave of revolution, became the target of the same type of mass demonstrations aimed at his predecessors.
In late November 2012 Morsi granted himself unlimited powers to “protect” the nation, and the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts. Hundreds of thousands of protesters demonstrated against him last year. On December 8, 2012, Morsi annulled his decree but did not reverse actions he had taken in the interim, while continuing to deny the basic economic and political demands of the revolution.
The experience of the Brotherhood in power drove another revolutionary wave of millions of people in June 2013. Fearing the deepening of the revolution, the military regime removed Morsi but also revived Mubarak’s Islamophobic campaign against the Brotherhood—as the thin edge of a broader counter-revolution. Many were divided between supporting the state’s counter-revolution, or defending the Brotherhood’s betrayal of the revolution. The RS, on the other hand, has been defending the Brotherhood from state violence, defending Christians from attack from reactionary Islamist forces, and pushing for a deepening of the revolution.
What does this mean for the left and progressive forces in the West?
First, we need to fight Islamophobia. In France we have seen the headscarf debate in which large segments of the left have quite shamefully backed the state against Muslim women, a position based on a combination of Stalinist distortion of secularism and outright Islamophobia. We need to promote workers’ and working-class resistance and consciousness; not the Stalinist notion of being against religion and cleansing workers of their religious ideas and sentiments, but rather how ideas shape experience and vice versa.
Second, we need to resist the imperial wars that Islamophobia attempts to justify. After 9/11 some on the left raised the slogan “neither Bush nor bin Laden,” abstaining from the anti-war movement based on the false equation between Western imperialism and a fringe current within political Islam. Then, during the military occupations, some on the left argued that we should be neutral between the US-led forces and the resistance. More recently, the dominant response to developments in Egypt has been either to cheerlead the Egyptian military as it massacres Brotherhood activists, or to support uncritically the Brotherhood as a bulwark against imperialism—in both cases denying the contradictory nature of Islamist organizations.
Third, unconditional support for resistance movements does not mean uncritical support for Islamist organizations. Because we want anti-imperial movements to win, we can be critical of their strategies and tactics. While defending Islamists from state repression, we can criticize the vacillations and betrayals and their cross-class leadership, and support movements from below that challenge the capitalist state regardless of which party is in power.
Finally, what we need here and everywhere is independent working-class organization that has the capacity to bring the capitalist system to its knees. That is the lesson of Egypt and its revolutions—and many other examples throughout history.

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