The nature of Islamic fundamentalism

By Lisa Macdonald

Islamic fundamentalism, more accurately referred to by many Middle Eastern Marxists as "political Islam",1 is in essence a political movement composed of groups and organisations which, while Islamic theology is their cover, aspire to state power. Theologically, political Islam embraces both historically progressive and reactionary positions: those which assert that Islamic tenets are compatible with modern values such as freedom and democracy, and those which advocate a "revolt against history" in which the early phase of Islamic society is glorified and adherents aim to turn back the wheel of history to re-establish this supposedly golden age. Politically also, Islamism has presented both reactionary and progressive faces.

This has led to many liberal left analyses of political Islam falling into one of two camps. The first is to see political Islam as thoroughly reactionary, leading to the conclusion that the Islamists, like fascists, must be stopped at any cost. Thus, many leftists concluded after the 1979 Iranian revolution which overthrew the shah that the Iranian left should have allied with sections of Iran's bourgeoisie in order to stop the Muslim clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini from taking state power.2

The second position is to see Islamism as an inherently progressive movement of those who are oppressed by colonialism and imperialism. This can lead to the opposite problem in practice: uncritical support for Islamic regimes and oppositions, regardless of the class interests they are advancing in particular struggles.

Neither of these positions allows for the fact that religion develops in a social context. As Karl Marx wrote: "Man makes religion ... But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society".3

Islam, like Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and every other major religion, evolved and maintained itself by changing its base of support as society changed. Islam arose in the trading communities of seventh century Arabia, a society still mainly organised on a tribal basis. Islam then flourished within the empires carved out by some of those who adopted its doctrines. Today it persists as the official ideology of some capitalist states and as an oppositional force in others. Islam has been able to survive in such different societies by adapting to different class interests. While it has gained a mass following by always promising a degree of protection and consolation to the oppressed, it has also served the ruling classes in their efforts to stop attempts to overthrow them.

The origins of Islam

The Koran, the text containing the five pillars of Islam (the declaration of faith, regular prayers, the distribution of wealth, fasting and pilgrimage), was the product of the prophet Muhammad, regarded by Muslims as Allah's last and most important prophet. A merchant and trader, Muhammad was born in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, in 570 AD.

Many factors contributed to the spread of Islam throughout the region: social unrest between warring tribes in Mecca and Medina, the declining fortunes of the Persian and Byzantine empires, and the fact that Islam was adopted first by traders who travelled widely, spreading the word as they went. Religious envoys and their armies were dispatched across the Arab countries, tribes in the Arabian peninsula were unified, and in 622 AD Muhammad marched to Mecca with an army of 10,000 Muslims.

The tribal leaders were transformed into ruling elites with the Muslim accession to state power across Arabia. While doctrinal differences arose as a result of the power struggles that occurred during the formation of the ruling elites (these different doctrines became the bases of the various Islamic sects in later centuries), Islam as a whole gained millions of new converts over the following centuries as Arab armies created an empire stretching from Spain to south Asia.

With western Europe mired in backwardness, the Islamic world preserved the scientific teachings of the Greek and Roman civilisations and made great strides in art and architecture, as well as scientific breakthroughs such as the invention of algebra.

In the late fifteenth century, after the European Renaissance, a period of stagnation began for most of the Muslim world as the ruling elites tried to conserve their power and privileges. The autocratic regimes in the Islamic countries had become fetters on social development, and the advances in science and culture came to a halt. Meanwhile, in Europe, capitalist manufacture was laying the basis for modern industry and the eventual colonisation of most of the Muslim world by the British and French ruling classes.

Modern Islamism

Islamism was revived about a century ago in response to the conquest and transformation of Asia and North Africa by capitalist Europe. The Islamic revivalists argued that colonisation had been possible only because the original Islamic values had been corrupted by the worldly pursuits of the great medieval empires. Regeneration was therefore possible only by reviving the founding spirit of Islam. The degree to which this revival should attempt to recreate a mythical past or incorporate modern industry and science was, and remains, a subject of debate among Islamic leaders.

There were many anti-colonial movements based on Islamic revivalism in the first half of the twentieth century. In so far as these Islamists played on the insecurities of social groups that were disappearing as society was transformed by capitalism and imperialism, they cannot be considered progressive. But in so far as this Islamism was also often an appeal to the radical currents produced by society's transformation, neither can it be characterised in any straightforward way as reactionary.

The combined and uneven development of capitalism in the context of imperialism has set the basic framework for political Islam's development over the last 100 years. It has developed in Third World societies traumatised by the impact of capitalist development—first by their conquest by imperialism and then by the transformation of internal social relations accompanying the rise of an indigenous capitalist class and the formation of an independent capitalist state.

Direct colonial rule has been largely banished, but the imperialist powers still use their superior military and economic power to influence the economic and social policies of the formally independent Third World states so as to ensure that these countries can continue to be super-exploited by the transnational corporations based in the imperialist countries.

Internally, while some industrialisation proceeded in these poor countries after World War II, largely in relation to the extraction and processing of the Middle East's largest single resource, oil, large sectors of traditional industry (small workshops, family businesses) remain, and there was no corresponding development of social infrastructure (drinking water, sewerage, electricity, housing, education, health facilities). Land reform turned some peasants into modern capitalist farmers, but many more were displaced, leaving them homeless and having to eke out a living in the large informal economy of the cities.

Political Islam, while apparently offering a solution to these contradictions for predominantly Muslim Third World societies, does not find its support equally in all sections of those societies. It has tended to get its mass support mainly from the petty bourgeoisie: landowners, small manufacturers and shopkeepers who are under constantly increasing pressure from emerging local capitalists and finance capital, peasants who are being forced into urban areas and unemployment by capitalist farming—all those who fear, or are, losing out as the capitalist modernisation of their society proceeds.

But it also finds a resonance among those who have fallen from the ranks of the middle class into the proletariat and semi-proletariat, including the university-educated children of farmers and small business people, who aspire to but are unable to access professional careers, as well as from sections of the newly formed proletariat that are not yet equipped with class consciousness and the experience of class struggle.4

Main currents of political Islam

The Islamist movement is complex and multi-layered, with competing Sunni and Shiite backers. For example, Saudi Arabia, where the ruling class is Sunni, from the Wahhabi grouping, has done everything in its power to counter Iranian Shiite influence, which has grown since the 1979 overthrow of the shah.

While veiled in religious garb, support for Islam is motivated by the self-interest of the capitalist class of each country. Thus, the Saudi regime's billions of dollars of funding to radical Wahhabi organisations worldwide is motivated less by theological concerns than by the threat to the Saudi monarchs of challenges from more radical Saudi Wahhabis, who do not approve of the royal family's luxurious lifestyle or collaboration with the US and threaten their hold on power.

The main current in modern political Islam in the Middle East is based on the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, or Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al Banna and exported to other countries.5 The Brotherhood grew into a mass movement across the region in the 1960s. It condemns the separation of the state and religion and aims to establish a theocratic state.

There have been many splits from the Brotherhood network. Some oppositional forces, such as the Al-Wasat in Egypt, have been modernised and advocate political pluralism. In Turkey, the main Sunni Islamist parties have been coalition partners in successive secular governments, and some "Islamic democrats", as they call themselves, are part of the movements for human rights, democracy and, albeit less consistently, for the national rights of Kurds. Others took up arms, including Egypt's Islamic Jihad, Algeria's Armed Islamic Groups (GIA), Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and numerous groups in Pakistan.

The theological foundations of much of Islamic fundamentalism can be traced back to a medieval school of Islam, known as Salafiya, which spread throughout the Arab world in the twentieth century. Early Salafi reformers believed they could reconcile Islam with modern political ideas; some argued that western-style democracy was perfectly compatible with the Islamic concept of shura (consultation between ruler and ruled). However, when the imperialist powers carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire into nation-states after World War I, more radical Salafis began to argue that Islam was in danger of being extinguished by western influences and developed the idea that western culture was equivalent to jahiliyah (the barbarism that existed before Islam) and must be brought down by a jihad (this term translates strictly as "struggle", but is widely used to refer to Islamists' "holy war" against infidels) and replaced with the umma (the cross-continental Islamic nation).

Egyptian writer and Sunni activist Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by Egyptian authorities in the mid-1960s for inciting resistance to the regime, was a key propagandist for this position. He rejected democracy and nationalism as symptoms of jahiliyah and even argued that pan-Arabism was an obstacle to the foundation of the umma.

Probably Qutb's most important contribution to the development of Islamic fundamentalism was his unprecedented declaration that it was permissible, indeed sometimes necessary, for Muslims to defy the prohibition in the Koran against overthrowing a Muslim leader—simply by declaring that leader an infidel.

Nationalist movements

In response to colonial occupation and imperialist exploitation, some sections of the population in the Muslim-inhabited countries embraced a secular nationalist response, contributing to the large radical movements and massive social explosions in the region, often organised by the Communist parties, from World War I until the 1960s, and directed against both their own corrupt ruling elites and imperialism.

The Russian Revolution had a big impact on the anti-colonial struggle in Muslim-inhabited societies, especially those that had been under the boot of the tsarist government. This influence was not just by example. In 1919, for example, the new workers and peasants government of Russia opened discussions with Amanullah Khan, the emir of Afghanistan, offering a treaty of trade and friendship, and military aid for the Afghans' struggle against British rule. The Bolsheviks also offered to repair the injustice done by the tsar by adjusting the Soviet-Afghan frontier to add to the territory of Afghanistan.

In a letter to Amanullah Khan, Lenin wrote: "Flourishing Afghanistan is the only independent Muslim state in the world, and fate sends the Afghan people the great historic task of uniting about itself all enslaved Mohammedan peoples and leading them on the road to freedom and independence".6

In 1923, the victory of Kemal Ataturk in Turkey dealt a heavy blow to pan-Islamism as the Ottoman Empire, in which Islam was an official religion, was brought down. In the decades that followed, a modernising nationalism gained ground and, from the end of World War II until the 1970s, achieved a number of victories. Nasser in Egypt, Ben Bella in Algeria, Bourguiba in Tunisia all pushed through social reforms, some of which directly undermined imperialist economic and political interests in the region.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there were strong left-wing currents across the Muslim world. In Syria, South Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Ethiopia, there were left-wing coups and the creation of state capitalist regimes. In other countries there were strong waves of mass movements which threw up left-leaning populist leaders, such as Nasser. Modernisation, it seemed, could have and was about to annul Islam as a political force.

Imperialism's role and the defeat of the left

The United States' attitude towards Islamic groups and parties has always been determined by its specific foreign policy objectives. On the one hand, it has maintained an alliance with the fundamentalist Wahhabist regime in Saudi Arabia ever since World War II, and also with Islamist-influenced dictatorships in Pakistan. On the other hand, it has supported the suppression of particular Islamist parties in almost every Middle Eastern country at some time or another.

One thread has never broken, however: imperialism has always viewed political Islam—both the radical oppositions and the Islamic regimes—as natural partners in the task of suppressing the left and, in the context of the Cold War, of weakening the Soviet Union's influence in the region.

With few exceptions (most notably the Shiites in Iran), organising, arming, training and funding Islamist groups as a reactionary weapon against the rising tide of mass upsurge and social revolution became a cornerstone of us foreign policy. This was especially so after the defeat of the British and French imperialists in the Suez Canal dispute of 1956. The plethora of fundamentalist offshoots from the main Islamist organisations, in particular, were the perfect tool for the low-intensity combat the US's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) uses.

The first and most consistently pro-imperialist Islamic state was established by the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia, with the backing of the British, amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Wahhabi cleric Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud unified warring tribes, crowned himself king in the 1920s and imposed the Wahhabi interpretation of Islamic law, which includes stoning women adulterers, amputating limbs of thieves and public beheadings for other crimes, laws which remain in place today.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the support of the CIA, Saudi Arabia organised an "Islamic front" to build a more effective capitalist political alternative to pan-Arab nationalism and socialism. This network included the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in Syria, Sarekat-e-Islam in Indonesia, the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS) in Algeria and Jama'at Islami in Pakistan.

Finding it difficult to build a mass base as wave after wave of left-wing currents swept across their countries, many of the Islamist groups, despite their anti-imperialist rhetoric, fell into the lap of imperialism for their survival. This brought them into alliance with most of the regimes in the region, which were heavily dependent on help from the US to crush the mass revolts they faced. The Islamic fundamentalists' vigilante groups became a major tool of reaction and counter-revolution for the right-wing states in connivance with imperialism.

In Indonesia, Sarekat-e-Islam provided many of the foot soldiers in the coup against the left nationalist President Sukarno, wiping out the Communist Party and murdering as many as two million leftists.

In Egypt and Syria, Islamist organisations like Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen were used to destabilise left-wing regimes. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat protected the radical Islamists in the 1970s to neutralise the left-leaning Nasserites and the Communists, and later to recruit to the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan.

Jordan's King Hussein, backed by the US, often relied on Islamists' support in combating left opponents, and Yemen's President Abdallah Saleh was supported by Islamists in clashes with Marxists in South Yemen.

In Bangladesh (then East Bengal), during the 1971 independence war, the Jama'at-e-Islam, Al-Shams and Al-Badar groups played a similar role in league with the Pakistani army, murdering hundreds of thousands of leftists leading the mass upsurge there.

In Pakistan, during the dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq, Jama'at-e-Islami was the main tool of imperialism and the Pakistani state to curb anti-dictatorship leftists.

The process reached its peak during the 1980s, when thousands of Islamists were trained and sent to Afghanistan to try to overthrow the Soviet-backed People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government, which took power after the 1978 revolution there. Afghanistan is estimated to be the largest covert CIA operation involving Islamic fundamentalists (in 1987, US military assistance to the mujaheddin reached $700 million—more than Pakistan received—much of it sent via Saudi Arabia to keep the extent of US support hidden).7

In the mid-1990s, the US cosied up to the anti-left Sudanese regime of General Omar Bashir, the product of a coup in 1989 by Bashir and Sheikh Hassan Turabi against the democratically elected government. Shortly afterwards, Bashir allowed the CIA to open offices in Sudan.

In 1978, the US National Security Council set up, in collaboration with the CIA and the Saudi and Turkish intelligence services, Islamist propaganda networks intended to infiltrate the nationalist Muslim organisations in the Soviet republics of central Asia. Large quantities of weapons and Korans printed in the Gulf states were introduced into Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Likewise, the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, under successive Israeli governments, discreetly supported the Muslim Brotherhood in the Occupied Territories in the 1960s and 1970s, while the Brotherhood was exclusively attacking Yassar Arafat's left nationalist Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).8 However, this support ended during the first intifada, begun in 1987, when the Brotherhood gave birth to Hamas, which melded the jihad with the struggle for the liberation of Palestine from Israel.

Self-destruction of the left

The task of crushing, or at least severely repressing, the socialist organisations and progressive mass movements was made considerably easier by the weaknesses and class collaboration of the Stalinised Communist Party leaderships in Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Algeria and other countries. Their misleadership, combined with the viciousness of the assault on them by imperialism and the local capitalist rulers, meant that the movements for national liberation did not culminate in social revolution, instead causing mass demobilisation, demoralisation and disillusionment with the project of progressive social change through the self-activity of the oppressed.

In Iran, for example, the Tudeh Party (the Communist Party of Iran) formed an alliance with the Islamic clergy, rather than presenting an alternative, and was soon after wiped out by them.9

In Afghanistan, the shortcomings of the PDPA and the US/Pakistan/Saudi-sponsored war against the Soviet-backed government eventually resulted in the Taliban coming to power.10

In Algeria, the leftist National Front for Liberation (FLN) successfully led the movement against 132 years of French occupation and remained in power for over two decades, but failed to stop the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The FLN government's inability to bring about development and economic prosperity in a context of demands by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank for debt repayment created the social conditions within which the FIS gained support. When it looked likely that the FIS would win the 1989 elections, the FLN government cancelled the second round and cracked down on the FIS, jailing many of its leaders and banning religious dress. This fuelled the violence and propelled the FIS to electoral victory in 1991, before a military coup dislodged them. In response, in 1996, the GIA appeared, declaring a jihad against the Algerian army, and hundreds of thousands of Muslim civilians have died in the ensuing war.

Mosques as political organisers

When the mass of people find themselves in a blind alley because both the bourgeois democratic and socialist movements have failed to improve their living conditions fundamentally, some sections of the masses start looking backwards, and religious, ethnic, communal, caste and other backward prejudices can come to the fore.

Islamism was given a major push along by the closure of democratic space that accompanied the destruction of the left and its aftermath. The repression of all political opposition in many countries forced much of the political discussion into the mosques.

When it became clear that, despite the support they had received from right-wing regimes and imperialism as a hammer against the left, some Islamist organisations had their own agenda and were not necessarily sympathetic to the interests of the existing bourgeois rulers of these states, they too came under severe repression. Whether the repression was carried out by pro-imperialist regimes worried that the Islamists whom they had nurtured were getting off the leash, such as in Iraq and Tunisia, or by relatively progressive democratic governments struggling to survive imperialist-sponsored Islamist attack, such as in Nasser's Egypt and the FLN's Algeria, the outcome was the same: Islamist rhetoric, conveyed through the mosques, became an instrument of mobilisation, one of the few outlets for political protest.

Appeal to progressive sentiments

The rhetoric of political Islam has always exploited the failings and vices of present leaders and the system, and offered the illusion of the virtues of a distant past. But its appeal is not principally because it is a source of hope for regaining a golden past. Rather, all currents of Islamic fundamentalism have related Islam to issues such as escaping poverty and oppression.

Islamism's political and social program—including its denunciations of injustice, corruption and the tyranny of the ruling class—has always gained more favour with the public than its religious message, which is primarily reactionary, misogynist and morally repressive. This is why the revival of Islamism occurred after its transformation into a nationalist and anti-imperialist force.

Hamas (an acronym for Movement of Islamic Resistance of Palestine) is a good example of this process. It formed in late 1987 out of the Islamic Centre in Gaza in response to the beginning of the intifada. The first period of Hamas' development was the setting up of a social infrastructure by Ahmad Yassim, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza. The Islamic Centre, which was opened in 1973, was the base for administration and control of religious and educational institutions that aimed to promote a return to Islam, to eradicate "immoral" behaviour: pornography, alcohol, homosexuality, drug abuse and mixed-sex activities.

Hamas' launching in 1987 was essentially the launching of an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. However, the particular context of Palestine—Israel's brutal and expanding occupation and the strength of the left-influenced PLO—meant that Hamas, in order to have any social base, had to attempt to bridge the divide between Palestinian nationalism and Islamism, no easy task given Qutb's preachings against nationalism as idolatry because it divides the umma and replaces a shariat-centred consciousness with ethnic pride (the shariat is the body of law based on Islamic teachings).

Hamas bridged the contradiction in its charter with a more pragmatic interpretation of Qutb's theory, namely that the success of each (national liberation and the creation of the umma) depended on the advance of the other. Hamas thus embarked on a twin-track policy of jihad and nationalist struggle.

Another example of political Islam's flexible or pragmatic approach to gaining mass support is the transformation in the rhetoric and platform of Turkey's Islamic Welfare Party when it relaunched itself in 1997 as the Virtue Party.11 The leadership and strategic goals of the party remained basically unchanged, but rather than talk about the old party's "Islamic mission", the Virtue Party's rhetoric emphasised democracy, human rights and personal liberty. Its (short-lived) public recognition of Kurds' national rights was also a first for Islamists in Turkey.

Welfare provider and educator

Islamism's popular support has been fuelled by the failure of the local bourgeoises to deliver even basic development in the form of social welfare, public education and other services in a context of increasing impoverishment of the majority in their countries. The Islamist organisations have stepped in and provided these services to the disenfranchised, with extensive networks of well-funded welfare organisations and educational and health services. These services have become the bearers of the political Islamists' message to masses of people.

It is estimated, for example, that Hamas-fronted social welfare groups in Palestine received $140 million in grants over the last year, channelled from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states such as Qatar. The Islamic Youth Society, a Hamas charity, has, since the second intifada began in October 2000, been distributing food parcels every month to 30,000 people.12

More important politically are the madrassas, the Muslim schools, usually housed in mosques, where children and youth go to learn the Koran and Arabic. While these schools are established and controlled by wealthy clerics, often backed by Islamic states, they attract thousands of students from poor families who cannot access mainstream educational institutions. The madrassas have become the main source of recruits for the fundamentalist organisations, giving the students a sense of purpose, self-worth and a living by arming them and paying them a stipend.

Hundreds of thousands of fighters have been recruited and trained in the madrassas in Pakistan to fight in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Sudan, Algeria and other jihads. In the early 1990s, some 4000 madrassas sprang up in Pakistan, especially near the Afghan border.

Iranian revolution

Even though Islamism filled a vacuum in political leadership left by the defeated nationalist and socialist movements, without the 1979 revolution in Iran, political Islam might have remained relatively marginal.

As part of their efforts to neutralise the influence of the Islamist organisations that had helped to defeat the left, the capitalist regimes in many Muslim-inhabited countries integrated much of the Islamist movement into state institutions and, in some cases (Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen), coopted them through representation in parliament.

In Iran, however, following the overthrow of the shah, Islamic fundamentalism organised itself as a state, and Shiite Islamists in the Middle East gained powerful governmental, financial and moral support in the early days of the new regime. Islamist sects opened offices in Teheran, received cash and arms, and were trained in military camps by the Revolutionary Guards.

The mosques had been the organising centres for the popular movement and, with the downfall of the shah, the force most capable of taking over was the Shiite clergy. Shiite Islam became a force because it had appealed to the progressive, anti-imperialist sentiments of the masses and constantly stressed the failure of nationalism and communism, which had, until then, had a positive impact on popular consciousness. Neither the Soviet Union nor China had encouraged the popular movement against the shah before 1979, and the Tudeh Party, despite still having a mass base, failed to present itself as an alternative to the clergy. Instead it forged an alliance with it and failed to link the democratic movement to the class struggle for socialism. On coming to power, the Ayatollah Khomeini leadership set out to eliminate the Communists, murdering thousands of Iranians.

Some left nationalist regimes in the region had implemented their anti-imperialist rhetoric in concrete measures: Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, the Algerian FLN defeated the French colonialists. These were real encroachments on imperialism's interests. In contrast, the Iranian regime's anti-imperialism was pure demagogy and posturing. When one faction of Khomeini's followers attempted to gain advantage by seizing the United States embassy and taking its staff hostage in 1980, the regime received radical cover without imperialism's interests being in any way undermined.

What the Iranian clergy did do concretely was develop armed gangs to enforce Islamic rule, brutally repress the left and Kurdish national movements and terrorise any mass mobilisation critical of the new regime.

End of the Cold War

The Iranian revolution was followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Soviet Union's retreat from Afghanistan (1989) and the later taking of power by the Taliban, the US attack on Iraq in the 1990-91 Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. These developments changed the picture once more.

The process initiated by the developments in Iran was internationalised by the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan. The predominantly Pushtun Taliban emerged in late 1994 as a movement made up of taliban (literally "students") from madrassas who were living as refugees in Pakistan.

Historically, the Islam practised in Afghanistan was strongly influenced by Sufism and very tolerant. Until 1992, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews all played a role in the country's economy, and sectarian conflict between the majority Sunni and minority Shiite branches was minimal. Before the Taliban arrived, none of Islam's extreme orthodox sects had built a base in Afghanistan.

The Taliban's version of Islam emerged from an extreme interpretation of the Deobandi branch of Sunni Islam, preached by Pakistani mullahs in Afghan refugee camps. During the war against the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan and Soviet troops, the few Deobandi Afghan groups that existed were ignored. Across the border, however, the Pakistani Deobandis' political wing—the Jamait-ul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI)—set up hundreds of madrassas in Pakistan's Pushtun belt. Saudi funds and scholarships brought these Deobandis closer ideologically to the ultra-conservative Wahhabism.

The JUI and its many breakaway factions became the main recruiters of Pakistani and foreign students to fight for the mujaheddin. Between 1994 and 1999, an estimated 80-100,000 Pakistanis trained and fought in Afghanistan.

The JUI had been politically isolated until the 1993 elections, when it allied itself with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and became part of her ruling coalition. The JUI thus gained access to and built links with those in power in the army, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and the Interior Ministry.13

Encouraged by the JUI, the ISI and Pakistani government provided military, political and financial support to the Taliban for their own geo-political reasons. Pakistan believed that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would be an ally and strengthen its military position against India, in particular in the conflict over Kashmir. A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would also be a bulwark against Iran for the Pakistani ruling class.

The United States, for its part, wanted to turn the Afghan jihad into a war waged by all Muslim countries against the Soviet Union, and also ensure US access to Caspian Sea oil and gas reserves through a pipeline that would bypass Iran and Iraq by going through Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Taliban's particularly traditionalist brand of Islamism meant that they came to see themselves as not just foot soldiers for Pakistan and the US, but as jihad warriors who had freed Islamic land as an initial step towards the creation of the umma. This has had significant implications for the region, in particular for Pakistan, where a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism has now reached beyond the Pushtun belt into Punjab and Sind, led by groups that model themselves on the Taliban. They have killed hundreds of Pakistani Shiites and attempted to assassinate former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. When the Pakistani government responded to the attempt with a crackdown, their leaders were given refuge by the Taliban—the same Taliban being promoted by the Pakistani state.

With US and Saudi support, the Taliban's influence also spread into the five former Soviet central Asian republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The new ruling classes and governments of these countries, made up mainly of the former Stalinist leaders, are growing increasingly authoritarian as their countries collapse into economic and social crisis. Rigged elections, restrictions on political parties and rampant unemployment and poverty have created a fertile recruiting ground for Islamic fundamentalism, which is the only political opposition in some areas. The Taliban allowed central Asian Islamist leaders to set up training camps in Afghanistan, from where they have launched attacks which have captured villages and tried to impose Taliban norms in their areas of influence. As well, there has been an increasing Islamisation of the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination from India.

Turning on the US

After the US's departure from Afghanistan, once the Soviet "threat" was removed, the US became political Islam's main target. The collapse of the USSR had voided the anti-communist motivation for the Islamists, but not the call for jihad. Even more importantly, Washington's war on and blockade of Iraq, its military implantation in Saudi Arabia and its support for Israel's continued occupation of Palestine and south Lebanon had fuelled the anti-imperialist sentiments of the mass of ordinary Muslims and Arabs during the 1990s, a development not lost on the Islamists.

The 1990-91 Gulf War sparked demonstrations throughout the Arab and Muslim world—not out of sympathy with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, but in protest at Washington's hypocrisy: why did only Iraq face sanctions when Israel had occupied Arab territory for decades? And why did the US set up bases in several Gulf countries if not to protect various unstable and unpopular regimes? The US's tardy response to the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims by Serbia added fuel to the flames.

The response of several Islamic fundamentalist organisations was to resort to terrorist attacks targeting the US and Israel. Hamas suicide bombings in Israel increased and, in 1993, Afghan-trained militants exploded a bomb in the World Trade Centre in New York. In 1998, the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed.

For the US's allies in the Middle East, public opinion made it increasingly difficult to maintain openly collaborative relations with imperialism. Just how difficult was made evident in the September-October 2000 intifada, when rage against the US and Israel, and the confidence given by the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in May that year under military pressure from Hizbollah, was expressed in masses of people taking to the streets across the whole Arab world in support of the intifada. The regimes allied with the US hastily called an Arab summit—the first since the Gulf War—and, to save their skins domestically, launched a (short-lived) propaganda campaign against the US and Israel.

In the post-Cold War era, imperialism no longer needs political Islam as a battering ram against the Soviet Union and communist or communist-backed mass movements and, for the moment at least, it has largely stopped supporting and funding Islamist groups. Indeed, Islamic fundamentalism is being transformed by the imperialists' opinion-makers into the new external bogey to scare the working class in the imperialist countries, to justify constantly increasing military budgets in a context of domestic economic problems and to justify military and economic attacks on any Third World country imperialism chooses.

An Islamist international?

Has the apparent rebirth of anti-imperialist Islamism produced a supranational movement? This has become a favourite theme of establishment politicians and commentators in the imperialist countries: the idea that there is developing a powerful international network of jihad militants who live in many countries, have multiple passports, use the latest international communications and transportation technology to plan and carry out their attacks and aim to conquer the whole world for Islam.

The infatuation of the capitalist media with the abstract idea of "globalisation" causes this theory to be lapped up and endlessly regurgitated. Such a line suits the imperialists' propaganda needs very well. It generates mass fear and hatred among First World workers of Islamic fundamentalism—the twenty-first century's substitute for the twentieth century's "international communist conspiracy". Working-class solidarity with the struggles for freedom and justice of people in any country deemed to be Islamic is therefore broken down, and the US can attack with impunity to ensure the stability of its new world order profits.

The notion of a pan-Islamic movement, which aims to create the umma, can be said to be consistent with traditional Muslim theology. The ultra-traditional Sunnis' emphasis on the implementation of the shariat as the only criterion for the Islamic state, for example, would mean that national borders mean little. Certainly this is the framework for a lot of the rhetoric of political Islam, and it did seem to inform the Taliban's practice in a way not seen anywhere else (for example, the Taliban downgraded Afghanistan's official denomination from an Islamic state to an emirate).

But Afghanistan under the Taliban was a very particular case. The Taliban regime was overwhelmingly a creation of imperialism and born out of a struggle for power fought and led largely by soldiers from other countries. There was virtually no capitalist development and the nation-state was extremely weak, fragmented into numerous tribal and ethnic groups.

On the whole, today's Islamists have a clear political agenda, one which necessarily involves state power. Despite their claim to being supranational, most of the Islamist movements have been shaped by national particularities: sooner or later they tend to express either the interests of the national ruling class or the masses' desire for national self-determination.14

At least since the death of Khomeini, Iranian foreign policy has been shaped by the Iranian rulers' national interests, rather than by Islamic ideology. Despite Islam's anti-communist tenets, the Iranian government kept a low profile against the Soviet Union's presence in Afghanistan. It supported Christian Armenia against Azerbaijan, a fellow Shiite country. It joined a strategic axis with Russia against Turkish and Western encroachments in central Asia.

In Palestine, Hamas challenges Arafat's Palestine Authority not on points relating to Islam but, albeit in an extremely limited way, for betraying the national rights of the Palestinian people.

The Yemen Islah movement has been active in the reunification of Yemen, against the wishes of its Saudi godfather.

The Lebanese Hizbollah is now stressing the defence of the Lebanese nation and has given up the idea of an Islamic state within Lebanon.

During the Gulf War, each branch of the Muslim Brotherhood took a stand in accordance with the immediate interests of its own country's ruling class (for example, in Kuwait it approved of the US attack, while the Jordanian branch opposed it).

The Islamist movements generally want to be acknowledged as legitimate actors on the domestic political scene, and they want a share of political power. Indeed, where they have become more significant players in domestic opposition, governments in the region, secular and Muslim, have tended to implement a policy of "official Islamisation" in order to undercut the Islamist opposition. In Pakistan, various shariat bills were passed by parliament in the late 1970s and 1980s; the 1984 Family Law in Algeria reintroduced some shariat elements; in Turkey, religious teachings were again made compulsory in schools in 1983; in Iraq, the Islamic-influenced Family Code was introduced.

All these states attempted to coopt the ulamas and assert an official (state-controlled) Islamisation via, for instance, the appointment of an official mufti or a state council of religious affairs. In some countries, the process quickly went beyond state control and deprived the more mainstream movements of their monopoly on the political use of Islam. In Algeria, for example, this process strengthened the FIS, and later contributed to the formation of the GIA; it contributed to the electoral success of the Refah party in Turkey; and it strengthened the Gama'at Islamiyya alongside the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The governing regimes' responses to this were in one of two directions: either a turn to authoritarian state secularism (such as in Turkey, Algeria and Tunisia) in which more radical Islamists and Muslim mores were banned or repressed, or attempts to ride the tiger (as in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). Either way, the Islamists' engagement in the struggle for political power has not abated. On the contrary, they have often been able to pose as the more consistent advocates of liberation from imperialist oppression and undemocratic governments, and thereby to strengthen their social base.

In contrast to bin Laden's pan-Islamist al-Qaeda network, which relies on terrorism directed at US imperialism precisely because it does not have a social base in any particular country, organisations like Hizbollah in Lebanon, and to some extent Hamas in Palestine, do have a social base because they challenge for leadership of the masses' aspirations for national liberation. Intervening in politics on this basis in an oppressed nation enables them to develop a mass base, and makes them far more significant politically and socially in domestic and world politics than any pan-Islamic terrorist organisation can be.

Relatively stateless international networks like al-Qaeda, despite their attention-grabbing attacks, are actually marginal in world politics. Domestically, they have little impact inside the main Middle Eastern countries in terms of mass struggle—the motor force of history and social change. Internationally, they can be easily crushed by imperialism (witness the fate of the Taliban government).

In that sense, to the extent that there may be any re-emergence of pan-Islamism, and to the extent that there are further terrorist attacks on imperialist targets, it will be more a sign of weakness than a harbinger of a new wave of mass Islamist militancy that could have a real impact on imperialist interests and the balance of forces in the Middle East or the rest of the world.

Islamic fundamentalism's recourse to terrorist tactics is the antithesis of what is needed not just to destabilise but to overthrow an oppressive regime and build a new, democratic society: that is, building mass organisations, mass consciousness and mass mobilisations. The fact that some Palestinian youth are willing to blow themselves up for Hamas, for example, actually expresses the dead end to which the present leadership—both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas—has brought the youth.

Terrorism is the preferred method, not of the poor and exploited masses, whose interests lie in overthrowing the status quo, but of disgruntled sections of the elite, whether they be members of the bourgeoisie, like Osama bin Laden, or the clerical elites, who want a bigger slice of the existing pie, either from their own country's capitalist class, or from imperialism. Like all ultra-leftism, their terrorist methodology is simply the flip side of their basic support for the status quo.

For example, Hamas issues extravagant proclamations about liberating Palestine and defeating Israel, and carries out seemingly radical news-making attacks. Yet its leaders refuse to seriously criticise either the Palestinian Authority's compromises with Zionism, or the stance against the intifada taken by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. By avoiding confronting either the PA or the right-wing regimes that fund Hamas, the group is choosing not to present itself as a political alternative to the Oslo bloc, now the main barrier to getting Israel out of Palestine. Its relationship to the forces in struggle is therefore opportunistic.15

Terrorist actions can exact a painful price from imperialist oppressors and help the terrorist organisations gain popularity for a time. But this just conceals the fact that these groups do not have a political program for fundamental change. The actions may temporarily raise the morale of the oppressed, but the masses soon succumb again to a reality of poverty and oppression, and have to suffer the reprisals.

Socialism: the only alternative

Despite the Western politicians' and media's racist and xenophobic fear-mongering, Islamic fundamentalism is weaker today than in the previous two decades. With the exception of Pakistan, the most active sections are isolated, sectarian terrorist groups which are unlikely to be able to expand their bases beyond a certain point because their views on Islam and politics are too rigid and outmoded for modern problems.

The developments in Afghanistan have shown the world's people that radical political Islam has no plan or program to solve the problems and crises of huge, complex capitalist economies. The Taliban did not establish a modern system of government or aim to solve the economic and social crisis caused by years of war and drought. Even with considerable economic support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US, the Taliban destroyed most of the country's infrastructure and economy, and pushed the country back into the dark ages socially and culturally. In 2001, Afghanistan had just six working factories, compared to 220 in 1979.

Even the most progressive of political Islamists put forward no clear alternative to capitalism. The best they can do is try to insert themselves into the secular national liberation struggles in their countries and point to the sections of the Koran that call for egalitarianism, equality and "brotherhood" to defend their religious flank from attack by traditionalists. Since the basic tenets of Islam also uphold the right of private ownership, individual enterprise and profit, the contradictions are unresolvable. (They are supposedly resolved through the zakat—a morally enforced levy on wealth which is given to the poor—but this amounts to no more than charity and is purely cosmetic in a capitalist economy.16)

In Pakistan, because of the close geographic and political relationship with Afghanistan's Islamist and, in particular, Taliban rulers over the last decade, Islamic fundamentalism is undoubtedly making progress towards gaining state power. The Jama'at Islami, for example, is building a mass base in trade unions, among students and in the military, and has a goal and short-term tactics for Islamic revolution in that country. It is increasingly vocal against privatisation and imperialism, but is careful to maintain peace with the existing state machine so that its base-building work is not hampered by state repression.17

However, with the Taliban regime in pieces, and the worldwide political balance of forces that brought it to power having substantially changed, the exception of Pakistan is likely to remain, for the moment, at least, an exception.

Of course, whether Islamic fundamentalism can make political gains depends very much on whether the left and working-class movements in the Muslim-inhabited countries are able to grow, and on their stance toward Islamism.

The petty bourgeoisie, caught between a hankering for the security of the past and a hope that they will gain individually from any social change, have never been able to follow a consistent, independent policy. While political Islam can take root in the backwardness of society (its poverty and ignorance), the petty bourgeois class base of its cadre leads Islamism to play a contradictory role: to mobilises popular anger at oppression, then paralyse it; to build up people's expectations of change, then direct these into blind alleys; to destabilise capitalist states and limit real struggles against them.

Which direction the masses turn depends on both immediate material factors and the progress of struggles within and between countries. So, in the 1950s and 1960s, national liberation struggles inspired much of the emerging middle class, along with the masses, in the Third World, and there was a general receptivity to the idea of state-controlled economic development. The secular left was seen as embodying this possibility and strongly influenced the masses, including Muslims who were thus more inclined to reject traditional, conservative religious thinking.

But the errors and defeats of the socialist and workers' movements, and the cultivation of Islamic fundamentalism by imperialism and shaky local capitalist classes, led many who had formerly looked to the left to shift their support to the Islamist movements, especially where they were perceived as organising struggles against oppression.

This support can once again be shifted leftwards. But such a process will not occur through the transformation of Islamic regimes into modern secular governments—all efforts to modernise Islamism have ended up undermining it. Neither will it be the product of liberal nationalist leaderships which, while they may be forced by popular pressure to advocate substantial reforms, in the end subscribe to the capitalist system, which is imposing ever more severe pain on the Third World masses. With the capitalist crisis deepening, even mere reforms are increasingly impossible in the neo-colonial countries; thus the reformists' "solutions" are more patently inadequate.

Until the contradictions and crises of capitalism are eliminated, Islamism will be revived again and again, usually in periods of social crisis. However, whenever and wherever the working class starts to organise, political Islam will have less space, less of a base.

The current enmity between imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism will not necessarily be long lasting. As soon as a working-class movement begins to seriously threaten imperialism's interests, the old hypocritical anti-left alliance is likely to be re-established. In that sense, the socialist and working-class movements' struggle against imperialism will necessarily also be a struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. The task before the left is to create the basis for its eradication by eradicating the system of deprivation and oppression that fuels it, and the only way to achieve that is to get rid of capitalism, that is, to make a socialist revolution.


1. For example, Mansoor Hekmat of the Worker Communist Party of Iran argues that "Islamic fundamentalism" is a calculated right-wing term. The imperialist powers and their media, he states, use the notion of fundamentalism "in order to separate the terrorist and anti-Western veins of this Islamic movement from its pro-Western and conciliatory branches. They call the anti-Western sections fundamentalist and they attack fundamentalism so they can maintain political Islam as a whole, which for the moment is an irreplaceable foundation of anti-socialist and right-wing rule in the region. The anti-Western currents, however, are not necessarily the fanatic and rigid factions ... The most fundamentalist sections of this movement, such as the Taliban and Saudi Arabia, are the closest friends of the West." Links, No. 20, January-April 2002.

2. Cited in Chris Harman, "The Prophet and the Proletariat", International Socialism, No. 64, Autumn 1994.

3. Karl Marx, "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law: Introduction", Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 3, London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1975, p. 175.

4. Farooq Sulehria, "Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan", Links, No. 18, May-August 2001.

5. For more detail on the development of the Brotherhood, see Richard Labeviere, Dollars for Terror—The United States and Islam, Algora Publishing, 2000.

6. Patrick O'Neill, "Lenin offered to help Afghan struggle against Britain", New York, Militant, Vol. 65, No. 43, November 12, 2001.

7. Yacov Ben Efrat,"Afghan boomerang", Challenge, No. 70, November 9, 2001.

8. Eric Rouleau, "Politics in the name of the prophet", Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2001.

9. Tariq Ali, Can Pakistan Survive? The Death of a State, Verso, 1983.

10. Norm Dixon, "Revolution and counter-revolution in Afghanistan", in Dave Holmes and Norm Dixon, Behind the US War on Afghanistan, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2001.

11. Nilufer Narli, "The rise of the Islamist movement in Turkey", Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 3, September 1999.

12. Eddie Ford, "Reactionary anti-Zionism", Weekly Worker, No. 412, December 13, 2001.

13. Yacov Ben Efrat, op. cit.

14. See Olivier Roy, "Changing patterns among radical Islamic movements", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume VI, Issue 1, Winter-Spring 1999.

15. For more detail, see Samya Nasser, "Hamas and ‘the destruction of the Zionist entity'" Challenge, No. 69, September 2001.

16. Lal Khan, "Fundamentalist resurgence: causes and consequences", October 1994, In Defence of Marxism web site, at <>.

17. Sulehria, op. cit.

[Lisa Macdonald is a member of the Political Committee of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party. This paper was presented to a DSP and Resistance educational conference in Sydney in January 2002.]