Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat



The politics of the Middle East and beyond have been dominated by Islamist movements at least since the Iranian revolution of 1978-9. Variously described in the West as “Islamic fundamentalism”, “Islamicism”, “integrism”, “political Islam” and “Islamic revivalism”, these movements stand for the “regeneration” of society through a return to the original teachings of the prophet Mohammed. They have become a major force in Iran and the Sudan (where they still hold power), Egypt, Algeria and Tajikistan (where they are involved in bitter armed struggles against the state), Afghanistan (where rival Islamist movements have been waging war with each other since the collapse of the pro-Russian government), the occupied West Bank of the Jordan (where their militancy is challenging the old PLO hegemony over the Palestinian resistance), Pakistan (where they make up a significant portion of the opposition) and most recently Turkey (where the Welfare Party has taken control of Istanbul, Ankara and many other municipalities).

The rise of these movements has been an enormous shock to the liberal intelligentsia and has produced a wave of panic among people who believed that “modernisation”, coming on top of the victory of the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, would inevitably lead to more enlightened and less repressive societies. [1]

Instead they witness the growth of forces which seem to look back to a more restricted society which forces women into purdah, uses terror to crush free thought and threatens the most barbaric punishments on those who defy its edicts. In countries like Egypt and Algeria the liberals are now lining up with the state, which has persecuted and imprisoned them in the past, in the war it is waging against Islamist parties.

But it has not only been liberals who have been thrown into disarray by the rise of Islamism. So too has the left. It has not known how to react to what it sees as an obscurantist doctrine, backed by traditionally reactionary forces, enjoying success among some of the poorest groups in society. Two opposed approaches have resulted.

The first has been to see Islamism as Reaction Incarnate, as a form of fascism. This was, for example, the position taken soon after the Iranian revolution by the then left wing academic Fred Halliday, who referred to the Iranian regime as “Islam with a fascist face”. [2] It is an approach which much of the Iranian left came to adopt after the consolidation of the Khomeini regime in 1981-2. And it is accepted by much of the left in Egypt and Algeria today. Thus, for example, one Algerian revolutionary Marxist group has argued that the principles, ideology and political action of the Islamist FIS “are similar to those of the National Front in France”, and that it is “a fascist current”. [3]

Such an analysis easily leads to the practical conclusion of building political alliances to stop the fascists at all costs. Thus Halliday concluded that the left in Iran made the mistake of not allying with the “liberal bourgeoisie” in 1979-81 in opposition to “the reactionary ideas and policies of Khomeini”. [4] In Egypt today the left, influenced by the mainstream communist tradition, effectively supports the state in its war against the Islamists.

The opposite approach has been to see the Islamist movements as “progressive”, “anti-imperialist” movements of the oppressed. This was the position taken by the great bulk of the Iranian left in the first phase of the 1979 revolution, when the Soviet influenced Tudeh Party, the majority of the Fedayeen guerrilla organisation and the left Islamist People’s Mojahedin all characterised the forces behind Khomeini as “the progressive petty bourgeoisie”. The conclusion of this approach was that Khomeini deserved virtually uncritical support. [5] A quarter of a century before this the Egyptian Communists briefly took the same position towards the Muslim Brotherhood, calling on them to join in “a common struggle against the ‘fascist dictatorship’ of Nasser and his ‘Anglo-American props’”. [6]

I want to argue that both positions are wrong. They fail to locate the class character of modern Islamism or to see its relationship to capital, the state and imperialism.




1. Thus a perceptive study of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood could conclude in 1969 that the attempt at the revival of the movement in the mid-1960s “was the predictable eruption of the continuing tensions caused by an ever dwindling activist fringe of individuals dedicated to an increasingly less relevant Muslim ‘position’ about society.” R.P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London, 1969), p.vii.

2. Article in the New Statesman in 1979, quoted by Fred Halliday himself in The Iranian Revolution and its Implications, New Left Review, 166 (November December 1987), p.36.

3. Interview with the Communist Movement of Algeria (MCA) in Socialisme Internationale (Paris, June 1990). The MCA itself no longer exists.

4. F. Halliday, op. cit., p.57.

5. For an account of the support given by different left organisations to the Islamists see P. Marshall, Revolution and Counter Revolution in Iran (London, 1988), pp.60-68 and pp.89-92; M. Moaddel, Class, Politics and Ideology in the Iranian Revolution (New York, 1993), pp.215-218; V. Moghadan, False Roads in Iran, New Left Review, p.166.

6. Pamphlet quoted in R.P. Mitchell, op. cit., p.127.


Last updated on 17.6.2002