Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat


The class base of Islamism

Islamism has arisen in societies traumatised by the impact of capitalism – first in the form of external conquest by imperialism and then, increasingly, by the transformation of internal social relations accompanying the rise of a local capitalist class and the formation of an independent capitalist state.

Old social classes have been replaced by new ones, although not instantaneously or in a clear cut manner. What Trotsky described as “combined and uneven development” has occurred. Externally, colonialism has retreated, but the great imperialist powers – especially the US – continue to use their military forces as a bargaining tool to influence the production of the Middle East’s single major resource, oil. Internally, state encouragement – and often ownership – has led to the development of some large scale modern industry, but large sectors of “traditional” industry remain, based on vast numbers of small workshops where the owner works with a couple of workers, often from his own family. Land reform has turned some peasants into modern capitalist farmers – but displaced many more, leaving them with little or no land, so forcing them to eke out a livelihood from casual labour in the workshops or markets of sprawling urban slums. A massive expansion of the education system is turning out vast numbers of high school and college graduates, but these then find insufficient job opportunities in the modern sectors of the economy and place their hopes on getting into the state bureaucracy, while eking out a living with scraps of work around the informal sector – touting for custom from shopkeepers, acting as guides for tourists, selling lottery tickets, driving taxis and so on.

The crises of the world economy over the last 20 years have aggravated all these contradictions. The modern industries have found the national economy too small for them to operate efficiently, but the world economy too competitive for them to survive without state protection. The traditional industries have not generally been able to modernise without state support and they cannot compensate for the failure of modern industry to provide jobs for the burgeoning urban population. But a few sectors have managed to establish links of their own with international capital and increasingly resent the state’s domination of the economy. The urban rich increasingly lap up the luxury goods available on the world market, creating growing resentment among the casual workers and the unemployed.

Islamism represents an attempt to come to terms with these contradictions by people who have been brought up to respect traditional Islamic ideas. But it does not find its support equally in all sections of society. For some sections embrace a modern secular bourgeois or nationalist ideology, while other sections gravitate towards some form of secular working class response. The Islamic revival gets sustenance from four different social groupings – each of which interprets Islam in its own way.



i. The Islamism of the old exploiters: First there are those members of the traditional privileged classes who fear losing out in the capitalist modernisation of society – particularly landowners (including clergy dependent on incomes from land belonging to religious foundations), traditional merchant capitalists, the owners of the mass of small shops and workshops. Such groups have often been the traditional sources of finance for the mosques and see Islam as a way of defending their established way of life and of making those who oversee change listen to their voices. Thus in Iran and Algeria it was this group which provided the resources to the clergy to oppose the state’s land reform programme in the 1960s and 1970s.

ii. The Islamism of the new exploiters: Second, often emerging from among this first group, are some of the capitalists who have enjoyed success despite hostility from those groups linked to the state. In Egypt, for instance, the present day Muslim Brotherhood “wormed their way into the economic fabric of Sadat’s Egypt at a time when whole sections of it had been turned over to unregulated capitalism. Uthman Ahmad Uthman, the Egyptian Rockefeller, made no secret of this sympathy for the Brethren”. [15]

In Turkey the Welfare Party, which is led by a former member of the main conservative party, enjoys the support of much of middle sized capital. In Iran among the bazaaris who gave support to Khomeini against the Shah were substantial capitalists resentful at the way economic policies favoured those close to the crown.

iii. The Islamism of the poor: The third group are the rural poor who have suffered under the advance of capitalist farming and who have been forced into the cities as they desperately look for work. Thus in Algeria out of a total rural population of 8.2 million only 2 million gained anything from the land reform. The other 6 million were faced with the choice between increased poverty in the countryside and going to the cities to seek work. [16] But in the cities: “The lowest group are the hard core jobless made up of displaced former peasants who have flooded the cities in search of work and social opportunity ... detached from rural society without being truly integrated into urban society”. [17]

They lost the certainties associated with an old way of life – certainties which they identify with traditional Muslim culture – without gaining a secure material existence or a stable way of life: “Clear guidelines for behaviour and belief no longer exist for millions of Algerians caught between a tradition that no longer commands their total loyalty and a modernism that cannot satisfy the psychological and spiritual needs of young people in particular”. [18]

In such a situation even Islamic agitation against land reform on behalf of the old landowners in the 1970s could appeal to the peasants and ex-peasants. For the land reform could be a symbol of a transformation of the countryside that had destroyed a secure, if impoverished, way of life. “To the landed proprietors and the peasants without land, the Islamists held out the same prospect: the Koran stigmatised the expropriation of things belonging to others; it recommended to the rich and those who ruled according to the Sunna to be generous to others”. [19]

The appeal of Islamism grew through the 1980s as economic crisis increased the contrast between the impoverished masses and the elite of about 1 percent of the population who run the state and the economy. Their wealth and their Westernised lifestyles ill fitted their claim to be the heirs of the liberation struggle against the French. It was very easy for the ex-peasants to identify the “non-Islamic” behaviour of this elite as the cause of their own misery.

In Iran likewise the capitalist transformation of agriculture embodied in the Shah’s land reform of the 1960s benefitted a minority of the toilers, while leaving the rest no better off and sometimes worse off. It increased the antagonism of the rural and recently urbanised poor against the state – an antagonism which did no harm to Islamic forces which had opposed the land reform. So when, for instance, in 1962 the Shah used the forces of the state against Islamic figures, this turned them into a focus for the discontent of very large numbers of people.

In Egypt the “opening up” of the economy to the world market through agreements with the World Bank and the IMF from the mid-1970s onwards substantially worsened the situation of the mass of peasants and ex-peasants, creating enormous pools of bitterness. And in Afghanistan the land reforms which were imposed after the PDPA (Communist Party) coup of 1978 led to a series of spontaneous risings from all sections of the rural population:

The reforms put an end to the traditional ways of working based on mutual self interest without introducing any alternative. The landowners who had been dispossessed of their land were careful not to distribute any seed to their sharecroppers; people who traditionally had been willing to provide loans now refused to do so. There were plans for the creation of a bank for agricultural development and for setting up an office to oversee the distribution of seed and fodder, but none of this had been done when the reforms actually took place ... So it was the very act of announcing the reforms that cut the peasant off from his seed supplies ... The reform destroyed not just the economic structure but the whole social framework of production ... It is not surprising, therefore, that instead of setting 98 percent of the people against 2 percent of the exploiting classes, these reforms led to a general revolt of 75 percent of the rural areas. [And] when the new system was seen not to be working [even] the peasants who had initially welcomed reform felt they would be better off going back to the old system. [20]

But it is not only hostility to the state that makes ex-peasants receptive to the message of the Islamists. The mosques provide a social focus for people lost in a new and strange city, the Islamic charities the rudiments of welfare services (clinics, schooling, etc) which are lacking from the state. So in Algeria the growth of the cities in the 1970s and 1980s was accompanied by a massive increase in the number of mosques: “Everything happened as if the paralysis in education and Arabisation, the absence of structures of culture and leisure, the lack of space for public liberty, the shortage of homes, made thousands of adults, youth and children disposed for the mosques”. [21]

In this way, funds which came from those with diametrically opposed interests to the mass of people – from the old landowning class, the new rich or the Saudi government – could provide both a material and a cultural haven for the poor. “In the mosque, everyone – new or old bourgeois, fundamentalist, worker in an enterprise – saw the possibility of the elaboration or realisation of his own strategy, dreams and hopes”. [22]

This did not obliterate the class divisions within the mosque. In Algeria, for example, there were innumerable rows in mosque committees between people whose different social background made them see the building of the mosques in different ways – for instance, over when they should refuse to accept donations for the mosque because they came from sinful (haram) sources. “It is rare in fact for a religious committee to accomplish its mandate, fixed in principle at two years, with the harmony and agreement recommended by the cult of the unity of the divine which the muezzins chant without cease.” [23] But the rows remained cloaked in a religious guise – and have not stopped the proliferation of the mosques and the growth in the influence of Islamism.



iv. The Islamism of the new middle class: However, neither the “traditional” exploiting classes nor the impoverished masses provide the vital element which sustains revivalist, political Islam – the cadre of activists who propagate its doctrines and risk injury, imprisonment and death in confrontation with their enemies.

The traditional exploiting classes are by their very nature conservative. They are prepared to donate money so that others can fight – especially in defence of their material interests. They did so when faced with the land reform in Algeria in the early 1970s; when the Baathist regime in Syria encroached upon the interests of the urban merchants and traders in the spring of 1980s; [24] and when the merchants and small businessmen of the Iranian bazaars felt themselves under attack from the Shah in 1976-78 and threatened by the left in 1979-81. But they are wary of putting their own businesses, let alone their own lives, at risk. And so they can hardly be the force that has torn societies like Algeria and Egypt apart, caused a whole town, Hama, to rise in revolt in Syria, used suicide bombs against the Americans and Israelis in Lebanon – and which caused the Iranian Revolution to take a turn much more radical than any section of the Iranian bourgeoisie expected.

This force, in fact, comes from a fourth, very different stratum – from a section of the new middle class that has arisen as a result of capitalist modernisation right across the Third World.

In Iran the cadres of all three of the Islamist movements that dominated the politics of the first years of the revolution came from this background. Thus one account tells of the support for the first post-revolutionary prime minister, Bazargan:

As Iran’s educational system expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, even wider groups of traditional middle class people gained access to the country’s universities. Confronted with institutions dominated by the older, Westernised elites, these newcomers to academia felt an urgent need to justify their continued adherence to Islam to themselves. They joined the Muslim Students Associations [run by Bazargan etc] ... upon entering professional life, the new engineers often joined the Islamic Association of Engineers, also founded by Bazargan. This association network constituted the real organised social support for Bazargan and Islamic modernism ... Bazargan’s and Taleqani’s appeal [depended on] the way they gave the rising members of the traditional middle classes a sense of dignity which allowed them to affirm their identity in a society politically dominated by what they saw as a Godless, Westernised and corrupt elite. [25]

Writing of the People’s Mojahedin of Iran, Abrahamian comments that many studies of the first years of the Iranian Revolution have talked of the appeal of radical Islam to the “oppressed”, but that it was not the oppressed in general who formed the basis of the Mojahedin; rather it was that very large section of the new middle class whose parents had been part of the traditional petty bourgeoisie. He gives breakdowns of the occupations of Mojahedin arrested under the Shah and subject to repression under Khomeini to support his argument. [26]

Although the third Islamist force, the ultimately victorious Islamic Republican Party of Khomeini, is usually thought of as run by the clergy linked to the traditional bazaari merchant capitalists, Moaddel has shown that more than half its MPs were from the professions, teachers, government employees or students – even if a quarter came from bazaari families. [27] And Bayat has noted that in their struggle to defeat the workers’ organisations in the factories, the regime could rely on the professional engineers who worked there. [28]

Azar Tabari notes that after the downfall of the Shah very large numbers of women in the Iranian cities opted to wear the veil and lined up with the followers of Khomeini against the left. She claims these women came from that section of the middle class that was the first generation to undergo a process of “social integration”. Often from traditional petty bourgeois families – with fathers who were bazaar merchants, tradesmen and so on – they were forced into higher education as traditional opportunities for their families to make money declined with industrialisation. There were openings for them in professions like teaching and nursing. But “these women had to go through the often painful and traumatic experience of first generation adjustment”:

As the young women from such families began to go to universities or work in hospitals, all these traditional concepts came under daily attack from “alien” surroundings, where women mixed with men, wore no veils, and sometimes dressed according to the latest European fashions. Women were often torn between accepted family norms and the pressure of the new environment. They could not be veiled at work, nor could they leave home unveiled.

One widespread response to these contradictory pressures was “a retreat into Islam”, “symbolised by deliberately veiled women demonstrators during large mobilisations”. Tabari claims this response stood in marked contrast to that of women whose families had been part of the new middle class for two or three generations, and who refused to wear the veil and identified with the liberals or the left. [29] In Afghanistan, Roy notes:

The Islamist movement was born in the modern sectors of society and developed from a critique of the popular movements that preceded it ... The Islamists are intellectuals, the products of modernist enclaves within traditional society; their social origins are what we have termed the state bourgeoisie – products of the government education system which only leads to employment in the state machine ... The Islamists are products of the state educational system. Very few of them have an education in the arts. On the campus they mostly mix with the Communists, with whom they are violently opposed, rather that with the ulama [religious scholars] towards whom they have an ambivalent attitude. They share many beliefs in common with the ulama, but Islamist thought has developed from contact with the great western ideologies, which they see as holding the key to the west’s technical development. For them, the problem is to develop a modern political ideology based upon Islam, which they see as the only way to come to terms with the modern world and the best means of confronting foreign imperialism. [30]

In Algeria the most important recruitment ground for the FIS has been among Arabic speaking (as opposed to French speaking) high school and university students, and that wide section of youth that would like to be students but cannot get college places:

The FIS draws its membership from three sections of the population: the commercial middle classes, including some who are quite rich, a mass of young people who are unemployed and excluded from higher education, forming the new lumpen proletariat of the streets, and a layer of upwardly mobile Arab speaking intellectuals. These last two groups are the most numerous and important. [31]

The Islamic intellectuals have made careers for themselves through their domination of the theological and Arab language faculties of the universities, using these to gain control of many of the positions as imams in the mosques and teachers in the lycees (high schools). They form a network that ensures the recruitment of more Islamists to such positions and the inculcation of Islamist ideas into the new generation of students. This in turn has enabled them to exert influence over vast numbers of young people.

Ahmed Rouadia writes that the Islamist groups began to grow from the mid-1970s onwards, receiving support in the universities from Arab speaking students who found their lack of fluency in French kept them from getting jobs in administration, areas of advanced technology and higher management. [32] Thus, there was, for instance, a bitter conflict with the principal of Constantine university in the mid-1980s, who was accused of impugning the “dignity of Arab language” and “being loyal to French colonialism” for allowing French to remain the predominant language in the science and technology faculties [33]:

The qualified Arab speakers find access blocked to all the key sectors, above all in industries requiring technical knowledge and foreign languages ... The Arab speakers, even if they have diplomas, cannot get a place in modern industry. For the most part they end by turning towards the mosque. [34]

The students, the recent Arab speaking graduates and, above all, the unemployed ex-students form a bridge to the very large numbers of discontented youth outside the colleges who find they cannot get college places despite years spent in an inefficient and underfunded educational system. Thus, although there are now nearly a million students in secondary education, up to four fifths of them can expect to fail the bacalauriate – the key to entry into university – and to face a life of insecurity on the margins of employment: [35]

Integrism [Islamism] gets its strength from the social frustrations which afflict a large part of the youth, those left out of account by the social and economic system. Its message is simple: If there is poverty, hardship and frustration, it is because those who have power do not base themselves on the legitimacy of shorah [consultation], but simply on force ... The restoration of the Islam of the first years would make the inequalities disappear. [36]

And through its influence over a wide layer of students, graduates and the intellectual unemployed, Islamism is able to spread out to dominate the propagation of ideas in the slums and shanty towns where the expeasants live. Such a movement cannot be described as a “conservative” movement. The educated, Arab speaking youth do not turn to Islam because they want things to stay as they are, but because they believe it offers massive social change. [37]

In Egypt the Islamist movement first developed some 65 years ago, when Hassan al-Banna formed the Muslim Brotherhood. It grew in the 1930s and 1940s as disillusionment set in with the failure of the secular nationalist party, the Wafd, to challenge British domination of the country. The base of the movement consisted mainly of civil servants and students, and it was one of the major forces in the university protests of the late 1940s and early 1950s. [38] But it spread out to involve some urban labourers and peasants, with a membership estimated to have peaked at half a million. In building the movement Banna was quite willing to collaborate with certain figures close to the Egyptian monarchy, and the right wing of the Wafd looked on the Brotherhood as a counter to communist influence among workers and students. [39]

But the Brotherhood could only compete with the communists for the support of the impoverished middle classes – and via them to sections of the urban poor – because its religious language concealed a commitment to reform which went further than its right wing allies wished. Its objectives were “ultimately incompatible with the perpetuation of the political, economic and social status quo to which the ruling groups were dedicated”. This ensured “the liaison between the Muslim Brotherhood and the conservative rulers would be both unstable and tenuous”. [40]

The Brotherhood was virtually destroyed once a new military regime around Abdul Nasser had concentrated full power into its hands in the early 1950s. Six of the Brotherhood’s leaders were hanged in December 1954 and thousands of its members thrown into concentration camps. An attempt to revive the movement in the mid-1960s led to still more executions, but then, after Nasser’s death, his successors Sadat and Mubarak allowed it to lead a semi-legal existence – provided it avoided any head on confrontation with the regime. The leadership of what is sometimes called the “Neo-Islamic Brotherhood” has been willing to accept these restraints, following a relatively “moderate” and “reconciliatory” approach, getting large sums of money from members who were exiled to Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and prospered from the oil boom. [41] This has enabled the Brothers to provide “an alternative model of a Muslim state” with “their banks, social services, educational services and ... their mosques”. [42]

But it has also led them to lose influence over a new generation of radical Islamists which has arisen, as the Brotherhood itself originally did, from the universities and the impoverished section of the “modern” middle class. These are the Islamists who were responsible for the assassination of Sadat in 1981 and who have been waging armed struggle ever since both against the state and against the secular intelligentsia:

When we speak of the fundamentalists in Egypt, what we mean is a minority group of people who are even against the Moslem Brothers ... These groups are composed mainly of youth ... They are very pure people, they are prepared to sacrifice their lives, to do anything ... And they are used as the spearheads of the different movements because they are able to undertake terrorist actions. [43]

The Islamist student associations which became a dominant force in Egyptian universities during Sadat’s presidency “constituted the Islamicist movement’s only genuine mass organisations”. [44] They grew in reaction to conditions in the universities and to the dismal prospects facing students if they succeeded in graduating:

The number of students rose from slightly less than 200,000 in 1970 to more than half a million in 1977 ... In the absence of the necessary resources, providing free high education for the greatest possible number of the country’s youth has produced a system of cut rate education. [45]

Overcrowding represents a particular problem for female students, who find themselves subject to all sorts of harassment in the lecture theatres and overcrowded buses. In response to this situation,

The jamaa al islamiyya [Islamic associations] drew their considerable strength from their ability to identify [these problems] and to pose immediate solutions – for instance, using student unions funds to run minibuses for female students [giving priority to those who wore the veil], calling for separate rows in the lecture theatres for women and men, organising course revision groups which met in the mosques, turning out cheap editions of essential textbooks. [46]

Graduating students do not escape the endemic poverty of much of Egyptian society:

Every graduate has the right to public employment. This measure is actually the purveyor of massive disguised unemployment in the offices of a swollen administration in which employees are badly paid ... He can still manage to feed himself by buying the state subsidised products, but he is unlikely to rise above the bare level of subsistence ... Almost every state employee has a second or a third job ... Innumerable employees who sit all morning at desks in one or other of the countless ministry offices spend the afternoon working as plumbers or taxi drivers, jobs they perform so inadequately they might as well be filled by illiterates ... An illiterate peasant woman who arrives in the city to land a job as a foreigner’s maid will be paid more or less double the salary of a university assistant lecturer. [47]

The only way to get out of this morass for most graduates is to get a job abroad, especially in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf states. And this is not just the only way out of poverty, it is, for most people, the precondition for getting married in a society where pre-marital sexual relations are rare.

The Islamists were able to articulate these problems in religious language. As Kepel writes of one of the leaders of one of the early Islamist sects, his position does not involve “acting as a fanatic for a bygone century ... He is putting his finger – in his own way – on a crucial problem of contemporary Egyptian society”. [48]

As in Algeria, once the Islamists had established a mass base in the universities, they were then in a situation to spread out into a wider milieu – the milieu of the impoverished streets of the cities where the students and ex-students mixed with a mass of other people scrabbling for a livelihood. This began to happen after the regime clamped down hard on the Islamist movement in the universities following the negotiation of the peace agreement with Israel in the late 1970s. “Far from halting the jamaa, however, this harassment gave them a second wind ... the message of the jamaa now began to spread beyond the world of students. Islamicist cadres and agitators went to preach in the poor neighbourhoods”. [49]




15. G. Kepel, The Prophet and the Pharoah, Muslim Extremism in Egypt (London, 1985), p.109.

16. See, for example, K. Pfeifer, Agrarian Reform Under State Capitalism in Algeria (Boulder, 1985), p.59; C Andersson, Peasant or Proletarian? (Stockholm, 1986), p.67; M. Raffinot and P. Jacquemot, Le Capitalisme d’état Algerien (Paris, 1977).

17. J.P. Entelis, Algeria, the Institutionalised Revolution (Boulder, 1986), p.76.

18. Ibid.

19. A. Rouadia, Les Freres et la Mosque (Paris, 1990), p.33.

20. O. Roy, op. cit., pp.88-90.

21. A. Rouadia, op. cit., p.82.

22. Ibid., p.78.

23. Ibid.

24. For an account of these events, see D. Hiro, Islamic Fundamentalism (London, 1989), p.97.

25. H.E. Chehabi, Iranian Politics and Religious Modernism (London, 1990), p.89.

26. E. Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin (London, 1989), pp.107, 201, 214, 225-226.

27. M. Moaddel, op. cit., pp.224-238.

28. A. Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (London, 1987), p.57.

29. A. Tabari, Islam and the Struggle for Emancipation of Iranian Women, in A. Tabari and N. Yeganeh, In the Shadow of Islam: the Women’s Movement in Iran.

30. O. Roy, op. cit., pp.68-69.

31. M. Al-Ahnaf, B Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit.

32. A. Rouadia, op. cit..

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. In 1989, of 250,000 who took exams, only 54,000 obtained the bac, Ibid., p.137.

36. Ibid., p.146.

37. Ibid., p.147.

38. See R.P. Mitchell, op. cit., p.13.

39. See Ibid., p.27.

40. Ibid., p.38.

41. M. Hussein, Islamic Radicalism as a Political Protest Movement, in N. Sa’dawi, S. Hitata, M. Hussein and S. Safwat, Islamic Fundamentalism (London, 1989).

42. Ibid.

43. S. Hitata, East West Relations, in N. Sa’dawi, S. Hitata, M. Hussein and S. Safwat, op. cit., p.26.

44. G. Kepel, op. cit., p.129.

45. Ibid., p.137.

46. Ibid., pp.143-44.

47. Ibid., p.85.

48. Ibid., p.95-96.

49. Ibid., p.149.


Last updated on 17.6.2002