Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat


Splitting two ways

The experience of Islamism in Egypt and Algeria shows how it can split over two different questions: first over whether to follow the course of more or less peaceful reform of the existing society or to take up arms; second over whether to fight to change the state or to purge society of “impiety”.

In Egypt the present day Muslim Brotherhood is based on a policy of reform directed at the state. It attempts to work within existing society building up its strength so as to become a legal opposition, with MPs, a press of its own, control over various middle class professional organisations and influence over wider sections of the population through the mosques and the Islamic charities. It also tends to stress the fight to impose Islamic piety through campaigning for the existing regime to incorporate the sharia into the legal code.

This is a strategy which also seems to appeal to a section of the imprisoned or exiled leadership of the FIS in Algeria. In the first few months of 1994 there were reports of negotiations between them and a section of the regime, with a perspective of sharing power and implementing part of the sharia. Thus the Guardian could report in April 1994 that Rabah Kebir, an exiled leader of FIS, welcomed the appointment of a new prime minster for Algeria, the “technocrat”, Redha Malek, as “a positive act” [87] – only two days after the FIS had denounced the latest package agreed between that government and the IMF. [88]

Some perceptive commentators see such a deal as providing the best way for the Algerian bourgeoisie to end the instability and preserve its position. Thus Juan Goytisolo argues that the military could have saved itself a lot of trouble by allowing the FIS to form a government after the 1991 elections:

The conditions in which it acceded to power would have limited in a very effective way the application of its programme. The indebtedness of Algeria, its financial dependence on its European and Japanese creditor, the economic chaos and the hostile reservations of the Armed Forces would have constituted a difficult obstacle for a FIS government to overcome ... Its inability to fulfil its electoral promises were fully predictable. With a year of a government so tightly constrained by its enemies, the FIS would have lost a good part of its credibility. [89]

“Islamist reformism” fits the needs of certain major social groups – the traditional landowners and merchants, the new Islamic bourgeoisie (like those of the Muslim Brotherhood who made millions in Saudi Arabia) and that section of the Islamic new middle class who have enjoyed upward mobility. But it does not satisfy the other layers who have looked to Islamism – the students and impoverished ex-students, or the urban poor. The more the Muslim Brotherhood or the FIS look to compromise, the more these layers look elsewhere, seeing any watering down of the demand for the installation of Islam of the Koranic years as betrayal.

But their reaction to this can be in different directions. It can remain passive in the face of the state, urging a strategy of withdrawal from society, in which the stress is on preaching and purifying the Islamic minority, rather than on confrontation. This was the original strategy of the Shukri group in Egypt in the mid-1970s, and it is the approach of some of the radical preachers who are aware of the power of the state today.

Or it can turn to armed struggle. But just as peaceful struggle can be directed against the state or against impiety alone, so armed struggle can be armed struggle to overthrow the state, or armed actions against “the enemies of Islam” among the population at large – the ethnic and religious minorities, unveiled women, foreign films, the influence of “cultural imperialism” and so on. The logic of the situation might seem to push people towards the option of armed struggle against the state. But there is a powerful counter-logic at work, which is rooted in the class composition of the Islamist following.

As we have seen, the sections of the exploiting classes which back Islamism are naturally drawn to its more reformist versions. Even where they find little choice but to take up arms, they want to do so in ways which minimise wider social unrest. They look to coups d’etat rather than mass action. And if this erupts despite them, they seek to bring it to an end as quickly as possible.

The impoverished new petty bourgeoisie can move much further towards a perspective of armed action. But its own marginal social position cuts it off from seeing this as developing out of mass struggles like strikes. Instead it looks to conspiracies based on small armed groups – conspiracies that do not lead to the revolutionary change their instigators want, even when, as with the assassination of Sadat, they achieve their immediate goals. It can cause enormous disruption to existing society but it cannot revolutionise it.

This was the experience of the populists in Russia before 1917. It was the experience of a generation of students and ex-students right across the Third World who turned to Guevarism or Maoism in the late 1960s (and whose successors still fight on in the Philippines and Peru). It is the experience of armed anti-state Islamists in Egypt and Algeria today.

The only way out of this impasse would be for the Islamists to base themselves on the non-marginal groups among the urban poor today – among the workers in medium and large scale industry. But the basic notions of Islamism make this all but impossible since Islam, in even its most radical form, preaches the return to a community (umma) which reconciles the rich and the poor, not an overthrow of the rich. Thus the economic programme of the FIS puts forward as an alleged alternative to “Western capitalism” a blueprint for “small business” producing for “local needs” which is virtually indistinguishable from the electoral propaganda of innumerable conservative and liberal parties right across the world. [90] And its attempt to create “Islamic unions” in the summer of 1990 laid stress on the “duties of workers”, because, it was claimed, the old regime gave them too many rights and “accustomed the workers to not working”. The class struggle, it insisted. “does not exist in Islam”, for the sacred texts do not speak of it. What is needed is for the employer to treat his workers in the same way the Koran tells the faithful to treat their domestic slaves – as “brothers”. [91]

It is not surprising that nowhere have any of the Islamist groups ever succeeded in building a base in the factories even one tenth as strong as they built up in the neighbourhoods. But without such a base they cannot on their own accord determine the direction of social change, even if they do succeed in bringing about the collapse of an existing regime. Those on the margins of society can occasionally provoke a great crisis within an already unstable regime. They cannot determine how the crisis is resolved.

The Islamist groups may be able to provoke such a crisis in one of the existing regimes and so force out its existing leaders. But that will not prevent an outcome in which the ruling class, which has prospered beneath these leaders, does a deal with the less militant Islamists to hold on to power. And short of such a crisis the militant Islamists themselves face an enormous toll of deaths at the hands of the state.

It is this pressure from the state which encourages some of them to turn away from direct assault on the regime to the easier task of assaulting the “impious” and the minorities – an approach which in turn can bring them back closer to the mainstream “moderate” reformist Islamists.

There is, in fact, a certain dialectic at work within Islamism. Militant anti-state Islamists, after bearing the brunt of unsuccessful armed struggle, learn the hard way to keep their heads down and instead turn to fighting to impose Islamic behaviour either directly or through Islamic reformism. But neither imposing the Islamic behaviour nor reforms can deal with the immense dissatisfaction of the social layers that look to Islamism. And so new militants are continually arising who split off to return to the path of armed action, until these too learn the hard way the limitations of armed actions which are cut off from an active social base.

There is no automatic progression from seeing the limitations of Islamic reformism to moving to revolutionary politics. Rather the limitations of reformism lead either to the terrorism and guerrillaism of groups that try to act without a mass base, or in the direction of a reactionary attack on scapegoats for the problems of the system. And because each of the approaches expresses itself in the same religious language, there is often an overlap between one and the other. People who do want to attack the regime and imperialism do attack the Copts, the Berbers and unveiled women. People who have an instinctive hatred of the whole system do fall into the trap of wanting to negotiate over the imposition of the sharia by the state. And where there are divisions between rival groups – sometimes so bitter that they start killing each other as “apostates” (renegades from true Islam) – the divisions are expressed in ways which obscure the real social causes behind them. If one upwardly mobile Islamist abandons the struggle, that only proves that he personally is a “bad Muslim” (or even an apostate); it does not in itself prevent another upwardly mobile Islamist from being a “good Muslim”.



87. Guardian, 15 April 1994.

88. Guardian, 13 April 1994.

89. J. Goytisolo, op. cit., 29 March 1994.

90. See the translation on economic policy in M. Al-Ahnaf, B. Botivewau and F. Fregosi, op. cit.

91. Ibid., p.109.


Last updated on 17.6.2002