Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat



It has been a mistake on the part of socialists to see Islamist movements either as automatically reactionary and “fascist” or as automatically “antiimperialist” and “progressive”. Radical Islamism, with its project of reconstituting society on the model established by Mohammed in 7th century Arabia, is, in fact, a “utopia” emanating from an impoverished section of the new middle class. As with any “petty bourgeois utopia” [128], its supporters are, in practice, faced with a choice between heroic but futile attempts to impose it in opposition to those who run existing society, or compromising with them, providing an ideological veneer to continuing oppression and exploitation. It is this which leads inevitably to splits between a radical, terrorist wing of Islamism on the one hand, and a reformist wing on the others. It is also this which leads some of the radicals to switch from using arms to try to bring about a society without “oppressors” to using them to impose “Islamic” forms of behaviour on individuals.

Socialists cannot regard petty bourgeois utopians as our prime enemies. They are not responsible for the system of international capitalism, the subjection of thousands of millions of people to the blind drive to accumulate, the pillaging of whole continents by the banks, or the machinations that have produced a succession of horrific wars since the proclamation of the “new world order”. They were not responsible for the horrors of the first Gulf War, which began with an attempt by Saddam Hussein to do a favour for the US and the Gulf sheikdoms, and ended with direct US intervention on Iraq’s side. They were not to blame for the carnage in Lebanon, where the Falangist onslaught, the Syrian intervention against the left and the Israeli invasion created the conditions which bred militant Shiism. They were not to blame for the second Gulf War, with the “precision bombing” of Baghdad hospitals and the slaughter of 80,000 people as they fled from Kuwait to Basra. Poverty, misery, persecution, suppression of human rights, would exist in countries like Egypt and Algeria even if the Islamists disappeared tomorrow.

For these reasons socialists cannot support the state against the Islamists. Those who do so, on the grounds that the Islamists threaten secular values, merely make it easier for the Islamists to portray the left as part of an “infidel”, “secularist” conspiracy of the “oppressors” against the most impoverished sections of society. They repeat the mistakes made by the left in Algeria and Egypt when they praised regimes that were doing nothing for the mass of people as “progressive’ – mistakes that enabled the Islamists to grow. And they forget that any support the state gives to secularist values is only contingent: when it suits it, it will do a deal with the more conservative of the Islamists to impose bits of the shariah – especially the bits which inflict harsh punishment on people – in return for ditching the radicals with their belief in challenging oppression. This is what happened in Pakistan under Zia and the Sudan under Nimeiry, and it is apparently what the Clinton adminstration has been advising the Algerian generals to do.

But socialists cannot give support to the Islamists either. That would be to call for the swapping of one form of oppression for another, to react to the violence of the state by abandoning the defence of ethnic and religious minorities, women and gays, to collude in scapegoating that makes it possible for capitalist exploitation to continue unchecked providing it takes “Islamic” forms. It would be to abandon the goal of independent socialist politics, based on workers in struggle organising all the oppressed and exploited behind them, for a tail-ending of a petty bourgeois utopianism which cannot even succeed in its own terms.

The Islamists are not our allies. They are representatives of a class which seeks to influence the working class, and which, in so far as it succeeds, pulls workers either in the direction of futile and disastrous adventurism or in the direction of a reactionary capitulation to the existing system – or often to the first followed by the second.

But this does not mean we can simply take an abstentionist, dismissive attitude to the Islamists. They grow on the soil of very large social groups that suffer under existing society, and whose feeling of revolt could be tapped for progressive purposes, providing a lead came from a rising level of workers’ struggle. And even short of such a rise in the struggle, many of the individuals attracted to radical versions of Islamism can be influenced by socialists – provided socialists combine complete political independence from all forms of Islamism with a willingness to seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms of struggle alongside them.

Radical Islamism is full of contradictions. The petty bourgeoisie is always pulled in two directions – towards radical rebellion against existing society and towards compromise with it. And so Islamism is always caught between rebelling in order to bring about a complete resurrection of the Islamic community, and compromising in order to impose Islamic “reforms”. These contradictions inevitably express themselves in the most bitter, often violent, conflicts within and between Islamist groups.

Those who treat Islamism as a uniquely reactionary monolith forget that there were conflicts between the different Islamists over the attitude they should take when Saudi Arabia and Iran were on opposite sides during the first Gulf War. There were the arguments that led the FIS in Algeria to break with its Saudi backers, or Islamists in Turkey to organise pro-Iraqi demonstrations from Saudi financed mosques during the second Gulf War. There are the bitter armed battles which wage between the rival Islamist armies in Afghanistan. Today there are arguments within the Hamas organisation among Palestinians about whether or not they should compromise with Arafat’s rump Palestinian administration – and therefore indirectly with Israel – in return for its implementing Islamic laws. Such differences in the attitude necessarily arise once “reformist” Islam does deals with existing states that are integrated into the world system. For each of these states is in rivalry with the others, and each of them strikes its own deals with the dominant imperialisms.

Similar differences are bound to arise every time there is a rise in the level of workers’ struggle. Those who finance the Islamist organisations will want to end such struggle, if not break it. Some of the radical young Islamists will instinctively support the struggle. The leaders of the organisations will be stuck in the middle, muttering about the need of the employers to show charity and the workers forbearance.

Finally, the very development of capitalism itself forces the Islamist leaders to do ideological somersaults whenever they get close to power. They counterpose “Islamic” to “Western values”. But most so called Western values are not rooted in some mythical European culture, but arise out of the development of capitalism over the last two centuries. Thus a century and a half ago the dominant attitude among the English middle class to sexuality was remarkably similar to that preached by the Islamic revivalists today (sex outside of marriage was forbidden, women were not supposed to bare even their ankles, illegitimacy was a taint people could not live down), and women had fewer rights in some respects than most versions of Islam grant them today (inheritance was to the eldest son only, while Islam gives the daughter half the son’s portion; there was no right at all to divorce, while Islam grants women that right in very restricted circumstances). What changed English attitudes was not something inbuilt into the Western psyche or any alleged “Judeo-Christian values”, but the impact of developing capitalism – the way in which its need for women’s labour power forced it to change certain attitudes and, more importantly, put women in a situation where they could demand even greater changes.

That is why even in countries where the Catholic church used to be immensely strong, like Ireland, Italy, Poland and Spain, it has had to accept, reluctantly, a diminution in its influence. The countries where Islam is the state religion cannot immunise themselves from the pressure for similar changes, however hard they try.

This is shown by the experience of Iranian Islamic Republic. Despite all the propaganda about women’s main role being as mothers and wives and all the pressure to drive them out of certain professions like the law, the proportion of women in the workforce has grown slightly and they continue to make up 28 percent of government employees, the same as at the time of the revolution. [129] Against this background, the regime has had to shift its stance on birth control, with 23 percent of women using contraceptives [130], and on occasions to relax the strict enforcement of the veil. Although women are denied equal rights with men when it comes to divorce and family law, they retain the vote (there are two women MPs), attend school, get a quota of places in university in all disciplines and are encouraged to study medicine and to receive military training. [131] As Abrahamian notes of Khomeini:

His closest disciples often mocked the “traditionalists” for being “old fashioned”. They accused them of obsessing over ritual purity; preventing their daughters from going to school; insisting that young girls should be veiled even when no men were present; denouncing such intellectual pursuits as art, music and chess playing; and, worst of all, refusing to take advantage of newspapers, radios and televisions. [132]

None of this should really be surprising. Those who run Iranian capitalism and the Iranian state cannot dispense with female labour power in key sections of the economy. And those sections of the petty bourgeoisie who have formed the backbone of the IRP started sending their daughters to university and to seek employment in the 1970s precisely because they wanted the extra salaries – to enlarge the family income and to make their daughters more marriageable. They have not been willing in the 1980s to write these off in the interests of religious piety.

Islamism cannot freeze economic and therefore social development any more than any other ideology can. And therefore again and again tensions will arise within it and find expression in bitter ideological disputes between its proponents.

The Islamist youth are usually intelligent and articulate products of modern society. They read books and newspapers and watch televisions, and so know all the divisions and clashes within their own movements. However much they may close ranks when faced with “secularists”, whether from the left or from the bourgeoisie, they will argue furiously with each other – just as the pro-Russian and pro-Chinese wings of the apparently monolithic world Stalinist movement did 30 years ago. And these arguments will begin to create secret doubts in the minds of at least some of them.

Socialists can take advantage of these contradictions to begin to make some of the more radical Islamists question their allegiance to its ideas and organisations – but only if we can establish independent organisations of our own, which are not identified with either the Islamists or the state.

On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state. This was true, for instance, in many countries during the second Gulf War. It should be true in countries like France or Britain when it comes to combating racism. Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never”.

But even then we continue to disagree with the Islamists on basic issues. We are for the right to criticise religion as well as the right to practise it. We are for the right not to wear the veil as well as the right of young women in racist countries like France to wear it if they so wish. We are against discrimination against Arab speakers by big business in countries like Algeria – but we are also against discrimination against the Berber speakers and those sections of workers and the lower middle class who have grown up speaking French. Above all, we are against any action which sets one section of the exploited and oppressed against another section on the grounds of religion or ethnic origin. And that means that as well as defending Islamists against the state we will also be involved in defending women, gays, Berbers or Copts against some Islamists.

When we do find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists, part of our job is to argue strongly with them, to challenge them – and not just on their organisations’ attitude to women and minorities, but also on the fundamental question of whether what is needed is charity from the rich or an overthrow of existing class relations.

The left has made two mistakes in relation to the Islamists in the past. The first has been to write them off as fascists, with whom we have nothing in common. The second has been to see them as “progressives” who must not be criticised. These mistakes have jointly played a part in helping the Islamists to grow at the expense of the left in much of the Middle East. The need is for a different approach that sees Islamism as the product of a deep social crisis which it can do nothing to resolve, and which fights to win some of the young people who support it to a very different, independent, revolutionary socialist perspective.



128. This was the quite correct description of the ideas of the People’s Mojahedin provided by the section of the leadership and membership who split away in the mid-1970s to form the organisation that later took the name Paykar. Unfortunately, this organisation continued to base itself on guerrillaism and Maoism rather than genuine revolutionary Marxism.

129. V. Moghadam, Women, Work and Ideology in the Islamic Republic, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 1988, p.230.

130. Ibid., p.227.

131. Ibid.

132. E. Abrahamian, Khomeinism, op. cit., p.16.


Last updated on 17.6.2002