Marxism and Islamism – do they mix?

For nearly thirty years, Marxism has been wondering what its relationship should be with Islamism. Are Islamists a religiously supremacist, reactionary, theocratic force hostile to gender equality, LGBT rights, human rights and democracy? Or, can Islamism represent a progressive force in society?

And what about all those Muslims who reject Islamism as an ideology? Secular, liberal, socialist and even Marxist Muslims who point out that Islamism strives not for an egalitarian society but for a caliphate where the rights of many will not be respected. Are they allies or opponents?

Islamists often characterise secularised and/or “progressive” Muslims as traitors to their faith or even allies of imperialism. Is this true?

How should Marxism approach Islamism?

The starting point in this is to distinguish between Islam and Islamism. Islam is a faith stretching back 1500 years. Islamism is largely a response to 19th century and 20th century colonialism and imperialism that has emerged in different forms over the last 200 years. It was a reaction to the shock of being invaded by the empires of Britain and France.

And it emerged as a condemnation of not just western imperialism but the elites of the Ottoman Empire and in India. The question was: what has gone wrong with our societies that we should be in this position? And it led some to strive for modernisation but within an Islamic framework while others rejected all engagement with politics and the modern world.

The class basis of Islamism

In the 1990s, Chris Harman – a leading light of the Socialist Workers Party – wrote an intriguing pamphlet called The Prophet and the Proletariat. In essence, he argued that Marxists needed to engage with Islamism neither condemning the ideology as ‘fascist’ nor regarding it as ‘progressive’. There had to be some sort of scorpion dance with Islamism if you want.

The anti-imperialist and anti-American rhetoric of some Islamists has undoubtedly proved attractive to some on the Marxist Left. Plus an imbibing of the narrative developed by Islamist groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir that the religion of Islam is under a crusader-style attack by the west. The edging of some Marxists towards Islamism reflects the historic weakening of socialist and communist parties in the Muslim world while Islamism has grown.

Some Islamists in turn have been only too happy to embrace their new friends, sometimes out of a shared opposition to imperialism and capitalism. But the question is – do both sides share the same ultimate objectives? And how to deal with the opposition of Islamism to gender equality, LGBT rights, democracy and…..even workers rights.

Petit-bourgeois utopians

Harman argues that Marxists should go easy on “petty bourgeois utopians”. They’re not responsible for the sins of imperialism. He asserts that Islamism carries no blame for the upheavals and war witnessed in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Should mention that Harman died in 2009 so didn’t witness the Daesh ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq. However, Al Qaeda and the phenomenon of Salafi Jihadism did very much exist by then and gets no coverage in his pamphlet – which I find rather odd.

And it would have been fascinating to know his views on the murderous sectarianism of those groups and the way in which Assad used jihadis, he deliberately released from prison, to reassert his control over most of Syria, crushing the Arab Spring under his heel.

Iran, Marxism and Islamism

And then we have the Iranian revolution of 1979. In its aftermath, I remember most activists on the Left were almost uniformly hostile to Khomeini. His Islamist insurgency was viewed as an attempt to derail moves towards workers control of the economy through factory committees, etc. And the use of capital punishment as well as the enforced veiling of women was seen as wholly regressive and brutal.

Harman’s argument is that Khomeini and the clergy (who were rooted in what is termed the ‘bazaar’ class) leaned on different classes to consolidate their power. First siding with the liberal bourgeoisie to crush the factory committees and then veering leftwards (in style but not content) to purge the establishment and install people slavishly loyal to Khomeini.

No problem with any of that analysis. But his conclusion is tortuously worded to put it mildly.

He makes the entirely valid point that Marxists should not necessarily side with the liberal/secular bourgeoisie in such a situation as Iran in 1979 and in other Muslim majority countries. Because secularists in power have often pursued anti-socialist and anti-democratic policies.

Harman goes on to slag off the three main left parties in Iran during that period who did make big mistakes. Especially the pro-Soviet Tudeh party that sided with Khomeini and then got exterminated when they were no longer useful.

Then Harman states that the victory of Khomeini was not inevitable yet at the same time “neither does it prove that Islamism is a uniquely reactionary force against which the left must be prepared to unite with the devil of imperialism and its local allies”. Hmmm….is that leaving the door open to an alliance with Islamists? Well, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt as he then argues for an “independent working class leadership”.

This is followed by an acknowledgment that “revolutionary upheaval can give way to more than one form of the restabilisation of bourgeois rule under a repressive, authoritarian, one party state”. But a reactionary ‘medieval’ rendition of Islam was not to blame but the “failure of the socialist organisations to give leadership to an inexperienced but very combative working class”.

FIND OUT MORE: The 1979 Iran revolution

In the context of the wider pamphlet – I’m left wondering whether the underlying message here is that Marxists should have engaged with the Islamist movement in Iran in 1979? Well, good luck with that. My money would have been on Khomeini emerging on top regardless.

What does Islamism think about Marxism?

Sayyid Qutb was one of the leading Islamist theorists in the post-war era, executed in Egypt in 1966. He didn’t view Islamism as being in any way compatible with Marxism. In his view – and that of many other Islamists – both capitalism and communism were ‘materialist’ and more crucially, man-made systems. As opposed to divinely mandated.

In an encyclopaedic account of Islamism called The Muslim Brotherhood and the West, author Martyn Frampton relates a conversation between the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, and a United States diplomat in the 1940s.

The embassy account shows Al-Banna presenting the Muslim Brotherhood, a leading Islamist group that he founded, as a “barrier against communism”. And in Cairo street fights, it was often the brothers versus Communist youth. Al-Banna claimed to the Americans that he had hundreds of thousands of members who would be a valuable anti-Communist asset as the Cold War with the Soviet Union developed.

The only thing that poured cold water on this possible modus vivendi with the US was the question of Israel and the Palestinians. American support for the new Jewish state and the subsequent wars with neighbouring Arab states undermined that burgeoning relationship.



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