A brief history of political Islam


At the time of this writing, the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 13 years and in Iraq for 11 years. The United States has been engaged in a global drone bombing campaign since 2001 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. The Arab Spring has opened up a new rift through which arms and money have flowed to groups currently turning Egypt, Syria, and Libya into bloodbaths. And this past summer, the United States and its allies initiated another bombing campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on both Iraqi and Syrian territory.

We are told, in most of these cases, that we are engaged in a “clash of civilizations”—that this is a life-and-death struggle between the secular, democratic Western nations on the one hand, and the barbarous, 7th-century Islamic world on the other. We are told that there are those in the Middle East who are simply evil, or incompatible with modernity, and that the only solution is bombing and occupation. Or alternately, we are told to reject the interventionist narrative and hold up the most reactionary of groups as “anti-imperialists.”

Both of these narratives serve to obfuscate the true nature of politics and economics in the Middle East; the first is in the service of justifying naked imperialist aggression over the region’s resources, and the second is to gloss over the failure to build real, working-class institutions in those countries, which are the only ones capable of effectively resisting imperialist power. The only way to truly understand the dynamics of power and empire in the Middle East is through historical analysis, taking into account the material basis of the social movements that emerged and grew there in the 1970s.

In the years following the Second World War, the territories of the great colonial powers experienced a period of massive upheaval. In particular, in the Islamic world, the great push to decolonize was led primarily by groups espousing some form or another of radical secular nationalism. Religious movements had heretofore been relatively minor.

Leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran implemented structural changes in society designed to both reduce the influence of the former colonial powers, and kick-start economic development after long periods of imperial stagnation. This included land reform, the nationalization of banks and key industries, the expansion of education, and massive state-planned industrialization projects. Of course, this had the immediate effect of promoting intervention by Western governments.

Why intervention? In Iran, there was the direct nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company; in Egypt, there was the prospect of Nasser’s “Arab Socialism” taking hold and spreading throughout the Arab world. Both of these developments represented severe threats to the Western domination of the Middle East’s oil reserves.

In addition, during the depths of the Cold War, these represented potential allies to the Soviet Union. In Egypt, the U.S. began to support the Muslim Brotherhood, and in Iran, the CIA orchestrated a coup against Mossadeq and installed Shah Reza Pahlavi, ushering in 26 years of brutal absolute rule and culminating with the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah and instituted the current theocratic Iranian regime.

During this time, the United States increasingly relied on Saudi Arabia as a proxy for influencing events in the Muslim world. The state religion of Saudi Arabia is the Wahabi form of Sunni Islam, an ultra-conservative school that is intricately tied with the formation of the Saudi state and the legitimacy of the Saud family’s rule over the peninsula. This factor, combined with the country’s massive oil wealth and relative lack of industry (and hence a sizable working class), meant that Saudi Arabia was especially well-positioned as a counterbalance to the secular nationalist and socialist/communist movements emerging in the region.

In addition, the massive influx of oil wealth enriched large numbers of the native middle class within the oil-producing countries and created a large, internationally mobile middle class in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The use of oil money and Wahabi ideology as weapons against secular governments in the Third World took a general form that was repeated several times over. Using oil windfalls, Saudi Arabia developed a vast financial network across the Islamic world—a banking system that allowed for the transfer of funds to selected Islamic groups, who engaged in political action against and sometimes violent suppression of secular and socialist forces while providing education, social services, and political propaganda in order to spread their ideologies.

Of course, Nasser’s “Arab Socialist” project was only socialist in name. In actuality it was still a nationalist ideology rooted in the middle class, advocating for heavy state intervention into the economy but failing to fundamentally change the class relations within Egypt. The story was much the same for the secular Ba’ath parties controlling Iraq and Syria, as well as for Z.A. Bhutto’s government in Pakistan. Thus, these societies were not immune to crises of capitalism, and as the global crisis of the 1970s began to grow, economic development in the Muslim world sputtered (in the case of non-oil-producing countries), and these governments collapsed into authoritarian regimes.

During this period of economic and political turmoil, the Islamic movements, backed by CIA and Saudi money, began to make serious inroads into Middle Eastern society. This began with students for whom newly-attained access to education still did not guarantee a place in the new society, as well as the middle classes that were newly empowered economically by the oil boom but still suffering severe political repression in their countries of origin.

Western imperialism saw an opportunity to counteract Soviet influence and nationalist aspirations in the Middle East by using the Saudi networks of finance and charity. This is most evident in the rise of Hamas as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organization, and perhaps more spectacularly, in the creation of the Afghan Mujahideen (and later, the Taliban in Pakistan) in order to combat the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in support of the Communist Party of that country. The forces trained and armed by the CIA and Pakistan to fight the Soviet Union in Chechnya and Afghanistan formed the basis of modern Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Thus, a confluence of geopolitical and economic factors led to the rise of political Islamic movements in the 1970s. The economic collapse and neoliberal restructuring of the world economic order led to a squeeze on the booming middle classes, with the call of global jihad against the Soviet Union particularly promising in light of the political failure of nationalism and powerful financial backers.

The class basis of nearly all Islamic movements, then, is thoroughly modern, rather than a relic of a bygone era. Educated urban youths have made up most of the armed, militarized cadre, and the older, conservative middle class typically have formed the “political” wings of those groups active in electoral politics. In recent years, they have also incorporated numbers of the very poor, and especially members of former militaries and civil administrations. For example, ISIS currently has a number of ex-Ba’ath (an ostensibly “socialist” party) members among its ranks; the Taliban and other reactionary factions in Afghanistan contain several former members of the Afghan Communist Party.

Once we realize that the historical dynamics of Islamist politics in the Arab and Muslim world trace the rise and establishment of a narrow section of petty-bourgeois elements, we can at once see two things: First, that the “clash of civilizations” conception is utterly false. The intense barbarism wrought by these apparent throwbacks to the 7th century are modern creations that are themselves sustained by repeated attempts by imperialist powers to maintain control over global resources and markets, rather than apparently inevitable consequences of a backward culture.

And second, being thoroughly middle-class in orientation, it is impossible for these elements to be principled anti-imperialists; petty-bourgeois ideology cannot help but be inconsistent. The working class must utilize its own organizations to mount a determined struggle for power, particularly in semi-industrialized countries like Egypt, before fundamental change can come about in the oppressive social and economic system in the Middle East.

Photo: Reuters

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