By Mark Osborn
The Economist believes that the Algerian government is likely to fall to fundamentalism. If it does, the repercussions will be felt right across the Muslim world and far beyond. The Economist concludes that “we” must “live with Islam,” which is “not like communism, something to be resisted tooth and nail.”
They think “Islam is a force for good, offering a moral underpinning for a world that surely needs one.”
The Economist wants the bourgeoisie to learn from the worst experiences of the “Islamic Revolution” in Iran (1979). The ruling class must not “overreact”, but to trust to the economic weight of the advanced capitalist countries to bring the Islamic radicals into line.
For socialists an Islamic fundamentalist government would be a disaster. An Islamic regime would go beyond even the repressive measures that Algeria’s bourgeois military dictatorship takes.
In Iran, clerical power under Khomeini meant the destruction of working-class organisations, political parties and trade unions, and complete denial of the right to organise, to speak or to publish.
The Khomeini regime also rolled back gains made by women. It forced its way into every sphere of life.
Muslim fundamentalism is a genuinely reactionary — backward-looking — political movement. These are the modern “feudal socialists” Marx described in the Communist Manifesto: “half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to its very heart core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through its total incapacity to understand the march of modern history.” They are trying to turn the clock back, to medieval times, rather than looking forward to the socialist future.
Why are the Islamic fundamentalists growing? and why now?
In parts of the Muslim world, modernising bourgeois nationalists came to power in Algeria, Iraq and Egypt in the ’50s and ’60s as in Turkey after World War 1, in Bangladesh after 1971, and most recently in Gaza. More-or-less secular governments autocratically presided over extreme poverty and corruption, thereby discrediting modern, “Western values” — rights for women, democratic rights, secularism — in the eyes of millions of the world’s poorest people.
The alternative, Stalinist “Communism” — strong in Bengal, Turkey and some Arab countries — collapsed as a credible force with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Desperate people looking for self-respect, solidarity and a reason for living turn back to religion. The fundamentalists offer the uncorrupted certainty of the Koran in an uncertain world. And that is why people are turning to them and reviving the traditions of the past.
In the Algerian slums, the Muslim fundamentalist FIS appeals even to women. They offer a trade — accept the veil in return for running water, stay in the home if your husband gets a job.
The parallel with Hitler’s National Socialism is quite striking — offering an improved standard of living and life by way of utterly reactionary solutions. And similarity with the Nazis does not stop at their programme. These people are building mass movements of thousands, who are willing to fight and die for their ideas.
The fundamentalist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, currently active in Britain, believe that “the unlimited and omniscient Creator can lay down absolutely what is good and bad. The Koran contains a complete blueprint for life from the level of the individual to the level of the state.”
It is not just the separation of church and state that is under threat, but all the historical gains made by the modern individual — including, even, the right to a private life, free will, choice and individual identity.
If they could, they would shackle thought to religious dogma, taking us back centuries, before modern science and the bourgeoisie shattered those chains.
While it is perfectly true that these abilities to think and choose are limited under capitalism, they do exist. They are important, and they are the irreplaceable starting point for a struggle for something better.
Hizb ut-Tahrir would even try to rigidly regulate sex life. One of their leaflets explains that sexual freedom leads to rape and child abuse, and means advocating necrophilia, incest, sodomy, and sado-masochism. Missing is any idea that consent — choice — should govern sexual relations, and that, for this reason, rape is wrong and sado-masochism is not a problem between consenting adults.
The meaning of the fusion they want — of state, politics and religion in pursuit of the domination of all areas of life — can be understood only if we grasp the pre-bourgeois nature of fundamentalism.
In England “side by side with the expansion of trade and the rise of new classes to political power.. was the contraction of territory within which the spirit of religion was conceived to run. By the Restoration , religion has been converted from the keystone which holds together the social edifice into one department in it.”
The Church “was shouldered aside.. [by] the 18th century... the very conception of the church as an independent moral authority, whose standards may be in sharp antithesis to social conventions, has been abandoned” (RH Tawney).
The development of a strong capitalist class in England broke the power of religion and abolished the religious courts.
The point about the Muslim world is that capitalism came late. Modernisation has been partial and weak. It has not carried the people nor completely uprooted the past.
So Sharia [religious] law and religious courts, and gangs of state-sponsored religious enforcers, still continue to exist in capitalist Saudi Arabia.
The weakness of capitalist development means that despite the existence of Islamic liberals there has not been or an Islamic Reformation. There was no equivalent of the English revolution — Egypt had Nasser’s military regime.
And so religion continues to intrude on politics, economics and social matters in a way that would be inconcievable in Britain.
It is not only the High Bourgeois Economist which bends down before rising Muslim fundamentalism.
On the left, Socialist Worker celebrate Muslim resistance to Mubarak because the fundamentalists are militant and opposed to the Egyptian regime. At their Marxism ’94 event their spokesperson celebrated the Muslim opposition to Arafat which screams “Arafat, you pimp, we will stamp on your head,” without bothering that it is Hamas which are doing the shouting. It is rather like a socialist going on a march against the Tories, chiming in with “Down with Major,” without noticing that it is a BNP demonstration.
And the liberal left do their own supple spineless crawling, too. Martin Woollacott’s Guardian article (8 March ’95) is worth summarising, because some of his views are widely held:
1. “The positive messages in the Koran” must be reclaimed to “devise some kind of Muslim feminism.” Because
2. “it is hard to envisage success for women’s rights [under Islam] without a buttressing from religion.” But this is not so bad because
3. There are “virtues [in] traditional Muslim households” and “attractions of Islam for some educated and sophisticated women.” And change from within is possible
4. Women are “active in religious movements from which position they can challenge and infuriate the authorities.” And do not rock the boat because
5. “In Saudi Arabia Western forms of protest [i.e. visible protest] have proved highly counterproductive.” Other methods are preferable
6. “In Syria, good looking young women go off to the Mosque as a form of adolescent liberation.. their parents can’t refuse, as they could refuse them a visit to a restaurant or disco.” This is “rebellion from strength,” presumably just masquerading as rebellion from weakness.
It is hard to imagine a more wretched capitulation to encroaching Muslim mediaevalism! When, a hundred years ago, Booker T Washington accepted second class citizenship on behalf of African Americans he was, at least, a Black American, living in the South. Martin Woollacott accepts second class citizenship for millions of women living thousands of miles away, from the convenience of an office on Farringdon Road.
These ‘liberals’ hold the absurd idea that vigorous protest movements are “Western,” and to be discouraged. It almost defies belief, but they seem to believe that the ideas of the French revolution — liberty and equality — have, for large parts of humanity at the end of the 20th century, to be abandoned in favour of a ridiculous rumaging around in the past.
Equality and the fight for it is not to be given up anywhere!
As Taslima Nasrin, the Bengali feminist, said in Workers’ Liberty 19 “Women continue to be persecuted in the name of tradition. One thing that feminists in Western countries should learn is to be critical about the traditions of Africa and Asia. I have heard Western women saying we should follow our traditions. Well, I like my food and I like my dress. But why should I accept the tradition of oppression, too? Why should I accept a society that puts women in veils and allows men to dominate them?… Freedom is not just for you, it is for me too.”