Debate on Islamism and imperialism

Submitted by Matthew on 19 November, 2013 - 7:50

The introduction to a January 2006 pull-out from SolidarityWorkers' Liberty 3/1, on “Marxism and religion” — has sparked controversy recently, after being moved to a more prominent position on our website as part of our routine circulation of content to make less-ephemeral items from our large archive more accessible. Here we reprint an abridged version of a reply by Sacha Ismail of Workers’ Liberty to a polemic against the introduction by Simon Hardy of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative.


Simon Hardy’s article criticising “The AWL on Islamism” has the merit of being that, an article.

One of Simon’s central themes is that Sean [Matgamna, author of the 2006 introduction] ignores the role of Western imperialism in the rise of Islamism. “Why is such a crucial aspect of the rise of political Islamic, reactionary movements so absent from the analysis?”, he complains.

Before the “war on terror” even began, our propaganda against it predicted that the irruption of US imperialism would “spread the spores of fundamentalism” and produce “new masses of recruits for [al Qaeda] and other terrorist-fundamentalists”.

No, the problem is not that we deny or ignore the role of Western imperialism in the rise and, after 2001, revival of Islamism. It is that Simon reproduces the familiar but false “left-wing” idea that Islamism is straightforwardly and automatically a “direct result” of imperialism, largely ignoring the dynamics of the class struggle and ideological struggles in the Muslim world.

That the actions of the big powers provoke angry responses is obviously true. It does not explain the form of those responses. No form of “reactionary anti-imperialist” politicised religion is strong in Central America, which has suffered more US mistreatment than most of the countries where Islamism is strong.

Although the first Islamists did indeed develop their ideas and begin to organise under colonial rule, the era when most Muslim countries were fighting for liberation from colonialism (1920s-60s) saw more secular politics dominate. It took a long time, and many other developments, for Islamism to get a real grip.

Tunisia, for instance, won independence in 1956 under a radically secularist regime; Islamists became a force in the 1980s. Where national liberation struggle continued, among the Palestinians, Islamism was even slower in gaining traction, with Hamas not a mass force until the 1990s.

The same sort of problem is clear in Simon’s treatment of the Iranian revolution. Was Iranian Islamism’s rise to power a “response” to pre-1979 US domination in Iran? What about other “responses” — the powerful workers’ movement, women’s movement, national liberation movements and left-wing organisations which the Islamists smashed?

Simon blurs over the class struggle in Iran, merging revolution and counter-revolution into simply what he oddly calls an “anti-colonial, anti-secular” movement.

In some countries, Islamist forces directly repressed the left. In some, they benefited from previous repression, moving into the vacated space to expand networks of religious charities, welfare services and so on. Pretty universally, they benefited from the discrediting of a left closely tied to Stalinism or nationalism. Whatever the mix of these factors, Islamism's role was fundamentally counter-revolutionary.

Iranian revolutionary Marxists, among others, have analysed Islamism on the rise as not simply bourgeois or petty bourgeois, but a form of counter-revolutionary mass movement with similarities to fascism or extreme right-wing nationalism in Europe.

Of course, secular bourgeois nationalist movements can be and have been repressive towards the working class. Islamism, nonetheless, by and large represented something new and different from most such movements, something fundamentally regressive. That was true across the board, despite the large differences between “Islamisms”.

Like fascism, Islamism employs anti-imperialist rhetoric in the service not of limited democratic goals, but utterly reactionary ones.

To dismiss fascism as just “a product of the capitalist regime”, wrote Trotsky against the Stalinists in 1934, “means we have to renounce the whole struggle, for all contemporary social evils are ‘products of the capitalist system’… Fatalist prostration is substituted for the militant theory of Marx, to the sole advantage of the class enemy.

“The ruin of the petty bourgeoisie is, of course, the product of capitalism. The growth of the fascist bands is, in turn, a product of the ruin of the petty bourgeoisie. But on the other hand, the increase in the misery and the revolt of the proletariat are also products of capitalism…”

We should not make the same mistake, or anything like it, with Islamist movements and Western imperialism.

Simon [denies] that Islamism is a force in some European cities... Naturally no one is suggesting that British Islamists are a power comparable to their counterparts in Indonesia, or that they can win elections. But Simon seems to have forgotten that at his former university, Westminster, the Islamist group whose Indonesian cousin he cites, Hizb ut-Tahrir, are strong enough to win student union elections. He writes as if blissfully unaware that the East London Mosque’s core leaders are Islamists, organised around people who in 1971 actively supported Pakistan’s genocidal war against Bangladesh.

Workers’ Liberty’s record of 'defending Muslims' against oppression is actually better than those of the groups criticising us.

The AWL has always said that, while maintaining sharp political lines, we will stand even with reactionary mosque leaderships and Islamists to repulse racist assaults on Muslim communities (so much for Simon’s idea that for us “opposition to political Islam always seems to prioritised over everything else”). As Sean Matgamna put it in 2002:

“Of course socialists will stand side by side with the priests and Islamic bigots to defend their neighbourhoods against racist attack. We have done that (in my direct experience, in East London). It is very different from standing side by side with those reactionaries against the more emancipated segments of their own communities.”

Or as we put it in 2003, while we were opposing the SWP's alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain in the anti-war movement: “We would ally even with the MAB in a practical action to defend mosques against racists out to firebomb or pillage them.” We have repeated this point again and again.

My aim is not tit-for-tat point-scoring, and my point is not that Workers Power, the ISN or Simon are the 'real Islamophobes'. It is that their hopelessly tangled view of imperialism and anti-imperialism — and of socialists’ attitude to advanced capitalism more generally — have repeatedly led them to support 'reactionary anti-imperialisms', even when these take the form of actual imperialist powers.

The roots of their support for Islamophobic imperialisms [the USSR in Afghanistan, Serbia in Bosnia and Kosova] and Islamist “anti-imperialists” are the same...

AWL on Islamism: analysis without history, words without meaning
Simon Hardy

The fact that the article fails to integrate into it any meaningful analysis of [world] power relationship is its greatest political weakness in terms of attempts to explain where political Islam comes from.

Indeed, it goes to some lengths to let the imperialist West off the hook for the “backwardness” of the Islamic world.

When Matgamna writes, “Political Islam too expresses the disappointments and frustrations of the mass of the people in the Islamic countries with their own deprivation and poverty — on the fringe of the prosperous capitalist world,” he doesn't even attempt to explain why one part of the world is rife with disappointment about poverty and deprivation, and another part of the world can be so prosperous.

After all, isn't precisely this imbalance the basis for the radicalisation of so many Muslims across the world? Instead of making this obvious link, Matgamna embarks on a shallow analysis of the rise of modern political Islam.

Matgamna puts forward a dubious right wing claim that the “existence of large Muslim minorities in Europe is making political Islam a force well beyond the traditionally Muslim world”. Even if we were to concede that there are more political Islamists in Europe today than there were, say, 30 years ago, what is this caused by?

Implicitly Matgamna is making the claim that it is due to poverty and the collapse of Arab nationalism...

But what does it mean to say they are a “force”? Where in Europe can Hizb-ut-Tahrir organise a protest of half a million calling for a caliphate (as they can in Indonesia)?... Please, explain what it means to describe there being a “political Islamic force” in Europe today.

Of course Islamism has been growing in the Middle East in particular since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, but isn't the over-determining factor that has more recently led to the radicalisation of Muslims across the world precisely the West’s War on Terror? In other words, isn’t it a response to the continuation of the same aggressive policy of domination and military/political control over the region that has formed the basis of Western foreign policy towards the Middle East since the dawn of capitalism?

The errors in Matgamna's article flow from his outlook, which isolates the growth of political Islam from the historical and social context of the unequal power relationship between East and West, blaming it on endogenous factors that are never clearly explained (envy?). The rise of political Islamism is a direct result of the influence of imperialism and continued post-colonial oppression in the Muslim world, and combating Islamism means combating those forces that galvanise it...

In fact it is precisely the thing that Matgamna dismisses with a brush of his pen that is the primary cause of the growth of Islamism today— the War on Terror.

Principled and clear opposition to that, including opposition to imperialist occupations in the name of fighting terror, is central to any socialist platform if we want to win people from reactionary ideas...

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