Are you having trouble understanding what’s happening in Syria and the Middle East? You’re not alone – it’s complicated. I found a good analysis in an interview Ashley Smith of the Internationalist Socialist Review, did with Gilbert Achcar, a professor at the University of London (published in the Review’s Winter 2016-17 issue). Achcar is the author of numerous books including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder (2006); The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising (2013); and, most recently, Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (2016). Smith asked him about the left’s understanding of, and approach to, Islamic fundamentalism.
Smith: One of the key developments in the Middle East over the last three decades has been the rise of what commentators variously call political Islam, Islamism, and Islamic fundamentalism. Why do you argue that this political current is better called Islamic fundamentalism?
Achcar: The term one uses is related, of course, to assessment and political judgment, each term having different implications. People use the term “Islamism” to refer to political movements that regard Islam as their fundamental ideology and program. But the term has also been used in the past to refer to Islam itself, so it gets mixed up with Islam as a religion in the minds of most people who hear it. And because “Islamism” has become almost synonymous with terrorism, it leads people to confuse terrorism and Islam per se, feeding already widespread Islamophobic bigotry.
The term “Islamic fundamentalism,” has two advantages. The most important is that there is fundamentalism in all religions. The second is that the notion of fundamentalism helps in fine-tuning the distinction between different currents and groups that give Islam a central place in their ideological identity. While the goal of an “Islamic state” based on sharia is, to various degrees, common to all the groups in the category of Islamic fundamentalism, these groups pursue different strategies and tactics. Thus, there are moderate fundamentalists who have a gradualist strategy of achieving their program within society first, and in the state thereafter, while others, like ISIS, resort to terrorism or state implementation by force. They’re all dogmatic and reactionary.
S: What are the roots of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East? How and why did it arise as a political force?
A: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, born in the 1920s, was the first modern political organization based on an Islamic fundamentalist agenda. That was also the time when the theorization of the Islamic state, the core Islamic fundamentalist doctrine, took its modern shape, also in Egypt. There were, of course, earlier brands of fundamentalism and various sorts of puritan sects in the history of Islam like in other monotheistic religions, but the Brotherhood pioneered a brand of Islamic fundamentalism that was adapted to contemporary society in the form of a political movement.
The Brotherhood emerged at the conjunction of a number of events. The first was the proclamation of a secular Turkish republic and the abolition of the caliphate after the end of World War I. This came as a shock for those who rejected the separation of Islam and government. It was also contemporaneous with the foundation of the Saudi kingdom in the Arabian Peninsula, a state based on an Islamic fundamentalist premise, albeit one of an archaic tribal character.
Egypt at that time was ripe for revolution with an accumulation of social problems, terrible poverty in the countryside, a rotten monarchy, leaders despised or hated by the people, and British domination. The Egyptian left was weak, and the workers’ movement had come under repression in the 1920s. So you had a conjunction of factors, which enabled the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism as a political movement capitalizing on popular discontent.
From a historical materialist perspective, Islamic fundamentalism is a striking illustration of what Marx and Engels identified in their Communist Manifesto as one of the ideological orientations among the traditional middle classes. A fraction of the traditional petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen, and the small and middle peasantry suffer from the crushing effects of capitalism, which develops at their expense turning a big section of them into proletariat, compelling them to shift from a status of small producers or merchants into one of wage earners obliged to sell their labor power in order to make their living. A fraction of these petty propertied classes oppose capitalist development by wanting to “turn back the wheel of history.” Modern Islamic fundamentalism stems from a revolt against the consequences of capitalist development fostered by foreign domination, wanting to go back to a mythical Islamic golden age.
S: What’s the relationship of Islamic fundamentalism to imperialism? Is it in opposition to it or in collusion with it?
A: Both, I would say. The troops of Islamic fundamentalism are people reacting in a reactionary manner to the consequences of capitalism as well as to imperialist domination and imperialist wars. Faced with capitalism and imperialism, they could opt for a progressive struggle, aiming at replacing unregulated capitalism with a socially just egalitarian society. [That’s considered Western, however, and many, at least in Egypt and Syria, think it was tried – and failed – with the Middle Eastern “socialism” of Nasser and Baathism. Both of those efforts centered around dictatorships, however.]
Since it is a reactionary response, Islamic fundamentalism ended up being used by all sorts of reactionary forces, including imperialism itself. From the time it was founded, the Muslim Brotherhood built a close connection with what was and still is the most reactionary, antidemocratic and anti-women state on earth, the Saudi kingdom. They established this link because of the affinity between their own perspective and what’s usually called Wahhabism, the ideology of the tribal force that founded the Saudi kingdom.
The Muslim Brotherhood worked in close alliance with the Saudi kingdom from its foundation until 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait leading to the first US war on Iraq. Till then, the Brotherhood was a major ally of the Saudi kingdom and of the United States, the kingdom’s overlord. Both used them in the fight against left-wing nationalism, particularly against Nasser in Egypt (1952–70), but also against the Communist movement and the Soviet Union’s influence in Muslim-majority countries. This unholy alliance of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Islamic fundamentalist movements was reactionary through and through.
The Saudis broke with the Muslim Brotherhood because the latter didn’t follow the kingdom in supporting the 1991 US onslaught on Iraq. That was because they found it difficult ideologically to condone a Western intervention against a Muslim country from the territory where Islam’s holy places are located. They also had to take into consideration the fact that their constituencies were very much opposed to that aggression, as was the overwhelming majority of public opinion in Arab countries. So, most regional branches of the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the US onslaught, leading the Saudi kingdom to break with them. They therefore sought out and found another sponsor: the emirate of Qatar, which has been their chief supporter ever since. Qatar, of course, is another close ally of the United States in the region, hosting the forward headquarters of the US military Central Command (CENTCOM), the most important platform for US air wars from Syria to Afghanistan.
When the Muslim Brotherhood held power in Egypt during the presidency of their member Mohamed Morsi, they earned the praise of Washington. Other more “radical” brands of Islamic fundamentalism have also collaborated in the past with the United States. Al-Qaeda, for example, originated in joining the US-Saudi-Pakistani-backed guerillas against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan before turning into violent foes of the United States and the Saudi royal family after 1990, for a reason similar to that which led to the Brotherhood’s break with the kingdom.
S: Has the class character of Islamic fundamentalism changed with the development of these state sponsors? Is it still the case that it’s an expression of the petty bourgeoisie or has it become “bourgeoisified?”
A: First of all, Islamic fundamentalism is not restricted to one movement. It’s a broad spectrum of forces and groups, as I emphasized, from the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists to totalitarian fanatics like ISIS. Even the Muslim Brotherhood is a regional and global organization whose strategies and tactics vary from place to place. If we focus solely on Egypt, however, there has indeed been “bourgeoisification.” After Nasser repressed them, many of their members and leaders ended up in exile in the Saudi kingdom. Several of them became businessmen there and profited from the oil boom of the 1970s. The connection with the Saudi state and Gulf capital played an important role in developing a layer of “devout bourgeoisie” in Egypt – a section playing an increasingly important role inside the Brotherhood.
While this capitalist fraction grew considerably in importance within the Brotherhood, the bulk of its rank and file, its troops, remain among the petty bourgeoisie and poorer layers of society. The Brotherhood was never anti-capitalist anyway, beyond the general calling for social equity that you hear from even the most conservative parties. The Brotherhood talks about caring for the poor, in order to say that Islam provides the solution and that Islamic charity will alleviate poverty. All of this fits neatly with a neoliberal perspective that supports privatization of social care and its delegation to private charities. Unsurprisingly, when the Brotherhood came to power recently in Tunisia and Egypt, they continued the economic policies of the previous regimes. They adhered to IMF stipulations and did everything they could to please the capitalist class, including the old regime’s crony capitalists in both countries.
S: Why did Islamic fundamentalism become such a strong political trend in the Middle East? This is surprising given the rich history of secular nationalism and Communist organization in the region.
A: This is a very important issue. An impressionistic view prevails today, as a result of the media’s continuous reports on various strains of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, that religion, in general, and Islamic fundamentalism, in particular, has always dominated politics in the region. But that isn’t true. Except for Egypt, left-leaning secular nationalists and Communists were prevalent in the Middle East during the 1940s, and things began to change in Egypt with the Nasser’s 1952 coup. His regime passed land reform, nationalized foreign properties, including the Suez Canal in 1956, and Egyptian private assets. The leftwing radicalization of these nationalists – with the towering figure of Nasser central to the process – made them tremendously popular, not only in Egypt but in the whole region and in all the Third World. That was because of their social reforms and their opposition to imperialism and Zionism, which echoed the aspirations of the masses. Early on, after a brief period of cooperation, they clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood and repressed them. From then on, the Brothers became the bitterest enemies of the nationalists, and the Saudis and Washington used them as a weapon against Nasser. They’d lost their appeal, however, having no solutions to offer to the real social problems of the masses, whereas the nationalists addressed these issues in part.
The turnaround came with Israel’s 1967 victory over Nasserist Egypt and Baathist Syria. Like Egypt, Syria had undergone a leftwing nationalist radicalization led by a group that Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria from 1970 to 2000, would topple soon after. With the 1967 defeat, followed in 1970 by the crushing of the Palestinian guerillas in Jordan, Nasser’s death, and the overthrow of the leftwing faction of the Baath, radical Arab nationalism suffered a massive setback, which opened a space for the Muslim Brotherhood’s comeback.
Nasser’s successor, Sadat, reversed all the progressive policies of the Nasser era – agrarian, industrial, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist. He released the Muslim Brotherhood from jail and opened the door for its members in exile to return, needing them as allies in his reactionary enterprise. They happily played that role, becoming the shock troops of an anti-left backlash. Sadat allowed them to rebuild their organization into a mass movement, provided they didn’t challenge his rule, and they maintained this relationship with his successor, Mubarak. In the context of a weak organized left, whose most visible section was involved in a similarly ambiguous relation with the regime, the Brotherhood filled a vacuum, attracting disgruntled sections of the population. With funds brought by the new capitalists in their ranks and provided by their Saudi sponsor, the Brotherhood managed grew spectacularly. With their newfound power came ambitions of playing more of a political role than the regime would allow, leading at times to periods of temporary repression.
History shows that when there is a progressive current with some credibility, it can counter fundamentalism. In the Middle East, the left faces Islamic fundamentalism as one of two main poles of reactionary politics, the regimes constituting the other. The progressive forces expressing the aspirations of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising soon tumbled against the regimes, on the one hand, and the Islamic fundamentalist oppositions to the regimes on the other hand, both equally opposed to the aspirations of the revolutionary wave and, in some countries of the region, directly collaborating in thwarting its radicalization.
S: How should the left position itself in relation to Islamic fundamentalist forces fighting imperialism or Zionism? For example, how should the left approach Hamas and Hezbollah?
A: The left has developed a rich tradition that we should draw on in approaching this question. This consists in supporting just struggles against colonialism and imperialism, regardless of who is waging them, without turning this into uncritical support of those waging the struggles. For instance, when fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it made complete sense for any anti-imperialist to oppose the invasion, even though Ethiopia was ruled by the extremely reactionary regime of Haile Selassie, who wasn’t supported uncritically. The same approach should be followed today. Hamas and Hezbollah have been engaged in struggles against Israeli occupation and aggression, and we support them in this. But Hamas isn’t the only group fighting Israel; there are other groups on the Palestinian scene, and we need to determine within that range of anti-Zionist groups which are closer to our political perspective. The same goes for Lebanon.
Hamas grew at the expense of the Palestinian left. At the time of the first Palestinian intifada in 1988, the left was the leading force in the 1967-occupied territories. But its groups ended up directly or indirectly condoning Yasser Arafat’s capitulation to the US and Israel, opening the door to Hamas. Hamas was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine, which until then had been actually favored by the Israeli occupation as an antidote to the PLO.
Hezbollah emerged after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, but it was the Communist Party and leftwing nationalist forces that initiated the resistance to the invasion, drawing on a tradition of struggle against repeated Israeli invasions. Hezbollah built itself at the expense of these forces, especially the Communist Party. The latter had a strong influence in Shia-majority regions in Lebanon and was therefore seen as a major competitor by Hezbollah, which went so far as to assassinate prominent Shia figures in the Party. Although it became the dominant force in a just fight – the struggle against the Israeli occupation – it isn’t progressive force. It achieved its status while repressing and squeezing out progressive forces waging that same struggle. It’s dependent on Iran, and has gone along with the neoliberal reconstruction of Lebanon.
Similarly, if the US or Israel launched an attack on Iran, we wouldn’t hesitate in supporting that country, even though its ruling regime is reactionary, repressive, and capitalist – an enemy of the social cause for which we fight. This is important to grasp because, in recent years, Iran and Hezbollah have come to the rescue of the counterrevolutionary regime in Syria, supplying it with key shock troops that have joined its onslaught on the popular democratic movement.
In the Middle East in general, tragically, we’ve seen progressive forces align themselves with Islamic fundamentalists against the regimes – as happened in the first stages of the uprising in many countries, and is still happening in the Syria – while other sections of the left lined up with the regimes against the Islamic fundamentalists. It’s crucial for progressives to assert a third revolutionary pole, equally opposed to both counterrevolutionary poles now dominating the scene, if they are, at some point, to embody again the aspirations that inspired the Arab Spring in 2011. Short of that, we’ll see more of the ongoing disaster with the region overwhelmed by the clash between the two counterrevolutionary poles. The best scenario in the short term is a coalition between the two reactionary poles, as happened in Tunisia where the local equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood entered into a governmental coalition with the old regime forces, or in Morocco where the king coopted the local equivalent into government. Washington and its European allies are very much pushing for this scenario almost everywhere in the region. Such reconciliation would be beneficial from a progressive perspective, because it would compel progressive forces to oppose both counterrevolutionary poles and facilitate their emergence as the alternative to both of them. The future of the left in the Middle East hangs on getting this orientation right.