Political Islam is regularly derided by establishment commentators in the West. Tony Bozdagci takes a closer look at the role of Islamic groups inside resistance movements in the Arab world

The mass uprisings sweeping the Middle East in the past few months should give confidence to anyone who is fighting for a better world. They show us that the rulers of countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya are increasingly unpopular, and that an alternative to the corruption and poverty imposed by these repressive regimes is not only possible, but necessary.

However, the power vacuum created in these countries through the course of the uprisings has stirred an anxiety that hangs heavy through the corridors of power in the west, and among secularists and leftists alike—the spectre of Islamism.

Dictatorships in the Middle East like Egypt’s Mubarak regime have long been justified by claims that these “safe” figures, loyal to the west, are the only alternative to a takeover by Islamists hostile to democracy and freedom. No other outcome has been seen as possible.

For instance, commenting on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, journalist John Bradley laments that, “Documents published by the group make it clear that they believe in Islamic democracy, not the kind that exists in the West.”

This view is supported by false assumptions about the roles of the Arab left and Political Islam in the Arab world.

Understanding the US-led “war on terror” is essential to any contemporary analysis of the role Political Islam (or Islamism) plays in society. This is because the “war on terror” is the political battleground from which the most widespread views of Islam have emerged in the west. The resulting hysteric denouncements of Islam should be viewed as an extension of the strategy of polarising society by demonising all things Islamic.

Political Islam

Political Islam is underpinned by the idea that modern Muslims must return to the roots of their religion, and unite politically. But despite this popular premise, Political Islam today is far from being one homogenous movement.

The ruling party in Turkey’s parliamentary democracy describes itself as Islamic, as does the pro-US Saudi monarchy and the anti-US Iranian theocratic dictatorship. Islam is also claimed as the ideology of mass-based resistance movements Hamas and Hezbollah and terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.

Political Islam in many of its forms—and to varying degrees—represents an effort to pose an ethical alternative to the inhumane and often criminal conduct of modern governments and their western backers.

For example, Turkey’s moderately Islamist ruling AK Party was elected to government in 2002, and is currently serving its second term after being re-elected in 2007. Despite the hysteria against the party being Islamic, it has carried out progressive democratic reforms aimed at weakening the control of the conservative judiciary and the military. It has also made popular denunciations of Israeli aggression against Muslims in the region. However, it maintains a diplomatic alliance with the US and Israel. Its condemnation of Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara in May 2010 was little more than lipservice.

This is a vastly different role from that played by the Islamic theocracy in Iran, or Hamas in Gaza, but these all represent political movements imbued with Islam. The ideology underpinning each version is specific to the circumstances in which they have developed historically.

Political Islam has proved flexible enough to abandon some of the conservative views often seen as typical of it in order to pursue mass political support. For example, Hezbollah in Lebanon describes itself as an Islamic resistance group, and is variably described as hard-line Islamic. But the heartland of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is home to the largest liquor store and best-known party district in the entire country. Both Hezbollah and Hamas need to make accommodations to such challenges in order to maintain their mass support bases.

Hezbollah and Hamas are organisations that draw their strength from their mass popular support. So regardless of what is written in their charters or programmes, the role they play in society, and their popularity among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, can only be understood by the nature of their relationship with their supporters. The substance of this relationship is in the everyday social and cultural activities they are committed to, such as building demonstrations condemning Israeli and US attacks in the region, but also building schools, houses, mosques and other charity work—all priorities of a democratically run welfare state. In this sense, invocations of Islam function as a vehicle for mobilising a political force willing to fight for national liberation and against imperialism in Lebanon, Palestine and elsewhere in the region.

The growth of Islam

Western intervention in the Middle East has devastated the lives of millions of people. For decades parts of the region were forced under Western colonial rule. When that ended the West installed repressive regimes with leaders who remained loyal to the imperial project, and looted the region’s wealth.

The result has been widespread anger at corrupt Arab rulers, often viewed as lackeys of Western governments. Besides the massive human loss in armed conflict, a major consequence has been poverty and desperation. This has severely threatened the notions of autonomy, morality and dignity.

Therefore Islamic movements that promised to fight Western imperialism have found a huge audience.

But the success of Islamic groups in identifying themselves as the most courageous fighters against Western imperialism has also been due to failures of the secular left. The two main secular forces that have led mass struggles against colonialism in the third world, nationalists and Communists, both failed and disappointed their supporters.

The relationship between the Communist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian state under Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s provides a good example of this.

Nasser’s nationalist military government in Egypt came to power on the back of a growing anti-imperialist wave in the 1950s. Nasser looked to the state-run economy of Stalinist Russia as a model for economic development, and claimed to be implementing a nationalist form of this “socialism”.

The Communist Party gave uncritical support to Nasser, based on their adherence to Stalin’s “stages theory” of revolution, that the working class could not make a revolution until the national revolution was complete. They argued that the struggle for national independence had to be led by a section of the bourgeoisie—and if the bourgeoisie itself was too weak, the intelligentsia or army officers like Nasser could provide leadership.

This meant they did nothing to oppose Nasser’s offensive against unions, left wing student organisations and even the Communists themselves. In 1956 the Communist Party even dissolved itself, arguing that Nasser was preparing the way for socialism. Indeed, Communists in Egypt continued to praise the socialism of Nasser from their prison cells.

But the Communists in Egypt were also discredited due to Moscow’s recognition of Israel two decades prior. So while the Communists’ hands were tied on Palestine in the late 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood was engaged in a solidarity campaign with the Palestinians. They were one of the first organisations across the Middle East to recruit and send volunteers to fight in Palestine against an emerging Zionist state in the lead up to 1948.

Nasser gained widespread support for his seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956, but his successors abandoned their anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to make peace with Israel and adopted free market policies that generated widespread opposition from workers and the poor.

Thus the outcome of Nasser’s nationalist politics was the corrupt and despised Mubarak regime, which was finally toppled in a mass people power revolution.

The Communist party’s uncritical support for Nasser, and Moscow, meant that the frustration and resentment felt towards the capitulation of the regime was channelled into support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which became the largest and staunchest oppositional force in the country.

PLO and Hamas

Similarly the popularity of Hamas, the Palestinian resistance organisation that controls the Gaza strip and an offshoot of the Brotherhood, is due to its defiant resistance to Israel and the betrayals of the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

When Yasser Arafat signed onto the “peace process”, resulting in the Oslo Accords in 1993, he formally recognised Israel on behalf of the Palestinians.

The PLO was cemented as the official diplomatic leadership of the Palestinians and was given control of a new Palestinian Authority (PA) to administer the occupied territories. But this came at the price of giving legitimacy to Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The current president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, is a part of this legacy of betrayal and capitulation to Israel.

This is the context in which Hamas rose to prominence. What gave Hamas its anti-imperialist zeal were the mass mobilisations of the Palestinian Intifada in 1987 from which it was born.

Crucially, the flawed strategies and betrayals of the PLO opened up the space for Hamas to further extend its reach through demonstrations, social welfare activities and physical resistance against the Israeli occupation.

In 2006 Hamas was democratically elected to control the PA, but was ousted by a coup led by the PLO with Israeli backing in the West Bank. Hamas continues to maintain a de facto government in the Gaza Strip amidst the subsequent crippling siege on the strip imposed by Israel and the West.

This does not mean Hamas is without its problems. It has tried to impose dress codes on women for example, although these do not seem to be strictly enforced.

But there can be little doubt that Hamas’s popularity comes from its track record of resistance and not its perceived religious convictions. A poll conducted by in 2006 found just over half of the Palestinians who considered themselves “religious” voted for Hamas in the elections that year, the last held in the Occupied Territories, while 40 per cent voted for Fatah. But on opinion about the failed “peace process” divided more sharply—nearly 80 per cent of those opposing the Oslo peace deals voted for Hamas.

No consistency

Political Islam has won support based on its opposition to imperialism. But it has no solution to the social crisis in the Middle East.

Despite its mass support within Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is reluctant to bid for power. It has announced that it will not stand a candidate for president in the elections to be held following Mubarak’s fall.

This partly reflects the conservatism of its middle class leadership, which is worried that the West would not accept an Islamic government. In the past the Brotherhood was prepared to deal with the king and undermine mass movements; at times its student organisations forcibly purged the campuses of their political opponents: Nasserists, Communists and left wing activists.

But it also reflects divisions inside the Brotherhood. The closer it gets to taking power, the more the crisis deepens. This is because the Brotherhood is a populist organisation that contains competing interest groups and class interests. The Brotherhood’s leadership is drawn from middle class professionals and big business, but it has also appealed to workers and peasants on a populist basis. Its membership includes millionaires as well as peasants, workers, and exiles abroad in the Gulf states enriched by the oil boom.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has in recent years taken ministries in the government that mean its involvement in implementing neo-liberal policies. Currently it is supporting a businessman worth $2.5 billion as prime minister.

Neither group is committed to social and political change in the interests of the Arab working masses.

Such change requires a mass socialist party based on the working class that aims to mobilise the mass of the population to fight for its own control of society. It is only this kind of struggle from below that it capable of both consistently opposing imperialism and addressing the poverty and unemployment that sits alongside enormous oil wealth across the region.

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