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Arab Spring, Islamist Winter, and the Left.

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Not Everybody Celebrates Islamist Victories.

Arab Spring, Islamist Winter, and the Left.

“The current Arab revolution forms part of the colonial revolution that has been irresistibly developing since the last world war. This revolution, furthermore, is only one aspect of the accelerating and irremediable break-up of the capitalist regime, and consequently forms part of the proletarian revolution by which the end of the capitalist regime will be completed and the new socialist social order will begin.”

Michel Raptis, ‘Pablo’. The Arab Revolution. 1959.

“Political Islam is winning a popular mandate as sweeping (although perhaps no more long-lasting) as that given by the events of 1989 to Eastern European liberals. It could not have been otherwise. Over the last half-century Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia—the first two invading, the third proselytizing—have virtually destroyed secular politics in the Arab world. Indeed, with the inevitable demise of the last Baathist in his Damascus bunker, the great pan-Arab political movements of the 1950s (Nasserism, Communism, Baathism, Muslim Brotherhood) will have been whittled down to the Brotherhood and its Wahhabi rivals.”

Mike Davis. Spring Confronts Winter. (New Left Review. 72) 2011

In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, Salafists are occupying the faculty of Manouba, demanding the “freedom” for women students to wear the niqab. Unveiled female lecturers have been insulted with shouts of “whores” (putes). The Education Minister and the police have refused to intervene. (Le Monde 20.11.12) In the newly elected Tunisian Constituent Assembly the Islamist Ennahda, of Rached Ghannouchi is, with 89 seats (41 %) out of 217, the largest party. It proclaims its commitment to democratic principles and the independence of the public power from direct religious influence. A few months ago it expressed its understanding of a violent Salafist protest, against a television station that broadcast the ‘blasphemous’ film Persepolis.

Prime Minister Hamdi Jebali, of Ennahda, heads a Coalition Cabinet dominated by his party. It includes the left-nationalists of the Congrès pour la République (29 seats – 13 %) and the social-democrats of Ettakol (20 deputies – 9%) – in secondary posts. It is charged with drawing up a new Constitution. In the Assembly a heterogeneous group of centrists, ex-Communist modernists (5 seats), the extreme left (4), notables with ties to the Ben Ali regime, and El Aridha, run by London based businessman and former Ennhaha supporter, Hechmi Hamdi (26) represents no coherent opposition. Outside attempts to replay the passionate protests that began the revolution on the 17th of December 2010, have only drawn a limited audience.

Meanwhile Islamic vigilantism has spread, unchecked by the authorities. In Sidi Bouzid, the town where Zine El-Abidene Ben Ali immolated himself, and set off the Tunisian uprising in December 2010, the followers of Sheikh Khatb Idrissi preach a return to the “origins” of faith. They try to enforce their mores on the population. (Le Monde 17.12.11) Some consider that that these Salafists are in hostile competition with Ennahda. Others believe their relationship is more porous.

Ghannouchi refers to the ‘Turkish’ model of politics, of democracy and ‘secular’ state neutrality. Turkey’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) faces constraints on religious proselytising through government decree. This does not stop it promoting Moslem norms (particularly through municipal decree). The AKA has favoured the influential religious network of Fettullah-Gülen. This has a ‘Gramscian’ strategy with national and international ambition. That is to engage in a war of position, by the Islamisation of  society – through education, charity and business. Ennahda may well be adopting this template of state-power and the conversion of civil society. It faces far fewer obstacles to more coercive means than its Turkish counterpart. In this light the Salafists could be seen as outriders, pushing the boundaries of faith-by-force.

In Morocco the Islamist Justice and Development Party, led by one-time member of the hard-line Al-Islah, Abdelilah Benkirane, did not participate in their – limited – domestic Spring, the 20th of February Movement. But it came top in November’s elections (27,08%). It now heads a Coalition under Mohammed IV, said to be moving in the direction of a constitutional Monarchy. Its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane is a former long-term member of the Chabiba Islamiya, which killed leftists in the 1970s. Called by their critics the ‘King’s Islamists’ their ‘moderation’ is accompanied by policies aimed at the Islamisation of society, with consequences for women’s rights (whose extension they strongly opposed in recent years) and freedom of thought.

The National Transitional Council (NTC), which includes Islamist currents, runs Libya. It has announced its intention of introducing laws based on the Sharia. It is embroiled in squabbles over sharing power and money, and implicated in violence against supporters of Colonel Gaddafi, and other suspected opponents. There are conflicts underway between the Zentum militia, the Islamists of Abdel-hakim Belhaj and the Army led by General Khalifa Hifter. Regional and minority jostling for position further embroil the NTC.

The impact of Islamism in the aftermath of the Arab Spring extends from the Maghreb to the Mashriq. In Egypt the Salafists of the Al-Nour coalition won over 24% of the vote in November’s first round of elections. They are the second party of the country, behind the victorious Moslem Brotherhood standing as the Freedom and Justice Party – over 37% At barely 13 % the liberal Egyptian Bloc (13% and the left alliance with groups that came out of the revolution (3%) have been pushed to the margins. The extra-electoral demonstrations continue, in Tahrir Square. Protests at continuing control by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) have been met by indecent violence. There have been 14 deaths so far.

Most of Yemen’s successful protesters have an Islamist slant, though Salafists appear geographically isolated. Bahrain looks increasingly to be a straightforward Shia and Sunni conflict, centred on the well-founded protests of the former against discrimination. Jordan saw some initial unrest. The Syrian uprising, viciously repressed, has the active support of its wing of the Moslem Brotherhood. There are signs that religious sectarianism, rife in Iraq, in the wake of the American-led Occupation, and always present in Wahhabism (as the Saudi Arabian version of Salafism is often called) could spill into its neighbour, as Syria plunges into civil war.

Only President Boutefika’s Algeria appears to stand apart. There have been protests over food prices and unemployment. But the façade democracy, where real control rests with the Military-Administrative structure, le Pouvoir, has not met serious opposition. To stave this off state salaries have been raised, housing issues looked at, and measures to help commerce and the young have been taken. The State of Emergency – in force for 19 years – has been lifted The memory of the 1990s Civil War, with the Islamist Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), and armed groups, such as the GIA, whose remnants in the network, Al-Qaida au Maghreb, still carry out outrages, weakens the will to confront le Pouvoir head-on.

The Islamist Victory.

In those countries where the Arab Spring has carried the day in elections, the transitions to a new political order are in a state of flux. But one thing is clear. It has been the electoral triumphs of Islamist parties that are now to the fore.

With office, if not full control over their states, the Islamists will be decisive players for the immediate future. Their capacity to respond to the frustration and aspirations for a better life felt by those who went into the streets to risk death at the hands of authoritarian regimes is unknown. This will be tested sooner rather than later. There is mass unemployment – a major push to protest amongst the under-25s – and predictions of continued economic recession and slow growth, not to mention a catastrophic decline in the important tourist sector. They will have difficulty in satisfying not only the protesters but also the economic and social needs of their most enthusiastic voters.

For some people this result is unexpected. Olivier Roy famously talked of a “post-Islamist’ revolution. To him the Arab Spring embodied demands for “dignity and respect”, not for religious order. The Islamisation of society that had proceeded apace over the last two decades had left faith “de-politicised.” (Le Monde. 12.02.11) Yet it is parties committed to religious authority that now wield power. Hani Ramadan (Tariq Ramadan’s brother) demands that we respect the “popular will” that backed their “spiritual and moral” message. (Le Monde 8.12.11) But will they be able to carry out their mandate? And what exactly is it?


Islamism and Capitalism.

It is an old saw that Islamists lack a thorough-going economic programme. Signposts nevertheless exist. From Morocco to Egypt they favour private capital, though all attempt to counter Western-led globalisation with ‘social justice’ The Brotherhood tends to stress law, the Sharia, as the vehicle for equity. The Egyptian Salafist Al-Nor gives some content to this by demanding free medical care, education and treatment for drug addiction. In common with liberals and the left Islamists advocate the break up of the Military-Political structure that controls the much of these states’ economies through patronage, and corruption. Anti-trust and competition laws, with an ‘Islamic’ flavour – and the possible abolition of ‘usury’ – are mooted. Tunisia there are hopes that increased Gulf investment can help establish a more balanced, less US-Europe dependent, position for the country.

Akrim Bekaïd suggests that Islamists’ claims to follow a “third way” between capitalism and socialism, through Islamic social justice, are improbable. As with post-Communist attempts to temper markets by civil society, they can seem appealing (as much to sympathetic Westerners as domestically) but have little content. The Islamist party with the sharpest take on the economy, Ennahda, favours economic liberalism first, and social responsibility second. The prospect of transfers of state (and shadow-state) patrimony to new hands could well be an opportunity for pious businessmen throughout the region. Many Islamists are also hostile in principle to state taxation, which would put them in a position to imitate European deficit-reduction programmes. Social ills will be healed only by charity – financed by the zakat, compulsory alms-giving flowing into religious foundations. (Après les Révolutions, les privatisations. Le Monde Diplomatique. October 2011)

Islam, like all religions, has proved highly adaptable to different economic systems. During the bygone epoch of the Arab Revolution Maxime Rodinson commented, “the precepts of Islam have nowhere created a social or economic structure that was radically new.” (Islam and Capitalism 1966/1974) Some forms of Islam accepted, or at least tolerated, Arab ‘socialism’ in the past, when this was synonymous with the state ownership and national development promoted after independence. But there is an ingrained resistance to large-scale disruption of private ownership and production – indeed the Muslim Brothers were known for their hostility to these ‘Communist’ measures. Rodinson observed that the “leaders of Muslim expansion were traders.” Today the socialist tide has long ebbed. Anybody looking in the Qur’an to justify capitalism, through analogies with early Moslem merchants can find one – within a ‘moral’ framework. . Islamist parties can paint their economic base within the world market in Islamic colours. As indicated above, this will not have much practical effect.

Erdogan’s Turkey has already been cited as an Islamist model. This is partly on political grounds – as if Islamism can be a political form comparable to European Christian Democracy. This has limits. The Egyptian Brothers shy away from Turkish secularism (though one wonders if control of the Mosques is so unattractive once the state is in their hands). But the most obvious appeal of Turkey is prosperity – at the price of great inequality, severe restrictions on union organisations, and an uprooting of rural populations.

It is hard to see how the Turkish Islamic road to globalisation can solve the problems of economies that lack anything comparable to Ankara’s manufacturing capacity. Equally, they already have enough problems with migration from the countryside and wild urbanisation. The Euro and debt crises engulfing Europe, affects Turkey, and has an obvious impact on the Arab regions. State spending will not only face ideological constraints; it faces its own deficit disaster. The Soviet Union’s ‘command economy’ was a poor model for Arab socialism. The ‘Turkish way’ could be no less of a mirage, even if it were possible to transplant it.

The class blocs that underpin the Islamists’ success are, in light of the unsettled international economy, unstable. These are made up of what Chris Harman called the Islamism of the “new exploiters” (enterprises already hooked up with world markets), with support from the old exploiters (the traditional merchant, or commercial, class), a section of educated ‘new middle class’, and – the decisive voting pool – the poor, rural and urban. (The Prophet and the Proletariat. International Socialist Journal No 64. 1994) The Egyptian Brotherhood is experienced in fostering a clientèle amongst all these groupings, but its practice has clear limits. The spiritual needs of the deprived may be cheaply satisfied in the Mosque but Islamist charitable networks cannot substitute for modern welfare provision that extends over an entire population.

Meeting the interests of all the different fractions that make up the Islamists’ class political bloc could be at the expense of those outside it. Most workers and youth, not to mention the ‘modernist’ (inaccurately called ‘Westernised’) ‘new middle class’ are difficult to include. They protested against ‘corruption’ – which religious clientelism reproduces in another form. They wanted equality and opportunity. The promotion of one group of people, the Islamists’ supporters, is far from that goal. The Revolutionary demands for universal dignity and respect cut against the operations of market forces and a system of pious dependency.

Another challenge comes from inside the religious camp. The Islamists in, or coming into, power, face, as we have seen, strong competition on their own ideological terrain. This rivalry is relative. Salafists, whose political-moral message claims to be patterned on the lives of the first three generations of Moslems, have not only many common assumptions on the foundational role of the Qu’ran, but their support and membership has straddled the newly respectable Islamist governing parties. Patrick Haemin suggests that their ‘maximalism’ in Egypt exerts pressure on the mainstream Islamist party, which is itself torn between differing ‘left’ and ‘right’  currents. (Interview Revue Averroès 2011) This is not their only effect. The noise the Salafists stir up about Islam, welded to the proven popular appeal to Arab-Muslim identity, could offer a convenient religious and identitarian way out for Islamist government to avoid deeper class and economic issues.

Revolutions? But in What?

Where did the Arab Spring come from? Perry Anderson drew together a series of actors (a “concatenation of political upheavals”) to explain the origins of the revolts.(On the Concatentation in the Arab World New Left Review. 68 March/April 2011) To the ‘Marxists’ Marxist’ the combined impact of “assorted tyrannies that have preyed on it since formal decolonisation”, supported by the “Euro-American Imperium”, led to the demand, replayed through the “cultural unities of the region, language and religion” for “political freedom”. It was therefore, above all, an upheaval in state and administrative structures: a fight to bring back these institutions to the people. This could be compared to what Pierre Rosenvallon has called a world-wide growth of “counter-democracy” (seen most recently in the Indigandos movements) as confidence in formal representation has sapped. (La contre-démocratie 2006). The Arab revolts could put this into perspective. Resentment at the lack of even flawed bourgeois democratic arrangements can grow to the extent that the demand for “formal” democracy can bring down regimes.

For Anderson, the Arab Spring was the result of “volcanic social pressures” from ineqality, rising food prices, poor housing, and massive youth unemployment. “in few other regions is the underlying crisis of society so acute, nor the lack of any credible model of development capable of integrating new generations, so plain.” Others have listed being these causes to be “fed up” with the existing regimes as more significant than any democratic demands. The system – whose faults cannot be overemphasised – could not “go on in the old way” It was the “old way” that was, and is, the revolutionaries’ target, and ‘democracy’ is a broad, umspecific demand, not tied to the promotion of a single thought-out alternative.

What, then, of the democratic nature of the Arab Spring and the Revolution? What kind of a revolution – insurrection, dual power, regime change – was and is it? What kind of political freedom is involved? Democracy – or at least its premise, holding elections, can hold many different contents – as its Islamist beneficiaries would find to their advantage.

Enthusiasm for the revolutions was universal on the left. While some warned of potential co-options by the regimes, by the military apparatus that they wrapped themselves in, or, frequently the ‘West’s’ influence, there was generous admiration for those willing to risk their lives for a better world. Hardt and Negri’s pictured a democratic ‘multitude’ propelled by “social network tools” and autonomously run (Guardian. 24.2.11) This was reshaped in the vocabulary of the different commentators and left parties. There was talk of “generalised struggle” and the “entry of the workers” onto the scene – although while workers did strike and protest in many countries they did not play a decisive role anywhere. Few would be outdone by Alain Badiou. He regarded the uprisings as “without party, withut a leading organisation, without a recognised leader” as the purest form of revolt since the Paris Commune, and a “modèle d’émancipation” (Le Monde 19.2.11) And that was that, even despite the absence of candidates for what Badiou has called the “glorious pantheon of revolutionary heroes” who could bear witness to the ‘communist invariant’ (The Communist Hypothesis. 2010)

In April 2011 Alex Callinicos described the “unforeseen return of the Arab revolution” (International Socialism 130). This was not part of the predictable of the forward march of history. He cited, rivalling Badiou’s dramatic references, Walter Benjamin’s description of revolutions as “a sudden, unexpected irruption into a history” “Exploding apparently out of nowhere, quite unanticipated, an explosion of resentments deeply compacted over decades, they are not simply rewriting the political map of the Middle East, but have a much broader historical meaning.”

Yet there were indeed some far-seeing prophets. Callinicos continues, “As we argued, (in 2010 – note) ‘a prolonged economic crisis will put pressure on bourgeois political structures, exposing their fault lines’. This is precisely what has happened with the Arab revolutions. The fault lines are at once economic and political. Egypt under Mubarak and Tunisia under Ben Ali were both poster boys for neoliberalism.”

Callinicos these pressures erupted in what became a “renewal of the classical political form of revolution”. That is “a pattern first set during the English Revolution of the 1640s and the Great French Revolution of the 1790s—popular mobilisations, elite divisions at the top, battles for the loyalties of the armed forces, struggles to define the political and economic character of the successor regimes, and further, potentially more radical movements from below.” The Event of the Arab Spring, was, as it were, bound to settle into an established paradigm of ‘stasis’ – upsets, its contours rapidly re-established in the moving shapes and sequences revolutionaries, above all Marxists, are familiar with. Mike Davis, in a variation of this theme, summons up the spirit of 1848, “It is well worth thumbing through Marx and Engels’ voluminous writings on 1848 (as well as Trotsky’s later glosses) in search of insights into the fundamental mechanics of such revolutions.”. (Op cit. New Left Review 71) Eric Hobsbawn also compares the Arab revolts to 1848 – forseeing equally long-term consequences.

The Egyptian Left, who Davis claims, pore over this history, has not found anything to help them create a real political presence. The electoral victory of the Islamists was not the result of ‘Bonapartism’ – seizures of power to ‘balance’ class struggles the better to smother them. They ‘emerged’ because they were already there – as their supporters frequently remind us, with a history of glorious martyrdom – one that not everybody concurs with. Even apart from this overwheming Islamist presence – without European parallels since, perhaps the 17th century – differences pile up. There is nothing in the ‘classical’ revolutionary experience to compare to the role played by the US in the Arab Spring. Callinicos speculates (with justification) that the White Hosue was decisive in Mubarak’s final exit. Another difference is that nothing comparable to the Military’s independent strength in Tunisia and Egypt existed in 19th century Europe. In the immediate future the Egyptian armed forces may well attempt to balance out the Islamists with their own power but who will be the Bonapart then? How could a single figure emerge as First Counsel of the Nation without setting off a confrontation that would recreate the revolt? The limits of analogies with past revolutions could be extended further, a lot further.

Alex Callinicos and Mike Davis do not assert that history is marked by the eternal return of detailed patterns of revolt. But if detailed historical comparison is not easy, they are steadier grounds in arguing that revolutions have general features. These are causes that drive people to organise extra-legally against regimes that cannot meet their demands, and certain sequences – moblisations, elite divisions-more radical movements from below. But how do we explain the victorious emergence of the Islamists, whom most Marxists regard as, at best, bourgeois utopians, or, at worst, reactionaries?

From the left the potential rise of Islamism at the moment of this democratic opening, was largely unanticipated – or downplayed. It is often said that organised Islamists did not play a major role, or at least an official part, in the early stages of the revolutions. Anderson briefly referred to a “washed out Islam as a pass-partout.” Michael Hardt and Toni Negri were quick to hail the revolts and dismiss reservations about their outcome “They fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or some other body will take control of events. What they don’t understand is that the multitude is able to organise itself without a centre – that the imposition of a leader or being co-opted by a traditional organisation would undermine its power.” (Guardian op cit.) Yet the Brotherhood, and its counterparts elsewhere, do have centres – extremely strong ones, with lists of historic Leaders to rival any left iconography. They proved more enduring that the multitude.

Are they counter-revolutionaries, or a detachment of that revolution (though not its leadership)? It appears that these parties were not shaped or changed by revolt. But they were able to spread a picture of its meaning that succeeded in winning over a large constituency. They have given voice to many people’s demands – in their own accent and syntax. Its around this that the contradictions of the post-Arab Spring are playing out. The pattern here might be mass activity- state power struggles-more mass activity. However, if there is a ‘radicalisation’ it comes from within the Islamist camp, as we have seen with the Salafists – not outside.

Hussein Agha and Robert Malley illuminate some of these issues, “The current Arab awakening displays unique features, but in the feelings first unleashed and the political and emotional arc subsequently followed, it resembles events that swept the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s.” (The Arab Counter-Revolution. New York Review of Books. 29.9.11) The Revolutions may have been unexpected but the present outcome is not. They cannot be understood through the grille of classical revolutions. Above all 20th century Arab history and culture can help explain the present outcome.

From the 1950s and 1960s protests against corrupt Western backed governments were marked by slogans that became embodied in political regimes. That “era celebrated independence, Arab unity, freedom, dignity, and socialism.” On the left Michel Raptis called for a fight “against imperialism, and this in turn confirms the necessity of a national anti-imperialist united front rallying all classes, in the case of colonial and semi-colonial countries.” (The Arab Revolution. 1959) All this was soon overshadowed by what Raptis then described as the “counter-revolution” – the consolidation of Arab nationalist ‘socialist’ regimes.

The story is too well-known to be repeated in full. Nationalist regimes founded by coup d’états, popular mobilisation and a degree of popular participation, developed into bureaucratic anti-democratic, corrupt and repressive structures. None were truly secular. They controlled religious institutions, and gave no independent power to them. But the nationalists were proud of their Arab-Islamic identity. In Algeria one of the first acts of the victorious FLN was to grant nationality exclusively to Moslems (adding a Jewish exodus to the European departure). The utopian model soon foundered. Algeria, as Raptis discovered, would not create a self-managed society. Their economies saw slow growth and stagnated, or were kept afloat only by exploiting natural resources (oil and gas). They became one-party police states. Like Stalinist regimes many adopted the Cult of the Leader. The only ‘reforms’ were economic. As the seventies wore on moves towards a greater role for the market economy did not remove this political carapace.

Today we have demands for freedom and democracy against the heirs of revolutionary Arab nationalism. Most regimes (particularly in Egypt) had already travelled far from these origins. Islamic identity became increasingly important when they faced challenges from the left in the 1970s, and was promoted across the region, notably in Boumediénne’s Algeria and Sadat’s Egypt. This helped Islamists, born, Gilles Keel notes, from a “common matrix” in the Muslim Brotherhood. They succeeded to the principal oppositional role of the defeated left. (Nouvel Observateur 3.11.11) They turned actively against the state. Some of these movements took to arms, attacking the state and civilian ‘miscreants’. The Islamist wave, after the defeat of the Islamists in the Algerian Civil War, and, perhaps, 9/11, lost its appeal. Other forms of Islamism, already described, came to prominence. They swam within a broader Islamic cultural tide that swelled alongside Jihadism and outlasted it.

Today, for example, in Egypt, there are clashes between protestors and the old regime’s remnants – particularly the Military Council. But there is no serious conflict, except from the modernist minority (which has much less of a social presence than in Tunisia) with Islam or its institutions. State policies of cultural Gleichschaltung, Arabisation in the Maghreb and the Islamisation of education everywhere, have left their mark. Georges Corn has pointed to how the “ideological identity based on Islam” has weighed like a “chape de plomb” (leaden top) on Arab societies. (L’unité retrouvée des peoples arabes Le Monde Diplomatique April 2011)

As the revolts broke out the Islamists were waiting in the wings, already at home in the growing Islamic ethos. Agha and Malley wrote, “They see the Arab awakening as their golden opportunity. This was not their revolution nor was it their idea. But, they hope, this is their time.” Their entry into the political scene will not, however, be problem free. They face difficulties, not from the left or a workers’ movement, but as a result of becoming part of the political system.

The authors concluded, “The Arab world’s immediate future will very likely unfold in a complex tussle between the army, remnants of old regimes, and the Islamists, all of them with roots, resources, as well as the ability and willpower to shape events. Regional parties will have influence and international powers will not refrain from involvement. There are many possible outcomes—from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamisation. But the result that many outsiders had hoped for – a victory by the original protesters – is almost certainly foreclosed.”

Callinicos asserted that, “the Brotherhood’s organisational resources and the very political and social ambiguity of its political message -”Islam is the answer” – mean that it could play a decisive role in preventing the development of independent working class politics in Egypt. The danger the Brotherhood poses is thus less the Islamist “radicalisation” obsessing the likes of Tony Blair, but its potential as a conservative force (though playing such a role would cause divisions in its ranks).”

The Brotherhood – and by extension other Islamist parties – are not just obstacles to left, or liberal, politics, or workers’ struggles. They are creative forces in their own right. Their electioral triumphs are game-chnagers: there will be no return to the “old order”, civil war remains a possibility,  “growing Islamisation” is the most probable outcome. It is not conservatism, but the desire to establish a new order that will form a new community (Umma) of the believers, that animates the Brotherhood: The result will be both new and reactionary as the emerging form of Islamic Constitionalism seems likely to stifle not only an automous working class movement, but any independent movement, and individual, at all. The objective will be to ‘include’ the entire community inside the state-umma, and shape it according to ideas they develop from the Qur’an and their heavyweight Islamic tradition. In the context of a rise in conflicting demands, the result of economic pressures and remaining democratic movements, the Islamists are likely to put their energey into a struggle against “fragmentation”, and for ‘Unity’ at the heart of their politics.

One might expect that ‘anti-Zionism’ and the struggle against Israel would figure prominantly in such a strategy. We would expect religious themes to dominate over any residual ‘anti-imperialism’. But as yet this has not happened – despite Tel Aviv’s own provocative and unjust acceleration of colonisation in the West Bank.

The ‘general pattern’ of revolutions has then – towards progressive radicalisation – failed to materialise. The Arab Spring has developed, so far, along lines described by Agha and Malley. There is no sign of the “democratic revolution” becoming “permanent” or even the hint of it “growing over” into socialist revolution. Frantic manoeuvres amongst a ruling class trying to deal with continued revolutionary pressure, or an emerging working class movement, (despite some signs of its existence) has not taken place. Working class protest has remained, where it exists, in Egypt and in Tunisia and elsewhere, on the political sidelines. There are strikes, sectoral and professional protests, but no ‘dual power’, no nation-wide factory occupations, or the creation of independent popular institutions. Most discontent is funelled into the state. That which remains outside, the core of the Spring movement in Tahrir Square, is marginalised and enjoys little public support. It is the “tussle” between the military, what’s left of the previous regimes, and the legitimated-by-the-ballot-box Islamists – ‘moderate’ and Salafists – that dominates the scene.

Political Islam faces many challenges other than the brawls of high politics and squabbles over the spoils of office . Next to the economic crisis the Brotherhood remains divided are about how ‘Constitutionalised Islam’ could work.

How ‘Egyptian democracy takes shape will be heavily influenced by discussions inside the Brotherhood for some years on this issue. Brice K.Rutherford summarises the pre-Revolution Brotherhood debate. This begins from the premises of Islamic politics. For them the state is “not divine, nor does it exercise divine power. However, its fundamental goal is to implement Sharia and, thereby create a more pious community.” (Egypt after Mubarak. Liberalism, Islam and Democracy in the Arab World.2008) This strategic view of the public political sphere includes democracy. In this view democracy is a set of institutions that constrain the state, enforce law and allow public participation, then Islam, they hold, is compatible with democracy. “However, if one views democracy as the adoption of promotion of a set of values – such as individual liberty, freedom of choice, popular sovereignty, and a minimalist state – then the conclusion with regard to Islamic constitutionalism is more ambiguous.” Above all, the individual is not “at the centre of the political and legal universe…”

The ‘matrix’ of Arab Islamism has therefore developed, from what has often been compared to fascism (though a truly religious politics, and not a political religion). Only a minority aim for “total” transformation along Qu’ranic lines – the Shadow of god has receded just a little. The agenda today is a form of authoritarian Communitarianism. Its legitimacy rests, as before, on the Qur’an, the Word, and the rest of the Islamic corpus. The ‘community’ is that of the umma, the believers. Concessions to non-Muslims, Copts in particular, are just that – concessions not clear rights. The Sharia – however interpreted – sets down principles that apply to the people: they are constrained by it. It fences them in. In a potential hard-line interpretation (Salafist ‘maximalism’) this would imply something like Carl Schmidt’s designation of the ‘enemy’ to be protected against – as indeed the Muslim Brotherhood traditionally regarded the four-headed hydra of “the Secularist, the Crusader, the Jew, and the Communist”.

Moderation, by contrast, apparently prevails. But even in this form Islamist Constitutionalism could lead to the creation of a powerful and intrusive legal-religious apparatus charged with governance and punishment. It would – will? – emerge as a bureaucratic structure based on a ‘law’ that denies human universality – distributing rights and duties according to religious status. It threatens to be all-embracing, a positive power that determines the shape of social existence. One would consider this prospect the ‘litmus test’ for its position on trade unions, left-wingers’ rights, women, minorities, and, simply, non-believers.

Results and Prospects.

Chris Harman strongly influenced the English-speaking left with his picture of radical Islam in the Prophet and the Proletariat (1994). In this short, but densely referenced, study, the main varieties of modern political Islam are described, historically, sociologically, and politically. To Harman Islamism offers pre-modern utopias developed by sections of the Arab new middle class – exercises in literalist piety that expressed their social frustration. Their ideal was a return to the purity of early Islam – a meeting point for all these currents. During the 1970s, and beyond, it has shaped up into a contradictory mass movement that drew support from the opposing class groups (exploiters and impoverished). The Iranian Revolution and Khommei’s triumphal take-over was a high-point, but other regimes (Sudan) and movements are within this orbit. Despite Islamists rapidily showing a viciously reactionary side, and often aligned to anti-left states (Iran) Islamists were, to Harman, not the principal enemy. This is ‘imperialism’ and the bourgeois state. Above all their social roots had to be sympathically understood, “They grow in the soil of very large groups that suffer under existing society and whose feeling of revolt could be tapped for progressive purposes.”

The SWP party theoretician’s primary concern was with the left’s relationship to the Islamists. He dismissed descriptions of them as fascists – their social base was similar, but was also shared by forms of populism. They could not be compared to Hitler or Mussolini’s parties because they did not frontally attack the workers’ movement. In the historical overview Harman described how Islamists could come into conflict with regimes, and sometimes take the same side as anti-imperialists and class struggle organisations. He noted the severe repression and suffering many of their activists had undergone – though their violence against opponents and ‘unbelievers’ is not forgotten. When they were reactionary they should be argued against. Other times we will, he asserted, find ourselves “alongside them”. The left ought to be “drawing individual Islamists into genuinelly radical forms of politics” The lesson of the past seems to be that if people “struggle” the left has an opportunity to turn them to socialist politics.

The picture of Islamist ideology that underlies The Prophet and the Proletariat is that it resembles steam, that can be boiled away in the heat of political conflict. This, to say the least, has not happened during the Arab Spring,. Instead Islamist parties have come out and won elections. No Arab Islamist group has moved to the left. If social practice, or political activism, has altered them it is in the direction of Constitutionalised Islam. This requires a degree of willingess to compromise, to make alliances, or arrangements with other political forces. To many commentators this will help moderate their views. Yet they spring from micro-powers, ordering the lives of supporters and attempting to rule what communities they have a hold on. They have grown into the state, with the ambition to transform society through excercising their religious knowledge and power. It is probable that this will mean oppression of those outside the consensus they believe they have rightfully negotiated. Far from evaporating the ideology will become part of the state apparatus.

The content of Islamist opinion, the wrap around their organisations, has shown considerable endurance. If it has become entrenched, with wide popular appeal (at least in the ballot box) what are its roots? Harman suggested that Islamism is a worldly utopia, grafted on a religious one. Its roots, broadly considered, are social: in the distress of the class groups listed already and the traumas their societies experienced under colonial rule and rapacious capitalism. Islam gives heart-felt consolation to the sighs of the oppressed. It provides a plan of action on how a vision of the divine presence could help shape reality and solve social problems. It is through offering a different solution – by practice (class struggle) – to these dilemmas that the left will convince people otherwise. If we have seen the limits of this suggestion it is because this ‘materialist’ analysis is flawed.

Analogous tools were used in Engles’ studies of early Christianity and Messianism in the German peasant wars.* That is, Engels considered the beliefs of religious-political movements to be ‘masks’ for deeper social causes, the classes in the ancient world, conflicts within feudalism. To Gilles Kepel, for this approach, “the religious dimension of the phenomenon is a disguise of little intrinsic importance; only the supposed effects of the movement really count.” (The Roots of Radical Islam. 2005) Not all Marxists would accept this criticism: for them ideology is a material practice in its own right. The Islamists’ ability to capture the vote and public sympathy shows the operation of ideology as a crystalised force that shapes people’s lives, thoughts and actions, right through to the politics of the state. Instead of the economic-class reduction of political-religious ideology we need an account that looks into the reality of this social relation in its own terms.

It is useful to recall that faith – Moslem or otherwise – is a very deep individual relationship between the individual, the world and something as yet unseen: the divine. God it the Subject who addresses the Individual – its Mirrors, its Reflections. Religion is also an ideological apparatus, Mosques, Churches, temples, Synagogues, – its present to the world – and often part of the state machinery (Louis Althusser). This has particular importance for the Islamists. If they conquer..) conquered the state the they will instrumentalise it for Quranic ends. What does this imply? Not only will be there victims of this ideological state apparatus but that resistance will arise. To give this in turn a shape it will only be by exploring the multiple the social, class-political and ideological-social and individual ‘lived relations’ of religious ideas and taking the Islamists’ beliefs seriously, that we will begin to develop an alternative.

Towards Confronting Islamism.

The Mind, wrote David Hume, has a capacity to form such a “lively idea” of the connection between experienced events that it joins them together in a causal sequence. “All our reasonings concerning the probability of causes are founded on the transferring of the past to the future”. (A Treatise of Human Nature. 1738) But, Hume went on to say, “we have no reason to draw any inference concerning any object beyond those of which we had experience.” The Marxist Mind is perhaps too accustomed to forming connections that come from the experience of classical revolutions that it discounted the Islamists. They did not, however come out of the blue, as the initial outbreak of the Arab Spring did.

Peter Market could not have made a poorer judgement than when he announced that, “Revolution is indeed “growing over” into a movement for wider and historic change—that a process of permanent revolution with global implications is under way.” (Act One of the Egyptian Revolution. International Socialism 130, 2011) Instead, Islamism’s own conquest of power is underway. A first step forward would be to support the modernist democratic secularist Arab left against the Islamists. The only way the Islamists’ ideological hegemony can be challenged is through a counter-hegemomic strategy. Secularist protests have taken place in Tunisia backed by feminists and sections of the left even if, with a certain disdain, Sadri Khiari, has already dismissed these forces as the voice of the well-heeled and Westernised. (Contretemps. October. 2011) But do we have the right to criticise their brave stand ? Surely one would wish to encourage their fight, which is playing out at the heart of the contradiction within Islamism : its support for ‘democracy’ and its anti-democratic religious agenda.

James Turley, in the Weekly Worker, has argued that, the Left « has certainly been outstripped electorally so far, and further rounds of voting – for the most part in the countryside – are unlikely to redress this deficit at all. In fact, it is necessary to take a leaf out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s book, and prepare to play the long game. The Arab awakening is quite genuinely an event of historic significance, and the left can hardly be expected, after such long years of anti-working class repression, to make immediate gains. What is critically important is to maintain, and fight to deepen, the new political freedoms which resulted from the fall of Mubarak.»(2.12.11)

Absolutely. Secular freedoms are basic political freedoms.

* Engels’ Orientalist comments on the ‘cycle’ of Islamic puritanical uprisings and their corruption through power (which owe at least something, indirectly, to Ibn Khaldum 1332 – 1406) is also ‘social’ though related to the concept of ‘Oriental despotism’. It would be interesting to see it defended. In The History of Early Christianity. Basic Writings. Marx and Engels. Edited Lewis S.. Freuer. 1972.


Written by Andrew Coates

December 23, 2011 at 11:24 am

4 Responses

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  1. Andrew Coates

    December 23, 2011 at 11:58 am

  2. ‘In the newly elected Tunisian Constituent Assembly the Islamist Ennahda, of Rached Ghannouchi is, with 89 seats (41 %) out of 217, the largest party. It proclaims its commitment to democratic principles and the independence of the pubic power from direct religious influence.’

    There’s a very freudian mistake in there; see if you can find it.

    Dr Paul

    December 23, 2011 at 10:54 pm

  3. Thanks Paul.

    Freud or not, I had great problems with the spell-checking on this because I’d cut and pasted French language material (before integrating/translating it) and it resulted in the checker trying to introduce French orthography and typography – see the way the quote marks are at the end.

    Andrew Coates

    December 24, 2011 at 10:30 am

  4. Another one: “In Sidi Bouzid, the town where Zine El-Abidene Ben Ali immolated himself, and set off the Tunisian uprising in December 2010 …”


    January 9, 2012 at 6:19 pm

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