Bitter fruit of imperialism
Islamist jihadism is a modern, not an ancient, phenomenon. Yassamine Mather looks at causes, social roots and terrible consequences
In the aftermath of every Islamist terror attacks in America, Europe or the UK, such as the stabbing of Tory MP David Amess, we hear the ‘analysts’ and media pundits come up with the same nonsense about Islam and jihad. There is no mention of imperialism and the ‘Islamic’ dictators it supports, no mention of the 20-year-long ‘war on terror’ and its hundreds of thousands of deaths.
In this case the rightwing press tells us it is the failure of Prevent: it has ‘become too soft’, it is ‘too woke’, while the security services tell us they do not have enough manpower and other sections of the media tell us it is all to do with the attacker having been brainwashed by videos of a ‘radical’ preacher. But none of this explains why an immigrant Somali boy growing up in Croydon, a pupil who wanted to study medicine, ended up planning and carrying through such a horrible deed.
We are indirectly told that Islam is to be blamed: indoctrinated young men and women hate our ‘western’ way of life and nothing can be done about it - except, of course, continuing with the ‘war on terror’ started by George Bush and Tony Blair decades ago. You would have thought that by now, following two major disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq, the penny would have dropped: the ‘war on terror’ is in reality the most obvious recruiter of suicide bombers and jihadi fighters.
Anyone with an iota of intelligence can see the reasons why. First and foremost is the disproportionate number of victims of this war when you compare the statistics of those who have died in the ‘enemy’ camp (let us just take Afghanistan and Iraq), as opposed to the victims in the west. The total number of civilian victims of Islamic terrorism (including 9/11, etc) is a maximum of 8,000 killed. Yet civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, after two wars and subsequent civil wars, are estimated at around one million.
According to Louis Althusser, culture includes the law, politics, art, etc, while ideology includes world views, values and beliefs - and today the mass media play a significant role in propagating such ideology. In his opinion the repressive state apparatus functions as a unified entity, unlike the liberal state apparatus, which is diverse in nature and can play many roles. The apparatus of the state, repressive and ideological, is responsible for overseeing the twin functions of violence and ideology. In liberal democracies the state only makes overt use of the repression if the position of the ruling class or the social order is threatened, but more subtle forms of repression are constantly employed. Denying responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands as a consequence of the ‘war on terror’ is high up on this list. However, keeping such statistics out of news headlines does not make them cease to exist. On the contrary, they are used by jihadi groups to prove to potential recruits that ‘Muslim lives’ do not matter to the ‘non-believers’.
On October 15 - the very day of the attack on Amess - the US government agreed to pay compensation to the family of 10 civilians, including seven children, killed as a result of an ‘intelligence mistake’ - a drone attack on a car that destroyed part of their house in Kabul on the last day of US military presence in Afghanistan. US security agents had wrongly identified the house as a base for a ‘terrorist’ cell. Somehow this did not quite make the news in the same way as the stabbing of a Conservative MP.
The videos that radicalise young jihadi recruits in London, Paris or Copenhagen are not about the Quran, Islam or the prophet Mohammad. They show scenes of the humiliation suffered by Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison (tortured by CIA agents); they show poor peasants in a family gathering in the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan bombed by US planes, after US intelligence mistook the event for a Taleban convention.
The second misconception propagated by pundits in the west is that the jihad is an old Islamic tradition, dating back many centuries and maybe going back to Mohammad’s time. However, anyone who has studied the subject in any depth will tell you that the jihadi Islamist movement is a contemporary phenomenon.
Whatever may be the indirect or minor influences of past Islamic movements on it, it is attached by an umbilical cord to the form of world capitalism that has developed in the last few decades. This has been exasperated by the ravages of wars - themselves part of a US ‘scorched earth’ policy in the Middle East. The social roots of the current movements are, essentially, those who have been uprooted in the third world, including such immigrants in Europe - those who, for a variety of reasons, have been waylaid on the path of socio-economic development and to whom the new structures have brought nothing but financial ruin or social humiliation. Despite variations in its social fabric in different circumstances, the pan-Islamist movement in all the countries of the periphery (with a few exceptions) and amongst immigrants from those countries has recruited among four main layers.
First are the urban uprooted and deprived. They belong to the ever-growing section of the population with no stable relation to the expanding peripheral-capitalist system of production and distribution. These apparently ‘cursed’ people have in common a peasant ancestry, taking ‘refuge’ in the dirt and mud surrounding such cities as Cairo, Algiers and Tehran. They are futureless, hopeless, degraded, and without identity or rights. In Islamic societies, the urban destitute form the social layer most ready to take up the Islamists’ banner. They make up the main social base for the jihadi movement and also generate its explosive power.
Second are the middle layers belonging to pre-capitalist structures. Such people have been bankrupted or marginalised by the spread of capitalist structures and their fate is to be forced to struggle harder, only to sink into greater poverty. They are important in helping to organise Islamist movements and in welding together their socially disparate supporters.
The third layer comprises sections of the merchant and industrial bourgeoisie left outside the circle of power. They find themselves in unequal competition with a bourgeoisie privileged by being close to (and reliant on) a state, the rationale of which has been to orchestrate development from above.
In peripheral societies where the bourgeois state (rather than being the product of capitalist development) imposes the growth of capitalism from above - and where the relation between power and capital is turned upside-down, to the extent that it is easier to rely on power in order to make money than on wealth as a gateway to power - those layers of the bourgeoisie excluded from power can count on being permanent losers. This fate places manufacturers and merchants in the same camp as the ‘wretched of the earth’. Such people not only fill the coffers of the Islamist movement, but can also, for a period, help to increase the attraction of pan-Islamism to the justice-seeking poor by setting up charities, interest-free loan accounts and other such schemes.
Fourth are immigrants, such as former students, who see their social standing continuing to decline. They have lost out during the formation of new political structures. Whether or not in priestly clothes, whether young or old, they use the religious movement to attempt to establish their place in society. They provide the leadership cadres of the movement, those who pack the ideological baggage and map the political strategy for the Islamist movement.
Of course this pan-Islamist movement is a furnace in which class line-ups melt. The non-homogeneous, multi-class mix in the Islamist camp dictates a policy of denying class war - or at least marginalising it and removing it from the immediate agenda. Such a non-class-based social bloc, based on religious cultural unity, has no other way of surmounting the class antagonisms within it between the hungry and those with full bellies.
Here and there, ‘the war between poverty and wealth’ becomes a weapon for the movement to browbeat its merchant fellow-travellers when they become restless, or to loosen their purse strings. But, in general, sharia remains firmly on the side of ‘unity’ and those who split (the monafegh) are worse than those who do not ‘believe’ (moshrek). It has an uncompromising enmity towards communism or any other political creed which defines society by its class boundaries and perceives class confrontations as inevitable. Again this fits well into the existing structure in the neoliberal era.
At every level the new Islamist movement represents the rising of those who not only see themselves as alienated within their own national boundaries, but also of those who have (they think) discovered the source of their destitution and bankruptcy outside these boundaries. From the beginnings, therefore, these movements have faced outwards. The foreign enemy is seen as the root cause of all evil; in creating the mechanisms of depravity and misery, they believe it ensures that all Muslims suffer injustice equally. And, of course, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fellow Muslims as ‘collateral damage’, the mistaken bombings of civilian areas, the torture of prisoners of war by the US and its allies - all have reinforced such sentiments amongst thousands of young recruits and volunteers worldwide.
‘Jihadi Islam’ does not confine itself within national boundaries. To aspire to set up anything less than a world Islamic power based on a world Islamic will would be to acknowledge ultimate defeat. This is the logic behind the rejection of the legitimacy of all the civil and secular systems that sustain nation-states, and of all international treaties and agreements between them. It is the context that explains the inherent contradiction involved in simultaneously opposing both imperialism and world ‘arrogance’, and also nationalism. The Islamist movement may here and there support tendencies aiming at independence and even isolationism. Yet it is emphatic in its rejection of nationalisms that counterpoise the nation against the ummah (Islamic community).
The uprooted who decide that a ‘wheel that does not turn for their needs should never turn’, and who do not see any reason to decry the ruination of today if it leads to the utopia of tomorrow, can have no other recourse than to armed force. No open and free environment, no democratic system, no legal testament can guarantee their goal.
Even if pan-Islamism can, in some circumstances, gain power through legal means - whether or not it is suppressed or allowed to grow, whatever its place in a particular balance of power - it has in general entered an arena of war, where pulling the trigger is a daily duty. Recourse to terrorism in all its forms; the semi-military organisation of that part of the social base that can be mobilised; the creation of professional military institutions; attempts to infiltrate and recruit in the armies of Islamic countries - these are all acts which cannot be stopped or even delayed. Jihad is the road which will take pan-Islamism to the promised land.
The growing crisis and the steady weakening of governments has increased the intervention of global capital in the internal affairs of Islamic countries. This process reached a point at which the finance and economic ministries of many Islamic countries turned into impotent operatives for the decision-making centres of global capital. They bowed to major and crisis-provoking restructuring of the socio-political life of their countries. They presided over policies that caused massive unemployment and attendant despair; chronic inflation ravaging meagre savings; acute housing shortages, leading to running battles between the guardians of the city and the never-ending waves of migrants; and non-existent healthcare facilities that transform hospitals effectively into morgues.
The savage demands of the International Monetary Fund and the credit limitations imposed by the World Bank forced peripheral governments to turn on their own people. What little remained of state largesse, in the form of subsidies, dried up. Millions were made destitute, unprotected against misery, famine and disease. These were the people who carried Egyptian, Tunisian, Moroccan and Algerian pan-Islamism on their shoulders. Those seeking reasons for Islamist violence would do better - and would save their institutions (official and unofficial) much money - if, instead of looking for the footprints of jihadi Islam in history, they wend their way into the archives of the IMF and its financial networks. There they would find the directives that cast light on the cause of the plight of their people.
I have argued that, at a time of political and economic crises, the necessary preconditions for the mass pan-Islamist movement exists in peripheral Islamic societies. But this is not the full explanation for the explosive growth of this phenomenon and we should also consider other factors.
We should consider the ruling political administrations’ attitude to religion. In most Islamic countries, despite the gradual separation between the state and the religious structures since the 1970s - some form of working alliance has always been maintained. The prime purpose of this has been to oppose the left and the workers’ movement.
At every juncture where the workers’ and democratic movement have made advances, posing a threat to despotic and authoritarian systems, the religious apparatus has joined the army and police as an arm of repression. In return, from time to time, the state has acted to spread the network of religious schools and mosques; to facilitate the establishment of workplace and neighbourhood Islamic societies; and to promote the religious establishment’s political influence by means of cultural, devotional and charitable organisations.
In addition we should look at the consequences of imperialist policy during the cold war. One of the major weapons of the imperialist powers against liberation movements (and movements for socialism) in Islamic countries was religion. In using religion to stupefy the masses and to denounce the opposition, imperialism was both resourceful and relentless. It used the religious weapon (through groups, parties and men of influence) to provoke splits in the working class movement, sabotage progressive and nationalist movements, and even to destabilise anti-imperialist governments or those perceived to be allied with the Soviet Union.
An incomplete list might include the following:
- First, the assistance given to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt and the Ba’ath Party in Syria.
- Second, support for the Islamic Amal in Lebanon as a counterweight to the Palestine Liberation Organisation and progressive Lebanese leaders and parties.
- Third, the strengthening of the Fadai’yan-e Islam, and mullahs such as ayatollah Abol-Ghasem Kashani, in opposition to the Mossadegh government and the Tudeh (Communist Party) in Iran.
- Fourth, the massacre of half a million communists in Indonesia.
- Fifth, the mobilisation of semi-military parties and organisations in Afghanistan and the provision of unlimited support to their efforts to overthrow the PDPA government.
In so using religion, the imperialist intelligence networks may rely on facilities provided by countries such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, or on their own agents sent directly, to create or to infiltrate religious groupings or parties. We see the grave consequences today.
Since 2001 we have other reasons added to the sense of humiliation and anger. The occupation of Afghanistan and later Iraq, both leading to the creation of failed states. In Afghanistan, the Taleban managed to recruit extensively both men and women from the villages bombed and destroyed by the US army and the killing of peasants.
The deadlock in Arab-Israeli relations in general - embracing the questions of Palestine; the occupation of Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian land; and the persistence of military mobilisation and sporadic military confrontations - has aided the pan-Islamist movement. Nothing damages the standing of secular Arab nationalism more than the humiliation of Arab governments by Israel.
Faced with the task of untying these religious knots, left and progressive forces have shown chronic weakness. This is the background to the way in which events such as the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in Egypt, the blowing up of US and French marine headquarters in Beirut, and (perhaps most critically) the Intifada in Palestine - all these have marked turning points. While the basic crisis remains unsolved, the pan-Islamist movement will continue to fill the political vacuum.
Political Islam splits society at every level, while leaving state structures intact. In the first instance, every type of class organisation, institution, political party, trade union and guild is split in half along confrontational religious lines. Islamic labour and peasant unions and guilds stand opposed to their non-Islamic equivalents. Nothing escapes this split - not even bourgeois class organisations and societies.
Fissured into Islamic and non-Islamic categories, the sub-groups glare at each other across an ideological divide that causes a major transformation in the social class line-up. New - fundamentally non-class - blocs are formed. Labour power lines up with either ‘Islamic’ or ‘secular’ capital under the umbrellas of ‘Islam’ and ‘secularism’. Meanwhile, in society beyond the state, an embryonic form of Bonapartism emerges, offering an alternative future state formation. The potential for progressive class action is systematically eroded. The inevitable and tragic effect is to create artificial alliances throughout society, on the basis of sex, religion or ethnicity. Woman is set against woman, teacher against teacher, worker against worker.
Where the masses are reduced to the umma (family of believers) of the imam - where, in its ideal form, they are the disciples of religious authorities (maraji) - then, the more they make their presence felt in the political arena, the greater the authority of the leaders, imams and clergy. The role of an individual with his/her democratic rights in society and the state fades away. The democratic base of society is weakened. The roots of future religious despotism are established and the foundations of an ultra-centralised, leader-focused political structure are laid.
In a society giving birth to a radical Islamist movement, the cultural make-up is the first victim. The cultural sphere disintegrates into numerous ever-smaller, conflicting formations, united only by belief in the absolute. This calamitous process effectively closes the route to cultural advance. Scientific thought, experimental sciences, philosophy, as well as values emanating from these, are walled off by absolutist cultural structures. The quest for the absolute - the struggle to annex knowledge to an integrated and dominant ideological monopoly - becomes the governing social ethic.
In addition there is a return to the most extreme paternalism, superstition and machismo, deepening the roots of the ideas that will ultimately create, and secure, the ultra-conservative, absolutist and despotic structures of the Islamic state. In this process, not only is the value-system of society overturned, but cultural, educational and ethical structures are overhauled. Muslim schools, Islamic social gatherings, and so on, reappear.
The intellectual potential of society is gradually eroded. Thought, in all its manifestations, is enslaved to belief and Islamic ethics. Sceptical questioning - essential to scientific and philosophical thought - is rejected as a tool of the devil. Combine these pressures on independent thought with daily attacks on modernism and everything new, and the elements of a sterile and rigid intellectual life are all in place. Instead we have a situation in which intellectual servitude, demagoguery and obscurantism can breed; and in which religious despotism can grow.
More insidiously still, the psychological potential of society becomes poisoned, and with disastrous effects. A corrosive mixture of absolutism and power-worship, juxtaposed with the placing of a monopoly belief at the centre of the social value-system of a polarised society, leads to a cult of violence. The ideological process numbs the senses, creating an acceptance of a militaristic, police mentality.
This can be expressed as the exhortation to the violence of the jihad; as the amre be ma’aruf (duty to punish those who do not observe Islamic laws); as the cult of martyrdom and the ‘blood’ (witness the fountain which is used to spew blood in the ‘Martyrs Cemetery’ in Teheran); and as the self-mutilation associated with the mourning of saints and martyrs. All these, and other things, create an atmosphere where acts of violence and the shedding of blood become a social norm.
Hand in hand with this goes the culture of spying and prying into the life of others at home, work, school and college. One section of society spends huge amounts of time and energy reporting the ‘misdeeds’ of the other. The corruption of family, human, professional and other relations cannot be underestimated. It is indeed ironic that a religion dedicated to making the family the pillar of society rips family ties asunder by getting one member to interfere with - even spy on - another. A culture is built on treachery. In recent years all reports from IS-occupied Mosul and Tikrit in Iraq confirm this.
There are other negative outcomes. The situation increases the power of the male, the khan, and the mullah; leads to unquestioning acceptance of received wisdom; encourages crude populism; promotes the reduction of difficult concepts to simple absurdity; and creates fertile ground for the rise in religiosity and belief in the supernatural. Ultimately this leaves social mistrust and creates the basis for future ideological and police-military repressive institutions.
Once pan-Islamism creates a state in which religion rules, its effect on the environment is immeasurably greater and longer-lasting. Some of these effects will undoubtedly survive long after the Islamic regimes return to the grave from which they rose.
Sharia law displaces secular law. A process is unleashed to overturn the general structures of political power, giving the ideological institutions pivotal positions in the exercise of that power. The traditional role of the state is overturned, and it is transformed from the mechanism for the control of the country’s socio-economic tensions into the cause and perpetrator of those tensions and social crises.
The contradiction between a religious-ideological state and its secular, material, rational base creates a situation of permanent crisis. A religious despotism is established, in which the ruling Islamic power creates a new legal system, where the right to govern at every level (legislative and judicial) is held to be divine - exercised solely on god’s behalf by certain sections of the clergy. The modern capitalist state’s formal equality of citizens before the law is abolished. It is replaced by a legal system, where the ‘government of the ruling ayatollahs’ stands above, and in authority over, the masses.
Underlying this process is the denial of the independence of the private from the public sphere. There are no such boundaries. No part of life is considered private and outside the control of divine rule, and that of god’s representatives. This totalising conception underlies the need to bring the very concept of civil society to an end. The sectors accepting the ruling ideology are organically incorporated into the state; the sectors that persist in their secular existence are annulled.
Rethinking the origins
Over the last few decades a number of academics have pointed to the fact that Islamic jihadism is a modern phenomenon. Olivier Roy’s books, such as Failure of political Islam and Islam and resistance in Afghanistan, explain this. The most remarkable recent example is Suzanne Schneider’s book, The apocalypse and the end of history: modern jihad and the crisis of liberalism, published by Verso in September 2021. Schneider argues that mass shootings, xenophobic nationalism and the allure of conspiratorial thinking in modern jihad is not the antithesis to western neoliberalism, but a dark reflection of its inner logic. Her detailed examination of data regarding the growth of jihadi movements in recent decades proves beyond doubt that the number of jihadi groups has exploded since the 1990s. Before this period, in the Middle East and North Africa we are looking at one or two groups, while post-1990 the numbers grow exponentially.
Schneider also documents the way these jihadi groups imitate neoliberal ventures in producing data about their achievements - as unlikely as it sounds, Islamic State and other jihadi groups have produced charts and diagrams of their ‘achievements’ in terms of suicide bombings, deaths and devastation. One wonders who is the recipient of this ‘modern’ data gathering, When it comes to private companies and NGOs, they produce such ‘results’ to obtain funding. Can we deduce that potential donors in the Persian Gulf states and beyond look at this data in order to decide which jihadi group they will sponsor?
The radicalisation of immigrant youth, as well as those living in Muslim countries, has some similarities with the way young Americans of all races get angry when African American are killed by cops. There are differences, of course: the numbers killed as a direct consequence of imperialist military interventions are much higher and the methods used by those who join jihadi groups are truly atrocious. However, unless we understand the causes of their anger, no amount of snooping or Prevent-type initiatives will keep people in the west safe.
It is ironic that at least some western governments are happy to express regret or apologise for colonial killing, yet no-one is accepting any responsibility for more recent ravages in the Middle East and north Africa. On the contrary, the two culprits who initiated the ‘war on terror’, Bush and Blair, are held up as respected former leaders, while those who are persecuted are journalists or whistle-blowers - former military or security agents who have given us information on aspects of the savagery of the US, the UK and others during the ‘war on terror’. Julian Assange is facing decades of imprisonment for daring to reveal the killing of Iraqi civilians.