Origins of political islam

Yassamine Mather begins a series of articles on the islamic republic of Iran

Over the last few decades, and especially after the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, political islam has been on the rise - not only in islamic countries, but also amongst muslims in the west. In its rebellion against the alienation created by capitalism, this movement relies on the rejection of enlightenment, turns its back on reality and takes refuge in myths.

Despite its promises to the poor, the pan-islamist movement splits civil society at every level, while leaving state structures intact. In the first instance every type of class-based organisation is divided along religious lines. Islamic labour and peasant unions and guilds stand opposed to their non-islamic equivalents. Fissured into islamic and non-islamic categories, the sub-groups glare at each other across an ideological divide. New - fundamentally non-class - blocs are formed; labour-power aligns itself with either ‘islamic’ or ‘secular’ capital and the potential for progressive class action is systematically eroded.

By denying class difference, 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 way of surmounting the class antagonisms it contains. Sharia is firmly for unity and those who rupture it are considered worse than unbelievers.

From the 1970s onwards, as islamic countries were incorporated ever deeper into the world market, the centre-periphery crisis in these societies entered a new and qualitatively different phase. The fluctuating - but overall downward - trend in the price of raw materials (including until recently oil) on which these societies depend, speeded up the widening of inequality in social, economic and cultural development, the accumulation of foreign debt and the increasing inability of such states, many of them dictatorships, to control and restrain the spiralling crises they have to confront. The Iranian revolution of 1979 - which saw the coming to power of the first government to place pan-islamism at the centre of its political and ideological agenda - was crucial to the spread of political islam.

Throughout the cold war, one of the major weapons of the imperialist powers against liberation movements in islamic countries was religion. In using religion to stupefy the masses and to denounce secular and Marxist opposition, imperialism was both resourceful and relentless: it used the religious weapon to provoke splits in the working class movement, to sabotage progressive movements, and to destabilise governments allied with the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the USSR and in response to George W Bush’s aggressive ‘new world order’, pan-islamist movements offer identity, prestige and pride.

Therefore, contrary to popular belief, the islamic movement is not simply a retrograde religious return to the era of Mohammed. It is a modern phenomenon with a raison d’être rooted in the changed social order in the world and in particular in the Middle East. Even in Iran in the 70s, when it was growing as an opposition movement, political islam was a reaction to the form of capitalism and imperialist domination that existed at the time of the shah’s rule.

In its current format, political islam should still be seen, especially when it is in opposition, as an ideology that aims to unite those in underdeveloped countries who are left behind by the kind of uneven capitalist development prevalent in such economies. For these sections of society, political islam as an ideology of rebellion reflects the characteristics of the classes they represent.

Political islam’s appeal amongst the poor has a lot to do with its claims of seeking justice: social justice, economic justice and political justice on the international arena. Islamists promise a better life for the disenfranchised, less inequality, and the end of corruption through the rule of sharia (the religious state).

In this respect the experience of Iran as the first country where political islam came to power almost 30 years ago is unique: it allows us to compare the islamic government’s promises with the realities of sharia rule. It gives an insight to the political economy of islamic fundamentalism. It shows the relation between the promises of equality and the real politics of islamic governance within the world capitalist order.

The islamic government that came to power in 1979 in Iran claimed it would bring ‘justice and prosperity’ to the disinherited, an end to corruption, an end to economic dependence on the west and an independent islamic (‘neither east nor west’) foreign policy. Of course, at the time Khomeini and his supporters presented no economic policies that would bring about this islamic egalitarian society. It was therefore no surprise that less than a year after coming to power traditional promises of ‘happiness and prosperity’ in the afterlife replaced talk of equality on this earth.

The same islamic movement is now presiding over a country where the gap between the rich and the poor is reaching astronomic levels, where poverty has given Iran the unique position of becoming the largest exporter of sex workers in the region, where Iran holds the record as one of, if not the, most corrupt country in the world! A country where over 30% of the population are unemployed. It is important to review the kind of political relations that have facilitated this furthering of the division between the rich and the poor. What is the basis, what are the policies, the ideas and the thoughts that served to bring about this level of class division?

Class support

The influence of political islam is highest amongst the urban poor - people of peasant origin who have been forced to migrate to major cities like Cairo, Tehran and Istanbul. This migration is often sparked by half-baked land reforms leading to the impoverishment of the rural areas. The migrants inhabit the shanty towns of these cities and do not have permanent jobs. They sometimes find temporary or seasonal work in sectors like construction. But more often they are involved in the black economy. They are peddlers, stallholders, etc and therefore have no secure economic future.

Secondly - and this has obviously played an important role - the financial backing for political islam is connected to those involved in non-global capitalist economic structures - the shopkeepers and people close to the mosque who have achieved a certain level of income. For example, they may be involved in marginal industries, such as small, traditional workshops with their only outlets being the bazaar or merchants in small towns. They are not directly involved in the dollar economy of international capitalist states. As a result the state does not take them seriously and they play no role in the political mainstream. They hate and envy the modern capitalists who rule through semi-secular or military regimes.

The third layer supporting political islam is formed by sections of the industrial sector, even reasonably rich people. For example during the shah’s time some of the supporters of the islamic movement in Iran were capitalists excluded from the centres of power for various reasons. Similarly in Egypt today political islam draws some support from capitalists excluded from Mubarak’s inner circle, who are alienated from the system.

And, of course, the fourth layer is that of students, intellectuals and the urbanised second generation of the groups mentioned earlier. Those who feel resentment towards the level of injustice they see internationally and yet, because of various historic developments, including the policies of the west during the cold war, they are anti-left, anti-communist. This group is in solidarity with the injustices of Palestine, or injustice in other parts of the islamic world - Afghanistan, Iraq ... as opposed to injustice in general. Very rarely do they show sympathy with the poor in Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa. Their only concern is ‘injustices by the west against islamic societies’.

Encouraging the myth

Left illusions about political islam have many causes, ranging from wishful thinking (islamists as current or potential allies will join forces with the left), to desperation and ignorance. Despite proof to the contrary, some in the anti-war movement and in the international left see political islam as a saviour (paving the way for socialism) or at least an ally. Others, mainly amongst ex-leftwing pro-war intellectuals, now consider political islam as a bigger threat to humanity than capitalism, pinning their hopes on the military might of imperialism to defeat ‘this evil’.

The example of Iran shows the absurdity of both positions. Islamists might use the gullible left to gain power, but once they are in any position of authority amongst their first batch of victims are the left. However, in power political islam has to survive within the world capitalist order and all that remains of its ‘rebellion’ is empty ‘anti-western’ rhetoric.

In pre-revolutionary Iran the support of sections of the left for islamists was justified by popular frontist theories - not just amongst the pro-Moscow Tudeh Party, but also amongst sections of Trotskyist and Maoist groups. Some of the largest left organisations supported the religious groups opposed to the shah with slogans such as ‘United front against the shah’s dictatorship’.

Although, of course, many on the Iranian left refused to take part in class-collaborationist politics, in the last months of the shah’s rule, as the islamists took to the rooftops and the streets with their cries of Allah o akbar, many amongst secular liberals and sections of the left joined them.

The international left did little to counter the illusions in Khomeini’s ‘progressive anti-imperialism’ and towering intellect. Iranians had been told that Khomeini spoke many languages fluently, but upon his return it became clear, as he started giving speeches lasting two-three hours in ungrammatical Farsi, that his command of the Persian language left a lot to be desired, while his Arabic was limited to reciting parrot-fashion pieces from the qu’ran. Despite his many years of exile in Iraq, he could not speak Arabic properly and, of course, he did not know a word in any other language.

In some ways sections of the left are making exactly the same mistakes today by giving the mosque an exaggerated role on anti-war demonstrations or by spreading propaganda in praise of dubious islamic leaders, such as ayatollah Sistani. Ilusions about Khomeini came to haunt the left soon after the revolution and this should be a lesson for the us today.

However, many on the European and American left continue rewriting the contemporary history of political islam in Iran in order to justify supporting the Iranian regime. Early opposition to the shah is portrayed by some as being led by ‘anti-imperialist’ islamists, although the truth could not be more different. Most of Khomeini’s opposition to the pro-western regime of the shah was from a reactionary, rightwing point of view. As early as 1953, Khomeini had much more sympathy for ayatollah Kashani, who cooperated with the CIA-backed coup that toppled Mossadegh’s government in August of that year and enabled the shah to return to his throne. Until his death Khomeini identified himself with Kashani.

In 1962-63 Khomeini spoke out against the shah’s land-reform programme (the shia hierarchy, being one of the largest landowners in the country, was inevitably opposed to the reforms) and against the right of women to vote, as granted by the shah’s US-inspired white revolution. His arrest sparked small-scale anti-government riots, and, after a short imprisonment, Khomeini went into exile on November 4 1964. He eventually settled in the shi’ite holy city of Najaf, in Iraq, from where he continued to call for the establishment of an islamic republic in Iran.

In order to understand why political islam came to power in Iran following one of the largest mass uprisings of the 20th century, one might consider the kind of treatment meted out to left opponents of the shah. Hundreds of Marxists were executed, and leaders of leftwing groups such as the Fedayeen were either gunned down in raids or killed in prison. This was no coincidence. The shah’s regime followed CIA diktat and, as far as the US was concerned, islamists were allies in the fight against the Soviet bloc.

Islamist promises

Khomeini’s promises in opposition, both in Iraq and later in Paris, were very different from what happened in reality when the islamists took power. Although he spoke of the “influence” of islam in future governments, in opposition Khomeini, surrounded himself with ‘modernist’ islamist advisors such as Ghotbazde, Bani Sadr and Yazdi, and promised non-theocratic governance.

He claimed that he himself would retire to the holy city of Ghom: “I have repeatedly said that neither my desire nor my age nor my position allows me to govern” (interview in Paris by United Press, November 8 1978). A few month later he said: “After the shah’s departure from Iran, I will not become a president nor accept any other leadership role. Just like before, I limit my activities only to guiding and directing the people” (quoted in Le Monde January 9 1979).

The general political commitment he made was that, “Our future society will be a free society, and all the elements of oppression, cruelty and force will be destroyed” (quoted in Der Spiegel November 7 1978). More specifically: “The foundation of our islamic government is based on freedom of dialogue and we will fight against any kind of censorship” (Reuters, October 26 1978). As for women’s rights, he told The Guardian: “Women are free in the islamic republic in the selection of their activities and their future and their clothing” (November 6 1978).

What happened in practice was rather different, as we all know. Take Khomeini’s promise of non-theocratic governance. Here is what he was saying by 1981: “This nation exists and clerics exist too. You all must know that in every place in this country only clerics can get the job done. Don’t show so much prejudice that you want to put the clerics aside. What have you done for your country in all these years that now you’re saying clerics should not be in charge? Appreciate these clerics. You do not understand correctly! If you put this group aside, no name or sign of islam will remain. Imagine one cleric has done something wrong somewhere. Why can you do something wrong and some cleric cannot do anything wrong?” (speech to the islamic parliament in Jamaran, Tehran, May 27 1981).

And what of Khomeini’s commitment to a “free society” and “freedom of dialogue”? Within six months of making those promises, he told a meeting of Iranian students and educators in Qom: “Don’t listen to those who speak of democracy. They all are against islam. They want to take the nation away from its mission. We will break all the poison pens of those who speak of nationalism, democracy and such things” (March 13 1979).

Speaking in the same city in June, he gave this dire warning to all oppositionists: “That group that due to its opposition to islam is opposing us, with the same fist that we destroyed the regime we will destroy that group as well. Pay attention to your statements. Repent from your writings” (June 5 1979).

The next month he returned to the same theme: “The intellectuals, the writers, those who have information and thoughts, you see some of them take their pens and in the name of democracy they write whatever they want and they cause disagreements. This group of so-called intellectuals has to correct themselves. Whatever we are suffering is from this group of intellectuals and judges” (July 23 1979).

On March 8 1979, Khomeini issued an order that all Iranian women should cover their hair with a hijab, and a few months later a draft constitution - with its strong emphasis on islamic law, which was already the foundation of the Pahlavi era’s legal system - deprived Iranian women of the minimum rights they had obtained over the previous 50 years. Existing practices of polygamy and temporary marriage, etc became entrenched in official state legislation.

Rather than respecting the rights of national minorities - another of Khomeini’s promises from 1978 - the regime immediately acted to crush them. One of first fatwas issued was against the entire Kurdish nation in Iran for refusing to accepting islamic rule.

In time the ‘modernist’ advisors who paved the way for the coming to power of the islamic regime were removed. Yazdi, the islamic republic’s first foreign secretary, soon fell out of favour, Bani Sadr was ousted as president and Ghotbzade was actually executed by the regime.

As for the opposition groups - including left, pro-Moscow supporters of the regime - they were arrested, tortured and slaughtered in their thousands.