The Third International after Lenin

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Did "Islamism" peak in 1979

The question of the social weight of "Islamism" has returned with the emergence of ISIS.

This article from 2005 will not be without interest.


Why 'Islamism' peaked in 1979

(Reply to a Reader column)

In a letter to the editor published in the December 14 issue, reader Geoff Mirelowitz asked for more explanation of a statement in the November 16 Militant that "Islamism" has peaked, that groups like Hamas and al-Qaeda are politically exhausted, and that the 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca "was the high point of 'Islamism' while September 11 was its flare-out." How is that statement reconciled with the fact that Hamas arose much later and "appears to have won broad support"?

Big-business commentators, echoed by some middle-class radicals, often assert that "Islamic fundamentalists are on the rise." That is not accurate. Such groups, which are political—bourgeois—currents, not primarily religious ones, are generally on the decline and have been for some time. Their weakening is part of the broader political bankruptcy and exhaustion of bourgeois nationalist currents in the Mideast and elsewhere.

A number of such currents stood at the head of democratic and anti-imperialist struggles in the Mideast from the 1940s through the 1960s. The Free Officers movement founded by Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, which led the fight against British colonial rule in Egypt, was one such example. These currents predominated because of the betrayal of the interests of workers and peasants by Communist Parties and other Stalinist forces, which maintained considerable influence in the Mideast through the 1980s.

The anti-imperialist advances won under these leaderships, like the nationalization of oil in the region and Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal, peaked by the 1960s. Subsequently, these gains led to further capitalist development and class differentiation in each of these countries. In "The Opening Guns of World War III," the lead article in New International no. 7, Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes describes this process as "the product of the consolidation of a national bourgeoisie and substantial middle class, of internal modern class development and class polarization. These bourgeois regimes use their state power—including naked violence and aggression—to advance their class interests against rival regimes, as well as against the workers and peasants at home."

Since the late 1960s, the growing failures and discrediting of secular bourgeois nationalists and Stalinists—what Barnes calls "the historical exhaustion of the nonproletarian currents" that had substituted for revolutionary leaderships there—fueled the temporary rise of Islamism. This variant of bourgeois nationalism peaked by the late 1970s.

The so-called Islamist currents, cloaking themselves in a religious mantle, won some mass support by adopting militant rhetoric. While at times in conflict with imperialism, they are not anti-imperialist, however. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of Algeria, for example, in challenging the country's government in the early 1990s, promised to be less subservient to French imperialism. At the same time, it advocated "free market" economic policies and called for cooperation with imperialist governments to explore and expand Algeria's natural resources and export potential.

The high point of Islamism was in the late 1970s. It was marked by the November 1979 takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which rocked the Saudi kingdom for several years. Hundreds of rebels, led by Juhaiman al-Oteiby and with support among elements in the National Guard, seized the mosque. It took the regime two weeks to crush the revolt. The insurgents not only denounced the royal family for straying from the teachings of Islam. According to a report in the Jan. 21, 1980, issue of Intercontinental Press, they also accused the regime of "feeding the United States and Israel with our oil and more money" and demanded "the expulsion of the agents of the imperialist America." The rebels also called for a republic to replace the monarchy.

For 10 days, protests broke out in Qatif and other oil-field cities on the Arab-Persian Gulf. Demonstrators shouted slogans in support of the Iranian Revolution and for a republic. The government sent in 2,000 National Guardsmen. In the ensuing clashes, by one estimate, 10 demonstrators were killed and hundreds wounded. Badly shaken, the Saudi monarchy beheaded 63 rebels in public squares spread out over eight cities to have the maximum intimidating effect.

In Egypt the exhaustion of the Nasser-led current put wind in the sails of self-described Muslim organizations. In 1981, Egyptian army members belonging to such a group assassinated President Anwar Sadat, whose government was widely despised for its rapprochement with Washington and Tel Aviv. And in Afghanistan and Pakistan, bourgeois groups waving the banner of Islam were part of the reactionary forces that waged war against the unpopular invasion of Afghanistan by Moscow.

In Iran, a gigantic popular revolution toppled the U.S.-backed monarchy in 1979. Because of the vacuum of working-class leadership, however, as the shah's regime was overthrown through the mass mobilizations of workers and peasants, bourgeois forces led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stepped in and took over the government. They falsely claimed the mantle of the revolution, using anti-imperialist rhetoric to win support.

Over the subsequent two decades, however, Islamist groups, like other bourgeois nationalist currents, have declined, increasingly incapable of offering leadership in anti-imperialist struggles. In Algeria the Islamic Salvation Front won the 1992 national elections but the results were annulled by the regime and a bloody civil war ensued, leading to more than 100,000 deaths. Today, however, the FIS appears to have lost steam; incumbent president Abdelaziz Bouteflika won a sweeping reelection last April. In Afghanistan the Taliban, which seized power in 1996, became politically isolated by its reactionary policies; Washington paid little price for its invasion of that country and overthrow of the Taliban-led regime.

Regarding Mirelowitz's question about Hamas, the rise of that organization in the Palestinian national movement is a slightly later development that takes place within the overall decline of Islamism. Through much of the 1980s, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was still largely on a revolutionary nationalist course. But as the PLO became bourgeoisified and increasingly turned its eyes toward accommodation with Washington, groups like Hamas got some wind in their sails.

Although Hamas gained a mass following, especially in the Gaza Strip, it has never been able to win the leadership of Palestinian movement, which is still dominated by the PLO. Over time, Hamas has shown that it lacks a political perspective that can mobilize the masses of Palestinians and their supporters who are resisting Israel because it stole their land. The group's political course and methods of struggle, largely suicide bombings, have isolated its leadership, making it vulnerable to attack—politically and militarily—by the Israeli and U.S. governments. Tel Aviv has been systematically decimating the leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other such groups, assassinating them with virtual impunity.

The flameout of al-Qaeda, which U.S. imperialism and its allies in the region have been progressively wiping out since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is further evidence of the overall trend described here.

Washington and the other imperialist powers, however, cannot solve the economic and social crisis bred by their own system. Instead, the workings of that system generate permanent instability. That creates space that workers and farmers in the Mideast will use over the coming years to engage in struggles and, as they go through those experiences, forge the revolutionary leadership they deserve.

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