issue 210 - August 1990
BEYOND THE MACHINE GUN
Not all muslims are fundamentalist. Two writers
dig deeper to explore the struggle within Islam.
(See also 'A passion for justice')
Hijacked by Khomeini
The victory of fundamentalism in Iran brought to a close a fertile debate on the
relationship of religion to politics in the Muslim world. Sami Zubeida explains.
In the past two decades Islamic fundamentalists have stepped out onto the international stage with a dramatic flourish. They have been authors (or at least seen to be authors) of the Iranian Revolution, of hostage taking in Lebanon, of demonstrations and riots in Egypt and North Africa, and now of the Satanic Verses affair on our very doorsteps.
The direction of these activities against the West has ensured an avalanche of superficial news coverage, reinforcing popular stereotypes of a seemingly unified, fanatic and hostile Islam. But what is lost in this cacophony of coverage is that these widely diverse events constitute but one particular and quite new direction for political Islam. Religion has played a variety of roles in modern Islamic history, mostly quite different from its role in the relatively recent rise of fundamentalism.
The great majority of Muslims aren't political at all. Their religion consists of daily and seasonal observances, with various degrees of piety and devotion from orthodox prayers and recitations to mystical exercises. Some of these 'private' Muslims may be mobilized politically around issues which are supposed to offend against the basic tenets of religion. The Rushdie affair is a case in point.
Most of the ulama (Muslim clerics) avoid political involvement. Militant political clerics like Khomeini are the exception rather than the rule. In many countries, notably Egypt, ulama are employed by state institutions and are careful not to offend. On some occasions they are called to bestow religious approval on government policies and normally oblige. Sadat's accord with Israel, strongly opposed by many Egyptians, was duly sanctioned by establishment ulama.
All the same, Islamic ideas and movements have played a very important part in the modern history of the Middle East. They have represented diverse trends, mostly very different from the modern stereotype of 'fundamentalists'. What they all have in common is the objective of reforming corrupt government and society as well as the corruptions of their own religion. They have all tried to grapple with the backwardness and corruption associated with Western imperial domination. But they often drew intellectual sustenance from European cultural and political ideas and models in seeking a workable and culturally authentic synthesis. It is only in recent times that total rejection of all things Western in the name of Islamic purity and authenticity has become the dominant current of Muslim political thought.
The revolution in Iran is the most important single event in shaping Islamic politics in the region. Ostensibly it was the work of fundamentalist clerics leading the religious masses against a Westernizing government. This is a simplistic picture. The social forces behind the Revolution were diverse, drawing heavily on the secular intelligentsia. Many of the most important Islamic groups were motivated by ideas very different from those of Khomeini and the clerics.
The main such group was the left-wing Islamic People's Mojahidin. Their ideology was influenced by the teachings of a prominent French-educated intellectual, Ali Shariati, who died in 1977. Their ideas drew heavily on modern revolutionary thought: a mixture of neo-Marxism, the populist insurrectionism of Che Guevara and Franz Fanon's work on the psychology and culture of liberation.
They believed in a God that had created a world rooted in a class conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed that went all the way back to Cain and Abel. The Prophet of Islam was sent to champion the oppressed and to abolish the systems of slavery and exploitation. After Muhammad's death, his religion was subverted by rich merchants and warlords. Shi'ism, like Sunnism, was appropriated and subverted by ruling classes aided by clerics. For the Mojahidin it was up to the revolutionary intelligentsia to enlighten and lead the masses, using their cultural heritage of struggle and martyrdom.
This revolutionary socialism in a Third World mould (with a stress on cultural authenticity thrown in) was the leading Islamic ideology of the Revolution. Khomeini's own theory, which justifies clerical rule (equally novel in the history of Islam), was not revealed till after the Revolution. Secular and non-clerical Islamic forces acquiesced in Khomeini's leadership because he spoke the rhetoric of radical populism: an Islamic Republic which would favour the oppressed against local tyrants and US imperialism. The militant clerics were in a position to hijack the Revolution because they were the only group with organization, practical strategy and money. The Mojahidin were among their early victims.
This hijack by militant clerics has had an impact well beyond Iran's borders. Egypt, for instance, provides an entirely different model of Islamic involvement in political life. It has witnessed nearly two centuries of secular government, but with important movements of Islamic reform. The key figure was that of Muhammad Abduh, a religious scholar and reformer with extensive knowledge of contemporary European thought. He aimed at religious and social reform which would bring the Islamic lands out of their backwardness and subservience to Europe. His reformist ideas were similar to European models of constitutionalism and democracy, which he argued went back to the early Islam of the Prophet and his community. He laid the intellectual basis for a liberal Islam which inspired Arab nationalist leaders striving for independence.
This liberal Islam had to contend with the fundamentalist trends of the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928), which rejected all 'imported' political models, insisting that 'The Qu'ran is our constitution'. But the Brotherhood, though an important political force, was only one of many Islamic currents (liberal and even socialist) in a secular Egypt. Events in Iran have given Egypt's fundamentalist groups immeasurably more power.
The revolution in Iran sparked the growth of militant fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world. On the surface it demonstrated the power of the Islamic masses to topple a corrupt US-dominated government. Vast numbers of educated and semi-educated youth throughout the Muslim world face the grim prospect of unemployment or dead-end jobs. Privileged elites monopolize opportunities and resources. Governments rule in the name of a tainted nationalism or socialism and are too often corrupt. Meanwhile Israel and its Western backers remain ascendant while Arab governments appear either helpless or indifferent. Pent-up personal and national frustrations are finding an outlet in identification with Islam.
At present all of these factors make Islamic fundamentalism a virtually unstoppable force. Only in Iran itself are there signs of the intelligentsia realizing that Islamic government is a recipe for unlimited and unenlightened despotism which only aggravates social and economic problems. It may be that the other countries of the Muslim world will have to go through a similar experience in order to move beyond fundamentalism.
Sami Zubeida lectures at Birkbeck College in the University of London.