2002 Preface to 'Why the Reversion to Islamic Archaism?'

The modern schizophrenia of Islamic integralism

"The true prophet, therefore, is not merely an inspired man who has the unusual powers of of performing miracles. He is primarily a statesman and a legislator."
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), "the Machiavelli of Islam"

"Experience has shown, however, that powerful, countervailing cultural forces operate: the audio-visual media emit hedonistic messages which undermine the notion "Islam is the solution." The consumer culture's attraction, the lure of "Made in USA" sneakers and movies, bewitches many amongst the shabab (youth) upon whom the elderly leaders had pinned their hopes. More dismaying yet, are the local knockoffs, such as the North African hybrid of Arabic and rock music, dubbed Rai. Increasingly, Islamist voices can be heard asking, "Perhaps all we can wage is a rearguard battle. Isn't it likely that our present achievements are doomed to death by attrition?"
Emmanuel Sivanin in "Why radical muslims aren't taking over governments"

About the life in Islamic cities between the 11th and 15th century, we find the following passage in Albert Houranis A History of the Arab Peoples: "Those who were openly active were women of poor families. To the extent to which a family was wealthy, powerful and respected, it would seclude its women, in a special part of the home, the harim, and beneath the veil when they ventured from the house into the streets of public places. An Egyptian jurist of the Maliki school, Ibn al-Hajj (b. 1336), said that women should not go out to buy things in the market, because they might be led into improper acts if they sat with shopkeepers: 'some of the pious elders (may God be pleased with them) have said that a woman should leave her house on three occasions only: when she is conducted to the house of her bridegroom, on the deaths of her parents, and when she goes to her own grave"

Not everybody was as 'pious'. Hence, Philip K Hitti could write about an earlier period, in his History of the Arab's: "Alcoholic drinks were often indulged in both in company and in private. ... prohibition, one of the distinctive features of Islam religion, did no more prohibit than did the eighteenth century amendment to the constitution of the United States: Even caliphs, vizirs, princes and judges paid no heed to religious injunction." Today, many a pilgrim on his return from Mecca, and after having engaged is such heavy spiritual work as throwning stones on a sculpture symbolising Satan in the town of Mina, pays Dubai a visit to satisfy worldly desires for whisky, and other more modern symbols of the rule of you know whom. But then, was not the messenger of Allah also a merchant and the founder of a trading empire?

But .... "For example, in May 1942, shayks from [Jam'iyyat] al-Gharra' and [Jam'iyyat] al-Hidaya [al-Islamiyya] led large protests demonstrations in Damascus denouncing the women who exposed their faces in public, promenaded on the arms of their husbands, and went to cinemas," (Philip S. Khoury: Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism 1920-1945, I.B. Tauris, London 1987).

Another, if smaller, historical leap. In 1967, in Ba'thist Syria, there appeared an article in the Jais al Shab (the People's Army) entitled "The means of Creating the New Arab Man" containing the passage: "God, religion, feudalism, capitalism and colonialism, and all the values that prevailed under the old society are no more than mummies in the museum of history, and absolute belief in man's ability should be treated as the only new value." Demonstrations followed and were brutally crushed, but the author of the offending article was sentenced to life imprisonment as well, and in the next three years the government built more mosques than had been done in the last thirty. 6 years latter, the code word used in the October 1973 war against the Zionist state of Israel was "Badr," a direct reference to the battle that had established the supremacy of the prophet Muhammad over the unbelievers. Assad also referred to the war as a jihad against "the enemies of Islam" and the Syrian forces as the "soldiers of Allah". And in 1975, Sylvia G. Haim could write in the preface to a new edition of her Arab Nationalism: An Anthology: "Public prayer has become part of the appeal of today's socialist leaders in Libya, in Egypt, and in Syria.... Islam it is claimed is the font of all praiseworthy theories."

In a collection of essays by Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi and his nearest comrades-in-power from 1973, Ibrahim al-Bishari writes: "The idea of jihad has a material and moral character; this is jihad by means of the word. Jihad with the Sword, for the sake of God, using every method, must govern our relations with the outside world in order to spread our message. Islam lays it down that war is to cease by means of armistice (hudna), or mutual promises (muwa'ada), and it is to cease only for a limited period fixed in advance, but when the Muslims are again powerful, war must be declared and waged." This is nothing but orthodox Islam.

To understand the ideology of Islam it is crititical to understand that the prophet-merchant Muhammad was beyond anything else the founding father of worldly empires.

* * *

"Why the reversion to Islamic archaism?" was first published two decades ago as part of two issues of Khamsin: Journal of Revolutionary Socialists of the Middle East addressing "Politics of Religion of the Middle East". Lafif Lakhdar had in Lebanon previously published political critiques of religion, and co-written twenty-four theses on Black September (the crushing of the Palestinian resistance movement in Jordan by the armed forces of the King in 1970) with Mustpha Khayati, the Tunisian author of situationist texts such as the Class struggles in Algeria, as well as the pamphlet On the Poverty of Student of Life, which gained fame during May 68 in France.

Published in 1981, Lakhdar's essay is obviously not up to date, which does not mean it has become less relevant, and not only in the 'Islamic World,' which was never quite a world apart. Also for many living where capitalist social relations first developed in full scale, the question of why the reversion to Islamic archaism has become much closer on the background of different but interconnected phenomena. Call it 'globalisation,' immigration or September 11; 'neo-liberalism,' war, poverty, stupefication or alienation; racism, 'codes of honour,' secularisation, commercialisation and women's emancipation. For sure an old world is breaking down and a new one has little idea were it's going, or has not yet been born.

Lafif Lakdar ends his story within the first period of Khomenism in Iran, which connects us in time to the beginning of the last Afghan wars, as well as the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. A war between the most contemptible product of the preceding nationalism of the Arab Renaissance party and a reborn religious nationalism (where in the words of Lakhdar, Islam could "congratulate itself on having caught up, five centuries too late, with the Europe of the Inquisition") &endash; both mystifying more or less the same, glorious pasts. What can you expect from 'liberation movements' that cannot help but constantly refer with wounded pride to imperial pasts? Empires have never had much to do with freedom from oppression and exploitation. Too much history is the tragedy of the day. It contains no past nor future that anyone would want to live, except maybe great men of power. Pax-Americana and pax-Islamica never differed much. It is the old history of exploitation, oppression and slavery.

The particular class composition of much of the historical core areas of Islamic dominance, partially as a product of indigenous history, partially of colonialism and the impact of global capitalism, has tended to make the position of the social strata traditionally most inclined to fascistoid ideologies strong, and the working class weak. The attraction to figures as Musa Nili and Hayder (the Brave), better known as Mussolini and Hitler, was not only due to the establishment of a settler colonialist state called Israel. To this, the line of home-gown butcher-saviours have been too long, and the continued influence of honour and shame and 'manly values,' and the celebration of submission, too strong. But there is nothing pre-determined about this. It is a product of oppression both by the word and by the sword. And, it must be added, we are most of the time talking about a minority, if a powerful and vocal one, dominating a 'silent majority' living their lives as best as they can. Islam foremost enslaves Muslims. And it is precisely the authoritarian, semi-secular regimes that has made the continuation of this state of affairs possible.

The failure of pan-Arab nationalism to deliver what it promised, which was not much to wish for in the first place, whether as Nasserism of Ba'thism, is an important element in Lakdar historical exposure. Surprising to many is no doubt Lakhdar's description of how Saudi Arabia with its petro-dollars was once seen by many as yet another saviour challenging 'the West' &endash; if hardly capitalism. This was also the time that the sponsoring by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates of madrasas, mosques, and other religious institutions around the world, really took off &endash; to counter the growing influence of Iranian Khomeinism. We see the beginning of what might be called a true globalisation of Islamic integralism, where also parts of the world that earlier had been little exposed to this kind of fanatic breed of dogmatism, though nominally Muslim, were drawn into the circle. It should be remembered that this also meant a confrontation with the traditionally strong pagan influences in popular Islam, in particular in the countryside. The state ideology of pure, dogmatic Islam of the Sharia, of worldly Sunni jurisprudence, takes center place. Islam is in a paradoxical way the most secular religion there is (sharing many common traits in particular with Judaism and the Bible of the Old testament in this respect), and its more popular and elitist spiritual elements are precisely those the Islamic integralist want to cleanse it off, so that nothing is left but Law. That this, in this day and age, cannot even create Order but only bloody chaos, in minds as well as in daily reality, is yet another paradox.

With its emphasis on root-learning and indoctrination from early age, the importance of "schooling" for building a global Islamist infrastructure cannot be underestimated. It is amazing that in the beginning of a new millennium, two-thirds of all Saudi PhDs are in 'Islamic Studies.' So what shall these students to do when they finish, to say nothing of their poorer brethren elsewhere? Also more traditional campuses has for long been a prioritised battle-ground for Islamists. "A study of 1,384 Syrian fundamentalist imprisoned between 1976 and 1981," writes Dilip Hiro, "showed 27.7 per cent to be college or university students and 13.3 per cent professionals, the corresponding figures for the Egyptian being 40 per cent and 6 per cent." (Islamic Fundamentalism, Paladin Grafton Books, 1988.) Many become state bureaucrats, teachers &endash; and unemployed. Hamas, a Palestinian offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood, for long was a non-combative faction within the Palestine resistance movement, and used the time to conquer much of the means of education. Or to refer to Bassam Tibi: "In line with the historical described legacy, the Islamist of our time put the goal of taking over the institutions of education at the top of their agenda. In Algeria, for instance, the educational politics of 'Arabisation' preceded the rise of political Islam. In similar vein, the Turkish fundamentalists pursue the politics of cultural Islamisation as their priority." Audio-tapes, and to a lesser degree, video-tapes have also for long been a popular way of spreading the message, "from the Kalashnikov to the tape-recorder," as the saying goes.

As always the position of women became the main battleground between strong secularising forces &endash; a critical aspect that must not be overlooked &endash; and the refuge of outmost reaction. "By accepting to live in bondage to this Divine Law, man learns to be free," in the words of a former Minister of Law and Religious Affairs in Pakistan, A.K. Brohi, which reminds one of something a certain Trotsky once said about slavery and 'socialism' not being necessarily opposed, as well as the Leviathan of the English 17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.

To dwell deeper into this material, concrete studies of the societies and histories Islamic integralism operate within and global socio-economical forces, are needed. Cultural ones not excluded. This would also reveal the forces struggling against a return to old and new life-denying ideologies, whether of the 'East' or 'West'. The question of the emancipation of women remains central, and is also what is gonna makes this edifice crumble in its foundation. There is a certain truth in the words of the Moroccan Fatima Mernissi: "The Muslim system is not so much opposed to women as to the heterosexual unit. What is feared is the growth of the involvement between a man and a woman into an all-encompassing love, satisfying the sexual, emotional and intellectual needs of both partners. Such an involvement constitutes a direct threat to the man's allegiance to Allah, which should be the unconditional investment of all man's energies, thought and feelings in his God."

Or should we say to very worldly rulers. This hardly captures everything there is to say about that topic. But it expresses something about that males are also oppressed by this ideology, and why secularising forces will succeed, maybe in a strange alliance with more spiritual, heterodox and pagan undercurrents within Islamic cultural traditions, as well as for sure, purely metaphorical, opportunistic and privatised interpretations of the "words of Allah," as has become a norm within most of what remains of what was once Christianity. It took hundreds of years to significantly weaken this once so strong and oppressive force. The last thing needed is a replacement.

An interesting phenomenon was captured by Jeremy Seabrook in an article in The Guardian (December 20, 2001) with the telling title: "The making of a fanatic: Young men with broken dreams of a business career are turning to fundamentalism". He writes:

"You see them everywhere on the streets of Dhaka, Jakarta, Karachi, the boys with their qualifications: a Master's in personnel, a diploma in management, a degree in marketing. You meet them on the battered buses, in the dusty parks, in the flyblown eating-houses, clutching copies of their "biodata" in plastic folders. They are on their way from house to house, giving tuition to the children of the middle class. These are the representatives of the pinched under-employment of a generation raised on the promise that if only they study business, they will be sure of a managerial job, big money, a security greater even than that guaranteed by government service.

Business culture has seized the imagination of the young all over the world. It has brought new hope to a generation whose educational aspirations have been transformed by its revelations of wealth-creation. They carry textbooks, published in the US, pages of which they learn by rote. Many are from poor families, from small towns and distant villages, who have sold precious land or gone into bottomless debt for the sake of a better life for their children. For them, to study in the capital enhances prestige - distance from the homeplace, it seems, adds value, no matter how academically thin the object of study, no matter how shaky the institution."

Unlike what is the case of fairy tails, this new chimera seldom has a happy ending. But that the people referred to were caught in the Islamist net first after having seeked a future within the latest craze of hyper-modern corruption, tells us much about the future of Islamic integralism. It has nothing to offer other than what is contained in the last phrase of the watchword of the Muslim Brethren, namely "Death for the Glory of Allah is our greatest ambition". And unlike what a western media, deceived by Islamic propaganda and its own stupefication wants us to believe, human beings of flesh and blood grown up with an Islamic faith, fear death no less, and wants no less to live than the rest of us. Therefore, Islamic integralism will fade away and give room for those who seek life and a world no longer dominated by exploitative and oppressive social forces. The future lies closer to the music of Rai and the rebellious youth of Kabyle, than it does to the caves of Afghanistan.

Islamic integralists are fighting a war they cannot win in the long run. The last desperate battles before being overtaken by the realities, for better and worse, of the modern world. Overtaken by emancipatory forces on one side and commodification on the other. Lafif Lakhdar was essentially right in stating: "Contrary to what Islamic propaganda claims, and many western leftists believe, today's Iran does not represent the reinvigoration of Islam but its swan-song, except that it lacks any beauty." What remains to be answered is how long this death-dance will take, how much pain it will give birth to, and how much, and for how long, it can hold back the emergence of conditions needed for a libertarian class struggle to gain strength. The question of why it emerged in the first place, it would take volumes to adequately answer.

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Written by Harald Beyer-Arnesen, born and living in Oslo, Norway. Anarco-syndicalist and anarchist communist.

Now read "Why the reversion to Islamic archaism?"

This text is from the 'Against War and Terrorism' pamphlet, the rest of the pamphlet is available on the web and as a PDF file

Against war and terrorism cover
  • Enduring war and popular mobilisation
  • Aftermath for Afghanistan
  • Empire in Central Asia
  • Civil Liberties and Civil Rights in the USA
  • Israel / Palestine is a war zone
  • The modern schizophrenia of Islamic integralism
  • Why the Reversion to Islamic Archaism?

PDF file of the pamphlet or read the articles on the web