Islamic fundamentalism. (yasmin mather)
Over the last few years Islamic fundamentalism has been portrayed by some in the West, especially the US administration,as a major world threat. The atrocities committed by a number of Islamic groups, such as the GIA in Algeria,fundamentalists in Egypt or the Islamic states in Iran or Afghanistan, have been used to whip up a sense of hysteria againstIslam. In this article we will try to explain the diverse and often contradictory nature of Islamic fundamentalism, both inIran where an Islamic state came to power in 1979 and among Islamic movements in the Arab world. We will argue thatfundamentalism – contrary to the propaganda of its supporters and its enemies alike – has only strengthened capitalism inIslamic countries, and that, since it poses a diversion to the development of revolutionary movements in these countries, itcan only reinforce the status quo. We will further argue that as Islamic fundamentalism is not a monolithic force, andbecause most of the Islamic world is an integral part of world capitalism, twentieth century Islam is unlikely to threaten"The West" as some want us to believe. In this respect it is important to note that the financial backers of some of the mostbarbaric Islamic groups, such as the Taleban, are Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Pakistan, all amongst the staunchestallies of the United States in the region. Others, such as the GIA (Algeria) and the Egyptian fundamentalists responsiblefor recent bombings, are by-products of the Afghan war paid by Saudi money or CIA funds in Pakistan – although atpresent some of these groups might be out of the control of their pay masters.
The sociological reasons behind Islamic fundamentalism have been discussed by many writers and analysts.
Industrialization and the rural exodus that started in the 1960s in most Middle Eastern countries saw the creation of shantytowns around many cities. The state in these countries was incapable of dealing with this demographic change. Poverty,unemployment, cultural differences and lack of social mobility all played a part in the alienation of shanty town dwellersfrom the rest of urban society. At the same time, the rate of literacy increased and state education allowed sections of thepetty bourgeoisie access to higher education. Many of the cadres of Islamist parties came from this section, while theirrank-and-file support is mainly from the lumpen youth of the shanty towns. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in theMiddle East coincided with disillusionment with Marxist, secular ideologies and the failures of Stalinist parties. In Egypt,Algeria and Iraq the popularity of fundamentalism was a reaction to the failures of Arab nationalism and Baathism, and inAfghanistan it was a direct consequence of the failure of the Stalinist state. Contrary to popular belief, neo-fundamentalismis not simply a reaction against modernisation, but a by-product of modernisation. As a result it is often a nationalistmovement dominated by the cultural and political aspirations of various nation states, rather than a monolithic Islamistmovement.
Contradictions and impasses of Islamic fundamentalism
There are many reasons, inherent in Islam, why it cannot become a world threat, unifying Muslims in tens of countries.
First and foremost is the division between Sunni and Shia sections of Islam, which is at times more profound thandivisions between Muslims and followers of other religions. Shias mainly live in Iran, parts of Iraq, and as a minority inLebanon and Afghanistan; the rest of the Islamic world is predominantly Sunni. The establishment of the first Shia state inIran has led to some virulent anti Shia propaganda by Sunni clerics and Sunni fundamentalists of the Islamic Brotherhood.
Second, the divisions within either of these sections regarding essential theological issues, as well as arguments regardingthe role of political Islam, the position of women and economic issues have constantly fragmented and weakened Islamicmovements. As there is no single Islamic culture and no single Islamic nation or language, Islamist movements areprimarily divided along national and regional lines.
The Iranian revolution of 1979
If the Iranian revolution was the beginning of the rise of fundamentalism – albeit in a Shia state – the failure of "politicalIslam" in Iran, and the gradual yet consistent transformation of the Islamic state in Iran to "civil society" marks thebeginning of the end for the dream of an Islamic state based on Sharia (religious law and practice). The Iranian uprisingwas a direct result of the failures of the Shah’s regime to respond to the economic crisis that followed the economic boomof the early 1970s. Most skilled workers faced a drop in their living standards in 1976.The White Revolution had left
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massive numbers of peasants landless and penniless, going in search of seasonal jobs in major cities. Recession in theIranian economy left them unemployed and destitute in shanty towns. In addition to the above two groups, the smallindependent producers had been forced out of business (made bankrupt) with the help of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, torescue the already privileged position of big industrialists. Corruption and the rule of a clique around the Royal courtmeant that many traditional merchants, often associated with the bazaar, were deprived of large profits available to themore privileged sections of the ruling class. The clergy, which had survived the repressive measures of the Shah’sdictatorship by compromising with the regime, was in a much better position to benefit from political discontent thansecular, socialist groups who had had lost many in their ranks through execution and imprisonment.
Historical background of Shia clergy in Iran
Historically, Iranian intellectuals are responsible for portraying Shia Islam in Iran as a "progressive force". This concept,encouraged in the 1950s-1980s by Stalinist ideology, is based on the myth that Shia clerics were absent from politicalpower during the rule of various dynasties in Iran, and therefore were part of the movements against absolute monarchs. Infact religious Shia leaders were functionaries of the court (in the Safavid/Qajar dynasties), lived in the court and were partof the establishment and the state. During the Constitutional Revolution, the main aim of the clergy was to stop radicalmovements and, at best, sections of the clergy sided with constitutional monarchists (e.g. Ayatollah Behbahani), while themajority of the clergy was mainly concerned with defending feudalism. During what became known as the "tobaccouprising" most of the Shia clergy ended up in the gardens of the British Embassy supporting one colonial power (Britain )against another (Russia). During the oil crisis of 1953 a minority within the Shia clergy originally supported the limiteddemands of the nationalists – but as the balance of forces changed in favour of the Shah, they suddenly moved back tosupport the Shah. The role of the clerical leader of the time, Ayatollah Kashani, is well documented. In 1963, at the time ofthe Shah’s White Revolution, a reform from above aimed at transforming Iran to a modern capitalist state, the oppositionof the clergy led by Khomeini was completely reactionary. The main planks of his main opposition were two issues:firstly, on the expropriation of the land of feudal land owners, Khomeini’s objection was based on the sanctity of propertyin Islam; secondly, he opposed vehemently the reform to give women the right to vote. On both counts this opposition toreforms was clearly reactionary.
Contradictions of Sharia (Islamic laws) – the case of Shia Islam
One of the principle pillars of Shia ideology is the concept of the return of the 12th Imam, who disappeared 13 centuriesago and will only return to earth when corruption, injustice. have reached unbearable levels. In his absence anygovernment is deemed to be unjust and corrupt. In fact as many clerical delegates of the Iranian parliament have repeatedlyreminded us over the last few years, any attempt by government, even a religious government, at improving socialconditions, reducing corruption, reducing poverty or narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor can only delay thearrival of the 12th Imam and therefore contradicts Shia theology. Such ideas are useful when the clergy is in opposition, asthey were in the early history of Islam in 7th and 8th century, but it is a serious hindrance to them when in power. The Shiastate is further based on the cult of personality of it martyred imams and innocence of these imams. Again this worked fineas a historic concept, when stories of the bravery of long-dead imams could aspire devotion martyrdom. It is more difficultwith a living imam (in this case Khomeini) in the last decades of the 20th century, when a minor (or major) indiscretionsuch as the Irangate scandal can tarnish the image of the supreme cleric overnight. Rule of Sharia in a country where thecapitalist mode of production and urbanisation are so advanced is doomed to failure.
However the principle cause for the failure of political Islam is that once it takes power, it institutionalises itself and in theabsence of any Islamist economic policy (i.e. an alternative to capitalism or socialism) it inevitably becomes another thirdworld capitalist state, with all the limitations of such a state. Let us remember that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism had alot to do with the envy of the merchants of the bazaar who could never match the colossal fortunes gathered by theindustrial bourgeoisie around the court and the state in the previous regime. This envy of "monopoly" capital led them toback the clergy, their traditional ideological representatives. Yet once in power, in order to survive and prosper in aninternational capitalist order, this bourgeoisie inevitably had to replace the very capitalists they despised. In some cases,where expertise and international capital were necessary, the Islamic state invited the previous capitalists to return. In othercases they themselves tried to replace the old capitalists. The very people who argued against Western consumption andaccumulation became the consumers, and indeed as modernity is irreversible and universal, the bazaar merchants of Iranwho so vehemently were anti-Western in the late 1970s, have become pro-Western in the late 1990s. A reflection of this,which can also be seen in the "Hezbollah" (supporters of the clergy), is described by Olivier Roy as the
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neo-fundamentalism of Iran with a schizophrenic approach: a hatred of one self for wanting Western consumption(therefore under the influence of Western culture) and a long battle to possess it.
The economics of a capitalist state necessitate a "civil society". Most of the internal battles of the Islamic regime in Iranover the last 9-10 years are indeed part of this struggle. On the one hand those who still believe in the rule of Sharia andthose (religious forces) who have decided that the only way to survive is the establishment of the rule of law in a trulycapitalist state. The current president of the Islamic regime best portrays this position – but even as early as 1979, despiteall the religious rhetoric, the constitution of the first Islamic Republic is far more law-based than many people have beenled to believe, with a role for the parliament, the legislative and executive centres of power in the day-to-day running ofthe state, and religion in all senses taking very much a secondary role. Many have seen this as a clear reflection of thepoverty of Islamic thinking on the issue of political institutions. Olivier Roy suggests that, despite many books and essayswritten by Islamic theologians on details of the rule of Sharia, Iran’s policies over the last 19 years can be described as thepolicies of the crown (the previous order under the Shah) being pursued under the turban (a reference to the clerical hatworn by shia clergy) ("la couronne sous le turban"). Many arguments typical of capitalism have been aired in the Iranianparliament, the Majles – the battle between the statist reformers and defenders of the free market being a primary example.
It has been argued that until 1989 and the death of Khomeini, those favouring state ownership dominated the Majles,whereas it is quite clear that since 1989 defenders of the free market have had the upper hand.
In summary, both in economic and political spheres, the first Islamic state has been predominantly, and is increasinglybecoming, a capitalist state with "nationalist" overtones rather than religious ones.
Another pillar of the Sharia deals with the concept of Islamic "Ummah" or the Islamic nation. In many nations, includingIran, examples of Islamic forces in power and in conflict with fellow Muslims over land or oil can be seen. Thus theconcept of the Islamic nation is no more than a myth, with nation states fighting for "national" or "regional" interests farmore aggressively than they do in defence of the so-called Islamic nation. The eight year war between Iran and Iraq clearlydemonstrated this, where both countries relied heavily on Arab and Persian identities.
Contrary to those who believe that Iran’s foreign policy was third worldist, one could argue that it was never more than acontinuation of the Shah’s policies of becoming a regional power. The real policy of Iran has been dominated bycompetition with Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia with strong nationalist overtones. In order to become a regionalpower, Iran pursues a pragmatic foreign policy rather than an Islamist policy, despite all the rhetoric we have heard fromits leaders. For example in pursuit of a fierce competition with Turkey, Iran supported Christian Armenia versus MuslimAzerbaijan, simply because Turkey backed the latter. Iran opposed the Taleban advances in Afghanistan; its propagandatalked of the Taleban giving a bad name to Islam. But in reality the defenders of Hezbollah in Lebanon can’t be tooconcerned about the public image of Taleban, rather the main concern was that Taleban were supported by Saudi andPakistani money, competitors with Iran in the battle for domination of Afghanistan. Iran has kept contacts and reasonablerelations with Israel, mainly because the enemy of its enemies (the Arabs) must be a friend.
Of course Iranian leaders have made a great deal of their support for the deprived Muslims of the world. But in practice,given their total mistrust of Sunni groups, this has amounted to support for a handful of specific splinter groups of the Shiacommunity in Lebanon (under Hezbollah) and a minority of the Shia community in Iraq and Pakistan, most of whom areof Iranian descent. In fact the Islamist rhetoric of the Iranian regime is very much coming to an end. The recent interviewof the Iranian president with CNN signals a significant shift in this policy; he not only expressed great admiration for theAmerican civilisation and its struggles for independence but went further and expressed regret at the takeover of the USembassy in 1980.
The only issue that remains of Iran’s Islamist international rhetoric is the Fatwa on Salman Rushdie, and in this thefundamentalist regime is in a dilemma. Economic needs require better relations with European countries, yet Khomeini'sword cannot be contradicted and Iran’s competition with Saudi Arabia as the defender of the faith depends on this.
Women and Islamic Fundamentalism
For over 19 years Iranian women have been victims of the patriarchal laws of the first Islamic Republic.
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Both under the current regime and the previous regimes Iranian women have been deprived of many of their basic humanrights and have suffered from both patriarchal ideologies that treat women as irrational and immature, and fromwidespread discrimination which affects their lives from birth to death. There is no doubt that since the establishment ofthe Islamic Republic in 1979, the plight of women has become worse. During the years of modernisation in the 1970s, alarge number of Iranian women found work in factories and offices. Many clerics argued that "the honour and dignityaccorded women by Islam" had vanished. One of the first acts of Ayatollah Khomeini was the enforcement of the veil onthe 8th of March 1979, less than a month after the establishment of the Islamic regime. The refusal of many organisationsof the left to defend women’s rights on this day led to catastrophic consequences: the Iranian regime started a systematicattack on women’s rights, and the left lost credibility as a defender of women’s rights and a supporter of democratic rights.
The policy of enforced hejab (veil) and segregation was subsequently used to limit women’s access to education andrecreation facilities, and to institutionalise women’s confinement to the limited career and life opportunities available tothem, thus ensuring they become second class citizens. The new government also launched a campaign to drive women outof office jobs and to discourage them from any careers other than nursing and education.
Government propaganda openly talked of the "shame and dishonour" of working in an office and school hours werechanged to make life more difficult for working mothers. All government-funded nurseries and day care centres attachedto offices and factories were closed.
Some Iranian feminists have since argued that Islamic laws including those on the hejab (veil) have had a liberating effecton Iranian women. But in reality the veil was used to ensure that Islamic moral order is not defied and the veil became aninstitutionalised practise of Islamic patriarchy.
Behind it all was a strategy of ensuring a return to traditional roles. The emphasis on motherhood as an essential femininecharacter forms a pillar of Islamic gender ideology. The heroine of Shia ideology is Fatmeh, a daughter of the prophet whomarried Ali (the first Shia Imam) at a very young age, gave birth to his three sons and died at eighteen.
The majority of Iranian muslim girls live in a world dominated and manipulated by their male relatives. They can be givenaway in legal marriage without their knowledge or consent while still in their childhood. The process, in effect, paves theway for selling families to sell their under-aged girls in return for financial gains.
The law of Hodud and Qesas (the law of tallion and physical punishments) treats women as half-human (or nothing) evenin their honesty or observation power, valuing a woman’s testimony in courts as half of a male’s testimony (or even as nilwhen it comes to testifying against murderers; according to article 33 of this law, no woman’s testimony is ever admissiblein murder cases).
The laws governing marriage are among the most regressive in the world in terms of the discrimination against women.
While males are allowed to marry up to four wives at a time in permanent marriage and an unlimited number of women inwhat is known as "temporary" marriage, strict monogamy is expected from women. Any woman who deviates from thisset-up may be brutally and savagely punished by publicly, by being stoned to death – the officially-sanctioned, andfrequently executed, punishment for extra-marital affairs.
Inside marriage, the man is given almost a free hand in controlling his wife or wives. Rape inside marriage is sanctioned(as no consent is required for sexual relations inside marriage); wife-beating is tolerated and even encouraged by theKoran: women who disobey their men should be beaten up (soura 30).
A woman’s movement may be restricted by her husband, and his permission is required for getting official traveldocuments. The law gives very few (if any) rights to women in sharing decisions in married life and/or in regards to thecustody of children. Moreover, there are no proper provisions in the law to prevent men from transgressing their rightsand/or abusing the extensive power they have inside marriage.
When it comes to divorce, again, the man has almost a free hand, while the woman has a very limited recourse to the law.
The grounds on which a man can divorce his wife are almost unlimited, while only in very unusual circumstances can awoman file for divorce. The extent of this gross and utterly discriminatory law was best exemplified by a report last yearthat an Iranian court has taken fourteen years to approve a divorce request from a woman who complained she wastortured by her husband, regularly reporting new incidents of abuse to the court; she finally agreed to drop all financialdemands against her husband, and had to contact Iran’s Prosecutor-General to get her divorce. In another case, the processtook eight years.
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The divorce law also inflicts huge financial and emotional blows to the woman. The woman has to forfeit almost allfinancial claims if she files for divorce, while the settlement she receives if the divorce is initiated by the man is still verylimited. The emotional loss is much greater and more hurtful: the woman is deprived from the custody of her children(some as young as two); custody is usually awarded to the man. Within and without marriage, even the father’s father isgiven priority over the mother in custody matters.
The extent of discrimination against women in marriage goes still further. A virgin woman (whatever her age) has no rightto marriage without the consent of her father (or her father’s father, in the absence of her father). A Muslim woman has noright to marry a non-Muslim, (a right her male counterparts have, with some limitations).
Discriminatory laws against women have created favourable conditions and a suitable environment for widespread abusesand atrocities against women. Women have no effective recourse to the law in case they are abused, beaten or raped. Evenmany incidents of rape outside marriage go unreported because of the justifiable fears of the victim from being"dishonoured", cursed or even murdered by members of her own family and friends, or being prosecuted by the State andbrutally punished by a large number of lashes or stoned to death if she was judged by the court as being a willing partner.
Many of the common laws such as the law of Hodud and Qesas, in conjunction with the discriminatory laws mentionedabove, work directly against women. As another example, if someone commits homicide in an all-female environment (thefrequency of which is itself a consequence of sexual segregation inside and outside the house), it will be impossible to geta conviction based solely on the testimony of the women present (no matter how many of them). According to article 33 ofthe law of Hodud and Qesas, no homicide case may be proved in court solely on the basis of women's testimonies.
Defiance of the hejab code is punishable by 74 lashes (as very few women will ever dare walk out without a head scarf thisoften means showing a fringe) and, "since the crime is self-evident", punishment does not require a court decision andenforcement of the punishment can be immediate. Women are either arrested or given verbal warnings. Those who arecaught showing a fringe under a hejab are accused of "flaunting their naked bodies in the streets" and denounced as"corrupt, seditious, dangerous and destructive of public honour and chastity". Others face the 74 lashes. Some women havehad paint splashed on their faces by patrolling Islamic squads.
Iranian women have been fighting hard against these injustices, but have had limited success in the face of theoverwhelming power of the State and its institutions. The privileged position of a handful of token women, mainly closerelatives of senior clerics, in higher echelons of the Islamic government, should not deceive anyone.
At a time when many Iranian feminists in exile have become apologists for the Islamic regime, it is up to the revolutionaryleft to defend and support the struggles of Iranian women with commitment, determination and as a major part of thestruggle against the Islamic regime.
Rodinson M. Islam et Capitalism, Le Seuil 1966
Roy Olivier, L’echec de l’Islam politique, Le Seuil 1992
Shahidian Hammed, Islamic Feminism and Feminist Politics in Iran, University of Illinois at Springfield, USA
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