Islam, imperialism and the fight for change

Islamic politics inspire some of the most powerful movements against imperialism in the Middle East. Luke Ottavi looks at how the left should respond

Millions of people look to Islamist movements, particularly across the Middle East.

Groups like Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic regime in Iran have wide influence and support.

In Australia the attitude to Islamist groups is usually coloured by the Islamophobia whipped up by our rulers. The media coverage of the Sydney University encampment by news programs like 60 Minutes painted Muslims speaking out for Palestine as “extremists” with a “dangerous Islamic ideology”.

We need to clearly oppose the Islamophobia and the attempt to divide and discredit the Palestine movement.

The Australian government also hypocritically lists Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist groups and accuses those—particularly Muslims—who stand with the Palestinian resistance of being terrorist sympathisers. There is no such media hysteria about the Australian citizens travelling overseas to fight for Israel.

The Palestinians have a right to resist as an occupied people—a right that has been recognised at the UN and in international law. Both Hamas and Hezbollah should be removed from list of terrorist organisations.

But we also need to understand the nature of Islamist movements if we’re to effectively fight against imperialism, capitalism and oppression.

There are two mistakes that are often made on the left when it comes to Islamist movements.

The first is to think that they are all reactionary because Islam is often regarded as reactionary in general. Some even say that political Islam is a form of fascism because of the alleged views Islamists hold about women or LGBTIQ+ people, and the supposedly oppressive society some Islamists want to install.

This has led sections of the left to support the state and counter-revolutionary forces in suppressing Islamists—such as during the Egyptian revolution after 2011 when the Muslim Brotherhood was in government and was being attacked by the military.

The second mistake is to think that because Islamists are often fighting against Western imperialism and colonialism that they are always progressive anti-imperialists. An example is the way some went silent when Hezbollah forces supported Bashar Assad in suppressing a popular revolution in Syria in 2012.

Both positions are wrong.


Some of the confusion around Islamist movements comes from a confusion about the power of religion itself.

Religion is a set of ideas that can inspire movements with vastly different political aims. It has played a role in many different social struggles all over the world.

Versions of Christianity—Catholic and Protestant—were often portrayed as being the defining features of the two sides of the struggle in Northern Ireland. But the fundamental issue was not religion but the struggle for Irish freedom from British colonialism.

The approach the left should take to different Islamist political movements depends on the role an Islamist movement is playing in struggle and the class interests they represent, not their religious doctrine.

Islamists often call for a struggle against oppression and exploitation and a return to the original teachings of the Prophet. This, they argue, will save people from the harsh realities of life under capitalism and imperialist domination.

This can mean different things to different classes in society.

The British Marxist Chris Harman, in his pamphlet The Prophet and the Proletariat, identified at least four different social groupings involved in Islamic movements, each of which uses Islam in its own way.

Elements of the ruling class and the wealthy, for instance, have supported Islamist movements.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has long had the support of important capitalists, including millionaire Khairat al-Shater who was part of its leadership imprisoned in 2013. Those running large companies, who often resent the way state economic policies favour cronies of the regime, can have an interest in supporting Islamic opposition movements.

Islamism also appeals to the poor. Tens of thousands of barely employed former peasants live in the cities of the Middle East. They have lost the certainties associated with their old way of life—which they identified with traditional Muslim culture—and have not gained a secure material existence.

The rich who run the state and the economy and have increasingly Westernised lifestyles can be identified as non-Islamic by the poor. And the poor also have an interest in joining movements that condemn governments that fail to provide them with jobs or the basics of life.

There are also thousands of university graduates across the region, part of the new middle class, unable to find the kind of well-paid jobs their studies train them for.

In 2021 the International Labour Organisation reported that 40 per cent of university graduates in Egypt were unemployed. Those in work usually find only low-paying government jobs, often having to work multiple jobs to survive.

In this situation, an Islamist movement that directs people’s anger against a state which they see as capitulating to Western imperialism and causing systemic impoverishment can gain a mass audience.

Rise of Islamic politics

Islamism has gained a mass following in Middle Eastern societies traumatised by the impact of capitalism. Middle Eastern societies have been dominated by imperialist powers from the late 19th century.

It was secular nationalist forces that spear-headed the initial movements against colonialism. But they failed to deliver on their promises of greater prosperity and independence from Western imperialism, creating a space for Islamism to become the main opposition force.

Socialism was discredited due to the Stalinist politics of the mass communist parties that existed in the 1940s and 1950s. As those parties lined up with oppressive nationalist rulers, the Islamists gained support as the only groups willing to wage a struggle against imperialism.

Egypt provides one example of this process. Gamal Abdel Nasser led a revolt against British domination in Egypt and came to power in 1954. He nationalised the Suez Canal and was seen as an anti-imperialist hero across the Middle East.

However, his successors abandoned anti-imperialist rhetoric to make peace with Israel and Western imperialism. They adopted free market policies that impoverished workers and the poor.

The Egyptian Communist Party uncritically supported Nasser because of its Stalinist analysis that socialism was possible only after the national revolution. They subordinated class struggle to Nasser, who they saw as leading the struggle for national independence.

But Nasser crushed their organisation, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the only large oppositional force in the country.

A similar process played out in Palestine. For decades the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) held the leadership of the Palestinian struggle.

The PLO became heroes when their guerrilla fighters forced the Israel military to retreat in the battle of Karameh in Jordan in 1968.

However, the PLO later betrayed the Palestinian resistance when leader Yasser Arafat entered the “peace process” resulting in the Oslo Accords in 1993, formally recognising Israel.

The PLO dominated the new Palestinian Authority (PA), set up to administer the Occupied Territories for Israel. The PA became a police force that “does Israel’s job for them”.

The PLO’s failed strategy opened the space for Hamas to gain mass support—by continuing armed resistance against Israel’s occupation.

In 2006 Hamas defeated the PLO in a democratic election to control the PA in both the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas was ousted from the West Bank by a coup led by the PLO (with Israeli backing) but it retained control in the Gaza Strip. It continues to have strong support from Palestinians—including growing support in the West Bank.

Socialists and Islamists

Socialists draw a distinction between Islamist mass movements with a real social base like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza and Islamist groups like Islamic State, which have no social base and are a product of the sectarian civil wars in Iraq and Syria, fuelled by regional sub-imperialist (and oppressive) powers like Saudi Arabia.

We support the right of Palestinians to resist, which sees Hamas struggle against Israel’s occupation. But we disagree over Hamas’s armed struggle strategy, collaboration with the Arab rulers and the kind of society they want to implement in a free Palestine.

In Egypt, the left should join forces with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in struggle against the military dictatorship. We never support the state against the Islamists because we recognise that this can only strengthen the state and give it confidence to crush all opposition groups, including the left.

British Marxist Anne Alexander explained the approach of Solidarity’s sister organisation, the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt, in the face of Sisi’s dictatorship.

“Although the Revolutionary Socialists are not calling for an alliance with the Brotherhood, they argue to work ‘side by side with the young Islamists who are facing the machinery of military repression every day’. This is crucial to building a movement capable of challenging the regime. This means clarifying that the real enemy is Mubarak’s and Sisi’s state, not the Brotherhood.”

The slogan that Harman put forward is that socialists are “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never”.

On some issues we find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists struggling against imperialism and the state. This is true today as we fight against Islamophobia, imperialism and to free Palestine.

Even so, there are basic issues over which we disagree—we are both for the right to practise religion and the right to criticise it.

When we work alongside Islamists we argue about ideas about women, LGBTQI+ people and so on in the context of arguing the best way forward to end racism, discrimination and to free Palestine, from the river to the sea.

To end poverty and oppression we need a complete overthrow of existing class relations, not just to swap one ruling class and ruling ideology for an alternative Islamic ruling class.

What’s needed is a revolutionary transformation of society to end capitalism and bring about a world free from exploitation and free from the imperialist horrors continuing to unfold in Gaza. That means fighting for socialism.


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