The Rise and Fall of Political Islam
A Discussion with Mansoor Hekmat, Part II
Porsesh: In some earlier writings, you have largely linked the Islamic movement’s renewal to the Palestinian Question and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Other participants in this roundtable discussion do not share your particular emphasis on this linkage.
Mansoor Hekmat: I think they have a static view of the issue. The issue is not only what problems and tensions have given rise to the Islamic movement. Although even within this limited context, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian question and the presence of an ethnic-religious-imperialist ‘enemy,’ to which Arab nationalism and secularism have succumbed, is a main source of the emergence of the Islamic movement as an alternative claim to power. The more important question is: what direction would the dominant ideological, political and cultural trends in the 20th century push the Arab- and Moslem-inhabited Middle East, if there were no Palestinian question and Israel had not been created in this particular geography? How much could this region have had the opportunity to get integrated into the ‘Western’ world order, like Latin America and South East Asia, for example? How far could capitalism, technology, industry and Western capital - with all its administrative and cultural levelling and assimilating force – develop in the Middle East? How much could Islam like other 20th century religions become a recognised, modernised, moderated and absorbed strand in world capitalism’s political superstructure? The issue is not whether or not the Palestinian question and this ongoing conflict have given rise to the new political Islam (though I think it has had a large share in it), but rather to what extent this conflict has prevented Moslems and Moslem-inhabited countries from integrating into the mainstream of the 20th century and the world capitalist system. How much has economic development, transfer of technology, integration into dominant Western culture, the development of the foundations of a capitalist civil society, the growth of Western-style political and administrative institutions, and the development of Western intellectual and cultural trends of thought (including secularism, modernism and liberalism) in these countries been hampered by the Palestinian question?
The process of modernisation, secularisation and westernisation of Islam-ridden countries had begun at the beginning of the 20th century and had, until the 1960s, achieved numerous results as well. The West, however, regarded the integration of the Middle Eastern society into the Western capitalist camp as unfeasible and unachievable because of the Palestinian question, a regional conflict that echoed a fundamental global polarisation during the Cold War, and because of its own strategic alliance with Israel. The real challenge to religious reaction can now only come from Socialism, but historically the rise of militant political Islam in the Middle East was the result of the defeat of bourgeois nationalism, secularism and modernism in these countries, which theoretically could and was even about to digest Islamism. Even if there was no talk of ‘Islamic Protestantism’, this process could have at least put Islam in these countries in the same position as Catholicism in Ireland. The condition for this bourgeois victory, however, was capitalist and industrial development and the transfer of technology and capital, which the West was reluctant to do because of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Cold War context. Since the creation of Israel, the Middle East and its people have been perceived as evil in the West’s political culture; they are among the main negative personages in the West’s political culture. For the West, the Middle East is not like Latin America and South East Asia. It is a no go area. It is unstable, perilous, unreliable and hostile. Political Islam emerged in this black hole. If the question of Israel did not exist, the problems of Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq would have been like that of Brazil, Peru and Mexico. Political Islam would still certainly exist, but it would have lingered on as a peripheral and sectarian movement and would not have entered the political centre stage in these countries.
Porsesh: How do you define secularism? In a secular system, what are the limits of expression of religion and religious movements in the political and cultural arenas?
Mansoor Hekmat: Secularism must be defined as it is usually understood in everyday usage. Without attributing too much radicalism to it. Secularism means the separation of religion from the state and education, the separation of religion from a citizen’s identity and the definition of a citizen's rights and responsibilities. Turning religion into a private affair. Where a person's religion does not enter the picture in defining their social and political identity and in their interaction with the state and bureaucracy. In view of this, secularism is a collection of minimum requirements. I, for example, cannot fit my entire stance regarding religion and its place in society into this concept. I do not just want secularism, but also society’s conscious struggle against religion - in the same way that a segment of society’s resources are spent on fighting malaria and cholera, and conscious policies are made against misogyny, racism and child abuse, some resources and energy ought to be allocated to de-religionisation. By religion I of course mean the religious machinery and defined religions and not religious thought or even belief in ancient or existing religions. I am an anti-religious person and want society to impose more limitations, beyond mere secularism, on organised religion and the 'religion industry.' If the law required religions to register as private foundations or profit making companies, pay taxes, face inspection and obey various laws, including labour laws, children’s rights, laws controlling the prohibition of sexual discrimination, defamation, libel and incitement as well as laws protecting animals, etc. and if the 'religion industry' was treated like the 'tobacco industry,' only then would we approach a principled position on religion and the legal scope of its expression in society.
Porsesh: Perhaps the difference is that de-religionisation can be interpreted or taken to mean the suppression of the followers of a given religion. How can one draw a line between this active anti-religious position with the violation of freedom of thought and expression?
Mansoor Hekmat: As I have mentioned, I am referring to organised religion and 'religion industries' and not religious beliefs. Anyone can have any beliefs, express them, publicise them and organise around them. The question is what regulations society puts in place to protect itself. Today society tries to protect children from the tobacco industry’s advertising. The religion industry’s advertising could be treated in exactly the same way. Smokers have all their rights and can establish any association and institution to advertise the benefits of tobacco and unite all smokers, but this does not mean giving a green light to the tobacco industry. The machinery of Islam and the other main religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) are not voluntary societies of believers of specific ideas; they are enormous political and financial institutions, which have never been properly scrutinised, have not been subject to secular laws in society and have never accepted responsibility for their conduct. No one took Mr. Khomeini to court for issuing a death fatwa against Salman Rushdie; notwithstanding that inciting to murder is a crime in all countries of the world. And this is only a small corner of a network of murder, mutilation, intimidation, abduction, torture, and child abuse. I think that the Medellin drug cartels (Escobars), the Chinese triads, and Italian (and American) mafia are nothing in comparison to organised religion. I am speaking of a legitimate and organised struggle by a free and open society against these enterprises and institutions. At the same time, I regard believing in anything, even the most backward and inhuman doctrines, as the undeniable right of any individual.
Porsesh: How much basis does the secularism and de-religionisation you are referring to have in Islam-influenced countries in the Middle East? To what extent can secularism be founded in these societies? Ervand Abrahamian talks about the possibility of remaining Islamic while also being secular. What movements are the sources of secularism in these societies and what are their chances of victory?
Mansoor Hekmat: I think the Left's intellectual fatigue and the blows which radical and critical thought and social idealism took from the mid-70s onward, have also afflicted many Left and well-wishing intellectuals with a regrettable tactical, stage-ist, gradualist and evolutionist view of the struggle for basic human ideals. A hundred years ago, the avant-garde humanity would have laughed at the proposition that human liberation could be achieved through priests, moderation of religion and the emergence of new interpretations from within the church. Today, sadly, ‘professional scholars’ and academics can prescribe that the Iranian woman can for now take secularism to mean the addition of a lighter shade of black to the officially approved colours for the veil. In my opinion, this overlooks the dynamics of revolution and change in society. Up to now, the world has advanced through upheavals - spectacular and swift transformations in thought, technique and social relations.
In my opinion, what is utopian and impossible is moderation of Islam and a gradual transformation of Islamic regimes to secular governments. And what is real and probable, and in the case of Iran, now inevitable, is the realisation of secularism through a mass anti-religious uprising, against existing governments and all the different interpretations and readings of Islam.
Porsesh: What social force or movements could herald secularism in the Middle East?
Mansoor Hekmat: This should normally be the historical mission of newly emerged capitalism in these countries and bourgeois movements in the 20th century - the task of liberalism, nationalism, modernism and westernisation. For a period, it was assumed that this process was proceeding, albeit slowly, half-heartedly and partially. These movements, however, ran out of breath in the mid-70s, the Westernisation project failed and the political crisis heightened. Earlier, independence movements in the Middle East had not established pro-West governments in the majority of cases. The fall of royal dynasties led to the appearance or emergence of military governments, which fell primarily under Soviet influence within the context of East-West confrontation. Capitalism and industry in the Middle East have generally spread through oppressive nationalist governments. Bourgeois civil society never formed. In the Middle East, bourgeois liberalism and modernism were not significant movements. Dominant nationalism, whether pro-West or pro-Soviet, has generally remained in a political coalition with Islam.
At any rate, secularism as an intellectual, political and administrative product of capitalist development did not appear in the Middle East. In my opinion, the region's bourgeoisie lacks any secularist agenda and is incapable of taking this type of position. Hence, the establishment of a secular system is the task of the Socialist and workers’ movements. And in my opinion, the victory of the Left in the region, at least immediately in Iran, will make this an actual and realistic possibility. People want a secular system, and in the absence of a secularist camp on the Right, people will gather around the banner of the Communist Left which is ready for a fundamental struggle against religious rule.
Porsesh: To what extent is it possible to introduce secularism in these countries?
Mansoor Hekmat: In today’s world, with such a high degree of communication between its various parts, upholding an Islamic superstructure in such a vast region is impossible. It is not possible to stop the emergence of secularism in the Middle East. In my opinion, secularism is not only realisable, but also after the experiences of Iran, Afghanistan and Algeria, a need and demand of the people of the region. The problem is still fundamentally the Palestinian question. Just as this confrontation strengthens the reactionary religious factions in Israel itself and gives them much more power- disproportionate to their actual minor weight in people’s culture and beliefs, it also adds to the lifespan of political Islam and Islamic identity in the opposing camp. The sooner an independent Palestinian state is formed, the quicker Islam and Islamism will be eradicated in the region.
The above is the second part of a translated summary from Persian. It was first published in Porsesh, A Quarterly Journal of Politics, Society and Culture, Number 3, Winter 2001. Others participating in the round table were: Olivier Roy, Graham Fuller, Ervand Abrahamian and Ian Lesser. See WPI Briefing number 26 at http://www.wpibriefing.com for part one.