Islamic Fundamentalism : Fascism or National Liberation?

Taimur Rahman

While “The War on Terror”, the surrogate euphemism for imperial conquest and re-colonization, was almost unanimously condemned, especially by those who live in Muslim countries or were on the left of the political spectrum, it simultaneously forced upon everyone the need to theoretically engage with religious fundamentalism, resulting sometimes in a fresh demarcation of ideological positions.

Fundamentalism has been likened with fascism, especially by scholars in the West. The inevitable conclusion from this analysis is that all democratic and socialist forces need to unite behind the ‘democratic West’, much like the broad unity achieved during the struggle against European fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. However, there are obvious contradictions in this analogy. While both fascism and fundamentalism espouse extremely reactionary forms of capitalism, the former was an outgrowth of the development of economically advanced capitalism dominated by financial monopolies in states that were pursuing a redivision of the old colonial empires, and the latter is the product of extremely backward pre-capitalist areas of the world that have historically been colonized by the West. Therefore, Islamic fundamentalism bears more in common with tribal, feudal, or petty bourgeois culture and represents an attempt to roll back the wheel of history to a ‘golden age’ that economic
modernization has destroyed in its wake.

Although Islamic political groups are really composed of two different types of movements with a vastly different social base of support, they often get bunched into the universal category of “fundamentalists”. In Pakistan, for example, the MMA is composed either of Islamic traditionalists (the Deobandi JUI, or the Barelvi JUP) or of Islamic fundamentalists (Jamaat-e-Islami). The traditionalists have their base of support in the most economically backward tribal areas of Pakistan, whereas the fundamentalists derive their support from the middle class in the cities. Thus as a whole they derive their base of support from pre-capitalist production tribal areas or extremely small retail and trade businesses in third world countries.

In sum, the analogy with fascism is inaccurate for the simple reason that these forces are neither representatives of an advanced capitalist country seeking a redivision of the (neo)colonial empire of the world, nor are they the product of the financial monopolies and cartels that gave rise to European fascism.

On the flip side, other writers have attempted to draw parallels between the Islamic fundamentalist movement and the national liberation struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Here again certain very obvious contradictions stand in the way of this simplistic analysis. The class base of the national liberation movement was in the revolutionary section of the national bourgeoisie. The national liberation movement, therefore, was generally opposed not merely to imperialism and its associated big capitalist class within the neo-colonial countries, but also to feudalism and tribalism. On this basis the national liberation movement had a relatively progressive stance towards the question of the emancipation of women.

On the contrary, the Islamic fundamentalists have a history of opposition to this very national liberation movement. In fact, the history of several Muslim countries demonstrates that the Islamic fundamentalists were not only opposed to the national liberation movements in the third world on account of the latter’s socially progressive views, but also on the question of land reforms (for evidence see the opposition of the religious right to the land reforms introduced by the Pakistan People’s Party).

If Islamic fundamentalism is neither analogous to European fascism nor to third world national liberation movements, what then is the substance of its political programme? The essence of the Islamic fundamentalists’ political programme is so obvious as to sometimes escape our attention; it is the reinstatement of a theocratic state. Alliance or opposition to any power (socialist or capitalist, Western or Eastern) is based on the singular imperative of reintroducing “Islam” as the state religion. In that sense fundamentalism is not “anti-imperialist” in the same sense as the national-liberation movement, whose principle objective was to become economically independent of imperial rule; it is more accurately described as “Anti-Western”. Foreign investments, finance capital, multinational companies and so on are quite acceptable as long as they do not bring with them the “morally bankrupt culture of the West”, the epitome of the latter term captured by the image of jeans-clad women walking around unaccompanied or unsupervised by men. In that sense then, fundamentalism militates not against economic inequality but against political equality that accompanies the separation of religion from affairs of the state.

If it can be said that the indispensable gains of the European Enlightenment were the liberation of science, politics, and art from the ideological fetters and dogmas of the Church, the Islamic fundamentalist movement represents an “anti-enlightenment movement”. It is the Muslim equivalent of the medieval reaction of the Church against “modernity”, with the exception that this entire battle is being fought three four hundred years too late and in the context of an extremely technologically advanced world, and further in the context of a world dominated by Western capitalism on the march for new colonial conquests. It is self-explanatory that without enlightenment the third world cannot possibly hope to build a scientific consciousness and develop economically in order to liberate itself from neo-colonialism.

The tactics of the fundamentalists are as primitive as their ideological apparatus. They seek the Islamic unity of the Muslim world by provoking a confrontation with the West. In their view, suicide attacks, whether of school children in a bus in Tel Aviv or of the symbols of US capitalist and military strength, bringing about a disproportionate response, will fill the Muslims of the world with religious fervour bringing about, inevitably, the final collapse of Western civilization and a new golden era of Islamic prosperity. However, the critical error in this scenario is the fact that although the disproportionate response from the West has brought about a religious reawakening in the Muslim world, Islamic fundamentalism, even if it were able to overcome its tendency towards sectarian clashes, lacks a concrete or tangible programme of internal social change. In fact, internally the movement seeks to ally itself to the very forces that are abhorred and despised by the teeming rural and urban poor of the third world. That is why, although fundamentalism may score temporary or regional victories, its historical trajectory fails to address the most pressing problem of common people: freedom from want. In the long view of history, the only political force that can successfully capture the popular imagination of the people is one that attempts to solve the most basic problems of people, the beginnings of which lie in an agrarian revolution that has the strength to uproot the foundations of feudalism.


Taimur Rahman is a member of the Communist Workers Peasant Party of Pakistan

June 2006

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