Return to bulletin menu

Socialist Education: What is Islamism?

If  your view of the world is formed by mainstream media you would likely have the impression that society is under assault from Islamism and that there is some great ensuing struggle (the “War on Terror” or the “Clash of Civilisations”) between its tyrannical world-view  and the democratic values embodied  by what is referred to as "the West".  In many ways this narrative parallels that of the earlier Cold War period which had "the West" in   confrontation with communism in the form of the Soviet Union.  However, these narratives - constructed to justify the policies of US led imperialism (what is really represented by the term “the West”) - are far from the reality.  

For a start there is no Clash of Civilisations - there is only one “civilisation” in which the various political forces operate and that is international capitalism.  Islamism does not present a non-capitalist alternative.   Neither has it got anything to do with religion.  While Islamism may adapt certain elements of the Islamic faith, and at its most basic ideological level seeks to mobilise people on the basis of religious identity and to make aspects of society conform to a certain version of Islam, it is essentially a political movement with a political ideology.   Critiquing Islamism as a religious phenomenon is totally futile and only plays to the worst racist stereotypes of Muslims.  Neither is Islamism a monolithic bloc - it has a diverse range of factions and strands, many of which are in opposition to one another.    Finally, the proposition that there is a   conflict between Islamism and imperialism is overstated.  Certainly, there is a current conflict with some elements within Islamism, such as the various Jihadist groups or the Islamic Republic of Iran, but for the most part imperialism and Islamism have been and continue to be allies. 

The origins of Islamism      

The close association of Islamism with imperialism is clear from its history.  It’s no coincidence that the first Islamist parties came into existence in the 1920s & 30’s in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the assertion of power by Britain and France over predominantly Muslim populations of the Middle East.   Those imperialist powers consciously cultivated movements and leaderships from conservative elements in society, such as feudal chiefs and religious clerics, who would help consolidate their rule.  An aspect of this was the old divide and role tactics under which religious or ethnic identity was manipulated in order to weaken colonised peoples.  While these early movements could be more correctly described as sectarian they did lay the foundation for the stronger and more ideological Islamist movements that would emerge later. 

The failure of secular nationalism

In the period of decolonisation after the WW2 period the dominant political movement in the developing world, including those countries with overwhelmingly Muslim populations, was secular nationalism.   Generally these movements had a programme of state led economic development which sought to reduce their countries dependence on imperialism.   While not socialist many of them employed left rhetoric and also looked to the Soviet Union as a model for development and as a potential ally.  In the Mid East this political strand was pioneered by the Nasser coup in Egypt and its prestige was boosted by the defeat of the old colonial powers when they attempted to seize the Suez Canal.  In the 1960’s nationalist movements came to power in a string of countries across the Mid East and North Africa.  

Islamist revival 

However, this ascendancy did not last.  The Arab nationalist states, which had championed the cause of the Palestinians, were dealt a severe blow by their defeat by Israel in the 1967 war.  The prestige of nationalism was also damaged by the onset of the capitalist crisis in the 1970’s which saw the abandonment of many state led projects.   These setbacks for secularism created the conditions for the revival of Islamist movements.  They were in an advantageous position as they had the resources in the form of charitable organisations to move into areas of society, such as healthcare and education, from which the state had withdrawn.  This gave them a base from which they could expand their influence. 

Afghan War 

The Islamist revival was also aided by the strategic decision of US imperialism in the late 1970’s to actively promote  Islamist movements as a means to weaken the Soviet Union and its allies.   This had its fullest expression in the arming and financing of the Mujahideen fighters who were opposing the pro-Soviet government in    Afghanistan.   Importantly, tens of thousands of men from across the Muslim world were recruited to participate in this so called Holy War.  It is out of this foreign element of the Mujahideen that Al-Qaeda and many of the current Jihadist groups emerged.  So to some extent the War on Terror has its roots in the Cold War. 

Iranian revolution

Another major boost for Islamism came in the late 1970’s with the revolution which brought the Ayatollahs to power in Iran.   This came on the back of a mass movement which overthrew a US backed dictatorship.  But though it is described as an Islamic revolution, it was not inevitable that the Islamists would win out.  It actually started out as a broad movement which contained various left currents and had a large working class component.


What the Iranian revolution exposes is the role the political left, particularity the Stalinist left, played in    aiding the rise of Islamism.   In rejecting the need for   independent working class politics the Iranian left effectively handed the leadership of a popular uprising to the most conservative elements.   This rejection of independent politics was also a key factor in the Arab states with their Communist parties being indistinguishable from the nationalist regimes.  In this context the Islamists, rather than the left, were the political force that were seen as the alternative.  


The current conflict between imperialism and elements of Islamism arises out of the continued imperialist domination of the Muslim world, and in particular the Middle East.  A new round of aggression was heralded with the first Gulf War in 1990 and has continued ever since - most notably with the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the numerous onslaughts by Israel against the Palestinians.   This is the context in which Islamist elements, including those such as Al Qaeda that were previously allies, have come into conflict with imperialism.    

In many ways imperialism and Islamism feed off one  another.  However it would be wrong to equate the two.  Islamism is in no way a challenger or rival to imperialism.  In terms of political, military and economic power there is no comparison. 


It is the abuses of imperialists that have fuelled the rise of the Islamist groups that they are now in conflict with, but it doesn't follow that there is anything progressive in the politics and methods of such groups.  ISIL, in conflict with the West, argues that its task is to attack other Muslims and cleanse Muslim society.  ISIL opposes democracy and burnt Palestinian flags to show their     contempt for the people of Gaza during the recent Israeli offensive.   Their view that people in Western Europe and North America area are a monolithic block that is oppressing Muslims is completely wrong as are the atrocities, such as 9/11, the London bombings and the most recent attacks in France, that this is used to justify.   The outcome of such actions is always reactionary - providing a cover to states for further repression at home and aggression abroad. 

Islamism has also shown its reactionary character in states where it has come to power.  Its programme, irrespective of the party, is always anti-democratic, anti-labour and anti-women.  There is nothing in it that socialists can   support. 


Socialists must always promote the political independence of the working class, whether that be in Muslim countries or in the imperialist centres.   Most importantly they must never concede anything to pro-imperialist arguments - presented in the liberal guise of defending liberty or   democratic values - that often come in the wake of    atrocities such as the recent massacre of journalists and Jewish shoppers in France.   It is only through demonstrating its independence that socialism can present itself as a credible alternative. 

In the Middle East we should not concede for a moment that imperialism can bring peace and democracy to the region. They gave birth to and support the majority of the reactionary movements and  regimes in the area. It is not so long ago that there were large socialist movements and they can be rebuilt. Even in the absence of sizeable socialist forces there are regular mass mobilisations against the regimes that demonstrate the burning oppression that the Arab masses feel at the continuing oppression and at the rivers of blood being spilt by the imperialist powers.  

In Europe we must say “je ne je ne suis pas Charlie.” The slogans around “freedom of expression” are being used by the capitalist powers to launch further state repression at home and new foreign adventures abroad. The socialists must urge the defence of Muslim workers and working class unity against imperialism and the capitalist state.


Return to top of page