Workers Vanguard No. 1029
6 September 2013
Egypt: For Womens Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The Rise of Religious Reaction
(Women and Revolution pages)
This article concludes below. Parts One and Two appeared in WV Nos. 1027 and 1028 (12 July and 9 August).
Since deposing President Mohamed Morsi in a coup on July 3, the Egyptian military has massacred adherents of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, most graphically in clearing two protest encampments in mid August, and imprisoned much of its leadership. In the name of fighting the Islamists, the crackdown has been extended to striking workers, journalists and liberal activists. The struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood—both reactionary forces—has set off a new wave of violence against the oppressed Coptic Christian minority. Historically, Egypt’s military-backed strongmen have alternately repressed the Brotherhood and unleashed it against leftists and workers struggles.
The ascendancy of political Islam as a mass movement of religious fundamentalism based on the lower middle classes and the poor has been a reactionary response to the manifest dead end of bourgeois nationalism in the semicolonial countries of the Muslim world in the absence of a communist alternative. Though looking to the 7th century for inspiration, political Islam emerged out of the oppressive conditions of the 20th century.
With their social expectations born in the struggle for national emancipation shattered, the dispossessed masses —desperate, ragged, illiterate, unemployed or forced to labor for a pittance—find solace in religion and comfort in the false hope of happiness in the hereafter. Noting that “Man makes religion, religion does not make man,” Karl Marx wrote:
“Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.... To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.”
—“Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law: Introduction” (1843-44)
It is not only the solace of superstition that the Islamists offer to attract the downtrodden but also some very material social services. With funding from Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich sheikdoms, Egyptian fundamentalists established wide networks, centered around the country’s more than 170,000 mosques, for providing services the state does not deliver. In her book, A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam (1999), journalist Mary Anne Weaver described how the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists had built their own welfare system in the impoverished Imbaba district of Cairo. For example, mosques under the control of al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, the hardline Islamic Group, provided meat at wholesale prices and set up discount clinics, schools and day-care centers as well as furniture factories where the unemployed got work. Weaver observed:
“Despite an aggressive $10 million social program launched by the government at the end of 1994, the Islamists’ institutions remained generally far more efficient and far superior to run-down government facilities. Along with the collapse of every secular ideology embraced by Egyptian politicians and intellectuals during this century, it was government repression and ineptitude, far more than militants’ guns and bombs, that was fueling the Islamic flame.”
Muslim Brotherhood: Enemy of Workers, Women
Founded in 1928, Egypt’s Society of Muslim Brothers was the prototype for subsequent Islamic movements in other countries. The writings of its early leaders Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb have been translated into all the languages of the Muslim world and remain the prime sources for those who aspire to overthrow “impious” society and build an Islamic state on its ruins.
Indonesian Islamist leader Amien Rais paid tribute to the Muslim Brotherhood by writing his doctoral thesis on the movement. Egyptian Islamist teachers brought in by the Algerian government in the 1970s as part of an “Arabization” scheme were instrumental in building a base for the Islamic Salvation Front, which went on to wage a bloody but unsuccessful civil war against the nationalist military regime in the 1990s. Muslim Brotherhood leaders fleeing repression in Egypt contributed to the growth of the fundamentalist movement in Jordan, while the Palestinian Hamas originated as a branch of the Brotherhood. Sudanese and Syrian youth studying in Egypt carried home the seeds of the Brotherhood, establishing regional branches in the 1930s and ’40s.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the period following the bourgeois-nationalist Wafd party’s failure to achieve independence through the 1919 uprising against British rule. Its establishment was a reactionary response to the abolition of the caliphate, the 1,300-year-old system of Islamic rule, by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the nationalist founder of modern Turkey, in 1923. The Brotherhood’s purpose, expressed in the slogan “the Koran is our constitution,” was to establish an Islamic state modeled on the caliphate of the 7th century. The organization began to grow explosively during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the educated sons of the petty bourgeoisie could no longer count on secure government jobs after graduation. Disenfranchised urban youth gravitated toward radical organizations—many to the Muslim Brothers on the right, others to the fledgling Communists. Soon the Brotherhood swelled into a mass movement of hundreds of thousands.
During the upsurge in class and social struggle in 1945-46, the monarchy used the Muslim Brotherhood as shock troops against striking workers, Communists and the left-nationalist Wafdist Vanguard. The Brotherhood established a base of support among factory owners, foremen and backward workers, fingering strike leaders for state repression and attempting to undermine or destroy militant unions. The Communist-led Congress of Private-Sector Trade Unions issued a statement denouncing the Brotherhood for “fascist methods using their sticks” against leftist students and workers at the combative Shubra al-Khayma textile mill and “for [religious] sectarianism aimed at splitting the ranks of the people for the benefit of imperialism.” The statement concluded with a sharp warning to “worker colleagues against joining any committee formed by the Muslim Brothers” (quoted in Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954 ).
But the Brotherhood’s growing strength soon alarmed the monarchy itself. After a series of assassinations of government officials and other violence attributed to the Brotherhood, the organization was banned in 1948. Secret service agents assassinated al-Banna the following year.
Colonel Nasser, supported by Islamists and Stalinists alike, pragmatically embraced the Brothers in an effort to win their mass base and to use them against the Stalinists. Six weeks after the 1952 military coup that brought his Free Officers Movement to power, the Nasser regime executed two strike leaders. The Brotherhood hailed the act, calling on the government to “strike these Communists…with an iron hand so that they are driven to their dens” (quoted in Workers on the Nile).
The honeymoon ended in 1954 when a Brotherhood member allegedly attempted to assassinate Nasser. By that time, the Islamists had served their purpose in helping to suppress the Communists, and the regime had built a wider base of support, including through limited land reforms. Six Brotherhood leaders were executed and thousands of its members jailed. The crackdown culminated in the 1966 execution of Sayyid Qutb.
Sadat Rearms Islamists
Nasser, who died in 1970, was replaced by his protégé and vice president, Anwar Sadat, a former adherent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sadat would go on to cancel Egypt’s “friendship” treaty with the Soviet Union and order the withdrawal of Soviet military advisers, paving the way for closer ties with the United States. He launched his policy of infitah—economic liberalization based on an open door to imperialist investment—whereby key industries were denationalized and Nasser’s land reform was scrapped. Sadat’s policies drew increasing opposition from Nasserites as well as Communists and other leftist elements.
To deflect growing anger over the country’s perpetual economic crisis, Sadat fostered mysticism and superstition. He made several pilgrimages to Mecca and acquired the title of “pious president.” He affirmed Nasser’s declaration that Islam was the state religion and decreed that sharia was the prime source of state law. Thousands of mosques were built and prayer rooms were added to office buildings. Day and night on television screens, robed, turbaned and bearded sheiks expounded the virtues and morals of Islamic society. Pedestrians were bombarded with taped Friday sermons blaring from newsstands, food carts and passing taxicabs. The 1973 military offensive that inflicted a black eye on Israel was launched by Sadat in the month of Ramadan and code-named “Badr” after the Prophet’s first victorious battle in 624. And the battle cry was “God is great.”
Initiating in 1971 what he called the “Rectification Movement,” Sadat arrested Nasser’s chief lieutenants and suppressed a student revolt the next year. He released imprisoned Islamists and enabled them to gain control of the Egyptian Student Union, the prime objective of which, according to a 1976 presidential decree, was now “to deepen religious values among the students” (Gilles Kepel, Muslim Extremism in Egypt ). By 1977, the Islamists held sway over student unions on a national scale. Using the considerable funds and facilities now at their disposal, they organized “Islamic summer camps” where thousands of students received religious and paramilitary training with the patronage of the rector of the state-financed Al Azhar, the world’s leading Islamic institution, and other regime officials.
The fundamentalists wielded such power that university campuses were turned into “terra Islamica.” Iron bars in hand, thugs attacked couples and unveiled women. They banned movies, concerts and evening dances. Rampaging through the city’s nightclubs, they smashed windows and beat belly dancers. The fundamentalists subsidized Islamic dress for women and offered segregated buses for those who wore the veil. Emboldened by Sadat’s imprisonment of Coptic Christian religious leaders, Islamists planted bombs at churches in Cairo. Prayer rallies staged on religious holidays drew hundreds of thousands; in Cairo, the rallies were held in the square facing Abdin Palace, the presidential residence. It was perhaps out of gratitude that Islamist Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi laid a wreath at Sadat’s tomb last October, an honor that Sadat had never before received in the three decades since his death.
The Islamists’ agenda went well beyond the role designated for them by Sadat’s regime. Kepel wrote:
“The infrastructure they were establishing, and the cadres they were training in the summer camps and Islamic study weeks, were well prepared for the possibility of taking on tasks other than smashing the Nasserist and Communist left for the benefit of the ruling group. As far as they were concerned, although Nasserism had been an especially execrable period of jahiliyya [ignorance], fundamentally the Sadat era was scarcely any better. Its internal contradictions, however, had enabled the [Islamic] jama’at to grow in the regime’s shadow.”
Sadat’s trip to Israel in 1977 marked the beginning of the rift with the Islamic fundamentalists, sealed by his signing of the 1979 accords that made Egypt the first Arab state to recognize Israel. Sadat trumpeted the return of Sinai to Egypt, but his embrace of the “Jewish state” was the ultimate sacrilege in the eyes of the Islamists. In 1981, he was assassinated by army officers and soldiers from al-Jihad, one of the Islamist groups that had sprouted in the fertile ground Sadat had nurtured.
Repressed by Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak, Islamic fundamentalists carried out a terror campaign targeting tourists, Copts and secular intellectuals in the 1990s. Faraj Fawdah, a radical liberal intellectual and lifelong crusader against religious zealotry and obscurantism, was assassinated in 1992. In 1994, an attempt was made on the life of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, a novelist who wrote compassionately about homosexuals and prostitutes and of the lives of women in general. Three years later, 58 tourists were massacred in Luxor.
Iran 1979: Ascent of Islamic Reaction
Sadat was not the only Near Eastern leader to foster Islamic reaction. In the early 1980s, Turkey’s military rulers, self-proclaimed guardians of secularism, spurred the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in their effort to suppress leftists and trade unionists. Religious instruction was made compulsory at all pre-university levels, and religious schools for imams were set up. These schools became seedbeds for Islamic ideology and provided leaders for the Islamist movement, including those who would go on to found current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The Zionist rulers of Israel consciously encouraged the growth of Hamas as a counter to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), with General Yitzhak Segev, former military governor of Gaza, admitting: “We extend some financial aid to Islamic groups via mosques and religious schools in order to help create a force that would stand against the leftist forces which support the PLO” (quoted in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, eds., Political Islam ).
“To some extent fundamentalism was of our own making, and was at one time encouraged in order to combat the threat of communism,” Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, then the bonapartist ruler of Tunisia, told the London Financial Times in a 1994 interview. “Such groups were fostered in the universities and elsewhere at that time in order to offset the communists and to strike a balance” (quoted in Political Islam). Decades earlier, the U.S. imperialists had embraced Islamists and other religious reactionaries in the Cold War against “godless communism.”
It was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power in Iran in early 1979 that gave a huge impetus to the growth of Islamic reaction in the Near East. This was not inevitable. The Stalinist Tudeh party had the allegiance of the mass of the working class. Militant struggles by the Iranian proletariat, especially the strategic oil workers, played a pivotal role in the ouster of the hated, U.S.-backed Shah, posing the possibility of a fight for workers power. Yet in the name of “anti-imperialism,” Tudeh and other Iranian left groups threw their support to the mullah-dominated opposition led by Khomeini, as did the bulk of ostensibly socialist organizations internationally. Khomeini swept into power, and the result was a massive bloodbath against unveiled women, leftists, trade unionists and Kurds, among others.
As we note in the International Communist League’s Declaration of Principles (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 54, Spring 1998):
“The 1979 ‘Iranian Revolution’ opened up a period of ascendant political Islam in the historically Muslim world, a development which contributed to and was powerfully reinforced by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union. Khomeini’s seizure and consolidation of power in Iran was a defeat akin to Hitler’s crushing of the German proletariat in 1933, albeit on a narrower, regional scale. The international Spartacist tendency’s slogan ‘Down with the Shah! No support to the mullahs!’ and our focus on the woman question (‘No to the veil!’) stood in sharp opposition to the rest of the left’s capitulation to mullah-led reaction.”
Religious fanaticism, which is especially oppressive to women, is not a uniquely Islamic phenomenon. Among Protestant televangelists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, Catholic Opus Dei adherents and Hindutva fundamentalists, there is no lack of zealots who believe they have a god-given mission to impose the dictates of their particular “holy scriptures” and to exterminate the faithless; pogroms by Buddhist mobs against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar (Burma) are a recent example. The outlook of Islamists who see unveiled women and leftists as infidels deserving the wrath of god is not fundamentally different from that of Christian bigots who terrorize abortion providers in the U.S. or of fascistic Zionists who spray Palestinians with bullets in the middle of their dawn prayers.
What makes Islamic fundamentalism stand out is the particular historical development of the region where it flourishes. In West Europe, sections of Christianity and Judaism, which like Islam and other religions have their roots in pre-capitalist society, were driven to adapt to rising capitalism and its material advances over backward, feudal society. Islam did not have to adapt in the same way. Until the 16th century, the Muslim societies of North Africa and the Near East were qualitatively more advanced than Catholic Europe. But centuries of stagnation and decay under Ottoman rule sealed the Islamic world from the Renaissance, Enlightenment rationalism and the Industrial Revolution. As Ottoman power waned, colonial occupation fettered capitalist development and reinforced social backwardness as a prop to its domination. Analogous in some key ways to pre-Reformation Christianity, Islam asserts control over all aspects of individuals’ lives in societies where religion and state have never been separated.
Afghanistan: Imperialists Foment Religious Reaction
During the period of the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, the nascent capitalist classes wielded science against religious obscurantism in their struggle to destroy the feudal barriers to capitalist development. But in its imperialist epoch of decline and decay, capitalism has increasingly fostered retrograde beliefs. In their drive to destroy the Soviet Union and stem the tide of Communism everywhere, the imperialists have allied themselves with all manner of religious obscurantists—from the Dalai Lama to the Indonesian Islamic Masyumi and the Afghan mujahedin. John Foster Dulles, who would serve as U.S. Secretary of State at the height of the Cold War, declared in 1950: “The religions of the East are deeply rooted and have many precious values. Their spiritual beliefs cannot be reconciled with Communist atheism and materialism. That creates a common bond between us, and our task is to find it and develop it” (quoted in Paul Baran, The Political Economy of Growth ).
Immediately after World War II, the U.S. recruited Soviet Muslims, including many who had fought alongside the Nazis, for its covert operations against the USSR. Some were used by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to air anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1953, President Eisenhower invited three dozen Islamist leaders, including from the Muslim Brotherhood, to the White House to enlist them in Washington’s anti-Communist crusade. Dulles’ common bond was called into service in 1965-66 when the CIA backed the slaughter of over a million Indonesian leftists, workers and others at the hands of the army and Islamists. It was further cemented in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Upon taking power in Afghanistan in 1978, the modernizing, pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party (PDPA) government embarked on a program of reforms: canceling peasant debts, carrying out land redistribution, prohibiting forced marriages and lowering the bride price to a nominal sum. The PDPA’s measures, particularly those aimed at freeing women from feudal tyranny, threatened the mullahs’ stranglehold on social and economic life and provoked an immediate, murderous backlash.
Most explosively, the PDPA made schooling compulsory for girls and launched literacy programs for women, building 600 schools in just over a year. The tribal insurgents denounced schooling for women as the first step in a “life of shame,” and the earliest bloody confrontations were over women’s literacy, as PDPA cadres and women literacy workers were driven from villages and killed. A decree allowing women to divorce was not officially announced because of the revolt. Even the New York Times (9 February 1980) acknowledged, “It was the Kabul revolutionary government’s granting of new rights to women that pushed Orthodox Moslem men in the Pashtoon villages of eastern Afghanistan into picking up their guns.”
After repeated urgent appeals from the PDPA regime, in December 1979 the Soviet government sent troops to Afghanistan to prevent a victory by the mujahedin on the USSR’s southern flank. This was a necessary act of military defense against imperialist counterrevolution. The conservative Kremlin bureaucracy certainly did not send 100,000 troops to effect a social revolution. However, an extended Soviet military presence opened the possibility of liberation for the peoples of that benighted land, especially women. We Trotskyists declared: “Hail Red Army!” and called to extend the social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples.
Having helped provoke a Soviet military intervention, the imperialists seized on it as a pretext for a renewed Cold War offensive, using the woman-hating mujahedin cutthroats in a proxy war to kill Soviet soldiers. To this end, the CIA launched the biggest covert operation in its history, to the tune of many billions of dollars. Working through the Saudi monarchy and the Pakistani secret service, the imperialists coordinated the recruitment, arming and training of tens of thousands of “Arab Afghans” from around the world. The Egyptian Brotherhood was a linchpin in this “holy war.” Freed from prison by Hosni Mubarak and sent to Afghanistan, its members formed a major mujahedin contingent. Important figures within the leadership regularly visited Afghanistan. The Brotherhood-controlled Egyptian Medical Syndicate organized and funded 95 percent of the doctors working for the Islamist forces.
By the mid 1980s, the Red Army clearly had the mujahedin on the run. But the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy pulled the troops out in 1988-89 in its further pursuit of the chimera of “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. We denounced this criminal betrayal not only of Afghan women and leftists but of the Soviet degenerated workers state, warning that it was better to fight the imperialists in Afghanistan than to have to fight them in the Soviet Union itself.
The pullout from Afghanistan paved the way for capitalist counterrevolution in East Europe and the USSR, a world-historic defeat for the proletariat internationally as well as for women, ethnic and national minorities and all the exploited and oppressed. The post-Soviet years have been marked by drastic declines in the living standards of working people and the poor, a tightened imperialist stranglehold on semicolonial peoples, intensified repression against immigrants and a sharp rise in racist and religious reaction. No longer constrained by the counterweight of the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism has proclaimed a “one-superpower world” in which it is free to throw around its military might.
Afghanistan became once again a living hell for women. And the “Arab Afghans” spawned and nurtured by U.S. imperialism went on to foment reactionary movements elsewhere, tapping into deep popular resentment against brutal nationalist regimes and imperialist-dictated austerity. When this Frankenstein’s monster turned on its creator in September 2001, the U.S. cynically declared its “war on terror.” In turn, every new imperialist military attack in the Muslim world has driven fresh forces into the ranks of the Islamic fundamentalists.
Meanwhile, the “war on terror” has not ended the collaboration between Islamic fundamentalists and the imperialists. When in power, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, like their Turkish counterparts in the AKP, operated within the framework of the imperialists’ hold on the region. As Perry Anderson observed at the time of Mubarak’s downfall:
“Earlier, the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood or its regional affiliates entering government would have caused acute alarm in Washington. But the West now possesses a reassuring blueprint in Turkey for replication in the Arab lands, offering the best of all political worlds. The AKP has shown how loyal to NATO and to neo-liberalism, and how capable of the right doses of intimidation and repression, a pious yet liberal democracy, swinging the truncheon and the Koran, can be.”
—New Left Review, March-April 2011
A Proletarian Revolutionary Perspective
The march of social reaction and imperialist aggrandizement across much of the globe in the years since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union demonstrates the enormity of that defeat. Accommodating to the bourgeoisie’s false triumphalist declaration of the “death of communism,” ostensibly socialist organizations the world over—most of which cheered the collapse of the Soviet Union—have washed away any taint of association with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and its Bolshevik leadership.
We in the ICL have not. The Bolshevik Revolution remains the high point of contemporary history and the guide for successful struggle against exploitation and oppression, with crucial lessons for fighters in Egypt and elsewhere in the Near East who seek an alternative to military bonapartism and Islamic reaction. It will take the revolutionary victory of the proletariat to break the fetters of imperialism and feudal-derived reaction—a perspective that must be linked to the fight for workers power in the imperialist centers.
The combative Egyptian proletariat must come to the fore at the head of all the oppressed, including religious and ethnic minorities as well as women, and fight for its own rule—a workers and peasants government. From Egypt’s textile factories and Turkey’s auto plants to Iran’s oil fields, and in the Israeli Zionist garrison state as well, proletarian concentrations in the region point to the potential to sweep away all of its reactionary regimes and forge a socialist federation of the Near East. To carry out this task, the proletariat must be broken from bourgeois nationalism and all forms of religious backwardness. And that requires revolutionary leadership.
This may seem a distant perspective at present. But there will be no end to the exploitation of working people and no emancipation of women short of proletarian revolution. The very workings of the capitalist profit system, which in the economic crisis of the last five years have ravaged the lives and livelihoods of workers around the world, sow the seeds of sharp class and social struggle. It is through intervening into such struggles, fighting for the political independence of the proletariat from all bourgeois forces, that we seek to forge workers parties of the Bolshevik type as sections of a reforged Trotskyist Fourth International.