Aziz Al-Azmeh in conversation: Part II

Political Islamisms the labour movement and women

Ardeshir Mehrdad: Can we turn to political Islam as social movements which, in some Muslim countries, mobilises sections of the working class as a key element of the class structure of their social base. How do you analyse the effects of this factor on the main characteristics of these movements? Do you think that it may have significant impact on the ideology, social claims, organisational structure, the developmental process, and more importantly, the potential of these movements for challenging the dominant socio-political processes and structures and becoming anti-systemic social forces?


Aziz Al-Azmeh: Two matters are relevant here. The first in regard to the connection between Islamist political organisation and organised working class movements. The second relates to these movements themselves in the present international economic climate.

In the experience of the Arab world, at least, it is clear that the Islamist groups have no inroads - and possibly not very much interest in union activity, not least because of residual anti-communism, which was always articulated as hostility to the conception of class struggle: Islam, according to them, cannot countenance class struggle, and is usually expressed (with characteristic squaring of the circle) as a religion of socio-economic justice, based on almsgiving, and laissez-faire economics, inimical to organised labour.

Islam, in this understanding, is above conflict, and is indeed the spirit of the people rather than a political party, and is inimical to political parties in principle. Therefore, in countries where they have important weight, like Egypt, they organise not on the basis of labour union networks, but locally, in depressed areas, through philanthropic tentacles, where they provide sorely needed medical and other welfare services.

The union networks through which they actively seek to organise and take over are the professional unions: doctors, engineers, lawyers and the like; and they have made marked successes in Egypt, not necessarily because of preponderance, but because of the apathy of other forces. For the rest, the rank and file, and certainly the most radical fringe, is recruited from the lumpen elements of the lower intelligentsia.

As to the question of working-class organisations in general in the present climate, we see , internationally, a very substantive recession. With the destruction of Communism, with the removal of the necessity to lend capitalism "a human face", with the disaggregation of the labour market, its geographical and ethnic segmentation, the recession of Taylorism, with the internationalisation of "flexible labour" regimes, with "downsizing" and the capitalist "rationalisation" of labour, we are back at the point where Marx had precisely described the wildness of capitalism, before this was countered, in capitalist countries, by forms of social prophylaxis: first of universal suffrage, chauvinism, and war, and later with Keynesianism.

My thinking on these matters goes therefore in a direction different to the one in terms of which you formulated your question.


Ardeshir Mehrdad: In the first part of your analysis you distinguished three main areas of grass-roots activities with different reciprocal relations with Islamic political organisations. You point to a lack of interest for trade union activities in these organisations. However, concerning the effects of political Islam on working class movements, your analysis gives rise to some questions which, I think, are worthy of elaboration.

The first concerns cases where political Islam establishes its grass roots organisations in the work-place, by mobilising and organising sections of the working class around “cultural” issues, under the name of “Islamic associations” or “Islamic councils”. How may these activities effect the development of working class movements, regardless of the form and strength of their organisational structures?

Secondly, what are those factors exclusively acting in favour of political Islam to establish and extend its social base within slum and shanty town dwellers and professionals?

And finally, to what extent, at the current historical conjuncture, in which the decline of “old social movements” involved with the process of production (i.e. organised labour movements) is coincident with the growth of “new social movements” dealing with the process of reproduction (either material or cultural and political), might stimulate the further growth of political Islam in countries with a majority Muslim population? Do you think this may be an avoidable political development? And How?


Aziz Al-Azmeh: I did not say Muslim political organisations were not interested in working class movements. They are not in favour of the idea of organising according to such criteria, but have been actively exploiting organisational structures in place.

But let us be quite specific here: this applies only to Egypt, as does much of what one says about organised Islamism. And Egypt is by no means to be taken as paradigmatic or exemplary in the Arab World. Lebanon has unions organised in a federation in which Islamism has had no inroads, which has been recently split into a section sponsored by the government - and particularly the prime minister - and another which continues its quite long heritage. Protest on the basis of matters concerning everyday life, salaries, inflation, immiseration, price rises of basic commodities, have been led by the independent federation in alliance with some political forces.

Islamist protest, Khomeinist style, takes the form of non-cooperation in some areas, under the leadership of an ex-Hezbollah leader, Subhi Tufaili, who has been ousted from the party because of an uncompromising and literalist Khomeinism which is out of keeping with the national-political and parliamentary role that Hezbollah have carved out in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, in areas they control, Hezbollah have a formidable and extremely well-funded system of clinics, schools, subventions to families of its members, of martyrs, and so forth. So when mobilising, such mobilisation takes place largely outside the work-place, especially if we realise that, in the majority of Arab countries, unions are either tied to the ruling party (Syria and Tunisia  for instance) or foreclosed to Islamism by virtue of the political forces at play.

The establishment of an Islamist constituency in the slums is conjunctural. It does have a considerable degree of ideological self-justification, at a fairly low level, largely by means of example and moral exhortation: through clinics and other forms of aid, such as very well-funded emergency relief during the latest earthquake in Egypt. But this does not, to my mind, constitute an organisational structure: it produces sympathy, but not activism except among the few with some form of local educational distinction, which I have called the lumpen-intelligentsia.

This is a result of state atrophy and disempowerment under conditions of structural adjustment, and does not produce a stable basis or a reliable constituency, for it is not possible to create a constituency in conditions of structural marginality and radical precariousness. People can be fed on hope and furtive gratitude, but not so organised into a stable political force. Slums are therefore a field of recruitment, not a social base as such.

I do not think your characterisation of new social movements as dealing with a process of reproduction to be very useful. Not all old social movements were involved in the process of production; very importantly in the late Ottoman empire and successor states, as in Germany and to a considerable extent, France in the 19th century, were specifically cultural associations: the state bureaucracy and the new class of intellectual, tied to the state until recently. These were crucial to the modern history of the Arabs.

Political Islam grows not necessarily as the result of the irrelevance of older movements but from the rise of a virtual internationalism, in which economic deregulation brings in train forms of social and cultural deregulation intimately tied to the disempowerment of the state, particularly effecting its social and cultural hegemonism. It is not the reawakening of old things as much, as the reinvention, within international moulds and means of cultural production (not least being the growing role of NGOs and international organisations as providers of cultural - or rather culturalist - goods) of imaginary collective selves consonant with these international moulds for the production and consumption of culture.

Of course these do not come ex-nihilo, but have had a ubiquitous presence internationally from the 19th century, namely romantic and vitalist conceptions of politics and occasionally anti-capitalist enchantment, that have structured far-right populist and subaltern hyper-nationalism. Post modernism is not as novel as it pretends, nor does it transcend what it pretends.


Ardeshir Mehrdad: Could I pose a final question to round up this part of our discussion. How do you assess the effects of political Islam on the balance of forces in the class struggles in societies having a majority Muslim population?


Aziz Al-Azmeh: I think that the effects of political Islam on the balance of political and social forces vary greatly between countries with majority Muslim populations. The most salient common factor here, however, is the degree to which Islamist vocabularies have been naturalised, and adopted within the mainstream of the public domain.

Egypt has been blighted with the expansion of this vocabulary, to the extent that it permeates not only statist discourse, but that of almost the entire spectrum of political formations, with the result that Islamist "solutions", most particularly tokenist gestures in the fields of culture and of the social and legal domains, no longer necessarily imply the ascendancy of Islamist political organisations. The other side of this coin is that this permeation is also allied with the informal ascendancy of Islamist forces, either through front organisations or through infiltration of the state apparatus, most notably the judiciary.

Elsewhere, you have some countries - most notably Algeria - where society is cleft on culturalist lines which have a direct political and socio-political translation. Syria is

country that has so far - after the thorough destruction of the Islamist movement in 1978-81 - been immune from the Islamization of politics. The same can be said for Tunisia and to Morocco, in a different way connected to a pious long-lived dynastic tradition which monopolises Islam and is thus in greater control of the production and distribution of religious. symbols. As for Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and indeed Turkey, these. are very different, each with its own peculiarities.

Women: limits or liberates

Ardeshir Mehrdad: Having discussed the effects of political Islam on the labour movement, may we now turn to another key issue: the relationship between the women’s movement and political Islam.

There is a view, shared by many activists, as well as scholars, which finds a positive place for political Islam because it encourages women’s participation in the social and political arena. This view argues that by mobilising women, especially women from the popular classes, political Islam gives rise to gender awareness in the most deprived and repressed women and thereby extends the grass-root base of the women’s movement in these countries.

On the other side is another view which places its emphasis, in the main, on the limitations of sharia’ to modify gender relations and family value-systems. Moreover political Islam turns these views into a deeply held value system which institutionalises gender blindness and sexual inequality.


Aziz Al-Azmeh: I am of the view that Islamist movements have a radically disempowering effect on women. It is clear that almost the entire spectrum of Islamism, from the radically primitivist Taleban to what fragments of left-wing Islamism as there may remain, are build on a bedrock of social conservatism. They all use the feminine issue as a central token in their dispute, their life-and-death dispute, with secularist forces, where control over feminine kinsfolk is a marker of social rectitude, and a token, for men, of empowerment in a world that is changing so rapidly that it leaves them feeling, effectively, effeminate.

There is an entirely pathological condition attached to this, not to speak of the shar`ist institutes, that derive not only from assumptions of the inferiority of women, but which are also discriminatory, in the medieval manner: between men and women, free men and slaves, Muslims and others.

What tokenist quasi-feminism there is, is delivered to upper class women as a result of social advances gained prior to the salience of Islamism. Self-generated quasi-feminism, with Quranic quotations about equality, have not, in my experience, ever tampered with the discriminatory institutes of the shari`a, and are defensive strategies, largely of a private capacity, designed to ease familial pressure, especially under disasporic conditions.

As for Islamist-feminism put forward in the US and Europe by some of our designer feminists, they constitute a form of exoticism, a commodity highly prized by post-modernist and NGO circles, not to speak of what is today taken for left-wing opinion in the academic world.

September-December 1997

To be continued


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