Debating “Political Islam”

A number of activists from the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI) in New York have initiated a reading group on South Asia.  The notes below are the second in a series of commentaries following reading discussions that some members of the reading group are posting on Kafila.  This is an attempt to broaden the discussions and in the process make it a productive dialogue to understand developments in the region and deepen our solidarity.

Debating “Political Islam”

– Svati Shah, Biju Mathew, Sumitra Rajkumar, Prachi Patankar and Ahilan Kadirgamar

The recent debate between Samir Amin and Tariq Amin-Khan on a left perspective on “political Islam” in the context of imperialism, published in Monthly Review (December 2007 and March 2009), provides an opportunity to reflect on a number of issues that have vexed the anti-war movement and the left with respect to the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The most vexing of these issues has been the question of whom the left should target as its allies in those countries, and what position the left should take toward so-called “political Islam,” represented by Islamist groups calling for an end to foreign occupation.  The definition of “political Islam” is presented below in relation to each critique.  Both Amin and Amin-Khan are in agreement that both “political Islam” and imperialism have to be challenged simultaneously.  There are no strategic questions here, in terms of joining one to fight the other.  The defeat or withdrawal of both is desirable in the interests of a people-centred politics.  In imperialism’s projection of capitalism and reactionary Islam’s comfort with capitalism (that class and gender do not trouble it) they are objective allies even if on the ground their adherents are military enemies.  This initial agreement then delves into a number of nuanced questions that must be considered in order to foster the return to a people centred politics in both of these countries, and the regions as a whole.

Tariq Amin-Khan begins by making a nuanced distinction between “political Islam” and “militant Islam.”  “Political Islam” belonged to the elite and has a continuity from colonial times, when it was used to manoeuvre local elites, to the post-colonial and Cold War context, when it was used to capture state power, a strategy that has extended into the post-Cold War period.  Amin-Khan claims that the “political Islam” of the elites, for most part, did not take on an insurrectionary or armed politics, and attempted to capture state power through electoral politics or in alliance with the military.  “Militant Islam” on the other hand, while it finds its lineage in “political Islam” prior to 1989, emerges increasingly powerful in the latter part of the Cold War when it was complicit with US imperialism, the growth of the Taliban through support from the US government in the Cold War being a classic example of this phenomenon.  However, in the post-Cold War period, this “militant Islam” takes up armed opposition to both the elite-driven states in Muslim majority countries, as well as in opposing US imperialism.  Such nuance in understanding the various forms of Islamic movements is important for Amin-Khan to avoid the Left’s tendency to dismiss all Islamic movements as reactionary and, in the process, leaving the Left without the capacity to engage with people who, for different reasons and varying degrees, have supported such Islamic movements.  Such nuance can come only with a political economic analysis of our societies, the ground on which these Islamic movements have risen.  An ideological critique of these Islamic movements alone will not suffice to understand their capacity to reshape the political terrain and win over sections of the people.

Both authors highlight the ways in which the decimation of the Left in and around Iraq and Afghanistan, in the 1970s and 1980s, by the US and its client states, and the vacuum created by such decimation, also provided the room for anti-democratic, reactionary forces to come to the fore.  The Left’s weakness on the ground today is amplified by its inability to provide an alternative vision to the people in the post-Soviet era. Thus, both in its ability to mobilize as well as to put forward an alternative vision, Left movements have not recovered from their set backs, be they in 1989, or in 1968.

Both authors also convey that there is a way in which both imperialism and “political Islam” operate within and sustain capitalism. This conclusion is one that can be drawn out at multiple levels. The case on imperialism is an obvious one in as much as imperialism is often a response from segments of the capitalist class to certain internal crisis of capitalism. The case of where “political Islam” meets capitalism is more complicated. The most obvious level at which it operates is apparent in the ways in which imperialism consolidates its rationales and strategies around the idea of a threat.  “Political Islam” in the contemporary context is the new ‘perfect foil’ for imperialist forces.  We may also interrogate the notion of “political Islam” within the fold of capitalism by seriously asking the question of class.  The project of “political Islam,” in all its variations, still engenders the reproduction of a class-stratified society.

One clear conclusion from this debate for our reading group was that it is crucial for the left not to get locked into the thesis that imperialism and “political Islam” are opposed to each other, and therefore to oppose one means not to oppose the other. Instead if we follow through with the analysis, then it becomes clear that we need to oppose imperialism unequivocally, that we must oppose “political Islam” while understanding its appeal to poor people. In particular, we must think strategically about how to create that third space which neither ends up reproducing an anti Islamic line, nor fall into the trap of reducing US-led imperialism to a ‘cultural’ conflict.  The Left’s tendency to retreat into the received politics of the Cold War era, where indeed imperialism fostered the growth of reactionary Islamic forces against secular and Left forces and secular democratic states, opens up the much larger question of how “political Islam” is constituted, of secular politics and, for that matter, the secular state as well.  But that we must discuss at a later date.

2 thoughts on “Debating “Political Islam””

  1. Thanks for this engaged and complex reading of a crucial debate, resonating so closely with dilemmas for radical politics everywhere today.


  2. Zizek’s recent [ may not be the latest :)]book First as Tragedy Second as Farce has some interesting points in this issue.
    Zizek makes many sensible observations on the faults in the left’s perception on political islam and its anti-imperialist credentials.


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