Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Islam: sigh of the oppressed (1987)

From the June 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The bloody conflicts of the Middle East have complex causes — economic, strategic, religious and racial. But there has been little attempt by the western media to try to understand the whole picture. Instead there is a tendency to attach simplistic labels — "extremists", “fanatics”, "terrorists"— But those labels tell us very little. They offer nothing in the way of explanation. Instead we are given partial pictures of the bits of the Middle Eastern conflict that it is assumed are of interest to the west — the humanitarian efforts of medical workers in the Palestinian camps in Lebanon; the naive attempts by Terry Waite to get western hostages released; the covert attempts by the American government to do deals with the Iranians.

But we are given very little that enables us to understand why Palestinians were under siege in refugee camps; why Israel invaded southern Lebanon; why armed groups are holding westerners hostage; why Islam is such a potent force throughout the Middle East; why Iran and Iraq are still engaged in a bloody war.

The Sword of Islam
Islam is the world's fastest growing religion. Five times a day 900 million Moslems turn towards Mecca and kneel down to pray. It is a religion closely related to both Christianity and Judaism. Indeed Mohammed is seen as the last and greatest in a line of prophets that includes Moses and Jesus. Until the resurgence of fundamentalist Islam it was a religion of no more political importance than any other. As Islamic countries developed economically there was increasingly a separation between religion and politics. Religion, as was the case in most developed countries. was something separate from business, trade and politics, an anachronism that fitted uneasily with the demands of modern capitalism, to be paid lip service to only on high days and holidays.

The Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979 changed that. Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran by exploiting the thwarted aspirations of the poor who had seen Iran grow rich under the Shah but were excluded from a share in that wealth. The Shah's close ties with the west — especially America — meant that it was easy for the Ayatollah to shift the blame for the poverty of the Iranian people on to the effects of western involvement in Iran. According to Islam westerners are infidels; according to the Ayatollah America is the "great Satan". In place of the huge disparity between rich and poor and decadent western culture the Iranian people were offered a revolutionary Islamic programme that combined religion with politics, the establishment of an Islamic republic with the Ayatollah at the helm. All Iran's problems would be solved, it was claimed, if there was strict observance of Islamic law. The inevitable failure of the regime to deliver the social justice that had been promised could easily be blamed on the vestiges of American imperialism.

Iran-Iraq Bloodbath
In 1980, shortly after the Iranian revolution, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq took advantage of the turmoil in Iran to settle outstanding Iraqi territorial claims (as well as historic Arab grievances against Iraq's Persian neighbour). Iraq invaded Iran at a time when Iran was weakened by purges of the army, minority uprisings and internal chaos, with the aim of recovering land along the frontier as well as regaining control of the strategically important Shatt al-Arab waterway. But what is essentially a territorial conflict has been hugely complicated by longstanding racial and religious hostility between the two countries.

Iraq is controlled by the Ba'ath party under Saddam Hussein. Ba'athism is a secular pan-Arabist ideology which has very few supporters inside or outside Iraq. Hussein maintains his position through the activities of ruthless internal security services. And the opposition is hopelessly divided: Kurdish rebels pursuing their own nationalistic goals in the north; disaffected Shias who are more in sympathy with the Iranian "enemy" than with the Ba'athist regime but who nevertheless fear the consequences of an Iranian occupation.

Iraq's intention was to administer a swift, sharp blow to Iran. Almost seven years later it is now obvious that the Iraqi regime seriously miscalculated the strength of the Iranian resistance. For Iran has managed to turn it into a "holy war" and has made slow but inexorable advances into Iraqi territory.

Despite Iraqi weapons superiority, Iran has managed to fight back by sending thousands of young Iranian fighters to the front in wave after wave. And there seems to be no shortage of volunteers willing to die a martyr's death and thus be assured a place in heaven. Khomeini has successfully used the war and the revolution to justify each other. But he has also painted himself into a corner. Iran is now seriously weakened economically by the war. There is a strong case for ending it. However, the Iranian leadership has consistently sought to justify the bloodshed as being a necessary sacrifice in a fight to the death in a holy war. It would be difficult for the Ayatollah to now enter into negotiations to end the war without doing serious damage to his credibility as a religious and political leader.

The American Arms Connection
Another problem that the Iranian regime faces is access to weapons. Prior to the revolution America had been Iran's main arms supplier. Now Iran gets weapons from Israel (despite the regime's official anti-Israeli stance), South Korea and Taiwan. And, as has become apparent in recent months, there have also been covert arms deals between Iran and America in return for the release of western hostages held in Beirut.

For the American administration. Iran's need for weapons was a weakness which they hoped to exploit in order to open up a channel of communications with Hojatolislan Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament and likely successor to the Ayatollah. He is seen by the west as a "moderate” with the potential to give the Americans a way back in to this economically and strategically important area. As we now know, American attempts to "normalise" relations with Iran went badly wrong. Not only has Reagan's credibility been badly damaged by the "Irangate" affair, but so too has that of the Iranian regime. If people in the west were scandalised at the hypocrisy of an American government which used emotional rhetoric about not doing deals with terrorists, then in Iran too there is a scandal in the making about the regime there doing deals with the "Great Satan". This has made it even less likely that the Iranians will risk further loss of face by negotiating a peace treaty with Iraq. In fact Khomeini has recently declared that his objective is to overthrow Hussein and the Ba'athist ruling party and also to capture Basra and the "holy" city of Karbala.

Flashpoint in the Lebanon
The seeds of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians are well known. The consequences of that conflict have been bitter and wide-ranging but in recent years have focussed increasingly on Lebanon. Many Palestinians, dispossessed of their land, entered the Lebanon as refugees. Their presence in the south of the country and Israel's allegations that they were using bases there to launch guerrilla attacks on Israeli settlements in northern Galilee provided the justification for the Israeli army to invade Lebanon in 1982 with the declared aim of forcing the Palestinians out of southern Lebanon.

When the Israeli army entered the region Shia Muslim villagers welcomed them as liberators. For when the Palestinians had arrived from Jordan, they had taken effective control of the area. PLO checkpoints had been set up, taxes imposed and land taken away from the local people. The Shias also feared that the presence of Palestinians would lead them into conflict with Israel — a conflict which they didn't want. At first Shia villages had taken the Palestinians in as refugees. But by the time the Israeli army arrived the Palestinians had alienated the villagers who felt as dispossessed as the Palestinians themselves.

The Israeli army drove the PLO north as far as Beirut where they were trapped and finally surrendered; 14,000 Palestinian fighters went into exile. The Israeli army stayed on with consequences for the whole region.

Shia Resistance
The presence of an Israeli army of occupation in southern Lebanon and the brutality that was meted out to Shia villagers quickly turned the initial welcome into hostility and hatred. The Israelis raided their villages and Shias were killed. For them occupation by the Palestinians had been replaced by occupation by the Israeli army who maintained order with an iron fist, fearful that if they left the Palestinians would move back in.

In Beirut too, the Shias were caught up in the war between Israel and the PLO. Before they went into exile the PLO was holed up in the western part of the city. The Israelis indiscriminately blew up apartment blocks, killing PLO fighters as well as Shia civilians who had stayed in the war-torn city for fear that if they did not their homes would be taken over by Palestinians displaced by the bombing of refugee camps.

Israel had hoped that by eliminating the PLO from Lebanon their allies, the Christian Phalangists, could be restored to power in Lebanon. In fact in September 1982 the Christian President-elect. Bashir Gemayel, was assassinated. The new pro-Phalangist government of Amin Gemayel could only hang on to power with the support of the American-led multi-national peace-keeping force. But it was too late for them to wield effective political power — by this time Lebanon had disintegrated into a series of armed factions battling it out for political control.

By the time that Israel was finally driven out of Lebanon at the beginning of 1985 Lebanon had become a disaster area. The Israeli ruling class had realised none of their objectives: Israel's northern border was, if anything, less secure than it had been prior to the invasion. The PLO had been driven into exile in Tunisia but the Israelis now had a new enemy in southern Lebanon — the Shias; the Christian Phalangists had only nominal power and Israel's alliance with them had been discredited as a result of the horrific massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla by Phalangist forces, which the Israelis had done nothing to prevent. But it has been the resistance by the Shia militia, Amal. which has had the most lasting effect.

In their fight against the Israeli army of occupation the Shias in Amal have shown the same willingness to sacrifice themselves as had the soldiers in the Iranian army. Their tenacity had driven back the Israelis, inflicting the most significant defeat they had ever known. Furthermore, by 1984 Amal had taken to the streets of Beirut and had entered the battle for power between the Moslems and the Christians. Amal won control of West Beirut.

The influence and example of Iran on the Shia resistance is obvious as teenage boys and young men throw themselves willingly into the bloody street fighting around the Green Line which separates Christian East Beirut from Moslem West Beirut.

But for some Amal was not religious enough. They joined Hizbollah, the 'Party of God", the most extreme of the Islamic sects, which is fighting for an Islamic republic along the lines of that in Iran. Not surprisingly Hizbollah receives massive funding from Iran. It consists of small semi-autonomous groups which use a variety of different names, each taking responsibility for their own kidnappings and murders. Their attitude towards the west and Israel is uncompromising. It was Hizbollah which was responsible for the suicide bomber who drove into the American marines base killing 240 Americans and prompting their withdrawal. Since then there has been no shortage of willing volunteers for similar missions — young men willing to die as martyrs for the Islamic cause, Hizbollah, unlike some of the other Islamic groups, is not nationalistic. Its aim is nothing short of the creation of a world Islamic republic.

Syrian involvement in Lebanon
Syria has for a long time been a key factor in the Middle East. The regime of President Hafez Assad has an interest in keeping Lebanon divided. That way, it is hoped, it can be turned into a Syrian puppet state. As a result the Syrian government has cynically exploited the divisions, offering support to first one side, then another. Syria first intervened in Lebanon in June 1976 to prevent a coalition between the Palestinians and left-wing Lebanese which would have enabled them to secure an outright victory in the civil war.

The PLO has been based in Beirut since the late 1960s and, for the last 20 years, Syria has tried to curb Palestinian aspirations for independence while at the same time giving them support in their war against Israel. The Assad regime fears a fully independent PLO for two reasons. Firstly, they are scared that such a development might provoke Israel into attacking Syria. Secondly, they fear that the PLO might make a separate peace with Israel that would leave the Syrians out in the cold. For the Syrian ruling class, the "Palestinian Question" is much too important to be left to the PLO alone.

Syria withdrew its forces from Beirut in June 1982 — after reaching a ceasefire agreement with the invading Israelis. From then until Syria's return to Lebanon this year Assad had tried to achieve Syrian objectives there by means of support for various of the armed groups. In particular Shia Muslim groups are given logistical support by Syrian intelligence and Amal was encouraged to subdue and take control of the Palestinian camps. It was their failure to achieve this objective which led to the return of the Syrian army this year.

The War of the Camps
The Palestinians in the refugee camps of south Lebanon were those who had been left behind when the PLO was forced into exile. They include many women, children and old people. As the Israelis withdrew and the civil war continued, they were caught in the crossfire between the rival militias fighting to secure control of the rubble that was once Beirut. Amal's control of the area around the camps and their long-standing resentment towards the Palestinians led to the camps being laid siege to. The inhabitants were forced to live in appalling conditions of squalor and starvation, risking being shot at if they left the camp in search of food. It was this worsening situation which led to the return of Syrian troops. The refugees in the camps had no option but to accept the protection of the Syrian army.

The Bloody Reality of the Middle East
It is necessary to describe the shifting alliances, political manoeuvrings and shady deals of the ruling class in the Middle Eastern countries for an understanding of the complex web of war and politics in that region. But to do so gives little insight into the millions of lives that have been blighted through war, poverty, insecurity and fear or into the future of children who are growing up in an atmosphere of racial and religious hatred and bloodlust. Each piece of the complex Middle East jigsaw represents millions of scarred lives.
  • The Iran-Iraq War is still going on. Hundreds of thousands of lives have already been lost; millions of people have been maimed for the sake of a small stretch of strategically important water and the political credibility of the leaders of the two countries. For this, ordinary workers are being sent in wave after wave to the front as cannon fodder.
  • The Israeli invasion of Lebanon achieved nothing even in terms of the objectives of the Israeli ruling class. As well as lives being lost on both sides, the experience of life under yet another army of occupation has driven still more people into the bloody arms of Islam. And Israel continues to launch raids on South Lebanese villages claiming they are "terrorist" strongholds. It is often civilians — women and children included — who are killed.
  • The PLO, newly reunited under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, is likely to launch a new campaign in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Guerrilla attacks in those areas will be met by mass arrests, detentions and deportations of Palestinians and pre-emptive and retaliatory strikes by the Israeli air force across the Lebanese border.
  • Lebanon continues to be torn apart by civil war. Palestinians in the refugee camps are protected for the moment by Syrian troops, but the Syrians have no control over Hizbollah which is not fighting for control of West Beirut but for a world Islamic republic.
It is tempting to see the Middle East as inhabited by religious fanatics willing to die for causes that we have no understanding of. let alone sympathy with. But fundamentalist Islam has grown out of the same roots as evangelical Christianity in the United States and similar reactionary religious movements elsewhere in the world — discontent and alienation. That so many young people are willing to die as martyrs in the hope that they will then have the key to paradise says something about the misery of their lives here on earth. For the very countries where militant Islam has the most adherents — Iran, Egypt. Lebanon — are the very same countries where the ostentatious wealth of the minority is on display in the cities while the vast majority live in grinding poverty. It is not difficult to understand the anger and resentment that is caused. Neither is it difficult to see how that wealth and opulence, and the decadence and corruption that often go with it. comes to be identified with "the west". It is often the multi-nationals who own and build the luxury hotels that the poverty-stricken workers who built them will never have the opportunity to enter; foreign companies that exploit them in factories, mines and oilfields. And the ruling class is quick to adopt western lifestyles. Little wonder then that the poor are attracted to a religion that portrays the west as "the Great Satan" — bleeding the workers of the Middle East, imposing "their" alien and decadent culture. Little wonder that the deceptively simple solution of the establishment of an Islamic republic which promises justice and a restoration of traditional values and codes of behaviour, should seem attractive. As Marx wrote:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people.
But Islam, unlike opium, will not numb the pain caused by years of bloodshed.
Janie Percy-Smith

Blogger's Note:
Janie Percy-Smith's article also included the following informational material reproduced below in separate, standalone boxes.


Although the Islamic revolution in Iran was successful, there had been similar rumblings in Egypt in the 70s. Ever since then Islamic fundamentalism has been on the increase, especially among the young, who are disillusioned with a system that has failed them and who harbour a deep-seated resentment which goes back to Nasser's accession to power in Egypt. Moslem militants helped him to power but, in his bid to create a modern state, Nasser crushed Moslem militancy. That resentment was increased by Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war against Israel. Moslem leaders saw that defeat as a punishment for the country's desertion of Islam.

Nasser was succeeded by Anwar Sadat who trod a tight-rope between his aim of building a modern capitalist state with the help of western investment, and his image as a devout Moslem, largely put on to placate the Islamic militants. A few Egyptians got very rich, but at the same time people were leaving the countryside which was no longer able to support the rapidly expanding population. They entered the cities in search of waged work and were condemned to live in poverty and squalor alongside the wealth that their labour had created. Islam seemed to provide a means for understanding their situation.

In 1977 Sadat cut subsidies on basic foods in an attempt to deal with the country's worsening economic situation. There were riots and Sadat was forced to back down Instead he took a gamble — to sign the Camp David Agreement with Israel — the enemy of Islam and the cause of Egypt's humiliation in the 1967 war. Under the agreement Jerusalem, which contained the third most important Moslem shrine, was to remain in Israeli hands. In return for the agreement America promised increased aid. But this did little to appease the fundamentalists who protested at what they saw as a sellout. Sadat responded by cracking down on the Moslem Brotherhood — the main Islamic group. As a result Sadat was assassinated in 1981.

Since then there have been no concessions made to the fundamentalists by Sadat's successor, Mubarak. Their protests have been met by repression which has served only to harden their determination. Islamic self-rule as in Iran is increasingly seen as the solution to all their problems and some groups, at least, are willing to use any means at all to achieve that objective.


In April this year, while the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were still under siege in the camps in Lebanon, the Palestinian National Council (the highest policy-making body for the 4-5 million Palestinians scattered around the world) met in Algiers. In recent years the PLO has been divided by internal dissension and leadership battles. But Yasser Arafat, leader of the mainstream Fatah movement, and a shrewd political operator, successfully reunited the PLO under his leadership. However, in order to secure his position he had to make concessions to hardliners like George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. These concessions include the distancing of the PLO from Egypt's President Mubarak, considered to be too soft on the Israelis, an escalation in the armed struggle against Israel and the demand that the PLO have the sole right to represent the Palestinian people at any future international peace conference.

These concessions will make the holding of such a conference unlikely. Israel will not agree to sit down at a negotiating table with the PLO. Relations with Jordan — one of the prime movers behind the proposed conference — are now strained because of the more militant stance adopted by the PLO. Both Jordan and Egypt have already agreed that the PLO will not be invited to an international conference unless it first endorses UN Security Council resolution 242 which implicitly recognises Israel's right to exist. The PLO is unlikely to do this.


The invasion of Lebanon by Israel was a disaster not only in military terms but also in political terms. The official justification for the invasion defence of Israel's northern borders was not considered sufficient by many Israelis. The national consensus on defence, which had existed since the founding of the state of Israel, was broken. For the first time there was a significant number of Israelis who were willing to accept the consequences of being conscientious objectors in a highly militaristic country. There were demonstrations against the war and some of the demonstrators were army officers appalled at what they had seen in Lebanon. The news of the barbaric massacre of Palestinians in the refugee camps and Israel's connivance in it increased the revulsion of some sections of the population against the war

But, while some Israelis are at last asking questions about whether "secure borders" are really worth the cost in human lives, there are others who are motivated by a religious fanaticism that bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the Islamic fundamentalists. It is these right wing Jewish militants who regard Jewish settlement on the West Bank as necessary — whatever the cost. The Kach movement, led by Rabbi Meir Kahane, is a racist political movement which wants to expel all Arabs from the Jewish state. The right wing are a minority — but a minority that is increasingly attractive to many young Israelis disillusioned with the failure of the political solutions so far offered. Just as Islam offers its adherents certainty in place of ambiguity, simplicity instead of complexity, and a morally superior cause for which to fight, so too does right wing Judaism offer its adherents absolutes as well as a "Promised Land" of milk and honey instead of poverty and insecurity.

And that insecurity looks set to continue. For the last 30 months Israel has been ruled by a coalition government made up of the Labour Party under Shimon Peres, currently Foreign Minister, and the right wing Likud Party, under Yitzhak Shamir, currently Prime Minister. That coalition looks more and more fragile and is likely to break up over the question of an international Middle East peace conference as proposed by the United Nations. Peres is broadly in favour of participation in such a conference. Shamir is opposed. Like the population as a whole the government is divided on the question of “land without peace" or "peace without land". Those who defend the idea of a "Greater Israel" — including the right — are opposed to the idea that any of the land captured in 1967 — the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights — should be given back. The Palestinians are unlikely to agree to a solution which did not include at least this.

1 comment:

Imposs1904 said...

That's the June 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard done and dusted.