[Marxism] "Islamist"

Emrah Goker antidoxic at gmail.com
Sun Oct 9 08:17:39 MDT 2005

The debate over "Islamist, Islamic, fundamentalist" might be in danger
of turning into a scholastic one, fighting over the boundaries of
categories without scrutinizing what they explain.

Personally, I can only speak about certain Islamist tendencies, I am
desperately trying to write my dissertation (in Turkey) about the main
Islamist tendency in Turkey (with a literal translation, the "National
Outlook" movement) and the movement's connection with capitalists
througout Turkey's neoliberal transformation. Many ideologues of the
movement, true to a certain (non-Turkish) interpretation of how Islam
should be practiced as a response to late capitalist modernization,
have supported the "politicization" of the Sunni/Hanafi school that is
dominant in Turkey. (An encyclopedic, non-Marxist but useful, work on
this process if by Kemal Karpat, "The Politicization of Islam")

What this politicization entails changes from context to context, but
at least for Egypt and Turkey, the trajectory of the dominant movement
organizations cannot be explained if we isolate that trajectory from
the neoliberalization experience of both countries. "Islamist
politics", for me, refers to this pro-capitalist, but
anti-establishment trajectory, where newly emerging religious elites
force their ways into national and local governmental circles with the
help of the right-populist support they mobilize amongst the workers.

This form of Islamist politics shares some common social movement
strategies with internationalist Islamists. The Turkish Islamist
movement once had a well-organized European wing, stronger in France
and Germany, but the organization was oriented towards the national
struggle in Turkey while providing an informal social security network
to immigrant workers, religious Turks and Kurds. [This European
organization still exists, but is divided after centrist politicians
and stronger capitalists decided to break with the more orthodox
National Outlook tradition, and founded the AKP (Justice and
Development Party), which is in power in Turkey now.]

Like most activist Islamists, many in the National Outlook movement
(when it was relaunched in 1983, after the 1980 fascist coup) turned
to those Arab intellectuals of mid-20th century, who criticized the
defensive, pacifist ways of "being Muslim", which, these intellectuals
claimed, submitted to the "degenerative" aspects of late capitalist

Within the Turkish movement, there was always a tension between (1)
the dominant technocratic wing, which thought that an
integrationist-Islamist center can hold all forms of religious
politics together and without seriously threatening the Kemalist
establishment, can further the "appropriate" capitalist socialization
of Muslims and (2) the dominated "left" wing which tried to press the
center to fulfill its populist, distributive promises to the workers,
and which was far more reactionary towards the secular establishment.
Both factions had a will to power, but only the more radical faction,
which did not have the strong ties to capitalists the centrists had,
had a theocratic utopia. (The radicals have always used the term
"Islamist" to describe the movement.) After mid-1990s, the National
Outlook movement gained a lot of electoral power, and its ruling
cadres refrained from using activist-sounding terms. 1990s are also
the years of primitive accumulation in Turkey, where commercial
capitalists and small industrialists (supporting the movement) started
to make a lot of money and began to form conglomerates and holding
companies. The tensions inside the movement between the neoliberal
Islamists and populist Islamists increased.

The secular establishment never observed these tensions correctly. For
the Army and its lapdogs, there was one Islamism, and it was a threat
to national security. The campaign against the movement, beginning
after 1995, targeted all factions, radical or not. By suppressing most
of the pro-activist, grassroots Islamists, including some small armed
propaganda groups, the anti-Islamist campaign succeeded to "doubly
dominate" the Islamists inside the National Outlook movement which had
a populist social justice vision. I should also add that this vision
was still male-dominated, grossly homophobic and anti-semitic, and
even more grossly anti-socialist.

Yet the further weakening of them after 1998, following the banning of
the locomotive party of the movement (Welfare Party), left the control
totally at the hands of the religious-neoliberal center. But this
time, the center was divided, cadres backed by powerful capitalists
wanted total normalization with the establishment, a discursive
renovation (which also meant getting rid of the tag "Islamist"), and a
more ethno-nationalist stance (similar to laicist center-right
parties). The older cadres, led by the charismatic technocratic leader
of the movement (Necmettin Erbakan) opposed this not because of
ideological reasons, but because they realized that they were going to
lose the leadership to the so-called "reformists".

The Old Guard could not persuade the Reformists to stop voicing their
demands. Capitalists who felt threatened by the state's assault on the
movement were behind the Reformists, they did not want to be known as
"Islamists" any more, they wanted to be "ordinary" citizens with a lot
of money and power and be called "conservative democrats". Well, to
cut it short, after the banning of the second locomotive party of the
movement (Virtue Party) in 2001, the Reformists bailed out and founded
the new, pro-EU, pro-IMF, pro-US, pro-privatization, anti-radicalist
center-right party, and won the 2002 elections.


The whole point I am forcing here is that neither "anti-imperialist",
nor "fundamentalist" are meaningful descriptors without offering a
historical-relational analysis. There are contexts where Islamism is
claimed as an official line, there are contexts where doing so becomes
a costly move, or is just inappropriate for legitimation purposes.
There is a historical trajectory the political field follows, and a
given political group can occupy different positions in that

Today's Turkish Prime Minister (Tayyip Erdogan) was once an ardent
religious militant, member of the right-wing paramilitary
organization, Raiders, before the 1980 coup. His party, after the
coup, had an anti-imperialist line against Israel, the EU and the US
for some years in the 1980s. Most of the Sunni militants of the 1970s
became extremely wealthy political entrepreneurs during Turkey's
neoliberalization, and they no longer had any stakes in any
religiously-oriented social justice scheme, other than the stake of
protecting their monopoly over the representations of Sunni Islam.
Even when they sounded like anti-imperialists, these Turkish Muslims
were exploiting the newly-discovered hoarding mechanisms of neoliberal
Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s.

[I would also recommend reading Alejandro Colás' "The Re-Invention of
Populism: Islamist
Responses to Capitalist Development in the Contemporary Maghreb"
Historical Materialism 12(4), 2004]


Or we can discuss what good will it do to the antiwar movement in the
wealthy North after a perfectly working "categorization catalogue" of
Iraqi insurgents is made. I think I missed the point there. Will more
people join the movement there if they are able to open up the
catalogue and comfort themselves for supporting "anti-occupation,
socialist-leaning Iraq-born dockworkers who caused no civilian
casualties" rather than "fundamentalist-Wahhabi, Qatar-born violence
specialists who are trigger-happy"? Will this make the main antiwar
demand, total military pull-out, more realizable?

Emrah Göker

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