It is no doubt commendable that Red Pepper has tried to tackle the thorny issue of political Islam and in particular the Iranian experience, a subject that is greatly misunderstood in the west, even in left circles. But unfortunately the discussion created more spark than substance. This can be attributed to both Alastair Crooke\’s rather abstract philosophical approach that often clashes with the reality of events on the ground and Azar Majedi\’s shrill response, which reduces the legacy of the Islamic revolution in Iran to ’30 years of bloodshed, oppression, misogyny, gender apartheid, stoning and mutilation’. One wonders how it is that women in Iran make up 65 per cent of university students under such conditions.
The Iranian revolution and the Islamic Republic that emerged from it are complex, and often contradictory, developments that defy neatly packaged concepts coming from both left and right in the west. It is interesting how the far right and many on the radical left in Europe and the US see eye-to-eye when it comes to Islamist activism. Both view it as deeply reactionary (‘Islamo-fascists’ is a common epithet between the two), with the pat explanation that the only reason that Islamists enjoy such a large following in the Muslim world is because of their ability to either brainwash their followers with religion or buy them off with their vast charitable networks.
The reality is that political Islam has a long and rich history that stretches back over a century, inspiring a wide range of movements across an extremely diverse landscape that stretches from Indonesia to Morocco. Painting this broad movement with a single brush confuses more than it clarifies.
Deep roots in Lebanon
Take the case of Hizbullah, for example. This Shia Muslim resistance movement in Lebanon is often carelessly lumped in with the Islamic revolution in Iran and is rarely seen as an independent entity with its own history and struggle. No doubt there are deep and foundational links between the Islamic Republic and Hizbullah, and Tehran generously funds and supports the Lebanese resistance, but that does not make them one and the same. Nor can it be said that Hizbullah is simply an offshoot or subordinate of Iran. Perhaps the most dynamic and effective social protest movement in the Middle East today, Hizbullah cannot be understood nor fully appreciated from a progressive point of view outside of its Lebanese context and history.
A brief look at Hizbullah’s emergence in the early 1980s and its consequent development into a mass party confirms that it is a home-grown movement with deep roots in Lebanese society. Hizbullah is the culmination of a long, against-all-odds struggle waged by Lebanon’s Shia against a matrix of foes who conspired to keep them locked in a cycle of occupation, impoverishment and political marginalisation.
Long before anyone had heard of Khomeini, Lebanon’s Shia began to take matters into their own hands to fight for dignity and justice, at first within the context of the Arab nationalist (and even communist) movements and later through activist Shi’ism. The move from the former to the latter was a conscious choice for many as the Arab nationalists and the left simply failed to address the sources of Shia discontent.
The streams that fed into the creation of Hizbullah were diverse and not in any way limited to Iranian influence. Some came out of the Palestinian struggle and Lebanon’s many left organisations, while others were university students influenced by the Iraqi Al Da’wa party, and a significant group split from the Amal Movement (another Lebanese Shia party established in the early 1970s).
Ideologically, Hizbullah was heavily influenced by Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a local cleric with a large following among Lebanon’s Shia, including a significant number of Hizbullah members. Mistakenly referred to as the ‘spiritual guide’ of Hizbullah (prompting an assassination attempt against him by the CIA in 1985), Fadlallah has a reputation for his liberal views on social issues and opposes the very idea of clerical rule.
The most critical factor in uniting these disparate forces was neither Khomeini’s influence nor Iran’s money, but Israel’s second occupation of southern Lebanon in the summer of 1982. It is simplistic to think that financial support alone can forge a capable and successful movement such as Hizbullah or even win its unswerving loyalty. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) stopped being effective and lost all semblance of unity precisely when it became known as the ‘richest revolutionary movement in the world’.
It is also interesting to look at the experience of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a party of Iraqi Shia exiles founded on Iranian soil during the Iran-Iraq war. Even in such circumstances, Tehran was unable to mould the competing factions into a coherent party and today SCIRI is accused of cozying up to the US occupation in Iraq. From its inception, the overwhelming priority for Hizbullah was fighting the Israeli occupation, and resistance work in its broadest sense became the backbone of the party’s social and political work. The armed resistance is complemented by a comprehensive set of development and humanitarian institutions that are involved in all manner of activities, ranging from technical assistance to rural farmers to the recently opened high-tech cardiac centre serving the poor southern suburbs of Beirut.
These are classic social welfare agencies with an Islamist twist, such as the infrastructure and reconstruction engineering unit Jihad Al Bina, or the low-interest micro-credit agency Qard Al Hassan (among the largest in the region), or the extensive welfare agency Imdad, run largely by volunteers to assist the poor, among many others. The work of these organisations has profoundly transformed the lives of Hizbullah’s supporters.
In the early heady days, as Hizbullah burst on the scene fired up by the Islamic revolution in Iran, the party’s founders (mainly clerics) could be accused of adopting uncompromising positions, such as calling for an Islamic revolution in Lebanon. But as early as 1985, before the party had even fully cohered, in one of its first public manifestos (known as the ‘Open Letter’), they were already qualifying their demands for an Islamic state, stating clearly that they didn’t intend to force their religion upon others.
With the end of the long civil war from 1975 to 1991, Hizbullah took further steps to accommodate itself with the Lebanese state and embarked on what is sometimes called a ‘Lebanonisation’ process by participating in the first post-war parliamentary election in 1992. Today, Hizbullah has ministers in the cabinet and has struck a durable alliance with Lebanon’s largest Christian party, something no one could have imagined even a few years ago. The party has also swept municipal elections where it has set an example of good governance – a concept barely known in Lebanon, where corruption reigns supreme.
The two distinct paths that the Iranian and Lebanese revolutionaries took only reflect the kinds of social forces that were involved and the terrain on which they operated. The differences in this case are stunning and naturally lead in very different directions.
The Shia of Lebanon entered the 20th century as a historically and structurally marginalised group that was dominated by feudal-like landowners and a compromised and conservative clergy. In Iran, Shi’ism had been a state religion for nearly 500 years and was almost synonymous with Iranian nationalism, which stretches back thousands of years. Iran’s clergy played a critical role in all of modern Iran’s major upheavals and, even in the darkest days of the last shah, they were respected, if not feared, by the authorities. Lebanon’s Shia may at best be a slight majority in their religiously diverse and divided country, while Iran’s Shia make up 90 per cent of the population, uniting many nationalities and ethnicities under its banner.
The opposite of fundamentalism
Context is critical when looking at Islamist movements, as appearances – and even the pronouncements of the activists themselves – can be deceiving. To judge and appraise Islamism based on its ideology alone misses these important details, particularly as Hizbullah has pioneered a pragmatic and extremely flexible current within political Islam that is increasingly being adopted by others, including Hamas and to a lesser extent the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Given their revolutionary Islamist roots and the incredibly challenging Lebanese political terrain, Hizbullah has mastered the art of tactical flexibility while remaining grounded in its core principles. Such a method is the very opposite of ‘fundamentalism’, the blanket label so often used to describe all groups that weave politics and Islam together.
It is tragic that progressives in the west continue to paint such a one-sided picture of Islamist political practice and fail to see the liberatory aspects of the movement. Due largely to Hizbullah’s leadership over the past three decades, the Shia of Lebanon live with some semblance of dignity, liberated from Israeli occupation and terror, secure on their land, with a far brighter future than anyone could have predicted.
For this, and of course for its two defeats of the supposedly invincible Israeli army (in 2000 and 2006), the party is rewarded with the enthusiastic support of millions of Arabs and Muslims across the globe. Such a movement deserves the support and solidarity of those in the west who stand for a just world.
If the European and US left cannot accept the idea that the struggle for a better world can take many shapes and forms, then they are the true fundamentalists.
Bilal El-Amine is a writer living in Beirut, Lebanon
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram
Momentum Kids: the parental is political
Momentum Kids is not about indoctrinating children, but rather the more radical idea that children have an important role to play in shaping the future, writes Kristen Hope