How should supporters of the democratic revolution understand the Islamist trends that have emerged as part and parcel of the Arab Spring upheavals?
Are they friends of the revolution or enemies of the people?
What class trends do they represent?
The answers to these questions and the frameworks from which our answers are derived 1) highlight the importance of struggling for theoretical clarity and 2) inform our responses to unexpected turns and difficult contradictions of the democratic struggle. Mistaking friend for foe or foe for friend will lead to political blind alleys and painful defeats as in Egypt where anti-coup forces are irretrievably split between the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Anti-Coup Alliance and the Occupy-esque Rabaa on the one hand and the left-liberal Revolution Path Front on the other. A house divided against itself cannot stand against the combined might of the military, the police, the judiciary, and the fulool wing of the bourgeoisie; this is as true today as it was on January 25, 2011.
Syria Freedom Forever, the blog of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current, describes the relationship of Syria’s Islamist forces to the revolution in the following way:
“The differences between the Islamic Front and jihadists groups as we explained should not in the same time lead us to consider the Islamic Front as democratic groups reaching to achieve the objectives of the revolution: democracy, social justice and a civil state that treats everyone equally, regardless of its religion, gender, ethnicity, etc… The Islamic front is actually seeking an Islamic State and has not hesitated to attack some democratic groups and figures as we saw in the past with threats from Zahran Alloush against Douma civil council lately[xxiv], as well as sections of the FSA as we have seen. … Although some of these groups have condemned the actions of ISIS against churches, without challenging them politically and military, they all share a sectarian discourse against Islamic minorities, especially against Shias and Alawites. This is simply unacceptable.”
A few lines later they write:
“This clarity of position regarding the Islamic Front does not mean we ignore these groups, there can be unity of actions on the military field especially between FSA and the Islamic Front against the regime and the jihadists, but no illusions should be put into them to achieve any objectives of the revolution.”
So according to Syria Freedom Forever, al-Qaeda affiliates Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya and the Islamic Front that it participates in are not interested in achieving “any objectives” of the democratic revolution. Why? Because they are “actually seeking an Islamic State,” as if Islam and democracy or Islamic and democratic states are mutually exclusive like capitalism and communism. There are different types of Islamic states and some are more preferable (or less worse) than others. A bourgeois democracy governed by Islamists like Erdogan’s Turkey or Morsi’s Egypt is worlds apart from the Afghan Taliban, Saudi wahabism, Iran’s vilayat-e faqih, the Ottoman Empire, or the Umayyad Caliphate, and all of these are different from one another.
The Islamic Front’s founding declaration repeatedly calls for an Islamic state or a state based on Islam’s laws and values but the devil is in the details — the document is completely silent on what these aspirations mean in practice. Would they agree with ISIS to ban music and dancing, forbid girls from attending school, and force women to wear full body burqas? Would they torture political opponents and activist-journalists as ISIS does? Would they slaughter Alawi civilians and destroy or seize churches to turn them into Islamic centers as ISIS has? Would they make Alawis, Shia, Ismailis, and Christians second-class citizens?
The evidence and the practice of the Islamic Front and its component groups (as well as its exclusion of ISIS) to date indicates that the answer to all of these questions is ‘no.’
Syria Freedom Forever’s claim that Army of Islam leader Zahran Alloush threatened democratic activists in Douma and that the Islamic Front “has not hesitated to attack some democratic groups and figures” does not withstand even cursory scrutiny. Civilian activists in Douma rebuked Alloush for his “tone of threats and mistrust” in a nasty round of mutual recriminations that pitted Alloush and his followers against a coalition of local Islamists and secular-minded activists. Attacking someone verbally (or tonally) is worlds apart from attacking them physically and meanly-worded statements are not a serious criteria for evaluating whether a group or coalition is a friend or foe of a democratic Syria. When outspoken Douma-area secular activist Razan Zeitoune was kidnapped, Alloush’s Army of Islam condemned the action, saying “these practices don’t represent us or our faith”while hailing Zeitoune for her courageous work in Ghouta and noting that that the Army of Islam helped get her into Ghouta safely. While Syria Freedom Forever declares that “unity of actions on the military field especially between FSA and the Islamic Front against the regime and the jihadists” is permissible, the FSA already collaborates closely with the ‘jihadist’ Jabhat al-Nusra against the regime even as it prepares for conflict with its present ally in the future.
The Islamic Front’s detail-free vision of an Islamic state contrasts with its explicitness concerning its immediate democratic goals, goals it shares with the whole of the revolution:
“To topple the existing regime in its entirety, with all its obscure remnants, to wipe them out of Syrian existence completely, and to defend the underdogs, their honor and wealth. Toppling the regime means detaching and terminating all its judicial, legislative, and executive authorities along with its army and its security institutions, in addition to prosecuting those who are involved in bloodshed along with their supporters in legitimate, equitable trials.”
While rejecting secularism (or rather a caricature of it), the Islamic Front’s founding declaration indicates openness to the institution of parliament as a means of realizing the Islamic principle of shura, or consultation, which in the West is known as the consent of the governed. There is no anti-Shia or anti-Alawi “sectarian discourse” in the document and contrary to Syrian Freedom Forever’s assertion, not all components or leaders of the front use the “simply unacceptable” discourse that Alloush revels in.
The critical thing to understand is that Islamic Front is not party with a defined platform but an alliance of like-minded but distinct armed brigades. Any effort on their part to outline a coherent, detailed vision of a future Islamic state in Syria would not only lead to serious discord between its component groups but create frictions within each group since their rank-and-file fighters often come from a variety of political perspectives: nationalist, secular, socialist, liberal, conservative. They fight under the banner of Islam despite their personal ideological inclinations because that is where the money, guns, ammunition, and effective organizations are. Pragmatism trumps ideology when revolutionary victory is a matter of survival.
Islamism in general and the Islamic Front in particular is a more mixed, more contradictory phenomenon than the picture painted by Syrian Freedom Forever of an Islamist monolith united in its hostility to the objectives of the revolution.
Progress, Not Perfection
One of the greatest mistakes Western activists and Western-educated Eastern activists make concerning the Arab Spring is misjudging the relationship between Islamist trends and the battle for democracy. The progressive principles they hold dear concerning the rights of women, minority religions, LGBTQs, and secularism serve as a standardized test of democratism that Islamist forces fail by definition, never mind the fact the West’s democratic revolutions would have also failed such a test. The governments created by the American, French, and British bourgeois-democratic revolutions engaged in genocide, colonialism, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade for hundreds of years and enshrined all manner of Judeo-Christian traditions in law and yet revolutions in Muslim-majority countries and/or those led by Islamist forces are dismissed as unworthy of support for being insufficiently progressive, for not legalizing abortion or separating religion from the state as their first and second orders of business after overcoming decades of fascist misrule.
Such an approach must be rejected for the reactionary foolishness that it is.
Progressives must look for progress not perfection in the peoples’ struggles and among the forces partaking in those struggles. Progress and progressiveness are by definition relative and contextual. Compared to the coups and counter-coups that have crippled post-colonial Arab politics for half a century, freely elected governments, peaceful transitions of power, civilian control of the armed forces, and vastly (although not perfectly) expanded freedoms are enormous steps forward while the ouster of Morsi in Egypt and the attendant return of fascist repression is a major regression, the Muslim Brotherhood’s sectarian rhetoric and reactionary anti-woman illiberal politics notwithstanding.
Functioning democratic processes rather than the realization of timeless abstract democratic principles like secularism are the non-negotiables that millions are fighting and dying for in the Arab Spring. The main enemy the masses are struggling to defeat is tyranny, not theocracy.
Furthermore, only by winning the battle for democracy is it possible to win the battle of democracy; only by firmly establishing democratic processes is it possible to win majority opinion in favor of principles like secularism, abortion rights, or gay marriage; only by uniting with Islamists to defeat the old tyrannical regimes can we hope to establish the battleground of democracy on which we will struggle against most of the same Islamists over the conservative and reactionary economic and social policies they favor. As Marx taught, “where it is a matter of a struggle against the existing government, we ally ourselves even with our enemies.”
There is no democratic revolution in the Arab world without — much less against — Islamists so long as they enjoy majority or large minority support and since most Islamist parties favor democratic rather than autocratic political systems. Just as not all Islamic states are identical, not all Islamist trends are created equal; they exist along a spectrum, with outright fascist autocrats like ISIS on one end and liberal Islamists like Egypt’s Abdul Fotouh and Syria’s Moaz al-Khatib on the other. Each Islamist movement, organization, party, and tendency must be carefully evaluated separately instead of conflated and lumped together as one reactionary mass. There are major differences between Islamist trends and the resulting struggle and conflict between them is extremely for the success of both democratic revolutions and governments. For example, when Libya’s freely and fairly elected national legislature (in which the Muslim Brotherhood is not the ruling faction) voted to declare Islamic law the “only source for legislation in Libya” and “above the constitution,” this was not the defeat of the democratic revolution nor the end of the democratic process; indeed, this step was actually condemned by the salafist militia/movement Ansar al-Sharia. In Syria, it was not secular brigades that freed activists accused of ‘secularism’ from ISIS prisons in al-Raqqa but Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya.
That democratic revolutions and the bourgeois-democratic governments they give birth to emerge stamped culturally, politically, and socially by Islam in Muslim majority countries should alarm no one. It could not be any other way.
Three Variants of Islamists
In most countries, the Muslim Brotherhood is the main Islamist organization; its character is bourgeois democratic (not autocratic) since it favors bourgeois-democratic political systems as the means of implementing its program: “Islam is the solution.” Although the Muslim Brotherhood’s mass appeal is conservative, religious, and traditional in nature, it pursues a bourgeois class policy by embracing free markets and neoliberal economics at the expense of its mass following among working people, peasants, farmers, petty proprietors, the poor, and slum dwellers.
Like the Muslim Brotherhood, salafist parties are generally democratic in the sense that they respect the democratic process and eschew clerical rule but are far to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood on social questions. The class policy they pursue is petty bourgeois — the usurious interest rates of the International Monetary Fund and big banks are held to be against the teachings of Islam and they favor a capitalism regulated to protect the “underdog” (to use the term in the Islamic Front’s founding declaration). Salafism as a whole, as a movement, is deeply divided over the newly-born democratic processes taking shape in the Arab world because it is essentially a religious and spiritual movement caught up in a man-made political maelstrom. Salafists in Egypt stood apart from the non-divine January 25 uprising but were among the first to form street patrols protecting women from rape and sexual assault at the hands of male mobs; later, they created parties to participate in the country’s now-smashed democratic system. In Syria, salafists like Hassan Abboud and Zahran Alloush came to prominence after the regime released them from prison in 2011 thanks to the Muslim Brotherhood’s non-existent nature at the grassroots level and their focus on organizing and leading the armed struggle, which became the uprising’s dominant form of struggle from 2012 onward. Ultimately, salafist parties may reject democracy for theocracy and the democratic process for either terrorism or quietism once they realize how worldly and impure the dirty game of politics is, but none of this is inevitable. Political salafism, a distinct trend within Islamism, will be contested and volatile for some time to come.
Syria Freedom Forever refers to the last major trend within the Islamist camp, al-Qaeda, as “jihadist” which, while understandable, is also misleading when the overwhelming majority of Sunni Muslim fighters in Syria see themselves as waging a jihad, a holy war or struggle, to protect innocents from a criminal regime regardless of whether their goal is a global caliphate, an Islamic state, or a civil/secular state. Jihad is not what sets al-Qaeda apart from other Islamists in Syria, it is what they have in common. The term “jihadist” erases a critical distinction that needs to be drawn and properly understood.
What sets ISIS apart from even its al-Qaeda brethren Jabhat al-Nusra is what it wages jihad to accomplish: the establishment of a global caliphate without the borders of man-made nation-states dividing the ummah, the world Muslim community, in which those who deviate from ISIS’s interpretation of Islam — including fellow Islamists — will be killed, tortured, and/or mutilated. ISIS’s takfirism means that they are Islamist in form, fascist in essence. Its rule in al-Raqqa exhibits the classical signs of fascist Bonpartism in which the socially dominant bourgeoisie surrenders political dominance to reactionary brigands. By contrast, Jabhat al-Nusra does not want to rule directly and politically but indirectly and legally through ad hoc sharia courts either unilaterally as in Abu Kamal or multilaterally with other Islamist brigades as in Aleppo. Given Jabhat al-Nusra’s preference for soft power in matters of governance, it is unsurprising that its vision of a post-Assad order consists of councils of Islamic scholars forming a transitional caretaker government to decide the future (whether such scholars would come from the Association of Syrian Scholars that is affiliated with the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the Association of the Scholars of Sham, or some other body is unclear).
Between these two al-Qaeda affiliates there is a fundamental incompatibility despite what appears to be their theoretical, ideological, and religious affinity; this antagonism is even more pronounced between ISIS and the Islamist forces that are independent of al-Qaeda. Until recently, they treated ISIS as a wayward brother to be tolerated and worked with despite his belligerence rather than an enemy to be stamped out and defeated, but thankfully that is changing.
A Two-Front Revolution?
ISIS’s meteoric rise during 2013 compelled liberals like Salim Idris and secularists like Syria Freedom Forever to envision the revolution as a two-front war against the enemy without and within, a simultaneous fight against the regime and against ISIS. In principal this was correct but strategically and tactically difficult to execute for a few reasons:
- As a transnational terrorist organization, ISIS’s united command and control structure stretches far beyond their best-organized rivals whose reach is limited to their locality or region of origin. A serious military campaign against ISIS could not be undertaken solely on a local or regional basis and meant risking an all-out war that could divide and weaken the front lines and therefore strengthen the regime. Regime military victories in Qusayr and Sfira made fighting on two fronts inadvisable throughout most of 2013.
- No brigade or formation had the money, guns, and other resources to fight such a two-front war. ISIS reportedly brought in $8 million a month thanks to its control of the al-Raqqa area.
- As a parasite, ISIS wormed its way into all aspects of the revolution, from the front lines of military campaigns to the rear where it ran social programs (da’wah) and dispensed justice to buy popular support. Because so many of its fighters are foreigners, it could execute people at the behest of makeshift sharia courts without fear of triggering tribal warfare unlike other locally based brigades. For example, ISIS in the Aleppo area executed three men found guilty of raping a 15-year-old girl and carried out a local court’s death sentence for a criminal gang masquerading as an FSA unit to the wild cheers of the formerly terrorized residents.
Just as the armed struggle against the regime could not simply be willed into existence because of abstract necessity or one’s subjective desire, the armed struggle against ISIS had to emerge organically by developing out of the unarmed struggle. During 2013, the war against the regime was direct, military, and offensive while the war against ISIS was indirect, political, and defensive; the Islamic Front was the product of this approach, forming not only only as an offensive alliance against Assad but also as a defensive alliance against ISIS. This is why Alloush invited Jabhat al-Nusra and not ISIS to join the front.
ISIS grew overconfident as 2013 drew to a close, ignoring its deepening political isolation from fellow Islamists. It continually overreached, murdering a number of Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya leaders, imprisoning FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra commanders, and at the end of 2013, targeting Kafranbel, the moral authority of the revolution.
By ransacking the offices of Kafranbel activists and interrogating them about their world-famous banners and cartoons, ISIS crossed the revolution’s red line.
The first nation-wide Friday protests of 2014 were aimed not at the regime but at ISIS for killing and torturing Dr. Hussein al-Suleiman (nom de guerre Abu Rayyan), a physician and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya commander. Referring to his torture and mutilation, the Islamic Front released a statement declaring ISIS’s treatment of him to be “worse than the Assad regime.” These political acts coincided with a multi-pronged military offensive all over the liberated areas by Islamist and non-Islamist brigades alike to remove the ISIS cancer. Half a year of cold war, of steadily, quietly accumulating grievances, wrongs, and injustices boiled over into a hot war in less than 24 hours.
The revolution within the revolution against ISIS was a powerful assertion of its popular, democratic character as well as an illustration of how the fault lines within the Islamist camp are critical to understand and exploit if tyranny in all its guises is to be uprooted, defeated, and destroyed.
Tomorrow’s Foe Is Today’s Friend
To conclude: are Islamists, salafists, and jihadists friends of the revolution or enemies of the people? Most Islamist trends are friends of the first phase of the democratic revolution: the destruction of the old state machine, the destruction of the old tyranny. Again, as Marx taught, “where it is a matter of a struggle against the existing government, we ally ourselves even with our enemies.” Whether a given group, party, coalition, or alliance is an enemy of the people in general or at a given moment depends not on its ideology but on what it does in practice. As revolutionary democrats, socialists are with Islamists insofar as they fight fascism and against Islamists insofar as they forcibly impose their views or otherwise oppress the people.
[Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya members lash shopkeepers in al-Sukkary Aleppo for failing to close their stores during Friday prayers.]
During the second phase of the revolution — the struggle to create a democratic political order — one will divide into two as formerly united Islamist trends split into two camps: those for whom the state’s Islamism takes precedence over its democratism and those for whom the state’s democratism takes precedence over its Islamism. Victory in the struggle for freedom against tyranny will see a new contest develop between theocracy and democracy as expressed in the rival legal systems of Aleppo. Protesters who are today united in demanding the downfall of the regime will also divide over what should replace it and how: who should form a transitional government? Should elections to representative assemblies precede the writing of a new constitution or vice-versa? What role should Islam’s doctrine and clergy play, if any, in the new state? What is the best system to protect the rights of minorities, dissidents, and other oppressed groups like the Kurds? What are the boundaries and limits of newly-won freedoms?
While it is impossible to see whether socialists will stand on the same side as Islamist elements in these future battles, our allegiance will always be to the laboring classes and oppressed peoples; that absolute loyalty will condition any and all momentary alliances we enter into during the long, many-stage fight to establish a society without rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed.