Religious fundamentalism – why is it growing and what is the alternative?

All religions have their fundamentalists; there are Christian fundamentalists, Hindu fundamentalists, Jewish fundamentalists, Buddhist fundamentalists and so on. They all play a reactionary role, and they are all growing in number. All of them believe they are the holders of the absolute truth, while all others are heretics or even the work of the devil himself. They are all used to sow division among toiling people around the world. The phenomenon affects all countries to one degree or another.

We are seeing two phenomena unfolding at the same time. While the old established Churches are seeing a decline, especially in Europe and North America, “new Churches” are emerging and growing, based on a supposedly more orthodox adherence to the original teachings.

In the United States, attendance at mass in the more traditional Churches has been declining. According to the ChurchLeaders website, “In 1990, 20.4 percent of the population attended an Orthodox Christian church on any given weekend. In 2000, that percentage dropped to 18.7 percent and to 17.7 percent by 2004.” The same article quotes the church researcher and author Thom Rainer: “Stated inversely, 94 percent of our churches are losing ground in the communities they serve.”

A similar picture emerges when one looks at statistics on church attendance in Europe. A Guardian article, ‘'Christianity as default is gone': the rise of a non-Christian Europe,’ explains that, “Europe’s march towards a post-Christian society has been starkly illustrated by research showing a majority of young people in a dozen countries do not follow a religion.” In the UK, the article explains, 70 percent of young people identify with no religion and 59 percent never attend religious services.

So advanced is this process that the Catholic Herald published an article last year under the telling title, The scary truth about young Europeans and the Church, which opens thus:

“In his 2003 exhortation Ecclesia in Europa, Pope John Paul II addressed at length the ‘de-Christianisation of vast areas of the European continent’. Citing Christ’s query as to whether, upon his return, he would find faith left on earth (Luke 18:8), the Polish saint asked: ‘Will he find faith in our countries, in this Europe of ancient Christian tradition? This is an open question which clearly reveals the depth and the drama of one of the most serious challenges which our churches are called to face.’

“Fifteen years later, this ‘open question’ remains. In some European countries, moreover, it is one to which no glib assurances are either possible or advisable.”

The Catholic hierarchy is worried indeed! Such is the crisis of the old established Churches in the advanced capitalist countries, that the past position whereby missionaries were sent out from the imperialist countries to convert the colonised peoples to Christianity – a key part in the process of colonisation – has now been reversed, and we see more and more preachers exported from the former colonial countries to the advanced industrialised countries in an attempt to shore up the decline of the official religion.

However, while the more traditional Christian denominations have been in decline, fundamentalist churches have been growing. Thus, while overall church attendance in North America and Europe has been going down over a long period, within this decline, the fundamentalist Christian fringe has been growing, in particular since the 1970s. It is also the case that, in less-developed parts of the world, where life is far more difficult and poverty is widespread (for instance Latin America and Africa) religious practice is on the rise. How does one explain all this?

A better world in the afterlife

All religions promise a better world in the afterlife, in heaven after one’s death, or here on earth once God establishes his “kingdom”. As the Our Father (or Lord’s Prayer) says, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”. This coming of the Kingdom of God is seen as a relief from the sufferings of this world. Heaven is seen as a place where everyone lives in peace, no one suffers, everyone is equal, and so on. Heaven is not seen as a place where people have to do backbreaking work and earn a pittance for it, where people go hungry and are homeless. Heaven has no exploiters, no people making others suffer, and the rich and poor are all on the same level. The desire for such a heaven is in reality the desire for a better world, but as this one is seen as unreformable, a better life is seen as coming after we are dead.

This is all very convenient for the rich of this world, as it distracts attention from the need to fight to change the really existing, class-based, capitalist society we live in. Joe Hill, in his song, ‘The Preacher and the Slave,’ expressed this in the words: “You will eat, bye and bye, In that glorious land above the sky; Work and pray, live on hay; You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”

Heaven Image public domainThe promise of eternal reward for the poor in the afterlife is a very convenient fiction for the rich and powerful in 'this' life, as it diverts attention from class struggle / Image: public domain

Between 1948 and 1973, capitalism experienced the biggest and most powerful boom in its whole history. At least in the advanced capitalist countries, life seemed to be getting better. The horrors of the Second World War seemed to have gone forever. The suffering of the 1930s, with mass unemployment and poverty everywhere, seemed to be at an end. With the boom, in most of the advanced countries, came free healthcare (with the exception of the USA), free education (at least up to high school level), a massive improvement in living standards, rising wages and in general a much better quality of life.

This wasn’t the case in all countries and for all layers of the population, of course. The class nature of society had not changed and that same society produced conflicts both internally and on the international arena. But there was a sense that society was moving forward and that “today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today”. All this was rudely interrupted by the first worldwide recession that came in 1973-74, which marked a turning point. It brought back memories of the past, with growing unemployment, high levels of inflation and the beginning of what was to be a decades-long onslaught on all the gains the workers had made until then.

Crisis of the 1970s and the return to religion

The crisis of the 1970s produced a generalised radicalisation of workers and youth, with huge mobilisations, strikes and student protests. In the same period, we saw a massive influx of new members into the trade unions and a growth of the traditional mass parties of the working class. In Britain, we saw the Labour Party elected on a very left manifesto; in Italy, there was a surge towards the Communist Party, which won its biggest vote ever in 1976; in Greece, Spain and Portugal we saw the collapse of dictatorial regimes under the pressure of revolutionary mass movements. In Vietnam, mighty US imperialism was defeated by a peasant army. There was a worldwide phenomenon of radical left movements everywhere, from Mexico to Chile (which unfortunately ended with the bloody 1973 Pinochet coup), from Pakistan to France, with rumblings also in the Soviet-dominated Eastern bloc, such as Czechoslovakia in 1968 and later in Poland.

Although capitalism was now revealing its limits, the general mood was one of hope that society could be changed through collective class struggle. Unfortunately, those hopes were to be dashed and the mass movements were eventually defeated thanks to the very leaders the masses had placed their hopes in. In one country after another, the leaders of the working class compromised with the capitalist class and rather than building up the movement: they held it back and eventually led to its demise.

Once it became evident that those movements had failed, the initiative returned to the capitalist class. The end of the 1970s saw a series of defeats, preparing the way for the 1980s, in which individualism, and a dog-eat-dog rat race was promoted by the capitalists. This was summed up in Thatcher’s famous quip: “There is no such thing as society”. It is in such conditions that people can start looking elsewhere for hope and consolation.

Religion has gripped the minds of millions for centuries – for millennia. It arose as an attempt to understand the world we live in. It gave answers to why it rains, why there is thunder and lightning, why the sun comes up every day, why there are earthquakes, why we exist. It gave meaning to life itself. Its hold on society, however, began to slip as our understanding of nature and science increased, and the basis was laid for a more rational mode of thinking. This does not mean religion was about to die out. It did, however, push back religion’s influence.

Despite the advance of science, there are still many reasons why people hold onto their religious beliefs. Life is still tough for millions of people and religion provides comfort and consolation. However, it was the increase in material privation – a consequence of the crisis of capitalism – and the fact that class struggle seemed to have failed to provide solutions, that created the impetus for a new turn to religion. The fact that the old, established Churches were partially exposed in the eyes of many people, however, meant that there was a yearning for the genuine, original ideas upon which the various religions were founded. This came with the idea that the old Churches had been corrupted and what was needed was a return to the “true religion”, and with this came Christian fundamentalism.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

An example of Christian fundamentalism are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who see themselves as based on first-century Christianity. This reflects a desire to return to the early Christian communities that divided wealth among all their followers – in effect, living as communists, sharing out their wealth, although without the common ownership of the means of production, as the system they lived under was based on slavery. They believe that everything in the Bible is literally true, that the world was created in six days, and that Adam was created out of dust by God, and so on. They believe that the destruction of the present world system is imminent, and “God's kingdom” on earth is the solution to all the problems faced by society today.

JW Image Flickr Dave ShaverThe corrupted nature of the old Churches gave impetus to more 'authentic' (i.e. fundamentalist) interpretations of faith / Image: Flickr Dave Shaver

In 1966, they predicted that by around 1975, God’s Kingdom on earth would be established. They had actually promised the end of the world several times, each time having to revise their dates as the world had this annoying way of continuing to exist! Every new wave of recruits, of course, was not told about the previous predictions. Accordingly, in the 1970s, they converted a lot of people with this promise, and by 1975, they had over two million members. When their prediction did not come about – yet again – they started losing a lot of the new converts. This is a bit like some ultra-left sects who promise the revolution on Monday morning at 9am, and when it doesn’t come, they lose a lot of their new recruits! Since then, the Jehovah’s Witnesses revised their perspectives again and shifted the end of this world first to the end of the 20th century, and then to some time in the 21st century.

How do the Jehovah’s Witnesses recruit new members? They visit people, asking to talk, and usually they start by pointing to all the problems of present-day society: wars, terrorism, poverty, hunger, violence, etc., and they present themselves as “bearers of good news”. Thus, they prey on people who are worried and stressed by what is happening in the world and seek relief from what seems to be a downward spiral for society.

In a situation where the official labour movement and its organisations have failed to provide an answer as to why society is in such a deep crisis, it is not difficult to see how some people can be attracted by the simple answer that all this was predicted by the Lord and that the Bible has all the answers! They prey on people who have suffered a personal tragedy, lost a child, a partner and so on, promising them they will be reunited with them once God creates his Kingdom on Earth. One can understand how this belief can bring immense consolation and peace of mind to the poor souls who are attracted to it.

Marx on religion

Karl Marx understood very well the role of religion. He is often quoted as saying that religion is the “opium of the people”. He said a lot more than that and it is worth quoting at length:

“The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

“The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” (from Marx’s ‘Introduction’ to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, December 1843-January 1844).

Marx here shows a deep understanding of why people are religious when he explains that, to ask them to give up on their religious illusions, means removing the conditions that require that illusion. What this means is that, so long as the material conditions of poverty and want continue to exist, so too will the need to escape from those conditions, at least in the “spiritual” sense.

That is why, as Marxists, we have little time for the militant atheism of the likes of Richard Dawkins, who treats working people with religious beliefs as a mass of ignorant, backward people to be enlightened by rational bourgeois thinkers such as himself. However, he wants to remove religion, but not the material conditions that render religion a necessity! He is happy to see class society continue, with its rich and poor, exploiters and exploited, capitalists and workers.

Marxists have far more in common with the millions of workers and peasants around the world who adhere to some form of religious belief than with people like Richard Dawkins. It will be the millions of working people, religious or not, who will rise up and fight this oppressive capitalist system. By doing so, they will lay the foundations for a future society that will use the material resources, created by generations of workers, to provide everyone with a decent living. Once that is achieved, the need for religion as a relief from the miseries of life will gradually die away.

Poverty and the quest for a better life

Today, however, poverty is growing around the world and millions, in fact billions, of human beings are suffering. And it seems never-ending. Since the 1970s, things have got worse, and although there have been ups and downs in the economy, with periods of booms, interspersed with recessions, in terms of hours worked, welfare available, etc., there has been a constant and growing pressure on ordinary working people everywhere.

In this seemingly hopeless situation, it is not at all surprising that some people are turning to religion for solace. And it is precisely because of the depth of the crisis and the profound suffering of people that the fundamentalist version of each religion is proving more attractive.

Elizabeth Gabhart, Professor in the Sociology Department at the University of North Texas, makes an interesting comment on this very point:

“…conservative and fundamentalist churches have continued to gain new members because they offer believers intense emotional experiences, specific moral guidance, a feeling of belonging to an exclusive group, satisfying ritual, assurance of Heaven, and enthusiastic commitment. Even though it’s counter-intuitive, groups that require more of members usually get more commitment from their members. People actually crave belonging to organizations which require them to sacrifice. Strict churches fulfil members in ways that moderate and liberal churches cannot.”

It doesn’t take much to see that this is a good description of what people seeking solace find in these Churches. And it is not just in the United States that we see this phenomenon. We see it on a huge level across Latin America and in countries like Nigeria with the phenomenon of “born-again Christians” and all kinds of “new Churches”. In reality, these Churches are good businesses for those who open them, but for the people turning to them, they offer hope and a better life, and an escape from the hell they are already living in.

Northern Ireland

Today, we are constantly fed the story that religious violence is invariably Muslim, but the history of Ireland, for example, shows that this is not at all the case. Over a 30-year period, more than 3,500 people were killed, both Protestants and Catholics, ostensibly in the name of a religious difference.

Paisley Image Flickr Burns Library BostonRev. Ian Paisley and the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster is an example of a new, ultra-reactionary Church emerging from the crisis of the old established Churches / Image: Flickr, Burns Library Boston

We have a local variation of Christian fundamentalism in the North of Ireland, where religious differences have been used by British imperialism to divide the people so as to guarantee imperialism’s continued control over that part of the island. The DUP has strong roots in the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, which was founded by the arch-reactionary politician, and fundamentalist Protestant, Ian Paisley. The Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster is an example of a new Church emerging from the crisis of the old established Churches.

As reported in the Guardian, in 1986 Paisley declared to a rally whose purpose was to launch Ulster Resistance:

“Every Ulsterman must be recruited to resist – by whatever means the situation demands – those who would drive us against our wills into an all-Ireland republic.”

The same article continues:

“The following year, Ulster Resistance joined forces with the two established loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA), to smuggle an enormous arsenal of weapons into the province, including about 200 Czech-made assault rifles called VZ58s and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition.

“Over the next 17 years, these VZ58s would be used in the murder or attempted murder of about 70 people in Northern Ireland. In the early 90s, they were used in three massacres: gunmen stood at the doors of a bookmaker’s shop and two bars, and simply sprayed the room. Nineteen people died and 27 were wounded.”

Like many Christian fundamentalist churches, the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster takes every word of the Bible as being literally true and considers all other Churches as heretical. It is right-wing, anti-abortion and opposes same-sex marriage. In the past, many of its adherents would have been involved in the killing of Catholics. And yet, the present government of the United Kingdom only survives thanks to these reactionary bigots.

The rise of Pentecostalism and the crisis of Catholicism

The old, established Catholic Church is also clearly living through a crisis. The scandal of child abuse involving Catholic priests around the world and the widespread corruption of the clergy have produced a crisis among Catholics. The retirement of Pope Benedict XVI brought out sharply how deep that crisis had become. It was experienced by Roman Catholics as a spiritual earthquake that has shaken many. The bringing in of Pope Francis – not by chance, from Latin America – is an attempt to rebuild the authority of the Catholic Church.

The role of the Church in capitalist society is to guide working people away from radical class politics, to play the role of mediator between the classes and preserve the status quo. The Catholic Church hierarchy is fully aware of the development of Marxism and its view of society. In a previous article we published, Luiz Bicalho quotes Pope Benedict's encyclical writings in which he stated that:

“With great precision, albeit with a certain one-sided bias, Marx described the situation of his time, and with great analytical skill he spelled out the paths leading to revolution—and not only theoretically: by means of the Communist Party that came into being from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, he set it in motion. His promise, owing to the acuteness of his analysis and his clear indication of the means for radical change, was and still remains an endless source of fascination. Real revolution followed, in the most radical way in Russia.”

However, as if to console the ruling classes of today that the nightmare of Communism has vanished, he added:

“Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem: revolution and the subsequent collectivization of the means of production, so it was claimed, would immediately change things for the better. This illusion has vanished.”

That is what the Catholic hierarchy hopes, at least. But the class struggle has not gone away as recent events around the world only too eloquently confirm. And it is precisely the contradictions of class society that have impounded on the Catholic Church itself, which explains why it is losing influence.

In much of Latin America, where Christianity, particularly in the form of Catholicism, has been the dominant religion, the growth of fundamentalism is marked by a situation where significant numbers of people, in particular poor people, who have come to feel that the Catholic Church has failed them, are being drawn into various forms of Protestant fundamentalism, such as Pentecostalism, which combines forms of religious fanaticism with a rhetoric that claims to speak in the name of the poor and oppressed. In parts of Africa, particularly among masses crowded into the shanty town slums, Christian fundamentalism, including Pente­costalism, is a growing phenomenon, at the same time as Islamic fundamentalism is also growing.

Pentecostal Christianity has around 300 million followers worldwide, mostly among the poor and migrants. Millions of people in Latin America over recent years have left the Roman Catholic Church to join the Pentecostals. Pentecostalism places a lot of emphasis on faith healing, and this is one of its major attractive attributes. Could that be to do with the fact that many poor people in many parts of Latin America have little or no access to free public healthcare? As is often the case, despite the supposed spiritualism of the various Churches, there are strong material reasons for adhering to them, i.e. an apparent easy road to a better life.

As Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, explains:

“In the case of the poor, they are especially attracted to prosperity theology, also known as the health and wealth gospel. It gives people hope that they can move up regardless of their station. People are told that, with sufficient faith and active petition of God, eventually the things that you want in life will be yours. That’s a very powerful message to someone who has very little.” (‘Why has Pentecostalism grown so dramatically in Latin America?’ 14 November 2014)

Chesnut gives some interesting insights into why Pentecostalism has thrived in Latin America, and explains that the Catholic Church has been forced to become more spiritual in the face of this growing phenomenon. As he says, “We’re talking here about a religious free market, and in such a market you have to offer people attractive options if you want to succeed.” Again, the growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America has been a phenomenon of the past 30 years or so: a period of growing austerity, together with a massive polarisation of wealth, where millions become poorer and the few become richer. To go back to Joe Hill, the poor are promised “pie in the sky” in the sweet by and by, while the rich have their pie in the here and now!

Jewish fundamentalism

Fundamentalism, however, is not growing solely among Christians. The Jewish religion, for example, also has its fundamentalist versions. Paradoxically, some of these are opposed to the creation of Israel, because they think that can only be achieved by God and not by human endeavour. Nonetheless, religious Zionism has been established and it is what Israel was built around. It is based on the belief that the Land of Israel was promised to the ancient Israelites by God and as such it remained by right the homeland of the Jews, despite the fact that that land had been inhabited by Palestinians for centuries, and that, to create Israel, a whole people had to be expelled from their homeland.

Michael Ben Ari Image אהוד אמיתוןThe Otzma Yehudit party in Israel has threatened to kill Arabs and supports seizure of Palestinian territory on religious grounds / Image: אהוד אמיתון

Now Israel exists, and Marxists recognise the right of the Israeli Jews to a homeland. However, after the United Nations granted a part of Palestine to the Jews, there remained a significant territory inhabited mainly by Palestinians. This is now slowly being whittled down and Israel is gradually absorbing more territory. Trump has just recognised Israel’s right to claim the Golan Heights, formally part of Syria, while the West Bank is being ‘Bantustanised,’ i.e. broken up into separate pockets surrounded by Israeli settlements. Netanyahu recently stated that he would proceed to annex the Jewish settlements on Palestinian Territory to Israel proper.

The settlers base their right to steal Palestinian territory on a fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism. They are also mainly arch-reactionary right-wing fanatics, who are now oppressing another people. It is not by chance that progressive people in Israel do not look too kindly on these zealots.

Another dimension is, of course, the latest use of “anti-Semitism” as an accusation to be thrown at anyone on the left who opposes Zionism. See Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism: setting the record straight for more on this.

Hindu fundamentalism

In India, we also see how a reactionary agenda is being promoted with the aid of Hindu fundamentalism, aimed against Muslims, but in reality buttressing Indian capitalism. Hinduism is used as a symbol of Indian nationalism, and parties like the reactionary, right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, or “the Party of the Indian People.”), together with its Rashtriya Swayamesevak Sangh (RSS), a so-called “self-defence” force associated with the BJP, are used to promote anti-Muslim sentiment. Hindu fundamentalism raises the spectre of Islam as a threat to “Indian culture”.

We saw to what extent Hindu fundamentalism can be used to whip up anti-Muslim sentiment back in 1992 when the “Mosque of Bābur” in Ayodhya was demolished by a mob of Hindu nationalists. In the rioting that followed, more than 1,000 people were killed. In this we see how it continues in the tradition of Partition itself, which saw Muslims and Hindus pitted against each other, with millions perishing in the course of the “ethnic cleansing” that ensued during the break up of India as it was and the creation of Pakistan – and later Bangladesh – and present-day India.

The conflict between Muslims and Hindus was consciously promoted by British imperialism in its tried and tested method of divide-and-rule: seeking ways of pitting the peoples of the Indian subcontinent against each other so that colonisation could be facilitated. It continues to fester as the Pakistani ruling class and the Indian ruling class, both unable to provide all of their people with the basic necessities of life, use religious beliefs to their own advantage. In the meantime, both Muslim and Hindu workers and peasants continue to live in poverty.

Buddhist fundamentalism

Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion in the world, with its more than 520 million followers, half of which live in China and the rest in Thailand, Japan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, India and Malaysia.

In the 1960s, Buddhism began to attract a layer of people beyond its traditional strongholds and became quite popular in the West. Many well-known personalities in the music industry and cinema were attracted to it as its lack of gods made it a kind of non-religious religion. This was part of the same process described above, searching for something better than the corrupt, traditional Churches.

anti rohingya protests Image Daily StarExtremist, nationalist Buddhism is a rising phenomenon in countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar / Image: Daily Star

The BBC definition of this religion is as follows: “Buddhism is a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development. Buddhists strive for a deep insight into the true nature of life and do not worship gods or deities.” Therein lies its attractiveness for some. However, there is another side to Buddhism, and we have seen this in countries where it has been the traditional religion such as Sri Lanka and Burma.

In Burma, we have ‘hardline’ Buddhist nationalists, who have targeted the country’s Muslim minority. Ma Ba Tha, a group led by ultranationalist Buddhist monks, is one example. Ashin Wirathu, the leader of Ma Ba Tha, has spent time in prison for inciting violence against Muslims. See ‘Can Anyone Stop Burma’s Hardline Buddhist Monks?’ for more details.

In Sri Lanka, we have the Bodu Bala Sena, who are used as a tool of reactionary, right-wing Sinhala nationalism. It claims to merely defend the rights of Sinhala people, but in practice it directs most of its activities against the Muslim minority of Sri Lanka, complaining about the burqa, the building of “too many” mosques and so on.

As with all religions, where Buddhism is a mass phenomenon, it is used by the ruling classes as an instrument to divide people along religious/ethnic lines and preserve the status quo.

Growing poverty levels and radicalisation of Muslim youth

Across the Middle East, but also in countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan, and even in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, we see the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. The historical roots of this movement were in the reactionary petit-bourgeois and pre-capitalist classes, which saw a threat in the rise of capitalism on the one hand, and the working-class movement on the other.

In modern times, this movement has been joined by poor, lumpenised and declassed youth, who reacted to the imperialist wars on Muslim majority countries in the past period. The movement appears in various forms, the most extreme having become an armed political movement, which has taken on an important role as a bulwark of reaction against progressive left developments. On this, the interests of the Islamists and of imperialism converge. That explains why the United States governments have a long history of using Islamic fundamentalists to defend their interests against a rising tide of class struggle. There is, in fact, a certain analogy that can be made between extreme Islamic fundamentalists and fascists, as both are used as tools to fight the organised working class.

In Afghanistan, the use of such forces developed in a big way after the 1978 Saur Revolution. US imperialism had as its objective the removal of Afghanistan from the Soviet sphere of influence. They declared reactionary Islamic fundamentalists as “freedom fighters” and started, through Saudi Arabia, funding and supporting these groups. This was the origin of the rise of the Taliban, who were used to destroy all the progressive reforms achieved by the Saur Revolution – such as the abolition of the selling of women, for example!

1024px Reagan sitting with people from the Afghanistan Pakistan region in February 1983 Image public domainUS imperialism has historically leaned on fundamentalist Islam to pursue its interests in the Middle East, which gave rise to the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and later to ISIS / Image: public domain

The Taliban were to become a Frankenstein's monster of US imperialism. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, these outfits assumed interests of their own, not always in line with those of their past masters. Along with the Taliban we saw the development of al-Qaeda and from this we saw the metamorphosis into ISIS in the more recent period.

Despite their officially-espoused policy of opposition to the Islamic fundamentalists, even after the events of 9/11, the US has continued to use these groups, in particular in Syria and Libya. In Syria, the intervention of the West, together with Turkey and the Gulf States, was a direct reason for the rise of ISIS. And to this day, the West continues to give tacit support to the Jihadi Al-Qaeda linked group, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, which dominates the north-western Idlib governorate of Syria. These groups are being used in the proxy wars between regional and international powers. But most importantly, they were supported and nurtured to cut across the Arab Revolution, which started in 2011 and was spreading like wildfire throughout the region. In countries such as Iraq and Syria, US imperialism and the local ruling class consciously nurtured religious sectarianism in order to divert thousands of youth who were beginning to mobilise against them.

Racism suffered by Muslim youth

There have been several imperialist military interventions in the Muslim world in recent years, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Syria to Libya. Yemen has been crushed, literally starved to death by the Saudis, while the ‘democratic’, liberal West has turned a blind eye. Millions have been killed and many more have had to flee their homes, suffering in terrible conditions.

While the Western powers have always claimed they were intervening militarily to spread democracy and to ‘liberate’ the peoples of these countries from despotic regimes, in reality they were killing hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people, destroying infrastructure and destabilising these countries, all in the interest of imposing the will of the imperialists, which reflects the interests of the multinational corporations that have benefitted from these wars. This could not fail to provoke anger and indignation among the people on the receiving end of the bombings, and in particular the youth.

Meanwhile, in the West, another process has been taking place. The social and economic crisis has deepened worldwide, reaching the most advanced capitalist countries. Greater inequality has destabilised the capitalist world, with a growing polarisation of wealth, with the poor becoming poorer and the rich richer.

The Muslim population in the more advanced capitalist countries has been affected particularly badly during this crisis. Poverty, for example, now affects 50 percent of Muslim households in the UK, where the equivalent for the rest of the population is 18 percent. The Muslim Council of Britain provides detailed figures in its report based on the 2011 census. Unemployment levels are also much higher among Bangladeshis (15 percent) and Pakistanis (10 percent), than the rest of the population. In the period 2014-16, Bangladeshi and Pakistani families had an average annual income of almost £9,000 less than white British families.

At the same time, racist hysteria is being raised against Muslims – and immigrants in general – blaming them for the austerity and general decline of living standards which the ruling class has imposed on the whole of the working class. In Britain, for instance, Islamophobia is the fastest growing form of hate crime.

According to the Guardian:

“Muslims living in Britain – a large minority at around 2.8 million people – are more likely to have negative experiences than other religious groups. They are more likely than Christians, people with no religion and other smaller religions to be stopped by the police, left out of social functions at work or college and find that people seem not to want to sit next to them on public transport.” (2 December 2018)

The same survey shows that “43 percent of those from a minority ethnic background had been overlooked for a work promotion in a way that felt unfair in the last five years – more than twice the proportion of white people (18 percent) who reported the same experience.”

Meanwhile, 38 percent of people in minority groups reported that they had been wrongfully accused of shoplifting! As opposed to 14 percent amongst white people. All of this is compounded by endless daily acts of harassment and prejudice, which confront immigrants, in particular Muslims, on a daily basis.

The main promoters of this harrassment are reactionary bourgeois politicians who demagogically blame immigrants for the lack of resources, which in turn is used to justify the austerity being imposed on the working class. All this explains the growing resentment and radicalisation of a layer of Muslim youth in Britain and other countries.

The youth in general are being radicalised by many issues. The recent climate change protests are indicative of this youth radicalisation. The problem is that the traditional left has failed to channel this anger of the youth in a positive way.

A recent Onward poll in Britain has revealed that only 16 percent of under-35s would vote for the Conservatives. The rise of Corbyn within the Labour Party is a partial expression of this radicalisation. Bourgeois commentators begrudgingly acknowledge the fact that, among the youth, Corbyn is very popular. However, we are still in the early stages of a radical change of the Labour Party. At a local level, the old right wing still dominates in many constituencies, and we still have Labour councils merely passing on Tory cuts to the wider population.

If the mass workers’ organisations, both the trade unions and their political expressions, were to offer a revolutionary way out of the crisis society finds itself in, a significant layer of the Muslim youth could be united with the rest of the youth in a joint struggle to change society. Unfortunately, in most countries, the labour movement has been either silent or directly piling in on the anti-Muslim hysteria created by the right wing, calling for immigration controls for instance, in an environment where discrimination against immigrants, and Muslims in particular has been on the rise.

In this vacuum on the left, a layer of the Muslim youth, which is looking for a concrete way out of the present crisis – with rising poverty levels, unemployment, all peppered with the growing racism – can fall prey to Islamic fundamentalists who preach ideas such as the “Caliphate”, presenting it as some form of idyllic paradise on earth, where all the social needs of the people will be catered for: a kind of welfare state. This includes a guaranteed income for all, and so on.

Similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it is seen as establishing a single state – or God’s Kingdom, under God's law. Such an idyllic state, however, is not to be achieved through class struggle. Such an idea is anathema to all religions. No, the idyllic state would have a leader, who, with God’s blessing, would guarantee justice, law and order, and cater for the poor. Thus, it is based on the benign leader: clearly a reactionary utopian illusion, for its purpose is to hold back working people from taking up the class struggle to solve their problems, thereby preserving class society with all its injustices.

English Defence League protest in Newcastle Image David LynnPoverty, and racism at the hands of groups like the EDL, create fertile ground for radicalisation of British Muslims / Image: Flickr, David Lynn

At the same time, these reactionary groups stand for the destruction of science and culture, presented as evils of modern civilisation. They couch this in ‘anti-imperialist’ rhetoric and present themselves as fighting the foreign oppressors. In reality, they collaborate with imperialism in fighting the only real force that can liberate humanity, the working class. This explains why they are also for the crushing of the organisations of the workers and the poor, such as the unions and the working-class parties. Thus, they express a most reactionary and barbaric form of capitalism, in the service of both imperialists and the local elites.

However, we have to ask ourselves: how did an organisation like ISIS succeed in attracting a layer of youth to this ideal? And the answer lies in the racist hysteria against Muslims, along with the lack of a clear, anti-capitalist, revolutionary stance on the part of the leaders of the working class. At the same time, many so-called left and trade union leaders have played along with the racist rhetoric of the right wing, and actively supported the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in turn further radicalised a layer of the Muslim youth. The Tories carry out draconian social and economic policies, making life ever more difficult for ordinary working-class people and, as we have seen, the Muslim population is particularly affected by this.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party at a local level has continued with cuts in council spending, and at a national level we have a struggle between the right wing around Tom Watson, and the Corbyn wing of the party. Let us not forget that what Watson is fighting for is to continue with the old politics of the Blairite New Labour, i.e. with austerity, privatisation and so on. Under Blair, this was also the party that embarked on the Iraq war, and also made concessions to anti-Muslim rhetoric, with its calls for immigration controls, helping to create an atmosphere of fear of foreigners “taking our jobs, our houses”, etc.

Parties like UKIP rose on the back of anti-immigrant propaganda. When UKIP won a section of the working class, we were told that in order to win them back we needed to take on some of their anti-immigrant rhetoric. And yet, back in 2017 we saw how a Corbyn-led Labour Party was able to win back a section of this working-class vote. That was because Corbyn campaigned on the issues affecting working-class people, such as cuts to the NHS and austerity in general. A Labour Party fighting on such issues can unite the working class across all ethnic divisions.

White supremacism and Christian identity

The other side of the coin of this situation is that poverty, bad housing, falling real wages, cuts to benefits and so on have also affected large layers of the non-Muslim population. The year 2017 saw the largest rise in poverty since Margaret Thatcher was in power. This is according to figures provided by the Resolution Foundation. According to a Guardian article:

“[M]ore than 14 million people, including 4.5 million children, are living below the breadline, with more than half trapped in poverty for years…12 percent of the total UK population is in ‘persistent’ poverty, meaning that they have spent all or most of the last four years below the breadline…”

Where the official left abdicates its role of providing an explanation as to why this is happening and what can be done about it, an opening is provided for far-right propaganda. This creates the conditions in which openly-fascist organisations can operate.

An extreme form of Christian fundamentalism, for example, is “Christian Identity”. It is openly racist and white supremacist, believing that only Germanic or Nordic “white” people are the true inheritors of the ancient Israelites, and thus God’s “chosen people”. It is not a Church as such, but a far-right, fascist fringe adheres to these ideas, and many of the so-called “lone wolf” terrorist attacks have been carried out by individuals or groups who adhere to this kind of thinking.

We had the famous incident in Norway in 2011, when the openly fascist Anders Breivik, killed 77 people in two attacks, and the more recent attack in Christchurch, New Zealand that had similar connotations, with the perpetrator claiming he was defending the European identity, European culture and so on.

Such attacks tend to be buried and forgotten, while the spectre of Islamic terrorism is constantly fed to us by the media. The Anti-Defamation League in the United States, however, released a report in January, which revealed the following:

“In 2018, domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the U.S., a sharp increase from the 37 extremist-related murders documented in 2017, though still lower than the totals for 2015 (70) and 2016 (72). The 50 deaths make 2018 the fourth-deadliest year on record for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970. The extremist-related murders in 2018 were overwhelmingly linked to right-wing extremists. Every one of the perpetrators had ties to at least one right-wing extremist movement, although one had recently switched to supporting Islamist extremism. White supremacists were responsible for the great majority of the killings, which is typically the case.”

Most deaths from such terrorist attacks are carried out by white extremists, and yet they do not lead to the widespread condemnation that we hear when the attack is classed as Islamic terrorism. Thus, the media, consciously promotes the idea that the threat of terrorism comes from Muslims, when in actual fact it is far-right, white ‘Christians’ who represent the biggest threat of violence in the United States, for example.

Is the rise of the far-right unstoppable?

The leaders of the working class have a responsibility in all this, because they are not offering a way out from this growing nightmare scenario. That explains how the far right – in partnership with the more “respectable” Tory right – can step in and offer another (racist) solution. They point the accusing finger at immigrants as being the cause of lack of jobs, lack of affordable housing, etc. The same politicians who use anti-immigrant rhetoric, talking about the need for immigration controls, etc., also make sure that asylum seekers are most often housed in the poorest areas, while the highest income areas very often have no asylum seekers whatsoever, (according to research carried out by the Guardian). This is designed to heighten ethnic tensions.

In a situation where jobs are becoming more scarce, people are being forced to work longer hours and in more precarious conditions, while benefits and social services are being cut, a section of the population can fall prey to the propaganda of right-wing politicians who exploit this situation to promote their own agenda.

Are we therefore condemned to live in a world of growing divides between peoples? Are we destined to see an inexorable growth of both reactionary religious fundamentalism, in all its forms, and far-right political groups? If we were to listen to many so-called left intellectuals and commentators the situation would appear as dire indeed. But that would be to look merely at the surface of the situation and not see what is developing in the depths of society.

In 1905, what was to become the first Russian Revolution, started as a protest led by Father Gapon, an Orthodox Christian priest. The Russian workers, who would go on to make three revolutions between 1905 and October 1917, started out with many prejudices, including religious prejudices. Part of this was also anti-Semitic prejudice fomented by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Only just over 20 years earlier – from 1881 to 1884 – a big wave of anti-Jewish rioting had swept across parts of the Russian empire, notably Ukraine and Poland. Then, just before and after the 1905 revolution, there was an even bloodier wave of pogroms (1903-06) leading to the death of around 2,000 Jews. Between 1881 and 1917, there was official state persecution of Jews. The Tsarist state actively promoted this anti-Semitic activity as a means of distracting attention from the real enemy: the Tsarist monarchy and the capitalists and landlords that backed it. One could easily have drawn the conclusion that the situation was hopeless.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks, however, combatted this poison from a revolutionary socialist standpoint. At the end of March 1919 Lenin gave a speech in which he said the following:

“It is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries. Among the Jews there are working people, and they form the majority. They are our brothers, who, like us, are oppressed by capital; they are our comrades in the struggle for socialism. Among the Jews there are kulaks, exploiters and capitalists, just as there are among the Russians, and among people of all nations. The capitalists strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races. Those who do not work are kept in power by the power and strength of capital. Rich Jews, like rich Russians, and the rich in all countries, are in alliance to oppress, crush, rob and disunite the workers.

“Shame on accursed tsarism which tortured and persecuted the Jews. Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations.

“Long live the fraternal trust and fighting alliance of the workers of all nations in the struggle to overthrow capital.” (Lenin on Anti-Jewish Pogroms, recorded end of March 1919)

It was in the course of the revolutionary uprising against the old regime that workers across Russia came together as a class, uniting people of all ethnicities and all religions. The workers and peasants came to understand through common struggle that their enemies were not the people of different religions, languages or cultures, but the exploiter classes, both the landlords and the capitalists of all countries.

It is not by chance that Marx and Engels ended their Communist Manifesto with the famous words, “Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Revolutionary leadership is required

In order to cut across the growing influence of both religious fundamentalism and far-right ideologies, what is required is a leadership of the working class that explains the real causes of capitalist crisis, why there is growing poverty and unemployment, why wars and terrorism are on the rise, and that the only way to put an end to all this is through the revolutionary overthrow of the system which is at the root of this living hell: the capitalist system.

By expropriating the major multinational and national corporations, the working people of the world would have in their hands the material resources to end the present nightmare. It seems to billions of people that the world is tobogganing towards a disaster, which to some people appears as a nearing of the end of the world, as predicted in various religious scriptures. What is approaching, however, is not the end of the world, but the end of this class-based society.

What this means is that capitalist society can no longer run its affairs in the old ways. The problem is that no one is offering a concrete alternative. But an alternative does exist. It is a society where the immense wealth produced on a global scale is placed under the control of those who produce it.

Last year, the number of billionaires worldwide reached 2,208 people, with a combined wealth of US$9.1trillion. No one can earn that amount through the “sweat of their brow”, as some would have us believe. It is the “unpaid wages of the working class”, as Marx put it. Expropriating that wealth and placing it under the control of the workers of the world would allow us to begin building a paradise in this life: the only one there is.

Once that process begins, then the “vale of tears” that Marx referred to would come to an end, and with it, the desire for a better world after we are gone. That would finally put an end to religious fundamentalism in all its forms, and would remove the need for religion in general. And that is why it is an urgent task to build a Marxist tendency in all countries, the bearer not only of rational, scientific thinking, but also of a global economic programme that can offer the workers of the world a way out.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.