#57 - Religious fundamentalism : an instrument of political reaction

November 2001

Back to US basics

To begin with, what is religious fundamentalism? In fact, this phrase has come to encompass a wide range of political currents which are connected one way or another to religion - sometimes quite artificially. These currents share one common objective: to shape the organisation of society, both socially and politically, according to religious principles, in the name of a return to the "true origins" of religion. But, as it happens, such currents are not limited to Islam nor even to the poor countries.

The first modern self-proclaimed fundamentalist current dates from the beginning of the 20th century. Contrary to common prejudice, it did not emerge out of the backwardness of a poor country. In fact it was formed in what was then already the world's largest economy, the USA. Between 1910 and 1915, a dissident faction of Protestant laymen produced a compendium of twelve volumes entitled "The fundamentals: a testimony of the truth". They adopted the label of "fundamentalists". This current was a reaction to a combination of factors - the inflow of Catholic immigrants in the latter part of the 19th century, which threatened the dominant position of Protestantism, the rise of social unrest and class polarisation and the progress of scientific thought. So these original fundamentalists stood for a literal reading of the Bible, claiming, for instance, that such lunacies as the Genesis explanation for the origin of life had a scientific foundation, as opposed to Darwin's "heretical" conception of evolution.

These fundamentalists were a motley crew coming from very different backgrounds, although usually from the most reactionary layers of the middle class. Occasionally, however, they found common ground. Such was the case, for instance, in 1925, during the high-profile trial of John T. Scopes, a high-school teacher accused of teaching evolution theory in violation of a law adopted earlier that year in the state of Tennessee - a law which remained in force until 1967! Scopes was fined $100, although the state supreme court quashed the ruling later on. But this trial was a major platform for one of the fundamentalists' favourite hobby horses - what they called the "science of creation". Since then hundreds of books have been devoted to substantiating this so- called "science". A "Creation Evidence Museum" has even been set up at Glen Rose, in George Bush's own state, Texas, to display "scientific" proof of creation - for instance human footprints allegedly dating back to the dinosaur era, a fossilised human foot in a boot, a fossilised human finger, etc.. What does it matter to these fundamentalists if these laughable proofs either prove nothing or else, are pure and simple fabrication - since their targets are only the weak and the gullible?

Indeed from the small number of dissident bigots of the early 20th century, the US fundamentalists have developed and diversified on a very large scale, using a wide variety of labels which, despite superficial nuances, cover the same ideological phenomenon. Today, out of the existing 60 million born-again Christians in the US, about half describe themselves as fundamentalists. They are organised in a galaxy of churches, congregations and sects of all kinds. The Traditional Values Coalition, for instance, regroups 31,000 different churches. But these churches have to compete for their audience. So, following in the track of the fundamentalist evangelist Jerry Falwell, dozens of them have turned to radio and television preaching, producing media stars like Billy Graham or Pat Robertson. At the same time, the fundamentalists exercise their social influence through thousands of groups for doctors, lawyers, businessmen, nurses, etc.., which provide professional services as well as moral guidance and operate much like a sort of free-masonry. In addition, most university and campuses have their own chapters of groups like the Christian Fellowship and the Crusade for Christ.

Predictably this fundamentalist milieu leans towards the right of the political spectrum, if not the far-right. So various Christian political groupings have emerged on the margins of the US political scene - the largest being the Christian Coalition which claims 1.5 million members. Their lobbying of government has become more vocal since the late 1970s. Their fight against evolution is still going on and a few states have recently introduced legislation in favour of creationism in education. They also wage high-profile campaigns in favour of the USA being declared a Christian Republic and for the introduction of compulsory prayers in state schools.

But it is in their fight against abortion rights that the fundamentalists have shown their real face most clearly. Having failed to get politicians like Reagan to take concrete steps to prohibit abortion, the fundamentalists proceeded to resort to direct action through anti-abortion groups like Operation Rescue. This included systematic picketing and harassment of staff and patients at abortion clinics, physical assaults but also arson and shooting attacks as well as bombings. To the extent that by the early 1990s, it had become impossible to get an abortion in 83% of all US counties - not due to prohibition but to the fear created by the anti-abortion groups.

In fact between these anti-abortion fundamentalists and the white supremacist terrorists who made the headlines after the bombing which killed 168 people in Oklahoma, in 1995, there is a very thin line. Bush claims to defend "American values" - which seem to include, in his view, numerous religious references. But the fact is that these "values" have also produced their own fanatical terrorists!

Religion and social order

The core ideas of the various brands of fundamentalism go back very far into the past. Indeed, the idea of using religion as a mantle to cover the injustices of class exploitation is a very old one.

There are many myths in this respect. Early Christianity, for instance, is usually described as the religion of the slaves during the last centuries of the Roman empire. But in fact, there is nothing in the recognised Christian writings which suggests that the slaves should be freed, let alone that they should do anything to emancipate themselves. On the contrary early Christian rules advocated a blind acceptance of the existing social order and prescribed social behaviours designed to make this order less unbearable. And in fact, the need to protect the existing social order was considered so vital that in 324 AD a synod explicitly condemned as un-Christian those who would encourage slaves to free themselves or avoid their duties. By the end of the same century, St Augustin went even further when he described slavery as being the sentence imposed by God on sinners and invited them "to remain obedient and to serve with their hearts and goodwill." No wonder the various Christian churches went on to serve the social order of the feudal system and then the capitalist system.

It is for the same reason that, subsequently, the Christian religions provided the colonial bourgeoisies with large contingents of missionaries whose role was to provide a social basis for the conquest and looting of the colonies in South America, Africa and Asia. And even when some of these missionaries did protest against the exactions of the colonial thugs, this did not and could not change anything to the reactionary social role played by the Church as a whole, as an agent of colonisation.

Even today, the myriad of church-based NGOs in the Third World may seem to be doing a good job within the limits of their resources - even though it is only a drop in an ocean of poverty. But one should never forget that taken as a whole the molecular work of these NGOs has a social function - to keep the exploited masses in a state of dependance while creating a local cadre of people who have a stake in maintaining good relations with the imperialist powers which fund these NGOs. It is not for nothing that the fundamentalists of the US Pentecostal Church are so active in sending missionaries to the Third World. In Haiti, for instance, after the overthrow of Duvalier's dictatorship in the late 1980s, the island was literally flooded with such preachers looking for people to enrol. And clearly, as subsequent events showed, they were not there to alleviate the drastic poverty of the Haitian poor, but to contain their militancy - they were merely a transmission belt for the US government and US capital.

It is important that the past and present reactionary role of the various Christian churches should be kept in mind and exposed without ambiguity. And while we have many reasons to be worried by the rise of fundamentalism in the Third World today, we should denounce the hypocrisy of those who raise the threat of Islamic fundamentalism while turning a blind eye to the political role of religion and churches in the rich countries.

Britain - the sacred cow of state power

So, for instance, when denouncing the fundamentalists' determination to enshrine the state with a sacred legitimacy, we should look in our own backyard.

Of course, the days of the Pharaohs who claimed to be direct descendants of gods are over. But not so long ago, in 1945, the ruler of the world's 3rd most powerful country - Japan - still claimed to be a descendant of the Sun goddess.

And what about Britain? This country which is so proud of having been the cradle of bourgeois democracy still has a state religion!

It should be recalled that the so-called "Mother of Parliaments" was actually born out of a struggle waged by Puritans - a movement of Protestant religious dissenters who claimed to be the only "true" Christians - against the old hierarchy of the Anglican Church. Of course, that was a long time ago. And it would be irrelevant today if it were not the case that 26 Bishops of the Anglican Church are still appointed by right to sit in the government's House of Lords.

Most of today's parliamentary institutions exist as a result of this bloody struggle waged in the name of God in the 17th century, a struggle which lasted on and off for over 50 years. Of course the English civil war was not a war over religion, even if this is the form it took. It was England's "bourgeois revolution". And if the Puritan bourgeoisie fought this battle in the name of the "true God", as opposed to the "false god" of the Church of England, their aim was merely to divest power from the absolute monarch and his entourage - including the bishops.

The more radical elements in this struggle, the Levellers, in the ranks of Cromwell's New Model Army, may have held fundamentalist views on matters of Christian doctrine - adhering mostly to the elitist and fatalistic idea of predestination. But for them religion was a matter for the individual and not the government. As far as they were concerned, the bishops and their courts which prevented any religious dissent and consumed a significant share of the national income, had to go.

It was the mobilisation around the Levellers which forced the hand of Cromwell to remove the bishops from political office in 1642 and abolish the House of Lords in 1649. But Cromwell was never a willing revolutionary. He condemned the Levellers, who in his view wished to destroy the well-tested institutions "whereby England had been known for hundreds of years" and "make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord".

However, the Levellers proved unwilling to burn their bridges - and force Cromwell out in order to take the social revolution further. This allowed Cromwell to dissolve parliament in 1655 and when he reconvened it the following year its powers were subordinated to his personal dictatorship. In so doing, Cromwell saved the institution of the Church, which was weakened, but not destroyed and of course, paved the way for the restoration of the monarchy as a cover for the political rule of the bourgeoisie.

Yet, despite this, the constitutional principle of liberty of conscience which made religious practice a free individual choice, was enforced throughout Cromwell's rule. But it did not survive him.

In 1661, with the restoration of the monarch, Charles II, the Clergy Act restored the bishops to the reconvened House of Lords. The "barbaric act" of the republican forces - the beheading of his father, King Charles I in 1649, was now mirrored by the "civilised act" of this Charles II when he disinterred Cromwell's body and hung his embalmed remains up at Tyburn gallows, where criminals were executed. His head was stuck on a pole on top of Westminster Hall where it remained until the end of Charles' regime. The image of the mutilated corpses of former Afghan leader, Najibullah and his brother hanging at the gates of Kabul after the Taliban entered in 1994, has many precedents in so-called civilised history - and this is just one of them.

Along with the Clergy Act came the so-called "Test Act" which made adherence to the Anglican Church and the practice of its specific religious rites (Holy Communion) a prerequisite for any kind of public office. While some Protestant dissenters could occasionally attend Anglican communion and therefore qualify for public office, Catholics and others of different faiths were absolutely excluded. In 1829, the rights of Catholics were restored. But it was only in the 1870s that the Test Act was finally repealed.

Today, the unfinished task of the English revolution is evidenced by Britain's backward political institutions. So, for instance, the two Archbishops who head the Church of England, and 24 of their bishops - representing only English dioceses - still sit in the House of Lords, and, of course, the Queen is not only nominal head of state but also the head of this Church. These are ridiculous anachronisms, especially in an era where the church is certainly no longer the centre of social life. Today the 16,000 Anglican parish churches in Britain are largely empty most Sundays. 89% of the British population do not attend any church regularly. 45% of the population admits no belief in religion whatsoever. Indeed, the Church of England probably only survives as an institution because it retains huge property assets and thanks to state grants and generous income tax concessions.

Yet despite all of this, one cannot switch on BBC radio or television on a Sunday without being subjected to church services, church music and religious programmes of one sort or another. Religion is forced down the throats of the population like it or not. Moreover, youth are specifically targeted at school where religious instruction and prayers and hymns during assemblies are compulsory - at least in theory. In fact, far from receding as it should, the institutional role of the Church is on the increase.

Today the state funds 6,973 religious schools. Prior to Labour's coming to power, these schools were Church of England or Catholic, with 32 Jewish schools in existence. However, since 1997, Blair has created 13 new so- called "faith schools" including 4 Muslim schools, 2 Sikh, one Greek Orthodox and one Seventh Day Adventist school! There are plans for 100 more Church of England schools in the pipeline. And of course, there are dozens of private religious schools which fall outside the state remit. Among them there are an increasing number of private Muslim schools, some of which are modelled on Pakistan's madrassahs. Not to mention the Christian Independent Schools which recently went to the High Court to ask for the right to hit their pupils with a cane!

All this despite the fact that 80% of the population according to pollsters are opposed to any increase in religious schools, for obvious reasons. After the riots this last summer in Bradford, Oldham, Burnley, Leeds and other Northern towns, it was acknowledged that residential apartheid had been a factor in these riots. Yet it was after these riots that Labour's White paper proposing even more "faith schools" was published. And what can the setting up of yet more Anglican and Muslim schools achieve, if not the further entrenching of this kind of apartheid?

Social care is another sphere in which religious institutions are being encouraged to play a bigger and bigger role by this government - they already provide a substantial proportion of social housing, homes for the care of the elderly, children's homes and almost all hospices for the care of the dying. Obviously this allows the state to spend less on its responsibilities. However it also gives these religious institutions a social role and power which are entirely disproportionate to their support among the population.

But this is precisely the point of the exercise. Blair obviously hopes, just as Thatcher did before him, that by boosting artificially the social role of religions, their reactionary influence among the population will increase. And this is exactly the problem we face.

A religious state built by secular politicians

Merging religion with state power has drastic consequences. Israel provides a graphic example of this.

Originally, Zionism, the political current which led to the setting up of Israel, was not a by-product of the Jewish religious hierarchy, but a nationalist reaction.

The rabbis of Central and Eastern Europe tended to confine their activities to learned polemics over the meaning of the old religious texts. Against anti-Jewish legislation and pogroms they had only one thing to offer - resignation. But for the Jewish middle class, which had been increasing with the growth in the economic role of the towns, this was not enough. The limits placed on its social prospects by anti-Jewish laws became increasingly unbearable - all the more so because the backwardness of Central and Eastern Europe did not allow much space for the petty- bourgeoisie any way. It was this situation which produced Zionism - the idea that a state specifically designed to accommodate the Jewish diaspora would have much more to offer to the Jewish middle-class than a fight for equal rights.

At the end of the 19th century, the founder of Zionism himself, Theodor Herzl, showed his suspicion of the clerics by warning that "we will not go along with the theocratic dreams of our clerics, we will make sure that they remain confined in their synagogues." And in fact, while the Zionist movement always had a religious wing, its main body of activists was made of secular nationalists among whom many even called themselves socialists - in the reformist sense, of course. In particular all the Israeli prime ministers from 1948 to 1974 - Ben Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levy Eskhol, Golda Meir and Itzakh Rabin - were part of this latter group.

And yet religion permeates everything in the Israeli state which eventually came out of the Zionist movement. Of course Zionist politicians did make sure that state institutions would not be subjected to the authority of the rabbis. But the Jewish religion is the official state religion and many aspects of social life are entrusted to their hands - for instance birth and death registrations, marriages, areas of welfare and education, etc.. This means that, among other things, there is no such thing as a civil marriage and that marriages between Jews and non-Jews are not possible. It also means that all sorts of material advantages, particularly in terms of housing and jobs, are available to religious Jews and not to others - be they atheists, Christians, let alone, of course, Palestinians.

At times this generalised bigotry can take a farcical turn - consider, for instance, the convoluted polemics between rabbis who would like the Jewish Sabbat to be respected but also want bosses to be able to make profits out of Saturday working. Beyond such obvious absurdities, however, the pressure of religion in Israeli society is all pervasive. Refusing allegiance to the state religion, although not formally impossible, is choosing a course fraught with countless obstacles - except, maybe, in some privileged intellectual milieus.

The fabrication of a national identity

The role of religion in today's Israel did not come out of nowhere. It was the result of a conscious choice on the part of the Zionist movement which presided over the creation of the new state in 1947, and more specifically on the part of its left-wing which played a vital role in this process.

In the name of national unity, the left wing of the Zionist movement sought to keep the religious right on-board at all costs. And, as is usually the case in such a situation, it was the left-wing who made most concessions. So, for instance, the left Zionists went out of their way to find justifications in the ancient biblical texts for their nationalist claim that the Jewish population "owned" Palestine - the gift of the "promised land" made by Jehovah to Moses.

The Jewish immigrants who fled to Palestine in the years before and after World War II came from many different parts of the world. Many had a long tradition of collective struggle - through the trade-union movement or the socialist and communist movements. Most had never subscribed to Zionism or any kind of Jewish nationalism. Collectively they were a supra-national force which was determined to build a new society, free of the injustices, discrimination and poverty that they had experienced in their native countries, a society that would never again allow any form of dictatorship.

But instead of building on this formidable potential, the left-wing Zionists chose biblical Hebrew - the language taught in Talmudic schools - as the national language of the new state. The rationale behind using the Bible as the cement of the future Israeli state was spelt out by the left-wing Zionist leader Ben Gurion: "Hebrew education based on the Bible will bring to the heart of every Jew an intimate knowledge of the nature of his Jewishness, whether he is religious or not. He will acquire a better understanding of who he is as a man and as a Jew. It will deepen his sentimental relationship with Israel, the ancient land of the Bible and the present and future land of the independence of his people."

For the left-wing Zionist leaders, the problem was not to make the best of the unprecedented human potential that they had at hand. It was, on the contrary, to constrain the outlook of the settlers so as to reduce their expectations and ambitions to a narrow nationalist perspective. And because the settlers' sense of identity was far too open-minded to fit into the Zionist perspective, this sense of identity had to be built from scratch, using biblical mumbo-jumbo to please the zionist right.

Needless to say, the arguments borrowed from the Bible to justify the setting up of Israel were not exactly progressive. After all, for anyone who reads the Bible without the blinkers of religious faith, it is nothing but a crude testimony to the barbaric society based on slavery at the time when it was written. Its many characters are, just as the god it portrays, as ruthless and contemptuous of the poor as the society which produced them. And yet it is from this Bible that Zionism dug up justifications for everything - whether for the "historical" roots of the Israel-Arab conflict or the rights of the Jewish people over Palestine.

The cost of capitulation

These concessions to the religious right have resulted in a catastrophe of historical dimensions in the Middle-East. Several generations of Palestinians have been condemned to live as refugees in their own land for more than half-a-century, under ruthless repression and abject poverty, next to an island of Western-style affluence. By the same token this has created a situation of permanent conflict in which the Israeli population has been taken hostage by its own state and forced to live in a besieged fortress under the auspices of one of the most bigoted governments in the industrialised world.

Indeed, in 1948, when the British mandate over Palestine came to an end, the Israeli state was declared as a Jewish state which would be open to all Jews, provided they could prove they were Jews. But how could one prove one's Jewishness, if not by reference to the Jewish religion? And yet all zionist parties signed the declaration of independence, with its religious slant - and not just Ben Gurion's Labour party, but also the social- democratic party Mapam, which, so far, had been advocating a bi-national state including both Arabs and Jews on equal terms.

If religion bears so much on today's Israeli society it is primarily due to this initial choice of founding the legitimacy of the state on a religious basis. Since then the grip of religion has been further reinforced by using religious pretexts again and again, to justify Israel's position in its on-going conflict with its Arab neighbours. So, for instance, Israel's refusal to withdraw from the Palestinian territories occupied during the 1967 war and its policy of developing settler colonies in the Gaza strip and the West Bank ever since, have been justified, once again, on biblical grounds. But each time the Israeli government resorts to such pretexts to justify its policies - whether it be Labour or Likud-dominated - it only reinforces the religious far-right.

Today there is a long list of far-right religious parties in Israel. And there is nothing to choose between the hysterical rabbis who form the cadre of some of these parties and the so-called "radical" Iranian mullahs or the Taliban for that matter. These rabbis, who enjoy life as parasites of society under the pretext that they have a spiritual role to play, are in the habit of inviting their followers to stone women who dress or behave "indecently". There is no burka in the Jewish tradition - not yet. But these fanatics can be trusted to dig one out of the Bible should they decide that the circumstances are right for them to throw their weight around. In this respect one should make no mistake - the Jewish religion, like all the religions which emerged in the same historical context, allows for the total subjugation of women.

But where the religious far-right is most active, of course, is in the armed struggle against the Palestinian population. One of its organisations, Gush Emunim (the Bloc of Faithful) was founded in the 1960s by rabbi Moshe Levinger. It pioneered the setting up of Jewish settler colonies in Hebron in 1968. Much later it was disclosed that Levinger's settlers had obtained their weapons from a Labour minister Yigal Allon - which shows how little difference there was between the Labour party and the far-right on this issue. Since the 1960s, Gush Emunim has been running an anti-Palestinian hate campaign, going so far as to claim, in the name of the Bible, that killing Arabs is a way of honouring God. At the same time it was recruiting youth in the poorest Jewish areas and giving them guns rather than Bibles to help "defend" settler colonies. Another demagogue, rabbi Kahane, who had immigrated from the USA in the 1970s became famous for similar reasons, together with its organisation, Kakh (which can be translated as "so be it"). His overtly racist grouping aimed at terrorising the Palestinian population out of the West Bank. Eventually the chickens came home to roost when Kahane was shot dead by a Palestinian during a visit to the USA, in 1990. But others took over from him.

Of course such loonies can be found in any country. But the policy of setting up Jewish colonies in the Palestinian territories has given these far-right groups a disproportionate political role and influence. Indeed when it came to finding volunteers for the new colonies, quite naturally many of the recruits turned out to be members of far-right groups. They were provided with lodgings (and the authority to allocate them to new immigrants) as well as weapons. And since the setting up of the National Palestinian Administration following the Oslo accord, the fa-right has effectively acted as an unofficial auxiliary militia for the Israeli army inside the so-called "autonomous" Palestinian territories.

For the particular brand of fundamentalism represented by the Jewish religious far-right, as it has developed over the past thirty years, the enforcement of religious principles in day-to-day life appears, therefore, as a secondary issue. Its main concern is to champion Israel's expansionist policy. In that, it is a kind of fundamentalism which is even more dangerous for the future, both for the Israeli population and for the Palestinians.

The history of Israel exposes the responsibilities of Israel's secular politicians, particularly those who used a socialist language and as such pretended to speak on behalf of the Israeli working class. It was their manoeuvres which allowed religious reactionary forces to build up the political and social clout which they would probably never have been able to achieve under their own steam. These lessons should be remembered because this could happen again in the future - and in fact it has happened elsewhere already.

Islam - a reactionary political tradition

mperialist leaders are always discreet about the fundamentalists who prosper in their own countries - be they Jewish or Christian. Significantly Bush's list of terrorist organisations does not include any of the Jewish terrorist groups, let alone the American white supremacist gangs which have been connected with the Oklahoma bombing. Quite explicitly, the so-called "war against terrorism" only targets the terrorist groups of the poor countries. Hence the prominent place given to Islamic fundamentalism.

To understand the role played today by Islamic fundamentalism in the poor countries, however, it is necessary to go through an evolution spanning many centuries.

The history of Islam is somewhat different from that of Christianity. One major difference is that while Christianity emerged free of any link with the existing political powers (these links were only developed later), Islam was, right from its inception, the law of a society in which religious and political power were one and the same thing. Indeed, Muhammad, the founder of Islam in the 7th century, was not just a religious leader. He was also a warrior and soon became the head of a state, which he carved out using an army recruited among the nomadic populations that he managed to win over to his beliefs. Within just one century his successors were able to establish an empire which spread from India to Spain, via Northern Africa. The Arabic culture and language of the core population of this empire spread rapidly. So that many of the countries that are referred to today as "Arab countries" were in fact arabicised during that period.

The Arabic expansion was a powerful factor of progress during the Middle Ages in Western Europe. Thus the Greek culture which had been mostly lost in the turmoil preceding the Middle Ages came back to Europe thanks to the Arab universities which were created in Spain. Likewise, much of the scientific knowledge available in Europe at the time, particularly in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, came from the Arabs who had acquired it from India and China.

However, while Arabic expansion did create lasting common cultural ground over a huge territory, even after this empire was eventually broken up into many different states, Islam also turned out to be a factor of division. The various interpretations of the Koran were used in political and national rivalries, which are still reflected today by major divisions between rival Islamic traditions - Shias, in Iran, Iraq, South Lebanon and part of the Arabic peninsula; Sunnis in most of the remaining Islamic world; not to mention a myriad of local traditions, each with their own specificities.

As to the "back to basics" approach of today's Islamic fundamentalists, it has provided in the past a pretext for the expansionist policy of many rulers. So, for instance, in the early part of the 20th century, an Arab warlord called Ibn Saud used the pretext of a return to "true Islam" to establish his rule over most of the Arabian Peninsula, thereby forming what was to become later Saudi Arabia. Ibn Saud invoked a particularly reactionary interpretation of Islam produced in the 18th century by a preacher called Abdul Wahhab - hence the name of Wahhabites for his followers. To achieve his objectives, Saud had to fight first the Ottoman empire and then the British, who wanted to retain control of the deep sea harbours along the coast of the Peninsula. As a result anti-colonialism and the need to drive all foreigners out became a main theme of Ibn Saud's Wahhabism. In the end, however, he had to find a compromise with London while making a long-term alliance with US imperialism to counter-balance Britain's influence - a policy which Saudi Arabia still follows today.

Wahhabism has also remained in Saudi Arabia. Despite the skyscrapers of its capital it is a feudal dictatorship in which all powers and privileges are in the hands of the 18,000 dependents of the royal family. It has also one of the most backward legislations in the world as far as women are concerned, including those belonging to the aristocracy.

Recently women have been granted the right to own a business and to write their own wills. But even then, business women are still not allowed to manage their affairs, since they cannot negotiate a contract nor hire employees themselves. For this they need a male "sponsor" who will act as their trustee, since only a man's signature has a legal value. The same restrictions on women's rights for which the Taliban are blamed so vocally today - in particular the fact that women must never go out without their husband or a male relative - are also enforced in Saudi Arabia, although Cherie Blair does not seem to have anything to say about this. Of course, all these infringements on women's rights are made in the name of the Koran. But so was the edict taken in 1990 by the Council of Senior Ulama, which banned women from driving a car. No doubt, Muhammad foretold the advent of the motor car already in the 7th century! And all this, just like under the Taliban, is enforced by a special "religious" police, the mutawas.

In addition, conditions are deteriorating for a whole section of the Saudi population. The days when the oil bonanza provided an easy income to all nationals are over. The population has been growing much faster than the economy. Between a quarter and a third of all Saudi graduates are experiencing unemployment as a result. And the feudal structure of Saudi society means that they have no prospects whatsoever, except by emigrating somewhere else. Is it any wonder, therefore, if people like bin Laden are able to find recruits among the educated youth of the country? What is really dramatic is that, due to the very fabric of Saudi Arabia, fundamentalism is the only avenue available for these youth to express their revolt.

Anti-colonial bourgeois radicalism

By the 19th century, the Arab world had been entirely subjugated by the Western industrial powers. The first challenge to this domination, however, did not come from religious forces. On the contrary, it came with the setting up of a secular republic in Turkey under Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, in the aftermath of World War I. Ataturk was not a champion of the oppressed masses. He was a bourgeois leader whose aim was to uproot all medieval remnants in his country and pull it out of its under-development in order to make it really independent. To do this he chose to copy the methods of the industrialised world, to the extent, for instance, of replacing the traditional Arabic writing with the Latin alphabet.

But this approach generated some opposition in the Arab world, leading to the emergence of a number of fundamentalist currents. For instance, in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was launched, to challenge British domination, but on the basis of a return to the roots of Islam and to a form of political rule in which the clerics would have the leading role. As it happened, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a consistent representative of the most reactionary layers of the Egyptian privileged classes, proved more determined in its opposition to the fledgling working class movement than to the British. On a number of occasions, in particular, it helped the British puppet regime to crush unrest among the Egyptian working class.

The anti-colonial wave that shook the whole of the Third World in the aftermath of World War II saw, once again, the emergence of secular nationalist bourgeois forces. These forces could afford to be a lot more radical than before. Due to the betrayal of working class interests by the Stalinist parties during and after the war and the disbanding of the Communist International by Stalin, the proletariat had been driven from the political scene. For these bourgeois forces, Stalinism offered an attractive option. Nationalist leaders were impressed by Stalin's success in crushing the resistance of the Russian working class. Just as they were impressed by Mao Zedong's achievement in taking power by revolutionary means without leaving any space for the working class to defend its own class interests. As a result, a form of radicalism inspired by Stalin and Mao Zedong became the favourite reference of many nationalist leaders of the new generation, who wanted to loosen the grip of imperialism over their countries but without allowing the poor masses to take action in defence of their own interests.

In the Arab world, the anti-colonial movement followed the same pattern. Its most prominent and popular representative was undoubtedly the Egyptian leader Nasser, because of his success in taking over the Suez Canal in 1956, without the British and French owners of the canal being able to stop him. Nasser certainly had no left- wing leanings. He and the group of young and ambitious officers who brought him to power, had been associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Nasser also proved capable of making a temporary alliance with the Egyptian Communist Party, both to keep social unrest under control and to gain the economic and military assistance of the USSR. When he no longer needed the CP, Nasser turned against it, using the Muslim Brotherhood to crush it, before turning against the Brotherhood itself once the CP was out of the way.

Nasser's gesture of defiance against imperialism generated a huge wave of enthusiasm across the Arab world and considerable expectations among the poor masses. Such mass support opened the possibility for the nationalist Arab leaders to aim at a wholly new perspective - that of getting rid of the artificial national borders imposed by imperialism in order to create larger economic entities, capable of opposing some resistance to the imperialist looting and providing a minimum standard of living to the masses. There was indeed no shortage of plans along such lines. But due to the weakness of the national bourgeoisies none of these plans ever took off the ground. Because of their total dependance on their respective national state machineries, these bourgeoisies just could not afford to lose control of their national states through a regroupment, at least not without losing part of, or all their privileges in the process.

This failure marked the bankruptcy of the post-war nationalist movements in the Arab world. Far from improving the conditions of the Arab masses, the regimes it produced became increasingly corrupt while repression was stepped up to protect the plunder of the privileged classes. It was this bankruptcy which paved the way for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, first in the shape of a resurgence of the old conservative Muslim Brotherhoods across the Arab world and then in the form of radical fundamentalism.

The Iranian turn

Across the Arab world, the 1970s saw the re-emergence of fundamentalist currents which had been largely marginalised in the previous period. Their development was helped in each country by specific local conditions. But overall it was the disillusion caused by the bankruptcy of the nationalism of the previous period which allowed the fundamentalists to win over a new generation of young cadres among the intelligentsia. Then they resorted to the traditional methods used by all religions in order to develop their influence among the masses - they created and manned welfare facilities to assist the poor. And they were able to do so all the more easily as in most countries they benefited from the support of the regime which saw their activity as a useful means to counter the influence of secular radical groups, such as the Communist Parties in particular.

But the real turning point both in the development of the fundamentalist currents and in their radicalisation was the Iranian revolution, in 1979, and the seizure of power by Khomeini's fundamentalist mullahs.

This revolution was another case of huge opportunities for the poor masses being dramatically lost. And for the same reasons, although in a very different context, as in Israel - because of the failure of the organisations which claimed to represent the interests of the masses, to stand up against the threat of fundamentalism by proposing an independent policy to the working class.

Indeed, Iran had a long and powerful working class tradition. Despite the ferocious pro-imperialist dictatorship of the Shah, there were many left organisations operating underground. The communist party, which was known as the Tudeh party (party of the masses), although discredited due to its past policies, had reconstituted a significant membership in the working class, particularly in the crucial oil industry. But there were also a number of groups to its left, which were critical of the Tudeh's past record.

One of these organisations, the People's Fedayeen, based itself on Marxism. However, rather than developing a systematic activity aimed at building solid roots among the working masses, it chose to resort to guerilla tactics, in order to "prove to the population that the only way towards its emancipation is through the armed struggle". Throughout the 1970s, its activists carried out a heroic struggle and won a certain amount of credit for this among the working class. But this policy did not and could not allow the Fedayeen to gain the influence it needed to lead the working class in the battles of the coming revolution.

Another of these organisations, the People's Mujaheddin, whose activity was also focused on guerilla tactics, rejected Marxism and stood for a "progressive" version of Islam which, in their view, was the only way "to inspire the masses to join the revolution." But Ali Shariati, the founder of the group, shared the clerics' rejection of modernist ideas and secular democracy. For him the sort of radical Islam he advocated was primarily a means of diverting the youth from Marxism.

The other main force opposing the Shah, was represented by the cleric, Khomeini, whose prestige was primarily due to his arrest and expulsion from the country by the regime. Behind him were the traditionalist small traders and craftsmen (the so-called bazaaris) and, above all, a section of the country's army of clerics who disapproved of the dissolute and westernised way of life of the Shah's court and aspired to having a greater role in the running of the state.

1978 saw an on-going mobilisation of the poor population against the regime in all the main towns. There were demonstrations everywhere. Day after day the army killed dozens, sometimes hundreds of demonstrators. But there were always more of them to fill the gaps. The mullahs grabbed the opportunity, making sure they were seen to be leading the protests. They also made sure that the demonstrators remained empty handed. The working class joined the movement by staging huge strikes.

Eventually the Shah was forced to leave the country and on 1st February 1979, Khomeini came back to Iran with the tacit agreement of the army - and of imperialism, which saw Khomeini as a bulwark against the rebellion of the masses and against Soviet influence. Within three days Khomeini had formally taken power. Within two months, an Islamic Republic had been proclaimed, all state institutions were taken over by the mullahs, except the army, and all democratic structures were disbanded. In the meantime, Khomeini's newly-founded party, the Islamic Republic Party had set up a new para-military police corps, the pasdaran, which proceeded to crush the mobilisation of the poor population and strangle its aspirations.

The fact was, that during the period of intense mobilisation in 1978, which led to the Shah's downfall, the masses who had confronted the army in the streets were offered no policy other than the alignment behind Khomeini advocated by the clerics. The Tudeh party's policy had boiled down to an unconditional endorsement of Khomeini. As to the left groups, they had suspended their guerilla activity, only to find that they were completely isolated from the masses. But instead of trying to fight for a programme which expressed the political interests of the poor, these groups chose to swim with the current. They demonstrated behind Khomeini's portrait and even after his return from exile, when his reactionary plans were already underway and while the mobilisation was still on, they stopped short of warning the masses against what was in store for them. Their only policy, in fact, was to hope that the new regime would tolerate them.

No-one can say, after the event, whether a revolutionary policy would have changed the course of the revolution. But the fact was that the masses never had a chance to compare such a policy with what the mullahs were offering them. They were never offered a chance to fight for their own interests. And, the left's failure to provide the fighting masses with such an option amounted to handing them over to Khomeini.

Not only did the masses pay for this failure by being subjected to a regime which was even more oppressive than the one they had overthrown. But in addition they paid copiously in blood as a result of the systematic killing of any dissenters during the repression that followed the revolution and, subsequently, with the mass slaughter of the Iran-Iraq war.

However, for the poor masses outside Iran, the only thing that was really visible was the overthrow of the brutal regime of the Shah - the main regional ally of imperialism - and its replacement by Khomeini who appeared for a while as a determined opponent of US imperialism. Of course, Khomeini's anti-Americanism was pure demagogy, as the Irangate scandal was to prove later on. But for the poor masses of the Arab World, each one of Khomeini's rhetorical outbursts against the USA and, even more so, the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran, appeared as revenge against their own oppressors. And this gave an enormous boost to the fundamentalists' credibility across the Arab world.

Palestine - a string of lost opportunities

It would take far too long to examine why and how fundamentalist movements developed across the Arab world on a country-by-country basis. But because of the central role that the Palestinian struggle has played and still plays in the Middle East, the rise of the Palestinian fundamentalist currents is particularly important. All the more so because of the revolutionary potential of the Palestinian struggle which, once again, was wasted by the narrow nationalism of its leadership.

Like elsewhere in the Arab world, it was Nasser's success which gave the nationalist Palestinian movement its initial boost. Arafat's Fatah (the acronym for the National Liberation Movement of Palestine, in reverse order) was formed in 1959 in Kuwait. Its members came from the same middle-class milieu which would previously have joined the Muslim Brotherhood. Fatah's aim was to build an armed resistance movement against the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its perspective was secular and modernist but narrowly nationalist. It did not even raise the issue of Palestine's future in terms of Arab unity as did some future Palestinian leaders like Georges Habache and Nayef Hawatmeh. The beginnings of Fatah were slow and difficult. But its first limited successes worried the leaders of the Arab countries. So, in an attempt to supersede Arafat's group and to control it, they set up the PLO in 1964 which immediately benefited from massive funding.

Eventually the first spectacular military success of a Fatah commando, in 1968, and its growing popularity in Palestine, forced the Arab leaders to allow Arafat to take over control of the PLO. It must be said that while Arafat always managed to retain a certain independence from the Arab regimes, he nevertheless gave them the guarantees they wanted - first by sticking to the most narrow form of nationalism and second by bringing into the PLO, under his control, all the existing radical Palestinian organisations.

By this stage the Palestinian question represented an enormous revolutionary potential. The string of military defeats experienced by the Arab countries since 1948 had weakened their regimes and exposed the emptiness of their alleged anti-imperialism. Moreover every Arab country hosted large numbers of Palestinian refugees and their increasing radicalisation under the influence of the nationalist organisations threatened to spread naturally to the local populations.

This situation opened the possibility for the Palestinian leaders to offer the perspective of a revolution on the scale of the whole region, which would have had the potential of overthrowing the corrupt dictatorships of the Arab countries, on which the imperialist domination of the region and the existence of the Israeli state is based. Of course, this would have meant finding a way to address and mobilise the masses of the Middle East instead of seeking the funds and diplomatic support of their dictators.

There were two occasions in which this possibility was raised in concrete terms. In Jordan, in 1970, when the mobilisation of the Palestinian refugees spread to the Jordanian population. The ruling monarch felt so threatened that he ordered a massacre in the Palestinian camps - which came to be known as Black September. But at no point did the PLO try to address itself to the Jordanian masses, if only in order to oppose a serious resistance to the clampdown that was visibly coming. The second occasion came in Lebanon, when the forces of the PLO found themselves fighting side by side with the Lebanese left against the far-right Christian militias. On this occasion, Arafat and the PLO leadership negotiated their departure from Beirut even before the battle was over. Arafat moved to Tunis with the PLO leadership and the Lebanese and Palestinian fighters were left on their own, without a leadership, to face the Phalangists and Israeli bombs.

The revival of Palestinian fundamentalism

There had been a Muslim Brotherhood in the Palestinian occupied territories right from the days following the establishment of Israel. But it had been largely marginalised by Arafat's success.

In the early 1970s, however the fundamentalists made a fresh attempt at challenging the dominant position of the PLO in Gaza. In 1973, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yassin, launched the Mujama (Islamic Congress) as a welfare charity-based organisation. Yassin won the backing of the Israeli authorities to set up a network of welfare facilities across Gaza, including small clinics, kindergartens, Koran study classes, makeshift mosques, sports facilities, etc.. At the time, the Israeli authorities saw the return of Islamic fundamentalists as a useful means to contain the influence of radical nationalism.

Yassin's aim was to develop a constituency in the refugee camps that could be used later as cannon fodder to weaken the PLO's influence. By the end of 1979, after the Iranian revolution, Yassin felt the time had come for an open challenge. Demonstrations were organised by the Mujama against PLO-controlled bodies with the slogan "down with communism, long life Islam." At the same time, Mujama commandos began to enforce their religious "order" by burning down the offices of secular newspapers and forcing cinemas to close down.

During this period, new, more radical fundamentalist groups began to emerge under the collective name of Islamic Jihad of Palestine. Referring to Iran as a model, they advocated the use of armed revolutionary methods in order to overthrow Israeli rule. These "revolutionary methods", however, never amounted to more than terrorist actions against individual targets, which inevitably resulted in brutal retaliation against the Palestinian population.

However, by the end of the 1980s and despite all their efforts, the fundamentalists were still insignificant both in terms of influence and in terms of recruitment compared to the nationalists. This was illustrated by their complete paralysis during the first Intifada, which started in October 1987. The Intifada was a spontaneous uprising initially caused by a road accident in which several Palestinians had been run over by an Israeli army vehicle. The fundamentalists had neither the influence nor the activists to provide a cadre for the uprising, let alone a leadership. And in a matter of days, they were pushed aside by the "United Nationalist Leadership of the Uprising", formed by the PLO organisations and the Communist party.

To respond to this situation, Mujama and the West Bank Muslim Brotherhood joined forces to form a new organisation - Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) - as an open political rival to the PLO on the ground. In addition, an armed wing was formed to carry out military actions similar to that of the Islamic Jihad, but mainly with the aim of policing the Palestinian population itself. For a whole year, just like the Mujama, Hamas benefited from the overt support of the Israeli authority, until mid-1989, when its leaders decided purposefully to break this compromising relationship, by organising the high-profile abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers.

The real chance for the fundamentalists came with the "Peace Process". Hamas stood out by opposing in principle any negotiation with Israel which would involve conceding one inch of Palestinian territory. And from 1993, this policy was backed up by a campaign of suicide bombings carried out by both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad against Israeli targets. At the same time, Hamas commandos were busy enforcing their authority in Gaza and the West Bank by executing alleged "collaborators". Of course, the fundamentalists were preparing for the future. Popular disillusion was likely to spread once the Palestinian population realised how few concessions had been won by Arafat. And the fundamentalists were determined not to miss such an opportunity.

And of course disillusion did start to spread, especially after Arafat and the PLO were put to the test at the head of the patchwork of reservations which come under the National Palestinian Authority as a result of the Oslo agreement. To what extent the second Intifada, which began in September 2000, was inspired by the fundamentalists is impossible to say. The fact that it was triggered by a deliberate provocation against the feelings of Islamic worshippers by Sharon may point to a greater role played by the fundamentalists than in the first Intifada. The obvious impotence of Arafat to control the movement may also be indicative of this. In any case, since then, the on-going provocations and killings by the Israeli army can largely benefited the fundamentalists, by exposing the failure of Arafat's policy. By tying the fate of the Palestinian people to the political will of imperialism to pressurise the Israeli government into making concessions, Arafat has driven himself into a corner. And for an increasing number of Palestinian youth who are fed up with being shot at by Israeli tanks without having the means to respond, one way or another, this may well be a powerful motive to turn to the fundamentalists and their terrorist policy.

The responsibility for today's situation - that more and more teenagers are prepared to become human bombs - has to be placed primarily at Arafat's door. His narrow nationalism has, for the past three decades, deprived the Palestinian masses of every opportunity to break from their isolation and take their struggle to a higher level, where they would at last be able to build up enough strength to stop receiving blow after blow without making a single gain.

India - communalism and fundamentalism

Islam is not the only religion to generate fundamentalism in the poor countries. In fact, the most successful fundamentalist current in many ways is not Islamic but Hindu. Indeed for the past three years India, the world's second largest country in terms of population, has been ruled by coalition governments led by the BJP (Indian People's Party) whose character is unquestionably fundamentalist.

The origins of this movement goes back to the aftermath of World War I, in a period when social and anti-colonial protest was rife. It was in that period that the first self-proclaimed Hindu political organisation was formed - the RSS (National Volunteers' League). In the same way as the Muslim League had been set up a few years before (with British support) to divert Muslims away from the secular and modernist Congress party, the RSS aimed to be the Hindu rival of the Congress party.

There were some difficulties though. Hinduism had never been a well-defined religion. Nor did it have a ready- made machinery of clerics. So the founders of the RSS approached the problem from a different angle. In the words of one of its first leaders RSS, V.D. Savarkar, a Hindu was anyone who "loves the land stretching from the Indus river to the sea on the east, and considers it as both fatherland and holy land." In other words, a Hindu was almost anyone who was not Muslim. The RSS thus saw itself above all as an anti-Muslim organization. And this was essentially the role which it played up to independence, as well as acting occasionally as shock troops against communists and workers, thanks to its strictly hierarchical paramilitary units whose main activity was, and still is, military parades and training.

The RSS was thus a fundamentalist organization in the sense that it set itself the goal of shaping Indian society in accordance with the "true" precepts of religion, in this case of an ad hoc Hindu religion they had reinvented. But as with all fundamentalist parties, only even more visibly in this instance, religion was merely a demagogic pretext aimed at making the Muslim minority a scapegoat while providing the RSS leaders with a lever to bid for power at some point.

After independence, in 1947, the Congress Party, like all nationalist parties, stopped short of challenging openly reactionary currents such as the Muslim League and the RSS. Instead the Congress leaders played one current against another, thereby making occasional allowances to both religions and providing the fundamentalists with some degree of respectability.

By the 1980s, the catastrophic situation of the economy, combined with the corruption of the regime and the on- going political instability caused by many separatist guerilla wars waged in various parts of the country, resulted in an increasingly tense situation. By that time the RSS, and its political wing the BJP, still had little influence on the political scene. In the 1984 general election, for instance, the BJP only managed to win two seats in the federal parliament. However the general tension and discontent towards political institutions induced the fundamentalist leaders to step up their anti-Muslim campaign, this time with some success. And probably this success was also at least partly due to the fear caused by the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in nearby Pakistan, thanks to the dictatorship of General Zia and US funding.

By 1991, it became clear that the BJP was succeeding in making significant in-roads into the Congress Party electorate. In the general election that year, it secured 20% of the vote and 119 seats. This was not enough to unseat the Congress Party, but it was more than enough to make the BJP an attractive option for the discontented. The following year the fundamentalist leaders upped the stakes by engineering a series of pogroms across the country which left several thousand dead. It was a show of strength and in the absence of any determined opposition, neither from the ruling Congress Party, nor from the country's relatively large Left, it worked. From then onwards the BJP went from strength to strength to the point of being able to form a government in 1998.

Of course, compared to most opposition radical Islamic groups, the BJP may seem rather tame. Its cadres are upper-class politicians and businessmen who indulge in western lifestyles and boast of liberalism (that is, in the sense of Thatcher). But behind the BJP still stands the semi-military organisation of the all-male RSS, with its thousands of full-time organisers and a membership which is now estimated to be over two million. In addition to its 40,000 branches where its members are organised, the RSS also runs thousands of schools and a galaxy of front organisations for housewives, pensioners, retired soldiers, etc.. To all intends and purposes, the RSS operates as the unofficial social and moral police of the regime, even if its rule may not always be as brutal as that of the Saudi's moral police - but then the BJP regime has a much broader base than the Saudi regime. However, should the BJP's position in power come to be threatened, the RSS provides it with a lethal instrument to smash its opponents.

The apparent liberal face of the regime is also contradicted by the activities of some of the BJP's satellite organisations. Thus the VHP (World Hindu Council) is supposed to be Hindu fundamentalists' "spiritual" organisation. But the ideas it circulates smack of anti-Muslim hysteria. For instance, its paper the "Sword of Truth" explained last year that "The Indian subcontinent has around 500 million Muslims (150m in India and 350m between Pakistan and Bangladesh). With such huge numbers of people subscribing to vile and vicious philosophy (..) Hindus in India need to take proactive steps." And the paper went on to develop a plan involving the organisation of "purification pilgrimages" in Muslim areas to encourage conversions. By 2050, argued the VHP, Islam could be eradicated from the subcontinent.

Such plans may sound like lunacy. Except that they are implemented in practice. So for instance, in the state of Gujarat last year, the VHP organised a series of pogroms against Muslims (as well as Christians) and thousands of them were forced to convert under threat.

Likewise, the "Hinduisation" of Indian society under the BJP's rule can take on strange aspects. For instance one of the latest inventions of the ministry of education is the introduction of university degrees in astrology. Vedic sciences are now currently taught in schools in BJP-controlled states. Laughable mumbo-jumbo, maybe, but nevertheless a step back into a distant past.

Fighting fundamentalism, a class issue

Time and time again complacency towards religion and nationalism in the stuggle against imperialist domination has paved the way for political reaction and fundamentalism in the poor countries. But likewise the same factors can also pave the way for reactionary forces in social struggles.

The example of Poland's massive strike wave, led by the Solidarity union in 1980, springs to mind. In the period preceding the strike many intellectuals opposing the repressive regime of the time had made their allegiance to the Polish Catholic Church, on the grounds that it was the main opposition force. During the strike wave itself, many more socialist intellectuals who were long-standing opponents to the regime, lined up like one man behind the leadership of Solidarity and its spokesman, Lech Walesa. Yet, both Walesa and the majority of the Solidarity leadership were politically aligned behind the Polish Catholic Church - an arch-reactionary body with a long record of anti-semitism and anti-working class policies. But this did not prevent these so-called intellectuals from endorsing the Church's leading political role in the strike and, by the same token, the reactionary role it played after the fall of the Berlin Wall in initiating attacks on the conditions of the working populations in areas like education, abortion rights and more generally the right to welfare. As a result, the enormous collective energy of the Polish working class was wasted.

Of course, the excuse given in 1980 for the left oppositionists' renunciation was that a majority of the strikers supported Solidarity and were Church goers. This may well have been the case. But this did not prevent the Polish workers from waging very tough struggles. Nor would it have prevented them from using their common sense and their consciousness to make their own choices and assess where their class interests were. However, due to the capitulation of the left opposition in front of Solidarity and the Church, the strikers were never offered any choice, except what the Solidarity leadership was prepared to tolerate.

Closer to home, although the context is again very different, similar points can be made about Northern Ireland. In the late 1960s, the so-called "Troubles" started with a huge show of militancy over housing conditions. The mobilisation of the poor ghettos created a unique situation to at least try to build a bridge between Catholic and Protestant working class ghettos, whose conditions were not that dissimilar. There was even a timid attempt in that direction by a new organisation known as People's Democracy.

However the intellectual cadres of this group proved more interested in exposing the discrimination experienced by the Catholic population than in highlighting the common discrimination suffered by all working people and unemployed across the province. And when the Catholic Church-backed committees stepped in to take the leadership of the protest by focusing exclusively on the issue of discrimination against Catholics and the Catholic Church, People's Democracy toed the line. This left the way open for the loyalist thugs to attack Catholic areas and, later on, for the Provisional IRA to emerge, with the claim that they were the only force who could speak for the Catholic districts.

During this period of intense mobilisation which lasted over three years, there was, once again, only one choice offered to those who wanted to fight. In the Protestant ghettos, the only choice on offer was to join one of the many loyalist paramilitary groups in order to defend "their" areas. In the Catholic areas, the only choice was to line up in silence behind the Church, or to line up vocally behind an organisation which had only one thing to offer - the armed struggle for the Catholics by the Catholics. Once again, an opportunity of trying to weld together the ranks of the working class of Northern Ireland around a fight against its oppressors was wasted.

And nothing has changed since then. Sinn Fein has often boasted of its "socialist aims". However not only is this "socialism" little more than a populist version of labourism, but Sinn Fein has always stopped short of challenging the power of the Catholic Church, whether North or South of the Border. So, for instance, when it comes to the extension to Northern Ireland of the abortion rights which exist in Britain, Sinn Fein's minister of Health in the Northern Ireland Executive has nothing to say for fear of upsetting the Catholic hierarchy. As a result Billy Hutchinson, a leading figure of the PUP and a former loyalist paramilitary leader, is able to pose as the champion of women's rights in Northern Ireland. As to the allegedly "radical" Sinn Feiner, who holds the ministry of Education, Martin McGuinness, we still have to hear him dare to say that the role of all churches should be terminated once and for all in Northern Ireland's schools, so that crazy political manoeuvres such as the recent 12-week standoff outside a primary school in North Belfast can never happen again.

Fighting fundamentalism, as a lethal threat for the working class, is obviously a basic duty for revolutionaries just as it is their duty to fight any reactionary current. But in view of the previous examples, this fight involves first of all making no allowances whatsoever to religion, even when a large proportion of the masses feels represented by religious ideas. It means sticking to the militant materialism which is a vital component of the international working class tradition.

But we know also that anti-religious sermons cannot achieve anything in and of themselves. Prejudices, religious or otherwise, do not disappear that way. Whether they believe in God or not, whatever their prejudices, all workers are part of our class, whereas atheist capitalists are on the other side. This is where the line is drawn and it is that line which should guide our actions.

On the other hand, we know from history that in certain circumstances - in revolutionary circumstances in particular - prejudices can melt away in no time when the masses start moving to fight for their own interests.

So fighting against fundamentalism requires first and foremost the aim to create the conditions for workers to act again as a class. It requires that at every stage, the working class is presented with objectives for its fights which reflect its class interests, even when these objectives may seem distant and difficult to achieve.

Probably the best way to nip fundamentalism in the bud would be for workers in the rich countries to prevent new troops or weapons from being sent to the Afghan war zone (if the war carries on). This would be the most effective way of convincing the poor masses of the countries targeted by Bush's and Blair's "war against terrorism" that their best allies are the workers of the world.

We are still very far from the point where the British working class would take such a step. The tradition of proletarian internalionalism disappeared long ago. But it does not mean that it cannot be rebuilt.

November 2001