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Marx and the Prophet

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On why the rise of fundamentalism in Muslim-majority countries owes much to the failings of the secular left.


Muslim pilgrims attend Friday prayer on January 6, 2006 in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Muhannad Fala’ah / Getty

This article was originally published in Actuel Marx (2018/2), no. 64, special issue on religion edited by Etienne Balibar and Michael Löwy, pp. 101–111. Translated from French.

Recent decades have seen a “return of the religious,” as fundamentalist creeds have become an increasingly prominent element of the geopolitical landscape. Not only has the worldwide spread of neoliberal capitalism failed to spread secular notions of science and progress, but the shocks produced by its crises have helped feed sectarian responses based on religious identity.

Going beyond mere condemnation of religious dogma, Marxists have long analyzed religion as a social phenomenon which can take many different forms. Karl Marx famously highlighted religion’s dual character as both an illusion and a comfort to the oppressed, and many socialist movements have deployed religious iconography (and, for the Christian left, the example of Jesus) in their cause.

Several movements in Muslim-majority societies offer hints of an Islamic left analogous to the liberation theology seen in Catholic countries. Yet such initiatives lag behind the success of fundamentalist movements who advance a literalist and backward-looking understanding of Islam. In a period of global crises, these latter have been better able to present themselves as an alternative value system.

Yet this religious revanchism is not simply rooted in the soil, as if it expressed Muslim-majority societies’ “essential” cultural traits. Indeed, if Islamic fundamentalism promises a return to an idealized past, its current success is something new. As Gilbert Achcar explains in this interview, its advance owes not simply to the words in the Qu’ran, but so, too, to the defeats of the secular left in the Arab and Muslim world.



Written by Gilbert Achcar

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