‘Criticism of religion’, Karl Marx once wrote, ‘is the prerequisite of all criticism.’ Anti-religious thought, however isolated it has been at various times, nevertheless has millennial roots in the West. In an essay written more than half a century ago, Bertrand Russell, himself one of the prominent exponents of the critical tradition, was able to cite a forebear who lived some two thousand years before him: ‘My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race.’

This tradition, half-interred at the time, was rediscovered during the Enlightenment and then extensively elaborated by early-nineteenth-century radical philosophy; it has served, as others besides Marx have noted, as the pivot of rational thought in nearly all spheres of human endeavour.

No such tradition exists in the Middle East, where as far as religion goes, it is still the Middle Ages. This region, which has given the world three monotheistic varieties of the disorder, is even now widely gripped by clericalism and obscurantism. Religious fanaticism is rife, criticism of religion near to non-existent, and – in a negative confirmation of Marx’s observation – criticism itself enfeebled.

In the Arab societies of the region, intellectuals, with few exceptions, have produced no serious challenge to religion on the ideological plane, and the rulers no codified alternative to a system of civic law grounded on the precepts of the holy book. For decades the left sought generally to avoid the issue, as socialists and radical theorists either claimed that religion is no more than a by-product of the underlying socio-economic structure (and that any struggle against it is therefore a waste of energy or worse), or else denied that the place of Islam in Arab societies differs significantly from that of Christianity in those of Western Europe.

More recently, another, more pernicious idea has gained some currency: that whatever is anti-Western is anti-imperialist, and whatever is anti-imperialist is anti-capitalist and therefore progressive and revolutionary. This implicit proposition – based upon the curious assumption that anything that opposes something bad must be good, when logic and bitter experience demonstrate that it can well be worse – has impelled many a European and Middle Eastern socialist to discover in Islam progressive features that they would never dream of detecting in Christianity.

Recent events have demonstrated the utter futility and danger of this illusion. The triumph of obscurantist reaction in Iran – where a popular revolution under religious leadership has given rise to a regime that has long since surpassed its sanguinary predecessor in dementia and repression – and the resurgence of mass movements of Islamic reaction in many parts of the Arab world show that the problem of religion must be confronted as one of the major political, and not merely philosophical, issues in the Arab and Islamic countries.

In certain circles, indulgence of or indifference to Islam has also had a somewhat less novel, but equally peculiar and lamentably widespread pendant in a wholly misplaced admiration for supposedly forward-looking currents within Judaism, which in reality yields nothing to its two Middle Eastern cousins when it comes to obscurantism. The nineteenth-century movement of Jewish enlightenment –humanist, cosmopolitan, and assimilationist – was overtaken by the rise of modern anti-Semitism. The subsequent victory of Zionism, however ostensibly secular, brought with it a reversion to some of the most reactionary, xenophobic, and isolationist strands of medieval Judaism. These proclivities, aggravated more or less steadily since the foundation of the state of Israel, were given fresh impetus by the advent of the Likud government in 1977 and its re-election in 1981. They are increasingly prominent features of Israeli society today.

Khamsin 8 was entirely devoted to the ‘Politics of Religion in the Middle East’. All the articles in this section are taken from that attempt to take up what the issue’s editorial called ‘the sadly neglected twin tasks of confrontation with Islam and Judaism’.

The most extensive contribution, written by Israel Shahak, chairman of the Israeli Human Rights League and for many years a tireless campaigner against abuses of democratic rights by the Israeli state, was a merciless critique of medieval Judaism, and in particular of that religion’s inhuman attitude to non-Jews. Shahak’s analysis, continued in Khamsin 9, was accompanied by an appendix recounting the many rabbinical laws directed against non-Jews. A brilliant polemical effort that certainly merits republication in book form, it is unfortunately far too long to have been included in this volume.

The other articles, collected here, treat various aspects of the main theme. In ‘Why the Reversion to Islamic Archaism?’, Lafif Lakhdar, a revolutionary of Tunisian origin who was also active in Lebanon, looks at the internal and external forces fuelling the resurgence of what he calls Islamic integralism, a trend embodied not only by Khomeini and his followers, but also by the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, a newly invigorated organization in a number of Arab countries, principally Egypt. He examines the historical antecedents and social context of contemporary Islamic revivalism, and concludes with an assessment of the potential of this movement to seize and wield power.

Ehud Ein-Gil, a member of the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen), is the author of ‘Religion, Zionism, and Secularism’, a discussion of the recent rise of clericalism in Israel and an examination of the relation between the struggle against it and the broader fight against Zionism. Readers may be struck by the similarity of many of the social tenets of Orthodox Judaism to those now being imposed in Iran in the name of Islam.

In ‘Iran: Islam and the Struggle for Socialism’, Muhammad Ja’far and Azar Tabari, the former an Iraqi member of the Khamsin editorial group, the latter an Iranian journalist and Khamsin editorial group member, present an analysis of the Islamic revolution in Iran that is remarkable for its prescience. Written at a time when most of the left was singing the praises of the revolutionary anti-imperialist Khomeini, this article not only calls attention to the profoundly un-democratic essence of Islamic political theory, but also seeks to demonstrate that the battle against Islamic fundamentalism, far from being a quixotic and misguided crusade against a supposedly superstructural epiphenomenon, must be the heart of any search for progress in Iran, in much the same way as the fight against Zionism is a sine qua non of any real transformation of Israeli society.

In ‘Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse’, Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm, a Syrian philosopher and author of a famous and fiercely controversial critique of religious thought that caused him serious problems when it was published in Lebanon, deals with a subject closely related to religion. ‘Orientalism’, a term given great currency by the publication of the book of that name by Edward Said, is the totality of ideological constructions and concepts through which Western academics have viewed the unfamiliar world of ‘the Orient’ and Islam. Beginning with a critique of Said’s methodology, al-‘Azm goes on to criticize a converse ideology now prevalent among many Arab academics and left intellectuals who have recently become enamoured of Islam.

At a time when progressive-minded people in many countries seem inclined to forget the important role that opposition to religion has played in shaping rational thought and social progress, the articles in this section, despite the diversity of their subjects and sometimes even of their particular points of view, are ultimately motivated by the sentiment expressed so trenchantly by Russell in his classic essay ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’: ‘A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.’