When analyzing Islam in the West, it is often assumed that Islam is an ideology in and of itself, and as such, the rich history of interactions between Islam and socialism in the 20th century is missed.
When analyzing Islam in the West, it is often assumed that Islam is an ideology in and of itself, and as such, the rich history of interactions between Islam and socialism in the 20th century is missed. The 20th-century anti-communist crusade, as in the case of Indonesia, carried with it a twin set of weapons. One was stemming the tide of communism and national liberation in the third world through coups and propping up military juntas. The other weapon was support for reactionary, sclerotic, and conservative forms of Islam. This twin set of weapons still exists today.
Vijay Prashad discussed this in a recent interview with Russia Today, in the early 20th-century, he said, Muslim scholars “all the way from the Tsarist Empire to Iran… understood and recognized that the promise of equality and humanity was not going to be established merely spiritually.” Muslims were in the Bolshevik party during the Russian revolution and the Indonesian anti-colonial revolution. The CIA, with the support of Saudi Arabia, created the World Muslim League in order to push a reactionary counterrevolution against the attempts at reconciling Islam and socialism. This was necessary due to the support for communism and revolutionary nationalism in the country with the largest population of Muslims (Indonesia). The issue at hand for the imperialists, led by the US, was the cross-pollination between the faith with a large number of followers in the global south and the ideology of the USSR and China dead set on combating imperialism.
During the course of the Bolshevik Revolution, a great many Muslims were living in the Russian Tsarist Empire and suffered under the yoke of Russian colonial incursions in Central Asia, the Balkans, and the Caucuses. At the beginning of the revolution against Tsarism, many Muslims joined the Bolsheviks. According to Dave Crouch:
The crisis of Tsarism in 1917, therefore, radicalized millions of Muslims, who demanded religious freedom and national rights they were denied by the empire. On May 1, 1917, the First All-Russian Congress of Muslims was formed in Moscow. Of 1,000 delegates, 200 were women. After heated debates, congress voted for an eight-hour working day, the abolition of private landed property, confiscation without indemnity of large properties, equality of political rights for women, and an end to polygamy and purdah.
The participation of Muslims in the Bolshevik revolution highlights the historical interaction and collaboration between secularist and atheist revolutionaries and religious revolutionaries in the context of building a socialist society where pluralist cultural and social systems can thrive alongside each other. This view of culture and the nation was advanced by Stalin. Among the Muslims in the Soviet Union, there were also a great many differences. The Tatars and Kyrgz had no traditions of women wearing a veil, for example. Many Jadidists played a role in Soviet society as well. Jadidism was a tradition of reform that sought to modernize education among Muslims by using pedagogical methods and methodologies which were different from the rote memorization of the Quran, which was commonplace in Central Asian schools. They believed this would improve social outcomes for Muslims. Muslims were to be protected then, by the principles of the October Revolution. Crouch continues, “…Sacred Islamic… objects looted by the Tsars were returned to the mosques: the Sacred Koran of Osman was ceremoniously handed over to a Muslim Congress… Friday, the day of Muslim religious celebration, was declared the legal day of rest throughout Central Asia.” From this, we can see the thriving of new schools of thought within Islam in the context of a totally revolutionary upheaval in society. Next, a brief analysis of Islam during the Indonesian anti-colonial revolution will be presented to bring us closer to our analysis of the present circumstances.
In the course of the national liberation struggle of Indonesia from Dutch colonial rule, a great many forces arose as a challenge to the colonizers. There were Muslim religious organizations, there were Marxist organizations, and there were nationalist organizations. All of these groups overlapped on their main goal: removal of the colonizers from the land, yet they disagreed on the means and methods with which they could achieve this goal. The positions of these groups are laid out in General Ahmad Sukarno’s pamphlet Nationalism, Islam, and Marxism. Sukarno asks a few guiding questions to begin his pamphlet, the guiding question being, “under colonial systems can Islam, as a religion, cooperate with Nationalism, which stresses the nation, and with Marxism, which teaches materialism?” This question is the one we can ask ourselves today as well, with neocolonial and imperialist efforts to destabilize and siphon resources from Western Asia and indeed most of the Global South. Sukarno’s attempts to synthesize and understand the overlaps between Islam, Nationalism, and Marxism can be seen as apologetic given the briefness of his analysis. Yet, these are powerful connections to consider ideologically. As Sukarno points out, “Muslims must never forget that capitalism, the enemy of Marxism, is also the enemy of Islam, since what is called surplus value in the Marxist doctrine is essentially the same as usury from the Islamic viewpoint.” The backing up of historical materialism with Quranic exegesis is a tradition that stretches beyond Sukarno to the main ideologues of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), as we will see later. Sukarno points to Surah al Imran and Surah al Hudjarat as evidence of overlaps between Islam and Marxism in their goals of wealth redistribution and internationalist solidarity, respectively.
The position of PIJ since the 1980s has been similar in that they believe secular and religious goals are reconcilable regarding the liberation of Palestine. The most complete English translation of the ideological works of PIJ has been published in July 2021 by Erik Skare. One document he translated is called The Centrality of Palestine and the Contemporary Islamic Project by Fathi Al-Shiqaqi, one of the early ideologues of PIJ. Al-Shiqaqi argues that the centrality of the liberation of Palestine has goals that are both religious and secular, pointing to PIJ’s materialist analysis of the situation on the ground. His argument is as follows:
The unity of Palestine is the unity coming from the awareness that the persistence of the Zionist entity means the failure of all renaissance projects. Therefore, the debate about what comes first: confronting dependency, Westernization, and fragmentation, or confronting the Zionist entity is a theoretical debate governed by calculations of immediate gains and loss, instead of a serious endeavor to build an integrated and coherent strategy for the contemporary Islamic renaissance’s project. (1)
Al-Shiqaqi here recognizes that “Israel” is both a bulwark of American and European colonialism in the region and its existence is currently blocking the possibility of an Islamic renaissance. In Al-Shiqaqi’s writings about Imam Khomeini, we see more overlap between that which is professed by Western secular leftists (yet rarely done) and that which is accomplished by Islamic groups (yet rarely shown in western media depictions):
…the Islamic movement should coalesce with the mass bases and work persistently to raise their awareness; to enlighten them; and to expose the methods and ways used to deceive them, absorb their wrath, and make them sell out their causes… (2)
This brief summary of various interactions between Islam, socialism, and national liberation highlights the unity of struggles against imperialism. Chairman Mao’s famous dictum that we should ‘let a hundred flowers blossom, let a hundred schools of thought contend’ continues to be vindicated by revolutionaries all over the world.
1- Al-Shiqaqi, Fathi, The Centrality of Palestine and the Contemporary Islamic Project. 1989. Bayt al Maqdis. Beirut. Quoted in Skare, Erik, Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Islamist Writings on Resistance and Religion. 2021. I.B Tauris. London.
2- Ibid pg. 149