Bolsheviks and Islam

Submitted by martin on 10 December, 2003 - 8:16

This is a brief comment on an article in the SWP's Socialist Review about the Bolsheviks and Islam, by David Crouch. Although it refers to the early 1920s, and then the rise of Stalinism, the article is plainly a justification for the SWP's recent dalliances with MAB and the mosque.
"At the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in September 1920," Crouch writes, "Russian Bolshevik leaders issued a call for a 'holy war' against Western imperialism. Two years later the Fourth Congress of the Communist International endorsed alliances with pan-Islamism against imperialism." (Comrades may have seen the film 'Reds' in which John Reed is horrified to learn that his words have been translated as 'holy war').

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is a fair summary of Bolshevik policy, and that it was right, the notable thing about Crouch's article is that it makes no effort to compare the contexts of this policy and any modern effort to 'relate' to Muslims.

The new Bolshevik government was, in part - faced with war and imperialist intervention - concerned to win allies. One aspect of its policy was the effort to pursue the most democratic policy possible with regard to the oppressed peoples of the former Russian empire. This was partly for its own sake: in general, it was the policy of the Communist movement to support the revolt of colonial and oppressed peoples, and their attitude towards such people who were Muslim flowed from that. It was also in the belief that, as with the national question generally, by offering democracy, they would win the support of those oppressed peoples.

This was, similarly, their attitude to religion in general. They were against the forcible suppression of religion; and they were particularly sensitive to this question when it came to people who had been the most oppressed under Tsarism.

Given the concentration of Muslims in particular areas of the former Russian empire, the two questions - freedom of religion, and freedom of oppressed nationalities - overlapped.

The fundamental attitude towards religion exhibited by the Bolsheviks has a clear resonance for today: hostility towards and sharp criticism of religion as an ideology which binds the oppressed to their oppressors, combined with defence of the right to religious belief.

The oppressed nationality side of things is much less straight forward.

Neither in Western countries where they are a minority, nor in 'the Muslim world', does the situation of Muslims today bear very much comparison with 1920. The 'holy war' of the Baku congress would not justify calling for 'holy war' today. (In fact, incidentally, the Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922 anticipated pan-Islamism fading out to be replaced by political, nationalist demands, which would be an advance). No modern Islamist movement is comparable to the oppressed peoples of central Asia in the first quarter of the last century. Al Qaeda; Ansar al Islam; Hamas; the Muslim Brotherhood - none of these are movements of pre-capitalist colonial peoples, but on the contrary are the product of capitalist development and 'modernisation'.

And Muslim minorities within advanced capitalist countries themselves bear even less relationship to the people the Bolsheviks were addressing.

Of course socialists should fight for religious freedom - and be sensitive to the specific problems faced by minorities, where the experience of racism shapes their sense of being persecuted for their religion. At the same time we should criticise religion.

But we should clearly distinguish between religious belief and religious institutions; and between either and modern political movements which use religion as an ideology. Socialism is a secular movement, which fights obscurantist beliefs, and institutions and movements which promote them. The Baku congress, and so on, are only partially much help in understanding modern priorities.

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