What makes the creeping political correctness on Islam so startling is its very newness. It wasn’t so long ago that the right and the left both agreed that as a religion and a political movement, it was dangerously backward and violent.
From Winston Churchill, “Mahommedan religion increases, instead of lessening, the fury of intolerance” to Karl Marx, “Islamism proscribes the nation of the Infidels, constituting a state of permanent hostility between the Mussulman and the unbeliever”, leading figures on the right and the left held a realistic understanding of Islam. They dismissed it as violent, barbaric, ignorant and dangerous. The right saw Islam as a threat to the Western Christian hegemony. The left viewed it as a reactionary movement of superstitious fanatics. They might praise Arab generals or scientists, but not the creed itself.
Where then did that lost consensus on Islam go? One answer can be found in the Soviet Union.
Unlike Western Europe, the Russian Empire had a large Muslim population. While Western socialists focused on a mostly Christian population, taking over the Russian Empire was nearly impossible without winning the allegiance of its Eastern Muslims. That difference would shape the socialist approach to Islam.
While the Communists disdained Christianity and Judaism as backward superstitions, they took a different approach to Islam. Lenin promised Muslims that their mosques would be protected under the revolution and emphasized an approach of cultural sensitivity that respected Muslim traditions. Female Communist activists donned veils or covered their hair to work with the locals. Most shockingly, while the Communists were dismantling the Orthodox Church and Jewish synagogues– Sharia courts of Islamic law were being administered under a Soviet Commissariat of Justice.
One of the more notable effects of the alliance was the Communist attempt to find common ground by phrasing their doctrine in Islamic terms. The Communists campaigned against religion as superstition, but this was translated as Khurafat, a campaign to cleanse heretical forms of magic. The difference was substantial and fundamental. While Communists in the rest of the Soviet Union were outlawing religion, Muslim Communists were rooting out heresies under the authority of the revolution. The USSR had become the enforcer of Islam.
The translation of socialist ideas into the Islamic, created the illusion of common ground. Both sides heard what they want to hear. But the Communist and Muslim ideas of revolution were dramatically different. While Moscow was talking about women’s equality, the Muslim Communists were filling their unwashed yurts with child wives. By the time Soviet leaders in Moscow realized what was going on, they had a civil war on their hands. The Communists won in the short term, but only at the cost of accepting Muslim practices such as polygamy. And the Muslims may have won the long war.
The awkward fusion of Islam and Communism did not last long, but it had an enduring impact on the left’s view of Islam. It transformed Islam in the eyes of many Western socialists into a progressive movement. The temporary legitimacy granted to the Pan-Islamic Jadids and the bulletins trumpeting the progressive nature of the Koran and the brilliance of Mohammed coming out of the motherland of socialism, altered the view of many socialists and taught them to view Muslims as allies. It may have even given some of them the idea that introducing large Muslim populations into Europe would be the key to a successful revolution.
Slogans like, “Long live Soviet power, long live the sharia” echo today among the left. The Soviet approach of viewing Islam as an immature form of socialism colors most reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood. As it did on the Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iranian revolution.
The Fourth Congress of the Communist International’s Theses on the Eastern Question treated Islam as part of the “great diversity of national revolutionary movements against imperialism”. But diversity didn’t mean equality. Diversity in the theses meant backwardness. Islam was Communism for savages. The Koran was Das Kapital for primitive people. “As the national liberation movements grow and mature”, the theses said, “the religious-political slogans of pan-Islamism will be replaced by political demands.”
Islam was an intermediate stage on the road to Communism. Eventually its religious baggage will fall away and it will become a fully political anti-imperialist movement. These same ideas are widely held on the left today. It is how they can justify allying with the Muslim Brotherhood. Like the Jadids, the Brotherhood is on the left, but doesn’t know it yet. Muslims think that Moses and Jesus were Muslims but didn’t know it. The left believes that Mohammed was a progressive, but didn’t know it.
The Theses distinguished between Muslim ruling classes and all others. “Only among peoples like the nomads and semi-nomads, where the feudal-patriarchal system has not yet disintegrated to the point where the native aristocracy is completely split off from the masses, can representatives of the elite come forward as active leaders in the struggle against imperialist oppression (Mesopotamia, Morocco, Mongolia)”. Two of the three listed examples were Muslim. This convoluted justification allowed them to include Muslim leaders and maintain tribal and Islamic rule as integrated with the masses. An unalloyed justification for maintaining the mini-caliphates that the Pan-Islamists wanted.
While the Communists of the twenties still distinguished between their creed as the higher and Islam as the lower, these distinctions have been eroded among the postmodern left to the point of non-existence. All revolutionary movements are treated as equal so long as they are aimed at Western imperialism. The Islamists are just part of that “great diversity”. Their approach to social justice is an aspect of their culture. This perversity underpins the red-green alliance.
In 1920, the People’s Congress of the Baku called for a “holy war”, a “ghazavat” against Britain. “The Peoples of the East, united with the revolutionary proletariat of the West under the banner of the Communist International… summon our peoples to a holy war.”
Invoking both “the green banner of the Prophet” and “the red banner of the Communist International”, this “first real holy war” with the sanction of the Ulemas, Islamic clerics, the red-green alliance was built on a fault line. It was a fault line that Marx could have told them about, had they been willing to listen.
Karl Marx had observed that, “The Koran and the Mussulman (Muslim) legislation emanating from it reduce the geography and ethnography of the various peoples to the simple and convenient distinction of two nations and of two countries; those of the Faithful and of the Infidels” And added, “The Infidel is the enemy.”
The Communists, like their modern counterparts, had not understood this simple and convenient distinction. They thought that they could blend the red and green banners together. That Muslim armies would fight holy wars for them and that Soviet secularism would eventually replace Islamism. Their failure to understand what Islam is, to think that they could ally and stand on the same side as the armies of the Faithful, that they could call for a Holy War against “against imperialist Britain” and have it “burn with unquenchable fire” and yet not get burned themselves, has been repeated not only by the left, but by America and Europe.
The Soviet Union had tried to turn Muslim identity into a Communist identity. And that effort failed badly. The Communists remained infidels. Now we are trying to turn Muslim identity into a Democratic identity, and failing just as miserably. Muslim identity will not broaden to include us. Just as it did not broaden to include the Communists. Our efforts to secularize Muslim identity into anything broader will never reach beyond a small number of people who agree with us.
Islam is not a developing identity, but a divisive identity. An identity that defines itself in its contrast with the infidel. And it needs the infidel to provide that contrast. “The corsair ships of the Berber States”, Marx wrote, “were the holy fleet of Islam”. Not because of any specific religious function the corsairs were performing, but through the mere fact that they were fighting infidels alone. That contrast is the essence of Islam. Only by maintaining distinctions between himself and the infidel– can the Muslim know who he is.
Bertrand Russell identified political fanaticism as the common identity of both Muslims and Communists, writing that, “Mohammedanism and Bolshevism are practical, social, unspiritual, concerned to win the empire of this world.” The obsession with winning “the empire of the world” has led the left into an alliance with the Islamists. The mutual irrationality of both sides, movements both marked by the inability to take stock of their own failures, has pushed them forward with brazen dreams of empire. The only thing they agree on is their opposition to the current system. But their new Ghazadat will not end in a better world, but in misery and failure for all.