A Matter of Identity
Of Religions and Left
Recently, in two Arab
countries—Tunisia and Egypt
—the struggle to liberate the country from the tyrannical rule of a despotic regime began under the leadership of the democratically oriented educated youth. But when elections were held to form a legitimate government, it was the Islamists who won in both countries. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had not joined the revolt in the beginning. Yet it is they and the fundamentalist Islamists called Salafists who overwhelmingly won in the elections to the new Parliament. And in the ensuing election for the post of the President a till then unknown member of the Muslim Brotherhood won. The internationally well-known secular politicians Amr Musa and El Baradei fell by the wayside; they did not even come out second. Reports from Tunisia indicate that a process of lslamisation of the country is well under way. In Egypt it may have already begun under the leadership of the Salafists.
People had witnessed a somewhat similar process in Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolt against the Shah regime. There the left and secular forces had fought side by side with the religiously motivated forces. But then the masses welcomed Ayatollah Khomeini to take over the leadership and establish an Islamic republic. The leftists had to flee the country.
Today, in Syria, the dividing line is not clear. It appeared in the beginning that the masses revolted against a tyrannical regime. Then observers started saying that it is the Sunni majority (60 percent of the population) led by the Muslim Brotherhood that is fighting against the dominance of the Alawites and the Shias. For a few weeks now, it is also being reported that the middle-class Sunnis, particularly Sunni businessmen support the regime of Assad and that it is mainly (however, not only) the poor and the unemployed Sunnis that are doing the fighting against the regime. If the latter report is true, then one can see in the conflict also a class divide. One thing however is clear: the secular and left forces are on the defensive (Assad's Baath Party was originally a socialist one. Today it is still a secular one).
The passages that follow were written in December 2004, after an Islamist young man in Amsterdam killed the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh because the latter had insulted Islam and the Muslims in general and because, in particular, in a film he had projected a verse of the Koran on the naked back of a woman. The contents of these passages however are as valid today as they were in 2004.
The power of the religions that makes people so concerned for quite some time now is manifested in three phenomena: religious fundamentalism, political religion (e.g. political Islam) and religiously motivated violence. All big religions—except perhaps Buddhism—have one or all of these expressions of power for quite a long time, more or less. Already in 1947, the power of militant political Islam led to the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the then British India, and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The initially socialist (in Algeria) or half-socialist (in Egypt) Arab nationalism has long been edged out by radical Islamism. Today, the Arab struggle against imperialism and Israeli colonialism is being led mainly by militant Islamists. The Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century among the European Christians is being repeated, so to speak, in Northern Ireland. In the USA, the fundamentalist Evangelicals, who want to Christianize the whole world, have taken over power.
What is needed in this situation is not just to be agitated but deep and concerned thinking on these phenomena. For they not only represent a second defeat of socialism, they also mean that the spirit of the Enlightenment is increasingly losing ground.
Search for the Causes
A deep root of religiosity lies in the human condition itself. People do not know everything. What science says about the origin of the universe and of life on earth are after all only the most plausible hypotheses at the moment. Moreover, several fundamental questions remain unanswered: Why did all that originate at all? What is the purpose, the meaning of all that, of life? And what is the purpose of human life? Where do people have their consciousness from, intelligence, sense of morality? Are the human species, only an accidental product of evolution? If yes, why do members of such a species, only one among several millions, have a sense of morality? Cats, for example, do not bother about other populations of the cat species, about nature or about the future generations. Why do some humans suffer and the others don't? What is death? Is there anything after death?
Such questions can lead one straight into believing in God(s) and a religion or, in the most favourable case, to harmless spirituality. Especially an oppressed, exploited or somehow disadvantaged person or one who is shattered through cruel strokes of fate needs a source of consolation. If that cannot be found in this world, then it is at least understandable that such a person believes he/she can find it in another sphere, where a God allegedly loves him unconditionally or where he would be happy at long last. The search of the young Siddhartha (later the Buddha) for insight into the human condition and his passage to religiosity began when he for the first time saw a seriously ill person, then a very frail old man, and then a corpse. After the collapse of the Soviet Union large numbers of formerly atheist and newly impoverished Russians thronged the churches again. Marx had already realised that Religion is "the expression of real distress", "the sigh of the oppressed creature".
According to Marx, religion is also "opium". But he recognised that it is also "protest against real distress". It is better to say that it can also be that. In fact, in history it has often goaded humans to protest, in many forms including violent ones. In the 16th century, Martin Luther led the revolt against the corrupt Christian religious authorities. Thomas Müntzer, a protestant reformer led a peasant revolt. Some Marxists see him as a precursor in the struggle for a classless society. In the 19th century, in Sudan, Muhammad Ahmed Ibn 'Abd Allah—a Sufi, who gave himself the title Mahdi—led a mass movement and a revolutionary army in order both to reform Islam and to liberate his country from the oppressive rule of foreigners, namely the Egyptians.
Both Müntzer and the Mahdi led an armed struggle against a worldly order that they, for various reasons, held to be unbearable. And Luther had been the spiritual leader of the kings who carried out the military revolt against the rule of the Pope. The Mahdi and his followers wanted to lead Islam back to its pristine form, in which the Prophet wanted it to be practised. They were therefore, in today's jargon, fundamentalists. What these examples say, is that in history often militant religious fundamentalists or only religiously motivated political activists, who were not necessarily fundamentalists, fought in various ways against some real or felt injustice or against some deplorable state of affairs.
Since the Age of Enlightenment and since the various declarations of human rights, at the latest since the world-wide spread of the revolutionary socialist movement after the Second World War, there should not have been any need for any religious drive for such struggles. But the Enlightenment as well as the human rights and socialism were betrayed by the very people who had brought forth these ideals, namely the Euro-Americans. In the name of the white man's burden and his alleged civilising mission these people waged colonial wars. The peoples of the conquered countries were not only exploited and oppressed but also treated in racist ways. The slave trade went on till 1864. France waged a brutal war until 1962 in order to maintain her colonial rule in Algeria.
Already the armed struggle of the Mahdi was directed not only against the Egyptian rule in Sudan, but also against the British imperialists, who supported the Egyptians. The British colonel Gordon, who went to Sudan for saving the Egyptian rule there, was killed after being taken prisoner. But why did the Mahdi have to be a religious fundamentalist? It is perhaps a law of social history that a people, or at least a part of it, falls back on its own religious-cultural tradition whenever, even without foreign rule, its general condition appears to it to be miserable, whenever it sees itself as living in a materially desolate or morally decadent state, particularly when, in modern times, the promises of the modern age prove to be illusory. It then wants to revive the supposedly past golden age of its history, which must not be understood only in the material sense. But also in terms of simple material wants, in the Arab-Muslim countries, it has been the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamist organisations (e.g. the Hamas in Palestine) that have provided succour to the needy, whereas the state led by a secular Western-educated elite (that may also have included leftists) did not care. That is also a strong reason for the popularity of the Islamist organisations in Muslim countries.
This orientation does not always appear as an additional aspect of the struggle for worldly power. Also in an independent country in which some kind of crisis situation is obtaining for a long time, it can come up with the goal of a peaceful socio-cultural renaissance. Thus in India under British colonial rule, in the 19th century, some Hindu leading personalities started the Aryasamaj and Brahmasamaj movements in order to reform Hindu society on the basis of the ancient Vedic tradition. In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded, which strove for establishing the Koran and the Hadith as the source of guiding principles for a healthy and modern Islamic society. A similar development can be observed today among Christian fundamentalists, who feel a deep disquiet over the moral degeneration of modern Western societies and therefore want to lead them back to Biblical values. And in India, many Hindus have reacted to the moral degeneration of their society by envisioning the revival of the mythical Ramarajya, the ideal kingdom of God incarnate Rama (the hero of their epic Ramayana), or by reviving what is called Hindutva (hinduness). Of course, many politicians, parties and militant groups instrumentalise these feelings, thoughts, and dreams. But they do exist in society.
For this discussion the recent history of Algeria is the most instructive example. After a successful liberation war, a socialist state was founded in this predominantly Islamic country, which was, to boot, blessed with a large oil and gas wealth. Of course, there were some purely economic causes of the crisis of Algerian society, but the leading, westernised francophone stratum of the ruling FLN was also morally degenerated. Against this background, the underprivileged strata- particularly their youth suffering from mass unemployment, whose absolute number as well as share in the population rapidly increased - could be easily won over by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) for its politics. FIS achieved this in the name of pan Arabism and upholding the religious-cultural identity of the people. The rest of the story—civil war and reciprocal massacres—is well known.
As everybody knows the Islamic terrorists of today do not generally come from the poor underclasses, but, in their majority, rather from the educated middle and upper classes. If they come to power in any country, they would not abolish the exploitation of the under-classes by the upper classes. Here many western observers, including leftists, make an error in their reasoning. In the case of Islamic terrorists, their motive force is not primarily anger at economic exploitation and their primary goal is not redistribution of the wealth of the world or of their own country. What drives them is their sense of dignity, and hate and revenge as two means of restoring lost dignity. Anyhow, the sense of dignity and honour of the Arab Islamic peoples, actually of all Third World peoples, is suffering since long because of material underdevelopment. Additionally, for decades, it is being violated by Western imperialist countries, to which also Israel belongs. Although a few bombs or Katyusha rockets will not enable them to defeat imperialism, they will at least assuage the thirst for revenge of these humiliated millions. This is the more important purpose of the violent attacks of militant Islamists against westerners. Only so can one explain the murder of Theo van Gogh.
It is obvious that the motivation for satisfying this kind of needs cannot come from the ideals of Enlightenment and socialism, but it can very well come from fundamentalist interpretations of the great religions (except Buddhism), nationalism or ethnic loyalty. The motivation for the Islamists' struggle against the West and that of the Chechnians against the Russians is fed by both of these sources.
It is not without reason that one hardly thinks of a Turk when one hears the term "Islamist terrorist", although there have also been two bomb attacks in Turkey perpetrated by Turkish Islamists. Turkey has never been a colony or semi-colony. On the contrary, it was itself a colonial power. And today it is a member of the OECD and the NATO. Turkish political Islam can therefore take on a mild form. That shows that only the combination of being a Muslim and origin or roots in a (neo)colonially humiliated country makes one particularly susceptible to militant Islamism.
The Function of Identity
In Algeria, the FIS could successfully utilise the religious-cultural identity "Arab-Islamic", because the identity preferred by the leftists, namely "worker", had been of little use to the Algerian under-classes in their struggle against the FLN bigwigs and the upper classes, who claimed to be socialists. It was of little use especially because class differences existed even within the working class. The identity "worker" has also been of no use in the struggle against imperialism, because, seen objectively, Euro-American workers are beneficiaries of the modern imperialist system. So the Islamists became stronger. By using the identity-term "Islamic", they could also sweep the class problem within their own ranks under the carpet. It is a weakness of the leftists generally, and of the Euro-American leftists in particular, that they refuse to see the objectively existing conflict of interests between the working classes of different nations, ethnic groups and regions, particularly between those of the imperialist countries and those of the Third World countries. They may still shout the slogan "workers of all countries unite!" But they do not care to ask why this unity has not materialised yet.
What Is To Be Done?
Everybody knows that the vast majority of the believers in one or the other religion do not take their holy scriptures very seriously. They are realistic, pragmatic People. Live and let live, that is their attitude towards people of other faiths. Although people have to tolerate their being religious, co-operation in political matters is possible. In Algeria, the masses, who were more or less devout Muslims, supported the initially socialist policies of the FLN. Likewise, Christians have their Liberation Theology and political groups calling themselves Christians for Socialism. In practical political work, one can negate the importance of the question of religion; one can reduce it to a private matter. One can take an agnostic position.
But one must also differentiate. The fundamentalists, who want to impose on society the (often only supposed) dictates of their holy scriptures—the Koran, the Sharia or the Bible—as laws for everyday life, must be opposed. But there are also those who for their struggle against the numerous evils in this world do not find any other source of strength and inspiration than their religion. To them a different source of inspiration must be offered. After the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch journalist Joost Kircz deplored : "The left cannot offer any alternative to the young people influenced by Islam. ….There are also no comparable heroic struggles against the prevailing conditions, struggles in which the youth could learn a new emancipatory purpose and try it out" (SoZ 12/04). This deficit must be overcome soon, for which a strong revival of the ideals of socialism is necessary.
[German original was written and published in December 2004. Revised and updated English translation made in July 2012.]
Vol. 45, No. 7, Aug 26-Sep1, 2012