Today, in the wake of Hamas’s resistance to Israel, some people are looking into Islam as a religion that can sustain resistance and provide resilience. But this will lead people to a very bad place, one that will sooner or later pose an obstacle to the actual emancipation of all humanity, including especially women and LGBTQ people.
As the revolutionary leader Bob Avakian says, “Oppressed people who are unable or unwilling to confront reality as it actually is, are condemned to remain enslaved and oppressed.”
What people need is science, not the mental shackles of religion.
In the book AWAY WITH ALL GODS! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, Bob Avakian (BA) analyzes in great depth the religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. In this book, BA demystifies religious belief and examines how, even in its most progressive interpretations, religion stands in the way of the emancipation of humanity.
We are reprinting here two quotes from BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian and two chapters from Away With All Gods on Islam:
We strongly recommend that all those who want to see a world without exploitation and oppression—including liberation for the Palestinian people—get into and engage what BA has written here.
What is the role of religion—and is it really harmful? A lot of people say: “Alright, maybe it’s not true, but what harm does it do? It makes people feel better—a loved one dies and they want to believe that the loved one went to heaven, and when they die they’ll be reunited with that loved one. Or something terrible happens in someone’s life, and she wants to take comfort and solace in the belief that there is some larger purpose, directed by some god, that makes this have meaning in some form. How can that do any harm?”
Well, let’s paraphrase Stevie Wonder’s song “Superstition”: “When you believe in things and they don’t exist and you suffer, superstition’s in your way.” (Actually he says, “When you believe in things that you don’t understand...”—but it’s the same point.) You do suffer when you believe in things that you not only don’t understand, but that, by definition, you can’t understand. And whether or not Stevie Wonder had religion in mind in saying this, it definitely applies to religion.
The notion of a god, or gods, was created by humanity, in its infancy, out of ignorance. This has been perpetuated by ruling classes, for thousands of years since then, to serve their interests in exploiting and dominating the majority of people and keeping them enslaved to ignorance and irrationality.
Bringing about a new, and far better, world and future for humanity means overthrowing such exploiting classes and breaking free of and leaving behind forever such enslaving ignorance and irrationality.
Following are two excerpts from Bob Avakian's book Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World, Part 2, "Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—Rooted in the Past, Standing in the Way of the Future." The book was published in 2008.
Islam Is No Better (and No Worse) Than Christianity
Up to this point I have been focusing on Christianity and the Bible. While of course there are significant differences, theologically and in terms of religious practice, between Islam and Christianity (and Judaism), the world outlook that each expresses and the social content each embodies—what they say about how human society is and ought to be—are not only similar in many ways but are fundamentally in the service of the same kinds of systems of exploitation and enslavement. In the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, no less than in the Christian Bible (and the whole “Judeo-Christian tradition”), all kinds of oppressive relations are upheld and even celebrated.1
The historical origins of Islam provide a context for, and further insight into, the content and role of Islam, as a religion and as a geopolitical force in the world, historically and down to today. The pivotal, and seminal, figure in Islam is, of course, its founder, Muhammad, who was born about 1500 years ago in Mecca and spent his early years there. Muhammad (Muhammad bin Abdullah) was from a relatively minor subgroup within the dominant tribe in the area of Mecca, the Quraysh. His status became somewhat more elevated when he married a wealthy widow, Khadijah; but, although more or less financially secure, he was still not a prominent figure among the Quraysh in Mecca. At that time, Mecca was becoming an increasingly important trade site and center of commerce. Along with this, it was a significant religious center; and the shrine in the city, the Ka’ba, was a holy site for the many tribes, with their differing local religions, who travelled to, and traded in, Mecca. This too was a source of wealth for the Quraysh. But, at the same time, this role of Mecca as a growing commercial center was in some significant ways undermining the traditional tribal way of life and the superstructure—the politics and political structures, the ideology and the culture expressed to a large degree in religious terms—that more or less corresponded to that traditional mode of life.
It was in these circumstances that Muhammad began to spend long periods alone in the desert and the mountainous areas around Mecca. And it was during these solitary periods, when he would often fast for several days, that, according to Muhammad, he began to hear revelations from God (Allah), as spoken to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, which Muhammad memorized and recited. These recitations would continue throughout the rest of Muhammad’s life and would come to constitute the foundation of the Islamic religion, set down in the Qur’an and other holy works of Islam.
Now, of course, it is impossible for me (or, really, for anyone at this point) to say whether (or to what degree) Muhammad actually believed that he was receiving revelations from Allah, or whether (or to what degree) he was conscious that he, himself, was the source of these supposed revelations. There are some places in the surahs (chapters) of the Qur’an (such as Surah LXVI, “Banning,” where instructions from Allah are relayed by Muhammad to his wives, telling them not to be jealous, to be more obedient and cause less trouble for Muhammad, and warning them that otherwise Allah may appoint better wives for the Prophet—see verse 5 in particular) which are, to say the least, rather convenient for Muhammad and seem more likely to have been consciously contrived by him. But it is quite probable that, for the most part and in essence, Muhammad was himself convinced that he was receiving, and conveying, the word of the one true God, Allah. And it would not be surprising if, in the course of spending days in the desert or the mountains while fasting, and probably with very little water, Muhammad would hear voices and would come to believe that he was hearing the voice of the angel Gabriel in particular, relaying revelations from Allah. What is clear is that Muhammad became familiar with at least some of the doctrines and beliefs of Christians and of Jews, and this is reflected in the Qur’an—both in what Muhammad seems to have adopted from these religions and in what he came to reject and even denounce. And what is also clear is that, out of these various influences and experiences, Muhammad created, over the course of several decades, what became the Qur’an and the new religion of Islam.
Now, of course, it was not predetermined that Muhammad’s recitations would come to be invested with the aura of divine revelation—they could have been ignored or dismissed as the ramblings of a lunatic. In fact, this is how the elders and powerful forces in the Quraysh tribe in Mecca treated this, for some time. When Muhammad persisted and, moreover began to challenge the established rulers and religious beliefs and practices, and to denounce them as corrupt, he was forced to retreat to Yathrib (which was to become known as Medina). There, Muhammad found more favorable circumstances and, over a period of time, was able to establish himself as both a religious and political authority.
Not only was Muhammad a skillful politician—in Medina he helped to settle disputes among the population there, including a number of Jews who lived in the area, although these Jews ultimately rejected Muhammad and his new religion of Islam—but he also proved to be a skillful military leader. From Medina, once having consolidated his rule, he began to lead his forces in raids against the trading caravans headed for Mecca, which caused significant losses for and put a lot of pressure on the Quraysh in Mecca. Finally, after a series of battles in which Muhammad was able to inflict damage on his Meccan enemies and to avoid death or capture himself, Muhammad was able to march triumphantly back to Mecca and, combining military presence with adroit diplomacy—promising to spare the lives and the property of his adversaries—he was able to achieve the capitulation of the leaders of the Quraysh. Mecca became the center of the new religion of Islam, and the Ka’ba became a holy shrine of that religion.
In all this, once again, we can see the role of accident (or contingency) as well as causality, and the interplay between the two. Had certain events turned out differently, at a number of points, this new religion might never have been brought fully into being, or in any case would never have become a major force in the world. Muhammad could have died much earlier than he did—and in particular he could have been killed during the years when he was in Medina and engaged in warfare with powerful enemies then centered in Mecca. But this was not all a matter of accident. The new religious doctrine and the new religious and political institutions that Muhammad forged and developed over several decades, including during his reign in Medina, had an attractive power not only because of the military force that Muhammad was able to marshal on behalf of this, but because this religion provided a cohering set of beliefs and practices for the growing and diverse groups of people drawn to Mecca, which could unify them beyond more narrow tribal interests and customs. Not simply in some linear and mechanical sense, but in a larger and more overall way, Islam conformed to the new conditions that had been brought into being as a result of the growth of Mecca as a commercial center, drawing together people from many different areas and tribes.
Here we see the dynamic—or, in Marxist terms, the dialectical— relation between the economic mode of life and the superstructure of politics and ideology (including religion), a relation in which changes in the economy (in this case the development of Mecca as a commercial center and accompanying transformations) give life to new modes of thinking, and in turn these new ways of thinking become formulated in doctrines and programs around which people are organized and for which they fight, in opposition to those forces (in this case, the Quraysh rulers in Mecca) seeking to uphold and enforce the old way of life, even in the face of major changes. Of course, as emphasized here, this relationship is not one where changes in the superstructure follow directly and automatically from changes in the economic mode of life, nor are the forces representing a new superstructure, conforming more or less to those changes in the economic mode of life, bound to prevail, in some predetermined sense, or in the short run. As has been discussed, there is the role of accident in all this, but it is not all accident, there is causality as well—there are real material factors, in particular changes in the economic mode of life and relations among people, which are providing an impetus toward and a more favorable basis for corresponding changes in the superstructure of ideology and politics—and there is the continual interplay between changes in the economic base and developments, and struggles, in the superstructure. All this is illustrated in the way in which Muhammad and the new religion of Islam was not bound to but did in fact develop and eventually triumph in the new circumstances that were coming into being as a result of changes in Mecca (which were themselves, in turn, related to changes in the larger world, beyond Mecca and beyond Arabia, which gave further impetus to the development of Mecca as a commercial center).
The same basic principles and dynamics apply to the spread of Islam after the time of Muhammad. Through a combination of military conquest and often skillful diplomatic and political-administrative means, Islam and institutions of Islamic rule were spread over a very large area in the centuries after Muhammad. And, even where an Islamic caliphate as such no longer is the form of state (as well as in places, such as Iran, where an Islamic Republic now exists), Islam and its religious-political institutions have continued, down to the present time, to exert powerful influence among large numbers of people in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
In all this, we can also see a fundamental similarity with the development and spread of Christianity, from its origins among small sects in one geographic area to its emergence as a major force exerting its power and influence in large parts of the world and among huge numbers of people. In both cases we see the crucial role of certain key individuals—such as Jesus himself, but also Paul and Constantine in the history of Christianity, and Muhammad and the early caliphs in the history of Islam—and we see how this is situated, in an overall sense, in the larger dynamics (the living, dialectical interplay) between accident and causality and between the economic base and the superstructure of ideology and politics (including military struggle). It is as a result of all this—and not because of the existence and will of one or another god, or incarnation of god, (whether Yahweh, the god of the ancient Israelites; or Allah; or the Christian Trinity; or any other supernatural being or force)—it is because of material and earthly factors that people today still believe in and worship a god (or gods), or other supernatural beings or forces, but do not all believe in the same god or gods, and in fact often denounce the gods and religions of others as false and even blasphemous.
Returning specifically to Islam, a reading of not only historical accounts of the life and teachings of Muhammad, but of the Qur’an in particular, makes clear that Muhammad’s views—what he understood and what he was ignorant of, what he upheld and praised, as well as what he opposed and condemned—all this reflected the society and world in which he lived, and involved many unequal, cruel and oppressive relations, and the corresponding values, views and customs which Muhammad regarded as necessary, legitimate and just. This includes: slavery; the notion of children, as well as women, as essentially the property of men; the subordination of women to men; the right and indeed the duty of the believers to make war on unbelievers and to carry off plunder, including women, as prizes of war; and overall relations in which some are raised above and exploit and oppress others—all in the name and under the banner of the merciful and beneficent god, Allah.
The following are just a few selections from the Qur’an that clearly—and in many cases graphically—illustrate all this. In looking at these passages from the Qur’an, keep in mind that according to the Qur’an, it is Allah who is speaking to Muhammad, usually through the medium of the angel Gabriel.
They question thee (O Muhammad) concerning menstruation. Say: It is an illness, so let women alone at such times and go not in unto them till they are cleansed. And when they have purified themselves, then go in unto them as Allah hath enjoined upon you…. Your women are a tilth [tillage] for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will, and send (good deeds) before you for your souls, and fear Allah, and know that ye will (one day) meet Him. (From Surah II, “The Cow,” verses 222–23, The Glorious Qur’an, Text and Explanatory Translation by Mohammad M. Pickthall, 10th Revised Edition, 1994, Library of Islam. All citations from the Qur’an are from this edition; unless otherwise indicated, all words and phrases in parentheses are in the original. The word in brackets [tillage] has been added here.)
In this, there is a striking similarity to the Bible, and the laws and commandments in the Old Testament in particular, which portray women who are menstruating as something unclean which must be avoided by men. In both cases, this is part of a tradition which treats women in general as a source of contamination and as inferior and unworthy in relation to men.
So we read in the Qur’an:
If two men be not (at hand), then a man and two women of such as ye may approve as witnesses [may testify] so that if the one erreth (through forgetfulness) the other will remember. (“The Cow,” v. 282—the phrase within brackets [“may testify”] has been added here.)
Here we see that the testimony of women is considered to be only half as reliable and valuable as that of a man in legal proceedings: it takes two women to substitute for or replace one man in such a proceeding.
This view of women is also illustrated in the following from the Qur’an:
Beautiful for mankind is love of the joys (that come) from women and offspring, and stored-up heaps of gold and silver, and horses branded (with their mark), and cattle and land. That is the comfort of the life of the world. Allah! With Him is a more excellent abode. (Surah III, “The Family of Imran,” v. 14)
Here the point is being made that worldly things, while they may have their value, cannot compare to the glory of Allah and a life of service and submission to Allah—which is what Islam means: submission. But the view here of what is beautiful for mankind reflects social relations in which women, as well as children, along with horses that are branded and cattle and land, are, in effect or literally, possessions of men. Again we notice a striking similarity with the Bible—for example, the Ten Commandments, and the tenth in particular, where women are listed, along with slaves, houses and farm animals, as things of “thy neighbor’s” which “thou shalt not covet.”
Another passage from the Qur’an presents this view of women even more graphically: “And all married women (are) forbidden unto you save those (captives) whom your right hands possess.”
Here women as captured slaves or concubines of the faithful (men) is upheld and celebrated. (See Surah IV, “Women,” v. 24.)
And there is the following:
Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge [whip] them. Then, if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great. (Surah IV, “Women,” v. 34—the explanatory word “whip” was added here, in brackets.)
The meaning of this—and the unequal and oppressive social relations this embodies and promotes between men and women—are all too familiar.
“As for the thief,” the Qur’an instructs, “both male and female, cut off their hands. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah. Allah is Mighty, Wise. But whoso repenteth after his wrongdoing and amendeth, lo! Allah will relent toward him. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Surah V, “The Table Spread,” v. 38–39)
Women thieves as well as men will have their hands cut off—here we see women finally receiving equal treatment. [Laughter]
Another passage from the Qur’an:
They ask thee (O Muhammad) of the spoils of war. Say: The spoils of war belong to Allah and the messenger, so keep your duty to Allah, and adjust the matter of your difference, and obey Allah and His messenger, if ye are (true) believers. (Surah VIII, “The Spoils of War,” v. 1)
The emphasis here is on regulating the distribution of the spoils of war, and on the priority that must be given in this distribution to Muhammad, the messenger of Allah, and to the developing state that Muhammad headed, in which he ruled as the representative of Allah. And, it should be kept in mind, the spoils of war to be distributed among the faithful (men), include women who are captured and carried off (see above in relation to the surah “Women,” v. 24).
And in the following passages from the Qur’an, the owning of slaves, as well as treating wives as the possessions of their husbands—and spoils of war—is upheld, and extolled as well:
Successful indeed are the believers/Who are humble in their prayers,/And who shun vain conversation,/And who are payers of the poor-due/And who guard their modesty—/Save from their wives or the (slaves) that their right hands possess, for then they are not blameworthy. (Surah XXIII, “The Believers,” v. 1–6)
And marry such of you as are solitary and the pious of your slaves and maidservants. If they be poor, Allah will enrich them of His bounty. Allah is of ample means, Aware. (Surah XXIV, “Light,” v. 32)
O Prophet! Lo! We have made lawful unto thee thy wives unto whom thou hast paid their dowries, and those whom thy right hand possesseth of those whom Allah has given thee as spoils of war. (See Surah XXXIII, “The Clans,” v. 50.)
Elsewhere in the Qur’an, Allah, speaking through Muhammad, says:
Each do We supply, both these and those, from the bounty of thy Lord. And the bounty of thy Lord can never be walled up. See how We prefer one above another, and verily the Hereafter will be greater in degrees and greater in preferment. (Surah XVII, “The Children of Israel,” v. 20–21)
So here we see that, along with slavery, and the plundering of women, the exalting of some over others is the way and the will of Allah.
We have apportioned among them their livelihood in the life of the world, and raised some of them above others in rank, that some of them may take labour from others; and the mercy of thy Lord is better than (the wealth) that they amass. (Surah XLIII, “Ornaments of Gold,” v. 32)
Worldly worth is considered a value in one context but as nothing compared to the glory and the largesse of Allah. According to the Qur’an, Muhammad is relaying the words of Allah here, who is angry at the ingratitude of some who doubt the word of Allah as told to his messenger, Muhammad. But there is also expressed here, on the part of Muhammad, and in the name of Allah, a clear approval and advocacy of worldly divisions in which some are elevated above and exploit others.
The same outlook and view of what the relations are, and ought to be, between different groups of people (men and women, masters and slaves, and so on), which I have cited so far from the Qur’an (and these are only a few representative examples) is projected by Muhammad from this life into the promised afterlife:
Lo! the doom of thy Lord will surely come to pass;/There is none that can ward it off…. Then woe that day unto the deniers/Who play in talk of grave matters;/The day when they are thrust with a (disdainful) thrust, into the fire of hell….Lo! those who kept their duty dwell in gardens and delight,/Happy because of what their Lord hath given them, and (because) their Lord hath warded off from them the torment of hell-fire....Reclining on ranged couches. And We wed them unto fair ones with wide, lovely eyes….And there go round, waiting on them menservants of their own, as they were hidden pearls. (Surah LII, “The Mount,” v. 7–8, 11–13, 17–18, 20, 24)
And shortly after that, the Qur’an further elaborates on and embellishes this vision of paradise, including the following:
Therein are those [women] of modest gaze, whom neither man nor jinni [spirits capable of assuming human form] will have touched before them. (Surah LV, “The Beneficent,” v. 56—“women” and “spirits capable of assuming human form” have been added here, in brackets.)
Here are the much talked about virgins who are rewards in paradise for the faithful—men. And then this vision is repeated, and further elaborated on:
Fair ones, close-guarded in pavilions—/Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?—/Whom neither man nor jinni will have touched before them—/ Which is it, of the favours of your Lord, that ye deny?—/ Reclining on green cushions and fair carpets. (“The Beneficent,” v. 72–76)
And again in another surah:
There wait on them immortal youths....And (there are) fair ones with wide, lovely eyes,/Like unto hidden pearls/Reward for what they used to do. (Surah LVI, “The Event,” v. 17, 22–24)
In light of all this, the questions are very sharply posed: Are the words and commandments and the vision of Islam anything that people should submit to and carry out? Is the Allah of Islam any different, in any meaningful way, from “God the Original Fascist” of the “Judeo-Christian” religious tradition? Is it not the case that, like the Bible and the religion(s) based on it, Islam and the Qur’an embody and advocate horrors that humanity no longer can afford to, or needs to, endure—and, instead, can and must move forward to cast off and finally bury in the past?
Why Is Religious Fundamentalism Growing in Today’s World?
Among the most distinguishing features of today’s situation are the leaps that are occurring in globalization, linked to an accelerating process of capitalist accumulation in a world dominated by the capitalist-imperialist system. This has led to significant, and often dramatic, changes in the lives of huge numbers of people, often undermining traditional relations and customs. Here I will focus on the effects of this in the Third World—the countries of Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East—and the ways in which this has contributed to the current growth of religious fundamentalism there.
Throughout the Third World people are being driven in the millions each year away from the farmlands, where they have lived and tried to eke out an existence under very oppressive conditions but now can no longer do even that: they are being thrown into the urban areas, most often into the sprawling shantytowns, ring after ring of slums, that surround the core of the cities. For the first time in history, it is now the case that half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, including these massive and ever-growing shantytowns.
Being uprooted from their traditional conditions—and the traditional forms in which they have been exploited and oppressed—masses of people are being hurled into a very insecure and unstable existence, unable to be integrated, in any kind of “articulated way,” into the economic and social fabric and functioning of society. In many of these Third World countries, a majority of the people in the urban areas work in the informal economy—for example, as small-scale peddlers or traders, of various kinds, or in underground and illegal activity. To a significant degree because of this, many people are turning to religious fundamentalism to try to give them an anchor, in the midst of all this dislocation and upheaval.
An additional factor in all this is that, in the Third World, these massive and rapid changes and dislocations are occurring in the context of domination and exploitation by foreign imperialists—and this is associated with “local” ruling classes which are economically and politically dependent on and subordinate to imperialism, and are broadly seen as the corrupt agents of an alien power, who also promote the “decadent culture of the West.” This, in the short run, can strengthen the hand of fundamentalist religious forces and leaders who frame opposition to the “corruption” and “Western decadence” of the local ruling classes, and the imperialists to which they are beholden, in terms of returning to, and enforcing with a vengeance, traditional relations, customs, ideas and values which themselves are rooted in the past and embody extreme forms of exploitation and oppression.
Where Islam is the dominant religion—in the Middle East but also countries such as Indonesia—this is manifested in the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. In much of Latin America, where Christianity, particularly in the form of Catholicism, has been the dominant religion, the growth of fundamentalism is marked by a situation where significant numbers of people, in particular poor people, who have come to feel that the Catholic Church has failed them, are being drawn into various forms of protestant fundamentalism, such as Pentecostalism, which combines forms of religious fanaticism with a rhetoric that claims to speak in the name of the poor and oppressed. In parts of Africa as well, particularly among masses crowded into the shantytown slums, Christian fundamentalism, including Pentecostalism, has been a growing phenomenon, at the same time as Islamic fundamentalism has been growing in other parts of Africa. 2
But the rise of fundamentalism is also owing to major political changes, and conscious policy and actions on the part of the imperialists in the political arena, which have had a profound impact on the situation in many countries in the Third World, including in the Middle East. As one key dimension of this, it is very important not to overlook or to underestimate the impact of the developments in China since the death of Mao Tsetung and the complete change in that country, from one that was advancing on the road of socialism to one where in fact capitalism has been restored and the orientation of promoting and supporting revolution, in China and throughout the world, has been replaced by one of seeking to establish for China a stronger position within the framework of world power politics dominated by imperialism. This has had a profound effect—negatively—in undermining, in the shorter term, the sense among many oppressed people, throughout the world, that socialist revolution offered the way out of their misery and in creating more ground for those, and in particular religious fundamentalists, who seek to rally people behind something which in certain ways is opposing the dominant oppressive power in the world but which itself represents a reactionary worldview and program.
This phenomenon is reflected in the comments of a “terrorism expert” who observed about some people recently accused of terrorist acts in England that, a generation ago, these people would have been Maoists. Now, despite the fact that the aims and strategy, and the tactics, of genuine Maoists—people guided by communist ideology—are radically different from those of religious fundamentalists and that communists reject, in principle, terrorism as a method and approach, there is something real and important in this “terrorism expert’s” comments: a generation ago many of the same youths and others who are, for the time being, drawn toward Islamic and other religious fundamentalisms, would instead have been drawn toward the radically different, revolutionary pole of communism. And this phenomenon has been further strengthened by the demise of the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp” that it headed. In reality, the Soviet Union had ceased to be socialist since the time, in the mid-1950s, when revisionists (communists in name but capitalists in fact) seized the reins of power and began running the country in accordance with capitalist principles (but in the form of state capitalism and with a continuing “socialist” camouflage). But by the 1990s, the leaders of the Soviet Union began to openly discard socialism, and then the Soviet Union itself was abolished and Russia and the other countries that had been part of the Soviet “camp” abandoned any pretense of “socialism.”
All this—and, in relation to it, a relentless ideological offensive by the imperialists and their intellectual camp followers—has led to the notion, widely propagated and propagandized, of the defeat and demise of communism and, for the time being, the discrediting of communism among broad sections of people, including among those restlessly searching for a way to fight back against imperialist domination, oppression and degradation. 3
But it is not only communism that the imperialists have worked to defeat and discredit. They have also targeted other secular forces and governments which, to one degree or another, have opposed, or objectively constituted obstacles to, the interests and aims of the imperialists, particularly in parts of the world that they have regarded as of strategic importance. For example, going back to the 1950s, the U.S. engineered a coup that overthrew the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, because that government’s policies were viewed as a threat to the control of Iran’s oil by the U.S. (and secondarily the British) and to U.S. domination of the region more broadly. This has had repercussions and consequences for decades since then. Among other things, it has contributed to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and the eventual establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran, when Islamic fundamentalists seized power in the context of a mass upheaval of the Iranian people in the late 1970s, which led to the overthrow of the highly repressive government of the Shah of Iran, who had been backed and in fact maintained in power by the U.S. since the ouster of Mossadegh. 4
In other parts of the Middle East, and elsewhere, over the past several decades the imperialists have also consciously set out to defeat and decimate even nationalist secular opposition; and, in fact, they have at times consciously fed the growth of religious fundamentalist forces. Palestine is a sharp example of this: Islamic fundamentalist forces there were actually aided by Israel—and the U.S. imperialists, for whom Israel acts as an armed garrison—in order to undermine the more secular Palestine Liberation Organization. In Afghanistan, particularly during the Soviet occupation of that country in the 1980s, the U.S. backed and provided arms to the Islamic fundamentalist Mujahadeen, because it was recognized that they would be fanatical fighters against the Soviets. Other forces, including not only more secular nationalists but Maoists, opposed the Soviet occupation and the puppet governments it installed in Afghanistan, but of course the Maoists in particular were not supported by the U.S., and in fact many of them were killed by the “Jihadist” Islamic fundamentalists that the U.S. was aiding and arming.
In Egypt, going back to the 1950s, there was the whole phenomenon of the popular nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and of “Nasserism,” a form of Arab nationalism which wasn’t limited to Egypt but whose influence was very widespread after Nasser came to power in Egypt. In 1956 a crisis developed when Nasser acted to assert more control over the Suez Canal; and Israel, along with France and England—still not fully resigned to the loss of their large colonial empires—moved together in opposition to Nasser. Now, as an illustration of the complexity of things, in that “Suez crisis,” the U.S. opposed Israel, France and Britain. The U.S. motive was not to support Arab nationalism or Nasser in particular, but to further supplant the European imperialists who had previously colonized these parts of the world. To look briefly at the background of this, in the aftermath of World War 1, with the defeat of the old Ottoman Empire, centered in Turkey, France and England basically divided up the Middle East between them—some of it was allotted to the French sphere of influence, as essentially French colonies, and other parts were under British control. But then after World War 2—through which Japan as well as Germany and Italy were thoroughly defeated, and countries like France and Britain were weakened, while the U.S. was greatly strengthened—the U.S. moved to create a new order in the world and, as part of that, to impose in the Third World, in place of the old-line colonialism, a new form of colonialism (neo-colonialism) through which the U.S. would maintain effective control of countries and their political structures and economic life, even where they became formally independent. And, as part of this, Israel was made to find its place in relation to the now more fully realized and aggressively asserted American domination in the Middle East.
But, out of his stand in what became the “Suez crisis,” and as a result of other nationalist moves, Nasser and “Nasserism” developed a widespread following in the Arab countries in particular. In this situation, the U.S., while not seeking overtly to overthrow Nasser, worked to undermine Nasserism and generally more secular forces—including, obviously, communist forces—that were opposed to, or stood in the way of, U.S. imperialism. And, especially after the 1967 war, in which Israel defeated surrounding Arab states and seized additional Palestinian territory (now generally referred to as the “occupied territories,” outside of the state of Israel which itself rests on land stolen from the Palestinians), Israel has been firmly backed by and has acted as a force on behalf of U.S. imperialism.
Defeat at the hands of Israel in the 1967 war contributed significantly to a decline in the stature and influence of Nasser and Nasserism—and similar, more or less secular, leaders and trends—among the people in the Middle East; and by the time of his death in 1970, Nasser had already begun to lose a significant amount of his luster in the eyes of the Arab masses.
Here again we can see another dimension to the complexity of things. The practical defeats and failure of Nasser had the effect of undermining, in the eyes of increasing numbers of people, the legitimacy, or viability, of what Nasser represented ideologically. Now, the fact is that “Nasserism” and similar ideological and political trends, do not represent, and cannot lead to, a thorough rupture with imperialist domination and all forms of the oppression and exploitation of the people. But that is something which has to be, and is in fact, established by a scientific analysis of what is represented by such ideologies and programs and what they aim to achieve, and are actually capable of achieving; it is not proven by the fact that, in certain particular instances or even over a certain limited period of time, the leaders personifying and seeking to implement such ideologies and programs suffer setbacks and defeats. In the ways in which masses of people in the Arab countries (and more broadly) responded to such setbacks and defeats, on the part of Nasser and those more or less representing the same ideology and program, there was a definite element of pragmatism—the notion that, even in the short run, what prevails is true and good, and what suffers losses is flawed and bankrupt. And, of course, a spontaneous tendency toward such pragmatism, among the masses of people, has been reinforced by the verdicts pronounced by the imperialists and other reactionaries—not only, of course, in relation to secular forces such as Nasser but, even more so, in relation to communists and communism, which represent a much more fundamental opposition to imperialism and reaction.
In all this it is important to keep in mind that over a number of decades, and at least until very recently, the U.S. and Israel have worked to undermine secular forces among the opposition to them in the Middle East (and elsewhere) and have at least objectively favored, where they have not deliberately fostered, the growth of Islamic fundamentalist forces. During the “Cold War,” this was, to a significant degree, out of a calculation that these Islamic fundamentalists would be much less likely to align themselves with the Soviet camp. And, to no small degree, this favoring of religious fundamentalists over more secular forces has been motivated by the recognition of the inherently conservative, indeed reactionary, essence of this religious fundamentalism, and the fact that, to a significant degree, it can act as a useful foil for the imperialists (and Israel) in presenting themselves as an enlightened, democratic force for progress.
Now, one of the ironies of this whole experience is that Nasser, and other Arab nationalist heads of state, viciously and murderously suppressed not only Islamic fundamentalist opposition (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) but also communists. But, with what has taken place on the world stage, so to speak, in recent decades—including what has happened in China and the Soviet Union (as discussed above) and the widely propagated verdict that this represents the “defeat” of communism; the seizure of power in Iran by Islamic fundamentalists, with the fall of the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s; the resistance to the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan, which by the late 1980s forced a Soviet withdrawal and contributed significantly to the downfall of the Soviet Union itself; and the setbacks and defeats for more or less secular rulers like Nasser (and more recently someone like Saddam Hussein) in the Middle East and elsewhere—it has, in the short term, been the Islamic fundamentalists, much more than revolutionaries and communists, who have been able to regroup, and to experience a significant growth in influence and organized strength.
Another example of this whole trajectory, from the 1950s to the present time—which illustrates, in very stark and graphic terms, the points being made above—is the country of Indonesia. During the 1950s and 1960s Indonesia had the third largest communist party in the world (only in the Soviet Union and China were the communist parties larger). The Indonesian Communist Party had a massive following among the poor in the urban areas (whose slums, in the city of Jakarta and elsewhere, were already legendary, in the negative sense) as well as among the peasants in the countryside and sections of the intellectuals and even some more nationalist bourgeois strata. Unfortunately, the Indonesian Communist Party also had a very eclectic line—a mixed bag of communism and revisionism, of seeking revolutionary change but also trying to work through parliamentary means within the established government structures.
The government at that time was headed by the nationalist leader Achmed Sukarno. Now, an important insight into this was provided as part of a visit I made to China in the 1970s, during which some members of the Chinese Communist Party talked about the experience of the Indonesian Communist Party, and they specifically recounted: We used to struggle with comrade Aidit (the head of the Indonesian Communist Party during the period of Sukarno’s government); we warned him about what could happen as a result of trying to have one foot in communism and revolution and one foot in reformism and revisionism. But the Indonesian Communist Party persisted on the same path, with its eclectic approach; and in 1965 the U.S., through the CIA, working with the Indonesian military and a leading general, Suharto, carried out a bloody coup, in which hundreds of thousands of Indonesian communists, and others, were massacred, the Communist Party of Indonesia was thoroughly decimated, and at the same time Sukarno was ousted as the head of government and replaced by Suharto.
In the course of this coup, the rivers around Jakarta became clogged with the bodies of the victims: the reactionaries would kill people, alleged or actual communists, and throw their bodies, in massive numbers, into the rivers. And, in a phenomenon that is all too familiar, once this coup—which the CIA led, organized and engineered—was unleashed and carried out, all kinds of people who were involved in personal or family disputes and feuds would start accusing other people of being communists and turning them into the authorities, with the result that a lot of people who weren’t even communists got slaughtered, along with many who were. Once the imperialists and reactionaries unleashed this blood-letting, this encouraged and gave impetus to, and swept many people up in, a kind of bloodlust of revenge. The CIA openly brags about how they not only organized and orchestrated this coup but also specifically targeted several thousand of the leading communists and got rid of them directly, within this larger massacre of hundreds of thousands.
The fundamental problem with the strategy of the Indonesian Communist Party was that the nature of the state—and in particular the military—had not changed: the parliament was to a large degree made up of nationalists and communists, but the state was still in the hands of the reactionary classes; and because their control of the state had never been broken, and the old state apparatus in which they maintained control was never shattered and dismantled, Suharto and other reactionary forces were able, working together with and under the direction of the CIA, to pull off this bloody coup, with its terrible consequences.
In this regard, another anecdote that was recounted by members of the Chinese Communist Party is very telling and poignant. They told a story about how Sukarno had a scepter that he used to carry around, and the Chinese officials who met with him asked him, “What is this scepter you carry around?” And Sukarno replied: “This scepter represents state power.” Well, the Chinese comrades telling this story summed up, after the coup “Sukarno still had the scepter, they let him keep that, but he didn’t have any state power.”
The Indonesian Communist Party was all but totally wiped out, physically—its membership was virtually exterminated, with only a few remnants of it here and there—a devastating blow from which it has never recovered. And the decimation was not only in literal and physical terms but also was expressed in ideological and political defeat, disorientation and demoralization. Over the decades since then, what has happened in Indonesia? One of the most striking developments is the tremendous growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia. The communist alternative was wiped out. In its place—in part being consciously fostered by the imperialists and other reactionary forces, but partly growing on its own momentum in the context where a powerful secular and, at least in name, communist opposition had been destroyed—Islamic fundamentalism filled the vacuum that had been left by the lack of a real alternative to the highly oppressive rule of Suharto and his cronies that was installed and kept in power for decades by the U.S. 5
All this—what has taken place in Indonesia, as well as in Egypt, Palestine and other parts of the Middle East—is a political dimension which has been combined with the economic and social factors mentioned above—the upheaval and volatility and rapid change imposed from the top and seemingly coming from unknown and/or alien and foreign sources and powers—to undermine and weaken secular, including genuinely revolutionary and communist, forces and to strengthen Islamic fundamentalism (in a way similar to how Christian fundamentalism has been gaining strength in Latin America and parts of Africa).
This is obviously a tremendously significant phenomenon. It is a major part of the objective reality that people throughout the world who are seeking to bring about change in a progressive direction—and still more those who are striving to achieve truly radical change guided by a revolutionary and communist outlook—have to confront and transform. And in order to do that, it is necessary, first of all, to seriously engage and understand this reality, rather than remaining dangerously ignorant of it, or adopting an orientation of stubbornly ignoring it. It is necessary, and indeed crucial, to dig down beneath the surface of this phenomenon and its various manifestations, to grasp more deeply what are the underlying and driving dynamics in all this—what are the fundamental contradictions and what are the particular expressions of fundamental and essential contradictions, on a world scale and within particular countries and regions in the world—that this religious fundamentalism is the expression of, and how, on the basis of that deeper understanding, a movement can be developed to win masses of people away from this and to something which can actually bring about a radically different and much better world.
Rejecting the “Smug Arrogance of the Enlightened”
There is a definite tendency among those who are “people of the Enlightenment,” shall we say—including, it must be said, some communists—to fall into what amounts to a smugly arrogant attitude toward religious fundamentalism and religion in general. Because it seems so absurd, and difficult to comprehend, that people living in the 21st century can actually cling to religion and in fact adhere, in a fanatical and absolutist way, to dogmas and notions that are clearly without any foundation in reality, it is easy to dismiss this whole phenomenon and fail to recognize, or to correctly approach, the fact that this is indeed taken very seriously by masses of people. And this includes more than a few people among the lower, deeper sections of the proletariat and other oppressed people who need to be at the very base and bedrock of—and be a driving force within—the revolution that can actually lead to emancipation.
It is a form of contempt for the masses to fail to take seriously the deep belief that many of them have in religion, including religious fundamentalism of one kind or another, just as tailing after the fact that many believe in these things and refusing to struggle with them to give this up is also in reality an expression of contempt for them. The hold of religion on masses of people, including among the most oppressed, is a major shackle on them, and a major obstacle to mobilizing them to fight for their own emancipation and to be emancipators of all humanity—and it must be approached, and struggled against, with that understanding, even as, at any given time, it is necessary, possible, and crucial, in the fight against injustice and oppression, to unite as broadly as possible with people who continue to hold religious beliefs.
The Growth of Religion and Religious Fundamentalism:
A Peculiar Expression of a Fundamental Contradiction
Another strange, or peculiar, expression of contradictions in the world today is that, on the one hand, there is all this highly developed technology and sophisticated technique in fields such as medicine and other spheres, including information technology (and, even taking account that large sections of the population in many parts of the world, and significant numbers even within the “technologically advanced” countries, still do not have access to this advanced technology, growing numbers of people actually do have access to the Internet and to the extensive amounts of information available through the Internet, and in other ways) and yet, at the same time, there is the tremendous growth of, let’s call it what it is: organized ignorance, in the form of religion and religious fundamentalism in particular. This appears as not only a glaring but a strange contradiction: so much technology and knowledge on the one hand, and yet on the other hand so much widespread ignorance and belief in, and retreat into, obscurantist superstition.
Well, along with analyzing this in terms of the economic, social and political factors that have given rise to this (to which I have spoken above) another, and even more basic, way of understanding this is that it is an extremely acute expression in today’s world of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism: the contradiction between highly socialized production and private (capitalist) appropriation of what is produced.
Where does all this technology come from? On what basis has it been produced? And speaking specifically of the dissemination of information, and the basis for people to acquire knowledge—what is that founded on? All the technology that exists—and, for that matter, the wealth that has been created—has been produced in socialized forms by millions and millions of people through an international network of production and exchange; but all this takes place under the command of a relative handful of capitalists, who appropriate the wealth produced—and appropriate the knowledge produced as well—and bend it to their purposes.
What is this an illustration of? It is, for one thing, a refutation of the “theory of the productive forces,” which argues that the more technology you have, the more enlightenment there will be, more or less directly in relation to that technology—and which, in its “Marxist” expression, argues that the greater the development of technology, the closer things will be to socialism or to communism. Well, look around the world. Why is this not the case? Because of a very fundamental fact: All this technology, all the forces of production, “go through,” and have to “go through,” certain definite production relations—they can be developed and utilized only by being incorporated into what the prevailing ensemble of production relations is at any given time. And, in turn, there are certain class and social relations that are themselves an expression of (or are in any case in general correspondence with) the prevailing production relations; and there is a superstructure of politics, ideology and culture whose essential character reflects and reinforces all those relations. So, it is not a matter of productive forces—including all the technology and knowledge—just existing in a social vacuum and being distributed and utilized in a way that is divorced from the production relations through which it is developed and employed (and the corresponding class and social relations and superstructure). This takes place, and can only take place, through one or another set of production, social and class relations, with the corresponding customs, cultures, ways of thinking, political institutions, and so on.
In the world today, dominated as it is by the capitalist-imperialist system, this technology and knowledge is “going through” the existing capitalist and imperialist relations and superstructure, and one of the main manifestations of this is the extremely grotesque disparity between what is appropriated by a tiny handful—and a lesser amount that is meted out to broader strata in some of the imperialist countries, in order to stabilize those countries and to mollify and pacify sections of the population who are not part of the ruling class there—while amongst the great majority of humanity there is unbelievable poverty and suffering and ignorance. And, along with this profound disparity, we are witnessing this peculiar contradiction between so much technology and so much knowledge, on the one hand, and yet such widespread belief in, and retreat into, obscurantist superstition, particularly in the form of religious fundamentalism—all of which is in fact an expression of the fundamental contradiction of capitalism.
This is an extremely important point to understand. If, instead of this understanding, one were to proceed with a more linear approach and method, it would be easy to fall into saying: “I don’t get it, there is all this technology, all this knowledge, why are so many people so ignorant and so mired in superstition?” Once again, the answer—and it is an answer that touches on the most fundamental of relations in the world—is that it is because of the prevailing production, social and class relations, the political institutions, structures, and processes, and the rest of the superstructure—the prevailing culture, the ways of thinking, the customs, habits, and so on, which correspond to and reinforce the system of capitalist accumulation, as this finds expression in the era where capitalism has developed into a worldwide system of exploitation and oppression.
This is another important perspective from which to understand the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism. The more this disparity grows, the more there is a breeding ground for religious fundamentalism and related tendencies. At the same time, and in acute contradiction to this, there is also a potentially more powerful basis for revolutionary transformation. All of the profound disparities in the world—not only in terms of conditions of life but also with regard to access to knowledge—can be overcome only through the communist revolution, whose aim is to wrest control of society out the hands of the imperialists and other exploiters and to advance, through the increasingly conscious initiative of growing numbers of people, to achieve (in the formulation of Marx) the elimination of all class distinctions, all the production relations on which these class distinctions rest, all the social relations that correspond to those production relations, and the revolutionization of all the ideas that correspond to those social relations—in order to bring about, ultimately and fundamentally on a world scale, a society of freely associating human beings, who consciously and voluntarily cooperate for the common good, while also giving increasing scope to the initiative and creativity of the members of society as a whole.