Marxism, Islam and religion

Islamophobes treat religion as a uniquely backward set of ideas, but religion can also be a reaction to oppression and a way of fighting back, writes Erima Dall

Debates about religion were central to forging Karl Marx’s ideas. These views deserve revisiting in a climate of intensifying Islamophobia, with the Abbott government blaming Islam for “radicalisation” and punishing the Muslim community with raids and draconian anti-terror legislation.

Religion has been blamed, even by some left-wingers, for all manner of problems, from the conflicts in the Middle East, to homophobia, to the US Republican Tea Party. Western governments also use a reductionist view that blames Islam itself, or a particular variety of Islam, for the brutality and sectarianism of Islamic State (IS).

Islamophobia relies on the idea that Islam is a special case—that despite Western society’s supposed religious tolerance, Islam is itself an intolerant religion, more prone to violence, sexism, and terrorism than other faiths.

This is quite something coming from Western leaders who court dictators in the Middle East, and are again bombing Iraq. Australia enthusiastically stands by every US drone strike on Pakistan, and every US-funded bomb that Israel drops on Gaza.

Acceptance of Islamophobia has led anti-globalisation political economist Susan George to side with imperialism against Muslims. George has called Islamists “fascist fundamentalists” and said she was “confused” over whether to oppose George Bush bombing Afghanistan.

New Atheists’ such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris have singled-out Islam, giving credibility to bigotry with their scientific reputations. Dawkins called Islam “the greatest force for evil today”.

Marxism takes a very different view. Focusing on religious ideas on their own can explain very little about people’s motivations. The major religions are all ambiguous enough to allow a range of interpretations. Radical black activist Malcolm X was a Muslim, but he had nothing in common with the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who in turn have interests completely counter to the Muslim workers they oppress, or the persecuted Muslims in France.

To understand conflict, oppression, and indeed religion itself, we must go beyond superficial explanations and investigate the real social-economic conditions and historical processes at work.

Marx’s materialism

Marxism is an atheist worldview. But this does not make it “anti-religious”. It is a practical philosophy, aimed at drawing workers and oppressed groups into united struggle against the ravages of capitalism.

Approximately 85 per cent of the world’s population are religious. If the liberation of the working class is the act of the working class, as Marx famously said, then the struggle for a different world must involve masses who hold religious ideas.

The big philosophical debates of Marx’s day centred around a divide between idealists and materialists. For idealists, ideas are primary. They say reality changes because ideas change, and so history is the history of ideas. The radical Young Hegelian movement, with which Marx associated for some time, focused on challenging ideas, like criticism of religion, as the key to changing society. But for materialists, the foundation of human societies and social change is the real material world, and how humans interact with it.

Marx was firmly in the latter camp, but he made a radical contribution to materialism, by asking where ideas themselves come from.

He famously said, “It is not consciousness that determines social being, but social being that determines consciousness”, meaning that ideas do not fall from the sky, but in fact reflect something about the real conditions of existence. This is just as true for religious ideas.

Marx was scathing of liberals who elevated the critique of religion above everything else. This eventually led him to break with the Young Hegelians.

One should not simply critique religion, he argued, but should set out to explain it, and explain why religious ideas hold such appeal.

Explaining religion

Marx recognised the appeal of religion to the oppressed. He argued that religious views are widely held because they fulfil a social function. Religion provides meaning, guidance and comfort in a callous, irrational world.

Marx’s well-known, oft repeated quote that religion is the “opium of the masses” conjures up an image of religion as a stupefying, pacifying drug. But the full quote reveals a far more nuanced understanding:

“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

Here he captures the contradictory nature of religion, the fact that religion can be both an expression of, and reaction to, being oppressed and downtrodden.

That contradiction also manifests itself at a social level. Many resistance struggles have elements of religious expression; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by Dr. Martin Luther King was a leading body of the American civil rights movement. Catholic “liberation theology” which emerged in Latin America during the 1960s in opposition to poverty and dictatorship actively incorporated Marxism into a religious framework.

In the Middle East, Islamist organisations have emerged as the key resistance groups to dictatorship and imperialist oppression due to the historical failures of secular nationalist and communist organisations. Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt have been the most organised oppositional forces in their respective countries.

Socialists are not uncritical of these organisations. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood betrayed its followers when it took power and turned against the democratic movement.

But they built their support by standing with the oppressed—and in the case of Hamas and Hezbollah, by opposing the imperialism of Israel and the US.

It is entirely understandable why some people in the Middle East see imperialism as a war against Muslims. Marxists recognise this, and stand on the side of struggles for progressive political aims, even when waged under a religious banner.

Marx did think criticism of religion was necessary, but demanding people reject religion should never be made a precondition for involving them in political struggle. This would be immensely self-defeating.


Marx had to deal with the question of religious freedom directly. He grew up in the reactionary Prussian state, which still had a monarchy and no official separation between church and state.

Jews in Prussia faced systematic discrimination, with laws determining where they could live and the occupations they could take up. The French revolution had led to legal equality for Jews, and stimulated debates in Germany about whether German Jews should be similarly treated.

Bruno Bauer, a leader of the Young Hegelians, argued that Jews needed to renounce their religion and separate existence before deserving equal freedoms. He dressed this up as radicalism, saying, “The problem of emancipation is a general problem, it is the problem of our age. Not only the Jews, but we, also, want to be emancipated”.

Bauer essentially accused Jews of being selfish by aiming at the “removal of his special misery” and not the “downfall of the principle”.

Marx was strongly opposed to such pseudo-liberalism. He attacked Bauer’s entire framework, exposing that Bauer did not understand the connection between political freedoms, and complete human emancipation. Fighting for equal rights, defending religious freedom was in fact a crucial part of fighting for true freedom.

When Abbott and Western leaders attack Islam as the basis of terrorism, it is easy to see why resistance to anti-Muslim discrimination can also be taken up in religious terms. This is why defending Muslims against Abbott’s attacks is a crucial part of building the wider fight against Abbott, his anti-terror laws and the system.

The Bolsheviks and Islam

The Bolsheviks—the party that led workers to power in the 1917 Russian Revolution—put Marx’s ideas about relating to religion into practice.

The fate of the revolution depended on it. The Russian empire was home to 16 million Muslims (10 per cent of the population) and to many oppressed nations. Atheism was never a condition for joining the Bolshevik party. Some local Muslim leaders became Bolshevik leaders as well, and in parts of Central Asia, Muslims made up as much as 70 percent of the Communist Party membership.

Lenin, one of the leaders of the revolution, was very clear about religious freedom: “Religion must be of no concern to the state, and religious societies must have no connection with governmental authority. Everyone must be absolutely free to profess any religion he pleases, or no religion whatever, i.e., to be an atheist, which every socialist is, as a rule. Discrimination among citizens on account of their religious convictions is wholly intolerable. Even the bare mention of a citizen’s religion in official documents should unquestionably be eliminated.”

This commitment to religious freedoms saw Friday (the Muslim day of prayer) made a legal day of rest in many areas, and a Sharia court system operated alongside the Soviet system, so that Muslims could chose between Soviet or Sharia law, religious or revolutionary justice. (Some sharia sentences, however, such as stoning or cutting hands off, were outlawed.)

This approach to religions was later overturned when Stalin came to power. As Stalin broke the revolution, he reimposed discrimination against religious minorities as part of boosting Russian nationalism; something that has given Marxism an undeserved reputation for being anti-religious.

The Bolshevik’s insistence on religious freedom, also meant that the class conflicts and differences between leaders and their followers within religious communities were better revealed.

Religious belief, per se, is not necessarily the enemy of progress, or liberation; the blame for that lies squarely with the rich and powerful, the media, criminals in government, and the mad capitalist system.

The left cannot afford to give an inch to the idea that there is any intrinsic problem with Islam. Abbott is trying to win an election with relentless fearmongering against Muslims—distracting from the real threats of job losses, climate change, and attacks on unions and the welfare system. Abbott wants to divide and rule: we have to unite and fight.


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