Discussions on Islam and Liberation Theology

Gathering Forces has posted a series of articles on Islam, politics, and resistance to US Empire. The first is about Nidal Hasan, the Arab American soldier who shot other soldiers at Fort Hood. The second and the third cover different dimensions of the US occupation of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the historic role of Islamic politics in both anti-imperialist movements and pro-US puppet regimes there.

All of these articles lay out the need for an anti-racist, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist Islamic theology of liberation. They subtly chide folks on the Left in both the US and the Middle East for their inability to envision, organize for, and support such a vision.

For example, Will from GF argues:
“Treating Islam as a backward or as false consciousness is only going to leave the field open to liberals and Wahhabists. The revolutionary left has to throw its dog in the fight. Concretely, this means that Islam is a religion and ideology, which must be engaged with. It means that there is a political spectrum and the left should help develop the most democratic, anti-racist, and anti-patriarchal interpretations of Islam. If Christian Liberation Theology is legitimate then why cannot the same be said of an Islamic liberation theology."

Below is a perspective that seems to expand on what Will is arguing, from a discussion on the Three Way Fight blog.

I generally agree with the points that Matthew makes on 3WayFight, I just think that some of these points are framed in a somewhat clunky way that makes it seem like the author is calling for “supporting” Muslim and Christian revolutionaries rather than organizing alongside them in the same organization. Also, he fails to take up the point that Will and mlove raise on Gathering Forces, that US Imperialism has actively supported authoritarian versions of Islamism, not just Napoleonic secular chauvinism. In any case, hope this is helpful:

“This is a fascinating and timely discussion. I agree with the Three Way Fight folks that sometimes anti-imperialist forces can take on an insurgent Right wing or fascist character, and that there are some Islamic versions of that in the Middle East today.

But it seems to me that Three Way Fight tends to overemphasize the influence of these right-wingers. Do the Al Qaeda networks and the Taliban really have that much clout internationally? How many everyday Muslims actually support them?

People like David Horowitz and the organizers of Islamofascism week at campuses across the country next week claim that most Muslims support these fools. But that is just witch-hunting and imperial propaganda. Obviously the 3-Way Fight folks aren’t coming from the same angle as Horowitz and it seems they would be equally as opposed to his white supremacy.

But could they also be overemphasizing the power of the Islamic right? I would argue that Al Qeda and the Taliban are relatively marginal in terms of the politics of the world’s several billion Muslims. It seems there is much more international grassroots support for groups like Hizb’Allah and Hamas because they are the most prominent forces currently on the ground mounting mass struggles against Israeli apartheid and for social reconstruction. But are these groups really fascist or on the Right? In many ways they have more in common with authoritarian Leftism: their program is a kind of revolutionary cultural nationalism with a state capitalist/ social democratic emphasis on social justice and aid from above.

In this, they are no doubt oppressive forces poised to betray the workers, women, queer folks, and other everyday Muslims who have at times expressed very militant aspirations for democratic self-government (for example the popular committees of the Intifada). But this betrayal is not a result of Hamas or Hizb’Allah’s Islamic character. After all, plenty of secular nationalist and socialist parties in the Middle East performed similar betrayals in earlier stages of anti-colonial struggles, and that’s at least one of the reasons why so many folks have turned to Islamic politics as a supposed alternative.

Secular populist, Leftist, and state capitalist regimes have also launched brutal campaigns against women, queer folks, indigenous peoples, and others, (as Matthew recognized with Chavez and Ortega). Reinventing an earlier secular nationalism or Communism is not viable considering these historical failures. Whether Islamic or not, something new is desperately needed. The key question is, where will folks go once they see the new Hizb’Allah and Hamas “Islamic” versions of state capitalism betray them once again?

I would argue that this will not automatically be in a secular direction. It could also be a different type of Islamic politics, a more libertarian or direct-democratic vision from below. This is of course not guaranteed but it is one viable possibility worth fighting for.

It is good to see some activists in the US working to critique both US imperialist attacks on Arabs and Muslims and also the patriarchal and authoritarian aspects of right-wing Islamic movements today. These are important first steps. But when are we going to actually propose alternatives that engage with religious thought seriously in its own vocabulary, language, etc.? When will revolutionaries throw their full support behind Muslims who are attempting to articulate libertarian Islamic theologies of liberation? Are they despairing that such folks do not exist in the Muslim community? In my experiences, they do exist, but are often boxed out and squeezed between the secular chauvinism and racism of the Left, the conservatives of the mosque and Muslim Students Association leadership, and the authoritarianism of insurgent Islamic tendencies. What types of political organization will open up space for new Muslim possibilities? I would argue that the largely atheist forms the Left has taken historically are inadequate for this task.

Many young folks are slowly but surely becoming fed up with the bootlicking leadership of groups like the MSA who constantly try to prove to whitey that they are the “Good Muslims” unlike the “Bad Muslims over there.” Many of these young Muslims will see no alternative in authoritarian Islamic insurgents and will turn instead to some version of secular Arab or Muslim power politics. Others will similarly see no alternative in authoritarian Islamic insurgents and will turn instead to some vision of Islamic liberation theology. Revolutionaries of all religious and non-religious backgrounds in the US need to be prepared to respect, support, and understand, and further BOTH potential developments and cannot subordinate either one to the other. These tendencies will only be vibrant if they cross fertilize each other.

Incidentally, I would argue a similar orientation is needed to deal with Christian imperialism and fundamentalism in the US. This is not the place to articulate a full vision on this front, but preliminarily, we need to recognize that a) liberal, multicultural and “interfaith” oriented Christian theologies generally serve as smoke-screens for US Empire because they argue that the US is a progressive force in the world because God ordained America (manifest destiny) to spread separation of church and state, dialogue, and tolerance in order to uplift backwards Third World cultures, especially Islamic ones. b) this liberal theological consensus is fracturing domestically because it cannot contain the frustrations of class tensions, de-industrialization, people loosing their jobs, etc. c) one response to this is an insurgent, populist Christian right that has definite fascist groupings within it that function as vanguards with influence beyond their numbers. d) we need to combat both the liberal imperial theology as well as this insurgent Christian right (we need a 3 way fight), e) it is not enough to simply make a secular critique of both theologies and encourage people to leave Christianity; we need to actively develop Christian liberation theologies that pose insurgent alternatives to both. A top priority in this should be to articulate, in uncompromising and militant Christian prophetic language, why it is crucial for Christians to stand in solidarity with everyday Muslims against imperialism, white supremacy, and fascist attacks.

I’m glad you pointed out some of the legacies that such a liberation theology could draw from, ranging from the late medieval peasant uprisings to the militant abolitionism of John Brown and David Walker. This whole history needs to be retrieved and reconsidered. Again, I can’t go into sufficient depth here, but in many ways it wasn’t capitalism that waged an assault on feudalism in Europe but rather a whole range of insurgent Christian heretic groups, as Sylvia Federici has documented. Capitalism was a middle class counter-revolution that attempted to co-opt this anti-feudal movement and establish a new ruling class. As a result, the middle class’s secularism is not unambiguously progressive. Enlightenment liberals struggled against the Church hierarchy and its feudal ties, but they also struggled against direct-democratic Christian visions from below and attempted to contain the self-activity of peasant, artisan, and early workers who were becoming Christian revolutionaries. Nowadays this middle class secularism takes its most destructive form in the NeoConservatives who act like Napoleon, attempting to shove the Liberal revolution down Muslim peoples’ throats from above and secularize them whether they like it or not. Revolutionaries must distinguish ourselves from this imperial project at all costs, while still mounting our own struggles against religious authorities whether these be conservative, liberal, or insurgent Rightists.

What is missing in the mix are revolutionary religious forces from a direct democratic perspective who can jump into the 3 way fight without subordinating their distinctive religious content and vision. These urgently need to be articulated and organized.”