Discussions on Islam and Liberation Theology Part 2

Here is a follow up to my previous post on Islam and Liberation Theology. We have continued to discuss this topic over at Gathering Forces, and it has turned into a very fruitful dialogue about the intersections between comparative theology, liberation theology, and grassroots anti-imperialist organizing in Christian and Muslim communities. I am reposting the discussion here since on Gathering Forces it got buried inside the broader conversation about how to respond to the troop surge in Afghanistan. Some of the questions my friends Gila and JK raise are crucial and I hope to develop my answers to them in more depth in the future.


gila // Dec 2, 2009 at 4:45 am

Mamos, because i’m extremely ignorant in terms of religion, what exactly do you mean by:

“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….?”

What is “distinctive religious content and vision?” The way religions are practiced, it seems that one of the core tenets of each is that only followers of that specific religion know the true God or will be saved. Is it possible to be directly democratic but only include followers of one faith?

Mamos // Dec 4, 2009 at 4:35 am

hey Gila,

By a “distinctive religious content and vision” I mean that we should not be afraid to publicly proclaim a theology of liberation. I’m still trying to work out how best to do this, but I think it’s possible to organize religious communities and groups that overlap, draw from, support, and inspire broader multi-religious and/or non religious organizing efforts. For example, there is a dynamic relationship between Leftist religious communities in Chiapas informed by liberation theology and the broader Zapatista movement/ EZLN.

I don’t think there is any one theology that can stand alone and provide answers to our social problems without drawing from broader theoretical traditions that are not religious, at least not explicitly. One of the strengths of Latin American liberation theology is it meshed liberating political currents in the biblical tradition and in Church history with liberating currents of Marxist thought and practice. I should qualify that it did this only when it was at its best…. when it was at its worst it meshed a vision of a “progressive” or reformed Catholic hierarchy with Stalinism. I should also qualify that Marxism itself has historical roots in the long arc of Christian communistic struggle from the anti-Roman resistance of the early Church through the late medieval peasant revolts through the early slave revolts against primitive accumulation documented in The Many Headed Hydra: The Hidden HIstory of the Revolutionary Atlantic. So you could argue that when liberation theologians “baptized” Marxism and made it Christian, they were actually RE-baptizing it. Loren Goldner has also written extensively about the mystical roots of Marxism (for example, see here and here). Of course the “Christian” trajectory of these liberating currents has deep roots in indigenous religious traditions from African, Native American, and pre-Christendom European cultures.

Liberation theology is the critical reflection on practice in light of the word of God. In other words, when any of us are actively engaged in the struggle for human liberation and when we reflect, meditate, and pray as part of this struggle, we gain perpetually new insights into God’s revelation in the world. This stands in stark contrast to conservative theologies that claim there is one unchanging truth that God deposited only in the locked vaults of a select, elite corp of caretakers.

So by “distinctive” religious content and vision I don’t mean something that is completely separate from or hostile from “secular” political traditions…. much of my practice as a liberation theologian is informed by non-Christian traditions and much of the critical reflection I do on this practice is done in conversation with people of various religious and non-religious backgrounds.

Also, I disagree with your assessment that “the way religions are practiced, it seems that one of the core tenets of each is that only followers of that specific religion know the true God or will be saved.” Many religions don’t focus on “salvation” at all, that is a largely Christian concept, and of course, there are many traditions that don’t imagine that there is one “true God.”

And among Christians who do believe in salvation, I’d say there are many believers who assert that salvation is promised to everyone, not just Christians. In the Gospels, Jesus says that we are saved if we give food to others when they are hungry, clothes when they’re naked, drink when they’re thirsty, shelter when they’re homeless, etc. Many atheistic revolutionaries have taken this moral imperative more seriously then the bureaucratic leaders of various Christian denominations.

This is where liberation theology intersects with what is sometimes called comparative theology. Comparative theology is done when a Christian seriously studies another religious tradition and takes it seriously on its own terms, in its own historical, social, spiritual, moral, and aesthetic context, and then goes back and asks how we can better understand our Christian belief and practice in light of the insights the other tradition has to offer. For example, as a Christian I have studied Islam for years and this has prompted me to understand much more that “Allahu Akbar”, God is Greater – God cannot be captured or defined by any earthly power or authority. That’s why I have no problem chanting Allahu Akbar in Palestine solidarity street demos.

Of course there is a lot of religious chauvinism out there, and there are people in every faith who claim that only they have access to the Truth. We need to challenge this forthrightly, especially when these folks try to wield state power against people of other faiths or when they try to organize insurgent street forces to impose their beliefs on others by force. We also need to practice and promote dialogue between people of different faiths. However, the way interfaith dialogue is often done limits the terms of discussion to terms accessible to liberal multiculturalism. For example, in most “interfaith dialogues” I’ve been a part of (or thrown out of!), Christian and Jewish Zionist theologies cannot be challenged… when I have challenged Zionism I’ve been labeled an anti-Semite and shunned. But I do think the project of interfaith dialogue needs to be be built from below, from a firmly anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-Zionist perspective.

Also, just to clarify, the “Three Way Fight” is the idea that we need to fight a) the state/ruling class/ imperialists AND b) the various right wing populist/ fascist forces who are also opposing the state/ruling class/ imperialists. The idea is that insurgency comes not only from the Left but also from the Right, and the Left needs to out-organize and compete with the Right to organize rebellions against the state and ruling class.

What I’m advocating in the US is that Left-wing, direct democratic religious radicals need to organize against both the religious right AND the liberal secular state. I would love to build this kind of organizing project but unfortunately for the time being I’m preoccupied with other work. I’m hoping that over the next few years we can “gather forces” and build circles of revolutionary religious folks who can start to take up this work more consistently.

JK // Dec 4, 2009 at 11:39 am

Hi Mamos,

Thanks for your comments! I realize this is sort of continuing the derailment of the conversation away from Afghanistan & Pakistan, but I’d like to learn more about your thoughts on leftist religious organizing. If folks think it’s best to move the conversation elsewhere, I would be happy to do that.

Specifically, you say that “Left-wing, direct democratic religious radicals need to organize against both the religious right AND the liberal secular state.” I’m more or less an atheist, and for me a big part of that is that my naturalistic view of the world/universe, including myself, gives me a strong sense of wonder, awe, and connection — things that I think religion can provide people too. At the same time, I would very much like to organize with religious radical leftists, and I have no interest in “converting” people to my view. How do you view the working and organizational relationships between atheists/agnostics/non-religious folks and religious folks in the 3-way fight?

Mamos // Dec 4, 2009 at 6:44 pm

Hi JK,

I agree this is getting a little off topic, but at the same time I do think your questions are relevant because the inability of secular and Muslim folks to fight imperialism together is one of the factors that contributes to the weakness of the antiwar movement in the US. Maybe I can answer your question and bring it back to the topic at hand by talking about how some of the folks around Gathering Forces have brought religious and nonreligious folks together in our Middle East solidarity organizing. This could be another post if the GF editors feel there is room, but if not, we can keep discussing it here in the comments.

So here goes…. many of us have participated in Middle East solidarity campaigns over the years. We have always tried to link solidarity to the struggle against white supremacy here in the US, pointing out how Israeli apartheid and US Empire are connected to racist institutions and perspectives here in our communities. To do this, we have organized in Arab and Muslim communities, bringing Arab and Muslim folks together with other people of color. There are many ways to do this – confronting bigoted anti-Muslim speakers like David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, or Michael Medved when they come to speak on a college campus, doing mosque defense when a local mosque is getting vandalized and attacked, demanding a designated space on campus for Muslim folks to pray and do ablutions when folks get harassed for doing these things in public places, etc. In all of these cases, we have tried to build multi-religious coalitions on a militant anti-racist basis. Many practicing Muslims have gotten involved in these actions and both Muslim and non-Muslim folks in our groups have participated in Ramadan dinners or Iftars hosted by Muslim Students Association groups or have gone to Qur’an discussion groups or theological debates to meet folks and talk about organizing.

This work is not always easy. We have gotten criticized and shut out by MSA leaders, Imams, and other folks who felt we were turning rank and file Muslims against us and tried to isolate us as outside agitators (this is especially difficult for those of us who are Muslims who end up getting shut out from communities which are supposed to be theirs). Maybe other folks can elaborate more on these experiences.

Despite these difficulties though, this work has been fruitful because it’s given us a chance to build majority people of color multiracial groups in which Muslim folks participate as equals alongside atheists, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, etc. It has also given us a chance to challenge patriarchy and other forms of oppression within Muslim communities IN ORDER TO strengthen these communities to fight outside enemies like the racists and imperialists who try to use patriarchy and divisions in the community to justify attacks and occupation in the name of “saving” Muslims from themselves. Fatima, Ibn Jubayr, and Will described this “three way fight” very well in their piece on Nidal Hasan: Also, you might want to check out a piece that Fatima wrote here about the role of Islamic prayer in the Gaza solidarity rallies last winter:

I think to do this kind of work effectively, everyone, not just Muslim folks, need to study and train ourselves to understand the basics of theological debates in the Muslim community. Folks who aren’t Muslim can’t be opportunistically coming in as outsiders just packaging a pre-fabricated radical politics in theological window dressing. There needs to be genuine engagement with Islamic politics working from the assumption that atheistic/agnostic Leftists and Leftists of other faiths can learn something from the dynamic currents of Islamic political thought. Non-Muslims who have a healthy “naturalistic view of the world and the universe” which brings “awe and wonder” are certainly in a better position to do this than knee-jerk secular chauvinists. After all, if the entire world is full of dynamic, dialectical struggles which bring growth and development then so is the Muslim community. If the entire world is full of class struggle, expressed in myriad forms including struggles over culture, family, gender, and identity, then it should be no surprise that Islamic political traditions have taken up questions of class struggle in debates over the historical role of prophecy, the Ummah (Muslim community), the role of consultation and shoras (popular councils) and the greater jihad/ struggle for social justice.

All of these questions also come up in terms of organizing in Christian circles, which is something I’d love to do as a Christian revolutionary. I’d love to build organizations that could directly disrupt the Religious Right while trying to win over working class folks who the Religious Right preys on to a more anti-racist, democratic, and anti-patriarchal vision of Christianity. But that’s another whole conversation for another time.

In terms of the awe and wonder that comes from understanding the dynamism of physical and social nature, I feel that too as a Christian. As I see it, Creation is an ongoing process of struggle, rupture, evolutionary creeps and revolutionary leaps, all shot through with God’s glory. This is consistent with the tradition of Hagia Sophia, or Woman Wisdom in the Bible…. the author of the Book of Wisdom for example encouraged ancient Jewish folks to develop a meditative practice which combines naturalistic analysis with the tradition of Exodus from slavery and God’s revelation of social justice through prophecy. The Bible calls Jesus the incarnation of Sophia/ Wisdom, the “discourse of the universe” made flesh and taking on the pattern of a human life, one full of revolutionary opposition to oppression. So I think there is a lot of possible common ground here… in any case, I’d strongly encourage you to read those Loren Goldner pieces I quoted in the previous comment because he grounds the formation of revolutionary Marxism in the confluence of various “cosmobiological” traditions that had very strong spiritual tendencies: they saw the human person and human subjectivity as part of the dynamic cosmos.