“All these opinions overlook one vital element in the question, which must be added to all other elements – the crusading spirit that runs in the blood of all Westerners and lies deep in their minds, to which is added imperialism’s fear of the Islamic spirit and the effort to destroy the strength of Islam, whereby Westerners are linked by a single feeling and a single interest in destroying it. This unites communist Russia and capitalist America.” – Sayyid Qutb (1996: 287).
(Image Source: http://foreignpolicy.com/slideshow/the-not-so-funny-papers | Matthew Trevithick).
The global radical Left needs a dose of its own therapy. It needs to dig into its medicine bag of critical theory and do some psychoanalysis on its own popular consciousness before pointing the finger at anyone else, and especially Muslims. The global radical Left’s hegemonic historiography of the Bolshevik Revolution and following Soviet project must be revisited critically, and away from the saintly hagiography that videos like this continue to put forward 100 years later. Indeed, this essentialist historiography has been critiqued by many internal to the radical Left, but they are marginalized in the broader radical Leftist discourse. I do not say this as someone who is ignorantly anti radical Left nor am I uncritically pro radical Left. Rather, I have a complicated relationship with the secular westernised hegemony embedded in the global radical Left, due to the ways into it has paradigmatically disciplined Muslim attempts at political agency and autonomy through the language of Islam, or Islamism (Sayyid 1997 & 2014). This Eurocentric secular colonial historiography of the Bolshevik Revolution and the broader Soviet project must be decolonised in order for the global radical Left to better understand and reform its relationship to Muslim and Islamist movements for agency and autonomy.
(Image Source: http://foreignpolicy.com/slideshow/the-not-so-funny-papers | Matthew Trevithick).
The Underside of the Bolshevik Revolution
From the very beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, the years after and throughout the Soviet imperial project there was an underside: that occupied by the Muslim of the Russian colonies. In the quote that begins this essay, Sayyid Qutb points to the “crusading spirit” of colonial modernity, which, for him, existed within the “blood and mind” of both the Eastern and Western blocs of the Cold War. The spectre of the Muslim always frightened the secular foundations of the atheist Soviet Man. Matter of fact, the most significant threat to Soviet Man was the Muslim woman, whose racialised, gendered and classed Otherness was the eternal enemy of the ideal Soviet Man (Bennigsen 1983 & Tlostanova 2010).
The Soviet project meant the death of Muslim indigenous ways of being, knowing and power under its own borders. It became a civilisation of death, and a Red extension of the Eurocentric world, whether capitalist or communist, that was to engulf, discipline and destroy Islamicate civilisation that was colonised and enslaved by Western empires across the 500 year-long longue duree of modernity/coloniality.
The rise of the modern/colonial world-system (Grosfoguel 2011) happened on many fronts in regard to the Muslim world. From the invasion of Muslim West Africa (mid 1400s CE) (Mastnak 1994), destruction of Al-Andalus (1492 CE) and invasion of South and Southeast Asia (1498 CE) by the Spanish and Portuguese respectively, to the rise of Russian Tsardom in the 16th century in Islamicate Central Asia (Tlostanova 2010), Islamophobia was by and far one of, if not the most, widespread form of colonial ontological difference between those considered human and non-human as the modern/colonial world-system took off. This emerging planetary anti-Muslim racism was birthed from Western Christendom’s crusades against the Muslim enemy (Mastnak 2002) – the names “Christendom” and “Europe” remaining interchangeable within Western self-conceptualisation up until the 17th century (Mignolo 2012) – later becoming a secular crusade against the Muslim and all Others considered non-Western.
(Image Source: www.thoughtco.com/the-mujahideen-of-afghanistan-195373 | David Stewart-Smith).
Good and Bad Muslims
The good/bad Muslim binary has been commonly portrayed as a problem of the post-Cold War period, with the rise of the Islamophobic Green Menace after that of the anti-communist Red Scare (Mamdani 2004). This limited Cold and Post-Cold War historiography is historically narrow and incorrect because it erases systemic social difference between the so-called Green and Red Scares.
I argue we must view the good/bad Muslim binary as foundational to the colonial ontological difference between Western subjects and Muslim objects in colonial modernity. At the level of political ontology, hegemonic Western projects of colonialism and slavery, whether in the form of capitalism or communism, have always divided Muslims into “friends” and “enemies”. The political ontology difference of friend/enemy correlates to that of good/bad Muslims, with “good Muslims” being “friends” and “bad Muslims” being “enemies” (Shryock 2010).
Good Muslims, of course, are those who conform to the demands of Westernization, liberalism, secularism and modernity. Bad Muslims are their opposite, who reject in various fashions the idols of the modern/colonial world-system. While good Muslims are approached through an Islamophilic lens that views Muslims as “friends” worthy of Westoxification, bad Muslims are approached through an Islamophobic lens that views Muslims as “enemies” who are anti-modern monsters to be disciplined and destroyed (Shryock 2010). What is of more importance though, is that hiding behind both the Islamophobe and Islamophile is the anti-Muslim, whose tacit aim is to racistly prohibit Muslim expressions of agency and autonomy through the counter-universal language of Islam.
If we return to the immediacy of the post-Bolshevik moment, we can see this anti-Muslim logic at play during the foundational moments of the so-called World Revolution. Muslims from the Soviet colonies tried to make friends with the Soviet Republic and do communism on their own indigenous Pan-Islamist terms early in the Revolution, seeing their fate tied to that of the global proletariat – Western or Eastern, North and South – and wanting to be the vanguard that brought communism to the ummah. In response to Muslim attempts at indiginising communism on their own terms, the Soviet imperial state rejected them for being too Oriental, which meant, too Muslim. The Soviet state followed through with a harsh project of forced Russification and Sovietization that attempted to whiten out any trace of Muslimhood and Islam that could stand against the civilisation of death enveloping them (Bennigsen 1983 & 1979).
The Soviets banned annual pilgrimage to Muslim sites; engaged in wide-scale shutting down of mosques; destroyed Muslim economies such as the waqf system; participated in wide-scale distribution of anti-religious and anti-Islamic propaganda; put forward a number of genocide attempts targeting specific Muslim populations (as well as other non-Muslim “threats”); banned Arabic in a number of regions; and attempted Cyrillic linguistic colonization of Muslim ethnicities. The Muslim victims of such long-term anti-Muslim Soviet policies came from the areas of what we now call now Chechnya, Azerbaijan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan amongst others (Bennigsen 1983 & Tlostanova 2010).
Of course, Muslims survived and fought back, in the spirit of Imam Shamil and many other decolonial mujahids who long ago knew how deep Russian racism went for the busurman (an old Russian slur for the Muslim). This recognition of the underside of the Soviet project shows that the old “religious” anti-Muslim racism of Tsardom turned into the “secular” anti-Muslim racism of the Soviets, fitting in with the centuries-long theoanthropological difference that has dominated Westernizing projects of capitalism and communism (Tlostanova 2010). At the level of political ontology, it means that the Soviets had good and bad Muslims too. For the Soviets, good Muslims were those who conformed to the ontological demands of Soviet Man and the Eurocentric communist revolution that was spreading across the world. Bad Muslims were those who resisted or critiqued or proposed alternatives to Soviet Man and his Eurocentric communist civilising mission.
Before and after the October Revolution, there existed Muslim National Communist movements who desired to see themselves as part of the Soviet Republic (Bennigsen 1979). Yet, they also wanted cultural and religious autonomy for Muslims and the ability to indigenize communism on their own Pan-Islamist terms. The Muslim National Communists’ aspirations were continuously shot down, leading Sultan Galiev, one of the prominent Muslim Communists leaders of the time to say:
The East with its population of one and half billion enslaved by the West European bourgeoisie was forgotten by the Bolshevik leaders. The development of the international class struggle continued by-passing the East … Because of ignorance concerning the East and of the fear which it inspired, the idea of the participation of Eastern revolutionaries in the world revolution was systemically rejected (Bennigsen 1983: 97).
Sultan Galiev and other Muslim National Communist leaders had warned others coming from the Third World to Moscow that Russian Communism was not intrinsically different than Russian Tsarism and that eventually, it would become a tool of Russian imperialism (Bennigsen 1983: 99 & Mabruk 2006: 146).
At the tail end of the Soviet imperial project, Bosnian revolutionary Islamist Alija Izetbegovic was imprisoned many times by the Yugoslavian communist regime for organising for self-determination for the Muslims of Bosnia suffering under communist oppression. His material and metaphysical critiques of the Soviet project while in prison lay fertile ground for a decolonial Muslim counter-reading of “100 years after the Revolution.” Izetbegovic wrote of the deadly anti-Muslim material effects of not just Stalinism but Leninism:
Terror in the USSR did not commence with Stalin but with Lenin. [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn considers the latter the author of the Gulags. He claims that the pretext for the creation of those camps was the failed assassination of Lenin, upon which the Bolshevik leader personally signed decrees on ruthless and mass terror. Lenin explained the establishment of the camps by the ‘need to cleanse the Russian soil of all detrimental insects.’ The terms ‘cleansing’ and ‘purges’ thus entered into use, and the culprits were not human beings but insects. The statistics testify that as early as the end of 1920, in the Russian republic alone, there were 84 camps with over 50,000 detainees. Since then, both the number of camps as well as that of detainees was in a constant increase. According to Solzhenitsyn’ s testimony, over 55 million people disappeared during the rule of the Bolsheviks. Other sources speculate with considerably lower numbers, but none goes below 15 million (Izetbegović 2011).
Muslims were one of the largest demographic and ontological threats to Soviet Man, and they suffered in the millions due to the racist logic of Soviet Man who treated them as insects and germs to be wiped from the Red planet. Izetbegovic also traces the metaphysical nature of the Soviet project through common sayings that defined Soviet Man against its Muslim others, “‘Lenin is more alive than all the living’ or ‘Lenin is more human than all humans’ – such and similar slogans could be read all over the USSR. Later, it would be Stalin, then Khrushchev, then Brezhnev” (Izetbegović 2011). At the level of the material and metaphysical, from the beginning to the end, the Bolshevik project not only produced World Revolution for some but an underworld of devolution for Muslims under Soviet rule whose “100 years” was marked by one ontological catastrophe to another.
Outside its neo-Tsarist colonies, the Soviets mostly treated secular nationalist Muslims as “friends” and aided them in their struggles against their capitalist European colonisers. These Muslim friends were “good Muslims” for the Soviets; and indeed, many were aware of this asymmetric relationship with Red power, and took issue with the imperial presence of both Soviet and American interested in their struggles. These secular nationalist Muslim countries, such as Indonesia and Egypt, became anti-colonial leaders through forming the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) after their meeting with other Third World anti-colonial secular nationalist formations at the Bandung Conference (1955). The formation of over 50% of the world “darker” population from African and Asia through the NAM was a call for “neither capitalism nor communism, but decolonisation” as Muslim Indonesian president Sukarno famously stated at the Bandung conference.
Nevertheless, I argue that Soviet support for its good Muslims, of the friendlier or less friendly (but still ultimately Soviet-friendly) Bandung-type, was based on a racist Islamophilic logic of Soviet civilizational dominance and Soviet-centered political ends. While this dynamic of good/bad Muslim played out vividly in relation the Eastern Bloc throughout much of the Cold War, it became more pronounced at the end of the Cold War in relation to the Western Bloc as well. The Americans made “friends” with Muslims in Afghanistan at the end of the Cold War because it served their interests in bringing an end to Soviet influence in the region. This is not a statement to discredit the agency of Muslims in Central Asia who fought Soviet colonialism in Afghanistan or elsewhere during the Cold War. Rather it is to point out that the good/bad Muslim binary of the Western bloc, which made friends with Muslims Afghanistan in the 1980s and enemies of those same Muslims in the 1990s, was similarly based on a racist anti-Muslim political relationship.
(Image Source: http://foreignpolicy.com/slideshow/the-not-so-funny-papers | Matthew Trevithick).
Green Menace Before Red Scare
When viewed in light of this more complex and multi-dimensional history of the good/bad Muslim binary which was operative on both sides of the Cold War, we can clearly see that the Green Menace did not proceed the Red Scare. Rather, the Green Menace preceded, ran concurrent to and proceeded the Red Scare in ways that continue to remain invisible according to bipolar mainstream narratives of the Cold War, whether from the Right or Left. These bipolar narratives create a view of the Cold War that makes “peoples without a history” when dealing with Muslim forces – and many others sidelined by bipolar approaches as Bozo argues (2008: 3-4) – whose regional relationships with the Western and Eastern blocs were always across a racialised colonial divide. The intra-Western and imperial divide of the Western and Eastern bloc was therefore one of ontic difference in politics and not the colonial ontological difference which treated the Muslim object as non-human through both capitalism and communism. Even when the Western Bloc criticised the Eastern Bloc as a form of “Oriental despotism”, this classification was based on a pre-existing anti-Muslim Orientalist reservoir of language for describing political enemies (Sayyid 2014: 74). Western Europe had long treated Russia through the lens of imperial difference as a type of “eastern Spain” and “third Rome”; both Spain and Russia being viewed as “inferior white Christians” (Bennigsen 1983: 5). Spain and Russia could be viewed as lesser whites, but this is very different from the colonial difference that saw non-Westerns as non-beings.
Contrary to economic reductionist accounts by many within the radical Left, Cedric Robinson coined the term “racial capitalism” in order to understand the ways in which racism always undegrid capitalism, thereby producing a modern world-system of what he termed racial capitalism. In light of this, I believe it is useful to understand the historical hegemony of communist projects and movements (though not necessarily communism “itself”) in relation to the Muslim, and potential other non-Westerns, as a type of “racial communism” which was also ordered through race as well. Communism, as put forward by Marx, Engles and other radical Leftist stalwarts, was largely a Eurocentric critique of Eurocentrism that mainly dealt with one oppressive logic of the modern/colonial world-system, that of political economy and capitalist exploitation. Epistemic Islamophobia was latent and explicit in the writings of Marx and Engels, as Grosfoguel notes, and they actively put forward worldviews and world-systems, like their Soviet successors, that viewed Muslims as an inferior peoples without the ontological means to confront capitalism, let along coloniality, through the language of Islam.
My critique of the secular colonial westernised Left for its complicity in anti-Muslim racism should not be taken as a reactionary anti-Marxist and anti-Left position. Rather it is a call for the secular westernised Left to better understand its complicated relation to the Muslim away from its Eurocentric and Westernising frameworks. Du Bois’ observation in The Soul of Black Folks (1989) that the Bolshevik Revolution helped break the international colour-line, allowing colonised populations to receive sustained support from the exterior as a means of challenging colonial rule was insightful for many, but we cannot claim it to be universal for all. The Red tide was revolutionary for many without a doubt, but in relation to the Muslim, the Bolshevik Revolution only reinforced pre-existing anti-Muslim “colour-lines” if we are to acknowledge the colonial nature of Russia’s long-term relationship to its Muslim populations.
I am not saying the Bolshevik Revolution and wider Soviet project did not have liberating impacts with various liberation movements nor that it was an unimportant historical event unworthy of lessons to learn in building radical political alternatives to capitalism or colonialism. What I am asking is, for whom was it ultimately beneficial? And for whom wasn’t it? Because it wasn’t for everyone; and especially Muslims who sought to resist, organise and order society through the master signifier and language Islam and not any type of Western language. If the global radical Left can see beyond the uncritical essentialist narrative they have internalised at large, there can be an intervention, as they say when a friend is in need of psychotherapy. We have the responsibility to learn from these mistakes and untold histories if we truly want to fight together on more ethical terms against the powers that keep on being. If the global radical Left happens to look beyond the Red glasses that cloud this false White consciousness, they will see the Muslim (and maybe others) hiding and fighting back. One-hundred years after the Bolshevik breakthrough, and the arrival of the Post-Soviet and War on Terror world, we should be able to see things more critically and clearly, no? Or maybe, I’m just a bad Muslim, and shouldn’t open my mouth.
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