Communists & Mosques: Why Lenin Defended the Old Believers



“We must blame ourselves... for still being unable to organize sufficiently wide, striking, and rapid exposures of all the shameful outrages.

"When we do that...the most backward workers will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing them at every step of their lives."

By Mike Ely


What does it mean for communists (who are secular and opposed to the many values of traditional religions) to defend the right to build a massive mosque in the middle of New York City?

Gary asks in a commentary (that is worth reading in its entirety): "Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected — unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a [communist] point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population. Those who concentrate the attention, observation, and consciousness of the working class exclusively, or even mainly, upon itself alone are not [communists]; for the self-knowledge of the working class is indissolubly bound up, not solely with a fully clear theoretical understanding — or rather, not so much with the theoretical, as with the practical, understanding — of the relationships between all the various classes of modern society, acquired through the experience of political life.

"For this reason the conception of the economic struggle as the most widely applicable means of drawing the masses into the political movement, which our Economists preach, is so extremely harmful and reactionary in its practical significance. In order to become a [communist], the worker must have a clear picture in his mind of the economic nature and the social and political features of the landlord and the priest, the high state official and the peasant, the student and the vagabond; he must know their strong and weak points; he must grasp the meaning of all the catchwords and sophisms by which each class and each stratum camouflages its selfish strivings and its real “inner workings”; he must understand what interests are reflected by certain institutions and certain laws and how they are reflected. But this “clear picture” cannot be obtained from any book. It can be obtained only from living examples and from exposures that follow close upon what is going on about us at a given moment; upon what is being discussed, in whispers perhaps, by each one in his own way; upon what finds expression in such and such events, in such and such statistics, in such and such court sentences, etc., etc.

"These comprehensive political exposures are an essential and fundamental condition for training the masses in revolutionary activity." My sense of what this means is that first we need to see the importance of rising to the defense of persecuted Muslims in the U.S. -- not for reasons apart from our communist cause and conviction, but for reasons that rise from the very core of our strategic concept.

There are many examples where religious groups have faced oppression within the U.S. (and where that oppression is often tied to the oppression of people as nationalities). This includes the struggle of Native peoplet to practice their religions (including specific dmeands for sweat lodges in prison and for the legal right to use peyote in rituals), and the struggle of Muslim prisoners and students for religious facilities and halal diet.

(Personally I don't view the fundamentalist Mormon sects and their fight for poligamy/rape as a cause we should take up -- but that is perhaps something to be discussed.)

But (in a friendly contrast to Gary) I don't think that our approach should be "confining our solidarity to human rights defense." I don't think that assumptions of a liberal "human rights" universalism should be our approach.

What I share with Lenin's argument is the view our work has to proceed (sharply and deliberately) from class conscious (i.e. communist) politics -- not from liberalism, or some sense of legal rights (property rights, constitutional rights etc), and that it has to involve analysis of all the forces involved (including the Muslim forces), their views, their motives and their relationship to the revolutionary movement we are seeking to build.

I don't think that defending the building of a mosque needs to imply support for Islamic religious view or the liberal (and rather hegemonic) view of diversity and rights. But I do think it requires clarifying the kind of liberated world we are fighting for and how radically different that is from the goals of those who want defend the current capitalism order/empire and re-impose a white, Christian, property-oriented, traditionalist core culture.

People in this conversation

  • Guest - gleupp

    Thanks for these comments Mike. Some quick half-baked thoughts.

    Lenin was all about the application of concrete analysis to concrete conditions and advocated that the revolutionary movement address all conditions of oppression linking them to the nature of the system in Russia. I understand that.

    And his advocacy for the rights of "Old Believers" (and the revolutionaries' soliciting of Muslim support in the Central Asian parts of the Russian Empire after 1917) make sense to me.
    This is all pretty basic.

    But my question, more concretely, is this. Daisy Khan has suggested that the Islamic complex builders might in fact shift venues in response to this hostile movement generated by Geller, Palin, Gingrich, etc.

    I'm inclined to say "NO! NO! Go ahead with it, don't back down!" But my fighting spirit may be contrary to the Muslim group's tactical interests.

    Recall when Prof. Norman Finkelstein got denied tenure at DePaul University. The RCP was very disappointed that he accepted a severance pay package rather than fighting the decision. They wanted to make a campaign out of it; he declined.

    It's not all about making a campaign out of something for its own sake.

    I don't want to make more of an issue out of the "Ground Zero Mosque" than its planners themselves. We don't want to be out on a limb, marching off without a base of solidarity and appreciation from the Muslim group involved itself.

    Over a thousand of Muslims have written to me over the years expressing appreciation for things I've written on behalf of Muslim rights, or just in matter-of-fact clarification of Muslim beliefs which I do not share. Some of them assume I'm Muslim, or have been "sent" somehow to defend the faith.

    I don't want to say it's amusing. It's more moving, actually, although I have to respond choosing my words carefully, indicating that I don't believe, that my unity with Muslims under attack doesn't derive from a religious sympathy but from a Marxist view...

    I want to say: I'm supporting your religious identity and rights--- not as co-religionist---but as a communist who would really prefer you yourself change and become more like me! But that's a hard thing to negotiate, and if we as communists look at the "New York Mosque" issue as a basis of organizing struggle against U.S. imperialism without examining the feelings of Manhattan Muslims (with whom we'd like to unite on some basis) we won't be able to accomplish anything except yell at Glenn Beck.

    It would certainly be wrong for communists to campaign for an Islamic center in Park Place if the Muslim organizers themselves are capitulating, perhaps receiving assistance from politically motivated donors, and relocating the establishment in putative deference to the "feelings" generated by 9-11.

    I guess that was my point. Still thinking about this.

  • Guest - Radical Eyes

    Mike raises a fascinating if abstract question: "What is OUR universality?"

    I think that the following (Long) quotation from Zizek can contribute to a substantial communist answer to this question [The juiciest part is in the last paragraph of the passage]:

    "A possible argument against capitalist universality is that, within each civilization, the same capitalist mechanisms are “symbolized,” integrated into the concrete social whole, in a different way (it certainly affects differently a Protestant society than a Muslim one). So while capitalism certainly is a set of features which are trans-cultural, functioning in different societies, they nonetheless function within each society as a particular sub-system which is integrated into an each time specific over-determined articulation, i.e., texture of social-symbolic relations. It is like the use of same words by different social groups: although we all talk about “computers” or “virtual reality,” the scope of meaning of these terms is not the same in a San Francisco hacker community or in a working class small town in economic depression… The answer to this is that, precisely for this reason, the capitalist matrix of social relations is “real”: it is that which, in all possible symbolic universes, functions in the same trans-symbolic way. Even if it doesn’t “mean the same” to individuals in different communities, even if it doesn’t inscribe itself into the totality of their life-world in the same way, it generates the same formal set of social relations, pursuing its circular movement of self-reproduction: in the US or in China, in Peru or in Saudi Arabia, the same profit-oriented matrix is at work.

    "The same logic holds for the emancipatory struggle: the particular culture which tries desperately to defend its identity has to repress the universal dimension which is active at its very heart, that is, the gap between the particular (its identity) and the universal which destabilizes it from within. This is why the 'leave us our
    culture' argument fails. Within every particular culture, individuals do suffer, women do protest when forced to undergo cliterodectomy, and these protests against the parochial constraints of one's culture are formulated from the standpoint of universality.

    "Actual universality is not the »deep« feeling that, above all differences, different civilizations share the same basic values, etc.; actual universality »appears« (actualizes itself) as the experience of negativity, of the inadequacy-to-itself, of a particular identity. The formula of revolutionary solidarity is not »let us tolerate our differences,« it is not a pact of civilizations, but a pact of struggles which cut across civilizations, a pact between what, in each civilization, undermines its identity from within, fights against its oppressive kernel. What unites us is the same struggle. A better formula would thus be: in spite of our differences, we can identify the basic antagonism or antagonistic struggle, in which we are both caught; so let us share our intolerance, and join forces in the same struggle. In other words, in the emancipatory struggle, it is not the cultures in their identity which join hands, it is the repressed, the exploited and suffering, the 'parts of no-part' of every culture which come together in a shared struggle."

    The essay from which it comes is called "Tolerance as an Ideological Category" and can be found at

  • Guest - Nat W.

    Radical Eyes, I think that's a great quote. Definetly significant for thinking about executing an international struggle against the current capitalist order.

  • Guest - Cultural Animal

    I like the Zizek quotes.

    I remember when I went to Vidov Dan. I was 17 at the time. I had my punk rock hair in a headscarf, no bangs sticking out the front. I had done it in a rush to avoid any confrontations. Having lived in the city my whole life, my sense of how to behave among folks who thought of themselves as normal folks (I was born and would stay a freak) was more defined by the fashion police than any kind of religious police, so at one point in the party I pulled out a medium sized lock of my bleached hair at forehead level to avoid looking like a dork. My hair was not blue or green or purple, so I thought I was doing a conformist thing. My cousin came up to me rather soon and asked me to tuck my bangs back in. "The people here are conservative" he said. So, I thought, Orthodox people would rather have me looking dorky than bleached. I kind of liked it. I had been a dork all my life. Later we attended religious services in the church. My aunt told me how important it was, at the point when everybody was expected to cross themselves, to do it left to right or right to left, I forget which it was, but it is the opposite way of how the Catholics do it, and if I did it the Catholic way people would be very offended. I'm pretty sure I did it the wrong way.

    Just an anecdote between the left and the right.

  • Guest - Otto

    This is a good article and it just makes sense that we need the right to defend minority religions, such as atheism.

  • Guest - Otto

    This is a good article. It seems common sense that we can't allow such rabid anti-minority religiousness. Many of us don't follow the traditional religions, we could be next.

  • Guest - Otto

    I didn't mean to post that twice.

  • Guest - Spirit of Zwickau

    "don’t view the fundamentalist Mormon sects and their fight for poligamy/rape as a cause we should take up"

    Sure, I'll bite.

    The physical and emotional terrorism used to enforce discipline in the patriarchal family order is no less vile for being "monogamist" within the context of Old Order Amish, Hasidic, Russian Orthodox Old Believers, or conservative Moslem families. The internal laws of the "peaceful" Old Order Anabaptist sects effectively allow men a free passage to beat, sexually abuse, and torture women and young girls in order to establish patriarchal obedience, and obviously the same is true of all other listed religious groups.

    Yet this in no way justifies the eradication of these social groups through the imposition bourgeois liberal cultural hegemony, which is nothing more than imperialism. Thus the war waged by liberal democratic states against the polygamous chattel slavery of fundamentalist Mormons is totally hypocritical, it's simply a rivalry between two competing gangs of traffickers in human capital.

    Plenty of "Jack Mormons" live in non-patriarchal polygamous arrangements just as plenty of Amish and Mennonites have escaped the patriarchal control of the church and family while retaining their Pennsylvania-German cultural heritage.

  • Guest - Spirit of Zwickau

    Oh and of course Engels definitively establishes that modern monogamist marriage is nothing more than an expression of property and the state.

  • Guest - Green Red

    Whatever it was then, look at the regime and its "Mistakes".

    Under torture they said she was hand in hand with her husband's killer that she was dating.

    Then they want to stone her

    then the world stops her and now:
    Iranian Woman Said to Be Lashed Over Photo
    Published: September 5, 2010

    LONDON — A mix-up over a photograph led to a sentence of 99 lashes for the Iranian woman whose earlier death sentence by stoning from Iranian authorities caused an international outcry, a lawyer for the woman said Sunday.

    The lashing of the woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, was carried out in the northern Iran prison where she is being held, according to the lawyer, Javid Kian. But another lawyer for Ms. Ashtiani disputed that account.

    In a telephone interview from Iran, Mr. Kian said that he had not had contact with Ms. Ashtiani since Aug. 11, when she gave what he called a false and coerced videotaped statement that she was involved in the murder of her husband. The statement was broadcast on Iranian state television in an apparent effort to deflect criticism from around the world of the Iranian government’s sentence that Ms. Ashtiani be executed by stoning for a 2006 adultery conviction. The authorities lifted the stoning sentence, but there have been signs that Ms. Ashtiani, who is being held in Tabriz prison in northern Iran, would be hanged instead.

    The latest episode began on Aug. 28, when The Times of London published a photograph on its front page of a dark-haired woman wearing earrings and what appeared to be pink lipstick, which can be seen because the woman is not wearing the chador, or traditional Islamic veil. The headline with the photograph said, “Revealed: true face of the woman Iran wants to stone.” Inside, an editorial urged continued pressure on Tehran not to execute Ms. Ashtiani.

    Five days later, The Times published an apology, saying the photograph “was not of Ms. Ashtiani, but of Susan Hejrat, an Iranian exile who lives in Sweden.” It blamed the mistake on confusion among journalists; another of Ms. Ashtiani’s lawyers, Mohammed Mostafaei; and her son Sajad Ghaderzadeh, 22.

    But Mr. Kian said that one of two women who had been held with Ms. Ashtiani in the Tabriz prison and recently released “told me that Ashtiani said she had received 99 lashes” for “indecency” after the photograph appeared.

    Mrs. Hejrat, 48, interviewed by telephone at her home in Sweden, confirmed that the photograph was of her. She said that she had used it with articles she had written about Ms. Ashtiani as a campaigner for women’s rights in Iran. “It could have been mixed up in e-mail,” she said, adding, “I am very upset that she got another punishment because the Iranian government saw a picture of me.”

    Iranian authorities are using the image, Mr. Kian said, as “an excuse to put pressure on her and those around her.” He said that after her statement about her husband’s murder, Ms. Ashtiani had been subjected to a mock hanging. The lashing sentence was intended to “impact her family and journalists who may report about her case,” he added. “It is to spread fear so they don’t talk, and to keep the family’s mouths shut.”

    An editor at The Times of London, Simon Pearson, said that the newspaper was still looking into the confusion over the image. “But if what we’re hearing is correct,” he said, referring to the lashing sentence, “you’d have to draw the conclusion that they are sending a message to the Western media that Ashtiani will suffer if we cover her story.”

    Mr. Ghaderzadeh, Ms. Ashtiani’s son, could not be reached on Sunday. But in an open letter published Saturday by the International Committee Against Execution, an organization run by Iranian exiles, he denied being the source of the photograph, which he said “has given the prison authorities an excuse to increase their harassment of our mother.” He blamed Mr. Mostafaei and said the lawyer no longer represented his mother.

    In an e-mail on Sunday, Mr. Mostafaei, who fled Iran under government pressure and now lives in Norway, said that he continues to work for Ms. Ashtiani and that the photograph had been “sent to me by Sajad via e-mail from an internet cafe.” He also said that his sources in the Tabriz district court denied that Ms. Ashtiani had been lashed.

    Mr. Kian said he did not know how the photograph of Mrs. Hejrat came to appear in The Times. But, he said, “I’m sorry it got to them.”

    Azadeh Ensha contributed reporting.

    - - - - - - - -

    I am not saying do it but, can you guess how i feel when i see Islamic regimes' reps? i like to... you guess.

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