frontline 16.

Socialists and Islam

Annie Besant is an SSP member who has undertaken extensive research into the relationship between religion and socialism, particularly in East London. Here she gives her views on the debate around how the left should orientate towards religious communities. Frontline welcomes responses on this controversial topic.

As Socialists, fighting alongside those whom society has oppressed and in the anti-war movement, we increasingly find that our fellow campaigners include Muslims. This puts the relationship between Socialists and Muslims under the spotlight, making it crucial to consider political developments within Islam, and Islamic attitudes towards Socialism.


Like all religions, Islam covers a vast range of interpretations and traditions. However, the last two decades have seen a reaction against earlier forces of secularisation and a turn to Islam as a complete way of life that allows for no separation between religion and politics. This new political Islam, or Islamism, accepts unquestioningly the religious fundamentals of the Quran (believed to be the revealed word of God) and the Sunnah (the sayings and actions of his Prophet Muhammad). These are taken as the basis for understanding and interpreting the modern world to give an all-embracing life philosophy. Islamist ideas have found especially fertile ground among a younger generation living in the West; people for whom their parent’s cultural traditions no longer seem relevant, and who are attracted by the search for underlying religious fundamentals. Increasing numbers are celebrating a positive identification with Islam, and see themselves as part of the Ummah - the international Muslim community. Although their political ideal would be an Islamic state, they have adapted tactically to working in situations where Muslims are in a minority. In Britain they concentrate on Dawah – spreading the word of Islam- and providing a lived example of a righteous community.

Militant groups, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and, the now officially disbanded, Al-Muhajiroun, form a very small, but active – and headline grabbing – subdivision within Islamism. For them, the fight for Islam is immediate and uncompromising. Their aim is to bring into being first a Muslim state, then a new Islamic empire, and ultimately to ‘save’ the whole world. And they see it as their religious duty to protect Muslims everywhere from the forces of Kufr (unbelievers). For a few this defensive fight will be literal, but most earn religious merit by giving financial donations to the battles fought by others.

This direct involvement is utterly rejected by mainstream Islamist organisations such as those in the Muslim Council of Britain, a large umbrella group of organisations that preach prayer and diplomacy.


Although the growth of Islamism has been accelerated by recent events, this Islamic revival predates 9/11. Indeed, there have been several major Islamic revival movements since the mid eighteenth century in response to Western imperialist expansion. For many young Muslims in Britain’s inner cities and post-industrial towns, the turn to religion is a response to the same alienation and lack of hope for the future that leads others towards drugs and gang violence. And Islam is often presented as a way out of this culture of personal and social destruction. Even those who are themselves benefiting from university education and new opportunities can feel that they and their communities are second-class citizens. And this view is strengthened when they look at the position of Muslims in world politics.

But the turn towards Islam as a way out of oppression has grown in dominance because of the perceived failure of socialism. The defeats of the 80s and the fall of the Soviet Union have allowed the establishment of the idea that socialism is off the agenda; and where socialism is not thought to be able to offer a way out, religion is moving into the vacuum.

Islamic brotherhood and sisterhood provides a potent antidote to alienation (including for British converts). Islam gives its followers something to be proud of, with a great history, an international presence, and religious promises of future glory. And it brings the immediate comfort and support of a guideline on how to live everyday life. The community is strengthened individually and collectively by its common fight against real and perceived Islamophobia.

Radical Islam is attracting a growing layer of British-educated youth who like the way it addresses the challenges of western civilisation. The professional leaders of the mainstream groups provide them with role models. Women are given an active part, and the possibility of much more freedom than allowed by traditional South Asian communities; though this is a freedom within incontestable boundaries. Islamist groups are very well organised –some even employ a cadre system – and have an enviable record of grass roots work. Youth work, anti drugs work, women’s organisations, and radio stations (including children’s radio) are all combined with public talks and discussions. The increasing prominence of the mosque and Islamic groups in civil society has been further encouraged by government initiatives on working with faith groups.

Those who join militant groups see themselves defending the community of believers from attack, using the metaphor of an attack on the family. Their main recruiting grounds used to be the universities, but they have been given a general boost by the events following 9/11, both through foreign wars and through the climate at home, generated by government anti-terror legislation and media stereotyping.


Although there are clearly many people who see themselves as both socialists and religious believers of all kinds - and who will continue to play an active role in socialist movements - Marxists argue that religious belief acts as a barrier to real social progress. Explaining his famous description of religion as ‘the opium of the people’, Marx wrote, The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusions about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. Religion can be used to channel incipient class resentment against society’s inequalities into a safe non-socialist course.

The Bolshevik line was similarly uncompromising, but also tactful. They argued that religion should not be encouraged, but that people would give it up of their own free will, and when they came to power they retained and expanded the Provincial Government’s law allowing freedom of religious expression. Their draft programme of 1919 explained that they would not only carry out the legal separation of church and state, but would also ‘organise the most widespread scientific education and anti-religious propaganda.’ It also explained, ‘It is necessary, however, to take care to avoid hurting the religious sentiments of believers, for this only serves to increase religious fanaticism.’

For their part, Islamists reject both socialism and capitalism in favour of the Islamic economic system and Islamic law. Economically this can be resolved into a form of capitalism within Islamic constraints, combined with a social welfare system run through the mosques. While there are many secularist Muslims who regard their religion as a personal thing, separate from their politics, Islamists argue that Islam covers all areas of life and so does not leave room for any other political affiliation. For them, a Muslim socialist is a contradiction. Islamist groups consciously draw activists away from seeking any form of radical change other than through religion.

Any emphasis on religion can divide the working class along religious lines and weaken it. Although Islamists do talk about integration, and aim to play a substantial part in civil society, their philosophy and organisations encourage people to live in a separate Muslim sphere, in which they play sport only with other Muslims and listen to Muslim folk music on Muslim radio. And divisions are not only between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also between those with different approaches towards their religion - especially between the Islamists and those who are followers of traditional regional practices that the Islamists have discarded, or who would describe themselves as secular Muslims. These differences can put barriers between generations, and young Muslims can find themselves under strong moral pressure to conform to the strictures of their Islamist peers, and constantly worrying about neglecting aspects of Islamic law.

Revolutionary Islamists (such as Hizb ut-Tahrir), crying out against Muslim oppression, appeal to just those people who might otherwise have turned to revolutionary socialism – especially among students and working class youth. The revolutionaries share an anti-capitalist rhetoric with the left, but use it to argue not for power to the workers, but to the religious authorities. Their ultimate aim is deeply conservative. Luckily the more revolutionary groups have not yet combined their idealism with systematic grass-roots community work, and their reach is limited.

We may hope to win individual Muslims over to a socialist ideology, just as Muslim groups would hope to convert individual socialists to Islam, but in working with Islamists over issues of common interest - such as in the anti-war movement - we should not forget that their ultimate political aim is very different from a socialist’s one, and very far from what most socialists would regard as progressive. Though most Islamists in Britain, and other countries where Muslims are in a minority, have embraced the politics of the possible, their ideal system for a Muslim Majority state would be for a constitution based on Islamic Shariah law. Well-meaning Liberal suggestions for Islamic reform in line with western cultural values can only insult followers of a legal code that is believed to be God-given and immutable, with argument limited only to interpretation.

While fundamental socialist principles will always come first, this does not prevent us from doing what we can to accommodate and work with Muslims and other religious people. In this, our line would be the mirror image of that taken by the Islamists. They are confident in the strength of their beliefs, but will share common cause with socialists - or others - over particular issues, so long as they don’t compromise their religion. When working with Muslim groups – and admiring their organisation and practical community work – we can be at least equally strong in our commitment to socialist values.


The lack of a strong socialist movement, which has allowed room for the growth of political religion, is also being exploited by the far right BNP. Their rhetoric champion’s working class issues, but links them to popular racist xenophobia. The situation has been made worse by the current government. They have attempted to undermine far right support by themselves instituting policies on immigration and asylum that pander to popular prejudices and serve only to strengthen them. And their heavy-handed anti-terrorism legislation portrays all Muslims as potential terrorists. Socialists will be fighting alongside Muslims to get these laws reversed and end the prejudices behind them. But giving uncritical support to Muslim groups will only hinder the fight against the growing racism and Islamophobia. This will not win individual Muslims to socialism, but it will further alienate those who might be tempted by populist xenophobic rhetoric. It is also useless (and perhaps even counter productive) to preach anti-racism in the manner of a Scottish Executive poster campaign. We need no lectures from professionals, nor misplaced political correctness that would limit anti-racist leadership to members of oppressed groups and serve to increase division. The old chant of ‘black and white unite and fight’ is not quite enough because it fails to explain what the fight is against. It is not only against racism, but against capitalist exploitation and class oppression, of which racism is a tool, used to divide and rule. The only weapon against racism and Islamophobia is socialism: socialism that honestly and openly unites black and white, Muslim and non-Muslim in the bigger battle against capitalism.