Bolsheviks and Islam: Religious Rights

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Socialists can learn from how the Bolsheviks approached the Muslims of the Russian empire.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 took place in an empire that was home to 16 million Muslims - some 10 percent of the population. The collapse of Tsarism radicalised Muslims, who demanded religious freedom and national rights denied them by the tsars.

On 1 May 1917 the First All-Russian Congress of Muslims took place in Moscow. After heated debates the congress voted for women's rights, making Russia's Muslims the first in the world to free women from the restrictions typical of Islamic societies of that period. At the same time, conservative Muslim leaders were hostile to revolutionary change. So how did the Russian Marxists, the Bolsheviks, respond?

Atheism

Marxism is a materialist worldview and so is thoroughly atheist. But because it understands religion to have roots in oppression and alienation, Marxist political parties don't demand that their members or supporters are atheists too. So atheism was never included in the Bolsheviks' programme. Indeed, they welcomed left wing Muslims into the communist parties (CPs). The Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky noted in 1923 that in some former colonies as many as 15 percent of CP members were believers in Islam. He called them the 'raw revolutionary recruits who come knocking on our door'. In parts of Central Asia, Muslim membership was as high as 70 percent.

The Bolsheviks took a very different approach to Orthodox Christianity, the religion of the brutal Russian colonists and missionaries. Party policy in Central Asia, endorsed by Moscow, stated that 'freedom from religious prejudice' was a requirement for Russians only. So in 1922 over 1,500 Russians were kicked out of the Turkestan CP because of their religious convictions, but not a single Turkestani.

This was part of Bolshevik policy to try to make amends for the crimes of Tsarism in the former colonies. Bolshevik leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky understood that this was not only basic justice, but it was also necessary to clear the ground and enable class divisions in Muslim society to come to the fore.

After the revolution in 1917 of Russian colonists in Central Asia had gone over to the Bolsheviks, but had usurped the slogan of 'workers' power' and turned it against the mainly peasant local population. For two years the region was cut off from Moscow by the civil war, so these self styled 'Bolsheviks' had a free hand to carry on persecuting the indigenous peoples. As a result, the Basmachi movement - an armed Islamic revolt - broke out.

Lenin talked about the 'gigantic, all-historical' importance of setting things right. In 1920 he ordered 'sending to concentration camps in Russia all former members of the police, military, security forces, administration etc, who were products of the Tsarist era and who swarmed around Soviet power [in Central Asia] because they saw in it the perpetuation of Russian domination'.

Sacred Islamic monuments, books and objects looted by the tsars were returned to the mosques. Friday - the day of Muslim celebration - was declared to be the legal day of rest throughout Central Asia. A parallel court system was created in 1921, with Islamic courts administering justice in accordance with sharia laws. The aim was for people to have a choice between religious and revolutionary justice. A special Sharia Commission was established in the Soviet Commissariat of Justice.

Some sharia sentences that contravened Soviet law, such as stoning or the cutting off of hands, were forbidden. Decisions of the sharia courts that concerned these matters had to be confirmed by higher organs of justice.

Some sharia courts flouted the Soviet law, refusing to award divorces on the petition of a wife, or equating the testimony of two women to that of a man. So in December 1922 a decree introduced retrials in Soviet courts if one of the parties requested it. All the same, some 30 to 50 percent of all court cases were resolved by sharia courts, and in Chechnya the figure was 80 percent.

A parallel education system was also established. In 1922 rights to certain waqf (Islamic) properties were restored to Muslim administration, with the proviso that they were used for education. As a result, the system of madrassahs - religious schools - was extensive. In 1925 there were 1,500 madrassahs with 45,000 students in the Caucasus state of Dagestan, as opposed to just 183 state schools. In contrast, by November 1921 over 1,000 soviet schools had some 85,000 pupils in Central Asia - a modest number relative to the potential enrolment.

The Muslim Commissariat in Moscow oversaw Russia's policy towards Islam. Muslims with few communist credentials were granted leading positions in the commissariat. The effect was to split the Islamic movement. Historians agree that a majority of Muslim leaders supported the soviets, convinced that Soviet power meant religious liberty. There was serious discussion among Muslims of the similarity of Islamic values to socialist principles. Popular slogans of the time included: 'Long live Soviet power, long live the sharia!'; 'Religion, freedom and national independence!' Supporters of 'Islamic socialism' appealed to Muslims to set up soviets.

Alliances

The Bolsheviks made alliances with the Kazakh pan-Islamic group the Ush-Zhuz (which joined the CP in 1920), the Persian pan-Islamist guerrillas in the Jengelis, and the Vaisites, a Sufi brotherhood. In Dagestan, Soviet power was established largely thanks to the partisans of the Muslim leader Ali-Hadji Akushinskii.

In Chechnya the Bolsheviks won over Ali Mataev, the head of a powerful Sufi order, who led the Chechen Revolutionary Committee. In the Red Army the 'sharia squadrons' of the mullah Katkakhanov numbered tens of thousands.

At the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in September 1920, Russian Bolshevik leaders issued a call for a 'holy war' against Western imperialism. Two years later the Fourth Congress of the Communist International endorsed alliances with pan-Islamism against imperialism.

Moscow deliberately employed non-Russian troops to fight in Central Asia - Tatar, Bashkir, Kazakh, Uzbek and Turkmen detachments were pitted against the anti-Bolshevik invaders. Tatar soldiers in the Red Army exceeded 50 percent of the troops on the Eastern and Turkestan fronts of the civil war.

The Red Army was only one aspect of thoroughgoing efforts to ensure indigenous peoples themselves controlled the new autonomous republics in the former colonies.

Firstly this meant kicking out the Russian and Cossack colonists - in the Caucasus and Central Asia colonists were encouraged to return to Russia, and in some places forcibly evicted. The Russian language ceased to dominate, and native languages returned to schools, government and publishing.

A massive programme of what would now be called 'affirmative action' was introduced. Indigenous people were promoted to leading positions in the state and communist parties, and given preference for employment over Russians. Universities were established to train a new generation of non-Russian national leaders.

However, efforts to guarantee religious freedom and national rights were constantly undermined by the weak economy. The isolation of the Russian Revolution meant that desperate poverty dragged the regime down. Already in 1922 Moscow's subsidy to Central Asia had to be cut and many state schools had to close. Teachers abandoned their jobs because of failure to pay salaries. This meant Muslim schools were the only alternative. 'When you can't provide bread, you don't dare take away the substitute,' said commissar for education Lunacharsky.

Sharia courts had all their funding removed in late 1923 to early 1924. But economic factors already obstructed Muslims from bringing their grievances to court. If a young woman refused to enter an arranged or polygamous marriage, for example, she had a slim chance of being able to feed herself because there were no jobs and nowhere else to live.

On top of this, the Stalinist bureaucracy was gaining a stranglehold on the revolution. Increasingly it attacked so called 'nationalist deviations' in the non-Russian republics and encouraged a rebirth of Russian chauvinism. From the mid-1920s the Stalinists began planning an all-out attack on Islam under the banner of women's rights. The slogan of the campaign was khudzhum - which means storming or assault.

The khudzhum entered its mass action phase on 8 March 1927 - international women's day. At mass meetings women were called upon to unveil. Small groups of native women came to the podium and threw their veils on bonfires. This grotesque plan turned Marxism on its head. It was far from the days when Bolshevik women activists veiled themselves to conduct political work in the mosques. It was a million miles from Lenin's instruction that 'we are absolutely opposed to giving offence to religious conviction'.

Inevitably there was a backlash against the khudzhum. Thousands of Muslim children, especially girls, were withdrawn from Soviet schools and resigned from the Young Communist League. Unveiled women were attacked in the street, including ferocious rapes and thousands of killings.

The assault on Islam marked the beginning of a sharp break with the socialist policies of October 1917. As the Soviet Union launched a programme of forced industrialisation, Muslim national and religious leaders were physically eliminated and Islam was driven underground. The dream of religious freedom was buried in the Great Terror of the 1930s.

Socialist Review stands in a tradition that totally rejects the Stalinist approach to Islam. But in the early years of the revolution the Bolsheviks were successful at winning Muslims to fight for socialism. We can learn from and be inspired by their achievements.