By John T. Sidel
October 9, 2017
LONDON — For a brief moment after the Bolshevik uprisings of 1917, it looked like revolution might be waged across vast swaths of the world under the joint banner of Communism and Islam.
Pan-Islam had emerged in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, with the efforts of Sultan Abdulhamid II to lay claim to the title of caliph among Muslims. New forms of Islamic schooling and associations began to emerge across the Arab world and beyond. From Egypt and Iraq to India and the Indonesian archipelago, Islam became a rallying call against European colonialism and imperialism.
Islam’s mobilizing power attracted Communist activists in the 1910s and 1920s. The Bolsheviks, who lacked organizational infrastructure in the vast Muslim lands of the former Russian empire, allied with Islamic reformers in those areas. They created a special Commissariat for Muslim Affairs under the Tatar Bolshevik Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, promising to establish a distinctive “Muslim Communism” across the Caucasus and Central Asia. During the 1920 Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku, in what is today Azerbaijan, the Comintern chairman Grigory Zinoviev, a Ukrainian Jew, called for waging a “holy war” against Western imperialism.
But as we now know, Communism and Islam failed to coalesce into a lasting alliance. By the onset of the Cold War, they seemed irrevocably opposed. Differing views about Communism divided Muslims across Asia, Africa and the Middle East in their struggles for independence and emancipation during the second half of the 20th century. An anti-Communist jihad fundamentally remade Afghanistan in the 1980s and helped set the stage for the rise of Al Qaeda and the emergence of a new form of Islamist terrorism.
Yet around the time of the Russian Revolution, the prospects of Communism and Islam joining forces seemed very bright. They were perhaps no brighter than in the Indonesian archipelago, then under Dutch rule: In 1918-21, left-wing labor organizers working hand in glove with Islamic scholars and pious Muslim merchants built the biggest mass movement in Southeast Asia.
Over the preceding decade, Indonesian labour activists had already established a strong union representing workers on the extensive railroad network servicing the vast plantation economy of Java and Sumatra. By 1914, the Indische Sociaal-Democratische Vereeniging, or Indies Social-Democratic Union, had expanded from labour organizing among railroad workers into broader forms of social activism and political action against colonial rule.
Pan-Islam had emerged in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire, with the efforts of Sultan Abdulhamid II, shown in this undated photo, to lay claim to the title of caliph among Muslims. Credit Corbis, via Getty Images
In particular, members began to join the Sarekat Islam, an organization founded in 1912 as a Muslim batik traders’ association that had morphed into a broader popular movement and was staging mass rallies and strikes across Java. Socialist influence within the Sarekat Islam was already evident at the movement’s congress in 1916, where the Prophet Muhammad was proclaimed to be “the father of Socialism and the pioneer of democracy” and “the Socialist par excellence.”
The Russian Revolution further inspired the Sarekat Islam. By late 1917, activists from the Indies Social-Democratic Union had begun agitating and organizing among the lower ranks of the Dutch armed forces in the Indies. Borrowing the successful tactics of the Bolsheviks in Russia, hundreds of sailors and soldiers were recruited in the hope of staging mutinies and uprisings. The Dutch colonial authorities promptly arrested and imprisoned the activists and ordered their expulsion from the Indies.
But by 1920, the Indies Social-Democratic Union had renamed itself the Communist Union of the Indies, becoming the first Communist party in Asia to join the Comintern. New unions were formed on Java and Sumatra. Peasant villagers mobilized against landowners. A railway strike briefly paralyzed the plantation belt in eastern Sumatra.
It was in this context that the legendary figure of Tan Malaka first appeared. The scion of an aristocratic family from western Sumatra, Tan Malaka had spent World War I as a student in the Netherlands. He came into contact with Socialist activists and ideas, and witnessed the short-lived Troelstra Revolution of late 1918, during which Dutch social-democrats briefly tried to emulate an ongoing revolutionary uprising in Germany. In early 1919, Tan Malaka returned to Indonesia, where he was soon drawn into labor organizing. He joined the embryonic local Communist Party, quickly ascending to its leadership — before the colonial government forced him into exile, and back to the Netherlands, in early 1922.
And so it was with early experience of the revolutionary potential of combining Communism and Islam that Tan Malaka made an appearance at the Fourth Comintern Congress in Moscow and Petrograd in 1922. There, he delivered a memorable speech about the similarities between Pan-Islamism and Communism. Pan-Islamism was not religious per se, he argued, but rather “the brotherhood of all Muslim peoples, and the liberation struggle not only of the Arab but also of the Indian, the Javanese and all the oppressed Muslim peoples.”
“This brotherhood,” he added, “means the practical liberation struggle not only against Dutch but also against English, French and Italian capitalism, therefore against world capitalism as a whole.”
The official record of the proceedings notes that Tan Malaka’s impassioned plea for an alliance between Communism and Pan-Islamism was met with “lively applause.” But his memoirs recall that after three days of heated debate following his speech, he was formally prohibited from further contributing to the proceedings. The official conclusions of the Fourth Comintern Congress, including the “Theses on the Eastern Question,” are notably ambiguous on the question of Pan-Islamism and strikingly silent on Indonesia, even though the movement there was far more successful than any other Communist mobilization in the so-called East at the time.
An alliance between Communism and Islam was not to be, neither in Indonesia nor elsewhere. The strength of Communism, as a movement, was its ability to mobilize laborers to fight for better wages and working conditions through unions, whether in oil boomtown Baku or the plantations of Java and Sumatra. But as a form of government, Communism meant one-party rule, a command economy with collectivized agriculture and party-state control over all spheres of social life — including religion.
Islamism, by contrast, was a much broader and enduringly more open-ended and ambiguous basis for political engagement. In Java and elsewhere, “Islam” provided a banner for Muslim merchants to contest economic encroachment by non-Muslims and build an infrastructure for organizing in the countryside, largely through Islamic schools. Politically, it was a supple notion: Islamist scholars and activists could be for colonialism, Communism or capitalism.
In Indonesia, tensions between Communists and Islamic leaders had already begun to divide Sarekat Islam in the early 1920s. Communists urged escalating strikes and protests, whereas Islamic leaders advocated accommodation with the Dutch colonial authorities. Sarekat Islam dissolved in the face of Dutch repression after failed rebellions in 1926-7.
In the late 1940s, Islamic parties opposed the Partai Komunis Indonesia (P.K.I.), or Indonesian Communist Party, during the struggle for independence. Islamic parties were uncomfortable with the Communists’ insistence that independence from Dutch colonial rule also upend aristocratic privileges and bring about the establishment of Socialist forms of ownership over land and industry. This conflict extended into the early post-independence period. Islamic organizations actively participated in the anti-Communist pogroms of 1965-66, which destroyed the P.K.I. and left hundreds of thousands of casualties across Indonesia.
By this time, the pattern of antagonism was well established across the Muslim world, and it persisted throughout the Cold War. The institutional and ideological boundaries of both Communism and Islamism hardened, dashing prospects for renewed experiments in political alliance-building.
In Muslim areas of the Soviet Union, the party-state suppressed institutions of Islamic worship, education, association and pilgrimage, which were viewed as obstacles to ideological and social transformation along Communist lines. Where Islamic states were established, left-wing politics was often associated with blasphemy, and outlawed. In countries like Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Iran, Communist and other left-wing parties found themselves in bitter competition for power with Islamists.
One effect of the failure of revolutionary forces to mobilize under the joint banner of Communism and Islam was to deeply divide Muslims, weakening their capacity first to fight colonialism during the first half of 20th century and then to resist the rise of authoritarianism across the Muslim world. Another effect was to stimulate new forms of U.S.-backed, anti-Soviet Islamist mobilization during the Cold War — including some that turned into the virulent anti-Western terrorist groups that partly define the world today.
Divisions between leftists and Islamists in Egypt after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 also helped set the stage for the country’s return to military rule in mid-2013. Similar tensions divided the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, paving the way for the country’s descent into civil war over six years ago. A full century after the Russian Revolution, the failed alliance between Communism and Islam continues to shape the politics of the Muslim world.
John T. Sidel is the Sir Patrick Gillam Professor of International and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and the author of the forthcoming book “Republicanism, Communism, Islam: Cosmopolitan Origins of Revolution in Southeast Asia.”