A Clash of Civilizations?

Garbis Altınoğlu 
13-16 January 2004
For some time there is a growing debate over the wearing of headscarves by some Muslim girls, especially in France, but in Germany and other Western European countries as well. This debate has been further exacerbated in the whole period following 11 September 2001, during which imperialist bourgeoisie led by American neo-fascists have been whipping up an anti-Muslim hysteria and Islamophobia in the name of fighting “terrorism” and “Islamic fundamentalism”. A somewhat similar struggle over the same issue has been going on in Turkey for years, if not for decades, though its historical roots and political significance are not necessarily and inextricably linked to the present imperialist crusade against Arab and Islamic peoples.

In the present debate, on one side of the barricade stand those, who advocate the banning of the use of headscarves in so-called public spaces on behalf of defense of the causes of secularism, “modernism” and women’s liberation. On the other side of the barricade stand those, who advocate the removal of all restrictions over headscarves (and other religious symbols) on behalf of the causes of democracy and freedom. Here, I will attempt to clarify the position and approach of Marxist-Leninists and consistent democrats towards this thorny question which evokes and is expected to continue to evoke passionate debate in the near future and the superficiality and bourgeois nature of the two camps, who seem to confront each other.

Imperialism: The Main Enemy
In addressing this issue, all consistent democrats should start from the Leninist premise of imperialism or monopoly capitalism being the main source of all political reaction and the greatest enemy of workers and peoples of the world. I believe no sensible person will deny the correctness of this premise, which has been proved by the course of events time and again. Only, apologists of imperialism and fools will fail to concede the fact that for decades it has been the imperialist bourgeoisie, who has actively promoted, supported and given birth to racism, militarism, chauvinism, clerical reaction, fascism for the purpose of dividing the ranks of the great army of working classes and toilers of the world, crush their revolutionary strugles and maintain its bloody rule. The present masters of the world are perfectly aware of the fact that unless they are able to keep exploited billions in disarray, without a scientific world view, a clear and correct strategy and without a genuinely revolutionary vanguard, they cannot maintain the oligarchic rule of a tiny minority over workers and toilers either in “advanced” capitalist countries, or semi-colonies. Therefore, even in the most “democratic” of capitalist countries, they very much need the aid of clerical reaction among other things to keep the exploited classes in the dark, confuse them about the real state of affairs, divide them along ethnic and religious lines, prevent them from attaining democratic and socialist consciousness and organizing and fighting against capitalism. That is the main reason behind the decades-long alliance between the Church (and the Mosque) on the one hand and exploiting classes on the other.

The Resurgence of Islam
Under the pressure of the revolutions of the masses of the poor, democratic and liberal bourgeoisie, the forefathers of present-day imperialist bourgoisie had waged a hesitant and inconsistent struggle against feudalism, monarchy and the Church in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is true for the separation of the state and the Church and the restriction of the latter’s reactionary and stifling authority as well. For instance, following in the footsteps of the French Revolution of 1789, the Paris Commune of 1871, the first victorious attempt of workers to seize political power that decreed: “Since the first of the principles of the French Republic is liberty; Since liberty of conscience is first among liberties; Since subsidising religion is unethical, as it imposes on citizens against their own beliefs; Since, in fact, the clergy has been the accomplice of the monarchy’s crimes against liberty, [… ecclesiastical goods will be] put at the disposal of the Nation.” But even before the advent of the era of monopoly capitalism, the main body of the bourgeoisie had sided and united with clerical reaction in preserving the reactionary status quo. So, the exploiting classes neither can pose as the champions of the Enlightenment and bourgeois-democratic revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, nor claim any right to defend secularism, anti-clericalism, democracy. The right and responsibility to defend the gains of bourgeois-democratic revolutions falls upon the working class movement and its revolutionary vanguard.
In the 1980s and especially after the demise of the revisionist bloc led by social-imperialist Soviet Union, the national resistance and democratic struggles of masses in semi-colonial countries have more and more begun to assume a religious coloring. This is very much the case in the Islamic world, which has been subjected to colonialist and imperialist domination, exploitation, invasion and bullying since the inception of modern colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries. This resurgence of political Islam (and of “liberation theology” in some Latin American countries and of similar trends elsewhere) is not surprising at all. The rightward evolution of big and influential communist parties of France, Italy etc. in post-Second World War period, the progressive weakening of the world communist movement in the 1970s and 1980s, the failure of left-nationalist bourgeois regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America during the same period, growing degeneration of the Soviet bloc countries in the wake of Khruschevite betrayal, followed by their demise at the beginning of the 1990s all combined to deal a hard blow at the prestige of socialism and the influence of Marxism-Leninism. Under these circumstances, the discontent, opposition and anger of workers, semi-proletariat and oppressed peoples of semi-colonies in general and of Islamic countries in particular were more and more diverted to non-socialist and especially religious channels. (1)
This is the principal reason why, world imperialism led by the US, had long before 11 September declared “political Islam”, that is workers and peoples of Muslim countries as the main enemy and begun manevuers to target, isolate and destroy all anti-imperialist forces in the great geographical swath extending from Morocco to Indonesia. (2) American neo-fascists had even lain the ideological basis of this struggle with their so-called theories over the “clash of civilizations”. For instance, “The Clash of Civilizations”, Samuel Huntington’s well-known and well-publicized article as published in the summer of 1993.
So, although on the face of it the action of 11 September seems to be the turning point in the worldwide political-military offensive of US imperialism to preserve its hegemony vis-a-vis other, emerging imperialist powers and against workers and peoples, its groundwork had been constructed almost immediately after the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Real Dimensions of the Headscarf Issue
The headscarf issue and its wider implications should be interpreted in this international context. As will be understood from the remarks above, Marxist-Leninists and consistent democrats cannot and will not ever and under any circumstances side with imperialist bourgeoisie and its hangers on in the name of fighting clerical reaction, obscurantism and medievalism. However, they cannot and will not side with the other camp either, whose protagonists are allegedly fighting for the defense of democracy, respect for other cultures and religious freedom in general and for Islamic culture and customs in particular. Why not? Because, the fight for freedom to wear headscarves is not really a fight for freedom to wear headscarves, notwithstanding the sentiments of most of the people and youth involved in this campaign. Besides, it definitely not an isolated and single issue; it is part of drive to impose a regressive and reactionary life style and a false and artificial political agenda on Muslim workers and youth. The fight for freedom to wear headscarves is only the preface of a fight to exclude women from social life and to impose bygone traditions on Muslim toilers. In the final analysis, the demand to wear headscarves and to return to the old rules of Islamic living, is no different than the demand to be relegated to the status of a slave. Those who lead this campaign and in the name of preservation of Islamic identity and Shariah (Islamic law) advocate headscarves do and/or are bound to advocate other Islamic rules as well, such as the wearing of the veil, stoning to death of adulterous women, whipping of adulterous men, amputation of the hands of thieves, killing of converts to other religions, the right of men to marry more than one woman etc. And there is absolutely nothing progressive and democratic in this drive.

Marxist-Leninists and consistent democrats respect the culture, traditions and customs, especially of minorities, oppressed nations and religious denominations, including their religious beliefs; but this neither means an automatic sanctioning of all traditions and customs and especially not regressive and reactionary ones, nor the sanctioning religion as an ideology and a denial of their materialist stand.

In criticizing Springer’s and Bauer’s programme of cultural-national autonomy Stalin stated:
“And it is by no means fortuituous that the national programme of the Austrian Social-Democrats enjoins a concern for the ‘preservation and development of the national pecuilarities of the peoples.’ Just think: to ‘preserve’ such ‘national pecuilarities’ of the Transcaucasian Tatars as self-flagellation at the festival of Shakhsei-Vakhsei; or to ‘develop’ such ‘national pecuilarities’ of the Georgeans as the vendetta!…” (“Marxism and the National Question”, Works 2, Moskova, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1953, p. 341)

I do not, of course, deny the legitimacy of the grievances of Muslim workers and youth, who in the absence of revolutionary leadership and democratic and socialist consciousness express their discontent and anger at the oppressive and unjust capitalist system in a distorted manner, that is, through a yearning to return to “the good old days” of Islam. However, these Muslim workers and youth should ask themselves whether texts and rules written 1400 years ago in accordance with the social and economic understanding of that period would ever be sufficient to meet the needs of the 21. century.  Muslim workers and youth should understand the fact that, to repel imperialist and Zionist aggression is possible only through the assimilation of the positive values of civilization and culture created by the centuries long evolution of capitalism and not by turning their faces to the feudal and backward past. And they should understand the fact that, all these injustices and outrages and their source, capitalism and imperialism can be brought to an end only through the joint struggle of the exploited and oppressed toilers of the world, including the workers and youth of “advanced” capitalist countries, such as the US, Japan, Germany etc.
The Case of the AEL
Unfortunately, even some “progressive and anti-imperialist” Muslim people and organizations have given prominence to just the sort of false and artificial agenda mentioned above. A case in point is the AEL (Arab European League), whose leader Dyap Abou Jahjah is known to defend the application of Sharia even in present-day Western Europe. Last year, in a letter addressed to AEL members Abou Jahjah explained the ideology and policy of the organization, where he stated:
“The Ideology of the AEL is the result of a synthesis between two political movements: the Arab Nationalist and the Islamist. The AEL is an Arab National movement with a Muslim-democratic project for society…
“National/cultural Identity (Arab/Amazigh) is the first defence line of our religion. If we lose that, the next thing will be to lose Islam. Building an Islamic and Arab pillar of institutions within Europe enabling us to preserve and promote our identity and religion is necessary to fight back against the natural and forced assimilation process…
“Our National policy in Europe does not limit itself to the struggle against assimilation but also it is important in keeping the bond with our original homeland. Struggle for al shoura in our Arab Homeland and for its liberation from occupation and oppression is one of our main goals. The Arab Federal State under Al Shoura is our ultimate goal. This Arab state will be the heart of the Islamic Umma and will be a huge step towards realising a confederation of all Muslim states. It is very clear that all these goals are not in line with what the current establishment wants for our people whether here or in the Arab Homeland…” (“A Letter from Dyab Abou Jahjah to All AEL Members”)
By championing the application of Sharia in the conditions of modern bourgeois society, giving prominence to the preservation and building national and religious identity, aiming at a capitalist “Arab Federal State under Al Shoura” and eventually a capitalist “confederation of all Muslim states” and opposing natural assimilation as well, the AEL and similar groups only consolidate the distorted image of Muslim peoples and societies profusely propagated by the imperialist media. Needless to add, such a line does not in any way serve the real interests of immigrant and “foreign” workers and youth in Europe; rather it leads them astray and condemns them to obscurantism, medievalism and isolation from the great masses of native working class and youth as I will try to show below.

An Artificial and False Agenda
What is even more important is the fact that, this drive for an outdated version of Arab and Islamic identity and way of life presents Muslim workers, toilers and youth with a false and artificial agenda and diverts them from the real tasks of struggle against imperialist oppression and war, capitalist exploitation, militarism, racism and danger of fascism. By giving prominence to such a regressive and reactionary agenda, the AEL and similar groups assist monopoly capital in presenting Muslim workers as “extremists and fundamentalists”, alienating them from native (and other non-Muslim immigrant) workers, fostering racism and xenophobia in the ranks of the native working classes and thus dividing the ranks of workers and progressive forces. In the present conjuncture, when the evil axis of American neo-fascists, Israeli Zionists and British imperialists is trying to defame and isolate Muslim peoples in general and the resistance of Iraqi, Palestinian, Afghan and other Muslim peoples and when imperialist bourgeoisie has unleashed an attack on hard-won economic and political gains of the workers everywhere, including “advanced” capitalist countries, this irresponsible campaign plays an especially harmful, provocative and dangerous role. Besides, by attempting to fight against imperialist and Zionist occupation, xenophobia and discrimination under the banner of Sharia and medievalism, the AEL and similar groups are allowing monopoly capital and imperialism to pose as the defenders of the Enlightenment, tolerance, democracy, women’s rights, civilization and culture etc. Last but not least they are once more assisting the masters of the world in providing them with a pretext to enact new anti-democratic repressive laws in the name of containing “Islamic extremism.”

AEL’s approach seems to be an inside-out version of the approach of Bismarck, chancellor of the German empire 1871 through 1890, who under the banner of Kulturkampf (struggle for culture) tried to contain Catholic Church, but ended up in creating a militant Catholicism.

In his critique of Dühring, who while giving ideological concessions to religion, asserted the pseudo-revolutionary line of banning religion in socialist society, Friedrich Engels accused him “to outBismarck Bismarck”. Persecution of Catholicism in Germany by the “Iron Chancellor” in the 1870s in the name of Kulturkampf  backfired; it strengthened militant Catholicism and “gave prominence to religious divisions rather than political divisions and diverted the attention of certain sections of the working class and the other democratic elements from the urgent tasks of the class and revolutionary struggle to a most superficial and mendacious bourgeois anti-clericalism.” (V. I. Lenin, Marx, Engels, Marxism, Pekin, Foreign Languages Press, 1978, p. 280) In a similar manner, the campaigns of  groups like the AEL will assist in strengthening the influence of Christian fundamentalism and anti-Muslim prejudices and the demagogy of so-called clash of civilizations unless counteracted by the struggle of the working class and other progressive forces. As a result of the colonial past of their societies, European and American workers are already burdened with a legacy of colonialist mentality, which can relatively easily be manipulated and transformed into open racism in times of crisis by the monopoly capital. To be able to evade such traps, progressive forces in general and progressive Muslim workers and youth in particular have to follow a principled and correct tactical line; if they do not do everything they can to contain and reverse the covert anti-Muslim and anti-worker maneuvers and propaganda of imperialist bourgeoisie, they will be playing into the hands of their worst enemies.
Marxist-Leninists Are Against All Forms of Discrimination
This rejection of the conduct of the struggle of the exploited and oppressed masses under the banner of religion cannot be taken or portrayed as an endorsement of persecution of Muslim or other minorities or of any discrimination against Muslim or non-Muslim immigrant workers and youth. Marxist-Leninists and consistent democrats have been against all forms and manifestations of discrimination, forced assimilation (though not against natural assimilation), xephonobia, Islamophobia, national oppression and racism, and especially the persecution of Muslim and non-Muslim minorities and been demanding full rights for immigrant and “foreign” workers and youth. The realization of this demand, however, requires the utmost fighting solidarity and unity of workers of all nationalities and religious denominations and systematic and conscious rejection of all attempts to divide the working class along ethnic and religious lines. The struggle for the democratic rights of and equal status for immigrant Muslim (and non-Muslim) workers and youth shall be successful insofar as it is inextricably linked with the struggle of the main body of the working class against imperialism and capitalism.

In rebutting the arguments of those who saw a contradiction between the rights of nations and the ‘precise meaning’ of the programme of Social-Democracy (that is Marxism), Stalin said:
“The programme of Social-Democrats contains a clause on freedom of religion. According to this clause any group of persons have the right to profess any religion they please: Catholicism, the religion of the Orthodox Church, etc. Social-Democrats will combat all forms of religious persecution, be it of members of the Orthodox Church, Catholics or Protestants. Does this mean that Catholicism, Protestantism, etc., ‘do not contradict the precise meaning’ of the programme? No, it does not. Social-Democrats will always protest against persecution of Catholicism and Protestantism; they will always defend the right of nations to profess any religion they please; but at the same time, on the basis of a correct understanding of the interests of the proletariat, they will carry on agitation against Catholicism, Protestantism and the religion of the Orthodox Church in order to achieve the triumph of the socialist world outlook.” (Works 2, Moskova, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1953, p. 368)

Being materialist, Marxism is hostile to religion and all forms and manifestations of idealism. This, however, does not mean condoning religious persecution, as Stalin has indicated. Marxist-Leninists fight to enlighten workers and other toilers with the scientific world view of the proletariat. But being dialectical materialist as well, they understand the conditions leading to and reasons behind the influence of religion on the masses. Without changing those conditions and removing the reasons leading to the influence of religion, that is, without addressing the social roots of the influence of religion, all atheist preaching and anti-religious propaganda and agitation will come to nothing. Therefore, Marxist-Leninists primarily strive to advance the class struggle of the working class against capitalism and the anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggle of broad masses against imperialism and its lackeys. Only through the advance of these struggles and in tandem with them shall the democratic and socialist consciousness of the exploited and oppressed masses rise and the influence of religion eradicated.

As a result of the weakness of world communist and working class movement, religion has once again become a powerful alternative political current, whether it be in the streets of West Bank and Gaza, mountains of Afghanistan and suburbs of France, Turkey etc. This false alternative, this opium of the masses will not disappear through anti-religious propaganda and “cultural enlightenment of backward strata.” As long as the aggressive and reactionary internal and external policies of imperialist countries and the deep poverty and injustice arising out of the working of capitalism are not countered and stopped by a revolutionary offensive of the working class, Islamic fundamentalism will continue to gain support; state bans, discrimination and repression will strengthen rather than weaken it.

Notwithstanding the partially progressive and anti-imperialist aspects of the policies and approaches of various Islamist groups, one cannot fight against modern imperialism, which is nothing but capitalism in its stage of utter decay and degeneration with the ideological and political weapons of feudalism and medievalism. For instance, Islam proposes to solve the chasm between the rich and poor, through the zakat, a sort of voluntary levy imposed on the rich. But all workers shall understand that, income inequality reaching monstrous proportions cannot be solved through charity and moral preaching. This question can only be solved by putting an end to the exploitation of workers by the bourgeoisie, that is through the expropriation of capitalist class and socialization of the means of production.

It is obvious that, despite tremendous advances in the realm of productive forces and technology, extraordinary growth of so-called transnational corporations, radical changes on the global political scene, widening of the economic divide between the workers of “advanced” capitalist countries and workers and toilers of semi-colonies and disorganization and weakness of world communist and working class movement etc., objectively humankind is closer than ever to the construction of socialism and a classless society; this also means that two great and antagonist camps continue to face each other: Imperialist bourgeoisie in “advanced” capitalist countries and its allies and lackeys in semi-colonies stand in the camp of reaction, whereas working classes, other toilers and oppressed nations throughout the world stand in the camp of revolution. In the final analysis, the contradiction between these two camps can be solved only through the destruction of capitalist-imperialist system and the victory of socialism all over the globe. In this context, the entirely legitimate anger and revolutionary potential of Muslim workers, toilers and youth against imperialism, Zionism and reactionary and fascist dictatorships in the Muslim world and elsewhere will be able to make their significant historical contribution to the struggle for the final emancipation of all toiling humanity. That, however, will happen only if the exploited Muslim masses are enlightened by Marxism-Leninism and mobilized and led by the vanguard of the working class.


(1) For instance, the growth of the influence of political Islam in France is directly related to the betrayal of the working class by the Socialist Party (=PS) and Communist Party (=PCF), who for decades have been moving more and more to the right and adapting anti-worker, anti-immigrant and chauvinist policies. This event is also related to the humiliation of Arab and Islamic peoples in general and the oppression of Palestinian people by US imperialists and Zionists. Occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has further contributed to the just indignation of Muslim youth and people. In Turkey, the anger of the masses over decay and degeneration of bourgeois parliamentary parties and the behind the scenes control of the civilian political elite by the powerful military led to the landslide victory of the “moderate”, that is pro-imperialist AKP (=Justice and Development Party) in the general elections held in November 2002, despite the obstructions and disinformation and smear campaign of the military clique, main body of the bourgeois press and the judiciary.
(2) Of course, there are some other, but secondary reasons as well behind the resurgence of the heterogenous trend loosely called political Islam, such as the burgeoning of the bourgeoisie of Muslim countries due to the development of capitalism in general and the growth of oil wealth in some Muslim countries in particular and the support provided by the US and its allies to Muslim fundamentalist groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere in their bid to weaken the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
3) Groups, such as HAMAS and Islamic Jihad in Palestine or similar groups in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq etc. may and do play an objectively progressive role in resisting imperialist and Zionist aggressors and their lackeys. However, their semi-feudal and semi-bourgeois class nature and reactionary Islamic ideology definitely prevent them from effecting radical democratic changes in their societies, let alone withstanding capitalism. Basic tenets of Islam uphold private property, individual enterprise, class distinctions and exploitation. Such groups may and will change sides as well, especially when they come to power; then they will turn their guns on more revolutionary groups, on oppressed nations and the working class as the historical experience of Iranian revolution has clearly shown.


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