After seizing power in 1917, one of the biggest challenges facing the Bolsheviks was how to win over the Muslim populations in the southern republics of the newly formed USSR. Former subjects of the Tsar. Communism and Islam seemed unlikely bedfellows. And yet, the Bolsheviks enjoyed some success…..for a while.
So how did they go about trying to reconcile communism and Islam? Firstly, they had one huge advantage and that was the vacuum created in the Muslim world by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. Because not only was the sultan a political leader, he was also the caliph. The Ottomans had fostered a kind of pan-Islamic movement to try and cement their tottering power.
But all that unravelled when Constantinople sided with the Kaiser and Germany in WW1. Ottoman territories in the Middle East (modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Iraq) were divided up between the French and British. This was an immediate cause of resentment among radicalised Muslims from Egypt to Indonesia.
And many of those Muslims – if not the overwhelming majority – were under either British, French or Dutch colonial control. Plus American involvement in the Philippines (Mindanao being Muslim) and the Portuguese in northern Mozambique (Cabo Delgado was mainly Muslim and Swahili speaking). So for communists, the grievances of Muslims presented an opportunity to channel that anger into Bolshevism.
Bolsheviks set out to ally communism and Islam
Problem was the Bolsheviks had no organisational structure among Muslim communities – even in the former Russian empire. Let alone the Dutch East Indies or British run India. So, they created the Commissariat for Muslim Affairs led by a Tatar Bolshevik called Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev. He tried to establish what was termed “Muslim Communism” and this was helped by Lenin’s formulation of the right of nations to self-determination.
This resulted in a speech to the 1920 Congress of the Peoples of the East where the Comintern chair – Grigory Zinoviev, a Ukranian Jew by heritage – called for a “holy war” against western imperialism. And Lenin himself made an interesting statement in 1919 that future struggles against capitalism would not necessarily be a matter of the revolutionary proletariat versus the bourgeoisie:
The socialist revolution will not be solely or chiefly a struggle of the revolutionary proletarians in each country against its bourgeoisie – no, it will be a struggle of all colonies and countries oppressed by imperialism, of all dependent countries, against international imperialism
Some Bolsheviks felt queasy about mixing Marxism with “religious activism”. It seems Lenin didn’t. And for a while, up to 15% of total Communist party membership and up to 70% in certain republics were left-wing Muslims.
One Bolshevik, Anatoli Skachko, of the People’s Commissariat for Nationalities, went as far as to claim at the 1920 congress that Islam and communism were completely aligned.
The Muslim religion is rooted in principles of religious communism, by which no man may be a slave to another, and not a single piece of land may be privately owned”
There were Bolsheviks at the same Congress who objected to this kind of talk. And indeed to such a Congress even being held. But there was encouragement for Lenin and Skachko’s position from the development of Muslim insurgencies, such as that led by Hadji Mohammad Misbach in Indonesia, which appeared to mix Islam and Communism with ease and enthusiasm.
Communism taps into reform movements in Islam
In the 19th century in Russia, a Muslim reform movement for better education emerged. It was led by a Crimean Tatar Muslim called Ismail Gaspirali. Like many Russian reformists, he looked to Europe for inspiration and strove for modernisation. Gaspirali was also keen to empower women in Muslim communities.
This movement came to be known as Jadidism – from usul ul-jadid meaning ‘the new method’. After the 1917 Russian revolution, Bolshevism was attractive to many of these reformers as a means of achieving greater self-determination in central Asia and implementing reforms that struck at both Tsarist-era cultural domination and old-style religious practices that the Jadids wanted to challenge.
So, it seemed as if Jadids and Bolsheviks might have common goals.
Indeed, the Tashkent Soviet had a Jadid majority in 1918 and set about arresting ‘counter-revolutionary’ Islamic scholars. For the radical Jadids, Bolshevism allowed them to fast track everything they had wanted to achieve under the Tsars. Plans began to be drawn up for a central Asian Soviet republic that would be wholly independent of its Russian Communist neighbour. A melding of Communism and Islam that would unite Muslim workers from Turkey to India and China.
But this synthesising of Communism and Islam began to prove ideologically messy. For a start, there was reticence to act against Muslim ‘exploiting classes’ and the more reactionary imams. The very tensions between religion and socialism that some Bolsheviks had fretted about at the 1920 Congress.
And then along comes Stalin…
It’s not difficult to work out how tensions began to arise between the two sides. For a start, the Jadids were not a unified movement. They ranged from a radical wing more at home with the idea of reconciling Communism and Islam through to elements that were uncomfortable and even hostile to socialism.
In 1917, the Bolsheviks were rejecting the Tsarist notion of Russian domination of central Asia. So, what not to like from a Jadid perspective. But with Stalin, the greater Russian mentality began to re-emerge – even if Stalin himself was an ethnic Georgian. During the bloody purges of the 1930s, Jadids were denounced as allies of the local bourgeoisie and the Muslim intelligentsia of central Asia was decimated.
In reality – and I’ve been to the region myself – Soviet rule in its later phase often meant de facto discrimination against ethnic peoples in the central Asian states. And these states were largely arbitrary lines drawn on a map by Stalin. For example, I’ve been told there was an inability to rise above a certain rank in the army. So – a far cry from the ideals of 1917.
FIND OUT MORE: Marxism and Islamism – do they mix?
And the fate of Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev
The story of Muslim Bolshevik Mirsaid Sultan-Galiev, mentioned above, is depressingly familiar for students of Stalinism and the degeneration of the 1917 Russian revolution. You could almost make it up now and get it right. Stellar rise in the early years and leading role in the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the “White” armies that tried to crush Communism.
He’d risen to be the most prominent Muslim in the Communist Party. But then became increasingly concerned at Stalin’s plans for the USSR. He suspected, quite rightly, that the scheming Georgian intended to downgrade the rights of peoples like the Tatars. By May 1923, he had clashed openly with Stalin, been stripped of party membership and was arrested. In June, he was accused of treason and a party congress condemned, in very Stalinist terms, the ‘deviation of Sultan-Galievism’.
Then forgiveness from the Great Leader followed by another arrest and then the commutation of a death penalty followed by another arrest and this time, executed in 1940.