Marxism and Islam in Bangladeshi Left Politics: A Conversation

‘Marxism and Islam in Bangladeshi Left Politics: A Conversation’ was organized and sponsored by South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI) on Saturday, November 29th, 2014 at a local Restaurant in New York. Azfar Hussain, Associate Professor of Liberal Studies at Grand Valley State University, Michigan was the key speaker.

The key talking points of the speaker about Marxism and Islam in Bangladeshi Left Politics was as follows:

  • Marxism is falsely described in the West as power struggle, atheism, dictatorship, against free speech, anti-individual right, anti spiritualism, anti-religion etc. This kind of false stereotype still remains. Even within some Marxist theorists (post-modern, post structuralism, post humanism, post colonialism) there are the selective understanding of Marx’s work which has undermined Marx. These created a vast challenge to re-establish Marxism as a valid ideology.
  • There is a new renewal of interest in Marx’s appeal and importance in the light of economic collapse, job loss, labor discontent in the West, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist activism in South America and Asia, Africa and around the world. Marx was appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, Wall Street Journal wrote about Marx. Social breakdown, poverty, loss of livelihood, homelessness, hunger around the world is bringing Marxism back into the game.
  • What is Marxism? Marxism is body of works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Plus almost all and every extension of ideas of Marx are also Marxism. Marx and Engels combined work (published in 50 volumes) and who have followed, applied, acted upon and stretched the idea of Marx can be called  Marxism. (Lenin, Mao, Che, Castro, MN Roy, Nkrumah, etc). In that sense, Marxism is better be called Marxisms.
  • Class struggle and overthrow of capitalism have been the core of Marxism but Marx’s concept of total emancipation of humanity is essential and crucial in understanding Marxism, which has been overlooked. Total emancipation of humanity means freeing oppressed and oppressors as well. Totality of all human practices are included in the concept of total emancipation, therefore, religion is also included. Marxism cannot bypass the question of religion as part of its discussion. The speaker, Azfar Hussain, emphasized that this kind of total encompassing concept of Marxism attracts him – not the curbed, curated, stereotyped, narrow idea of Marxism. As a part of revolutionary transformation and reconstruction of the society the speaker raised the possibility that religion itself can be seen as a sign of (kind of) class struggle.
  • Western Philosophers were deeply enriched by many Eastern and Arab philosophers. Many concepts that are thought to be associated with the Western Philosophy was independently developed in the Arabic world, such as, rationalism, negative dialectical thinking, etc.
  • Marx lived in Algiers for two months in 1882, a year before he died. He observed various aspects of Islamic civilization, studied North Indian Muslims, Algeria, Hanafi school of thought, Indonesian society. Therefore, Marx was inattentive to Islamic society was not correct. Late in his life, Marx was paying attention to Islamic law and jurisprudence. Some authors think that Marx saw absolute equality in some social intercourse in the Islamic practice of law!
  • The relationship between Marxism and religion is that Marxism paid attention to totality of lived human practices – including religions. To understand the masses in a given society, it is important to understand how masses themselves become religious.
  • In the case of Bangladesh, the Left contributed in the formation of Bangladesh by theorizing and sometimes participating in Bangladesh national liberation movement. Today, mainstream Bangladesh bourgeoisie political culture marked with bureaucratization of politics, militarization of politics, politicization of military, politicization of religion, communalization of democracy etc. And a great part of left has joined mainstream bourgeois political culture. Bangladeshi Left did not understand the question of religion in the light of Marx’s concept of total emancipation of humanity.
  • By and large, the question of religion, and Islam has not been addressed in Bangladeshi left politics. Part of the reason is that the Left in Bangladesh are not interested in exploring Marx’s letter writings! For them, Marxism is still the matter of economic extremism, against capitalism, against imperialism, etc. They are not getting any momentum in their politics as they are not focused on people – Religious people of Bangladesh.
  • Based on above talk, Azfar Hussain ended his presentation by suggesting five key propositions regarding Marxism and Islam in Bangladeshi Left Politics:

» Marxism cannot ignore totality of lived human practices. Religion is one of the practices, therefore, issue of religion should be addressed and reckoned with.

» Marxism may move forward the emancipatory potential of religion itself. It can take the challenge of combating and confronting oppressive bourgeoisie abuse of religion by mainstream political culture.

» The Left in Bangladesh largely failed to face the question of religion/Islam. Islam’s forefront role of anti-imperialist struggle, as well as struggle of other religions, races, genders, environment, ethnicity, languages should be addressed.

» Marx’s letter writings should be thoroughly addressed in contemporary environment.

» Mass line organizing or revolutionary politics cannot be strong without being giving attention why and how religion become a material force/cause.

It was certainly an interesting talk.

Left politics in Bangladesh was never a mainstream. There are many reasons for that. One strong assumption for it is that Bangladesh is a Muslim country. Ideologically religion (specially Islam) does not go hand in hand with the ideas of Marxism. Therefore, Bangladesh was never shown much excitement about building a classless, secular, equal society for all based on Marxist ideas. Although, ideas of Marx was always an exciting intellectual enthusiasm among many – perhaps still is. A country’s political history, economic life, cultural trend, societal value, nationalist idea, spiritual inclination, environmental condition, geographic location, national psyche, international standing, etc. determine its place in history. Seeing and balancing all these factors are important in understanding a nation’s desire and destiny. Left politics missed the opportunity in finding the pulse of Bangladesh and its people.

Seems like the above conversation was some way to address this issue. It was good to see that left leaning thinkers of Bangladeshi origin are trying to spread ideas beyond the core Marxism thoughts (Though they are trying to find some kind of support in Marx’s letters, notebooks, side notes – which, perhaps, is not necessary). However, a conversation is a good start. To go further many questions has to be addressed:

In the West, there are some efforts to equate Marxism with Islam as they try to portrait both as evil ideologies! Now, the similar effort is being taken in by some scholars to assimilate left politics (Marxism) more integrated with religion (Islam) as part of total emancipation of humanity. How these two opposing viewpoints can be explained? Why religion is being considered as a “comrade” in Marxism now? Is Islam being used as a leftist tool or a genuine understanding? Do religion based political groups see Marxism as their ally too? How various versions of Marxism can handshake with many versions of Islam? How the Left in Bangladesh explain Islam? etc.

Hard questions were not addressed as most of the attendees were ‘comrade’ to each other from the same school of thought. The talk ended with free lunch, provided by the restaurant.

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