Marx and Islam
Before I lived in China, I opposed Marxism because I considered it cruel. After spending a profitable and enjoyable semester teaching at Hebei University in 1984, I not only opposed Marxism, I hated it - because it combines cruelty with opposition to reason. Suppressing free speech, which every Marxist regime has done, is a way of opposing thought. I learned about the great famine of 1959-61 when I lived in China. Like the famines created by Stalin, Pol Pot and the Kims - Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il - Chairman Mao's famine, the worst in human history, was murderous and, at the same time, purposeless and idiotic.
When I went back to China to teach at Hebei University during the spring semester of 1989, my own students were among those demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. I felt I saw Marxism as an intellectual system die before my eyes. Indeed, within a few months, Communist regimes had been overturned in country after country. In China, however, where 1989 began, the ghost of Marxism continues to rule, alas.
The ghost of Marxism remains alive in the West as well. Karl Marx is still honored even though socialism is considered a failure. Leftists - those who worship the ghost of Marx - hate America. America is the land of civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights. Leftists don't know this. They support these rights, but continue to oppose America.
The political institutions of the Western world arose from the thinking of an era called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Reason was obviously not invented in the 18th century; what is significant about that period in history is that reason became a political issue. The idea of political freedom was a logical outgrowth of a belief in reason, since the politics of reason depends on the freedom to reason.
Karl Marx did not consider himself a mystic, and the philosophy he created was consciously committed to rationality. Yet Marxism has a definite mystical component. Marxists believe that capitalism is doomed, although there is no evidence to support such a belief. Stranger yet, they believe the state will wither away, although few states were ever less designed to wither than communist regimes. They even believe that alienated labor and conflict will end all by themselves once communism is achieved. If that is not mysticism, what is?
Marxism, like any human phenomenon that exists through time, has evolved. It has been modified by Leninism - and by its own power. What started out as a system concerned with economics, achieving a classless society, has developed into a doctrine concerned with maintaining and extending its influence. Its goal is orthodoxy.
Before 1989, there were probably only two systems of belief left in the world that people would kill for: Islam and Marxism. Now there is only one: Islam. Deng Xiaoping, the last leader to kill for Communism, ordered the Tiananmen Massacre because he wanted the Chinese to believe in Marx. The counterexamples of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland immediately come to mind, but the troubles in these places are national rather than religious struggles, though the nationalities are defined by religious affiliation. In the 20th century, killing for one's nation is widespread; killing for one's belief is restricted to the world of blind faith. No one in Northern Ireland planted bombs to argue for the truth of transubstantiation versus consubstantiation. The citizens of Ulster, like those of Bosnia and Kosovo, fought for the control of their country, not to propagate their beliefs.
To a certain extent, we live in a post-Marxist, post-Jewish, post-Christian world. It is true that there are many countries (Israel and the Republic of Ireland are examples) where the dominant religion is powerful; it is even true that in China, Cuba, and North Korea the official faith can never be challenged. Only Islam, however, has never faced widespread agnosticism and indifference. It is impossible to find a believer in Judaism so fervent as to advocate stoning for adultery or a Catholic so devout as to believe in a revival of burning at the stake. It is even hard to find a Marxist who believes that struggle sessions and purge trials should return to China and Russia. But there are Islamic countries where both adultery and heterodoxy are punishable, and on occasion, capital offenses.
Muslims and Communists waged a bloody war in Afghanistan for several years. Islamic states have jailed Marxists; Communist countries have persecuted Muslims. Nevertheless, for a long time, there has existed an implicit Marxist-Islamic alliance. It operates in votes at the United Nations and in acquiescence or complicity in international terrorism. Leftist writers now feel free to attack Stalin and Mao, and maybe even Castro, but they remain blind to the excesses of Islamic regimes. For example, the Left has still not faced the fact that Khomeini's revolution in Iran and the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan set back the rights of women more than any other event in any country in recorded history. During the first Gulf War, American leftists claimed they supported the relatively secular regime of Saddam Hussein over the orthodoxy of Saudi Arabia, but Hussein's strident anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism were what really linked him to the left. After that war Saddam Hussein became more openly pro-Islamic; nevertheless, he did not lose any support among secular leftists.
The alliance still survives. North Korea has sold weapons to Iran. "Egypt's military relationship with North Korea goes back to the early 70s, when Pyongyang sent an air battalion to Egypt as a sign of solidarity in its war with Israel," according to an article by Eli J. Lake and Richard Sale in the June 22, 2001, issue of the Middle East Times entitled "U.S. Worries over Egypt-North Korea Missile Program." More recently, the London Review of Books, a leftist journal, ran a series of letters in its October 4, 2001, issue expressing varying degrees of hostility to the United States after the events of 9/11. Perhaps the most egregious was a letter by Eric Foner, an otherwise intelligent scholar of American history, who wrote, "I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House."
Marxism was strong - and Islam still is - for a variety of reasons. Each is a complex system of analysis, supported by a wealth of intellectual tradition, which can explain with every aspect of human life. To the educated, these philosophies offer a framework; to the simple, they offer the security of always knowing what is right and wrong. These positive strengths are supported by a great fear, the fear of a phenomenon perceived as evil: personal freedom - especially sexual freedom, and most particularly pornography and homosexuality. In addition to this great fear, there is a great obsession - an inordinate concern with an issue that really should not merit very much attention: Zionism.
Few societies have ever tolerated free sex. One of the functions of societies is to provide for the rearing of the next generation, which in most communities of the world has involved fathers taking responsibility for their offspring - a responsibility much more easily evaded when it is unclear who has fathered whom. Kinship systems form a key part to any social order. Perhaps it makes biological sense for the human species to place social limits on the free indulgence of our biologically determined sexual desires. Not surprisingly, a great number of philosophical and religious traditions have defined sexual freedom outside of certain clearly specified family situations as sin.
In the industrialized West, these restrictions began to break down even before the widespread availability of contraception. In the late l960's, a real sexual revolution took place in the United States and much of Europe. The obvious reason was that the risk of unwanted pregnancy had been greatly reduced. A second and less obvious reason is that sexual freedom, when accompanied by easy access to contraceptives, works to control population. Unmarried couples living together are very unlikely to have children. Homosexual acts do not lead to pregnancy. In a modern society in which population control is a desideratum, sexual freedom is socially useful.
In a religious world, sin is sin, and no amount of social desirability can change that. It doesn't matter whether or not they are interested in population control. Fundamentalist nations necessarily look upon sexual freedom as evil. The West is not only sexually free, but rich and powerful. Its movies spread its values everywhere. Its comforts and luxuries tempt the world. It is not hard to understand why Khomeini thought of the United States as the Great Satan. The wealth of American society and the promise of pleasure offered by American personal freedom threaten to undermine one of the most central of religious prohibitions. America is not hated because it is Christian but because it is free. Despite this fact, anti-American leftists, feminists, and gay rights activists remain blind to the persecution of women and homosexuals in Islamic countries.
Communism, like all forms of blind faith, is opposed to sex even though leftists in non-Communist countries are likely to be much more sexually liberated than their apolitical compatriots. The Soviet Union went through a brief period of encouraging sexual freedom, but that was before totalitarianism had succeeded in intruding into private life. In China, puritanism is as strong as it is anywhere in the world. To a certain extent this is true because of traditional Chinese values, but to a greater extent it is the consequence of Marxist suspicion of personal freedom. Leftists have always remained silent about the anti-sexual policies of Marxist regimes.
China is desperately concerned about the size of its population. It has embarked on a one-child policy. No one in China is aware that there is a connection between the sexual liberation of the West and its relatively low rate of population increase. Even if the awareness were there, it would not make any difference. China was a determinedly anti-sexual society under Chairman Mao. Although Chairman Mao is dead and the Cultural Revolution has ended, China still has not fully accepted the idea that it is all right for people to pursue happiness.
I lived in Baoding, Hebei Province, China, for two separate periods: five months in 1984 and four months in 1989. I had expected that there would be people who told me that America had no freedom, that our elections were rigged, our thoughts controlled by propaganda, and our liberties meaningless. I had certainly heard statements to that effect back home, both from Americans and occasionally from foreign students. But to my surprise, no one in China ever suggested to me that they thought Americans were not free. Some envied us our liberty or even said they desired it for themselves. The more common attitude in 1984 was that China was better than the United States because America was being destroyed by the perniciousness and emptiness of freedom, which was an expression of our acquisitiveness and had led to crime, disintegration of the family, and a society in which friendships existed only for economic reasons.
The essence of this negative view of freedom was that in America there was rampant sex. I was asked (with a certain amount of hesitation and apology, since no one wanted to embarrass me) whether it was true that there was pornography in America. I acknowledged that there was. I was also asked whether there was homosexuality. When I suggested that homosexuality was a practice that should be permitted in a country that was trying so hard to keep its population down, no one could understand how I could possibly think of something so outlandish. I was told that there was no homosexuality in China, that there never had been and never would be. It was hard to explain that in the United States families do exist, that most people have very little contact with pornography, and that divorce is frequently better than no divorce. When I said that I thought China would be a more prosperous country if people were free to choose their jobs or express their political opinions, the standard response was that Chinese society would disintegrate if freedom were tolerated.
When I went back to China in 1989, I never heard anyone say that freedom might lead to sex. There had already been student demonstrations, which had begun in Hefei, in Anhui Province, in December of 1986, and spread to Shanghai, Beijing, and elsewhere. Clearly, there were many Chinese who longed for freedom and democracy. They wanted an escape from the drabness of Communism as well; consequently, their apartments were more colorful, their clothing brighter, and sometimes their hair (men and women both) curled.
This lesson was not lost on China's hard-line rulers. The permanent waves of February 1989 were followed by the demonstrations of April and May. The government followed the violent crackdown of June 4th with an anti-pornography campaign that has grown ever harsher and more strident. The sale of pornographic materials is now a capital offense.
The United States is a younger, less orderly and more heterogeneous society than China. Despite this, and despite our liberties, life tends to proceed smoothly, work gets done, and many (perhaps most) Americans are not promiscuous. If sexual freedom existed in China, behavior would hardly change. There are thousands of students from mainland China in America, several of whom I know personally. They do not spend their time here indulging in orgies. No one forces them to enter porno shops. There is no reason to believe things would be different in China itself. If the laws against pornography were repealed, Chinese society would not disintegrate. Communism might, however.
It is not clear whether China and Communist countries in general are afraid of freedom because it might lead to sex, or whether they are afraid of sex because it might lead to freedom. In 1989, there were restrictions on personal choice that many people in China found painful: one could not choose one's place of residence or one's job. Consequently, many married couples were separated, sometimes for decades, when they are assigned jobs in different cities. This was an extraordinary policy for a nation that prides itself on the stability of its families. Nevertheless, no one protested against this policy, mainly because protest is not allowed in China, but also because there is no real acceptance of the idea that people have a right to make individual choices, even about so personal a question as whether they may live in the same part of the country as the rest of their family.
However, there are signs of relaxation. On November 11, 1992, China Daily reported that the ownership of pets was becoming popular in Shanghai. "Pet keeping," explained the news story, "was banned in China prior to the late 1970s because it was considered to be related to the bourgeois life style." On January 20, 1993, there was an article entitled "Religion promotes economy." On February 25, a report on the growing number of childless couples in China informed readers that one of the reasons was the desire for "more freedom to pursue self-fulfillment."
Totalitarian countries have always imposed severe and unnecessary restrictions on the liberties of their citizens. In a society in which the philosophy of the country demands that the needs of individuals must be subordinate to those of the state, people's rights are taken away simply to exercise and strengthen the state's power to take away rights. When I lived in China, popular support for China's lack of freedom was always expressed to me in terms of fear of sexual liberty and subsequent chaos, this despite the fact that Mao's Cultural Revolution has brought China more chaos than any other large country has had since the end of World War Two.
China's opposition to Zionism is quite difficult to explain. Both Israel and China have used a woman driving a tractor as a national symbol (it was never a true representation in either country); both are places where, for a long time, it was never necessary to wear a necktie.
Israel recognized the People's Republic of China in January of l950, a fact that very few Chinese citizens are aware of. In September of 1954, Zhou Enlai addressed the First National People's Congress and said, "Contacts are being made with a view to establishing normal relations between China and Israel." Yet it was not until the death of Marxism that China recognized Israel. South Korea has been recognized as well.
China once fought a war against South Korea. But there was neither an ideological nor a practical reason for hostility against Israel to exist. Honest people may honestly disagree about Zionism, as they may on any number of issues. But no one could seriously believe that Israel is any kind of threat to any Communist state. Nor is it possible to think that Israel is in some way a danger to Marxist ideology. Despite the accomplishments of its defense forces, its military situation is inherently precarious.
Its most controversial policies in recent years, the establishment of settlements on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip and the destruction of houses while searching for terrorists by the Israeli Army in places like Jenin and Gaza, are considered by many people to be examples of injustice and violence, but they are minor wrongs indeed when compared to Cambodia's auto-genocide, the Iran-Iraq War, China's conquest of Tibet, Indonesia's massacre of ethnic Chinese, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, the violent repression of the Chechens by Russia, or any number of other events of the past few decades. On the other hand, even the most fervent of anti-Zionists will concede that Israel has achieved a remarkable degree of civil liberties for a country that has never been at peace.
Now there is the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Israel's handling of this uprising has drawn worldwide condemnation. If there had not been an Intifada, or if Israel had managed to deal with it in a gentler fashion, Israel would not have been any more accepted by the world community today. Indeed, it was during the first Intifada that the UN rescinded its Zionism-is-racism resolution. The revolt of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka is in certain ways parallel to the two Intifadas, but it has been very much more bloody. More than 3,500 rebels, security forces and civilians were killed in the second half of 1990 alone (reported in China Daily, January 12, 1991). Whether the government could or should have exercised more restraint is open to debate. Equally debatable is the relative justice of the opposing sides. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka remains an accepted member of the family of nations. Incidentally, Sri Lanka is the only non-Marxist, non-Islamic nation that voted to retain the Zionism-is-racism resolution.
Sri Lanka is a small and unimportant country, and what happens there is of little direct interest to outsiders. Israel too is a small and unimportant country, a fact no one seems to have noticed. Anti-Zionism is so strong and so widespread that Israel's marginality remains undiscovered.
Despite Israel's lack of importance and despite the weakness of the moral charges against it, Israel is an outcast. Israeli nationalism - Zionism - has been declared racism. The Arab League enforces secondary and tertiary boycotts against Israel. Jews may not enter Saudi Arabia, except for American soldiers. Malaysia forbids the performance of "Jewish" music. This endless policy of boycott and non-recognition is officially the policy of most Arab states. Countries like Libya, Iraq or Saudi Arabia have never suggested that they would make peace if Israel did X or Y or Z. Their opposition to Israel, once supported diplomatically by Communist states, is one of permanent enmity. Since such a stance excludes the possibility of peace, it is implicitly genocidal and therefore radically evil.
Anti-Zionism is one of the great hatreds of our time. Why did Marxists join in this extremism? One reason was lack of originality, a common failing in countries with no structure for the expression of opposition. Marx and Lenin died before the creation of Israel and so could not have written about it. Marx's anti-Semitic pair of essays, "Zur Judenfrage," which provides a theoretical reason to oppose any form of Jewish power, might explain the situation, but few people care about this work and even fewer have read it. What seems to have happened is that shortly before the beginning of the Six-Day War, anti-Zionism became an essential part of Marxist doctrine and has remained so through inertia. In other words, Marxism is anti-Zionist because it has defined itself as anti-Zionist.
Russia and China now have diplomatic relations with Israel. Shedding Marxist dogma leads automatically to the abandonment of anti-Zionism. On the other hand, those few remaining American leftists who are still fighting the Cold War remain anti-Zionist and supported Saddam Hussein. Leftist writers like Noam Chomsky have even declared America to be more of a force for terrorism than those who committed the acts of 9/11.
Islam's anti-Zionism is less surprising than the hostility that is found among Marxists. After all, Jerusalem, the third holiest city for Muslims, is now in Israel. Yet before the Six-Day War, East Jerusalem, which is where the holy sites are located, was in Jordan. Arab anti-Zionism then was no weaker then than it is now. Before l948, Jerusalem was ruled by Great Britain. Anti-British sentiment among Islamic peoples has occasionally been strong, but never has it had the ferocity of anti-Zionism. The establishment of Israel has led to a refugee problem and ultimately to the creation of Palestinian nationalism. These factors are not so much the causes of anti-Zionism as the result of it. The United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 was an attempt to create both a Jewish and an Arab state. The Jews then living in Palestine accepted the idea of a Palestinian Arab state; the Arabs rejected it because of their anti-Zionism.
Most people know that between l948 and 1967, Jews were not allowed to visit East Jerusalem. Fewer know that during the same period, Israeli Muslims did not have the right to do so either. What is even more shocking is the fact that until l977, Israeli Muslims were forbidden by Saudi Arabia from fulfilling the religious obligation of making the hajj. It was more important to the Saudis, the guardians of Islam's holiest places, to deny the existence of Israel than to let fellow Muslims obey their religion. In other words, being anti-Zionist had in effect become a more important part of Islamic law than Islamic law itself.
Suicide is against Islamic law. Amir Taheri, in an artile in the New York Post issue of April 20, 2003, entitled "The Truth About Jihad," writes that for Muslims, suicide is an unpardonable sin, "in the same category as denying the Oneness of God." Yet devout Muslims everywhere cheer suicide bombers who die so that they can kill Jews. Once again, we see that anti-Zionism has become a more important part of Islamic law than Islamic law itself.
Former President Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani of Iran, according to Memri Special Dispatch Series No. 325, in the annual Al-Quds (Jerusalem) sermon given on December 14, 2001, said that if one day the world of Islam comes to possess nuclear weapons Israel could be destroyed. The use of a nuclear bomb against Israel would leave nothing standing, but any retaliation, however severe, would merely damage the world of Islam. For Rafsanjani, damage doesn't matter, since there is no cause more important than anti-Zionism.
Who needs more enemies? Saddam Hussein, during the first Gulf War, facing the active enmity of the United States, at that time the leader of a coalition of 28 nations officially or actually at war with Iraq, launched SCUD missiles against Israel's population centers, in order to tempt an extra army to fight against him. The courting of new foes ought to surprise us, even in this irrational world we live in. No one is puzzled at all, however. We all know the reasons: Iraq wished to divert attention from its unpopular invasion of Kuwait by espousing a popular cause: anti-Zionism.
There are any number of solutions to the problems of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, Arabs who attempted to find such solutions - President Sadat and King Abdullah are the best-known examples - have been assassinated. It is not in the interest of the Palestinians to remain forever homeless and persecuted. The Palestinians can advance their interests only with the Israelis, not against them. They have not yet done so, because the thought of accepting Israel's existence - a rather obvious fact - is more horrible to them than the thought of being attacked and massacred by Jordanians, Lebanese Christians and Shiites, Syrians, or Kuwaitis.
If anti-Zionism is one of the great hatreds of our time, that is no doubt because it is the child of anti-Semitism, one of the great hatreds of history. Nevertheless, it is neither logical nor practical. It survives because it is not questioned. If it were not for anti-Zionism, Islamic fundamentalism would be weaker. Arabs could dare to say that there is a way to live in peace with Israel.
Irrationality did not die with Marxism. Nationalism is as fierce as ever. Religious fighting in India, a danger that seemed remote for decades, is once again a threat to life and peace. Blind faith, whether political or religious, places restrictions on thought. It is therefore a denial of the greatness - indeed, the essence - of the human species. Blind faith is what links Islam to the ghost of Marxism.
This is a revised and updated version of an article that appeared in Partisan Review in Volume 55, Number 3, 1988.