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John Passant

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August 2009



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Why socialists fight for religious freedom

The imperialist carve-up of the Middle East after World War I involved denigration of Islam and contempt for those who practised it.

This has been revived as part of the contemporary “war on terror”, with constant references in the media to “violent jihad” and the supposedly backward nature of Islamic ideas.

Marxists fight against these insults and attacks on people because of their religious beliefs. Why?

The simple answer is that the denigration of Islam is a racist attack on the oppressed, and Marxists take the side of the oppressed.

Marxists, going back to Marx and Engels themselves, have always argued for religious freedom.  Engels pointed out that “in relation to the state, religion is a purely private affair”.

Commenting on this, Lenin wrote in 1905:

The state must not concern itself with religion; religious societies must not be bound to the state. Everyone must be free to profess whatever religion he likes, or to profess no religion.

Lenin insisted that “unity in the really revolutionary struggle of the oppressed class for creation of a paradise on earth is more important to us than unity of proletarian opinion on paradise in heaven.”

Supporting religious freedom also means opposing the dominant religion being used as a way of oppressing those who follow other faiths.

Whenever John Howard talks about Australia as “a Christian country”, you can pretty much guarantee that what follows will be an attack on the rights of some oppressed group.

Marxists put the principles of religious freedom into practice when the working class took power in Russia in November 1917.

Within days the new Bolshevik government had issued the “Declaration of Rights of the People of Russia”, which granted sovereignty for all the nations in the former Tsarist empire, including the right to secede and form independent states, and an end to all privileges and limitations of a national or religious nature.

The revolution radicalised millions in the oppressed Muslim nations of the Tsarist Empire.

The centrality of religious freedom was clearest in relation to Muslims, as vilification of their religion was so inseparably bound to the Russian Empire’s domination of their countries. In December 1917 the revolutionary government proclaimed:

Muslims of Russia! All you whose mosques and prayer houses used to be destroyed and whose beliefs and customs were trodden underfoot by the Tsars and oppressors of Russia. From today, your beliefs and customs, and your national and cultural constitutions, are free and inviolate. Organise your national life freely and without hindrance.

The workers’ government also introduced a massive program of what would now be termed affirmative action to redress the oppression of Tsarism. Islamic religious leaders were granted extensive authority to run legal and social services.

A parallel court system was created in 1921, with Islamic courts administering justice in accordance with sharia law alongside the soviet system.

Thousands of Muslim schools were set up with government encouragement.

Muslims were encouraged to join the Communist Party. In some of the southern republics of the USSR in the early 1920s as many as 15 per cent of party members were believers in Islam.

In part of Central Asia, Muslim membership was as high as 70 per cent. To do otherwise would have been to continue the Russian chauvinism and bigotry which had buttressed capitalism.

But the revolution in Russia didn’t spread, and Stalin was able to use this isolation to replace workers’ power with a new, state capitalist ruling class.

The Stalinist ruling class was running capitalism, and that meant oppressing the population. Every vestige of workers’ power and the freedoms that were part of it had to be destroyed.

Internationally, Stalinism meant judging struggles not on the basis of supporting the oppressed and exploited against capitalism, but backing the state capitalist rulers of the “Communist” bloc.

The real Marxist tradition of fighting for religious freedom was buried as Stalinist regimes themselves attacked religious freedom in the societies they ruled.

The effects of failing to defend religious freedom have been felt far beyond the Stalinist states.

The obvious example is the French government’s ban on wearing the hijab in schools.

Influenced by Stalinism, much of the French left refused to defend the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab, putting themselves on the side of the oppressors of millions of people from Muslim backgrounds – including those who do not wear the hijab themselves but clearly recognise its banning as an attack on their rights.

Confidence in the working class’s ability to get rid of capitalism and to run society themselves is the key.

For a workers’ revolution to be successful, Marxists must do everything possible to involve all workers in the struggle against capitalism. That necessarily includes fighting for religious freedom.

Marxists have never made agreement about religion a requirement for involvement in the struggle. If a person who is religious is convinced of the need to fight for socialism, they should join Socialist Alternative.


This article, by Diane Fieldes, first appeared in Socialist Alternative in June 2006.



Comment from Iftikhar
Time August 19, 2009 at 8:15 am

The demand for Muslim schools comes from parents who want their children a safe environment with an Islamic ethos.Parents see Muslim schools where children can develop their Islamic Identity where they won’t feel stigmatised for being Muslims and they can feel confident about their faith.
Muslim schools are working to try to create a bridge between communities.

There is a belief among ethnic minority parens that the British schooling does not adequatly address their cultural needs. Failing to meet this need could result in feeling resentment among a group who already feel excluded. Setting up Muslim school is a defensive response.

State schools with monolingual teachers are not capable to teach English to bilingual Muslim children. Bilingual teachers are needed to teach English to such children along with their mother tongue. According to a number of studies, a child will not learn a second language if his first language is ignored.

Bilingual Muslim children need state funded Muslim schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models during their developmental periods. Muslims
have the right to educate their children in an environment that suits their culture. This notion of “integration”, actually means “assimilation”, by which people generally really mean “be more like me”. That is not
multiculturalism. In Sydney, Muslims were refused to build a Muslim school, because of a protest by the residents. Yet a year later, permission was
given for the building of a Catholic school and no protests from the residents. This clrearly shows the blatant hypocrisy, double standards and racism. Christians oppose Muslim schools in western countries yet build
their own religious schools.

British schooling and the British society is the home of institutional racism. The result is that Muslim children are unable to develop self-confidence and self-esteem, therefore, majority of them leave schools with low grades. Racism is deeply rooted in British society. Every native child is born with a gene or virus of racism, therefore, no law could change the attitudes of racism towards those who are different. It is not only the common man, even member of the royal family is involved in racism. The
father of a Pakistani office cadet who was called a “***” by Prince Harry has profoundly condemned his actions. He had felt proud when he met the Queen and the Prince of Wales at his son’s passing out parade at Sandhurst
in 2006 but now felt upset after learning about the Prince’s comments. Queen Victoria invited an Imam from India to teach her Urdu language. He was highly respected by the Queen but other members of the royal family had no respect for him. He was forced to go back to India. His protrait is still in one of the royal places.

There are hundreds of state schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools with bilingual Muslim teachers. There is no place for a non-Muslim child or a teacher in a Muslim school.
Iftikhar Ahmad
London School of Islamics Trust

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