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Communism and Pan-Islamism

This is an extract from a speech made by the Indonesian Marxist Tan Malaka at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922. Taking issue with the theses drafted by Lenin and adopted at the Second Congress, which had emphasised the need for a "struggle against Pan-Islamism", Tan Malaka argued for a more positive approach.

Tan Malaka (1897-1949) was elected chairman of the Communist Party of Indonesia in 1921, but the following year he was forced to leave the East Indies by the colonial authorities. After the proclamation of independence in August 1945, he returned to Indonesia to participate in the struggle against Dutch colonialism. He became a leader of the Partai Murba (Proletarian Party), formed in 1948 to organise working class opposition to the Soekarno government. In February 1949 Tan Malaka was captured by the Indonesian army and executed.

SHOULD WE support Pan-Islamism – yes or no? And if yes, how far should we go?

Pan-Islamism is a long story. First of all I will speak about our experiences in the East Indies where we have cooperated with the Islamists. We have in Java a very large organisation with many very poor peasants, the Sarekat Islam (Islamic League). Between 1912 and 1916 this organisation had one million members, perhaps as many as three or four million. It was a very large popular movement, which arose spontaneously and was very revolutionary.

Until 1921 we collaborated with it. Our party, consisting of 13,000 members, went into this popular movement and carried out propaganda there. In 1921 we succeeded in getting Sarekat Islam to adopt our programme. The Islamic League too agitated in the villages for control of the factories and for the slogan: All power to the poor peasants, all power to the proletarians! So Sarekat Islam made the same propaganda as our Communist Party, only sometimes under another name.

But in 1921 a split occurred as a result of clumsy criticism of the leadership of Sarekat Islam. The government through its agents in Sarekat Islam exploited this split, and it also exploited the decision of the Second Congress of the Communist International: Struggle against Pan-Islamism! What did they say to the simple peasants? They said: See, the Communists not only want to split, they want to destroy your religion! That was too much for a simple Muslim peasant. The peasant thought to himself: I have lost everything in this world, must I lose my heaven as well? That won’t do! This was how the simple Muslims thought. The propagandists among the government agents exploited this very successfully. So we had a split. [Chairman: Your time is up.]

I have come from the East Indies, and travelled for forty days. [Applause.]

The Sarekat-Islamists believe in our propaganda and remain with us in their stomachs, to use a popular expression, but in their hearts they remain with the Sarekat Islam, with their heaven. For heaven is something we cannot give them. Therefore, they boycotted our meetings and we could not carry on propaganda any more.

Since the beginning of last year we have worked towards re-establishing the link with Sarekat Islam. At our congress in December last year we said that the Muslims in the Caucasus and other countries, who cooperate with the Soviets and struggle against international capitalism, understand their religion better, and we also said that, if they want to make propaganda for their religion, they can do so, though they should not do it in meetings but in the mosques.

We have been asked at public meetings: Are you Muslims – yes or no? Do you believe in God – yes or no? How did we answer this? Yes, I said, when I stand before God I am a Muslim, but when I stand before men I am not a Muslim [loud applause], because God said there are many devils among men! [Loud applause.] Thus we inflicted a defeat on their leaders with the Qur’an in our hands, and at our congress last year we compelled the leaders of the Sarekat Islam, through their own members, to cooperate with us.

When a general strike broke out in March last year, the Muslim workers needed us, as we have the railwaymen under our leadership. The Sarekat Islam leaders said: You want to cooperate with us, so you must help us, too. Of course we went to them, and said: Yes, your God is powerful, but he has said that on this earth the railwaymen are more powerful! [Loud applause.] The railwaymen are God’s executive committee in this world. [Laughter.]

But this does not settle the question, and if we have another split we may be sure that the government agents will be there again with their Pan-Islamism. So the question of Pan-Islamism is a very immediate one.

But now one must first understand what the word Pan-Islamism really means. Once, it had a historical significance and meant that Islam must conquer the whole world, sword in hand, and that this must take place under the leadership of the Caliph, and the Caliph must be of Arabian origin. About 400 years after the death of Mohammed the Muslims split into three great states and thus the Holy War lost its significance for the entire Muslim world. It thus lost the meaning that, in the name of God, the Caliph and the Muslim religion should conquer the whole world, because the Caliph of Spain said, I am the true Caliph, I must carry the banner, and the Caliph of Egypt said the same, and the Caliph of Baghdad said, I am the real Caliph, since I am from the Arabian tribe of Quraish.

So Pan-Islamism no longer has its original meaning, but now has in practice an entirely different meaning. Today, Pan-Islamism signifies the national liberation struggle, because for the Muslims Islam is everything: not only religion, but also the state, the economy, food, and everything else. And so Pan-Islamism now means the brotherhood of all Muslim peoples, and the liberation struggle not only of the Arab but also of the Indian, the Javanese and all the oppressed Muslim peoples. This brotherhood means the practical liberation struggle not only against Dutch but also against English, French and Italian capitalism, therefore against world capitalism as a whole. That is what Pan-Islamism now means in Indonesia among the oppressed colonial peoples, according to their secret propaganda – the liberation struggle against the different imperialist powers of the world.

This is a new task for us. Just as we want to support the national struggle, we also want to support the liberation struggle of the very combative, very active 250 million Muslims living under the imperialist powers. Therefore I ask once again: Should we support Pan-Islamism, in this sense?