Howl of the Day: Mar 16, 2016

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’ victory in the Michigan primary, one of the main themes in the press coverage is that the pundits were taken aback by the large numbers of Arabs and Muslims who voted for Sanders [1] [2] [3]. Cities such as Dearborn, which has the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the nation, went heavily for Sanders to the surprise of many in the media. This surprise, if it is one, is attributed to the fact that Sanders is Jewish. And, of course, to the prejudicial assumption that few people would expect large numbers of Arabs and Muslims to vote for a Jewish candidate.

With that assumption proving unfounded, the media has rushed to an opposite and equally dubious sweeping assumption, viewing the high levels of support for Sanders among Arab and Muslim voters as evidence that anti-Semitism is not widespread in their communities.

The claim that Sanders’ support in Dearborn suggests there is little anti-Semitic feeling among Arabs and Muslims in America, or even beyond, is as great a folly as the claim that there is no more racism in America, since it has elected a black president. Many of the leading figures in the design and rise of European socialism were secular Jews–including Marx himself and Trotsky– yet, as 20th century European history makes abundantly clear, attraction to the socialist cause was not an antidote for anti-Semitism.

Despite the tone of desperate wishfulness in the articles that propose it to be so, Sanders’ ethnic and religious background had little or nothing to do with the results. The media should be asking why these communities voted for Sanders, rather than why they voted for him despite his being Jewish. The results are much more clearly understood as driven by Sanders’ views and his ideological commitments.

Bernie Sanders is a self-professed democratic socialist, and socialism is one of the few Western political ideologies to have taken root in a big way in the broader Arab and Muslim world or to find consilience there. For this reason, Sanders is probably the least surprising candidate to have garnered such support in these communities.

Socialist thought, by that name and in the form it is known in today, began to spread throughout the Islamic world in the early parts of the 20th century, initially as a result of interaction with the movements that led to the formation of the USSR, and then through interaction with the USSR itself. The first major Islamic socialist movement, called the Waisi movement, emerged in Russian controlled Tatarstan, and socialist influence quickly moved far beyond that region.

There were strong philosophical supports for socialism as it swept through the Arab and Islamic world. These were provided by the many prominent Muslim leaders, intellectuals, and scholars, who found parallels to socialism in the beginnings of Islam. Prominent thinkers of diverse backgrounds and different generations, from the Arab Renaissance, like Ahmad Rida (1872-1953) and, later, Ali Shariati (1933-1977), the so-called “ideologue of the Iranian Revolution” would argue that, in many ways, Islam had been socialist before socialism.

Their views would be shared by many. Many Muslims would also consider the institution of zakat (alms-giving), one of the Five Pillars of Islam, as a means of taking care of all members of the community and lessening the gap between rich and poor, to be evidence of consistency between traditional religious practice and socialist ideals. They would look also to the place of zakat across many centuries of the Caliphate, from the Rashidun caliphs to the Abbasids, where it had been established to provide welfare and pensions, for this kind of harmony between socialism and Islam.

It is a powerful and, to some extent, a distinctive feature of socialism in the Islamic world that the goals of the movement have often been seen as consistent with religious Islamic ideals. Unlike in Europe, where Marx called religion, “the opiate of the masses,” and Lenin argued that, “atheism is a natural and inseparable part of Marxism, of the theory and practice of scientific socialism”, socialism in the Islamic world rarely rely on secularist or even anti-religious outlooks.

On a political level, this relative harmony between secular and religious views of socialism led to broad acceptance of socialist principles throughout the Arab world and a blurring of the lines between secular and Islamic versions of socialism due to their frequently complementary views on matters of social justice and political rule. Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), one of the most important figures in the design of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, argued that Islam and its revolutionary spirit could never be separated from Arab identity, despite the facts that the movement he helped to engineer was secular and he himself was a Christian. And the socialist Ba’athist parties, whose version of Arab nationalism won many adherents and rose to control Iraq and Syria, attracted considerable support from more religious Muslims.

Every group of immigrants to America brings some measure of their beliefs, religious and political, along with them to its shores. The Arab and Muslim Americans of Michigan are no different from others in that regard.

Sanders’ appeal to Arab and Muslim Americans suggests that an attraction to socialism persists among them. It also shows that their communities have found their voice in American politics, and are looking to support politicians who share their views.

To some extent, this marks a success in political integration. But the broader picture is less clear. The Muslim experience in America remains in its infancy. America and its Muslim citizens both need some degree of assimilation to each other. And while socialism may be a good or even necessary idea, it is a problematic entry point into American political life.

Socialism has little in the way of American roots. The United States has been some version of a liberal democracy and a commercial republic since its outset. Liberalism, republicanism, representative democracy, separation of religion and state, and capitalism are all political ideas with deep and, in some cases, essential presence here. It should go without saying that an attraction to socialism does not necessarily mark some individual or group as “un-American” or with some other crude appellation, but socialism is implicitly or explicitly a critique of America, present and historic.

If many Arab and Muslim Americans are beginning their engagement with US politics by viewing it through a familiar socialist lens, they risk being unable to place that critique of America into context. Socialism has emerged in America as a corrective to some the excesses of liberalism and capitalism, political ideas that are less familiar in the Arab world, and more distinctively American. Without appreciating the bedrock on which this corrective is lodged, the corrective looks more like a condemnation.

Image: Poster (in Arabic, translation: “Not Me, Us”), from the Bernie 2016 campaign website. Design by Aled Lewis.