Communism & Ummah: What Draws the Taliban To China & Russia?

In the early 20th century, Islam and Communism did make many common causes.

5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>The Chinese support extremist Islamic leadership, despite their manifestly persecutive position against co-religionists, the Uyghurs.</p></div>

Ahl-al-kitab or ‘People of the Book’ is a Quranic term to connote people of other Abrahamic faiths like Christianity and Judaism. A reciprocal religio-cultural element of respect and community bond is implied amongst the adherents of these monotheistic faiths. Jerusalem is a geographical metaphor of this inseparable reality, which is otherwise wounded by the Israeli-Ummah (Muslim World) dissonance, with Palestine.

A historical tradition of acceptance, legitimacy and even tolerance is scripturally mandated amongst the ‘People of the Book’, which is not similarly extended on faiths, outside this framework. Many Islamic interpretations distinguish their quantum of disagreement with the Ahl-al-kitab versus the polytheists (like Hindus, Buddhists etc.), with the latter getting addressed more severely, as mushrikin (idol worshippers). However, one conspicuous tolerance (or at least ambiguity) afforded by the modern Pan-Islamic movement is on the openly declared ‘non-believers’, i.e., Communists, especially of the Chinese variant.

While perhaps the cultural engagement or even ‘clash of faiths’ was less pronounced and intense in the lands of the Middle Kingdom — but the politics of ‘second class’ status surrounding the Chinese Muslims (more so with Uyghurs, and lesser so with the Hui populace) notwithstanding — Ummah’s eyes tend to roll more gently on Communist China, as opposed to the predominantly ‘People of the Book’ in the proverbial ‘West’.

Many Common Causes

In the early 20th century, Islam and Communism did make many common causes (for e.g., Bolsheviks with the persecuted Islamic believers in the post-Tsar, Soviet era) that nurtured a lot of commonality/duality between these two distinct ideologies, leading many intellectually, politically, and socially conscious people to embrace both ‘systems’ naturally, whilst disallowing the obvious fault lines between the two to get the better of the traction.

However, the politics of regime-insecurity in the Middle Eastern Sheikdoms with the growing Nasserite nationalistic movements (Socialists and left-of-centre) drove a wedge in the brewing equation. Soon, Sheikdoms, flush with oil money, exported Wahhabi puritanism aggressively to counter the ‘non-believers’. The Cold War further demonised and mythicised the risks from the ‘Communists’ and Afghanistan was the straw that broke the camel’s back — ‘Communists’ became persona non grata, from Algeria to Indonesia, and the mujahideen (those engaged in holy jihad) were especially raised to counter the ‘nonbelievers’ i.e., Communists.

The early ’90s signalled the end of the Cold War with the dismantling of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the breakdown of the Berlin Wall, and the defeat of the Communists in Afghanistan. Suddenly, a new ‘enemy’ was required for rationalising the status quo and purposes of societal distraction, and the newly-emboldened and interventionist United States of America ungraciously and unknowingly applied for the regrettable role. With Palestine lingering and the ‘West’ joining the ranks of ‘enemies’ of the Ummah, the civilisational bond amongst the ‘People of the Book’ no longer held.


Russia Was a 'Joker in the Pack'

In the 21st century, Russia was a pale shadow of the USSR-of-its-times, and it was, at best, the ‘joker in the pack’ — powerful when held together with a meddlesome set of other cards, but not worth much by itself. Under Putin, it recovered its bite and punched above its weight with much posturing, snarling and sabre-rattling. But some perceived missteps in Chechnya and Balkans and its focus on Ukraine and against the ‘West’ ensured that the Ummah viewed Russians (by extension, Communists) as the ‘lesser evil’ vis-à-vis the ‘West’. The mujahideen in the Taliban solely sought to evict the ‘West’, and the memories of the wars with the ‘Communist’ Soviet Union were soon forgotten. Recently, amongst the six nations invited for the formal inauguration of the ‘Emirate of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’ by the mujahideen of the Taliban were two ‘Communist’ countries — Russia and China. However, Russia has reportedly decided to skip the inauguration.

Even for the literal ‘Talib’ (‘Searcher of Truth’) and the projected face of Islamic piety, there was no place for the ‘People of the Book’ (the other four countries included Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey and Iran). Seemingly, the ‘Communists’ have stolen a march, with the Taliban conflating the enthusiasm for revisionism with the harshest-possible Shariah, as also gushingly adding, “China is our most important partner”.


A Slew of Possibilities

What explains the Chinese lure for extremist Islamic leadership, despite Beijing’s manifestly persecutive position against co-religionists, Uyghurs? Is it just the irresistible power of China’s ‘chequebook diplomacy’ (and the accompanying realpolitik), or does the Ummah genuinely perceive ‘Communists’ as more aligned (or lesser evil) towards their ideological sensibilities, vis-à-vis the ‘People of the Book’? Is it to do with the fact that China is a relatively new entrant onto the global/Ummah stage and remains a relatively untested entity, as opposed to the ‘West’, which is perceived as morally corrupt and selfish?

Is it to do with the Islamic clerical order in the Ummah focusing disproportionately on and sanctifying societal ‘jihad’ against the differences with the ‘West’, as opposed to differences with the Chinese outlook? Is it to do with the Chinese perennially betting on the winning horse, irrespective of the moral considerations, for e.g., with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or selling arms to sanctioned countries such as Sudan (during the Darfur crisis), Iran, Syria etc.?

Is it to do with the fact that optically throwing weight behind China (even transactionally) is the most effective ‘rebound’ strategy to take on any issue with the ‘West’?

More likely, it is a combination of all these factors, and the ever-opportunistic, ever-alert and ever-reactive Beijing does make hay when the sun shines in its favour, inadvertently or circumstantially. China’s single-party system is not answerable to anyone beyond a point, and that affords it fleet-footedness to hold no grudges of the past, as it can display incredulous amnesia to move on and transact without insistences or interferences, as long as the new ‘deal’ or opportunity furthers China’s interests.

Democracies of the ‘West’ or the ‘Free World’ are answerable to their domestic constituents, constitutionality and morality, and that makes the likes of the Taliban queasy and uneasy, whereas the ‘no-strings-attached’ approach of the Chinese is refreshingly welcome and inviting.

But, if this is so, then it also says something about the claimed piety, religiosity and the commitment of many of these extremist leaders within the Ummah. Clearly, a lucrative Chinese ‘deal’ (‘chequebook diplomacy’) can easily override avowed commitments towards their own co-religionists as also other religious polemics that would behaviorally insist otherwise. It is for this very reason that many moderate-sane voices amongst the Ummah beseech the world at large to not equate the actions of these extremist elements with that of the entirety of the Ummah.

(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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