Letter from Prisoner on Breaking with Islamic Fundamentalism and Casting Off the Mental Chain of Religion — with Editors’ Note and Response

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Editor’s note: We at revcom.us periodically publish letters from prisoners on revolutionary theory and struggle, as well as other aspects of human experience and thought, including conditions and struggle within the prisons themselves. We appreciate and learn from all correspondence from the prisons. The opinions of the letters we publish are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Revcom.us. The letter below from a prisoner is followed by a response from Revcom.us editors.

From a prisoner in the South:

To the Prisoner Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF),

I've been getting mailings of Revolution from the PRLF for about a year now, and unfortunately I never sent you my thoughts on its contents. So let that be my self-criticism. I've had ample opportunity to contribute to discussions that would've benefited me, but only laziness held me back. All along, your volunteers print out and send me this newsletter every week – so it's been a one way street when it ought to be a two way one. For now on, I will send correspondence, and in return, I would like know if you can send me: 1) The New Communism; 2) BAsics; 3) "Breakthroughs" and 4) The Constitution [for the New Socialist Republic in North America].

As you well know, in response to COVID, the Prison Nation has placed us all on lockdown instead of doing the humane and sensible thing, which is to release people. That's because we're not living in a humane and sensible system that values human lives. I must say I am one of the "fortunate" ones who are captive in an institution that has not seen an outbreak. Despite that, this federal concentration camp in southern xx has been on lockdown, wherein we've been confined to cells for 22 and a half hours a day 5 days a week, and 24 hours on weekends.

In response to the righteous rebellions that have popped off in cities across the US, and even the world, sparked by the lynching of George Floyd, the BOP has put a twist on the plot: they have essentially turned every medium and maximum security prison in their jurisdiction into one massive SHU. We are being held hostage, with no time out of our cells, no phone calls, no emails, no commissary and no showers, until the demonstrations end. They have assured us that these measures are "non-punitive" when in reality it is the epitome of torture to keep human beings caged in 6'x12' cells without any recourse to calling our loved ones and even bathing. After complaining to a lieutenant on Friday, he taunted us and said "wash your ass in the sink." This has been going on since Monday, June 1, and it is because more than 60% of the Prison Nation are composed of George Floyds, so the struggle that's being waged outside against police terror is our struggle, and state violence is something that we incarcerated people experience on an ongoing basis all day every day. Therefore this is an attempt to disconnect us from what’s happening outside, and it won't work.

I wanted to address two articles in Revolution, issue #649 and the other in #646 that I saw as being interconnected. One is an excerpt from The New Communism, from the section "Internationalism and an International Dimension" and the other is "BA on Emancipation from Mental Slavery and All Oppression."

I saw a connection between the two because I can relate to them on a personal level. BA mentions that Islamic Fundamentalists ought not to be supported by communists and anti-imperialists because they are an inherently reactionary force, and that does not mean that we go and support the imperialists – both sides must be fought. Let me provide a brief introduction – I was once beguiled by reactionary jihadist propaganda which made me fall prey, at the age of 17, to an FBI-NYPD manufactured sting operation – which is why I'm in federal prison. I understand very well the ideologies of various Islamic fundamentalist organizations and their histories, and with that being said I agree with BA 100%. Anybody who doesn't is naive to the current situation and the political histories of North Africa and Western Asia.

I would further add that jihadists are actually allies of capitalism-imperialism even as they now appear to be mortal enemies. It must be understood that these groups formed in areas where there were intense people's struggles – Palestine, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. These countries, among others, at one time or another were either led by Arab Nationalists (Egypt and Syria), Marxist-Leninists (the People's Democratic Republics of Southern Yemen and Afghanistan) or had strong and dynamic communist and/or revolutionary nationalist insurgencies (the PFLP and PLO in Palestine, and the Communist Party in Iraq). These are only a few examples, but originally religious organizations were formed as a counter-weight to all of this popular energy, and in some cases were supported by, or at least allowed to grow, both by regional governments and imperialists, in an effort to split the movement. In Egypt and Palestine, the settler-colonial state of Israel originally funded the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, even helping build schools for these organizations. It was hoped that these groups would have a conservative effect on the masses of people who otherwise were supportive of the PLO – which at that time in the 1980s was the largest, SECULAR resistance movement in Palestine. In Indonesia, back in the ’60s, you had a nationalist leader named Sukarno who was instrumental in forming the Non-Aligned Movement. Well, the CIA orchestrated a bloody coup against him which involved none other than ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS. I'm not even going to go into the CIA funding and support of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan because that’s well-known, but a more recent example are the jihadi groups that are around today. Much of the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq were originally coming from nationalist organizations as well as just basic masses of people who wanted to defend their homeland. Al-Qaida didn't come til much later, in 2006, when their affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (later changing its name to ISIS and now just IS) was formed. Well, they were allowed to form, not on the streets of Iraq but in a US military detention camp. While there's no evidence that the occupation supported them in anyway, the ISI did their bidding when, they were finally unleashed into the streets and started waging a religious war on the people of Iraq, mainly Shi'ites, splitting the resistance along sectarian lines. This is actually the reason why the ISI were expelled from Al-Qaida. The same dynamic has played out in the last decade in other Arab countries – in Yemen during the Arab Spring when the government allowed Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to form mini fiefdoms in the south of the country and go after student demonstrations; and of course the Syrian Civil War, originally starting as an uprising against police brutality, devolved into armed conflict between rival religious extremist factions, each supported by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and the United States. Unfortunately, I don't have any of my sources on hand that I can cite, but all of this information could easily be found.

So, in conclusion, Islamic fundamentalism, though representing an outmoded system, is very much subordinated to capitalism-imperialism, far from actually being opposed to it. Its calls to fight the US is purely situational, and the latter only sees them as a threat insofar as they pose a threat to US interests. Some groups may even say that they're opposed to capitalism, and might include some left-wing rhetoric, but don't be fooled – fascists sometimes have to do that to get the masses on their side, and Islamic Fundamentalism is nothing short of fascist. They might not be identical to German Nazism, but they don't need to in order to be FASCIST – as BA points out elsewhere. It's interesting to note as well that Islamic Fundamentalist organizations developed at the same time as the Christian Right – and they both serve the same interests, which is to be a backlash against previous social gains and to push women back in their "places" as social safety nets the world over are being dismantled.

I studied all of this history in prison, and through listening to WBAI and being exposed to radical left publications, I became a communist. I held on to religion for quite a while after that though, actually til very recently. So it wasn't a linear process wherein I became a communist and an atheist at the same time. I had to learn from experience that religion was really holding me back from realizing my full potential and at the same time, I had to struggle with my emotional attachment to it. Believing in a spook in the clouds was very damaging in that it kept me from working with people who were more advanced than me because they were queer or trans (and kept me ashamed of being queer myself), and I was plagued with this spirit of procrastination – in other words, I was often held back from taking action in intervening in my personal life or in the social reality around me because I believed that a god was going to do it for me. So yeah, casting off that mental chain has been truly liberating on many different levels, and I'm a fuller human being as a result of that.

A big part of being a communist is understanding that WE are the ones who move history, WE have control over our lives. At the same time, the history we make and the social reality that forms around it has an influence over our lives. Insomuch as the belief in a spook god gets in the way of understanding that, insomuch as religion keeps you from identifying with people who are being exploited and who are suffering, then no, I don't believe that a communist can be religious. Often organized religion is a conservative influence that, even while sometimes encouraging and motivating people to fight for social justice, has also discouraged masses from going all the way with it - in social revolution. Even during times of uprising and rebellion, like what has been going on in several major cities these last couple weeks, the state always relies on religious leaders to "urge restraint" or corral them into voting for a lesser evil candidate (Bourgeois Electoral Bullshit!). Now on the other hand people do have spiritual views that don't get in the way of understanding who is in control (you, we, us) and who has the power (the people), and it exhorts them to righteous rebellion and solidarity. Where such people actually exist, I don't think it's anyone's business what they believe.

Additionally, I think that it's necessary for revolutionaries to understand that while religion is the opiate of the masses, it is also the sigh of the oppressed. Yes, it is an outdated way of understanding aspects of the universe that are unknown to us – like why do we suffer? So we have to realize that as long as people are living under oppressive conditions, as long as they're living an alienated, powerless existence, religion is going to be something that people turn to.

I do think that religious people should be struggled with, but with the understanding that only through the process of participating in a collective struggle for liberation, through seeing first hand one's creative power when joined with others (and thus seeing the humanity of others), will people finally cast off those mental chains of religious dogma once and for all. You can't make being an atheist a prerequisite to being a revolutionary, it's participating in the revolutionary process that makes one think and understand the universe in new ways, beyond the constrictions of religion.

I know you'll probably disagree with me on that last point, but I'm very open to discussion and struggle. I hope this is the beginning of a fruitful correspondence, and anything that I write that you wish to publish, I give permission. You can use my nickname "Just."

In Struggle,


* * *

Revcom.us editors respond:

Dear Just,

We very much appreciate your letter and the journey you’ve been on. Your story is an extremely important one to share, and you bring to bear some important insights on the history of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. In that regard, we wanted to share the accompanying excerpt from AWAY WITH ALL GODS! Unchaining the Mind And Radically Changing the World, by Bob Avakian – the passage entitled “Why Is Religious Fundamentalism Growing in Today’s World?” 

To get into the question you pose and struggle you raise at the end of your letter: it’s important to both not only welcome people with a wide range of views into the revolutionary process but to learn from people holding a wide range of views, including religious views. At the same time, we firmly believe that it’s necessary to struggle with people from the very beginning of that process over views which hold them back and prevent them from fully contributing to that process – a process which is, after all, aimed at the full emancipation of all humanity. Without such struggle, there will be no revolution – it’s as simple, and important, as that.

As you very compellingly point out about your own development, while you made contributions to the struggle as you increasingly took up a scientific materialist outlook to society, it was only when you took up a fully materialist outlook that you were able to break with a certain feeling that things will somehow work out on their own, without our own conscious activity. So we do people no favors – and more important, given the urgency of the situation we all confront, we do humanity no favors – when we hold back from struggling with people over anything in their outlook that prevents them from contributing to the revolution as fully as possible, even while we should seek to work closely with people as we are struggling with them.

Here we want to emphasize what is said toward the end of the article you cite from BA, EMANCIPATION FROM MENTAL SLAVERY AND ALL OPPRESSION:

It is neither possible nor principled—and no one should ever try—to force people to give up beliefs they hold at any given time. In the most fundamental terms, emancipation—from every form of slavery and oppression—must be the voluntary and conscious act of people.  But there is a great need and importance to waging ideological struggle, in a principled way but as sharply as necessary, to win people to take up a scientific approach to understanding, and changing, the world and break with ways of thinking that actually contribute to keeping them, and others, oppressed.

Again, it is true that many religious people take part now in important struggles against oppression; and it is also true that many religious people will be among the millions taking part in the revolution to do away with this whole oppressive system. But this revolution, and the continuing struggle to end all oppression and bring about real and complete emancipation, must be led by those, among the most oppressed, and others as well, who have taken up a scientific approach to changing the world and have cast off the mental slavery of religion, along with every other way of thinking that promotes, or at least rationalizes and objectively justifies, oppression.

So, again, thank you for your correspondence, and let’s keep up the dialogue.

The editors

BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian is a book of quotations and short essays that speaks powerfully to questions of revolution and human emancipation.

“You can't change the world if you don't know the BAsics.”

Order the book HERE
Download the book in ePub format HERE


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