Islam and Anarchism: An Interview with Mohamed Abdou

By Nora Ziegler

Bad Apple is still a small zine, but it has already brought us into conversation with inspiring dedicated individuals around the world who are reaching out and building solidarity across differences. This work is crucial at a time when many politicians, activists and writers exploit divisions to gain or maintain their individual power, while many others struggle to engage with difference due to trauma and exhaustion. The aim of our zine is to help foster dialogue between different religious and liberatory traditions, supporting people to engage in difficult conversations, and challenging gatekeeping and opportunism in our shared movements.

Pluto Press 2022

ISBN: 9780745341927

Mohamed Abdou is a North African-Egyptian Muslim anarchist activist-scholar. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at Cornell University and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the American University of Cairo. His twenty years of activist research and experience centers on Palestinian, Indigenous, Black, and people of colour liberation, and draws on the Indigenous Zapatista movement in Chiapas, Mexico, as well as his participation in the Egyptian uprisings of 2011.

In his compelling new book, Islam and Anarchism: Relationships and Resonances, Mohamed Abdou draws on queer, feminist, anti-racist and decolonial theory to develop an anarchist interpretation of Islam. He argues that social justice movements, and anarchists in particular, can learn from Muslims how to better disagree with each other, and welcome each other, instead of tearing each other apart over ideological and personal differences.

Liberal euphemisms

I began our interview by asking Mohamed what motivated him to write this book. He described his work as an intervention into language and euphemisms: the liberal hollowing out of words that undermines the ability of people, and in particular Black, indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC), to conceptualise alternative ways of being. He gave as example, that Islam is mistranslated as ‘submission’ and anarchism is mistranslated as ‘chaos’. Even the word ‘liberal’ suggests liberation and yet, as Mohamed observes, “liberalism is far more insidious in its white supremacy than the conservative right could ever be”.

Mohamed’s aim is not just to redefine words, although he does provide interpretations of anti-authoritarian concepts and practices in the Qur’ān. However, he explained to me that this is also problematic because Islam is inherently anti-authoritarian and oriented towards social justice, and yet it is up to Muslims to justify their existence in anarchist and Marxist spaces. It is up to them:

“To make their experiences legible or rational and thereby capitulate in a certain sense […] as if BIPOC people don’t have their own governance and economic structures, concepts, practices that they can put into implementation. We have to always borrow from the west […] even if that includes the radical leftist west.”

Mohamed’s goal is not to show how anarchism and Islam fit together in an abstract and final sense. He is extending a hand towards anarchists, Marxists, people of faith and people without, queer and feminist groups, and BIPOC, saying “we can be allies”. The work of getting to know each other, and becoming investing in each other’s communities, can only happen in practice.

Ideology and poststructuralism

Throughout the book, Mohamed draws on poststructuralist theory, in particular the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. I asked Mohamed why he found this theoretical perspective useful for his project. Poststructuralism emphasizes the contingency of belief systems, which means that belief systems like Islam or anarchism are embedded in specific historical and social conditions. Poststructuralism rejects transcendent values or concepts of divinity. I agree that religious beliefs are contingent and yet I also hold mine very sincerely. I believe that God is fully embedded in our world and transcendent at the same time. In my view, poststructuralism does not take this paradoxical nature of faith seriously enough and therefore ends up reproducing colonial and patriarchal assumptions about religious subjectivity.

Mohamed responded that feminists and BIPOC use poststructuralism as a toolbox. He explained that it is useful:

“because while you and I may be aware of the contingency others are not, at the grassroots level. Others have already internalised ideological spectral formations […] again I take classical anarchists and Marxists as a prime example of that”.

Mohamed described ideology as a fantasy: the illusion that one idea, such as Islam or Marxism or anarchism, could solve all our problems and include all aspects of life and of liberatory struggle.

However, Mohamed emphasised that poststructuralism is only useful as long as it is connected to the liberatory praxis of actual social movements. It is not enough to only critique existing ideologies and structures, we also have to build alternatives. Mohamed is a scholar-activist who has been involved in activism for 22 years, within anti-war and anti-globalization movements, in solidarity with the Zapatista and Palestinian liberation movements, and he was involved in the protests in Tahrir Square in 2011. Reflecting on his experience in Tahrir he said that:

“There was no construction of alternatives, and people did not want to operate according to a politics of responsibility or a process of getting to know one another. It’s easy to have a revolution insofar as an uprising. We burnt 99 police stations in Egypt. But what are you creating as alternatives? And because of the diffusion of power, unless the Islamist is talking to the liberal, is talking to the leftist, the anarchist, the feminist, […] the factionalism that exists within the state and which the state thrives and survives upon […] will only lead to them wanting to embrace a politics of rights and to throw back the responsibility upon the state.”

I suggested, that if our movements were organised in such a coalitional way, if we were constantly challenged in our ideological perspectives, then maybe we would be able to hold on to ideas without these becoming ideological. Mohamed responded that ideologies are strategically limited because once we embrace certain ideas or identities, they become embodied. He argued that:

“What should take precedence over identities or ideological subscriptions are the ethical and political commitments that inform those ideas in the first place […] it is not a matter of you being a Christian and me being a Muslim that determines my relationship to you. It’s the ethical-political commitments that defines your Christianity, as much as it defines your relationship to other Christians, that will define our relationship”.

The issue with ideology is that it does not enable us to engage healthily with conflict and difference, even among people who adhere to the same ideas. My relationship to other Christians and other anarchists is mostly defined by abstract beliefs, rather than shared historical commitments and practices of dialogue and hospitality. Ideology becomes a substitute for community.

Ethics of hospitality

I asked what exactly Mohamed means with ‘ethical and political commitments’, and specifically the ‘ethics of hospitality’ which he refers to in his book.  

Mohamed described hospitality as:

“a non-ideological position whereby one acknowledges the potential risk and in fact strives to the possibility of the destabilisation of the own sense of self […] allowing relationality to happen to the point of even fusion, so you become I and I become you”.

For example, he told me:

“if you really want to know Islam, and not for the sake of conversion but openness to the possibility that maybe you will identify as a Muslim, that’s when you’re able to break the boundary”.

Hospitality is about people with different views and backgrounds living and working together, taking the time to get to know one another “beyond a liberal multicultural investment”. Mohamed explained that this happens by sharing in things like food and celebrations but most importantly it requires a level of material investment in each other’s communities. This investment is mutual but not transactional: “both are invested within it for a greater sense of purpose.”

This means that we have to stop seeing each other as only means to an end. We have to build coalitions, not merely as a means to growing structural power, but also as relationships that are meaningful and important in themselves. Mohamed observed that:

“We are not witnessing coalitional engagements, or at least more than the abstract theory, precisely because of that …we’ve internalised the capitalist Protestant ethic, us leftists: ‘do do do’, ‘revolution revolution revolution’. But we are not thinking about power striving, what tools we’re using, who is included, who is excluded, on what grounds are the politics of inclusion and exclusion occurring”.

Hospitality acknowledges and addresses divisions of power in order to build relationship across those divisions. For example, Mohamed argues that an ethics of hospitality requires listening to the rage and frustration of women, instead of tone policing. It requires recognising the rights of colonised people to armed self-defence, instead of adopting an ideological position of non-violence.

This is not about simply giving up one’s own beliefs and identities. It is about being open to the possibility that our beliefs and identities are transformed in our relationships with others.

The role of faith

In Islam and Anarchism, Mohamed writes that the Prophet Muhammad created a revolutionary community (Umma) of believers from different faiths including Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Sabaeans and atheists[i]. He defines believers in terms of their ethical practices and relationships, rather than the abstract belief systems they adhere to. In the Qur’ān, disbelievers are explicitly described as people who uphold injustice, corrupt the earth, and dismiss responsibilities towards women, orphans, travellers, and the poor[ii].

I asked Mohamed what spiritual faith means to him and what role it plays in his life. He told me:

“Faith is more than what guides; it is what provides hope. […] It is faith that gives me the ability to continue on day to day and it is what reminds me of my responsibilities towards all my relations. It’s what gives me praxis, it’s what gives me dignity, it’s what give me my own sense of roots and belongings that require decolonisation. […] It is the mourning of what has been done in the name of this faith. […] I can’t love without faith. I can’t learn to die without faith.”

I relate strongly to this sense that faith is what holds together hope alongside grief, love alongside death. It enables praxis which holds together action and reflection. Faith is what makes possible relationality, between people, but also between the opposing forces and ideas within us.

[i] P.11

[ii] P.117

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