Islam and the political Left

I’m more interested in criticizing supernatural fact claims than in social and ethical opposition to religion. Still, as your basic secular humanist-type, I’d like to keep religion out of my life as much as possible. These are times of resurgent fundamentalisms all over the world, where religion is very political. So I try and follow political criticisms of religion, particularly where the Abrahamic faiths are concerned. And I have a special interest in Islam, having grown up in a Muslim land.

When I look at political approaches to Islam, however, I find that especially in the popular arena, criticism of Islam has a very right wing character. Bashing Islam appears to have become a significant part of the Right’s culture wars. Conservatives accuse Islam of being aggressive (even intrinsically terroristic), oppressive to women, and an obstacle to democracy. Muslims, apparently, are a mass of religious fanatics who blindly obey their holy book and their religious leaders. When not plotting to blow themselves up, they are “breeding like rats” and immigrating in great numbers. Europe, evidently, is becoming demographically overwhelmed by Muslims, metamorphosing into “Eurabia.” Most of the writings in this genre present themselves as defending liberal Western values, but they also are fervidly nationalistic — dripping with American, Israeli, or some European nationalism. Aside from the overheated nature of the right-wing position, I don’t care much for their sort of nationalism, though I must admit it does have the advantage of being a more secular ideology.

So perhaps others could provide a better critique. I’d especially like to see a response to Muslim challenges to liberal values from a liberal, even left perspective. After all, that’s where I feel politically more at home anyway. But especially from the part of the Left that emphasizes multiculturalism, I see next to nothing. More often, multicultural leftists will celebrate women wearing hijab as a demonstration of cultural freedom, or young people adopting fundamentalist attitudes as an assertion of Muslim subjectivity against Western impositions. And any friction between conservative Muslims and secular Western societies always has a way of being due to the original sin of colonialism.

Now, maybe I should know better than to expect more than predictable and superficial approaches, especially where popular political opinion is concerned. Still, I am troubled, especially by what seems to be the paralysis the political left has when faced with illiberal Muslim positions and actions. They may foam at the mouth, but right-wingers at least do draw attention to significant political problems. What, for example, happens when you have very rapidly expanding Muslim minorities in Western countries, and by all appearances a large number of such Muslims are not integrating and not adopting a privatized, liberal form of religion? What happens to free expression when Muslim communities are notoriously intolerant of any form of perceived insult to their faith? Anti-racist slogans are all very well and good, but they seem to avoid such questions.

It’s really somewhat strange. Given how so many fundamentalist Muslims promote an ideology that can be very similar to the Christian Right, except even more theocratic, I would have thought there would be more room for some (hopefully more nuanced) criticism of Islam from a more liberal perspective.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Shlomo

    The Christian Right speaks of Islam in a ‘secular’ tone, because if the conversation were to become more detailed, it would reveal the strong similarities in belief between Christianity and modern day Islam. If you compare the value system, there are way too many of those, and the Christian, doesn’t want to look in the mirror and see the ‘enemy’.

    On the American Left, there is a natural tendency to avoid criticizing minorities of any kind. There is a misguided hopefullness ontheir part that if they an just play nice long enough and not speak it out loud, the Moslem world will rise up and announce plans to alter Islamic doctrine to appear and act more Western-like.

    Chasidic Jews have very rigid and conservative value systems, dress differently, do not socialize with gentiles (except for business), and live within their own enclaves. I used to be one of them. Yet, they have no expansionary doctrine requiring the world to bend itself to their own world view. If a Jew travels to Siberia, and more than a few have, he doesn’t claim it for his religion or invite other Jews there in large numbers unless there is money to be made.

    But this is only for appearances. Centuries of living as hated minority in Europe taught the Jews that “when in Rome, do like the Romans” or at least don’t try to upset them. The Talmud expresses this idea well in saying “Dina d’malchusa Dina” (the law of the land is the law we also follow.) Deep down, however, the Jew dreams of the Messianic Age where the Jews will be the priestly class that dominates a global theocracy.

    The difference between religious Judaism and Islam is that the Jews, having been socially conditioned as minorities, and are patiently waiting for some other-worldly force to help them achieve this end. The serious Moslem doesn’t have that option.

    I think the Left is probably afraid to agree with Right on anything, as it would appear to voters and opponents that they are weak. This secular Leftist has no problem telling anyone with wacky superstitions or faith in invisible sky fairies to shut up and leave me the **** alone.

  • bmk md

    Leftists are caught between a rock and a hard place.

    They hate Israel because it stands for power and authority, which makes the Palistinians, and all Islamist, even the rich ones, seem like the poor downtrodden, underprivledged masses which political leftist love to support.

    Any enemy of my enemy is my friend. So Islamists (Arabs), rich or poor, fundamentalist or secular get lumped togethter as the good guys, the enemies of Israel and America, the colonial opressors.

    But the same opressed peoples don’t treat their people, and certainly don’t treat Liberals in their countries with the respect and attention to basic freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, etc, etc. that the Leftist here take for granted.

    The leftists should be condemning the fundamentalists where ever they are, in Mecca, in Virginia, in Meia Shiarim (Jerusalim)…but they can’t give up their negative feelings about America and Israel as opressors, their positive feelings about poor Palistinians and other Arabs and Islamists dragged along by their tails, as the opressed.

    This big guy/little guy issue seems to be more important to Leftists than basic human freedoms of choice.

  • John W. Loftus
  • Bacon Eating Atheist Jew

    Hardcore leftists check their brains at the door when it comes to Islam.

  • Ian

    This is an area where many liberals and the left in general really falls down.

    Had we in the west not had the benefit of the Enlightenment and all that followed from it, and Christianity had retained the amount of power it formerly had, things may well be just as bad here as they are at present in the Middle East.

    This is not the case, however. Things (personal freedom, womens rights etc.) are objectively better in the western democracies than in those nations which are Islamic theocracies. It isn’t racist to say this, it isn’t a form of oppression to say this, and liberals need to come to terms with this.

    The reason things are better in the west right now is because people (progressives, liberals) actually fought for these rights, won them and are now trying to hold onto them in the face of fundamentalist Christianity. It is both disgraceful and ironic that these same people (progressives, liberals) actually defend Islamic fundamentalism, and are afraid to stand up to it for fear of being labeled as ‘imperialists’.

    Sure, we can argue that certain western nations’ belligerent foreign policies are actually making the situation in the Middle East worse (by playing into the hands of the Mullahs), but this is different from trying to excuse Islamic authoritarian repression in the first place.


  • halfarock

    I think that everyone in this thread is a bit off. You all sound as if you listen to Rush what’s his face and Fox News. Why would a liberal, a true liberal be any more accepting of Islam than Christianity or Judaism? They are all variations of the same unrealistic view of reality.

    Liberalism is by its very nature antireligious. The original intent of liberal political ideas was to cast off the people’s burden of supporting monarchs and priests. One of Diderot’s basic premises was that the old way to knowledge was by way of the opinion of authority figures, the new way by observation and experimentation. That is, the old way was the religious and monarchial, the new way the scientific and democratic. Whereas the religious can claim a flat world or earth centric universe by what is written in their sacred texts, the scientist, the liberal looks to nature for the reality of the situation. Religion, any religion has for its legitimacy only a claim to authority. Liberalism has for its basis an antiauthoritarian bias. Liberalism in this sense requires that each individual have the opportunity to discover for oneself a subject without reference to an authority. The likelihood of one discovering Islam or any other religion without texts or the authoritarian opinions of others is zero.

    It is not at all surprising to discover that whenever a group of atheists assemble they are overwhelmingly liberal.

    Yes liberalism is about freedom, and accommodating of others, but let us be real here. God is a fantasy and religions tend to not be very tolerant of freedom of thought especially when that freedom of thought reveals its unreality. Thus liberalism necessarily is hostile to religion. It is just that too many get caught up in the whole idea of being inclusive, which is okay but we don’t have to include opinions based on non-existent beings without the criticisms they are due.

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