The most ubiquitous epithet in conservative and centrist circles these days is “regressive leftists” — liberals and leftists who are purportedly betraying their values by restricting the parameters of free speech and enabling extremists.
These regressives are said to be stifling criticism of Islam and refusing to mention the role of religious ideology in terrorism.
Whenever someone engages in the “intellectual” exercise of criticizing Islamic doctrine and pointing out the role it plays in the genesis of terrorism, they immediately raise the slogan of “Islamophobia.” This prevents an “honest” debate about terrorism which in turn obstructs any meaningful solution to the problem.
They deprive critics of Islam, especially certain ex-Muslims and “progressive” Muslims of the “language” they need to voice their discontent against those who are using religion to persecute them and others.
Furthermore, the argument goes, because they shut down liberals who want to find a “rational” way to fight both Muslim extremism and anti-Muslim bigotry, they allow the alt right to take over the debate by playing on the “justifiable” fears the public has about Islam and Muslims.
There are several problems with this standpoint.
Lets start with exactly who it is that is being accused here.
Prominent liberals in the media who have spoken out against Islamophobia are few and far between. Anyone familiar with centrist, anti-theist and far-right public forums knows well that Glenn Greenwald, Reza Aslan, Sally Kohn and CJ Werleman are prominent among those most often singled out for censure. These attacks center around their being “intellectually dishonest,” “terror apologists” and “obscurantists.”
The problem with this poorly crafted polemic is that there is not a single instance of these individuals having condoned violence or sympathized with terrorists. One is also hard-pressed to find an instance where the actual arguments made by them were refuted by their detractors; their modus operandi is attacking the player, not the ball.
Another prominent target is the Southern Poverty Law Center. Let’s think about that for a minute: the SPLC, the one major organization that has steadfastly tracked and called out racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim animus is supposedly “regressive” and is making it impossible for “true” liberals to engage in “honest” debates about race and religion. Is the motive here protecting free speech or protecting bigotry?Next, there is little basis in reality for the claim that there is any broad, concerted effort to suppress criticism of Islam. On the contrary it appears that most public fora these days are wide open for anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Let’s start with Fox News which has long been open mic for contentious opinions on Islam and Muslims. Unabashedly bigoted individuals like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney and Walid Shoebat have repeatedly been invited and portrayed as experts on Islam.
We are talking here about reaching audiences in the tens of millions through top-rated prime-time slots like the “Sean Hannity Show” and (thankfully) defunct “O’Reilly Factor”. These same people also publish Opinion pieces in prominent conservative publications like the National Review and American Spectator.
Even in popular liberal shows like “Real Time” and networks like CNN and MSNBC, the likes of Bill Maher and Sam Harris are free to spout their anti-Muslim bigotry badly disguised as “classical liberalism”.
The most awful, genocidal, anti-Muslim content is also prevalent across social media. Anyone who uses Facebook or Twitter is well aware of this.
It would be useful if the authors of the dishonest epithet of “regressive liberals” pointed out where exactly this “stifling” of opinions is taking place.
Lastly, what is this “language” required by “progressive” and ex-Muslims to criticize extremism? This would make sense in a country like Saudi Arabia where the slightest criticism of the regime or Islam can lead to prosecution and often execution.
There is nothing going on in America however, that prevents anyone, including ex-Muslims and progressives from criticizing either extremist or mainstream religious beliefs.
Ultimately, these amorphous descriptions betray a lack of any substance in the argument itself. The reality is that the push back against anti-Muslim animus has been vital in preventing the Islamophobia industry from succeeding in painting American Muslims as a mortally perilous fifth column.
It is time the term “regressive leftist” was seen for what it was: a subterfuge and weapon being utilized successfully to increase the space for intolerance and hate speech in national debates.