Islamism and the Left: An Exchange (Online Only)

Islamism and the Left: An Exchange (Online Only)

With a massive military, political, and media apparatus already doing a fine job turning Islamists into enemies— and corpses—why should the left join the “ideological wars”? A debate.

Charlie Hebdo memorial, Berlin, January 11, 2015 (

To read Michael Walzer’s original article, click here.
To read Walzer’s reply to Andrew March, click here


Andrew March responds to “Islamism and the Left”

Michael Walzer has taught multiple generations of political theorists about the importance of belonging and connection in political judgment. Although in this essay he is eager to stress that “individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism aren’t really Western values; they are universal values,” the distinctive feature of Walzer’s political theory is its distrust of abstract political justification and its celebration of political struggles that transform communities from within. For Walzer, the moral hero has always been the prophet who speaks his tribe’s own idiom in an effort to remind his people not so much of the best of which they are capable as rational beings, but the best that they have already committed themselves to.

In one sense, “Islamism and the Left” can be read as an exercise in this mode of political argument. We can hear in Walzer himself the voice of the anguished and disappointed critic. He is not speaking to the demagogues of Fox News or to the even more belligerent purveyors of anti-Muslim racism. He is speaking to the tribe he still claims as his own—the global left. But his alienation from that tribe is much more palpable than his connection. Walzer is addressing the left, but neither sharing in its anxieties nor moving with its moral and emotional rhythms.

Two aspects of Walzer’s essay bear observation here. First, Walzer does not seem to disagree with a particular judgment made by particular segments of the left. He does not think that in their efforts to balance multiple ends—supporting equality and opposing imperialism—certain leftists have simply failed to weigh one of them enough. He thinks that they (we) are operating in bad faith—at least those “leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry.” He doesn’t think that leftists are actually sympathetic to Islamists; he just thinks that because they must have no good reasons for not speaking about the Islamist threat in the way that he does, they must be motivated by something other than reason.

Second, Walzer accuses leftists of being so afraid of appearing Islamophobic that “they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world,” but his own analysis of what’s going on in the world is both thin and self-contradictory. On the one hand, he thinks that leftists can’t take the revival of religion seriously in its own terms (since “the left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion”) and so can’t see Islamism as the return of the left’s traditional enemy. But then he wants to assure us that it’s not “religion” we should be afraid of (“Islam itself”) but the perverted ideology of Banna, Qutb, and Mawdudi. Moreover, while claiming to take the power of religion more seriously than others on the left, his only political proposal is “to figure out how to defend the secular state in this ‘post-secular’ age.”

More troublingly, not only does he fail to offer a non-tautological analysis of the rise of Islamism—something other than “radical Islam is the return of religious militancy”—but the goal of his essay practically forbids it. To provide a historical, political analysis of the rise of radical Islamism in particular countries and particular times would, Walzer implies, run the risk of suggesting causes or explanations other than the moral threat of Islamism itself, and that would be to somehow apologize for Islamism. But how can it be a left response to the rise of global Islamism to say that the study of colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism (words that appear in Walzer’s essay only as evidence of others’ analytical failures) must play only the smallest possible role in explaining what is going on in the world? Is it really helpful to speak about “the left’s” attitude toward Islamism in such general terms, without looking at specific left debates about Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, or Iran? Something unhelpful is going on when we are asked for the umpteenth time to panic about the moral pathologies of a group of writers in the West rather than focus on specific struggles for justice in the world.

It is hard to argue with someone who thinks that your judgments, your intellectual efforts, and your moral struggles are all in bad faith because you have an irrational fear of being labeled Islamophobic—who assumes you will support any force, whoever vile, as long as it is fighting Western imperialism. I understand that it is easier to diagnose why others have gone wrong than it is to persuade them how they are wrong. Yet this, rather than the practice of critique or thinking-with, is the logic of Walzer’s polemic. In fact, Walzer is quite clear that his essay is not an effort to think through a difficult problem with his intellectual companions on the left—how can global solidarity be achieved in the twenty-first century?—but rather a declaration of intent “to join the ideological wars.”

Worse, the charge that one does not denounce enough is notoriously slippery. Like demands for Muslims to—finally!—speak out and condemn terrorism, for American Jews to condemn Israeli settlements, or for black leaders to condemn inner city rage, Walzer’s essay suffers from both confirmation and selection bias. He has experienced frustration with the kinds of leftists he runs into (mostly on the internet, it appears) not saying the right things at the right time, and then extrapolates from this that the left in general has a problem with Islamism. But how many exceptions does it take until the original premise needs to be called into question? The problem is that no amount of contradictory evidence is ever good enough. The one who has moved first can always reply, “Well, yes, there are these exceptions, of course, but I still don’t have enough comrades declaring Islamist zealots our primary enemies.” This response is as slippery as it is disappointingly parochial. We are treated to the same old stories of the same people saying things that are supposed to shame them, but—really—how many times can we talk about Edward Said, Paul Berman, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali before we start to sound silly?

It seems much more honest for us to acknowledge that the problem is not that leftists are guilty of “appeasing” Islamists but that we have a less black-and-white disagreement about political judgment in specific contexts. The problem is not easy to resolve in practice but is quite straightforward intellectually: how should we balance criticism of Islamist practices against a concern not to bandwagon with broader right-wing demonization of Muslims? But even this question is derivative of the still broader one of how to assess Islamism as a challenge for left politics in the twenty-first century. Instead of listing all of the times people on the left have proved their moral decency by condemning Islamism, I would like to try to discuss how we might think about Islamism as an intellectual and moral problem for the left.



A first dimension is a consideration of the way the Islamist challenge to post-Enlightenment left principles might cause those on the liberal left to rethink their core commitments. The model here is Marx’s critique of bourgeois rights in “On the Jewish Question,” the ur-text for all subsequent leftist skepticism about formal rights, legal equality, and individual negative freedom. There are, of course, hard and soft versions of this. A hard version dismisses rights and parliamentary democracy tout court as bourgeois fictions that obstruct rather than advance emancipation. A softer version merely cautions us against seeing the achievement of rights, representative democracy, and negative freedoms as the final victory rather than as a necessary first step toward deeper forms of freedom and solidarity.

Is anything like this going on with the left and Islamism? I am unaware of any committed leftists who have been moved to question the value of religious freedom, gender equality, and social justice merely because Islamists have called them into question from a religious perspective. No one really doubts whether Iranian women should be free to unveil or whether female genital mutilation is an abomination. No one thinks that Yazidis and Baha’is should be subjected to persecution or slaughter.

It is true that some have questioned the universality of particular forms of female emancipation after hearing the views of pious, veiled Muslim women. But the critical bite here is a purely liberal one: it is on the grounds of the freedom, autonomy, and self-representation of the women in question—and not (as the pious themselves would assert) on the grounds of sovereign religious norms—that a strict opposition between freedom and religion is called into question. It is also true that some on the left have expressed doubts about the applicability of European conceptions of strict secularism to Muslim countries. But the critical motive here is a democratic one: it is on the grounds of the freedom, autonomy, and self-representation of the peoples in question that the universality of one form of secularism is called into question.

This way of thinking about politics in the Muslim world is, in fact, straight out of Walzerian political theory: political communities are responsible for developing their own norms, practices, and commitments through internal struggle, and are not just interchangeable sites for applying transcendent, a priori conceptions of justice. Many leftists, true to this spirit, realize that the advancement of democratic justice must unfold through actual local struggles in Muslim countries. One would hope that Walzer himself would appreciate this practice of contextual political analysis, rather than merely searching for the narrowest band of “good secularists” to praise.



Whereas Walzer suggests that the divide on the left is between those who are faithful to left principles and those who are not, I propose that the disagreement actually lies at a second dimension of political thinking. This dimension is our judgment about which horrors and injustices in the world to prioritize opposition to. Walzer thinks it is the horrors caused by Islamism. But a person on the left is likely to read Walzer’s essay and respond, “I wasn’t aware that fierce criticism of Islamism is something the world lacks for right now. Are the powers that be—in Washington, Moscow, Cairo—really waiting for left pressure to finally do something about Islamists?” For my part, I doubt that future historians will look back at the period between 2001 and 2014 and remember it for its culture of appeasement, excuse, and apology toward Islamist terrorism.

The war against violent Islamism is taking care of itself. It’s a little stunning to read that in the face of this massive state violence against Islamists the priority of those of us on the liberal left should be to “clearly name the zealots our enemies.” Instead, shouldn’t the left reaction be to provide more hopeful, inspiring, and admirable alternatives to this ongoing war? What is the point of the left if we can’t do that?

Admittedly, these alternatives are in short supply. And it is not at all clear that people struggling for justice, equality, and democracy in Muslim (and other post-colonial) countries want the help of Westerners in supplying them. Rather, they want our help in restraining the interference of decidedly non-leftist Western power in their countries. Walzer is as aware of this as anyone else on the left. I will not flip the ad hominem script by questioning his good faith in deploring Western imperialism. I trust that he deplores it. But I will ask this: if those of us who live, vote, and pay taxes in the West have decided that the most important thing we can do is focus on our own ongoing crimes and pernicious influences abroad, how can Walzer be so sure that this judgment is wrong? Doesn’t this choice reflect the best of the critical tradition of the left—not letting your fear and disgust of the crimes of others blind you to your own? And doesn’t it, furthermore, reflect the highest aspiration of Walzerian political theory—struggling within your own community to help it achieve its highest moral aspirations?

With a massive military, political, and media apparatus already doing a fine job turning Islamists into enemies—and corpses—I insist instead that we should be proud of the fact that there remains a segment of the Western public sphere determined to question this.



A third dimension is the Schmittian one: who is my enemy? Walzer is unabashedly “political” in this sense in this essay. He says “we should clearly name the zealots our enemies and commit ourselves to an intellectual campaign against them.” This seems to me a little faux-heroic. I know that it is satisfying to keep writing pieces that take a stance against killing apostates, mutilating genitals, and kidnapping schoolgirls. But who doubts that we are against these things? What kind of moral courage does it really take to say this in the West? And what battles are we avoiding if we think that this is only one worth fighting?

What eventually becomes apparent is that Walzer is not only not talking about, but also does not appear to have much interest in, politics in the actual Muslim world. It is not leftists in Muslim countries that are failing to stand up to Islamism and it is not their struggles that he really cares about (his reference to the group Women Living Under Muslim Laws notwithstanding). It is the parochial question of who did or did not embrace Hirsi Ali warmly enough, who is writing the right blog posts and op-eds, and who is signing the right petitions. Try as I might, I can’t keep on getting worked up about that.

What would happen if we took a break from our self-regard and asked hard political questions about what it would actually take to advance left-liberal political goals in the world today (bracketing the question of how valuable it is for us here on either side of the MetroNorth to ponder how to advance those goals from Morocco to Indonesia)? Just four years ago we would have said that we should place our hopes in the wave of democratization rippling out from Tunis, Cairo, and Damascus. No one says that now that Syria and Iraq are burning, Egypt is living a retro-1960s pantomime, and the Iranian hardliners are more in control then ever. (Even Tunisia, at this time of writing, appears to be freely voting for counter-revolution.) So do we turn our hopes back to the project of spreading human rights through international legal instruments, along with some advocacy by local NGOs? I don’t have the disdain for the international human rights movement that some on the left do (and that the Walzer of the 1970s and ‘80s might have). But I am not expecting many victories to emerge from it in the Muslim world in the near future.

I don’t have a better answer than this—but neither does Walzer. I don’t blame him. I don’t expect him to endorse the vision of a global uprising of the excluded multitude expressed by the likes of Žižek, Badiou, Hardt, or Negri. In many Muslim countries, such a revolt today seems more likely to take the form of international jihadism than egalitarian revolution. But then I think it is only honest to say that Walzer’s frustration with leftists who don’t just want to declare intellectual war on Islamist zealots is symptomatic of a number of things that have nothing to do with those leftists’ moral pusillanimity.

It is symptomatic of our lack of answers and our lack of power. I don’t know how to stop global warming; I don’t know how to reverse widening inequality and global oligarchy; I don’t know whether I should put my hopes for progress in the twenty-first century in progressive struggles within existing nation-states or in some kind of transformative revolution; I don’t know whether the contemporary technological revolution is a good or a bad thing. In the face of this, Walzer is offering us, more or less: “But I do know that I hate the Islamists and am not afraid to use my power of the pen against them.”

It is always easier to focus on the crimes the other commits against you than on the crimes you commit, or abet. It is always easier to inflate the other’s moral grotesqueness and your own good intentions. Not falling victim to the moral narcissism of nationalism and communal self-love takes enormous effort and is a precious achievement. It is hard work to ruthlessly subject your own affective feelings of disgust to the tribunal of historical perspective. But I believe it is this impulse, in the best tradition of left and liberal politics, that informs leftists in their assessment of Islamism today—not moral relativism and timid fear of the accusation of Islamophobia.

And, so, yes I am disgusted by beheadings, mass executions, and the selling of Yazidi girls into slavery, and I hope fervently for the defeat of ISIS and its associates; but I am also disgusted by my own government’s use of depleted uranium in Iraq, widespread torturing of detainees, and entrenchment of an unaccountable surveillance apparatus. It would be inhuman to sit back and coldly run a tally of deaths on each side, as if the jihadis get a pass until they have killed as many on the ground as we have from the air, although as Walzer writes, “it isn’t wrong to recognize where the greatest dangers lie.” But it is the very least we can expect of ourselves to keep in mind that if you live in the United States you are far more likely to have appalling violence done in your name than against you. For any serious person, supporting universal equality and opposing Western imperialist violence should not be not too many balls to keep up in the air at the same time intellectually. Walzer may be right that some on the left do find this too much to juggle, and struggle to endorse freedom and equality just because they think the State Department wants them to. But because I consider Michael Walzer not only my teacher but also my ally, I would like to see him worrying as much about imperialist violence and the actual realities of Muslim societies as he does about Islamist zealotry.

Andrew F. March is Associate Professor of Political Science, Yale University. He is the author of Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus (2009), and numerous articles on Islamic political and legal thought.



Michael Walzer replies


Several times in this piece, Andrew March writes that I take the leftists I am criticizing to be “operating in bad faith” (his emphasis). I have reread my essay several times now, and I can’t find anything that suggests bad faith; that is March’s invention. I do think that many leftists are wrongheaded, silly, politically correct, and afraid to be called Islamophobes. But I didn’t, and don’t, charge anyone with bad faith. Well, one exception: March’s flattery of me at the beginning and end of his response is certainly an example of bad faith. But for the rest, his arguments are arguments, and I will try to give them the attention they deserve.

I can see four arguments here, along with some bits of professorial pomposity (“the tribunal of historical perspective”) that I will ignore. The first argument is that I didn’t deal with efforts to explain the rise of Islamism in specific places for specific reasons—actually, not very specific reasons; this is his list: “colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism.” He is right on the first point: in my article, I didn’t discuss “Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, or Iran”—or any other of the many Muslim-majority countries. I considered Islamism as an international movement. No doubt, it takes particular forms in every country where it arises (as I said in the article), but there is a lot of theological overlap, and groups like ISIS can recruit fighters from across the Muslim world—and in the West, too. Any explanation for this extraordinary success has to be a generalizing explanation.

And what about colonialism, imperialism, and global capitalism? The difficulty here is that these causes are the causes of everything that happens or could happen. A leftist uprising would certainly be explained with reference to these three. So would a rightwing nationalist uprising. March wants to explain a radical religious uprising in the same way; he condemns me for assigning “only the smallest possible role” to these factors. My actual claim is that these factors don’t give us a distinguishing reason for religious zealotry. Why does Islamist theology have such great appeal and not Marxist ideology? Surely there have to be cultural and inner-religious reasons for this appeal. I didn’t explore those reasons in my essay; I only criticized writers who pretend that they don’t exist. I have a book coming out in a few months that begins an exploration: The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counter-Revolutions (Yale University Press).

The second argument is that I did not address or engage with the real left. “How many times can we talk about Edward Said…before we start to sound silly?” March and his friends have nothing to do with “the likes of Zizek, Badiou, Hardt, or Negri.” My frustration is only with “the kinds of leftists [I] run into (mostly on the internet, it appears).” Lo and behold, I have run into Andrew March on the internet. There is a lot going on “on the internet,” and I don’t see how any up-to-date leftist can suggest that I should be looking elsewhere. Anyway, I addressed more than a dozen left writers, and many of them write books—which greatly outsell my own and March’s books. I wrote about a very important part of the left (not the whole of it) as it actually is.

March’s third argument is the one he seems most committed to since he repeats it several times: “The war against violent Islamism is taking care of itself.” He finds it “stunning” that in the face of “massive state violence against Islamists,” I should be calling for an intellectual war against them. He thinks that I should instead be arguing against the massive violence and looking for “inspiring and admirable alternatives to this ongoing war.” (He doesn’t suggest any inspiring alternatives.) March may not be aware of how familiar this argument is to someone my age—though if I was actually his “teacher,” as he says I am, he would know this. The argument he makes here is exactly the argument that was made, again and again, against the left-wing anti-communism of Dissent in its early years. The United States and its Western allies were already mobilized against Soviet Communism. Did they really need leftist pressure “to finally do something” about communism? Shouldn’t we, “who live, vote, and pay taxes in the West,” be focused “on our own ongoing crimes and pernicious influence abroad”?

The editors of Dissent actually had a lot to say about American crimes abroad (and still do), but they were also interested in the moral and political health of the left. They didn’t think that leftists who were defenders of or apologists for Stalinist crimes would ever be a force for democracy. And they were right, for many of those defenders and apologists went on to defend or apologize for third-world dictators who call themselves anti-imperialists and for terrorists who call themselves liberators—and now for Islamist zealots.

But March isn’t one of those—this is his fourth argument. He is “disgusted by beheadings, mass executions, and the selling of Yazidi girls into slavery”—and so are all his friends. “Who doubts that we are against these things?” He doesn’t seem to notice that I am not a doubter; I agree that just about everyone is similarly disgusted. But I am looking for a political way of expressing this disgust, and March emphatically isn’t doing that. He is obviously a politically engaged person, as much as I am. Despite his “disgust,” however, he refuses any serious engagement with Islamist crimes; he is engaged with American crimes. It’s always easier, he says, to focus on the crimes that the others commit “rather than on the crimes you commit, or abet.” March is proud that he doesn’t take the easy way.

But then one has to wonder about the political or moral force of his disgust. For the America he excoriates is right now the only force effectively opposing or, at least, containing, the power of ISIS and therefore the beheadings and the mass executions and the enslavement of Yazidi girls. Of course, I would prefer a secularist uprising, a purely local struggle, against ISIS and against every other Islamist group. I am eager to support liberals, social democrats, and feminists in Muslim countries. March pretends to endorse my longstanding commitment to the integrity of particular communities and to the importance of political activity from within. He apparently wants to argue that this commitment requires left-wing activists to wait for the victims of Islamist zealotry to defend themselves.

But his endorsement of my political arguments is highly selective, for I am also an old-fashioned internationalist, and over many years I have supported a strongly interventionist politics in extreme cases—and mass executions and enslavement are still, even in our frightening world, extreme. They require more than disgust; they require a political response. And the left should be actively engaged in advocating such a response and in talking about its agents, its methods, and its limits.

March rejects this engagement, and he mocks my invitation to join the intellectual wars. His reason for the rejection and the mockery is “our lack of answers and our lack of power.” Except for political activity at home, he believes, there is nothing to do. I hope that March is speaking here only for himself. Those of us who are still committed to some version of the Enlightenment project have plenty to do. “Superstition sets the world in flames,” Voltaire wrote, “philosophy quenches the flames.”

Finally, I want to say something about March’s most serious charge against me—that I don’t share the “anxieties” or move with the “moral and emotional rhythms” of the left. I am out of step. Of course, there are many lefts, and one of them is mine; one of them is the Dissent left, where we have always marched to the rhythm of our own drum. With March’s left, I am indeed out of step and have been for a very long time.

Michael Walzer is editor emeritus at Dissent.