Islamism and the Left

Islamism and the Left

Most leftists have no difficulty opposing Hindu nationalists, zealous Buddhist monks, and the messianic Zionists of the settler movement. Why won’t they take a firm stance against Islamists?

Charlie Hebdo memorial, Berlin, January 11, 2015 (

This article is followed by a response by Andrew F. March, along with Michael Walzer’s reply. To read the exchange, click here

In the three and a half decades since the Iranian revolution, I have been watching my friends and neighbors (and distant neighbors) on the left struggling to understand—or avoid understanding—the revival of religion in what is now called a “post-secular” age. Long ago, we looked forward to “the disenchantment of the world”—we believed that the triumph of science and secularism was a necessary feature of modernity. And so we forgot, as Nick Cohen has written, “what the men and women of the Enlightenment knew. All faiths in their extreme form carry the possibility of tyranny.”1

Today, every major world religion is experiencing a significant revival, and revived religion isn’t an opiate as we once thought, but a very strong stimulant. Since the late 1970s, and particularly in the last decade, this stimulant is working most powerfully in the Islamic world. From Pakistan to Nigeria, and in parts of Europe, too, Islam today is a religion capable of inspiring large numbers of men and women, mostly men, to kill and die on its behalf. So the Islamic revival is a kind of testing moment for the left: can we recognize and resist “the possibility of tyranny?” Some of us are trying to meet the test; many of us are actively failing it. One reason for this failure is the terrible fear of being called “Islamophobic.” Anti-Americanism and a radical version of cultural relativism also play an important part, but these are older pathologies. Here is something new: many leftists are so irrationally afraid of an irrational fear of Islam that they haven’t been able to consider the very good reasons for fearing Islamist zealots—and so they have difficulty explaining what’s going on in the world.

My main evidentiary basis for this claim is the amazingly long list of links that comes up when you Google “Islamophobia.” Many of them are phobic; I focus on the anti-phobic links, and so I have entered the online world of the left. It is a large and exciting world, highly diverse, inhabited mostly by people new to me. It’s also a little disheartening, because many of the pathologies of the extra-internet left haven’t disappeared online. Obviously, there is no left collective, on or off the internet, but the people I am writing about constitute a significant leftist coterie, and none of them are worrying enough about the politics of contemporary religion or about radical Islamist politics.

For myself, I live with a generalized fear of every form of religious militancy. I am afraid of Hindutva zealots in India, of messianic Zionists in Israel, and of rampaging Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But I admit that I am most afraid of Islamist zealots because the Islamic world at this moment in time (not always, not forever) is especially feverish and fervent. Indeed, the politically engaged Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders.

Is this an anti-Muslim position, not a fear but a phobia—and a phobia that grows out of prejudice and hostility? Consider a rough analogy (all analogies are rough): if I say that Christianity in the eleventh century was a crusading religion and that it was dangerous to Jews and Muslims, who were rightly fearful (and some of them phobic)—would that make me anti-Christian? I know that crusading fervor isn’t essential to the Christian religion; it is historically contingent, and the crusading moment in Christian history came and, after two hundred years or so, went. Saladin helped bring it to an end, but it would have ended on its own. I know that many Christians opposed the Crusades; today we would call them Christian “moderates.” And, of course, most eleventh-century Christians weren’t interested in crusading warfare; they listened to sermons urging them to march to Jerusalem and they went home. Still, it is true without a doubt that in the eleventh century, much of the physical, material, and intellectual resources of Christendom were focused on the Crusades.

The Christian Crusades have sometimes been described as the first example of Islamophobia in the history of the West. The crusaders were driven by an irrational fear of Islam. I suppose that’s right; they were also driven by an even more irrational fear of Judaism. They were fierce and frightening religious “extremists,” and that assertion is not anti-Christian.

One can and should say similar things about Islamists today—even though jihadi violence is not required by Islamic theology, even though there are many Muslim “moderates” who oppose religious violence, and even though most Muslims are quite happy to leave infidels and heretics to their otherworldly fate. I know that there is a “jihad of the soul” in addition to the “jihad of the sword,” and that Mohammed famously declared the first of these to be the greater jihad. And I recognize that the Islamic world is not monolithic. Reading the daily newspaper, anyone can see that even Islamist zealotry is not all of a piece. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Hezbollah, Hamas, and Boko Haram, to take just a few leading examples, are not the same; there may well be significant theological disagreements among them. I should note, also, that the many millions of Muslims in Indonesia and India seem relatively untouched by zealotry, though Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian Islamist network, has followers in Indonesia and has been accused of significant terrorist attacks there.

Despite all these qualifications, it is true without a doubt that the “jihad of the sword” is very strong today, and it is frightening to non-believers, heretics, secular liberals, social democrats, and liberated women in much of the Muslim world. And the fear is entirely rational.

But again, I frequently come across leftists who are more concerned with avoiding accusations of Islamophobia than they are with condemning Islamist zealotry. This is an odd position with relation to the Muslim world today, but it makes some sense in Western Europe and possibly also in America, where Muslims are recent immigrants, the objects of discrimination, police surveillance, sometimes police brutality, and popular hostility. I have heard Muslims called the “new Jews.” That’s not a helpful analogy, since Muslims in today’s Western Europe have never been attacked by Christian crusaders, expelled from one country after another, forced to wear distinctive dress, barred from many professions, and slaughtered by Nazis. In fact, right now, some Muslim militants are among the chief purveyors of anti-Semitism in Europe (they get a lot of help from neo-fascists in France and Germany and other countries, too). In America, the “new Jews” label clearly doesn’t work. According to FBI statistics, between 2002 and 2011, there were 1,388 hate crimes committed against American Muslims and 9,198 against American Jews—and 25,130 against black Americans.2 We should defend all victims of hatred, but it isn’t wrong to recognize where the greatest dangers lie.

It’s true that Europe’s Muslims (and America’s too, to a lesser extent) are a harassed minority; they rightly receive sympathy and support from the left, which also hopes, rightly again, to win their votes as they become citizens. There are many right-wing groups that campaign against Islam—not only far-right splinter groups like the English Defense League in the UK or Die Freiheit or Pro-Deutschland in Germany, but populist parties that command considerable electoral support, like the National Front in France or the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. Since the political leaders of all these groups claim to fear the “rise” of Islam in Europe, Islamophobia has become for everyone on the left politically incorrect; more important, it is morally incorrect.

Islamophobia is a form of religious intolerance, even religious hatred, and it would be wrong for any leftists to support bigots in Europe and the United States who deliberately misunderstand and misrepresent contemporary Muslims. They make no distinction between the historic religion and the zealots of this moment; they regard every Muslim immigrant in a Western country as a potential terrorist; and they fail to acknowledge the towering achievements of Muslim philosophers, poets, and artists over many centuries. Consider, for example, the Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, who describes the Koran as a “fascist book” and calls for it to be outlawed (as Mein Kampf is) in the Netherlands.3 Or Hans-Jurgen Irmer, deputy floor leader of the Christian Democratic Union in Hesse, Germany, who claims that “Islam is set on global domination.”4 There are indeed Islamists with global ambitions (even in Germany—remember Mohammed Atta), but it is wrong to hold all Muslims responsible for Islamist zealotry, which the greater number by far of German Turks, for example, certainly reject. People like Wilders and Irmer, and there are many others, go a long way in explaining the left’s aversion to Islamophobia.

But we have to be careful here. There are perfectly legitimate criticisms that can be made not only of Islamist zealots but also of Islam itself—as of any other religion. Pascal Bruckner argues that the term “Islamophobia” was “a clever invention because it amounts to making Islam a subject that one cannot touch without being accused of racism.”5 The term was first used, he claims, to condemn Kate Millett for calling upon Iranian women to take off their chadors. I don’t know who “invented” Islamophobia, but it is worth repeating Bruckner’s key point: there has to be room for feminists like Millett and for all the militant atheists and philosophical skeptics to say their piece about Islam—and also about Christianity and Judaism—and to find an audience if they can. Call them to account for bad arguments, but their critical work should be welcome in a free society.

Critiques of Islam are inhibited not only by the fear of being called Islamophobic but also by the fear of “Orientalism.”6 Edward Said’s book by that name provides many examples of both scholarly and popular arguments about Islam that contemporary writers will rightly want to avoid. But his own argument about the future of Islam and the Arab world (he was writing in the late 1970s), missed the mark by a considerable distance. Said thought that, with only a few honorable exceptions, Orientalism had triumphed in the West; he also believed that it had been internalized in the East, so that Arab and other Muslim writers were now producing Orientalist—that is prejudiced and stereotyped—accounts of their own history. “The Arab world today,” Said wrote, “is an intellectual, political, and cultural satellite of the United States.” Islamic revivalism is nowhere anticipated in Said’s book. Indeed, he takes Bernard Lewis’ insistence on the “importance of religion in the current affairs of the Muslim world” to be an example of Orientalism. And a year later, in The Question of Palestine, Said calls “the return to ‘Islam’” a “chimera.”7 It would be difficult for anyone to say that now, but it is still rare for writers on the left to address the “chimera” head on.

So the critique of Islamism from the left is constrained these days; Islamophobia, however, seems to be growing, and not only on the populist or nationalist right. Why is this happening? The new Islamophobia Studies Journal (a bi-annual publication sponsored by Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender), in an editorial in its second issue, identifies the source of the trouble:

For some, rising anti-Muslim sentiments are immediately explained away as a “natural” outcome of the many violent events in the Muslim world and “terrorism” in general. However, we maintain that the rising negative sentiments may have to do with the presence of a well-organized and well-funded Islamophobic industry that has managed to invade and capture civil society and public discourses without serious contestation. Up to this point, anti-racist and progressive voices have not been effective in challenging this industry, nor have they been able to provide the needed resources to mount regional and national responses.

This is nicely self-serving: more resources for the Journal would certainly be a big help in combating the Islamophobic industry. But notice the reluctance to engage with “the many violent events in the Muslim world.”

One can find a similar reluctance in a series of otherwise excellent articles published in a special issue of the Nation in July 2012. Jack Shaheen’s “How the Media Created the Muslim Monster Myth” is an example of an argument very much like that of the editors of the Islamophobia Studies Journal. The novelist Laila Lalami in “Islamophobia and its Discontents” recognizes that “retrograde blasphemy laws” and “unfair divorce laws” may have something to do with hostility to Islam but rightly refuses to treat these as excuses for the harassment she has lived with here in the United States. Nor would “violent events in the Muslim world” provide any such excuse. Islamist zealotry should never be used to justify or “explain” European and American prejudice. But the entirely legitimate desire to avoid prejudice isn’t a reason to avoid those “violent events.” I don’t mean to single out the Nation here, whose editors organized that useful special issue; so far as I can tell, no leftist magazine or website has attempted a serious engagement with Islamist zealotry.

Most leftists, whatever problems they have understanding religion, have no difficulty fearing and opposing Hindu nationalists, zealous Buddhist monks, and the messianic Zionists of the settler movement (the phrase “no difficulty” is a gross understatement in this last case). And, of course, no one on the left makes common cause with Islamist militants who kidnap schoolgirls, or murder heretics, or tear down the ancient monuments of rival civilizations. Acts like these, insofar as they are noticed, are routinely condemned. Well, not quite routinely: Nikolas Kozloff, in an excellent article, “A Tale of Boko Haram, Political Correctness, Feminism, and the Left,” has documented the strange unwillingness of a number of leftist writers to blame Muslim zealots for the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls.8 Less outrageous, but bad enough, is the unwillingness of many more leftists who do recognize such crimes to attempt a generalizing analysis and an encompassing critique of Islamist zealotry. What stands in the way of analysis and critique?

Deepa Kumar’s book, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,9 suggests one possible answer to this question: what stands in the way is the fact that Islamists today are opponents of “the West,” that is, of Western, really American, “imperialism”—bases in Saudi Arabia, the two Iraq wars, the Libyan intervention, support for Israel, drone strikes in Somalia, and so on. I would argue that this list requires a selective response: opposition in some cases, certainly, but also agreement in others. I dare say that the overthrow by Islamist zealots of the regimes the United States has supported in the Middle East, bad as some of them are, would not be terribly helpful to the people of the region. But leftist opponents of imperialism don’t usually make selective judgments, and neither do the Islamists. So “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We watched this maxim being acted out in last August’s demonstration in London, sponsored by the UK Stop the War Coalition, which was attended by vocal supporters of Hamas including secular leftists and religious Muslims (some of them fundamentalist, some not). The secular leftists were fierce opponents of Islamophobia, though they were not entirely free of other phobias.

But there is another reason for the reluctance to condemn Islamist crimes, and that is the great eagerness to condemn the crimes of the West. The root cause of religious zealotry is not religion, many leftist writers insist, but Western imperialism and the oppression and poverty it has bred. So, for example, David Swanson, first on the War Is A Crime website and then on the Tikkun website (with a nervous but only partial disclaimer from the editor), asks “What to do about ISIS?” and answers: “Start by recognizing where ISIS came from. The U.S. and its junior partners destroyed Iraq . . .”10 That’s right; there would be no ISIS in Iraq without the U.S. invasion of 2003, although if Saddam had been overthrown from within, the same religious wars might well have started. For ISIS doesn’t “come from” the U.S. invasion; it is a product of the worldwide religious revival, and there are many other examples of revivalist militancy. Swanson might offer a similar explanation for all of them, but the explanation loses plausibility as the instances multiply.

The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion. Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.”11 Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests.12 But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).13

There are also people on the left who believe that Islamist zealotry is not only produced by Western imperialism but is a form of resistance to it. Whatever groups it actually attracts, it is fundamentally an ideology of the oppressed—a version, though a little strange, of left politics. Think of the leftist writers who described the Sunni and Shi’ite militias fighting against the U.S. occupation of Iraq as “the resistance”—deliberately invoking the French Resistance to the Nazis in the Second World War. But nothing about the Islamist militias was leftist except for the fact that they were fighting against Americans. This example was featured by Fred Halliday in a 2007 article in Dissent called “The Jihadism of Fools.”14 That’s a good tag, but it didn’t stick, as we can see from Slavoj Žižek’s claim the following year that Islamic radicalism is “the rage of the victims of capitalist globalization.” I have to acknowledge that Žižek is not afraid to be called Islamophobic; he advocates a “respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless” critique of Islam and of all other religions.15 But he won’t get the critique right so long as he thinks that the object of Islamist rage is the same as the object of his own rage.

Judith Butler makes a similar mistake when she insists that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”16 She said that in 2006 and then repeated it with interesting amendments in 2012: Hamas and Hezbollah belong to the global left because they are “anti-imperialist,” but she doesn’t support every organization on the global left, and she specifically doesn’t endorse the use of violence by those two. I am grateful for that last amendment, but the left identification was as wrong in 2012 as it was in 2006—usefully wrong, perhaps, since it helps explain why so many leftists support or won’t actively oppose groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The only thing that makes these organizations “leftist” is that they are fighting against Israel, which stands in here for imperial America.

The postmodernists haven’t done any better than the anti-imperialists with regard to Islamist zealotry. Remember Michel Foucault’s apology for the brutality of the Iranian revolution: Iran doesn’t “have the same regime of truth as ours.”17 This version of cultural relativism has become a commonplace, as we can see in the case of Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, a lovely account of cultural subversion in an Islamist state. In exile in the United States, Nafisi told an interviewer in Boston: “I very much resent it in the West when people from—maybe with all the good intentions or from a progressive point of view—keep telling me, ‘It’s their culture.’ . . . It’s like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches. . . . There are aspects of culture which are really reprehensible. . . . We shouldn’t accept them.”18 Those well-intentioned and progressive people were probably advocates of a radical multiculturalism, which might well allow the burning of witches so long as it didn’t happen in Massachusetts.

The strongest postmodern defense of Islamic radicalism comes from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who argue that Islamism is itself a postmodern project: “The postmodernity of fundamentalism has to be recognized primarily in its refusal of modernity as a weapon of Euro-American hegemony—and in this regard Islamic fundamentalism is indeed the paradigmatic case.” And again: “Insofar as the Iranian revolution was a powerful rejection of the world market, we might think of it as the first postmodern revolution.”19 Is it cruel of me to point out how eager the Iranians are these days to rejoin the world market?

All these left responses to Islamist zealots—identification, support, sympathy, apology, tolerance, and avoidance—look very strange if we consider the actual content of their ideology. Jihadi opposition to “the West” should provoke serious worry on the left before any other response. Boko Haram began with an attack on “Western-style” schools, and other Islamist groups have undertaken similar attacks, especially on schools for girls. Values that the zealots denounce as “Western” are very much in contention here: individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism. No doubt, Westerners don’t always live in accordance with these values and often fail to defend them when they need defense, but these are values to which Western hypocrisy pays tribute—and which some of us Westerners struggle to uphold. In recent years, Russia and China have sometimes claimed to oppose both Western imperialism and Western values, but these two countries look more like rival imperial powers than opponents of imperialism. While their leaders occasionally resort to value arguments (as when Chinese rulers endorse the Confucian ideal of “harmony”), they don’t seem strongly committed to the values they proclaim. But the Islamists are definitely committed. They have their own large ambitions, but these are highly idealistic ambitions, which leave little room for material interests. Their zealotry is a value zealotry, theologically driven, and it is a real challenge to “Western” values.

But individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism aren’t really Western values; they are universal values that first appeared in strong, modern versions in Western Europe and the Americas. These are the values that pretty much define the left, which also first appeared in its strong, modern version in Western Europe and the Americas. The left is an eighteenth-century invention, an invention of the secular Enlightenment. There were, of course, people who held potentially leftist positions in all the major religious traditions—pacifists, communitarians, proto-environmentalists, advocates for the poor, even people who believed in equality or, better, who believed in the equal standing before God of all believers (I should probably say, of all male believers). But nothing like the classic left ever existed among Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, or Christians. And the values of the left are those “Western” values, taken very seriously. So the opposition to those values is really something that the left should confront—and the strongest opposition right now comes from Islamist radicals. And this is the very reason that many leftists are reluctant to confront the Islamist radicals.

What would a genuinely leftist movement against oppression and poverty look like? First of all, it would be a movement of the oppressed, a mobilization of men and women, previously passive, inarticulate, and frightened, now able to speak for themselves and defend their human rights. Second, its aim would be the liberation or, better, the self-emancipation of those same people. And its driving force would be a vision, no doubt partially shaped by the local culture, of a new society whose members, men and women alike, would be more free and more equal and whose government would be responsive and accountable. That’s not an unusual description of left aspiration. So it’s a mystery that anyone anywhere can seriously believe that any Islamist group belongs to the global, or any other, left.

How should the left respond to those Islamist groups—assuming, as I believe, that a critical response is necessary? I am not going to consider military responses here. There is an international brigade of Islamist zealots fighting in Iraq and Syria, but there is no chance of recruiting an international brigade of leftist fighters, so there is no point thinking about where we might send them. Leftists will have to support (though many won’t) military efforts specifically aimed at stopping the massacre of infidels and heretics. After that, I am more inclined to consider a policy focused on the containment of Islamism rather than a war (or a series of wars) to destroy it. This is a fever that will have to burn itself out. But there is a deep difficulty with this view: many people will suffer in the burning, and leftists ignore that suffering at our moral peril. How to help those who are targeted by Islamist forces is a question that we will have to address again and again. But we should begin with the ideological war.

In that war, we need first to distinguish between Islamist zealotry and Islam itself. I doubt that we will get any credit for doing that. Writers like Paul Berman and Meredith Tax have made the distinction with great care in everything they have written against Islamism, and their critics have mostly managed not to notice. No one else’s care is likely to be noticed, but the distinction is still important. We should insist particularly on the difference between the writings of zealots like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb in Egypt or Maulana Maududi in India and the work of the great rationalist philosophers of the Muslim past and the liberal reformers of more recent times. We should do this in exactly the same way as we would distinguish between the preachers and sermons of the Christian crusades and Scholastic theology.

We should also engage cooperatively with Muslim, and also lapsed Muslim, opponents of zealotry—and give them the support they ask for. There are a lot of these anti-zealots, and some of them, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, started on the left and then moved rightwards in part because they found so few leftist friends. Paul Berman has written a withering critique of the treatment of Hirsi Ali by leading liberal/left intellectuals,20 and Katha Pollitt, writing in the Nation, wondered, courageously, whether “we leftists and feminists need to think a bit more self-critically about how the AEI [American Enterprise Institute, a neo-conservative think tank] . . . managed to win over this bold and complex crusader for women’s rights.”

We needn’t imitate Hirsi Ali’s fierce anger, which reaches from Islamism to Islam itself and derives from experiences none of us have had. But we would benefit greatly from a study of her trajectory, in which the left’s fear of Islamophobia played a large part. There is a strange unwillingness among leftists to welcome atheists emerging from the Muslim world in the same way we would welcome atheists emerging, say, from the Christian world.

Second, we have to acknowledge that the academic theory (which was also a left theory) that predicted the inevitable triumph of science and secularism isn’t right—at least, its time horizon isn’t right. Leftists have to figure out how to defend the secular state in this “post-secular” age and how to defend equality and democracy against religious arguments for hierarchy and theocracy. The appeal of religious doctrine and practice is obvious today, and we need to understand it if we are to persuade people that religious zealotry is frighteningly unappealing.

Third, we should recognize the power of the zealots and the extent of their political reach. We should clearly name the zealots our enemies and commit ourselves to an intellectual campaign against them—that is, a campaign in defense of liberty, democracy, equality, and pluralism. I am not arguing that leftists should join the famous “clash of civilizations.” All the great religious civilizations are capable, and probably equally capable, of producing violent fanatics and peace-loving saints—and everything in between. So we shouldn’t think about the struggle with Islamists in civilizational but rather in ideological terms. There are many devout Muslims who support the universal values of the “West” and the left, and who search in Islamic texts, just as other religious leftists search in Hindu, Jewish, and Christian texts, for alternative sources and buttressing support for these values.

The organization Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML), which works in many Muslim majority countries, is effectively engaged in just this search, with special regard to gender equality. These women are our friends, and some of them have shown remarkable strength in what are often hostile environments; they deserve more support than they have gotten from today’s leftists. Consider the following statement of WLUML at the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre:

Fundamentalist terror is by no means a tool of the poor against the rich, of the Third World against the West, of people against capitalism. It is not a legitimate response that can be supported by the progressive forces of the world. Its main target is the internal democratic opposition to [its] theocratic project . . . of controlling all aspects of society in the name of religion . . . When fundamentalists come to power, they silence people; they physically eliminate dissidents and they lock women “in their place,” which, as we know from experience, ends up being a strait jacket.21

This sounds like an appeal against Halliday’s “jihadism of fools,” and I would bet that there were foolish people at the World Social Forum who accused WLUML of Islamophobia. The secular left responds with appropriate hostility to some forms of religious extremism, but its response to Islamist extremism has been weak. Let me ask again and for the last time: why is this so? The terrible fear of Islamophobia is the first reason, and I have suggested a paired set of additional, related, reasons: because Islamists oppose the West, and because we have to respect the way “they” do things over there (no matter what they do). There are probably other reasons. This question should be of critical interest to leftists wherever they live, but it hasn’t received anything like the attention it deserves. A number of secular feminists in the United States and the UK have mobilized against religiously motivated misogyny—including the Islamists’ irrational fear of women: see, for example, the website of the Center for Secular Space. The Italian left magazine and website Reset has also been intelligent, informative, and critical in its discussions of the Muslim world. Here are voices that the rest of the left should listen to and join.

As I’ve already acknowledged, there is no chance that an international brigade of leftist fighters will join any of today’s military battles. My friends and neighbors are not ready to enlist; many of them won’t acknowledge the dangers posed by Islamist zealotry. But there are dangers and the secular left needs defenders. So here I am, a writer, not a fighter, and the most helpful thing I can do is to join the ideological wars. I can claim comrades in many nations, but not yet anywhere near enough of them. There is an international brigade of left intellectuals still waiting to take shape.

Michael Walzer is editor emeritus at Dissent.

To read a response by Andrew F. March, along with Michael Walzer’s reply, click here


1. Cohen, What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way (London: Fourth Estate, 2007), 361.
2. National Review Online, January 2013. I haven’t seen these figures on a leftist website.
3. The Telegraph (website), August 2007.
4. Euro-Islam Info, April 2010.
5. Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 48.
6. Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), 322, 318.
7. Said, The Question of Palestine (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 184.
8. Huffington Post, May 2014.
9. Kumar, Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012).
10. Tikkun website, September, 2014.
11. Huffington Post, July, 2014.
12. Dissent blog, September, 2014
13. Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006) provides ample evidence of religion’s power.
14. Dissent, Winter, 2007.
15. Zizek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 187, 139.
16. Mondoweiss, August 2012.
17. Quoted in Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 125.
18., February 2004; I thank Nick Cohen for this reference.
19. Hardt and Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 149.
20. Berman, Flight of the Intellectuals (New York: Melville House, 2010), chapter 8.
21. Quoted in Meredith Tax, Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights (New York: Center for Secular Space, 2012), 82.

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