Addressing Left Wing Critiques of Anti-Islamism

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US President Donald Trump receives the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (R) at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017.
US President Donald Trump receives the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (R) at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. (Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)


A question many people have asked goes something like this: “Why do sections of the Left seemingly not care about Islamism when it goes against everything they stand for?” It’s an excellent question and deserves a fair answer.

A fair answer does not, however, mean just slamming the Left. Plenty of ink has been spilled doing that already and not necessarily constructively. A genuinely fair answer means assessing the specific claims and accusations made about the Islamism debate and answering those concerns fairly and fully. It is not satisfactory to just slander millions of people as SJWs (social justice warriors) with no grounding in reality.

This piece will present the major critiques leveled by the Left then give a response. 

Firstly it’s important to acknowledge any Leftist worth their salt will necessarily be opposed to theocratic rule of any kind. This article is not an excuse for that lack of opposition. Rather, it is an expose of the thought processes of the left wing that lead to their lack of action against Islamism.

After presenting their rationale, I will offer four points that would help the Left address the human rights abuses inherent in Islamism.

Historically speaking, the line between the camps that became the Left and Right was drawn over whether or not a person thought that the French Revolution was a good idea. The Left, whose deputies sat on the left-hand side of the Chamber of Deputies during the French Revolution pushed for the abolition of the monarchy, supported democracy, rule by reason and the removal of elitist and oppressive groups from power, which included religious institutions.

The Left has always been defined by this vision of a struggle against injustice. The first line of the “Internationale” (the official anthem of the Left) is, “Rise up you victims of oppression for the tyrant fears your might,” (at least in the Billy Bragg version anyway). By injustice, the Left means entrenched economic, social and cultural power in the hands of privileged ethnic, religious and — most importantly — class-based groups.

Therefore, if you ask any left-wing person, do you think that rule by clerics, of any religion, is a good idea, they will say “no.” You’ll see the left-wing critiques of religion in politics in full force when they blast the religious Right in America, such as the attacks on Mike Pence for saying he never allows himself to be alone with a woman he’s not married to.

The reasons the Left is hesitant to issue the same full-throated condemnations of Islamist theocracy are framed by broader questions of power dynamic (in simpler terms, what is now referred to as intersectionality).

America’s age-old racial tensions have not healed. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was bitterly resisted by the conservative establishment of the time, is very much within living memory. 

President Trump has essentially weaponized what was already there for several decades — this deep fear and mistrust,” said Wajahat Ali, a prominent Muslim journalist who is outspoken against anti-Muslim bigotry, while on a panel in Texas at Austin’s SXSW festival on March 11. “It was primarily racial anxiety that motivated a lot of Trump’s base. Now it’s mainstream. It’s the double standard that seeps into our media framing — which shapes our perceptions, which shapes the narratives, which shapes domestic and foreign policy, and weaponizes ‘Muslim’ for politicians to gain votes and get elected into office.”

So when the Left sees Trump pushing for a ban on Muslim immigration, they don’t just see him, in this time, in this place. They see the ghost of George Wallace, four times the governor of Alabama, who declared at his 1963 inaugural address “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

As a threat to human life, the Left sees terrorism as miniscule. They point numerous statistics to back up this claim. For example, more Americans are killed every year, whether justifiably or not, by armed police (987 in 2017 according to The Washington Post) and mass shootings of all kinds (15,449 in 2017 according to the Gun Violence Archive), Both numbers pale in comparison to the staggering number of people killed annually on America’s roads (an estimated 40,000 in 2016).

In contrast, many in the counter-Islamism movement focus on the threat of jihadist terrorism. This obscures a much-needed, broader conversation about more insidious aspects of Islamism, for example, the low-level push by Islamists to normalize hateful and dangerous beliefs about Muslim supremacy or the belief that apostates deserve death. While it is true that these ideas, pushed by global Islamist movements, are not capable of taking down Western states in the foreseeable future, they are, however, capable of causing considerable harm, by increasing mistrust and fostering inter-communal conflict (not to mention radicalizing youth).

Because neither terrorism nor Islamist political movements pose an immediate threat to destroy Western civilization, a Leftist — keen to focus on more urgent and visible matters — can summarily dismiss them. Worse than that, perceiving the conversation as alarmist fear-mongering simply reinforces the pre-existing working assumption by Leftists that those on the Right don’t oppose Islamism on principled political grounds. Rather, they think that the Right simply hates and fears Islam, a religion predominantly practiced by brown and black people, because the Right perceives it as foreign and therefore dangerous.

Dr. Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University, to take one example, considers the current media discussion on Islam and Islamism as a repeat of earlier xenophobic rhetoric in American history about Catholics.

This is made worse by the very real and potent white supremacy and anti-Muslim bigotry that does exist and is perceived to be on the rise. At the August 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, one left-wing protester was killed, while marchers bearing torches and throwing Nazi salutes chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” In the UK, police are currently investigating letters sent around advertising “punish a Muslim day.” There were 127 anti-Muslim attacks recorded by PEW in the United States in 2017, surpassing even 2001’s peak of 97.

While there are currently no pogroms against Muslim communities or calls to string up senior Muslim leaders, there is enough toxicity in the air that makes leftists jumpy.

Ironically, of course, the Left’s failure to address Islamism adequately is a major recruiting tool for the far-right, who are preparing for a war against Islam.

Both the Left and the Right are currently failing at clearly differentiating between anti-Muslim bigotry, racism masquerading as concern over Islam and legitimate concerns about Islamism. The Left is dismissing genuine problems due to fears of empowering bigotry, while sections of the Right are enabling bigotry by allowing it space to slip in alongside criticism of Islamism.

This is before we even start to talk about money, a topic most Leftists are focused on.

A 2017 Oxfam report revealed that just eight men own the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, some 3.6 billion people. Modern left-wing activists look to examples such as Rosa Luxemburg, the German socialist who organized (ineffective) trans-national socialist resistance to World War One on the grounds that the war was a struggle between competing factions of the capitalist oligarchic class using the bodies of working men and women.

In this framing, the modern war on terror looks like more of the same to the Left, distracting the population at home to provide more money for arms industries such as BAE, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, through perpetuating endless, expensive war.

A November 2017 study by Brown University on how much the U.S. has spent on fighting radical Islam since 9/11 found, “As of late September 2017, the United States wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria and the additional spending on Homeland Security, and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs since the 9/11 attacks totaled more than $4.3 trillion in current dollars through FY 2017. Adding likely costs for FY 2018 and estimated future spending on veterans, the costs of war total more than $5.6 trillion.”

Yet the Taliban still controls 44% of Afghanistan, and now the State Department wants to negotiate with them and discuss their legitimate grievances.

Nor can claims to oppose Islamism on the grounds of human rights be taken seriously by the Left. The Trump administration has been perfectly happy to back dictatorships like Sisi’s Egypt, which in the autumn launched a crackdown on the gay community and is clamping down on the free press. Just last month, Egypt banned four entertainment and satirical shows on “moral grounds.” Yet, recently fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Egypt last month, all smiles, proud to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with Egypt in the struggle against terrorism.

The U.S. is only too happy to keep the 5th fleet quartered in Bahrain: two aircraft carriers, dozens of supporting ships and around 20,000 naval servicemen/women. The Atlantic’s Toby Jones wrote in 2011, “The massive American naval base provides legitimacy for the autocratic Bahraini regime, reinforces our problematic reliance on the Gulf, and may be strategically unnecessary.”

These dictatorships that America props up are the regimes that Islamist groups across the Middle East are fighting against. Until and unless these governments can deliver a just society for their citizens, free from torture, administrative detention and extensive censorship, disenfranchised young men will continue to be drawn to movements like Islamism which oppose them.

The elephant in the room, though, is Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is thought to have spent over $100 billion since the 1970s exporting its austere, puritanical, politicized and dangerous views on Islamism worldwide. This has not stopped America and Britain from selling billions of dollars worth of arms to the world’s most fanatical Islamist regime every year. Even Al Jazeera criticized Britain for rolling out the red carpet to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

To give just one example: In June 2017, the Senate approved the sale of $500 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Is it because of the oil that they buy from the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques?” Is it a coincidence that the Trump White House picked the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, known to be close to Gulf leaders due to his decades of experience in the oil industry, as his Secretary of State? Trump’s White House even exaggerated the the extent of the arms contracts sold to Saudi Arabia to show that he is boosting American jobs.

Yet, calling out the closeness of Western governments to the Islamist regime of Saudi Arabia has been left to the Left. Emily Thornberry, the British Labour Party’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, slammed Britain’s welcome to Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman as “shameless.” It was the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, not someone in the right-wing media, that raised imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi and Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights abuses as evidence that Britain should not be cozying up to such a dictatorship for the sake of selling weapons and buying oil.

When taken together, those on the Right should admit that it looks bad. Imperialism never ended, the Left can easily say, they just moved the capital from London to Washington and carried on as before.

These concerns about the anti-Islamism movement are valid. None of them mean that Islamism is any less of a problem, or that it should be unopposed out of post-colonial guilt. But they are backed by evidence, and therefore have to be addressed and corrected if we are serious about truth.

There are, however, four things that can be done to address the Left’s support of Islamism and their critique of the Right:

  1. Clearly delineate intellectually between anti-Muslim bigotry and specific criticism of Islamist ideology so that everyone knows the difference.
  2. Speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry, robustly supporting the religious freedoms of Muslims interested in practicing their religion in a peaceful way. Stop allowing anti-Muslim Bigotry to slip in alongside critiques of Islamism. 
  3. Stop carrying water for authoritarian regimes whose existences, propped up by the West, are the primary cause of Islamism.
  4. Stop dismissing left-wing concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry and the anti-Islamism movement as mere regressive Left panicking, but listen to and carefully critique where it is reasonable.

Making these changes will not magically create societal consensus on Islamism overnight. But hopefully, these changes would provide a step in the right direction.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.