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Why the Secular Left Seems Increasingly To Sympathize With Islamists

One of the more difficult things to explain about the behavior of the political left in the West  has been their increasing apology for Islamist thinking, or at least their indifference to its consequences.

It makes little sense to outside observers why and how people on this end of the political spectrum can find themselves sympathizing with ideologies that treat women, according to their own historical rhetoric, as second-class citizens. Recent critiques of the secular left for supposedly sacrificing their own cherished principles on this score have come from some prominent intellectuals on the left, including Slavoj Zizek and Michael Walzer.

Not surprisingly, this behavior has driven many who would otherwise be sympathetic to the left agenda and who are concerned with social justice and equality to take refuge in the right. There is a history to the left’s involvement with the Islamic world, of which few American observers are aware. The Algerian Civil War, which was also a war of independence for the indigenous population, had very high casualties (375,000-1.2 million, mainly Algerians) which may have dwarfed the number of casualties for both the French Indochina War.

Both in terms of magnitude relative to the French population and psychological impact, the Algerian War was similar to the American experience in Vietnam but of a far greater magnitude. By the end of the Algerian War, French leftists were quite sympathetic to Muslims “freedom fighters”, if not Islam itself, and that sympathy, along with a grudging respect for Algerian Muslim armed struggle (which was reflected in the new French Republic’s shift from a pro-Israel to a pro-Arab in general outlook) spread throughout Europe.

If the Algerian Civil War made the European left sympathetic to Muslims, who they believed were fighting the good fight for national liberation, interest in Islam within as well as without Muslim societies had to await the fall of the Soviet Union.  As early as the 1970s there was enough affinity with victims of the Shah of Iran’s US backed repression for France to grant Ayatollah Khomeinei political asylum (while continuing to segregate local Muslims in arrondissements on the fringes of French cities and discriminate against them).  It was not until the fall of a sclerotic USSR, which had become embroiled in a struggle to maintain a pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, that Muslims increasingly became interested in their religion itself as a viable vehicle for armed struggle.

In this venture they were aided by the fact that of all the world’s major religious traditions, Islam alone sanctions armed struggle as part of its doctrine. If the Greater Jihad (the word jihad literally means “struggle”) is striving against one’s inner defects, the Lesser Jihad of armed combat against  the faith’s enemies in times when Muslims are oppressed is still jihad, and is sanctioned by Sharia law.  Because of the way in which the post-1945 Mideast has developed, there is a great deal of oppression to struggle against.

The contradictions of patronage networks that relegate resources and incomes to favored sons of those well connected to regimes along with polygamy and bride price (which converts marriage and a family into one of those resources by turning daughters into a commodity) created intolerable situations in Arab and other Southwest Asian societies which were, and continue to be, developing unevenly, and which experience severe youth unemployment or underemployment.

For example, the situation in Syria, divided between Sunni, Alawite and other religion and Muslim sects and Iraq, carved up among Sunni, Shia and Kurds, fostered economic and social discrimination between the sect, or religions, that have been in power and those who are not in power. That is also the case for younger generations of “Euro-Muslims” labouring under the weight of discrimination and segregation into enclaves. And since unequal distribution of resources seems to have been a part of Middle Eastern societies since the dawn of agriculture, this has even been the case in Saudi Arabia, where the nation’s prodigious oil wealth has also been unequally distributed.

While it can be perilous to draw exact parallels between late antiquity, Medieval and early modern societies with our own, this situation bears at least superficial parallels to the situation in which Islam formed in the 7th and 8th centuries.  It also mirrors the crisis within Islam in which Salafism formed.

In the sixth century Arab tribes faced a challenge from climate change and disease, spurring an expansionary impulse which the new religion of Islam amplified.  In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the combination of a relatively weak caliphate and Mongol and Turkish invasions fomented a crisis within Islam that was resolved by Turkish “slave soldiers”, or Mamluks.  The Mamluks claimed the same rights as Arabs by both defeating the Ismaili Fatamids considered Takfiri (false Muslims because they were Shia) and by using their Salafist piety to claim equal rights that had previously been denied them because they were not Arabs. While Western historians may not consider these parallels as somewhat superficial and inexact, the same resemblances are seen as obvious by many Muslim scholars.

The credibility of these comparisons have been enhanced by Saudi promotion of Salafism by dawa–preaching and building of mosques that teach Salafist Islam in non-Salafist Muslim communities.  After the 1970s the export of young Saudis to be trained to engage in armed struggle – “Lesser Jihad” – elsewhere in the Muslim World, beginning with Afghanistan. As with the export of other religious and political movements, these Saudi endeavors have had unanticipated consequences.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union and Chinese repression at Tienanmen Square discredited much of Marxist-Leninism, and while during the 1990s neoliberals like Margaret Thatcher were proclaiming triumphantly that “there is no alternative” to capitalism, Salafist Islam started to be viewed as a serious economic and social alternative in the Middle East. After all, it was Islam itself which was displaying the most tenacity in armed resistance to the new Western-imposed, global economic order.

If the success of a terrorist attack is measured in the degree to which one’s opponent is motivated to crack down on both its own society and the sub-population one is attempting to drive to one’s banner, the destruction of New York’s Twin Towers was without doubt far more effective than earlier sorties – for example, the 80s by the Irish Republican Army and those incidents attributable to Baader Meinhof Gang. Neither of the latter groups were able to provoke more than a police response or appreciable curtailment of civil liberties by British or German authorities.

9/11, on the other hand, not only resulted in enhanced US government surveillance and curtailment of civil liberties for American citizens,  but  provoked two wars that were so expensive that they enhanced the effect of the 2008 financial crash.  In other words, the assault on the World Trade Center proved to be a huge “bang for buck” from Al Qaeda’s point of view. Even more importantly, resulted in long wars against Muslims by Americans that made jihad relevant for Sunni Muslims in a way they never had been before.  Small wonder that the newer Islamic State as well as Al Qaeda affiliates are determined to repeat these attacks to provoke further interventions by Western powers.

Thus the cause of Salafist Islam has come to dominate the field of armed struggle since 2001 and to be the most attractive option for people inclined to practice insurgency.  Salafist Islam also melds well with the lessons in insurgency and terrorism previously taught by Marxist theoreticians such as Carlos Marighella, especially when one factors in the ideas and strategy of modern Islamist theorists such as Sayyid Qutb and Abu Bakr al Naji, author of The Management of Savagery .  These concepts have also been quite attractive for many on the radical left in the West, who may go so far as to be motivated by the melding of a theory of armed revolution with an intact religious tradition, thereby even converting to Islam. It may also mean that support for jihad, particularly in Europe, may go well beyond Muslim enclaves.

If there is a silver lining to what appears to be the Islamification of the authoritarian left (to use Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter’s term in their work Roots of Radicalism) this may be providing room for a non-authoritarian left to regenerate and for the same brand of left politics to be able to balance out a political spectrum without being tarred with the brush of terrorism and radicalism.

As the events of the last two years have demonstrated, there is a definite need for a non-authoritarian left to balance out and provide a loyal alternative and opposition to a neoliberalism that has become a dogma that increasingly is used to justify the economic and increasingly political and social repression of poorer classes and the concentration of wealth and income in fewer and fewer hands.  Radical jihadism otherwise may be the only option.

Martin Katchen is an independent scholar who writes on international affairs, religion, and politics.  He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney in Australia.

2 thoughts on “Why the Secular Left Seems Increasingly To Sympathize With Islamists

  1. >”One of the more difficult things to explain about the behavior of the political left in the West has been their increasing apology for Islamist thinking, or at least their indifference to its consequences.”

    Who are you talking about?

  2. There’s a long tradition of scholarship (not only commentary) that investigates this problem with sophistication and rigor. For just a few examples, see Bassam Tibi, Islamism and Islam (Yale UP, 2012, pp. 8-30); Leonard Binder, Religion & Politics in Pakistan (UC Berkley P, 1963); John Kelsay, Arguing the Just War in Islam (Harvard UP, 2007), etc. On the public commentary side, see Maajid Nawaz’s recent work, including his book w/ Sam Harris, Islam and the Future of Tolerance (Harvard UP, 2015), and the Qulliam Foundation.

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