Friday, February 6, 2015

Michael Walzer: Islamism and the Left - including a reply & debate with Andrew March

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...

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...

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...
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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... read more:

See also:
"As (Allama) Iqbal placed the body of Ilm Din into the grave, he tearfully declared: "This uneducated young man has surpassed us, the educated ones." Courtesy the Brown Pundits blog: http://brownpundits.blogspot.in/2014/05/ghazi-ilm-ud-din-shaheed.html#more
Mahmoud Mohammed Taha was a Sudanese religious thinker and leader executed for apostasy at the age of 76 by the regime of Gaafar Nimeiry. (See his Court statement)