Terra Incognita: Right, Left and Islamism

If one's self-described source of inspiration is Islamic extremism, he is cleared of being “right wing” and becomes a politically neutral “militant” or “gunman.”

Slain journalist Steven Sotloff shortly before he is beheaded by an Islamic State terrorist. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Slain journalist Steven Sotloff shortly before he is beheaded by an Islamic State terrorist.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
lIn a recent BBC feature looking at the fate of Christians in the Middle East the reporter matter-of-facty noted that a priest in Baghdad named Father Douglas was held hostage, beaten and tortured. “The priest’s church in Baghdad was bombed and he was taken hostage by a militia and held until the Church paid a ransom,” wrote the BBC. There was no indication of the ideology of the attackers.
Yet when the same media reports on European politics we always get an indication of the political ideology behind attacks. “The security services in Germany are scrambling to track down and arrest far-right fugitives.”
When Turks are murdered in Germany the term for the killings is “hate crime” and we hear about how “many Germans worry over just how big a threat the far right poses...more than 180 people have been killed in rightwing attacks in Germany over the last 20 years.”
The juxtaposition of reports on the Islamic world, of “militants” or “militias” who kidnap, torture, murder, blow up, ethnically cleanse, sell into slavery and mass rape – even exterminating whole ethnic and religious groups – and reports from everywhere else in the world where the violence and its political and religious motivations are clearly indicated require us to demand the media make a choice: either describe right-wing religious violence as exactly what it is in the Middle East or remove these terms from reporting on conflicts and politics from Columbia to Japan.
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The Norwegian murderer Anders Breivik who killed 77 people in July 2011 is described as a “right-wing extremist” in basically every media outlet from Al-Jazeera to The Daily Mail. But Ahmedy Coulibaly, the murderer of four hostages at the Paris kosher supermarket was called an “Islamist militant shot dead by special forces,” by the BBC. In many places he is just a “hostage-taker” or “gunman.”
So why is Coulibaly not a right-wing extremist? If he was a Christian-born anti-Semite wearing swastikas in a video, he would be a “far-right extremist.”
But because his self-described source of inspiration was Islamic extremism, he is cleared of being “right wing” and becomes a politically neutral “militant” or “gunman.”
A careful study of the cordon sanitaire the media puts around Muslim-majority countries and Islamist-inspired murder in other countries is clear from a simple survey of the press. In Columbia the media tells us that the “left-wing guerrillas” face off against the “rightwing paramilitaries.” Latin America has “right-wing state terrorism” and “left-wing rebels.” In Singapore politics is also shoe-horned into the left-right divide.
Aaron Low writing in The Straits Times notes, “Rightwing politics, however, encompasses everyone from religious zealots to supporters of big business to strong believers in free market principles.” Times of India complains of the “right-wing ideology” of the Hindu nationalist party.
Contrast the elections in May 2013 in Pakistan with those in India in May 2014. The two countries were once part of the same political unit. Their politics derive from some of the same origins. Both were ostensibly founded by secularists underpinned by a nationalist ethos, on the one hand Hindu and on the other Muslim. Both have become more religious over time, with Pakistan being dominated by Islamists and India’s Hindu party the BJP coming to power in the 1990s. Yet there is a divide in media descriptions of the two. India has “right wing politics” and the “rise of the Right.” Pakistan, despite the chauvinism, the murder of politicians who express liberal views, the enacting of blasphemy laws, is never said to be right-wing. Why? Pakistan is an extreme-right country. If the blasphemy laws of Pakistan were enacted in Ireland, India or Chile, the press would be going wild about the “rise of the extreme-right conservative religious fanatics.” But in Pakistan it is just “normal.”
The media’s need to coddle Islamist extremism and paint it as everything but what it represents is the central reason for the removal of “right wing” from any description of politics from Pakistan to Morocco. One can see exactly how this transpired by looking at Turkey.
With the rise of the Islamic-style AKP in the 2000s the political map of Turkey, once divided between Left and Right, disappeared. We can see remnants of it in the way The Daily Sabah describes three parties as right wing: the National Movement Party (MHP), the Felicity Party and the Grand Unity Party. What about Erdogan’s AKP? Why does it transcend Right and Left? If Erdogan was running a party based on Christian principles and talked the way he does about Jews, Armenians and others in any other country he would be an extreme right-winger, like the Jobbik party in Hungary. But because he styles himself as “Islamic,” he escapes designation as a right-winger.
THE REASON for the media blindspot is a subconscious need to hide the truth about Islamist radicalism and politics. Islamist parties, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Hamas to Hezbollah – all of them are radical rightwing parties. They are extreme conservatives. However the media needs to cover this up because of a paternalistic, neo-Orientalist inability to judge the Islamic world by the same standards as the rest of the world.
The reason the right-wing nature of the Islamist parties and politics must be hidden is that the radical left in the West desires to define these obviously conservative extremists as “left wing.” Judith Butler, the American philosopher, claimed in 2006 for example that “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.” An article at a “socialist worker” website analyzing Hezbollah sees the organization as supporting the “downtrodden” and running social services. “It is not as reactionary as the Taliban or Saudi Arabia...its resistance could inspire struggles across the Middle East, potentially opening the way for a secular, left-wing alternative.”
That bearded mullahs with militias who worship violence became an ally of the Left is merely an indictment of the moral bankruptcy of some on the Left.
They can’t see it for what it is because they need to imagine that religious extremists in the Muslim world are allies of theirs in the fight against Western capitalism and imperialism.
There is nothing manifestly different about Anders Breivik and Ahmedy Coulibaly, but they are separated out into “militant” and “right-winger” because of the knowledge that to label the kosher supermarket murder an act of the extreme Right would require an interrogation of the milieu from whence it came: the banlieues or suburbs full of minorities.
And if the those suburbs are full of right-wing extremism, not just a few overly-pious “radical Muslim preachers,” then that means a need to tackle rightwing extremism in those places with the same zeal as anti-racism campaigns attack normative right-wing nationalist extremism in France.
Bernard Lewis diagnosed this problem in an essay in 1977, noting, “Newspapers [indicated] that there might be some connection between Christendom and the right on the one hand and Islam and the left on the other.” He correctly understood journalists to have projected their own prejudice against Christian conservatives in the West onto the Lebanese Civil War and falsely assumed the Muslim opposition was therefore “Left,” rather than perceiving that this was a civil war between numerous right-wing groups.
Unfortunately too many in the media have fallen into this trap. Whatever the politics, if you put some Arab words next to it with an Islamic connotation the group will escape the “right wing” label. Rightwing Tea Party politics? Well let’s call it Hizb ut-Tea Party, then it can be part of the global Left, or just hover above politics. Ukraine’s extreme-right Svaboda? Maybe call it Jamaat e-Svaboda-Islamiyeh, then it can just be “militants.”
The utter nonsense of these groups throughout the Muslim world, from the Muslim Brothers to Boko Haram, al-Shabab, Abu Sayyef and Ennahada in Tunisia being hidden from the political map is a crime against reason. Ennahada is not a “moderate Islamic party.” If this party existed in any other country, from South Africa to Singapora Columbia or Norway, and was non-Muslim, it would be an extreme right-wing party. The problem throughout the Muslim world is that in general the political map has been surrendered to the extreme extreme religious Right, the extreme nationalist religious Right and the mere extreme Right. The willful ignorance with which this subject is approached stems from the fear that to admit the truth would require that a whole swath of the world live up to standards of the rest of the world.
Right and Left are the goalposts by which politics are judged. When all the Breiviks are on the field and the Coulibalys are off it, we can’t play the game. It is unfortunate that in places like Syria, Iran, Pakistan or Libya politics ranges only to the far, far Right. But all the more reason to hold them to a standard and hope they will drag their countries back to the center, rather than pretend everyone from the Brotherhood to the AKP are “moderates” and letting them run wild with extremist right-wing agendas of turning back the clock on their citizens and disappearing their rights.
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