Western intellectuals and their failure to understand the Islamist Left

Over the past 30 years a lot has changed. Theo Van Gogh was murdered for making a movie.

Candelight vigil in tribute to the victims of the shooting at the office of Charlie Hebdo (photo credit: REUTERS)
Candelight vigil in tribute to the victims of the shooting at the office of Charlie Hebdo
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At a recent gathering of the Islamic Society of North America one of the well-known speakers summed up her priorities: “Our obligation is to our young people and our women and to make sure our women are protected in our community. And our top priority, the even higher than all those priorities, is to please God and only God.” The same well-known speaker has made inroads in the past year among many groups affiliated with social justice and progressive activism in the US.
There is no direct contradiction between religious activism for human rights or workers’ rights and the traditional secular Left’s embrace of the same rights. But there is a fundamental contradiction in embracing religious conservatives as an answer to left-leaning causes. Put simply: your obligation cannot be to God and only God, and people who are liberal, open minded and secular should not partner with people who believe that God, and only God, provides the solution or answer. However for the past few decades elements of the traditional Left have become enthralled and oddly enchanted with Islamist theology, to the extent that it has carved out a whole ideology and aesthetic on the Left that can only be described as “Islamist Left.”
Since the 1980s when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses there has been a kulturkampf on the Left that essentially divides those who like the concept of individual rights that came to underpin most countries in the West since the 18th century, and those who think religious theology should determine how we live. Christopher Hitchens referred to this in a 2009 essay, “Assassins of the Mind,” at Vanity Fair.
He claimed the fatwa issued against Rushdie’s book by the Iranian theocratic fascist Ayatollah Khomeini was “the opening shot in a war on cultural freedom.” It resulted in “fear, and this blackmail, [which] comes dressed up in the guise of good manners and multiculturalism.” Hitchens wrote with shock about the cowardice among people he knew. “[V]arious intellectualoids, from John Berger on the left to Norman Podhoretz on the right, argued that Rushdie got what he deserved for insulting a great religion.” In this telling the problem was primarily a Western world fearful of offending people from another culture. It was about self-censorship, museums pulling exhibits, corporations blurring images of cartoons, under threat of violence.
Over the past 30 years a lot has changed. Theo Van Gogh was murdered for making a movie. His murder became the subject of Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: Liberal Europe, Islam and the Limits of Tolerance. Paul Berman’s The Flight of the Intellectuals was published in 2010. Like Hitchens he sought to critique fellow-traveling liberals for their failure to stand up for freedom against Islamist extremism, particularly in the case of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. “I had found my way to a central debate of our moment,” writes Berman, “the debate over Islamist ideas in the Western countries, and over the reluctance of journalists and intellectuals from Western backgrounds to grapple seriously with the Islamist ideas.”
In 2015, 12 people were murdered in an attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. With each terrorist attack comes more of this kind of debate that we have seen from Rushdie to Hitchens and Berman.
The problem is that the real story is not the reprehensible murders and the intellectual response to them. Terrorism is relatively rare and the number of intellectuals mentioned in these discussions about who is a “coward” and who is a true descendant of the Enlightenment, is just a handful. Yes, this handful have a lot of space at major newspapers and magazines in the West, but their debate is primarily among each other. While they’ve been debating over 30 years, the connection between the Islamist far Right and some on the Left has grown, forming a unique combination indigenous to the politics in the West. They miss the forest of the Islamist Left for the trees.
Initially this fraternization was predicated purely on a paternalistic, cultural-supremacist, racist Orientalism whereby well-meaning “enlightened” Westerners wanted to take Islamists under their wing. They sought to help those they saw as “noble savages.”
Islamist theology divides the world into Dar al-Salaam and Dar al-Harb , the abodes of peace and of war, respectively; the caliphate and the “kuffar” sub-humans. In contrast, some in the West see the world as dar al-whitepeople and dar al-minorities. For them, if you are exotic, religious and from “the east” then you are amazing, but if you’re full of the mumbo-jumbo of religion in the West, talking about “rapture,” you’re basically a primitive heathen.
For instance, if you don't want to teach evolution in Texas, you’re seen as an ignorant hillbilly; if you don’t want to teach evolution in Pakistan, you’re exotic and we in the West must “understand” you and your “cultural differences.”
Same religious anti-evolution view, different responses.
For the Western progressive, the aesthetics of religion abroad seem exotic – the flowing robes, the beards, the “people of color.” It’s non-threatening because it is foreign and foreign religious fanaticism or simply religious nomenclature is exotic. For those seeking out religious aesthetics, as people once ran to become Buddhists or submit to some chakras and yogis, the enchantment with jihad and fascination with “allahu akbar” became a kind of Western fetish.
The unintended consequences of the fetish some in the West have had for what they thought was “eastern religion” has been that unlike yoga, Islamism doesn’t want to be repackaged in some ridiculous Western way incorporating just bits and pieces. The burgeoning authentically Islamist community in the West has resulted in a genuine and large community of Islamists who have found a home on the “Left” and been joined by a generation of Islamist Leftists that embraces their values. That is why you can see people talking about “our highest priority is to praise God” and see people on the Left drinking the religious kool-aid as enthusiastically as they mock the Christian Right for doing so.
You’d think at some point this would lead to a real kultulkampf on the Left when they realized their fellow-travelers have nothing in common with them. Men and women telling women to cover their “immodest” hair, praying often, supporting the death penalty, condemning abortion, opposing gay marriage and transgender rights – at some point the long list of manifestly right-wing conservative concepts must surely come up against the “Left” concepts of tolerance and secularism. But they don’t. And in response to this contradiction, the “Right” in the West has begun running to embrace “women’s rights” and “gay rights” as a response to “Islamification.”
“Berman believes that communism was ultimately defeated by argument and debate, and that Islamism should be approached in the same spirit,” wrote Tunku Varadarajan in his 2010 review of Berman’s book at The Daily Beast. But was Communism defeated by argument and debate? Not in Cuba, China, North Korea or Vietnam. Communism fell in eastern Europe and the USSR, but it wasn’t debated to death. It collapsed. The intellectuals didn’t wear it down and break its spirit.
So why does anyone think Islamism is going to be defeated by being talked to death? Where you see Islamists slowly taking over countries, enforcing dress codes, banning the teaching of evolution, where women slowly disappear from public life, where chauvinist men run everything, do you think liberals are winning the debate? The 6,000 Islamic State (ISIS) members from the EU and the 100,000 supporters of Islamist extremism in the EU were almost all born after Rushdie’s book was published. Do you see a problem? After every terrorist attack we get excuses. So-called ISIS isn’t Islamic. Jihad is not holy war. “Allahu akbar” is just a beautiful term of devotion. Sarin Jalal in a letter to the The Toronto Star writes, “we want ‘allahu akbar’ back. It should be restored as a phrase that represents compassion, tolerance and peace.” That would be great, but shouldn’t you take it back from the people in ISIS and other groups who are shouting “god is great” as they hack people to death? If you really think ISIS are a bunch of non-Islamist apostates, then explain why it is that there were less protests against ISIS recruiters in the West in 2014 than against Charlie Hebdo? We already have a term for what has happened in the West. Une alliance idéologique rouge-brunvert , the “red-brown-green” alliance of communists, Nazis and Islamists. There’s no evidence that the growth of the Islamist Left will be defeated through discussion. The evidence is that it will grow until it takes over some societies and col- lapses from within, or provokes an extreme fascist nationalist response. Until then we will be hearing a lot more about how our priority is to please God and only God.