The Left and Islam
Thinking Outside of the Secular Box
By GILAD ATZMON
is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world,
and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
— Karl Marx 1843
I launch into a disclosure of liberal and leftist delusional treatment
of religions, Islam and Palestine in particular, I would like to share
with you a bad racist joke. Beware; you may not want to share this
short tale with your feminist friends.
American female activist who visited Afghanistan in the late 1990s was
devastated to find out that women were marching 15 ft behind their men.
She soon learned from her local translator that this was due to some
religious guidelines that ruled [this is the way we show] respect for
the ‘head of the family’. Once back in America the devastated
activist launched campaigns after campaigns for women’s rights in
Afghanistan. As it happened, the same devoted activist visited Kabul
last month. This time she was amazed to find a totally different
reality. Women were actually marching 30 ft ahead of their husbands.
The activist was quick to report to her headquarters in America: “The
Women rights revolution is a great success here in Afghanistan. While
in the past it was the man who marched in the front, now it is the
women who takes the lead.” Her Afghani translator, who overheard her
report, took the activist aside and advised her that her interpretation
was totally wrong. “The women” he said, “are walking in front because
of the landmines.…”
tragic as it may sound to some, we are not as free as we believe
ourselves to be. We are not exactly the author of most of our thoughts
and realizations. Our human conditions are imposed on us; we are a
product of our culture, language ideological indoctrination and in many
cases, victims of our intellectual laziness. Like the semi-fictional
American female activist above, in most cases we are trapped within our
preconceived ideas and that stops us from seeing things for what they
really are. Accordingly, we tend to interpret and in most cases
misinterpret remote cultures employing our own value system and moral
tendency has some grave consequences. For some reason ‘we’ (the
Westerners) tend to believe that ‘our’ technological superiority
together with our beloved ‘enlightenment’ equips us with a ‘rational
secularist anthropocentric, absolutist ethical system’ of the very
highest moral stand.
the West we can detect two ideological components that compete for our
hearts and minds; Both claim to know what is ‘wrong’ and who is
‘right’. The Liberal would insist on praising individual liberty and
civil equality; the Leftist would tend to believe to possess a ‘social
scientific’ tool helping to identify who is ‘progressive’ and who is
things stand, it is these two modernist secularist precepts that act as
our Western political ethical guard. But in fact, they have achieved
the opposite. Each ideology in its own peculiar way has led us to a
state of moral blindness. It is these two so-called ‘humanist’ calls,
that either consciously prepare the ground for criminal
interventionalist colonial wars (the Liberal), or failed to oppose them
while employing wrong ideologies and faulty arguments (the Left).
Liberal and Left, in their apparent banal Western forms suggest that
secularism is the answer for the world’s ailments. Without a doubt,
Western secularism may be a remedy for some Western social malaise.
However, Western Liberal and Left ideologies, in most cases, fail to
understand that secularism is in itself a natural outcome of Christian
culture, i.e., a direct product of Christian tradition and openness
towards an independent civic existence. In the West, the spiritual and
the civil sphere are largely separated .
It is this very division that enabled the rise of secularity and the
discourse of rationality. It is this very division that also led to the
birth of a secular ethical value system in the spirit of enlightenment
this very division led also to the rise of some blunt forms of
fundamental-secularism that matured into crude anti religious
worldviews that are no different from bigotry. It is actually that
very misleading fundamental secularism that brought the West to a total
dismissal of a billion human beings out there just because they wear
the wrong scarf or happen to believe in something we fail to grasp.
Progressive vs Regressive
and Judaism, unlike Christianity, are tribally orientated belief
systems. Rather than ‘enlightened individualism’ it is actually the
survival of the extended family that is at the core interest of those
two belief systems. The Taliban that is regarded by most Westerners as
the ultimate possible darkest political setting, is simply not
concerned at all with issues to do with personal liberties or personal
rights. It is the safety of the tribe together with the maintenance of
family values in the light of the Qur’an that stands at its core.
Rabbinical Judaism is not different at all. It is basically there to
preserve the Jewish tribe by maintaining Judaism as a ‘way of life’.
both Islam and Judaism there is hardly a separation between the
spiritual and the civil. Both religions stand as systems that provide
thorough answers in terms of spiritual, civil, cultural and day to day
matters. Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) was largely a process of
Jewish assimilation through secularization and emancipation, and
spawning various modern forms of Jewish identities, Zionism included.
Yet Enlightenment values of universalism have never been incorporated
into the body of Jewish orthodoxy. Like in the case of Rabbinical
Judaism, that is totally foreign to the spirit of Enlightenment, Islam
is largely estranged to those values of Euro centric Modernism and
rationality. If anything, due to the interpretation of the Scriptures
(hermeneutic), both Islam and Judaism are actually closer to the spirit
of post modernity.
the Left ideology nor Liberalism engage intellectually or politically
with these two religions. This fact is disastrous, for the biggest
current threat to world peace is posed by the Israeli-Arab conflict; a
conflict rapidly becoming a war between a Jewish expansionist state and
Islamic resistance. And yet, both the Liberal and the Left ideologies
are lacking the necessary theoretical means to understand the
complexities of Islam and Judaism.
Liberal would dismiss Islam as sinister for its take on human rights
and women in particular. The Left would fall into the trap of
denouncing religion in general as ‘reactionary’. Maybe without
realizing it, both Lib and Left are falling here into a clear
supremacist argument. Since both Islam and Judaism are more than just
religions, they convey a ‘way of life’ and stand as a totally thorough
answer to questions regarding being in the world, the Western Lib-Left
are at danger of a complete dismissal of a large chunk of humanity.
have recently accused a genuine Leftist and good activist of being an
Islamophobe for blaming Hamas for being ‘reactionary’. The activist,
who is evidently a true supporter of Palestinian resistance was quick
to defend himself claiming that it wasn’t only ‘Islamism’ that he
didn’t like, he actually equally hated Christianity and Judaism. For
some reason he was sure that hating every religion equally was a proper
humanist qualification. Accordingly, the fact that an Islamophobe is
also a Judeophobe and Christiano-phobe is not necessarily a sign of a
humanist commitment. I kept challenging that good man; he then argued
that it was actually Islamism (i.e., political Islam) which he didn’t
approve of. I challenged him again and brought to his attention the
fact that in Islam there is no real separation between the spiritual
and the political. The notion of political Islam (Islamism) may as well
be a Western delusional reading of Islam. I pointed out that Political
Islam, and even the rare implementation of ‘armed jihad’, are merely
Islam in practice. Sadly enough, this was more or less the end of the
discussion. The Palestinian solidarity campaigner found it too
difficult to cope with the Islamic unity of body and soul. The Left in
general is doomed to fail here unless it elaborates by means of
listening to the organic Islamic bond between the ‘material’ and the so
called ‘opium of the masses’. For the Leftist to do so, it is no less
than a major intellectual shift.
Such a shift was suggested recently by Hisham Bustani, an independent Jordanian Marxist, stating:
European left must make a serious critical assessment of this ‘we know
better’ attitude and the ways it tends to deal with popular forces in
the south as ideologically and politically inferior.”
with Palestine is a very good opportunity to review the gravity of the
situation. As it happens, in spite of the murderous Israeli treatment
of the Palestinians, solidarity with Palestinians has yet to become a
mass movement. It may well never make it as such a movement. Given the
West’s failure to uphold the rights of the oppressed, Palestinians seem
to have learned their lesson, they democratically elected an Islamic
party that promised them resistance. Interestingly enough, very few
leftists were there to support the Palestinian people and their
the current template of conditional political solidarity, we are losing
campaigners on each turn of this bumpy road. The reasons are as
The Palestinian liberation movement is basically a national liberation
movement. This acknowledgment is where we lose all the
Left cosmopolitans, those who oppose nationalism.
Due to the political rise of Hamas, Palestinian resistance is now
regarded as Islamic resistance. This is where we are losing the
secularists and rabid atheists who oppose religion, catapulting them to
being PEP (progressive except on Palestine).
In fact the PEP are divided largely into two groups.
Those who oppose Hamas for being ‘reactionary’, yet approve Hamas for
their operational success as a Resistance movement. Those activists are
basically waiting for the Palestinians to change their mind and revert
to a secular society. But they are willing to conditionally support the
Palestinians as an oppressed people.
Those who are against Hamas for being a ‘reactionary’ force; and
dismiss its operational success. These are waiting for the world
revolution. They prefer to let the Palestinians wait for the time
being, as if Gaza were a seashore holiday resort
these rapidly evaporating solidarity forces we are left with a
miniature Palestinian solidarity movement with an embarrassingly
limited (Western) intellectual power and even less positive performance
on the grass roots level. This tragic situation was disclosed recently
by Nadine Rosa-Rosso,
a Brussels-based independent Marxist. She states: "The vast majority of
the Left, including communists, agrees in supporting the people of Gaza
against Israeli aggression, but refuses to support its political
expressions such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.” This
leads Rossa-Rosso to wonder “why do the Left and far Left mobilize such
small numbers? And indeed, to be clear, are the Left and far Left still
able to mobilize on these issues?”
the left’s support for human rights in Palestine is conditional and
dependent on the Palestinians denouncing their religion and ideological
beliefs, cultural heritage, and social traditions and adopting a new
set of beliefs, alien values and social behaviours that matches what
its culture deems acceptable; that means the world is denying them a
most basic human right, the right to think, and to live within a chosen
ethical code.” Nahida Izzat
current left discourse of solidarity is futile. It estranges itself
from its subject, it achieves very little and it seems to go
nowhere. If we want to help the Palestinians, the Iraqis and the other
millions of victims of Western imperialism we really must stop for a
second, take a big breath and start again from scratch.
We must learn to listen. Rather than imposing our belief on others we better learn to listen to what others believe in.
we follow Bustani’s and Rossa-Rosso’s suggestions and revise our entire
notion of Islam, its spiritual roots, its structure, its unified
balance between the civil and the spirit, its vision of itself as a
‘way of living’? Whether we can do so or not is a good question.
option is to reassess our blindness and to encounter humanist issues
from a humanist perspective (as opposed to political). Rather than
loving ourselves through the suffering of others, which is the ultimate
form of self-loving, we better for the first time, exercise the notion
of real empathy. We put ourselves in the place of the other accepting
that we may never fully understand that very other.
than loving ourselves through the Palestinians and at their expense, we
need to accept Palestinians for what they are and support them for who
they are regardless of our own views on things. This is the only real
form of solidarity. It aims at ethical rather than ideological
conformity. It puts humanity at its very centre. It reflects on Marx’s
deep understanding of religion as the “sigh of the oppressed”. If we
claim to be compassionate about people we better learn to love them for
what they are rather than what we expect them to be.
Gilad Aztmon is a writer and jazz musician living in London. His latest cd is In Loving Memory of America.