A Muslim Left

Recently, I finished a seven part series on Islamic reform at Guardian's Comment is Free. The post that prompted the most feedback — discussed by NYTimes' Opinionator blog, critiqued in a column at Daily Times in Pakistan, reprinted at Alternet … Read More

By / December 4, 2007

Recently, I finished a seven part series on Islamic reform at Guardian's Comment is Free.

The post that prompted the most feedback — discussed by NYTimes' Opinionator blog, critiqued in a column at Daily Times in Pakistan, reprinted at Alternet and both reviled and challenged by various bloggers — was one entitled Making of a Muslim Left.

Here is a relevant passage from the article, slightly edited, that puts the necessity of a Muslim left in the proper context:

Today, it is undeniable that traditionalist clerical Islam – which is quietist, meek, and oriented towards the status quo – has lost its monopoly over Muslims. This is the result of multiple instances of internal dissent over a millenia (as well as colonialism). Led by a mixture of cleric-minded Muslims in the US, UK, and Jordan, traditionalist clerical Islam is trying to make a comeback and become more relevant – like by writing a letter of peace to the Pope. Though such efforts are good, it is a case of too little too late. Instead, Islam is well on its way towards an individualist revolution; one that no amount of clerical effort can contain. The most attention-grabbing child of this revolution has been jihadism. However, it is not the most successful. That (dis)honour lies, in my mind, with the Muslim evangelicals – also known as Islamism, the Muslim right, or political Islam.

The Muslim right is an ideological movement. Why not? When rationalism is rampant and clerics can't bind Muslims together, ideology is the best thing to obtain mass obedience. Islamism makes its political base among a large swath of religious Muslims. With their religious supremacism – which convinces them that everyone else's life would be better off if they adopted the same values as them – these Muslims leave themselves wide open to be preyed upon by savvy propagandists. Thus, hateful tricks like invoking the dangers of homosexuality, attacking sexual liberation, demonising religious minorities and foreign cultures, and censoring anything that smacks of critical thinking, are all used to keep the ideological base stirring. With that base in hand, Islamism then agitates for unfettered democracy. It purports to speak for the "common man" (even as it preys upon it) and acquires a populist mystique. Islamism doesn't fear elections because it is the best of the grassroots propagandists. The Muslim right is international. It played off the Cold War and in a Machiavellian stroke made the US its benefactor. It ended up creating a decentralised international network. Jamat-e-Islami in Pakistan consulted with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; the Brotherhood then created Hamas. Then the Sunni Islamists went and assisted Khomeini, pragmatically putting aside their doctrinal disagreement with the Shia for the sake of shared ideology. Taking inspiration from these successes, copycats rose up in Gulf and African states. For publicity and fund-raising purposes, the Muslim right brought its evangelism to the west. Muslim children coloured by this ideology ended up in school with me, asking me to help them set up an organisation that does exactly what Christian supremacists do. So the dilemma for 21st century Islam is that there is a group of Muslims who with "activists" instead of "clerics" have reined in Muslim individualism, organised it into a system, injected it with illiberal values, and then invoked non-violence and freedom of speech as a shield to hide behind.

I had preceded the discussion about a Muslim left by discussing, at length, the development (or rise) of religious individualism among Muslims. My basic point was that due to the simultaneous loss of traditional clerical authority, and the shock of colonialism, observant Muslims found themselves cut off from their traditional authorities. It was this vacuum that Islamism filled. One can — and should — bemoan that. However, it is also an opportunity. The fact that there is a vacuum, one that needs to be filled, is an opportunity for a Muslim left to insert itself into Islamic discourse.

This is exactly what I recommend doing in the article. Here are some principles that Muslim left would affirm:

• separation of mosque and state; • opposition to tyranny (even if the tyrant is a secular Musharraf type); • affirmation of republicanism or democracy; • an ability to coherently demonstrate that Islamism represents merely one interpretation of Islam; • a commitment to free speech and eagerness to defeat Islamism in the marketplace of ideas; • commitment to religious individualism; • opposition to economic protectionism; • opposing any and all calls for a "council of religious experts" that can oversee legislation (even if those experts are liberals); and • affirming international law

You could add other baseline things to this list i.e. affirming the rights of women and minorities, for example. Commitment to free speech might be another.

The most important thing for a Muslim left would be to be able to articulate these principles in Islamic vocabulary. 

Theoretically, a Muslim Left looks like a very palatable and welcome idea, but when you move to the realm of the real world, people in the Western left suddenly become confused by it, because when you look at the real life examples I gave (in other posts) about the kind of people who I think fall within the Muslim left, they turn out to be, socially conservative and speak in theological vocabulary. For most of us on the left, it is hard to conceive of a leftist who, due to religious considerations, won't, let's say, support third wave feminism. Yet, that is precisely the kind of leftist a Muslim leftist is: he is, in short, a limited leftist.

In fact, this was the point that threw off a lot of a commentators at Comment is Free and various other respondents. I clarified this point in a later post:

Secular humanists in Europe often cry that a person cannot be religious and committed to separation of religion and state; yet the US contains many such people, and increasingly, so does the Muslim world. In fact, it will be theist Muslim secularists who will help atheist and agnostic secular humanists exist safely among Muslims.

I don't quite understand why a "religious" left all that difficult to fathom? Don't we have it in the US? Someone like Rabbi Lerner, or Reverend Wallis, clearly falls into the realm of a Jewish left or Christian left. When I think of a Muslim left, I think of anti-foundationalist, anti-theocratic, but still explicitly religious people, like them.

Perhaps this is an instance where my rather "American" cultural understanding ran into a rather different "European" cultural understanding. America is, still, a rather religious culture, whereas Europe is in a post-religious phase.

However, that is precisely the reason that the people most suited to offering a viable "model" to Muslim majority parts of the world, must come from the US. Americans do not have the same blood curdling fear of religion that Europeans do, and frankly, beating back Islamism, and promoting a more egalitarian spirituality in the Muslim majority world, requires a more secure relationship with religion than the one that Europeans have.

I guess, ultimately, the question becomes: do you think that antagonist and aggressive beating down of religion in Muslim majority countries is likely to stymie Islamism, or do you think that persuasive and pragmatic coaxing is more likely to check the expansion of Islamism? If you are with the latter, then you'll think that a Muslim left is a good idea.

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