The Left’s Crush on Islamism
Fantastic essay by Michael Walzer in Dissent magazine, questioning his own side — the Left — on its bizarre unwillingness to confront radical Islam. He says the concept of “Islamophobia” is a left-wing way to shut down critical discussion about Islam — a discussion that the Left is perfectly willing to have about other religions. Excerpts:
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.
He’s right about that. As I’ve said here in the past, if I were a Jew in medieval Europe, the argument that anti-Jewish persecution isn’t “true Christianity” might be abstractly true, but it would also be completely useless. The news would not have reached my Christian neighbors, or the Church. Similarly, even if it were true that waging jihad on infidels is not “true Islam,” of what use is that to the infidels in the way of ISIS, and Boko Haram? More Walzer:
There are perfectly legitimate criticisms that can be made not only of Islamist zealots but also of Islam itself—as of any other religion. Pascal Bruckner argues that the term “Islamophobia” was “a clever invention because it amounts to making Islam a subject that one cannot touch without being accused of racism.” The term was first used, he claims, to condemn Kate Millett for calling upon Iranian women to take off their chadors. I don’t know who “invented” Islamophobia, but it is worth repeating Bruckner’s key point: there has to be room for feminists like Millett and for all the militant atheists and philosophical skeptics to say their piece about Islam—and also about Christianity and Judaism—and to find an audience if they can. Call them to account for bad arguments, but their critical work should be welcome in a free society.
Also true. Just because somebody criticizes Christianity doesn’t make them anti-Christian. They may in fact be bigoted against Christianity, but criticism alone doesn’t prove that. Same with Islam. One more Walzer bit:
The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion. Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.” Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests. But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).
This is quite true. I find that most people on the secular Left simply do not understand how religion works.