defining a Muslim Left: part I

Introduction: Eteraz on Islamic reform

Ali's series on Islamic Reform at The Guardian has been, in my opinion, nothing less than a tour-de-force. I've linked the series below; they really are mandatory reading for anyone interested in discussing Islam in the context of politics and policy.

  1. The Roots of Islamic Reform
  2. The Islamic reformation
  3. An Islamic counter-reformation
  4. Beyond Islamic enlightenment
  5. The making of the Muslim left

The Falwell muslims

In his latest entry, Ali identifies what he terms the Muslim Right - evangelical religious supremacists who follow the roadmap of the Christian Right, seeking to utilize the mechanisms of democracy as a vehicle to further their agenda and polemic. These are essentially the muslim analouge of Falwell and Dobson; they are not violent and they are much more numerous in the UK than in the US. Dal Nun Strong and Tariq Nelson have both done real yeoman's work in identifying and rebutting these "Falwell muslims" on their respective blogs. However, their efforts are largely isolated since the Islamosphere is loosely organized and does not have much of a platform for articulating the counter arguments within the broader media environment.

Principles for a muslim Left

To try and address the problem, Ali calls for the emergence of a "Muslim Left" which would explicitly affirm the following principles:

  • separation of mosque and state;
  • opposition to tyranny (even if the tyrant has liberal values);
  • affirmance of republicanism or democracy;
  • an ability to coherently demonstrate that the Muslim right represents merely one interpretation of Islam;
  • a commitment to free speech and eagerness to defeat the Muslim right in the marketplace of ideas;
  • commitment to religious individualism and opposition to left-collectivism, specifically Marxism;
  • 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.

Strategies for a muslim Left

To be effective, Ali argues that the muslim Left must utilize the following strategies:

  1. Popularising the slogan "theocentric, not theocratic" to counter claims of religious treason that will be hurled by Islamists;
  2. An alliance with supporters of old-school Muslim orthodoxy who despite their conservative values are not the same as the Muslim right because they do not like to politicise their faith. These Muslims, by virtue of doctrine and history, have always supported separation of mosque and state, and still do;
  3. Having the confidence to call their solutions truer to the ethos of Islam than the ideas of the Islamists, without engaging in apostasy wars;
  4. An alliance with Marxists and neo-Marxist Muslims without getting sucked into their collectivist phantasmagoria;
  5. Opposing any and all punishments, fines and stigma for "apostasy," "heresy," and "blasphemy". This includes opposition to all "sedition" crimes;
  6. Accepting that the enthronement of the left through democratic means might require the intermediate step of the Muslim right succeeding as well, due largely to its head-start;
  7. Supporting arts, literature, agnosticism and atheism without engaging in derogatory or insulting gestures. The battle against Islamism isn't a fight against Allah or Prophet; it is against an ideology;
  8. Supporting Muslims' right to express their piety with beards, hijab, niqab in order to draw the moderates among the pietists away from the Islamists; and most importantly
  9. Opposition to all imperial western behaviour. Also, rejection of any and all alliances and support from the western right.

An intrinsic conflict

I am in large, broad agreement with essentially all of this (with some exceptions, addressed shortly). I agree that the mainstream conservative Right is now a hostile entity, emphasized by Ali in the last point above. However, it must also be noted that the mainstream liberal Left is not automatically a natural ally for our putative muslim Left, either.

Part of the conflict arises from the basic principles, which come into conflict with the mainstream of liberal political thought. For example, the issue of "opposition to leftist collectivism specifically Marxism" is problematic. What aspect of Marxism specifically do we mean? The central tenets of Marxism, ie the dignity of the working class and the conscience that keeps capitalism fettered, remain core principles of modern liberalism. Likewise, the warning against "economic protectionism" is also somewhat vague and opens us to conflict with the liberal mainstream. The free vs fair trade debate is a critical one. The final and "most important" strategy prescription that Ali makes is to reject the Western Right, but it's worth noting that embracing the principles above would put the Muslim Left in de facto alliance after all.

The Fallwell Left

More important than matters of domestic policy and social justice however is tolerance. And on this score, the Left is just as hostile to muslims as the Right. The mainstream Left remains deeply skeptical of religious faith, with secularism as a core value. Ali notes that the muslim Left will need to make concrete and sincere alliance with old-school muslim orthodoxy, but this also entails defending the orthodox (muslim and christian alike) against the secularist assault. An example is the overt hostility to expressions of faith in the public sphere, which do not violate the concept of separation of church/mosque and state but still elicit a pathological response from the warriors of secularism on the Left. In Europe, the fault line lies firmly upon hijab, which Ali mentions above as an expression of piety. The zeal with which the secularists pursue their agenda is no less supremacist than their analouges on the right.

Dubai Ports World

Beyond the conflict with secularism lies something even uglier; outright xenophobia. The best example of this was the Dubai Ports World fracas. While President Bush argued forcefully in support of the deal, Democrats seized upon the issue as a means to burnish their security image, a gross example of political pandering at the expense of the muslim community. Leading the charge was none other than Hillary Clinton, who claimed the deal would "surrender" our ports to "foreign governments", even though 80% of US ports are already operated by foreign-based firms (including Chinese). There were Democratic voices in support of the deal, including former Presidents Bill Clinton (heh) and Jimmy Carter, the latter of whom took the trouble to answer a question I posted to him on Daily Kos regarding the matter:

Answer to azizhp: In an interview on CNN, I publicly supported the DPW as
soon as the issue arose. My agreement with President Bush on the issue was highlighted that evening by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. There was no
threat to U.S. security, and it was a false and demagogic issue

(emphasis mine). Eventually DPW sold its stake to an American-based firm to defuse te issue, but the damage was done.

And the DPW issue is not an isolated incident. Via 'Aqoul, there was another display of Democratic xenophobia, this time with Senator Charles Schumer leading the crusade against another Dubai-based firm buying a stake in the NASDAQ exchange:

Saying the deal gives him pause, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., pressed Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson on Thursday to thoroughly review a proposal by Borse Dubai to buy a nearly 20% stake in the Nasdaq Stock Market.

"I believe that the acquisition of such a large stake in a U.S. exchange by a foreign government raises some serious questions," the senator wrote to Paulson.

An outdated political axis

It should be noted that if one wishes to critique Dubai, there are plenty of legitimate avenues to do so; for example, the fact that the engine of economic prosperity runs off the back of indentured labor. Man-made island chains, 7-star hotels, and the tallest building in the world, all are gleaming Pharonic monuments to economic disparity. Dubai is a "gulf" state indeed, but there is little critique of Dubai on this score from the liberal mainstream.

And therein lies the crux of any attempt to define a muslim Left solely in relation to the traditional left-right political axis. In doing so, we become constrained by the same stultifying left-right narratives that so hobble mainstream political discourse. Exhibit A is today's New York Times piece on Ali's reform series, where they (wrongly) describe the concept of a muslim Left as "centered on Western political liberalism." But who can blame them for that perception, when Western political conservatism is so explicitly rejected in its formulation? The truth is that there are issues on which the muslim Left can, and even must, agree with the political Right. Of these, the most critical is foreign policy, to be addressed in Part 2 of this post.

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