Why the Left has Trouble Talking About Islam

By David Donaldson
Muslims protest in Sydney over "Innocence of Muslims" film posted on Youtube

By David Donaldson. This piece originally appeared on David’s blog here.

Walking around inner-suburban Melbourne recently, I came across the latest Socialist Alternative poster, taped sturdily to a power pole outside a pub: “Why the left must support the Muslim protesters”.

How ridiculous, I think to myself. I’m reminded of the argument Zionists like to throw at white people who support the Palestinians: “If YOU lived under an Islamist regime, you’d be the first to go.” It’s an unfair characterisation of Muslim societies, but they have a point. Try telling a leftist from a Muslim country that they ought to support the Islamists, and see what kind of reaction you get.

Unemployment among Muslims in Australia is two to four times as high as the rest of the population.

The left tends to become hamstrung between its secular, egalitarian beliefs and its desire to support the underdog. In such a delicate context, it’s easy for the conservatives to make their easy, compelling arguments be heard.

On some level, SA are right. Unemployment among Muslims in Australia is two to four times as high as the rest of the population. Almost 40 per cent of Muslim children live in poverty- three times the national average. Not to mention the psychological effect of constantly being told by the media that you’re part of a troublesome minority. Or that you and your family are somehow inherently bad, thanks to your religion.

Waleed Aly noted that most of the protesters in Sydney had not seen the film in question, which is not really surprising- it was the same with protests against Salman Rushdie back in the 80s. Accessing it would only validate the sentiment.

But it’s not really about the film, it’s about anger in response to decades of humiliation. Muslims around the world have certainly been humiliated over and again by successive waves of Westerners. Before World War II, most of the Muslim world was controlled by Europeans, with only Turkey -a former colonial power itself- escaping this indignity. Then came endless beatings at the hands of Israel, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq. And don’t forget about the dictators like Mubarak or the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which the West has long supported for its own strategic purposes. The West does what it likes in the Middle East, with little regard for popular sentiment. Muslims have a right to feel angry. And when you’re angry and powerless, you tend to resort to desperate measures.

It’s racist and patently ridiculous to lump all Muslims into the same category of “violent and foreign”, and demonstrates a profound lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslim societies.

The left loves an underdog. It’s proof that the system doesn’t work for everyone, at a time when most Australians live well and apathy is high. It shows that the United States does not always know best, and that people can fight back against imperialism. In fact, it shows that imperialism does exist to begin with- that American invasions across the Middle East are not just a case of liberating a people living under tyrannical rule, but pushing a worldview that is not easily accepted by everyone. Both Muslims and the left have a case against Western countries’ warmongering and the barely hidden racism of many on the right.

But part of the reason the left sides with Muslims is that it’s too easy, if you choose to criticise a powerless group in society for doing something wrong, for that to be used by the shock jocks and racists as canon fodder in an altogether different crusade. This is where the line becomes blurred between Islam (the religion), Islamism (religious politics) and Muslims (the people); where criticism of a particular behaviour or political viewpoint can easily be co-opted into condemnation of an entire group. Even talking about it suggests that there is some kind of urgency about the issue.

It’s racist and patently ridiculous to lump all Muslims into the same category of “violent and foreign”, and demonstrates a profound lack of knowledge about Islam and Muslim societies. When people talk about Islamism -bringing Islamic religious values into politics- they tend to focus on Osama bin Laden, ignorant of the fact that the Muslim world contains a huge range of interpretations of the religion and how it relates to politics.

It annoys me when people on the left infantilise “Islam” and “Muslims” by giving them a free pass to do things that are unacceptable in the wider community.

Notwithstanding the right-wing agonising about creeping sharia and unchecked immigration, this is something which needs to be discussed. Part of the problem is fear of the unknown. Another part is down to the intended psychological effect of international terrorism. The third key element is the compliance of many in politics and the media in dog-whistle campaigning. Talking about this topic openly allows us to get a start on addressing why a large number of Australians feel left out of the wider community.

You don’t hear from Westerners about the man reckoned to be the most influential religious scholar in Turkey, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the United States and promotes a spiritualist brand of Islam well suited to a modern capitalist economy. Nor do you hear about the popular Iranian reformist, Abdolkarim Soroush, who argues that democracy is an important part of Islam. Nor do you hear that a majority of people in many Muslim countries, even if they believe that lawmaking should be inspired by Islam, believe in democracy and freedom of speech. People all over the world have an uncanny ability to find ways of fitting their religious beliefs to what they want to believe. There are hundreds of interpretations of the faith. For many, the religion is as much a symbol of identity as it is of personal beliefs.

For this reason, it annoys me when people on the left infantilise “Islam” and “Muslims” by giving them a free pass to do things that are unacceptable in the wider community. The claim that Muslims have a right to say offensive things like “Obama Obama we love Osama” by dint of their religion, is ridiculous. And the constant refrain that Islam is a religion “of peace” represents a misreading of the role religions play in the real world. Islam, like any religion, is not inherently peaceful or violent, but has been used for both over history. Many terrible things have been done in the name of Islam, of Christianity, of Judaism, but so have many great things. Religions do not exist separately from their social context.

As for the argument that violence and offensive signs are acceptable, they’re not. Just because you can understand the reasons behind such things doesn’t make them okay. To claim that people behave in such ways solely due to their place in society is to patronise them, to deny that they, like anyone else, can choose their own actions. There are many Muslims in Australia, but only a handful saw the need to be deliberately offensive. That leaves a large number who, for various reasons, didn’t.

But to completely gloss over the religious element of the protests is unhelpful. Certainly, I would not see it as the driving force behind the protests, but many of the men in Sydney on the weekend would claim otherwise. Islamism is an attempt to maintain a traditional, hierarchical view of society based on the sovereignty of God; leftist politics is progressive and people-focused. They are almost diametrically opposed. This is the reason that conservatives charge many leftists with naivety. In fact, Islamism was tacitly promoted by totalitarian regimes across the Middle East during the 1970s and 80s to undermine the leftist opposition. To pretend they have the same goals is completely erroneous.

While I don’t think that the left should “support” the protesters, it is important that we consider exactly who and what we are criticising. Steering a course between conservative prejudice and left-wing hypocrisy requires a closer look at what we’re discussing.

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  • John

    Thanks for these insights … some very useful points made! An interest in speaking truth to power should not disable one from speaking truth generally when its object is not ‘power’. Those who can’t do both are condemned to a corrupt relativism – whoever is in power will be opposed, and whoever is in the disadvantaged minority will be defended … even if, as in the case of the protesters (violent or not), they are indefensible as their wishes (as they expressed them) are incompatible with a rights respecting, democratic society.

  • Alex

    I don’t think using the Socialist Alternative as representative of ‘the Left’ is a good starting point, but I totally agree that it is both naive and very counter-productive for Progressives to attempt to sympathise with or enable Islamists, especially those that advocate violence. Understanding of difference and tolerance of violent beliefs are totally different things.

  • David Donaldson

    You’re right Alex, I don’t think SA is particularly representative of the left generally, but I suppose they were advocating in a less subtle way a point of view which other lefties touch on. They’re kind of like a distilled version of some elements of the left.

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