Terror, Islam and the liberal-Left response

“The liberal-Left’s response to Islamic terror exposes the cracks in its discourse surrounding violence perpetrated by religious zealots.” Tributes being paid to Avijit Roy.  

The recent cold-blooded murder in Dhaka of U.S.-based writer Avijit Roy, who fought for a more liberal and secular Bangladesh, by Islamic radicals, holds an important lesson for the global liberal-Left.

The liberal-Left’s response to a string of events across the world — the >attack on a cultural centre in Copenhagen for hosting a debate on Islam and blasphemy, the >attack on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists for ‘insulting the Prophet,’ the f >logging of liberal Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, and the >anti-Islam protests in Germany — exposes the cracks in its discourse surrounding violence perpetrated by religious zealots. The liberal-Left’s denunciation of such attacks has been mostly ambiguous, raising doubts over its commitment to the values that it claims to defend.

‘Tolerating’ differences

Having accepted the privileged position of capital, a section of the liberal-Left has been accused of resorting to the ‘culturalisation of politics,’ wherein all social schisms are seen as the result of ethnic, racial or religious differences. The solution, we are told, lies in simply ‘tolerating’ these differences. In Europe, the liberal-Left intelligentsia seems to be losing out to the Right: its response to the Right’s systematic campaigns against minorities and immigrants has not been to attack the severe austerity measures or unjust immigration laws. Nor has it been able to carve out a space for atheists, liberals and ex-Muslims to criticise their cultures and religion — without being co-opted by the European Right. Instead, it has tried to smear those who look critically at faith and culture with charges of xenophobia, ‘Islamophobia’ and racism.

The liberal-Left has often defended practices of some minority cultures, such as privileging of males in religious courts, under the pseudo-liberal logic of “accommodating cultures in their own terms.”

The liberal-Left has downplayed the role of religion in violence even when the perpetrators explicitly speak of religious motives

The result is that large sections of the native working class in the West perceive immigrants and their cultures as being privileged over others in Europe, a continent bogged down by severe austerity measures and rising unemployment.

While several high-profile secular intellectuals — like neuroscientist Sam Harris and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — have been accused of ‘Islamophobia,’ the list curiously includes many Muslims and ex-Muslims who are striving to create a narrative against political Islam.

Maryam Namazie, an Iranian Communist party worker on exile in the U.K., has been called an ‘Islamophobe’ for her ‘One Law for All’ campaign against Sharia law in Britain. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born American writer and activist was harshly criticised by the Left for leading a campaign against female genital mutilation — a procedure that she underwent herself and which is prevalent in some Muslim communities (though the Holy Koran does not prescribe it). In a conversation with Dr. Dawkins, Ms. Ali compared the criticism she received from the liberal-Left to traditional racism in the West, saying, “If the genitals of little white girls were being cut off, there would be enormous outrage.” Similarly, in a debate hosted by American political humorist Bill Maher, religious scholar Reza Aslan and actor Ben Affleck insinuated that those who claim a direct link between Islam and the violence are just “gross and racist.”

In an interview to the New York Times Magazine, Dr. Aslan said people bring their values to their religion. In other words, widespread misogyny in West Asia and other nations in Asia has nothing to do with religious conditioning, but is somehow the result of a person’s ethnicity and place in which a person was born.

The liberal-Left has consistently argued that religiously motivated violence is simply a function of racial discrimination, lack of opportunities and poverty, downplaying the role of religion even if the perpetrators explicitly say so.

While these factors have to be acknowledged, is it also not a fact that tens of thousands of young, educated and middle class Muslims from liberal societies in the West are joining the Islamic State in Iraq? Jihadi John, who featured in the videos showing beheading of captives by the Islamic State, is an example: he grew up in London and has a degree in Computer Science. Similarly, Umar Abdul Muttalab, the “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas in 2009, was a son of wealthy Nigerian businessman. Even Osama bin Laden and the current al-Qaeda chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, hail from well-to-do families. The predicament of the liberal-Left arises from the confusion between criticism of ideas and racist profiling/caricaturing of people. The distinction between them is clear: Islam is a set of ideas which can be subjected to close scrutiny; however, Muslims are people and deserve equal respect. The fault perhaps lies with the liberal-Left’s inability to imagine a progressive political project wherein ethnic, racial, sexual and religious minorities can coexist with shared beliefs in universal ideals.

Shutting down criticism of Islam is problematic at a time when countries jail political dissenters, discriminate and kill sexual and religious minorities, and sustain dictatorships in its name.

The murder of Roy and the decision to flog Badawi for promoting free thinking presents a question: how can we uphold their right to say what they want to without allowing criticism of the ideology that victimises them?

Several commentators such as Middle Eastern correspondent of The Independent Robert Fisk and American linguist and philosopher Professor Noam Chomsky have explained these events as the result of historical mistakes committed by the West.

Fisk wrote in The Independent about how those involved in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo were of Algerian descent, arguing that the oppression they might have experienced in France could have resulted in them taking refuge in religion. Chomsky referred to the U.S. missile attack on the headquarters of Serbian state radio and television in the Kosovo war in 1999 to reiterate that it is hypocritical for political leaders and the media in the West to speak of free speech when it has supported such attacks in the past.

While we must indeed criticise the West’s foreign policy, we should not underestimate the power of religious ideology in inspiring people to fight for a utopia. With Nigeria’s Boko Haram pledging allegiance to the IS, we are faced with a transnational alliance of dangerous fascist groups seeking to reorganise society in their own vision. In such a scenario, we should not just condemn the acts of such groups, but criticise their utopia itself.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 2:29:18 PM |

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