The Left and Islam

The following is an updated edition of a paper I published eighteen months ago. The current edition includes new references to the unfolding events in Egypt.

In front of our eyes, a gigantic regional Arab uprising is taking place. It is evident that until the last few days Western Left had very little to say about it all. It seems as if the Left has reached a rock bottom state of detachment. It has lost contact with the people, social reality, and humanity in general.

Thinking Outside the Secular Box

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
– Karl Marx 1843

Before I launch into a disclosure of liberal and leftist delusional treatment of religions in general, and Islam in particular, I would like to share with you a bad racist joke. Beware; you may not want to share this short tale with your feminist friends.

An American female activist who visited Afghanistan in the late 1990’s was devastated to find out that women were marching 15 feet behind their men. She soon learned from her local translator that this was due to some religious guidelines that ruled [this is the way we show] respect for the ‘head of the family’. Once back in America the devastated activist launched campaign after campaign for women’s rights in Afghanistan. As it happened, the same devoted activist visited Kabul last month. This time she was amazed to find a totally different reality. Women were actually marching 30 feet ahead of their husbands. The activist was quick to report to her headquarters in America: “The Women’s rights revolution is a great success here in Afghanistan. While in the past it was the man who marched in the front, now it is the woman who takes the lead.” Her Afghani translator, who overheard her report, took the activist aside and advised her that her interpretation was totally wrong. “The women” he said, “are walking in front because of the landmines.”

As tragic as it may sound to some, we are not as free as we believe ourselves to be. We are not entirely the author of most of our thoughts and realizations. Our human conditions are imposed on us; we are a product of our culture, language, ideological indoctrination, and in many cases, victims of our intellectual laziness. Like the semi-fictional American female activist above, in most cases we are trapped within our preconceived ideas, and that stops us from seeing things for what they really are. Accordingly, we tend to interpret (and in most cases misinterpret) remote cultures by employing our own value systems and moral codes.

This tendency can have some grave consequences. For some reason ‘we’ (the Westerners) tend to believe that ‘our’ technological superiority together with our beloved ‘enlightenment’ equips us with a ‘rational secularist anthropocentric absolutist ethical system’ of the very highest moral standard.

The Lib-Left

In the West we can detect two ideological components that compete for our hearts and minds; both claim to know what is ‘wrong’ and who is ‘right’. The Liberal would insist on praising individual liberty and civil equality; the Leftist would tend to believe that he or she possesses a ‘social scientific’ tool, helping to identify who is ‘progressive’ and who is ‘reactionary’.

As things stand, it is these two modernist-secularist precepts that have taken on the role of acting as our Western political-ethical guards. But in fact, they have achieved precisely the opposite. Each ideology in its own peculiar way has led us to a state of moral blindness, for it is these two so-called ‘humanist’ calls that have either consciously prepared the ground for criminal interventionist colonial wars (the Liberal), or, have failed to effectively halt or oppose them while employing confused, ineffectual ideologies and faulty arguments (the Left).

Both Liberal and Left in their apparently banal Western (English speaking) forms suggest that secularism is the answer for the world’s ailments, and without a doubt, Western secularism may indeed be a remedy for some aspects of a Western social malaise.

However, what many of the proponents of Western Liberal and Left ideologies typically fail to understand, is that that secularism is itself a natural outcome of Christian culture, i.e., a direct product of Christian tradition and openness towards an independent civic existence. In the West, the spiritual and the civil sphere are largely separated. ((Something to do with a low Roman heritage and the early development of Christianity as an expansionist concept aiming to spread itself to remote cultures and civilizations.)) It is this very division that enabled the rise of secularity and the discourse of rationality. It is this very division that also led to the birth of a secular ethical value system in the spirit of enlightenment and modernism.

But this very division led also to the rise of some blunt forms of fundamental-secularism that matured into crude anti religious worldviews that are no different from bigotry. And it is actually that very misleading fundamental secularism that brought the West to a total dismissal of a billion human beings ‘out there,’ just because they wear the wrong scarf, or happen to believe in something we fail to grasp.

Progressive vs. Regressive

Islam and Judaism, unlike Christianity, are tribally orientated belief systems. Rather than ‘enlightened individualism,’ it is actually the survival of the extended family that is at the core interest of those two belief systems. The Taliban that is regarded by most Westerners as the ultimate worst possible, and darkest political setting, is simply not concerned at all with issues to do with personal liberties or personal rights. It is the safety of the tribe together with the maintenance of family values in the light of the Qur’an that stands at its core. And Rabbinical Judaism is no different at all: It is basically there to preserve the Jewish tribe by maintaining Judaism as a ‘way of life’.

In both Islam and Judaism, there is hardly a separation between the spiritual and the civil. Both religions stand as systems that provide thorough answers in terms of spiritual, civil, cultural and day to day matters. Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) was largely a process of Jewish assimilation through secularization and emancipation, and spawned various modern forms of Jewish identities, Zionism included. Yet Enlightenment values of universalism have never been incorporated into the body of Jewish orthodoxy. As in the case of Rabbinical Judaism, which is totally foreign to the spirit of Enlightenment, Islam is largely estranged to those values of Euro centric Modernism and rationality. If anything, due to the interpretation of the Scriptures (hermeneutic), both Islam and Judaism are actually closer to the spirit of post modernity. ((It can be argued that the primary agenda behind postmodern attempts is to destabilize the foundations of modern knowledge and [ethics by challenging the possibility of modern universal applicability. As eloquently put by Muqtedar Khan, the postmodernist seeks to privilege the ‘here and now’ over the global. Both postmodern philosophy and Religious theology, says Khan “reject the modernist claim in the infallibility of reason”. Like the postmodernist, Islam and Judaism are skeptical towards the sovereignty of reason and discourses of rationality.))

Neither the various Leftist ideologies nor Liberalism engage intellectually or politically with these two religions. And this fact is disastrous, for the biggest current threat to world peace is posed by the Israeli-Arab conflict; a conflict rapidly becoming a war between a Jewish expansionist state and Islamic resistance.

And yet, both the Liberal and the Left ideologies are lacking the necessary theoretical means to understand the complexities of Islam and Judaism – The Liberals would dismiss Islam as ‘sinister’ because of its approach to human rights and women in particular, whilst the Left would fall into the trap of denouncing religions in general as ‘reactionary’.

But maybe without realizing it, both Liberals and the Left are falling here, into a clearly supremacist argument, for both Islam and Judaism are more than just religions: they convey an entire ‘way of life,’ and stand as a thorough attempt to answer crucial questions regarding being in the world – in dismissing them therefore, the Western Lib-Left are in danger of a complete dismissal of a large chunk of humanity. ((The rather common bizarre Marxist suggestion that ‘quite a few out there’ are in fact ‘reactionary’ for being religious entails the necessary assumption that the Marxist himself is settled comfortably in an absolute moral high ground. Such an assumption is rather faulty for two obvious reasons:

  1. Claiming to know more than others on base of ideological or political affiliation is nothing less than supremacy in practice;
  2. The claim for possession of the highest moral ground X cannot be verified scientifically unless validated by another superior and higher moral ground X’. For the Marxist to sustain his ‘highest moral ground’ position, he would have to move on and claim to be holding the highest position X’. In order to verify X’ he will need to move on to a superior X’ and so on. We are facing here an infinite search for the validation of ethical meaning. Such a model of thought may help us grasp why Western Marxism has managed to detach itself from ethical reality and ethical thinking and hardly engage with issues to do with true equality.
    The obvious problem with the Marxist implementation of the ‘progressive vs reactionary’ dichotomy is that the Marxists suitably claim to be among progressives and conveniently claim that the ‘adversary’ is found among the reactionaries. This is obviously slightly suspicious or even dubious to say the least.

Phil Weiss in his invaluable MondoWeiss blog recently coined the useful political term PEP: progressive except on Palestine term.))

I recently accused a genuine Leftist and a good activist of being an Islamophobe for blaming Hamas for being ‘reactionary’. The activist, who is evidently a true supporter of Palestinian resistance was quick to defend himself claiming that it wasn’t only ‘Islamism’ that he didn’t like, he actually equally hated Christianity and Judaism.

For some reason, he was sure that hating every religion equally was a ‘proper humanist qualification’, but the fact that an Islamophobe also considers himself a Judeophobe and Christiano-phobe is not necessarily a sign of a humanist commitment. I kept challenging that good man; he then argued that it was actually Islamism (i.e., political Islam) which he didn’t approve of. I challenged him again, and bringing to his attention the fact that in Islam, there is no real separation between the spiritual and the political: The notion of political Islam (Islamism) may as well be a Western delusional reading of Islam. I pointed out that Political Islam, and even the rare implementation of ‘armed jihad’, are merely Islam in practice.

Sadly enough, this was more or less the end of the discussion –The Palestinian solidarity campaigner found it too difficult to cope with the Islamic unity of body and soul.

The Left in general is doomed to fail here, unless it grasps the organic Islamic bond between the ‘material’ and the so called ‘opium of the masses’. And for the Leftist to do so, it will be nothing less than a major intellectual shift.

Such a shift was suggested recently by Hisham Bustani, an independent Jordanian Marxist, stating:

The European left must make a serious critical assessment of this ‘we know better’ attitude and the ways it tends to deal with popular forces in the south as ideologically and politically inferior.


Solidarity with Palestine is a very good opportunity to review the gravity of the situation. As it happens, in spite of the murderous Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, solidarity with Palestinians has yet to become a mass movement, and it may well never make it as such a movement. Given the West’s failure to uphold the rights of the oppressed, Palestinians seem to have learned their lesson, and they democratically elected an Islamic party that promised them resistance. But interestingly enough, very few leftists were there to support the Palestinian people and their democratic choice.

Within the current template of conditional political solidarity, we are losing campaigners on each turn of this bumpy road, and the reasons are as follows.

  1. The Palestinian liberation movement is basically a national liberation movement. This acknowledgment is where we lose all the Left cosmopolitans, those who oppose nationalism.
  2. Due to the political rise of Hamas, Palestinian resistance is now regarded as Islamic resistance. This is where we are losing the secularists and rabid atheists who oppose religion, catapulting them to being PEP (progressive except on Palestine).

And the PEP are divided largely into two groups:

PEP1. Those who oppose Hamas for being ‘reactionary’, yet approve Hamas for their operational success as a resistance movement. Those activists are basically waiting for the Palestinians to change their mind and revert to a secular society. But, they are willing to conditionally support the Palestinians as an oppressed people.

PEP2. Those who are against Hamas for being a ‘reactionary’ force, and dismiss its operational success. These are waiting for the world revolution. They prefer to let the Palestinians wait for the time being, as if Gaza were a seashore holiday resort

With these rapidly evaporating solidarity forces we are left with a miniature Palestinian solidarity movement with an embarrassingly limited (Western) intellectual power and even less positive performance on the grass roots level. This tragic situation was disclosed recently by Nadine Rosa-Rosso, a Brussels-based independent Marxist. She states: “The vast majority of the Left, including communists, agrees in supporting the people of Gaza against Israeli aggression, but refuses to support its political expressions such as Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.” This leads Rossa-Rosso to wonder “why do the Left and far Left mobilize such small numbers? And indeed, to be clear, are the Left and far Left still able to mobilize on these issues?”


When it comes to Egypt, Western Left’s take is even more embarrassing. As much as the so-called progressive thinkers support the Egyptian peoples’ uprising against their pro-American tyranny, they somehow find it hard to admit, that it is not exactly a Socialist revolution.

A few days ago the UK Socialist Worker journal published an enthusiastic review of the unfolding revolution in Egypt. Though the SWP are in total support of the Egyptian people, the word Islam didn’t appear even once in the article. The Muslim Brotherhood popped up once, and even then they were second to the ‘Socialists’

But it would be a mistake to think that there are no political organisations in Egypt. In immensely difficult circumstances, courageous political activists have organised over many years – socialists, the Muslim Brotherhood and others.

However, the journal is consistent with its working class politics. The word ‘class’ appeared no less than nineteen times in the relatively short article. I do not have any doubt that the SWP supports the Egyptian masses – but I wonder, why is it so reluctant to explore the clear social significance of Islam?

Like the Capitalist West, the Eurocentric Left is somehow afraid to admit that it is more than likely that the Muslim Brotherhood are destined to lead Egypt in the near future.

In spite of recent polls that suggest that up to 95% of the Egyptian Muslim population would prefer to live according to Shari’ah law, the Left, like the Western politicians, insists on minimising the political role of Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. What we see here is, again, an extended lack of integrity within the ‘progressive’ realm. I would call it ‘PEM’ (‘progressive except for Muslims’).

Tragically enough, the PEM fails to admit that for most Egyptians – liberation and emancipation may mean Islam.

Can the PEM get over his or her Islamophobia? I am not so sure.

But here is the good news. According to some multiple reports from Cairo, in the recent days, tens of thousands of workers across Egypt have gone on strike and joined the anti-Mubarak protests.

Associated Press reported February 9 from Cairo:

Thousands of state workers and impoverished Egyptians went on strike Wednesday after weeks of anti-government protests cast a spotlight on corruption and the wealth amassed by those in power in a country where almost half the people live near the poverty line.

The protests calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster have been spreading outside of Cairo’s Tahrir Square… . For the first time, protesters were forcefully urging labour strikes…

Seemingly in spite of Western Left general impotence, there is a clear awakening of Left grassroots forces in Cairo.

Where Next?

If the left’s support for human rights in Palestine is conditional and dependent on the Palestinians denouncing their religion and ideological beliefs, cultural heritage, and social traditions and adopting a new set of beliefs, alien values and social behaviours that matches what its culture deems acceptable; that means the world is denying them a most basic human right, the right to think, and to live within a chosen ethical code.
– Nahida Izzat.

The current Left discourse of solidarity is futile. It estranges itself from its subject; it achieves very little, and it seems to go nowhere. If we want to help the Palestinians, the Iraqis and the other millions of victims of Western imperialism we really must stop for a second, take a big breath and start again from scratch.

We must learn to listen. Rather than imposing our belief on others – we had better learn to listen to what others believe in.

Can we follow Bustani’s and Rossa-Rosso’s suggestions, and revise our entire notion of Islam, revise our understanding of its spiritual roots, its structure, its unified balance between the civil and the spirit, its vision of itself as a ‘way of living’?

Whether we can do so or not is a good question.

Another option is to reassess our blindness, and to encounter humanist issues from a humanist perspective (as opposed to a political one). Rather than loving ourselves through the suffering of others (which is the ultimate form of self-loving) we had better, for the first time, exercise the notion of real empathy. We put ourselves in the place of the other, whilst accepting that we may never fully understand that very other.

Rather than loving ourselves through the Palestinians and Egyptian masses and at their expense, we need to accept Palestinians and Egyptians for what they are and support them for who they are regardless of our own views on the world.

This is the only real form of solidarity, for it aims at ethical rather than ideological conformity, and it puts humanity at its very centre. It reflects on Marx’s deep understanding of religion as the “sigh of the oppressed”. If we claim to be compassionate about people, then we should begin to learn to love them for what they are, rather than for what we expect them to be.

Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and Being in Time and is one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached via his website. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.