Islam and the political Left

I’m more interested in criticizing supernatural fact claims than in social and ethical opposition to religion. Still, as your basic secular humanist-type, I’d like to keep religion out of my life as much as possible. These are times of resurgent fundamentalisms all over the world, where religion is very political. So I try and follow political criticisms of religion, particularly where the Abrahamic faiths are concerned. And I have a special interest in Islam, having grown up in a Muslim land.

When I look at political approaches to Islam, however, I find that especially in the popular arena, criticism of Islam has a very right wing character. Bashing Islam appears to have become a significant part of the Right’s culture wars. Conservatives accuse Islam of being aggressive (even intrinsically terroristic), oppressive to women, and an obstacle to democracy. Muslims, apparently, are a mass of religious fanatics who blindly obey their holy book and their religious leaders. When not plotting to blow themselves up, they are “breeding like rats” and immigrating in great numbers. Europe, evidently, is becoming demographically overwhelmed by Muslims, metamorphosing into “Eurabia.” Most of the writings in this genre present themselves as defending liberal Western values, but they also are fervidly nationalistic — dripping with American, Israeli, or some European nationalism. Aside from the overheated nature of the right-wing position, I don’t care much for their sort of nationalism, though I must admit it does have the advantage of being a more secular ideology.

So perhaps others could provide a better critique. I’d especially like to see a response to Muslim challenges to liberal values from a liberal, even left perspective. After all, that’s where I feel politically more at home anyway. But especially from the part of the Left that emphasizes multiculturalism, I see next to nothing. More often, multicultural leftists will celebrate women wearing hijab as a demonstration of cultural freedom, or young people adopting fundamentalist attitudes as an assertion of Muslim subjectivity against Western impositions. And any friction between conservative Muslims and secular Western societies always has a way of being due to the original sin of colonialism.

Now, maybe I should know better than to expect more than predictable and superficial approaches, especially where popular political opinion is concerned. Still, I am troubled, especially by what seems to be the paralysis the political left has when faced with illiberal Muslim positions and actions. They may foam at the mouth, but right-wingers at least do draw attention to significant political problems. What, for example, happens when you have very rapidly expanding Muslim minorities in Western countries, and by all appearances a large number of such Muslims are not integrating and not adopting a privatized, liberal form of religion? What happens to free expression when Muslim communities are notoriously intolerant of any form of perceived insult to their faith? Anti-racist slogans are all very well and good, but they seem to avoid such questions.

It’s really somewhat strange. Given how so many fundamentalist Muslims promote an ideology that can be very similar to the Christian Right, except even more theocratic, I would have thought there would be more room for some (hopefully more nuanced) criticism of Islam from a more liberal perspective.