Religion Snapshots: Michael Walzer, Islam, and the Left

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Religion Snapshots is a feature with the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, where a number of contributors are asked to briefly comment on popular news items or pressing theoretical issues in the field, especially topics relating to definitions, classification, and method and theory in the study of religion more generally.

Editor’s note: Contributors in this post were asked to provide their thoughts on a recent article by political theorist Michael Walzer called “Islamism and Left,” where he weighs-in on questions of critique in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Simon Frankel Pratt: Michael Walzer is as thoughtful a political theorist as they come. These were the words spoken to me by one professor of mine, himself a theorist of considerable accomplishment, and he was right. But those looking for Walzer’s brand of careful and reflective communitarianism in this essay will be disappointed. ‘Islamism and the Left’ is not a piece of political theory but a polemic, from one leftist to his comrades. In it, Walzer reminds the generalised left—chidingly, but aptly—that religious militancy is not at all progressive. He argues that the enemy of our enemy is not always our friend; just because Islamist movements oppose imperialism does not mean they support other leftist goals. Walzer wants those on the left to direct their critical attentions towards Islamism as readily as they do capitalism, and not to let their concerns about anti-Muslim bigotry stop them from critiquing Islam as they would any other set of dogmas.

I am supportive of his objective: namely, to intervene in a tendency among certain leftist segments to cram the world into a familiar narrative of class struggle and colonial domination. However problematically they are represented in public conversations in the West, the actual aspirations of Islamist movements are typically about as retrograde as they come. Islamism is partly an outcome of class conflicts and the legacy of (ongoing) colonial and imperial geopolitics, but it is much more besides, and Islamist solutions to social problems do not often resemble leftist ones. When activists ignore these truths, exemplified by Judith Butler’s quoted declaration that Hamas and Hizbullah are progressive members of the ‘global left’, they appear intellectually and ethically compromised, willing to forgive atrocities by resorting to epistemological and moral relativism, and to join with the most repugnant of allies.

That said, I find Walzer’s essay a bit light on substance. He makes much about the possibility of criticising Islam, but Islam is a thin signifier. Walzer himself notes the plurality of interpretation amongst Muslims, where many committed adherents seek and find liberal interpretations of Islamic texts. Yet he nevertheless treats Islam as though it were a coherent set of (contended) dogmas, rather than collection of religious traditions linked by a shared textual repository and by often-distant history. He suggests that leftists should engage in Islamic theology of their own by ‘insisting’ on liberal readings of texts over those of Qutb and Maududi, as if the latter were part of some conservative monolith rather than themselves engaged in different theological conversations in different social contexts. Moreover, Walzer does not give Islamism adequate historical attention: Islamists have supplanted genuine leftists in a number of struggles, most notably Palestinian nationalist ones, and may enjoy support from the left simply because they’re the ones left holding the torch.

I appreciate Walzer’s essay more for what it signals, coming from such an eminent figure, and less for what it says. It’s not a bad essay, but by reifying Islam and failing to explore Islamism more fully, I don’t feel it quite lives up to its potential. That said, I suspect I am not the target audience.

Carl J. Stoneham: Simon’s observation that this article isn’t an example of Walzer’s “careful and reflective” work is spot on, but I’m not sure we need such a work in this particular context (not that this is what Simon has advocated). There is a certain disconnect when those who vehemently argue, e.g., for a robust defense of women’s rights then robustly defend a group whose ideology that would seek to curtail those rights, to the point of referring to religious conservatives as ‘Left.’ I find that Walzer’s polemic does a certain justice to that cognitive dissonance, even if a more sustained critique will certainly have to move beyond such an incredulous tone.

I share Walzer’s bafflement over “the Left’s” apparently uncritical support for Islamist movements. I find a certain incoherence arises when one understands that Islamism speaks not just to the “ national power” of the West, but also the very moral “power” that grounds its understanding of the rights of, for example, sexual minorities in secularism rather than religion. Islamism, writ large, is not about reforming political power, but of replacing it with religious power—a tune to which “the West” has already danced and found wanting. Furthermore, insofar as Walzer highlights Judith Butler’s support for Hamas and Hizbullah, we can’t simply fall back on the convenient caveat that we’re “not talking about support for the violent Islamists.” In fact, in this case, we do mean that.

It is odd to see some (many) on the Left take such a comfortable position alongside religious ideologies that sound much like the very ones we have worked so hard to renounce “at home.” Why is the Left is so rabidly anti-Christian(ist) when it appears to give Islam(ism) something of a pass? Wouldn’t it be ironic if this was the Left’s version of the “romanticized” Other that Edward Saïd helped us understand as so problematic? Or perhaps it’s simply an (equally ironic) example of George W. Bush’s “soft bigotry of low expectations”—Islamists don’t know better, so we shouldn’t expect as much. Either way, I cannot help but marvel at how, in one breath, Leftists will decry the encroachment of religion in the public square in the US and then, in the next, express solidarity with an Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), a cornerstone of which is the rule of religion in the public square.

Where I think Walzer goes wrong, however, is to chalk these strange bedfellows up to “Islamophobia.” Setting aside my own reservations concerning the word, I don’t see that it’s a “fear” of Islam that drives this, shall we say, respect. Instead, I might coin the term “Imperialophobia”—the fear that of denouncing (too clearly) post-colonial movements on Western moral grounds. After all, would it not be the death knell of a many a Leftist to be found on the side of the Empire and not the resistance, moral implications be damned? Certainly those mentioned in Walzer’s essay are beneficiaries of “the Empire’s” gifts of wealth, education, protection of human rights, etc. (Michel Foucault must have realized this). Perhaps this “Imperialophobia” leads to a sort of over-zealousness in the defense of indigenous resistance as a way of displaying one’s “street cred?” Whatever the case, we can at least thank Walzer for his effort to “speak truth to [Leftist] power” on this point.

Matt Sheedy: Although I am sympathetic to Walzer’s general concern with exploring the connection between the use of violence and what we might term “political Islam,” I disagree with his premises and conclusions, which I will suggest follow from problematic definitions of religion, secularism, and the “left.”

Walzer claims that many on the left have struggled to understand the “revival of religion,” especially when it comes to the Enlightenment goal of combatting the potential tyranny of “faith.” He makes the further claim that this “revived religion” should not be understood as an opiate, pace Marx, but rather as a stimulant, which finds its most virulent forms today in the Islamic world, while arguing that many on the left have been unwilling to recognize this fact for fear of being called Islamophobic.

While he affirms that Muslims in Europe and the US constitute a “harassed minority,” outside of such contexts the fear of being called Islamophobic prevents more pointed critique of “Islamist zealots” and often leads to cultural relativism, which fails to acknowledge the universal values of “individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism.”

The first problem that I’d like to flag here is Walzer’s conception of religion, which he likens to a “stimulant,” suggesting that it functions as a primary causal force or tangible object that does things in the world. For this reason, he can claim that “Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders.” While admitting that this is a “rough analogy” and that there are many variations among different militant Islamic groups, his comparison is problematic for at least two reasons: first, it assumes a uniform definition of religion in all times and places, as though we can make a one-to-one comparison with the self-understanding of those in the distant past. Second, it implies a civilizational discourse of Euro-Western social evolution and “Islamic” stagnation.

Walzer also speaks of the need to “defend the secular state in this ‘post-secular’ age.” Despite the lack of agreement on the definition and theoretical value of this concept, (e.g., see James Beckford’s essay) it would appear that he is using it in two ways. First, as an empirical tool in order to indicate a “revival of religion,” (i.e., secularization has not come to pass) and, second, in a normative sense as proof that this social fact requires a strong secularist response. Such conceptual certainties appear to inform his idea of the cause of contemporary ills, and his diagnosis of the need to firmly commit to one side. From this it follows that “individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism” trumps the critique of Western imperialism, which he likens to “anti-American” sentiment.

While it is not my aim to make a prescriptive argument in favor one or another variant of leftist ideology here, I would suggest that the critique of Western imperialism holds a lot more analytic value when thinking about “religion” than Walzer’s emphasis on “Islamist zealotry” and anti-Enlightenment beliefs. Whereas Walzer interprets the first order claims of various self-identified Islamist groups as the primary reason or motivation behind their militancy and/or extremism, the critique of imperialism and its legacies, at its best, looks to understand the historical and material conditions that produce such groups in the first place.

One theoretical question, then, would be to ask why “political Islam” has become viable in certain places, for what reasons—historical, political, socio-cultural—in the face of other ideological formations (e.g., secular Arab nationalism) and how it reflects the material conditions of the complex spaces in which it emerges (including social media), whose inheritance of past and present ideas (religious or otherwise) are shaped by the influence of those internal and external forces that create the very conditions of im/possibility.

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