Original Guest Article
By Laith Saud
This past week, the Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee – on the Bill Maher show no less ‑ insisted that terrorism and other forms of violence are not a result of poverty but ideology. Tulsi Gabbard insisted that Islam is the source of violence, not socio-economic conditions. This is significant, because it demonstrates the Vice Chair of the DNC knows nothing about the Progressive worldview. True liberal values may be in decline because ‘mainstream’ Progressives have abandoned some of the core beliefs of a Progressive worldview.
Consider the images above: The image on the left is one of the iconic images of the Charlie Hebdo Magazine. The image on the right was posted on Facebook by a French youth, less than a week after the Hebdo killings earlier this year. The artists and writers of the image on the left were considered heroes of ‘free speech’ and satire. The youth behind the image on the right was arrested by French authorities for ‘defending terrorism;’ begging the question – what is the difference? Is it even possible for the liberal values attributed to the image on the left to exist, so long as states can attribute ‘terror’ to the image on the right? The answer is no.
Islam and The Left
Islam(ism) presents a problem to the Left. It was unexpected and does not fit neatly into any scholastic theory; in order to understand this problem we have to revisit the political spectrum. Our spectrum is often presented as a range of attitudes on cultural issues, rights or policies: Same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, role of religion in society, the death penalty, etc. But what is forgotten is that deep sociological paradigms inform this spectrum and produce these attitudes. If you are on the Right, you presume that the traditions of our past guide us and sustain us, thus their perennial wisdom. Meanwhile, you believe people in the present possess enough rationality to trade well. Conservatives thus prefer to circumscribe central power in favor of a more diffuse authority of tradition – and the economy figures things out on its own.
If you are on the Left, you do not automatically defer to the authority of tradition; you constantly challenge them and inquire into the economic conditions that produced them. Progressives believe that economic conditions precede ideas. This is a fundamental point. Liberty is the organizing principal on the Right, Equality on the Left. The Left believes greater equality facilitates enough shared power to produce traditions and institutions that are more balanced and fair, thus sustaining a more harmonious humanity. Both ends have their strengths and weaknesses. But in America’s current climate, the Left is collapsing under the weight and demands of popular democrats and liberals who insist that Muslims are somehow exempt from socio-economic conditions, thus re-enforcing the ‘necessity’ of the security war-mongering state.
What the Left Don’t Know Won’t Hurt It (Actually Not)
For example, Islamism presents three problems to the Left: First, it’s presumed origins in ‘religion’ defy Marxist and Modernization paradigms, which suggest the eventual demise of religion. Second, the seemingly ‘illiberal’ beliefs of Muslims generally are difficult to reconcile with a Progressive agenda. And lastly, Islamism’s configuration into the larger problem of imperialism and foreign policy inhibits the Left – e.g. we do not support imperialism, but cannot endorse Islamism as resistance to it. But these things are actually quite straight forward for a Progressive to address.
Quite simply, if the Muslim world is ‘behind’ or not in possession of the same ‘Liberal tradition’ as the West, it is because certain economic conditions have not yet converged to produce the particular dialectic that eventuates those kinds of debates. This is axiomatic for a Progressive; it is not complicated. Generally the debate on Islam is more obsessed with the ‘ability’ to criticize Islam without being labeled an ‘Islamophobe.’ This debate is evident among thinkers and entertainers like Bill Maher or Sam Harris, but even among prominent political theorists like Michael Walzer. Conservatives argue from a vantage of culture, thus I am not concerned with conservativism; but the Left does not.
Michale Walzer, a giant in Progressive political theory, has argued that many on the Left and Muslims generally refuse to engage “the many violent events in the Muslim world.” Furthermore, he strongly suggests that to attribute such violence to American or Western imperial policy – which directly and dramatically shapes economic conditions – is merely apologia for Islamism (Andrew March provides a serious response, cited below). On more entertaining platforms, Bill Maher spews this type of nonsense often, insisting that wars and devastation cannot be referenced when talking about violence in the Muslim world. “Poverty does not cause” violence, he and his guest bragged.
I am not interested in entering this debate directly, but rather in taking a view from above. If Walzer, along with populist progressives like Maher, insist that I cannot address very real economic conditions underlying Islamism, I am no longer talking to Progressives, but to Samuel Huntington, someone who employed paradigms I simply do not agree with. And this is where the conversation breaks down. Some progressives decry the absence of ‘liberal’ values in the Muslim world, for Sam Harris, who wants to occupy Progressive space, this absence actually proves civilizational inferiority and justifies aggressive wars and torture against Muslims – the irony is dizzying. But I cannot discuss values in a vacuum, to do that would be dogmatic, a departure from the economically grounded heterodoxy of the Progressive worldview. I am not saying I am a relativist, I am just saying that culture is in large part relative to the economy. I must advocate for greater economic justice in order to hope for greater social justice, the former is the prerequisite to the latter – at least for a Progressive.
The Left, Culture and White Privilege
So why have Conservative arguments on Islam(ism) become so popular or at least strong amongst Progressives? As a corollary, why are discussions on Islamism obsessed with cultural issues rather than economic ones, per the requirements of a Progressive worldview? The answer is, again, simple: Eurocentrism. I am not interested in pointing out racism for its own sake, for the racism here is a product of inequity as well. But for the moment let me point out the white privilege underpinning the silent paradigm shift amongst Progressives.
People do not understand white (and/or male) privilege. They assume it rests on raw power and the absence of institutional oppression. But white privilege is also a privileged way at looking at and being in the world – it is an epistemic and ontic domain.
Funny story: I was once flying from Istanbul to Paris, happy that I managed to land an inexpensive bump up to Business Class. Before departing, the white gentlemen to my right ordered a glass of champagne. Upon hearing his voice I knew he was an American. So we began to converse and I mentioned (for some dumb reason) that I was born in Baghdad. Immediately he began quizzing me, relatively loudly, about ISIS and whether I thought ISIS was an American conspiracy. The last thing a Muslim ever wants to do is discuss ISIS or terrorism or bombs on an airplane. His uninhibited enthusiasm displayed a real eagerness to hear from ‘a native’ but it was also an exhibition of his privilege; it never occurred to him that this was not an appropriate conversation to have on an airplane for me. Second, as Fanon would have reminded us, ‘the native’ is usually a relief, standing in to confirm whatever bias is there. I just changed the subject.
Had the attendant heard me, an Arab/Muslim man in his thirties, saying ISIS on a plane and had it made her uncomfortable, I would have been removed from the plane without delay. Muslims are removed for less, often for just ‘looking’ Muslim. This never occurred to him, nor should it; hell I wish I had some of that privilege. White privilege is the ability to move in the world outside the shadow of institutionalized prejudice, bias and discrimination; it is also the ability presume life is like that for everyone. That projection onto ‘the other,’ that I will judge your actions according to the life I presume of myself is uncritical. Likewise, all of the cultural based arguments about Islamism, which ascribe to Islamic doctrine the much-circulated images of ISIS horror, are uncritical. Critique, which has its home in the Left, begins with those forces that are not manifest but latent. White privilege is the ability to think uncritically about the world, because, what does it matter anyway? I can already sense the groans from white readers, ‘just playing the race card,’ then revisit Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, maybe that critique is more ‘objective.’
There is an ironic twist to white privilege as well. I project onto the Other my ease, but I also project onto the Other complete difference. When ‘we’ are violent, there are ‘complicated reasons,’ when ‘they’ are violent it is because they just are. ISIS persists in Syria and Iraq, two failed states with no centralized police or military force – in the case of the latter, we dismantled it. If the US military and local police forces were disbanded, how long before the KKK emerged in some parts of this country as a serious militia? Three months? Three weeks? Three days?
There is a demand on Muslim intellectuals and intellectuals on the Left to ‘explain’ the damn stubbornness of Islam. And indeed, Muslim intellectuals are facing a truly daunting crisis, in part because they have no allies. Paradigms are suspended when it comes to Islam, thus there is no stable footing for a common dialogue. Furthermore, where is the Left? So far the Left has not put up much of an explanation for the ferocious contradiction presented at the top of this page, let alone the summary killings of Muslims by drones, immoral and illegal invasions of Muslim states and the ongoing oppression of Palestinians. And the difference between an American Muslim denied legal rights and the Muslim in Yemen annihilated by a drone he heard but never saw, is one of degree and circumstance, not category.
The need to explain these proportions of violence by Leftists is suspended by the demands of ‘security;’ well if that is the case, Hobbes was right, not Rousseau. You literally have more of a chance of drowning in your own bathtub than you do being killed in a terrorist attack; ridiculously insisting Muslims explain terror, while remaining silent on the list of injustices listed above, screams white privilege and indulgence. And like I said, I am too old now to believe that white privilege will disappear in my lifetime, but I will not confuse its tautological convenience with truth.
The constant reference to Islamic culture, values and beliefs as an object of critique outside the framework of economic and political justice is merely cultural rhetoric. When Michael Walzer says arguments insisting “the root cause of religious zealotry is not religion…but Western imperialism and the oppression and poverty it has bred” are vacuous or losing plausibility, he demands a cultural argument. There is a popular demand, al la Maher that Muslims account for the absence of liberal rights or the pervasive violence in the Muslim world. This is a conservative argument.
Invoking abstract liberal values, irrespective of the empirical realities of the societies you may wish them for is dogmatism, not critique. This approach is similar to Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins who wish to pontificate on the superiority of science over religion, showing a simple mindedness that is difficult for scholars in the humanities and social sciences to visage. They speak of science ‘as the solution’ outside of society, regardless of social institutions that exist in the present. Science is a method, not a fixed set of propositions we must comport to; likewise, Progressive politics is an advocacy that pushes economic justice in pursuit of social enlightenment. Imperialism and inhumane arms production and sales (driven by profit) come before jihadi ideology.
The Crises of the Muslim Intellectual, the Crises of the American Intellectual
Muslims intellectuals are earnestly attempting to confront the challenges facing Muslim society. The question in this discussion immediately arises however, which challenges? Abdul-Wahhab, Tahtawi, ‘Abdu, Rida, and, yes, Qutb, as well as as-Sadr have all written grand theoretical and practical works on modernity, rights and justice. Tariq Ramadan, Abdul-Karim Soroush and Rashid Gannouchi are engaging this tradition with rigor. But they address problems inherent to Muslim societies and the historical contexts they lay within. Intellectuals on the Left dumbfounded by Islam(ism) are merely taking their cues from media, not sociology. Two things are at stake here: The omnipresence of the security state and its pervasive reach into our notion of state.
Daniel Moynihan once said “the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” A sociologist who understood the paradigmatic poles of Left and Right; President Obama is trying to remain within this tradition when he insists that terrorism is not Islamic but a result of poverty and economics (something Maher and his guest criticized). Those who insist that anything as universal as violence (or even barbarity) is ‘Islamic’ are privileging conservative paradigms; on this the Left has been equivocal.
This cultural idea of the perennial Islamic enemy is the raison d’etre of the security state – the same state that prioritizes our resources towards military spending at the expense of health care and education. The freedom by which the media can produce a sustained image of the terrorist = Muslim/terrorism = Islam can only be explained by the acquiescence of critical voices. There is something about those images many on the Left believe.
Andrew March correctly points out the Schmittian dynamics at work in this discussion, some on the Left approaching Islam as ‘foe.’ We can also cite Schmitt’s notion of the ‘exception’ as well. Muslims are an exception in western thought and media generally. And every time anyone in some place of power suspends journalistic process or academic rigor because Muslims are ‘different’ (i.e. not human, because what other difference is there?), they lay claim to that precious bit of sovereignty, endowed upon them to continue legitimating the logic of the security state.
 Although the distinction between Islam and Islamism is often made, the Left has demonstrated problems with both and see the latter as emanating from the former.
Laith Saud is a lecturer on Islamic world studies at DePaul University and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago.