Saturday, April 19, 2003

This is basically a second draft, I don't know if it will come out right, but here it is:

Islam and the Left by Benjamin Kerstein

The conflation of the radical Islamic and radical Leftist movements has, in recent months, caused much bewilderment and consternation among observers both Left and Right, who seem astounded that two such seemingly contrary and incompatible social movements should find any common ground whatsoever, let alone a fruitful collaboration. It is clear, however, that opposition to the war in Iraq and by extension American foreign policy in general has brought both groups into the streets, not merely as fellow travelers but as honestly sympathetic factions of a broad coalition. How the extreme Left, a self-appointed force for progress and equality came to find its ally in a movement dedicated to a mass return to the Middle Ages may be a gold mine for social scientists but it has met with little comment on the part of anyone within the Left itself or even among Liberal thinkers who might be expected to look askance at such an alliance.
Obviously, for two such seemingly disparate groups to find themselves in a situation of mutual sympathy, there must be more then a marriage of convenience at work. Something fundamental draws them together. On the surface, the obvious answer is a nearly identical opposition to the current drift of American foreign policy. In other words: opposition to war in Iraq has created a de facto alliance that might not have existed in other, less felicitous circumstances. This is combined with a broader opposition to American Middle East policy in general, centering on a violent hatred of Israel, which serves, along with Iraq, as a violent, emotive issue around which to galvanize the mobilization of large masses of the faithful. However, this does not fully explain the love affair between this two unlikely suitors; one of which views itself as a radical source of modernization, the other as self-consciously reactionary. Obviously, they must share more then merely a handful of foreign policy issues. And in my opinion they self-evidently do.
Firstly, both movements engage in an apocalyptic critique of liberal capitalism and the Western world upon which it is based. The Left, in its current incarnation, and particularly in the environmental movement, is essentially anti-technological. Unlike in previous eras, it has become a fundamentally reactionary force. It sees human progress as inherently violating and evil, consuming the finite Earth and stomping nature into ashes underfoot, while creating an alienated, unfeeling, and ultimately inhuman society. The symptoms of society’s dysfunction can be seen every day, in poverty, in inequality, in war, and most of all, in the ugliness and emptiness of modern commercial culture. In other words, in all the ugliness that the system has been built to perpetuate and spread. Moreover, this structure is inherently unsustainable. It is doomed to total disintegration, chaos, and eventually destruction. The ice caps will melt, the poor will rise up, the rain forest will disappear, the fuel supply will run out, and the house of cards will collapse and take our decadent civilization along with it.
This collapse, of course, has not happened and is unlikely to happen. But to the true believers, the chaos is always just a few years, a few decades, or a few centuries off. All human existence is in danger of suicide and one is permitted, even required, to do almost anything to pull humanity back from the edge of the abyss.
Radical Islam views Western civilization through a lens that, though different in its minor points, is startlingly similar in its broad outlook. To Islamist eyes, Western liberalism is free, but freedom is no great good within itself. In most cases, it is a profoundly negative attribute. One of the favorite sayings of the Iranian mullahs and their defenders is that the West is free but it lacks justice. By which they mean it lacks a moral law, in other words it lacks revelation -- the Koran. Crippled by their rejection of revelation, Western societies are forced to make laws for themselves, laws that naturally result in a decadent and immoral society, since they are made by imperfect systems created by imperfect human beings. Following the path of the decadents is, in the Islamist’s eyes, the source of the weakness of the Islamic world and the genesis of its eventual collapse. The past four hundred years of nearly uninterrupted decline in the imperial fortunes of Islam are blamed, more or less, on the introduction into Islamic society of Western culture and ideas and the loss of the true, ancient, original Islam.
A great many political scientists have noted that, when societies find themselves in crisis, they often exhibit an attempted return to first principles. This is true in a great many cases, but Islamism is something quite different. It does not propose a total reversion back to the ninth century. It proposes a return to first principles within the context of a modern nation state, in other words, the building of a totalitarian society based on Islamic law. The fundamental impetus of Islamic totalitarianism, the rejection of freedom in the name of power, a rejection necessitated by the inherent injustice of a free society, is in essence indistinguishable from Left wing political theory. Put simply, it is the idea that people are simply better off in an unfree society. They are better cared for, they conduct themselves in a more upstanding manner, they are more altruistic to their fellows and they contribute more to society under despotism then if left to their own devices. Thus, in motivation if not in the final details, we find that the Left wing brand of totalitarianism and its Islamic counterpart are utterly indistinguishable.
But to explain the messianic fervor of these two movements, their missionary zeal to remake the world in their image, one must look for something beyond this. Both Islam and radical Left wing ideologies share a universalist outlook. They are ill content to stay within their own boundaries and are constantly pushing out in search of larger and larger dominions. For both movements, this trend was present from the very beginning. The Left, even in its earliest forms, was self-consciously international. It saw its concepts as applying not merely to those who had accepted them but to all human beings. Those living under its strictures were seen as free, equal, liberated, etc., and those under the rule of others were oppressed souls in need of enlightenment and ultimately revolution. Islam -- and radical Islam takes the concept to its logical extreme -- sees itself as being in perpetual war with the unbelievers, the infidels. All revelations are false except that of the prophet, all religions not based on his revelation are lies, and, in the end, the true faith will triumph. Switch Muhammad with Marx, and you have the Left wing worldview in a nutshell. Both movements are, at their very core, at the very point of their founding, universalist movements, and thus inherently imperialistic. Indeed, it is their imperialism, their fiery call to battle and revolution, which so enraptures their followers and serves as the source of their passion.
This matter of imperialism is by no means a matter of pure ideology. It is also one of historical fact. After all, Islam was not a religion that built an empire; it was an empire that built a religion. Islam emerged from the Hejaz at a very early stage of development and, in a few short decades, found itself astride the greatest empire the world has ever seen. Muhammad, its founder and prophet, was not merely an itinerant preacher of truths. He was a general of vast and mostly victorious armies, and eventually a political leader with something very much like absolute power. The greater part of Islam’s doctrine and ideology was formed while Islam held sway as an imperial master, and the Islamic empire conducted itself in a manner no different from those of other empires. The pagan faiths it encountered were subsumed, either by conversion or the sword, and most likely both. The monotheisms of Christianity and Judaism were placed on the lower rungs of an apartheid structure, and their numbers dwindled accordingly. Outgrowths of Islam, such as the Druze and Bahai, were dealt with even more summarily. As Mohammad’s revelation was declared to be the final and true revelation, all those following it were inherently heresy. Such Islamic heretical movements were usually wiped out by violence, its followers fleeing to remote and easily defensible areas, far from the reach of the imperial faith.
The Left, of course, existed in some form before it came to real power, but the galvanizing force behind the 20th century Left was the Russian Revolution of 1917, and especially in the West, the creation of the Soviet empire as a result of World War II. The Left’s relationship to power was formed while its influence was ever expanding and, simultaneously, the states which embraced Leftwing totalitarianism were becoming ever more violent and brutal in their tactics of suppression. In order to consolidate and continue this expansion, which according to doctrine was destined to engulf all of mankind, these governments espoused a Manichean attitude towards their rival (i.e. the West), and an absolute faith in the inevitability of their triumph. It was not merely their own machinations that would bring about the victory of communism, but the will of history itself. The progress of human development demanded the dominion of Leftist ideas. Any thinking person can see quite clearly that the line between the will of Allah and the inevitability of History is a very slim one indeed.
And the Left certainly had its infidels, first and foremost among them the United States, the principal military, economic, and ideological defender of traditional Liberalism. But below this were a thousand lesser evils, the bosses, the corporations, the sell-outs, the decadent bourgeoisie -- any and all obstacles to the unstoppable tide of history. These various forces were not merely to be neutralized or adjusted, but crushed, utterly destroyed. Any modern reader of Marx, in particular the canonic text of the Left, his Communist Manifesto, cannot be anything but shocked at the violence of his language, by the apparent gleefulness with which he desires to annihilate the civilization in which he lives. No one can come away from Marx’s work without being absolutely convinced that his revolution could not be accomplished by any means other than ferocious violence, and moreover that he does not wish it to be accomplished by any other means. For, as in radical Islam, the destruction of the infidels is a sacred act, putting the heathens to the sword is to do the will of God and to purge oneself of the profane, to make oneself pure and holy by the process of doing murder. An ideology of sanctified violence cannot be sustained without a doctrine of perpetual war upon the unbelievers, the eternal enemy – those who will not, or cannot, accept the Truth. At ideologies such as this, both the Left and radical Islam have proven themselves exceedingly adept.
Neither of these two radicalisms is unaware of the dangers of espousing such brutal doctrines in public. They seek instead to cloak their inherent violence behind a veneer of civilized legitimacy, even idealism, indulging in abuses of language typical of totalitarian movements. Both, for instance, profess a belief in democracy, often using the process to attain a footing from which to seize power. This use of democratic processes to install dictatorial regimes has prompted Bernard Lewis to remark that radical Islam believes in the principle of One Man, One Vote, Once. The radical Left hardly takes a breath without declaring itself the lone defender of true democracy, but on closer examination its definition of democracy is suspiciously similar to one-party rule. This conceit was played out as farce in the Communist states of the Cold War era, where elections were held on a regular basis, with a single candidate who received 100% of the vote. The explanation given for such anti-democratic practices is, in the case of both Islam and the Left, the same: the astonishing margin of victory is an indication of how satisfied the masses are with the benevolent regime.
These movements match this abuse of language with an apocalyptic exaggeration of their own weakness and an unshakeable belief in themselves as defenders of the weak and downtrodden. Radical Islam, for instance, veritably festers in the resentments of the Islamic world towards the West. Presenting themselves as champions of the underclasses against corrupted and tyrannical rulers – and most of the secular rulers in the Islamic world are tyrants by any definition – radical Islam, much as the Nazi Party did in the stricken Weimar Republic, presents itself as a kind of counter-totalitarianism, one which certainly cant be any worse then the current state of affairs, and at least has the interests of the underdog at heart. The violently assertive form of Islam proposed by radical Islamists is no doubt hugely appealing in an Islamic world that views itself as unjustly downtrodden and brutalized by the imperialistic West.
But these professions of helplessness are obviously false, for the Islamic world is hardly powerless. It sits on the world’s largest oil reserves, which bring billions of dollars into the national coffers every year and give the Islamic nations enormously disproportionate political power and influence. Nor can the Islamic world be viewed as lacking in military capability. It may well be one of the most militarized parts of the world, with the vast majority of its weaponry coming from the former imperial powers Islam blames for its downtrodden status. In fact, the Islamic world, compared to parts of Africa and Asia, cannot be considered in any way economically or politically powerless. It problems have not been the result of outside forces, but of self-governance, i.e. the dominance of the region by tyrannical forces, each one worse then the last. Radical Islam is driven by a desperate self-pity, one that would exchange self-examination for the easy comfort of a homegrown tyranny. And it is this sentiment, ubiquitous in the Islamic world, on which radical Islam has thus far so brilliantly capitalized.
The Left, in similar fashion, has justified every one of is excesses on the grounds that is fighting for the weak and the downtrodden against forces of incredible strength and power. This David vs. Goliath scenario both demands and excuses the use of tactics that would otherwise be verboten to an idealistic political movement. Terrorism, mob violence, secret police forces, the denial of basic political rights, and mass murder, all of these have been part and parcel of Left wing governance for over a hundred years. Because the cause is righteous, the means become irrelevant, or better yet are dictated by the need for righteousness to prevail. And as in radical Islam, this is largely a lie. The Left is in no way powerless. It dominates the intellectual discourse in most Western countries and all the nations of the Third World. In Europe it has been in the dominant political position for the better part of the last fifty years, and the web of Socialist legislation that characterizes most of the states of Western Europe is unlikely to be dismantled any time in the near future. Moreover, the Left’s internationalist and beaurocratic ideology is likely to be the dominant aspect of the new European Union. The use of violence against the Establishment can hardly be justified in the case of the Left, for almost everywhere it is the Establishment.
One cannot discuss the bizarre sympathy between these two movements without making mention of anti-Semitism. For both radicalisms, the Jews and the State of Israel have become a point of coagulation, a rallying point on which both sides are largely in agreement. There are reasons for this both historical and ideological. Both Islam and the Left have historically had highly ambivalent relationships to the Jews who lived under their power and an often violently hostile attitude to the Jews living beyond their borders. Islam, for its part, devised an apartheid system in which the Jews retained certain religious rights but were in every way required to remain inferior to Muslims. At certain points in Islamic civilization Jews rose to prominence and wealth, but this was a rare occurrence. For the most part, the Jews of Islam were second-class citizens, and depending on the regime under which they lived, often a great deal worse then that. At any rate, they most certainly had no political power of their own, and absolutely no capacity to determine their own collective destiny.
The Left for its part, showed a certain willingness to accept the Jews as being equal, at least in terms of not being members of an inferior race. However, the Left certainly never considered Jewish civilization to be the equal of its own. It largely considered Judaism a backward superstition, anti-modernist and economically exploitative, and therefore demanding eradication or at least violent suppression. Violent suppression was, of course, the specialty of Left wing regimes, and the outlawing of Hebrew, prohibition of Jewish holidays, seizing of synagogues, and the like became a part of daily life for the Jews of the USSR and Eastern Europe, as well as other Leftist regimes across the world.
Both Islam and the Left view the Jews, and their political manifestation in the State of Israel, as insidiously powerful and a tool in the hands of Western capitalism/colonialism. The willingness of the Jews to serve the forces of evil is explained by the attributes of the Jews themselves. The Jews are naturally greedy, therefore they serve the rich capitalists. The Jews are haters of other faiths, therefore they seek to destroy Islam. The Jews are intelligent and manipulative, influencing the rulers of the West to do their bidding. Such ideas are both ubiquitous in both movements and obviously anti-semitic. The place of the Jews in the conspiratorial worldview of both the radical Left and radical Islam is, in every way, identical. On this point, more perhaps then any other, the two movements have coalesced.
Clearly, radical Islam and radical Leftism are not nearly as foreign to each other as some of the more bewildered commentators on the subject would have us believe. They, in fact, share so many attributes that it quickly becomes obvious that they differ only in their surface adornments. They are both semi-psychotic, totalitarian movements, seemingly intellectually sound but in fact powered by a ferocious and violent religiosity whose purpose is ultimately universalist and imperialist. Both of these groups desire, ultimately, to rule the world. Each of their successive failures in doing so has thinned their ranks but left those remaining even more fanatical and determined. Neither group can ultimately renounce their most fundamental belief, the belief in a world divided between the righteous and the infidels, and the duty they feel to do battle with those not yet assimilated, not yet placed under the yoke of the Koran or the Communist Manifesto. They are, more then anything else, convinced that they are the way of the future. Sooner or later those of superior morality and righteousness will conquer the bankrupt, materialistic West. It is, they believe, only a matter of time.

Beersheva, Israel
April, 2003


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