Left and Islam: Thinking Outside the Secular Box

By Gilad Atzmon – London

"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, Islam and Palestine 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 1990s was devastated to find out that women were marching 15 ft 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 campaigns after campaigns 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 ft ahead of their husbands. The activist was quick to report to her headquarters in America: “The Women 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 women 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 exactly 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 employing our own value system and moral code.

This tendency has 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 stand.

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 to possess 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 act as our Western political ethical guard. But in fact, they have achieved the opposite. Each ideology in its own peculiar way has led us to a state of moral blindness. It is these two so-called ‘humanist’ calls, that either consciously prepare the ground for criminal interventionalist colonial wars (the Liberal), or failed to oppose them while employing wrong ideologies and faulty arguments (the Left).

Both Liberal and Left, in their apparent banal Western forms suggest that secularism is the answer for the world’s ailments. Without a doubt, Western secularism may be a remedy for some Western social malaise. However, Western Liberal and Left ideologies, in most cases, fail to understand that secularism is in 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. 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. 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 possible 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. Rabbinical Judaism is not 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 spawning various modern forms of Jewish identities, Zionism included. Yet Enlightenment values of universalism have never been incorporated into the body of Jewish orthodoxy. Like in the case of Rabbinical Judaism, that 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.  

Neither the Left ideology nor Liberalism engage intellectually or politically with these two religions. 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 Liberal would dismiss Islam as sinister for its take on human rights and women in particular. The Left would fall into the trap of denouncing religion in general as ‘reactionary’. Maybe without realizing it, both Lib and Left are falling here into a clear supremacist argument. Since both Islam and Judaism are more than just religions, they convey a ‘way of life’ and stand as a totally thorough answer to questions regarding being in the world, the Western Lib-Left are at danger of a complete dismissal of a large chunk of humanity.

I have recently accused a genuine Leftist and 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. Accordingly, the fact that an Islamophobe is also 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 brought 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 elaborates by means of listening to the organic Islamic bond between the ‘material’ and the so called ‘opium of the masses’. For the Leftist to do so, it is no 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. 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, they democratically elected an Islamic party that promised them resistance. 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. 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). 

In fact 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?”

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 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, 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 political). Rather than loving ourselves through the suffering of others, which is the ultimate form of self-loving, we better for the first time, exercise the notion of real empathy. We put ourselves in the place of the other accepting that we may never fully understand that very other.

Rather than loving ourselves through the Palestinians and at their expense, we need to accept Palestinians for what they are and support them for who they are regardless of our own views on things. This is the only real form of solidarity. It aims at ethical rather than ideological conformity. 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 we better learn to love them for what they are rather than what we expect them to be.

– Gilad Aztmon is a writer and jazz musician living in London. His latest CD is In Loving Memory of America. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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