Left and Islam: Thinking Outside the Secular Box, Palestine, Egypt, Where Next?
11 February 2011
By Gilad Atzmon
The following is an updated edition of a paper I
published eighteen months ago. The current
edition includes new references to the
unfolding events in Egypt.
In front of our eyes, a gigantic regional Arab
uprising is taking place. It is evident that until the
last few days Western Left had very little to say
about it all. It seems as if the Left has reached a
rock bottom state of detachment. It has lost contact
with the people, social reality, and humanity in
Thinking Outside the Secular
"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 in general,
and Islam 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 1990's 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's 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 woman 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
As tragic as it may sound to some, we are not as
free as we believe ourselves to be. We are not
entirely 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 by employing our own
value systems and moral codes.
This tendency can have 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 standard.
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
that he or she possesses a ‘social scientific' tool,
helping to identify who is ‘progressive' and who is
As things stand, it is these two
modernist-secularist precepts that have taken on the
role of acting as our Western political-ethical
guards. But in fact, they have achieved precisely the
opposite: Each ideology in its own peculiar way has
led us to a state of moral blindness, for it is these
two so-called ‘humanist' calls that have either
consciously prepared the ground for criminal
interventionalist colonial wars (the Liberal), or,
have failed to effectively halt or oppose them while
employing confused, ineffectual ideologies and faulty
arguments (the Left).
Both Liberal and Left in their apparently banal
Western (English speaking) forms suggest that
secularism is the answer for the world's ailments, and
without a doubt, Western secularism may indeed be a
remedy for some aspects of a Western social malaise.
However, what many of the proponents of Western
Liberal and Left ideologies typically fail to
understand, is that that secularism is 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. And 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 worst
possible, and 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. And Rabbinical Judaism is no 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 spawned various
modern forms of Jewish identities, Zionism included.
Yet Enlightenment values of universalism have never
been incorporated into the body of Jewish orthodoxy.
As in the case of Rabbinical Judaism, which 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 various Leftist ideologies nor
Liberalism engage intellectually or politically with
these two religions. And 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
And yet, both the Liberal and the Left ideologies
are lacking the necessary theoretical means to
understand the complexities of Islam and Judaism --
The Liberals would dismiss Islam as ‘sinister' because
of its approach to human rights and women in
particular, whilst the Left would fall into the trap
of denouncing religions in general as ‘reactionary'.
But maybe without realizing it, both Liberals and
the Left are falling here, into a clearly supremacist
argument, for both Islam and Judaism are more than
just religions: they convey an entire ‘way of life,'
and stand as a thorough attempt to answer crucial
questions regarding being in the world -- in
dismissing them therefore, the Western Lib-Left are in
danger of a complete dismissal of a large chunk of
I recently accused a genuine Leftist and a 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', but the fact that an Islamophobe also
considers himself 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
bringing 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 grasps the organic Islamic bond between
the ‘material' and the so called ‘opium of the
masses'. And for the Leftist to do so, it will be
nothing 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, and 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, and
they democratically elected an Islamic party that
promised them resistance. But 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, and the reasons are as
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
And 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?"
When it comes to Egypt, Western Left's take is
even more embarrassing. As much as the so-called
progressive thinkers support the Egyptian peoples'
uprising against their pro-American tyranny, they
somehow find it hard to admit, that it is not exactly
a Socialist revolution.
A few days ago the UK Socialist Worker Journal
published an enthusiastic review of the unfolding
revolution in Egypt. Though the SWP are in total
support of the Egyptian people, the word Islam didn't
appear even once in the article. The Muslim
Brotherhood popped up once, and even then they
were second to the ‘Socialists'
"But it would be a mistake to think that there
are no political organisations in Egypt. In immensely
difficult circumstances, courageous political
activists have organised over many years—socialists,
the Muslim Brotherhood and others."
However, the Journal is consistent with its working
class politics. The word ‘class' appeared no less than
nineteen times in the relatively short article. I do
not have any doubt that the SWP supports the Egyptian
masses -- but I wonder, why is it so reluctant to
explore the clear social significance of Islam?
Like the Capitalist West, the Eurocentric Left is
somehow afraid to admit that it is more than likely
that the Muslim Brotherhood are destined to lead Egypt
in the near future.
In spite of recent polls that suggest that up to
95% of the Egyptian Muslim population would prefer to
live according to Shari'ah law, the Left, like the
Western politicians, insists on minimising the
political role of Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood.
What we see here is, again, an extended lack of
integrity within the ‘progressive' realm. I would call
it ‘PEM' (‘progressive except for Muslims').
Tragically enough, the PEM fails to admit that for
most Egyptians -- liberation and emancipation may mean
Can the PEM get over his or her Islamophobia? I am
not so sure.
But here is the good news. According to some
multiple reports from Cairo, in the recent days,
tens of thousands of workers across Egypt have gone on
strike and joined the anti-Mubarak protests.
Associated Press reported February 9 from Cairo
that "Thousands of state workers and impoverished
Egyptians went on strike Wednesday after weeks of
anti-government protests cast a spotlight on
corruption and the wealth amassed by those in power in
a country where almost half the people live near the
"The protests calling for President Hosni Mubarak's
ouster have been spreading outside of Cairo's Tahrir
Square…. For the first time, protesters were
forcefully urging labour strikes"
Seemingly in spite of Western Left general
impotence, there is a clear awakening of Left
grassroots forces in Cairo.
"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
We must learn to listen. Rather than imposing our
belief on others -- we had 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,
revise our understanding of 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 a political one). Rather than loving
ourselves through the suffering of others (which is
the ultimate form of self-loving) we had better, for
the first time, exercise the notion of real empathy.
We put ourselves in the place of the other, whilst
accepting that we may never fully understand that very
Rather than loving ourselves through the
Palestinians and Egyptian masses and at their
expense, we need to accept Palestinians and Egyptians
for what they are and support them for who they are
regardless of our own views on the world.
This is the only real form of solidarity, for it
aims at ethical rather than ideological conformity,
and 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, then we should begin to learn to love
them for what they are, rather than for what we expect
them to be.
 Something to do with a low Roman heritage and
the early development of Christianity as an
expansionist concept aiming to spread itself to remote
cultures and civilizations
 It can be argued that the primary agenda behind
postmodern attempts is to destabilize the foundations
of modern knowledge and [ethics by challenging the
possibility of modern universal applicability. As
eloquently put by Muqtedar Khan, the postmodernist
seeks to privilege the ‘here and now' over the global.
Both postmodern philosophy and Religious theology,
says Khan "reject the modernist claim in the
infallibility of reason". Like the postmodernist,
Islam and Judaism are skeptical towards the
sovereignty of reason and discourses of rationality.
 The rather common bizarre Marxist suggestion
that ‘quite a few out there' are in fact ‘reactionary'
for being religious entails the necessary assumption
that the Marxist himself is settled comfortably in an
absolute moral high ground. Such an assumption is
rather faulty for two obvious reasons:
1. Claiming to know more than others on base of
ideological or political affiliation is nothing less
than supremacy in practice;
2. The claim for possession of the highest moral
ground X cannot be verified scientifically unless
validated by another superior and higher moral ground
X'. For the Marxist to sustain his ‘highest moral
ground' position, he would have to move on and claim
to be holding the highest position X'. In order to
verify X' he will need to move on to a superior X' and
so on. We are facing here an infinite search for the
validation of ethical meaning. Such a model of thought
may help us grasp why Western Marxism has managed to
detach itself from ethical reality and ethical
thinking and hardly engage with issues to do with true
The obvious problem with the Marxist implementation
of the ‘progressive vs reactionary' dichotomy is that
the Marxists suitably claim to be among progressives
and conveniently claim that the ‘adversary' is found
among the reactionaries. This is obviously slightly
suspicious or even dubious to say the least.
 Phil Weiss in his invaluable MondoWeiss blog
recently coined the useful political term PEP:
progressive except on Palestine term.