Walzer on Islamism and the Left



by Justin E. H. Smith

I finally read Michael Walzer’s influential article on “Islamism and the Left,” after being told a number of times that I had inadvertently been echoing his opinion when I sided unconditionally with the caricaturists against the assassins who came to kill them. I find that I do agree with an early, fairly obvious point Walzer makes, but then disagree with most of the rest.

The obvious point is that the American left has for the most part failed to provide any serious analysis of the phenomenon of political Islamism, and moreover that it has failed to do so for very bad reasons, including notably the groundless presumption of common cause with the Islamists. Where my disagreement begins is with Walzer’s central assertion that Islam presents a particular problem in the current global order. It seems to me that this claim is at odds with his own further assertion that religion in general is functioning as a stimulant to violence throughout the world in the post-secular age.

To ward off in advance any suspicion of Islamophobia on his own part, Walzer invokes the Christian crusades in the Levant of the Middle Ages to show that there is nothing eternal or essential about Islamic violence, but that in different times and places the same violence can be done in the name of other religions, sometimes targeting Muslims. A Muslim in the 12th-century Levant would have been justified to suppose that the Christians have a problem with violence, Walzer observes. But why time-travel, when we can just travel? We don’t have to go to the 12th-century Levant, when we can go directly to 21st-century India, where the Muslim minority, right now, is very justified to suppose that Hindus have a ‘violence problem’. The same thing for Muslims in Burma being massacred by rampaging Buddhist monks.

Contrary to Walzer’s assertion that ‘Westerners’ are well-disposed to denounce these other forms of religious violence, I find in general that, other than the very most well-informed among them, at self-identified progressive Americans have deep trouble grasping the idea that Hindus, or, a fortiori, Buddhists, are capable of such a thing. They often seem to see it as a conceptual impossibility. So it is not that they are busy condemning Hindu and Buddhist violence while fearing to condemn Muslim violence out of a concern not to appear Islamophobic; rather, all of these are inconvenient, all need to be stuffed incommodiously into the category of reaction-complexes caused ultimately by western imperialism. But Islamist violence is better known, since western leftists live in more or less the same media culture as Islamophobes do, and seem to see it as their task to take the opposite stance of whatever line is circulating in that media culture (Tu ais, ego nego, sums up the approach fairly well). And so Islamist violence is the one in most urgent need of re-casting as, on Judith Butler’s understanding, an expression of the global left.

I am one of those people who has trouble seeing how ‘religion’ can serve as a useful analytic category: I am quite seriously uncertain that I even understand what it is. It seems to me that there are perpetrators of political violence who conceptualize their deeds as having something to do with something they think of as their religion, Islam, but it is not clear to me that the content of their beliefs about what Islam involves needs to be invoked in order to get a sufficiently rich understanding of their deeds. In any case these deeds do not seem to me to be generically different from Hindutva violence or the well-known cases of 20th-century mass violence carried out in the name of non-transcendent objectives like equality. (After all, the best point of comparison for ISIS in recent history, as Pankaj Mishra has noticed, is the Khmer Rouge terror.) There is nothing special about the Islamic species of the genus, and what unites all the cases generically does not seem to me to be beliefs about the transcendent order, so much as a hatred of freedom, doubt, ambiguity, and self-expression by individuals within the mundane order.

Consider, in this connection, the following exclamation from a recent mass demonstration in the capital of Chechnya: “We will launch a decisive protest against the vulgarity, immorality, lack of culture and shamelessness of those who drew the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).” This is Ramzan Kadyrov: not a jihadist, but a dynastic warlord and famed torturer propped up by the Putin regime as a buffer against anti-Russian Islamist forces in the Caucasus. Two days later, Jean-Marie Le Pen told the Putinite newspaper, Komsomolskaia Pravda, that Charlie Hebdo had been an immoral and anarchist enemy of the National Front, and in effect that he was happy to see them go. The Charlie Hebdo attack marks, among other things, the internationalization, and the inter-faith expansion, of the authoritarian crackdown on ‘blasphemy’, one notable early chapter of which was the persecution of Pussy Riot a few years ago.

What we read in the Russian-language media is even more revealing. Thus, this transcription of a speech from the same mass demonstration at Grozny, reported in the Facebook newsfeed of the dissident Russian politician Alekseï Navalny:

“The western world is rotting, unfortunately! They are losing their moral values! They are adopting laws that allow single-sex marriage! They raise children in such a way that they themselves don’t know what sex they are!” — proclaimed one of the orators from the platform — “Already our contemporaries are calling Akhmat-Hadji Kadyrov and Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov the great sons of the Chechen people and the great sons of our Russia!” –announced the very same orator, who continued: “Dear brother, Ramzan Akhmatovich. Muslims look upon you with pride. They are listening to you, they love you, they believe in you.”*

It is a hybrid, to be sure, but the principal tropes invoked in this elegy are Russian, not Islamist. It is Putin who is obsessed with the fact that Western Europeans accept gay marriage; al-Qaeda’s concern about the evils of the West is more general. So, note: Putin’s puppet Kadyrov is declared a ‘great son of Russia’, a brother-in-arms in Putin’s fight against Western European moral laxity, and is praised for his stance against Charlie Hebdo. Putin, Kadyrov, Erdogan, ISIS, and Le Pen senior are all lined up on the same side. It has little to do with Islam, or even with religion, and everything to do with authoritarianism.

Down with authoritarian political violence, in sum, and down with Islamophobia. Walzer has chosen an unhelpful category of analysis.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website.

*”Западный мир гниёт, к сожалению! Они теряют свои нравственные ценности! Они принимают законы, которые разрешают однополые браки! Они воспитывают детей так, что сами не знают, какого они пола!” – провозгласил один из ораторов с трибуны. “Уже наши современники называют Ахмат-хаджи Кадырова и Рамзана Ахматовича Кадырова великими сыновьями чеченского народа и великими сыновьями нашей России!” – сообщил тот же оратор и продолжил: “Дорогой брат, Рамзан Ахматович. Мусульмане с гордостью смотрят на Вас. Они слушают Вас, они любят Вас, они верят в Вас”.