The Left and Islamophobia: Remarks About Michael Walzer’s Essay in Dissent Magazine

By As’ad AbuKhalil

There is so much to say about the crime against Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical newspaper, AND the ensuing affair. Much has been said already, and protests were held, and pens were brandished all over the world. One of the more curious reactions can be found in an article in Dissent magazine by Michael Walzer, in which he reproaches the left for failing to take on Islamic fundamentalism or radicalism or whatever people call it (the official danger in France is now labeled “radical Islam,” provided that radical Islam does not have oil and gas wealth to buy arms from the French government).

Ironically, Walzer writes for Dissent magazine, a publication that has long embodied the contradictions of the American Zionist left. Here is a magazine that endorsed wholesale the policies and wars of the right-wing Israeli government (and of the left, to be sure) and never wavered in its support for Zionism. It also served for years as a tool of the global, right-wing US-dominated anti-communist movement.

Walzer’s main claim is that the left in the US (and elsewhere) has been intimidated from criticizing radical Islam due to the stinging accusation of Islamophobia. Ironically, Dissent magazine and other Zionist publications have themselves perfected the power of intimidation by casually throwing the label of anti-Semitism. Walzer’s book “Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustration” is a catalog of rationalizations of Israeli wars of aggression. Here is the author who considers the “radical devaluing” of the Jews of Israel the essence of terrorism in the Middle East , nevermind that the people who were expelled from their lands and whose homes were stolen, and who have been subjected to an unrelenting war of terror from the Zionist forces and later from the state of Israel are the Palestinian people themselves.

Most importantly, for Walzer to succeed in maintaining that the accusation of Islamophobia intimidates the left in the US, he has to prove that Islamophobia has power, or that it is a real stigma. One can simply measure the power of that stigma by comparing it to the stigma of anti-Semitism in the US, or in any other European country. It is, certainly, exceptional for someone to lose a job, be forced to resign from a job, or be denied tenure or get asked to offer a public apology for making an Islamophobic statement. There is no power whatsoever to the stigma of Islamophobia in the US. Far from it: in many electoral districts in the US, and in many churches and synagogues across the country, whipping up Islamophobia is a sure tool for the attainment of power.

The term itself is very new, and most of the public is not even familiar with it, and it has only been recently introduced to American culture and media (at the elite level only). Walzer’s suggestion that people are afraid to take on Islam due to fear of being labeled Islamophobic is a myth. In fact, the right and the left in the US have long been guilty of insensitivity toward Islam and Muslims, and this predates the rise of Jihadi terrorism in the last few decades. After September 11, anti-Islam rhetoric became a common feature in US politics and popular rhetoric, and senior members of the American political class and of the American clergy have been outspoken in their denunciation of Islam and Muslims or Muslim radicals.

To make his point, Walzer argues that people like him on the Zionist “left” — that Walzer considers himself a man of the left is not an argument to be contended with here — have not been reluctant to criticize Israeli settlers (by “Israeli settlers,” people on the American left mean occupation settlers in the West Bank, and ignore the occupation settlers who live inside 1948 Palestine). But the criticisms of Israeli settlers have been close to mute in those Zionist journals, and the analogy is quite stunning. The moral obligation to take on a segment of Israeli settlers (only those Walzer terms as “messianic”) is equated with the moral obligation to take on the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. But such are Walzer’s standards and his understanding of his leftist obligation.

As a leftist, presumably, Walzer admits a generalized fear—it seems he is overcome with a variety of fears—“of Hindutva zealots of India, of messianic Zionists in Israel, and of rampaging Buddhists monks in Myanmar,” but yet admits that he is “most afraid of Islamic zealots because the Islamic world … is especially feverish and fervent.” Notice that, when talking about Muslims, Walzer talks about “the Islamic world” although he does not explain or quantify how that world (a monolithic bloc, in his mind) is “especially feverish and fervent.” It could easily be explained that the areas of the “Islamic world” where there is the most turmoil and upheavals and violence are areas where the US and its Western allies are heavily involved in military intervention (Mali, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria). What Walzer and his allies on the Zionist left are really saying is that Muslims should simply submit to US dictates without any objection, otherwise they would be exhibiting signs of zealotry.

And he refuses to consider his fear of Islam and Muslim a prejudice, because he admits that Christian crusaders were centuries ago quite scary themselves. This admission wins him — in his own mind — license to express his quite irrational fear of the Islamic world. But Walzer does not take the fears of Muslims into consideration who have not gotten a break from the continued wars and assaults by Western armies in their continued attempts at domination. Nor would Walzer admit that Palestinians are afraid of Israel and its Western sponsors, although those fears are not religious in nature, and that the fears that the Palestinians have are in no way — as in the case of Walzer — directed against a whole religious community. Despite a century of conflict, Palestinians continue to welcome Jewish supporters of their cause into their homes .

Walzer does not make much of an effort to disguise his own prejudices; he concedes that there are some Muslim moderates (he does not give percentages, but the scale of his fear implies that they are a rather small minority), but he characterize those moderates as people who simply want to “leave infidels and heretics to their otherworldly fate.” In other words, to Walzer’s mind, Muslim moderates are quite fanatic themselves. If the moderates are that extreme, one can easily understand the irrational fear that Walzer harbors toward all Muslims.

He refuses to consider Muslims in the West members of a persecuted minority, because they don’t suffer as much as the Jews suffered in Nazi Germany. By that extreme criteria, one can now declare that there is no discrimination anywhere in the world today. He also cites FBI statistics to show that American Muslims don’t suffer too many hate crimes (regardless of the numbers of Muslims, Jews, and African-Americans, and regardless of whether hate crimes against Muslim are reported to the police with the same frequently and urgency, and whether the police and US government collect data on these hate crimes as much as crimes against other groups in the US).

He says that there are Islamists with “global ambitions” — and he cites the example of Muhammad Atta — but does not consider US wars and military interventions worldwide examples of global ambition. Throughout his entire essay, Walzer does not once consider how the rest of the world views, or suffers from, US global intervention.

Walzer then proceeds to make the point that there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Islam as a religion. But if a Muslim were to make criticisms of Judaism or even Christianity, he would be immediately labeled as an anti-Semite and a fanatic. Of course, one can make criticisms of any religion, but from which perspective? The atheist perspective? Or from the perspective of one religion battling another religion? The US culture and media, and sessions of US Congress, have been filled with criticisms of the Islamic faith — although, in passing, some of these instances include the qualifier that “there are moderate Muslims” somewhere out there.

Lest you confuse Walzer with an Islamophobe, he urges that “we” should engage “cooperatively with Muslim opponents of Zealotry.” His example of the moderates is one Ayaan Hirsi Ali. His support for Ali, in his mind, absolves him of any manifestation of Islamophobia.

I can’t speak of the American left, nor can I speak of the moderate left, but I think that the radical left is obligated to take on religious movements and even religions worldwide. But Walzer refuses to see the underlying causes of the rise of the religious movements in Islam. He has to be reminded that the Middle East, and the Islamic world in general — from Indonesia to Morocco — was for decades dominated by leftist and secular forces and that those forces were fought head on and brutally by the US government and its allies during the long decades of the Cold War. Furthermore, Walzer does not mention how the US regional order in the Middle East (though the alliance with Gulf regimes and Pakistan in particular) have been directly responsible, including recently in Syria, for the production of militant Jihadi terrorist groups. In other words, the US has more explaining and apologizing to do — at least — than average Muslims for the phenomenon of Islamist violence worldwide.

Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil is a Professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. He tweets @asadabukhalil

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