27 January 2015

The Islamophobia debate

President Obama's failure to attend to solidarity rally in Paris following the Charlie Hebdo massacre has sparked fresh criticism of his softness or evasiveness on the question of Islam, and a similar softness and evasiveness on the part of the broader global "left." Thomas Friedman sees evasiveness at least in Obama's convening of a summit against "Violent Extremism." To Friedman, this label indicates a willful or cowardly ignorance of Islamism as a primary if not a unique source of violent extremism in our world. At most, it may reflect Obama's feeling that terrorists only use Islam as an excuse for acting on their personal violent, vengeful or ambitious impulses, when Friedman's feeling is that Islam itself is a fundamental motivator of violent extremism that can't be immune from scrutiny, even as Friedman makes the usual liberal arguments against collective responsibility. He will not blame all Muslims for Islamist extremism, but he seems to believe that all Muslims have a responsibility to ask whether Islam demands too much of the world. Meanwhile, American Muslims, and liberal Muslims elsewhere in the west, are pushing back against the demand that they answer for the actions of the violent extremists, and they're right to do so -- not because I think Islam has nothing to do with the present violence but because the demand reflects a failure by westerners to see Muslims as the same sort of individuals as Christians of all sects and even atheists are. The reason few Americans think of anti-abortion killers as "Christian terrorists" is because we see Christians as individuals whose moral choices aren't determined by their faith identity. The difference in our perception of Muslims isn't that we assume that their moral choices are determined entirely by Islam, but that we don't know. That's why we demand that Muslims prove themselves, when we make no such demand of most other potentially violent groups -- blacks remain the most damning exception -- even when history or mere reading demonstrates their capacity for violence as group members. Barack Obama lived among Muslims for part of his childhood and most likely doesn't have the same difficulty perceiving Muslims as individuals first.

As for the broader "left," Michael Walzer, who sees himself as a leftist, chides fellow leftists in Dissent magazine for going soft on Islamism in order to avoid the "Islamophobe" label. "Islamophobia" is to Islamism what "anti-semitism" is to Israel, it seems. Something deserving of criticism if not resistance is immunized by the slur that its critics are bigots. Walzer suspects that many on the left are more worried about appearing Islamophobic than appearing anti-semitic, but his real beef seems to be that leftists downplay the evils of Islamism out of overriding hostility to "imperialism" as practiced by the U.S., NATO, Israel, etc. Whatever Islamism is, it's certainly opposed to imperialism, and for that reason, arguably, many leftists resent what looks like a zero-sum choice between imperialism and Islamism. As Andrew March argues in a response to Walzer, leftists obviously deplore the atrocities committed in the name of Islamism, but don't feel the sort of moral obligation to denounce them that Walzer insists upon whenever that might amount to an implicit endorsement of imperialism. March takes the Chomskian position that activists and intellectuals' first responsibility is always to report and criticize the sins of their own group, no matter how vile the sins of the other are. This infuriates leftists like Walzer (not to mention nearly everyone on the right) because the sins of the other often seem objectively worse. Walzer is an heir of the anti-Stalinist left and has little tolerance for those who appear to ignore or excuse the sins of their own group -- the anti-imperialist resistance as the left defines it -- out of a fearful or spiteful refusal to concede any theoretical points to the imperialist/capitalist enemy.

In our time, Walzer worries that knee-jerk anti-imperialism or simple fear of the "Islamophobe" label blinds many on the left to the barbarism of extreme Islamism. He thinks it should be possible to oppose imperialism -- or, if you prefer, the excesses of U.S. foreign policy -- while also opposing Islamist barbarism without mitigation or equivocation. He openly sneers at March's argument that the left doesn't need to denounce Islamism all the time because the right takes care of that very well. Walzer feels that the left always has a responsibility to oppose barbarism, but other leftists might well question his sensitivity to barbarism. It's easy to say that beheading hostages or flogging bloggers or enslaving prisoners is barbaric, but does barbarism end there? From the anti-imperialist perspective, I suppose, the equation of Islamism (if not Islam) with barbarism plays into imperialist hands, since imperialists have justified themselves by their opposition to barbarism for more than 200 years now.  The point here would not be that Islamist atrocities aren't barbaric, but that Walzer might not say that drone strikes that kill civilians are also barbaric. Walzer has criticized the drone-strike policy, and he opposed the invasion of Iraq after endorsing the Afghanistan war, but some may perceive a different tone to his objections that he may not consciously intend. That difference in tone may lead one to assume that if forced to choose, Walzer would acquiesce to "imperialism" to fight "barbarism." Walzer probably would deny the necessity of such a choice but it's the same choice he effectively forces on the anti-imperialist left. Socialists have long seen themselves as the enemies of "barbarism," and some have seen socialism as the only alternative to it. But those same socialists presumably saw imperialism as part of barbarism, and if Walzer challenges some leftists to stand up to barbarism, they should be able to throw the same challenge back at him. In the long run, a true left -- one more committed to human progress than a patronizing respect for the Other --  would have to confront Islamism, if not Islam -- though it might tactfully opt to confront "salafism" or "takfirism" instead. But that isn't the left's first or only historic responsibility, just as it isn't Walzer's first or only responsibility, as a leftist, to oppose a barbarism he defines geographically or culturally rather than morally. If the debate over Islamophobia and the proper stance toward Islamism proves anything, it may be that few if any on the left have their priorities entirely straight.

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