Saturday, February 28, 2015

Is "the left" soft on Islamism?

Michael Walzer, a well-known theorist of just war, writes in the Winter 2015 Dissent, where Walzer is emeritus editor, on Islamism and the Left. The Dissent website features additional material, including endnotes to the article and this exchange, Andrew March and Michael Walzer, Islamism and the Left: An Exchange (Online Only) Winter 2015.

Walzer is a thoughtful guy and his article is a serious one. But processing it involves navigating the difference between the longer-term questions involved in evaluating Islamist governments and movements from a left-democratic perspective, and the short-term reality of this moment in which warmongers of both the neocon and liberal-interventionist variety are using the threat of Islamic fanaticism in groups like ISIS to promote reckless foreign and military policies.

When I read the print article, my first reaction was that his argument is too general to throw much light on the first question and therefore reads like it's encouraging the purveyors of reckless Middle Eastern foreign policy. Because the article is carefully but clearly scolding "the left" in the US and Europe for not being critical enough of Islamist fundamentalism in the world and especially not of the political variety.

Walzer argues that "the left" tends to naively view Islamist radicalism in the Middle East as opponents to Western imperialism. This produces a "reluctance to condemn Islamist crimes, and that is the great eagerness to condemn the crimes of the West"

He also argues that "the left" is somehow dogmatically unwilling to look at the significance of religion in jihadist ideology because "the left" just doesn't want to think about religion. "The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion." In the view of "the left," he argues, "Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base."

What struck me on the first reading of Walzer's piece is that what he described as that of "the left" didn't sound familiar to me from the considerable amount of reading, listening, researching and talking about such issues with people I consider progressives, mostly but not exclusively Americans.

To take one example, some of the best-informed and serious analysis of American foreign policy toward militant Islam in the last 12 years has come from Juan Cole, an expert on Shi'a Islam, the form dominant in Iran and Iraq. He opposed the Iraq War and has cautioned about new interventions in Iraq ans Syria over ISIS. He supported the US-NATO role in Libya, whose results also seem to have been largely disastrous.

I don't known whether Walzer would consider him a "leftist" of the kind he talks about in his article. Certainly, Cole has been very critical of the actions and effects of Western imperialism in the Muslim world. And he has also been a careful analyst and critic of the various forms of political Islam in the world today.

We see both of those factors in this recent post of his, 5 Surprising Ways Iran is better than Israel Informed Comment 02/27/2015. On Iran's government, he writes:

Iran's government is not one I agree with on almost anything, and it is dictatorial and puritanical. I wish Iranians would get past it and join the world’s democracies. Israel is better than Iran in most regards – for Israeli citizens it has more of a rule of law and more personal liberties. But just to be fair, there are some ways Iran's policies are better than Israel’s.
And in this paragraph, he explains how Iran's historical experience with European imperial powers shaped the Islamist movement there, including political Islam, ending with some comments about the evolution of the political movement of Zionism in Israel:

Iran and European Jewry were both treated horribly in the 19th and 20th centuries by the major European imperial countries. Obviously, proportionally Jews suffered much more than Iranians did; about a third of Jews were murdered in the Nazi genocide. But Iran also suffered significant loss of human life and property. Tsarist Russia fought two wars with it in the early nineteenth century, and annexed from it substantial territory. Britain and Russia forbade Iran from constructing a railroad in the late 19th century, robbing it of a key tool of economic advance; that probably killed a lot of Iranians if you think about its implications. The British and the Russians opposed the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 and helped make sure Iranians did not get liberty and a rule of law. Britain backed the rise of the Pahlevi dictatorship in the 1920s, if it did not in fact simply impose it. The US overthrew the elected government of Iran in 1953 because it had nationalized the oil industry and imposed the megalomaniacal Mohammad Reza Pahlavi on that country. Ultimately Iranians, outraged at constant interference in their domestic affairs, overthrew the shah and instituted a revolutionary regime based on indigenous Iranian culture, especially religious culture. Although the Jewish response to the European genocide against Jews was not immediately religious (most Zionists were secular), over time religion has come to play a bigger and bigger part in Israeli life. In a sense, Israel and Iran are both reactions against European nationalism and imperialism, though Israel has now allied with the West, whereas Iran continues to oppose many Western policies.
Juan Cole has never struck me as afflicted by any problem of not being able to walk and talk at the same time when it comes to political Islam.

And that tends to be true of the writers, analysts and activists with which I have some experience. Of course, people who consider themselves in some way "left" can and do criticize aspects of Islamist politics and of Islamic religious practices. And most of those people seem to also be able to look at international conflicts and conflicts within countries involving religious-political parties and make some kind of realistic, practical distinction among them. I can't remember when if ever I've seen someone I identified as part of "the left" may the argument: "Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base."

Walzer's article struck me as trying to say that anyone on "the left" who is critical of militarist foreign policy on the Middle East or terrorism more generally should spend a lot of their time and energy echoing the anti-Islam rhetoric of those who advocate such policies.

Andrew March frames his discussion of Walzer's essay this way:

We can hear in Walzer himself the voice of the anguished and disappointed critic. He is not speaking to the demagogues of Fox News or to the even more belligerent purveyors of anti-Muslim racism. He is speaking to the tribe he still claims as his own—the global left. But his alienation from that tribe is much more palpable than his connection. Walzer is addressing the left, but neither sharing in its anxieties nor moving with its moral and emotional rhythms.
He also argues that Walzer's approach itself criticizes Islamism in an essentially ideological, non-empirical manner. "Is it really helpful to speak about 'the left's' attitude toward Islamism in such general terms, without looking at specific left debates about Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, or Iran?"

March also thinks, as I did, that Walzer sounds like he's making a demand of "the left" that can never actually be satisfied:

Worse, the charge that one does not denounce enough is notoriously slippery. Like demands for Muslims to—finally!—speak out and condemn terrorism, for American Jews to condemn Israeli settlements, or for black leaders to condemn inner city rage, Walzer’s essay suffers from both confirmation and selection bias. ... The problem is that no amount of contradictory evidence is ever good enough. The one who has moved first can always reply, “Well, yes, there are these exceptions, of course, but I still don’t have enough comrades declaring Islamist zealots our primary enemies.” This response is as slippery as it is disappointingly parochial.
Walzer's rejoinder to March's criticism is not without a touch of bitterness.

Interestingly enough, it's Walzer rather than March who relates this controversy to the endless Cold War game of non-Communist left activists and writers demanding that anyone protesting against misdeeds of their own government in the United States that they fall all over themselves also screeching about every real and imagined misdeed of the Soviet Union. It was kind of hard for anyone then to point out how official anti-Communist ideology was used to inflate threats foreign and domestic, if they themselves were simultaneously howling, "The Commies are everywhere and they're out to get us!! Aieee-eeee!!!"

Here's a tip. Anyone who goes on, say, a news program to caution about getting involved in an unnecessary war based on bad assumptions and unrealistic optimism about outcomes is not going to make their point very credible if in the same appearance if they do a Lindsay Graham imitation and hyperventilate about how the ISIS super-terrorists will be killing us all in our beds any moment now. Lindsay Graham on ISIS: "This President needs to rise to the occasion before we all git killed back here at home."

Sam Seder reported on Sen. Chicken Little's careful analysis in this 09/15/2014 YouTube video:

Anyone who claims to be a liberal or progressive or part of the "the left" is not going to make any successful antiwar argument if they couple it by echoing Graham's pants-wetting hysteria. All they will do is make themselves part of the prowar argument in the form of "Even the liberal so-and-so says that ISIS could murder us all tomorrow."

Walzer near the end of rejoinder makes it clear that he basically favors the necon/liberal-interventionist argument of the moment. He isn't just interested in the larger critique. He likes Lindsay Graham's position, though he doesn't quite reach the Senator's level of squawking fear in these pieces. Walzer writes:

For the America he excoriates is right now the only force effectively opposing or, at least, containing, the power of ISIS and therefore the beheadings and the mass executions and the enslavement of Yazidi girls. ... They require more than disgust; they require a political response. And the left should be actively engaged in advocating such a response and in talking about its agents, its methods, and its limits.
But there also was no ISIS before 2003, when the Cheney-Bush Administration invaded Iraq justifying their invasion with both fear-mongering hysteria and high-sounding moral and political justifications.

After all, since the Second World War, America only goes to war against Hitler, again and again. Our motives are always the best. And our enemies are always the worst. And anyone who opposes those wars is always accused by some of the war's supporters, not all of them as literate as Michael Walzer, and being "apologists" for the Evil Ones.

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