The Left and Political Islam | by Farid Esak

by Apr 19, 2013All Articles

islamThe task of defining both the Left and political Islam is no mean one. Both function and are understood within their own conceptual frameworks, geographical locations and time frames. In the limited space available here one can only speak in broad terms – thereby possibly entrenching stereotypes.

Broadly speaking, we can identify two strands in the Left’s engagement with political Islam. 

The first strand is Soviet Marxism which in a larger sense saw political Islam as a product of US imperialism and defined it as ‘petro-dollar fundamentalism’. This line was followed by various Marxist parties in Pakistan, India and Egypt. The Communist Party of Iran was an exception to this in the support of the Islamist led revolution in 1979 (Mushin Makhmalbuf’s movie, Boycott, was based on this engagement between Political Islam and the Left in Iran). This strand followed a kind of economical determinism that never fully understood anti-colonial resistance, the knowledge traditions beyond Europe and the tension created by the colonial modernity within Muslim societies. Later, some Marxist intellectuals such as Samir Amin took these questions to a different terrain.

While they addressed the need for a ‘Third World Marxism’, they avoided any significant kind of engagement with political Islam and largely followed the same argument of Soviet Marxism. More recently, in an interview in Monthly Review, Amin, along with Aijaz Ahmad, dismissed the Arab Spring as a “conspiracy” of the USA and its local allies to marginalize leftists in the Arab world. While not devoid of any merit, they fail to account for the agency of social forces inside the Arab Spring or to account for the different political realities such as region, race, caste, gender, and religion as a valid analytical framework to understand life along with “class”.

The second strand of leftist (or “New Left”) engagement came from different groups: Marxists; anti- Marxists; Critical Theorists; and feminists amongst others. This strand fused the economic determinism of Soviet Marxism and provided a more nuanced idea of the Left. The existentialist anti-Soviet Marxist Jean Paul Sartre, for example, supported the Algerian liberation movement and criticized the French communist Party for not supporting it. Foucault’s analysis of the Iranian revolution is a similar attempt by the Left to engage with political Islam. While neither Sartre nor Foucault extended this sympathy with localized expressions against imperialism – even if inspired by Islam – both of them failed to empathize in a way which destabilized some of the ‘fundamental values’ of a post-World War II Europe such as support for the Zionist State of Israel. Judith Butler represents a significant development in this deeper appreciation of localized resistance to imperialism and neo-colonialism. She recently spoke about “understanding Hamas [and], Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, [… and] part of a global Left.” While Foucault may be central to Butler’s work, the latter represents a clear shift to a “postcolonial” situation and active engagement with scholars from the South like Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Gayatri Chakrabarty Spiwak.

The question of engagement between the Left and Political Islam was the central question for Saba Mahmood. In the introduction to Politics of Piety she writes about her changing relationship with political Islam. Mahmood, a secular feminist activist in Pakistan in the seventies, attributed the movement of the Egyptian masses towards political Islam to a number of factors including the lack of education, Saudi Islam imported through immigrant laborers and the unholy alliance between western capitalist forces and the oil rich Gulf monarchies. She later found these explanations for the strengthening of political Islam quite inadequate. Islamist movements were serious in mobilizing for democratization of the political arena and to end single party rule and implacably opposed to US interest in the region. Mahmood attributed her difficulties as a secular feminist in “part to our profound disease with the appearance of religion outside the private space of individualized belief”. Leftist narratives, she argued, tended to “translate religious truth as force, play of power that can be traced back to the machination of economic and geopolitical interests”. Mahmood urged the Left to look at different types of human flourishing beyond the leftist secular aspiration.

Political Islam, outside of state formations, represents the only serious social welfare services for societies, the sole refuge from an all-pervasive corrupt officialdom and hitherto for many the only serious attempt to checkmate the march of imperialism.

In my own reflections on political Islam and conversations with some its leaders it is clear that they are moved by many of the same impulses that infused liberation theologies, particularly Black theology; an implacable opposition to external hegemony, a commitment to use internal cultural resources and identities to oppose these and an idealized – and somewhat romanticized and reified vision of community and its tradition. While ideologically very rudimentary, their discourse is fused with the language of justice, equality and freedom from economic exploitation and inequality and a revolt against injustice

Energized religiosity is not something that the Left sits with very comfortably. The choice between a decaffeinated Buddhism (or Islam for that matter) – the type of which there is an abundance of literature to be found at airports to calm nervous passengers and a nervous Empire – or an energized faith that resists exploitation and power is, however. not a huge toss-up for me.

Political Islam is a response – a deeply flawed one – to the problem of neo-colonialism and western hegemonic imperialism. It is not the problem; imperialism is.

Farid Esack is a South African Muslim scholar, writer, and political activist.

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