America positions “radical Islam” as its enemy, blames leftists for it, but continues to enable it amidst misfiring accusations.
The left often faces a criticism from the right that we are not tough enough on “radical Islam.” A while back, Barack Obama was also criticized by those to the right of him for not saying the phrases “radical Islam” and “Islamic terrorism.” And as we all know, positioning “radical Islam” as one of the most pressing threats to the American people is often invoked for a rally effect in American political discourse by those seeking office or by those that hold it. In this article, I will take these concerns seriously for the sake of argument. In taking these concerns seriously, we first need to understand what radical Islamism is. Then, we need to understand the left’s relation to Islam and whether this relationship enables radical Islamism – which – as we will see, is distinct from Islam as a faith. Next, we need to look at the establishment and flourishing of Islamist extremists abroad and the factors behind their flourishing. As I will show, right-wing hysteria over radical Islamism and the left is ignorant at best, and profoundly hypocritical and dangerous at worst.
Those that publicly denounce “radical Islamism” do not usually clarify their definitions. Let’s first establish what Islamism, or political Islam, actually is. An Islamist is, broadly speaking, someone who wishes for Islam to hold a role in politics. Islamists range in type. For instance, Islamists can be non-violent and participate in institutional politics, such as the Tunisian Ennahda. Alternatively, Islamists can be Salafists – an ultra-conservative wing of Islamism. Even Salafists can be (relatively) non-violent and participate in institutional politics, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. They can also be violent and operate outside of political institutions to achieve their goals, such as ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Thus, it’s safe to say Islamists are not a monolith. Further, not all Muslims are Islamists. For instance, in all Arab states that hold Muslim majorities, except for Yemen, there has been a recent decrease in support for Islamism/political Islam and an increase in support for secular democracy as opposed to religiously based governance (Tessler & Robbins, 2014).
The second thing we need to look at is how, if at all, leftists would, in fact, enable or support Islamists. The first way we are considered to be “supportive” or “siding” with Islamists is because we are concerned with Islamophobia. Since leftists are concerned with the marginalization of socially salient groups, it makes sense, especially in a post-9/11 world, that we would be concerned with Islamophobia. Such concern is not a defense of Islamist governments or even necessarily of people with Islamist and/or Muslim beliefs. First, one does not need to be Muslim to experience Islamophobia. In fact, plenty of people who have been on the receiving end of Islamophobic hate crimes have not been Muslim – Sikhs, for instance, are often targeted.
It is more accurate, then, to say that leftist concerns about Islamophobia are tied to concerns with three issues: leftist anti-racism (given the current racialization of Muslims), pro-immigration and refugee stances (given pushback against immigration from Muslim countries), and the belief in freedom of religion (given laws that wish to outlaw headscarves in various public spaces).
` None of these concerns enable or foster Islamism, let alone the violent Salafism that politicians allude to. Opposing discrimination and hate crimes against individual Muslims does not provably foster Islamism – nor does admitting Muslim immigrants and refugees. In fact, it probably does the opposite. Antagonizing and otherizing Muslims in relation to the West fits the narrative of the Salafist Daesh that seeks to radicalize and divide Muslims from their Western counterparts. By permitting Muslims to enter and engage with Western society, leftists and pro-immigration advocates are chipping away at violent Salafist ideology – not enabling it in any meaningful way.
The second concern is that leftists — and feminists especially — do not “talk about” Islam enough, and that they are not concerned enough about radical Islam. This might be a more believable accusation than the former – after all, how can we combat something we refuse to talk about? However, this accusation is simply unfounded and ignores the plethora of feminist scholarship and activism concerning Muslim and Arab issues, as well as the fact that Western Islamophobia also serves to silence Muslim feminists.
Instead, these accusers take an archetype of white feminist individuals in America to represent the whole of Western feminism. They further fail to consider that, when concerning issues in Muslim majority states, it’s probably best to pass the microphone to women who have experienced it and need to be elevated. Western men do not need to learn about feminism and Islam from other Western women when there are plenty of unheard Muslim and Middle Eastern voices that they could learn from instead. They also cannot, and should not, ignore the fact that feminists have been and continue to play a significant role in fighting ISIL.
Since we still do not have evidence of leftists or feminists actually enabling radical Islamism and more evidence to the contrary, one may then wonder who the enablers actually are. Ironically, it’s none other than the United States and its allies. The complainants and accusers with respect to radical Islam are also its culprits. Unlike empty accusations against leftists and feminists, the US and its allies have measurably fostered Salafism and Islamism in the Middle East by destabilizing governments and supporting other governments and groups that actively contribute to the spread and maintenance of violent Salafism in the region.
The famous US invasion of Iraq, championed by Bush-era neoconservatives, destabilized Iraq and gave rise to the growth of ISIS through blowback. Brutalization of the Iraqi population by US forces through things like torture and the shootings of innocent protesters radicalized local minority Sunni communities into Al Qaeda affiliated groups that would eventually become ISIS. As Mehdi Hassan has written, this blowback also emerged after the US dismantled the Iraqi army, leaving them without employment and ripe for radicalization and recruitment. Similarly, the mass imprisonment of Iraqis made them vulnerable to radicalization as the budding ISIL leader himself, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, became radicalized in Camp Bucca.
As long as we’re talking about irresponsible interventions, we may as well speak of Libya. While Muammar Qaddafi was certainly no saint, the big bogeyman we are ostensibly to be most concerned with are Islamists – who happened to have been Qaddafi’s most significant opposition. For people who are so dedicated to fighting radical Islam, Western interventionists, reminiscent of their days in Iraq, were far more concerned with toppling the regime than they were with dealing with – let alone fighting – radical Islamism. The rapid and careless intervention based on shotty and exaggerated information unsurprisingly destabilized the state and gave rise to previously powerless Islamists.
For people who are so concerned about radical Islamism, it is strange to see Western interventionists so regularly try to overthrow leaders whose enemies are radical Islamists – ysometimes even supporting al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist groups in the process. In fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the United States spent $1 billion a year to train people they knew were al-Qaeda affiliates. It seems that American Muslim hysteria, then, is following the mantra of “do as I say, not as I do.” The US demands its population succumb to widespread fear of radical Islamism while fuelling it abroad to further geopolitical interests (such as opposing Russia, Iran, and China).
“But maybe it’s about democratic values,” one might say. “Americans are not arming Islamists or creating them to purposely further radical Islamism, but to fight anti-democratic regimes such as Qaddafi’s or Assad’s.” But if those on the right want to emphasize intent, then their critique of leftists fostering Islamism is entirely meaningless – as we have established that the intent is to protect vulnerable socially salient groups, and not to establish a caliphate.
It’s also not convincing that the spread of democratic values is the true American telos in the Middle East. The US allies itself with fundamentally undemocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, who is also known to fund extremist Islamist groups in vulnerable Middle Eastern states such as Jaysh al-Islam in Syria. Aside from that, they also support the undemocratic, Saudi-backed Bahrain monarch that militantly clamped down on protesters demanding democratization during the Arab Spring. It does not seem that democracy is the priority.
It’s important to note that not only has America supported – and continued to support – Islamist extremism; but that this support has had a much more significant impact on the spread and maintenance of violent Salafist groups in the Middle East than leftists and feminists telling you to not harass women in hijabs. This is not exclusive to one American president, but is continuous from overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran, supporting Hamas against its secular counterparts, supporting Islamists in Afghanistan and Pakistan against the Soviets, enabling the Taliban in 2001, to their actions in Syria today. I have focused only on fairly recent examples that directly relate to the United States. It is thus nonsensical for the American government to attempt to play on fear of radical Islam when they are far more complicit – and have much more power to be – than the people they accuse of enabling it. We shouldn’t fall for it, either.
Lynch, Marc, ed. The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.
—- Tessler, Mark & Robbins, Michael. “Political System Preferences of Arab Publics.”