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The Muslim Right and the Anglo-American Left: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

An excerpt from ‘Double Bind’ questions the logic of ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’

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Protesters and members of the Stop the War Coalition gather at the U.S. Embassy to march to Trafalgar Square on April 1, 2009, in London. ( Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images)
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The Muslim Right is a range of transnational political movements that mobilize identity politics towards the goal of a theocratic state. It consists of those called “moderate Islamists” by the media, who propose to reach this goal gradually by electoral and educational means; extremist parties and groups called “salafis,” who run for office but also try to enforce some version of Sharia law through street violence; and a much smaller militant wing of salafi-jihadis, whose propaganda endorses military means and who practice violence against civilians. The goal of all political Islamists, however, whatever means they may prefer, is a state founded upon a version of Sharia law that systematically discriminates against women along with sexual and religious minorities.

Some in the human rights movement have gone overboard in their desire to defend the victims of state counter-terrorism, and ended up embracing the Muslim Right. A section of the Anglo-American left has done the same, focusing only on wrongs done by the United States and acting on the fatal principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Historically, the left has stood for certain values—at least in principle: separation between religion and the state; social equality; an end to discrimination against women and minorities; economic justice; opposition to imperialist and racist wars. In the last ten years, however, some groups on the far left have allied with conservative Muslim organizations that stand for religious discrimination, advocate death for those they consider apostates, oppose gay rights, subordinate women, and seek to impose their views on others through violence. This support of the Muslim Right has undermined struggles for secular democracy in the Global South and has spread from the far left to feminists, the human rights movement and progressive donors.

The far left’s embrace of Islamic fundamentalism mirrors distortions about Islam put about by anti-immigrant conservatives—the far right talks as if all Muslims were potential terrorists, while the far left talks as if salafi-jihadis represented all Muslims. Both ignore the fact that the vast majority of Muslims are like everybody else; they just want to survive and live their lives in peace. Very few of them support the interpretations and actions of salafi-jihadis, who no more represent all Muslims than the American Nazi Party or English Defence League represent all Christians.

In 2006, the late Fred Halliday, a socialist public intellectual and expert on the Middle East, listed some ways that left wing movements were giving support to the Muslim Right. He included the Tehran visit of Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez, during which Chavez embraced Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; the official welcome ceremony given by Ken Livingstone, then Mayor of London, and MP George Galloway of the Respect Party, to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a controversial Egyptian cleric associated with the Muslim Brotherhood; and the alignment of the Socialist Workers Party with Islamists in the Stop the War movement, in which London antiwar demonstrators carried signs saying, “We are all Hezbollah.” He might also have included the fact that the Third European Social Forum, meeting in London in 2004, prominently featured Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, while denying a feminist coalition space for a panel on “Unholy Alliances” between the left and the Muslim Right.

A particularly egregious example of this trend is left wing support for “the Iraqi insurgency” which includes groups allied with al-Qaeda and is made up of Sunni militants who practice sectarian violence against Shi’a and plant bombs in marketplaces and civilian neighbourhoods. Although Iraqi leftists and feminists oppose the Iraqi insurgency, both the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition in the United States and the Stop the War Coalition in the United Kingdom have endorsed it on the basis that it is fighting foreign invasion and imperialism. In fact, the insurgency has directed its violence less at the US than at imposing an Islamic state on its own people, targeting women in particular, as Anissa Hélie, a feminist scholar and former coordinator of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, pointed out in 2005:

For example, an extremist group in Iraq called Mujahideen Shura (council of fighters) warned it would kill any woman who is seen unveiled on the street. The recent case of Zeena Al Qushtaini has shown this is not an empty threat. Zeena, a women’s rights activist and businesswoman known for wearing “Western” clothing, was kidnapped and executed by Jamaat al Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, another armed Islamist group. Her body was found wrapped in the traditional abaya, which she had refused to wear when she was alive. Pinned to the abaya was the message: “She was a collaborator against Islam.” Muslim extremists have already moved on to assassinating male and female hairdressers whom they accuse of promoting “Western” fashion. They also specifically target trade union leaders as well as gays and lesbians. Religious minorities are also under attack, such as Christians in the Northern city of Mosul where women from the Christian community were singled out in a rape campaign.

Despite this record, prominent left wing intellectuals in the United Kingdom like Tariq Ali, an editor of New Left Review, continued to romanticize Iraqi sectarian attacks.

With similar political blindness, sections of the international left have continued to support the Iranian theocracy despite its violent repression of the “Green Revolution” of 2009-2010, its attacks on student and women’s organizations, and its suppression of labour unions. In September 2010, for instance, 150 self-described “progressive activists” in the United States, led by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and former member of the House of Representatives Cynthia McKinney, dined with Iranian President Ahmadinejad on his visit to the United Nations to show their support for his allegedly anti-imperialist stand. Unwillingness to criticize the Iranian theocracy has led to a lack of solidarity with the people of Iran, a particular problem at a time of sanctions and talk of war. In March 2012, a United National Antiwar Coalition met in Hartford to oppose the possibility of war with Iran, condemn sanctions, and oppose U.S. wars and interference in other places. By an overwhelming majority, however, the meeting refused to support the human rights of the Iranian people, voting down a resolution that said, “We oppose war and sanctions against the Iranian people and stand in solidarity with their struggle against state repression and all forms of outside intervention.”

And yet, as a spokeswoman for the New York-based Raha Iranian Feminists Group, which supported the defeated resolution, said,

If we don’t support Iranians struggling in Iran for the same things we fight for here, such as labor rights, abolition of the death penalty and freedom for political prisoners, we risk a politically debilitating form of cultural relativism. At best we are hypocrites; at worst we show an inability to imagine Iranians as anything other than passive victims of Western powers. Ironically, this echoes racist and Orientalist stereotypes of the kind that most antiwar activists would hasten to decry.


Some on the far left support the Taliban, the Iraqi insurgency, the Iranian theocracy and even al-Qaida, in the belief that they systematically oppose U.S. imperialism. This idea does not accord with reality.

The main financial support for salafi-jihadi groups comes from various sources in Saudi Arabia, arguably the most reactionary country in the world and a staunch ally of the same U.S. imperialists that jihadis say they are fighting.

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The Muslim Right and the Anglo-American Left: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

An excerpt from ‘Double Bind’ questions the logic of ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’