Throughout my adult life, I have always thought of myself as a social justice advocate—someone who stands up for individual human rights regardless of race, gender, or country of origin. Someone who advocates for equity and equality in all the places that they are lacking, and challenges the systems and structures that help to keep those inequities and inequalities in place.
Likewise, throughout my adult life, I have always thought of myself as a secularist— someone who not only rejects religion, but views it as a social ill, as something that contributes to the destruction of humanity and/or that oftentimes limits peoples’ ability to reach their full human potential.
For someone like myself who likes to hang out on the political left, these characteristics are not all that uncommon. Lately, however, I have felt these two identities coming into conflict, like there’s some sort of irreconcilable contradiction that is manifesting between secularism and social justice. Nowhere has this distinction been clearer than in my struggles around the issue of Islamic extremism.
The simple use of that terminology is illustrative in-and-of-itself of the intellectual dilemma I’ve been facing. Acknowledging the fact that Islamic extremism is a real thing and a real problem in the 21st century is something that can alienate one from mainstream leftist conversation. Certainly the world’s foremost leftist leader, Barack Obama, has been hesitant to use such language in his discourse no matter how many times he has encountered “that” type of terrorism during his two terms as president.
However, I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that most of the cases of international terrorism seem to be associated with a particular religion. Between groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram, Islam is undoubtedly the modern leader in the production of sectarian violence. And although such a statement can earn one the title of Islamophobe or racist, very unleftist titles indeed, I still believe that statement to be undeniably true.
Recently, however, I had a minor breakthrough—an intellectual encounter that helped me to reconcile my two leftist personas. The breakthrough is incomplete in the sense that I’m still wrestling with a lot of it, still searching for an ideological nook that feels right for me, but in the mean time, it has at least lent me a place to put my proverbial feet up.
That encounter took place during a listen to my latest favorite podcast, Waking Up with Sam Harris. The episode, entitled “Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue,” features a conversation between renowned free-thinker Sam Harris and former radical Islamist turned activist-reformer Maajid Nawaz, a Pakistani Muslim seeking to turn back the tide of Islamic extremism through the promotion of a secular Islam and a peaceful interpretation of the Quran.
It’s an enlightening and thought-provoking conversation that really should be listened to in its entirety for anyone interested in such topics, but as it pertains to my personal dilemma—the want for validation as a social justice secularist—my epiphany was mostly the result of an introduction to new terminology, specifically a term that seemed to describe the mode of thought that was needlessly driving a stake between my two otherwise fairly compatible mindsets. This mode of thought, a mode of thought I now know I reject, is derived from an unofficial group that Nawaz calls the “regressive left.”
The “regressive left” is a term that Nawaz coined to describe well-meaning liberals who, in the interest of social justice and multiculturalism, provide unintended support to highly illiberal beliefs and practices. In regards to Islam, Nawaz uses the term to refer to people who reject criticisms of the Islamic religion in the name of cultural sensitivity and tolerance, but in the process, fail to confront many of the problems that are prominent in the Muslim world at this particular moment in time.
These problems include not only terrorism and jihad, but also issues surrounding freedom of speech, religion, and press, as well as the rights of women, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities. While the defense of such rights and liberties should be top liberal priorities, regressive leftists have attempted to redefine the hierarchal organization of leftist values. This reshuffling has placed a dangerous form of culturally-relativist tolerance on top, a tolerance that oftentimes comes at the expense of defending the rights and liberties above.
An example: If one were to criticize the forced covering experienced by many women in the Muslim world via the niqab or burqa, a regressive leftist may be more likely to defend Islamic culture than to defend those women oppressed by it.
Another example: If one were to make reference to the problem of Islamic terrorism, a regressive leftist may be more likely to push back against what they perceive to be an unenlightened generalization of Muslims than they would be to sympathize with the victims of such terroristic acts, the vast majority of whom are Muslims themselves.
Nawaz uses the the term “regressive” to imply a contrast with the “progressive” views that are usually associated with the political left, views that seek to advance the common cause of humanity through the espousal of Enlightenment ideals like liberty, equality, and natural human rights. These ideals are thought to be universal principles that transcend the borders that divide us, ideals that are merited to every earthly individual regardless of religion or culture. But in their attempt to embody the principles of multicultural sensitivity, Nawaz argues that regressive leftists are actually working against that “progress,” sometimes to the point where it is actually “regressing.”
What is more, Nawaz also argues, that the ideology of regressive leftists is so backwardly focused on the evasion of racism, that it actually embodies a form of racism itself. In what he calls “the racism of low expectations,” Nawaz describes how the refusal to acknowledge some of the pervasive ills in Islamic culture is representative of the “low expectations” these regressive leftists are sometimes projecting on minority populations, a projection that to many Muslims seems paternalistic and insulting. It suggests that because Muslims are “minorities,” because they are “oppressed,” they should not be held accountable to the same moral standards or expectations that regressive leftists would likely place on, say, white Christians. It would be the equivalent of a teacher such as myself having lower learning or behavioral expectations for my students of color due to the fact that they are “poor,” “disadvantaged,” and in need of the hope and advocacy that only a white liberal like myself can provide.
At this point I would like to say that I have no doubts that Islamophobia is indeed a real thing, and that many critics of Islam do indeed evoke racist rhetoric in making their criticisms, Donald Trump being a perfect example. I also have no illusions about the significant role that U.S. foreign policy has played, both presently and historically, in helping to create and/or exacerbate many of the problems that the Islamic world is suffering. I sometimes wonder if Islamic extremism would even be such a global threat if Western imperialism hadn’t done such a great job creating the perfect conditions for radicalization. All that being said, I do think that the doctrine of Islam is worthy of criticism, that religion is to blame for much of the suffering experienced in the Islamic world, and that our ability to make such criticisms has been limited by the regressive leftists and PC police who have been attempting to hijack the social justice movement for their own misguided endeavors.
The irony is that regressive leftists do not defend all religions from their secularist critics. When secularists go after Christianity for its attacks on a woman’s right to choose or a gay person’s right to marry, regressive leftists are on the sidelines cheering them on. However, when secularists go after Islam, oftentimes for many of the same reasons that they go after Christianity, the regressive leftists shift their emphasis from universal rights to multicultural tolerance, even when the latter is directly jeopardizing the former.
I sympathize with those leftists who claim that such critiques of Islam can and do lead to harmful stereotypes of Muslims, and would argue that any criticisms of Islam should be made with only the utmost consideration of language and nuance. However, I would also make an important distinction between criticizing Islam as a set of ideas, versus criticizing Muslims as a homogenous group of people. The former is okay. The latter is not. Islam is an ideology that should be no more immune from criticism than Christianity, communism, or conservatism. It is a set of ideas that people believe in, not a fixed trait like race, gender, or sexual orientation. And when people do it correctly, criticisms of Islam should never be confused with criticisms of Muslims as individuals. No individual Muslim should be held accountable for beliefs that they do no own and deeds that they did not sow.
Moving forward, that is how all these conversations should be framed—not as a war on Muslims or a war on Islam, but a war on ideas—ideas that are harmful to humans. This war can only be fought in the arena of conversation, through free and open competition in the marketplace of ideas, where hopefully the good ideas defeat the bad ones. That, unfortunately, is becoming increasingly harder to do with regressive leftists, who will often curl up into their social justice shells out of refusal to engage in dialogue with “racists” and “bigots.” This is no way to defeat harmful ideas, nor the real human suffering that those ideas inflict on human beings—on Christians, on Muslims, on secularists, on everyone. But if we can’t even talk about it, how the hell are we ever going to actually do anything?
I think that the world would be a better place without Islam. I think that the world would be a better place without religion. And I think that the world would be a better place without the regressive left. Of course, none of those things are going to happen. That’s why I am thankful for people like Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris, for their courage to take part in difficult conversations, for their willingness to speak honestly despite its repercussions, for their push back against ideas that are harmful to humanity, for challenging their listeners to think harder and do better, and for helping to reassure people like me that social justice and secularism are still compatible missions.
Podcast Plug: Listen to Sam and Maajid’s conversation in full to hear more intellectually stimulating discussion of this issue and others including:
- The concentric circles of Islamic identities
- Maajid’s mission of peaceful reform
- The role of religious motivation in Islamic terrorism
- And much more super thought-provoking stuff!!!
Like me, you will not agree with everything you hear, but you will be given plenty to wrestle with.