“Islamo-Leftism” or Islamophobo-Leftism?

Across the political spectrum, a common collection of narratives is rationalising, minimising and invisibilising violence against Muslims.

A woman holds a placard reading « Stop to islamophobia » as she takes part in a gathering place de la Nation, one of the Paris major crossroad on October 27, 2019, to protest against Islamophobia and
A woman holds a placard reading 'Stop to islamophobia' as she takes part in a gathering at the Place de la Nation, a main Paris crossroad on October 27, 2019, to protest against Islamophobia and media bias in France [Michel Stoupak/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

Meet the latest sensation in the “Islamo-” demonology franchise: “Islamo-leftism,” the French state’s pet bogeyman du jour. According to the anti-Islamo-leftists, discourses challenging oppression – such as anti-colonialism, anti-racism, and feminism – actually serve as sources of oppression, by enabling “radical Islam”.

In previous decades, it was “Islamo-fascism” that was all the rage: connoting Islam’s purported affinity not with the left, but the far-right. For centuries before that, it was what might now be called “Islamo-Judaism”: the recurrent conspiracy theories conjoining Jews and Muslims as threats to European Christendom, so that “the two infidel races were [treated] as halves of a single body of Semitic aliens,” as analysed by medieval literature scholar Geraldine Heng.

As the political sands shift, the bogeyman is perpetually reconfigured to fit the current landscape. To quote 19th-century French Orientalist Ernest Renan, Islam is imagined as “the most complete negation of Europe” – however Europe happens to see itself at the time.

When Europe was gripped by homophobia and sectarianism, Muslim societies were criticised for being too non-heteronormative and multicultural – signs of Muslim “degeneracy” remedied through the imposition of colonial rule.

Now that the signifiers of “civilisation” have switched, public “intellectuals” like French philosopher Pascal Bruckner complain that Islamo-leftism is curtailing their ability to freely demonise Muslims for being too intolerant. In anti-racism’s “permanent war of all against all,” accusations of Islamophobia are a “weapon of mass intimidation,” Bruckner insists.

Meanwhile, the non-metaphorical state of “permanent war” against Muslims persists, and those documenting its atrocities and critiquing its underpinning ideology continue to be subject to marginalisation, suppression and punishment by the state and other institutions of power.

For example, the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) was liquidated by the French government in November.

Prominent Islamophobia expert Professor Farid Hafez’s home was raided by counter-terrorism police in Austria, also in November – part of a series of raids against Muslim academics and activists.

And in February, the eminent philosopher and anti-racist, Palestine solidarity activist Professor Cornel West was denied tenure at Harvard University.

It seems Bruckner’s “weapon of mass intimidation” inhabits the same plane of unreality as Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction”. And it serves an analogous function – of depicting the targets of systemic aggression as the aggressors.

Bruckner is frequently described as a man of the left, highlighting the incoherence of the term “Islamo-leftism”, which obfuscates the Islamophobia within the left itself.

Even the very party accused by French political leaders of being an epicentre of Islamo-leftism, France Insoumise, has hosted speakers claiming that “one has the right to be Islamophobic,” and could barely muster any representatives to participate in a march against anti-Muslim hate after an attack on a French mosque in 2019.

The enduring power of Islamophobia is that there’s something in it for almost everyone, from right to left.

In March, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party managed to break its losing streak in citizens’ referendums, with its victorious proposal to banish Muslim women’s face-veils from public space – which attracted twice the vote share as the party won in the general election. As did its similarly successful 2009 campaign to prohibit minaret construction, which appealed to feminists by portraying minarets as a symbol of women’s oppression. This from the same political organisation that previously fought against a motion to recognise gender equality in marriage.

In countries like Germany and France, left-wing parties and activists have been on the frontlines of initiatives to impose state coercion on Muslim women’s clothing. For the sake of “liberating” Muslim women, there are now five times more European states legally forcing women to unveil as there are Muslim-majority states requiring women to veil.

The Inquisition obsession with stripping Muslims of their head coverings and minarets lives on. In the 15th-century, the problem was said to be the “uncleanliness” of Muslim (and Jewish) blood. Now, it’s the incompatibility of Muslims with “our” culture and values. As Black American novelist Toni Morrison wrote, when it comes to racism, “there will always be one more thing”.

Islamophobia is a great unifier, transcending even the ideological divide between China and “the West”. Since 9/11, China has repackaged its settler-colonial assault on the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang as a “war on terror” exercise: pathologising Islam as a “virus” to be eradicated with mass surveillance and biometric collection, forced labour, forced sterilisation, child separation, criminalisation of religious practices and “re-education” in concentration camps.

Yet in the name of resisting Western imperialism against China, some on the left act as denialists and apologists for China’s genocidal imperialism, the most damning evidence of which emanates from China’s own official documents. At a recent seminar organised by Canadian anti-war groups to “debunk” the Uighur genocide, China’s Consul General showed a PR video of Xinjiang that was predominantly images of empty landscapes. Even in China’s genocide-denying propaganda, the Uighurs are largely scrubbed out of the picture.

To invoke the language of the US military, Islamophobia is a system of “full-spectrum domination”: not the purview of one segment of the political field, but a common frame of reference across the field as a whole.

This treatment of Muslims as a “universal enemy” is deeply rooted in history. In the famous 16th-century Valladolid debate on the colonisation of the Americas – considered a foundational event in the (Eurocentric) history of international law – Spanish legal scholars debated Indigenous peoples’ humanity by deciding whether they were like Muslims and therefore to be massacred (the “conservative” position), or unlike Muslims and therefore to be missionised into Christianity (the “liberal” position).

Erasmus, one of the “fathers of humanism,” urged Europeans to stop fighting each other and “let loose [this evil passion] upon the Turks” instead. “Father of free speech” Voltaire opined that Muslims were the greatest curse on Earth and “should be destroyed.” “Mother of feminism” Mary Wollstonecraft advocated for the emancipation of European women by distinguishing them from “subordinated” and sub-humanised Muslim women (although it wasn’t “Mahometan” law but European law that barred women from independent personhood and owning property).

Freedom, peace, rights and equality for those within the West’s “zone of being” has long been premised on war, domination and dispossession outside of it.

Some 19th-century liberal writers sought to shunt off European responsibility for Europe’s foundational atrocities – the Crusades, the Inquisition, and genocide in the Americas – by blaming Christians’ alleged internalisation of “the principle of Islamism: extermination”.

In the present, progressive commentators refer to neo-Nazis as “vanilla ISIS,” Trump’s officials as “mullahs,” and Trump himself as “Osama bin Laden’s revenge” on America. As if a social order that continues to reap the spoils of the brutalisation of Black, Indigenous and Muslim lives and the theft of Indigenous lands needs to search outside itself for explanations of White supremacism.

“Our” violence is rendered an aberration or a reflection of “their” violence; “their” violence is depicted as essential to who they are.

Within this framework, Muslims are easily normalised as objects of abuse – explained away as presumptively guilty, or ignored as collateral damage.

As academics Arun Kundnani and Deepa Kumar pointed out, domestic opposition to the US’s mass surveillance program dropped off precipitously when it was revealed the targets were mostly Muslims.

In the recent debates over expanding counterterrorism to address right-wing extremism, we read in socialist magazine Jacobin that the primary objectionable feature of terrorist listings is that they might be used in the future against left-wing activists – not that such listings have already been used for almost two decades overwhelmingly against Muslims, including charities for donating to humanitarian work in Palestine.

Similarly, in the “principled and progressive” Nation magazine, we are told that the problem with militarised policing of American anti-racism protests is that tactics and weapons appropriate for “Iraq and Afghanistan” are now being wielded in places like Portland – where “protesters carry skateboards, leaf blowers, lacrosse sticks, and cardboard signs [as opposed to rockets and guns]” and “some are pregnant”.

“No one should be treated this way,” proclaimed author Andrew McCormick. Except, apparently, all the Afghans and Iraqis who have not been spared from military brutality for being pregnant and/or unarmed.

A few weeks ago, the Nation even featured a piece praising the “characteristic erudition” of notoriously Islamophobic Canadian journalist Robert Fulford, celebrating him as “the nation’s finest cultural critic”.

Unmentioned in the Nation’s panegyric, some gems of “erudition” from Fulford’s steady stream of vitriol include excoriating the Palestinians under occupation as “terrorists” and “indiscriminate murderers,” exalting anti-Muslim idealogue Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a “Muslim Martin Luther,” and exhorting a few months after the Quebec mosque shooting – the most fatal act of political violence in Canada at the time since 1989 – that “we should begin by retiring the word Islamophobia in the interest of a franker attitude to terrorism”.

The issue isn’t Islamo-leftism, but Islamophobo-leftism. Across the political spectrum, a common collection of narratives rationalises, minimises and invisibilises violence against Muslims: pitching Islamophobic policies as progressive, projecting Muslims as the paradigm of barbarism, and expurgating the racism of its own past and present.

This spectrum offers a series of false choices: between Euro-American imperialism and China’s alter-imperialism; between conservative, right-wing racism and liberal and left-wing racism; between being subjugated violently and subjugated slightly more gently (with violence always in reserve).

Thinking and working beyond this artificially-restricted consensus are those Muslims who, in solidarity and collaboration with other peoples and movements, are drawing on Islam’s prohibition of worshipping anything other than God to challenge human-made hierarchies of oppression: of human over non-human, white over non-white, coloniser over colonised, man over woman, heteronormative over queer, and the wealthy over the dispossessed. “Like sunflowers that only the sun can subjugate,” in the words of French-Algerian decolonial writer and activist Houria Bouteldja.

Perhaps this is the real danger posed by “Islamo-leftism”: the possibility not of a more “violently radical” world, but one radically more equal and just.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.