The Regressive Left and its Opposition to Muslim Reform

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Arshia Malik, blogging for the Times of India, recently wrote a piece  titled “The Battle with the Regressives.”  In it, she castigates a section of the western political left* for prioritizing the opinions and concerns of Islamists over their victims.  She calls this section of the western political left the “Regressive Left,” a term seeing increasing use since being popularized by Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz.

As she and many others have suggested elsewhere, the Regressive Left is characterized by its criticism of those who argue in favor of reform for Islamic theology and culture in favor of secular human rights.  The Regressives do this while simultaneously ignoring Islamists who are actively working to impose their theology upon societies all over the world.  Instead of focusing their energies on people who support laws that criminalize blasphemy, mandate death for apostasy or amputation of the hand for theft, allow child marriage, protect practitioners of female genital mutilation, and various other extremely harmful policies; Regressives act as though the best use of their time is to focus on the people who oppose these policies.

Recent examples include:

  • Goldsmiths University’s LGBT society aligned itself with Goldsmith’s Islamic Society after its male members heckled and attempted to bully Maryam Namazie, a female ex-Muslim reformer who had been invited there to speak.
  • Nathan Lean, Research Director at Georgetown University’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding**, wrote an article highly critical of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani.  When publically challenged by Nomani to explain why he uses abusive language towards Muslim reformers, Lean refused to answer.
  • Nathan Lean later wrote another hit piece against Maajid Nawaz in the New Republic.  His primary interview sources in the article: members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamist group that Nawaz left during his de-radicalization process.  (Because people who want to impose their religion upon everyone else are reliably objective sources, right? )
    • Nafeez Ahmed and Max Blumenthal – yes that Max Blumenthal – wrote a similar hit piece in AlterNet.

An uncharitable reading of these pieces suggests a willingness to support religious fascists and bullies over those pushing for universal human rights.  Nathan Lean, a non-Muslim, even argues in his article criticizing Hirsi Ali and Nomani that Nomani’s work to increase gender equity in Mosques might be imposing equality upon those women who prefer a more traditional (read: gender apartheid) worship service.  To me, this sounds like someone who believes that universal human rights aren’t really universal – that cultural norms should be prioritized over human rights.  This is an extremely slippery slope that leads very quickly to excusing all kinds of abuses in the name of “culture.”  About to be forced to have your genitals mutilated?  That’s a shame little missy, but we wouldn’t want to impose our imperialist western “human rights” on you.  Had acid thrown in your face for being disinterested in some jerk who thought he deserved you as his wife?  Well, Miss, we can’t really speak out against the perpetrators because some women you grew up near speak well of honor cultures.  You’re a child forced to marry someone much older than you?  Sorry, ma’am, but that’s just how things are done in your country.  It would be awfully indecent to speak out against your culture’s norms.

On the other hand, a charitable reading of these examples might suggest that these Leftists are so concerned with combatting anti-Muslim bigotry that they have drawn the line at anyone who says something that might be used as ammunition by right wing racists and bigots.  But even with this charitable reading, the effect seems rather chilling when it comes to honest discussion.

If we pursued the same policy in other areas, we’d soon be condemning nearly every piece of literature or spoken word the world over.  It is trivially easy to derive violent theologies from the Bible, Quran, or the Bhagavad Gita.  Likewise, history shows that it takes very little mental effort to derive anti-human philosophies from the writings of Marx (e.g. Soviet Communism) or Nietzsche (e.g. Hitler’s Aryan superiority).  Each of these works contain material that can be used as ammunition (or even further inspire) bigotry when read in certain ways or within certain cultural contexts.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly question the writers of these works.  But we can do so with members of the current Muslim reform movement.  And they are not hiding their motives or their purpose.  Useful resources include:

*Full disclosure: I consider myself a leftist in most areas.

**That’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Tala of Saudi Arabia – the foremost exporter of Salafi (read: extreme Sunni fundamentalist) theology to the world.  Which means that Mr. Lean’s funding is coming from someone invested in promoting an ideology directly opposed to the Muslim reform movement.

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