Aug 14th, 2009
By Edmund Standing
Today, many liberal, progressive writers who are critical of Islam and Islamist politics find themselves accused of ‘Islamophobia’, and by far the most prolific promoters of the myth of a liberal hate campaign against Muslims are found on the secular far-left of the political spectrum. For many, this obsession with hunting down and condemning ‘Islamophobes’ seems a somewhat strange phenomenon, but the far-left’s apparent concern with exposing and condemning ‘Islamophobia’ needs to be seen within the context of its worldview and political goals.
Marxism is, at heart, to use the ‘buzz words’, a ‘totalising narrative’. It is essentially based around a deterministic view of history which has much in common with conspiracy theory and theology. The Marxist historical vision incorporates disparate historical events into one unified narrative through the notion of class struggle. Where the religious see the ‘plan’ and guiding hand of God as the underlying reality that ultimately ‘makes sense of’ history, the Marxist sees the ongoing phenomenon of ‘class conflict’ as being the glue that binds historical events and social changes into an intelligible, explainable whole. As with all totalising narratives, the Marxist vision is at heart a simplistic and often black and white system of thought that can be used to ‘explain’ any social phenomena as having relevance to the Marxist understanding of history and politics.
Marxist thought is often incapable of understanding the power of the irrational. In its thoroughgoing materialism, there is little space for an understanding of religious faith as a psychological phenomenon that, while influenced by the social conditions in which it is found, is not primarily dependent on the issues that for Marxists define history and culture. For many Marxists, therefore, any analysis of religious faith is grounded in a narrow materialist ‘rationalist’ interpretative framework. For Marx, it is the ‘task of history’ that ‘the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics’. Religion, for Marx, can defined as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions’.
An immediate problem with Marx’s analysis of religion is that it greatly oversimplifies the phenomenon of religious belief. In this view, religion is not an end in itself but must always be seen as a ‘cover’ for something else, something politically intelligible. Marxist materialism overcomes religion, then, not through criticising religious texts and doctrines but by looking beyond them to what is perceived to be their underlying ’cause’: political and economic oppression. Such an analysis is not without merit. An obvious example of where such a view of religion ‘works’ can be seen in the Base Ecclesial Communities of Latin America. The ‘liberation theology’ which has emerged from these communities is essentially a Christian form of Socialism. Liberation theologians offer a very ‘this wordly’ theology which highlights the New Testament’s concern with the poor and draws inspiration from Old Testament prophetic material and the narrative of the Israelites’ liberation from bondage. Liberation theology has emerged within extremely poor communities and arguably fits into Marx’s understanding of religion as ‘ the sigh of the oppressed creature’. However, there are huge numbers of people who are deeply religious yet can hardly be described as ‘oppressed creatures’, at least in economic terms.
A 2008 Northwestern University study into religious people’s worldviews and understanding of why God and religion are important to them found that fear and existential angst are extremely important when it comes to understanding the appeal of religion:
The study, by psychology professor Dan P. McAdams and researcher Michelle Albaugh, was aimed at finding out about the religious sources of political leanings. They interviewed 128 devout Christians in and around Chicago, and they avoided the usual questions of “How do you know God exists” or even “Why do you believe?” Instead, they asked their subjects to describe what their lives and the world would be like if they did not have faith. In other words, what would the world be like if Christopher Hitchens were right and there were no God?
The study analyzes the results mostly in terms of political divisions. It found that politically conservative Christians described a godless world “as one of incessant conflict and chaos, expressing strong apprehension regarding people’s inability to control their impulses and the attendant breakdown of social relationships and societal institutions.”
Liberal Christians, on the other hand, had a different set of concerns. For them, a world without God would be “barren or lifeless, lacking in color and texture, an empty wasteland that would not sustain them” and in which they would feel lost.
All of the respondents generally imagined life without God as “entailing fear, sadness, interpersonal isolation and loss of meaning and hope.”
The political findings are intriguing, but not nearly as interesting as the way the question and the answers it elicited get at deeper, core issues. It appears that we do believe out of need, but it’s not, as Marx suggested, primarily because of material deprivation. Instead, it looks as if faith answers fear, and many different kinds of fear, which we can begin to delineate in some detail.
Fear, especially a kind of primal fear of a world without an anchor, is central to much religious belief and is just as important for understanding why people are religious as Marx’s socioeconomic model. Of course, the Marxist could go on to ‘explain’ that this fear of alienation is actually rooted in the nature of Capitalist societies: that Capitalism is a ‘soulless’ ideology which engenders atomisation and alienation, and that in a Socialist utopia (an ideal which in itself has many similarities with the longed for ‘Kingdom of God’ in Jewish and Christian eschatology), the ‘need’ for this kind of religious reassurance would, like the State, wither away. However, the evidence for this actually being the case is as lacking as the evidence for the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Given Marxist convictions regarding class conflict and the nature of religion as an outlet of protest in the midst of the enduring oppression of ‘bourgeois’ rule, the recent phenomenon of far-leftists seeking to ally themselves with Islamists and mounting an obsessive campaign against ‘Islamophobia’ is not as strange as it might initially seem. Many Marxists see the resurgence of political Islam not as part of a rising tide of irrationalism but rather as an essentially political and rational response to the supposedly oppressive and intrinsically ‘racist’ and ‘imperialist’ nature of Western liberal democracy. In the contemporary Marxist narrative, racism is seen to be endemic in Western civilisation, and is interpreted as a tool of our bourgeois overlords who use it firstly to divide the working class (thereby crippling the unified ‘class consciousness’ that would be necessary for an uprising of the proletariat) and who also encourage selective forms of ‘racism’ (currently in particular ‘Islamophobia’) in order to gain popular support for, and to justify, their imperialist projects. Bob Pitt of the ‘Islamophobia Watch’ website, for example, believes that ‘Islamophobia’ is ‘a racist tool of Western Imperialism’ and states that the website was ‘founded with a determination not to allow the racist ideology of Western Imperialism to gain common currency in its demonisation of Islam’.
It is rare to see the Marxist writers who currently engage in a McCarthyite denunciation of critics of Islam and Islamist organisations actively engage with the religion of Islam itself. This is unsurprising, as their concern is not defending Islam but rather (supposedly) defending ‘Muslims’ (often seen as a monolithic block), who are seen to be the latest victims of the Western bourgeois Capitalist conspiracy. In the strange worldview of these Marxist campaigners against ‘Islamophobia’, almost any criticism of Islam, Islamist politics, or Muslim organisations is seen to be little more than a thinly veiled form of ‘racism’. The fact that these writers apparently cannot distinguish between legitimate criticism of a religious belief system and its texts and outright expressions of racial hatred says a lot about the simplistic nature of their worldview and their underlying anti-intellectualism. There is something sinister and totalitarian about the far-left’s campaign against critics of Islam. It is a dishonest campaign that seeks to silence dissent and critical thinking that does not conform to the ‘party line’ through demonisation and name calling. The casual bandying about of claims of ‘racism’ is disturbing to say the least, given the fact that, quite rightly, racism is seen as wholly unacceptable in modern society. By claiming that ‘Islamophobia’ is a form of ‘racism’ and by denouncing critics of Islam and Islamism as ‘Islamophobes’, Marxist opponents of ‘Islamophobia’ deliberately attempt to stifle debate through portraying critics of Islam and Islamism as ‘racists’ and therefore beyond the pale. False accusations of racism can have very serious repercussions, and falsely equating criticism of religion with racism is not only slanderous towards anti-racist critics of Islam and Islamism but also risks trivialising the very real phenomenon of genuine racial prejudice and hatred.
For the Marxist warriors against ‘Islamophobia’, rational criticism of a religious ideology and its texts and political manifestations is a traitorous form of collusion with the bourgeois establishment. The Marxist writer Louis Proyect considers Butterflies & Wheels (B&W) to be ‘a fountainhead of Islamophobia’ which perfectly demonstrates the strange irrationalism at the heart of much contemporary Marxist thought. Proyect sees B&W as a website that presents itself as committed to rationalism but which is, in reality, whether deliberately or not, dedicated to promoting the ‘Islamophobia’ that is essential to some supposed Western imperialist project. Likewise, B&W’s commitment to supporting science is also seen by Proyect to be a cover for the real agenda here, which is to offer intellectual and moral support to global Capitalism. For Proyect, ‘naivety’ has led some people to believe that B&W is committed to ‘clear thinking and scientific rationalism’, but if, like him, you ‘have a class analysis of bourgeois society’ [sic], you will see through the facade:
I would not be surprised to discover that B&W gets some funding from Huntington and other such animal torturers. One of these days, the victims of the corporations and the governments that act in their name will get sick and tired of the pollutants that kill them, the rotten health care system that fails to treat them, the foreclosures, the job losses, and the daily indignities of wage labor and rise up against the system that perpetuates them. A working class in power will then have access to the dossiers that contain all this information about who paid the piper. God protect the souls of those who fed at the trough of the big corporations and the intelligence agencies since an aroused people will have properly earned the right to extract justice.
Here we see the usual descent into Marxist fantasies of future rule, which unsurprisingly incorporate gleeful thoughts of retribution against the bourgeois enemy at the hands of ‘an aroused people’. Hardline Marxists are, of course, very keen on apocalyptic dreams of revolution and revolutionary violence, which goes a long way to explaining the fascination many have with Islamism. Marxist supporters of Islamism and opponents of supposed ‘Islamophobia’ seem to derive some kind of vicarious revolutionary thrill from aligning themselves with reactionary religious movements. In the simplistic worldview of the far-left, Islamists constitute a sort of revolutionary vanguard which is standing up against the dreaded Western racist imperialist bourgeois conspiracy. Marxists such as Roland Boer  and John Molyneux, writing in the Socialist Workers Party affiliated journal International Socialism, talk of ‘Islamist opposition to Western imperialism’ and in Molyneux’s view, even the most reactionary and violent Islamists should receive uncritical support. Just as Proyect thinks that support for scientific research means support for ‘bourgeois society’, Molyneux thinks that support for Islamist terrorists constitutes a legitimate protest against bourgeois Western imperialism:
In determining their attitude to popular movements with a religious coloration, which are many and varied, Marxists take as their point of departure not the religious beliefs of the movement’s leaders or of its supporters, or the doctrines and theology of the religion concerned, but the political role of the movement, based on the social forces and interests which it represents.
To put the matter as starkly as possible: from the standpoint of Marxism and international socialism an illiterate, conservative, superstitious Muslim Palestinian peasant who supports Hamas is more progressive than an educated liberal atheist Israeli who supports Zionism (even critically).
For Chris Harman, also writing in International Socialism, ‘[t]hose who claim to be the “antifundamentalist” conscience of the left are in fact left apologists for the currently most important racist excuse for imperialism’. And just as Pitt sees ‘Islamophobia’ as ‘a racist tool of Western Imperialism’, so Molyneux believes that ‘Islamophobia has been developed, nationally and internationally, as the principal ideological cover and justification for imperialism and war’. For these writers, when it comes to Islam and Islamism there is nothing but a black and white position: If you criticise Islam and Islamism you are supporting (whether intentionally or not) ‘racism’ and ‘imperialism’. If you wish to oppose racism and imperialism, therefore, you must adopt an essentially uncritical view of Islam and Islamist politics, even to the extent of idolising ‘illiterate, conservative, [and] superstitious’ Muslims, simply because they are Muslims, and as such are by definition comrades in the struggle against the evils of the West, even if they articulate that opposition through calls for a Caliphate and the introduction of Shari’ah law (all of which is seen as being of no great consequence, as this is merely ‘their way’ of expressing what are basically the same concerns held by Marxists).
This uncritical approach to Islam and Islamism is not based on any deep reverence for Islam. Marxists who routinely denounce any criticism of Islam as ‘Islamophobic’ are arguably being intellectually dishonest for (supposed) political gain. They do not seriously think that Islam should be beyond criticism, and they’re not really outraged by those who point out divisive and intolerant material in the Qur’an. The problem they have with liberal critics of Islam is that we are seen to be providing ‘Western imperialism’ with ammunition to use in its ‘racist’ campaign, and we are perceived to be hindering the workers’ unity that will be necessary for the overthrow of bourgeois society. Molyneux, for example, thinks that criticism of Islam is not only counterproductive, but ultimately unnecessary, for
[t]he vast mass of workers will be liberated from their religious illusions not by arguments, pamphlets or books, but by participation in the revolutionary struggle, and beyond, in the building of socialism. In such a situation it is incumbent on the party to ensure that religious differences, or differences between the religious and the non-religious, do not obstruct the unity of working class struggle.
What we see here is the underlying reasoning behind the far-left’s attacks on critics of Islam and Islamism as ‘Islamophobic’ and ‘racist’. For the far-left, Muslims are arguably effectively seen as ‘useful idiots’ in the struggle against Western liberal Capitalist societies. There seems to be an attitude among Marxist ‘friends’ of Islam and ‘defenders’ of Muslims that one mustn’t rock the boat, because Muslims supposedly constitute a potential vanguard movement in the fight against ‘imperialism’. This is unsurprising, as the far-left is constantly on the look out for new campaigns and movements to use as a Trojan horse for its ‘revolutionary’ agenda. The anti-war movement constitutes another example of this entryist style approach to politics. For many on the far-left, the protests against the Iraq war represented the beginning of an awakening to awareness of the imperialist conspiracy and it was and is hoped that these protests can be capitalised upon to gain support for revolutionary ideas. An article by ‘Roobin’, posted at the ‘Lenin’s Tomb’ blog (which is run by Richard Seymour of the Socialist Workers Party) makes this clear:
The job for any revolutionary organisation (any) is to shore up its position and its organisation before the advent of a revolution. This means using every available means to renew contact with its base.
In practice this means taking best advantage of each and every crack in mainstream consensus. In Britain we can only refer to the anti-war movement as the last significant, national break.
Though by no means permanent, the lasting benefits of the anti-war movement have been a generalised anti-imperialist consciousness, a suspicion of secretive, undemocratic government and a check on the racist backlash against Muslims. These gains must be defended.
When open class struggle with the serious prospect of social revolution breaks out, war of manoeuvre, the better organised a class is the more likely it will hold positions gained.
Current mass movements should be organized, their experience generalized so their achievements are not lost so when the big break happens we are not starting from zero again.
Far-left politics are not based on a realistic and rational assessment of the world. As I have argued previously, ‘revolutionary’ leftists are ‘dreamers of the day’: fantasists whose worldview is grounded in a conspiratorial and deterministic framework; black and white thinkers whose rigid idealism mirrors religious faith. Once this is understood, the current ‘left-wing’ campaign of demonising liberal, rationalist critics of Islam and Islamist politics is placed in its proper context. When liberal humanists and progressives find themselves routinely denounced for supposedly holding ‘Islamophobic’ (and by inference, ‘racist’) views, it is clear that the self-appointed witch finders throwing around such accusations have an underlying agenda – a political delusion based on faith in the existence an imagined ‘racist imperialist’ conspiracy and a conviction that they are a morally pure elite who will one day lead ‘ an aroused people’ to revolutionary glory.
Notes and References
 Karl Marx (1843) ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’.
 For an excellent overview, see Christopher Rowland (Ed., 1999) The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
 Gregory Rodriguez (2008) ‘Asking the right God question’,
Los Angeles Times.
 Louis Proyect (2008) ‘Butterflies and Wheels’.
 Roland Boer (2009) ‘The full story: on Marxism and religion’, International Socialism 123.
 John Molyneux (2008) ‘More than opium: Marxism and religion’, International Socialism 119.
 Chris Harman (2006) ‘Analysis: the faultlines grow deeper’, International Socialism 110.
 ‘More than Opium’.
 ‘More than Opium’.
 Roobin (2008) ‘The just-about-Gramscian theory of successful rioting’, Lenin’s Tomb.
 Edmund Standing (2008) ‘Jihadism and the “Dreamers of the Day”’, Butterflies & Wheels.
Edmund Standing holds a BA in Theology & Religious Studies and an MA in Critical & Cultural Theory. His other articles on this website can be found in the articles archive.