Opposing terror: dilemmas for the left on Islam, Islamophobia and Islamism

The left has struggled to reconcile its opposition to racism with the need to stand up to reactionary Islamism.

Rumana Hashem Max Farrar
3 December 2015


, CC BY-NC 2.0

After the 13/11 atrocities in Paris, with global elites increasingly turning their dreams to a military solution to the ‘existential threat’ posed by terrorism that claims an Islamic Caliphate as its goal, leftists find themselves in a quandary. How to oppose this simplistic militarism — explaining that alienation, caused by the depredations of capitalism combined with the West’s effort to bomb an ideology out of existence, is the real problem to be addressed — while agreeing with those elites that the violent jihadi strain of Islam is utterly inimical to everything we stand for? How to oppose violent Islamism without contributing to Islamophobia? In this article we outline our approach to the dilemmas we now face.


The left has always had its problems with religion. Most consider it to be ‘the opium of the people’. That’s been the Marxist default position on religion, and when people calling themselves Marxists and Leninists got power, they attempted to stamp it out. But we recall the earlier part of that famous paragraph in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.’ In other words, it’s also a response to alienation. One of us is a Muslim who works to empower both Muslim and Hindu community women, and the other is an atheist who works with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus in all kinds of progressive organisations. We are open-minded on religion. We see the origins of socialist ethics and human rights discourse in the egalitarian and democratic strands of the great religions. But we are highly critical of what is now referred to as fundamentalist tendencies in all those religions. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has pointed out ‘Religion is good at making people self-righteously violent’.


One major dilemma for leftists is how to approach Islamism. This is the term now used to describe the most conservative political strand of Sunni Islam. Like Thatcherism it is a contentious concept. It has recently been argued that the concept itself reinforces the mindset that links Islam to terrorism. But we use the term because it is one way of understanding how different this tendency is from the many other varieties of Islam followed by the rest of the world’s one and a half billion Muslims.

The simplest way of thinking about Islamism is to see it as Islam+Politics. Historically, most Muslims have explained that Islam is a complete way of life that doesn’t require a specifically political formation. Hence its adaptability: states with Muslim majorities have been totalitarian or relatively liberal and all points between. From the early Twentieth Century people who are now called Islamists disagreed with that political agnosticism and adopted Western political methods , from parties of the left, right and centre, to forge a specific ideology, prescribing a particular state formation. They were responding (critically) to capitalist modernisation in their own countries and to their experiences of, and in, the West. Very soon, of course, they disagreed about the details. What they agreed on was that political action, including terror, was required to stem the Western tide of income inequality, gender freedom and sexual depravity.

Differentiating Muslims and Islamists

Understanding the various types of Islamist produces more dilemmas for the left. In fact, as Tariq Ramadan has explained, there are, for non-Muslims, a bewildering variety of Muslim theological positions, only some of which might be referred to as Islamist. He distinguishes the group he calls ‘liberals’ — believers who are committed to democracy, secularism and human rights — and the Sufis from the Traditionalists and the Salafis. The Traditionalists are deeply rooted in the holy texts of Islam and could be called fundamentalists. When they engage in explicitly political action, and not all of them do, they might fit into the category of ‘Islamist’. Deobandis, best known among people of Pakistani descent, Barelwis, more prominent among Bangladeshis, and Tablighi-Jamaat are in this ‘not necessarily political’ grouping. Ramadan eschews terms like fundamentalist or Islamist. Salafis, similarly, are devoted to the text but are divided by Ramadan into those who absolutely reject interpretation of any kind (‘literalists’) and those who want to modernise (‘reformists’).

It is Ramadan’s ‘Salafi Reformists’ who are the ones for British politicos to watch. These are the groups who fit in the category Sami Zubaidi has usefully called ‘Umma Nationalism’. Importantly, Zubaida pointed out that aspects of this mentality had seeped into some of the ideas held by Muslims who are not actually Islamists. Zubaida calls this latter group ‘Muslimists’. They are perhaps in the ‘grey zone’ that Daesh-ISIL is now targeting. Terror is merely their tactic; Daesh does have a strategy.

Some of the Islamists are now organised in the Muslim Brotherhood and are involved in electoral politics. The left can respond without too much difficulty, so long as it understands the nature of their politics. Others are revolutionaries, rejecting democracy as ‘man made law’, unnecessary, they say, when Allah, as they transmit His message, is in control. They regard every nation-state as ‘the realm of war’. In the UK, Hizb ut Tahrir and Al Muhajiroon are the best-known representatives of this strand. Elsewhere, the Al Qaeda franchises and Daesh are the examples. Quite how to respond to them has put the British left into all kinds of difficulties.

We should remember that the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are not Islamists. Even the reactionary regimes in the Gulf are not Islamist. Erdogan is pushing Turkey in that direction, and is playing an utterly duplicitous role. But opposition is pervasive and well organised, and it includes huge numbers of devout Muslims who follow Fetullah Gulen. Their teaching on Islamic values, and their denunciation of terror, reminds us how compatible Islam can be with freedom and democracy.

In the UK, the number supporting Hizb ut Tahrir and Al Muhajiroun is nowhere near as large as many people imagine. Only the latter has publicly supported present violence, and while that does mean there is an ongoing threat of atrocities in the UK, moral panic that has ensued partly because most Brits fail to recognise that the violent Jihadis are a tiny percentage of Muslims in the UK.

‘Don’t panic: discuss, argue, debate’ should be our watchword. The left has a particularly important angle, because it understands where Islamist anger is coming from. Particularly with those coming to radicalism for the first time, it can propose effective answers instead of sham theology.

Political violence and hit lists

Violence and its place in politics has always split the left. With the honourable exception of the pacifist tendency, most have said they will fight, but only under specific circumstances. Last century, leftists fought in the 1914-18 war, some joined the Republicans in Spain, and many fought from 1939 to 1945. Some supported the anti-colonial fighters in Africa, most justified the occasional armed action by the African National Congress in South Africa, but only the revolutionary left supported the Irish Republican Army, while mainly rejecting the tactics of the violent factions in Europe.

It’s interesting to note that Hizb ut Tahrir’s disagreement with Al Qaeda and Daesh-ISIL is that they have started the war too early, before the necessary authority is in place. Sounds familiar? ’Too early’, before the true Leninist party is fully developed, is what most of the revolutionary left said about Red Brigades, Red Army Faction and the like in the 1970s. So the dilemma remains in place unless you are a pacifist: when can political violence legitimately be deployed? Overwhelmingly, the left in Britain would say it is never justified in this country because our political and social structures are sufficiently legitimate for us to work within them, within the rule of law. The jihadi strand in Islamism, however, says aggressive political violence is legitimate.

Listing people you plan to kill should be a game changer for the left. Something new was afoot when a British resident, one of the authors of this article, received a warning and advice from the Metropolitan police about the danger she faces in London after appearing on such a list issued in Bangladesh. Other progressives in Bangladesh are being slain by violent jihadis. The abominable murder of Lee Rigby in London appears to have been somewhat random.  Specifically targeting an academic at a British university takes us into a new realm of political violence.

Strangely, neither 9/11 nor 7/7 were the wake-up call we might have expected. There were people on the left who said “The USA and its British lap-dog had it coming”. This reaction, arising from the dilemma violence has always posed for the left, may be linked to the view that radical, political Islam has made a cogent critique of the Western modernity.

Supporting this view, Said Qutb’s Milestones is sometimes referred to. The respected critical thinker Susan Buck-Morss has argued that ‘the intellectually critical and socially accountable power of Islamism deserves our respect’ and rightly criticised white political theorists for paying so little attention to Islamist philosophy. She is careful to condemn Islamists’ terror and abuse of power, as well as their oppression of women. But her main point, that Islamism contains a radical and sometimes revolutionary response to Western imperialism has some appeal. It explains the Socialist Workers Party’s ill-fated decision to link with such people in the Respect Party.

The problem is that so much of what Qutb and his co-thinkers say is utterly reactionary, patriarchal and repressive, and that the Islamists’ challenge to ‘the West’ is very weak. Because it does not challenge the capitalist mode of production, Islamism offers no solution to exploitation and alienation. And the commitment to violence of the Islamist revolutionaries, the authoritarian practices of reformists such as the Brotherhood, and the utter complicity of both with heteronormative patriarchy pose massive challenges. While Daesh explicitly rejects discussion with infidels, debate with Islamists is needed in a considered effort to protect the ‘grey zone’. At the same time left should overcome dilemmas about ‘Political Islam’. That is, Islamism, violent or non-violent, just has to be rejected.


The rise of explicit hostility to Muslims in nations that call themselves Christian, Hindu or Jewish makes critique of Islamism more complicated. Since the Rushdie Affair at the end of the 1980s the presence of Muslims in Britain has provoked hostile reaction which has been termed Islamophobia.  The US-inspired and UK-supported ‘war on terror’, now adopted by Hollande in France, has ratcheted-up anti-Islamic sentiment. Kenan Malik has criticised the discourse of Islamophobia but there cannot be anyone on the left who isn’t alarmed by the media representations of Muslims and the numbers of Muslims reporting attacks. We note with equal concern the rise in anti-Jewish hate crime. It is notable that in the context of rising concern to Islamophobia even a well-meaning BBC programme about the East London Mosque was undermined and accused for excessive focus on ‘extremists’.

The dilemma for the left is obvious. We are against racism. We are against its organised political manifestation in far-right parties. Muslims are not a ‘race’, itself a bogus concept, but their misrepresentation and victimisation remind us of the attacks on Jewish people and on black and brown people in Britain. So we must oppose Islamophobia. But surely we can legitimately criticise aspects of Islamic theology such as the view, which many Muslims share with so many other ‘people of the Book’, that homosexuality is a sin?


The left prides itself on critical thinking and mercilessly scrutinises all types of discourse, exposing its fallacies and conservative assumptions. At its best, critique is epistemologically aware, wraps itself in empirical evidence and rejects arguments ad-hominem. So when we come up against the most sophisticated forms of Islamist praxis, such as Hizb ut Tahrir's, the left needs to raise its game. It isn’t sufficient to fall back on a simplistic critique of religion as an opiate.

It can point out that all the fundamentalist tendencies in the Abrahamic religions are deeply flawed by their rejection of the discoveries of science, such as evolution, their mystical belief in angels and in the second (or first) coming of The Saviour. When it comes to evidence, our critique has to examine what is held back, hidden or lied about, as well as what is said and done by the fundamentalists. ‘Reading between the lines’, examining silences, filling in the narrative gaps are pre-requisites for a full analysis.

Sometimes, beliefs and practices are explicit and objectionable. Practices such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honour killing and enforced dress codes for Muslim women get disproportionate coverage in the media. Such reports usually fail to point out that these arise from specific cultural histories, rather than Islam as set out in its texts, properly interpreted. Whatever their origins, these are actions which almost everyone, of all faiths, will condemn.

Islamists’ commitment to shari’a law has to be a major problem, and one of us calls for a complete ban on shari’a law in the UK. The salafi commitment to returning to the praxis of the Prophet and the first Muslims implies that, on the question of shari’a punishment at least, some Islamists would be in direct contradiction of law practised everywhere apart from Saudi Arabia.

We argue, against some British leftists, that Cage, the UK organisation that supports people arrested under anti-terror legislation, should not be supported precisely because its people appear to back this type of shari’a law. We cannot be sure of this. Its director has, on a Hizb ut Tahrir platform, supported violent jihad, but others simply refuse to answer the question of what their core beliefs are. On that, we say, silence speaks volumes.

On the issues of sexual preference and women’s status the Islamists’ position is the reverse of liberal values, let alone socialists’. Of course lots of liberals and socialists still fall short of full commitment to feminism and LGBT rights. The progressive wings of the great religions are only slowly moving towards equal rights for women and toleration of sexual difference. But leftists must regard Islamists’ rejection of absolute equality for women and complete freedom of sexual choice as intolerable.

Islamists in MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development) at least set out some of their views quite clearly. They boast of ‘battering’ the ‘Israeli lobby’. They attack liberal Muslim organisations such as Tell Mama. as ‘pro-Zionist’ because it includes Jews. They object to its progressive views on homosexuality. Nick Cohen is one of the few who properly explains why we should support Tell Mama and object to MEND.

The use of hijab and niqab remain controversial. As with every type of sign, readings vary. If the niqab is read as a symbol of the oppression of women, it is rejected. The niqab and burqa seem more oppressive than the hijab, especially when the latter is worn as fashionable dress. It is often stated that Muslim women adopt these dress codes entirely voluntarily, with no external pressure of any sort, but ‘free choice’ is itself a slippery concept.

If we can be convinced that niqab or hijab really are freely chosen garments, then leftists should find it hard to oppose. It might simply be another example of the rise in strong ‘identity’ statements by many cultural groupings — perhaps even as an act of defiance against the perceived criticism of Islam. Again, there is an evidential problem here: whose account is to be taken as ‘true’? And we are generally sceptical of the view that decisions which have deep roots in one’s culture are made autonomously. Some of the Islamists say that women’s secondary position is ordained by God. The bottom line for leftists is that any oppression of women, in any form, contradicts our values.

‘Prevent’, free speech and the law

Finally, we encounter the problem leftists have never agreed upon. Do we adopt the ‘pure’ position, taken by libertarians of the left and the right, that absolutely everything may be freely said and done? Or do we side with mainstream opinion in modern, secular democracies that it is legitimate to outlaw certain types of speech and the use of violence? Polls indicate that numbers admitting racist beliefs in the UK dropped in the 1980s and 90s, and it seems likely that race relations legislation contributed to that improvement. (It remains high, increasing in the 2008 economic crisis, and while the BNP has collapsed, support for UKIP is rising.) Banning hate speech is one important aspect of the legislation that has, overall, helped the UK make some progress in countering racism. Freedom of speech is justifiably circumscribed where the rule of law is properly implemented. (Juries seem to provide protection if prosecution is felt to be unfair — witness the acquittal of the odious Nick Griffin .)

Some British Muslims have been imprisoned simply for possessing inflammatory literature and making statements interpreted as supporting terrorism, without putting this into violent action. Using recent law some would describe as draconian two British Muslims were sentenced simply for possessing materials the jury decided were connected to terrorism. On release, one said the West was at war ‘with everyone’ and that no Muslim youth ‘on the street’ believed that Al-Qaeda was a terrorist organisation. Only leftists with their heads buried in the sand would not be alarmed by those statements.

But would the government’s current proposals help? Already we have seen miscarriages of justice under existing terror legislation. The ‘lyrical terrorist’ Samina Malik had her conviction (for writing poetry supportive of violent jihad) overturned on appeal; many would argue her initial arrest was unjust. And arresting and convicting Muslims for burning Remembrance Day poppies  is an unhelpful over-reaction, especially since non-Muslims refuse to wear them and most Muslims endorse them.

Opposition to the government’s proposed legislation, extending the anti-terror law still further, with banning orders of people supporting groups like Hizb ut Tahrir and vetting Islamist speakers in universities will be disingenuous if it rests simply on freedom of speech claims. The left hasn’t offered freedom of speech to racists and nazis building their violent movements. Why should we defend Islamists’ rights to condemn us all, including most Muslims, as infidel, and to preach violence in support of their atavistic Umma? On the other hand, no-one has provided a convincing argument that existing hate speech legislation is inadequate, nor that a banning order eliminates an ideology.

We should defend open debate — all ideologies must be held to account — and banning is more likely to heighten support for obnoxious views, rather than snuffing them out, but the ‘pure’ freedom of speech position is naive. We should establish the actual beliefs of political Islamists and engage them in relentless debate. We would expose their hostility to many of the rights set out in the universal declaration, including democracy and the rule of law, all of which are upheld within most branches of Islamic thought. We must join with the centre ground in pointing out that where they have achieved power (briefly in Afghanistan and now in parts of the Levant) Islamist regimes are inimical to all that most people of all beliefs hold dear.

Debates on these issues need to be staged with Islamists. Instead we see platforms which include radical Islamists (whose positions on these broader issues are not challenged) merely opposing Prevent legislation and its proposed extension. The left should oppose simple bans on such individuals or their organisations. We have much to learn about open, democratic debate with and among Islamists from Belgium’s Dyab Abou Janjah. The courts should decide if Islamists’ words constitute illegal hate speech under the original race relations legislation. Advocating violent jihad or supporting those who commit acts of terror should bring those people before a jury.

There is a remaining problem of deceit and self-imposed silence. We should insist that Islamists have the same duty that applies to us all in political debate in a democratic society. They must set out their actual beliefs and justify them. Just as the far left has defiantly explained why it supported the military wings of national liberation movements, and in some cases home-grown revolutionary terrorists, so should those British Salafi reformists who actually believe in revolutionary violence.

British justice is clearly far from perfect, and it will only get worse under the new legislation, but it’s time the left woke up to the assault on universal values that is posed by political Salafis. We might share with them an enemy — neoliberal imperialism — but our enemy’s enemy is not our friend.


Rumana Hashem is a Bangladeshi-born post-doctoral researcher, a secularist community activist and women’s rights campaigner in London with leave to remain in the UK. She has received death threats from extremists after the killings of Dr Avijit Roy and four atheist writers and publishers in Bangladesh. Max Farrar is a retired sociologist and activist in Leeds, UK, who has researched and published on black-led inner city social movements and on Islamism. Both writers have reputation for useful interventions to left-activism in their respective countries.

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