The Left and the Islamists

I read Michael Gawenda’s opinion in The Age on 26 June 2006 with great interest. Essentially, it says that the liberal Left in America has lost its way, hating George Bush and all he stands for to the extent that it ends up siding with Islamist terrorists. Some of the left make excuses for the likes of Bin Laden, skimming over the fact that he and his ilk espouse violence to innocent people, hatred of homosexuality, limiting to the rights of women to even appear in public, limits on religious freedom and free speech and so forth.

Well, I’m glad that someone has said it. I reread “Animal Farm” the other day, and it seemed to me that the Left’s attitude of ignoring human rights abuses of totalitarian communist regimes (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot etc) has now been transferred to the Middle East. A simple equation is applied: Against USA + Anti George Bush = Good. If only it were that easy!

I sure as hell am not a fan of George Bush or the neo-conservatives. The “weapons of mass destruction” were a total furphy. They’ve made Iraq into a basket case – or rather, even more of a basket case than it was before. I don’t agree with Guantanamo Bay – you can’t preach liberalism and democracy, and then imprison people indefinitely without charge and without trial. The rule against habeas corpus is an essential part of the rule of law. I also think that the belligerent action taken in Iraq and Afghanistan is radicalising and galvanising terrorists rather than eliminating them. Further, the US has to acknowledge its own schizophrenic attitude to many of these regimes – in times past, it was a supporter of both Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. It is also guilty of a overly simplistic equation: The Enemy of Our Enemy = Friend.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m a big fan of Osama Bin Laden, or that I make excuses for him! As I have said above, the USA are responsible in part for both the creation and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. But that doesn’t mean that US citizens deserve to be killed in terrorist attacks. I cannot think of anything worse than murdering innocent people in cold blood and I do not think there can be ANY excuse. I don’t think George Bush (or John Howard or Tony Blair) can be blamed for the action of terrorists. In the end, the decision as to whether to kill innocent people lies with the person doing the killing, not George Bush. To suggest that “it’s actually George Bush’s fault” is like pleading “the Devil made me do it” to a Court. It is ingenuous. To accept such a submission lacks intellectual rigour.

As I stated at the start of this post, the other thing I don’t understand is that the values of many Islamists strike directly at what I think of as the core values of the Left: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of sexuality, equal rights for women. It seems incredible that some on the Left could ally themselves with such people. I’m thinking particularly of people such as Michael Leunig, who seem to demonize Bush and Howard and stress the humanity of Bin Laden without realising the contradictions in such a position… Personally, I am wary of demonising or sanctifying anyone or anything (apart from the excellent resulting trust, which I esteem greatly).

I think the Left is adopting a very strange position towards some aspects of Islam generally. I should stress here that I am NOT advocating intolerance of Islam or Muslims, and I would never make any blanket statements about any religion or group of people. I have respect for Islam and have studied it, along with Judaism and Christianity. I recognise that it has many strands of thought and there is a massive spectrum of beliefs within it. I have attended Eid functions with a friend’s family for many years, and been a bridesmaid in both a Muslim wedding and a Jewish wedding (within a month of each other). But I have noticed that some in the Left have a reluctance to criticise behaviour by some radical Muslims which would cause outrage in the same commentators if it the behaviour was conducted by radical Christians or Jews (or anyone else). I believe that this reluctance is another species of “cultural relativism”, and I am starting to think that cultural relativism is a bad thing if it is taken too far.

Give me an example of what you mean, Legal Eagle, I hear you say. Well, recently, I had a post dealing with a law allowing civil unions for same sex partners, and I stated my horror that religious groups could veto such a law. There was much outrage from the liberal Left in relation to the prominent role of the Australian Christian Union in pressuring John Howard to veto the law. However, there was no similar reaction to the fact that Islamic schools in Australia are adopting a policy for sex education which dictates that it must be taught that homosexuality and sex outside marriage are prohibited by Islam (and therefore sinful). If it were any other kind of religious school proposing such a policy, there would be outrage. But I hear nothing from any feminist groups or gay activists – I presume that it is not deemed “culturally appropriate” to comment. This is an incoherent position.

Believe me, I’m all for tolerance, but I worry when “tolerance” involves accepting very intolerant behaviour in others (particularly if such people wish to impinge on my rights). There has to be a balance between accepting the culture of others and upholding the values of our own liberal society. And in saying that I don’t like religious teachings which promote terrorism and killing of innocent people or ban homosexuality or require women to take a lesser place in society, I don’t think I should be branded “racist”, “fascist” or “right wing”. I don’t care what the religion or the race of the person espousing such views is: the important thing is the impact on the rights of others.

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11 Comments

Filed under islam, middle east, politics

11 responses to “The Left and the Islamists

  1. Aimee

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve been saying about cultural relativism as well as the problem with treating your enemy’s enemy as your friend, without any actual coherence in your stance. People can be very simplistic about good & evil as tags for politicians (esp left and right ones)… i need only tell the story of the Free East Timor rally I attended during uni where a girl asked me if the man speaking was Gough Whitlam – uh, no actually it was the then Lord Mayor of Melbourne. And might I add that just because St Gough is the hero of many leftist reforms that does not mean he ever did anything for East Timor – correct me if i’m wrong but didn’t they get annexed on his watch?

    Mind you, as a practicing christian i often feel that cultural relativism has made an exception for my faith and that there is often an anti-christian backlash against things like religious education in schools (even where you are only talking about the kids whose parents want it), or expressing views that are consistent with the faith (witness the fury over Mel Gibson’s film ‘Passion’, which doesn’t depict anything not explicit in the gospels so if you want to slam it you’d probably better start by banning the book), or being able to refer to Jesus and God during those orgies of consumerism, otherwise known as our high religious holidays… and the backlash does not come from other religious groups but from the secularists, who are so culturally relative about interesting ‘exotic’ cultures… Uh, sorry, that was descending into a rant!

    What i actually wanted to post was that i was interested to come across the work of one Jim Wallis, an american evangelical preacher, whose book “God’s politics” is a critique of ‘why the american right gets it wrong and the american left doesn’t get it’. although it takes an explicitly christian spin on american politics I found it refreshing to start asking why christians are supposedly only interested in gay marriages and abortion, what about the poor and the environment that we’re supposed to be stewards of? and why are the left who are interested in the poor and the environment etc so relentlessly anti-religious? i haven’t read the book (waiting for paperback prices!) but the lateline interview link is here:

    http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2006/s1615247.htm

    sorry for lack of coherence between these disparate thoughts.

  2. Legal Eagle

    Yes, I agree with your point about anti-Christian feeling. One thing which really brought that out for me – How come it’s bad to have a film with Christian elements (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”), but a film which had elements of any other religion’s principles would be feted as an important expression of a unique and rich culture? Christianity has its bad bits in history, but so does every other religion – why does it get such a hard time?

    The book you mentioned sounds fascinating. I am not a Christian myself, but I recognise that Judaeo-Christian ethics are central to the way I think and why I believe what I do. Not to mention why I believe that people should be treated justly – “do unto others as you would have them do to you”! This is part of the reason why I studied Judaism, Christianity and Islam – to understand these religions and the importance they have had in shaping my culture and our world.

    And don’t get me started on the subject of people who know nothing but go to rallys! When I was somewhat involved in Aboriginal activism, some grungy young thing said to me very self-importantly “I don’t know any Aborigines, but what I think should happen to them is…” That made me mad! It’s fine to have a view on what should happen, but if you’re going to go out and be an activist, lobbying for change, maybe you should know at least a few Aboriginal people to check that they actually want what you’re lobbying for!

    Hmm, there endeth MY rant.

  3. cherry ripe

    I suppose I identify myself as “left” in my way of thinking about the world – in that I believe in compassion and social responsibility towards each other, I believe in the value of conciliation not invasion, and I do not believe in the supremacy of the economy.

    I also live with a group of people who can easily be described as “activists”, in that they have a strong idea about how the world should be – just, peaceful and sustainable – and they engage in action outside governments (discussions, forums, marches, benefits) to promote social change.

    I assure you, none of these people sanctify any religion over any other. So I don’t know which “left” you’re talking about. All of them believe in respect, understanding and compassion between people.

    I guess my point is that there are dickheads on all sides. I just tend to think that neo-conservative dickheads do a whole lot more damage (see USA government).

  4. Legal Eagle

    This post was not intended to be a generalisation about all left wing people or all activists. I have nothing against activists per se. As I stated in my comment above, I was involved in activism myself. What I do not like is people who are ignorant “activists” (of any political persuasion) who jump on a bandwagon and do not know anything about the cause for which they are active.

    I should make it clear that I do not think that all the Left are siding with the Islamists. I don’t know the people you live with and I’m not aware of their beliefs. I certainly did not intend to criticise them or comment about their beliefs.

    However, in some lines of left wing thought, terrorism and the like is seen as a legitimate form of protest against the colonial power. I refer particularly to the works of Franz Fanon, a radical Algerian who argued that the colonised should violently throw off the shackles of colonisation.

    Further, cultural relativism has been developed in postcolonial left wing thought for at least the last 20 years, with the idea that privileged Westerners should not comment or critique the culture of the “Other”. I could cite various academics, but I suspect that would just bore everyone.

    I’m just not comfortable with cultural relativism, because I am at heart a “liberal” (with a small l, not a big L!).

    I assure you, I am not defending Bush or the other neo-conservatives. I think Bush is a very stupid and simplistic man who is pushing our world to the brink of disaster with his “War on Terror”. The “War on Terror” is likely to perpetuate terror rather than help anything. The whole situation fills me with chagrin.

    However, all political persuasions are capable of bringing war and disaster to the world. Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot were all left wing and were responsible for the deaths of millions of people. From my point of view, it’s not the “flavour” of politics that is the problem. It seems that some of the worst wrongs happen when people are convinced they are right (whether they are left wing, right wing, religious or atheist).

    I’m not alone in the feelings I have expressed in my post. You may be interested to read “The Euston Manifesto”, a statement by some prominent liberal and left wing commentators:
    http://eustonmanifesto.org/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=12&Itemid=41

    Finally, I thank you for having the courage to write a critical comment. I believe that it is really important to discuss these things and to decide why we believe as we do.

  5. Legal Eagle

    Further to what I’ve said above, I was trying to remember how I came to the point of view expressed in my post. It was when there was the furore about:

    (a) cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed; and

    (b) Leunig’s cartoon comparing Auschwitz with modern day Israel.

    Some commentators and readers in The Age responded in what I saw as an entirely inconsistent manner.

    On the one hand, commentators were deploring the cartoons depicting Mohammed as disrespectful and offensive. On the other hand they were praising Leunig’s cartoon as an important expression of free speech. From my point of view, each of the cartoons has a capacity to be offensive to a particular group in our society. But it could be argued that freedom of speech means that all the cartoons should be published (despite the capacity to offend) to promote debate.

    Why one rule for one religion and a different rule for another? To my mind, you have to choose either one point of view or the other.

  6. KY

    Hey, you know who I am and you know I agree with you. The left has done more harm to the left than anybody else, and it is false to say that the left necessarily believes in respect, compassion and understanding between peoples. Au contraire, too often, the left has had a history of supporting totalitarian, intolerant, or even terrorist regimes in the name of the “whoever is against our enemy is with us” ethos.

    The middle-east related examples of such hypocrisy have been cited often enough that I do not intend to repeat them here. But there are many more mundane examples of this phenomenon. For example, why is it racist for right-minded people to suggest that there is a real limit as to the applicability of (alleged) Aboriginal customary law when it comes to issues like violence or sexual abuse? If anything, is it not more racist to suggest that Aborigines are racially prone to sexual and physical abuse and therefore we must give them “allowances” for their inability to control their behaviour?

    This is no better than conservatives in Hong Kong saying that the territory is not ready for democracy due to an “immature” political culture. To me that’s racist too because it suggests implicitly that Chinese people are culturally incapable of handling democracy and democratic institutions.

    Having said all that, I do have an issue to take with the logic of one of your arguments (but even here I tend to agree with the broad gist of it, my issue is purely intellectual in terms of the logical conclusions to one of your arguments). You say that George Bush doesn’t cause terrorists. Terrorists choose individually to become terrorists. I know what you are getting at there but isn’t that a bit like the NRA in America saying “guns don’t kill, people do”?

    I think the better argument is that Bush and his policies has created an environment conducive to turning people to terrorism, but the people that actually turn to terrorism cannot under any circumstances have their actions justified by committing such acts. Then it would be consistent with the logic that guns may be conducive to more fatal murderous acts, but just because it’s available for use doesn’t mean that a person using it to kill can say “oh, but the gun was there to be used! It’s society’s fault for making the gun so accessible!”.

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