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The Left’s Converging Political Misjudgments: Communism and Radical Islam

Posted By Paul Hollander On February 28, 2011 @ 12:49 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 30 Comments

The fall of Mubarak in a country where the Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest and best organized political movement raises the possibility of an eventual outcome similar to that in Iran that followed the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. At the same time, we should remind ourselves that history need not repeat itself: Egypt is not Iran and the Egyptian military may prevent the rise to power of the Brotherhood. But in the event that it comes to power, there is little reason to imagine that it would usher in a system more open, enlightened and liberal than that of Mubarak. Far more likely, it would resemble the repressive theocracy of Iran. While the actual historical and political developments in these two countries may diverge, the similarities between perceptions on the Left of these two historical events, and the part played by political Islam, are already quite pronounced.

Why do people on the Left, and especially intellectuals — often motivated by high ideals and good intentions — so often make poor political judgments, especially about the adversaries of the United States? It is of course always difficult to generalize about entities such as intellectuals. There are no opinion surveys addressed to “intellectuals” as such, hence, we only learn about the attitudes and beliefs of the more prominent among them who have the opportunity and inclination to express themselves in writing or in the mass media.

To be sure, there are surveys of the political attitudes of various professions, including professors, which include a high proportion of intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences. These surveys make clear that most American academics are left of center: “Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences.” A recent study of academic social psychologists found a total lack of diversity in their political views and found them to constitute a “tribal-moral community united by sacred values.” [1] Of course, these attitudes are just as prevalent in departments of English, sociology, anthropology, history and political science as among social psychologists.

The global rise of Islamic radicalism, loosely paralleled by the global decline of communism, provides a new occasion to ponder the political judgments of those on the Left, including many intellectuals. Their observations about Islamic radicalism suggest parallels between their disposition towards the two important political-ideological currents of our times: communism and political Islam. This is not to say that these two sets of attitudes have been the same, but there are some notable similarities as well as differences spelled out below.

By the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, not many American leftist intellectuals were enamored of the Soviet system (or those modeled after it), with the exception of Cuba and, for a shorter period, Nicaragua. Venezuela under Chavez has become a new destination for a smaller group of supporters. One of them, Eva Golinger, became a resident supporter and cheerleader for Chavez, describing herself as “a soldier of this revolution… I would do whatever asked of me for this country.” As the New York Times put it, “Her zeal invokes earlier waves of political pilgrims in Latin America from rich countries like the volunteers who cut Cuban sugar cane in the 1960s or the Sandalistas… who flocked to Nicaragua in the 1980s.” Ms. Golinger has  expressed warmth and sympathy toward Ahmadinejad of Iran and Lukashenko of Belarus. She considered the latter a socialist country, not a dictatorship, “where people seemed really into their communal work and stuff like that.” [2]

But even if many members of the Left no longer admired these systems, the attitudes which gave rise to their sympathy and support in the first place were by no means gone. These attitudes were deeply rooted in a highly critical disposition toward American society, disdain for capitalism and commerce, ignorance about “actually existing” communist states, as well as a propensity to chronic moral indignation. [3]

While militant Islamic movements and theocratic Iran shared the anti-American disposition of communist states, their anti-Americanism has been far more intense and irrational than the communist variety due to its religious inspiration. A strong aversion to modernity has further added to hostility to the United States, correctly seen as a major embodiment of modernity. In turn, Islamic movements came to be viewed with a degree of sympathy by numerous American intellectuals and those on the Left, who were convinced of the worthlessness of their own society, and were irresistibly drawn to “the enemies of their enemy.”

It has not been easy, sometimes impossible, to project upon these movements the attributes which earlier attracted many American and other Western intellectuals to communist systems. Unlike the movements and political systems inspired by Marxism, Islamic movements and beliefs are not universalistic, they are openly and demonstratively intolerant and uphold traditional religious beliefs that are alien to secular, leftist Western intellectuals. Islamic societies permeated by Islamic tradition oppress women, hate and mistreat homosexuals, and are beholden to a wide range of rigid religious beliefs and practices, including corporal punishments such as stoning, amputation and beheading. Such attitudes and policies are difficult to accept for progressive leftists who believe in the equality of women and in the rights of people of different sexual orientation and are opposed to capital and corporal punishment. These attributes of Islamic movements and societies have given a pause to some on the Left, but many others have managed to ignore these blemishes, or ascribe them to an authentic cultural heritage that is to be treated with toleration.

In addition to their intense hostility to the United States (greatly appreciated by the native social critics) Islamic movements and the one existing theocratic Islamic state (Iran) also partake of the allure of the Third World. Upon the latter, many Western intellectuals have, for some time, projected their longings and hopes following their partial disillusionment with communist states. [4]  The imaginary virtues of the Third World included, above all, a presumed freedom from the corruptions of Western capitalist societies and a corresponding authenticity associated with its traditional, pre-modern aspects. The Third World has received further moral credit from leftist intellectuals and their followers on account of its victimization (real or imaginary) by predatory Western capitalism.

Even a highly oppressive theocracy such as the one established in Iran earned the sympathy and support of prominent American intellectuals such as Richard Falk (of Princeton University) who in 1979 thought that Ayatollah Khomeini was “defamed” by the American news media and believed that he created “a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on non-violent tactics;” in his view, Iran was going to “provide us with a desperately needed model of human governance.” [5] Ramsey Clark, an especially embittered critic of U.S. foreign policy and American society, rushed to France in 1979 to meet Ayatollah Khomeni and in the same year also visited Iran to show solidarity with the new regime. In 1986, following the U.S. bombings of LIbya, Clark traveled to Libya once more to show his solidarity to a government hostile to the United States. Clark also volunteered his legal services to the bombers of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and to Saddam Hussein, among other groups and individuals hostile to the United States. [6] Michel Foucault, the famous French philosopher, was similarly supportive of the Iranian theocracy, observing that Ayatollah Khomeini reflected “the perfectly unified will” of the Iranian people, among other enthusiastic comments. [7]

Somewhat unexpectedly in the wake of 9/11, many of these feelings and attitudes found new expression. Numerous Western intellectuals on the Left used the occasion to aver that the attack was well deserved, and its root causes were to be found in the American mistreatment of Islamic countries and populations and in the exploitative practices of global capitalism headquartered in the United States. As Christopher Hitchens put it, “jihad [became] an understandable reaction to Muslim grievances” and even “a supposed socialist-feminist [Naomi Klein] [was] offering swooning support to theocratic fascists.” [8] Jean Baudrillard and Norman Mailer relished the symbolic punishment meted out in the destruction of the towers of the World Trade Center, symbols of global capitalism.

In May 8, 2006, Noam Chomsky visited Lebanon, meeting Hezbollah leaders and providing them with welcome moral support and political legitimacy. He also expressed strong support (on both Lebanese and Hezbollah television) for Hezbollah keeping its weapons — a position directly contradicting the UN Resolution No. 1559 that called for its disarming. [9] Norman Finkelstein – whose detestation of Israel rivals that of Chomsky, offered at an “Islamophobia” conference in Istanbul his sympathetic understanding of Holocaust denial in the Muslim world and argued that it is used to “demonize” Muslims. He was far less disturbed by these denials than by the alleged “demonization.” Since his parents were Holocaust survivors, he did not deny it. Like Chomsky (his role model) he readily equated the Holocaust and Nazism with the misdeeds of the United States. [10] Lynne Stewart, the radical lawyer represented (and admired) Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, who as convicted in 2005 (in spite of Stewart’s efforts) in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Subsequently, Stewart was convicted and sentenced to jail for supporting Rahman’s organization in 2006. She has been an admirer not only of Muslim fundamentalists but also of Mao, Castro and Ho Chi Minh. [11]

Other notable leftist sympathizers with radical Islam include George Galloway, (former Labor member of the British Parliament), Naomi Klein, and the late Edward Said. Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash are distinguished by their shared scorn for Ayaan Hirshi Ali, the Somali-born critic of Islam and former member of the Dutch parliament, who has been subject to numerous death threats. By contrast, they both think well of Tariq Ramadan, the well known Western spokesman of Islamist causes who pretends to be a moderate when addressing Western academic audiences. In his Murder in Amsterdam, Buruma postulated a moral equivalence between alleged Dutch racism and Muslim fundamentalism.

As to the recent responses to the potential rise in power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute in an op-ed advised “Don’t Fear Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood” and Shadi Hamid (also of Brookings) wrote that “Westerners should not lose sleep over the Brotherhood’s inclusion… A pragmatic organization at its core.” [12]

While not even the most bitterly alienated American leftists can easily glorify or fully justify the traditional, repressive and less than fully rational aspects of Islamic political culture (including Sharia law), a number of similarities may be found between their attitudes toward communist systems and those toward radical, political Islam. The appreciation of anti-Americanism and a broader anti-Westernism are not the only similarities. Many Western leftists and especially intellectuals among them have found the collectivism of both communist systems and of Islam appealing given their yearning for community and their rejection of capitalistic  competitiveness, as well as their apprehensions about social isolation in Western capitalist societies. They also find attractive the apparent sense of purpose permeating both communist and Islamic societies and movements. The most alienated among American and other Western intellectuals are also drawn to the fundamentalist Islamic rejection of modernity: they too reject many aspects of modernity, namely popular culture, consumerism, moral relativism and assorted social pathologies such as crime, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Authenticity, the unity of word and deed (or theory and practice), is also highly prized by leftist Western intellectuals and their followers and they find a great deal of it among militant Islamic radicals. Indisputably, suicide bombers act out their beliefs, they unite theory and practice, as communist revolutionaries used to a long time ago.

Nonetheless, Western leftist views of the relationship between theory and practice are not consistent, neither as regards communist systems of the past nor the religious-fundamentalist Islamic movements of the present. During the Cold War, leftist peace activists, as well as numerous academic specialists, used to argue that the Soviet Union was not a serious threat because its policies (including those flagrantly aggressive) were largely defensive and not motivated by ideology (by Marxism-Leninism). The West could “do business” with the Soviet Union (and other communist systems) because it no longer pursued a militant, messianic, expansionist policy and because theory ceased to matter, as Soviet leaders became increasingly pragmatic. They further suggested that peaceful coexistence was possible provided the West make a serious attempt to understand the grievances and insecurities of communist leaders – a view strikingly similar to current exhortations to engage Islamic movements and their leaders in a dialogue.

There is a further, striking similarity between the past dismissal of ideology as a force in the conduct of communist systems and the current denials that Islamic religious values and beliefs play a part in Islamic violence although suicide bombers regularly affirm their unshakeable belief in the generous other-wordly rewards that await them. They are confident that putting to death a sufficient number of American, British, Israeli, Indonesian, Iraqi or Spanish infidels – men, women, children and the old, will usher in a better world.

As in the old days, the Left insists that a better, non-judgmental approach will mollify Islamic extremists and radicals – as was hoped to be the case in regard to Communist leaders and ideologues. They believe that adopting conciliatory attitudes and policies will lead to peace, goodwill and rational discourse. It is difficult for critics of the United States and Western values to attribute irrationality to the enemies of their countries and social systems.

Ready attribution of moral equivalence is another similarity between attitudes toward communist systems and radical Islam. As may be recalled, during the Cold War, and especially following the 1960s, it was widely held by leftist intellectuals in the United States (and elsewhere) that there was little to choose between American or Soviet imperialism, between the two corrupt and oppressive super powers. More recently, American and Israeli policies have been equated with, and held responsible for, the violence of Islamic terrorists, who, in this perspective, had no choice but to engage in their campaigns of destruction and violence to draw attention to their grievances.

In the final analysis, it is difficult to quantify the similarities between the two sets of attitudes and misperceptions discussed above. The leftist support for communist systems and ideologies probably greatly exceeded present day sympathy for radical Islam in the same circles. Communist systems – their ideology, slogans, and promises – were easier to idealize than present day Islamic fanaticism, dogmatic rigidity and murderous intolerance. What has been similar is the misperception and wishful misjudgment of both political entities because they meet certain needs and allowed leftist intellectuals to project upon them attributes they valued and could not find in their own society. Most importantly, they have been seen in a favorable light because they shared the hostility toward Western societies and traditions which has animated many leftist intellectuals for several generations.

Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University. He is the author or editor of fourteen books, including Political Pilgrims.


[1]. John Tierney: “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within,” New York Times, February  8, 2011.

[2] Simon Romero: “In Venezuela, an American Has the President’s Ear,” New York Times, February 5, 2011]

[3] Tom Wolfe proposed  that indignation was an essential quality of the intellectual “that elevated him to a plateau of moral superiority.” [“In the Land of the  Rococo Marxists,” Hooking Up, New York, 2000, p.117.]

[4] Of course some Third World countries have also been communist and therefore all the more appealing, i.e. Cuba, China (under Mao), Vietnam, Nicaragua and others.

[5] Falk quoted in  New York Times, February 19, 1979.

[6] Http:/www.  DiscovertheNewtworks.org/individualProfile.asp?indid=781

[7] Wesley Young: “The Philosopher and the Ayatollah,” Boston Globe, June 12, 2005. See also James Miller: The Passion of Michel  Foucault, Cambridge, MA  2000.

[8] Hitchens in Slate, September 7, 2004.

[9] Zachary Hughes in CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting) , July 20, 2006.

[10] Finkelstein: “Islamophobia and Holocaust Denial” see his  ”official website” December 1, 2007.

[11] DiscovertheNetworks.Org cited,  indid=861; see also George Packer on Lynne Stewart  in New York Times Magazine, September 22, 2002.

[12] Quoted in David Flynn: “Brookings and the Brotherhood” Frontpage, February 19, 2011.

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