Between Left and Right

February 7, 2018

The problem of identity is largely about the question of who sets the terms of the debate. Muslims find themselves in the middle of a long-standing rift between conservative ideology on one hand and a liberal and leftist ideology on another. Among other issues, Islam and Muslims feature heavily in the on-going debate. In most instances, Muslims are unable to determine the terms of the debate. In a never-ending circle, the Muslim oscillates between two modes of critique. Muslims become the object of the debate and never the subjects. In a Qur’anic illustration of this disorientation;

مُذَبْذَبِينَ بَيْنَ ذَلِكَ لا إِلَى هَؤُلاءِ وَلا إِلَى هَؤُلاءِ

Wavering between that (and this), (belonging) neither to these nor to those[1]

In an age dominated by the rise of populism and right-wing extremism, there is a perceived sense among Muslims that the left and their newly found liberal allies have rushed to their defense, fighting off the Islamophobia of an antagonizing conservative camp. The altruistic liberal or member of the left comes as a savior – just like the white prophet of Modernity before him – and is seen as a brother-in-arms. Muslims feel the need to reciprocate. They must show solidarity. In pampering to the sensitivities of our newly found allies in the left, Islamophobia and Homophobia become two equally distasteful forms of hate.

What we fail to realize is that these Muslim-Left and Muslim-Liberal alliances are not true expressions of reciprocal solidarity but rather a Faustian bargain. The Muslim is only welcomed as a Muslim when his or her commitment to Islam is grounded in a liberal discourse. And for the left, Islam is welcomed only insofar as it is reduced to a “culture” and embraced only as such.

In speaking the language of our liberal savior, the veil becomes a symbol of individual freedom. It is as thought the Muslim subject has chosen to forget the violent origins of the liberal order and the exclusionary dogmas of the left. In an erasure of history – even recent history – the Muslim is no longer cognizant of the fact that the liberal savior is in fact more complicit then his conservative rival in the cultural and economic genocides in the Muslim world. The narratives of the Liberal order and the Left are enunciated as part of more grandiose and emancipatory projects: modernity and its ostensibly opposite, post-modernity.

In the script of modernity – a story of redemption and tragedy – the Muslim is subject to the unilinear progress of history, a march towards the “end of history.” The play, having already been written, leaves not even the future of the Muslim world uncolonized. To be mature, one must do away with premodern affiliations to an asecular Islam and embrace the rationalism of the West.

In the modified postmodern script – although less dramatic – the story is one of existential fatalism. In it, the Muslim ceases to exist [as a Muslim] because it has been definitively determined, that Islam is a “social construct” and that all but the precepts of postmodernity are bound to the same fate. The Muslim is once again helpless, for he becomes bound by the contingencies of history and a prisoner to its constructs. For all, under the watchful eye of the postmodern, is contingent except for the indeterminable march and anarchy of history. The only absolute is the absolute maxim that all is relative and all is contingent.

In the final chapter of this play, the Muslim actor also embraces maturity by doing away with “essentialism” and “identity-politics” and is heralded into a postmodern world. And if modernity, at the very least, challenged the Muslim world with an explicitly metaphysical doctrine, the postmodern world allures the Muslim world with its sophistry and “post-ideological” allure without admitting or coming to terms with its own latent metaphysical commitments.

Despite the divergence(s) between modern and postmodern expressions of liberalism and the left, there is a convergence in that both are driven by a paternalistic desire to project their own narratives onto the unenlightened Muslim. This is only natural given that the Muslim object has not come to fully embrace social justice and the Prophetic insights of Michel Foucault and the madness of Jacques Derrida. In a recent article, Hatem Bazian points to another problematic in these narratives: “While the discourses were produced by diverse forces and interests, the running thread is nevertheless rooted in an effort to humanize the Muslim” which is predicated on a “dehumanizing enactment that leads to an affirmation of Islamophobic tropes.”

The problem is not that Muslims have wholeheartedly embraced postmodernity and its antecedents – be it in its liberal or leftist guise. The problem can be discerned from the hegemonic nature of modern and postmodern narratives; they not only provoke a defensive posture (from the Muslim subject) but also furnish the Muslim subject with the language (and thus the horizons) of those counter-narratives. In much of the same way that early Muslims countered Greek philosophy vis-à-vis a Greco-centric discourse, contemporary “critiques” of modernity suffer from the same blunder. In turn, any real critical engagements are circumvented. This, again, is a consequence of the modern narrative’s capacity to pre-define and represent the Muslim subject. In other words, modernity and its extensions – from the onset – determine the parameters and the language of any engagement through which any ostensible critique is lodged.

In no way, does our critique amount to a call for a Muslim disengagement with the Left and the Liberal camp. There is a fine line between engagement and subordination. The former requires a minimal level of parity between the two-engaging camps, and such parity can only be attained vis-à-vis ideological coherency and the articulation of competing visions. A community with no vision cannot but vanquish, not through genocide, but through its cultural and ideological appropriation.

[1] An-Nisa (4): 143

Ali Harfouch graduated with a Master of Arts in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut. He is interested in current events and Islamic Thought. You can follow him on Twitter @asharfouch.