The liberal and the Islam puzzle

heaven_hellThe recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy witnessed mass protests and solidarity parades across political borders and ideologies. Although there was a huge outcry over the violent means the Islamic fundamentalists resorted to; liberals across the world were divided on whether to criticize the incident outright, or to consider the social conditions of Muslims in France while criticising the incident. While this diversity of opinion is our biggest strength, more often than not, it also shows our blind spot.

Liberals, not only in India, but across the world have often been accused for not criticising Islamic fundamentalism enough. Although this accusation is sometimes taken too far by non-Islamic fundamentalist groups, purely for hateful and divisive reasons, I believe the liberal stand on Islamic fundamentalism needs to be clarified, if not revived. It is often (wrongly) attributed to the ‘common-enemy-factor’ at play; the USA policies being anti-left, economically; and anti-Islam, politically. But before jumping into conclusions, let’s understand the Islamic world first, and how people belonging to different parts of the political spectrum perceive them. In the absence of a better word, the Islamic world can be broadly ‘classified’ into three categories – the failed states, the autocratic regimes, and the secular democracies. (Palestine has not been considered in this discussion, since I have already written a separate article on the conflict.)

It is beyond doubt that Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise in the failed states of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, among several others. Similar to masses elsewhere, people living in these countries too want peace and harmony, protect their families and earn daily bread. Both the liberals and non-Islamic fundamentalists agree on the existence of this problem but differ in their approach to a solution to this. While the non-Islamic fundamentalist belief (often led by USA Republican propaganda and Corporate interests) is to wage war on these states (war means profit at the cost of public spending), liberals believe in supporting their internal uprisings and stopping other countries (particularly the USA) from interfering with them, thereby letting the people of these states being empowered to tackle their problems internally.

Islamic fundamentalism is high in the autocratic regimes too, which comprise of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Iran, etc. Almost all of these – with the exception of Iran and a few former Soviet satellite states – are armed and funded by the United States, again with vested interests in oil, access to commercial shipping lanes, and other resources. (Iraq recently went from being an autocratic regime to a failed state for denying the USA its uncontrolled access on their resources.) Collectively, the Gulf States procure more than $5 Billion of US weapons every year, and many rank among the top recipients of US aid. USA builds their prisons, drones their dissidents while branding them as terrorists, and occupies their lands with permanent military bases. While most non-Islamic fundamentalists tend to overlook this, the left has a serious problem with such colonization and strongly condemns these dictatorial regimes. After the fall of USSR, the USA has continued its arms race – only this time – without a real opponent.

Thirdly, there are the secular democracies of Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and a few others. Islamic fundamentalists have very little say in these states. While these states are certainly not Marxist utopia, most of the Islamic intellectual and liberal classes thrive here. It is quite evident that the most barbaric interpretations of Islam are practised in those countries where despair is felt hardest. It is not merely a coincidence that the least religious and the happiest nations are those where the liberal classes thrive – Western Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, and parts of Latin America. In these countries the size of the state is bigger, taxes on the rich and corporations are higher and government spending on the poor is greater. It is also no coincidence that the nine of the ten most religious states in the USA are also among the ten poorest states there. Religions extremism and political impotency are hence, correlated.

The answer to Islamic fundamentalism is certainly not fundamentalism of another kind. Hatred breeds more hatred. While Islamic fundamentalism is a problem and needs to be tackled, non-Islamic religious fundamentalism is on the rise in India, Australia, Central Africa, parts of USA and Europe. These too must be tackled internally by those who believe in human equality beyond race and religion. Most right-wing critics of Islam tend to fall back on their religion and then criticize Islam. Rarely do they realize that a hard-liner Hindu referring to Muslims as savages is only as insane as the fundamentalists he mocks. If a hard-liner Hindu believes that he is out there cleaning the world of evil, that’s precisely what Islamic and Christian fundamentalists believe too. In an ideal world, everyone will resort to critical thinking, develop class consciousness, unite as equals and take the world forward as a collaborative society, but to start with, we must not hold ourselves back in criticising the form of religion that is divisive – fundamentalism. Irrespective of religion. People and groups within the Islamic world have been fighting this for decades – Tariq Ali, Salman Rushdie, Faiz, Ibn-e-Insha, Manto, Kazim Kivanc, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Malala – to name a few. Just like those fighting religious fundamentalism elsewhere, they too have faced immense heat from within their communities while doing this.

As believers of human liberty and equality, we must protest all forms of religious hatred equally, while keeping the end goal in mind. What Muslim fundamentalists did in Paris was shameful. So was what Hindu fundamentalists did in Ayodhya and what Christian fundamentalists are doing in Central African Republic. Religion has divided us long enough. And in this case, both the ends and means are not justified.


5 responses to “The liberal and the Islam puzzle

  1. Being a leftist myself, I kinda agree with you. If most liberals had to choose between capitalist individualism and islamic collectivism, they will probably go with the latter. It is at least adjacent to the rest of their aims. All these liberals have to do is sacrifice atheism, gay rights and women rights.

  2. Posting a relevant Facebook discussion here –

    Anand Prakash:
    Don’t you think that the word liberal itself gets used in sweeping terms similar to conservatives or fundamentalists? Liberals broadly themselves differ in how they view a particular event. Charlie Head for example can be construed as either free speech problem or the problem of status qou or one of that between Socio-economic development and despair. Different dimensions appear but what exactly do liberals want to say remains unclear/ambiguous. Charlie Hebdo did bring an amazing thing out. The phenomenon of ‘i understood it better’. If you think about it and the various articles that we might have read all point to this fact. The contrast between thes thoughts is what i want to highlight when I say that your and mine ‘liberal’ is not a properly defined set in itself. I’m not sure if i am able to make my point clear. Let me know.

    Sourav Roy:
    I agree with you. Even Ayn Rand’s objectivism is seen as a liberal idea by many, no matter how far right it is. I tend to take a more moderate approach in writing, no matter how far left I am on facebook or in discussions over tea. having said that, I had initially used the term ‘leftist’ in the article. Then to make it more generic and address a larger set of audience, replaced it with the term ‘liberal’. Hence, liberal here is anyone who is against authoritarianism and believes that individual freedom is important. I may have misused the term, but hoping that the message in the article is conveyed. At-least in its essence.

    Anand Prakash:
    Yeah…the message did get through. I just wished to highlight this particular outcome of Hebdo. The analysis and overall distinction is somewhat different from what i’ve read so far and that is what was brilliant and important.

    Sourav Roy:
    Charlie Hebdo situation did bring out a lot of ambiguity. My stand is not a third stand to this debate. It is a consolidation of the two ‘better stands’ Through this article I have tried to bring the larger question out in the open. In the pursuit of deconstructing the events as an attack on free speech vs the plight of muslims in france, we must not forget that actual people have died in this act. Islamic fundamentalism is a real problem, and so is every other form of religious fundamentalism. When it comes to the problems of the Islamic world, the left and right might differ on solutions, but that does not make the problem any simpler. I understand the Islamic world is much more complex than the three categories I have tried to divide them into. Sorry about such generalizations too, but not every minor detail or event can be covered an article or a facebook discussion.

    Anand Prakash:
    It’s funny and quite intriguing that how many liberals have had intense discussions on Hebdo than the actual culprits. Also how so many of us have had to defend our positions as supporters of freedom and all it’s consequences as well as nuances.

    Sourav Roy:
    In the words of George Carlin, both free speech and religion are ideas we made up. Fancy ideas. But ideas nevertheless. But life is for real man.

  3. well written. concludes the debate of free speech vs religion and still shows the stand of liberals on the issue.

  4. Well written. Enough of fighting along petty ideas. Liberals must unite against the larger problem of communalism and religious fundamentalism.

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