The left has an Islam problem: If liberals won't come to terms with religious extremism, the xenophobic right will carry the day

ISIS doesn't represent true Islam. But denying there's a problem within Islam only makes the left look feckless

Published November 17, 2015 9:24PM (EST)


It’s becoming increasingly difficult to talk honestly about Islam. For liberals in particular, it’s a kind of heresy to suggest that Islam, at this particular moment in history, has a problem. This is unfortunate, and it has to end.

All religions are not the same. All faith traditions are not equally wise or equally tolerant or equally peaceful. A fundamentalist Jain is not the same as a fundamentalist Christian. A devout Quaker and a committed Wahhabist have very different ideas about justice and equality and morality. And to the extent that Quakers and Wahhabists live by the light of these ideas, the differences between them are vast and consequential.

All of this should be obvious to anyone paying attention, and yet it isn’t.

What happened in Paris last weekend was both tragic and banal. And like mass shooting incidents in America, the response to it was as depressing as it was familiar. The bigots on the Right, many of whom are Christian fascists, were quick to condemn Islam as such. These people hate Muslims already, and they hate them precisely because they’re Muslim. The religious right is animated by tribalism and hatred, and so anything they say or do as it relates to Islam is irremediably tainted.

Commentators on the Left, reacting against the bigotry and historical amnesia of the Right, focused on our own complicity and on the need to counter "Islamophobia." Unlike the commentary on the Right, however, this serves a purpose. It's essential to note that America has radicalized this region with decades of plunder and interventionism.  It's essential to note that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and that the overwhelming majority of these people are peaceful and tolerant. It's essential to note that it's unjust to blame all Muslims for the acts of ISIS, whose vision of Islam is not shared by the rest of the Muslim world. And it's essential to note that Christianity is also replete with Iron Age dogmas, many of which are as regressive and toxic as anything you’ll find in the Quran.

All of this is true, and the point can’t be made enough.

But there’s a broader and more nuanced conversation to be had about Islamic extremism, one free of religious tribalism and ideological bias. And that conversation is about specific ideas, ideas that are operative in groups like ISIS and Boko Haram.

This isn’t a war against a religion or a people or a culture – although the purveyors of hate want to make it such. When liberals attack the illiberal values of Islamic extremists, who turn women into cattle and children into martyrs, this isn’t a defense of white liberals or even Western culture; above all it’s a defense of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims who continue to suffer under the yoke of theocracy and repression.

We’re defending the gay Muslims being hurled off of rooftops; we’re defending the young girls being pelted with battery acid for the crime of receiving an education; we’re defending the freethinkers and the secularists and the advocates for equality and free speech in the Muslim world, who are, in almost every way, braver and more important than their Western counterparts.

There’s a persistent taboo on the Left which demands that every incident of terror be attributed to American foreign policy. Terrorism is a hydra-headed problem, and it's not reducible to a single cause - religion and politics and economics and foreign policy and institutional corruption are critical variables. Does America’s history of looting and corruption in the Middle East matter? Absolutely. Is the world and the region currently paying the price for the West’s self-interested partitioning of the Middle East after World War I? Without question. But Islamists aren’t killing cartoonists because the U.S. invaded Iraq. And ISIS isn’t exterminating the Yazidis because of America’s sordid relationship with Saudi Arabia.

We can and should acknowledge our hypocrisies and our injustices and our complicity in creating the menace that is Islamic extremism. But if you think ISIS is merely a reaction against U.S. foreign policy, you’re dangerously misguided. ISIS’s concerns aren’t primarily political. They are committed to a prophetic theology of seventh-century Islam, and everything they do and say confirms their desire to incite an apocalyptic confrontation with the modern world.

Their hatred of infidels and their belief in martyrdom and armed Jihad have a scriptural basis, and it’s dishonest to pretend otherwise. And their brand of Islam isn’t radically different from the Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia. Most Muslims aren’t Wahhabists and don’t share this vision of life, just as most Christians aren’t stoning adulterers, even though there are biblical injunctions to do so. But it’s disingenuous to say ISIS has no connection to Islamic tradition.

The problem isn’t Islam so much as Jihadism. Islam is a rich and complicated religion, with countless sects and denominations and readings. Almost all of these manifestations of Islam are peaceful and perfectly compatible with a free and pluralistic society. But Jihadists and certain Islamists want to impose their interpretation of Islam on the rest of society, including the West. This is a real problem, and it’s not reducible entirely to Eurocentrism or Western imperialism or neoconservative aggression or illegal and murderous drone strikes – although these things  are real and matter a great deal. And it’s not “Islamophobic” to admit this.

The fact is, most Muslims are our allies in this fight, and that fact gets obscured when only Christian theocrats are critiquing Islamic extremists. Liberals and progressives and humanists ought to be able to say that there's a problem within Islam, not unlike problems within Christianity and other religions at various periods in history, without being accused of bigotry. And we have to a draw a distinction between doctrines and people, ideas and communities.

ISIS doesn’t represent true Islam, just as the Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t speak for Christianity. But both are religious problems, and one is clearly more dangerous and ascendant than the other. Insofar as Jihadists believe in specific ideas about apostasy and prophecy and martyrdom and blasphemy and religious freedom, we have to take them seriously, and we have to criticize those ideas.

These critiques are not of all or even most Muslims, but only of the tiny minority who hold and act on these ideas. The fundamentalists on the Right won’t acknowledge this distinction, which is exactly why the Left has to make it.

Watch Muslims respond to the portrayal of Muslims in the media:
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By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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