On Habermas, Islamism and the great Left divide (part 1 of 2)
The Secular Respectable Left
‘Why on earth do some left-wingers side with Islamists, when Islamists are so evil?’ is an on-going question-cum-accusation, levelled at people like Nick Cohen at people like…….well, people like me.
Thus Nick Cohen in the Spectator, suggests the way the ‘classic’ British left side with the Islamist establishment means they are simply racists:
Other speakers [at the launch of the Centre for Secular Space] were from Southall Black Sisters, Bengali secular campaigns against Tower Hamlets’ Islamist establishment and Iranian resistance groups – classic left wing figures, in other words. Yet they are ignored or in the case of Sahgal fired for speaking out.
All emphasized how many in the British state and British left were racists hiding behind liberal masks. On the left, the racism came in the constant postponement of campaigns to improve women’s lives whether they are immigrants or in the poor world. Their suffering must always be subordinated to the struggle against ‘American imperialism’. This would be bad enough if we did not see from the far Left way into the liberal mainstream supposed progressives allying with clerical reactionaries and clerical fascists. They ignore the victims of theocracy and accept their oppression.
Similarly, Carl Packman at Left Foot Forward, blames the far-left for mix of political immaturity and ‘paternalism’:
And here is where the far-left and the British and American establishment can find harmony. While the latter needs the Muslim far-right in Saudi Arabia for cash, they keep quiet about human rights abuses. For the far-left the comradeship is just as dubious, if not slightly more immature.
Recently I was at the launch of a new book by Trotskyist writer and blogger Richard Seymour, who told a packed audience in Kings Cross that the Stop the War Coalition did not wish to pursue sectarianism, deciding who should and should not be marching against the war, but in any case those religious right-wingers might have had their minds changed through a union with the left……..
If this isn’t paternalist (Muslim beliefs, whatever they are, are only temporary, easily overturned), I don’t know what is.
In the end, goes the core argument of the Cohen/Packman/Harry’s Place nexus, the far left/lefties/liberals  are the real right-wingers here, and they either need to change their ways or shut up, while the Secular Responsible Left (my coinage, get used to it) get on with the real job in hand of promoting human rights.
For myself, I think this analysis is at least as ’immature’ as the politics it professes to critique. The suggestion that someone like Richard Seymour (he being a useful cipher for the broad doctrine of the leftist groupings around the SWP/Stop the War), is some kind of closet racist/paternalist, and that he’s “in harmony” with the British and American establishment, is frankly just silly . Such an analysis fundamentally confuses agency with structure, and in the absence of any coherent analysis of why some on the far left/liberal left do seem to get aligned with reactionary Islam, the Secular Responsible Left falls back on the idea that, ultimately, they’re all just bad, wrong people.
In this two part article, I argue that such an approach is not simply politically immature in terms of its failure to distinguish structure from agency. I argue that is also deeply unhelpful as a political strategy for anyone really, really interested in a progressive socialism inclusive of human rights guarantees and the emancipation of the oppressed (and there can be no progressive socialism without that). In the end, accusations levelled at Seymour by Packman look and feel like sectarian squabbling getting in the away of constructive organisation, largely because that is what they are: ‘my integrity is bigger than yours’ political willy-waving fests may fill small halls of the like-minded, but they are not going to change the lives of marginalised women anytime soon.
Indeed the Secular Respectable Left is, I will argue (following John Gray p.125-6), more reactionary, more unhelpful to the cause of emancipation that they profess to espouse than are the far/liberal/mainstream left at whom they throw this same accusation.
Habermas and value pluralism
So what is a more ‘mature’ analysis of how some on the Left come, apparently, to side with the anti-human rights baddies against the goodies?
A good place to start is with the work Jurgen Habermas, who has devoted a large part of his career, from the early 1990s onwards, to resolving the tension that lies at the heart of the current debate: how do modern constitutional democracies best promote respect both for individual human rights and for the rights of groups of people to live by different cultural values (what has been termed the “struggle for recognition“), when such cultural values sometimes are so opposed to a liberal conception of human rights (and vice versa)? It is a resolution to this dilemma – itself a result of the multi-ethnic world that has developed through the 20th century – which forms Habermas’ whole ‘constitutional patriotism’ project, seeking to replace the comfortable majoritarian certainties of ethno-nationalist value consensus (comfortable for those who are included) with a newer commitment to a political culture which accommodates (and in time are, through discourse, adaptable to) different cultures and their value sets .
In Remarks on Legitimation through Human Rights (ch, 5 in Postnational Constellations: Political Essays) Habermas gets to the core:
The human rights discourse that has been argued on normative terms is plagued by the fundamental doubt about whether the form of legitimation that has arisen in the West can also hold up as plausible within the framework of other cultures. The most radical critics are Western intellectuals themselves. They maintain that the universal validity claimed for human rights merely hides a perfidious claim to power on the part of the West.
This is no accident. To gain some distance from one’s traditions and limited perspectives in one of the advantages of occidental rationalism. The European history of the interpretation of human rights is the history of such a decentring of out way of viewing things. So-called equal rights may have only been gradually extended to oppressed, marginalized, and excluded groups. Only after tough political struggles have workers, women, Jews, Romanies, gays and political refugees been recognized as “human beings” with a claim to fully equal treatment. The important thing now is that the individual advances in emancipation reveal in hindsight the ideological function that human rights had also fulfilled up to that time. That is, the egalitarian claim to universal validity and inclusion had also served to mask the de facto unequal treatment of those who were silently excluded. This observation has aroused the suspicion that human rights might be reducible to this ideological unction. Have they not always served to shield a false universality – an imaginary humanity, behind which an imperialist West could conceal its own way and interests (p.119-120).
It is this disjuncture between the rhetoric of universality and the practice of exclusion as the key means to establish and expand empire which is so meticulously detailed in Domenico Losurdo’s recent Liberalism: A Counter-History. And it is Habermas’ understanding of this ‘dialectic between subjugation and emancipation’ which provides for his key insight; this is to pick out both the negative and positive features of “occidental rationalism”: a tendency to ascribe any form of enduring inequality and exploitation to imperialism, which can hinder empirical analysis, balanced by a genuine openness other value sets.
The less respectable Left’s (Althusserian) engagement with value pluralism
This is precisely the situation in which some on the British left do now find themselves.
On the one hand, because the left positions itself primarily in opposition to the logic of imperialism (rooted, as Losurdo has set out so clearly, in the exclusionary tendencies of liberalism), it tends to see all events through this lens. Thus, as I set out in my recent anti-war left essay, the empirical evidence that some Western military intervention is not in fact motivated by a rapacious need for natural resources is discounted in favour of a narrative of post-colonial imperialism. In this narrative, the maxim that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ takes strong hold, and the tendency is simply to take the side of any group which also sets itself in opposition to the forces of Western imperialism 
On the other hand, there is the ‘positive’ dynamic, reflecting the other side of the coin of Habermas’ insight. This is that left-wing intellectuals of the Richard Seymour type appear to be genuinely motivated by their (Marxist) occidental rationalism to recognise that there are other ways of looking at rights than through the prism of liberalism.
In this reading, what the Secular Respectable Left see as a betrayal of liberal values and human rights can be seen simply as an acknowledgment by some on the left that there are other worldviews, which do not depend on the primacy of the individual, which are potentially as valid.
Take, for example two interpretations of this Harry’s Place article. ‘Lucy Lips’ attacks those she descibes the far left “anti-racists” (her inverted commas) for working with the East London Mosque, who in turn have hosted “Islamist preacher” Khaild Al-Fikri. As evidence, of the far left’s wrongness in its engagement, she quotes Al-Fikri from a previous conference:
Don’t be misleaded [sic] and misguided with those kaffir people who says it is freedom and you are a free man. They are kuffar. And when they say, and poison your mind with the word freedom, they mean there is no God. “Do whatever you want.” Because they are kuffar. … You need to protect your deen [religion] and iman [faith] because there are many things which will affect you, will come against you. Somebody will say to you “democracy, socialism, freedom”………And again for my sisters. Don’t be misguided. Don’t be misleaded [sic] by the kaffir theories and attitudes. You are very free when you are home with your husband and your kids. … Don’t say “I am a free woman, I want to run house, I want to work, I want to get money”. No! This is the duty of your husband.
Now, to my eyes, and to the eyes of most people reading this piece, this is pretty unpleasant reactionary stuff, at least at first reading. But stand back for a minute, strip away the insulting ‘kuffar’ term, and what you’re left with is little more than an expression of what Habermas has suggested: that the concept of ‘freedom’ is some kind of trap; that it is a Western invention aimed at diverting people from the true path of the divine; that Muslims should retain their own core ethical standards, even if they have to defend them against corrupt Western ones. Certainly, it’s arguable that the guidance on the role of women expressed here is, as Saeeda Shah has noted, an expression, of Islamic philosophy “misappropriated by those who have traditionally occupied the spaces of religious interpretation” (p.245), but notwithstanding the question of who, within a community, gets to establish community’s values and notms (and this is something I come back to in part 2), it still possible to recognise it as a valid expression of a particular ethical standpoint. And this, remember, is from someone widely considered so “extremist” that even to meet with a group which has previously invited him to speak under their roof is an indication of betrayal of all decency.
By way of comparison, here’s self-confessed American liberal Jonathan Haidt, talking about the period spent in Orissa (albeit a period I suspect is conveniently reconstructed for his arguments) during which he realised that the concept of freedom and rights might not have singular validity:
I had read about Shewder’s ethic of community and had understood it intellectually. But now, for the first time in my life, I began to feel it. I could feel beauty in a moral code that emphasizes beauty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires. I could still see its ugly side: I could see that power sometimes leads to pomposity and abuse. And I could see that subordinates – particularly women – were often blocked from doing what they wanted to do by the whims of their elders (male and female). but for the first time in my life, i was able to step outside my home morality, the ethic of autonomy. I had a place to stand, and from the vantages point of the ethic of community, the ethic of autonomy now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused (p.102).
Haidt’s recognition that different societies might have equally valid moral bases for the way in which their members lives their lives (whilst also recognising that who holds power is a key determinant) is not new. Indeed, Haidt quotes anthropologist Clifford Geertz approvingly:
The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively against other such wholes and against is social and natural background, is, however incorrigible it may seem to us. a rather peculiar idea within the contexts of the world’s cultures (p.126, quoted at p.14 in Haidt)
The challenge that Haidt and Geertz set themselves , as academics raised within the Western liberal tradition, is to put aside their preconception about what is morally correct, and embrace ‘value pluralism’. And this, it seems to me, is what those on the Left now prepared to engage with radical Islam are also trying to do. True, they don’t articulate it very well, preferring to explain any such engagement as anti-imperialist agitation rather than as a recognition that different worldviews, however alien to our own, have a validity for the simple reason that people have them . Perhaps I even overestimate here the intelligence of some on the far left, though perhaps such a reliance on ‘tried and tested’ anti-imperialism narrative is understandable in the context of a media (including Harry’s Place) keen to misrepresent a call for the understanding of Islamic values as direct support for extremism.
Whatever the motivations, articulated or otherwise, of those on the Left prepared to deal with value pluralism, the important point is that only those on the (far) Left are prepared to engage with probably the most serious question of our times. That question is:
How, in a world in which capitalism has become the almost universal economic modus vivendi, and liberal values have underpinned the rise of capitalism, do we now best deal with the ‘struggle for recognition’ of a very different value set, in a way which both respects value pluralism but also pay proper heed to the emancipatory ideal that lies at the heart of what it is to be left-wing (whether this be Marxist or rooted in earlier Enlightenment thinking)?
Answering that question, again with reference to Habermas, is the task of part 2 of this article (coming soon). In the meantime, it’s worth noting (h/t @sunny_hundal) that attempts to reach out across the value-divide towards some form of long-term political/constiutional settlement, are not necessarily taking place in one direction only. No doubt the Islamic Society of Denmark are getting their version of Harry’s Place-style accusations of treachery from the Unsecular Respectable Islamists, but I applaud them as I applaud the efforts of those on the Left who are seeking some way forward, even while hampered by their Althusserian (see ) anti-imperialist ritual.
 Cohen in particular seems to use these terms interchangeably.
 In the accusation that the far/liberal left are operating in ‘harmony’ with the Western establishment, Packman finds himself in interesting company. Here’s revolutionary Marxist Samir Amin, the consternation of Alex Callinicos of the SWP, coming out in support of French intervetion in Mali, on the basis of an interesting argument that “reactionary political Islam” is in reality a support, rather than a threat, to Western imperialism, because its presence allows the imperialist powers to maintain their control over the people of the ‘triad’ (the US, Europe and Japan) in the name of a ‘war of the civilisations’.
Telle est la raison fondamentale pour laquelle les puissances de la triade – telles qu’elles sont et demeurent – y voient un allié stratégique. Le soutien systématique apporté par ces puissances à l’Islam politique réactionnaire a été et demeure l’une des raisons majeures des « succès » qu’il a enregistrés : les Talibans d’Afghanistan, le FIS en Algérie, les « Islamistes » en Somalie et au Soudan, ceux de Turquie, d’Egypte, de Tunisie et d’ailleurs ont tous bénéficié de ce soutien à un moment décisif pour leur saisie du pouvoir local. Aucune des composantes dites modérés de l’Islam politique ne s’est jamais dissociée véritablement des auteurs d’actes terroristes de leurs composantes dites « salafistes ». Ils ont tous bénéficié et continuent à bénéficier de « l’exil » dans les pays du Golfe, lorsque nécessaire. En Libye hier, en Syrie encore aujourd’hui ils continuent à être soutenus par ces mêmes puissances de la triade. En même temps les exactions et les crimes qu’ils commettent sont parfaitement intégrés dans le discours d’accompagnement de la stratégie fondée sur leur soutien : ils permettent de donner de la crédibilité à la thèse d’une « guerre des civilisations » qui facilite le ralliement « consensuel » des peuples de la triade au projet global du capital des monopoles. Les deux discours – la démocratie et la guerre au terrorisme – se complètent mutuellement dans cette stratégie.
For myself, I don’t buy the argument that, just because one political or ideological grouping does or says something than can be argued to be favourable to the interests of another grouping, that both these groupings must therefore have a common purpose.
 Casting Habermas’ sophisticated argument as simply as possible, constitutional patriotism acknowledges that in modern culturally plural societies the ethno-nationalism that used to bind people to a shared identity and thereby create the conditions for the legitimacy of the democratic state. That is, the two key underpinnings of the modern state form as developed in the 18th century – a national identity allied with a republican ideal of individual citizen operating in voluntary contract with each other to abide by the laws of the state – have become less firmly connected. Habermas’ believes that the 21st century state must find a new “functional equivalent for the fusion of the nation of citizens with the ethnic nation”, and that to do this we need to create a patriotic commitment to a legal and political constitution, however abstract, while allowing diverse cultures to flourish in their own terms. I’ll come back to this in part 2. For more, see Andrea Baumeister’s essay Diversity and Unity: The Problem with ‘Constitutional Patriotism’ for an intelligent critique.
 It strikes me that this tendency on the part of the Left to push aside any evidence that does not fit with the narrative of resource-hungry imperialism is, ironically, a good example of Althusserian interpellation. As Althusser says:
The individual in question behaves in such and such a way, adopts such and such a practical attitude, and, what is more, participates in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject. If he believes in God, he goes to Church to attend Mass, kneels, prays, confesses, does penance (once it was material in the ordinary sense of the term) and naturally repents and so on. If he believes in Duty, he will have the corresponding attitudes, inscribed in ritual practices ‘according to the correct principles’. If he believes in Justice, he will submit unconditionally to the rules of the Law, and may even protest when they are violated, sign petitions, take part in a demonstration, etc.
To this set of beliefs, we might perhaps add ‘Marxism’, in which name a large number of ritual practices have also been established. I would argue that, for many Marxists, who enter into that doctrine of their own free will, the act of interpellation is a strong one, with Marx(ism) maintaining all the key features of the (capital S) Subject. I wonder, indeed, whether it is this process of interpellation, and the commitment to ritual, which lies at the heart of the troubles both the SWP and the Catholic Church now face:
Were not men made in the image of God? As all theological reflection proves, whereas He ‘could’ perfectly well have done without men, God needs them, the Subject needs the subjects, just as men need God, the subjects need the Subject. Better: God needs men, the great Subject needs subjects, even in the terrible inversion of his image in them (when the subjects wallow in debauchery, i.e. sin).
 It’s worth noting here that openness to value pluralism is not a particular new concept at all. An awareness of the tension between universality and pluralism can be traced back at least as far as Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith, as an early liberal not caught up by the imperative felt by later liberals like JS Mill to justify imperialist expansion (on which see Jennifer Pitts), was not able to resolve these tensions, but the very fact that he – two centuries before Habermas was aware of them suggests that it continues to be an area still worthy of consideration. As Samuel Fleischacker has noted, in an interesting essay which argues that modern political philosophy might benefit from Smith’s implicitly anthropological approach:
Smith is unlikely to offer us any straightforward meta-ethical reconciliation between relativism and absolutism, and his promising hints about how, in ethics proper, to bring together pluralism and universalism, are undermined, to some degree, by his meta-ethical dilemma. But the problems he faces in these regards are our problems too, and thinking with Smith may help nudge us toward a solution to them, even if that solution is not explicitly to be found in Smith’s own work.
 Again, this is an ‘anthropological’ formulation, of the type which informs Adam Smith’s work
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