The virulent anti-Israel protests across America and Europe throw a glaring light on the bizarre alliance between left-wing activists and militant Muslims. That odd combination has been the bedrock of political activism at universities and in the streets for years. It began in universities, where it now dominates political discourse, threatens Jewish students, and intimidates anyone brave enough to voice their dissent. We can now see how it has spread far beyond the campus.
What makes the alliance so strange are the deep-seated differences between leftists and Muslim fundamentalists over core beliefs.
The left supports women’s rights and full equality in the workplace and public sphere. Militant Muslims oppose them.
The left supports gay rights and gay marriage. Militant Muslims toss gays off buildings. None would dare hold a public march in Pakistan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia.
The left supports abortion rights. Militant Muslims oppose them.
The left supports religious freedom, including the right to reject religion altogether. Militant Muslims believe heretics should be executed.
The left rallies against book banning. Militant Muslims embrace it for any book they believe insults Islam or supports Israel.
The left opposes the death penalty. Militant Muslims endorse it and praise their governments for using it.
These beliefs are not marginal for either group. They are foundational, and they are profoundly opposed to each other. Still, the two groups have formed a long-standing alliance. How do they deal with these profound differences? And why are they allied?
They deal with differences very simply: They never mention them when they act jointly, primarily against Israel and its supporters across the world. They have joined together to form a more powerful coalition against shared enemies. They would destroy that partnership by raising issues where they differ.
Far better to focus on their agreement, which goes beyond hating Israel to claim Western capitalism has oppressed, degraded, and ruined the world. Since the U.S. is now the world’s greatest power, it is tagged as the main source of that malignancy, at home and abroad. As they see it, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America are poor because they have been oppressed by capitalist nations and their corporations. If they have terrible governments, they have them only because the West has installed and sustained them.
This critique is based on a shared, but muddled, ideology. The heart of that ideology is its illiberalism. Both groups are fundamentally opposed to the forbearance of individual differences, including very different views and goals, that are essential to Western constitutional democracies. In their place, these opponents rely on a toxic brew of ideas drawn from:
Karl Marx, of course
Franz Fanon (“The Wretched of the Earth”)
Edward Said (“Orientalism”)
Herbert Marcuse (and the Frankfurt School of “cultural Marxism”)
And, for the most extreme Muslims, revolutionary theologians like Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its subsidiary in Gaza, Hamas
The mixture of these ideas makes a confused jumble. But “incoherent” doesn’t mean “useless.” It serves as a kind of makeshift glue that binds disparate groups in opposition to what they see as the West’s oppressive bourgeois culture, its tolerance for divergent views, and the unequal outcomes produced by market competition (softened by transfer payments). Overturn it all, they say, in the name of “social justice.” They have no idea of what to replace it with. In fact, the coalition would break apart if either side emphasized its proposed alternatives.
This negative, often nihilistic, ideology inverts the old adage, “might makes right.” Their implicit claim is that “weakness and poverty make right.” It doesn’t. What’s right or wrong has nothing to do with who has wealth and power and who does not.
These self-proclaimed champions of the poor add one more sloppy argument to the mix. They claim people are poor and weak only because they have been oppressed and exploited.
One implication is that people in poor countries would be far better off if they had never been touched by the West and its institutions. They would thrive under their own social and political systems (and, in the West, some version of socialism). That, at least, is the unspoken claim underlying the coalition of the left and militant Islam. Some progressives (who aren’t poor) make common cause by self-flagellation. They are “repentant oppressors.” Their remorse has all the religious fervor of medieval monks who wore hairshirts and beat themselves with whips for their sins.
The idea that the West is responsible for the world’s poverty has a core of truthful criticism next to a mountain of lies. One doesn’t have to apologize for colonialism to note that almost everyone on planet Earth lived in grinding poverty until the cumulative effects of industrialization began to take hold after 1800. That process began in northwestern Europe and gradually spread across the world, lifting income, health, diet, and life expectancy. Where it failed was in countries racked by civil unrest or governed by rapacious regimes that didn’t provide public order or secure property rights and stole the revenues needed to provide essential public goods.
As for human liberation, no societies voluntarily ended human bondage until the West did it, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Britain spent enormous sums stationing its navy off the African coast to prevent the transshipment of slaves, which had been captured and sold by local tribes. Britain gained nothing financially from that effort; it did it for moral reasons. In America, “free states” in the North and Midwest abolished slavery well before the Civil War. The war itself ended slavery, though blacks were still oppressed for another century by Jim Crow laws (in the South) and segregation (everywhere). Those practices were always inconsistent with the Western ideal of human equality and were finally outlawed in the mid-1960s by the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
The current fight over millions of illegal immigrants obscures one fact common to all modern states and two crucial features of American history. The common fact is that state sovereignty includes the essential right to control who can enter each country. What makes U.S. history so unusual is that it has welcomed tens of millions of legal immigrants and integrated them, by fits and starts, into a society where common citizenship transcends ethnic and religious heritage. Today, most Americans appreciate the fruits of that integration in art, music, food, and culture, drawn from multiple cultural traditions. The left, with its focus on identity politics, damns much of that sharing as “cultural appropriation.” It is a deliberate attempt to divide the country into separate, opposed camps, based on birth.
The depth of this ideological rot is most visible on college campuses, where some students (and a few faculty) hate America and Israel so much they have actually rallied in support of Hamas and attempted to justify its atrocities as somehow the liberation of the poor and oppressed. It’s a disgusting idea.
It’s high time Americans went beyond revulsion and defended their basic, liberal ideals and the constitutional democracy founded upon them. We don’t have to accept the mantle of “oppressors” because of events that happened long before we were born, for which we are not responsible, and from which we never profited. We don’t have to accept the damning slur that our success is due to “privilege” rather than hard work, time-tested values, and a good education. The greatest “privilege” is not inherited wealth or status. It is being raised in a stable home by loving parents, living in an orderly community, and growing up in a country where each of us is free to pursue our own goals and define ourselves as we choose.
We can and should recognize America’s flaws – and work toward correcting them – without falsely painting our nation’s past as primarily a legacy of slavery and stolen wealth (the “1619” project and its twin, “decolonization” studies).
America is a great nation, for all its flaws.
Its greatness lay in the experiment of 1776 and establishment of a democracy that has endured and slowly incorporated all its people into the body politic.
The values that undergird that democracy are worth remembering, worth cherishing, and worth fighting to keep, even as a vile coalition celebrates those who kidnap and murder in the perverted name of religion. That’s not “social justice.” That’s an age-old crime.