‘Islamo-leftism’, or the spectre of the Muslim Left

The spectre of Islamogauchisme – or ‘Islamo-leftism’ – was evoked last month as the French government launched an inquiry targeting universities. Frederique Vidal, the Minister for Higher Education and Research, used the phrase when announcing a probe into the ‘influence’ of Islamo-leftism and postcolonialism in higher education, and again when defending it against the salvo of criticism it subsequently received. After a group of 600 university professors called for her resignation, Vidal insisted that – while Islamogauchisme may not have a ‘scientific definition’ – it corresponds to a wider ‘feeling’ in the general public.

The renewed popularity of the phrase reflects the Macron government’s conservative, right-wing turn ahead of the presidential elections. But its usage has been in currency for some time, and its purchase is symptomatic of the broadside by a political establishment intent on expanding an already entrenched and racist apparatus of policing and repression, especially as universities become focal points of activism and protest. To this extent, France’s situation is not dissimilar to that of other western countries where older currents of radical thinking are seen as responsible for a new and international wave of militant antiracism.

This articulation between intellectual and social movements is salient and has deep historical roots that resonate even in the vocabulary through which it is misrecognised by the rulers and beneficiaries of global Apartheid. Black Lives Matter has been the most exemplary in this regard, as the momentum of its recent resurgence carried the Black radical tradition into the cultural mainstream in many parts of the world, and with it the legacies and teachings of the abolitionist project.

By the end of 2020, after the world had witnessed the Black radical tradition ‘in motion’, there was even inspiration for a new edition of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. Embodying the spirit of the very anticolonial revolts that inspired its writing in the first place, the revival of the book and of its unequivocal call for the end of racial capitalism is welcome and urgently needed, to be sure. That this spirit seems now to animate so many movements working towards that very end is surely testament to the historical and transformative power of such traditions. Opening a corridor in time, they usher the past and the future to the rescue of the present.

What we now hear again in French political discourse are the echoes of a similar but perhaps less known and consolidated historical articulation. To many, ‘Islamo-leftism’ may seem like lazy rhetorical bricolage or an unfounded and surely non-sensical phantasm of a reactionary French imaginary – yet only if it is divorced from a wider set of histories, not least France’s imperial and colonial one. Indeed, to others the term may seem more clearly to be an invocation of the spectre of the Muslim Left. As it so happens, the haunts of this spectre range far beyond the ideologues of a new French fascism.

Seeking to ‘offer an opening of a political position’, a recent collection of works by activists and scholars entitled With Stones in Our Hands aptly describes the Muslim Left as ‘a radical history of critique and protest that imagines another world in line with struggles for social justice, decolonial liberation, and global solidarity’. In doing so, the authors attempt to differentiate this political position from that carved out by the politics of Islamophobia, which has been thoroughly exhausted of political possibility and annexed by ‘official antiracism’. A Muslim Left, by contrast, would count itself in the ranks of internationalist movements oriented to anti-imperialist, abolitionist and decolonial ends, and its praxis would lie squarely in solidarity and coalitional struggles, not just in epistemic and postcolonial critique. Accordingly, this collective insists on understanding the Muslim Left as a name that recuperates radical traditions and histories actively ignored and forgotten as a consequence of the War on Terror.

Fortunately, these histories and traditions are gradually resurfacing as scholars and historians breathe new life into the archives. Recent studies delve into the biographies, literary works, and political manifestos of thinkers and writers who were active during the heyday of third world internationalism and nonalignment, yet who also operated and worked at a critical distance from the states that would inherit and betray the vision of this era. Many of these thinkers are individually recognisable today, but what calls for our attention are the transnational collectives of which they were a part, and which were indispensable for the emergence of these traditions. Staunchly committed to anticolonial Marxism, these collectives sought to reimagine it by translating it – both linguistically and conceptually – into idioms that thoroughly radicalised it, including those of Islamic theology, eschatology, surrealism, and mysticism. Marxism, as Frantz Fanon insisted, was everywhere being ‘stretched’.

This revival can be seen in the work of the Lotus Project at the American University of Beirut, where researchers are documenting the legacies of the Afro-Asian Writer’s Association – a radical group inspired by the vision of Bandung and which thereafter disseminated its work in Lotus, a journal published in Arabic, English, and French. It can also be found in the recent works of individual scholars who challenge postcolonial and cultural critiques of third world Marxist intellectual movements as antiquated, reactionary, or derivative. Instead, their re-examination presents them as living traditions that in many ways anticipated the theoretical turns and currents which are now fashionable in the Western academe.

Fadi Bardawil’s Revolution and Disenchantment offers an intimate history of Arab Marxism narrated through the experiences and accounts of ‘organic intellectuals’ whose work acted as a crossroads for an eclectic procession of epistemes, from continental philosophy, to Maoism, to Islamic philosophy. Neetu Khanna’s scintillating exegesis of the literature left behind by the Progressive Writers’ Association, which was active even before Bandung, sheds light on a visionary intellectual project that saw the revolutionary potential of the colonized body long before this notion was conceptually formalised by psychoanalysis and affect theory. Complementing the work of their contemporary, Fanon, the writings of these South Asian Muslim writers also carved a different path, their ‘somato-poetics’ offering a speculative reinterpretation of Marxist conceptions of historical change and transformation that locate these possibilities in visceral and corporeal logics rather than abstract laws and determinations.

The visionary politics imagined and practiced by these intellectual movements were made possible by the revolutionary currents that surged all around them and in which they were immersed. Likewise, their recession into the historical background is a consequence of the counterrevolutions of Empire and neoliberalism, rather than of internal contradictions in their logic.

That Islam and the left might today be seen by many as antithetical or contradictory is contingent on the fact that, in many places, a) the radical movements in which they were necessarily allied were progressively decimated; and b) the movements that embodied their reactionary elements were actively encouraged, organised, and of course armed and resourced either to take power or to wreak havoc. As a result, it often seems that the choices this history leaves us with are either unbridled neoliberalism, romantic anticapitalism, an antiquated and cynical anti-imperialism, or a grim combination of these.

Giving up on the histories and traditions of the Muslim Left is therefore an understandable response. Yet there is promise in their recuperation, not only because it is already underway but because the conditions of today urgently call for it.

Significantly, Robin Kelley insistently reminds us that one of Robinson’s correctives to our common understanding of revolutionary consciousness is that Black Marxism is not a consequence of the conditions of capitalism but anterior to its metaphysics and forms of thought. The cause of revolt for enslaved and unfree labourers does not necessarily lie in modes and relations of human labor but is rooted in the expansive and dehumanist cosmologies they embodied, even in their displacement and deracination. In a similar sense, the compounded and escalating catastrophes of today require the visionary and speculative political imaginaries that can transform and displace the ‘secular’, humanist and anthropocentric metaphysics of the contemporary left.

Rather than ‘recuperation’, then, a better term for the current reemergence of the Muslim Left is ‘recall’, as in Bruno Latour’s conception of that which is at once remembered and repaired. It is clear that recalling these traditions is in order if only and at the very least because the purveyors of ‘Islamo-leftism’ are also undertaking this process for their own nefarious ends. The more uncertain yet no less urgent question is whether or not these traditions and histories can once again be put into motion.


Image: Damir Nikšić, from the Imams of Socialism series

Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer, researcher, and educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. He is primarily interested in critical theories of race, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism.

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