How right is the Left in the Islamic world?

How right is the Left in the Islamic world?
Comment: The Islamic Left may have ended up more Islamic and less leftist, but intellectuals' leftist utopia has long been abandoned even in the West, writes Muhammed Nafih Wafy.
6 min read
24 May, 2018
Palestinian intellectual Salameh Kaileh suggests it's high time Marxism worked out some solutions [AFP]
Palestinian-Syrian intellectual and activist Salameh Kaileh is a leading exponent of leftist ideologies in the Arab world.

His magnum opus, The problems of Marxism in the Arab world, employs the metaphor of "stale bread" to describe the resurgence of religious fanaticism and regressive ideologies across the world - especially in the Arab world, where he confesses that leftism has ground to an inevitable, albeit self-inflicted, halt.

Kaileh compares the revival of religiosity filling the politico-ideological void Left by the withdrawal in the early 1990s of socialism (and other so-called progressive ideologies which proved to be intellectually hamstrung and morally bankrupt) with a starving man gulping loaves of stale bread, with scant regard for its consequences on his longer-term health.

He traces the current spasm of religious extremism and sectarian violence that afflicted the body of Arab culture to consuming too much of these stale, rotten thoughts.   

However, Kaileh takes a complete change of tack, weaning himself away from his avowed hardcore Marxist stance in his new book, Aborted Renaissance, in which he warns against looking at social realities from an ideologically prejudiced perspective, and calls for a detached and unbiased view of the political realities in the Arab world.

The failure to keep pace with time  

In a recent interview given to the London-based Al Jadeed Magazine, Kaileh clears himself of any past ideologies that have failed to address current political realities and social issues in the Arab world.

However, he leans towards a neo-Marxist approach, emphasising the need for a broader ideological framework, catering to the changing requirements and capable of addressing the challenges posed by capitalism - which has evolved and developed new forms of exploitation and dehumanisation.

"When I say the Left is dead, I mean it. The Left no longer owns a pragmatic vision," he says.  

Read more: Joseph Samaha's reflections on nationalism, the left and Islam

He suggest that it's high time Marxism worked out solutions, based on its understanding of society's problems, to help build a progressive society moving towards socialism.   

He repudiates popular Marxism, calling it out of sync with present day realities. The old leftist parties, still stuck in their hackneyed, worn-out ways, have failed to attract young people, who have developed their own methods of revolution and resistance - as seen in the Arab Spring.

However, he believes democracy cannot bring progress in a society dominated by undemocratic social customs. 

The old leftist parties, still stuck in their hackneyed, worn-out ways, have failed to attract young people

Can secularism be called a European phenomenon? Kaileh says no. He maintains that although each country will develop its own indigenous interpretations and pragmatic approaches, ideological thoughts are universal in nature and independent of geographical origin; and therefore cannot be associated with any particular culture or civilisation.

When Europeans embraced the thought of Ibn Rushd they did not say that it was exclusive to Arab culture. Likewise, we cannot say secularism is something exclusive to Europe.

Towards the end of Abbasid rule, there had been heated exchanges between those who argued for the supremacy of revealed knowledge and Islamic tradition on one hand, and those who preferred philosophers to any form of religious knowledge. The former, led by Imam Ghazzali, prevailed over the latter, replacing philosophy with spirituality.  

Supporters of the Lebanese Communist Party take part in a march
celebrating International Labour Day in the Lebanese capital Beirut,
1 May, 2018 [AFP]

However, Ghazzali was later challenged by Ibnu Rushd who sought to reinstate philosophy on the throne.

Actually it was Ibnu Rushd's school of thought that served as the precursor of secularists' ideas in the Arabic world. And Ibnu Rushd's ideas also sparked philosophical movements in several European countries.

The conundrum of the Islamic Left

However, Kaileh contradicts himself while talking about "the Islamic Left", a euphemism to describe the hybrid of political Islam and leftist ideologies prevalent since the late 1960s. He says the Islamic Left has few options, since it lacks serious ideological moorings.  

Islam as an ideology has a definite social mission defined by the Quran, which is contrary to that of the Left, he maintains.

According to Kaileh, political Islam managed to fill the vacuum created by the absence of the Left. But, on the other hand, some factions of the Left played a vital role in promoting political Islam as an alternative. Society's conservatives also favoured political Islam to leftism as the lesser of two evils - left-wing ideals call for revolution, while political Islamists contented themselves with a semblance of revival or reformation.      

He argues that the limitation of the Islamic Left has been that it came out of a pragmatic approach rather than being built upon a sound ideological footing. He believes the Islamic Left ended up a failure because it suffered from an acute lack of ideological reconciliation between Islam and the Left.

He believes the Islamic Left ended up a failure because it suffered from an acute lack of ideological reconciliation between Islam and the Left

Unlike communism, Islam is not only an ideology but also a social project based on the fundamentals of revealed knowledge, the Quran, and an age-old tradition which is again subject to revelation. And since it was an experiment of the late 1960s, essentially a knee-jerk reaction to the aftermath of the 1967 Israeli invasion of Arab lands, it ended up as an Arab Islamic movement with a leftist leaning, rather than an independent leftist tendency of its own accord.

The populist Left in the Arab world can be traced back to the 1940s, when Baath party - initially led by communists - came into being. But there were differences of opinion between them and the Lebanese Communist party on two counts: the idea of Arab unity and the relationship with colonialism.

This ideological rift led into the formation of a new school of thought which was ideologically communist, but had pan-Arabism as the core of its policies and priorities.    

Kaileh says secularism is yet to take root in the Arab world because of the region's strong cultural affinity with Islam. He further contends that religious discourses existing in the region have not changed much since the Abbasid time. 

Kaileh fails to admit the universal failure of Marxist ideologies to keep pace with time

"There are only atheists in the Arab world; there are no secularists," he contends. "Unfortunately, the number of people embracing secularism in its true form is very limited."

The differences of opinion between a believer and an atheist revolve around whether or not there is a God, and all their discourses boil down to this apolitical, and purely religious question. But it's not religion, per se, but a host of socio-political issues which led to the spread of political Islam in the region.  

Kaileh refuses to consider "terrorism" as a purely Islamic phenomenon - saying that Islam has been present in the region for centuries when there was no threat to pluralism. He adds that terrorism needs to be addressed and tackled as a sociological issue, rather than a religious proble.

However, while emphasising the need for the region to come out of its cocoon of political Islam in order to emerge purely leftist, Kaileh fails to admit the universal failure of Marxist ideologies to keep pace with time - or to address the fact that the utopia of undiluted, pure leftism he advocates has long since left the scene in many parts of the world where Islam was never in the picture as a political ideology.

Muhammed Nafih Wafy is a journalist and writer currently based in Muscat. He is the author of 'The book of aphorisms: Being a translation of Kitab al-Hikam'.

Follow him on twitter: @nafihwafy

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.