The regressive left is a political epithet used to negatively characterize a section of leftists who are accused of holding politically regressive views (as opposed to progressive views) by tolerating illiberal principles and ideology for the sake of multiculturalism. The implications of the term are controversial and contested, and as such its recognition and adoption have been limited.
Within the specific context of multiculturalism, British liberal activist Maajid Nawaz used the term in 2012 in his memoir Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism to describe “well-meaning liberals and ideologically driven leftists” in Great Britain who naively and “ignorantly pandered to” Islamists and helped Islamist ideology to gain acceptance. In a 2015 video presentation on the Internet forum Big Think, Nawaz elaborated on the meaning of the term, saying that it describes “a section of the left” that has, in his opinion, “an inherent hesitation to challenge some of the bigotry that can occur within minority communities […] for the sake of political correctness, for the sake of tolerating what they believe is other cultures and respecting different lifestyles”
Nawaz, who in 2007 renounced his previous association with the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, in favor of secular Islam, is the co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank based in London that seeks to challenge the narratives of Islamists.
Quilliam is a London-based think tank that focuses on “counter-extremism”, specifically against Islamism, which it argues represents a desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam on society. Quilliam stands for religious freedom, equality, human rights and democracy.
Nawaz has used “regressive left” to describe those left-leaning people who, in his opinion, pander to Islamism, which he defines as a “global totalitarian theo-political project” with a “desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society as law” and which he opposes on the ground that “any desire to impose any version of Islam over anyone anywhere, ever, is a fundamental violation of our basic civil liberties.” According to Nawaz, such sympathizers of Islamism include “atheists who are on the side of the Islamists, defending Islamism in the name of cultural tolerance.”
In an October 2015 interview with political talk show host Dave Rubin, Nawaz elucidated further the reasoning behind his choice of the word “regressive”. He hypothesized that a section of the leftists “genuinely believe” that they are fighting an “ideological war” against neoconservative and neocolonialist foreign policies of Western governments which promote state-organized violence and chaos in the form of wars and military invasions. On the contrary, when it comes to denouncing the randomized acts of violence of theocratic extremists such as Islamists, the same leftists forego their duty to criticize such acts of violence and prioritize focusing on the bigger evil of state-sponsored violence and war. Sometimes, they even “make alliances” with some of the most regressive, theocratic and murdering regimes and organizations. Nawaz labels these people regressive leftists. He then cites the example of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, who “has been historically very close” to supporters of Islamist organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah. In Nawaz’s opinion, it is possible to denounce both neoconservative foreign policies (such as the Iraq war, which he had opposed) and theocratic extremism, but the regressive leftists fail to do so.
According to Nawaz, the notion that Muslims cannot cope with criticism or mockery of Islam and only react violently, is “patronizing, self-pity inspiring mollycoddling” of the very Muslims it claims to serve and emancipate, because it does not expect them to be civil and control their anger. This “racism of low expectations” lowers the moral standards of people within minorities, seeking excuses if they happen to express, for example, misogyny, chauvinism, bigotry, or antisemitism, whilst holding members of the majority to universal liberal standards.
Haras Rafiq, managing director of Quilliam, expressed the view that there is a tendency of some on the left to excuse Islamism. “We have not got to grips with the symbiotic relationship between Islamism and far-right hatred, and the regressive left that is prepared to excuse Islamism.”
In 2006, six years before Nawaz used the term “regressive left” to convey a viewpoint within the dialog on multiculturalism, New Atheist author Sam Harris used the phrase “Head-in-the-sand Liberals” in an LA Times article to describe liberals who are in denial and “despite abundant evidence to the contrary”, “continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism”. He bemoaned that “being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren’t”.
In 2013, the One Law for All campaign issued a report, Siding with the Oppressor: The Pro-Islamist Left. According to The Independent, the report expressed concern at “working enthusiastically with those advocating the murder of homosexuals” and also with “religious fascists”. The Independent expressed the opinion that “In a disastrous irony, the pro-Islamist left has ended up in the same place as the white far-right. The perception of Muslims as synonymous with Islamism – criticism of Islamism is characterised as criticism of Muslims – is precisely the view taken by groups such as the EDL.” The Independent article concluded that political confirmation bias was responsible, driven by a “pathological anti-Americanism that is quite attractive to a certain type of degenerated progressive.” It also quoted Maryam Namazie, a spokesperson for several organisations including Iran Solidarity, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain as identifying several organisations who are, “there as prefects to silence dissenters and defend Islamism as a defence of ‘Muslims’.”
In September 2015, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz participated in an exchange at a public forum hosted by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which was later published in a short book, titled Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015). In a review of the book in the magazine National Review Online, political writer Brian Stewart notes that according to both Nawaz and Harris, the regressive leftists in the West are “willfully blind” to the fact that jihadists and Islamists make up a significant portion (20% in Harris’s estimate) of the global Muslim community and the minority Muslim communities within the West, even though these factions are opposed to liberal values such as individual autonomy, freedom of expression, democracy, women’s rights, gay rights, etc. Regressive leftists thus demonstrate a curiously illiberal, isolationist, and even censuring attitude towards any criticism of this phenomenon, and in doing so, they not only betray universal liberal values but also abandon defending the most vulnerable liberal members living inside the Muslim community such as women, homosexuals and apostates.
In October 2015, The Washington Post reported that American comedian and show host Bill Maher and British biologist and New Atheist author Richard Dawkins “lamented regressive leftists who fail to understand they are anything but liberal when it comes to Islam”. Maher noted a willingness to criticise anything except Islam, excusing it as “their culture”, to which Dawkins responded: “Well, to hell with their culture.” The Sunday Express characterized Dawkins as having “attacked western society’s relaxed attitude to radical Islam in an extraordinary outburst”. Making reference to student initiatives to disinvite ex-Muslim speakers on campus, Dawkins saw this as, “a betrayal of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s”.
In October and November 2015, Sam Harris frequently used the term in his exchanges with the media, saying the greatest danger is that regressive leftists are willing to give up free speech “out of fear of offending minorities”, which will lead to censorship imposed by those minorities, citing American journalist Glenn Greenwald’s comments on the Charlie Hebdo shootings as an example. Harris considers Reza Aslan and Noam Chomsky to be of the regressive left.
In November 2015, in an appearance on the talk radio show The Humanist Hour, author, philosopher and atheist activist Peter Boghossian defined the term as a pejorative used to describe those on the left that have made the “strangest bedfellows” with the Islamists. According to him, the word “regressive” is used to contrast with the word “progressive” – the latter being the group that is egalitarian and wants to create systems of justice and racial equality, while the former being a group that “[looks] for the worst in people… and [does] not extend hermeneutics of charity, or a charitable interpretation of anything anyone says, but uses it as a hammer to beat people down”. In addition, he believes the regressive leftists have become “hyper-moralists” and champions of their perceived victims. He cites the historical wrongdoings, such as slavery in the U.S. and colonialism as a legitimate concern that has caused mistrust of anything Western and capitalistic. He also added that “there are people who have suffered and still suffer legitimate instances of racism, homophobia etc. The problem is that every time the word racist is just thrown around like that, that word loses its meaning. And it should have quite a sting. That should be a horrible word”.
In December 2015, international relations researcher Elliot McArdle wrote in the online British magazine Spiked that some “so-called liberals/leftists” treat liberal Muslims like Nawaz and ex-Muslims like Namazie as “native informants”, “traitors” or “not real Muslims”, because such critics of Islam(ism), who have a Muslim background themselves, don’t fit the desired narrative of Muslims as a homogeneous and oppressed group.
In late 2015, liberal talk show host Dave Rubin hosted discussions about the “regressive left” in many of The Rubin Report show segments. He once said, “The reason I feel like naming them [the regressives] is so important, is because I now view these regressives as the left’s version of the Tea Party. The Tea Party went unchecked by the right until it was too late, and now the Republican Party is a fractured mess often only held together by its worst beliefs. I really believe these regressives are doing this to the left, and if we don’t have the courage to stop them, then a year or two from now, we’ll wonder why our system is screwed up even more than it is now.” In a series of interviews, Rubin analyzed this concept and its implications with Peter Boghossian, and with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, Nick Cohen and Douglas Murray.
In November 2015, psychiatrist Khwaja Khusro Tariq from Huffington Post classified the term as an unsubstantiated ad hominem attack, stating that the harshest critics of Islam are courted by both liberal and conservative media in the U.S. He also stated the term has been directed towards Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky, both of whom he said have never condoned violence or opined on the doctrine of Islam. He argued that there was no genuine inhibition on speaking against the religion.
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