Why 'Islamo-Leftism' is just another conspiracy theory
By Saladdin Ahmed
March 5, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Islamo-leftism is one of the latest rhetorical inventions of the Right propagandists in France and the United States. This term is just another device to obscure reality by classifying the perceived enemies of White nationalism under one term. Equating political Islam and leftism can only be a sign of: 1) genuine political and historical ignorance, or 2) racism.
To unpack this, let us analyze the terminology and look at a few historical facts. Let us also be charitable in our interpretation and assume that those who adhere to the term “Islamo-leftism” do not mean to implicate “Islam” as such simply, because that would be absurd given that “Islam” refers to a religion with thousands of variations and hundreds of millions of believers, just like Christianity.
Needless to say, even in that case, religiosity, whether Islamic or Christian, falls under conservatism, not leftism. Even “Liberation Theology” inevitably falls short of maintaining a leftist position unless it becomes “Liberation from Theology.” Marx’s assertion that “even a critical theologian remains a theologian” may sound like stating the obvious (1994, 57), but it is precisely the statement that makes the problem obvious. If this reasoning is not convincing enough, the Iranian regime is a living example of “Liberation Theology.” In its first year of rule, the regime massacred thousands of leftist academics, Communists, Kurds, Bahais, and Balochis, as a part of a long list of its religious campaigns, which have never stopped since (see Amnesty International 2017).
What about Christian “Liberation Theology” or “Black Theology”? To answer this and grab the issue from its roots, we may ask a different kind of question: Would there be any need to speak of “liberation theologies” had these theologies themselves not been at the heart of colonial campaigns of genocide and enslavement? It is as if worshiping the same God as that of the colonizers has spared Native Americans or Africans from the fate of genocide and impoverishment. No, submitting to the imperial religion in fact crowned the process of subjugation whether in the case of Islamic or Christian imperialism. Spirituality is a nice term for turning one’s attention away from what matters and to focus on a presumed realm of absolute truth and metaphysical justice, thereby surrendering the body to endless chains, the iron sounds of which create the perfect mass space of sadomasochism. Theology has always claimed liberation. How else could it make people call murder sacrifice, genocide holy war, and submission virtue? How else could total domination be internalized on the account of it being total freedom?
Thus, if those who use the term are not so ridiculously oblivious to implicate “Islam” as such, by the “Islam” part of the term “Islamo-leftism,” they must mean what is known as political Islam, jihadism, Islamic fundamentalism, or (hereafter) “Islamism”. However, even with this charitable interpretation of the term “Islamo-leftism,” i.e., assuming that it is meant to associate Islamism and leftism, the far-right intelligentsia’s adoption of the term is indicative of their ignorance and disturbing racist mindset. Islamism is an ultra-right ideology, through and through, socially, politically, historically, and geopolitically. If “right-leftism” made any sense, then “Islamo-leftism” would make sense too. Perhaps there is such a thing as “right-leftism” as a form of self-contradicting ideocracy, but in that case, such an orientation, despite appearances, belongs to the same camp of White-racism, which means the right intelligentsia in the West should consider so-called “Islamo-leftists” as their fellow ideological travelers because of their shared racist modes of perception, as I will explain further below.
To show the pseudo-rationality of the term, it is sufficient to simply recall two basic facts with regard to the relationship between Islamism and leftism. First, Islamism is inherently, universally, and fanatically anti-leftist. A mere elementary level of historical awareness of social movements in the past 100 years or so is enough for anyone to comprehend that leftists have been Islamism’s most uncompromising traditional enemy. Whether we look at the contemporary history of Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey or wherever else Islamists in one way or another triumphed, or we compare the two sides’ respective discourses, the diametrical opposition between Islamism and leftism could not be more evident. Communists have been at the frontline against Islamist movements. In fact, only after the brutal eradication of Communism as a popular social movement did Islamism gain a global sphere of influence. It barely needs to be mentioned that the bloody eradication of Communists was committed by a wide anti-leftist coalition that included local nationalists, Western colonial powers, and Islamists, which brings us to the second point.
The second basic fact of which the right in the West needs to be reminded is that Western governments and politicians, including some of the right’s own celebrated heroes, share a major part of the blame for the rise of Islamism. All one needs to do is to check United States Congress resolutions from the 1980s to find out that jihadis from various backgrounds were openly and proudly supported with positive propaganda, logistics, funds, and weapons in their fight against the Communists in Afghanistan, not to mention the wide scale of US and British discreet support for anti-Communist Islamist and nationalist military juntas throughout the second half of the 20th century.
Can the discursive act of grouping leftists with Islamists be a sign of anything other than obliviousness? Well, again, following the principle of charitability, we should consider the fact that the term “Islamo-leftism” is mostly used in the European and US contexts. Therefore, giving the rightists the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it is only fair to assume that by “Islamo-leftists” they intend to refer to Western intellectuals who support Islamism as some sort of anti-imperialism. Indeed, that is an existing phenomenon with which the left is cursed and, thus, deserves to be addressed from a leftist angle. A well-known example of a post-Marxist intellectual who is counted on the left and, at the same time, is sympathetic to Islamism is Judith Butler. While I personally like to consider intellectuals like Jodi Dean, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and Franco Berardi, as the representatives of the left in the West because they, unapologetically, have stayed faithful to the inclusive/universalist core of Communism, we have to admit that post-Marxist culturalist “leftists” are not marginal in Western universities.
Given the post-Marxist liberal leftists’ flirtations with Islamism, one might think rightists are justified on some level to use the term “Islamo-leftism,” but in this case, they would still be guilty of racism simply because they: 1) cannot differentiate between “Islamist” and “Muslim”, and 2) take the Muslim identity as a racial identity.
This mentality is incapable of imagining a non-White society that is not homogeneous. It is a mentality that defines all non-Whites anthropologically through the paradigm of culture and mythology. Unsurprisingly, such a mentality cannot imagine that the politics of right and left also exist in a so-called Muslim society because it perceives all the members of such a society through the supposed cultural/religious identity. Therefore, according to the White-culturalist mentality, even if some sort of leftism exists in such a society, it can only be Islamic leftism. Universalism is reserved for the White European. The non-White’s world is assumed to be inherently local, tribal, sectarian, and culturally predetermined. Even in the proclaimed multiculturalist age, to this mentality, the White stands above and beyond the anthropological notion of culture playing the role of the all-loving lord while the non-Whites are expected to be grateful for this infinite semi-divine kindness.
By the same token, while feminism in the West has to be described by its epistemologies, theories, doctrines, and waves, if “feminism” could exist in the Middle East and North Africa, it cannot be but Islamic. This mentality, whether it claims to be anti-Eurocentrist or not, whether it is sympathetic to the perceived Other or not, whether it is for or against multiculturalism, whether its rhetoric comes across as cultural humility or supremacist mythology, is racist for the simple reason that it perceives the world through the lenses of “race” and “culture,” both of which are Eurocentric, mythic inventions devised to create a metaphysical distance between White and non-White. It is a racist mentality because it presumes that only Whites could have developed a complex politics of left and right, secular and liberal, progressive and conservative, etc. Regardless of good and bad intentions, the premises that stem from culturalism indicate the dominance of a racist episteme.
Given that Western post-Marxist leftists and the anti-Marxist right share this culturalist mentality, they should not be so hard on each other. After all, ideologically they are more similar than they think they are, and their differences are merely evaluative. Granted one side may see the non-White as an object of pity deserving kindness or an aesthetic element of diversification of the natural colors of the world while the opposite side may see the non-White as an object of scorn and permanent threat or a continental if not planetary agent of contamination, epistemically both parties are plunged in racism. Self-proclaimed leftists who abide by the culturalist ethos commit racism as a matter of course. Therefore, no matter how many “ethnic dishes” they like or how “culturally diverse” their social relations might be, they effectively partake in the reproduction of a retroactive world. Leftism is not a matter of intentions or moral sentiments; rather, it is first and foremost the struggle of breaking free from the dominant modes of perception and thereby operating against the ethos where the premises and paradigms of domination are normalized. In this sense, perception, cognition, utterance, and political action together provide the unity of revolutionary praxis.
However we look at “Islamo-leftism,” it is nothing but an intellectual scandal. It would be nice if adherents of the term had the ability to be embarrassed, but alas how could the representatives of “civilization” be anything but confident not only in their racial pride, but also in the taxonomic expertise that allows them to mix all kinds of terminologies and create ever more marketable systems of classification for pseudo-intellectual bureaucrats and politicians?
I have taken the “Islam/o” part of the term “Islamo-leftism” to mean political Islam or Islamism. Nonetheless, regardless of the intentions of the term’s adherents, the choice of word is not free of immediate ideological implications, so we should not completely ignore the inherent ambiguity. Essentializing those who are perceived as Muslim by totalizing a perceived homogeneous religious identity on them is itself an act of “de-specification,” to borrow Domenico Losurdo’s concept (2015, 55). De-specification is an act of Othering a group of people through the use of discursive devices that essentially dehumanize them. For instance, repeated attribution of certain collective behavior to the targeted population is done in order to de-specify them. De-specification is at the core of a process of justifying forms of treatment that are otherwise unjustifiable, at least in terms of human-to-human treatment. Once the Other’s image is established as fundamentally different from us, the stage is ready for their full dehumanization. We should also keep in mind that “us” remains to be the signifier that normatively designates the species of humans in the most neutral sense, in the sense of the universality of reason, morality, and the beautiful. Therefore, the out-group’s dissimilarity with the in-group amounts to falling off the class of humanity insofar as the full membership in the species is measured by the degree of resemblance with the civilized, with “us”.
The act of de-specification is often committed in preparation for justifying the use of violence against the Other. This is a typical fascist procedure. Old-fashion fascists liken the Other with insects, animals, viruses, etc. to create a popular climate of opinion in which ordinary people of the in-group would demand a heavier hand on the excluded, marginalized, Other. The antagonized masses may very well even take matters into their own hands via the mobilization of armed militia who would organize insurrections and assassinations. At a certain stage, the accumulated hatred against the de-specified Other could easily be utilized by fascist agitators to instigate mobs to commit spontaneous acts of lynching, pogrom, stoning, etc. However, it is crucial to keep in mind that de-specification can only be launched by elites who control the means of opinion making.
The rightist intellectuals and governments are not going after Islamism. How many Western academics have boycotted Turkish universities in protest of the vast Islamification campaign of Turkish universities? In terms of international politics, how many Western governments have cut ties with Erdogan’s regime, given that it is the most powerful pole of Islamism in today’s world? In fact, NATO’s second largest standing army, under Erdogan’s leadership, is directly involved in supporting jihadist groups from Libya to Syria, not to mention its bloody campaigns against the left in Kurdistan.
To expose the propagandist tactic devised in the term “Islamo-leftism” as part of a much broader campaign, we need to go further back into the history of fascism. Historians of fascism are familiar with terminologies such as “Jewish Bolshevism,” “cosmopolitan Jews,” and similar right-wing linguistic devices that were at the heart of the anti-Semitic campaigns throughout the first half of the 20th century. Reactionary writers and politicians associating Jewry and leftist international conspiracies and revolutions has a long history (see for instance Hobsbawm 1995, 119-120; Traverso 2016, chapters 1,2, and 8). It is well known that the Nazis regularly depicted Communism as an international Jewish conspiracy. For example, in 1935, in the Nazi Party’s congress, Joseph Goebbels proudly delivered a speech advancing such an anti-Semitic and anti-Communist conspiracy theory, and he was thrilled to see that Adolf Hitler was “genuinely enthused” (1935).
Of course, fascists did not create anti-Semitic conspiracy theories from scratch; rather, as in many other issues related to policies of genocide, they borrowed a page from the more experienced colonial powers. As Losurdo writes, “the initial head of the crusade against the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy was Henry Ford, the American automobile magnate” (2015, 178). At the beginning of the first decade of the rise of fascism in Europe, the 1920s, Ford’s publishing company published an anti-Semitic booklet titled, The International Jew, in four volumes. The Ford International Weekly, on the first page of its May 22, 1920 issue, published an article under the headline of “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” 
Looking back, we could see how plain the rationale of the hate campaign was. Namely, it associated the ideological enemy, Marxism, with the race enemy, in this case Jews, to turn individual human beings of flesh and blood into legitimate targets of discrimination and violence. Of course, there are many differences between the nuances of anti-Semitism and those of other forms of racist campaigns, but the overlap is the association of the Othered with “leftism” to impose homogeneity more forcefully in the production of both social space and knowledge.
The image of the in-group is packaged and sold as the rational, free, democratic, tolerant, and even universal, whereas the excluded is presented as a threat to all that constitutes “our way of life,” which is simply the culturalist alternative expression for racial purity, with the exact same phobias and anxieties common among old fashion fascist groups who use terminologies of biological racism.
The irony is that racists, sectarians, extremists, and nationalists attribute what is characteristic of themselves to leftists, many of whom, or at least the Marxists among them, are deemed a threat on the existing relations of domination precisely for their doctrines of cosmopolitan equality. At the end of the day, despite their fantastic images of themselves and psychological means of projection, denial, and defense, the Right in the West, including White-supremacists, are extremely similar to Islamists in terms of their hierarchical views of the world and xenophobia. They are similar not only in their anti-leftist violent tendencies but also in the propaganda tactics they deploy against leftists.
Pairing Communism with fascism, especially since 1951 when Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism (1979), is a well-known trick to undermine the legitimacy of Communism through its alleged shared features with fascism (Hobsbawm 1995, 393). Communists were fascism’s number one enemy across Europe from Italy, Spain and Germany to Yugoslavia, Romania and Ukraine. As soon as fascism lost the war and its political power, it also lost its attraction to many in the academy and intelligentsia. Furthermore, it became a useful term for criminalizing Communism. However, simply associating fascism with its arch enemy, Communism, would have been laughable. Therefore, a third concept was needed to be deployed as mediator; and “totalitarianism” was quickly turned into that gluing agent. Thus, somehow, Communism along with fascism became the other of capitalist liberalism in the post-WWII ethos.
There is an existing example of this criminalization-via-pairing tactic at work, and it is more directly similar to the French invention of “Islamo-leftism.” The example to which I want to draw attention is the Erdogan regime’s habitual pairing of the leftist, pro-democracy, pro-Kurdish-rights, feminist, liberation movement represented by several political parties in Turkey and Syria, such as Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Democratic Union Party (PYD), with ISIS. In addition to the obvious and complete ideological opposition between this leftist movement on one side and Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood to ISIS on the other side, there is a bloody ongoing existential conflict between the two camps. As if that is not enough to show the shamelessness with which Erdogan lies to the world, he has been actively supporting Islamists across the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, today Erdogan’s regime is by far more influential than the Iranian regime in terms of Islamist mobilization, populism, and reactionary radicalization. “Islamo-leftism” is thus just the latest propagandist tool that is put forward by those whose mindset, worldviews, and policies are exemplary of exclusionism and extremism.
In closing, to Asian and African leftists, whether from Javanese or Bengali, Punjabi or Pushto, Kazakh or Persian, Baluchi or Kurdish, Turkish or Arab, Darfurian or Nubians, Nigerian or Amazigh, or any other background, who are part of everyday struggles from the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia to the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, from Mesopotamia to central and west Africa, the term “Islamo-leftism” would sound laughable.
 The depiction of Communism as a Jewish international conspiracy is typical of many Islamist ideologues (for instance, see Azzam 1980). In fact, Iraqi communists were accused by Islamists (and nationalists) of being part of such an international conspiracy (for instance, see Janahi 2010).
 Well after the World War II anti-Semitic and anti-Communist rhetoric continued. For instance, Frank Britton, a US nationalist, published a book insisting on the anti-Semitic and anti-Communist conspiracy theory (2012). Journal of Historical Review, which was published between 1980 and 2012, is an example of platforms that perpetuated that rhetoric. More broadly, leftist exile intellectuals who had escaped Nazi Germany to the US were systematically subjected to hate speech. For instance, the members of the Frankfurt School were typically accused of aiming to corrupt the US society through utilizing their project of cultural Marxism. American Free Press is an ongoing platform that is still obsessed with “cultural Bolshevism”, “red plagues” and so on.
 For more on this, see the first chapter of my book Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura (2019).
Ahmed, Saladdin. 2019. Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Amnesty International. Blood-Soaked Secrets. 2017. London: Amnesty International Ltd. https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE1394212018ENGLISH.PDF
Also in Persian: https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/MDE1394212018PERSIAN.PDF
Arendt, Hannah. 1979. The Origins of Totalitarianism, new ed. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace & Company.
Britton, Frank L. 2012. Behind Communism. London: Ostara Publications.
Goebbels, Joseph. 1935. “Communism with the Masks Off.” Calvin University’s German Propaganda Archive: https://research.calvin.edu/german-propaganda-archive/goeb58.htm
Hobsbawm, Eric. 1994. The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991. New York: Vintage Books.
Losurdo, Domenico. 2015. War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century. London: Verso.
Marx, Karl. 1994. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Edited by Lawrence H. Simon. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
The Ford International Weekly. 1920. “The International Jew: The World’s Problem.” May 22. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/34/19200522_Dearborn_Independent-Intl_Jew.jpg
Traverso, Enzo. 2016. Fire and Blood: The European Civil War, 1914-1945. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Verso. Apple Books.
Azzam, Abdullah Yusuf. 1980. Al-Saratan Alahmar [The Red Cancer]. 1980. Amman: Maktabat al-Aqsa, 1980.
Janahi, Mahmud Hassan. 2010. “Alsila bayn Alarab wa Alshuiaiya – Haqaiq wa Arqam” [The Connection between Jews and Communism: Facts and Numbers.] Maqalati: Hassan Mahmud Janahi, August 19: http://maqalati.com/56.htm