On Islamist Terror and the Left

Glenn Greenwald speaks to and rebuts a rhetorical move that’s become common across the political spectrum: when it’s pointed out that US and European foreign policy makes some contribution toward radicalizing Muslim populations, including the turn to terrorism, the response is that anyone who makes such a claim is: a) denying the agency and autonomy of terrorists; b) overlooking the role of religion as an independent variable, which some want to see as completely unrelated to any other variable. You see this response increasingly among certain parts of the left, and Glenn shows why it’s wrong.

I would add two points to Glenn’s analysis.

First, with regard to the agency/autonomy claim, it surprises me that leftists would repeat an argument that conservatives pioneered in their assault on liberal and left approaches to crime in the 1970s. Whenever the left tried to see crime as a symptom in part of social and material conditions, the right accused the left of engaging in excuse-making and a denial of individual responsibility. It was a simplistic, though lethally effective, political move, which has now, in the context of the debate over Islamist terrorism, migrated across the political spectrum.

Come to think of it, that move today re agency and autonomy also reprises what a lot of liberals did in their attacks on the French and Russian Revolutions in the 1970s and 1980s. Against anyone who tried to see the Terror or Bolshevik violence as in some measure a response to material realities (the persistence of the old regime, the threat of counterrevolution and foreign invasion, etc.), it was claimed that such a view eclipsed the role of revolutionary agency and ideology. Yet in making that argument, liberals threatened to separate entirely revolutionary agency and ideology from the realities of political and economic life, as I argued in this piece I did for the Boston Review on Arno Mayer’s study of terror in the French and Russian revolutions.

The two analogies here are admittedly imperfect because some leftists today do want to see religious fundamentalism and terrorism as a response to real conditions, only theirs is a particular account of what those conditions are: not the power politics of US or European imperialism but instead the secular changes of capitalist modernity, which threaten established identities and familiar social ties, creating an enervating anxiety and anomie. Here these leftists reprise an old psycho-social argument of 19th and 20th century social thought, which I analyzed in my first book on fear, and which, ironically, was historically used by liberals against the left (just read Arthur Schlesinger or Talcott Parsons). Which brings me to my second point.

Second, with regard to the religion argument, I can’t help but feel that some of the left are using the Islam/terrorism nexus as a way of conducting their own campaign, rooted in the domestic politics of the West, against a) what they see as a softening on the religion and identity question among the left; and b) what they see as certain moralistic/puritanical, quasi-religious, tendencies on the left. It seems like leftists should just have that debate—about the role of religion in politics, about the sources of religious belief and identity, about the proper role of morality, etc.—out in the open, and not try to conscript areas and peoples of the world that it knows little about in order to conduct a thinly veiled battle against their opponents.


  1. ronp January 9, 2016 at 4:23 pm | #

    With science in ascendancy for 500+ years it seems religion will slowly continue to fade in the developed economies. We are genetically predisposed toward cooperative beliefs (I think) so something needs to fill the gap. Hopefully something less divisive and destructive to humanity as religion. Meditation? Nature worship?

    But people should be explicit if what they want to promote is the speeding up a natural (due to the discovery of science) process of removing religion from humanity as method of reducing conflict.

    • xenon2 January 9, 2016 at 7:25 pm | #

      This is not a religion vs. science matter.
      This is power-grab for resources and bases.

    • Brown January 9, 2016 at 7:36 pm | #

      Glad you noted cooperative beliefs. A lot of elements make up ‘religion’ and science replaces a few. The scientific method is very good at minimizing human shortcomings. But there is also a need for leadership in maintaining social/cultural quality of life. Science and ‘the free market’ don’t always do good in this area. A leader that recognizes the value both elements could do a lot of good in stabilizing the current situation. A lot of people assume (arrogantly?) that because the US is very wise economically and scientifically, it must also be very wise socially, culturally.

    • John Salmond January 9, 2016 at 8:48 pm | #

      science will not kill religion, but as time goes on reinforce its role; science is increasingly refuting its claim to offer an alternative explanation of anything deeply important to humans

  2. Neil Kitson January 9, 2016 at 5:44 pm | #

    I think I agree, but the words seem like those used by white people who have never been bombed. Bombing tends to piss people off, I understand. Blowing their families to pieces with bombing can move people beyond pissed off into angry people with nothing to lose. The US and NATO have done a lot of bombing of Muslim countries in the last decade or so. As a Vietnam vet said once: “You got a man willing to die for a cause, that’s a dangerous man; you got a lot of men willing to die for a cause, you got a problem.” There are now a lot of dangerous people out there as one result of crass, ignorant, and criminal violence conducted by the ancestors of Christian Crusaders. In that way at least, Islam is irrelevant.

  3. louisproyect January 9, 2016 at 6:19 pm | #

    Corey, I don’t know if this is exactly what you are driving at but I find most of the garbage on CounterPunch about Islamists to be indistinguishable from what Christopher Hitchens was writing a decade ago, the only difference was him cheering on the yanks and people like Patrick Cockburn now rooting for the russkies.

    • jonnybutter January 9, 2016 at 10:37 pm | #

      This is what I see too in some quarters – and not just rooting/apology for Russia but the bizarre (to me), bitter defense of Assad. I can’t think of any worse plausible proxies to have than Assad and Putin (are they even all that plausible?!). It’s Corey’s aforementioned lesser-evilism in full stinky bloom.

      • Daniel January 10, 2016 at 8:04 am | #

        Without your list of atrocities since 9 August 1999 irrefutably linked to Putin, we cannot proceed along this line of reasoning. I find very little.
        In fact I am convinced, as I told my own brother, Putin is working to prevent world war against maniacal fools with their hands on the levers of control all across the West.

    • Roquentin January 11, 2016 at 1:20 pm | #

      Whatever else you want to say about the Russians in Syria and Assad, at least it’s a coherent plan. They’re supporting their historical ally and attempting to prop up the former government. While I have little good to say about the Assad regime…at least it’s something. The US plan stops about 30 seconds after Assad is deposed. Just like Iraq, just like Libya, just like fill in the blank. You’d think we’d have gotten the message after taking out Saddam. You can’t just kill a dictator, no matter how vicious, and just expect everything to be sunshine and roses afterwards. There’s that old adage about insanity being “trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Who do you think is going to fill the power vacuum in Syria with Assad gone? Just what do you think ISIS will do with the Alawites and Christians if given the slightest chance?

      We like to tell ourselves simplistic stories about good vs evil because it’s easier than dealing with the ugly, complex realities of geopolitics.

      • jonnybutter January 12, 2016 at 8:21 am | #

        Whatever else you want to say about the Russians in Syria and Assad, at least it’s a coherent plan.

        But we’re talking about rhetorical moves and/or ideological commitments here, not practical politics. I have seen certain types of leftist/(new?)atheists (on social media) take the sort of tack louisproyect is talking about – insisting that the starvation in Madaya is faked, etc. It is so strident and stalinist and weird. You don’t have to support either side to see how weird this is.

        BTW, I wouldn’t call what the Russians are doing in Syria a ‘coherent plan’.

        • Roquentin January 12, 2016 at 10:25 am | #

          I really haven’t followed what you are describing on social media, so I don’t have any frame of reference. I don’t have much patience for or interest in new atheism, even if I consider myself an atheist. I agree wholeheartedly that a strongly reactionary political outlook often emanates from that sector, sometimes sinking so low to dress up old fashioned bigotry as “rationalism.” I don’t want my arguments to in any way be seen as lending credence to that crowd.

          As for Russia, the plan is a hell of a lot more coherent than ours. Supporting “moderate” Salafist militias, a distinction that on all accounts appears tenuous under the best circumstances. While it’s easy to count up the bodies that result from a particular leader and a regime, those which arise from a power vacuum and instability are often harder to count. There are far worse things that could happen to Syria than Assad staying in power. We’d do well to remember that.

          • jonnybutter January 12, 2016 at 10:51 am | #

            Whether there are things ‘far worse’ than Assad being reinstated is beside the point. First, the idea is clearly unworkable after all these years of civil war – a war Assad forced in the most idiotic and brutal way in the first place. I can (and do) have zero sympathy for any salafists as such, and yet can still see that government forces have been particularly barbaric, and have killed vastly more people than ISIS or anybody else. Assad’s father famously leveled and paved over Hama; his idiot son has destroyed much of the whole country. Do we want Syria to be partitioned? Assad can be king of Damascus? Yeah, really coherent policy.

            I can also see that US policy has been and continues to be hilario-tragically incoherent in recent years without my having somehow to be ‘for’ the Russian ‘plan’, which is only theoretically less feckless, and just as arrogant+ imperial.

            I know what you’re saying R – US policy doesn’t even make superficial sense. I agree. Russia’s policy makes only superficial sense. It’s not better.

          • Roquentin January 12, 2016 at 3:30 pm | #

            I guess that’s the extent of our disagreement. I see keeping Assad in power as marginally better than removing him, at least given the current situation. I don’t mean to downplay all the people he, his relatives, and regime have killed either. There aren’t any easy answers. It’d only be a temporary solution at best. Perhaps his regime could no longer be propped up by foreign intervention anyways. I’m starting to get out of my depth though. I don’t know the situation in Syria well enough to argue much further.

  4. fosforos17 January 9, 2016 at 7:05 pm | #

    Only fundamentalist religious indoctrination can enable acts like the slaughter at the hyper-cacher and Charlie Hebdo and Bataplan etc. Just as only fundamentalist religious indoctrination can enable acts like the murder of Dr. Tepper and the bombing of womens’ health centers. That “Western” Imperialist behaviors have nothing to do with it is proven by the facts that the same religious criminality, the same fundamentalist cretins, were used by the imperialists to destroy freedom in Afghanistan and the current Islamofascist terrorism is perpetrated by the exact same types who were enthusiastic about serving imperialism in Afghanistan, while Daesh, Al Nusra, Ahrar al Zhams, Army of Conquest, Free Syrian Army and the rest of the “moderate” Islamonazi gangs are financed and armed with US weaponry by those quintessential .00001 percenters, the Saudi despots and Qatari zillionaires.

  5. Glenn January 9, 2016 at 8:38 pm | #

    Too many self-described leftists have moved steadily to the right, at least since Bill Clinton, without slipping out from under their old descriptors.

    I have to give credit to Hitchens for openly moving to the right and openly proclaiming his move.

    Language entropy eventually makes discussion so disordered as to become unintelligible.

    • Glenn January 10, 2016 at 12:28 pm | #

      HItchens openly moved to the right in support of the Bush Crusade.

      Obama policies came to be an extension of Bush Crusade policies, enabling people of the left to move to the right covertly, able to maintain left cred as supporters of a president positioned on the left of the two far right business parties. All supported by leftish rubbish talk, but self-satisfying rubbish talk providing a comforting sense of self consistency, of not selling out.

      I disagreed with Hitchens and the Bush Crusade, but praise Hitchens for his self knowledge and for his refusal to conceal this.

      Why must Russia be so special? Why does it resist the installation of US Imperial bases on its borders and within? Why can’t Russia submit the way France, Germany, Britain and others do to US hegemony?

      Why is it necessary to even ask why?

    • tenn53 January 18, 2016 at 12:37 pm | #

      Hitchens was a standard-issue ex-Trotskyite who switched his messianic zeal to the cause of the Right. Dozens of his comrades from milieu of the 60’s British “International Socialism” movement trod that well-worn path. Richard Gott’s letter in response to a 1994 essay by Hitchens (who was a talented wordsmith to be sure) and Norman Finkelstein’s take on “ex-IS graduates, a cynical, sardonic, amoral generation,” provides a good backgrounder:



  6. Ralitza January 9, 2016 at 10:20 pm | #

    Offering excuses for terrorism is inexcusable. Yes, the US did a lot of bad things, but to excuse one bad thing with another leads to the same place. Religious extremism or any other kind of extremism should be called out. NO EXCUSES. And for those who are framing the debate only on the West vs Islam continuum, what about Iran and the Saudis?

  7. xenon2 January 9, 2016 at 11:13 pm | #

    I can’t stand anymore.I’m going to have to give to some of my John Mearsheimer lore https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault

    you guys are too much…

    • Glenn January 9, 2016 at 11:45 pm | #


    • Bart January 10, 2016 at 3:16 pm | #

      I didn’t register at the site, but assuming the name Victoria Nuland is found therein, I can only sadly note that she is still imbedded at State.

      • Glenn January 11, 2016 at 2:26 pm | #

        I heard both Dr. John Mearsheimer, Rick Rozoff speak and a friend of mine put a podcast with them up here:


        • LFC January 11, 2016 at 3:45 pm | #

          Mearsheimer is usu. best taken w a grain or two of salt, imo; he sometimes has good points, but also sometimes tends to overstate them.

  8. Will G-R January 10, 2016 at 3:58 pm | #

    Unless these New Atheist pseudo-leftist types are seriously proposing a deep philosophical meditation on metaphysics of élan vital and the Prime Mover, the proposed “turtles all the way down”-style debate over political agency and social causation is fundamentally silly. Everything is a reaction to something else, after all. Or are people like Sam Harris suddenly going to start arguing that it only appears that way because of God’s pre-ordained harmony between the material world and human spirit agency?

    If we’re really so determined that bean-counting over Western imperial/political agency versus Middle Eastern religious fundamentalist agency is a productive use of our time, here’s a proposed compromise. We can agree to attribute to Middle Eastern agency the perceived appropriateness of violent political Islam as a response to the ineffectiveness of secular electoral politics in addressing their real-world problems, if (and only if) we can simultaneously attribute to Western imperialist agency the ineffectiveness of secular electoral politics in addressing their concerns in the first place. Egyptians, for instance, didn’t elect Mohammed Morsi in 2012 because of some deep-seated longing for Islamic religious law; they elected him because he was the only candidate backed by a cohesive political infrastructure who could present a serious alternative to the undemocratic, authoritarian, US-backed military “deep state”. The Egyptian electorate made the choice between Morsi and Shafik of its own agency, but the choice to support an undemocratic deep state throwing up roadblocks to any sort of serious independent secular democracy (and later, the choice to support the coup that swept in Mubarak 2.0 El-Sisi) belongs to the West.

    If we can get the “New Atheists” to agree to at least that much, we might actually be getting somewhere.

  9. Jeff Rice January 10, 2016 at 4:03 pm | #

    Regarding the issue of rebel and insurgent groups as having autonomy or being prompted by outsider attacks such as US bombing this is a false and dangerous dichotomy. Insurgencies are more complex and the key issue for them is to capture existing existing grievances and provide a political framework in a “follow me” thrust. Outside meddling such as bombing can drive more of the population into the sympathetic orbit of the rebel group (for the most extensive arguments about this see the work of Stathis Kalyvas). One glaring and tragic example of this is the increase in sympathy for the NLF/PAVN in Vietnam in direct relationship to the tonnage of bombs dropped on villages. These bombs did not create the insurgent forces but they gave them a real boost. Similarly, in failed states when individuals live in existential risk of death militias can provide basic safety (at a price). Mao’s warnings towards insurgents that they do not mistreat their base population is widely ignored by groups such as Boku Haram, Al-Q, and ISIS who prey on their hosts. This was also widespread in Iraq after the so called liberation when insurgents raped women, killed men etc. and lost much support from the locals. Of course, the US was not in any way able to capitalize that over the long term as they also tromped on the locals. The left should take the most complex and sophisticated analysis possible based on actual data and historical precedents to figure out how much of a insurgency is fed by local conditions as opposed to US or other external behavior.

    • LFC January 11, 2016 at 3:50 pm | #

      @Jeff Rice
      Thks. Agree w/ close to all of this. One of the best comments I’ve read on this site in quite some time

    • Ralitza January 16, 2016 at 12:04 am | #

      Well said, @ Jeff Rice. I am so disappointed with Greenwald that he has gone down this line. It is starting to look like ideological crap and this is a waste of talent, imo.

  10. Roquentin January 11, 2016 at 1:30 pm | #

    Can I say I see the merit in both arguments? Yes, it is infantilizing to deny Muslims agency and betrays the negative imprint of (inverted)racism in the liberals who make these arguments. It’s the old “the lady doth protest too much.” They work so hard never to criticize Islamic culture in the Middle East as a reaction formation/overcompensation for their true feelings, of which they are ashamed and must be repressed. Zizek is very, very good at calling the liberal West out on its hypocrisy regarding this. Every time I see this it sets off alarm bells. You make excuses for them you would never, ever in a 100 years make for people from your own ethic group…and somehow this doesn’t qualify as prejudice. Of course it does. You’re not fooling anyone. The support for Trump betrays this. Some people would rather drink their racism straight from the tap.

    However, this should never, under any circumstances be used as a way to deny our role in destabilizing the Middle East, the laundry list of violent regimes we’ve supported, the violence committed by the US military, etc. You can be angered by legitimate injuries and still have a false ideology.

    • fosforos17 January 12, 2016 at 11:18 am | #

      To say “a war Assad forced” is, to put it mildly, bizarre. What the Syrian repressive forces did in Deraa is no different in kind from what US forces of repression do here every day, without setting off an armed insurgency. An armed insurrection needs weapons. A war needs lots and lots of weapons. It also needs committed fighters, mercenaries and ideological fanatics. And all those came from a single source: the Gulf Dictatorships, supplied and resupplied by the US, Saudi Arabia in the lead. It is the supply of Saudi-US weapons and Saudi-trained Wahhabi fanatics that forced the war and kept it going, and now, with the Turkish genocidal project against the Kurdish people and the Russian military intervention in defense of the internationally-recognized Syrian government and against the Wahhabi fanatics that have wreaked so much horror in the Caucasus, the war that the Saudis & co. forced is even threatening World War III (or at least has led the Establishment presidential candidate to propose actions that would if carried out start World War III).

      • louisproyect January 13, 2016 at 8:43 am | #

        What the Syrian repressive forces did in Deraa is no different in kind from what US forces of repression do here every day, without setting off an armed insurgency.

        This is absurd. Did Obama direct FBI agents to take positions on Wall Street to fire assault rifles at protestors in Zuccotti Park? How Assadist supporters can come up with such outrageous arguments never fails to amaze me. You’d think by now that I’d be used to the David Bromwiches, Seymour Hershes and Patrick Cockburns of this sorry period but I continue to be shocked each time I hear something like a comparison between Assad’s death squads and the American state apparatus.

        • fosforos17 January 13, 2016 at 10:48 am | #

          Let’s see now. Mr. Proyect seems to have forgotten the deaths of Lee Harvey Oswald, of Fred Hampton, of the Kent States students–well, time or something can affect one’s memory. But when he cannot even retain the names of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, etc. etc. ad nauseam, we can’t really expect him to remember that there’s a certain fabulously rich Monarchy, an absolutist fanatical Wahhabist monarchy, that has provided the epicenter for financing and arming (with, of course, US weapons and dollars laundered unhindered past US financial regulators capable of fining banks huge amounts for normal commercial transactions with Cuba) the jihadi insurgency in Syria–as well as pouring Kalashnikov-flavored poison into the souls of disturbed muslim adolescents through their worldwide propagation of Wahhabist mosques and Wahhabist madrassas. All that forgetfulness can, I suppose, be forgiven. But to claim that a supposed difference in degree between the practices of American and Syrian cops proves that those practices are different in kind shows a certain…parti pris.

          • jonnybutter January 13, 2016 at 12:18 pm | #

            I was going to argue against what seemed patently ridiculous – that the US killing disparate dissidents over 40+ years somehow shows that Assad’s killing of 100s of unarmed protesters in the first year of the present conflict there didn’t force war – but then mr matches17 brought up Lee Harvey Oswald.

            Never mind. He’s convinced me.

          • louisproyect January 13, 2016 at 12:36 pm | #

            Of course the cops kill Black people. But we also have the right to protest peacefully in the USA. That right came through struggle, I should add. The Bill of Rights makes it possible for blogs like this one to exist. If someone who was as publicly critical of the Baathist regime as Corey Robin is of the White House, he or she would be hauled off to prison and tortured. I understand why you are making such an absurd argument. I have gotten used to that from Islamophobes.

        • Glenn January 13, 2016 at 10:55 am | #

          Would it be racist to deny agency to Obama in the coordinated smashing of Occupy Wall Street encampments and saving capitalism from its self-inflicted collapse?

          • louisproyect January 13, 2016 at 12:38 pm | #

            No, it would not be racist. However, the cops who cleared Zuccotti Park did not kill anybody in the process. In fact, the movement reconstituted itself as one aiding poor people facing eviction, etc. We have political rights in the USA that Syrians, Egyptians and Tunisians were fighting for.

          • Glenn January 13, 2016 at 1:45 pm | #

            I know, protesters and the wealthy both have the equal right to live under bridges.

            No criminal charges against the banksters, but “24-year-old Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen lays on the ground bleeding from a head wound after being struck by a by a projectile.”

            A little picture here to refresh your failing memory:


  11. KM January 13, 2016 at 2:45 pm | #

    I appreciate Glenn Greenwald’s (and Robin’s) arguments, as usual, but find it ludicrous that anyone is taking this claim seriously in the first place.

    Someone who claims that “US foreign policy directly contributes to radicalising (elements of) Muslim populations” is a denial of the agency of (Muslim) terrorists is engaged in an obvious and indisputable *non sequitur*. This is Sister Souljahism and inverted concern trolling (lamely) masquerading as serious argument. B simply does not follow from A.

    Not unless you’re a closet determinist, at any rate — in which case you deny agency to *everyone* anyway.

    • jonnybutter January 14, 2016 at 9:39 am | #

      It is a strange ‘leftist’ who hasn’t thought about how quantity affects quality (‘different in kind’). That is kind of basic.

      • jonnybutter January 14, 2016 at 4:25 pm | #

        It’s a strange ‘leftist’ who defends a government which, year after year inflicts mass torture, mass murder, mass starvation.

    • Roquentin January 14, 2016 at 12:09 pm | #

      Ironically, I tend to be a pretty thorough determinism. I’m more bothered by the hypocrisy or blindness that liberal notions of tolerance often entail. Malcolm X talked about racism in the North vs South, the phoniness of liberals, etc. It’s been mentioned on this blog before too. I used to be more critical of this view but over time have seen the correctness of his identifying the problem. People, particularly white liberals, are often way less aware of the problematic of their often very sincere and earnest efforts at tolerance. If you really considered the group in question to be your equal, you’d treat them the same as those which are from your own ethnic group.

      I don’t think they grasp how patronizing and condescending they sound. If you really felt you were on an even keel with a group, you’d feel comfortable being critical of them. All these sentimental portraits of poor or minorities as fundamentally good bear the imprint of this wrong thinking. Nothing about this perspective is particularly novel, but it’s desperately needed.

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