Embracing ''The Other'' - Islam and the Left

Picture: İhsan Eliaçık leads the 'Antikapitalist Müslüman Gençler' [Anticapitalist Muslim Youth] in Friday Prayers during the Gezi Park Protests in 2013.

by Muhsin Yorulmaz

The following is a response to Matt Hrkac's piece for Green Left Weekly, ""Take a stand against the mainstreaming of racism".

I recently read Matt Hrkac's piece for Green Left Weekly, "Take a stand against the mainstreaming of racism". I wanted to applaud the piece's connection of the bourgeois press to the rise of hate speech directed against racial and religious minorities in Australia. Like Yassir Morsi's piece for the Guardian, it highlights a worrying and fascistic trend which is being "allowed" to grow thanks to the "tolerance" of the bourgeois press towards such views (a tolerance never afforded to communists or others on the "extreme" left).

Australia is known around the English-speaking world for the nonchalance and lack of apologetic attitude with which it regards its own extremely racist settler-colonial history and a fascistic attitude towards immigrants which is born out of this white supremacist history. But if Australia is quantitatively more racist than the US or Canada, this difference is not yet qualitative. Therefore, despite not being an Australian in any sense myself, my own experience in the Turkish community in the US and my time in the "motherland" of Turkey does give me some insight into the "problems" of anti-immigrant racism and Islamophobia in Australia.

Matt Hrkac concludes his piece with a message which is both hopeful and practical, allow me to quote at length:

We must not fall into the trap of talking only among ourselves, whether that is on social media, or in our day-to-day lives.

When millions of working people are doing it tough, and the right is providing scapegoats, the left must put forward real solutions and direct people’s rising anger towards those who are really making their lives a misery — the government and their hired minions in the media.

The time to stand up and fight back is now.

Definitely this is true, and it is a message which first of all resonates with me as a part of the Turkish left, who find ourselves repeating similar messages against the campaigns of hate by the fascist Turkish regime against Christians and Alawites in particular. While Sunnite Turks are driven towards an orgy of hatred for the identitarian "other" who supposedly "betray" Turkey, they save themselves from association with the forces of "treason" and "terrorism" on the political left, but at the cost of any ability to take a stand against their "co-religionist""compatriot" bourgeoisie. As the AKP clique line their pockets, building a palace for Erdoğan in the midst of a deepening crisis and rising unemployment and debt, the only forces who speak of a meaningful alternative, are precisely the socialist left who defend the Kurdish people, Alawites, women, LGBT, Armenians, etc. from the hateful and fascist rhetoric of the Turkish government. This goes even for the most reformist elements, such as the mainstream and Turkish nationalist CHP. The entire CHP is united in word in its hatred for Erdoğan, but it is ONLY those elements within the CHP who are brave enough to defend the HDP and the Kurdish movement against the fascist rhetoric of the government (rather than buckling to it like the buffoonish party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu or the cowardly presidential candidate Muharrem İnce) who have the vision to to speak most clearly of a worker's movement to attack both the fascist ruling classes and the crisis which creates and was created by them. One cannot accept Erdoğan's rules and expect a fair game, and this is what those who think we should exercise "caution" in speaking up for the rights of minorities and their resistance fail to see.

It is precisely by embracing "the other" that we can begin to imagine a universality of struggle that embraces the totality of the working class. This is no different in the US, this is certainly no different in Australia.

When I write these words, I know those reading it will broadly agree. When it comes to anti-racist rhetoric, the Australian left is well versed in opposition to the Pauline Hansons and in empathy for the targets of the hate speech of people like her. However, there is something which has bothered me for years as someone living in a diaspora Muslim community about the way in which Islam is treated by the left in English-speaking countries.

Naturally I am not about to insult the intelligence of the reader by playing the role of the neoliberal shill Mohammad Tawhidi and suggest that we must recognise some unique threat to Islam, nor am I going to imply that there are no efforts to drive Islamophobes out of the movement in Australia. My concern is a somewhat more nuanced one, which is the sort of positive, almost fetishistic way in which Islam is regarded by non-Muslim leftists in majority non-Muslim countries.


Islam, in short, is rather boringly like Christianity or Judaism. This is something we are all well-versed in pointing out when people rail against "the Muslims" in a way they would not (usually, although this is tragically becoming less certain of late as well) rail against "the Jews", or when people are made uncomfortable by public displays of religiosity by a Muslim minority than they are by the Christian majority, who necessarily have more economic, political, and cultural power. But it is equally true within a given community, outside of the question of bigotry. Many "western" leftists attempt to uniquely court Muslims through the medium of Islam, or attempt to identify with Muslim figures or political trends they would reject or ignore if they came from a non-Muslim community, such as the Chinese.

For example, at least prior to the Rojava Revolution, I bore witness to dozens of white US leftists who would "critically" defend Erdoğan "against Israel", despite his government's ongoing agreements (including military agreements) with Israel. One can still see the same sort of support for various conservative Muslim groups with ties to Gulf oil money simply because of some vague belief that they are "democratic" and "anti-Zionist". How many of these leftists would fawn over a right-wing Latin American president offering some criticism of Israel's abhorrent war crimes, which are naked for the whole world to see? No, in Latin America, these leftists see the class contradictions which lurk behind the lying rhetoric of bourgeois politicians.


I am not denying for a second the strong role that Islam plays in Muslim societies. During Gezi we all saw it with our own eyes, as many religious yet politically progressive youth grouped themselves around İhsan Eliaçık (who presently is not allowed to travel outside of Istanbul within Turkey for his comparison of the trench resistance by the PKK to the Battle of the Trench waged by the Prophet Muhammad and his disciples). We saw that religious Muslims, who, broadly defined, are the majority in Turkish society, would bring food and otherwise aid resisters, and even the muezzin in an Istanbul mosque sheltered the resisters from the Turkish police, as well as went on record defending the protesters from the religiously motivated slander of the AKP. But none of these things are different to how things actually function in a Christian society. We have seen in many Catholic societies priests who sheltered leftists and aided the cause of human liberation, as well as fascist and abuser priests close to the bourgeois state.


This is what we mean when we speak about class. We are none of us, who are really honest, trying to reduce everything to paycheques and job titles. Capitalism does that. We are the ones who speak of the liberation of the human life and spirit, the passing over from necessity into freedom. But in class society, in our diverse social experiences, the universal that we all experience is something which we can call "class". As Matt Hrkac puts it, "we must not fall into the trap of talking only among ourselves", and when we go out to the masses, we can and must use class to expose the hatemongering fascists in every society, to expose the lie of common interests between racist politicians and workers who, out of lack of social experience and fear, are hostile to "the other". But I hope that white Australian leftists do not imagine their only task is to organise white, Christian Australian workers and ask them to leave minorities be.

We also want to organise "the other", because if our values are universal, we see our reflection in "the other" and we want them to see their reflection in us. "The people" whose "rising anger" we must "direct", to which Matt Hrkac refers, surely this includes all kinds of people. We must be equally comfortable in a mosque as in a church as in a gay bar as in a student dormitory. When white Australian leftists meet Australian Muslims, they must not "tolerate" them. They must find a way to identify with them, and make them identify with them in return. These communities are themselves divided on the basis of class, and can be united in struggle with other immigrant communities of different faiths, with the white Australian proletariat, and with the downtrodden Aboriginal people.


I write these words in a dark hour for the Turkish left. Many of our cadres sit in jail. We have given many martyrs over the past few years alone. The state has carpet bombed Kurdish cities to no outrage by the Turkish masses at large, who are fearful of being identified with the "terrorists". And yet we are still hopeful. Our people are back out in the streets for the recently passed Eid distributing propaganda against the regime's attempts to make the poor pay for the crisis while offering them nothing but empty holiday wishes and nationalist lies.

The situation in Australia is better, for now. The fascist tide is still weak, as the economy is much stronger. I know that there are many people reading this who sympathise with what I have to say, and who are worried about the ticking clock imposed by crisis and environmental catastrophe. I hope that interested comrades will reach out to us, our organisations and our communities, and I work to make sure our people do the same. Crisis and danger lurks around the corner, but at the same time, it is inspiring some of the best in our collective action and thinking. I hope this crisis brings us closer together.

"The time to stand up and fight back is now."