Islam and Progressive Politics: Considerations on Pluralism, Liberal Hegemony, and Foreign Policy

Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan last week, amidst a barrage of Chinese opposition and protest. She likely spoke with Taiwanese politicians and citizens, and after a quick photo-op was on her way back to America. This behavior crossed all red-lines set up by China, and was against the advice of essentially every American military official, advisor, and analyst. As expected, after her visit, China extended military exercises and fired multiple missiles into waters surrounding Taiwan. This unexpected event, although seemingly unrelated to Muslims, speaks to a larger question on how Muslims in the West should approach political alliances. The question of which side American Muslims (and Western Muslims in general) should take in domestic politics—the left or the right—shapes much of contemporary political discourse amongst diaspora Muslims in the West.

In America, there seems to be growing support for the Democratic party and progressive politics. [1] In fact, projections show that Muslims will increasingly become Democrat aligned in the coming future, in part due to the assumption that liberals and progressives (those who broadly make up the basis of the Democratic Party) are more favorable towards Muslims on foreign policy. The incremental reforms made in the Democratic approach to foreign policy on Israel, for example, created a sense of restrained optimism regarding the party’s future on foreign policy, especially compared to the Republican Party post 9/11. Although Muslims voted largely for the right prior to 9/11 (Bush received 70% of the Muslim vote in Florida in the 2000 election), the War on Terror and rising anti-Islam sentiment subsequently turned them towards the more amicable Democratic Party.

In reality, however, it seems there is a strong counteracting force in how progressives are approaching foreign policy. They are increasingly reminiscent of the strong neoconservative right that assumes America’s status as a global superpower is justified, requires stepping into every foreign conflict, and meddling in every nation/country that steps out of bounds. Here, I argue that progressivism appears to have rekindled neoconservatism (not surprising, as many current progressives were on the neoconservative bandwagon not too long ago), but this time without the “security” guise that Americans have grown tired of, instead with a pivot towards democracy and freedom. The War on Terror can be conveniently replaced with the war for democracy. This causes massive international damage to Islamic countries, who will face severe economic, political, and possibly even military pressure from adventurist foreign policies. This should challenge our assumed alliance with the Democratic Party, and that general justifications given for strongly allying with progressive coalitions at home, namely the possibility of pluralism and international restraint, are both false.

Progressives and Foreign Policy

Increasingly, progressives adopt what international relations scholar John Mearscheimer refers to as a “liberal hegemony” perspective.[2] By universalizing the norm of the individual with certain sovereign rights, progressives can create a universal casus belli (that which serves as a legitimate justification for war) against any state that does not uphold those principles, under the guise that this state is aggressing against its own citizens. American justifications for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya conjure up familiar memories of news coverage that spoke of the need to protect democracy, women’s rights, minority rights, and freedom in countries which purportedly had no respect for these values. This normative justification, which liberals and progressives believe they have to act on, leads to the same functional conclusion as that of the neoconservative: an American global presence militarily and politically present in whatever nation they see fit. While the neoconservatives adopt a hawkish foreign policy based on sheer American dominance, the progressives adopt one based on liberal norms of introducing the political, ethical, and social institutions of democracy and freedom.

There was a brief hope, especially in the mid-2000’s, that a truly progressive and non-aggressive oriented foreign policy was possible. [3] Indeed, progressives were some of the biggest critics of the War on Terror and the various American and/or NATO led incursions into Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. However, this geopolitical narrative has completely disappeared.

In my view, the first factor that has led to this is Russia’s reemerging aggression and militaristic approach to foreign policy. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and then formally invaded Ukraine in 2022, resulting in massive shockwaves in the geopolitical structures and makeup of the international order and seemingly bipartisan support across most political lines in America for Ukraine. This caused an interesting revisionism in the historical record, however, when common interlocutors were forced to defend an international system based on norms and standards which America has violated blatantly and frequently. 

War crimes, violations of sovereignty, unjustified invasions and occupations are the name of the game in American foreign policy, with the United Kingdom and France often there to back them up. Mearscheimer mentions how the idea that democracies do not go to war (commonly referred to as democratic peace theory) has not panned out in recent history. [4] In personal conversations and general media coverage, we also now see NATO being recast as a “defensive alliance” even by the same progressives who recently were the biggest critics of NATO intervention in Libya, for example. NATO was involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq, contributing to the continued occupation of Iraq as it crumbled under American incapacity to construct anything resembling a state following their overthrow of Saddam Hussain; and in the occupation of Afghanistan, which ended in a dismal failure as America left behind billions of dollars in weapons, leaving the capital Kabul to be overtaken by the Taliban.

Progressives who were historically strong critics of American foreign policy in these areas have now entirely revised the story to say the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were either justified or irrelevant in conversations regarding Russian foreign policy. The need to justify strong American condemnation of Russia while somehow avoiding the obvious contradiction (that the Chinese have made great use of rhetorically) has necessitated this rehabilitation of NATO, American interventionism, and American militarism in a way never before seen. 

Implicit in this new rehabilitation of American militarism is the idea that America acting in a way that violates our international norms based order is good because it’s justified by America’s special position as an actor for freedom and good; that progressive values such as promoting freedom and democracy are good, but neoconservatism is the best way to go about it. [5] Thereby, anyone else who violates the international norms-based order in the same way is immediately a justified opponent to attack, since they not only disagree with the international-based order but also America and their allied partners’ right to arbitrate it. This does not imply that Russia is in any way justified in invading Ukraine, but that the frenzied way the American public has taken up the Ukrainian cause (unknown to them last week, and forgotten by next year) has required a conscious revision of recent American and NATO military history. It is a rehabilitation of the American past so that we can criticize the current Russian invasion of Ukraine with added moral force and a clear conscience. 

This is even after the consequences of these invasions have become absolutely clear. For example, current Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Samantha Powers was one of the key supporters of American involvement in the NATO-led mission in Libya when she presided as the Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Even after the disastrous consequences this has had for the Libyan people, there has been no formal sense of regret or apology offered by the administration. Public intellectuals such as Bernard Henri Levi, who garnered huge emotional and moral support for the mission in Libya, still staunchly defends this as an exercise of justice against Muammar Gaddafi and reported violence against civilians. [6] This is despite all the relevant evidence that this intervention was a complete disaster, and that NATO overstepped its peacekeeping mandate illegally and instituted a regime change. [7]

One key takeaway is progressive foreign policy is essentially that of an alienated bystander, mediated through so many levels of virtual distance and distortion, that there is no immediate connection to the consequences of their actions. We get on social media, we share the hashtags and various posts on how X country needs to be liberated, and then once that country is left in ruins, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, we simply change the channel and find something else to tweet about. I fear even with Ukraine, the current fascination to ratchet up the war as much as possible by delivering Ukraine billions of dollars in weaponry, will only prolong and exacerbate the brutality of the war. Once the dust settles and Ukraine is in ruins, none of the social media war-hawks will be present to help clean up the mess—they have already changed the flag in their bio to something else, changed the channel, and flipped the page onto a new cause that can stir votes for their party come next election cycle. There is no consistent sense of ethical reflection or pragmatic updating. We are as ready to go to war for democracy and freedom today as we were in 2001, with the same results. Progressive good-intentions are difficult to take seriously when this severe lack of ethical reflection is a constant—good intentions necessitate rethinking one’s actions when they lead to disastrous consequences for others. 

Returning to current news, Pelosi visited Taiwan, the first visit by a sitting US Speaker of the US House of Representatives in 25 years. CNN already has a photo gallery titled “In pictures: Nancy Pelosi’s history standing up to China”. The progressive response to Chinese non-democratic practices is simple: you use force to fight force, and posturing to fight posturing. This means Americans should go blow for blow with Russia in Ukraine, with China in Taiwan, and presumably any other geopolitical opponent anywhere else in the world. The progressive spirit to downsize American foreign involvement is all but gone. Instead, progressives seem to be more than okay with a militaristic liberal hegemony that is deeply committed to shaping a particular institutional makeup of the world, regardless of the harm this may cause to civilians.

This is not to say progressive support for an aggressive foreign policy is entirely new. Madeline Albright serves as the quintessential example of the supposedly heroic women’s rights-oriented liberal, who was simultaneously willing to use whatever means necessary, including the starvation of 500,000 Iraqi children, to accomplish American security goals. The supposed progressive turn towards a more restraint-oriented foreign policy has completely died, and settled on renewing that same aristocratic notion of America leading the world’s nations to enlightenment. This marks a general trend in progressive politics as moving from populism to elite-oriented aristocracy. Whether this means a global military presence, continuous campaigns for democracy, women’s rights, freedom, etc., all of this will be justified by reference to the ethical imperative towards liberal hegemony. For Muslims, this should factor heavily into our considerations on political partnerships domestically, and we should carefully consider the shifting tides of foreign policy imperatives, whether liberal or realist, when making such determinations.

The Limits of Pluralism

The following argument is often put forward: that the conservative right is too racist and xenophobic (not an entirely inaccurate assessment) to partner with, and thereby Muslims should ally with the progressive left that allows for pluralism, choice, and tolerance (even if Muslims have certain social and ethical disagreements). Topics controversial in Islamic discourse, such as homosexuality, can be left alone simply by making political concessions that allow for greater freedom for all citizens. One recalls Dr. Jonathan Brown’s argument (which he has now abandoned) that by supporting the legalization of gay marriage domestically in America, Muslims can undermine the idea of marriage as something defined by the state. Thereby, it will open up avenues for Islamic conceptions of marriage (including polygamy) to be respected and protected. While Dr. Brown has abandoned this argument, many Muslims in America cling to it as a common justification for strong alignment with progressive parties in the West. There are three main responses I want to offer to this line of argument. 

The first is that the liberal state already has a normative spectrum of acceptance when they refer broadly to “freedom.” There is an implicit normative spectrum, a set of limitations, upon the kinds of approaches to the good life that are acceptable. It is naive to argue that we should support pluralism in the West because this will somehow allow us to one day implement Shari’a (Islamic law) in relation to contracts, marriage, public morality, etc. in American society. Today, Shari’a can be followed in some ways. For example, Muslims can draft legally enforceable wills and trusts in line with Islamic inheritance law. But there is a limit, such as the fact that polygamous marriages are not recognized as legal marriages in U.S. law, and criminalized to varying degrees in different states. The normative limits of American legal and political society (and more generally Western legal and political society) already assume a certain limit to what “pluralism” must entail. It is not an empty category to be filled in by whatever unique practices a given culture has. For example, it is highly unlikely that something like incestuous marriage, child marriage, or polygamy will ever be legalized in America, since these are vastly outside the imaginative frame people assume when they refer to “pluralism.” 

“Pluralism,” as a rhetorical term, refers to a spectrum only of acceptable differences, similar to how Muslim jurists use the term “ikhtilaaf.” For example, no Muslim would argue there is “ikhtilaaf” (difference of opinion) over the legality of consuming pork, even if some given Muslim disagrees and tries to argue that in fact pork is permitted. Even though this is empirically a literal difference of opinion, the term ikhtilaaf is properly invoked to refer to those differences of opinion which even disagreeing actors can reasonably and rationally conclude as justified.

“Pluralism” imagines a certain level of elasticity, beyond which absolute values must be in place (enforced by the “absolute state,” by which I mean those things in which the state will not tolerate pluralism). There cannot be even sub-national communities that formally criminalize for example certain kinds of behaviour (e.g. homosexuality), even if every member of the community agrees, since the normative bounds of contemporary American pluralism would not allow for this. No “pluralistic” society today, for obvious reasons, would allow for example human-sacrifice even if the person to be sacrificed themselves agreed—it is simply too far outside the realm of acceptable differences, for any currently existing pluralistically oriented society to allow it (even though under the literal conception of pluralism, this should be completely fine).

That idea of setting boundaries is what I mean when I refer to the “absolute state”: the boundary beyond which the state acts will enforce uniform standards of law and ethics. Different societies can have different extents and standards in which that imaginative breadth of “pluralism” can be expanded or narrowed, and contemporary American society is far from allowing Islamic practices to conveniently enter the public sphere under the idea of “pluralism”. They would be regulated away by the “absolute” state, which is always foundationally present behind pluralistic foundations. This level of ethical incommensurability makes a true “pluralism” difficult to imagine. It is not likely that concepts as foreign as Shari’a and tasawwuf would become part of the pluralistic makeup of modern Western society (solely and primarily through a discourse of pluralistic tolerance). All technological, social, cultural, and ethical trends would indicate the opposite, in fact.

The second response focuses on Muslim understanding of their own ethics and law in relation to an admittedly elusive and nostalgic concern for “authenticity” and religious sincerity. Muslims – like others – have a tendency to self-select things we find personally morally acceptable, but might not have strong Islamic support, and try to justify them through using the most broad interpretations and availability of Islamic law and practice possible.

Take the recent Islamic discourse surrounding the overturning of Roe v. Wade as an example. A common argument was that by having Roe in place, Muslim women were offered expansive freedom to follow the Shari’a in seeking abortions. The argument is as follows: while Roe was in effect, Malikis could abstain, since the Maliki school views abortion as impermissible from conception barring extenuating circumstances (like threat to a mother’s health). However, Hanafis also had the freedom to make use of the school’s comparatively more expansive allowances up to 120 days post-conception, etc. However, would we push a similar line of argument around the age of consent, for example? One could make the equivalent argument that there should be no age of consent in America, or lower it to early adolescence, so Muslims can practice the full breadth of Shari’ permissibility (two twelve year olds doing a nikah, for example). I doubt most people would agree, and the question is, why? Why is it that abortion, clearly viewed negatively in the Islamic tradition, can be rehabilitated and offered widely through the justification of Shari’ liberality, whereas other equally legitimate concessions and rights cannot? I can think of no answer other than the general social acceptance abortion enjoys in our wider culture.

When we engage with progressive politics in this fashion, we end up offering Islamic justifications for an entirely alternative set of ethical considerations, which is not hermeneutically sound or religiously sincere. It is coherently possible for a hermeneutically sound and religiously sincere position to hold that the state should offer liberal support for abortion but not lowering the age of consent, and I have met sincere Muslims who convincingly argued this. But this is clearly not the norm, which instead follows the deductive formulation of ethical acceptance of abortion, and then religious justification by appealing to Shari’ plurality. 

If one’s idea of allying with the progressives is to put forward a broad interpretation of Shari’a, and pursue a pluralistic society that is limited only to those issues which progressives themselves have morally sanctioned as correct, then they have not actually pursued a pluralistic society or created a space for authentic and independent Islamic ethical investigation. Instead, they have simply used the breadth of the Shari’a to legislatively justify their independent conclusions. None of this is meant to be taken as a suggestion to abolish laws surrounding the age of consent, but to illustrate how the logic surrounding abortion and other controversial topics, often justified through a liberal approach to Shari’ concessions, has more to do with our personal ethical acceptance than it does a legitimate concern for the broadest Shari’ rights possible for Western Muslims (though both motivations may be present). This subtle effect that progressive moral framing has on our ethical understanding would already substantively negate authentic pluralism. Additionally, this happens without even considering the question of the empirical reality of the normative limits on pluralism that Western conceptions of freedom already implicitly assume. Therefore, if our sole consideration in allying with the progressive coalition is the building of pragmatic pluralism, I argue we are out of luck.

The third and final response is that the effect of normalizing non-Islamic ethics is not limited to a domestic context, due to the aggressive and universalizing nature of progressive foreign policy. The Muslim world will quickly be asked to follow suit on whatever ethical and cultural conclusions progressives have come to regarding a variety of issues. In that way, the idea that somehow progressivism remains a domestic force is empirically false. As Mearscheimer points out, this kind of liberal hegemony logically necessitates a universalization as it has complete normative justification to fight against any state which undermines the universal rights of their citizens. Once a right is fundamental to the human and universal, such as say bodily autonomy, then no one can be ethically denied that right, and any Islamic state who seeks to do so through their own legal understanding will face the brunt of the progressive civilizing mission. 

Largely, this comes down to an inability to live with difference, reminiscent of the early differences in approaching colonialism. The British were fine with a laid-back administration that used locals to prop up British economic interests (just remove a few native languages or so), while the French were more interested in creating Frenchmen abroad. The neoconservative uses the British approach, politically subjugating nations for economic and security benefits. The progressive uses the French approach, politically subjugating nations, with the added caveat of reshaping them in all arenas of life including the ethical, cultural, social, and spiritual. Thereby, the domestic contract of conceding to progressive social concerns which contradict Islamic ethics for pluralistic tolerance is complicated by the normative spectrum that pluralism already assumes in Western society, much of which excludes Islamic norms. Secondly, the universalizing nature of progressive foreign policy is not content to accept a “live and let live” attitude towards foreign nations that do not adhere to progressive norms (many of these being Islamic nations). How would we respond if upon allying with the progressive coalition at home, suddenly a new military campaign is being launched to bring democracy and human rights as understood by the West to Pakistan?

In my view, Muslims would be much better off under a restraint-oriented foreign policy as espoused by Mearschiemer, although that too is not ideal. Restraint essentially means to only attach resources to key security concerns relating to your given nation state, with a restrictive and narrow understanding of what that means. Under this policy, although it is true that America would not support Ukraine against Russian aggression, they equally would not have invaded Libya. It is difficult to parse, considering there have been clear instances where NATO involvement and even invasions against sovereign nations have been justified from a Muslim perspective—Kosovo in 1999, for example. The NATO offensive against the Serbs saved the Albanian Kosovars from a genocidal onslaught, and was as much an example of this liberal hegemonic approach to foreign policy as Iraq or Libya were (however, I think Iraq and Libya are different than Kosovo for multiple reasons, such as the absence of an imminent ethnic genocide, the lack of viable separatist movements and alternative state formations, and a high level of dishonesty regarding the motivations for invading Iraq and Libya as compared to the Kosovo intervention [8]). 

Regardless, a restraint-oriented foreign policy does not prevent allies from helping one another. Pakistani support against the Serbs through sending weapons, for example, would still have been possible. What it does prevent is the extended occupation of other countries based not on immediate threats to life or security, but vague justifications about standardizing all states to a democratic and liberal norm. Even the justification of what counts as a threat will become much more narrow—of course this theorizing is ideal, but from an interpretive perspective the realist uses narrow construction and the progressive uses a broad construction, in relation to understanding the ideas of harm, threat, justification, aggression, etc. This approach is definitely not perfect, and states will still pursue violence and aggression when their interests require it. However, a progressive foreign policy empirically does more harm than a realist one, especially in relation to their likeliness to engage in wars (as Mearscheimer has pointed out, democratic and progressive nations are much more likely to go to war than authoritarian ones, and indeed America and the UK for example are extremely more war-friendly than even Russia, let alone China, despite the fanaticism we see in Western media on Eastern authoritarianism and war-mongering) [4]. This is something Muslims should keep in mind when making political decisions on who we support. 

There will definitely be tradeoffs, and the consequences of such a shift cannot be understood at this outset. What can be said, however, is that unlike progressive amnesia, a restraint-oriented foreign policy, which focuses specifically on efficiency, is much more conducive towards reflection and reconsideration. To illustrate progressive amnesia, let us return again to Pelosi. Pelosi is fully aware that China will not take kindly to her visit to Taiwan. Yet shortly after the American defeat in Afghanistan and the inability to prevent Russian territorial gains in Ukraine, she believes (along with a host of other progressives) that America can simply tack on China to their plate of ongoing missions. Progressive overconfidence snidely remarks how Putin underestimated Ukraine, while simultaneously shrugging at the possibility of nuclear war with Russia or military confrontation in China (this after an embarrassing defeat against Afghanistan, not exactly a world superpower). This sense of adventurism will only lead to more failed civilizing missions in the Middle East, international instability, and more lives lost.

All this will hurt Muslims who hedged their bets domestically on a progressive pluralism on a range of social issues, only to find out that the same progressive coalition they thought would push for more tolerance of a range of perspectives and world-views domestically, is now engaging on a frenzied civilizing campaign across much of the Muslim world, and will as usual have no regrets over the harm that is caused. Considering how much “motherland” politics affects Muslim voting patterns in the West, the death of restraint-oriented progressivism should give pause to politically allying with what seems to be an increasingly militaristic progressive foreign policy. Where Trump tried to reduce American commitments to the international order, Biden has strongly affirmed them once again, and is going full steam ahead with the “America is back baby!” messaging. This is not to conclude that conservatives will be more forgiving towards foreign nations if in power, only to point out new considerations we must understand regarding the alternatives. 

Conclusion

The common justifications for allyship with progressives—benefitting from their commitment to pluralism and international restraint—are rendered moot. Neither is pluralism is a realistic possibility within its own discursive context [9], nor do progressives show any sign of restraining themselves from militarized democratizing missions across the globe. This necessarily causes instability in a way that progressive overconfidence is constantly willing to overlook: “Russia is losing to Ukraine!”, “China is going to collapse in ten years!”. Even if these statements end up being true, the American foreign policy disasters across the Middle East, and their declining status as a unipolar power should give us pause and ask us to exercise caution. This is somewhat outside the concerns of what Muslims think about when we consider a basic question such as whether to ally with left, right, or no one at all in domestic political environments. However, to start to understand this shift in the progressive psychology, and also to clear up possible misconceptions regarding it, is a step towards a more holistic and comprehensive answer regarding that question, if we are ever able to come to one. 

Works Cited

[1] Hamid, Shadi, and Adham Sahloul. “How Foreign Policy Factors for American Muslims in 2020.” Brookings, Brookings, 9 Mar. 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/04/03/how-foreign-policy-factors-for-american-muslims-in-2020/.
[2] “John J. Mearsheimer on ‘Liberal Ideals and International Realities.’” The MacMillan Center, 30 Nov. 2017, https://macmillan.yale.edu/news/john-j-mearsheimer-liberal-ideals-and-international-realities.
[3] Leverett, Hillary Mann. “How Progressives Can Change Middle East Policy.” The Nation, 21 Dec. 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/how-progressives-can-change-middle-east-policy/.
[4] UChicagoSSD. “Harper Lecture with John J. Mearsheimer: Can China Rise Peacefully?” YouTube, YouTube, 18 Dec. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DMn4PmiDeQ.
[5] Khatiri, Shay. “The Facts of Life Are Neoconservative.” The Week, 26 Mar. 2022, https://theweek.com/foreign-policy/1011575/the-facts-of-life-are-neoconservative.
[6] “France: Key Libya Advisor, Bernard Henri-Levy, Says Gaddafi Dictatorship and War Are Now Over.” Reuters Archive Licensing, https://reuters.screenocean.com/record/797184.
[7] Kuperman, Alan J. “A Model Humanitarian Intervention? Reassessing NATO’s Libya Campaign.” International Security, vol. 38, no. 1, 2013, p. 113-115 
[8] Ibid, p. 108, 110, 112 
[9] As in, I think an American pluralism is possible, but ironically only if constructed in a top-down fashion and not solely as the spontaneous outcome of an opening up of rights and freedoms or a reduction in state power.

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash


About the Author: Faizan Malik is a student studying political science in Toronto. His interests include Islam, critical theory, and liberalism. 

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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