On Zealotry

Prompted by Michael Walzer’s piece on Islamism and the Left in ‘Dissent Magazine’ (to which I was led by Jeffrey Goldberg’s report in ‘The Atlantic’ on French PM Manuel Valls’ resistance to the term “islamophobia” ).

The Zealotry of Righteous Assholes

  • is a universal phenomenon to which we are all susceptible
  • is the most disproportionally visible external face of all religions
  • is also highly visible in various political tendencies
  • is often prompted by some kind of imperialist or classist oppression but distorts the response into an excuse for the exercise of excessive violence and other self-indulgent behaviour

The identification of everything that is fair and reasonable as “Western” values to which the rest of the world should not be “subjected” is a cruel “Occidentalist” echo of the simplistic and patronizing “Orientalist” attitude that was condemned (and arguably much too sweepingly attributed) by Edward Said.  Or, as Walzer says, “individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism aren’t really Western values; they are universal values.”

The article is linked to a response by Andrew March and a reply to that from Walzer. March’s response strikes me as turning Walzer on his head and interpreting him as accusing the left of refusing to confront Islamism at all, when his main thrust seemed to me just to be against the all-too-frequent pseudo-PC rejection of even appropriate levels of anti-Islamism as “Islamophobic”. March correctly identifies that the problem is often “a less black-and-white disagreement about political judgment in specific contexts”. And he goes on to identify the “critical motive” of those who “have expressed doubts about the applicability of European conceptions of strict secularism to Muslim countries” as “the freedom, autonomy, and self-representation of the peoples in question”(note peoples not people). But when he says that “The war against violent Islamism is taking care of itself”, what he really seems to mean is that it is just fine to let it be handled in the worst possible way – which will indeed turn it into a “clash of civilizations” rather than an appropriate level of support for those who resist zealotry wherever it arises.

In a way this argument is reminiscent of some at the height of the cold war when leftists struggled with their own kinds of zealotry and disagreed on how to respond to the errors and misdeeds of the “communist” world relative to those of our own people and governments.


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  1. Pingback: alQpr » Blog Archive » More on Zealotry

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