"Regressive left" (also formulated as "regressive liberals" and "regressive leftists") describes a section of left-wing politics accused of holding paradoxical, reactionary views by their tolerance of illiberal principles and ideologies, particularly identity politics (emphasis on group identities like race and gender, rather than on the individual), and opposition to free speech for the sake of multiculturalism and cultural relativism.
British political activist Maajid Nawaz, American political talk-show hosts such as Bill Maher and Dave Rubin, as well as New Atheist writers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are among those who have used the term.
In 2007, Maajid Nawaz renounced his previous association with the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in favor of secular Islam. He is co-founder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank based in London that seeks to challenge Islamist ideology.
Nawaz has used the phrase "regressive left" to describe left-leaning people who—in his opinion—pander to Islamism, which he defines as a "global totalitarian theo-political project" with a "desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society as law" and which he opposes on the ground that "any desire to impose any version of Islam over anyone anywhere, ever, is a fundamental violation of our basic civil liberties". According to Nawaz, such sympathizers of Islamism include "atheists who are on the side of the Islamists, defending Islamism in the name of cultural tolerance".
In an October 2015 interview with political talk show host Dave Rubin, Nawaz elucidated further the reasoning behind his choice of the word "regressive" and hypothesized that a section of people on the left "genuinely believe" that they are fighting an "ideological war" against neoconservative and neocolonialist foreign policies of Western governments which promote state-organized violence and chaos in the form of wars and military invasions. In contrast, he claims that such leftists forgo their duty to denounce the violent acts of theocratic extremists such as Islamists, at times going so far as to "make alliances" with some of the most regressive, theocratic and murderous regimes and organizations. He cited Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, as an example of someone who "has been historically very close" to supporters of Islamist organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah. In Nawaz's opinion, it is possible to denounce both neoconservative foreign policies such as the Iraq War (which he had opposed) and theocratic extremism, but those that he labels "regressive leftists" fail to do so he says.
According to Nawaz, the notion that Muslims cannot cope with criticism or mockery of Islam and only react violently is "patronizing, self-pity inspiring mollycoddling" of the very Muslims it claims to serve and emancipate, because it does not expect them to be civil and control their anger. This "racism of low expectations" lowers the moral standards of people within minorities, seeking excuses if they express misogyny, homophobia, chauvinism, bigotry or antisemitism, whilst holding members of the majority to "universal liberal standards".
Haras Rafiq, managing director of Quilliam, expressed the view that there is a tendency of some on the left to excuse Islamism: "We have not got to grips with the symbiotic relationship between Islamism and far-right hatred, and the regressive left that is prepared to excuse Islamism".
Use of the term
In 2006, six years before Nawaz used the term "regressive left" to convey a viewpoint within the dialog on multiculturalism, New Atheist author Sam Harris used the phrase "Head-in-the-sand Liberals" in an Los Angeles Times article to describe liberals who are in denial and "despite abundant evidence to the contrary", "continue to imagine that Muslim terrorism springs from economic despair, lack of education and American militarism". Harris continued that "being generally reasonable and tolerant of diversity, liberals should be especially sensitive to the dangers of religious literalism. But they aren't".
In 2013, the One Law for All campaign issued a report, Siding with the Oppressor: The Pro-Islamist Left. In an opinion piece published by The Independent, James Bloodworth said the report expressed concern at "working enthusiastically with those advocating the murder of homosexuals" and also with "religious fascists", but Bloodworth opined: "In a disastrous irony, the pro-Islamist left has ended up in the same place as the white far-right. The perception of Muslims as synonymous with Islamism – criticism of Islamism is characterised as criticism of Muslims – is precisely the view taken by groups such as the EDL". Bloodworth concluded that political confirmation bias was responsible, driven by a "pathological anti-Americanism that is quite attractive to a certain type of degenerated progressive". He also quoted Maryam Namazie, a spokesperson for several organisations including Iran Solidarity, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, as identifying several organisations who are "there as prefects to silence dissenters and defend Islamism as a defence of 'Muslims'".
In September 2015, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz participated in a public forum hosted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics, which was later published in a short book, titled Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015). In a review of the book in the magazine National Review Online, political writer Brian Stewart noted that according to both Nawaz and Harris "regressive leftists" in the West are "willfully blind" to the fact that jihadists and Islamists make up a significant portion (20% in Harris's estimate) of the global Muslim community and the minority Muslim communities within the West, even though these factions are opposed to liberal values such as individual autonomy, freedom of expression, democracy, women's rights, gay rights, etc. Nawaz and Harris have denounced the paradoxically illiberal, isolationist and censuring attitude towards any criticism of this phenomenon, which they contend betrays universal liberal values and also abandons supporting and defending the most vulnerable liberal members living within the Muslim community such as women, homosexuals and apostates.
In October 2015, The Washington Times reported that American comedian and show host Bill Maher and British biologist and New Atheist author Richard Dawkins "lamented regressive leftists who fail to understand they are anything but liberal when it comes to Islam". Maher noted a willingness to criticise anything except Islam, excusing it as "their culture", to which Dawkins responded: "Well, to hell with their culture". Making reference to student initiatives to disinvite ex-Muslim speakers on campus, Dawkins saw this as "a betrayal of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s".
In October and November 2015, Sam Harris frequently used the term in his exchanges with the media, saying the greatest danger is that the "regressive left" is willing to give up freedom of speech "out of fear of offending minorities", which will lead to censorship imposed by those minorities, citing American journalist Glenn Greenwald's comments on the Charlie Hebdo shooting as an example. Harris considers Reza Aslan and Noam Chomsky to be of the regressive left.
In November 2015 in an appearance on the talk radio show The Humanist Hour, author and philosopher Peter Boghossian defined the term as a pejorative used to describe those on the left that have made the "strangest bedfellows" with the Islamists. According to him, the word "regressive" is used to contrast with the word "progressive" – the latter being the group that is egalitarian and wants to create systems of justice and racial equality, while the former being a group that "[looks] for the worst in people... and [does] not extend hermeneutics of charity, or a charitable interpretation of anything anyone says, but uses it as a hammer to beat people down". In addition, Boghossian believes that "regressive leftists" have become "hyper-moralists" and champions of their perceived victims. He cites the historical wrongdoings such as slavery in the United States and colonialism as a legitimate concern that has caused mistrust of anything Western and capitalistic. He also added that "there are people who have suffered and still suffer legitimate instances of racism, homophobia etc. The problem is that every time the word racist is just thrown around like that, that word loses its meaning. And it should have quite a sting. That should be a horrible word".
In December 2015, international relations researcher Elliot McArdle wrote in the online British magazine Spiked that some "so-called liberals/leftists" treat liberal Muslims like Nawaz and ex Muslims like Namazie as "native informants", "traitors" or "not real Muslims", because such critics of Islam and Islamism, who have a Muslim background themselves, do not fit the desired narrative of Muslims as a homogeneous and oppressed group.
In late 2015, talk show host Dave Rubin hosted discussions about the "regressive left" in several The Rubin Report segments. Rubin describes the regressive left as "the left's version of the Tea Party", saying that the regressive left will damage the Democratic Party in a similar way the Tea Party damages the Republican Party.
Political commentator David Pakman supported the concept in his talk show, saying "there are liberals who do use cultural relativism and distaste for US foreign policy as an excuse to defend or at least minimize violence and injustice that they would certainly otherwise oppose". Pakman has distanced himself from the term, saying that it is misused by conservatives to insult all liberals. Pakman suggests that the actual regressive leftists are leftists who use authoritarianism to enforce progressivism.
In November 2015, psychiatrist Khwaja Khusro Tariq from The Huffington Post classified the term as an unsubstantiated ad hominem attack, stating that the harshest critics of Islam are courted by both liberal and conservative media in the United States. Khusro also stated the term has been directed towards Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky, both of whom he said have never condoned violence or opined on the doctrine of Islam. He argued that there was no genuine inhibition on speaking against the religion.
In March 2016, Joseph Bernstein, a BuzzFeed reporter on web culture, wrote that according to Google Trends interest in the term "shot up" in late 2015. According to Bernstein, instead of criticising "cultural tolerance gone too far", the phrase has "become a catch-all for any element of the dominant new media culture that the anti-SJW internet doesn't like". He also suggests that even though the term can be sourced back to self-described liberal commentators like Nawaz, Maher and Dawkins, it is currently heavily used by the alt-right and other Anti-SJW Groups on Internet forums and social media as part of their rhetorical warfare.
- According to an article published in New York Times Magazine, "A term that you will hear with frequency from Nawaz is 'the regressive left'...".
- According to an article published in The Guardian, "David Rubin is convinced that the regressive left is the equivalent of America’s Tea Party – dangerous for progressive politics, whose purpose should be to champion reason and debate to achieve greater equality and improve human rights."
- According to an article published in theHumanist.com, "In an interview on Lawrence O’Donnell’s television show, [Harris] went even further, accusing regressive leftists of 'denying the link between beliefs and behavior across the board' and 'follow[ing] Noam Chomsky off the edge of the world.'"
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