Among the many foolish things that are regularly written about Islam – and there really is a lot to choose from – the one that always gets me is the ridiculous assertion that Islam needs a Reformation. Salman Rushdie has said this sort of thing a lot. And one of the reasons it’s foolish, is that Islam has always been an extremely reformed kind of religion. It doesn’t do Popes or Bishops. It doesn’t do images, or fancy worship. It is scripture based. In fact, in Christian terms, Islam – in all its various forms – feels positively Cromwellian. And, like the Puritans of the 17th century, Islam shares the same sort of attitude about there being an intrinsic human equality before God.
This is an important point of contact with the Left. For although the British Left has largely given up on God, the roots of much of its thinking will always be in the religious radicalism of the English Civil War. Tony Benn, for example, would commonly understand the political battles of his day – including that against the EU, incidentally – as being a battle between the kings and the prophets, bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. Yes, this is broad-brush stuff. No one could possibly mistake the House of Saud, for instance, for the lowly. But this is precisely why they are the target of so much Islamic radicalism. They are an exception that proves the rule.
This may be why the Left finds a surprising affinity with Islam. Because for all the Left’s secular talk, it still bears the traces of a religious soul and a righteous mission. In Islam, as in Christianity, all human beings are equal in the sight of God – meaning that class, colour and race have no bearing on our worth as human beings. On this Islam and the Left should stand as one.
The socialist Left also shares with Islam a suspicion of capitalism. In Islam this is expressed as a resistance to usury, to lending money at interest. Sharia compliant finance may have found creative ways to make a profit for Islamic banks by lending money without charging interest, but such banks could never dominate our lives the way in which western banks do. There are no Islamic payday loan companies ripping off ordinary people on the streets of our cities. And the hostility of Islam to gambling (maisir) should be a block on the speculative casino capitalism that was behind the last financial crisis.
Of course, to say Islam has an affinity with the Left is not to say that it has an affinity with liberalism – certainly not. Islam is much happier to prioritise the needs of the community over that of the individual. And here Islam can feel socially much more conservative. Indeed, on the role of family and on the obligations that the individual owes to their family and community, to the elderly for instance, Islam rejects the socially atomised individualism of liberal societies, preferring a much more socially cohesive approach, even to the point of resisting integration into liberal cultures.
Why are so many left-wing progressives silent about Islam's totalitarian tendencies?
In many ways, Muslims are model Daily Mail citizens: they look after each other, they are modest in dress and habit, they don’t go out and get drunk, they don’t gamble, they honour God in their lives. And they combine all this with the Left’s suspicion of capitalism and a belief in the intrinsic dignity and basic equality of human life. This is the Maurice Glasman model citizen. Muslim society has a strong sense of mutuality, of common life. It is very essence of Blue Labour.
Outside of more traditional family structures, Islamic socialism has also long been associated with the struggles of Muslims against the Russian Czars and British imperialism, especially in India and Afghanistan. Some have argued socialism and Islam go even further back, beginning with the ethos of pre-Islamic Bedouin tribes. Indeed, the development of a very early version of the welfare state in Medina and among the Prophet’s first followers can be seen as among the earliest versions of the socialist ideal. The wider Muslim family is supposed to be itself an example of mutuality – at least, in theory. And if Muslims sometimes fail to live up their own best teachings, that is not necessarily the failings of Islam but the failings of a much broader category: humanity itself.
Today, though, the greatest affinity between Islam and the socialist left is that both reject the growing hegemony of the Western capitalist model. It is an alliance that liberals loathe. But it is arguably only Islam that now provides mass mobilisation against the dominant ideology of market forces. Some socialists will never understand the God bit. But for those of us who believe that socialism requires a religious underpinning in order to flourish, Islam feels like the future of anti-capitalism.