The one thing that absolutely could not be tolerated was true freedom, the liberty of the individual. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the “social compact” would otherwise be “an empty formula.” The irreducible core of the utopia he envisioned, the “undertaking which alone can give force to the rest,” was quite simply this: “Whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body.”
Ah, yes, the “general will.” For this, every modern totalitarian movement is indebted to the 18th-century Genevan philosopher who claimed, in The Social Contract, that a man’s compulsory servitude to the state — the embodiment of this general will — “means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free.” Rousseau was what we today call “Orwellian” long before there was an Orwell. “Freedom” was nothing more than submission.
That is why Rousseau so admired Islam.
The history of Islam and the modern Left is one of cooperation when there is some obstacle to their divergent concepts of “social justice” and the perfect society. These are always marriages of convenience, enduring no longer than the enemy that drives them into each other’s arms. But, reliably, it is they — the Islamists and the leftists — who come together when there is a third party in the mix. Rarely will one collude with a common enemy against the other. Today, the common enemy of Islamists and leftists is individual liberty, especially the social, economic, and political freedom guaranteed by the American Constitution, as conceived by the Framers. Conceived, that is, by men who saw government as a necessary evil to be rigorously limited lest it devour true freedom — not as an essential good to be empowered for the very purpose of enforcing servitude.
Collaborations between Islamists and leftists — past examples and those happening right before our eyes — are numerous, so much so that I admit to being dumbfounded by the frequency of the question of whether they really happen. That there is collusion is undeniable.
That collusion is a major theme of my book The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America — “grand jihad” and “sabotage” being the Islamists’ own terms for what they describe as their plan to “destroy Western civilization.” By the time the book was published last spring, the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New Left flagship created by radical lawyer William Kunstler in the 1960s, had spent nearly a decade spearheading the representation of jihadists captured making war against the United States. The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) — whose founders were ardent admirers of Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, and whose current executive director said, right after the 9/11 attacks, that “we should put the State of Israel on the suspect list” — was at the forefront of Islamist organizations then campaigning for the enactment of Obamacare, when MPAC wasn’t otherwise occupied by the numerous executive-branch agencies that regularly seek its input on any number of issues.
This should have been no surprise, for history is littered with Islamist/leftist confederations — e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood’s support of the military coup led by Soviet puppet Gamal Abdel Nasser to overthrow the British-backed Egyptian monarchy; the avowed “Islamic socialism” of the Pakistan People’s Party; the blend of Islamists and leftists that has always composed the Palestine Liberation Organization. Let’s say that this hadn’t been the case, though. Let’s pretend that the last 30 years hadn’t seen everything from Iranian Communists rallying to support Khomeini’s revolution to last summer’s “peace flotilla,” a joint effort by Islamist operatives and avowed Communists such as Bill Ayers to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. The everyday cooperation between Islamists and leftists right under our noses would still be manifest.
The interesting question is not whether it occurs, but why. To anyone who studies the matter, as the liberty-loving Muslim reformer Zuhdi Jasser has, the Islamist enthusiasm for statist schemes like Obamacare is easy to decode. Islamist organizations are collectivist groups, Dr. Jasser explains. They fall squarely in line with the socialist platform of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is, as Dr. Jasser puts it, to “increase the power of government through entitlement programs, increased taxation, and restricting free markets whenever and wherever possible.” That platform is the legacy of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and of Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s most formidable theoretician. Decades after their deaths, both these men remain required reading for budding Islamist activists in Brotherhood-inspired redoubts like the Muslim Student Association, the Islamic Society of North America, and the International Institute of Islamic Thought.
An animating goal of these organizations is to have Islamic principles recognized by government and enforced through the state’s coercive power. These principles needn’t be known as “Islamic” any more than leftist pieties are advertised as “leftist.” They need only reflect what Islamists, like leftists, call “social justice.”
This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Qutb’s tract, Social Justice in Islam. The book teaches that Islam is about the collective, and that those who resist the Muslim ummah must, as Rousseau would have said, be “forced to be free.” According to Qutb, “integrating” humanity in “an essential unity” under sharia is “a prerequisite for true and complete human life, even justifying the use of force against those who deviate from it, so that those who wander from the true path may be brought back to it.” The overarching principle is the “interdependence and solidarity of mankind,” with the individual’s well-being achieved by his submission to the Islamic state. And “whoever has lost sight of this principle must be brought back to it by any means.” Thus, Qutb elaborates, sharia makes “unbelief” a “crime” that is “reckoned as equal in punishment” to the “crime of murder.” Forms of treason such as apostasy and fomenting discord in the ummah are capital offenses. As in all totalitarian systems, freedom is an illusion: security through enslavement.
Thus is Islam virulently opposed to capitalism, true freedom’s economic form. Qutb expounds on Islamic economic tenets: Human life is demeaned by great agglomerations of personal wealth and by the enrichment financiers attain by collecting interest on loans (which sharia forbids). These arrangements are said to enslave debtors and the working classes, making men the gods of other men. To be sure, Islam endorses private property — nominally — and it is less indifferent than the Left about incentivizing human achievement. But this is only because individual achievement is ultimately a corporate asset, increasing the dominance of the ummah. The property “owner” is merely a custodian; his wealth belongs to Allah. It is subject to confiscation by Allah’s agent on earth, the Islamic state, for what is deemed to be the collective good of the Muslim Nation.
This is Islam’s version of the general will: sharia’s enforcement of the central conceit that there is no God but Allah. Freedom, for Qutb, was a release from the servitude of men to men. Not, however, a release from all servitude. Freedom was “submission” to Allah — and not just spiritual submission, but total submission. Authority in Islam is unitary and indivisible. It recognizes no distinctions between the sacred and the secular. Sharia is not simply a set of spiritual principles. Islam is a comprehensive political, economic, social, and military program with its own legal code, governing every aspect of life.
There can be no compartmentalizing or narrowing. To narrow the breadth of sharia — as Qutb put it, “to confine Islam to the emotions and ritual cycles, and to bar it from participating in the activity of life, and to check its complete dominance over every human secular activity” — would reduce it to something other than the divine law. It would no longer be Islam. Therefore, mankind is not at liberty to constrict Allah’s law, much less to enact provisions that contradict it. Legislatures in the Islamic state are not democratic in the Western sense, even if they have been elected by the community. In a sharia state, as Brotherhood guide Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi has observed, legislators don’t really legislate; they are merely vessels of the divine law, which has substantially been set in stone for more than a millennium.
In Islam, it is Allah’s sharia that fills the role of Rousseau’s general will. Thus did Qutb observe of Rousseau’s great upheaval, the French Revolution, that what it “theoretically established by human laws . . . was established as a matter of practice by Islam in a profound and elevated form more than fourteen centuries earlier.”
Such symmetry had not been lost on Rousseau, for whom statism would be the “religion of the citizen.” Above all, it would merge the sacred and the secular under a single authority. As in the pagan states of antiquity, Rousseau’s vision of the ideal regime included
its gods, its own tutelary patrons; it has its dogmas, its rites, and its external cult prescribed by law; outside the single nation that follows it, all the world is in its sight infidel, foreign and barbarous; the duties and rights of man extend for it only as far as its own altars.
The similarity to Qutb’s Islam is striking. For the Islamist, all the world is divided into irreconcilable spheres: the perfect social justice of Dar al-Islam, the realm of the Muslims, and the unenlightened darkness so tellingly called Dar al-Harb, “the realm of war” — infidel, foreign, and barbarous.
Small wonder, then, that Rousseau lavished praise on Islam. But not just any Islam; his accolades were reserved for the early Muslims, Islam’s first generations. “Mahomet held very sane views,” Rousseau opined in The Social Contract. The prophet “linked his political system well together,” the civil and the spiritual as one. “As long as the form of his government continued under the caliphs who succeeded him, that government was indeed one, and so far good.” It was only when “the Arabs” departed from this model — when, “having grown prosperous, lettered, civilised, slack and cowardly,” they were “conquered by barbarians” — that Islam fell victim to what Rousseau (and Qutb) saw as the Christian dystopia: “the division between the two powers” of religion and the state.
The Muslim Brotherhood, it bears remembering, preaches a Salafist ideology: a retrenchment to the principles of the salafia, the “rightly guided caliphs” who were Mohammed’s immediate successors. The reform of Islam urged by Banna and Qutb was a purge of the same barbaric influences — particularly Western, Judeo-Christian influences — that Rousseau had seen as so corrupting.
Islamists and leftists have several significant differences. Qutb saw communism as far preferable to capitalism but too obsessed with an economic determinism that discounted the spiritual. The two camps part company on the equality of women and of non-Muslims, on matters of sexual liberty, and on abortion. If the world were populated only by Islamists and leftists, they could not coexist. Their marriages of convenience can have savagely unhappy endings once the common enemy that has drawn them together has been overcome. In Egypt, the Islamists were brutally persecuted by Nasser; in Iran, the secular leftists were routed by Khomeini.
Nevertheless, for all their differences, what unites Islamists and leftists is stronger than what presently divides them. They both support totalitarian systems. They would both attempt to recreate mankind, intending to perfect us by indenturing us to their utopian schemes. Their general will cannot abide free will. They both abhor individual liberty, unfettered reason, freedom of conscience, equality of opportunity rather than result, and bourgeois values that inculcate a devotion to bedrock Western principles and traditions.
That is why Islamists and leftists work together. It is why they will continue working together as long as there is resistance.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.