Gilad Atzmon is an Israeli jazz musician, proponent of a single Israeli-Palestinian state, and political charlatan. His article, recently published on multiple websites, "Thinking Outside of the Secular Box," represents the very worst in neo-Orientalist and frankly racist objectification of Arabs, Muslims and especially Palestinians, and is one of the weakest defenses for supporting the Islamist ultra-right yet produced from the Western left. It embodies, I think, almost everything that is worst about the way some Western leftists approach questions involving the Muslim world generally and Palestine in particular. The entire article is worth carefully reading as an index of how not to approach solidarity with Palestinians and other Arab or Muslim peoples and causes.
Atzmon begins by making a categorical assertion that Westerners and Muslims are simply fundamentally different categories of people, since, “Our human conditions are imposed on us; we are a product of our culture.” It is unrealistic and unfair, he suggests, for Westerners or any other liberals, leftists or progressives to hold Palestinians or other Muslims to any universal standards of human rights, particularly the social and political pluralism inherent in secularism, since “secularism is in itself a natural outcome of Christian culture.” Atzmon apparently believes that only Christian societies can have governments that are neutral on matters of religion. “Islam and Judaism, unlike Christianity," he argues, "are tribally orientated belief systems.” I won’t pass any judgment on questions involving Judaism, although this doesn’t correspond with the Judaism I have experienced from most Jews I have met and dealt with in my life. However, the notion that Islam is essentially a "tribally-oriented belief system" is simply preposterous. Islam is a universalist faith that, at least theologically, is categorically and unequivocally opposed to ethno-centrism, racism, tribalism or anything of the kind. It’s certainly true that in much of the postcolonial world in Asia and Africa in which the majority of Muslims live, tribal systems dominate cultural and political structures, but this is extraneous to the logic and systems of thought built-in to most forms of Islamic theology. The two phenomena are parallel and co-exist, but are in many ways more contradictory than complementary.
Not only are Muslims incapable of being secularists and are inherently tribalist, not only culturally but in terms of the essence of the theology of their religion, “Like in the case of Rabbinical Judaism, that is totally foreign to the spirit of Enlightenment, Islam is largely estranged to those values of Eurocentric Modernism and rationality.” I have to admit to feeling personally insulted by this absolutely disgusting regurgitation of blatant racism by Atzmon. I think it’s perfectly true that religious faith and superstition have a complex and often contentious relationship with Enlightenment rationalism and modernity in general, but this is certainly not unique to Judaism or Islam, and it is readily to be found in Christian societies, and most certainly here in the United States. There is no question that the entire postcolonial world is struggling to come to grips with a modernity that is largely the product of Western history over the past 600 years, and has spread through different means, largely colonial, throughout the world. However, the idea that Islam and the Muslims are therefore incapable of becoming fully-interpolated modern subjects imbued with both of the essence of their traditional faith and the reality of their full and equal participation in a modern, rational post-Enlightenment global society is simply insulting as well as positively idiotic.
Atzmon then extrapolates this ridiculous line of thinking to the question of Palestine writing, "I have recently accused a genuine Leftist and good activist of being an Islamophobe for blaming Hamas for being ‘reactionary’.” If it is “Islamophobic” to call the fundamentalist religious ultra-right “reactionary,” then neither term has any meaning whatsoever. Atzmon tries to justify his opposition to recognizing the political nature of Hamas’ ideology by arguing that, “in Islam there is no real separation between the spiritual and the political. The notion of political Islam (Islamism) may as well be a Western delusional reading of Islam. I pointed out that Political Islam, and even the rare implementation of ‘armed jihad’, are merely Islam in practice.” To call this extremely simplistic would be far too generous. In fact, it’s a caricature, and an Orientalist (in the worst sense of the term) and indeed a racist one. In fact, without going into the details, throughout almost all of Islamic history there has been a clear distinction between political and clerical authority, and while this distinction has taken on very different forms than those in the West, it is completely false to suggest that Muslims have not and cannot embrace a separation between the political and the religious registers of social life. It is to suggest, among other things, that all Muslims are naturally Islamists, that Arab and Muslim secularists are frauds and phonies, and that all the progressive movements in the Middle East over the past hundred years and more are fundamentally inauthentic and illegitimate.
Atzmon asserts that Hamas is not only the actual leadership of the Palestinian people, and the authentic, genuine and popular expression of Palestinian social and political sentiment, but that any questioning of this idea is simply racist Western liberals imposing their own narrow values on the Palestinian people: “Rather than loving ourselves through the Palestinians and at their expense, we need to accept Palestinians for what they are and support them for who they are regardless of our own views on things. This is the only real form of solidarity.” Atzmon might put down his saxophone long enough to start to understand that most Palestinians, while certainly a conservative people and fairly religious, are, have been and remain essentially secular in their political orientation. The majority of Palestinians have never been Islamist in their essential political outlook, and it remains so to this day, with the PLO remaining significantly more popular than Hamas in most opinion polls over the past 15 years. The parliamentary election victory by Hamas in 2006, with 44% of the votes cast for candidates running under their auspices, hardly represents a decisive victory for Islamism or against secularism, rationalism and Enlightenment values among Palestinians. The result was the product of a series of deeply overdetermined factors, including frustration with lack of progress on peace and independence, disgust with corruption and mismanagement by Fatah, local political concerns, and many other factors. It also occurred at a moment of Hamas’ maximum organizational power and popularity, and an internal implosion within Fatah. At any rate, the idea that Palestinians, like all other Arabs and Muslims, are basically at heart reactionary Islamists permanently and inevitably alienated from secularism, rationalism and all aspects of the Enlightenment is a familiar theme of Western racist discourse, and it isn’t any less repulsive coming from a Jewish Israeli leftist than it would be from a mustachioed British colonial colonel.
Having pronounced Palestinians to be irretrievably reactionary, Islamist and alienated from rationalism, the Enlightenment and modernity, Atzmon urges his readers to embrace this imaginary and deliciously exotic Arab pet, since, "If we claim to be compassionate about people we better learn to love them for what they are rather than what we expect them to be." Of course, Atzmon is in love with the Palestinians who behave as he expects them to, that is to say the reactionary fundamentalist ultra-right of Hamas and its core Islamist supporters. As for the rest of the Palestinians, he just doesn’t recognize their authenticity or legitimacy.
All of this is painfully reminiscent of Arundhati Roy’s outrageous refusal to draw any distinctions between elements of the Iraqi resistance to the American occupation she was willing to support even during the time of Zarqawi’s campaign the mass murder of Iraqis and snuff videos on the Internet among other mind boggling abuses and atrocities (all in the name of the most vicious reactionary agenda imaginable). Roy said simply, "the Iraqi resistance is fighting on the frontlines of the battle against Empire. And therefore that battle is our battle," without drawing any distinctions or making any effort to distinguish between groups operating in Iraq with a radically different goals and methods, including Zarqawi’s forces of pure, unmitigated evil. She rationalized this irredeemably unprincipled position by arguing, "if we were to only support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity,” which is an absolutely ridiculous formulation that suggests there can be no space between what may be difficult to stomach versus what is absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances, and which completely ignores the question of what the ultimate agenda behind such actions in fact is.
Atzmon’s racism is simply breathtaking. He actually wants the Palestinians and the other Muslims to be anti-rational, anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment and supporters of ultra-right-wing, reactionary religious fundamentalist parties. Why he wants this, only he can say. But if he has the courage of his convictions, Atzmon should convert to an ultraconservative version of Islam, leave his hip London jazz scene and move to Gaza or better yet southern Afghanistan, become an armed member of a salafist-jihadist gang, and possibly start wearing a burqa.