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(April 2, 2024 / Newsweek) In the “Gender and Islam” course that I took a few years ago at Columbia University, the professor made what many might consider a provocative point: Western criticism of female genital mutilation and honor killings is hypocritical and a form of racism.

While she lectured, two young women sitting in the front row—one in a spaghetti-string tank top with green hair and several piercings and the other conservatively dressed and wearing a hijab—snapped their fingers in approval.

At the time, I wondered why these women, living in the United States and so different on the outside, were so quick to dismiss the subjugation of women in other places in the world?

There has been a similar surprise for American moderates since the vicious, inhuman assault on Israel on Oct. 7 by Hamas. They have been shocked by the support for the Islamic extremists from Leftist academics and activists. How could ardently feminist supporters side with a culture that represses women? How could trans-rights activists back a society where any deviation from sexual or gender norms can result in death. What could the far left have in common with Islamists who seem to stand for everything they are against?

Dig down and you’ll see Islamists and radical leftists have a lot more in common than meets the eye.

Prominent leftist scholars like Noam Chomsky and Judith Butler have expressed support for such terrorist groups as Hamas and Hezbollah and have described them as part of the international and progressive left.

If you remove the Islamic imagery from Islamist extremism, you’ll find a world outlook based on a Marxist world view—a power struggle between the exploiters and exploited that demands a revolution to set things straight. This world view fuels and is fueled by resentment and indignity. It sees right and wrong as a binary. It is a viewpoint in which boils everything down to power dynamics. There are oppressors and the oppressed, colonizers and the colonized, good and evil. It is a totalitarian way of thinking—all human relationships are seen through power dynamics and cannot be examined through any other lens. In other words, the boxed-in way both groups see the world is the same. Their causes are just vessels to carry their revolutionary ideology.

Art, language, romantic relationships, and even the family unit are all made political and action is demanded—the just must rid the world of the unjust to create a new world order or utopian society. This is exactly how students are taught to think at elite American institutions today. Critiques of different topics such as race relationshealth caregender, and the climate are all subsumed into this ideology.

With the immense role of Islamic extremism in the Middle East, many forget that not too long ago, the most influential political movements in the region were secular. Leftist ideology influenced by Marxism was not only extremely popular but even managed to take power with Nasserism in Egypt, Ba’athism in Syria and Iraq, and communism in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Unsurprisingly, these countries were all major recipients of Soviet aid and collaboration.

But following their failure to conquer Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, secular Arab revolutionary movements needed to reinvent themselves. They then turned to Islam. The idea was to use religion as a motivator to stir up the population, while ridding it of its moral restraints. In essence, they used Islam as a tool to spread their ideology.

One of the pioneers of this process was Egyptian author and scholar Sayed Qutb, who is known as the godfather of modern jihadist thinking and was a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was executed in 1969 for plotting to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Before his death, he was instrumental in transforming Islam from its traditional roots and moral principles to Marxist/Hegelian theory—Hegelianism was a precursor to Marxism.

Although Qutb was against Marxism, he was heavily influenced by it. His understanding of the world was one of a life-and-death struggle between Islam and ignorant societies, which he referred to as Jahiliyah (pre-Islamic societies) that must be eradicated to achieve an authentic Muslim society. In Qutb’s 1964 short book “Milestones,” he outlined the ideology, strategy, and tactics of jihadism. It’s an Islamic version of Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin’s 1902 political pamphlet “What Is to Be Done?” which was a blueprint for the ideological formation of the Soviet Union.

It’s no wonder that books authored by Chomsky and Qutb were found by U.S. forces in Osama bin Laden’s library at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And university students are reading Chomsky and Butler as well as other authors who embrace this world view, including Michele Foucault, Frantz Fanon, Edward Said, and Rashid Khalidi. This environment caused videos supporting Bin Laden’s “Letter to America,” published after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to surge in popularity on TikTok last November.

It’s also not surprising that many radical leftists and jihadists see Israel as the cause of all the Middle East’s problems. Israel and Israelis are not seen as an independent nation and a people striving to live and prosper but as an extension of European imperialism meant to repress the Arab population.

For example, in that same course on Islam and gender, the professor mentioned positive treatment of LGBTQ people and women in almost every Middle East country except for Israel, the first nation in Asia to recognize same-sex unions. She then accused Israel pinkwashing, cynically giving its LGBTQ residents rights only to legitimize its oppression of Palestinians.

Nothing good can be said about Israel because it is the root of all evil. In the eyes of my professor and others on the far left, Israel is the epitome of an oppressor, the unjust and the evil, and any good it does is a cynical attempt to distract from its repression of Palestinians. In this view, Israel and the Jews become hostis humani generis, the enemies of mankind. This is why academics such as history professor Russel Rickford of Cornell University felt “exhilarated” by the massacre of innocent Israelis on Oct. 7, and why tenured professor Joseph Massad of Columbia University called the same attack “awesome.”

Any act to advance their cause is allowed, no matter how violent. This is why Hamas could carry out a sadistic massacre against women, children, and the elderly and three out of four Palestinians support it despite such actions being expressly prohibited by the Prophet Muhammad.

Modern antisemitism, which often manifests as the idea that Jewish power and wealth is the cause of injustice, shares a similar structure to Marxism. “Antisemitism is the socialism of fools” became a common axiom in the late 19th century. Some historians argue that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin understood this and used antisemitism to boost his popularity.

Most Americans wrongly assume that Marxism collapsed after the fall of the Soviet Union. But Marxist-based thought has been preserved in the Western world in universities and many leftist-progressive movements.

There are, of course, irreconcilable differences between Islamists and Leftists. For one, Leftists are mainly atheistic while Islamists are deeply religious. Although some Leftists have sympathy for Islamist causes, most Islamists are disgusted by their rainbow flag-waving ideological counterparts. But that does not change their shared ideological roots.

There is a Russian saying, “everything changes, but nothing disappears.” The Marxist understanding of the world didn’t go anywhere. In the Middle East, it just put on a mask of piety, hijacking the world’s second-largest religion.

Joseph Epstein is the director for legislative affairs at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) and a fellow at the Yorktown Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein
Joseph Epstein is EMET’s Legislative Fellow. Prior to EMET, Joseph worked in Business Intelligence and Due Diligence for Kroll and Vcheck Global. He has additionally worked as a journalist, analyst, and consultant covering security and migration issues in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Central Africa. From 2017 to 2019, he served as a Lone Soldier in the Israeli Border Police. A graduate of Columbia University, where he studied Political Science and Soviet Studies, Joseph is fluent in Russian and Hebrew.

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