Last weekend, on Jan. 25 and 26, the second Islam-Left Workshop was held at the İnşa Kültür Merkezi in the Istanbul district of Balat. The relationship between religion and leftism has long been a source of debate, including with regards to Islam and the socialist experiences of the Middle East and Latin America.
Leftism is an inherently secular and materialist ideology. Islam, on the other hand, is regarded solely as a metaphysical religion while its earthly dimension tends to be overlooked. For these reasons, many perceive leftism and Islam as having fully achieved their integrity, thereby leaving no space for any possibility of bringing them together.
But is that really the case? Is the ultimate goal of Islam to achieve an unmediated divinity that holds no place for human affairs and materialism? Or it is concerned with equality and justice and provide resolutions for society? Is it only an absolute metaphysic belief that has one purpose: that of individual and divine salvation?
And is leftism just a materialist holism devoid of any metaphysical dimension, that has nothing to do with virtue, morals or divinity?
Years ago, Iranian thinker and activist Ali Shariati had raised the same questions years with regards to Shiism and Sunnism. Shariati developed several concepts that contributed to the holistic structure of Islam. He emphasized the authenticity of the contrast between the different branches of Islam. Yet he also stated that the difference between them was rather minor.
If one regards the left as largely Eurocentric and Islamophobic, as excluding religion, considering it as a source of evil, one cannot envisage the relationship between leftism and religion.
The same goes for Islam. As a religious creed that otherizes the left, that becomes a cover for the government's oppression and that represents the state of Islam historically, precludes such a prospect.
The Islam-Left Workshop focused on these issues and tackles several subjects including the history of the relationship between Islam and the left, feminism, ecologic leftism, the history of Islamic science and the enlightenment. The workshop also discussed the concept of the Islamic left forged by Hassan Hanafi, an authority on modern Islam in Egypt, the relationship Ali Shariati formed between Islam and Marxism and in the Turkish context, the efforts of Hikmet Kıvılcımlı, a theoretician and communist leader, to understand the Koran from a leftist perspective.
While some of the workshop's participants agreed a new stage should be reached regarding what could be achieved together, others retained some distance from the aim of the workshop. Some participants even demanded an apology from Sunni Muslim participants for the Sivas Massacre - a killing of dozens of Alevi intellectuals in 1993.
Such tension demonstrated that major obstacles prevent the forming of a healthy relationship between Muslims and socialists, though it is not completely impossible.
In Turkey, several intellectual figures - most notably the theologist and writer İhsan Eliaçık - have sought to explain that the animosity between Islam and the left is artificial and that the so-called "deep state" has always attempt to stoke such hostility by raising the specter of communism during the Cold War years.
The Anti-capitalist Muslims have long voiced their discontent over the government's exploitation of religion, stating that Islam could not serve to legitimize a cruel administration.
Yet even within critical conservative circles, those that object to the government's religiousness will refrain from attending Left-Islam gatherings out of principle.
For despite some hybridization efforts in history, Islam and leftism remain two separate entities. The aim of the workshop and workshop participants was not to produce a synthesis but to search for a dialogue and means of cooperation. Yet as the two sides do not know each other well enough and that no depth in this relationship has been achieved thus far, one should not be too optimistic.
That is attributable to both sides. Though Islam is a heavenly religion, Islamic thought does feature several human activities. Leftism, on the other hand, overemphasizes secularism.
İslam Özkan graduated from Istanbul University's Faculty of Political Sciences. He started journalism in Selam newspaper. He worked in the book publishing sector for a while. Afterwards, he worked as an editor at various news portals such as Filistinhaber, Time Türk, Dünya Bülteni, Birleşik Basın; as a news director at various TV channels such as TRT Arapça, Kanal On4 and Kudüs TV; and as a program moderator at TV 5. He also worked as the Turkey representative of some of the Arabic TV channels. Currently, he is doing his PhD at the Institute of Middle East and Islamic Countries Studies at Marmara University.