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Why Do Muslim Immigrants and Western Leftists Like Each Other?

It's fairly well known that Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to support left-wing political parties, but it's not obvious why, given that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of Western social liberalism. It's even more puzzling why Western leftists so actively support the in-migration of Muslims, given that Western leftists just as actively excommunicate from their own ranks anyone who opposes key planks of social liberalism — nay, anyone who does not sufficiently profess their love for key planks of social liberalism. So then why do Muslim immigrant populations like left-wing parties, and why do Western leftists want Muslim immigrant populations, when each group hates the defining features of the other group's worldview?

Perhaps one might question the premises of this puzzle, so before I attempt a solution to the puzzle, let's go over the premise that Muslims tend to oppose key planks of social liberalism and the premise that Muslims in the West support left-wing parties.

If you think I'm exaggerating the deep ideological conflict between Islam and social-justice leftism, consider the following. One Gallup poll in 2009 found that zero of the 500 British Muslims in the sample found homosexuality "morally acceptable" — and only about half thought it should be legal (a rather low bar for social liberalism). If you look for the most generous estimates of Islamic sexual liberalism in the West, you can find about 52% of American muslims in 2017 saying that homosexuality should be accepted by society. You can find other estimates in between these two, for different countries and years in the recent past. Presumably, assimilation has some effect, so you have to imagine that new immigrants and asylum-seekers are, on average, on the lower end of these estimates.

One might also wonder if Islam really makes immigrants more likely to support left-wing parties (controlling for other factors correlated with leftism, such as youth). Maybe Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to be socially illiberal only because they are disproportionately young, uneducated, and poor. Nope. The graph below is from Piketty's recent paper on political cleavages, specifically from his discussion of the case of France, where support for left parties is 42% higher among Muslims than non-Muslims.

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Those other factors do have effects, but being Muslim still has a unique positive correlation with support for left-wing parties:

More precisely, socio-economic control variables reduce the Muslim left-wing preference from +42 points to +38 points in 2012, and adding foreign origins (including separate dummies for each region of origin) further reduces the effect to +26 points (see Figure 2.6k). In other words, for given gender, age, education, income, wealth and region of origin (for instance North Africa), there is still a sizable effect associating self-reported Muslim identity and left-wing vote. One natural interpretation is that Muslim voters perceive an additional, specific hostility from right-wing parties (and/or an additional, specific sympathy from left-wing parties), as compared for instance to voters with North African origins but who do not describe themselves as Muslim. [Emphasis added. -JM]

Thomas Piketty, Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, 2018

Piketty finds the same pattern for Britain. Piketty's explanation is probably not wrong but it's rather unsatisfying. It's not the focus of his paper so don't write him rude emails expressing dissatisfaction with this explanation. It's just that... to say that Muslims like left-wing parties because right-wing parties hate Muslims, is only to rewrite the algebra. We can just as well pose our puzzle as: Why does antipathy to Muslim immigrants come in a right-wing package, when the offending Muslim viewpoints are primarily offensive to left-wing social liberalism? Right-wingers in the West might very well think, "Good! These incoming Muslim men know a thing or two about enforcing traditional gender norms and keeping out the gays! Maybe they'll rub off on us and forestall our downward spiral of degeneracy!" This sounds impossible to imagine, but that's the puzzle; why is this impossible to imagine when it's at least as plausible, and arguably more plausible, than what we are observing empirically. It sounds very implausible that someone who likes to wave a placard expressing love for brown-skinned folks who hate most queers also likes to denounce white people for only loving nine out of ten queers. And yet this occurs today. If Piketty's solution is unsatisfying, then what's a better explanation?

Wait no longer, because I have the answer. Well, a hypothesis. Which means I personally believe it is the answer (at the time of this writing).

We are accustomed to seeing today's leftist activists as extreme ideologues. The reason contemporary leftist culture is so baffling to so many people is that — it's presumed — they are overly possessed by an ideology; they are extremists on some set of principles; they are crazy because they are too radical, with respect to some set of ideas that is assumed to be underlying their speech and behavior.

Recall my article from a few months ago, analyzing the General Social Survey. I found that the anti-free-speech leftists, the most visible of left-wing activists today, are not technically more extreme leftists; rather, these 'authoritarian leftists' seem to be drawn from those who identify as only somewhat leftist. In other words, they are extreme on some dimension, but it's not leftism per se.

This dovetails with the hypothesis I would like to make here. Contemporary left-wing activists do not suffer from ideological possession or overly extreme devotion to any ideology. In fact, they lack ideology. That's the answer. The contemporary left is simply a grievance processing machine. Ideology has nothing to do with it. Ideology has as much to do with left-wing activism as Mozart has to do with the garbage disposal beneath your kitchen sink: You might hear it on their commercials, but that's about it. The inventors were not listening to it when the idea first presented itself. It plays zero role in the machine's function, which is why the machine runs perfectly fine no matter what the user happens to be listening to. This is why many left-wing activists today can hate one person for being a queer-hater and then profess love for some other queer-haters, all in the same day.

Many people will not believe my hypothesis, because it seems obvious that left-wing activists are constantly referring back to certain shared mental structures. That's true, but that's not all that ideology involves. Political scientists have long observed that vague 'worldviews' don't necessary qualify as ideologies. One of the key marks of ideology, properly understood, is constraint (Converse 1964):

"constraint" or "interdependence" refers to the probability that a change in the perceived status (truth, desirability, and so forth) of one idea-element would psychologically require, from the point of view of the actor, some compensating change(s) in the status of idea-elements elsewhere in the configuration. 

Philip E. Converse, The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics, 1964

When I say that left-wing activists are relatively non-ideological, I am not saying that they are not possessed by certain consistent social-psychological processes; I am only saying that the main process is not primarily ideological in this technical sense, because a hypothetical change in one node of the belief-web does not require any change in any other node of the belief-web. Ideology implies a kind of automatic, mechanical updating of the belief-web, given some exogenous shock. It's this functional automaticity, taken to extremes, that makes us think of ideologues as robot people.

And there is good empirical evidence that, in fact, it's conservatives who are motivated by ideology, while leftists mostly care about group interests. See Grossmann and Hopkins (2016). In a nutshell, they look at the language used by lefties and righties when they articulate their likes and dislikes. Do they relate their likes and dislikes to certain ideas or principles, or do they refer to how different groups are affected? They find a pretty huge difference, as revealed in this graph from their 2015 paper (which pretty much speaks for itself):

This finding deserves to be better known. If there is an ideology of left-wing activists, it is that there are no principles other than getting stuff for groups who don't have as much stuff as other groups. If you fervently believe that, it can look and sound a lot like an ideology. And you can call it an ideology if you'd like — if it looks like a duck, and walks and quacks like one, then ain't it a duck?—the only problem is that this will make you baffled by all the patent logical inconsistencies. One of the reasons why leftism today is so baffling to so many people is because people expect these "ideologues" to be possessed by some set of principles, and then people burn a lot of glucose trying to infer what these principles are. To no avail.

This non-ideological ideology of left-wing activists also helps to explain why leftists love Muslim immigrants, and why Muslim immigrants vote for left-wing parties. Leftists love Muslims because Muslims have grievances that left-wing parties can profitably process for them. Why Muslims love left-wing parties should now be obvious: it's because they have grievances in need of processing, and the left-wing parties are structurally incapable of opposing, let alone stopping, anything Muslim immigrants think or do — on account of their non-ideological, i.e., unconstrained operating philosophy.

7 comments on “Why Do Muslim Immigrants and Western Leftists Like Each Other?”

  1. Here's an alternative suggestion: the left is soft on migrants, ethnic or religious minorities even when they don't share all the planks of social liberalism because, get this, that is in and of itself a plank of social liberalism. Just like opposing minorities even when they are socially conservative, is a plank of social conservatism.

  2. You seem very keen on making arithmetic into advanced calculous.

    If Muslims and Leftists love each other so much why don't you just come out and say it's a psychosexual thing like Peterson does. Or just post a meme of a raging blue haired overweight female instead of going to through all the trouble of using all this restrained, empirical, aloof sounding language of/about affect to basically expand the: "feelings not facts" meme to "the left is feelings/greed/resentment not principles".

    I think if you just transport the basic left vs it's constituency dynamic anywhere but the currently highly charged situation with a racialized minoritarian religion perhaps it's easier to see how banal Piketty types explanations are more than adiquate:

    With notable exceptions essentially every marginalised, disadvantaged group in history supported more left leaning political representation if given a choice despite being generally more socially conservative than there more politicised members/allies/representation, while with notable exceptions leftist activists/politicians throughout history have fought for, represented (if often betrayed) the rights and material advancement of those groups, even as they have been consistently frustrated by and in tension with the social reactionary tendencies of these groups.

    For example the Apoist's (PKK,YPG, HPD, PYD etc.) ideology of socialism, anti-authoritarianism, secularism, feminism, and ecology is presumably largely at odds with what is still a highly patriarchal, feudal, undereducated society particularly in the autonomous regions in Syria that doesn't mean they don't have broad support in Kurdistan as long as the fight at hand is still a nationalist one. We can probably expect to see new devisions emerge on class and even gender lines in Rojava if by some miracle things ever really stabilise there.

    Or for another example let's take what's going on right now with "die Linke" in Germany, a robustly leftist party representing the non-neoliberal activist left, the more liberal politicised germans which migration backgrounds, and very significant sectors of the former east, the poorest parts of Germany, where many are still rather nostalgic for really existing communism. Ironically here it is the ever more vicious xenophobia of it's ethnically Germain constituency in the Former East and their steady conversion to the proto-fashist AFD which creates dissonance between "die Linke's" ostensibly leftists principles and their constituencies asocial views/behaviour. This has led to equal parts rhetorical placation and moral line towing from deferent flanks of the party with everyone ultimately recognising that one way or another a broad reinvigorated class based cross cultural politics is the only thing that will keep Germany from creeping closer to fascism than anyone should be comfortable with.

  3. I've always liked the theory that the left/right axis is mainly determined by assumptions about whether resources are abundant so there's "enough to go around" and everyone can have comfortable living standards, or whether they are scarce so many people will have to get by with very little while only some "special" group will be able to live more comfortably (whether that's an aristocracy, or a particular ethnic group, or those who are morally virtuous and work hard, or those who can climb to the top of some meritocracy). A post at http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/03/04/a-thrivesurvive-theory-of-the-political-spectrum/ outlines it pretty well, although I've seen others suggest the same sort of idea--see for example the Jonathan Haidt piece at https://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/07/10/when-and-why-nationalism-beats-globalism/ or an older paper by a socialist author, Costas Panayotakis, at https://www.jstor.org/stable/3648962 (p. 136 argues that essentially all "oppressive social relations" of the type the left tends to fight and various flavors of right-wingers want to preserve, relating to "class, racial, gender, nationalist" differences, are tied to "capitalism's reproduction of scarcity", which Panayotakis sees as "artificial", arguing there is already enough material abundance to create post-scarcity conditions where no one has to spend too much time toiling at work they wouldn't want to do if not for material necessity).

    From this perspective, I think the findings you mention can be interpreted in terms of people on the left wanting to fight artificial forms of scarcity which deprive certain groups of the resources needed for decent living standards and being able to pursue their desired goals (which includes things like educational opportunities, removal of discrimination in any field of work the person might wish to pursue, etc.). Naturally people will tend to focus their activism on artifical deprivations that society forces on their own group, but that doesn't mean that it's purely cynical self-interest, they can also genuinely believe that other groups face similar problems and unnecessary barriers to decent living standards and personal flourishing should be removed for all those other groups too. If someone was explicitly fighting for their group to the *exclusion* of others, like a minority fighting against immigration of some different minority group out of fear the second group would take their group's jobs, most people would recognize that as a right-wing perspective (even if they take more traditionally left-wing positions on other issues), which shows that leftism can't be boiled down entirely to less powerful groups fighting for their own group interests.

  4. Interesting points, I'll have to sleep on them. Though I would say I agree with you that "leftism can’t be boiled down entirely to less powerful groups fighting for their own group interests." When I say it's simply a machine for doing that, that machine involves some heterogenous parts which I haven't explored in detail here. My fuller model would probably emphasize the cultural entrepreneurship of the more educated segment. More on this later...

  5. Realy good depiction of the relation between left and right .... the important part of this relation os that both groups are autoritarians and you can actualy deduct that behing authoritarian is a much more stronger trait of caracter than behing left or right leaning

  6. "Leftists love Muslims because Muslims have grievances that left-wing parties can profitably process for them."

    Gay people also have grievances that left-wing parties can profitably process for them - and one of those grievances, of course, is persecution of LGBTs by Islam, within and outside Muslim countries.

    Even if you redefine the left as a grievance processing machine, I think the paradox remains of how it can so non-chalantly process the grievances of two groups that are fatally at odds with one another, & present both as equally valid.

    I'm no expert, but it definately looks to me like the left has a religious-like faith in the infallibility of the algorithm that it uses to process those grievances. Once that algorithm - IOW, their ideology - says the grievance is valid, they no longer think about it. The final result is, of course, paradoxical and even hypocritical, but since it's been arrived at by means of a computation that, very deep down inside, the left deems divine & therefore infallible, it's no longer subject to worldly questioning.

    If my hypothesis is right, then Leftists and Muslims are just brothers in the religion of Social Justice. The plight of LGBTs, women, etc at the hands of Muslims is just one of those mysterious ways in which the Lord works.

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