Regressive left

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Maajid Nawaz's use of the phrase "regressive left" has been a part of his opposition to Islamism, the literalist pole of Islam that emphasises Sharia (Islamic law), Pan-Islamic political unity and an Islamic state

Regressive left (also formulated as "regressive liberals" and "regressive leftists") is a pejorative term for a branch of left-wing politics that are accused of holding views that conflict with liberal principles, especially tolerating Islamism.[1]

British political activist Maajid Nawaz,[note 1][3] American political talk-show hosts such as Bill Maher[4] and Dave Rubin,[note 2] and New Atheist writers like Sam Harris[note 3] and Richard Dawkins[4] are among those who have used the term.


In 2007, Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist who had renounced his association with the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in favor of secular Islam,[7] used the phrase "regressive left" to describe left-leaning people who—in his opinion—pander to Islamism, which he defines as a "global totalitarian theo-political project" with a "desire to impose any given interpretation of Islam over society as law".[8] He opposes this on the grounds that "any desire to impose any version of Islam over anyone anywhere, ever, is a fundamental violation of our basic civil liberties".[9]

In Nawaz's opinion, it is possible to denounce both neoconservative foreign policies such as the Iraq War (which he had opposed) and theocratic extremism, but those that he labels "regressive leftists" fail to do so.[10]

Use of the term[edit]

In September 2015, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz participated in a public forum hosted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics,[11] which was later published in a short book, titled Islam and the Future of Tolerance (2015).

In a review of the book in the magazine National Review Online, political writer Brian Stewart noted that according to both Nawaz and Harris "regressive leftists" in the West are "willfully blind" to the fact that jihadists and Islamists make up a significant portion (20% in Harris's estimate) of the global Muslim community and the minority Muslim communities within the West, even though these factions are opposed to liberal values such as individual autonomy, freedom of expression, democracy, women's rights, gay rights, etc.

Nawaz and Harris have denounced the paradoxically illiberal, isolationist and censuring attitude towards any criticism of this phenomenon, which they contend betrays universal liberal values and also abandons supporting and defending the most vulnerable liberal members living within the Muslim community such as women, homosexuals and apostates.[12]

In October 2015, The Washington Times reported that American comedian and show host Bill Maher and British biologist and New Atheist author Richard Dawkins "lamented regressive leftists who fail to understand they are anything but liberal when it comes to Islam".[13] Maher noted a willingness to criticise anything except Islam, excusing it as "their culture", to which Dawkins responded: "Well, to hell with their culture".[14] Making reference to student initiatives to disinvite ex-Muslim speakers on campus, Dawkins saw this as "a betrayal of the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s".[15]

In October and November 2015, Sam Harris frequently used the term in his exchanges with the media, saying the greatest danger is that the "regressive left" is willing to give up freedom of speech "out of fear of offending minorities", which will lead to censorship imposed by those minorities, citing American journalist Glenn Greenwald's comments on the Charlie Hebdo shooting as an example.[16][17] Harris considers Reza Aslan[16][17] and Noam Chomsky to be of the regressive left.[18][19]

In November 2015 in an appearance on the talk radio show The Humanist Hour, author and philosopher Peter Boghossian defined the term as a pejorative used to describe those on the left that have made the "strangest bedfellows" with the Islamists. According to him, the word "regressive" is used to contrast with the word "progressive" – the latter being the group that is egalitarian and wants to create systems of justice and racial equality, while the former being a group that "[looks] for the worst in people... and [does] not extend hermeneutics of charity, or a charitable interpretation of anything anyone says, but uses it as a hammer to beat people down". In addition, Boghossian believes that "regressive leftists" have become "hyper-moralists" and champions of their perceived victims. He cites the historical wrongdoings such as slavery in the United States and colonialism as a legitimate concern that has caused mistrust of anything Western and capitalistic. He also added that "there are people who have suffered and still suffer legitimate instances of racism, homophobia etc. The problem is that every time the word racist is just thrown around like that, that word loses its meaning. And it should have quite a sting. That should be a horrible word".[20]

In late 2015, talk show host Dave Rubin hosted discussions about the "regressive left" in several The Rubin Report segments.[21] Rubin describes the regressive left as "the left's version of the Tea Party", saying that the regressive left will damage the Democratic Party in a similar way the Tea Party damages the Republican Party.[22]

Political commentator David Pakman supported the concept in his talk show, saying "there are liberals who do use cultural relativism and distaste for US foreign policy as an excuse to defend or at least minimize violence and injustice that they would certainly otherwise oppose". Pakman has distanced himself from the term, saying that it is misused by conservatives to insult all liberals.[23][24] Pakman suggests that the actual regressive leftists are leftists who use authoritarianism to enforce progressivism.[25]


In November 2015, psychiatrist Khwaja Khusro Tariq, writing for The Huffington Post, classified the term as an unsubstantiated ad hominem attack, stating that the harshest critics of Islam are courted by both liberal and conservative media in the United States. Khusro also stated the term has been directed towards Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky, both of whom he said have never condoned violence or opined on the doctrine of Islam. He argued that there was no genuine inhibition on speaking against the religion.[26]

In March 2016, Joseph Bernstein, a BuzzFeed reporter on web culture, wrote that according to Google Trends interest in the term "shot up" in late 2015. According to Bernstein, instead of criticising "cultural tolerance gone too far", the phrase has "become a catch-all for any element of the dominant new media culture that the anti-social justice warrior internet doesn't like". He also suggests that even though the term can be sourced back to self-described liberal commentators like Nawaz, Maher and Dawkins, it is frequently used by the alt-right and other anti-social justice warrior groups on Internet forums and social media as part of their rhetorical warfare.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to an article published in New York Times Magazine, "A term that you will hear with frequency from Nawaz is 'the regressive left'...".[2]
  2. ^ According to an article published in The Guardian, "David Rubin is convinced that the regressive left is the equivalent of America’s Tea Party – dangerous for progressive politics, whose purpose should be to champion reason and debate to achieve greater equality and improve human rights."[5]
  3. ^ According to an article published in, "In an interview on Lawrence O’Donnell’s television show, [Harris] went even further, accusing regressive leftists of 'denying the link between beliefs and behavior across the board' and 'follow[ing] Noam Chomsky off the edge of the world.'"[6]


  1. ^ Nawaz, Naajid (31 October 2016). "I'm a Muslim reformer who is being smeared as an 'anti-Muslim extremist' by angry white liberals". The Independent. Retrieved 26 November 2019.
  2. ^ Thomas Chatterton Williams (28 March 2017). "Maajid Nawaz's Radical Ambition". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  3. ^ Hemant Mehta (9 November 2015). "Activist Maajid Nawaz Criticizes the "Regressive Left" for Allowing Bigotry in Religious Contexts". Patheos. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  4. ^ a b Kellan Howell (3 October 2015). "Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins blast 'regressive liberals' giving a 'free pass' to Islam". The Washington Times. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  5. ^ Gay Alcorn (26 April 2016). "Conservatives love to hate political correctness, but the left should rail against it too". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  6. ^ Mark Dunbar (22 December 2015). "Review of Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue". Retrieved 21 January 2018.
  7. ^ Nawaz, Maajid (2012). Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism. WH Allen. p. 210. ISBN 9781448131617. Retrieved 1 January 2016.
  8. ^ Nawaz, Maajid (2012). Radical: My Journey out of Islamist Extremism. WH Allen. ISBN 9781448131617.
  9. ^ Maajid Nawaz (8 August 2015). "The British Left's Hypocritical Embrace of Islamism". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  10. ^ Rubin, Dave (2 October 2015). "Maajid Nawaz and Dave Rubin Discuss the Regressive Left and Political Correctness". Rubin Report. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  11. ^ Harvard's Institute of Politics hosting Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. "Islam and the Future of Tolerance". Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  12. ^ Stewart, Brian (7 October 2015). "A Liberal Atheist and a Liberal Muslim Discuss the Problems of Contemporary Islam". National Review Online. Retrieved 11 January 2016.
  13. ^ Kellan Howell (3 October 2015). "Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins blast 'regressive liberals' giving a 'free pass' to Islam". The Washington Times. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  14. ^ "Real Time with Bill Maher: Richard Dawkins – Regressive Leftists (HBO)". Real Time with Bill Maher. HBO. 2 October 2015. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  15. ^ Tyler Kingkade (3 October 2015). "Richard Dawkins: College Students Are Betraying The Free Speech Movement". Huffington Post. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  16. ^ a b Chris Beck (21 October 2015). "Sam Harris Unloads on the Regressive Left". Splice Today. Russ Smith. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  17. ^ a b Sean Illing (25 November 2015). "Sam Harris talks Islam, ISIS, atheism, GOP madness: "We are confronting people, in dozens of countries, who despise more or less everything that we value"". Retrieved 16 October 2017.
  18. ^ "Sam Harris is still mad about 'liberals who followed Noam Chomsky off the edge of the world'". 16 October 2015. Retrieved 16 October 2017.
  19. ^ The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell, 15 October 15, 2015, MSNBC.
  20. ^ Bo Bennett, Kim Ellington (4 November 2015). "The Humanist Hour #175: The "Regressive Left" and Safe Spaces, with Dr. Peter Boghossian". (Podcast). The Humanist Hour. Event occurs at 4:08, 9:48, 0:10. Archived from the original on 11 January 2016. Retrieved 7 January 2016.
  21. ^ "Milo Yiannopoulos and Dave Rubin Discuss Gay Rights and Cultural Libertarians". Ora TV. Retrieved 8 October 2015.
  22. ^ "Dave Rubin: Regressives are the Left's Tea Party". The Rubin Report. 7 October 2015. Retrieved 25 November 2015.
  23. ^ Pakman, David (11 September 2016). "Would David Appear on Drunken Peasants or Illiberal Podcasts?". The David Pakman Show.
  24. ^ Pakman, David (14 April 2016). "The Truth About the Regressive Left". The David Pakman Show.
  25. ^ Pakman, David (21 June 2016). "Authoritarian Leftism: The Actual "Regressive Left"". The David Pakman Show.
  26. ^ Tariq, Khwaja (11 November 2015). ""Regressive Liberals": The New Mantra of Islamophobia". Huffington Post. Retrieved 9 January 2016.
  27. ^ Bernstein, Joseph (16 March 2016). "The Rise Of The #Regressiveleft Hashtag". Buzzfeed. Retrieved 12 April 2016.