[Available for purchase on Amazon: https://t.co/KtVLsiEqI7]
Over the course of the past two years I must confess to having become an ardent admirer of Brookings analyst, Shadi Hamid’s work. His analyses are notably absent of the tendentiousness that characterises so much of the contemporary writing on political Islam. As a consequence Islamic Exceptionalism entirely sidesteps considerations of “good” and “bad” political paradigms, choosing instead to focus on the more pragmatic question of “what will work for the Middle East?” In doing so it abandons the a priori assumptions of Western commentators on Islam and the Muslim world; premises which inevitably result in works plagued by confirmation biases rather than ones grounded in any meaningful analysis of reality. An array of informed voices – theologians (Muslim, Jewish and Christian), jihadists, mainstream Islamists (politicos and exiles), the man-on-the-street and even close relatives – provide the grist from which Hamid grinds out his thesis of Islamic exceptionalism. With frequent recourse to polls and surveys he fashions a compelling case for Islam’s uniqueness amongst the major world religions; specifically its uniqueness in resisting secularism and the nation state model – cornerstones of contemporary Western civilisation. As case studies to illustrate his theory Hamid explores the respective experiences of Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia in the post-colonial period, with a heavy emphasis on the aftermath of the Arab spring.
Through the course of reading Islamic Exceptionalism I found precious few points of disagreement. It was at times a somewhat surreal (but salutary) experience, almost as if I were perusing a compendium of my own opinions. That being said there were two issues on which mine and the author’s analysis did diverge but I will save these objections for the coda.
The title, “Islamic Exceptionalism” poses the immediate question – why should it matter if Islam is exceptional? All religions are exceptional in some way or another – it’s what makes them distinctive from the next faith. In the case of Islam, however, we discover that this exceptionalism carries political ramifications such as are liable to impact heavily upon global security and economic stability.
The Middle East’s descent into anarchy in recent years, the election (and deposition) of the region’s first Islamist head of state, the ascent of Islamic State and the Jihadists in Syria and Iraq and the resultant refugee crisis it has unleased on Europe are all events that have confounded Western thinkers and policy makers. The idea that the Middle East, barring a handful of decrepit fanatics, would readily embrace democracy, secularism and the Westphalian paradigm and that this new order would be characterised by liberalism and laissez-faire economics was the conceit that informed neo-conservative policy makers in the run up to the Iraq invasion. It was the same thinking that lead the Democratic administration of President Obama to endorse the Arab revolutions of 2011 and the initial uprising against President Assad of Syria. That two successive US administrations got it so wrong highlights the need on behalf of Western policy makers for a far clearer understanding of Islam and the relationship of Muslims to their faith. It is only through such an understanding that one can hope to make sense of the region’s troubles and in this respect Islamic Exceptionalism is revelatory and ground breaking.
The first half investigates the foundational events of Islam, its theology and its jurisprudence, and how these were inextricably tied into the religious polities – or caliphates – that held sway over the Muslim world up until the abolition of the Ottoman state in 1924. In the process Hamid pours cold water on the idea (or better put, ‘hope’), trumpeted by so many, that given a little gentle encouragement the Middle East will travel along the same trajectory as Western Europe, passing through a reformation and enlightenment phase to emerge with secularism and liberalism predominant.
“It means that, instead of hoping for a reformation that will likely never come, we have to address Islamic exceptionalism and, to the extent we are able and willing, come to terms with it.”
Highlighting how misconceived such aspirations are Hamid cites the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, noting that:
“The Islamic State, after all, draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have a broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations. They may not agree with the group’s interpretation of the caliphate, but the notion of a caliphate is a powerful one,…”
The second half charts the struggles of Muslim majorities to reconcile their faith with the political reality post demise of the Caliphate. The constant conflict between Islam and the modern secular nation states that replaced it is explored through reference to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the AKP in Turkey and Ennahda in Tunisia – all of which Hamid categorises as mainstream Islamist movements.
Here he defines the term ‘Islamist movement’:
“Islamist movements are those that believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life and explicitly organize around those goals in the public arena.”
And also the associated term, ‘mainstream Islamists’:
“Mainstream Islamists are defined here as the affiliates or descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother of all Islamist movements…”
Islamic Exceptionalism starts by emphasising the centrality of religion to the multitudes of the Middle East. For illustration Hamid utilises his personal recollections of the infamous 2013 Rabaa massacre where 800+ peaceful Muslim Brotherhood activists protesting the removal of President Morsi, were mercilessly gunned down by the Egyptian security forces. The protestors’ resoluteness in the face of mortal danger and their decision to face the bullets rather than to flee is portrayed as emblematic of the seriousness many Muslims accord to their religious convictions. In the Muslim world religion really does matter. In a particularly poignant scene a bloodied, dying acolyte utters the Islamic testimony of faith urging those around him not to let his blood go to waste. Such seemingly fanatical and irrational devotion to a belief system more commonly associated in Western minds with the devotees of groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State is, Hamid argues, far from their exclusive preserve. The desire to attain eternal salvation is a motivating factor for mainstream Islamists also. That such soteriological motivations appear quaint and irrational to Western minds is neither here nor there – what matters Hamid avers is that they really do inform the daily decisions of millions of people in the Middle East. Islam can still stir “messianic passions”, to borrow a phrase from Mark Lilly, in Muslims in a way Westerners had long since assumed that theology was incapable of.
But why? Why is Islam so uniquely resistant to secularism and its offshoot liberalism? What precisely is it about this religion that makes it so, as opposed to Christianity and Judaism – the other two Abrahamic faiths? The answer to this we learn lies in the origins of Islam and the life of its founder Prophet Muhammad (saw):
“MUSLIMS ARE, OF COURSE, not bound to Islam’s founding moment, but neither can they fully escape it. The Prophet Mohamed was a theologian, a politician, a warrior, a preacher, and a merchant, all at once. Importantly, he was also the builder of a new state.”
By recourse to Islamic history and some theological expertise Hamid contends that Islam, ab initio, constituted a political as well as a spiritual programme. From a salvific perspective absolution and the averting of eternal damnation lies contingent upon obedience to the law (the Shariah). Legal injunctions litter the corpus of the Qur’an and Hadith literature, explaining the existence through history of numerous compendiums on Islamic law and governance. Of course legal precepts and injunctions are useless without the relevant mechanisms to enact and enforce them – mechanisms that are the remit of the state. By contrast Christian soteriology was premised on the vicarious atoning sacrifice of Christ that freed men from the strictures of the Mosaic Law. As such Christianity saw no issue in leaving Ceasar to govern the earthly domain while proclaiming Christ (and his papal successors) as sovereign of the spiritual. Rabbinic Judaism, while having a legal code (Halakhah) analogous to the Shariah, was historically concerned with conformity of the individual to its punctilio rather than its enforcement at a governmental level – a prospect that was for centuries unfeasible anyway.
In Hamid’s opinion, the differing conceptions of Muslims and Christians towards their respective scriptures is also of vital import. While the former – and though the book neglects to mention it, it must be borne in mind that Christianity as a faith is in rapid decline in the West – are happy to accept theirs as the reflection of divine guidance as conveyed by a human author, Muslims hold a far stricter view, believing the Qur’an to be the literal word of God – absolutely inerrant and immutable. And while interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith are often far from literal there nonetheless exists a hermeneutical framework for understanding the texts that is hard to violate without rendering them meaningless. All of which leads Hamid to the conclude that:
“Within Islam, those intent on finding something that offers doctrinal support for the privatization of religion and the separation of religion from politics will struggle to find much of use. This is not to say it can’t be done…but it requires such conceptual stretching, hermeneutical acrobatics, and sheer creativity that it is unlikely a large number of Muslims will sign on. This, I would argue, is why they haven’t.”
Transitioning from the theological to the political Hamid searches back for the origins of the modern day Islamist movements, locating them in the intellectual efforts to arrest the economic, scientific and political decline the Muslim world was experiencing in the run up to, and aftermath of, the break-up of the Ottoman caliphate. That Islamism is indeed a modern day phenomenon is precisely the point Hamid is making for in centuries past there was simply no question that Islam and the state (or the Caliphate) were two sides of the same coin.
“The very idea of Islamism— that Islam and Islamic law should play a central role in political life— would have been met with confused looks and blank stares at any point before the nineteenth century.”
Islamism didn’t, therefore, arise in a vacuum. Rather it was born of a reactionary response to a burgeoning modernist movement infesting the Muslim world; a movement inspired by Europe’s ascendancy over the previous two centuries. Whereas the modernists sought, and continue to seek, societal advancement via the embrace of secularism and the banishment of religion from the public arena, closely coupled to a strong nationalist identity, the Islamists saw the abandonment of Islamic law and consequent moral atrophying as the causes of Muslims decline. It is the struggle between these two camps that ultimately lies at the heart of the Middle East’s instability and which the latter half of Islamic Exceptionalism attempts to elucidate and dissect.
The most (in)-famous and virulent of the early modernists was the Turkish nationalist leader, Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’ – the man responsible for abolishing the caliphate and founding the secular Turkish republic upon its ruins:
“Ataturk saw Islamic cultural norms— and the legacy of Ottoman rule— as dangerous obstacles to his program of rapid modernization… What followed was one of the most successful models of cultural and social engineering of the modern era.”
“Turkey’s militant secularism survived Ataturk, with the military and judicial establishment settling into the role of protectors of the state, standing guard over its secular foundations.”
Yet despite decades of this social engineering and enforced secularism – a far more virulent laïcité than anything the French have yet to concoct – Islamism as an idea never died. It simply lay in abeyance, awaiting a more propitious moment before emerging anew in the 1990s. A similar story has played out in Egypt and Tunisia. Despite recurring cycles of brutal crackdowns, despite extra-judicial executions, disappearances, torture and mass imprisonment the idea of an Islamic state, of a return to the previous order refuses to disappear. [In this there lies perhaps a lesson for the proponents of ‘muscular liberalism’ and the disastrous PREVENT strategy] It is a testament to the power of the idea that despite the passage of a century since its forcible dismantling, millions yearn for the reestablishment of the Islamic state. In the words of an imam from Barcelona:
“And the Caliphate … We dream of it like the Jews long dreamed of Zion. Maybe it can be a federation, like the European Union, of Muslim peoples. The Caliphate is here, in our hearts, even if we don’t know what real form it will finally take.”
This inchoate conception of what an Islamic State would look like is common to both many active Islamists as well as the hoi polloi, yet the yearning for the return of an Islamic polity – Caliphate, state, call it what you will – burns brightly nonetheless. It is much a case of “we’re not quite sure what it looks like but we’ll recognise it when we see it.”
Central to the discussion of Islamism lies the methodology of the various mainstream Islamist movements and according to Hamid since the time of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, their approach has always been one of steadfast gradualism. Eschewing outright confrontation with state secularism they seek to advance a piecemeal Islamisation agenda for society. Rather than rejecting the nation state as the enemy – as more radical groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir and of course the various jihadist outfits have chosen to do – these groups work within the existing political framework, availing themselves of the ballot box whenever it is made available to them. For mainstream Islamists gaining the state rather than destroying it is the objective.
Hamid explains in lucid terms how the idea of gradualism and the long game strategy permeates the thinking and writings of all Brotherhood affiliated and inspired groups. It even colours their views on foreign policy relations. For they theorise that if enough of the population become “Islamised” they will eventually elect a critical mass of Islamist politicians, who in turn will “Islamise” the various organs of the state and the military – who will after all be drawn from the same Islamised masses that elected the politicians. Once the state has been ‘Islamised’ it will serve as the springboard from which neighbouring states with Muslim majorities can be Islamised via diplomacy and propagation. This in a nutshell is the mainstream Islamist strategy.
Such a strategy is not without its problems, however. Firstly the secularist opponents of the Islamists are prone to periodically cracking down on them whenever they feel their grip on power attenuating. And whereas the grandees of the Muslim Brotherhood are content to revert to their “long game” strategy in the face of biting persecution such as the organisation is currently facing at the hands of the Sisi regime, a younger more frustrated generation of MB activists are asking the question: “If murder and repression are the wages for our patience, moderation and engagement with mainstream politics what then is the point? If our blood will be spilt regardless, why should we not be more radical in our approach?” It remains to be seen if the old guard or the younger radicals win out in this internal clash of ideas.
In order to avert the bans and clampdowns from the secular authorities, movements such as the MB, AKP and Ennahda have traditionally chosen to temper their agendas in order to appear something resembling the social conservatism of the centre-right parties of Europe. In the case of Ennahda, Hamid devotes a chapter to examining whether their moderation has in fact rendered them a post-Islamist movement? Certainly there is disquiet amongst certain senior ideologues – most notably their erstwhile éminence grise Sheikh Habib Ellouze – about the course the party has taken in recent years. As Ellouze stated during an interview with the author:
“What begins as tactics, he told me, can quickly become internalized. At some point, if you say something over and over, you start to believe in it. No one, after all, likes to think they’re engaging in “double discourse” (something that Ennahda is routinely accused of by its opponents). To close the gap between what you say and do and what you believe, you may have to “shift” the latter.”
Later Hamid observes, in the context of ascertaining what has pushed so many Salafi Islamists towards Jihadism in Syria:
“If anything, the example of Ennahda was a cautionary tale, of how political compromises could undermine the Islamic identity of Islamists.”
The internal discussions raging within Ennahada and the MB are the natural consequence of attempting to advance Islamist agendas within a secular framework that is propped up by an entrenched secularist power base supported by foreign actors (Western governments) – in short the system is inherently rigged against the Islamists. It is to the shame of otherwise vociferous proponents of democracy and rule of law that such gerrymandering attracts little or no rebuke in Western capitals. A hypocrisy Islamic Exceptionalism duly notes.
And how much of Islamist discourse is genuine moderation and how much is expediency for the purposes of advancing a latent agenda?
“The unique situation Islamists find themselves in leads to confounding debates: What do they really believe? Does it even matter what they believe in their hearts? This presents a problem for Islamists if and when they try to moderate their rhetoric and adopt “liberal” positions. Their opponents look at these changes and wonder if they’re merely tactical, a product of domestic and international constraints. Among secular elites, attitudes toward Islamists tend to be “inelastic,” meaning that what Islamists do— or don’t do— has little effect on how their opponents view them. Islamist moderation can even have the opposite effect of what is intended, exacerbating instead of lessening distrust. This is a particular problem in Tunisia, where Ennahda’s sanitized visage— including tailored suits and skinny black ties at the party headquarters— and always on-point messaging seem almost too good to be true. To a skeptical eye, it might appear insincere and perhaps even evidence of bad faith. With the very foundations of the state in question, there is little incentive to believe the best of your political adversaries.”
Hamid tackles two important questions raised as a result of the participation of Islamist parties in the democratic system of a secular state. Firstly, how sincere are proclamations of loyalty by Islamist parties to the nationalist, secular constitutions of their respective nations? Secondly, can secularists and Islamists ever co-exist peacefully within the democratic paradigm?
With respect to the first perhaps the words of Ncemettin Erbakan, the late head of Turkey’s first Islamist party (and forerunner of the current incumbent AKP) are the most apposite “[democracy is] not an end but a means”. It was statements such as these – and many others delineating an explicitly Islamist programme for Turkey – that resulted in the ousting of Erbakan’s Refah party from power at the behest of the military and its subsequent banning by the constitutional court. Private statements of senior officials within the AKP, the Muslim Brotherhood and Ennahda respectively have similarly alluded to a desire to impose more stringent Islamic regulations on society but only once the ground has been prepared for their adoption. It would be reasonable to surmise from this that secularist angst about Islamist long term intentions are not without foundation. But then again why should their intentions pose a problem provided they abide by the democratic rules?
Hamid skilfully argues that the fundamental tenet of democracy is rule of the majority and that the secularists subversion of this betrays the very ideal they claim to uphold. Anticipating their counterargument of ‘preventing tyranny of the majority’ – or to put it another way that ‘rule of the majority’ is circumscribed by the provisions of the constitution which preclude the adoption of Islamism – he points out that constitutions themselves are products of the majority will. If enough of a majority wish to change the constitution they can do so. In the United States it requires a two thirds majority in Congress, rather than the usual simply majority but changes can and often have been effected. The parliamentary committee that drafted a new constitution in the wake of Egypt’s first free elections after the fall of Mubarak was comprised 50% of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Noor party – two parties who between them made up 75% of the parliamentary delegates. Had they received their due weighting on the committee the post-revolutionary constitution might have looked a very different document. In the end every society has the right to decide upon its particular social contract and governing ideology. Where there is overwhelming support for one particular vision it is incumbent upon dissenters to accede to the majority will. To do otherwise is both un-democratic and also a recipe for civil discord (however much Mona Elthaway might demur).
Apropos of whether Islamists and secularists can find a model for perpetual co-existence within a democratic framework, Hamid is not entirely clear. The dichotomy between the two viewpoints is stark and ultimately intractable, something he alludes to yet fails to make with sufficient clarity – one of my two objections to the book. While temporarily a level of détente is achievable, with Islamists agreeing to defer some of the more contentious aspects of their programme to a later date, this in itself is not a solution. Furthermore it is a negation of democratic ideals for a minority to hold a veto over the wishes and aspirations of a majority, a veto backed by an unstated threat of extreme violence. At some point something will have to give. Having taken us this far, Hamid refrains from taking the final step in this logical train of thought. If Islamists are permitted the reins of power unbridled by the threat of secular violence towards them, as the author insinuates their democratic mandate entitles them, it will signal the beginning of the end for the secular project that began a century ago with Ataturk. While the endpoint might not be the Islamic State of Baghdadi as many ill-informed or agenda driven analysts might have us believe but it most certainly will be an Islamic State. Islam cannot be accommodated by the political process rather Islam (in the vision of the Islamists and their supporters) demands to be the political process. Hamid’s view that Islamism and democracy are compatible whereas Islamism and liberalism might not be is one that I find myself in disagreement with. Islamism fundamentally opposes democracy in that the latter accords legislative sovereignty to the people over and above the dictates of God (as embodied in the scriptures).
Decades of repression and subjugation failed to kill off the Islamist idea due to the fact that Islamism derives from the most obvious, coherent and rational understanding of the Islamic scriptures and historical precedents. By contrast when the secular project is dismantled it will never arise again for precisely the opposite reason (a point made earlier on). While the promise of eternal salvation inspires Islamists to bear their sufferings with stoic resolve, secularism can offer little that might inspire its votaries to a commensurate level of devotion. People will endure torture and imprisonment in the quest for absolution but not for the right to wear bikinis and get drunk. In the end much the same way as communism perished as a thought amongst the peoples of Eastern Europe so too will secularism in the Middle East. Unless the Muslim masses lose confidence in the divine origins and inerrancy of their scriptures (a process which began in Europe with the science of Textual Criticism), a secular Middle East will remain a Western pipedream rather than a realistic proposition.
“One can hope that somehow – despite what I have said in this book – that Islam in decades or perhaps centuries will succumb, like other religions before it, to the appeals of secularization. My argument here is not that such an outcome is impossible but, rather, that it is improbable and extremely unlikely in the near to medium term.”
Hamid is dismissive of the calls for “Islamic reformation” and of those touting it as the panacea for the Middle East’s problems:
“The ‘Islamism is the problem’ and ‘Islam needs a reformation’ themes have become something of an epidemic, more often than not featuring an inability, or unwillingness, to understand how and why religion, in the broadest sense of the word, matters in the way that it does to so many in the Middle East.”
As a consequence of not being saddled with the West-centric assumptions of other commentators, Shadi Hamid succeeds where others have failed. As a Western raised Muslim having spent years immersed in the culture and politics of the Middle East he was ideally placed to write a book such as Islamic Exceptionalism. A slight disappointment was his decision to concentrate exclusively on the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots as I would have liked to have seen some consideration given to groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir who whilst eschewing the democratic process also reject the violence of the jihadists. Although exponentially smaller in numbers they are an important voice in the Islamist theatre and were the first to lay out a crystallised vision for a Caliphate (a word that for decades was synonymous with the group).
Islamic Exceptionalism is a message to Western thinkers, analysts and politicians that when it comes to the world in all its diversity, one size doesn’t fit all. If peace, security and economic stability are to be achieved, in the short to medium term at any rate, the people of the Middle East must be afforded the opportunity to choose their own system of governance free from external interference.
Personally I am of the opinion that Western governments would be better advised to formulate a policy of engagement with a future Islamic State rather than continuing with the current futile policy of supporting whichever despot will keep it in abeyance. The emergence of groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, the rising tide of bloodletting, instability and terrorism as well as a refugee crisis that threatens to overwhelm Europe are all symptoms of such an ill-conceived strategy. In a unipolar world with America as the sole superpower or during the cold war period preceding the ascent of Islamist groups, such a policy, while of questionable moral probity, was nonetheless of undoubted efficacy. Today in a very different geo-political reality it might well prove ruinous to long term Western economic interests. I believe there is much within Islamic Exceptionalism that lends weight to my opinion and it is my hope that those in a position to effect the necessary change of tack take heed of it.
Although an academic study Islamic Exceptionalism should nonetheless appeal to a far wider audience. Absent is the convoluted, dense prose that often characterise such books. There is instead a sense of dialogue between author and reader with Hamid often posing incisive questions as contemplation points. Clearly the intent of the author was that the book provoke debate – informed debate – on the root causes of the turmoil that has beleaguered the Middle East these past 100 years. Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable ,instinctually we seek to avoid confronting it but if there is to be way out of the current impasse, confront it we must.
Powerful and enlightening – a tour de force in the field of Middle Eastern political studies – I simply cannot recommend Islamic Exceptionalism enough and it should form part of the essential reading list for anyone wanting to get to grips with the religiopolitical dynamics of the MENA region.
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon Sayyidina Muhammad. Ameen.
[You can purchase ‘Islamic Exceptionalism’ on Amazon: https://t.co/KtVLsiEqI7]