Islamist Apologetics

Review: Shadi Hamid, ‘Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World’

Mideast Arab Spring Stalled
Demonstrators throw a tear gas grenade during clashes with the Egyptian security in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt in 2011 / AP

The Arab Spring was hailed as a movement that would finally bring democracy to the Middle East and an end to authoritarian rule from Tunisia to Syria. But as is often the case in the region, disappointment was swift to follow. In Egypt, the first free elections in 2012 brought to power the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi. But after only one year, the Egyptian people demanded he step down and called on the army for a coup to retake the country from the Islamists. This history encapsulates the tensions between Islamists and secularists in the democratic process, which is the topic of Shadi Hamid’s latest book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.

Hamid, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, ends his book with a discussion of the dynamics between liberalism and Islamism in the Middle East, and the difficult democratic process after a revolution. He explains how democracy is struggling to gain ground in the region because the people often elect Islamists, which causes liberals to revolt and stage a coup. Islamist participation in the democratic process is polarizing because of the fears that it provokes (although Hamid doesn’t seem to think these fears are legitimate). This leads him to an interesting and thoughtful discussion of how to draft a constitution, who should write it, how much public involvement there should be, and how to craft nonnegotiable "supraconstitutional principles," like our Bill of Rights, that limit what a democratic majority can do. This is a useful reflection on the complications inherent to the region because of its religious history and the relatively recent introduction of secular government there in the 20th century.

Hamid’s titular goal, to point out how Islam is "exceptional," is also helpful in understanding Islam’s relationship to the law and the state. He spends the first part of the book explaining that Islam is fundamentally different from both Judaism and Christianity in its relationship to the state and governance. Christianity, he argues, didn’t have a "positive conception of divinely mandated governance," because its founder, Jesus, was a dissident, while Judaism had a similar body of laws as Islam, but not the context for governing (Jews lived under non-Jewish rule for eighteen hundred years). Islam, on the other hand, is a juridical religion created to dictate every aspect of life, and was founded by Mohamed, who became the head of a state. Thus, unlike Judaism, Islam had both the body of law, and the context to implement those laws—until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. This discussion is important in understanding politics in the Middle East, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In the final chapter, Hamid argues that if the Middle East wants democracy, then its Muslim residents, and we in the West, will have to come to terms with Islamist political parties and the fact that many people in the region want Islamists in power. This may very well be true, but prior to making this argument Hamid spends a considerable amount of time emphasizing the plight of Islamism and rationalizing its existence, leading the reader to believe that not only is Islamist participation in politics inevitable, it is, in the author’s opinion, preferable. Although Hamid never comes out and says so plainly, his argument amounts to a quasi-apology for Islamism and its role in the Middle East.

Hamid traces the origins of Islamism in the region, rejecting the idea that it’s fundamentally at odds with modernity. As a political ideology, Hamid argues, Islamism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction to secularism in the colonial age. Islamists, including Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, were trying to "reconcile Islamic law with the modern nation-state" and understand why Muslim societies were in decline while European ones were on the rise. These thinkers hypothesized that by returning to Islam and piety, Muslim societies would once again be great. Hamid argues that because the movement was a reaction to modernity, it is in itself inherently modern. Rather than rejecting modernity, the Salafist Islamist movement of the early 20th century accepted it. However, although it may be true that "[t]his was a distinctly modern Islam," that doesn’t mean Islamism was reconciled with modernity. This kind of semantic foot-work is dishonest on Hamid’s part.

Hamid argues that up to that point, Islam had been woven into every day life and law. No one had to think about it or affirm it. Prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Islam had been a source of "unity and consensus," he writes. In the pre-modern era in the Middle East, no one was fighting over secularism versus Islamism. But once confronted with secularism, Islamism saw the need to consciously assert one’s Islamic identity in the context of the nation-state, and to find a way to insert it into the political process. This made Islamism a point of contention in politics in the Middle East that persists today.

He’s right to note the shift in Islam’s role within Islamic society. After all, prior to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, the Sultan was the head of state and leader of all Muslims under the Caliphate and recognized as such by Muslims outside of Ottoman-controlled lands. At the time, it was a given that the state ruled under Islamic law. This changed in the modern era. However, Hamid seems to have golden age syndrome when it comes to the last Caliphate. Islam was hardly a unifying force for non-Muslim peoples and regions the empire was trying to conquer and colonize, like the Balkans. But more importantly, his descriptions of the Ottoman Empire and Islam’s role in it, and his negative comments about Islamism and the modern nation-state, raise the question: does Hamid think that democracy is a superior political system, and that government by consent is the only legitimate form of government?

It’s telling that Hamid sees a fundamental problem between Islam and the modern nation-state, often referring negatively to Islamists’ "obsession" with the state that "blinds" them. He thinks that the nation-state has an "inherently secularizing effect" that forces Islamists to give up their Islamic beliefs. By working within the state, they have to accept the "basic premises of statehood" (whatever that means), and that these premises have a "secularizing bias". This, too, seems to indicate that he thinks that the Muslim world would be better off without the modern nation-state and its secularizing force, and should instead return to the pre-democratic, Islam-infused era of the Ottoman Empire.

Throughout the book, Hamid takes a sympathetic tone toward Islamists, who he complains are rejected if they stick to their principles and disbelieved when they profess moderation (although he acknowledges throughout the book that their strategy is to play the long game, thus necessitating feigned moderation). According to Hamid, Islamists have to take this approach because otherwise secularists wouldn’t want them to participate in elections, nor would international organizations or Western powers (although he fails to mention that the Obama administration quietly backed Morsi when he was elected president in Egypt in 2012). In his opinion, Islamists have no choice but to be two-faced if they want to gain power.

And yet, he seems to look down on the compromises that Islamists have made to keep their heads above water. In Tunisia, he claims the Islamist party, Ennahda, cared more about its survival than its ideals when it stepped down from power after elections and backed the secular Nidaa Tounes party in 2014. He calls this "a cautionary tale, of how political compromises could undermine the Islamic identity of Islamists." He seems to think Islamists shouldn’t have to compromise, making it sound like it’s the secularists who shouldn’t be a part of the political process, and that compromising with them somehow undermines the Muslim "identity" of Islamists. Most secularists in the Middle East are themselves Muslim, although some are also non-Muslim minorities—Christians, Jews, Sufis, etc. But they all recognize the danger in mixing religion and the state.

Hamid has a point about the chronic problem of coups following Islamist political victories, but he never fully acknowledges why secularists are so wary of Islamist involvement in democratic elections. The very idea of Islamism is that there should be no separation of state and religion, something he himself acknowledges. So, if Islamists win a democratic election, it seems reasonable to assume that, although perhaps not immediately, they will eventually ban non-Islamist political parties, to say nothing of free speech and equal rights, because their entire political raison d’être is to have Islamic governance. In this way, Islamism is not compatible with democracy because it always leads to a suppression of non-Islamists, whether liberal Muslims or non-Muslim minorities.

Hamid argues, instead, that the incompatibility comes from the unfounded fears Islamists provoke and the inevitable secular coups they engender. That is, he points to the results, not the causes. He names the secularists as the most anti-democratic actors in the Middle East—and in the post-Arab Spring era, he’s right. And he’s right, too, to note that this will have a radicalizing effect on Islamist groups. But this is a dishonest assessment of the true goals of Islamism that elsewhere in the book he acknowledges. Islamists fundamentally want religion and government to be intertwined, and will always have this as their ultimate objective.

Hamid doesn’t come out and say he’s against democracy. In fact, he makes sure to explicitly argue in the final chapter that the solution is to find a place for Islam in the democratic process, and for that process to play out long enough that "Islam, Islamism, and democracy can evolve in a natural, uncontrived fashion." But it often feels like he’s engaging the very same double-speak that he says Islamists are forced to use in order to avoid being shunned. It’s hard to make sense of his book because it’s full of these kinds of contradictions and inconsistencies. He bemoans Islamists having to compromise their Islamist views in order to work with secularists or win public approval, yet he argues for a democratic process involving Islam—a process that by its nature involves compromise.

Hamid writes in his final paragraph that, "the problem with most Islamists isn’t their opposition to the modern nation-state but, rather, their obsession with it," because it has worked against them and their Islamist goals. According to Hamid, "elections are a means not an end." But a means to what? He doesn’t quite say, but recalls in the same paragraph, "a time when Islamists saw society, rather than the state, as the engine of social transformation." How else are we to interpret this other than inviting a resurgence of Islamism in the Middle East? If we take him at his word, Hamid’s point is clear: Islamists should not engage with the secularizing nation-state. Rather, they should change their country from the roots up, and let it bear the fruit of political Islam.