Well, it turns out, there is something going on with Islam, and Shadi Hamid, quite helpfully, has figured it out. But his answer does not focus on conspiracy theories, lone wolves, or terrorist plots; instead, it centers on the intricate relationship between faith and the state in the Middle East. In his illuminating new book, “Islamic Exceptionalism” — I can imagine a sly smile on the lips of whomever thought of that title — Hamid contends that Islam is unique among the world’s major religions, both in its obsession with wielding influence over government and in its resistance to the secularizing forces that religion in Western countries has experienced.
Throughout the Muslim world, the author writes, “Islam will need to play a significant role in the forging of political community, particularly where political community is weak.” Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, makes his case by surveying the history of Islamist movements and political parties in Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, particularly in the post-Arab Spring era, as well as examining the brutality and bureaucracy delivered by the Islamic State.
For much of its existence, Hamid reminds, the Islamic faith has been inseparable from politics and governance. The prophet Muhammad was a theologian, preacher and warrior, but also builder of a new state. In Christianity’s origins, by contrast, governing was not the point; Jesus of Nazareth was a dissident against the political order. “Within the Christian tradition,” Hamid emphasizes, “there was no equivalent of Islamic law — an accumulated corpus of law concerned with governance and the regulation of social and political affairs.”
For centuries, as Hamid sketches in rapid strokes, the Muslim world looked down on Christian Europe, satisfied in the success of Islamic empires — until it saw itself overwhelmed by the West’s increasingly secular colonial powers. The demise of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century only punctuated a political decline that had started long before. “The gap between what Muslims once were and where they now find themselves,” Hamid argues, “is at the center of the anger and humiliation driving political violence across the Middle East.”
Anyone assuming that Islam will necessarily follow the path of Christianity — that is, that it will undergo a reformation that channels the faith into the private realm — is likely to be disappointed. “Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics,” Hamid writes, simply and provocatively. “Islam is different.”
The surge of Islamist projects in the Middle East over the past century is an attempt at a kind of restoration. Hamid describes the logic like this: “Europeans were able to subjugate Muslims because Muslims were weak, and Muslims were weak because they had abandoned the true, original Islam. It was this conclusion,” he stresses, “that reflected the essential premise behind all revivalist movements.”
For the record, Hamid does not believe that “Islamist” should be equated with “radical Islamist,” no matter the rhetoric in the U.S. presidential campaign. He defines an Islamist movement as one believing that Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life, and that organizes itself around that goal. “Though they now find themselves eclipsed by radicals,” the author writes, “the most politically influential Islamist groups have generally been of the mainstream and nonviolent variety.”
He dwells on the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most influential Islamist movement, mass-based and hierarchical. Though the brotherhood had a history of violence — including the 1948 assassination of Egypt’s prime minister — it had renounced it by the 1970s, becoming more interested in contesting elections than in unmaking the state. “They were playing the long game,” Hamid notes. So long, in fact, that the group did not reach power until nearly a century after its founding, when the brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi won the Egyptian presidency in 2012 after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. “For the first time, the prospect of prolonged Islamist rule became more than just a theoretical consideration,” Hamid writes, and the backlash was predictable and fierce. The Egyptian military soon overthrew Morsi, and dispersed and killed brotherhood members through public massacres and mass death sentences.
“When observers imply that Arabs or Muslims are prone to violence, they’re usually thinking of groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda,” Hamid writes. “But the preponderance of Arab violence has come at the hands of ostensibly secular regimes that claim to be reacting against Islamist movements.”
In Turkey and Tunisia, recent experiences with Islamist parties in power have been mixed, Hamid writes. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has veered right on religious matters, a process Hamid calls “soft Islamization,” though with an increasingly illiberal, authoritarian leadership. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party, which shared power briefly after the fall of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, has sought to move to the political center, producing an identity crisis that recurs among Islamist groups. “These movements must demonstrate ‘moderation’ to secular elites, international actors, and any number of other skeptics,” Hamid writes. “Their conservative base, on the other hand, wants a dose of identity, ideology, and religion, and if not a dose then at least a nod to the movement’s ‘essence.’ ” Perhaps in part because of this tension, Tunisia has been a steady source of foreign fighters going into Syria, a sad result for the Arab Spring’s supposed lone democratic success story.
Which brings us to the Islamic State. For a terrorist organization like al-Qaeda, the establishment of a new caliphate was aspirational, but for the Islamic State, “it was something that had to be done, and as soon as possible,” Hamid explains. He explores the Islamic State’s elaborate legal structures and religious bureaucracy; unlike most terrorist groups, he writes, it has a “distinctive interest in long-term governance.” This is not at odds with the sadistic violence the group inflicts on Muslims and non-Muslims alike; for the Islamic State, Hamid explains, terrorism and state-building go “hand in hand.”
Hamid predicts that mainstream, nonviolent Islamism will ultimately prove more compelling to more people than the Islamic State, but he acknowledges that, even if destroyed tomorrow, “the Islamic State would still stand as one of the most successful and distinctly ‘Islamist’ state-building projects of recent decades.” And though it is not exactly a “welfare state,” Hamid determines, “by the dastardly standards of the region, it’s more than what’s on offer in parts of Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.” A chilling thought.
“Islamic Exceptionalism” is unafraid of its title. “The fear of being tarred with the brush of cultural essentialism prevents us from fully appreciating the role religion plays in the politics of the Middle East,” Hamid writes, in one of the book’s most challenging sentences. This is not to embrace the crude characterizations of Islam circulating in American politics; in other recent writings, Hamid has criticized Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. But this book remains pessimistic about the ability of Muslims to effectively reconcile mosque and state. “If Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics,” Hamid concludes, “then the foundational divides that have torn the Middle East apart will persist, and for a long time to come.”
I wish Hamid had spent more time exploring the future of Muslims in the West. In Britain and France, he notes, there is a vast discrepancy in how strongly believers in Islam identify with religion compared with the overall population. “Talk of a ‘clash of civilizations’ is as unwise as it is imprecise,” Hamid writes, “but there does appear to be a clash of values.” For the faithful in a secular America, how might that clash play out? If the answer depends at all on how Islam is treated in political life, the current climate may prove counterproductive. “In the heart of Western democracy,” Hamid laments, “unapologetically anti-Muslim forces — who seem intent on echoing Europe’s tragic past — gain ground, with their calls for an exclusivist nativism based on the imagined glories of better days.”
There is something going on here, too.