Author: Shadi Hamid
"Islamic Exeptionalism: How the struggle over Islam is reshaping the world" | To establish a legal political order
The “Arab Spring” in 2011 was believed to be a turning point for the Middle East with the fractious and turbulent region set to embrace Western-style liberal democracy, as per Fukuyama’s “end of history” theory. But half a dozen years later, all these hopes are in disarray while the unpredicted rise of the vicious IS has further queered the pitch.
Is the turmoil of the recent years a temporary phase, or does it indicate some more systematic differences in the Arab world’s dynamics? Like it or not, it is the second option that is correct, says scholar Shadi Hamid and goes on to argue his case why the western concept of liberal, secular democracy may not strike roots in the region. (And his findings may have a closer relevance to India than seems evident.)
Hence the “Islamic exceptionalism” of the title, says Hamid, a senior fellow in the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, arguing religion and politics are entwined in Islam much more tightly than the two other Semitic religions, which could explain why they, especially Christianity, could go on to separate church and state eventually but why Islam does not have this flexibility. “Since the caliphate’s dissolution (in 1924), the struggle to establish a legitimate political order has raged on, with varying levels of intensity. At the centre of the struggle is the problem of religion and its role in politics. In this sense, the turmoil of the Arab Spring and its aftermath is the latest iteration of the inability to resolve the basic questions over what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a state,” he says. Hamid, whose first book ‘Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East’ (2015) profiled the Islamists and their evolution, while postulating that it was premature to write them off despite their reverses, carries his thesis further here. His first key point of Islam being “exceptional” as it relates to politics – “a controversial, even troubling claim, especially of rising anti-Muslim sentiment” in the Western world – is not good or bad but just is, and needs to be understood and respected.
Secondly, this distinction means the Western model of “a Protestant Reformation followed by an enlightenment in which religion is gradually pushed into the private realm” is quite unlikely for Islam, and an “odd presumption” for “a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution”. And in his first three chapters, Hamid discusses this extensively, comparing the cases of the three Semitic religions which originated in the same area but have widely diverged (and seeking to explain why). And it is this detailed but balanced and most incisive comparative analysis that is among the real strengths of the book. Based on contacts with senior functionaries of all the groups, he also dwells on their method of gradualism, responsiveness to international opinion and their own secular elite (mostly) – and its pitfalls – as well as why they may not necessarily be threats to democracy (which even secular liberals may undermine, eg., Egypt in 2013). Hamid is, however, an optimist – and notes the IS, which “revels in death”, will not outstrip mainstream Islamism which can be much more peaceful and pragmatic than given credit for. But, the main takeaway for us Indians from this book is to learn the correct lessons about the relation of religion and politics.