Shadi Hamid on Islamic Exceptionalism

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S Relations with the Islamic World.

Dr. Hamid is the author, most recently, of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World (St. Martin’s Press). His previous book Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2022) was named among the best books of the year by Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy Association. Dr. Hamid previously served as director of research at the Brookings Doha Center until January 2014. Prior to joining Brookings, he was director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. He is also a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Dr. Hamid sat down with Reza Akhlaghi to talk about his new book and the challenge of religious extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Let’s start with one of the key arguments in your new book that Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics, and that observers and analysts of Middle Eastern affairs should not have high expectations for liberal democracy in the Arab world. Can you elaborate on this key theme in your book?

This is one of the book’s main arguments but also one of the most easily misconstrued. I argue that Islam is “exceptional” in how it relates to law, politics, and governance. In both theory and practice, Islam has proven resistant to the pressures of secularization. I don’t see this as necessarily bad, since it’s unclear to me why all religions must or should succumb to gradual privatization. Not everyone needs to be the same or want the same things, right?

The starting assumption also makes me a bit uncomfortable – the idea that there’s this standard linear trajectory that Islam has to be twisted into something else, irrespective of theology, history, or anything else. It’s also patronizing. It’s almost like, “hey, you Muslims are having a tough time of it now, but don’t worry, we went through it too and we came out fine in the end. You’ll get there eventually.

There are so many assumptions packed into the way we talk about Islam and a lot of it is just counterproductive, because people want Islam to be things that it isn’t – and I would argue – can’t be. Some want Islam to move beyond the idea of Quranic inerrancy – that the Quran is not just God’s word but God’s actual speech – but this is pretty absurd. That would be akin to a Christianity without Christ. The idea of the Quran as God’s direct revelation is the foundation upon which so much in Islam is based. Without that, you wouldn’t have Islam; you’d have a different religion. Maybe that’s what some in the West want: They want Islam to be something other than what it has been. People are free to think that. It just happens to be a non-starter.

Does de-radicalization of young Muslims living in the West with propensity to join radical movements require a change of discourse by leaders of Muslim communities? Do you think the ability of Muslim leaders in the West is a force to be reckoned with due to the ideological and cultural influence they exert within their communities?

Muslim leaders in the West should do whatever they can. They already are, at least in the United States. I feel American Muslim leaders spend half their time condemning terrorist attacks that they have nothing to do with. This feeds into this notion that just by virtue of being Muslim, there’s some obligation to say something every time a terrorist attack happens. If people want to condemn and speak out, then great. I’m just uncomfortable with anything that leads us toward a kind of presumed communal responsibility.

I’m generally skeptical of a lot of what falls under “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE. There are a lot of great religious scholars and imams who are making compelling arguments against ISIS and what they stand for, but I always get nervous when I hear people talking about trotting around moderate clerics and sending them to speak to the youth in the Middle East in some ill-conceived Moderation Tour. If you’re already predisposed to radicalism, chances are you’re not going to listen to a State Department-approved cleric or for that matter a Moroccan government-approved or Jordanian government-approved one. Part of the problem in persuading would-be ISIS supporters is that the group violates Islamic tradition and doesn’t consider itself bound to the Islamic tradition.

The struggle over Islam and its soul is partly shaped by an internal clash of cultural and ideological values within Muslim/Arab societies on one hand, and global geo-energy interests on the other. Is this a fair assessment? 

So I’m a bit of an anti-Marxist in the sense that I think material factors as an explanation for human behavior, while they’re obviously important, they are usually overstated. Many if not most Western elites are technocratic rationalists of a sort. They are suspicious of “ideology” but, of course, believing that other ideologies are necessarily bad and contrary to the arc of history, itself a kind of ideology. If we can’t bring ourselves to take ideology, identity, and religion as powerful – and sometimes the prime – motivators of human behavior, then we’re in trouble.

As it relates specifically to Muslim-majority countries, the primary political cleavages are generally ones having to do with religion and identity. In my own fieldwork in the Middle East, I’ve always been struck by how little economic policy (or numbers of any kind) actually come up in conversation. In another sense, it’s not so surprising, since a party’s plan to fight unemployment won’t seem as important when foundational issues around the meaning and nature of the nation-state remain unresolved. In this sense, I think 1924 is more important than other touchstones like 2003 (invasion of Iraq) or 2011 (start of the Arab Spring). Ever since the formal abolition of the last caliphate, there’s been an ongoing struggle to establish a legitimate political order; a struggle that remains unresolved and one that will probably remain unresolved for a long time to come. You can’t fashion a legitimate political order without finding some way of accommodating Islam’s role in public life.

Based on an assertion you make in your book, “the heavy weight of Islamic history” makes the move toward separation of religion from politics and development of post-Enlightenment liberal type societies in the Arab world “such a path as difficult as it is unlikely”? What do you mean by that?

As Western liberals (in lowercase-l), even if we think that liberalism is the best option for organizing society, you can’t force people to be liberal if they don’t want to be. To this day – and I don’t know, maybe I’m missing some elaborate master-plan that’s been proffered somewhere – I’ve never heard a secularist explain how exactly secularism–in the sense of separation of religion from politics rather than separating mosque and state–would win out in the Middle East. So even if that would be preferable, it’s not going to happen.
Any secular Muslim reformer – and I think one of the most fascinating one was a Sudanese religious thinker named Mahmoud Mohamed Taha – has to contend with the weight of Islamic history. They basically have to argue against the Prophetic model of intertwining religious and political functions. It can be done, but it’s a difficult sell to ordinary Muslims who want Islam to be straightforward and would rather not delve into complex hermeneutical techniques of reinterpretation.

Do you think the ruling AKP party under President Erdogan has undermined and weakened Turkey’s post-Ottoman civil institutions? Can Erdogan today see the Gulen Movement (Hizmet) as a closed chapter in Turkey’s socio-political life, or should he still worry about Gulenists?

The personalization of politics is always dangerous, which is one reason I argue in the book against adopting presidential systems anywhere in the Middle East. That’s the last thing you want in polarized societies. If a president wins an election in a strong, centralized state, you end up with a winner-takes-all situation, and this raises the existential tenor of political competition considerably. That said, Turkey’s post-Ottoman civil institutions weren’t particularly great in the first place – they were premised on decades-long forced secularization and exclusion of Islamists – but that doesn’t excuse Erdogan and his allies for essentially redirecting that same state apparatus against their political opponents. As for the Gulen movement, they’ve misplayed their hand over the past couple of years, thinking they could win their struggle against Erdogan and the AKP. They didn’t, and now they find themselves in an increasingly weakened state.

You write about “an age of resurgent ideology” in as diverse places as Israel, India, and Europe; an ideology that revolves around a deep sense of belonging in one’s own community. But in the Muslim world this takes the shape of a longing for Sharia law and an equitable order. Why is that the case in the Muslim world?

Is a liberalism that prioritizes individual freedom and personal choice our natural state? For millennia, it clearly wasn’t. In the broader sweep of history, liberalism seems more like an aberration than a belated discovery of what we always could have been. Perhaps the arc of history bends toward justice, as Obama likes to say, but there seem to be some things that we cannot change. Humans aren’t economic machines. They often vote against their economic interests, not because they’re stupid, but because there are certain things that are more important, at least to them.

And this is where modern liberal democracies have fallen short: in providing a substantive politics of meaning. In theory, individuals, with all the freedom afforded to them, should be able to find the good life on their own, but this hasn’t worked out so well, in part because there are simply too many choices. Behavioral economics has shown us that having too many choices actually threatens happiness and fulfillment – the so-called “paradox of choice.” When we want to buy jam, we don’t like having 30 flavors of jam to choose from, because we’ll never know for sure whether we chose correctly and we’ll wonder whether we could have been happier with flavor number 28. I imagine many northeastern liberal elite types who have felt a small sense of panic when deciding which of the 50 yoga studios in Washington, DC to choose from. Imagine, then, if you have to choose between 50 competing conceptions of the Good.

In their search for meaning and in light of religion’s diminished public role, millions in Europe and the U.S. are turning to hypernationalism, White nativism, xenophobia, and populism. If anything, to believe in something beyond unfettered individual freedom seems to be our enduring state; it’s only a question of what that “something” is. In an era of strong, dominating, and centralized nation-states, the idea of a strong, autonomous society, where people form small, decentralized communities of belonging, has become quite difficult to operationalize in practice.

This is why liberalism, in addition to being re-thought, needs to be protected. Its resilience in the face of illiberal challenges depends on norms and institutions, which are designed to protect against our natural surges of illiberalism. As Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order, “That individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts.” Those communal instincts haven’t gone anywhere.

Hypernationalism, populism, and the like are all somewhat inchoate ideologies. They’re more tendencies than ideologies. Islam, however, in its various manifestations as a distinct and applied political project, offers just that – a distinct political project. And it makes sense to a lot of people in Muslim-majority countries because they don’t have to learn something entirely new. They already know that the Prophet wasn’t just a prophet, but also a politician. As believers, from their perspective they know that the intertwining of religious and political functions wasn’t an accident of history, but a fulfillment of it. In this respect, a public role for religion –  which I think for many of us from secular backgrounds raises immediate alarm bells – can actually be a positive thing, just as it was (at least sometimes) for much of human history.

All states require some unifying set of norms and ideas that bind citizens together; it’s just a question of what those might be in any particular context. The historian Ibn Khaldun popularized the notion of asabiyah seven centuries ago. Asabiya, roughly translated as social solidarity or group consciousness, provides cohesion and shared purpose. Nationalism, socialism, and secularism haven’t done a very good job of this in the Middle East; in fact, they’ve led to or been used as justifications for despotism, brutality, and mass killing.

The over-politicization of Islam can present some of the same problems, in Iran for instance, but my suggestion is more modest. Islam does not need to be the overarching raison d’etre of any modern nation-state, but it will need to play some role in forging political community especially where political community is weak.

Do you think if it wasn’t for the decades-old alliance between the Wahhabi religious elite and the Saudi royals—and the resulting Wahhabi influence over state affairs—today Saudi Arabia would be a place similar to Malaysia in terms of socio-cultural openness and greater women’s rights?

One of the reasons Wahhabism emerged in the first place in the Arabian Peninsula – and not say in Malaysia – was that the region and its inhabitants were more receptive to the kind of puritanism that Ibn Abd al-Wahab was advocating. That’s not necessarily an accident of history. Even if Ibn Abd al-Wahab had failed, it’s not as if some kind of Salafism wouldn’t have emerged, even if it might have been somewhat less virulent. Salafism—not a premodern phenomenon, but a modern one—is popular for a reason, and if there’s a demand, someone will have to supply it. Take Salafis, particularly outside Saudi Arabia. One could dismiss them as some foreign, unnatural cancer from abroad, but I think it’s an approach that refuses to take Salafism and its potent ideas nearly as seriously as it should.

It also sounds too much like a “false consciousness”- type explanation, which makes it easy for us to dismiss ideas we either don’t understand or don’t want to understand: if only those bad Saudis weren’t promoting and funding Wahhabism, those poor Egyptians – 28 percent of the population – who voted for Salafi parties in 2011 wouldn’t have fallen under the spell of this foreign ideology. Technically, all ideologies or belief systems are at some point foreign and unnatural because they presumably came from somewhere else and proposed some kind of break with whatever came before them.

How does the Sunni-Shiite rivalry fit in the current struggle over Islam and its soul, and where do you think this rivalry is headed to?

It’s interesting. Growing up as a Muslim, I never really saw myself as a Sunni, even though that’s what I was. It would have never occurred to me to explicitly define myself that way. It’s actually difficult to disentangle how much of the Sunni-Shia rivalry is about “religion” and how much of it is about “politics.” In this case, like so many others, these two categories – which we too often treat as separate – are endlessly intertwined. What starts off as “purely” about power politics between nation-states can end up influencing individual Sunnis’ perceptions of Shias and vice-versa. It can make them invest in centuries-old doctrinal disputes with new meaning, something that wasn’t previously cared about much. In any case, one thing we can be sure of is that this rivalry isn’t some hopeless “ancient hatred” that always was and always will be. If it were, the Sunni-Shia conflict would be more or less constant over time, when clearly it hasn’t been.

Turkey is a key NATO ally and a major Sunni-majority Muslim country. What’s your take on Obama administration’s response to the failed coup attempt in that country? As we get closer to the end of Obama administration, how would you sum up his policies toward the Muslim world?

As the coup attempt was unfolding, I have to admit I was a bit nervous. It reminded me of the sick feeling I had on July 3, 2022, the day of Egypt’s military coup, which we cowardly refused to call a coup. If you can’t call things what they unmistakably are, then that’s not a good start.

We’re lucky Turkey’s version wasn’t successful. It would have been painful to watch just how quickly President Obama and Secretary Kerry would’ve gotten on board if it had succeeded. The army officers involved in the coup attempt weren’t stupid. They knew Egypt got away with it (with Kerry feting Sissi as a restorer of democracy). Perhaps it’s now unfashionable to admit what the U.S does abroad actually matters, and can matter a lot, but it’s a reminder of the danger of setting bad precedents.

I think it would be a mistake to focus narrowly on coups. The problem is a bigger one having to do with the Obama administration’s quite self-conscious de-prioritization of supporting democracy abroad, and particularly in the Middle East. Any long-term fight against extremism and political violence and any attempt to tamp the ongoing civil wars spilling over across the region would have to include a serious discussion of not just the d-word, but also governance, state-building, and yes, nation-building.

When we talk counter-terrorism, we construe it so narrowly as to involve kinetic aspects of fighting terrorism but relatively little beyond that. Going beyond that would, of course, require more involvement in the region, not less; yet the overarching objective of the Obama administration has been to minimize our involvement in the Middle East as much as possible. In my view, that’s just dangerous.