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Scholar Argues West Ignores ‘Islamic Exceptionalism’ at Its Own Peril

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The mainstream debate over Islam in the West tends to center on moderate versus radical, with a heavy dollop of terrorist talk thrown into the mix.

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Photo: Paul Morigi / Brookings Institution
Brookings scholar and author Shadi Hamid

Brookings scholar and author Shadi Hamid contends that Western societies are missing a big part of the picture, and that Islam as a political force should be a major part of the discussion. Hamid’s new book, “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World,” explains how the ancient religion influences law and governance and remains central to many Muslims’ concept of community.

In the book, Hamid offers a provocative argument that Islam is “exceptional” among religions in the way it relates to politics, with profound implications for how we understand the future of the Middle East. The scholar puts forth the theory that religion and politics have always been inextricably linked in Islam, making it inherently resistant to secularization. Hamid refrains from editorializing whether this phenomenon is good or bad; he simply suggests that it must be taken into account.

“We don’t have to like it, but we have to understand it — because Islam, as a religion and as an idea, will continue to be a force that shapes not just the Middle East, but the West, as well, in the decades to come,” says the press release accompanying Hamid’s book.

A senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Hamid is an American Muslim, the son of Egyptian immigrants who was raised in the tony Bryn Mawr community near Philadelphia. His first book, “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East,” was named a “Best Book of 2014” by Foreign Affairs magazine.

Prior to joining Brookings, he was director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

The Diplomat sat down with Hamid at his Brookings office to discuss “Islamic Exceptionalism,” the alleged hypocrisy in U.S.-led democracy building, why he’s wary of people demanding that Muslims denounce Islamic terrorist attacks and how the ancient religion can be adapted to a thoroughly modern world.

The Washington Diplomat: Why did you choose to use the word ‘exceptionalism’ in your book’s title? Many in the West, and certainly in the U.S., interpret the word to mean ‘better than’ or ‘superior’ to others in the same category. What makes Islam exceptional?

Shadi Hamid: I see exceptional as being a value-neutral word. Something can be exceptional and that can manifest itself in positive or negative ways, depending on the context. I also thought that maybe it’s easier for American readers to relate to that title.

TWD: But how does exceptionalism apply to Islam?

Hamid: I want to challenge this idea that being different or exceptional is necessarily good or bad. I think when it comes to Islam, the presumption is that if Islam is different, then that’s a bad thing and that Islam has to become more normal or it has to become more like Christianity. That’s a big part of what I want to challenge — this idea that all cultures, people and religions have to follow this kind of preset trajectory. It’s part of our American liberal faith; we believe there are universal ideals and values that everyone should not just aspire to, but automatically end up in over time.

Christianity went through this several centuries ago and they had an enlightenment and secularization, so it’s almost like that trajectory and multistep process is baked into our American DNA and in Europe’s DNA. It’s this kind of Western presumption about the course that history takes. I think that’s what makes Islamic exceptionalism so fascinating from a research standpoint. It raises many questions that don’t just apply to Islam or the Middle East but also broader questions of who we are and what animates us as human beings and what drives our politics.

TWD: How does Islamic exceptionalism, then, apply to current events?

Hamid: I think it [the discussion of Islam in politics] comes at a time when more Americans and Europeans are starting to kind of acknowledge the weaknesses of Western liberal democracy in light of the rise of [Donald] Trump, far-right parties in Europe, Brexit, etc. I think it’s dawning on more and more people that something isn’t quite right. How do we organize more successful societies not just in the sense of economics, but meaning? We want meaning in our politics and in the Middle East, people often find that meaning in religion.

In Europe, people are finding that meaning in ways that I would think are even more dangerous than religion — white nativism, xenophobia, hyper-nationalism. It gets at the question of liberal democracy: Is it enough?

TWD: Many in the West are distrustful of Islam as a force in politics. Certainly in the U.S. many of us value the separation of church and state, so doesn’t that pose a particular challenge for Islam in politics?

Hamid: You can’t force people to be something they don’t want to be. That actually can be more counterproductive or violent if you are trying to impose this top-down secularism on societies that are broadly conservative. When you talk about Sharia law or Islamic government, I think we, as Americans, jump to a conclusion and think that Sharia is automatically bad, strict, imposing and all of that. If we took 50 Muslims who believe Sharia should play a role in public life and asked what Sharia means to you, all 50 of them would say something different.

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Photo: U.S. State Department
Egyptian Minister of Defense Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi talks to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after a meeting in Cairo, Egypt, on Nov. 3, 2013. The Obama administration initially condemned the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's democratically Islamist president, but eventually mended fences with the military regime that took his place.

TWD: For the lay people among us, what is Sharia? The word is often associated with terrorist groups so it has something of a PR problem, to say the least.

Hamid: Islamic law is a shorthand translation, which is part of it, but even that is too narrow … it’s Islamic tradition, Islamic thought, Islamic philosophy — there is so much that goes into it. When we talk about law in the U.S., we have something very specific in mind … it’s very tangible statutes. Sharia was never codified; there wasn’t one book you could go to. That’s what made it such a diverse body of laws. A lot of it had to do with how a local judge or clerics would interpret things in their own particular contexts. There was room for interpretation. You could have a judge interpreting things one way in Morocco and another in Indonesia, depending on time and place.

TWD: American Catholics and Protestants are often debating how to incorporate ancient biblical Christian teaching to modern times. How does Islam wrestle with that?

Hamid: I argue in the book that modernity isn’t necessarily always good. It imposes structures that may not always have been natural or organic to these societies. Islamic law was designed for 7th-century Arabia … that was the context in which the Koran was revealed, so you’re trying to take this pre-modern body of law and knowledge and make it relevant for the modern era in a world of modern nation states. That’s a difficult square to circle. I think a lot of the challenges we see in the Middle East is trying to adapt these pre-modern ideas and fit them into these new modern contexts.

It’s something we have to come to terms with. My starting point as a researcher is we don’t have to like things we study or observe. We don’t have to like the Muslim Brotherhood. We probably shouldn’t agree with them on various aspects of their ideology. As Americans, we’re not going to like a lot of the things they say — fine. But my job as a researcher is to immerse myself in that world and try to understand and then try to convey that understanding to the reader.

Even if your starting point is that secularism is the best thing ever and that’s the way it should be, that’s fine. But others can choose their own way. We have to come to terms with the idea that Islam is not going to be privatized any time soon in these countries.

TWD: So you’re saying the world must accommodate Islam?

Hamid: What’s the alternative? We have to think of ways to … accommodate Islam’s role but hopefully in a way that is pluralistic and tolerant. Here in the West, if I say ‘accommodate Islam,’ I’m just saying it in the same way we would accommodate Christian Evangelicals or Orthodox Jews. If you want to practice in your traditional way, no one will stop you. As an American Muslim, if a Christian group is talking about how the Christian identity is more central and there is less room for Muslim ideas, those are things that make me more concerned about my own place in society.

I say people should be able to express their Islamic beliefs any way they want as long as they do so through the legal and democratic mechanism protected under our Constitution. When I say accommodate, it means we accommodate people who are different than us. No one is talking about changing our Constitution. This fear of Sharia law being implemented in certain parts of the U.S. — are you kidding me? Of course it has to be legal and of course it has to be expressed through the democratic process.

TWD: Where is that happening elsewhere in the world?

Hamid: Indonesia and Malaysia I think are two positive examples where Islam has become normalized in public life. It hasn’t become as polarizing. Oddly enough, Indonesia is one of the more democratic Muslim-majority countries, but it’s also a country that has had the implementation of more Sharia bylaws on the local level than say Egypt, Jordan or Morocco. Why? Because there is more decentralization and more democracy. If people are saying they want more Islam in their politics, then regardless of what party you are, you have to learn to speak the language of religion. That’s why I actually say democratization and Islamization are likely to go hand in hand, not the other way around.

The more democracy you have, the more people are going to want to express the sentiment. They may say, ‘Why can’t we have more Sharia at the local level, at least on certain issues?’

TWD: The administration of George W. Bush was very bullish on democratizing the Middle East, but the West hasn’t always been happy with the result. The Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic rise to power — peaking with Mohamed Morsi’s election as president in 2012 — is one example.

Hamid: As disastrous as the Bush administration was, one of the things they did get right was the freedom agenda, at least its basic premise that the only way to fight terrorism and extremism in the long term is to promote more open democratic societies where people have a way to express their grievances peacefully. If they can’t, they are more likely to turn to other methods, some of them violent. I think that basic premise was actually correct. What I think the Bush administration didn’t quite realize or understand is that if people had the choice to vote in free and fair elections, they would tend to vote for Islamic parties. And they were totally unprepared for that or the implications of that.

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Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama gazes down a hallway during a tour of Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, on June 4, 2009. Author Shadi Hamid says U.S. presidents often like the idea of democracy in the Muslim world, until Islamists come to power.

I think there was a sort of a presumption that people would vote for less religious parties over time and become more moderate and naturally gravitate in this positive direction, that people would naturally become more pro-American somehow. People in the Bush administration believed in democracy in theory, but they weren’t comfortable with it in practice.

It’s still a challenge today. When the Brotherhood was overthrown — a democratically elected president was overthrown by a military coup in 2013 — the Obama administration refused to call that a coup…. Even to this day, with the Obama administration, we have this same problem that they’re not comfortable with the idea of Islamist parties coming to power through free elections.

TWD: Where does the Islamic State [also known as ISIS] fit into all of this?

Hamid: ISIS’s legacy will be very important because they are state builders. They haven’t just been blowing things up like al-Qaeda; they’ve also been trying to build their state. That’s what makes them even scarier. They have an interest in governance and they represent this idea of establishing a new set of structures in the Middle East. Their legacy, as I see it, is whenever you have an ungoverned space in a Muslim-majority country, you’ll have that local extremist group who says ISIS set the standard.

TWD: The rise of Donald Trump suggests that some Americans are supportive of a more hardline approach toward the Islamic religion in the U.S. What’s your view of his rise? You’ve said that it plays into the hands of the Islamic State.

Hamid: ISIS wants Muslims in the West to feel more alienated. They want French Muslims to not feel fully French or American Muslims to not feel American. If there are more disillusioned Muslims in the West, they can draw a few more lone wolves. ISIS doesn’t want mass support; they are under no illusions.

The thing that is so scary about terrorism is first of all, you can’t eliminate it. What we can change is how we as Americans react to it. ISIS is betting we’ll have a bad reaction to terrorism. If America was seen as going in and blowing things up, then ISIS would gain more sympathy in the Middle East. This is where the Iraq War was so dangerous. Trump contributes to this narrative that Muslims don’t belong in the West, that Muslims are never going to be fully American. It’s very dangerous to feed into that rhetoric. It divides our society.

TWD: Some Americans contend that the Muslim community in the U.S. needs to be more vocal in its denunciation of terrorism. I’m sure you’ve heard the sentiment.

Hamid: I get it more often than I would like. I’m a little bit tired of it because Muslims have been doing so much condemning. We have a joke in the Muslim community that we should just come up with an ‘I condemn’ app for our phones. Every American Muslim organization and leader and imam, they’ve been very outspoken against ISIS … even to the extent that there are American Muslim leaders who are on ISIS’s kill list. That stuff doesn’t get as much attention on Fox News because it’s not exciting to people. People want to focus on the sensational. I’m my own person. I’m not responsible for anyone else. If individual Muslims want to go around condemning stuff, that’s great — more power to them — but this kind of built-in presumption or expectation that I have to issue some statement of condemnation, I think that is very problematic. I shouldn’t feel under any pressure to do that.

TWD: Finally, who is your target audience with the book?

Hamid: I want any American who is wondering about Islam and is confused about Islam to pick it up. I want my book to help offer greater understanding. I’m not under any illusion that people are going to agree with everything I write in my book, and that’s not even my goal. But if someone can pick up my book and come out with at least a slightly better understanding of the Middle East and Islam, that to me would be great.


About the Author

Michael Coleman (@michaelcoleman) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat

Last Edited on August 4, 2016