INTERVIEW: Shadi Hamid on the past and future of political Islam

INTERVIEW: Shadi Hamid on the past and future of political Islam

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Shadi Hamid on the past and future of political Islam

A man reads in front of the al-Azhar mosque in the Egyptian capital Cairo. AFP photo

Shadi Hamid’s new book “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World” (reviewed in HDN here) argues that current troubles in the Middle East are tied to unresolved questions of how Islam relates to the state. 

“Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics,” writes Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Instability is inevitable so long as that difference is not accommodated in governance and legal structures. Hamid spoke to Hürriyet Daily News about his work, its implications for today’s Turkey, and what the future holds for the wider region. This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

This new book follows your previous book, published in 2014, “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.” Back then, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, you described how Islamist participation in democracy was inevitable and should be facilitated. Obviously the landscape has changed a lot since then. What big shifts did you want to address in the new book?

I really wanted to address the question of how much religion matters. How much of this has to do with "Islam" and how much of it has to do with political or economic factors. That's the question that I've gotten so much from American observers. This book is an attempt to situate the role of religion, at a time when we're trying to understand the rise of ISIS and the region's descent into violence and civil war. 

I make an argument that I'm slightly uncomfortable with. I realize that some people will misinterpret it and some will abuse it for purposes that I’m against. I argue that Islam is in fact exceptional. Islam is fundamentally different than other major religions in important ways, primarily in how it relates to law, politics and governance. What that means in practice is that Islam - historically but also today - plays an outsize role in public life, and also that it appears to be uniquely resistant to secularization. There have been many attempts to neutralize or privatize Islam, or make it less relevant in everyday life. But those attempts have failed. This forces us to reckon with the possibility that we aren't all the same. We don't all necessarily want the same things. 

I'm trying to challenge the liberal determinism that is implicit in so many of our conversations about Islam: That all peoples cultures and societies follow a linear trajectory toward a reformation, then an enlightenment, then secularization, then the “end of history” of liberal democracy. As an American, it is so much part of our culture to just assume that these things are inevitable. But what if they're not? It's hard for people to take on the prospect that in Muslim-majority populations there is a general unwillingness to push religion aside. That has major implications for how we understand not just the Middle East but also the future of Muslims in the West. 

INTERVIEW: Shadi Hamid on the past and future of political IslamThere’s a danger that this idea of “exceptionalism” plays into the hands of both the most fundamentalist Islamists and the worst Islamophobes.

Exactly. But I have to be faithful to my findings. What I'm saying is that the “difference” of Islam isn't necessarily a bad thing. Whenever we hear that Islam is different and it can't be extracted from politics, we assume it means that Islam is backwards, bad or problematic. But we have to move beyond this presumption that religion always plays a negative role in politics and that the solution is always to move to secularism. That's why I self-consciously chose the word "exceptionalism." For me that is a word that should be value-neutral. Exceptionalism can be good and it can be bad. We also talk about American exceptionalism - which can be seen in a negative or positive light. So I hope people will resist the temptation to just say "Islam is different and that is definitely a bad thing." I argue that difference isn't necessarily a bad thing.

You write that “when observers discuss the root causes of Middle Eastern conflict, they often speak of a crisis of governance or legitimacy.” This legitimacy deficit, you say, is tied to an inability to reckon with Islam’s relationship to the state. Could you explain?

When we talk about ISIS, or the demise of the Arab Spring, we might pick certain dates. We might look back to 2011 or the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But that's a narrow way of looking at it; these problems didn’t come out of nowhere. So I emphasize a date that doesn't get as much attention: 1924, the date of the formal abolition of the last caliphate, the Ottoman caliphate. Really ever since then there has been a struggle to establish legitimate order in the Middle East. 

One key issue has remained unresolved: The question of religion's role in public life. We've had an ongoing fundamental divide between what we might call Islamists and non-Islamists, who could be secularists, liberals, or nationalists. These are not just policy differences. These are issues that go to the very foundation of the state and the very meaning of the nation state. What is the purpose of the nation state? Should it be ideologically or religiously neutral? Should the state be entrusted with the mission of promoting a particular conception of virtue? With the Arab Spring, these issues bubbling under the surface finally had an opportunity to come out. People were debating them openly and publicly for the first time. 

There's a real urgency to addressing these issues head on. I'm uncomfortable when people feel a need to dismiss religion as a prime mover, saying religious grievances are just a product of more material things like power or economics. People often have trouble seeing or understanding the everyday role of religion for people who are true believers. 

What about the danger that seeing Islam as exceptional risks taking an essentialist position, assuming that Islam is inherently different, cannot change, and that by extension political Islam is the only authentic version of Islam. Doesn’t this risk presenting Islamism as the only “legitimate” political force, delegitimizing all opposition? 

If we're saying Islam is inherently different, what does that word "inherently" mean? I'd say that Islam is a product of its own history. From an academic perspective you might say, "Of course the Quran has something to say about law and governance because the Prophet Muhammad was a state-builder. He was capturing new territory and had to contend with questions of how to govern that territory.” If the Prophet hadn't been the head of an incipient state in Medina then perhaps the Quran wouldn't have had to address questions of governance in the way it did. That is not “inherent,” it's a product of what actually happened. 

This is a main point of divergence with Christianity. Jesus was not in a position to govern, he was a dissident against the reigning state. So it's no mistake that the New Testament has very little to say about law and governance. And in those crucial early centuries of Christianity, Christians were a minority living under other people's rule. It wasn't until several centuries into the Christian experience that Christians had to contend with these issues. So my argument is not essentialist; it’s an argument that history matters and the founding moments of religions matter. 

On the question of whether Islamism is the only legitimate approach, you don't need to be an Islamist to believe that Islam should play a central role in public life. You can have Islamism without Islamists. That may sound counter-intuitive but we actually see this in many parts of the Muslim world. In Malaysia and Indonesia ostensibly "secular" parties have experimented with sharia ordinances at the local level. Why? Because if they want to win in conservative regions, they have to appeal to conservative sentiment, where voters want more Islam in their politics not less. The most anti-Islamist leader today is probably Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But Sisi is not secularist. He has said very openly and explicitly that it's the role of the president to promote the correct understanding of Islam. He has a vision of an Egyptian state Islam. His regime has also launched campaigns against gays, Shias, Baha'is, secular dissidents, blasphemers. That doesn't mean he's an Islamist, it means he's reflecting a conservative consensus in Egyptian society.

I don't want to give the impression that if Islam is somehow exceptional that means it is a narrow tradition. Islam is a rich tradition with many different expressions and approaches - Sufis, Islamists, Salafis, Wahhabis, liberals, progressives. But if you’re a secular Muslim and are arguing for a separation of religion from politics, you're probably going to have a lot of trouble selling your case. Because you essentially have to argue against the prophetic model. 

I also wonder about the dichotomy between the “secular state” and the “religious society.” On closer inspection things look a bit more ambiguous. In Turkey, republican history is in many ways a story of religious sentiments seeping into the system basically from its founding in 1923. Certainly since the 1980 coup there has been a strong emphasis on the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” as the pillar of state identity. So clearly the rigid dichotomy between a secular state and religious society isn’t quite so clear cut.

Everyone uses religion. It's just a question of how they use it and to what ends. Even the most secular leader has had to talk about religion and incorporate it into state discourse and policy, because we're dealing with relatively conservative societies. Even an autocratic leader has to be at least somewhat responsive to that popular sentiment. Islam is such a natural currency of discourse and politics that it's almost effortless. That's not just today - that's the way it has been for the better part of 14 centuries. In the pre-modern era, Islam as an overarching religious and legal culture informed everything; it went without saying, so it wasn't said. 

What I think is different about the modern era is that Islam was challenged for the first time with the rise of secularism and colonialism, so people felt they had to affirm or assert their religious identity. Everyone competes with everyone else about who is the guardian of true Islamic identity. That's another reason why Islamism could not have existed in any era but our own. Islamism would have made no sense if we're talking about four centuries ago: Why would you have to call yourself an Islamist if Islam already imbued every facet of public life and politics? 

Turkey is a fascinating laboratory because there is so much to mine historically. It also supports one of the bigger points I'm trying to make: Even when you have vigorous efforts to control the role of Islam or minimize its power in politics, those efforts are doomed to fail in the long run. Atatürk promoted a kind of state Islam, where the state controlled Islam for its own purposes as part of a secularizing project, in which Islam would matter less and where there would be an overarching Turkish nationalism superseding everything. But despite generations of Turks growing up with this ethos, ideology and indoctrination, Turkey has seen a resurgence of religion in public life and politics. Examples of that are the AK Party and its predecessors, which gained ground in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s. The lesson there is that if people have the choice to vote in free and fair elections eventually they're going to say they want more Islam in their politics, not less.

You recently traveled to Turkey again for meetings with senior government officials and others. What had changed, if anything from your previous visits?

The atmosphere was definitely tenser. There was a sense that things weren't right. But part of what's fascinating about talking to people in the AK Party is that the polarization is so much more in your face. Not all AK Party officials, but definitely some of them made no pretense of national dialog or trying to reach out to secularists. Some of them were essentially saying, "This is our moment. We kind of hate secularists and we're not going to apologize for it. We want to destroy them and relegate them to the dustbins of history." As someone who has worked on Islamist movements in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia, I've always been used to Islamists at least offering the pretense of caring about the feelings of secularists. They may not be sincere and they may hate secularists deep down, but they at least feel a need to pretend. What was interesting - and in some ways even refreshing - about Turkey is that people don't play around: If they hate their political opponent they will tell you. That's also scary. It shows that the center has weakened. If you try to come up with the names of centrist journalists, who are somewhere in the middle, you don't find them anymore. Everyone is forced to take sides. That is the most dangerous aspect today of Turkish politics. It has always had a combative tone, but it seems to have gotten worse. You'd hope that with decades of democratic experience the center would have grown stronger but that hasn't been the case.

In Turkey there is this popular idea that political Islam is basically the natural state of things and inevitably going to be there, but it's easy to forget that Islamist parties only first started emerging in the 1970s and 80s. Before then there were fairly traditional center-right politicians. Perhaps this shows that the flux of history changes the parameters of debate and political Islam is not this timeless force that has always been there and always will be there. 

The argument of my book isn't that political Islam is timeless. It's that Islam as a religion or faith tradition is timeless. It is going to matter in people's lives in ways that Westerners may not be comfortable with. Of course I don't want to give the impression that Islam can be clearly defined – but rather than Islam in all its richness and diversity is a very powerful thing in people's lives. That's something that I myself have come to appreciate over time. You see all the different ways that Islam motivates people; it drives them, animates them, gives them hope and makes them do things they otherwise wouldn't do.

A lot of Islamist groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, have been ruthlessly crushed by repressive regimes. But you emphasize that these are mass movements with very deep roots and it’s almost impossible to stamp them out. How do you see their future? 

It's really important for us as analysts to separate our personal preferences and what's really possible in the Middle East. I myself as an American liberal may think that a more secular order is preferable, but that doesn't necessarily mean I should try to impose that idea on other societies. It should be up to them. Maybe in theory it would be better if the Middle East becomes more liberal and secular. But there's very little evidence to suggest that this process is going to come to pass. We just have to be realistic and come to terms with Islam's outsize role in public life. 

We also have to be careful what we wish for. Some might think it's good that mainstream Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood have been defeated and pushed out of power. But this has strengthened the narrative of jihadist groups like ISIS, which say violence is effective. They say the mainstream gradual approach has been tried and failed. So we as outside observers have to think seriously about the incentive structures that are currently in place in the Middle East. People have more and more incentive to turn to violence. That doesn't necessarily mean they're going to join ISIS, but it does mean that turning to violence has become more tempting. 

It's hard for me to be very optimistic. But my hope is that people in the region will find ways to address those contradictions through peaceful political processes. I'm not an optimist who says "if you get people together to talk to each other they will understand each other better and change their views." I don't really buy that. People will continue to have fundamentally different visions for the future of their countries. But they can have those different visions as long as they express them peacefully. That's the most we can hope for.

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