Islam and chaos, perhaps two words most intrinsic to the Middle East, found their culmination in the Arab Spring democratic uprisings of 2011 and numerous manifestations of Islamic-based turmoil over the past decades. “I have become more pessimistic over time,” Shadi Hamid said at the Brookings Institution, describing his darkening view of humanity that resonates with many Americans today. After spending many years interacting with secularists and Islamists throughout the Middle East, Hamid presents a case for the uniqueness of Islam in his book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World, arguing that the faith is far different from other religions such as Christianity in how it relates to governance, law, and the modern nation-state. Released last week, the book contends that current responses to Islamic issues, especially in Sunni Islam, may be unfounded and ineffective because “one can sympathize with or support Islamist policies without being an Islamist”.
Since the fall of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, Muslims have for the first time in the history of Islam been without a caliph or caliphate, so they are unable to incorporate pre-modern Islamic law with the modern state, making the specific struggle of Islamism a relatively recent phenomenon. Hamid’s book addresses the origins, nature, and potential implications of this struggle.
Islamism, a politically flexible belief in the centrality of religion and Islamic law in public life, has led many of its followers to violence in reaction to secular, democratic, or repressive political agendas. Since Islam is so inseparable from politics, Hamid focuses on how Islam as a tradition, heritage, and law relates to politics, rather than how Islamism relates to politics. Islam and its call for a caliphate, a conviction held by a surprising number of Muslims of varying denominations and nationalities, intertwines religion and politics where other religions do not, making Islam “exceptional”.
Perhaps one of the most foundational points that Hamid makes is the comparison, and consequent contrast, of Islam to Christianity. A monotheistic religion which has experienced centuries of struggle between religion and state, Christianity is the best point of assessment for Islam, according to Hamid. Islamist movements are not willing to co-exist with other political or religious authorities, whereas Christian movements, even during the medieval era, were usually tolerant of incongruent laws. Islam also experiences resistance, often violent, from opposing sects within the Muslim faith, another unique factor.
In a recent article, Hamid reiterates a claim that “the Christian tradition seems ambivalent about law, governance, and power”, reinforcing the idea that Christianity and Islam have two entirely different agendas. In his event at Brookings, Hamid modified this statement to reference the New Testament, highlighting that Christ died, thereby releasing Christians from the law, whereas the law is intrinsic to Islam. Though the New Testament says little about governance, it gives clear instruction that Christians are to obey and respect all governing authorities, whether good or bad, since they are instituted by God (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2:13-16). Islamists wish to implement Islamic law in the modern state, which often results in rebellion and sometimes violence. In this regard, Hamid’s claim of Islam’s exceptionality is incorrect if it means superior compatibility with the modern state.
I presented this question to Shadi. Besides mentioning that Islamic law—a phrase common to his book—is not specific, he referenced Galatians 3:13, which says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law”. He also mentioned that the old Christian law was described as “heavy” and “divisive”, and Christians were minorities and therefore unconcerned with integration into the state. Ignoring the fact that the “divisive” law is so because it is impossible to fulfill, not because it is something to discard or disregard, there are other problems with this assertion.
1 John 5 says that “God’s commandments are not burdensome”, and in Galatians Paul maintains “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” just three verses earlier, not that the law itself is a curse. What Hamid failed to realize, or at least convey in Islamic Exceptionalism, is that Christ’s death freed Christians from the consequences of breaking the law, but not the law itself. Jesus himself said, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” (Matt 5:17). Just because Christian law lacks the punishment—for example, of removing a right hand for theft—does not mean it neglects to clearly state “Thou Shalt Not Steal”. Granted, Islam requires governance to execute and uphold punishment, thereby setting it apart from Christianity in a way, although the Christian consequences of sin remain in a perhaps less tangible and immediate way. The major difference is that God incarnate intercedes for repentant, believing Christians when they are unable to fulfill the law.
In short, for a Muslim the law is the means by which one gains their salvation. For a Christian, the salvation is the means by which one gains the law.
Though Islam achieved the establishment of the caliphate for over a dozen centuries, the present turmoil surrounding the Arab states can be traced to a far lesser incompatibility with the modern state when compared to Christianity, not a greater one. The present turmoil in the Middle East is a result of modernism, not a precursor. It may (or may not) lead into reformation, but it is certainly the symptoms of an underlying reform movement.
Hamid states that “‘Render unto Caesar what is his and to God what is God’s’ suggests separation between realms of activity but doesn’t specify what is God’s and what is Caesar’s” (58). Yet Jesus’ emphasis on asking whose face was on the coin shows that the coin (representing taxes) is Caesar’s (the government’s), and all other coins (outside of taxes), are God’s (1 Tim 6:17, Haggai 2:8).
Though his attempt to delineate Christianity left Hamid with a cursory proposition, Islamic Exceptionalism provides the reader with a thorough glimpse into the desires, conflicts, and methods of the Islamic efforts towards integration in politics, governance, and the modern nation-state. Chapter 4 focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood, a form of revolution that took grip in Egypt following an Islamic reform movement throughout the entire Middle East.
Springing from the premise that Muslims prosper in all areas when they are closest to true, historic Islam, the world’s largest and most influential Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, began in 1928. With over half a million members in the first twelve years, it remained flexible within the varying Islamic strategies and focused on recruitment, taking comfort in the fact that Allah judges and rewards his servants in the life to come based upon motive, not results. “Why am I entering this conflict? Not because of this life, but because of the next”, claimed Karim, a young activist involved with the Brotherhood (147). This sentiment underlines an entirely different force with an unusual standard of success. The Muslim Brotherhood “seemed most at peace when their backs were against the wall. The struggle for survival became its own kind of victory” (100).
Suppressed with surprising force in August 2014, its leaders fled, giving way to the rise of a younger generation with a different strategy: violence. At first restrained, then justified by political agendas, this new form of revolutionary sentiment reflected a “jihad” that held dying in service of God and the community in high honor: it was a slippery slope. Hamid describes how the Brotherhood began to distance itself from the new strategy, but not before the radicalism began to spread.
“What happens when efforts to apply Islam in the realm of law and governance fail, and fail repeatedly?” Hamid asks. The rise to power of the Islamic State came not from relative popularity, but from a disorganized and suffering state, poor resistance, and a certainty of something to fight for in a “nation” and era bereft of both. Despite numerous acts of terror both local and abroad, ISIS has been the only group that has somewhat succeeded at governing its conquered territory; and in realizing this goal, they once again made the caliphate a tangible possibility (217). Despite uncommon theology, ISIS justifies its violence and skewed view of “jihad” by selecting only certain forms of Islamic law, especially those from the seventh century, and by doing so has gained its infamous reputation.
Hamid rejects the assumption held by the Obama administration that the Islamist movement would eventually be defeated because it lacked a vision that appealed to ordinary people. He goes further to reject the basic idea that illiberal democracy gives rise to liberal democracy naturally without excessive attention, but rather makes a comparison to liberalism, stating that “liberalism needs liberals, but Islamism doesn’t necessarily require Islamists”. He cites countries such as Malaysia, Turkey, Tunisia, and Indonesia that have responded to Islamism with a surprising willingness to accommodate, unlike other countries entrenched with secular elitist governments that have caused the opposite. The illusion that Islamism can be suppressed through hard power is a fool’s errand, according to Hamid, because destroying an idea so deeply rooted in society is much more difficult than destroying an organization. Hamid claims the inevitability of Islamism having a place within the state, and so the question is not “if” but rather “when” and “what type” it will be.
Despite the in-depth analysis of the intricacies of Islam’s unique role in the Middle East, Shadi Hamid does not leave the reader without plausible solutions to each of its serious flaws. He compares Middle Eastern politics to a winner-takes-all approach, suggesting that alternatives to the system involve a democracy with a decentralization of power and governments with checks and balances. Rather than a total dismissal of Islamism as the problem, which he claims is an idea that has grown in approval since 9/11, Hamid suggests that “the only long-term solution is to find a place for Islam, in its varied political forms, within the democratic process” (257). If the “foundational divides” are accepted, rather than rejected, he thinks the negative effects of Islamism, including violence, can be limited since the hope of Islamism ever succumbing to complete secularization is doubtful, although ideal. In the establishment of a constitution by which to govern, he thinks self-restraint and the resignation to postpone tense ideological debates will go a long way to establishing peace.
Hamid concludes by stating that the divides in the Middle East will persist because religious ideologies are too strong and the democratic process too weak. “Islamist participation in the democratic process, even in the best of circumstances, is inherently polarizing and destabilizing” (265). Although the two appeared to be reconciling, the Arab Spring exposed that religion (Islamism) and democracy cannot both survive in their current form. Something “inclusive, legitimate, and lasting” must replace the last few decades of “checkered democratic experience”, and a good place to start is realizing that society, not the modern nation-state, is the place for this type of transformation to begin (268).
Hamid stated at the Brookings event that people will continue to hate each other for understandable reasons, but they can do so through a peaceful process if “we come to terms with Islam’s presence in public life in the Middle East and beyond”.
Although he himself admitted being uncomfortable with some of his own conclusions, he said the goal of his book was “to encourage a more constructive debate about Islam and its role”, and he has succeeded in doing so.
Although a more inclusive portrayal of Christian theological doctrine would enhance the overall rhetoric, Islamic Exceptionalism gives a comprehensive examination of Islam and its role in the Middle East as one attempts to uncover the origin and solution of incidents like the Arab Spring conflicts. For the Muslim, Christian, and atheist alike, it is more than a good read: it uses the controversial presumption that Islam is truly exceptional in its role in politics, whether for good or for bad, as a means of initiating meaningful and constructive discussion. And in light of recent events like the Orlando shooting in which an Islamist motivated by ISIL and its leader al-Baghdadi massacred fifty US citizens just a week after the release of this book, that discussion has never been more crucial.
Ryan McDowell is an intern for Providence. He is studying Business Administration and Economics at Pepperdine University.
Photo Credit: by Kipp Jones via Flickr