Recently, Providence editor Robert Nicholson sat down with Shadi Hamid, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World in the Center for Middle East Policy and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World. In a wide-ranging conversation, Hamid addressed the lack of cross-cultural understanding in the West, the value of pluralism, the possibilities of democratic reform, and the potential for increased Christian engagement with Muslim neighbors.
1) Why do you think Islam is exceptional, and what do you think that means for US engagement with the Middle East?
I argue that Islam, in both theory and practice, has proven resistant to secularization and privatization. In much of the Muslim-majority world, Islam continues to play an outsized role in politics and public life. I don’t think this, at least on its own, is a problem, since unlike most liberals I see nothing inherently wrong with people not wanting their religion to be merely a private concern.
As for what “Islamic exceptionalism” might mean for US engagement, this is where it gets a bit more tricky. If Islam is likely to play an outsized public role for the rest of our lives, particularly in the Middle East, it means US policy must discover a kind of humility about cultural and religious change, while becoming more ambitious about political change. Some sort of mythical Islamic reformation isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, “politics” is key because it’s electoral, legal, and institutional reform that offers a vision for how Islam’s role in everyday politics can be accommodated. And I believe it must be, in part because the only other option is suppressing Islamic politics—which has a disastrous track record.
This doesn’t require any value judgments, since you could still (theoretically) be an Islamophobe and agree with what I just said, as long you’re willing to prioritize the need for democracy over your hatred of Islam. Democracy in the Middle East is only possible if you allow diverse parties the right to participate, and this would include nonviolent Islamist parties, just as it would communists, secularists, and anyone else. If you ban such parties, then you’ll have something, but it won’t be democracy. In short, if you think more democracy would be good, or at least better, for the Middle East, then you have no choice but to support the right of peaceful Islamist parties to participate, even if you, personally or ideologically, hate the parties themselves.
At an even broader level, Islamic exceptionalism means questioning the conventional technocratic approach that sees problems both at home and abroad as products of material factors that can be addressed through targeted policy interventions. Things like poverty, underdevelopment, rural-urban migration, and so on all matter, but so do the things that can’t be measured. So, if you have an Obama-like policy approach that brings in the most brilliant subject matter experts, it won’t be enough if you’re not thinking about how to accommodate Islam’s place in public life.
2) Americans are pretty skeptical these days of democracy taking root in the Middle East. Are there any positive indicators in recent years that should give them more confidence?
I get why they’re skeptical. How could they not be? But it’s not as if democracy failed in the Middle East; it wasn’t really tried. We gave up on it when we supported a military coup against a democratically elected government in the region’s most populous country. And of course many Arabs, particularly so-called liberal or secular elites, gave up on it when they supported coups and counter-revolutions, in part because they weren’t willing to accept a role for Islamist parties in the electoral process.
There’s little reason to think there’s a tension between Islam and democracy (see: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan), but there may be a tension between Islam and liberalism. Perhaps this is where the skepticism of Western observers comes from, but—as I think more in the West are realizing in the context of their own countries—small-“d” democracy and small-“l” liberalism (in the sense of the classical liberal tradition) can sometimes be at odds. So, I’d ask, if we’re skeptical of Arab democracy, what is it exactly that we’re skeptical about?
Are we skeptical that democracy can take hold in the Middle East, or are we skeptical that democracy, if it did take hold, would undermine the place of minorities and women, or that it would result in outcomes contrary to US interests? Those are legitimate concerns, but they are concerns of a different nature.
3) You are one of the few scholars who isn’t afraid to admit differences between the Islamic world and the West. Why do you think it’s difficult for American scholars and policymakers to account for differences, and how in your view has this difficulty affected our policies in the region?
I think many on the American left and center-left are uncomfortable talking about religious difference, in part because they tend to be quite secular themselves. I think there’s a general skepticism that individuals can really have religion take precedence as their primary motivation over things like, say, economic interest or the pursuit of power.
But I think it goes beyond that. Talking about how Islam is different than Christianity can be perceived as “punching down.” I’m not unsympathetic to this concern, particularly when we see the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry throughout Western democracies. I don’t, however, see the deemphasizing of the religious or theological aspects of Islam as being a particularly useful way to counter Islamophobia. First, not acknowledging difference can lead to a built-in assumption that Muslims’ level of religious observance will “naturally” decrease, and that, in an ideal world, it should. But if, or when, it doesn’t decrease, it can lead to frustration and resentment: what’s wrong with those Muslims and why are they taking so long to secularize like the rest of us? It is better, I think, to better align our expectations with the reality that, particularly in Europe, sometimes huge gaps in religious identification and practice are likely to persist between Muslim and non-Muslim citizens.
I’m also different than many Western analysts in that I’m a “democratic minimalist.” I don’t have a particular problem with radicalism, conflict (as long as it’s peaceful), or fundamental disagreements about conceptions of the good. Democracy isn’t about resolving difference but about managing it, because conflict over the things we hold dear is natural, and there’s no reason to think that we shouldn’t differ over foundational questions if we claim to live in pluralistic, diverse societies.
4) The Middle East is not only comprised of Muslims. Historically, there have been large groups of non-Muslims settled throughout Muslim–majority countries, and Christians have played a particularly important role in Middle Eastern politics and society. Your thesis, that democracy should be accepted in the Middle East even when it leads to illiberal outcomes, doesn’t seem to bode well for Christians, Yazidis, and other non-Muslim communities. Where do they fit in your vision? How can Christians living in the West feel comfortable with Islamist governments who treat non-Muslims as second-class citizens? What guarantees do we have that these already-endangered populations will be protected?
The decline of religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christian and Jewish communities, happened mostly under the watch of secular nationalist regimes. This isn’t to say elected illiberal or Islamist governments would be better, but only to say that the notion that authoritarian regimes are the last line of defense for minorities is one worth questioning.
That said, I’m not going to pretend that Islamist parties are great when it comes to gender equality or minorities or freedom of expression. We call them “illiberal” for a reason: they’re not liberals (notwithstanding the performative moderation of parties like Tunisia’s Ennahda). The process of democratization can be destabilizing; democracy is, at least in part, about introducing uncertainty about who might govern you in four or eight years. So the US and other Western powers can’t and shouldn’t dismiss the fears of minority groups. Instead, we should maintain that democratization is necessary while being more, rather than less, involved in supporting democratic transitions, particularly in places where we enjoy economic and military leverage. The more involved the US and its allies are, the more they can incentivize governments to respect basic rights. This may not sound particularly reassuring, but it’s unclear to me what the alternative is. The only alternative is the status quo, which isn’t just bad for the rights of the minority but for the rights of everyone.
Which leads me to my next point. I think we lose something by cordoning off “minority rights” or “women’s rights” as something separate. This also plays right into the hands of autocrats who instrumentalize and exploit these issues (“we’re better than the Islamists!”) to fight off even the mere prospect of change. Women and Christians, like anyone else, deserve and desire the right to choose their own representatives. When there are no elections, or no meaningful elections, women and Christians suffer just like men or Muslims do. The same thing applies to restrictions on NGO activity. Women and Christians should have the right to join an NGO of their choosing and advocate for the causes they believe in. But under regimes that claim to be protectors of minorities, such as Assad’s Syria or Sisi’s Egypt, there are practically zero NGOs that can operate without fear of running afoul of the government.
Lastly, Israel is a country where inequality between the majority and minority is regularized and institutionalized. As immoral and wrong as this is, Israel is a successful democracy, and I don’t think anyone is likely to argue that the democratically elected Israeli government should be replaced by an authoritarian regime that happens to be somewhat better on Arab minority rights (narrowly defined). Under such a hypothetical dictatorship, Arabs citizens of Israel would lose the right to vote.
In short, democratization entails serious risks—and if I pretended they didn’t exist, I’d be being dishonest. But such risks shouldn’t be used to argue against more just, representative political systems where people will at least have the potential for a better, freer, more dignified life. Again, we’ve tried this—the authoritarian status quo—for quite some time. Presumably, at some point we have to cut our losses and try the only alternative that hasn’t been tried in any real, sustained fashion.
5) Since so much of the disparity between the West and the Middle East can be chalked up to disparities in religion and culture, how important is a broader program of Christian-Muslim engagement in this story? Are there any opportunities for engagement that you see as particularly promising?
I think the room is ripe for a serious, theologically grounded Christian-Muslim engagement, not just the nice fluffy “interfaith” kind we so often make do with. I don’t think anything particularly useful happens when you put a bunch of liberal Christians, liberal Jews, and liberal Muslims together in a room and get them to agree on things they already agreed on before they entered the room. I’d love to see a dialogue where evangelicals, orthodox Jews, and Salafis—some specifically selected for their controversial, intolerant views—get together with the goal not of agreeing but delineating the boundaries of agreement and disagreement. We might find ourselves surprised by the results.
As for theological resources that conservatives might share across faiths, something I’ve been thinking about more is the idea of the suspension of judgment. If you’re an evangelical who thinks that Muslims are going to hell, that isn’t, or at least it shouldn’t be, a deal breaker. There’s the widespread notion (so widespread, in fact, that it’s almost never countered) that to believe someone will be punished in the next life is to wish them harm in this life. Rousseau once said “it is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned.” But there’s a mostly forgotten strain of political theology called “Christian pluralism,” and there are corollaries in the classical Islamic tradition as well.
Expounded by the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, Christian pluralism takes as given that non-believers may not be granted salvation, but then it comes to a completely different conclusion than Rousseau. A Christian world is a world that is broken. Kuyper argued that “ideological fragmentation and division is simply the reality of life lived after the fall into sin.” According to his intellectual biographer Matthew Kaemingk, Kuyper is effectively calling for a temporary suspension of judgment. Kaemingk explains it this way: “The pluriformity of faiths would remain a permanent feature of political life until the return of Christ.” That sounds like something even a Muslim like me could get behind.
Robert Nicholson is the executive director of the Philos Project and the co-editor of Providence.
Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in the Brooking Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World in the Center for Middle East Policy and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.
Photo Credit: Shadi Hamid, senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, discusses the future of pluralism, citizenship, and religion in the Middle East at the 2017 US-Islamic World Forum. Alswang Photography, via Flickr.