Apologia for Islamism

Ever since it underwent decolonization at the end of World War II, the Middle East has proved notoriously volatile politically speaking. Until the attacks of September 11, 2001, the West remained largely unaffected by the convulsions by which at regular intervals one or other of its constituent countries has been periodically shaken since gaining independence.

It is against the backdrop of the present chaotic state of so much of the Middle East that Shadi Hamid, a Muslim American of self-proclaimed liberal and democratic proclivities, has written Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam Is Reshaping the World. He seeks to explain why it has proved so hard for legitimate governance to be established in the Middle East and in what unfamiliar a form the West may finally have to reconcile itself to seeing its being eventually acquired there.

In essence, the book’s central thesis is that the reason why (apart from in Israel) the Middle East has yet to achieve any lasting degree of stability, save through some form of repressive despotism, is that, alone among Abrahamic faiths, the dominant religion of that region, Islam, is singularly difficult to reconcile with the nation-state, especially in the pluralistic, liberal, democratic form that is widely taken as normative today.

According to Hamid, there are two ways in which Islam is exceptional that severely impede its reconciliation with liberal democracy. First, unlike Christianity, Islam’s founder was not only a religious leader and transmitter of revelation, but a political ruler, providing therefore a model of Islamic rule. Second, again unlike Christianity—whose adherents view their sacred text as the human record of the revelation of its founder—the adherents of Islam view theirs, the Quran, as literally the word of God, and as such inerrant.

While Moses, the founding figure of Judaism, was, like Muhammed, political leader as well as prophet, Jews have until only recently lacked any form of political self-rule, so that their religion has lost whatever political character it initially had in a way that Islam has never had to do. Accordingly, Hamid concludes: “because the relationship between Islam and politics is distinctive . . . if the people of the Middle East are to establish . . . a more stable and legitimate order, Islam will have to have its place.”

To illustrate how and why the exceptional nature of Islam has made it so much harder for religion to be separated from governance in the Muslim Middle East than has proved possible in the Christian West, Hamid surveys several ways that Middle Eastern countries have sought (vainly, to date) to reconcile religion with modern statehood. In all, he identifies four different models of Islamic governance. The instantiation of each of these models is currently being (or else, until very recently, has been) actively sought somewhere or other within the Muslim world by one or other Muslim group or movement.

Of late, it has become customary to refer to all such Muslim groups and movements that pursue such a political agenda in the name of their religion as “Islamist” and not just Islamic or Muslim. Hamid follows this terminological convention when he remarks that: “Islamist movements are those that believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life and explicitly organize around these goals in the public arena.”

Three of the four models of Islamic governance Hamid considers have been devised by those whom he calls “mainstream Islamists.” They are defined in the book as being “the affiliates or descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother of all Islamist movements.” Their distinguishing features are said to be: “their gradualism, embrace of parliamentary politics, and willingness to work within existing state structures, even secular ones.”

The first of these three mainstream Islamist models is that of the foundational Muslim Brotherhood. It was first devised in and for Egypt in the early decades of the last century, but, as Hamid points out, the model has since become “relevant to dozens of countries throughout the world that have their own Muslim Brotherhood-inspired organizations.”

The second and third are the “more localised approaches of Islamists in [the more] secularised contexts . . . [of] Turkey and Tunisia who have had to contend with decades of forced secularisation.” About this pair of countries, Hamid writes: “These two countries have been touted as models of reconciling Islam and democracy . . . [but] have failed to advance a successful Islamic synthesis.”

The fourth and final model of Islamic governance considered in the book is that exemplified by ISIS, the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” whose “rapid rise in the summer of 2014” he attributes to the “Arab Spring’s failure to produce a legitimate, stable political order.” Of this fourth and most brutally violent form of Islamic governance, Hamid remarks:

[W]ith its far-flung operational branches, or “provinces” . . . [ISIS] is one of the most successful examples of recognizably Islamist governance in recent decades . . . Its governance model might have been horrifying . . . but it was a distinctive model nonetheless.

Hamid concludes his survey of these four models by contending that, if Westerners wish to avoid radicalizing today’s young Muslims, they should desist from demonizing Islamism and from trying to impose on Middle Eastern Muslim-majority countries a Western, secularized model that might never suit them. Instead, the West should reconcile itself to a Middle East that may never become secular or liberal by Western standards, or at least not for a very long time. Thus, he urges non-Muslim Westerners to become more accepting of Islamist governance in its various non-violent, albeit illiberal, mainstream forms. He writes:

One can hope that somehow . . . Islam in decades or perhaps centuries will succumb, like other religions before it, to the appeals of secularization. My argument here is . . . that it is improbable and extremely unlikely . . . The only long-term solution is to find a place for Islam, in its varied political forms, within the democratic process.

Hamid’s central thesis of Islamic exceptionalism is vulnerable to one devastating criticism that has been levelled against it by a reviewer. Claire Sadar, program coordinator of Boston University’s graduate Division of Religious and Theological Studies, published her critique of Hamid’s book on the Muftah website, for which she covers Turkish affairs. In her review, Sadar draws attention to several pieces of research that clearly suggest that factors “other than religion” have a “greater effect on the political beliefs of Muslims.”

Among the research she cites are articles, published in 2003 and 2004, co-authored by two American political scientists, Alfred Stepan of Columbia University and Graeme B. Robertson of the University of North Carolina. They note that “396 million Muslims, about half of the world’s Muslim population, who live in Non-Arab League Muslim majority states, live in states with competitive elections. By contrast, none of the 270 million Muslims in Arab League member states live under electorally competitive regimes.” These findings tend to show that “Islam cannot, by itself, explain the exceptionally low performance” of Arab states.

By way of controverting Hamid’s thesis of Islamic exceptionalism, Sadar also invokes a 2013 article jointly written by Columbia’s Stepan and a professor emeritus of political science at Yale, the late Juan José Linz. Stepan and Linz cite the results of a recent survey of Hindus and Muslims in India that found 71 per cent of both religious groups there to be supportive of democracy. In India’s neighboring Muslim-majority Pakistan, by contrast, only 34 per cent of Hindus and Muslims were found to support democracy. Sadar concludes her review of Hamid’s books by remarking: “Religion matters, but when it comes to explaining the success or failure of secular democracy in Muslim-majority countries, other factors matter more.”

Astonishingly, despite his being a senior fellow of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, Hamid mentions neither of these pieces of research in his book. Nor does he make any but the most cursory of passing references to several 20th century Muslim scholars who have vociferously argued against Islam’s being considered anything more than a religion that is without any political agenda at all.

These scholars include Al-Azhar’s Ali Abdul Raziq. In a 1925 book entitled Islam and the Foundations of Political Power, Raziq observed that:

None of the scholars who attested the appointment of an imam [caliph] was a religious duty could substantiate this thesis with a verse from the Quran . . . Muhammad was strictly a Messenger, entrusted with a purely religious mission, uncompromised by any desire for kingship or temporal power . . . He was not a king, nor the founder of an empire, nor someone preaching in favour of a kingdom . . . The caliphate has always been, and still remains, a disaster for Islam and for Muslims. It has been a constant source of evil and corruption.

More recent Muslim scholars who agree include Mohamed Charfi, for many years a professor in the law faculty of the University of Tunis. In his 1998 book Islam and Liberty, Charfi wrote that:

Islam can perfectly well go together with democracy and human rights; it is not incompatible with modernity . . . [N]ot only such a reconciliation . . . [is] possible and desirable . . . it corresponds to the most faithful reading of the religion and the most accurate reading of history.

Charfi, too, goes unmentioned by Hamid. This is despite Charfi’s having been Minister of Education in Tunisia for five years in the 1990s, during which he undertook important liberal reforms to the country’s school curriculum that may partly explain why the political reforms achieved there during the Arab Spring have proved not altogether illusory.

Equally without mention by Hamid is Bassam Tibi, the Damascus-born Muslim professor of International Relations at Germany’s University of Gottingen. Tibi’s lifelong work has been devoted to disinterring the humanist tradition within Islam, about which he remarked in an article published in 2013:

[M]ost Muslims do not perceive themselves as Islamists . . . Those Muslims who are aware of the distinction between Islam and Islamism . . . are dismayed by scholarship that ignores the voices of “other” Muslims. . . . [T]he alternative to the war of ideas waged by Islamism is a peace of ideas based on civil Islam, represented by the “enlightened Muslim thought” committed to a revival of Islamic humanism.

The spiritual doctrine and practice of Sufi Islam, a nonviolent stream within Islam, only rates a passing mention from Hamid—he mentions the assault conducted on it by the Syria-born modernist Rashid Rida, whose journal al-Manar was to be a big formative influence on Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Writes Hamid:

Rida’s attacks on various aspects of Sufi practice… was an early sign of what would prove to be one of the most defining shifts within Islam: the at first slow and then rapid decline of Sufism.

It is, however, simply untrue that Sufism has suffered any such decline, despite the rise of Islamism in the 20th century in the Middle East and elsewhere. On the contrary, although Sufi devotional practices and shrines have come under assault wherever Salafis or Islamists have gained the upper hand, outside of the Arab Middle East this quietist form of Islam has gone from strength to strength, as was noted in a report about it in the Boston Globe in 2009 undertaken by the American historian of religion, Philip Jenkins of Baylor University, who remarks there:

The expansion of Islam outside the core areas of the Middle East is above all a Sufi story . . . Today, Sufi styles and practices dominate in the non-Arab Muslim world . . . [and] now encompass Islam’s largest and fastest-growing populations. Of the eight nations with the world’s largest Muslim communities, only one (Egypt) is Arab . . . The West’s best hope for global peace is not a decline or secularisation of Islam, but rather a renewal and strengthening of that faith, and above all of its spiritual and mystical dimensions.

All in all, one cannot help but notice what one feels tempted to describe as a certain Arab-centric bias in Hamid’s book that distorts its account of Islam and Islam’s relation to governance. As to the possible sources of such a bias, again one has to wonder whether, in the final analysis, it might not have something to do with the millions of dollars that Hamid’s employer, the Brookings Institution, has been reported to have received over the years from the Gulf state of Qatar, long known for championing the Muslim Brotherhood, especially its Palestinian branch, Hamas.

Not that Hamid will have needed much persuasion by the financial support that his employer has received from Qatar to have been willing to express sympathy with Islamists of various stripes. As early as 2002, as a freshman at Georgetown University and member of its Muslim Student Association (MSA), Hamid was being quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education as having said of the attacks on New York and Washington of a few months earlier:

September 11 . . . forced many of us to ask how something so terrible and tragic could happen . . .  and many students began to realise that September 11 didn’t happen in a vacuum. It happened partly because of America’s unjust foreign policy in the Middle East.

A year later, the Wall Street Journal reported on the MSA and its close links with various groups linked to al Qaeda and Hamas. In the report, the then still only 19-year-old Hamid was described as leading the MSA’s Political Action Task Force. The WSJ report quotes Hamid as having said: “The whole essence of America is questioning the government, criticising, dissenting . . . that’s the affirmation of patriotism.”

Doubtless, it was his sense of patriotism as a loyal American citizen that led Hamid to ascribe partial responsibility for Al Qaeda’s rearrangement of the Manhattan skyline to America’s “unjust foreign policy.” It could not possibly have had anything to do with the fact that, as subsequently reported about the MSA by the New York Times in 2008: “Donations from Saudi Arabia largely financed the group, and its leaders pushed the kingdom’s Wahhabi strain of Islam.”

David Conway

David Conway is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Westminster-based social policy think-tank Civitas: Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

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