Why Islam is not 'exceptional'

The Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (left), with then US President Richard Nixon

How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World

Author: Shadi Hamid

Publisher: St Martin's Press, New York, 2016

Pages: 306

Price: £14.99

Shadi Hamid is one of the most important contemporary commentators on political Islam and West Asian politics. In this book, he provides his reflections on "the power of ideas and their role in the existential battles" that are shaping West Asian politics.

Hamid's understanding of West Asian politics is framed in two propositions: one, that "Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics. Islam is different." Following from this, he believes that, given the uniqueness of the interplay between Islam and politics, Muslim polities cannot and will not throw up the western experiences of the Reformation and enlightenment. Thus, the crisis of governance and legitimacy that today bedevils Arab politics is, in fact, traceable to the relationship that Islam has with politics.

I find Hamid's propositions erroneous and the assertions supporting his theses unconvincing.

Hamid says that, while mainstream Islamists - that is, the Muslim Brotherhood and its regional affiliates - have made a decades-long effort to reconcile their insistence on a central role for Islamic law in their political order with the norms of western-style democracy, these attempts "have failed to advance a successful Islamic synthesis". It is true that Arab intellectuals over the past 200 years have been trying to accommodate these two divergent historical experiences, and have come up with models that range from the conservative to the remarkably liberal. But, what has been missing in these academic attempts has been the opportunity to implement them or, in fact, any ideas, that would allow the Arabs to have a say in shaping their political order. Surely, the root of the Arab malaise is the absence of a participatory political order and not Islam, however it might be defined.

This is not surprising. Today, the western secular model is well-entrenched in Western Europe, but even here Christian Democratic parties and several church-supported groups have long struggled to reconcile their faith with secular democracy. The US, with a different political history, has quite happily accommodated religion, now spoken of as the "Judeo-Christian" tradition, in its political order without compromising its democratic credentials. Why should Islam be then seen as "exceptional"?

a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood shouts slogans in front of soldiers and riot police during a protest against the military near Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo in 2013
Hamid refers to the "role that religion has played in the Middle East" which, in his view, has given Islam a unique place in the region's politics. Here again, Hamid gets his history wrong. For the past 1,000 years, this region was either under Ottoman or colonial rule, both of which were shaped by the logic and instruments of power at the heart of their systems, and not by any religious constraints. What role of religion is he referring to?

Hamid then points out that the Muslim Brotherhood has "a particular vision for society that puts Islam and Islamic law at the centre of public life". The Brotherhood's vision is anything but "particular"; it has been capable of remarkable accommodation of universal political norms of participatory systems, human rights, sensitivity to minorities and women, and so on. If allowed the real experience of power in a democratic milieu, it might have evolved further toward more sophisticated democratic practices.

A major omission in the book is that, while studying two principal strands of contemporary political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State, Hamid has omitted all discussion of the third strand, Wahhabism, as preached, practised and propagated by Saudi Arabia, which is a significant doctrinal and political role-player in present-day regional affairs and central to "the struggle over Islam", mentioned in the title.

The book hovers between an intellectual history and practical politics, and then frequently brings in jihadi ideology as a crucial element of political Islam. This leads to a presentation that is diffused and disjointed, at times seeing universal patterns in the developments shaping present-day West Asian politics, at other times castigating the Islamic polities for being "different". For instance, noting their 90 years of "accumulated experience", Hamid criticises West Asian countries for not providing better examples of political achievement, failing to take into account that, during most of this period, West Asia has seen either colonial rule or West-sponsored authoritarianism, hardly the basis to build democratic norms and practices.

Islam, like other major religions, has a political discourse emerging from its first texts, the commentaries on them by scholars over several centuries, and the actual experience of its various political systems till the advent of colonialism 200 years ago. Since then, other than in Saudi Arabia, West Asia has not seen any "Islamic" polity. Western powers, with their ruthless interventions and depredations, have kept tyrants in power and contributed to the Arab malaise. Islamic political discourse has, thus, been largely academic as scholars or political groups (usually underground) ruminate on Islamic norms and practices from the past and attempt to reconcile them with the modern-day "grammar of politics".

This effort has largely been successful: today, the idea of democracy has sunk deep into the Arab psyche, and embraces both the Salafis and the liberals, such as the Sahwa in Saudi Arabia, and Salafi scholars and movements in Egypt and Morocco. They may disagree on detail, but they all clamour for a constitution, participatory politics and human rights. This is the most vibrant and creative aspect of contemporary Islamic political thought, which Hamid seems to have missed.

Yes, it is true that in a future West Asian participatory political order, Islam will be an important, if not the overwhelming, influence. Given the ethos of the people and their limited political experience, this is not surprising; this has happened earlier in Europe, the US and Latin America as well. West Asian polities, too, will experience, within the broad framework of their faith, the effervescence of a democratic order, not different from that of their brethren in other belief-systems. Islam in politics has not been and will not be "exceptional".

The reviewer is a former diplomat

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