Dec 2nd 2016
SHADI HAMID is one of the most interesting and provocative figures on the circuit of Islam-watchers and Middle East pundits in Washington, DC. A senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, he has been raising his voice recently to make two assertions which seem, at first sight, to run in different directions. One is suggested by the title of his recently published book, “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World”. Very broadly, it argues that Islam differs from Judaism and Christianity in having a natural propensity to shape systems of government. Although Judaism and Christianity have had their theocratic periods, to put it mildly, the link between Islam and governance (broken only with the abolition of the caliphate in 1924) has been more durable and consistent, the book asserts.
While some commentators make that very point in an Islamophobic spirit as a reason why liberal democrats should be wary of Islam, he constructs another sort of argument. In his view, it’s not realistic to expect the people of Islam’s heartland to opt freely for the exclusion of their faith from the sphere of administration. That reality has to be accepted. If secularism ever prevails in those countries, it will only do so after an extended period of gradual change, uninterrupted by brutal secularist coups: “the democratic process must play out for a long enough period so that Islam, Islamism and democracy can evolve in a natural uncontrived fashion.”
The second big point that Mr Hamid has been making, through articles in Foreign Policy and elsewhere, seems to sit a little awkwardly with the title of his book. Exceptional as Islam might be, there are some clear parallels, in his view, between the resurgence of Islamism and the rise of Donald Trump. As he writes, both exemplify the point that voters want something more than bureaucratic solutions to relatively minor problems. They want to be swept up into larger causes, whether those causes are defined positively or negatively. Francis Fukuyama, the prophet of the “end of history” after the end of the cold war, was over-hasty in asserting that the era of titanic ideological battles was over and would soon be supplanted by “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands”. On the contrary, people still yearn for a sense of transcendence and meaning, and it could be provided either by a religion which aspired to determine all aspects of life, or by majoritarian identity politics. Mr Hamid attempts to make some elegant connections between his book and the even more recent observations he has made about the triumph of Trumpism. He writes:
The overlap between Trumpism and Islamism is no coincidence. In my book “Islamic Exceptionalism”, which discusses Islam’s tensions with liberalism and liberal democracy, I argue that some public role for religion is necessary in religiously conservative societies...In less religious or post-Christian societies, a mainstream Christianity is no longer capable of providing the necessary group identity. But that doesn’t mean other ideas won’t fill the vacuum. In other words, be careful what you wish for: an America where religion plays less of a role isn’t necessarily a better one, if what replaces religion is white nativism.
Mr Hamid makes a fair political scientist’s point in drawing parallels between the popularity of Islamic parties and the success of Mr Trump. Both reflect the frustration of disempowered majorities, in other words, of historically dominant groups who feel they are not being allowed to put their stamp on society, as is their natural right, because unrepresentative elites are holding them back, or because overprotected minorities have a disproportionate share of power.
But Mr Hamid, while insisting that various forms of populism can usefully be compared, is also adamant about the differences, and hence about the ongoing validity of his point that Islam stands out. Although many evangelical Christians voted for Mr Trump (indeed more than did for Mitt Romney in 2012), his is most emphatically not a religious movement, Mr Hamid notes. On the contrary, the Trump phenomenon reflects the failure of Christianity to offer a convincing political formula for the 21st century, and the tendency of new ideologies to fill the void. As he put it to Erasmus: “Christianity has gradually lost its ability to offer a resonant politics for most Americans and Europeans. If religion can no longer speak to our politics, then people will search for something that approximates its certainty and conviction. What makes these [substitutes] more dangerous than a politics infused by mainstream Christianity or mainstream Islam is that they are less cohererent and principled.”
Another big difference, it might be added, is that in the American system, there are powerful legal and constitutional constraints on the ability of a populist president to impose his will in all matters, or to bully minorities. The American constitution is deeply entrenched and profoundly legitimate; in many Islamic and Middle Eastern countries, the constitution is still a work in progress.
One simple way to express the difference might be this. Between the causes of Trumpism and Islamism there may be some similarities; but given the sharply contrasting contexts, the results are much less likely to share a resemblance. That is the hope, anyway.