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Can Islam and Liberalism Coexist?

By Isaac Chotiner

August 16 2016

One of the hopes that grew out of the Arab Spring was that a relatively moderate strain of Islamist politics could thrive in the region. Given the widespread prevalence of dictators and military-led regimes, and the violent radicals who oppose them in mirrored gruesomeness, groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood were seen as potential alternatives. Five years later, however, the Arab Spring has devolved into a collection of bloody failures everywhere from Egypt to Syria. Another proposed model of Islamism—Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey—was already giving way to autocracy well before a quashed coup attempt further entrenched Erdogan’s demagoguery.

These failures have raised the fraught question of whether Islam itself is partially to blame. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of a new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam Is Reshaping the World. The title gives some hint of his provocative analysis. As he writes, “If Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics, then the foundational divides that have torn the Middle East apart will persist, and for a long time to come.”

I recently spoke by phone with Hamid. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why liberals have trouble taking religion seriously, the future of Islamist politics in Turkey and Egypt, and what the rise of Donald Trump has meant for American Muslims.

Isaac Chotiner: What precisely do you mean by “Islamic exceptionalism”?

Shadi Hamid: I’m essentially arguing that Islam is fundamentally different from other religions in a very specific way: its relationship to law and politics and governance. I wanted to use “exceptionalism” because I felt, at least for me, that it was value-neutral: It can be either good or bad depending on the context. I also wanted to challenge the assumption—very common in the bastions of North-eastern liberal elitism—that religion playing a role in public life is always or necessarily a bad thing. That’s the idea of the title, and what that means in practice is that Islam has proven to be resistant to secularism, and I would argue will continue to be resistant to secularism and secularization really for the rest of our lives.

What do you think it is about Islam that makes it resistant to secularism in a way that, say, Christianity and Judaism are not?

I think you have to go back to the founding moment 14 centuries ago. Jesus was a dissident against a reigning state, so he was never in a position to govern. Naturally, the New Testament is not going to have much to say about public law. Prophet Muhammad wasn’t just a prophet. He was also a politician, and not just a politician, but a head of state and a state-builder. If Prophet Muhammad was in a position of holding territory and governing territory, then presumably the Quran would have to have something to say about governance. Otherwise, how would Prophet Muhammad be guided? That’s one thing intertwining the religion and politics that isn’t accidental, and was meant to be that way.

In practice, what that means is that if you’re a Muslim secular reformer today, you can make arguments for secularism. I’m not saying that’s impossible. There have been a number of fascinating, quite creative, secular-oriented thinkers in recent decades. But the problem is they have to argue against the prophetic model, so it’s unlikely that those ideas will gain mass traction in Muslim-majority countries.

The argument against that would be that religions are interpreted in different ways because of different historical circumstances, and thus the reason Islam is being interpreted in certain ways is because of the historical circumstances that Islam has found itself in.

Yeah, but I don’t think religions can be anything we want them to be. This idea that we can sort of transform ideas in our own image and in any way we want—if we could do that then what would be the point of different religions? Presumably religions are different because they’re different, and people make their choices accordingly. Every religion has its own boundaries of how far you can go. In the case of Christianity, you can’t really be theologically Christian in any meaningful sense if you think Jesus was just an ordinary dude, right? Christianity without Christ loses its meaning; you can be culturally Christian or nominally Christian, but the theological content isn’t really there. It’s the same thing with Islam, and that leads to the other factor that I talk about in the book in regards to exceptionalism: Muslims don’t just believe that the Quran is the word of God; they believe it is God’s actual speech. That might sound like a semantic difference, but I think it’s actually really important.

You yourself are Muslim correct?

Yeah, yeah, I’m Muslim.

Well, OK, but I assume you don’t believe what you just said about the Quran.

[Laughs.] Here’s the thing: If something is a credal requirement and if you take that out of the religion, then you lose a lot of the foundation. Then you have to ask yourself what is actually the content or meaning of that religion. I don’t want to make an essentialist argument. I’ve been attacked quite a bit since the book came out for exceptionalism and orientalism, and God knows what else. I think what you said earlier about history mattering is really important, so I can imagine a counter-factual history: Let’s say Prophet Mohammad wasn’t able to capture whole territory. What if he lost some of those early critical battles? Then presumably Islam would be completely different today because the Quran itself would be different, because it wouldn’t have as much to say about governance if Prophet Muhammad never governed.

It just seems that lots of people define themselves as Muslim while not believing things that other Muslims consider essential to the religion. The thing you said earlier about Jesus: I’m in Berkeley right now, and I’m sure I could find some people who consider themselves Christian who believe Jesus was an ordinary guy.

Right, but then I think then we can use other terms like identity. It becomes a kind of cultural marker, but it’s not as much a theological thing if you don’t actually believe in the theology of the religion in question. If you don’t believe Jesus played an extraordinary role, then what does it really mean to be Christian theologically?

Where do you stand on the debate over whether or to what degree ISIS is “Islamic”?

Some of my Muslim friends and colleagues, and actually for that matter my parents, criticize me for how I talk about ISIS. Look, it’s not my job to make Islam look good. Sometimes people criticize me and say, “Someone might get the wrong idea from what you’re saying, or they just might misuse or abuse your argument.” Even the phrase “Islamic exceptionalism” can be used for purposes that I don’t agree with, for anti-Muslim bigotry and all of that. It’s not my job to make Islam look good; it’s my job to honestly reflect things the way that I see them. I don’t think it’s helpful to maintain this fiction that ISIS has nothing to do with religion or nothing to do with Islam. It’s so obvious to any ordinary American who’s watching TV that religion plays some role. If we’re telling them, “Hey, actually religion has nothing to do with this,” people aren’t going to take us seriously because it’s obviously not true.

“The lesson of the Arab Spring is the opposite of what we hoped it would be. The idea was people power; the lesson is that people power doesn’t actually work.”

It should go without saying, and I always have to offer this disclaimer, that the overwhelming majority of Muslims oppose ISIS. Polling is quite clear on this. That doesn’t mean that people in ISIS don’t believe what they’re doing is commanded by God. This idea that we’re always assuming people couldn’t possibly believe what they say they believe—I think that’s endemic in the way we talk about religion in the United States. It’s a problem that Obama has. Obama can’t take ISIS seriously. He refuses to take ISIS seriously as something beyond just a bunch of thugs and fanatics, as he said. We can’t take them seriously as an enemy if we just dismiss them as being a bunch of thugs. I’ll say, as an American Muslim: There’s no doubt it’s a perverted version of Islam. That doesn’t mean they don’t believe it.

You said that you wanted to challenge people who thought that religion’s role in public life is always bad. We’ve been talking about the ways that Islam is incompatible with democratic politics—

No, no. I’m not saying Islam is incompatible with democratic politics; I’m saying that Islam is in tension with liberalism, and this is why I think it’s important for us to distinguish between liberalism and democracy. Let’s say an Islamist party comes to power through a democratic election. Islamism is by definition illiberal, and they would promote things that are contrary to classical liberalism, in the sense of non-negotiable personal rights and freedoms, gender equality, protection of minorities.

Fareed Zakaria was the first one to really popularize the idea of illiberal democracy. I feel like the Americans I’ve talked to have struggled to really grasp the idea because we don’t really have much experience with that directly. With the rise of Trump it makes things easier because we can see quite clearly that, Hey, this is a guy who might be democratically elected but his commitment to classical liberalism is quite questionable, even antagonistic.

That’s a good clarification. But just to go back to the issue of exceptionalism, what is it about Islam that you see as positive, either in terms of democracy or liberalism?

Why does liberalism have to be the endpoint of human progression?

Do you have a better idea?

Liberalism is only neutral to those who are already liberal. If you are someone who was born and raised in Pakistan or Jordan, you’re probably going to have a different way of looking at the world and the role of religion. Who are we to say that liberalism has to be the way for all people? Even if we think so, we can’t really force people to be something they don’t want to be. I think also any society needs some kind of unifying norms and ideas that bind citizens together. Unfortunately in a lot of the Middle East, nationalism is either not compelling because of the arbitrariness of national identities or borders, or nationalism is dangerous because people can justify dangerous things in the name of the nation. We have the same issue here, so what binds us together? I think the universal condition is a search for meaning, and liberal democracy has not provided a strong enough or compelling enough answer to those sets of questions.

I thought you were implying earlier that there were also some things that Islam offers that other religions don’t offer that are valuable in this sort of search for meaning.

I think Islam is more capable of contributing to social order and the cohesion of a society in a place where the vast majority of citizens share that basic Islamic identity. Maybe Islam is also useful for people who want to get into heaven. That might sound like a weird thing to say, but also the way we think about rationality is problematic. I mean we’re always looking for nonreligious reasons to explain why people do what they do: So, there are economic and material factors, and people are poor and angry, whatever. Sometimes the goal of an individual can be pretty straightforward; they just want to mind their own business and get into heaven. I think Islam can be useful for people who believe that.

How do you think Islamic exceptionalism has manifested itself in the West, where Muslims are normal members of democratic societies?

I think it’s different if Muslims are a minority. I think actually the United States is a pretty promising model of Muslim integration; it should give all of us hope and optimism. The idea that being Muslim is incompatible in America is obviously nonsense because we can see the evidence of Muslims being more and more integrated, more and more comfortable with their American identity. I think also this is sort of like the coming-out moment for American Muslims in a way. That to me is a promising step, and I think the rise of Trump is pushing American Muslims to say, Hey, we’re American, we’re Muslim, and there’s no contradiction.

My parents grew up in an authoritarian regime. I’m a child of immigrants. I’ve watched the process of them becoming American, and that’s a remarkable thing to watch in real time. I remember the first time my dad asked me how he could volunteer for a presidential campaign because he believed in a candidate and he wanted to express that.

I want to turn to three countries in the Muslim world that you have written about. In Turkey, the Erdogan experiment was initially viewed as something that offered this hopeful future for moderate Islamic politics. Not anymore. What happened?

The lesson there is we should never use the word model, because we don’t want to jinx things that are going well. We all used to talk about the Turkish model, and it didn’t turn out good. But it was promising, and no one should revise history and pretend that progress wasn’t really being made in the mid- to late-2000s. It just took a turn for the worse for a variety of reasons. I think one of those reasons is precisely because of Islam’s exceptionalism. Turks have not been able to resolve the problem of religion in public life; that’s a big part of the tension between Islamist and secularist. Even though that’s not what the coup was about, that’s still going to be the key dividing line in Turkish politics for quite some time to come.

Erdogan wants to transform Turkish society. He wants to undo the secularist legacy. He wants to use a very powerful centralized state to be the vehicle for that transformation.* That’s a recurring story throughout the Middle East: Everyone wants to capture the levers of state power, because states, at least some states, are very strong, bloated, and overbearing and they dominate every aspect of life. Once you capture that, then you can really do what you want to do.

We as Westerners are not innocent bystanders in this either. The EU’s essentially giving up hope on the idea of Turkey’s accession into the European Union was a major mistake because that was providing real incentives for Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party [AKP] to play well with others, and to promote expanded freedoms, and to undo some of the problematic aspects of Turkish politics. Once you got rid of that, then Erdogan was more empowered to follow through on his worst instincts.

Erdogan also seems like a run-of-the-mill power-hungry autocrat in some ways. Why is that not a more helpful prism than Islam through which to view him?

Of course we’re all tempted to power; that’s an obvious aspect of human nature. But I think what’s going on here isn’t just about that. Why does Erdogan want power? Presumably he wants power to do something that he cares about. I think that in the United States we often see power as something for its own sake, and we don’t really believe that politicians believe anything deeply enough. Maybe that’s changing with the rise of Trump. I think what’s really hard for people to understand is the bitterness that AKP members feel. I was interviewing a senior adviser to former Prime Minister [Ahmet] Davutoglu last year, and he was talking about how his wife wasn’t able to work at a Turkish hospital until just a couple of years ago. Why? She wears a headscarf.

 This is in a Muslim-majority country. Or the fact that while Erdogan was prime minister and the most powerful man in Turkey, his daughters couldn’t go to college in their own country. That kind of bitterness, this sense of not belonging in your own country where you had this secularist elite telling you that because you are religious or pious, you are not truly Turkish, that’s going to mess you up. That’s why I think understanding religion and identity is so important because people feel those things in a very raw, existential way.

Just to turn to Egypt, I don’t think anyone ever said Mohamed Morsi would be a model, but the coup that overthrew him has been followed by a vicious crackdown and repression. What are the consequences when elected Islamists are overthrown?

I’ll never forget that sense of dread I felt on July 3, 2013. That was the day of the military coup against the democratically elected Islamist government in Egypt, of which Morsi was head. You know that feeling you have when you’re just like, Shit, this is really going to get bad quickly?

“We can’t force people to secularize. We just have to get rid of this fantasy that we can kill off Islamists.”

What happens in Egypt really matters: It’s the most populous Arab country. It was a very flawed experiment, but at least it was an experiment that had a future and we didn’t know what that future would be, and it was aborted prematurely. I got to know Morsi a little bit before he came president, and this was the wrong man at the wrong time. No one would have ever dreamed that this guy would be Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state, so it’s remarkable to think that he was sort of propelled into this position. He was incompetent, all of that. But the precedent set when you essentially undo the results of a democratic election, and the precedent that sets not just for Egypt but also for the rest of the region …

It’s not just that, because if it was a coup that would have been very bad, but what we saw after the coup was the worst mass killing in Egypt’s modern history, the Rabaa massacre. It’s a very scary thing to see the bloodlust that comes to the fore in the lead-up to a massacre. It was also personal for me because some of my relatives hated the Muslim Brotherhood for the most part and loved [Abdel Fattah al-]Sisi, and some of them cheered on the massacre openly and publicly without shame.

Apparently every country’s people have uncles with political views they don’t agree with, so you can feel good about that.

Here in the United States your crazy uncle is someone you see at Thanksgiving who says racist things. When your uncle actually wants to see people killed and he takes a kind of joy in a mass killing, I feel like that’s sort of hard to get your head around. The problem is that for decades to come Egyptians are going to be scarred by this moment.

Right, and now the Brotherhood is going to enter a much longer period of repression. I assume at some point in some form it will come back, and after more repression it is unlikely to be more liberal.

Yeah, and I think we’re already seeing signs of that. There are many young Egyptians who have lost faith in the idea of democracy. It doesn’t mean they’ve turned to violence necessarily, but there is an open question now that if you want to promote change in your society, are elections and democracy the right way to do it? The lesson of the Arab Spring is the opposite of what we hoped it would be. The idea was people power; the lesson is that people power doesn’t actually work.

The only example I guess you can really think of is the failed coup attempt in Turkey where people came out into the street and they resisted the coup attempt. Otherwise people get shot down in the streets. The ones who are most successful are extremist groups like ISIS that use violence or terror, or autocratic regimes that repress their own citizens. Those are the lessons that people are going to be left with, so it’s not just about Egypt.

There’s this fantasy that you can destroy an idea, that you can destroy Islamism as an idea. We can’t force people to secularize. It goes back to this issue of how we really see the outcome of these struggles in the Middle East, and will it be secular or Islamist? We just have to get rid of this fantasy that we can kill off Islamists.

Do you agree with the conventional wisdom that the biggest success story of the Arab Spring is Tunisia?

It’s a low bar, so yeah, Tunisia is relatively speaking the most successful Arab country right now. It just bothers me that we as Americans always want to latch onto some positive story and then we fetishize it. I think Tunisia’s in danger of being fetishized endlessly. The darker side of it is that it has the highest per capita contribution of foreign fighters to Syria, and I’m including fighting for groups like ISIS. I think we have to think more critically about how that actually happened. I have a chapter where I talk about my interviews with family and friends of Tunisian foreign fighters who went and fought and in some cases died for ISIS. I was about to just use a Trumpism and say there’s something going on here.

We edit out all Trumpisms.

Good, good. I think part of the issue is that it’s not really an example of reconciling Islam in the democratic process because Islamists in Tunisia, in this case the Ennahda Party, they pretty much conceded their Islamism. They’re essentially saying we’re going to table that and focus on securing the transition. I’d be curious to see 10, 20, 30 years from now if democracy is safe and secure in Tunisia, and Islamists feel they have more room to operate: What happens then?

I’m not looking for some sort of rosy answer here, but do you see any signs of hope? Or are you pretty pessimistic about anything very positive in the near future?

I’m pessimistic about the flourishing of liberalism or secularism, but I’m not necessarily pessimistic that some kind of social peace or inclusive politics is possible. I would argue that that requires us to come to terms with Islam’s role in public life that Islam has to be accommodated in a way that we American liberals might not be comfortable with. I want to challenge people to question their assumptions. I guess this is a question I’m always curious to ask people: Why do you think liberalism is necessarily appropriate for X society? I feel like it’s so ingrained in how we view the world, that it’s almost hard for us to articulate it because it’s almost like a religious belief, it’s a question of faith. That’s one part of it.

I do think that social peace is possible, and Malaysia and Indonesia—which rarely get talked about in Washington—are really interesting cases because Indonesia is certainly more democratic but has also more implementation of Sharia ordinances on the local level than Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, you name it. In some sense democratization does not necessarily go hand in hand with secularism; it might actually go hand in hand with more Islam in politics, if that’s what voters want. How would you answer that question by the way: Why do you think liberalism is necessarily better for X society in the Middle East or Southeast Asia?

It may not work perfectly in the short term, but I assume it would be best in the long term. I don’t think people are that different, and I think if it’s good enough for me then it’s good enough for someone else. What’s the alternative: liberalism but no voting? Liberalism but no gay rights? Or liberalism but no respect for women? Each piece feels too important. Even if America is far from the ideal, true liberalism still seems most appealing.

I think you’re getting to the answer that you have to let democratic processes play out and that’s going to take time. People make a judgment about Egypt after one year and say, “Hey that failed.” Yeah, it failed, it was only one year. We don’t have many examples of democratic processes that have played out over a long period of time. A lot of the times we’re speculating about the future of the Middle East because we don’t actually have a lot to go on, because it never plays out on its own time.