Islamic Exceptionalism:  How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World

By Shadi Hamid

Review by Dave Gamrath


One-liner:  Shadi Hamid sheds light on the various flavors of recent Islamists attempts to regain political power, the difficulties they encountered and will likely continue to encounter in the coming decades.



This is an important book in that author Hamid gives the history of Muslim governments that are based on Islam and recent attempts by various Muslim groups to reestablish the same in recent years.  The book provides some clarity in the differences of these movements and helps to explain their success, or lack thereof.  It also provides details to better understand what is driving the movements, including some history of Islam.  He also gives insight as to what to expect in the future.



This book is fairly complicated, with many "plots and subplots".  To summarize it requires leaving out many details, including things a reader might feel are key.  Sorry.


First, a few important definitions, dates, terms, acronyms, etc.:

-      Founding of Islam – 7th century

-      Muslims – 1.6 billion today

-      Caliphate – political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition (last one prior to ISIS ended in 1924).  View God as the lawgiver, thus fully rejects democracy. 

-      Muslim Brotherhood – the mother of all Islamist movements, founded in Egypt in 1928.  Considered by secularists as extreme, considered by fundamentalists as mild. 

-      ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria; a terrifying new Sunni extremist group.  View being killed as a victory; they welcome death so they can get into heaven and experience eternal salvation. 

-      Islamists – want a government based on Islam

-      Liberalism – allows an individual to pursue his or her own conception of good as long as no one is harmed in the process. 

-      Sharia – based in Islamic framework, includes laws, specific rules and punishments, as well as a legal system, a social order and a source of legitimacy

-      Salafis – a group today usually associated with ultraconservative literalism, theocratic rule and religious violence

-      Wahhabism – a particularly harsh, puritanical strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia


The book title, Islamic Exceptionalism, refers more to how Islam is different in how it relates to politics, not that it is good or bad, and that it takes understanding Islam in detail to really understand what has been happening since the Arab Spring, and that expecting Islam to follow what transpired in the West over the past centuries, I.E. the dissipation of Christianity has direct impact on politics, isn't a good comparison for Islam.  Again, it is different. 


Surveys in the world of many Muslim countries repeatedly show that many, even a majority of Muslims, agree support a legal order anchored in religion.  Thus, if true democracy was allowed, they would possibly vote to end it.  Yet the author states that most Arabs or Muslims aren't Islamists, I.E., it seems they like the majority like the idea of many laws based on Islam, or Islamism, but the majority are Islamists. 


Islamist parties are by definition illiberal.  There is no particular reason why the Western world should believe that Islamic reform should lead to liberalism.  Islam is resistant to secularization.  Author Hamid states that even if he is wrong and the endgame for the Middle East includes a secular-liberal order winning out, he asserts it would take a VERY long time – it will be tortuous – thus it makes little sense for the West to expect this or fit this expectation into our policies.  With Islam, religious beliefs are held to be unconditionally true, and if asserted wrong, one can expect heavy social and psychological penalties, even in the face of outright proof that a traditional belief is wrong.  This type of traditionalism often leads to violence if secularism is imposed.  And it's an illusion that Islamism can be eliminated through force and violence.  One can try to kill an organization, but it's much more difficult to kill an idea that is deeply rooted in a society.  Islam will continue to have its place in the Middle East, even if after a very long period of violent struggle a more moderate, stable and legitimate order is established.  It's just a question of what kind of Islam, and at what cost. 


The founding of and the evolution of Islam, Christianity and Judaism are very different.  Jews, for more than eighteen hundred years, found themselves living as minorities, thus they couldn't really think about pushing for Jewish laws to be implemented by the state.  Judaism had to make its peace with this until the founding of Israel in the 20th century. 


For Christians, Jesus was divine.  Mohamed was not; he would rely on advice from his companions and occasionally made mistakes.  Jesus very explicitly challenged the Roman establishment whom he believed were complicit in Roman corruption.  But in no sense did he exhort his followers to seek the exercise of power – just the opposite, actually.  And salvation is achieved through faith in Jesus, not through observance of law.  If salvation is through Christ and Christ alone, then there is less need for the state to regulate private and public behavior other than providing an environment that is conducive to accepting Christ.  There is simply no Christian equivalent to Quranic inerrancy, even amongst far-right evangelicals. 


Again, it's different with Islam.  Muslims assembled a corpus of Mohamed's sayings (hadiths) which in turn served to clarify and establish the practices of the Prophet (captured in the sunna), covering every imaginable sphere of life.  This sunna along with the Quran are the two foundational sources of Islamic law upon which everything else was based.  Faith is expressed through observance of the law; and not following the law shows unwillingness to submit to God.  In Islam, salvation is impossible without law.  So the state enforcing the law is key, and there within the Quran and sunna there are extensive resources for Muslims making Islamic arguments than for those making Islamic arguments.  Regarding democracy, Islam also has a tradition of shura, or consensus, which Muslims argue is their "democracy". 


To the extent that the Middle East today seems hopelessly violent, it is a product of modernization efforts.  This offers a useful reminder to be careful as to what you wish for.  Reform doesn't necessarily lead to reformation – it can also lead to chaos.  Within Islam, the Quran is unimpeachable.  Thus fundamentalists have much strength.  But the author argues that Islam, oddly enough, is the most flexible and modern of Abrahamic religions.  How?  Through accommodation and adaption.  Islamic scholars stress Islam's "rational bent".  The basic project of mainstream Islamism in recent years was, in a sentence, to reconcile premodern Islamic law with the modern nation state.  But in many ways the state got the better end of the deal.  And if all citizens are to be equal in the state, then Christians as well as Muslims should enjoy the freedom to lead, which doesn't fit at all with the implementation of Islamic law.  All this and more has led to the clashes we have seen throughout the Middle East.


The Muslim Brotherhood

Hamid provides a chapter on the Muslim Brotherhood, based in Egypt, and founded in 1928.  Historically they have played the long game, biding their time as they sought power.  They saw no shortcut to their desired reform of society.  The groundwork had to be laid.  Hamid provides their history up to the Arab Spring in 2011, and then describes the events taking place in Egypt afterwards, including the Muslim Brotherhood winning Egypt's first democratically held election and Mohamed Morsi being elected president, but then the Brotherhood being declared a terrorist organization in September 2013, resulting in a military coup and the brutal execution of 800 protesters.  In the first year of this military coup at least 2,500 civilians were killed and 17,000 wounded.  In April 2014, 529 Brotherhood members were sentenced to death after just two hour-long court sessions with no due process.  Even with this outright rejection of democracy (for the Brotherhood had fairly won the election), the army enjoyed an enormous approval rating, showing the country's resistance of Islamism rule.  Today, the Brotherhood tends to rely on their youth movement as they attempt to rebuild. 



Hamid next describes the Turkish model of Islamism, leading to today's strong leadership by President Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted AKP party.  After the Ottoman empire fell in 1924, Turkey's new leader, Ataturk, saw Islamic cultural norms as dangerous obstacles that had to be discarded.  Ataturk encouraged Western changes and abolished Sharia courts.  In short, Ottoman Turkish ceased to exist any longer.  Turkey experiences multiple Islamic revivals since, but these were always overturned, often in a military coup.  Secularism became embedded.  Thus Turkish Islamists, like their counterparts elsewhere, became gradualist.  They opted for the long game, and with each new round of repression they had a simple goal:  avoid getting shut down the next time.  The recent strength gains by Erdogan's AKP party were possible with recent economic gains in Turkey, their NATO membership and the carrot of EU membership.  In 2010 the AKP began to veer to the right on religious issues, but only to what the author calls "soft Islamization".  For example, they incentivized religious behavior, E.G., taxing alcohol.  Also, with the AKP in power, demonstrated religiosity could help your career.  But many Turkish Islamists hold a desire for revenge, and they term the recent turn to the right as "normalization", I.E., getting things back to where they should be, and their past secularization since 1924 as a forced aberration.  "Secular idiot elites were just 5% of the population," one leader is quoted saying.  So again, it seems Islamists are a majority in Turkey too, even though so far only "soft Islamism" has won out.



Hamid next looks at Tunisia.  Tunisia's Islamic party is called Ennahda.  With the Arab Spring, they experienced a quick rise t power, claiming victory in Tunisia's first ever democratic elections.  Hamid states these Islamists are conceding their Islamism and making large compromises with the passing of a relatively liberal constitution in 2014.  But then, the echoes of what was happening in Egypt, with the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, were hard to miss, and things stagnated.  Being cautious, Ennahda voluntarily stepped down from power, which wasn't what one would expect in a democracy, since they had won the election.  They were effectively forced out of power.  So they moved to the center.  Secularists distrusted (or hated) Islamists not necessarily for what they did, but for who they were.  Hamid states that liberalism could never be a way of life – by definition it lets its members choose their way – and that the liberals disdain Islamists.  They have powerful incentives to deepen the Islamist-secular divide, and the battle continues.  But by being cautious and conceding power, Ennahda let democracy fail in Tunisia.  If democracy can only succeed or ever come to be through the marginalization of Islamists or by Islamists themselves conceding their Islamism, then this is indeed a brittle democracy.


Malaysia and Indonesia

Malaysia and Indonesia have had better results than in the M.E.  It wasn't that religion was less of a problem there, it's that they had more workable solutions that allowed accommodation.  These countries are still deeply conservative.  There has been a coming to terms with Islam's role in public life there. 



ISIS is what happens after the state fails.  The longer society experiences chaos and disorder, the stronger radicals become.  Democracy is no easy fix of this.  Before anything else, a state or any organization that wishes to function as a state must be able to produce some modicum of law and order.  With Sunnis being hammered in Iraq, and Assad committing atrocities against Sunnis in Syria, ISIS seemed an improvement to many.  ISIS filled a vacuum, and their absolutism served them well.  Terror and state building went hand in hand.  Their savagery served multiple purposes, including instilling terror in the hearts of their opponents to undermine opponent morale.  Ability and willingness to inflict a terrible violence has a deterrent effect, raising the costs to those who would challenge them.  ISIS sees savagery as necessary.  They see the past abolition of the caliphate as the true evil, and the brutality of war as part of their cosmic struggle.  They passionately wish to overturn the humiliation of Muslims of the past decades.  They are the most brutal state in the Arab world.  They define Muslim opponents as apostates, allowing ISIS to subject them to limitless savagery.  Yet Hamid claims that ISIS is almost always self-consciously legalistic, drawing on early Islam as well as modern ultraconservative scholars from the Wahhabi doctrine of Saudi Arabia for their rulings.  He claims that if ISIS proved anything, it is that a relatively small group of ideologically committed individuals can have an outsized effect on regional and international order and perhaps even the course of history.  In war zones, religious absolutism offers certainty where no certainty exists.


Islam, Liberalism and the State:  a way out?

Hamid closes discussing the cultural divide between Islam and the West.  He notes the high level of conservative Muslims living in the West, such as in England and France, and that they often don't feel they fit in these societies.  But when a politician declares war on "radical Islamism", who exactly fits that definition, and how does that make local Muslims feel?  Super gray and subjective.  Hamid argues that it is very improbably that Islam will succumb like other religions before it to the appeals of secularization.  If it happens, it will take a very, very long time.  He suggests that perhaps a Muslim country in the future could loosely follow the way post-apartheid South Africa crafted their Bill of Rights in 1993.  During any constitution-drafting process, Islamists will have to exhibit self-restraint and agree to postpone ideological objectives.  If they are unwilling to do so, liberal supra-constitutional principles, per the South African model, will need to be imposed.  But the "post-caliphate" order will only have truly begun when something inclusive, legitimate and lasting takes root.  For that to happen, the democratic process must play out for a long enough period so that Islam, Islamism and democracy can evolve in a natural, uncontrived fashion. 


Hamid closes with "there was a time when Islamists saw society, rather than the state, as the engine of social transformation.  The legacy of a failed Arab Spring and a new caliphate called ISIS will likely be this:  forcing them, and perhaps us as well, to reimagine the nature of political change."


Reviewer Opinion:

A hard chew, but very enlightening.



Thumb up for most, but only sideways for the way the book was laid out.