An Unrecognizable Reformation: Shadi Hamid on Islamic Exceptionalism

May 17, 2016

This week, Josh Zepps sits down with commentator and writer Shadi Hamid. He’s a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution, a contributing writer to The Atlantic, and his new book is Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.

There is a heated debate about whether there is something intrinsically unique about the religion of Islam that has lead to destructive groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS, or whether their existence has nothing to do with religion and are merely the product of politics. Many insist that Islam is not unlike any other religion in its infancy and that with time it will go through a natural course of reform. Hamid suggests that Islam is indeed distinct from other religions, but that those distinctions aren’t in and of themselves good or bad. Hamid urges us to look at the root of these conflicts, because Islam’s unique doctrine and origin will likely mean that its path to reform will look very different from the path of enlightenment values that other religions have embraced before it.


This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, May 17th, 2016. 

On Josh Zepps, this podcast of the Center for Inquiry, you can hear my other podcast. 

We the People Leive, which involves three interesting people bantering about the week’s news at a bar in Brooklyn, the Life and DirecTV audience by searching for we the people. That’s all. One word on iTunes or visiting WTOP Live dot com. This week, a really interesting conversation about Islam, Islamism, ISIS and an Islamic reformation. Is it possible? Is it desirable? Our guest is Shadi Hamid, one of my favorite commenters on the Middle East and on Islam. He’s a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. His new book is called Islamic Exceptionalism How a Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World. 

So one of the big questions, I think, in the way that Western is think about Islam and about what’s going on in the Middle East is I suppose you could you could put the camp with on one side, you’d have the Sam Harris’s and divil Mars and on another you would have maybe Glenn Greenwald’s and raise Aslam’s. The former believe that there’s something intrinsic to Islam which is dangerous and antithetical to modernity. The Leota seem to constantly find reasons why it has nothing to do with Islam. And it’s a purely the convolutions that we’re seeing in the Middle East are purely political. Where do you fall in that crude characterization? 

Well, it’s a really good question because I’m actually not sure where I would fit into that spectrum. I don’t think I’m on really either side. Probably somewhere in between. I think where I would agree, somewhat surprisingly with Sam Harris is that I do think there is something distinctive about Islam. I don’t think Islam is necessarily like other religions, particularly in how it relates to law, politics and governance. And that’s why I decided to we decided to call the book Islamic Exceptionalism to really sort of capture that right there in the title. But I think where I would differ from the Sam Harris is of the world is I don’t see Islam’s distinctiveness as necessarily being either good or bad. 

It can be good in some ways and bad in other ways. And it depends really on the context. And I guess what I wanted to do was to sort of challenge this idea that we all have to be the same or that we all should be the same. And I think you see strands of that on both sides of the debate that you might talk to liberals. And I think we saw they said that the infamous Bill Marr, Ben Affleck debate on real time where, you know, Ben Affleck was essentially saying, you know, Muslims eat sandwiches, too. And I thought to myself, well, guess Muslims do eat sandwiches, but you can eat sandwiches and still believe that Islamic law should be implemented. You can still believe in religiously derived criminal punishments. And that doesn’t mean if people believe that Islam should play a larger role in public life, that doesn’t mean, again, they’re bad or good. But it does mean that there is something different going on here. And we have to understand what that something is. And it just it bothers me when I hear from liberals that there’s this presumption that Arabs or Muslims or whoever have to follow the same trajectory that Christianity follow, that they have to go through a reformation, then an enlightenment, and then everything will be fine. 

And it’s like, oh, you Muslims, you have to kind of take your own time. You’ll get there one day. That’s a little bit presumptuous and patronizing, I think. 

But what if the core problem that’s being addressed is the lack of pluralism in Muslim societies? Is the dogmatism of religious fundamentalism then? Aren’t you allowed to be patronizing towards that if what you regard the Enlightenment as being is is an expansion of one’s mind and tolerance towards other viewpoints? 

That’s that’s an OK thing, I think, to be smug about. 

Well, yes, that that’s certainly true. But I don’t think Islam. So if Islam is distinctive, I don’t think it necessarily follows that it’s incompatible with pluralism or diverse viewpoint viewpoints. What I do think there is a real tension is the question of whether Islam can be secularized. And I don’t think secularism is a prerequisite for pluralism or for having tolerance of very diverse viewpoints. 

I think you can have a society that decides to to emphasize the role of religion in politics, but still finds room for diversity and pluralism and. All the things that we believe in, so I would really sort of zero in on the issue of secularism. And I think that’s where the debate and disagreement is. And I would also say that secularism is not a prerequisite for democracy. It’s maybe a prerequisite for liberal democracy. But that, again, is sort of our Western bias, that we automatically hear the word democracy and we think, oh, that means you also have to be liberal. But there is a whole phenomenon, especially as of late of in liberal democracy. And what that essentially means is that you have what if you have voters in a particular country who decide through the democratic process that they don’t want to be liberal, that they want to vote for parties that may be religiously inspired or even populist xenophobic parties. And, you know, I’m scared of Trump personally, but I think it’s also helpful for Americans to have a first hand experience with an illiberal Democrat who may very well become our president. So it’s not only a Middle Eastern thing. Obviously a divide here in the US is not primarily about religion where it is in the Middle East, but still. So I think these tensions are something that we have to acknowledge and this whole issue of the Enlightenment. It’s up to people to decide for themselves if they want to have their own, quote, unquote, enlightenment. We can’t force Muslims to go along that path if they don’t want to follow that. 

Right. But we can bolster the voices within the Muslim world that do and try to discredit the ones who don’t. Right. Or is that counterproductive? 

But I I’m so I’m uncomfortable with this idea that we as Americans should get involved in internal theological debates and to tell Muslims that they have to be one way or another if Muslim, to decide that they want to have a bit more of the Enlightenment in their own lives and more power to them. But that has to be something internal. 

But doesn’t this come down to the problem that you were just articulating about the conflict between democracy and liberalism? When you say if Muslims want this and if they just decide this, who’s the vary? It could be 52 percent of Muslims. It could be all Muslim males with just a fraction of conservative fundamentalist women. And then you might be forcing the remaining forty six percent of the population to wear, as Sam Harris calls them, beekeeper’s outfits and submit to their Mastan. Right. 

I mean, blogging. Sure. Sure. But that’s also a bit of a straw man. I’m not aware of any mainstream Islamist party. And, you know, having spent, you know, really my my entire career studying these movements, none of them with maybe only one or two exceptions are calling for imposing a certain kind of dress on women. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has never called for requiring that as a matter of law or constitutionally. So we also, I think, have to be very precise when we talk about what might happen if Islamist parties come to power. Yes. Would they do problematic things that we as American liberals wouldn’t like? Yes. But it doesn’t reach the levels that I think we sometimes hear and alarm as discourse of our, you know, that we’ve been hearing a lot of as of late. But I’ll also just say this. 

I think it’s also a question of what’s practical and realistic. So you and I, we might we might agree that liberalism and enlightenment ideas are preferrable in an ideal world. But that doesn’t mean they’re actually practical or have any realistic chance of happening in many, if not most Muslim majority countries, particularly in the Middle East. So I think that it’s also probably it’s also, I think, problematic, if not outright dangerous, to hope for outcomes that have no realistic chance of actually happening. And this brings me back to what I said in the beginning, that Islam Islam is uniquely, in my view, resistant to secularization Islam. There are aspects of the religion. There are aspects to the Theal theology and the faith tradition as it’s been practiced and understood over the past 14 centuries that make it very difficult to privatize Islam the way that Christianity was privatized in many parts of Europe and on at least the coasts of America. And and we can we can talk about what those things are. Yeah. 

Let’s let’s talk about a couple of those, because to that leap out at me from the book are the model, the intertwining of religion and politics basically. Right. The fact that Mohammed was not just a prophet. He was also head of state. And then secondly, I would like your thoughts about. Koranic inerrancy, I mean, there isn’t really a Christian equivalent to the way that Muslims think about how flawless the holy book is. 


So I guess what I would like what I would say on that is history matters. So we have to look at the founding moment of any given religion and see how that how that affected the formation of the religion. 

So when we look at Christianity, we look at a figure like Jesus and Jesus was not ever in a position to govern. 

He was a dissident against arraigning state. So there was a kind of oppositional posture. And this is something that I think Reza Aslan documents quite well in his book. So Jesus never saw the New Testament doesn’t actually say much about public law. And why would it? Because that’s not what Jesus was doing. That was not his particular set of circumstances. And then even if you go beyond Jesus’s own life and you look at the first several centuries of Christianity, Christians were a minority living under the rule of others. So they never in their early theology, they never had to go out of their way to formulate an account of public law or an overarching legal structure. So that’s very critical in understanding the evolution of Christianity. On the other hand, if you look at it, slam the intertwining of religion and politics is there from the very founding moment. So, Prophet Mohammed, as you as you mentioned, he wasn’t just a cleric, a theologian or a prophet. He was he was also a politician. He was also a head of state in Mississippi, incipient Muslim community in Madina. So he had to contend very directly with questions of law and governance and their practical application in everyday life. And this wasn’t just incidental to Mohammed and his legacy. That was by design. Those functions were supposed to be intertwined in his person. So that doesn’t mean look, I also don’t want to give the impression that Muslims are bound to their founding moment. That I wouldn’t want anyone to take that from what I’m saying. But Muslims can fully escape their founding moment either founding moments matter. 

So I think that if a Muslim today is making the case for the separation of religion from politics, they can do that. 

And there have been many Muslim intellectuals to have made precisely that argument. I would only say, though, that it’s hard for them to get mass support. It’s really hard for them to gain traction for their ideas because they’re essentially arguing against the founding moment. And more specifically, the prophetic model. And as we know, Muslims, even those who are in particularly religious. They take the prophet really seriously. He’s someone you’re supposed to emulate. He’s someone that you’re supposed to admire and even love, in a sense. So if a Muslim reformer or secularist intellectual is telling other Muslims, hey, all that stuff about Mohammed intertwining religious and political functions, forget about it. 

Look, some people might buy into that. But I would argue it’s very unlikely that large majorities will accept that argument. And that’s just that’s something we have to be realistic about. So that’s one. And then the other thing you mentioned, which to me is really fascinating, because part of what I had to do, this book is learn more about Christian theology. And I would always hear about this term biblical and Aaron C. And I thought, oh, I would just assume that somewhat similar to how Muslims talk about moronic inerrancy. But actually, that’s not the case. If you go into if you really go into the details of what these terms mean. So, you know, even far right evangelicals in the US. But even if you look at far right Christian figures centuries ago there, there’s really no major Christian intellectual or no major Christian sector or denomination that is arguing that the Bible is God’s exact word. They might say that the Bible is the word of God, but that’s not the same thing because they would still acknowledge that there is some human authorship. So, for example, that Paul was involved in writing parts of the New Testament and so on. That’s very different than how Muslims see their own scripture in this case, in particular, the Koran. So Muslims would say that the Koran is not just the word of God, it’s God’s actual speech. In other words, there is no human authorship or mediation with the text. And that has major implications. So you can pick up a page of the Koran and say. This is all nice, but it’s just inspired by God. No, if you’re a Muslim as as a credal requirement, that means that you believe or shouldn’t believe in theory that the core on is God’s actual speech. So that makes it much more difficult to dismiss or ignore things that are explicitly there in the Koran because you’re not dealing with the words of men. You’re dealing with the words of God. The exact literal words of God. 

Shouting. Then how do we explain the huge range of diverse interpretations of the Koran and the Hadith across the. One point six billion Muslims? I mean, it sounds a bit like I like your position is not dissimilar to some Islamophobic pastor who would say Menaker on sites like ISIS are the only true Muslims. And we’re also getting it wrong. 

Josh, you’re trying to get me in trouble now. So I want to be. It’s a really good point. And sometimes I get attacked for that. And so so just because you believe that the Koran is God’s actual speech, that doesn’t mean you’re limited into having a fundamental, quote unquote, fundamentalist literalist interpretation. You can believe that something is God’s exact speech, but still find ways to reinterpret. And that’s precisely what we’ve seen throughout Islamic history. 

So I also really want to challenge this idea that just because Islam plays an outsized role in public life historically and just because Muslims are tied to the chronic text, more than Christians are tied to the New Testament, that doesn’t mean they’re stuck in these very narrow, strict interpretation. So historically, we have four schools of Islamic law. 

And I would say that at least three of the four or you could even argue all four emphasize the intent of the author in this case, God. So you have to debate. So God revealed certain verses at a certain time. But what was his ultimate intent? What was the reasoning behind the verse? What was the context? So there are verses that appear quite violent in the Koran, but then you have to situate them in the context of the time. And this is where there is real rich diversity and interpretation. When you try to understand what was the particular context of a certain verse. You could also have people who say, yes, the Koran is God’s exact word. But the Koran was also revealed at a time that was very different than our own. So in the seventh century. So perhaps what God was telling the early Muslims to do in the seventh century was great for that period. But it may have to be reassessed in light of modern events. So those are debates that have been ongoing for centuries. 

So, I mean, they sort of drop, but they sound not dissimilar to the same debates that happen in Christianity or Judaism or any other religion. Right. I mean, I take your point about the unique inerrancy of the Koran. It’s literally God’s words. But I wonder whether that seems more important to distinction than it actually is simply because of the lack of a reformation in Islam. I mean, the NRA isn’t vandalism. Christians, moderate Christianity even exists because it’s been beaten back by reason and science over the course of centuries in a way that Islam hasn’t had to. If you did have that reformation that you say is unlikely or even impossible, then people would find other ways of rationalizing the Koran to make it more similar to modern Christianity. 

Yeah, perhaps. But this is I mean, you bring up something really interesting here. So you said that Christianity was beaten back by these new modern ideas that are tied to the Enlightenment experience. I don’t think that Islam can succumb to those ideas the way Christianity did for for some other interesting reasons that Christianity found itself on the opposing side in very key foundational debates in the 18th and 19th centuries. So, wait, you had the growing socialist movements of the time. You had people who were calling for universal suffrage. And unfortunately, in many cases, the Catholic Church found itself arguing against these, quote unquote, modern ideas that were becoming more and more popular. So Christianity, in a very interesting way, I think, failed to assimilate, incorporate or absorb these new ideas that we’re having more and more mass support. Islam, in a sense, I alluded to this is flexibility and the fact there are diverse interpretations. And that’s actually part of why I think. Islamist movements are still so important and relevant today because they’re able to take these modern ideas and assimilate them. So you have ideas like Islamic democracy, Islamic socialism, Islamic Calvinism, Islamic banking, Islamic finance. So it’s so it’s kind of counterintuitive because you might you might listen to what I’ve just been saying for the past for the past 20 minutes and say, well, wait, I’m actually arguing that Islam is stuck in a premodern era. But actually, Islam is able to absorb these ideas in very effective ways. And this is where I think people really misunderstand Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or another in Tunisia or the HOK party in Turkey, that these are actually very modernist in some ways rationalist movements. 

What they’re trying to do is to reconcile premodern Islamic law with the modern nation state. And they’re essentially saying to their followers, you can believe in democracy and still be an Islamist, where I think it was very difficult for the Catholic Church in, say, late 19th century Belgium to tell its followers you can accept universal suffrage in some aspects of socialism and still be a faithful follower of the Catholic Church. So it’s actually Islam’s flexibility and the fact that it in some ways, the Islamist movements of today are quite modern and rationalist. That makes it okay to be both that no one is telling Muslims that you have to choose. Maybe ISIS is. But if we’re talking about mainstream movements, you’re not telling people that you have to be one or the other. They’re telling people that there is a way to be both simultaneously. And that’s part of why you think Islamist movements, at least the mainstream ones, have been able to garner such mass support throughout the Muslim world. 

I’m glad that you mentioned the distinction between mainstream Islamist parties and something like ISIS, because oftentimes in the West, I think we can conflate the two. And every time we hear the word Islamism or Islamist, we think of people being beheaded. All right. Let’s talk about about those mainstream Islamist parties then and whether or not they present an acceptable model of Democratic liberalism from our perspective. I was in in Egypt in 2008 for a while and was speaking to two people there who were just exhausted by the false binary as they sort of Mubarak versus the Muslim Brotherhood that didn’t like Mubarak, but they didn’t like Islamism. They just wanted something else. And then I was back there in September of 2013, which you’ll recall was a very tumultuous time when Morsi was in power and there were huge protests in Tahrir Square and there were military jets doing flyovers with the Egyptian flag colors and nobody. It was both incredibly inspiring and optimistic and also terrifying. 

And it was clear that these were two choices that most people didn’t really want and that the I suppose the sense of being a public square in which people have conversations like this one, it’s something that we’ve come to take for granted in North America and Western Europe and Australia and New Zealand. So and just wasn’t there. And in the intervening time, we’ve seen that it’s still not there and not there even less probably than it has been in decades. How do you what do you think about that? And is it possible for Islamist parties to come to the table on this? 

Yeah, sure. So I guess the first thing I would say that I think is worth mentioning when it comes to Islamist parties is if you I’m not a big fan of reformation and analogies because, again, I’m very reticent to sort of fall into this notion that history has a linear trajectory, that there’s an arc of history bends towards the things that we like. Right. At the same time, if you really wanted to use analogy, I’d say in a way, Islam has already had a reformation of sorts. That reformation is called Islamism. Islamism is actually the successor movement of the Islamic modernist movement of the late 19th, early 20th century. And this Islamic modernists were essentially arguing that Islam should be important in public life. But we have to find a way to kind of help it adapt to the modern era and help it adapt to, say, parliaments or democratic practice. And that’s what I mean when I say there’s a kind of intrinsic flexibility there. And, you know, Islamist parties today have, by and large, come to terms with the nation state. And we might, of course, think that’s good in a way that that is a that is a progression. It could also be bad, though, and we can talk about the nations they later, if you’d like. But I think that that is essentially what. Islamist project is it’s a very modernist project, and it’s about making Islamic law safe for the modern era or maybe making, if you look at it the other way around, making modernity safe for Islamic law. So I think that that’s one way to sort of look at these mainstream movements that they’re trying to square the circle. And that’s why they find themselves getting stuck in these difficult quandaries, because they’re trying to fit something that was designed for the premodern era Islamic law into the modern era. And that’s no easy feat. So that’s one thing. I also want to give listeners the impression that it’s only Islamists who want Islamic law to play an important role in public life. What’s interesting about a place like Egypt is that even secular parties claim to believe that Islam should play a prominent role in public life. And even Article two of the Egyptian constitution, which everyone is supposed to agree on supposedly. It says explicitly that the principles of the principles of Sharia are a primary source of legislation. So so in that sense, Islam’s outsized role in public life is not just the province of Islamists. It actually reflects a broader conservative consensus in the society. So even if that has Sisi, the current strongman of Egypt, who is as anti Islamist as you can get, and even some people claim that he uses some kind of secular reformer, if you actually look at Sisi is discourse. He very much appropriates Islamic ideas and concepts. He does. He uses the clerical establishment to promote his political ends. He’s actually said explicitly in his presidential campaign that it is the role of the Egyptian president to promote the correct interpretation of Islam. So he sees himself as this kind of father figure who is supposed to help guide the flock towards the correct understanding of Islam. Now, where he differs with the Brotherhood is on the particular understanding of Islam and how it’s applied to everyday life. But that doesn’t mean he’s a secularist. 

I mean, I. I completely take your point, but I would just add a pinch of skepticism that we can take at face value what leaders like Sisi say. I mean, he also is a shrewd politician who knows that he needs to pander to a an overwhelmingly religious population. We saw the same thing coming out of Iraq towards the end of Saddam Hussein’s reign. It didn’t mean that he had a change of heart and that he was that he was driving. 

But that means that even secular, even if he doesn’t believe half the things that he says on this, the fact that he feels a need to cater to conservative sentiment in these societies, I think tells us something. Even if you want to be secularist in a country like Egypt, you have to be very careful about what you say, because the overarching political culture is one that is very accepting of the role of religion. 

I’m delighted to say we have a sponsor this week, a sponsor which Time magazine named one of the best inventions of 2015. In fact, it is now the most awarded mattress of the decade. I’m talking, of course, about Casper, the obsessively engineered mattress that comes at a a shockingly fair price. The product combines springy latex and supportive memory foams to create a sleep surface that’s just perfect, just the right amount of sync, just the right amount of bounce. You get free shipping and returns within the U.S. and Canada end. Get this, you got to try Casbah for 100 nights risk free in your own home. If you don’t love it, they will just pick it up and refund you absolutely everything. 

Cappa mattresses are made in America, so go right now for 50 dollars off any mattress purchase. Take Casper dot com slash point and use the promo code. You guessed it. Point your backwell. Thank you. Your wallet will. Thank you. And yes, we will. Thank you. 

So let’s talk about the nation state and I want to get to to ISIS because, you know, I think part of you mentioned the difficulty that Islamism has in in reconciling premodern Islamic law with the modern nation state. And that difficulty is something that’s pointed to by ISIS as well. They say, yeah. You can’t really you can’t really do that. You’ve got to have one or the other. And you’re your take on ISIS, I think is interesting, which is that, you know, you call it one of the most successful state building projects of the of the modern era. What do you mean by that? 

So it’s it’s one of the most successful as Islamist state building projects. And that’s also because the bar is quite low, because there haven’t really been a lot of proper, you know, actual Islamist state building experiments that we’ve actually seen. But I think where ISIS is argument and I think this is what’s to me scary about ISIS and what makes them dangerous from an ideological standpoint is they’re essentially arguing that the mainstream Islamist approach not only doesn’t work, but can never work. Because they’re saying that whenever you try to reconcile Islamic law with the modern nation state. The nation state will always win out, so you can’t have any kind of accommodation. And they argue that you have to destroy what is already there and build something new and fundamentally different. And if we don’t find if by we here, I mean, whether it’s the US, the international community, whoever is involved in these debates in outside the Muslim world, that if they can if they can find and if we can’t find a way to help reconcile Islam with the modern nation state, that is going to feed into the narrative of groups like ISIS that say it’s not possible and don’t even try. And this is where I think that even if ISIS was defeated tomorrow morning and this is why I don’t actually think. It’s it’s that important whether ISIS loses a piece of territory today and gains a piece of territory tomorrow. I worry that we’re losing sight of the broader issues that ISIS brings to the fore, which is that even if ISIS is defeated tomorrow or next year, their legacy will be with us for the rest of our lives because they’ve set a new gold standard for extremist movements. 

But isn’t there a capture of territory and the creation of a quasi states intrinsic to this success? I mean, had they never done that? And if we could prevent them from doing so again, wouldn’t that deal a significant blow to their claims? 

Oh, sure. Sure. But they’ve already done it and demonstrated. So there has already been a quote unquote, caliphate. They’ve already captured large swaths of territory. So the model that the the supposed model will be there for fellow travelers and people will try and try again. They’ll say, OK, well, ISIS lost a lot of its territory like two or three years from now. Fine. But it’s still possible. ISIS showed that it’s possible to actually do state building if you’re an extremist movement and al-Qaeda was good at destroying things and blowing things up. It wasn’t actually good at suggesting an affirmative vision for state building. Right. It didn’t really offer a lot. It didn’t really offer a lot ideologically when it came to establishing a quote unquote, caliphate. ISIS did that. And I think from now on, whenever you have an ungoverned or ungovernable piece of territory anywhere in the Muslim world, you’re going to have that local extremist movement that’s going to think to itself. Why don’t we try to establish a mini caliphate? Because that’s what ISIS did and it seemed to be successful for a while. And this is where I think we’re you know, we’re not addressing. You know, I know that the phrase root causes is overused a lot and it kind of be a catchall for whatever you want to say. But the fact that we haven’t addressed the root causes of ISIS is rise. So ideology plays a big role in ISIS. And I argue against diminishing the role of religion in understanding ISIS. At the same time, though, it’s not all about religion or ideology. It’s also about failures of governance. And as long as we have failures of governance in the Middle East, groups like ISIS are going to find a way to exploit that. And I’m not optimistic about there being good governance anytime soon in the Middle East. 

So, I mean, I think security experts in the West and more broadly, just the Western general public likely to think when they hear you say what you just said. Listen, there are always going to be failed states in parts of the world that are going through traumas. And what part of the world is going through more traumas than the Middle East. Therefore, it’s a fool’s errand to try to fix all of those root causes. The best that we can do is to try to address the ideology that might inspire people who live in the West. People who live in the suburbs of Brussels from from killing Westerners in some vision of some aspirational vision of joining ISIS. Is there a way to attack the ideological root cause without attacking the geographical political root cause? 

Well, first all, I just say that I think it is actually possible to change U.S. policy, to have a fundamental reorientation of U.S. policy in the Middle East in a way that starts to address these deeper governance issues. I think part of the problem is that we love authoritarian regimes and we have for several decades. And this is actually why I think some of the arguments of I don’t want I don’t want to sort of over generalize, but from certain from certain kind of pro secular intellectuals or individuals, Muslim or non-Muslim, you sometimes hear there’s sometimes a soft spot for authoritarianism that someone like Sisi could be the answer or that we have to work closely with authoritarian regimes against groups like ISIS and kind of bite the bullet or whatever. I think that actually feeds into this endless cycle of destabilization. But on your specific question of fixing the ideology, I don’t even know what that means. And this is where I sometimes and I’d love to you know, I’d I’d love to get more into this debate with people who actually think this is a solution, because I’ve never actually heard how that works in practice. How do you fix these ideological or religious problems, especially if it’s non-Muslims who are coming in and saying, we have this package deal called enlightenment values. And as long as you as long as you guys come on board, then you’ll be fine. 

Well, I agree that a lot of Muslims wish that it wasn’t non-Muslims. But they’re frustrated that there aren’t Muslims doing it. You know, there are Muslims who are doing it. Maajid Nawaz has his his outfit in the U.K. trying to spread anti extremist ideas. But in the absence of a dialog, you know, what does it look like on the ground? I guess it looks like having I mean, what did Radio Free Europe look like on the ground? Right. It was an attempt to undermine the ideology of communism by spreading divergent ideas. Is there a way? Is there no way to cede divergent ideas so that radical mosques become slightly less kosher? Funny word to use within Muslim within Muslim communities and and moderate publications which discuss in a thoughtful way the reconciliation of Islam with modernity become more popular? I don’t know. I guess that’s what it looks like on the grass. 

Sure. But so with the it was suddenly Radio Free Europe. What we were seeing that was the promotion of universal values that majorities in Eastern Europe supported. They wanted more freedom and democracy. So we weren’t at cross purposes with the prevailing culture in those regions that were governed under communism. But when we’re coming in and saying, well, we’re going to have some radio channel, that radio station that promotes secularism, that’s at cross purposes with prevailing religious culture in many of these countries. That doesn’t mean we can’t promote divergent views. And again, I think that if you look even in the world of Islamism, you see an incredible diversity of Islamist movements and some might actually be movements that pro secular individuals might actually come to terms with. And not in Tunisia, I think is an interesting example. I have some issues with the model and how sustainable it is, but that shows that Islamists can make real concessions to secular parties. They can make real compromises on ideological issues. So it doesn’t have to be anti Islamist or non Islamist. And my issue is some of the counter extremist organizations or think tanks. I respect some of the work that they’re doing, and I, I realize that it’s well intentioned. But if when you when we make Islamism into this catch all boogey man. So Islamism is the problem. We’re not acknowledging that some of the very individuals are parties that are fighting ISIS, including sometimes on the battlefield in places like Syria, are Islamist in orientation. And if we alienate them and say they’re beyond the pale, then we risk pushing some of those groups or individuals in a more radical direction. So what I would sort of counsel is let’s promote pluralism, democracy and say to people on the ground in these countries. Here’s an open space for debate. Debate your own issues, debate how you want to understand your religion, and then respect democratic outcomes, even if it means Islamists come to power. And I know that’s uncomfortable for America. So, you know, personally, I consider myself a liberal. I’m a product of American culture. That’s how I see the world. I’m uncomfortable with many of the things that Islamists advocate. But my point has always been we don’t have to like Islamists. And maybe in some ways we shouldn’t like Islamists because we have, you know, as liberals, we have our own ideas and ideals. But that doesn’t mean we can’t understand them and accept that they have to play a role in public life. It’s the same way that I see Christian evangelicals or even Trump supporters. They scare me fine. But I. I believe that we have to defend their right to be active members of society to express their views without any fear of being sidelined or persecuted or being beyond the pale. So it’s the same thing if Donald Trump is elected. That’s actually scary to me as an American Muslim. But I will respect democratic outcomes. I will consider him to be my and our president. And I have to I mean, that’s what democracy is about. It’s accepting outcomes that you as an individual might be profoundly uncomfortable with. 

Would the world be better off if Morsi was still in power in Egypt? 

Well, so I think in absolute terms, we have to kind of be clear about what we’re comparing Morsi being in power to. If it’s between Morsi and what we have now, then, yes, it would have been better if Morsi was in power and that Egyptians and I should also say the US government respected that as bad as Morsi may have been. He was democratically elected. And you have to let the democratic process play out. And I think we’re seeing the dangers of having an exclusionary. Crotch to Islamists and a lot of people fell under this idea when the coup happened in July 2013, that Morsi is out. Now, finally, Egypt will go in a positive, more liberal direction. But that’s not the alternative. The alternative to democratically elected Islamists is not secularism. It’s not liberal democracy. It’s a kind of pseudo secular or secular in quotation marks. Authoritarianism. So, again, we have to be realistic about what our options are. And yes, in an ideal world, if there were if there was a large party in Egypt that were fervent defenders of liberal democracy, that would probably be the best option. But that option doesn’t exist and probably won’t for a long time. So, you know, I think that for me, the the coup and the subsequent massacre, which happened a month later in Egypt, where more than 800 people, more than 800 Brotherhood supporters were killed in broad daylight in mere hours. That, to me, marked the definitive end of the Arab Spring. And I was I was in the site of the massacre two days before it happened. It happened August 14th. I left on August 12th. And it’s like I just said, when editing 2013. Yeah, exact. And it’s a very personal it’s a very scary thing to wait for a massacre. But that’s actually where, you know, some of this book came out of my personal experience. I was trying to make sense of a puzzle because I was also in Tahrir Square on February 11th, 2011. I was. It was when I was beautiful once in a lifetime moment. It’s hard to really describe in words, but I saw something that I had never seen before, which is Egyptians were embracing their own agency. And there was hope. Right. But then two and a half years later. I see the exact opposite of that. I see a descent into hatred and bloodlust, and I’m born and raised in the US. My parents my parents are Egyptian, my relatives. Most of them are still in Egypt. And I saw how many of them. Look, otherwise, good people. I like most of them, I think having people who are dear to me, I care about them. They came out in support of mass killings of their fellow countrymen. They saw the Brotherhood as evil. And they believe that the Brotherhood had to be eradicated even if it meant killing innocent civilians. So part of what I was trying to get my head around is how is this possible? Because if we look at other other military coup situations, including in Latin America, a very polarized context, you don’t see a situation where the vast majority of prominent liberals in Egypt supported the coup and either supported the massacre or stayed silent. So how do you that to me said that there was something distinctive going on here. And part of it had to do with the fact that these foundational divides over the role of religion have not been resolved. And that has to be the priority. Egyptians, Tunisians, whoever, they have to find a way to at least accept. Fat, except these foundational divides and work around them or mitigate them peacefully and through the democratic process. And that’s not a very ambitious goal. I’m not calling for the Enlightenment here. I’m calling for I’m calling for a way to share power and for people in the region and for us as Americans as well, to come to terms with the fact that Islam is here to stay. It’s going to play a role in public life. We don’t know exactly what that role is going to be, but we have to accept reality. And if we don’t, I think the alternative is secular authoritarianism. 

But what what frightens me about your thesis is that is my suspicion that democracy and the faith in process of outcome takes generations or centuries to inculcate or to develop in a culture that, you know what you’re talking about when you talking about Egypt, Egyptians being willing to see hundreds of their fellow countrymen murdered in order to achieve the political outcome that they want is of just a fundamental lack of understanding or lack of respect for the democratic process. Look at what happens in a country like the United States after the Florida recount in 2000. Everyone comes together. Even the opponents, and comes around and rallies around behind the leader because they believe that process is more important than outcome. And I agree with your your your sort of critique, I suppose, of Western liberals who are all too ready to ditch democracy when it has the wrong outcomes in Muslim countries. Back in 2013, I wrote a piece in the Huffington Post in which I took a couple of paragraphs from a column that Thomas Friedman had written in The New York Times. And I replaced the name Morsi with Obama and the offenses to Islamism with with contemporary, relevant American analogies. And, you know, it’s not that. It’s sort of basically just asked the question, how much authoritarian incompetence would an American president have to exhibit for Thomas Friedman to be okay with a Pentagon coup against the White House? A lot. But, you know, we don’t hold the same standards in the red. 

But that’s a little bit different in the sense that we got to that point in 2001 after more than 200 years of democratic practice. 

Well, that’s what I mean. Is it going to take 200 years for the Muslim world to sort itself out? 

Well, the hope is that because so many other countries have gone through a democratic process, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time that this is where I think international support is very important. The countries that have long, rich experiences with democracy have to actually express those same ideals abroad and help these countries rebuild and reconstruct themselves. And I think there are some really interesting models drawing from the literature on console creation of democracy, where you find ways to distribute power away from a centralized state. I mean, part of the problem in the Middle East is that there’s a sense that so much is at stake because everyone wants the levers of state power, because the state dominates everything. And that, too, you know, we have to be frank about this is a product of modernity. Modernity hasn’t given us only great things. It’s given us over centralized states that like to interfere in the lives of their citizens endlessly. So I think that that’s what makes elections so scary for people, because it’s the party that you hate. Not only is going to come to power, but they’re going to control or have the levers of this dominant, powerful state. I think one way of looking at where we go from here is to actually find ways to weaken the nation state, which might sound counterintuitive because we’re always thinking about strengthening failing states. But I think we also have the opposite problem in the Middle East, where there isn’t enough local governance, there isn’t enough federalism. Different communities should have some degree of autonomy. There should be mechanisms to share power. And one way to do that is to avoid presidential systems, which tend to be very polarizing in young democracies, are actually even polarizing in our own country now, as we’re seeing. But I think that the reason why we don’t talk about coups in the US is because we’ve gotten to that point. Our norms have evolved over time. But I will say this is not to guide. I’m go in a different direction here. But the fact that the word coup has been raised in the context of Donald Trump’s rise to power is actually very scary to me. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA, he was sort of joking. And this was in a conversation with Bill Marr. But they were talking about, you know, would the military defy orders from a democratically elected Donald Trump? Then we’re getting into some scary territory about about what is the approach. Read balance, balance or separation of powers. And what can democratically elected presidents do before going too far? So, again, you know, I think that the Middle East is exceptional in many ways. But I think it’s interesting that, you know, as I was writing this book and as it’s coming out now, I think more Americans and more Europeans are seeing that the crisis of liberal democracy is actually becoming way more universal. I mean, the recent elections in Poland are very frightening to me, where a distinctly illiberal party has come to power. And that doesn’t get much attention. Or the French far right, which is gaining traction, has been gaining traction in the polls and so on. So it really I think it forces us, as you know, American and Western liberals, people who believe who believe in these ideas to I think think a little bit more critically about how we view our own traditions, our own experience with the Enlightenment. It’s not as solid and secure as we might think. 

Wrap it up with a little prognostication about how you how the optimistic part of your brain. Because I’m feeling depressed after this of sees things unfolding across the Middle East in coming decades. You mentioned, you know, that sort of a decentralization of power, which I suspect is probably going to be the solution if we can find one. And Tunisia is interesting what’s happening there. But how do you know the idea of Syria still being Syria in 20 years or Iraq still being a nation called Iraq with as much power wielded from Baghdad as it has it has done in the past? Is strikes me as somewhat fanciful. So if not that, then what? 


Yes. So I I have to say that I didn’t. I’ve also I’ve also changed in a way, in my in my approach to these things. And that’s why there’s. That’s why a lot of this is personal to me, because I’ve actually come to have a darker view of human nature, even over the course of writing this writing and researching this book. And I try I try to resist. So I fall into pessimism. I, I sometimes look at the future in the Middle East and I think to myself, wow, if it can get worse, it probably will. And look, that’s a product of my experience because I saw a moment of hope and I saw how it was destroyed. And I’m also seeing challenges in my own country, the United States. So, I mean, I think that. But at the same time, I wouldn’t do what I do. I wouldn’t have written this book unless I really believe that we can change that. There are better ways to approach these issues. And I really hope that this book and these arguments can help shift the conversation over Islam and Islam and democracy in a more positive direction. I hope so. And I think that I’m glad you brought up Tunisia, because I think that there are bright spots out there as as rare as they might be. And Tunisia shows that it’s possible for Islamists and secularists to resolve very deeply felt divides. Through a peaceful political process. And now I don’t want to I don’t want to idealize the Tunisian transition because it was very close to going off the rails in 2013. There was a moment after the coup in Egypt in particular, where Tunisian secularists were using some of the same language down with a nod calling for the dissolution of the democratically elected constituent assembly and so on. But ultimately, you know, cooler heads prevailed and they said, fine, we hate each other. Sometimes we disagree profoundly about the role of religion and public life, but we will agree to resolve those debates through the continuation of the transition through institutions like the constituent assembly, through voting, through mediation, through a national dialog process. Now, Tunisia has a lot going for it because it doesn’t have an interventionist military that can stage a coup. So I don’t know how applicable the Tunisian model is to other cases, but I do think that Islamist parties elsewhere in the region can learn from ANADA. And this is this is actually one place where I really changed in my own views. If we had talked several years ago, I would have I would have been much more adamant about democracy is democracy. And that means that Islamists should have a wide berth to do what they like if they are democratically elected. And that might be fine for normal established democracies. But what I think and nothing did that can be a positive example. They said we have a mandate. We were democratically elected, but we are actually going to make more concessions and more compromises than might be normal in a democracy because we realize that there is so much at stake. So we’re going to give things up that we really care about for the better good of the country. And this is why at the end of the book, I suggest some some examples of how this might work. So let’s say there’s a political opening in Egypt in five years. It may not be very democratic, but it could be a good idea for the Muslim Brotherhood to agree to not participate or not or at least not push for national elections for an interim period. And to say that the focus should be on local governance. It should be on building trust. And once the transition is more safe and secure, then you can have national elections, which are inevitably quite polarizing. Another way of looking at it is to say that we’re going to table issues regarding Sharia. So let’s not get in debates about Islamic law and its application and all of that. We’re going to table that for an interim period of five to 10 years and we can get to that again once. Egyptian democracy is going along a more positive path, then hopefully Egypt can withstand those polarizing debates. But that has to come later and not right away. And some might say that’s not very democratic because of Islamists want to win an election. If they can, then they should be able to bring up these issues. But I think what we’ve learned is that you sometimes have to do things that you might not otherwise want to do, because the most important thing is securing a democratic transition. 

The book is Islamic Exceptionalism How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World. Shadi Hamid, great to talk to you, as always. Thanks for being on the show. My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, Josh. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.