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Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S Relations with the Islamic World. Let’s start with one of the key arguments in your new book that Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics, and that observers and analysts of Middle Eastern affairs should not have high expectations for liberal democracy in the Arab world.
The starting assumption also makes me a bit uncomfortable – the idea that there’s this standard linear trajectory that Islam has to be twisted into something else, irrespective of theology, history, or anything else. There are so many assumptions packed into the way we talk about Islam and a lot of it is just counterproductive, because people want Islam to be things that it isn’t – and I would argue – can’t be.
Does de-radicalization of young Muslims living in the West with propensity to join radical movements require a change of discourse by leaders of Muslim communities? I’m generally skeptical of a lot of what falls under “Countering Violent Extremism,” or CVE. So I’m a bit of an anti-Marxist in the sense that I think material factors as an explanation for human behavior, while they’re obviously important, they are usually overstated. As it relates specifically to Muslim-majority countries, the primary political cleavages are generally ones having to do with religion and identity.
Based on an assertion you make in your book, “the heavy weight of Islamic history” makes the move toward separation of religion from politics and development of post-Enlightenment liberal type societies in the Arab world “such a path as difficult as it is unlikely”? As Western liberals (in lowercase-l), even if we think that liberalism is the best option for organizing society, you can’t force people to be liberal if they don’t want to be. Any secular Muslim reformer – and I think one of the most fascinating one was a Sudanese religious thinker named Mahmoud Mohamed Taha – has to contend with the weight of Islamic history. Do you think the ruling AKP party under President Erdogan has undermined and weakened Turkey’s post-Ottoman civil institutions? The personalization of politics is always dangerous, which is one reason I argue in the book against adopting presidential systems anywhere in the Middle East. You write about “an age of resurgent ideology” in as diverse places as Israel, India, and Europe; an ideology that revolves around a deep sense of belonging in one’s own community.
And this is where modern liberal democracies have fallen short: in providing a substantive politics of meaning. In their search for meaning and in light of religion’s diminished public role, millions in Europe and the U.S. All states require some unifying set of norms and ideas that bind citizens together; it’s just a question of what those might be in any particular context.
The over-politicization of Islam can present some of the same problems, in Iran for instance, but my suggestion is more modest.
Do you think if it wasn’t for the decades-old alliance between the Wahhabi religious elite and the Saudi royals—and the resulting Wahhabi influence over state affairs—today Saudi Arabia would be a place similar to Malaysia in terms of socio-cultural openness and greater women’s rights? One of the reasons Wahhabism emerged in the first place in the Arabian Peninsula – and not say in Malaysia – was that the region and its inhabitants were more receptive to the kind of puritanism that Ibn Abd al-Wahab was advocating.
It also sounds too much like a “false consciousness”- type explanation, which makes it easy for us to dismiss ideas we either don’t understand or don’t want to understand: if only those bad Saudis weren’t promoting and funding Wahhabism, those poor Egyptians – 28 percent of the population – who voted for Salafi parties in 2011 wouldn’t have fallen under the spell of this foreign ideology.
How does the Sunni-Shiite rivalry fit in the current struggle over Islam and its soul, and where do you think this rivalry is headed to? When we talk counter-terrorism, we construe it so narrowly as to involve kinetic aspects of fighting terrorism but relatively little beyond that. Foreign Policy Concepts is a platform where thought leaders and experts in foreign policy and international relations discuss key foreign policy and geopolitical issues of our time. We are doing what BBC, CNN and the rest of the mainstream media can't - disrupting the global newsflow with a unique digital media about the Middle East and North Africa.
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Hamid is the author, most recently, of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World (St.
Some want Islam to move beyond the idea of Quranic inerrancy – that the Quran is not just God’s word but God’s actual speech – but this is pretty absurd.

Do you think the ability of Muslim leaders in the West is a force to be reckoned with due to the ideological and cultural influence they exert within their communities? There are a lot of great religious scholars and imams who are making compelling arguments against ISIS and what they stand for, but I always get nervous when I hear people talking about trotting around moderate clerics and sending them to speak to the youth in the Middle East in some ill-conceived Moderation Tour. In my own fieldwork in the Middle East, I’ve always been struck by how little economic policy (or numbers of any kind) actually come up in conversation. They basically have to argue against the Prophetic model of intertwining religious and political functions. Can Erdogan today see the Gulen Movement (Hizmet) as a closed chapter in Turkey’s socio-political life, or should he still worry about Gulenists? But in the Muslim world this takes the shape of a longing for Sharia law and an equitable order. In theory, individuals, with all the freedom afforded to them, should be able to find the good life on their own, but this hasn’t worked out so well, in part because there are simply too many choices. Its resilience in the face of illiberal challenges depends on norms and institutions, which are designed to protect against our natural surges of illiberalism.
Islam does not need to be the overarching raison d’etre of any modern nation-state, but it will need to play some role in forging political community especially where political community is weak. Technically, all ideologies or belief systems are at some point foreign and unnatural because they presumably came from somewhere else and proposed some kind of break with whatever came before them. Growing up as a Muslim, I never really saw myself as a Sunni, even though that’s what I was. What’s your take on Obama administration’s response to the failed coup attempt in that country? It reminded me of the sick feeling I had on July 3, 2013, the day of Egypt’s military coup, which we cowardly refused to call a coup. It would have been painful to watch just how quickly President Obama and Secretary Kerry would’ve gotten on board if it had succeeded.
The problem is a bigger one having to do with the Obama administration’s quite self-conscious de-prioritization of supporting democracy abroad, and particularly in the Middle East.
Going beyond that would, of course, require more involvement in the region, not less; yet the overarching objective of the Obama administration has been to minimize our involvement in the Middle East as much as possible. In order to post comments, please make sure JavaScript and Cookies are enabled, and reload the page.
Why are we prisoners at home, while they play ball outside with all freedom… what did we do? Spice Route immediately brings to mind images of bustling bazaars where the very air is perfumed by exotic turmerics and cinnamons, and warm summer breezes carrying their irresistible flavors and tastes! In both theory and practice, Islam has proven resistant to the pressures of secularization.
It’s almost like, “hey, you Muslims are having a tough time of it now, but don’t worry, we went through it too and we came out fine in the end. I feel American Muslim leaders spend half their time condemning terrorist attacks that they have nothing to do with. If you’re already predisposed to radicalism, chances are you’re not going to listen to a State Department-approved cleric or for that matter a Moroccan government-approved or Jordanian government-approved one. They are suspicious of “ideology” but, of course, believing that other ideologies are necessarily bad and contrary to the arc of history, itself a kind of ideology. In another sense, it’s not so surprising, since a party’s plan to fight unemployment won’t seem as important when foundational issues around the meaning and nature of the nation-state remain unresolved.
It can be done, but it’s a difficult sell to ordinary Muslims who want Islam to be straightforward and would rather not delve into complex hermeneutical techniques of reinterpretation.
If a president wins an election in a strong, centralized state, you end up with a winner-takes-all situation, and this raises the existential tenor of political competition considerably. In the broader sweep of history, liberalism seems more like an aberration than a belated discovery of what we always could have been. Behavioral economics has shown us that having too many choices actually threatens happiness and fulfillment – the so-called “paradox of choice.” When we want to buy jam, we don’t like having 30 flavors of jam to choose from, because we’ll never know for sure whether we chose correctly and we’ll wonder whether we could have been happier with flavor number 28.
If anything, to believe in something beyond unfettered individual freedom seems to be our enduring state; it’s only a question of what that “something” is.
As Francis Fukuyama writes in The Origins of Political Order, “That individualism seems today like a solid core of our economic and political behavior is only because we have developed institutions that override our more naturally communal instincts.” Those communal instincts haven’t gone anywhere. Islam, however, in its various manifestations as a distinct and applied political project, offers just that – a distinct political project.
Asabiya, roughly translated as social solidarity or group consciousness, provides cohesion and shared purpose. Even if Ibn Abd al-Wahab had failed, it’s not as if some kind of Salafism wouldn’t have emerged, even if it might have been somewhat less virulent. As we get closer to the end of Obama administration, how would you sum up his policies toward the Muslim world? Any long-term fight against extremism and political violence and any attempt to tamp the ongoing civil wars spilling over across the region would have to include a serious discussion of not just the d-word, but also governance, state-building, and yes, nation-building.

His previous book Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2014) was named among the best books of the year by Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy Association.
I don’t see this as necessarily bad, since it’s unclear to me why all religions must or should succumb to gradual privatization.
The idea of the Quran as God’s direct revelation is the foundation upon which so much in Islam is based.
This feeds into this notion that just by virtue of being Muslim, there’s some obligation to say something every time a terrorist attack happens. Part of the problem in persuading would-be ISIS supporters is that the group violates Islamic tradition and doesn’t consider itself bound to the Islamic tradition. If we can’t bring ourselves to take ideology, identity, and religion as powerful – and sometimes the prime – motivators of human behavior, then we’re in trouble.
In this sense, I think 1924 is more important than other touchstones like 2003 (invasion of Iraq) or 2011 (start of the Arab Spring).
That said, Turkey’s post-Ottoman civil institutions weren’t particularly great in the first place – they were premised on decades-long forced secularization and exclusion of Islamists – but that doesn’t excuse Erdogan and his allies for essentially redirecting that same state apparatus against their political opponents. Perhaps the arc of history bends toward justice, as Obama likes to say, but there seem to be some things that we cannot change. I imagine many northeastern liberal elite types who have felt a small sense of panic when deciding which of the 50 yoga studios in Washington, DC to choose from. In an era of strong, dominating, and centralized nation-states, the idea of a strong, autonomous society, where people form small, decentralized communities of belonging, has become quite difficult to operationalize in practice. And it makes sense to a lot of people in Muslim-majority countries because they don’t have to learn something entirely new. Nationalism, socialism, and secularism haven’t done a very good job of this in the Middle East; in fact, they’ve led to or been used as justifications for despotism, brutality, and mass killing. Salafism—not a premodern phenomenon, but a modern one—is popular for a reason, and if there’s a demand, someone will have to supply it.
It’s actually difficult to disentangle how much of the Sunni-Shia rivalry is about “religion” and how much of it is about “politics.” In this case, like so many others, these two categories – which we too often treat as separate – are endlessly intertwined.
Ever since the formal abolition of the last caliphate, there’s been an ongoing struggle to establish a legitimate political order; a struggle that remains unresolved and one that will probably remain unresolved for a long time to come. As for the Gulen movement, they’ve misplayed their hand over the past couple of years, thinking they could win their struggle against Erdogan and the AKP.
What starts off as “purely” about power politics between nation-states can end up influencing individual Sunnis’ perceptions of Shias and vice-versa.
Hamid previously served as director of research at the Brookings Doha Center until January 2014. Maybe that’s what some in the West want: They want Islam to be something other than what it has been.
I’m just uncomfortable with anything that leads us toward a kind of presumed communal responsibility. You can’t fashion a legitimate political order without finding some way of accommodating Islam’s role in public life.
They often vote against their economic interests, not because they’re stupid, but because there are certain things that are more important, at least to them.
As believers, from their perspective they know that the intertwining of religious and political functions wasn’t an accident of history, but a fulfillment of it. One could dismiss them as some foreign, unnatural cancer from abroad, but I think it’s an approach that refuses to take Salafism and its potent ideas nearly as seriously as it should. It can make them invest in centuries-old doctrinal disputes with new meaning, something that wasn’t previously cared about much. All the women are dressed up… why don’t I see those looks even though all the women are attractive here?
Prior to joining Brookings, he was director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
In this respect, a public role for religion –  which I think for many of us from secular backgrounds raises immediate alarm bells – can actually be a positive thing, just as it was (at least sometimes) for much of human history. In any case, one thing we can be sure of is that this rivalry isn’t some hopeless “ancient hatred” that always was and always will be. If it were, the Sunni-Shia conflict would be more or less constant over time, when clearly it hasn’t been.
Hamid sat down with Reza Akhlaghi to talk about his new book and the challenge of religious extremism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

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