Book Review: Islamic Exceptionalism

Islamic Exceptionalism is a book about the relationship between Islam and the modern nation-state by American author Shadi Hamid. The book explores the role that Islam has played in the development of the Middle East, as well as the currently ongoing conflicts there. The book is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a different Muslim country or other aspect of the situation.

The first chapter begins with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the 2013 coup against Mohamed Morsi two years later, and the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members by the Egyptian military. These are contrasted with the activities of the Islamic State. Hamid spends much of the chapter laying out the subject matter and structure of the rest of the book, which include the role of Islam in political affairs, the unique history and teachings of Islam, and the effects that this history and these teachings are likely to have. Hamid’s explorations of these questions leads him to question the mainstream liberal narrative of Whig historiography, democratic supremacy, and progressive determinism, though he never quite manages to reject this narrative. He contrasts Muslim countries which have experienced great political unrest, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria, with those that have not, such as Iran, Indonesia, and Malaysia. He then explains the differences between contemporary Muslim countries and European countries in the 1950s, suggesting that what worked in Europe will not work in the Middle East. Hamid ends the chapter by contemplating the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

Hamid goes into a history lesson of Islam in the second chapter, as the present cannot be understood without knowledge of the past. The idea of glorious achievements threatened by internecine killings permeates Islamic history from the beginning, and this coupling continues to shape the Middle East today. The decline and fall of the Ottoman caliphate has left a longing for the return of a caliphate, and ISIS has been more than happy to try to meet this demand. He compares the founding of Islam to the founding of Christianity, as well as sharia law to halakhic law. The relative flexibility and adaptability of Islam compared to other religions is explored in order to explain the simultaneous perceptions of Islam as both modern and medieval. The chapter ends with a discussion of the Christian Reformation, which segues into the next chapter.

The Islamic Reformation is the subject of the third chapter. Contrary to popular belief, Hamid shows that such a reformation has already occurred, as Islam adapted to modernity in a way that Christianity failed to do. The line of thinkers that led to Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, is discussed alongside the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Salafism. That Islamism only makes sense in a modern context is an important point that Hamid makes here, which is an example of the larger truth that a term which describes everything really describes nothing. The founding and principles of the Muslim Brotherhood are addressed next, with emphasis on the differences between Banna’s view of Islam and the less observant practices of Muslims in prior centuries. The second half of the chapter returns to the 2013 massacre in Egypt, then goes back to Banna’s time and moves forward through the Brotherhood’s history of being suppressed under Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat.

The fourth and longest chapter continues the story of the Muslim Brotherhood, detailing how its members have responded to the 2013 massacre. Here, Hamid turns to interviews with Brotherhood members, many of whom are now in exile to escape imprisonment by the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The massacre changed the minds of many in the Brotherhood, whose stance on political change had always been to play the long game and make gradual gains over decades. While the leadership was largely unmoved by this, the younger rank-and-file became radicalized. The Brotherhood’s shift to nonviolence in the 1970s has always been doubted by some as merely a tactical move, and this shift may well be undone. Hamid presents the differing views on the nature of the state and political change of the Muslim Brotherhood versus the Islamic State, and most of those interviewed were not willing to support ISIS. The youths Hamid interviews have come to understand the need to break the Westphalian order, but Hamid cannot seem to grasp this idea.

The fifth chapter considers the case of Turkey, in which Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to take and solidify power after several cases of Islamist parties being banned. Here, the modern history of Turkey is covered, including the dissolution of the Ottoman caliphate, the role of Ataturk in transforming Turkey into a modern nation-state, and the enforced secularism of that project which alienated Islamists. Once more, the localist nature of Islamic law came into conflict with the nationalism and globalism of the state. The role and path of Erdogan in changing the secular nature of the Turkish state is discussed. No mention of the failed coup attempt against Erdogan is made because it occurred after the time of publishing, and the significant changes since then somewhat date this chapter.

The example of Ennahda in Tunisia is the focus of the sixth chapter, and it presents a much different outcome for Islamists there. Seeing the bloodshed in Egypt, Islamists in Tunisia conceded their Islamism and allowed more secular interests to govern in their stead in order to keep peace and order. Hamid portrays Ennahda as being in an impossible predicament; if they moderate, they will lose their base to a more radical party, but they can never moderate enough to convince secularists to accept them.

The stark alternative presented by ISIS to the whole debate over Islam, democracy, and the modern nation-state is the subject of chapter seven. Hamid shares an interview with a man whose son left Tunisia to join Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria and then ISIS, eventually dying in battle there. The discussion of Tunisia continues in this context because a disproportionate number of ISIS militants come from Tunisia. Hamid correctly recognizes ISIS as a state because it has a monopoly on initiatory force within a geographical area and provides the common functions of a state, even if the rest of the world refuses to accept this reality. He shares another important truth here: moderates tend to lose in civil wars and revolutions because they lack both the fervor and resolve to do what the extremists on all sides will do. Though Hamid predicts the eventual downfall of ISIS, it may take some time and the motivations that led to its formation can lead to other such efforts in the future.

The book concludes by summarizing the previous chapters. The last chapter begins with the attack on Charlie Hebdo‘s offices and the reaction to them, which was somewhat muted among hardline Muslims. Hamid discusses the rise of nativist sentiment around the world and the role that it plays for those who would restore older forms of governance in the Middle East. He presents another important insight: that there are no such things as universal values, at least in practice. The contradictions of imposing a democratic process by non-democratic means are explored, but in some cases Hamid finds restrictions on pure democracy to be a necessity to prevent collapse.

Hamid’s insights into the inner workings of the region are not to be missed. But the Western liberal democratic biases of the author are inescapable. Hamid is unable to process the possibility that democracy is inferior to the older pre-Westphalian order, especially for the Muslim world. This is especially irksome, given the amount of evidence that he himself finds for this possibility. That being said, Islamic Exceptionalism is a highly informative book, especially for those with only a passing knowledge of Islamic history or current events in the Middle East.

Rating: 4/5

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  • Russell Ashbaugh

    “Hamid finds restrictions on pure democracy to be a necessity to prevent collapse.” Interesting analysis in that anarcho-capitalists find the same thing – that majority rule can wind you up any damn place. That “majority rule” is actually “content free” as to what the actual rules will be.