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

Book Review: The Age of Jihad

The Age of Jihad is a book about political unrest in the Middle East by Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn. The book is a compilation of his notes and articles over a 20-year period (1996-2016) while traveling throughout the Middle East. Cockburn did direct reporting where possible, and relied upon first-hand accounts when venturing into certain places was too dangerous.

Cockburn begins with his reporting from Afghanistan in late 2001 as the United States began its intervention to remove the Taliban from power. Next, he shares his experiences of Iraq under sanctions from 1996, 1998, and 2001, followed by his experiences there during the American occupation from 2003 to 2010. This is followed by his next forays into Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012.

The next part of the book focuses on the Arab Spring and the events that followed, with particular emphasis on countries in which the rulers were not quickly deposed. Cockburn begins with the Libyan Civil War of 2011 that removed Muammar Gaddafi from power, along with the difficulties that followed. Sectarian violence in Yemen from 2009 to 2015 and the failed uprising in Bahrain in 2011 each get a chapter.

The last part of the book covers recent developments in Syria and Iraq. First, the Arab Spring in Syria and its development into the Syrian Civil War from 2011 to 2014 is discussed in two chapters. Another two chapters are devoted to the contemporaneous destabilization of Iraq. This culminates in the rise of ISIS and the establishment of the Caliphate, in and near which the final four chapters take place.

The book gives important insight into just how terrible daily life is for people in war-torn lands, including the near-absence of basic utilities, shortages of essential items, rampant unemployment, and fear of mistreatment both from rebel groups and one’s own government. The book is filled with anecdotes of behavior which have not been seen since the Renaissance in the West, and knowledge of this behavior helps to explain animosity toward migrants from that region. The reader may be familiar with some of the events described, but almost anyone would find new information somewhere in the book.

One comes away from the book with a sense that both Western and regional powers had to be trying to perform so poorly. Western powers sought to punish Saddam Hussein without regard for the Iraqi people who bore the brunt of sanctions. They ignored cultural attitudes and sectarian divisions while turning a blind eye to mass corruption that greatly weakened the nation-building projects in Afghanistan and Iraq. They removed dictators who were stabilizing forces, thus creating power vacuums which were filled by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates. It is difficult to be so maliciously incompetent without intending to do so.

Overall, Cockburn does an excellent job of conveying the reality on the ground in most of the conflicts in the War on Terrorism and the Arab Spring. The only real improvement would be to add sections on recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, which only get passing mentions as sources for jihadists in other places. The Age of Jihad belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student of recent history, the Middle East, revolutions, war, and/or the effects of foreign intervention.

Rating: 5/5

A Measure Of Fascism In America

The word “fascism” is generally used today as a pejorative to attack any idea that a speaker happens to dislike. But this word has a specific meaning and a specific historical context. It refers to an authoritarian, nationalistic system of government and social organization that is usually considered to be far right-wing. Historically, it was most popular in the 1930s, when the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco were in their primes. Later examples include Indonesia under Suharto, Bolivia under Banzer, and Chile under Pinochet. In practice, fascism combines the ideas of collectivism, mercantilism, nationalism, (statist) syndicalism, and uniculturalism into a system where business leaders and political rulers work together to create public policies that benefit themselves at the expense of everyone else.

To what extent is the United States of America in 2015 a fascist nation? In order to determine this, a means of measurement is needed. Lawrence Britt has studied fascist regimes and found that there are 14 characteristics which all of them have in common to some degree. Let us examine these characteristics and assign each of them a value on a ten-point scale, with zero being completely absent and 10 being omnipresent. Let us also see how many are trending upward, trending downward, and holding steady. The final score on a 140-point scale will give a useful measure of the degree of fascism in America.

1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism – Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottoes, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

In America, patriotic mottoes, slogans, symbols, songs, and flags have been part of the culture since the founding of the nation, with the frequency of their use varying from time to time. This reached a fever pitch immediately following the September 11 attacks, and while it has backed off since then, the sense of nationalism in America remains strong, perhaps the strongest of all nations in which the state does not directly force people into such observances.

Score: 8/10, Trend: Steady

2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights – Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.

After 9/11, the Bush regime and their lapdogs in the right-wing media were largely successful in convincing people that torture and indefinite detention of those who were not convicted of crimes was justifiable for national security reasons. The Obama regime has taken some positive steps on these matters, but has murdered far more people with drone strikes than his predecessor. The left-wing media has largely given Obama a pass on this. At home, the War on Drugs has placed many innocent people into prison for decades. While the American people are becoming more opposed to such abuses of power, little real change has occurred.

Score: 8/10, Trend: Slightly Up

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause – The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

America has a dark history of this. Over the centuries, Native Americans, Blacks, Mexicans, Irish, Eastern Europeans, Germans, Jews, Japanese, communists, and Muslims have all been perceived as common threats or foes to be contained or eliminated. More than once, the state has been able to engage in wars due to yellow journalism or false flag operations successfully creating a new enemy du jour. With the War on Terrorism, the state has found its holy grail: a war which can be made indefinite against an omnipresent foe which it can never seem to vanquish, not that it would want to.

Score: 10/10, Trend: Steady

4. Supremacy of the Military – Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

The United States has the largest military budget in the world, and spends more money on its military than the next seven nations combined. Despite a stagnant economy and decaying infrastructure, 20 percent of the federal budget is devoted to the military. This is equal to the combined budgets of Medicare and Medicaid, and is nearly as much as the budget for Social Security. To be critical of the military as an institution is considered to be nearly as bad as aiding the enemy by the lapdog media, as is criticizing the glamorization of soldiers and military service. Though a minority is becoming skeptical of this situation, no changes appear to be coming in the near future.

Score: 10/10, Trend: Steady

5. Rampant Sexism – The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution.

The United States is one of the least sexist countries in the world. While the number of males in positions of political power outnumber females by about four to one, the United States ranks 94th out of 190 countries in this regard as of June 1, 2015. Over the last few decades, traditional gender roles have become less rigid. Divorce has become easier to obtain, with fault requirements being mostly removed as of 2015. Abortions were made legal nationwide in 1973, and same-sex marriage was made legal nationwide in 2015. A general hostility has developed toward government intervention into the family institution.

Score: 3/10, Trend: Down

6. Controlled Mass Media – Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in wartime, is very common.

While the press in America is not directly controlled by the government, it is indirectly controlled. Government regulation and pro-state media personalities perpetuate a lapdog establishment that echoes government propaganda and eschews authentic investigative journalism. Those who would challenge this status quo by asking uncomfortable questions frequently find themselves victimized by slave-on-slave violence as the privileged establishment seeks to preserve its access to the halls of power and its usefulness in informing the public of government activities. Censorship is common with regard to certain words and topics which are not used or discussed on mainstream programming, especially during wartime, although this is mostly done without direct government involvement. Before and during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the establishment media consistently towed the government line and censored certain images, such as war deaths. As a result, alternative and independent media sources are growing in popularity and trust in the establishment media is at an all-time low, but they have yet to displace the establishment media.

Score: 8/10, Trend: Slightly Down

7. Obsession with National Security – Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

At least since the First Red Scare following the Russian Revolution and continuing through World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terrorism, the government has used fear of external enemies as a justification for its activities. National security is considered by many right-wing (and some left-wing) politicians to be the most important role of the state. Though many people believe this has gone too far in the wake of the Snowden leaks, little meaningful change has occurred.

Score: 8/10, Trend: Steady

8. Religion and Government are Intertwined – Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.

There is a tradition of separation of church and state in America, but this is only true in the sense that there is no official state religion. Atheists, agnostics, and religious skeptics are few and far between in public office. Appeals to the tenets of Christianity, the most common religion in America, are frequently used by politicians to advance their agendas, even when those tenets are diametrically opposed to such agendas. Christian theories of just war play a significant role in American conservatism, and Christian ideas about helping the poor are used by American liberals to argue for government welfare programs. Religiosity among the American people is declining, but these conditions will likely remain stable for another generation or so.

Score: 7/10, Trend: Down

9. Corporate Power is Protected – The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

Since soon after the Constitution was ratified, business interests have played a financial role in determining which candidates for office are successful in elections. With the Citizens United decision, this has become more open and somewhat more blatant. Of course, those who invest in political campaigns expect a return on that investment, and research shows that they get it in spades. A political aristocracy has been present throughout much of American history, with many candidates for office being related to prior office holders. The 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be more of the same.

Score: 9/10, Trend: Up

10. Labor Power is Suppressed – Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.

While labor unions have not been eliminated entirely in America, they have been declining in the private sector for quite some time. In 2014, only 6.6 percent of private sector workers were union members, the lowest level since 1932. However, government sector unions are much stronger, with 35.7 percent of government workers belonging to a union in 2014. While national syndicalism is a major part of fascist theory, it has only had minor influence in America in the form of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor union.

Score: 6/10, Trend: Slightly Up

11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts – Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.

In America, the government is quite dependent on the intellectual classes to propagandize the people, and is therefore rather accommodating to them, to the point of creating a bubble in higher education that has benefited the intellectual classes at the expense of everyone else during the postwar period. That being said, it is becoming more common for professors and other academics to be attacked for their views. The rise in influence of social justice warriors is causing disdain for free expression to trend upward.

Score: 4/10, Trend: Slightly Up

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment – Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forgo civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

While many police accountability activists in America say that “badges don’t grant extra rights,” the fact is that in practice, they do. Police routinely engage in activities that would land an ordinary citizen in prison, and when they are investigated, it is either by an internal review process or a grand jury examination, each of which tend to be highly sympathetic to the police due to conflicts of interest. While there is no national police force with virtually unlimited power, the DEA, FBI, and Secret Service are quite powerful and are getting stronger. After 9/11, many people were willing to overlook police abuses, but this is changing. However, many efforts toward police accountability are being blunted by distractions, such as a focus on racism.

Score: 8/10, Trend: Slightly Up

13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption – Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.

There is a revolving door in Washington, D.C. between being a member of Congress or federal employee and being a lobbyist for special interest groups. These special interest groups bribe politicians and regulators on behalf of wealthy business interests to write laws and regulations that favor their interests at the expense of competing businesses and individual citizens. Many of these laws and regulations work to shield business owners from civil and criminal liability. While it is uncommon for American rulers to steal national treasures, there is a tendency for the government to appropriate natural resources and sell access to them. This shows no signs of improving anytime soon.

Score: 7/10, Trend: Up

14. Fraudulent Elections – Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

While there is no proof that American elections are a complete sham, there are clear cases of manipulation. While smear campaigns tend to be waged by each major political party against the other, assassination of opposition candidates is almost never seriously considered, let alone attempted. That being said, the two major parties have rigged election laws to keep third parties from having any reasonable chance of winning. Over the past few decades, gerrymandering of political district boundaries has been used to create districts which are either reliably Democratic or reliably Republican, with the result being that the fringe elements of each party are able to put people into office. The judiciary was arguably used to manipulate the 2000 presidential election, and courts usually act to control elections by siding against claims of unfairness by minor political parties. With the introduction of top-two primaries in recent years, third party and independent candidates are being excluded further.

Score: 7/10, Trend: Slightly Up

Overall, America gets a score of 103 out of 140, meaning that America is 73.6 percent of the way toward fascism and away from liberty. While the trends on the various characteristics of fascism are moving in different directions, the overall trend is slightly upward, meaning that the score could advance at a rate of one or two points per year.