"The solution is to find a place for Islam in the democratic process."by Sameer Rahim / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid (St Martin’s Press, $26.99)
As the Middle East continues to be plagued by civil war, terrorism and bad governance the question is often asked: what role does Islam play, if any, in these problems? And might it offer any solutions? Shadi Hamid, from the Brookings Institute in the United States, argues that in Arab countries religion and politics are inseparably entwined. In that sense, Islam is different from other religions, or exceptional, as Hamid puts it. He adds carefully that this is neither “good nor bad”—it just is.
For those who feel that everything will be solved by an “Islamic reformation,” Hamid has cautionary words. Over the last 150 years, after its contact with European powers during the colonial era, Islam has undergone a huge transformation that looks a lot like a reformation. In medieval times, the religion was a loose and decentralised amalgamation of beliefs with orthodoxy only sporadically enforced. Now Islam has been fused with aspirations to state power, creating a modern political ideology—Islamism. Groups ranging from Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey’s ruling AKP all adhere to some kind of religio-political world view. Even supposedly secular regimes such as Egypt’s have sharia embedded within the law.
Hamid’s conclusion is that expecting religion to be detached from Middle Eastern politics is unrealistic. “The only long-term solution,” he argues, “is to find a place for Islam, in its varied political forms, within the democratic process.” There is no theoretical reason why this cannot happen. But it would also be fair to say that it looks an awfully long way off.