Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World

Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World

by Shadi Hamid


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Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World by Shadi Hamid

Shortlisted for the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize

In Islamic Exceptionalism, Brookings Institution scholar and acclaimed author Shadi Hamid offers a novel and provocative argument on how Islam is, in fact, "exceptional" in how it relates to politics, with profound implications for how we understand the future of the Middle East. Divides among citizens aren't just about power but are products of fundamental disagreements over the very nature and purpose of the modern nation state—and the vexing problem of religion’s role in public life. Hamid argues for a new understanding of how Islam and Islamism shape politics by examining different models of reckoning with the problem of religion and state, including the terrifying—and alarmingly successful—example of ISIS.

With unprecedented access to Islamist activists and leaders across the region, Hamid offers a panoramic and ambitious interpretation of the region's descent into violence. Islamic Exceptionalism is a vital contribution to our understanding of Islam's past and present, and its outsized role in modern politics. We don't have to like it, but we have to understand it—because Islam, as a religion and as an idea, will continue to be a force that shapes not just the region, but the West as well in the decades to come.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250135131
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/06/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 781,937
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. An expert on Islamist movements, he previously served as director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. His first book Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East was named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2014. Hamid lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

Islamic Exceptionalism

How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World

By Shadi Hamid

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Shadi Hamid
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6672-0



Something went wrong, but what was it? I was standing in Tahrir Square on February 11, 2011. Around me, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians filled the streets of downtown Cairo. On this, the eighteenth night of the revolution, the crowd buzzed with the news that President Hosni Mubarak was stepping down after nearly thirty years of autocratic rule. The murmurs erupted into deafening cheers. This, whatever this was, was what they were waiting for. One of the revolution's young activists, a Muslim Brotherhood blogger named Abdelrahman Ayyash, sent me a simple text message: "We did it." But the euphoria was short-lived; the intervening four years featured a military coup, a succession of mass killings, and the return of dictatorship. Today, Abdelrahman, like so many others, bides his time in exile, longing for an Egypt that may never come back.

If this new phase of the "Arab Spring" was really about anything, it was about a collective loss of faith in politics. I remember how, before the uprisings began in 2011, Egyptians would take pride in the fact that they, unlike some of their neighbors, had little history of political violence. The July 3, 2013 military coup that ousted the country's first democratically elected president would irrevocably change that. The most populous Arab country, long a bellwether for the region, had willfully aborted its democratic process, however flawed it may have been. A military coup, though, is one thing; a massacre is another.

In the weeks that followed the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, a longtime Muslim Brotherhood figure, tens of thousands of his supporters gathered by Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in a massive sit-in. The Egyptian military announced that it was ready to use force. The country was on edge. No one quite knew when the army would make its move. There were false alarms nearly daily, sometimes hourly.

It is an odd thing to wait for a massacre. As American and European diplomats scurried in a last-ditch effort to persuade the Egyptians to back down, I spent some time in Rabaa, meeting with Brotherhood activists and leaders. One of those leaders was Essam el-Erian, then the vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm. As we sat down in early August, the last of our many meetings spanning nearly a decade, he refused to give any ground. Peppering his Arabic with English for emphasis, he insisted that Brotherhood members were prepared for the ultimate sacrifice. Another Brotherhood official, Gehad El-Haddad, who had given up a successful business career in England to return to Egypt after the revolution, recounted the story of a friend who had just been gunned down by security forces. In his final moments, the young man could barely speak, but he managed to utter the Islamic profession of faith: There is no god but God and Mohamed is his messenger. "Don't let my blood go to waste," the man told those gathered around him. They, too, were ready to die, and many of them did. Just days later, on August 14, 2013, over eight hundred Egyptians perished as security forces made good on their threat. Foot soldiers, bulldozers, and armored personnel carriers moved in at dawn with teargas, pellet guns, and live ammunition, forcibly clearing the encampment in what Human Rights Watch called "the worst mass killing in [Egypt's] modern history."

Less than three years earlier, Egypt had shown the world what was possible. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab uprisings, was a strategically and geographically remote nation of ten million. It was blessed with higher levels of economic growth and educational attainment than most other Arab countries. If the uprisings had begun and ended there, then the possibility of peaceful protest and regime change could have easily been dismissed. Egypt changed the calculus, trumping the narrative that Tunisia was the region's exception. Buoyed by Mubarak's fall, mass protests soon spread to two other countries, Syria and Libya, which were seen as unlikely candidates for political upheaval. On August 14, 2013, Egypt was once again leading the way, but this time Egyptians — turning against one another — showed us something much darker but just as real.

* * *

THERE WAS A TIME when only a few Americans had heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, soon to be rechristened as simply the Islamic State. That changed in the summer of 2014, first with the fall of Iraq's second largest city of Mosul — when a first wave of around a thousand fighters overtook an Iraqi force that was some thirty thousand strong. The horrifying beheadings of American journalists and the November 2015 killings of 130 civilians in Paris — the worst such attack in France since World War II — anchored the Islamic State's reputation for ostentatious acts of savagery. Seemingly overnight, the Sunni extremist group had emerged as a terrifying new enemy.

It was easy to condemn the Islamic State as evil, because it was. The indifference to death and the eagerness to kill permeated so much of what the group did. But what made the post–Arab Spring era so disturbing was that a more banal kind of evil seemed to be just about everywhere: The evil of otherwise good people turning against one another, sometimes not only accepting bloodshed as the inevitable price of conflict but also embracing it and even taking pleasure in it.

This is the story of a region's descent into madness. There is a temptation to see it as inexplicable, to look the other way as Arabs and Muslims fight and kill each other. Some of it, though, can be explained. Or at least we have to try. The impulse to understand what might appear beyond comprehension is a vital one, especially now. "The peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real" is how the journalist Philip Gourevitch memorably put it.

This book — based on over a decade of research, including more than six years living, traveling, and studying in the Middle East — is an attempt to make sense not just of sad, terrifying events but of the power of ideas and their role in the existential battles that have shaken the foundations of the Middle Eastern order.

Over the course of this book, I will return to a number of recurring themes and questions which I have made my best effort to grapple with. For instance, when trying to understand the wars of the Middle East, the rise of the Islamic State, and cultural divides over something as seemingly trivial as cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed, how much does Islam really matter? Is it about "religion" or "politics"? And can we even separate the two, when they have become so intertwined in the minds, and hearts, of believers?

* * *

TO UNDERSTAND TODAY'S SEEMINGLY INTRACTABLE conflicts, we need to go back to at least 1924, the year the last caliphate was formally abolished. Animating the caliphate — the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition — was the idea that the "spiritual unity of the Muslim community requires political expression." Since the caliphate's dissolution, the struggle to establish a legitimate political order has raged on, with varying levels of intensity. At the center of the struggle is the problem of religion and its role in politics. In this sense, the turmoil of the Arab Spring and its aftermath is the latest iteration of the inability to resolve the most basic questions over what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a state.

The year 1924 might seem like ancient history, but I'll have to go back even further — to the founding of Islam in the seventh century. Two related arguments form the core of the first half of this book. The first is that Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics. Islam is different. This difference has profound implications for the future of the Middle East and, by extension, for the world in which we all live. This admittedly is a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and Europe. "Islamic exceptionalism," however, is neither good nor bad. It just is, and we need to understand it and respect it, even if it runs counter to our own hopes and preferences.

Second, because the relationship between Islam and politics is distinctive, a replay of the Western model — Protestant Reformation followed by an enlightenment in which religion is gradually pushed into the private realm — is unlikely. That Islam — a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution — should follow a similar course as Christianity is itself an odd presumption. We aren't all the same, but, more important, why should we be?

If Muslims, and particularly Islamists, take scripture more "seriously" than their Christian counterparts, then how does this manifest itself in everyday politics? When observers discuss the root causes of Middle East conflict, they often speak of a crisis of governance or legitimacy, or both. But if we go down the causal chain, the question remains unanswered: Why exactly does the Middle East suffer from a lack of legitimate order? This legitimacy defeat, I argue, is tied to a continued inability to reckon with Islam's relationship to the state.

This is not for a lack of trying. The second half of this book is about the different, contrasting models of how to resolve the dilemma of the once and future Islamic state. I have chosen the word "exceptionalism" in part to avoid casting judgment. Exceptionalism, as I see it, has no intrinsic value in and of itself. It depends on how the problem of Islam and the state actually plays out in practice. In searching for solutions, mainstream Islamist movements, adopting a wide variety of approaches and strategies, may have seemed promising, but they all, in their own ways, fell short.

Mainstream Islamists are defined here as the affiliates or descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother of all Islamist movements, founded in Egypt in 1928 by a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna. They hoped to blend the premodern with the modern and East with West. In this sense, contrary to popular imagination, Islamists do not necessarily harken back to seventh-century Arabia. As we will see, they are distinctly modern, perhaps too modern. Their distinguishing features are their gradualism (historically eschewing revolution), embrace of parliamentary politics, and willingness to work within existing state structures, even secular ones. Islamist movements are those that believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life and explicitly organize around those goals in the public arena. Though they now find themselves eclipsed by radicals, the most politically influential Islamist groups have generally been of the mainstream and nonviolent variety, so it's worth focusing considerable attention on them, even if they may not be the ones who, today, attract the most headlines.

I first consider the foundational Brotherhood model, relevant to dozens of countries throughout the world that have their own Muslim Brotherhood–inspired organizations. I then focus on the more localized approaches of Islamists in secularized contexts, namely those in Turkey and Tunisia who have had to contend with decades of forced secularization. These two countries have been touted as models of reconciling Islam and democracy. Interestingly, despite their secularized contexts, they are also two of the only Middle Eastern countries where Islamist parties have come to power. For a variety of reasons, however, these "mild," more secular-friendly Islamists have failed to advance a successful Islamic synthesis. They have even, at times, exacerbated the very tensions they hoped to address. I will consider these fascinating cases in detail, focusing attention on some of the most interesting and important figures shaping internal debates over Islam and politics.

The Arab Spring's failure to produce a legitimate, stable political order opened up space for more radical approaches, forged in violence and absolutism. The "countermodel" of the Islamic State, or ISIS, is the focus of chapter 7. The extremist group's rapid rise in the summer of 2014 may have caught observers off guard, but that something like the Islamic State could thrive in this century, as history's arc was supposedly bending toward justice, was surprisingly appropriate. There had never been a serious, sustained attempt to reestablish the caliphate since its demise in 1924. Now the Islamic State — with its far-flung operational branches, or "provinces" — could claim to have been the first. Not only that, the Islamic State was one of the most successful examples of recognizably Islamist governance in recent decades (even if the bar here was relatively low). The Islamic State took governance and institution building relatively seriously and was better at it than one might expect. Rather than terrorism, this was perhaps the defining characteristic of the group, making it a worthier — and more dangerous — foe. Its governance model might have been horrifying in any number of ways, but it was a distinctive model nonetheless. The Islamic State, in stark contrast to the Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamist movements, had little interest in the Middle East's existing state structures.

For Islamic State partisans, the last caliphate was the Ottoman caliphate, but the last model caliphate was that of the Prophet Mohamed's four righteously guided companions, each of whom would briefly reign as caliph of an ever-expanding empire (three of the four were assassinated). That, however, didn't keep the Islamic State from viewing the breakup of the Ottoman caliphate and its portioning off into artificial, arbitrary states as the modern era's original sin. To the extent that modern states depended on some secular notion of citizenship and on parliaments that legislated law other than God's, they were anathema to the Islamic State's totalizing view of God's sovereignty. God, and no one else, was the sole lawgiver. Where the Brotherhood and its compatriots in countries as diverse as Turkey, Tunisia, and Jordan sought to reconcile premodern Islamic law with modern notions of pluralism and democracy, the Islamic State ostentatiously basked in its rejection of them, with results that could be both terrifying and effective. Sometimes they were effective because they were terrifying.

Amid all the brutality and chaos, Muslims and non-Muslims alike are trying to understand the role that Islam plays — and the role that it should play. In discussing models and countermodels of Islam in the democratic process, I hope to offer a framework for thinking about Islam and Islamism and their relationship to politics and, perhaps most controversially, the modern nation-state.

If Islam is likely to play an outsized role in Middle East politics for the foreseeable future — and it is my contention that it will — then this has significant implications. It means that, instead of hoping for a reformation that will likely never come, we have to address Islamic exceptionalism and, to the extent we are able and willing, come to terms with it. This is no easy task. As Mark Lilla writes, "Though we have our own fundamentalists, we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible." It is more than possible. The language that Islam has used throughout its history to relate to and give meaning to politics — and the language that hundreds of millions still hold to — may, at first, sound foreign, but that only means that outsiders must make an extra effort to understand it. And that, in some ways, is the most challenging, and ultimately rewarding, aspect of my work: to be exposed to something fundamentally different.

Religion Matters

Political scientists, myself included, have tended to see religion, ideology, and identity as "epiphenomenal" — products of a given set of material factors. These factors are the things we can touch, grasp, and measure. For example, when explaining the motivations of suicide bombers, we assume that these young men (and sometimes women) are depressed about their accumulated failures, frustrated with a dire economic situation, or humiliated by domestic repression and foreign occupation. While these are all undoubtedly factors, they are not — and cannot be — the whole story.


Excerpted from Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid. Copyright © 2016 Shadi Hamid. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. To Take Joy in a Massacre
2. Is Islam “Exceptional”?
3. Islam’s Reformation
4. The Muslim Brotherhood: From Reform to Revolution
5. The Turkish Model: Islamists Empowered
6. Tunisia: Islamists Conceding Their Islamism
7. ISIS: After the State Fails
8. Islam, Liberalism, and the State: A Way Out?

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