Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World by Shadi Hamid, available from St. Martin’s Press June 7, 2016

The violence and chaos that followed the Arab Spring has left Middle East analysts scrambling to provide explanations as to what went wrong. Islamic Exceptionalism, by Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Center for Middle East Policy and author of Temptations of Power, is the latest addition to the Arab Spring post-mortem genre.

Hamid believes the Arab Spring’s democratic potential was undermined because “Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics.” According to Hamid, we cannot expect Muslim majority states to “replay” the Western model of secularization. Hamid believes the historically close relationship between religion and politics in Muslim societies is the primary reason why political Islam has failed to reconcile itself with the modern nation-state. To support his point, Hamid explores three case studies: the 2013 coup in Egypt, the consolidation of power by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the recent decision by Tunisia’s Ennahda party to deemphasize its relationship with political Islam.

It is, of course, perfectly logical that different religious traditions will have distinct ways of relating to temporal political systems. It is also very true, as Hamid points out, that religion can and does shape the political views and actions of politicians and citizens alike. Unfortunately, however, Hamid’s framework is too thin to adequately cover the complex and quite distinct circumstances that led to the different outcomes in Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey.

In particular, Turkey, a non-Arab country, that was not part of the Arab Spring and has a long history of on again, off again democracy, stands out from the other two case studies (full disclosure: in his chapter on Turkey, Hamid cites me as a critic of his argument). Hamid discusses Turkey as an example of how post-Islamism, that is, the evolution of Islamist organizations into political parties that accept liberal values, is unsustainable. In other words, Hamid believes Turkish Islamists, like other Islamists, cannot evolve beyond their ideological roots into politicians who are willing to keep their piety private.

According to this logic, Turkish President Erdogan is concerned with consolidating power not only for its own sake, but also in order to advance a program of systematic legal and social Islamization. The motives behind Erdogan’s power grab, over the last 5 years, has been the subject of heated debated among Turkey analysts. The evidence Hamid presents to support his theory about Erdogan is not, however, very convincing. As I have previously written on Muftah, I believe Erdogan’s action can best be explained by Turkey’s particular political tradition, namely its history of paternalistic politics and lack of strong institutions, as well as by Erdogan’s own personal demagoguery.

In fact, much of Hamid’s discussion reinforces the outsized role played by Turkey’s paternalistic political tradition in shaping the political views and trajectory of Erdogan and his party, the AKP. As Hamid notes “Turkish authorities promoted the idea of devlet baba, or ‘father state,’ which, in a simple enough phrase, captured the mix of paternalism and patriarchy at the heart of state-society relations.” This philosophy is not the exclusive domain of Turkish Islamists, but, rather, is at the very (secular) heart of the Turkish Republic itself. Indeed, it makes no sense for a visionary, popular Turkish politician NOT to try and shape society to his liking.

Further undermining Hamid’s argument, his book present little evidence that Erdogan’s primary political goal is the Islamization of Turkish society. To the contrary, Erdogan has put his energy into more “secular” political projects. He has successfully championed the arrest of academics and journalists calling for renewed talks with Kurdish insurgents and has lobbied the United States tirelessly for the extradition of his opponent, the Turkish Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen, who leads the powerful Gulen movement. In other words, Erdogan is more concerned with crushing his political and media opponents (both secular and religious, as in the case of the Gulen movement) than in imposing Sharia or regulating lifestyle choices. Indeed, despite Erdogan’s open disapproval, alcohol, cohabitation between unmarried men and women, and abortion are all still legal in Turkey. 

At the macro level, much of the data on Muslims and democracy also fails to support Hamid’s theory of Islamic exceptionalism. As in the case of Turkey, this evidence suggests that factors other than religion, for example already living in a successful democracy, have a greater effect on the political beliefs of Muslims. Alfred Stepan, professor of government at Columbia University, has famously argued that as opposed to an Islamic exceptionalism, there is an Arab exceptionalism when it comes to democracy. In two papers published in the Journal of Democracy (2003 and 2004) co-authored with Graeme B. Robertson, professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he notes that at the time while “396 million Muslims, about half of the world’s Muslim population who live in Non-Arab League Muslim majority states, live in states with competitive elections. By contrast, none of the 270 million Muslims in Arab League member states live under electorally competitive regimes.” The findings suggest that “if our two subsets of countries share the predominance of Islam in common, but differ sharply on so crucial a political measure as electoral competitiveness, then Islam cannot, by itself, explain the exceptionally low performance of one of them.” In another paper published in the Journal of Democracy (2013), Stepan and Juan Linz, professor emeritus of political and social science at Yale, note that the contrasting political attitudes of Muslims in India and Pakistan present evidence for the “political contextuality of religion.” They cite a recent survey of Hindus and Muslims in India, 71% of both groups supported democracy whereas in neighboring Muslim-majority Pakistan, only 34% of citizens supported democracy. 

Religion matters, but when it comes to explaining the success or failure of secular democracy in Muslim-majority countries, other factors often matter more.

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