What’s wrong with Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism?

The answer: a lot. I discuss it here:

“To be clear, Salafism’s semantic victory in defining Late Orientalism’s constitution of Islam is not yet assured. Ideological and political disputes between Brotherhood Islamism and the Salafi trends, and their various Gulf Arab backers, is complicating the process. But the conflict is indicative of Islam’s continued domination of the social and cultural imaginaire in Middle East politics. A typical example of this is Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the Middle East (2016) by Brookings Institution researcher Shadi Hamid. The book could well have been titled Islamic Essentialism since it’s as succinct a description of the faddish essentialist position as you’ll find anywhere. Offering a potted history of Islam that goes briskly from the Islamic tradition’s rendering of Muhammad’s life to Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, who is posited as Islam’s great reviver extraordinaire, Hamid declares that Islam has been in a “struggle to establish a legitimate political order” since the demise of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, which has apparently exercised the minds of all the world’s Muslims ever since because Islam “is different”.

The central conceit is that societies still holding religious belief dear require explanation for a liberal American audience that is imagined to find this odd, despite the Evangelicals, the Mormons, the Creationists, the Christian Zionists, et al. who populate the American project as it forges ahead through its third century. Islam is of course equated with Arabs throughout, and historical and anthropological understandings of Islamic culture are shunted aside for simplistic two-dimensional normativity: executed Sudanese intellectual Mahmud Muhammad Taha’s ideas are dismissed as uninteresting, the Qur’an is declared in a breathless mix of wonderment and defiance as “God’s actual speech”, the author reveals allegedly telling details such as that his Islamist informants prefer to meet in restaurants where alcohol isn’t served, and the reader is assumed to find it exceptional that members of a ruthlessly suppressed political movement would want to die for their cause.

Hamid posits himself as the insider apologist making comprehensible the incomprehensible. We are to be shocked that opinion polls (with which think tank pontificators on Islam are notably fixated) show that zero percent of British Muslims think homosexuality is morally acceptable, though placing this in global historical perspective I don’t think many African societies, the Chinese, East Europeans and others are too hot on homosexuality (defined here, presumably, as a lifestyle choice and identity) and neither were the liberal Western societies too long ago to boot. Which gets to the second major problem with Hamid’s thesis: if “not all peoples, cultures, and religions follow the same path to the same end point” – in other words, if modernity does not have a uniform cast to it – then what’s so unique about “the Muslims”, across all their cultural and geographical diversity, even if we accepted they were the 7th century-obsessed monolith presented by the author? Most egregious is the constant referencing of Shahab Ahmed in support of his arguments despite that fact that his work was dedicated to challenging the very essentialism Hamid trades in.

As for the notion of the caliphate as the fulcrum of Muslim existence without which life has no true meaning, it comes straight from the pages of German and British Orientalists whose mystical belief in the dangerous power of Muslim unity produced the infamous damp squib of Ottoman “jihad” announced in 1914 at the prodding of the Kaiser, who thought he could thus activate the Muslim mind for Axis Power ends. Hamid is hardly the first to push these ideas. In L’exception islamique (2004) French politics professor Hamadi Redissi argues Islam is exceptional because it is the only major civilizational bloc he sees to have failed to enter modernity, even in a moderated form that would preserve traditional elements. This is because, he argues, there is no separation between religion and state, which fatally hobbled the efforts of the modernist reformers and allowed the clerics inordinate influence over society and individuals.”

 

Making Revolution Islamic Again: Protest and Rebellion from ’79 Iran to the Arab Spring

The Islamic essentialism that’s taken over public discourse on the Middle East is striking and disturbing. Driven by regimes, think thanks and the broader rejection in academia of secular nationalism as a framework for understanding cultural blocs, the theory of Islamic essentialism reinvents and reformats the Muslim through imposing a historical narrative of decline-revival and a standard of belief and practice that is in fact alien to many if not most of the world’s Muslims. If you read Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism, you’ll find that you’re meant to be obsessed with the end of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 too. That’ll be news to many.

Making Revolution Islamic Again

Arab Media: From Decolonisation to Arab Spring

(First published by Italian think tank IPSI)

Arab media has been a powerful tool in the hands of Arab states since the decolonisation period. The Nasser regime used radio, television and print media to mobilise support for Egypt’s Non-Aligned and Pan-Arab foreign policy, apply methods of mass media propaganda developed in Europe and establishing a model for the region. The power of media to function as a subversive force was seen in the 1970s when cassette tapes of preachers denouncing governments for tyranny and corruption spread in Egypt and Iran. Continue reading Arab Media: From Decolonisation to Arab Spring

Issues regarding Arab-European dialogue

I just spent three days at the Rome Mediterranean Dialogues event, where I took part in a panel on media and cultural issues in relation to ISIS. Listening to the discussions from European and Arab politicians and policy-makers, a number of points of interest or concern jumped out, which I just wanted to summarise here. Continue reading Issues regarding Arab-European dialogue

In the House of God: A Diary of the Hajj

(The following was written after trips to Mecca in 2004 and 2005 as Reuters correspondent sent to cover hajj)

One of the jewels in the crown of the Saudi-Wahhabi state is its control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. When Abdulaziz assumed full sovereignty after his Ikhwan stormed into its cities, he added ‘King of the Hejaz’ to his list of titles. Pilgrim revenue, mainly from the hajj season, became the major domestic source of income for the nascent Saudi state, though the Najd-run entity still relied on foreign handouts to survive.(1) The state took control of pilgrim tour operations as part of the wider process of severing Hejazi autonomy and tying its political and economic life to Riyadh.(2) As the country moved into the era of modern communications then entered the petrodollar era in the 1970s, significantly larger numbers of pilgrims were able to visit, but the hajj they were to experience was a hajj with a very specific Saudi and Wahhabi stamp. Processing the world’s Muslims through Saudi-Wahhabi pilgrimage became a vast industry, a major preoccupation of the state and a key element in its self-legitimising rhetoric. Petrodollars are of vastly greater importance to state and princely finances, but, raking in some $24 billion a year in tourist receipts mainly linked to Mecca and Medina, hajj remains a major earner for Saudi Arabia.(3) It is also a monopolistic practice – there is little Saudi Arabia can do to compete with Shi’ite pilgrimage centres such as Najaf and Kerbala, but Jerusalem, which contains the Al-Aqsa mosque, the site towards which Islamic tradition says the first Muslims turned in prayer, is accorded little significance in Saudi media or Wahhabi religious discourse, whether it was under Jordanian or Israeli control. It is a rival to the prestige and revenue of the Saudi-Wahhabi state.(4) Continue reading In the House of God: A Diary of the Hajj

On Salafism in Turkey

Salafism Infiltrates Turkish Religious Discourse

Salafi discourse has made considerable inroads in Turkey over the past 30 years, making contributions to sectarianism in ways that have yet to be fully studied and understood. Although the military coup in 1980 was carried out by those who saw themselves as the guardians of Kemalist secularism, the junta forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia, viewing it as a conservative force interested in maintaining the regional political order. These ties led to a state promotion of Islam―embodied in the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, the ideological framework that reconciled Turkish nationalism with religion―that also aimed to undercut the opposition Islamist movement of Necmettin Erbakan. This opened the way for cooperation between the Saudi-based World Muslim League and Turkey’s religious affairs administration—the Diyanet—and the education ministry in propagating religious material.[1] Continue reading On Salafism in Turkey

عن استقلال الاعلام الغربي في الشرق الأوسط

تشرفت بفرصة نشر القال التالي في صحيفة الاخبار اللبنانية – عن موضوع الاستقلالية المزعومة في طريقة تغطيتها لأحداث الشرق الأوسط.

 al-akhbar.com/node/238223

إني أشهد… لماذا نحر الإعلام الغربي ضميره على مذبح آل سعود؟ Continue reading عن استقلال الاعلام الغربي في الشرق الأوسط

Abdullah and His Reform Legacy

(From Middle East Eye)

The hagiographies of the deceased Saudi king Abdullah have piled up at a surprising rate, reflecting the desire – the desperate hope – among Western policy-makers that Saudi Arabia is on a path to “reform” that justifies their continued  investment in a regime whose political repression, economic plunder, improvised regional interventions and cradling of religious obscurantism and zealotry (beheading for sorcery) is of a scale arguably unique in modern times. In an astounding move, the UK government has even ordered flags to be put at half-mast. Continue reading Abdullah and His Reform Legacy

Games Without Frontiers, War Without Tears

Debate over the Charlie Hebdo attacks has centred on different problems that the tragedy speaks to – freedom of expression, integration of immigrants into French society, anti-foreigner sentiment, Western political and military involvement in the Middle East, the rise of the anti-Western phenomenon of jihadism. While it’s not entirely clear yet how the attacks came about and the motivations involved, it’s worth dwelling a little perhaps on the last. While it’s true that Western wars in the Middle East have provoked a desire for revenge, the modern jihadist is also a product of the politicking of Arab regimes. The political price for these involvements is largely paid by the West, however. Continue reading Games Without Frontiers, War Without Tears