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

The Islamic State and Saudi Arabia: Further Thoughts

The Islamic State movement is a crude caricature of what its leaders think an Islamic state was and should be. Its latest violent spectacular – throwing Christians out of Mosul – is as contrary to the general tenor of inter-faith relations in the classical period of Islam, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, as destroying non-orthodox Sunni places of worship. Those Islamic states made huge use of their large Christian populations, for one as translators of Greek thought and medicine. Periods of enforced orthodoxy were rare – the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun’s “inquisition” (al-mihna) of the religious scholars to oblige their adoption of Mutazila school’s theory of the Quran is the most obvious. In earlier periods there is even evidence that the Islamic states did not favour conversion of the largely Christian and Zoroastrian populations they had conquered, because the religion was for a period conceived of as an Arab patrimony and because the state wanted its jizya tax from non-Muslims. If we look at enforced covering of women and mass head-chopping there is similarly no indication of it as a defining feature of the caliphate. Continue reading The Islamic State and Saudi Arabia: Further Thoughts

EL PUZLE ISLÁMICO: Batallas internas en el islam político

Published in Spanish in Vanguardia Dossier, July/Sept 2014

Islamic society and politics in the Middle East are riven by two schisms today that have produced violent instability that is set to continue until a critical moment, such as the fall of a regime such as that in Iran or Saudi Arabia, or a historical compromise between the two. It would be hard to choose one as more unlikely than the other in the current situation. Both conflicts are products of the past generation and though they have developed separately it is possible to see a link between them if we consider the Islamic Republic in Iran as a Shi’ite mirror image of the political Islam that the Brotherhood and movements such as Ennahda, Hamas, Islah are representative of within a Sunni framework. Continue reading EL PUZLE ISLÁMICO: Batallas internas en el islam político

From World Cup to the Brotherhood: worrying trends for Doha

Published by ECFR

Qatar’s World Cup bid is just one of a number of headaches facing the Gulf state and its new emir, Tamim bin Hamad. Last week the Sunday Times published news of a stash of emails that it claimed proved a “plot to buy the World Cup”. The allegations, centring on Qatari former FIFA executive member Mohammed Bin Hammam and money paid to FIFA delegates and officials to ensure Qatar’s win, are not new. Qatar’s response has been to distance itself from Bin Hammam, saying he did not act with official blessing. There is a general assumption that Qatar did indeed play dirty to bag the deal, but the bigger issue is the corruption of FIFA to allow such things to happen. Continue reading From World Cup to the Brotherhood: worrying trends for Doha

FT: Gulf states forge deal to end spat over Doha backing for Brotherhood

The Riyadh Document: What could it mean?

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are apparently on their way to resolving their dispute with Qatar over its backing for the Muslim Brotherhood. A foreign ministers’ meeting was convened in Riyadh on Thursday, leading to a statement issued later in the evening. Continue reading The Riyadh Document: What could it mean?

Qatar’s Emir setting up alternative to Al Jazeera?

Qatar’s Emir Tamim doesn’t have so much a Brotherhood problem as father issues. That’s the more likely explanation of a new television project that Qatar is involved in, people familiar with the project say. Tamim has set in motion a project to set up a channel, whose name could be Al-Arabi or Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, based out of London. Continue reading Qatar’s Emir setting up alternative to Al Jazeera?

Former UK diplomats turn business advisers

An article of interest from Issue 944 of Gulf States Newsletter,  April 2013 (note: Cowper-Coles is now with HSBC) regarding the debate over the appointment of the British ambassador in Riyadh to head the British government’s controversial inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood (author unknown, according to GSN format):

At a 1 March evidence session for the UK Foreign Affairs Committee’s hearing into London’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (GSN 939/1, 934/16), MP for Penrith and the Border Rory Stewart asked former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir Tom Phillips whether “it is a problem… that such a very large number of our senior diplomats and soldiers go on to take jobs where they are employed by members of the Gulf royal families, or work with businesses with significant interests in the Middle East? Does that get in the way of our being able to achieve objective criticism of these governments?” Continue reading Former UK diplomats turn business advisers

ECFR: The campaign to condemn the Brotherhood

The decision of the British government this week to launch an investigation into the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood is a major victory for Saudi Arabia, which has been arguing since the 9/11 attacks that it is the Brotherhood’s brand of “political Islam” that is the source of jihadist violence and extremism, not Saudi Wahhabism. Privately, British officials said there had been months of Saudi pressure, complementing Saudi anger over the West’s shift on Iran since November. The UK ambassador to Riyadh no less has been chosen lead the probe. Continue reading ECFR: The campaign to condemn the Brotherhood