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 use and abuse of the ‘Islamic State’

While the beheading of US photo journalist James Foley has rightly drawn global attention to the violence of Salafi jihadi groups, the successes of the Islamic State (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS) are being exploited by various actors to score political points.   Continue reading The use and abuse of the ‘Islamic State’

The new caliphate: what it does and doesn’t mean

First published by European Council on Foreign Relations

The word “caliphate” sends many into paroxysms of horrified excitement. Following the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Arab calques liked to raise the bogeyman of this demonic political institution which Egyptian presidential candidate for the Brotherhood’s eminence grise Khairat al-Shater and Ennahda leader Mohammed al-Ghannouchi allegedly sought to establish. The main proof in the case seemed to be little more than that the Brotherhood was established a few years after the Turkish republic abolished the office of caliph in 1924, plus a lot of paranoia. No one really asked what “establishing a caliphate” would mean in practice. Mainstream media have avoided shedding much light, beyond telling us that it is a “medieval” entity. Given that the first caliphate was established around 623 CE and the last one ended less than a century back, we can safely say that this is useless information. Continue reading The new caliphate: what it does and doesn’t mean

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

Saudi Arabia and Iran Policy: In Terra Nova

From Asfar.org

In its modern iteration, Saudi Arabia has been through several crises of varying nature and intensity. But none quite resemble that which a convergence of circumstances have created in the era of the Arab uprisings. A combination of factors including the brutal war in Syria have threatened Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States, leaving the Saudi leadership in a precarious global position and opening up questions about its relationship with other Arab states. Continue reading Saudi Arabia and Iran Policy: In Terra Nova

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?

Esglobal: El ascenso de Qatar

Articulo (traduccion) que escrive para Esglobal

Cuando el jeque Hamad de Qatar anunció el año pasado que iba a abdicar en favor de su hijo Tamim, muchos confiaron en que el emirato hubiera comprendido que su intervencionismo imperioso era un error y retirase su apoyo a los movimientos islamistas de la región, incluidos los Hermanos Musulmanes de Egipto. Sin embargo, ha pasado casi un año y no se observa ningún cambio. Tamim continúa aplicando la misma política exterior que su padre, una estrategia que pretende ejercer en todo el mundo árabe una influencia independiente de Arabia Saudí y utilizar una red de grupos islamistas en cuyo centro están los Hermanos egipcios…. Continue reading Esglobal: El ascenso de Qatar

ECFR: Gulf rift: uneasy dynasties in a changing world

This week, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, citing Qatar’s apparent failure to heed the terms of a security agreement made at a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting late last year. The two issues in the dispute are Qatar’s perceived backing for the Egyptian Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the coverage on Qatari pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera, which has been favourable to the Brotherhood and its challenge to the Egyptian authorities after the military ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last year. Continue reading ECFR: Gulf rift: uneasy dynasties in a changing world

FT: Diplomatic crisis as Gulf states withdraw ambassadors from Qatar

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have withdrawn their ambassadors from neighbouring Qatar, as frustration over the gas-rich emirate’s maverick foreign policy prompts the worst intra-Gulf diplomatic crisis in recent history.

The three nations, which are seeking to marginalise their neighbour’s support for political Islam in the region, cited Qatar’s unwillingness to adhere to agreements of the 32-year-old six-member Gulf Co-operation Council as the reason for recalling their envoys, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama also asked Doha, which has been a big backer of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, not to “support any party aiming to threaten security and stability of any GCC member”.

They accused Qatar of failing to agree on a unified policy to “ensure non-interference, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of any member state” after it failed to sign up to a common security pact at a GCC foreign ministers meeting in Riyadh on Tuesday.

Qatar’s cabinet in a statement said that the ambassadors’ withdrawal had been driven by “a difference in positions on issues out of the GCC,” reiterating its commitment to the six-member group, adding that it would not reciprocate and withdraw its ambassadors.

The diplomatic crisis, a rare escalation of behind-the-scenes negotiation into a damaging public spat, poses the most severe challenge of the short reign of the young Qatari emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The sheikh met the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in November, promising a new face to Qatar’s foreign policy.

“The new emir promised things would change, and he failed to deliver,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a UAE-based political scientist, referring to a meeting held between Sheikh Tamim and the Saudi and Kuwaiti rulers last November.

“There is a desire to sanction Qatar politically and diplomatically.”

Gulf states had believed the new emir would promote a more consensual approach to foreign policy, co-ordinating more closely with his GCC neighbours, rather than striking out on major policy initiatives alone.

”Qatar has been warned a number of times by GCC countries that its policies, particularly with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood, ran counter to the critical security interests of the region,” said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar. “As a result the GCC nations have taken an unprecedented step to haul Qatar back into line, and further escalatory steps could be taken in future.”

Last month, the UAE rebuked the Qatari ambassador in Abu Dhabi after Sheikh Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who is based in Qatar, attacked the UAE for not supporting Islamic government.

The UAE’s crackdown on domestic Islamists has over the past couple of years prompted several disagreements, many of them on social media, between emiratis and Sheikh Qaradawi and his supporters.

Abu Dhabi this week convicted a Qatari national, dubbed a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, for aiding a banned UAE Islamist group that the authorities claim is linked to the brotherhood.

So far Qatar has not bowed to initial pressure from Abu Dhabi over Sheikh Qaradawi’s comments, says Andrew Hammond, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“Qatar does not want to allow Saudi and the UAE to dictate policy,” says Mr Hammond. “Qatar is convinced it is standing up for just causes, such as Egypt, as well as its interventions in Libya and Syria.”

The ousting of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first elected president who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, has become the biggest flashpoint in GCC-Qatar relations.

The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have generously supported the military-backed interim regime led by Field Marshall Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Qatar, a financial supporter of Mr Morsi’s government, has criticised the manner in which the president was deposed.

The three Gulf states have also been pushing Doha to rein in its popular pan-Arab satellite channel, Al Jazeera, which they accuse of promoting an Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood agenda. Three Al Jazeera journalists are facing trial in Cairo on charges of belonging to the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood.

The channel’s reporting sparked another bilateral spat with Saudi Arabia, which recalled its ambassador from Doha between 2002 and 2007.

Oman, which does not tend to co-ordinate closely with the other Gulf monarchies, and Kuwait did not withdraw their ambassadors.