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Several years ago there was a famous exchange between Ben Affleck and Bill Maher & Sam Harris on the nature of Islam. In response I published a post titled “ISIS’ Willing Executioners”. The overall point was that Affleck’s comments were not informed by the nature of Islam or Muslims, but broader political currents. As for his interlocutors, Bill Maher and Sam Harris, I think they were making a better faith effort to engage with the facts, though they too came up short. The primary reason that I give them more credit than Affleck is that I think to some extent their anti-Islamic talking points were counter-narrative toward their preferred ideology, which was on the Left-liberal end of the spectrum. Though a general contempt or disdain for religion is not necessarily a problem among American Left-liberals, for various reasons Muslims have become a “protected class” subject to prejudice from the ideological opponents of Maher and Harris’ normal fellow travelers.
As an intellectual Bill Maher is not a serious thinker, so there isn’t much point in engaging more deeply with his ideas. His anti-Islamic stance seems to derive from relatively old-fashioned anti-religious sentiments, which are socially acceptable among American Left-liberals so long as their targets are white Christians (“punching up”) but more “problematic” and perhaps even “Islamophobic” when the invective is hurled at Muslim “people of color” (all Muslims here being tacitly racialized as nonwhite).
Sam Harris is a more earnest individual, who clearly isn’t just parlaying a schtick into profitable provocation. I respect Harris for expressing the courage of his genuine convictions so often, instead of sanitizing his conclusions because of broader ideological commitments. That is, many Left-liberals today consider themselves “allies” of Muslims, and so tend to avoid making comments which might seem “Islamophobic”. In Left-liberal parlance ally has specific connotations: it indicates a person who has privileges, but still supports social justice for others who may be marginalized. Terms like “social justice” and “marginalized” also have rather precise meanings in terms of the theory of what they are, and the instances concretely of who may be marginalized. Rather than recapitulating the lexical subtleties of the progressive avant-garde I simply will state that a quick bit of research will clear up any possible confusion. Muslims, as marginalized people, are now considered part of a broader coalition on the progressive Left. This can be made clear for example when illustrations of “women of color” will often include one woman in a hijab (e.g., this website devoted to queer and trans issues displays a picture with three women in a tough pose, and one of them is a hijabi).
Harris, taking logical inference a bit too seriously, would probably ask about the propriety of the message it sends to display a woman in a hijab as if they are doing something meritorious, as that might strike him as anti-feminist in a traditional Left-liberal framework. And I have met progressives who agree with Harris privately in relation to a skepticism of valorization of the folkways of Muslims, but because of the broader coalition in which they are participants, they hold their critique (more concretely, they don’t want to be accused of being racist and Islamophobic). But, I suspect most people are like Ben Affleck, and genuinely believe that there is not a problem with the perpetuation of a stable multicultural society which includes large numbers of mainstream Muslims (e.g., many hijabis), as well as “sex positive” radical feminists, and queer theorists.
Sam Harris would probably respond that these people don’t take Islam seriously on its own merits, and that Islam is fundamentally and constitutively at odds with tolerance of gay people and a liberal attitude toward the rights of women. Though I disagree in the firmness and definitiveness of Harris’ conclusions, I do agree that people like Ben Affleck, and frankly most Left-liberals who might fall back on the term Islamophobia, don’t actually take Islam, or religion generally, seriously. This explains the rapid and strident recourse toward a racial analogy for Islamic identity, as that is a framework that modern Left-liberals and progressives have internalized and mastered. The problem with this is that Islam is not a racial or ethnic identity, it is a set of beliefs and practices. Being a Muslim is not about being who you are in a passive sense, but it is a proactive expression of a set of ideas about the world and your behavior within the world. This category error renders much of Left-liberal and progressive analysis of Islam superficial, and likely wrong.
But just because Sam Harris has the “right enemies” does not mean that he is right. Though I don’t believe Harris is engaging in sophistry or posturing toward some ideological ends, which is the case with many progressives as well as those on the social and political Right, I do think he is wrong in many details of his model of religion and Islam in particular. Unlike Ben Affleck and many progressives Sam Harris actually engages in ratiocination scaffolded by facts, rather than emotions derived from political commitments. But there are weaknesses to Harris’ methods, and his grasp of facts for his rationality engine to operate upon can sometimes be lacking (this is unfortunately a general problem with being a dilettante, which I would know, but it also doesn’t excuse people from taking Harris too seriously on topics where his command of the subject is outrun by his ambitions).
To get a genuine understanding of a topic as broad and boundless as Islam one needs to both set aside emotional considerations, as Ben Affleck clearly cannot, and dig deeply into the richer and more complex empirical texture, which Sam Harris has not. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World by Shadi Hamid is a genuine attempt to tackle a big issue with cold analysis and making recourse to a broader range of academic sources than Harris is wont. Hamid is a relatively well known figure, so his personal cards are on the table. A self-identified Muslim, and from what I can tell a Western liberal, he nevertheless arrives at a conclusion that Islam may be fundamentally and constitutively incompatible with the conventional Western liberal understanding of the relationship between the polity and faith.
One of the most obnoxious memes in my opinion during the Obama era has been the popularization of the maxim that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It is smug and self-assured in its presentation. Though in some sense over the long term I am broadly persuaded by it, too often it becomes an excuse for lazy thinking and shallow prognostication. Though there are broad trend lines in history, there are also cycles which oscillate around those lines. In those oscillations are consequences for human lives that can not be dismissed by asserting that the trend nevertheless remains. The cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer has a saying which basically states that a theory gives you information for free. Modern Western liberals have a particular idea of what a religion is, and so naturally know that Islam is in many ways just like United Methodism, except with a hijab and iconoclasm. But a Western liberalism that does not take cultural and religious difference seriously is not serious, and yet all too often it is what we have on offer. This transcends the political divide, as before the Obama era we were given to thinking that the invasion of Iraq would result in Jeffersonian democracy, because George W. Bush had a particular model of the nature of man and what he craves (“freedom” and “liberty”), and from that he drew conclusions.
On both the American Left and Right there is a tendency to not even attempt to understand Islam. Rather, stylized models are preferred which lead to conclusions which are already arrived at. Islamic Exceptionalism is worth paying attention to because he frankly admits the problems of this line of thinking. Or, more honestly, he admits that this is a problem in the first place! In a piece at The Atlantic (which is based on a passage from Islamic Exceptionalism) he states:
To say that Islam—as creed, theology, and practice—says something that other religions don’t quite say is admittedly a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and Europe. As a Muslim-American, it’s personal for me: Donald Trump’s dangerous comments on Islam and Muslims make me fear for my country. Yet “Islamic exceptionalism” is neither good nor bad. It just is.
This is a commendable viewpoint in our world, where too often “problematic” conclusions get swept under the rug or explained away. From what I can tell reading Islamic Exceptionalism many of the conclusions that he comes to are not his preferred conclusions as an American Muslim. But, they are is best guess as political scientist. This is how a scholar should behave, though too often this is not how scholars do behave.
In some ways the model of Islam and religion that Shadi Hamid believes is most informative for our world is rather like that of Sam Harris, despite wide differences in details and a general shift in emphasis. Out of all the religions in the world Harris believes that Islam is fundamentally exceptional. And Hamid agrees with him. I will state here that at the end of the day I disagree with both Harris and Hamid. But, we all begin with the same proximate empirical universe, where we an agree on some general facts. This is where we differ from someone like Ben Affleck, who probably finds reality rather “gross.” To get a sense of Affleck’s engagement with facts, consider his attempt to suppress the fact of his own slave-owning ancestors:
After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for “Finding Your Roots,” it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.
I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.
It’s fine to be embarrassed by reality. But you still need to face up to reality. Where Hamid, Harris, and I all start is the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not hold views on social issues that are aligned with the Muslim friends of Hollywood actors. This is trivially obvious to anyone who digs (so obvious that even Bill Maher cites these data, they’re so easy to find). Before the Green Revolution I told people to expect there to be a Islamic revival, as 86 percent of Egyptians polled agree with the killing of apostates. This is not a comfortable fact for me, as I am technically an apostate.* But it is a fact. Progressives who exhibit a hopefulness about human nature, and confuse majoritarian democracy with liberalism and individual rights, often don’t want to confront these facts. Their polar opposites are convinced anti-Muslims who don’t need any survey data, because they know that Muslims have particular views a priori by virtue of them being Muslims. These people would miss out on the fact that 5 percent of Turks agreed with Egyptians on apostates.
There is a glass half-full/half-empty aspect to the Turkish data. 95 percent of Turks do not believe apostates should be killed. This is not surprising, I know many Turkish atheists personally. But, 5 percent is not a reassuring fraction as someone who is personally an apostate. The ideal, and frankly only acceptable, proportion is basically 0 percent. In the aughts the Turkish example was given as a case study in moderate Islamism. The regime of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was genuinely more liberal than other Islamists. During the Green Revolution he went to Tunisia and stated:
“Turkey is a democratic, secular and social state of law. As for secularism, a secular state has an equal distance to all religious groups, including Muslim, Christian, Jewish and atheist people,” Erdoğan said during a visit to Tunis, the place where the wave of pro-democracy revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa began late last year.
Obviously things have changed in the last few years, as Erdogan has taken a more authoritarian tack, and Islamism in more muscular form is ascendant. Nevertheless, the very idea of accepting atheists is taboo in most Arab countries, including Tunisia, which shows how far beyond them Turkey is in a classical Western reckoning (though there are conflicting reports, Ataturk himself, the founder of the modern Turkish state, may personally have been an atheist).
Harris would give a simple explanation for why Islam sanctions the death penalty for apostates. To be reductive and hyperbolic, his perspective seems to be that Islam is a totalitarian cult, and its views are quite explicit in the Quran and the Hadith. Harris is correct here, and the views of the majority of Muslims in Egypt (and many other Muslim nations) has support in Islamic law. The consensus historical tradition is that apostates are subject to the death penalty.
But Hamid adds some nuance to this picture. He seems to argue that attitude toward apostasy falls out of a broader program of Islamic civilization which goes back to the foundations of the religion. Engaging with scholarly works, such as Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective, Islamic Exceptionalism argues that the Muslim Weltanschauung has an integrated role for religion in the political order baked into its cake. To refer back to an old saying, Muhammad was his own Constantine. Islam arose and exploded with the rise of its empire. In contrast, Christianity developed slowly as a marginal sect, and later a religion among religions, in the Roman polity. Its eventually victory in the 4th century came to some extent at the sufferance of Roman elites who had their own traditions and customs which the Church had to make peace with. Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s.
There are several problems with this thesis. As a believing Muslim Hamid talks about how alive the Salafs of early Islam are to modern Muslims. These are the first few generations of Muslims who remembered Muhammad personally or well well acquainted with those who did. They were the people who lived in the world before Islam became embedded within a profane state, that of the Umayyads, who transformed the polity into a hereditary monarchy. Reviled by the Shia for their role in the murder of the family of Ali, and ignored at best by the Sunni who look more to the traditions crystallized under their Abbasid successors, the Umayyad are a sort of historical cordon sanitaire between the centuries when the streams of modern Islam matured and elaborated, and the age of the Salafs.
There is a small problem with this narrative: it may be wrong. The story of Christianity is rather well known, and well disputed, in the public arena. There is a large body of scholarship which contends that orthodox Christianity, rooted in the Athanasian creed, developed organically over the centuries after the life of Jesus. Though many Christians would disagree, many scholars argue that aspects of Christianity which Christians hold to be fundamental and constitutive of their religion would have seemed exotic and alien even to St. Paul. Similarly, there is a much smaller body of work which makes the same case for Islam.
A précis of this line of thinking is that non-Muslim sources do not make it clear that there was in fact a coherent new religion which burst forth out of south-central Arabia in the 7th century. Rather, many aspects of Islam’s 7th century were myths which developed over time, initially during the Umayyad period, but which eventually crystallized and matured into orthodoxy under the Abbasids, over a century after the death of Muhammad. This model holds that the Arab conquests were actually Arab conquests, not Muslim ones, and that a predominantly nominally Syrian Christian group of Arab tribes eventually developed a new religion to justify their status within the empire which they built, and to maintain their roles within it. The mawali (convert) revolution under the Abbasids in the latter half of the 8th century transformed a fundamentally Arab ethnic sect, into a universal religion. Robert Hoylands’ In God’s Path: The Arab Conquests and the Creation of an Islamic Empire presents this viewpoint. In contrast, Hugh Kennedy’s Great Arab Conquests presents a traditionalist view, which accepts the conventional Islamic framework in its broadest outlines (I recommend both, though Kennedy is the better prose stylist).
I was struck that in Islamic Exceptionalism Hamid observes that because so little is known about Jesus’ life there is a live debate about the historical Jesus. I agree there is little known about the historical Jesus (with even Josephus being asserted to be later interpolation by some), but this is not what believing Christians would contend. I only bring this up because here the shoe is put on the other foot. The fact that Hamid can entertain these views, along with revisionist** works such as Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is a function of the history of Christianity and its relationship to the West, not something natural to Christianity itself. The debate about the historical Jesus only emerged when the public space was secularized enough so that such discussions would not elicit violent hostility from the populace or sanction form the authorities. T he fact is that the debate about the historical Muhammad is positively dangerous and thankless. That is not necessarily because there is that much more known about Muhammad than Jesus, it is because post-Christian society allows for an interrogation of Christian beliefs which Islamic society does not allow for in relation to Islam’s founding narratives.
The early portion of Islamic Exceptionalism that goes back to the first centuries of Christianity and Islam is to use an overused word highly “problematic.” It isn’t that Hamid makes incorrect inferences, it is simply that the chain of inference are so rapid fire, and proffered as fait accompli, that it is difficult to keep up with them and evaluate their likelihood. Assertions that seems plausible from one angle are highly disputable from another. For example, he suggests that because Jesus is divine he does present himself as a model in the same way as Muhammad, who was a man. The problem with this assertion is that the standard Christian thesis is that Jesus is both divine and human, and that it is his incarnation into the human flesh that allows him to be relatable. As an atheist I honestly don’t even know if any of this has any content, though I understand that religious people find these sorts of assertions substantive. My point is that most of the arguments in this portion of the book can be easily flipped on their heads by deeper or alternative analysis.
Hamid’s description of Christian soteriology is very superficial, in a way that I think misleads if you take this sort of analysis of religion seriously. I happen to believe that this sort of analysis doesn’t add much value, so I don’t hold it against Hamid. But a presupposition of Islamic Exceptionalism seems to be that there is a deep and fundamental essence to religions in their ideas and foundations, so one must critique his arguments on their own terms. Consider this passage:
If salvation is through Christ and Christ alone, then there is little need for the state to regulate private and public behavior beyond providing a conducive environment for individuals to cultivate virtue and become more faith to Christ. The punishment of sins is no longer a priority, since Jesus died for them. In start contrast, whereas theologians like Martin Luther fashioned a dialectic between faith and good works, these two things are inextricably tied together in Islam….
This is just an unfortunate caricature of the majority of Christians’ views on salvation and works. Not to belabor the point, as an atheist who is skeptical of a lot of religious “analysis,” many of these distinctions that you see in probing these topics strikes me as similar to philosophizing about the number of angels on the head of a pin. But, if you believe these constructs have material consequences in this world, then you need to relay them correctly. A simple reading of this passage would suggest that all Christians are slouching toward antinomianism
Similarly, one could argue that Islam also slouches toward antinomianism
because predestination is the dominant view within the religion. Obviously this isn’t true. Neither Muslims nor Christians are antinomian in their behavior.
As I observed above, Hamid cites Michael Cook’s Ancient Religion, Modern Politics, to contend that ancient beliefs, forms, and models, echo down the generations and constrain the shape of the present. Having read Cook’s book I can say it’s interesting, but its argument for why textual constraint and ancient precedent matter are not particularly convincing. In fact, he comes close to asserting it as common sense.
I take a different view. When it comes to understanding religion you need to start with psychology. In particular, cognitive psychology. This feeds into the field of evolutionary anthropology in relation to the study of religion. Probably the best introduction to this field is Scott Atran’s dense In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Another representative work is Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t. This area of scholarship purports to explain why religion is ubiquitous, and, why as a phenomenon it tends to exhibit a particular distribution of characteristics.
What cognitive psychology suggests is that there is a strong disjunction between the verbal scripts that people give in terms of what they say they believe, and the internal Gestalt mental models which seem to actually be operative in terms of informing how they truly conceptualize the world. In Theological Incorrectness the author draws upon his field work in Sri Lanka and narrative interviews with religious people which don’t elicit reflexive scripts to get a sense of the internal beliefs which might shape their behavior. Though Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, all agreed that they had very divergent views, what the author founds is that their mental model of gods(s) were very similar. The Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka may notionally reject the idea that Lord Buddha is a god, but he for all practical purposes fills in the role of a god. Similarly, Muslims may aver that their god is omniscient and omnipresent, but their narrative stories in response to life circumstances seem to imply that their believe god may not see or know all things at all moments.
The deep problem here is understood bt religious professionals: they’ve made their religion too complex for common people to understand without their intermediation. In fact, I would argue that theologians themselves don’t really understand what they’re talking about. To some extent this is a feature, not a bug. If the God of Abraham is transformed into an almost incomprehensible being, then religious professionals will have perpetual work as interpreters. Some religious groups, such as Mormons, even point out that their own idea of the godhead is more concrete and less philosophical, so actually makes more coherent sense.
Which brings me to the issue of the Quran and the Bible. There is extensive discussion in Islamic Exceptionalism about the fact that the Quran is the literal Word of God (the recitation by Muhammad), while the Bible is inspired by God, but by and large is not in the voice of God. The standard thesis being proffered is that this means there is less flexibility in Islam, because all Muslims are by nature in some ways fundamentalists.
First, for the vast majority of history most Muslims and Christians have been illiterate. They could not read their scriptures. Second, even today most Muslims can not read the Quran. Most Muslims do not speak Arabic. Second, from what I have been told the Classical Arabic in the Quran is impenetrable to most Arabs. The point isn’t to understand, the point is that they are the Word of God, in the abstract. When I memorized surah Fatiha I was told the meaning of what I was reciting almost as an afterthought (though some of the terms are rather transparent from other concepts). The power of the Quran is that the Word of God is presumably potent. Comprehension is secondary to the command.
Second, Hamid admits the importance of the reality that Islam, like Judaism, and unlike Christianity, is an extensively orthopraxic religion. Though there is much talk about theology in Islamic Exceptionalism, it is more as a general catchall term than technical theology, because this is a domain where Christians have devoted a lot more resources than Jews and Muslims, whose ideas of God are relatively shorn of Greek philosophical sophistication (the Ismaili sect has a sophisticated Neoplatonic cosmology, but they are the exception not the rule). In contrast, Christians have neglected elaboration of religiously informed laws, while Jews and Muslims have developed an enormous corpus.
Aside from some radical Protestant sects religious professionals in the Christian tradition engage in extensive sacramental and liturgical activities. In the pre-modern era the Christian church had a role in collective social salvation through these activities, which it performed for the whole community. In contrast, Judaism and Islam have a quasi-clerical professional class whose roles are often focused upon legal matters, public and personal. In Judaism these are the rabbis, while in Islam they are the ulama. Historically, and even in my own generation, my family has had individuals who are members of the ulama. From what I have seen and heard there is little discussion about the details of the nature of God. Rather, the workaday consists of instruction in memorization of the Quran and elaboration of proper behavior and ritual.
Hamid to some extent discounts the analogy with Judaism for Islam in terms of political insight because after the decline of the Herodians Jewish states were few and far between. Jews had to respect the law of the land in which they lived, to the point where this became a maxim. But I think this example is illustrative, because of the family similarities between Judaism and Islam when it comes to a focus on orthopraxy. Judaism has a deep and rich history of political action and engagement, from the prophets, judges, down to the kings. After the fall of the House of David Jewish monarchies rose several times, and the Herodians themselves were the products of a forced conversion by the Hasmoneans.
And yet after two failed rebellions in antiquity Judaism became relatively quiescent. Hamid asserts that the modern Jewish state of Israel is fundamentally secular in a way that Islamic states are not. I am not entirely convinced by this. First, the secular Ashkenazi elite are now a minority of the population, though at founding they were the overwhelming majority. The Haredi population is growing, and there is a large body of Sephardic Jews for whom Jewish religious identity is stronger than for the Ashkenazi. Finally, the “national religious” block of non-Haredi religious Jews have contributed many of the individuals engaged in religious-ethnic motivated political violence. Some radical Jews even term the Palestinians Amalekites.
This was pregnant within Judaism. It simply needed the proper social context.
In terms of the historical and religious narrative Islamic Exceptionalism naturally argues that Muslims are the exceptions. I take exception to this. Rather, I think the Western liberal model based on a creedal Protestant church is the exception. In The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, the author, a lawyer, argues that America’s regnant ideology of church-state separation only retains coherence if one posits religion qua religion is fundamentally similar to creedal Protestantism. The authors shows that recent emergence of liturgical and orthopraxic traditions has been causing more issues with accommodatio, as authorities have to pick and choose what they will, or won’t, accommodate. The history of American Roman Catholicism and American Judaism are to a great extent the Protestantization of these religious traditions enforced by a dominant and xenophobic Protestant ascendancy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Now with the emergence of multiculturalism and the decline of normative Protestantism religious traditions which take a different view of the essence of what religion is are now beginning to flourish and multiply.
Historically all political units have exhibited a sacral dimension. Some cognitive anthropologists now argue that in fact powerful supernatural agents, active gods, were essential to the emergence of larger social and political units. King James may have asserted “no bishop, no king”, but perhaps it is more general and primal. “No god, no tribe” (or the inverse, “no tribe, no god”). The relationship in the detail between religion and polity differed in various civilizations. In ancient China by and large the elite tolerated pluralism so long as cults were not socially disruptive and political active. But the state was not secular. The emperor was the Son of Heaven, the axis mundi between Heaven and Earth. In India kings became the cakravartin, the universal ruler through whom the wheel of the dharma moves. The Christian East Roman emperors were the vice-reagents of God upon earth, while the last emperor to be deified was Anastasius, a century and a half into the period of Christian emperors! The rulers of Egypt were gods, while those of Mesopotamia began as priest-kings.
In Jay Winik’s Great Upheaval there is extensive discussion of the controversy after the independence of the colonies from Britain that the federal government did not have a state religion. The original settlers were by this point not a particularly churched people, and free thinking was common, from top to bottom. But never had there been a state in the history of the world which disavowed the need for favor from the gods. In The Godless Constitution the authors argue that the lack of a national religion was quite conscious, and a radical move on the part of a coterie of founders.
If we were to rewind history what would it look like? Is the arc of the moral universe always going in the same direction? I don’t know. Perhaps secular Western liberalism wouldn’t have developed the way it did. My overall argument in this section is that the prior for historical contingency is still very strong.
The reality is that most of Islamic Exceptionalism has nothing to do with all the details above. There are chapters devoted to Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, and ISIS, as case studies. The authors personal experience and history, as well as his academic background as a political scientist come to the foreground. There is extensive interlacing of journalistic narrative and reportage with citations of the scholarly literature on Islamism and democratization.
The theoretical scaffold here is not too surprising or novel, as the author himself admits, though it may be to Americans. In short, liberalism and individualism do not always go hand in hand with democracy. The examples from American history are legion. The rise of the Democratic party and universal white male suffrage resulted in a curtailment of the political rights of black Americans. In England when the elite wished to grant Roman Catholics more rights, the populace of London rioted. In 19th century Prussia the extension of suffrage out of the high bourgeoise to the rural population increased the base of conservatives, because the rural population looked more favorably toward their traditional aristocratic leaders and were more socially conservative. As the American political system has become more populist, expressions of religious piety and adherence among those in high office have increased.
In Islamic Exceptionalism Shadi Hamid presents Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists in a relatively sympathetic light. He observes that in some ways the secular population is more intolerant, because they fear the rise of illiberalism due to democratic will. Americans do not have the language today to process this, but what Hamid is alluding to is simply what in an earlier era would be the “mob.” Economic, social, and political, development expands suffrage and distributes power. This moves it outside of central elite control, and human nature is such that inter-group competition often emerges as old elites and arriviste proto-elites clash.
Hamid’s contention seems to be that if democracy is going to come to the Arab Middle East in the near future then it must make peace with the pious majority. He has no grand solutions, but definitely offers a diagnosis. Though liberalism has percolated through Western society, I would point out that the expansion of suffrage was almost always met with the diminishment of the liberal faction to becoming a “third force,” as a more populist party took its spot in opposition to the conservatives.
The final issue that I want to touch on is addressed somewhat in the book, but gingerly, and without great attention. The work is titled Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World. But the focus is on the core Middle East of Arab countries, and Turkey. About 25% of the world’s Muslims are Middle Eastern. About half the world’s population of Muslims live in South Asia and Indonesia (~700 million). There is some discussion of the nature of Islamic identity and piety in these nations, but no great depth of analysis. For example, there are some data which suggest that Indonesians want more mixing of religion with politics than people in the Middle East. Hamid suggests that this shows some underlying essence of the Islamic polity. But Indonesia is a very strange case, it is a nation where conversion from Islam to Hinduism or Christianity is not entirely uncommon. A large number of Muslims in East Java maintain a religious identity which is highly synthetic, and tacitly supported by their local ulema. In Bangladesh, you have a society where Islamic and non-Islamic identities are at rough parity. This is in strong contrast with nations like Egypt and Turkey, for whom the past 1,000 years are hard to discuss without addressing Islam directly and copiously.
This book posits explanations for the nature of Islamic polities, but the reality is that this only even applies to the core Islamic nations which were part of the Abbasid caliphate. Islam’s role in maritime Southeast Asia or South Asia was far different than in the core Islamic lands, as it was contested and its period of ascendancy curtailed.
To a great extent let me gloss over the majority of the book that is focused on political and social facts in the Islamic world today. The reason is that I don’t disagree with the facts. That is the best thing about Islamic Exceptionalism, it will put more facts in front of people who are fact-starved, and theory rich. That’s good.
But how those facts came about, and why, that is a different matter. The Islamic world is here. And it will be difficult to move it elsewhere. By making it seems as if being here is inevitable, Hamid seems to be arguing that moving it to a different equilibrium will be exceedingly difficult. But if you posit that modern conditions are historically contingent and labile, then the future is less predictable. I am come not to bring answers, but the cloud of confusion.
* I have never been a big believer in Islam, but since my father is a believing Muslim, by most sharia definitions I’m an apostate.
** Aslan’s views are not new, but derive from an older scholarly tradition of Jesus as a political radical, which today is generally out of favor.