In Brookings Cafeteria Podcast, Shadi Hamid Explains Islamists’ “Willingness to Die”

“This idea that you can have a revolution and then overnight you get to liberal democracy is not only unrealistic, it’s totally ahistorical. This is not the way political change happens. So we have to readjust our expectations,” said Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid in a recent two-part Brookings Cafeteria podcast on Islamists, Democracy, and the Roots of Middle East Violence.

In the podcast, Hamid discussed political Islam and his experiences meeting with various leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Mohamed Morsi, who later became Egypt’s first democratically elected president, but was forced out of office a year later by Egypt’s armed forces. Hamid stressed that “to understand Islamists groups, you have to talk with them, you have to spend time with them.” These meetings underpin his new book, Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2014).

During the interview, Hamid explained “one thing I have a challenge with,” which is the “willingness to die” that Muslim Brotherhood members expressed to him. As he explained in the podcast:

If the military is going to move in and disperse a sit-in by brute force and you know that they’re prepared to commit massacres in broad daylight—like last August, the Rabaa massacre of August 14—if I heard something like that I’d run for the hills if I were a protester, and I think, a lot of us as Americans that would be our natural reaction. It’s not really worth dying for, and that’s not the way we see politics. Politics is not an existential thing. Politics is about compromise, it’s about different policy prescriptions, it’s about do we support universal health care or not. But for the people who were in Rabaa that day, it was about dying for a cause they believed in.
I was in London a couple of weeks ago talking to some Brotherhood activists who cannot return to Egypt, and they were talking about, for example, how before they went to Rabaa that day they had to prepare their wills because they had to actually prepare their families, their children, their brothers and sisters for the possibility of their death. So that to me is a fascinating conversation to have, and it’s difficult for us sometimes. And many of them if not most of them were actually prepared to die that day, and many of them did die that day … more than 600.

This is not just a rhetorical device, this is not about getting your supporters and rallying your base. This is about people who are willing to kind of take politics to that other level.
And this kind of brings up a difficult question. That it almost became a fight between good and evil. And people in the Brotherhood were kid of hearkening back 1400 years ago when Prophet Mohammed was struggling against the Meccans and he and his companions were being faced with potential annihilation and it was this very foundational, existential struggle that would define Islam. And that kind of early phase of Islam is very important to believers. So they were kind of using that same kind of language and actually comparing themselves to early generations of Muslims who had to put their lives on the line.
So when politics ceases to be about compromise between partial truths and it becomes this kind of transcendent struggle, that can be very messy, it can be very bloody. That’s not just about Egypt but that’s about the broader region … War is politics by other means. Violence is what happens when people lose faith in normal, everyday politics. That’s what we’re seeing across the region. Fine, people hate each other, there are major ideological and sectarian divides. You can accept that as long as you agree to resolve those hatreds … through a political process. You say, fine we don’t like each other, but there is a process and we can respect the process and we are going to agree not to kill each other.
But I think what we have now is the almost complete, total loss of faith in politics as way to mediate differences between people. And that’s why we’re seeing this rise of violence [and] extremism, and it can be in Iraq, Syria. Libya for that matter is on the brink of civil war, but even Israel and Palestine right now …

Among other topics, Hamid also spoke about the role of social media in the Middle East and the current situation in Egypt.

Listen to both podcasts below:

More about part one.

More about part two.