Is Islam exceptional? And what does it mean for the future of Western democracy?

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

In his book “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World”,  Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Shadi Hamid argues that Islam is exceptional in how it relates to law, governance and politics, and plays an outsized role in public life in the Arab world. He also posits that the hope that Islam will eventually undergo a reformation and secularise may be misplaced. This has implications for the future of not just West Asia but also Western democracy.

Hamid presented this talk at Brookings India in New Delhi on May 3, 2018, and on May 9 in Mumbai.

Hamid uses Islamic exceptionalism in a value-neutral sense i.e. exceptionalism can be either good or bad, depending on its manifestation. Nevertheless, it is true that Islam has proved resistant to secularisation and is therefore exceptional.

Two factors that contribute to its exceptionalism relate to the founding moment of Islam and the nature of its main scripture, the Quran. History and theology matter and should be understood particularly in the context of Islam. Prophet Mohammad was not just a man of religion, but a politician, a state-builder and leader of a state. The Quran therefore addresses the socio-political context of that time as well as issues of governance, law, and order. Religion and politics are interwoven within the teachings of Islam. In contrast, Jesus Christ was a dissident against the state, and did not rule or hold territory. Therefore, the New Testament does not talk about governance.

Islam was revealed to its followers in a pre-modern era, when Islam imbued an entire social, moral, political and religious architecture. It has proven difficult to adapt it to the modern nation-state era.

The second factor relates to the Quran. Muslims believe that the Quran contains the word of God and is actually God’s speech. This can be one of the reasons why secularists have failed to gain traction in Muslim-majority contexts. Given the divine nature of the text, it is difficult to argue against the Prophetic model and convince believers of its inability to replicate itself in the modern era.

According to Hamid, these two factors make Islam fundamentally different from other religions like Christianity and Judaism, and contribute to Islam’s unique relationship between law and governance.

This founding moment of Islam and role of the Quran has implications fourteen centuries later in the modern era, in everyday politics in West Asia and North Africa. Another political event, the formal abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, is particularly important in understanding modern conflicts in the region such as the Iraq war, the Arab Spring and its demise, or the rise of ISIS.

From the time Prophet Mohammad established a Caliphate, there have always been one or more Caliphates representing the Muslim ‘ummah’ or community. After 1924 however, with the advent of modern nation-states, there has been a constant struggle to establish a legitimate Muslim political order in West Asia and North Africa. Hamid argues that at the center of this struggle are a set of issues: Islam’s relationship to the state, state’s relationship to Islam, and role of religion in public life.

Islam was revealed to its followers in a pre-modern era, when Islam imbued an entire social, moral, political and religious architecture. It has proven difficult to adapt it to the modern nation-state era.

This leads to the rise of Islamists and the role of Islamism in everyday life in West Asia and North Africa.

Hamid describes Islamists as those that believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life. Islamism was essentially created in response to one fundamental challenge of the 20th century, that of secularisation and western ideologies being imported into West Asia and North Africa. Islamists can only exist in opposition to secularists; when they believe that their way of life is under threat and that political organisation is necessary to defeat the secularist impulses. This fundamental divide between Islamists and non-Islamists or secularists was evident during the Arab Spring and its aftermath. It follows then that identity matters very much and is almost an existential crisis for Islamists as well as secularists.

With the demise of the Arab Spring, Islamists in West Asia and North Africa risk being excluded from the political process because they are considered a ‘problem’ to be solved by governments, often through authoritarian means. This severely undermines the governance process since these parties represent a significant section of the population in most countries in the region. Given this situation, the best solution, Hamid argues, is to accept Islam’s role in public life and accommodate different perspectives, even conservative ones, on the condition all stakeholders respect the democratic process and the constitution. Democracy is based on accommodating and respecting people with different beliefs, but doing so peacefully. Democracy, even if illiberal by western democratic standards, is preferable to authoritarian, repressive, and exclusionist regimes.

Hamid also spoke on Islamists parties in Morocco and Tunisia in this conversation with Madiha Afzal and Dhruva Jaishankar: