Islam’s distinctiveness, explained

With the demise of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, millions of Americans have been grappling with questions about Islam and its role in politics and violent conflict. How much does religion really matter? There has been much discussion on Islam’s (in)compatibility with modernity, pluralism, and secularism, and whether Islam needs to undergo “enlightenment” and “reformation.”

Shadi Hamid recently had a spirited conversation with host Josh Zepps on the Point of Inquiry podcast, previewing aspects of his new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World. Here are some key takeaways:

Muslims can be “normal” and still desire the application of Islamic law

In debates over Islam’s role in the modern world, Josh observed that people generally seem to fall into one of two camps: some argue there is something inherent in Islam that constitutes a threat to modernity, and others argue that the real issue isn’t Islam itself, but rather failures of politics and governance, Western intervention, or other issues that have little to do with Islam as such. Hamid said:

I don’t think I’m on either side, probably somewhere in between…I think where I would agree—somewhat surprisingly—with [author] Sam Harris is that I do think there’s something distinctive about Islam. I don’t think Islam is necessarily like other religions, particularly in how it relates to law, politics, and governance.

…I don’t see Islam’s distinctiveness as necessarily being either good or bad…it depends really on the context. What I wanted to do [in the book] was challenge the idea that we all have to be the same, or should be the same… We saw this with the infamous Bill Maher-Ben Affleck debate on Real Time where Ben Affleck was essentially saying, “Muslims eat sandwiches too.” And I thought to myself, well, yes, Muslims do eat sandwiches, but you can eat sandwiches and still believe that Islamic law should be implemented, you can still believe in religiously-derived criminal punishment. 

The West’s experience with religion is not universal

Hamid also said:

It just bothers me when I hear from liberals this presumption that Arabs or Muslims or whoever have to follow the same trajectory that Christianity followed, that they have to go through a reformation, then an enlightenment, then everything will be fine. And it’s like [they’re saying], “Oh you Muslims, you have to kind of take your own time, but you’ll get there one day.” That’s a little bit presumptuous and patronizing, I think.

…It’s up to people to decide for themselves if they want to have their own “enlightenment”—we can’t force Muslims to go down that path if they don’t want to go down that path…I’m uncomfortable with this idea that we as Americans should get involved with internal theological debates to tell Muslims that they have to be one way or another. If Muslims decide that they want to have a bit more of the enlightenment in their own lives, then more power to them, but that has to be something internal. 

He argued that attempting to impose an “ideal” political reality at the expense of what’s actually feasible is actually pretty dangerous. Secularists and liberals might be setting themselves up for failure by focusing too much on what they deem to be the ideal outcome:

It’s also a question of what’s practical and realistic. So, you and I might agree that liberalism and enlightenment ideas are preferable in an ideal world, but that doesn’t mean that they’re actually practical or have any realistic chance of happening in many, if not most, Muslim-majority countries, particularly in the Middle East. It’s also problematic—if not outright dangerous—to hope for outcomes that have no realistic chance of actually happening.

Religions take on unique characteristics in no small part due to their founding moments, and Islam is no different

Hamid discussed how the formative period of any religion—particularly the “founding moment”—inevitably shapes its expression, even fourteen centuries after the fact:

History matters. We have to look at the founding moment of any given religion and see how that affected the formation of the religion. So when we look at Christianity, we look at a figure like Jesus, and Jesus wasn’t ever in a position to govern. He was a dissident against a reigning state, and so this was a kind of oppositional posture… The New Testament doesn’t actually say much about public law. And why would it? That’s not what Jesus was doing, that wasn’t his particular set of circumstances. Even if you go beyond Jesus’s own life and you look at the first several centuries of Christianity, Christians were a minority living under the rule of others. So they never, even in their early theology, had to go out of their way to formulate an account of public law or an overarching legal structure. So that’s critical in understanding the evolution of Christianity.

On the other hand, if you look at Islam, the intertwining of religion and politics is there from the very founding moment. So, Prophet Muhammad…wasn’t just a cleric or a theologian or a prophet, he was also a politician, he was also head of state in the incipient Muslim community in Medina… 

I don’t want to give the impression that Muslims are bound to their founding moment. I wouldn’t want anyone to take that from what I’m saying. But Muslims can’t fully escape their founding moment either. Founding moments matter. So I think that if a Muslim today is making the case for the separation of religion from politics, they can do that, and there have been many Muslim intellectuals who have made precisely that argument. I would only say, though, that it’s hard for them to gain mass support and gain traction for their ideas, because they’re essentially arguing against the founding moment, and more specifically, the prophetic model. 

Islam, by virtue of its doctrinal commitments, is uniquely resistant to secularization

Hamid also took on the issue of secularism. Is secularism always necessary for stability, pluralism, and diversity?

If Islam is distinctive, though, I don’t think that means it’s incompatible with pluralism or diverse viewpoints. Where I do think there is a real tension is this question over whether Islam can be secularized, and I don’t think secularism is a pre-requisite for pluralism or for having tolerance of diverse viewpoints. I think you can have a society that decides to emphasize the role of religion in politics but still finds room for diversity and pluralism and all the things we believe in. So I would zero in on the issue of secularism, I think that’s where the debate and disagreement really is.

…I would also say that secularism is not a pre-requisite for democracy. It may be a pre-requisite for liberal democracy, but that again is sort of our Western bias that we automatically hear the word “democracy,” and we think, oh, that means you also have to be liberal. But there also is a whole phenomenon—especially as of late—of illiberal democracy, and what means is that you might have voters in a particular country that decide through the democratic process that they don’t want to be liberal, that they want to vote for parties that may be religiously-inspired, or even populist-xenophobic parties. 

Donald Trump is frightening, but at least he has helped Americans understand “illiberal democracy” 

And I’m scared of Trump, personally, but I think it’s helpful for Americans to have a firsthand experience with an illiberal democrat who may very well become our president—so it isn’t just a Middle Eastern thing.

For more on these and related topics, register to attend Shadi Hamid’s book launch on June 9.