Islamic Exceptionalism: Challenging Liberal Universalism

I

Living in Thailand for the past decade has changed me or, if not ‘me’ exactly, my view of the world, human nature, and the role and relevance of history and culture in shaping both.

To be more precise, theses changes started when I first became interested in reading Japanese history some 25 years ago, which led to an exploration of Chinese history and then Korean history, and on and on. A visit to in-laws in Japan combined with a rock climbing holiday in Thailand in 1998 introduced me to the Asia I had only read about in history books and online forums like Dead Fukuzawa Society and soc.cult.japan. Eight years later I decided to move to Asia, choosing Thailand as a base.

An interest in Thai politics has led me to question the universality of liberal values. Not that my belief in individual rights, human rights, equality before the law, or democracy and the rule of law have wavered even a little. I have simply come to accept that not all people who do not share my liberal faith are either evil or tragically mistaken, brainwashed or otherwise abusively coerced into denying the tenets of contemporary liberalism. It’s a difficult thing to communicate to liberals, this questioning of the universality of our values, not least because one of those values appears to involve the celebration of diversity and tolerance.

II

One of the recurring obsessions in the expat community in Thailand is a question regarding “real Buddhism”. The commercialism, materialism and nakedly hierarchical class divisions that are on display in daily life here apparently give the lie to Thailand’s claim to being a Buddhist society and culture for many foreign observers of Thai life.

Only ever half-seriously, I sometimes point out that looking at the origin stories of Buddhism and Christianity should be sufficient to explain why so many of the children of liberalism, itself, arguably, a child of Christianity, are shocked by the venality and illiberalism of Buddhists and Buddhist societies, preferring instead to privilege the version of Buddhism that they have absorbed through books written for westerners, often by westerners, that have become recognized as forming a distinct school; i.e., Western Buddhism.

Each of these two very different religions, like Islam, has one primary founding figure:

Jesus of Nazareth, in the most common telling, was born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals, to parents scurrying to register for the first ever imperial census, ordered by Augustus Caesar. After a few years working as a carpenter and debating theology and law in the public square, he took up life as a wandering prophet followed closely by a number of fishermen and at least one former tax collector. He taught the value of every individual life, emphasized the moral superiority of poverty, and performed miracles: healing the sick, feeding the masses, and even bringing the dead back to life. Ultimately seen as a threat to the imperium,  Jesus was put to death by local authorities. The most prominent symbol of Christianity is the image of the body of Jesus hung on the Roman cross, dead or dying. His teachings slowly spread out among mainly poor people in the eastern regions of the Roman sphere, eventually becoming the state religion of the Roman empire.

Siddhartha Gautama, on the other hand, is usually presented as having been born a prince in a minor kingdom in what is now Nepal. Due to a prophecy that his son would become either a great spiritual leader or a great king and soldier, his father the king surrounded young Siddhartha with luxuries and prevented him from having contact with religious notions or with the realities of death and suffering through illness and poverty that might incline him to think about humanity in spiritual terms. On escaping this sheltered life, Siddhartha was so shocked by aging and illness and death that he ran off and lived in the woods as an ascetic till one day he discovered the middle way and started preaching his wisdom. Not long after, various wealthy merchants and kings and other notables wished to be associated with his teachings and granted him tracts of land on which to build a shelter for his monks to remain apart from the world. The usual symbol of Buddhism is Gautama himself, sitting cross-legged with a smile on his face, apparently removed from all human concern through meditation.

So, a poor working-class lad grows up to lead a small band of potentially subversive fishermen and others and is put to death by the oppressive Roman state versus a coddled princeling who grows up to abandon his wife and child in order to gather followers from the upper classes who grant him land and domicile and a long comfortable life. Where Jesus preached the value of human individuals, emphasizing the equality of all, Buddha denied the existence of individuals and taught that we are born into situations determined by our actions in past lives.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, in their beginning is their end, just as in their end is their beginning.

III

Shadi Hamid, author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World, in a much more serious vein, points to the “founding moment” of Islam as a significant determinant of the problematic nature of Islamic societies and their relationship to the modern nation state. It is what makes Islam “exceptional”:

51qwSfB3NBL._SY344_BO1204203200_-198x300.jpg

Islam is different. This difference has profound implications for the future of the Middle East and, by extension, for the world in which we all live. This admittedly is a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and Europe. “Islamic exceptionalism,” however, is neither good nor bad. It just is, and we need to understand it and respect it, even if it runs counter to our own hopes and preferences. Second, because the relationship between Islam and politics is distinctive, a replay of the Western model— Protestant Reformation followed by an enlightenment in which religion is gradually pushed into the private realm— is unlikely. That Islam— a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution— should follow a similar course as Christianity is itself an odd presumption. We aren’t all the same, but, more important, why should we be?

Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 5). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

Hamid traces this difference to two aspects of Islam’s founding: one, the fact that Mohammed was, besides a prophet through whom god spoke directly, a military leader and, most significantly, a head of state. It follows from this that Islam was necessarily concerned with rules and laws and other elements of the state that Christianity obviously was not. And secondly, Muslims tend to emphasize the inerrancy of the text of the Koran in a way that Christians do not and have not. This is because, unlike Christian scriptures which are acknowledged to have been written by men, albeit inspired by god, the Koran is believed to be the actual words of god as spoken through Mohammed.

Hamid is at pains to emphasize that this “founding moment” does not mean that Islamic political society could never take on the lineaments we associate with liberal modernism, but that it is highly unlikely to do so within any reasonable time frame.

This part of the book, while carefully argued and presented with due circumspection, is open to serious criticism and will not likely find many adherents in any of the communities where this sort of theorizing might be relevant. In many ways, it is a more sophisticated version of the kind of “Just So” story that I presented above.

To begin, there is very little hard evidence that the “founding moment” of Islam as presented here is anything more than a carefully crafted fiction developed over the decades and centuries following the initial surge of Islam out of the deserts of the Arabian peninsula.  Once that has been taken on board, much of what Hamid suggests is a cause may in fact be viewed as a post facto justification that has continued to be useful to authoritarian governments and individuals down to today.

The suggestion that theocratic governments have not characterized Christian history because Jesus himself was not a head of state and was therefore not concerned in his teachings with rules and laws that could be taken directly into a state’s institutional structures ignores the theocratic leanings of the Byzantine Empire and the long intermittent struggle between Rome and western European secular authorities during the middle ages.

IV

Be that as it may, the question of the continuing influence of the founding moment of Islam is not really central to Hamid’s book. It is in his refreshingly personal and anecdotal presentation of contemporary Islamism and Islamists that this book offers its most accessible insights. “Islamic Exceptionalism” provides a number of necessary correctives to our generally blinkered view of political Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, Islamists are, almost by definition, in favor of democratic governance, if by democratic we refer only to the practice of determining governing bodies through the process of elections. As Hamid points out, Islamists are and have long been in a constant state of negotiation with liberals and other secular groups as they develop strategies for involvement in democratic processes of varying degrees within their political communities.

Equally against the grain of common misunderstanding is Hamid’s insistence that rather than being representatives of some atavistic 7th century feudal ideology Islamists are in fact uniquely modern. Given the intrinsic interweaving of religion and governance that characterized centuries of Islamic history, it is only in the modern context that Islamism could stand as one ideological strand among others in competition for power over the problematic nation-states of contemporary Muslim-majority countries.

It is impossible to come away from an honest reading of this book with stereotypes intact and for that alone Hamid is deserving of respect and thanks. But the most substantial sections of the book are those presenting detailed examinations of the recent political histories of three Sunni-majority nations that embody the inherent conflict between Islam and liberalism.

V

Hamid’s choice of Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia as “case studies” in the problematic clash of Islamism with the nation-state and the implicit “liberal” assumptions that underpin much of its structure is telling in more ways than one, that is to say as much for what it deliberately excludes as for what it so astutely analyses.

The utter failure of Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood to hold onto power once elected in the wake of the ouster of Mubarak makes the perfect contrast for the equivocal “success” of Ennahda in Tunisia. Unlike Morsi, who once in power began to renege on promises of moderation, Ennahda actually stepped down after vaulting into the Prime Ministership of a coalition government as a result of the country’s first-ever democratic elections.

In neither of these cases does “democracy” triumph of course. The return of military dictatorship and a harsh, repressive, murderous regime in Egypt is blatantly a failure of democracy to take hold after the ebullience of Tahrir Square. Less obvious but perhaps even more pernicious is the perceived necessity for Ennahda to step down, adopt western dress and, arguably, deliberately “lose” the elections of 2014 in order not to destabilize the country as it struggles to transition to a more democratic model.

As Hamid has made clear in this as well as his earlier work Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, deliberately avoiding victory in democratic elections has long been a survival tactic for Islamist parties well aware of the violent reactions their winning would likely provoke. Anyone who doubts that “liberals” could possibly constitute such a threat would do well to consider Hamid’s description of those who cheered the massacre of Brotherhood supporters on August 14, 2013.

Turkey and the virtually uninterrupted 14-year reign of Erdogan and the AKP is the case most intimately bound up with the West and its liberal ideological pressures. Ostensibly a “secular state” since the Kemalist revolution of 1923, the Turkish state has nevertheless had to walk a tightrope between the people’s undeniable Muslim identity and  the strictures of Kemalism since day one.

In spite of winning election after election, the AKP has always had to recognize limits to its mandate. “Turkey wasn’t a normal democracy. Every day, AKP officials woke up wondering if the army or the courts would move against them.” The constant threat of military or judicial coup goes beyond what liberals normally refer to as “checks and balances”, so regardless of the electorate’s choice of an Islamist party to govern them, Turkey’s democracy is even more severely limited than the usual western liberal democracy with its in-built protections for individuals and minorities against the potentially hostile intentions of the majority.

The way the long drawn-out period of the EU accession process has impacted both Turkish democracy and the AKP is instructive and perfectly illustrative of the ironies that abound when illiberal democratic impulses get filtered through a relationship with powerful liberal states like the EU.

In order for the AKP to confidently govern as an Islamist party, and thus as a less liberal but more democratic one, it had to be assured that the military would no longer function outside civilian control as a sword hanging over the heads of any government mandated to move away from strict Kemalist secularism. At the same time, in order for the Turkish state to meet the demand for liberal reforms that were part and parcel of the move toward EU accession, “the military would have to respect the elected civilian authorities.” As Hamid succinctly puts it, “EU membership, then, became AKP’s most important cudgel against the Kemalist “deep state.””

VI

What is left out in “Islamic Exceptionalism” of course is any treatment of Iran and the decidedly Islamist theocratic state with democratic characteristics that has been in place there for the past 37 years. It is, admittedly, outside the scope of Hamid’s study, partially due to Iran’s “outsider” status (as part of the “Axis of Evil”?) but primarily due to intractable theological differences between the Islamist strains within Sunni Islam and the Shiite “heresy”. As justifiable as this exclusion may be for the purposes of making the study manageable, it nevertheless leaves out a major element of modern Islamic history in regard to attempts to integrate the religion with governance in a modern state.

And while not ignored completely, the vast difference between the development of democracy in other nations outside the Arabic world, like Pakistan and more particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, and how things have worked out in the Greater Middle East is not given anything like its due.

It is hard to ignore the rather obvious reality that how these very different Muslim-majority democracies have interacted with the west, primarily the US, since WWII, goes a long way toward explaining their very different experiences with democratization.

As Hamid points out, both Malaysia and Indonesia display more “Islamist” features, such as sharia ordinances, than most middle eastern nations outside the Wahhabist core of close American allies like Saudi Arabia. Indonesia is recently being hailed as the outstanding democratic success story of the whole of Southeast Asia, in spite of the fact that both Islamist and “secular” administrations at the local level throughout Indonesia institute and enforce a wide variety of Islamist-style legislation.

And this brings us to the most glaring absence in the book, which is simply the role played by American and other western involvement in “problematizing” the relationship between democracy and Islam in the oil-rich region of the Greater Middle East. As I write this review, American arms and American permission have been given to the Saudis and Qataris to reek havoc in Yemen. Neither the Americans nor the Saudi autocrats are comfortable with Islamist democracy in the region, threatening as it does to destabilize western hegemony there.

Regardless of Obama’s snap decision to pull American support from Mubarak at a crucial moment, the residual inertial tendency in American policy was to support a dictatorial regime and avoid any possibility of the chaos of democracy in Egypt, hence the instant recognition of the al-Sisi junta and the hesitation to call a coup a coup.

And although American law demands the suspension of all support for a military that undertakes a coup, within ten months both cash and weapons systems that were initially held back were flowing as usual to the murderous junta. So much for American support for democracy.

VII

I have to admit that my enjoyment of Hamid’s book rests primarily on his careful presentation of an argument that convincingly undermines the assumed universality of liberalism implicit in almost every word spoken or written by westerners when discussing governance and politics anywhere outside the tightly drawn limits of “the west”. Like him, I hold firmly to my faith in the tenets of liberal democracy and cannot imagine ever letting go.

But I no longer believe that my faith is a universal one.

It’s just mine.

But neither do I accept the claim that Islam is exceptional in its resistance to liberalism. I think it is more the case that the “post-reformation west” is exceptional in its affinity for liberalism.

China is not and has never been a liberal state. Japanese “liberal democracy” has many features that are neither liberal nor democratic. India’s oft-celebrated “world’s biggest democracy” would likely not come even close to satisfying the expectations of the children of European or North American liberal democracies no matter how often and how many elections are held. Any suggestion that liberal democracy is about to take hold in any nation in Southeast Asia is a pipe-dream.

That is not to say that many governments around the world are not motivated to put up a facade that satisfies the demand of giant markets like the EU and even more gargantuan militaries like the US for an appearance of liberal democracy before access to the riches of the west will be granted.

It is, however, to suggest that this condition is being eroded in the present time. And if liberal democracies do not begin to tend to their own institutions and procedures, not only will the rest of the world stop pretending to struggle to achieve liberal democracy in order to access their markets, there won’t be any liberal democracies left for them to simulate.

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