Liberalism versus Democracy: Round 1

A lot has been written recently about the decline of democracy and the the crumbling of the liberal world order.

It has indeed become something of a commonplace to set the election of Donald Trump beside the success of the Leave campaign leading to Brexit, then go on to point to the electoral shock of the AfD entering the Reichstag in Germany and the steady rise of Marine LePen and the National Front in France, and conclude that if the sky isn’t precisely falling, it certainly is clouding up.

Add a dash of Hungary and Orban, the Poles and PiS, and even the plucky Czechs leaning to the right, and we are forced to recognize that a hard shift to the right is threatening the status quo of the Pax Americana, that  understated version of imperialism that has soothed the world’s liberals into a profound sense of righteousness and absolute certainty in the justice of the overweening power they have wielded ever since WWII ended.

The hierarchy of significance of these offenses against the world order is clear: liberalism is the hallmark of the Anglosphere and for right-wing illiberal populism to gain such power as to elect a goon like Trump in the imperial metropole and to have the sidekick Brits kick against the pricks of the European Union is almost unbelievable. These two nations have after all been running the world on the “liberal imperialism” plan for centuries now.

Next in order of importance are the two continental champions, the erstwhile co-leaders of the EU, who have struggled so long to pretend that the Bundesbank (aka Germany) has not actually taken control of the European project, even to the extent of ignoring directives issued by Washington. France and Germany, whose rivalry was central to the most murderous wars of the 20th Century and possibly all human history, are drifting to the right and that is almost as scary as having l’Orange in the Oval and the UK mounting one long racist rally and calling it Brexit.

Almost as an afterthought come the former Warsaw Pact nations and their ugly fascist-leaning governments that seem to be inexorably pushing their peoples back to the authoritarian past, apparently just because they really really don’t like Muslims. And as was the case when the Balkans exploded less than a decade after the death of Tito, many western commentators point to the history of these former East Block nations as an explanation for this descent into nationalist xenophobia. They are, after all, not part of “the West”, not really.

It is usually the case that very little time is spent on laying out what is meant by ‘democracy’ or what the ‘liberal’ in the “liberal world order” really signifies in these articles. We are assumed to know and, sure enough, most people in the west are quite willing to throw around the term ‘democracy’ without ever giving a moment’s thought to what it is, outside occasionally quoting Churchill’s reluctant approval.

One way to think about the ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ that are usually mashed up into our beloved liberal-democracy is to recognize that each plays the role of limiting the possible excesses of the other in a modern state. Democracy is rooted in the notions of consent of the governed and majorities as the measure of what might be called the will of the electorate. Liberalism, as the ultimate expression of individualism, acts to limit the tendency of majorities to ride roughshod over the rights and freedoms of minorities and individuals who deviate from the norm.

Many of the institutional hallmarks of liberal democracy are more liberal than democratic per se. Rule of law, equality before the law, the full panoply of human rights, civil rights and individual rights: any or all of these might be dismissed as irrelevant or contrary to custom and belief by a majority of citizens in a modern state. Conservative polities in Muslim-majority countries may not accept the equality of women in certain legal contexts or the right of gays to engage in either sexual congress or marital union. Nationalist majorities in Europe may cling to a preference for “nation-states” as they were originally created in the bygone 19th century as “imagined communities” of people sharing a language, a culture, and a historical tradition, thereby rejecting immigrants and immigration, and denying them the liberal rights and privilege that are assumed to belong to citizens.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

     “… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking.  In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld'”

Put another way, for most westerners liberalism is the air we breathe, the ground we walk on and the lingua franca of all our conversations about values. Or at least it has been up until relatively recently. Keats caught the overwhelming power of the liberal worldview when he said

            ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –- that is all                                                                         Ye know on earth, and all ye need to  know.’

A slightly less respectful expression of what liberalism means to the vast majority of people in  western countries would be something along the lines of “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarden”. Hence we have the poignant irony of a thought leader like Ben Affleck defending the Islamic world from the Islamophobia of bigots everywhere by declaiming that a billion Muslims just “want to go to the store and have some sandwiches”, to which Egyptian-American Muslim scholar Shadi Hamid replies:

This is why the well-intentioned discourse of “they bleed just like us; they want to eat sandwiches and raise their children just like we do” is a red herring.* After all, one can like sandwiches and want peace, or whatever else, while also supporting the death penalty for apostasy, as 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 83 percent of Jordanian Muslims did in a 2011 Pew poll.13 In the same survey, 80 percent of Egyptian respondents said they favored stoning adulterers, while 70 percent supported cutting off the hands of thieves.                     *

And that is without asking the obvious question. “How popular are sandwiches among the world’s Muslims, especially among those living outside the sandwich-eating west?”

For a democracy to be democratic there needs to be some mechanism for majorities to choose those who will govern in their names. The usual mechanism for this is to hold elections to send representatives of specific groups to a parliament or congress where laws will be made and national initiatives debated and approved. Corollary to this requirement is a politically aware, preferably active, electorate.

At this point in the defining of what constitutes a democracy, a western liberal will almost always add something about either human rights or rule of law or both. That is, westerners usually reflexively define democracy as liberal-democracy and find it near-impossible to understand how that undermines the very basis of democracy if democracy is understood to involve the expression of the values and beliefs of the people who make up the demos.

In Indonesia, the nation presently wearing the crown for SE Asian “beacon of democracy” now that Suu Kyi and Myanmar have lost that title after such a short reign, there are politicians and Islamist civil society representatives who label “liberalism” a foreign ideology along with communism, socialism and religious radicalism. According to Pew, something like 93% of Indonesians reject homosexuality, more than in one-party authoritarian Malaysia or even Pakistan with its revolving door democratic and military dictatorships. And yet, unlike those two nations, Indonesia has no law criminalizing homosexual behaviour or relationships between consenting adults. Only in Aceh does a sharia-based regional law applying only to Muslims criminalize homosexuality.

When politicians and civil society spokespersons call for a rejection of LGBTQ++ rights and for laws to criminalize homosexual acts, they are speaking for a very large majority of Indonesians. Nevertheless, it is a journalistic and academic commonplace to see these politicians and these groups as “threats to democracy”. That is, to represent the values and beliefs of the majority of an electorate that does not share liberal values as they have evolved over the past 2 or 3 decades in that tiny region of the planet known as “the west” is to be “anti-democratic”, whereas to uphold the values of, among others, the former colonial powers in the region, is to safeguard “democracy”.

It really doesn’t take much imagination to understand why it is that electorates around the globe are turning away in droves from this conception of “democracy”, seeing how it is little more than a version of the kind of liberal cultural imperialism that Kipling celebrated and that Winston Churchill was willing to defend with war crimes and genocide, those markers of the liberal-democrat venturing outside her own democratic backyard.

When Madeleine Albright suggested that the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children were “worth it” and Hillary Clinton crowed “We came. We saw. He died.” in celebration of the death by ritual sodomization of Gaddafi, they were speaking for liberal internationalists everywhere. Unfortunately for those who would see liberal-democracy spread to the vast tracts of the globe that are yet to come under its sway, the great majority of people outside the liberal-democratic west find it much easier to imagine themselves in the place of those Iraqi children and a man like Gadaffi than they can see themselves reflected in plutocratic psycho-killers like Albright and Clinton, neither of whom is easily imagined sitting down and having a sandwich with the world’s billion Muslims.

*Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 13). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

 

Addendum:

Liberalism is credal. And like any religious creed, it sets the stage for heresy. This is of course the source of the infamous “It’s not my job to educate you” response to questions aimed at some element or other in the creed.

It is obvious that this vacuous phrase comes in handy for those unable to muster a reasoned defence of whatever article of faith is being questioned and has led many dissenters to suggest that it is a measure of either the stupidity or the ignorance of the liberal who is intent on excommunication (sexist! racist! homophobe!) rather than education or debate.

And while that may often be the case, it is also a measure of the degree to which those articles have indeed become nothing more or less than articles of faith.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

“… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking. In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld”

When Stanley Fish began his pristine assaults on the obfuscatory illogic and illiberalism of liberalism back in the 80s, his focus was on the cult of reason and its fundamentalist insistence on the primacy of the one and only standard by which any and all arguments, principles, or beliefs were to be judged: that is, reason itself. He addressed his arguments to a topic that was highly relevant at the time: religious fundamentalism.

Since that time, liberalism has been “radicalized”, if that is the appropriate term, by the so-called “left”, centered on identity politics, that dominates so much of the English-speaking world and presumably has made inroads in much of Western Europe.

It is no longer just the primacy of reason that contemporary liberalism promotes as the bedrock of liberal faith. Pretty much the whole panoply of “human rights” as laid down in the tablets of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights are now simply to be taken as unquestionable truths.

As with so many aspects of the contemporary global culture, it is easy to trace this overwhelming universalizing tendency in liberalism, and its equally overwhelming predominance in what has come to be called “politics”, to the United States of America. It is in the Declaration of Independence that the literate world first hears the blast of what would eventually be labeled “Tumblr-liberalism” by the astute and acerbic Angela Nagle:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The foundational irony of these words being used to announce the existence of a slave state by a cabal of slaveholding misogynist elitists has of course followed this liberalism wherever and whenever it lifts up its voice to insist on someone’s absolute right to tell someone else how things are meant to be done.

Which takes us back to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

 

 

 

 

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Yanki Go Home and Just Stay There… Please?

Whatever else an American may or may not be, an American is an American first and foremost: socialist, Nazi, Radiohead or Beyonce fan, liberal or paleoconservative, each and every one is an American.

What this means for people outside America is that there is no effective internal or domestic resistance to American cultural imperialism, to American economic imperialism or, and most obviously, to American militarist imperialism (which is arguably little more than a wing of the economic variety but kills a lot faster).

Americans go to work and pay their taxes,  and no matter what sort of personal “branding” they engage in on social media, in the pages of mid-to-main-stream media or simply over a glass of merlot with like-minded friends, they support the national project. Dead bodies lined up after an airstrike in Iraq or farmers lives and livelihoods destroyed by Monsanto in India and beyond are not brought back to life by sarky Tweets about what an evil clown Trump is or whether a presidential candidate believes America is in decline or is doing just fine as the globally indispensable nation.

One of the more offensive absurdities of the utterly American identity politics “left” is the tendency to label all white people as essentially racist and to deny the possibility that non-whites can be racist. There are, of course, any number of intellectual strategies that can be used to circumvent the bald idiocy of such a position- and the export of the “American Model of Racism” to destinations all around the globe is one of the more pernicious elements of American cultural imperialism- but there can be little doubt that this article of identitarian faith is one of the most powerful conditioners of how Americans see themselves and how they conduct themselves through all the various forms of media at their disposal, from the New York Times to Twitter and Facebook.

But there are ways a white American can wriggle out from under the racist label: by calling other white people racist on Twitter or by liking everything Beyonce does and never mentioning black-on-black crime; by shouting that everyone white that isn’t you should STFU and listen whenever a PoC has anything to say about just about anything; and if you are an administrator or a faculty member or a graduate adjunct on a university campus, you can organize and/or submit to unconscious bias sensitivity sessions where you will learn the truth of your own iniquity and how you can behave toward your moral betters to begin to atone for the sin of “whiteness”. And given the flaccidity of contemporary political language, you can, pace Orwell, just start calling everyone who disagrees with any tenet of the SJW creed a fascist.

In reality, the number of ways Americans can shop and preen on social media to deny their default Hitler-clonism is literally limitless. What many non-Americans would  just love to see, however, will almost surely never happen: hundreds of thousands of video clips of white Americans proclaiming their racial/genetic guilt and then punching themselves in the face until they bleed profusely then fall unconscious. Or better yet applying booster cables to their own genitals and really really screaming their heads off, just like countless folks around the globe have done when their American-trained and -funded security forces have defended  Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut so that young Americans can continue to buy their Chinese-made iPhones in peace.

American “socialists”, to give them their due, are naturally opposed to all this, and some are even aware of the joke involved in invoking international solidarity using a phone made by a worker making $6 a day while also calling for a fight for $15 on the same phone. Unlike many of their compatriots, some socialist Americans can actually find Myanmar on a map and are pretty certain the war in Vietnam was a “bad take”. What these “socialists” appear to be unwilling or unable to do for various reasons is make a clean break from their inevitable association with the identity politics people who all the varieties of the American right just revel in calling “the left”.

So while identitarians and antifa with the blessing of “socialists” will no doubt be out there bravely tearing down statues of racist slave-holding white assholes from 150+  years ago, not one of the whining bitches will have the nerve to go and smear shit all over the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. They are Americans after all and, you know, support the troops. Or excuse the troops. Or turn the troops into the good guys by invoking victim status for the troops. Some of them were, after all, black, so any suggestion that Vietnam was a racist imperialist war that the racist imperialists have yet to acknowledge or apologize for is just silly.

It is, after all, important to remember that 58 thousand Americans died killing those 4 million “orientals” who, as General Westmoreland (who was never tried as a war criminal) famously said, “doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner”.

African-Americans are quite rightly up in arms about police abuse and the systematic disenfranchisement and murder of black citizens by the American justice system, but they are also up in arms as members of the military whose primary purpose (besides deploying expensive weaponry so the American arms industry can keep on keeping on) is the calculated murder of people of colour outside the American homeland. The American ideology doesn’t really have a handy term to describe what is made manifest when a black American jarhead calls Arabs “camel-jockeys” and takes a few bucks from Uncle Sam for kicking in their doors and killing them since racists is what white people are. By default.

It’s painful to think that it might have been the black son or daughter of parents who marched in Selma that operated the drone that killed Anwar Awlaki, his 16-year-old son or his 5-year-old daughter. Black soldiers helping a black president to normalize the extrajudicial execution of American citizens of whatever ethnic or racial heritage has just got to be a major victory for diversity and surely a harbinger of the day when white Americans will be able to stop bashing themselves in the name of equality because Americans of all colours and creeds are out there killing the shit out of people of color in really poor countries.

 

Whataboutism: In Defense of Defensive Propaganda

whataboutism

Inevitably, as the horror stories, some possibly true, many probably not, emerge from the “liberation” of Aleppo, there are sporadic outbreaks of “whataboutism” on Twitter and other social media.

When someone points to reports of a hospital deliberately bombed in Aleppo as part of the Assad-Putin strategy to make life hell for civilians in the city, someone mentions the American bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan last year. (Notice it won’t be referred to as the Obama strategy.)

Almost immediately someone will say “two wrongs don’t make a right”, thus doing the almost miraculous merely by admitting that Americans destroying a civilian hospital is “wrong”. More often it will be pointed out that the Kunduz horror was a “mistake” and that American soldiers and officers have been “disciplined” for it, thus removing the stink of immorality from that particular war crime.

But more commonly the response is to point to the old Russian and fellow-traveler technique of “whataboutism”, which Wikipedia will inform you falls under the logical fallacy of “tu quoque” and which schoolchildren in the 50s and 60s referred to as “I know you are, what am I?”

And while it may be true that there is a logical fallacy at work if what one is suggesting is that the Russian bombing was not immoral or a war crime because the Americans have done the same, that is not the point at all. The point is something altogether different and more relevant than constructing a piece of spurious “logic”.

Consider this. You are at a small gathering at a friend’s house when you are approached by an acquaintance who points out someone you don’t know and whispers, “Disgusting. Why would ‘A’ invite her I wonder.”

When you ask what the problem is, your interlocutor continues in a low hiss, “She has a small hole just below the base of her spine. Fetid gasses occasionally seep out of it, and almost daily, sometimes more often, foul messes ooze out that require immediate treatment, treatment that actually costs the taxpayer massive amounts of money to avoid contamination of public space. She’s utterly, disgustingly filthy.”

If you don’t immediately recognize that your new friend is talking about the other person’s rectum and therefore that there is nothing especially disgusting or filthy about her in the least, you may feel revulsion and wonder why such a creature was invited to your friend’s house at all.

Focusing on some particular bit of information that suggests that someone or some nation is prone to immorality or criminality while simultaneously ignoring the context of a world in which the particular behavior is common or at least shared by others is one very salient element of propaganda.

Half a million civilians may have died in war-related incidents in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. Three to four million Vietnamese, Lao and Khmer people died during the so-called Vietnam War, or more accurately, three to four million people were slaughtered by US military involvement in Southeast Asia in the 60s and early 70s.

Those are not “logical fallacies”. They are dead bodies: men, women, children. They were killed by Americans or as the result of American military adventurism. No one  since 1945 comes even close to the record of war crimes and international immorality that America has racked up.

And that is not a fallacy of any kind whatsoever. It is, however, a context. And it is in relation to that reality that our judgments of other governments and other militaries need to be made, never forgetting that when we want to accuse someone of war crimes or human rights abuses and actually get the “international community” to do something about it, we should begin with the biggest perpetrator and work our way down.

Otherwise it would just be another case of sweeping up the little guys and letting the ringleaders go free.

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, these 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.