To understand the Middle East’s seemingly intractable conﬂicts, we need to go back to at least 1924, the year the last caliphate was formally abolished. Animating the caliphate—the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition—was the idea that, in the words of the historian Reza Pankhurst, the “spiritual unity of the Muslim community requires political expression.” For the better part of 13 centuries, there had been a continuous lineage of widely accepted “Islamic” politics. Even where caliphates were ineffectual, they still offered resonance and reassurance. Things were as they had always been and perhaps always would be.
Since the Ottoman Caliphate’s dissolution, the struggle to establish a legitimate political order has raged on in the Middle East, with varying levels of intensity. At its center is the problem of religion and its role in politics. In this sense, the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, is only the latest iteration of the inability to resolve the most basic questions over what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be a state.
It is both an old and new question, one that used to have an answer but no longer does. Islam is distinctive in how it relates to politics—and this distinctiveness can be traced back to the religion’s founding moment in the seventh century. 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, whether we happen to be American, French, British, or anything else. To say that Islam—as creed, theology, and practice—says something that other religions don’t quite say is admittedly a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and Europe. As a Muslim-American, it’s personal for me: Donald Trump’s dangerous comments on Islam and Muslims make me fear for my country. Yet “Islamic exceptionalism” is neither good nor bad. It just is.