The Meaningless Politics of Liberal Democracies

The desire for theocracy in the Muslim world can be partly understood through the failures of Western secularism. 

Students pray at a school in Indonesia. (Antara Photo Agency / Reuters)

Ben Affleck has become an unlikely spokesman for a view on Islam held by many on the American left. In 2014, the actor made a now-famous stand against Bill Maher and Sam Harris in defense of Muslims, arguing that it’s wrong to make generalizations about the religion based on ideological extremists and terrorists. “How about the more than 1 billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, and pray five times a day?” he said.

In his new book Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid—an Atlantic contributor, a scholar at Brookings, and a self-identified liberal—calls Affleck’s declaration a “well-intentioned … red herring.” Islam really is different from other religions, he says, and many Muslims view politics, theocracy, and violence differently than do Christians, Jews, or non-religious people in Europe and the United States.

Perhaps his most provocative claim is this: History will not necessarily favor the secular, liberal democracies of the West. Hamid does not believe all countries will inevitably follow a path from revolution to rational Enlightenment and non-theocratic government, nor should they. There are some basic arguments for this: Islam is growing, and in some majority-Muslim nations, huge numbers of citizens believe Islamic law should be upheld by the state. But Hamid also thinks there’s something lacking in Western democracies, that there’s a sense of overarching meaninglessness in political and cultural life in these countries that can help explain why a young Muslim who grew up in the U.K. might feel drawn to martyrdom, for example. This is not a dismissal of democracy, nor does it comprehensively explain the phenomenon of jihadism. Rather, it’s a note of skepticism about the promise of secular democracy—and the wisdom of pushing that model on other cultures and regions.

Most Islamists—people who, in his words, “believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life”—are not terrorists. But the meaning they find in religion, Hamid said, helps explain their vision of governance, and it’s one that can seem incomprehensible to people who live in liberal democracies.

I spoke with Hamid recently about Islamism, ISIS, and the “patronizing” assumptions Americans sometimes make about Islam. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emma Green: What’s been the reaction to the book, on both the left and the right?

Shadi Hamid: There are things in the book that may anger the left, and there are things in the book that may anger the right. But that’s also what I’m trying to do: challenge some of the dogmas on both sides of this debate. I want to push people to rethink their assumptions on Islam and its role in politics, and how we even view religion as a social force in general.

I am arguing that Islam is exceptional. I think there’s a general discomfort among American liberals about the idea that people don’t ultimately want the same things, that there isn’t this linear trajectory that all peoples and cultures follow: Reformation, then Enlightenment, then secularization, then liberal democracy.

Where I would very much part ways with those on the far right who are skeptical about Islam is that I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for Islam to play an outsized role in public life.

Green: Are you endorsing the incorporation of theology into governments of predominantly Muslim nations?

Hamid: For me, the question of whether it’s good or bad is beside the point, and that’s not the question I’m trying to answer. Clearly, some people think it’s good. Certainly in the Middle East there are millions of people who think it’s good. There are many of us here in the U.S. who are skeptical, but ultimately I think it’s up to the people of the region to decide what’s best for themselves through a democratic process that would play out over time.

I see very little reason to think secularism is going to win out in the war of ideas. But the question is: Why would it in the first place? Why would that even be our starting presumption as American observers? It’s presumptuous and patronizing to think a different religion is going to follow the same basic trajectory as Christianity.

Green: How monolithic is “the Islamic world”? Can you make generalizations about Indonesia that extend to the Middle East, etc.?

Hamid: Different countries are very different in how they interpret Islam or Islamic law and how they apply those ideas in everyday public life.

Malaysia and Indonesia are very interesting cases. People don’t pay a lot of attention to them because they’re not very central to U.S. national-security interests. But the more I looked at those cases, the more I was fascinated. Those two countries are often described as models of pluralism, tolerance, and relative democracy. But there are actually more sharia bylaws on the local level in those two countries than you see in much of the Arab world, including Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and certainly Turkey, in the broader region.

That tells us something: It’s not just an Arab problem. It’s not just a Middle Eastern problem. What I do think is quite different is that Malaysia and Indonesia have come to terms with this reality. [Islam] doesn’t have the same kind of polarizing effect on the body politic [in those countries] as it does in the Arab world, because those two countries have reached a conservative consensus, where people say, “Yes, Islam does play an outsize role in public life, but we’re going to agree to adjudicate our differences through a democratic process, or at least not through violence.”

“On a basic level, violence offers meaning. And that’s what makes it scary.”

Green: You emphasize the importance of taking the “metaphysical” propositions of Islam seriously, over and above the material circumstances of violence. What is lost in focusing on the material rather than ideological factors in the politics of Muslim countries?

Hamid: As political scientists, when we try to understand why someone joins an Islamist party, we tend to think of it as, “Is this person interested in power or community or belonging?” But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. It [can be] about a desire for eternal salvation. It’s about a desire to enter paradise. In the bastions of Northeastern, liberal, elite thought, that sounds bizarre. Political scientists don’t use that kind of language because, first of all, how do you measure that? But I think we should take seriously what people say they believe in.

It’s interesting that we’re having this conversation at a time when many people, including outside the Middle East, are loosing faith in technocratic, liberal democracy. There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering.

I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives, whether that means [they] resort to ideology, religion, xenophobia, nationalism, populism, exclusionary politics, or anti-immigrant politics. All of these things give voters a sense that there is something greater.

What we can learn from the Middle East can also apply to some extent to other regions that are struggling with similar questions of what are the ultimate purposes of politics.

Green: You open the book by asking about this inscrutable yearning for violence that seems to be felt among a small minority of Muslim extremists. What do you make of this yearning?

Hamid: On a basic level, violence offers meaning. And that’s what makes it scary. In the broader sweep of history, mass violence and mass killing is actually the norm. It’s only in recent centuries that states and institutions have tried to persuade people to avoid such practices.

That also reminds us that when institutions and social norms are weakened, those base sentiments can rise up again quite easily. And that’s what I saw.

“A question I get a lot is, ‘Wait, ok, is Islam violent?’ I find this to be a very weird question.”

Green: You also frame violence as a way of grappling with theodicy, or the problem of evil. How does this play out in the Islamic tradition?

Hamid: That is the question many Muslims have been asking not just recently, but for centuries, ever since the fall of the various caliphates and empires: Why is God doing this? Why is God permitting this fall from grace? The Muslim narrative you hear a lot is that when Muslims were good, God rewarded them with success and territory. When Muslims went astray, then perhaps God decided to send them a message to encourage them to return to the straight path.

A question I get a lot is, “Wait, ok, is Islam violent? Does the Quran endorse violence?” I find this to be a very weird question. Of course there is violence in the Quran. Muhammad was a state builder, and to build a state you need to capture territory. The only way to capture territory is to wrest it from the control of others, and that requires violence. This isn’t about Islam or the Prophet Muhammad; state building has historically always been a violent process.

Green: On that point, you observe that the state-building impulses of the Islamic State actually make it much more terrifying than other groups. Why?

Hamid: ISIS has gone well beyond the al-Qaeda model of terrorism and destruction. Of course, ISIS does that, too, but it attempts to build something in the place of what it has destroyed. It has an unusually pronounced interest in governance. And they are not just making things up as they go along. There does seem to be a method to the madness; they are drawing from certain strains of Islamic history and tradition. They are perverting them, I would argue, and distorting them, but it is not as if they are just making it up out of the air.

If ISIS were defeated tomorrow morning, we would still have to consider ISIS one of the most successful Islamist state-building groups. And that’s what makes it scary and frightening as an organization: They have offered a counter model. They’ve shown that capturing and holding territory is actually an objective worth striving for. An overwhelming majority of Muslims dislike ISIS and oppose them. But ISIS has changed the terms of the debate, because other Islamist groups in recent decades have not been able to govern. They have not been able to build states, and ISIS has.

“If I had to sum up mainstream Islamism in a sentence, I would say it’s the attempt to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation-state.”

Green: Why do you think it is important to reframe the conversation about political Islam to focus on moderate Islamists, rather than just terrorism?

Hamid: First of all, most Islamists aren’t ISIS. When we use Islamist, or Islamism, as shorthand for groups like ISIS, we are getting it completely wrong. I think it’s dangerous, these tropes that “Islamism is the enemy” or “Islamism is the problem.”

Islamism is a very modern thing. It was inconceivable four centuries ago. In the pre-modern era [in the Islamic world], Islam imbued every aspect of public and political life. It was the unquestioned overarching legal and moral culture in these territories. With the advent of secularism as a competing idea, or ideology, for the first time Muslims have to ask themselves these kinds of questions of who they are and what their relationship to the state is. So, in that sense, Islamism only makes sense in opposition to something else that isn’t Islamism, i.e., secularism.

If I had to sum up mainstream Islamism in a sentence, I would say it’s the attempt to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation-state. But the problem is that Islamic law wasn’t designed for the modern nation-state. It was designed for the pre-modern era. So the question then is, “How do you take something that wasn’t meant for the modern era and adapt it to the modern era—the era of nation-states?” That is the conundrum that Islamist movements are facing.

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Green: You partly wrote this book to shift the conversation about Islam away from an exclusive focus on extremism. Do you think you’ll still be called on to explain extremism and political violence forever more?

Hamid: That’s partly up to me. People can ask whatever question they like, but, ultimately, I’m going to try to emphasize the other issues as well. It’s important to talk about ISIS and extremism. But the bigger issue is, “How do Muslim countries adapt Islamic law or sharia to a modern context?” I think Americans need to make an effort to understand something that may at first seem foreign.

This is what I’ve realized over time: Islam is a complicated religion. It is very difficult to convey some of these ideas to people who have no experience with Muslims. But I think it is important to try.