This new book follows your previous book, published in 2014, “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.” Back then, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, you described how Islamist participation in democracy was inevitable and should be facilitated. Obviously the landscape has changed a lot since then. What big shifts did you want to address in the new book?
I really wanted to address the question of how much religion matters. How much of this has to do with “Islam” and how much of it has to do with political or economic factors. That’s the question that I’ve gotten so much from American observers. This book is an attempt to situate the role of religion, at a time when we’re trying to understand the rise of ISIS and the region’s descent into violence and civil war.
I make an argument that I’m slightly uncomfortable with. I realize that some people will misinterpret it and some will abuse it for purposes that I’m against. I argue that Islam is in fact exceptional. Islam is fundamentally different than other major religions in important ways, primarily in how it relates to law, politics and governance. What that means in practice is that Islam – historically but also today – plays an outsize role in public life, and also that it appears to be uniquely resistant to secularization. There have been many attempts to neutralize or privatize Islam, or make it less relevant in everyday life. But those attempts have failed. This forces us to reckon with the possibility that we aren’t all the same. We don’t all necessarily want the same things.
I’m trying to challenge the liberal determinism that is implicit in so many of our conversations about Islam: That all peoples cultures and societies follow a linear trajectory toward a reformation, then an enlightenment, then secularization, then the “end of history” of liberal democracy. As an American, it is so much part of our culture to just assume that these things are inevitable. But what if they’re not? It’s hard for people to take on the prospect that in Muslim-majority populations there is a general unwillingness to push religion aside. That has major implications for how we understand not just the Middle East but also the future of Muslims in the West.
There’s a danger that this idea of “exceptionalism” plays into the hands of both the most fundamentalist Islamists and the worst Islamophobes.
Exactly. But I have to be faithful to my findings. What I’m saying is that the “difference” of Islam isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whenever we hear that Islam is different and it can’t be extracted from politics, we assume it means that Islam is backwards, bad or problematic. But we have to move beyond this presumption that religion always plays a negative role in politics and that the solution is always to move to secularism. That’s why I self-consciously chose the word “exceptionalism.” For me that is a word that should be value-neutral. Exceptionalism can be good and it can be bad. We also talk about American exceptionalism – which can be seen in a negative or positive light. So I hope people will resist the temptation to just say “Islam is different and that is definitely a bad thing.” I argue that difference isn’t necessarily a bad thing. [Continue reading…]