The meaningless politics of liberal democracies

Emma Green writes: 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. [Continue reading…]

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Shadi Hamid on the past and future of political Islam

William Armstrong interviews Shadi Hamid and discusses his new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World:

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…]

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Is Ennahda following in AKP footsteps?

Mustafa Akyol writes: It is no secret that in the midst of the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, Tunisia has emerged as the brightest spot. It is also no secret that Tunisia’s success has been made possible in part by the moderate stance of its main Islamist party, Ennahda, which on May 21 at its party congress announced that it was officially abandoning political Islam. The longtime leader of the party, Rachid Ghannouchi, who was re-elected at the event, vowed to “keep religion far from political struggles” and announced that Ennahda would abandon all its religious activities, including preaching in mosques.

Naturally, this news reminded some of the founding of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) 15 years ago. At that time, the AKP, which came from an “Islamist” political tradition, had also declared a major change in perspective. Similar to Ennahda’s new self-identification as “Muslim democrats,” the AKP’s founders called themselves “conservative democrats.” The term “conservative” in Turkey is often another way of saying “practicing Muslim.” Moreover, Ghannouchi had in the past spoken about the “Turkish experience” and pointed to it as a positive frame of reference.

It is also no secret, however, that the so-called Turkish experience has not been going well lately. The AKP of today, heavily criticized for authoritarianism, is a far cry from the AKP of the early 2000s that was widely praised for its reforms. The common perception of the party, especially its iron-willed leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is that it was “moderate” when weak but turned autocratic after consolidating power. One could therefore argue that if Ennahda is really following in the footsteps of the AKP, it is not a reassuring step. [Continue reading…]

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Tunisia’s Ennahda party leader: ‘We are Muslim democrats, not Islamists’

Middle East Eye reports: Tunisia’s Ennahda party will separate its religious activities from political ones, its chief said in statements published on Thursday ahead of a weekend congress to formalise the change.

Rached Ghannouchi told French daily Le Monde there was no room left in post-Arab Spring Tunisia for “political Islam”.

“Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 constitution has imposed limits on extreme secularism and extreme religion,” he was quoted as saying.

“We want religious activity to be completely independent from political activity.

“This is good for politicians because they would no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political means and good for religion because it would not be held hostage to politics,” said Ghannouchi. [Continue reading…]

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Whatever happened to the ‘Turkish model’?

Mustafa Akyol writes: About five years ago, everyone was talking about the “Turkish model.” People in the West and in the Muslim world held up Turkey as a shining example of the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister and is now president, was praised as a reformist who was making his country freer, wealthier and more peaceful.

These days, I think back on those times with nostalgia and regret. The rhetoric of liberal opening has given way to authoritarianism, the peace process with the Kurdish nationalists has fallen apart, press freedoms are diminishing and terrorist attacks are on the rise.

What went wrong? Erdoganists — yes, some of them call themselves that — have a simple answer: a conspiracy. When Mr. Erdogan made Turkey too powerful and independent, nefarious cabals in the West and their treacherous “agents” at home started a campaign to tarnish Turkey’s democracy. Little do they realize, of course, that this conspiracy-obsessed propaganda, the self-righteousness it reflects and the hatred it fuels are part of the problem.

To understand why the Turkish model has let us all down, we have to go back to the 2001 founding of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P. At that time, Turkey was under the thumb of secularist generals who would overthrow any government they couldn’t control. In 1997 they ousted the A.K.P.’s Islamist predecessor, so the founders of the new party put forward a post-Islamist vision. They had abandoned their old ideology, they declared. Their only priorities now were bringing Turkey into the European Union and moving the country toward liberal democracy. [Continue reading…]

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Rethinking language: ‘Islamism’ as a dirty word

Jonathan Brown writes: Much depends on whether one thinks “Islamism” is a dirty word. This is true for policymakers in the West and leaders in the Muslim world alike. As with the moniker “The Muslim Brotherhood,” the word “Islamism” is thrown about loosely and clumsily because it is an amorphous and contested term that reflects the worldview (perhaps deepest fears?) of whoever is using it more than any fixed reality. Those who are suspicious of “Islamism” almost always imagine it, along with “The Muslim Brotherhood,” to be some durable transnational network, uniform in its most threatening characteristics wherever it appears.

Yet what was true before the Arab Spring, and what has emerged as even truer since its dismal failure, is that “Islamism” is local in both its shape and appeal. Analysis of Islamist movements continues, very sensibly, to be carried out on a country-by-country basis. This is because it is the ecosystem of the nation-state that continues to play the dominant role in shaping events. Elements of that system include the particular response of a government to Islamist opposition (Morocco’s accommodation of Islamist parties early on in the Arab Spring vs. Egypt’s return to Nasserist liquidation); the particular historical space for political involvement in a country (Kuwait’s relatively open political discourse versus Saudi Arabia’s closed discussions); the particular history of Islamist movements in that country (the Jordanian Brotherhood’s decades of subdued democratic activity versus Yemen’s Islah and its involvement in Yemen’s civil wars); or the impact of foreign policy considerations (for example, how the nationalist-cum-sectarian threat of Iran can trump Saudi Islamists’ objections).

Since the Arab Spring, Islamists, already nationally bound, have remained so. As Steven Brooke notes in his contribution to Brookings’s Rethinking Political Islam initiative: “A defining characteristic of Islamist groups has been their fundamental accommodation to the existence of current states.” He goes on to describe how “Islamist groups participated in political systems, adopted national discourses, and largely subjugated their activism to regime laws.” It is worth noting that this is essentially what distinguishes Jihadists from Islamists. Jihadists are those Muslim actors whose acts of violence proceed from their no longer considering themselves subject either to the regimes controlling the land in which they live or to the monopoly (and hence, accountability) of states on the use of violence.

A great irony since the Arab Spring has been that the truly transnational factors have not been “Islamism” but rather the clumsy and horribly damaging responses by numerous Arab regimes to its perceived threat. [Continue reading…]

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Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the failure of America’s do-nothing policy in the Middle East

Shadi Hamid writes: In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties developed something of an obsession with the role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the Arab world — or, more likely, not supporting it. Islamists were fighting on two fronts: not just repressive regimes, but their international backers as well. The ghosts of Algeria lingered. In January 1992, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), found itself on the brink of an historic election victory — prompting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. In the tense days that followed, FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint to avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. But it was too late. The staunchly secular military aborted the elections, launching a massive crackdown and plunging Algeria into a civil war that would claim more than 100,000 lives.

That authoritarian regimes and activist militaries could count on American and European acquiescence (or even support) — as they did in 1992 — made Arab regimes seem more durable than they actually were, and the task of unseating them more daunting. During the first and forgotten Arab Spring of 2004-5, Algeria repeatedly came up in my interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past, Islamist parties across the region, despite their growing popularity, were careful and cautious. They made a habit of losing elections. In fact, they lost them on purpose. This ambivalence and even aversion to power prevented Islamists from playing the role that opposition parties are generally expected to play. It was better to wait, and so they did.

It’s been almost five years since the start of the Arab Spring, but one conversation still stands out to me, despite (or perhaps because of) everything that’s happened since. Just two months before the uprisings began, Egypt was experiencing what, at the time, seemed like an especially hopeless period. I was in the country for November elections that proved to be the most fraudulent in Egyptian history. After winning an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t permitted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to claim even one seat. But this movement, the mother of all Islamist movements, accepted its fate in stride. “The regimes won’t let us take power,” Hamdi Hassan, the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, told me during that doomed election campaign. What was the solution, then? I asked him. “The solution is in the ‘Brotherhood approach.’ We focus on the individual, then the family, then society.”

“In the lifespan of mankind, 80 years isn’t long,” he reasoned, referring to the time that had passed since the Brotherhood’s founding. “It’s like eight seconds.” [Continue reading…]

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What most people get wrong about political Islam

Shadi Hamid writes: Political scientists, myself included, have tended to see religion, ideology, and identity as “epiphenomenal” — products of a given set of material factors. These factors are the things we can touch, grasp, and measure. For example, when explaining why suicide bombers do what they do, we assume that these young men are depressed about their own accumulated failures, frustrated with a dire economic situation, or humiliated by political repression and foreign occupation. While these are all undoubtedly factors, they are not — and cannot be — the whole story.

But the role, and power, of religion in the modern Middle East is more mundane than that (after all, the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not think about becoming suicide bombers). “Islamism” has become a bad word, because the Islamists we hear about most often are those of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Most Islamists, however, are not jihadists or extremists; they are members of mainstream Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood whose distinguishing feature is their gradualism (historically eschewing revolution), acceptance of parliamentary politics, and willingness to work within existing state structures, even secular ones. Contrary to popular imagination, Islamists do not necessarily harken back to seventh century Arabia.

Why do Islamists become Islamists? There are any number of reasons, and each Brotherhood member has his or her own conversion story or “born-again” moment. As one Brotherhood member would often remind me, many join the movement so that they can “get into heaven.” To dismiss such pronouncements as irrational bouts of fancy is tempting. But, if you look at it another way, what could be more rational than wanting eternal salvation?

Islamists aren’t just acting for this world, but also for the next. Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired organizations aim to strengthen the religious character of individuals through a multi-tiered membership system and an educational process with a structured curriculum. Each brother is part of a “family,” usually consisting of 5 to 10 members, which meets on a weekly basis to read and discuss religious texts. For many members, it is quite simple and straightforward. Being a part of the Brotherhood helps them to obey God and become better Muslims, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of entry into paradise. This belief doesn’t mean that these more spiritually-focused members don’t care about politics; but they may see political action — whether running for a municipal council seat or joining a mass protest — as just another way of serving God. [Continue reading…]

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How my Cairo bookclub changed my view of Islamists

Rabab El-Mahdi writes: In November 2011 during a protest on Mohamed Mahmoud street in downtown Cairo, a friend asked me if I would start a reading group for some politically engaged young people. I answered that I had read and disliked Reading Lolita in Tehran and so had no interest in imitating its protagonist, who had set up a book club in her home and encouraged the members to read and discuss western literature as the means to emancipation. My friend had not understood what I’d meant and so I conceded.

I had expected five people but 15 arrived instead, all in their 20s and early 30s; most of them were what the media and politicians labelled “Islamists”. My label? “Leftist academic and activist.”

We met weekly, reading together Vladimir Lenin, Frantz Fanon, Ali Shariati, Talal Asad, Edward Said and Lila Abu Lughod among others. We talked about Marxism, postcolonial studies, Islam, feminism, resistance and revolution and discussed contemporary politics at length, but as the weeks passed we also cooked together, watched movies, and spoke about their families and love lives.

As a student of postcolonial studies and an Arab woman in western circles, I have often had to confront other people’s assumptions about me, and most of my academic work has been about deconstructing such stereotypes. So I thought myself above labelling, presumptuous conclusions and artificial divisions – until Asmaa, Awatif and Mariam, three stay-at-home mothers, asked to join the group and I was forced to confront my own deeply rooted assumptions. [Continue reading…]

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Can Turkey survive Erdoğan?

Graham E. Fuller writes: On 7 June Turkey’s democratic system will be deeply tested in a fateful parliamentary election; at stake is preservation of rule of law and liberal democracy against an increasingly authoritarian-minded President.

Bottom line: if President Erdoğan’s AKP party is able to win big, the entire system of separation of powers in Turkey will likely reach breaking point. Erdoğan will have gained the carte blanche he seeks to mold, shape and steer the state any direction he wants in a semi-legal form of one man rule. And this comes at a time when his presidency has become ever more erratic, arbitrary, error-prone, corrupt, vengeful and out of touch.

I find it surprising to be writing this. My book published one year ago, “Turkey and the Arab Spring: Leadership in the Middle East,” examined the extraordinary first decade of the AKP party in Turkey under Prime Minister Erdoğan’s leadership. Up until 2011 it may have been the best government Turkey has ever had since it adopted democratic rule in the 1950s. Erdoğan’s successes can be measured in terms of deeper democratization, astonishing economic growth and prosperity, expansion of social services, the successful removal of the military from politics, the forging of an expansive and visionary foreign policy (with new emphasis on independence from failing US policies in the Middle East), and a modern reconsideration of what an Islamic-leaning government can mean in a democratic order. At that time Turkey became the preeminent model of success for a region that possessed little leadership, vision or progress.

A great degree of the credit for Turkey’s foreign policy successes — a huge expansion of the range of Turkish ties, interests and outreach — belongs to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the chief architect of these policies. Under Erdoğan’s AKP Turkey underwent profound, and, I argue, irreversible change in reinventing itself as a major regional power extending its activities and interactions across all of Eurasia, the Middle East, Africa and even into Latin America. Turkey accepted and normalized its Islamic heritage. The AKP had won three successive elections with growing proportion of votes each time — unprecedented in Turkish political history due to broad public satisfaction with the party’s accomplishments.

But it was not to last. After ten years in power, few governments anywhere can remain immune from corruption. [Continue reading…]

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The secularization of Turkey

Mustafa Akyol writes: Since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, Turkey’s “Islamization” has been a recurrent theme in the media. Over the past two years — during which time Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president and AKP leader, has combined increasingly authoritarian rule and an overtly Islamist narrative — this theme has become more common and assumed greater validity. It is often asked whether Turkey is turning into “another Iran,” and most commentators take it for granted that, at the very least, Turkey is becoming more “conservative.” Turkish academic Volkan Ertit, a doctoral candidate focusing on the sociology of religion at Radboud University, in the Netherlands, emphatically argues otherwise.

In his new book, “The Age of Anxious Conservatives: Turkey, That Moves Away From Religion” (Endiseli Muhafazakarlar: Dinden Uzaklasan Turkiye), Ertit presents ample evidence suggesting that the power of religion is actually declining in Turkish society. To Ertit, the “secularization of society” means the decline in the “impact of the individual’s faith in the sacred on the actual conduct of life.” In this regard, he thinks Turkey is certainly on a secularization path. If the trend were toward Islamization, he argues, Turkey should have experienced the following:

  • Increased religiosity among young generations than in older generations
  • Decline in the visibility of homosexuality
  • Decline in the rate of premarital flirtation
  • Decline in the rated of premarital and extramarital sex
  • Increase in the belief in supernatural beings
  • Greater preference for dress that does not reveal body shapes
  • Greater impact of the “sacred” on daily affairs

What one sees in Turkey, however, Ertit says, is the opposite. [Continue reading…]

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Are more Arabs becoming extremists or are extremists becoming more extreme?

Koert Debeuf writes: With the humiliating defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 War against Israel, most non-Islamist ideologies died. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism, socialism and secularism died on the battlefield, as well as the liberalism of his predecessors. The Arab world fell into an identity crisis, opening the way for the only remaining ideology: Islamism or conservative political Islam.

Saudi Arabia used this momentum and its newly gained petrodollars after the oil crisis in 1973 to spread Salafism or Islam without modernity. The Muslim Brotherhood too regained ground. It was founded in 1928, four years after Turkey’s Atatürk abolished the Caliphate. Its main goal was (and continues to be) reinstalling this Caliphate. This could only be achieved by getting rid of the Western-backed Arab dictators.

The Arab revolutions of 2011 were a golden opportunity for the Islamists. Knowing that the young revolutionaries were too unorganized and idealistic, Islamists took the power. The entire Arab World looked to Egypt, where for the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood had the leverage to execute their plan and organize an Islamist society. They miserably failed.

The psychological effect on the Arab World cannot be underestimated. With the exception of Ennahda in Tunisia that moderated its course, but still lost the elections, it turned many Islamists in other Arab Awakening countries more extreme. The failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt convinced them that democracy and Islamism are not the way forward. The Arab World fell into a new identity crisis.

The Islamic State offered one answer to this crisis by going further, reinstalling the Caliphate and abolishing this other European decision, the national borders of the Middle East. It is an appealing project to disillusioned Islamists and adventurers trying to escape from their own personal identity crisis. But after all, the numbers of foreign fighters and supporters are rather small.

Much more important is what is happening to the silent majority in the Arab World. And here the opposite trend slowly starts becoming clear. Fewer taxi drivers place a copy of the Koran visibly in their car. More women are taking off their veil. The young revolutionary generation is also attending prayers at the mosque less often. Most of them only denounce the political Islam preached at many mosques. Others go further and flirt with atheism. The Egyptian government doesn’t like this trend and in Alexandria even a special police taskforce has been created to arrest atheists. [Continue reading…]

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