Magazine | September 26, 2016, Issue

Defining Democracy Down

Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam Is Reshaping the World, by Shadi Hamid (St. Martin’s Press, 320 pp., $26.99)

On July 15, a cabal of rogue officers attempted to overthrow the Turkish government. Had the putschists been staunch secularists, the bloody fiasco would have confirmed the thesis of author Shadi Hamid’s new book: The failure of democracy to take root in the Islamic world is owing not to the election of Islamists but to the panic their ascent to power prompts among secularists, who react by staging coups.

But these coup plotters were not secularists — or, at least, no one in Turkey thinks they were. What precisely happened is still opaque, but Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, often described as an Islamist, is certain that the coup was staged by Islamists of a rival camp — loyalists of the preacher Fethullah Gulen. All of Turkey’s politicians and parties, including the main opposition party — the “secular idiot elites,” in the words of one of Hamid’s interlocutors — agree that Gulenists were to blame. All offered their immediate, wholehearted support to Turkey’s elected Islamist government.

Hamid notes that Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party, or AKP, calls itself a conservative party, not an Islamist one, and while it is the party favored by the pious, it has not behaved in power as if its primary political goal were the Islamization of Turkish society. After its victory in 2002, the AKP presented itself as a faithful advocate of secularism. The story then becomes complicated, with Erdogan growing increasingly power-mad. But Hamid barely skims the surface of this story. I was living in Istanbul throughout the period he discusses and so had a front-row seat. His treatment of Turkey is shallow, and readers might conclude from it — erroneously — that a struggle between Islamism and secularism was that period’s central conflict, which was not the case.

Turkey no longer has a secularist power center and an Islamist power center, as Hamid seems to believe. What it has are two significant Islamist power centers: the AKP and the Gulen movement. The latter is an international network of schools, businesses, and media outlets led by the septuagenarian preacher Fethullah Gulen. He has tens of thousands of followers — some estimates place their numbers as high as 5 million — who have for decades sought to replace secularist cadres in the Turkish state with their own. They took advantage of the political opening afforded them by the AKP’s election to accelerate the pursuit of their own long-term goal of covertly capturing the state.

For about a decade, the AKP and the Gulen movement formed an alliance of convenience aimed at dislodging the establishment. To a large extent, the fictional narrative of a “liberalizing Turkey” — widely accepted in the West and accepted, it seems, by Hamid too — was a creation of the Gulen movement, which cultivated Western journalists and politicians and spoon-fed them this story. In reality, much of the liberalization the West applauded had taken place before the AKP came to power, and not much that Westerners would describe as “liberalization” took place afterward; Erdogan very quickly embarked on a program to silence dissent and arrogate to himself the spoils of power. The Gulenists eagerly cooperated. By 2012, the better part of the secularist old guard had been sent to prison or silenced for fear of arrest. Turkey’s two Islamist power centers then turned on each other — and that, not a struggle between Islamists and secularists, is the recent history of Turkey.

The rest of the book is similarly confused, but we must note, in fairness, that the subject is confusing. It has been five years since the Arab Spring began — five years of chaos, coups, repression, terrorism, and war. American policy toward the region has vacillated between support for the ideal of democracy, dismay upon discovering that democracy brings Islamists to power, and drone warfare. No one really understands our policy toward the region, and it is not clear that we actually have one.

We must begin, Hamid suggests, by understanding that Islam is different from the other major monotheisms, particularly in its conception of the relationship between religion and the state. For both theological and historical reasons, he holds, it is uniquely resistant to secularization. He alludes throughout to “observers” and an “international community” who have failed to understand this. He argues against “liberal determinists” who Whiggishly believe that history marches inexorably toward a secular, rational, liberal, and democratic end, and who believe that therefore, in time, the Islamic world will arrive at the same secular terminus. His case is sincere, but does anyone actually believe the contrary?

I suspect not. That Whiggish view of history was last held in earnest in 1989. It would be astonishing if the news that Islam matters and is different from other religions came as a surprise to readers now — after 15 uninterrupted years of war. “It has become unfashionable to suggest that Islam is in any way unique,” he writes. It has?

But why, precisely, is it different? Hamid’s answer: It is different because its founding moment was profoundly unlike that of the other major monotheisms. Mohammed was not only a prophet but a warrior, merchant, state-builder, and ruler. Jesus, in contrast, was a “dissident against a reigning political order,” and this prepared Christians — ultimately, at very long last — to draw a distinction between the realm of faith and the realm of politics. 

Moreover, he notes, Muslims believe that salvation is impossible without adherence to the law, unlike Christians, many of whom believe in salvation through faith alone. Judaism, he argues, is more akin to Islam, given the vast corpus of halakhic law, but so long were the Jews in exile that minority status and deference to secular law became inextricable from their culture. In contrast, from the time of Mohammed to the dissolution of the caliphate in 1924, Sunni Muslims, at least, enjoyed an uninterrupted period of legitimate Islamic political order. (The Shiites receive almost no mention in the book, a strange omission given its ambitious aims.)

This suggests to Hamid that efforts to drive Islamist movements out of power are hopeless. He can envision no stable, liberal, democratic, and secular future for the Islamic world; at best, the state-centric order will be preserved, and this will be preferable to chaos. But for the Westphalian system to survive, he argues, Islam, and even Islamism, may be necessary to legitimize it. Driving these movements out of politics will only doom these states to civil conflict. In his view, then, post–Arab Spring states erred in trying to marginalize Islamist parties. If decades of eradicationist policies, such as Syria’s toward the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to stamp out these ideas, it is because they can’t be stamped out. Demonizing and marginalizing Islamists who attempt to work within state structures “threatens to radicalize them,” he writes, not so much toward terrorism — although that, too — but toward revolution against the state.

This conclusion will please Islamists and anti-Muslim bigots alike — both groups view Muslims who understand their religion to be a private matter rather than a political program as theologically confused, or too few in number to count — although this presumably was not Hamid’s intention. His view might also be used to justify squalid equivocation about human rights. Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, where he works in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World. Until recently, he was the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. The Brookings Institution receives a substantial amount of its funding from Qatar, which in the wake of the Arab Spring made itself unpopular in Egypt and elsewhere by backing the Muslim Brotherhood. A book such as this is not a purely academic exercise; it is meant to influence U.S. policy. Hamid studied at Georgetown; he worked at the State Department; he was the director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy: Someone is surely going to try to put his ideas into practice. And while Hamid is not precisely an apologist for the Muslim Brotherhood, he does come awfully close.

He has assiduously cultivated access to Islamists so as better to understand what they believe, and attempted sympathetically to represent their views, so more-secular Muslims in the region fear that he is in fact an Islamist. The book might easily be taken as an argument for dismissing the well-founded concerns of those in the region who see nothing but danger in the legitimization of Islamist politics. His is part of a larger case for “engagement” with Islamist movements and parties that has been discussed in American foreign-policy circles for more than a decade. The Turkish journalist Nuray Mert called this trend “democracy bon pour l’Orient,” and democracy that’s “good enough for the Orient” sounds uncomfortably like what Hamid is proposing here.

Mert has every reason to resent foreign pundits and policymakers who throw up their hands and decide that the region will have to “live with” Islamist governance. Who are we to decide this? It would be regrettable if the United States ceased even meekly to defend the value of liberal democracy in the belief that the Islamic world is uniquely incapable of it. The case Hamid has assembled is not strong enough to warrant this conclusion.

It is true, as he says, that many parts of the Islamic world are profoundly illiberal. (For example, some 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims support the death penalty for apostasy.) Illiberalism, he concludes, is, if not an inherent property of Islam, one so widespread that the question makes no practical difference. Hamid adopts a posture of moral detachment: “I have chosen the word ‘exceptionalism’” to characterize Islam, he writes, “in part to avoid casting judgment. Exceptionalism, as I see it, has no intrinsic value in and of itself.” His argument, he insists, is morally neutral. “Islamic exceptionalism is neither good nor bad,” he argues. “It just is.”

But this isn’t so. If Islam is exceptional in the way he describes it, it is bad — unless we empty the words “good” and “bad” of all commonsense meaning. Executing apostates isn’t “neither good nor bad.” It’s bad.

“Islam will need to play a significant role in the forging of political community,” he writes, “particularly where political community is weak. . . . To exclude Islam or to hope for — or worse, impose — a top-down secularism requires yet more violence.” But he fails to acknowledge the converse point: To include Islam or to hope for — or worse, impose — a top-down Islamism also requires yet more violence. It is far from clear that including Islam precludes violence; just ask the Turks, whose parliament was bombed in July.

In the end, if we don’t know what policies are apt to preclude violence, why not stand on principle? Liberal democracy has worked reasonably well for us — and it is a system we can, with a clear conscience, urge others to adopt.

– Claire Berlinski, the author of Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis Is America’s, Too, is crowdfunding a new book, about Europe, titled “Brave Old World.”

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