Having received Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid, I was tempted to merely dismiss the book out of hand, partially due to Hamid’s specific history. He has defended US intervention overseas, most directly in Libya, arguing that US action in the country was legitimate as it was carried out in order to save civilians from a massacre. Unfortunately for Hamid, this is a bad argument to make when observers far closer to the decision making, such as India’s representative to the UN, have disclosed that the intent was regime change, not the protection of civilians.
More problematic is Hamid’s argument itself, in which he looks at the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and asserts that when dealing with democracy, Islam will produce illiberalism. Additionally, that the repression of dictators is the only thing that moderates Islamists – or, more problematically according to his reading – Muslims engaging with politics. If Edward Said was not already dead he could have written Orientalism all over again, just using Hamid’s book as a text. As an Indian reading it, it is hard to not recall British rulers talking of Indians in similar terms, most infamously, Brigadier Dyer, in his cross examination by Chimanlal Setlvad on charges of murdering Indians at Jallianwala Bagh:
I did not like the idea of doing it, but I also realised that it was the only means of saving life and that any reasonable man with justice in his mind would realise that I had done the right thing; it was a merciful though horrible act and they ought to be thankful to me for doing it. I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good and they would realise that they were not to be wicked.
Hamid, a Muslim himself, argues that Islam’s engagement with politics, which comes with an existing template for a “perfect state” based on the example of Prophet Mohammed’s early state, makes it particularly resistant to adopt the terms of a modern state and be both liberal and democratic. There are three major problems with this argument. First and foremost, the early Muslim state fell apart very soon with the second, third and fourth Caliphs all assassinated, the last two assassinations leading to a permanent split in the community. While Sunnis (if not the Shia, Kharajites and many others) at least acknowledge the rule of the first four Caliphs (the Rashidun, or rightly guided), none of the Sunni states have tried to replicate the early Muslim state, one held together by consensus. The caliphate under the Ummayyad and Abbasids quickly became empires in which power was handed down via descent.
If anything, Sunni doctrine (which dominates the Muslim world) have largely been condemned by their Muslim critics (the Shia, Khajarites and others) for being willing to live under rulers who they did not know (or were not sure) were rightly guided. Their willingness to accommodate such rule is – to their critics – one of the Sunnis’ key features. Shia belief, on the other hand, takes for granted that secular rulers are, by definition, flawed, while the imam is in occultation. Ayatollah Khomeini’s idea of vilayat-e-faqih, or rule by clerics, under which Iran is governed, is a new innovation and not widely accepted – his own son rejected it. In other words, the experience and doctrine of Muslims over the last 1,300 years at the least is about living under rulers who were not necessarily religiously revered.
Secondly, as Hamid himself documents in his book, even early advocates of liberalism believed that certain communities could not be a part of liberal democracy. For example, John Locke, the author of A Letter Concerning Toleration, explicitly said Catholics and atheists (heaven forfend) would not abide the rules of liberal democracy. Jews were generally suspect, including by such ‘heroes’ of the Enlightenment as Voltaire, who condemned them and their race in the vilest terms. In India, we have a long history of the British dismissing any thought that suggested Indians were “mature enough” for democracy – an aspect that looks particularly amusing looking at British democracy at this particular moment. The dismissal of certain people not being ready for democracy reflects more on the person making such a statement than the people it talks about.
Thirdly, and lastly, Hamid seems to be a little narrowly read. He ignores Iran, arguing it is not part of the Sunni world, but even if he were looking at the Sunni world, the vast majority of them live in South and Southeast Asia, why are they not discussed? He might also have benefited a little more from reading from the annals of Mughal history. Muzaffar Alam’s The Languages of Political Islam in India c. 1200-1800 would be a good starting point. Of particular reference would have been the Mughal response to the narrow-minded code of the Uzbeks, the Suluk al-Muluk, penned by Fazl-Allah ibn Ruzbihani Isfahani. In this, Ruzbihani rejected as apostates Shia Muslims and others.
As Alam writes,
The Mughals did not simply repudiate Ruzbihani’s code, they went even further and took pride in the fact that followers of different religions lived in peace in their empire. Jahangir (r.1605-27) proudly contrasts this situation with the conditions of intolerance and bigotry that then obtained in territories under the Uzbeks and the Safavids, in Central Asia and Iran, respectively…the followers of all religions (adayan-o-mazahib) lived in peace and performed their rites and social practices freely. And yet the Mughals acted in complete accord with the injunctions of their faith (nusas) (emphasis added).
The root of this idea
While it is easy to dismiss Hamid’s arguments, it is worthwhile to explore the root of this type of thinking. The most influential book of this type, which attributes special ways of thinking to a particular religious community, is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Written, in part, to dispute Karl Marx’s theories of universal dialectical materialism by suggesting cultural forces gave rise to capitalist thinking not material conditions. Weber’s book is based on a series of essays he wrote and presented during his travels to the US in 1904. (It may be useful to point out here, that the US has a long tradition of anti-Catholic sentiment, and has had only one Catholic President in its 241 year history.)
According to Weber the ‘West’ was unique because of its technological and scientific progress, and its ability to subordinate emotion to rationality. (It may be worth noting that Marx was no less Euro-centric, and his nonsense about “Asiatic mode of production” is good old racism is the best/worst tradition.) For Weber, within the West, though, there were communities who were more rational than the rest, in other words, “we are all equal, but some of us are more equal”. The “more equal” were the Protestants, and it was their belief system which allowed them to fully develop as individuals, reject traditionalism and espouse a rational system of self-betterment through profit making, i.e. capitalism.
For these insights, at an age when European colonialism was unchallenged, Weber is lauded for explaining why Protestant Europeans ruled the most powerful empires in the world. He is often also lauded as the “father of modern sociology”, and The Protestant Ethic remains one of the most influential books in the world – although his conclusions are increasingly disputed. Like Hamid, a hundred and ten years after him, Weber attributed far more importance to religious denomination than material conditions. It is up to us, today, whether we want to keep believing that, or whether we have managed to evolve in our thinking just a little further, so that we can ask whether the illiberalism that Hamid describes so well emerges out of broken systems of governance, dictatorships and other forms of despotism which litter the societies he describes so well, or whether the religion of a people that inhabit those polities dismisses them from membership from the club of rational people, as the Catholics were dismissed before them.