Taking Exception to Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism

It takes a brave person to comment on the Middle East, one never knows when a crisis will erupt that threaten to render one’s judgment obsolete. Since first reading Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism [1], Turkey’s AK Party have suffered an attempted failed coup orchestrated by parts of Turkey’s military, and Tunisian Islamists rebranded as Muslim Democrats, events dramatic enough to render chapters from the book out of date. However because Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution and author of the Temptations of Power, is one of the most thoughtful commentators on the Middle East one can be confident that his new book Islamic Exceptionalism [2] will remain relevant longer than most.

The book principally examines four manifestations of Islamism in the Middle East: the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after the coup, An-Nahda party in Tunisia, the AK Party in Turkey, as well including an analysis of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. Hamid regards the Muslim Brotherhood as the original and in a sense the paradigmatic movement of Islamism, treating An-Nahda, and more debatably the AK Party as local examples of Islamist parties accommodating themselves to environments where secularism has been more entrenched. The case studies all feature what is fast becoming a signature style, filled with amusing anecdotes, and insightful remarks. Even when Hamid disagrees, he manages to confer Islamists a dignity often absent in other writer’s accounts, with a sympathetic and sincere attempt to understand Islamists on their own terms. One of the qualities that recommends his writing for both supporters and critics is his honesty; at times it reads less like an argument rebutting objections and more like a liberal conscience wrestling with its own doubts.  Bearing this in mind, we will examine in greater detail Hamid’s argument ‘Islamic Exceptionalism’ the controversial claim that Islam is exceptional compared to other religions in the way that it relates to politics a claim, which if true ought to have profound implications for Western policy makers.

Reading policy papers one detects a certain impatience with the multiple crises that are affecting the
Islamic world; the calls demand why can’t Islam just ‘reform’?, when will Islam secularise?, when will Islam become as peaceful as some of its followers claim it to be?, or at least become a normal religion not needing the intervention of outside powers. Even supposing that the Islamic world must go through a bloody struggle to achieve the Reformation it sorely needs, so the argument goes, why should we in the West have to shed the precious blood of our soldiers because of the crazed fanaticism of Islam’s followers? So whilst the Islamic Exceptionalist argument may sound curious, after all the claim that one religion is unique sounds more appropriate in the books of theology, perhaps Hamid tired of hearing such sentiments prevail in foreign policy circles, with some these attitudes going all the way up, decides to challenge these assumptions once and for all. Indeed, we may be witnessing an attempt to reconfigure the conceptual framework by which the Western foreign policy elite views the Middle East, an attempt to present a new paradigm if you will, provoked by the reality of foreign policy elite being so unreflectively in the grip of another.

Before we consider the Islamic Exceptionalist argument in detail we find it composed of two parts: firstly, his treatment of Islam’s alleged ‘exceptionalism’, and secondly given this exceptionalism, the claim that Islam has a unique resistance to secularism compared to other religions. Let us begin by examining what Hamid means exactly by ‘exceptionalism’.

Senses of ‘Exceptionalism’

So how does Hamid demonstrate that Islam is uniquely different with respect to politics? A number of arguments (see this for a brief taster) are presented giving prominence to: a) the fact that religion and politics was intertwined at Islam’s ‘founding moment’, and; b) the belief in Quranic inerrancy i.e. that the Quran is the actual Word of God and therefore cannot be false, and finally; c) the importance of adhering to the Sharia (Islamic Law) in the life of a Muslim.

Hamid notes that given the historical reality of Prophet Muhammad’s life as a state builder and politician, combined with the claims of the Quran as Divine Guidance, his political actions would by necessity have to be accounted for in the Quran. The running Quranic commentary of Prophetic actions combined with the centrality of Muslim beliefs in Quranic inerrancy, Hamid argues could account for Islam’s distinctive attitude toward governance not found in other religions. He further points out that Muslims traditionally believed that salvation was found in following the law, and many aspects of Islamic law necessitates a state to enforce them, for example the collection and distribution of Zakah (the alms tax) amongst others. The role of the state also had a further role in ‘enjoining the good and forbidding the evil’, in other words a collective duty to encourage, maintain and preserve various communal goods.

But even if all this true the question remains; how can Hamid justify his claim that Islam is exceptional with respect to other religions? It’s worth pointing out much of Hamid’s argument of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’ depends very much on what he means by the term, there being at least two readings that can be discerned.

a) Islam is different – in the way that all religions are different – what I will call the ‘difference’ argument

b) Islam is different – Islam is uniquely different from all religions – what I will call the ‘exceptionalist’ argument

The claim that Islam is different is a rather mild and inoffensive statement – after all religions are by nature different. The important thing would be then to explain not that Islam is different but exactly how it is so and how this difference manifests and what it entails. On the other hand, a claim of exceptionalism raises more urgent questions.

In ordinary usage, any claims of Islamic ‘exceptionalism’ would need to claim more than just a different religion; there is a suggestion that to some extent Islam is uncommonly unique in comparison to other religion – somehow sui generis. Putting it another way, it suggests that while all religions are different; Islam is more different than others, even if Hamid puts a caveat in and qualifies it with ‘only in this particular aspect’ by which he means politics.

So, what kind of supportive arguments are needed for each claim? Well the distinctive argument would perhaps suffice with a scholarly historical treatment of political positions within the Islamic tradition, with say, a in comparison or in contrast to Western ideas of politics. So in amidst remarks pointing out the overlaps and homogenising effects of modernity, as an advocate of difference one would expect Hamid to note the idiosyncrasies of each tradition. The most consistent theme we would expect, would be for Hamid to undermine any kind of universal template whether Islamic or Western. And to his credit this indeed what we find, although unfortunately for Hamid he does not stop there.

The ‘exceptionalist argument’ on the other hand would need to demonstrate more than just ‘difference’. Instead we would expect a framework that could demonstrate this claim of exceptionalism in an objective manner. But this would not be an easy matter, if all religions claim to be different to be able to successfully show how one religion was objectively different than others would be no small feat. And credit to Hamid’s ambitiousness and bravado, these are the kinds of arguments we find.

The Islamic Exceptionalist argument suffers then, from being open to two very different senses of exceptionalism and making no distinction between them. The confusion is exacerbated by the fact that he supplies warrants for both versions of the argument. If Hamid was in fact intending the more modest claim of difference, then unfortunately he hasn’t done a good enough job to rule out the ‘exceptionalist’ misreading. Given that I do not dispute the ‘difference’ version, we will concentrate our energies on the exceptionalist reading.

On the use and abuse of Founding Moments

As has been previously stated earlier, while the claim that ‘all religions are different’ is relatively uncontroversial; the claim that ‘one religion is uniquely different’, on the other hand is not. For the latter claim to be defensible, it would need to supply a more demanding type of support. One way of doing so would be to supply a comparative framework underpinned by some said independent criteria that could objectively, or in as objective manner as possible at least, demonstrate any alleged exceptionalism. And indeed this is what we find, for whilst Hamid does not make mention of terms such as independent criteria or comparative framework, his argument employs concepts such as ‘founding moments’ and ‘resources’ when comparing Islam and other religions.

The concept of the ‘founding moment’ appeals to the reasonable idea that any religion’s founder has an inescapable influence on his or her religion. The novelty of the idea is that it claims a founder’s statements and actions creates certain bounds that confines the amount to which a religion can change, and this influence being inescapable. Putting it differently, a founder’s influence limits a religion’s ability to acquire or shed certain attitudes after the founder has passed away and the ‘founding moment’ has ended.

To be clear, Hamid is not stating that a founder’s statements or actions correspond to a religion’s positions as in a one-to-one correspondence, for example he notes that a religion’s attitude towards governance can change historically and often does. Instead he argues that religions have certain attitudes to various aspects of life that are determinative, and the extent to which they are determinative depends on the founder’s influence that constrains a religion’s ability to change once the founder has passed away. If for instance a religion’s founder has made certain positions explicit, this would limit the amount with which a religion can change over time with regards to this position and would therefore be less susceptible to historical change or developments afterwards.

Accordingly then, Muslims believe that God revealed His Divine Speech to Muhammad in the form of the Quran and furthermore Muhammad was a statesman and politician from the very beginning. Hamid claims that because of the Quranic commentary of Muhammad’s political acts, in conjunction with the Islamic belief in Quranic inerrancy, this has limited Islam’s ability to shed the importance that it places in ‘governance’. It would follow then, that the inability of Muslims to escape their founding moment can account for why Islam has a very different attitude towards governance compared to other religions and can explain why it has found it easier to resist secularism than them.

On the other hand, Hamid argues that whilst Jesus, the founder of Christianity, could be read as political figure, his views on politics and state are not easily discernible and for centuries after his passing there was little to no positive political vision from theological authorities. And even if the Roman Catholic Church later acquired certain positive views on governance, Hamid argues that such political positions are contingent and not essential to its doctrine. In further support of this he could argue that the Church’s contemporary position after the Second Vatican is different to the position from the one that prevailed in the medieval era.

According to Hamid then, a comparison of the respective ‘founding moments’ of Islam and Christianity can account why Christianity in comparison to Islam has a less developed position towards governance, and explain why any later views acquired by Christianity were not considered essential to its doctrine and it found them easier to rescind. By contrast, Islam’s more developed governance position meant that it found it easier to resist secularism than Christianity. To sum, Hamid argues that the ‘founding moments’ are crucial to assess the relative distinctiveness of a religion’s ability to acquire or shed attitudes, specifically, attitudes towards politics and governance.

If Hamid is correct, he has not only demonstrated the uniqueness of Islam’s attitude towards governance, but he has also supplied an independent criterion with which one could demonstrate the distinctiveness of one religion against the particularity of others, thereby objectively demonstrating Islam’s Exceptionalism. But is such a criteria as independent as Hamid thinks it to be? To find out let us consider some ways it would fail to be independent and then examine whether Hamid has avoided these pitfalls.

While theological accounts can be open about their creedal allegiance, comparative religious framework wishing to claim impartial scholarly authority, would have to avoid criteria that favour one religion over another. Hamid must avoid adopting biased criteria steeped in religious or ethnocentric criteria while purporting to be neutral and therefore authoritative academic description, the phenomena that Edward Said described as orientalism [3].

While there are cursory references to other religions, the main religion that Islam is compared to is Christianity, and it must be said that Hamid’s presentation of governance attitudes in Christianity is rather one-sided and dubious. Even if contemporary theologians are more in agreement to what ought to be the correct governance position, we need to distinguish between what the correct position is, a matter of theological inquiry, and what constitutes an historically accurate presentation of Christian governance positions.

Historically there has been a wide variety of Christian theological positions on governance, and it’s not easy to make out which is the correct one by way of historical enquiry. Whilst there has been criticism regarding Papal Power before the Reformation (see Hus, Wycliffe, and Ockham, for example), this does not mean that the correct opinion is that Papal Power is only contingent to Christian religion; instead it only reveals the extent to which our views on the proper domains of religion have been fashioned by post-Reformation influences. After all it took the Catholic Church until the Second Vatican to come to such a decision and that was held only 60 years ago, and before that we’ve had over thousand years of theologians seeing things rather differently. I find it hard to see how such a body of opinions can be so easily dismissed, and difficult not to come away with the conclusion that more inconvenient views have been dismissed only because they fail to affirm the conception of Christianity that supports Hamid’s point of view. Furthermore, while it’s safe to say that his presentation of Christian views of governance is not historically accurate, either of the Catholic church let alone Christianity, it is rather bemusing to see Hamid, an outsider to that tradition, either unwittingly advocating a certain theological point, or adjudicating between theological dispute within a tradition. One imagines that St. Thomas Aquinas, would be rather nonplussed to hear his views – previously considered the views of orthodoxy – discounted as incongruous with Christian ideas of governance, especially by a non-Christian outsider!

Even more fatal for the founding moment concept, is that there is no religion that emphasises the importance of founding moments in limiting new beliefs and practices and holding fast to them like Islam [4]. As far as I know, alone amongst other world religions, only Islam treats its formative moments as a normative basis to judge the desirability of a belief or an action. However while it may be true that Islam is more determinate relative to other religions with regards to governance, this is not equivalent to saying that other religions are not able to acquire similar attitudes towards governance. Other religions can and do change their attitudes and they often regard these changes as part of their historical development. If a religion possesses the ability to acquire a similar, if not the same, attitude towards governance, then the significance that Hamid places on founding moments to limit a religion may simply not be relevant. Putting it another way, other religions may simply not work that way.

But there is more to be said here. The very fact that the Papacy was once in power proves that Christianity has an ability to acquire attitudes that may be different from those which Jesus held. Consequently the fact that the Roman Catholic Church later renounced such attitudes in the Second Vatican, would seem to prove that Christianity has the ability to lose attitudes as well. It would seem that the Church has the resources to acquire and lose attitudes. If so, why should we rule out the possibility that it may once again acquire attitudes that it once held, including perhaps those related to governance. Now while we may believe this to be highly unlikely, for the sake of the argument were one to adopt a certain scepticism towards the liberal arc of history or the arrow of progress, then presumably given enough tumultuous and traumatic circumstances it is difficult to rule out the possibility that the Church could reacquire analogous governing attitudes once again. So, whilst a governance attitude may be unique to Islam right now, history may suggest that we cannot rule out that other religions, Christianity for example, will not reacquire governance attitudes which may threaten any alleged claim of Islam’s uniqueness.

The ‘founding moment’ argument doesn’t really work then because Christianity does not work in the way that Islam does. It would seem then that other religions are more plastic and can change attitudes easier than Islam. Christianity as we have seen has the ability to acquire, rescind and possibly reacquire certain attitudes towards governance. To preclude the acquisition of attitudes only because it was not part of Christianity’s founding moment attitude therefore misunderstands Christianity. Given the importance Hamid places on the limiting aspects of founding moments, this would seem to be an instance of evaluating another religion with criteria that only Islam takes as normative. We can conclude that any reliance of founding moment as an independent criterion is not only inadequate, but is an example of a comparative framework underpinned by criteria emphasised by one religion alone, and it would appear that Hamid seems to have unwittingly fallen into reverse-orientalism.

Questioning the Secular as Default

Hamid’s thesis further argues that Islam’s alleged ‘exceptionalism’ has led it to having a distinctive engagement towards secularism, an engagement he characterises as being a successful resistance towards secularism. But here again Hamid’s argument falls into ambiguity and there seems to be at least two versions of the argument: firstly, that secularism is a default experience of Modernity that Islam alone seems to be resisting; and the second, there is no reason why Islam should follow the secularising path of Christianity. These arguments are not equivalent to each other, but instead two separate theses with different bases of evidence.

To put it crudely the secularisation thesis argues that modernity is a uniquely transformative experience in human development with interconnected number of processes that has transformed different aspects of human societies with varying degrees of change [5]. One of the most important part of these changes is that the role of religion is no longer as central as it once was and we are witnessing the slow but ineluctable decline and marginalisation of religion. The thesis argues that this decline has already been demonstrated in the change and undeniable decline in Christianity, with the thesis taking Christianity’s experience as its normative religious encounter.

On this point Hamid wonders, why should we assume that Islam should follow Christianity’s secularising trajectory? But this is where confusion begins, as there at least three different senses what this could mean. Consider the following possible versions:

I. The Exceptionalist argument – why should we automatically assume that Islam should follow Christianity’s path? Islam uniquely has not followed Christianity, unlike other religions.

II. The Distinctive argument – why should we automatically assume that Islam should follow Christianity’s path? Islam is a very different religion from Christianity, it will have its own distinctive engagement with secularism.

III. The Distinctive argument extended – why should we automatically assume that Islam should follow Christianity’s path? All religions are different and all religions will have their own distinctive engagement with secularism.

This latter version is one worth expanding on. Why should we accept Christianity’s secularisation as the normative trajectory for all religions? After all, some religions including Islam, could be better at either resisting or embracing secularisation than Christianity. Putting it differently, perhaps each religion will have unique and distinctive experience of secularity and we should not take Christianity as standard?

As is probably clear, it is the latter version I favour and I am a bit surprised why Hamid doesn’t seem to agree. If Hamid is prepared to accept that religions can be distinctive, why does he limit this distinctiveness to Islam? One would think that if we can assume that each religion is distinctive then its experience of secularisation would be correspondingly unique. How can we justify Hamid’s limitation that Islam alone will not follow Christianity’s trajectory? The only reason I can think of, is that Hamid accepts the premise that religions typically secularise and Islam is atypical and distinctive in not doing so. In this formulation at least, Islam’s failure to secularise demands an explanation. Accordingly, Hamid accounts Islam’s resistance because of its distinctive attitude towards governance. It would follow then that in so far as Hamid is right, if Islam did not have such a distinct attitude, then Islam along with other religions would secularise as well.

On the other hand, if all religions are distinctive would it not be unreasonable to assume that the peculiarity of each religious tradition would lead to correspondingly different engagements with secularisation, or putting it in Hamid’s usage, resisting or surrendering secularisation in their own ways. A more interesting question would be to ask, why should we expect that all religions to follow the same secularising trajectory as Christianity? In questioning such assumptions, it recalls how much we take for granted that the secularisation thesis, like other modernisation theories, derives much of its empirical warrant from taking the historical development of Christianity as normative.

Expressing in this manner has the further advantage of putting the onus on those who subscribe to the secularisation thesis to provide the empirical warrant to show whether Islam and other religious traditions are secularising in the same way that Christianity has? And if these religious traditions are indeed secularising how exactly are they doing so; are they all secularising in the same way, or are some religious traditions secularising more than others? Now while some may decry these questions as evidence of an over politically correct culture, or the generated by confused post-colonial theorists, or perhaps in more hyperbolic terms as evidence of the decline of the West; they are scholarly questions that worth examining. Instead of asking whether Islam is distinctive, pace Hamid, we need to re-examine whether indeed the historical development of Christianity ought to be taken as the normative religious encounter of modernity and its encounter as typical for all religions.

Arguably it would seem then that Hamid while correctly questioning Christianity as the normative religious encounter of modernity, has too readily imbibed and reiterated the secularisation thesis, with only a placeholder exception for Islam.  It would be more consistent, not only to question Christianity as a normative encounter for Islam, but question Christianity’s role as a normative encounter for all religions. If we were to do so, we would naturally question whether the secularisation thesis is as uniform or even correct as has hitherto been advocated.

Exceptionalism or Multiple Modernities?

Something that strikes many Western tourists as odd, especially visitors from Europe, is the importance that the rest of the world still place in religion; in some parts of the world not only has religion not died, religion does in fact flourish. If different religious traditions do interact in their own distinctive ways; then perhaps we should not find it surprising that given Islam’s distinctive governance attitudes, that Muslims, to a greater or smaller extent, demand a relatively greater role of religion in public life. Perhaps we are asking the wrong question: instead of wondering whether Islam is the exception or that Christianity’s secularising encounter is normative, perhaps we need to examine whether our confidence in the secularisation thesis is misplaced.

Robert Bellah masterfully summarises Charles Taylor’s recent classic A Secular Age, stating that Taylor gives us reason to think there are at least three separate theses of secularity, “Secularity 1: the expulsion of religion from sphere after sphere of public life; Secularity 2: the decline of religious belief and practice. … Secularity 3: “the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual” that make it possible to speak of ours as a “secular age.” But as Taylor himself notes, the secularisation thesis only works as applied to the West, and even then the American enthusiasm for religion complicates things. It would be difficult to argue that the Islamic world has followed Western trajectory in the same way; Islam is certainly different if not exceptional in its resistance to secularism.

But this puzzlement is perhaps due, only because we have too readily assumed that the West is the petri dish of humanity. Perhaps our overreliance on the West as a normative experience of mankind has led to conclusions formed of inadequate empirical warrant and too quickly subscribing to the globalising and uniform nature of secularisation thesis. This would certainly chime with with conclusions reached by José Casanova, one of the greatest contemporary scholars of religion who persuasively argues that “[i]t is time to abandon the Euro-centric view that modern Western European developments, including the secularisation of European Christianity, are general universal processes”. He continues that “[t]he more one adopts a global perspective the more it becomes obvious that the drastic secularisation of Western European societies is a rather exceptional phenomenon.”

Casanova does not in fact deny that secularisation has not occurred or that it’s a real historical process, though of course contested. He even takes for granted that it’s an appropriate and useful analytical category, but he specifies that secularisation is more useful to understand Western European Christianity. As he puts it secularisation is a “category that makes sense within the context of the particular internal and external dynamics of the transformation of Western European Christianity from the Middle Ages to the present.” Where he has qualms with secularisation, is when such western phenomena become generalised as a totalising process of universal societal development that attempts to understand other religion and civilisations with very different dynamics, relations and tensions between religion and the world. Casanova argues that holding onto the traditional theory of secularisation merely “reassures modern secular Europeans and global cosmopolitans, including sociologists of religion, that this collapse was natural, teleological and quasi-providential”, and he continues “it turns the theory into a self-fulfilling prophecy”. By contrast, he argues that it is Western secularisation that needs explanation.

Casanova argues that people’s belief in secularisation began to spread to large sectors of population, including the Christian churches themselves, who all began to accept one of its basic premises; “that secularisation is a teleological process of modern social change; that the more modern a society the more secular it becomes; that ‘secularity’ is a sign of the times.” Only once this notion had widely spread did secularisation become a self-fulfilling prophecy [6]. He continues that if this argument is correct then “the secularisation of Western European societies can be explained better in terms of the triumph of the knowledge regime of secularism, then in terms of structural processes of socioeconomic development such as urbanization, education, rationalization, etc.”

Now even as Casanova suggests we ought to discard secularisation theory, he instead recommends the great Israeli scholar Shmuel Eisenstadt’s ‘Multiple Modernities’ as an alternative and more suggestive analytic framework to understand the contemporary world. The late Eisenstadt argued that the modern world is better explained as the story of various world civilisations that on the base of core religious traditions and their respective political and cultural programmes, generate multiple modernities and paths of modernisation.

Whilst it ought to be recognised that multiple modernities research programme is not without difficulties and its criticisms are not to be sniffed at; multiple modernities misunderstands modernisation theory, having ‘civilisations’ as the basic unit of analysis it’s difficult not to succumb to cultural essentialism, its usage of modernity is so loose and inclusive as to lose any sort of coherence. But even if these criticisms are true, Hamid’s arguments are equally susceptible to them as well. Arguably then, by questioning the extent to which modernity and westernisation are identical, the multiple modernities research program provides a more consistent and stronger sociological framework than Hamid’s Exceptionalist thesis in undermining the dogma that the Western secular experience ought to be taken as a touchstone trajectory by other civilisations.

But there is another point that’s worth making; even supposing Hamid is correct in his claim that the Islamic tradition encounters modernity differently, this is not necessarily equivalent to the claim that Islam is truly ‘exceptional’ with regards to secularisation. For it is one thing to claim that Islam has hitherto been resistant secularism because Muslims hold certain traditional beliefs, and another to claim that the Islamic tradition is normatively resistant to secularism because of its beliefs. There is no reason to suggest that the way Muslims hold these traditional beliefs may not in fact change; in the future it may be that these very traditional beliefs may be considered compatible with versions of secularism without seeming inconsistency [7].

The larger point is of course that beliefs about secularism are not held in isolation but in a set of beliefs, or putting it another way, beliefs are mediated through a tradition and traditions can and do change even as the same-said tradition purport to be stable. So, whilst today it may seem obvious to the generality of Muslims that various beliefs make Islam incompatible with secularism, it may be the case that in future, perhaps due to world changing effects, the efforts of Islamic scholars, or who knows even liberal outreach, there is no reason to rule out the possibility of a more secular understandings of Islam arising. So, while Hamid may rightly claim that most Muslims in the past held fast to an understanding of religious tradition that considered secularism and certain beliefs as incompatible, it may be the case that future more secular understandings of religious tradition may arise, and that more secular understandings are held by Muslims without defensiveness and without them being regarded as compromising mainstream Muslim beliefs. It may even be the case that they have already arisen and are more widely spread amongst Muslims than hitherto noticed! This should only remind us to be careful of not ruling out versions of secularisms that do not easily fit into more ‘absolute’ Western categories of secularisation, nor of being blind to more secular friendly understandings of Islam. After all it has been noted by scholars of religions, for instance Talal Asad in his Formations of the Secular, how complicated and nuanced the issue of secularism has been in the history of both Christianity and Islam.

In this respect the multiple modernities has a further advantage that just as it does not readily assume Western forms of secularisation, it does not rule out and preclude Islam generating different forms of secularisation per se. In this regard, Nader Hashemi suggests, in an article fittingly titled ‘Muslim Multiple Modernities’, that the Muslim world could generate what Western world may regard as an idiosyncratic indigenised version of secularisation(s) relative to more ‘classical’ Western versions of secularism. With a nod to Eisenstadt, Hashemi argues that while “one model does not fit the entire world, especially when it comes to reconciling the deep tensions and contractions between religion, secularism, and democracy … and [such an observation] should be kept in mind as we attempt to understand the unfolding events of the Arab Spring and the unique path of democratic development that Muslim societies are currently traversing.” If Hashemi is correct, then insofar as its correct to assume that Islam may indeed resist the secularising tendencies of modernity, this does not mean we can rule out the appearance of an indigenised version, or even multiple versions, of secular forms of Islam.

– – –

Islamic Exceptionalism is a much richer book than I have given credit for and it’s full of ideas which I have not explored here but have often made me ponder. While I have not commented on the links between the exceptionalism that Hamid argues for and the Islamist case studies that follows it, he obviously believes and hopes that were Western policy makers to accept the exceptionalism of Islam, then they may be more supportive of democratic Islamist movements in their efforts to consolidate democracy within their country. But even if Hamid is wrong in arguing that Islam is exceptional, it is safe to say, that Islam is different enough to suggest that the support these Islamist movements currently enjoy will not easily dissipate. In as far as this is correct however, the popular support Islamists enjoy depends on a particular and historic understanding of their religions, an understanding of Islam that currently holds secularism and its governance beliefs as being incompatible. If this is true then there is no reason to dissuade policy makers that persuading Muslims to embrace more secular friendly understandings of religion is not the way forward, and who knows that may one lead to Muslims embracing secularism once and for all. For all those holding out for a kind of Reformation that would lead to an Islam adopting similar governance views similar to Christianity, it would seem then, there is nothing in Islamic Exceptionalism to suggest that Islam’s future is still not up for grabs.

To my mind the greatest value of Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism is that in pondering upon Islam’s resistance towards secularism, he reveals the ambiguity, tensions and inconsistencies that riddle our ideas of ‘secularity’. It is no small achievement; what people has determined to be proper role of religion and the proper extent of secularity has real effects in the world. We know that operating versions of secularity have justified numerous coups and revolutions, and earnt the support from external powers that many of these seizures of power have relied on.

Following on from his discussion, and made in the same spirit, it must be acknowledged that some of the observations in our discussion of secularisation are controversial; how can they not be seeking as they do, to overturn fundamental premises we have imbibed since childhood? Even if they are ultimately wrong, the arguments demand us to reconsider our own comfortable concepts of secularity, and reexamine the extent and uniformity of secularisation throughout the world. If having done so, we find that the influence which we have so readily assumed are exaggerated or misplaced, then perhaps we may have to suspend our Enlightenment sympathies and set aside the unconscious confidence that as Westerners we have placed in the secular, to ask: to what extent the secularity we demand from other religions including Islam is informed by sociological dogmas as opposed to evidence, and to what extent is it informed by our own political ideology? If indeed it is the latter, perhaps we ought to further ponder how appropriate it is for us to impose these very conceptions of secularity onto the rest of the world.


Faheem Hussain is an education professional, having taught a variety of subjects including teaching History, Citizenship, and Religious Studies amongst others. He speaks four languages and obtained his BA Arabic and Islamic Studies (Hons.) from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, a PGCE in Religious Studies from Roehampton University, and a MA Philosophy at Heythrop College, London. He tweets at @FaheemHus, and blogs occasionally at Some Thoughts.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of MENA etc.

[1] Full disclosure: Hamid cites my essay ‘Egypt’s Liberal Coup’ in the book.

[2] Some of the more interesting reviews of the book have been written by Razib Khan, William Armstrong, Adam Weinstein and Murtaza Khan. For those interested this academic debate hosted by Middle East Institute featuring Nathan Brown, Hassan Mneimneh, Sumaiya Hamdani as well as Shadi Hamid is well worth watching.

[3] Although Aijaz Ahmed’s ‘Orientalism and After’ is worth reading.

[4] The only exception that I can think of is Orthodox Church and even they distinguish between politics and core theology – see Timothy Ware’s readable introduction The Orthodox Church.

[5] For a good introduction see this How Have the Modernization and Secularization Theses Shaped the Study of IR? by Metin Koca.

[6] I wonder if this only begs the question: if a civilisation, or large portions of it, believes that secularisation is not inevitable, what would happen then?

[7] To be fair to Hamid he only rules out this prospect in the short-medium term.