It is now five years since the Arab Spring started; the turmoil that followed led into regional conflagration. For the past years, pundits and scholars alike have attempted to find an answer to questions: What went wrong? What do Islamists want? Can we generally consider the Arab Spring as a movement for regime change that is doomed to fail, or should we examine each state individually? Is the revolution over? And questions such as how and why some countries endorsed to employ heavy-handed security tactics, while others took delicate measures.
Recently, I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World by Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Hamid tries to provide some answers to these questions by (first) explaining chaos and violence of the Middle East, the rise to the Islamic State or ISIS, cultural divides over some trifling matters like cartoons of Mohammad and how much they really matter to Muslims.
Hamid argues that in order to understand the current turmoil of the Middle East, we need to understand go back to the start of twentieth century when the last caliphate was formally abolished. “Since the caliphate’s dissolution, “Hamid says “The struggle to establish a legitimate political order has raged on, with varying levels of intensity.” At the heart of the struggle, Hamid believes that lies the most basic questions that remain unresolved: “what it means to be citizen and what it means to be a state.”
At the outset of the book, Hamid makes it known that Islam is related to politics - though this is a familiar argument that has often been made by many - and he emphasizes that because of the distinctive relationship between Islam and politics, the separation is unthinkable. In fact he stresses that Islam should play a serious role in political community and strengthen where it finds the weak ones because Hamid believes that excluding religion undermines the social fabric of religious people and results into violence.
On Islam’s reformation, Hamid argues that Islam, by its leniency offered accommodation for changes, especially “Western secular ideas, recasting them as authentic and Islamic.” He shortly illustrates this point in his previous chapter in which he says: “Islam has already had a “reformation” of sorts. Hamid refers to the nineteenth country Islamic modernism movement, which began during the Ottoman Empire. At the forefront of this movement there were three notable figures: Muhammad Abduh, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, and Muhammad Rashid Rida. Perhaps, this is a reaction to those who might wonder why can’t Islam be reformed or when it would be reformed.
The next three chapters are devoted to three case studies where Hamid investigates the inseparability of Islam and politics, and the irreconcilablity of these two with modern nation-state and secularism in general. These three cases are the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état, the Turkish model and domination of power by Turkish president Erdogan, and Tunisia’s Ennahda party to intentionally reduce its prominence on the basis of respecting the national consensus. Hamid explains how Morsi’s series of mistakes provoked a storm of protest against him; something that was not spontaneous, but build on disillusionment, and swiftly deteriorating security in the country. In cases of Turkey and Tunisia, Hamid lucidly describes how these two countries have been a breeding ground of what happens when decades of imposed or forced secularism come to an end and how it looks when Islamic revival superseded.
Similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda in Tunisia, and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Hamid believes that Islamic State is also a modern product of a long-term struggle that goes back to the demise of the Ottoman caliphate. Through interviews and dialogues with close relatives of those who joined the Islamic State, Hamdi tells us that what see know of Islamic State is a result of decades of injustice, subjugation, oppression, humiliation, and disillusionment.
Finally Hamid notes that whatever is happening in the Middle East is natural with all its religious ideology and idiosyncratic Islamic practices. The book ends with a hopeful tone, but not to the degree that we can imagine a road map, or what we can expect to happen in the next decades.