Political Islam in Tunisia: a History of Ennahda and the Tunisian Exception



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A previous version of this article was first published at OpenDemocracy on the 7th of September 2017. This version was published at MENA etc. on the 28th of September 2017.

One of the most interesting books this summer may be a rather innocuous book by Anne Wolf, a leading Tunisia and North Africa specialist. In Political Islam in Tunisia: A History of Ennahda, Wolf, a University of Oxford researcher, presents the hidden history of Ennahda, Tunisia’s main Islamist movement, from the 1960s until the post-revolution present. Before the popular uprisings of 2011 and the overthrow of then President Ben Ali, Ennahda was banned and barely researched. Based on more than four years of field research, and over 400 interviews, as well as access to private archives, Wolf’s account reveals in unprecedented detail one of Tunisia’s most influential political actors. Wolf tracks the evolution of Ennahda’s ideological and strategic orientations within the local turbulence of Tunisia’s political contexts. As the first full history of Ennahda, the book ought to be rightfully lauded as a major contribution to literature on Tunisia, Islamist movements in general, and more broadly political Islam in the Arab world. It is an essential read for anyone who wishes to understand why Tunisia, hitherto at least, remains the last revolution standing from the Arab Spring.

What makes Wolf’s account especially interesting is the tantalising possibility of Ennahda offering a different answer to the question what should be the role of political Islam in the Arab public sphere. Ennahda’s somewhat surprising answer is a claim to a specific Tunisian experience. Despite the claim of a Tunisian exceptionalism, one cannot help but wonder if such a claim belies the possibility of a Muslim democracy that offers a different approach from the failure of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or Turkey’s AK Party, which had been hailed as the first post-Islamist party, but whose increasingly authoritarian turn have dismayed both inside and outside observers.

Wolf is particularly good at distinguishing Ennahda from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which many analysts treat as the paradigmatic Islamist movement. So whilst she notes the peak of Muslim Brothers’ influence in the 70’s, she traces Ennahda’s intellectual heritage back to the reform-minded clerical classes of the recently reopened Islamic university of Zaytouna, who objected to the French colonial penetration in the late 19th century. What emerges is that Ennahda perceives itself as inheriting a dissenting strand of Islam that railed against the official scholarly establishment who were co-opted by the regime who subordinated French colonial interests over those of Tunisia. She notes the parallels between Ennahda and these reformist minded ulama not rejecting modernity, but insistent on providing a modern Islamic alternative. In her retelling, Wolf provides more support for a more ambivalent reading of early Arab modernists not as liberal reformers, who did not want to make Islam more ‘progressive’ as we would see it, but who wanted to articulate an Islam to make it more relevant for the lives of contemporary Muslims.

Tracing Ennahda’s roots as the heirs of a reforming Zaytouna heritage is also important for demonstrating its bona fide Tunisian roots. This serves to undermine the efforts of successive regimes in questioning Ennahda’s Tunisian’s roots, tainting it with the brush of foreign subversion be that from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or of more contemporary relevance Iran or Qatar, depending on the political context. That this demonstration is necessary, speaks not only to the effectiveness of Ben Ali’s propaganda as it does about the abiding power of French Laïcité tradition amidst the powerful and stridently secular elites in Tunisia.

Wolf dismantles Tunisia’s long-standing image as a ‘fortress of secularism’. She notes that whilst the country’s first president Habib Bourghiba vehemently initiated various aggressively secular modernisation drives that included dismantling the traditional religious establishment in Zaytouna and Al-Qayrawan university, the jewels of Islamic scholarship in North Africa, which was later built upon by his successor Ben Ali, this was not embraced by the majority of the public. So whilst the state marginalised political expressions of Islam and successfully profited in utilising an international image of a secular Arab state par excellence, the porosity of such a facade was laid strikingly bare, with Ennahda winning a landslide victory gaining 37 per cent more than the next eight leading parties with only 35%, despite having no grassroots organisation one year before the revolution. And whilst it lost support in the 2014 elections, by becoming the second major party, Ennahda has confirmed that they were here to stay as a major player and will continue to shape Tunisia’s future.

The years of repression that Ennahda suffered during their underground years both under Bourghiba and especially Ben Ali is covered extensively and sympathetically. Ranging from physical deprivation and social isolation to torture whilst in prison, to the harassment and abuse of families of those sent to prison. Despite her measured prose the author doesn’t hesitate to make sharp commentary. For instance, she claims that Ennahda activists have ‘internalised narrative of victimhood’ whilst failing to acknowledge any violence that they may have committed or threatened to commit themselves. While it is easy to dismiss Wolf’s sentiments as somewhat glib, she correctly distinguishes the torture and harassment suffered by Ennahda and the latter’s embrace of victimhood. Even if we may be reluctant to begrudge victims of torture for any resentment towards members of the former regime, it pays to remember however that these activists are negotiating with members of the former regime. It is an awkward pre-condition for Tunisia’s successful post-revolutionary politics, that it must be inclusive and forward looking enough to give elements of the previous regime a stake in the new post-revolutionary status quo, save for the most egregious. Yet reading some of Wolf’s harrowing accounts it must surely feel like the tortured are in negotiations with their torturers. That such sentiments are easier said than done only puts in perspective how difficult the construction of a democratic Tunisia will actually be.

In a field that too often discusses Islamists without allowing them to express themselves, her account relies on hundreds of interviews, and the book successfully reveals the voices of those she writes about. Her account leaves the reader not only wanting more, but also wondering what she has left out. One striking example of the latter is the extent to which her interviewees have insisted on their anonymity. Whilst a hardened Tunisia watcher may amuse themselves trying to guess who or what Ennahda faction the interviewee comes from; a less seasoned observer may wonder how impermanent the political status quo must feel if six years after the revolution so many have chosen to remain anonymous. It is suggestive that activists are wearily hedging their bets, fearful of a possible counter-revolution and any ensuing bloody crackdown.

It’s a salutary reminder of how novel the democratic experiment remains in Tunisia, and that it has yet to establish any political norms beyond a narrow elite. Compare how different such a situation is to Turkey where despite the occurrence of regular military coups acting as correction, the idea is that after a brief interregnum the acknowledged norm is to return to a democratic albeit staunchly secular ideal. Only now after a long history of coups has the idea of coups become gradually unthinkable for the public. It was notable that in 2016 even staunchly secular parties, those who would’ve most benefited from any secular correction, immediately condemned any kind of coup attempt.

The same cannot clearly be said of Tunisia and it puts in perspective why the Ennahda leadership has prioritised economic reconciliation instead of cracking down on crony capitalism so stymieing the economy. Wolf notes that this would envision a freezing of corruption investigations with the promise in return of a capital injection into the economy. The rationale here is clearly not economic but political, in other words, a kind of insurance policy where the idea is that members of the former regime’s business and political elite would be less willing to destabilise a political status quo when it has so much of their capital invested in it. What is striking is that both parties know how much these business and bureaucratic elements are essential to Tunisia’s success, not only because of their capital but because they have monopolised the country’s know-how and business experience. Ennahda’s leadership finds itself in an unenviable position, they have to hold their nose to any repugnance they may feel to any perceived ‘dirtiness’, as they know that the threat of their departure would significantly diminish Tunisia’s post-revolution and may return it to the same economic conditions that incited the revolution in the first place. Furthermore, they know they are not the only ones courting them, and that significant external backers are prowling and would like nothing more than Tunisia’s democratic experiment to fail, something that has become especially prominent in light of the ongoing Qatar crisis in the Gulf.

While Wolf’s book was published just before the Gulf crisis, the crisis has only highlighted the extent to which Tunisia’s success is exposed to external political headwinds. This is especially the case given that all of the protagonists in the crisis have made strategic investments, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and most prominently the one who is currently on the other side of the conflict, Qatar who in November 2016 gave over $1.25 billion in aid. In light of its economic relations with all of the parties, Tunisia has officially remained neutral, with its rationale stark: Tunisia simply cannot afford to side with one party over another. Of course, the crisis itself is a good example of how circumscribed the foreign policy of smaller countries like Tunisia can be, and the extent to which smaller counties are informed by the actions and potential reactions of their stronger neighbours.

In this respect, the book’s one significant omission is the minimal coverage given to Ennahda’s thoughts on foreign policy. In this respect even if Wolf’s approach is ethnographic and her focus lies in examining Ennahda’s history given the precarious environment that Tunisia find itself in, with a civil war next door in Libya, and neighbouring an authoritarian military regime in Algeria with a troubled history with Islamism, one would be surprised if Ennahda’s leadership’s calculus had not been informed by Tunisia’s external actors. Consider for example France, Tunisia’s former colonial power, whose only role in the book is that of a site of exile for Ennahda activists, as is Switzerland and the UK, the latter of which Ghannouchi himself escaped to. Even more surprising is minimal mention of Algeria which has been accused of decidedly murky actions in the Algerian Civil War during the 90s, and a regime that has never been hesitant to intervene in its neighbours’ conflicts if it served it’s perceived strategic interests. One imagines that it would be interested in the appearance of an Islamist dominated democracy next door. Yet save for the most curious bread crumbs; we learn that Algerian generals smuggled Ghannouchi out, and hints of an ongoing ‘special relationship’ between them, except for this there is very little in Wolf’s narrative to suggest that Ennahda has been conscious of the five-hundred-pound gorilla next door.

Pondering on how all this relates to Ennahda’s domestic politics, a strong impression forms as to how much the absence of a talented secular opposition hobbles Ennahda. In the absence of an internal check to Ennahda, its base has quickly latched on to conspiracy theories explaining away the frustrations of Ennahda’s goals. The worst problem is not that they are disempowering, but that there may be more truth in them than there are lies. With certain Gulf nations having made good on their reputation as regional check to Islamists across the region, fears of a regional bogeyman have unexpectedly proven to be more effective than the presence of a 500 pound somewhat belligerent gorilla next door. One wonders if in the absence of a robust opposition Ennahda can discipline itself and exercise restraint over its ambition and sense of entitlement and mind Tunisia’s strategic environment which has previously kept a natural check on everyone’s ambitions.

If Wolf is revealing Ennahda’s past, she is more elliptical of its future. She wisely counsels us to be wary of complacency and is dubious on whether Tunisia’s revolution can yet be labelled as a success. Whilst the survival of the sole remaining revolution should be celebrated she warns her audience away from wishful thinking; we should not confuse Tunisia’s designation of ‘least unstable’ political society post-Arab Spring with it being deserving as a governance model for other Arab countries to follow. Indeed, the very threat of such a label has encouraged elements both internal and external, to resolve to destabilise Tunisian politics further. She also points out that Ennahda itself is ill equipped to tackle future problems before coming to power it has built up little to no experience in governance at either local or national politics, unlike say the Turkish AK Party. Instead it’s leadership was borne out of an ideological struggle which has left them unprepared for issues of policy and national leadership: as some prominent party members themselves have told analysts, ‘[w]e went from the prison to the palace’.

As for the hope that Ennahda can become a progressive Islamist political actor, after hundreds of interviews with Ennahda activists Wolf is dubious how far-reaching the extent their progressive commitment actually is. Noting that Ennahda’s a big tent party, her narrative notes the differences amongst its leading cadres, and she pointedly circumscribes the role and ideological authority of Ghannouchi that belies much other literature. While his voice is obviously important, Ghannouchi is very much one voice amongst many. Furthermore, she adjudges that his apparent embrace of democracy and multi-party governance is as much motivated by strategic imperatives as it is borne from ideological convictions. More to the point, while the views of Ennahda’s leadership can be called at best ‘liberal’ and at worst ‘pragmatic’, she remarks that only when its base embraces this progressive commitment can Ennahda truly be considered reformed. She further notes the ill-guarded hostility and suspicion of the opposition towards Ennahda only serves to confirm its defensiveness and victimhood, not an attitude that is conducive to a successful transition to the inclusive democratic culture Tunisia needs.

At this point it’s worth raising whether Wolf, alongside other analysts, is not only giving the wrong answer, but perhaps indulging in the wrong question. How convincing is the suggestion that if Ennahda does not wish Tunisia to become a liberal democracy, it automatically be considered an unsuitable Western partner? Should the West really hold out on Ennahda converting into a progressive liberal democratic party, rather than consider Ennahda as partners to construct a robust Muslim non-authoritarian republican model democracy.

The fact that not everyone shares our convictions that liberal democracy is the best solution should not surprise us. Perhaps we should not be surprised that other cultures take a more detached and more pragmatic view towards liberal reforms, than Western nations whose very self-conception involves a triumphant repudiation of the dark age of ignorance that preceded it. Perhaps given that Tunisia is a country steeped in a pre-modern tradition that enjoyed its golden years before the onset of industrialisation, colonialism and modernisation, as a society it may be more reluctant and resistant to the modern democratic and liberal revolution. In that sense, we may need to wait it out until an internally organic political theology emerges that justifies a democratic Muslim governance model in alignment to its own internal tradition. However, such a modern manifestation will by necessity be contentious especially considering that there is no hierarchical centralised authority that can change a tradition by fiat from the top. If so, perhaps we need to adjust our expectations about what should be considered ‘good outcomes’ for political reform and the region. This would not be an instance of lowering the bar for the Middle East, but more realistically accepting that democratic forms of governance must suit the context of it’s local people. Lest we forget such sentiments echoes the argument made by early Zaytouna reformist Islamic thinkers that Ennahda claim descent from.

It’s with these more measured expectations in mind that an excellent Hudson Institute policy paper by Eric B Brown and Samuel Tadros, advocates a form of Muslim republicanism. They argue that it is an American strategic goal for ‘Tunisia [to] emerge as a self-sustaining democracy that can contribute to solving the larger crisis of governance and republicanism in the Arabic-speaking world’. In this instance, what is proffered is not the hope of a liberal democracy but a more realistic idea, if rather vague, of a non-authoritarian Muslim democracy as an alternative to the ‘political cul-de-sacs of Islamism and unreconstructed laicism’. This would encourage a more inclusive Tunisian democracy to emerge whose excessive secularism does not alienate the broader populace from integrating and participating into new Tunisian democratic republic. Even more optimistically, the report hopes that a successful Tunisia could open up the possibility of gradual political reform in the region rather than encourage a ‘crash-bang-wallop’ revolution with all the dangers the latter entails. With the possibility of a vibrant Tunisian political society not only being desirable but also attainable, its authors hope that it could sparks a discussion in the Middle East about the kinds of governing models are attainable, as well as the Muslim world more generally.

Furthermore, the authors recognise that within Ennahda there are competing wings and they stress the importance of bolstering the more pragmatic wing that will allow it to compete more effectively with other Salafi or Islamist tendencies. To the extent that this wing is successfully able ‘to persuade its rank and leadership that Islamism is over and that democratic Tunisia is already an Islamic state; indeed, that Islam requires civil democracy and pluralism’, then to that extent Ennahda becomes a more viable partner for the possibility of creating a long term stable MENA order. However, the report is well aware that more time is needed for this wing to become preeminent, and the running concern throughout the paper is whether there is enough time given the fragility of the revolution.

Anne Wolf’s sympathetic yet realistic account of political Islam in Tunisia, makes it easy to understand why so many have placed their hopes on Ennahda to become a prized partner in the construction of republican Muslim democracy. Yet in a tragic irony, these self-same grounds of hopes explain why a post-revolution Tunisia remains fragile, why so many actors are invested in Tunisia’s continuing political dysfunction, and the ultimate aim being the destruction and final cessation of Tunisia’s fledgling democracy. It would seem that six years after the Arab Spring, the prospect of the Tunisian exception remains precarious and that everything is still up for grabs.


Book Review of Ronald Dworkin’s ‘Religion Without God’



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Unedited version – Submitted.

9780674726826The late Ronald Dworkin, Professor of Jurisprudence and Legal theory in New York and UCL, was not only the preeminent legal philosopher of his generation but also an influential contributor to political philosophy, and important public intellectual. His writings encompass over twenty books, including Law’s Empire (1984) and Justice for Hedgehogs (2011) and while his writings concentrate on law and political philosophy, just before his death Dworkin finally turned his attentions to religion from which we have this short suggestively titled essay Religion without God [henceforth RWG].

Religion Without God was posthumously published and edited based on the Einstein lectures Dworkin delivered to the University of Berne in 2011, and as the book jacket suggests the first iteration of a much larger book, before he succumbed to illness from cancer. More often than not, the essay reads like what it is, a set of notes for a lecture. Its melodious prose conveys the immediacy of what surely must have been a mesmerizing set of lectures, on the other it suffers from the inclusion of obscure arguments and fitful presentation some of which would certainly be excised. The careful reader cannot help wondering how much of these ideas would survive the inevitable drafting, peer criticism and redrafting that any publication has to endure. A measured evaluation of Religion without God is then, some would say rather aptly, irresolvable and finally imponderable, and this leaves the reader with all the satisfaction of going toe-to-toe with Dworkin for three rounds of shadow boxing. In the end the reader has to focus on what is presented to him, and not what could’ve been, a sentiment that he would surely approve. For the purposes of brevity, I concentrate my attentions to evaluate the success, or otherwise as I argue here, of his provocative attempt to make case for ‘religious atheism’ as a coherent analytic concept.

Before examining in more detail what Dworkin means by a ‘religion without God’, we Ronald Dworkinshould consider the continuum within which he locates it. Whilst not fully explicit, he places religious atheism within the following: a) on one side there is religion with God, after which, b) there is religion without God, after which c) there is ‘spirituality’, and finally, d) there is naturalism, the latter he defines rather idiosyncratically as holding ‘that nothing is real except what can be studied by natural sciences, including psychology’ [p 12]. Dworkin discriminates religious atheism from mere ‘spirituality’ and naturalism by arguing that both believing and unbelieving religion hold two paradigmatic convictions central; namely a belief in objective value, and that the world has innate value and wonder, [p 11]. While Dworkin would acknowledge that some religious persons hold other convictions, such as an ‘obligation to worship’, he sets these ‘Godly convictions’ aside and regards that there is more that believing and unbelieving religion share than what divides them. He regards these two core beliefs as ‘deeper than God’ and more central to religion’s metaphysical core and considers them constitutive of the religious attitude.

Before looking more closely at these central convictions in detail, let us consider how Dworkin successfully grapples with the notion of religion as an analytical concept. It is clear that, except for the most fleeting references to Buddhism, the foil he has in mind is the Abrahamic religion. Whilst may not be a problem in and of itself, we could be forgiven if Dworkin’s presentation of religion as an unproblematic concept does not elicit surprise, especially when some of the central dilemmas that dominate the study of religion grapple with how to understand what religion is. For instance, one dilemma ponders how to define religion when what could passably be included as religion is myriad; there are prominent scholars arguing for the inclusion of shamanism, nationalism, communism etc, and if not by what criteria ought we exclude them? A related dilemma ponders on the unity of religion, should Hinduism be regarded as a unified religious tradition or a separate set of networked local cults? Another example and directly relevant to RWG, what do we make of Shintoism or Confucianism, Taoism, when especially the latter resemble what many in the West consider closer to philosophy than religion, and if so how does this challenge our conceptions of what religions are? Now we perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to expect Dworkin to address all the questions or even any of them; however the robustness of a theory is doubtful when its difficult to discern what we could derive from it if its unable to provide any kind of insight leave alone explanation of manifest empirical religious phenomena whilst simultaneously claiming that doctrine so and so are more ultimate and the very metaphysical core religion.

One example will suffice: one of Dworkin’s claims is that value objectivity is part of the metaphysical core of religion, contrasting against naturalism on this basis. But it’s unclear how he would accommodate religious traditions, such as Shintoism, Taoism or Hinduism, who at best would struggle to understand values in the way that Dworkin does, or at worst simply rejects value objectivity at all. It would be difficult to imagine for him, who controversially describes himself religious atheist, to reject the provenance and properness of a well-established religion because it doesn’t fit with his idea of what a religious ought to look like. But if we take seriously the empirical reality that religions exists which do not share these convictions, then his ideas forces us to choose his ideas over that of regarding them as true religions, a state of affairs that few would accept.

That this is not a semantic issue can be seen in other ways. Dworkin has nothing to say about religious rites, pilgrimage, communal identity, nor about feelings of kinship and fraternity, aspects which some scholars, not so say the religion’s followers themselves, consider equal to if not more important than its religion’s convictions. In doing so, it’s difficult not to believe that Dworkin regards religion essentially as very much a private affair, suspiciously akin to the post-Protestant Western society from which he emerges. It all adds to the sneaking feeling difficult to rid, wondering whether Dworkin rendering them as ‘non-essential’ aspects a result of nonchalant ignorance, or betrayal of his incomprehensibility or perhaps both. Nevertheless their depiction as such raises further doubts of his attempts to delineate the peripheral in religion and what is core.

Even though this is obviously not the final iteration, one gets the feeling that Dworkin has failed to do some pretty basic scholarly reading. His understanding of religion betrays someone who is stuck within a comfort zone, and replete with the secular biases from the Western culture from which he emerges. In doing so he fails to accommodate for empirical aspects of religion that are awkward to his arguments, or even more damningly to entire religious traditions wholesale. At best his arguments suffers from distorting them, and at worst his analysis simply ignores any aspect that he considered not essentially religious all for the greater glory of his categorisation. And whilst the philosopher Dworkin may give himself license to dismiss these objections as not being salient to points he wishes to make, such a criticism is not something a scholar in the study of religion could permit herself to make, but then again neither would a philosopher that claims to take empirical phenomena seriously. Unfortunately for Dworkin a closer look at what considers as core convictions shows that his problems don’t stop here.

One aspect Dworkin considers core to religion is its attitude towards the universe and life; characterising it as a distinctive sense of wonder that the world’s beauty and complexity strikes the believing and unbelieving religious alike, as well as the consonant commitment that this confers on them. However is unclear why this is the case; in specific in what sense is this attitude and commitment is distinctively religious and exclusive to the religious.

Consider Dawkins for example; whatever one thinks of his philosophical writings, even the most unsympathetic would surely not deny the sense of exhilaration that the best of his scientific writings convey; a sense of wonder towards nature whose complexity and beauty he attributes to the workings of a materialist evolution. Yet a sense of wonder is precisely what Dworkin insisted on being core component towards the religious attitude, something that he contrasted with the materialist attitude towards the universe.  How then would he distinguish between religious attitude and that of Dawkins perhaps the high priest of scientific materialism? One would imagine that Dworkin would argue that either that the naturalist’s sense of wonder is perhaps not properly pronounced, failing to a reach threshold that Dworkin would consider sufficient, or perhaps the naturalist’s sense of wonder is not somehow identical to religious sense of wonder.

Perhaps we should understand Dawkins’ sense of enthrallment as never being able to attain a ‘religious’ sense of enthrallment, just because he does not share Dworkin’s belief in an intrinsic meaning in the universe? This would then suggest that whilst both may share in their wonderment towards the universe, there is something distinctive in the latter – presumably more special and superior. Dworkin admits as much, stipulating that such a distinctive attitude is quintessentially religious (48). This would suggest that the naturalist does not have access to a privilege sense of wonder towards the universe, because of an absence of certain convictions of belief with their presence being crucial. What Dworkin seems to argue here then, is that faith is distinctive not because the addition or absence of one proposition or two alone, e.g. for example the notion that the universe has intrinsic meaning. Rather faith is an attitude that is distinctly religious in that it amounts to a set of propositions that are held both concurrently as well as holistically and that determine how we conceive of the universe. Is this holistic understanding of faith more convincing than characterising it as belief in a set of proposition? Certainly, but while this is the case, it is difficult to understand how much this differs from Dawkin sense of wonder with the world – indeed his ‘faith’ in a material world. One would think that it’s less that faith is characterised as an absence or presence of propositions versus a more holistic understanding faith but instead it is the contents of this faith that would render it distinctive. And it is this that’s unclear after all we have a sense of wonder in both Dawkins the materialist and Dworkin the believer, and its unclear in what sense the latter sense of wonder is more pronounced except for him saying so. On this aspect, we leave distinctiveness thesis unmoved.

Dworkin further distinguishes the religious attitude by its consonant commitment, specifically: a) its commitment to life, and b) obligation to make life meaningful for oneself, and claims that these are the preserve of those who hold conviction of objectivity in value and meaning in universe. Now it’s worth remembering that he doesn’t have to argue that all religious persons have these commitments, after all many are irresolute and flawed. However, he does have to demonstrate that if these commitments are constitutive of the religious attitude, then this would suggest a certain exclusivity and preserve of the religious alone. If however there was someone who a) was just as committed to these self-same convictions, and b) furthermore someone who considered them constitutive an attitude that is a direct result of a materialist point of view, then this would leave Dworkin vulnerable. Are there any prime candidates, and obvious one comes to mind is of course the existentialist and later Marxist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre.

Especially in his early more existential phase, Sartre insisted on the importance of making life meaningful; crudely the importance of living a life was characterized with full bodied commitment, and a search for authenticity, taking on the burdens of freedom and its consonant dilemmas, amongst other things and all of which are similar to what could be understood what Dworkin means by a commitment to life. Unlike Dworkin, Sartre insisted that such a commitment was a direct result of confronting what he considered the universe’s randomness and life’s ultimate meaninglessness. It would seem then that both a committed believer like Kierkegaard and a committed materialist like Sartre, can share a commitment for taking life seriously but as a result of diametrically opposed beliefs over the universe, the former upholding an attitude of total commitment because of life’s meaningfulness and the latter in the face of life’s randomness and inherent meaninglessness. And of course Sartre is not alone in such ruminations, the most cursory look over Heidegger, Nietzsche, Camus or even Schopenhauer, one would find cognate ideas if not identical conclusions. Once again, it does beg the question how much reading Dworkin has done before writing his own ideas down, and one cannot help think that his thoughts would have improved immeasurably had he pondered on those who differed with him before grappling with his own.

Where then does this leave Dworkin’s distinctiveness thesis? The distinctiveness argument is reliant on the presentation of convincing criteria by which we can discriminate between the religious from those without religion. One way of assessing the robustness of such a criteria is its ability to explain away what would purportedly be only superficially similar instances of attitude and, or commitment by naturalists or spiritualists. A failure to do so would undermine the alleged distinctiveness of the religious attitude that his arguments are so reliant on. And as we have seen examining Dawkins and Sartre, neither the wonder towards the universe distinctive to religious nor the commitment that the universe’s alleged objectivity supposedly entails is distinctive. And too explain such instances away with regards to the central distinctiveness thesis strains credulity, and is closer to indulging in stipulation than philosophical argument, and it simpler to abandon it.

In sum lyrical as Religion without God is, it is unfortunate that the views that Dworkin’s expresses, in this iteration at least, are strikingly parochial to be of any general use, and the flaws are so palpable as to render it irredeemably hobbled.

Taking Exception to Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism


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Published at MENA etc. on 09/12/2016.

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.