Book Review: Why the secular nation state is impossible in Islam

Book Review: Why the secular nation state is impossible in Islam

Showkat Ahmad Wagay

Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam Is Reshaping the World, Shadi Hamid
(St. Martin’s Press, 2016). 320 pp

Shadi Hamid, an eminent scholar of political Islam, in his new work, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World, develops the thesis that Islam is substantially unique among all world religions in its bond with politics. Hamid compares the early development of Christianity with Islam and contends that Islam will not follow the path of Christianity because Christianity is devoid of equivalents of Islamic law that are concerned with governance and regulation of social and political affairs. Hamid says that Islam is so embedded in laws pertaining to politics in Islamic countries that a separation of religion from politics is impossible.
This distinctive nature of Islam, Hamid says, makes it resistant and defiant to secularisation. Any project of secularisation of Muslim societies is unsustainable, Hamid contends, because Islamic societies are profoundly ensconced in Islamic political traditions.
The thesis of Islamic exceptionalism challenges the notion that democracy in Muslim societies will produce liberal society. It maintains that in any endeavour to reform a Muslim society, Islamism will remain a vital element of that process.
The bulk of the book is dedicated to exploring four Islamist models of governance: the Turkish model, the Muslim Brotherhood model, the Islamic State model, and the Tunisian modal. The central project of all these Islamist models, according to Hamid, is to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with existing nation state structures. Hamid claims that the modern state is inherently secular, so working within these structures is to give credence to the secular nature of the state. He contends that these models will not sustain in the distant future in Islamic societies as any attempt to reconcile Islam with such state structures, which are secular in nature, will not succeed.
Hamid singles out the Muslim Brotherhood as the most influential Islamist movement of contemporary times. It begins with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, coup against Morsi, and the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood members through bullets and mass death sentences by secular regimes. This portion of the book is rich in discussion but leaves unaddressed several factors that are responsible for Morsi’s downfall.
The Turkish model, which not only brought Erdogan to power but also entrenched him there, is discussed against the modern history of Turkey, including the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate and the secularisation project of Ataturk for transforming Turkey into a modern nation state. This portion of the book focuses on the role of Erdogan in the Islamisation of Turkey.
Coming to Tunisia, Hamid points out that political developments in Egypt confirmed the worst fears of Ennahda, the Tunisian moderate Islamist movement, that Islamists would never be allowed to govern, no matter how many elections they won. Hamid says that Islamists survived in Tunisia at the price of conceding their Islamism, because the alternative, which they saw all around them, was the collapse of democracy (p.168). For Hamid, this movement demonstrates “moderation” to secular elites, international actors, and any number of other skeptics. Their conservative base, on the other hand, wants a dose of identity, ideology, and religion, and if not a dose then at least a nod to the movement’s “essence” (p.170).
The meteoric rise of ISIS presents the bare alternative to the Tunisian “moderate” one. Hamid mentions ISIS as one of the most successful Islamist models in recent decades, which has little interest in existing nation state structures. Its model of governance has been terrifying in a number of ways, but it is a distinctive model nonetheless. The Islamic State, in stark contrast to the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, had little interest from the start in existing state structures. These, to them, were precisely the problem (p.196). According to Hamid, the popularity of the Islamic State is partly a response to the humiliation Muslims face both in the West and within secular Arab dictatorships and so, theodicy plays a central role in their recruitment process (pp. 222,223). However, this very theodicy also predicts the eventual downfall of ISIS, Hamid argues.
The book has shortcomings, even though it substantiates its claims. For example, it overlooks the Iranian model of governance, which weakens Hamid’s argument of the incongruousness of Islamic law with the modern nation state. However, in the case of Turkey, Hamid does explain how in the wake of loss of the Ottoman Caliphate, Islamic governance was reconciled to the democratic process by Erdogan. However, religion is not the sole factor that shapes politics in these Muslim majority countries; there are various socio-cultural factors that the book ignores.
This book indeed represents a significant effort to contribute to the debate over Islam and politics. Many will disagree with Shadi Hamid’s interpretations and argumentations, but his years of expertise in this field, which he brings into this book, lead us to the conclusion that his message should be at least considered. The book is also helpful for scholars interested in the field of Islam and politics.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at Department of Islamic studies, Aligarh Muslim University. showkatwagayamu@gmail.com

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