In which I read Islamic Exceptionalism

I spent some time this summer reading Islamic Exceptionalism by Shadi Hamid, and I’ve been doing some thinking about it.

The short review is as follows: this book is good and will make you more informed and make you think, so go read. At the same time, it’s not flawless (what book is?) and there’s some things in it worth having some conversations about. My copy is covered with underlines and scribbles, and I’ve finally narrowed my mental ramblings into a brief overview of my thoughts and a couple of pieces digging in to a couple of ideas in more depth.

Essentially the book is looking to engage with the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa to help the ‘West’ (and particularly the US) understand what is happening and to explore what might happen next. In particular, Hamid wants to debunk the idea that the relationship between Islamic and the political systems of the Middle East will evolve in a comparable way to the relationship between Christianity and the political system (liberal democracy) in the west. That is to say: don’t assume that liberalism, pluralism or secularism are naturally going to occur or be coaxed into a flourishing existence. And, Hamid, argues, this is because Islam is ‘exceptional.’

In arguing that Islam is exceptional Hamid isn’t arguing that it is superior – he’s not using exceptional as an adverb that modifies quality. He’s using exceptional as distinctive and different. I get why he chose the term: it’s nicely provocative and makes you want to get into it with his book. However, while he is able to argue that Islam is different from other religions, I’m not sure that he manages to argue that it is more different from other religions than they are from each other. I don’t think he convinces the reader that there is a ‘rule’ that most religions will follow in relation to the political world and from which Islam is an exception. Which is not to say that his analysis isn’t strong or valuable, just that it feels misnamed and this meant that for me, the book wasn’t quite what I expected it to be.

My expectations were pretty high, though, so not meeting them hardly means the book is terrible. It’s really interesting and really engaging, and it manages to hit a tone of, ‘I assume there’s quite a lot you don’t know about this topic’ without ending up in ‘I assume you’re a moron’ territory. The way the majority of the text is broken down meant that I learned a lot about Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and Isis that I hadn’t known before and hadn’t known I hadn’t known. In particular, it’s just plain helpful to know more about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and to get a bit some insight on the roughly current state of play and its implications in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Syria.

I feel like I have a better sense of what is going on in the world and why. It’s all very well knowing you don’t know stuff, but if you don’t really have an inkling about what the stuff you don’t know is then you’re going to overlook things and make mistakes with people and places because you don’t even know where you should tread carefully because things are sensitive or because you know you’re ignorant about them. Islamic Exceptionalism provides enough information and insight that by the end the average reader should (a) know more than they did when they started and (b) have a better understanding of how much they don’t know or understand.

However, there are a couple of things in the book that I’ve been thinking about particularly: (1) Hamid’s analysis of Christianity and its relationship with politics, and (2) his focus on the nation-state.

On which, more later…


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