On the focus on the state in Islamic Exceptionalism

In my last post, I mentioned that Hamid’s discussion of the interaction between Islam, politics and governance in Islamic Exceptionalism focuses particularly on the nation-state. This isn’t particularly surprising: the sovereign state has been the dominant model for political communities for a little while now (given that the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648) and the nation-state for not a lot less time: and the countries that Hamid is looking at are nation states. The Islamic State, of course, is something different – and Hamid looks at that, which is really interesting – but he still brings us back to the idea of Westphalian sovereignty and the nation-state as the norm. This means when he considers possibilities for the ways that Islam – and Islamism in particular – might continue to play out in the regions politics, he’s thinking about balancing Islam’s distinctive features and beliefs within the model of nation-state. In particular he wants to look at how this interaction connects with the possible establishment of stable liberal democracies – and the expectation of the majority of his audience that such a development should be normal, inevitable, and desirable.

The Westphalian system, around which the world broadly works (despite globalisation and the growth of the EU) assumes that each nation-state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs – and it essentially demands strong states, though not necessarily nation states. The complicated relationship between states and nations and the desire of people to live in nations and be governed in them as nation-states has been a major factor in an awful lot of wars, especially in the last hundred years, and the question of which your nation you think of as yours – and therefore where your political loyalties lie – is relevant to the region. The Islamic concept of ummah and the dream of the caliphate seem to provide both an alternative vision and an alternative loyalty beyond the nation-state – and IS seems to realise this. However, while Hamid gives us the history of the development of Islamism and the various political engagements of Islam and governance in the region, he doesn’t give us much history of the development of the various nations and states or tend to question it as a system.

Hamid connects the emergence of Islamism – which he describes as movements that believe that Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life (6) – with the modern (C20th) attempt to reconcile Islam with the nation-state after the abolition of the caliphate in 1924 (76). And he argues that currently Islamists see the state, rather than society, as the engine of social transformation (268) – a desired transformation that is essentially religious. He also suggests that in the negotiating process between Islam and the state, the state seems to be ‘winning’ (211). This is because the state-centric approach (and international environment) seems to force Islamist groups to limit their ambitions in order to work within the state system and maintain stability. The tensions and overspills in the working out of this relationship are the focus of Hamid’s accounts of Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia.

The counterpoint, of course, is the Islamic State, which – as Hamid points out – has little interest in preserving the existing state structures (217). Hamid’s discussion of IS is particularly illuminating because it describes the emergence of an alternative model of a political community to the nation-state through the re-establishment of the caliphate: a community that has been working out its own governance within the territory it controls (224 – 32). This may or may not be sustainable – Hamid thinks not, if IS continues to pursue ‘apocalyptic’ (read: terrorist) activities in addition to the pursuit of conquest in the Middle East – but it is an alternative model. The establishment and governance of this alternative is horrifically, brutally violent – and Hamid explores the reasons for that in ways that are really helpful – but he also acknowledges that, ‘What the Islamic state means is ultimately more important than what the organisation is and does. The Islamic State succeeded in establishing a recognisably religious state,’ – which is something that Islamism wants to see (232).

Hamid closes Islamic Exceptionalism by arguing that however mainstream Islamism does work out its relationship with the state, it is unlikely to end up in the same love affair with liberal democracy and its values as the post-Christendom west (242). Hamid then discusses some possible ways in which Islamist groups and politics could be incorporated in a democratic state, in an attempt to avoid the fear and demonisation from non-Islamists which contribute to the ramping up of internal tensions. He seems to see this as navigating an impasse between the way that security and stability depend on strong states, while pluralism and democracy require restraint or weakening of the state (247).

But I’m curious about the question of whether there is any possibility of any other kind of political community in the Middle East, beyond these two options: the IS caliphate and the mainstream Islamist pursuit of the stable, Islamic nation-state? Hamid seems to see a certain inevitability in the violence, brutality and existential apocalypticism of IS’s caliphate. He certainly doesn’t seem to envision a more benevolent kind of caliphate: and indeed, given his analysis, it seems that it would be unlikely for it to be secular and that pluralism would be hard to achieve. And I have to say that as a Christian, I’d be reluctant to live in a political system that didn’t grant my freedom of religion, so I’d be reluctant to see it (I’d also be reluctant to see governance-by-Christendom, FYI).

But Hamid also seems to take the Westphalian system as a hard norm, even though he questions some assumptions of Islamists about the state and seems to essentially distrust it. He doesn’t really talk about where the nation-state comes from, or if it is the inevitable or only model available. And yet, the nation-state, as I understand it, emerged out of European history and was exported as the ‘norm’ as empire gave way to independence in the twentieth century. I’m not sure that there’s a reason we should expect it to be a hugely functional model in the Middle East – any more than we should expect liberal democracy to be so.

It’s incredibly hard to imagine a future alternative, but at the same time the nation-state hasn’t always been the norm. It doesn’t necessarily have to be. I can’t help but wonder whether imagining and developing another type of political community would be possible anywhere. It seems to me that if it were to be possible, it would be most likely to evolve outside the original home of the nation-state. I’m not sure if I can even get my brain around what it would involve. But it seems like it might be a good idea to try, slowly. And it seems like the best way to start would be to stop assuming that the nation-state is the norm to which we should remain wedded.


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