LONDON — In his new book, author Shadi Hamid asks the fundamental question: Why exactly does the Middle East suffer from a lack of legitimate political order? The answer, he says, doesn’t lie in Israel’s backyard.
Born into a Muslim family in Pennsylvania, Hamid is a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and recently authored a new book, “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.”
“Yes, bringing about a two-state solution would help,” says Hamid. “It’s something that the international community should strive to do. But we shouldn’t be under any illusions that it would unlock the puzzle of [failed states] across the Middle East right now.”
In conversation with The Times of Israel, the expert explains that he believes that even if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were somehow miraculously resolved tomorrow with a two-state solution, the Middle East would still be “a bloody dangerous place.”
‘The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the key to making peace in the Middle East’
“It feels like Israel-Palestine has almost become an afterthought for how we talk about the Middle East nowadays,” says Hamid. “It isn’t the central conflict in the region. Many of us thought it was, particularly in the pre-Arab Spring period.”
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the key to resolving the ongoing problems, or making peace, in the Middle East,” he concludes.
Hamid’s book, released in early June by St. Martin’s Press, hopes to offer a framework for thinking about Islam and Islamism, especially in how they interact with politics, law, public institutions, civil society, and, most importantly, the nation state.
“What this book aims to do is understand the rise of ISIS, and also the collapse of the Arab Spring in a broader context,” says Hamid. “ISIS taught us that you don’t need millions of people to change the politics of the Middle East. It took over Iraq’s second largest city with only 1,000 fighters.”
The Islamic state may eventually be defeated, says Hamid, “But their legacy will be long-lasting. ISIS has set the gold standard for extremist groups. They don’t just blow things up, they also capture territory, and then impose their own governing model.”
“That is where ISIS drastically differs from al-Qaeda,” he adds.
Too often, when we talk about this topic in the public domain, the Brookings scholar maintains, the conversation begins with the Iraq War, and then moves on to the collapse of the Arab Spring.
“There is a need to distinguish between the different types of Islamism,” Hamid warns. “ISIS is one aspect of this. But there is also the Muslim Brotherhood, which is mainstream Islamism.”
Across the Middle East, one of the main problems that Arab countries face, in Hamid’s view, is that they all suffer from a long history and culture of weak, failing, and failed states.
“Modern Arab states are weak in that they are not seen as truly legitimate by their own citizens,” he explains.
‘Modern Arab states are weak in that they are not seen as truly legitimate by their own citizens’
The United States has been especially complicit in the illegitimacy of modern Arab States, Hamid argues. Primarily in how they have supported, funded, and backed, autocratic regimes in the region for the last six decades.
“The United States doesn’t seem to be able to untangle itself from this dependence and obsession with autocratic allies in the Arab world,” he says.
He posits that the US political position during the Arab Spring is a prime example.
“In his May 2011 speech, Obama seemed to be suggesting that he was siding with those who were demanding greater freedom,” says Hamid, “but this rhetoric didn’t translate into policy. And very quickly, the United States began reverting back to the old way of doing business [in the region].”
The Obama Administration has taken on what Hamid calls a “let them eat cake attitude” when thinking about foreign policy for Arab countries across the Middle East.
“Essentially, this policy says the Middle East has to figure out its own problems, and if they are going to fight each other, we are not going to get involved,” says Hamid.
Publicly, when speaking about the future of the Middle East, Western governments might be fond of continually using the word democracy in their grand rhetoric and in diplomatic circles. However, democracy in theory and democracy in practice are two different things, he warns. In an Arab and Middle Eastern context, Hamid refers to this as the Islamist dilemma.
“This remains a real tension in US [foreign] policy,” he says.
It’s hardly surprising though — Islamist parties are extremely anti-American in outlook and they oppose American hegemony across the Middle East.
“Islamists don’t share American interests when it comes to Israel’s security and a two-state solution,” says Hamid.
Western governments may not be comfortable with the idea, says Hamid, “but a prominent role for religion in public and civic life may be unavoidable in many Arab countries in the foreseeable future.”
One of the core arguments Hamid’s book presents is the idea that Islam is very different from other world religions. This difference, the political scientist argues, has profound implications for the future of the Middle East.
“Islam may be uniquely resistant to secularization,” says Hamid. “And it will be more difficult to ‘privatize’ as a religion too.”
The idea that Islam will almost certainly follow the same trajectory that Christianity took many centuries ago — where separation of church and state became standard practice — seems a little patronizing and naïve, Hamid believes.
“Christianity has its own intrinsic characteristics and values, which don’t necessarily transfer into other faith traditions,” he says.
Presently, the most significant issue that’s causing a series of violent conflicts across Arab and Muslim countries concerns the battle for power within state structures. Moreover, the role religion actually plays within the state apparatus is an ongoing dispute that has yet to be resolved in many Arab countries.
To understand the various complexities of the current crisis within Islamism and Islam, Hamid says it’s worth studying how currents of history, theology, and religion intersect here.
Western observers, says Hamid, don’t tend to fully grasp the caliphate as an idea that has historical and cultural resonance. Moreover, it’s important to distinguish between the ISIS version of the caliphate, and the caliphate in a historic sense, he says.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the last caliphate was formally abolished in 1924. Pan-Arab identity entered into a serious crisis across the Middle East when, in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the British and French imperial powers secretly divided up the countries in the region between them.
Arguably, 100 years later the Arab world still hasn’t recovered from this political and cultural catastrophe.
One of the defining features of the last caliphate was the idea that the spiritual unity of the Muslim community requires political expression. Since the caliphate’s dissolution, the struggle to establish a legitimate political order across the Middle East has raged on.
Today, this struggle comes in many forms. But Islamism — that is, the attempt to implement Islamic values in all spheres of public and private life — is the dominant theme. The crisis predominately concerns Sunni Muslims.
There is the mainstream Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or the AKP party in Turkey. There are also hateful, sectarian, death-cult versions of more extreme Salafist Islamism such as ISIS across Iraq and Syria.
Mainstream Islamism has attempted to make peace with the state, hoping to reform and redirect it. Islamism of the extremist variety, however, has attempted to completely destroy the old state and bring about a utopian pan-Islamic caliphal fantasy.
At the center of all of these political ideals in the Arab world — regardless of whether they are of an extremist or more moderate form — is the controversial issue of religion and its role in politics, particularly how religion infiltrates the state apparatus and the public sphere.
The basic project of mainstream Islamism, says Hamid, is to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation-state. However, Islamic law wasn’t designed for the modern nation-state, says Hamid.
‘When you try to fit something which arose in a pre-modern context into this constraining nation-state model, it can be very messy and bloody too’
“The Koran was revealed in a pre-modern context in the seventh century. So when you try to fit something which arose in a pre-modern context into this constraining nation-state model, it can be very messy and bloody too,” he says.
Western policy makers often assume, says Hamid, that all Islamists have a problem with the nation-state. But actually, it’s quite often the opposite.
“Islamists are obsessed with the nation-state, especially elections, political parties, and trying to capture the levers of state power,” says Hamid.
And, crucially, he argues, fundamental questions over the role of Islam and Islamic law cannot be forever placed gently to the side.
In other words, Arab countries will not secularize in the short to medium term. And, Islam — and Islamism — will influence how democracy in the region develops. The West might not like this, but they need to face up the reality of the situation, Hamid warns.
“This is what makes the Middle East different from what we are used to in the West,” Hamid emphasizes with conviction.
“In Western political discourse, we are used to debates about tangible things that you can measure, like tax policy, economic divides, or universal health care. But the divides in the politics of the Middle East are almost metaphysical,” says Hamid. “They have to do with foundational issues over the meaning of the nation-state. And, of course, the role of religion in public life.”