Why can’t the Islamic world be more secular and liberal like “we” are?
Atlantic contributing writer Hamid (Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, 2014), senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and vice chair of the Project on Middle East Democracy, asks some obvious yet startling questions regarding the debate over Islamism. Many Westerners assume that the cataclysm in the Middle East following the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq will eventually smooth into a secular, liberal future, because this is the way it has played out in the West—e.g., the Protestant Reformation allowed Europe “to shed its religious demons” and paved the way for the Enlightenment and modern liberalism. This is progress, Westerners assume, yet Hamid argues sagely that Islam is uniquely resistant to these forces because it already underwent a “reformation” in the late 19th century as a response “to the challenges of secularism, European colonialism, and the creeping authoritarianism of the late Ottoman era.” Boldly, the author argues that Islam is perhaps the most modern religion of all, since Mohammad, “armed with God’s speech,” instituted a “fierce egalitarianism” that allowed women to own property and earn their own income; mandated charity, redistribution of income, and social security for the elderly; and, most strikingly, stressed direct access to God without intercession of church or formal clergy. Moreover, Hamid asserts, the Islamic tradition already has a rich tradition of democracy—i.e., shura, or consensus. While Christianity never had a built-in conception of law, governance, and state-building—in fact, it was opposed to state legitimacy—Islam fashioned an organic political framework. Islam, in short, does not function like Christianity, and why should it? The faith of these believers remains remarkable, and Hamid emphasizes how in Indonesia and Malaysia the Islamists thrive in a pluralistic democracy. The author looks especially at the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in trying to work (unsuccessfully) within secular state bounds.
Fresh, provocative thinking on the “Arab problem.”