Most of those who read about international affairs, politics, and economics are used to the idea of “exceptionalism.” The term is most often used in relation to the U.S.A. and generally asserts that the U.S.A. is unique (exceptional) in relation to its presence and destiny in the world. Kaplan’s Earning the Rockies (2017), which I recently reviewed, describes America’s emergence from WWII as an economic, political, and military giant. Kaplan makes the case that its prominence and preeminence for many years justify the idea of there being something that is exceptional about it.
Not until Shadi Hamid’s Islamic Exceptionalism (2016) had I seen an attempt to define Islam, Islamism, or any Islamic governmental state as exceptional in any way. His careful analysis of the conditions following the end of the Ottoman Empire, the geographic boundaries imposed after it, and the strife of the last 50+ years in the Middle East and North Africa make a strong case for Islam being unique in both religious and political perspective. Islamic “exceptionalism” is, in fact, defined as a fusion of religion and politics that stands in contrast to the generally accepted notion that governments must be secular in order to be modern and democratic.
Hamid’s analysis of the origins of exceptionalism include the following sequence of events and ideas:
- 1924 – the end of the last Caliphate (Ottoman Empire)
- Arbitrary partitioning of nation states by European governments
- 1960s – rise of Abdul Nasser in Egypt and the heyday of Arab nationalism
- Arab nationalism ultimately failed to create unity and economic benefit among Arab/Islamic-majority countries
- The resulting gap between the previous prominence of Muslim people (and Islamic countries) and how they are now perceived brought humiliation, resentment, and anger
- Islamic systems were disrupted (largely through the imposition of colonialism) and Muslims struggled to regain prominence
- The Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) became the most influential political Islamic movement as a reaction to the rise of secularism, colonization and authoritarianism
- “Islam is the solution” became the rallying point for those who believed that drifting from Islam had created the downfall which Muslims endured
- Reestablishing the Islamic Caliphate became preeminent, and potentially obligatory, for Muslims
- 2011 and following – the Arab Spring failed to produce a legitimate, stable political order
- The existence of evil (the oppression of Muslims) and the brutality of war perceived by Muslims as part of a cosmic struggle worth fighting and dying for
While many Westerners view the “Muslim Brotherhood” with trepidation, it is the mother of all Islamist movements and has primarily occupied a centrist ideology and a gradualist commitment to change. Following Nasser’s persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and Anwar el-Sadat’s release of Brotherhood prisoners after Nasser’s death, numerous Egyptians who previously fled Egypt to go to Arab Gulf states returned wealthier and more conservative (having been influenced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi sect) and ready to take up the cause of political Islam anew. Regardless of the rising conservativism of the Wahhabis, the Brotherhood remained very centrist in its aims. This perfectly positioned one of its members, Mohamed Morsi, to be elected as President of Egypt in 2012 after Mubarak’s ouster. Persecution of the Brotherhood returned when Al-Sissi took the Presidency in a military coup, placed Morsi behind bars, and sentenced 683 Brotherhood members to death in 2014. Interestingly enough, many of the Muslim Brotherhood members returned to the Gulf (specifically Qatar) at this new time of persecution. In many ways, Al-Sissi represents a return to the authoritarian days of Mubarak but avoids being seen this way through populist and popular appeal.
The reassertion of the Caliphate has emerged in the radicalized version of political Islam which we now call the Islamic state. The Islamic state is a threat to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but some sub-groups within it have been supported by Turkey and Qatar. The Islamic state is by no means a unified movement but it seeks to draw Muslims through provision of many of the benefits that a government state would commonly offer – community, food and services. The common bond among Muslims, Brotherhood and Islamic state members, and others is freedom. The belief is that once political and economic freedoms are achieved, the Islamic state will inevitably follow.
Hamid’s analyses included the three cases of Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia. These cases are distinct in terms of the types of changes sought, who was involved, and the process of change. Much can be learned from these examples; I felt the rising tensions and sensed the sincerity and yearning of common citizens in all three cases when I visited prior to their respective revolutions. The bottom line is that, in the face of rising Islamic fervor, where a number of political actors are present, and where the state is strong enough to be worth capturing, there is no question that ideological and religious polarization will follow. This polarization and reformation will take many years to work out and both those who endure the strife of the Middle East as well as observe and struggle with it from afar, will be better served to understand the history behind the various Islamist movements and how that impacts the alliances that form and dissolve as the process works toward an eventual solution.