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PostPosted: Thu Jul 21, 2016 4:30 pm 
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Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World. He is also the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

I've lived six of the last twelve years of my life in the Middle East. And the Middle East does have a way of changing you. Some of my friends, not to mention my parents, tell me I've become more pessimistic over time. I think they're right. My experience studying the region and living in the region has left me with a somewhat darkened view of human nature.

But I've also come to appreciate more and more the power of religion, its role in public and everyday life. Let me give just one example.

I'm trained as a political scientist. Political scientists have a tendency to think that the things they're trying to understand are caused by material factors. So if someone joins an Islamist organization, we assume that they're doing it because they're poor, they're angry, they're seeking power, or some other tangible factor that we can measure.

But I remember one time a mid-level Muslim Brotherhood official telling me that sometimes there's a simpler reason for joining an Islamist organization. He said, "Sometimes people just want to get into Heaven." And I thought that was an interesting way of putting it. It's something I've heard time and time again from individual Muslim Brotherhood members. Part of it is about something intangible - not just in this life, but in the life to come. Joining an Islamist organization makes you a better Muslim. And if you're a better Muslim, then you have a better chance of entering Paradise. Now, this might sound irrational from a Western, secular perspective. But if you look at it another way, what could be more rational than wanting eternal Paradise?

This brings me to the question which is at the centre of my new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: how much does Islam really matter when we're trying to understand the rise of ISIS or the demise of the Arab Spring? How do we situate the role of religion? One of the main arguments I make in the book - and perhaps the most controversial argument, which has gotten me attacked from both left and right - is that Islam is, in fact, exceptional in how it relates to politics, law and governance. In both theory and practice, Islam has been, is and will continue to be resistant to secularization. In other words, Islam is different. It is fundamentally different than other major religions.

You can see why that might be a controversial argument. Let me try to back it up. Why exactly is Islam exceptional? I chose the word "exceptional" because I think it's as value-neutral as you can get. Exceptionalism doesn't have to be good or bad. It can be both. It can be one or the other, depending on the context. So I want to make that very clear, that being exceptional is not necessarily a bad thing.

Let me mention here two factors that contribute to Islam's exceptionalism. First, there is Islam's specific intertwining of religion and politics. The founding moments of religions matter. Jesus, for instance, was a dissident against a reigning state. The New Testament doesn't have a lot to say about law or governance. And why would it? That's not what Jesus was doing. That wasn't his project. The Prophet Muhammad, on the other hand, was quite different. He was not only a cleric, theologian and a prophet; he was also a politician. He was a head of state. He was a state builder. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined in the person of Prophet Muhammad.

For the believer it couldn't be otherwise. So a Muslim would say that this was God's plan. This is how it had to happen. There is no counter factual that we can consider. But for others, or from an outside analytical perspective, we can say that the Quran is a product of a set of historical circumstances. Let's say, for instance, that Prophet Muhammad was not in a position to capture territory. Then presumably, in a sort of parallel alternative universe, the Quran wouldn't have much to say about law and governance, because Muhammad wouldn't have been dealing with those sets of issues. But because he did capture territory, held it and governed it, the Quran necessarily had to address these particular issues.

This leads to an interesting side point, but an important one. I am often asked: Does the Quran endorse violence? I think this is a strange sort of question. Of course, there is warfare and battle in the Quran. How could it be otherwise? If Prophet Muhammad was capturing territory, the only way you can capture territory is by wresting control of it from other people. Historically, state building - whether by Muslims, Christians or Jews - has been a violent process. So, yes, there is "violence" in the Quran. How could it be otherwise if Prophet Muhammad was a state builder?

While Muslims aren't bound to their founding moment, they can't fully escape their founding moment either. There have been secularists and liberals, particularly in the last century, who have argued for some kind of separation of religion from politics or some kind of privatization of religion. They can make those arguments, but it's a hard sell because, in effect, they have to argue against the prophetic model. They have to deal with this fact of history that Prophet Muhammad intertwined both religious and political functions.

The second factor is that of Quranic inerrancy. There is no equivalent in Christianity. This became increasingly clear to me the more I explored Christian theology and spoke to Christian theologians. Muslims misunderstand this important aspect of Christianity. The equivalent of the Quran in Christianity is not the New Testament, but Jesus - the "Word made flesh." In any case, Christian evangelicals don't argue that the Bible is God's actual speech, but that the Bible is the word of God. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that the Quran is God's actual speech, that every letter and word is directly from God. There is no human mediation, or interference, or any kind of involvement of that sort.

If you accept my premise that Islam is exceptional in these ways, the question is: How does this exceptionalism manifest itself today? In order to understand the rise of ISIS or the collapse of the Arab Spring, obviously 2011 is an important date. So is 2003, the year the Iraq invasion began. But there's another date that doesn't get much attention. And that's 1924 - the year of the formal abolition of the last Caliphate, the Ottoman Caliphate. Ever since then, there has been a struggle to establish a legitimate political order in the Middle East. At the heart of that struggle is a set of unresolved questions about the role of religion in public life and Islam's relationship to the state. These are very difficult questions to answer, and I would argue there haven't yet been good answers. That's part of the problem.

Islamic law wasn't designed for the modern era. Islamic law was designed for the pre-modern era. How do you take something that was designed for a particular time and adapt it to the modern era of nation states? How do you square that circle? You can try, but there's no easy or obvious resolution.

This is where mainstream Islamist movements - like the Muslim Brotherhood - become important, because they aren't harkening back to the seventh century. To me, this is one of the biggest misconceptions about mainstream Islamists. They are inherently modern and modernist in the sense that they are a product of modernity. They're attempting to do something that no one has done before: to reconcile pre-modern Islamic law with the modern nation state. In this sense, the very existence of political Islam is inherently polarizing, because it's new, different and unprecedented.

Islamism as an "idea" could not have existed in the pre-modern era. The word Islamism didn't exist. Islam imbued every aspect of everyday life for the better part of fourteen centuries. It provided the overarching moral, religious and legal culture. You never had to assert your Islamic-ness, your authenticity.

But then, in the modern era, Islam becomes a distinct political project. Islamism only makes sense in opposition to something else - that is, secularism. For the first time Muslims, and Islamists in particular, feel the need to say, "We are different. We are affirming (or reaffirming) our Islamic identity." It becomes a very conscious political act. And in the process of taking part in that act, we see polarization.

This is what fuels some of my pessimism: that Islamism depends on its opposite. So we see a divide in many if not most Middle Eastern countries between Islamists, on one hand, and non-Islamists (who could be secularists, liberals, nationalists or whatever), on the other. I'm under no illusion that these two sides, and the various shades in between, are going to reach some kind of workable resolution to the problem of religion and the state. Because, at the end of the day, Islamists and secularists have fundamentally different visions for what they want in their own countries. People in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia, for example, are not debating policy the way we debate things like tax policy or universal healthcare. (In fact, we don't debate those things anymore either - we just talk about Donald Trump!)

At the centre of debates in the Middle East are intangible things - I would even describe them as metaphysical in the sense that we're talking about divisions over the meaning, nature and purpose of the nation state. How do you have a reasoned discussion about that? How do you measure that? You can't. It's beyond us. That contributes to the existential divides - and then to the violence - that we now so often witness.

So my hope, as I lay out in my book, is a fairly modest one. I think people will continue to hate each other for the foreseeable future in the Middle East, and for understandable reasons. But my hope is that they can learn to hate each other through peaceful, political processes, without resorting to violence. From the standpoint of American or Western observers, part of what we need to do is to come to terms with the fact that Islam is going to continue to play a prominent - even central - role in public life in much of the Middle East and beyond. And that entails challenging our own assumptions.

It's remarkable to me how built in to our national debate certain assumptions are. We just assume that all cultures and societies will follow a certain trajectory: from reformation, to enlightenment, to secularization, then on to the end of history. There this almost patronizing tone I often hear, which is, well, you know, Muslims will get there. They'll figure it out, just like the Christians did. They'll go through the same linear progression that the Christians did.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Remember back in October 2014, there was that now infamous debate between Ben Affleck, Bill Maher and Sam Harris. Harris and Maher were talking about Islam being "the mother lode of bad ideas," and Affleck got really worked up. A lot of American Muslims cheered Affleck on. Finally, we thought, someone on national television - and a famous actor, no less - is defending us. That doesn't happen very often. But then, when I thought about it further, some of what Affleck was saying didn't sit well with me. He said something along the lines of, we all basically want the same things: as he put it, Muslims like to eat sandwiches, too. But I thought to myself, it's possible to like sandwiches and still believe in the implementation of Islamic law to one degree or another. As it turns out, I actually know a lot of people who like eating sandwiches and who like the implementation of Islamic law.

But it gets us to a challenging, almost philosophical question that is very difficult for us as Americans or Westerners to grapple with: the fact of difference, of this divergence in cultures or religions. What I would say is that we aren't all the same. We don't ultimately all want the same things. But then again, why should we?

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the new book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World. He is also the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East. This article adapted from a speech given at the Brookings Institution, to mark the publication of Islamic Exceptionalism.


I'm not entirely sure I agree with Mr. Hamid but it is something to think about.

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 21, 2016 9:24 pm 
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While Hamid's thesis is interesting and worth exploring, it seems to me that it is not the whole picture. A lot of the problems that occur in Muslim countries have less to do with Islam directly and more to do with the the tribal culture that persists within them. This is generally under appreciated by most Westerners because it's something we simply don't have to deal with in our countries. We just don't really have tribes in the same sense that they do, and we haven't for a long time. They were gone by the High Middle Ages. Now i don't know if there is any particular consensus as to why this happened, my preferred thesis is as follows:

It starts with the pre-existing assimilatory tendencies of the Roman Republic becoming stronger and more aggressive under the Empire. This eventually culminating in Roman-ness being assigned to pretty much any freeman who asked for it, and barbarians invading the Empire eventually calling themselves Roman and adopting Roman customs to one extent or another. Coupled with this is the amazing success of Christianity, which it must be said wedded itself to notions of Roman-ness to the point that the two became indistinguishable, to be Christian was to be Roman and to be Roman was to be Christian, with concomitant effects on non-Christians who wanted to be Romans and non-Romans who wanted to be Christian.

So the tribes were weakened by a universalist Romano-Christian culture. Then the Church did them in with a number of restrictions: no divorce, concubinage, polygamy, adoption, or marring relatives. (Nobles of course found loopholes, but nobles are a minority irrelevant to modern society.) It probably did this to increase its chances of inheriting property that had no heirs. However the greatest effect was to destroy tribalism in Europe and promote the nuclear family instead. Put simply a tribe is a bunch of related extended families that marry each other. Forbid such marriages and force families to be smaller, fast forward a few centuries, and no more tribes. Islam had no Church and no such restrictions, and thus tribalism continues to be a problem in many Muslim countries.

Amusingly, it seems that we can be rid of a number of said restrictions now and suffer no ill effects. For example cousin marriages have been legal in Protestant Europe since the Reformation and they're still like less than 2% of all marriages. Apparently once outbreeding becomes the norm, once the tribes are dead and gone, people as a whole don't revert back to inbreeding even if it's legal. Those who do it are and remain exceptions.

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