Shadi Hamid is Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of and .
1. You recently wrote a book on Islamic exceptionalism (called, ). Many years ago I recall you suggesting that perhaps secularization would never occur in the Muslim world. So this seems to be a long-standing belief of yours. Is that so? If so, was there a specific moment you realize that you held this position?
I think my skepticism on secularism taking hold in the Muslim world was always there somewhere, but they were initially just impressions that weren’t really well thought out. It’s sort of just something I began to feel more and more during my fieldwork in the late 2000s. If you spend a lot of time with Islamists, you can’t help but realize that, when you ask them to explain why they do what they do, they themselves don’t (can’t?) make clear distinctions between “religion” and “politics.” So, I kind of started absorbing this through those conversations, many of which were just pretty much me hanging out with them, with some structured questions to start, but most of it would devolve into free-form conversations, especially with the younger guys. I guess I was just more interested in understanding what really drove them more than in answering the questions I had scribbled down in my notebook.
It really hit me, though, after the Arab Spring, seeing democratic transitions collapse and trying to understand why. Politics – in Egypt certainly but also in supposedly bright, hopeful Tunisia – felt increasingly existential, and the role and power of religion was a big part of that. People weren’t debating the finer points of tax policy or healthcare; they were debating the most fundamental questions you could possibly ask, about the relationship between Islam and the state and what it meant to be an Egyptian or a Tunisian or a Turk. So that led me to a more basic set of observations about what drives not just Islamists or Muslims, but voters (and people) more generally, and that became a theme in my previous book , in which I began exploring the tensions between democracy and small-l, classical liberalism.
When you see people who you care about and maybe even love – in this case my secular elite relatives in Egypt – supporting the mass killing of their fellow countrymen (during the August 2013 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters), it really has a lasting effect on you. We all know about the quotidian elements of evil. We read Hannah Arendt in graduate school, or whatever. But it’s one thing to theorize about it in a seminar and another thing to see it time and time again with people who you know or in the places where you live. All in all, it helped me think of liberalism more as something that was externally imposed, even in our own case in America. In other words, here in the U.S., our norms were so powerful as to overwhelm these darker, base impulses, but that never meant the impulses weren’t there, ready to reassert themselves. And they have.
2. My family is from Bangladesh, and in the world of religion that nation is divided in two, between Hindu and Muslim. Though we had Hindu friends in the small Bengali and Bangladeshi community of upstate New York in which I grew up, there was always the unspoken religious chasm. It wasn’t until I was seven that my mother told me about a third group in the United States: Christians. I was rather fascinated to have the duality of my world shattered in such a manner. Obviously my schoolmates were mostly Christian, but I had never bothered to think about what their religion was (I had not realized Christmas was a religious holiday obviously). My question is rather simple: you grew up in the United States as a Muslim when the religion was a less salient aspect of the scene. How did your parents prepare you to cope with growing up as an exemplar of your religious group when they themselves presumably had not had that experience as young people themselves (as in their environments Islam would have been normative)?
I think my Muslim identity resonated more when I was younger, in part because my parents went out of their way to promote a sense of community, particularly with the local Egyptian community outside of Philadelphia where I grew up. My parents, though, had a particular life philosophy that I’m, in retrospect, even more grateful for today than I was at the time. They may not have agreed with something (their culturally conservative views on dating for example), but it was always like: ‘Shadi, you know that we have concerns about x thing. We might even disapprove of it, but it’s up to you to make the choice for yourself.’
In some ways, Islam as a cultural and community proposition, was very much there, even if in other ways our community was relatively liberal. My parents knew I had a girlfriend in high school for example (although, to be fair, she was Egyptian and a family friend so that probably assuaged some of their fears). I remember I would flirt (or, to be more accurate, try to flirt) with her at the mosque – although I should probably mention, so I don’t get in trouble, that of course that’s not something anyone would (or could) do in the actual prayer area.
But one really important point, here, is that some of this was new for my parents, when it comes to the idea of a community that was more based around being Muslim then, say, being Arab. When they were growing up in Nasser-era Egypt, it was still during the height of the secular nationalist experiment. Religion was there, but no one felt a particular need to assert it. People prayed and fasted. Some didn’t. It wasn’t a big deal. It was more fluid. When my parents were in college in Cairo, it would be unheard of to see a girl wearing the headscarf. There is some internal debate about this within our family, but one of my uncles claims that my grandfather would occasionally have a beer, even at home (although when I asked my dad about this, he wasn’t sure). Unless you’re familiar with attitudes toward alcohol in Egypt today, it’s hard to describe how foreign this (however apocryphal) recollection sounded to me, when I first heard it from my uncle.
As for Christianity, I thought about it intellectually, but I didn’t think about it much as something real and lived-in, in part because it’s actually not super easy to meet outwardly and openly Christian people in the generally liberal setting of Bryn Mawr, PA. I guess, even if subconsciously, this must have had an effect on me – this idea that the Christians I knew generally didn’t seem all that serious about their faith, where at the local mosque it was pretty clear that there were Muslims who were pretty serious about their faith. I’ve always tried to be careful in how I talk about this, because it can pretty easily be misconstrued, but I remember talking to some friends a couple years back and someone described Islam as the “last badass religion,” which I thought was an interesting turn of phrase. It’s this part of Islam that helps me understand and even empathize with why some atheists or secularists might be suspicious of Islam. (But it’s this part of Islam that also helps me understand why Muslims themselves, even those who aren’t particularly religiously observant, seem so attached to the idea of Islam being unusually uncompromising and assertive).
If you’re nominally Christian and you see that your own faith, for whatever reason, can’t compete with Islam’s political resonance, then you might find yourself looking for non-religious forms of ideology which can offer a comparable sense of meaning. That’s why the rise of Trump as well as the far-right in Europe is so interesting to me; these are fundamentally non-religious movements that are, in some sense, reacting to Islam but also mimicking the sense of certainty and conviction that it provides to its followers.
3. The fact that you hold beliefs in a descriptive and positivist sense about the world you would prefer not to be true is something you’ve admitted. What specific belief is one which you hold as likely correct, but which you would prefer not be correct? (list the one that you are least happy to believe to be true)
So, in my , there are definitely some ideas and conclusions that I’m not quite comfortable with, which is sometimes a bit of a weird feeling. When the book came out, I was nervous, not just for the usual reasons, but also because there were certain distillations of my argument – the sound bites – which, when I said them, it was almost like I was straining myself. This is an era, perhaps the era, of anti-Muslim bigotry, and I couldn’t bear to think that I was contributing to that. The thing, though, is that I know that I have. But, just the same, I can’t bear the idea of not saying the things I believe to be true just because someone might use it for purposes I find objectionable. To me, the alternative is worse, the whole “Islam is peaceful” nonsense. “Islam is violent” is just as nonsensical, but we don’t fight those stereotypes of Islam by pretending the exact opposite is true. Why should Islam be peaceful? Why should any religion be? War is as much part of the human experience as anything else, so it would be odd if our religions had nothing to say about war or violence, and how to regulate it.
The other thing I should mention is a bit more complicated, and it’s not something I really touch on in the book, in part because I don’t believe my personal views about Islam matter all that much. I did discuss this a bit in my recent interview with Sam Harris. I personally believe in a progressive, even liberal Islam, but I believe it for myself and I wouldn’t presume to think that others should share my views. So when someone asks me about controversial verses in the Quran (and remember, for Muslims, these aren’t easy to deal with, since this isn’t merely “God’s word,” as many evangelicals believe about the Bible, but God’s actual speech), I take a “progressive” approach. So verse 4:34, for example, which is sometimes interpreted as allowing for beating one’s wife “lightly.” There are literally hundreds of thousands of words written on this one verse, but, for me, the details of the reams of exegesis matter little. If God is the Most Just then he is not capable of injustice, so he wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) command us to do something unjust. Justice, then, exists as a kind of absolute value, outside or even independent of scripture. This is what I think, but I also have this nagging suspicion that I might be wrong – that my view is not “true,” or at least it’s not what Islam normatively considers to be true. How, after all, can God be bound by something that he himself is the cause of? So I’m in the minority. The mainstream position, at the risk of oversimplification, is that whatever God wills to be just is, or becomes, just.
Why should my presumably time-bound and contingent perspectives of justice take precedence over the views of those who would disagree with me, for reasons which make as much sense to them as my views make sense to me? Sometimes I worry that I come to my conclusions about what I would like Islam to be – reconciling it with modern notions of liberal democracy, gender equality, and gay rights – and then working backwards to find things in scripture that would support the things I already decided I believe. This seems to me to be at least somewhat contrary to the purpose of religion, particularly Islam, where the idea of submitting to God’s will, regardless of what you think, is supposed to be important and even determinative.
As a descriptive matter, I’m also well aware that universal values are not, in fact, universal, in the sense that they’re not universally held. But even if I grant you that there are universal values, today, that cut across culture and geography, I don’t think anyone can argue that universal values are universal across time. In other words, Locke and Madison were liberals par excellence in their time, but if people believed the things today that they believed then (that owning slaves was okay or that Catholics and atheists were exempt from toleration), then, well, we wouldn’t consider them liberals. In 2017, we consider not supporting gay marriage to be illiberal, yet 10 years ago, when Obama and most Democratic party elites only believed in civil unions, we considered that to be falling somewhere within the liberal consensus. Can we retroactively decide that the 2008 version of Obama wasn’t liberal? If we did that, then no one at any point in the past could be liberal according to liberalism’s ever changing and ever progressing standards of equality or justice.
Lastly, on this issue of justice as an absolute value; this has perhaps other moral implications. If justice exists outside of space and time (if it is not, in a sense, created), then wouldn’t that necessitate the existence of hell (assuming here that God exists)? If God exists, I can’t imagine there also wouldn’t be a hell. I have trouble believing in a God who wouldn’t punish those who had reached a certain level of unequivocal evil (the Hitlers, Saddams, Maos, Assads for example). I’ll keep Castro out of it since people will freak out (I find the left’s soft spot for Castro endlessly fascinating. The bad leftist I have a soft spot for is Che, but that’s just me). Can the universe be just if Hitler hasn’t been made to suffer for his transgressions?
Wow, I just really digressed. [that’s OK! -Razib]
4. I recently read a book called . This concept, that one can be an atheist and have a Muslim identity, is one I’m rather skeptical about, though the author makes a reasonable case given his background. What is your position in regards to this?
Sure, I think someone can be an atheist and be “culturally” Muslim, just as there are Christians who don’t believe in Christ but welcome the cultural or ritualistic aspects of the religion. Religion isn’t just about faith; it’s also about identity. But an atheist can’t really be Muslim in the fuller sense, just as a Christian isn’t theologically Christian if he or she believes that Jesus was some random carpenter dude, who just happened to be rather wise. I’m always concerned about stretching language to the point where what we call things is hollowed of meaning. Every religion has its theological boundaries, otherwise what would be the point of different religions, if each religion can somehow seep into the other? We can’t simply will things to be whatever we want them to be. To put it differently, religions are partly about identity, but each religion will still have creedal requirements that make the religion both what it was, and what it is. That said, I haven’t read the book, so maybe he’d be persuasive enough for me to come back and rethink some of my ideas on this!
5. Your work, from what I have seen, focuses on the core Middle East, in particular, though not exclusively, Arab nations. Part of this seems to be due to the fact that it is what you are personally familiar with. But, I believe part of it is due to the reality that in regards to “Islamic world” this region is always going to be more influential than the “periphery”, even if that periphery in the form of Asia and Africa is home to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims. In contrast, there have long been those who have suggested that nations such as Indonesia, or perhaps European Islam, might serve as a model and trailblazer which would ultimately reshape Islam in the Middle East. Where do you stand on this question?
In the book, I argue that Indonesia and Malaysia are the closest things we have to a “template” (the word “model” scares me; I don’t want to tempt fate). This is not to say that they’re exemplars of some kind of “secular Islam.” If they were, then they wouldn’t be models at all, because they wouldn’t be resolving, or at least addressing, the fundamental “problem” of Islam’s relationship to politics.
So, Indonesia and Malaysia are often held up as examples of democracy, pluralism, and tolerance. They’re certainly more democratic than most Middle Eastern countries. Yet, they also feature significantly more sharia ordinances on the local level than, say, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, or Tunisia. Islam might have still been exceptional, but Indonesia and Malaysia’s political systems were more interested in accommodating this reality than in suppressing it. There aren’t the same kinds of entrenched secular elites that you see in the Arab world. Islamism isn’t the province of one party, but of most. Accordingly, Islam’s role in politics is “normalized,” which means that its role is less likely to fuel violent conflict or intractable polarization. Of course, this comes at a cost for liberalism, since Islamist and “secular” parties alike are constantly trying to outbid each other on who’s more committed to Islam and even Islamic law. Democratic politics in religiously conservative countries means that all parties need to appeal to conservative voters. In Indonesia, adultery is already technically illegal, but Islamist organizations have been pushing to criminalize premarital and extramarital sex, and it’s something that Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has had to consider.
I should perhaps be clear about my biases here. I only really have two “non-negotiables” –respecting democratic outcomes regardless of how much we might not like them, and opposing mass slaughter and genocide (not just in theory like most people, but in practice, including through the use of military force). In my view, the only way to produce better outcomes in the long run, then, is to let the complex, messy process of democracy play out, which allows Islamists and liberals alike to make their respective cases to the electorate, and then the rest flows from that. This is also incidentally why some people think I’ve been too soft on Trump. I’ve spoke out against the #NotMyPresident stuff and the attempts to get the electoral college to basically overturn the results of the election. That doesn’t mean Trump doesn’t scare me; he does, and not just in policy terms, but in existential terms. I remember the night of election, which was so surreal, I felt compelled to live-tweet the DC election party I went to. I left, in a bad mood. My brother called me at midnight and he started crying. “I’m not so much worried about us. I’m worried about mom and dad,” he told me. When I heard him put it like that, after a long, depressing night, I started to cry as well – the first time I can remember crying about politics in my life. But this is what our system produced and I have no choice but to respect that.
6. The 2008 economic crisis in many ways was a crisis for macroeconomics. In political science there are certain formal models, such as rational choice theory, that are very common. How do you feel about theory and statistical analysis in your field, as opposed to narrative description? Has theory yielded results? (e.g., Robert Pape’s work on suicide bombing seems to be one instance where statistical analysis yield interesting findings)
What I think political science really offers, at least from my perspective as a political scientist who writes for a mostly a non-academic audience, is a framework for understanding causal relationships and for making generalizable observations and conclusions that go beyond the specifics of any one single case. This sort of thing can be helpful for really anyone who’s interested in distinguishing between correlation and causation, since I see the two conflated all the time. Just because two things are strongly correlated doesn’t mean one causes the other (there’s also the question of which way the causal arrows flow).
My bigger issue, though, has to do with political scientists’ unwillingness to take religion seriously as a prime mover. In other words, because most political scientists in the academy aren’t particularly religious or haven’t spent much time around religious people, they usually see religion not as a cause, but rather as something caused by other more tangible, material factors, the things we can touch, feel, and of course measure. So if someone joins an Islamist organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, the tendency is to explain it with things like rural-urban migration, underemployment, poverty, being pissed off at America, the list goes on. Sure, all those things matter, but what does political science have to say about “irrational” things like wanting to get into heaven? It’s not everything, but it’s one important factor that has to taken into account. This is something that becomes more obvious when you talk to Islamists about why they do what they do. They don’t say, “hey Shadi, I’m doing this because I want to get into heaven.” It’s more something that you feel and absorb the more you sit down and talk to a Muslim Brotherhood member. It matters to them and it’s something that drives them, especially when they’re deciding to join a sit-in and they’re well aware that the military is about to move in and use live ammunition. It’s not so much that they want to die; it’s more that they are ready to die, and it doesn’t frighten them as much as it might frighten someone else, because they believe there’s a pretty good chance that they’ll be granted paradise especially if they happen to killed while they’re in the middle of an act that they consider to be in the service of God and his message.
Another example: after the failed coup attempt in Turkey last year, President Erdogan said something that raised a lot of eyebrows. He called the coup attempt “a gift from God.” What could he have possibly meant by this? Does that mean he wanted it to happen or even that he was behind his own attempted assassination? No. There’s nothing weird about what he said. There’s no doubt in my mind that Erdogan really believed that this was, quite literally, a gift from God and that God was sending him a somewhat tailored message.
Which brings me back to the question of “rationality.” If you believe in this kind of cosmic universe – a universe where one experiences daily God’s magic, if you will – then sacrificing something in this world for the next is pretty much the most rational thing you can do. After all, this is eternal paradise we’re talking about.
7. Epoche is a stance where one detaches oneself from one’s own subjective personal position and opinions to examine a topic objectively. To give an extreme example, imagine one surveys the labor policies of German in the 1930s, and agrees that they were positive in some fashion. Obviously that does not entail that one supports Nazi Germany or thinks that Nazism is good, but today many people might want to engage in that conflation. I myself regularly get accused of being all sorts of things because I examine ideas which I don’t agree with. It seems to me that we are moving toward a state where people assume that everyone engages in the is/ought fallacy, insofar as any examine of an is connotes that one is also considering an ought. Do you think this so of conflation is common in contemporary discourse?
Yea, I run into this problem a lot, and I have to offer disclaimers where I say, hey, this is a descriptive argument (the way things are) rather than a normative one (the way I wish things were in the ideal world of my own imagining). So, even if you’re an arch-secularist and think mixing religion and politics is a terrible thing, I’d like to think that you could suspend your personal biases and make the extra effort to understand Islam’s role in politics, without hoping, with little evidence, that Islam will somehow be secularized or privatized the way Christianity was. Why hold out hope in something which is extremely unlikely to happen? Keep in mind that Islamists think secularists are just as fucked up as secularists think Islamists are.
I wouldn’t call myself a secularist, but I do consider myself a liberal, in the classical sense. I’m skeptical of religion playing an outsized role in government and, personally, I would never want to live in a country governed by Islamists, even if they were democratically elected in the most free and fair elections imaginable. I don’t want people, least of all people in government, to tell me that I have to live my life in a certain way. This is why I’m pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-marijuana legalization, and so on. This is why I tend to vote for liberals in American elections, even though there are certainly scenarios where I can imagine a conservative (say Romney or McCain) having a more moral and effective foreign policy, than, say, Obama did (for my Romney counterfactual, see here).
Here’s the thing. I’m pretty sure that my liberalism is a product of my own particular experiences, the places I’ve lived, the friends I spend time with, and the fact that I was born and raised in the only country I’d ever want to be born and raised in, which happens to be a country that enshrines classical liberal ideas in its constitution. But what if my parents had ended up somewhere else, in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and raised me (with my same genetic and biological dispositions) in a more conservative society where very few people I knew were proper liberals. Presumably I’d have different beliefs, and there’s a good chance I’d be less liberal than I currently am. Maybe I’d even be a religious conservative! People accuse me a lot of being a moral relativist, and I get why they do. But that’s, as you can probably guess, not how I see it. I’ve just really come to appreciate how the things we take for granted – how we interpret the world around us, what we come to believe – are extremely contingent. And for me to presume that people would or should share the same convictions I do (beyond the two non-negotiables I mentioned earlier) would be, well, extremely presumptuous. Why should they?
And, by the way, I must confess I didn’t know this was called epoche, until you used it in your discussion of my book…
8. As a scholar at a think tank you engage in a lot of “outreach.” In particular, you use Twitter a fair amount. Can you explain how you began using Twitter?
I like Twitter, but I sort of had to discipline myself to use in a way that would justifiably useful and productive. For example, I use it to test out ideas and to get feedback in real time. Many of my articles, especially my more exploratory stuff, start off as tweet threads. I see how people respond, and I learn from their responses. I try to be open to (legitimate) criticisms as much as I can and modify and adapt my arguments accordingly. It only makes sense that I develop my ideas in dialogue with others, since a lot of the stuff I write these days is a product of my own ongoing internal dialogues and moral struggles. This is especially the case when it comes to counterfactual arguments, which I’m a fan of, because I don’t think it’s helpful to think that things had to be the way they ended up being. There are alternate realities and alternative histories that were presumably possible before those histories happened. And these histories unfolded because we, as humans, have agency. The social historian E.H. Carr once said: “In practice, historians do not assume that events are inevitable before they have taken place.” But it’s just as fair to say that they weren’t inevitable even after they took place.
So this particular, even peculiar, understanding of history and human agency colors how I view my role as a writer. This is why I believe in not just analysis, but also in “argument,” because I think we all have a moral responsibility to try to persuade people not that our facts are right, but that there are different sets of moral assumptions and narratives within which we embed facts. Facts in a vacuum are just data points, after all, which is why the American liberal obsession with wielding “facts” and charts to persuade people that whatever they feel is wrong is pretty irritating to me. Politics, to me, is about ideas more than it’s about facts (which, incidentally, is why technocracy rarely works well except in relatively small, homogenous countries). We feel things; we desire things; we “hate,” even when we wish we wouldn’t. We’re all capable of evil. Most of all, we just want to belong. We want to have, or at least in believe in, the possibility of a politics of meaning. Center-left managerial technocracy doesn’t quite offer that. To put a finer point on it, what the center-left in America has become is at odds with who we are. It’s also at odds with basic understandings of good and evil as we’ve understood them throughout most of our history.
Oh, right, you asked me about Twitter. Well, it’s also how I get my news. There are people who I follow who are smart. I trust them, and when they tell me there’s an article I have to read, I probably should read it.
If there’s a topic that’s outside my area of expertise, for example Christian theology, Twitter can help. For chapter two of my book, which focuses on Christianity’s evolving attitudes toward law and governance, I spent endless hours diving into Christian theology and commentary. But I also made new Twitter friends, including the brilliant Christian theologian Joshua Ralston, and they helped me navigate this complex world, pointing me to sources and answering my questions in real-time. Other tweeps would jump in and offer their thoughts. And, to me, that’s the best of what Twitter can be. Ralston’s work has had a huge influence on me, and I finally had the pleasure of meeting him in person in November for the first time. I felt I already knew him, though, which is pretty cool.
9. The Middle East is now going through a demographic transition. What do you think the geopolitical implications of this are? (for example, one reason I’m a bit more skeptical of Iranian bellicosity in comparison to the 1980s is that the Iranian “baby bulge” is moving into their 30s)
Well, as a relatively young person myself, I can’t say I have a lot of faith in young people – or, for that matter, people. I’m in my 30s and a lot of people think that I’m a dangerous neocon-orientalist-imperialist (and an Islamist apologist to boot!). But, seriously, we love to fetishize youth. We did that when the Arab uprisings started: ‘Oh look a bunch of young people who use Twitter and speak passable English are protesting. Liberalism is to come!’ It’s certainly true that young people are sometimes more tolerant, open, or whatever. But that’s not necessarily the case. Young people are generally more likely to blow themselves up or join extremist organizations like ISIS. ISIS is, in a sense, a youth movement. To use a less extreme example, take younger generations of British Muslims: According to a 2007 Policy Exchange survey, 28 percent of British Muslims said they would “prefer to live under sharia law.” The number shoots up to 37 percent among 16-to-24 year olds.
10. Name a book not related to Islam or the Middle East that shaped the way you think.
Brad Gregory’s is up there. Also, despite my strong disagreements with Paul Berman, reading him for the first time was a kind of revelation. I loved the romance, if I can use that word, of his prose in . I couldn’t but respect that he cared about ideas and he believed in things and he wanted to fight for them. He felt something I feel: that so much, maybe too much, is at stake, and the urgency of his prose reflected that. He was enlisting readers in a fight about something bigger. Which reminds me of this passage from David Runciman:
Political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things
This can be dangerous of course, but often times it’s better than the alternative of believing in nothing strongly enough. I then moved on to Berman’s s and then , which he wonderfully subtitled “Or, The Passion of Joschka Fischer, and its Aftermath.” Lastly, another person who I disagree with on an endless number of things, but who influenced me and still influences me, because I keep going back to one particular book, is Niall Ferguson. His perhaps least well-known book is . Counterfactual history is often viewed with scorn and skepticism by practicing historians. It’s a controversial and underdeveloped subfield. In some ways, though, it’s utility seems both obvious and inescapable. As Ferguson writes, “To understand how it actually was, we therefore need to understand how it actually wasn’t.”