Source: The Atlantic
By EMMA GREEN
Ben Affleck has become an unlikely spokesman for a view on Islam held by many on the American left. In 2014, the actor made a now-famous stand against Bill Maher and Sam Harris in defense of Muslims, arguing that it’s wrong to make generalizations about the religion based on ideological extremists and terrorists. “How about the more than 1 billion people who aren’t fanatical, who don’t punch women, who just want to go to school, have some sandwiches, and pray five times a day?” he said.
In his new book Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid—an Atlantic contributor, a scholar at Brookings, and a self-identified liberal—calls Affleck’s declaration a “well-intentioned … red herring.” Islam really is different from other religions, he says, and many Muslims view politics, theocracy, and violence differently than do Christians, Jews, or non-religious people in Europe and the United States.
Perhaps his most provocative claim is this: History will not necessarily favor the secular, liberal democracies of the West. Hamid does not believe all countries will inevitably follow a path from revolution to rational Enlightenment and non-theocratic government, nor should they. There are some basic arguments for this: Islam is growing, and in some majority-Muslim nations, huge numbers of citizens believe Islamic law should be upheld by the state. But Hamid also thinks there’s something lacking in Western democracies, that there’s a sense of overarching meaninglessness in political and cultural life in these countries that can help explain why a young Muslim who grew up in the U.K. might feel drawn to martyrdom, for example. This is not a dismissal of democracy, nor does it comprehensively explain the phenomenon of jihadism. Rather, it’s a note of skepticism about the promise of secular democracy—and the wisdom of pushing that model on other cultures and regions.
Most Islamists—people who, in his words, “believe Islam or Islamic law should play a central role in political life”—are not terrorists. But the meaning they find in religion, Hamid said, helps explain their vision of governance, and it’s one that can seem incomprehensible to people who live in liberal democracies.
I spoke with Hamid recently about Islamism, ISIS, and the “patronizing” assumptions Americans sometimes make about Islam. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Emma Green: What’s been the reaction to the book, on both the left and the right?
Shadi Hamid: There are things in the book that may anger the left, and there are things in the book that may anger the right. But that’s also what I’m trying to do: challenge some of the dogmas on both sides of this debate. I want to push people to rethink their assumptions on Islam and its role in politics, and how we even view religion as a social force in general.
I am arguing that Islam is exceptional. I think there’s a general discomfort among American liberals about the idea that people don’t ultimately want the same things, that there isn’t this linear trajectory that all peoples and cultures follow: Reformation, then Enlightenment, then secularization, then liberal democracy.
Where I would very much part ways with those on the far right who are skeptical about Islam is that I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing for Islam to play an outsized role in public life.
Green: Are you endorsing the incorporation of theology into governments of predominantly Muslim nations?