Islam and democracy: What’s the problem?


Can Muslim-majority countries strike a balance between faith and democracy? Al Jazeera asks. Or, is there an irreconcilable tension between liberal values and Islamic beliefs?

When we discuss political Islam — commonly, and often derisively, referred to as Islamism — it is predominantly in the context of the Muslim Arab world concentrated across most of the Middle East and North Africa, notes analyst Kevin Sullivan. It’s in this part of the world — where powerful Islamic empires and caliphates once thrived — that the real conflict between modernity and spirituality is being waged, and it is one that could have significant implications for the entire world, he writes for RealClearWorld:

Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution wrestles with this very subject in his latest book, “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.” Far from being a throwback to some pre-modern era, Hamid contends that Islamism in all its shades — from the older and more established Muslim Brotherhood to the radical jihadist organization know as the Islamic State — is in fact a reaction to the blend of colonialism, secularism, and liberalism that has gradually imposed itself on the Middle East since the region’s last official caliphate was abolished in 1924.

Islam, Hamid argues, is unique in how it interacts with politics, and in particular with democracy. Whereas Muslim identity was once an unspoken given in a region dominated by Muslims, the creep of colonialism and Western occupation has made the clear articulation of a more conscious Islam all the more critical in the minds of the devout.

There is a tension underlying Hamid’s thesis – that secularism without democracy is neither sustainable nor desirable, analyst Amanda Zeidan writes for Huffington Post:

Hamid’s analysis neglects a discussion of Islamist movements across Central Asian and Eurasian states. Several post-Soviet Islamic countries of Central Asia and Eurasia have foregone democratic ideals for the sake of augmenting their security apparatuses, not unlike autocracies in the Middle East. However, the general population of countries like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan do not necessarily want to see religion play a more central role in public life. Kazakhstan is one such country that proves to be a fairly well-functioning, though undemocratic, secular Muslim-majority state. One wonders if this calls into question Hamid’s argument that Islam is unique in how it relates to politics.

With the rise of ISIS and a growing terrorist threat in the West, unprecedented attention has focused on Islam, which despite being the world’s fastest growing religion, is also one of the most misunderstood, Brookings adds:

In his new book “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World” (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), Brookings Senior Fellow Hamid offers a novel and provocative argument on how Islam is, in fact, “exceptional” in how it relates to politics, with profound implications for how we understand the future of the Middle East. Hamid argues for a new understanding of how Islam and Islamism shape politics by examining different modes of reckoning with the problem of religion and state, including the terrifying—and alarmingly successful—example of ISIS.

On June 9, Shadi Hamid and Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy Leon Wieseltier will discuss the unresolved questions of religion’s role in public life and whether Islam can—or should—be reformed or secularized. After the discussion, Hamid will take audience questions.

Please join a fascinating conversation, followed by a reception and book signing. Attendees may purchase “Islamic Exceptionalism” at an exclusive 10 percent discount, with the option of pre-ordering a signed copy online.

June 9, 2016

5:30 PM – 8:00 PM EDT

Brookings Institution

Falk Auditorium

1775 Massachusetts Avenue NW


The Future of Political Islam

More than five years ago, popular uprisings across the Middle East rocked the region’s authoritarian order to its core. Groups espousing some version of political Islam, not Western-style democracy, appeared to be among the biggest beneficiaries of the resulting turmoil, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies adds:

But a half decade later, political Islam’s future seems less clear cut, largely overshadowed by the violent jihadism of the Islamic State. The Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt was overthrown in a military coup in 2013. Tunisia’s Ennadha Party has recently announced that it was abandoning Islamist politics. Rather than finding himself at the head of a region-wide Islamist ascendance, Turkey’s Erdogan and the AKP appear more isolated than ever internationally.

What are the implications of these developments for the fate of political Islam? How enduring are the setbacks likely to be? How popular do Islamist movements remain? What lessons should be drawn about U.S. policy toward Islamist parties?

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies will be hosting a conversation on the current state and future of political Islam in the Middle East. The discussion will feature Reuel Marc Gerecht, Senior Fellow at FDD, Robert Satloff, Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Jenny White, Professor at Boston University and Turkey expert, and will be moderated by John Hannah, Senior Counselor at FDD.

15th June 2016 – 12:00 PM


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