I just attended a very interesting lecture at the D.C. Rotary Club by Dr. Shadi Hamid, an author and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, on the interplay between Islam and politics. His thesis is that Islam is “exceptional” owing to a fusion of religious and political consciousness. He attributes this in part to the fact that the Prophet was not only a religious leader but an early head of state. In addition, he posits that Muslims subscribe to the belief that the Qu’ran is the words of God transmitted directly without human authorship or mediation, and that this gives the scripture unique moral and political authority.
Dr. Hamid thinks that it is a mistake to overlook the religious motivation of Islamist organizations from the Muslim Brotherhood to even the Islamic State on the supposition that religion is simply a pretext for power politics. He also suggests that Islamist organizations do not distinguish between religion and politics; a split between them is not cognizable within their religious worldview, since the aim of both is salvation.
Dr. Hamid believes that, for good or ill, those who believe that Islam will go through “Reformation” and secularization analogous to the Reformation in the West are mistaken. However, he does believe that Islamist and secular parties can advance their diametrically opposed agendas through peaceful political means in a state such as Tunisia’s fragile democracy, although he worries that corruption and lack of Western economic support may yet undermine the Tunisian experiment. He is also not optimistic that the monarchy in Morocco will be willling to relinquish power in order to promote constitutional government.
Dr. Hamid acknowledges the role that Western power politics play in the discrediting and undermining of democratic institutions in the Middle East, but he also argues that the role of the West in shaping the Middle East should not obscure the role that religion plays in Muslim states.
For those interested, Dr. Hamid’s latest book is Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.