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History Of Our Time: Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?


Some of the smartest people we can find offer their views of the history we're living now. What forces are driving our disorienting age? Richard Reeves spoke of an over-privileged middle class crowding out everyone else. Peter Wayner talked of tribal political divisions.


PETER WAYNER: I think what's happening more than I have experienced in my life is this dehumanization. It's the idea that if somebody has a different view than I do that they're not only wrong but they're morally corrupt or intellectually corrupt or both.

INSKEEP: Now, let's talk of another force shaping our time - political Islam, the religion of more than a billion people. Islam is constantly in the news. It's invoked by ISIS. It's blamed for cultural tension in Europe. It was attacked by President Trump, who called for a ban on Muslim visitors. It was defended by President Bush, who called it a religion of peace.

It's common to ask how ancient Muslim beliefs can adapt to the modern world. After all, Christian beliefs have been shown to co-exist with openness and democracy. Why can't Islam? The scholar Shadi Hamid warns it may not turn out exactly the same.

SHADI HAMID: I think that a lot of people have this hope that, oh, you know, if only Muslims could just be like Christians and follow the same course of history of going through Reformation, Enlightenment, secularism. But if Islam is a different religion than Christianity then, presumably, it will not follow the same course. And it doesn't have to follow the same course. I want to challenge people and say, well, this maybe is how - what we might want ideally as Western liberals, but there may be people who want Islam to have something to say about public life and politics.

INSKEEP: Shadi Hamid is the author of a book called "Islamic Exceptionalism." He's followed the struggle to mesh liberal values with Islam. He thinks of Egypt, where a democratic revolution in 2011 eventually led to the election of an Islamist president. Soon, even pro-democracy groups were supporting a coup to get rid of him.

HAMID: For them, they saw the Brotherhood as being a threat to Egyptian identity as they understood it. And they - and they felt, probably correctly, that if the Muslim Brotherhood stayed in power, they would keep on winning successive elections because again, in conservative societies, if people have the right to vote, they do tend to vote in some way for a public role for Islam.

INSKEEP: How much did it surprise you that it only took a year or two for the liberal, Westernized elite in Egypt to give up on democracy?

HAMID: Look. I mean, so this is what I would hear from my relatives in Egypt, like, hey, Shadi, you're American. You know, you love your democracy, and it's great in theory, but we're the ones who have to live with the consequences of elections. And I think there was a lot of resentment that we, as Westerners, were going in and saying democracy is great, when for them democracy was a threat.

I thought that was a foreign thing that we would just talk about in the Middle East, this fear of the masses voting. But it's interesting that a lot of the rhetoric I used to hear in Egypt, I'm hearing now even in the U.S. or, for that matter, in Europe. So this isn't - it's no longer just a Middle Eastern thing, this question of - democracy is great when the people you like win, but when the people you don't like win, you're like, do I want to stick with this?

INSKEEP: This is only one of the ways since I read this book that I began thinking your description of Arab countries might be more broadly applicable around the world because you talk in here about a loss of faith in politics itself, in the political process. What's happening around the world?

HAMID: So I think as human beings, what we basically want is meaning. And because - for those of us who have lost religion, especially in the West becoming more secularized, there is this gap where religion used to be. And what's filling it in the case of the U.S. is white nativism or ethno-nationalism. And we see the rise of far-right populist parties in Europe. In the Middle East, it just happens that people find that meaning in religion. In the U.S., people are searching.

And I think that's why we have what really feel like existential divides for the first time in my life as an American, where we don't agree on the idea of America because we have a different sense of what's meaningful. So when religion ceases to kind of play this binding role of bringing people together in local communities, that doesn't mean people are going to give up the search for meaning. They're just going to find it in other places.

INSKEEP: Where does Islamist extremism fit into all of this?

HAMID: So look. I mean, when we look at the rise of groups like ISIS, I don't see that as a product of just the last few years or even 2003, the Iraq War. I think it's a product of something deeper. They were able to tap into this lost sense of identity that we're feeling. And unfortunately, extremism, for a tiny minority, can be an appealing option. And this is why I've always been uncomfortable with de-emphasizing the power of ideas and ideology.

So when people talk about ISIS sometimes, there was oh, you know, they don't really believe what they're saying. They're just using Islam. They just want power. And I think that's not the right way of looking at it. I would say most ISIS leaders and fighters do believe that what they're doing is right and commanded by God. And that's what makes them scarier and more dangerous.

INSKEEP: Suppose President Trump called you up, said, hi, Shadi, interesting book. What's one thing you'd have me do? How would you answer the president in that case?

HAMID: I think there's really only one path that works in sort of addressing it, and that's finding ways to accommodate Islam's role in public life. And we don't have to like it. So President Trump might have a big problem with Islam, but this is a reality that exists in much of the Middle East and South Asia.

So it's not realistic to say, oh, they all have to become, you know, secular liberals who read John Locke. Even if we might want that, that's not realistic or pragmatic. So we have to find ways to say, hey, you can be a conservative Muslim. You can even be an Islamist as long as you respect the rules of the game and you express your ideas within the law and the Constitution in any of these countries...

INSKEEP: Allowing space for people who believe differently than you do.

HAMID: Exactly. People are going to hate each other for legitimate reasons, but they have to hate each other peacefully.

INSKEEP: Shadi Hamid is the author of "Islamic Exceptionalism: How The Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping The World." Thanks very much.

HAMID: Thanks for having me. My pleasure.


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