By Isaac Chotiner
One of the hopes that grew out of the Arab Spring was that a relatively moderate strain of Islamist politics could thrive in the region. Given the widespread prevalence of dictators and military-led regimes, and the violent radicals who oppose them in mirrored gruesomeness, groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood were seen as potential alternatives. Five years later, however, the Arab Spring has devolved into a collection of bloody failures everywhere from Egypt to Syria. Another proposed model of Islamism—Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey—was already giving way to autocracy well before a quashed coup attempt further entrenched Erdogan’s demagoguery.
These failures have raised the fraught question of whether Islam itself is partially to blame. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of a new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World. The title gives some hint of his provocative analysis. As he writes, “If Islam is, in fact, distinctive in how it relates to politics, then the foundational divides that have torn the Middle East apart will persist, and for a long time to come.”
I recently spoke by phone with Hamid. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why liberals have trouble taking religion seriously, the future of Islamist politics in Turkey and Egypt, and what the rise of Donald Trump has meant for American Muslims.
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