In January 2015, after jihadists attacked the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 people, European leaders linked arms to lead a procession of millions through the French capital, chanting “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) in an expression of solidarity with the victims and contempt for their killers. Muslims all over the world also condemned the attacks, as did a number of Islamist organizations, including perhaps the most influential one—the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood, which posted a statement on its English-language website denouncing the “criminal attack” and stating that “true Islam does not encourage violence.”
Not all of the group’s adherents approved of that message, however. A month after the killings, a Muslim Brotherhood activist in Turkey told Shadi Hamid, an expert on political Islam, that she disagreed with the organization’s decision to issue the statement. Like many other mainstream Islamists, she opposed the Paris attack but felt that Islamists should refrain from loudly condemning it because few in the West had spoken out after Egyptian security forces massacred 800 Brotherhood members who were peacefully protesting in Cairo in August 2013. “Our blood is shed day and night and no one pays any attention,” she said. “Our blood is licit, but theirs isn’t. . . . The world’s balance is off.”
That sense of imbalance pervades Islamist organizations of all stripes. Perceived as aggressors, they see themselves as victims; condemned as intolerant, they complain about intolerance of their views. What is indisputable is that even after 15 years during which the intersection of politics and Islam has been a major theme in world affairs, Islamism remains poorly understood, especially in the West. Two recent books tackle the subject, primarily by considering the crises roiling the Middle East and examining Islam’s role in the turmoil. Both books succeed in explaining the dilemmas, paradoxes, and confusion facing political actors in the world’s most volatile region, although each author emphasizes different factors.
Hamid, an Egyptian American who Islamic Exceptionalism around a specific question: In order for the region’s Muslim-majority states to become liberal democracies, must Islam undergo the kind of reformation through which, in the West, Christianity was ultimately subordinated to the principles of the Enlightenment, such as freedom of speech, religious choice, and the idea that legal governance should issue from the popular will? Or can the Islamic world arrive at some form of Muslim democracy by following a different path whereby Islam would maintain its centrality as a private faith and public discourse even though it would remain at odds in many ways with Enlightenment ideals? Hamid argues that the second outcome is more likely. In his view, politics is far more integral to Islam than to Christianity—which has traditionally relied on the God/Caesar distinction to separate the holy from the worldly—and thus the Muslim world is unlikely to witness a replay of the West’s journey toward liberalism, which depended on separating church and state.
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