Shadi Hamid begins his essay on “The Roots of the Islamic State’s Appeal” by noting first the tendency of political scientists, including himself, to see “religion, ideology, and identity” as “products of a given set of material factors.” In the next, second sentence he identifies this same materialism as a belief in “the primacy of politics,” so would seem to be equating “politics” with “material factors.” Those material factors that in the political scientific view produce religion, ideology, and identity and that equate with “politics” would seem to be brute material motivations of human animals, organisms of the genus homo, species sapiens, driven biologically to seek sustenance or profit or power or other “material” benefit or satisfaction. Hamid’s further explication bears out this initial reading: Neglect or derogation of “ideas” (religion, ideology, identity) is in Hamid’s depiction or confession a precondition as well as a result of the political-scientific tendency or of political science. Next to this materialist anthropology, which Hamid links to a typically Western comprehension of historical progress, one whose surface optimism on progress toward “a more reasonable, secular future,” or “liberal determinism,” belies the nihilistic cynicism of its premises, Hamid places the converse shape of Islamism, whose eruption in the Western consciousness is typically in acts of annihilation expressing preferences utterly contrary to any natural law of material self-benefit, but which in this appearance belies an underlying idealism.
According to the title, the interest of the essay will mainly concern the appeal of the latter view, the “Appeal” of “the Islamic State,” but Hamid has in mind a set of Islamic states or state concepts, not just the so-called “Islamic State” or “IS.” In this essay Hamid refers to the particular group exclusively by an acronym that the group itself has sought to deprecate. Hamid uses “ISIS,” referring to the force or supposed state operating in (going by the English usage) “Iraq and Syria.” The words “Islamic State” appear twice in his essay as posted: once in the title, and once in the title of a book that Hamid cites, and that was published in 2012, before the “Islamic State” of 2014 was declared. Hamid’s approach to this naming question is consistent with what turns out be his main argument, one in favor of the same actual synthesis that the counterposed ideologies also both embody, only with, as noted above, inward and outward forms reversed: Both the Western materialist, even the most depraved of political scientists, as well as the Middle Eastern idealist, even the most self-transcendent of political terrorists, insist on the simultaneity and interdependence of both real and ideal ends, and therefore of the practicality of their idealism and of the ideality of their practice. In the West or for a materialism that can function also as an ethos, our successes are products of our virtues and proof of them; in the Middle East or for an idealism that can function in a real or material world, Allah grants us or will grant us victories because we serve Him, and only if we serve Him, but He does or will grant us victories, ones that will be real or real for believers whether fully experienced in this life or in a next, also real or more real, life. (The Islamic State, in this way like any other state, would be or is already a state of things and affairs among the living, whatever its ideas regarding death and eternity.) Still, though Hamid insists on the necessity of an Islamic state, or of an Islamic state concept for different actual nation-states (or state-nations), he refuses to grant that any particular or real existing Islamic state truly exhausts the possibilities of Islam or Islamism.
Hamid’s argument may, as ever, be taken by his legion of critics as apologetic, but, taken on its own terms, it is in the first instance realistic or scientific, and in the second instance, and not incidentally, humane. “ISIS,” says Hamid, “draws on, and draws strength from, ideas that have broad resonance among Muslim-majority populations.” He does not declare it a good thing or a bad thing that these ideas have such resonance. It is for him a material-historical fact that further implies, for complex and deeply “rooted” material-historical reasons, that any durable, realizable state in the Middle East will have to be a credibly Islamic so in some sense Islamist state, and that, by the same token, seeking some other end, in other words seeking a non- or anti-Islamist state or states in the Middle East, will be a hopeless and destructive project – thus his concluding sentence: “To drive even the more pragmatic, participatory variants of Islamism out of the state system would be to doom weak, failing states and strong, brittle ones alike to a long, destructive cycle of civil conflict and political violence.”
As for those who pin their hopes or political programs on a renovated Islam, or on a movement for, as it is sometimes said, “separation of mosque and state,” Hamid explains that dreams of an Islamic Reformation need to take prior real experiences into account: “[T]here is one slight complication,” he writes sardonically. “Islam has already experienced a ‘reformation’ of sorts.” He refers specifically to “the Islamic modernism of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Mohammed Abu,” a phenomenon of the late 19th Century, and he develops his argument in an historically much more sophisticated manner than will be found in familiar clash of civilizations polemics and calls for a Middle Eastern Martin Luther to nail some liberalizing theses at the portals of Mecca or perhaps Al-Azhar. It should perhaps go without saying, however, that few to none of Hamid’s own simplifications and generalizations – “In pre-Enlightenment Europe, clerical despotism was the major problem” and so on – can be taken as settled facts and on face value either. In this connection, before entirely dispensing with the Reformation model, it may be worth noting that the movement from Martin Luther to the “Great Separation” of church and state in the West was hardly a quick and easy process. Ignoring precursors who needed centuries of their own to make Luther possible, and even setting aside all remnant questions as to whether the “separated” or religiously disestablished state is or can be as neutral on matters of faith as we may take on faith, there were still nearly 300 years full of strife of impressive generality and extremity from Luther’s time to the “no religious test clause” and the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. We might be inclined to acknowledge further that the ensuing movement over another two-plus centuries to the wonders of de-idealized 21st Century political science was accompanied by no small amount of “civil conflict and political violence.” Put differently, though Islam or various Islamicate countries have in fact extensive experience with reform movements and reform ideas, what specifically they have not undergone or completed is a Reformation of the Western type. Whether and in what ways the various pseudo-Islamic states and Islamic pseudo-states of the Middle East and North Africa may undergo a significantly similar process remains an open and complex question. It is even questionable whether the Reformation has been or can be completed in the West.
What neither Hamid nor anyone else will be able to demonstrate is that “a long, destructive cycle of civil conflict and political violence” can be avoided even under a dedicated acceptance of “even the more pragmatic, participatory variants of Islamism.” From the time of Abduh and and Al-Afghani’s collaboration to now is around the same length of time as from the 95 Theses to the Thirty Years War. No would-be friend of the people or peoples of Iraq and the Levant will want to support this rough parallel, though comparisons of the current situation to the 17th Century European cataclysm have occurred to many, and are reinforced by Hamid’s reference to the Westphalian order of international law that emerged from it. The affected peoples today, who may in one way or another include all of us, can look for evidence that our contemporary very complicated war of sects, empires, states, sub-states, and proxies possesses a fundamentally different character than that other one 400 years ago. They or we can hope that in our technological age even very complex and conflictual historical processes may culminate more quickly, but why should we presume that, even if they do, they will do so in fundamentally different ways than they seem to have done in all ages? To doubt that we should is a neither simply optimistic nor simply pessimistic stance.