Reading Hamid
© Your Middle East
Reading Hamid
Last updated: December 7, 2014

Interview with the man behind this year’s most important book on Islamism

Banner Icon Shadi Hamid discusses the conflict between democracy and liberalism, the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and why his debut book “Temptations of power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in the New Middle East” has stirred many reactions.

Can you begin with telling us about your new book?

The book is about trying to understand how Islamist movements have changed over time. If we look at the last 40 years we see a lot of important shifts and I wanted to try to offer a framework to understand these shifts. The book was ten years in the making. I started conducting research on the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood in 2004-2005 when I was living in Amman as a Fulbright fellow and ever since then I've been hooked. To me, the tensions between absolute religious ideals and political realities were fascinating and I thought it deserved a more systematic approach.

What can you reveal of your findings?

I make some potentially controversial arguments, one of them is that repression, contrary to the academic and conventional wisdom, can have a moderating effect on Islamist parties and the flipside is that democratisation can push Islamist groups further to the right, towards a more conservative religious approach and towards illiberalism. Liberalism and democracy do not necessarily go together, particularly in the Middle East. I think that poses a challenge to us Westerners: we believe in liberalism, we believe in democracy but what about when those two ideas come into conflict? That is why I think that the Arab Spring was much more challenging for American policymakers than say transitions in Latin America or Eastern Europe. It didn’t go in the direction in the US was hoping for because there were Islamist parties, not liberal parties, that came to power through democratic elections.

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How do you hope the book will influence the American policy towards the Middle East?

Regardless of anything else, I think that the most important thing is that Western policy makers and American audiences understand how Islamist groups look at the world. What is their distinctive vision for society? Because they do have a distinctive vision and at the very least, I think that my book can offer a nuanced understanding of what are very challenging issues. We don’t have to agree with Islamists but we do need to understand them. They also have political and religious commitments that are deeply and honestly felt, so it is not simply that these groups are a mere product or reflection of a particular political context. We also have to take their ideas and beliefs seriously in their own right, and I think the only way you can do that is by spending a lot of time with activists and leaders and really get to know them.

Do you agree that one essential, but absent, ingredient for the region’s democracy is that of respect?

Yes, and I think that this is the fundamental issue right now, you have Islamists on one hand and liberals or secularists on the other and they just haven’t found a way to live with each other. In Egypt for example, it has been very troubling to see that the vast majority of liberals in Egypt ally with the military, support the military coup and also support the mass killings of innocent civilians in the Rabaa massacre, which raises the question: How do people who say they believe in democracy at the start of the Arab Spring turn so quickly against it? That is at the heart of the issue and part of the problem is that liberals see Islamists as an existential threat to their way of life.

Does your repression argument mean that you believe that the Muslim Brotherhood will come back even stronger in Egypt?

My “repression-moderation hypothesis” has been a little bit controversial and it is important to be clear that I am not saying that repression always has a moderating effect, but can have, under certain conditions. In the cases that I focused on, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, I do believe that repression contributed to Islamist moderation. In the book, I also make the distinction between “low to moderate” levels of repression and “eradication,” which is different and that’s what we are seeing in Eygpt right now: an effort to erase the Muslim Brotherhood from the political arena. My argument in the book doesn’t necessarily apply to that because different levels of repression have different kinds of effects.

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What is the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood will be back, it’s just a question in what form and when. The Brotherhood is not just an organization, it represents an idea, an idea that has broad support in the Egyptian society. Look historically, time and time again, autocratic regimes have tried to destroy the Brotherhood or other similar Islamist groups and they may have some success in the short run but it doesn’t last. When we see political openings in these societies, for example in Tunisia and Syria, we see Islamist groups re-emerging very quickly, becoming some of the strongest political forces in their societies. The lesson here, which we should take seriously, is that regimes simply cannot eradicate these groups because the impulses and ideas they reflect are deeply entrenched in society.

What do you think it means for the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood that they have been branded a terrorist group?

This could be the most challenging political environment they have ever been in. They see not just an effort from the Abdel Fatah al-Sisi regime to destroy them but also a broader regional effort. The level of repression we see in Egypt is unprecedented. When people say that this is a return to the Mubarak era, if only it was, because what we had then is nothing compared to now. Mubarak was an autocrat but he never tried to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood. There was always a small margin of political participation allowed. They were tolerated to some extent even if they were officially banned. The level of repression now is quite remarkable. The Brotherhood was not ready for this, they didn’t see it coming, they knew it would be bad, but not this bad.

Should the Muslim Brotherhood have contested the Egyptian Presidency? That was one of their mistakes and that is also why I call the book “Temptations of Power,” because groups like the Brotherhood have always been cautious, or even ambivalent, about political power. They always insisted that they weren't in a rush. I recall a conversation I had with Mohamed Morsi before he became President where he was essentially saying that society wasn’t ready for Islamism so they were playing the long-game and Rached al-Ghannouchi was saying a few years back that the most dangerous thing is for Islamists to be loved before they come to power and hated afterwards. So there was real awareness of the dangers of power. But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt succumbed to the temptations of power despite insisting that they knew better. Before the Arab Spring they said that they were going to take it slow and not go too far too quickly because that would provoke negative reactions from domestic and international political actors because the world wasn’t ready for Islamist parties in power, especially not in Egypt.

Christine Petré
Christine Petré is an editor at Your Middle East. You can follow her work at www.christinepetre.com.
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