The two gentlemen are both very intelligent and both grappling at a fundamental level with what it means to be of this world. I found this especially valuable because they both are, I think, American born and therefore, to some degree, children of the world of the enlightenment era, but they both have strong ties to Old World cultures. One is of Muslim Egyptian heritage, the other of Muslim Bangladeshi heritage.
While both are bright, exceptionally educated, asking all sorts of fundamental questions, it is also startling some of the swaths of ignorance on display as well. Ignorance, not as in stupid, but as in things of which they are unaware.
Part of why I found the interview so interesting is that it skirts an issue about which I have been mulling for some years. I accept that Islam is the number one religion of discord in the world. At this point in time, most of the major civil wars (Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq) are linked to Islam; most of the major terrorist groups (Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.) are linked to Islam; most of the countries suppressing or committing genocide against Christians (Iraq and Sudan) are linked to Islam; most the countries with significant civil violence associated with Muslim minorities (Nigeria, Philippines and Myanmar); and most of the countries with the most egregious human rights records are linked to Islam.
But why should be? It hasn't seemed that it was always so.
My suspicion, though not satisfactorily settled, is that one of the root issues might be that Islam does not fit the mould of what we consider a religion in traditional Western terms. In many ways, it is much closer to an ideology; a totalitarian ideology. I think it is in some respects like Confucianism. We call Confucianism a religion but it lacks some of the obvious traits of what we consider a religion in the West. It is more like an explicated culture than a religion per se. This challenge is a definitional one.
We treat Islam as a religion, as it clearly is in many respects, but wrestle with the totalitarian ideology that is also embedded in the religion - the pursuit of the ummah, as it were.
In the discussion between Hamid and Khan, there are many elements that seem to align to this supposition that the challenge is not with religious Islam but rather with the ideological totalitarian aspect of Islam (where that totalitarian element exists).
An example of the productively provocative conversation:
I think my skepticism on secularism taking hold in the Muslim world was always there somewhere, but they were initially just impressions that weren’t really well thought out. It’s sort of just something I began to feel more and more during my fieldwork in the late 2000s. If you spend a lot of time with Islamists, you can’t help but realize that, when you ask them to explain why they do what they do, they themselves don’t (can’t?) make clear distinctions between “religion” and “politics.” So, I kind of started absorbing this through those conversations, many of which were just pretty much me hanging out with them, with some structured questions to start, but most of it would devolve into free-form conversations, especially with the younger guys. I guess I was just more interested in understanding what really drove them more than in answering the questions I had scribbled down in my notebook.
It really hit me, though, after the Arab Spring, seeing democratic transitions collapse and trying to understand why. Politics – in Egypt certainly but also in supposedly bright, hopeful Tunisia – felt increasingly existential, and the role and power of religion was a big part of that. People weren’t debating the finer points of tax policy or healthcare; they were debating the most fundamental questions you could possibly ask, about the relationship between Islam and the state and what it meant to be an Egyptian or a Tunisian or a Turk. So that led me to a more basic set of observations about what drives not just Islamists or Muslims, but voters (and people) more generally, and that became a theme in my previous book Temptations of Power, in which I began exploring the tensions between democracy and small-l, classical liberalism.
When you see people who you care about and maybe even love – in this case my secular elite relatives in Egypt – supporting the mass killing of their fellow countrymen (during the August 2013 massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters), it really has a lasting effect on you.