Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, discusses the outcome of the U.S. presidential election and the role of identity, morality, and religion in American politics, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, www.CFR.org, and on our new podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.
We are delighted to have Shadi Hamid with us to talk about the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, and the role of identity, morality, and religion in America politics. Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy. He is the author of the new book, “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle over Islam is Reshaping the World,” and his previous book, “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East,” was named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2014. Dr. Hamid previous as director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and the Project on Middle East Democracy. He was also a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center of Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. And you can follow him on Twitter @ShadiHamid.
Shadi, thanks very much for being with us today.
HAMID: Thanks for having me.
FASKIANOS: I sent out in advance of this call your recent Foreign Policy article. And in that, you wrote, “The overlap between Trumpism and Islamism is no coincidence.” It would be great if you could start off our conversation by elaborating on what you meant by that statement.
HAMID: Sure. Well, first of all, Thanks, Irina, and CFR for having me. And thanks to all of you for joining this call.
So as someone who works on illiberal democracy abroad, this election has been a little bit surreal for me because the issues I worked on in the context of the Middle East are now, somewhat to my surprise, relevant in my home country, the U.S. And so just to kind of be clear on terms, so illiberal democracy is just—first, you know, popularized by Fareed Zakaria in his 2003 book, “The Future for Freedom.”
The idea here is the democracy and liberalism—in the classical liberal sense, not in the American liberal sense—are oftentimes in tension. And for the first time, we have a president in the U.S. who I consider to be an illiberal democrat—meaning, he is democratically elected, he is democratically legitimate, but he seems to have an ambivalent relationship at best with the things that we associate with the classical liberal tradition, so civil rights protection, the bill of rights, the constitutional order, equal rights for minorities, personal freedoms, so on and so forth.
And, I mean, this is very striking to me. And it’s in that particular sense of having illiberal parties or individuals come to power through free elections, that is the kind of common thread between, let’s say, the rise of Islamism in the Middle East, the rise of the anti-immigrant far-right in Europe, right nativism in the U.S., far-right Hindu nationalism in India—the list goes on. And we’re seeing this kind of broader movement. And so all these different movements and groups are quite disparate and very different. And I want to emphasize that and be clear about that.
At the same time, the common thread is not just illiberalism but something deeper, which I think we really have to reflect on, which is the failure of traditional left-liberal politics. So in other words, center-left politics—which I argue in the Foreign Policy essay—has become unthreatening and uninspiring, that we have a kind of technocratic, managerial liberalism that has failed to inspire voters and offer a substantive politics of meaning. In other words, there’s a lot of focus on policy and process, and nudging along the margins of politics—economic tinkering, if you will. But there isn’t a broader discourse on the ends of politics. So what is this all really for? And that’s what the center-left has, I think, failed to really address, not just in elections here in the U.S., but more broadly. And I’ll say a little bit more about that in a moment.
But the other thing I’ll just mention—and this is more on a personal level in terms of the common threads here, whether it’s in the Middle East or the U.S.—is the feeling of politics becoming existential. So when I was writing about the Egyptian elections after the Arab Spring, it was very striking to me how existential the discussions and debates were. People didn’t really care about policy. No one was talking about tax reform or universal health care. They were talking about the very foundations of the nation-state. They were talking about the most raw and existential issue you can talk about in the Middle East, which is the role of religion in everyday life.
And this sort of corresponds to questions of identity. What does it mean to be an Egyptian or a Tunisian, and so on? And for the first time, with these election results here in the U.S., I felt that my own politics as an American were existential. And I had never quite felt it before, in the sense that I didn’t care—at least for that moment—don’t get—I still care about universal health care. But for that moment, when the results became clear, it wasn’t about specific policy questions. It was about the question of who we are as Americans and what is our shared identity—and also issues of safety, the safety of my own family and community, being an American Muslim, and the idea that these results could have actual consequences, not just in some abstract sense but in terms of the people I know and love.
And one anecdote that kind of, I think, might convey this is over Thanksgiving weekend I was with some relatives in Ohio. And we—I hadn’t seen them in a while. And they were asking me about the results, and specifically how likely was a Muslim registry. So we had to talk about Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 Supreme Court decision that upheld internment of Japanese-Americans. And I tried to tell them, and this is what I think, is that this is unlikely. But then it dawned on me, the very fact that I have to have a conversation with my relatives in America, as American citizens, about even the mere possibility of a Muslim registry is incredible to me. And I’ve thought about it since, how striking that is.
And this gets me to another point, when we’re talking about the future of liberal democracy, which is the importance of norms, in the sense that there is no law against proposing a Muslim registry. Actually doing one might be a different issue. But we have had traditionally norms against talking about far-right fringe ideas that contradict our values as Americans. But once you have a prominent politician—in this case a presidential candidate—float ideas like this in a campaign, and also let’s recall that candidate Trump refused to disavow the internment of Japanese-Americans. And we kind of look back and we wouldn’t have been able to imagine a candidate refusing to disavow the 1944 decision four or five years ago.
But what we’ve learned, I think, is that norms can erode quite quickly. And it’s not just on things like that, but also how we talk about a free press, threatening press freedom, trying to pressure media organizations, questioning whether democratic outcomes are legitimate. So when candidate Trump was talking about rigged—a rigged process and rigged elections. But I think it’s also on the other side, I’m concerned to see, you know, friends and colleagues I would say on the left side of the spectrum who have said—who are, you know, using hashtags like #NotMyPresident. It’s concerning to me because, as much as it worries me, Trump and his ideas, I have to also acknowledge that he was legitimately and democratically elected. And therefore, whether I like it or not, he is my president. He is our president.
But the fact that these norms, which we wouldn’t have questioned five or six years ago, are now being questioned primarily on one side, but also on the other, is something that, you know, we have to think about. How does that happen? And how do we stop it? And I was just rereading this earlier today, a speech that Antonin Scalia had given in 2014 where he talked about the 1944 decision. The first thing he said about it is that it could happen again. But he also invoked a Latin expression. And he said: In times of war, the laws fall silent. And I think this is a very important point to remember, that we do have a Constitution. We do have laws. But in times of great stress, when we feel threatened, when we feel considerable insecurity, laws aren’t usually enough. And then all we have left is our norms, in other words, the norms that we’ve been immersed in as Americans.
And one example that I think about is there’s a reason that we don’t talk about military coups against elected governments in the U.S. Not because we’re going to be prosecuted if we write that in a local op-ed, but because we know as Americans that you’re not supposed to say that. And the fact that we’re even having these conversations at a time when we’re not in full out—in a full-out state of war with another country, let’s say, in terms of the comparison with World War II, but also the fact that we haven’t had a large-scale terrorist attack on the scope of 9/11. So it would be more understandable if we were having these debates right after 9/11. But we’re, in fact, having them now.
And of course, there is a growing terrorist threat, with ISIS, and lone wolves, and those who are inspired by ISIS. But I worry that as the terrorist threat gets worse—god forbid—but if it does get worse and we have groups like ISIS that continue to wreak havoc in the West, then it raises the question of how do we respond and react after terrorist attacks, which are questions obviously that, you know, our counterparts in France and Belgium have had very intense and difficult debates about, particularly over the past year.
The last thing I’ll just say as I close up here is I have a somewhat dark view of human nature. So I don’t think that liberalism in the classical sense is our natural setting. I actually more and more have come to believe, in part because I spend a lot of time in the Middle East, that illiberalism is our natural setting. And the only way that liberalism really survives is through the active work of citizens who argue for liberalism and who protect against the violations against it.
And I think one interesting way to sort of bring Christianity into this discussion—and we can talk about—talk about this more in the Q&A—I’ve been thinking, and I mentioned this briefly in the Foreign Policy essay and I’ve also been influenced by Christian writers like Rod Dalsack (ph), for example. But this idea that as mainstream Christianity has entered into decline in the U.S., that Christianity no longer provides a resonance politics, or a politics of meaning for most Americans that that—you know, a secular person might say, hey, that’s a good thing.
But on the other hand, be careful what you wish for because as we’ve had this vacuum of culture, identity, of a substantive politics of meaning, what we’ve seen fill that vacuum are things like white nativism, white nationalism, ethno-nationalism. And obviously the Trump campaign was able to draw on those sentiments. Now, to be fair, the vast majority of evangelical Christians voted for Trump, but not because of his religious persuasion. In fact, as some have argued, Trump may very well be the most secular president we’ve had in recent memory.
So in that sense, it gets to this—and I’ll bring it back to where I started. The common thread here is that we all naturally want a politics of meaning. We search for it, even if we’re not always aware of it. And the question is what will fill that vacuum of identity, culture and meaning? So for the left what that means is how to come up with a less-liberal politics that offers something that is more meaningful and inspiring for disaffected voters who have lost faith in the left liberal project. On the right, what I think that means is—especially for those in the faith community—is how to sort of bring a kind of mainstream Christianity back into the public discourse, which is not seen as overly partisan, which cuts across partisan lines and helps address this sort of crisis of liberal democracy and this crisis of meaning that more and more liberal democracies, such as ours, are facing.
So I’ll end there and look forward to the conversation.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thanks so much. Let’s open it up now to the group.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we will open the floor for questions.
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We will take our first question from Shaik Ubaid with Muslim Peace Coalition.
UBAID: Thank you so much, Mr. Hamid, for a very thought-provoking, you know, discourse. Following you on Twitter has helped me.
I have two questions, one about the Muslim world and one about the U.S. and the Muslims living here. Very interesting use of word, illiberalism and illiberal precedent. That, and his megalomania is—both of them are quite in common with Sisi and other, you know, tyrants and also democratically elected demagogues, like Modi of India. Because of that, how much closer would you work with, for example, Sisi, who is a tyrant, and how much would you increase the gap between U.S. and the Muslim masses in the Muslim world? And the second thing is, when you take on somebody who is coming to power through demagoguery and through fearmongering, and every time in history when the dominant group is losing its numerical domination there is a—insecurity is a normal thing.
And Trump has exploited that. So when we don’t deal with it and just—Muslims are focusing on their civil rights, and most of the time supporters will not care because they are afraid and they are fearful. So is that the right way of—I’m not talking about the morally right way, but from a strategic point of view—is that the right way of Muslims? For example, Keith Ellison running for, you know, for the office of minority—for the DNC chair. Should Muslims take a high profile or should they take a lower profile at this time?
HAMID: Great. Thanks for your question.
So on the first part of that, I do think what we’re very likely to see is a pro-autocrat foreign policy from the Trump administration. And they’ve actually made this quite clear, not just over the course of the campaign but more recently. And the fact that Trump has lauded figures like Duterte of Philippines and you mentioned Sisi, of course—I think all of that is in keeping with this idea of strongman politics, which I think Trump is sympathetic to.
And so—and I think it has major implications for how the U.S. speaks about human rights and democracy abroad, that there’s less moral authority to talk about those kinds of things under the new administration. But when it comes to speaking to Muslims abroad—and here I’m talking less about governments, some of which are actually not that negative about Trump—but in terms of Muslims more generally and public diplomacy, I think we are entering into dangerous territory in the sense that several—or many, I should say, of the people in the Trump camp have used very problematic rhetoric around Islam.
So General Flynn and his talk of Islam being a cancerous political ideology. Trump has actually said, quote, unquote, “I think Islam hates us.” And I remember when I first saw that quote, but I was talking to someone the other day and I was saying, well, remember when Trump said that. But I almost couldn’t believe that my own president-elect, but soon to be president, could actually say something like that. So I had to check—I wanted to check back just to make sure. And he did in fact say, “I think Islam hates us.” And it’s interesting for me, how many times I’ve had to go back and sort of rethink to myself, wait, could someone have actually said that? Turns out, yes.
So I think that that’s really concerning, this anti-Islam rhetoric. The question is, what does that mean in policy terms? And is that—will there actually be new policy that will affect—whether it’s Muslims abroad or Muslims at home—when it comes to some kind of Muslim registry or Muslim-registry like—something like NSEERS on steroids—so, N-S-E-E-R-S, the kind of immigrant registry system that we had pre-2011.
So on your second—on your second question—so I—you know, I don’t know if I want to get into this part of it too much, but my own view and something I’ve written a little bit about after the election is this question of identity politics. And I think that it’s become a very controversial debate among people on the left. I think that a very strong focus on identity politics can be counterproductive. I mean, this idea of seeing the Democratic Party’s coalition of consisting of different ethnic and minority groups, and seeing them as such, and trying to sort of bring together all these groups to form patchwork majority—which was essentially the electoral strategy of Hillary Clinton in this election season—this idea that whites were overwhelmingly going to vote for Trump and the only way to counter that was to bring all the other groups that felt threatened together.
But I think that that feeds into what can be a problematic situation, where the white majority in this country is essentially being told that, hey, you guys are going to become a minority over time, and we’re going to keep on building enough of a coalition to essentially counter the effects of the white majority vote. And I think that, as many have argued, has, you know, in some ways provoked whites in America to act as a kind of minority group in their own way.
And this is something that we know about populism throughout the world, that when democratic majorities feel threatened, and there’s a threat that they might over time either become less powerful, less influential, or become outright minorities in their own country, that can provoke a very aggressive response. And there are a number of examples that we can point to, whether it’s in Europe, India, Israel, whatever it happens to be. So I think finding ways to avoid that kind of polarizing discoursing where we’re essentially doing demographic measurements—I don’t—I don’t know.
I’m not white, so I can’t speak to this, but if I was a white person and someone was telling me, hey, you’re all going to become a minority by 2060 or whatever it is, I could imagine that that would make me a little bit uncomfortable to hear that, as a particular electoral strategy to overcome the problem of the white voter, if you will—or the white working class, as it’s called these days.
UBAID: Thank you. I completely agree with you, being a behavior neurologist. You know, and the people in India before, during Modi’s election, especially on the left, did not listen to that advice that we were giving to them. And that’s why Modi won there. And the same thing is going to happen here in subsequent elections if we go the route of identity politics, because the white reaction is very normal and demagogues will exploit that. Thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
HAMID: Can I just do one—
FASKIANOS: Go ahead, go ahead.
HAMID: Maybe just say one last thing very quickly on the sort of Keith Ellison Muslim point. I mean, that doesn’t mean that Muslims—I’m very much someone who supports Muslims, like any other—like any other group in the U.S.—being as active and participatory in American politics as they can be. And you know, I think it’s healthy that because of the threat of Trump more Muslims are trying to participate in local politics, and feel that they have more of a stake in the future of America.
And I can even feel that with my own parents, who are immigrants but are American citizens, who feel like they—you know, they’re not going to give up. They are very concerned and worried, as people who are most visibly Muslim than, say, I am. But they are going to do what they can to fight for what they believe in, and to fight for the America that they believe in. And I think that all minority groups should be encouraged to do that, but that doesn’t mean we have to sort of fall in the trap of identity politics.
And that’s why I don’t see—I don’t see anything wrong with Keith Ellison running for DNC chair. There’s nothing wrong with a Muslim being the head of the DNC, as long as they’re able to speak, in my view, beyond the confines of identity politics, and to have a broader message that can appeal to all Americans.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the David Greenhaw with Eden Theological Seminary.
GREENHAW: Yeah. Thank you very much. I not only enjoyed the talk, but I very much enjoyed the essay that—on liberal democracy. You make a point in both, the conversation that’s about the role of mainline Christianity. And I have an observation that I wonder if you’d reflect on just a little bit, about mainline Christianity has, in its leadership at least, and I count myself among these, started to lean so far to the left that it has become politically aligned in a way that it has given up the ground of doing norm-shaping. And I think your point about the erosion of the norms is extraordinarily insightful and valuable. And I wonder if you observe that, and if you’d have any counsel to those of us in this kind of leadership position about reclaiming not as our right but as our responsibility to help liberal democratic norms.
HAMID: Thank you. So when I—when I’ve written about and thought about the role of Islam in public life abroad, the point that I often make to American audiences—and usually in this case secular American audiences in the sort of bastions of northeastern elite liberalism—and maybe it’s self-evident to many of you in the faith community, but unfortunately it’s not always, that religion playing a role in public life is not always or necessarily a bad thing. And I feel like that’s almost a starting presumption. Whenever people hear about religion playing a role in the public arena, you know, especially in places like D.C., and New York and so on, there’s that kind of built-in assumption that, oh, religion is better off privatized. And I think that is part of the broader crisis that I am—that I am pointing to.
And I’m sure you could—you and others could speak more to the role that mainline Christianity can play in that regard, but I do think there is a very important role for the faith community—whether it’s mosques, synagogues, or churches—to talk about principles and how they apply to our politics. Because what I—this goes back to the be careful what you wish for argument. My concerns with things like white nativism or ethno-nationalism is that they are quite incoherent ideologically. And there aren’t—it’s hard to sort of bring strong, deeply held principles to bear on those kinds of new modern ideologies.
Where I think that—when we’re talking about something in the context of religion, religious voices are better able and better equipped to say, well, you’re speaking about religion in public life and you claim to be evangelical, or whatever it happens to be. We have principles. We have things that we stand for, red lines if you will. And I think that ultimately if we want to think about religion playing a positive role in public life, the faith community can do much more to talk about what are those normative—those norm boundaries or normative boundaries in terms of what’s acceptable in the context of living as Americans in a multicultural, pluralistic democracy. And my hope is that even those in, let’s say, the evangelical community who supported Trump, will hold him to account based on their own—their own principles as Christians, if and when he crosses any number of red lines.
GREENHAW: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, David. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Frances Flannery, with the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Terrorism and Peace.
FLANNERY: Thank you. I really appreciate your thoughtful reflections in turning our attention to how this American situation relates to identity politics around the globe. And I want to ask you a question about your statement that resisting Trump’s election in ways such as identifying with the #NotMyPresident hashtag is undemocratic, and I think you’re suggesting dangerous to democracy. But Hannah Arendt’s warning about the banality of evil speaks against the danger of accepting unethical government actions because it is just as social norm. And so my question is, at what point is normalization of this presidency dangerous? What actions would have to happen in order for you to say that civil disobedience or resistance of the—of this president’s legitimacy would be acceptable?
And if I can give you just a specific example of the danger I’m thinking of, I have written on apocalyptic terrorism, which is the phrase I use instead of things like radical Islam, since it applies cross culturally. And I’ve noted that out of four reality propositions that I find characterize violent apocalypticism, instead of peaceful varieties, even during the election Trump’s language and his actions supported a climate that fosters three out of four of these violent characteristics of terrorist groups—such as negative stereotyping of other groups and redemptive violence, saying we might even use nuclear weapons to achieve our goals.
So again, my question, at what point is normalizing this presidency and accepting its legitimacy dangerous? And where would you draw the line?
HAMID: Great question. Thank you.
So don’t get me wrong. So I think there are many things that we have heard, not just in the campaign but in the transition, that I would consider to be on the level of dangerous. There’s no doubt about that. And I think that there’s a way for us to resist and to hold to account based on the things that happen on a daily basis. And that can include things like the appointment of someone like Steve Bannon, or General Flynn, who has actually said, believe it or not—I mean, I still can’t believe it—fear of Muslims is rational. I mean, that’s a very scary prospect, that the top national security official in the White House is someone who feels comfortable saying that publicly.
So I think that we have to be as—we have to be as vigilant as we possibly can. Where I draw the line and what I’m not comfortable with is the casting doubt on the legitimacy of electoral results. So in that sense, you can think that your president is doing very dangerous things, while still acknowledging that he is your democratically elected and legitimately elected president. I don’t think those two things are necessarily in conflict, although of course they are in tension. And this is always the challenge in context of illiberal democracy, is the—what does it really mean to be loyal opposition?
But I really worry about precedent setting in their version of norms, as I mentioned. And I wouldn’t want this to be the start of a situation where every election is existential on either side, because I can also imagine the reverse, that because those on the right don’t like a democratically elected president that they see as a threat to their own view of America, that they would get involved in something like questioning the very legitimacy of that president. And we saw some of this certainly under Obama, where his legitimacy, even his Americanness was questioned.
And I guess the one other thing I would say is that I have a—I just happen to have a little bit of a different view about the nature of good and evil. And not to go too much into sort of moral philosophy, but I have been—there was an article some of you might recall in Slate a couple weeks ago which was titled, “There Is No Such Thing as a Good Trump Voter.” And it made me uncomfortable, in the sense that I don’t see good and bad as being wholly separate categories. I see them as being intertwined.
And I think one of our weaknesses, from the standpoint of—you know, from the standpoint of many liberals on how we view evil—and small-L liberals here I’m talking about—because we believe that the arc of history bends towards better things, whether it’s freedom, justice, or whatever, we tend to see evil as something that is outside of our realm. It’s contradicting the very arc—the teleological arc of history. And we see it as being the other. It’s beyond us, in a sense, right?
But where I tend to have a different view, and one that I think is more historical, in the sense that good and bad are endlessly intertwined. And I can imagine that if I was different, if I had a different upbringing, if I wasn’t an American Muslim and I grew up in a different part of the country, I can very easily imagine myself not just supporting Trump but very much wanting him to win and being very enthusiastic. And that shouldn’t necessarily mean that I am somehow complicit in evil. And I think we have to make an extra effort to understand the legitimate reasons that people voted for someone who we—who many of us consider to be threatening. And that requires a certain level of empathy.
And the last thing I’ll say on this, for those of you who have also worked on the Middle East, is I’m sort of struck by, you know, after the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections in Egypt, I remember many of the so-called liberal or secular elites in Egypt talking about the Islamist masses and the Islamist voters who voted for the Brotherhood, in somewhat similar terms that I sometimes hear my liberal friends here in the U.S. talking about Trump supporters. So maybe I’m just coming at it from that angle. And that’s—it reminds me of a very scary situation that I saw up close where Egyptians ended up basically killing their fellow countrymen over existential divides after several elections, which were just too existential. So again, I’m coming at it from that perspective. And perhaps that’s part of it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Thomas Uthup from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations.
UTHUP: Hello. Hello, can you hear me?
FASKIANOS: Yes, we can. Go ahead.
UTHUP: OK, great. Thank you, Dr. Hamid, for the fascinating piece and the conversation.
I’m just wondering if we could kind of bring the whole issue of illiberalism and this end of history phenomenon together, because this illiberalism in the West, is this really a retreat to the primordial identities because of the discomfort with being objects of history, rather than shapers of history? And what I mean by that is that, you know, for the last 25 to 50 years, one could make the case that the West, rather than being the shapers of history, as during the periods of colonialism, imperialism, but have had to now become objects of history because of events that have happened in the non-Western and the developing world. So, for instance, you know, what happened in 1979 in Iran, what happened in the ’80s in Afghanistan. And if you come all the way right now, to what is happening in Syria, has now ended up actually affecting the West much more than in the past.
But is this really something that has happened? Or is it really that, you know, what happened in the last elections was merely a small—a few—tens of thousands of—a few tens of thousands of people had turned out to vote in particularly the swing states, the Midwestern states. And I used to—I live in one that used to be a bellwether state, the state of Ohio. But, if you like, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania. If they had just turned the other way, if, for instance, there had been much more turnout of the people who are, quote, “liberals,” unquote, we would be having a very different conversation. So is this—so to sum up my question, is this really an epochal change? Or is it something that is a tactical mistake on the part of one side not to turn out the people en masse. Thank you.
HAMID: Thanks. So I think even if Hillary had won, we would have needed to have a similar conversation. And in some ways, I think this is actually the silver lining for those who are unhappy with the result, is that we can have the conversations we probably otherwise wouldn’t have been—wouldn’t have been having if Hillary Clinton had won. And, you know, so the very fact that we’re having this call on the future of liberal democracy, I presume we wouldn’t have had it, at least not at this particular moment, if the election results had turned on tens of thousands of voters, as you had suggested. But the broader trends are still there. I mean, whether it’s Brexit, the Italian referendum, the fact that an Austrian presidential candidate was able to get 46 percent of the vote—he lost, but 46 percent for a party that was founded by former Nazis is still kind of concerning, right? So I mean, that’s one thing.
But I do—I do think that what we’ve seen here, because even if Hillary Clinton had won, this still would have been an election that was decided not based on traditional left-right politics, but based on identity. So I think many Clinton—if not most Clinton voters, including myself—I did not vote for her because of particular policies. I voted for her because of identity, because of the broader threats to the liberal project. So it wasn’t about tax reform or universal health care, at least not for me. And I think that’s what we’ll see in a number of other countries—a growing number of countries for the foreseeable future, which is that it’ll be harder to know what’s left and what’s right. And we’ll have to even perhaps redefine those terms.
On your point about being powerless, I mean, that’s a very important one. And I think—and I’ve been thinking more and more recently about how this sense of powerlessness fits in with the rise of conspiracy theory in the West, and particularly in the U.S. with things like Pizzagate—which I didn’t know was a thing until two days ago. And the fact that anyone could think that Pizzagate was a real thing, something is going on here. And I don’t know. It’s hard to know. And I think there are a couple academics, not very many, who actually specialize on the phenomenon of conspiracy theorizing. But one thread in this literature is the sense of citizens being powerless to shape their own outcomes, precisely as you suggested.
And this is where I think the rise of ISIS, and the refugee crisis, and the general sense that we, as a lot of Americans have, that something is not right. We can’t always put our finger on it. But even myself—I mean, I don’t—I don’t suffer from the economic anxiety that many in the so-called white working class do. Or I don’t suffer from racial anxiety. But I have lived with a sense, especially over the last several years, that something is not quite right, and the sense that there are forces beyond us that are changing the way we live and the way we understand the world around us.
And this is one reason that I’ve been—you know, as some of you may know, I’ve been critical of the Obama administration on foreign policy, in particular, because I feel like things like Syria aren’t just about Syria. They do affect the West. They can threaten the future of the European project. And I hope it’s not too controversial to say that, you know, it’s plausible to me that the Brexit vote would have turned out differently—because all you needed was 2 percent the other way—that Brexit could have turned out differently if the Syrian refugee crisis had turned out differently, which raises the question of whether or not this was inevitable.
I don’t think this was inevitable. But the lesson here is that we can’t just let the Middle East burn itself out and hope for the best. That there has to be active international engagement, because what happens in the Middle East will never stay in the Middle East. And I think that should color how we view things in the coming four to eight years under the Trump administration. And we’ll see what the second and third-order consequences of Trump’s polices are, just as we saw them under Obama.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Thomas Walsh with Universal Peace Federation.
WALSH: Can you hear me?
FASKIANOS: Yes, we can. Go ahead.
WALSH: OK, sorry. Great discussion. Thank you, Dr. Hamid.
And I—kind of continuing the thread of seeing this in a global context—because I think it’s extremely important as Americans that we also kind of look at the lay of the land globally. And you’ve referred to that in a number of the questioners, how there’s a kind of zeitgeist out there of this sea change or dramatic shift away from illiberalism. And I guess I’m probing to get you to say a little bit more about what might be causes of this. You know, just kind of looking at it myself, I’ve often kind of looked at it from the post-Cold War era, you know, in the days of communism versus democratic capitalism there were dominant ideologies that really dominated the whole global scene. And then one scenario is that this whole identity politics started with the kind of end of that Cold War, even referring—going back to your reference to Fukuyama book.
But I also wonder—just let me throw out a couple of ideas—you know, to what extent, on the one hand, is the identity politics a bankruptcy of the universalist worldview, particularly the Western enlightenment, arguably the root of liberal democracy. As it began to get undermined, even by, you know, let’s say great French philosophers, continental philosophy that kind of undermines enlightenment theories of universal rationality and universal moral systems began to get undermined. Or, secondly, that multiculturalism and pluralism couldn’t come up with a consensus that was thick enough to hold people together. I mean, in your article you—there’s an Islamic term or an Arabic term that you referred to that provides the glue for the pluralistic, multicultural communities.
And finally, just throw out, to what extent is some of this growing populism and ethno-nationalism related to the perception of global threats? You know, the rise of China, and not just the economic rise, but certainly to some extent arguably legitimate fears of Chinese militarization, the South China Sea. We see Duterte in the Philippines, and a rising of a stronger Japanese shift under Prime Minister Abe, Russia taking the Crimea, declaring it a sacred duty backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, the failure of the Arab Spring, the Iranian insurgency. And you know, there’s a certain sense that this world is not playing by the rules of liberalism, and others are kind of gaming the system. And I wonder if this is—there’s some kind of felt existential threat, even if it’s not fully thought through.
Anyway, I’ve said enough. Anyway, great discussion. And I really appreciate all that you’ve said.
HAMID: Thanks so much.
So I’ll just say a couple things. So, in the—in the Foreign Policy piece I talk about boredom. And I think this is where Fukuyama—and I have a couple quotes in this piece, but it’s worth rereading those last few paragraphs in full from his sort of seminal essay, where he talks about boredom. And he sort of floats the possibility that people will get bored with the end of history. And I don’t know if he thought that it would happen as quickly as it did. I mean, it’s only been—it’s been less than 30 years since he wrote his article. But I think that point is very well-taken, that there’s a kind of natural, innate human desire for not just meaning, it’s even—it’s even more base than that. It’s for excitement. People want to fight for something. They want to believe in something.
And to be honest, I mean, I even feel that now. I mean, I don’t know—this is not what I wanted. But my life has become more exciting since Trump won. I feel like the things that I was hoping to do more of under a Hillary administration, like catch up with all the novels I want to read, I’m not going to be able to read as many novels. The kind of leisurely activity that Fukuyama talks about at the end of history, I think a lot of us are going to have to make a choice because we do feel, at least I feel, that I have been reminded that I’m not just—I don’t just have ideas about foreign policy. I have something to fight for in my own country, in a very—in a very profound, existential sense, for perhaps the first time in my life, right?
So I think that there’s something kind of—it’s exhausting. It’s stressful. But there’s something kind of exciting about that. And that’s where I think reflecting on boredom can be a helpful lens. And there’s been some speculation that a minority of Trump voters voted for—they were—they were Trump supporters as thrill seekers. They thought that this was a way to make their lives more exciting. Four years of endless drama, gossip, intrigue, and that the news would be more interesting, and so on and so forth. And also, the sort of self-destructive impulse, that even if you’re not sure that Trump will be good for the country you’re like, hey, let’s shake things up and see—and see what happens. And so that’s one aspect.
And you mentioned the Cold War as well. And I think I do not—I don’t know how many of you know that I’m a little bit on the younger side. So I don’t have very profound or strong memories of the Cold War. It wasn’t a formative moment for me. My two formative moments were 9/11 and the Iraq War. And I wouldn’t be talking to you now if it wasn’t for those formative moments and the effect that they had on me. So I wonder, as you have younger generations in America who don’t feel as closely tied to or invested in the democratic project, the liberal democratic project, because they don’t know—they haven’t experienced the alternative, or the threat of the alternative.
So when I hear people on Twitter and elsewhere saying, oh, well, the U.S. isn’t really a real democracy anyway, I think to myself: Look, if that’s what you think, you have not lived under an authoritarian regime. And, you know, I’ve lived under several. Granted, I’m an American citizen, so I’ve always had an escape. But the one time—the one time that I was citizen-arrested after a pro-military protest in Egypt, and dragged into a police station and interrogated, that was one of the most frightening moments of my life because you don’t know what will happen to you in an authoritarian setting. At least in the U.S. you know that you have some recourse to the law. There’s people you can reach out to. You can call up the ACLU if something happens to you.
So I think that those are all relevant factors. And perhaps younger generations here in the U.S., this experience of living in a more existential moment, will start—will push people to rethink or to reappreciate what democracy really means to them.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Paul Rutgers with Council of Religious Leaders.
RUTGERS: Yes. Thank you.
And I have found myself increasingly asking what is the message to be spoken by those of us who are willing to grant the failures all around—including, in my instance, my own Christian tradition. At the same time, it’s fairly clear we’re confronted with a huge challenge at this point, which goes far beyond labeling opponents as evil, despicable, or whatever terms we want to use. So that we now find ourselves questing in a more profound way for an answer to the question: What is the message? What is the hope that we want to point to, witness to, if you will? And I’d appreciate a little more insight into that category of questioning.
HAMID: OK. So the hope. I mean, that’s very broad. And I’m sure we could spend a long—so a couple things. So, on the first part of what you said, on this question of opponents and, you know, calling people we disagree with deplorable and all of that—I mean, one thing that I have learned, which may be of interest to some of you, is I’ve had to think a lot about the question of what happens when people who are dear to you, and even people that you love, not just believe in bad things—I’m not talking about the uncle at Thanksgiving dinner who says something racist—but my relatives in Egypt, part of the so-called secular elite in Egypt—they came out and they supported mass killings against their fellow countrymen.
And that’s something that has had a big effect on me as I think about the nature of evil, is how do otherwise good people—because I do think that—maybe not all of my relatives, but most of them were or are otherwise good people, but for reasons that are somewhat complex, came to support very, very disturbing and perhaps even evil things—if we’re talking here about supporting mass killings. And I’m referring to a specific massacre that happened in August 2013 in Egypt. So that—so then that makes me wonder, is how do we sort of see those categories? And that’s why, as I mentioned earlier, my categories have become somewhat more blurred and intertwined.
Now, in the case of the U.S., we’re not talking about mass killings—thank God. We’re talking about racism, bigotry, and supporting things which are very bad, obviously. But I think that that can—that sort of anecdote can help provide some insight into how we think about these categories. And no one should be—no one should be cast out—cast outside the fold as being irredeemable, or someone who can’t be spoken to and reasoned with. I mean, to me, that is one part of this broader question that you’re asking about, what is the hope? And I think that if we all approach our interactions with fellow Americans, our fellow citizens, with that starting premise of the benefit of the doubt, that people can be spoken with without being cast off as deplorable, even if they have in some cases deplorable views.
And I don’t want to get too much into moral relativism, but I do think that in some ways all of us have views—maybe we don’t share them publicly—that we maybe feel ashamed about or could be considered by others to be deplorable views, because we are flawed. We are—you know, in the parlance of the faith community, we are sinners. We are people who are fallen. And I think that that’s something that—I’m a Muslim—but I’ve been influenced by some of the Christian discourse on sin and being fallen in this temporal world. And I think that’s perhaps one way of looking at it. And that can help us approach our fellow Americans with more humility and modesty. And I think that’s absolutely essential when it comes to having productive, rational discourse with people who we disagree with on the good life, on profound questions of good and bad.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Shadi. I’m afraid that we have to end the call. We are out of time. And I apologize to those of you—I know there are several questions still on—waiting—questioners waiting to contribute to the discussion. I apologize for not getting to you. But we really do appreciate your taking the time to share your perspective with us. And thank you all for your questions. As a reminder, you can follow Shadi on Twitter at @ShadiHamid. So I hope that you will do that.
We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. So thank you all again, and we look forward to your participation in future discussions.