Shadi Hamid

Speech Topics

With the demise of the Arab Spring and a growing terrorist threat in the West, unprecedented attention has focused on Islam, which despite being the fastest growing religion in the world, is also one of the most misunderstood.  Moving across fourteen centuries of Islamic history, Hamid provocatively argues that Islam is, in fact, “exceptional” in how it relates to politics, with profound implications for how we understand the future of the Middle East. From the very founding of the religion, Islam took a sharply different course than early Christianity and played a central role in law and government. This “exceptionalism,” however, is neither good nor bad. It just is, and the key is understanding how this reality translates in today’s world.

The Bush and Obama years have seen two radically contrasting approaches to US involvement in the Middle East. Hamid argues that just as the Bush administration demonstrated the dangers of intervention, Obama’s policies have shown that non-intervention can often be just as destructive. A humanitarian disaster in Syria, with over 400,000 killed, is only the most obvious example. Drawing on his experiences as an Arab-American living in the Middle East, Hamid considers the importance of democratic values and whether the US can – or should – promote its ideals abroad.

The rise of Donald Trump, as well as would-be strongmen in Poland, Turkey, the Philippines and beyond, reflects a growing authoritarian temptation. More and more voters across the globe are losing faith in liberal democracy and are seeking alternatives that emphasize identity, ideology, cultural resentment, and strongman politics. Bringing a fresh perspective on the age-old debate on the dangers of the mob, Hamid argues that the very idea of liberal democracy is more fragile than we might like to think – and that it requires an urgent reassessment.

Millions of Americans are trying to make sense of ISIS and its savagery, which can seem beyond comprehension. ISIS claims to be Islamic, but how much does religion really factor in the group’s behavior? Drawing on his expertise on Islamist movements and personal interviews with families of ISIS foreign fighters, Hamid offers a novel interpretation of what ISIS represents, putting its rise into a broader historical context that goes back not years but decades and even centuries.

Importantly, ISIS is only one among hundreds of “Islamist” groups, many of which are, in fact, nonviolent, accept the nation-state, and participate in the democratic process. Drawing such distinctions is crucial to understanding a dizzying array of groups now populating the Middle East, all of whom seek to elevate Islam’s role in politics, but do so in extremely different ways.


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Dr. Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the new book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World (St. Martin’s Press), which Gen. David Petraeus calls “a hugely important book” and Lawrence Wright calls “an invaluable corrective.” Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. His previous book Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East was named a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2014. An expert on Islam and politics, Hamid served as director of research at the Brookings Doha Center until January 2014. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and many other publications. He has been a guest on such programs as the PBS NewsHour, The Charlie Rose Show, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” CNN GPS with Fareed Zakaria, and CNN’s Amanpour.

Hamid has served as a program specialist on public diplomacy at the U.S. State Depart-ment and a legislative fellow at the Office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Prior to joining Brookings, he was director of research at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and a Hewlett Fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Hamid received his B.S. and M.A. from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and his Ph.D. in political science from Oxford University.

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