Shadi Hamid talks about his work as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Middle East Policy.

Photo via Brookings Institution

The Foreign Policy Expert Who’s Helping Americans Better Understand the Muslim World

Researcher Shadi Hamid, a NationSwell Council member, has written extensively on US relations with Islamic countries. Here, he reflects on his work and accomplishments, and how to stay inspired when the political climate is anything but.

In August 2013, scholar and author Shadi Hamid wrapped up the research he was doing in Egypt and left the country. Two days later, security forces slaughtered at least 800 protesters who supported the first democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who had just been ousted in a military coup. To Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, the event marked an end to the promise of the Arab Spring. Where democracies once seemed possible in Egypt, Syria, Libya and elsewhere, civil wars dragged on, religious factions stifled dissent or lost power in coups, and extremist groups like the Islamic State filled power vacuums. The question he ponders now is how to decipher what role religion plays today in Middle Eastern politics. NationSwell spoke to Hamid from his home in Washington, D.C.

What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
Believing in something is very important. That sounds banal, in the sense that it should go without saying. But as someone who lives in Washington, one thing that bothers me about this town is when people lose sight of why they do what they do. Sometimes the passion is lacking, and people get stuck in a routine. You don’t want to ever lose sense of why you set out to do something.

Speaking for myself, I want to do what I can to improve US policy toward the Middle East. I have strong beliefs about America’s role in the world. We, as Americans, have a moral responsibility to try to live up to our own ideals when it comes to our foreign policy. Ultimately, we need to be inspired by something — whatever that happens to be — and not lose sight of that as we get stuck in endless careerism.

What’s the one book that you’d recommend to someone who wants to better understand the Arab world today?
Misquoting Mohammad” by Jonathan Brown. It covers politics, history and theology, so it provides a good overview of how Islam, as a religion, has evolved over time and interacted with different political environments. A big focus of the book is on Islam’s encounter with modernity, and it helps challenge a lot of the Western-centric assumptions about the role of religion in public life.

What developments in the Middle East are you most excited about right now?
To be honest, very little. Watching Tunisia’s evolution gives me some optimism, though excitement is probably not the right word. Here is a country where Islamists and secularists might hate each other, but they’ve agreed to hate each other within the democratic process. The goal is not to get the other person to agree with you and come to your side; it’s to accept and respect those differences peacefully. Tunisia is an example of what that might look like in practice.

One other thing that gave me a brief jolt of optimism was the images coming from Turkey during the failed coup attempt in July. Yes, [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian in cracking down on his opponents, but in that moment — and that moment will matter for the foreseeable future — ordinary Turks took to the street to oppose a military coup. You had people who were unarmed facing off against tanks, and usually in the Middle East, people-power doesn’t work. This was one of the only times in recent years where the tanks didn’t win out. That, to me, was a powerful moment to watch.

Hamid felt a "jolt of optimism" seeing the images, like this one from Istanbul, that came out after the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images

Given the negative outlook, where do you find the motivation to continue your research?
What keeps it interesting for me is that I like to challenge myself in my own research. In my new book, “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World,” it started out as one thing and ended up as something else, because through the process of research and writing, I found my own ideas evolving and even changing in ways that I was slightly uncomfortable with. Some of them are controversial, not just to other people, but also to me. But as a researcher, you have to be faithful to your findings, even if you’re not super-happy with them. But that’s also exciting, because it feels like I haven’t been stationary in my own work and that I’ve evolved based on what I’ve seen in the region and spending time in the field. I hope that in the coming years, my views will continue to evolve, and I’ll be challenged by world events that will force me and others to reassess opinions.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started this job?
I wish someone told me about taking work-life balance more seriously. Really, for the past 10 years, I’ve constantly had an overarching, almost all-consuming project to worry about. First was my Ph.D. dissertation, then it was my first book, then it was my second book. There wasn’t much of a gap between any of them. That’s 10 years where, in the back of my mind, I’ve been like, “I’ve gotta be working on this.” I wish, in retrospect, I had spent more time thinking about my priorities, finding that balance and having more perspective about what’s ultimately important. You worry sometimes that your work almost becomes a vehicle for contentment. Yes, that’s a part of what makes us happy, but when it’s so intertwined with your identity it’s not always super-healthy.

What does a perfect day look like to you?
I love exploring new beaches. So being in front of the water, having a really good book, taking a nap and not worrying about work. Presumably, I wouldn’t be there all by myself, but with friends. And if I’m in D.C., I really enjoy binge-watching my favorite TV shows for, like, five hours straight and totally diving into a character-driven series.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
My new book is probably what I’m most proud of, because in some ways, it’s more personal. Every day, I grappled with the ideas, and I wasn’t really sure what the end product was going to be. There was a lot of uncertainty: Would I be able to do this, given that the vision in the beginning wasn’t as clear? But there came a point where I was able to let it go and to be happy with it. It may not be perfect, but in this moment, it’s perfect for me and I’m ready to have other people read it and, hopefully, enjoy it.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]