The “Arab Spring” and Turkish Neo-Islamists – A Question and Three Observations
Column by Stephen Suleyman Schwartz -
The transnational collective journey dubbed hopefully the “Arab Spring” has entered a new stage in its twisting trajectory. After the effervescent phase of “social networking,” and the peaceful removal of Tunisian dictator Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali and Egypt’s latter-day “Pharaoh,” Hosni Mubarak, came the cruel bloodshed of the Libyan civil war and ongoing, murderous repression by the Al-Assad regime in Syria. Yemen fell into chaos and Bahrain has oscillated between the domination of its Sunni Muslim royal family, backed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, and demands for change by its Shia Muslim majority, incited by Iran.
Political development in the insurgent Arab lands has become stalemated; the cycle of the “Arab Spring” has entered its descending curve. This outcome is illustrated starkly by electoral advances for Islamists: the Tunisian Ennahda (“Renaissance”) party and the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) in Morocco, both of which are local branches of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), as well as for the “original” Egyptian MB through its front, the Freedom and Justice party (FJP). The first round in the Egyptian vote, at the end of November, also produced an alarmingly large showing by the radical fundamentalist Wahhabis (so-called “Salafis”) of the Nour party.
Participation at the polls was relatively low in two of the three countries and the Muslim Brotherhood parties did not exceed pluralities in any, although they claimed victories in all of them, anticipating the assumption of administrative powers.
In Tunisia, with a 54 percent turnout, 37 percent cast ballots for Ennahda. That share of votes proved steady for the Muslim Brotherhood parties in the three contests. Morocco, in a participation rate of only 45 percent, saw 80 seats out of 282 handed to the PJD, or about the same result as in Tunisia, with 36 percent for the Islamists.
At 62 percent, Egypt witnessed the highest level of voting, with 37 percent for the Freedom and Justice Party, and 24 percent for Nour, in the first phase of a complicated, three-tier process. To understand this outcome, for Arabs and foreigners alike, knowledge of revolutionary change is more important than study of the faith of Islam. The ideology of Islamist parties has filled a political void in these countries, where durable and transparent public institutions, interests, and secular parties have been absent, and could not be created by immediate, post-insurrectionary improvisation. The success of the Islamists, even through the democratic means of the ballot box, represents reaction, not the forward movement most of the world, and certainly many Arabs, expected from the “Arab Spring.” Rather than fostering an open, equitable system founded in civil society, the breakdown of public order in the affected Arab lands will most likely facilitate Islamist governance in which citizens’ rights are restricted, not broadened.
Tunisia’s Ennahda, through its unelected leader, Rashid Ghannoushi, has produced a “renovated” version of the MB, imitative in rhetoric of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ghannoushi has published his political writings in Turkey and maintains personal relations with Erdogan, who visited Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in September 2011.
The adherents of Ennahda and other components of the “new” Muslim Brotherhood uphold the Turkish AKP as a faultlessly democratic movement that has won three elections fairly. AKP has avoided the excesses of the Iranian clerical state, or the Saudi Wahhabis who, in addition to carrying their own pseudo-“Salafi” banner, have aligned historically with the MB. Many non-Muslim observers have let themselves be convinced that AKP and Ennahda are “Islamic Democratic” entities comparable to the European and Latin American Christian Democratic parties, which rest on a Catholic electorate and bring a commitment to religious values to politics.
But this is the question: Is “democratic Islamism” in the mold of AKP and Ennahda the same as “Islamic democracy”?
The Christian Democratic parties – for example, the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) in Mexico – are defined by their renunciation of any imposition of religious standards on the state. They do not attempt to make the government apparatus “more Christian” or decree officially-defined virtue for the citizens. They present themselves only as better able to administer the secular state because of their faith-based ethics and the influence of their voters. (Unfortunately, the PAN appears to have failed in this effort, thanks to its incapacity to halt the disintegration of Mexico in unrestrained lawbreaking by drug gangs.)
The distinction between “Islamic democracy,” through which a party of religious believers might secure a cleaner and more accountable government administration, while keeping hands off an established, non-religious constitution and law, and “democratic Islamism,” in which voting leads to a religious redefinition of the state and its mission, has yet to be discussed or clarified in the Arab lands or the West. The possibility of a moderate “Islamic democracy,” cannot be excluded, especially now that the Muslim Brotherhood has attained public legitimacy where it was previously a semi-clandestine opposition. Such an effort would be loyal to secular institutions and serve as an alternative to “democratic Islamism” as well as to the more-radical doctrines of Wahhabis or Iranian-inspired extremists. Organizations like the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which represents the political interests of the Muslim community but does not seek to modify the existing legal system, and many former “religious parties” in Iraq, which have assumed a similar posture, have yet to appear or flourish in most of the rest of the Muslim countries.
“Democratic Islamists” are now a real force in the Muslim lands, but there is no guarantee that they will become “Islamic democrats” by any other standard than that of competition in elections. Yet anti-democratic movements have run in elections in many countries without abandoning their totalitarian or authoritarian outlook – Stalinist parties like the French Communist party offer the most useful example.
AKP in particular has demonstrated that it is an ideological body, viewing the state as a citadel to be conquered and used to impose its viewpoint. If AKP is now, through the Tunisian Ennahda, taken as a model for “Islamic democracy,” the policies of Erdogan and his government encompass three areas in which the attitudes of those ruling “in the name of Islam” appear disturbing and harmful to democracy in Turkey and its spread to the other Muslim lands.
First, what will Turkey do in Syria and how will its policy there be affected by the triumph of the Egyptian Islamists? With the extension of horrific and heedless massacres by the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, Turkey under AKP, which had supported the Damascus clique, moved to a position criticizing Al-Assad, calling for his removal and hinting that Turkey might intervene militarily in Syria. Turkey has supported the sanctions on Damascus proposed by the Arab League and has provided political and logistical support to the “Free Syrian Army” that groups defectors from the lower ranks of Al-Assad’s forces in guerrilla attacks on the government. Ankara is dismayed at the probability that conflict in Syria will cause a humanitarian crisis, with millions of refugees fleeing into Turkey, across its southern frontier.
Syria has ignored Turkey’s initiatives, and decisions about the future of Syria appear to abide with the French and the Arab League. AKP envisioned a “neo-Ottoman” role for Turkey, as the leading Muslim power in the eastern Mediterranean, but, aside from its partnership with Ennahda, has failed to realize such overreaching ambitions. Erdogan first defended Al-Qhadhdhafi in Libya, then turned against him while condemning NATO military measures to overthrow him. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has seen no need to adopt enthusiastic praise of the Turks in the style of Ghannouchi and the Tunisian Ennahda; Egyptian Arab resentment of Turkish influence is historically persistent. The focus of Islamist electoral politics in the region may shift from Ankara to Cairo. “Neo-Ottoman” aspirations by Ankara and AKP are now viewed negatively, as a form of revived imperialism. Similar AKP pretensions in the former Ottoman provinces in the Balkans have spurred an anti-Turkish backlash.
Second, AKP has shown in its national governance that it harbors a strong bias toward arbitrary, authoritarian interference with the state. This outlook is exemplified by the bizarre “Ergenekon” series of conspiratorial accusations, indictments and trials that took serious form in 2007, simultaneously with AKP’s second electoral victory. In the ever-expanding “Ergenekon” persecutions, AKP authorities have arrested members of the Turkish judiciary, political and media figures, military officers, and academics and charged them with terrorist plotting against the elected regime. In reality, the “Ergenekon” affair appears more as a step-by-step purge of Turkish secular society, operating arbitrarily, like most such episodes in history, and with the aim of undermining opposition to the dominant stratum, i.e. Erdogan and AKP. Instead of strengthening “Islamic democracy,” the “Ergenekon” proceedings have harmed the rule of law in Turkey.
Third, the Sunni-centric AKP has failed to address the grievances of the country’s largest religious minority, the Turkish and Kurdish Alevi communities, who account for seven to 20 million Turkish citizens – between eight and 25 percent of the total population of 78 million, according to varying estimates. Alevis are adherents of a form of Islam influenced by Shiism, spiritual Sufism, pre-Islamic Turkish and Kurdish shamanism, and other beliefs. Alevis are alienated from AKP, if only because Alevis view the secularist state as their protector against Sunni prejudice.
At the end of November, Erdogan issued an apology by his administration for massacres, expulsions, and other crimes against Alevis in the eastern province of Dersim, now called Tunceli, in 1937-39. Erdogan was reckless, while pretending to caution, in blaming the atrocities of Dersim, which are vivid in Alevi memory, on the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the secular state party in power when the Dersim events took place, and the main opposition to AKP now. The CHP is headed by Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who comes from Dersim and is himself a Zaza Kurdish Alevi. Erdogan challenged Kilicdaroglu, saying, “Is it me who should apologize or you? If there is an apology on behalf of the state and if there is such an opportunity, I can do it and I am apologizing. But if there is someone who should apologize on behalf of the CHP, it is you, as you are from Dersim. You were saying you felt honored to be from Dersim. Now, save your honor.” Erdogan’s “apology” was a provocative affront to the Alevis.
As reported in the English edition of the major Turkish daily Hurriyet on November 23, Dogu Ergil, a Turkish political scientist, praised the gesture but said that Erdogan should not stop at one apology. “I wonder if Erdogan would have done the same thing if the perpetrators had been close to his political views,” he said. “And the debate should not be limited to [the] Dersim killings. Turkey should apologize for the 1915 Armenian killings and the Sept. 6-7, 1955, events, which resulted in the mass exodus of minorities from the country.” Erdogan threatened that anybody who compared persecution of the Alevis with the fate of Armenians deported and murdered by Turkish authorities would be “put in his place.” AKP politicians treat Armenian calls for recognition of the victimization their people suffered as “propaganda.”
Kilicdaroglu refused to provide an apology, but, instead, demanded that AKP government release documents from the state archives involving the Dersim events. The Turkish Policy Center, in Washington, commented on December 2, “the government’s willingness to bring [to light] the dark spots of Turkish political history is a positive development, which has the potential to start a public discussion and national self-reflection. However, it should also not be seen as an opportunity to bash the founders of the Republic or score quick political points.”
By its ambivalent intrigues in Syria, its “neo-Ottoman” manipulations, its violation of judicial canons in pursuing the “Ergenekon” purge, and its offense to Alevi sensibilities while insulting the secular opposition, the Turkish AKP has shown that the vote as a means to power is secondary, for these “democratic Islamists,” to the uses of power in suppressing political opposition. AKP’s “Turkish model,” acclaimed by the Tunisian Ennahda as well as by enablers of both parties in the American policy sphere, remains deeply flawed and susceptible to antidemocratic tendencies. There is little reason to hope the Tunisian Ennahda, much less the Egyptian Justice and Freedom party, will observe and overcome the mistakes of Erdogan and AKP. “Democratic Islamism” emulating AKP and its contortions cannot secure the political institutions and habits that would make “Islamic democrats” legitimate and respected contributors to the social, economic, and political transformation for which the Muslims of the world hunger.
Columnist, Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, is Director of Center for Islamic Pluralism, Washington DC.