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Turkish Islamists: A Model or the Exception? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Many are questioning if what we are witnessing today in Turkey can be regarded as a model that can be applied by Islamist movements, or whether it is an exception that bears the characteristics and idiosyncrasies of a unique experiment that cannot be generalized?

However, it is important to point out that Islamic trends have split over the Turkish experiment. The majority were inclined towards rejoicing and commending the great gains achieved by the Justice and Development Party [AKP], which is an offshoot that emerged out of the Refah Partisi (Welfare Party); a predominantly Islamic-inclined party.

Such movements did not regard Erdogan’s government as one that was trying to Islamize public life, or fight against Atatürk’s secularism, or freeze relations with Israel, but rather as one that followed a similar approach to the former secular governments that have preceded it – in terms of internal issues and foreign policy. As such, the AKP’s experience in governing can be regarded as a viable model since it can be characterized as Islamic.

It is noticeable that the leadership of the party is extremely cautious to deny the charges of ‘fundamentalism’ and even the ‘Islamic’ trait, which is leveled against it by its adversaries from traditional secular parties. It has preferred to use the term ‘conservative trend’, which is a popular one in Europe. But moreover, the AKP does not regard its Islamic propensity as one that surpasses the cultural and civil scope in its broad sense, and furthermore, one that does not have any direct repercussions on the political, social and developmental choices regulated by Atatürk’s secular principles.

Thus, there is a huge discrepancy between the AKP and the formations that were set up by Necmettin Erbakan; the most prominent of which is the Welfare Party, which came to power in the 1990s for a short period. However, the party was forcibly dismantled as a result of the direct intervention of the military institution, which was protesting against some of the positions and policies the party had adopted that were considered a threat to the secular system on which modern Turkey was founded.

This line constitutes the first point of distinction between the Turkish and Arab contexts, the latter of which lack a consistent and full-fledged experiment similar to Atatürk’s model.

Perhaps the two experiences closest to this secular criterion are those attempted by [Habib] Bourguiba in Tunisia and the Baathist movement in Iraq. Bourguiba’s fascination with Atatürk’s model is common knowledge, in addition to his consideration that it was a model to be emulated.

But, despite the fact that Bourguiba had relied on this model in his political discourse and utilized it in his social reforms, his tactical sense overcame his ideological project, which resulted in his search for legitimate religious foundations for the most radical reforms, including the Code of Personal Status law issued in 1956. For that, Bourguiba relied upon the brilliant and versed renowned Tunisian jurist Muhammad al Tahir Ben Ashur.

With regard to the Baathist experiment in Iraq, it had initially emerged as one that was consistent with the prioritization of the national element over that of religious identity. This formed the basis of the Baathist ideology as was formulated by Michel Aflaq. However, with the beginning of the war against Iran, this experiment soon changed to assume a religious and slogan-centered approach that swayed between a narrow-minded ideology and a preachy tone. Ultimately, it ended in the Islamization policies implemented by Saddam Hussein in his last years in power.

The paradox worthy of pointing out is that the only secular case in the Islamic world is what enabled an Islamist party to rise to power through democracy. This paradox could be interpreted to indicate that secularization, through it separation between religion and the state, leads to the transformation of the religious reality from the collective holy circle to the framework of individual belief, which then becomes one of the political gambles that require the adaptation of the regulations of ideological plurality – which is the core of the secular system.

The second distinction, however, is related to the background of the formation of the Turkish national state vis-à-vis the nascent Arab political entities with their frequently fragile social structure.

In the Arab arenas, since the conflicts are based on the referential determinants of the country itself, the religious-based ideological discourse can be regarded as a factor that encourages sedition, or an illegitimate means to control the fundamental foundations of collective identity.

As for the third distinction, it is related to the nature of the Islamic discourse, namely, ideology and theoretical foundations. Moreover, one does not need to be reminded that the model dominating the Muslim world is that of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It is common knowledge that this model revolves around the idea of approximation between the public ideological reference of the Muslim affiliation and the allegiance to the Muslim group, wherein the connotations gradually shrunk so that they became encompassed in the ‘Qutb trial’ understanding and concept of the movement.

What has taken place in Turkey is, in fact, a boycott of the present MB discourse – even if only in an obscure manner – in the Welfare Party literature, whilst considering Necmettin Erbakan as a leader who has descended from the basics of the brotherhood.

This reconsideration is evident in Erdogan’s emphasis on differentiating between the ‘amputated secularism’ and the ‘rooted secularism’– which has its deep roots in the cultural and civil background of the nation.

What the leaders of AKP have succeeded in doing is reaching the realization that Islam’s umbrella is wider than the political considerations and stakes. Moreover, it is capable, with its values and symbolic inventory, of adapting to the political and ideological plurality – even if it were to take on a secularist form.