February 9, 2011

Islamic Democrats and the Turkish Model

Ahmad Ali Khalid

Turkish Flag
There is a realisation that the state must be secular in its institutions but liberal in its outlook, allowing for multiple voices in the public sphere. What we are seeing in the Muslim world is perhaps a return towards the early models of Islamic governance put forward by Islamic reformists and liberals.

The Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) and organisations like the Gulen movement represent the logical culmination of the democratic aspirations of the Muslim world. The combination of religious philosophy and liberal values whilst adopting secular state institutions and allowing religious voices a role in the public sphere is the most reasonable framework of democratic governance available to us. ‘Public Islam’ is desirable, but ‘state Islam’ is inevitably totalitarian.

The Gulen movement and AKP have rejected the notion of an ‘Islamic state’ because of its internal contradictions. Other liberal Islamic thinkers such as Rashid al-Ghannoshi have announced that equal citizenship and a human rights-based regime is now the need of the hour to foster development and prosperity in Muslim societies. We are currently seeing a shift in the Arab world, away from theocratic Islamism towards a form of Islamic liberalism and democratic governance, although the state will remain nominally ‘secular’ and there will be an emphasis on constitutional liberalism. The way politics will unfold will be reliant on cultural, moral and religious traditions present within society. The liberal and secular state will be nourished, sustained and cultivated, not in a legal sense but in a psychological sense, by religious and cultural ideas.

The simplistic dichotomy between theocracy and secularism is one of the most unexamined assumptions we inherit as social and political beings. Mistakenly, the adoption of secular reason with the privatisation of faith as a source for our social and political reference has become a requisite in many democracies.

However, in the Muslim context, religious intellectuals and even some clerical actors are turning to religious sources of justification to ground a ‘secular’ polity. Whilst this seems odd, I argue this is in fact a striking rehearsal of the European experiences of secularism where religious thinkers like John Locke too turned to religious revelation to argue for functional difference. But are such constructions of the secular sustainable? Can the constructed dichotomy between metaphysics and politics, which undergirds such thinking, hold? Is there a causal link between a secular polity — separation between religious and political institutions — and secularisation — the loss of religious faith in society? How does a secular polity affect religious observance?

We should look at the works of Abdolkarim Soroush, Fethullah Gulen, Javed Ahmed Ghamidi and other figures that characterise the ‘reformist’ wave of Muslim thought, and individuals such as Rashid al-Ghannoshi who seek to provide a religious source of reference for democratic liberalism in the hope of liberalising the public sphere as a means of rehabilitating the cultural, social and intellectual dystopia of the contemporary Muslim state. Furthermore, the capacity for generating a progressive strain of thought from within the Islamic tradition is almost negated by western observers, but this is a mistaken assumption.

The main shift has occurred away from a utopian theocracy towards building civic institutions and nourishing a set of democratic ethics, which has its roots in religious philosophy. Scholars like Ghamidi have focused on ethical principles that reflect the values of mercy and justice in Islam to foster an ‘Islamic democracy’. Ethics, not state totalitarianism is the message of the Islamic democrats.

This evolution is certainly towards a brand of religious liberalism that accepts equal citizenship, accepts human rights and is willing to engage in democratic dialogue.

The recent events in the Middle East hark back to the modernist and reformist Islamic thinkers between the 18th and 20th century. For years it was assumed that the modernists and reformists ultimately lost out to the populist rhetoric of the likes of Qutb, Khomeini and Maududi.

But clearly then, there is a realisation that the state must be secular in its institutions but liberal in its outlook, allowing for multiple voices in the public sphere. What we are seeing in the Muslim world is perhaps a return towards the early models of Islamic governance put forward by Islamic reformists and liberals.

We think of Abdelwahab El-Affendi’s Who Needs an Islamic State, or perhaps the Azharite scholar and perhaps the father of Muslim secularism in its intellectual dimensions — the Al Azhar Sheikh Ali Abdel Raziq. Raziq’s work is perhaps the most potent, in his book, Islam & The Foundations of Political Power. Raziq deconstructs all the arguments put forward by proponents of the theocratic Islamic state by revisiting the work of classical scholars, Quranic interpretation and Islamic history.

A project of religious liberalism as seen in Ghamidi’s works which endorses rationalism, pluralism and diversity, seems to be best course for the Muslim world, as it accommodates religious sentiments and basic political rights. In this way, we can stop the surrender of religious interpretation to bigoted forces and present an alternative liberating narrative.

Another distinction, which is equally helpful, is between soft and hard secularism. Hard secularism, which is the laïcité French model, not only separates political and religious institutions but also seeks to marginalise religious voices and identities from the public sphere — civil society.

In soft secularism, however, there is still the recognition that religious and political institutions have to be divided, but that religion should have a voice in the public sphere. Islam can supply the moral foundations for a progressive democracy. Hard secularism is militant and authoritarian, as it tries to stifle religious voices and opinions in public debate. But passive secularism, whilst protecting the equality of all citizens, allows religious voices to participate fully and robustly in public debate.

This illustrates the synthesis between the liberal state and a post-secular — religious — ethics of public life, which does not shy away from reasoned moral discussion. Religious clerics should not be given legislative privileges and there should be an open inclusive democratic platform.

People can use faith as the basis for their ethical, legal and social principles and beliefs in public discussions, on the proviso that they should be prepared for criticism and robust debate. No one should be given automatic privileges; we must all compete in the marketplace of ideas.

The Turkish experiment and the work of Islamic democrats like Rashid al-Ghannoshi and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi is giving impetus to a new type of politics, which synthesises faith and reason.

Published on Daily Times, on 10 February 2011, Thursday
(Post date and the commentary's date differ due to the difference in local time)

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