بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيمِ
The concrete experiences of the Islamist movements should make it easier to evaluate their real and symbolic strength, which lies far more in their persistence in opposition than in their capacity to develop credible proposals for the future.
Their historical resistance to colonialism, their debate with the secularists, their rejection of the West (in a repulsion–attraction relationship), the legitimacy derived from their hostility to Israel, all conferred upon the Islamists the legitimacy of a moral counterweight; but these very accomplishments did not allow them to make a hard-eyed, critical assessment of their own political program.
So true did this outcome prove to be that after the fall of the tyrant whose very existence had unified the ranks of the opposition, the Islamists experienced an implosion. In Tunisia, and even more glaringly in Egypt, when confronted with the choice between joining the protest movements and imagining the post-Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood split into five distinct sub-groups.
The older generation disagreed over the prerogatives of the organization itself and of the newly founded Freedom and Justice Party. When its leader Abdul Futuh decided to run for president in defiance of the Brotherhood’s leadership, he was forced to quit the organization. Simultaneously, younger members felt free to set up another party or support a non-Brotherhood candidate.
Opposition to the regime, far more than the strength of their vision, was what had united the [Muslim Brotherhood]’s diverse currents.
On May 18, 2011, Muhammad Morsy, the president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly created party, delivered a lecture at Oxford about the movement’s future prospects. In it he summarized the arguments that the organization has been repeating for fifty years (about the constitution, democratization, the rule of law and relations with members of other faiths).
Nothing new, nothing forward-looking said about economic, social, or political issues (poverty, education, employment, women); nothing ventured about the regional outlook (the dominant economic order and dynamism, South–South relations, etc.). It was in the context created by the binary opposition and the implosion of the Muslim Brotherhood that the Egyptian Salafi Front made its appearance on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
While the demonstrators justifiably feared that the uprising might be taken over by former regime figures or by the military, the Salafi Front (or Islamic Front, made up primarily of literalists, and then the party an-Nour) replicated the binary relationship in an attempt to monopolize the Islamic reference and thus the religious legitimacy of the movement. In such circumstances, it is difficult to emerge from the role-playing phase. The same kind of deficiencies can also be observed in Tunisia, Syria, Libya, and Morocco.
The long awaited and vital debate over future prospects, democratization, and international alliances is still far away. Like the secularists, conservatives and Islamists shun the test of self-criticism, preferring to confine themselves to an empty, outdated, and counterproductive paradigm.
Even discussion of the Turkish example has become polarized: Can the Turks be described as Islamists, or has the post-Islamist era begun? Posing the question in those terms is as reductive as it is simplistic. Is Turkey an example of democracy or an example of an Islamist project for democracy? Thus phrased, it skirts the main issue.
Of course Prime Minister Erdog˘an comes from Turkey’s Islamist movement, but what is most compelling is his government’s commitment to overcoming the futile opposition between secularists and Islamists by putting forward a pragmatic policy of all-around reform.
President (and former Foreign Minister) Abdullah Gül, the energetic and competent Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutog˘lu (architect of the “zero conflict with our neighbors” foreign policy) and the government as a whole are implementing a multidimensional policy that must be analyzed and criticized for what it is.
The fight against corruption and cronyism at home; reducing the prerogatives of the military; increasingly orienting foreign relations toward the Global South; stepping up trade with China, India, Brazil, and South America (even as the European Union dithers over its possible integration); acting as a mediator in the Middle East (with regard to Iran) and adopting a firm, critical stance toward Israel (thus winning international admiration among Muslim popular opinion): these are the elements that make Turkey a model for Muslim-majority societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Turkey is now the world’s seventeenth-ranked economic power; its growth rate is Europe’s strongest (8.1 percent in 2010, according to the World Bank).
In an inversion of roles, the European Union may now need Turkey more than Turkey needs it.
Turkey, it should be remembered, took clear, strong positions on the Arab uprisings, sometimes remaining more cautious, as in the case of Syria, where it held back for seven months before beginning to articulate its position. The Turkish prime minister was among the first to praise the Tunisian people, to call upon the president of Egypt to step down, and to support the Libyan resistance movement.
Though he took some time to distance himself from Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime, his government was quick to welcome Syrian oppositionists and to allow them to organize resistance from Turkish soil. He also saw that training sessions (in politics, management, religious ethics, etc.) were set up for young Arab activists, mainly but not exclusively from Tunisia and Egypt.
The ambitions and wide-ranging activism of the present Turkish government warrant a far more detailed analysis of their objectives and strategies. Does Turkey represent the path that future Arab democracies should follow? Clearly, Turkey has been waging war against corruption and renewing its education policies; but what of the prospects for its capitalist economy?
The question must be raised: Is the country’s economic policy bound by its openly productivist objectives, or is the Turkish leadership attempting to stabilize the economy before moving ahead to introduce an ethically sustainable alternative? Has contemporary Turkey been faithful to its history and traditions; is it proving successful in safeguarding its spirit, its specificity, and its cultural creativity? Has it achieved anything more than thoroughly–and apparently successfully–integrating itself into the global economic order, into the dominant global culture, and accepting the prevailing productivist logic?
Do its commitment to strong economic growth and a new strategy of international relations represent a step forward, a means to an end–or an end in itself? These are the issues that lie at the heart of any discussion of the Turkish model, whether it is viewed positively or critically.
The same issues are of utmost relevance to the future of the Arab awakening, and to the capacity of Arab societies to explore new paths, new ways of posing questions, new ways of charting the development of civil society, to create a new paradigm in international relations. The Turkish model, I am convinced, should be seen as a means rather than an end.
- Islam and the Arab Awakening by Tariq Ramadan
- Oxford University Press USA