Is Islamism dead now?

Is Islamism dead now?

An interesting discussion is going on these days among intellectuals: Is the ideology called “Islamism” now passé in Turkey? And, if so, is this good news?

The debate began in daily Zaman, a paper which has always been proudly Muslim but not Islamist. One of its prominent columnists, Mümtaz’er Türköne, wrote a piece which boldly declared, “Islamism is dead.” This was an ideology, he argued, some Muslims devised in the late 19th century in order to resist the Western onslaught, and has been kept alive by Muslims’ feelings of oppression. With the AKP [Justice and Development Party] experience, however, Türköne argued, Turkey’s Islamists came to power, only to become more relaxed, more pragmatic, and less ideological.

Türköne, it must be noted, knows what he is talking about. As a professor of politics, he has completed a PhD dissertation and a popular book on “The Birth of Islamism.” He holds that Islam does not outline a political ideology, but Muslims have done so in the modern age based on their circumstances.

But soon Türköne’s argument was countered by another Zaman columnist, who is himself a self-declared Islamist: Ali Bulaç. Bulaç did agree that the AKP had ceased to be Islamist, but he did not see this as good news. The AKP has become “conservative-nationalist” he argued, and that is why the party has lost its reformism. Islamism, he claimed, will never die, for it is the natural stance of any good Muslim.

I must say that I agree with Bulaç on the AKP issue: The current problems with the governing party have little to do with Islamism. (“The AKP is not too Islamic,” as I always say, “but too Turkish.” It exhibits most of the problems of the Turkish political tradition: leader domination, nepotism, and confrontational qualities.)

But Islamism has its own problems, and quite serious ones. The record of Islamists on women’s rights has never been impressive, nor has the way they have dealt with religious minorities. Their bans on “heresy” and “apostasy” have threatened freedom of speech, while their desire to impose piety on society has threatened the “freedom to sin.”

The core problem, I believe, is the Islamists’ claim to know “the right Islam,” and then assume the right to “establish it on earth.” A believer can, of course, hope to know “the right Islam,” but Islamists don’t just hope, they also assert. This certainty in their own ways does not reflect the humility of traditional believers, but the arrogance of modern totalitarian ideologies.

It is true that this type of hardcore Islamism -- inspired by, say, the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the radical ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood -- has waned in Turkey, because Islamism has been fuelled by political grievances, such as the oppression of Islam by Turkey’s secular fundamentalists, and the AKP era has replaced this oppression with power and the responsibilities that come with it.

We can only hope that a similar process will take place in Tunisia, where it seems very likely, and Egypt, where the balance is still very fragile. In his recent article in the Journal of Democracy, French scholar Olivier Roy says that the Islamists in these countries now have “the Turkish model as represented by the AKP” as an option, which implies: “Turning the ‘brotherhood’ into a true modern political party; trying to attract voters from beyond a hard core of devout Muslims; recasting religious norms into vaguer conservative values (family, property, honesty, the work ethic); adopting a neoliberal approach to the economy; and endorsing the constitution, parliament, and regular elections.”

That is indeed the course of Turkish post-Islamism. And it is quite telling that both old-school Islamists and old-school secularists are alarmed by it.