Muslim politics without an ‘Islamic state’

Muslim politics without an ‘Islamic state’

In the past decade, the idea that Turkey can be a “model” for other predominantly Muslim countries has been repeatedly discussed. In turn, though, many observers noted that things are not that simple. Every society has its own unique political experience, they reminded, and no “model” can really be replicated by a few political decisions.

I have been arguing, however, that while it is true that “the Turkish model” cannot be replicated, something else in Turkey can be a model for the larger Muslim world: The incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose evolution from classical Islamism to some form of “conservative democracy” can inspire other Islamist parties who are in search of change. The model, in other words, is not Turkey for other countries, but the AKP for other Islamists.

Hence I was happy to see the same view advanced recently by an academic article, titled: “Muslim Politics Without an ‘Islamic’ State: Can Turkey’s Justice and Development Party Be a Model for Arab Islamists?” Its writer, Ahmet T. Kuru, a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Center, is also the author of a notable book that contrasts “passive secularism” (the American model) to “assertive secularism” (the French model). There, his main thesis was the very assertiveness of Turkish secularism had sparked Turkish Islamism, whereas appreciation of “passive secularism” had led to the rise of the AKP.

In his article, Kuru first explains how the AKP abandoned the main Islamist goal – the “Islamic state” – and opted for “Muslim politics.” The latter means that:

“Muslim individuals and groups can promote their Islamic views in a democratic system through legislative processes, participation in political or judicial institutions, and engagement with civil society and the media.”
Of course, “promoting Islamic views in a democratic system” will be nothing but a very dangerous Islamism in the eyes of many secular Turks and Europeans. But they would be wrong, because they would be missing the key nuance between ideological politics and ideological state. (As an example, contrast having a socialist party in a democratic system, versus having a socialist totalitarian state, such as that of Stalin.)

According to Kuru, the AKP shift is very important, and has the potential to inspire novel thinking among the more reformist Arab Islamists.

Yet one big obstacle is the “scarcity of theoretical works on the [AKP] and its views on secularism and the state.” According to Kuru, this is partly due to Turkey’s draconian secularism: This did not allow theoretical discussions on Islam and politics, hence “Muslim actors in Turkey have had to focus on practice rather than theory.” Yet there is an inherent problem as well: “Erdoğan’s charismatic leadership … has prevented other party members from making intellectual contributions.”

All in all, Kuru’s article, which is available online, is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the nature and future of Islamism – rather than simply whine about it.

My favorite was his summary of the Islamic criticisms against Islamism. “By defining the state as Islamic,” he warns, for example, “the ruler may want to use religious legitimacy as an instrument to avoid accountability or justify unpopular actions.”

Similarly, “Putting God’s name into a flag does not honor Islam; it sacralizes the state.” It does, indeed. Just like the fact that naming a party “Hezbollah,” or “party of God,” venerates not God, but that very party, revealing a self-righteousness from which all true believers should abstain.