When will democracy prevail in the Islamic world?

When will democracy prevail in the Islamic world?

Completing his nine year service as the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Prof. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu paid a courtesy visit to Ankara on Dec. 17 to bid farewell and to thank Turkish leadership for their support throughout his mandate. He will hand over his position to his Saudi successor, Iyad Madani, in two weeks. 

As a group of Ankara bureau chiefs, we had the chance to meet Mr. İhsanoğlu and to discuss the OIC’s achievements under his leadership. 

“In the nine years of my service, we have carried out substantial work for the institutionalization of the OIC. We made it a stronger organization and we made it more visible. The OIC is now an organization that is cooperating with other leading international organizations,” İhsanoğlu said. 

A renowned academic and intellectual known for his studies on the history of science among many others, İhsanoğlu’s two-term leadership coincided with the historic wave that has shaken the entire Islam world and many Arab countries. As he spent a good part of his life in Egypt and other Islamic countries as a scholar, his views on the Arab Spring have always been seen very important and substantial. 

According to İhsanoğlu, the first mistake was made when this wave was described as a “spring.” “It cannot be called spring, because it was misleading. It can neither be called a spring nor a revolution. They were social explosions as a result of years old pressure, cruelty, poverty and bad governance … They were representing the people’s political awakening,” he explained. 

“If you want to use an analogy, it was not a spring, but autumn; an autumn for dictators. But now, we are entering a very harsh winter,” İhsanoğlu stressed, obviously referring to the developments in Syria. 

One thing is for sure, Islamic countries will have to pass through a serious transformation processes to reach out for democracy. None of the countries affected from this wave have political parties or established political groups except for Islamist groups, he explained. Although these Islamist groups have been transformed into political movements, they failed to produce a stable and diverse political landscape in their countries due to lack of experience. 

The only exception was Tunisia, İhsanoğlu suggested, because it has established political parties, strong trade unions, a wide middle class and a well-educated population. “Democracy can be reached if you have these elements. Otherwise, there will be no success in the democratization of the countries,” he said. 

On that very point, he made comments regarding the coup d’état in Egypt, which also made him a target of Turkish government official-, İhsanoğlu pointed at the fact that democracy will take a long time for Egypt. “The path to democracy is a long one. Consider how many years it took for Turkey after the Tazminat,” he asked, referring to the first democratization attempt, although limited, by the Ottoman Empire in 1839. 

Egypt has been ruled by only three leaders in the last 60 years under a military regime, İhsanoğlu underlined, and said expecting this country’s overnight democratization was unrealistic. The Turkish government has become the loudest critical country of the coup d’état in Egypt and of toppling the country’s first democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood movement and some ruling party officials harshly criticized İhsanoğlu for not activating the OIC against the military junta. He was further called to resign from his position, although he had only couple of months left at the OIC. 

“We have left them behind. A lot of water has flowed beneath the bridge since then. I have always said I am not a person of polemic. Everybody is very well aware of under what context those statements have been made,” he said. For many in Ankara, this attack against İhsanoğlu was to nix his potential candidacy for the presidential elections of next year. 

Mr. İhsanoğlu’s retirement plans, however, are focusing more on his intellectual works. He is planning to publish a book titled “Islamophobia: Form confrontation to cooperation,” in which he would detail his works against Islamophobia during his tenure. 

It was his success to convince European leaders that Islamophobia is an existing threat and it requires cooperation to fight against. “When I first met Javier Solana and discussed the issue. He told me ‘I do not know what Islamophobia is.’ But years after, it was Catherine Ashton who wanted to initiate cooperation with us on the same issue,” he said. 

It’s very important for Turkey to have more international figures like İhsanoğlu, not only to represent this country abroad, but to also contribute in resolving regional and global issues that also a concern for itself. İhsanoğlu should be held up as an example for his successful performance.