Azmi Bishara: Empty-Hearted Secularism

By Azmi Bishara

Modern Turkey has never experienced as extended a period of stability and economic growth as it has under the last government. This government was led by the Justice and Development Party, which just scored another major electoral triumph in the Turkish general elections. In its victory speeches, the Islamist party pledged to safeguard the constitution of Turkey’s secular republic. As I recall, in the trial over the murder of the Egyptian writer Farag Fouda, some mainstream members of the Muslim Brotherhood testified on the behalf of the accused that the killers had been rightfully motivated by religious zeal, because the secularism that Fouda advocated was heresy. What a striking difference! One Islamist party swears to uphold the state’s secularist system while another rules that secularism is anathema and justifiable grounds for murder. Not that this kept mainstream Islamist movements from jubilation, in turn, over the victory of a party whose position on secularism they would roundly condemn if that party had declared it openly in their own countries.

The Justice and Development Party is far from a leftist or liberal democratic party. But it has certainly governed Turkey better than any other Turkish party that I know of, leftist, liberal, republican or otherwise. Even so, it did not have any easy ride. At one point it had to dissolve and change its name. More recently, it was the victim of a massive hate campaign waged by the left and right in concert in the name of secularism.

Many factors combined to propel this mainstream Islamist movement to embrace parliamentary life. For one, the military establishment certainly put a cap on its ambitions. Undoubtedly, too, Turkish cultural and national identity, the conflicting ramifications and repercussions of globalisation, and economic progress and development also played a part. Whatever these factors were, the party retained its equilibrium, adjusted to present limitations, and decided to play by the rules of the game.

This placed Europe in an awkward spot. As it hemmed and hawed over granting membership to an industrially developed nation with a democratically elected government, a nation many times better than some of the Eastern European countries that were gaining admission, Europe was once again exposed for its widespread and deeply seated undercurrent of racism. But the platitudes keep coming fast and furious to cover up the resounding moral collapse of European policy towards Turkey (in spite of a brave attempt to revive it in the post- colonialist era of the Kreisky and Brandt generation), a collapse that was merely a sideshow to the even more telling and more hastily swept under the carpet collapse of the German handling of the Jewish question and Palestine.

Of course, the issue has some bearing on the history of Islamism in Turkey. Unlike in the Arab world, Turkey never had that clear divide between radical political Islam versus mystical Sufism on the one hand and the conservative clergy on the other. In Turkey, things are more subtle: a vast social base of subscribers to a rational and tolerant form of Sufism and an invisible give-and-take between "the military" and "the Sufi lodge" that is constantly recalibrating itself.

While in Turkey, a victorious Islamist party displays more moderation, rationality and pragmatism, and less demagoguery and populism than all its secularist rivals, the Arab world is experiencing a curious decline in the rhetorical lip service paid to democracy. I say "curious" because one sniffs hidden agendas and because there is a sudden increase in the talk of "secularism" and "the unity of secularist forces". Not that this should be all that surprising. Most of the ruling regimes are secularist and undemocratic, and most of the corruption they foster, and the nepotism they thrive on, is secular. At the same time, everyone knows that democracy could open the corridors of power to Islamist forces. Not that anyone would be so bold as to come out against democracy, even if they never supported it in their lives. The fashion, now, is to say you’re a secularist instead.

Of course, there are some very sincere liberal secularists out there who have not been co-opted by the prevailing regimes and sucked into their cycles of corruption. Many of these oppose suffrage for all, a position that, as much as I take issue with it, I find I have to respect. I’m the last to claim that "democracy is the solution", to borrow from the Muslim Brotherhood chant "Islam is the solution." I don’t subscribe to panaceas.

This said, secularism to some is a way of life; as opposed to a political philosophy that espouses the separation of religion and the state. More often than not, these self-acclaimed secularists are not secularist at all, but inveterate narcissists who do not like to be crossed. They worship worldly values perhaps more than others revere spiritual ones, and they can be more fundamentalist and verbally and physically aggressive in the defence of these values than ultra nationalists and even ultra opportunists. Criticism puffs up their vanity even more and goads them into peddling to the consumerist middle and upper classes a rhetoric seething with a phobia of religion and religious devotion. In effect, they have founded a new secular religion that is hostile to Islam in particular. And they are not put off by the George W Bush brand of fundamentalism and the bigotry of a broad segment of his grassroots base.

Democracy was fashionable among some antidemocratic intellectuals at the time the US moved to export democracy by gunboat. They joined the American chorus in the chant that some regimes can only be changed from the outside, even though some of these intellectuals were good friends with the regimes in question and moved from one to the other when they had to. A life of luxury sometimes depends on someone to support it, and the intellectual life in our countries certainly can’t feed itself as well as that mode of "secular" existence. But what is sadder yet is that these panderers to American rhetoric dropped democracy like a hot potato as soon as the neo-cons (apart from Bush) realised that their advice was backfiring and decided to revert to their former pragmatism that entailed taking their allies for better or worse, laying off with the democratisation blackmail and reconciling themselves to that bitter truth that political reform only opened the floodgates to their enemies. So much is perfectly understandable. What defies comprehension, however, is how fast our neo-liberals, here, took up "secularism" in the course of this past year. "Secularism," now, has become a multipurpose word. It can even be used to justify siding with Bush, Olmert and the secular Arab regimes against what the legitimately elected Hamas movement did, let alone to support the practices of corrupt security agencies in defending the secular consumerist way of life in the face of the backwardness of those who turned against it.

Of course this brand of secularism has very little to do with the latest definition of secularism as privatising religious self-determination and separating it from the public sphere, and very much to do with taking a stance against political Islam. It is a position that expresses itself in the Arab world in the form of corrupt regimes that have hitched themselves to the skirts of Western powers and, occasionally, Israel. Here, secularism is not a prerequisite for democracy, or a means to rationalise politics, but a form of the worship of consumerism and the wares of certain classes.

Secularist forces, in their original sense or in the latest sense of anti-Islamist forces, do not form a sufficient majority to establish a democratic order. They are highly dependent upon dictatorships. In the best of circumstances, they criticise dictatorship without presenting a democratic alternative. But this is a form of camouflage. Secularist forces will never be able to offer a democratic alternative until they, themselves, become democrats and conceive of a reasonable way to run the country in a democratic and secular manner. But this challenge will remain beyond their reach unless they take into account the influence of Islamist parties and Islamist political forces.

Democratic secularists must reach out to and speak with Islamists. There is a vast spectrum of them, and it is important to distinguish between those who share democratic values and those who condemn the democratic process. To toss all of them into a single basket on the grounds of a shared religious frame of reference is to be pointlessly rigid and closed-minded. Even if secularists have some grounds for suspicion, to yield to this sentiment is irrational and futile. The fact is, not only is there a rift in the greater Islamist movement; its mainstream segment will constantly evolve the more it is given the opportunity to involve itself in the affairs of society and state, and the more it discovers, through practice, the diversity and limitations of pluralistic interaction. In addition, the desire to attain and keep power necessitates certain compromises with both self and others.

But reaching out to Islamists does not mean flattering them to the extent of abandoning important secularist principles. Nor should it stem from that paternalistic self-righteous attitude that Arab nationalists, in particular, seem to cling to without cause. Islamist movements have deep experience and diversified expertise; they do not need tutors or custodians, but people they can converse with and whom they can trust at times when it is necessary to fight for a common cause. The Arab nationalist trend may still attract the majority of the Arab public, and its Nasserist version may still appeal to the majority of Egyptians. However, it is not a sufficiently unified and organised movement to make its political clout felt. For this, it has only itself to blame. It should not cast the onus on organised Islamist forces to carry out tasks it should have performed itself long ago. For Arab nationalists to turn around now and exclude Islamists on the pretext that they are not "secularist", and therefore not ready to practice democracy, apart from being hypocritical, is unrealistic. What kind of democracy excludes that many people from across the various sectors of society and with such enormous potential to offer the nation?

Of course, the Islamist mainstream must be expected to abide by both the spirit and principles of democracy. This does not only mean adhering to democratic practices, such as holding free and fair elections and handing over power peacefully when the polls tell it to. It also means respecting the human rights and civil liberties of all citizens during its period of rule, something for which Arab "secularist" governments have a dismally poor track record. Islamists will also be expected to accept and work for the national agenda and to honour and safeguard national sovereignty. Equally, if not more importantly, it must do this in collaboration with other political forces and, moreover, it must educate its own rank and file on how to engage in a constructive process of give-and-take.

This brings me to some observations on the difference between internal awareness raising and the discourse used to placate others. The very fact that a movement perceives the need to modify its discourse to allay the qualms of others is, in itself, a significant development, even if the discourse has yet to be channelled for absorption within the movement. Islamists that brand all other political movements and ideologies heretic do not care at all about how others think of them. Of course, the radical left, in its time, made no such distinctions. To it, hypocrisy was worse than fascism and, anyway, it perceived little difference between social democracy and Nazism: both were essentially forms of the rule of the bourgeoisie. To me, Nazism and fascism are worse than hypocrisy. So is absolutist Islamism. However, the transformations through which mainstream Islamist movements are passing are not hypocrisy, but a historic imperative for the type of reforms needed to make the transition to a real and robust democracy. This fact must be acknowledged and handled appropriately.

Those who do not recognise that the Muslim Brotherhood has undergone a sea of change since the days of Sayed Qotb, that Hamas today is not what it was a few years ago and that Hizbullah is not the same party that shot Shia leftists in the 1980s are, themselves, fundamentalists of a different stripe. They cling to their ideas or preconceptions without subjecting them to rational scrutiny or the light of reality, whether out of rigid closed-mindedness or simply because it is not in their interests to try to understand. Or perhaps it is because they, too, have changed? I, for one, find it difficult to understand a left that now finds itself collaborating with the US and Israel against Islamists. I find it even harder to understand a left that is now so remote from the poor and the culture of the underprivileged, and from the quest for social justice, and is so cosy with the prosperous classes that are so aloof from their own societies.

(Al-Ahram Weekly – – August 1-8)

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