Turkey’s tryst with democracy (2)


Date posted: April 28, 2014

by Anwar Alam*

The non-emergence of democracy as national value also lies in the ways the Turkish elite imagined (historically speaking) the success of Europe and sought to construct or reform its polity.

With that view, it is the coercive, masculine aspect of the European/modern nation state that appealed to them and accordingly they sought to focus on those reforms that bolster the state authority. The soft, liberal and humanistic tradition of modern Europe was ignored while constructing a secular nation state along European lines. Another factor that is obstructing the institutionalization of political democracy is the lack of indigenization and vernacularization of political democracy. It would have been far more effective if the democratic norms, laws, principles and ideals of the European Union had been transplanted in the language of the local, Islamic history of Turkey. Then the democratic dysfunction of the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would have contrasted with a classical, liberal, Islamic age of Turkey. A critique of the Erdoğan government in the name of non-adherence to the democratic standard of the European Union will not be effective, as the latter continues to be seen in the national historical memory as a factor responsible for the dismemberment of Ottoman Turkey in the name of democracy and nationalism!

Premium on the individual

Still another factor that has obstructed the emergence of democracy as a national value in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries is the political tradition and culture that places a high premium on the individual and not on institutions. The idea of a strong state is symbolized in terms of strong leadership, not in terms of strong institution building. Even in the Hizmet discourse, democracy is conceived of as the “best” political arrangement among all existing forms of political rule, not the “ideal” that could galvanize and motivate Muslim publics to achieve that ideal. Though there is plenty of Islamic literature that clearly defines the demarcation between the realm of the secular and the realm of religion, there is hardly any interpretation of Islam that raises the status of democracy as an article of faith commanded by Islam. What I mean here is a lack of interpretation of Islam that clearly enjoins that Muslim rule is only possible in its democratic form. Any political rule that does not conform to the principles of accountability, transparency and the rule of law cannot be called a Muslim rule. Democratic forms of governance continue to suffer from an inferior status in the Muslim/Islamic vision of a “good rule” that continues to be shaped by the model of “The Four Rightly Caliphs” in Sunni Islam and the Imamate system in Shii Islam, which is highly individualistic in orientation. It is not the institution that enjoys the legitimacy in the eyes of people, but the person who occupies the office. Given such a situation and tradition, a person coming from a Muslim/Islamic/Islamist background and in a context of being at the helm of political affairs for a long period might imagine himself/herself as someone “chosen” by God to fulfill an historical mission or lead and guide the community/Ummah, and in the process cast himself/herself as invincible and above the law. Such is currently the case with Erdoğan, prime minister of Turkey since 2002 and the longest-serving head of the government since Atatürk, who is cast himself in the role of Amir ul Muminin and hence considered himself above the law.

Moreover, political Islam, of which the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is a variant, remained an illiberal child of modernity. Looking at the experience of political Islam in Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Bangladesh and others, it is safe to conclude that as a modern phenomenon and concept that germinated in a mentality of the besieged and the victim, and with a fear about survival and an inferiority complex, political Islam remained guided by a power-driven instrumental rationality along with a conspiracy perspective. As such, it is obsessed with harnessing the hard, masculine political tradition of control, regulation and the disciplining of both life worlds — the secular as well as Islam — in order to remain “political;” that is, acquiring and maintaining the power of the state with all means at its disposal — legal or illegal.

What makes Erdoğan move so harshly against Hizmet? The corruption charges leveled at the government are considered “the” factor that pushed the Erdoğan government onto a confrontational path with Hizmet. However, I do not buy this argument. The anti-Hizmet moorings of the Erdoğan-led AK Party were present since the formation of the AK Party government in 2002. It is evident from the “secret deal” signed between the military establishment and the Erdoğan government concerning the profiling of Hizmet volunteers that led to the crackdown on Hizmet. The Erdoğan government tolerated Hizmet for a decade after it came to power partly because it found in Hizmet a useful social support from below, and in the European Union it found a useful political support from above to rely upon, should any direct or indirect confrontation between the government and military emerge. The government purposely championed the cause of membership in the European Union because it enabled them to carry out the democratic reforms that, to a large extent, resulted in “civilizing” the army. Once the Erdoğan government consolidated its regime and became relatively free of military control, rather than ensure the support of the military, it slowed down the process of democratic reform needed to open negotiations for membership in the European Union and ignored several warnings from the European Union, and then started to move to implement its long-held agenda of finishing off Hizmet.

In this context, the corruption charges against Erdoğan provided a golden opportunity for him to intensify the pace of the liquidation of the Hizmet movement. There are three specific reasons for Erdoğan’s anti-Hizmet sentiments. The first is the Middle Eastern state tradition that perceives of an autonomous civil society as an inherent threat to the state/regime. As a result, the state is highly distrustful of autonomous civil society organizations and even more so if the civil society organizations, such as Hizmet, enjoy considerable financial independence. To this extent, the state is highly intolerant of any dissent or criticism directed against the regime and does not hesitate to exercise the use of physical force to silence criticism or any form of opposition.

 Where the AK Party derives its legitimacy

Second, as a political force, the AK Party government represents Muslim Turkey and derives its legitimacy from the combination of being Muslim/Islamic and development. It has the inherent tendency to monopolize the sphere of Muslim Turkey and would not concede this space to any other force. This explains its inherent hostility, which is currently also mixed with a personal vendetta of Erdoğan’s against Hizmet, which, in the Turkish setting, also represents and stands for Muslim Turkey, both from the point of view of its Islamic roots and development.

Though Hizmet is not in the business of opposing or competing with the political, the Erdoğan-led AK Party government fears Hizmet and perceives that, given its financial autonomy, independence, social capital, good will for the movement in society and its association with the development of Muslim Turkey as a countervailing moral-social force that has the capacity and resources to question the legitimacy of the government, even if the latter does not indulge in political opposition. Erdoğan need not fear any secular opposition as long as that opposition is weak, because that would help Erdoğan to consolidate his politics of identity — which has currently degenerated to a level of the politics of Sunni Muslim Turkey. However, any Muslim opposition –whether perceived or real — is the most dangerous, as it performs the function of an “internal other” and is capable of questioning the legitimacy of the government on its own terrain. This partly explains why the Erdoğan government is determined to liquidate Hizmet. As the ethical and moral representative of Islam that produces an ethics-oriented individual, it is the greatest obstacle to the realization of his “fundamentalist,” masculine, authoritarian vision of Islam and the nation. In addition, anti-Hizmet polemics also help Erdoğan to re-build his relationship with and regain the confidence of the military (as is evident from the re-opening of the Ergenekon case), as well as to divert people’s attention from the issues of corruption and a failing economy, if the rapid fall in the value of the Turkish lira is any indicator. However, this kind of political hostility against a political or social movement or organization is not specific to Turkey. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu fundamentalist/nationalist — a member of Rashtriya Sewak Sangh (RSS), an extreme right-wing organization that represents Hindu nationalism — because the RSS found in Gandhi — an ethical and moral Hindu who envisioned a liberal, secular India on the basis of his liberal understanding of Hinduism — the greatest obstacle to the realization of its goal of creating a fundamentalist Hindu India. Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a Muslim and probably a member of Muslim Brotherhood (MB), after assuming power in Egypt, preferred to liquidate the brotherhood, leading to the execution of MB leader Sayyid Qutub, as Nasser saw in him the greatest hurdle to the consolidation of his power. Such examples abound across various societies, though this kind of trend of state hostility against independent political or social forces is more prevalent in Muslim societies.

However the Law of Accelerating Returns applies to everyone; Erdoğan is no exception. Erdoğan has reached his peak, a point from which he will only decline. In the context of his victory in the March 30 municipal elections, speculation is rife about Erdoğan becoming president of Turkey in the August presidential election, the country’s first direct election for the office of president. Whatever the permutation and combination that suits him — changing the AK Party constitution and remaining prime minister or becoming president with a constitutional amendment giving him an active role in national affairs, or becoming president with a handpicked prime minister — the post-August 2014 election period will begin the process that will lead to a reconfiguration of political forces — both horizontally and vertically — that is bound to get out of Erdoğan’s control and will eventually weaken his position. It will not be a walk in the park for Erdoğan to be elected president of the country, if he decides to contest the election, for different factors and considerations will come into play at the national level than those witnessed in the local mayoral elections. Notwithstanding his success in the local elections and their projection as a referendum on his rule, his legitimacy has been eroded. A tainted prime minister cannot maintain a democratic appearance for long and provide long-term business-friendly economic stability in the face of everyday illegal attacks on Hizmet — Turkey’s foremost democratic force — violations of the sanctity of the rule of law, and its lack of commitment to the European Union. What is sad in the whole ongoing political drama, is that Turkey is fast losing its soft power, its historical opportunity and the capacity to promote Hizmet as a gift of Islam and to promote Turkey to the world in the way that Professor T. N. Madan, an Indian scholar, once remarked that secularism is the gift of Christianity and the West to the world.


*Anwar Alam is a professor in the faculty of economics and administrative studies at Zirve University.

Source: Todays Zaman , April 28, 2014


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