By David Romano
Yesterday I heard America’s National Public Radio quote Tariq Ramadan, an Oxford University professor of Islamic studies and grandson of the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Dr. Ramadan lamented the recent events in Egypt, stating something along the lines of “Islamists and secularists must learn to live together and accept each other” (I can’t find a transcript of his exact words, but this was the gist of it if memory serves me faithfully). This probably strikes people as a very reasonable view, akin to “we must learn to make peace, not war.”
Secular and Islamist co-existence, however, is a contradiction in terms. Islamists, by definition, engage in politics in order to insert religion into the realm of public policy. If this were not their objective, they would simply be religiously devout politicians in some other political party. Also by definition, secularists believe in not allowing religion to dictate public policy. We might just as well wish for the Klu Klux Klan and African Americans to get along.
Some readers may, at this point, exclaim “Wait! There are many different kinds of Islamists, as well as different sorts of secularism!” As far as I can tell, however, there are only really two kinds of Islamists–the patient, “play by the rules” kind, and the impatient, “take power by any means” kind. Of course there are many, many different interpretations of Islam and Islamic law and varying levels of enthusiasm for imposing religious rules throughout a society. In both kinds of Islamism, however, the same basic logic applies: a view that religion enjoins what is right and forbids what is wrong, and that these things should be translated into public policy one way or the other.
Islamists, by definition, engage in politics in order to insert religion into the realm of public policy.
In Islam, alcohol, blasphemy, adultery and usury, among other things, are wrong. Some Islamists may therefore enact forthright bans on such practices, as in Iran and Saudi Arabia, while others take a more indirect approach, as in Turkey. Since Turkey’s constitution mandates secular politics, the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) approach has been to increasingly curtail alcohol as part of a public health campaign, outlaw blasphemy and adultery as part of public morality campaign (they have been stymied on the adultery issue to date), and spout conspiracy theories and vague threats against the “interest rate lobby”. Turkey under the AKP thus travels to the same general destination of “life dictated by religion and those who interpret it” as Iran and Saudi Arabia, but does so on a slower, more circuitous train.
The mirror image of such an outlook comes in the form of a French style approach to secularism, or “laïcité.” In this understanding, religion is subservient to the state, and politics even dictates and constrains religion. Kemalism in Turkey adopted such an approach when it trained and licensed all imams in the country according to state-sanctioned doctrine, outlawed the wearing of veils in public institutions and forbade public officials from growing beards, for instance. This is the kind of secularism that sparked so much resentment amongst Islamists, and which Prime Minister Erdogan referred to when he recently proclaimed “They humiliated our values for years. They despised our beliefs, ignored our choices, desires, demands and expectations.” Islamism, including Mr. Erdogan’s patient brand of Islamism, bears a remarkable similarity to this kind of secularism in that both seek to impose one group’s values on the other. They cannot coexist.
What of American-style secularism, however? In the American understanding, secularism means a separation of church (or mosque) and state, with neither subservient to the other. Just as the state should not mandate or favour certain religions or interpretations of religious doctrine, religion should not serve as a determiner of public policy. Although this separation faces constant challenges in the United States, the principle seems clear enough: politics dirties religion, and religion wrecks politics. Surely political parties of socially conservative Muslims, as opposed to Islamists, could coexist with this kind of secularism? When I spoke to AKP deputies about this in 2008 and 2009, they told me that they very much support secularism in this American sense of the term. I wish I could believe them. Perhaps if they had not organized their political party on the ashes of the banned Islamist Refah party, if they had not made its Sunni Islamic nature so central, I could. Millions of protestors in Turkey no longer seem to believe them either, just as a good number of the millions who protested in Egypt no longer believe the Muslim Brotherhood.
But what if Islamists just use religion cynically to gain political support? What if they don't believe in a heavenly mandate at all, and are quite ready to compromise on every issue?
Even American-style secularism and moderate Islamism are not equivalent or compatible, unfortunately. One promises to leave people alone when it comes to their beliefs and their lifestyles (although even these promises sometimes face problems, as the Christian conservative component of the American Republican Party attests to). The other believes itself to have a mandate from God. Fulfilling God’s Will does not easily lend itself to compromise, sharing political power or staying out of people’s daily lives, no matter how “moderate” your tactics are. Who would want to compromise on their vision of the Divine Will? That’s one reason the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt sparked so much opposition in such a short time, and why Turkey’s AKP looks more and more like the Muslim Brotherhood every year.
But what if Islamists just use religion cynically to gain political support? What if they don't believe in a heavenly mandate at all, and are quite ready to compromise on every issue? In this case, they formed a religiously-based political party for mainly strategic reasons rather than any deeply held convictions. Perhaps there's more hope for coexistence with secularists in such a scenario, although many people who vote for such "Islamist" leaders might not accept many compromises before they vote for a different, less moderate Islamist pretender. These kinds of Islamist leaders would also have to be cynics and liars before they even entered politics, which hardly inspires confidence...
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).