By Gökhan Bacık
May 23 2018
The case of Najib Razak, the Malaysian Islamist former prime minister whose house was raided by the police as part of a corruption probe after he lost elections, has stirred debates on the Pacific brand of Islamism.
Razak virtually destroyed the civilian dynamics of the Islamic movement in Malaysia by designating an alternative form where the bureaucratic power of state was restated as the main agent of an Islamic agenda. Therefore, an examination of Razak’s Islamism is an important case for understanding the global transformation of Islamism.
The case of the Pacific brand of Islamism is also illustrative in understanding the crisis of Turkish Islamism.
In retrospect, what we know as classical Islamism has its origins in the Middle East. The Islamism we see in its popular form today is mostly a product of a number of thinkers such as Sayed Qutb and Hasan al-Banna.
It was this popular Islamism of Qutb and others that has influenced the masses in many countries, including Turkey.
Three characteristics of classical Islamism require attention. Firstly, classical Islamism’s endorsement of modern democracy has been a rather reserved one. Alternatively, it proposed an Islamic democracy where Islam has the final command, not secular reason.
The ideological foundations of Islamism have thus never been fully compatible with Western democracy.
Secondly, like Marxism, Islamism presented itself as a universal ideology. However, it was a singular – and inevitable somehow authoritarian – universalism since Islamists believe that once they successfully put their agenda into practice no other ideology would be needed.
Finally, sociologically, classical Islam is the ideology of newly urban people across the Middle East, still under the influence of their traditional culture and facing serious economic problems. Thus, it arose as the voice of the oppressed with a harsh rhetoric against global capitalism.
However, by the 1980s, the Pacific brand of Islamism had already emerged as a serious alternative political narrative on Islam differentiating from classical Islamism.
Its global brand, the Malaysian model, quickly became a source of inspiration for Islamists across the globe including Turkey, the Balkans and Gulf countries.
As expected, the newly urban generation of Turkish Islamists paid a lot of attention to the Pacific brand of Islamism. Many academics and students have visited Malaysia and they brought back key concepts of the Pacific brand of Islamist narrative to their country.
Meanwhile, in the 2000s, the Pacific brand of Islamism was now a concrete government agenda of Islamising society and state in Malaysia during the premiership of Ahmad Badawi with the motto of Islam Hadari, civilisational Islam.
Again analysing its main precepts by three titles, firstly, the Pacific brand of Islamism also endorses democracy, but insists that Islam is integrated into life as a comprehensive framework. However, it has never been clear on the details of how this integration would take place.
Instead, the famous issue of compatibility between democracy and Islam is a postponed one in the Pacific brand of Islamism. However, such a strategic ambiguity has kept its theory from direct clashes with the theory of modern democracy.
Secondly, differing from classical Islamism, the Pacific brand of Islamism adopted a more nationalistic outlook. Unlike the keywords of classical Islamism like Umma and Tawhid, it has instead prioritised other keywords like civilization and city. The radical shift in the discourse resulted in the adoption of a nationalist perspective that focuses on national history, causing a serious differentiation from the universal jargon of the classical Islamist idea of history.
Gradually, the Pacific brand of Islamism transformed itself into a kind of religious narrative of nationalism that puts state and nation at its intellectual core.
To give an example from Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the former Turkish prime minister, is a typical follower of the Pacific brand of Islamism who even personally contributed to the formation and development of this thought in Turkey. Confirming the theory, civilization and city are the most repeated two concepts in his political narrative.
However, such a narrative has become a different version of nationalism in the case of Davutoğlu where the real emphasis is Turkish nation and history.
In this vein, it is not a sheer coincidence that it was during his premiership of Davutoğlu that one of the grimmest state policies towards the Kurdish issue was carried out.
By contrast, the Felicity Party, which follows the classical Islamist path, supports Kurds’ demand for education in their vernacular as legitimate according to Islam.
Thirdly, the Pacific brand of Islamism is no longer a discourse of the oppressed. It is mostly the narrative of newly urban Islamists who want their share from the global order.
Consequently, new Islamists are ardent practitioners of different Islamic methods of economy such as Sukuk, Mudaraba, Selem, Takaful, which are nothing but Islamic forms to legitimise Muslims’ participation in the global markets.
Classical Islamism has always been a rigid ideology about its norms and it has shied away from rejecting various results of contemporary democracy based on its reading of Islam. However, read differently, its reservations were also a proof of its consistency in staying loyal to its original interpretation of Islam.
Tracing these reservations, what resonates as the authoritarian aspects of Islamism, is possible in the whole trajectory of classical Islamism from Sayyid Qutb to Muhammad Morsi, the former Egyptian president ousted by the military. But, none of them have stayed away from proposing their interpretations of Islam as an alternative order with such reservations.
By contrast, the Pacific brand of Islamism has never followed such a consistent track. As a result, it has become the symbol of frequently changing policies on many vital issues making it as an ultra pragmatic ideology.
However, even though its theoretical basis is not in a direct clash with modern democracy, the Pacific brand of Islamism gradually transformed into a state-oriented agenda thanks to its nationalist nature. It has failed to stay Islamist as well as failed to become Western as a result of its ultra pragmatic characteristics giving way to a serious moral crisis. As a result, its inconsistent and wavering political trajectory generated its cancer: Corruption.
Worse, to survive, it mobilised the state with a nationalist discourse, and such a short-sighted strategy resulted in Islamic authoritarianism.
Unlike classical Islamism, which did not refrain from authoritarian policies to impose Islam, the Pacific brand of Islamism became authoritarian to survive.
The failure of such authoritarianism to survive in the case of Razak should be a lesson to Turkey’s Islamists.