By Nuray Mert
It sounds like we are all “reluctant fundamentalists” now - this is what the debate over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has turned into in Turkey. It feels like if we condemn ISIL without finding excuses we will betray our religious identity, legitimize Western interventionism, or even whitewash Western imperialism. That is why it is not only the Turkish hostages in the hands of ISIL that prevent us from discussing the issue. In fact, the best way to challenge all sorts of interventionism - or any kind of Western meddling in regional politics - is to have an honest debate on radicalism and fundamentalism in the name of Islam.
I also believe that “Islamic radicalism/fundamentalism” should be analyzed with its all aspects, without falling into the trap of the “clash of civilizations” discourse that has been supportive of neo-con politics. Indeed, we have a vast literature on the topic - from sociological studies to all sorts of works based on empathy, from Benjamin. R. Barber’s illuminating “Jihad vs. McWorld” to the post-Marxist whimsical comments of Slavoj Zizek. Nevertheless, an honest debate should not have been squeezed between the two opposites of labelling Islam “a religion that has the roots of terrorism in the name of jihad” and victimizing Muslims, on the one hand, and excusing Islamist politics on the other.
It is true that Western Orientalism and even “hostility toward Islam” still plays a role in legitimizing Western aggression, terror laws and manipulating public opinion. Nevertheless, Muslims have never been passive objects of aggression and manipulation. On the contrary, the political actors of Muslim countries had more complicated relations with the Western world. Arab nationalism, nascent Islamism and the political ambitions of Muslim leaders and circles could easily ally with Western powers’ interests when it suited their ambitions. The famous Arab Revolt is perhaps the best known example; though after that many Arab nationalists and Islamists also allied with the Nazis; and finally, during the Cold War, Islamist and conservative politics were the best friends of the West against communism as the “common enemy.” Afghan jihad was the final episode of a long friendship. Besides, Muslim countries have also sought Western or even implicit Israeli help against their political rivals. As Western-oriented Turkey has been an official Western ally, the anti-Westernization conservative/Islamists cooperated with the West in many ways to struggle with “the left,” just as the Muslim Brotherhood did in Arab countries.
Finally, it is time to question all those overgeneralizations like the “Muslim world,” “Muslim societies,” the “Islamic caliphate,” and the “Ummah,” in order to have a better understanding of politics in the name of Islam. In fact, the “Muslim world” has never existed as homogeneity, there has never been an “international Caliphate,” and the “Ummah” as a political term is no less an “imagined community” than nation states. Only when we have questioned all those over-generalizations can we discuss politics in the name of Islam, be it radical and moderate, be it in Turkey and elsewhere.
Nowadays, the supporters of the ruling party in Turkey are eager to play with all these vague terms and concepts on the one hand, along with the card of anti-interventionism and anti-imperialism. It was only a decade ago that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was a supporter of the U.S. intervention in Iraq, while his party is still accusing the U.S. over its failure to intervene in Syria more. Now, the discourse and politics of the government have turned into an odd blend of old ideological clichés like anti-Westernism, Ottoman nostalgia (that fosters the idea of Turkey as the protector of the Sunni world), and resentments concerning foreign policy failure, especially in Syria.