The Turks are secular Muslims,” said Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For centuries they have “lived in peace with different cultures.” His Justice and Development party, known by its Turkish initials AKP, stood for justice for all Turkish citizens regardless of their creeds or cultures. Erdogan said he appreciated U.S. support for Turkey’s membership in the European Union, which was a “just cause.” In the EU the Turks would promote a “meeting of civilizations” based on “social justice” and “human dignity.”
The Turkish leader was speaking at a Washington think tank on December 9, 2002, prior to his meetings at the White House. President Bush had invited him to discuss U.S. plans to invade Iraq, and Paul Wolfowitz, the hawkish U.S. deputy secretary of defense, was following him around.
I reminded Erdogan that Europe had historically shown a “poor sense of justice” in its relations to Jews and Muslims, who had been subjected to the Inquisition, forced conversion to Christianity, pogroms, the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing. How did he expect Muslim Turks to be treated in the EU? He said he hoped Europeans would now prove that they were a “mature and confident civilization” by treating Muslims better. Turkish Muslims would bring Europe a pluralist tradition, which they inherited from their Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman system was a “model for just treatment of minorities.”
The leader of a newly elected Turkish government seemed to be replaying a tape of our last meeting. On October 2, 1998, at the mayoral office in Istanbul, Erdogan had outlined his political beliefs and agenda in almost the same words. During that 90 minute meeting he said most Turkish Islamists, including himself, were “essentially secular” when it came to politics. He wanted Turkey to become a member of the EU. Hard-working Turks would be an asset to Europe, afflicted with a labor shortage. They would help forge a “synthesis” between Islam and the West. They had been part of NATO and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and heir to the Europe-based Ottoman Empire. To refuse to accept Turkey in the EU would be “unjust.”
I was visiting Erdogan after he had been fired as Istanbul mayor upon his conviction in court for reading a poem with references to Islam. The prosecutor said his reading of the poem had fomented public hatred against the secular Turkish state. Polls taken after the verdict found him to be the most popular leader in Turkey. He was, however, getting ready to begin serving a four-month jail term for the offense, which would bar him from becoming prime minister until the constitution was amended. Muslim Turkey’s military backed, staunchly secularist constitution forbids the use of Islamic symbols and expressions in politics. The Islamist leader never mentioned his considerable ordeal during the trial and gave brief answers to questions about it, returning frequently to his theme of Islamic social justice and pluralism. The concept of social justice, he emphasized, would be Turkish Muslims’ contribution to Western civilization.
Later, when I learned that the word justice is part of the name of his new political party, I was not surprised. The AKP was formed by a group of progressive Islamists led by Erdogan. Social justice has been a key issue for Islamic movements around the world and one of the two seminal Islamic social concepts. The other is community, the umma. In Islamic parlance, justice has a special meaning. The Quran refers to it as treating one’s fellow men fairly; caring for one’s kin, wayfarers, strangers and others in hardships; and helping to free slaves. Islam views justice, as did St. Augustine, as an overriding duty for man and society. But while for Augustine justice means “giving everyone his due,” for Muslims it entails the additional responsibility of caring for the needy and distressed. Justice is Islam’s word for humanism.
A week after Erdogan’s visit to Washington, the EU announced plans to begin Turkey’s accession talks in 2005, should the Turks meet certain conditions. The AKP government’s joining the accession talks with the EU would be a watershed in the history of Muslim-Western relations and a double irony. For 80 years the world’s only laicist Muslim republic, Turkey has turned up the Muslim world’s first freely elected Islam-oriented government. (In 1995 Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan had formed a government in Ankara, but he had to form a coalition with the secularist True Path party, as his Welfare party had won only 21 percent of the votes.) The AKP regime is Turkey’s first single-party government in 15 years. The party won 363 of 550 parliamentary seats in the November 2002 elections. The AKP is called “Islam oriented,” instead of Islamist, because it is playing down its Islamist agenda. Islamism means an ideology that advocates basing a state’s laws on Quranic injunctions.
The second irony is that a political party with an Islamist orientation is trying hard to become part of Europe and the West, citing its secular, pluralist credentials. Islamist groups including Erbakan’s Welfare party, the AKP’s predecessor, have been known for their hostility to the West and many Western values. Erbakan tried unsuccessfully to form an Islamic trading bloc as an alternative to Turkey’s affiliation with the EU. His efforts to build mosques at city centers, allow women in veils to attend college, and other pro-Islamic projects prompted the military to topple his government.
The AKP government is content not to focus on religious issues. At the top of its agenda are three items: making Turkey a full-fledged democracy, upgrading the economy and joining the EU. The party sticks, however, to the basic Islamic value of social justice and has vowed to enhance “religious freedom,” curbed since the founding of the republic in 1923.
“ILLITERATE” VS. “INNUMERATE”
The secular, humanist face of Turkish Islamism signals a trend that is apparent, though less obvious, in other Muslim societies, and it foreshadows the evolving nature of modernity in the Muslim world. In the thirteenth century, when the Mongols crushed the Abbasid Empire, and Islamic civilization appeared to have been done in, the Turks picked up the torch and built the Ottoman Empire, the mightiest in the history of Islam and the West’s sole superpower for a century and a half.
Islamic civilization has been exhausted once more and is far behind the West. But it is struggling to revive. Could the Turkish model help perk it up again?
Islam’s rise and fall and strengths and weaknesses have always been measured, by itself and others, against those of the West. Ever since the Muslim conquest of Syria, Palestine and Egypt from Byzantium in the mid-seventh century, the two civilizations have been squabbling and fighting with each other, and learning and borrowing from each other. Islam is part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, of which it claims to be the reformed version. In fact, some Muslim scholars call it the first “Christian reformation.” Hence part of the squabbling has involved the tradition itself, to no one’s wonder, this remains unresolved.
Muslims’ image of “true” Christianity, which they have formed through the study of their version of the tradition, conforms to that of the philosopher Hannah Arendt.
For Arendt, Christianity views life, not the world, as “the highest good.”1 Many Muslims know about Jesus’s warning against material pursuits and his criticism of fellow Jews for their quest for wealth and power. They are mostly unfamiliar with the Calvinist doctrine, which considers work a virtue and wealth a heavenly reward for good works.
Even though these Muslims struggle to obtain the tools of power and comfort acquired by the Christian West, many of them consider Western materialism a travesty of biblical teachings. Many dislike America and the West, not because “they hate our freedom,” as President Bush has said, but because they think the West has strayed from the Abrahamic tradition.
They believe Jesus was a prophet and vehemently reject the doctrine of the Trinity. And they accuse Christians of having plagiarized the Bible to make God out of a man and to defend the so-called “just war,” colonialism and exploitation.
Once a Syrian Christian became angry when he heard the familiar argument from a Muslim who did not have a formal education. How could the Muslim know whether the Bible was tampered with, he demanded, being “illiterate” and unable to read it? The Muslim replied that he knew enough math to figure out that his God and Prophet (Muhammad) are two entities. The Christian was “innumerate,” as he would add one (the Son) to two (the Father and the Holy Ghost) and come up with one (God)!
The often-cantankerous religious debate continues. Recently, American Moral Majority leader, the Rev. Jerry Fallwell, branded Muhammad a “terrorist.” The Rev. Jerry Vines, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, denounced the Islamic prophet as a “demon-possessed pedophile.” And Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson called him an “absolute wild-eyed fanatic.”2 When angry, many Muslims lash out at Christians and Jews in equally harsh words, though they do not badmouth Judeo-Christian prophets, who are Islamic prophets, too.
Most Muslim countries are underdeveloped and militarily weak. Hence their governments feel vulnerable to Western economic and military pressure. In January 2003, while the United States was preparing for war to overthrow the government of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the French, German, Russian and Chinese governments continually criticized the move, sometimes in strong terms.
The Muslim governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan were, on the other hand, trying to have Saddam exiled or overthrown in a coup d’état to avert a war. Even though people in these countries raged over American belligerency against Iraq, their autocratic regimes were constrained by their dependence on the U.S. security umbrella. The democratizing government of Turkey, despite being a close U.S. ally in NATO for five decades, kept its commitment to American use of its territory for war to a minimum.
And Erdogan denounced the U.S.-led campaign to disarm Iraq. He said the United States and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council were being “hypocritical” in their Iraq policy. They were, he argued, “strengthening their own weapons of mass destruction” by trying to strip Iraq of these weapons.4
Modernization is picking up steam in the Muslim world. Someday it could bolster Muslim societies’ economies and defense capabilities, enabling them to be rid of Western tutelage. The big question is whether Islamic civilization can survive modernity itself. Would modernity blot out its defining values and perspectives?
HUMANISM AND RATIONALISM
Modernity is the habit of thinking about things rationally and using scientific methods to solve life’s problems. The modern age began in Europe in two stages, spotlighting its two seminal features: humanism and rationalism. Humanism, the ideology that values human life above anything else, reached a high-water mark in the fifteenth sixteenth century Renaissance, inspiring the works of Michelangelo, Erasmus, Shakespeare and Montaigne, among others. Renaissance intellectuals viewed community and the environment as the wellspring of life, and they celebrated the cultural diversity created by man’s living in different natural and social settings.
Cultural pluralism was a hallmark of the movement. The Renaissance was inspired by the Greek rationalist philosophy to which Muslims made a seminal contribution in the Middle Ages.
Greek science and philosophy were on the verge of extinction after Greek ruler Zeno shut down the school of philosophy at Edessa and Emperor Justinian abolished the “pagan” School of Athens, driving its faculty to Persia. When Muslims conquered Persia in 637, they learned about the dormant legacy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and hastened to acquire it.Syrian scholars were employed to translate all available Greek works into Arabic. Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd and other
Muslim intellectuals analyzed and commented on these works and shared them with Europeans. The revival of the lost treasure of Greek science and philosophy “soon set Europe buzzing” with intellectual excitement and eventually sparked the Renaissance.5
From the Renaissance modernity took a new direction in the seventeenth century, with Galileo and Descartes leading the way. They viewed reason as a mental faculty that exists independently of bodily or environmental influence. And they advocated its use for the investigation of universal natural and moral laws and the pursuit of the happiness of the individual. For the “Cartesian” (from Descartes) rationalists, man is naturally individualistic. His attachment to community or the environment is not organic.
The basic question that split Cartesian rationalists from Renaissance humanists was about the utility of the community and the environment. The former believed that pure reason could discern not only the universal laws of physics and astronomy but those of human society and psychology as well. Views that differed from the truth arrived at by the rational mind (walled off from the environment) are false and pernicious. The humanists argued that reason is conditioned by the environment; hence cultural diversity reflects the natural richness of life.
Cartesian rationalism fired up a galaxy of scientists and thinkers – Newton, Carlyle, Voltaire, Leibniz, Hobbes – and ushered in what is known as the Enlightenment. Its ideology is called “liberalism” because the movement liberated large numbers of Europeans from their attachment to a priori beliefs and from the control of the religious hierarchy. Liberalism plunged Europe into a relentless pursuit of scientific inventions and technological innovations that produced unparalleled intellectual, material and military resources. Europeans built modern schools and colleges, industries and trading ventures, and armies and navies. Equipped with a matchless military and economic might, they set about conquering and colonizing the premodern world, much of which was inhabited by Muslims.
The face of modernity that the Muslim world saw during the colonial era and that has loomed over it ever since has few traces of the humanism and pluralism that accompanied its birth during the Renaissance. It did not even display modernity’s scientific or intellectual dimensions. Colonial modernity hit Muslim societies with the hammer of technology and liberal philosophy, which is impervious to alternative modes of reasoning and living.
Having been Europe’s strongest military power, the Ottoman Empire in 1683 was defeated by Austrian forces at the gates of Vienna. While Europe began to chip away that empire, it conquered other Muslim countries one after another. In three centuries the entire Muslim world except Turkey, Afghanistan, Iran and part of Arabia was colonized by modern European nations, especially the British, French and Dutch.
As the Europeans hunkered down in their new colonies, they built Western-style secular schools to create civilian bureaucracies, created Western-style court systems and introduced elements of secular common law into native legal systems. Into the colonial terrain also came movie theaters, night clubs, Christian missions, Christmas parties and other aspects of Western culture. Muslims’ resistance to liberalism was heightened by their hatred for European colonialists, who represented liberal values. The colonialists were intoxicated by the Social Darwinist belief in white racial superiority, and they treated their Muslim and other “subjects” as inferior races who, they used to say, were in need of Europe’s “civilizing” tutelage.
Islam’s engagement with post-Enlightenment modernity, or liberalism, assumed new patterns in the post-colonial era, when Muslim social and political reformers launched their own modernization programs. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria and other newly independent countries, westernized political elites introduced Western-style constitutions, parliaments, national anthems and other alien institutions. Some promoted the capitalist economic system, others opted for variations of socialist models.
Modernizing Muslim governments followed two different trails. Most sought to induce their people into modernization programs. The others – mainly in Iran and Turkey – used force.
EVOLUTION VS. REVOLUTION
The governments that tried inducement built secular schools but left enrollment voluntary. They did not disturb Islamic schools (madrasahs) and sometimes even provided them with financial assistance.
Marriages and divorces were left to families to conduct according to Islamic laws, known collectively as the Sharia, which was honored in courts in a range of other matters as well. Thus these modernizers followed an evolutionary path to modernity.
In most of these countries, secular education spread steadily. Modern communications media, financial institutions and business practices came into vogue. Movements were launched to establish secular democratic governments. The secularization process was speeded by cross-cultural communication, which reached new dimensions with the onset of globalization. Throughout this process, however, Muslims held on to their basic Islamic cultural pattern. When these governments faced resistance to aspects of their programs, they stepped back. Instead of trying to coerce the public into their projects, they adapted the projects to local traditions. Often that meant changing the content of modernity.
In October 1971, Mohammad Khidir Abbas, then editor-in-chief of the progovernment Baghdad Observer in the Iraqi capital, invited me to “come back after 20 years” to see his country “as modern as [the British] who ruled us: democratic, with a socialist economy.” The government, he said, had been devoted to spreading secular education, which would modernize and secularize future generations of Iraqis. They would “appreciate and vote for” Baathist socialism.
Twenty years later the Iraqi government had not been democratized but had done a pretty good job of disseminating secular education. In December 1991, Sabri R. Dawood, Iraqi deputy minister of higher education, reported that the Iraqi school enrollment had more than doubled in two decades during which 87 percent of boys and 68 percent girls had gone through secular public schools. He showed me around his offices, in which about half the employees were bare-headed women (“Men like to work outdoors,” he said).
This was an unusual sight in the Arab world, where the sexes remain segregated and women find it hard to land office jobs. Yet the minister, a Baathist “socialist,” cited Iraqis’ “Islamic spirit” over and over to underscore their resilience in the face of the U.S.-led war and trade embargo that had shattered their lives. Asked how Islam fits into Baathist socialism, Dawood said socialism had “borrowed the idea of justice from Islam.”
While Iraq had made impressive progress in secular education and produced a sizable Western-educated elite, Islam permeated not only the cultural life of Iraq’s average citizens but the discourse of its social and political elites as well.
Saddam’s speeches were punctuated with Quranic verses. The “socialist” Iraqi president appeared in Islamic attire in media interviews, and his publicists billed him as a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.
His pictures in Islamic headdress hung on the walls of the shrines at Kerbala and Najaf and on billboards along highways. In the 1970s, the common practice among Iraqi Baathists was to discount their Islamic identity and scorn religious values. In the 1990s, it was to flaunt Islamic heritage and symbols. The Iraqis were still modernizing but working Islam into the process.
The modernization drive in Pakistan, where I lived for years, has undergone an even more dramatic process of adjustment. The Pakistan nationalist movement was led by a thoroughly secular, British-educated lawyer, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who seldom prayed and drank like a fish, even though drinking is strictly forbidden by Islam. Most of the major Islamic organizations in British India, including the Islamist Jamaat-iIslami, shunned or opposed the Pakistan movement. They disdained its Westernized leadership and secular political agenda.
Pakistan was created in 1947, and throughout the next two decades its politics and laws remained largely secular. Bars, dance clubs and gambling salons – forbidden by Islam – flourished in the cities of Lahore and Karachi. Educated women dropped their headscarves, and many educated men frequented bars and night clubs
By the mid-1970s, the literacy rate had doubled from 22 percent to 51 percent, and a highly visible Western-educated elite emerged. At the same time, society and politics in Pakistan began to take on a strong Islamic hue. As Islamic movements gathered steam, Pakistan’s hard-drinking, philandering prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, shut down night clubs, banned gambling and the sale of alcohol to Muslims, and changed the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, the Islamic sabbath. The prime minister, who used to style himself a “socialist,” created a new cabinet post for “religious affairs” and adorned it with a journalist friend of mine whose Islamic scholarship was matched by his connoisseurship of fine wines. Subsequent Pakistani governments adopted measures to make key Sharia rules part of the Pakistani legal system.
In both Iraq and Pakistan, governments initially tried to sidestep Islamic values while pushing modernization programs.
Responding to public pressure, they later fine-tuned their policies to synthesize social morality and modernity. Yet neither country came close to having an Islamist regime – whether through elections or revolution – and both remain on the road to modernity.
MODERNIZATION BY DIKTAT
In Iran and Turkey, on the other hand, modernizers decided to take the revolutionary route. They had come to the conclusion that Islam was a drag on progress and that Muslims would be better off jettisoning its norms and adopting a liberal lifestyle. In both countries, the revolution has boomeranged. Modernist governments have been replaced by Islam-oriented ones, even as the modernization processes remain alive.
Following what is known as Iran’s “Constitutional Revolution” of 1905, a group of Westernized Iranian intellectuals and politicians ushered in a constitution, modeled after that of Belgium, which sought to suppress Shiite Islamic laws that had been in force for centuries. After a British and Russian colonial interlude, Reza Shah, a brash military officer, became king in 1925. He could not read or write well but believed that, if Iran were to be rid of poverty and backwardness, it needed to be modernized along European lines. And he launched a daring campaign to do just that.
The king tore down old sections of Tehran, Shiraz and other cities with winding, narrow lanes and traditional Persian architecture, replacing them with featureless Western-style buildings and boulevards. He abolished tribal settlements and herded nomads into sedentary townships, where they had no cattle to tend and no other job skills to fall back on. Often he had to send armored cars and German planes to subdue the tribes that resisted his urbanization program.
Reza Shah set up free secular primary and secondary schools, replaced elements of Islamic law with Western legal norms, and ordered that law graduates from Teheran University replace religious jurists as chief judges in government courts. He restricted the wearing of the turban and Islamic cloak to religious scholars with specific credentials and banned segregation of the sexes in cinemas and theaters. In one of his most brazen assaults on the Islamic tradition, the king outlawed women’s veils. Iran’s Shiite religious establishment was indignant, but the king could not have cared less.
In March 1928, Reza Shah’s wife visited the city of Qom to pray at one of Shiism’s holiest shrines. A cleric saw her changing in a room, exposing parts of her body. Not knowing who she was, he scolded her for the indiscretion. “The next day,” notes a historian,
Reza Shah pulled up in front of the gold-domed shrine accompanied by two armored cars and four hundred troops. He strode through the gate in his heavy military boots across the graves of Shiism’s holy men. Finding the offending mullah, he knocked off his turban, grabbed him by the hair, and thrashed him with a riding crop. Then he turned and left, leaving Qom and Iranian Shiism stunned.6
The modernization program was continued by Reza Shah’s son and successor Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who in 1953 was deposed by an elected government but was soon restored to the throne by a CIA-sponsored military coup. Reza Pahlavi distributed among peasants the lands expropriated from large landowners. He privatized big state corporations, speeded industrialization, and flooded Iran with Western consumer goods. His expropriation of lands hurt many religious institutions, which ran on income from landholdings. His privatization and free enterprize reforms impoverished a large segment of the middle class, which could not cope with the changes, and created a favored class of corrupt and arrogant nouveaux riches.
Conscious of his alienation from Iran’s Shiite tradition, the king lurched into a drive to base his rule on Iran’s pre-Islamic imperium. His propaganda machine waged a prodigious campaign to advertise his claim as heir to ancient Iran’s Achamenian imperial dynasty (viz. Saddam’s claim to descent from the Prophet). It reached a climax in 1971, when, in a gala celebration, Reza Pahlavi was anointed heir to the Persian kings Xerexes, Darius and Cyrus of the first millennium B.C. The Iranian public by and large viewed him as an American puppet who patronized corrupt capitalists and drove the middle class to ruin.
Reza Pahlavi’s (and his father’s) reckless industrialization and privatization programs and his brazen disregard for Iran’s Islamic tradition made him widely perceived as an unjust or uncaring ruler. Nothing could be more unjust than trying to deny his people their cultural identity, which was Shiite Iranian.
In the late 1970s, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini launched his Islamist revolution in Iran, the women whom Reza Pahlavi had given voting rights, the urban lower middle class that had benefited from his land reform, and middle class youths educated in secular schools – all joined the movement. The vote, schooling and urbanization only made them more conscious of their cultural identity and more resentful of what they perceived as his injustice. Iran’s Shiite religious establishment, the guardian of its moral tradition, led the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty.
Not long after the Islamists came to power, resentment began to build among the youth and elites against their theocratic rule and suppression of freedom of expression and association, perceived as another form of injustice. Protesters began to defy government restrictions and take out petitions demanding constitutional reforms. Meanwhile, a progressive Islamic politician, Mohammad Khatami, was elected president, vowing to loosen theocratic laws and expand the secular sphere.
Many Iranians are ignoring the theocratic strictures the government has imposed on them. Intellectuals are speaking out, demanding freedom of the press and expression. The size of student rallies in Tehran calling for secular, democratic reforms is increasing steadily. Iran appears to be in the throes of a democratic upheaval that likely will take place through successive elections. Yet the Iranians will not abandon their deeply held Islamic cultural values such as caring about family and relatives, responding to the needs of the Islamic community, observing Shiite religious events, Iranian national festivals, and so on.
RUNNING AGAINST MUHAMMAD
Turkey’s modernization experiment followed the same track and has met with the same fate. The Turks began the modernization process in the mid-nineteenth century, but under the Ottomans it was intended to bolster the Islamic state. The Islamic tradition was suppressed after Turkey became a republic.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic, launched his campaign in 1924, a year before Reza Shah began his. As an Ottoman military officer, Ataturk had read Thomas Carlyle and visited Paris, and he was drawn to the liberal European view that Islam discourages free thinking and impedes progress in science and technology. Like Reza Shah, he decided not to let Islamic culture or morality stand in the way of his modernization program.
Ataturk’s “revolution” was even more drastic than Reza Shah’s. The Turkish leader abolished the caliphate, the Ottoman sultan’s role as head of the Islamic faith.
He replaced the Sharia, under which the Turks had been ruled for seven centuries, with the Swiss civil code and Italian penal code. The Arabic script, in which Islamic scripture is written, was proscribed and the Roman alphabet introduced in its place.
Religious schools were shut down, and religious orders outlawed. Calls to prayer from minarets were forbidden. Turkish elites were instructed to learn to dance European-style and listen to European music. Women attending government offices and events were ordered to shed their veils. The fez, the traditional Ottoman cap, was banned and the European brimmed hat introduced as official headgear.
To build a national culture like that of France, Ataturk banned the use of Kurdish and other minority languages, leaving Turkish the only cultural medium. Turkish citizens, demanded the father of the nation, “must prove that they are civilized” by wearing “boots or shoes on our feet, trousers on our legs, shirt and tie, jacket and waistcoat, and . . . our head covering called ‘hat.’”7
Ataturk’s lay ideology, “Kemalism,” never caught on outside the major urban centers. The law prescribing the European hat could not be enforced even in the cities. Many who took up dancing and music to get on the Kemalist bandwagon resented having to do it. The late Turkish President Turgut Ozal recalled that his parents, who were civil servants under Ataturk’s rule, used to grouse that they had “become the cowboys of the revolution.” The couple was ordered to “go and dance and change partners because that was how they do it in the West.”8
For the past eight decades, the Turkish military has stubbornly resisted not only the introduction of Islam in public discourse, but even the display of Islamic symbols at government institutions, colleges and universities. The military considers itself the guardian of the Kemalist order, and it has staged three coups to preserve that order against citizens who wish to reassert their Islamic or Kurdish identity. Each coup was followed by a period of military rule before restarting the democratic process. Ernest Gellner described the charade in a poignant epigram: “I think it was Mark Twain,” he recalled, “who said, ‘Giving up smoking is easy, I’ve done it many times.’ The Turkish army could say, ‘Reestablishing democracy is easy, we have done it so many times.’”9
As in the case of Iran, the drive to modernize Turkish society through the deIslamization of the polity went awry. Industrial development and economic prosperity, basic indices of modernity, elude the Turks nearly a century after Ataturk launched his revolution. More glaring is Kemalism’s failure to establish the most basic values of modernity: freedom and democracy.
It is only now that the Islam-oriented government is trying in earnest to fully democratize Turkey and give the Kurds full cultural rights. The AKP is a modernizing Islamist group that emphasizes a synthesis between Islamic and Western civilizations. It is far ahead of the Iranians because of the Turks’ proximity to Europe and long exposure to modernity.
The Kemalist period marked more an interruption than progress in the Turkish modernization program. The setback was caused by the Kemalists’ effort to replace Islam with liberalism. “Ataturk started a cult,” says Turkish columnist Mehmet Barlas, “and started running against Muhammad, and he’s losing because Muhammd is a bigger guy and leading a world religion.”10
The fates of the Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi and Pakistani modernization campaigns yield two lessons. One, Muslim societies are inhospitable to modernist revolutions. Secondly, they appreciate the evolutionary path to modernity though it is rather long and uneven. The outcome of the evolutionary process is less impressive in material terms. Yet it spares societies the colossal social costs entailed by rapid modernization. Few contemporary societies would wish to go through the agony of the fasttrack modernization pursued by European nations. Muslim societies, for whom social justice is an overriding concern, are especially resistant to the model because of the injustice built into it, which has traumatized the West.
England, for example, became the world’s industrial superpower by the mid-nineteenth century under fast-track modernization. Among the social costs: guttersin Edinburgh overflowed “excrementitious and other refuse of at least 50,000 persons,” and in Bristol 46.8 percent of industrial workers lived with their families in one-room apartments. Hardly any better was the condition of workers’ slums in London, Liverpool, Leeds, Bristol, Glasgow or Dublin.11 And in Manchester, 14-yearold boys worked 16 hours a day under the lash of their foremen, sending Karl Marx in tears to his desk to write the first draft of the Communist Manifesto.
Capitalism remains unfettered by humanist, environmental or social considerations. It is disrupting families, communities and civil societies. It is exhausting nonrenewable resources, polluting the atmosphere and depleting the ozone layer. The unbridled capitalist stampede for the acquisition of resources, though sanctified by liberalism, is resented by those eluded or victimized by it.
Capitalism operates through the free market, and much of the world has become a battleground between market-dominant minorities and resentful majorities. In a new book on the “global instability” caused by free-market democracy, author Amy Chua says market-dominant minorities around the world are being subjected to popular wrath because of the inequity inherent in the capitalist system. These embattled minorities include whites in South Africa and Zimbabwe; Lebanese in West Africa; Indians in East Africa; Ibos in Nigeria; Tutsis in Rwanda; and Chinese in Burma, the Philippines and Indonesia. The United States, she adds, is a “global market-dominant minority,” and the main reason for the pervasive anti-Americanism in the world today is the feeling among vast numbers of people that it is unjust for Americans – just 4 percent of the world’s population – to dominate the world militarily, economically, financially, technologically and culturally.12 The sense of injustice is especially acute in the Muslim world, which views the American military control over the oil-rich Gulf, and, for that matter, its belligerency against Iraq, as the ugliest face of capitalism – or liberalism. Peace and stability are unlikely to be restored in the world until capitalism is restrained by social justice, i.e. humanism restored to modernity.
The liberal model has worked in the West, so far, mainly because it is, according to philosopher Charles Taylor, “an outgrowth of [Western] Christianity.” It may not work the same way for Muslims, he adds, because it is alien to their cultural tradition.13 In the summer of 1998, a famous Turkish writer used an interesting simile to underscore the point. Rasim Ozdenoren and I were discussing the events of the seventy-fifth anniversary celebrations of the Turkish republic in a third-floor room overlooking Ankara’s tree shaded Ataturk Bulvari. I asked why Turkey remained underdeveloped after three-quarters of a century of relentless modernization. He pointed out a tree on the other side of the street and asked how tall it could be.
“Maybe 70, 80 feet,” I said. He then showed me a potted plant at a corner of the room and said, unlike the tree, this plant was being watered and fertilized regularly. Could it ever grow nearly as tall as that tree? Without waiting for my response, Ozdenoren said it could not because it was not “growing from its own soil,” as the tree was. The Kemalist modernization program was copied from Europe and did not evolve from Turkey’s Islamic tradition. The same model worked in Europe because it evolved from Europe’s indigenous cultures. Europe borrowed Christianity from the Middle East, but when the faith was embraced by Western Europe’s warlike, acquisitive Germanic tribes, it began to shed the pietistic, charitable ethos of early Christianity and take on the martial and materialistic spirit of the West. The “just war” doctrine replaced Jesus’s caveat to forgo resisting evil. His admonition to his community of believers to quit searching for material goods and give away all their possessions yielded to the Germanic tribal ethic of individual property rights. The Crusades, colonialism, individualism and capitalism were all distinctive features of Western Christianity, not to be found in the faith’s Eastern Orthodox tradition.
The Germanic concepts of individualism and property rights later flowered as liberalism and capitalism, both unique to Western civilization. And the Germanic martial spirit, which sparked the Crusades and cleansed Western Europe of Judaism and Moorish Islam, was later reflected in humanism’s being rinsed out of Enlightenment liberalism. Liberalism, deplores Charles Taylor, is “a fighting creed.”14
But, just as the West is a composite civilization that borrowed alien concepts and evolved from its cultural niche, so is Islam. Islam has been enriched by elements of Byzantine, Persian, Indian and other civilizations. All of these, Islam’s multicultural civilization has assimilated into the indigenous cultures. The core doctrines and values that thread Muslim societies together include monotheism, justice and community, which Islam inherited from previous indigenous faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism.
Modernity has been the latest creed enriching Muslim societies. It has been transforming and renewing them, and of course corroding their traditions. Secularism has been modernity’s main corrosive agent, and Muslim societies are secularizing. But they are doing so on their terms. During the past century or so most Muslim societies have subsumed the basic values and worldview of Islam.
Until recent times, the vast majority of Muslims everywhere used to follow the “folk” or “low” version of their faith, remaining indifferent to its essential values and lacking in the umma spirit. The anticolonial and nationalist struggles and now the movement against Western hegemony, all fought in the name of Islam, have galvanized most of the Muslim world and permeated the values of “High” Islam at almost all levels of Muslim societies.
Gellner studied this metamorphosis before the post-9/11 phase of global Muslim resurgence against American hegemony (he died in 1995), and he called it “a very major cultural revolution,” during which Muslim societies have internalized the basic Islamic values. This “moral homecoming,” he says, is likely to shield Islamic civilization from being absorbed by liberalism.
“[O]n the evidence available so far,” he says,
The world of Islam demonstrates that it is possible to run a modern, or at any rate modernizing, economy, reasonably permeated by the appropriate technological, educational organization, principles, and [emphasis original] combine it with a strong, pervasive, powerfully internalized Muslim conviction and identification.15
The quintessential Islamic values that Muslim societies have internalized include “justice” and community, or cultural pluralism. Once upon a time the two concepts linked Islam to the Renaissance and the West. When Tayyip Erdogan asks for Turkey’s membership in the EU based on justice and pluralism, he is asking for the renewal of that old link.
1 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 316, 318.
2 Alan Cooperman, “Christian Leaders’ Remarks Against Islam Spark Backlash,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2002.
3 Israel Shahak, Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies (London: Pluto Press, 1997), p. 34.
4 “Turkish Party Head Rips U.S. on Standard,” Associated Press, January 24, 2003.
5 Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Rise of Christian Europe (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989), pp. 141-142.
6 Sandra MacKey, The Iranians: Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation (New York: Penguin, 1996), p. 181.
7 Patrick Kinros, Ataturk: The Birth of a Nation, Second Edition (London: Phoenix, 1996), p. 415.
8 Nicole and Hugh Pope, Turkey Unveiled: Ataturk and After (London: John Murray, 1997), p. 163.
9 Ernest Gellner, “The Turkish Option in Comparative Perspective,” Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey, Sibel Bozdogan and Resat Kasaba, eds. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), p. 243.
10 Author’s interview with Mehmet Barlas, Zaman, Istanbul, August 5, 1998.
11 H.H. Hearder, Europe in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966), p. 120.
12 Amy Chua, World on Fire (New York: Doubleday, 2003), pp. 5-15, 230-231.
13 Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition” Multiculturalism, Amy Gutmann, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 62.
15 Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason and Religion (New York: Routeledge, 1992), pp.15-22.