Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 November 2004
Issue No. 716
Focus
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Harmonising immutable values and ever-changing mechanisms

In the fourth and concluding instalment of this year's "Ramadan Debate" Omayma Abdel-Latif talks to Ahmet Davutoglu, the main ideologue behind Turkey's unique experience with democratic Islamist government


Ramadan debate:

The Muslim condition
Radwan Al-Sayyid

Understanding Islam
Gema Martin Munoz

Europe's silent revolution
Tariq Ramadan


Click to view caption
Ahmet Davutoglu: "Al-Qur'an Al-Karim contains no detailed or given political mechanism which Muslims must adhere to. The Qur'an provides us with the values of the political system -- justice, dignity, equality and freedom -- but it does not impose any particular political mechanism on human beings, because political systems are subject to change over time"

With the rise to power of Turkey's Justice and Development (AK) Party some two years ago, many writers in the West began to praise the Turkish party as an example of a political formation which upholds both Islamic ideals and democratic values. Soon, the AK was being touted as a model which might be emulated in other parts of the Middle East.

Ironically, it was thanks to this party with an Islamist orientation that Turkey finally emerged as "a model of democracy". But others argue that the reason why so many US writers are promoting the Turkish model is simply because the US is looking for an America-friendly Islam and the AK party offers a model of what Richard Falk, a Princeton professor, once described as "soft Islam".

For Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, chief adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyib Erdogan, such views are irrelevant to the debate dominating the Turkish scene today. "Turkey does not want to be a model for any one," says Davutoglu. "What we do we do for the sake of our own society, because our only source of legitimacy is the people of Turkey."

Forty-five-year-old Davutoglu is also one of the most prominent Turkish Muslim thinkers. He has been a shaping force behind the AK's new thinking. He also represents a new generation of Muslim scholars who believe that Islam can offer a modern mode of governance.

Professor Davutoglu holds a PhD in political science and international relations from Bogazici University and he has been chair of the Department of International Relations at Beykent University. His publications include Alternative Paradigms: the Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauugs on Political Theory and The Transformation of the Concept of the Muslim world.

Do you think Muslim intellectuals can develop a theory of Islamic democracy based on a fusion of Islam and Western democratic ideals?

I think the important issue is that Islam assumes a harmony between values and mechanisms. It is very important from the perspective of Islamic teachings and traditions that values and mechanisms be consistent. In Islamic teachings, mechanisms are an area which man is free to develop, provided that any such mechanism furthers the core values of Islam.

These values are the principles of the Maqasyd, namely, protection of life, protection of intellect, protection of generation, protection of religion, protection of property and, of course, the realisation of justice. So any mechanism can be legitimate as long as it achieves these values.

Similarly, today, it is our responsibility as Muslim politicians and intellectuals to reinterpret the political systems and mechanisms of our time and to try to create a new harmony between the values of society and the mechanisms which can be found in existing structures.

When we look at democracy as a mechanism from this perspective, we can distinguish four fundamental democratic principles: (i) the rational legitimacy of political power; (ii) political participation as a way of creating political power; (iii) political and legal accountability of political leaders; and (iv) the possibility of changing political power through elections.

These principles are not in any essential contradiction with the values of Islamic teaching. In the Islamic traditions, there is a clear basis -- an epistemological basis -- supporting rational legitimacy in politics. The historical practice of the Muslims provides a unique example, in which the religious authority of the Prophet is transferred to the rational authority of his successor. It is only in the Islamic tradition that the succession of the Prophet was decided by the community, not by a metaphysical transfer of power. There is no example like this in any other religious tradition. This is the difference between Islam and Christianity.

Comparing the historical experience of St Paul and of Abu Bakr (RA) will make this split even clearer. St Paul did not have any historical or rational relationship with Jesus. Therefore his authority as the second founder of Christianity had a metahistoric dimension, representing the special ontological status of Christ as a divine being. That metahistoric dimension to the legitimacy of religious and socio-political authority was transferred to the metaphysical personality of the Church and to the meta-human personality of the Pope. It was impossible for a rational mode of legitimacy to develop within such a tradition.

Unlike St Paul, Abu Bakr had a historical, direct and well-documented relationship with Prophet Mohamed (SAW). Abu Bakr's response to the death of the Prophet marked the starting point for a rationally legitimised authority in social affairs. It marked the end of the unique epistemological authority of the Prophet as wahy [revelation] and the beginning of the human authority of Abu Bakr. The authority of Abu Bakr was established and legitimised after logical argumentation, rather than through metaphysical experience. Political participation and politico- legal accountability have been part of Muslim history from the very beginning.

But some would argue that part of the authority of Islam is based on a divine creation, namely, the Holy Qur'an. How would you respond to this?

Al-Qur'an Al-Karim contains no detailed or given political mechanism which Muslims must adhere to. The Qur'an provides us with the values of the political system -- justice, dignity, equality and freedom -- but it does not impose any particular political mechanism on human beings, because political systems are subject to change over time. Again, when Al-Mawardi wrote Al- Ahkam Al-Sultaniya in the 11th century , which has been one of the main sources of Islamic political thought ever since, the political mechanisms of monarchy to which he referred were taken from Roman, Byzantine and Persian traditions.

There are other mechanisms which were original characteristics of the Muslim polity from the very beginning. For example, the issue of legal and political accountability of the ruler has always been part of the Muslim tradition. Omar Ibn Al- Khattab (RA)'s practice is a good example of this fact. Whether in practice Muslim rulers adhered to this principle or not is another issue, but it existed as part of the tradition of the first generation of rulers who succeeded the prophet.

What we have to do -- as Muslim thinkers and scholars -- is to identify those political mechanisms which are best able to realise the universal values of Islam.

Nevertheless, some in the West point out that not all mechanisms are compatible with Islam as a religion, and there are Muslims who think of democracy as a Western import...

It is not correct to perceive Islam and democracy -- or any other political system -- as two alternative categories and pose the question as to whether they are compatible or not. These are not logically competitive categories.

What -- in your view -- are the major dilemmas facing an Islamic party when in power?

Let me first clarify one point. The concept of an "Islamic party" is a false concept, because any political party is by nature a dividing rather than a unifying force. Islam, on the other hand, is a unifying factor, a common element. So the concept of an "Islamic party" should be used cautiously.

But we can refer to the different ways different political parties refer to Islam, or their relation to religion in general. By the same token, one can extend the argument to American politics: for example, US President George Bush made far more reference to Christianity in his campaign than did Senator John Kerry.

We should not reduce Islam to a political group or party, because then you end up with certain parties monopolising the representation of Islam. The leaders of the AK party did not use this concept of an "Islamic party", but tried instead to present themselves as part of the Turkish political tradition.

So how would you explain the rise to power of a party with an Islamic orientation like AK within this Turkish political tradition?

The democratic process in Turkey goes back to the beginning of the 19th century when local administration elections were inaugurated. The practice of general elections in the framework of a constitutional monarchy dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century.

Then, the main tension and dialectic of Turkish politics was between the centre, which was represented by a bureaucratic elite which was trying to modernise society, and the periphery, characterised by the grassroots in rural areas, which was composed of more conservative and traditional groups. The centre-periphery dilemma has continued throughout most of Turkish political history. At the centre, the bureaucracy tried to transform society, and at the periphery, a society with traditional and more Islamic values tried to penetrate the political system.

When multiparty democracy started in the 1950s, these tensions began to weaken. The masses began to penetrate the political centre, and thus a process of political transformation was set off. When you look at the political powers of the last 50 years -- governments like those of Adnan Menderes in the 1950s, Demirel in the 1960s, Turgut Ozal in the 1980s, or Tayyib Erdogan now in 2004 -- you can see a move towards a more traditional form which refers to Islam, both in leadership and in society at large.

Society started to penetrate the centre, and the elite at the centre began to transform itself as well. That is why the AK party was able to rally the grassroots of society.

The main challenge for us now is the encounter between tradition and modernity, and this is a very healthy and challenging process. Our responsibility is to understand the main mechanism of this process so that we can help ensure a natural transformation for society.

The responsibility of the AK party is to create a balance between these trends. Whether or not we succeed, this is a historic test.

George Bush has been re-elected on a very conservative ticket. How is this viewed in the Muslim world?

There was a process in the West which began with the declaration of the end of religion -- the famous slogan about "the death of god" -- in the early 20th century. After that we witnessed "the end of ideology", and then "the end of history" in the 1990s.

But this trio of religion, ideology and history did not end and will not end. In the early 20th century there was a general expectation that the role of religion would decrease in society, and modernity would come to reign supreme. But the last quarter of the 20th century witnessed exactly the opposite trend.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon has not been well analysed. In my book, Civilisational Transformation and the Muslim World, published in 1994, I tried to analyse this transformation. One of my main arguments was that there has been a global revival of religion in all main civilisational centres, not only in the Muslim world, and that this revival is set to continue, because it is a natural response to the dogmatic modernism which prevailed in the 1950s. If you look at the transformation of many societies in the 1980s and 1990s, you can trace a revival of Christianity not only in the US, but in other parts of the world as well.

There was a revival of Hinduism, and a Hindu party came to power in India; there was a revival of Confucian values in China; and similarly, there was a revival of Islamic heritage in Muslim societies. It was a global phenomenon, not tied to a particular set of circumstances.

Therefore, it is not surprising that in American society, certain processes have brought religion and morality back as the core agenda of political life. It is a response to the de-traditionalisation of society during the phase of enlightenment and modernity. Therefore, it is quite ironic that concepts such as "liberal Islam" or "radical Islam" are categories which are applied only to the Muslim world. When it comes to other societies -- Christian, Hindu, Jewish -- they do not talk about a "radical Christianity" and a "liberal Christianity". Instead, such terms are only applied to a category called "moral values", which may be conservative or radical.

As for the impact on the Muslim world, I think that if present approaches and policies continue, there is a risk of escalation of the tension in the region. Over the last 15 years of the post-Cold War era, the Muslim world has lost confidence in the objective functioning of the mechanisms of the international system. They saw what happened in Bosnia, Palestine, Karabagh, and so on. For three years, the international community just watched as 250,000 Muslim Bosnians were being murdered. They have been watching everyday what is going on in Palestine. Recently, the Muslim community in Cyprus accepted the UN plan, while the Greek Cypriots rejected it. But the Greek side of the island has become a member of the EU, despite their rejection of the demands of the international community, while the Turkish side of the island continues to be isolated, politically, economically and culturally, despite their acceptance of the demands of the international community.

Today, the Muslim masses feel a geopolitical exclusion from the international system, as has been described by Richard Falk.

Now, we are at a turning point for the American administration. Hopefully they will re- evaluate the situation and develop a new approach.

What do you think about the need for reform and revival within the Muslim World?

I think that, irrespective of the prejudices driving the international agenda, we as Muslim scholars have to ask serious questions in order to understand the problems that are facing us. The Muslim world today is facing three main challenges:

(i) the Muslim World is located in the geographical zone which has been the cradle of every centre of civilisation to emerge throughout history. But now, as a Muslim scholar, I have to ask myself: What is our contribution to global culture today? Not so impressive, I would say. Yet we can still produce an alternative to global culture, and we can still contribute to the formation of a global culture, because we have the richest of cultural traditions;

(ii) The Muslim World stands astride a rich and highly significant geo-economic zone, which supplies the global economy with its main natural resources, and through which its major commercial transactions pass. But, despite all those natural resources, there is not a single Muslim country among the first 15 largest economies in the world. We should ask ourselves, Why? Why are 1.5 billion Muslims unable to produce a larger GNP than a single medium-sized European economy?

(iii) The Muslim World has the deepest and richest political traditions in the world, in countries such as Egypt, Anatolia, Iran, Mesopotamia, and so forth. And yet, we find it hugely difficult to establish stable political mechanisms. Why?

These are the questions we have to ask. When we debate transformation and reform in the Muslim world, these are our questions: and no one else can help us answer them.

What we need is a comprehensive reawakening, in the sense of a revitalisation of our mentality, structures and institutions, along with psychological attitudes rooted in self-confidence, dignity and cooperation, in order to rise to these challenges and meet them successfully.

Do you think that in Turkey, the Western democracies have accepted the rise to power of a party with an Islamist orientation because there is a secular establishment overseeing it?

I don't think so, because there has been a tradition of democracy in Turkey for the last 50 years. We are not a newly emerging democracy. So this tolerance is not because there is a secular establishment in Turkey, but because our rise to power represents the natural outcome of an evolutionary process that began long ago.

But I fully agree that the process of democratisation has been obstructed throughout the Arab world. If we look at the former Eastern European countries, most of the leaders today are former communists who were able to transform their countries into democracies, and win acceptance from the West. Yet during the same period in the 1990s, the West approached attempts to democratise the Middle East in a highly sceptical way. They chose to sacrifice democracy in favour of stability.

Now, in some Western circles, they want to sacrifice stability for democracy, which may well create chaos in the region. The big challenge now is how to democratise our political systems while maintaining stability. We have to trust in our societies.

Some American commentators and analysts try to present Turkey as a model to be followed by the Arab polity. What are the lessons the Arab world could learn from the Turkish experience?

Let me say that neither Turkey as a country, nor the AK party as a political party, wants to be a model for anyone.

We have been implementing our policies for our own society, and with no intention of creating a model. We cannot impose our model anywhere else, because every country has its own experience.

We are not trying to present the Turkish experience as a model. But if others want to draw some lessons from our experience, that is only natural.

As regards relations with Europe, how much do you think Turkey's religious identity is likely to stand in the way of your being granted EU membership?

The integration of Turkey will not be a simple bilateral process based on institutional adjustments. It will necessarily represent a more comprehensive challenge, which put in play both multi-cultural and multi-religious coexistence. Meeting this challenge will require a transformation in societal relations, historical imaginations, and cultural perspectives.

The internal dynamics of the EU will also accelerate this process of multiculturalism. Islam is already the largest other-faith population in Europe, with around six million Muslims making up approximately three per cent of most Western European populations. The integration of Turkey will therefore be a test for the EU's powers of accommodation. This will be a value- oriented challenge, rather than a power-oriented one.

The outcome of this test will be significant, because historical experience proves that there are two preconditions for the transformation of Europe from a continental power to a global power: (i) multiculturalism; and (ii) the strategic link with Asia. The Alexandrian and Roman Empires are two striking ancient examples of this fact. They were uniform political entities until they reached into Asia in general, and Anatolia in particular.

Modern examples of this historical fact are provided by several colonial empires, and especially the British and French colonial systems. These entities collapsed when they were unable to transform themselves from colonial structures into accommodative multicultural political systems.

Accordingly, Turkey seems to be the key to both these two preconditions for the EU's transformation into a global player.

The decision on Turkish accession in December will not only be a decision about the future of Turkey. It will be a decision about the future direction of Europe as well -- whether it will remain a continent-bound entity, or evolve into a global player. The outcome will clearly reflect the readiness of the EU to accept the challenges of that global role. Going down that road will transform the EU from a continental organisation into a transcontinental multicultural society embracing many different religious and cultural identities.

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