Friday,23 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)
Friday,23 February, 2018
Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Democracy, but not for you

True democracy requires love and respect, even for people who hold unpopular views, writes Aylin Kocaman

Al-Ahram Weekly

We always imagined that the opponents of democracy were extremists living behind closed doors, regarding others with rage and hatred, and deeming leaving their women backward a virtue. They stood in opposition to secularism. They wanted the rules of their own fabricated religion to prevail, and sought to bring those who refused to heel with threats and pressure. As if they themselves actually followed that false religion, unaware that democracy and secularism are recommended in the Quran as essential in order to live by the faith.

That definition was very damaging, of course. Thanks to the extremists, the word “Muslim” began being equated with anti-democracy. Anyone with a religious identity, even those who advocated secularism, was immediately branded as anti-democratic. That was normally not so noticeable in our peaceful lives within society. But when people rose up for more democracy, and began dividing everyone into “us” and “them,” the accusations started. That happened in Turkey, and in Egypt, and in the West that watched events in the Middle East.

I will try to discuss this in terms of my experiences in Turkey.

Immediately after the Turkish protests, which are still continuing off and on, a group that claimed to speak for democracy began expressing a distinction between those with or without the headscarf and those who pray or who not. Turkey used not to be such a country. But the protests and accompanying vandalism led to that distinction being made. Certain groups that poured onto the streets claiming to want “democracy” did not regard the other side as worthy of that same democracy. They opposed the supporters of the government. They wanted freedom for themselves, but not for them. They wanted to be free to espouse their own cause, but wanted the other side to keep quiet. They praised and protected those artists who supported them, but started a huge defamation campaign against those artists that did not. A Starbucks in Taksim Square that said it did not back the protesters was vandalised in a display of savagery. It was impossible to write a few words in support of the police, who had been sleeping on the pavements for days, in the social media. Anyone who did was exposed to verbal assaults and insults and literally excommunicated. Many ideological groups that imagined democracy to mean expressing their own ideologies with flags and banners and slogans, came down like a ton of bricks on anyone saying, “I support the government.” A young woman, with her baby aged less than one year, was dragged along the ground before people’s very eyes just for wearing a headscarf.

A 10-year-old child collecting waste paper was thrown off a bridge and crippled for not wanting to join the protests. A child who had no idea what protests even mean. While some Justice and Development Party buildings across Turkey were being set on fire, a lynch mob moved towards the prime minister’s house. Had that crowd, marching with sticks in their hands, reached the prime minister’s home, I really wonder what would have happened.

That is not democracy. As I have said many times in my columns, I criticise extremists who use the name of Islam to try to suppress democracy. But the people who use the name of democracy to try to silence those who do not share their opinions are no less extremist and radical. The Turkish protests were just one example of this. That description does not fit all the protesters, of course. We have very worthy young people who try to make their voices heard in a search for greater democracy and who advocate freedoms of all kinds. And I have supported that quest right from the outset. I have no objection with peaceful protesters who espouse a peaceful, libertarian and genuine democracy. But in my view, people who say, “I want democracy, but not for you!” and who demand freedom of speech for themselves but seek to silence others with pressure, insults and anger, are the people who damage democracy most of all.

The democracy described in the Quran is the most perfect democracy of all. A leader who truly fears Allah will govern a state in which everyone’s opinions are listened to, and everyone lives by his own ideas and beliefs. He will live by the Quran, but will not oblige others to. He will be a Muslim, but he will not exclude others for not being Muslims. He will be devout, but he will not hate others because they are atheists, communists or fascists. He will hold his own spiritual values above all else, but will have a responsibility to ensure justice for all, even if that goes against his interests.

That is my perception of democracy as a believer. Therefore, if the other person wishes to live in a democratic and secular environment, if their aim is to live in a free society purged of all oppression and if they believe that people should love rather than hate, then they must agree that a false democracy that desires freedoms only for some is not real democracy. True democracy requires love and respect, even for people who hold unpopular views.

“Those who want democracy only for themselves” are a problem for the currently troubled Middle East and for that part of the West that has no time for Islam. So let me say this to such people: let us wage an intellectual campaign, hand-in-hand, against the way the extremists make unpleasant use of Islam, because we as Muslims are also opposed to them. Instead of feeling anger towards them, let us try to show them the error of their beliefs.

But you cannot claim to speak for democracy and demand that your own words, criticisms and ideas be freely heard, while also trying to silence people who disagree with you. If that is the kind of democracy you want, then one day a different idea will try to use brute force to crush and silence you. You will find yourselves in a savage environment where the weak crush the strong, where there is no justice and where defamation — the vilest method of all — is employed.

What will be left is where the people who want that so-called democracy fight against one another. If you want your ideas to be listened to, then you must adopt a conception of democracy that is filled with love, understanding and respect. You cannot teach people democracy without teaching them love first.


The writer is a commentator and religious and political analyst on Turkish TV and a peace activist.

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