Failure of political Islam

It has been a fortnight since coup efforts in Turkey failed and the AK party government—under the command of President Erdogan—strengthened its hold on power. It has become apparent in the last three years (since Gezi Park protests of 2013) that the governance model followed by AK party is not as huge a success as was initially projected. In the post-9/11 world, European powers and United States were looking for ‘allies’ in the Muslim world, people who share a common belief in democracy and human rights while operating under the superstructure of capitalism. It was a difficult task since most of the Muslim-majority countries were either monarchies or dysfunctional democracies. At that exact moment, Turkey was going through a major transition. An ‘Islamist’ party (AK party) had comfortably won the general elections in 2002. Mustafa Kamal pronounced Turkey as a republic in 1924, bringing an end to Caliphate and ushering in an era of State-led secularisation. In the 1950s and 60s, working classes entered the political sphere and a military coup (sponsored by CIA) crushed the leftist parties and their cadre. They also promoted Islamists to counter leftist agenda. AK party was an evolved form of the Islamist parties from 1980s. It vowed to take the country forward, on a democratic, business-friendly path.

The ‘Western’ powers were enthralled by this development and lapped up the ‘Turkish Model’ as a benchmark for Muslim-majority countries. President George W Bush in 2004 gave a public speech in Istanbul advocating inclusion of Turkey in the European Union. European think tanks published report after report extolling the virtues of Turkish democracy. Robert Kaplan wrote in 2014, ‘Erdogan’s moderate, reformist Islam now offers the single best hope for reconciling Muslims—from Morocco to Indonesia—with twenty-first century social and political realities’. Following uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, many local and international commentators foresaw an emergence of democracy in these countries similar to the Turkish model. An Economist editorial in 2011 claimed: ‘From North Africa to the Gulf, the region seems to be going through a Turkish moment’. However, none of the ‘Arab Spring’ countries managed to emulate the Turkish example.

Professor Cihan Tuğal, in his book, ‘The Fall of Turkish Model: How the Arab Uprisings brought down Islamic Liberalism’ takes a detailed look at the phenomenon called the ‘Turkish Model’, its initial successes, why it was not replicable in other Muslim countries and its ultimate failure. He defined the model as ‘Islamic Liberalism’, ‘marriage of formal democracy, free market capitalism and a toned down conservative Islam’. Unlike countries such as Malaysia, it was ‘a successful free market economy and a liberalising democracy’. He points out that this model was promoted as an antithesis to the ‘Iranian’ hybrid theocracy model from the beginning. Historically, Iran and Turkey have competed militarily and financially in the Middle East region since the Ottoman era.

The primary actor in this model was the AK party, which represented ‘transformation of political Islam into a moderate conservative democratic party, reconciled to the secular principles of the constitution’. This experience was also very Turk-specific and that is one of the primary reasons it couldn’t be replicated elsewhere. Professor Tuğal mentions that ‘the marriage of neo-liberalisation and democratisation through Islam was contextually specific and could not be exported to other countries’. He went on to write that the model ‘was internationally bolstered partly to counter the Iranian model i.e. the marriage of corporatisation and revolution through Islam’. From the very beginning, the model was exclusionary, it was ethnically and religiously hierarchical.

Professor Tuğal attempts to understand the Turkish model and its downfall through the hermeneutics devised by Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci defined ‘passive revolution’ as a restoration-revolution i.e. it involves a combination of mobilisation and demobilisation. In Inter-war Italy (1918-38), ex-socialists, former officers and middle strata were mobilised to hunt down the working classes and communists, with disastrous consequences. The Italian passive revolution first united the fragmented dominant classes and put a stagnant Italian capitalism on an efficient path; it then wrecked the whole country by dragging it into military conflict. Turkey has gone through the ascendance phase, it is now in the self-destructive phase of passive revolution.

A paper published by Carnegie Endowment sought answers for failure of Islamist parties following Arab Spring: ‘The more liberal of the Islamist movements (in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt) paled in comparison with the AKP in terms of their acceptance of big business and international economic institutions as partners. They remained too wedded to small and medium sized businesses while the way forward for Islamists of Arab Spring was development of an economic liberalism as deep, consistent and sincere as the AKP’s’. Islamist parties in Pakistan and Egypt (Jamaat-e-Islami and Islamic Brotherhood respectively) have long dreamt of establishing the ‘Turkish Model’ in their native countries. Based on current evidence, this dream is not going to achieve fruition anytime soon. The ideology of ‘Political Islam’, thought up by Maududi and Hassan Banna after the fall of Ottoman Empire, has proven to be a failure in multiple settings and needs to be discarded in the waste-bin on history.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

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