by Toygar Sinan Baykan
In the mid-1990s, Asaf Bayat published one of the earliest comments on the change in the nature of Islamism and later wrote a book length account on the transformation of Muslim societies in which he clarified his ideas on post-Islamism. According to Bayat, the social transformation of Muslim societies under the effect of market mechanisms, consumerism, and authoritarian political structures had weakened the appeal of Islamism. Gradually, the top-down project lost ground and Islamist elites and intellectuals began to perceive the use of Islamist discourse and symbols in politics as corrosive of the sincere religious beliefs of the masses. Instead, at least some of the Islamist political elites and intellectuals across the Middle East started to embrace a much more conciliatory attitude towards pluralist and democratic values.
In recent years we have witnessed the gradual decline of the once post-Islamist actors with regards to their attitudes towards pluralism, democracy and the rule of law in Turkey. This demonstrated a fundamental contradiction which lies at the hearth of the post-Islamist experience. The essential contradiction of post-Islamism was two-fold. First of all, organisational and political culture of post-Islamist actors was inevitably a product of a restrictive and flawed political cultural and institutional framework. In the second place, as post-Islamist actors entrenched their position in power they started to benefit from the very same flawed and restrictive framework which gave rise to them. After prolonged exercise of power, post-Islamist actors lost their democratising appetite and started to play by the rules of the power game.
From the perspective of the debates initiated by Bayat, even up until a couple of years ago, Turkey was seen as a bright example of the post-Islamist experience. When the Justice and Development Party (JDP) was founded in 2001 and was elected to power in 2002, the party’s prominent intellectuals wrote openly of the corrosive effect of the use of Islam or religion in general in politics in their reflections on the notion of “conservative democracy” (muhafazakar demokrasi). Likewise, the activities of the Gülenists across the world and their grassroots’ work have always been seen as compatible with liberal democratic values and the Gülen Community’s (GC) conciliatory political style was often praised by liberal democratic circles in Turkey as well.
After the struggle between JDP and GC became a public issue due to the corruption probes initiated by allegedly Gülenist prosecutors, Fetullah Gülen himself argued in one of his public comments that it is against to the spirit of Islam to pursue political power for religious aims and to see religion as a political ideology. According to Gülen, the intermingling of religion and politics is corrosive for both and particularly for religion. This statement clearly signalled that the GC is still claiming ownership of a post-Islamist stance and is trying to consolidate its legitimacy. As a response, government circles harshly criticised the GC’s intervention in politics and argued that its use of Gülenist cadres implanted in the security bureaucracy and judiciary is fundamentally anti-democratic. According to the pro-JDP narrative in the media, such involvement in politics by a religious community can only be explained as a coup against civilian authority using the religious beliefs of the community’s followers within the state apparatuses. Thus, the main argument of the supporters of the government also had a post-Islamist flavour. It therefore seems that the JDP government and the GC are both attempting to hold on to the same post-Islamist position. However, when well-known Machiavellian methods used by the JDP and the GC in their political struggles taken into account their post-Islamist stance started to appear less convincing.
Any explanation of the divergence of once post-Islamist actors from a genuinely pluralist-democratic trajectory in Turkey must take into consideration the political circumstances and legal frameworks within which these actors emerged. Since the early 1970s, the natural democratic development of the political organisations of the Islamist movement has been frequently interrupted by state actors such as the military and high judiciary. From a much wider historical perspective the impact of unexpected opportunities created by the military coup in 1980 and the crushing of organised leftist forces in the rise and current decline of the post-Islamist actors in Turkey should also be taken into account.
The vigilance of the elites of the Islamist movement during the turbulent years of Turkish democracy in the second half of 1970s protected Islamist organisations from using violent means. The reward for the Islamist political entrepreneurs was a less heavy-handed intervention in the Islamist movement and relatively undamaged political and social networks throughout 1980s and 1990s. One can also argue that there was a tacit approval of the Islamist politics by the new establishment of Turkey at the beginning of 1980s as a panacea to leftist movements. This, so to say, “selective pluralism” in Turkey created a virtual consensus between systemic actors and the Islamist movement at the expense of the destruction of the organised leftist forces in particular and a genuinely pluralist political space in general. This consensus itself was founded on a majoritarian understanding of democracy which envisaged a narrow and limited political space populated only by forcefully modified political actors.
This understanding was further consolidated by the narrow political framework of the constitution of Turkey and the ten percent threshold for parties seeking to enter parliament. One must also mention the effect of the current Law on Political Parties (Law no 2820), which contributes significantly to leadership domination and undemocratic tendencies within parties by granting extensive flexibility to the party leadership and headquarters in enrolling members, changing provincial administrations, and defining candidates. Finally, this legal and political institutional framework must be seen against the background of a political culture within which dissent and opposition is considered treacherous in itself. This attitude was highlighted by Şerif Mardin decades ago and, sadly, little has changed since then.
In addition, religious and conservative social actors such as Islamic communities and brotherhoods have had to find non-transparent ways to protect themselves from the state repression stemming from a very particular understanding of secularism since the foundation of the Republic. The major method was infiltration of the state, with appointments of sympathisers of the various religious communities to high bureaucratic positions. Such secrecy necessitated the formation of hierarchical and non-transparent organisations. Thus, post-Islamist actors in Turkey have, on the one hand, created very centralised and hierarchical political organisations and, on the other, very hierarchical and non-transparent religious communities.
The major lesson stemming from the current state of post-Islamism in Turkey is the importance of political institutions and legal frameworks to support pluralism within parties, in party systems and in the sphere of civil society. Post-Islamist forces have overcome the pressures of systemic actors and have emerged from within a narrow political space. Throughout their struggle with systemic pressures, while renouncing violent means, they developed highly disciplined and hierarchical organisational and political cultures whose strategic leverage helped them to achieve political influence and electoral success. They have struggled with anti-democratic interventions of systemic actors and then benefited from the very same narrow political framework created by their opponents. Hence, the struggle between GC and JDP over the ownership of a legitimate post-Islamist ground is, to say the least, deeply ironic. Turkey has already reached the limits of the democratising potential of post-Islamist experience.
Toygar Sinan Baykan is a PhD researcher in politics at the University of Sussex. He studied political science in the Faculty of Political Science, Ankara University. He also attended the Middle East Technical University and Leiden University for his graduate studies and has a master’s degree in comparative politics from LSE. His current research focuses on Islamist and post-Islamist politics and political organisations, in particular the organisation and strategies of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey. His research interests include party politics, comparative politics and political culture.