Muslim Democrats in Turkey and Egypt: Participatory Politics as a Catalyst

By Yilmaz, Ihsan | Insight Turkey, April 2009 | Go to article overview
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Muslim Democrats in Turkey and Egypt: Participatory Politics as a Catalyst


Yilmaz, Ihsan, Insight Turkey


Even though there is no simple causal relationship between the lack of democracy and political extremism, it has been argued that institutional exclusion from the political process and indiscriminate repression make extremist groups inclined to adopt revolutionary (1) or even worse terrorist methods. Conversely, political participation (even in semi-democratic autocracies) encourages radical groups to pursue their objectives through peaceful means. Political pluralism, albeit in a limited form, can induce radical and even antisystemic parties to moderate their political discourses. (2)

This paper analyses how and to what extent the processes of exclusion and/or inclusion policies of the regimes, general framework of political and legal structures, politico-legal constraints and opportunities in Turkey and Egypt have influenced the transformation and moderation of Islamisms toward a pluralist discourse in these two countries. Instead of focusing only on the Islamist discourse, the interaction of discourse, context, structure and practice will be examined. (3)

Islamist parties in Turkey were successively banned from politics, but reemerged after reframing their discourse in response to their perceived opportunities and constraints. The current Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has gone a step further than its Islamist predecessors, dramatically highlighting a process of institutional change and ideological moderation. The increasing moderation of the Islamist movement is the result of several institutional factors. (4) The Turkish Islamists have been given the political freedom in a liberalized autocracy (5) to make strategic choices in a political system that rewards political participation with credible opportunities for power, while at the same time, the state and civil society have imposed public institutional constraints on the Islamists in addition to the interactions taking place between Islamists, their constituency and the state. (6) Similar developments have also been taking place in a different context, Egypt. After analyzing the evolution of Turkish Islamists to Muslim democrats, the paper will look at the same issue in the Egyptian context.

Evolution of Islamism in Turkey

When the Turkish Republic decided to close down all Sufi brotherhoods and lodges, as a result of the Sunni Hanafi understanding of preferring the worst state to anarchy, chaos and revolution they did not challenge the state. Nevertheless, they continued their existence invisibly and unofficially, without claiming any public or official role. In return, the officials turned a blind eye to their existence. Among them, the Nakhsbandi order has played an important role, for all prominent Turkish Islamist parties have originated in the Nakhsbandi brotherhood. (7) The Khalidi branch of the Nakhsbandi has been the most politically active brotherhood. Its sheikh, Mehmed Zahid Kotku (1897-1980), preached that it was the duty of observant Muslims to take an active interest in national affairs. (8) He did not perceive the secular state as an absolute enemy. He created a new "operational code" of the brotherhood, synchronized with the political code promoted by the secular state, that of constitutional legitimacy. By the 1970s, Kotku started promoting a second layer of legitimacy, working in tandem with Islamic legitimacy, which was that of political institution building. (9)

Kotku's disciple Professor Necmettin Erbakan and his followers have successively established the National Order (Jan. 26, 1970 to Jan. 14, 1971), National Salvation (Oct. 11, 1972 to Sept. 12, 1980), Welfare (July 19, 1983 to Jan. 16, 1998), Virtue (Dec. 17, 1997 to June 22, 2001) and Felicity parties (July 20, 2001 to present). With the exception of the existing Felicity Party (SP), all the others were shut down by the establishment. The first prominent Islamist party in republican Turkey, the National Order Party (MNP) and the National Salvation Party (MSP) were established through Sheikh Kotku's promotion and support, and he had supervised their activities.

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