Islam and Democracy: A False Dichotomy

By Ozler, Hayrettin; Yildirim, Ergun | Insight Turkey, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Islam and Democracy: A False Dichotomy


Ozler, Hayrettin, Yildirim, Ergun, Insight Turkey


Democracy is on the rise again as waves of globalization shift the agenda from proving who is more righteous and mighty, to proving who is more democratic, wealthy and at peace with the people. These waves bring with them a rising volume of democratic demands around the world, Turkey included. Scholars such as Esposito and Voll (1) argue that these waves are hitting the doors of the Muslim world with increasing force, urging Muslims and non-Muslims together to compare and contrast Islam and democracy. Islam-versus-democracy arguments have an inherent tendency to see a conceptual and a "matter-of-fact" conflict between the two. The idea assumes that as there is no internal dynamic for democracy in the Middle East, an outsider must interfere to destroy anti-democratic regimes and teach people democracy's wisdom. The Greater Middle East Project as the ideational justification for the American invasion of Iraq is typical of this perspective. The idea of bringing democracy to the Middle East and to Muslim societies became a substantial and active military partaking in the aftermath of 9/11. A major goal of this project has been promoted as an introduction of political reforms for the establishment and consolidation of democracy in Muslim nations. It seems, particularly in Turkey, that the US's version of democracy is more like a dictation while the EU project is more exemplary and has a better chance of being successful in terms of the consolidation of democracy within the Islamic tradition. However, Turkey's encounter with democratic liberal ideas has not been a novelty of the EU prospect; Islam vs. democracy debates in Turkey go back more than a century.

Different segments of Ottoman society encountered modernity and the effects of western culture in different areas at different times and to different extents. Nevertheless, both the Ottoman Empire and its main successor, Turkey, stand as forerunners within the Islamic world in the encounter with modernity and modern political paradigms such as democracy. Many would point to the "national poet" Namik Kemal as an exemplary personality who argued that "Usulu-u Mesveret (the way of consultation)" means nothing but democratic decision-making, indicating that democracy has long been central to Turkish political life. Since the experiences of the first and second constitutional monarchy (Mesrutiyet) there have been significant attempts to implement a transition to democracy. The imperial edict for the reform (Islahat Fermani) of 1856 was probably the first marked attempt to bring forward the emphasis on musavat: equality for peoples of all religions. The first (1876) and the second (1908) Mesrutiyet announced equality, freedom, brotherhood, and justice in a perspective concordant with Islamic/Turkish culture. These attempts and applications around the concepts of "mesrutiyet" (constitutional monarchy) and "mesveret" (consultation) represent a synthesis between experiences of western democracy and Islamic political culture. (2)

The parliamentary discussions on the relations between Islam and democracy in the early years of the Turkish Republic also include striking dimensions. Seyit Bey, for instance, was writing a treaty about the principles in Islamic sources in favor of the abolishment of the institution of Hilafet. However, the abolishment of Hilafet in 1924 and the subsequent enforcements ((e.g. the closure of medressehs (theological schools) and tekkes (dervish lodges)) gave some indications that the political regime was no more in search of legitimacy within Islam and was turning instead into a single-party system. Many reforms through legislation carried over only symbolic institutions, traditions, ideas, and approaches of the western way of life, and a state mandated attack was carried out against religious mysticism under the banner of positivism. (3) During this period there were no discussions on Islam and democracy, as there was no democratic regime. …

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