Islamists have betrayed all hopes of being a part of democratization processes in Muslim countries. Turkey is no exception. Far from it, Turkey is the most significant example of that betrayal because it was once the most hopeful.
I’m not saying that I am personally disappointed, as I have supported the Islamists’ rights and freedoms for years, long before they came to power in Turkey. But at the same time I never subscribed to the thesis of “moderate Islamism” or “post-Islamism.”
I think there is huge difference between the two positions, as democrats should recognize the freedom of expression of everyone. Moreover, I also thought that the Islamists’ criticism of the rigid understanding of secularism was justified. The ideas of “moderate Islam” and “post-Islamism,” however, recognize all non-violent expressions of Islamism as agreeable and see “Islamic governance” as an alternative case of modernity, as long as it does not dare to be anti-West. Many years ago, I suggested that these theses were merely a new expression of Orientalism, as they mean “democracy, bon pour l’Orient.”
But I still thought Islamists in Turkey could be part of a democratization process - as long as they fought against the authoritarian status quo. It must have been the same story with many democrats elsewhere in the Arab Spring. However, by the time of the Arab Spring I was already very concerned by the politics of the ruling Islamists in Turkey. Indeed I was calling on democrats to be aware of the danger of civil authoritarianism, which could replace military dominance over civil politics, by the end of 2009.
Nevertheless, I never thought it could be such a total backlash. We now have in Turkey a situation where democratic legitimacy is being gradually replaced by Islamist-nationalistic legitimacy under the rule of the president and the governing party. Now the government media is more explicitly Islamist and calls for an Islamic constitution, relating the idea of a Turkish-style presidential system to a caliphate. It seems that a regime change is at stake and the big project of a “New Turkey” intends to do away with secularism. The president is already defined as the “great leader” not only of Turkey but all Muslims; likewise, Turkey is defined as “the spine of Sunni Islam.” In the end, Turkey has managed to become a “model,” but not in the way it was expected to be. It has rather become a “model of the failure of Islamism.”
Still, unlike many other secularists I don’t think Turkey’s fate was sealed from the beginning when the ruling Islamists came to power back in 2002 with a “hidden agenda.” It is obvious that Turkey’s Islamist rulers have never sincerely believed in democracy and secularism, but their alliance with liberal democrats and the realities of Turkey could have transformed their views. It is their narrow-mindedness and greed for more power, rather than their religious zeal, which has pushed them to return to Islamism. It is their narrow-mindedness and greed that has hindered their capacity for democratic governance. It is their failure to govern Turkey with all its complexity that has led them to seek more power, in the absence of the ability to achieve democratic political authority. It is their lack of sophistication to comprehend the complexities of domestic and global social and political issues that has led to their failure to govern effectively. Foreign policy failures have only contributed to this vicious cycle.
It is always those who fail to govern effectively without suppression that end up becoming authoritarian – whether secular or religious. This is the story not only of Turkey’s Islamists, but also of all Islamist politics. They seek Islamic (sublime) legitimacy as a powerful tool of suppression when they fail to deal with political and social complexities. In the same way, they turn to conspiratorialism when they fail to comprehend the complexity of society, politics, history, and even human life in general.