Seyla Benhabib: “There is more religion in politics in the U.S. than in Turkey”
“The AKP party and Abdullah Gul will not change Turkey into a theocracy”. Seyla Benhabib does not seem at all to be worried about a possible victory for the Islamic AKP party in the Turkish elections to be held on the 22nd July, and not even about the possibility that one of its main leaders, Abdullah Gul, may become the new President of Turkey: “They are carrying out an incredible experiment and it is unusual for someone who is a democratic socialist like myself to be supporting and to be watching very carefully a party like them”. Seyla Benhabib, philosopher and Professor of political science and philosophy at Yale, was born in Istanbul, Turkey. Among her books are The Claims of Culture (Princeton 2002) and The Rights of Others (Cambridge 2004).
In this interview, Benhabib, who is a member of the Scientific Committee of Resetdoc, partly attributes the crisis of the nation-state to the worldwide resurgence of Islam, but puts the religious question in Turkey into perspective, explaining that religion there is only more visible with respect to the 1960s, not more influential; that the battle between the two main parties is also a battle of elites; and that religion is more important in US politics than in those of Turkey. And she makes two cutting swipes at Ayaan Hirsi Ali (“She is simply uninformed. The AKP party doesn’t want a theocracy”), and at the French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “I hope that Mr. Sarkozy sees it appropriate to be faithful to the Copenhagen criteria. He has very often used Turkey as a metaphor for his own problems with his own Muslim immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and for the discourse about Europe and Islam”.
There have been huge protests in Turkey against the presidential candidacy of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Islamist Abdullah Gul. Do you think that these worries are legitimate, or not?
In the case of Abdullah Gul, I don't think that he was about to change the form of the State, nor that he was about to forsake Turkey’s secular state, but people were also disturbed about the fact that his wife wears a headscarf, so for many it seemed that the country was undergoing a transformation symbolically. I personally do not think that Abdullah Gul was other than a fairly moderate individual or that the AKP party was about to change Turkey into an Islamist country. I think that there are maybe other elements within the AKP party that had such an illusion, and had had such an intention, but I do not think that in the case of Abdullah Gul this was justified. So, in a sense, what happened was that there had been a conflict growing, a conflict which had been coming for many, many years, and this suddenly exploded around the issue of the presidency, the symbolic head of State. And in some ways I do not think it is all that bad that the question is now being explicitly articulated. In other words, in some way or another it is not bad to have raised the question about how far the Islamic project in Turkey is really going and what kind of modus vivendi they are aspiring to.
Is Turkey more religious today than it was in the 1960s, when you were young?
I don’t think so. I think that what has happened is that religion is much more publicly visible and much more expressed. The model that I grew up with, the model that one inherited from Atatürk was that religion is a private affair, that it does not belong in the schools, that it does not belong in the public sphere, and that it certainly does not belong in politics. The situation has changed radically, basically starting in the 1980s; throughout the 1980s here there was a transformation, and undoubtedly there has also been a worldwide resurgence of Islamic attitudes as well. I personally think that the rise of Islam in the public sphere does not really necessarily correspond to an increased religiosity among the people, but that it is simply more visible now.
Can the rapidity and perhaps the violence of Atatürk’s religious policies be the reason for this strong return of Islam in the public sphere in Turkey?
You know, there is this phrase that we owe to Herbert Marcuse – ‘the return of the repressed’. So it is very tempting to interpret the rise of Islam in Turkey in terms of the return of the repressed, but I don't think this would be quite adequate, because I think what we are seeing is a worldwide phenomenon which has transformed Islam. The kind of Islam that Atatürk was dealing with was the Islam that was left over from the caliphates (because in the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan was also the Caliph, the head of the Islamic Sunni community; like the Pope, if you want, of the Sunni Muslims). With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman sultans also lost the caliphates, which I believe then moved to Egypt, and this was a different kind of Islam – a mixture of Islam and State. Atatürk was also dealing with educational institutions that were not secular. As you know, all the educational institutions in the old regime, or at least the majority of them, were in the hands of religious organizations, and they were very powerful ‘lodges’, that is secret organizations within the structure of the State. And then there was also the religion of the ordinary people who were very pious and very observant – the peasantry, for instance, had their own forms of religiosity and conservativism. So what Atatürk was dealing with was the structure of an ancient Empire in which religion was part of the self-understanding and role of the State. I think that what is happening right now, and Turkey is part of it, is a worldwide resurgence of Islam stemming in part from the crisis of the nation-State, and in part from globalization.
But maybe we can also talk about a resurgence of religion in the Western world. Western analysts, for example, are obsessed with the kind of religion that influences Turkish politics. But does religion in Turkey play a bigger role than it does in the US or in Italy?
You have asked me an odd question. I don’t think so, really. I think that on some very deep level there is more of a symbolic religious politics in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Take a very interesting example: the abortion question. There are never discussions about the abortion issue in Turkey, and I can tell you why: because there are partially differing theological attitudes. I think Islam, like Judaism, does not consider the foetus to be a person. I am not sure if all religions do. I think Catholicism does, but for Islam, as well as for Judaism, the question of abortion is ultimately a question in which the health of the mother takes precedence, and so you don’t have discussions about abortion in a country like Turkey. You do have discussions about women’s appearance in the public sphere which, like the headscarf debate, becomes a crucial issue. And you also have discussions about who should educate clerics, and who should be in charge of their education.
The model in Turkey is that there is a Ministry of Religious Affairs, in charge of the schools which educate the clerics. And so it is like the French model, the model of laïcité. But in this sense you could say that religion is not really independent of the State: the Muslim religion is not. Minority religions, such as Judaism or Christianity or whatever, have their own institutions, but for the Muslim majority there is this State education. So what I am saying is that in some ways in the public sphere in the United States or in European countries you have issues like abortion and stem-cell research, and of course in France you have had the whole discussion about l’affaire du foulard. All these issues are entering into the public sphere within Europe and less so in the public sphere within Turkey, where religiosity is not an issue that governs specific moral and political choices. It is a very different kind of religion, and it may be a little bit difficult for Europeans to understand that Islam does not dictate specific moral and political choices on controversial issues. There is no Islamic discourse on stem-cell research, let's put it in that way. So in this sense I think it is wrong to assume that because a party with its roots in religion – in the Islamic religion – is in power, religion necessarily dominates Turkish politics more. There is a general sense of piety and a general sense of being observant, but the kind of moral and religious conflict and issues that we are used to in the Western public sphere and so on – with the exception of the veil, which is an issue in Turkey, too – do not govern the public sphere.
Do you think that the struggle between the two big Turkish parties is a cultural struggle between the religious and secularists, or is it more a power struggle between old and new elites?
It is both, because the CHP, the People’s Republican Party, is Atatürk’s old party and it represents the entire military, the civil service, the judiciary, and teachers. These are all the secular elements that built the Republic, and, if you want, their politics has a lot of Jacobinism in it – not in that they are not revolutionary, but that they believe the State to be everything, the Republic to be everything, and the individual to be nothing. And they feel extremely threatened and displaced. At the end of the 1950s the first challenge to this party came through the rise of an industrial and financial middle class in Turkey, which later became the Democrat Party. This military-bureaucratic-civil elite was first challenged by the rise of an indigenous bourgeoisie and the capitalist class within Turkey, independent of the power of the State, the entrepreneurs, who were the wealthiest in Turkey. These are industrial developments.
So this was the pattern in the 1960s. I think that what has happened now is that an indigenous low-middle class has also developed in Anatolia. I am talking about people who may own an auto-parts store, or a larger grocery store, and individuals who may be running hotels in the tourism business, and so on. The basis of the AK Party – which stands for Adalet and Kalkinma – is this petty bourgeoisie. It is not exactly the bourgeoisie, but the merchant class, very much oriented to middle-class values who are deeply anti-left, anti-communist people who believe in private property and who may have a piece of land as well as a house and a car. This new Anatolian bourgeoisie never played a role in Turkish politics, and was rather represented by the elite – either the big Istanbul bourgeoisie and industrialists, or the military. But now Anatolia has spoken. As Turkey has developed, and as Anatolia has ceased to be the hinterland, it is becoming integrated economically. This is where the social class basis of the AK party comes from. This is their class basis.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recently written about Turkey in The Los Angeles Times: “The proponents of Islam in government, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and their Justice and Development Party, have exploited the fact that you can use democratic means to erode democracy. After an initial attempt at Islamic revolution failed in 1997, when the military engineered a "soft coup" against elected Islamists, Erdogan and his party understood that gradualism would yield more lasting power. They surely realize that Islamizing Turkey entirely is possible only if they gain control of the army and the Constitutional Court. Well-meaning but naive European leaders were manipulated by the ruling Islamists into saying that Turkey's army should be placed under civil control, like all armies in EU member states. The army and the Constitutional Court are also, and maybe even more important, designed to protect Turkish democracy from Islam”.
(Laughs) Well, quite easy. Miss Ayaan Hirsi Ali has now assumed a public role of exaggerating and driving Islam and everything related to Islam into the corner of fascism or a kind of theocracy. Her statement is simply uninformed. It is not a statement that can be taken seriously by anybody who is a democrat. First of all, there is no danger of Islamic theocracy in Turkey. I can assure you there will be a civil war in Turkey before there will be a theocracy. Anyway, I don’t think that the AKP party wants a theocracy. They are carrying out an incredible experiment, and it is unusual for some one who is a democratic socialist like myself to be supporting and to be watching very carefully a party like them, but we are all watching carefully because they also represent a kind of pluralism in civil society which is absolutely essential for Turkey.
So I don’t fear an Islamic theocracy. I don’t think that the Turkish people want an Islamic theocracy and I don’t think that the AKP party wants an Islamic theocracy. There have always been some elements who may have dreamed of this, but I can’t see it happening. The Turkish army has been involved in Turkish politics for the last half century, and anybody who considers themselves a liberal democrat to want the return of the army cannot know the history of repression caused by the army in Turkey. They effected a putsch in 1972, and again in 1981; they stopped and persecuted the left, repressing it in a way they never did with the right; and they tried to break the basis of the Trade Union movement. And the army itself is also infiltrated by extreme nationalist elements.
Miss Hirsi Ali’s language is a language of confrontation, that basically presents a homogenous, orthodox view of Islam as closed to reform and transformation. And it is a language that presents a unified uncritical and unreflectively positive view of liberal democracies, as if they didn't have their own problems and reasons to be criticized. Miss Hirsi Ali has taken a decision to work with the American Enterprise Institute, and to interfere politically and publicly through the American Enterprise Institute, which is a well-known right-wing think tank based in Washington. I have respect for her own sufferings as a woman and as an individual, but I regret that this is the way in which she has chosen to talk about these issues that are very important to us. I hope that maybe after a couple of years in the United States she might change her mind.
According to French President Sarkozy there is not place for Turkey in Europe. What is your opinion?
Well, I hope that Mr. Sarkozy sees it appropriate to be faithful to the Copenhagen criteria. The relationship of Turkey to the European Union is now a relationship that goes back to the Ankara accords of 1957-58. I believe it is a very old relationship. Mr. Sarkozy is trying to make a culturalist argument but I would like to oppose to that institutional obligations. There has been a report about the progress made by Turkey in meeting the Copenhagen criteria. There are negotiations. Turkey was considered unsuccessful in meeting the Copenhagen criteria in nine areas, and I hope very much that there will be a consensus within the European Union to proceed on the basis of institutional analysis and critiques, rather than these vague cultural generalizations.
Let me add one more thing. The relationship between Turkey and France is very interesting because in terms of France’s problems with its immigrants, which is what Mr. Sarkozy’s conversation really is about, the Turkish immigrants in France – as far as I can tell from some work that I have done – do not number more than about 700- 800,000. So there are more Turkish immigrants and ‘guest workers’ in Germany and the Netherlands. France may be only number three in the list. And Mr. Sarkozy has very often used Turkey as a metaphor for his own problems with his own Muslim immigrants from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and for the discourse concerning Europe and Islam.
So he is not talking about Turkey and Europe, he is talking about France’s Arab immigrants.
Yes, I think that there is a displacement, what is referred to in psychoanalysis as the phenomenon of displacement. What are the specific criticisms that have been made of Turkey? There is a lot to criticize, for example the murder of the Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, the persecution of Orham Pamuk, the fact that the Turkish judiciary is still so deeply infiltrated by right-wing elements that use the law in order to define their own understanding of the State. Yes, as we can see, there is a lot to be criticized. But these are not the kind of criticisms I hear, which could come under the Copenhagen criteria. Because if Turkey is serious about wanting to join the European Union, it still has to undertake tremendous judicial reforms. Take article 301, which makes it a crime to insult Turkishness – it has to go. Mr. Sarkozy should talk about more specific themes, but he doesn’t. He tries to raise the level of fear, he does his own version of scare-mongering.
Can Turkey be a model for other moderate Islamic countries like Morocco, Jordan and Egypt? If tomorrow Turkey can enter the European Union, why not Morocco the day after tomorrow?
Well, there are two questions here. Let us start by the second question, the one about the boundaries of Europe. I think this is typical: are they geographical boundaries, civilizational boundaries, or boundaries defined by history? If they are defined by historical inter-relationships, all the Mediterranean countries have profound inter-relationships to North Africa. It seems obvious to me that this European project, if you are a utopian – as a political thinker and sometimes as a political philosopher I have argued this way – can be looked at as a model of cosmopolitan federalism, as an emergent federal structure of government. And at that point then you can see the European Union as some kind of a kernel which other countries could perhaps join or imitate. This is a utopian project and an aspiration, and I don’t think we should ever stop thinking about it. We should think about it. But institutionally and organizationally it is clear that there are certain limits set for the European Union by its various capacities.
Now, I happen to believe that Turkey has been a part of both the economic and historical and substructure capacity for a very long time and in a much more substantial way than Morocco. That is why when Angela Merkel talked about Turkey she posed the model of a “special relationship”, because everybody realizes that this is an asymmetrical condition when compared to others. I would like to see the conversation proceed along the Copenhagen criteria and see how far that can go. Now, can Turkey itself be a model? There was a time, after the declaration of the Republic in 1923, when Turkey was a model for countries like Tunisia. Habib Bourghiba was very inspired by Atatürk. Turkey was also a model in a very interesting way for Iran – until the Mossadeq period when the government was overthrown by the CIA – and also for Egypt. I think what has happened now, in general, is that the secular model of development through state-run elites, the model of Nasser in Egypt, and, to a certain extent, the model of Atatürk and then Inönü in Turkey, has become frayed, it is not working. And this also has something to do with dreams of state socialism in the Arab world – the Nasser movement. Now, explaining why this movement failed would require a very long conversation, but part of the rise of Islam in the rest of the Arab world is also a reaction of disappointment to the failure of the development model. There is of course the military defeat of ’67-’68, which greatly contributed to dissolution, but at the end of the day it is also a problem with socio-economic development.
Jordan may be different in this regard. Egypt appears to me as fairly stuck and unable to progress forward. Turkey is interesting because it has a booming economy and it is a very young country, and so if it is going to be an example I am sure it is also going to be one at the level of economic development. Essentially, what I want to say is that the Turkish economy is today so much more advanced than the Egyptian economy. These are all things to be considered, and I am sure that a lot of countries are watching Turkey closely. Maybe Syria is watching Turkey. Syria has a very long border with Turkey. We never talk about this. It would not be at all surprising to me if there were closer relationships eventually with Turkey and Syria and if Asad started transforming and opening Syria up a little bit more. I would not be surprised.