Is ‘Muslim’ Democracy Synonymous with ‘Constitutional’ Democracy?
Ayşen Candaş Bilgen 30 October 2008

By Ayşen Candaş Bilgen, Bogazici University, Istanbul

Turkey is frequently depicted in the news media and even in some academic circles as a model ‘Muslim’ democracy. Those who depict Turkey as a Muslim democracy both within and outside of Turkey could be doing so because Turkey has a predominantly Muslim population. It is presupposed that if a country is populated by Muslims and ruled by democracy, its inhabitants would quite ‘naturally’ opt for a Muslim democracy. This short essay aims to critically analyze the assumption that Turkey is predominantly Muslim and that its inhabitants would necessarily opt for a Muslim, rather than a constitutional democracy.

It is necessary to critically engage the idea that Turkey’s population is predominantly and monolithically Muslim and the people are religious in the same degree of intensity. A second point that needs to be made is the fact that there are politically significant differences between a Muslim and a constitutional democracy that are frequently overlooked. I would like to argue that a ‘Muslim’ democracy, no matter how moderate it may turn out to be, is not synonymous, and may not even be at all compatible with the idea of a constitutional democracy. In our neoliberal age, the connection between culture (or identity or religion) and politics has been ‘naturalized’ to such a degree that most people tend to assume that a given, fixed, ascriptive “culture” inevitably determines political preferences. In this short essay I cannot show why religious affiliation might not necessarily determine political preferences, but the case of Turkey can help shed some doubt on the almost naturalized connection between religion and politics. This is the broader methodological and political concern of this essay.

Political theory contains a significant strand that takes “culture” as a ‘dependent variable’ or as that which needs to be explained rather than that which should be taken for granted. There is also a strong social theory tradition which seeks to understand the ways in which culture is shaped, modified, interpreted and reinterpreted within and through historical, social and institutional contexts. As Seyla Benhabib’s works unceasingly underline, traditions are never monolithic; they are always multiple, these involve contradictory values, certainly different ways of life and usually conflicted memories with regards to the past.

Is Turkey is predominantly Muslim?

As Habermas reminds us, identities and cultures can only be preserved insofar as their traditions are renegotiated and evaluated in a free environment and when their values and traditions are deemed to be valuable by the people who inherit and who are expected to preserve them. The current theoretical perspectives which might be described as versions of “culturalism” do not seem to be leaving much space to the recipients of cultures for renegotiating and selectively appropriating their inherited identities. Since analyzing what is wrapped up in the sentence “Turkey is predominantly Muslim” has a lot to offer in showing the complexity of the ascriptive culture issue, we should unpack and analyze what it means and what we mean by referring to Turkey as a predominantly Muslim country. What is at stake in depicting Turkey’s population one way or another on the basis of its inhabitants’ religious affiliation and infer political consequences?

The first point I would like to make is that in suggesting that a Muslim democracy is not compatible with constitutional democracy, I am not claiming that there is something essentially ‘wrong’ about Islam nor I am assuming that Islam’s theology is ‘essentially’ different from the theologies of other monotheistic religions. Although I am not an expert in theology, I think it is accurate to suggest that Islam’s theology is not essentially different from the theologies of either Judaism or Christianity. The differences of Islamic theology which differentiate it from other monotheistic religions’ do not seem to amount to an ‘essential inability’ for Islam’s liberalization. This essential similarity of Islam with other monotheistic theologies implies that insofar as other monotheistic religions have liberalized, both through struggles and in time, so can Islam, and so can Muslim societies. Therefore when I suggest that a Muslim democracy is not a constitutional democracy, I do not want to suggest that Islam in specific is incompatible with constitutional democracy but other monotheistic religions were. In fact, I find it also plausible to argue that a Jewish or a Christian democracy would also be incompatible with the idea of constitutional democracy.

If we could possibly convince ourselves that a constitutional democracy and a Muslim (or Jewish or Christian democracy) are the same thing, then we would not have felt the need to use the adjective “Muslim,” (or “Jewish” or Christian”) before the word ‘democracy’ in that specific context. We, at least intuitively, seem to know that there would be something anomalous in a Muslim, or a religious, democracy that would render that political regime less than a constitutional democracy. A religious political system which attempts to rule a complex society is an oxymoron if it also calls itself a democracy. A Muslim democracy must necessarily refer to a regime that is streaked by the culture and the vision of Islam and its world view.

The second point of clarification I want to make is about the perspective that I am taking in making the observations I am about to make about Turkey. The complexity of the context sometimes remains partly invisible to the observers’ perspective, especially if they are looking to find some ‘otherness,’ and if out of sheer good will they portray this ‘otherness’ that they encounter as something necessarily and unquestionably benign. That is partly what happens to European and American liberals when they analyze a predominantly Muslim country such as Turkey. In order to oppose the essentialistic and hostile attitudes towards Muslims within their communities, they attempt to emphasize the positive qualities of Muslims or Muslim way of life, while sometimes neglecting to apply the normative and critical standards that they would apply in their own countries to the issues that they encounter in their own political contexts. This observation usually applies in the case of Turkey. Turkey’s presupposed otherness is usually greeted as a welcome development in its being the model Muslim democracy in the making.

The “good Muslims”

Most of us who study and write about Turkey emphasize the complexity of the features that make it up, but some of that complexity is soon levelled down when Turkey is represented as a Muslim democracy, as a moderate and a good regime, or as a predominantly Muslim country which is inhabited by what Mamdani called “good Muslims.” I would like to take the participant’s perspective in making the following observations, and would like to look at the contradistinctions between Muslim and constitutional democracies from the perspective of their cosmopolitan, post- and irreligious, atheist, agnostic, indifferent, feminist, homosexual and Alevite members. I do not claim to know all the issues that concern all these identities, but I can speak on behalf of some, whose concerns and specific circumstances can be more or less generalized to others within the same batch.

From the perspective of people whose identities are listed above, Turkey’s quite often celebrated move towards a Muslim democracy would mean the rise of a new political regime in which the groups that are cited above would be excluded. By reform Muslim, I am refering to a type of Muslim individual that has inhabited Anatolia for the past seven or eight hundred years. Reform Muslims do practice religious rites selectively and seasonally, they may choose to fast or pray once in a while or regularly, but they do not usually or always follow the religious attire, do not usually cover women’s hair or often abstain from taking alcoholic beverages. We cannot simply assume that this type of Muslim was socially engineered by the founders of the Republic, since the historical evidence suggests that some Ottoman Sultans who were keen on prohibiting alcohol could not succeed to do so as early as the 17th century despite the deadly disincentive mechanisms that they have created to this end.

Thus, in speaking of a predominantly Muslim Turkey, one which is refashioning itself as a Muslim democracy, perhaps without aiming to do so we tend to brush off, and ignore the existence of 15 to 20 million people who either do not regard themselves as Muslim (that is, if they were given the chance to answer that question in an environment in which they would not be concerned about its social consequences), or who consider themselves secular or reform Muslims while they are not or would not be regarded as Muslims by the orthodox Muslims. The issue of the possible rise of a new group of excluded under a Muslim democracy is the main justice issue here, and this exclusionary tendency constitutes the difference between a Muslim and a constitutional democracy. A constitutional democracy protects all individuals regardless of their religious affiliations, a Muslim democracy would not. Strange enough, non-Muslim minorities would be better protected under a Muslim democracy insofar as their members actively identify themselves with their church or sinagogue. But Alevite Muslims, homosexuals and seculars and feminists and post-religious, irreligious people who are born to reform Muslim families or agnostic and atheistic parents would now be excluded for having no religious affiliation. Where did the 15 to 20 million cosmopolitans that are currently residing in Turkey come from? Who are they? What are they doing in what we consider to be a predominantly Muslim society?

No matter how we evaluate the way in which it took place, whether we consider it coercive or ideological, totalitarian or benevolent, the fact is that Turkey’s state-led secularization process explicitly started at the end of 19th century during the Ottoman reign. If we were to take an objective perspective, we would observe that both those who consider themselves orthodox Muslims today and those who consider themselves as irreligious or reform Muslims in Turkey are the products of the social environments in which they are socialized. It makes no sense at all to claim that one type of socialization is ‘social engineering’ and thus wrong, while claiming that the other type of socialization process is ‘natural’ and thus benign. As Locke stated long ago, children do not come to earth with a religion that they have chosen by their own will. Today’s orthodox Muslim individual is as much a product of the socializalion processes that he/she encountered as the secular and/or irreligious individual is.

To sum, the cosmopolitan inhabitants of the present day Turkey are the descendants of families who have encountered a secularization process that has been explicitly started more than 180 years ago. The reform Muslims, Alevites, cosmopolitans, feminists, irreligious, atheist, agnostic, and homosexual members of Turkey today amount to 15 to 20 million people. To give a sense of how big that number is, just remember that, for example, Sweden’s population is merely 1/3 of the number of cosmopolitans in Turkey. Possibly even more than 1/3 of Turkey’s population, if they were asked about their identity and were given the chance to respond without any detrimental consequence thereof, would not have called themselves Muslims, or primarily Muslims.

That 1/3 also would not be considered to be “good Muslims” or “Muslims” by the orthodox. At that point we would need to decide whether democracy is about granting full cultural freedom to the orthodox group (and not to its individual members) within that society or is it about democratic inclusion of each and every citizen. If the latter, then instead of seeing Turkey’s recognition of its Muslim inhabitants as a group adorned with group rights as a democratizing influence, we have to push Turkey to recognize its non-Muslim, irreligious, non-Sunni and cosmopolitan inhabitants, a sizable minority as equal citizens. The issue of democratic inclusion in Turkey is generally only being highlighted as the issue of the recognition of the orthodox Muslims as a group. Yet the recognition of the orthodox Muslims as a group would make it necessary to exclude, and mute the voices of those other groups, and individuals, who frequently do have Muslim sounding names, but are neither orthodox nor even importantly religious, if at all religious.

A crypto-Sunni policy

The issue of Muslim sounding names gives us an opportunity to look into the present Turkey’s citizenship regime. This regime presents itself as a staunchly secular one, it is regarded as and often criticized for being too secular in our ‘postsecular’ age, yet the fact is that Turkey’s present citizenship regime can be more accurately described as a cryptically Sunni regime. Just considering two examples would suffice to demonstrate this point. First, the identity cards issued by the state to each and every individual indicates their religious identity. Those who apply for or receive their ID cards are never asked about their religious affiliations. Names are assumed to tell it all. Unless you state that you are member of a church or a synagogue, you would automatically be considered a Sunni Muslim. It seems that the only options that are available to Turkey’s citizens are being either Sunni Muslim, or Christian or Jewish. It is assumed that every one needs to be affiliated with a monotheistic religion and that each and everyone must have a religious affiliation. Moreover these identities are assumed to be inherited and cannot be changed at will. So far the secular stance of the state was supposed to be counterbalancing the cryto-Sunni state policy. Since under the supposedly democratizing influence of ‘culture’ the secular stance of the state is no longer a significant issue, since anyone who defends secularism is treated as militarist, the crypto-Sunni policy is making headway in realizing its full potential or the neo-Ottoman communal governance is making an attempt to resurface. From this perspective, recently accelerating trend that can be summed as the re-Islamization of Turkey amounts not to the democratization but to the de-democratization of Turkey.

Second, the Alevite Muslim minority whose numbers are said to be around 10-15 million are not recognized by the state as a minority. The Sunni establishment treats Alevite’s religion as some form of a mutation of the ‘true’ Sunni faith, and this gives the state the supposed legitimacy to enroll Alevite students to compulsory religious classes at middle and high school level in which only Sunni Islam and its rituals are being taught. Needless to say, cosmopolitan, irreligious, agnostic and skeptic parents with Muslim sounding names and presenting themselves with “Islam” in their ID cards do not have a say in this either, their children are also automatically enrolled in the Sunni religion classes given the fact that the children’s identity cards also indicate that they are Muslims. Non-Muslim parents can submit a petition to the schools and their children are then free not to enroll in these classes, but this time the children encounter the idea that they are somehow ‘separate.’ Equal citizenship ideal takes its first blow when the children are only nine years old, when their best friends’ religious difference gets revealed to them. EHRC recently decided on behalf of an Alevite parent who wanted to keep his child immune from the Sunni teaching, but irreligious parents or reform Sunnis still do not have the right to submit petitions to schools in order not to enroll their children to Sunni religion classes. It must be added that it was the 1980 coup which introduced the Sunni classes. The self-appointed guardians of the secular state, or the supposedly secular military was the very culprit in this issue.

The problem is as follows: Turkey’s cosmopolitan inhabitants who dwell in Turkey today are not cosmopolitan because they are being coerced to be so, and they are not cosmopolitan to irritate the religious, nor they are who they are to seem presentable to Europeans. They are secular, reform Muslim, agnostic, atheist, feminist and homosexual members of this society because this is who they are, and that is how they choose to live. Most of them are born to agnostic, atheist, secular, reform Muslim families and are merely seeking to exercise their own right to ‘cultural’ freedom if we were to put this into ‘cultural’ terms. Converting Turkey’s cryptically Sunni citizenship regime into a full fledged Muslim democracy that a neoliberal and culturalist global context seems to call for would only create a cultural despotism for the non- and irreligious persons and non-Sunni Muslims. Since Islam would tend to be ‘inclusive’ towards its Muslim members, all the women and Alevites and homosexuals and feminists, agnostic and atheists with Muslim sounding names and with Muslim identity cards would be promptly ‘included’ within the Muslim way of life. These groups of individuals cannot have either a voice or an exit option in this situation. Islam does not allow either heresy or apostasy. Saying that you are no longer Muslim, that you converted, or you are experimenting with your way of life, or you are critically and philosophically engaging with Islam’s doctrine are simply out of the question acording to the precepts of Islam to this day.

Islam never experienced a Reformation, and never encountered the long and bloody religious wars that Christian sects unleashed onto one another. As the youngest monotheistic religion, it is still expecting to be politically liberalized. Religions, no matter how rigid their doctrines are, do get liberalized, but in time, and especially within contexts in which individual rights are protected and individuals are free to selectively appropriate the traditions that they inherit. Turkey’s orthodox Muslims would be able to liberalize their traditions in conflict and in discursive and reconstructive exchange with Turkey’s reform Muslims and its cosmopolitans. But for that type of political liberalization to take place at all, Turkey urgently requires to plant a constitutional democracy which protects the basic civil, political, social, economic, cultural rights of the individual citizens while also granting the rights of its minorities. Turkey cannot be expected to do so while it is being pushed to a culturalist and religion-based notion of democracy which includes cultural groups and faithful communities as if they were individuals, as if these groups are monolithic and without internal divisions of their own.

Against all odds, EU is still the most important anchor for Turkey’s cosmopolitans and minorities in their aspirations to implant a constitutional rather than a Muslim democracy. Rather than opting for an inclusive constitutional democracy, reverting Turkey’s already cryptically Sunni regime into a Muslim democracy can only leave millions of people without the freedom to choose their religious faith, spiritual aspirations, and their way of life. It should not be forgotten that freedom of belief also entails the right not to believe. A constitutional democracy can protect the individual members of the political society due to the priority it gives to liberal individual rights and the right to democratic participation. A Muslim democracy, on the other hand, seems to promise to stabilize a re-invented Sunni Muslim identity while converting reform Muslims, Alevites, irrelious and postreligious to Sunni Islam along the way. Presenting the case of recently emerging excluded groups as cultural groups and their demands as cultural demands would only exacerbate a cultural war within Turkey. The only reasonable alternative is to create the framework in which individuals’ rights are protected. This alternative can only be accomplished under a constitutional democracy. The union of unbridled majoritarianism with a membership regime that is based on religious affiliation is the biggest challenge that Turkey’s newly rising democracy will have to encounter in the years to come.



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