Turkey, Secularism and the EU. A View from Damascus
Sadik J. Al-Azm 29 August 2012

Secularism is now one of the most hotly contested, emotionally charged and sharply debated, criticized discussed and circulated concept in the Arab World both in the public and private spheres. It is more so even than such equally charged and circulated allied concepts as democracy, human rights and civil society. This is why the relevant discourses of the moment are dominated by pairs of opposites like secularist/ Islamist pretty much the way the discourses of an earlier generation and period were dominated by the pair of opposites progressive/ reactionary. Two observations are in order, at this point:

First, in all this commotion, Damascus is in the eye of the storm partly on account of the violent and bloody confrontations that took place in the late 70s and early 80’s of the last century between the military regime and the Jihadi Islamists of those days; and partly because of the openly flaunted quasi – secular nature of the state, state apparatuses, the Baath Party of Syria in particular and the country’s public square in general.

Second, in a city like Damascus the most interesting, critical, intelligent and frank discussions do not take the form of open public debates and controversies but take place in relatively restricted private circles through the time-honored methods of oral transmission among people who are within earshot of each other. This is the Damascus rumor mill, the people’s free press and the country’s autonomous media at one and the same time. This is where substantial opinions are formed, seriously contested, defended, criticized and circulated on the issues of the day including secularism, Islamism, democracy, human rights, civil society and the rest.

It is out of these always active informal networks and face-to-face encounters that the more authentic and influential views of Damascus emerge and crystallize. Needless to say, the intelligentsia – broadly taken – plays the leading role in all this activity. The fact that these Damascus discussions are now dominated by the pair of opposites secularist/ Islamist means that the Islamic currents and forces in society have come to define the terms of the debate instead of the much more secular currents and forces of the nationalists, the left in general and the populists of an earlier era and phase. But the Islamists do this from a reactive and not from an enactive position. For, present day Arab Islamism is really a defensive and at times desperate reaction against the long-term erosion of Islam’s primacy over the public, institutional, economic, social, legal, political and cultural life of key Arab countries and societies in the 20th century.

For example, in such countries as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia the modern secular nationalist calendar with its new holidays, symbols, monuments, historical sites, battles, heroes, ceremonies and memorial days has come to fill the public square relegating, in the process, the old religious calendar and its landmarks to the margins of public life. Similarly, it remains a fact that in these countries there is hardly anything in society, economy, polity, culture and law that is run anymore according to Islamic precepts, administered along the lines of Shari’a Law or functions in conformity with theological doctrine and/or teachings. Outside the realm of personal status, individual belief and private piety and/or impiety the role of Islam had unquestionably receded to the periphery.

This is equally evident from the Arab Islamists’ traditional complaints about “Islam’s eclipse and isolation from life” (i.e., public life); about “the absence of Islam from all realms of human activities, because it has been reduced to mere prayer, the fast, the pilgrimage and almsgiving”; about how “Islam faces today the worst ordeal of its existence as the result of materialism, individualism and nationalism”; about how “school and university curricula though not openly critical of religion, effectively subvert the Islamic world picture or Weltanschauung and its attendant practices”; about how “the history of Islam and the Arabs is written, taught, and explained these days without real reference to divine intervention, causal or otherwise”; and about how modern and nominally Muslim and Arab nation-states though they never declare an open and formal separation of state and mosque they nonetheless subvert Islam as a way of life, as an all encompassing spiritual and moral order and as a normative integrative force by practicing an even more sinister form of functional and de facto separation of state and religion than, say, Kemalist Turkey.

Add to all that their anger over the whole feminist issue, their nervous discourses over the Muslim family and its fate, their preoccupation with Muslim socialization of children and their militant demands for such measures as the re-imposition on women, the young and the family in general of the norms of traditional respect, obedience, gender segregation and undivided loyalty to the male head of the household. Of course, it should not escape attention in this connection that Arab countries have witnessed since the end of the 19th century an uninterrupted commotion of sharp debates, discussions, polemics, rebuttals and counter-rebuttals and struggles over the gender issue and its ramifications for the family, the role of women in society at large, the socialization of children, and the kind of norms according to which society is to reproduce itself.

As I hinted earlier, the sub-text to most of these Arab discussions, debates and practices is, of course, the Turkish Kemalist model. This is so because the Arab states concerned never witnessed a dramatic Kemalist high moment where the state is declared from the top secular and officially separate from religion as happened with the emergence of modern Turkey from the ashes of the First World War. In contrast, the secularization process in these key Arab states, societies and countries was slow, informal, hesitant, adaptive, pragmatic, gradualist, full of halfway houses, partial compromises, plenty of temporary retreats and unending evasions, but without a striking moment of high drama. That sort of climactic point could have come to pass – somewhat on the Kemalist model – at the hands of President Nasser of Egypt soon after the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 (a heroic and immensely popular act all over the Arab World). But, Nasser never took that step and the real high drama arrived with the reaction to all that in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, revivalism, armed insurrectionary Islam and so on.

Things went that way primarily because Turkey was the center of the empire while the Arab provinces were the remaining periphery of the empire. Naturally all points of strength were far stronger in the center than in the periphery. And all points of weakness were weaker in the periphery than in the center. More specifically, the great Ottoman Perestrojka known as the Tanzimat, was far more powerful as to its results and achievements in the Turkish center than in the Arab periphery. Consequently, Turkey was able to fight back and save itself from dismemberment and foreign domination, while the Arab outlying provinces fell prey to colonial rule, dismemberment and fragmentation.

I would like to emphasize my point about the informal nature and indecisive character of lived Arab secularism by the following citation from one of Nagib Mahfouz’s articles, describing the murky and confused condition of a typical Cairene Muslim, struggling willy-nilly with the paradoxes, anomalies, and antinomies generated daily by a long-wave historical secularization process, glimpsed by most only intermittently and through a glass darkly:

“He leads a contemporary, that is a modern life. He obeys civil and penal laws of Western origin, and is involved in a complex tangle of social and economic transactions, and is never certain to what extent these agree with or contradict his Islamic creed. Life carries him along in its current and he forgets his misgivings for a time until one Friday he hears the Imam or reads the religious page in one of the papers, and the old misgivings come back with a certain fear. He realizes that in this new society he has been afflicted with a split personality. Half of him believes, prays, fasts, and makes the pilgrimage. The other half renders his values void in banks, and courts, and in the streets, even in the cinemas and theatres, perhaps even at home among his family before the television set.”[1]

To be noted in this connection is the fact that the general tendency of 20th century Arab Islam to such things as retrenchment, rearguard action and retreat to more and more conservative and fundamentalist positions is directly proportional to the degree of the erosion of its primacy over the public, institutional and cultural life of key Arab countries and societies. Thus, Afghani’s revolutionary move for a radically reformed Islam becomes Islam merely reconciled with Mohamed Abdou. This, then, turns into the counter- reform Islam of Rasheed Rida and eventually to legitimist – restorationist and backward looking Islam with Hasan Al-Banna soon after the shock of the abolition of the Caliphate. After the secular nationalism and Arab socialism of the Nasser period an alarmed theocratic Jihadi Islam crystallizes with the later work of Sayyed Qutb which then metamorphoses into the Usama Bin Laden blind, desperate and Samson-option kind of violent Islam.


Turkey under the rule of the Justice and Development Party presented not only Damascus but the entire Arab World with a sudden paradox and a confusing anomaly. These consist of:

a- The fact that Turkey, the only Muslim country with a developed and explicit secular ideology, tradition and practice, should be also the only major Muslim society to produce a democratic Muslim political party — something like Europe’s Christian Democratic Parties — capable of ascending to power democratically, electorally, peacefully and without a catastrophe befalling the whole polity, as happened in Algeria, for example, as well as in other places where Islamic parties of one sort or another tried to assume power by one means or another.

b- The fact that the ruling Justice and Development Party is the most eager proponent and promoter of Turkey’s membership in the European Union — a “Christian Club” as ex-French President, Valery Giscard d’Estaing once called it — while the Turkish military establishment, traditionally the staunchest guardian of Turkish secularism and the bastion of its Kemalist experiment, is now the most important obstructer of Turkey’s drive for membership in the secular European Union. For example, the Lebanese thinker and social critic ‘Ali Harb noted the point in the following manner:

“The question that this sudden occurrence (the electoral victory of the JDP) raises in the mind is: How was a political party of a religious background and an Islamic origin able to lead Turkey with remarkable success in the eyes of the world, lead it in all matters and affairs: politics, education, economics and security both at the internal and external levels? More clearly, how do we explain the success of Turkish Islam, if we may say so, and the failure of the other Islamic models in most other arenas?”[2]

Now, what does Damascus make out of this Paradox and anomaly?

1- It is by now clear to the Syrian intelligentsia (which is quite secular) that this Turkish Muslim democratic party hopes that EU membership will help put an end to the military’s traditional meddling in the affairs of the Turkish state. It is no less clear to them as well that the army generals know this very well and react accordingly by doing their best to delay and obstruct the process for as long as possible. Given the fact that Syria has been living for a long time under military rule and martial law, the intelligentsia there has a vital stake in how Turkey’s relationship with the EU actually works out. The idea here is that if the EU helps Turkey through this difficult and risky transition period (pretty much the way it had aided Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland to overcome their troubled fascist, militaristic and authoritarian pasts) it would become, then, almost impossible for the Turkish military to revert to type and distort their country’s fragile democracy. It would also become just as impossible for any Islamic party or coalition of such parties, to revert to type in the future and ruin Turkey’s promising new experiment by one form or another of Muslim fundamentalism, scripturalism and/or literalism.

Furthermore, there is wide appreciation among the Damascus intelligentsia that both the Arab World and Islam in general are in dire need right now of a reasonably free, democratic and secular model that works in a Muslim society. Turkey is seen at the moment as the most likely place for such a model to develop and mature, especially given the assistance of EU membership and the safeguards it provides. In other words, what is needed here is a credible functioning counter-example to the failed Muslim Taliban instance that the US left us with in Afghanistan not so long ago, with all its horrors and deformities.

2- It well known that the Arab left traditionally hated Turkey on account of (a) its close alliance with the West throughout the Cold War, (b) its full membership in NATO, (c) its staunch opposition to the Soviet Union and to communism in general and (d) its recognition of and friendly relations with Israel.

Since the end of the Cold War the bulk of this left, including many communist parties, has come to rally around an Arab civil consensus that has been emerging over the importance and relevance of such values, practices and arrangements as some respect for human rights, a measure of democratic rule, an active civil society, citizenship, the secularity of the state and its apparatuses, the freedoms of conscience, thought and expression for breaking out of the current predicaments of stagnation, arrest, corruption, decay and further civil strife that evidently engulf the entire Arab World at the present time.

The values of this quasi-consensus occupy right now pride of place in all the Arab left’s programs, demands and manifestoes. It should be made clear that this is not sheer opportunism on the part of the left. For, this left had thought of itself as working and struggling for more modern, socialist, secular, economically developed and socially just Arab societies. With the collapse of the socialist idea and of socialist movements and states everywhere, the only avenue remaining for the bulk of that left seemed like a retreat to the second line of defense, viz, a rallying around the well known classical bourgeois values issuing from the French Revolution and now locally embodied in the current Arab civil quasi-consensus that I spoke about.

At present, the larger part of the left sees its overall mission and task as concentrated on defending this consensus against the arbitrariness and tyranny of dictatorial regimes armed with martial law and its instruments of oppression and repression as well as against the advancing medievalism, obscurantism and theocraticisim of the Islamists, fundamentalists and Shari’a law scripturalists and literalists. This is why this same Arab left has come around to see in Turkey now the only Muslim country and society where some of the values of the secular consensus that it has come to strongly adopt, emphasize and promote have taken root, appear to function comparatively well and seem to have a future. I have certainly watched with wonder, Syrian leftist friends, colleagues and old timers, publicly praising the present Turkish democratic experiment and looking up to it for possible benefit, instruction and emulation, while knowing full well that these same persons had spent their entire careers denouncing the Turkish state’s politics, alliances, programs and all that it once stood for during the Cold War. This instance is particularly telling given the fact that the old Arab animosities towards Turkey remained most acute, persistent and frank in Syria itself.

3- On the extreme other side of the Arab political spectrum sits the mainstream religious right, especially as represented by the Muslim Brothers Organizations, their sisters, cousins, fractions, local chapters, factions and Islamist offshoots. Although, the Arab religious right traditionally despised modern Turkey and denounced it no less vehemently than the left for its abolition of the Caliphate, its Kemalism, secularism, nationalism and Westernism, it has also come around gently to see in the evolution and maturation of contemporary Turkish political Islam — to the point of democratically and peacefully assuming power — as a model for the direction in which the Arab World’s failed political Islam should now go. For example, I have noted the phenomenon of outspoken Arab Islamist critics and commentators publicly castigating the Muslim Brothers Organization in Egypt for its total mental laziness, political sterility and organizational inertia over the last 30 years, all in light of what political Islam has been able to achieve in Turkey.

Egypt’s Society of Muslim Brothers, after decades of insisting — like the Saudi monarchy — on the claim that the “Koran is our constitution”, on the imperative of restoring the Muslim Caliphate and on the immediate application of Shari’a law, made public in march 2004, its official initiative and formal program for the comprehensive reform of the Egyptian state, society and economy, calling for the rejection of the idea of a religious state and government in favor of what it now calls a civil government, its euphemism for a secular or at least a religiously neutral kind of state and state apparatuses.

This reform program announced by “the mother of all fundamentalisms” in the Arab world and beyond, has come around to call for: Popular sovereignty, representative democracy, the circulation of power, free, honest and transparent popular elections, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, empowerment of civil society, empowerment of women, respect for human rights, citizen’s civil rights and liberties, freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, worship and practice for all and freedom of thought and expression.

Syria’s Muslim Brothers followed suit in April 2005, by announcing in London their own no less “liberal” comprehensive program of reform for Syria’s state, society, economy and law to the point of presenting a document that often reads like some paragraphs out of Diderot or Montesquieu. This is not to say that I believe them, but to emphasize the point that had it not been for the strength of the Arab civil consensus of sorts that emerged and for the example of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey, the Muslim Brothers would have never had either the will or the cheek to produce the kind of advanced programs of reform for Egypt and Syria that they actually came up with. Furthermore, there is already a “Justice and Development” Islamic party in Morocco; a “Party of the Middle” (Hizb Al-Wasat) is struggling to form inside the Egyptian Muslim Brothers Organization in emulation of the course that Turkish political Islam took; while it is well-known that strong currents inside Arab political Islam in general are pushing in the direction of the Turkish path and model.

This is not to say either that what the Muslim Brothers say in their programs of reform is to be taken at face value but that their newly adopted stance and discourses testify again to the potency of the Arab civil consensus, on the one hand, to the remarkable impact of the Turkish instance, on the other, and to the efficacy of the two in imposing radical adaptations and revisions on the wooden rhetoric of an “Oblomovic” and inertial organization such as the Muslim Brothers Organization in Egypt, on the third.

Now, there is something particularly interesting and ironical about the direction of this evolving situation given, first, the Arabs’ firm conviction not only that they are the heartland of Islam but that they represent its de jure and de facto ideal model as well; and second, given the excessive Arabo-centrism of Arabs about anything and everything that has to do with Islam, where the intuitive silent assumption is that if you are not Arab and Sunni then there is something either suspect about or flawed in your Islam.

4- The Arab Nationalists, the center of the Arab political spectrum, have traditionally condemned Turkey not only for many of the reasons adduced by the leftists and Islamists, but also on account (a) of lingering resentments against the Young Turks’ early policies of Turkification in the remaining Arab provinces of the old empire, and (b) of the harsh repression exercised by the Ottoman center in its last gasp against the nascent Arab nationalist movement, mainly in the Syria of those days and (c) of their eagerness to blame Arab backwardness and failings on what they call the long retrograde Turkish occupation of the Arab lands. This condemnation has always been more severe and vociferous among Syria’s Arab and other kinds of nationalists, because of territorial, border and water disputes.

Even these nationalists have come around to a new and different look at present day Turkey. For, they see now that unlike their own brand of Arab nationalism, the Turkish variety proved to be a success story on the whole. They have come to admit that the earlier strategic Turkish decisions and historical choices, that they once despised so keenly, seem, at the moment, to have served reasonably well the Turkish national interest, something that can in no way be said about comparable Arab nationalist choices, decisions and outcomes. They are actually jealous of the fact that all the things they had wanted for their own nation seem, at present, to be much better fulfilled in a neighboring Middle Eastern Muslim society for which they had no use before. But now, I find them giving open and public advice to themselves and to others about the lessons to be drawn and learned from the over all Turkish nationalist experience and experiment in state, society and economy.

During the United States’ preparations for the invasion of Iraq in the Spring of 2003, the Turkish parliament rejected an American demand to deploy troops on Turkish soil. The US administration had to swallow that rejection because it emanated from a genuine parliament, freely and democratically elected and not even the angry and bellicose Bush administration and team could raise any doubts about that parliaments’ legitimacy and representative credentials. In the Arab world, this Turkish stance was highly esteemed and admired not only by nationalists but at the popular level in general and the following telling argument was put forward: What Arab king, president or ruler could go to the President of the United States and tell him my parliament rejected your government’s request without the American president either laughing him off the stage, or even yelling back at him go to hell you and your parliament, we know what kind of an assembly you have at your disposal?

5- The fourth Arab sector and force that has come to see a model in the current Turkish experience and experiment with the ruling Justice and Development Party and its kind of Islam is what may be termed: Arab middle-class commercial Islam (i.e., good-for-business Islam), as represented by the bourgeoisies of various key Arab countries and led by an assortment of agencies such as the chambers of commerce, industry and agriculture, multiple forms Arab Islamic banking, investment houses, venture capital and so on. Under the impact of the Turkish instance, these middle classes have become more assertive than ever before in thinking of themselves as the backbone of their respective civil societies; and of their Islam as the Islam proper for their countries in general. They sense an elective affinity to the Justice and Development Party’s doctrine of “Conservative Democracy” and see themselves in the image of a Turkish Islam that is moderate, conservative, good for business and very far from the Islam that is good for absolute power as in Saudi Arabia and Iran, on the one hand, and from the Islam that is good for violent terroristic eruptions without a cause, on the other. Like their Turkish counterparts, they abhor the salvific projects of the radical secular left no less than the similar projects of the radical Islamist right. Instead, they organize themselves around various notions of civil and ahli societies and their empowerment and regard themselves (with vindications and justifications drawn from the Turkish case), as the natural bearers of the quasi-civil consensus mentioned earlier as against the Arab martial law and state of siege authorities, on the one hand, and as against the equally menacing martial law of the Islamists known as Shari’a Law with its hudud, i.e., with its serve bodily mutilations and punishments.

Finally, there is no question in my mind that there is in this view from Damascus a lot of projection of Arab woes, impasses, wishful thinking and desiderata on the current Turkish paradox, anomaly and model. How realistic is this projection? I really do not know. How distorted and distorting is this projection? I have no answers. Can the Turkish model and/or mess support and justify such Arabo-Islamic projections? Perhaps you can help me grope for plausible answers.

Beirut, Lebanon



[1] Sharabi, Hisham, Neopatriarchy: A Theory of Distorted Change in Arab Society, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 8.

[2] Harb, Ali, The Collusion of Contraries: The New Gods and the Ruin of the World (in Arabic),Ikhtilaf Publishers, Beirut, 2008, p. 248 – 249.

[3] See Alexandar Goncharov’s novel Oblomov (1859), where its main character, Oblomov, came to typify the lethargic sleepy Russia of those days.


The final/definitive version of Sadik J. Al-Azm’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 37 number 4 May 2011, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 449-458, Special Issue: “Realigning Liberalism: Pluralism, Integration, Identities”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2010, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/37/4.toc


Sadik Jalal Al-Azm – Born in Damascus, Syria, in 1934, he is a Professor Emeritus of Modern European Philosophy at the University of Damascus in Syria. He has been a visiting professor in the department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University until 2007. He grew up in the well-known Damascene Sunni land-owning family of Al-Azm. The Al-Azm family had risen to prominence by the eighteenth century under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in Greater Syria, which had been acquired in 1516 by the cosmopolitan Turkish Empire. Al-Azm was schooled in Beirut, Lebanon, earning the B.A. in Philosophy from the American University of Beirut (1957). Al-Azm earned an M.A. (1959) and Ph.D. (1961) from Yale University, majoring in Modern European Philosophy.



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