EXCLUSIVE: S. Sayyid on political Islam

Mustafa Toprak speaks to S. Sayyid in an exclusive interview regarding the role of Islam in politics.

EXCLUSIVE: S. Sayyid on political Islam

Mustafa Toprak

S. Sayyid teaches at University of Leeds. He was the Director of the International Centre for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding, at the University of South Australia. He taught at the Universities of East London, Manchester and Salford. His numerous publications explore culture and politics and the effects of the postcolonial condition on so-called “mainstream” socio-political processes and structures. He is the author of 'A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentism and the Emergence of Islamism', a book that was banned by the Malaysian government in 2006. Dr Sayyid is the co-editor of 'Thinking through Islamophobia: Global Perspectives and A Postcolonial People Britain'. He is also a joint editor of the monograph series 'Postcolonial Horizons/Decolonial Studies'.

After the fall of dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, we have seen the ascension of Islamic movements in the form of political parties. It has been widely suggested that these parties should follow ‘‘the Turkish model’’. First of all, could you please discuss the parameters of ‘‘the Turkish model’’?

One way of understanding the Turkish model is to see it as pioneering a path from an entrenched authoritarian regime to democratic rule in an Islamic context.  The transition to democracy describes a variety of shifts by which authoritarian rule (e.g. in the form of military dictatorships, fascism, apartheid and communism) is replaced by democratic governance by a more or less negotiated process.  By negotiated I mean that the anti-authoritarian groups have to navigate a reform process that will open up society mindful that the authoritarian establishment has not been destroyed and it has many ‘red lines’ and clandestine strengths.  This sort of process that occurred in southern Europe in the early 1970s, in Latin America in the 1980s and in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. The task of a successful transition is inherently difficult, and requires a great deal of political skill. 

The challenge that the AKP project faced however, meant that strategies that helped the transition process in southern Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and South Africa had overcome the Islamic hurdle.  This manifested itself in three ways.  Firstly, the nature of the authoritarian regime in Turkey was less clear. In the absence of direct military rule, the Kemalist order was not universally considered to be authoritarian.  Secondly, the Kemalist order’s authoritarism was directed at the political expression of Muslimness – thus Muslims were heavily policed.  This policing could be presented as a necessary regulation as prelude the modernization of Muslims. Thus the AKP project to emancipate Muslimness was seen as problematic.  Thirdly, the transition had to place in a global landscape in which Orientalism was hegemonic, and thus it was considered the idea that the articulation of Islam with democracy was an oxymoron.

The AKP project was framed with the logic of what can be described as a democratic transition. It was a project that recognized that the end of authoritarianism in Turkey was impossible as long as Islam and the Islamicate were de facto denied as having any place in the elaboration of its future. The success of the AKP project can be seen in terms of its electoral victories, its emancipatorory reforming impulses and assertion of Turkey’s sovereignty - not only in national but increasingly in Islamicate register. These successes have arisen from its understanding that the authoritarian was an enemy of the articulation of Muslimness, despite Oriental discourse which would insist upon the contrary.

The AKP project resonanated beyond Turkey’s national borders because Kemalism had become the hegemonic pattern of governance in the post-Caliphate Ummah (Muslim world). The parameter of the Turkish model then are to navigate a transition away from the authoritarian in an Islamic context, while being electorally successful, sustaining economic growth and asserting geopolitical  independence.

It seems that the AKP, al-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood have accommodated with the currents of neo-liberal policies at home, not only in economics but also in the realm of culture and education. What could be the short-term and long-term social consequences of this orientation?

One of the problems of Islamist projects has been that they paid insufficient attention to the relationship between the organization of economic activities and the establishment of a just society that could be described as Islamic.  This seems like an odd thing to say given that there have been many attempts made over the last seventy years to develop an Islamic economy. The most sympathetic observers would however, conclude that the results of Islamic economics have been meager in furnishing a blueprint or model that could be presented as society working on the principles of Islamic economics.  Islamic economics has devolved mainly into Islamic banking and similar interest free financial services, and as such is nestled into a niche of an actually existing neo-liberal global economy. The reasons for this are not, as some writers such as Timur Kuran suggest, to do with the universality of economics.  Kuran and others would argue that there is no Islamic way of running a company, or society.  These advocates of economic essentialism neglect the ways in which notions of value and self-interest are only cultural mediated – there is no homo economicus – because humans are encultured beings.  Working in a Japanese firm is a very different experience than working in a Canadian company.  These differences impact upon people well-being in significant ways.  It follows that an Islamic economic enterprise should be distinct and should accord with some of the expectations that Muslims may have of such an entity.

In the realm of culture and education I do believe the many people within the AKP and around it are aware of the problem.  This explains to me, why Turkey is one of  the most prominent and consistent international critics of not only Orientalism but also Islamophobia... There seems to be an instinctive understanding that without conceptual decolonialization – there can be no freedom for Turkey and all its peoples.  To talk about decolonization in the context of Turkey may seem odd since it was never directly colonized. In fact, it is one of the only handful of non-Western countries which did not succumb to European colonial empires.  I have always found the concept of auto-colonialism, which was introduced to me by Yasin Aktay, a very suggestive in case of Turkey.  For clearly, the Kemalist plan of re-fashioning Turkey was based on the understanding of modernity and westernization.  There was little attempt to articulate an Islamic modernity.  The consequence of this ‘auto-colonialism’ is that it makes it difficult to locate the agents of colonialism outside society. In colonized societies, it was possible to build a frontier between those who supported colonial rule and those opposed it along with those who favored national sovereignty and those who opposed it.  It allowed a clear link to be established between democracy and sovereignty.  That, without sovereignty there can be no meaningful democracy. After all, what is the point of electing a government, when it does not govern and when a foreign plenipotentiary has more authority than a prime minister? Without a cultural, educational and economic decolonization, the prospects of Nahada, the MB and even the AKP, are going to be difficult for they will continue to be challenged on a terrain not of their choosing, criticized according to criteria that will always find them inadequate and ultimately unable to transcend the logic of democratic transition.

The logic of democratic transition was enabled by the prevalence of the global hegemony of democratic discourse. This helped empower the anti-authoritarian forces in Southern Europe, Latin America and Eastern Europe.  To some extent, Turkey’s democratic transition did benefit from the unconsummated dance of accession to the European Union. The anti-authoritarian forces of Tunisia and Egypt did not. There are a number of thinkers within Latin America who have also struggled with the situation of societies which are formally independent but conceptually enslaved.  Al-Nahda, the Muslim Brotherhood and to an extent the AKP have not been able to provide a cultural and intellectual project of decolonization of the mind, as consequences their horizons of what is possible has been too reliant on neo-liberal hegemony.  They cannot challenge this institutionally, because they do not know how to challenge it intellectually.  So when they meet officials from the IMF or economists who wish to dictate to them what countries economic policies should be, they end up acquiescing to what is put before them, because they cannot think what could be different.  This seem rather harsh, and I have no doubt that there are many men and women in these Islamic orientated parties that are intelligent and have great integrity and the best of intentions.  What they lack, however, is an overall narrative that provides a critique of the prevailing orthodoxy and a poem about a better future that can be realized. 

The failure to consistently produce middle-level analysis and solutions – that is between abstract principles and individual jostling arises I believe form the tendency among Islamists and many of their supporters to see social problems through a moral register.   The assumption being that if we could have a society of good Muslims, all our problems would dissolve.  It is, not, however, the absence of good Muslims that causes youth unemployment; it is not the absence of good Muslims that leads to economies that grow through property bubbles, is not the absence of good Muslims that produces sectarianism…  The figure of a good Muslim is an ideological not theological.  We Muslims like to think that people we like are good Muslims and those who we disagree with are bad Muslims.  It should be possible to us to imagine Muslims who disagree with each other fundamentally but are considered by each other as being good Muslims. 

Of course the banality of government trumps many attempts at fostering a long term strategy. Partly, it is because the peculiarities of Turkey’s history meant that Eurocentrism was enshrined and this limited the appeal to decolonial thinking.  One of the most unusual aspects of the Gezi park protests for me as outside observer was the way in which Orientalist tropes were deployed to legitimize the opposition by treating the government as variant of Oriental despotism.

Could we talk about certain institutional barriers such as pro-secular military-bureaucratic establishment preventing these parties from embracing a more straight forward Islamic discourse?

I think the problem is not about embracing an Islamic discourse, many Salafist groups find nothing contradictory about an Islamic discourse and supporting Saudi Arabia, military dictatorship…and the ‘deep state’.  The real contention is the articulation between the political and the Islamicate and there are a number of reasons why the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Nahda refuse to make that articulation in a profound and rigorous way.  I believe that many of the people in these parties took away the lesson from the Revolution in Iran - that the only way they could come to power was to aim for electoral success.  This meant that they failed to understand that the opposition they would face would not play by the rules of democracy.  We can see this clearly in Egypt where the liberal opposition to Morsi justifies the coup of el-Sisi and the brutal dictatorship he has established as being democratic.  The Westoxicated support of democracy as long as they thought it would be a hurdle for the Islamic-orientated parties.  Their love of democracy is really a displacement for their true love, and that is westoxification.  It is amusing to hear some of the protestors in Gezi Park complain that the government in Istanbul was regulating the sale of alcohol.  There is no government of a democracy that does not regulate the sale of alcohol, and the ability to drink beer is not and cannot be akin to a fundamental human right.  Too many supporters of ai-Nahda and the Muslim Brotherhood displayed a degree of naivety about the legitimacy of the electoral road for Islam - perhaps they should have focused on the experience of Algeria and they would have learnt that the west was more than willing to allow democratic elections to be overturned if they bring forces that they prefer to do business with.

The only barrier to a military intervention like that of Sisi, it seems to me, is the development of a military and bureaucracy which would oppose extra-constitutional means to overthrow elected governments.  The problem of democratic transition in an Islamic context is magnified because, political Muslimness undermines the core link between Westernization and democratization - which global established democracies considered to be axiomatic.  I believe one of the consequences of the Gezi protests have been to undermine the AKP’s democratic claims on the grounds of its attempt to project a future without westoxification. It is thus the Westernizing horizon that animated the opposition to the AKP project and not the claims of its democractic deficit.

The military coup in Egypt and anti-government protests in Turkey were led by secularist forces in each country. These were well-educated people working in the media or academia. How do you explain this aggression especially among the educated elite in Egypt and Turkey against any form of Islamic politics?

The Iranian commentator Ahmad Ali wrote in the 1960s of the phenomena of Westoxifcation.  He showed a large well-educated segment of the population in Iran who often worked in the ‘liberal professions’ had become infected by what can be called Eurocentrism.  That is, they wanted to believe that ‘Europe’ had discovered the universal path to prosperity and enlightenment - and that the only thing non-Europeans could do is follow their example.  Cemal Aydin’s book The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia provides a compelling account how initially many Ottoman and Japanese intellectuals took the European claims of the universal at face value, but soon encountered European resistance to any attempt for those they considered to be non-European to take part in the conversation of the universal.  The discovery of Eurocentrism within the European vision of the universal led many of these intellectuals to develop a critique of Western hegemony.  Alas, this still left many other members of the educated elite who thought the only way to deal with the European articulation of the universal is to pass themselves as Europeans - this is Westoxification. 

One of the major sources of strength of other democratic transitions was international support given by the advocates of global democracy, to countries in southern Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and eventually even South Africa.  In the case of Tunisia and Egypt, I would argue increasingly in the case of Turkey that this support has been not so forthcoming.  The Orientalism of the West finds hard enough to imagine that Westernization and democratization are not synonymous, but the critique of the Westoxicated of the democratic transition has done much to further weaken international support for democracy.

The identity of the Westoxicated is constructed by the exclusion of the Islamicate, and any elaboration of Islam into the future produces an existential crisis for them.  Hence, their support for democracy was always conditional on the extent to which democracy was a guarantee of westernization - and not a mechanism of popular emancipation.

How do you elaborate these parties’ attitudes towards ethnic and religious minorities? During the recent political turmoil in Egypt and Turkey sectarian and religious minorities seemed to be at ease with embracing anti-democratic means of resistance against the government. How do you see the prospect of building a culture of co-existence at a broader level?

Anti-Islamist forces tend to align themselves xenophobic articulations of nationhood. One would hope that Islamists would reject xenophobic nationalism and embrace Ummatic cosmopolitanism, and in doing so, make good on the claim that Islamic societies are on the whole better for ethnic and religious minorities.  I would suggest that the AKP project has done a great deal in terms of the main minority issue in Turkey, that of reconciliation with the people of Kurdish heritage and of course, one would want this process to be deepened and broadened.  Unfortunately many of the Islamist parties get forced on the defensive, they want to prove to the nationalists they are in favor of national cohesion, without deconstructing the necessity of nationalist homogeneity for Islamic modernity.  If the Islamist parties are to be successful, they have to focus on breaking with secular nationalism and its attempt to erase minorities.  I would like to see Islamists taking multiculturalism seriously and to embrace.

Finally, I would like to say that there are many areas in which many people would have wished for faster and deeper reforms.  Especially, the elaboration of an economy which promoted fairness and efficiency.  Or a foreign policy in which the expression of the Islamicate challenged the Saudi attempt to articulate and perpetuate an Islam subaltern to American interests and desires.  Or a domestic policy which was more cosmopolitan, in which equal opportunities and multiculturalism embraced as sign of a cohesive and confident society and rather than seen with suspicion as the precursor to national fragmentation… Despite some of these valid criticisms and caveats – I think it is important to understand and appreciate that the Islamist have the potential to offer a viable future for the Ummah.  The achievements of the AKP project are evidence of that. What needs to be done to be done is to be bolder in elaborating a model that offers an alternative to Western neo-liberal hegemony.

Last Mod: 18 Ocak 2014, 11:12
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