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Toward A Liberal ‘Political Islam’?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Political Islam, as you probably have noticed before, is a dirty term. It often refers to angry men who impose veils on women and ban anything that is fun. It even reminds us of the horrific reign of the Taliban, whose heaven on Earth in Afghanistan looked rather like hell for most of us. There is a good reason for this notoriety of political Islam. Its main proponents, such as the Pakistani thinker Abul A'ala Mawdudi (1903-1979), defined it as the effort to create an "Islamic state," whose main mission would be the imposition of shariah, or Islamic law, within its most rigid and medieval interpretation. This idea has become so dominant in Islamic circles since the mid-20th century that "political Islam" has become associated with the goal of establishing this authoritarian "Islamic state." The great transformation As a response, secularists often argue that political Islam has no place in a democracy, because it simply wants to overthrow the democratic system. The cure to this threat, the argument goes, is to accept "separation between religion and politics." (Beware: this is different from separation between religion and state, which is a must for a liberal political order. The state should be secular, whereas politics can be informed by Islam, Christianity, dialectical materialism, positivism, nature-worship or whatever you want.) Actually, both the secularists and the Mawdudi-type Islamists make the same mistake by missing the same crucial point: A political vision informed by Islam doesn't necessarily have to be authoritarian. It doesn't have to strive for an "Islamic state." It might rather decide to uphold Islamic values - such as justice, rights and public morals - within the secular democratic system. It might be, believe it or not, even liberal. I am not just speculating, for such a liberal political Islam has been in the making in Turkey since the mid '90s. Last week, Ümit Aktaş, an established Islamic intellectual, underlined this in a long interview he gave to Taraf, the radically liberal national daily. First, Mr. Aktaş acknowledged the great transformation that he and the likeminded have gone through. "Before the '80s, democracy was something like disbelief for us," he said. "But then concepts such as change, innovation, liberation and democracy started to be debated, and accepted, by Islamists." As Mr. Aktaş pointed out, one case study to see this change is the approach to the Kurdish question. Until the '90s, Kurdish rights were really not high up in the rhetoric of Islamic circles. But their struggle with the authoritarian Kemalist state helped them understand and sympathize with other suppressed groups, which included the Kurds. These days it is common to hear from Islamic commentators that the Kurdish language should be totally free, because human languages, according to the Koran, are among God's creations. The same thing can be observed with regard to the rights of non-Muslims, too. Today, the defenders of the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, such as the reopening of the Halki seminary, include Islamic thinkers who believe that religious freedom must be championed for all. (The secularists, meanwhile, are busy with restricting religious freedom for all.) But what about the incumbent AKP, the Justice and Development Party? Is it representative of the liberal political Islam that Mr. Aktaş speaks about? Well, only to a degree. As an explanation, Mr. Aktaş spoke about three distinct trends within what is superficially wrapped up as "the Islamic camp" in Turkey: The Easternists, the Conservatives and the Islamists. The people in the first group have been against all sorts of Westernization, and believe in a monarchical Caliphate rather than a democratic republic. The second group, the Conservatives, are people who "simply wish to preserve the status quo, the existing social patterns." And the Islamists, according to Mr. Aktaş, are the people "who wish to represent Islam on a political level in order to defend the denied rights of Muslims." The faces of the AKP Among these three, Mr. Aktaş also added, Easternism is almost a dead phenomenon today, at least in the ranks of the AKP. The party, he argued, is rather made up of the two other trends: Conservatism as represented by people such as Cemil Çiçek, and Islamism as represented by people such as Ömer Çelik. The latter camp, he added, is more reformist and liberal on issues ranging from women's role in society to minority rights. The AKP still suffers from other problems, such as patrimonialism and leader-domination, both of which are Turkish classics. But the Islamo-liberal synthesis that it has in its composition is still helpful, and is promising for the future. Flatly rejecting this option, and believing that Islamist authoritarianism is the only possible form of political Islam, is wrong. It is like assuming that "political Christianity" is expressed through only the Inquisition and the crusades, and not the Christian democrats of today's Europe. I know that the current Muslim world sometimes looks more similar to medieval Christendom than contemporary Europe. But change is possible. And it should be welcomed.
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