The ongoing contestations, protests and debates in Egypt, Turkey between the people and the leaders is being framed as one of clash of modernity vs. traditionalism. Enough ink has been spilled trying to explain how the Islamists (read those who believe there is space for Islam in the public sphere) are harmful, retrograde and generally bad for the country in question. While this fear of Islamists have some validity- in extreme cases such as the Taliban, on the whole, I believe this apprehension and fear about the “wave of Islamization,” in Egypt, Turkey is incorrect, exaggerated and at times blatantly wrong.
The government’s repression and tackling of protestors is quite another issue, and I will not get into that here. My point is to analyze the discourse surrounding the participation of Islamist parties in the public sphere. I believe that there is an exaggerated fear of these elements and also an Orientalist understanding of politics, that may well fall short of the kind of thinking needed to understand the role of Islam in the public sphere.
The debate about modernity and secularism is particularly important as various developments in the Muslim world are re-defining “modernity,” but this is not the definition of modernity that fits the western mould, as well-known Anthropologist and scholar of Islam, Talal Asad points out. The Arab Spring uprisings are an example of the kind of modernity that is bringing to power regimes which the western powers see as “pre-modern”. Egypt, Tunisia stand as examples of such developments, which are considered by many analysts and a few academics as NOT representative of modernity.
The classical definition of modernity and Secularism has the implicit notion of separation of Religion and Politics, but this does not neatly fit into the definition of how politics and life in general is conducted in many parts of the world. Asad points out that project of modernity in the Muslim world (and one can argue in many societies which are non-Muslim as well) that secularism and modernity should not be seen as exclusionary terms.
“Deprivatization of religion process depends on how religion becomes public. If it furthers democracy, as it did in Poland or promotes debate around liberal values, then it is entirely consistent with modernization,” says Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular[i]. Taking a cue from this, it seems that for Asad, modernity is not problematic, in so far as it is willing to embrace various versions of secularism and also makes space for religion in a manner which does not radically shift or distort societal balances.
“Modernity is a project or a series of projects that some of those in power seek to achieve…” and we forget that the notion of modernity in the west emerged at a time in history and there is an attempt from the Western powers to impose it on other societies. This is the reason there are so many problems in other parts of the world,” he adds. The fact that Asad believes that there cannot be one definition of Modernity, or Secularism or even Religion complicates matters for him and hence this can be a hegemonic discourse. This is often played out in discourses of belonging, national security and other areas impacting the state.
Elsewhere, Asad points out that he is very ambivalent and almost leery of the idea of modernity, since it presupposes just one form of modernity. In the introductory chapter of Formations of the Secular, he says:” Thus, although in France both the highly centralized state and its citizens are secular, in Britain the state is linked to the Established church and its inhabitants are largely nonreligious, and in America the population is largely religious but the federal state is secular…consequently, although the secularism in these three countries have much in common, the mediating character of the modern imaginary in each of them differs significantly.”
So, how is one to define Modernity? Doesn’t this view of modernity make it almost impossible to talk about Modernity or Secularism, in an objective sense? Perhaps not. Asad points out that: “The modern nation as an imagined constructed is mediated through imagined constructs, “says Asad in the introductory chapter. One of the main symbols used is that of Secularism, as all other identities and symbols are relegated to secondary importance. The mediating character of religious symbols varies in each society, he goes on to say and this is quite different even within the Western world. Take the US, France and Britain. While the US still has a significant population which believes in fundamentalist ideals and tries to influence polity, France is at a different spectrum and with its Laicite, is quite insular in its approach to religion in the public sphere.
But it is key to remember that there are constant negotiations going on in every society and no society is ever static. While the French are adamantly nationalistic and define Secular in a very rigid way, they still have Catholic Schools in which one can cover oneself (Veil) as one chooses. It’s a mistake to think of secular and religious in binary term, there are lots of cross-cultural connections and transmutations of concepts, modes of behavior and organization. Let’s now look at the notion of civil society and modernity, as being understood specifically in Turkey and Egypt.
Notions of civil society and modernity in Egypt
Among the several assumptions about the Middle East and North Africa are that “civil society,” must flourish in order for democratic institutions to take root. While this assumption has been challenged on several grounds, both religious and cultural, the fact remains that there are vibrant pockets of civil society – the sort of networks and alliances that make governance and accountability possible in many parts of the region.
Steven Cook recently wrote about the “Islamization,” of the newly formed democracies in an insightful article for the Atlantic, in which he says : “Egypt’s Muslim Brothers and Tunisia’s Ennahda have not declared alcohol forbidden, forced women to don the hijab, or instituted hudud punishments (i.e., specific punishments for specific crimes set forth in the Qur’an or hadiths). It was big news in Egypt several weeks ago when the Le Roi Hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada poured out all its alcohol and established a female-only floor and swimming pool, but only because there have been so few incidents along these lines — observers tend to forget that what was Cairo’s Grand Nile Tower (formerly the Hyatt) went dry well before anyone ever contemplated Hosni Mubarak’s ignominious fall.” He clarifies what he means by “Islamized,” by adding: “By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, Islamist elites create an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.” Implicit in this line of reasoning is that this is somehow bad, evil and inimical to the interests of minorities, although, there is very little proof to that effect.
As a proof to show that the country is Islamizing, he cites a new amendment to the December 2012 constitution: “Al-Azhar is an encompassing independent Islamic institution, with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs, responsible for preaching Islam, theology, and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law.” While this may seem true, it is a fact that given the strange relationship of the Ulema ( religious scholars at Al-Azhar) and the ruling establishment, over the centuries, there has been a tension built in – one that neither gives them absolute say, nor authority. One must only remember that Mubarak quite literally managed Al-Azhar on his own terms and before him Sadat coopted the Ulema. If the country’s constitution says that Shari’ah is the source of law, doesn’t it make sense that the scholars of the most well-known university be consulted?
Speaking of Turkey’s reform efforts in Education, Steven Cook, in the same article, mentions : “In March 2012, for example, the AKP paved the way for graduates of imam-hatip (preacher) schools to enter the bureaucracy by making it easier for them to matriculate at Turkey’s universities — a traditional feeder for public servants. In the context of Turkish politics and the Republic’s history of aggressive laicisme, the change was controversial. Turkey’s preacher schools are, as their name implies, intended to train prayer leaders for Turkey’s 82,693 mosques and, as such, about half the curriculum is devoted to religious subjects while the remainder of the curriculum coincides with what the Ministry of National Education prescribes for non-religious high school students.” What he does not mention is that these schools were severely repressed by the state, during the Ataturk era and today form one of the examples of every local community’s efforts to educate its youngsters. Students in Imam hatip schools get both religious and secular education and learn to become constructive members of society. There is again, nothing inherently wrong with this, as Cook and several other secularists assume. If anything, this move to help the graduates of these schools enter the public service is an effort to integrate these graduates, who often are poor and come from modest backgrounds.
As Fazlur Rahman, the late scholar of Islam has astutely pointed out: “The great sign of hope is the restlessness and remarkable upward mobility of intellectual life in the new educational adventure of Islam in Turkey. This is an inherent quality of the Turkish character and accrues directly from the circumstance that Turkey is starting over with a clean slate after a deliberate and extended experiment with pure secular Westernization[ii].”
One must not forget that the economy grew tremendously under Mr.Erdogan and the religious resurgence seems to be a reaction to the decades of repression by the state. It is the will of people that is being demonstrated, through the elected representatives. Here is an article from The Economist, that points to the economic growth that came under Mr.Erdogan and the need for further stability in the country. It points out: “A key selling-point for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to voters is Turkey’s economic performance. After a volatile 1990s and a huge bust in 2001, his Justice and Development (AK) government has presided over steady high growth and modest inflation. In 2010 and 2011 the economy grew by a China-like 9%, leading to serious fears of overheating.” Despite, this there are serious concerns about the AKP and Mr.Erdogan’s religious leanings. Criticism of the ruling party often seems to be from a political or ideological stance, often not taking into account the historical progress of the country, and the social and religious conditions that have shaped it.
Here is an egregious example of bashing of Mr.Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey. While the writer fails to acknowledge that the Turkish economy grew rapidly under his leadership, he goes on to say that the has nothing to show, but the growth of the economy – as if economic miracles happen in vacuum, without any planning or critical evaluation of the direction in which the country should head.
There are very many credible and respect scholars who have made the claim that the notions of modernity, religion and secularism are all western constructs, that emerged in the West in a specific context, under very specific time-periods and they have become a lens for the western world to look at the world. It is wrong to assume that every civilization and country should abide by these and imposing this on others is akin to hegemony. Jose Casanova, Peter Berger, Talal Asad have all made similar (if not the exact same arguments) in their books and there is good reason to believe this is the case.
What is to be done?
In conclusion, what H.A.R. Gibb, the great Orientalist scholar said about the Muslim religious leaders of medieval times, can be said equally about their secular opponents, in contemporary times: ““Modernism is, therefore, predominantly a movement of thought among educated laymen, if we leave aside the neo-Hanbalite Manar-modernists. But how is its theological content to be assessed or defined? It seldom finds direct expression in books or articles, and though, it may be reflected in the arguments and polemics of the Ulema against the spread of Secularism, we may be sure that, in the invariable habit of preachers and polemists, they exaggerate, misrepresent and distort the opinion and activities of which they disapprove[iii].”
Perhaps, journalists, analysts and students should read a bit more about the processes of modernization, the critiques of the same and also sensitize themselves to the various debates in the field before passing any judgments. While it is true that modernity is a difficult, painful and often destructive process, it need not be so. Turkey and Egypt are in a unique position to define for the Muslim world what modernity in the 21st century looks like. And I believe they should do it on their own terms – not on terms defined by others.
[i] Asad, Talal. 2003, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity,Stanford, California: Stanford University Press
[ii] Rahman, Fazlur. 1982. Islam and Modernity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
[iii] Gibb, H.A.R. 1947. Modern Trends in Islam, New York. Octagon Books. Pp.49.