Göle, professor of sociology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, brought to mind that the AK Party became popular when its members won the local elections in the 1990s because they managed the cities well and created urban spaces for citizens, not only for the elite but for all. “The transformative force of Islam in politics was ‘hizmet',” she said adding that between the Iranian revolution and the Arab Spring, there is the Turkish path. “Some people think that it's a model, but at least it's a reference forcing us to think differently.”
Answering our questions in İstanbul last week when she attended the fifth edition of the Istanbul Seminars, “The Promises of Democracy in Troubled Times,” at İstanbul Bilgi University, she elaborated on the issue.
What is the position of religion in today’s world, especially considering the Arab Spring?
One way to approach the issue was that a wave of secularization was followed by a wave of Islamization. When the Islamic revolution took place in Iran, social scientists thought in the 1980s that secularism had failed and that it was replaced by movements of radical Islam. Then came the moment when they said political Islam had failed. Now Islam is taking power again with the Arab Spring. In the midst of all this, between the Iranian revolution and the Arab Spring, there is the Turkish path; some people think that it’s a model, but at least it’s a reference forcing us to think differently. Let’s look at the Turkish experience. Turkey comes from a very strong secular tradition and also from a pluralistic parliamentary tradition. Since the 1950s, Islam [has] found a chance for representation in the Turkish Parliament. In that respect, we cannot speak of the failure of secularism in Turkey, and we cannot speak of Islam as a movement of revolt or revolution. After all, the AK Party is a political party coming to power by elections. So we don’t have the revolutionary flavor that they have in the Arab Spring countries. The AK Party experience also requires us to think of secularism differently. Now there is a thought in the world that we shouldn’t think of the [transformation] of Islam and secularism, but [that] there is a different articulation between the two. So in the religious/secular divide, we can think of secularism not as a hegemonic force that totally marginalizes the religion but something that permits religion in public life and the political sphere, but yet does not undermine a secular state and pluralism.
So do you think there are transformations in countries of majority Muslim populations? And how does this make seculars feel?
They are getting transformed by means of Islamic political parties, [in other words] parties which have references also in Islam. For secular people in Turkey, there is a sense of vulnerability because of that. They think that their way of life will be undermined by a majority politics of Islam. This is a very important way of understanding politics and democracy, that if there is majority rule, everything will be justified in terms of the majority. And what about those who are atheists, homosexuals, non-Muslims, feminists, who are not in conformity with the way the way government interprets Islam. The issue in the post-secular era is that can we think of secularism which will help all those people, including Muslims, to live in a more pluralistic and tolerant society? Instead of leaving secularism behind, we can give it a new interpretation that will include different social groups, including the Muslim critics of Islam.
You indicated at the conference that it is not clear how to exactly name the AK Party yet; conservative or moderate? Would you explain this thought?
The AK Party transformed what we call the Islamic movement into a new political force. The AK Party is a movement that we cannot name easily. Is it a conservative religious party, is it reformist Islamic? What kind of a movement is it? It’s not radical Islam -- some people would say that they have a radical agenda but I pause, it’s too much to say -- but it is a political movement which takes some kind of reference from Islam. However, you cannot say that it is an Islamic movement. It is a faith-based movement, but we cannot consider it Islamist as in the 1980s. So it has transformed the meaning of political Islam. The AK Party calls itself not a party of ideology but of hizmet. So the key concept here is the change from dava to hizmet. This can be one of the avenues for understanding the transformation from radical Islam to the one which becomes a political force in the secular world.
Anti-capitalist Muslims important force’
Would you elaborate on this issue, transformation from dava to hizmet, as you put it?
Dava ideologically totalizes all spheres of life and tries to redesign all spheres of life according to Islam; Shariah, for instance. Implementation of it would be from top down to make society in conformity with Islam. I’d call this radical Islam, a bit like the Iranian model. It tries to have control over the lives of people. Whereas in the case of the AK Party, they transformed the notion of dava to hizmet, in other words, [they concentrated on] how to serve the community. They started with the municipalities. Don’t forget, they became popular when they won the local elections. They created a good waste management system, created gardens with tulips, established parks for children, not only in the elite neighborhoods but in other areas, etc. The transformative force of Islam in politics was hizmet.
When do you think that distinction became clear?
I don’t know exactly, I must do some research into it. But I must go back to Turkish history that the idea of hizmet, both as a secular and a religious notion, has existed in politics since the 1950s. We started to vote for the first time. There was a transition to a pluralistic system from the one-party system. The Democrat Party, which was more conservative, came to power. People were saying that they pay their taxes and they expect services.
There are also ethical questions raised in regards to whether or not “hizmet” is being used politically by the AK Party.
This is debated in Turkey also in regards to the Gülen movement. They also use the concept of hizmet without a political apparatus. There are questions if they abuse it. There is a socialist type of criticism of Islam today saying that the only difference between Muslims and capitalists is that the former perform ablutions. All these issues are important because in democracies ethical questions have to be raised. There is so much richness created by capitalism without a return to social democratic possibility that the gap between rich and poor will become deeper. The Muslim people raise ethical questions about this, too.
Maybe that’s why a group which calls itself anti-capitalist Muslims has emerged in Turkey and joined the May 1 celebrations.
I find it very important. The possibility within the Muslim community to oppose, in the realm of art and in other creative forms, is very important to challenge politics. The question is not that whether they [Muslim capitalists] can be compatible with secularism, capitalism and market economy. They are. According to some Muslims, they are much too compatible because maybe they are using too much power, and not enough ethical retrieval. Where is the belief in all this? Where is Sufism in all this? That’s also why some people are concerned that the Gülen movement is becoming so powerful.
‘Seculars not undermined but majority rule is threatening
The secular camp still feels threatened in Turkey. What would you say in regards to the never-ending question: Is there an Islamic threat to secularism?
We should go beyond this cleavage of secular and religious. The ideological polarization between secularist Turkey and religious Turkey has not disappeared, but we should look at what has been going on since they came to power. Look at the arts, city life, festivals in Turkey; I don’t get the feeling that the seculars are undermined. What is of course problematic is that we don’t have an alternative in political terms to the AK Party. And this might create anxiety, which is normal because it becomes the only power. Is Islam a threat to secularism? I really have had enough of this question. The question takes us back. We should look at what is going on.
Do you think religious people are obsessed with Kemalists in a similar way?
In addition to the obsession of seculars with those who are religious, if there is an obsession of Kemalists with religious people, then there is no way out. We feel that tension in Turkey. There is always suspicion of the other which does not help this part of the world to create a politics of consensus as well as the possibility for debate. Politics of suspicion and politics of fear make it impossible to live in a democratic country. Because all the time, you think that the other is a danger for you. I was probably the first one who wrote on authoritarian secularism. For the last 10 years, people have been saying that Turkey has authoritarian secularism. This is no longer true because there is no longer authoritarian secularism, because authoritarianism has been undermined by the AK Party coming to power. It has changed the power game between the military and the state, between old elite and the new elite. What the danger or threat about religious-oriented parties in power in democracies is, first, it is the majority rule, and second, having moral police in the streets -- like ‘muharebat’ or the secret police -- intimidating people, like women in skirts, and men eating during Ramadan, not fasting. The Salafist movement in Tunisia does that, they are in minority but they intimidate seculars, and what we had in Iran after the revolution was Pasdaran [assisting the ruling clerics]. We have to avoid these two very important dangers. That’s how we can be a democratic country: When our public sphere is autonomous, both in terms of freedom of expression so secret police cannot intimidate you -- like in Turkey today, journalists feel under some kind of oppression -- you have the right to choose your religion and not follow the majority’s rules and morals.
‘Turkey cannot be a model without more democratization’
Whether or not Turkey can be a model for the Arab Spring countries is being discussed today.
No country wants to be exactly the same as another country, but Turkey enters into the discussion as a point of reference or inspiration. What is the source of inspiration? It’s not about Islam only; it’s about the way Islam is lived in a country where you have secular spaces of life, consumption patterns and prosperity. Without all that, they would have taken Iran as a model. So the idea is: Can you have freedom, indigenous democracy and a kind of reference to Islam? That is what makes Turkey interesting. It is not just one thing but a combination of these things. Turkey, if it wants to be a model in that sense, of course needs to be more democratic, resolve the problem of ethnic differences, the Kurdish issue, non-Muslim minorities and so on. That’s why I’m saying that the Arab Spring will play a role of leverage, a kind of power of transformation for Turks. Before, it was Europe, because Turks were trying to correct themselves in the meter of Europe, and today they have to correct themselves in the meter of Arabs. We can talk about not only the Turkish model imposed on the Arab countries but also Turks measuring up to what they claim to be.
Are you also saying that the European Union is not a source of inspiration for democracy for Turks anymore?
Not totally, because if the Arab world is interested in Turkey, it is also because Turkey has many assets. It is from the Middle East but it is also turned toward European countries. What makes Turkey important is that translating force between different cultures. If it loses that, Turkey will not have any meaning outside its frontier. It used to be like this during the Cold War. At the time Turkey was seen as an exception in the sense that it cannot be a source of inspiration. It was a model of authoritarian secularism and aligned with the United States, like a gendarmerie of the Middle East. Turkey was seen as residue from the Ottoman Empire; nobody was speaking of Turkey. When I was trying to bring Turkey into the midst of debate regarding Islam and secularism, it was not meaningful. Today, the debate is meaningful because other countries are experimenting with the market economy, political pluralism, diversity and not one Islam imposed by the state.
‘Turkey in era of post-Europeanism’
You have another idea which is that Turkey is in the period of post-Europeanism.
Yes, this will change the conversation between Turkey and the Arab world. Turkey has been in the region for the last 10 years by commercial activities, construction and education; there is so much interaction going on. Turkey can broaden its self-understanding while debating with the Arab world. For instance, Turkey can debate women’s rights and honor killings with the Arab countries. Democracy is something that continuously corrects itself, as political scientist Kemal Kırışçı had said. Will Turkey be able to have more stability and democracy? This is not done yet. It’s a work in the making.
Turkey is also playing to be an actor in the region. Before, as you said, it was allied with the Western powers. Is it a more difficult job?
Of course it is harder. There are too many powers. There is a vision for a more proactive role. This autonomy from given politics and powers is an important step. Before there was this consensus over Pax Americana; Egypt was important with its population, Israel was important with its military and Saudi Arabia was important with its money. Now Turkey is playing an important role with its population, military and money. This is a lot of responsibility. There was an idea of zero conflict with neighbors, but now we have a lot conflict with neighbors. Will Turkey be a part of the problem, or will it be a solution to the problem? The answer will depend on the capacity of Turkey whether it can be a mediator.
‘French elections give hope’
Why do you think the result of the French elections is quite important?
The French elections are very important for Europe for two reasons. On the one hand, we have xenophobic, far-right, anti-Islamic movements rising in Europe. On the other hand the economic crisis is a real issue. The election of the socialist party in France gives us hope to think that there isn’t only the politics of austerity and there can be alternatives. Against the alliance of the center right and far right, the elected new party can take a position.
Nilüfer Göle is a professor of sociology at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, where she is working on Islamic visibility in European public spaces and the debates it engenders on religious and cultural difference. Her sociological approach aims to open up a new reading of modernity from a non-Western perspective and a broader critique of Eurocentrism in the definitions of secular modernity. She is the author of “Islam in Europe: The Lure of Fundamentalism and the Allure of Cosmopolitanism” (2010). She also authored “The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling” (1997), which has been published in several languages. She is a member of the executive committee of the İstanbul Seminars and director of European Public Islam at the European Research Council Project 2008-2012.
Correction: In last week’s interview with Greek weekly Apoyevmatini’s Editor in Chief Mihail Vasiliadis, a statement regarding the “Turkish minority” in Greece was mistakenly published as the “Turkish minorities.” We regret any inconvenience caused by this error; it should have read the “Turkish minority” not “Turkish minorities.”