A personal perspective on religion and government

| September 2, 2010 | 0 Comments

 

Turkish Ambassador Rafet Akgünay argues human potential is greatest when freedom and mutual respect come together which “makes regimes stronger in the long run.” This, he says, is what Turkey’s experience has taught.

Turkish Ambassador Rafet Akgünay argues human potential is greatest when freedom and mutual respect come together which “makes regimes stronger in the long run.” This, he says, is what Turkey’s experience has taught.

The relationship between Islam and democracy continues to be debated by experts and laymen alike. When I was asked by Diplomat magazine to write a short piece on the matter, I considered the following: I am not an expert on Islam, nor do I personally or officially speak on behalf of all Muslims. But I come from a country which is predominantly Muslim and has been practising parliamentary democracy for decades. So I decided to share my personal views on the matter against the background of the Turkish experience.
As Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations was being debated in the face of vigorous rebuttals, the 9/11 attacks against the U.S. increased the risk of his thesis becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. Knowledgeable people around the world have the intellectual responsibility to resist this.
The re-emergence of religion as an important social force has been experienced across societies of different faiths for the last couple of decades, so the question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible has gained currency. We no longer even bother to question the appropriateness of juxtaposing two different categories — religion and a system of government, or religion (Islam) and geography (the West). Despite this shortcoming, I shall be using a similar framework due to its wide usage.
To quickly make a point, it is deceptive to associate Islam, or any other religion, with terrorism. Conflict, violence and terrorism are products of political aspirations. Yes, there are terrorists who might be motivated by the worthiness of their “sacred” cause and declare that they act in the name of religion. But a mere claim of acting in the name of Islam does not validate this assertion.
As we do not accept their rationale for terrorism as a method, so should we reject their claim to represent Islam. We can try to understand why a militant minority within Muslim societies is successful in exploiting the sentiments of masses, especially where perceptions of deprivation are frequently associated with foreign powers. But we must oppose politicization of religion and reject violence in any form.
The task is twofold — one for Muslim societies, the other for the West. Bluntly put, Muslim polities must accept the primary responsibility to advance their societies politically, socially and economically. Arguing that present ills arise from the historical role of outsiders is not baseless, but it’s altogether a different topic. To solve their own problems, Muslim countries must use the intellectual capacity of their own people. This human potential prospers when freedom, tolerance and mutual respect come together in a democratic environment, and makes regimes stronger in the long run. That is what the experience of Turkey tells us. Turkey recognized its shortcomings and worked to overcome them.
The West, for its part, must avoid neo-Orientalist generalizations in dealing with Islam and Muslim societies. Unhelpful and ill-informed comments by prejudiced individuals and groups still find their way to our e-mail accounts and media outlets. Informed empathy, from all sides, is the best way to avoid Islamophobia as well as Westophobia.
Still, religion as a social force is relevant to politics. There is no positive correlation between any theocracy, of any faith, and liberal democracy. But this is not an essentialist argument about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. If this argument were valid, and if Muslims by virtue of their beliefs were unable to practise peaceful democratic politics, how can we account for millions of well-integrated Muslims living in liberal democracies, including Turkey, or Canada?
Islam lends itself to a rational and humanistic understanding of the world. This quality produced remarkable social and philosophical achievements in the past, contributing to the transmission of classical thought to the modern era’s collective wisdom. Glorification of the past can distract us from the need to look at today’s issues, but such past achievements demonstrate that Islam itself is not the problem. Rather, issues of governance need to be considered in the debate about Islam and democracy.
Although historical conditions and cultural and political factors have led observers to talk about Turkish exceptionalism, Turkey’s experience still speaks to the broader debate. Socio-cultural pluralism generated by Ottoman statesmanship made this an enduring, multi-cultural empire. But even more pertinent is modern Turkey’s self-imposed democratization that has been facilitated by its interaction with the West.
Since the introduction of multiparty democracy, Turkish people have been voting governments in and out of office. While faith continued to play an important role in people’s lives, parliamentary democracy was consolidated and performed a socializing function on all, including radical groups. As societal groups start breathing the air of democracy, they gradually become shareholders and supporters of that system. Such democratic socialization can be an effective tool to accommodate radical inclinations of the disenchanted masses in Muslim countries.
A key factor in the Turkish case, I believe, has been the principle of secularism. Following the founding of the new Republic in 1923, this principle became the cornerstone of the political structure in Turkey. With the peaceful transition to a multi-party system, pluralism became the norm institutionally. Secularism provided one of the necessary, probably the most important, pre-conditions for an environment where the state was expected to remain equidistant from all, within the religious diversity of society.
I do not claim that the Turkish model is directly applicable to other Muslim countries. Yet Turkey’s experience could be a source of inspiration. This suggests broader implications. Provided that the European Union maintains a vision to become more than just a limited space of prosperity, Turkey’s eventual membership would contribute to the realization of the Union’s post-modern promise to serve as a positive global force in political, economic and cultural terms.

Rafet Akgünay is the ambassador of Turkey to Canada. The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the government of Turkey.

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