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© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
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When al-Qaeda framed the 9/11 attacks as an Islamic holy war (jihad) and the United States retaliated by invading Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) and initiating a Global War on Terror, Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis between "Islam" and "the West" gained currency in the public debates of the early 2000s. Amid the debates, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP) with roots in an Islamist movement came to power in a landslide victory in Turkey in 2002. The AKP’s success came as a challenge to the power of a secularist military, which had historically initiated multiple interventions against democratically elected governments. Governing through the secular democratic institutions of the country, the AKP vowed to civilianize the Turkish regime and improve democracy and the market economy to fulfill the criteria for European Union (EU) membership. This domestic development in a gateway country for Europe and the Muslim world produced a new alliance between the neoconservatives in the United States, the liberal intelligentsia in the European Union, and the Islamists in Turkey, which commercialized the idea of “moderate Islamism” in the post-9/11 order. The goal was to prove that Huntingtonian theories were wrong and to legitimize the interests of the actors involved. Moderate Islamism was going to be promoted through a “Turkish model,” which set an example for the co-existence of a market economy and secular democracy under the rule of an Islam-friendly government. 1 In the United States, the notion of moderate Islamism and the Turkish model fit very well into the neoconservative agenda for the Middle East. Through initiatives such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), launched in 2002 by the Bush administration, promotion of democracy and economic liberalization became an important rationale for the U.S. military intervention (in addition to the self-defense claims against the presumed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). 2 As the debates on democracy and economic reform spread to Islamist movements in the Arab world, moderate Islamism justified the American interest in transforming the region in the political, social, cultural, and economic arenas. The same notion likewise influenced the EU enlargement policy toward Turkey in the early years after 9/11. Turkey’s projected accession to the European Union was framed as the acceptance of a Muslim country by an international community of Christian states. The idea that “Islam and democracy can co-exist” became a politically correct position. Turkey thus became a test case for showing the European Union’s normative ability to initiate a dialogue between Muslim and Christian civilizations. 3 Within this atmosphere, the liberal intelligentsia in the European Union supported Turkey’s aspirations to become a full member as long as it conformed with EU norms, in contrast with the hardliner voices of the Austrian Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who argued that a Muslim nation, with its 75 million people, had no place in Europe. 4 For the AKP elite, the idea of “moderate Islamism” helped both their struggle against a staunchly secularist military and their ambition of becoming a main player in Middle East politics. The Turkish military, which used to be one of the most trusted institutions in Turkey’s political history (and was skeptical of the notion of the “Turkish model” at that time), lost its influence over the government and society. Its interventionist attitude was strongly criticized by the liberal intelligentsia both within Turkey and the West. The U.S. administration then began to work more closely with the Turkish civilian government than with the armed forces with regard to its military policy toward Iraq. Today, twenty years after 9/11, there are few signs of the effort to prove that Huntingtonian theories were wrong, which had set the common ground for Turkish and Western interests in the period of aftershock following the attacks. On the contrary, a sharp U-turn has occurred: the relationship between Turkey and the West (mainly the United States and the European Union) has evolved into an antagonistic one, dominated by populist rhetoric on both sides. In the West, radical right voices and Islamophobic positions gained more visibility; in Turkey, the AKP began abusing its executive power and acting in an increasingly autocratic manner from 2011 onwards. Even though Turkey had made progress in complying with EU norms, the debate on its accession to the European Union was easily removed from the EU agenda when the negotiations stopped. Some observers fairly argue that those who were opposed to Turkey’s accession in the European Union exploited Turkey’s reluctance to recognize the Republic of Cyprus as grounds to silence the proponents of inclusion. 5 Several other interrelated developments from the outcomes of the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis to the rising power of China and Russia and the backlash against liberal values in Western democracies — had roles to play in circumventing the relationship between Turkey and the West. It is beyond the scope of this piece to examine this complex set of developments. But an important lesson can be drawn from the collapse of the idea of moderate Islamism. The idea had never been clearly elaborated beyond the notion of the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and liberalism. It was nothing but an elitist political project that emanated from the power struggle within each theater: “neocons” vs. the “pacifists” in the United States, “liberals” vs. “radicals” in the European Union, and “Islamists” vs. “secularists” in Turkey. “Moderate Islam” was a perfect ideological project for power holders to embrace for pragmatic reasons, similar to the role the populist rhetoric of the right would play a decade later. In Turkey, the success of “moderate Islamism” simply faces too many hurdles. The AKP as a political party had never internally debated its meaning, but instead built party identity on the notion of “conservative democracy,” which included several inconsistencies. 6 Moreover, the deep divisions within society, as well as the skepticism of the secular state establishment toward the AKP, prevented “moderate Islamism” from becoming a publicly acceptable project. Western powers paid scant attention to such domestic tensions when praising the Turkish model. Finally, just as in the rest of the Middle East, the democracy promotion policies of the United States never had public appeal or credibility. When the region was swept up in its own popular mobilization in 2011, it was as a result of socioeconomic grievances, collective demands for democracy, and the desire to hold rulers-for-life accountable. The sound of “compatibility of Islam with democracy” is easy on the ear. But if it is no more than a slogan adopted by political elites, with little attention given to developments on the ground, it can easily be replaced by other empty slogans later on, especially during times of political pressure and rupture. The ideational realm as the affair over “moderate Islam” testifies simply cannot stand alone in defining foreign policy: the impact on the material needs of diverse political groups and civil society actors must be taken into account. This requires all-encompassing debates at the grassroots level.
Source: The White House
September 8, 2021 The Rise and Fall of Moderate Islamism as a Political Project: The Legacy of 9/11 in Turkey’s Relations with the West
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HOME HOME THEMATICS THEMATICS Source: The White House
When al-Qaeda framed the 9/11 attacks as an Islamic holy war (jihad) and the United States retaliated by invading Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) and initiating a Global War on Terror, Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis between "Islam" and "the West" gained currency in the public debates of the early 2000s. Amid the debates, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or AKP) with roots in an Islamist movement came to power in a landslide victory in Turkey in 2002. The AKP’s success came as a challenge to the power of a secularist military, which had historically initiated multiple interventions against democratically elected governments. Governing through the secular democratic institutions of the country, the AKP vowed to civilianize the Turkish regime and improve democracy and the market economy to fulfill the criteria for European Union (EU) membership. This domestic development in a gateway country for Europe and the Muslim world produced a new alliance between the neoconservatives in the United States, the liberal intelligentsia in the European Union, and the Islamists in Turkey, which commercialized the idea of “moderate Islamism” in the post-9/11 order. The goal was to prove that Huntingtonian theories were wrong and to legitimize the interests of the actors involved. Moderate Islamism was going to be promoted through a “Turkish model,” which set an example for the co-existence of a market economy and secular democracy under the rule of an Islam-friendly government. 1 In the United States, the notion of moderate Islamism and the Turkish model fit very well into the neoconservative agenda for the Middle East. Through initiatives such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), launched in 2002 by the Bush administration, promotion of democracy and economic liberalization became an important rationale for the U.S. military intervention (in addition to the self-defense claims against the presumed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq). 2 As the debates on democracy and economic reform spread to Islamist movements in the Arab world, moderate Islamism justified the American interest in transforming the region in the political, social, cultural, and economic arenas. The same notion likewise influenced the EU enlargement policy toward Turkey in the early years after 9/11. Turkey’s projected accession to the European Union was framed as the acceptance of a Muslim country by an international community of Christian states. The idea that “Islam and democracy can co-exist” became a politically correct position. Turkey thus became a test case for showing the European Union’s normative ability to initiate a dialogue between Muslim and Christian civilizations. 3 Within this atmosphere, the liberal intelligentsia in the European Union supported Turkey’s aspirations to become a full member as long as it conformed with EU norms, in contrast with the hardliner voices of the Austrian Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who argued that a Muslim nation, with its 75 million people, had no place in Europe. 4 For the AKP elite, the idea of “moderate Islamism” helped both their struggle against a staunchly secularist military and their ambition of becoming a main player in Middle East politics. The Turkish military, which used to be one of the most trusted institutions in Turkey’s political history (and was skeptical of the notion of the “Turkish model” at that time), lost its influence over the government and society. Its interventionist attitude was strongly criticized by the liberal intelligentsia both within Turkey and the West. The U.S. administration then began to work more closely with the Turkish civilian government than with the armed forces with regard to its military policy toward Iraq. Today, twenty years after 9/11, there are few signs of the effort to prove that Huntingtonian theories were wrong, which had set the common ground for Turkish and Western interests in the period of aftershock following the attacks. On the contrary, a sharp U-turn has occurred: the relationship between Turkey and the West (mainly the United States and the European Union) has evolved into an antagonistic one, dominated by populist rhetoric on both sides. In the West, radical right voices and Islamophobic positions gained more visibility; in Turkey, the AKP began abusing its executive power and acting in an increasingly autocratic manner from 2011 onwards. Even though Turkey had made progress in complying with EU norms, the debate on its accession to the European Union was easily removed from the EU agenda when the negotiations stopped. Some observers fairly argue that those who were opposed to Turkey’s accession in the European Union exploited Turkey’s reluctance to recognize the Republic of Cyprus as grounds to silence the proponents of inclusion. 5 Several other interrelated developments from the outcomes of the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis to the rising power of China and Russia and the backlash against liberal values in Western democracies had roles to play in circumventing the relationship between Turkey and the West. It is beyond the scope of this piece to examine this complex set of developments. But an important lesson can be drawn from the collapse of the idea of moderate Islamism. The idea had never been clearly elaborated beyond the notion of the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and liberalism. It was nothing but an elitist political project that emanated from the power struggle within each theater: “neocons” vs. the “pacifists” in the United States, “liberals” vs. “radicals” in the European Union, and “Islamists” vs. “secularists” in Turkey. “Moderate Islam” was a perfect ideological project for power holders to embrace for pragmatic reasons, similar to the role the populist rhetoric of the right would play a decade later. In Turkey, the success of “moderate Islamism” simply faces too many hurdles. The AKP as a political party had never internally debated its meaning, but instead built party identity on the notion of “conservative democracy,” which included several inconsistencies. 6 Moreover, the deep divisions within society, as well as the skepticism of the secular state establishment toward the AKP, prevented “moderate Islamism” from becoming a publicly acceptable project. Western powers paid scant attention to such domestic tensions when praising the Turkish model. Finally, just as in the rest of the Middle East, the democracy promotion policies of the United States never had public appeal or credibility. When the region was swept up in its own popular mobilization in 2011, it was as a result of socioeconomic grievances, collective demands for democracy, and the desire to hold rulers-for-life accountable. The sound of “compatibility of Islam with democracy” is easy on the ear. But if it is no more than a slogan adopted by political elites, with little attention given to developments on the ground, it can easily be replaced by other empty slogans later on, especially during times of political pressure and rupture. The ideational realm as the affair over “moderate Islam” testifies simply cannot stand alone in defining foreign policy: the impact on the material needs of diverse political groups and civil society actors must be taken into account. This requires all- encompassing debates at the grassroots level.
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
© 2021 Oriental Institute, The Czech Academy of Sciences, Kevin L. Schwartz, and Ameem Lutfi
The Rise and Fall of Moderate Islamism as a Political Project: The Legacy of 9/11 in Turkey’s Relations with the West
Written by
Senior Researcher, the Institute of International Relations, Prague.
If you are interested in contributing an article for the project, please send a short summary of the proposed topic (no more than 200 words) and brief bio to submissions@911legacies.com. For all other matters, please contact inquiry@911legacies.com.
CONTACT