Middle Eastern Awakening and the Dilemmas of Globalization: Arab and Turkish Experience

[This is the eighth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on Islamic Reform Movements After the Arab Spring held in Herndon, VA. It sets the stage for the other papers the presentations and discussions of which will be summarized in the remainder of this series. The official proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. Names of participants (other than mine) in the general discussion have been omitted by request of the organizers.]

“Middle Eastern Awakening and the Dilemmas of Globalization: Arab and Turkish Experience”

Prof. Ali Mazrui, Binghamton University

The Arab awakening has lasted more than two years, longer and stronger than the current Turkish experience. The Arab unrest is a contagious political uprising. The Turkish unrest is not contagious. The Arab unrest is a multi-state quest for an open society; the Turkish experience is a single state quest for an open society. Turkey is a bi-continental country. The demilitarization of politics was an objective in both Turkey and the new Egypt. The AKP is seen as the most successful Islamic party in the world, in a class by itself in the transition from secularism to some degree of Islamism, and more successful once Islamist. There is a willingness to pay respect to Islam. Restrictions on the sale of alcohol were unexpected given the celebration of “the two drunken Turks” in the past. We contrast anti-Erdogan demonstrations in Istanbul with the pro-Erdogan demonstrations in Ankara. A war between another two cities Benghazi and Tripoli was the inception of the Libyan civil war.

As Arab influence in Africa declines, Turkish influence expands. There were only a handful of Turkish embassies in African capitals a few years ago; now there are 34.  I have heard of major projects planned for Africa. Last week at the opening of an AU conference at UN I noted the difference between the African view of Qaddafi and the Arab view.  The big issue is whether Syria will be abandoned by Turkey as Qaddafi was abandoned by the Arab league. The number of flights from Arab airports to Arab airports has declined as the number of Turkish flights has increased. Turkey aspires to be a big power. Its population is smaller than that of the big powers but it has a history of a larger scale. The involvement of Turkey on African education is major.

Egypt almost invented the female head of state. The question is did Egypt lose its capacity to produce female heads of state after it acquired its Islamic personality. If so why? Turkey and four other Muslim non-Arab states have produced female heads of state in the modern era. What is the significance of this distinction?

The most spectacular case of democratization on a Muslim society from above is Turkey. The most dramatic attempts from below are Tunisia and Egypt. Ataturk asked “Can we democratize without culturally Westernizing?” His answer was to regard cultural Westernization as a precondition for liberalization and scientific attitudes. The most dramatic step was the abolition of the sultanate followed by the establishment of the Turkish republic. The opportunity of creating a Muslim Vatican, carved out of Turkey, was lost when the caliphate was abolished in 1923. Turkey’s secularization and modernization was above all, Westernization, until literally ten years ago that began to change.

Ataturk invited Jon Dewey to help reform the school system. He addressed “the gender question” including the right of women to run for parliament. The Turkish language has changed almost beyond all recognition in less than a century. This is a combination of change from above. Even when changes from above are democratic, it is an imposed democracy, and things are lost. For a while, the Turks were almost lost by the military. If Tunisia and Egypt can pull off democratization from below it will produce dramatic changes. Never in the history of Islam have there been so many uprisings driven neither by Islam nor by anti-imperialism, but by a desire for liberalization and democratization.

Q. I think it would be interesting to compare Turkey and Iran. Iran’s secularization avoided changing the language and the script. Ridda wrote a book on the caliphate but couldn’t decide where the Islamic Vatican should be located nor who should occupy the throne. To what extent were the big powers involved in the abolition. Reza Shah was not exactly like Ataturk, but he did many things to break away from Iran’s past.

Mazrui: Including Iran would be interesting.

Imadx-ad-Dean Ahmad: The Arabs turned against Qaddafi once he identified himself more with Africa than Arabia.

Mazrui: It is true that in the last two decades of his life Qaddafi regarded himself more African than Arab, and I found myself defending Arabs before this man. To my surprise he asked for a book not by me, but by my father, written in Arabic and translated into English.  It was part of his preoccupation with reversion to African identity and rediscovered brotherhood. Only the African Union sought a peaceful resolution when the Libyans were fighting with one another. But once the NATO had sided with the rebels, they had no interest in the position of the African states, who were humiliated, and the Security Council played a war game. The UN audience to which I spoke regarded him as a martyr. His humiliation of the Palestinians preceded his African alignment. He may be the only post-colonial leader to have been “lynched.” Even the Arabic alphabet has modifications to accommodate the Turkish language.

Q. Wouldn’t it be helpful to compare the societies themselves, since the outcome of attempted reform will depend on the ability of the society to accept such reform?

Q. The Islamic government in Turkey lasted 600 years. No other modern state has lasted as long.

Q. Turkey did not introduce political liberalism but rather a liberal lifestyle. We had liberalism without liberals, turning liberalism into a form of oppression. What we see in Turkey is not protests for a liberal order but an attempt to sabotage the elected government to return to an illiberal order retaining the liberal lifestyle.

Mazrui: Societies do respond differently, and the Arab world is taking a longer time to establish a liberal order. To Ataturk, it made sense for a liberal lifestyle to be a precondition for democratization, unlike the Japanese at the end of the 19th century. But in fairness to the Turks, it would not have lasted so long if it were just a lifestyle. There was a shift in values. There is a notion that Hassan al-Banna and forms of populism have worked in the Arab world but have encountered impediments from governments as in Egypt. Some of us admired Nasser for his response to imperialism rather than to his treatment of fellow Egyptians, but his legacy did not last as long as that of Ataturk. Why did it die as soon as he died?

Q. It died before he died.

Mazrui: Perhaps, but it was about the year he died. That’s a subject for another day.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute


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