Metin Camcigil, Former President of ASA

I have chosen to talk to you today about The Greater Middle East Initiative because I know it is under preparation for consideration at the forthcoming G-8 and NATO summits. Being Congressional Staffers you may have sought information or have already been bombarded by massive unsolicited so-called “instant expertise”, which abounds in Washington. I will also offer you some thoughts, the expertise of which is based on being an “insider” in the ME.

Whether in greater or smaller terms, the ME has been a problem spot on the map since the British colonialism started to take over the area from the Ottoman Empire early in the 19th C. We in the US have taken it upon ourselves from the beginning of the 20th C. -since WWI- to try to fix the ills of the area seeded by the British colonialism and festered by the Russian expansionism. These facts have been repeated so often that their importance lost their effect. But the psychological influence of this history on the local people should never be forgotten in any undertaking concerning the ME. Prescriptions to cure these ills have admittedly changed several times in the course of history due to changes in the area dynamics and in international power politics. The current Initiative also is understandably conditioned by the contemporary Iraq war and the war on militant Islam. I distinguish between these two wars because, like many, I do not believe they are originally related: The Iraq war is more related to, so-to-speak, the Smaller ME question; War on militant Islam is related to the Greater ME question. If we are embarking on the GMEI with the expectation that it will also solve the Smaller ME questions we are in an allusion. Having made this distinction I will limit my remarks to the GMEI and specifically to Turkey’s place in this Initiative.

Some homegrown instant experts and the current Turkish administration promote the idea that a) moderate Islam would be the counter force to militant Islam; b) as a secular and democratic country Turkey could be a showcase for moderating Islam. These ideas should raise several questions, including but not limited to the following:

1. Should the modernization of Islam be an issue of a formal international agenda?
2. Is Turkey an example of a moderate Islamic state?
3. Could Islamic states, especially the Arab countries, accept Turkey as a model?

My answers to these questions are as follows:

1-Should the modernization of Islam be an issue of a formal international agenda?

Any suggestion by outsiders to moderate or to modernize Islam is a non-starter. No religion -and Islam is no exception- is amenable to change, much less to any advice given by the believers of another religion. Firstly, such suggestions imply condescension on the part of the “suggestor”, and humiliation on the part of the “suggestee”. And yet we often read in the newspapers that missionary organizations are active in the area under the disguise of humanitarian assistance. I concede that this well-meant action is based on the presumption that Christian tradition is compassionate and by proselytizing the Muslims they will also be rendered compassionate. Thus their antagonism will disappear. I claim that conversely this would create an instinctive reaction to change and a hardening of Puritanism and Fundamentalism. The non-Turkic and non-Sinic Muslim nations are particularly sensitive in this respect. I mean the Smaller Middle Eastern Muslims. We cannot even try to have control over a modernization effort in Islam. Any change in Islam, or in any religion for that matter, has to come from within the authorities of that religion itself. At any rate, there is no guarantee that democracy and secularism would follow a modernized Islam. At this point you might suggest that democracy and secularism should precede the modernization of Islam. If we encourage democracy and secularism prior to modernizing Islam, democracy will bring back Islam to power, as we know it. Modernization of the religion will be shown the back seat. Islamic rule requires conformity of laws and of their application to the Koranic dicta. We observed the outcome of recently drafted constitutions in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a society ruled by Islamic principles the Book governs the public and private lives in detail. You may compare the Koran to a constitution. While any religion in politics is undesirable for its traditionalism, political Islam is nothing short of autocracy. The exception of Turkic and Sinic Muslim countries is based on their cultural difference from the Semitic Muslims. This is the crucial distinction between the Greater and the Smaller ME. The question should not be to moderate Islam or whether Islam can embrace modernization and democracy, but whether Muslims as individuals can embrace liberty and modernity. To achieve this we should rather look for means of educating, thus modernizing the minds of these people, rather than modernizing their religion. Transforming minds is an easier task than transforming a religion. Once people are transformed they may attempt to modernize their religion on their own volition, without the bloodshed that happened during the two hundred years of Reformation in the West.

Turkish modernization reform was a case in point. Atatürk’s reforms were subtle than most foreigners and even scholars seem to have understood. The success of the public acceptance of the fast and sweeping reforms was that they were not aimed at modernizing Islam, but rather modernizing the people. However, Turkey benefited from two ingredients to achieve this modernization: the guidance of a genius of a leader in the person of Atatürk, and the adaptability of the Turkish people to developments.

-The tactical key to Atatürk’s success was to isolate the issue of religion, and to lead the people to modernity, progress, education, and rationality.

-The substantive key to success was Atatürk’s understanding of Turkish people’s culture and mind. He ascribed the modernization process to the people themselves at every step of it. He was aware that for a social development to be well rooted it must be adopted by the people, it must belong to the people. Like any social element, if modernity and democracy were to be brought about by force they will create a counterforce.

Therefore, there should not be any reference to Islam or to any religion for that matter, much less any reference to its moderation or modernization, in any foreign policy design of the US in the Muslim world. In fact, even a perception of any religious element in any US foreign policy should be avoided at all cost for it would produce an entirely opposite effect in some Muslim countries.

2) Is Turkey an example of a moderate Islamic state? The last time I read the Turkish Constitution it read: “The Republic of Turkey is a democratic, laic, and social State governed by the rule of law, respecting human rights within the concept of public peace, national solidarity and justice, loyal to the nationalism of Atatürk, and based on the fundamental tenets set forth in the Preamble.” The relevant preambular passage reads “In the understanding that …..sacred religious feelings shall in no way be permitted to interfere with State affairs and politics.” Of course these provisions may have been changed overnight for all I know, since the current administration has 2/3 majority in Parliament (although the Constitution further provides that this Art.2 is unchangeable). Be that as it may, Turkey at this point in time is not an Islamic State. Not yet, anyway.

If we were to showcase Turkey as model to Muslim countries we should be showcasing the modernizing Turkey of 1920s and 30s. In fact, without any such effort from our side many Muslim countries and leaders in the past tried to take Atatürk’s Turkey as model and tried to emulate his modernization reforms: Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Tunis, Pakistan are a case in point. Instead, the EU and the US administration join in the proposal of diluting laicism in Turkey so as to conform Turkey to the Western understanding of secularism and most importantly to make Turkey a more acceptable model for other Muslim countries. The EU Parliament in its last report on Turkey found Turkey’s understanding of secularism not in line with European standards. Of course it is not, unless France is no longer considered to be part of the Union. I surmise that French delegates were out sipping their wine when this standard was under consideration. There is no secularism in France, or in Turkey. There is something more appropriate, especially for a Muslim society, and that is Laicism. font>

Statements like the one expressed by the EU are based on two facts: Firstly, a redefinition of Turkish laicism as secularism sounds legitimate because it conforms to the Western understanding of separation of church and state. Secondly, there is widespread ignorance of the distinction between laicism and secularism and of their history in the Muslim world.

a) The distinction between laicism, the term I have already mentioned several times, and secularism can be explained as follows: Laicism is the exclusion of religious authority over the public, while secularism is a contract of separation of authority over the public entered between two equals, church and state (called by some political philosophers the Victorian compromise). The former may be called a unitary, and the latter a dualist system. I illustrate them as CAIRA for Laicism, and CAIRA for Secularism. Where there is a wall between the Civil Authority and the Religious Authority in Laicism, and a balance between them in Secularism. The fact that secularism, i.e. dualism, brought about freedom and democracy in the Christian society does not necessarily mean that it would also do the same in an Islamic setting. The co-existence of religious and civil authorities in Islam inevitably results in autocracy.

b) The Ottoman regime that preceded the Turkish Republic was a seemingly secular state in its final seventy years in the Western sense. However, the timid, half-hearted modernization effort with its dualist approach could not save the Empire from collapse. Therefore, there is an historical example that secularism in Islam does not sustain democracy and freedom. But the success of the Turkish Republic proves that laicism does. Why then this longing for reversal to a failed dualism? As the old saying goes, If it ain’t broke why fix it?

c) If we can talk today about Turkey being a model at all it is because it has been a laic republic for the last seventy years, not because it has been an Islamic autocracy.

In defense of their attempt to dilute laicism, the political party currently in power in Turkey alleges that laicism suppresses religion in the country to the point that religion cannot be practiced freely, and it subordinates religion to the public authority. The first claim is not true at all. I can vouch for it as a first hand witness. Conversely, there is a subtle but uncomfortable pressure on non-practicing Muslims. The second claim however is true, and rightly so. Their target is really this second point. The proponents of political Islam want the religion to share the civil authority. There is no question that there is a great effort in Turkey to undermine “Turkish style secularism” i.e. laicism, by replacing the modern education system with a religious education system, and also by redefining “laicism” as “secularism” as it is understood in the West. The objective is to expand and reinforce the Islamist grassroots of the ruling party. The ultimate result will be the introduction of the religious authority into the political equation, into the public domain and private life of Turks. All the mental gymnastics to reinterpret laicism is nothing else than trying to sneak the powerful authority of Islam into public realm through the backdoor.

By supporting the Western style secularism and by showcasing Turkey as a model of modern Islamic country, the West is encouraging the influence of religion in politics without knowing its possible consequences in an Islamic society. Why adapting Turkey to the circumstances of the Muslim world anyway, instead of the Muslim world following in the footsteps of Turkish modernization of yesteryears, unless of course we have some ominous ulterior motives? I would have thought best we help Turkey to further its modernization efforts in order to keep it in our fold. Are we trying to introduce the heavenly authority of religion into Turkey for solving the worldly socio-political problems of the Middle East at the expense of modernization in Turkey? Are we out to promote modernity or religiosity in the world? We must have learned our lesson from the Green Crescent Project of 1970s designed to curb the spread of communism in the countries flanking the southern border of Russia. We need to wake up to the reality that the wars we are waging today are the consequences of that infamous misconceived project. Having assumed the responsibility of leadership in the world, we have to tread the waters very responsibly, thus with the knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the people of the regions concerned.

Therefore, we must conclude that neither Atatürk’s modern Turkey can be a model for Muslim countries, nor should we attempt to “secularize Turkey in the Western sense”, i.e. Islamisize it, in order to mold it into a model that we wrongly see fit for Muslims.

3) Finally, could the Arab countries accept Turkey as a model? The answer to this question is a short, clear, and simple NO. Not, because of three hundred years of Ottoman rule over these lands as some so-called experts claim these days, but because of the Turkish reforms early in the last century that abolished Caliphate, introduced laicism, and gave Turkey a western orientation. Arab rulers consider Turkey a traitor of the religion, as having forsaken solidarity with the Muslim world, and as having joined the lines of the infidel Christians. Even if we succeed in transforming Turkey into a so-called moderate Islamic state, Arabs still would not buy it as being Troy’s horse, or a western wolf in a lamb’s skin. If you also factor in the difference in ethnicity and culture between the Arabs and the Turks you may as well show them Israel as a model, which at least has common ethnicity and destiny with the Arabs. At any rate, Middle Eastern countries are no USA. Our society may look for models to emulate or even to compete with. This does not mean that we should assume that Muslim societies are also so-called “role model” societies. In a Muslim world there is heavy reliance on communal leadership, there is blind obedience, and there is fatalism. A model is considered foreign, if not resented. It is this feeling of resentment that left the Muslim societies behind the Enlightenment, and then the Industrialization.

My conclusion is that we should meticulously avoid making any reference to religion in general, to Islam in particular, and to the Turkish model, whether as the modern Turkey of past years or as the envisaged Islamic Turkey, in a GMEI or in any other international initiative that may be considered for the future of the ME. The solution for the modernization of Muslim countries lies elsewhere, it lies in rational education. But this subject can be the theme of a separate discussion in itself. If there should be a GMEI at all it should include concepts other than the ones discussed here, among which modernization of education and gender equality must be the cornerstones. And, first and foremost we have to educate ourselves about the idiosyncrasies of the people of the region in question, where they differ even between the Greater and the Smaller sense.