When Islamism Is Liberal-Democratic

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Turkish voters' overwhelming approval of a package of sweeping Constitutional reforms on Sunday has been marked as a victory for the country's staunchly Islamic ruling party. This watershed moment for the popularity and power of the religious party, a major defeat for the secular military rule that has made Turkey one of the closest U.S. allies in the Middle East, has understandably worried many Western observers. The U.S. has learned from decades in the Middle East to distrust what the New York Times and others describe as "Islamism" (the Times calls this vote a victory for "the Islamist-rooted government that continued the country's inexorable shift in power away from the secular Westernized elite that has governed modern Turkey for most of its history"). Islamism is a vague and imperfect term, but generally means the use of Islam in politics, ranging from Saudi Arabia's monarchy to Pakistan's sharia-seeking extremists to Turkey's democratically elected Justice and Development (AK) Party. However, conflating all such groups as scary-sounding "Islamists" misses the important point that not all Islamic governments are bad. In fact, Turkey's step away from secular rule comes in the form of Constitutional reforms that promote, more than anything else, liberal-democratic values. That's not a coincidence. Islamic rule and liberal democracy, far from mutually exclusive in the Middle East, can go hand-in-hand.

Though we in the West typically focus on the militant extremists, they are merely the fringe of political Islam. Middle Eastern Islamic political movements are, more than anything else, populist. They represent the interests of the working class, oppose authoritarian rule by elites, tend to be a bit nationalistic, and are in general not so different from the populist movements of the U.S. and elsewhere. As Turkey's Constitutional referendum demonstrates, they're also quite good at bolstering democratic institutions. These reforms will bar gender discrimination, improve privacy and civil liberty protections, reduce the special legal protections afforded to elites, and overhaul the judiciary. These changes will roll back much of the military rule that, though decidedly non-democratic, has made Turkey so reliably secular.

We assume in the U.S. that any Islamic political movement, because it is chiefly rooted in and motivated by a pursuit of the ideals of Islam, must be counter to liberal democratic values. That's not a crazy belief; any religious government is inherently exclusionary, and certainly tend to be hostile towards minorities. There's also the reasonable concern that the closer a Muslim-majority state comes to a theocracy, the more closely it will resemble the world's most Islamic government of all, the Islamic Republic of Iran. The "Islamification of Turkey," as some call it, has troubling ramifications for the region's tenuous political balance. After all, AK's Turkey has not been a great friend to Israel, and its growing stature in Europe and in the Middle East will further marginalize America's most important ally. That we would prefer the governments of Muslim-majority states to be as secular as possible, then, is entirely rational.

However, as Turkey proved this week, Islamic governments are not always a bad thing. They tend to be popular, which gives them wider support and the greater ability to reform. The more people they honestly represent, the less they will have to force their will and the more they can work with local institutions for a well-functioning society. And the alternative--a Middle Eastern government that forces secular rule on a largely religious population--often does the U.S., typically its greatest benefactor, more harm than good.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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