When Islamism Is Liberal-Democratic

In Turkey, a chance to reconsider our Middle East playbook


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.

Modern Middle Eastern history is littered with secular authoritarian rulers, artifacts of the colonial Middle East, all despised and most violently deposed. Religious political movements developed as the grassroots alternative to secular military rulers. In Iran, whole swathes of the population--including many liberal reformers who were later sidelined in the process--came together to replace the Shah with the Islamic Republic. In Iraq, many of secular despot Saddam Hussein's greatest internal opponents were religious Shia groups. And now in Turkey, the population appears to support the Islamic party's push against the military's long-held influence.

Typically, we have sought to marginalize Islamist movements by supporting secular rulers. Clearly, those efforts haven't really worked. They saw us allied us with unpopular and abusively rules such as the Shah of Iran. They also strengthened the militant fringes of political Islam, as with the violent backlashes against top-down secularization attempts in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Now the secular rulers are mostly gone and the Islamic movements, whether fringe or not, see us as an enemy, making them less likely to adopt American-style government. However, in Turkey we have a chance to encourage bottom-up liberalization by focusing on what we have in common, which it turns out is a lot, rather than our differences.

As Vali Nasr explains in his book Forces of Fortune, the best way to instill liberal democratic values in the Middle East is not by building a strong central government but by strengthening democratic institutions, civil liberties, and above all else the free market. This spurs the growth of the middle class, which inherently shares much of the U.S. agenda in the Middle East: stability, peace, open markets, and basic freedoms for all. The liberalization process also encourages wide political participation, meaning that the middle class will be able to express its political will. The U.S. can help this along by allying itself with Turkey's democratic Islamist movement rather than rushing the old American playbook of pressuring national leaders to autocratically stifle any Islamic political movement.

Sunday's vote in Turkey is an example of the kind of bottom-up reforms that can bring lasting and positive change without inspiring a militant backlash. They also demonstrate to Turkey, to the Middle East, and to the world that Islam and democracy are not mutually exclusive. Far from it. Bringing Islam to the political sphere in a liberal, or liberalizing context, may do more than anything to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East. We might prefer that all governments be secular liberal democracies like our own. But if we must choose between an Islamic democracy or a secular autocracy, regional history suggests we should prefer the former every time.

Image: Supporters wait for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who spoke at the rally in Ankara two weeks before the country's nationwide referendum on Constitutional reforms. The Sept. 12 vote drew 77 percent participation. By Adem Altan/AFP/Getty.