For some time, two major columnists were conducting a high-profile debate on Islamism in the Zaman newspaper, the Today’s Zaman’s sister paper published in Turkish. It was Ali Bulaç, a prominent actor and intellectual on Islamism, who started the debate.
Bulaç’s arguments were countered by political scientist Mümtaz’er Türköne, who published a Ph.D. thesis on Islamism in Turkey. As you may well know, both intellectuals are also columnists for Today’s Zaman. I hope they don’t spare Today’s Zaman’s audience this major debate that is occurring tangentially to the political agenda and course of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that is increasingly tilting toward Islamist policies.
“Any Muslim who believes in the Holy Book and who does not dare deny any part of it, unlike what the Children of Israel have done, is naturally and necessarily an Islamist,” wrote Bulaç in one of his articles, thereby making an extremely ambitious and, in my opinion, equally problematic argument that every pious Muslim is necessarily an Islamist. And probably he realized the problematic aspect of his argument such that in his next sentence he feels the need to add, “Of course, s/he does not call himself/herself ‘Islamist,’ but s/he has to treat his/her religion’s relationship with life, man and society in this framework.” With this sentence intended as an attenuation effort, he tries to put broad masses of pious Muslims who do not see themselves as Islamists into the category of “Islamists” without their consent.
In my opinion, Bulaç, as an intellectual who has put his faith in political Islamism, tends to ignore the wide differences between the terms Islam, Islamic and Islamist. He believes that all of these terms are meaningful only under the roof of political Islamism. However, Islam is a 14-century-old religion and Muslims who adopted the Islamic lifestyle, morality, art, economy, culture and aesthetics have always existed during these 14 centuries, but the problematic and turbulent past of the ideology called Islamism dates back to only 150 years ago.
I should ask Islamists who argued that every Muslim is necessarily Islamist: Have Muslims, saints and leaders of the time when the Islamic civilization was at its peak --including the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him -- ever felt the need to describe themselves as Islamist? Or was it enough for those loyal servants of God to be known only as Muslims or believers? The elders of Islam who held Islamic values in high esteem at the expense of clashing with and being victimized by the rulers of their time for prioritizing a virtuous piety and religious life, did they work to ensure that the moral values of Islam were adopted by society or did they try to bring about an Islamist political power? Why should every Muslim see it as a sine qua non aspect of his/her life to alter religion -- which is a system of lofty values that shows every individual how to become a perfect human being -- so that it becomes the object of a political agenda and the quest for power?
Of course there is nothing wrong for the followers of Islam, which is a religion of peace, to adopt an Islamic perspective in life, make Islamic demands, adopt Islamic lifestyles and engage in efforts to make Islamic values widespread in society. But to force the same Muslims to become part of a dominantly ideological agenda employing Islamic references, and even raise doubts about their identities as Muslims when they refuse to be involved in this political ideology is, in my opinion, a problematic approach that goes beyond its intentions. “Every Muslim is potentially, naturally and necessarily Islamist. If s/he is not, then his/her perception of religion is problematic,” Bulaç says, but I am sure he will accept this assertion goes beyond its intention.
As is known, Islam is one and what it expects Muslims to do is very clear in the light of the Quran and the Prophet’s teachings. But can we say that Islamisms -- which vary according to ages and geographical regions and which, as Bulaç put it, is currently in its third generation -- are one? The most reasonable question to be directed at those who claim “every Muslim is necessarily Islamist” is, “Which Islamism?” Do they prefer one of the Islamisms which vary greatly based on the founding fathers of Islamist ideology such as Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani, Rashid Ridha and Muhammad Abduh, each of whom criticized and rejected the traditional Islamic mentality from various aspects? Or one of the assorted Islamists propounded by Abul A’la Maududi, Sayyid Qutb or Ali Shariati? Or Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian Islamism, the Wahhabis’ Saudi Islamism or Omar al-Bashir’s Sudanese Islamism, all of which have diametrically opposite political visibilities? Bulaç should tell us which of the forms of Islamism, shaped according to the political needs of diverse groups in search of political power in each country and in each era, he sees as befitting pious Muslims, albeit without their consent.
I think the disciples of Islamism either do not see or completely ignore the fact that marketing Islamism -- which in the past emerged as one of the political recipes Muslim intellectuals had been looking for in the 19th century when Western powers challenged the Muslim world in military and economic areas -- as the sole option for today’s Muslims has the risk of restricting Muslims to a barren reactionaryism. Political Islamism attempts to take control of the political system and correct it according to a politicized vision of Islam, instead of prioritizing the efforts to ensure that individuals and the society correct themselves with references to Islamic values, and as such, it is problematic in all aspects. Instead of addressing every individual and making them adopt and internalize Islamic values through conveying and truly representing the message of Islam, the ideology of Islamism seeks to capture the political regime and pursue top-down and totalitarian policies in the name of Islam. And I think everyone knows how the success of Islamism has ended up in Iran and Saudi Arabia. If you want to see how top-down, repressive policies and practices breed hypocrites instead of believers and hypocrisy instead of purity of intention, you should take a look at these so-called Islamist regimes.
On the other hand, Islam depicts the war waged to protect one’s religion, homeland or nation as a lesser war (jihad) while defining the war one wages against one’s carnal soul as the greater jihad, and Islam expects every believer to be pious and acquire good morality. Luckily, there are tens of millions of pious Muslims who refuse to be part of an open-ended political agenda and be defined as Islamists and who, instead, try to observe Islam’s injunctions and good morality. And it is up to Islamists to explain why the level of piety and observance of Islamic practices is so low among those who politicize Islam to make it part of their search for political power, i.e., those who opt for being described as Islamists. Is there some rule unknown to us in the Holy Quran or in the teachings of our Prophet that tells them, “First establish an Islamist political regime and then observe Islamic injunctions”? Oddly enough, today, broad masses of pious masses criticize the AKP of shifting toward a political Islamist agenda while Bulaç, like other Islamists, lambasts the AKP for failing to pursue stronger Islamist policies.
Now that I mentioned Türköne in the beginning of the article, let me finish with the serious and felicitous criticisms he hurls at Islamists, who almost sought to make Islam no longer a religion, and all for political purposes: “Islamism is an ideology. This assertion alone is enough to discern the basic distinctive characteristic of Islamism. Just like liberalism, socialism and Marxism, Islamism is an ideology. Just like what other ideologies do, Islamism builds its system in this world. Only it takes Islam as a reference in establishing this system. Bulaç’s assertion, ‘Every Muslim is necessarily Islamist,’ does not explain why there are two distinct attributes. Why aren’t Islamists content with the attribute ‘Muslim’? Because they recast religion into a completely different shape amid the world’s problems and setting. And they get another ‘ism’ which vies with worldly ideologies, not with other religions, for ‘truth.’ Instead of leaving the reckoning to the Hereafter, Islamists attempt to establish Paradise on this world.”