Conservative democrat or Muslim democrat? by Atilla Yayla*
ILLUSTRATION: CEM KIZILTUĞ
In European countries, there is a political identity and approach defined as “Christian democrat.”
The parties with this attribute can be roughly described as political movements that hold Christianity in high esteem as a religion and culture and which openly promote this and which attribute an increased or decreased importance to the market economy depending on the circumstances of the time and which adopt a more cautious approach to welfare state practices while, in essence, not raising objections to them. Although this concept is being used by certain authors and organizations, in the political geography of Muslims -- including Turkey which has a deeper-running and richer democratic experience than the rest of the Muslim countries -- it does not readily correspond to anything. In other words, “Muslim democrat” has not flourished and has not been established as an identity, concept, thought or theory. In Turkey, the concept “conservative democrat” seems to have filled the gap but in reality it fails to do so. In my opinion, it is high time that Muslim democrat as a concept enter circulation.
As a political scientist and an ordinary citizen who has monitored the intellectual evolution of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) leaders, who come from an Islamist tradition, I was glad to see that they adopted a “conservative” instead of “Muslim” political identity. I even encouraged this through my intellectual activities and publications. The main reason for this was that I did not believe the term “Muslim” could emerge as a political identity and that doing this would be beneficial. I still nurture the same belief. It is clear that a “Muslim stance” makes sense in the context of religion, morality and culture. But when it is employed to define a political identity, it does not make much sense. Just as a religion cannot be identified with a political stance, it can hardly be suggested that the practitioners of the same religion can or should have a single political stance. Therefore, to say, “I am a Muslim,” in response to a question about one’s political identity does not or cannot reveal his/her political identity. In the end, a Muslim may advocate democracy or monarchy, or may vote for the AK Party, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or any other party. Moreover, just as religion cannot be reduced to politics, politics cannot be identified with religion. Accordingly, it was wrong to use the term “Muslim” to describe a political identity and it is still wrong and it will be wrong to continue to do so in the future.
It seems the AK Party’s leadership had gone through a similar reasoning when it adopted conservatism, and not Muslim, as a political label. I perceived and took this as a conservatism that is tainted with religiosity, just as is the case in virtually all democratic countries, and welcomed it as a very positive development. As there are strong conservative and social democratic political blocs in all stable democracies that drive democratic politics, a conservative wing could be expected to emerge in Turkey as well. Failing to do so, the typical right, which included conservative and liberal elements, had not only alienated from religiosity but also purged liberal views, yielding to nationalism and Kemalism in the mid-1990s. The emergence of a strong conservative political movement might make great contributions to the progress of democracy in Turkey. Indeed, given an overall assessment of the 10 years of the AK Party’s terms in office, we should acknowledge that this is the case with all the faults and deficiencies of the said party. And this is a rather pleasing and promising development. But given the current situation I believe “conservatism” as a political identity has certain defects and shortcomings and it should be abandoned by the AK Party.
Conservatism and the AK Party
The first and foremost of these shortcomings is that conservatism does not fully overlap with the AK Party’s political mindset and practical route. There is no doubt that with its program and the discourse of their leaders and their sensitivity for “protecting,” “national,” “spiritual” and social values, the AK Party exhibits a conservative identity. This is conspicuous. However, many elements of the party’s political and economic policies can hardly fall into the category of typical conservatism. This is more saliently perceived when it is compared to the other major parties, the CHP and the MHP. A comparative perspective proves conservatism, or even its more pejorative form, fanatical conservatism, fits the CHP better than the AK Party. Indeed, against an authoritarian political system that is built upon a caste-driven social structure, the AK Party adopted a renovating/transformational position vis-à-vis the CHP’s conservative/reinforcing position. The CHP is poised in the ranks of fanatical conservatism with regards to efforts to make armed civil servants be submissive to political authority, to liberate civil society with all its diversity and to expand citizens’ political, religious, cultural and social preferences toward greater democratization. It perceives the ancien régime as a sort of “Age of Happiness” and it criticizes and targets those who deviate from and criticize it. While it does not have a clear-cut stance with regard to the economy, it has certainly adopted a more statist and more interventionist position. If these assertions are right, wouldn’t it be proper to say that Turkey’s real conservative party is the CHP?
“Conservatism” as a political identity overshadows religious politicians’ pro-change and progressive aspects. The odd and nonsensical claim that a conservative cannot be a democrat cannot be taken seriously, of course. Such claims deserve to be laughed off. Yet we cannot ignore the fact that the conservative label fails to correctly describe the politicians who hold Islam in high esteem and who allow it to be involved in their lives to a greater extent. The leading religious Muslim politicians in Turkey are increasingly becoming one of the main political forces of democracy, just like their European counterparts, the Christian politicians. In this way, they are doing a very auspicious thing for Turkey, for the Muslim world and for the world at large. They are destroying the prejudice that Islam cannot coexist with democracy. They are contributing greatly to Turkey’s normalization and, at the same time, the flourishing of the idea of democracy in the minds and hearts of Muslims in the Muslim world.
Given this, it would be more proper and more fair to depict religious Muslim politicians and their party, the AK Party, not as “conservative democrat” but as “Muslim democrat” as a political label. Let us be fair with everyone and let the water run its course. Social facts cannot be changed with orders or by force. To take them as data, instead of fighting them, and to adopt and use the phrase “Muslim democrat” in this context will be beneficial not only to the country’s democracy but also to our mental and psychological well-being.
*Atilla Yayla is a political scientist.