From Turkey: Beware the Genie of Islamist Discourse
By: Ece Temelkuran
Published Friday, March 2, 2012
Nowadays, following Tunisia and its moderate Islamic governing party al-Nahda feels like seeing an already boring movie for the second time.
Ghannouchi, leader of al-Nahda already started talking as if they have been the mobilizers of Arab Spring not only in Tunisia but in the whole Arab world, not to mention their claim being the only successful example of transition to democracy. Add this rhetoric to the party's earlier statements that: "We were the real sufferers of Ben Ali regime, not the leftists."
This makes me recall the early years of Turkey's governing party AKP. No wonder the al-Nahda was repeatedly announcing that they are embracing "The Turkish Model" when they were running for the elections.
Obviously, al-Nahda borrowed the AKP's "Discourse Genie," that paralyzed the Turkish opposition for a long while by building up a hegemony of statements in the public sphere and among intellectual circles. This handy discourse genie, as we have been very well introduced to in Turkey, does not only serve the political goals of his master. It also automatically legitimizes every policy that is against democracy, social equality, and sometimes even opposes reason. Such a Swiss knife genie he is!
An "Arab Spring" round table meeting in Paris made me think that Tunisian as well as Egyptian revolutionaries should be warned about the wonders of this discourse genie. This is not because Sunni conservatism is stealing away their revolutions. Rather, it is necessary to warn them about what kind of schizophrenic political atmosphere they will be subjected to.
When the AKP came to power, they started using the rhetoric of the oppressed in every occasion. As there is a historic truth in Turkish modern history about religious people being subjected to humiliation by the elite of the modernized, Westernized state, that rhetoric was not completely without ground. Moreover Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself had been recently released from prison. He was sentenced for citing a poem, including the lines: "The mosques will be our shield and the minarets our spears." This was considered an attempt to bring down the secular state. Through time we watched the oppressed becoming the oppressor, naturally with a little help from the discourse genie!
Whenever he was asked about the political prisoners, the prime minister would bring up his own imprisonment to imply that people who have not supported him back then have no right to speak now. Whenever the opposition mentioned the shrinking individual freedoms Erdoğan and his spin doctors would bring up those days when the conservative religious people's freedom of worshiping was limited. Finally, whenever there was criticism about social rights becoming the subject of religious charity he was using the banal discourse of the justice comes from religion. Throughout his term he became famous for very strong closing remarks whenever there was a social debate that didn't fit his interest.
This was especially true in the early years. The opposition, namely the secular, modern, Westernized upper middle and middle classes were horrified whenever he made a statement with references to religion. The passionate Kemalist ambitions for a Westernized and secular state were put ablaze each and every time when there was a mention of headscarf or religion courses for children. Although he never made his predecessor's mistake by openly saying that "We are the party of God," his rhetoric most of the time included a somewhat religious undertone.
The opposition was shocked first and then most of the time got stuck in the debate about these religious references. As can be assumed, in a country where the majority of people are Sunni Muslims, the debate between the secular and the religious divide is a dead end where only the Sunni Muslim can walk away alive. So that was the case. The opposition that built up their discourse on secularism was not only crushed by the discourse genie, but also mocked and humiliated. The genie was smart enough to use God and democracy in relation to each other. This is where Tunisians and Egyptians must read carefully.
Today, Tunisians, especially the young ones who fought for democracy in Kasbah, and Egyptians who experienced the spell of being one regardless of their differences in Tahrir, are both shocked by al-Nahda's or the Freedom and Justice Party's comments on Sharia. Especially in Tunis, after Ghannouchi's latest statement about closing the bars and that Islamic law will be the source of the new constitution, I see those people of courage standing in the middle of this political highway like a deer caught in shock by the car lights.
I remember those faces from Turkey 10 years ago. Like their counterparts in Turkey, they are already too paralyzed to engage in this new political sphere. This is because in a conservative country where the majority is Muslim, it is almost impossible to create a counter discourse which will not make the opposition look like the spokesman of the Devil in the eyes of ordinary men or make those who speak sound like a careless bourgeois who only care about their hedonist pleasures.
That was and still is the case in Turkey. For instance, very recently when Prime Minister Erdoğan said that they were to create a religious generation, his statement was met with burning criticism. He said in return: "Do you want our kids to be addicts to chemical substances?!" When the opposition was almost speechless he carried the the debate to a whole new level by saying that "I want a religious and vindictive generation."
I guess I already said that he is famous for his closing remarks!
One should admit that in countries where the majority are believers of Islam, it is extremely hard to argue with a moderate Islamic government which is modern-looking and committed to neo-liberalism. It is not only that your country's ordinary people can easily be turned against you, but also almost the whole world that adopted the American style of democracy leave you alone with your desperate fate. But real danger does not come from these parties announcing or implying that they are the party of the God except when they, in various ways, claim that they represent democracy.
In Turkey this means if you are against the AKP, you are supporting the coups, and you support the military's strong hand in politics. In Tunisia, which is likely to happen very soon, if you are against al-Nahda you are supporting the old regime. In Egypt, I am sure the genie will come up with something that fits the local needs on a similar way.
I must add that the discourse genie is very successful and reckless when it comes to rewriting history. Moreover, in Tunisia and Egypt, I personally expect a constant storm of "We are the real people of this country, but you are the elite. Shut up!" rhetoric mimicking Turkey. So basically these parties create a deadlock by using the discourse genie stating that they are the real and oppressed people who represent democracy. This seems rather unarguable, isn't it? So are those Tunisian and Egyptian youngsters who bled for freedom and equality completely desperate? I don't think so.
As I have followed AKP politics for a decade now, I observe that there were actually only three opposition actions that didn't end up killing the opposition.
One came from Halkevleri (House of People), a grassroots movement which based their actions on the social rights. Halkevleri is an organization that reversed the AKP's policiy of social rights becoming the subject of charity. Their main point was the bread or the coal distribution through religious organizations was humiliating and food and accommodation are basic constitutional rights. The second one came from Öğrenci Kollektifleri (Student Collectives) who based their actions on relatively mundane issues such as the price of bus tickets or the tuition rise for the university students. Both are leftist organizations with no religious subtexts at all. And both are labeled as terrorist organizations by the government showing AKP's real face by oppressing students and poor people.
The third one was an "iftar" that brought together the leftists and the political Islamists who have social equality in their agenda. During Ramadan they broke their feast in front of a five star hotel which is famous for being a place-to-be for the new rich of the AKP government. So obviously there is one choice to break the deadlock that the discourse genie creates. It is to build up opposition on the social rights issue. To mix it with religious connotations or not depends on one’s attitude naturally.
Another important note: It becomes obvious that the AKP does not necessarily want the new generation to be religious but rather obedient. Otherwise they would have been happy to see that young people are feasting during Ramadan, and would not care about them doing it on the street.
To adopt this strategy doesn't make you less alone in the world for sure. The European and the American policies that already labeled these countries as the moderate Islamic democracies with a stamp of "Bon pour L'Orient" on their bottoms, would not fancy an opposition that is based on the social justice issue.
From my own experience, the Westerners who are praising democracy in these countries are scared to death when they hear the words "social justice." God forbid! It might end up in class warfare! Those who were clapping their hands in international media for Tahrir "having no ideology" would not like to see that such leftist discourse has survived from "Struggle Against Communism" campaigns of the 60's.
But at least basing the opposition on social rights and social equality would make the discourse genie look like deer caught in the car lights, not the opposition for a change.
Ece Temelkuran is a political commentator, novelist, and author of several books published in Turkish and English.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.