The Arab World’s Islamists: Turkish Islam as a Model

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(Photo: Bilal Jawish)

By: Huda Rizk

Published Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In the wake of the Arab revolts, will proponents of political Islam in the Arab world replace the Arab regimes that once ruled in the name of nationalism? Will these upheavals prove to be a renewal of the Islamic reformist trend that emerged in the early 20th century during the period of Ottoman decline?

In the early 1900s, an intellectual debate emerged around the need to develop a centrist, modernizing Islamic reform movement that could protect the Islamic world from Western domination. For young liberal-minded reformers who led this movement, Islam had to overcome its weaknesses by rationally addressing its detractors, thereby regaining its vitality and assuming state power.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, followed this ideological current. The movement decried the corrupting effect of Western ideas and mores on society, as well as the indulgent practices of the country’s official religious establishment. The Brotherhood also took a strong stand against British rule. But developments in Egypt, and its strategic importance to the West in relation to Africa and Israel, prevented the MB from realizing its political ambitions. The movement was denied the opportunity its Turkish counterparts would later receive.

In recent years, there has been much talk of the Turkish Islamist model amid attempts to nurture a democratic, moderate Islamic variant for the Arab world. The MB’s actions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria testify to this trend, as does the support they have received from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Qatari government. Shortly after the brotherhood joined the Egyptian protest movement against Mubarak, Washington expressed its amenability to a moderate Islamist government in Egypt. MB participation in the uprising marked a turning point, helping to ensure the success of the revolt begun by IT-literate liberal and leftist youth.

Similar trends are present in Tunisia and Syria. The Tunisian political establishment is now discussing the possibility of integrating Islamists into the government after the return exiled Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi. Supporters defended the idea by pointing to the experience of Turkey’s secularist system and the AKP. Meanwhile, Turkey reportedly pressed the Syrian government to broadly include the MB in government and appoint an MB representative to the post of vice-president. This is a clear bid to integrate moderate political Islam into Syrian politics and foster a peaceful regime change.

But it is still unclear whether the Turkish Islamist model is applicable in the Arab countries in revolt. Islamists were excluded from Arab politics for four decades beginning in the 1960s, especially in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya, where Arab Nationalism was the state’s ideology. These regimes were often challenged by an Islamist opposition seeking to organize its ranks and establish a political foothold. Based on the political climate present in each country, some Islamist movements operated openly while others were forced underground. This historic difference is still reflected in the thinking of the Egyptian MB and its offshoots. Some Islamist groups identify with the absolutist jihadism of Abul-Aala al-Mawdudi or Sayyed Qutb, while others follow the centrism of Hassan al-Banna.

What are the reasons behind US and Western (including British and German) endorsement of the idea of the Brotherhood taking over the current regimes? What has ushered this dramatic departure from just years ago, when the Americans and Europeans identified Islam with terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, plunging into war with Afghanistan, proceeding with the invasion of Iraq, establishing secret prisons to torture and humiliate Islamists, and cooperating with the security apparatus of most Arab regimes to eliminate extremism?

Reports of Western think tanks after 9/11 provide some insight into this rationale, as they often considered ways to encourage alternatives to radical Islam in the region. There have since been many discussions devoted to the political nature of Islam and the need for its reconciliation with democracy. A central part of this dilemma is the separation of religion from politics and the identification of Islamist forces that might lead such a transformation. Studies funded by the US also confirm that the Brotherhood is the most powerful opposition force in Egypt and that the Islamic ascendancy in the Arab world is continuing despite Western efforts to curb it. In fact, Western policy has served to inflame rather than temper anti-Western feeling. The West’s reliance on corrupt and dictatorial regimes to advance its interests served to undermine liberal opposition forces in the Arab world espousing Western ideals. Liberal oppositions were often denounced as foreign agents because of Western support, further eroding their legitimacy to govern. Policy analysts concluded that if the West could not remake the region in its image, it would suffice to maintain its political and economic subservience.

Many questions arise about the exact role Islamists will play once they take full part in state politics. On what terms would the Brotherhood’s brand of Islam assume power in Egypt, Tunisia, or Syria? Why do Western powers support the rebels in Libya when most of them are Islamists, some of whom used to be extremists? Is this an attempt to offset the regional influence of Shia Iran or to legitimize the Jewish nature of Israel by surrounding it with Islamic states?

Whatever the case, the West is moving rapidly, from combating radical Islam to announcing the death of Bin-Laden. The search is on for a new moderate variant of political Islam that would defer to Western interests – including, implicitly, the adoption of a reasonable attitude towards Israel. This coincides with the rise of Turkey’s AKP as a key player in regional politics. The AKP is a party that renounces traditional political Islam and presents itself as a democratic Islamic party similar to Europe’s Christian Democrats. It is wedded to secular politics and the separation of religion and state (though not from society).

Turkey’s new Islamists are the heirs of Necemettin Erbakan, an Islamist leader who was constantly at odds with the military guardians of the secular state. As prime minister, he opposed relations with Israel and reached out to Arab and Islamic states, while pushing a modernization that developed national industry and bolstered the local economy. While the MB was on good terms with Erbakan, the movement remains suspicious of his successor Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, building on Erbakan’s foundation, created and lead the AKP to power. In three successive terms in government, the AKP has preserved the republican system, minimized clashes with the military establishment, and declared its commitment to the principles of Atatürk (albeit within the context of Islamic values). They have also maintained military and political relations with Israel and are the first Islamist party to do so.

The MB are undoubtedly the best organized force in Egypt. In Egypt the MB are well aware that it would be self-defeating to assume power at the present time. They are in no rush and are prepared to take the long view to achieve their ultimate goal. Their priority now is the transition to democracy, through which they can further their political program and interests without alienating the Egyptian public. Rather than leading a government, they seek only free participation in legislative and local elections. They identify with the experience of the Turkish Islamists, who used the political opening provided by Turgut Özal in the 1980s to prepare for their eventual ascension to power. However, the situation in Egypt is different. Although the MB have secured an economic foothold since the 1980s, Egypt’s liberalization under Anwar al-Sadat did not extent to politics and society.

The Brotherhood in Syria is less organized, yet they are seen as the strongest opposition group in the country. Turkey’s AKP-led mediation sought to persuade the Assad regime to introduce a multi-party system in which the MB could operate and participate as a political party, thus enabling its political and economic growth in the conservative Syrian social milieu. The Syrian regime balked at the suggestion, opting instead for a restricted multi-party system that prohibited religious parties. This decision may have been influenced by the historic conflict between the Brotherhood and the Baath party, causing heated controversy among Brotherhood circles and prompting conferences in Turkey and elsewhere outside Syria. The Brotherhood now calls for the overthrow of the Syrian government, setting the AKP on a collision course with the Assad regime.

The road forward in Syria may be paved with danger. Adding to the unpredictability of the situation, Syrian society is ethnically and religiously diverse, and has strong links with the people of Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. But political times have changed, and democratic reforms must be implemented so that differences are settled not by force but by fair political competition. Public approval alone ought to decide the future role of the MB in Egypt and Syria.

Huda Rizk is author of Fundamentalism in Egypt: Absence of Democracy or Failure of Development, published by al-Furat Publishing & Distribution, Beirut

This article is translated from the Arabic Edition.


It’s a true fact that Islam has overcome their weaknesses by rationally addressing its detractors. There were so much pressure from the top political authorities and still they have decided to go forward with the visit protest against the Turkish.

'Moderate' Islam always ends up with a 'not so moderate' model. Unfortunately. The Arab spring 'revolutions' are taking place in so to say 'moderate' countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Livia, Syria). Now watch what will be their outcome in a couple of years.

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