Guest Post: Are Islamism And Authoritarianism The Same Thing?

November 28, 2012 § 7 Comments

Friend of O&Z and frequent guest poster Dov Friedman – who tweets from @DovSFriedman – is back today with thoughts on Egypt and President Morsi, and whether focusing on the Islamist character of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood risks missing the forest of authoritarianism for the trees of Islamism. Bonus points for relating the debate over Morsi to the debate over Turkey and the AKP and making sure to cover the Ottomans portion of this blog, which has been lacking as of late due to Gaza and the upcoming Israeli elections. Without further ado, here’s Dov:

In The New Republic on Monday, Eric Trager criticized those who bought into the idea of Mohamed Morsi as a moderate during the Egyptian uprising.  The timing of the piece makes sense, as Morsi expanded his already considerable power last Thursday in a constitutional declaration.  Trager was among the analysts consistently skeptical of the supposed moderation and democratic potential of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Yesterday’s piece served to remind observers that not every analyst bought into last year’s dominant narrative.  As evidence, Trager provides excellent detail about the Muslim Brotherhood’s “cultish” structure and immoderation:

That’s because the very process through which one becomes a Muslim Brother is designed to weed out moderates. It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”

I encourage you to read the whole thing.

The problem with Trager’s analysis is that the facts marshaled fail to support the hypothesis—it uses evidence of ideologically conformist Islamism to support a claim about Morsi’s authoritarianism.  Of course this may be correct, but it is not inherently so.

This same conflation occurs in the conversation about Turkey, the AK Party, and Prime Minister Erdoğan.  At its most benign, the error manifests itself as The Economist’s insistence on calling the AK Party “mildly Islamist.” The same misdirected criticism turns quite noxious at times.  Look no further than Daniel Pipes or Andrew McCarthy in National Review.

As Istanbul-based independent journalist Claire Berlinski has argued, it would be more appropriate—and more helpful—if The Economist called the AK Party “mildly authoritarian.”  Put differently, AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots.  Critics’ focus on Islamist identity diverts their attention from the main problem: alarmingly anti-democratic developments under Erdoğan’s rule.  So they may snarl at last year’s education reforms or the current project to build a mosque in Taksim Square, but they miss Erdoğan’s systematic crackdowns on free speech, press, and association.

I cite Turkey as an example because the decade of AK Party rule has contained policy approaches that confounded critics.  In the early 2000s, Kemalist and secularist critics invoked fears that AK Party would impose a radical ideology on the country.  Erdoğan and President Gül stymied criticism by pursuing, among other policies, EU accession—the centerpiece of Kemalist and liberal dreams for Turkey.  When the AK Party did pursue some conservative domestic policies, the earlier conflation of Islamist identity and anti-liberalism robbed opponents of clarity in their criticisms.

Similarly, the early moments of AK Party’s authoritarian creep coincided with a period in which Turkey’s foreign policy was becoming deeply internationalist and aligned with the West.  In 2007 and 2008, Turkey spearheaded mediation efforts between Israel and Syria, and between Serbia and Bosnia.  In 2009, Istanbul hosted the Alliance of Civilization.  In 2010, a former Turkish MP served as president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.  At the same time, in 2010, the government levied punitive fines on Doğan Holding, an AK Party critic.  By 2011, Turkey already imprisoned journalists in alarming numbers.  Erdoğan and other government officials have filed suit and won judgments against individuals who “insult” them.  The Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials mutated in recent years from legitimate investigations to score-settling efforts to crush opposition voices.  Here again, arguments about Erdoğan’s nefarious Islamism were easily brushed aside, and—worse—masked some crude anti-democratic domestic developments.

Yesterday in The Atlantic, Trager expanded upon the previous day’s post and broadened the argument.  He argued that Morsi’s domestic power grab suggested that after the Brotherhood’s domestic power is consolidated, Morsi would construct a conservative Islamist foreign policy.  As evidence, he pointed to a series of distressing statements by top Muslim Brotherhood officials.

Prime Minister Erdoğan has also made distressing statements of late, as Michael has discussed in previous posts.  He’s called Israel a terrorist state and claimed that rocket fire is a legitimate means of resistance.  Turkey observers recognize that while these statements are odious—and likely detrimental to Turkey’s foreign policy standing—they may also serve a more complex purpose than simply representing the Prime Minister’s foreign policy beliefs.

I note these pairs of similarities to make a relatively simple point.  The number of world leaders with Islamist backgrounds has increased in the post-Arab Uprisings world.  Funneling analysis of their domestic and foreign policy actions through the lens of their radical Islamist ideology may, at times, inhibit the ability to understand not only why these leaders act in particular ways but also how these leaders may act in the future.  A strict focus on their Islamist identities may also overlook actions that are deeply problematic but do not naturally fit into a discourse of Islamist creep.  This has certainly been the case with Turkey.

Trager is very knowledgeable about Egypt, and thus I defer to him and other analysts to continue informing those of us for whom Egypt is an interest but not a specialty.  However, nuance in interpreting not only what has happened but also why it has happened remains crucial.

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§ 7 Responses to Guest Post: Are Islamism And Authoritarianism The Same Thing?

  • zjb says:

    I remember Mustafa Aykol writing sometime back that the authoritarianism of the AKP was more “Turkish,” then “Islamist” per se. I’m pretty sure this is a bit apologetic on Aykol’s part, but, at the same time, perhaps, not entirely untrue. Curious to know if this makes sense.

    • I think I might have blogged about this at some point, but to my mind it’s a lot more accurate to locate AKP authoritarian tendencies in the context of Turkish political history than in the context of Islamism.

      • zjb says:

        thanks., that was what i got from Aykol, and i probably picked it up from you as well. i’m glad then that it makes sense to you. but my only question is how to make that point without apologetics vis-a-vis political religion? this concerns me, especially as an academic Religious Studies guy, not wanting to ignore the role of religion, or, more critically, let it off the hook.

      • I think there is a distinction to be made between authoritarian behavior that directly stems from religion, and authoritarian behavior that does not. When Erdoğan goes after journalists for insulting him or for advocating for the Kurds, I don’t see how his Islamist background is relevant. When Morsi tries to railroad through a constitution that criminalizes non-sharia compliant behavior, that is another story altogether.

  • Oxbird says:

    I believe my experience at a holiday party last December in Istanbul confirms, or at least is consistent with, Dov Friedman’s analysis. I believe I know Turkey reasonably well having been there dozens of times. Guests at the party included members of parliament, university officials, secularists and businessmen. I anticipated a great deal of concern about the growing influence of Islam as often reported in the US press. There was virtually none. The great concern, and the focus of the discussion, was Erdogan’s actions that raised concern as to his commitment to democracy

  • [...] into the long history of state censorship in the Republic of Turkey. As Dov Friedman puts it “the AK Party acts increasingly authoritarian in ways unrelated to its Islamist roots.”   The first three leaders of the Republic, Atatürk, Inönü and Menderes, all restricted [...]

  • [...] further introduction at this point to O&Z readers (his previous guest posts are here, here, and here), and he weighs in again today to look at the foreign policy angle to the talks between the Turkish [...]

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