[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
EL ESCORIAL – The medieval monks who built the giant Monastery of El Escorial couldn’t have imagined that their all-Catholic civitas dei would someday host hot debates on the future of political Islam. Yet that’s exactly what happened here, in this little Spanish town located some 45 kilometers northwest of Madrid, this week. The “political Islam” in question was Turkey’s incumbent AKP, the Justice and Development Party, and its namesake in Morocco, the Parti de la Justice et du Développement.
“The Moroccan AKP”, as they call it, or simply the PJK with its French initials, is an interesting phenomenon. Some Turks are aware of the party and many assume that the AKP is its franchiser, but actually the Arab/Berber party precedes that of Mr. Tayyip Erdoğan. It was vaguely on the scene for a long time, until it adopted its current name in 1998 and accepted the leadership of Dr. Saâdeddine El Othmani, with whom I shared a panel in El Escorial, and a dinner at the residence of Turkey’s ambassador to Madrid, Mr. Ender Arat.
The Debate Over ‘Political Islam’
Both Dr. El Othmani and I was here to speak at a seminar organized by Casa Árabe, a newly-established Spanish institution supported by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation. The aim of the seminar was mainly to analyze Turkey’s experience with the AKP, and to explore whether it can be a source of inspiration for Islamic parties in the Arab world to become legitimate actors in democratic politics. The organizers have apparently been impressed by the AKP’s transition from Islamism to conservative democracy, and hope that it can be a model in the Middle East and the Maghrib. Indeed, this is a much-debated issue in the Western media and the intellectual circles nowadays. “Should we support the existence of Islamist parties,” many people ask, “would it help them moderate themselves?”
In the face of that question, there are those who say that “political Islam” should never, ever be tolerated. (In the West they would be called “the hawks.” In Turkey, they would be called “the establishment.”) On the other hand, there are people who say that “political Islam” indeed should be given a chance. For my part, I think that the debate is misconstructed, because the term “political Islam” can be quite misleading. (Similarly, one would be wrong to speak about “political Christianity,” if he refers to it to explain strikingly different phenomena such as the Christian Democrats of modern Europe and the Inquisition or the Crusaders of medieval Christendom.) There can be quite different ways that Islam can influence politics – and for a believer it is only right that it should do so. The crucial question is whether Islam will influence politics in a democratic or totalitarian way. What is definitive is whether Muslims will synthesize their faith with tyranny and violence or freedom and moderation.
The Taliban or al-Qaeda has shown that the former is possible. But the latter is viable, too. And the latter is possible only when Islamic parties – or other political forces – accept the fact that in any society, not everybody is going to be a Muslim, and not all Muslims are going to be pious and practicing ones. Once that is acknowledged, then “political Islam” will abandon its coercive goals and tools to Islamize society, and will be forced to articulate and represent Islamic values within the rules of the democratic game. In Turkey although there are many ultra-secularists who are still suspicious of the AKP in that regard – because for them the only good Muslim is a totally non-observant one – but there are also many secular analysts who think Mr. Erdoğan’s party indeed has evolved into what one can call “Muslim democracy.”
The Bulb and The Gas Lamp
I was wondering whether that would apply to the “Moroccan AKP,” and asked this of Dr. El Othmani. His answer was positive and he emphasized that his party does not have any aim to impose any sort of Islamic life on Moroccans when it comes to power. (In September this year, there are general elections and the JDP hopes to be number one, which they hope will make them the leader of the expected coalition.) He underlined that “Turkey is their model,” and what they want to build is a peaceful, open, democratic Morocco – a message he also gave at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently. However there are differences between Morocco’s JDP and Turkey’s AKP, and there is a very good reason for that: Morocco is neither secular nor republican. It is a monarchy whose king is defined as “the commander of the faithful” – a title Islamic caliphs held from the earliest times. Thus references to Islam are totally valid in Morocco’s political life.
There are also other issues that the JDP does not share the AKP’s more liberal attitudes. “We believe in the market economy,” says Dr. El Othmani, “but with an effective redistribution system.” When I asked about the way Hamas fights Israel, he says they don’t support attacks against civilians – which is commonly known as terrorism – but also doesn’t condemn them by noting that Israeli bombs also kill Arab children. This is different from the stance of the AKP, which holds that Hamas should stop its armed struggle and work within the ways of diplomacy.
Perhaps, the symbolic difference in the emblems of the AKP and the JDP are there for a reason. Interestingly, lamps represent both parties: But while that of AKP is a modern electric bulb, the latter has a very classic and oriental gas lamp.Which implies the fact that there will be differences among parties with Muslim values according to the context they emerge from and operate in. They should all be welcomed if they renounce totalitarianism in the name of Islam. If they don’t, then they, of course, would not deserve a legitimate space in the democratic game.