[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers' comments]
Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a notable speech at the first gathering of his “party group” in Parliament. Speaking to more than three hundred deputies who were just elected in a very victorious election, he warned them against arrogance. “We received trust from our nation,” he said, referring to political power. “We will carry it modestly and will give it back when the time comes.” His Justice and Development Party, the AKP, in other words, was in power only for a limited time, and had to use it humbly.
To further emphasize his emphasis on modesty, Erdoğan then gave an example from Al-Andalus, the medieval Muslim kingdom of the Iberian Peninsula. “In order to prevent the arrogance and magnanimity of the sultans, there was a writing on the walls of the Alhambra Palace,” he reminded: “Wa la ghaliba-illallah, which means, there is no victor but God.”
I am sure that Turkey’s secularists, and the West’s Islamoskeptics, will see this as yet another worrying sign of creeping religion into the Turkish public square. I, for my part, not only dismiss those fears; I also think that Erdoğan is onto something good with such inferences from traditional Islamic culture, which might help build a modern democratic Muslim culture.
To explain what I mean, first a rule of thumb: the most fundamental need for protecting freedom is to constrain political power. For political power is an intoxicating thing, and if those who exercise it are not constrained by a liberal law, they can abuse it in horrible ways. That’s why the modern world invented constitutionalism, whose basic goal is to make sure that rulers behave decently.
But constitutions and laws are not the only matter here. What also matters is political culture. The West, to its credit, was able to develop a liberal culture over the centuries, but this was partly due to the fact that it was able to try the worst of its alternatives: The reason why Europe is a haven of liberal democracy today has something to do with the fact that the same Europe was the home of fascism in the first half of the past century.
As for the Muslim world, in fact, aversion to arbitrary rule has been a strong tendency in classical Islamic thought. Today, many people fall into the mistake of considering medieval Muslim states as theocracies in which rulers had “divine rights,” but in fact the Islamic political norm was to constrain rulers with divine laws.
In a panel at Princeton University that I participated in a few months ago, this crucial fact was emphasized by none other than Michael Novak, one of America’s prominent Catholic theologians. Novak also argued that “the greatness of Allah” is a key idea to foster liberalism in the Muslim world, and added: “Allah is so great, so beyond measure, so beyond compare, that his greatness is a warning to any mere mortal spokesman about his own shortsightedness and inadequacy… The greatness of Allah relativizes all human pretensions.”
Now, this belief in “the greatness of Allah” would create authoritarian rule, of course, if anybody claims to speak authoritatively in the name of Allah. That would lead to tyranny in the name of God. But if it is accepted that no one can speak in the name of God, as it should be the case in Islam for anybody other than Prophet Muhammad, then belief in “the greatness of Allah” becomes a basis for the humility of all. And it discredits all dictatorships.
Of course, theological beliefs are not the only determinants of political culture, let alone political systems. In other words, the Muslim Middle East will not become a haven of liberal democracy overnight, once belief in “the greatness of Allah” prevails. That is not what I am talking about.
What I am talking about is whether Muslims can find justifications for democracy within their own culture and his history. And, as Erdoğan’s “no victor but God” speech implies, those justifications might be more abundant than what some think.