Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Posts Tagged ‘liberalism

Something to be said

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I have never touted the Turkish model as—well—a model. Indeed, much of my time has been spent making fun of that absurdity. But with that, hopefully, established, I think it is worth appreciating that, by way of (unfair) comparison, Libya is a non-state, Egypt is politically back to square one (with more jihadists), Yemen is endlessly fractured (by drones), Bahrain is a den of repression, Tunisia has never had more violent dissidence, Syria is rubble, and Lebanon is Syria. Civil unrest has indeed yielded regional change in MENA, and it is—as the sober voices of the Arab Spring insisted it would be—messy.

Now that the Arab Spring is no longer trending and the narrative threads have been cut and forgotten, it is worth taking a (brief) second glance at Turkey’s place in the chaos (to say nothing of the Turkish business interests that fed the regional flames). And at such a juncture, there is something to be said for a country that has such deep, and deepening, rifts in its vision of what the Turkish nation ought to be—such a genuine dissonance—and where the death of a Turkish national is still generally treated as an unacceptable consequence of disagreement.

There is something impressive about the Turkish case. Some would attribute it to a “more modern” political system (complete nonsense), some would attribute it to its proximity to Russia (like Ukraine?), some to its being in NATO (what is “NATO”?), some to its not being in the EU (I actually read this somewhere), some to its lack of mineral wealth (Tunisia, Egypt, Syria?), etc. But that’s not it. There is something, something less tangible, about Turkish civil society that does not lend itself to the same destructive forces that rend the rest of the Middle East and, to some extent, Europe.

But all the same, I urge the reader not to look too far down the rabbit hole, for he will only find that those forces which hold the Turkish nation together, which forged a robust Turkish civil society in the first place, are those very forces—a subtle blend of blind religious observance, gender discrimination, xenophobia, blind nationalism, nepotism, etc.—that the civilized Western world abhors. Better not to think about it too much, really.

Written by M. James

March 19, 2014 at 11:04 am

Posted in Politics, Turkey

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True Turkish liberals?

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It is a crucial question whether these people exist in Turkish politics, and to what degree they understand the meaning of “liberal democracy.” Mr. Erdemir seems genuine enough, but his education and party affiliation suggest that he is indeed a rare case, and not a very influential one.

A Turkish Liberal Democrat?
Claire Sadar; Atatürk’s Republic; Oct. 4th, 2013

A true liberal democrat is a rare species in Turkish politics but it appears that they do in fact exist. Last week I attended a talk by a Turkish MP from Bursa Aykan Erdemir. Erdermir is an interesting figure: a young Harvard PhD and former professor who was elected as  a CHP MP from the AKP dominated district of Bursa in 2011. His talk, titled ”Prospects for Pluralist Democracy in post-Gezi Turkey” painted a clear-eyed picture of the causes of the Gezi protests and real problems Turkey faces if it is to become a truly liberal democracy.

Erdemir identified a number causes that worked in conjunction to create popular uprisings in Turkey this summer. He believes demographic changes that Turkey has been undergoing for the last several decades are central to growing political discontent. The shift from large, extended families to small, nuclear ones has changed a formerly heavily patriarchal society into what he dubbed a “child-archal” society. Erdemir believes that the patriarchal state is out of sync with the changing family dynamic; a dynamic which has resulted in an more individualist world-view amongst the younger generations. He also mentioned the population shift from rural to urban areas, the growing export based economy and the increasing educational attainments of the average Turk as factors that have resulted in a significant societal shift.

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Written by M. James

October 5, 2013 at 12:05 am

Posted in Politics, Turkey

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Prospects for a liberal Turkish society

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The following was written as a guest post for Atatürk’s Republic, a collaborative blog that seeks to follow Turkish news, politics, arts, and culture.

Most liberal-minded individuals, if asked to choose between a multi-party and a two-party system, would choose the former. After all, liberal democracy is all about freedom of choice, and choosing between chocolate and vanilla is simply not satisfying when one might prefer pistachio, cookie dough, or “Karamel Sutra.”

But what most people do not seem to understand is that representative democracies are designed to be deliberative bodies, the essence of which is “settling.” Without “settling,” the liberal concept of value pluralism goes out the window, and with it, the very basis for our conception of a free and fair society.

If the voter refuses to “settle” on chocolate or vanilla, and instead prefers everyone to have a broader range of options, one of two things will happen:

(1) Once the voting is over and done with, the vast array of flavors will seek to mix themselves with whatever will give them a strategic advantage in legislation. Pistachio will mix with “Karamel Sutra,” and the sweet-and-sticky combination will satisfy neither pistachio- nor caramel-lovers. The concept of political parties as principled factions is lost completely when the principles are cast aside for expediency, as inevitably occurs in this case.* What’s more, banana and rocky road will be ignored completely.

(2) Chocolate will acquire a tyrannical rule owing solely to vanilla-lovers’ slight preference for a variety of other flavors, which will never attain a majority—and if they do, it will be dishonestly, by coalition. The party that is capable of organizing itself and sowing discord among the opposition will acquire, and keep, power.

In the first consequence, the purpose of the political party (democratically forwarding principles at the state level) is lost in a mindless scramble for power by majority. In the second, the state becomes as tyrannical as in a de jure “one-party system.”

This is one arena in today’s politics in which we cannot practically hope to expand the scope of individual freedoms. In order to maintain the classical liberal, laissez faire idea of “freedom from” (which is necessarily prior to the expansion of “freedom to” in a liberal state), the multi-party system must be shunned in favor of a two-party system and the citizen must take it upon himself to begin the “settling” process by choosing from a limited number of representatives.

Paradoxically, the severe limitation of choice necessitated by a two-party system is characteristic of a much more liberal, democratic system. It not only protects the people from tyranny and maintains the possibility of value pluralism, but it also entrusts the people with beginning the all-important, essentially liberal “settling” process that continues in the legislature.

Because this is not obvious to the average voter, a two-party system must be somehow (overtly or otherwise) established from above by strong tradition, or a constitution, in order to establish a liberal, democratic state. Only if a liberal tradition is pre-existing, if the power of the legislature is severely tempered, or if a country is ideologically homogeneous, can a multi-party system survive as “liberal.”

Of course, my interest in exploring this problem lies in the Republic of Turkey, which has a large, heterogeneous population, a powerful parliament, no tradition of liberalism to speak of, and a multi-party system. Predictably, Turkish society and government are grossly (visibly) illiberal.

From two different Turkish liberals in a period of two days, I heard the complaint that Turks vote on (a) emotions and (b) “lifestyle.” Kurds vote for Kurds (actually they don’t, but that’s a different story—they do still vote based on lifestyle), Anatolian Sunni Muslims vote for Anatolian Sunni Muslims, nationalists vote for nationalists, etc. Because of this fragmentation—this variety of flavors—no responsibility to compromise is ever placed on the voter. The result is an instance of consequence (2) above, where one party dominates the state. Half of Turkey may not want to have vanilla, but they couldn’t—and will never be able to—agree on chocolate.

And with a party in power that benefits from the disorder of the multi-party system, it is fairly unlikely that a two-party system will be enforced from above in the form of a new constitution, or otherwise.

What’s more, because the last decade has shown Turkey’s material success to be tied to economic, but certainly not social, liberalism, it is to be expected that Turkey’s near future will be characterized only nominally by “liberal democracy.”

If Turkish citizens are never confronted with the spirit of “settling” between the many flavors that they prefer, and are never themselves faced with the idea of value pluralism, they will never become liberal democratic citizens. And what more is a liberal democratic society than the collective conscience of its citizens?


*Some would aver that an effective two-party system is necessarily unprincipled if the opposing parties wish to shape themselves according to shifting public sensibilities. There are two responses: (1) That this is acceptable because their principles shift in order to garner votes, but do not shift while they hold offices, and they are able to remain honest to their principles for a given term. (2) That the only principle that truly matters is a faithful attempt at maintaining a two-party system for its own sake, as a safeguard against tyranny.

Written by M. James

November 2, 2012 at 9:09 am

Muslim communitarianism

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For some reason, The New York Times ran a decent article on the “Innocence of Muslims” fiasco and its black-swan backlash.

Here’s an interesting bit:

When the protests against an American-made online video mocking the Prophet Muhammad exploded in about 20 countries, the source of the rage was more than just religious sensitivity, political demagogy or resentment of Washington, protesters and their sympathizers here said. It was also a demand that many of them described with the word “freedom,” although in a context very different from the term’s use in the individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.

That demand, in turn, was swept up in the colliding crosscurrents of regional politics. From one side came the gale of anger at America’s decade-old war against terrorism, which in the eyes of many Muslims in the region often looks like a war against them. And from the other, the new winds blowing through the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which to many here means most of all a right to demand respect for the popular will.

“We want these countries to understand that they need to take into consideration the people, and not just the governments,” said Ismail Mohamed, 42, a religious scholar who once was an imam in Germany. “We don’t think that depictions of the prophets are freedom of expression. We think it is an offense against our rights,” he said, adding, “The West has to understand the ideology of the people.”

Even during the protests, some stone throwers stressed that the clash was not Muslim against Christian. Instead, they suggested that the traditionalism of people of both faiths in the region conflicted with Western individualism and secularism.

Read more.

Written by M. James

September 18, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Posted in Culture, News, Politics, Religion

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Khan: Freedom to interpret Shari‘ah

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In Khaled Abou El Fadl’s collection of essays, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, which I reviewed here, there was one essay response in particular that I thought worth posting. That was M. A. Muqtedar Khan’s “Primacy of Political Philosophy,” as it is titled in the collection. In a slightly more primitive form than in the book (from Khan’s website), it is reproduced below.

I recommend reading the original post as well as Abou El Fadl’s essay before continuing.

Instead of saying that liberal values are at the heart of Shari’ah, and potentially leaving it up to government jurists (ulema) to decide what that means, Khan gets rid of the jurists entirely, forcing the demos to interpret Shari’ah for themselves—individually. Khan maintains that if the jurists aren’t kicked out, there will be an inevitable regression to a government where the jurists, the privileged interpreters of Shari’ah, rule. The only answer is to remove them from government.

It is tempting to read Khan’s argument as “Shari’ah is not necessary for Islam, so let’s get rid of Shari’ah and make way for democracy.” Unfortunately, Khan is careless, perhaps relying on Abou El Fadl’s prior explanation of Shari’ah. So to understand Khan’s argument, one must think of Shari’ah as unquestionably divine and perfect, notwithstanding its earthly interpretation and practice. Indeed, its earthly interpretation and practice is what Khan takes issue with, claiming that when there is a monopoly on interpretation of Shari’ah, democracy is not possible. Instead, there must be individual freedom to interpret Shari’ah. Unlike Abou El Fadl, who attempted to liberalize Shari’ah itself for the sake of assigning rights (acting all the while as a jurist), Khan encourages the liberalization of interpretation.

In the space permitted, I think that Khan makes a good case for not only (1) the necessity of individual freedom of interpretation for the success of democracy, but also (2) the Islamic precedent for individual freedom of interpretation. But it’s about time I allow Khan to speak for himself, and the reader to decide.

The Priority of Politics: A Response to “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy”
M. A. Muqtedar Khan; Boston Review; Apr./May 2003

The Tyranny of Legalism

The Islamic intellectual tradition—which includes Islamic legal thought (Usul al-fiqh and fiqh), theology (Kalam), mysticism (Tasawwuf) and philosophy (falsafa)—is one of the most developed and profound traditions of human knowledge. In the area of political philosophy, however, this intellectual heritage remains strikingly underdeveloped. Read the rest of this entry »

“Islam” and the Challenge of “Democracy”

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Read something else.

Khaled Abou El Fadl says: We can’t be perfect, so why even try?

I recently had the opportunity to read Khaled Abou El Fadl’s Islam and the Challenge of Democracy—a lackluster essay on reconciling “Islam” with “democracy,” and some responses, bound together and cleverly disguised as a book.

The first thing you’ll notice—if you, for whatever reason, decide to read the essay—is that Abou El Fadl is fantastically imprecise. So imprecise, in fact, that by the end you won’t be sure that he’s said anything at all. One thing is for sure, though: The title of the book should be Islam and the Challenge of Some Particular Liberal Values.

My central argument … is that democracy—by assigning equal rights of speech, association, and suffrage to all—offers the greatest potential for promoting justice and protecting human dignity, without making God responsible for injustice or the degradation of human beings.

If you hadn’t guessed that he was targeting a Western audience already (and ignoring an Islamic audience), here’s your cue. According to Abou El Fadl, God can somehow be “made responsible” for injustice and the degradation of human beings. For a Muslim, the idea that we can “make” God responsible for injustice is—to put it lightly—absurd.

And when Abou El Fadl isn’t attempting theology, he’s attempting Islamic jurisprudence—and it goes equally well. Liberal values, he seems to be saying, can (1) be found in the Qur’an, and (2) serve as the basis for Shari’ah. Though I cannot dispute the former, the latter is quite a reach, and is a project unsuitable for a mere 34 pages of text.

He seems to recognize this problem at a certain point, and instead of actually reconciling Shari’ah with liberal values, he pulls a fast one.

…Shari’ah ought to stand in an Islamic polity as a symbolic construct for the divine perfection that is unreachable by human effort.

…the law of the state, regardless of its origins or basis, belongs to the state. Under this conception, no religious laws can or may be enforced by the state.

So, since we can’t enforce Shari’ah even if we try, we might as well enforce liberal values. Why? Because liberal values are actually at the heart of Shari’ah (never mind how he got to that conclusion), and that’s simply the best we can do.

Oh, and if you don’t like his argument, it all works out in the wash, because, as he concludes, “we will all have to answer, in the Hereafter, to God.” Is that the same God, I wonder, who is responsible for injustice when we’re not democratic?

Following Abou El Fadl’s essay are, generally, equally impressive, or trite, responses. I thought one of them—by M. A. Muqtedar Khan—stood out, though. So my readers don’t feel compelled to buy the “book,” I will post that response shortly.

Edit: The response.

Against democracy

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“Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

If brazen narcissism like the above quotation, a pithy Churchill-ism, is the most critical view on democracy that you are accustomed to; or if you respond with disbelief when you read that most Libyans aren’t too keen on democracy, then you should—for the sake of sobriety—peruse this substantial collection of anti-democratic sentiments from the desk of the inimitable “Julian Felsenburgh, Esq.”

I particularly recommend a thorough reading of section XXVIII from Carl Schmitt, which very ably characterizes some historical challenges to Turkish democracy.

Here is a (comparatively brief) sampling of the quoted authors:


{The Republic}

And then democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents, slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power; and this is the form of government in which the magistrates are commonly elected by lot.

Yes, he said, that is the nature of democracy, whether the revolution has been effected by arms, or whether fear has caused the opposite party to withdraw.

Consider now, I said, what manner of man the individual is, or rather consider, as in the case of the State, how he comes into being.

Neither does he receive or let pass into the fortress any true word of advice; if any one says to him that some pleasures are the satisfactions of good and noble desires, and others of evil desires, and that he ought to use and honour some and chastise and master the others –whenever this is repeated to him he shakes his head and says that they are all alike, and that one is as good as another.

Yes, he said; that is the way with him.

Yes, I said, he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he-is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.


{Reflections on the Revolution in France}

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Written by M. James

March 21, 2012 at 12:57 am