Monday, July 16, 2007

Of Political States and "Soft" Religion as the Basis for State Organization

Since the beginning of American difficulties in Iraq--that is since the moment the Iraqi population failed to metastasize into English yeomen and embrace the well matured and idiosyncratic American system of political governance--a certain academic and political element with apparent influence in political circles in Washington, has been pushing the idea of "soft" religion as a foundational basis for the constitution of states. And these ideas are meant to serve as the animating principles of a new and modern constitutionalism. Thus, for example, Amitai Etzioni, has written:
MUCH OF THE recent literature on Islam focuses on the question of whether Islam is or can be made compatible with a democratic regime, an inquiry closely related but not identical to the question of whether there is a soft Islam that can serve as an antidote to Islamic fundamentalism. . . . It follows that by promoting soft Islam we get two for the price of one: We promote a religion that is compatible with liberal democracy as well as one that can serve as an effective antidote to the fundamentalists. I take it for granted that Iraq should have a democratic form of government. But it should be one that does not treat religion per se as a threat but, potentially, as a mainstay of civil society, and hence as something that should be promoted - that is, to be sure, in its soft, moderate forms.
Amitai Etzioni, Mosque and State in Iraq, Policy Review, Hoover Institute, Oct.-Dec. 2003. This has been American policy at least since the beginning the second term of the younger Bush. See my post, President Bush's Second Inaugural Address: A Revolutionary Manifesto For International Law in Chaotic Times, Law at the End of the Day, April 1, 2006. And it has not worked well. See my post, Constitution and Apostasy in Afghanistan, Law at the End of the Day, March 28, 2006. And perversely, this sort of position has appeared to encourage similar elements in the West to attempt similar interactions with national constitutional orders. See my post, Law, Law at the End of the Day, June 30, 2007.

The greatest problem with Western notions of "soft" religion, and particularly soft" Islam, is that it depends on Western interpretive tropes to make it work. For Iraq, and the rest of the dar al Islam, this is the West's version of Islam, and thus, to a substantial effect, a perverse fantasy. Consider again, Amitai Etzioni:
Treating women as men's equals in moderate Islamic societies, instead of in the demeaning and abusive way of Islamic fundamentalism, draws on two rather different principles. One is respect for the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other more general, secular liberal political theories, which extol the virtues of individual dignity and individual rights. Another is a soft interpretation of Islam based on arguments such as those made by Forough Jahanbakhish in Islam, Democracy, and Religious Modernism in Iran, 1953-2000 (Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2001): Previous generations have misinterpreted Islamic sources, and the inferior status of women is a product of the social conditions at the time of the Koran, not the moral teachings of it. In Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women (Anchor Books, 1995), Geraldine Brooks questions whether rules that were clearly meant to apply only to the Prophet's wives, such as seclusion, should have been extended to all Muslim women.
Amitai Etzioni, Mosque and State in Iraq, Policy Review, Hoover Institute, Oct.-Dec. 2003. While no disrespect is intended to the undoubtedly sound interpretations of Geraldine Brooks and Forough Jahanbakhish, both publishing in the West for Western audiences, it is not clear that either would be considered an authoritative voice within Islam nor necessarily a legitimate source of doctrine. One would be more confident of this view were there to be substantial bodies of opinions coming from authoritative sources within the states whose constitutional structures would be molded by this "soft" Islam. For an elaboration, see Amitai Etzione, A Perspective on Islam in Iraq, Speaking of Faith, March 4, 204. I leave without much discussion the perversity, from the perspective of democratic and representation theory, of religious interpretation of constitutional doctrine based on the writing of foreign academics who may have little connection with the religion or constitutional order involved.

None of this would go much beyond the tragedies in American controlled Iraq and Afghanistan were it not for a sort of seepage of American notions into the Turkish elections which are scheduled for the end of this week. For a snapshot of the issues see, Timeline Turkey, BBC News, June 4, 2007. Turkish secularists, the descendants for the founders of the Turkish Republic, are wary of the Justice and Development Party's elaborate multi year campaign to paint itself as a working version of "soft Islam."
Bedri Baykam - a staunch secularist, and one of the leaders of a movement dedicated to upholding the secular values of the republic - a soft religious revolution is under way. For Mr Baykam, the country has been forced "more and more into an anti-secular and pro-Islamic wave" by the government. He quoted the previous leader of the Justice And Development Party, Necmettin Erbakan - the leader of the first pro-Islamic government since 1923 - who said: "Turkey is going to change its regime towards fundamentalism - the debate is whether it is going to be with blood or without." He also argued that Turkey's bid for EU membership meant that Europeans were being "led to believe that this is a soft, moderate, Islamic democracy".
Islam Tests Secular Istanbul, BBC News, Oct. 7, 2005. This is elaborated in O. Pamuk, Soft Islam Takes Over in Turkey, New Perspectives Quarterly, 20(1):24-27 (2003) (Blackwell Publishers, UK.). While the secular Turkish parties may not have been convinced that Turkey's version of "soft Islam:" is plausible, the Americans have become big supporters of the AK Party.

With the rise to power of Turkey's Justice and Development (AK) Party some two years ago, many writers in the West began to praise the Turkish party as an example of a political formation which upholds both Islamic ideals and democratic values. Soon, the AK was being touted as a model which might be emulated in other parts of the Middle East.

Omayma Abdel Latif, Harmonising Immutable Values and Ever-Changing Mechanisms, Al-Ahram Weekly, 11 - 17 November 2004, Issue No. 716 (Focus). The writers suggest that "the reason why so many US writers are promoting the Turkish model is simply because the US is looking for an America-friendly Islam and the AK party offers a model of what Richard Falk, a Princeton professor, once described as "soft Islam"." Id. (dialogue with Ahmet Davutoglu, chief advisor to the Turkish AK Party).

And so a great irony of the present Turkish elections is the spectre of American support for a political party tat would edge Turkey towards a more religious constitution to the detriment of the traditional secular parties of Turkey. See for example, Umit Eginsoy, Rice Praises AKP, Says U.S. Must Back Democracy, Turkish Daily News, May 12, 2007 (Reporting that Secretary pf State Rice "strongly backed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's ruling party," while noting that official statements from the Bush Administration were more circumspect). Indeed, among the American elite, it is secular parties, rather than the religious parties, that are specifically targetted for opprobrium. See, e.g., Fareed Zakarias, A Quiet Prayer for Democracy, Newsweek, May 14, 2007 ("In Turkey the popular ruling party, the AK—despite some background with political Islam—has proved to be the most open, modern and liberal political movement in Turkey's history. That extraordinary achievement may now be in peril because of the overreaction of Turkey's secular (and unelected) establishment."); Lee Hudson Teslik, Turkey's Existential Election, Council on Foreign Relations, July 18, 2007 ("the secularist-dominated Republican People’s Party (CHP) clung to a “rigid interpretation” of secularism, undermining its relevance."). The West approves of the AK Party because it does not not appear to be what it may be:

Those outside Turkey who view the recent mass rallies in Turkey in support of secularism as an expression of Western values should think twice. Most militant Turkish "secularist" are in fact suspicious of Turkey's aspiration to join the European Union, often strongly anti-American and generally uncomfortable with globalization. . . .By contrast, the AK Party has led one of the most impressive pro-democracy drives in Turkish history and has brought the country into accession negotiations with the European Union.
Suat Kiniklioglu, Getting Turkey Right, The International Herald Tribune, May 2, 2007. And there is a strong dividend that brings us full circle and may help color opinions of internal performance: the AK Party might provide Americans with a model for use in Iraq. Americans are looking for something that at least formally resembles a democratic religious party, and the AK appears to be it. That might be enough. Thus we have the spectacle of Westerners, hungry for a "tame" Islam they can abide, jumping all over themselves to push the Turkish religious party as a product fit for export throughout the dar al-Islam. See, e.g., Richard Falk, Reconsidering Turkey, Armenian Diaspora News Forum, October 6, 2004. This has left representatives of Turkish secular parties bewildered and increasingly bitterly cynical. For a bitter reflection of American elite thinking in this regard, one with its own prejudices quite intact, but nonetheless interesting for its evidence of sentiment, see Dr. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis, Fareed Zakaria: The Embodiment of Misinformation on Turkey, American Chrionicle, May 28, 2007.

This cynical deployment of foreign policy might give us pause. The presumption ought to be offensive--to Islam (which is quite capable of finding its own way, however troublesome that may prove to those strangers ot Islam in the dar al harb). But then again, perhaps Mr. Davutoglu is right:

One of my main arguments was that there has been a global revival of religion in all main civilisational centres, not only in the Muslim world, and that this revival is set to continue, because it is a natural response to the dogmatic modernism which prevailed in the 1950s. If you look at the transformation of many societies in the 1980s and 1990s, you can trace a revival of Christianity not only in the US, but in other parts of the world as well.
Omayma Abdel Latif, Harmonising Immutable Values and Ever-Changing Mechanisms, Al-Ahram Weekly, 11 - 17 November 2004, Issue No. 716 (Focus) (referencing Mr. Davutoglu's book, Civilisational Transformation and the Muslim World (1994)). It is possible that American foreign policy is seeking not only the rise of a "soft Islam" to pacify Iraq, but a model of "soft" religion as the basis for the constitution of the United States as well. If the American public can tolerate the rise of religiously based representative states within the dar al-Islam (I leave for the moment the telling problem of religious minorities in religious majority constituted states), perhaps they will tolerate one within the Western Hemisphere, and the rest of rthe dar al harb, as well. Whatever the results of the Turkish elections, the run up to them, from the American side, has been curious indeed.

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