In the United States, the notion of “moderate Islam” has been central to public and scholarly debates about democratic change in the Middle East. For many scholars, the expectation is that sustainable democratization in the region primarily depends upon the existence of robust and popular “moderate Islamic” movements. This expectation is based on three assumptions. First, authoritarian Arab rulers would be more willing to heed calls for democratization if they have less to fear from the opposition. In contrast to radical Islamists who seek to establish the “Islamic state,” moderate Islamic movements are not expected to “hijack democracy” to establish their own version of dictatorship. Consequently, as the argument goes, these movements would reduce the threat perceptions of Arab rulers, making them more willing to cede power. Second, moderates are believed to be amenable to working with the “guardians of the old older” during the transitional period and inclined towards avoiding confrontational policies that would unravel the nascent democratic system. Finally, moderate Islamic movements would not pursue aggressive strategies toward Israel and would not challenge U.S. strategic interests in the region.
The current uprisings in the Arab world as well as the evolution of Islamic moderates in contemporary Iran and Turkey have, however, demonstrated the shaky ground on which these assumptions have been based, exposing the internal contradictions embedded within them.
Political Change & Popular Mobilization
The assumption that authoritarian rulers are more willing to undertake democratizing reforms when not confronted with a radical opposition is hard to sustain given the track record of these governments in repressing all forms of dissent. In fact, one can argue that democratization is achieved only when the ruling elite recognizes that anything but reform will bring widespread unrest and revolution from below. Indeed, successful democratization often requires popular mobilization that challenges the monopoly of political power and successfully obtains concessions from the elite.
This reality has been borne out by events leading to the fall of Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak earlier this year. Without contentious action and popular mobilization, it would have been highly unlikely that the security establishment in both countries would have sacrificed these corrupt ruling families. In both countries, the military establishment abandoned the ruling families, which had become a lightning rod for popular anger, in order to preserve their institutional privileges and end mass demonstrations. That the regimes in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen responded to non-violent mass demonstrations with lethal violence also demonstrates that it is in fact the nature of these regimes, rather than the type of political opposition, which underlies their inability and unwillingness to reform.
Ironically, one of the most unanticipated aspects of the current uprisings in the Arab Middle East has been the relatively minimal role played by Islamic political actors, both moderate and otherwise. As with its Arab rulers, the mostly spontaneous street rebellions took the region’s Islamic political actors by surprise, demonstrating the extent to which these groups had fallen behind in organizing and channeling popular grievances. The reason these groups failed to take the initiative in leading the current uprisings may have had much to do with their long history of victimization at the hands of Arab rulers, as well as the compromises they have been forced to make with these governments in order to survive. After many decades of adapting to these authoritarian regimes, the region’s Islamic political leaders have become ill-suited to leading mass demonstrations characterized by non-violent but contentious action. At the same time, currently they are probably most well-positioned group to capitalize on electoral opportunities in Egypt and Tunisia.
Democratization & Moderation
Similarly problematic is the assumption that democratization is facilitated by moderate Islamic movements because these groups are less confrontational and more willing to compromise with the guardians of the old order (i.e., the military). Such beliefs are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of regional authoritarian rule. In reality, without radical changes to the institutional distribution of power, it is improbable that authoritarian regimes would permit popular participation and greater political pluralism. In this regard, the experiences of moderate Islamic movements in Iran and Turkey are highly instructive.
In the second half of the 1990s, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the secular Turkish Republic witnessed the rise of the most popular and successful moderate Islamic movements in the Middle East. In Iran, a group of Islamic revolutionaries, who had been politically marginalized in the early 1990s, gradually transformed into advocates of political pluralism, civil society and democratic rule. This group also developed a critical reading of the notion of the Islamic state and direct clerical rule. Under this framework, the Islamic Republic of Iran was viewed as prioritizing ephemeral aspects of religion, such as ostentatious acts of piety, over sacred and genuine religiosity characterized by ethics and pure faith.
Throughout the 1990s, Iran’s moderates mobilized significant popular support, leading to victories in the country’s 1997 presidential election and 2000 parliamentary vote. That the opposition candidates were permitted to win, at the time, set Iran apart from authoritarian Arab countries.
The moderate Islamic political leader and winner of the 1997 presidential election, Mohammed Khatami, eschewed confrontational rhetoric in favor of seeking better relations with the United States and regional countries. Inside Iran, President Khatami cultivated an environment in which a vibrant press emerged, which openly discussed previously taboo issues and actively questioned abuses of power. Yet these reforms soon generated a backlash from hardliners, who held unelected positions at the helm of Iran’s most powerful political institutions. To thwart the agenda of Khatami and other reformists, these hardliners utilized legal methods, such as the vetoing of parliamentary legislation and presidential bills, the judicial persecution of outspoken moderates, and the closure of newspapers, as well as violent tactics, such as assassinations and the brutal suppression of demonstrations.
In the end, the moderates failed to counter hardliner strategies, sustaining significant losses in the 2004 parliamentary election as well as losing their 2005 presidential bid. Until Iran’s 2009 presidential election, the moderates remained unable to capitalize on their initial successes in mobilizing popular support and pursuing a strategy of contentious mass action. During this period, moderates, instead, preached reconciliation, attempting to find common ground with adversaries who were determined to completely marginalize them. In pursuing this strategy, the moderates failed both to obtain any concessions from the hardliners and to democratize the country’s power structure.
Given Turkey’s relatively open and competitive political system, the experiences of its Islamic moderates have been more favorable. In contrast to their Iranian counterparts, Turkey’s moderate Islamic movement, which reached its apex in the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that won the 2002 and 2007 parliamentary elections and is poised to win the June 12, 2011 general elections, has had shallow intellectual roots. There were no Turkish counterparts to Yousefi Eskhevari, Mohsen Kadivar, Mojtahed Shabestari or Abdolkerim Soroush, the Iranian Islamic thinkers who created a robust intellectual framework around the work of that country’s moderate politician. Rather, in Turkey, the transformation from Islamic radical to moderate has been a process guided by pragmatism and facilitated by sociological changes and electoral opportunities.
By the early 1990s, the participation of pious Muslims in an expanding public sphere and market economy had facilitated the adoption of modern values of profit making, comfort, entertainment, and pluralism. Consequently, many Islamic activists became more content to pursue an “Islamic life-styles” rather than an “Islamic state.” Additionally, it became increasingly clear to a younger generation of Islamic politicians that developing centrist platforms targeting a wide swath of the electorate was the only way to win elections in Turkey’s highly fragmented and volatile party system. As a case in point, in the aftermath of the November 2000 and February 2001 crises that devastated the Turkish economy, the AKP focused its platform on economic reconstruction and anti-corruption measures, issues on which it found voters were highly receptive.
While the AKP is often portrayed as the embodiment of moderate Islam and democracy, its policies since 2002 demonstrate that moderation is not always conducive to democratic rights. Since the early 1980s, the two most important obstacles to Turkish democratization have been the military’s lack of popular accountability and the restrictions on the rights of the country’s religious and ethnic minorities such as the Alevis and Kurds. In terms of the military, the AKP has only been willing to challenge its involvement in politics when the AKP’s own political power has been threatened by that institution. For example, the AKP actively sought to reduce the military’s political autonomy only after the presidential election crisis in the Spring of 2007 and the constitutional referendum in the Fall of 2010; in both cases, the AKP initiated constitutional amendments that increased the power of directly elected institutions vis-à-vis the military (as well as the high judiciary). With regard to minority rights, there have been only very limited improvement in the rights of Alevis and Kurds during the AKP years. Restrictions on the Kurdish language and violations of human rights in Kurdish regions are still pervasive, while the Alevi faith continues to be subject to wide-ranging discriminatory measures.
As demonstrated by the examples of Turkey and Iran, the paradox of moderation is that strategies that entail compromises, reconciliation and risk-aversion may actually end up entrenching authoritarian rule and stalling democratic transformation.
Moderates & Foreign Policy
Finally, the assumption that moderate Islamic movements are more likely to pursue “moderate” foreign policies that are conducive to regional peace and stability is problematic, as “moderate foreign policy” is defined in terms of activities that do not run counter to U.S. and Israeli interests. Yet, the example of the AKP challenges this understanding. Since at least 2007, Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East has been characterized by increasing activism and diversification. In 2008, Turkey attempted to facilitate Israeli-Syrian negotiations, took the initiative to resolve the crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear crisis in 2009 and has generally expanded Turkey’s commercial, political and cultural ties with the Arab Middle East. Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with Israel have progressively deteriorated, reaching a nadir with the flotilla crisis of May 2010.
However, rather than indicating a definitive shift away from the West, these developments point to the growing complexity of Turkey’s political and economic interests. Turkey has continued to maintain a pro-European stance in world affairs, conducts most of its trade with the EU, and remains an important member of NATO. At the same time, there is an increasing divergence between Turkish interests in the Middle East, on the one hand, and U.S. and Israeli interests in the region. The U.S. invasion of Iraq dramatically changed the strategic interests of Turkey and decreased its need to form an alliance with Israel vis-à-vis Syria and Iran. In fact, the revitalization of Kurdish nationalism in the aftermath of the invasion has brought Turkey closer to these latter two states. Moreover, Turkey’s increasing economic linkages with the Arab Middle East and widespread opposition amongst the Turkish public to Israeli practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories substantially influence the AKP government’s foreign policy priorities. For Turkey’s elites, the political tensions between Iran and the United States are of great concern, as they threaten Turkey’s commercial linkages with its eastern neighbor and have serious negative implications for the Turkish economy. In short, as a rising regional power, Turkey is no longer content with remaining beholden to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. One can reasonably expect that moderate Islamic movements in the Arab world will come to adopt similar positions when they come to power.
It is vital that we rethink the conventional association of Islamic moderation with progressive political change in the Middle East. The way in which moderation has been defined often entails positive normative judgments that are not borne out by the region’s historical struggles for human, social and political rights. The experiences of Iranian and Turkish moderates and the current uprisings in the Arab world suggest that contentious yet non-violent action may, in fact, be a more effective facilitator of democratization than the region’s moderate Islamic movements.
*Güneş Murat Tezcür, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Chicago, is the author of Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation.