Islam and Democracy: American Questions, Ottoman Answers

BY DR. AKIN UNVER** | 14.04.2011

USA_islam1“Is Islam a ‘democratic’ religion?”

“Is Islam compatible with democracy?”

“What is the relationship between religion and governance in a Muslim country?”

For the past decade, Americans have increasingly questioned whether Islam and democracy are compatible. What many participants to the debate do not realize is that a similar debate took place more than a century-and-a-half ago amongst Ottoman intellectuals. American scholars were triggered to focus on this huge topic after a traumatic incident: the September 11 attacks and the necessity to re-define the global role of the United States. Ottoman scholars also wrote extensively on the same question after suffering another traumatic incident: successive Ottoman military defeats in the hands of Christian-European powers (most notably the Russian Empire) through the 19th century. Back then, Ottoman scholars asked this question in reference to progress: “Is Islam an inherently backward religion?” They also questioned its compatibility with more liberal and progressive governance models, such as constitutional monarchy or republicanism. Ottoman scholars believed that Islam was no more or no less advanced than either Christianity or Judaism, pointing to the scientific, literary and administrative advances made by the Muslim scholars which surpassed those made in the Christian realm throughout the medieval and post-medieval era.  These scholars had then asserted that the culprit was not Islam, but the way in which the religious clergy and its institutions interacted with the decision-making apparatus of the empire.

What then, was the role of Islam in a democratically conceived society? The question was posited in reverse by the famous Ottoman thinker Namik Kemal: “What is the role of democracy in an Islamically conceived society?” One must keep in mind that the main defining element here was the ‘Islamic society’ (ummah = community) since the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was also the Caliph (the leader of the Islamic community – a title assumed by the Ottoman sultans since 1517) and the dual title of the sultan-caliph meant that the religious-dynastic identity was the raison d’être of the Ottoman state. The sultan, apart from being the head of state, was the protector and enforcer of the Islamic law through legal bureaucracy; equal and just enforcement of this law (at least in discourse) was key for the empire to keep its sovereignty over a vast area of Muslim land. Due to this critical role that the sultan had to play, Ottoman thinkers had to demote democracy and make it secondary to the primary identity of religion: Islam was the ultimate identity and therefore, would not be subservient to any other authority or ideology. The closest political answer to these questions was constitutional monarchy. At that time, most Ottoman statesmen and thinkers had considered Islam and democracy to be compatible, but not equal.  The primary state identity had to be Islam and constitutionalism could be practiced as long as it did not breach the jurisdiction of Islam. What an Islamically conceived Ottoman state could do was to accept the freedom of religion, not because religion should be implemented as the basis of the state, but because it was the duty of the state to safeguard freedom. Freeing the conscience completely could only be effected, however, when the theocratic concept was eliminated from the body of the religious outlook.

The question then boiled down to: “Is Islam conceivable in a democratically constituted state?” Would a democratic state, as a polity incompatible with theocracy, recognize the demand to subordinate itself to religion as a right to be exercised on the principle of democratic freedom?

The assumption of the sovereignty of the people thus implied a religious view that was not merely residual to the political principle but rather an inherent part of it. The manner in which religion had become institutionalized in Turkey made it appear as though the question had implications for the whole of social existence. However, the constitutional monarchy as practiced under the well-known sultan Abdulhamid II (1876–1909) was not good enough for the more progressive voices within the empire. The revolution of the Ottoman progressives (the Young Turks; later institutionalized under the umbrella organization Committee of Union and Progress – CUP) in 1908 was launched specifically to further limit the role of the sultan and the clerical institutions in the decision-making system and to check the power of the sultan via a politically organized parliament. The more radical wing of the CUP to which the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal belonged, were highly educated in Western standards with expertise in the social sciences, Islamic law and its practice. They saw very little utility in trying to retain the Islamic character of the state and asserted that the decision-making process had to be devoid of clerical interests. The idea of a secular republic as the primary identity of a modern state and the strict privatization of religious practice was, therefore, the final answer to the debate on the compatibility of Islam with democracy that was ongoing within Ottoman intellectual circles for almost two centuries.

However, once the Turkish War of Independence was won and the Kemalist revolutionaries became the ruling elite of modern Turkey, the same question – what is the role of Islam in a democratically constituted state –now had to be answered in a practical way. Just like the dilemma faced by Sultan Abdulhamid II, the new state would have to accept religious freedom, not because religion should be implemented as the basis of the state, but because it was the duty of the state to safeguard freedom. So that raised another question: “Would democracy, as a polity incompatible with theocracy, recognize the demand to subordinate it to religion as a right to be exercised on the principle of democratic freedom?” On the one hand, under the regime of popular sovereignty, this dilemma gave hope to religious enlightenment. On the other, it became the surrogate of a national existence, one of moral re-integration. Mustafa Kemal’s construction of secularism and the answer given by the Turkish history to the question ‘Is Islam compatible with democracy?’ took its final shape within the interaction of these two approaches.

The first (rationalist) approach was based upon a view shared by the Westernists and Islamists – the belief that Islam was a natural and rational religion. The idea of Islamic rationality for example was a deistic conviction for Mustafa Kemal. For him, the abolition of the Caliphate meant liberating Islam from the unreasonable traditional associates and interests of its clerical institution, preparing the ground for its emergence as a rational religion. Mustafa Kemal had understood the role of religion in the life of the people during the struggle for national liberation and had seen how dangerous religious fanaticism could be in moments of national disaster. He had, at the same time, felt the role of religion as a spontaneous expression of popular unity in consolidating national efforts. On the other hand, he had witnessed how the deep ignorance of the interpreters of religion was influencing the character of an entire umma and pushing Muslims further away from what he called ‘a genuine spiritual enlightenment’. The crux of all Mustafa Kemal’s experiments, according to him, was not to ‘Turkify’ Islam for the sake of Turkish nationalism, but to ‘Turkify’ Islam for the sake of religious enlightenment. His persistent objective – the one revoking the most severe denunciations from the clergy, the Islamists and the repositories of the secrets of the Arabic of the Qur’an – was to cut the ground out from under those vested interests claiming an exclusive monopoly over the understanding and interpretation of what they too claimed to be a natural and rational religion.

Therefore, Ataturk’s answer to the ‘Islam vs. democracy’ question was essentially: eradication of all religious ‘middlemen’, their brotherhoods and sects, thereby in his own way opening the individual’s way to personal enlightenment both spiritually and socially. This, however, was a practice that would be defined in today’s terms as ‘undemocratic’ and even ‘despotic’ by some; both of which were justifiable through the Kemalist period – republicanism is not the same thing as democracy. The latter point became a point of massive dispute between Mustafa Kemal and his wartime comrade-in-arms. While Mustafa Kemal wanted the new state to be a republican one, so that the influence of the clergy in the decision-making would be minimal, some of his associates criticized him, arguing that a republic is not necessarily more democratic than a constitutional monarchy.

With regard to Islam as practiced in the Arab-Middle East, Ottoman progressives took a stance that was surprisingly closer to today’s American neo-conservatism. As mentioned earlier, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the political organization Mustafa Kemal belonged to in his earlier career, was an alliance of devout Muslims as well as agnostics, who saw a need to minimize the political and social influence of Islam, without eliminating individual the religious liberties and practice of religion. Yet, especially the CUP went through a process of mentality shift, as a result of which it had attempted to bypass religious (Islamic) identity with an ethno-linguistic one. This in turn, had resulted in their Turkification attempts on Sunni-Arabs in the Middle East during World War I; a policy that emerged as  one of the primary reasons for the Arab Revolt of 1916. The ‘impossibility of saving the Arabs’ had also been pointed out by Mustafa Kemal himself, who had led several Arab divisions before and during World War I. His experiences with the Arab divisions of the Ottoman Empire caused him to grow increasingly more frustrated with the role of Islamic misinterpretation and the dominance of the Islamic clergy, which ended up pursuing its own political agenda, tainting the primary goal of spiritual guidance with political tutelage.

This is why the American question: ‘can Islam co-exist with democracy?’ was answered both as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ by Ottoman-Turkish history, whose final decision on the matter was Kemalist secularism in which transformative republicanism (not necessarily democratic) was upheld over Islam and also over democracy. In other words, while the Kemalist intention was to save democracy from the tutelage of the Islamic state, it ended up replacing democratic tutelage with republican-secularism. This caused democracy to be gradually picked up by the disaffected Islamist segments of the society marginalized by the Kemalist practice of secularism, which then tried to reformulate a new answer to the Islam-democracy debate on constructing Islamic expression from the viewpoint of the individual and of social liberty. Kemalist secularism however, should not be confused with being anti-Islamic, atheist or even agnostic; one of the key aspects of Kemalism was to eradicate religious institutionalism, not as an anti-Islamic move, but rather as a move that aimed to ‘purify’ Islam of the hold of clerical institutions, and instead allowing the individual to study and practice religion in an introverted and private matter.

Therefore, today’s Islam-democracy debate in the United States, especially the policy debate in Washington, is largely elementary and redundant. Many of the questions posited by American scholars were answered by 19th century Ottoman political literature and early Turkish republican reform efforts; re-inventing this wheel can be prevented by focusing instead on another question: “Is democracy possible in a country ruled by a rentierstate?” A scholar can discover a more satisfying pattern by looking at the role of capital mobility in state-society relations in non or under-democratic countries in the Middle East.

* First Published at FAIR OBSERVER and

**H. Akin Unver is the Ertegun Lecturer in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

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