Islam and the Idiotic Autocrats

30 August 2007

Islam and the Idiotic Autocrats

By Gwynne Dyer

It was not a tactful way to start out in his new job as a Turkish government spokesman, but Suat Kiniklioglu did cut to the heart of the matter. The reaction to the outcome of the recent Turkish elections (22 July) in other Muslim countries, he said, “can be roughly summed up as asking: What the hell did the Turks do right that we didn’t do? How come they can manage a predominantly Muslim population, negotiate (for membership) with the European Union, and have a workable democracy while we’re stuck with these idiotic autocrats.”

Idiotic autocrats? Could he be referring to the generals who rule so many Muslim countries: the three generals in direct succession who have run Egypt for over fifty years, the shadowy Algerian generals who have dominated their country for just as long, the generals who currently rule Bangladesh and Pakistan, the son of a general who runs Syria, and the “colonel” who has ruled Libya for 38 years?

Might he even be including the kings and sheikhs who rule most of the rest of the Muslim world, from Morocco to Brunei, sometimes with a parliamentary facade, sometimes without it? Idiotic autocrats? That’s a bit strong, especially from a Turk, since the Turks ruled most of the Arab world for centuries, with not the slightest nod to the notion of democracy until shortly before the empire collapsed in the First World War.

Kiniklioglu may lack tact, but his question does weigh on the minds of people elsewhere in the Muslim world. They wonder why so many Muslims are indeed still ruled by autocrats (not all of them idiots). Some even wonder if there is a basic incompatibility between democracy and Islam. The “Islamist” extremists not only believe this; they perversely proclaim it as a virtue. What they all forget is that the Turks have been working on this agenda for a hundred years.

Turkey is an exception among the larger Muslim countries: a functioning democracy with a booming economy that is a candidate (although a controversial one) to join the European Union. But then, Turkey was never a European colony, while almost all other Muslim countries were conquered by the European empires and lost their statehood for generations.

The Turkish state has existed for six centuries, whereas most other Muslim countries have scarcely been independent for six decades. And for almost a hundred years, starting with the Young Turk Revolution of 1908, the country has been ruled by people with a deliberate project to modernise the Turkish state. The Young Turks were army officers who believed that if Turkey did not modernise quickly in a European style, it too would be conquered by the European empires.

It took fifteen years, many blunders, and a lot of lives, and the Arab parts of the empire were lost to Britain and France in the process, but they did save their country. It was mostly the work of one of the Young Turk officers, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who first rose to fame by stopping the Anglo-French attempt to capture Istanbul in the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Turkey was on the losing side in the First World War, but in 1919-22 Kemal led a resistance war that stopped the victors from carving the country up as colonies.

By 1923 the Sultan was deposed, Turkey was a republic, and Mustafa Kemal (who took the surname Ataturk — “Father of the Turks”) was in charge. He created a militantly secular state that rejected any public role for Islam, and set about imposing European systems and norms in every domain of life. It was formally a democracy by the 1950s, but it was really still run by a modernising, secular elite who monopolised the officer corps, the judiciary and the higher ranks of the bureaucracy.

The old elite believed that if Islam were not rigidly confined to the private sphere, it would drag Turkey back into a Middle East that they saw as being run by “idiotic autocrats,” but they were wrong. The problem is not Islam, but the people who use it to justify autocracy. And what has now happened in Turkey is that the Muslim democrats of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party have won a key confrontation with the army and elected their man, Abdullah Gul, to the presidency.

When the leaders of the AK party say that they support the secular state, the old elite think they are lying, and fifteen years ago some of them probably were. But the leaders and the party have both matured, and now believe that the best way to protect Islam in a modern state is to have the state absolutely neutral, neither for religion nor against it. Kiniklioglu himself, like many of AK party’s new stars, is a “not very religious” liberal who joined the party because he saw it as the best vehicle for completing the democratisation of Turkey.

What does this mean for other, less fortunate Muslim states? If they don’t have time machines, not much of practical use, for their history over the past hundred years has been very different. Turkey’s value to them is as living proof that economic success, democracy and freedom of religion are all fully compatible in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Other Muslim countries will have to follow different routes to the same destination, but it shouldn’t take them nearly so long to get there.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 7. (“Might…war”; and “It took…colonies”)