The spectacular fall of Turkey’s Islamist intellectuals
Having exploited the help of liberals and the progressive left in their ascent to power, the Islamists underwent a spectacular change of heart. Those conscientious Islamist intellectuals who had been speaking truth to power suddenly became hucksters of party politics and petty legitimizers of oppressive policies. Turkish Islamism offered the world an ugly Muslim nationalism and kleptocratic handling of public resources.
Close observers of contemporary Turkey will agree with the judgment that today, Islamists are no longer intellectual and the intellectuals are no longer Islamists. Long gone is the iconic figure of the Islamist intellectual who used to occupy the front row of every public debate, speaking in the name of the oppressed. The relatively sudden disappearance of Islamist intellectuals from the public scene in Turkey is a story not of a silent withdrawal, but of a spectacular fall. What led to their extinction was their brush with power.
Both the hopeful protagonists and fearful antagonists of Islamism harbored the same idea: that there was something specifically Islamic about it. Those who saw Islam as party to the infamous clash of civilizations all agreed on some sense of Muslim distinctiveness (call it the Islamic mystique). The Islamists celebrated that imagined uniqueness as their identity, while the Orientalists warned of the political perils of that radical cultural difference. Their mutual dislike did nothing to undermine their common expectation that Islam had something special to offer.
Islamist intellectuals exploited to the last atom the structural opening offered by the postmodern turn in Western thought, where colonial European guilt unjustifiably endowed non-Western claims of authenticity with the status of alternative. Unlike older generations of Muslim modernists (such as Mehmed Akif), who spoke of importing the science and technology of the West while preserving their own culture, the Islamist intellectuals of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century were more radical in their rejection of Western modernity, whose technology and culture, in their estimation, could not be separated from one another. These thinkers (people like Ali Bulac and Ismet Ozel) appeared to claim a greater sense of authenticity for Muslim identity. Coupled with the identity politics of the era, it all sounded convincing.
Western postmodernism was an internal critique of European modernity, assisted by post-colonial encounters with non-Western reality and the drive to transcend totalitarian rationalism. One of the inadvertent consequences of postmodernism was that, in its critique of modernity, it provided a cover and a lifeline for Islamism as a threat to Islam and humanity at large. Islamists appropriated and recycled much of the critique of Western modernity from both the right (such as Spengler, Heidegger, and Schmitt) and the left (such as post-colonial thought, the Frankfurt School, Edward Said, and anti-imperialism). This new Islamism moved away from a diagnostic interest in solving the concrete problems of underdevelopment in the Muslim world toward a nativist identity politics—equipped with the tools of postcolonial critique—that sought to contend with Western imperialism.
As victims of decades-long Kemalist repression, in the late 1990s the Islamists began flirting with liberal ideas in the age of globalization. They were at the forefront of the defense of justice, human rights, democracy, civil society, and so on, and were partners in the elaboration of ideas of pluralism, tolerance, and anti-militarism. Parties seeking justice and intellectuals claiming authenticity and equal rights flourished in the liberal climate of the period. Humble yet radical voices such as Ali Bulac and Abdurrahman Arslan were supplemented by a more academically confident cohort like Yasin Aktay, Omer Celik, and Yalcin Akdogan. But the younger generation was soon to be absorbed by the demands of the political party, as the new millennium witnessed the transition of Islamist politics from victimhood to a hegemonic control of state power.
The banality of Islamism became clear only when Islamists came into contact with the oxygen of political freedom. Their experiment with power, which first began with municipal opportunities in the '90s, took a toll, but the effect remained negligible. It was with the meteoric rise to power of AKP (the Justice and Development Party) in the 2000s that the dramatic fall of the Islamist intellectuals began in earnest. With a few exceptions from the older generation and almost no exceptions among the younger, they swiftly submitted to the demands of popular politics and ended up serving as apparatchiks in exchange for ranks and positions within the party. Individuals like Yalcin Akdogan articulated a new vocabulary for the conservative turn. Political Islamism later took on a populist and nationalist character.
Having exploited the help of liberals and the progressive left in their ascent to power, the Islamists underwent a spectacular change of heart. Those conscientious Islamist intellectuals who had been speaking truth to power suddenly became hucksters of party politics and petty legitimizers of oppressive policies. Turkish Islamism offered the world an ugly Muslim nationalism, a nouveau-riche ethos of conspicuous consumption, and kleptocratic handling of public resources.
Dragged by party politics into the desert of populist nationalism, today Islamism in Turkey is associated in the public mind with corruption and injustice. And no self-respecting intellectual identifies with Islamism.