Egyptian Muslims Should Embrace Secularism
How do you see this evolving world looking out from the old Ottoman Empire?
Abdullah Gul | What we are seeing today is a circle completing itself. A couple of centuries ago China was the most important economy in the world. Then the industrial revolution came and England moved forward, followed by the United States. Now, once again, the center of economic gravity in the world is going back to where it was. More wealth is being spread around to others. We live in a plural world with many power centers. Identities can no longer be prioritized as “Western” or “Islamic” or “Chinese.”
You are right that so-called modernity, as you put it, no longer belongs just to the West. We have managed to fashion it to fit the values of an Islamic society just as the Chinese have been able to style economic prosperity, science, technology to their ancient civilizational ways.
From a more philosophical point of view, though, I would say that the concept of modernity is itself debatable. More properly, we should talk about fundamental values—social justice, equality, respect for the faiths, languages and ways of others; a governing system and economy that delivers the goods to its people.
When you approach the issue in this way, and explain to the people that their values are not in contradiction with new ways and means to improve their lives, they take ownership of the process of development. Greater prosperity flows from their confidence and willingness to open up and engage the world on their own terms. Because of this sense of ownership, the idea of democracy becomes more strongly rooted. It can’t be easily dislodged because the people and their government are aligned in their aspirations.
This is the reform path we are taking in Turkey today. I think you will see China and, despite its present challenges and difficulties, also Russia move toward democracy as we understand it: good governance that abides by the rule of law and accountability.
If the idea of “being modern” is imposed from the top by authoritarian means, it doesn’t work. That amounts to social engineering. There is resistance to it because it is seen as importing Western values. We have seen this reaction clearly in the Arab Spring uprisings which overthrew authoritarian “modernizers” across the region. The Arabs are now seeking their own path commensurate with their values.
NPQ | In a speech earlier this year in Cairo, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told the Muslim Brotherhood and others contending for power in their new democracy that they “should not fear secularism,” which has been the foundation of Turkey’s rapid economic development.
Is Turkey’s system, in which a Muslim-oriented party governs within a secular framework, a template for Egypt and the other liberated Arab states as they put together their constitutions?
Gul | What is unfortunate for the Arab and Maghreb countries is that their interpretation of secularism has been based on the French model, which is a “Jacobin” model of imposing a kind of irreligiousness.
When you speak of secularism to Muslim communities of the region, it is misunderstood because of this French implication. In practice, the implementation of secularism in the Arab and Maghreb countries has meant fighting against Islam in the name of secularism. So, we have to understand this sensitivity.
On the other hand, if you use the Anglo-Saxon interpretation of secularism, as practiced in the US or the United Kingdom, it is something that people should feel comfortable with. All it means is a separation of the state and religion, of the state maintaining the same distance from all religions and acting as the custodian for all beliefs. It is based on respect for all faiths and the coexistence of plural beliefs.
I can tell you from my conversations with the leaders in Egypt or Tunisia, including those with a religious identity, that they are very open-minded and comfortable with this Anglo-Saxon sense of secular government.
They understand that what we are doing in Turkey is focusing on fundamental freedoms. Freedom to practice one’s own religion is one of the most fundamental of freedoms. We are lifting the barriers, that’s all.
NPQ | It is ironic one of the demands of the European Union, when Turkey was on a trajectory toward EU membership, was subordinating the military to civilian rule. Now, many criticize the widespread prosecution of the generals of the “deep state” that guaranteed Turkish secularism as a veiled attack on secularism itself.
How do you respond?
Gul | What the public prosecutors are saying is that they have strong evidence to bring these cases before the courts. They allege that these individuals were engaged in an effort to organize a coup against the civilian government.
As you know, modern Turkish history has seen coup d’états by the military roughly once every 10 years. Given this fact, one can’t disregard what the public prosecutors are alleging.
In any event, these cases are pending now, and I am not in a position to say who is guilty or innocent. I only hope the cases will be resolved sooner rather than later.
NPQ | Turkey has helped mediate between Iran and the West. Now, tough sanctions have been implemented, and the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) believes Iran is more willing to open up for inspections.
Are you optimistic?
Gul | First of all, let me say that the only solution to this problem is through diplomatic means, not military action that would inflame a region already exhausted by wars. The sooner this happens, the better, because it will release immense pressures on the Middle East.
In 2010, Turkey and Brazil convinced the Iranians to transfer half of their enriched uranium outside the country so it could not be used in weaponization. At that time they had 1,000 kilos of enriched uranium. For inexplicable reasons, this agreement was not realized—and it was not Iran’s fault. So, the opportunity was missed. Now they have 3,000 kilos.
Turkey’s position on Iran’s nuclear program is crystal clear: We are categorically opposed to the presence of weapons of mass destruction in our region. Attempts to develop or acquire WMDs might well trigger a regional arms race, leading to further instability. That is why we have always called for the establishment of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, including both Iran and Israel.
We support Iran’s right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. But Iran’s program must be transparent, and its leaders must assure the international community of its non-military nature.
NPQ | When you addressed the NATO summit in Chicago earlier this week, you said that the international community was not doing enough to stop the slaughter in Syria. What should the international community do that it is not now doing?
Gul | Since the so-called “cease-fire” was declared in Syria, 1,500 people have died. Scores of people are dying every day. We support the six-point Annan plan (negotiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan), but it must be fully implemented in every respect, which has not so far been the case.
This is where the international community comes in because it has been endorsed by the UN Security Council. The Security Council must act responsibly and insist on implementation of the full plan, or it will turn out only to have consolidated the existing Assad regime.
NPQ | Well, this brings us back full circle to the beginning of our conversation about the power shift in the world today. China and Russia, which are both on the Security Council, must take up their responsibilities in this respect.
Gul | Yes, Russia’s role is key. Russia, of course, cannot bear the responsibility of all the human rights violations, the tanks and artillery bombarding cities, setting fires and killing so many people. It is important to constructively engage Russia. That is an area where not enough has been done.