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Food for Thought


Managing the Interaction between Islam and Democracy - Özdem Sanberk

At the root of the problems being faced today in the region and all over the world, lies the decline of multinational empires in the last century. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires dismantled at the end of World War I, the Russian Empire in 1917, the French and British Colonial Empires at the end of World War II, and the Russian Empire in 1991. Each of these collapses has created immense geo-political earthquakes and with the mass migrations caused, has brought to surface ancient religious, sectarian and identity-related feelings of rancor and hatred, deeply rooted political and economic disagreements, ongoing land claims, unsettled issues of greed and tension, and deadly conflicts.  

The aftershocks of these earthquakes are still causing major damage, especially in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. Israel, which has been expanding its boundaries and spreading out since 1948, dims any blossoming hope of a new and peaceful order that would come to the region with Palestinians gaining their independence. The peace process has been dragged for several decades without results. The feelings of hopelessness, injustice, inequality and humiliation caused by this disappointment push the destitute masses into the lap of radical and fundamentalist Islamic movements.


The wave of democracy that brought down dictators and washed over the ordinary and oppressed people of the Arab world a couple of years ago, now cannot breach the harsh cliffs that are the despotic regimes of the region. Bringing down a dictatorship does not equate with building a democracy in its place.




The Western World on the other hand, completely missed the historic rendezvous presented by the ʼArab Springʼ. Due to their fear of mass migration and radical Islam, and with their inclination to close in onto themselves, the Europeans did not accompany the impoverished Muslim people of the Arab world throughout their journey towards democracy and economic prosperity. Withholding the support for these movements towards democracy and freedom did not wash away the Europeans’ fear of radical Islam or mass migration. On the contrary, now they are at the risk of experiencing, on a greater scale, the instability and insecurity that they were trying to avoid in the first place.


As for the United States, it has oriented its strategic priorities towards the distant horizons of China and Southeast Asia, and does not have a precise, systematic and long-term strategy concerning the Middle East or the Eastern Mediterranean. It is trying to manage events in a reactionary removedstyle and is not taking any formal or comprehensive initiatives.


Whereas after the end of World War II, the United States had seen personal vital interest in the reconstruction of the then wrecked Europe and the re-generation of its socio-economic structure and productivity; it put into effect the Marshall Plan, which lies at the foundation of the prosperity and development of European countries. In the same vein, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the collapse of communism, the European Union opened the road to full membership for the Central and Eastern European countries that had gotten out from under the thumb of the Warsaw Pact; they did not abandon these countries during their difficult transition into democracy and a social market economy.


Today, if the Western World and especially the European Union wants to secure its future, then it must use the same common sense to help the Muslim and Arab region comprising of its old colonies get out of the downfall that it is in the midst of, because it will be impossible for humanity to establish a safe, free and liberal system if it is unable to find solutions to these global problems in this global era. For this reason, the United States, just as much as the European Union, is an indispensable stakeholder in the recovery of the disintegrating political and economic structures in the Arab world. However, the main responsibility in the reconstruction efforts surely lies in the Muslim countries themselves.




If the international community does not want to relive the painful experiences of the 21st century, then the United States and the European Union, with millions of Muslims and Arabs in their communities, have no choice but to work together with the Muslim world in the international arena in a very different way: through collaboration and the joint construction of a common future.


Inevitably, this collaboration will focus on the basic concepts of ʼIslamʼ and the ʼMiddle Eastʼ, because the fate of the new century will depend on the way in which the relationship and interaction between Islam and democracy is governed. Even though the ‘Arab Spring’ seems to have passed, the widespread search of the Muslim and Arab masses for freedom and prosperity is far from over. The genie is out of the bottle. It is impossible to rewind history. Just as Vali Nasr has stated, in the forthcoming decades, the new generations of the Arab world may be more conservative, more religious, and even less respectful of the idea of equality for men and women. However, in the global communication age, this conservatism and piousness will not prevent them from searching for more prosperity, freedom, power and justice. Despite that, closed Arab regimes will maintain their internal policies and practices functioning on the foundation of a formalistic Islam that is abstracted from the essence of Islam, at odds with peace, and feeding off of hatred towards the West. The Islamic world may very well suffer from this dualism for many years to come.


Maybe even more importantly, millions of Muslims already living in Western Christian societies and whose numbers are ever increasing due to unending mass migrations, will be taking not only a stronger stance, but also actions against the second class citizen status that they have been subjected to within their countries of residence and that we have been witnesses to. Their tangible demands as individuals for justice in their everyday lives may at times turn into violent eruptions in these said countries, and these acts of struggle may cause threats to social life, public order and internal security that do not stay confined to individual countries. Whether the opportunity created by the search of the Muslim world for prosperity and more equal living conditions is seized by the international community and supported by the United States and the European Union, will be the developments to determine the future of the 21st century and whether the world will reach a more just, safer, freer and more self-respecting world order. However, instead of a new ‘Greater Middle East Project’ or a new form of economic exploitation driven with ulterior motives, the goal behind the support for this search must be the common interest of humanity, shared solidarity and an understanding of equality. This very understanding of equal partnership and solidarity is what differentiates this vision from the old north-south dialogues.




Due to the reasons stated above, security-oriented measures alone will not be enough in the struggle today against violent radical Islamic groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. This is because the solution is still not sought in the removal of the integrated political, economic and socio-psychological reasons that cause these groups to emerge in the first place.


With the exception of Tunisians, no Arab people have a voice in their own governmental structures, values, policies, futures or ambitions. These rights belong to one man, one party or a despotic family rule.


A substantial amount of the Muslims in the Western World are living under conditions of unemployment and poverty and are faced everyday with acts of xenophobia, racism, marginalization and discrimination in all spheres of life. Violent radical organizations such as el-Qaeda and ISIS, on the other hand, promise the oppressed, deprived and ill-treated masses the dream of jointly creating an Islamic state that will grant them not only the status of a first class citizen, but also honor, dignity and most importantly, an imaginary sense of self-confidence.


Unless deprived Muslim communities find a real sense of self-confidence in the everyday life in their own countries or through natural and legitimate conditions in Western countries, and hence balance the strong incentive created by the call of radical organizations, the emergence of a severe climate of violence in our region and the world in the upcoming decades will be unavoidable.




However, the above analysis does not explain the increasing conscription to ISIS currently from Turkey. As Soli Özel said, the conditions in Turkey are very different from the conditions in other Muslim countries. The Turkish people have first class citizen status in their own country. It is clear that this status cannot even be compared to the conditions that Muslims are subjected to in Europe. Therefore, it is important to examine seriously why there is an increase in the rate of conscription to ISIS and why there is a propensity towards radicalization in Turkey in the absence of any kind of pressure on the religious segment of the population.


In fact, this finding in itself confirms the complicated nature of the interaction between Islam and democracy around the 21st century world; it is evident that in order to manage this interaction in a healthy way, the first and foremost necessity is to comprehend it.