Yet Another Instance of Islamic Exceptionalism?

Tanks rolled down the street, state owned TV channels were taken over, dissenting media outlets were raided and silenced, president’s office was surrounded, the first ever democratically elected president was put under house arrest, the constitution was suspended, and the head of army stood in front of cameras to try to justify these disgraceful deeds. As a citizen of Turkey, a country that has endured four military coups, these scenes were all too familiar; what has been taking place in Egypt was clear and obvious: a coup d’état.

The Politics of Naming a Coup (not) a Coup

Yet, the leaders of “democratic” countries did not describe the events in Egypt as a coup. The United States, which ostensibly squandered a great deal of finances and shed blood all in the name of “democracy” in greater Middle East and North Africa, failed to use “c” word. President Obama went to great lengths not to denote the events as what they really were: coup d’état. The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce went even a step further by putting the blame for this coup squarely on the shoulders of the ousted president Morsi, without so much as a mention of the misdeeds of the military.

Likewise, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton refrained from using the “c” word in her statement on the overthrow of Morsi. In addition, her statement did not indicate any possible repercussions against the military’s grab of power from elected civilians. Reflecting the EU’s this stance, Marietje Schaake, a member of European Parliament representing the Democrat 66 Party from the Netherlands, in her interview with Egyptian AhramOnline on July 4, shied away from condemning the ousting of a democratically elected president. She rather chose to ignore the coup that had taken place only a day before. Instead, she deemed it too urgent to articulate upon the technical aspects of the EU’s assistance to Egypt and how to defreeze EU’s 5 billion Euros financial assistance and loan program for the country, which was mostly frozen during the Morsi’s presidency.

These two statements were in clear breach of the EU’s stated policy of democracy promotion in neighboring countries. Since 1990s, the EU has developed frameworks such as, Barcelona Process, European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), Euro – Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), in order to forge better relations with Middle Eastern and North African countries and to encourage them to pursue democratization, good governance and to uphold civil liberties. Yet, the EU’s thus far reactions to the military coup’s crushing of a fledgling democracy, no matter how imperfect it had been, in the most populous Arab country has not only discredited all of its policy and parlance of democratization, it has also risked making the distrust between the EU and Islamic-leaning movements in the region entrenched. Unless there is a major reevaluation of the EU stance on the military coup, the relations will be irreparably damaged.

This refusal to call a coup a coup has not been limited to the official circles. A significant part of the international media, pundits, and analysts also followed suit by not labeling the events as coup or condemning them. But why were the pundits so reluctant in defining the new millenium’s first televised coup by its name? Have we not all been applauding the irresistible shift towards democratization world-wide? Was not the Arab Spring a welcome development similar to the ones that had taken place in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 – 1990? Then, why is this Egyptian exceptionalism?

Why do democracies remain silent as the Egyptian Military crashes a nascent democracy?

Many analysts strove to offer justification for their either outright or tacit support for this coup, or reluctance to speak out against it. One of the most commonly cited justifications has been that this military intervention has received a significant popular support, hence could not be regarded as a coup d’etat. Yet a cursory examination of history of military coups would reveal that there is nothing new in military coups receiving popular support. As Jackson Diehl rightly pointed out in his Washington Post op-ed over the past half-century military coups in countries as diverse as Argentina and Thailand also received large popular supports. In a similar vein, after military coup of 1980 in Turkey, military-drafted constitution was approved in a referendum by more than 90% of votes. However, neither the public support for military to wage a coup nor public approval of their deeds disqualified their actions from being labeled for what they exactly were: “coup d’état”. Therefore, the ‘public support’ pretext is a feckless explanation for not denoting the event as a coup in Egypt.

The excessive emphasis on the identity of the president and the characteristics of the party, in the international media and analysts’ discourse, seems to indicate the real reason for condoning the coup. Finding an article that did not attempt to justify the military takeover of the Morsi government by references to his and his party’s Islamist identity and a detailed account of all the mistakes they made, supposedly due to their Islamist politics, has become a mission impossible. For some, this whole affair represented the confirmation of their long-held belief regarding the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. They eagerly spelled out the failure of Political Islam in playing by the rules of an open and democratic political system.

Yet such a judgment is not only problematic because it adopts an essentialist approach to both democracy and religion, but also because it conflates liberalism with democracy. Moreover, this approach overlooks the real issue facing the Middle Eastern and North African states: the inability and incompatibility of secularists to comply by the rules of an open, freely contested, and democratic political system.

Why is secularism incompatible with democracy?

First, the perennial debate on incompatibility between Islam and democracy has been a flawed one. This debate adopts an essentialist approach to both democracy and religion. It accounts for the existence of a functioning democracy more through the specific cultural, civilizational and religious codes than through the existence of strong and independent institutions, rules of law, and political experience. This (Euro-centric) view does not only conflict with the universal claims of democracy, but it has been discredited by the political experience of different people from around the world. This approach first assumed that democracy was essentially and exclusively European due to its unique mix of cultural, civilizational and religious factors, thus it could not take root anywhere but the European-western world. This stance assumed that other regions, cultures or religions were impervious to democratization due to their exceptional circumstances and religious and cultural values, which were deemed to be incommensurate with democratic values.

This unsubstantiated belief has been progressively challenged by the experiences of different countries and cultures with democracy. As countries like Taiwan and Japan proved that there was no Asian exceptionalism, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia defied the purported Islamic exceptionalism. In the face of these challenges, yet another exceptionalism has been suggested: Arab exceptionalism. Yet the revolutions in the Arab World rendered this latest form of exceptionalism obsolete as well. Thus, these experiences illustrated that Asians, Muslims and Arabs were no different in their demands for representative democracy and dignity than their European and American peers.

Second, when pundits question the compatibility of Islam and democracy, what they actually mean is whether Islam is compatible with liberalism. Given that Islamist movements are usually the best organized groups at the societal level in the countries they operate and that they share the value systems of the public at large, they have no qualms about electoral democracy—a stance they eagerly proved by seizing every opportunity for free and fair elections. In this respect, it becomes clear that what is meant by this question of compatibility is whether Islamists are ready to accommodate liberal demands and different (secular) life styles. Due to the fact that vast majority of Arab-Muslim countries has been governed by secular authoritarian regimes, we have not had a real chance to observe to what extent the Islamist movements are capable and willing to accommodate different demands and life styles. The only meaningful case that can be examined belongs to Turkey’s Islamic leaning governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

This experience provides a case for optimism. Despite the imperfect nature of its over a decade rule and the need for further opening the public and political sphere for different demands, identities, and perspectives, Turkey’s political and public sphere have become more pluralist during this period than it had been under the Kemalist-secular establishment. However, this does not mean that Islamist movements will play no role in shaping what is acceptable in the public sphere, neither it means that the public sphere should solely be defined by liberal principles. Islamists, for that matter socialists or any other ideologies, have as much right as liberals to shape the public sphere with their own value systems.

Third, contrary to widespread assumption, it is the secularist elites and establishments that demonstrate incompatibility with democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. This region has not witnessed Islamists’ halting or crushing democratic processes. In fact, one may argue that the only exception might be the Iranian election of 2009 on a minor scale. Yet, the region witnessed many instances of secularist establishment’s and elites’ crushing of democratic processes: four coups by secular military – establishment in Turkey, Algerian army’s crushing of Islamic Salvation Front in 1992 election to prevent them from coming to power through democratic elections, Egyptian army’s present day crushing of a fledgling democratic experiment. Likewise, in Syria, it is again the secularist Baathist regime that stifles peoples’ demands for freedom, democracy, and economic well-being. This raises the question as to why Middle Eastern and North African secularists demonstrate this inability to reconcile with democratic processes?

Renowned scholar Jose Casanova’s following observations are imperative in understanding this dilemma. “One wonders whether democracy does not become an impossible “game” when potential majorities are not allowed to win elections, and when secular civilian politicians ask the military to come to the rescue of democracy by banning these potential majorities, which threaten their secular identity and their power.” This observation does not only aptly capture the crux of challenges to the democratization in the region, it also elucidates why Middle Eastern and North African secularists prove unable to comply with democratic rules and procedures. Thus, the search for Islamist-proof democracy makes democracy itself a mission impossible to accomplish.

The Islamist identity of Morsi and his party seems to be the major reason for the reticence of the international community and media in defining this coup a coup! The future of democracy and upholding of rights and liberties of the citizens in the Middle East and North Africa are significantly contingent upon whether Islamists would be allowed to run in fair elections and rule, if they win. If we do not want Essam el Haddad’s words “…the message will resonate throughout the Muslim world loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims” to form the mindset of new generation of Islamists in the region, then it is imperative to take a stance against this coup, which has the potential to stifle the emerging democratic experiments of the Arab Spring.

This article was first published by Huffington Post