Must Islamists Be Autocratic?

by Daniel Pipes
July 19, 2013

updated Nov 23, 2013
Cross-posted from National Review Online, The Corner

Mohamed Morsi’s recent ejection as president of Egypt prompts a contrast-and-compare with his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an. Their careers at the top contain major dissimilarities:

  • Morsi’s stunning economic indifference vs. Erdo?an’s very impressive economic management.
  • Imposing Islamic ways too fast and broadly in on year vs. applying them slowly and piecemeal in a decade.
  • Inspiring the largest political protest in human history vs. winning three elections with successively larger percentages of the vote.
  • Antagonizing the deep state vs. patiently sidelining it.
  • Being removed from office by the military vs. removing the military from politics.

In brief, Morsi is as incompetent as Erdo?an is competent.

These differences aside, Erdo?an and Morsi, who are mutual admirers, share two key features: wanting to bring their countries in compliance with the Shari’a, the law of Islam, and displaying an autocratic streak, a characteristic which helped undo Morsi and could well wreck Erdo?an’s career.

Which leaves me wondering: Is their shared anti-democratic enraged sputtering at dissent just coincidence? Does it reflect the dictatorial quality of their political formations (Necmettin Erbakan’s various parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively)? Or does it reveal something inherent about the Islamist program itself?

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Gülen, Erdogan, Gül.

I am inclined to see it as inherent … except that some Islamists in Turkey, host of the world’s most sophisticated Islamist scene, appear to becoming less autocratic. The president, Abdullah Gül, and the leader of the chief Turkish Islamist organization, Fethullah Gülen, are apparently evolving away from the dictatorial mentality. Gül’s caution and democratic sensibility in response to the Gezi Park protests could lead to his becoming Erdo?an’s successor. How Gül and Gülen respond to an increasingly erratic Erdo?an has probably major implications for the future of the Islamist movement. Keep an eye on those two. (July 19, 2013)

July 21, 2013 update: Kadri Gürsel of the Milliyet newspaper is keeping an eye on Gül, whom he contrasts with Erdo?an as follows:

Before the May 31 social explosion, with a narrative he consciously adopted, Gül was positioning himself with a positive approach to Erdo?an’s negatively perceived policies. But Gül was always careful not to trample on the sensitivities of the AKP’s conservative base.

As much as Erdo?an deviated from EU perspectives, Gül was emphasizing the importance of the EU for Turkey. Against practices restricting freedom of press in Turkey, Gül defended freedom of press. We remember that Gül had objected to some of Erdo?an’s anti-democratic initiatives. For example, last November before the peace process with the Kurds — while Erdo?an spoke of lifting the immunities of nine pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party parliamentarians — Gül opposed him by saying that a vicious circle had to be avoided.

On June 1, Gül intervened with a soothing and reconciliatory approach to Erdo?an’s oppressive attitude of using excessive police power. It was not a coincidence that police forces withdrew from Taksim Square on June 1 after Gül’s meeting with Erdo?an and other government officials. On June 2 — after Erdo?an left on his tour of the Maghreb — Gül, in a statement clearly addressed to protesters, said: “Democracy does not only mean elections. We received well-intentioned messages. When the time comes, necessary action will be taken.”

There is a basic narrative difference between Erdo?an and Gül. As much as Erdo?an sticks to polarizing, extremist and irresponsible narratives, Gül emerges as moderate, responsible and as a unifier. There is one more difference: With his policies and remarks up to today, Erdo?an made it clear that he does not pay any attention to the legitimacy perceptions of non-AKP voters. Gül, however, pays attention to legitimacy perception of those not voting for the AKP.

Aug. 20, 2013 update: Rasim Ozan Kütahyal? argues in “Is a Power Struggle Brewing Between Erdo?an and Gülen?” that the rivalry between these two individuals and the organizations they head is the key to the Turkish political scene: “Will they fight for political power, or will they reconcile? Do the Gülen people want their own bureaucratic tutelage to replace the military tutelage? Or is Erdo?an determined to totally purge Gülenists from the state?”

Oct. 10, 2013 update: In his Oct. 1 address to the Turkish parliament, Abdullah Gül further distanced himself from Erdo?an, the Voice of America explains:

Gül praised last June’s anti-government protests – which Erdo?an had called a conspiracy against his government, saying they were an important sign of participatory democracy. In another thinly veiled attack on the government, Gül stressed the importance of a free press. According to human rights groups, Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.

Nov. 12, 2013 update: Semih Idiz raises the possibility in “The Gul Alternative” that “Erdogan’s harsh manner may lead his party to consider President Abdullah Gul to run for re-election rather than back Erdogan for president in 2014.”

Source material can be found at this site.

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