Muslim Moderates

Whether we realise or not, there has been a significant shift in the political approach of many Islamist movements especially in the dynamics of their normative framework throughout the world. It probably started with the transformation of Islamist parties in Turkey, namely Refah (the Welfare Party) and the Fazilet (the Virtue Party) to Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, hereinafter referred as AKP) that has a more tolerant normative framework and eventually relinquished their Islamism.

If we were to trace this transformation, it started long ago even before the reformist movement of Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, who are widely known as first Islamists. Perhaps the movement in Turkey was the first to respond to Western hegemony by formulating Islamic answers derived from Islamic sources. This movement is known as the Young Ottomans and could be seen as predecessors of Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh.1

A brief history

As history has it, the Young Ottomans are among the first generation students that were sent to study in Europe with a hope that upon their return, they would help reforming the state. From their interaction with the West, these students developed a respect for Western political institutions and affirmed that the state would never be modernised unless by adopting a democratic government, not a caliphate. They envisaged synthesising modern values with the traditional local values. They demanded a constitutional government, a parliamentarian regime and a political system based on human rights. They also offered a constitutional project with an Islamic foundation.2

The Young Ottomans had a chance to put their idea into practice in 1876 when there was a strong movement for a constitutional government. It was the first constitution of an Islamic State in history and was modeled on the Belgian and Prussian constitution. For the first time in Islamic history, all subjects were declared to be Ottomans regardless of their religion. All subjects were equal and enjoy individual liberty. Unfortunately this experiment was shot-lived. Sultan Abdulhamid II, the last sultan of the Ottoman caliphate dissolved the parliament in 1878. The Young Ottomans were dispersed however the influence of their proto-liberalism and constitutionalism continued and the Sultan was forced to restore the constitution in 1908.2

In 1909 the constitution was amended to increase the power of the legislature and restrict that of the sultan. This was the time when the Young Turks who were basically the secularists and nationalists’ successors of the Young Ottomans rose to power. As a result of their ascension, the constitutional system did not last long. The Young Turks transformed this system into a dictatorship of the dominant party, Ittihad ve Terakki (Union and Progress) in a few years’ time. The Young Turks republican successors – the Kemalists – did not allow pluralism and democracy to operate until 1950. During these four decades a staunchly secularist elite ruled Turkey. The Young Ottomans’ identity and discourse were delegitimise and marginalised. The state monopolised the role of Islam in public sphere leaving no room for private interpretations of Islam.2

This signifies the beginning of a dark history in the Islamist politics and has been the source of antagonism towards any mention of the term “secular” and any new re-interpretation of what is known as a post-Islamism discourse currently.

Politics of Turkey in modern time

Fast-forward to the modern time, the first prominent Islamist Party was Milli Nizam Partisi (National Order Party) 1970-1971 and the Milli Selamet Partisi (National Salvation Party) 1972-1981. The leader of these parties was none other than the prolific Prof Necmettin Erbakan. Erbakan envisaged a strong Turkey that would be a leader of the Muslim world but his vision was short lived. The military coup closed down all political parties. Erbakan then founded a new party with a new name, Refah Partisi (the Welfare Party).

The Welfare Party became a dominant party and in 1996, Erbakan was elected as the first Islamist Prime Minister after forming a coalition. However many of Erbakan pro-Islamist actions were deemed as anti-secular. He was forced to resign in June 1997 in what was known as “post-modern” coup. Of course Erbakan had learned from the past history and he had formed a new party – Fazilet Partisi (The Virtue Party) before the closure decision.

For all the other parties Erbakan formed and led, serving the religion was a crucial factor. These parties heavily used religion as the dominating parameter of their political discourse. Erbakan himself had intolerant and exclusivist rhetoric. His discourse justified itself by the alleged existence of monolithic other.2 Just like any other Islamic party in the Muslim world; the Islamists envisaged capturing the state and engineer a top-down Islamic transformation of society.

The separation

Here was the main transition in the Islamists politic in Turkey. The younger member of the Welfare Party started to think that the only way to succeed in their agenda was to avoid any form of confrontation with the Kemalists and to steer away from using Islam as a political tool.

An internal debate took place among the Islamists. Thus, there was a separation between the “traditionalists” centered on Erbakan and the “renewalists” led by Tayyip Erdogan. The renewalists argued that the party needed a new approach on handling fundamental issues like democracy, human rights and international relations.

The raison d’etre of a state that was based on human rights according to the Virtue Party was to protect fundamental liberties. Therefore there is no justification whatsoever to use the state as an instrument of oppression and discrimination against a certain religion, sect, ideology or belief. They disapproved the use of either religion or laicism as a political instrument.3

The renewalists began to air their views on several fundamental issues and declared the failure of Islamism. Despite their tradition, the renewalists criticised the Welfare Party on the ground that it made a mistake by using religion as a political instrument. And Recep Tayyip Erdogan underlined that a state could not and should not have a religion; it is individuals that have religious affiliation.

The renewalists discourse continued with an emphasis mainly on human rights and democracy. As they departed their ways from the Islamist wing of the Virtue Party, they accommodated themselves within the secular constitutional framework and Justice and Development Party (AKP) was born in 2001.4 As they departed their ways with the Islamist wing of the Virtue Party, the discourse was more robust and ingrained in modernity and its political architecture. And a promotion of passive secularism that is neutral towards citizens’ diverse religious identities. And also while acknowledging the importance of religion as a personal belief, they accommodated themselves within the secular constitutional framework.5

From Islamism to post-Islamism

The AKP model above demonstrates the possibility of pursuing Muslim political agenda without establishing an “Islamic State”. Another characteristic of the AKP is its pragmatic understanding of Muslim politics. And according to this perspective, every Muslim could promote their Islamic views in a democratic system through their participation in a civil discourse within the boundary of democracy. They could easily reflect the Islamic ethics by fighting corruption, cronyism and nepotism, upholding justice and freedom and denying any sorts of oppression.

However history has shown that many Islamic movements are still trapped in the Islamism mind-set. Obviously this entails the rejection of the rationalist and positivist thought derived from the enlightenment. The Islamists articulate an Islamic ideology in trying to respond to their current political and economic problems. They have always imagined that Islam provides a solution to all problems, a complete and ready-to-use divine system with a superior political and economic model. They argue that Muslims must return to the roots of their religion. Islamism entails a political ideology articulating the idea of the necessity of establishing an Islamic government, understood as a government that implements the sharia.

Unfortunately religious states are among the most corrupt states on earth. Beyond the rhetoric of Islam is the solution; Islamists do not have any feasible alternative to many modern phenomena. There is no cogent alternative to modern state system, political economy and technology.

So after realising the real challenges of the modern world and in response to the changing trend of Islamism discourse, as early as 1996, Asef Bayat has used the term “post-Islamism” as a term to denote a new phase in political Islam.6 It is basically a manifestation of new condition where, following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, symbols and sources of legitimacy of Islamism get exhausted, even among its once-ardent supporters. As such, post-Islamism is not anti Islamic but rather reflects a tendency to re-secularise religion and is marked by a call to limit the political role of religion.

Bayat also asserts that post-Islamism is not only a condition but also a project, a conscious attempt to conceptualise and strategise the rationale and modalities of transcending Islamism in social, political and intellectual domain. Post-Islamism represents an endeavor to fuse religiosity with rights, faith and freedoms, Islam and civil liberties and focuses on rights instead of duties, plurality instead of singular authority, historicity rather than fixed and rigid interpretation of scriptures, and the future rather than the past.7

The experience of AKP in Turkey has provided to the Islamists wherever they are with a model that strives for a post-Islamism agenda that is more appealing to the masses irrespective of creed, race, gender and social status. It is a model of Muslim politics in a passive secularist rather than an Islamic state. The three pillars of AKP model – pragmatism, Muslim politics and passive secularism – are interrelated. The party’s pragmatism encourages it to pursue policies for their substantive, not ideological, worth. At the same time, a commitment to promoting Islamic values allows the party to pursue Muslim politics in a secular state.8

Recommendations for the Islamists

The Islamists, especially in Malaysia, should learn from the experience of their Turkish brothers and sisters. The fear from ill-informed ideas about secularism should be dispelled. The AKP model has been shown to be a success in practicing Muslim politics without seeking the establishment of an Islamic state – a state whose constitution declares sharia to be the source of law – making it more attractive to many enlightened Muslims and more palatable to the significant minority of the other faith.

The fight to turn this country to become an “Islamic State” is a lost cause. There is no foreseeable future for such politics. Muslims should learn to live in a secular state and promote fundamental Islamic values like justice, freedom, equality, tolerance and good governance. Unfortunately Islamists tend to focus disproportionately on issues related to hudud and criminal laws and were seen to be so obsessed with women’s bodies rather than their rights that actually undermine Islam’s moral principles and ethical goals. On a similar note, it is inappropriate and strange for a state or a country to debate on the place of Sharia in its constitution or the enactment of hudud laws when they are still struggling about disposing garbage bags to meet Islam’s basic emphasis on cleanliness.

The reformists in the Islamic Party of Malaysia should also rethink their position and their aspirations. Whether it is wise for them to keep toeing the hardline way of the ulama in the party or to pursue separately the post-Islamism agenda they have been promoting all these while and to strive for “a state of care and opportunity” as they named it. Obviously their Turkish brothers have shown them a clear example although the Turkish experience is not to be copied and pasted to our context without a proper debate.

Regarding secularism, perhaps it is wise to look back at what was said by Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Hizb en-Nahdah (The Renaissance Party) when he stressed that there is no inherent incompatibility between Islam and secularism. He defended a degree of separation between political and religious affairs in what is known as as-siyasi (the political or profane) and ad-deeni (the religious or sacred).

Ghannouchi said:

It is not the duty of religion to teach us…governing techniques, because reason is qualified to reach these truths through the accumulation of experiences. Religion, however, is supposed to provide us with a system of values and principles that would guide our thinking, behaviours, and the regulations of the state to which we aspire.9

Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa is a Director at the Islamic Renaissance Front and an academic at Monash University (Malaysia Campus).


1. Yilmaz, Ihsan. 2011. Beyond Post-Islamism: Transformation of Turkish Islamism Toward “Civil Islam” and Its Potential Influence in the Muslim World”, European Journal of Economics and Political Studies; 4(1): 245-280.

2. Mardin, Serif 2005. Turkish Islamic Exceptionalism Yesterday and Today: Continuity, Rupture and Reconstruction in Operational Codes, Turkish Studies; 6(2): 145-165.

3. Yildiz, Ahmet. 2003. “Politico-Religious Discourse of Political Islam in Turkey: The Parties of National Outlook”, Muslim World; 93(2): 187-210.

4. Yildirim, Ergun et al. 2007. “A Sociological Representation of the Justice and Development Party: Is It a Political Design or a Political Becoming?” Turkish Studies; 8(1): 5–24.

5. Mecham, R. Quinn. 2004. “From the ashes of virtue, a promise of light: the transformation of political Islam in Turkey”, Third World Quarterly; 25(2): 339–358.

6. Bayat, Asef. 1996. “The Coming of a Post-Islamist Society”, Critique, Fall, 43-52.

7. Bayat, Asef. 2007. Islam and Democracy: What is the Real Question?, ISIM Papers, N8. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

8. Kuru, Ahmet. 2013. Muslim Poltics Without an Islamic State. Can Turkey’s Justice and Development Party be a Model for Arab Islamists? Policy Briefing, Brookings Doha Centre.

9. Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), “Rachid Ghannouchi’s Speech at the CSID Conference in Tunisia,” March 2, 2012, <>