Farewell to Islamism?

This piece is published at The Muslim News Issue 203, Friday 31 March 2006 – 2 Rabi’ al-Awwal 1427

Discussions of Islamism have acquired a new significance since the JDP (Justice and Development Party)’s coming into power in Turkey in 2002. A descendant of the Welfare Party (Refah), which had previously held power but was outlawed and closed by the State’s secular elites, the JDP has been striving to redefine its own political identity. It has attempted, on the one hand, to adopt a label that hearkens back to its previous Islamist tendencies, but does not, on the other, allow these to become so prominent as to risk its acceptability vis a vis the State’s elites. Acknowledging these tensions, I want to make sense of the JDP’s position in respect of the question of Islamism.

The origins of the JDP and the fact that its membership is mainly composed of ex-Islamists, might suggest that the JDP is just another version of Islamist parties in Turkey. A closer look at JDP’s policies and its political gestures, however, would lead us to question this assumption. In order to identify a political position as Islamist, there are two telling points: its approach to the Ummah and to the West. Now the interesting thing about the JDP is precisely the way it has changed, reformulated and reversed the vocabulary of Islamism in relation to each of these two concepts. And it is this, which also makes it of wider significance.

In most circles, whether Islamist or not, the JDP has been defined as either “post-Islamist” or conservative-democrat. The “post-Islamist” label recalls the Party links with its Islamist past, but suggests that these links have changed over time to become identified with a Muslim/religious sensibility rather than an Islamist political position per se.

The second approach argues that the JDP no longer bears any relationship to Islamism whatsoever, and is instead a new conservative party, along the lines of European Christian Democrat parties. The first credits the JDP as a creative political actor with an Islamist heritage; the second disregards the JDP’s debt to Islamism entirely and reduces its position to a green liberalism. Neither does justice to the reality. Neither is the JDP merely an Islamist party trying to reconceive the possibilities of Islamism, though its preferences do deeply affect Islamist political subjects; nor can its debt to Islamism be simply brushed off, particularly in view of its reliance on key groups of (ex-)Islamist voters, bureaucrats and intellectuals among them. So how should we understand the JDP’s position?

I hope to capture these tensions by calling the JDP’s position by the name of “Islamist-nihilism”. I use nihilism here in the way Nietzche uses it in his Genealogy of Morals. In Nietzchean terms there are two types of nihilism, one negative and destructive, the other productive but not proactive. This second, positive type of nihilism, fills the gap during times of crisis of values by creating pseudo-values that enrich life in productive ways. This form of positive nihilism, internalises the guilt and pain, reinterprets them in a new way, and finally creates and redirects resentment to itself. Most significantly, it allows one to survive, to achieve goals, to gain success in an ordinary way, but does not allow one to imagine a new order of things, new horizons, or another way of living. In this respect, by not identifying itself with a new imagination of the Ummah, of another world, and a different definition of the good life, the JDP falls into this category.
The JDP’s nihilism, and the sense in which it represents a new political actor, may be better appreciated by turning to the question of the Ummah and the West. Historically, these two concepts are what separate Islamist from other political positions in Turkey. Islamists, wherever they are situated in the political spectrum, make implicit or explicit references to the Ummah as the centrepoint of their world, and locate themselves against the West or Eurocentrism with a new vocabulary. In that sense, the history of Islamism is the separation of modernization as a ‘technical’ process from westernisation as a political process. Accepting the former and rejecting the latter, Islamists seek modernization but not at the expense of the internalisation of Western values.

The JDP breaks with this line of politics. Firstly, it rejects the ‘dream’ of the Ummah and restricts itself to the limits of the nation-state. Even though there have been some signs during this last year that the JDP is attempting to think beyond the limits of the nation-state it nevertheless continues to define its politics in terms of real politick. Secondly, the JDP does not offer a critique of Eurocentrism; on the contrary, it has affirmed EU ideals and values as universal values for humanity.

In both these respects then the JDP has cast off its moorings from mainstream Islamism. Whereas the Ummah forms the core principle of Muslim politics, its rejection by the JDP and its apolitical stance on the issue destroys the possibility of a new identity in the name of Islamism.

It leaves Islamist subjects with a crisis of meaning. In addition, by universalising Western values and Eurocentric discourses though its ideal of accession to the EU, the JDP replaces the Ummah as origin of values with the EU itself. Even before its accession to Europe, therefore, Turkey is already joining the club – not by fashioning itself in the secular identity which Europe expects of it, but by theologically refashioning the EU for its Islamist subjects.

Nuh Yilmaz is a postgraduate student at George Mason University, Dept of Cultural Studies, Virginia, USA.

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