By Fred Pegna, MPIA 2014

There is a lesson to be learned from the Middle East and it’s not what you might think. Beyond the tribal societies and all the excuses for why democracy hasn’t taken root there is a lesson on the negative role of religion in democracy that we seem to have ignored or forgotten, which is, that democracy requires secular nationalism and is hurt by religion. The comparison of Turkey with the rest of the Middle East is a vivid illustration of what happens when religion is more important than secular nationalism.

It might seem strange saying that nationalism is a necessary part of democracy. Yet it is the biggest difference between Turkey and the rest of the Middle East, and the West for that matter. Professor X stated in theory of international politics that modern nation-states are held together by a collective ideology based in ideas of shared beliefs that cause a sense of allegiance. These shared beliefs can be based on secular concepts of shared history or national ideals (i.e. nationalism) while spiritual concepts such as shared religion and religious community. Where these two different foundational concepts of nationhood differ is in the type of debate they create. Arguments in a secular society must be supported by evidence (however skewed the conclusions might be). Those arguments can always be questioned by different interpretations of the evidence. In a society based on religion though, arguments are based on faith and ‘truths’ that cannot be questioned. This inevitably leads to stifled debates as anyone going outside the accepted bounds of religious thought gets branded a heretic or worse. Thus the debate that is a key component of democracy cannot take place in a society based on religious concepts.

This is not an argument that Islam is not compatible with democracy. It is an argument that a society that sees spiritual precepts as the foundational concept of its nationhood will never be democratic. This is where the example of Turkey today is important. Europe took hundreds of years and many wars to establish the primacy of temporal authorities over the Church (the other part of the Peace of Westphalia we don’t hear much about). Turkey did the same thing in a Muslim nation fairly quickly in historical terms. Turkey’s example gives hope for the Middle East. Ataturk’s Turkish nationalism and national program (Kemalism) substituted secular precepts of nationhood for the spiritual precepts that were part of the old Ottoman identity, laying the ground work for the democracy that Turkey sees today. The same should be possible in the rest of the Middle East. The key to seeing democracy in the Middle East is to repeat the experience of Turkey throughout the Middle East.

Arguments that label Turkey’s AKP party as Islamist or religious are misleading. The AKP may be called Islamist, but it has very little in common with organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Muslim Brotherhood attempts to install the Koran and associated religious texts as the foundational reference point for Egyptian society, the AKP takes principles from Islamic thought and uses them to improve a secular society. This is very similar to what European Christian-Democrat or American Republican parties do by taking principles of Christian thought and applying them to improve a secular society. The difference might appear tiny, but it is significant. In a Muslim Brotherhood-led society, religion and its unquestionable ‘truths’ dominate. Religious doctrine is more important than the rights of individual Egyptians. In Turkish society, the rights of Turks are more important than the religious doctrine, and what is democracy if not the pre-eminence of the rights of individuals over the desires of society?

What does this all mean to our obsession with democracy? It means that we shouldn’t obsess about it. Europe shifted from religious to secular concepts over hundreds of years of war. Turkey spent 80 years as a politically authoritarian but culturally progressive nation-state before it could have true democracy. If we want democracy to spread in the Middle East, we need to tolerate strongmen similar to Ataturk who develop secular identities for their nation-states while pursuing good governance. Most importantly we need to avoid public religious discourse in general, setting the example at home and abroad.