Why is it that Islamic movements and sometimes the mere whiff of Islam often give rise to conspiracy theories about a political takeover? This is true of completely different categories of actors such as the AKP (Justice and Development) Party in Turkey, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Muslim groups in various countries of Europe. AKP is a political party functioning within a democratic system of governance in a majority Sunni country and with an economically liberal and EU-friendly agenda. While the Shiite Hizballah is also a political party, albeit in a barely functional democracy, its organization is much more opaque than AKP’s and it also commands a paramilitary organization. And, finally, Muslims in Europe are a panoply of barely politically organized individuals and groups who do not even speak the same language. Nevertheless, all three have been accused of secretly wanting to subvert and Islamisize an existing democracy despite public proclamations to the contrary.
There are doubtless many reasons for this tendency. First, there is the fact that many people have interpreted Islam to offer a theory of state or a mode of governance. Then there is also the past of the aforementioned political parties. Although Hizballah’s open letter of 1984 acknowledges people’s liberty to choose the form of government they desire, it also expresses a belief that Islamic governance alone can guarantee justice and liberty for all. As for AKP, some members have a political history in (now banned) parties that openly advocated a religious political agenda and/or “Islamic values.”
Still, it is intriguing that very different categories of Islam and very different relationships between Islam as a religion and Islam as politics elicit similar structural reactions. Not to mention that these accusations of take-over have also been directed at disparate Islamic minorities in Europe, many of them socioeconomically marginalized and politically underrepresented.
An earlier post on this blog deals with some of the issues concerning Islam in Europe — the more interesting part of the post is the discussion, actually. The Dutch anthropologist and scholar of religion Peter van der Veer offers another perspective on the matter. He basically links the phenomenon to a modern form of governance, the state, that renders political activity falling outside its purview as suspect. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):

Not only are communication and “openness” crucial to civil society, public sphere, and religion, but also, paradoxically, so is publicity’s opposite: secrecy. [Reinhart] Koselleck has argued in a book that appeared three years earlier than that of [Jürgen] Habermas [The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere] that the emergence of secret societies of freemasonry were crucial in the development of Enlightenment critique of the absolutist state. In the mid 18th century masonic lodges saw an immense increase in membership and can be seen as the most important sites for the new sociability of the Enlightenment, besides the more public ones such as coffeehouses, clubs, salons, and literary societies. The important point here is that these lodges were able to erect a wall of protection for their debates and rituals against both intrusion from the state and intrusion from the “profane” world.

Religion is a privileged site for examining an aspect of secrecy that is simultaneously the opposite of the public sphere and foundational for it. Religious movements and religious sites are often suspected of secret conspiracies by the powers that be. And it is precisely the moving away from state institutions and official politics that gives possibilities for fundamental moral critique. It should also be clear that this critique can take an unpleasant and terrorist form, as it did in the Jacobin ideology fo the French revolution. This uncomfortable dialectic is what German theorists like Koselleck and Habermas were interested in after the Nazi period.

(Source: “Secrecy and Publicity in the South Asian Republic Arena,” in Public Islam and the Common Good, edited by Armando Salvatore and Dale F. Eickelman, 31-32. Leiden: Brill, 2004.)

It follows logically from this that the dialectic between the state and political religious movements is more potent the longer the distance between the two. Once they become one and the same, as for example with an Islamist regime, then Islam’s location as a site for the critique of the model of modern state government is weakened. Admittedly, this poses more questions than it answers. But if you have spent too much time dwelling on these issues, then the Van der Veer excerpt can at least offer some food for thought.


On the 85th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey, Can Dündar, columnist at the Turkish newspaper Milliyet and a documentary filmmaker, made a documentary on Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Atatürk = father of the Turks). Released in Turkey on October 29th, the documentary is called, simply, Mustafa — a clear indication of the director’s intentions of portraying the Turkish leader as… human.

This is enough to raise a racket in some Turkish circles. For bringing out Atatürk’s weaknesses — such as heavy smoking, heavy drinking, womanizing, and dying a lonely death — Dündar made dedicated enemies and was even accused of being a pawn of imperialist powers in a psychological operation aimed at undermining the Turkish army (article in Turkish). The director is also facing a criminal complaint for insulting the father of the republic (most probably under law 5816 against publicly “insulting the legacy/memory of Atatürk”).

The noise has been coming mainly from circles normally described with the blanket terms “secularist” and “kemalist”. But if the debate awakened by the release of the movie shows anything, it is the complexity lying behind these simplistic shorthands. The director himself does not fit neatly into the Turkish military’s jargon of “enemies within” — i.e. Kurds, Islamists, and “Europeanized” liberals such as Orhan Pamuk. A fan of Mustafa Kemal, he also claims to have wanted to present him “in a more intimate, affectionate light.”

The figure of Atatürk has been elevated sometimes to the degree of absurdity — school children every week swear to walk down Atatürk’s path. A Turkish friend of mine had to face school detention as a child for refusing to partake in a similar ritual. But that idealization only reflects the degree of insecurity about Turkey’s borders and identity — an insecurity that reflects more violently in the popular and institutional refusal to deal with the Armenian history, the Kurdish issue, and, in some circles, the Muslim character of the country.

It is a positive sign that the documentary was conceived, made, and delivered, even met with public appreciation and praise. When conspiracy theories are shifting political quarters with the Ergenekon trial and when Turkey is facing several crossroads of identity — from Islam and the EU to a more active regional role — such a debate is not only healthy and necessary, it is also long overdue.