Mainstream Islam has allowed the debate on how to develop religion and society to be hijacked by its more extreme groups, who are a lot more vocal and more effective at getting their message out to both the community of the faithful and to the non-Islamic world.

This failure by mainstream Islam has helped to create an imbalanced impression of Islam, which has contributed greatly to the fear with which many secularists look at political parties which espouse Islam as part of their agenda.

Last week's substantial victory of Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party in Turkey's general elections means a new clash will erupt between the government and the Turkish military.

The AK Party has formed the government for the past four years, and its open-market, pro-business agenda has delivered economic success and moved Turkey closer to EU membership.

However, the party's social policies show some of the Islamist roots of the party, and they worry the fanatically secular army and establishment, which treat any deviation from Kemal Ataturk's secular founding legacy as unacceptable.

The establishment rejected the AK Party's nomination for president in April, but following AK Party's renewed mandate it may not be able to stop the same candidate (Foreign Minster Abdullah Gul) being renominated.

What is happening in Turkey is important because the fate of a large and prosperous country is under debate, but the Turkish argument is part of the wider clash between Islamic and secular parties all over the world. It has been played out in many countries in many ways.

Most famously, the Islamist's win in an Algerian general election in the 1980s was disallowed by the government (with French backing), but many other countries have handled it differently.

When an Islamist group did well in elections in Jordan, the king did not exclude them from power but invited them to be part of the government.

In some cases, secularists fear that the Islamists will not give up their power once they have got it, and they will do whatever its takes to stay in government.

This objection is unfair since it is more of a comment on the weakness of a particular country's constitution if it allows a government to change it to its own advantage.

And although such fears may be justified in some cases, they are definitely not confined just to Islamist parties: there are all too many secular parties in power which have changed the rules to suit themselves.

Deeper fear

But there is a deeper fear: at the heart of the secular objections to Islamist parties taking power is that secularists feel that the Islamic parties will implement social changes which will be not be reversible.

As an objection to an Islamist agenda, this is deeply unfair, since it applies to all politicians. And it is particularly unfair to apply such objections uniquely to Islamist parties, when there are many parties with religious roots.

For example the Christian Democrats of many European countries have explicit commitments to Christianity, yet remain an unquestioned part of the democratic system.

Leaders of all parties and movements seek to change society and make those changes permanent. People in power want their ideas and principles to become deeply embedded in how society operates in the future.

For example, the campaigners for women's right to vote saw themselves as changing society for ever. The centuries-long struggle since Mary Wollenstonecraft's heroic start in 1792 is still continuing in some countries, but in others it is an unquestioned part of the social and political landscape.

Women have voted since 1918 in Britain (to a limited degree) and from 1928 completely, and from 1920 in the United States, and in those countries there is no desire to change that at all, yet the political mechanism exists to allow women's right to vote to be removed. Laws can be changed and constitutions can be amended.

We are living in an era when the secular certainties of the 20th century will be challenged and this has been exaggerated in the Middle East by the failure of most secular parties to offer an exciting political agenda, so most of the running has been made by the religious parties.

We will continue to see many parties come to power offering Islamist ideas, to a very greater or lesser degree. This should not frighten anyone, but like any political change, it should be able to be reviewed in the future in a consensual and peaceful way.

Your comments

Appreciate a very balanced analysis by Francis Mathew. The main idea that the Islamists propogate is that laws are divinely ordained and sovereignty belongs to God. Legislation is permissible if it is not repugnant to the Quran and the Sunnah. A careful study of Islam reveals that Islam has a self regulatory political system built on firm democratic principles. The challenge for mainstream Islamists is to show how Islam is part of politics and democracy part of Islam.
Posted: August 02, 2007, 11:36

A balanced and fair analysis as against one sided sermons often presented by so-called secularists.
Posted: August 02, 2007, 09:02