Are Islam and democracy incompatible? The evolution of a radical Turkish Islamic group in Germany suggests that the pursuit of ‘fundamentalist’ goals can itself create the space for a rational appraisal of tradition. By seeking truth in origin and scripture rather than history, successive generations of Islamists may be drawn – even despite themselves – towards a more flexible commitment to a network society of social individuals. This may not yet be democracy; but it is reformation.

When the Caliphate State led by Metin Kaplan, the most radical group of political Islam in Turkey, was banned on 5 December 2001, one of its supporters said on camera: ‘If one is a Muslim, one is not a democrat. If one is a democrat, one is not a Muslim.’

Democracy is here condemned by these believers in a very literal sense. The supporters of the Caliphate State regard democracy as the embodiment of the rule of polytheism. This is equated with the rule of evil as such. Thus, some members of the community went so far as to see in democracy the deccal, the Antichrist himself, who also appears in the final battle between the good and evil of Islamic eschatology.

It might be thought that this is all that needs to be said on the subject of democratic culture and extremist Islam. I believe, however, that this subject is more complex than such explicit statements imply. My argument is this: the internal logic of the fundamentalist gesture itself gives rise to developments which call it into question and, under favourable circumstances, can transcend it from within. In order to elaborate this thesis I would like to examine the radical critique of democracy in the Kaplan community and to clarify what conceptions of individual and society it is based on.

Discontent with democracy, and the Islamic alternative

My interlocutors in the Kaplan community were imbued with a vision of unity. ‘Once one has understood, that ultimately everything is one, then one has understood Islam.’ The idea of a single, all-encompassing God is combined with the idea of a single undivided community. It finds ritual expression in the so-called five pillars of Islam: the confessional formula (‘I testify, that there is no God but Allah, and I testify, that Mohammed is God’s messenger’), the ritual prayer at five fixed times of the day, the requirement to be charitable, the requirement to fast, and the pilgrimage to Mecca.

This unity is not an unstructured one. The ideal of the inner structure can be exemplified by the star motif of Islamic art. The illustration reproduced here shows an inlay work on a 16th century Koran folding lectern.

This star motif always seemed to me like a visual rendering of a social and political vision. The societal units interlock. Each unit – family, kinship group, professional group, community, neighbourhood, enterprise – is related to the whole, just like one of the larger or smaller elements of the star motif to the pattern as a whole. They form, as one would say today, a network. The peace of society depends on the balance of the elements.

Attention to boundaries plays a special role in the preservation of the balance. Boundaries must never be absolute, precisely because this would make the interlocking and internal interpenetration impossible. The ideal is not to supersede, to dissolve boundaries, but to deal wisely with them. Dissolution is associated with fitne – chaos, disorder.

In everyday life, this culture of the boundary is expressed by a refined and elaborated ritualism; the sphere of the other is observed and respected.

The idea of jihad is inscribed in this vision. Jihad means ‘unceasing endeavour’ – and only one meaning of jihad should be translated as ‘holy war’. Ultimately jihad is directed at forces that want to disturb the balance of the social order. At the level of the individual, jihad means the battle against the nefis (desire, egoism), which does not accept the boundaries and calls them into question – here, therefore, jihad means work on the self.

At the level of society it is the will to power, to exploitation and expansion, which does not heed boundaries and thereby calls the balance (and ultimately the beautiful order) into question. In this case there is a requirement of active resistance – if need be the Muslim is called upon to take up arms. The Christian idea of a principled profession of non-violence was always very alien to my interlocutors, though the use of force was only legitimate as defence. The resistance both to the nefis and to usurpation appeared to them to be prescribed by reason. They emphasised the earthly responsibility for the maintenance of the beautiful and rational order.

This Islamic vision of a network society forms the background to their critique of parliamentary democracy. The core of their arguments is that parliamentary democracy is based on a culture of conflict; the formation of opinion takes place in corporately constituted groups, the parties, which form opinion internally and then enter into debate with one another. They are exclusive, to a certain extent autonomous and can exist independently. They constitute distinct identities. In such bodies the relationship of inside and outside is fundamentally different from that in the Islamic vision of the network.

Thus, the democratic culture of conflict implies the sceptical idea of duality, as against the optimistic idea of unity. Since no one owns the truth, regulated forms of dispute must be established. Islamicist dissatisfaction with this model is based on its predisposition to discord, strife, and sham conflicts.

Against this, they evoke the dream of a scholars’ republic. Conflicts that arose were to be solved by reference to the Koran, by obtaining a legal report, a fatwa. The weight of such a report is substantially dependent on the personal authority of the issuer. Thus, unlike a court judgment, the legal opinion given is only binding on someone who acknowledges this authority. But personal authority develops out of the free play of forces. What political Muslims have in mind, therefore, is a scholars’ republic or a legal opinion state.

The tension between theory and practice

How to implement this rigorous vision? If we now look at the actual situation in the miniature universe of the Islamicist communities in Germany, a noteworthy contrast between doctrine and reality is immediately apparent. From the start, several communities disputed the way in which the social and political vision of Islam might be advanced. It was interesting that there was no open discussion and no openly conducted dispute about these differences; but below the surface no holds were barred.

The early years, especially, of the establishment of Islam in Germany, that is, from about 1968–1985, were characterised by splits within mosques and by hostile takeovers of mosque associations by competing organisations. In other words, there were deep divisions in German Islam. This was a problem, above all, for Muslims themselves, who were very well aware of the contrast between reality and beautiful ideal. They tended to explain this in terms of human weakness and inconsistency. I had the impression, however, that the splitting was precisely a result of the consistency with which they struggled to establish unity.

A small everyday observation encapsulates the problems of the Islamic culture of conflict. In 1988, I and my acquaintances from the Kaplan community called on the Milli Görüsh community, from which the Kaplan community had split off five years earlier. We were courteously received as visitors. I was allowed to put my questions, the hodja replied, my acquaintances listened to him politely and agreed with everything with a ‘tabii, tabii’ (‘of course, of course’).

To an outsider it would have presented a picture of complete harmony; yet outside, the mood changed. The hodja’s answers were torn to pieces. The whole thing culminated in the sentence: ‘Did you hear, how disrespectful he was of the other communities. That is exactly why we left.’

I was told that there were questions I really should have asked, in order to show up my opposite number. My companions’ restraint inside the mosque reflects the respect for boundaries. While in the other’s space, one listens to him. To contradict him would violate the rules of courtesy. Criticism may only be expressed when one is outside again. The sociological problem of such an ideal is obvious: an open argument is associated with a rupture, with serious offence. ‘Divergence of opinion [is] perceived as weakening the group and it [is] better … to expel the oppositional group and let it go its own way if it is too strong. Dissent is interpreted as trauma, as a kind of terrible situation, because it recalls the violence in Mecca before the triumph of the one,’ writes Fatema Mernissi.

Islam within democracy: two routes

A historical sketch of two distinct communities of Islam in Germany illustrates the argument I am making. In 1984, Cemaleddin Kaplan broke with Milli Görüsh, the European offshoot of what was then Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party. At the time, Milli Görüsh stood for the parliamentary road to theocracy.

Cemaleddin Kaplan thought this route unrealistic, especially given the experience of the state of emergency in Turkey (1980–1983). If an Islamic party grew strong enough to take power, the army would inevitably intervene. Kaplan (whose doctrine developed under the influence of the pioneering Islamicist thinkers Al-Maududi and Sayyid Qutb) saw this dilemma as revealing inconsistency in applying the ideal of unity. The Islamic vision, he thought, cannot only be taken seriously as a goal; the everyday political struggle must also be guided by Islamic principles.

Thus, the party should be replaced by an open, inclusive movement. The return to the original ideals would allow the unfortunate split between the communities to be overcome, leading to a stronger position; the movement would take over the government in Turkey and ultimately allow the Caliphate – the office of the leader of all believers, which was abolished by the Turkish revolution – to be restored.

Kaplan failed – even in his attempt to bring together the believers (let alone his ultimate goal of taking power). He wanted to overcome the division of Islam, but instead did more to widen it than anyone else. This was because his vision conflicted with the immanent logic of the social. He failed to take account of the inertia of established institutions. Contrary to his expectations, masses of believers did not go over to him.

Kaplan was thus presented with a dilemma. A charismatic, open movement must either take off – or it disappears. Facing defeat, Kaplan tried to save his programme, by turning the open, inclusive movement into a sect and increasingly radicalising it. This included the declaration of religious war on Turkey in 1992, the proclamation of a separate state – the Caliphate State – of which he declared himself Caliph. With each of these steps, the borders with the other communities became tighter and harder to surmount.

The history of the Kaplan community can be read as exemplary of what happens to a group which attempts to translate the idea of unity into action more consistently and radically than everyone else – and thereby merely deepens the divisions. This was also the view of some within the community. Mehmet G., a supporter from the very beginning, who was imbued with the vision of unity, told me that he had fought for this ideal all his life – and was now forced to conclude, that he had only contributed to splitting the community yet again.

The party that Kaplan left, Milli Görüsh, went in the opposite direction. Its mother party, the Turkish Welfare Party, underwent a remarkable development in the 1990s. It transformed itself from a party of notables, the main strength of which was in rural Turkey – those areas where the Kemalist revolution had only partly prevailed – into a modern party whose main support was in the gecekondus, the poor quarters of the contemporary big city.

This expansion brought new groups into the party, producing two distinct tendencies: a reform wing, whose principal interest was in social policy (and which as a result was willing to enter quite unprecedented coalitions), and a wing which continued to emphasise the cultural struggle against Kemalism. These two wings co-existed, and debated their differences at party conferences. As in the German Green party, a first revolutionary (fundamentalist or ‘fundi’) generation was followed by a second (realist or ‘realo’) fraction, oriented towards Turkey and life in Europe respectively. Yet in both Turkey and Europe, the integration of new groups led to a process of pluralisation and the emergence of new forms of dealing with conflict. Conflicts were increasingly carried out by way of discussions and ballots and thus did not immediately lead to splits.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Refah (Welfare) Party, and its successor parties today, had given rise to a democratic culture of conflict. In terms of practical politics there is no clear relationship between the social and political ideals of democracy and those of Islam. Necmettin Erbakan, for example, stands accused of saying different things to different audiences. This can be seen, not simply as political cunning or hypocrisy, but as the everyday attempt to reconcile an emerging ‘culture of conflict’ and an ‘Islamic network culture’. On the whole, the opening to a democratic culture of conflict was marked by success, whereas the radical adherence to the vision of unity led only to further splits and hence greater weakness.

The self and the individual

These political experiences have also found a theological expression, in the discussion of whether the society willed by God is best preserved by renouncing the ideal of its complete earthly implementation, or preserving the ideal as a standard of judgement about the fallen world.

The Islamic vision of the network society also has consequences for theological argument about the nature of the self in the Islamic order. Islam emphasises the divinity (and thereby the social nature) of man. Nefis is the principle of desire and egotism, but also of autonomy, which causes him to forget his divinity and social nature. In Islam, the idea of true self-discovery can be understood in terms of self-surrender.

This idea can be spelt out in mystical terms or in terms of ethical rules. The mystical idea is more easily accessible, because it connects to widely familiar experiences. In the act of love, always the model for the mystical finding of self, one experiences oneself most intensely (and only then) in forgetting oneself, by disappearing into or merging with the other. Surrendering oneself does not, therefore, mean denial of fullness of being – on the contrary.

Mysticism transfers this humanly transitory experience to the absolute Other – namely God, to whom access comes via one’s spiritual leader, the sheikh. The unimaginable intensity of the self’s merger with God, like the moth which flares up in the candle flame and is extinguished, is expressed by Celaleddin Rumi: ‘For where love awakes, dies the self the grim despot / Let him die in the night and breathe free in the rosy dawn.’

But the idea of finding the self can also be expressed in terms of ethical rules. Here it is assumed that the true experiences of self arise only through inscribing the law in oneself. Whereas in mysticism the dialogic concept of ‘I and thou’ is central (and God is experienced by way of the ‘thou’), in the ethical variant the ‘I’ experiences itself by merging with the ‘we’ of the community. In everyday life, a ritualism of little steps represents one technique for embodying the law; another form of its incorporation is learning the Koran by heart. In these practices the word becomes flesh and the flesh becomes word. There is a beautiful translation of this idea in so-called pictorial calligraphy, in which a body is formed out of the holy script.

The follower of ethical rules finds the way to a sense of self differently from the mystic, but the fundamental idea is the same. In either case, it is evident that this concept of the self radically contradicts the ideas of individuality and autonomy, of the existentialist view that each human being is under an obligation only to his own law. The tension between it and the idea of the individual on which a secular democracy is based is also clear.

This conception of the self was especially apparent in my conversations with older members of the Caliphate State. They were imbued with it; but at the same time there was a break. These men were migrants from rural Anatolia, who in their childhood had been socialised into the Islam of the village.

In this Islamic life/world, it is easy to acquire the feeling that the social order, the biography of an individual and Islam constitute an interlocking unity. These men had no or only rudimentary schooling. When they came to the city, they taught themselves reading and writing, and were seized by a real hunger for reading. Yet this reading consisted mainly of popular religious texts: the stories of Mohammed and his companions, books about the Caliphs who followed the true path.

Their reading opened up a world to these men; it gave them access to a special universe. This went hand in hand with an overestimation of the written text. The printed word seemed to them to have a particular dignity, superior to that of the spoken word.

Gaining access to the truth in this autodidactic way – as is clear from the history of the Spanish anarchists, as from the Protestant fundamentalists in John Wesley’s circle – often produces a combination of overestimation of self and political radicalism. Among these men, there was a very marked scepticism towards the Islam taught in mosques in Turkey.

When they came to Germany, they found in Cemaleddin Kaplan someone who formulated what they had always thought, or rather felt, but had never been in a position to express – the idea that democracy’s culture of conflict is basically un-Islamic. It is evidence of the remarkable self-confidence of these men of the first generation, that they declared to me their readiness to break with Kaplan, if they caught him departing from the right way by even one iota; and not a few did precisely that, when Kaplan proclaimed the Caliphate State.

A generational shift: from autodidacts to intellectuals

The autodidacts revealed another tension, that between the nature of their religious search and the content of their thinking. They professed the core belief in subordinating oneself absolutely to the law and thereby transcending oneself. But they had arrived at this substance by a very individual route: by way of reading, of criticism, of choosing a teacher. In doing so, they had already broken with a world in which the validity of these ideas was taken for granted, and not subject to analysis. They had thus consciously appropriated and reflected a message, rather than had it self-evidently communicated to them through ritual. This break would grow larger with the next generation.

The children of these autodidacts passed through German educational establishments. My book on the Kaplan community tried to describe how they found their way – often via a rebellious phase – to a radical form of Islam. Significantly, they often began to take an interest in the community at a point when their parents were leaving it.

The difference between the two generations lies in the relationship each establishes between unity and truth. For the parental generation, the idea of unity came first. When Kaplan proclaimed the Caliphate State with himself as Caliph, they left him. They recognised that he was thereby abandoning his original programme of a revived unity of all Muslims; they rightly saw this step as a way out of the ordained network. More than this, someone who leaves the community is doing the devil’s work.

In other words, the first generation sets the idea of unity above that of truth. More precisely, it had a procedural perception of truth. Mistakes are always possible; there is always someone with a better knowledge of the never-ending tradition, and that is why it is important to remain in the community.

The next generation had gone to German schools and universities and appropriated Islam differently; that is, cognitively and with modern intellectual tools. These were no longer autodidacts, but young intellectuals approaching Islam within a wider perspective. The essential was separated from the inessential; known facts from ones that could simply be looked up (although one had to know where). In other words, a hierarchical, organised, internally-structured knowledge took the place of an extensive, networked knowledge. Such knowledge can easily give the younger students in particular, the neophytes, the feeling of possessing an Archimedean point from which the world can be understood – and from which it can be turned upside down. Most people who have attended western educational establishments will recognise this feeling.

Whereas the first generation came to the truth via the idea of unity, the second generation came to unity via the idea of truth. What ultimately would unity be worth, if it is established on the basis of untruth? The second generation saw themselves as truly Islamic revolutionaries. Here we see, therefore, another decisive break in the understanding of self; this generation appropriated truth for itself, and demanded that the rest of the community follow them.

In a way that may appear paradoxical, the second generation is much closer to the non-Islamic social majority than that of their parents. It is noteworthy, and only superficially a contradiction, that its members are much more dependent on authority than their parents. They admired Kaplan not so much as someone who articulated what they had always thought, but as someone who offered them a perspective, from which complex and contradictory knowledge suddenly assumed a shape.

It was inevitable that at some point, people would turn against Kaplan by appealing to scripture. For example, in 1987 a group of Islamic revolutionaries came together under the leadership of one Hasan Hayr. When Kaplan made a policy shift – he began to modify earlier enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution – there was a revolt by fervent Khomeini supporters. The form of the dispute was especially interesting. The group had read and discussed writings in favour of the revolution, and on this basis wanted to force Kaplan to take part in a discussion. He refused and banned them from reading these, to him, dubious texts. The community split as a result.

A third generation: the longing for origin

The logic of this story is clear: at some point a third generation must arrive on the scene. The beginnings are already in evidence, where an individualised access to texts is taking place alongside a growth in understanding of the relative nature of interpretations and, therefore, of tolerance (the only guarantee of avoiding isolation of believers). Among sections of formerly Islamicist communities, there are now declarations in favour of an Islam that demands an independent treatment of the sources, thus establishing a capacity for criticism. Voices of this kind are making themselves heard everywhere in the Islamic world.

This is the paradox of every movement which has dedicated itself to a return to the beginnings, which seeks to restore the relationship of individual and society as it was conceived and (possibly) lived in classical Islam – for inside the desire to go back is also a radically anti-traditionalist aspect. Tradition, after all, can be understood as growth, as disfigurement of the pure, the revealed, the true; it obstructs and conceals the source. It has to be uncompromisingly brushed aside, in order once more to gain access to the original. With that, a specific dynamic involving both individual and society is recast: society is now seen as a project, and the individual as someone devoted to the truth.

The defenders of tradition have always pointed to the dangers inherent in this anti-traditional impulse. What hubris, they claim, to dismiss centuries of exegesis and scholarship in the name of individual access to the tradition; and, consequently, what a danger of falling prey to demagogues, who in the name of origins reject the legitimate, socially anchored interpretation.

Yet in the rejection of tradition is the same impulse that marked the origin of our modern democracy. The individual adopts a new approach to tradition, and derives from it a critique of society. Of necessity this often has severe, even terrible, consequences. At the same time – and this is what I wanted to show here – the internal dynamic, the contradictions to which this movement back to the source gives rise, contain an awareness and an admission of relativity. This creates a new contest for the truths that are now individually acknowledged.

All this involves processes whose inevitable relapses can, under certain circumstances, lead to barbarism and catastrophe. I am nevertheless optimistic that something new will emerge from this ferment.

My hope is based on the history of fundamentalism as a whole. Islamic fundamentalism could develop in a similar way to Protestant fundamentalism. Over the generations it might lose its inflexible, rigorous character, and only through this loss gain the power to shape the world. Such a point is reached when a religion articulates itself in earthly discourse as philosophy; that is, when it articulates arguments without reference to religion.

It may be recalled that Theodor Adorno (especially in his later writings), Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida, to say nothing of Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas are Jewish thinkers through and through, and that their philosophies derive their force from the secularised reformulation of originally religious contents. Today, it is possible to imagine that Islamic philosophers could use the strength of Islam to elaborate a philosophy of the network society, incorporating a wise treatment of boundaries and a rethinking of the social nature of the individual.

Werner Schiffauer read this paper at the Goethe Institute in London on 4 July 2002. The talk was followed by a debate chaired by Deniz Kandiyoti, which you can read here.

Source: openDemocracy 16 – 10 – 2002