AHMET T. KURU, 4 NOVEMBER 2019
“Are Arabs Turning Their Backs on Religion?” was the title of BBC’s 2019 coverage of a survey conducted in 11 countries with 25,000 interviewees. In 2018, BBC had reported the decline of religiosity in Turkey, too: “The Young Turks Rejecting Islam.” Other sources also documented declining Islamic religiosity in Turkish and other Muslim-majority societies.
Paradoxically, one major reason for the recent decline of religiosity is the “religious revival” which has occurred in the Muslim world in the last three decades. What explains this paradox?
My answer is based on the two main agents of the Islamic revival—Islamist politicians and Islamic scholars (the ulema)—and the promises they made but failed to deliver on human rights and ethics.
Islamists and Human Rights
From the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 to the Iran Revolution of 1979, secularist regimes dominated the Muslim world. During this period, Islamists continually emphasized that secularist regimes oppressed various groups, especially conservative Muslims, and thus violated their human rights. Islamists claimed that Islamization of societies and polities would end that oppression and expand human rights.
In the last thirty years, many Muslim-majority countries have experienced socio-political and even legal Islamization. Islamic discourses became dominant in their public spheres, and sharia was added into their constitutions as a source of law. In Iran, Islamization has been top-down; in Egypt, it has been bottom-up; and in Turkey, it has been in both directions. Versions of Islamization have also varied in terms of concentration; legal Islamization took place in Iran and Egypt, but not in Turkey. Instead, Islamization has mostly concentrated in Turkey’s public discourse and public education.
Regardless of its various forms, in most countries, Islamization brought in laws criminalizing blasphemy. These laws restricted freedom of belief and expression for atheists, non-Muslims, and unorthodox Muslims. Moreover, in some countries, including Egypt and Turkey, even Islamic groups faced persecution.
In many cases, Islamists also reproduced secular nationalists’ policies of persecuting ethnic minorities. In Turkey, Islamists had argued that they could solve the Kurdish problem by emphasizing the shared Muslim identity of Turks and Kurds. Nonetheless, during its almost two-decade rule, Erdogan’s Islamist party, AKP, severely violated Kurds’ human rights.
A telling example of the gap between Islamists’ promises and practices is the Leyla Şahin case. In 2004, Şahin opened a case against Turkey in the European Court of Human Rights complaining that Istanbul University’s Medical School did not allow her to enter the campus due to her headscarf. Fifteen years later, Şahin became the deputy chairperson of the AKP in charge of human rights. In a press meeting, she declared: “there is no human right violation in Turkey.”
The violation of human rights under Islamized societies and polities created not only political but also religious dissidents. More specifically, these violations created a group of young Muslims who began to regard Islam as a religion that contradicts, or at least does not promote, human rights.
The Ulema and Ethics
For decades, the ulema and Islamists have blamed secularist ideologies and parties for being unethical and for causing corruption. They have promised that Islamization would promote public ethics.
The ulema and Islamists have shared a utopian notion of Islam, which has been expressed in the motto, “Islam is the solution!” For them, Islam provides a blueprint to design all aspects of life, from “toilet etiquette to politics.”
Nonetheless, most countries that have experienced Islamization have reproduced such problems as authoritarianism and corruption. The ulema in these countries have been too much involved with Islamist politicians to criticize their despotic and unethical policies.
In fact, the ulema’s political ideas are still based on the medieval understanding of obeying the political ruler as long as he does not publicly leave Islamic faith or refuse to follow sharia. In other words, the ulema’s political ideas have not been updated by integrating modern concepts of separation of powers, checks and balances, opposition, and freedom of speech.
For example, again in Turkey, a leading scholar of Islamic law, Hayrettin Karaman, has played a key role in maintaining the alliance between Erdoğan and the ulema. Especially since 2014, Karaman issued various fatwas to support and defend the AKP, particularly when the party faced criticisms for authoritarian policies and corruption.
Recently, many Muslims, especially in the young generation, appear to be fed up with both the ongoing corruption in their countries and the ulema’s justification of corrupt rulers. These Muslims’ criticism of the ulema has increasingly turned into a criticism of Islam. Many started to see Islam as a religion that fails to produce public ethics.
Islam Should Become a “Religion” Again
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, certain communists argued that it did not mean the failure of their ideology, because the true communism was never practiced there. Similarly, facing the failed Islamist polities, many Islamists have claimed that their ideas were not at fault because they have not been truly practiced.
In reality, the Islamist paradigm, which presents Islam as the solution to all problems, has experienced a global collapse. Islamists’ failure to protect human rights and the ulema’s failure to promote public ethics are two major indicators of this crisis.
As a religion–in the narrow sense of the term–Islam can contribute to morality of modern societies. Yet, as a political doctrine, Islam could not solve Muslims’ socio-political or economic problems.
Islam should be re-conceptualized with an emphasis on faith, worship, rights, and ethics, instead of being perceived as a political doctrine. Otherwise, more and more young Muslims will turn their backs on it.
Ahmet T. Kuru is Professor of Political Science at San Diego State University. He is the author of Secularism and State Policies toward Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey and co-editor (with Alfred Stepan) of Democracy, Islam, and Secularism in Turkey. His new book, Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison has been published in August 2019. Follow him on Twitter @prof_ahmetkuru
The publication of this essay is supported by Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The views and opinions expressed in the articles on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Goldstein Center for Human Rights.