The passive revolution of Islamists in Turkey

It is sometimes said that theories are fishing nets in which to catch the truth. Let us apply Gramsci’s net to some daily debates taking place in Turkey.

Mehmet Yanmış
6 April 2017

Erdogan talks with the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation at the end of the 13th summit, in Istanbul, on April 15, 2016. Xinhua/SIPA USA/Press Association. All rights reserved. Whether the Justice and Development Party (JDP) would one day establish an Islamic state or a sharia system has long been a debate in Turkey. Erdogan has repeatedly denied any such plans, until recently. However, now that liberal policies seem to have been abandoned, secular schools turned into religious schools, many Faculties of Theology have been opened and Erdogan has put out a clear call for a "pious generation", could a sharia revolution be under way?

A major challenge faced by all religious and ideological groups is, of course, the problem of how to impose their own values on the society they live in. Which theory of social change, among the sociological classifications of evolutionist, equilibrist or conflict models, might a religious-ideological grouping select as a way forward? Islamist groups often regard the control of political power as a prerequisite for social change. This mindset requires absolute dominance of the state in domains such as the economy, education, religion, family and culture, including all the hegemonic (ideological) devices that enable them to evolve society “in a just and Islamic way”. This elitist theory, which assumes top-down change of society by the state, implicitly assumes that the individual is passive.

Gramsci, the Italian socialist, thinker and activist, took a different approach to social change models. In his critique of Mussolini’s fascism he discussed various methods of socialization with his comrades that shed light on some current issues in Turkey. Gramsci, who spent a considerable part of his short life in jail, argued that it wasn’t possible to control a society purely through political, military and economic means. According to him, every society is under the cultural hegemony of particular elites. Society is integrated into the system by means of some “force”, but more often, "persuasion" or "domination". In today's societies, this seamless integration predominantly consists of a popular or consumer culture.  

Gramsci argues that those elites who govern societies use cultural apparatuses such as education, art and religion, rather than starkly coercive means, to establish/maintain this hegemony. A government which has to depend on "naked force" alone will be weakened and overthrown in a short span of time. Elites who control the state sometimes manage to force their opponents to subsume themselves within their own cultural hegemony. Gramsci calls this transformation of communities aspiring for change, but without the sufficient human-cultural capital to achieve it, a "passive revolution".

According to Gramsci, the capitalist system dissolves the socialist or nationalist powers that cannot produce a powerful alternative system or renders them harmless by clearing out their ideologies. Some subaltern classes may achieve a certain political victory or economic power despite the current paradigm. But in time they can easily assume themselves stronger than they actually are, and delude themselves that, to quote Gramsci, "They didn’t need a state of law and normal functioning system any longer".  

But this delusion usually spells the beginning of a rapid descent in the fortunes of the subaltern classes. Benjamin described this destiny overall as "degenerate progress". In the end, opposing groups which seem to promise the overthrow of the old system in order to replace an unjust order with a new moral, economic and political system, come to resemble their opponents. They cannot create an opposing hegemony or persuade sufficient parts of society, and so they begin to moderate their aspirations until they come to resemble the old dominant classes. In other words, the old system, dominant throughout social life in general, is able to ensure the degeneration of excited revolutionaries (mujahedeen!) and to trap them in passive revolution.

It is sometimes said that theories are fishing nets in which to catch the truth. Let us apply Gramsci’s net to some daily debates taking place in Turkey. Let us test the 14-years’ experience of Turkey’s political Islamists against these arguments. First of all, it is possible to see that these Islamic groups have been moderating rapidly in this period. Many official practices, condemned in the context of Kemalism and secularism, have begun to be strongly defended by those who belonged to the old oppressed classes, despite the absence of any radical change in our society.

In the Islamist/conservative community, this reflex developed early on and has evolved over time to defend almost every movement on the part of the state. If you point out to them that the state has persecuted Alevis, Kurds, non-Muslim, liberals and so on, many of them categorically deny that this is the case. According to them, "the state does not do persecution, does not imprison anyone unjustly" although these are people who have seen with their own eyes the secularist coups of the 1960, 1980 and 28 February 1997.

Until recently, the large mass that characterized the state, secularism, democracy and the legal system as "infidel-Tağut", today blesses all these entities and threatens their opponents by saying "you will either obey the state or you will disappear". It is amazing to see how convinced they are that an "Islamic society" will be established in this way. Of course it is not a problem in itself if people love a fair state, respecting universal laws. But instead of ‘ensuring justice’, one of the most important goals of Islamists, the transformation of religious, legal and state organs into a means of legitimizing their political interests can only be maintained through a progress that is in Benjamin’s sense, degenerative.

JDP ideology considers that in order to establish an Islamic system, a top-down change of society by the state is necessary. But the desire to transform society through the sole use of its political apparatus has often failed in practice. The failure of the revolution in Russia and the transformation of the ‘Islamic’ revolution in Iran into a process of secularization are frequently mentioned in this context. It doesn't seem possible to raise a "pious generation" purely by ignoring the dominant values of society, changing the school curriculum, opening Qur’an courses, semi-religious schools and state-sponsored Islamic NGOs.

There are some academic studies to support this premise. Contrary to what has been said in recent years, Turkish people too have been undergoing a process of secularization and the grip of conservatism has been loosening. In accordance with modernization theories, religion, tradition and customs have been losing their power to determine relations and norms in social life.

For sociologists, this change cannot be attributed solely to political powers. Of course, there are also very important other factors in this change: education, scientific developments, women's participation in the workforce, urbanization, developing communication technologies. It is interesting, however, that political Islamists have long been criticizing Turgut Özal, a right-wing prime minister in Turkey in the 1980s. Özal liberated the country by opening it to the world, they say, and continue in the same breath that he has demoralized society.

While he aimed to raise a pious generation, it was a generation of morally liberal and secular entrepreneurs that helped him change Turkey. As Gramsci emphasizes, a system that is not acceptable in people's hearts and minds eventually evaporates in the face of the dominant hegemonic culture. Although the ruling party in Turkey today has come from a deep-rooted tradition and holds considerable economic and political power, it has not been able to produce consistent and conservative policies from a socio-cultural point of view. The same occurred during the period of conservative-right leaders like Menderes, Demirel and Özal.

Frankly, although these leaders and Erdogan consistently promise conservative-religious policies, generally they can’t do it. These leaders, typically equipped with engineer-economist mindsets, have not generated the intellectuals to help them produce a solid cultural alternative to western and popular cultures. As a result, tradition-based religiosity in the country has not succeeded in the face of modernization, contrary to the express wish of right-wing governments. Erdoğan has recently openly conceded defeat in this respect; “I am saddened by the fact that we have not reached the standards we desire in just two areas. One of them is culture and the other is education.”

It seems that many of the developments that political Islamists have striven to achieve since the 70s have so far failed. Islamists on one hand have embraced the arguments of the system that they had cursed as "tağut" previously, and on the other hand have rapidly hastened the secularization of the lower orders of society. We can sum up this progress as a kind of  "passive revolution". The Islamic revolution is a political movement that has so far failed to have a strong enough social base.

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