Muslim Reformers or Revolutionaries? Egypt’s Quest for a Model

Latest developments in Egypt and subsequent scholarly comments indicate that there is quite a  way to reach the Arab “Spring.” If the pro-Islamic party has a sweeping electoral success, we will delve into recent post-Islamism debate. Can Islamists be sincere Muslim Democrats? At the center of these debates, we often see two non-Arab countries, i.e. Iran and Turkey, which are generally depicted in a mutually exclusive duality in the Western media: can the Muslim Brotherhood internalize liberal democratic values as the Muslim reformers in Turkey did or will it be the engine of another Islamic Republic? Time’s most recent issue asks applicability of Turkey’s success story in the larger Middle East:,9171,2099674,00.html

Regarding the debate over Muslim Reformers, I found Gunes M. Tezcur’s recent book, Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation, (University of Texas Press, 2010) particularly enlightening. The book draws our attention to a quite interesting fact: the most prominent post-Islamist movements in the Middle East have emerged in two dissimilar contexts, i.e. Iran and Turkey. Analyzing the Reform Front (RF) in Iran and the Justice and Development Party (JDP) in Turkey, the author offers the first systematic and only comparative analysis of Muslim reformers in these greatly different countries in terms of regime type, political economy, sectarian affiliation, foreign affairs, and recent political history.

Tezcür begins by delineating conceptual underpinnings of the mainstream approach, known as the moderation theory, to study reformist actors who had radical inclinations. The moderation theory argues that once radical groups, who are committed to overthrowing the regime, are organized as vote-seeking parties, the electoral process would make these groups abandon their revolutionary goals (p. 11). Despite his endorsement of the main ideas of the moderation theory, the author attempts to revise the theory to explore the process that he calls the ‘paradox of moderation’ through a close analysis of ideological and organizational processes in each case.

Tezcür’s contribution can be summarized in three respects. First, Tezcür advances the institutionalization effects in moderation theory, which originally proposes that as parties founded by radicals grow, priorities of organizational survival gain priority over ideological goals. Putting moderation theory into a different context, for example, one would expect the Sinn Fein to become more concerned about its organizational survival and electoral politics, which would ultimately lead to a breaking path in the IRA ideology. After providing a historical account of the radical leftist roots of the RF in Iran (pp. 116–26) and the radical Islamist roots of the JDP in Turkey (pp. 146–59) for novice readers, the author argues that both the RF and the JDP prioritized organizational survival over their ideology, albeit for different reasons. Tezcür convincingly shows how the RF has gradually alienated students, women, workers at grassroots levels (chapter 6) and the JDP, on the other hand, has powerfully mobilized the grassroots but still failed to establish strong organizational ties with anti-systemic social actors due to constant pressures from the status quo elite to reach a modus vivendi (chapter 7). According to the author, the Iranian and Turkish cases indicate that the type of relationship between Muslim reformers and their followers at an organizational level should be further specified in moderation theory. He concludes that the institutionalization effects in the moderation process are valid as long as party members are motivated by selective incentives and believers have no alternative to turn to or lack substantial influence.

Second, Tezcür contends that ideological moderation of radicals cannot be reduced to a byproduct of changes in strategic incentives; instead, it needs to be considered as a separate process that often facilitates, accommodates, or even hinders behavioral moderation. The author provides an excellent account to demonstrate how the radical Muslim activists in both Turkey and Iran had a long walk in ideological change as they engaged with the liberal ideas that had previously been dismissed as un-Islamic and established societal platforms where they could generate self-criticism. Tezcür highlights the importance of civic spheres, which consist of magazines, journals, non-governmental organizations, professional associations, and media outlets, in forming a pious middle class that enables ideological moderation. Based on my studies of militant Kurdish activism in Turkey and revolutionary movements around the world, I think that the author’s conceptual contribution on ideological moderation is important and insightful to understand similar cases. For anti-systemic movement activists, their ideological framework has a potential to be the ultimate source of legitimacy for their actions, and therefore, is not easy to dismiss even though strategic incentives exist. Splits among Kurdish militants after the PKK leader Öcalan’s declaration of the Democratic Republic thesis, in which he renounced the goal to establish an independent Kurdistan, show that ideological moderation cannot be reduced to material benefits.

Third, the author claims that ‘behavioral moderation may actually hamper democratic process in ways that are not anticipated by moderation theory’ (p.213) as seen in Iran and Turkey where ‘moderate strategies pursued by Muslim reformers that involved reconciliation, compromises, and electoralism actually impeded and delayed, if not undermined, democratic struggles’ (p. 214). Although I agree with the author on behavioral moderation’s negative outcomes, we need to be fair to moderation theory on this particular point. Moderation theory primarily is concerned with taming radicals in the legitimate political structure and avoiding violent means. It analyzes important ideological and behavioral processes towards democratic transformation. In this sense, the theory does not really expect ex-radicals to become engines of democratization in their countries. Hence, when we concede the fact that the taming process is a process of hegemonic relations, we also acknowledge that the transformed ex-radical actors shall play within boundaries of their own legitimate political structure, which is not fully democratic. If we consider the Turkish case, the
JDP’s inclusion into the mainstream and its break from the National Outlook’s Islamist agenda can be interpreted as a successful step toward democratization. Thus, the author’s emphasis on negative aspects of the JDP’s engagement with the secularist establishment can be misleading. For many observers, the JDP has been exceptionally successful in playing the chess game with the secularist elite within the boundaries of legitimate structure (see, for example, Ümit Cizre’s edited volume, Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey: The Making of the Justice and Development Party).

Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation is a thought-provoking work that needs to be studied closely.

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One response to “Muslim Reformers or Revolutionaries? Egypt’s Quest for a Model

  1. Pingback: Radical Flank Effect in Egypt? | Mobilizing Ideas

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