Dr. Carool Kersten currently works as a senior lecturer at King's College London, University of London. His areas of research include contemporary Muslim thought, the intellectual history of the modern Muslim world, the theory and method of the study of religions and Islam in transnational and global contexts.
There were a lot of questions I wanted to ask and I definitely did; however, due to the wide scope of the interview I am unfortunately only able to share a selection of the professor's detailed answers.
Pinar Akyasan: Let's start with a very basic question… What is Islamism and is there any consensus on the definition of this term?
Carool Kersten: The term started to become current in the late 1980s, but now some people say it has become an empty term, as it is used as a blanket term for any Muslim who believes there should be a role for religion in the political domain, covering those respecting and actively engaging in democratic processes and those in favour of very radical transformations, including the violent overthrow of the present political order. Islamists do believe that states should have Islamic features but they don't deny the modern statehood existence even in the nation-state. Now of course they often disagree on what exactly should that mean. But it usually means at the very least Islamic ethics or principles should guide how that state is organised and one of the key elements is that it is of course as much as possible elements of what they call Islamic law. And people often make a mistake of using interchangeably words like Islamic law and Shari'a law. They are actually talking about fiqh, the technical word for Islamic jurisprudence, because Shari'a is an abstract term that refers more to a foundation for law, perhaps better understood as an ethics or moral compass . Be that as it may, the proponents of this position insist that Islamic law should be upheld by a state that identifies itself as Islamic. I think that's probably the only thing you could say all Islamists share. But then you still have a whole spectrum of possibilities what is an Islamic state? Does it mean the recreating of the Caliphate, as some say? In that case you are actually talking often about Pan- Islamism. On the other hand, Islamism also has a different trend which is much more radical which says the states we have now don't deserve be recognised and should be dismantled or overthrown. Well, among them you can find people who think that violence is then permissible. They say violence might be an acceptable option because what we are trying to achieve is something bigger than that. With this you are really at the fringes of extreme radical Islamism, which receive the bulk of the media attention today. Often they themselves are not very clear in defining one meaning for Islamism exactly.
Who is the real Islamist then?
You have a very broad spectrum. And so we use this term, Islamism for everybody. We use it for Bin Laden and use it for Erbakan. And that is confusing for people. If it means everything in between the extremes and very liberal and respectful of the law and trying to say playing it along the democratic game up to the side of the spectrum where they reject the current situation entirely, I think that's the problem we face when we talk about Islamism. What does it mean, who decides what it means, who decides what is proper Islamism or which are the underlying criteria? This issue is further complicated by the fact that there is no central political or religious authority in the Muslim world which can say this or that is Islamic or not. This is what creates uncertainty not just for the Muslims themselves, but also for the observers from outside who try to make sense of it. That's why we often don't know what it is meant when the term 'Islamism' is used, and you see the same thing when you talk about what jihad means. It depends very much on which particular Muslim you are talking to. Each and every individual Muslim has his or her own personal understanding of jihad. It is often translated as holy war. But is a limited understanding leaving hidden a whole mode of aspect.
Can we exactly say in which conjecture Islamism was born?
You see that many Muslims point back to the time the Prophet spent in Medina. And they say: "Look at the prophet and the community he founded", "Muhammad did this or that." So "That's how it must be." If you are a purist, you could say that the starting point of the first entity where Muslims organised themselves politically was in Medina and this was the first community and that it was a successful one. But Muhammad was confronted with a particular historical situation. He found himself under very unexpected circumstances, in which people were looking at him for guidance in practical matters, not just spiritual ones, and thus began regarding him as a political leader. So he was sort of forced to become a statesman. These people also say that Islamic statehood is prescribed in the Qur'an. That is not the case, at best there are references or hints to statehood in the Hadith, but these were of course also historically conditioned. What happened then and there was almost coincidental and a lot of Muslims have that opinion too. But there is no imposition in the Quran that you must have a state that must also look from a particular way.
What about the Islamists who are finding their roots in Islamism later on?
Well, when you go back to that time, you can say indeed that in the course of the nineteenth century imperialism began affecting all parts of the Muslim world. It is a response to facing acute political crises which point to basically the entire Muslim world facing colonisation. You see then Islamic reformers standing up looking for ways to respond. Do you just surrender and become westernised? Or is there any way that we can look at our own heritage and find something that we can use to confront the challenge of domination by Europeans? And at the same time adapt our heritage to make it suitable for the challenges for this time? These were the issues to which individuals like Afghani, Mohammed Abdul, Sayyid Qutb tried to formulate their own answers. This included also a radicalization of ideas. And it is perhaps no coincidence that this started indeed in particular in Egypt and British India. There Muslim reformers said Islam is flexible enough to come with an alternative that revives the origins of Islam, hence the name for this particular set of reformers: Islamic revivalists. These people thought perhaps we can come up with the solution that will enable the Muslim world to remain itself and liberate itself for external political domination. The only way to do it is not by adopting political systems from these countries but instead basically looking internally. They are not denying that the world has changed but they feel the solution has to come from inside. The answer is still within, in the Islamic heritage.
But the terminology they used is very leftist and it is still present… In your opinion, has there been any revision of this terminology during recent years?
I think you can definitely say that they were generally more on the left of the political spectrum. But you have to be very careful in that sense, maybe this leftist is in the sense that social justice was a core element of their political ideology. But they were definitely not in agreement with Marxism. They certainly believed that societies should be more egalitarian and the problem with capitalism is that some become very rich and the others are very poor. So they were quite right in saying that this creates tension in society. Plus they say it is not fair. And fairness; looking after the poor and charity, is an important dimension in Islam. But then there is another problem. Because, as you know, if you look at socialist theories from a Marxist point of view, religion was used to repress people. So there is a bit of a problem. They agree with the view that people within society should be equal but at the same time there should be respect for religion. And they say Marxism does not do that. The book which Sayyid Qutb wrote before he started his more radical writings published in 'Milestones' was on social justice in Islam, while Muhammad Iqbal, the spiritual father of Pakistan, even defined Islam as 'Bolshevism plus God'.
What about the current position of Islamism? And it's relationship with socialism and capitalism?
Islamism sees itself as an alternative to both capitalism and socialism; because Marxist-derived socialism creates a social justice that is irreligious and therefore un-Islamic. Both systems have problems. And Islamists say "Our system is the fairest. It respects God and it respects the people." But the problem which has occurred with globalisation is you cannot opt out of the world economic system. And by the 90s it was all about neo-liberalism, free enterprise... Not all of them, but for example the large segment of Islamists in Turkey, decided then to reinvent themselves. They didn't want to give up on Islamism altogether and they did not want to switch over to socialism either, nor did they want to surrender unconditionally to capitalism. That is when you get this new phenomenon, which some now call 'post-Islamism'. They say Islam is actually business-friendly. After all, the prophet was a business man. Islam is not against business. So they reason: 'You can be Islamist, a prosperous business man and at the same time use your wealth to do good in the world'.
Another hot debate surrounding Islamism focuses on Islam and democracy? Are they able to survive parallel to one another? Or do these two terms belong to two different battles, the east and the west?
All of the political systems in the Muslim world, whether it is Kemalism, Islamic nationalism in Pakistan, the monarchies in the Gulf, or multi-ethnic states such as Indonesia, face a similar situation. By the late 20th century, the middle classes in almost all Muslim countries have grown tremendously and they also have young populations. Sixty percent of the population is younger than 25 years old. And more and more people are becoming better educated. Now, educated people are the strongest advocates of democratization. The middle class is relatively prosperous, so they have economic interests they want to protect, and they certainly don't want to get poorer. They want to be sure that their kids get an education but they also have wider ambitions to have a say in their own futures and in the destiny of their countries. They know what they want: There is your answer of why the combination of a drive for democratization and an efficient economic policy is becoming more and more in favor. Because populations are no longer fools. There is a middle class who wants to be heard. I think that is the kind of people who are educated enough to see that old-fashioned Islamism or recreating some historical Caliphate, or having an Islamic state centered around outwards manifestations like the dress code and whatever are futile. No that's not what people want in life. So, Islamist politicians have to reinvent themselves. Now, often the choice to adopt an Islamic lifestyle by the middle classes often comes from themselves. Educated women who decide to veil, do so not because their parents tell them to. And I think this makes a tremendous difference. These people also say we don't need a state to tell us to wear a veil, do this or do that. We are educated and we can make our own choices. What we want from the state is to provide us with jobs and democratic rights. That is a delicate balance. You know the AK Party in Turkey has been very successful for 12 years. AK Party is probably best qualified as post Islamist. This is the only party which has consistently known what they want. Egypt and Tunisia are still struggling. So some people say it worked for the Turks, we should try it too.
To what extend do you agree or disagree that the AK Party is an Islamist movement?
In practical politics, you see what does get you votes. Jobs and citizens rights... You see the same in Morocco, Tunisia. They don't have the word Islam in the parties' names: and any roots that can be associated like the Saadet, Fazilet or Refah parties which have a sort of Islamic connotation have disappeared. No, they now use very straightforward names that point directly to democratization and successful economic policy-making, because that is what voters demand. What they have discovered is that emphasizing these two things do not mean you cannot be Muslim as well and there is no need for a state to impose what often are symbolic things like dress codes or banning alcohol. These educated pious middle class Muslims say well if you are a proper Muslim you are doing that anyway. They don't need a party to say "wear a veil and don't drink alcohol" They believe their own way of life is 'Islamic' enough. They just wanted the government to be efficient. And suddenly that started to work. And parties like AK even became acceptable maybe to people who do not have that lifestyle. Because if you look at the votes, AK Party gets votes in Turkey from a group which is much bigger then people who would consider themselves socially conservative and as observant Muslims. I think that is a tremendous change that has taken place in particular in this country.
Is a conservative democratic identity sufficient enough to define the AK Party?
Actually, I think by reinventing itself, the AK Party model has adapted to what we have in Europe: Christian Democrats. You don't have it in America and you don't have it in Britain but in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Spain you have Christian Democrat parties. These people don't want the Pope to be the political figurehead, or a bishop or anybody from the church. There are Christian Democrats who are socialists and there are others who are extremely capitalist. What they maybe share is a social conservatism in their own lifestyle. But at the same time they also think there is a certain morality in Christianity which they can use in defining public life and thus in politics. But within this lifestyle Christian democrats are generally kind of conservative. And I think if you were to translate that to have something similar in a Muslim country then I think you would get something like the AK Party. Because politically they are very similar to the Christian democrats and if you look at what types of people you have in these parties, they are actually all socially conservative. If you were to look at social issues they probably have problems with abortion, sex before marriage, and things like that. Well, I think that Christian democrats and Muslim democrats of the AK Party would agree on many things in this realm. In addition to this, look how this party has won the elections three times over, they have never been as powerful as they are now. If the real agenda was to turn Turkey into an Islamic Republic and to veil women, why they wouldn't have done it until now?
But there is a certain suspicion in Europe towards the AK Party…
Especially since 2003 when Turkey officially filed for EU membership, France and Germany started to use cultural and religious arguments in what defines European identity. It was almost politically convenient for them. The EU has two powerful countries, Germany and France and they began exploiting the religion factor. They said, "These people are Muslims, do they subscribe to the same values." But the basic problem within the EU is power politics. If Turkey joins, it will add eighty million Turks to the population of Europe. So at the moment Germany and France are the biggest countries in the EU and they hold the most influential positions in the administration. They decide almost everything. If Turkey is in, they have to share power with the new member and a very powerful one to the boot. So I think that it is more politics. I find there is something not fair about this. They play on something that scares people, "Turkish people, you know, they are not really like us." Just because they happen to be Muslim? Before it was never an issue, religion, culture was never mentioned explicitly in any EU document until 2003. They always talked about freedom, movement of people and business and services etc. But then suddenly Turkey applied and Germany and France put in cultural definitions of what makes you a European? In addition to geography and a shared history, there was now also a culture -- well read: 'religion' the new Turkey looks to the outside world; it is not the old Turkey which was very much inward looking. Kemalist Turkey was a part of NATO, but it was still very much a county looking inwards. But now, in around a turn of century Turkey has become a self-confident country. Some people see the AK party's foreign policy as Neo-Ottomanist. You see that word suddenly come up. Neo-Ottomanist – as if it wants to found a new Ottoman Empire. No, I think they only want good relations with the surrounding world, because good external relations are good for business.
Is this the only reason?
No. Whatever Turkey does is presented often in the western media in negative ways like they are up to something. Kemalists who have been out of power for 12 years are part of this opposition against an AK-led Turkey. They know what makes people scare of Turkey in Europe. They say, "if you have these people in power, Turkey becomes Islamic.", "No more beer in Antalya, everybody has to be veiled", this and that. Is that the most important thing for AK Party? I don't think so.
From your point of view, does Turkey still have to struggle to be a member of EU?
Well, I am even getting the impression from the AK Party that it doesn't matter that much if they actually become a member of the EU or not. I think that they a sort of understand that the EU is trying to find any excuse to postpone it. But the very fact they have filed membership has already benefited Turkey itself, even if they are not yet in. Turkey is a different place now then it was 10 years ago. It is not a member of the EU but I consider Turkey to be a European country. Maybe geographically, the biggest part of the country is located in Asia, but historically it was part of the Mediterranean world. When the Ottoman Empire still existed in the late nineteenth century, the nickname for the Ottoman Empire was 'The sick man of Europe'. Nobody even said it is not Europe. Now they are not sure it is European; but a hundred years ago they were sure it was a European country. Interesting, isn't it?
Let's go back to the AK Party and Islamism…Do you think that conservative people are becoming more secular in Turkey than they were before?
I don't know if they are becoming more secular then before, I think they perhaps always were in political terms. Maybe in the past they had the feeling they were forced to because of Kemalism but on the other hand now there is a realization that if you talk politics they want to be secular. It doesn't mean your lifestyle cannot be Muslim. Actually people like Ali Bulac talk less about secularism than their intellectual counterparts in Indonesia. There they really had a deep discussion about this debate even and it became very explosive in the late sixties and seventies. They had a young Muslim student leader there, Nurcholish Madjid, whom everybody thought would be the next leader of the Islamist Party. Then he became the student leader and shocked everybody as saying, 'Islam yes, Islamic Party no!' He claimed his interlocutors did not have a proper understanding of secular politics. He said, "We should be politically secular," but you have to make a distinction between secularism which is an ideology and secularization which is the process that any modern country goes through. He even said that as a good Muslim you should be in favour of a secular state. Because mixing politics and religion is almost like an insult to God. Politics deals with relations among human beings that is, social relations. Religion deals within an individual believer's relation with God. Dunyavi vs Uhravi. And he said the relation of an individual's belief in God has nothing to do with politics. That's between you and God. But you have to get along with other human beings as well. Of course you should be decent and morally upright. But the safest way to do that is in a secular environment. And that is not un-Islamic, anti-Islamic or whatever. It is just a different dimension of human life... So he said "Each and every Muslim should want a secular state, It is the safest place for Muslims." But at the same time it should not be the 'hard secularism' which Ataturk had imposed. No, it should create a freedom. Believing or not comes from the heart and the state's only job is to guarantee that everyone can be what they want to be without disturbing other people. If that involves your politics then you can call yourself a Muslim Democrat just as a Christian Democrat.
I think after 70 years people started to realize yes there is this or that state ideology and people probably even began to subscribe to it, but at the same time they are also Muslim, Alevi, Turkish, this and that. There is a sense of belonging, nobody's identity is one-dimensional. You are also a man or a woman, rich or poor, civil servant or business man. You are many things, not just a Turk or Muslim. And I think that is something more and more people begin to realize and understand.
Can we say that creating a new perspective on secularism would be the AK Party's contribution to the Muslim world and Islamism?
Yeah, I think so. But it depends which Islamist you talk to, of course. Islamist parties won the elections in Egypt and Tunisia, so now they will be faced with big tests. What are they going to do with that victory? Are they going to look to a tested model like Erdoğan did in Turkey and think "Yes, if you do it like that apparently you can also win the next election". They have a choice to make. Some people say Turkey is Turkey; and it cannot be copied anywhere else. But Turkey is not the only example. That's why a far away Muslim country like Indonesia is important too. They have done similar things in Indonesia. So why would Egypt not be able to do it? Or Syria, or Tunisia? They are not Turkey but they are also not Indonesia. And Indonesia is also not Turkey. However, these two Muslims counties have been experimenting with uninterrupted democratization for almost one or two decades now. Not exactly in the same way as Europe or the US, but in their own ways… Now, there is always a danger that you get over-confident. And you think we can do whatever we want. I think the Muslim brotherhood and Nur Party in Egypt realized that a lot of votes they got were protest votes. People were so fed up with the old government. So I think the ordinary citizens after 50 years of military dictatorship thought "Ok, Islamists, I will vote for you. Show me. Get me a job." They have taken the risk to give the Muslim brotherhood a chance. I think that Muslim Brothers should be very careful in how they respond. If they get it wrong and they fail, they will lose the next election.
After the democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia, some say Arab Spring could be defined as a victory for Islamism. Do you agree with this?
In the case of Egypt it is easy to explain why the Islamist bloc did so well. The secular opposition is fragmented. All of these young people, all they agreed on was to get Mubarak out. The Muslim brotherhood has a huge political experience under very difficult circumstances. They are very well organised. The youth who were in Tahrir Square were middle class people from Cairo. 80 percent of Egyptians are farmers in the delta, or slum dwellers in big cities such as Cairo. The Muslim brotherhood knows that and has been there for last 40 years. They were there already looking after the poor. So this is why they get these people's votes. If now they give jobs and democratic rights to the middle class, I'm sure that they will say "If that's Islamism, then that's fine with me." It almost doesn't matter what you call it. The Muslim Brotherhood is the designation 'Muslim,' but political parties use words like justice, democracy, prosperity, etc, because these are a concrete promise to the people. You know you can't create jobs with identity alone.
And lastly, what is the biggest handicap of Islamism at the moment?
I think the biggest problem for Islamism is the image problem. Which is because of the extremists. Some of the most atrocious terrorist acts have been perpetrated by Muslims. So, Islam has an image problem. If in Thailand a political party would say we should have 'Buddhist politics' that would be fine. But if you say Islamism everybody panics. Hijackings, Al Qaeda, bombs, these are the usual associations… If you look at the political problems in the Muslim world, these problems occurred not because of Islam, they are problems due to the history of these countries. The Palestinian-Israeli problem is not due to Islam. No, it is a historical problem. This is a territorial dispute- a complex one, but it's actual cause is Western colonialism. And then during World War I, the area was promised to two peoples: the Arabs and the Jewish, when in fact the British decided to keep it for themselves. Of course religion became part of the mix of problems. So a lot of problems that affects the Muslim world historically, one could say it is not because of Islam as such. You also cannot say Islam has nothing to do with it. Because people who are involved in it often look at their religious legacy too when addressing political problems. So hostile reactions to Christians are actually the grievances of formerly colonized peoples towards former imperialists, and the mess they have left behind. But there is nothing within Islam I would say that makes Muslims more prone to becoming a terrorist. Suicide bombing as a terrorist tactic was not invented by Muslims; it was used by Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka. Hamas probably thought that, 'it is a good idea, we can use that'. But that shows immediately that it is not something that Islam tells them to do. I think that's what creates such a huge image problem.
An interview by Pinar Akyasan Kandemir.