Islam and the West: The Poverty of Co-optation

Islam and the West: The Poverty of Co-optation - Gokhan Bacik


This article criticizes the nature of relations between the West and the Islamic world by suggesting that current relations of "co-optation" are not beneficial to either party.


Since September 11, 2001 Islam has been attracting worldwide attention resulting in numerous papers being written, speeches given, and programs held. This worldwide interest in Muslims has re­vived an almost forgotten spirit of brotherhood among Muslims them­selves. Since they are studied as one homogenous body, Muslims living in different nation states now feel that they are facing a common destiny. This is somewhat surprising given the many conflicts that have arisen in the past among Muslim community groups. However, the Western world seems to see no differences among Muslims and approaches them all in the same way: they are all the same. For the West, what is important is stopping the terrorist threat to their civilization from the Islamic world. This priority has given way to a problematic instrumentalist illusion in the Western world: Westerners believe that they can solve the problems of Muslims for them. This is a belief that has previously been put into action. During the heyday of colonialism, Western powers tailored and tamed the Islamic world. They created their states, borders, institutions, and, finally, created their Western-minded leaders. Now the Western world again wants to follow the same route. This time however what is to be shaped is not the geographical and political configuration of the Islamic world. The Western world is now disputing the question of the proper lifestyle for Muslims. Shlomo Avineri has written in Dissent, "use Turkey and Iran as examples" in order to convince Arab people. Accord­ing to Avineri, "although Turkey and Iran differ from the Arab world, their experiences have something to offer."1 Is the cited "something" of Turkey and Iran significant for other Muslims?

It is important to note both that the idea of using Turkey and Iran as examples displays a Gramscian co-optation scheme; also, the Turkish and Iranian examples are not really as clear as Avineri might think In terms of their political systems, Turkey and Iran are structurally similar. Civil political actors are limited and the elites of the two states define the margins of action in both countries. Just as it is difficult to carry out any policy against the mullahs in Iran, it is difficult to demand structural change in Turkey. Turkey has its own secular "mullahs." Recalling Carl Schmidt, both Iran and Turkey have their own political "theologies." All elected actors, both in Iran and Turkey, need to be aware of the fact that they are not the real patrons of the state. They are the elected side of the state-government coalition.

As for the project of co-opting the Islamic world, this would not be as easy to carry out as might be assumed. Furthermore, co-optation is not a solution. Forcing Muslims to change and accept a Western lifestyle would be a unilateral game in terms of protecting the originality of their identity. It is also reductionist and is inevitably based on illusion since it does nothing but attempt to clone Muslims using Western genes. What might be created is likely to lack the Islamic essence, which would be contradictory for a religion claiming universality. One should remember that Islam involves a sacred unity. It is a unity intended to include every­one, and a unity that transcends borders, cultures, and time. Neverthe­less, given the overwhelming power of the Western world, it might seem that it could carry out a grand project of co-optation in the Islamic world. However, such an endeavor would not provide a long-term stabilizing solution. Pushing co-opted examples of several modernized Islamic countries forward in order to convince unco-opted Muslims is a hege­monic move. In addition, such hegemonic solutions would break down if any power shifts occurred in the systems being focused on. It should also be mentioned that in any co-optation model, the masses of Muslims are excluded. Co-optation only takes place between the West and Western­minded Muslim elites such as soldiers, bureaucrats, intellectuals and media owners in the Islamic world.

Modernization versus Westernization

A very important question remains to be answered. In terms of recognizing universal norms, are the modernizing elites of the Islamic world actually pro-Western? There are in fact clear examples that provide an answer to this question. In Turkey, to other important Muslim coun­tries, despite so-called elites championing the values of modernity for a long time, it becomes apparent that these elites are actually anti-West­ern. Conflict between the West and the Islamic world arises due to the incompatibility between Western values and what modernizing elites in the Muslim world actually do. What has happened can be summarized briefly: firstly, the extension of the Western notion of sovereignty into the Islamic world has produced several problems. The following question needs to be asked: Why did "the post-colonial states, since independence in the decades following the Second World War, emerge as the most strident defenders of Westphalian sovereignty in the international or­der?"2 The answer lies with the different meaning of sovereignty in the newly independent states. Since sovereignty bestows power on some people and removes it from others, it has a strong impact on domestic politics. Jean-Pierre Vernant's note on the usage of sovereignty in an­cient Greek society is useful: "Sovereignty is therefore intimately con­nected, in the minds oft he Greeks, with idea of kratos, the power of domination, and of brutal violence." More simply, sovereignty has been very important for the leaders of the newly independent states because it gives them unfettered control over their internal affairs and notably over their own domestic populations. In other words, sovereignty is used as an ideology for internal consolidation: “Sovereignty provides individual states with a license to purify their domain of opposition, silence alternative voices, and eliminate dissent.3 As Naeem Inayatullah puts it, “…in the Third World States, the recogniztion of sovereignty by international society allows corrupt, irresponsible, and incompetent governments to violate the rights and welfare of their population.” The elites in these countries consolidate their positions through the institutions of sovereignty.

Secondly, in the process of state formation, the modernizing elites in Islamic countries have used Western concepts and institutions to further their own interests.4 In no way have they used Western concepts and institutions to create real democracies in their own countries. They have been instrumentalist modernizers who always set out rigid boundaries. Consider, for example, the way that they have been instrumentalist feminists. They have championed so-called women’s rights; however, they cannot bear to see university students in headscarves. They have championed the idea of democracy; however, they have never been happy seeing Islamists win elections to form governments. They support modernization until the moment of inescapable choice-whenever there is a transfer of power from themselves to the people through elections. Since they are only instrumentalist modernizers, their aim has never been to create a real Western-style regime. Nor have they been creating democratic societies. Historically, the basic reason they have used Western concepts and institutions is to eliminate the legacy of the past and create a new system based on their perceptions. They have abused the idea of West­ernization. For example, in the name of Westernization they have curbed religious education. For similar reasons they have curbed private enter­prise. From the economic realm to religious concerns, many restrictions have been placed in the Islamic world in the name of modernization. It is still the same story: Muslims today face many prohibitions in the name of protecting the modern façade of their countries. It has been the same modernizing elites in Islamic states that have hindered the development of democracy in their countries. Modernizing elites such as the military in Turkey, for example, have intervened in politics and totally annihilated nascent civil actors.

The cited account has created the following problem: Muslims, faced with different types of anti-democratic policies by their govern­ments have established a one-to-one analogy between their repressive modernization and the West. In other words, the oppressive modernizing reforms of the central elite are understood as analogues to Westerniza­tion. Since terms like Westernization, modernization, and Europeaniza­tion have been used interchangeably, all three concepts have become similarly tainted. One example of how these concepts have come to be understood in only limited ways is that of Europe becoming understood only in terms of colonialism. Another example from Turkey is that of Turkish Islamic groups rejecting European civilization in the name of refuting the strict policies of the secular modernizing regimes. These narrowed views of Western states have created a number of problems both for Muslims and for the West.

Because modernizing elites are actually anti-Western, co-optation brings about difficulties. For the elites in Islamic states, their recognition of Western values now means the potential end of their rule since their own policies are in contradiction with Western values. Thus, in this sense there is a clash between the East and the West. But it should also be suggested that there are actual cultural differences that need to be con­sidered. In this context, how some Western writers describe the clash between the East and the West might be helpful. James Kurth discusses three different traditions that he says make up the West.5 These are the classical culture of the ancient era, the Christian religion, and the En­lightenment world view of the modern era. It is clear that both Christians and Muslims have carried out missionary work, which has created some clashes in the past, and tension still exists between the two religions as a result. However, today it is the Enlightenment world view that mostly shapes the Western world, and the Muslims who are upset are not attack­ing Christian identity but the Enlightenment worldview. Not since such Islamic writers as Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), has the Christian face of the West come under criticism. Other than several basic religious debates (such as the status of Jesus and whether the Holy Books have been distorted), there is little in Christianity that upsets fundamentalist Mus­lims. That trade centers and not churches were attacked is important to note. For fundamentalist Muslims today it is trade centers that symbolize America and the West.

The clash between the Enlightenment world view and that of Mus­lim fundamentalists is similar to the clash between European values and the values of the modernizing elites of Islamic countries. Both Muslim fundamentalists and modernizing elites are unhappy about the legacy of the Enlightenment. The Muslim fundamentalists view the democratic civilization of the West as a threat, while the modernizing elites try to curb the development of democracy in the Islamic world.

In fact, the legacy of Islam and the legacy of the Enlightenment can be reconciled. The question is how this task should be carried out. The policy of co-optation, which envisages using propaganda in the Third­world and claiming that modernizing elites are good models for all Muslims, has failed. It has failed because the Third-world elites have never truly represented their people and because their regimes have created a mistaken understanding of the West among Muslims.

In order to discuss the reconciling of the legacies of Islam and the Enlightenment, it is first necessary to consider the concepts of the center and the periphery in Islamic societies. Historically, modernization was the project of the central authority and it was aimed at improving the ability to cope with the West. However, the notion of modernity that is discussed today is mostly a concept of the periphery. In the long history of modernization in Islamic societies, as indicated, a fault line developed between the states and the citizens of those states. Consequently, today the center in Muslim societies has almost lost its capacity for reform. In fact, no one expects the current elite establishments to bring about structural reforms any more. In other words, dynamism in political thinking now belongs to peripheral actors in these political systems, and these actors want to see a type of modernity that, for example, brings about real democracy. Thus, this peripheral type of modernity has the capacity to produce a synthesis based on universal values also found in the West. Paradoxically, the elite establishments in Islamic states today stand as actors likely to hinder this process. As previously noted, the modernizing centers of Islamic states never permitted the realization of such universal values in their societies. When they face criticism from abroad, they explain, for example, how their culture is different and how this difference legitimizes the role of the army in politics. The same thing has happened in many Islamic countries such as Turkey, Algeria, and Pakistan. The modernizing elites never believe in the people. From Turkey to Algeria, the number one threat has. always been the domestic one. France devotes 4 percent of its GDP to its military, but Saudi Arabia devotes 30 percent. Why? Is it because of real enemies? As Mohamed Tabi has written, its neighbors and Israel are nothing but alibis. In other words, the enemy is a domestic one. The enemy is either a fundamental­ist Muslim seeking a kind of insurrection or a member of a minority group seeking more autonomy and a less centralized system. This situa­tion has created several strange cases. After defying French troops in Anatolia with the aid of the Kurds in the early twentieth century, the Turks forbade Kurdish but permitted French speaking colleges and universities. The case is not very different in other Middle Eastern coun­tries.

As part of this discussion of domestic enemies, the concept of independence in these countries should be considered. In Islamic coun­tries, the idea of independence is a purely institutional one. Of concern is the independence of the state from other states in the international community. Therefore, when it comes to the term freedom, we have a unique, if not a bizarre, situation. In spite of all of the brave and ambi­tious speeches on the importance of freedom, the term refers to nothing related to the individual vis-a-vis the state or to the core freedoms of the individual facing any threatening "leviathan." Freedom is viewed as totally outside of the domestic context. What states in the Islamic world are saying to their citizens is as follows: You are free of other states but not free of me.

Put briefly, the center in Islamic societies has failed to represent the hopes and desires of their people. Thus, any new co-optation discourse that emphasizes the importance of Turkish or Iranian modernizing elites seems anachronistic. The Western world should develop a dialogue with the peripheral actors in Islamic societies. More importantly these peripheral actors should be listened to and be given the chance to take initia­tive. The Western world's determination to remain in dialogue with Muslim societies via their elites only worsens the situation. There is a very clear reality: only the ordinary people in Muslim societies have become reconciled to the legacy of the Enlightenment. Having experi­enced many years of anti-democratic regimes in their countries, Muslims want change. Many important universal concepts and values such as democracy and human rights are now cherished en masse.

Co-Optation: A Source of Global Terrorism

In fact, the new co-optation policy, a remnant of Western colonial­ism, has created such "great" outcomes as international terrorism. Cor­rupt and anti-democratic regimes in Islamic countries have been backed by the Western world, and Western support for anti-democratic regimes has not just been limited to the Middle East. The support has been widespread from the Middle East to Africa. France, for example, between 1962 and 1995 intervened militarily 19 times in African states. France's traditional desire to protect its interests in the region did not stop it from supporting the most-despotic and murderous pro-French rulers such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire.6 Unfortunately, anti-democratic Third-world regimes quickly become "schools" that radicalize their citizens. When millions of people feel oppressed because of their religion, ethnicity, or their demands for human rights, they are bound to become radicalized. Political systems in Islamic countries have not created the necessary democratic institutions, such as domestic opposition groups. Millions of people have been trapped in strict and unfair systems. Their only options have been to love them or leave them. Radicalism has become the num­ber one problem in a wide area of the world's geography, from Algeria to Pakistan, for example. How it has happened is easy to understand: Muslims have faced the well-known problem of alienation. Under anti­democratic and harsh regimes, Muslims have not been allowed to be themselves. They have been forced to be different. New regimes have aimed at changing-one may say breaking-all of the living links between ordinary Muslims and their culture, religion, and history. This creates an Umma (community)-level anxiety in the Muslim world. Uprooted from their traditional cultural structure, these Muslims have felt exiled and anxious. Thus, at the center of Islamic societies there exists an identity crisis. This crisis accordingly leads to legitimacy crises. The Muslim masses now feel that there is a deep psychological chasm between their elites, their governments and themselves. They have felt terribly deceived by their despotic cadres. Once the links between a brilliant and complex Islamic civilization and Muslims became damaged, reductionist and extreme ideologies found fertile ground in which to develop. It has become easy for people to believe a simple teleology. In this way, simple but radical discourses have hijacked the real message of Islam. Replacing the historical and grand narrative of Islamic civilization, simple slogans such as "Kill Americans, be happy!" have invaded alienated people's minds. Consequently, these alienated people have started to reject every­thing about "other," which only increases the anxiety in Islamic lands. Unless these people are permitted to be themselves, this anxiety will continue to influence them. As long as Third world anti-democratic regimes continue to exist, it will be nearly impossible to stop global terrorism. These regimes by their nature further the spread of terrorism.

The only logical solution to the vicious circle in Islamic countries is to give people a chance to display their identities. Islam has proven its ability to harmonize its values with universal values. The false gap be­tween Islam and Muslims should be closed through democratic mecha­nisms. In this process the role of the Western world is crucial. Instead of the former co-optation method, the West now should accept the reality of the periphery in the Islamic world.

Integration, Not Co-Optation

This can be done in two ways. First, grand social integration projects such as Turkey's membership in the European Union (EU) should be supported as well as the Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation. Turkey's EU membership might help stop the vicious circle of alienation, at least in Turkey. However, in this process European decision-makers should be realistic. They have been trying to convince the Turkish establishment to implement European standards, but they should realize the limited nature of the Turkish establishment's desire to bring about these re­forms. The European view of Turkey should be decided according to the desires of ordinary Turks who support EU membership almost en masse. Such great and historic integration projects should not be stifled because of reluctant establishments. By missing this point, social democrat leaders in Europe have made even extreme rightists in Turkey happy. The structural limits of the existing establishment in Turkey are continu­ously causing delays in Turkey's EU membership. As a typical developing country, issues such as foreign policy are almost only a matter of the state. What people want rarely influences foreign policy. In other words, high-politics is one of the primary components of the state-theology in that, despite the different demands of the people, it is conducted accord­ing to the fixed state policies. The elected actors in Turkish politics can hardly ever utter a differing opinion about the symbolic issues related to high-politics such as foreign policy. As a result, public opinion and the preferences of the state elites can be different concerning important issues. In the name of protecting their privileged position, the establish­ment may make use of well-known nationalistic discourses that focus on national pride, unity, and sovereignty. It is, therefore, the Europeans who in such cases will need to take the side of the excluded actors.

The second way to aid those in the periphery would be for Western powers to support and cooperate with elected actors in the Islamic world. Though unstable, several Islamic countries such as Turkey, Iran, Algeria, Pakistan, and Malaysia have democratic traditions. When peripheral actors, for example, Islamists in Turkey and Algeria and moderates in Iran come to power as part of a democratic process, it is seen that the establishments in these countries quickly want to remove them. When they succeed, the nascent democratic process is put on hold, and the people are once again excluded. Anxiety then re-emerges, and the failure of the democratic experience again facilitates radical elements in those societies to develop. To stop this process especially for the United States, a very important paradigm shift is needed. For millions of people, America is perceived as a superpower that only cares about its global strategic interests. Furthermore, it is believed that the United States cooperates with the anti-democratic establishments in Islamic countries in the name of protecting its position in several regions of the world. However, if Western countries want to, they can contribute to the democ­ratization process in Islamic countries by cooperating with the elected peripheral/Islamic actors. It should be noted that elected governments with Islamic affiliations would be able to aid Western countries in their struggle against global problems. Unfortunately, people in Islamic coun­tries do not trust Western claims about fighting terrorism when they see the West supporting anti-democratic regimes. In fact, the way the U.S. has been fighting terrorism has led to a new atmosphere in world politics that seems to give license to anti-democratic regimes to take offensive action against their own dissatisfied and therefore "threatening" popula­tions. This is the paradox of the September 11 attacks. They have en­hanced the power of Third world establishment members who are all happy to watch the American government stick to its "war on terrorism."

Thus, there is, in a sense, a coalition between Western powers and the anti-democratic regimes in Islamic countries, which is likely to deepen the anxiety among Muslims. In brief, the co-optation policy as a continuation of colonial rule has failed. It is time for dialogue with the broad masses of Muslims in Islamic societies. International politics should be rescued from being an elitist game between Western powers and anti-democratic Third world estab­lishment elites. Muslims can participate in modern international system with their Islamic culture and identity. To achieve this, Muslims should be allowed to be themselves. If the alienating nature of the international system is not changed, it will not be possible to put an end to terrorism and other global problems.


G. Bacik is a lecturer at Fatih University (Turkey). He is the author of several articles in different journals as the Middle East Policy, Peace Review, Arab Studies Quarterly, International Review of Sociology. His most recent publica¬tion is an edited book titled September 11 and World Politics American Hege¬mony Reconsidered.