Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Two developments of interest to students of Islamic Civilization

I am writing this and subsequent similar posts for the benefit of the students who just finished the course in Islamic Civilization, if any are still reading and any regular or chance readers who are also interested in recent news about Islam and Muslims. I have two items for today.

This past week saw an election for President in France, which was won by the "conservative" candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy. I put "conservative" in quotation marks because old terms like "conservative" and "liberal" have all sorts of meanings and certainly don't translate well across political systems, or generations. Heaven knows, for instance, what "conservative" is supposed to mean in the United States these days.

In any case, Sarkozy, who is a descendant of Hungarian immigrants himself, is widely considered to be anti-immigrant, especially Muslim immigrants. As a result of French colonialism in North and West Africa, there are a lot of French Muslims, some of whom come from families that have been there for generations. Juan Cole a few days back had an extended piece on his blog, Informed Comment, discussing what Sarkozy's narrow French nationalism -- leaning toward an ethnic or cultural or racial national identity rather than a civic one, "open to all ethnicities." If you know nothing about this set of issues I'd recommend taking a look; if you know more than Cole does, or have a different view, please comment, or send a link to something good.

Phil Paine, still traveling in Europe, has been writing about similar issues. Recently he found himself in the poor but famous London district of Whitechapel, where he saw unhappy Muslim youth wandering the street, radiating a sense of being excluded. Phil, who has lived in Toronto practically since it was "The Belfast of the North," has experienced many waves of immigration and I take his observations on such a matter very seriously. Here's what he says on another tricky word, "multiculturalism:"

I hear repeated references to “multiculturalism“ in Britain, but the word seems to have a different flavour here than back in Canada. In Britain, it seems to refer to government and institutional efforts to get Britons to accept Muslims as fellow-citizens, or at least to tolerate their presence. In Canada, acceptance is taken more or less for granted. The word there refers to the efforts of immigrant community organizations to preserve and transmit the elements of traditional cultures to the generation born and raised in Canada. One usage presumes that assimilation is difficult, the other that it is so swift and effective that there is a danger that parents and children might not understand each other. But the two countries have such profoundly different histories and social systems that the different attitudes and results are understandable.

This brings to mind my mind the "immigrant grandmother test" which I put forward on the very rare occasions I hear someone of old Canadian stock making remarks about immigrants not fitting in. I say, ask any immigrant grandmother about her grandkids. She'll say, perhaps sadly, "Oh, they are Canadian."

For more on this from Phil: go here and read the May 4th entry.

Another recent set of developments come out of Turkey. My former students know that the constitution and philosophy of Turkey is secular, despite the fact that 99% of the Turkish population is Muslim. This is due to the fact that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who built the modern Turkish state on the post-WW I ruins of the Ottoman Empire, was personally quite hostile to Islam and believed that the Turks had to join "the whole civilized world" by adopting European standards in just about every sphere of life, from the alphabet, to the law, to the wearing of fedoras instead of fezzes or turbans.

As you may imagine, a strictly secular constitution in an overwhelmingly Muslim country doesn't suit everybody, and for the last 20 years or so political parties that prize the Islamic heritage have proved pretty popular at the polls. The current ruling AK party (controls the cabinet and parliament but not the presidency) is one of these. Recently the AK put forward its foreign minister as a candidate for president, a powerful post. A significant number of people took to the streets to protest this nomination in the name of Ataturk's vision. In one interview I saw, a woman in her 60s said that the AK was trying to take them back to "the Dark Ages."
AK's candidate was blocked in parliament when the opposition parties were able to deny quorumm on the crucial vote. What's going to happen next? A law may be passed making the presidency a popularly-elected post.

In the past, when threats to Ataturk's model, whether socialist or religious, seemed to be strong, the Turkish military, which sees itself as the guarantor of his legacy, has intervened, either behind the scenes or through an open military coup. For them and many others, secularism trumps democracy. Could a coup be launched this? What would be the consequences for Turkey and the world? Remember, this is the most stable country in the Middle East, a candidate for European Union membership. Should it prove to be unstable...(an article that cites Algerian experience since 1990 as a warning).

On the other hand, what happens if AK takes control through democratic means? Plenty are willing to argue that they are a democratic organization, hardly extremists. But there are violent extremists in Turkey, as in most other places, and other Turks fear them.

Update: A huge demonstration of secular Turks against the ruling Islamist party on May 12.

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