Nora Fisher Onar of Coastal Carolina University and Centre of International Relations, Oxford gave a seminar on 25 October 2017 at SEESOX entitled “Islamo-liberalism: Turkey and The Life Cycle of a Political Alliance.”
Fisher Onar’s lecture commenced with the events of 15 July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and gave a brief picture of the purge which followed. She highlighted how the West perceives Turkey in the aftermath of the failed putsch, and how supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in turn construct an image of the West. Western pundits, she suggested, tend to read developments in Turkey through a simplistic equation of authoritarianism = Islamism. Pro-AKP pundits, similarly, tend to dismiss all Western criticism as Islamophobic negation of Turkish people’s will and agency. Both approaches, she argued, authorize a reading of pro-religious and liberal political programs in Turkey as irreconcilable. This collusion of Orientalist and Occidentalist frameworks, Fisher Onar contended, serves to empower groups committed to organicist, ethno-religious readings of Turkey’s national identity and international role.
However, according to Fisher Onar, political change in Turkey is actually driven by multiple, shifting factions and alliances, including an Islamo-liberal coalition, which around once every generation drives significant political change before collapsing. Fisher Onar argues that this pattern can be traced across the history of the country starting with Ottoman Tanzimat period in the early nineteenth-century. Over the course of at least eight critical junctures since then, she suggested, pro-religious and pro-secular liberal political actors came together to drive political openings which shaped late Ottoman modernization, the mid-twentieth century transition to multi-party politics, and Turkey’s once vital but currently frozen EU accession process. Highlighting that such coalitions are enabled not by any intrinsic feature of pro-religious or pro-liberal political programs, Fisher Onar suggested that they are driven by the contingent interplay of political ideas, actors, international structures at any given juncture. One conclusion which can be drawn from this study is that, in longue duree perspective, there are enduring resources for political pluralism, if not liberalism per se, in Turkey’s political arena, today’s illiberal turn notwithstanding.
Fisher Onar’s lecture was a synopsis of her book manuscript Pathways to Pluralism, Islam, Liberalism, and Nationalism in Turkey and Beyond.
Ezgi Basaran (Contemporary TurkeyS Programme Coordinator, SEESOX, St Antony's College, Oxford)