Research Motivations and Goals

My research is primarily in the field of comparative political theory. Accompanied by my concurrent work in comparative politics, my political theory work in some ways has been at the intersection of these two subfields. Muslim-majority countries’ democracy gap was already a huge conundrum for the literature when I started my training in political science. More recently, events of historical significance unfolded during the Arab Spring and the rise and decay of democracy in my home country: Turkey. Each development manifested itself both as a test case for existing theories and a potential source of theoretical and normative reflection for political theorists.

Overall, in my dissertation project and afterward, I responded to three related questions concerning religiously oriented post-nineteenth-century Muslim thinkers and political actors as they engaged with democracy and other new European political concepts: i) how to analyze the thinkers’ re-negotiations of their ontological and ethical commitments while their engagements took place alongside their quest to remain true to their religion and to pursue just political regimes; ii) how religiously motivated actors, chiefly Islamists, have interacted with democracy through its conceptual and institutional forms to either foster or undermine democratic development in their countries’ recent history; and iii) how one can identify notions of “good government” in Muslim-authored political treatises that seek to present more “authentic” normative suggestions that, in turn, could cultivate a democratic ethos in Muslim-majority countries.

My research therefore investigates democracy in Muslim-majority settings first and foremost as a theoretical question, considering both its philosophical and theological dimensions. Employing the explanatory tools of comparative politics to probe the relevance of normative theory and theology for the recent democratic developments and breakdowns in the Middle East and North Africa complements my analytical and normative reflections. Consequently, how democracy (as a political theory) and Islam (as a religious tradition) come together in the ideas of political and intellectual leaders and masses alike have emerged as issues of vital significance. As my research agenda has also been considerably shaped by personal on-the-ground experiences, my more recent work in normative theory explores how a democratic ethos might be cultivated through good government in the regions under study beyond populist and majoritarian interpretations of democracy.

 

Dissertation: “The Political Ontology of Islamic Democracy: An Ontological Narrative of Contemporary Muslim Political Thought”

I left Turkey, a society deeply divided by religious-secularist cleavage under a military tutelage, for the US in 2001 to pursue my graduate study right before the 9/11 attacks. During my PhD study at the University of Virginia, my political theory and comparative politics courses provided me with crucial analytical and normative tools to address the contentious issues of democracy, secularism, and religion. This led to my dissertation, which analyzes the trajectory of democratic discourse in the post-Afghani (d. 1897) era of Muslim political thought, in particular among the reformist current.

The central normative focus of my dissertation is the deliberative quest for a just political arrangement among individuals who draw on different bedrock commitments concerning self, other, and the world. I therefore situate my comparative political theory within the emerging genre of “political ontology.” I demonstrate that thinkers’ shifting attitudes toward democracy over time can be better grasped by approaching their political theories as constellations of ontological, ethical, and political dimensions.

The first part of my dissertation presents several new themes in recent political theory, namely, political ontology, political theology, and radical democracy. The first chapter lays the groundwork for establishing ontology’s relevance to political theory by arguing for its unavoidability when dealing with political theorizing. As an analytical tool, political ontology implies viewing a thinker’s political thought as an ontopolitical constellation and determining how each level prefigures the other. As for the normative dimension, I argue that an acceptable political ontology today must avoid the violence that results from the idea of a strong foundation and engage alternative constellations with more generous ethico-political formations.

The second chapter develops the claim that the political contains an inherent theological element. Of particular importance in this regard are the concepts of mythos, messianicity, and theodicy. My interest in these theological residues do not result just from pointing out how they operate in our political thinking, for I also try to transform them into productive theoretical resources for normative theorizing.

The third chapter links these ontological and theological reflections with different conceptions of democracy. Radical democracy stands out among these because it internalizes its own contestability and undecidability. I therefore argue that radical democratic theories are more in line with the ontological imaginaries defend in the first chapter. Furthermore, these theories are more congenial conversation partners with the Muslims’ efforts to formulate self-government with their deep pluralism and infinite opening to “others.”

Having laid the ground for my ontological narrative, the four chapters in the second part analyze the political theories of Jamaladdin Afghani (d. 1897), Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), Fazlur Rahman (d. 1985), and such current liberal Muslim thinkers as Abdelwahab El-Affendi (b.1955), Khaled Abou El Fadl b. 1963), Nader Hashemi (b.1966), and Abdullahi An-Na‘im (b. 1946). While critically analyzing each thinker’s political theory as an ontopolitical constellation, I show how their approaches to democracy or self-government are prefigured by their particular conceptions of God, as well as how they conceive of the relationship between the Muslim self and the “other,” the rest of creation, and the revealed text (i.e., the Qur’an).

In the concluding arguments, I point out an alternative to the liberal Muslims’ comprehension of democracy. In conversation with some recent ontologically oriented formulations of “radical democracy” and “critical political theology,” as well as their critiques of liberal democracy, I explore a different direction for Muslim political thinking on self-rule, one that attends more to the duty to justice as well as to dialogical engagement with the “other.” Such a direction would be characterized by a commitment to social justice based on an expanded understanding of egalitarianism.

 

My Research on the Arab Spring and Turkish Democracy

The Middle East had radically changed by the time I defended my dissertation in May 2013. Observers’ increased faith in the region’s democratization caused me to probe the possibility that a certain move to “post-Islamism” among Islamist politicians could have resulted in more democratic formations without a comprehensive theological reform. Taking theology off the table and promoting prodemocracy coalitions would perhaps consolidate democracy à la the “democracy without democrats” argument developed in the European context. However, the hopes for an “Arab Spring” were already waning and the “Turkish model,” so widely cherished in American academic and think-tank circles, was already crumbling. I pointed out the symptoms of political decay in Turkey in my dissertation right before the breakout of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. Meanwhile, the breakdown of Egypt’s democratic experiment, the Syrian civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State led many analysts to probe the role of theology in the current crises.

Accordingly, as I took part in Istanbul Sabanci University’s Project on the Middle East and Arab Spring (POMEAS), I paid special attention to the relevance of theology alongside institutional and structural factors. Two comparative politics pieces that I published at the end of my work there addressed this issue in particular. “The Political and Theological Boundaries of Islamist Moderation after the Arab Spring” (2016) explored the repercussions of the apparent failure of Islamist experimentations with democracy, especially in Egypt, in terms of the moderation hypotheses. I argued that when Islamists eventually come to power, their ideological vision also matters within the nexus of their strategic commitments and ongoing power struggles with other Islamist contenders. The prospects of democratization, therefore, may also depend on the theoretical and political success of an Islamist political theology that is more in accord with rights and freedoms than a simplistic procedural democracy.

The other piece, “The New Antinomies of the Islamic Movement in Post-Gezi Turkey: Islamism vs. Muslimism” (2017), asked whether employing Asef Bayat’s “post-Islamism” would be a mischaracterization for the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) new ideological formation. Observing the new Islamic opposition to the AKP policies, it offered a conceptual distinction between Islamism and Muslimism to decipher the AKP’s post-2011 ideological configuration. Although it did not counter the analyses that favored political and institutional factors over theological ones, the article did underline how ideology figured into this formation when it played a role. I had the chance to discuss this question in Berlin’s EUME Seminars with Bayat in late 2016.

Finally, book chapter, “The Rise and Demise of Civilizational Thinking in Contemporary Muslim Political Thought” (2017), expanded on a recurring concept that had not been sufficiently analyzed in my dissertation. The essay, which covered a period of approximately two centuries, dissected seven thinkers’ widespread adoption of civilization as a defensive discursive tool against the European colonial discourse, with critical interventions and resistance by those three who opposed this idea. In addition, it argued against certain comparative political theory formulations that viewed the dialogue among thinkers, drawing upon different ontological sources, as a dialogue among civilizations. Instead, it argued for a “post-Western,” post-Orientalist” overcoming of the categories of “Western,” “Eastern,” or “Islamic” civilizations.

 

My Ongoing and Future Projects

As these research projects were coming to fruition, on the personal level the breakdown of Turkish democracy culminated in an abrupt end to my academic career in Turkey. Ironically, the cautionary remarks in my dissertation on the prospects of deep democratization in the region foreshadowed this breakdown, which affected Turkish academics both directly and personally.

Getting back to my dissertation project, during this time I was focused on turning my dissertation into a book manuscript during my post-doctoral positions at Germany’s Forum Transregionale Studien and Stanford’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies. Several years of teaching “Contemporary Muslim Political Thought” in undergraduate and graduate settings in Turkey and Stanford’s Abbasi Program have enabled me to further articulate my ideas. As the scheduling of a book conference at the Abbasi Program in Spring 2019 is about to be finalized, this work will hopefully result in a book contract during the next year.

Most recently, my work has branched out to include new theoretical interests in the conception of “good government.” My investigations of the democracy gap in Muslim-majority settings, coupled with Muslim political thought on democracy, gave rise to a new interest in the relationship between good government and the “ethos” of democracy. My last APSA paper, “Tunisi, Good Government, and Overcoming Non-Authenticity of Democracy” (2018), asks whether the relative lack of a theological reconciliation with democracy may have undercut the latter’s internalization among religiously oriented thinkers and politicians, and, by default, its “authenticity.” This becomes all the more significant as Islamists entertain an authoritative voice in the wider segments of Muslim-majority societies on the Islamicity of modern concepts. This understanding has arguably held back the indigenization of democratic values at the theoretical and theological levels, with significant ramifications for the contentious political landscape.

By discussing the lesser known Tunisian thinker Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (d.1890), I consider whether his formulation of “good government” can help indigenize the democratic ethos more robustly. As I am just starting to explore the relevant literature, my future research will be geared toward its philosophical and normative dimensions. As empirical work situated in international development and international political economy literature dominates this field, very few works take up conceptual and theoretical discussions. My normative approach will seek to determine whether good government can sustain a democratic ethos as a pathway to genuine democratization at the ideational level among religious actors in Muslim-majority settings.

With the global deterioration of democracy rising ever-higher on the agenda, a normative defense of it among the scholarly communities has only gained in significance. Debating more “authentic” means to ground democratic ethos in the Muslim-majority settings, I believe, is all the more crucial for sustaining democratic ideals.