Authors: Sauradeep Bhattacharyya & Jahnavi Iyer
Region Head: Sauradeep Bhattacharyya
Editor: Harsh Didwania
In the climate of strong right-wing activism based on religious propaganda across the world this article tries to analyse and show the parallels in religious majoritarianism between two secular countries with different majority religions, in a bid to show that religious extremism is not particular to any religion and if left unchecked, it can lead to gross violation of minority rights in any socio-cultural context.
On the international front, ties between India and Turkey have found themselves under stress from Ankara’s pro Pakistan stance vis-à-vis India. Constitutionally secular states, India and Turkey’s current Prime Minister and President respectively, have been pushing for their religious agendas since they came into power. Although Modi is striving for a Hindu India and Erdoğan, for a Islamic Turkey, both them and the events that have transpired are almost parallel to each other.
Modi’s India: Ram Mandir and Babri Masjid dispute
The most recent push for Modi’s religious propaganda was seen from the Ram Mandir and Babri Masjid dispute. The history of the dispute stemmed during the British India rule when a Hindu sect, Nirmohis, claimed that the Hindu temple had been destroyed to build the mosque. This theory was also mentioned in one of the 3000 versions of the Ramayana, which is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. Over the past few years there have been various attempts of proving the existence of the temple in order to remove the mosque. In 1989, a movement to build a Ram mandir (temple) in the disputed site gained momentum in India, leasing life from the unilateral support of the BJP, the right-wing ruling party of which Modi is a part of. In 1992 it was demolished following mass religious violence at the site. Since then, the land has been a site of contention with both parties claiming it as their own (Pti, 2020).
In 2019, the Supreme Court of India in a move questioned by many as a mark of Central appeasement ruled for the handover of the land for the temple’s construction. Modi added fuel to the fire by attending the foundation stone laying ceremony on August 5, 2020. This event occurred during a period when the number of covid infections in India were soaring, and crowds should not have gathered. On top of that Modi outrightly showed his strong stance by attending this commemoration. As the leader of a constitutionally secular nation, it is clear that he prioritizes achieving a ‘Hindu India’.
Turkey’s Erdoğan: Hagia Sophia
Similarly, in Turkey, there exists a similar ongoing event which portrays its leader, Erdogan’s religious agenda. The Hagia Sophia was once a cathedral, and then a mosque before being declared a museum in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk— the founder of modern Turkey, who aspired to build a secular state. After a Turkish court annulled Atatürk's decision in July 2020, Erdoğan swiftly declared the Hagia Sophia to be a mosque once again. Erdogan’s ruling party has roots in the Turkey Islamic movement which can be further shown by his efforts to deepen Turkey’s Muslim identity and turn away from its secular vision. In his 17 years at the helm he has sought consistently to shift Islam into the mainstream Turkish politics. The United States, Russia and church leaders have expressed their concern about changing the status of the Unesco World Heritage Site, which is a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires is now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.
“By reversing one of Ataturk’s most symbolic steps, which underlined the former leader’s commitment to a secular republic, Erdogan has capped his own project to restore Islam in public life, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy” (Hermesauto, 2020).
Both countries use religious dynamics in politics to shore up their voter bases, in the midst of similarly precarious economic positions.
Parallels of Modi-Erdoğan in weaponizing religion
Both Modi and Erdoğan tap on the religious conflicts in their constitutionally secular states in order to mask the economic downturn happening in their respective countries and weaponize religion to garner votes. In India, about 30% of Indian youth aged 15-29 are not employed, studying or training, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which are more than double the average. India’s economy is forecast to grow 5% in the year ending March 2020, the slowest pace since 2009, and inflation accelerated last month to the fastest since 2014. In such circumstances, religious wins are paraded around to get the government breathers from the economy by diverting from India’s economic slowdown and poor human development parameters (Daniyal, 2019).
Similarly in Turkey, there is rising inflation and unemployment, contracting investment, elevated corporate and financial sector vulnerabilities, and patchy implementation of corrective policy actions and reforms. As said by Garo Paylan, one of the founders of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party that Erdoğan "can't give bread to the people, and he's giving more radicalism to the Muslim majority" (Jovanovski, 2020). Erdoğan, once celebrated for Turkey’s economic growth has long since lost the vote of confidence of the people to concern over the country's shaky finances and imperfect democracy which have been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic. The decision marks his desperation to maintain his popularity among his religious and nationalist conservative base.
Parallels in legislating on religious laws and marginalising minorities
With the ruling party in Turkey imposing Islamic directives to regulate inspections on interest-free finance it is the first time in modern Turkey that religious rules have been officially imposed in the public sphere, reigniting concerns that Turkey is gradually drifting toward an Islamic regime. Independent auditing firms will have to obey Islamic rules and established Islamic practices while inspecting the interest-free financial institutions.
AKP rule under Erdoğan, has also made alcohol extremely expensive in line with Erdoğan’s ideological anti-alcohol stance and his openly expressed endeavour to raise a more ‘pious’ generation. Public alcohol consumption is now only possible in major cities and certain provinces of Turkey. It is no longer possible to find restaurants or pubs that serve alcohol in rural Anatolian towns and cities.
In India the Bhartiya Janata Party has pushed for nation-wide a beef ban in India and restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cows, the holy animal of Hindus. Religious revivalism and political mobilization under Hindutva, the muscular, sentimental ideology of “Hindu-ness” that animates the BJP’s politics have exacerbated social fault lines leading to vigilante killings of a number of people, most of them Muslims who were transporting cattle. These incidents are largely met with a blind eye from the ruling party marking a gross violation of minority rights (Nair, 2017).
Both states have adopted majoritarianism – a traditional political agenda that supports a majority population, however categorised, as being entitled to primacy in a nation and the nation’s decision-making (Weigold, 2020). In India, a new citizenship bill was passed which provides citizenship on the basis of religion and carefully excludes Muslims from the list of religions eligible for citizenship has been critiqued by many as being in gross violation of the secular principles enshrined in the constitution.
In Turkey, Islam being a majority religion has increasingly seen a nationalist approach to Turkish identity along religious ground, and Kurds who are almost 20 percent of the population, and Christian Armenians have found themselves at odds with both secular and Islamist nationalists, many of whom fear the country could slide into a civil war if there were ever to be a push for self-governance. "Turkey wanted to be a member of the democratic world, but that story has ended," said Garo Paylan, 48, a Christian Armenian who is one of the founders of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (Jovanovski, 2020).
What does this mean for India and Turkey in the future?
Is this the start of a backward revolution in India and Turkey?
In Turkey contrary to the religious agenda surveys show that efforts to create a pious generation are backfiring. A poll by Turkish firm Konda showed that the number of people who defined themselves as religious conservatives dropped to 25% from 32% between 2008-2018. In the same period, those who fast during Ramadan dropped from 77% to 66%. Also, several polls indicated that the AKP is losing its support base. (Orhan Kemal Cengiz | Turkey | Mar 11 et al., 2020)
In India, students and the academia and members of the intelligentsia, regularly express their critique of the ruling regime’s ‘Hindutva’ narrative and refuse to hear it as the vision for the constitutionally secular India. Though this has not stopped extremist nationalistic propaganda based on religious lines in either state, there is hope that the youth of both these nations will be successful in overthrowing conservative religious authoritarianism for a more secular liberal future.
Is there hope for the world to combat this growing erosion of secularism by the tides of religious nationalism?
Strong right-wing activism is on the rise giving expression to nationalism and populism across the world. Orban has militarised Hungary against “enemies” that include Muslim migrants, Brazil’s Bolsonaro is also pro-arms and an admirer of dictatorship, while Duterte is the authoritarian president of the Philippines (Weigold, 2020).
Yet, some specks of hope in this seemingly bleak horizon are the growing unpopularity of the Justice and Development Party which lost control of Turkey's two biggest cities in municipal elections. In India, the BJP lost some crucial state elections as well and the recent news of mismanagement of the Covid crisis by the Modi Government which led to India’s punishing second wave has dealt severe blows to Modi’s image as a populist leader and a vigilant administrator. So, one can hope that the ebbing of the tide of majoritarian religious authoritarianism is not too far away.
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