Are Erdoğan and Modi two faces of one coin?
Dr. Kashif Hasan Khan
Not a long time ago I watched the documentary “Children of Abraham” in which it was said that when religion and politics meet, it gives birth to an illegitimate child. The discourse on religion and politics is centuries old. The Reformation and Enlightenment of the 16th century in Europe were the result of atrocities committed by the popes and the Church. The West saw the hazardous consequences of the dominance of religion in politics and they therefore decided to come up with a reformation wherein politics and religion were separate. That reformation ended up becoming secularism. History has witnessed that whenever politicians have used religion to retain power, it has led to instability in their nations, with minorities or the opposition being killed, imprisoned, threatened, displaced and the like.
Turkey and India have very few things in common. They are thousands of miles away from each other, with different cultures and civilizations. However, one can see two areas where Turkey and India resemble each other. First, the similarity in the style of leadership of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Damodardas Modi, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Both Modi and Erdoğan come from working-class families. Erdoğan sold lemonade on the streets, whereas Modi is said to have sold tea on a railway platform in Vadnagar. Neither managed to attend the best schools and universities, but both have great oratorical skills and are self-made leaders. They both are right-wing religious nationalists governing vast multicultural democracies and emerging economies. They have very successful political careers and have been in mainstream politics since the late ’90s. Second, India and Turkey are the two leading examples of avowedly secular states in the non-Western world. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and the Republic of India in 1950 as sovereign nation-states, the principle of secularism was held to be a cornerstone of both state and nation in the two countries. Political developments in India and Turkey have mirrored each other. In the late 1960s and ’70s, both countries were shaken by left-wing student radicalism and trade union unrest. The next decade, similarly, was a time of deepening conflict between the state and minority groups: Kurds and Alevis in the case of Turkey, and Sikhs, Kashmiris, Nagas, Mizos and a host of others in India.
Though the two countries are considered to be secular, their definition of secularism is not what the Western version of secularism is based on, albeit in differing specific forms and to varying degrees: the doctrinal principle of separation of church and state. Turkish and Indian secularism is very much associated with the right-wing approaches of Islam and Hinduism. Unlike in the West, religion was not put on the other side of the wall but tolerated, respected and practiced along with the constitution. Kemal Atatürk accepted and implemented the exact definition of Western secularism; however, it eventually failed to remain intact, and religion began wiping it out in the1980s, when Turgut Özal, having a reverence for Islam, became prime minister. Gandhi and Nehruvian’s secularism never fell within the boundaries of Western secularism. It was originally religion-driven. The Turkey created by Kemal Atatürk is already in intensive care, counting its last breaths. The India that Mahatma Gandhi dreamed of is just that — a dream.
Since the time of independence in the mid-20th century, Hindu nationalists have attacked the secular fabric of India. They rejected the Western style of governance and worked to make India a “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu Nation), based on the philosophy of Hindutva — the notion that India is the homeland of Hindus alone. India’s Hindu nationalist party (Bhartiya Jan Sangh, later renamed the Bhartiya Janta Party, the current ruling party), to which Prime Minister Modi belongs, was formed in 1951. It is the political wing of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organization founded in 1925. They have several million members, and the objective is to make India a Hindu Rashtriya. Modi was introduced to RSS at the age of 8 and spent his early life as a member of RSS before becoming chief minister at the age of 51 in 2001 and prime minister in 2014. His political career was shaped by the ideology of RSS, which was briefly banned when a member assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.
Unlike India, Turkish nationhood is Islam. Secularism was able to survive for more than six decades as it was imposed by means of military and judicial intervention throughout those years. In the late 1980s Kemalist secularism started to decline and people began seeing a ray of hope for Islam during the regime of Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan and his RP (Refah Partisi), and the young leader of the time, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As expected, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) replaced secularist authoritarianism not with Islam, which promotes “inclusiveness,” but with a new form of authoritarianism that is the anti-secular and anti-ethos of Islam. Erdoğan was briefly imprisoned in 1994, when he was mayor of İstanbul, for inciting religious hatred. Sumantra Bose writes in her book “Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey, and the Future of Secularism” that the Anatolian and Konyan Hanifi Sunni Turks living in İstanbul and other big cities believed the AKP had given them a voice, opportunity and equality.
The first decade of AKP rule went comparatively well due to Erdoğan’s policies in the areas of economy, infrastructure and such. But desecularization and his tactic of the self-proclaimed black Turk from a religious, working-class background leveling Turkish society — where the white Turk, the Kemalist elite, seemed to be more dominant in all walks of life — went along with that. Both Erdoğan and Modi are right-wing politicians who employ nationalist rhetoric and try to impose majoritarianism. Their approaches are, however, very different from other nationalists such as Turgut Özal and Necmettin Erbakan in Turkey and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in India.
The politics of scapegoating
When economies deteriorate, development policies fail and growth turns negative, politicians need religious nationalism to shore up their political prospects. They are well aware that religion is the last resort that can play a pivotal role in using the emotions of the masses and hence polarize the electorate. Worth mentioning is the series of events that took place during the second term of the Modi government and in the first term of President Erdoğan, two times prime minister earlier: the conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque; the crackdown on the Gülen movement; the rebuilt Ram Mandir Hindu temple; the uniform civil code; the abolition of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir; the Love Jihad Islamophobic conspiracy theory; and many others. Unfortunately, these historical incidents are no more than political stunts that were intended to uphold majoritarianism and populism.
In early July 2020 Turkey’s Council of State negated the cabinet’s 1934 order to convert the Byzantine Hagia Sophia cathedral into a museum, rescinding the monument’s status, with Erdoğan subsequently reclassifying Hagia Sophia as a mosque. This move came at a time when Erdoğan was flagging in the polls owing to a poor economy and the coronavirus pandemic. A similar incident occurred in India when the 16th-century Babri Mosque in the Indian city of Ayodhya — which on December 6, 1992 had been demolished by Hindu nationalists and a saffron colored flag associated with Hinduism hoisted over it – was ordered to be replaced with the Ram Mandir Temple. A judgment by the Indian Supreme Court was issued on November 9, 2019 that a temple to the Hindu deity Rama had existed in the past and would be rebuilt in place of the mosque. According to Hindu mythology, Ayodhya is the birthplace of Rama. The mosque was built by Babur, a descendant of Timur and Genghis Khan and the founder of the Mughal Empire on the Indian subcontinent.
Another stunt was attacking the Gülen (or Hizmet) movement, which Erdoğan used to admire at the beginning of his political career. On July 15, 2016 a coup was attempted on the streets of İstanbul and Ankara, with more than 250 people killed and many injured. Erdoğan wasted no time in blaming Fethullah Gülen — an Islamic preacher who lives in Pennsylvania, famous for his sermons on tolerance, integration, interfaith dialogue and the denouncing of of political Islam. Since the failed coup, thousands of Gülen followers have been detained, imprisoned and tortured. According to Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, a total of 622,646 people have been the subject of investigation and 301,932 have been detained, while 96,000 others have been jailed. The minister said there are currently 25,467 people in Turkey’s prisons who were jailed on alleged links to the movement. Erdoğan is trying hard to convince the leaders of countries where Hizmet operates educational and interfaith dialogue-based institutions that Hizmet is a terrorist organization and can cause harm to their countries. Democratic countries, however, have rejected this.
Anti-Muslim conspiracy theories such as Love Jihad are intended to capture the message of Hindu fundamentalists, who claim that Muslim men are luring gullible Hindu women into marriage and converting them to Islam. The RSS has since then used the “Love Jihad” campaign tactically to its advantage from time to time along with the long-standing Gaw Rakshak (cow protectors).
Ever since the BJP (Modi government) came to power in 2014, many Muslims have been killed for keeping cows and eating their meat. However, in states that are dominated by leftists and Christians and the BJP isn’t in power, the slaughtering of cows is not illegal — beef is sold and openly eaten.
In fulfillment of a campaign promise, the BJP created the so-called Anti Romeo squads, consisting of RSS members and policemen, “to protect the honor of women.” These squads patrol the streets with long sticks to catch couples sitting and talking to each other, who they then beat. This is nothing but absolute annoyance that generates a crack between Hindu and Muslim couples.
However, it is doubtful that Modi, unlike Erdoğan, can take complete power into his hands by putting India under a state of emergency and giving the government every power to suppress the opposition, as Erdoğan did in 2016 under the pretext of the coup attempt, declaring a state of emergency that lasted two years and ripping up the rule of law. Comparing India, in which the military has played no role in politics except in the Northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, with Turkey, where the military has ruled formally and informally for ages, is difficult. India comprises numerous ethnic, linguistic, religious and caste communities, so replicating Erdoğan’s majoritarian formula in India would be an arduous task for the Hindu nationalists led by Modi. Modi has no intention of being a messiah of Hinduism all over the world, whereas Erdoğan wants to be a champion of Islamists in Turkey and Muslim countries.
About the author: Dr. Kashif Hasan Khan is director of the Silk Road Research Center in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He writes on Central Asia, India and the European Union. He can be reached at [email protected]