Modi and Erdogan thrive on divisive identity politics
“The wait of centuries is over” were the words of Narendra Modi, as the Indian prime minister laid the foundation stone of a new Hindu temple in Ayodhya last week.
“This was the greatest dream of our youth, and now it has been accomplished” was how Recep Tayyip Erdogan put it, shortly before the Turkish president led the prayers in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on July 24, after its reconversion to a mosque.
Mr Modi is a Hindu nationalist. Mr Erdogan is an Islamist. The Indian and Turkish leaders look like potential rivals in a clash of civilisations. But they are pursuing political projects that are mirror images.
Both are champions of a brand of politics that seeks to fuse religion, the nation and the leader. Both lead countries with secular constitutions but want to place religion back at the heart of the nation and the state.
Mr Modi launched his political career in the 1990s, by campaigning for the destruction of a mosque at Ayodhya and its replacement with a Hindu temple — an ambition he finally realised last week. Mr Erdogan has long demanded that the Hagia Sophia — inaugurated as a basilica in 537, converted into a mosque from 1453 and then a museum from 1935 — should once again become a Muslim place of worship. After 17 years in power, the Turkish leader has achieved his ambition.
Both leaders have grandiose views of themselves as refounders of their own nations. Mr Modi calls himself the champion of a “new India”. Mr Erdogan talks of a “new Turkey”. This common language reflects more than a weakness for the same kind of marketing-speak.
In rejecting secularism, both the Indian and the Turkish leaders have placed themselves tacitly in conflict with the founding fathers of their modern nations. Kemal Ataturk, the creator of the Turkish republic, was an alcohol-drinking secularist. Mohandas Gandhi, who led the campaign for Indian independence, was a champion of religious pluralism and was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist.
In rejecting secularism, Erdogan-supporting Islamists and Modi-supporting Hindu nationalists argue that their chosen leaders are returning Turkey and India back to their authentic religious and cultural roots — and away from the alien traditions of the west, championed by secular urban elites. The most ardent fans of Mr Modi and Mr Erdogan argue that, in time, the current leaders of India and Turkey will come to be seen as greater and more significant figures than Gandhi or Ataturk.
Both Mr Modi and Mr Erdogan also aspire to be leaders of a global faith community. Digital renderings of the new temple in Ayodhya were beamed on to a giant billboard in Times Square in New York, presumably as an inspiration to expatriate Indians. Mr Erdogan has claimed that the “resurrection of the Hagia Sophia” represents the “will of Muslims all over the world”.
For two such important nations to turn their backs on secularism and liberal values is significant in itself. But the changes in India and Turkey are also part of a broader global story of the rise of identity politics at the expense of liberal universalism. This is a story that, in different ways, is also playing out in China, Russia, the US and Europe. It is closely linked to the rise of strongman leaders, who claim to be protectors of a faith, a nation or a chosen ethnic group, or some fusion of all three.
In China, President Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation involves an increasingly ruthless suppression of ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has forged close links with the Russian Orthodox Church as part of his nationalist project. In the US, Donald Trump has promised evangelical voters that with him in the White House, “Christianity will have power”.
The current coronavirus-driven economic slump strengthens the temptation for strongman leaders to play the identity card. In their first terms in office, Mr Modi and Mr Erdogan stressed their credentials as economic reformers. But with the Turkish and Indian economies in deep trouble, both leaders need other means of rallying support.
The ceremonies at Ayodhya and the Hagia Sophia were perfect ways of stirring the emotions of their core supporters. Secular liberals in India and Turkey were mostly reluctant to come out in open opposition to these crowd-pleasing measures. In both countries, liberals are already aghast at what they see as an assault on fundamental liberties, such as the freedom of the press and independence of the courts. The process is significantly more advanced in Turkey, but Mr Erdogan has been in power for a decade longer than Mr Modi.
Identity politics thrives on division and distinctions between friends and enemies. Often, the focus is on the “enemy within”, such as religious or ethnic minorities, or liberal elites. But strongman leaders also have to be seen to be tough with the nation’s enemies overseas. Mr Erdogan has committed Turkish troops to wars in Libya and Syria. Mr Modi authorised a bombing raid on militant camps in Pakistan, just ahead of the 2019 election.
A rejection of secularism and an embrace of identity politics is a potent way of rallying political support. But, both at home and abroad, it is also a recipe for conflict.
By: Gideon Rachman