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An ill wind

Updated October 01, 2018

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TO some this will read like apologia. To others it will perhaps seem like a last, defeated gasp escaping the throats of those being slowly digested in the belly of the beast. It may be both, and a little bit more. After all, fascism isn’t just knocking on your door; it’s in your living room and has put up its dirty feet on the table. It’s in your bathroom, questioning the ‘patriotism’ of your flush toilet.

And blasphemy charges are yesterday’s news, now we have a form of secular blasphemy — treason they call it — weaponised patriotism modelled after the successful weaponisation of religion. Or so it seems. Because this is an amorphous sort of attack, with no real front to fight against; there’s no single sword stroke to be blocked but rather hundreds of tiny cuts — insignificant (even invisible) on an individual level but deadly as a whole.

It’s hard not to admire the intricate design of the machine even as it grinds you down.

We are not alone in this right-wing drift.

“Open your eyes”, shout a few impassioned souls as they clutch constitutional articles like the flimsy paper shields they are. “Why can’t you see that we are fighting for your rights?” they ask a disinterested and increasingly hostile populace. Now you can disagree with the more hyperbolic parts of their argument, but it is hard — if we are to be honest — to reject it entirely.

But there is some (cold) comfort to be had in the fact that we are by no means alone or unique in this drift; there is some solace to be had in the fact that it could be a lot worse.

Take our closest allies: China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. While in the first two democracy has always been anathema, both states are now in the process of further centralising control in the hands of their rulers. Chinese President Xi Jinping is now possibly the most powerful ruler since Mao Zedong — buoyed by China’s economic miracle that challenges the very argument that democracy is the surest route to economic growth. There the argument is that democracy is chaos and if success requires the trampling of social liberties then it is a small price to pay.

In Saudi Arabia, to the amazement of overly hopeful Western commentators, economic reform and social liberalisation have not led to democratisation; quite the contrary, as MBS upends traditional structures and concentrates power in his own person. Instead, in both states the ideological underpinnings are simply switching from religion (communism can be considered a secular ‘religion’ for this purpose) to nationalism. The same can be said of Russia which, after a brief experiment, reverted to type with ‘Czar’ Putin ruling in the classic Russian manner.

In Turkey, an increasingly authoritarian Erdogan — buoyed by nationalism and employing Ottoman imagery — was swept back to power with 53 per cent of the vote in an election that saw a staggering 86pc turnout. The Turkish people made their choice, again much to the chagrin and amazement of Western op-ed writers who were also curiously reluctant to condemn the coup attempt. Democratic values, or even lip service to those values, are nowhere to be seen in the Middle East. Yes, Israel is technically a democracy but is de facto an apartheid state injecting itself with toxic nationalism, racism and religious superiority.

That’s a popular drug these days, and all we have to do is look next door at India to see the consequences. It is a democracy, but one with a voting population that is increasingly and actively being radicalised by a right-wing ruling elite, which has its divisive messages amplified by a shrill right-wing media owned by corporations that are close to the ruling party. Dissent is treason, and lists of inconvenient activists — labelled as urban Naxalites — make the rounds on social media and are proudly and widely shared.

Murderers are garlanded by government officials and child rapists have rallies held in their favour simply because their victims belonged to the ‘wrong’ faith. Democratic? Yes. Secular? Yes, technically. Increasingly fascist despite all this? Absolutely. It is a developing case study of a democracy in the process of rejecting democratic values.

Don’t bother looking to the US for even a mildly worded note of concern at this global trend. There we have a president openly chafing at the trapping of democracy, with all its checks and balances, a president who is applauded as he attacks a free press and who caters to the most regressive sentiments of his countrymen. A man who not only embodies every cliché of the Ugly American but revels in it, and supports those — like Netanyahu and Hungary’s democratic dictator Victor Orban — who echo his rhetoric and worldview.

Is this a passing phase, a temporary tide that will soon recede or is the world reverting to type after a brief democratic spring? Perhaps. But at the moment, as Bob Dylan wrote, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”.

The writer is a journalist.
Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2018