Overstating the state

28 Jul 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THE Friday past, the Hagia Sophia was opened to prayers after over 80 years, much to the consternation of many around the world. The decision to change the world-famous heritage site from a museum into a mosque has been criticised the world over, as well as by many within Turkey. It has been called a populist decision by a leader who is perhaps unable to address the country’s serious challenges, as well as one which signals a change in the secular Kemalist state set-up after the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Inevitably, some drew parallels with the Babri mosque in India, where a temple is going to be built on a contested religious site under a right-wing government that identifies with and promotes a Hindu nationalism and not the pluralism India was once celebrated for.

But it seems the AKP in Turkey and the BJP in India are religio-political parties that are slowly but surely dismantling the secular polity set-up by the founding fathers of each respective countries. The conversion of Hagia Sophia and the recent supreme court judgment which is going to lead to a temple at the Babri mosque site are important milestones in the two countries historical shift.

However, the parallels begin not just with the weakening/dismantling of the modern, secular states that were once India and Turkey. Perhaps the comparisons can begin earlier in the pasts of the two. Both countries came into being considerable upheaval. The dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I led to Turkey appearing as a nation state on the world map. And India was the consequence of the events set into motion by World War II.

We spent decades believing that right-wing tendencies have been imposed by authoritarian regimes.

More importantly, both came into being after ‘losing’ territory. The Ottoman Empire dominated large parts of Europe and the Middle East which seceded and emerged as independent states, while Pakistan (which then included Bangladesh) left behind a far smaller modern India to emerge from the South Asian British Empire.

In some ways, perhaps, the earlier ‘trauma’ played a part — allowing and necessitating in parts — in their founding father setting their countries on such modern paths. For Kemal Ataturk, a modern, secular worldview set apart the new Turkey from the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which inspired pan-Islamism.

In order to break with this past, Ataturk emphasised Turkish nationalism, modernity and secularism, which remained unchallenged for decades — though it has been argued that the modernisation process did not penetrate deep beyond the urban centres.

India, too, had to appeal to a secular nationalism as it forged unity in the aftermath of Partition but one based on multicultural and multi-religious inclusivity. And the Congress’ domination of the political and electoral stage allowed its view to be the prevailing one for decades to follow — on the political stage it was not challenged by any other force till the emergence of the BJP in the 1990s, partly because its biggest rival in politics, the Muslim League, had moved to Pakistan. But in India as well, before the Hindutva ideology took centre stage, Indira Gandhi was said to pander to religious sentiment to some extent.

(This is not to say that the two countries had a similar approach — India celebrated its multiculturalism and was inclusive of its various religious communities while Turkey espoused a more secular nationalism, especially under decades of military rule.)

However, in both, elections and democratic processes have allowed the people to vote for the dismantling of the secular outlook, which in hindsight seems like an elite-led and elite-supported ideology. Despite very different political processes, in both countries a top-down effort at ‘modernising’ people has not led to a society where religious identity has become irrelevant to the dominant political identity shaping the state. The opposite seems to have happened.

And this is why it is so fascinating for us in Pakistan. We have spent decades believing that the right-wing tendencies in our society have been imposed, even forced, upon us by authoritarian regimes. As if, had Zia not happened upon us or the military not adopted a right-wing ideology, our state and society would have been different, more akin to those black-and-white 1960s’ pictures and ads floating around on the internet. Women in short dresses, cabarets in hotels, parties which all but disappeared because the state willed it so. As if, these images and the lifestyle they symbolised would have dominated today, if our politics had taken a different course.

Indeed, it is a ‘truth’ universally acknowledged that had it not been for the Islamisation program­mes, our world would have been a rather different one.

But then, there are Turkey and India. An uninterrupted democracy (as in India’s case) or a transition to democracy (as in Turkey’s case) do not necessarily lead to a path where religion and a right-wing majoritarianism give way to more liberal ideals. Pakistan may not have followed a different trajectory.

Just consider last week — as Turkey claimed Hagia Sophia as a mosque, the Punjab Assembly in Lahore passed the Punjab Tahaffuz-i-Bunyaad-i-Islam Bill, 2020, “to prevent blasphemy” and the printing of “objectionable material”. It was initiated by the PML-Q, a disgruntled ally which feels the government does not consult it enough.

Once the bill was passed, the speaker of the assembly, also from the PML-Q, thanked the PTI as well as opposition leader, Hamza Sharif of the PML-N, for helping legislate. In a polarised environment where the allies and the government barely see eye to eye, all three parties came together, quickly and easily, to ‘protect’ Islam because it’s a decision their members and voters can get behind.

Is this merely due to the earlier Islamisation efforts of the state or because the soil was just right for such programmes? Do top-down efforts by states to carry out social engineering go only so far? These are questions worth mulling over as a church becomes a mosque and a groundbreaking ceremony for a temple is about to take place.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, July 28th, 2020