Murderous attacks on atheist bloggers in Bangladesh and secular activists in Pakistan are, of course, deplorable. So is mob violence targeting individuals suspected, wrongly or rightly, of engaging in heresy or blasphemy. But the problem goes beyond Pakistan, Bangladesh, or even Afghanistan. For several years now, secularism has been losing ground to harshly violent, sometimes murderous sectarianisms in countries that many global observers still hail as secular democracies.
I’m talking about Turkey and India, both of which have edged closer to the abyss of theocracy than many Americans realize. For complex reasons, strategic analysts and international journalists have tended to soft-pedal the disturbing developments in those nations. That’s bad for many reasons. Surely, it has encouraged secular Americans to remain silent as two of the world’s boldest experiments in secularization are dismantled from within. It’s time for that to stop.
In both Turkey and India, official secularism is associated with Western-influenced founder-figures who conducted state-driven social engineering on a titanic scale. Shortly after the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed on October 29, 1923, its founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), launched a rapid top-down de-Islamization of Turkish society. “My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science,” Atatürk proclaimed. “Superstition must go.” He ended religious education in state schools, shut down madrassas, abolished Sharia courts and the caliphate, banned the fez and the turban, and barred wearing of hijab in public offices.
Similarly, as the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) launched a vigorous secularizing campaign. University of Chicago Indologist Ronald Inden wrote that “in its stronger, unofficially stated form,” Nehru’s campaign presumed “that in order to modernize, India would have to set aside centuries of traditional religious ignorance and superstition and eventually eliminate Hinduism and Islam from people’s lives altogether.”
In later years, it’s been popular among Western liberals to view Atatürk and Nehru as imperialist tools whose ham-fisted efforts to force Western values on their countries were naturally foredoomed. Surely, many of their tactics were as tone-deaf as they were harsh. But in hindsight, I can’t help thinking that Atatürk’s and Nehru’s harshness may have been necessary and merely proportional to the power and ferocity of the reactionary traditions the two reformers had set out to overturn. Deep-rooted, literalistic strains of Islam and Hinduism may not be amenable to gentler reform efforts.
Coincidentally or not, Turkey’s and India’s retreats from secularism displayed similar patterns. In each case, a new leader with a worrisomely sectarian reputation proved to be more constructive than naysayers expected—before revealing his true colors as a would-be theocrat. Of course, I refer to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prime minister of Turkey from 2003–2014 and since then its president, and Narendra Modi, prime minister of India since 2014.
Erdoğan founded the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP) in 2001. The party was widely viewed as Islamist, though it never formally embraced that designation. The 2002 general election was a throw-the-bums-out affair that cast aside a government whose secularism may have been its only good quality. The AKP won an unexpected outright majority in Turkey’s Grand National Assembly. There was concern that the new government would move quickly against secularism, but Erdoğan chose a different tack. His regime was efficient and transparent by historical Turkish standards: it pushed through reformist social legislation that would be needed if Turkey hoped to join the European Union (EU), and it attacked social inequality, bridged the divide between Turkey’s secular elite and its pious masses, and greatly improved the business climate.
Still, Turkey faced great obstacles—an international community increasingly insistent that it admit its role in the World War I–era Armenian genocide; an increasingly restive and articulate Kurdish population; and, more recently, some 2.2 million Syrian refugees living in Turkish camps and an increasing threat from the Islamic State. It appears that sometime around 2010, President Erdoğan apparently decided that the solution to many problems was a headlong embrace of Sunni Islam.
In 2010, the AKP passed a new law to transform education. It dramatically accelerated the replacement of secular schools with imam-hatips, in which about a third of class hours are devoted to the study of Sunni Islam. Just sixty-five thousand students attended such schools when the AKP took power in 2002; now nearly a million do. AKP cofounder Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat abandoned the party in 2011. He later accused it of abandoning its principles. Erdoğan has spent several years calling for a “New Turkey,” but Firat worries that “the ‘New Turkey’ will not be somewhere where democracy and freedom are celebrated. It will be a place dominated by Islamic thinking.” The ex-AKP cofounder told Newsweek that he feared that Erdoğan’s program for the schools was part of a broader agenda to “manipulate society towards a more religious way of life.”
“We want to raise pious generations,” Erdoğan declared in 2012. By July 2015, he was equating terrorism with atheism and declaring, “We have only one concern. It is Islam, Islam, and Islam.”
“This is particularly unfortunate given Erdoğan’s liberalizing role during the first few years of his rule,” observed Bloomberg View’s Marc Champion. If only that were the worst of it. In addition to promoting public piety, Erdoğan has presided over a stunning multiyear media crackdown. Turkey’s press-freedom ranking from Freedom House has declined in each of the last five years (it is now ranked “Not Free”). During this period of political pressure, more than three hundred journalists, columnists, and media workers lost their jobs. The independent Turkish press agency Bianet estimated that twenty-two journalists and ten editors had been jailed by the end of 2014. A special target for pressure has been the opposition newspaper Hurriyet. Erdoğan has repeated dubious accusations that one of the paper’s publishers routinely manipulated Turkish governments before the rise of the AKP. The paper’s editor-in-chief was driven to resign. In September, Hurriyet columnist and television commentator Amhet Hakan was badly beaten by four men, three of whom had links to the AKP. (The party later disavowed them.) In 2014, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported that one newspaper delivery agent was killed and three journalists were attacked by unknown assailants; some of this violence was linked to tensions with the Kurdish minority, not to Erdoğan’s Islamization project.
As I write, the Turkish situation is hugely unsettled. June’s general election was the first since 2002 in which the AKP did not attain a solid majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly, frustrating Erdoğan’s plans for dubious constitutional reforms. He responded by calling a snap election for November 1. It’s still too early to know whether the devastating bombings of October 10 in Ankara will delay the election. If it goes forward, American secularists should be forthright in hoping that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP see yet more of their power eroded.
Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister in May 2014. Prior to that, he had been chief minister (essentially, governor) of the Indian state of Gujarat since 2001. He was an open advocate of Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), since 1989 the official ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which Modi is a leader. In 2002, Gujarat was convulsed by sectarian rioting. As many as two thousand Muslims were killed by Hindus, who suffered much smaller losses. Modi was widely accused of not doing enough to stop the violence. He was for many years banned from visiting the United States, the United Kingdom, and the EU as a violator of religious freedom. Repeated government inquiries found Modi innocent of wrongdoing, but the objectivity and transparency of those inquiries has been questioned. I don’t often have occasion to quote University of Chicago philosopher Margaret Nussbaum, but in her 2007 book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future, she concluded, “There is by now a broad consensus that the Gujarat violence was a form of ethnic cleansing, that in many ways it was premeditated, and that it was carried out with the complicity of the state government and officers of the law.”
In the wake of the riots, Modi remade himself, de-emphasizing Hindutva and pursuing economic development instead. The results were spectacular. Modi’s government made Gujarat one of the most business-friendly places on the planet. Prosperity bloomed, and it became too easy to forget about Modi as the lion of Hindu intolerance.
One wonders—might it have influenced the Indian elections of 2014 if America, Britain, and the EU had stood firm, warning Indians that if they elected Modi he would be a persona non grata barred from visiting much of the West? Instead, the entry prohibitions evaporated when Modi became India’s head of state. President Barack Obama not only welcomed him enthusiastically when he visited the United States in September 2014; when he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in April 2015, Obama wrote Modi a 166-word plaudit, declaring that “like India, he transcends the ancient and the modern.”
Yet back at home, Modi has facilitated an environment in which secularists fear for their freedom and their lives. As early as 2012, rationalist campaigner Sanal Edamaruku was accused of blasphemy after debunking a supposed miracle involving a statue of the Virgin Mary in a Catholic church in Mumbai. Edamaruku moved to Finland to avoid prosecution. In 2013, the distinguished rationalist and anti-superstition activist Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated in Pune. The crime was never solved. (After Dabholkar’s death, Edamaruku opted to make his exile permanent.) In 2014, the prominent Tamil author Perumal Murugan gave up writing and withdrew all of his published works. Hindu extremists had accused him of blasphemy in connection with a 2010 novel and threatened his life; the police made clear they would not protect him. Modi’s government was silent. This past August, M. M. Kalburgi, a scholar critical of Hindu idol worship, was assassinated in Karnataka, presumably by Far-Right Hindutva radicals.
Nor has Modi quailed from mounting open attacks on secularism itself. He has purged high-profile secularists from the National Book Trust and the board of Nalanda University, replacing them with Hindutva ideologues. Among them was Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, formerly chancellor of Nalanda University. (It may not be coincidental that in July 2013, Sen had criticized Modi for neglecting education and health care in Gujarat.) And in a development almost worthy of The Onion, Modi’s government announced plans to convert the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, India’s principal memorial to its great secularizing founder, into a museum celebrating Modi’s achievements. “This is akin to repurposing the Washington Monument as an Obama museum,” a dumbfounded Sonia Faleiro wrote in the New York Times.
This state of affairs so disgusts India’s literati that more than forty prominent authors have returned awards bestowed by India’s Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters). “The Indian state has become suffocating and extremely intolerant,” protested the Kashmiri writer Ghulam Nabi Khayal. He charged that Modi’s government is “brazenly and institutionally backing communal hatred.”
“Without secularism, India is a Hindu Pakistan,” declared liberal journalist Nikhil Wagle, himself a target of death threats by the Hindu extremist group Santan Sanstha.
Turkey and India have lurched toward the abyss of theocracy down eerily similar paths. It’s time for American secularists to recognize the danger. It’s far past time for us to speak up and call for repressive anti-secular regimes to be called out and opposed, not coddled, in Western halls of power.
At the very least, we can hope that President Obama will never take it into his head to send Time 166 words of fulsome praise for President Erdoğan.
- Arango, Tim. 2015. “In Grief and in Triumph, Turks Remain Divided.” New York Times, October 13.
- Champion, Marc. 2015. “EU Must Speak Out on Media Repression in Turkey.” Bloomberg View/Chicago Tribune, October 7.
- Christie-Miller, Alexandra. 2014. “Erdoğan Launches Sunni Islamist Revival in Turkish Schools.” Newsweek, December 16.
- Faleiro, Sonia. 2015. “India’s Attack on Free Speech.” New York Times, October 4.
- Inden, Ronald. 1992. Imagining India. New York: Blackwell Publishers.
- George, Nirmala. 2015. “41 Writers Return Indian Award, Cite Climate of Intolerance.” Washington Post, October 14.
- Nussbaum, Martha. 2007. The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.