The populist politics of faith

Hagia Sophia (via iStock)
Hagia Sophia (via iStock)

Looking at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move to turn Hagia Sophia, a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, into a mosque again, one might be impelled to believe that the president deeply cares about Islam. If not, how could he muster the courage to make this daring decision? Surely, he must have an Islamist bone in his body.  He even voiced his concerns about the oppression faced by the Uighur community in Xinjiang province, China. But what if I told you Erdogan doesn’t give a damn about Islam? It might be hard to believe for neophytes, but it doesn’t hold much surprise for seasoned political observers. 

Populist politicians, especially right-wing authoritarians, usually have a set of tools through which they rouse the population. They include evoking a sense of past glory, ‘otherising’ the minority, fetishising an ideology, et al. One of the most potent of those tools revolves around religion. Religion is an intrinsic part of people’s identity and their social and cultural lives are built around it. Religion also speaks to the base and atavistic tendencies of human beings. This makes for a convenient recourse for politicians to fall back on whenever they find themselves in dire political straits. They can whip up fervent emotions, polarise the country and benefit from the resulting charged atmosphere. This pattern can be observed frequently in bi-religious countries like Israel, India and Sri Lanka. In countries where no minority exists or is too insignificant to serve as the target for the majority, leaders derive their legitimacy from religion. The Gulf monarchies fall under this category. 

The point that must be stressed is that all these countries view religion as one among other weapons in their arsenal, albeit a very powerful one. In cases where religion doesn’t provide tangible benefits, demagogues quietly skirt the issue and deploy other strategies that would help them gain popularity. For instance, if BJP-led India truly cared about Hindus, it would have granted citizenship to the scores of Tamil-speaking Hindu refugees from Sri Lanka who fled the civil war in their country decades ago and have been residing in India since then. But the ‘Hinduness’ of the Tamils from a distant island was hardly an issue that would cater to BJP’s political base in Hindi-speaking North India. 

Similarly, the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu maintains congenial relations with anti-semitic leaders such as Viktor Orban of Hungary draws attention to the fact that his commitment to upholding Judaism comes in handy when he wants to bolster up his position at home but becomes dangerous if he took it seriously by standing up to anti-semitism abroad.  

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Pakistan are up in arms whenever a perceived slight is cast upon Islam by an innocuous Scandinavian country. But they dare not speak up against the oppression of Uighur Muslims in China and Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. That would put their position in jeopardy. Well if you care about faith in some cases but not in others, you don’t care about it at all. 

It is in this lens that Erdogan’s decree on Hagia Sophia must be viewed. He cares about Islam only as long as it helps him with his politics. His voice of support for the Uighur minority is an exception rather than the norm. Although he had been consistent in his backing of Uighurs, he too caved to China when he said “those who exploited the Uighur issue are undermining Beijing-Ankara relations.” Erdogan’s violent interventions in Syria and Libya are causing monumental suffering among ordinary people in those areas. He doesn’t care about that either, as long as he can secure rights to drill for oil in the Eastern Mediterranean. The only thing that he cares about is what all populist politicians care about; perpetuating himself. He, and any other right-wing autocrat, would exploit anything that would help him achieve that end. 

About the Author
The writer is a student of Political Science and International Relations.
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