Turks, EU: Never the twain shall meet?

IS TURKEY FINALLY waking up from its dream of joining the European Union?

During the past six weeks EU politicians excoriated President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his victory in a Turkish constitutional referendum, which transforms the country’s parliamentary system into a presidential one, concentrating wide powers in the presidency. The constitutional changes go into effect after the 2019 Turkish general elections, and if Erdogan is re-elected, he’d become a powerful “executive president.” These Europeans, and many Turks, see that making him an “authoritarian” ruler. Some of them demanded and end to negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU.  Others argued that Turkey would be unable to adopt “European values,” which EU members are required to observe. Those values include democracy, the rule of law, human rights and minority rights.

In response, Erdogan threatened to hold a new “Brexit-like referendum,” asking the Turks if they wanted to join the European bloc at all. Over the years many Turks have been turned off by what they consider a discriminatory stance of a “Christian club” toward their Muslim nation. A poll taken in 2014 found that only 28 percent of Turks viewed EU membership as “a good thing,” compared to more than two-thirds of them who did so in the 1990s and early 2000s.

At any rate, tempers have cooled lately among politicians on both sides. Never mind, says the EU foreign policy chief.  Federica Mogherini has announced that the talks on the the 30-year-old Turkish membership application would continue. “It is not suspended,” she insisted. “It hasn’t ended.” And last week Omer Celik, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, confirmed her announcement.  He said “there is no question” of breaking off those talks.

I have been predicting, though, that Turkey would never join the European bloc, not as a full member, anyway. I came to this conclusion nearly two decades ago, and nothing has happened since to change my opinion. During 1998-1999 I was conducting fieldwork in Europe and Turkey on how a Turkish Islamic surge would affect Ankara’s bid to join the European bloc. I had a fellowship with the German Marshall Fund of the United States to do the project.

On August 2, 1998, at the end of a long interview with Erdogan, then disgraced mayor of Istanbul, he asked what I had learned about Europeans’ attitudes toward Turkey’s EU membership. I told him that “I’d be surprised” if his country would ever become a “full member” of the bloc. The mayor didn’t seem to be convinced. Four months before, he had been convicted by a State Security Court for reciting an Islamic poem at a public meeting, which the judges said had incited “hatred based on religious difference.”  Turkey was then a radically secular state and Erdogan had been known as a gung-ho activist of the Islamist Welfare Party. I interviewed him when he was packing to vacate the mayor’s office and await an anticipated jail sentence from the State Security Court. He told me that he would be working to have Turkey “join the [European] Union.”

Contrary to what I had heard about him, Erdogan disputed my characterization of him as an “Islamist” and asserted twice that he believed that the Turkish government should be “secular,” and that religion should be a “private matter.” He was no more an Islamist than Helmut Kohl was a Christian fundamentalist, he said. Kohl was then chancellor of Germany, belonging to the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). I’d learn later that Erdogan, Parliament members Abdullah Gul (later president) and Bulent Arinc (later speaker of Parliament) and a number of other former Welfare Party activists were about to leave the Islamist movement and form a conservative Muslim party. Polls had shown that two out of three Turkish Muslims, religious as they were, had been leery about Islamism.

Soon after his newly formed Justice and Development Party, or AKP, won the 2002 parliamentary elections, Erdogan set out for a whirlwind trip through Europe, pushing the Turkish accession case to EU governments and elites. The Turkish leader reiterated to them that he was a “secular” politician who had no intention of setting up an Islamist government.  And he began making continual visits to the United States (Yesterday was his 13th visit to the White House), meeting government officials and intellectuals, including some neoconservatives, and trying to dispel the notion that he or the AKP had an Islamist agenda. He also talked about his pursuit of Turkey’s EU membership.

ACCESSION TALKS

On December 10, 2002, the day before his first visit to the White House to meet then President George W. Bush, Erdogan told me in Washington that he would be asking the U.S. president to “say a good word” to EU leaders about the Turkish case.  Bush did just that, and in December 2005 the EU began Turkish accession talks. I read news reports about some Turkish politicians were optimistic about their finally joining the Europeans, which had been a consuming mission of the nation’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

I still didn’t expect to see Muslim Turks showing up in Brussels to join discussions about the policies and priorities of the bloc. I didn’t think “democratic deficit” and “poor human rights record” were the real sources of the EU’s angst about Turkish accession, even though these shortcoming were routinely mentioned as Turkey’s disqualification for bloc membership.

If you have European friends or observed Europeans’ attitudes toward the Turks closely, you’d know what dismays them most about having Turks in Europe. Julius Ray Behr, an architect in Berlin, was quite candid to me about it. During a 2000 trip I asked him about his take on the Turks’ efforts to join the EU. Were they trying achieve “in Brussels what they could not accomplish in Vienna”?  he replied, laughing. He was referring to the Ottoman army’s 1683 attack on Vienna, which was repulsed by the city’s Austrian and Polish defenders, putting an end to the Ottoman Empire’s thrust toward Western Europe. A burly, graying man in his late 50s or early 60s, Behr suggested that if the Turks, then about 60 million, were allowed to join the bloc, they would mess up Europe’s “social and cultural life,” infusing Islam into it.

I heard the argument before and since. Since the Dark Ages, Continental Europe has been a white racial monochrome, and Europeans violently resisted the presence of other racial and cultural strains in their midst. Beginning in the late 15th century, Jews and Muslims, who had lived in Europe for centuries, suffered waves after waves of slaughter, forced conversion to Christianity and expulsion from the Continent. Most of those Jewish and Muslim refugees were welcomed with open arms in Muslim Turkey and Levant. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, Jews were detested as “Christ killers” and Muslims as heathens. Post-Enlightenment, they were scorned as inferior races. The Holocaust was the final episode of whitening Europe’s social and cultural texture.

Erdogan, as I observed him, is a passionate, willful man, who isn’t quite acculturated to Western democratic institutions and practices. He’s not very tolerant of dissent as would be, for example, Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron.  Erdogan and his government say, however, that the current political and social turmoil has been spawned by the old ultra-secular Kemalists establishment. Kemalists are follower of Kemal Ataturk’s laicist, anti-Islamic ideology, who have been campaigning for the secularization and Europeanization of Turkish society and culture. Having been roundly defeated in successive elections, many of them have made common cause with Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been trying to topple the AKP government through undemocratic means. In 1999 Turkish intelligence found Gulen colluding with his associates to destabilize the then secular government in Ankara, and the cleric dashed into exile in the United States to evade arrest and prosecution.

Gulen has, or had, an extensive network of followers in Turkish police, judiciary and military. The military, the self-appointed “guardian” of Kemalism, continually overthrew democratically elected governments until the AKP came to power in 2002. The military brass, Kemalists and Gulenists have had a hard time accepting the AKP government, despite it being elected democratically.  In 2007 the army high command issued a threatening memorandum opposing the election of Abdullah Gul as president, arguing that the headscarf worn by his wife, Heyrunnisa, would violate the secularist tradition of the presidential palace. The Kemalist opposition in the parliament, which used to elect presidents, also decided to boycott the vote. The AKP responded with a snap election, which it won handily, neutralizing military-Kemalist resistance to Gul’s election as president.

CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT

The next year Kemalist prosecutors sued the AKP in the Constitutional Court, demanding the party be banned because it had become a “center of anti-secular activities.” The Constitutional Court had, at the bidding of the army and Kemalist elites, outlawed five political parties one after another. This time, though,  the AKP survived because only six judges, instead of the required seven, supported the motion to ban it. This was followed by other Kemalist and Gulenist court cases against Erdogan government. The abortive military coup last July, which the government says was masterminded by Gulen, was the latest attempt so far to overthrow the Erdogan government.

Reacting to these subversive actions, especially the failed coup, the AKP regime launched a widespread crackdown on Gulenist and Kemalist dissidents. It has jailed thousands of political dissidents and fired thousands of others from their jobs in the police, judiciary, bureaucracy and military. Several media outlets have been shut down, and scores of journalists thrown behind the bar. Many Kemalists and Gulenists obviously have supported or joined destabilizing activities or the abortive coup. But many innocent citizens appear also to have been caught up in the fray and lost their jobs or suffered detention or prison terms. Given the mounting opposition to Erdogan and his government, I won’t be surprised to see them defeated in the next or a subsequent election.

But Erdogan and the AKP will be remembered for ending the 90-year-long military and Kemalist pseudo-autocracy in Turkey and ushering in full-fledged, or nearly so, democracy. In one bold move after another the Erdogan government purged the military of many of its coup-mongering officers; reformed the military-dominated National Security Council, bringing it under civilian control; stripped the Constitutional Court of its power to ban political parties; disbanded the clandestine West Study Group (BGG), a cell within the army, which collected intelligence on politicians and planned coups; expanded freedom of the press and expression; introduced a new Penal Code, abolishing torture by police and security personnel; guaranteed individual rights, which was subordinated to the demand of whatever law-enforcement agencies decided was the “security of the state”; restored the use of the Kurdish language and celebration of Kurdish symbols cultural events, banned since the founding of the state; and so on.

The government has rolled back many of the democratic reforms it carried out. I expect these lapses to be remedied by this regime or its successors. I don’t believe that the Turks, having tasted the blessings of freedom and democracy, will revert to the Kemalist era again. They demonstrated their new, indomitable spirit of freedom during the coup attempt last July when everyday Turks, responding to Erdogan’s televised call, poured into the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, braved military bombs and bullets, chased and assaulted rebel troops and crushed the uprising in hours. That was the first time in history the Turks challenged and quashed a military putsch.

DEMOCRACY’S BIRTH PANGS

Formative phases of most democracies – including the United States, Britain, France and Germany –  have always been marked by similar and more dire mayhem: civil wars, ethnic and religious strife, and authoritarian governance. Some of the newer democracies within the EU are also going through their birth pangs. Look at the post-Communist democracies of Hungary and Poland.  Freedom House has lamented a “spectacular breakdown of democracy” in the two countries, and human rights watchdogs and media pundits have denounced their “autocratic” governments.  Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has all but silenced political dissent through continual crackdowns, suppressed press freedom, persecuted his opponents, and proudly declared Hungary an “illiberal state.” He says Western European “liberal values today incorporate corruption, sex and violence.” Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), has passed laws flouting parliamentary rules, weakened the country’s highest court, stifled the press, appointed loyalists to civil service and government-run media organizations. He has turned the public television broadcaster TVP into a PiS party station. (Critics call it TVPiS!). PiS has gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure the victory of its candidates. And so on.The problem is that both Orban and Kaczynski continue to win elections, the former has a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. European politicians and news media continue to criticize their autocratic rule.  Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, met Orban at the EU’s Riga summit and greeted him: “Hello dictator!”

Yet few Europeans are calling for Hungary’s or Poland’s expulsion from the EU, just as few would like to have the Turks in the bloc. Ask a Turk why, and he or she would tell you that Poles and Hungarians have the right faith and skin tone, and more of less blend in the cultural monochrome that Europe has been for the past two millennia. Turkey, with its Muslim population of 90 million, would rupture that cultural harmony. Echoing the German architect Behr, Remy Leveau, a political science professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Institute of Political Studies of Paris), told me the “real problem” hindering Turkish membership of  the EU. “We [Europeans] don’t have a history of cultural pluralism.”  I was chatting with him at his office on Rue Michel-Ange in Paris on the gloomy afternoon of November 2, 2000. Even though Europeans were secular, he said, “we observed All Saints Day yesterday,” and “Christian values” underpinned “our moral standards and worldviews.” Having Muslim Turks in European neighborhoods wouldn’t “help social cohesion,” he added.

All the same, Turkey remains an asset to Europe and America, having the second-largest armed forces in NATO and serving as a bulwark against anti-Western guerrilla and terrorist forces in the Middle East. Turkey, too, is the EU’s fourth-largest export market and fifth-largest supplier of imports.

Today, under an agreement with the EU, Turkey hosts 3 million refugees from the Middle East and South Asia, who would otherwise be flooding Western Europe, creating a demographic and security nightmare there.

Hence Mogherini wouldn’t suspend, let alone end, Turkey’s “accession” talks, even though she knows the Turks wouldn’t be joining the family of European nations. I can foresee the eventual outcome of the negotiations: The Turks won’t become Europeans, but would maintain special economic and security relations with Europe.

The Erdogan government knows this. As a result, it’s already cultivating strategic and trade relations with Russia, China, India, Pakistan and a host of  Middle Eastern countries.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs analyst in Washington, has researched EU-Turkish relations and U.S. foreign policy options in the Middle West and South Asia. He hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’: http://muslimjourney.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erdogan’s hello to Egyptians

THAT WAS A second in Turkish history. Democratic forces, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, overwhelmed Turkish military units that had attempted to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government.

It was a spectacular triumph for Erdogan, and more to the point, the democratic fervor and aspirations of the Turkish masses.

The first time Erdogan and the Turks foiled a military plot to overthrow their civilian government was in 2012, when the government of then Prime Minister Erdogan roped up hundreds of coup mongering military officers and soldiers, 322 of whom were sent to prison after lengthy trials. Since 1960 the power hungry Turkish military had overthrown four democratically governments.

During and after yesterday’s abortive military uprising, the Erdogan government arrested more than 2,800 military personnel, suspected of participating in what the president termed “an act of treason.” He vowed that the plotters would “pay a heavy price.”

I have known Erdogan for a while and am familiar with his commitment to democracy. He’s a single-minded man. He can be impulsive, too. But don’t get worked up by “authoritarian” and “autocratic” labels put on him by his detractors in Turkey and abroad. Most of them have been raving about his Islamic political background right from the beginning. They abound in the American media and political circles. These Americans have forgotten about slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, Jim Crow, and the enduring racism – all of which coexisted with the democratic process. Erdogan may be an imperfect practitioner the democratic art, but he’s the father of full-fledged democracy in Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an autocrat.

Erdogan impressed me with his commitment to true democracy during my first interview with him nearly two decades ago. A journalism fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, I had been on a research trip through Western Europe and Turkey to assess the spread of Islamism among Turks and its possible impact on Ankara’s bid for accession to the European Union.

Then mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan had been convicted by a secularist court for reciting a poem at a public meeting that the judges said could have incited religious hatred. Intriguingly, the poem had been composed by an agnostic sociologist who was also a protagonist of secular Turkish nationalism. Zia Gokalp’s poem, entitled “Soldier’s Prayer,” likened Turks to Islamic soldiers, mosques to their military barracks and minarets to their swords.

Following Erdogan’s conviction, the ultra-secularist government of the day sacked him from his job as mayor. On August 2, 1998, when I arrived to interview him in Istanbul, the disgraced mayor was packing to vacate the mayor’s office. Apparently because of his belief that his political career would survive the conviction and a subsequent prison term, he showed a keen interest in Turkey’s accession to the EU.

He was eager to know what my interlocutors in France, Germany and Belgium had said about Turkey’s EU membership.

“Do they want us in,” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Some of them said they were concerned about your military’s grip on your democratic process.”

“I share their concern. We, our party [the Islamist Virtue Party], have been the worst victims of military coups.”

The previous year the army, which considered itself the guardian of Turkish secularism, had thrown out the democratically elected government of the Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s mentor. The generals accused Erbakan of posing a threat to the country’s secular political system.

Most EU officials, I said, wanted to see Turkey “a real democracy before they take a serious look at your membership application.”

“We want Turkey to be a full democracy. That’s one of the reasons we want to join the European bloc. That would help us secure democracy.”

I have since watched him, as prime minister and president, replace Turkey’s military-supervised, elitist political system with a full-blown democracy, as it can be in the ethnic contexts of the Turks and Kurds and their Islamic tradition. I’ve watched him reiterate his commitment to democracy over and over.

Yesterday I remembered Erdogan’s democratization campaign as I watched crowds pouring into the streets and squares of Ankara and Istanbul, facing down the rebellious troops and their tanks and rolling back their short-lived rebellion. And I was wondering why Egyptians couldn’t do the same thing in July 2013, when a military junta overthrew the democratically elected Islamist government of President Mohammed Mursi. Why couldn’t Egyptian crowds chase Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisis’s forces back into the barracks? Al-Sisi and his troops probably were more brutal than Turkey’s rebel soldiers and officers. They have mowed down hundreds of protesters, imprisoned and hanged hundreds of others and unleashed a reign of terror in Egypt.

My take on it is that unlike in Turkey, democratic consciousness and aspirations in Egypt have yet to jell among the public. In their 7,000-year history, Egyptians had never known elections and democracy until 2012, when Mursi was elected president and his fellow Islamists won a parliamentary majority. The Turks, on the other hand, have been having elections and nurturing a multi-party democratic process, albeit with occasional military interruptions, for some six decades now.

Democracy never takes root in a society in one smooth push. It’s a messy and long-tern business. The British took seven turbulent centuries to become a pro in the art. The Americans have been practicing it through slavery, a Civil War, Jim Crow and racism, whose latest manifestation has been a spate of killings of African Americans by white policemen and the slaughter of five white police officers by an African American man.

As I see it, four years ago Egyptians had a trial run of democracy. I bet the barbarity to the Sisi dictatorship is fueling a second, more determined democratic uprising in Egypt. A more enduring Arab Spring.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (http://muslimjourney.com).

 

Terror bred by grievances, not Islam

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S speech at this week’s terrorism conference in the White House sounded to me like a broken record from the George W. Bush administration. Bush and his advisers attributed Muslim terrorism to Islam.

“Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him,” said John Ashcroft, Bush’s attorney general. “Christianity is a faith where God sent his son to die for you.”

President Obama, too, believes that Islam is a major source of Muslim terrorism. His aides have lined up a group of Muslim clerics, activists and governments to present a “moderate” interpretation of Islam to their fellow Muslims. But unlike his Republican predecessor, Obama is more sensitive about the sentiments of mainstream Muslims, who resent linking their religion to heinous acts like terrorism. Hence he camouflaged his reference to Islam with the phrase “distorted ideology.”

The Muslim “religion,” in the sense religion is understood in the West, has little to do with terrorism. I tried to explain in my last segment that Islam, unlike Western Christianity, doesn’t segregate a Caesar’s domain from God’s. All Muslim domains, private and public, belong to God. In practical terms, the Muslim public sphere is suffused with Islamic values and social outlook.

Of late that the Muslim public sphere has all but submerged under waves of anti-American and anti-Western sentiments. Surveys after surveys have shown that between 72% and 94% of populations in Muslim countries are hostile or antipathetic to America. Their antipathy derives mainly from U.S. foreign and defense policies toward Muslim societies.

Muslim societies are modernizing fast, while becoming more and more attached to Islamic values and Islamic cultural patterns. They’re more concerned about Islamic causes and the global Muslim community.

Obama’s attribution of Muslim terrorism showed his gross misunderstanding of Islam as well as the motives that propel some Muslims into acts of violence. The president came into office with very little grounding in international affairs, and has stuffed his administration with holdovers from the Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. He is, unfortunately but unsurprisingly, getting the same kind of off-the-wall, jingoist advice that doomed both previous administrations’ Muslim world policies.

Islam, as I said, is a both a private- and public-sphere religion. These days most Muslims are channeling their grievances against America or their own governments in the public sphere through the democratic process. They’re engaged in democratic movements and, when permitted, pushing their agendas through the electoral process. It signals a dramatic and healthy evolution of these movements since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when their watchword was “Islamic revolution.” Those days some of my Islamist acquaintances in Pakistan and Bangladesh espoused armed struggle against the “enemies of Islam” at home and abroad.

Among them is Motiur Rahman Nizami, the head of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party in Bangladesh, now on the death row for his alleged involvement in the killing of Bangladeshi independence activists in 1971. I met him in 2003 after the Jamaat had won the second-largest number of seats in a Bangladeshi parliamentary election, catapulting him to the post of industries minister.

His sparsely furnished office was tucked away in the Motijheel business district in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital.

Did the Jamaat “still believed in armed struggle?” I asked.

He smiled, and instead of answering my question directly, he said, “Democracy is the best tool for us to spread the message of Islam.”

Because Islamic spirit and values are spreading quite rapidly in most Muslim countries, mainstream Islamists everywhere have come to believe that they no longer need violent methods to pursue their Islamization agenda. They’re avidly participating in democratic activism.

A second group of Islamists, known as terrorists, continue armed struggle to achieve their goals. They’re generally focused on resisting occupation and aggression by armed opponents. They include Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad in Kashmir, Riadus Salikin and the Islamic International Brigade in Chechnya, the ETIM in China’s Xinjiang province, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in the Levant, Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, and so on. All these terrorist groups see themselves fighting to liberate their peoples from foreign occupation or defend them against domestic persecution.

Obama was talking, specifically, about the Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq. The IS emerged to defend Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who suffered horrible persecution and ethnic cleansing from the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Iraqi Shiite governments and Shiite militias and the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria. As many other terrorist groups do, the IS also has engaged in gruesome slaughter and brutal persecution of innocent civilians. The world shouldn’t tolerate such crimes.

The fact remains, however, that these terrorist groups have been fighting for political, not religious, causes. They’re inspired or instigated by political and social grievances, not by the Quran or some “distorted ideology” based on it. Whether their causes or methods of operation are justified (Nobody would justify the slaughter of innocent people), is another matter.

 

Cow, crescent and star

 Published in  Middle East Policy, Washington, D.C.; December 5, 2014

Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, is investigating the impact of Hindu nationalism on liberal values and democratic institutions in his native India. Earlier, he conducted fieldwork on religious movements and nationalist experiments in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent as a fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the University of Chicago Middle East Center.

LAST MONTH President Obama accepted India’s invitation to be the chief guest at its Republic Day celebrations. He will be the first American president to do so.

I was in Kolkata (Calcutta), India’s “cultural capital” when this was announced. Most of my interlocutors there were euphoric about the news, especially the supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP). Narendra Modi, the BJP leader and prime minister, had invited the American president to the January 26, 2015, events. On that date 67 years ago, newly independent India adopted its democratic constitution.

Most Hindu nationalists in India viewed Obama’s gesture as America’s acceptance of Hindu nationalism.  I saw it as the president’s doing business with a democratically elected government that happens to be Hindu nationalist. Two years ago, the Obama administration embraced the Islamist government of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who had come to power through a free and fair election. The Morsi government has since been overthrown in a military coup, and Morsi languishes in jail.

Nevertheless, secularists and liberals in the West who throw a fit on hearing the word “religious fundamentalist” or “militant” might consider following Obama’s lead on the issue. Not that we should approve of religious militants’ violence or other destructive conduct, if they engage in it. However, we need to understand the sources of their militancy and encourage their evolution into more peaceable social or political categories, and participation in the democratic process is one of the best roads to that goal. So far, though, bombing Muslim militants has been America’s and NATO’s preferred method of dealing with them, it has served only to multiply them and bolster their capabilities.

Today religious values and ethos permeate most postcolonial societies, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or others. Unfortunately, the religious upsurge also has ratcheted up interfaith hostility in many countries. The BJP is a glaring example. The party and allied Hindu nationalist organizations plan to change India’s traditionally multi-cultural society into one based on Hindu religious and cultural values. They have come a long way toward that goal, but their march has been accompanied by widespread discrimination and violence against Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, numbering around 160 million people.

Modi has long been in the vanguard of the movement to Hinduize Indian society. He was banned from visiting the United States for nearly a decade for his alleged connivance in the horrific anti-Muslim riots of 2002. Nearly 2,000 Muslim men, women and children were hacked, beaten and burned to death by Hindu mobs. The all-important question haunting many Indian minds, including mine, is whether these faith-based communal conflicts will abate. And if they do, how?

I disagree with those who fear that the new wave of religious resurgence, especially among Muslims, might lead to the kind of sectarian or interfaith bloodbaths that ravaged Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some historical records show that 35 percent of the population perished in those waves of intra-Christian militancy. But these are different times. Thanks to the spread of the Enlightenment values of freedom, tolerance and humanism, people around the world are increasingly getting used to divergent ideologies, religions and cultures. Everyday people in most countries are more tolerant of the religious or ethnic Other than they were 50 years ago.

The growing acceptance of the Other has been facilitated by globalization and the 24/7 electronic and digital interaction across countries and continents. Of course, most diehard liberals (Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls them “liberal fundamentalists”) and religious militants have yet to feel the winds of pluralism and contestation with discrepant ideologies, faiths and communities. I also do not rule out further aggravation of Muslim hostility by the military aggression and political and diplomatic tutelage America and its allies are using around the Muslim world. But I see this approach running its course before too long, as its futility and backlash begin to dawn on its practitioners.

Meanwhile, there has been a growing search among intellectuals, the media and others for the sources of the what is commonly known as religious militancy and violence. A host of sociologists and social scientists has concluded that the religious pull being felt by people in postcolonial societies stems, in large measure, from their quest for dignity and authenticity. This is also fostered by their pervasive exposure to Western ideas of freedom and selfhood. Modernity’s corrosive effects on societies are another source of religious upsurge. “Modern societies,” says Daniele Hervieu-Leger, a leading French sociologist, “may corrode their traditional religious base; at one and the same time, however, these societies open up new spaces and sectors that only religion can fill.”

Postcolonial societies aren’t generally receptive to the liberal tools of mediation, elections and so on, to settle what they see as existential issues: foreign domination, preservation of religious and cultural values, and basic communal interests. Many Western societies have no qualms about waging war over lesser questions.

Liberalism, is a uniquely Western ideology; it cannot be planted holistically in most non-Western societies.  The liberal concepts of church-state separation, individualism and freedom without responsibility emerged largely as reactions to anomalies in European traditions. Those include the long and bloody religious conflicts, the church-state power struggle and the sanctity of individual property rights in the Germanic tribal cultures. Societies that were unaffected by these historical trends and experiences have mostly been inhospitable to most of the liberal values that are germane to Eurocentric civilization.

Hence most of Europe’s former colonies are modernizing, while cherishing the basic aspects of their religious and other traditions.  Peoples outside the West can, of course, profitably cultivate many of the useful institutions that have evolved from Western ideas, experience and endeavors. Indeed they have been enriching their lives and societies by embracing many of those ideas and institutions — democracy, the rule of law, scientific inquiry and so forth. But they’re doing so to the extent these pursuits can be adapted to their core religious and cultural norms.

The view that liberalism is a specifically Western ideology and that aspects of it will not work in many non-Western societies, is shared, to different degrees, by a growing number of sociologists, philosophers and historians. Among them are Peter Berger, David Martin, Grace Davie, Karen Armstrong, Amy Goodman, Steve Bruce, Ernest Gellner and Charles Taylor. They also include many non-Western intellectuals who are committed to liberal and leftist causes and worldview.

Susnata Das is professor of history at Rabindra Bharati University in Kolkata. The leftist Hindu intellectual complained that Hindu-Muslim tensions had increased in India since the BJP had come to power in New Delhi seven months earlier. Asked about his take on the Gujarat “riots,” the professor took exception to my use of the word. We were talking in our native Bengali language. Getting excited about his viewpoint, he switched to English: “It was NOT a riot. It was pogrom.” With portraits of Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels and India’s socialist icons watching us from his office walls, Das described some of the horrifying details of the Gujarat carnage. He blasted Modi and his BJP for their anti-Muslim “bigotry, pure bigotry, and hate,” which he said had unleashed recurrent Hindu violence against Muslims.

Then, scratching the back of his head, indicating a sense of resignation, my interviewee lamented that India’s once-powerful leftist and secularist movements had been “losing ground” to Hindu nationalism. That was because, he added, many Indians are “turning back to their religious and cultural traditions.” The same can be said of people in many other non-Western countries. They are forswearing many features of liberalism with which they began their journeys as citizens of independent states and substituting them for their own religious institutions and idiom.

The “Muslim homeland” of Pakistan was founded by a thoroughly secular and Anglicized Muslim statesman. He did not practice the Islamic faith, and he drank gin in the afternoon and whiskey in the evening, though drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden by Islam. In August 1947, Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly (parliament) that his new nation would guarantee complete freedom to practice any religion, but that religion would have no role in the affairs of the Pakistani state.

The father of the nation assured Pakistanis,

You are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the state.

Yet the Islamization of Pakistani society and laws began less than a decade after Jinnah’s death in 1948. It reached a peak under the government of another staunchly secular Pakistani leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That left-leaning populist came to power as president when grassroots Islamization campaigns had spread to large swaths of Pakistan and threatened his government. In September 1972, he said to me in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, “You can’t be a democrat and secular [in Pakistan] at the same time.” I had asked him about the pressure from the Islamist political parties Jamiatul Ulama-i-Islam and Jamaat-i-Islami to enshrine the Sharia, Islamic canon law, in a constitution that was being drafted in parliament.  “The National Assembly has been elected by the people,” he reminded me. “Most of our people are devout Muslims.”

I was prompted to ask for the interview with the non-practicing Muslim politician after he had made a clarion call to Pakistanis “to make this beautiful country an Islamic state, the bravest Islamic state and the most solid Islamic state.” The U.S.-educated “socialist” Zulfikar Bhutto’s new constitution declared Pakistan an “Islamic state.” It proclaimed that “all existing laws shall be brought in to conformity with the injunctions of Islam,” and that no new laws would be enacted that would be “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” Later, as prime minister, Zulfikar Bhutto endorsed other measures, excluding the Ahmadiya sect from the traditional Islamic mainstream; changing the weekly holiday from Sunday to Friday, the Islamic Sabbath; and taking other measures, all of which turned Jinnah’s secular Pakistan into an Islamic state.

Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Tunisia and most other postcolonial Muslim states also founded their political structures on liberal — sometimes socialist — models. Today most of them have reworked those models to accommodate Islamic tenets and code of conduct. Some Muslim states continue to maintain formally secular political systems, mostly for Western consumption. But Islam pulsates in the life of their Muslim citizens. This category of Muslim states includes Indonesia, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Mali, Senegal, Djibouti and Gambia.

Hindu or Muslim societies aren’t the only ones facing a religious upsurge in their once-secular public space. The world’s only Jewish state was founded as a fiercely secular polity.  In its declaration of independence in 1948, Israel announced that it “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights” and “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture to all citizens irrespective of religion, race or sex.” These principles formed the bedrock of Israel’s Basic Law.

Beginning in the late 1970s, however, the ultra-orthodox and orthodox branches of Judaism began to Judaize Israeli politics and culture, gradually reducing Palestinians and other non-Jews to second-class citizens. The racial and religious apartheid that became pronounced under Prime Minister Menachem Begin has culminated in the policies of the  Benjamin Netanyahu government.

Despite the state-sponsored discrimination and suppression of Israeli Palestinians, however, the state’s Basic Law still recognizes the equality of all Israeli citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. In a widely cited ruling, former Israeli Supreme Court President Aharon Barak articulated the state’s doctrine of equality. “It is true,” he wrote, “members of the Jewish nation were granted a special key to enter, but once a person has lawfully entered the home, he enjoys equal rights with all other household members.”

That could soon change. The “Jewish nation-state” bill, which the Netanyahu government has approved and will be pushing through the Knesset (parliament), would confer national and group rights only to Israel’s Jewish citizens. It would override the “individual rights” to be conceded to Palestinian and other non-Jewish citizens. If passed, it would institutionalize anti-Palestinian apartheid, undermine democracy and turn Israel into a Jewish Pakistan. Netanyahu has fired two of his Cabinet members who opposed the bill (and disagreed with him on some other issues), paving the way for new elections.  Public-opinion polls show that religious and right-wing Jewish parties are more popular in Israel than ever; the bill could sail through the new parliament.

These “religious” tides aren’t specific to religions. Secular ideological and nationalist ferment has also fueled intergroup militancy. And it has often been as malevolent and bloody as movements carried out under religious banner. Karen Armstrong points out that the liberal French revolutionaries enacted some of history’s most savage massacres among the opponents and victims of the Revolution:

Early in 1794, four revolutionary armies were dispatched from Paris to quell an uprising in the Vendée against the anti-Catholic policies of the regime. Their instructions were to spare no one. At the end of the campaign, General François-Joseph Westermann reportedly wrote to his superiors, ‘The Vendée no longer exists. I have crushed children beneath the hooves of our horses, and massacred the women.… The roads are littered with corpses.

Ironically, no sooner had the revolutionaries rid themselves of one religion than they invented another. Their new gods were liberty, nature and the French nation, which they worshiped in elaborate festivals choreographed by the artist Jacques Louis David. The same year that the goddess of reason was enthroned on the high altar of Notre Dame cathedral, the reign of terror plunged the new nation into an irrational bloodbath, in which some 17,000 men, women and children were executed by the state.

Europe’s bloodiest religious and ideological cataclysms occurred during its transitions from one ideational paradigm to another: from Roman to Germanic to Christian, from Christian to liberal, from liberal to socialist and communist, and from nationalist to imperialist and colonialist.

The religious and ideological movements in today’s postcolonial societies indicate similar processes of transition. They mark the transition from colonial-era liberal political paradigms to postcolonial indigenous ones. For many Muslim societies, it also represents the struggle to transform Western hegemonic political and security structures foisted on them into native Islam-oriented ones. Foreign tutelage in these Muslim states is sustaining repressive despotism, while native Islamic movements reflect the priorities and aspirations of the public.

The challenge before most of the former European colonies is two-pronged. One is to douse the extremist and violent impulses of the activists struggling for social renewal. They would abate in the course of time, as have previous episodes of Muslim extremism and violence. The other, which is more complex and long-term, is to build bridges between clashing religious, sectarian and ethnic communities: Hindus and Muslims in India; Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan; and Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and Assyrian Christians in Iraq.

These communal tensions and conflicts have been touched off partly by the unraveling of the political institutions introduced during colonial rule. European powers and Westernized native elites carved out these states overnight, splitting sectarian and ethnic communities among different states without consideration of their inhabitants’ cultural affiliations or economic interests. Yet the citizens of these artificial entities were expected to identify primarily with state institutions and laws. Those citizens have mostly proved unable to foot that bill. They feel strong communal bonds with their religious and ethnic communities that often span more than one of these states.

There are not many true Lebanese in Lebanon. Lebanese citizens are primarily Maronites, Shiites, Sunnis and Druze. There are almost no real Iraqis in Iraq, only Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Kurds and members of other religious, ethnic and tribal communities.

When people identify strongly with their nations or states, they view citizens of other states as the rival Other and compete and sometimes fight with them. When religion or ethnicity claims their deeper allegiance, they are prone to rivalry and hostility toward other ethnic or religious communities.

As the older nations and states matured, they learned, often the hard way, the perils of interstate hostility. Europe, once the most violent continent, has all but jettisoned conflicts between states.  Similarly, as religious and ethnic communities in postcolonial states would begin to mature, they would also learn the grief and misfortune caused by communal hostility. They would then be more disposed to living peaceably with one another.

 

GOP win to prompt new wake-up call

Tuesday night’s Republican electoral victory poses an insidious threat to freedom and democracy in America.

Yet if you believe in the American democratic system, you have to accept the argument that a majority of the American voters wanted to freeze the minimum wage at its starvation level, allow unbridled carbon emissions and deny healthcare to millions of Americans.

These were among the campaign pledges made by the newly minted Senate majority leader, Mich McConnell, and a lot of his fellow Republican congressional candidates. While celebrating victory, McConnell has vowed to “pass legislation” to put those pledges into effect.

I don’t believe, though, that most Americans would want to see the cruel Republican agenda carried through. I agree with the New York Times’ interpretation of the elections.

“Republicans ran on no message,” wrote the Times‘ editorial board, “except that [President] Obama was always wrong, and voters on Tuesday said they were angry with the country’s direction and political gridlock, taking their fury out on the president’s party because he is in charge.”

I bet the incoming Senate majority leader will have a rough time getting most of his agenda off the ground. In post-election statements Obama has asserted that he wouldn’t let the healthcare law be repealed or minimum wage kept frozen, and that he will push hard for immigration reforms and stand firm on his other key priorities.

But yes, a majority of American voters voted for the Republicans who ran on their sock-it-to-em, pro-Wall Street agenda.  And that agenda threatens America’s founding principles of equality, and indeed, freedom.

Freedom includes freedom of opportunity, which lends it any meaning at all. We’re familiar with the statistics of shocking income inequality in America. In 2012 the top 1% of American households (making $394,000 a year or more) scooped up a fifth of the national income. The figure broke the previous record set in 1928, the eve of the Great Depression. America today offers fewest opportunities for upward mobility in the Western civilization.

Studies show that only 6% of children born in low-income American families will make it to the top income ladder.  The current generation of American youth is going to be the first in American history to earn less than their parents’ generation.

Corporate corruption and plunder, abetted mostly by Republicans, have dried up many of the opportunities that make freedom a reality. We still have some of what metaphysicians call “negative freedom,” meaning absence of barriers to doing things we want to do.

Let me try to illustrate this through an anecdote about a boisterous party arranged by a group of American soldiers in Germany at the end of World War II. They were celebrating President Harry Truman’s announcement that they would soon be returning home. They had invited to their party some Soviet troops who also had been fighting the Nazis.

As the American revelers got a bit tipsy and wild, one of the Soviet soldiers asked why they had to get so crazy about their demobilization.

“Hey,” retorted an American G.I., “We’re going to be free in our land of freedom! You Commies are used to living under Stalin’s tyranny. You’ll never understand what freedom means.”

“Tell me what freedom means,” asked the Soviet Communist.

“It means I can yell in front of the White House: ‘Truman is a jerk!’” You, buggers, will be shitting in your pants at the thought of saying anything like this in the Kremlin.”

“Sure,” replied the Soviet soldier, “I can yell in front of  the White House and at the Kremlin that ‘Truman is a jerk!’”

The point is the Communist didn’t have the “negative freedom” to call Stalin a jerk in the Kremlin. Legal and social barriers had suppressed his freedom of expression, which Americans, mercifully, didn’t – and don’t – have.

The things that really matter in life, however, require “positive freedom,” which entails the availability of the wherewithal to fulfill what we freely desire.

Larry Ellison or Charles Koch can hop in his private jet and enjoy a fabulous weekend or month in the idyllic Alpine valley of Interlaken, or try to savor “eternal bliss” in India’s sub-Himalayan fairyland of Garhwali. But most of the bottom 90% of Americans also would like to do that. Surveys show that their real incomes are less today than were in 1987, and that they’re struggling harder to pay their home mortgages, car insurance and utility bills. They can’t materialize their freedom to spend a weekend in an Alpine or Himalayan Shangri-La because they don’t have the positive freedom, the resources, to do so.

The fading of freedom in America has accelerated since the Republican “Reagan Revolution” kicked off the current era of wanton corporate loot. Americans businesses and corporations have been maximizing their profits by racing for automation, throwing workers out of jobs; freezing wages; curtailing employees’ health and retirement benefits; and other tools of exploitation. All these have drastically shrunk Americans’ ability to enjoy comfortable and meaningful lives, which they’re theoretically free to do.

The erosion of freedom in America, and the consequent impoverishment of the human condition here, has been aggravated by the hijacking of the democratic process by the Wall Street. The right-wing majority in the Supreme Court has helped speed the process with its Citizens United judgment. Thanks to that ruling, Tuesday’s congressional elections were the most expensive in American history, most of the campaign funds being dished out by the corporate tycoons. Seven decades ago H.L. Menken had said, “We have the best Congress money can buy.” And the Wall Street was the highest bidder for the incoming Congress.  In fact congressional support for or indifference to The Wall Street’s unbridled depredation has turned American democracy into an oligarchy.  The point was underscored by a <a href=http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746/>Princeton University study</a>, put out in April.

Republicans in the 113th Congress will surely try to lavish on the Wall Street the goodies it paid for through their campaign coffers. Those goodies would include freezing of the minimum wage, loosening curbs on environmental degradation, denying healthcare to many Americans, and so forth. Obama will, as I mentioned, resist their retrograde actions, but the control of Congress has, at least for now, made them a stumbling block to freedom and justice in America.

All the same, I remain an optimist about America’s future.  I’m hoping that the fuddy-duddy, mostly clueless, GOP back numbers on Capitol Hill will mess things up badly, giving Americans a fresh wake-up call. The last wake-up call was given them by the Great Recession. It was precipitated the reckless deregulation, budget cutting and war spending of Republican George W. Bush administration. And in 2008 irate voters gave the progressive Democrat Obama a rounding mandate to embark on bold, progressive reforms.

Sadly, however, the 44th president didn’t seem to have much of a vision or the backbone, and he got bogged down in his futile drive to win Republicans’ goodwill, instead of pushing hard the popular mandate he had got from Americans. Later, when he tried to salvage some of his election mandate, it was too late. He had lost much of his political capital and with it the ability to persuade congressional Republicans to cooperate on his agenda.

Well, few societies have reformed themselves, economically or politically, in one go. Hegel has been wrong about many things, but history has vindicated his “dialectic” process of social evolution time and again.  Simply put, it says that a social or ideological model triggers a contradictory one. The two models clash inevitably, only to produce a more dynamic and progressive third formation, synthesizing the good elements of both mutually antagonistic systems.  Polls have shown that Americans are getting increasingly peeved at their economic and political institutions catering to the top social ladder, which has been exploiting them. I believe it’s only a matter of time before the bulk of the bottom 90% Americans will decide they’ve had enough of the Republican-Wall Street skullduggery, and try again to cut it out through the electoral process. They may have to repeat the process several times until they succeed. And they have to succeed if freedom and democracy should endure in America.

 Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom.’

 

Gaza, Pakistan and ignoble US legacy

The anti-government protests now raging in Pakistan and the travails of Hamas in Palestine remind me of Nurul Amin, my mentor. He served, at different times, as prime minister of Pakistan and Bangladesh, which was then East Pakistan.

In February 1972, in Rawalpindi, Amin was telling me about the political intrigues that had led to several military-bureaucratic coups against democratic governments in Pakistan. “Did you notice,” he asked, “that all of those who threw out democratic governments kept promising to give us ‘true democracy’?”

Nevertheless, the elder statesman was hopeful of the eventual triumph of democracy in Pakistan and elsewhere. Like the proverbial cat, he said, “democracy has nine lives.” Pakistanis would take time to cultivate “the art of democracy and guard it” against usurpers, as did most Western countries. Until then “you will see our generals and politicians giving lip service to democracy,” while scrambling to “grab power by any means.”

In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League party won the 2013 parliamentary elections, which it probably rigged. Opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, instead of working to insure that the next elections are free and fair, have paralyzed parts of Islamabad, the capital, with crowds agitating for Sharif’s resignation as prime minister. I wonder if they’re playing into the hands of Pakistan’s notoriously power-hungry army generals. In the past, Pakistani generals have used most of the country’s major political crises as excuses for military coups against civilian governments.  I’m especially disappointed by Imran Khan’s role in this anti-democratic drama. I admire his progressive social and political agenda.

Egypt is another stark example of the betrayal of democracy. In 2012 Egyptians had their first-ever free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections. Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood won and formed the government. But the Egyptian military and “liberal” groups didn’t like it. They called in the army and got President Mohammed Mursi’s democratic government overthrown, returning to the military-led pseudo-dictatorship with which they’re more familiar.

More ironic is the assaults on Palestinian democracy by the world’s most eloquent advocate of democracy and human rights: the United States. In 2006 the Palestinians, prodded by Condoleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials, held their first-ever free and fair elections. Hamas won the parliamentary vote by a landslide and formed the government. The Americans and Israelis didn’t like it. Instead of congratulating the Palestinians for ushering in democracy in hostile environment, they instigated the losers in those elections, the Fatah, to stage a coup against the Hamas-led government. President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, held on to power in the West Bank, now in the ninth year into his four-year term! Hamas continued to rule the Gaza Strip, as it carried on its armed struggle to liberate Palestinians from the Israeli colonial rule.

That wasn’t the end of the punishment Hamas has suffered for winning the Palestinian elections. With American blessings, Israel collaborated with pro-Israeli Egyptian dictatorships to place the 1.8 million people of Gaza under a most gruesome economic blockade. Americans and Israelis had hoped that the extreme hardships caused by the blockade would turn Gazans against their Hamas regime. They haven’t.

Israel remains undaunted by these setbacks. Early last month the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led Israel into its third war against Hamas, vowing to disarm it and other Islamist groups in Gaza. The war ended with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad standing and valiantly fighting the invading forces. In a charade of truce talks held in Cairo, Israel and Egypt pressured the Islamists relentlessly to achieve what the powerful Israeli armed forces couldn’t: Disarm Hamas. They couldn’t. Hamas and Jihad have resumed their armed struggle for freedom, while Israel rains its U.S.-supplied bombs on the already devastated Gaza.

Sadly, America has set the precedents for the assaults on democracy in non-Western societies. Successive U.S. administrations coddled all five Pakistani dictatorships that had supplanted democratic governments. Besides, America used the CIA to overthrow nearly a dozen democratic governments in South and Central America, the Middle East and Asia, and replaced them with repressive pro-American dictatorships.

All the same, I see the masses in Pakistan and around the world pulsating with democratic fervor. I remember Nurul Amin’s prediction about the eventual success of democratic movements. Britain went through seven turbulent centuries – marked by regicide, religious pogroms, and bloody ethnic and trans-national warfare – to mature as a full-blown democracy.

America needed two centuries to settle down as a real democracy. American women didn’t win their voting rights until 1920 and African Americans didn’t achieve theirs until 1965. As I wrote elsewhere, developing countries should be able to build enduring democratic institutions much faster than did Westerners. Among other things, the dramatic spread of education and modernization will help them to do so.

As an American citizen, however, I’m troubled by the United States’ legacy in man’s epic march toward freedom and fulfillment. When future historians would be recounting democratic movements in non-Western societies, they wouldn’t, I’m afraid, condone America’s continual hostility to those the edifying and heroic human endeavors.

The United States can’t expect to regain its moral stature in the world until it realigns itself with forces of freedom and democracy. A good place to start would be Palestine. The Obama administration should dissociate America from the scandalous anachronism of Israeli colonialism. It should stop shielding Israel against charges of war crimes in Gaza, brought by the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Nothing could have been more shameful for Americans than seeing their government casting the solitary vote against opening the U.N. investigation.

This Gaza war is a watershed in Palestinians’ 66-year struggle for freedom and independence from Israeli subjugation. It has shown that Israel, the superpower in the Middle East, could slaughter more than 2,000 Gazans and destroy their homes, economy and infrastructure, but couldn’t dent their resolve to rid themselves of Israeli suppression and oppression. It has shown, too, that the world, with the deplorable exception of the United States, has little patience for Israeli colonialism.

I know that Palestine will jettison, sooner than later, Israel’s colonial tutelage. I don’t know how long it will take America to jettison its ignoble role as the lone defender of the world’s lone colonial power.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs columnist in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’ http://beyond-freedom.com.

 

 

Modi winning India vote, losing agenda

Pollsters in India are predicting a big win for the Hindu nationalist Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) in the country’s three-phase general elections that began on Monday. The ruling Congress party, they say, is headed for a free fall.

Entrenched, as it is, in the traditionalist and fundamentalist Hindu base, the BJP has made inroads into progressive-Hindu and even Muslim voters, who had always hated it. The party and its earlier incarnations campaigned to turn secular India into a Hindu theocracy (Hindu rashtra). They demanded that Muslim and Christian cultures be absorbed into a Hinduized national mainstream. They spearheaded bloody anti-Muslim riots.

One of the events that earned the BJP most odium from many Indians and much of the world was the destruction of an historic Muslim shrine, the Babri Mosque, in 1992. The BJP and other Hindu nationalist groups, whose activists razed it to the ground, claim that the 16th century mosque was built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram. They wanted to build a Ram temple on ruins of the mosque.

Another was the horrifying anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state in 2002. More than 1,000 Muslims were hacked, shot and burned to death by Hindu mobs. Narendra Modi, who is now the BJP candidate for prime minister, was – and remains – the head of the Gujarat government. He’s widely believed to have provoked and then ignored the slaughter of Muslims.

“Even today,” said my nephew Abdun Nur, “my blood boils when I hear the name Narendra Modi.” I was visiting him at his home in the Purahuria village in my native Indian state of Assam.

So what has made the progressive Hindus and even many Muslims vote for Modi and the BJP?

One, the top slogan in the Modi campaign this season was “development.” The country hungers for it and the BJP governments at the center and in the states have impressive records of putting through many economic development programs. The Congress government of Prime Minister Manmohan Sing, on the other hand, is being blamed for the high inflation (an average of 10.9% through 2013) afflicting the nation. Congress is also blemished by a string of high-profile corruption cases against its politicians. Modi and the BJP leadership in general are untainted by the vice.

Throughout the election campaign, Modi and his party have kept mum on its past anti-Muslim agenda. They realize that Indian society is moving past the era of religious animosity and is throbbing with progressive thinking. The other day I was shocked to notice that the bulletin board of Calcutta University’s history department was splashing six pictures and an admiring profile of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, India’s archenemy.

Under the headline “Repositioning Jinnah,” the white text against dark background highlighted some of Jinnah’s statements promoting secularism in Pakistan, harmony between Muslims and Hindus, equality between the sexes, and so forth. Analyzing his political career, the anonymous author wrote that Jinnah “tried his best to reach a settlement between the Hindus and the Muslims. But all his efforts proved futile. Every time he tried to bring the two communities together, success eluded him.” The narrative suggested that the secular Muslim statesman was compelled to create a separate Muslim state because of the failure of his cherished mission to preserve Muslim rights in an undivided India, although it didn’t say it quite in those words.

Arun Bandopadhyay, who teaches modern Indian history at the university, explained to me that “Jinnah is being reevaluated here as he has been elsewhere.” He said he is more concerned about “ethnic separatism” than religious conflicts. India and Pakistan could split further along ethnic lines in the “next 20, 50 years,” he added.

Indians are engaged in a lively debate about the BJP’s silence on its Hindu nationalist agenda. Many believe it was just an election ploy, intended to lure Muslim voters away from the secular Congress party, their traditional political home.

Among them my friend Kamaluddin Ahmed, retired principal of Karimganj College in Assam. He said the BJP would “surely try to revive its anti-Muslim agenda,” should it come to power in New Delhi. One of the items on that agenda is, as mentioned, building a Ram temple on the Babri Mosque site. Another is banning Muslims’ “family laws,” which govern their inheritance, marriage, divorce, and other events. A third is amending the Indian constitution to abolish the wide autonomy it allows the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir. And so on.

Yet many among this group and others say that the Hindu nationalists just can’t implement those Muslim baiting programs without triggering India-wide Hindu-Muslim riots and tearing up Hindu society itself. They point out that most Hindus, especially their younger generation, want to forget about the decades-long nightmare of interfaith bloodletting and animosity.

Muslims, though 13 percent of the Indian population, are going through a “resurgence,” to use Kamaluddin Ahmed’s words. That also has put a damper on right-wing Hindu aggressiveness toward Muslims. During the last three decades Indian Muslims have made significant economic, educational and occupational advances. That has enhanced their assertiveness and resolve to defend their cultural space. I’ve heard many anecdotes of Muslim youths fighting back against Hindu physical or verbal attacks, which they used to endure meekly. And those attacks have become infrequent now.

As important, the BJP itself appears to be evolving. The Gujarat riots were a wake-up call to Modi and his party. The scenes of the ghastly slaughter of Muslim children, women and men badly tarnished Modi’s and Hindu nationalists’ image at home and abroad. The Obama administration banned Modi from visiting the United States, and he became an international pariah of sorts.

Desperate to shed this blackened image, the Gujarat chief minister (and probably the next prime minister) and the BJP have stopped most of their anti-Muslim activism. The state and local governments run by the party have introduced jobs, educational and other programs that benefit Muslims. The party has been on guard against any Hindu-Muslims clashes in jurisdictions under its rule.

Soumen Purkayasthhya, the BJP’s outreach coordinator in New Delhi, challenged me to show “a single [anti-Muslim] riot in any of the six states” that came under BJP rule after the 2009 elections.

The BJP badly needs an image makeover because of many Indians’ yearning for peace and social harmony, and some of the party activists I interviewed in different parts of India are calling for it. Peace and stability have been a pressing concern of India’s business and industrial community, a vital segment of the BJP’s support base.

Hindus and Muslims in India will have their separate communal spaces, as they always did. From that angle, the Hindu nationalists seminal mission to blot out the Muslim social and cultural niches has all but failed. There may be occasional tensions and violence between Hindus and Muslims. But I see the two communities striving for better mutual relations, more than spawning hatred between them. The task is staring at the face of Modi and the BJP.

• Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog Beyond Freedom, is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.

Afghans show door to blind hegemon

“Fools!”

Tunu was talking about American troops in Afghanistan.

“Why were they spilling all this blood – ours and theirs?”

Now a shoe store owner, he had joined the Pakistani Taliban four years ago and fought NATO troops in Afghanistan for two. He was commenting on President Obama’s decision last month to pull out all American troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

A relative of mine, Tunu was visiting me and my ailing mother, 94, at the Osmani Hospital here in the Bangladeshi town of Sylhet.  I was busy caring for my bedridden mother and couldn’t engage in a political conversation. I told him that his question was a good one for my next blog post. I agreed, however, not to mention his full name in it. The pro-American, terrorist-hunting government of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajed could go after him.

So why were American troops “spilling all this blood” in Afghanistan? Tunu didn’t know much about the American political system and focused his anger on U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, not those who sent them to do the fighting.

In 1996 I met a group of Arab post-graduate and undergrad students at a hangout on London’s Seven Sisters Road. They obviously knew about the process in which decisions about war and peace are made in Washington.  As I mentioned in a subsequent newspaper column, two of them – both Saudi Arabian – used that knowledge to support militant attacks on American government targets and, more amazingly, American civilians!

Their argument: American voters elect their governments who had imposed the devastating sanctions on Iraq after the 1991 Kuwait war that had killed half a million Iraqi children. Elected American governments, they continued, supported “Israeli colonialism” and Israeli oppression of Palestinians. The United States armed and protected  autocratic “monsters” repressing Arab societies. And so on. Why kill the “poor, black soldiers,” asked one of the Saudis, who had joined the American armed forces “to feed their families”?

I remembered their argument 10 years later when Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York, said the United States and Iraq would have been spared the horrors of the uncalled for Iraq war if children of those who had decided to invade that country had been sent into the battlefields. Only 2 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress had their children in military services. The decorated Korean War veteran added that in 2004, 70 percent of New York City volunteers who enlisted in U.S. armed services were “black or Hispanic, recruited from lower-income communities.”

It all is true, but Americans are doing what most hegemonic powers have done throughout history – be they the Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Persians, Brits or Soviets. They’ve used their superior military power to conquer, slaughter, plunder, subjugate and dominate other peoples. Some of those adventures have been stupid because power tends not only to corrupt people but also often blind them to reality.

In Afghanistan, Americans didn’t see – or want to see – the fate of other invaders to that country from the Greeks to the Brits to the Soviets. They were all defeated or expelled by the fiercely independent-minded Pashtun tribes. Power has even blinded many Americans to themselves and their deeds.  They went about invading sovereign nations and overthrowing and sabotaging governments with abandon. They slaughtered and brutalized other people and bribed and bullied their governments. Through all this they saw themselves as “peace-loving” do-gooders, spreading freedom and democracy around the world.

There’s a tried-and-true cure for this blindness: resistance and exhaustion. Few aggressive military powers have ever heeded moral suasion, but all have eventually been tamed by the resistance of the victims of their aggression and the exhaustion of their own military or economic power.  Without stubborn native resistance, the French wouldn’t have let go of their Algerian “department”; neither would the Soviets have fled Afghanistan. Hadn’t the Nazis crushed its economy, imperial Britain wouldn’t have conceded the independence of my native Indian subcontinent.

The Afghanistan war was doomed before it started because of the Afghans’ historic spirit of intolerance of foreign invaders. Their spirit of independence, as that of many other peoples, has been whetted further by the tide of freedom and democracy rising throughout the developing world.

The American economy, though still the word’s largest, has lost its vitality and dynamism. Administration spin-doctors would have us believe otherwise. They claim the economy is back on track after a temporary “Great Recession.”  They try to buttress their argument by citing the slow rise in employment rates, improvements in home prices and housing starts, the upswing in the stock market, and so on.

All these indices camouflage the deep and seemingly irreversible downturn in the American economy. America is saddled with a $17 trillion debt burden, while its GDP growth is anemic (2.4%). About 70 percent of goods on American store shelves have been made abroad. It means that the Chinese, Indians, South Koreans, Pacific Islanders, and other foreigners fill 7 out of 10 job openings created by the U.S. economy. The stock market boom is profiting mostly the top 1 percent society, while workers’ real wages have fallen to their lowest shares of national income in more than 50 years.   America just can no longer afford to fund the Afghanistan war, or any other war of choice.

Tunu should know that Obama ordered the total pullout American troops from Afghanistan because of the two main reasons that have historically stopped hegemonic aggression: exhaustion of the hegemons and resistance from the victims of their aggression.

  • Mustafa Malik, a Washington-based columnist, hosts the blog Beyond Freedom: http://beyond-freedom.com.

Is Hindu nationalism mellowing?

NEW DELHI – India’s Hindu nationalists gloated as Nancy Powell, the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, went to meet Norendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of their Bharatya Janata Party.  Indian media described the meeting as America’s “cave-in” and “about face” to the chief minister of Gujarat state. 

Nine years ago Modi was banned from visiting the United States for his widely reported complicity in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.  More than 1, 000 Muslims there were beaten, hacked and burned to death by Hindu rioters.

Asked about the Modi-Powell meeting, an American diplomat in the Indian capital told me, on condition of anonymity, that Modi’s political positions have been “evolving,” warranting the new American gesture. I would normally have dismissed his comment as pure diplomatic hogwash, but I see a large grain of truth in it.

Of course the United States had to mend fences with the man who, polls show, could become the next prime minister of India.  But then Modi and the BJP also are trying hard to shed their image as Hindu fanatics, reinforced by their alleged connivance at the Gujarat riot and the destruction of the historic Muslim shrine, the Babri Mosque.

For the last half-dozen years, the BJP has been trying seriously – its critics say “shamelessly” – to court Muslims. And many Muslims are reciprocating.  On Feb. 22, I found it hard to believe my eyes as I watched on TV a sprinkling of Muslim caps in Modi’s rally in Silchar town in my native Assam state.  During a 2007 visit to Silchar I saw Muslims fuming over his widely believed abetment to the Gujarat massacre.  A Muslim tailor in Silchar told me that he wanted some “young man with a [suicide] belt” to do away with him.  

So what’s changing many Muslim minds about the BJP? Indian Muslims are “more self-confident” than they used to be, Bushra Alvi, a Muslim writer in New Delhi, told me last week.  They no longer fear, she added, that Hindu nationalists would be able to erode Muslim culture in India, which they tried to do for decades.  Spread of education and heightened conscious about identity and self-worth appear to have helped stimulate their self-confidence, as it has among people in many other countries.

The BJP’s outreach to Muslims shows a reassessment of its ideology.  The party’s manifesto stipulates, among other things, three highly controversial projects to assimilate Indian Muslims into a Hinduized social mainstream.  One, Islamic tenets enjoining Muslims to follow the Islamic code in marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc., would be outlawed. Secondly, a temple would be built to the Hindu god Ram on the site of the gutted Babri Mosque.  Thirdly, an article in the Indian constitution that provides wide autonomy to the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir would be scrapped.

Yet in January BJP president Rajnath Singh infuriated Hindu nationalist diehards by  announcing that his party wouldn’t, after all, seek to end Kashmir’s special status.  And on the campaign trail Modi and his associates have been mysteriously silent on the Ram temple and Muslim canon law issues.

Soumen Purkhayasthha, the BJP’s “good governance” strategist, insisted to me that his party doesn’t plan to pursue those anti-Muslim projects.  The BJP, he said, wouldn’t tolerate any Muslim-bashing. “There has not been a single Hindu-Muslim riot in the five states that came under BJP rule” since the Gujarat, he added.

I think the party has learned its lesson of Gujarat, which turned it into an international pariah. The American blacklisting of Modi, an NGO operative told me, “was too much for them to take.”

At any rate, many Indian Muslims are opening up to BJP overtures for a host of reasons.

For decades they voted blindly for the ruling Congress party, which took their votes for granted and turned a blind eye to their causes and interests.  Assured in their minds that they’ve all but stonewalled the BJP’s Hinduization drive, many of them are attracted by the party’s record and promises of good governance and good economic management.

Modi has earned nationwide acclaim for fostering impressive economic growth in his state.  “We want faster economic growth,” said Sohael Razzack, a Muslim community leader and food industry executive.  “Muslims will benefit from it as anybody else.”

Muslims also realize that the BJP could come to power in the general elections scheduled for April. They think it would be foolish to alienate it.

It’s possible, though seems unlikely, that once in power, the Hindu nationalists may revive their anti-Muslim agenda.   For some Muslims, including the writer Alvi, that would have a bright side as well. Hindu hostility would bolster Muslim solidarity and Islamic revival, as it has in the past.

Today, most politicians and political strategists in India recognize Muslims’ electoral clout and growing willpower, even though they make up only about 15 percent of the Indian population of more than 1 billion.  West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Muslim policy is a case in point.

Banerjee is reviled in neighboring Bangladesh as an anti-Muslim bigot.  She has blocked an agreement between Dhaka and New Delhi that would allow an increased flow of river water to lower riparian Bangladesh, and the mostly Muslim Bangladeshis attribute it to her hatred of Muslims.

Inside West Bengal, however, Banerjee is denounced as virulently by right-wing Hindus for her “rampant appeasement” of Muslims.  She has facilitated job opportunities for Muslims; promoted Muslim girls’ education; given aid to madrasahs, or Islamic schools; and adopted other programs that benefit Muslims. Once clue, Muslims make up about 30 percent of West Bengal voters.

The BJP appears to have given up on healing Indian society from the cultural “virus” or “parasites” as Hindus chauvinists still Muslims. But, as the American diplomat noted, Modi’s and his party’s attitudes toward them are “evolving” and softening.Nancy Powell’s visit with the Hindu nationalist candidate for prime minister signaled that America’s policy toward them is evolving, too.

Mustafa Malik, who hosts the blog ‘Beyond Freedom,’  is traveling in his native Indian subcontinent.

The Hindus outrage Hindus

Arundhati Roy is one of my heroes. Yet I’ve a problem with her stand on The Hindus: An Alternative History.

The icon of the progressive movement in India has blasted Penguin India for pulling out the book. It was written by Wendy Denier, a respected American Indologist. It’s a serious piece of work, which debunks some of Hindus’ cherished beliefs about their religious tradition. Not surprisingly, it  has outraged a whole lot of  Hindus in India. Many of them are Hindu nationalists and traditionalists.  Roy has demanded to know why the publisher had “caved in [to] the fascists.”

It saddens me indeed to see that the junking of this scholarly work would deny millions of Hindus the opportunity to take a refreshing new look at their society and tradition.  I’m persuaded, however, by the reason Penguin India has given for its decision to call off the publication and destroy the copies in its stock.  It explained that being an Indian company, it had to abide by Indian laws, which make it a criminal offense to deliberately outrage or insult “religious feelings” by spoken or written words.

Roy and many other critics of the publishing company’s action have offered the typical Western liberal argument. They maintain, in effect, that withholding the  publication of a work of art or literature under public pressure flouts what they consider publishers’ duty to defend the freedom of speech, as it’s understood in the West, everywhere in the world. Yes, Viking defied enormous pressure from the Muslim world to publish Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which maligns the Prophet of Islam. But Viking did so in the West, where the laws and social consensus support its action.

Freedom of expression, as many other Western values, stems from Enlightenment liberalism.  Many liberal values have been emulated productively by Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, ex-Communist and other non-Western societies.  Free and rational inquiry, pluralism and scientific investigation have enabled those societies to make remarkable intellectual, scientific and technological progress; speed their economic development; and greatly enhance the quality their citizens’ material life.

All the same, many of these societies, especially those with rich and enduring traditions, are adapting liberal ideas and institutions to their own social priorities, which lend most meaning to their lives. India has embraced democracy of the Westminster variety. It retains, however, many religious institutions in the public sphere, which Western democracies wouldn’t. It has banned cow slaughter, forbidden by Hindu scripture. The Indian state patronizes many religious shrines and projects, instead of relegating them to the private sphere. Indian voters have twice elected the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party governments and could do so again this May. The BJP espouses using laws and state institutions to Hinduize Indian society and culture.

The founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and his followers used state power to ban Islam from politics and Europeanize Turkish culture. The Turks, heirs to the Ottoman Islamic civilization, have subsequently cast off most of their Westernization projects and elected an Islam-oriented government thrice in a row.

Enlightenment liberalism, as all other ideologies, has emerged from a particular set of historical circumstances of particular societies.  It came about mainly as a reaction to the omnipresent church’s rigorous rules suppressing the desires, expressions and creativity of everyday Christians.  It wasn’t much of a surprise, then, that the ideologues and activists of the Enlightenment avenged the harsh religious repression by banishing religion from the public space.

Few non-Western societies faced religious persecution of that scale. Not certainly the Hindus, Muslims or non-Western Christians (Coptic, Maronite, Assyrian, etc.). They all  cherish their traditions, founded mostly on religious values, while emulating many liberal political and social ideas and institutions.

This should help explain why Americans and Europeans cared less about Martin Scorsese’s movie “The Last Temptation of the Christ,” which portrayed Jesus as an imperfect, vulnerable man.  Muslims around the world were, on the other hand, repelled by The Satanic Verses, as are many Indian Hindus by The Hindus.

The right to free speech can’t be absolute or universal. The free-speech doctrine notwithstanding, American society wouldn’t permit you to use the “n” word for African Americans or question the prevalent narrative about the Holocaust. Crying “Fire!” in a movie theater is a crime under American law. Because values and moral standards vary from civilization to civilization and often from society to society, so should the definition of rights and freedoms.

Luckily, progressive, far-sighted minds throughout history have spoken out and struggled against societal norms and taboos that they saw afflicting man and impeding human well-being. By so doing they’ve promoted needed social reforms and evolution.

Arundhati Roy is among Indian activists who would want Indians to be open to criticism and reevaluation of their religious institutions so Indian society can  evolve and progress further. Yet I wouldn’t support her attack on Penguin India for refusing to violate a duly enacted Indian law under which publication of the book could be a crime.  Penguin India needs to operate within India’s legal framework until India’s moral and legal system evolves, if it does, to alter that framework.

  • Mustafa Malik, host of the blog Beyond Freedom, is traveling in the Indian subcontinent.