C Gopinath

When politics takes the path of religious revival

C Gopinath | Updated on August 11, 2020

Both Turkey and India seem to be following the trend of mixing religiosity with nationalism

Religious adherents determined to correct perceived wrongs of the past have had a good season. Earlier this month, the foundation for a temple at Ayodhya dedicated to Hindu deity Ram was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Hindus cheered. In July, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul will revert from a museum to a mosque; Muslims cheered.

History is full of religions appropriating symbols, artifacts, and shrines from others. The holy Kaaba in Mecca is believed to have been an important site for religions that predated Islam.

Religions, with their mass following, are a tempting target for groups seeking political power. By conveniently aligning with a religion and co-opting its leader, votes and power over territory and economic assets like land can be acquired. Popes and Imams saw this fairly early in human history, leading to catastrophic events. Recall the crusades during the 11th-13th Centuries to recover holy land from Muslim rule. The Spanish monarch sent out a flotilla of 17 ships in 1493 with the official aim of converting the natives in new territories to Christianity, incidentally establishing a trading colony and discovering riches.

There are some interesting parallels between Indian and Turkish situations. Both are democratic and officially secular countries, with a majority of people following Hinduism in the former and Islam in the latter. Perhaps due to the constraints of their constitutions, they had to wait for legal cover provided by court decisions to satisfy the interests of the majority.

Another interesting parallel is that both countries had ‘founding’ fathers who preached a larger vision beyond narrow sectarian interests. While Mahatma Gandhi dreamt of a ‘Ram rajya’ that provided prosperity and wise governance, he drew on the precepts of several religions to establish his principles and his vision. To this day, his seat is left vacant at the daily prayer meeting at Sewagram at Wardha and the attendees recite multi-faith prayers.

Kemal Ataturk of Turkey wanted to modernise his country and revoked the Caliphate (which Gandhi protested). After World War I, Ataturk adopted the Latin script and decided to make the Hagia Sophia a museum. It had been built as a Byzantine cathedral in 537 and was converted to a mosque by the conquering Ottomans in 1453.

Religiosity has found a convenient bedfellow with nationalism. Evangelists are happy with the power play to show their religion is superior. Nationalists play the tune of reinstating past glory. That’s an easier image to recall than a promise of a glorious future. US President Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ theme could not do without the ‘again.’ Even the Communists, who shun traditional religions, have put their faith in their political ideology and married it neatly with nationalism.

Thus, Modi felt the need to preside over the ceremony in Ayodhya. The Turkish president, who joined the devout in prayers at the Hagia Sophia, would like Turkey to become a Caliphate once again, robbing the ISIS of one of its key objectives.

This theme of conveniently mixing religion with political objectives has still a long run ahead of it. Think of other disputed religious venues — like the Al-aqsa mosque which is right beside the Temple Mount, holy to the Jews, in Jerusalem; a regular site of controversy.

I’m not a religious scholar but I suspect that the core precepts of all the major religions do not stress the need to build massive structures, own land, and regulate economic activity. They do advocate loving and being kind to fellow human beings. Wouldn’t it be great if we had that sort of a religious revival?

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on August 11, 2020

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