Turkey and India Lurch Towards Illiberal Democracies

Nov 17

Published on Huffington Post, November 13, 2015.

Turkey and India are both democracies and significant American allies. Both India and Turkey are secular countries ruled by strong-willed leaders rooted in religion-based politics, Islam for Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hinduism for India’s Narendra Modi. Both leaders have shown an uncanny ability to galvanize popular support, although Modi recently suffered some setbacks (#BiharElections). And yet both of them have failed to heal their nation’s religious and ethnic divides. Now their divisive politics threaten to tear apart the social fabric of their country. India and Turkey are hardly alone in the rise of illiberal democracies but given their pivotal roles in global trade and security, their lurch towards illiberalism ought to elicit concern.

It’s been nearly two decades since Fareed Zakaria wrote his seminal article, “The Rise of the Illiberal Democracy” where he contended that democracy without free and fair elections, the rule of law, separation of powers and basic civil liberties afforded to all citizens of the country, is simply, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, “a tyranny of the majority.” In an illiberal democracy the sheer weight of the majority stifles dissent. This description is not only apt for Putin’s Russia but also for Modi’s India and Erdogan’s Turkey. And yet unlike Russians, both Indians and Turks remain more in control of their destinies, so long as they can muster the strength to transcend their parochialisms, primarily anti-Kurdish in the case of Turkey and anti-Muslim in the case of India.

The World Press Freedom Index places India 136 and Turkey 149 out of 180 countries. Writing about Turkey, the report notes that from 2012 to 2014 Turkey ranked 154 out of 180 but slightly improved its standing in 2015 because it conditionally released 40 journalists but “who nonetheless continue to face prosecution and could be detained again at any time.” Freedom of information in Turkey has declined because “cyber-censorship, lawsuits, dismissals of critical journalists and gag orders.” India’s low ranking stems from the daily abuses journalists face while trying to do their job, rising internet censorship and the political partisanship of India’s media.

As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarks on his trip to UK this week, over 200 noted authors have asked British Prime Minister David Cameron to raise the issue of the rising climate of intolerance and fear in India. This comes in the wake of wide ranging protests in India from artists, filmmakers, scientists, actors, scholars who have not only voiced concerns about intolerance but have also taken the extraordinary step of returning (wapsi) many of the prestigious awards they received(#awardwapsi). They did so as rumors have generated mob frenzy against writers and vulnerable minorities with muted reactions from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Just few weeks ago a Muslim man was lynched to death by a mob after spurious rumors spread that the man’s family had consumed and stored beef at their home. Cows are considered sacred by Hindus but generally Indians have been tolerant towards others who consume beef. However, the debate over imposing a ban on cow meat was resurrected recently when the ruling party introduced wide-ranging ban on the sale and consumption of beef in the right-leaning state of Maharashtra. Atop BJP politician recently said, “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef.” In addition, an Indian scholar, who happens to be an atheist, was killed after he criticized idol worship as a “meaningless ritual.”

In Turkey intolerance is different in nature but similar in essence. A small but influential group of Muslim social activists, pejoratively called Gulenists but self-described as the Hizmet movement, have been singled out for crackdown with little due process or evidence for their alleged crimes. Media outlets, often critical of the government and with ties to the Hizmet have been shut down and if allowed to operate have been intimidated by arresting leading journalists and unlawfully raiding their offices. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have accused certain media enterprises of establishing a “parallel” state although very little evidence supports such assertion. The country’s judiciary has become a puppet. Recently a public prosecutor accused the head of the Hizmet movement, Pennsylvania based cleric Fethullah Gulen, of leading a criminal organization including operating an armed terror group. Gulen whose life has been devoted to dialogue among faith communities and excellence in secular education ought to be celebrated as a modern day King and Gandhi not ostracized as a pariah to a country for whom he professes great love. The fact that the crackdown on the Gulen-followers came after corruption scandal implicating Erdogan and his family, which Erdogan blamed as a Gulen conspiracy, is enough to tarnish the efficacy of Turkish democracy.

But nothing is more troubling than the way Turkey continues to handle the Kurdish issue much the same way India continues to play politics with Kashmir. Both the Kashmiris and the Kurds have suffered from state brutality that has then led to violence and terrorism. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict since the 1980s has led to over 40,000 deaths while the Indian-Kashmiri conflict has led to over 47,000 deaths. Although Erdogan did not start the Kurdish conflict but he has used the issue in the most cynical of ways. Promising dialogue at one point but resorting to violence after his party lost its parliamentary majority just a few months ago.

Both India and Turkey boasts large minority populations where nearly 1 in 5 people belong to a religious or ethnic minority. In Turkey, Kurds are often arrested under the pretext of national security. While in India arbitrary arrests of Muslims in terrorism cases are quite common. In Turkey, the military commits human rights violations in Kurdish areas while in India, the military does the same in not only Muslim-majority Kashmir but also in the Indian Northeast, home to many minority ethnic groups.

From the undermining of media, the stifling of dissent and marginalization of minorities, both India and Turkey at the height of their economic successes are threatening to not only undo their progress but also attempting to spark a backlash that can boomerang into greater regional conflict. President Obama has forged a personal relationship with both Erdogan and Modi. At the upcoming G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey he should make deteriorating human rights an important part of his conversation with both Erdogan and Modi. In addition, the American diaspora which boasts of significant number of supporters for both Modi and Erdogan should play the role of healers. Pro-AKP Turkish groups should engage with Gulen-followers and the pro-BJP Indian diaspora should reach to those who express deep angst about the growing intolerance in India. It is important that all Indians and Turks make a commitment to uphold the pluralistic and secular nature of the founding ideals of both Turkish and Indian democracy.

Follow Parvez Ahmed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/parvezahmed