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Clash of civilisations or the Cult of Personalities? Assessing Turkey’s Indo-Pak relations

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A burgeoning Turkey-Pakistan friendship against India should not be inferred as an example of Huntington’s clash of civilizations. Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” argues that the future international order will be defined by the culture and civilization of nation-states. He emphasises that globalization will coerce states to decide on their friends and enemies based on their civilizations, culture, religion, and history. Although the emphasis on globalization seems right, his argument majorly discounts on the role of populist leaders in facilitating this façade of clash of civilisations. 

Globalization has introduced uncertainties of global economy, society, and polity to the local atmosphere; phenomenon such as migration, unemployment, capitalism, urbanization, flow of ideas and media coverage have triggered anxieties, uncertainties, and ontological insecurity amongst people at the grassroots level. Thus, threatening their identities, sense of selves and their nations’ place in the world. However, these fears are being exploited by a new generation of populist leaders who propagate religious-nationalist sentiments and narratives to cater  a sense of self and stability amongst these citizens. They portray themselves as the defenders and representatives of the state and its citizens through these broader and collective identities, and exhibit a persona of being a strong leader with a mission torestore past glories of their nation-states byfighting against the hostile external world and the internal elites.  

Populism and Turkey’s foreign policy: 

The case of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an exact reflection of this new generation of populist leaders. Erdogan won his first elections by promising economic stability, democracy, modernisation, and Islamic revivalism, which were important to provide a sense of stability to the Turks who were suffering from the 2001 economic crisis.  Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) cleverly used the strong historical, social, and cultural presence of Islam amongst the Turks to propagate the “Muslim Selves” identity against the Turkish elites and their “Western idea” of secularism. This propagation of collective identities increased AKP’s voter base by framing commoners against the secular privileged elites; and exhibited Erdogan as the “saviour” of Turkey against the internal and external threats. 

This rise of populism has a significant impact on Erdogan’s foreign policy as well. Erdogan exhibits himself as a strong leader and defender of his country. He has portrayed himself as a leader who will restore “glorious past” of the Ottoman Empire and has inhibited strong nationalist- religious rhetoric, which is promoted by the Turkish state media agencies. This propaganda has created a sense of selves and stability amongst the people who were uncertain of Turkey’s position in the world and has thus mustered Erdogan’s domestic support.

Erdogan’s foreign policy, as any other populist leader is dependent on satisfying his domestic audience; for which it is important for him to maintain the religious-nationalist rhetoric and his strong man image. His confrontation and inflammatory rhetoric and lack of restraint has also attracted segments of his electorate. Consequently, he has used aggressive rhetoric in his foreign policy and asserted for Islamic revivalism during the elections. It is ultimately these factors that have also influenced his India-Pakistan policy

Turkey’s Indo-Pak policy:

Turkey’s policy towards India has hardly been independent of the Pakistan factor and vice versa. Soon after independence, Turkey favoured friendly ties with Pakistan (a fellow Western camp member)over India and its neutral Nonalignment moment. Turkey formally joined the Baghdad pact/ Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) alongside Pakistan and Iran in 1955It criticised India for its military action against Portuguese Goa in 1961 and also formed the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD) in 1964 alongside other CENTO membersIn addition, Turkey’s open support for Pakistan against India in the 1965 and 1971 wars and its concerns over India’s status-quo in Kashmir since the 1960shad deepened Turkey-Pakistan friendship. Consequently, Turkey had also expressed its anti-Indian stance on Kashmir in international platforms such as the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

However, following the end of the Cold War, Turkey started embracing a new approach towards South Asia, attempting to disentangle its India-Pakistan relations. India’s economic liberalisation in the early 90s had opened up a huge economic market for several countries. Around the same time, Turkey upset with Musharraf’s military coup in Pakistan and with an ongoing economic crisis looked for a new economic and political relationship with India. Thus, Turkey  softened its pro-Pakistan and Kashmir stance; Bulent Ecevit even became the only Prime Minister of Turkey to visit India without visiting Pakistan. 

Buthis successor Erdogan’s vision to make Turkey self-sufficient in the production and exportation of domestic weapons wrenched the former towards Pakistan. This was followed by a strategic partnership and close security and counter-insurgency cooperation amongst both the states, as Turkey witnessed threats from Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisationsHowever, this cooperation neither altered Turkey’s softened stance nor hindered its economic relationship with India. 

Despite Erdogan’s rise to power, India and Turkey’s economic ties improved with no major political differences. Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee visited Turkey in 2003 and Erdogan visited India in 2008, followed by the Turkish president in 2010. Erdogan visited India again in 2017 to further economic cooperation and partnership. This economic success and ties were very much evident when over 190 Indian companies had started operating in Turkey by 2013. Similarly, the India-Turkey trade had burgeoned to a worth of 8 billion USD in 2019, while Turkey-Pakistan trade was worth 800 million USD only.

Explaining recent drift: 

However, despite these positive developments, India-Turkey relations started tilting South from 2017, and deepening Pakistan-Turkey relationship started threatening India again. But this tilt is a product of populism and its impacts of foreign policy rather than the clash of civilizations.

Erdogan’s image and authority had taken a huge blow after the attempted2016 military coup, and the only way he could repair his image was punishing the secular establishment and also expanding his electoral and support base through anti-secular and pro-Islam rhetoric. He tapped on people’s ontological insecurity with extremely religious-nationalist sentiments and started moving closer towards the Sunni World, to promote himself as a leader of the Islamic World. This persona of strong man bringing back glory to the Turks enhanced Erdogan’s domestic support and vote base. Thus, even days before his official visit to India, Erdogan portrayed himself as the leader of the Muslim world, by expressing that he would want Turkey to play a role in solving the Kashmir issue

On the other hand, Imran Khan of Pakistan (elected in 2018) was also a populist leader with strong religious-nationalist rhetoric and domestic image of being a strong leader. It is this strong man image that soon fostered ties amongst both the states. While Erdogan wanted to place himself and Turkey as the leader of the Muslim World, Imran Khan after losing Saudi and UAE to India started embracing Turkey to foster good ties and exhibit himself as a shaper of the Islamic world order. 

This coincided with the third phenomenon: rising anti-Modi sentiments in the Muslim World and increasing discrimination of Muslims within India. The Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register for Citizens and most importantly the revocation of article 370, which unilaterally changed Kashmir’s status quo for the first time since 1999 created a major concern for the Muslim nations. Further, the enforced lockdown and militarisation in Kashmir after article 370 abrogation left no other option for Erdogan but to adopt strong anti-India rhetoric. As failing to do so would have distorted his strong man image and nationalist religious narratives of leading the Islamic World. Thus, giving a major blow to his domestic image and public opinion.

Consequently, Turkey embraced closer ties with Pakistan at the cost of Indian interests and raised its concerns over Kashmir at the United Nations. In addition, several Indian security agencies have also raised concerns on Turkey’s influence over Kashmir through TRT’s Ertugrul web series and surging Turkish NGOs and business funds in Kashmir. They have also condemned Turkey for hiring Pakistani journalists, Kashmiri separatists and Kashmiri students to promote pro-Kashmiri rhetoric within Turkey. India’s retaliation to these growing security concerns has been sharp and reactionary. PM Modi has met with leaders of Cyprus and Armenia much to Turkey’s annoyance and cancelled his visit to Turkey. India also condemned Turkey’s military operations in Syria and haswarned Turkey of degrading its bilateral ties if the former continues to intervene in India’s internal affairs.  

Considering Erdogan’s approach to foreign policy and his attempt to have firm domestic support and electoral base, it is unlikely that he would move from his anti-India policy and rhetoric. Thus, indicating a decline inIndia-Turkey economic and political ties, while Pakistan-Turkey relations might see a gradual improvement. But, considering this relationship as a mere factor of clash of civilisations would severely undermine the role of globalisation and populism in modern-day foreign policymaking.

Aditya Gowdara Shivamurthy is an MSc International Relations graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He focuses on South Asian international relations, conflicts and India's foreign policy. His works have been featured in The Statesman, The Strait Times, South Asian Monitor and The London Globalist.

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Opposing Hindutava: US conference raises troubling questions

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Controversy over a recent ‘Dismantling Global Hindutava’ conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism raises questions that go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

The conference and responses to it highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette that jeopardize civil, intelligent, and constructive debate and allow expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Organizers of the conference that was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava, Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics who accused the organizers of Hinduphobia. Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasiveness of groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence. The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of the faith even though powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters with notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant. They also lump together groups that adhere and respect the election process and ones that advocate violent jihad.

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who was elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair poll. Political Islam’s alleged swansong loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco as well as hints that Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

A more fundamental criticism of the framing of the Hindutava conference is its failure to put Hindutava in a broader context.

That context involves the undermining of the social cohesion of societies made up of collections of diverse ethnic and religious communities since Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

The attacks fueled the rise of ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism not only in the Hindu world but also in the worlds of other major religions.

These include politicized ultra-conservative Islam, politicized Evangelism and Buddhist nationalism. Right-wing religious nationalism in Israel, unlike Islamism and politicized Evangelism, is shaped by ultra-nationalism rather than religious ultra-conservatism.

The worlds of religious ultra-nationalism and politicized expressions of religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism: as dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

The comparison of politically charged militant nationalist and ultra-conservative expressions of diverse religions takes on added significance in a world that has seen the emergence of civilizationalist leaders.

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of state and church.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists to militant Islamists in the United States, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood […] is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava, with Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gaining new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.

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Panjshir – the last stronghold of democracy in Afghanistan

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The Taliban’s rapid advance in Afghanistan has briefly stalled only in the face of strong resistance mounted by the people of the country’s recalcitrant mountainous province of Panjshir. Whoever controls the region’s passes controls the routes leading to China and Tajikistan, but to seize this mountain valley and, most importantly, to keep it permanently under control has always been a problem for all invaders. Eager to let the international community see for the first time in 40 years a united Afghanistan as a sign of their final victory, the radical Islamists were prepared to make any sacrifices, including filling the approaches to the Panjshir Valley up with dead bodies. Moreover, the Taliban’s longtime ally Pakistan, which, regardless of its status of an ally of the United States, has provided them with direct military support. In fact, Islamabad admitted its less than successful role when it proposed signing a truce to find and take out the bodies of its special Ops forces who had died during the attack on the valley. However, drones flown by Pakistani operators, professional commandos (possibly once trained by the Americans), air support and other pleasant gifts from the allies eventually bore fruit letting the Taliban be photographed in front of the mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Massoud Sr., the famous “Lion of Panjshir,” who controlled the valley from 1996 to 2001. The Islamists also took control of the province’s central city of Bazarak.

Having deprived the province much of its Internet access, the radicals, who control most of the Afghan territory, found it easier to wage an information war. Their claims of victories were now more difficult to contest, even though information about their retreat did reach the outside world. Reflective of the heavy losses suffered for the first time by the Taliban and their allies – the Haqqani Network and other remnants of al-Qaeda, as well as by the regular Pakistani army is the brief truce arranged by Islamabad. Looks like the mountain passes leading to Panjshir were literally filled up with corpses…

As for Massoud Jr., the young lion of Panjshir, and his supporters, they retreated to the mountains. In fact, they had nowhere to fall back to. The problem of Afghanistan is its ethnic diversity. Thus, the country is home to 23 percent of ethnic Tajiks, most of whom live in the Panjshir Valley. However, the Taliban rely mainly on the Pashtuns, who account for over 50 percent of the country’s population. As for the new masters of Afghanistan, they are ready to carry out ethnic cleansings and even commit outright genocide in order to bring the valley into submission. To make this happen they are going to resettle there their fellow Pashtun tribesmen. Local men aged between 12 and 50 are already being taken away and, according to the National Resistance Front, no one has seen them again. However, due to the information blockade, the Taliban will not hesitate to refute such facts. One thing is clear: Massoud’s Tajik fighters and the government troops that joined them are fighting for their lives, and there will be no honorable surrender!

The main question now is whether the young lion of Panjshir will receive the same support as his father once did, or will find himself without ammunition and food. After all, the Taliban leaders have reached certain agreements with the United States. Suffice it to mention the numerous remarks made, among others, by President Biden himself about the Taliban now being different from what they were 20 years ago.

But no, the Taliban`s remain the same – they have only hired new PR people. Meanwhile, hating to admit their defeat, Brussels and Washington will have to engage in a dialogue with those who are responsible for the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and for the numerous terrorist attacks in Europe. The Taliban are pretending to make minor cosmetic concessions. Minor indeed, since they are still depriving women of the opportunity to work and study, destroying higher and secondary education and brutally clamping down on people who simply do not want to live according to religious norms.

The United States is actually helping the “new-look” Taliban. Their potential opponents, including the famous Marshal Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, left the country under various guarantees, and Washington is trying to keep them from any further participation in the conflict. Democratic politicians naively believe that by creating an Islamic state and ending the protracted civil war in Afghanistan the Taliban will ensure stability in the region and will not move any further. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan do not think so and are strengthening their borders and preparing to protect their Afghan compatriots, because they know full well that the Taliban`s are not a national political party; they are a radical Islamist ideology.

It knows no borders and spreads like a cancerous tumor, destroying all pockets of Western culture. It can only be stopped by force. However, the two decades of US military presence in Afghanistan showed that Washington, which quickly took control of the country in 2001, simply had no strategy to keep it. The Afghans were given nothing that would appear to them more attractive than the ideas of radical Islam. As a result, the few Afghans who embrace European values are fleeing the country, and those who, like Massoud Jr., decided to fight for their freedom, now risk being left to face their enemy all by themselves.

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Misjudgements in India’s Afghan policy

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India’s Afghan policy has always been obsessed with the desire to deny Pakistan the “strategic depth” that Pakistan, according to India’s perception, yearns. If India had a pragmatic policy, it would not have found itself whimpering and whining like a rueful baby over spilt milk.

India supported the invasion of Afghanistan by both the former Soviet Union and the USA, both losers. President Trump mocked Modi for having built a library for the Afghan people. Trump expected India to contribute foot soldiers, and by corollary, body packs to the Afghan crisis. India played all the tricks up its sleeves to convince the USA to make India a party to the US-Taliban talks. But the USA ditched not only Modi but also Ashraf Ghani to sign the Doha peace deal with the Taliban.

India’s external affairs minister still calls the Taliban government “a dispensation”. Interestingly, the USA has reluctantly accepted that the Taliban government is a de facto government.

Humanitarian crisis

The United Nations’ Development Programme has portrayed a bleak situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is faced with multifarious challenges. These include prolonged drought and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, upheaval caused by the current political transition: frozen foreign reserves, and rising poverty.

About 47 per cent of its people live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. If the poverty line is pushed to $2 a day, 90 per cent of Afghans would be poor. About 55 per cent of Afghans are illiterate.

Ninety seven percent of the population is at risk of sinking below the poverty line, As such, Afghanistan teeters on the brink of universal poverty. Half of the population is already in need of humanitarian support. The UNDP has proposed to access the most vulnerable nine million people by focusing on essential services, local livelihoods, basic income and small infrastructure.

Currently, the gross national product of Afghanistan is around $190 billion, just a little more than the $160 billion economy of Dhaka city. The country’s legal exports of goods and services every year account for $1 billion. It imports$6 billion worth of goods and services every year.

About 80 per cent of world production of opium comes from Afghanistan. Every year, Afghanistan produces nearly 10,000 tons of opium and the revenue generated from it amounts to $7 billion approximately. About 87 per cent of the income of opium producing farmers comes exclusively from this single product. The illicit opium export by Afghanistan is worth $2 billion every year. The role of opium is significant.

About 80 per cent of public expenditure in this country is funded by grants. Since 2002, the World Bank has provided Afghanistan with a total of $5.3 billion as development and emergency relief assistance. The IMF earmarked for Afghanistan $400 million in Special Drawing Rights (SDR) for combating the Covid-19 pandemic in the country.

The United States has frozen about $10 billion worth of Afghan assets held at various banks in Afghanistan. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has withdrawn the $400 million worth of SDRs allocated earlier to Afghanistan for addressing the Covid-19 crisis. The World Bank has not said anything as of yet, but it may also put restrictions on its funding to Afghanistan.

India’s lip service to Afghanistan

India provided around $3 billion in aid to fallen U.S.-backed Afghan government.  It trained the Afghan army and police. But now it is not willing to pay or pledge a penny to the Taliban government. Look at the following Times of India report:

“India did not pledge any money to the Taliban ruled Afghanistan probably for the first time in 20 years. That it has not done so as Jaishanker declared … (At UN, India offers support to Afghanistan but does not pledge money. The Times of India September 14, 2021).The Hindu, September 11, 2021

India’s tirade against Afghanistan

Indian policymakers and experts say they see no guarantees that Afghanistan won’t become a haven for militants. “Afghanistan may be poised to become a bottomless hole for all shades of radical, extremist and jihadi outfits somewhat similar to Iraq and Syria, only closer to India,” said Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who was India’s ambassador in Kabul between 2010 to 2013.  He added that the Taliban victory could have an “inspirational effect” not only for Kashmir’s rebels but wherever religiously-driven groups operate in the broader region… Lt. Gen Deependra Singh Hooda, former military commander for northern India between 2014-2016, said militant groups based across the border in Pakistan would “certainly try and push men” into Kashmir, following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan  (With Taliban’s rise, India sees renewed threat in Kashmir, Star Tribune September 14, 2021). “Meanwhile, Rajnath Singh conveyed to Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton that the rise of the Taliban raises serious security concerns for India and the region. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has appealed for an injection of cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would spark a “catastrophic” situation for the Afghan people and be a “gift for terrorist groups.”). Afghan economic meltdown would be ‘gift for terrorists,’ says U.N. chief” (The Hindu, September 11, 2021)

 India’s former envoy to Kabul, Ambassador Gautam Mukhopadhyay is skeptical of the conciliatory statements by the taliban government. He advises: “We should welcome recent statements by Stanekzai and Anas Haqqani that suggest some independence from the ISI. But we should also ask some hard questions and judge them by their actions and words, and not let down our guard, both with regard to our multiple security concerns such as whether they can protect us from the Ias and ISI, sever ties with other terror groups, especially those supported by the ISI against India, deny Pakistan strategic depth, and preserve and build on our historic P2P and trade ties; and a genuinely inclusive govt in Afghanistan that accommodates the majority of Afghans who want the rights and freedoms enshrined in the 2004 Afghan Constitution or at least acceptable to the Afghan people.” (Taliban move to form govt, Naya Afghanistan brings new challenge for India, September 2, 2021).

Concluding remarks

India wants a “central role’ to be given to the UN in Afghanistan. India’s mumbo jumbo implies that Afghanistan should be made a UN protectorate. Indian media is never tired of calling the Afghan government a bunch of terrorists. They have even launched video games about it.

India needs to rethink how it can mend fences with Afghanistan that it regards a hothouse of terrorists.

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