INTERVIEW: Basharat Peer on Turkey, India and the new populism

INTERVIEW: Basharat Peer on Turkey, India and the new populism

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Basharat Peer on Turkey, India and the new populism

Kashmiri men sell their produce at a floating vegetable market on the Dal Lake on a cold morning in Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir. AP photo

The Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the India of Narendra Modi are seen as pioneers of a new style of populism. Both President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Modi tap into a simmering reservoir of resentment, historical injury and frustration, directing anger against domestic and foreign “enemies of the people.” With the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the specter of resurgent nationalism haunting Europe, identity populism seems to capture the spirit of the age. 

“A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen” by Basharat Peer, a New York Times journalist who grew up in Indian Kashmir, is a slim but illuminating book exploring the parallels between Erdoğan’s Turkey and Modi’s India. 

Peer spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about reporting for the book (reviewed in HDN here), modernization and secularism in Turkey and India, and comparisons between the Kashmir and Kurdish issues.

How and when did you get the idea of writing a book about the direction of these two countries?

I was working in India, writing for various magazines and thinking hard about Modi. I was thinking of doing a whole book about majoritarian politics in India. The rise of Modi was a seminal event in the modern political history of India. There was this man with an extremely controversial past who nobody thought could be prime minister. But he made his moves very well and the old elite was dysfunctional, crumbling and corrupt. Modi was a new challenger who came from one of the richest states, Gujurat, and gave this sense that he was a very competent administrator who knew how to make India shine. But there was blood on his hands: The allegations of his involvement in the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in Gujurat. It was the biggest televised pogrom in contemporary India and it happened under Modi’s watch. It was very troubling to see Modi gain acceptability, rising to power saying things like: "To run this country you need a 56-inch chest." He had a sense of masculinity and vigor and used his Hindu nationalist credentials to win votes. As all populists do, you use a target or an out group - an ethnic or religious minority that you don't like. In the Indian case it was the Indian Muslims.

One day I was talking to my old teacher at Columbia University, Nicholas Lemann, who was starting a new series of short books. We started talking about Modi and we realized that we were not just talking about one man, but a trend in this crisis of liberal democracy. Figures like Modi don't come from aristocratic origins. They come from the neglected periphery, from humble origins, but use their personal charisma and the historic moment they find themselves in, and often use majoritarian politics and a certain talk about love for the markets and corporate governance.

I grew up in Kashmir and the Turkish story is also one of the most famous stories in the Muslim world. The AKP story is also quite fascinating. The modern nation state of Turkey, the Turkish Republic, came into existence with the collapse of an empire, and was founded by the very charismatic Atatürk, who loved Western modernity and had this great sense that he wanted to transform his old society into a new way. He was one of the biggest proponents of European modernization. It was similar in India where you had the British Empire dying and India coming into being, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, who was also a great lover of European modernity. Atatürk was more influenced by the French idea of secularism; fortunately for India, Nehru was more influenced by the American idea of secularism, which is more accepting of religion and religious diversity.

India is 10 or 15 times bigger than Turkey, but there were other parallels too. They are both multiethnic societies with religious and ethnic faultlines. There is also discontent on the borders of both countries, with the Kurdish question in Turkey and the question of Kashmir, where I come from, in India. These populations on the periphery want to separate or get some degree of autonomy, and now have armed movements as well as non-violent politics.

Talk a little about this comparison between Kashmir and Turkey’s southeast.

Both are questions of ethnic nationalism and autonomy. When then-prime minister Erdoğan, when he first went to Diyarbakır in the mid-2000s, he famously said "the Kurdish problem is my problem." In some ways he went further than any other Turkish leader to solve the issue. It is a problem of part of the population not getting the rights it should, developing its own sense of nationalism, and using both violent and non-violent means to form a separate state or at least an autonomous unit within Turkey.

The Kurdish question also spills over into Iran, Syria and Iraq. But Kashmir is divided between just two states: India and Pakistan. The Kashmir issue started with the partition of British India into India and Pakistan. It didn't get resolved at that time. It was taken to the United Nations and there were resolutions that there should be a plebiscite to decide where the people of Kashmir wanted to go. But India and Pakistan both had to follow various conditions before the referendum could be held, and it never happened. 

I'm from the part of Kashmir under Indian rule, which never really reconciled to being under Indian administration. There was always discontent that the issue was never sorted. Kashmir had some sort of autonomy within India but by the late 1980s the Indian government destroyed whatever autonomy Kashmir had. That was when a new wave of young men started an insurgency in Kashmir to fight for independence. Thousands crossed the border into Pakistan to train as fighters, and that's how this war started. I was in high school at the time and grew up with that war. My first book, "Curfewed Night," is about the 1990s in Kashmir.

When I came to Turkey, it was funny because everyone spoke about the dark 1990s with regard to the Kurdish question. There were similar parallels with Kashmir: The disappearances, the curfews, the militarization. The difference I saw when I traveled to southeast Turkey was that Kashmir was far more militarized. I was driving once from Diyarbakır out of town, driving for almost an hour, and barely saw any military trucks on the road. In Kashmir you saw a soldier every one or two minutes, particularly in the 1990s. 

There’s a quote in the book: “The periphery might be ignored but it has a way of intruding upon the center. A nation’s illiberal practices on its borders do not remain isolated there. Using militant nationalism to beat up on peripheral populations often paves way for the rise of authoritarian figures in the center.” Talk about how that dynamic works in both countries.

This was very clear after the collapse of the peace process in Turkey in 2015. After military operations restarted in the southeast, I went to Sur in Diyarbakır, Silvan, and various other places. In Silvan after the operations, half of the town was a wreck, largely destroyed. I met this woman who said, "Did you come from Istanbul?" She was standing in the middle of her house, which was rubble. "In Istanbul you had some trees that they were going to cut down, and thousands of people came out," she said, talking about Gezi. "What about us? Look at my house, my neighborhood." And there's no way to argue with that. The sentiment I found there was, "Why are you really trying to talk to us? If you come from Istanbul, why have any sympathy for us?"

There are Turkish liberals and journalists who have told those stories, but there was a sense of being forgotten on the periphery and not being able to trust people from the center. I know the feeling because as a young boy in Kashmir, whenever I saw a journalist from New Delhi you didn't know how to trust them. You knew they would just go back to write what they wanted. That's kind of a universal question that a troubled, traumatized person from the periphery always asks.

As an outsider, you can see that this could be solved. There is a way out. You don't necessarily have to go on fighting forever. If there are some concessions on both sides, a path could be found. But the rise of polarizing, unrelenting political figures doesn't leave much hope that problems like Kashmir and the Kurdish question can be solved.

In both countries the current governments came to power on the wreckage of a discredited old order. Could you just expand on that comparison a little?

In some ways it’s human for a larger populace that might act more rationally in normal times. The AKP came to power after the "lost decade" in Turkey, with corruption, economic trouble, and the aftermath of the earthquake in Kocaeli in 1999. In India in 2014, Modi was running for office against the Congress party, which is the dominant party of the old elite with a long history of running India on secular principles. Back then the economy was going well but there was a lot of corruption. People were tired of this. They were also tired of the sense of dysfunction, the sense that the Congress party didn't care about people. The center was shaking and the establishment wasn't trusted, which Modi played on. He talked about being a strong man who would come on a white horse to fix these problems. He started talking about Pakistan and China. When I was reporting on his campaign in villages, people told me: "If Modi comes to power, the next time Pakistan kills one Indian soldier Modi will kill 20 Pakistani soldiers." He also used religious nationalism and dog-whistle politics against India's Muslims.

There’s a heady combination of religious motivation or resentment with the practical appeal of “getting things done.” 

Part of the appeal of the AKP was that they weren't just believers. They also got things done. You had both religious faith and the shopping mall. That's exactly what Modi says too. This combination of faith and commerce is quite deadly.

There was also a particular idea of secularism established by Atatürk in Turkey and Nehru in India. Today’s governments in both countries often characterize secularism as an alien, inauthentic import oppressing the “real people.”

There's a major difference between Indian secularism and Turkish secularism. In some ways I'm more comfortable with the older idea of American or Indian secularism. India is an 80-85 percent Hindu country, but its notion of secularism is that we will be at the same distance from all religions. In practice that never happens, but at least there is the ambition for the state to give equal citizenship. For me personally, that's the most important question - that the institutions of state will treat me no differently from anyone else.

I am quite troubled by Turkish and French-style secularism. I always felt that Turkish secularism was very oppressive, because I come from the other tradition. I was always sympathetic to people who were kicked around by this narrow idea of secularism. 

Today, in India the reaction to the notion of secularism comes from Hindu nationalists. They have a sense that there is a "secular elite," the Congress party, that looks down on Hindu nationalists who don't like Muslims. The Hindu nationalists are often from the periphery and are not seen as the best educated or most cultured people. In that sense there's an echo with Turkey, but the scale was different. 

But now things have changed. In Turkey, over the last 10 years you saw the emergence of religious Muslim businessmen driving SUVs and performing prayers. Something similar has happened in India too: The marriage between the elite and the Hindu nationalists. Twenty years ago, very few members of the Indian elite would touch Modi's BJP party. But now you see major industrialists, actors, filmmakers being comfortable with the idea of being a right-wing Hindu nationalist who loves money.

When you started the book these two countries perhaps looked like outliers, but now with this illiberal tide sweeping the West too they seem more like harbingers. 

While writing I had no idea that we would have the rise of a figure like Trump, or that people would start talking about illiberal democracy, strongmen and populism. Fundamentally I'm a reporter. What gives me greatest joy is to be able to make a living going to places and telling stories. So when I saw an opportunity to travel to Turkey as a reporter, the prospect made me very happy. I had no idea that I would be writing about what would become a dominant theme elsewhere. It was just down to chance.

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