In the mega event ‘Howdy Modi’ at Houston, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi vowed in chorus to fight Islamic terrorism, although it was prefixed by ‘radical’. The posturing somewhat reminded us American political scientist, Samuel Huntington’s prediction made in 1996, in his controversial book, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order, where he hypothesised that in future, peoples cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict. That may not yet be entirely true, but two sets of reactions by countries led by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Malaysia — all Islamic, sadly come close to the prediction.
One, three Islamic countries Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia agreed to start a television channel to fight Islamophobia, and second, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Niger of the Contact Group of Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) called upon India to restore the status quo in Kashmir.
The idea of an international TV channel seems to be a direct reaction to Trump’s declaration, in Modi’s company, of war against Islamic terrorism. Leaders of some Islamic countries treat it as an affront to their religion, and according to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, the channel will correct misperceptions about Islam, and produce a series of films on Muslims to educate and inform the world on richness of Islamic history.
The second reaction was by some OIC members joined by India-friendly Saudi Arabia. The statement issued by the group was critical of New Delhi’s abrogation of Article 370 from Kashmir that had conferred special provisions for Kashmiris. It called upon India to, “rescind its unilateral illegal actions and reiterate its commitment to abide by the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions, provide assurances that it will not change the occupied territory’s demographic composition and not allow non-Kashmiris to acquire property or residency in the Valley, halt its human rights violations, repeal its draconian emergency laws, and withdraw its heavy military presence”.
The third reaction was by Erdogan, President of Turkey, and Mahathir, octogenarian Prime Minister of Malaysia who raised Kashmir issue in their respective addresses to the UNGA. Recep Tayyip Erdogan stridently remarked, “Kashmir remains besieged and eight million people are stuck in Kashmir despite resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council”. He stressed the only solution for “Kashmiri people” was through dialogue. Mohamad Mahathir said, “There may be reasons for this action but it is still wrong. The problem must be solved by peaceful means. India should work with Pakistan to resolve this problem. Ignoring the UN would lead to other forms of disregard for the UN and the Rule of Law”. In fact, he went on to say, “Kashmir was invaded and occupied”.
Both these leaders may have different drivers for such statements at UNGA in support of Pakistan. But the running thread is Islam to a great extent. Diplomatic observers suggest that Erdogan has reversed the modernising process in Turkey initiated by Mustafa Kamal Pasha in whose name New Delhi has a road, and has displayed neo-Ottoman ambitions. He wants to be the new “Caliph of Muslims”. Also, New Delhi has not seriously engaged Turkey in dialogue and diplomacy. Modi, an avid traveller, has not visited Turkey so far.
It is difficult to decode Mahathir’s belligerence on Kashmir. One could make a fair guess that his present coalition government is dependent on support from a Party run by people of Chinese origin. One of the junior ministers sounded very concerned about Kashmir as he told me, “Kashmir is a very serious issue, and China may weigh in”. I retorted that Beijing has already thrown its weight behind Pakistan on Kashmir. The Malaysian politics is complex, the present ruling collation members have come to power after 71 years in Opposition. They will like to retain it somehow.
It was only China before that supported Pakistan. Now we have Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Turkey, three major countries rallying behind ‘beleaguered’ Pakistan. One need not fathom deep to find the Islamic angle to it. As many Indians, mainly the BJP supporters, celebrated the gala event in Houston, Modi’s tango with maverick Trump might have left a bad taste in the mouth for many. Should we have concurred in communalising terrorism? It may be good for domestic audience for electoral purposes, but will it wash internationally with major Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The answer is no, as all Muslims are not terrorist, and all non-Muslims are not peace-loving.
At any rate, Indian diplomacy has gone into overdrive to contain the damage. The PMO has rushed the go-to man Ajit Doval to Saudi Arabia to assuage their hurt feelings, if any, and retrieve them to our side. As his wont, Modi has retaliated Erdogan and Turkey by courting all his main rivals. Soon after Erdogan’s statement in UNGA, Modi met the heads of States of Ankara’s rivals – Greece, Cyprus and Armenia, on the sidelines of the meeting.
He also met Greece Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose country is locked in a bitter dispute with Turkey over who should control islets in Aegean Sea. Greece also has been supporting Cyprus against Turkey and it has been blocking Turkey’s membership of the European Union.
Then Modi met Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and his Armenian counterpart Nikol Pashinyan — the countries which have issues to settle with Turkey. These meetings with Turkey’s two neighbours that have had long-standing issues with the country may be interpreted as a hint on how India may respond if Turkey continues with its pro-Pakistan stance.
Let us recall, Armenia maintains that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians within the Ottoman Empire from 1915 occurred as a result of exile policies implemented by the Committee of Union and Progress government of the time, and thus constitute genocide. Turkey accepts that massacres took place, but vehemently denies allegations of genocide.
Following a coup backed by Greece, Turkey invaded the northern front of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus in 1974, and has been the main backer of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only formally recognised by Turkey. Efforts to resolve the issue with involvement by UN and EU have failed in the past. During his meeting with Anastasiades, Modi reiterated, “India’s consistent support for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Republic of Cyprus”, a position which is certain to infuriate Erdogan.
Malaysia’s reaction is not known yet, except BJP’s social media asking people to boycott Malaysian goods etc and disparaging the oldest head of State in the world. BJP supporters say that Mahathir at this age of 94 seems to have lost his mental faculties and so on. These are emotional reactions. One should probe deeper why Malaysia went the Pakistan way.
To conclude, New Delhi needs to engage more with countries like Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. All the three have achieved a degree of decent development and are resource-rich. One need not alienate these by alluding needlessly and mindlessly to Islam. The ruling party’s domestic political imperatives need not be met at the cost of our national interest. BJP accused the Congress of appeasing Muslims in relation to Israel; it is doing the same by anti-Islamic rhetoric for domestic consumption. One just hopes it is being inadvertently done.
The writer is Prof. International Politics, JMI.