How the Ugly Spectre Of Turkish Imperialism Fans Islamophobia In Kerala

Hagia Sofia and Kerala's Cheramaan Juma Mosque

The space between us is the length of a fuse. It awaits fire.

— K.Satchidanandan

The opening of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul for Muslim prayers by the Erdogan regime has been compared in certain circles to the Ayodhya issue in India. Interestingly, in the Indian state of Kerala with sizeable Christian and Muslim populations, the event has found an echo, mostly through social media outlets, since the religious institutions have thankfully been reduced to skeletal capacities by the pandemic.

In an online portal, an article sans a byline appeared saying that those who supported the Erdogan regime, were “digging their own graves”. This went viral in politically correct networks. The article was purportedly written in response to another one written by a Thangal scion in the Indian Union Muslim League mouthpiece Chandrika supporting the Turkish move. But hardly anyone in their righteousness demurred about the “digging their own graves” remark and its invoking of the Rohingya exodus, the Srebreniça massacre and other tragedies across national and communal boundaries, with the underlying implication that any sort of assertion by Muslims, exemplified in the Turkish action, will inevitably be met with genocidal violence. This perhaps is true, given the decimation of Muslim societies in West Asia and elsewhere, but the article hardly attempts to empathize with the victims of those events of violence. The events in Ayodhya are also inevitably invoked in inverted fashion. The absence of fraternal feeling with the victims is glaring, since the controversy is invoked in its minoritarian context.

The inverted analogies with Ayodhya are again being drawn on communal lines, tracing the genealogy of Islamicate sovereignty to Turkey, Erdogan himself being compared to Babur as well as the right wing in India. But the vulpine logic here, lies in casting the victims in the Indian context along with the perpetrators in the Turkish one. `Indian minorities are answerable for Hagia Sophia. Why? See, this is just what has happened to you over here, won’t you ever learn your lesson?’, seems to be the tone that is sought to be set.

The victims themselves are blamed just as the shame in a lynching incident still lies with the victim and caste operates as an event horizon that nullifies the humanity of the outcaste victim. A rigorous analysis of power relations at both ends, Turkey and India, would have produced a nuanced understanding of religiously-motivated violence. The victim-blaming culture doubly prosecutes the powerless, first for being the victim, and then for wallowing in their masochistic self-pity. Giorgio Agamben, whose attempted theorization of the pandemic has drawn much ire from liberal circles, postulates that the Roman imperial conception of the ‘homo sacer’ devoid of any sovereign rights is applicable to the present-day world of refugees and disenfranchised. Rather than solidarity with the aggrieved, the event has fanned phobia and hatred.

Even independent observers and analysts had their judgement clouded by the communal fault lines. Thus, the majoritarian fundamentalism in Turkey was strangely invoked in the context of the minorities in India and their aspirations for dignity.

What would have ended up as an internecine wrangle among Malayali journalists trying to be sleuths and CIDs, escalated when the Turkish ambassador to India shot off an epistle in response to an editorial carried by a national daily and written by its foreign affairs editor. In his rejoinder, the envoy sought to defend actions of the Erdogan regime by citing a legal precedent in India. This gave an impetus to communal rather than power analysis of both events. The othering of Muslims has been so comprehensive that any invocation of the community can solely be in pathological contexts, either as maudlin victims or in the role of aggressors, neither deserving empathy and understanding. The spectre of neo-caste functions as an ethereal ether that swallows up the marginalized from the mainstream. The Slovenian thinker Slavoj Žižek in his debate with Jordan Peterson reminds us that the pursuit of a marginal position can be counter-productive. The narrative of political correctness in contemporary India often drives Muslims and other minorities into such a liminal status where they enter into perpetual conflict with each other in a time warp.

While the EU, whose casting out of Turkey fuelled the rising religiosity in that country, has mostly been nonchalant in its response to the Turkish action, the Eastern churches and Oriental Christian communities perceive the injustice as an act of usurpation. Along with other regions in the Indian Ocean-belt, including Sri Lanka, Indonesia and parts of Africa, the glacial internecine antagonism among Abrahamic persuasions has gradually been rising in Kerala also. In a globalized world, the conflicts in the middle-east, attempted decimation of Christian and minority communities like the Yazidis by terrorist IS, Lebanese civil war, occupation of Palestine by Israeli and the ongoing policies of the Trump administration have all aided in the setting up of this template of unmitigated mutual antagonism of an apocalyptic nature.

Evangelical movements, institutions and media that often played a significant role in the social scenario in places including Kerala during the colonial era, have inevitably stereotyped Muslims. The despicable attack by Muslim fundamentalists on a college teacher for alleged blasphemy perhaps served as the last straw. Ecclesiastical epistles invoking medieval animosities and the threat of miscegenation have hardly been helpful to the cause of communal amity. The Syrian Christians of Kerala would perhaps be that rare Indic group which despite a Semitic affiliation, retain their ‘caste’ status. The subaltern sections of the minority populace on the other hand, especially along the ecologically sensitive coastal region, have been divided on sectarian grounds and thus nurse grievances of appeasement. The Muslims of Kerala, with tenuous links at best to the Turko-Persian-Arab Islam, have frequently in the past found themselves castigated in that very context, including the liquidation of the erstwhile Caliphate by Kemal Ataturka century ago.

Even as Kerala aspires to modern forms of commingled and cosmopolitan existence, internecine fights and ‘organizational factionalism’ have made the Muslim community seem to regress into atavistic forms of tribal affinities. The flimsy agency that a remittance economy offers, has given minorities in Kerala some purchase power in the socio-political arenas of the state. The resounding resonance with which events happening at the edge of Asia are felt in distant Kerala is a woeful reminder of the ephemeral nature of that agency. The flickering spark that flies in from Constantinople might be too feeble to have any real impact on the ground, but it is a tinderbox that awaits activation all the same.

Various online fora that have abetted the emergence of a post-truth regime worldwide have been detrimental to the cause of subaltern minorities. In a heavily mediatized society like that of Kerala, the new normal is easily accepted with hardly any demurral, thus letting vicious ideologies of hatred inveigle themselves into a dynamic edifice of sociability and shared communal living. This engenders among other things, rampant misogyny and the caricaturing of the underprivileged in memes and other viral online platforms.