About a century ago, the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, turned the country into a modern secular nation by separating religion from state. Turkey was transformed into a modern nation state from being the sick man of Europe. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling party have once again brought back the role of religion in state affairs and Turkey is now firmly saddled with political Islam placed center stage in its political life. It now serves as the justification for all kinds of policies.
And so, for instance, according to the Turkish President, Islam does not allow him to raise interest rates and consequently the Turkish Lira crashed to its lowest position in history. Turkey has a dangerously high inflation rate, yet according to him “As a Muslim, I will continue doing what our religion tells us.”
Last year, Ali Erbaş, the head of the state-run Diyanet organisation, or Religious Affairs Directorate, delivered the first sermon in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia after the Byzantine-era monument was reconverted into a mosque, from its previous status as a museum. He did so while clutching a sword, saying that this was traditional for preachers in mosques taken by conquest. The church was captured by Ottoman forces in 1453.
And so, in a visible manner, Erodgan has managed to join state and religion once again. Erdoğan is an Ertugrul-like figure in his own words and he is fully convinced of his own great wisdom. He was bitterly critical of Turkish businessmen who questioned his faith-driven economic policies. After the end of a cabinet meeting to discuss the disastrous fall of the Lira, he accused them of “scheming to topple the government” and assured that their hopes will be in vain. The secularist firewall of the 20th century, established by Ataturk and guarded by his successors, that has separated religion and government, as well as religion and education, has completely collapsed.
Erdoğan is just one example of an instance where a fundamentalist ideology gives the driving seat to emotion and the backseat to reason. Anything which the rulers believe to be religious injunctions become the driving force in all matters of the state – while reason and all principles of democracy are put on the back burner and all forms of criticism and dissent are classified as anti-religion and worthy of severe discipline.
Pakistan today is ruled by the PTI, headed by PM Imran Khan, whose ideological affinity with Erdoğan is notable. All state policies are now being formulated on the principles of religious injunctions. Foreign policy, economic policies and even the education policy is tailored on the basis of what the government sees as the demands of religion. The rupee is in free-fall, the stock market is declining, and inflation is high, but the government is concerned with increasing the religious content in the newly launched Single National Curriculum (SNC). It is hard to resist the thought that this new initiative by the government is likely to churn out an army of ignorant, bigoted, religious fanatics who will behave exactly in the way of the Sialkot Islamic vigilantes and the raging fires of religious extremism will be further stoked and fed by new recruits and obscurantist die hard believers.
The rupee might recover some day and the economy may improve. But this mad rush to impose a very particular interpretation of religion in all realms of life will certainly damage the very roots of the nation.
The Single National Curriculum itself is completely motivated by religious ideology and overloaded by religious injunctions – it is the brainchild of Imran Khan and has the capacity to turn our regular schools into what will effectively be seminaries. The existing syllabus in the country leaves a lot to be desired but this new adventure by the PTI regime will make rote learning much more prevalent than it is even now. Students will be forced to mug up great amounts of religious material and only a single textbook is specified for each subject. A student memorising selected parts of that book will be likely to be rewarded. In the academic world today, our students perform at an abysmal level much below that of students from India and Bangladesh and are nowhere in sight at international science and mathematics Olympiads, in most competitions of international level they perform very poorly. Our students from foreign examination systems like the O/A levels of Cambridge or the IB system are conspicuously better equipped for the contemporary educational system according to world standards. Pakistan is definitely well behind its neighbors in science and technology. We are woefully short of highly skilled scientists, engineers and technicians. Our software exports last year were only US $2 billion, in sharp contrast to India, for whom the figure amounted to $ 148 billion. Imran Khan has shown real pleasure in the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and has great admiration for Erdoğan of Turkey. He has praised the Talban for “breaking the shackles of slavery” and has offered complete amnesty to the Pakistani Taliban. He is a great fan of the Madrassah education system and has provided huge grants to some madrassahs in Pakistan. One fears that based on the policies being implemented by the PTI govt, our schools will soon be aping the Taliban type of education when the Single National Curriculum is fully implemented. According to an official notification, co-education in the Punjab schools will be eliminated to satisfy the religious ideology of the ruling regime.
In general, it indeed appears that Erdoğan and Imran Khan appear to be soul brothers both: bow down to the forces of obscurantism and religious fanaticism. Pakistan, in particular, cannot afford such adventures.
Imran Khan’s capitulation before the TLP and his patronage of the Taliban is an open secret. Pakistan can overcome its problems only and only if there is a strong will to be ruthlessly effective in rooting out the menace of religious fanaticism. When a country is in the vicious grip of religious zealots hell bent on imposing their religious agenda for political gains, the chances of any improvement are almost zero.