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Angela Tilby: The kind of revival best avoided

14 August 2020


A kite picturing the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, hangs from a store in in New Delhi, India, in preparation of Independence Day celebrations

A kite picturing the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, hangs from a store in in New Delhi, India, in preparation of Independence Day celebration...

VIEWERS of A Suitable Boy (BBC1, Sundays) will have seen a dramatisation of the violence that accompanied the siting of a Hindu temple next to a mosque shortly after Indian Independence. Last week, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, dressed regally in gold, laid the foundation stone of the long-promised Ayodhya temple, to mark the birthplace of Ram amid the ruins of a mosque destroyed in 1992.

This comes just weeks after the imam of the newly converted Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul (News, 24 July) proclaimed Turkey to be a Muslim nation, to the despair of the country’s Christians and secularists. We would be wrong to see these events merely as squabbles between different faith communities. Both were deliberate state-led religious provocations, a bid for an extension of their leaders’ power.

Mr Modi’s success is based on his constant assertion that India is a Hindu nation, modern India is destined to re-embody India’s ancient civilisation. This claim has justified the stripping back of Muslim protections and has been much opposed. It has flown in the face of India’s secular constitution, but Mr Modi has carried on regardless.

Turkey, too, is renouncing the secularism of Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern state. President Erdoğan appears to be looking for a cultural revival based on faith, a new golden age, reviving the glories of the Ottomans. But, while there has been protest from the West about Hagia Sophia, there has been little criticism of the Ram temple project. Professor Priyamvada Gopalin, in the Faculty of English at Cambridge, suspects that Western indifference stems in part from the colonialist legacy and in part from the way in which Hinduism has marketed itself to the West as a benign form of spirituality. While learning from yoga and mindfulness, we remain deaf to the more strident voices of Hindu nationalism.

But we all need to attend to the way in which other world leaders are ramping up their ambitions by appealing to the glories of the past. An article by Aris Soussinos in the website Unherd cites other examples: President Xi Jinping pointing to continuity between the modern Chinese state and ancient Confucianism; and Vladimir Putin promoting Russia as a unique civilisation grounded in Christian Orthodoxy.

Perhaps if we had truly embraced secularism, we would also be experiencing a religious revival, though not of the kind with which our religious leaders would be comfortable. It is hard to imagine our politicians goading the British Churches to support British expansionism post-Brexit. We have, it seems, learnt something from our shady past. Not for one moment have our national Churches showed the slightest interest in the agendas of our more right-wing parties. I believe that Nigel Farage tried at one point to attract a C of E following, but he failed. The C of E at least remains a sure defence against religious nationalism.

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