By Yasmeen Serhan
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has acted on his yearlong quest to restore the historic Hagia Sophia, once a Byzantine-era cathedral and museum, as a functioning mosque. Three thousand miles away, in India’s northeastern city of Ayodhya, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fulfilled a similar promise, last week laying the foundation for a new Hindu temple on the ruins of a 16th-century mosque where Hindus believe an ancient temple once stood.
Yet the transformation of these sites marks more than a simple manifestation of religious adherence. At its core, it represents a concerted effort by Turkey’s and India’s leaders to galvanize support from their religious and nationalist bases, even if doing so comes at the expense of their countries’ religious minorities. Even more fundamentally, it is changing how these two countries see themselves, demonstrating a simultaneous recasting of once-secular republics into fully fledged ethnonationalist states.
For the past six years of Modi’s premiership, and the nearly two decades of Erdoğan’s rule, both leaders have undertaken a systematic effort to remake their countries in their own image. For Modi, this has meant replacing the secular vision of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, with a Hindu-nationalist one—an effort that has culminated in a number of landmark decisions, including last year’s revocation of the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir; the imposition of a citizenship registry that risks rendering nearly 2 million people, many of whom are Muslim, stateless; and, most recent, the passage of a new law that bars people from three neighboring countries from seeking a path to citizenship if they are Muslim. For Erdoğan, this has meant replacing the secularizing reforms of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, with his own brand of Islamic authoritarianism—an effort that has involved the repression of minorities, crackdowns on perceived opponents, and the weakening of Turkish institutions.
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