Overview:

No country's politics exist in isolation, even if the West is barely aware of recent surges in ethno-religious violence for 1.4 billion in India. We forget the role of global politics in fomenting regional hate groups to our peril, and to everyone's greater loss.

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Although I never needed to “deconvert” from a religious tradition, I was fascinated by New Atheism’s debate circuits at the turn of the century: The eloquence of its speeches. All those witty rejoinders. The rallying of knowledge from a range of disciplines to out-fact an opponent. It was easy to fall prey to the idea that this was the height of rationalist exercise, and I did. But my fascination fell away when I realized the extent to which prominent atheists were replicating the cultural prejudices of their Christian opponents when it came to Islam and Muslim peoples. As OnlySky‘s Eiynah wrote for Flux Magazine, “Joining hands with Christian nationalists to own the libs makes a certain kind of sense … [b]ut it’s definitely not atheist activism.” And yet, this nationalist conservative turn dominated our early twenty-first century atheist discourse, just as it did so many other spheres of sociopolitical influence.

The causation is obvious. The consequences? Perhaps less so.

In October 2001, future Indian prime minister Narendra Modi became chief minister for the state of Gujarat, where he and his staff played a critical role in a massive anti-Muslim riot the following February. The 2002 Gujarat Riots saw thousands of Muslims killed in early days, and tens of thousands more ghettoized in ensuing weeks and months.

But the Western world hardly noticed, because in September 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists had carried out four suicide attacks on US soil, also killing thousands. This triggered what would be a decades-long war for “Western civilization”, bolstered in large part by the outsized role of Evangelical Christianity in US politics. And that war on terror, in giving the US and its allies self-determined sanction to invade or otherwise increase military presence in multiple Middle Eastern countries, would join with Syria’s disastrous 2011 Arab Spring to drive waves of Muslim refugees to Europe. In turn, this mass exodus would set off the resurgence of neo-Nazi, white nationalist, and otherwise fascist groups, all reinforced by pre-existing economic precarities and cultural biases.

By the time Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained their fortified 2019 mandate of 353 coalition seats in India’s 543-seat Lok Sabha, the white-Western world had built almost two decades of foreign and domestic policy around a rallying incident that made it easy for politicians to codify (brown) Muslims as an existential threat. This threat gave the US government especially license to expand domestic surveillance alongside its military industrial complex. It also normalized xenophobia around border security, invited right-wing groups to cultivate political capital around other immigrant issues, and increased distrust of Muslims, especially among Republicans. In 2002, only a quarter of the US population (23% Democrat, 32% Republican) thought Islam more dangerous than other religions. In 2021, 72% of Republicans held this view.

And if Western military action only exacerbated Middle Eastern precarities and worsened radicalization? No matter. Blame could still be set squarely at the feet of Islam itself, as the “instigator” of this war on terror, irrespective of the US’s role in creating Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the first place. Even as Christian nationalist groups surged in Europe and the US, this narrative of Islam’s singular culpability in global violence, and singular incompatibility with democracy, equality, and progress, impressively abided.

Our last two decades could have gone differently. Crusaderism from US Evangelical Christianity, I expected. But atheists had an opportunity, and a platform in the first decade of a new century, to lead differently amid the huge uptick in ethno-racialized violence after 9/11. There was a chance for us to part ways with a notion of Western supremacy strongly informed by religious belief and its past imperial projects.

We didn’t take it. Maybe couldn’t, granted, without facing accusations of being “pro-terrorist” or otherwise besmirching the memory of those who died on or from 9/11.

Either way, though, New Atheism’s reinforcement of Evangelical Christian culture wars now serves as a sharp and necessary reminder that we can all so easily fall prey to harmful trends. And think ourselves rational while doing so.

In reflecting on the creation of our currently hurting world, it’s important to remember that none of us is as removed as we think from dehumanizing social rhetoric.

No perfect observers

In Part 1 of this series, I explored the danger of reducing India’s fascist problem to one man, PM Narendra Modi. In Part 2, we moved through the explicit influence of historical Nazism on Hindu nationalist movements. In Part 3, our topic is broader: the global currents of influence that have made it easier for Modi, his political party, and wide swaths of self-styled Hindutva, Hindu extremists, to advance xenophobic, ethnophobic, nationalist, and traditionalist policies especially targeting India’s Muslim population.

Fascistic tendencies can be seen, after all, in a host of other leaders’ platforms and policies. President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Former US president Donald Trump. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hungary’s president, Viktor Orbán. And these are just the leaders most often mentioned alongside Modi, as promoting nativist projects hostile to minorities or other declared enemies of the state. Then we get into the highly racialized but also imperialist projects of China under Xi Jinping and Russia under Vladimir Putin, and the less racialized, but also more nationalist dictatorships of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. The world is… not doing that well right now, where democratic action is concerned.

And it’s easy to see why the comparison of prominent leaders would be such a compelling exercise for political analysts, too. There is a clear role to be played, say, by one world leader lending his support and fanbase to another’s policies. In 2019, for instance, Modi came to the US to speak at a Trump rally in Texas. Modi was looking to smooth international waters after a contentious decision to strip the 97-percent-Muslim state of Kashmir of its protected status, to allow for more Hindu settlement in the region. The local military presence and internet blackout needed to suppress dissent, along with tragedy among Delhi protestors, had alarmed world watchers. A more compelling and internationally palatable narrative would surely help.

The narrative Modi chose isn’t surprising. Referring to India’s ongoing territorial struggles with Pakistan in Kashmir, Modi asked the Indian-American crowd: “Whether it is the 9/11 attack in America or the 26/11 attack in Mumbai, where are its conspirators found? … The time has come for a decisive fight against terrorism and those who support terrorism. I want to stress here that President Trump is standing firmly against this.”

And the president agreed in his own remarks: “We are committed to protecting innocent civilians from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism.”

When the two met again, this time in India in 2020, two reputations benefited from what was identified in media as a political “bromance”. Trump had just emerged from an impeachment process, into an election year where a show of international efficacy would prove useful. Modi, meanwhile, was still managing fallout from his discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act, which excluded Muslims. Whereas even US Republican senators Todd Young and Lindsay Graham expressed concern over Modi’s actions in Kashmir, and human rights for India’s religious minorities, Trump and Modi are routinely remarked upon as similar in their nationalist agendas. As Trump said to the UN in 2019,

The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.

It is why we in the United States have embarked on an exciting program of national renewal.  In everything we do, we are focused on empowering the dreams and aspirations of our citizens.

Remarks by President Trump to the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly

But it’s also a touch misleading to focus, as so much news analysis of world leaders does, on the alignment of individual state representatives. While the allure of analyzing personality types is palpable, it can easily play into the very strongman mythology such journalism ostensibly seeks to deconstruct, and distract from a deeper understanding of the cultural groundswell that underpins each context. Modi, for instance, holds staggeringly high approval ratings in India. At 77 percent as of early May 2022, his closest “rival” for popularity in his national peer group is Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at 68 percent. Less extremist Western democracies, with their stronger prioritization of dissent, rarely entertain such high figures for so long.

So when Western media chooses to write on specific international alliances, as if Modi “needs” to be chummy with other strongmen in order to succeed in his and the BJP’s domestic mission, a bigger point is often lost. Namely, that we live in a globalized world whether or not these nationalist leaders wish it. And that this means that a far broader cultural sanction of authoritarian, nationalist, and racist ideas reinforces manifestations of fascism in all its discrete instances around the globe.

In reflecting on the creation of our currently hurting world, it’s important to remember that none of us is as removed as we think from dehumanizing social rhetoric.

Ur-Fascism as a political aesthetic

Point in case: Fascism’s recent history didn’t begin with 9/11.

In 1995, Umberto Eco, the medievalist writer who grew up in Benito Mussolini’s Italy, wrote an analysis of how historical fascism was informing political discourse in his day, well before the world’s frenzied turn to an unlimited culture-war on terror. Eco was also a semiotician, so linguistic drift around the term “fascism” wasn’t a problem for him. It was, rather, the natural course of language over time. As new shared histories enter cultural consciousness, filled with their own narrative referents, they change the power and implications of existing terms. “Propaganda” goes from being a fairly neutral descriptor for media with a message, to a loaded and suspect one. Fewer people recognize “chauvinist” to refer to state fealty, and instead align it with boorish misogyny.

And “fascism”, as Eco reflected in 1995, has now come to fill an important semiotic niche, as a catch-all term that better describes the broadstrokes aesthetics of many different nationalist movements post-World War II. This was the maddening trick of allusion without full replication that I touched on in Part 2, and which we now extend to the global rise of nationalist extremism: How related groups all benefit from the ease of gesturing at fascist iconography to gain followers, and from the ensuing political pedantry that allows them to escape rigid definition as a problem. “Oh, they’re just Hitler fanboys, not ‘real’ fascists.” “It’s saffron supremacy in India, not white supremacy: completely different phenomena!”

The problem is, this contemporary understanding of fascism, as a highly effective rallying tool for economically and culturally demoralized citizens in a wide range of worldly contexts, still needs a robust definition. I offered a general framework at the close of Part 2, which highlighted the role of strongman leadership, control over media, the cultivation of nostalgic national myth, and a return to traditional-family and personal-hygiene values to depopulate the public sphere as a site of political action.

But Eco’s fourteen components of Ur-Fascism are, unsurprisingly, more comprehensive.

These components are: 1) the cult of tradition, 2) the rejection of modernism (not to be confused with a rejection of its tech), 3) the call to action for action’s sake, 4) the treatment of disagreement as treason, 5) a fear of difference (since difference breeds disagreement), 6) the appeal to a frustrated middle class, 7) obsession with an outsider plot to disrupt birthright inheritance, 8) a pathologizing of the enemy as powerful enough to humiliate but also pathetic enough to be defeated, 9) the idea that life is permanent warfare, 10) contempt for the weak, 11) the cult of heroism and heroic death, 12) machismo, and its intrinsic disdain for women and effeminate homosexuality, 13) selective populism, a work of public theatre guided by a strongman who appoints himself as interpreter of the masses, and 14) the use of Newspeak, a reduced and relentlessly disseminated vocabulary of simplistic terms supplanting nuanced discourse.

Probably, as you moved through that list, you recognized certain definitional elements in relation to other movements closer to home. Maybe not all, for each, but enough. And that is precisely the point. We are not exactly living in democratic times (if humanity ever was), so it’s very easy for many groups to check off a few of the aforementioned boxes, and be met with extreme unease, or even flat-out accusations of “fascist” tendencies.

Meanwhile, folks who resonate with aspects of this list might get defensive when a speaker or party they enjoy is mentioned in the same sentence as “fascism”. What’s wrong with wanting more traditional family values, they might ask, and in thinking that if more people were married with kids the world would be a better place? Or with wanting to focus on self-improvement and a return to a masculinity one can be proud of? Why shouldn’t they listen to a party speaking to their economic precarity, they might wonder, when their birthright on this land came with certain promises of entitlement to success?

One of the most important ways that we can begin to combat the rise of Hindu extremism and fascist policies in India under the BJP is by recognizing the spectrum of nationalist and traditionalist beliefs on which fascism has always operated. (Always will operate, too, even if we do manage to turn the tide on this one, terrible instance of the threat.)

And while it’s ever so easy to look at US far-right Christian groups today as obvious box-checkers for facets of Eco’s Ur-Fascism, we have to remember that nationalist conservativism can find reinforcement in many seemingly disparate societal pockets. Even New Atheists played into Evangelical-Christian culture wars of the early 21st century, swept up in the same “war of civilizations” rhetoric as the rest. And threads of the same, traditional chauvinism persist in rationalist and liberal circles today, too.

This is not to say that we’re all equally complicit. Quite the opposite: It’s to say that the rise of certain radical movements is so dangerous right now, so strongly tied to hateful public policies, that we cannot afford any quiet complicity through the endorsement of broader movements and ideas that only check off a few of these components.

Strongman leaders want us to believe that they’re the rightful interpreters of our political will. They’re not. But combating the harm they do in office, under the guise of various populist groundswells, requires us to far more carefully reclaim our own.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.