Updated: Sep 22, 2021
Unknown Venetian artist, The Reception of the Ambassadors in Damascus, 1511, Louvre.
One of the least understood aspects of the global order today is the transformation happening in Islamic societies. A most striking insight into this has been written by Cato Institute Senior Fellow Mustafa Akyol. He points out that in Turkey, the government is increasingly worried about (and is trying to suppress reports of) the spread of ‘deism’.
Now what is deism? It is defined as “natural religion, the acceptance of a certain body of religious knowledge that is inborn in every person or that can be acquired by the use of reason and the rejection of religious knowledge when it is acquired through either revelation or the teaching of any church”.
For anyone who has done any serious study of Eastern faiths, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, this is a guiding principle that is easy to recognise.
Turkey is not the only place this is happening in the Islamic world. The process has been steady, for instance, in Iran, and even in parts of the Middle East, where atheism is considered a violent crime, there are have been reports of growing disenchantment with organised religion. Such secular trends are creeping up across the Muslim world from Jordan to Syria. In Sudan, after years of strife, a new government has moved away from a sharia-based system of government to a secular one.
Whether that is true or not remains to be seen. But it needs to be seen along with the strategic impetus that led to two Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, normalising ties with Israel. The question in the Arab world now is, since Bahrain would have never signed on without a green light from Saudi Arabia, how long before the Saudis and others sign on? It, many believe, is merely a matter of time.
The moral of the story is that the most powerful countries in the Muslim world are changing – some because they can see an end to the fossil-fuel driven world, some because their security needs are urgent, as the need to make an economic transition from being oil-driven to entrepreneurship-driven, and some others because they can sniff the change in the mood of their population.
This is a moment of opportunity for India. The economic reason for this is obvious – India has the market size, cost effective technology, including some in missile technology, ecosystem of entrepreneurship, and digital tech prowess across massive scale.
As radical as it may sound within traditional frameworks, India also has philosophies, traditions, age-old practices, and spiritual techniques to offer to those who seek to escape the boundaries of organised religion for inner journeys. India’s long-held traditions could be the societally non-disruptive answer that many might be seeking in these societies – the growing popularity of yoga in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Muslim world, including in Afghanistan, is to be noted. Now is the time to offer, from India’s side, open-minded and welcoming philosophies and lifestyle practices that are, importantly, focussed on helping usher inner change and not force external habits.
In recent years, due to pro-active engagement led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s ties in the Middle East have grown exponentially. There has been a break away from old paradigms that imagined these ties to be connected to internal sectarian politics in Kashmir and elsewhere.
Despite considerable concerns of some analysts, India has successfully been able to balance its ties with Israel and the Gulf nations. There had been some forecasts that this balancing act would be difficult and would impact, even change, India’s domestic politics. In the latest count, it is the Middle East’s politics that seem to be changing, and not India’s.
Sovereignty concerns of India are today better understood and better accommodated. These are not small changes. This could well be the start of a new era. For the simple reason that political change is moving side-by-side in this region with intricate societal churning.
As a trusted partner both of Israel and the Gulf nations, and indeed America, the propellant in the recent peace deals in the Middle East, India could emerge as a useful mediator. It is already a friend, and a guide when needed, it could also be a philosopher on call.