My Malaysia ordeal shows how religion can fuse with populist nationalism to silence dissent

Ahmet T. Kuru, San Diego State University, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

Similarly, in many Muslim-majority countries, there was a tension between Islamists and nationalists. The Islamists pushed for traditional religious education and Islamic law, and emphasized global Islamic identity. Nationalists, however, modernized schools, established secular laws and stressed national identity.

This tension continued throughout the 20th century in Turkey, where nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded a secular republic in the 1920s. There was a similar struggle in Egypt between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalist military officers who built the republic under the leadership of secularist Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s.

Today, however, religious and nationalist forces are often political allies. For a decade, such an alliance has existed in Russia between the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and President Vladimir Putin. Laws punishing insults to religious feelings have been expanded, and Orthodox Christian values returned to school curricula.

Analysts define Kirill’s strong support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a reflection of the nationalist ideology they share.

In Turkey, the main religious authority is Diyanet, a government agency that controls mosques and pays the salaries of their imams. Although the Diyanet was established by Ataturk to serve secular nationalist policies, it has become an important pillar of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which mixes Islamism with nationalism. While Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party represents Islamism, its coalition partner for a decade, Nationalist Action Party, has an explicitly nationalist agenda.

In the Arab world, there was a wrangling between Nasser’s secular nationalist Egypt and the Islamic state of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and 1960s. No longer. Egypt, which has moved to Islamism with a constitution referring to sharia as the source of law since 1980, and Saudi Arabia, which has recently become less Islamist and more nationalist through Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms, are now regional allies.


What explains this transformation in the relationship between religion and nationalism? I believe that populism is the glue that brings them together.

Populists often claim that they are defending “the people” against both elites and minorities, especially immigrants.

Recently, populist nationalist leaders have used religious symbols to mobilize their followers. For example, in 2016, Putin established an Orthodox Cathedral in Paris on the banks of the Seine River, near the Eiffel Tower. And in 2020, Erdogan declared the Hagia Sophia a mosque again – it had been a church for over a millennium until the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and a mosque for about 500 years until Ataturk made it a museum.

Most recently, on Jan. 22, 2024, India Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a Hindu temple in Ayodhya on the site of a mosque that had been built in 1528 but violently destroyed in 1992 by Hindu radicals, after a century of controversies over the land.


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