Sign Up

Dismantling Global Hindutava

The extremes of the political spectrum are crushing the political center and breeding radicalism

October 20, 2021

Close up of Narendra Modi

There is controversy over a “Dismantling Global Hindutava” conference that targeted a politically charged expression of Hindu nationalism.

The conference was co-sponsored by 53 American universities, including Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers.

The questions raised in that context go far beyond the anti-Muslim discriminatory policies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and ruling party.

Deteriorating civility

The conference — and the responses to it — highlight a debilitating deterioration in the past two decades, especially since 9/11, of the standards of civility and etiquette. This deterioration jeopardizes civil, intelligent and constructive debate.

This, in turn, allows expressions of racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

The campaign against the conference appeared to have been organized predominantly by organizations in the United States with links to militant right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, including some with a history of violence.

Hinduism, Hindutava or Hinduphobia?

Organizers of the conference insisted that they distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutava. The latter is Mr. Modi’s notion of Hindu nationalism that enables discrimination against and attacks on India’s 200 million Muslims.

The distinction failed to impress critics. They accused the organizers of Hinduphobia.

Violence threatens an academic conference

Some critics charged that the framing of the conference demonstrated a pervasive groupthink in academia and an unwillingness to tackle similar phenomena in other major religions, particularly Islam.

The conference’s most militant critics threatened violence against conference speakers and their families, prompting some participants to withdraw from the event.

Has there been equal criticism of Islam?

Opponents of political Islam noted that Western academia has not organized a similar conference about the politicization of that faith.

Yet, powerful states like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have lobbied Western capitals against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Turkish and Qatari supporters. They have had notable successes in France, Austria, Belgium and Britain.

The problems with targeting political Islam

Academia was likely to have been hesitant to tackle political Islam because Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia.

Moreover, perceptions of political Islam, are far more complex and convoluted. Islam is frequently conflated with political expressions and interpretations of the faith that run a gamut from supremacist and conservative to more liberal and tolerant.

Perceptions of political Islam also lump together groups that adhere to and respect the election process with ones that advocate violent jihad.

2013: Political Islam’s alleged swansong?

Scholars and analysts declared an end to political Islam’s heyday with the military coup in Egypt in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother, who had been elected president in Egypt’s first and only free and fair election.

Political Islam’s alleged swan song loomed even larger with this year’s setbacks for two of the most moderate Islamist political parties in Tunisia and Morocco. In addition, Turkey may restrict activities of Islamists operating in exile from Istanbul.

Al-Qaeda stepped out of a far-right fever dream

Scholar Cynthia Miller-Idriss’s assessment of the impact of Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States is equally true for India or Europe.

“In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the rise of violent jihadism reshaped American politics in ways that created fertile ground for right-wing extremism. The attacks were a gift to peddlers of xenophobia, white supremacism, and Christian nationalism. As dark-skinned Muslim foreigners bent on murdering Americans, Al-Qaeda terrorists and their ilk seemed to have stepped out of a far-right fever dream,” Ms. Miller-Idriss said.

“Almost overnight, the United States and European countries abounded with precisely the fears that the far-right had been trying to stoke for decades,” she added.

Separation or regulation of religion?

Scholar Sumantra Bose attributes the rise of religious nationalism in non-Western states like Turkey and India to the fact that they never adopted the Western principle of separation of church and state.

Instead, they based their secularism on the principle of state intervention and regulation of the religious sphere. As a result, the rejection of secularism in Turkey and India fits a global trend that conflates a dominant religious identity with national identity.

Far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists: Victimhood

Sarah Kamali, the author of a recently published book that compares militant white nationalists in the United States to militant Islamists, notes similar patterns while drawing parallels between far-right xenophobes and militant Islamists.

Militant Islamists’ “sense of victimhood is similar to that of their White nationalist counterparts in that [it] is constructed and exploited to justify their violence… Both mutually – and exclusively – target America for the purpose of claiming the nation as theirs and theirs alone, either as a White ethno-state or as part of a global caliphate,” Ms. Kamali writes.

Similarly, the Taliban defeat of a superpower energized militant Islamists, as well as proponents of Hindutava.

Islamophobic narratives spun by Mr. Modi’s followers gained new fodder with the assertion that India was being encircled by Muslim states hosting religious extremists.

Modi aiding jihadist groups

“Modi is essentially helping the recruitment of…jihadist groups by taking such a hard, repressive line against the Islamic community in India, who are now being forced to see themselves being repressed,” said Douglas London, the CIA’s counter-terrorism chief for South and South-West Asia until 2019.


The irony is that, as so often, it is the extremes of the political spectrum that often reinforce each other, whether it is white nationalists and militant Islamists or Islamophobic Hindus and regimes in conservative Gulf states, that see political Islam as a threat to their survival.

The political center gets crushed or torn apart in the process. The risk is a destructive vicious circle that breeds radicalism, fracturing of society and violence rather than the building of bridges.


A deterioration of civility since 9/11 jeopardizes debate and allows racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attitudes to become mainstream.

Islamophobia is far more prevalent than Hinduphobia. Perceptions of political Islam are also far more complex and convoluted.

Perceptions of political Islam lump together groups that respect the election process with ones that advocate violent jihad.

Religious ultra-nationalism and religious ultra-conservatism are often mutually reinforcing.

Non-western nations like Turkey and India chose the regulation of religion by the state, rather than the separation of religion from the state.

Modi is helping the recruitment by jihadist groups by taking a hard line against the Islamic community in India.