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HomeGeopolitical CompassWest & Centeral AsiaCivilizational Exceptionalism in International Affairs: Making Sense of Indian and Turkish Claims

Civilizational Exceptionalism in International Affairs: Making Sense of Indian and Turkish Claims

Authors: Sebastian Haug and Supriya Roychoudhury

Affiliation: Not Mentioned

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: March 6, 2023/UK

Type of Literature: Analysis

Number of Pages: 19


Keywords: Civilizational Exceptionalism, International Affairs, India, Turkey, Authoritarianism



The article argues that claims of civilizational exceptionalism have long been a feature of states’ engagement in international affairs. While scholarly attention has shifted away from Western powers’ civilizational claims, few studies have thoroughly examined specific cases or compared these claims with those of other states. Therefore, this article offers a comparative analysis of how and why India and Turkey are positioning themselves as civilizational forces in global forums and international cooperation initiatives.


Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, India has expressed civilizational framings through the discourse of Hindu internationalism. In contrast, successive governments under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey have linked their engagement abroad to the legacies of the Ottoman Empire. Despite differences in their civilizational antecedents, both India and Turkey draw on moral superiority and responsibility to legitimize their assumed exceptionalism on the international stage. For example, India positions itself as the “world’s guru” or vishwaguru, while Turkey refers to itself as dünyanın vicdanı or “the world’s conscience.”


India’s historical claims to civilizational exceptionalism have emphasized the superiority of Indian spirituality over Western materialism. While Nehru and Gandhi advocated for inclusive and pluralistic interpretations, the Hindu Right prioritizes Hinduism as the defining aspect of Indian civilization. Under Modi’s leadership, civilizational rhetoric combines secular-pluralist elements with the belief in Hinduism’s supremacy, subtly influencing international discourse. The increasing portrayal of India as a Hindu-led civilization is reflected in the engagement of high-ranking Indian officials, including Prime Minister Modi, on the global stage. Through tacit messaging and the use of Hindu symbolism, such as references to Hindu philosophy and language, the Modi administration promotes a Hindu-centric notion of Indian national identity. This allows them to assert a particularist worldview while maintaining plausible deniability of a Hindu nationalist agenda.


India’s promotion of itself as a Hindu civilization is evident in its development cooperation efforts. Initially focused on challenging North-South norms, India’s assistance to other countries gained visibility since the early 2000s. Under Modi’s leadership, there has been a shift towards incorporating Hindu spirituality and religion, such as yoga and Ayurveda, as tools for addressing global development challenges. These practices, including the promotion of “Hindu science” during the COVID-19 pandemic, aim to emphasize India’s Hindu credentials and connect them to its international aspirations.


In Turkey, the question of civilizational belonging has been a central theme in national identity debates, particularly regarding Turkey’s position in the East and/or the West. Traditionally, the Islamic faith and the historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire were the primary references for Turkey’s civilizational identity. The Ottoman Empire, from the thirteenth to the twentieth century, ruled over a vast territory, with the sultan serving as both the political and religious leader. With the capture of Constantinople in 1453, renamed Istanbul, it was often regarded as one of the world’s major “centers of civilization.” The empire held significant power and exerted colonial-like control over territories extending from Algeria and Yemen to Hungary and Ukraine.


During its zenith, the Ottoman Sultan also held the title of caliph, claiming leadership over the entire Muslim world. However, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, both the sultanate and caliphate were abolished. The newly established Republic of Turkey, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, intentionally distanced itself from its Ottoman and Eastern heritage, embracing Westernization instead. While nationalist voices occasionally invoked notions of Ottoman Turkishness, references to the Ottoman past were scarce in mainstream politics during the early years of the republic.


However, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a growing trend among political forces, including Prime Minister and President Turgut Özal, to emphasize Ottoman customs and connections in Turkey’s domestic and international representations. When the AKP, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, came to power in 2002, it further revitalized the focus on Turkey’s Ottoman heritage. As a socially and religiously conservative party, the AKP challenged the strong secularization of Kemalism and emphasized Muslim values and practices, often coupled with a romanticized portrayal of the glorious Ottoman past.


Under the leadership of the AKP, Turkey has actively pursued a strategy of emphasizing its civilizational heritage on the global stage. One notable initiative in this regard is the UN Alliance of Civilizations, co-sponsored by Turkey and Spain in 2005. The Alliance serves as a platform for intercultural and inter-religious dialogue, aiming to bridge divides between the Islamic world and the West. It operates through various mechanisms such as awards, fellowship programs, and festivals, engaging media and youth representatives to address a wide range of issues including education, migration, and peace mediation. While criticism has been raised regarding the Alliance’s emphasis on the Abrahamic religions, it is generally regarded as an important attempt to foster dialogue and understanding among different cultures and religions.


President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has strategically utilized references to the Alliance of Civilizations to assert Turkey’s significance and advocate for its place in the international arena. He has argued that without Turkey as a member, the European Union would become a “Christian club” and that Turkey serves as a crucial bridge between civilizations. Domestically, Erdoğan has portrayed Turkey as the leader of a neo-Ottoman version of Muslim civilization, invoking a sense of national pride and identity rooted in the historical grandeur of the Ottoman Empire. This narrative has faced challenges but has resonated with a significant portion of the Turkish public, particularly those who embrace a populist approach to domestic and foreign policy.


On the international cooperation front, Turkey has expanded its relationships with neighboring countries and Muslim-majority nations. In doing so, it has utilized international development assistance as a means to present itself as a compassionate and responsible power. The Turkish government has positioned itself as a “helping hand” or “shelter” for those in need, drawing on a neo-Ottoman framing of Muslim charity and solidarity. This portrayal is often contrasted with perceived self-serving practices of Western countries. The concept of dünyanın vicdanı (the world’s conscience) has become a popular slogan used by politicians and government spokespersons to highlight Turkey’s benevolent actions, such as hosting Syrian refugees and providing infrastructure support to nations like Somalia and Palestine. By framing itself as the world’s conscience, Turkey seeks to project an image of moral leadership and global responsibility.


India and Turkey share striking parallels in their claims to civilizational exceptionalism. Both countries rely on historical references to establish their cultural and moral superiority. In India, ancient traditions like yoga exemplify the country’s cultural supremacy, while Turkey evokes the Ottoman empire’s generosity to showcase its benevolence and commitment to humanitarian support. Religion plays a central role in defining their civilizations, with Hinduism in India and Islam in Turkey serving as instrumental tools to assert superiority and cater to domestic audiences. These claims to exceptionalism are used to legitimize international leadership and overcome historical marginalization.


Both India and Turkey distance themselves from Western powers dominating the global status quo, addressing postcolonial or post-imperial heritage. India’s anti-colonial movement emphasized the superiority of eastern spirituality, countering Western imperialism’s civilization project. The Republic of Turkey, as a successor state to the Ottoman empire, has increasingly invoked Ottoman legacies to challenge Western powers’ practices. As India and Turkey gain global influence, their claims to civilizational exceptionalism become integral to challenging established hierarchies in international affairs. India seeks to reform the UN Security Council to translate its size and economic relevance into political power, while Turkey aims to overhaul existing institutions and pursue strategic autonomy. By presenting themselves as morally or spiritually advanced leaders, India and Turkey position themselves as alternatives to self-serving and corrupted powers in the world.


Based on the analysis of India and Turkey, this article reveals the use of civilizational exceptionalism in international affairs. Both countries assert civilizational claims rooted in religion and historical narratives to overcome marginalization and reinforce authoritarian rule. The rise of such claims among non-Western states reflects a desire to break free from postcolonial and postimperial legacies. Civilizational claims serve various functions within electoral political systems. Further research could compare authoritarian systems like China with India and Turkey. The analysis emphasizes the significant role of civilizational claims in shaping political agendas and domestic power dynamics. It highlights the need for nuanced empirical evidence and a move away from sweeping generalizations when discussing civilization states. While exclusivist and nationalist claims prevail, there is potential for more inclusive formats, embracing post-national and postcolonial civilizational pluralism. Ultimately, understanding how ideas of civilizational belonging shape local and global social interactions is a key inquiry.


By: Ruby Clayton, CIGA Research Associate



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