A man chanting songs with a dummy cow in the background during the Golden Jubilee
celebration of VHP - a Hindu nationalist organization on December 20, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Arindam Banerjee.

How has Hindutva populism blurred the line between caste and religion in Indian democracy?

Traditionally, caste and religion have been the two most prominent cleavages in India. Before 2014, upper-caste people used to identify strongly with the ideology of Hindu nationalism. However, the rise of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) and the socio-political mobilization of lower caste people happened during the same period, post-2014, and both received massive public support. It is no longer possible to separate populism from caste, religion, and democracy. Therefore, as Rahul Mukherji noted, Indian democracy is more about populism rather than welfare.

By Saurabh Raj*

One of the historic grounds in the world’s largest democracy and the traditional host of the Jay Prakash (JP) movement[1]—Gandhi maidan, Patna (state capital of Bihar, India)—was full of saffron flags and caps during the 2019 parliamentary elections. A 23-year-old young man who was holding a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag and had a locket of the Hindu lord Krishna around his neck was shouting, “Modi-Modi-Modi & Jai Shri Ram.”[2] India’s prime minister and the most popular leader Narendra Modi was just about to come on stage. This young man looked impossibly excited to see Modi for the first time. The name of this young boy was Rakesh Yadav (his first name has been changed). Yadav belonged to the “Yadav caste”—socially and politically one of the most influential and historically disadvantaged[3] castes in Bihar. 

Being a Yadav and cheering for Modi tells a lot about the shift happening in the socio-political landscape in India: this caste used to be traditional voters for their caste group leader, like Lalu Yadav. Any political scientist would have been surprised to see that many youths like Rakesh Yadav from the Yadav caste would have shifted their political leaning towards Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD). Like any curious and politically active citizen, I asked Rakesh Yadav, “Why are you here? I mean shouldn’t you be at Tejasvi Yadav’s (the son of Lalu Yadav) rally?” He bluntly told me, “Bhaiya jaat-paat bahut dekh liye, ab desh aur dharam dekhna hai”—I am done with caste politics and now it’s time to focus on my religion.

His prompt answer was a surprise: caste has always been an integral part of the Indian political system, and most of the voters used to prefer only voting for their caste leaders. Nevertheless, Narendra Modi’s populist Hindutva[4] nationalism changed the caste calculus in Bihar to some extent; religion has become a wider political plank. One could not imagine that a Yadav would vote against Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party Rashtriya Janta Dal. Also, if someone would vote, she/he couldn’t afford to be vocal about this before 2014. 

Narendra Modi’s populist style of leadership has changed the socio-political equations in the world’s largest democracy. The line of caste has been blurred, and “caste populism” has been taken over by “Hindu nationalist populism,” at least with respect to electoral behaviour. This is one of the biggest shifts in Indian democracy we have witnessed. Before 2014, especially in North Indian states, caste played a primary role in voting behaviour; this has changed (Verniers, 2022). This article attempts to understand this shift and its implications for democracy in India, specifically through the lens of populism. The first part will discuss layers of populism, giving examples from the caste system to understand Hindu populism. In the second part, I will discuss caste populism and my focus will be specifically on the Yadav community. The third part will explain the rise of Hindu populism and its implications for Indian democracy. I will end by looking at the contemporary impact on democracy of these two cleavages.

Indian Democracy and Populism

Caste and religion are the two most prominent cleavages in Indian democracy. There are six main religions, around 3000 castes, and more than 25,000 sub-castes in India (BBC News, 2019). These groups were united under the same roof post-independence, in 1947; democracy was described as “perhaps the only mechanism to hold India together” (Mehta, 2017). Nonetheless, these cleavages have often influenced Indian democracy. The question of the rights of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (the lowest and the historically disadvantaged groups) was settled right after independence: they were granted reservation as a constitutional right. But the concerns of historically disadvantaged classes/castes—also known as Other Backward Classes, or OBCs[5]—and religious minorities were left unaddressed, as their demands for reservation were unfulfilled. Due to such diverse pluralism and these unaddressed concerns, populism has played a crucial factor in maintaining the existing social frictions in Indian democracy. Political parties, caste leaders, and religious groups are used as tools to mobilize one group against another. 

After the 1970s, historically disadvantaged class leaders started mobilizing and demanding their rights, and Yogendra Yadav called this “the second democratic upsurge” (Yadav, 1996). During this period, democracy had taken social root, and many unheard communities started speaking out. Nonetheless, community leaders also made it a battle between the “forward caste vs historically disadvantaged castes.” The Hindu-Muslim fight had already been an integral part of democracy. Therefore, it is difficult to separate the element of “populism” from caste, religion, and democracy. According to Rahul Mukherji, Indian democracy is more about populism rather than welfare (Mukherji, 2014). The author argues that post-independence policies cater to the electoral voter bank instead of promoting the equitable welfare of the masses.

Caste Populism and the Socio-political Rise of Yadav

The Mandal commission movement (a movement to demand reservation in government jobs for historically disadvantaged caste groups) was largely led by the Yadav community in Uttar Pradesh (UP) & Bihar during the 1980s. Leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav mobilized the historically disadvantaged classes (OBCs). After the successful implementation of the B.P. Mandal recommendations, (27 percent of central and state government jobs should be reserved for OBCs), the Yadav community suddenly emerged as a hero among the OBCs and lower caste people. In one of the largest states in India, Bihar, Yadav is the largest caste, with more than 14 percent of the population. 

Lalu Yadav founded Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) in 1997. RJD is an entirely Yadav caste-dominated political party, most prominent in Bihar. He mobilized Yadav, Muslims, and some other castes and formed a formidable equation to win elections.[6] He raised a popular slogan against upper caste people: “bhoora baal saaf karo” (Removing the Brown Hair)—a Hindi slogan referring to acting against upper castes[7]—to win elections. His populist rhetoric separated society into two separate groups: “the forward caste vs the historically disadvantaged caste.” His populist style of campaigning helped in the mobilization of the historically disadvantaged castes. He became the first OBC chief minister in Bihar, and the socio-political structure changed irrevocably. “When a caste captures the space in the political space as ‘samaj (society)’ is mobilized by a political party, rather than weakening the democratic process, it actually strengthens and deepens it” (Michelutti, 2020), and this is exactly what happened in Bihar. 

After becoming the Chief Minister of Bihar, Yadav gave special attention to the Yadav community and used democracy as a tool in their socio-economic uplift. The Yadav were given preference in government jobs. There used to be special wards for Yadavs in public hospitals, where they received free treatments. A caste that had been unheard of and unrepresented in Indian democracy since independence suddenly started ruling one of the largest states in India.

This would’ve been impossible without the Yadav’s electoral alliance with Muslims, forged during the 1990s. This was an important shift that changed the socio-political landscape of democracy in India. 

The political rise of Yadav also influenced other castes as well. Many lower castes started speaking out, and beliefs in Indian democracy deepened as the ‘elite capture’ of political spaces started disseminating and trickling down to the masses. Ram Vilas Paswan founded a Scheduled caste-dominated political party—Lok Janshakti Party—in 2002, and Nitish Kumar founded Janta Dal United—largely a Kurmi-based[8] party—in 2003. The power dynamics shifted from upper-caste people to historically disadvantaged castes.

Local people throwing flowers on Volunteers of Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) during march past in Vasundhara, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on October 19, 2018.

 

Hindu Nationalism and the New Caste Calculus

The Ram Temple movement[9] was a game-changer for India’s politics. This movement is partly responsible for the rise of both the BJP and Hindu nationalism. In a 1991 manifesto, the BJP promised to construct the Ram Temple to restore a symbolic righting of historical wrongs and to end the long and unhappy chapter of the supposed Muslim suppression of Hindus. Since the Ram Temple was highly sensitive, with a strong religious and emotional meaning, even non-BJP parties like the Indian National Congress, Samajwadi Party, and Bahujan Samajwadi Party, did not openly oppose the idea of constructing the temple on controversial land—even though many of those parties relied on Muslim electoral support (Rashid, 2021). Between 1989 to 1991, during the Ram Temple movement, the BJP saw the biggest jump in its vote share: it increased its stake 1.8 times, winning 20.1 percent of the vote nationally (Kishore, 2019). This made the BJP a national player in Indian politics and mainstreamed the sentiment of Hindu nationalism.

Nevertheless, despite its significant rise, the BJP was known as the party of Brahman and Bania (the upper and privileged caste groups of the Hindu community). Hindu nationalism was viewed as an upper-caste movement. The rise of Hindu nationalism and the socio-political mobilization of lower caste people happened mostly in the last decade (Jaffrelot, 2002). During the parliamentary elections in 2014, the BJP successfully mobilized non-Yadav historically disadvantaged groups’ votes in their favour, all while running on the plank of Hindutva. Under the umbrella of Hindutva, Narendra Modi played the ‘politics of presence’ card to attract other castes, many of whom felt unrepresented during the wave of caste populism. According to KM Panikkar, “many social groups earlier unaware of this political change suddenly realized their strengths…that even they can also come to power” (Mehta, 2017).

The image of Modi as a chaiwala (tea seller) who could become the Prime Minister resonated with the lower strata of society; he was their voice as opposed to the elite Congress which was caught in several scams in 2014. Many ‘backward’ castes like Kurmi, Koeri, Kushwaha, etc. could not get a share in power in the state or central governments. BJP tapped this unfulfilled desire and mobilized these castes against Yadav in the UP. The Lokniti-CSDS survey data suggests that this new social engineering of Hindu nationalism has worked quite well. BJP bagged over 40 percent of the OBC votes in the 2019 parliamentary election (Banerjee, 2018). BJP mobilized these castes against Yadav and Muslims, specifically on the plank of Hinduism, and united a more extensive section of castes under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism. For instance, the BJP’s main promise in 2014 was employment and everyone’s social and economic development (“Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas”). However, in 2019 the BJP’s main electoral agendas were aggressive nationalism (as there was high tension between India and Pakistan)[10], the construction of the Ram Temple, and the abrogation of article 370.[11] As per the study, Modi’s speeches focused on aggressive national security, and the vote share of the BJP increased by 4.6 percentage points in the home constituencies of soldiers killed in the India and Pakistan violence (Arya & Bhatiya, 2021). 

Hindus have rarely, if ever, been so united post-independence. This unity also influenced the Yadav community to some extent. Data from the Trivedi Political Centre, Ashoka University, suggests that the BJP-NDA alliance has more than 50 Yadav MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in their camp, which is around 23 percent of the total MLAs in the Bihar state assembly (Nissa, 2020). The major takeaway from this data is that Hindu nationalist populism has blurred the line of caste populism, and a large section of the population has started identifying more with religion than caste. I believe the Narendra Modi-led BJP understood the new aspirations of these social groups earlier than other opposition political parties. As many opposition parties, including the Indian National Congress, are seen as pro-Muslim parties, Modi establishes this narrative among the majority of Hindus in his electoral speeches (Rao, 2018). Therefore, they are able to form new social identities under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism.

New Power Dynamics and a Majoritarian Democracy

This new caste calculus has directly influenced the nature of Indian democracy, and I believe now all political parties want to dock with “the majoritarian horse” and mobilize Hindus against others. For instance, while all political parties used to appease Muslims for their votes, Muslims are now mostly ignored. This is also reflected in the Modi government’s policies like CAA-NRC[12], the abolition of article 370, etc. Recently, the Samajwadi Party leader and a very well know Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav said, “Lord Krishna comes in his dreams every night and tells that he will set up Ram Rajya (the rule of Lord Ram) in Uttar Pradesh” (Press Trust of India, 2022). By using the names of Lord Krishna and Ram together, even he is also trying to fuse Yadav and the entire Hindu community together for the coming UP state assembly election. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also started visiting temples across the country and claimed that he is a Kashmiri Brahmin (The Economic Times, 2018).

Changes in socio-political power relations and the expansion of democracy across the castes and communities have penetrated the Indian political imagination and have “begun to corrode the authority of the social order” (Khilnani, 1999). There should not be any debate in saying that democracy has changed the fate of many lower castes in India. Many unheard voices have been heard and shared in state power. But this current form of Hindutva nationalism’s populist politics has overshadowed other cleavages within Indian democracy like Muslims, Tribals, etc. Hindus have mobilized and have also started voicing their unheard historical pain[13] and grief against the imposition of “secular India” on them.

Nevertheless, what about those who have been left behind because of this democratic upsurge? What about the largest minority of the world’s largest democracy—a group currently living under fear and threat? If democracy is perhaps the only tool to hold India together, then why is it failing to provide a safe environment to other minorities like Muslims, Tribals, and women? I don’t know what the solution is. I am not sure whether there is a need for another democratic upsurge or not, but I firmly believe that the solution lies in democracy itself. As in the words of PB Mehta, “When we praise or blame democracy, we are often like the person looking for his lost key under the lamp post—not because he has lost it there, but because it is bright there.”

 


(*) Saurabh Raj is a student of M.A. in Public Policy & Governance at Azim Premji University, India. He was also a participant in ECPS Civic Leadership Program, in 2021. His area of interest is party politics, far-right populism, and electoral & democratic reforms. He has also work experience in political and democratic reforms for more than five years.


 

References 

— (2018). “’My gotra is Dattatreya, I am a Kashmiri Brahmin’: Rahul Gandhi in Pushkar.” The Economic Times.November 27, 2018. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/rahul-gandhis-gotra-is-dattatreya-he-is-kashmiri-brahmin-priest/articleshow/66820708.cms?from=mdr (accessed on October 6, 2022).

— (2019). “What is India’s caste system?” BBC News. June 19, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616 (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Arya, Y. & Bhatiya, A. Y. (2021). “The Salience of Political Messages: Evidence from Soldier Deaths in India.” SSRN Electronic Journalhttps://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3955198

Banerjee, A. (2018). “BJP goes all out for 41% OBC votes in 2019.” India Today. June 19, 2018. https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/bjp-goes-all-out-for-41-obc-votes-in-2019-1263850-2018-06-19 (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Desk, O. W. (2022). “Hindutva: The Growth of Violent Hindu Nationalism.” Outlook India. February 3, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/hindutva-the-growth-of-violent-hindu-nationalism/217969 (accessed on October 6, 2022).

Jaffrelot, C. (2002). India’s Silent Revolution (ed.). Columbia University Press.

Khilnani, S. (1999). The Idea of India (1st Ppbk Ed, 1999 ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kishore, R. (2019). “How the temple movement helped BJP.” Hindustan Times. November 15, 2019. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/how-temple-movement-helped-bjp/story-VXQd0EgOAwvY4RStFndbVN.html (accessed on October 12, 2022).

Mehta, P. B. (2017). Burden Of Democracy. India Penguin.

Michelutti, L. (2020). The Vernacularisation of Democracy. Taylor & Francis.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, R. C. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Mukherji, R. (2014). Political Economy of Reforms in India: Oxford India Short Introductions (Oxford India Short Introductions Series) (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

Nissa, B. A. V. G. U. (2020). “What does the caste profile of MLAs in Bihar tell us about politics?” Hindustan Times.November 16, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/bihar-election/what-does-caste-profile-of-mlas-in-bihar-tell-us-about-politics/story-OgMg2zkzFAWwdP9qQs2klK.html (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Rao, P. V., Jr. (2018). “How BJP & Congress play politics over Muslims.” The Asian Age. July 17, 2018. https://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/170718/how-bjp-congress-play-politics-over-muslims.html (accessed on October 6, 2022).

Verniers, G. (2022). “Role Of Caste in Elections.” Outlook India. February 3, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/role-of-caste-in-elections/295807 (accessed on October 6, 2022)

Yadav, L. P. (2019). Gopalganj to Raisina Road (Hindi Edition). Rupa Publications India.

Yadav, Y. (1996). “Reconfiguration in Indian Politics-State Assembly Elections, 1993-95.” In: Economic and Political Weekly: Vol. Vol. 31 (Issue Issue No. 2-3). 


Footnotes

[1] The JP (Jay Prakash) movement was against Emergency and the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government in 1975-77. It was the first nation-wide movement against the Indian National Congress post-independence.

[2] Lord Sri Ram is a mythological Hindu God, and the slogan “Jay Shri Ram” has become a war cry of the BJP against Muslims.

[3] I will be using “historically disadvantaged groups” to refer to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in this piece- 

[4] A modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India into a Hindu nation (Outlook India, 2022). 

[5] The Indian Constitution categorizes three classes in India – Forward/Upper caste, Other Backward Caste and Scheduled Caste and Tribes

[6] Electoral alliances between Muslims (17%) and Yadav (14%).

[7] BhooRa Baal represents four upper castes of Bihar – Bhumihar (Bhoo), Rajput(Ra), Brahman(Baa), and Lala(L).

[8] Kurmi is also one of the influteinal castes in Bihar after Yadav and they also belong to the historically disadvantaged class

[9] Ram is Hindu mythological god and Hindus believe that Ayoydhya was his birthplace, where Babri Mosque was built. Hindutva supporters demolished Babri Mosque in 1992. The case about Ram Temple eventually went to the Supreme Court of India. Recently, Hindus won the case, and the Ram Temple construction got a green light to proceed.

[10] A terrorist attack on an army convoy in Pulwama (Kashmir) in 2019 just a few months before the parliamentary elections of 2019. In response, the Modi government launched counter airstrikes in Balakot (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). 

[11] The 1954 presidential order constituted a founding legal document for Jammu and Kashmir (as it was a disputed land between India and Pakistan at that moment); Article 370 and 35A protected the exclusive law—such as the bar on outsiders buying property and women marrying non-Kashmiris losing their property rights—of the State. The Modi Government revoked this in 2019.

[12]  CAA stands for Citizenship (Amendment) Act (2019) that was passed in Parliament on December 11, 2019. The Modi government amended the Citizenship law to grant citizenship to religious minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh but not Muslims (Press Information Bureau, 2019).

[13] The narrative of the politics of Muslims’ appeasement. BJP claims that Congress was/is a pro-Muslim party. Hence, Hindus’ concerns were ignored by the Congress governments in the name of secularism. 

Chess-Map

‘Talk Series on Sharp Power’ jointly organized by ECPS, ADI and Deakin University

Sharp Power is a new concept that emphasizes the policy transition from “soft” to “hard” in a global/local context. The European Centre for Populism Studies (Brussels), in collaboration with the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization (ADI), and Deakin University (Melbourne), is proud to announce a new Talk Series on the topic of Sharp Power.

Registration

Public and cultural diplomacy are hugely employed by global powers to project their soft powers. In the hands of autocratic regimes, these concepts have been instrumentalized to serve autocratic interests. Such autocratic regimes have widely used the concepts of public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy to achieve their foreign policy objectives.

Sharp Power is a new concept that emphasizes the policy transition from “soft” to “hard” in a global/local context. Chris Walker and Jessica Ludwig defined sharp power as authoritarian influence techniques used by countries such as China and Russia that, while not openly coercive, are also not “soft.”

The European Centre for Populism Studies (Brussels), in collaboration with the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization (ADI), and Deakin University (Melbourne), is proud to announce a new Talk Series on the topic of Sharp Power. These series aim to explore and broaden the existing scholarship on ‘sharp power,’ an innovative and emerging field of research. 

Having found a gap between the concepts of hard- and soft-power, scholars from across many disciplines have sought to dissect the authoritarian regimes’ new and harmful tactics and activities in third countries. Thus, the concept of sharp power is developed to frame harmful transnational activities of some certain, authoritarian powers, predominantly coming from countries like Russia and China. This growing scholarship has the additional vocation to alert liberal democracies against the subversive activities of authoritarian regimes who are hostile to democratic institutions and values that they seem as existential threats to their ‘authoritarian values’ and stability of their regimes.

The talk series will make up of eight live-streamed seminars every Wednesday starting from October until mid-December. The live streams will be also published on the YouTube channel. During the sessions, theoretical background, country contexts (China and Russia), European and Asian cases, impacts on digital environment, and human rights perspectives will be held by distinguished experts in the field. 

 

Event I – Seminar

Christopher Walker: “Authoritarian mobilization and sharp power”

Wednesday, November 9, 2022 / 12:00 (CET)

China, Russia, and other countries ruled by repressive regimes have dramatically scaled up their investment into spheres commonly associated with soft power, including into media, education, technology, and entertainment. Most free societies are still not adequately prepared to meet the multidimensional sharp-power strategies applied by China, Russia, and like-minded states. Open societies will be vulnerable so long as they maintain a blind spot about the compromising and corrosive aspects of such forms of authoritarians’ outward-facing influence.

Christopher Walker is Vice President for Studies and Analysis at the National Endowment for Democracy, an independent, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. In this capacity, he oversees the department that is responsible for NED’s multifaceted analytical work. Prior to joining the NED, Walker was Vice President for Strategy and Analysis at Freedom House. Walker has testified before legislative committees, appears regularly in the media, and frequently conducts briefings on critical issues relating to democratic development.

Walker has been at the forefront of the discussion on authoritarian influence on democratic systems. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, and the Journal of Democracy. He is co-editor (with Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner) of the edited volume Authoritarianism Goes Global: The Challenge to Democracy (2016), and co-editor (with Jessica Ludwig) of the reports Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence (2017), and Sharp Power and Democratic Resilience (2021). His article, “Rising to the Sharp Power Challenge,” appears in the October 2022 issue of the Journal of Democracy.

 

Event II – Seminar

 

Gavin Wilde: “Russia’s information warfare as regime insecurity”

Wednesday, November 16, 2022 / 11:00 (CET)

If a unified theory of Russian information warfare exists, its core tenet might well be its historic indivisibility from regime security in Russian strategic thought. Rather than as an aggressive or expansionist expression of Moscow’s foreign policy, the Kremlin’s “information war” should primarily be viewed through a domestic political and security prism—as much a counterinsurgency as an expeditionary strategy, less an escalation than a projection.

Gavin Wilde is a senior fellow in the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he applies his expertise on Russia and information warfare to examine the strategic challenges posed by cyber and influence operations, propaganda, and emerging technologies. He previously served on the US National Security Council, and in analytic and leadership roles in the US intelligence community for 15 years—including as a coauthor of the IC assessment of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. He is also an adjunct lecturer on information conflict at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

 

Event III – Seminar

 

Julia Bader: “The Chinese Communist Party’s international networks”

Wednesday, November 23, 2022 / 11:00 (CET)

The talk addresses a largely overlooked actor in China’s foreign relations, the International Department of the Communist Party of China. Building on an intense travel diplomacy, the ID-CPC maintains a widely stretched network topolitical elites across the globe. The ID-CPC’s engagement is not new; but since Xi Jinping took office, the CPC has bolstered its efforts to reach out to other parties. Party relations not only serve as an additional channel to advance China’s foreign policy interests. Since President Xi has come to power, party relations also emerged as a key instrument to promote China’s vision for reforming the global order. Moreover, China increasingly uses the party channel as a vehicle of authoritarian learning by sharing experiences of its economic modernization and authoritarian one-party regime. The cross-regional analysis of the CPC’s engagement with other parties helps us to better understand the role of the CPC in Chinese foreign policymaking, pointing to a new research agenda at the intersection of China’s foreign relations, authoritarian diffusion, and transnational relations.

Julia Bader is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. Before joining UvA in July 2012, she worked as a research fellow at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) in Bonn (Germany). Dr Bader holds a MA in Politics and Management from Konstanz University and a PhD in Political Science from Heidelberg University.

Dr Bader’s research focuses on China’s foreign relations, regime transition and autocratic stability, international relations and foreign policy, development assistance and human rights. Dr Bader is the author of the monograph China’s Foreign Relations and the Survival of Autocracies which has been published with Routledge. Her work has appeared in academic journals such as International Studies Quarterly, European Journal of Political Research, Journal of Peace Research, Foreign Policy Analysis, Democratization, International Studies Review, Contemporary Politics, and in several collective book projects. Her research on the Chinese Communist Party’s International Department has been featured in The Economist and in the South China Morning Post. She has been interviewed for the VPRO’s Tegenlicht Future Shock Podcast (in Dutch).

 

Event IV – Seminar

 

Vincent Charles Keating: “Sharp Power, or something more? Conceptualizing Russian influence beyond ‘unwanted flows of information’”

Wednesday, November 30, 2022 / 11:00 (CET)

Sharp power is one of several recent attempts to conceptualize the influence that illiberal states have on liberal states. Characterized as not ‘hard power,’ involving direct military or potentially economic coercion, sharp power attempts to theorize coercion, that although not as severe as hard power, nonetheless has the potential to undermine and damage liberal states. This talk aims to show how this conceptualization of illiberal state influence, one that can be grouped together with other similar concepts under the heading ‘unwanted flows of information,’ has led to a cognitive blind spot in our understanding of the scope of Russian influence in the West. By focusing on manipulation and subversion, it rejects the possibility that the messages coming out of the Russian state can be more than this – that they can also be ideologically attractive. In making this claim, this talk suggests that we need to characterize the influence of illiberal states not simply as ‘unwanted flows of information,’ such as sharp power, but consider how the influence is also ideological, and how that changes how we might think of solutions to this problem.

Vincent Charles Keating is an Associate Professor and Head of Section for International Politics, Center for War Studies, University of Southern Denmark. He holds an MSc in Nationalism Studies from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD in International Politics from Aberystwyth University. Dr Keating’s co-authored work on Russian soft power has been published in International Politics and the Journal of International Relations and Development. Before coming to SDU, he held a previous position at the University of Durham and has been an invited guest professor at Université Paris-Panthéon-Assas (Paris II). In addition to Russian soft power, Keating’s research spans a number of other topics, including the challenges of the War on Terror on international human rights, the role of trust and distrust in international security, and how international non-governmental organizations maintain their global legitimacy.

 

Event V – Panel

Tihomira Doncheva, Viktor Denisenko and Grigorij Mesežnikov

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 / 11:00 (CET)

Viktor Denisenko: “Kremlin’s information war against the ‘collective West’: View from Lithuania”

The Baltic States, including Lithuania, were between first states that faced attacks of re-born Kremlin propaganda in the 90s of the XX century. Many narratives (about discrimination of Russian-speaking communities, neo-Nazism, Russophobia) used later against Ukraine firstly were tested in information warfare against Lithuania (as well Latvia and Estonia). Today, the challenge of Kremlin information warfare become very hot not only for former Soviet states. Moscow is waging a global information war against the “collective West”. In this situation very important is to discuss traditions (i.e. some stable narratives) and transformations (i.e. vanished boundaries between disinformation and diplomacy) of Kremlin propaganda and disinformation.   

Viktor Denisenko is an Associate Professor at General Jonas Žemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania and Vilnius University. He got PhD in communication and information in 2016 at Vilnius University. The field of his scientific and professional interests includes propaganda, information warfare, and political communication. Viktor Denisenko is the author of the book “In the Encirclement of Propaganda” (Vilnius University Press, 2021).

Grigorij Mesežnikov:Russia’s sharp power in post-communist Europe: From disinfo narratives to military aggression”

Promoting its interests abroad, Russian state does not focus primarily on championing their own positive, attractive and viable alternatives but rather on undermining and destroying socio-political models that exist in the countries where it tries to advertise its concepts, therefore such a model of asserting influence abroad can be referred to as “sharp power.” Russia strives to debilitate or dismantle liberal democracy as a system, which is why it considers almost every enemy of liberal democracy around the world and particularly in Europe, including central Europe to be their ally – either a strategic or a situational.

The mission of Russian sharp power mechanism is to encourage mutual mistrust between people, relativize distinctions between democratic and non-democratic systems of government, blur differences between facts and fiction, between truth and lies, between trustworthy knowledge and its “alternative” interpretations in peoples’ perception and thus create an atmosphere of precarity.  Since 2014, the year of annexation of Crimea and occupation of part of the Eastern Ukraine, Russia is leading the information aggression against the post-communist Central European countries. Actors of this aggression try to spin the narratives that the very concept of liberal democracy is not suitable for Central European nations, that it is obsolete and should be replaced by another concept based on national, traditional, conservative, collectivist and ethnic values. According to such and interpretation, liberal democracy is not a system that creates optimum conditions for citizens’ freedom, democratic system of governance and implementation of human rights but rather merely a tool to promote power interests of large states while simultaneously harming vital interests of small European nations. Sharp power is a tool used by Russian expansionist authoritarian regime in efforts to reach its ultimate goal – to disconnect Central European nations from the West, to revise and reverse the results of their transformation processes and thus to reconstruct the past.

Grigorij Mesežnikov is a political scientist, president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO), Bratislava, Slovakia. He has published numerous expert studies on party systems’ development and political aspects of transformation in post-communist societies, illiberal and authoritarian tendencies, populism, extremism, nationalism and hybrid threats in various monographs, collections and scholarly journals in Slovakia and other countries. He regularly contributes analyses of Slovakia’s political scene to domestic and foreign media. Since 1993, he has been an external correspondent for Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe. He has edited and authored dozens of books, including the Global Reports on Slovakia (1995 – 2011), the comprehensive analysis of country’s development in all relevant sectors of society. He was a key author of the report on Slovakia in Nations in Transit published by Freedom House (1998 – 2014). In 2006 he was awarded by Reagan-Fascell Fellowship by the National Endowment for Democracy (Washington, D.C.), in 2012 he was a research fellow of Taiwan Fellowship Program at the Department of Political Science of National Taiwan University in Taipei where he researched similarities and differences of democratization and civil society development in Taiwan and in Central Europe. In 2019 – 2020 he was a fellow of the Institute for Human Science – Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Vienna) at the Europe’s Futures program.

Tihomira Doncheva: “Russia’s footprint in the western Balkan information environment”

This talk will be about information influence activities in the Balkans as an example of sharp power. Doncheva will go in-depth into what are some of the factors that enable information influence activities, as well look into specific examples of Russian case.

Tihomira Doncheva is director of Center for Information, Democracy, and Citizenship (CIDC). She is an experienced communicator, researcher and project manager on multi-disciplinary topics related to the problems and challenges, opportunities and values of a liberal democratic society. She has joined AUBG in the summer of 2022, heading the university’s flagship initiative to reinvigorate AUBG’s founding mission. Through the CIDC, Doncheva aims to educate students and interested stakeholders to be engaged, informed, critical democratic citizens who will be committed to the rule of law, pluralism and inclusiveness, and open discussion, free press, and respect for human rights.

Doncheva has worked as a journalist for one of Bulgaria’s most professional media outlets, Capital, and has been a Researcher for the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence in Riga, working on malign influence across the Western Balkans. Over the last three years, she worked for a strategic communications company based in London, the UK, where her portfolio included a variety of projects from countering disinformation and propaganda, media development and information resilience, to countering violent extremism and terrorism in countries across the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. She is a published author of reports on information influence activities in the Western Balkans and has also developed two separate apps on countering disinformation for journalists.

Tihomira has a First-Class Honours BA degree in Journalism from the University of Robert Gordon (Aberdeen, the UK) and a BA Honours degree in Europe in the World from the Hogeschool Utrecht and the Danish School of Media and Journalism (Utrecht, the Netherlands and Aarhus, Denmark). She has also completed an MA degree in Strategic Communications from the War Department at King’s College London (London, the UK).

As the Director at the newly founded CIDC, Doncheva will focus her efforts on strategizing and developing the CIDC as a think, talk, and act platform to provide academic opportunities for students and faculty, to generate new resources in collaboration with the civil society, business and public sector, and elevate AUBG as the go-to place for shared resources, partnerships, research and advocacy efforts within Bulgaria and the region.

 

Event VI – Seminar

Neil Robinson: Russian Sharp Power: A Weapon of the Weak?

Wednesday, December 14, 2022 / 11:00 (CET)

 

Event VII – Panel

Ibrahim Öztürk and Imdat Oner

Wednesday, December 21, 2022 / 12:00 (CET)

 

For further information register via the link below and join the trending discussions.

Register Now

 

Giorgia Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, leader of Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, attend a center-right coalition rally in Rome, Italy on March 01, 2018. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

The anatomy of the Italian vote

In a few months, indignant citizens will probably forget their fascist fear, while Meloni’s supporters, after the “honeymoon period”, will become progressively more critical toward their leader – because rhetoric is rhetoric, but politics is politics. In five years, but probably less, everything will start over – only with more national debts on the shoulder of the young people. “Everything must change for everything to remain the same,” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (1958). That is Italy, and it has always been.

By Luca Mancin

A Brief Summary of September 25

“From the Italians, a clear indication came in these general elections for a centre-right government led by Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy)”  Giorgia Meloni said in the early morning of the 26th of September, as exit polls presented a first image of the Italian vote. “Now it is time for responsibility,” she added. In the face of criticism and doubts resounding in foreign media, Meloni aimed to reassure both national and international audiences that she will govern in the name of all Italians.

The percentual distribution of vote (Source: SKY TG24).
The flux of votes between the 2018 and 2022 elections (Source: YouTrend).

The winning coalition – consisting of Fratelli d’Italia, Matteo Salvini’s Lega, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – reached a majority of 235 MPs thanks to their combined 43.79 percent of the vote. While Italian media has described this coalition as “centre-right”, the foreign press categorises their movement as being dominantly populist radical right,  with only Berlusconi holding moderate and pro-European positions relative to his coalition partners.

While Meloni’s triumph was largely predicted, the level of electoral success (25.99 percent) came as a surprise in comparison to the party’s 2018 score (4.35 percent). Fratelli d’Italia managed to monopolize its role as the dominant opposition party to Mario Draghi’s grand coalition government in the last year and a half. After all, in a government of national unity composed of leftist, centrist and rightist parties, it is quite easy to bring out the political ambivalences and hypocrisies of both opponents and allies. Berlusconi’s party reached an unexpected 8.11 percent, despite polls preceding the vote predicting it to be around 5%. Matteo Salvini failed to reach previous successes as the Lega achieved 8.77 percent of the vote. This result represents a loss of almost 10 points from the 2018 domestic elections and 26 from the 2019 European vote. This dissatisfaction with Salvini’s leadership started growing within the Lega’s electorate, following his decision to join Draghi’s government in February 2021. 

The geographical distribution of votes (Source: YouTrend).

The Five Stars Movement, led by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, did better than expected compared to opinion polls prior to the election. This surprising result of 15.43 percent was achieved through its strong showing in the south of Italy. The greatest losses came at the expense of the centre-left alliance led by Enrico Letta’s Democratic Party (PD). Independently, the party garnered 19.07 percent of the vote, however it lacked support from its junior partners, who only contributed an additional 7.06 percent to the alliance. Rounding out the Parliament is the so-called “third pole”, the centrist alliance between Carlo Calenda’s Azione and Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (7.79 percent), who collectively gained 21 seats.

Distribution of seats in the Lower house (Source: YouTrend).
Distribution of seats in the Higher house (Source: YouTrend).

Background to the Vote

Since the last time Italians voted, the 4th of March 2018, three governments have gone by – two of which were led by Giuseppe Conte (Movimento 5 Stelle and Lega (2018), M5S and Democratic Party (2019)) and one by Mario Draghi. In July of this year, M5S, Lega, and Forza Italia withdrew their confidence in the executive, causing a crisis which resulted in the collapse of the Draghi government. 

Draghi’s resignation on the 21st of July, dissolved the grand national unity coalition which featured internal divisions, constant struggles, and a sense of perennial electoral campaigns. The subsequent election occurred in the shadow of the Ukrainian war, a burgeoning energy crisis, management of the Next Generation EU funds, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. The elections were further complicated by the reduced number of MPs following the 2020 constitutional referendum and the upcoming deadline for the 2023 economic and financial plan (DEF). 

However, what kind of campaign has it been?

Mario Draghi, Italy’s prime minister, listens during a debate at the Senate in Rome, Italy on June 21, 2022. Photo: Alessia Pierdomenico.

A Short, Summer Campaign

In a nutshell, the campaign has followed an inconsistent pace: vacuous during August and frenetic in September. The opinion polls favouring the populist radical right rendered opposing citizens and parties demoralized to compete effectively with Meloni’s rising popularity. In particular, the centre-left seemed resigned to a defeat, content to “lose with style,” as Columbia University professor Nadia Urbinati stated in an op-ed in “Domani”.

While there has not been a strong central theme throughout the electoral campaign, as reddito di cittadinanza was in 2018, some notable themes can still be identified. These include the energy crisis, the populist radical right’s “flat tax” and fiscal relief, the polarization between populist radical right and Democratic Party on the necessity of Atlanticism and Europeanism, and the management of the Next Generation EU funds.

The energy crisis and its economic consequences on all levels of Italian society served as one of the main battlegrounds for the electoral campaign. While all parties agreed on a necessary price cap on oil and gas, marked differences emerged on alternative sources of energy. While the right-wing coalition pushed for nuclear energy, Calenda’s Azione stood for regasification plants, and the left-wing groups advocated for renewable energy sources. Additionally, no consensus was found concerning national debt and financial support for citizens struggling the most with inflation.

Second, the relationship between the frontrunning right-wing parties and Putin was brought into question. This was combined with debates on Italy’s stance to continue economic sanctions on Russia. However, every party attempted to present itself as pro-Europe and pro-NATO, even Fratelli d’Italia and the Lega, historically more sceptic and critical of Europe. The political debate was exacerbated by US leaks regarding Russia’s funding of European parties. This brought about a tumultuous climate of mutual accusations regarding who received Russian funds and who did not. Particularly scandalous were Berlusconi’s words justifying Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

Finally, the campaign picked up where Draghi’s government left off: the distribution of the Next Generation EU (NGEU) funds in the National Plan of Recovery and Resilience (PNRR). Meloni strengthened her political aura and authority over the right-wing coalition by repeatedly stating her intention to go to Brussels and “renegotiate” the NGEU details, despite this being neither legally nor politically feasible.  Her populist approach failed to mention the European Green Deal, in spite of sustainability’s significance in the NGEU fund. Across the political axis, environmental concerns were lacking, and only considered by Sinistra Italiana-Verdi and some minor left-wing parties. Meanwhile, PD and M5S’ programmes were largely environmentalist in name only and could even be categorised as greenwashing. Geopolitically speaking, instead, major problems were the migration flow from Libya and the absence of any agreements with the African country and within the EU’s member states (cf. Dublin Regulation III).

In terms of the approach to campaigning, there was a significant push to mobilise the youth vote. Parties turned en-masse to social media networks to create numerous, and often blatant, posts targeting this electorate. Most notably, political leaders across the spectrum used TikTok to post surreal, if not ridiculous, videos in an attempt to achieve virality. For instance, Salvini used to do long live streams on this social, chatting with users and allowing them to apply a variety of filters during his chats.

Giorgia Meloni’s Heavy Post-Fascist Burden

Since the morning of the 26th of September, the front pages of Italian and particularly foreign newspapers presented Meloni’s win as a revival of fascism. Although Giorgia Meloni is likely to become the first female Prime Minister in Italian history, media attention has focused instead on her victory being a symptom of democratic decay in Italy.

Fratelli d’Italia’s relationship to fascism is clear and undeniable. Starting with the tricolour flame as the party’s symbol – this imagery is derived from the Italian Social Movement party, a political successor to the fascist Salò Social Republic. Throughout the party’s history, there has always been a respect for Benito Mussolini. Whether it be the words of a 19-years old Giorgia Meloni on the political skills of the dictator, or Gianfranco Fini’s (one of the founders of Fratelli d’Italia) statement that Mussolini was the greatest statist of the 20th century. Although the party leaders have been openly against any fascist recalls, it is clear that Fratelli d’Italia’s roots drawn from such symbolic and historical imagery.

“Fascism” is not the only peculiarity of this party, which needs further analysis. Fratelli d’Italia’s nature as a populist radical right party (according to Cas Mudde’s definition presented in the book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe) requires thorough exploration and deeper analysis. Indeed, Meloni’s strategies and communications reflect the dimensions of (1) populism, (2) nativism, and (3) authoritarianism. Opponents generally use the fascist element to denigrate Fratelli d’Italia, but risk overlooking and obscuring its more complex articulations. 

According to Bologna University’s professor Salvatore Vassallo, Fratelli d’Italia has a revisionist view of the twenty years of fascist dictatorship in Italy, but leaders of the party have more than once declared the absolute condemnation and distance themselves from such a phenomenon. I would consider the role of fascism in the ideology of Fratelli d’Italia as the “theoretical premise” that influences the authoritarian dimensions of the populist radical right under the banner of authoritarian “law and order” and nativist aspects conjugated in the form of secure national borders or economic protectionism. It means that we should not expect a “fascist backlash” but, rather, an exacerbation or a polarisation of those themes that feature populist radical right’s political programmes – where the fascist rhetoric would be used, if used, by supporters of Fratelli d’Italia and not by its leaders. Considering this, it remains convenient for leftist parties and media to label and condemn Meloni’s triumph as the win of fascism, thanks to her populist and demagogue rhetoric. 

What is missing in such media and political analyses is consideration of the causes behind this electoral result. If Meloni reached the 26% of the vote and won in constituencies that have voted for leftist parties since the birth of the Italian Republic, her triumph probably is a consequence of a democratic malaise, not a cause. Furthermore, I argue that defeated parties and columnists should confront the reasons behind the highest record of abstentionism in Republican history, which reached 64 percent.

Geographical distribution of turnout (Source: YouTrend).

The lethargic politics of Draghi’s government may offer insight to the sharp rise of the extreme right; the centrist decision-making, technocratic disengagement, and the opaque management of the Next Generation EU’s tasks prevented necessary political debate between the left and right. As Chantal Mouffe lucidly explains in her The Democratic Paradox, this tendency to operate on a “radical centre” anesthetises the political environment and indirectly favours and nourishes extremisms – be they of left or right.

What Now?

If Meloni succeeds in receiving the primary responsibility from the national president Sergio Mattarella to form a government, the new executive will be staunchly conservative. We can expect attacks on civil rights in the fields of abortion, euthanasia, gay adoption, racial and homophobic discrimination, as well as stricter immigration policy. After all, Fratelli d’Italia’s slogan states “God, Family, and Homeland”.  

However, the absence of new laws does not mean eliminating the old ones. The Italian Constitution boasts robust checks and balances to constrain executive power. Consequently, the populist radical right majority cannot bypass these controls without holding regular referenda. Additionally, in such a geopolitical and historical context, it is hard to imagine a decline of Italian democracy towards a “Polish” or “Hungarian” model – even if a worried Ursula von der Leyden  has warned about the EU’s dissuading tools. 

Last but certainly not least, we should expect some theatrical shows of strength at the EU’s expense to impress domestic supporters. For instance, Meloni is already pushing for revisions of the PNRR’s expense details in line with current inflation rates. Similarly, we can expect attempts to pressure the EU to adopt new internal regulation on migration flows through operations like naval blockades targeting NGO’s transporting migrants. Finally, on the economic front, neoliberal measures for tax relief, like the controversial “flat tax”, will be difficult to approve due to constitutional issues and a lack of funds. 

The most pressing deadline facing the incoming government is the submission of the 2023 economic and financial planning document (DEF) to Brussels. Given the short time frame, it is likely that Draghi’s outgoing government will work with the new executive to draft the DEF. In light of Italy’s historical national debt problems, Meloni’s first objective will be to reassure the international markets of her moderate profile through a “Europeanism of convenience.”

Finally, it is essential to remember that, since 1948, Italy has had 67 governments, lasting, on average, 414 days. In a few months, indignant citizens will probably forget their fascist fear, while Meloni’s supporters, after the “honeymoon period,” will become progressively more critical toward their leader – because rhetoric is rhetoric, but politics is politics. In five years, but probably less, everything will start over – only with more national debts on the shoulder of the young people. 

“Everything must change for everything to remain the same,” Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard (1958). That is Italy, and it has always been.

Archaeologists uncover remnants of the old city in Jerusalem. Photo: Noel Powell.

Nationalism, Religion, and Archaeology: The Civilizational Populism of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022). “Nationalism, Religion, and Archaeology: The Civilizational Populism of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 10, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0015

 

Abstract

This paper examines civilizational populism in Israel and focuses on the largest and most powerful party in Israel since the 1980s, National Liberal Movement (Likud), and its most significant leader of the past twenty years, the populist politician Benjamin Netanyahu. We show how Netanyahu incorporates ‘civilizationism’ into his populist discourses by, first, using the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and at times his own political decisions. Second, through his portrayal of the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization through its barbarism. Equally, this paper shows how Netanyahu argues that Israel is akin to protective wall that protects Western Civilization from the Islamist barbarians who wish to destroy it, and therefore on this basis calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against “the forces of barbarism.”

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

Introduction

This paper examines civilizational populism in Israel and focuses on the country’s largest and most powerful party since the 1980s, the National Liberal Movement (Likud), and its most significant leader of the past twenty years, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is widely regarded as a populist and, since becoming party chairman in 1993, to have moved Likud toward right-wing populism. This move toward right-wing populism has proven electorally successful for Likud, although it has proven deleterious for many Israelis and Palestinians. 

Civilizationism posits that the peoples of the world can be divided into ‘civilizations.’ When civilizationism is mixed with populism, the result is a set of ideas that defines the self and other not primarily in national terms but in civilizational terms (Brubaker, 2017). Civilizational populism—a growing force in domestic and international politics the world over (Kaya, 2019; Brubaker, 2017; Barton, Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Blackburn, 2021; Kaya & Tecman, 2019; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz, Demir & Morieson, 2021; Kaya)—might therefore be understood “as a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022).

Civilizational populism defines populism’s key signifiers (‘the people,’ ‘elites,’ and ‘dangerous others’) first by categorizing all people via civilizational identity. Secondly, civilizational populism describes ‘the people’ as authentic and morally good insofar as the civilization to which they belong is superior and the product of superior moral values — derived chiefly from religion. Civilizational populism describes ‘others’ within the same society as inauthentic and morally ‘bad’ because they belong to a foreign civilization with inferior values, and which is the product of an inferior religion. Equally, civilizationism mixed with populism permits populists to describe ‘elites’ as morally bad actors who have betrayed and abandoned the values and culture of their own civilization. 

This paper shows how Netanyahu incorporates civilizationism into his populist discourses by, first, using the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and, at times, his own political decisions. He also mixes civilizationism and populism through his portrayal of the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization through its barbarism. This paper shows how Netanyahu argues that Israel is akin to protective wall that protects Western Civilization from the Islamist barbarians and calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against the forces of barbarism. This idea is discussed by Slabodsky (2014: 153-56) who analyses the text of Old Land/New Land and shows how Jews are traditionally positioned as a civilizing force or ‘buffer’ between the West and oriental subjects of the East. According to Slabodsky (2014), this core belief –of Orientals as symbols of barbarianism– has been retained and has only been reframed and reintroduced in the post 9/11 context. 

These narratives assist Netanyahu in his populist division of Israeli society into three antagonistic groups: ‘the people,’ the ‘elite,’ and ‘others.’ These ‘others’ are non-civilized Arab-Muslims who desire the destruction of both the Jewish people and Western civilization; ‘elites’ are left-wing parties and liberal Jews who Netanyahu portrays as abandoning Jewish culture and helping Arabs destroy civilization; ‘the people’ are all the Jewish people, who are authentic and morally good: authentic because their ancestors were the first people of the land, and morally good because they are civilized Jews. The paper begins with an overview of Israel’s history, which is followed by a discussion on civilizationism in Israel and, following this, an examination of the use of civilizationism within the populist rhetoric of Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Civilizationism in Israel

Does Israel belong to Western civilization? Samuel P. Huntington (1996) was uncharacteristically silent about Israel and did not identify a specific Jewish civilization among the world civilizations he described in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In his critique of Huntington’s book, realist scholar of international relations, Stephen Walt, remarked that it is difficult to place, from Huntington’s civilizational approach, Israel within ‘Western civilization.’ According to Walt (1997: 186), “Israel is not a member of the West (at least not by Huntington’s criteria) and is probably becoming less ‘Western’ as religious fundamentalism becomes more salient and as the Sephardic population becomes more influential. A ‘civilizational’ approach to US foreign policy can justify close ties with Europeans (as the common descendants of Western Christendom) but not Israelis.” This has not prevented political actors from classifying Israel and the Jewish people as Western. Many European and North American civilizational populist parties appear to claim if not the Jewish people, then at least the Jewish scriptures to be part of ‘Judeo-Christian civilization’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Brubaker, 2017). 

Israelis walk next an Israeli election billboard of Likud Party showing US President Donald Trump shaking hands with Likud chairman and Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Beth Shemesh, Israel on September 8, 2019. Photo: Gil Cohen Magen.

 

The Trump Administration, for example, emphasized America’s closeness to Israel, and appeared to regard the country as part of a broader Judeo-Christian civilization which required defending from Islam (Haynes, 2021). The notion that Western civilization encompasses Israel is at times, reflected in the words of Israel’s leaders. Following the 2015 murder of four Jews in a Paris kosher supermarket, and the mass murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by an Islamist group, Netanyahu called upon Europeans to “wake up” and act to defend “our common civilization” (The New York Times, 2015). Linking the murder of cartoonists in France with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu said, “Israel stands with Europe; Europe must stand with Israel” (The New York Times, 2015). Netanyahu’s claims that Israel is part of the West make sense insofar as Israel was partly a creation of the Western powers and populated largely by European Jews. One cannot be conclusive about where a civilization begins and ends. In the case of Israel, the nation is at once a product of Western civilization but also the product of the Nazi Holocaust, a genocide perpetrated by Europeans who believed Jews threatened Aryan civilization. Some ambiguity about Israel’s civilizational classification is thus unavoidable, although it is arguably foolish if not dangerous to classify nations in this manner. 

There are considerable links between the state of Israel and conceptions of Jewish civilization, both ancient and modern. According to Israeli politician and academic Yossi Shain (2019; Ferziger, 2020) “Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has gradually situated itself as the most important factor in all areas of worldwide Jewish life… The nation of Israel and Jewish civilization are defined today more than ever through the political, military, and cultural power of the sovereign Jewish state.” At the same time, Israel’s legitimacy lies, in part, on its claim to be the modern manifestation of the ancient Jewish civilization that existed — and indeed pre-dates– the coming of Arabs and Islam to the Land of Israel. While Israel was founded as a modern, European-style secular nationalist nation-state, its leaders also sought to connect Jewish people –who spoke many different languages– with their ancient past by making Modern Hebrew the official language of Israel and teaching it to all schoolchildren (Nevo & Verbov, 2011). In addition to Hebrew, another cultural feature that has been part of Israeli civilizationism is the preference given to the Jewish calendar over the Gregorian calendar. Israel’s Declaration of Independence (1948) was composed by Jews who had spent most of their life in Europe and living under the Gregorian calendar, yet the document shows clear indications of favouring the use of the Jewish calendar as a marker of identity politics (Saleem, 2022 forthcoming). 

Israel is a product of the 19th century Zionist movement, which removed itself somewhat from Orthodox Judaism and, influenced by European nationalism, sought to create a nation for the Jewish people. Zionism –and by extension Israel– has always possessed a “Romantic nationalist culture with a strong expressivist dimension; that is, a strong emphasis on self-expression and notions such as authenticity,” at least compared to Orthodox Judaism where “the Torah and God’s commandments are imposed externally on the Jew” (Fischern, 2014).  Jewish nationalism in its Zionist and neo-Zionist forms has often been a powerful political force in Israel, especially in the shape of right-wing populist discourse (Pinson, 2021; Rogenhofer & Ayala Panievsky, 2020). The Declaration of Independence of 1948 serves as evidence for the presence of civilizational elements in Zionism. Saleem (2022, forthcoming) notes that “The references to the Jewish religion can be found all over the document. The word ‘Jews’ has been mentioned five times while the word ‘Jewish’ has been mentioned nineteen times in the one-page declaration. Israel is used twenty-seven times and the combination ‘Eretz-Israel’ twelve times.” Thus, while the Israeli state might appear rooted in the modern principles of the nation-state, its core is surprisingly religious. Agbaria (2021: 360), for example, argues that “Israeli policies, as evident in the Nation-State Law, are driven by a lure of religious imagery that obscures the boundaries between the State of Israel, as a recognized political entity, and the Land of Israel, as a religious ideal that awaits materialization.” 

Furthermore, because the legitimacy of Israel rests on the history of Jewish people in the land, political groups have instrumentalized archaeology to ‘prove’ that Jewish civilization in the region predates all others. For example, Israeli archaeologist Raphael Greenberg claims that “in order to answer the continuing demands of mainly politics actors,” Israeli “archaeologists have given up many of their best practices” (Reuters, 2010). Greenberg claims that the Ir David foundation, which encourages Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories, is funding archaeological digs intended to find ‘evidence’ of prior Jewish settlement and thus to define those areas as belonging to the state of Israel (Reuters, 2010). The desire to ‘prove’ that Jewish civilization predates Arab civilization in Israel, and thus legitimize the Jewish state via a connection between modern Israel and ancient Jewish civilization, is so important to Netanyahu that he gleefully tweeted to his followers the results of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) tests which he claims prove that the Palestinians are relative newcomers to the region compared with Jews (Jerusalem Post, 2019).

National Liberal Movement (Likud)’s Civilizational Populism

Populism has long been present in Israel but has been part of mainstream politics since the 1990s (Ben-Porat et al., 2021: 6). The mainstreaming of populism is largely the product of the right-wing populist Likud party’s rise to power — and in particular of its leader and former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud was formed in 1973 by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. The party drew support from several other right-wing parties and eventually formed a coalition which pushed the once dominant Labor Party from government and into opposition in 1977 (Porat & Filc, 2022). According to Porat and Filc (2022), Likud was initially a nationalist — though not illiberal — party that sought greater inclusion of the Mizrahim within Israeli society, a group marginalized by Labor. The support of Mizrahi Jews enabled Likud to defeat the once hegemonic Labor and to establish themselves as the new ruling party (Porat & Filc, 2022). 

Over time, Likud transformed into a right-wing populist party which, far from calling for equal rights for Arabs and non-Jews, sought their exclusion from society. This change was crystalized by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as party chairman in 1993. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, the Likud-led, right-wing coalition gained traction with voters through its conservative nationalist rhetoric and policies and through its promotion of economic neo-liberalism supported by a ‘strong man image’ perpetuated through political authoritarianism (ECPS, 2020; Filc, 2009). In 1996, Netanyahu became Prime Minister by using populist right-wing “rhetoric dominated by ethnic nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-elite sentiment against the academia, the media, and the country’s left-wing parties” (ECPS, 2020; also see Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Bagaini, 2019: 6). His religious nationalism marked a break from the secularism of the Labor period in Israeli politics. 

During its terms in power in the 2000s and 2010s, Likud has often relied on populist nationalism, the party has attempted to divide society between ‘the people’ — Jews who were historically persecuted and who must now defend their homeland –and ‘others’– intruders in the land of the Jews, and who are often responsible for terrorist attacks and other forms of anti-Jewish violence (ECPS, 2020; Prota & Filc, 2020). By 2015, the idea that ‘Netanyahu is good for the Jews’ had become a powerful re-election tool for Likud, and the notion that Muslim Arabs — who were portrayed by Likud as ‘infiltrators’ and a ‘Trojan Horse’ — might be expelled became mainstream (Ghanem & Khatib, 2017). Likud’s discourse encouraged the growth of nativism in Israeli society and, correspondingly, their own populist discourse became more nativist. 

Rogenhofer and Panievsky (2020), who explored the authoritarian populism of Netanyahu, Modi, and Erdogan in a comparative analysis, observe that “Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness all point to a conflation of religion with the national vision” (Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020: 1395). As a result, “religious language and symbols accentuate fears and shape demands for action, to protect the nation and its borders…consequently, more and more leaders, not only in the Likud, adopt religious tropes and symbols to demonstrate loyalty and garner support” (Porat & Filc, 2022: 74). At the same time, opposition parties and critics of Likud and Netanyahu were portrayed by the party “as detached elites not committed to Jewish nationality and to the Jewish State” (Porat & Filc, 2022). 

Levi and Agmon (2021) note that during the peak of Netanyahu’s tenure ‘otherization’ of Jewish parities or individuals who did not agree with the ruling government was severe. Left-wing parties have been ‘othered’ by Likud and transformed into enemies of the state and Jewish faith (Levi & Agmon, 2021). For example, during the 2015 election campaign, Netanyahu accused the center-left political opposition of picking a “list of radical left, anti-Zionist candidates” (Lis, 2015). Likud’s official Spokesperson, Erez Tadmor, went a step further and labelled left-wing opposition as “pampered, thankless spoilt kids who were born to the right families in the right neighborhoods […] don’t have ‘infiltrators’ [migrants] in their neighborhoods, no one throws stones or Molotov cocktails at them. Their children don’t serve in Golani or Givati [IDF military brigades] … They milk the state in every way possible and appoint one another to all key positions” (Levi & Agmon, 2021: 299). 

Levi and Agmon (2021) also note that this otherisation went beyond politics and muffled critical media groups. Newspapers that were critical of the regime were labelled as ‘Auto-antisemitic’ or self-haters accused of spreading hatred towards Judaism. Bennette (2017) observed that a news outlet was bullied by a state minister for being critical of the regime using this very framework: “In 2017, Secretary of Education Naftali Bennett (The Jewish Home) accused Haaretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper, of pathological self-hatred. ‘Auto-antisemitism’, explained Bennett, ‘is a socio-psychological phenomenon in which a Jew develops obsessive hostility and disdain for the Jewish tradition’.” In a sense, Likud has carried out “the monopolisation of patriotism” (Levi and Agmon, 2021) where another party is aggressively ‘otherized’ as it can never work for the good of the country’s people. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel visits the Synagogue of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 28, 2018.

 

In 2018, Netanyahu made certain that ethnoreligious nationalism would dominate Israeli politics through the Nation State Law. The Nation State Law effectively destroyed the secular state envisioned by early Zionism and made Israel a “Jewish Nation State of the Jewish people” (Halbfinger & Kershner, 2018). It mandated that Jerusalem be recognized as the “complete and united…capital of Israel” and claims the “development of Jewish settlement” is of great “national value,” language that led to escalating violence between Palestinians and Israelis(BBC News, 2018). The passage of the bill also contradicted the spirit of the state’s foundation, which promised equality for all, by downgrading Arabic from an official language to a language with “special status” and leaving Hebrew as the only official language of Israel (Halbfinger & Kershner, 2018). Combined, these measures emphasize how Likud has often relied on religion to define Israeli identity and the identity of Israel’s enemies. 

Israel’s school system also perpetuates civilizationism. Traditionally, there were four types of schooling systems, which ranged from secular to religious schools of Jewish and non-Jewish community members. Under former Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, major changes were made to add elements of “Jewish culture” to the curriculum of secular schools (Silberberga & Agbaria, 2021). Silberberga and Agbaria (2021: 321) note this development, “shows that the escalating efforts to advance a particularistic hyper-ethnonationalist ideology in the Israeli education system, and a complete segregation between Jews and Palestinians in the school system, have eroded liberal and democratic sensibilities among Jewish youth.” This new emphasis on ‘cultural’ education is visible in increased funding spent on ‘cultural’ programs: “19.2% of the ministry’s annual budget to fund external education programmes, was spent in favor of Jewish culture education programmes. This is in sharp contrast to the NIS 10 million (1.1% of the budget) spent on science and technology programmes, or the mere NIS 1.5 million (0.15% of the budget) for democracy and shared society programmes” (Silberberga & Agbaria, 2021: 325). 

Silberberga and Agabaria, (2021: 326) noted that the mandatory Social Studies for grade one to six, “lack any direct reference to the existence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and students are not exposed to any alternative or multi-layered narrative about Israel’s holy sites. Moreover, the religious approach to the Third Temple disregards the existence of the State of Israel and instead uses the biblical term ‘the Land of Israel’.” Silberberga and Agbaria (2021: 326) describe the “emphasis on religious ideals in populist politics of education” as “a strategic move towards enclosing the national identity of the Jewish majority within what are purely religious boundaries,” and therefore as an attack on religious pluralism and secularism in Israel. 

Netanyahu and Likud lost control of the government following the 2021 legislative election, and the new government was a coalition between right-wing and centrist parties (including the secularist Yesh Atid party and conservative nationalist Yamina) and which established a rotation government. Thus, while Netanyahu was no longer Prime Minister, Israel remained government by largely right-wing forces which continued Netanyahu’s demonization of Arabs and Muslims. For example, Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina coalition who served as Prime Minister between 13 June 2021 and 30 June 2022, is regarded as more right-wing and nationalist than Netanyahu, and has stated the establishment of a Palestinian state would be a “terrible mistake” (Jerusalem Post, 2021). 

Civilizationism in Netanyahu’s Populist Discourse and Policies

Netanyahu’s civilizational populism has two major components. First, he uses the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and, at times, his own political decisions. Second, he describes the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization. Israel, he argues, is a protective wall that defends Western civilization from Muslim barbarians who wish to destroy it; on this basis, Netanyahu calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against the forces of barbarism. Combined, these narratives assist Netanyahu in his populist division of Israeli society into three antagonistic groups: ‘the people,’ the ‘elite,’ and ‘others.’ 

In Netanyahu’s discourse, ‘others’ are non-civilized Arab-Muslims who wish to destroy the Jewish people and Western civilization; ‘elites’ are left-wing parties and liberal Jews who Netanyahu portrays as abandoning Jewish culture and helping Arabs destroy civilization; ‘the People’ are all Jewish people, who are authentic and morally good — authentic because their ancestors were the first people of the land, and morally good because they are civilized Jews. 

Archaeological site close to City of David in Jerusalem, Israel.

 

Archaeology has long been an instrument through which Israeli political actors have sought to legitimize the nation and, in some cases, Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories (Greenberg, 2007; 2009; 2021; Desjarlais, 2013). Desjarlais, for example, argues that “archaeological practice in Palestine/Israel is part of a spatial and temporal project that serves to produce a continuous link between the ancient Israelite past and the modern Israeli   nation-state, justifying the creation of the Israeli state by reference to the past and through familiar frontier myths.” Saleem (2022, forthcoming) notes that Jews have not been a majority in the region since 70 CE when the Second Temple was destroyed. He adds that even before Muslims populated the region of present-day Israel, many other civilizations — such as the Byzantines, Roma, and Persians–left their mark before the Muslims conquered the lands in seventh century. The last rulers in the area were the Ottomans, who lost the territories following their defeat in the First World War. Before the Zionist nationalist movement took power, the territory was under British control; this period is called the Mandate period. This snapshot of history suggests that the region has been home to various cultures over the centuries. 

Archaeological practice in Israel, then, brings together two key civilizational narratives: first, that the Jewish people uniquely and solely belong to the Land of Israel due to an ancestral and cultural connection to ancient Jewish civilization; and second, the frontier narrative that asserts that Jewish people brought civilization to Israel, which was in a state of barbarism before their arrival. Desjarlais (2013) describes the case of Silwan (Wadi Hilwe), which was gradually transformed into an archaeology park, the ‘City of David,’ with multiple sites declared archaeologically significant. Under the guise of archaeology, villagers from the Wadi Hilwe and Bustan neighborhoods were forcefully evacuated and harassed; children were even arrested (Desjarlais, 2013). The gradual influx of tourists after the conversion to an archaeological park led authorities to use the Kidron Valley of Silwan as a dump for waste. This region was declared unclean and filthy and was largely populated by Palestinians. Using this as a pretext, Israeli authorities have justified the land-grabbing practices: “The irony of the imagery this neglect, and waste dumping create–that of an unhygienic town strewn with trash heaps–is that Israel uses the very wasteland it creates to justify its land acquisition.” 

The ‘City of David’ site is run by the Ir David Foundation, known as Elad in Hebrew, which also finances archaeological excavations across the Old City of Jerusalem. Elad wishes to uncover proof of ancient Jewish civilization in Jerusalem through projects, including the disputed ‘City of David’ archaeological park and the Temple Mount Sifting Project (The Times of Israel, 2017; The Palestinian Chronicle, 2016). The purpose of these project is to establish the Temple Mount area as a historically Jewish area and to deny any connection between Palestinians and the Old City of Jerusalem. The identification of the Silwan (Wadi Hilwe) site as the ‘City of David’ appears to be politically motivated. Greenberg (2009: 37), for example, observes that ‘City of David’ was “rarely employed in the literature; excavators generally preferred ‘Ophel,’ another biblical term that appears to refer to the northernmost part of the spur.” Rather, there has been, according to Greenberg (2009: 38), a deliberate sanctification of the site, a “secular and political sanctification, and as such its character and content are open to reinterpretation to a far greater extent than is the case with holy places proper, where the authority for the validation of historical claims is embedded in a chain of command that resists academic scrutiny.” It is interesting to note that Ir David’s website insists that “when David Be’eri (David’le) first visited the City of David in the mid-1980’s, the city was in such a state of disrepair and neglect that the former excavations that had once been conducted were once again concealed beneath garbage and waste” (Ir David, n.d.).  […] Ir David spins a narrative of the redemption of the uncultivated frontier as justification for the confiscation of Palestinian land and the expansion of Jewish settlements” (Desjarlais, 2013: 13).  

It is not merely the Israeli right but also Christian Zionists who have developed an interest in Biblical archaeology. Indeed, the two have worked together to ‘uncover’ historical sites which ‘prove’ the continuous and ancient occupation of Israel by Judeo-Christian peoples. Scholz (2022), for example, describes how the Tel Shiloh site has been a contested ground for right-wing Christian and Jewish archaeology– who believe the site is the first capital of Israel and proof of the inerrant truth of the Bible and resident Palestinian. In 2017, a team of right-wing evangelical Christian archaeologists from the United States also took part in the excavations; these archaeologists have questionable educational qualifications and clearly lack objectivity (Scholz, 2022: 129). Despite the excavations, the group has not published any findings, yet they are content to endorse Israel’s position that Jewish settlement occurred prior to all others in the region: “I can say with 100 percent certainty that there were Israelites in Shiloh because of the many indicators we have,” Dr. Stripling told Breaking Israel News (Scholz, 2022: 132). “The pottery shows that they were there when the Bible says they were there” (Scholz, 2022: 132). Scholz (2022) suggests that excavations such as these are designed to legitimize Israeli occupation and writes that “Stripling’s apologetic Christian-Zionist convictions have direct geopolitical and religious implications in the militarily occupied West Bank because they align smoothly with the interests of the settler community of Shiloh.” Scholz (2022: 134) explains that this is a mutually beneficial archaeological union. While Israel finds grounds to solidify its civilizational convictions and agendas in the region, the right-wing Christian conservatives, “could not have found more fertile ground than at Tel Shiloh, although another settler-managed site in East Jerusalem, the City of David, seems also to receive considerable Christian tourism support. Whenever the goal is to prove the literal historicity of the Hebrew Bible with archaeology and historical fervor, the Christian right is already there.”

One of the Ir David Foundations projects involves sifting soil on the sensitive Temple Mount area sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths. According to the Temple Mount Sifting Project website, the project “is under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University and is funded by private donors through the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The sifting activity operated during the years 2005-2017 at the Emek Tzurim national park with the cooperation and funding of the Ir-David foundation. In June 2019 the sifting facility moved to the Masu’ot Lookout with generous support from American Friends of Beit Orot” (Temple Mount Sifting Project, 2022). While the project may do good work in uncovering the ancient and medieval history of the area, the involvement of the Ir David Foundation is a sign that the project may be used to create an impression of continuous Jewish presence in the area and portray Palestinians as inauthentic residents. 

In 2016, when funds for the project began to run out, then Prime Minister Netanyahu intervened and used taxpayers’ money to continue the project (Hasson, 2016). When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was critical of the project for politicizing the historical record and essentially Judaizing the Temple Mount, Netanyahu used the occasion to defend the project and, in what he called a “crushing response” to the United Nations body’s denial of Jewish history, announced that his government would fund the project to ensure that its work continued (Hasson, 2016). In this way, Netanyahu and his government were using the Ir David Foundation to promote the narrative that the Temple Mount belongs to the Jewish people and that Arabs and others are mere newcomers who have no rights to the area. 

An outstanding feature about the Ir David Foundation is its demographical composition. Since the 1960s, all excavation work in the region of Jerusalem has been exclusively carried out by Israeli archaeologists; virtually no Palestinians have been part of these explorations (Greenberg, 2009: 44). This is quite interesting as the most adversely impacted people by these explorations are the Palestinians, who are often displaced as a result of the excavations and are not part of the development projects (Greenberg, 2009). The Foundation’s work is quite pivotal for the populist civilizational agendas of the Israeli right. For example, Amit (2022: 44) observes how “on November 17, 2013, Naftali Bennett, Economic Minister and leader of The Jewish Home Party that represents the religious right-wing and the settlers, gave an interview to CNN. When asked about the settlements in the occupied territories, he waved an ancient coin and told Christiane Amanpour: “this coin, which says ‘Freedom of Zion’ in Hebrew, was used by Jews 2,000 years ago in the state of Israel, in what you call occupied. One cannot occupy his own home’.” 

Another means of ‘rediscovering’ Israel’s ‘true’ Jewish past has been linked with renaming places (Desjarlais, 2013). For the first project, many Palestinian villages that were occupied or evacuated over the years have been given Hebrew names (Desjarlais, 2013). This process is claimed to be ‘scientific’ as it returns the ‘original’ names to said places. In addition, the state plants gardens or forested areas to discourage the return of Palestinians who fled their villages during periods of war or turmoil. By introducing a vegetative cover to some of the abandoned villages, it’s impossible for Palestinians to return (Desjarlais, 2013). 

Civilizationism is also used to legitimize Netanyahu’s political actions by portraying Islam as a non-civilization bent on destroying the Jewish people and European civilization. This takes the form of a ‘frontier’ narrative, in which Israel is described as a barbarous land which the Jewish people tamed and turned into a paradise. One cannot deny the economic and scientific achievements of the Israeli people. However, the frontier myth denies the existence of Palestinian history in the region and portrays them as an uncivilized people squatting on Jewish land (Desjarlais, 2013). According to Desjarlais (2013), “Like other nationalist movements, the Israeli national narrative seeks to construct a shared history (although only for its Jewish population), develop a myth of origin that traces the roots of the modern nation to noble forbearers, and describe the development of the nation’s history in terms of a ‘golden age’ and a ‘dark age’ when the nation was ruled by foreigners.” Put simply, the national myth of Israel involves claims that the establishment of the State of Israel made the desert bloom (George, 1979).

It is also interesting to contrast Netanyahu’s responses when it comes to endorsing or distancing Israel from the West. In cases where countries or institutions support him, as mentioned above, he describes Israel as part of Western civilization. For example, in a 2016 press conference in Berlin with then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netanyahu called Israel “the protective wall of Western civilization” (EFE, 2016). By defending itself from Islamic radicals, Netanyahu suggests, Israel is also defending Western values in a region in which they are threatened by barbarism and primitivism. In another example, the appalling murder of four French Jews in a Kosher supermarket in Paris prompted Netanyahu to first demand that the French and moreover the European Union “wake up” to the threat of Islamist terrorism and act to protect “our common civilization” (The New York Times, 2015). However, at the same time he also, as political economist and commentator Bernard Avishai points out, called on Jews to “self-segregate: affirm, in principle, the liberal values of the West, but deny that they ever worked well enough for diaspora Jews; insist that we fight for our freedoms from our own ground” (The New York Times, 2015). 

In a 2022 interview, Netanyahu claimed “there is a constant battle between the forces of modernity and the forces of medievalism. That’s what we face today in the Middle East facing militant Islam. Facing militant Islam is only not only Israel, but many of our Arab neighbors will understand that their future also could be compromised and endangered and crushed by these forces that hark back to a very dark past. So, I would say that you can continue to move the arc forward… if you have the necessary will and power to protect civilization and to nurture it, but it could easily be wiped away by larger forces” (Netanyahu, 2022). In the same interview, he praised Winston Churchill, saying “Churchill’s worldview as I see it, was not simply that he was belonging to the British empire, was a 19th century example of a patriot of the British empire. I think it was more than that. I think… he had a civilizational view,” (Netanyahu, 2022).

The notion that Israel represents civilization in a battle against barbarism is a hallmark, according to Tuastad (2003) and Linklater (2020), of neo-Orientalism and neo-barbarism, discourses which became mainstream in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. Yet the ‘civilizational portrayal’ of Israel as an ‘outpost’ of Western civilization is often “embraced by Israel’s detractors and supporters alike” Slabodsky (2014: 147). For example, Zionism as a project sought to give the Jewish people a homeland but used the European colonial model as the basis of a Jewish state. Thus, nineteenth and early twentieth century style European colonialism in the form of Zionism “was applied in its extreme in the 1940s and since at least the 1970s has reinforced systemic patterns of domination and ultimately naturalized the Jewish state as a Western outpost against barbarism” (Slabodsky, 2014: 146). In constructing their own European-style state, Slabodsky (2014: 157) argues, the Zionists were seeking to overcome their status as barbarians within Western civilization by becoming members of a “civilized nation among civilized nations” like “any other Western people.” In doing so, Slabodsky (2014) suggests, they inadvertently replicated the barbaric-civilized dichotomy within Israel, turning the Palestinians into barbarians and themselves into civilized Westerners. Netanyahu and his party have been effective at using this added layer of hostility to shape the narrative surrounding the role of Jews in civilizing the region as opposed to Arabs who are constantly shown as barbaric and culturally negligent.

Conclusion

Netanyahu’s civilizational populist discourse involves the division of Israel into three categories: ‘the people,’ or the Jewish people who belong to Israel; ‘elites,’ or Labor and the center-left parties who are immoral insofar as they refuse to defend Jewish hegemony in Israel; and ‘dangerous others,’ or the Arab Muslims who are barbaric and hateful and seek to destroy not merely Israel but Western civilization. In order to ‘prove’ that the Jewish people alone belong to Israel and to legitimize their political actions, Netanyahu and Likud politicize archaeology and use questionable archaeological methods to prove that Jewish civilization existed before all others in Israel. By weaponizing archaeology, Likud and Netanyahu have been able to both legitimize Jewish cultural hegemony in Israel but also defend the exclusion of Arab Muslims from society by demonstrating that they are relative newcomers to the region and therefore have no legitimate claim to exist in Israel. 

Equally, by portraying the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric anti-civilization, Netanyahu is able to portray Israel as not merely a successful outpost of Western civilization in a barbaric region but a protective wall which prevents Muslims barbarians from infiltrating the West and destroying civilization. Yet, as we have seen, there are times when Netanyahu does not describe Israel as part of the West but rather as a unique culture and civilization which was rejected by the West and must therefore rely on itself for defense. Either way, Netanyahu always portrays Israel as fighting for civilization and against the barbarism represented by Arab Muslims.  

The rise of Likud since the late 1970s and emergence of Netanyahu as the most powerful and influential politician of his generation has had a lasting and powerful effect on Israel and on the Palestinians. Likud has successfully ended the hegemony of the Israeli left and Labor Party and paved the way for an Israel that is increasingly de-secularized and right-wing and which perceives Arabs and Muslims as dangerous enemies of civilization. The manifestation of the ‘clash of civilizations’ in domestic politics has had devastating outcomes. Walt (1999) cautioned that this political outlook is a “self-fulfilling prophecy” which leads to conflict because “the more we believe it and make it the basis for action, the more likely it is to come true.” In Israel’s case, Likud’s use of populist civilizations has helped bind the country to a turbulent and conflict-ridden future. 


 

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Supporters with Brothers of Italy flags during the electoral tour of the party's leader Giorgia Meloni in Caserta, Italy on September 18, 2022. Photo: M. Cantile.

Think that populism had peaked? Think again

Far from the view that populism in Europe had peaked during the Covid era, rising migration and worsening economic inequality will continue to inflate populist sentiment in years to come. As the meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy has shown, we cannot ignore the concerns of those turning to populist sentiment who feel left behind and ignored. 

Jake Moran*

Just over a year ago, I submitted my dissertation on the role of English populism in the Brexit referendum result. Fast-forward to today, I am living in Stockholm, Sweden, where the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats recently emerged as the de facto victor in an election which ousted the centre-left bloc from Sweden’s government. The parallel between the subject of my dissertation and the election result here is obvious: a growing electorate dissatisfied with high levels of immigration at a time when cosmopolitan liberalism and globalisation are viewed as marginalising forces in traditional communities.

But what separates this continuing upward trend in populism across Europe – evidenced further by the recent victory of the far-right Brothers of Italy – from the populist forces that sprung during the 2010s, is that the implementation of Brexit, the defeats of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and the paralysing effect of Covid, all contributed to a sense that the 2016 fever of populism had been contained. 

Wrong.

Far from being contained, it has in fact quietly grown in many of the places where right-wing populism was thought to be defeated. While Marine Le Pen was again defeated in the French Presidential election, her populist party gained nearly 10% on the previous presidential election, and her ability to maintain enough support to reach the second ballot is a clear sign that populism in Europe is here to stay. The explanation for this is simple: the issues that began the populist revolt of 2014-16 have not simply gone away as a result of Donald Trump being deposed or Brexit being ‘done.’ They remain largely unsolved, and I predict, will grow to become even more significant issues.

Matthew Goodwin, author of several books on the rise of populism in Europe and the UK – many of which I cited in my own dissertation on populism – recently argued that the scale of the challenges facing European democracies today, will dwarf those that sparked the populist revolt of 2014-16. In an interview with Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster, Goodwin predicts that the gap created by the ineffective response of traditional conservatives to the economic and sociocultural crisis of today will spark a right-wing populist backlash greater than in the 2010s. 

From my own research, I agree. As I remarked earlier in this article, the issues created by migration and globalisation have not disappeared in the last few years and will grow in salience as the economic conditions of ordinary voters and the migration crisis worsens. In fact, the view in Britain that Brexit ‘solved’ immigration as an issue of salience for voters is deeply complacent given the persistence of migration across The Channel, the liberalisation of immigration rules from outside the EU by the Johnson government, and the probable impending rise in migration as a direct result of the climate crisis. Immigration has not gone away as an issue and will continue to grow, despite Brexit appearing to have ‘taken back control.’

Another significant finding from my research was that Brexit was fuelled by a populism which tapped into an electorate of discontented ‘losers’ – voters disaffected by the marginalising economic and sociocultural impacts of globalisation who are more likely to align with exclusive political identities such as Englishness. This phenomenon is hugely influenced by inequality, economic insecurity and poor social mobility, all of which are likely to become disastrously more extreme in the months and years ahead due to cost-of-living crisis. In Britain particularly, average mortgage rates have ballooned to 6 per cent as a result of the Truss government’s mini budget, which sent the pound falling and interest rates rising. This is likely to result in a cascade of impoverished households and record inequality over the winter.

Far from the view that populism in Europe had peaked during the Covid era, I estimate that rising migration and worsening economic inequality will continue to inflate populist sentiment in years to come. As the meteoric rise of the Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy has shown, we cannot ignore the concerns of those turning to populist sentiment who feel left behind and ignored. The mainstream of politics has to find radical new solutions to the problems caused by the present crisis, especially on the left which has the most to lose from the growth of populism. Failure to do so will give the populists of Europe a route straight to power.


(*) Jake Moran is a graduate of International Relations from the University of Leeds, specialising in populist studies and the politics of national identity, particularly around Brexit.

ECPSYouthSeminar3

ECPS Youth Seminars #3 —The Others of Europe: Migrants, Refugees, Minorities and LGBTQ+ on the Eyes of Right-Wing Populists

At this ECPS Youth Seminar, Dr Koen Slootmaeckers speaks on “The others of Europe: The migrants, refugees, minorities and LGBTQ+ on the eyes of right-wing populists” and beyond. 

Dr Koen Slootmaeckers is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the Department of International Politics at City University of London. He has a multidisciplinary background and combines insights from sociology and political science into his work. His research focusses on gender and sexuality politics in Europe and is particularly interested in analysing hierarchies within the international system. More specifically, Koen has studied the EU accession of Serbia and how this process affects LGBT politics and activism. And his more recent project is interested in the transnational politics of LGBT Pride Parades. His work has been widely published, including a (co-)edited volume ‘EU Enlargement and Gay Politics’ (Palgrave 2016; with Heleen Touquet and Peter Vermeersch), and articles in, amongst others, East European Politics, Politics, Contemporary South-eastern Europe, Journal of Homosexuality, and Europe-Asia Studies. 

Moderator Celia Miray Yesil is a master’s student of International Political Economy at the Warwick University. She gained her undergraduate degree in European Politics at King’s College London, studying the historical background of European nations and its relationships with the rest of the world. Miray is considering focussing more on the impact of far-right populism in foreign policy, particularly looking at the political language and communication of populist leaders in the international political economy. 

Members and supporters of nationalist organizations participate in Lukovmarch procession - a march in commemoration of general Hristo Lukov in Sofia, Bulgaria on February 16, 2019.

Mapping European Populism – Panel #5: Populist radical right/left parties and far-right movements in the Balkan countries (Oct.27, 2022) 

Date/Time: Thursday, October 27, 2022 / 15:00-17:00 CET

Click here to register!

Moderator

Dr Emilia Zankina (Dean of Temple University, Rome).

Speakers

“Normalization and radicalization: the paradoxes of populism in Bulgaria,” by Dr Evelina Staikova-Mileva (Associate Professor of political science at New Bulgarian University).

“Speaking for the transnational people: the Alliance for the Union of Romanians,” by Dr Sorina Soare (Researcher at the University of Florence).

“The trends of the Radical Right in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” by Dr Nedžma Džananović Miraščija (Professor and researcher at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Science).

“Populists in government in young democracies, normalizing the defects of the young establishment: the case of Kosovo,” by Dr Avdi Smajljaj (Associate Professor in the department of Political Sciences and International Relations at Epoka University in Tirana, Albania).

Click here to register!

Photo: Shutterstock / GagoDesign

ECPS Youth Seminars — Populism versus European Values in the Digital Era: The Case of Romania

Date/Time: Thursday, October 6, 2022 / 18:00 (CEST)

Click here to register!

Moderator

Celia Miray Yesil

Speaker

Dr. Antonio Momoc

The decline of trust in the political institutions of liberal democracy and in traditional journalism (print, radio, television) has been fueled by populists and anti-liberal ideologies. The rise of digital populism has especially generated “a cultural chaos of fake news” that is tremendously damaging the democratic culture. Populist leaders accused conventional media of generating fake news or of “being fake news.” In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the people’s loss of trust in the media amplified as they became poorly financed, unprofessional, increasingly politicized, and partisan.

Meanwhile, digital populists successfully convince these people of possible opportunities created by direct democracy thanks to the online environment. The populist actors argue that the people do not need the institutions of mediation (traditional media, journalists) and representativity (elites, political parties, parliament) anymore, thanks to the fact that they now have the internet, social media, and new technologies.

Dr. Antonio Momoc is an Associate Professor at the Department of Communication Sciences and Cultural Anthropology. He is also the Dean of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences at the University of Bucharest. Dr. Momoc teaches various aspects of communication and media, the new media theories and political communication, fashion, branding and politics, and electoral campaigns.

Moderator Celia Miray Yesil is a master’s student of International Political Economy at Warwick University. Her undergraduate degree was in European Politics at King’s College London, where she studied the historical background of Europe in the global context. Miray is interested in the impact of far-right populism on foreign policy, the political language of populist leaders, and its political economy.

Click here to register!

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan.

Manufacturing Civilisational Crises: Instrumentalisation of Anti-Western Conspiracy Theories for Populist Authoritarian Resilience in Turkey and Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2022). “Manufacturing Civilisational Crises: Instrumentalisation of Anti-Western Conspiracy Theories for Populist Authoritarian Resilience in Turkey and Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 15, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0014

 

Abstract

This paper looks at the importance of ‘crisis events’ used by leaders employing populist civilisational populism in Muslim democracies. While populism is widely acknowledged and studied, various aspects remain unexplored. One feature is how populists make use of a crisis. While populists do benefit from social and political rifts, this paper goes a step further and argues that civilisationalist populists create imaginary and exaggerated ‘crises’ to sustain and prolong their relevance/position in power as well as justify their undemocratic actions. Using the case studies of Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and Pakistan (Imran Khan) allows for a comparison to be drawn between two different leaders seeking to maintain power by using their position to either create civilizationalist crises or to frame ordinary crises as civilisational. The findings highlight that despite different political scenarios and outcomes, both these populist leaders gained political support by creating crises. We find that in most cases, populists exaggerate pre-existing insecurities and events to their benefit. The overblown claims and conspiratorial scenarios aid populists in creating a niche for their narratives by reaffirming their populist categorisation of societies. At the same time, the findings bring forth the troubling issues of the social-political cost of these Islamist civilisationalist populists.  

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil  

Introduction 

William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Macbeth showcases not only a man with a guilty conscious but also an ambitious woman in the form of Lady Macbeth. Wife to a lord of the realm, Lady Macbeth seeks means to increase the family’s social and political influence. Upon hearing the prophecy of the Wayward Sisters, she forces her husband to seize the throne. Her persuasion leads Macbeth to a short-lived reign, but it ends tragically for all involved. 

While Lady Macbeth is often symbolized as a bad wife and a manipulative embodiment of allegedly feminine vice, she is also a Machiavellian politician. Throughout the play she uses carefully crafted words to evoke Lord Macbeth’s emotions and makes tantalizing promises. Her central convictions hinge on greed for power but to convince her husband, she creates a crisis and promises a solution to it. Lady Macbeth is thus very similar to some populists in power today who prey on anger and fear while promising solutions to what ails ‘the people.’

In this paper, we aim to discuss not a classic English tragedy but rather the tragic Islamist populist political trajectories of leading politicians in two countries. Turkey and Pakistan are both victims of populism, and we argue that these countries have seen Lady Macbeth manifest in the form of religious populist leaders. These figures have constantly used populism in the political sphere—and have, in fact, also used politics to enhance their populism. They’ve maintained their longevity and relevance in politics through constant polarisation and by creating fear and sowing suspicion toward ‘the others.’ They give ‘the people’ hope of justice, morality, and change. They’ve tried to carve out a permanent place for populism in politics.     

In recent years, both Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Imran Khan in Pakistan have made headlines for the wrong reasons. Erdogan, the once hopeful Muslim democrat, has turned into a populist authoritarian with hard-line religious ideas challenging the secular democratic constitutional system of Turkey, Turkey’s pro-Western posture and alliances (Yilmaz, 2022). Khan has moved from social tabloids to frontline news with his Islamist-populist blend of politics that feeds on the ontological insecurities of Pakistanis. While both leaders operate in quite different contexts, they share striking similarities beyond their shared populist Islamism.

Populist Crises Rooted in Civilisationalism 

Populism tends to act as a magnet for various societal ideas and emotions. It can attach itself to a wide spectrum of social and political ideologies, ranging from far left to far right (Elchardus & Spruyt, 2014; Stanley, 2008). Populism’s “thinness” (Taguieff, 1995: 32–35) allows for it to attract many perspectives and makes it highly adaptable (De la Torre, 2017; Galito, 2018; Mudde, 2016). Within this quality of mutation, populism attracts issues, themes, and ideas which are ‘flash points’ or triggering in nature. 

Populists can attract mass attention by steering debates on contested issues and, especially, by making emotional appeals to base feelings like fear (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021). Both positive and negative emotions are used by populists to shape their ideas and to appeal to the masses. While non-populists also use emotions in politics, what makes populists different is their intensive use of emotions, especially by discursively dividing society into two antagonistic camps where dangerous ‘others’ have been assaulting the existence of ‘the people,’ who are always ‘pure’ and ‘right’ by default. Populists claim to represent the people and try to rally and mobilise them against ‘the other.’ Who constitutes ‘the people’ and who is ‘the other’ varies by context. 

While populism has largely been studied as a Manichean struggle between the virtuous people, the corrupt elite, and dangerous others within national borders, populism’s transnational and foreign policy implications fall under a civilisational rubric that is mostly drawn along religious lines (Brubaker, 2017). In some cases, populist political leaders use right-wing ideas to promote the idea of a civilisation in danger (Gudavarthy, 2021; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021). This civilisational populist discourse emphasises the importance of antagonistic civilisational differences in global politics and often explains the world in terms of a Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilisations,’ positing that ‘our’ civilisation is threatened by an enemy civilisation or by people from that civilisation who live within ‘our’ national or transnational/diasporic communities (Brubaker, 2017; Lesch, 2020; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Saleem et al. 2022).

Manufacturing ‘crises’ is central to civilisationalist populism. Crises help create a story of an ideal ‘homeland’ or ‘heartland’ which is either lost, dreamed of, or threatened. This is not only limited to a land but extends to way of life, culture, religion and civilisation that can be framed as under existential threat by dangerous others. These then define the parameters of ‘the people’ and ‘the others.’ The otherization process then hinges on profiling ‘the others’ as either threats to the pure people or a hinderance to achieving the promised society that the pure people deserve.

Erdogan and Khan merge Islamist populism with civilisationalism, allowing them to constantly manufacture and instrumentalise civilisationalist ‘crises.’ Their use of religion adds a further layer of emotional resonance in their efforts to mobilize the masses. Both leaders have been able to retain relevance in politics by using either real or constructed Islamist civilisationalist populist crises. When a crisis is real, they skilfully manage to frame it as a civilisational populist issue regardless of its real reasons and roots. Thus, a typical devaluation of the country’s currency because of economic factors could be explained as an existential civilisational attack against the country by the Christian Western crusaders, imperialists, or the ‘interest lobby’ (a.k.a. Jews) that despise the people’s religion, Islam. 

The Case of Erdogan 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

Of the two leaders, Erdogan has been widely studied and acknowledged as a populist politician. His long tenure (over two decades) and Turkey’s closeness to Europe has put him on the radar of political scientists for some time (Yilmaz, 2018; Aytaç & Elçi, 2019; Kaliber & Kaliber, 2019; Yilmaz, 2021a; Tas, 2022). Erdogan and his political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), came to power with an anti-establishment and pro-development agenda (Yilmaz, 2009; 2021a; 2012b). While hailing from a long line of Islamist parties banned by the Kemalist state apparatus, the AKP was a reformed Islamist party which posed as Muslim democrat (Yilmaz, 2009). This came with the promise of joining the European Union (EU), democratising Turkish politics (Yilmaz, 2009), and a move to resolve many ethnic-religious rifts left wide open by Kemalist leadership (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022). The AKP’s first two tenures were dedicated to accomplishing these goals but, due to their complex nature and the party’s failure of nuanced skills, this led to opposite results. By the end of 2010, the party found itself losing popular support (Yilmaz, 2021b). Even when the AKP was a democratising force during its first term, these Kemalist bureaucrats tried to maintain their tutelage over elected politicians and vehemently resisted the pro-EU reforms. 

In response to this, the AKP supported some judicial trials that were “seen by many domestic and international democratic individuals, as well as observers, experts, and institutions such as the EU, as a chance to get rid of Turkey’s notorious deep-state or, to put it more directly, the Kemalist tutelage led by the military” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 199). However, it turned out that these trials were motivated also by “an undemocratic power struggle within the state, where the AKP and some Gülenists were trying to replace the Kemalists” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 199). During these trials, Erdogan and the AKP used observant Muslim citizens’ legitimate grievances against the past undemocratic aggressively secularist practices to frame the Kemalist bureaucracy as ‘the enemies’ of the predominantly Muslim people. 

The AKP used this populist frame to advance a reform package via the 2010 judicial referendum. Under these reforms, the military and judiciary—which were still dominated by the Kemalists—became handpicked by the government. Erdogan called this referendum a “milestone for democracy” and cast it as an issue of the political will of the people versus a power tussle between the AKP and the former Kemalist regime (CNN, 2010). Upon victory, he again framed the whole event as a national crisis—but the nation had ‘won’ and was ‘moving forward,’ as he explained: Yes, to freedom. Yes, to rule of law. No to the law of the rulers. The tutelage of the coup regime is over” (CNN, 2010).

After consolidating his power as a result of the referendum and especially after winning 50 per cent of the vote in the 2011 election, Erdogan’s and his “AKP’s reformist and democratising agenda became steadily weakened. Erdogan was re-elected as prime minister, but thereafter he began to react to political challenges in an increasingly demagogic and autocratic manner” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 199).

As an example, take the Gezi Park protests—a peaceful grassroots movement initiated against the AKP’s corruption and habit of gentrifying or developing public spaces (Gümrükçü, 2016). The government’s harsh response resulted in police brutality against the peaceful protestors, causing several injuries and fatalities. Erdogan employed his civilisationalist populist framing during these protests and accused the protestors of being the puppets of imperialists and the interest lobby. To convince their supporters that their values, religion, beliefs and Muslim civilisation were under attack, Erdogan, the AKP and their media spread disinformation, fake stories and anti-Western conspiracy theories. Erdogan labelled the protestors as “deviant youths” and “tramps” who desecrated a mosque and peed on a practicing Muslim woman who sported a headscarf (Geybullayeva, 2022). Thus, in the eyes of his supporters (40-45 percent of the voters), he successfully turned the event into a moral, religious and civilisational crisis for ‘the people,’ and the alleged desecration was an emotionally triggering aspect of this struggle. Nearly a decade after the protests, Erdogan still uses them as means to discredit protests against the AKP’s growing authoritarianism. He mainly does this by showcasing opposition as a threat to social order and disrespectful of the religious sentiments of Muslims, as he said during the ninth anniversary of the event in June 2022: “We are on the ninth anniversary of the events called the Gezi events, which went down in our history as a document of betrayal, shame and vandalism […] They are corrupt, they are sluts, they know nothing about a holy mosque […] We know who was behind the Gezi events where public buildings, police vehicles, ambulances, businesses, civilian cars, municipal buses, streets and parks were burned down” (BIA News Desk, 2022).

Over time, the Gulen Movement has become one of the AKP’s most prominent examples of civilisationalist rhetoric. As a former ally, this faith-based social and educational movement faced souring relations with the AKP. In late 2013, during the dispute, Erdogan and his close allies were being investigated over corruption (Seibert, 2014). Several leaked audio tapes of the AKP’s top leadership revealed the party’s appetite for corruption and nepotism. The AKP turned this self-created political crisis into a civilisational crisis. It accused the Movement’s members of working with Western countries and Israel against Islam and the Muslim world, as specifically represented by Turkey and the AKP. Then, the AKP started “purging” those suspected of being Gülenists from the police and bureaucracy; these “members” were framed as spies, security threats, and even traitors. Erdogan actively framed the Movement as a parallel structure within the state—one which allegedly worked against the country’s national interests. This framing justified the government’s ‘witch hunt’ against the Gulen Movement—an action that Erdogan defended by saying, “In order to sterilize this dirty water that contaminated the milk, we will either boil or molecularize it” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2014). 

In a 2014 interview, he expressed this idea further. The Gulen Movement was a security threat (Solaker, 2014). Erdogan explained: “These elements [Gulen Movement] which threaten the national security of Turkey cannot be allowed to exist in other countries because what they do to us here, they might do against their host.”

The AKP justifies its hard-line approach towards opposition by framing them as threats to the nation and ‘ummah.’ This trend has accelerated since 2016, as the AKP has taken a clear turn towards populist authoritarianism. Its core ideology is rooted in Islamist civilisationalism, where Turkey is viewed as a nation under threat from ‘enemies’ within and outside. Using the trauma of the past and merging it with present insecurities has allowed the AKP to manipulate events in its favour, allowing it to undertake undemocratic practices and frame them as necessary steps to ‘save’ a country under constant ‘threat.’

A failed coup attempt in July 2016 gave Erdogan the power to enforce a Presidential system, grossly violate human rights of his critics, instrumentalise institutions to echo his populism, and stifle political opposition (IAHRAG, 2021). All of this had been made possible by exploiting or stoking anxiety, fear, anger, deprivation, and insecurity. The Gülen Movement has been overtly blamed for the events of 2016. A civil movement has been transformed into a “terrorist organization” via the power of narrative. In a July 2016 interview Erdogan gave with CNN right after the turmoil, he expresses his certainty that Gülen is a terrorist (CNN, 2016).

On another occasion, Erdogan compared the movement with terrorist organisations and armed groups: “Those who follow the Pennsylvania-based charlatan [Gulen] who sold his soul to the devil, or Daesh, which shed Muslim blood, or the PKK that also has shed blood for 30 years to divide the country and the nation, will all lose in the end” (McKirdy & Alam, 2016). Following the July 2016 ‘attempted coup,’ the Gulen Movement has formally been listed as the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO),” and its activities were outlawed, assets were seized and redistributed, and its members and alleged members were arrested. At the first anniversary of the event in 2017, Erdogan publicly promised: “We will rip the heads off of these traitors [Gulen Movement]” (MEE, 2017). 

As Turkey’s prospects for EU membership faded, the AKP’s leadership used the growing resentment over this issue—as well as past fear and distrust towards the West—to increasingly portray ‘external enemies’ as responsible for domestic problems. These countries were increasingly portrayed as hosts for “FETOists”—and this wasn’t just an insult to Turkey but a threat to democracy everywhere: The attitude of many countries and their officials over the coup attempt in Turkey is shameful in the name of democracy (Karadeniz & Pamuk, 2016).  

Over the last decade, Erdogan has been quite willing to exploit Islamophobia to extend his narrative about Western countries antagonizing Muslims. While Islamophobia has undoubtedly increased post-9/11, as a populist Islamist, Erdogan has used its existence to prove the narrative that Western nations are the enemies of the East. He’s done this in a Huntingtonian fashion, openly accusing the West of “playing games with the Islamic world.” (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; Douglass-Williams, 2019). On many occasions, Erdogan has behaved undiplomatically to Western counterparts. He has called the Dutch government “fascists” and accused them of “Nazism” when AKP members were refused the opportunity to hold rallies with expat Turks (Marris, 2017). Erdogan has consistently framed the West as lacking empathy for Muslims: “This virus [Islamophobia] is spreading very quickly in countries that have been portrayed as cradles of democracy and freedom for years” (Daily Sabah, 2021).   

Moreover, Erdogan has repeatedly blamed “international lobbies” and “foreign powers” for the fall in value of the Turkish Lira’s value (Smith, Sage & Charter, 2018). He called such forces the “global barons of politics and money” who were allegedly derailing Turkey’s progress: “We’ll not give up our new economic program no matter what they do […] They are trying to create a dark scenario using foreign-exchange levels” (Ant, 2021).

As the 2023 elections near, Erdogan has been busy urging the masses to “continue fighting” and “working” for the country’s “purification” from various threats. He added at an event, “We will not give an opportunity to those who want to strangle us with other traps that our country has repeatedly fallen into. Those whose politics consist of lies are not good for this nation” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2022).

At the same times, promises of hope for deliverance from the various ‘crises’ are also transnational. Erdogan has been highly passionate about the Palestinian cause and has promised deliverance to the ummah (OpInida, 2020). At the same time, his growing Islamist policies are also justified as a means of elevating the status of the “victimized” ummah. In 2020, at the reconversion of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan’s comments reflected this promised deliverance: “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the footsteps of the will of Muslims across the world to come… the resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the reignition of the fire of hope of Muslims and all oppressed, wrong, downtrodden and exploited” (OpInida, 2020).  

What Erdogan thrives on is discord and insecurities that are pre-existing in Turkish society and felt amongst the ummah. The craft of the populist is attaching these vulnerabilities to various populist civilisationalist ideas and instrumentalizing them into ‘crises’ that benefit them. For example, each year on the anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt, the events have been relived and the narrative of looming threats to Turkey is reinforced. Over the years, the list of ‘others’ continues to grow, encapsulating not just national but transnational ‘threats.’ These layers of crises are added to the AKP’s narrative (Carol & Hofheinz, 2022; Yilmaz, 2021a; Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2021A; 2021b; Yilmaz & Erturk, 2021). The sense of a looming crisis justifies the AKP’s undemocratic actions and it sows deep divisions within a society shaped, in part, by Islamist civilisationalist populism.

The Case of Khan

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan addresses to his supporters during public gathering held on December 11, 2012 in Lodheran, Pakistan.

Imran Khan has also centred his politics around crises which have evolved and intensified over his political career. Like Erdogan, Khan has used pre-existing fissures in society—including anti-West sentiments, Pakistan’s ontological crises, and distrust towards the political elite and various state institutions—to create a collage of crises that have kept him at the centre of mainstream politics.   

After retiring from international men’s cricket, Khan took to politics. In his initial years, very few took Khan seriously; many dismissed him as an idealist (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). His narratives were focused on human development, which were backed by his history of philanthropic work in Pakistan. He was a beloved celebrity, but it was not until the 2010s when he started gaining political clout. Khan’s rise to political prominence is directly linked with the creation of several crises (and supported by military backing) (Yilmaz & Saleem, 2022). After almost a decade in the limelight of Pakistani politics, Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has shown an ability to survive without the backing of the establishment thanks to populist-created crises. Since April 2022, relations between the party and establishment have soured, resulting in Khan’s ouster from office (Basit, 2022). Khan has relied on major crises to remain relevant in politics and has even challenged the longstanding hegemony of the establishment (Alvi & Khan, 2022). 

It’s useful to look at the evolution and various forms of these political and social crises. Khan gained political prominence for opposing the West’s “War on Terror,” in the early 2000s—a stance widely broadcast on Western media. Khan was critical of Pakistan’s alliance with the US (Khan, 2021), and he led anti-drone attack rallies in the affected areas of Western Pakistan. Khan’s characterisation has been clear throughout: he primarily portrays the West as untrustworthy, exploitative, and self-serving which results in exploitation of Muslims, including Pakistanis (Afzal, 2018; BBC, 2012). This misplaced sympathy with the Taliban earned Khan the title of ‘Taliban Khan’ in the international press. Khan declared the Taliban “holy warriors” and found merit in their cause (Butt, 2021; Boone, 2012). It was this sentiment that led Khan to call the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, in 2021, an attempt to dismantle Western influence in the region by “breaking the chains of slavery” (Muzaffar, 2021). But his narratives only gained widespread attention in Pakistan when the military establishment was out of power and needed a civil partner to counter mainstream political parties (Siddiqa, 2022; Basit, 2022). 

In early 2010s, Khan rose to prominence due to his direct attacks on corrupt mainstream political parties. Khan’s narrative was that of ‘tabdeli’ (change) which he compared to a “tsunami” bringing much needed change to Pakistani politics (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). Khan rose to prominence during a politically precarious time: the same dynastic-led political parties were winning elections despite a range of corruption charges blemishing their records. Khan and the PTI offered a much-needed alternative. Between 2013 and 2018 (from the PTI winning its first majority in a province to winning a nationwide majority in the 2018 general elections), Khan created a populist-styled political crisis. In this crisis, ‘the people’ were being robbed of their communal wealth and right to be heard by “looters” (mainstream politicians). Khan explained the “dire” situation in the following way: “When one party was kicked out on charges of corruption, the second took over and they made the rounds of corruption […] people were forced to choose one among these two as they had no other choice” (Zafar & Karni, 2018).

Voters found themselves with a choice to avert this political crisis by choosing the PTI over “rats,” “mafia,” and “traitors” (terms used by Khan to label political opposition) (Khan, 2022; NDTV, 2022; Sharma, 2022). This crisis was not imaginary: the Bhutto-Zardari and Sharif families had been implicated in several corruption cases (The New York Times, 2020; Khan, 2018). When the Panama Papers leak contained the names of several of these political families, it gave Khan legitimacy in the eyes of the public (Khaleeli, 2016). Khan promised populist reforms to end corruption in less than 100 days, direct citizen communication with the government, social welfare for all, and improved economic performance (PTI, 2018). In 2011, before PTI’s first major victory, Khan promised deliverance for the “wronged people”: “Once we are in power, we’ll end corruption in 90 days. My party has zero tolerance for corruption and corrupt people” (Mansoor, 2011). 

The promises kept getting flashier, such as in 2012, with Khan promising, “PTI will come to power along with policies to address all problems.” He even said his government would only need 19 days to end corruption and 90 days to end terrorism (The Express Tribune, 2012). While in office following the 2013 general elections, the PTI found itself in charge of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. After this victory, Khan told Pakistanis to “wait and see” the elevated status of the province by the end of his term (Ilyas, 2013). However, the party’s performance in the province to improve public facilities, eradicate terrorism, and end corruption remained unfulfilled. In direct contradiction of his electoral promises, Khan forged a comfortable alliance with the ‘corrupt’ and ultra-right Jamaat-e-Islami (Samaa, 2017; Shams, 2016; Dawn, 2013; Khan, 2014). 

With the 2018 elections approaching, and PTI suffering from a problematic performance in KP, the party launched its 2018 election campaign by stoking layered crises and with a pronounced religious connotation. The core crisis of corruption was now linked with the moral degradation of society. Khan blamed the latter on Pakistanis turning their backs on Islam. He promised to end corruption and all other problems faced by country by following a model of Riyasat e Medina (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). In Khan’s words: “Over the last 75 years of Pakistan’s history, our country has suffered from elite capture, where powerful and crooked politicians, cartels and mafias have become accustomed to being above the law in order to protect their privileges gained through a corrupt system” (Khan, 2022).  

He presented the Riyasat e Medina model as a solution to the multifaceted problems facing Pakistan: “In Islamic civilization, the manifestation of our spiritual principles happened in the Prophet’s (SAW) Madina. Besides many other important principles, there were five very important guiding principles upon which the state of Madina was built. These principles are unity, justice and rule of law leading to meritocracy, a strong moral and ethical foundation, inclusion of all humans in progress and prosperity, and finally, the quest for knowledge” (Khan, 2022). 

By 2018, the crisis was not only political but spiritual. Khan mainstreamed the idea that the Muslim ummah (and especially in Pakistan) had been “left behind” due to their waywardness from Islamic governance and social morality. The following abstract from an interview showcases Khan’s framing of the crises in populist Islamist fashion: 

“At the moment, the worst advertisement[s] for Islam are the Muslim countries with their selective Islam, especially where the religion is used to deprive people of their rights. In fact, a society that obeys the fundamentals of Islam must be a liberal one. If our Westernized class started to study Islam, not only would it be able to help our society fight sectarianism and extremism, but it will also make them realize what a progressive religion Islam is. They will also be able to help the Western world by articulating Islamic concepts” (MEMRI, 2011).

Such rhetoric combined with constant narratives of corruption and the support of the establishment, landed PTI in power. However, soon after taking office, the party found itself taking ‘U-turns’ on many fronts (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021c). From going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout package to relying on “electable” candidates to the win the 2018 elections, Khan and PTI repeatedly contradicted their promises. Things were made worse thanks to growing economic pressures on the already fragile economy during and after the global Coronavirus pandemic. 

Amidst all these problems, the Riyasat e Medina model was thickened. Despite being highly dependent on Western financial institutions and aid, Khan continued to promise to be independent from the West. His pre-election speeches before 2018 showcased the layers of crisis narrative he’d constructed, including Pakistan’s “slavery to the West” enabled by the corrupt elite leadership. He promised a foreign policy free of US influence, no IMF packages and the promise of a Riyasat-e-Medina (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). Even though Khan went to the IMF—despite promising that Pakistan would no longer take the “begging bowl” to the West—he maintained his anti-Western rhetoric (The Indian Express, 2019). He constantly blamed the US for spreading terrorism in Pakistan and the socio-economic ramifications of the ‘War on Terror.’ At one forum he irritably said: “From this platform, I want them all to know, the country that suffered the most, apart from Afghanistan, was Pakistan when we joined the US War on Terror after 9/11” (USNews, 2021).

The second, more prominent layer of this “Western induced” crisis that emerged during the early phase of Khan’s tenure was the moral dimension of “Western influence.” To explain away rising child abuse and assault against women, Khan chose to blame the “porn culture” which in his view was “imported” from the West (Tariq, 2021; Images, 2020). The idea of a moral panic is rooted in the misgiving of the Pakistani nation towards the West and Western culture. Khan capitalised on these sentiments by bringing them to the heart of political debates. He explained his convictions in an interview: “In the 1980s our economy was better than [that of] India and Bangladesh, but slowly they left us behind. And it happened because our moralities waned, and this decline started from the elites of our society. […] I always advise my youth to study the life of our Holy Prophet (PBUH) and understand how he ruled the Arab world. […] In your life, you will always have to choose between two paths. There will be a tougher path, which appears difficult, and the other will be the shortcut, which everyone else will opt for” (Samaa, 2021). 

This construction of a moral crisis aided Khan and was used to explain a lot of domestic issues and their ad-hoc solutions. For instance, when Pakistani women marched on the streets to express their anger over the state’s inability to protect them, Khan dismissed them as “misguided” or “Western influenced” (Images, 2020).  

This crisis was linked with the ‘intentions’ of the West and non-Muslim countries. Khan and the military (when working in unison) mainstreamed the idea of Pakistan facing “fifth generation warfare.” According to Khan, the PTI, and the establishment, Pakistan is being attacked by an “unseen” enemy via an information war. From accusation against India to accusations about the “Jewish lobby,” the information war became a major source of anxiety and concern about “outside threats,” which were blamed for issues ranging from running “misinformation campaigns” and “sponsoring” terrorists in Pakistan (Dawn, 2020). The military’s top brass endorsed this narrative. 

To pass on this “credible” information, the PTI and military media, Inter-Services Public Relation (ISPR), collaborated for the promotion of “truth.” This ranged from importing content from Muslim countries such as Turkey and televising pan-Islamist shows, to sponsoring content developers to showcase a ‘positive’ Pakistan (MMNews, 2021). At one such event, Khan urged young people to not rely on Hollywood for inspiration and focus on creating “original content.” He said: “I have seen the inception of Pakistan’s film industry [….] we started copying Indian films after some years. […]” He continued to push for the need of “original content” which he explained as: “If we want to project a soft image of Pakistan, then we need to promote [the country’s true identity]” (The News, 2021).

Another PTI intervention meant to tackle the moral crisis was to curb Western influence from universities by ensuring Islamist (Islamic) studies are taught at all levels of tertiary education and to introduce a mandatory course on the life of the Prophet (Hoodbhoy, 2021). In Khan’s words, he regrets Western influences and wants to counter them with such measures: “The English-medium [system of private British-inspired or run schools] evolved in such a way that there was less emphasis on education and more emphasis on creating ‘desi vilayati’ (local foreigners). The attitudes and mental slavery of another culture were absorbed” (Abbas, 2021). He further linked abuse and disrespect of women to perpetuation of Western morals, which could be countered by rooting moral society in the right life of Prophet Muhammad: “When I was growing up, nobody could have thought that acts like this would happen [in Pakistan]. I have been to the entire world; the respect for women I saw while growing up existed in Muslim countries but not in the West. A big reason for the destruction we’re seeing is that our children are not being brought up properly.”

This moral crisis became a permanent fixture of Khan’s interviews and debates. By 2021, Khan ensured that a department was created from scratch called the National Rahmatul-lil-Alameen Wa Khatam an-Nabiyyin Authority (Dawn, 2021a). This government institution is tasked with morally revamping Pakistan’s youth, and it has encouraged higher education institutes to research the “harmful effects” of the West on Pakistan and to study the life of Prophet Mohammad (The Friday Times, 2021). 

In addition to using different crises to gain support at home, Khan, like Erdogan, has presented himself as the ‘saviour’ of the ummah. His selection of the ‘cases’ he chooses to showcase is telling of his sincerity with the ummah (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). While he considers the genocide of Uighurs in China, also Muslims, an “internal matter” of China, Khan is proactive in calling out Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the global wave of Islamophobia, and issues like Kashmir (Kugelman, 2021). When Shia Hazaras were gunned down during a sectarian killing in Quetta, Khan delayed visiting the community and even called the grieving protestors “blackmailers” who were simply demanding justice for their killed kin (Hashim, 2021; Naya Daur, 2021). Thus, his advocacy for Muslims has always been selective and fed the narrative of civilizationalist populist crises. Islamophobia’s presence, especially in the post-9/11 environment, is undeniable. However, Khan has used the existence of oppression of or discrimination against Muslims to craft a collective identity of victimhood. He has positioned himself as the advocate of these Muslims (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). 

In a firebrand speech in 2022, he proclaimed Muslim leaders’ lack of interest disappointing, as he positioned himself as the voice of the ummah: “This Islamophobia kept growing and the reason was—I am sorry to say—we the Muslim countries did not do anything to check this wrong narrative. How can any religion have anything to do with terrorism? How was Islam equated with terrorism? And once that happens, how does a man in the Western country differentiate between a moderate Muslim and a radical Muslim? How can he differentiate? Hence this man walks into a mosque and shoots everyone [New Zealand’s Christchurch shooting].  […] Unfortunately, what should have been done, but wasn’t…the heads of Muslim countries should have taken a stand on this. But a lot of heads of states said that they were moderates” (NDTV, 2022a).

This statement was linked to the development that Khan-led delegations ensured the United Nations General Assembly approved the resolution to assign March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia (Aljazeera, 2022). Following this decision, Khan congratulated the ummah: “Today, the UN has finally recognised the grave challenge confronting the world: Islamophobia, respect for religious symbols and practices, and curtailing systematic hate speech and discrimination against Muslims. The next challenge is to ensure implementation of this landmark resolution” (Aljazeera, 2022). 

Khan’s anti-Western rhetoric and civilisationalist crises peaked in April 2022. After a turbulent three years in office, with a vote of no confidence, the National Assembly forced Khan out of office. This event took place after Khan had been head-on with the establishment over the selection of the new head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) (Ali, 2021). Gradually, by April 2022, the PTI’s relations with the establishment had soured, the joint opposition had gained momentum, and the party’s performance was being questioned by many due to skyrocketing inflation. As Khan’s grip on power was loosening, he used the biggest crisis of all to stay in office. While it did not help him stay in office, it has ensured that he remains a relevant political force in the country. His narratives ensured PTI’s comfortable victory in the Punjab by elections of 2022 (Latif, 2022). 

In April 2022, when all attempts to revoke his disqualification failed, Khan took to hosting online, in person, and televised transmissions. In each of these highly watched and attended gatherings and recordings, he parroted a similar story. He argued that the vote of non-confidence was a “sazish” (conspiracy) against Pakistan by a “foreign country” (Iwanek, 2022). In the initial period, Khan talked about the existence of a letter sent to the foreign office and claimed that due to his “noncompromising” attitude, the foreign powers wanted him out and allied with the opposition to get rid of him. This crisis was turned into a national security issue and a question of people’s “self-respect” and right to “self-determination” (Bol News, 2022; The Indian Express, 2022). Khan used the ideas of honour, nationalism, and even an Islamist clash of civilisations to build this narrative. While blaming the US for the vote of no confidence, Khan told people: “I am telling my nation today that this is our status. We are a nation of 220 million and another country—and they are not giving any reason—[is issuing threats]” (NDTV, 2022b). He stirred anger, betrayal, and anxiety in his audiences. Just as he had mobilised the masses in 2013 and 2018, Khan continued to use crises to gain massive support (ABC News, 2022). 

The ongoing crisis in Pakistan combines the previous ones. It links the untrusty West with the corrupt Pakistani politicians in a conspiracy against the ‘will of the people.’ It is a manifestation of the ‘threats’ that Khan has been talking about for years—threats to both the country and Islam. The US has been named as the country trying to “interfere” with domestic politics (Baloch, 2022). Using Islamism, Khan labelled the opposition as Mir Jafars and Mir Sadiqs (both men aided the British in annexing parts of India by betraying their Sultan/Nawab). At one of his recent rallies, he lashed out: “Everyone will remember how you devastated the country through foreign conspiracy. Who were Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq? These were the people who made their countrymen slaves of the British.” 

He added: “I am here today because […] we got a message from another country. For a free country, a message like this is [not only] against its prime minister but is also against the country [itself].” He linked the “corrupt parties” with this alleged conspiracy: “…they [the opposition] parties had links with them.” He continued: “The most disturbing thing is that they [foreign forces] have links with the people through whom the conspiracy [the vote of no confidence] happened. They are stooges, and stooges means loyal slaves.”

These narratives have been a key to Khan remaining in popular favour despite questionable performance since 2013. Using pre-existing flashpoints and discontent, he’s drawn many Pakistanis to his online and offline appearances. This mammoth support is due to the civilisational ‘threat’ faced by Pakistan and has enabled Khan to question the military, which is seen as a traditional defender of the country. Since April 2022, he has actively blamed the military for not supporting him and remaining “neutral” as foreign countries act against Pakistan’s welfare (The Express Tribune, 2022).

Conclusion 

Much like Lady Macbeth, Erdogan and Khan have used the power of narrative mixed with emotions to shape their countries’ political trajectories in their favour. Erdogan and Khan, while operating independently, share hallmark characteristics of Islamist populist civilisationalism. Both abuse historic, political, and economic rifts in society to emotionally charge the masses; they do this by either manufacturing a civilisationalist crisis or framing an existing crisis in a civilisational populist style. Both populists rely on anti-Western conspiracy theories and dangerous sentiments of hate, anger, moral panic, anxiety, injustice, victimhood, and disappointment to highlight various aspects of their crises. Their manufactured crises are not entirely doom and gloom, as they offer hope and resolution in the form of the populists and their parties as the leaders, saviours and protectors of the ummah against ‘the Crusader West’ that is ‘hostile’ to Islam and Muslims. 

As the cases demonstrate, both leaders take pride in tackling the problems. However, their tackling of ‘the problems’ is quite selective and superficial. Thus, the crises create an illusion that the populists will deliver a better tomorrow or guarantee justice to the wronged. In reality, they are widening society’s insecurities and divisions. Erdogan in the last twenty years has divided Turkish society on religious and political lines, which is as oppressive as the Kemalist re-construction of a secular society. Khan has capitalized on pre-existing Sunni majority conservatism and distrust of non-Muslim countries. This has earned him political victories, but the social fabric of Pakistan—always volatile and discriminatory towards the marginalized—is as fractured as ever. Today, people in Pakistan have lost trust in the state’s key institutions, and a segment feels at ease contributing all negative things to ‘Western conspiracies.’ We find that these populists are not original creators of these crises but opportunistic users. Crises—real or imagined and manufactured—are instrumentalized for political purposes. This enables these populists to blur the lines between fiction and reality, as they try to turn situations in their favour.


Acknowledgements: This research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant, DP220100829, Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


 

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Islamist Populists in Power: Promises, Compromises and Attacks on Democratic Institutions

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Ahmed, Zahid; Bashirov, Galib; Morieson, Nicholas & Shakil, Kainat. (2022). “Islamist Populists in Power: Promises, Compromises and Attacks on Democratic Institutions.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 7, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0013

 

Abstract

This paper comparatively examines the ruling religious populist governments in Turkey and Pakistan through a theoretical framework that focuses on populists’ promises, their compromises, and their attacks on democratic institutions. Through our three-legged framework, we examine how these religious populists behave in power and how strategic necessities, the realities of governing, and structural constraints shape their policies. Similar to the other populists in other parts of the world, before coming to power, Islamist populists make sweeping promises to the people and quick fixes to major problems of the country—most famously, quick and substantial economic development. While they may want to retain their uncompromising style and lofty goals, the realities of governing force populists to make serious compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ and on their values once they are in power. Finally, like other authoritarian politicians, Islamist populists attack formal institutions of democracy such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society; they politicize them, evacuate them, and eventually capture them from within.

Keywords: Religion, populism, Islamism, authoritarianism, populists in power, democratic backsliding, Turkey, Pakistan

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Zahid S. Ahmed*, Galib Bashirov**, Nicholas Morieson & Kainat Shakil

Introduction

The rise of political populism among ruling elites in different parts of the world—but especially in Asia, Europe, and the United States—has raised questions about the durability and resilience of democracy as a political order. This experience is especially relevant to Pakistan and Turkey, as both countries have a contentious history between religion, democracy, and authoritarianism via military rule. More importantly, Islamist populist actors have captured political power in both countries: Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Imran Khan in Pakistan. This begs the question: How do Islamist populist leaders behave in power? This research will examine the practices of Islamist populists in power to reveal the main patterns of their behaviour—and the implications for democratic institutions.

This paper has three aims. First, it attempts to comprehend the main features of the ruling Islamist populist governments in the Muslim world by comparing populist actors in Turkey and Pakistan. The rise of populism in Turkey and Pakistan is a sign of a broader phenomenon where populist actors have been threatening democratic institutions and norms via populist discourses. However, comparative studies of populisms in the Muslim world are almost absent in the literature. Moreover, the relationship between Islamism and populism is relatively understudied (Hadiz, 2018; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). Scholars have described populists in Europe as ‘hijacking’ religion or as secular actors that instrumentalize religion to win and keep power (Marzouki et al., 2016; Morieson, 2017). In Islamic majority nations, something similar yet more complex appears to be taking place. Indeed, as this paper shows, Islamist populists in Pakistan and Turkey draw upon Islam when they make promises to defend their respective nations from foreign forces ‘seeking to destroy the nation’ and its people and when they promise to rejuvenate their nations via a return to Islamic values and ways of life. They also, at times, portray themselves as ‘holy’ Islamic figures with the power to ‘save’ their peoples from their religious enemies. However, as the paper shows, they are also willing to compromise their Islamic values to remain in government. 

We present a theoretical framework that examines Islamist populists in power, focusing on their promises, their compromises, and their attacks on democratic institutions. Our framework allows for an examination of how populists behave in power as well as how strategic necessities, the realities of governing, and structural constraints shape their policies. We show that similar to the other populists, Islamist populists make sweeping promises—before coming to power—involving giving power to the people, quick fixes to major problems, and of widespread economic development. These promises, the paper shows, are designed to provoke an emotional response in voters and to elicit feelings of fear of cultural disintegration and anger toward ‘elites’ but also nostalgia for a past golden age and hope for a better future. However, while they may want to retain their uncompromising style and lofty goals, the realities of governing forces populists to make serious compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ and on their values. Finally, populists attack formal institutions of democracy such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society; they politicize them, evacuate them, and eventually capture them from within.

This study provides a fresh analysis on the impacts of Islamist populism on democracy in the Muslim world. This study will provide a systematic analysis focusing on populists’ promises, rejection of compromise, and authoritarianism vis-à-vis their use of socio-cultural elements. In doing so, it will also demonstrate how the Islamist populist governments in Pakistan and Turkey have manoeuvred around principles of democracy and political accountability—sometimes subtly, sometimes openly—to dilute its safeguards and erode democratic institutions. 

In what follows, we first document the rise of populism in Turkey and Pakistan. Then we introduce our conceptual framework based on the populists’ promises, compromises, and attacks on democratic institutions. Following this, we comparatively examine the Turkish and Pakistani cases by applying this framework. The final section summarizes our findings.

Rise of Populism in Turkey and Pakistan

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ali Erbas, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is seen during a public rally in Istanbul on the second anniversary of failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

In this article, we follow the performative-relational approach to populism that has been developed by Ostiguy et al. (2020). This approach incorporates socio-cultural and style elements and focuses on performances, discourses, and speech acts. The performative-relational approach combines theatre, representation, embodiment, and making the marginal visible (Ostiguy et. al. 2020). In particular, it examines how the leader embodies the people and their demands through certain performances such as language, clothing, bodily image, and other socio-cultural references. The leader’s style generally challenges socio-cultural standards of ‘proper behaviour,’ hence low politics (Ostiguy et. al, 2020), and is characterised by “bad manners” (Moffitt, 2016). The bad (subversive) manners find resonance in the populists’ dirty institutionality when they are in power. The dirty institutionality refers to personalism, decisionism, rule-erosion, and antagonism.

Since at least 2011, Turkey has undergone a dual process of democratic backsliding amid the emergence of a new, authoritarian regime under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Turkey’s overall democracy score dropped from 5.73 in 2011 to 4.09 in 2019 (The Economist, 2019). Turkey’s political system has been transformed into a presidential system that has given most executive and legislativefunctions to President Erdogan, eliminating the principle of separation of powers as well most checks and balances on executive authority (Tas, 2015). In addition, an important component of the ruling-AKP’s political strategy has been populism (Yilmaz, 2018). In Turkey, the AKP government’s adherence to populism has been well documented by several scholars (Aytaç and Öniş, 2014; Taş, 2020; Baykan, 2021). 

Erdogan depicted himself as the man of the people, the son of a modest migrant family in Istanbul, and a devout Muslim educated in an Imam and Preacher School. In his own self mythology, he “knows the streets of city,” has devoted his life to working for Islamist political organisations and has suffered for his political ideas. In the Erdoganist narrative, the Kemalists and Westernised people are cast as evil elites (Beyaz Türkler, or White Turks) who are out of touch with the ‘real,’ authentic values of ‘the people,’ and they are charged by Erdogan with historical horrors against simple people—all committed in the name of Westernisation (Çapan and Zarakol, 2019: 276). In this narrative, the White Turks are framed as responsible for anything that goes wrong in the country (Yılmaz, 2017: 499). 

Erdogan’s charismatic leadership played an important role in enabling the AKP to increase its popularity and remain in power (Turk, 2018). He presented himself as the “voice of deprived ‘real people’ and the champion of their interests against the old elites” (Dincsahin, 2012). He also increased his popularity with the working class through such populist acts as having his hair “cut in the poor neighbourhood where he grew up,” which helped to show that his “newly acquired power has not changed him” (Kirdiş and Drhimeur, 2016: 606). Erdogan’s peculiar populist style carried important similarities with Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa’s in Venezuela and Ecuador, respectively (Selcuk, 2016). Castaldo (2018), on the other hand, claims that Erdogan’s populism has allowed him to acquire unchecked control over state institutions and use this power against the opposition.

The AKP has been particularly successful in harnessing the negative emotions of the Turkish public. Yilmaz, for example, notes that negative emotions such as fear have been the dominant constitutive components of modern Turkish nationhood and among the deep conviction of Turkey’s nation-builders, who attempted to create a homogenous nation of desired citizens by assimilating or eliminating ethnic, religious, and political minorities (Yilmaz, 2021a). Yilmaz argues that the AKP draws upon “fear, anger, rage, desire to own the homeland forever,” a “need for a smile,” a desire to “sacrifice blood for the country, and desire to enjoy freedom of the God-worshipping nation,” along with feelings of “victimhood, resentment and siege mentalities” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 3) in order to build its political power and support for Erdogan’s rule.

Erdogan’s populism also carried an anti-institutionalist attitude. He opposed horizontal accountability structures such as the judiciary and the Constitutional Court and blamed them for the ills of society. Erdogan asserted the moral and normative supremacy of the national will (Yabanci, 2016; Selcuk, 2016), and, acting as if he was the embodiment of the national will, he vilified his critics such as Kurdish nationalists and Gulenists, as traitors and the “enemies of the state” (Gencoglu-Onbasi, 2016).

In Pakistan, Imran Khan “rose to power on a classic populist platform” by presenting his party as the non-corrupt alternative to Pakistan’s two biggest political parties of the era, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) (Afzal, 2019: 1). With anti-Western and pro-Taliban rhetoric, Khan’s populism has been labelled both left wing and right wing. For example, his pro-poor social welfare policies draw from the left, and so, too, does his foreign policy, which aims at reducing dependence on the West (Yilmaz, 2020). Based on an assessment of the 2018 elections that brought Khan into power in Pakistan, Shah describes Pakistan as having a “pseudo-democratic façade covering the reality of continued military tutelage” (2019: 128). There continues to be criticism of Khan’s populism as not being pure because of the military backing during and after the 2018 elections. This is mainly because military dictators directly ruled the country for nearly three decades, and the military continues to sustain its influence in domestic politics (Ganguly, 2009), as well as the fact that the Khan government has been close to the military leadership (Afzal, 2019). 

There are many examples which show how the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government benefited military leadership. This includes the much-criticized case of the current army chief’s extension in 2019 (Afzal, 2019). In addition, there are numerous examples of former military generals taking up civilian jobs. For example, a retired brigadier was declared the head of the National Database and Registration Authority (Pakistan Today, 2021). In 2019, a former three-star general was appointed to head the newly established China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority, a former air marshal to head Pakistan International Airlines, and a two-star general to head the country’s space agency. Citing these and many more examples, critics of the PTI government call it a “puppet” of Pakistan’s army (Khan, 2021). 

Imran Khan, whilst in office, was certainly supported by the military; however, this does not contradict his populist character. In fact, military establishments have historically supported right-wing populists in other countries, including Brazil and Mexico (Scharpf, 2020; Yilmaz and Saleem, 2021). Imran Khan is another example of a military establishment deciding to support a populist party in a win-win situation, in which the military establishment maintains its unconstitutional power vis-à-vis civilian authorities, and the populist party gains necessary political power in a highly fragmented political environment. 

Since the start of his political career, Khan has targeted the opposition parties—the PML-N and PPP—as the corrupt elites (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2022; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; 2021b). Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) has also targeted other political parties/leadership as friends of the West and India. One key aspect of Khan’s populism is antagonism towards the global powers and the West, especially the US. Like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Khan consistently emphasizes an anti-imperialist discourse in his speeches and statements. Pakistan, according to Khan, has always been subservient to foreigners: first the British and then the Americans. At the heart of Khan’s rhetoric is an emphasis on Pakistan’s sovereignty—the idea that Pakistan should be an independent nation unaffected by foreign influence (Aslam, 2015). 

Khan emphasized the concept of “Islamic socialism” to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Pakistani Muslim population. As such, Khan’s “most fervent new supporters were the poor and working class of Karachi” (Judah, 2018). His emphasis on “Islamic socialism” helped him to dismiss the policies implemented by former Pakistani politicians and elites. For Khan, “the corrupt political elite is trying to protect itself. We have hit rock bottom. The poor are getting poorer, and a tiny number of people are getting richer” (Campbell, 2018). Benefitting from rampant anti-Westernism in Pakistan, Khan has also advocated for the revival of Islamic values. This has been reflected through his infatuation with the Muslim-era under the Ottoman Empire as well as broadcasting a famous Turkish soap opera, Dirilis Ertugrul (English: Resurrection Ertugrul), which airs with Urdu dubbing on Pakistan Television (MEM, 2020). 

Besides using religion in domestic politics, Khan’s foreign policy is also inspired by Islamic identity. Khan associated himself with historical religious figures with references to the Ottoman Empire and the state of Medina dating back to the era of Prophet Muhammad (Bukhari, 2018). Taggart (2004) believes that this kind of association with religious figures also helps bolster support in the populist religious “heartland.” 

Other issues that were prominent in the PTI’s agenda were linked to the ‘War on Terror’ and how that had brought both losses and shame to Pakistan (Aslam, 2015). For Imran Khan, ‘puppet governments’ in Pakistan received US aid which, in turn, destroyed the country (Jeffries, 2011). In contrast, Khan has portrayed the PTI as a party with ‘pure’ intentions for the country and an antagonistic stance toward the ‘West.’ For example, before being elected to office, Khan promised that he would not, unlike past governments, take the “begging bowl” to the International Monitory Fund (IMF) (Bokhari, 2019). In addition, during the US’ Afghanistan withdrawal, Khan made clear that Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow its airbases to be used by the US (Zompa, 2021).

Populism is becoming increasingly influential in the Muslim world, particularly in Muslim democracies. Turkey and Pakistan were, for some time, considered as model democracies in the Muslim world. However, as the AKP experience showed, when combined with populism, Muslim democracies may falter. It appears that Pakistan is following a similar trajectory with Imran Khan increasingly using populist rhetoric to erode democratic institutions. Comparing these two cases makes sense—not only because of such similarities between them, but also because the insights gained from this exercise can be applied to other cases in the Muslim world, such as Malaysia, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Morocco.  

Theoretical Framework: Populists in Power

Hugo Chavez is seen during his last campaign for presidency. Photo: Luis Arismendi

Between 1990 and 2018, the number of populists in power around the world has increased a remarkable fivefold, from four to 20. This includes countries not only in Latin America and in Eastern and Central Europe—where populism has traditionally been most prevalent—but also in Asia and Western Europe. (Kyle and Gultchin, 2018). There is a new and growing literature on populists in power, thanks to the increasing electoral success of populist parties and leaders in the Western world. The literature in Europe has mainly focused on populist political parties, since the European political system is mainly dominated by political parties (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2007, 2015; Kriesi and Pappas, 2015; Pappas, 2014, 2019; Enyedi and Whitefield, 2021; Schwörer, 2021).

Whether these parties are successful at fulfilling their promises remains unknown. However, there is no doubt that they can sustain their respective governments in power, sometimes over long periods. Albertazzi and McDonnell (2007, 2015) investigated Lega Nord in Italy and PDL in Switzerland in this respect. Both parties were junior coalition members in broader conservative-ruling coalition governments for several years. These otherwise marginal right-wing parties have become acceptable partners for mainstream parties in government. The authors’ findings contradict the abovementioned consensus and reveal that these populist parties are neither inevitably episodic nor are they destined to failure in government. They can introduce key policies in line with their core ideologies and election promises. They can focus on the issues that their supporters care about. They may also increase their votes once in government and learn from their previous experiences and mistakes in power. 

Nonetheless, these parties face a peculiar dilemma in power: they may need to let go of their flashy, uncompromising style and learn how to make compromises in politics. Moreover, choosing to participate in government alongside other parties requires them to field suitable candidates for bureaucratic positions in the government, a resource that they may not have.

The literature shows that populists in power, as in the case of Rafael Correa in Ecuador (De la Torre and Ortiz, 2016) “can act strategically and consistently to both head off and undermine possible opposition.” Correa has been able to co-opt political actors by bringing them into the regime and by establishing an informal alliance with a great part of the business community. He also attacked social movement organizations and political activists and has been at war against privately owned media and created state-owned media outlets that are sympathetic to the government and its populist discourse. Correa also kept alive the populist myth of the people confronting powerful elites by constantly campaigning, establishing a ‘permanent campaign.’ Correa’s project was also built on the notions of national sovereignty, critiques of US imperialism, and attempts to create alternative supranational Latin American institutions without US influence.

Correa is continuing a rich vein of Latin American populism of which Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is the most recent prominent example. Originally, ‘Chavismo’ was a democratic response to widespread failures of democratic governance such as corruption and inequality. As Hawkins (2016) argues, Chavez’s populism was “unusually intense and consistent.” Similar to Correa, Chavez’s populism was consistent in that it manifested high levels of populism from Chavez’s first days as a democratic politician until his death as an autocrat. He consistently followed an aggressive foreign policy against US imperialism in Latin America and led the ALBA initiative that brought together leftist, populist Latin American governments—such as Correa’s—for this purpose. 

Traveling across the Atlantic, Batory (2016) argues that in contrast to populist right-wing parties in Western Europe, Fidesz was the major, mainstream centre-right alternative party in Hungary for two decades. This is similar to the mainstream centre-right phenomenon in Turkey. During the 2000s, Fidesz refashioned itself into a vote-winning machine based on its claim to be champion of the common people’s interests against foreign interests. After gaining a majority in the government in 2010, Fidesz single-handedly adopted a new constitution and electoral law that curtailed the power of the independent judiciary, media, and civil society organizations. Fidesz utilized now-well-known populist narratives that portrayed the country’s external enemies as conspiring with domestic forces wanting to pull the country back to a discredited, dark past. The party identified elitism and liberalism as its ‘other.’ 

These cases show that populists can remain popular in government without moderating their rhetoric or falling apart, and in fact, they might well own too many issues to diffuse or mimic their appeal. 

For this comparative analysis of populist governments in power in Turkey and Pakistan, we present a theoretical framework focusing on their Promises, their Compromises, and their Attacks on Democratic Institutions. Our framework fits the performative-relational approach toward populism. The three-dimensional analysis promises an intellectually rigorous framework for this study. 

Promises

To examine how populists behave in power and what makes that behaviour distinctive, we start with looking at their promises during election campaigns. ‘Promise of fullness’ is an important component of populist performance (Ostiguy et al., 2021). Populist performance promises to remove obstacles that prevent the community from redemption. While making promises is a normal trait of electoral politics, populist promises are different due to populists’ rejection of any limits on their claims to embody the will of the people (Espejo, 2015: 61), the contradictory character of their promises, and populists’ propensity to make grandiose promises characterized by quick fixes to major issues. 

An important ‘promise’ that populists make involves bringing ‘democracy,’ i.e. ‘power to the people.’ They favour ‘direct democracy’ and promise to put ‘the people’ in power, at the expense of technocrats and the political establishment. They promise a better world through action by the sovereign people—and that they can deliver on this promise, because they belong to the people (rather than the establishment). This usually means getting things done through majoritarianism. In making this claim, populists overlook the fact that it is not quite possible for ‘we, the people’ to combine diverse interests and opinions into a coherent collective will. Despite populist leaders’ claims to the contrary, divisions remain within societies in terms of opinions, interests, and aspirations. 

Populist promises are also characterized by bombastic rhetoric and grandiosity that often sounds too good to be true. Nonetheless, whether it’s promises of sweeping economic development or quick fixes to major problems, populists catch voters’ attention—and in some cases, their votes. For example, when Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela in 1998, he promised to eradicate corruption and tackle the country’s pressing economic problems, including poverty and social inequality. By 2015, Venezuela was languishing in one of the biggest economic crises in Latin American history.

Religion-based, civilisational identity politics is often an element in populist promises and discourses (Yilmaz, Morieson, Demir, 2021; Brubaker, 2017). For example, European right-wing populists often claim that Muslim immigration places Judeo-Christian values under threat from migrants who fail to assimilate (Morieson, 2021; Cap, 2018; Zúquete, 2017; Ádám and Bozóki, 2016; Baker-Brian, 2011). Simultaneously, populists also promise a solution to the ‘crises’ if they are voted into power, insofar as they promise to rejuvenate their respective nations by returning to the Judeo-Christian tradition that made it great (Yilmaz, Morieson, Demir, 2021; Damhuis, 2019). 

This trend of promising to restore the homeland to its lost glory while ‘otherizing’ segments of society is found outside the West, too. The ‘saffron tide’ in India and East Asia has seen local politicians instrumentalize Hinduism and Buddhism (Artinger and Rowand, 2021; Jayasinghe, 2021; Chatterji et al., 2020; McDonnell and Cabrera, 2019; Peker, 2019). In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, for the last two terms, created an antagonistic environment for non-Hindus and most of its discriminatory policies—from ‘love jihad’ to citizenship laws—are justified by claims that they are part of the revival of the great and ancient Hindu kingdoms (Saleem, Yilmaz and Chacko, 2021; Saleem, 2021). Muslim democracies have also seen an increase in populist politicians using religiously driven crises and promises (Yilmaz, 2021a; Yilmaz, Morieson, Demir, 2021; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021c).

Compromises

Populist leaders demand transparency; they denounce backroom deals, shady compromises, complicated procedures, secret treaties, and technicalities that only experts can understand. They abhor pragmatic party politics and its compromises. These issues tap into a deep vein of public disillusionment with the political establishment. Moreover, the polarising and divisive nature of populist appeals prevent negotiations and compromise among contending political actors (Panizza and Stavrakakis, 2021). Moreover, populism presents a Manichean outlook, in which there are only friends and foes. Opponents are not simply people with different priorities and values; they are evil. Populism’s black-and-white views and uncompromising stance inevitably leads to a polarised society, and its majoritarian attitude denies legitimacy to opponents’ views, weakening the rights of minorities.

Consistency would require that populists continue this uncompromising stance once ensconced in power. However, once in power, populists are bound by the same structural limitations and necessities that affect all mainstream parties. This means that they must negotiate with other parties, groups, and countries in an increasingly interdependent environment. Once in power, populists pursue pragmatic, opportunistic policies that go against their promises of radical change, and they make compromises with the domestic and international actors that they previously criticized. 

Populists also do not abstain from making compromises to their ‘enemies’ once they are in power. Populism is a thin ideology that divides society into two opposing camps, the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’ (Mudde, 2017). Populists create enemies in their discourses during election cycles. Despite their idealistic claims otherwise, populists are political actors who pursue power. Once in power, their main goal is to stay in power, which requires them to make pragmatic decisions, including compromises. In this context, populists make ‘friends’ or ‘allies’ from some of their previously declared ‘enemies’ for the sake of gaining political favours.

Research on populism also point at populists’ pragmatic and opportunistic approach to political issues and concepts once they are in power. Populists in power have a similar incentive structure to all other politicians. As such, they strive to stay in power as much as possible. To do so, they are willing to ignore their earlier promises and make compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ if they consider this to be necessary. In order to generate an illusion of consistency for their followers, populists in power usually implement non-radical policies and try to masque them with radical rhetoric. 

Attacks on Democratic Institutions

As mentioned above, the populist leader’s style generally challenges socio-cultural standards of ‘proper behaviour,’ (Ostiguy et. al 2021) hence low politics and is characterised by “bad manners” (Moffitt, 2016). The bad (subversive) manners of the populist finds resonance in their “dirty institutionality” when they are in power. The dirty institutionality refers to personalism, decisionism, rule-erosion, and antagonism (Panizza et al, 2020). Levitsky and Loxton (2013) argue that populism—the election of a personalistic outsider who mobilizes voters with an anti-establishment appeal—is a major catalyst for the emergence of competitive authoritarianism. Lacking experience with representative democratic institutions, possessing an electoral mandate to destroy the existing elite, and facing institutions of horizontal accountability controlled by that elite, populists have an incentive to launch plebiscitary attacks on institutions of horizontal accountability. Where they succeed, weak democracies almost invariably slide into competitive authoritarianism. Thus, populists in power invariably attack democratic institutions. As a recent report by Grzymala-Busse et al. (2020: 1) mentioned, “Populists undermine formal institutions such as the courts, legislatures, and regulatory agencies as creations of the ‘corrupt elite.’ As winners of democratic elections, they fail to constrain themselves and instead hollow out and politicize formal institutions of liberal democracy.”

In this article, we will focus on three sets of institutions that populists most famously attack: the judiciary (the Constitution, regulatory agencies, laws, judges, lawyers), the media, (media organizations, journalists, the internet, social media), and civil society (NGOs, INGOs, trade unions). Our discussion will focus specifically on how Erdogan and Khan attacked, captured, and/or dismantled these institutions. In our discussion, we will examine how specifically the populismof these actors informed their actions and led to their eventual success at corrupting these institutions. In particular, we will discuss populists’ politicization, capture, and hollowing out of the institutions. 

Comparative Analysis of Populists in Turkey and Pakistan

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

Promises 

A notorious trope of populist discourse is the promise of ‘direct democracy,’ with populists framed as direct representatives of ‘the people.’ In Turkey, Erdogan is notorious for constantly articulating such statements contrasting himself and his party to the Kemalists, which he considers the elitist, anti-religious group. During various election cycles, Erdogan referred to himself and supporters as ‘Black Turks’ (who were wronged by the elites, by the ‘White Turks’ who tend to be Kemalist and secular). The trope of the Black Turk is well-worn ground for Erdogan, a staple of his self-branding as the great outsider who is removed from the politics of 20th century one-party rule and corruption. He has continuously invoked victimhood narratives that hail the conservative Turks (his base) as the real people who historically suffered under the Kemalist secularist regime (Demiralp, 2012; Yilmaz, 2021). The general notion is that conservative Turks in Turkey have historically been victimized by the Kemalist elites. 

In his bid to promote Turkey as a ‘great power,’ and—more importantly—himself as a great leader, Erdogan also criticized the structure of the UN Security Council that is composed of five major powers (the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK) for failing to represent the oppressed people of the world, including (and, again, most importantly) Muslims. He has famously declared, on countless occasions, that “the world is greater than five” (in reference to the five members of the UNSC). He has also exclaimed that “the world is greater than five; it is certainly greater than one [referring to the US].”

Moreover, sweeping, lofty promises have been the staple of Erdogan’s—and the AKP’s—election campaigns. On numerous occasions since 2010, Erdogan and the AKP promised to make Turkey one of top 10 economies in the world. Erdogan and the AKP also made promises of producing national cars, airplanes, and jet fighters—even falsely declaring on several occasions that they have already been produced. In the 2011 parliamentary election cycle, the AKP put adverts in many cities that declared “Our National Airplane is in the Air.” The AKP made further announcements about the “National Airplane,” this time called the TRJET, in the 2015 election cycle, claiming that it will be in air by late 2019. However, no step has been taken even to make a factory yet (Evrensel, 2019). 

In Pakistan, Khan has often claimed that as a Western educated and famous cricketer, he could have easily chosen to live a life of luxury but instead chose to serve the people. He promised to live a “simple life” after becoming the prime minister and has portrayed himself as living simply by selling his luxury cars (Klasra, 2018). Equally, he presents himself as a common citizen who wears simple non-Western clothing and is connected to the lower segments of society. 

Promises of quick fixes and sweeping economic development have been a standard part of Khan’s discourse. His big promise has been to build a New Pakistan (Naya Pakistan), which has several components: fixing the status quo of destructive politics, never seeking compromises for the sake of power, never compromising on the principles of justice and change, building an Islamic welfare state, and entrenching the rule of law (PTI, 2018: 6-7). The constant references to Riyasat-e-Madina demonstrate a religion-based populist approach through which Khan has been promoting the idea of a “sacred” Islamic welfare system to address the grievances of people failed by the previous “corrupt” rulers (Hassan, 2020; Yilmaz, Morieson and Demir, 2021). While speaking in favour of tax reforms by his government, he stated, “All successful societies are run by people making money [and] paying taxes and those being spent on health and education; that is the state of Medina” (Dawn, 2020a). Another dimension of Khan’s Islamist promises features a ‘moral’ society. Over the course of his premiership, he emphasised the “moral corruption” of youth under alleged Western influences. For instance, talking about rising sex crimes in the country, Khan blamed Hollywood: “I gradually realised that we have scholarship to determine where [do these crimes stem from]. They come from Hollywood, then move to Bollywood and the same culture is later adopted by our people” (Express Tribune, 2021).

In another controversial interview Khan blamed the West for spreading the trend of divorce and open sexuality, which he termed a danger to Pakistani youth and society: “When I was 18, I went to Britain for the first time; it wasn’t the society it has now become. It was the beginning of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I saw it with my own eyes as the immorality increased. First with adult films that started spreading widely. It started appearing in the media. What happened with that? There was a direct impact on the family system (Bol TV, 2021).

As part of his promised Riyasat-e-Madina, he promised the nation a pious youth inspired by the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad that would counter these “Western” influences (Geo TV, 2021).

Khan also promised to end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days once he came to power (The Express Tribune, 2012). Additionally, he would bring “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The News, 2020). On several occasions, he blamed former ruling parties for taking turns for corruption (Zafar and Karni, 2018). Referring to them during the election campaign of 2018, Khan said, “the self-proclaimed kings go abroad and buy palaces and expensive properties. They siphon funds from here, and their kids sit abroad on billions in businesses” (The News, 2018). Since his ousting from office following a non-confidence vote, Khan has increasingly linked the PPP- and PML-N-led coalition with the historical figures of Mir Jaffar and Mir Saddique[1] (Dawn, 2022a). In one of the many addresses, where he used the term “boot polisher” to describe the current Prime Minister, Khan said: “Have some shame, Shehbaz Sharif. You are the Mir Jafar that I talk about” (Dawn, 2022a).

He has promised ‘the people’ that he would hold the ‘imported government’ accountable for acting as “stooges” for “foreign” governments (Express Tribune, 2022; Iwanek, 2022). Khan’s rationale behind losing power rests on an explanation in which he blames internal “traitors” and “Western forces,” who he claims are the civilizational enemies of the Muslim population of Pakistan—and by extension, himself. He has promised revenge against “the traitors” as he continues to pressure for fresh elections, saying: “I’m giving this imported government six days to declare new elections. Otherwise, I will re-enter Islamabad with 2 million people” (Mogul & Saifi, 2022).

Since his removal from office, Khan has been making new promises to hold the corrupt accountable, rid Pakistan of “foreign influences,” and to improve the lives of the common people. 

Compromises 

Once in power, populists pursue pragmatic, opportunistic policies that go against their promises of radical change. They make compromises to the domestic and international establishment and institutions that they initially criticized. One of the most obvious cases of compromise by the AKP and Erdogan was their alliance with one of the Kemalist establishment parties, the Turkish nationalist MHP, after 2015. For over a decade—since 2002—the MHP was one of the fiercest critics of the AKP and Erdogan. The tacit alliance between the AKP and MHP emerged following the June 2015 elections, in which AKP lost its majority in parliament for the first time. The alliance was made official in 2018 as the “People’s Alliance” to support Erdogan’s election as president of Turkey. This was in stark contrast to the 2014 presidential elections, when the MHP supported the opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, together with the Kemalist CHP. The AKP’s alliance with the MHP is a major U-turn for Erdogan and the party and constitutes a major compromise.

Another one of Erdogan’s major U-turns happened in regard to the Ergenekon trials. Started in 2008, the trials included high-profile Kemalist military officials, opposition lawmakers, and members of Kemalist civil society associations who were alleged to have conspired against the ruling AKP by plotting a military coup. Despite serious irregularities regarding the legal proceedings of the case, Erdogan, who once called himself the “prosecutor” of the trials, and the AKP government fervently supported the trials, as they were aimed at Kemalist establishment figures who had long dominated Turkish politics. Nonetheless, Erdogan changed his stance on Ergenekon after his implicit alliance with the faith-based Gulen Movement, which was fully supportive of the problematic legal cases, faltered in late 2013. Not only did Erdogan dismiss the original Ergenekon trials, but he also claimed that it the Gulen Movement became the “neo-Ergenekon” after 2014 (Filkins, 2013; Erdogan, 2014).

In a similar vein, Erdogan’s other major U-turn and compromise happened in relation to Israel, as exemplified by the case of the Gaza Flotilla Raid. In 2010, Israel stopped ships from breaking the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and delivering aid to Gaza. The Turkish-owned ship Mavi Marmara was caught in a military operation that resulted in the deaths of ten Turkish activists. This raid led to a diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey that lasted six years. In the wake of the raid, Erdogan asserted that Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara was a casus belli (an act that justifies a war). Rather than making a war against Israel, in 2016, he signed a deal that restored full ambassador-level relations with Israel. In the wake of the agreement, Erdogan this time blamed the organizers of the Gaza freedom flotilla, who criticized the agreement between the two countries. 

In Pakistan, Imran Khan has also contradicted his own positions. This has been most visible in relation to his opposition to the Mullahs and how he has dealt with them in politics (Khan, 2011: 53). Despite his clear anti-Mullah stance, Khan decided to form an alliance with the biggest and oldest Islamist party in Pakistan, Jamat-e-Islami, to form a provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that lasted for five years, from 2013-18 (Samaa TV, 2018). During the popular dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad in 2014, he formed an alliance with another religious party called the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, led by a cleric, Dr. Tahir ul Qadri (Shahid, 2017). His government led the Islamization of education and curricula: in June 2020, the Punjab government made Quran learning compulsory for university students (Ahmed, 2020).

In Khan’s anti-Western rhetoric, a significant focus is on how the West does not understand Islam and how this leads to Islamophobia in the West (Gulf News, 2019b). He has repeatedly spoken about the oppressed Muslims of Jammu, Kashmir, and Palestine. The Khan government has compared the Modi government’s measures in Jammu and Kashmir to the Israeli brutalities against Palestinians (Stone, 2019). As Khan has spoken for the ummah, including Muslims in majority-Muslim and other states, it has come as a surprise that he has completely avoided the issue of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, China (Wescott, 2019). This is another compromise that Khan has made for his survival by instead applauding China for a poverty alleviation program. He’s even suggested Pakistan can draw lessons from China (Xinhua, 2019).

Aligned with the party’s anti-Western/American agenda was the promise that a Khan-government would not beg the IMF for loans. He once said, “I would rather die than go with a begging bowl to the IMF” (Findlay and Bokhari, 2019). The realities of running the government, however, were tougher than expected—especially the country’s dire financial situation. This forced the Khan government to return to the IMF for more loans to address the emergent challenge of balancing payments (Farmer, 2019; Landler, 2009). 

Other key ingredients of Khan’s populist rhetoric were taxing the rich to give concessions to the lower classes and to bring the corrupt to justice. However, the IMF deal has basically meant more taxes for everyone, including the poor (Bokhari, 2019). The situation under Khan—following the IMF loans—is not any different, as the middle-class is mainly paying the price of taxation reforms (Shah, 2019). In addition, the local businesses have demonstrated against increased sales taxes as part of the IMF deal (Shams, 2019).

A major compromise for Khan’s PTI was visible in its preference for electable politicians leading up to the 2018 elections. Desperate for a victory in the elections, Imran Khan offered seats to experienced politicians with former ruling-party affiliations—including from the parties that Khan claimed had looted the country. A federal minister in Khan’s cabinet, Fawad Chaudhry, was a spokesperson for the previous pro-Western Musharraf government and a minister in the left-wing PPP government of Yousaf Raza Gillani (Zaman, 2018). Other prominent names in the PTI government include Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Sheikh Rasheed, both of whom had long political careers in the PPP and right-wing PML-N, respectively. 

Khan spoke about reversing his stance on this issue during the election campaign: “You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians” (Rehman, 2018). After the vote of no confidence during the Punjab byelections, PTI is once again making alliances with groups the party once deemed ‘corrupt.’ For example, Khan formally criticized the Elahi brothers and their party due to their comfortable alliance with the military regime in the early 2000s. However, in 2022, to secure their influence in the province of Punjab, the PTI nominated Pervaiz Elahi as its candidate for the seat of Chief Minister of Punjab (Naya Daur, 2022). This was a clear contradiction of PTI’s call to eliminate corrupt politicians and shows their newfound acceptance of members of the former regime once labelled “pro-West” by Khan (Sareen, 2022). 

Dirty Institutionalism 

Once they are in power, populists attack formal institutions of democracy such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society; they politicize them, evacuate them, and eventually capture them from within. This process has been apparent both in Turkey and Pakistan, with the former completing the erosion of institutions and the latter being at the early stages. Simultaneously, populists also build or support institutions which back them. 

Judiciary

In Turkey, the attacks on democratic institutions go back to the early 2000s, when the AKP came to power. During its first decade in power, the AKP worked to undermine political institutions—most importantly the judiciary, which it hoped to capture from within. For Erdogan, the judiciary was a key institution controlled by Kemalists; it needed to be eliminated and captured due to the Kemalist opposition to Islamist politics in Turkey. Indeed, the AKP faced a major closure case in 2008, which further underlined the threat represented by institutions of horizontal accountability. Collaborating with the Gulenists, Erdogan and the AKP assaulted this crucial branch of state administration with a judicial reform submitted to a popular referendum in 2010. Only two out of 26 amendments stimulated an intense debate, since they were meant to restructure the constitutional court and the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), enlarging their ranks and setting new selection procedures. 

These amendments would put the judiciary under Erdogan’s control, since the AKP could pack both organs with loyalists. The amendments were voted on in parliament by the AKP majority and then submitted to a nationwide referendum. Erdogan employed a populist, anti-establishment appeal, which divided society between ‘the people’ supporting the reform and ‘the elite’ opposing it. He presented the reform as a new tool to empower the nation and to hold secularists accountable. He depicted the opposition as a “coalition of evil,” which could not agree on any issue except the fight against the amendments that would make ‘the people’ stronger. The referendum result was a success for the AKP, allowing it to pass the necessary amendments to capture the HSYK, a key institution of the judiciary. Erdogan also changed the constitution to switch the governing system from parliamentary to a strong presidential system without credible checks and balances. 

In Pakistan, the PTI government and Imran Khan attacked the judiciary with similar populist tropes. The Khan government confronted the judiciary on behalf of the military, which was behind Khan’s success in the last elections. A federal minister from the PTI criticized the judiciary over a death sentence awarded to former Army chief and President General Pervez Musharaf in a treason case (Gulf News, 2019a). Fawad Chaudhry, a federal minister, said, “You pushed the institution [army] against the wall. It is an honour-based institution. If you keep doing this, won’t they react?” (Haider and Qayum, 2019). As is clear from the remarks, it was a direct threat to the judiciary. 

In another case, the Supreme Court of Pakistan blocked the extension of the current army chief for which approval was granted by the PTI government and Khan (Pal and Shahzad, 2019). Khan stated, “The confidence of the people in the country’s judicial system has been shaken and now they are looking towards the PTI government for improvement in the system” (Dawn, 2020b). In April 2022, when the Supreme Court of Pakistan stood by the Assembly’s vote of no-confidence, Khan showed his clear discontent with the judiciary. He said: “I was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision, but I want to make it clear that I respect the Supreme Court and Pakistan’s judiciary.” He continued to weave a conspiracy, blaming the courts as on the side of the “imported” government, adding: “There is a conspiracy from abroad. This is a very serious allegation … that a foreign country conspired to topple an entire government” (Welle, 2022).

Since April 2022 he has attacked the judiciary and called upon citizens to observe the alleged “foreign conspiracy” he claims ended his time as Prime Minister (ANI, 2022).

Media

The Erdogan regime appointed trustees to Zaman daily in Istanbul on March 4, 2016. A protester chaining hands during freedom of the press protest in front of the Zaman daily.

 

The media was perhaps Erdogan’s most important preoccupation. Erdogan attacked secular, opposition media institutions at virtually every opportunity since he came to power in 2002. He blamed the opposition media for attacking the national will and national values and for being indecent and vulgar. To capture the media, the AKP pursued an elaborate scheme whereby politically connected businesses were supported through the state budget and favourable tenders; these businesses then purchased existing media conglomerates and put them under the AKP and Erdogan’s service. 

A key example is the Dogan Media group’s eventual capture by a pro-AKP businessperson. For decades, Dogan was the most important player in Turkish media and provided secularist coverage. Dogan media became the key pillar of opposition to the AKP government in the early 2000s. Infuriated by Dogan’s opposition, Erdogan started a campaign against his businesses through tax evasion cases and constant bureaucratic harassment, which eventually forced Dogan to sell his media conglomerate. In cases where the opposition media organization was not willing to be sold, Erdogan simply shut it down, arrested the journalists and the owners, and destroyed the organization entirely. Here, the most prominent cases are the Gulen-affiliated media organizations and Ipek media (which was also connected to Gulen) that were taken over by the government and then completely shut down.

In later years, Erdogan completely colonised the remaining TV and print media outlets; now, with few exceptions, they are firmly under his control. These media outlets “continuously reinforce Erdogan’s worldview and self-projected image as an embattled leader moulding Turkey into a global power” (Tahiroğlu, 2020: 2).

Khan’s rise to power as a populist was attributed to the media’s coverage of his famous sit-in. Many private TV channels provided live coverage of the PTI dharna (sit-in) in 2014. Therefore, many were shocked to see how his government curtailed media freedom. Through various restrictions, such as censorship, the PTI government showed that it was against any criticism of its policies and actions. Through the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the PTI government also issued a directive stopping TV news from sharing their personal views, which was declared a punishable offence (Ellis-Petersen and Baloch, 2019). PEMRA and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) have also been blamed for following the government’s agenda in targeting certain media houses: for example, Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, the head of the biggest media group in Pakistan, the Jang Group, was arrested by NAB on corruption charges in March 2020. Following the arrest, PEMRA directed local cable operators to shutdown Geo TV (Geo News, 2020).

Imran Khan’s time in office saw a rise in efforts to control all forms of the media, including print, electronic, and social, especially through the newly formed Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority. This desire was reflected in his remarks on local media at the World Economic Forum where he said that the Pakistani media is “free” and “vibrant” but also “crosses the line” often (Mahbubani, 2020). Since the Khan government was criticized through social media, it approved a bill in February 2020—”the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020”—to control social media. Many believed the bill was used to “stifle dissent and free speech.” The language of the bill was ambiguous, as the new social media restrictions aim to also prevent the live streaming of content on “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security” (Al Jazeera, 2020). Local journalists and human rights groups have criticized such reforms. A journalist based in Islamabad argued that the international community needs to “force Pakistan’s hybrid civil-military regime to stop this continued crushing of normal free speech in the country” (Rehman, 2020). In July 2020, a prominent journalist and critic of the military and the government, Matiullah Jan, was kidnapped in broad daylight but later released. Jan blamed the security and intelligence agencies for his kidnapping (The Guardian, 2020). 

Ironically, once out of office Khan’s attitude towards media oppression has changed. Various pro-PTI advocates on social media have been unconstitutionally arrested and abducted by the state due to critical remarks they made regarding the military (Dawn, 2022b). The very laws that the PTI put into place are now being used against its supporters, to whom Khan is dismissive (Daily Times, 2022). In addition, he remarked that social media was the carrier of truth and urged his supporters to follow his social media accounts for current and direct news from the party and himself (Khan, 2022). 

Civil Society 

It is well-known that, especially since the Gezi Protests of 2013, Erdogan has constantly attacked civil society organizations that represent non-AKP interests, particularly those who oppose his rule or those packed by people who dislike Islamism. These have included prominent secularist organizations such as Ataturkist Thought Association, Association for the Support of Contemporary Living, and various socialist organizations and labour unions. 

During his first 10 years in power, Erdogan verbally attacked these organizations for being elitist, anti-people, anti-Muslim, and against the national will. After the mysterious coup attempt in 2016, he intensified his crackdown against the liberal and leftist journalists, such as Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Şahin Alpay, Mümtazer Türkone and Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Şık, Can Dündar, Kadri Gürsel, and Osman Kavala. With the Gezi Park trial, he managed to get many more liberal and leftists dissidents imprisoned (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022: 326).

When he could not manage to co-opt the pro-Kurdish HDP, he got hundreds of HDP members imprisoned (Yilmaz, Demir, Shipoli, 2022). Almost all mayors of Kurdish municipalities were suspended and replaced with Erdogan loyalists. Hundreds of pro-Kurdish civil society organisations have been declared terrorists and shut down (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022: 329). After the mysterious coup attempt, about 150,000 people were detained and more than half a million people have been prosecuted on terrorism charges. Universities, private schools, thousands of civil society institutions, hundreds of media outlets, including TV stations, newspapers, news agencies, and radio stations were either shut down or turned into Erdogan’s mouthpieces (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021: 1531-1532)

Moreover, Erdogan established his own so-called civil society organizations to propagate his views and raise a new generation loyal to him and his party. AKP-controlled religious and CS organizations such as TURGEV and Ensar started to work together with state institutions, such as the Ministry of Education and Diyanet, to provide religious and educational services funded by public resources (Yabanci, 2019).

In Pakistan, the Imran Khan government expanded attacks against civil society organizations. Channelling anger over the US’s bin Laden operation in 2011, attacks on both local and international NGOs intensified, as local intelligence believed the Save the Children NGO provided intelligence to the US (Boone, 2015). There are new regulations and security checks which have already forced several international organizations to shut down their operations in Pakistan. Under the Khan government, such measures expanded, as a notice was issued to 18 international organizations, including ActionAid in October 2018, to leave Pakistan (Sayeed, 2018). The Ministry of the Interior said such prominent international NGOs posed a threat to national security and were “anti-state agents” (Asad and Khattak, 2018). The government also expanded such restrictions to target members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil society movement critical of the army’s role in the ‘War on Terror.’ A case was also lodged by the Federal Investigation Authority against Gulalai Ismail, a prominent member from a local NGO, Aware Girls, for allegedly receiving millions from India. It was claimed that her organization was involved in suspicious activities (The News, 2019).

The PTI also actively supported Islamist agendas. These involved mandating religious studies (Islamic studies) at all levels of tertiary education, mandating Quran and Hadith learning classes in educational institutions, and introducing special moral development courses for undergraduates based on the life of Prophet Muhammad (Geo TV, 2021; Hoodbhoy, 2020). One of the most extensive centralized curriculum development initiatives spearheaded under the PTI government was the Single National Curriculum (SNC), which was highly controversial due to perceptions that it was indoctrinating students with the PTI’s ideals (Mahar, 2021; Vinayak, 2021; Torwali, 2020).

Conclusion 

As the cases of Fidesz in Hungary, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela showed, populists can remain in power through strategic manoeuvring. Taking their examples as a basis, this paper compared the ruling populist governments in Turkey and Pakistan. We showed that in Turkey and Pakistan, the ruling governments followed populist political performance that divide society into the ‘pure, Muslim people’ and the ‘corrupt, anti-Muslim others’ (also sometimes frames as ‘the elite’). Religion, therefore, is important to populists in Turkey and Pakistan and plays an important role in portraying the leader as a sacred figure capable of ‘saving’ the nation and eliciting emotions in the voting public. In particular, Erdogan and Khan are adept at portraying the political opposition as enemies of Islam and at making promises that link religion and national rejuvenation. However, the paper shows that even these religion-based promises may be disregarded when populists in Turkey and Pakistan need to make compromises to maintain power. This suggests that retaining power and deepening their control over the nation is more important to them than following through on their promises to defend Islam and make their respective nations ‘great’ by returning to Islamic values and ways of life. 

We devised a three-dimensional framework to comparatively examine these ruling religious populists. Our framework focused on populists’ promises, their compromises, and their attacks on democratic institutions. This allowed an examination of how Islamist populists behave in power and how strategic necessities, the realities of governing, and structural constraints shape their policies. We argued that populists make sweeping promises of power to the people and quick fixes to major problems of the country—most famously sweeping economic development—before coming to power. While they may want to retain their uncompromising style and lofty goals, the realities of governing force populists to make serious compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ and on their values once they are in power. Finally, populists attack formal institutions of democracy such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society; they politicize them, evacuate them, and eventually capture them from within. This study provided a fresh analysis on the impacts of populism on democracy in the Muslim world. 

Our findings confirm three aspects of populists in power. First, religious populists in power have a similar incentive structure to all other politicians. As such, they strive to stay in power as much as possible. To do so, they are willing to ignore their earlier promises and make compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ if they consider this to be necessary. Therefore, the uncompromising attitudes that populists usually convey may not reflect their actual behaviour when in power. As such, it is important to examine political opportunity structures surrounding populist politicians in order to understand their behaviour. Second, populists’ ideological stances tend to be shallow and pragmatic. Based on the necessities of power, their ideological enemies may become friends and vice versa. This means that populists’ ideologies are secondary to their pursuit of power. Third, religious populists, like many others, tend to undermine democratic institutions and eventually either capture or dismantle them. This emanates not only from their ideological stances but also the strategic preference to rule through illiberalism. 


 

Acknowledgements: This research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant, DP220100829, Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


 

(*) Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute. His research focuses on peace and security in South Asia and the Middle East. His work examines the impacts of sectarianism and violent extremism on domestic, regional, and global peace and security. He is also engaged in research and educational projects on countering violent extremism. As a Pakistani citizen, Dr Ahmed brings a much-needed citizen’s perspective to research on the country. He also brings rich grassroots level experience in the development sector in Asia to his research.

(**) Dr Galib Bashirov is a research associate at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. He was a lecturer at Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations. He finished his PhD in international relations in the same department. Bashirov’s research areas include state-society relations in Azerbaijan and Turkey and the United States’ foreign policy in Central Asia.


 

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[1] These are two historical figures who betrayed their local Nawabs/Sultans to gain the favor of the British during colonization. Both played a key role in securing British victories over two key Muslim-held territories in India during different time periods.