Photo: Anton Watman

The Closing of Civic Spaces in the Time of Terrorism in Nigeria (June 17, 2021)

While debates on the effects of the post-9/11 counterterrorism measures (CTMs) on civil society organizations (CSOs) exist, there is a paucity of data on how CTMs are shaping the spaces and actors of CSOs in Nigeria. During this ECPS seminar, Dr. Emeka Thaddues Njoku will discuss CSOs’ perceptions on the effects of counterterrorism measures, the countermeasures that CSOs are taking, and the government’s views on the security threat posed by CSOs with Saskia Brechenmacher. 

Date and Time: Thursday, June 17, 2021, 19:00 CEST

Register Here

Speakers 

Dr. Emeka Thaddues Njoku is currently a 2021-2023 Newton International Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Society. In 2019-2020, he was selected as a Post-doctoral Fellow for the American Council of Learned Societies (African Humanities Program), New York, USA. In 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 he held two pre-doctoral fellowships of the Social Science Research Council’s Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa program. Njoku was also a 2017 Fellow of the Brown International Advanced Research Institutes (BIARI), Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, Providence, USA. 

Dr. Njoku’s research focuses on the intersection of civil society organizations and security governance, particularly post-9/11 international and state-level counterterrorism policies and practices. He won several research/travel grants from the Institute of International Education, American Political Science Association, Centennial Center for Political Science & Public Affairs of the American Political Science Association, Makarere Institute of Social Research and the University of Ibadan Postgraduate College. 

Njoku’s work has appeared in VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Development in Practice, Development Policy Review, Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly and a forthcoming edited book by Manchester University Press.

Saskia Brechenmacher is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and a fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where her research focuses on gender, civil society, and democratic governance. Prior to joining Carnegie, Brechenmacher worked as a graduate researcher at the World Peace Foundation in Boston, and co-led a research project on corruption and state legitimacy in Uganda for the Institute for Human Security at Tufts University. She has advised major governmental and private funders on strategies to protect and defend civic space in countries experiencing democratic backsliding. 

Brechenmacher’s writing has been published in the National Interest, the HillNew America WeeklyOpen Democracy, and elsewhere. Brechenmacher is a graduate of Carnegie’s James C. Gaither Junior Fellows Program, a 2017 Atlantik-Brücke Young Leader, and a Humanity in Action Senior Fellow. She also gained experience at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in London, and the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.

EmergingMarkets

Populist attacks on institutions as a reaction to the hyper-globalization

Ozturk, Ibrahim. (2021). “Populist attacks on institutions as a reaction to the hyper-globalization.” Populism & Politics. May 21, 2021. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0003

 

This article explores the discrediting and decommissioning of the institutional foundations of the economy by populist leaders and its impact on economic performance in major emerging market economies (EMEs). One situation that justified these attacks that also attracts public support in recent years is argued to be the devastating effects of the global economic and financial crisis on developing countries (DCs) in general.

By Ibrahim Ozturk 

During the heyday of globalization, since the 1980s, the major emerging market economies (EMEs) not only increased their share of the global gross domestic product (GDP) in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) but also achieved a remarkable “convergence” (Lee, 2018; Lee, 2013) in terms of per capita GDP to that of the average developed country. Their share increased steadily from 36 percent in 1980 to 58 percent in 2016 (OECD, 2018). However, recent challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis have eroded optimism for the continued convergence. 

Around the world, economic problems are attributed to the excesses of globalization. In a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic or the 2008 economic crash, citizens of nation states might view their plight as being like a small boat sailing through a rough storm; whatever measures they take on the boat will not save them. These perceptions have helped various populist parties ascend to power or become coalition partners all over the world in the recent years. Although different economic, political, cultural, and security concerns shape populism across the right-left political spectrum, in this article, we will explore populism in selected EMEs without making a right-left distinction. We’ll look at the BRICS (BrazilRussiaIndiaChinaSouth Africa) countries and the MINTA (MexicoIndonesia, Nigeria, TurkeyArgentina) countries, all known as both middle income and populist countries—and all candidates to fall into the “middle income trap” (Kyle & Gultchin, 2018). As the main argument of this article, our sample set shows that populism and institutional erosion coexist, with the former causing the second. 

After summarizing the major repercussions of hyper globalization on developing countries (DCs) and looking at the domestic political reaction to this process, the third section will focus on the attacks made by populists on institutions, including the visible erosion of governance indicators in the sample country groups. The last part summarizes the main conclusions. 

Impact of Globalism on National Economies

The failure of DCs to manage the challenges posed by the rising “multiplex world,” a term recently coined by Acharya (2017), prepared the ground for populism and allowed populist parties to make electoral gains not only in DCs but also in several developed ones. As Rodrik (2018) puts it, to the extent that radical globalization works against ordinary households at the micro-level and violates the independence, autonomy, and sovereignty of nation-states at the macro-level, it fosters feelings against openness, globalization, and also large regional agreements. However, objective and speculative factors in the rising objections should be adequately addressed. 

First, as the Great Recession of 2008-2010 showed, because of their weak institutional governance, democratic check and balances, and excessive dependence on external markets, (particularly in finance), DCs cannot isolate themselves from the contagious effects of an erratic crisis in major capitalist countries. In addition to the ongoing harsh global competition, the economic recession of 2008 and subsequent fiscal crises have led to mass unemployment and distorted income distribution; together, they increased the perception of economic insecurity in DCs. 

Second, there are also perceptions that large companies or international organizations use free trade and unconstrained financial and fiscal agreements to constrain national governments in legislating socially desirable policies against their perceived interests. For instance, austerity programs implemented after 2008 worked against the most fragile segments of society, those living on a low and fixed income. 

Third, new technological shifts of the fourth industrial revolution like automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, cyberspace, big-data, and cloud technology have created downward pressure on the wages of low-skilled workers in non-export and import-competing industries. Capital mobility, which allows businesses and entrepreneurs to move to different countries where factor prices are lower and income and corporate tax are more competitive, creates downward pressure on the wage level of the less skilled labour force and kills local employment capacity. Overall, under excessive globalization and turbulences, income distribution skews in favour of large company owners and highly skilled workers, mainly in the export industries (Li, Hou, & Wu, 2017; WEF, 2017).

Fourth, given these factors, governments in DCs face the challenge of managing the distribution of the cost and benefits of national growth through an appropriate mix of taxes, safety nets, and subsidized public delivery of social services (health, education, low-cost housing) (Gill & Krahas, 2015). For instance, by considering the adverse impact of the pandemic on the poorest segment of society, which could trigger social unrest, the IMF, as the lender of last resort, called on governments to close the income gap between the richest and poorest by taxing wealthy businesspeople and spending more on the poor (The Guardian, April 1, 2021). However, contrary to those expectations, as Krugman (2008) has noted, neither governments nor the “winners” (i.e., entrepreneurs, companies) from free trade compensate the “losers.” The worst is that, as mentioned before, capital mobility or the fear for the so-called “capital flight” would undermine the existing premature efforts for the taxation of wealthy business globally to close existing income gap (Piketty, 2018; Piketty & Goldhammer, 2014). Rather the contrary, as recent experiences under pandemic have shown, the super-rich increased their wealth in many developed and developing countries (Financial Time, May 14, 2021), whereas the most vulnerable segments of the society have received quite unequal and inadequate support. This is because, on the one hand, the capital has various lobbying opportunities to soak up Covid cash; on the other hand, the businessman is “stateless” and therefore triggers the fear of abandoning the country because of more favourable tax privileges and financial supports elsewhere.

DCs have limited capacity to take advantage of the favourable global economic conjuncture and give back their gains before they are consolidated during the crisis. Additionally, they are exposed to the new problems mentioned above. While significant aspects of the negative repercussions are attributable to uncontrolled globalization, national governments are not entirely exempt from responsibility. As a result, the failure of DCs to properly manage globalization causes massive alienation and feelings of abandonment amongst the “silent majority,” preparing the ground for the exaggeration, falsification, and exploitation of problems and, therefore, manipulation of the electorate by populist politicians.

Populism as an Internal Reaction

As Luiz (2016) puts it, intensifying tension between the insiders or winners (the status quo) and the outsiders or losers of globalization determines the course of populism. Mudde (2004, 2007, 2013) and Müller (2016) underline the anti-elitist and anti-globalization characteristics of populist rhetoric. Some authors like Mouffe (2018) and Kaltwasser (2019) interpret populism as a reformist opportunity for democratic correction against the status quo and elites, and therefore, they present it as a member of the democratic club (Canovan,  2005). 

Mouffe supports populism because of its potential contribution to “radical democracy” through the mobilization of excluded sectors of society against the status quo. Following the same line of analysis, Jansen (2011, 82) contends that “a political project is populist when it is a sustained, large-scale project that mobilizes ordinary, marginalized social sectors into publicly visible and contentious political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalistic message that valorises ordinary people. It is therefore difficult to imagine democratic politics without populism. The dominance of a predominantly anti-populist logic may reduce politics to an administrative enterprise with over-proportionate input from colleges of experts and technocrats.” 

By looking at empirical data, it is necessary to question the ultimate goals of populists and to analyse where populist policies will go, regardless of their intentions, because of the “built-in mechanisms” they contain. Populism should be judged by its attitude when it consolidates its power and to changes through free and fair elections, rather than its idealistic and romanticized rhetoric before it comes to power and its actions during its initial years of inexperience (Lewis et al., 2019).

Rosanvallon (2006) argues that populism might take the form of a political expression in which the democratic project allows itself to be eliminated by a non-democratic ideology. With its orientation to make democracy less pluralistic (in political rights) and more inclusive (in the realm of social rights), contemporary populism is a fusion of nationalism (with its notion of the unified people) and authoritarianism (with its lack of tolerance for any alternative discourses). This suggests that populism is not just anti-elitist; it is anti-pluralist—and herein lies its profoundly undemocratic character (Weyland, 2020; Mueller, 2015). 

To sum up Norris and Inglehart’s (2019: 445) words, populism is an authoritarian philosophy and style of governance, in which “legitimacy flows from popular sovereignty and vox-populi, superseding minority rights, constitutional checks-and-balances, and decision-making by elected representatives.” Moreover, populists’ “divide and rule” strategy scapegoats marginalized groups, which serves to consolidate the leader’s power, to distract public attention from his failures, or to conceal from the people the nature of his rule or the real causes of economic or social problems (Munro, 2021).  In the context of this paper, populism is accompanied with stereotyping and stigmatizing “enemies of the nation”—other nations, international organizations, capitalists, or minorities. 

What are the effects of populism on economic development? 

The ultimate task in economic development is to achieve an inclusive, productivity-oriented and sustainable growth. Other main objectives include the generation of satisfactory income through employment creation and the prevention of erosion in the overall wage level without sacrificing macroeconomic stability. The question to ask here is, What are the available ideological and economic policy tools at the disposal of populists to manage external conditions and the resulting domestic imbalances properly? What is the capacity of populist governments to ensure sustainable, inclusive, and productive growth vis-a-vis hyper globalization?

Rodrik (2017, 2018) defines economic populism as “anti-establishment orientation, a claim to speak for the people against the elites, opposition to liberal economics and globalization (anti-foreign capital and companies), and often (but not always) an affinity for authoritarian governance.” With a similar approach, several economists who are also interested in economic populism (see Houle & Kenny, 2018; Dornbusch & Edwards, 1991; Kaufman & Stallings, 1991; Sachs, 1989) describe it as an “irresponsible approach” through redistribution of wealth and government spending. One critical issue is the pressure of “short-termism,” which is efforts by populists to meet short-term expectations they create. It is incompatible with the needed time dimension of structural reforms, which are costly initially but fruitful in the long run. The economic policy populists tend to follow is characterized by an initial period of massive spending financed by foreign debt and followed by a second period marked by hyperinflation and the implementation of harsh economic adjustments. 

Moreover, quite understandably, populist leaders focus on redistribution policies to improve the living standards of the so-called “silent and pure majority” against the “comprador bourgeoisie” or “corrupt elite.” However, as Pareto-optimality implies, when there are no effective external and domestic compensation mechanisms to make one better off without making someone else worse-off, populism relies on different bargaining strategies, sometimes even coercive policies, via highly politicized resource transfers across social classes. As will be discussed below, the excessive short-termism of populists also ignores inter-generational accounting principles and does not allow circumstances for the needed consensus and reform coalitions that increase productivity through technological transformation and upgrading human capital—and therefore achieving high-quality growth. 

Taken together, populism has problems with the principles of good governance, such as pluralism, participation, accountability, and transparency for market-based economic development. 

Populism, the Market, and Institutions

In the context of hyper globalization, the motivation of populists to discredit institutions reflects a lopsided view—that these institutions serve the elites, oligarchs, and international interests rather than the citizens. However, this approach does not fully capture the meaning, existence, evolution, and the role of institutions in economic development. As Polanyi (1944), North and Thomas (1973), and North (1997) showed quite succinctly, there is no development without robust institutional design defining the rules of the game. Markets are not God-given, but they are “designed” with the help of institutions. 

As North (1990: 3) contends, “institutions are the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction. In consequence, they structure incentives in human exchange, whether political, social, or economic.” More recently, Rodrik et al. (2004), Acemoglu et al. (2005), and Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) showed that societies with more flaws tend to have much “worse economic institutions” than those that don’t. This takes us to the role of politics in the design of institutors. As Dore (1986) showed in Japan’s economic development, and more recently, as Wen (2016) proposes quite assertively for the Chinese economic transition“market creation” needs political coordination and capacity to set proper priorities and reach a workable compromise among the major stakeholders. 

To start with, by denying institutional check and balances (i.e., the separation of the legislature, executive, and judiciary) and the autonomy of several key institutions such as the central bank, statistical institutes, court of auditors, and competition board, in the name of sovereignty and people’s self-determination via elections, populists take a strong anti-institutional stance. This stems from their belief that unelected national or supranational institutions serve the interests of the corrupt elite, global companies, and developed countries at the expense of the pure people. Reflecting the same position, populists also oppose the oversight of international anchors over their governance. They go further and also discredit science and scientific evidence/findings as untrustful and declare “folk wisdom” as more valuable. 

Such denials of science, professionalism, expertise, and institutions means that populists underestimate the importance of contemporary governance, which strives to bring solutions to conflicts of interest through different institutional designs and innovations that can alleviate problems of collective action and participation. Given the fact that political parties lose importance and elections serve the leader’s authority when populists are in charge, populist opposition to the autonomous institutions in favour of popular sovereignty cannot be easily interpreted as an indication of a “democratic corrective” or a process of “creative destruction” for better outcomes (Peruzzotti, 2017; Edwards, 2010). 

However, autonomous institutions, based on professionalism, expertise, and division of labour, play a crucial role in fulfilling citizens’ collective demands through pre-determined and agreed-upon rules and delegation mechanisms such as free and fair elections (Bezes & Le Lidec, 2016). Several uncertainties that come with the weakening of autonomous institutions, and reliance upon ad-hoc rules, arbitrariness, and irregularity, include the lack of predictability and short-sighted decision-making which result in lower investment, misallocation of resources, and finally, lower growth (Acemoglu et al., 2013; Helpman, 2008; Kartik & Sideras, 2006; Rodrik, 2000 & 2012; Yıldırım & Gökalp, 2016). 

A striking example of this is the attempt to limit central bank autonomy, which, most of the time, results in the loss of price stability as politicians run expansionary macroeconomic policies to fuel short-term growth at the expense of fiscal and monetary discipline (Edwards, S. 2010; Learner, 2019). The suggestion is that the autonomous but accountable and transparent institutions have the most credibility within modern governments—and therefore, governments should avoid interventions in fundamental institutions, such as the judiciary or Central Bank as well data monitoring agencies, like public statistical institutions that are empowered to produce scientific, impartial, and reliable data. 

Table 1 shows how authoritarian populist governments undermine the quality of institutions. It summarizes the broader categories of governance (composed of political participation, rule of law (ROL), stability of democratic institutions, political and social integration, socioeconomic development, monetary and fiscal stability, private property, welfare regime, economic performance, and sustainability) in BRICS and MINTA country groups. Numbers in red highlight an alarming situation and underline an obvious institutional erosion in all these countries, but particularly in Russia, Nigeria, Turkey, and China. 

Considering the high level of arbitrariness and one-man rule in populist governments, rule of law evolves as the most crucial parameter for institutional robustness. Therefore, the ROL criteria given in Table 1 is supported by a further sub-set of measures in Table 2. The World Justice Project (WJP)’s ROL index in 126 countries consists of the following aspects: constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, and criminal justice. This index shows similar results for upper middle-income countries (UMI) as of 2020. There is no single country over $12,535 per-capita GDP with an average WJP score below 0,50. UMI countries exhibit dramatically lower score in the ROL index and appear to be the most probable candidates to remain stuck in the middle-income trap. 

Conclusion

Populism signifies a significant deviation from institutionalized governance due to its reliance on a leadership cult of the strong man. Populism has developed partly as a reactionary movement to undisciplined globalization and the destructive impacts this has had on national and local economies. Globalization transmits its adverse impacts onto national economies through several linked threads such as trade diversion, unfair import and superior export competition, erosion of employment and income, distortionary patents, and financial instabilities. Additionally, there are perceptions that also foster the rise of populism—specifically that local bourgeois or “self-serving, corrupt elites” have successfully aligned their interests with global capitalism at the expense of the most vulnerable segments of society. For instance, constraints such as austerity or belt-tightening programs caused by the global economic crisis prevented governments from supporting the most fragile members of society. On the contrary, big companies were given priority and were rescued during the crisis, because they were “too big to fail.” Poorer segments of society felt abandoned and alienated. The result has been the rise of chronic income inequality (Pastor & Veronesi, 2020).

Populists instrumentalize these external impacts and domestic reactions to legitimize their distrust in supranational institutions, which urge national governments to further checks and balances and reforms and strengthen local autonomous institutions. Populists also fear that elites can capture autonomous institutions and therefore discredit their role in economic development. 

However, this road leads to low productivity and slow and unstable growth. The divisive rhetoric populists use to seize power causes deep fragmentations across societal fault lines and prevents the formation of national coalitions, which are needed to upgrade the economy through collective action and participation as well as sometimes painful and complicated reforms. Relatedly, the incompatible time dimension in unstable societies also makes politicians highly oriented toward short-term fixes; therefore, long-term structural reforms, with high ex-ante cost but ex-post return, are ignored.

In the absence of institutional checks and balances and reforms and efficiency pursuits, populists give priority to high growth and income redistribution through highly politicized resource transfers. Ignorant of economic efficiency criteria and high growth through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, populist governments end up with unstable prices, domestic as well as external deficit, and permanent fiscal and financial crises such as currency shocks. 

Populists come to power by exploiting global and national grievances and also offer various favours to voters; the process results in worse economic outcomes, which pushes populist leaders to employ even more “divisive” rhetoric and policies through creating “enemies” both inside and outside the country in an effort to hide their incompetence and legitimize their governance. These findings should negate the optimistic view of populism as a democratic corrective against the status quo. The recent assault of populist regimes on democracy and the market economy shows that they are increasingly distancing themselves from democracy and the market economy to become even more authoritarian.


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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.

The Islamist Populism, Anti-Westernism and Civilizationism of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs

In Turkey under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Friday sermons of Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Mustafa Demir & Nicholas Morieson

Over the past two decades, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has cemented itself as the country’s hegemonic ruling party by appealing to the conservative Muslim majority of the country. Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proven exceptionally adept at uniting Islamism and populism, fusing the two into a powerful and pervasive political force with which he has established a stranglehold over Turkish politics and society while exporting this ideology abroad via its transnational apparatuses and networks (Yilmaz, 2021a). Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) controls all mosques (more than 90,000) in Turkey, many thousands in the West, and employs imams for these mosques. It has become one of the powerful instruments in propagating the AKP’s Islamist populism and anti-Western civilizationism.

The AKP did not begin its rule as an authoritarian party. Initially, the party—though populist in orientation—promised a more liberal and inclusive society. Throughout the 2002–2008 period, Erdogan called for Turkey to join the European Union and enacted a series of reforms that sought to eliminate the secular authoritarian tutelage of the Kemalist institutions. However, after 2008, and when the European Union refused in practice to accept Turkish entry into the organization and with increasing economic problems, the AKP began a slide into right-wing nationalism colored by Islamism.

Here, Islamism is understood as a politicized version of the religion of Islam, a counter-hegemonic paradigm, which “refers to turning religion into an ideology and an instrumental use of Islam in politics […] by individuals, groups and organisations in order to pursue political objectives” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 104). It is also important to note that “Islamism is not a coherent ideology – it focuses on identity politics rather than ideas and an appeal to emotions rather than intellect” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 105). Thus, this Islamist ideology relying on antagonistic binaries where the Islamists are constructed as the true and only legitimate representatives of the pure people against the corrupt elite and their international supporters is inherently populist (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 5; Laclau, 2006; Wojczewski, 2020; Katsambekis, 2020).

The 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests—in which mostly secular young people in cosmopolitan Istanbul protested against the AKP’s increasing authoritarianism and corruption—shifted the party further toward the right, as it sought alliances with conservative, religious elements in Turkish society. The failed 2016 coup d’état, a somewhat mysterious event, appears to have convinced Erdogan to abandon any pretense of liberal democracy and to embrace authoritarian religious populism instead.

The AKP’s turn toward authoritarian religious populism has proven largely successful. Erdogan remains a popular political figure, and—having purged the military, bureaucracy, and the universities of so-called undesirable citizens (especially secularists, leftists, and Gulenists)— the AKP now controls Turkey’s most important and influential institutions (Yilmaz, 2021b: 203-220). Through this power, the party has re-shaped Turkish identity in ways that suit the ruling regime. Fusing their populist ideology, which emphasizes the battle between “elites” and “the people” with Islamism, the AKP created a new type of Turkish nationalism in which “the people” and the state are identified with orthodox Sunni Islam. Adding this religio-civilizational element to their populism, the AKP gained the ability to portray Turkey’s domestic political battles and antagonisms as part of a wider cosmic religious war between Islam and its enemies, especially the “Judeo-Christian” West. The internal or domestic enemies, especially secular “elites” and Gulenists, were thus branded enemies of Islam who posed an existential threat to Turkey and – more broadly – the entire ummah (Yilmaz, Shipoli & Demir, 2021).

The AKP has tried to re-shape Turkish national identity through a variety of means. The party’s ability to set a national curriculum, dominate the media (traditional and new), and direct Turkey’s religious authority – the Diyanet – is highly important. The Kemalists established the Diyanet following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to bring Islam under greater government control. The Kemalist regime was a secularizing force in Turkey and often hostile toward religion and Islamic bodies. The Diyanet was thus created to help secularize Turkey and was intended to reduce the power of Islamic authorities and increase the power of the secular state.

Under Kemalist hegemony, the Diyanet was a promoter of sovereignty, national unity, and freedom, and it glorified the founding father of Turkey. It was restructured under the AKP regime to build the “new Milli [national]” (Mutluer, 2018) citizens the AKP desires. When the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002, instead of eliminating this institute, they ironically captured and widened its capacity boosting it financially and employing it to create an Islamist–populist appeal.

Thus, the Diyanet’s importance rapidly increased after the election of the AKP in 2002, particularly after the party’s turn toward Islamist populism in the 2010s. The AKP increased the religious directorate’s budget and encouraged the body to have a more socially and politically active role. Erdogan appears to have decided that the Diyanet was an ideal vehicle through which he could communicate and disseminate his religious populist rhetoric and ultimately increase his party’s political power.

Seeing the Diyanet’s potential in this way paved the way for the elevation of the President of the Diyanet (Başkan) from directorate to permanent undersecretary (Müsteşar), and the protocol ranking of the Diyanet director’s hierarchy being elevated from 51st to 10th under the AKP. This can be considered both symbolically and practically one of the greatest prerogatives given to the society’s conservative segments. This new status of the Diyanet and its increased budget allowed the organization to establish radio and television channels. The Diyanet’s mandate was expanded to provide religious services outside mosques, from foreign policy (Özturk, 2021) to prisons, retirement homes, and women’s shelters and families (Adak, 2020). Also, the Diyanet generates the Friday sermon, which all mosques in Turkey deliver in its exact form.

Weekly Friday prayers have been considered theoretically by both Kemalists and Islamists as a very important tool to control Turkish citizens’ perspective about Islam and to construct “good citizens.” Friday as a day and Friday prayers as a ritual has a significant place in Muslim religious life. Mid-day prayer on Friday was replaced by Friday prayer, and the sermons are an inseparable aspect of this weekly prayer. Thus, a proper Friday prayer necessitates delivering the sermon. Today in Turkey, in all mosques, it is estimated that more than 15 million male citizens (women are not provided space for Friday sermons) participate in weekly Friday prayers as the audience of Friday sermons. To put this number into perspective, when including adult female relations, the number of attendees equates to roughly 30-40 million voters or around 50 percent of the entire electorate. Friday sermons continue to have a special religious status among Muslims, and attendees are forbidden to speak among themselves during the delivery of sermons.

It is not surprising, then, that as the AKP shifted from liberalism to authoritarian Islamist populism, Diyanet’s Friday sermons reflected this change. Sermons began to echo, in particular, Erdogan’s Islamist–populist narratives. For example, the Diyanet began to stress the oneness of the ummah and the notion that Turkish Muslims were victims of ever hostile Western powers. For example, one sermon asserted that “One of the most important duties of Muslims is to be one voice against unbelief and to be united before the oppressor. However, it is possible to achieve this by basing not on each other’s sect, legitimacy, race, language, geography, and ideology, but Islam’s understanding of oneness and unity. The road to unity, amity, and peace; the way to know the friend and the enemy; make the ummah smile, not the others [the Western powers] passes from here” (April 8, 2016).

Reflecting the AKP’s assertion that Turkey is the “guardian of the ummah,” Diyanet sermons began to frame Turkey as the hope of the Muslim world and indeed of all oppressed peoples. One sermon read: “Just as in the past, today, too, our nation will continue to be the remedy for the remediless people, be there for those people who have nobody by their side, and be the hope and safe haven for the victimized and the refugees” (October 11, 2019).

Diyanet sermons, particularly after the AKP’s slide into Islamist populism after 2013, have increasingly used religio-civilizationalist rhetoric and framed contemporary events within a larger, almost cosmic religious war between Islam and the West.

Following the Turkish Armed Forces’ offensive into Syria in October 2019, one sermon invoked Islamic principles to justify this operation. The sermon claimed: “…. believers never consent to the violation of the values ​​of which the religion of Islam regards as sacred and untouchable, such as the occupation of homelands and homes. They do not hesitate to launch an honorable struggle to correct the deteriorating balances, to establish an environment of peace, and to ensure justice.”

Another sermon, which coincided with Turkey’s military operations in Afrin, portrayed Turkey and the Islamic ummahas a single entity and the target of external attacks. It urged unity among Muslims to prevent further attacks: “In recent years, we have been passing through the circle of testing both as the ummah of Islam and within our nation […] By threatening our unity and vitality, the hopes of the Islamic ummah are actually being consumed” (January 26, 2018).

It is also important to note that the Diyanet has embraced victimhood rhetoric in its sermons, portraying Muslims as victims of the West, which they accuse of opening “holes of fire in the Islamic territory.” Without naming the exact enemy, the sermons often claim that all Muslims have been victimized by “certain” enemies, enemies who even today are conspiring against Muslims, their religion, their unity, and their hopes. References to these unnamed enemies are kept obscure, and therefore are open to loading in parallel with the changing context, especially in horizontal and vertical dimensions.

In a majority of passive and hostility-loaded sentences in Friday sermons, the hidden subject refers to the enemy(ies) of Muslims as Judeo-Christian Western civilization. For example, the sermon delivered on Friday, January 26, 2018,reads: “We have been going through certain trials as a nation and as the Islamic ummah in the recent years. Those who want to weaken us and to pit Muslims against Muslims are coming at us with the weapons of sedition, terror, and treachery. They are trying to pull our country into the pits of fire they have opened in all corners of the Islamic geographyOur independence and future are targeted through various tricks and plots, plans, and traps. They are trying to drive the Islamic ummah to despair by threatening our unity and peace.”

The Friday sermon dated October 4, 2014 reads as follows: “By looking at the conditions the believers live in, it should be known how the power centers [i.e., the West] gather strength through the blood of the believers and how the brotherhood of faith that makes believers closer to each other is attacked and damaged and turned into fighting, violence, and hostility [between Muslims].” Another sermon dated October 11, 2019 echoes many of these earlier themes: “Unfortunately, the world today was turned into a place full of dark and evil traps. Those who claimed to bring so-called independence to some places have rather invaded those places […]. Those who plan to dig pits of fire all around the Islamic world have used weapons of sedition, terrorism, and betrayal to cause brothers to hit one another. Using various plots, plans, tricks, and traps, they have targeted our existence and future survival, as well as our freedom and future. They have attempted to bring us, our noble nation, to have been the flagbearer of the Muslim ummah for hundreds of years to our knees.”

This rhetoric, which closely echoes Erdogan’s religio-civilizationalism—namely, his contention that the ummah is involved in a defensive religious battle against non-believers— assists the AKP in two ways. First, it creates demand for populism by activating emotions of fear and anger. The AKP has instrumentalized Friday sermons to help construct a populist narrative that serves the party’s agenda. Through Diyanet sermons, the majority population of Turkey (i.e., Sunni Muslim Turks) is presented with statements and fatwa that evoke negative emotions and play on their sense of victimhood, their feelings of being part of an ummah oppressed by Western powers. The AKP uses this fear of and anger toward the West via the Diyanet to create a sense of permanent crisis and a belief that only the AKP can defend Muslims from a mighty opposition made up of non-Muslim powers who hate and wish to harm the ummah.

The Diyanet’s sermons serve the AKP’s religio-civilizationist populist division of society. Friday sermons have increasingly supported the AKP’s attempts – largely successful – to construct populist binaries based on religio-civilization identification. The sermons promote the notion that “we” (Sunni Muslim Turks) are the ummah, while secularists, non-Muslims, Gulenists, and certain other groups are implacable enemies of the ummah. This binary can then be used to mobilize “the people” to support the authoritarian Islamist–populist regime, which purports itself to be fighting on the people’s behalf against a non-Muslim civilizational enemy.

The AKP is hardly alone in using religion to aid its populist agenda and constructing antagonistic binaries and the sense of crisis upon which populism relies. Indeed, like other religious populist parties and movements, Erdogan’s AKP couches the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism within a religio-civilizational frame. By this, we mean that the typically populist vertical division between “the people” and “elites” and horizontal division between “the people” and “others” is framed by a larger religio-civilizational concern or within a belief that religion-based civilizations are doomed to clash. In Erdogan’s Turkey, the Diyanet’s Friday sermons frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the AKP’s fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

The AKP’s ability to instrumentalize the Diyanet has played an important role in the party’s increasing domination of Turkey’s political and social life. The Diyanet’s Friday sermons have assisted the AKP in fundamentally altering notions of how an ideal citizen of Turkey should appear and behave. Under AKP rule, the ideal Turkish citizen is an Islamist and a nationalist, albeit one with neo-Ottoman aspirations for Turkey. Moreover, the AKP’s ideal citizen believes that Turkey is at the forefront of a clash of civilizations and must therefore act as a defender of Muslims worldwide while also remaining vigilant at home where anti-Muslim actors—secularists, liberals, Gulenists—continue to threaten “the people.”


References

Adak, Sevgi. (2020). “Expansion of the Diyanet and the Politics of Family in Turkey under AKP Rule.” Turkish Studies. 22:2, 200-221, DOI: 10.1080/14683849.2020.1813579. 

Katsambekis, Giorgos. (2020). “Constructing ‘the people’ of populism: A critique of the ideational approach from a discursive perspective.” Journal of Political Ideologies. doi:10.1080/13569317.2020.1844372.

Laclau, Ernesto. (2006). “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics.” Critical Inquiry. 32: 646–80. 

Mutluer, Nil. (2018). “Diyanet’s Role in Building the ’Yeni (New) Milli’ in the AKP Era.” European Journal of Turkish Studies. https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.5953https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337811594_Diyanet%27s_Role_in_Building_the_%27Yeni_New_Milli%27_in_the_AKP_Era_httpsjournalsopeneditionorgejts5953langde(accessed on May 16, 2021).

Ozturk, Ahmet Erdi. (2021). Religion, Identity and Power: Turkey and the Balkans in the Twenty-First Century.Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wojczewski, Thorsten. (2020). “‘Enemies of the people’: Populism and the politics of (in)security.” European Journal of International Security. 5: 5–24, doi:10.1017/eis.2019.23.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Morieson, Nicholas & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Exploring Religions in Relation to Populism: A Tour around the World.” Religions. 12: 301. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/rel12050301 

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Shipoli, Erdoan & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Authoritarian Resilience through Securitisation: An Islamist Populist Party’s Co-optation of a Secularist Far-Right Party.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1891412. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, 2nd Edition, 170-187. London and New York: Routledge.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Turkish Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Van province of Turkey as holding a holy Quran on April 14, 2015.

How Are Religious Emotions Instrumentalized in the Supply of and Demand for Populism?

Over the past three decades, religion has become a key component of right-wing populist discourses the world over. Populist movements and leaders in nations as diverse as the Netherlands, Hungary, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and the US have increasingly practiced a discourse in which national identity is partly defined in religio-civilizational terms. The rise of religious populism has also involved the elicitation and exploitation of emotions by populists. Indeed, the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.

By Ihsan Yilmaz and Nicholas Morieson

Over the past three decades, religion has become a key component of right-wing populist discourses across the world. Populist movements and leaders in nations as diverse as the NetherlandsHungaryTurkeyIndiaPakistan, and the United States have increasingly practiced a discourse in which national identity is partly defined in religio-civilizational terms. The rise of religious populism—which is primarily a right-wing phenomenon—has also involved the elicitation and exploitation of emotions by populists. Indeed, the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.

Examples of this religio-civilizational discourse are surprisingly common and warrant more attention from scholars, journalists, and political analysts. For example, Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands’ third largest political party, the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), is a prominent exponent of this discourse (Brubaker, 2017). According to Wilders, Dutch culture and identity are the product of, and inextricably linked to, Western Civilization’s “Judeo-Christian and humanist” character. In the copious tweets and articles that appear on his website, Wilders argues that Muslims pose an existential threat to the Netherlands and must be expelled from Dutch society. Moreover, Islam should not be tolerated in the Netherlands because, he alleges, it is antithetical and inherently hostile to the core Judeo-Christian principles that produced the secular culture of contemporary Europe.

In Hungary, religio-civilizational notions of identity are an important part of the discourse practiced by the ruling right-wing populist party Fidesz, and especially its leader and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Though Hungary is not an especially religious nation, Orbán describes Christianity as one of the core elements of Hungarian identity and culture and the key ingredient without which the nation would collapse. Much like Wilders, Orbán conceives of the world as divided into different civilizations and Islamic and Christian civilizations as mighty opposites doomed to clash. Yet where Wilders embraces Christian identity politics to defend secularism, Orbán uses Christian identity to defend social conservatism—and traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality—from secularism.

Religious populism is hardly endemic in Europe and may indeed be more prevalent outside the West. For example, Hindu Nationalism is a core element of the political program of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian Peoples’ Party, BJP). India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, in which Muslims are alleged to be a foreign and hostile element within Hindu civilization. In Turkey, the ruling populist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dramatically altered Turkish citizens’ sense of national and civilizational identity through its neo-Ottoman discourse, which posits that Turkish Muslims are at the vanguard of the ummah (the global community of Muslims) (Yilmaz, 2021a). Moreover, AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses his considerable rhetorical skill, political acumen, and even unofficial Islamic legal opinions (fatwas) (Yilmaz, 2021b) to convince Turkish citizens that the Judeo-Christian West is at war with the ummah and that he alone stands against the existential threat to Muslims globally.

From these examples, we may learn two important things. First, religious populism is a global phenomenon (see in detail Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). Second, it is a versatile set of ideas that people of any of the major religious traditions can use just as secular and non-religious people do. Yet why should religion, in an age of secularization, become such an important component of populist politics the world over? What is it about religion that populists find so useful?

Populism and Emotions

To understand why populists have increasingly used religious-sounding rhetoric, we must first consider how populist movements and leaders produce public demand for their political agendas. Populist discourse is centered on separating society “into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’,” and ensuring that politics is a representation of “the will of the people.” Beyond this binary, populist discourses often seek to create or exploit antagonisms in two different directions: vertically, or between the people at the top of society (elites) and those at the bottom (“the people”); and horizontally, or between “the pure people” and their class, ethnic, or religious internal and external enemies.

For a populist party or leader to achieve an electoral breakthrough and sustained political success, they must successfully construct these antagonistic groups, and moreover, create a sense of an impending crisis brought on by elites and “others” that threatens to engulf and destroy “the people.” To create this necessary sense of crisis (Moffitt, 2015), populists must elicit and exploit emotions from the general public, which help construct antagonistic relationships and create demand for populist solutions.

Emotions such as fear and rage must be elicited and harnessed and ultimately directed toward the groups and individuals allegedly responsible for creating the crisis in the first place: ruling elites and internal and external enemy groups. Populists must then portray themselves as patriotic champions of the people, who will “save” the nation and its people by overthrowing elites and defeating foreign and internal threats from “others,” and establishing a new form of democratic governance in which the will of the people is obeyed.

Emotions, therefore, are essential to populists. Not because populism relies more on eliciting emotion than all other forms of politics, but because populism cannot succeed without evoking particular emotions among a large section of the general public, especially feelings of anger toward elites and fear of “others,” but also at certain times nostalgia for a happier time now past, and love for one’s homeland.

Religious Populism and Emotions

To elicit emotions that create demand for populism, populists produce narratives that paint events, in-groups, and out-groups in a certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitates strong emotions in their desired audience (Brady et al., 2017). Salmela and von Scheve suggest that populists have fared incredibly well in recent decades due to their ability to capitalize on the negative emotions produced in response to the rise of neoliberal capitalism, which they claim “humiliates” ordinary people. Right-wing populists, they claim, exploit the “repressed shame that transforms fear and insecurity into anger, resentment, and hatred against perceived ‘enemies’ of the precarious self” (Salmela and von Scheve, 2018: 434).

Populists can instrumentalize religion in a variety of ways. Religion can help sacralize “the people” by tying them to an existing religious tradition. Religion can also be used to perpetuate an “us vs. them” mentality—the religion of “the people” can be framed positively, while the religion (or lack of religion) of “others” can be demonized as an existential threat to ‘us.’ For example, Christian identitarian populists in Western Europe frame Muslim immigration to Europe as an existential threat to the West’s (Judeo-)Christian culture and identity. By framing Muslim immigrants as dangerous, they provoke a fear response in the public that can easily be turned into anger against Muslims, but also toward the government elites who permit Muslims to immigrate to Europe. At the same time, populist parties such as the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) and French National Rally (Rassemblement national, RN) exploit deep feelings of nostalgia and love for one’s country by framing themselves as national and civilizational saviors, who alone can restore their nation’s greatness (Morieson, 2021).

Most of all, however, what religion offers populists is the ability to couch the typically populist horizontal (the people vs. others) and vertical (the people vs. elites) antagonisms within a religio-civilizational frame to create a narrative of elite failure and civilizational crisis. Examples of religious populists employing an emotion-based appeal to the people are not challenging to find. In Turkey, the Islamist AKP has always been adept at exploiting the emotions of the Turkish people and transforming them into demand for the party’s populist solutions. Mahir Unal, a senior Turkish politician in the populist-Islamist AKP, confessed that his party’s mobilizational strategy was “emotional vampirism,” by which he meant that the AKP “sucked and exploited all emotions in the society” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 136). Indeed, the AKP has established itself as the ruling party by exploiting several emotions felt deeply by large segments of the public, especially fear, anger, rage, a desire to sacrifice oneself for one’s homeland, and nostalgia—in this case, a deep restorative nostalgia for the glorious and dominant Ottoman Empire (Yilmaz, 2021a).

The AKP has been highly skilled at couching the traditional populist vertical and horizontal antagonisms within a larger Islamist and neo-Ottomanist frame. For example, “the people” of Turkey are conceived by the party as part of a global Islamic community—the ummah. Thus, secular elites in Turkey are portrayed by the party as not merely corrupt but anti-Muslim enemies of the global ummah. Likewise, non-Muslims and non-orthodox Muslims are portrayed as threats to the ummah who must be overcome, and for this purpose, lives must be sacrificed if needed (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021). Indeed, Erdogan’s discourse frames Turkey’s social problems within a larger problem of clashing civilizations, and particularly within a battle between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam. By framing the corruption of the previous secular regime, Turkey’s disputes with the European Union, and the country’s internal ethnic and religious struggles, within a broader “clash of civilizations” in which the ummah is under constant threat from enemy forces, the AKP has been able to create a sense of permanent crisis and turn subsequent emotions of fear and anger into support for their Islamist populist agenda (Yilmaz, 2021a).

By couching populism’s typical vertical and horizontal antagonisms within a religio-civilizational frame, populists have at times successfully convinced segments of their broader publics that their identity, nation, and civilization are threatened by both the rulers of their country, but also internal and external enemies belonging to other civilizations. Given how frequently right-wing populists movements and parties throughout the world instrumentalize religion, we must begin to consider the power emotions related to religion play in creating demand for populism and sustaining populist government.

References

Brady, William J.; Wills, Julian A.; Jost, John T.; Tucker, Joshua A. and van Bavel, Jay J. (2017). “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks.” Proceedings of the NAS. 114: 7313–18

Brubaker, Rogers. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism: The European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40: 1191–226.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2015). “How to Perform Crisis: A Model for Understanding the Key Role of Crisis in Contemporary Populism.” Government and Opposition. 50: 189–217.

Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). Religion and the Populist Radical Right: Secular Christianism and Populism in Western Europe. Delaware and Malaga: Vernon Press.

Salmela, Mikko, and von Scheve, Christian. (2018). “Emotional dynamics of right- and left-wing political populism.” Humanity & Society. 42: 434–54.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas, and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. 2nd Edition. 170-187. London and New York: Routledge, 2021.

Yilmaz, Ihsan, and Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “A Systematic Literature Review of Populism, Religion, and Emotions.” Religions. 12, no. 4: 272. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040272.

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Erturk, O. F. (2021). “Populism, Violence and Authoritarian Stability: Necropolitics in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2021.1896965.

Parade Tauhid or Parade of Tawheed, muslim marched from central stadium to the central city of Jakarta and back. Muhammad Riziq Shihab was giving oration in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17 2015. Photo: Riana Ambarsari

Populism, Violence, and Vigilantism in Indonesia: Rizieq Shihab and His Far-Right Islamist Populism

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Barton, Greg. (2021). “Populism, Violence, and Vigilantism in Indonesia: Rizieq Shihab and His Far-Right Islamist Populism.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). May 14, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0009

 

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab has been one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia since the late 1990s. As a radical Islamist scholar with links to Saudi Arabia, Shihab has spent the last three decades as an anti-state voice of the “pious Muslim majority” in Indonesia. He claims to position himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.” In 2020 Shihab was arrested for holding large public gatherings, as part of his ‘moral revolution’ campaign, in the middle of pandemic lockdowns. However, his radical Salafist message continues to inspire thousands to action.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab—more commonly known as Habib Rizieq—is one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia. He has been a permanent fixture in Indonesian popular culture since the late 1990s but drew international media coverage in late 2016 and early 2017, where he spearheaded mass protests intended to derail the election campaign of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic-Chinese, Christian governor of Jakarta. Billed as “Protests to defend the Qur’an,” they were more widely known as the “2/12 protests” because the largest of the protests, which saw over 500,000 people flood the center of the national capital, was held on 2 December 2016.

In 2020, Shihab again made headlines when he was arrested for holding large public gatherings, as part of his “moral revolution” campaign, in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. As a radical Islamist scholar with links to Saudi Arabia, Shihab has spent the last three decades as an anti-state voice of the “pious Muslim majority” in Indonesia. He claims to position himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.”

The Roots of Shihab’s Islamist Ideology

One of the most important political developments of the twentieth century for Muslim majority populations across the world was the fall of the Ottoman Empire (Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The decline of this vast empire, as with other great empires, occurred incrementally. It entered a nearly two-century-long twilight phase before it was broken up following its decisive defeat in the First World War (Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The majority of Sunni Muslims across the world traditionally saw the Ottoman Empire as representing a modern continuation of the Muslim caliphate, which started with the leadership of Prophet Muhammad.

When the symbolic figurehead of the Sunni Muslim world suddenly ceased to exist, the gap was soon fulfilled by the relatively new leadership of the Saud family who became the rulers of modern-day Saudi Arabia (Dillon, 2009; Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The kingdom had itself been part of the Ottoman Empire. Saudi Arabia hosts two of the holiest cities in the Islamic faith, Mecca and Medina, to which Muslim pilgrims pay annual visits in the form of Haj or umrah.

Saudi Arabia’s symbolic significance derives from it being the home of the two holy cities and custodian of the Kabah. While the Ottomans were, like the Saudis, followers of Sunni Islam, they adhered to the teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa. Thus, the Ottomans followed the Hanafi school of thought, and in approaching the Qur’an, the sunnah and the hadithsought to understand Islam using the methods of ijma (consensus) and qiyas (deduction from analogy) (Baer, Makdisi, and Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). This idea of interpretation using deduction and consensus has made the Hanafi school more flexible and open to adaptation to the changing times than the Hanbali school followed in Saudi Arabia.

In addition to the Hanafi influence, the societies of the Ottoman Empire were also influenced by thousands of Sufi teachers, writers, and mystics (Baer, Makdisi, & Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). The Sufi approach to Islam believes in establishing a direct connection between the higher power and the individual and does not solely rely on sacred texts and religious rituals to build this connection (Baer, Makdisi, & Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). Hanafi approaches to interpretation and the influences of Sufi thought and practice combined to make the religious culture of the Ottoman Empire generally open and tolerant. There were a great variety of sects and Islamic traditions welcomed in the empire. Still, there were also many opportunities for non-Muslims to play important functional roles, not just in society but also in administrative affairs.

In contrast with Ottoman society’s pluralistic and flexible practices, the Al Saud dynasty took a narrower and more rigid approach as followers of the literalist new school of Sunni thought established by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In the eighteenth century, Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the Al Saud dynasty, joined forces with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The former accepted the latter’s ideology and approach to religious life in exchange for al-Wahhab’s endorsement of the legitimacy of the Al Saud leadership. The Wahhabi movement, or Salafi school of thought, is markedly more stringent than the schools of thought that came before it as it was formed as a “reformist” movement to “purify” Islam from what is thought of as “additional” rituals (Dillon, 2009).

Over the years, Salafi hardliners have propagated the idea that it is only through their legalistic approach that true adherence to the Islamic ideal of monotheistic worship is possible. The Salafi take a negative and, at times, hostile attitude and behavior toward the various sub-sects of Sunni Islam and toward Shia Muslims and non-Muslims (Dillon, 2009). Since the mid-twentieth century, Saudi Arabia has been able to spread its brand of Islam through its petrodollar wealth generated from the fossil fuel industry. Leveraging the cultural capital of its guardianship of the sacred sites and drawing liberally on its financial capital to disseminate its ideology by financing various educational organizations, Saudi Arabia has tried to influence Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Egypt to accept Arab culture and Salafi Wahabism as being essential to authentic expressions of Islam.

In this endeavor, education represents an essential vehicle for propagation. Funding of madrasa (religious schools) and even universities—such as the International Islamic Universities—through the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and sponsoring scholarships for students from Muslim countries to gain religious education at King Saud University constitute key elements of Saudi influence (Junior, 2017; Ghoshal, 2010).

In observing the presence of Saudi influence in Asia, Ghoshal (2010) comments, “this process of homogenization and regimentation—a process I would like to call the ‘Arabization’ of Islam—puts greater emphasis on rituals and codes of conduct than on substance, through the Wahhabi and Salafi creeds, a rigidly puritanical branch of Islam exported from, and subsidized by, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” As a result, in Asia, Muslim-majority countries have witnessed growing radicalization since the 1980s. Various leaders trained at Saudi-funded and affiliated institutions have continued to spread the hardline narrative of Wahhabism (Freeman, Ellena & Kator-Mubarez, 2021; Benjamin, 2016).

Indonesia

Indonesia’s Salafist Protégé

As one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab positions himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.” In this quest, he formed the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) in 1998 (Jahroni, 2004). Shihab has used his knowledge of sharia law to declare himself the “grand imam” of Indonesia, dressed in symbolic white—a “pure” color in Islam—with either a green turban (reflecting the color of the shrine of Muhammad) or white turban to symbolize the “purity” and “truth” of his message. While assuming an anti-state approach, Shihab has nevertheless acted as a lobbyist for mainstream right-wing populist parties by swaying voters their way.

In the typical manner of a populist leader, Shihab seeks a direct connection with “the people.” Not only does he use his fluent Arabic and standard religious rhetoric to incite intense emotions in the crowd, but he also draws upon his origin story of “humble beginnings” to relate to his audience. The wearing of plain clothes, the use of “crude” or simplistic language, and the cracking of jokes at rallies while talking about the “evils” that plague the Muslims of the world are his populist hallmarks (Maulia, 2020). Like other populist leaders, Shihab channels the “common person” persona to successfully position himself against the “corrupt elite” with the underlying assumption that “the elite” cannot relate to, and thus do not care about, “the people” (Yilmaz, 2021a; McDonnell & Ondelli, 2020; Nai & Coma, 2019). When Narendra Modi, for example, takes pride in his humble beginnings as a chai wala (tea stall owner) or when Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls himself a “Black Turk” (Yilmaz, 2021b) to relate with the conservative and historically disenfranchised Muslims of small Anatolian towns, both are relating to the “common people” by identifying themselves as being an approachable and relatable leader in contrast to “the elite” and “corrupt” who do not speak, dress, behave and at times look the same way as “the people.”

Rizieq Shihab lost his father as a child and was raised in modest circumstances by his widowed young mother. He gained his school degree at the Salafist Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Islam dan Bahasa Arab (LIPIA), which is one of a chain of Islamic schools funded by Saudi Arabia in Indonesia (Varagur, 2020). At LIPIA, Shihab was exposed to “true Islamic teachings” mixed with state curriculum guidelines. Varagur’s (2020) investigation into Saudi influence in Indonesia revealed that LIPIA uses a blended curriculum employing Wahhabi ideology and the social ideas of “Muslim Brotherhood-oriented political thinkers.” Consequently, LIPIA produces both Salafi teachers and Islamist social leaders. Like Shihab, many other figures have emerged from this milieu as Islamist leaders occupying prominent roles in domestic politics, such as Hidayat Nur Wahid, the leader of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Varagur, 2020).

Being well-versed in Arabic texts and Salafi teaching, it was not hard for Shihab to earn a scholarship at the King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, where he continued his studies of sharia and Islam. Following his studies, he spent some time teaching in Saudi Arabia and later in Indonesia at Salafi educational institutes (Jahroni, 2004). As a popular preacher in the field of tableeg (spreading the religion), Shihab was a fixture in various Jakarta suburbs at Majelis Ta’lim (religious lectures) (Rijal, 2020; Woodward, 2012). Via these gatherings, Shihab built his social capital with the locals as a spiritual mentor who was imparting the “right” version of Islam to them. His involvement in Majelis Ta’lim was one of his first opportunities to interact with people outside the school setting to whom he could preach Salafism.

Given the conditions on Java, a densely populated island with wide disparities in wealth and endemic urban poverty, the Islamic ideals of equity and justice preached by popular figures like Shihab have great appeal for the disenfranchised. Yilmaz, Morieson, and Demir (2021) have pointed out that the use of “social justice” by populist Islamist leaders to call out the failure of government is an important theme. Using this notion, Shihab entered Jakarta’s politics with one foot in the door with the help of popular Islamic preaching in the 1990s. He made effective use of Salafi idealism to address what conventional and “Western” forms of democracy had failed to deliver for the Indonesian people.

Post-Suharto, as Indonesia returned to democracy in 1998, a plethora of new religious and conservative parties seized the opportunity to campaign and participate in elections. This led to a rise in religious groups forming parties and registering them, including the FPI (Hadiz, 2016). As a counter to growing student-led civil unrest against the regime, right-wing parties were also promoted by the state to counter the protesters on the streets (Hadiz, 2016: 154). With democratic freedoms and encouragement by the state, Indonesia soon saw a marked rise in right-wing parties, of which the FPI was one.

Before 1998, Shihab had a limited audience for his religious lectures. But new political freedoms gave him a chance to use FPI as a populist Islamist party to spread its Salafism to a much wider audience. FPI preaching drew heavily on Salafi romanticization of jihad, which “tend[s] to emphasize the military exploits of the Salaf (the early generations of Muslims) to give their violence an even more immediate divine imperative” (Hamid & Dar, 2016). As a result, FPI, under the leadership of Shihab, carried out frequent acts of vigilantism under the banner of a “moral jihad” against “the Other” (Woodward, 2012; Jahroni, 2004).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Shihab’s Call for Vigilantism

Who constitutes this “Other,” one might ask? From Shihab’s perspective, “the Other” is not only limited to the political elite of the country. He has constantly categorized liberal Muslims, non-Muslims, and Western countries as “enemies.” They are seen as being antagonists of the faith, and their actions are said to constantly endanger Islam at home and across the world. Firmly believing in the call for action, Shihab has called out his followers to pick up arms against “the others.” Thus, a core part of FPI’s activities has been vigilantism.

Hardline Islamism has been used to spew hatred to those who are seen as the “outsiders.” Shihab has used his “anti-establishment agenda” to incite people to take up arms (Mietzner, 2018). His narrative hinges on inciting “fear” among his followers. Given the correlated nature of faith and identity, when the followers perceive a threat to their faith, they feel an ontological crisis looming above their heads. Using this vulnerability by inciting fear and feelings of victimhood as part of the oppressed Muslim ummah, the “faithful” are guided to solutions. In Shihab’s case, the narrative is that Indonesian politicians are either mere puppets of the Western powers or are simply incompetent. Thus, to save oneself in this life and the life after, the believer must take action. Since the formation of FPI in 1998, numerous members have been arrested and charged with spreading terror by vandalism (Facal, 2019; Ricklefs, 2012; Jahroni, 2004).

By placing the Qur’an (in line with Wahabi thinking) above the state and the democratically elected government, the FPI has urged its militia members to continue their actions against “the Other” on the ground that it is necessary to bring sharia to Indonesia (Mietzner, 2018; Hadiz, 2016: 112; Wilson, 2015). Hadiz (2016: 112) argues that “[The FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.” Shihab has raised a private army of volunteers. The Islamic Defenders Front Militia/Front Pembela Islam or Laskar Pembela Islam (LPI) is the militant wing of Shihab’s group, which puts its ideology into action. They are unlike terrorist groups in the sense that they do not use sophisticated weapons to terrorize citizens at various “hot spots” such as nightclubs. However, they believe in the same ideology that “un-Islamic” behavior is threatening Islam and the future of the ummah, and thus action needs to be taken.

Over the years, Shihab has been able to design and organize the LPI militia in a highly systematic manner, with individuals leading paramilitary cells of various sizes just like an army. These are volunteer citizens who dress in paramilitary garb and use their sticks, batons, and shouts of “Allahu Akbar” to terrorize and attack those seen as “Other.” The members of the LPI are called “Jundi.” Jundi fighters are organized into ranks, with superior officers responsible for anywhere between 25 and 25,000 vigilantes (Jahroni, 2004). Within this militia, the overarching leader is the Imam Besar (“grand imam”)—namely, Shihab himself—who is the “spiritual guide” for all the actions of the vigilantes (Jahroni, 2004).

The LPI is also known to welcome non-militia members of FPI, such as the volunteers, while purging “hotspots” in the city (Facal, 2019). Sito (2019: 191) notes how Shihab has legitimized violence as the answer to problems faced by Muslims as he “stated that such businesses [i.e., hotspots of vice] ensure only social deviance which are the product of Western secularism (sekularisme), pluralism (pluralisme), and liberalism (liberalisme), shortened as “sepilis.” The acronym is a homophone of syphilis, which is intended to mock and draw an equivalency between sexually transmitted diseases and Western culture and capitalism, pegged as the culprit of the economic crisis in 1997 and 1998. Accordingly, over the years, the FPI has claimed that such vigilantism is an expected outcome of upholding the Muslim duty to “promote good and prevent evil.”

The militant activities of the FPI have been highly visible ever since its inception. In 1998 various members of its groups were involved in a clash between the ethnic Chinese residents of Ketapang that lead to the death of over a dozen of ethnically Chinese Indonesian Catholics (Bouma, Ling & Pratt, 2009). Attacks on nightspots, bars, clubs, and suspected LGBTQ+ events have become a hallmark of the group. While the group was banned recently due to its terror sprees, its activities have been able to continue because of the support it has received from law enforcement agencies.

While Indonesia might seem like a peaceful country on the surface, it has long been struggling with reactionary religious forces. In election campaigns, radical Islamism has become an important factor, and public perceptions about modesty, norms, and values are primarily driven by those claiming to act in the name of Islam. Within this context, Shihab has been able to build an alliance with the state security forces (including the police), who are also proactive in their crackdowns on “deviant” groups such as the LGBTQ+ and Ahmadiyya communities. The FPI has been known to carry out the “dirty work” by attacking these groups and, at times, acting as informants about their activities for the police. This symbiotic relationship has allowed both these groups to benefit (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016).

The group targets “the Other” to ensure “the purity” of religion remains intact for “the people.” The police get to work to covertly appease politicians, who feel pressure to persecute “deviant” groups who “defy” religion. For its part, the members of the FPI have the opportunity to channel negative feelings—instilled through the preaching of Islamist populist leaders such as Shihab via a trauma-inducing narrative—into a physical manifestation of rage against “the Other” (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016).

Due to the intensity of the violence associated with LPI activities, the group’s leaders and street militia members have been repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for threatening the country’s unity and law and order. Rizieq Shihab has twice served time for hate speech inciting LPI members to attack tourist spots or target non-Muslim and Ahmadiyya groups and villages (Jahroni, 2004: 218). While some politicians initially valued the LPI and FPI as useful counters to civil rights protests, these vigilantes have become harder to control and have used their street power to challenge the state (Facal, 2019; Juoro, 2019: 28; Mietzner, 2018; Hookway, 2017).

While Shihab’s Salafist call for jihad has not resulted in the FPI becoming a true violent extremist group in Indonesia, it has seen its members turn to transnational populist jihad. Shihab has convinced his followers that they are not only Indonesian citizens but also part of the global ummah of Muslims and, thus, have a collective obligation to pursue global jihad against “the Western lobby” and “the Zionists” (Nuryanti, 2021; Mietzner, 2018; Hadiz, 2016).

Shihab effectively uses victimhood narratives anchored to nationalism and a faith-based identity that transcends geographical bounds. In this way, the Salafi training that thousands receive in Indonesia makes them prone to become part of the global jihad effort (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019). This has become a very dangerous idea as today the world is more connected than ever, and jihadist groups rely upon these ideas to recruit young people (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019). In Shihab’s speeches, the “evils” and “cruelty” of the Zionists against the Palestinians is a re-occurring theme that not only talks about the plight of the Palestinians but also politicizes it an attack on every Muslim and the Islamic faith itself. There are clear indications that many have passed through the ranks of the FPI to go on to violent extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS (MEI@75, 2021; Idris, 2018: 9).

Members of The Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) rally in front of Indonesia election supervisory agency (Bawaslu) in Jakarta on May 10, 2019.

The FPI a Surrogate Welfare System

The FPI is not merely a vigilante group. The organization has established extensive networks of humanitarian aid providing relief in cases of natural disasters and assistance to the urban/suburban poor of Jakarta (Singh, 2020; Facal, 2019; Sheany, 2018). Services include education and ration packets for the poor. Shihab himself was groomed for his role in a welfarist madrasa setting, winning scholarships as he progressed from one stage of his education to the next.

Keeping this model in view, Shihab has helped the FPI develop many religious schools where children gain an Islamic education and some Arabic training as well. These schools are usually built in impoverished areas where the state has failed to reach out and address the most pressing needs of the people (Facal, 2019). The schools established by Shihab and the FPI leadership follow Salafi Wahabi teaching, which is reflected in gender segregation, strict adherence to dress codes, and other “sharia principles” (Facal, 2019). When public schools are too far from local villages or suburban homes, the proximity of the FPI madrasa gives those who would not otherwise be able to afford it a chance to educate their children. However, these seemingly altruistic establishments are places where young minds are shaped and influenced by the ideology propagated by Shihab and the FPI at large.

Aid work has been a rich field of opportunity for the FPI to extend its influence and build its credibility. Shihab’s popularity and his Saudi connections along with local supporters have allowed the FPI to establish grassroots networks of volunteers to carry out aid work that ranges from evacuating residents from flood-stricken areas to rebuilding homes, such as after the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Much of the humanitarian work was not done by the military nor the state in the immediate aftermath or long-term recovery (Sheany, 2018). One report noted that in mid-February 2004, only the TNI (the Indonesian armed forces), the Mujahedeen Council, and the FPI were the only ones actively involved in the region: “One should note that at the time the volunteers who had been working in the immediate period were already exhausted. Thus, the [aforementioned parties] seem to be the ones who work when nobody else wants to. Whereas at the initial stages, it really was not [the military] who managed the corpses’ evacuation and took care of the sick and injured” (East West Center, 2005: 33). Thus, it is clear that over time, the FPI has created a synergetic relationship at the grassroots within members and communities by providing welfare services (Hookway, 2017).

When the state fails to cope with pressing social and economic issues, populist actors can effectively use dissent and direct it at political leadership. Since the FPI has been seen carrying out “altruistic” actions in the most vulnerable communities, it can draw support from there and establish its stronghold in the vacuum left by a weak state. Thus, Shihab’s rhetoric has repeatedly talked about how the ulama are targeted by an “amoral” government. Therefore, the state’s refusal to “repent” for its sins leaves “the people” with no choice but to carry out its own jihad to guarantee its welfare both in this world and the hereafter (Maulia, 2020; Lembaga Survei Indonesia & Wahid Institute, 2016). With a loyal support base of followers, Shihab’s self-proclaimed mission of establishing a “caliphate” or a Daulah Islam is strengthened where “the people” can practice their true faith (Salafism) “freely.” The political “elite” and “minorities” are accorded little or no room in this idolized caliphate (Campbell, 2017; Hookway, 2017).

More than 200,000 Muslim protesters has descended on Jakarta to demand the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok, be arrested for insulting Islam on November 4, 2016.

Shihab’s Targeting of Ahok in Political Lobbying

After Shihab’s first arrest leading to jail time in 2003, he stepped back and restyled himself, becoming a member of the FPI’s board. In 2013, he declared himself the “grand imam” of the organization. He took a less active role in leading protests but remained, as always, the face of the organization. The anti-Ahok protests showcased his charisma and power, reminding many of why the FPI remained a potential threat to the political elite of Indonesia.

Even before the protests broke out in 2016, signs of the potentially significant political power of the FPI and other right-wing political players were present. Stoking “fear” and using the rhetoric of hate while attributing the markers of moral superiority and victimhood to “the pure people,” groups and leaders such as Shihab have been able to influence the writing and implementation of legislation in key areas, particular at the local level. Hookway (2017) has noted how the FPI has been able to develop social capital through its “morally driven” vigilantism and community-based activities: “In recent years, lobbying groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have helped introduce more than 400 Shariah-inspired laws, including those that penalize adultery, force women to wear headscarves and restrict them from going out at night” (Hookway, 2017). Sharia-inspired legislation has been passed in FPI strongholds, where its presence has been deeply entrenched with the community (Hookway, 2017).

In terms of mainstream politics, the FPI on its own never possessed a voter bank large enough to win a significant place in the parliament. With Shihab’s Islamist political rhetoric, however, right-wing politicians saw a ready resource for mobilizing support on the street in the form of the FPI. Shihab has long been active in mainstream politics, and the plethora of banners and posters in communities where the FPI is deeply attached showcases support for the leader and his allies. The FPI has supported the populist politician Prabowo Subianto since 2014, and this relationship only grew in intensity following the Ahok protests in 2016.

Ahok was the Christian-Chinese deputy governor and righthand man to Joko Widodo (Jokowi) when he was governor of Jakarta. When Widodo became president, Ahok replaced him as governor. Ahok’s very positive public image made him a well-liked figure, and after the 2014 victory of Jokowi, it was speculated that Ahok would be his running mate in the 2019 elections and even a possible presidential candidate for the 2024 general elections (Mietzner, 2018: 270). But before the formal announcement of Jokowi’s running mate in 2016, Ahok became embroiled in a religious scandal that targeted his religious and ethnic background. He was accused of committing blasphemy when he criticized his opponents for their politicized misuse of Quranic verses against him (Nuryanti, 2021; Amal, 2020; Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018).

A heavily edited campaign video in which Ahok made critical comments alongside discussion of the Qur’an surfaced in 2016, and he became an instant target of attack. He was charged with blasphemy, found guilty, and sent to jail, meaning he can never hold public office again (Nuryanti, 2021). While Jokowi is a pluralist, he remained largely silent and distant during Ahok’s trial and, at the end in 2019, chose a conservative Muslim running mate in the form of Ma’aruf Amin, the chair of the influential Ulama Council of Indonesia (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) (Yilmaz, 2020).

After the viral spread of the Ahok video, the MUI issued a fatwa urging the government to look into the matter as they responded to public sentiment that Ahok had committed blasphemy and harmed the sentiments of the majority of Indonesian Muslims (Nuryanti, 2021; Amal, 2020; Mietzner, 2018). Ahok’s public apology following the video’s surfacing and blasphemy accusations did little to satisfy the hardliners who were now able to not only attract conservative masses but even moderate Muslims (Nuryanti, 2021).

The Action to Defend Islam (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations were country-wide protests and sit-ins by the FPI and other right-wing parties and organizations that called for Ahok’s resignation as the governor and immediate prosecution (Fealy, 2016). Ethnic Chinese business people and other members of the elite were a constant target of the FPI even before the Ahok video surfaced. The xenophobic line of attack taken by Islamist populists like Shihab had turned this group into “the Other,” based on differences of faith and ethnicity. Given Indonesia’s past, Shihab had instilled fear in the electorate by claiming that were national leaders selected from among the ethnic Chinese community, communism would be re-imposed in Indonesia (Seto, 2019).

Even as early as 1999, the FPI had printed banners and hung them across university campuses warning students, “Alert! Zionism and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Shihab was able to forge strong alliances with opposition parties and right-wing groups as the FPI became the face of the anti-Ahok movement. By making the issue about “defending Islam,” he was able to evoke deep emotion among crowds. Shihab began to describe himself as “the Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims,” proclaiming a theologically grounded authority to voice the people’s desire for a devout life and the removal of Islam’s enemies (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774). Shihab’s religious populism has thus deployed Islam as a tool to further his agenda and place in the political arena, mobilizing millions to march in support of the movement (Fealy, 2016; Hutton, 2018).

Rizieq Shihab’s loud proclamations that the people had been “hurt” and that religion was “insulted” cast him as a defender of Islam in the eyes of many who supported the marches. In 2017, Ahok, once popular and riding high, lost his re-election bid and subsequently served time in prison. The FPI actively supported a rival candidate for governor of Jakarta. While the protests were able to create an “asymmetric multi-class alliance” between the FPI, religious groups, and the opposition, they failed to secure a majority in the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections. Nevertheless, the current mood points to the likelihood that the same alliance will come together to contest the 2024 general elections as well (Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Shihab Imprisonment and the Future of Salafism in Indonesia

Joko Widodo was able to safeguard his political position by distancing himself from the Ahok in 2017 and staying largely silent on the protest movement. Nevertheless, following Ahok’s loss in the gubernatorial elections, the government began to move against the FPI leadership. Seeing the tide turn, Shihab left Indonesia, ostensibly on a short umrah pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. However, he remained in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia when it became clear that the Indonesian police were seeking him in connection with pornography charges.

During his extended sojourn in Saudi Arabia, Shihab remained active online, connecting with “the people” and constantly spewing hatred and spreading conspiracies under the banner of “defending Islam.” During this time, he did not refrain from portraying the government in power as “the enemy” of “the faithful.” The charges against Shihab were subsequently dropped, and he returned home, espousing a mission to lead a “moral revolution” across Indonesia. Political analysts quickly and loudly concluded that this was simply Shihab’s latest Islamist populist tactic to gain momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020).

Taking an anti-Jokowi Islamist stance amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Shihab was given a “hero’s welcome” on his return home after nearly two years exiled in Saudi Arabia. The mass gatherings that resulted were troubling for the government because of their risk as super-spreader events. Moreover, they were politically troublesome, feeding into a general sense of despondency triggered by the economic effects of the pandemic. Indonesia was hit hard as its economy suffered greatly due to the fall-off in international tourism and periodic lockdowns (Singh, 2020). In the context of growing discontent directed toward the government, the return of the “grand imam” who promised a better future for the country and afterlife has been a worrying and unwelcome development (FR24, 2020).

Shihab made himself an increasingly large target for government prosecution. He loudly refused to get tested at a government facility for COVID-19 and continued to promote large gatherings of supporters and evoked extreme emotions busing his trademark blend of street humor, political rhetoric, and Islamist hate speech demonizing others. The day before his anticipated arrest, six young members of the FPI were shot dead in a violent confrontation with the police (Aqil, 2020). The government claimed that the victims were armed terrorists trying to destabilize the country’s law and order. Shihab was arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was banned as various members and key leaders were found to be involved in inciting violence (Kelemen, 2021).

Shihab voluntarily handed himself over to the authorities. In the eyes of his followers, this casts him as a martyr and the government as “tyrannical.” In custody in March 2021, he refused to participate in his trial (held remotely by video link), signaling non-compliance by reciting verses from the Qur’an whenever the court sought to question or otherwise engage with him, and his behavior delayed the trial. Since being sentenced, the Indonesian government has refused to disclose his location for fear of drawing large crowds of protesters and supporters (detikNews, 2021).

Conclusion

While Shihab’s immediate future hangs in the balance, there is certainty regarding Islamist populism in Indonesia. Shihab is not the only populist political actor in the country who has used Islamism to build a following. It is still unclear how the disbanded FPI leadership will regroup around the 2024 elections. The sudden ban, the shooting deaths of supporters, and the use of COVID-19 lockdown legislation to arrest Shihab have only served to cast him as a holy martyr in the eyes of his followers.

At the same time, the efficacy of exploiting religious sentiment to generate fear has compounded the power of populist Islamism in Indonesian life. Shihab’s radical Salafist message continues to inspire thousands to action. The FPI may be outlawed, but tens of thousands of FPI activists can regroup under new banners or join or form similar groups. Even behind bars, evidence of Shihab’s political power is displayed by the fact that his location is kept secret due to fear of protests and riots outside the jail. Shihab’s courtroom theatrics involving the recitation of the Qur’an to delay his trial while displaying his “heroic piety” show the enduring power and efficacy of Islamist populism in Indonesia.


(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. 

The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. 

He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.


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Climate activists joining 16-year-old Swedish Greta Thunberg for school strike against climate change in Stockholm, Sweden on April 12, 2019. Photo: Per Grunditz

Snowflake Resistance: Protecting the Paris Agreement Against Populism

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this commentary will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation by illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions, as well as resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance within the framework of climate activism.

By Iysha Arun

Informally referred to as “snowflakes” by populists and the far-right, youth have been leading a proactive resistance against populist attempts to undermine democracy and discredit formal institutions. The impact of the so-called snowflakes may, at first sight, be seen as minor; however, their mounting influence should be seen as the beginning of a new era in understanding civil-society engagement with politics. Succinctly put by Wiliscroft-Ferris (2017), “snowflakes can become blizzards, and blizzards often become avalanches.” 

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this short discussion will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation, specifically through illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions. The paper will also explore resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance to populism, specifically within the framework of climate activism.

The United Nations (UN) was established post World War II and modelled after its forerunner, the League of Nations. The UN is a reflection of globalisation, upholding the idyllic vision of prevention war and “to keep peace throughout the world” (UN, 2020). Although initially maintaining this peace was perceived through traditional understandings of war, the climate struggle has highlighted the possibilities for new understandings of war.

Referred to as a “catalyst for conflict” (UN, 2020), the disruptive scope of our current climate emergency is vast, from increased global food and water insecurities and allergy and health risks, (Cho, 2019), to mass displacement (IDMC, 2019). In a moving speech delivered at the Climate Action Summit (2019), Secretary-General Guterres summarized the crisis: “Our warming earth is issuing a chilling cry: ‘Stop.’ If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardize life itself.”

Faced with such a crisis, the UN acted swiftly, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (effective since 1994) established the Paris Agreement of 2016. Binding to all its signatories, the Paris Agreement undertakes strategic decisions to combat climate change, with the commitment to “hold warming well below 2 °C in global mean temperature (GMT), relative to pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 °C” (Vicedo-Cabrera et al, 2018). Such policy and global unity are necessary to prevent the catastrophic possibilities of runaway climate change.

However, the prospective success of the Paris Agreement is being curtailed by the rise of nationalist populist leaders from around the world. Under President Donald Trump, the US formally withdrew from the Agreement in 2017; in 2013, British populist Nigel Farage warned the European parliament, “We may have made one of the biggest and most stupid collective mistakes in history by getting so worried about global warming” (Todd & Parker, 2019); and in 2016, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy denied human impact on the climate, claiming, “you have to be arrogant like man to think that it is we who have changed the climate” (Goulard, 2016; Reuters, 2016). These are just a few examples of a concerning global trend.

In Come the Snowflakes, an Intersectional and Intergenerational Resistance

Set to re-write the narrative, climate change activists have been at the forefront of climate politics, taking to the streets and organizing school strikes and virtual protests (Bugden, 2020). Following the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, reminded that youth involvement has the potential to “demand actions over and beyond the general population” (Draxler, 2020)

Climate disasters have had a disproportionate impact on poorer citizens and Black and brown populations. In the US especially , this illustrates the intersection of race and class, as John Magrath, a researcher at Oxfam, emphasises that ethnic minorities “tend to live in the more marginal areas, exposed areas, that seem to be seeing more climate changes and are more susceptible to climate impacts because they have got less, and get less from governments.… It is a characteristic of all the studies that I have seen, that the ethnic communities are the people who suffer most from climate impacts and are the most vulnerable” (Baird, 2008)

Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, has further reiterated the relevance of race and class in the lived experiences of the victims of the climate crisis, emphasising the people least responsible for climate change are likely to be amongst the first impacted: “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are often highly vulnerable to climate change” (Friends of the Earth, 2020)

Youth have therefore narrowed in on intersectionality as a critical transformative element for the climate advocacy movements. Climate justice is also an issue of racial justice and economic justice. Through unifying racial justice and economic justice within a framework for environmental justice, the youth engaging with climate movements are shifting the way climate change activists engage in the political realm. When looking at increased youth voter participating in the 2020 US elections, it’s possible this played a major role in voting Trump out of office. And, as Bullard summarizes, “there’s a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there’s a lot of energy that’s stored in young people … when you put the two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success” (Draxler, 2020). Professor Bullard highlights how older generations now play a role in “mentoring, assisting, and supporting” as well as lobbying and voting, “standing with, not in front of, youth.”

Consequently, intersectional and intergenerational climate activism has not just re-written the United States’ engagement with the climate issue in domestic politics, but with Joe Biden in office and returning the US to the Paris Agreement just hours after becoming president, this form of hybrid-activism may just have saved our global institutions for peace.


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Williscroft-Ferris, Lee. (2017). “Sustained Intersectional Resistance Can Defeat The Rise Of Right-Wing Populism.”HuffPost UK. January 24, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/lee-williscroftferris/intersectional-feminism_b_14343214.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).

"Father traces from haven" - election poster for Shas, featuring Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Rishon Le Zion, Israel on March 7, 2015. Shas is an ultra-orthodox religious political party in Israel.

Different ways in which religion and populism intersect within world’s great faiths

Over the past three decades, religion has re-emerged as a key factor in domestic and international politics. One especially visible aspect of the religious revival in public life is its prominence in populist rhetoric. Even in supposedly secular societies, religious identity plays an important role in populist discourse. Religious people who are drawn to the fundamentalist manifestations of their religions find themselves sometimes drawn to populism. They discover that their populism is not in tension with their religious beliefs and practices. Because religious and identitarian populism are worldwide phenomena, it may be helpful to take a brief tour of world religions, to comprehend the many different ways in which religion and populism intersect within the world’s great faiths: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

To the surprise of many scholars, religion has re-emerged over the past three decades to become a key factor in domestic and international politics (Grzymala-Busse, 2012). One especially visible aspect of the religious revival in public life is its prominence in populist rhetoric. Even in supposedly secular Western Europe, religious identity plays an important role in populist discourse. What, then, is the relationship between religion and populism, and how has it manifested across the world and in different societies?

There are two different major dimensions to the religion-populism relationship. First, populism sometimes resembles religion, or at least fundamentalist interpretations of religion, insofar as of true believers if they follow a particular leader or party or participate in a particular movement. And like religious fundamentalists, populists often view the world through the prism of a Manichean antagonistic struggle between “the people,” who are good, and “elites” and “others” who are evil (Mudde 2004: 543; Zúquete 2017: 446)

Yet, populism is not a replacement for religion; instead, it is compatible with certain forms of religion, particularly religions which possess near absolute notions of good and evil. It should not be surprising, then, that Muslims and Christians who are drawn to the fundamentalist manifestations of their religions find themselves sometimes drawn to populism, and that their populism is not necessarily in tension with their religious beliefs and practices.

Populists may also have a functional relationship with religion. They may themselves be members of a religious group, church, or organization and may possess a political agenda based on or heavily influenced by religious texts and doctrines. We may call this group “religious populists.” 

“Identitarian populists” reject religious government but use religion to identify “the people” and their enemies according to a religio-civilizational classification of peoples. There is inevitably some overlap between the forms of populist, and the boundary between them is often ambiguous. 

The difference between the two, however, is significant. Religious populism encompasses both organised religion’s political and public aspects as expressed through a populist style and/or discourse, and populist political movements/parties/leaders that adopt an explicit religious programme. Identitarian populism, however, does not possess a political programme based upon religious teachings, nor does it attempt to force religion upon a society or run a society according to the teachings of a particular religion. Instead, it embraces a religion-based classification of peoples, often one aligned to civilizations (Western, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) It is not, then, religious itself, but often wholly secular.

What religious and identitarian populists share is civilisationalism—or a religion-based classification of world civilisations. Yet whether populists possess a genuinely religious agenda, or merely use religion to define national and civilizational identity, it is becoming clear that religion, in its various forms, is providing fertile ground not only for the construction of a receptive audience—“the pure people” of the populist imagination —but also provides relevant and highly valuable materials which help populists create “us” versus “them” dichotomies and at perpetuating these divisive binaries (Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).

Because religious and identitarian populism are worldwide phenomena, it may be helpful to take a brief tour of world religions, in order to begin to comprehend the many different ways in which religion and populism intersect within the world’s great faiths: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Van province of Turkey as holding a holy Quran on April 14, 2015.

Islam

The democratic Muslim majority world is home to a number of powerful religious populist movements. Several of these movements have achieved significant electoral success, especially in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan. These movements are mostly Islamist in nature, and therefore combine “material and cultural understandings of religion,” ultimately forming “a multivalent religio-moral populism—a potentially explosive articulation of different class interests and religious cravings” (Tugal 2002: 86). Because Islamism is itself attached to Islamic ideas of justice (both economic and social), it can be easily combined with the thin ideology of populism, which is itself based upon the notion that corrupt elites are acting unjustly towards “the people” and must be removed from power. 

Perhaps the most significant Islamist populist party in the contemporary world is Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP has led Turkey since 2002, replacing secular rule with a new programme, incorporating “Islamism, nationalism, and populism” and substantially blurring the boundaries between each (Taş, 2020: 2). While the AKP maintains a populist conception of society in which Erdogan is presented as “the voice of victimised ‘real people’ and the champion of their interests against old ‘elites’,” the party also pursues an Islamist, anti-secular project involving the Islamist religious education of the young. The AKP has a post-Kemalist, “Islamist civilisationist”(Yilmaz, 2021) outlook that has radically altered Turkey’s sense of itself, as well as elements of its foreign policy (Yilmaz, 2018: 54–55).

A homeowner displaying his political affiliation and religious devotion on his front lawn in Forest, Virginia on Aug. 21, 2020.

Christianity

A similar religio-civilizational conception of the world can be found in Christian populist movements. However, we must be careful to distinguish between two broad types of Christian populism. In Greece, for example, we see evidence of a genuinely religious populism in the “populist character” (Stavrakakis 2004: 260) of the political discourse used by the Church of Greece and, especially in the rhetoric of the late Archbishop Christodoulos (Paraskevaidis). The very political Archbishop’s discourse was “organized according to an antagonistic schema,” and divided society into two categories: the “good” people who belonged to the Greek church, and the evil atheistic, secularizing, and modernizing forces of the government and its supporters (Stavrakakis 2004. 261–62)

In the United States, where religion has long had a powerful influence over domestic politics, religious populism played a role in the ideology of the Tea Party movement. A “convergence of libertarianism and fundamentalist religion” (Montgomery, 2012: 180–81), the Tea Party movement claimed that the American Constitution, “which restricts the powers of government… [was] divinely inspired.” Americans who called for “big government” were branded by Tea Party activists as not merely un-American, but un-Christian (Montgomery 2012: 180–81)

The generally secular orientation of Western politics, however, often precludes genuine religious populism. Instead, more common is Christian identity populism. The best example of Christian identitarian populism in Western Europe might be the Netherland’s Party for Freedom. A nominally secular, liberal party supportive of gay rights and women’s rights, the Party for Freedom is also a deeply anti-Muslim party which conceives of Dutch culture as the exclusive product of “Judeo-Christianity and Humanism.” This religio-civilizational conception of the Netherlands automatically excludes Muslims, who the party faults for being too conservative, undemocratic, and political. 

A similar yet different Christian identitarian populism exists in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. For example, Viktor Orbán’s ruling party, the populist Fidesz, also practices a religio-civilizational categorization of peoples, in which Hungary is defined as a Christian yet also secular society, and in which Muslims are demonized as belonging to a hostile foreign civilization. Yet, Fidesz is fundamentally illiberal and seeks to use Christian identity to protect traditional sexual mores and gender relationships from secular progressive forces, which are attempting to introduce gay rights, transgender rights, and multiculturalism.  

Election billboards of religious political parties Shas and Otzma Yehudit before Israel’s fourth election in two years in a street of Jerusalem on March 22, 2021. Photo: Gali Estrange

Judaism

Populism and Judaism have a complex relationship, partly due to the role of Israel as a somewhat exclusive Jewish homeland but also because “the link between the Jewish religion and populism in Israel does not require mediation between religion’s universal and populism’s particular claims, since for Jewish orthodoxy there is an absolute correspondence between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people” (Filc, 2016: 167).The most concrete example of a Jewish populist movement is the Israeli party Shas. Shas’ ideology divides Israeli society between “the people,” who are “all the Jews of Israel” and includes “the Ashkenazim and Sephardim” (Filc, 2016: 176), and others, especially Arabs, African asylum seekers, and secular “elites.” The party opposes secular notions of the necessity of separating the “public sphere and individual religion” and rejects the “neutral state and a pluralistic society” (Filc, 2016: 173). Instead, Shas claims the state must “define and build a common good” based upon Jewish theological understandings of these notions (Filc, 2016: 173).

Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi visiting the Ananda Temple, in Bagan, Myanmar on September 06, 2017.

Hinduism

Beyond the monotheistic faiths, populism is increasingly attached to Hinduism in India and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In India, Narendra Modi’s populist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) openly uses a Hindu nationalist narrative—in which India is a Hindu civilization wounded by Muslim and British invaders—to shape its domestic politics and elements of its foreign policy. The BJP has won control of the government several times under Modi’s leadership, having successfully adapted the philosophy of Hindutva to a populist-nationalist framework, in which Hindus are identified as “the people” and secular nationalists (such as the former governing party, the Indian National Congress) are demonised as “elites” beholden to dangerous foreign ideologies (including secularism) (McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019: 488–90).

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen with his wife and family in the Gangarama Temple at for religious ceremony and baptism in Colombo, Sri Lanka on January 28, 2020.

Buddhism

In Sri Lanka, populism has been employed since the 1990s by Sinhalese Buddhist political leaders in order to construct and, when necessary, mobilize “the people”—that is, Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lankans—and to define Sri Lanka’s national identity. Political leaders such as former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tailored their rhetoric to typical populist binaries (ie., the people vs. the elites or us vs. them) to appeal to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (Stokke, 1998; Devotta & Stone, 2008). Moreover, as part of this populist rhetoric, they frequently referred to minority groups—particularly Tamils and Muslims—as threats to the people of Sri Lanka and the nation’s Buddhist and Sinhalese identity. They did this “in order to win the rewards of power” (Jayasinghe, 2021: 178). Buddhist organizations such as Bodubalasēna (BBS, Buddhist Power Army) play an important role in supporting populist politicians in Sri Lanka and frequently claim that minorities, and specifically Muslim Sri Lankans, pose a threat to national unity and the country’s authentic Buddhist identity (Sarjoon et al., 2016).

Conclusion

It may be tempting to view the rise of different religious populist movements, in both secular and religious societies, as ultimate proof of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis. Yet, despite the emphasis placed on religion and civilization by all these movements, few could be called transnational or international, and all are deeply nationalist in orientation. Therefore, we might conclude that religious and identitarian populists use religion primarily as a framing devise, a tool with which they can divide people within a single nation between “the pure people” and their enemies, the ruling elite and “others.” We may also surmise that religion and religious identity remain powerful forces, even in the secular West—forces which can elicit deep and sometimes violent emotions. The power of religion to engender feelings of rage in people, when they sense something sacred being profaned, may be especially useful to populists, who must create a sense of national crisis to generate the demand for populism among the public.


References

Devotta, Neil; Stone, Jason. (2008). “Jathika Hela Urumaya and Ethno-religious Politics in Sri Lanka.” Pacific Affairs. 81: 31–51. 

Filc, Dani. (2016). “’We are the (Chosen) People, you are not’ The Case of Shas Populism.” In: Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion. Edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell and Olivier Roy. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Grzymala-Busse, Anna. (2012). “Why Comparative Politics Should Take Religion (More) Seriously.” Annual Review of Political Science. 15: 421–42.

Hadiz, Vedi R. (2018). “Mobilising Islamic populism for right-wing politics in Indonesia.” Journal of Contemporary Asia. 48: 566–83.

Jaffrelot, Christopher and Tillin, Louise. (2017). “Populism in India.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jayasinghe, Pasan. (2021). “Hegemonic Populism: Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Populism in Contemporary Sri Lanka.” In: Populism in Asian Democracies: Features, Structures, and Impact. Edited by Sook Jong Lee, Chin-en Wu and Kaustuv Kanti Bandyopadhyay. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

McDonnell, Duncan, and Cabrera, Luis. (2019). “The right-wing populism of India’s Bharatiya Janata Party.” Democratization. 26: 484–501. 

Montgomery, Peter. (2012). Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 

Mudde, Cas. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39: 541–63. 

Roy, Olivier. (2016). “The French National Front: From Christian Identity to Laïcité.” In: Saving the People How Populists Hijack Religion. Edited by Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell and Olivier Roy. London: C. Hurst & Co. 

Sarjoon, Athambawa; Yusoff, Mohammad Agus and Hussin, Nordin. (2016). “Anti-Muslim Sentiments and Violence: A Major Threat to Ethnic Reconciliation and Ethnic Harmony in Post-War Sri Lanka.” Religions. 7: 125.

Stavrakakis, Yannis. (2004). Antinomies of formalism: Laclau’s theory of populism and the lessons from religious populism in Greece. Journal of Political Ideologies 9: 253–67.

Stokke, Kristian. (1998). “Sinhalese and Tamil Nationalism as Post-colonial Political Projects from ‘Above’ 1948–83.” Political Geography. 17: 83–113.

Taş, Hakkı. (2020). “The chronopolitics of national populism.” Identities. 1–19. 

Tugal, Cihan. (2002). “Islamism in Turkey: Beyond instrument and meaning.” Economy and Society. 31: 85–111

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2018). “Islamic Populism and Creating Desirable Citizens in Erdoğan’s New Turkey.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 29: 52–76. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). Creating the Desired Citizens: State, Islam and Ideology in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Galib Bashirov. (2018). “The AKP after 15 years: Emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 39

Zúquete, Jose Pedro. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Edited by Cristóbal RoviraKaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM" demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

The Islamic Defenders Front: The Face of Indonesia’s Far-Right Islamism

This commentary uses a case study of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) to explore crucial questions regarding the nature of populism in Indonesia. Some see the recent ban of the FPI by the administration of President Joko Widodo as a decisive clash between technocratic governance and right-wing Islamist populism. But while the banning of the FPI represents a significant move against Islamist populism, it will not necessarily weaken it in the longer run. Nevertheless, in a political environment largely devoid of competing forms of conviction politics, the campaigns for the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections will continue to see Islamist populism playing a significant role.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

Jokowi’s Ban of FPI: A Glimpse of Autorotation Paranoia?

Having been re-elected in April 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) had just settled into his second five-year term when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. Like the rest of the world, Indonesia saw adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic that crippled key industries such as tourism (Kelemen, 2021; Mietzner, 2020a). Jokowi’s government, like many others around the world, was seen as ill-prepared for the challenge, and the business-focused leader has been criticized for his mishandling of the virus. Within this context of uncertainty and resentment toward elected officials, Indonesia witnessed the return of one of its most outspoken Islamist populist leaders in November of 2020.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab had led the Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) since its formation in 1998 as its chairman and later as its “grand imam.” The return of Shihab from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia drew fresh attention to the populist right-wing opposition force when Jokowi’s government was struggling. Shihab exploited this with his call for a “moral revolution” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). This “moral revolution” was just the latest form of anti-government “political jihad” by the FPI as it advanced a familiar claim to be fighting for the Muslims of Indonesia to free the ummah from un-Islamic and “corrupt leaders” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). The FPI has a history of attacking Jokowi with anti-government and anti-elite rhetoric loaded with religious connotations. Such rhetoric casts Shihab as the representative of the “pious people” (e.g., observant Muslims) and the president and state officials a “sinister” and “morally corrupt” elite.

 

Parade Tauhid or Parade of Tawheed, muslim marched from central stadium to the central city of Jakarta and back. Habib Riziq Shihab was giving oration in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17 2015. Photo: Riana Ambarsari

Shihab’s call for a moral revolution commenced when huge crowds at the airport met him after returning from a two-year-old self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the FPI spread the word on its moral revolution through multiple mass rallies across the country. Many political analysts interpreted this as the beginning of an Islamist populist campaign attempting to build momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020). In a time of pandemic, it was easy for the FPI to sell its religious populism by arguing that the people’s suffering stemmed from unjust and un-caring rulers who did not want to correct their ways and “repent.” Thus, it is “up to the people” to bring about a “moral revolution” by leading more pious lives and adhering to religious principles more strictly.

As the FPI doubled down on its trademark rhetorical refrain, calling for the imposition of sharia law in Indonesia (Maulia, 2020), the government issued increasingly severe warnings against holding mass rallies and gatherings in the context of the worsening pandemic. It also asked Shihab and his team to regularly submit to tests for the virus, all of which were denied. Yet, even with meager rates of testing, multiple positive cases were reported among rally-goers(Singh, 2020). Shihab was finally arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was formally banned. Tensions peaked when six FPI members were shot dead in a police encounter in which they were described as a “threat” to the nation’s security and peace (Maulia, 2020; Singh, 2020).

While the FPI was hardly without blame, many observers have argued that Jokowi has used COVID-19 regulations and the alleged encounter to eliminate a growing anti-government political movement. This has reinforced the perception that the Jokowi administration is increasingly showing authoritarian tendencies (Kelemen, 2021; Parameswaran, 2021).

Is Populism New to Indonesian Politics?

Populist rhetoric is not new to Indonesian politics. The anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch led by the nation’s founding father, Sukarno, was inherently populist (Chalmers, 2019; Roosa, 2014). Given that the Dutch had exploited the Indonesian population and land for two centuries, it is hardly surprising that left-wing nationalist ideals were widely popular and that Sukarno is still remembered as a national hero, despite his later autocratic period of “guided democracy.”

Sukarno’s left-leaning “Old Order” government was followed in Indonesia by the anti-Communist “New Order” military-backed authoritarian regime of President Suharto. The previously little-known general emerged as a successor to Sukarno in the wake of a military takeover in October 1965 and subsequently bloody anti-Communist pogrom. In May 1998, after more than three decades in power, Suharto was forced to resign as his legitimacy faltered in the turbulence of the East Asian financial crisis. Calls for reform were led in part by the daughter of the very man whose power he had usurped, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She went on to become the first female leader of the country (Ziv, 2001).

For years, Megawati built her profile as a reformist leader channeling sympathy and respect for her larger-than-life late father. Much of her populism was based on a vague “anti-elitism” and “anti-corruption” agenda built around the promise of reformasi and returning power to “the people.” In the eyes of many, Megawati’s position enabled her to become “the face of the people” who felt increasingly oppressed through the 36-year-long military-backed dictatorship (Ziv, 2001).

The post-Suharto reformasi era not only opened the way for pro-democracy forces to participate in politics; it also saw a flood of right-wing religious parties. In the 1999 general elections, 48 new political parties took part in the democratic process, out of which 20 went on to formally contest the elections based on claims of being “Islamic” (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 434). Thus, from the beginning of this post-Suharto democratic period, right-wing populist parties have been a prominent element in the politics of Indonesia which is proud of its inclusive and open democracy (Tehusijarana, 2020).

President Joko Widodo campaigned in Banjarmasin Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan on March 27, 2019. Photo: Iman Satria

What was the FPI’s Populist Appeal?

Despite opportunities for political participation, Islamist parties have tended to underperform in general elections and fail to become significant partners in government. Since 2014, radical Islamist parties have tended to align with opposition forces led by Prabowo Subianto (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 435). In such a landscape, the FPI forged a close alliance with Prabowo as their right-wing and anti-Jokowi stances coincided. Jokowi himself has led Indonesia with his own mild variant of populism. He is framed as a champion of the “common man” and as a down-to-earth, solutions-orientated politician—a low-key “man of action.” Jokowi’s administration merges “technocratic” and somewhat left-wing solutions as well as capitalist economic models with welfare-ism. This “technocratic populism” has seen him elected president twice (Yilmaz, 2020; Roosa, 2014).

In politics, the FPI played a catalytic role in gathering votes for the parties its forms alliances with (de Haan, 2020; Hookway, 2017). The group’s core narrative of Islamist populism aids its case. Led by Shihab, a cleric with solid links to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Salafi conservatism, the FPI leadership claims to be the embodiment of the volonté générale (the general will) (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Shihab and the FPI have maintained that an open political jihad against the government is essential since the democratically elected government is merely working in the interests of the “Western” and “Zionist” lobbies (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Not only are the elected officials in the ranks of “the elite and corrupt,” they are, allegedly, advocates of powers working against Indonesia and Islam. The solution that Indonesia needs is to implement sharia laws (in accordance with orthodox and rigid Salafi interpretations) and act against all un-Islamic actors in the country (Amal, 2020).

While Indonesia is a Muslim majority country, it is a highly diverse society not just in terms of faiths and ethnicities but also within the majority Sunni community. It is home to a small but economically influential ethnic Chinese community, composed mainly of non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and the non-religious). Over the years, the FPI has targeted the Chinese by evoking the “communist threat” (Seto, 2019). FPI posters have frequently warned people about the “evils” and “threats” from the “traitors within.” One FPI poster reads, “Attention! Zionism, and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Not only has the FPI targeted those well outside the Muslim community, but they have also targeted the marginal Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia, whose members, although living in most respects as Muslims, are condemned as being murtad (apostates). The FPI targets Ahmadiyya villages and incites violence (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016; Woodward, 2014).

Protester waving Indonesian flag and Habib Rizieq Shihab picture during President Election Protest in front of Constitutional Court in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 24, 2020.

The political jihad championed by the FPI draws upon many of the same elements of Salafi ideology as exploited by violent jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Still, it largely confines its actions to inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and the largely symbolic violence of mob intimidation. Before being disbanded, the FPI marshaled para-military vigilante groups across the country to “save” the Muslim faith from the “evils” of the “enemies of the faith” (Amal, 2020; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018). The highly organized militant branch of the FPI has been involved in ethnic-religious rioting, and its members have used force to close down “hot spots” such as nightclubs and parties that it considers “sinful.” Various members of the organization have been arrested over charges of Islamist vigilantism. Hadiz (2016: 112) notes, “[the FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.”

The notorious activities of the FPI have earned it a prominent media profile and helped ensure that its call for “saving Islam” has been heard far and wide, earning the group a stable and sizable followership. Selling a narrative of victimhood, FPI imams and other leaders have ensured that their followers are kept constantly anxious about threats to their faith and way of life, and thus incentivized to hate “the Other” and at times manifest that hatred and insecurity in acts of intimidation, symbolic violence and hate speech toward out-group members (Peterson, 2020). As Mietzner (2020b: 425) has observed, Indonesian far-right populists hoodwink “pious believers” into believing they “are victimised, in Indonesia and elsewhere, by non-Muslim or otherwise sinful forces, mostly in the West but also, increasingly, China. For the Indonesian context, this means that devout Muslims are kept away from power through an inter-connected conspiracy by non-Muslim countries and Indonesian elites.”

This narrative reached a strident crescendo in late 2016. The FPI gained unprecedented approval ratings and became a powerful force in Indonesian politics during the so-called “Action to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations. These country-wide protests were led by the FPI and various other right-wing political groups and parties against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta (Fealy, 2016). The nationwide protests climaxed with a call for Ahok to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy, based on statements in a heavily edited video from the campaign hustings in which the governor had criticized the use of Islam as a campaign tool against Indonesian minorities. The xenophobic strain of criticism directed at “the Other”—in this case, the Indonesian Chinese and Christian community—was designed to mobilize the “pious people” against an otherized non-Muslim minority (Seto, 2019; Fealy, 2016). The anti-Ahok movement was framed as “defending Islam” by the FPI. The movement’s head, Shihab, moved to assume the mantle of leader of the Islamist populists by calling himself the “Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims” who would defend the faith by clashing with the authoritarian state, which was attacked for being both pro-Ahok and pluralistic (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774).

At the same time, the influential, conservative Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI) issued a fatwa declaring Ahok to be a blasphemer. Eventually, the FPI-led protests resulted in Ahok losing his governorship and serving two years in jail following blasphemy trials that ended his political career (Nuryanti, 2021). Subsequently, the FPI-supported opposition candidate won the governorship of Jakarta. In the run-up to the April 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, the FPI became a formidable force supporting Prabowo. Even though this alliance failed in the elections continued to pose a threat to Jokowi and his government (Nuryanti, 2021; Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Is FPI the End of Islamist Populism in Indonesia?

Populist religious organizations in Indonesia such as the FPI exploit religious populism to gain the sympathies of “the people.” For the FPI, this was enabled by two decades of engagement with vulnerable communities at the grassroots level. The FPI has enhanced its reputation by providing voluntary-based welfare services in disaster-struck and poverty-stricken regions and neighborhoods by providing schooling, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid (Hookway, 2017).

This had helped FPI to position itself as a protagonist when the state was seen to have failed its citizens, thus becoming the ungiving and heartless antagonist. In contrast, the FPI became the altruistic and pious benevolent giver. Even after its ban, the FPI continues to court the support of a wide range of sympathizers. And despite the legal action he faces, Shihab’s populist influence has not diminished. This is evidenced by the fact that he is currently being imprisoned in an undisclosed location due to fears he could become the focus of protests and rioting. Thus, even behind bars, Shihab continues to effectively use Islamist populist rhetoric (detikNews, 2021). In an act of defiance against the “tyranny” of the amoral state, he refused to participate in an online trial in March 2021. Rather than responding to questioning in court, he engaged in theatrical non-corporation by constantly reciting verses from the Qur’an (detikNews, 2021).

The FPI might be one of the most notorious actors in Indonesian politics, but it is not the only right-wing Islamist group using populism. Prabowo has a strong alliance with various right-wing populist parties. The FPI’s culture of charismatic authority and considerable social capital means a high probability of the group being reborn in a new guise. Therefore, banning the FPI has done nothing to eliminate the threat posed by Islamist populism, particularly as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is bound to result in long-lasting impacts on already marginalized groups in Indonesia. Given high levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a myriad of post-pandemic economic and social uncertainties, Islamist populist groups are bound to play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.


(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.


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CathrineThorleifsson

Nationalist Responses to the Crises in Europe: Old and New Hatreds

In this session, Dr. Cathrine Thorleifsson discusses her book “Nationalist responses to the crises in Europe” with Sabine Volk. The session is followed by a Q&A. In her book, Dr. Thorleifsson examines the drivers and local appeal of populist nationalism. Based on multi-sited anthropological fieldwork in England, Hungary and Norway, she explores the various material conditions, historical and social contexts that shape resentment of elites, migrants and diversity. Combining analysis of the discourses propagated by radical right parties such as UKIP and Jobbik with an analysis of the hopes and concerns of supporters, Thorleifsson develops wider conclusions about how populist nationalism is enlivened and reconfigured in response to destabilizing crises of economy, culture and displacement.

Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser.

Professor Kaltwasser: Turkey cannot be considered a democratic system anymore

Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser: “The crucial question is what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric … because he can still present himself as an ‘outsider.’”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading academics in the field of populism, Prof. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser argues that Turkey under the Erdogan regime can no longer be considered a democratic system and should now be classed as a competitive authoritarian regime. Prof. Rovira Kaltwasser—who teaches at the Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile—also stresses that once a populist is able to entrench him or herself into the political system, as Erdogan has, he or she is likely to be at the helm of the country for an extended period of time: “And this is [what] I think that the experience from Turkey, but also from other countries like Venezuela, shows…”

Asked whether authoritarian populism is itself here to stay, Prof. Rovira Kalwasser says it will in part depend on the aftereffects of COVID-19: “I’m thinking here mainly about the social and economic aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.” He indicates that if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal in a systemic way with those aftereffects, populism could lose its appeal. If not, Rovira Kaltwasser says, populist forces will exploit socio-economic tensions and the aftereffects of COVID-19, which — he stresses — could strengthen populism.

The following excerpts from our interview have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Populist Voters Tend to Have Very Illiberal Understanding of Democracy

You argue in your article on “the Populist Citizen” that “evidence suggests that populists are politically engaged citizens who do not want to overthrow the democratic system but rather push for the democratization of democracy.” If this is the case, do we not need to worry about the surge of populism?

This is an interesting question. I think it depends on how you analyze the data. What we found out when analyzing data in different countries—we have Latin America, Turkey, and a couple of European countries—is a striking commonality in all those places. The commonality is that citizens tend to have strong populist attitudes. At the same time, populist citizens tend to be in favor of the democratic system. From this study, one might conclude that democracy and populism are compatible. But I think this would be too easy an interpretation of the data because we don’t know what concept of democracy citizens have in mind. We only know that these citizens are in favor of democracy.

In fact, one of the issues we mention at the end of the paper is that we need much more research on the type of understanding of democracy that populist citizens have across all these countries. Currently, I am researching with two colleagues, analyzing data about populist citizens on the one hand and citizens’ concepts of democracy on the other. The data we have collected covers several Western European countries. What we found out is pretty interesting. We have data for those who voted for populist radical right-wing parties and populist radical left parties. One interesting commonality among those voters is that—when we ask them which concept of democracy they have in mind—they reference a very illiberal understanding of democracy. Populism can be a democratic threat, mainly because those who support populist ideas tend to have a very peculiar understanding of democracy at odds with the liberal institutions we know are crucial for consolidating a liberal democratic regime.

Populism: Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism

In the same article, you argue that the demand for populism can be interpreted as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. Does this mean populism can also be something that corrects the defects of democracy? Could you elaborate?

Well, I mean, here you’re combining two questions in one, and each of them, I think, is interesting. The first question is about whether populism is a threat or a corrective for democracy. I would say that populism is both—there are many examples in which it is very clear that populism has destroyed the democratic system.

Venezuela under Chavez is one example, as is Turkey. If you think about Turkey and what is happening in the country with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. These are two examples in which we can clearly see that the coming into power of a populist figure represents a democratic threat. But there are also many instances in which you have populist forces that sometimes enter into government in a coalition with other parties. Think about the case of Spain’s radical left party Podemos, which is in a coalition with the Socialist Party. Or think about the case of Austria where we have radical right FPÖ (Freedom Party), which between 2017 and 2019 was in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party. And the democratic system didn’t collapse in Austria—probably some things have been changing, but it’s not that the system has disappeared. And this is why I think that we need to be very careful with the theoretical arguments about populism and the empirical analysis. Depending on the case in question, we can say whether it is a threat or a corrective.

And the second part of your question is about this argument that I had been developing with my friend and colleague Cas Mudde that populism can be understood as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. And the argument that we develop is that if we think about liberal ideas both in the cultural sense and also in the economic sense, to a certain extent, many of these ideas have been pushed without asking the people whether they want to go in that direction. I think that the European Union (EU) is the best example of that. This is why we see in different countries within the EU that many citizens ask themselves whether this is the kind of EU they want. People are questioning the extent to which “we, the people” can control those liberal institutions, and I think this is a good question. While populism probably is not offering the right answers, it’s posing the right questions.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan Still Presents Himself As an “Outsider”

You’re currently researching Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), showing voters for the party are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories about malign global forces than those who vote for other parties. Why is this the case?

Well, this is the topic of a new article that I have written with two colleagues from Turkey. They know much more about Turkey than I do but based on the findings from our article, I can say two issues are quite interesting here. This article is based on survey data that we have for contemporary Turkey. The first finding is very peculiar. We realize that those who support the AKP tend to have less populist attitudes than those supporting other parties. And this is sort of a paradox because we know that Erdogan and the AKP articulate a populist discourse.

But our data shows that those who support the AKP and Erdogan are not that populist compared to those in the opposition. So how can we interpret the paradox? And the argument that we develop here, and this is also based on literature covering other countries, is that once you have a populist force in government who can stay in power for a long time, that sort of populist actor becomes the establishment. I mean, Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years, so he’s controlling the system. So, in this sense, those who support Erdogan and AKP, for them populism is not really the key driving force for their support because they know that they are part of the elite, so to say.

But here comes the second finding that it’s also interesting, and this is related to your question. We find out that those who support the AKP tend to have a much firmer belief in conspiracy theories against global forces. And I think this is the sort of discourse the AKP is developing. This is the discourse populist forces typically develop in government. They say, in fact, “we are not the real elite of the country because the real elite who controls the country lives outside of the country, and they are controlling the system.” And this is why we cannot do all the things that we want for “the people” because we have these outside forces that are blocking the will of the people. And in this way, the populist figure can still present himself or herself as an outsider. And I think this part of the analysis that we develop in our paper and analyzing this interaction between conspiracy theories and populist attitudes is very promising for the case of Turkey, but probably for many other places in the world as well.

Erdogan Can Stay in Power for a Long Time 

The AKP has been in power since 2002 as a single-party government. How long do you think the AKP can stay in power as a single party, given the rising populist rhetoric of Erdogan?

Well, again, I’m not an expert on Turkey, but based on my knowledge, my main fear here is that it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. It is, in fact, what many scholars call a competitive authoritarian regime. Turkey is a country in which you still have elections. Elections take place, there is opposition, but running against the AKP and Erdogan is very, very complicated. And this is why I think that the experience from Turkey, but also other countries—like, for instance, the case of Venezuela—shows that once you have a populist figure who is able to entrench itself into the political system, this figure can stay for an extended period of time. In the case of Venezuela, in fact, Hugo Chavez died, but even he was able to appoint (Nicolas) Maduro, who is the head of the government now. I think the case of Turkey, it’s very, very dependent on the leader Erdogan, so the crucial question is, “can we have AKP without Erdogan?” A similar question arose in Argentina a long time ago, “can we have Peronism without Peron?” In Argentina, that became a possibility.

The crucial question is, what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric, as I mentioned before because he can still present himself as an “outsider.” [Propagating the idea that] powers from outside are controlling the country … is the sort of language that many populist leaders in government develop.

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

Are populist systems able to stay in power for a long time, or are they prone to collapse? Can you offer examples for each one?

Well, you can see it all if you look at different cases across the globe. I mean, you have cases in which populist figures could come into power, and they had to leave quickly because they were not able to build a strong alliance with crucial actors. Or there was an economic collapse or something like that, and because of that, they had to leave power relatively fast. If you think about Brazil at the beginning of the 1990s, they elected Fernando Collor de Mello as president. A huge corruption scandal popped up, and after two years, there was an impeachment, and he left office. His brief story was one of a very unsuccessful populist figure.

But we also have other instances, as in the case of Turkey, where Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years. So, I think it’s difficult to generalize based on different examples. For example, Alberto Fujimori in Peru was ten years in government, and after that, he left office and disappeared from the political scene. But the division within society in Peru, to some extent, falls on whether you are in favor of Fujimori or against him. If you go to Venezuela nowadays, the whole political debate is the same: whether you are for Chavismo or against it. And I can imagine that, for example, in Turkey, there will arise a debate after Erdogan of whether you were in favor of Erdogan or not. Then you have the emergence of a new political cleavage. That is not necessarily a cleavage between left and right politics but a cleavage between being in favor or against that sort of populist project.

Liberal Institutions May Challenge the Will of the People

How do you explain the recent success of populist parties in the EU, which was once seen as the embodiment of liberal democratic values?

This goes back to our discussion before about this idea of undemocratic liberalism. I think that the EU, to a certain extent, is an example of pushing liberal values in an undemocratic way. If you think just in economic terms, consider that the EU has been developing both the eurozone and a whole infrastructure concerning economic integration and economic liberalization. Very often, citizens were not necessarily in favor of that process. However, politicians at the national level said, “Well, this is what Brussels is doing, and we cannot do anything.” To a certain extent, these politicians were using the EU as a foil, displacing responsibility to Brussels for these developments, which they supported at the national level but did not want to be held accountable for.

Later came the Great Recession (2008–2009), and then we realized the power of the EU economic structure. You had the European Central Bank telling certain countries, particularly in Southern Europe, you have to do A, B, and C. Then you realize that you have these liberal institutions that challenge the will of the people. If you asked people in Italy, in Greece, or Spain, they were saying, “we don’t want these policies.” So, you have here a supranational institution — a liberal institution —pushing against the will of the people. This is just one example that has not been completely developed in an engagement with the will of the people, and because of that, now we have the rise of populist forces of both right and left. They are politicizing specific issues that are relevant for certain sectors of the electorate.

Nigel Farage arrives at the House of Commons to lend support to the Leave Means Leave campaign in London, UK on January 15, 2019. Photo: Brian Minkoff

British political scientist Paul Taggart argues that “populism requires the most extraordinary individuals to lead the most ordinary people.” Do you agree with him, and could you elaborate?

Yes, I one-hundred percent agree with that beautiful sentence from Paul. This is again a sort of a paradox because populist figures usually talk about ordinary people. But if you think about populist figures very often, they tend to be very peculiar. Think about Donald Trump, think about Nigel Farage, think about Fujimori and figures like that. This is part of the paradox because populists’ leaders try to do two things simultaneously to rise to prominence. The first thing that they try to do is to break certain taboos. If you break certain taboos, you will get a lot of visibility, and therefore they’re very good with social media because they say certain things that generate a lot of tension within society. So, in this way, they are in the news the whole time. At the same time, populist figures are very clever in presenting themselves as outsiders, although they’re not necessarily real outsiders. Take the example of Donald Trump. He’s a billionaire—I mean, he’s not a real outsider. But he presents himself as an outsider within the political system, and in that way, he generates a lot of publicity. This is part of the paradox that very well describes that sentence from Paul Taggart.

Socio-economic Inequality and Declining Legitimacy Threatens Liberal Democracies

After the end of the Cold War, it was predicted that liberal Western democracy had prevailed, and all the other systems would try to be like these democracies. However, as you mention in your book Populism: A Very Short Introduction,populism is at odds with liberal democracy. What went wrong, and why did Francis Fukuyama prove to be wrong?

Well, I think that the problem is, at the beginning of the 1990s, when we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and also a process of re-democratization in most Latin American countries, many people, I mean many people within academia— Fukuyama is probably the best example of that sort—thought this was “the end of history,” in the sense that we expected the prevalence of liberal democracy all over the world. But I think that sort of prediction was a bit naive, and it was based on seeing the expansion of democracy across many places of the world in a very short period of time. In contrast, what we’re experiencing today is an unambiguous signal that to have liberal democratic systems that can stabilize over time, we need specific prerequisites that are not necessarily present across all—or even most—societies. This is a problem not only for Latin America or for Turkey—for developing countries, so to say—but this is also a problem in developed countries like in Europe and the United States.

I think the two prerequisites are, to a certain extent, under stress today. The first prerequisite is legitimacy because most citizens believe that democracy is the only game in town. As I mentioned at the beginning, my feeling is that there is an important section of the electorate across different societies with a very peculiar understanding of democracy. I mean a non-liberal understanding of democracy. And this is why legitimacy is failing in many countries across the globe. The second prerequisite, I would say, is related to the issue of socio-economic inequality. To have a democratic system that can prevail over time, you need a certain minimum and a safety net within society. And if you don’t have that, there is a real chance that many people will start to feel deprived on either a subjective or an objective level because they’re saying the system is not working in a fair way. And this is a real problem for most countries of the world because of economic globalization. Socio-economic inequality and declining legitimacy are two of the main—although not the only—reasons that liberal democratic systems across the globe are under stress today.

How Is the World Going to Look After COVID-19?

Do you think current populist authoritarianism trends will continue? If yes, what sort of a world is waiting for us in the next five to ten years?

Well, I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I think this is probably related to the major crisis that we’re experiencing today. This is the coronavirus, and the question is, how is the world going to look after COVID-19? One of the trickiest aspects of the COVID-19 crisis is that it generates a lot of social and economic inequality within countries and across the world. Take the whole debate, for example, about vaccines—we are seeing what is happening in India, a developing country that is not able to get enough vaccines. And this is generating a lot of tensions within that country. Also, we realize that social and economic inequalities are getting wider within countries. As mentioned, the expansion of socio-economic inequality is one of the main reasons there is democratic fragility across much of the world.

So, in this sense, the answer to your question of whether populist forces will continue to experience success in the near future is related to how well we can deal with the aftereffects of COVID-19. I’m thinking here mainly of the social and economic aftereffects of the crisis. And I think if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal with the aftereffects of the crisis in a systemic way, the likelihood is that populist forces will continue to diminish. But if this is not the case, I think the opposite will be true, and we might see populist forces of the radical right or the radical left exploit the tensions that arise with the aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Who is Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser?

Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is a full professor at the School of Political Science of the Diego Portales University (UDP) in Santiago de Chile and an associate researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES)

Kaltwasser received his PhD in political science from the Humboldt-University of Berlin in 2008. His main area of research is comparative politics and he has a special interest in the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. Before his current job Kaltwasser worked as a research fellow at the University of Sussex, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the Human Development group of the Chilean Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Together with Cas Mudde (Georgia University), Kaltwasser has written the book “Populism. A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2017), which has been translated into several languages, including Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai amongst others.