MichaelBell

Prof. Michael M. Bell: When populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks collapse

Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a composer, an author and a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is also part of the Environmental Studies program, as well as in Religious Studies and Agri-ecology program, said in an exclusive interview with the ECPS, when major populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks often collapse extremely fast [as well].

People hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against Donald Trump's environmental policy at conference attended by Trump climate advisor Myron Ebell in Brussels, Belgium on Feb. 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Prof. Michael M. Bell: We have to understand knowledge as a social relation to understand authoritarian environmental populism

Talking about environmental populism and authoritarianism Professor Michael Mayerfeld Bell, who is also an author and a composer, explains the importance of protecting environment through the philosophy of one of his compositions called “Respiration.”  “Whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”

Interview by Mehmet Soyer & Heidi Hart 

Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a composer, author, and a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is also part of the Environmental Studies program, as well as in Religious Studies and Agroecology program, said in an exclusive interview with the ECPS, that we have to understand knowledge as a social relation in order to understand authoritarian environmental populism.

Stating that environmental populism is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism, Professor Bell gave “brown ecology” in National Socialism as an example. “There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that,” said Bell. He quoted a former executive director of Acres USA, an organic agriculture organization, who claimed we are having a rise of homosexuality in society because of “the use of pesticides.” Bell stated that “So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument.”

Professor Bell stressed the social relations of knowledge behind the seductiveness of arguments like these: that is, how what we take to be relevant and trustworthy knowledge depends upon its relations of identity. He argued that environmentalists often take environmental findings as mere facts, without considering the identity relations in which they are embedded, and thus whether people will trust or pay attention to these findings.   

He discussed his own work to reach across such “cultivations” or bubbles of identity through music. Talking about a recent piece titled “Respiration,” which is about both climate change and COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Bell explained that “The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”

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

Mehmet Soyer: I know you from the environmental sociology field, and I had an “Aha” moment while reading your ecological dialogue theory, which holds that each is the seed of the other. In one of your presentations at a conference, you asked why populism is so seductive; we’re in modern liberal society that’s supposed to be done with that kind of thinking, so how would you answer your own questions?

That was a sarcastic comment, of course. But the issue that’s at the heart of populism is the issue of inequality, and modern liberal societies are by no means beyond that. Indeed, the main issue that we need to think about is the basic bargain that those societies are based on. If you want to call it that, [the bargain] was that we would establish equality of political standing and not address material standing. Right, everyone gets to vote … so the promise goes: “Happy now, that you all get to vote?” And we don’t have to worry about anything else. But that’s really [only] half equality, if you like, an equality of inequalities. The claim was that any inequality of material standing, after you had equality of political standing, was your own fault, right? And that’s just not the case. You can’t have one without the other. We need them both; material standing is part of political standing. So we need what I like to call an equality of equalities, or what I call “isodemocracy” (democracy founded on equalities in both political and material standing— democracy in which the concerns of everybody, and every body, are the concerns of everybody). But we don’t have that, and it rightly pisses people off. Now, unfortunately, some people are channeling that populist anger in an authoritarian way. But I understand pissed-off part.

Count On Us Women’s March 2020: Reporter asking protesters about their Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler comparison sign in Washington D.C. on October 17, 2020. Photo: Julian Leshay

Authoritarian Populism Diverts People from the Real Sources of Their Troubles

Heidi Hart: Right, thank you, that was very succinctly answered. It’s a tough question, but it gets to the core, and, as a follow up, how do you think authoritarian populism, in the face of growing economic inequality, has affected the global green shift? On the one side, we have democratic countries like Germany, who are greening their economies, on the other side, an authoritarian country like China is also attempting to green its economy. Do you see any contradiction here?

Authoritarian populism, it seems, is basically a cruel sham. It diverts people from the real sources of their troubles, and ecological exploitation is surely one of those. But I don’t think I would call China an authoritarian populist country; it’s an authoritarian country. And I don’t see China’s leaders as trying to create an image of an elite that is oppressing the common people, which is the essence of populist thought. It seems to me that Chinese politics is more based upon nationalism. It’s us, China, versus the rest of the world.

In any event, the reality of the challenges that ecological exploitation creates is evidently seen as significant. Enough so that such diverse countries recognize it and are trying to do something about it. Maybe we’ll actually get there.

Heidi Hart: Even in the Democratic Party in the US, the Green New Deal is controversial. What do you think about the Green New Deal? Is it doable, and why has been seen as a “socialist” move?

Because the right is basically trying to undermine it using socio-cultural cues. And this I suppose gets to the question of “what is socialism?” In my view, socialism is just organizing life for social benefit. It’s also the idea that collective benefit leads to individual benefit, as opposed to the capitalist argument, which seems to be that individual benefit somehow leads to collective benefit. “Just trust us, the invisible hand will take care of all that” – which it doesn’t, because of the power differences that the capitalist approach immediately sets up. So, the big scare the right likes to use is the idea that socialism means economic nationalism, or nationalization, collective ownership of the means of production. But I don’t think socialism is defined by a specific economic practice. It’s defined by social goals. It’s a social theory, not merely an economic one.

Achieving those goals may indeed involve nationalization and collective ownership, but that’s a debate that we need to have economic sector by economic sector. How best do we organize our economy, as well as the other aspects of our lives, for collective benefit? They just want to scare us: “Oh, they’re just going to nationalize everything and it’s going to be the Soviet Union or what have you.” Because they’re basically trying to keep the bargain I talked about earlier, which is, “OK, we gave you the right to vote, or at least most of you (we’re trending that back a little bit, but we hope you don’t notice we’re doing that), but yeah, we gave you that, so we don’t need to address the material stuff, do we?” So, they are trying to keep that bad bargain alive through confusing people. And the Green New Deal is a credible effort to confront that bad bargain and make it a fair one.

The Kehlsteinhaus (also known as the Eagle’s Nest) on top of the Kehlstein at 1.834m is the formerly Hitler’s home and southern headquarters in Berchtesgad, Germany.

An Environmental Populist Argument May Turn into An Awful Right-wing Argument

Mehmet Soyer: What do you think about environmental populism? Would it be a solution to ‘save the world’?

Well, I think it’s a question of populism of what? It seems to me that you could have an environmental populism that is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism. A horrible example of that is what scholars sometimes call brown ecology, which was the very strong ecological argument in National Socialism. There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that.

I remember once many years ago, I was at the annual meeting of something called Acres USA. Acres USA is a major organic agriculture organization, doing a lot of work on agroecology. I was in Iowa at the time, and I was doing some ethnographic work, so I thought I probably had to go to this meeting. So, I did, and I listened, as the then-executive director of Acres USA proceeded to explain “why we are having a rise of homosexuality in society: because of the use of pesticides.”

So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument. So, the trouble is that the environment is very much bound up in these ideas of nature.

We have done some of the most beautiful things we have ever done in defense of nature, and some of the most horrible things we have ever done [also] happen in defense of so-called nature. So, to go back to your question, it depends on [which] environmental populism.

Knowledge Is A Social Relationship As Well

Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on that, because one thing I’ve been writing about for this organization is eco-fascism and the temptations of purity culture, which certainly have roots in Heidegger and Nazi Germany. But what about the sort of climate populism that has arisen around figures like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, the more left-wing populist impulse? What are your thoughts about that as a potential to make a difference?

Well, I think populist arguments have a lot of basis in them, if we can just get our facts straight. And I think [Thunberg] is helping us to do that, with the facts that are straight on: there are a lot of moneyed interests who are trying to keep people down and keep them divided, in order to pursue their particular agenda[s]. I think the facts bear that up. Climate change is a real.

Heidi Hart: This actually brings us to our next question. We have been bombarded by fake news about environmental issues such as climate change. Do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders and/or of conspiracy thinking?

Yes, and that is to recognize that knowledge actually is not just about facts. Knowledge is a social relationship as well, [what] I like to call the cultivation of knowledge: understanding the relationship between knowledge and identity. We spend all of our days actually ignoring stuff way more than we pay attention to it. Right now, why are you talking to me here, [when] there are 7 billion other people on this planet? Why aren’t you talking to them? I’m sure they have really interesting things to say. Why did I go to [Mehmet Soyer’s] class, and not some other class? Why did I look at the New York Times today and not the National Review? Why did I watch CNN and not Fox News?  There are so many things out there to not pay attention to, but how do you know that those things actually are not relevant and important to your life, if you haven’t looked at them? So, you use your social relations to help guide you in these decisions, what you’re not going to pay attention to. This can be the cultivation of un-knowledge, maybe even more than a cultivation of knowledge. That is to say, then, we have to understand identity relations in what is knowledge. That’s why someone like Greta is so powerful, because she actually is a relatable figure and can help cross social ties and boundaries, if you like, cultivation boundaries, field to field, of knowledge identity that are otherwise in place.

One of the problems, I think, the environmental movement has had is that it’s been heavily guided by wonkish people like me, who sit in offices like this, and on campuses where we think about facts, we think about what’s in the journals and what the other scholars are saying, and we actually identify with that. So, we have identification issues going on there that we probably don’t even pay attention to (“By the way, who have you cited in your article?”). So those relations are very much part of academic life as well, but when we talk to the public, we forget about that, right? And we also don’t listen to the public, and we don’t consider their knowledge as potentially part of our cultivations, because we’ve decided that the people we pay attention to are those with the author-date citations. So, we have to get past of all that. I think the first place is to recognize that when we’re talking about knowledge, we are also talking about social relations.

When Populist Authoritarian Leaders Go, Their Networks Collapse

Mehmet Soyer: Following up on the previous question about fake news, which reminds me of Donald Trump, how much do you think distrust of elites has fed climate skepticism among right-wing populists? And what about the wealthy supporters of leaders like Trump who claim similar ideology?

Well, you know that Trump is addressing people who feel that they have been left out and kept down. And that’s actually most of us. So, now he has a little bit of a rhetorical problem. He was born with a gold spoon in his mouth. And he loves the color gold. You know that as soon as he came into the Oval Office, the first thing he did was to replace the drapes and make them gold colors. The apartment in Trump Tower has gold everywhere. So, what is Trump going to do? He’s going to emphasize ideas that he thinks will resonate with those who feel left out and kept down. He’s going to say, “I’m full of resentment and therefore I resonate with your resentment,” and he’s going to say, “By the way, I don’t need that fancy stuff, I eat hamburgers and French fries.” Also, the way he speaks is basically to divert attention from the fact that he has a degree from an Ivy League university. And he’s been enormously effective at this. It’s very central to the kinds of networks that Trump has built. They’re really built around his personality, right? There are very strong identity relations associated with Trump creat[ing] a vast network of cultivation. But it’s also very fragile. So, when major populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks often collapse extremely fast [as well].

Trump is actually still with us. But I’ve been really quite, or a little, optimistic about the fact that he has largely disappeared in the last few months. He’s been submerged much more than people expected. You know I don’t want to wish for his death, or for anyone’s death, but when he does finally go, as we all will, even more you’ll see the opportunity for really significant re-alignment of those relations of knowledge and identity.

Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on this one, because the personality cult is so powerful, even though it does seem to be fading. Trump adherents are now resisting vaccination and have tended to be climate change deniers as well. What do you see is the relationship between the personality cult and the denial of scientific fact?

Because of this interrelationship between knowledge and identity, and what people are not paying attention to … there are these major bubbles that that separate us. I think what we need to do is find ways to reach out across and burst those bubbles, and we have to burst them from inside our own bubbles, to try to rewrite the ways that we’ve been ignoring each other.

Heidi Hart: That’s beautiful, thank you. Maybe this next question is related: as a fellow musician working in arts and politics, how far do you think the arts can go and bursting these bubbles, or at least fostering environmental awareness, perhaps reaching across political divides?

Absolutely, I think it’s what moves me all the time when I’m onstage, if I’m able to play some music to a diverse audience, and somehow it gets found out: “Did you know he’s a college professor?” So, I think music has very strong opportunities for that. I wouldn’t call it a universal language, but it is one of many ways that we have to lead our lines of identity – what we pay attention to, who we appreciate, who we care for – in different ways.

Whatever You Breathe In, Someone Else Breathes Out

Mehmet Soyer: There is a group called Brave Combo. I don’t know if it’s a local band, or a national band, but they were really active in protesting fracking development in Denton, Texas. They organized a concert and wrote lyrics about the issues. There is intergenerational support for music, so I really believe in art and also the power of the music in these protests.

Right. I do write political songs, and sometimes I sing them at events, but the main group I work with is a group called Graminy, which comes from the Latin word for grass. What we try to do is to merge grassroots traditions with classical traditions. We call it “grass-class.” I think you can probably see that implicit in there is a social point: we want to bring more grass to class, and we want to bring more class to grass.

A recent piece that we did, about a 20-minute piece, is really about climate change and about COVID at the same time. It’s called “Respiration.” The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath. Hopefully we’re in a place where we can talk about these issues without saying, “By the way, I’m a socialist” or, “By the way, I’m a Trumpist.”

Heidi Hart: It’s a challenging thing to do with the arts, I think, because they can be very sticky with ideology and appropriated, as we’ve seen with Trump claiming music in his rallies that goes against the political beliefs of the musicians themselves. But I think it is powerful. I’m currently working with some musicians and sound artists on a climate grief project that is very much connected to breathing, eco-regulation, and co-regulation through rhythm. There are a lot of different ways we can approach these issues that are embodied. If we involve the body, that helps people to relate to each other, too.

Great, and I just want to give a quick shout-out also to an organization here in Wisconsin that I work with a lot. They’re called the Wormfarm Institute, and they work on rural-urban integration or what they sometimes call “rural-urban flow” through the arts. They run this wonderful annual festival they call Fermentation Fest, which is a celebration of fermented foods, which include bread and beer and cheese, but so many other things are fermented, and there’s a sense of aliveness there. Through food we’re able to [create] rural-urban flow, which food is very much a part of, and get to that embodiment that you were just talking about.

Mehmet Soyer: Thank you, Mike, for a great conversation and for joining us today.

Who is Michael Mayerfeld Bell?

Michael M. Bell is an author and scholar, as well as a composer and performing musician. Bell is the author or editor of eleven books, three of which have won national awards. His most recent books are the Cambridge Handbook of Environmental Sociology (Cambridge, 2020; Legun, Keller, Carolan, and Bell, eds.), the 6th edition of An Invitation to Environmental Sociology (Sage, 2020; Bell, Ashwood, Leslie, and Schlachter), and City of the Good: Nature, Religion, and the Ancient Search for What Is Right (Princeton, 2018). He is currently finishing a book on the sociology of heritage, with Jason Orne and Loka Ashwood.

Professor Bell serves on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is Chair and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology, as well as a member of the faculty of the Agroecology Program, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and the Religious Studies Program.

Bell is a prolific composer of classical and grassroots music, as well as environmental and progressive song. He performs regularly on mandolin and banjo with the award-winning “class-grass” band Graminy, and on guitar as a soloist and in the Elm Duo. Discover his composition and performance at his separate music site. Bell is passionate about progressive politics, their challenges and possibilities. He currently serves on the board of the Dane County Democrats.

Turkish TV series Ertugrul Ghazi (Dirilis: Ertugrul in Turkish and Resurrection: Ertugrul in English) is an international hit, but it has found unprecedented acclaim and fandom in Pakistan, where it is broadcast in the country’s national language (Urdu) by the state-owned Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV).

Transnational Islamist Populism between Pakistan and Turkey: The Case of Dirilis – Ertugrul

The highly politicized, Ottomanist themes of Ertugrul Ghazi, a Turkish television drama, are a manifestation of Turkey’s desire to expand its cultural borders. The show depicts Turks as the protagonists dealing with contemporary political issues, “settling” accounts with their enemies as they steadfastly practise the faith of Islam. These ideals facilitates the construction of a transnational populist civilizational cultural identity which surpasses nationalism. The show and its themes have resonated with the Pakistani version of Islamist populism.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

During Pakistan’s first reluctant Covid-19 lockdown, in the spring of 2020, the normally chaotic streets went quiet. The relative tranquillity of the outdoors was not replicated indoors. Thousands of Pakistanis, forced to stay home, were glued to their television screens and electronic devices, enthusiastically watching a Turkish TV series: Ertugrul Ghazi (Dirilis: Ertugrul in Turkish and Resurrection: Ertugrul in English) (Shaikh, 2020; Carney, 2018). The program is an international hit, but it has found unprecedented acclaim and fandom in Pakistan, where it is broadcast in the country’s national language (Urdu) by the state-owned Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV). By fall 2020, the show’s Urdu YouTube channel—called TRT Ertugrul by PTV—had received 10 million subscribers; the show also became a regular feature of the “top ten shows” watched on Netflix in Pakistan (Bhutto, 2020The News, 2020)

Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Islamist populist Prime Minister (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021aYilmaz & Shakil, 2021b), called the show a “gift” from Turkey that was a token of brotherly exchange between the two countries. He has highlighted the significance of the show for the “Muslim world” because it allows a break from the “Western” content and puts forth “our (the Muslim world’s)” perspectives (Haider, 2020). Khan feels that the medium of films should be used to teach the “aloof” and “West-inspired” younger generations about the Muslim world’s “glorious past,” “triumphs,” and “heroic figures,” so that the “western civilizational hegemony” is “broken” (Haider, 2020). As a counter to “third-hand culture,” Ertugrul Ghazi has gone beyond pop culture to seep into deep fissures with Pakistani society’s imagination and conception of Turkey (Banka, 2020)

The fictional multi-series drama is built around the character of Ertugrul, the father of Osman I (the founder of the Ottoman Empire) and follows Ertugrul’s adventures across Central Asia. The story is a genre of historical fiction that celebrates the “resurrection” of Muslim power in the region during the late 11th century. The series has achieved unprecedented viewership in Pakistan, where the citizens have always felt a close affinity or a sense of “brotherhood” towards Turkey.

Northern India and Pakistan have been heavily shaped by Turkic-Persian culture. Turkish cultural influences in the Indus region—present-day Pakistan—run deep. Five different dynasties hailing from the region of modern-day Turkey and Central Asia, cumulatively known as the Delhi Sultanate, ruled the Indus valley from 1000 to 1556 BC (Avari, 2016). The longstanding connection between the cultures is also visible in the Urdu language. The language was constructed by borrowed vocabulary from the dominant languages within India from the Medieval period (Shaban, 2015). Urdu’s foundational elements include not only Persian, Hindi, and Arabic influences but also Turkish, further proving the transfusion and integration of Turkic elements into the region’s culture (Shaban, 2015).

In contemporary history, the Muslims of South Asia were very deeply involved in efforts to sustain the Ottoman Empire as it reached its twilight during and post-World War I. The Muslims of United India held the Ottoman ruler as the caliph of the Muslim World, and the Ottomans wielded immense religious-cultural power in the region. Thousands of Muslims protested, petitioned, and even enlisted in the British army during WWI with the hopes of negotiating a secure fate for the Ottoman Empire. However, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) brought an end to these ambitions (Niemeijer, 1972)

During the 20th century, the modern-day nation-states of Turkey and Pakistan maintained cordial ties with one another. To show it supports Turkey—even on the most controversial issues—Pakistan is one of a handful of countries that do not recognize the legitimacy of the Armenian state and deny the Armenian Genocide (Korybko, 2020). Both countries have had numerous high-level state official visits from the other. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, and in particular post-2010, relations between the two countries have only intensified through bilateral trade, military exchanges, diplomatic support, and cultural integration supported by shows such as Ertugrul (Khetran, 2016; Singh & Hickman, 2013; Mushtaq, 2004).   

The large audience for the show, in a country already sympathetic to Turkey, makes it a highly useful devise for transmitting the religious populism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political party the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The show is a prime example of the AKP’s soft power, allowing the party to successfully transmit its narrative of “Islamist civilisationalism” (Yilmaz, 2021), rooted in glorification of the Turkic ethnicity and position as the guardians of the Sunni Muslim world, the show blurs the “distinctions between entertainment and official (state-sanctioned) history” (Smith, 2020Subramanian, 2020; Carney, 2018; Karataş, 2016).

The drama’s highly politicized themes of Ottomanism are a manifestation of Turkey’s desire to expand its cultural borders. The show depicts Turks as the protagonists dealing with contemporary political issues, “settling” accounts with their enemies as they steadfastly practise the faith of Islam (Sunni Islam) (Bhutto, 2020Emre-Çetin, 2014). These broadcasted ideals facilitate the construction of a transnational populist civilizational cultural identity, where nationalism is surpassed (Brubaker, 2017). This has resonated with the Pakistani version of Islamist populism (Yilmaz & Saleem, 2021). Khan’s ownership of Ertugrul Ghazi as “our” culture exemplifies this notion. 

The hallmark of populism is a dichotomous society, home of two homogeneous and antagonistic groups—“the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” (Mudde, 2004). The show plays on this dichotomy, allowing Pakistani viewers to feel part of the Muslim ummah—a group that has been victimized by the whims and control of the “Western world”; throughout the show, Ertugrul is busy unmasking the nefarious plans of Crusaders, pagans, and internal traitors. The ummah is only salvaged from the brink of misery and oppression due to their strong Islamist ideals that are imbodied in a jihad of nafs (the inner self) and sword (enemies of Islam, both internal and external).   

Erdogan and his party have hooked the willing Pakistani audience, a population suffering a perpetual ontological crisis (Bhutto, 2020 & Shaikh, 2020). The vertical and horizontal divides (Taguieff, 1995) within Pakistan are also cemented through the show’s themes. The vertical dimension of Islamic populism divides the “ummah” versus the “others,” such as Western countries, Jews, Indians, Armenians, etc. While the horizontal dimension marks the ummah as the “true people”due to their celestial superiority (Islamism) against the “evil” or “godless” others. Civilizational populism is intertwined with faith within the drama series. Superseding plain nationalism, civilizationism—especially driven by populist actors—is a highly effective emotional instrument of division and can be used to galvanize popular support in the international arena.

Turkey has used its transnational civilizationism to not only expand its relations with Pakistan but also muster support during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. While Pakistan didn’t officially declare its military involvement in the conflict, troops supported the Turkey-backed army in Azerbaijan. The Pakistani government issued sympathetic statements of support for its Azerbaijani “brothers” (Korybko, 2020). Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan share a transnational relationship that makes them the ummah against the “infidels.”

On the domestic level, Ertugrul Ghazi has made Pakistani and Turkish cultures synonymous. This penetration of civilizational populism is cross-cutting. For now, markets are flooded with fan merchandise, including odd items such Halima Sultan hairpins and Ertugrul themed papads (a snack), with the show’s Turkish cast endorsing brands across Pakistan’s cities. However, there are clear signs of a cultural convergence that are beyond the show and have more permanent features. The long-term cultural ties feature not only telecasting more Islamized Turkish shows such as Yunus Emre[1] but also jointly produced television shows—for example, Lala Turki[2] (Rehman, 2021; Siddique, 2020). This show, a sequel to the show Kurulus: Osman, has been dubbed in Urdu by a YouTube channel and is being consumed with great zeal (The News, 2020). Retail brands are not just limiting themselves to the cast of Ertugrul Ghazi; rather, they are using slogans such as “uniting cultures” and “Muslim heritage” to sell their merchandise in a market where Turkishness is the new fad (Saleem, 2020)

A chowk (market area) has always been named the “Istanbul chowk,” but now its connotation has changed for the citizens of Pakistan. The name of Istanbul reminds them of the Hagia Sophia, that was just “reconquered” by the AKP government, when it was re-converted to a mosque (Yilmaz, 2020). Istanbul chowk now represents the land of the “true” and “fierce” Muslims, the land and progenies of Ertugrul Ghazi (the pious warrior Turk) who took on the world to defend his tribe and religion. The drama series has played a key role in solidifying transnational Islamist populism promulgated by the Erdogan regime. The show’s civilizationalism is now part of Pakistan’s collective narrative, identity, and psyche. 

References

Avari, B. (2016). Islamic Civilization in South Asia: A History of Muslim Power and Presence. Routledge: New York. (accessed on March 14, 2021). 

Brubaker, R. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40(8), 1191–1226. 

Carney, J. (2018.) “Resur(e)recting a Spectacular Hero: Diriliş Ertuğrul, Necropolitics, and Popular Culture in Turkey.” Review of Middle East Studies. 52(1), 93-114. doi:10.1017/rms.2018.6. 

Khetran, S. Mir. (2016). “Economic Connectivity: Pakistan, China, West Asia and Central Asia.” Strategic Studies. 36(4), 61-76. doi:10.2307/48535974 

Mudde, C. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4), 541–563.

Mushtaq, Nadia. (2004). “Pak-Turkey Relations: Towards Cooperative Future.” Strategic Studies. 24(2), 89-116. doi:10.2307/45242527. 

Niemeijer, A. (1972.) The Khilafat Movement in India 1919-1924. Brill: The Hague. 

Shaban, Abdul. (2015). “Urdu and Urdu Medium Schools in Maharashtra.” Economic and Political Weekly. 50(29), 46-51. doi:10.2307/24482034. 

Singh, Chaitram & Hickman, John. (2013). “Soldiers as Savior of the State: The Cases of Turkey and Pakistan Contrasted.” Journal of Third World Studies. 30(1), 39-54, doi:10.2307/45198798. 

Taguieff, P. (1995). “Political Science Confronts Populism: From a Conceptual Mirage to a Real Problem.” Telos. 103, 9–43. Doi: 10.3817/0395103009. 

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


[1] The show is based on the life of the 13th century Sufi mystic. It emphasizes the universal components and yardsticks of Muslimhood. 

[2] Abdur Rahman Peshawari (a South Asian Muslim) had gathered funds and men to aid the flailing Ottoman Empire. Lala Peshawari, as he was known at the time, then set off on a ship; upon reaching Turkey, he fought two battles as part of the Ottoman army. He was killed in a battle and thus is revered as a “Ghazi.” The show will be based off this journey to the Ottoman Empire and his sacrifices for the caliphate. 

UKIP's Brexit Betrayal Rally in London with Tommy Robinson and Gerard Batten on September 09, 2018.

ECPS Book Talks — The Attractions of Populist Nationalism: Insights from Anthropological Fieldwork Amongst the Radical Right (April 29, 2021)

During this ECPS event, Dr. Cathrine Thorleifsson will discuss her book Nationalist responses to the crises in Europe together with Sabine Voss, who researches the political culture of far-right populist grassroots politics in post-socialist eastern Germany. 

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. 

Date and Time: Thursday, April 29, 2021, 7 PM CEST

Register Here

Speakers 

Cathrine Thorleifsson is a Researcher at the Centre for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. Cathrine holds a PhD in Anthropology from the London School of Economics and Political Science (2012). She has conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork amongst supporters of the populist, radical right in Europe and Israel. The past decade she has been researching and writing on nationalism, belonging, racisms and far right politics. Her recent books include: Nationalist Responses to the Crises in Europe: Old and New Hatreds (Routledge 2019) and Nationalism and the Politics of Fear in Israel (I.B. Tauris 2015). Dr. Thorleifsson has studied Arabic at the University of Damascus and Hebrew at the University of Haifa. Previously, she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Oslo. In addition to her academic pursuits, Dr. Thorleifsson has carried out consultancy work for the UNDP, the World Bank, the European Commission and a number of ministries on the dynamics of far-right radicalization. Dr. Thorleifsson frequently provides expert analysis for policy makers as well as print and broadcast media.

Sabine Volk is a PhD candidate at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków and Early Stage Researcher in the EU Horizon2020 project “Delayed transformational fatigue in Central and Eastern Europe: Responding to the rise of illiberalism/populism (FATIGUE)”. Volk’s dissertation explores the political culture of far-right populist grassroots politics in post-socialist eastern Germany, focusing on dimensions such as ideology, memory, and the ritualization of public protest. She has conducted several months of ethnographic fieldwork in the context of the Dresden-based “Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident” (PEGIDA) movement, including online ethnography of virtual protest events. Volk has published in journals such as German Politics and Politique Européenne, and blogs on Open Democracy, LSE Europe, populism-europe.com, amongst others. Prior to her PhD, Volk obtained two MA’s in European Studies: one from the Erasmus Mundus Programme of Excellence ‘Euroculture’ and one from the College of Europe. Previous places of study and research include Tübingen, Groningen, Strasbourg, Indianapolis and Warsaw.

EvianeLeidig

From Extreme Right to Populist Wave: Dynamics of the Far Right in India

Dr. Eviane Leidig’s presentation situates the rise and success of the far right in India through the lens of Hindu nationalism. It provides a historical overview of the ideology and types of organisations within this far right landscape, focusing in particular on the global aspects of what is commonly portrayed to be an isolated local phenomenon. This talk then turns to the contemporary dynamics of the Indian far right through the ascent of Narendra Modi, widely viewed to be a populist, charismatic leader who will usher in India’s revival and golden age. The presentation sheds light on the far right as both global and transnationally connected through a case study of India, while also proposing new ways of conceptualising far right movements in postcolonial, Global South contexts.

Caricature of The Five Star Movement in carnival parade of floats and masks, made of paper-pulp in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy in January 2018.

Prof. Paul Taggart: I do not agree populists will inevitably fail

British political scientist Paul Taggart does not regard populism as a “pathology” nor as “evil” and contends that it could be even useful in terms of heralding the problems of democracy. “Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously,” says Taggart.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Prof. Paul Taggart of Sussex University does not agree that populist politics will, in the end, fail, as some of his colleagues argue. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, Taggart said populist leaders sustain their power by resorting to authoritarian mechanisms. The British political scientist does not regard populism as a “pathology” nor as “evil” and contends that it could be even useful in terms of heralding the problems of democracy. “Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously,” he says.

Stressing that there has been no significant surge in the number of populist leaders around the world, Taggart says populism should be assessed in perspective. He underlines that there is no magic formula to fight populism as populists in power do not all behave the same way. According to Taggart, once in power, populists can pursue several distinct strategies—either moderating their populism, reshaping political institutions to suit their populism, or behaving like an opposition in power. Given there is no single model, Taggart says the response to populist leaders should be tailor-made.

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

You argue that you do not regard populism as a “disease” or a “pathology” nor as “evil.” How have you come to this conclusion?

This is an assumption and not a conclusion. I think we need to consider populism as objectively as we can. The fact that it is “thin-centered” and fuses with other ideologies means that we need to be careful about generalizing about it without considering whether we are focusing on populism or on the ideas that it attaches to.

You use the term “democratic corrective” in relation to populism. Does this mean populism is useful to a certain extent?

Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously. That does not mean to say that we should uncritically accept whatever populists say. But it also means that we should not automatically dismiss populist critiques of democracy. Instead, we need to be alive to the possibility that populism may be correct to assert that politics is not working well.

You also argue that populism is becoming one of the main challenges to the liberal-democratic regime. Is there a contradiction between this argument and populism being a “democratic corrective”?

Liberal democracy has two elements. On the one hand, it embraces the idea of popular sovereignty, and this means representation and majority rule. But it also stresses the importance of process, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities, and of core rights. There is often, in liberal democracy, a tension between these two aspects. Populism is a challenge to liberal democracy in that it focuses on the first aspect of liberal democracy—popular sovereignty and representation—at the expense of the liberal aspect. Populism rarely talks in terms of rights or minorities. You need both for liberal democracy. Suppose popular sovereignty—and the representative connection—is weak. In that case, populism might be useful to call for that link to be strengthened, and so it can potentially be a corrective for democracy. But if this is at the expense of rights, the rule of law, and minorities, this will undermine liberal democracy.

Is there a magic formula to deal with or contain populist parties once they are in power?

No, there is no magic formula if you want to combat populism in power. Populists in power do not all behave the same way. They tend to pursue one of three strategies —moderating their populism, reshaping political institutions to suit their populism, or behaving like an opposition in power. These different approaches to power mean that any response needs to be tailored to whatever approach is being used.

It seems the EU is not very successful in dealing with populists when they are in power. What is Brussels problem?

I am not sure it is the EU’s role to deal with populism. The rise of populism in many European states says as much about those states as it does about the EU itself.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a flurry of articles predicting that liberal democracy had won and would spread worldwide. Yet we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?

It was wrong to say that liberal democracy had “won.” Politics is not a sports game in which a result is clear—it is an ongoing process and to expect a clear “score” is naïve. We are seeing a lot of populism around at the moment. But we are also seeing a lot of other forms of politics. Populism is spectacular, which means that it commands attention and that some people tend to over-generalize it.

Looking at the massive surge of populist leaders worldwide, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?

There is no massive surge of populist leaders. There are a few around the world, but most leaders are not populist. We need to consider populism in perspective.

Populists usually and inevitably fail because they do not know how to govern. However, some populist leaders like Erdogan, Orban, and Putin have kept the power for a long time. How can their extended stay in power be explained?

I don’t agree that populists inevitably fail. Some populists sustain themselves in power by resorting to authoritarian means.

Are there any tested successful ways to fight against populist leaders and populist movements? Will they keep gaining ground?

If you want to fight populism, then there is no magic formula. The one thing that does not seem to work is to pretend it does not exist or completely shun it from political life as this only feeds the idea that populism represents the excluded. Historically, populism has usually had a limited shelf-life. It has not built lasting political families as other ideologies have done. I suspect that it will fade—but that it will also re-emerge later.

Who is Paul Taggart?

Paul Taggart is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex. He has previously served as the Director of the Sussex European Institute, Head of the Department of Politics, and Deputy Head of the School for Law, Politics, and Sociology at Sussex. He has acted as an external examiner for Strathclyde University, Birkbeck College, Aston University, the University of Bath, and Goldsmiths College, London. His focus is on comparative politics, and his research focused primarily on populism and on Euroscepticism, and more broadly on the domestic politics of European integration. He has published six books and numerous articles in these areas.

Professor Taggart is also a former editor of the journal Government and Opposition and is now chairs the journal’s Board of Directors. He is the former editor of the journal Politics and co-Convenor (with Prof. Aleks Szczerbiak) of the European Referendums, Elections and Parties Network (EPERN). He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Gothenburg and the University of Sarajevo, a visiting scholar at the Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, and a visiting professor at King’s College London. Taggart is a regular commentator on British, European, and US politics for BBC local radio.

Paul Lendvai.

Paul Lendvai: Orbán’s Hungary is a “Führer Democracy”

Viktor Orbán has built an extraordinarily centralized strongman regime, which can be described as “Führer Democracy.” Nowadays, Paul Lendvai argues, even the term “Führer Democracy” is no longer valid for Hungary, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. Soon, all that will be left is “Führer.”

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

In 1989, a 26-year-old law student addressed a protest in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. In his speech, the young Viktor Orbán called for an end to the communist dictatorship, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, and the holding of free elections. Later on, Orbán attended Oxford on a scholarship funded by George Soros, and after turning back to Hungary, he founded the political party FIDESZ or the Alliance of Young Democrats. He was hailed as the future of a new Hungary.

Today, Orbán is Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union. He obsessively attacks George Soros as an enemy of the people and considers China and Turkey as role models. In our interview with Paul Lendvai— a Hungarian-born Austrian journalist who has written extensively on Central and Eastern Europe for more than 60 years—we discussed how Orbán turned into one of the most successful populist autocrats of our times.

Lendvai’s latest book Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (2018, Hurst and Princeton University Press), has been published in English, German, Hungarian, Slovene, and Polish (and later this year in Croatian). It portrays Hungary as an authoritarian system under the rule of Orbán. Exploring the deterioration of the country’s rule of law, the end of the separation of powers, and mass clientelism, Lendvai succeeds in tracing Hungary’s rapid slide toward authoritarianism in his excellent book.

The following excerpts from our interview with Paul Lendvai have been lightly edited for brevity and length.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gives a speech to convince his respondents in Szeged on March 4, 2014.

The term “populist” carries negative connotations in current political culture. However, this may not sound valid for a ruthless authoritarian leader who is often referred to as the “Viktator.” Do you think being defined as a “populist” just serves to shadow Viktor Orbán’s more negative features?

Every politician can be called populist, but basically the question is whether it’s claiming to represent people without really paying attention to the issues and does everything to get or remain in power. There is no question that, in this sense, Orbán is a populist. In the early 1990s, he changed his political line because he realized that he could not get elected with his earlier ideals. He left the center-left position and moved then to center-right, then more and more right, and that is how he seized power in 1998. Then, he lost power in 2002, and following that, he showed his ability as a politician by getting re-elected after eight years in 2010. He is often described as right conservative in the international media. But actually, he is a right-wing populist nationalist. Regardless of the adjectives, his only ideology is to use every means to remain in power.

Do you think Orbán inherited much of his ruthlessness and vengefulness from his father, who is a product of “goulash communism” under Janos Kadar? And if we can speak of a sort of Kadarism creating a populist leader like Orbán, what should we expect for the future generations raised under Orbánism?

As a matter of fact, Orbán was a very rebellious person, and it is something of a personal contradiction that someone who was such a rebel could turn into a kind of authoritarian strongman in politics. He rebelled at school and in the army. And he also rebelled against his father, who was a typical product of Kadarism. His father, Gyözö Orbán, was not only a party member, but he was also allowed to go to Libya as an expert. He is now 81 and has become extremely rich. Orbán has luxurious private residences—one is a little bit like Putin’s palace, although not that huge—but it’s all under the name of his father and his son-in-law. His two brothers are also in business.

But turning back to your question, in terms of education and upbringing, Orbán’s father was very ruthless, beating Viktor up even at the age of 16. Perhaps we need a psychological study to fully understand how he became the person he is today.

Very Skillful Politician and A Very Cynical Person

As you note in your book, today, the country’s president, the speaker of parliament, and the author of Hungary’s 2012 constitution all happen to be Orbán’s friends from Bibo College days—indeed, from the very start of FIDESZ, the Alliance of Young Democrats that Orbán and his friends set up in 1988. How do you emphasize the characteristics of this political brotherhood?

It is something exceedingly rare to see this kind of fraternity in the top leadership of a European country. They were a group of young people who were very committed to their ideals. They started their movement in 1988, and, in effect, the critical party positions have been retained by these 20–25 people or their relatives. It is not only the speaker of the parliament or the president but also many other positions. For instance, the chief justice is the wife of a former European MP who wrote the new constitution. She has now become a member of the Supreme Court for ten years. Following his second electoral victory in 2014, Orbán wanted full power over his party, his government, and the country. Therefore, he broke with his close collaborator, Lajos Simicska, the man who had built up the entire business empire of FIDESZ.

Another feature of Orbán is that he gets rid of people who can be potentially dangerous but never kicks them totally out. For instance, the present president [János Áder] was allegedly planning a plot against Orbán in 2006. He was then “exiled” to Brussels when he was elected as a European MP. When the FIDESZ government had the chance to nominate the president in 2010, he was passed over. Only later did Orbán call him back, and he was given a second chance. In 2017, he was re-elected for another five-year term as president. So, Orbán is very clever in the way he deals with potential adversaries. He has complete control over this tightly knit group, making him the most powerful politician in the European Union (EU).

To what extent Orbán’s “plebeian” roots played a role in transforming once liberal, anti-clerical, and anti-nationalist FIDESZ into an illiberal, clerical, and nationalist–populist party? And how do you assess FIDESZ’s policies toward minorities, especially the Roma people, its antisemitism, particularly against Soros, and its Islamophobia?

Orbán is a very skillful politician and basically a very cynical person. Take the Roma issue as an example. In 2011, when Hungary took over the rotating chairmanship of the EU for six months, Hungary promised to do many things for the Roma people (officially numbering 300,000 in Hungary; in reality, probably over 700,000). In practice, they did nothing. They just appointed a figurehead under their control; he was a profoundly corrupt figure. So, it was very cleverly handled without really doing anything essential.

We can see a similar move by Orbán with respect to the 100,000 strong Jewish community. As to antisemitism, no one has ever heard Orbán utter an anti-Jewish statement or remark in public. The point is not whether he personally is antisemitic or not. What really matters is what his politics are. He rewrote Hungarian history in an entirely new constitution, which the youngsters learn at school from the very beginning. It’s all about whitewashing Hungarian history in contrast to Germany or, to some extent Austria for the last 20 years.

Orbán is also deft at splitting the Jewish community or splitting the political opposition. Orbán is on good terms with a Jewish Hasidic Rabbi, who represents perhaps five or eight percent of the Jewish community in Hungary but has many wealthy supporters in the US. And he has excellent relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. So, if anyone attacks Hungary about antisemitism, then this Rabbi objects to that.

On the other hand, Orbán conducted an antisemitic campaign against the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros, who had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Eastern Europe and Hungary. Still, no one can attack Orbán as an antisemitic; Netanyahu and his Hassidic friends would reject these claims.

Controlling Media and Judiciary Is the First Step Toward Authoritarianism

Drawing necessary lessons from his defeat eight years earlier, Orbán made two bold moves after his triumphant re-election in 2010. First, he took away most of the Constitutional Court’s power, and second, he took over the public and most of the private media. Which one do you see more critical-controlling the judiciary or the media? And do you think that controlling major checks on power is a first step on the way to authoritarianism?

I think they’re both extremely important. The judiciary was the basic steppingstone since they can approve everything [a government does] in contrast to Poland. For instance, the Hungarian centralization of power has always been seen as above board because the Constitutional Court approved most of the measures. FIDESZ started by appointing new judges and bringing the court gradually under their control. It took a certain amount of time, but there is no question that the Constitutional Court of Hungary is no longer a balancing to the executive.

As for the media, the move against the free press and the setting up of his own media, by chance, coincided with Hungary taking over the rotating chairmanship of the EU in 2011. Already after a year in office, it was quite clear internationally that Hungary’s public television and radio had come under government control and the other media outlets were under pressure. In the last years, the media has been subject to near-total pressure by the government. Some 80 percent of the news today is supplied either by government media outlets or by media companies controlled by oligarchs who are very close to Orbán or FIDESZ personally.

Both of these checks are especially important in a democracy and are connected. After all, an independent judiciary is a guarantee of the freedom of the press, and the free press is the guarantee of an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, both of them are under government control in Hungary today. Now the entire justice system will be totally taken over. And, of course, controlling these sectors is the first step toward authoritarianism.

Anti Immigration poster from Viktor Orban government in the streets of Budapest during the 2018 general elections campaign.

Thinking of Orbán’s building a fence on the border with Serbia to keep out refugees and representing himself as the last protector of Europe, how do you assess the relationship between FIDESZ and the EU? Hard- or soft-Eurosceptic or Europhobic? Could you detail how FIDESZ has turned its anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies into an advantage in its relations with the EU?

These are two different but interconnected questions. Number one is the refugee issue, which was used by Orbán to consolidate his power and was unfortunately met with a high degree of approval by the Hungarian public. As a result of the hate campaigns by the government-controlled media, building a fence on the border and the entire anti-refugee policy was approved. But the situation has also changed in Germany and other EU countries.

And the other point of your question is about the EU’s approach toward Hungary. Ever since 2011, Hungary has been a target in numerous resolutions. But, FIDESZ remained a member of the European People’s Party, the EPP, for almost a decade. It was only in March this year that Orbán has recalled his 11 MPs from the EPP.

But it is a different matter regarding Hungary’s membership as a state in the EU. Once you are a member of the EU, it is tough to discipline a country defying the European principles of human rights and equality. Thus, over the next five or seven years, Hungary is in line to receive a minimum of €18 billion in transfers from the EU budget, plus €7 billion from the COVID-19 reconstruction fund.

Orbán Built Up A Kleptocracy For His Friends And His Family

How do you think corruption and kleptocracy paved the way for Orbán’s Hungary to emerge as a mafia state?

There is a significant difference between other countries and Hungary. For instance, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was elected prime minister four times. But he had become very rich before he seized the top position. In the case of Hungary, Orbán was a politician who first occupied the top political position and only afterward built up a kleptocracy for his friends and his family. There is the famous case of Lörinc Mészáros, a gas fitter in a small village. Mészáros went to the same elementary school as Orbán. And they met again in this small village of 1,800 people, and he became a close friend of Orbán. Then he became mayor of this little town and then the chairman of the local soccer club. He was running a small firm on the edge of bankruptcy. Today, he is the second richest man in Hungary, with assets of €1 billion across 200 different companies. This man has been accused in parliament by the opposition of being a crony of Prime Minister Orbán. Orbán’s spokesman says that the prime minister has nothing to do with business affairs.

Officially Orbán’s assets are tiny—half of a small flat with his wife in Budapest. Actually, it all works differently. For instance, one of his daughters is married to a young entrepreneur. Suddenly, this man, at the age of 32, became the 33rdrichest person in Hungary. So, this is all done in a very clever way. The people don’t get worked up by abstract overall figures. Several studies on the mafia state in Hungary conclude that were there a real change of government system through free elections and the imposition of a functioning system of rule of law, the group of people at the top would end up behind bars.

Orbán’s cabinet contains quite a few women. Yet he is on record saying he considers women to be insufficiently tough or cut out for politics. How do you see the relationship between populism and gender issues?

Until 2018, there was no woman in his cabinet at all. Proportionately, Hungary has the least number of women MPs in Europe. For instance, there are more women even in the Albanian parliament than in Hungary. In 2018, Orbán appointed two attractive young women; one as Minister of Justice and one as Minister for Women’s Affairs. They speak very good English. So, they can sell the government policies much better than their predecessors. But it doesn’t change the fact that the country has very strict anti-lesbian and anti-homosexual laws, prohibiting same-sex marriages or same-sex couples adopting or fostering children, etc. It is a much more restrictive and conservative society in this sense compared to Western Europe, and gender issues so far have not triggered massive protests.

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016.

As a journalist who spent several decades reporting on Central Europe for the Die Presse and the Financial Times, do you think Orbán would export his regime to Visegrad Four (V4)?

Yes, definitely. He uses this Visegrad Four group for this purpose. The four countries—Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—emerged in 1990 mainly as a symbolic group. It became only in 2015 under Orbán’s leadership a kind of protest alliance against the influx of refugees. The turning point was the election of the right-wing PiS [Law and Justice Party] in Poland in 2015. There still exists a so-called Hungary–Poland axis for the moment. But there is one major difference between Hungary and Poland in terms of their relations with Russia. Despite the close collaboration between Budapest and Warsaw, one must not forget that the Poles are very suspicious of Russia and vehemently opposed to the Russian interference in the Ukraine. Whereas Orbán has met Putin at least nine times bilaterally in the last eleven years, and they have excellent relations. The network of corruption also connects the two regimes in Hungary and Russia. 

And a newcomer as an Orbán ally is Slovenia, the most developed country in Central Europe, which was the first to join the Eurozone and NATO. It has been run for a year now by Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who in 1990 was a courageous anti-communist but has now become an extremely right-wing and corrupt politician, and above all, a very close friend of Orbán.

Biden Administration Knows What Is Going On In Hungary

The Hungarian leader seeks to be a European figure. Orbán was the first European leader to congratulate Donald Trump after his election victory in 2016, and the US didn’t raise any objection to Orbán during the Trump era. The honeymoon is now over because the new administration has a totally different policy toward Hungary. The new Secretary of State [Anthony Blinken] has close ties with Hungary; his mother is Hungarian, his father served as the US ambassador to Hungary between 1994 and 1998. So, this administration knows what is going on in Hungary.

You settle on the term “Führer Democracy” to emphasize the extraordinary centralization of power in Orbán’s hands. Can you please clarify how we should understand the term “Führer Democracy”?

The term “Führer Democracy” was not invented by me but by the moderate Hungarian political scientist Andras Körösenyi. And, it’s a very apt term. It means he is a führer and has a very strong position that cannot be overthrown by peaceful means like elections. As the great Austro-British political scientist Karl Popper said, democracy is based on the principle that bad rulers can be gotten rid of without bloodshed, without violence, by majority vote. But it is no longer possible in Hungary due to the change of the election system, gerrymandering, and the power positions the Orbán regime has built up.

As a matter of fact, even if there were a change of government in 2022, it doesn’t necessarily mean the system will change immediately. Every key position is in the hands of Orbán loyalists. So, the “Führer Democracy” is basically a strongman regime. It is, however, different from China, which is a führer regime but not a democracy. And, unfortunately, nowadays, this “Führer Democracy” term is no longer valid for Hungary either, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. So, in the end, only “führer” will remain. For the moment, the term seems to stick because there is the pretense of a democracy.

Orban Might Resort to Strong-arm Methods

The last chapter of your book is entitled “The End of the Regime Cannot Be Foreseen.” With Orbán as the dominant central power against the two major opposition parties—the post-Communists and the far-right party, Jobbik, which seem unable to unite against the government—how do you predict the future of Hungary?

No regime lasts forever, but you have to take into account several things in addition to the basis of the system like the army, the secret police, the prosecutor’s office, the judiciary, the media, the Constitutional Court, the election system, and so on. In addition to this, Orbán is only 58 years old. I raised eyebrows in Hungary very recently when I said in an interview for US media that he could lead the country for 20 more years. I mean, if you look at Joe Biden, for instance, he is 78 years old.

But you can’t predict anything. Everything is possible in politics. for instance, A combination of economic and social crises could arise. Orbán has no real advisers. Like every strongman, he is also intoxicated by power. If there were to emerge a real strong opposition threatening his power in the elections, then Orbán would take off his gloves and become a naked strongman. We are not yet there, but in the last year or so, state control has been tightened in the cultural and educational fields. Traveling abroad is free, but the state of emergency resulting from the epidemic helps him consolidate the power and tighten his grip. We don’t know what the results will be of the epidemic and the economic downturn. There will be unpredictable consequences. And the EU, despite everything, might tighten the rules. In that sense, everything is possible.

But on the present assumptions, I am rather pessimistic that anything major, dramatic will happen in the foreseeable future. The lack of a real united opposition allows him, for the moment, to do whatever he likes. Actually, Orbán is a very clever political operator. Thus, he pre-empted the right extremist party, Jobbik, through his strict refugee policy, by demagogy, and by helping the most impoverished working families through public works, by cheating, and by corrupting Jobbik MPs as he did with the socialist party.

The big question is whether the opposition parties can ever combine forces. If all the opposition parties were to join forces, they could theoretically win the elections. I don’t exclude the possibility that the opposition could threaten Orbán’s power in future elections. He might then resort to strong-arm methods. For the moment, however, the opinion polls don’t show a dramatic change.

Who Is Paul Lendvai?

Paul Lendvai was born in 1929 in Budapest to Jewish parents. He worked as a journalist but was arrested and jailed in 1953 and banned from the media until the Hungarian uprising. In 1957, he sought political asylum in Austria. He was the Vienna correspondent for The Financial Times for 20 years, covering Eastern Europe. He subsequently worked as editor-in-chief of the Austrian state television, again covering Eastern Europe, and director of Radio Austria International, the shortwave broadcasting service. Lendvai is the author of 18 books published in 10 languages.

Erdogan supporters gather in Takism square after an attempted coup d’etat in Istanbul, Turkey on July 19, 2016.  Photo: John Wreford

What Went Wrong in Turkey?

Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “What Went Wrong in Turkey?” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 6, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0001

 

The volume titled Islamism, Populism, and Turkish Foreign Policy, edited by Burak Bilgehan Ozpek and Bill Park (Routledge, 2019), reveals that Islamism and populism have long united forces in Turkey to mobilize the masses from the periphery to the center to capture the state “by” the support of the people, but neither “for” nor “with” them. 

Reviewed by Mustafa Demir
 
What went wrong in Turkey? This was the question in the minds of the contributors who embarked on the intellectual journey that gave birth to Islamism, Populism, and Turkish Foreign Policy. As an observer of Turkish politics, I welcome this work, not only as a contribution to the literature but also as an effort, concordant with intellectual and scholarly responsibility, to critically contextualize and record another important shift in the life of modern Turkey, one that has been dubbed the “Islamist populist turn” in Turkish history (Yilmaz, 2021).

The book is a collection of articles first published in a special issue of Turkish Studies dealing with Islamism and populism in Turkey and its impact on Turkey’s foreign policy. It consists of six comprehensive articles in which the concepts of Islamism and populism serve as connective tissues. 

The book begins with an editorial introduction by Bill Park. He provides a concise contextual background from which the AKP has emerged as a force of democratization and discusses how “a decade and a half later” the AKP has completed its “domination of Turkey’s political life” as an authoritarian regime. Park also explains how the AKP regime masterfully mobilized the “hitherto alienated masses” and captured the secular Turkish state with their help. He highlights how the expected “consolidation of democracy” as an end product of the AKP era has been superseded by the current reality of “centralisation of power, growing authoritarianism… and a purge of all kinds of political opposition.” Park also briefly points out the shift in the country’s foreign policy from a Western-oriented emerging soft power in its region to an aggressive, revisionist actor with worsening relations with the West that reflect the country’s internal shift towards authoritarianism. Following this quick depiction of Turkey’s internal and external picture, Park presents the central question that ties all six articles together: “What went wrong [in Turkey]?” 

Burak Bilgehan Ozpek and Nebehat Tanriverdi-Yasar highlight the tension between democracy and secularism in Turkey and explain how the AKP regime has exploited this tension to craft its Islamist populist appeal against the country’s secular establishment. They also discuss how the EU membership process has been instrumentalized/weaponized and used in the marginalization of the Kemalist military and institutions and their depiction as the “internal” enemy of the “real” people of the country. Finally, the authors highlight that all attempts to destroy the Kemalist system are justified in the eyes of the “real” people of the country. 

Birol Baskan’s article is also a significant contribution that details the Islamist foreign policy perspective of the AKP. He places the worldview and policies of Turkey’s former foreign minister and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu under the microscope to lay out what an Islamist foreign policy perspective looks like. Baskan details how a “civilizationist–populism” came to be adopted in forging foreign relations and how — seen through this lens — the world can be reduced to one unified Muslim civilization versus the rest. He also rightly argues that this understanding has shaped “neo-Ottomanism” and informed Turkish foreign policy decisions during the Arab uprisings. Indeed, the author notes how artificially demarcated borders and the impact of the Arab uprisings brought forth a millennial opportunity to remedy historical “problems” to create a culturally, politically, and economically integrated region. This understanding also reflects a major departure from Kemalist foreign policy towards the region. 

Another article by Mustafa Serdar Palabiyik focuses on post-2010 Turkey. It looks at how the current regime politicizes history to create populist binaries. Here, the Kemalists and their precursors are portrayed as internal collaborators of the Western powers, “the enemy” of the “real” people in Turkey. In this narrative, Kemalists and their historical precursors are cast as the scapegoats for all the losses and defeats the Porte faced before its demise. This revised history has been crucial in the justification of current foreign policies since the regime and its elite are presented as the vanguard of an Ottoman revival. 

Mustafa A. Sezal and Ihsan Sezal’s contribution is a critical attempt to analyze the role of Islamist ideology in the AKP. This chapter explains in detail how Islamism as an ideology has empowered the AKP ruling elite and provided them with “efficient” tools to alienate the Kemalist establishment, coding them as a foreign element and presenting them as an enemy of and threat to the “real” people of the country. This chapter argues that Islamism has been the central dynamic shaping the AKP’s worldview from the outset. The authors contend that Islamism has been the core principle of the AKP and has been applied to both its internal and external relations. However, I think this conclusion does a disservice to many former members of the party—like Reha Camuroglu, Ertugrul Gunay, Yasar Yakis, and many others—who waged a genuinely heroic struggle to democratize the country within AKP ranks during its first two terms (2002–2010). All departed the party following its anti-democratic turn and once its authoritarian tendencies became salient after 2010. 

Neatly complementing the Sezals’ discussion, Menderes Cinar’s article highlights the transformation of the AKP from a moderate democratic Islamic party to a more populist party with a civilizationist outlook and growing anti-democratic tendencies and practices. I suggest that Cinar’s article be read alongside that of Mustafa Sezal and Ihsan Sezal. Cinar highlights how “the AKP’s nativist practices have aimed at redefining as a Muslim nation by using a civilizational discourse” (p. 8). He also argues that the AKP’s ideology was “unformed” when it was established, after which the party gradually developed a populist authoritarian character. 

However, alternatively, I would suggest that when the party first came to power, it was a rather motley coalition of different segments.  Only gradually did the Islamist partner come to dominate the other parts, either through cooptation or purges. Thus, it would be beneficial to highlight the internal changes within the party that saw it transform within a decade from a coalition of reformist progressive liberals and former Islamists (who claimed they had become “pro-European conservative democrats”) to an anti-Western, revisionist, and populist Islamist political party. 

This point of mine is also endorsed by Park in the introduction. Park says that none of the contributions “in this volume draw attention to the change in the AKP after it assumed power” (p. 5). However, I think this point requires further attention because overlooking transformation within political parties is not specific to the chapters in this volume. It is an understudied topic in Turkey and the AKP era overall. And it requires further research to produce a more complete and nuanced view of the topic.

Turkish academia has long assumed that political parties are “fixed units” that carry certain ideologies. This oversight is a real problem not only for Turkey in the AKP era but in general. For example, without discussing the transformation within the CHP over time, it would be difficult to properly understand the party’s shifting foreign and domestic/security policies towards ethnic and religious minorities and practicing Muslims. It would also do a disservice to the reformist, progressive liberals—like Canan Kaftancioglu, Sezgin Tanrikulu, Ahmet Unal Cevikoz, and many others—who have been championing progressive reformist politics within the party’s ranks in recent years. 

The final chapter has been written by Mustafa Kutlay and Huseyin Emrah Karaoguz. It focuses on the economic aspects of recent AKP rule. Although the article seems to stay out of the frame of Islamism and populism, it provides an important account of the lack of “bureaucratic autonomy” in Turkey and an important discussion of the political economy of Turkey’s populist present. Here, the arbitrary authoritarian interference by political forces in the economic sphere (mirroring political interference in civil spheres) is seen as the central driver of Turkey’s recent economic turmoil. The authors contend that this interference—especially in the allocation of funds and resources— “in the formulation and implementation of R&D policies” stems mainly from the regime’s “populist motivations” (p. 123).

Islamism has long served as a sub-strata political ideology in Turkey. Attempts to surface it were retarded by secular state forces up until the end of the 20th century (for further details, see Cizre and Cinar, 2003). However, managed to find a crack in the surface, rising to inundate and subsume the socio-political spectrum in Turkey in the last decade.    

By addressing Islamism and populism, the edited volume offers an account of the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey as well. However, instead of dealing with these two terms as separate phenomena, it would have been beneficial to underline the interconnectedness of the authoritarian turn and the rise of Islamist populism under the AKP regime in Turkey. Certainly, some of the articles discuss these notions together. However, given the conceptual discussion on the links between Islamism and populism is relatively shallow, it would have helped to provide a stronger theoretical frame to structure the chapters.

In general, this book reveals that Islamism and populism have been constants in modern Turkey and have been deployed to bring the masses from the periphery to the center (Mardin, 1973) and capture the state and its institutions “by” mobilizing the support of the people, albeit neither “for” nor “with” them. However, neither in the book nor in my observations of Turkish politics in general—and the AKP era in particular—is it clear whether the Turkish populists have combined their “thin-centered” populist ideology with Islamism or if the Islamists in Turkey have used populism as a vehicle and strategy to “conquer” the secular state. This seems to be the “chicken and egg” question of scholarship on populism —namely, whether it best understood as an ideology (Mudde, 2004) or a strategy (Barr, 2009; Moffit, 2017).


References

Barr, Robert R. (2009). “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-Establishment Politics.” Party Politics, 15(1), 29–48. 

Cizre, U. & Menderes Cinar. (2003). “Turkey 2002: Kemalism, Islamism, and Politics in the Light of the February 28 Process.” South Atlantic Quarterly. 102(2-3): 309–332.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-102-2-3-309.

Yilmaz, I. (2021). “Islamist Populism, Islamist Fatwas, State Transnationalism and Turkey”s Diaspora.” In Akbarzadeh, S (ed), Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Routledge, Abingdon, Eng., pp.170-187, doi: 10.4324/9780429425165-14. 

Mardin, Ş. (1973). “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?” Daedalus, vol. 102, no. 1, pp. 169-190.

Moffit, B. (2017). “Transnational Populism? Representative Claims, Media and The Difficulty of Constructing A Transnational “People”.” Javnost: The Public. 24(4), 409–425. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2017.1330086

Mudde, C. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4), 541–563.

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