Pollution

Whose Anthropocene? Climate Grief and Climate Justice

This commentary considers problems of privilege in climate anxiety and grief, asking which humans have left the deepest marks in planetary history, in the sense of the Anthropocene or “human age,” and who will suffer most as a result. 

By Heidi Hart

If far-right populism favors only certain people, in the sense of “Herrenvolk democracy” or populism for the white and preferably wealthy, does the climate-active left risk exclusionary thinking as well? When discussing the Anthropocene, an often contested but still useful term for the human age on earth, which humans’ traces in the geologic record hold most weight? Who has done the most to add untenable amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, and who will suffer most as a result? What about thinking beyond the human, to grieve endangered and already lost species? And whose voices are heard most loudly, asking these questions?

The realities of climate collapse can feel overwhelming, even for those not yet directly affected. I recently came up against a blind spot in my own work, curating a climate grief project involving mostly white women, when I read a thoughtful essay on the “whiteness of climate anxiety.”  Sarah Jaquette Ray (2021) asks an even more pressing question than in my list above: “is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get ‘back to normal,’ to the comforts of their privilege?” She notes that ecoanxiety (a term the American Psychological Association defines as “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017) can lead to “eugenic thinking” (Wilson, 2018) and other explicitly racist aspects of ecofascism.  

This sounds like a dramatic leap, especially for well-meaning environmentalists who may have delighted in Covid-era news of quieting oceans, goats meandering down Welsh streets, or dolphins swimming in Venice canals, however, false many of those reports (Daly, 2020) and who now bemoan the return of carbon-emitting, human-driven machines to the roads, seas, and skies. This seems like an innocent and even virtuous outlook. But when I hear casual comments about “the planet telling us to go away,” I now hear a dangerous implication there, too, one that I have felt myself in fantasies of green growth overtaking highways and the windows of suburban homes. If humans are a part of nature, too, we need to repair and adapt without simply imagining our own demise – or worse, that of those who lack the resources to make art about their fear and grief.

Anxiety about impending floods and wildfires is easier to bear when you can afford to move away. The pang of having to give up transatlantic flights, red meat, or the Instagram excesses of fast fashion is hardly the pain of losing one’s home with nowhere to go, or of having to keep working in dangerous conditions while others enjoy remote work, in a pandemic that is also tied to climate crisis through habitat loss. From this perspective, even grief for lost species, performed in contemplative, virtual art experiences such as Parallel Effect’s Vigil for the Smooth Handfish (2020) begins to feel like something of a luxury. So does the pleasure of watching dystopian films and TV series, designed by corporate media that “gauge the sociopolitical moment and hope to capture audiences who are now sensitized to dangers without taking things so far as to alienate audiences or the conservatives” (Kaplan, 2016: 12)

Superkilen public space in immigrant neighborhood in Copenhagen. Photo: Heidi Hart

When confronted with the problem of art as luxury, I have to step back and remember the motivation for my own curatorial project. During a fall 2020 workshop at the Sixty-Eight Art Institute in Copenhagen, I was faced with the choice between holding onto hope for a return to planetary “normalcy” and accepting that climate collapse is already happening. Even the conceptual move of acceptance led to an embodied reaction (panic, heaviness, confusion about where to turn my attention) and a need for help in the process of grief. I recalled the practice of music thanatology, or improvising harp music in response to a dying human body, and I wondered what would happen if that practice were extended to the collective grief for the world as we humans know it. 

Six months later, the project is developing into an international constellation of public events, audiovisual art, and “extinction theatre.” The goal is not to wallow in despair (another critique of “collapsology”) but to face loss – not only of endangered species but also of our own innocence and environmentally costly comforts – in order to move forward into new ideas for the future.  As Roy Scranton (2015) puts it, in his influential book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “as biological and cultural diversity is threatened across the world by capitalist monoculture and mass extinction, we must build arks: not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom” (109). Our Climate Thanatology project is an ark of sorts, a holding place for a moment of realization: we are losing the planet we know, and everyone will be affected, as all have been by the pandemic.

Humans and other species are inextricably linked in the “biocultural phenomenon” of extinction (Rose et al., 2017: 5). But because not all will be harmed in the same way, the situation calls for change, too, in individual choices and in institutional power structures. But how to move toward change, a change based on climate justice, not only for endangered plants and animals but for the humans suffering as well?  Part of our project is to learn from Shoshone tribal leader Darren Parry (interviewed here last month) to better understand collective grief from the perspective of a descendant of massacre survivors in the American West. Learning how generational grief and restoration can occur, not only in families but also in the land itself, can help us better imagine the long-term process of coming to terms with a damaged planet, and our complicity in that. 

We are also questioning “who counts as a witness” (Nixon, 2011: 16) in places struck by climate trauma. Because most of our work takes place in Scandinavia, we are well aware of the uncomfortably hot summers that are quickly becoming a “new normal” (Steinthorsdottir, 2019), but we have not arrived here after fleeing war, fire, drought, or flood. Seeing our arts constellation as a tool and not as an end in itself is helpful. As we prepare for public programs in Copenhagen, learning from refugee communities will be a part of our project, with awareness that they have their own criticality and imaginative work to contribute. 

Assistens Kirkegård (Lost Species Walk), Copenhagen. Photo: Heidi Hart

One of our events is a Lost Species Walk in Assistens Kirkegård, the historic welfare cemetery in a part of the city now chafing at “ghetto” status (Achiume, 2020). Participating in a parallel walk through the Refugee Voices Tours project will help us to see the city as an ecosystem that complicates Copenhagen’s “greenest city” reputation and that includes grief over lost homelands. We do not want to be “extractive” as many public programs are, in borrowing from other cultures for their own use, however inclusive they proport to be (Costanza-Chock, 2020: 89).  We want to learn what we are missing. 

Our collective is also learning from other climate grief projects as they do their own reckonings with privilege. For example, the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project recently hosted a video presentation on their process of understanding terms like “extinction” … “in terms of violence [and] its use in white and Euro-centric discourses to invisibilize, justify and even promote colonial acts” (Mitchell, 2020). As I work to develop a curatorial methodology, I am also learning from museum workers who critique nationalist and exclusionary practices in order to “drop the usual contrast between a supposedly sealed ‘inside’ and a critical ‘outside’” in exhibition spaces (Bayer et al., 2021: 24)

If the Anthropocene has become a “loaded term for the end to the dream/nightmare of a hyper-separated nature” (Rose et al., 2017: 5), this demise is also an opportunity. Naming a geologic age after ourselves risks human hubris, certainly, but it also allows for critical distance. When that space opens up, it is no surprise if grief enters. To see consumer and corporate excesses and their costs to others (human or not) can be painful. I recently came across these lines in a new book on waste published in Denmark (Frantzen, 2021), quoting the poet Inger Christensen (translation mine): 

Now we turn on the light. Somewhere we use up

long-concentrated plankton. Humans

consuming a million summers a day. 

Clear seeing, however difficult, can lead to clarity in action, too. We can’t get those “million summers” back, but we can grieve the loss and imagine a more responsible future that puts care before consumption and community, for humans and other species, before post-human dreams. 


References

Bayer, Natalie; Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski and Sternfeld, Nora. (2021). Curating as Anti-Racist Practice. Espoo, Finland and Vienna: Aalto ARTS Books/University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha. (2020). Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Frantzen, Mikkel Krause. (2021). Klodens Fald. Copenhagen: Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology Publications.

Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Rose, Deborah; van Dooren, Thom and Chrulew, Matthew. (2017). Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Former US President Donald Trump with a serious look as he delivers a speech at a campaign rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA - August 2, 2018. Photo: Evan El-Amin

Prof. Pratt: Populist Leaders in the West Tend to Have Short Political Lives

Professor John Pratt: “I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously. But, I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with ECPS Prof. John Pratt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand argued that in Western democracies populist leaders who gain power usually have short political lives. Prof. Pratt underlined that the reason for this was populist leaders were quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. He added that the best example was former US President Donald Trump but stressed that the situation in non-Western societies was different. Because democratic institutions were not as strong as in the US, the populist leaders were staying in power for long periods of time.

Despite the rise of populism and populist leaders worldwide, Prof. Pratt sounded optimistic about the future of Western democracies. Stressing that democracies have largely held firm, he argued that populist leaders were ‘ignorant clowns.’ ‘I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists, often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns,’ said Pratt.

The following are the excerpts from the interview:

Thank you very much Professor Pratt for the interview, my first question is, how do you define penal populism and how popular is it in different countries, and what lies behind it?

Well, let’s take that one step at a time and, first, I think I would define penal populism by first defining what populism is:what it means to me. It refers to the moods and sentiments and voices of distinct and significant sections of the public that feel that they’ve been ignored by governments. They feel there are more favored and less deserving groups. They’ve been left behind or disenfranchised in some way by government policy. These significant sections of the public does speak out against the machinery of government which they judge of being complicit in conspiracies against the worthy members of society that they see themselves as being.

And if you take that on to penal populism, then that refers to the way in which criminals and prisoners are thought to be favored at the expense of crime victims, in particular, and the law abiding public in general. It feeds on expressions of anger, disenchantment and disillusionment with what it sees as the insidious workings of the criminal justice establishment. That is to say senior officials, ministers of Justice and corrections department judges, academics, members of the police and parole boards. It holds these members of the establishment responsible for a much too liberal criminal justice policy which has put ordinary people at risk of crime.

And so, remind me again the second question. 

Populist Politics Is a Different Phenomenon From Penal Populism

How popular is it in different countries. And what lies behind it?

Well, I think it’s been particularly popular or virulent in the Anglo American world. Not so much in the other European countries, although they haven’t been free from it, but certainly I think it’s been most strongly experienced in the Anglo American world. It is no coincidence that it’s been in those countries that the conditions necessary for penal populism have been strongest and its effects are being seen with the dramatic rises of imprisonment in most of the Anglo American countries.

What lies behind it, well, I think it emerges out of the neoliberal restructuring that began to take place in these societies during the early 1980s and onwards which produced significant benefits for many in terms of access to wealth and freedom to choose how they spend the money through lower taxes and so on, but which, at the same time left as I’ve said already, a lot of people behind. A lot of people didn’t share the benefits and they only experienced anxiety and uncertainty as the world around them seem to be changing very rapidly due to this restructuring and they struggled to find a legitimate place for themselves in it. How did they then turn their attention to crime and worry about crime in an era when crime itself has been rapidly declining? Well part of that restructuring has involved deregulation of the mass media and privatization of the media.

Up to the mid 1980s in most countries, the TV was terrestrial and consisted of access to just a few channels. With deregulation, with technological development, it’s opened up to a massive 24/7 television network, a lot of those channels are news programs competing with each other. What’s the best way to attract an audience and buy advertising, because they don’t receive funding from the state? Well it’s concentrating on crime and it’s the same to do with the way in which the newspapers have become much more tabloid entity feeding on sensational stories rather than the kind of authoritative statements of government policy that used to find in the broadsheet press.

Social media takes public discourse further away again from control by government and allows all manner of opinions to be expressed, but mostly to do with crime and fear of crime, and you know that’s a very strong theme of talkback radio. So that combination of factors swirling around together with neoliberal restructuring let loose in conjunction with growing distrust of central government and in career politicians and what they can achieve: all these lead to this phenomenon that I’ve referred to as “penal populism.”

Right and what gave birth to penal populism, you already answered this question. Does each populist government has penal populism?

Well, I don’t think it does. Because I think our penal populism, for the most part, as I said, it’s been concentrated primarily in the developed world in the Anglo American society, but now you are getting the rise of populist politics right across Western society. That’s a different phenomenon from penal populism and, in some ways, it uses the same mechanisms that made penal populism more powerful relying on common sense, anecdotes, and downright lies.

If you look at the Scandinavian countries, the Nordic countries, you find right across quite strong populist parties. But, the emphasis is not so much on crime, it’s on fear of immigrants and what they might do to those societies. Populist parties have become very powerful in that region by wanting to keep those Nordic countries as they are with their very strong welfare states, a strongly protective state, for what they see as authentic citizens of those countries. That doesn’t include the wave of immigrants that are headed towards that region over the last 10 years or so, both legal and illegal immigrants.

Populist Politicians Are Quickly Shown Up to be Fraudulent and Full of Empty Rhetoric

After the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 Turkish President has imprisoned tens of thousands of people with flimsy evidence and sacked hundreds of thousands, without any meaningful objection mechanism, how long can a leader use penal populism, to consolidate his power?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and I wish I could give you a definitive answer to that. I think if you look outside of Turkey, you see, in the Western democracies, politicians who try to use populism to gain political power tend to have quite short political lives. Because, they are quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. One of the best examples of that is Donald Trump in the US. Fortunately for American citizens and the rest of the world, the democratic processes were held up against all the efforts he made to undermine them. So there you have very strong tradition of democracy and it takes a much more astute, more intelligent and more clever politician than Trump to undermine it. In Turkey, I think, it is rather different because you haven’t got such a strong tradition of democracy. Your democratic institutions of government are not so firmly embedded and it allows the current president to disregard what we in the West would see as absolutely central elements of the rule of law.

How long, he will last in in power, I can’t give you a prediction. In populism, I think, wherever it takes root usually has a finite life. It may be shorter in some societies, longer in the others.

Professor, why does penal populism decreases when populism increases?

Again, I’m looking primarily at the Anglo American world where those countries that most strongly experienced penal populism and what I’ve argued in some of the work I published is that penal populism was used by neo liberal governments to essentially maintain the status quo, and that is to say, they didn’t think de-structuring programs that neo liberal governments were pursuing despite all the inequalities and divisions that it created. 

Having penal populism, as part of the program of government performed a very useful function, because it told the general public that: Look your enemies are criminals and law breakers or people who are putting you at risk. We are prepared to use really extraordinary measures. So look how much we’re taking care of you against those who pose the greatest risk to your well being. So it was a way of maintaining social cohesion and allowing the status quo of neo liberal governments to be pursued. Now, it decreases when populist politics become stronger. Because there comes a point when penal populism wasn’t able to fulfill that function, it wasn’t able to maintain the status quo that neo liberal politicians had hoped for.

And I think there are two reasons for that. First of all, was the 2008 global financial crisis which increased social disadvantage and inequalities and allowed a minority to become even richer, so that those inequalities became more and more glaringly obvious and thereafter as well, it was followed by the high levels of immigration, particularly from the Middle East to the West or South to the North, East to the West. And those who had already been left behind in the Anglo American world, seem to feel threatened even more by immigration. Not only did it seem to be endangering the jobs or their prospects of getting a job, but it seemed to be an endangering on all left to cling to, like national identity.

Because immigrants were bringing different traditions, different cultural values with them into these societies. So,populist politics which are using and exaggerating many of the tactics associated with penal populism was no longer interested in maintaining the status quo. Its appeal to its supporters like Trump supporters, for example, was that you know we’re going to change things, we’re going to have a revolution. We’re going to make America great again by turning the clock back to some sort of dream time or the 1950s when America was ruled principally by white men. With the Brexit campaign in Britain, we want to stop all this collusion with foreign people in Europe, because Britain can make it on its own; sort of replaying themes from Second World War and the days of empire and all the rest of it.

Populist politics in those societies have arisen out of the failure of penal populism to maintian the function that was expected of it. That is, the failure of penal populism, to maintain social cohesion and, which would then have allowed the neo liberal program of government to continue. After the 2008 crash and growth of immigration, populist politics says no, we don’t want to maintain the status quo, we want to dramatically change. And, the way to do that is to trust on strongmen leaders who know best, who know better than the experts, who know better than career politicians and civil servants and bureaucrats people like Trump and (Boris) Johnson in Britain.

In your works, you have quoted Francis Fukuyama. You know hes famous for the argument that human race has reached at the end of history, and we would witness the universalization of western liberal democracy. However,liberalism seems to lose ground to populism. What went wrong?

Well, I am sure that Fukuyama himself with that knowledge was being wildly over optimistic when making that comment. It was certainly not the end of history, it was the start of a new chapter in history characterized not by the tradition of social democratic post-war governments. “The end of history” that he was talking about i.e. the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain already coincided with the growth of neo liberal program of governments. Economic and social restructuring that occurred witnessed a lot of people became winners and enjoyed things they could never previously have dreamed of, but many people who got left behind felt embittered and trapped.

Trapped in what we call in New Zealand: Modern societies’ bargain basement. They had no way out of it for the $2 stores. Outside the $2 stores, they could see all the winners or in these casino economies that’s been created, all the winners gliding up the escalator of success, but they were stuck in the bargain basement.

That was what went wrong with Fukuyama’s prediction. It wasn’t the end of history at all and the continuance of Social Democratic policy came to an end. It was the beginning of neoliberal governments which caused great social divisions.I’ve come home to roost in all kinds of ways in the last few years in western societies. 

Specialist in hazmat suits cleaning disinfecting coronavirus cells epidemic in Ukraine.

Things Successful Against Covid19 Are Antithetical to Populism

Professor, you argue that Covid-19 pandemic has turned into an antidote against populism. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?

It is remarkable in some ways, given all the damage that Covid-19 has done to individuals and societies. But at the same time, I do believe it does act as an antidote to populism and that’s because all the things that have been successful against Covid-19 are at the same time antithetical to populism.

I’ve argued in papers, I’ve written, that the most successful ways to control the virus have been ways which simultaneously contradict and undermine populism. For example, it’s been the way in which science and expertise have come to the fore again and being able to convince governments that they know best.

It’s also been strong central government, but accountable government, who are able to tell the truth to the citizens. Whether it’s bad news or good news they’re conveying to them. They’re not afraid of the truth, unlike populist politicians like Trump or Johnson who feel that they have to tell good news all the time that’s the only way in which they can keep the public on their side. But in New Zealand, we’ve had a very strong central government, which has been absolutely straight with the population, the whole time. So, two things that are anethema to populism: science and expertise. They know more about the virus and how to cure and control it, than the ‘the strongman’ leaders who say ‘I’m a magician. I know best.’ No, you do not know best. People don’t want their snake oil cures. They’d much rather believe in or hear what science and expertise have to offer, and then you got strong democratically accountable government which is able to win the trust of the public. 

At the same time, people have been very anxious to find out about the virus and what risks it carries. Many of course turn to social media and listen to all the conspiracy theories i.e. that it is unleashed deliberately by China or it’s a plot by the democrats to undermine Trump and so on. But, most people have turned back to state broadcasting organizations and the BBC, for example, has been enormously popular because it tells people the truth. People trust it much more than social media. Something very similar has happened in New Zealand which has had great success in controlling the virus.

For example, Radio New Zealand’s audience increased dramatically with its news broadcast so people turning back to the state broadcasting because that’s where the truth is. At the same time, I think, despite all the damage that Covid-19 has done to societies it’s actually helped to develop social cohesion, at least in some societies.

One of the reasons why New Zealand has been so successful is because of the very strong social cohesion that exists in this society due to willingness to support the government in the fight to control the virus. 

In societies where there has been success against the virus we see very strong compliance with things like wearing a mask, social distancing and so on. And, at the same time, the social cohesion has meant that people are not so distressful or antagonistic towards strangers.

In many ways the homelessness problem is being tackled by governments in many societies, because they recognize if you’re going to control the virus then it’s not a question of dividing societies, you have to unite them and all have to be helped and cured and protected from the virus. If you leave some people out then it’s likely they’re going to spread the virus. Social cohesion have also lead to all kinds of volunteer groups helping the poor and disadvantaged to a much greater extent than before. Then the virus itself is being defeated, but at the same time, this is a different kind of politics and a different kind of social action.

But I get some other examples from this part of the world as well. In our election last October (2020), which was a triumph for the Labour Party and Prime Minister Jacinda Arden because of the successful way she has managed to control the virus and keep New Zealanders safe through these strategies that I’ve just told you about. Meanwhile, the right-wing populist party in this country, New Zealand First, disappeared from Parliament.

There have been similar types of state elections in Australia as well, another success story against the virus where you get the triumph of mainstream political parties and right-wing populist parties have been largely defeated.

Penal Populism Is Essentially Used to Undermine Human Rights

Professor it has been witnessed in many countriesfor example in France, that many new criminal statutes have been accepted for their impact on public opinion rather than the actual effectiveness at reducing crime? How do populistsinstrumentalize legislation for the sake of penal populist objectives?

Well, I think, when they do that, it galvanizes public opinion against particular groups in society who may or may not be dangerous, usually, in a not very big way. In so doing, the strategy of penal populism is essentially used to undermine human rights.

Instead of protecting the rights of individuals, caught up in the criminal justice process, penal populism argues that it’s the rights of the public to protection that government should take care of. So, they try to redefine what constitutes human rights and there’s usually as well, a very large bill to pay for these kinds of policies. Because they nearly always involve increases in imprisonment with very damaging economic and social effects and by starting these campaigns, they intensify division between particular sections of the society.

What kind of risks and threats emerge through the politicization of criminal justice because of populist punitive law and order tactics in an attempt to gain support from the public?

I think, as I’ve said, they relate to the erosion of human rights, which have been a feature of Western society, particularly in that post-war era from 1945 through to the early 1980s. One of the ways in which Western societies distinguished themselves from other social formations was to say “well look, we have the rule of law here.”

If individuals get into difficulties or in trouble here, then we protect their human rights, and that is what makes us world – at least that is what we used to say. Now, it strikes me that one of the dangers penal populism present is the way in which it erodes that understanding of human rights and tries to substitute a new understanding based around public protection by using measures that involve variously retrospective legislation or hybrid legislation or changing rules of evidence to make convictions easy.

These kinds of strategies that fundamentally undermine the rule of law and allow for initiatives that were previously thought to have no place in democratic world. I’ll give you an example. We have public protection orders in New Zealand which mean that if sex offenders coming to the end of a finite prison term are still judged to be a serious risk to the public. The Court can order that they must be detained in prison at the end of this sentence indefinitely. They don’t call it ‘prison’, because this is the West and we don’t lock people up arbitrarily when they haven’t committed a crime. It’s called ‘civil detention’, but essentially they stay in prison.

Once Populists Come to Power, It is Shown to be Nothing More Than Ignorant Malevolent Clowns

Penal populism gives way to harsher mechanisms for social control to address the publics demand to be tough on crime. How do you assess ties between penal populism and authoritarianism?

Well, I think those who are associated with it, and promote it as strategies, usually say that “We’re doing this, to protect democracy. We are the defenders of democracy against these criminals, law breakers, terrorists who pose such a risk to us.” And, at the same time, they’re very coy with the language they use. I just gave you the example, the way in which post-prison detention in New Zealand isn’t actually called ‘prison,’ it’s called ‘civil detention’ to give it some sort of legitimacy. Whereas in authoritarianism, I would guess, they just don’t bother to pretend they are defending democracy at all. Democracy, in the eyes of authoritarian leaders would seem to be a dangerous exercise all together and it’s much better to have strongman leaders like Trump and do away with democracy, all together. Because, people make the wrong choices, or the wrong people vote. They are more likely to try to involve the military to prop up the rule because they got no particular interest in pretending that they’re defending democracy. So, that is the distinction, I would make between them.

All right Professor, my last question: When one talks about penal populism, it is the name of the Philippines’s Duterte that first comes to mind. However, he is not only the one in the world, could you please make a short list of penal populists or law and order populists around the world?

I don’t know how good my geography is and I don’t have knowledge of all the world’s leaders. I mean my knowledge of the world is confined in the mainly to Western Europe and some of the Asian countries. Rather than giving you a list of leaders who have relied on penal populism, to maintain their power, I would give you governments or countries where you’ve had triumph of social democracy against populism and we’ve had that in New Zealand you’ve had that in a number of Western countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia.

I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously, but I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.

Trump is the best example of that. But, we’ve had other examples. I think, in Italy, the collapse of the populist government is another example of the way in which leaders who rise to power on a populist wave of support quickly get found out and come undone. In Austria, something similar happened. So, I think there should be hope around the world. I think Covid-19, despite everything it’s done and the damages caused, one of its biggest casualties will prove to be populism.

All right, Professor. Thank you so much for your time.


Who is John Pratt?

John Pratt is a Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His fields of research are comparative penology and the history and sociology of punishment. He has published in eleven languages. He is currently undertaking research on the relationship between risk, populism and criminal justice.

Pope Francis warm welcomed by the people of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, during his visit in Erbil on March 7, 2021.

The Pastoral Populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani

The pastoral populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 

By Lydia Khalil*

In 2015, Pope Francis delivered his Easter message in the midst of the global effort to reclaim territory from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a proxy war in the region and the height of the refugee crisis. In his address in St Peters Square, he prayed for “all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence” and that the “international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding.” His prayers were not answered in 2015 as the international community did turn away from the suffering in Syria. Yet, his commitment to the region did not wane; he made multiple pastoral visits to the Middle East since and a pastoral visit to Iraq, becoming the first pope to do so. The papal visit to Iraq in the midst of pandemic and ongoing instability was done at great risk but it was heralded as a successful and significant emissarial mission to bear witness to the suffering and advocate for the rights and safety of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority and advance interreligious cooperation. 

 

Amid the footage of joyful celebration welcoming Pope Francis to Iraq, emerged a playful Twitter post by historian Vefa Erginbas. He posted a picture of the Pontiff’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani showing the two leaders dressed in respective black and white robes sitting opposite each other in Sistani’s sparse home and posed the question – “What are they talking about? Wrong answers only…” Among the many quips was one that stood out  –“How are neither of us chess pieces?” If global politics is, like its often described, a chess game, then the playful remark on their contrasting robes, was an appropriate metaphor for the role that Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani – the black and white bishops – have played in reorienting politics to address the needs of masses and promote a new kind of populism – a pastoral populism.  

The meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis is likely to be the only direct encounter between the two. Sayed Sistani is 90 years old and does not leave his home. The Pope is in his 80s and unlikely to return to Iraq. But even this one meeting was a consequential move, in that it revealed that they are working concurrently to promote a version of populism rooted in the morality of their respective faith traditions that focuses on the needs of the masses. There are 1.2 billion Catholics and Shia make up almost 200 million of the Muslim faithful. Through their moral and spiritual leadership, they have signalled to their followers and exhorted politicians in government, not only to lead, but to care and administer. As the statement issued by Sistani’s office on the meeting signalled, the encounter between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis was to “urge the concerned parties – especially those with great powers – to prioritize reason and wisdom and not to promote their self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity.”   

Pope Francis’ Relationship to Populism

To fully appreciate the significance of their meeting and their complimentary notions of pastoral populism, it helps to understand the background that each of them brought to the board. When the Jesuit Pope took the name Francis, he went in a conspicuously different direction than his predecessor. He aligned himself with the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, which emphasises mercy for the sinner, administering to the poor, protection of nature and eschewing power and political status. Vatican commentator and author, John L Allen, observed that in taking his name, the Pope wedded the institutional church with the charismatic, populist tradition of St Francis of Assisi whereas previously they had been distinct spheres of the Catholic tradition. Like his namesake, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the world to ‘hear the cry of the poor’ and the suffering; to put the common good and human dignity before disposable consumerist and utilitarian tendencies that dominate our post-capitalist systems. He has placed pastoral care above theological professionalism and has stood down criticism for doing so from the conservative, right flank of the Catholic church while rebuilding the Catholic church in his image.  

In harkening St Francis and through his latest encyclical – Fratelli Tutti – which he completed a few months before his Iraq sojourn and published on the saint’s feast day – Pope Francis uses that opportunity to outline an alternative pastoral populism which focuses on fraternity and pastoral style of leadership. Dr. Anna Rowlands, a professor of religion at Durham University, and one of the panellists who presented the Fratelli Tutti encyclical, makes a compelling point about the Pope’s relationship to populism and how he provides a convincing rebuttal to the forces of violent nationalism and xenophobia that often accompanies it. “He gets populism. He gets what is the drive toward it and he rescues the notion of what it means to be ‘a people’ from the hands of the [far right] populists…” The Pope has done this by identifying the insecurity and fear that drives support for far-right populists while offering an alternative framework with which to address that insecurity and fear.

Sayed Sistani’s Expansive and Pastoral Type of Populism

Sayed Sistani has symbolised and advanced a similarly expansive and pastoral type of populism within Shiism and within Middle East. The cleric, who has rented the same, sparse home in old Najaf, has also voiced the needs of the poor and marginalised and has consistently provided a counter narrative to sectarianism by encouraging temperance and unity amid Iraq’s ongoing tumultuous political transition. 

In his analysis of Sistani’s role in Iraq’s early transition to democracy, Babak Rahimi, a specialist in medieval and modern Islamic history, writes that within his Shiite Quietist tradition, Sistani could have remained completely aloof from politics while still retaining his credibility and authority. Instead, as Rahimi argues, during a time of “perceived moral decadence, political corruption, great injustice, or foreign occupation, he can become more active in political affairs by engaging in activities such as consultation, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred norms in public life.” Sistani did this time and again over the past two decades. He insisted that Iraq’s post Baathist constitution be ratified by popular vote. He urged Iraqis to vote in elections despite a deep disenchantment with the political class. He called on Iraqis to combat the Islamic State through popular militias when the state security forces fell apart in the face of the onslaught. And he rebuked many of those forces when they became Iranian proxies and perpetrated sectarian violence. 

Though Sistani’s profile in the Western world has increased after the US invasion of Iraq, the lay person could be forgiven for not knowing the true extent of his religious standing and influence. Because the fraught history and ongoing political tensions between the United States and Iran, Shi’ism in the Western imagination is most associated with the Iranian theocracy and their militant enforcers the IRGC and other Iranian backed militias throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and indeed Iraq. 

Yet Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most revered and influential leaders in the Muslim world and he and his allies have a theological position on the role of religion in government that  stands in contrast to the Iranian ayatollahs who established velayet-e faqih – rule by Islamic jurists – after the fall of the Shah of Iran. Sistani, who claims lineage from Prophet Muhammad and is a link in a long chain of clerics dating back to the Safavid dynasty, has arguably more religious credentials and moral authority than Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Even though we hear more about Iranian regional manoeuvres and their influence over the Shia Crescent, Sistani’s followers are by no means limited to Iraq. They span millions over the Shia world as his foundation sponsors seminaries and social programs in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As important as he is to Iraq, his influence expands much wider; millions of Shia Muslims around the world turn to Sistani for daily guidance on how to live their lives.  

Sistani Offers an Alternative Vision of the Role of Religion

The 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath may have eliminated a geostrategic counterweight to Iran through the removal of Saddam Hussein and provided the opportunity for Iranian influence in Iraq. However, it had the opposite effect when it came to religious influence within Shia Islam between Qom and Najaf. Under Saddam’s rule, Sistani remained under house arrest and his influence stifled. The removal of Saddam Hussein meant that the Najafi cleric had more space to promote his own interpretation of the role of religion in governance counter to the Iran’s vision that both religious and political authority be enacted in the same body. Sistani offers a viable alternative vision of the role of religion to governance among the Shia faithful.  

In contrast to the Iranian clerics, Sistani’s authority does not come from his position as an authoritarian jurist. Rather, as leader of the Hawza in Najaf, Sistani represents the ‘quietest’ school of Shia politics and acts instead as a moral authority that does not necessarily seek to endow himself with political power. Even though Sistani and the Hawza rejects the Iranian model of velayet-e faqih and eschews a role in politics, has had to, reluctantly perhaps, fashion some role for himself during Iraq’s tumultuous political transition. Iraqi authorities remain beholden to him and his influence and he has used this influence to robustly defend the interests of the Shia Muslim community by holding political authorities to account and has done so in contrast to Iranian-backed Iraqi parties by pushing back against, instead of inflaming, sectarian tendencies.   

Like Pope Francis’ unanswered prayers for international intervention to stem the human suffering in Syria, on sectarianism, Sistani has not been entirely successful. Despite his calls for unity after the 2006 al-Askari Shrine bombing, his exhortation could not contain the civil war that followed. However, he remains a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s political transition and healing from civil war. Sayed Sistani has, repeatedly, served as the last bulwark, in Iraq’s descent into sectarianism and civil conflict. As Iraq has lurched from crisis to crisis, and corrupt government to inept government, Sistani has played an important and unifying role. And he has done so with an eye of protecting the interests of the masses – particularly his Shia faithful – but while also linking the Shia struggle with a comprehensive vision for human dignity and solidarity across sects. This is not only the result of Sistani as an individual religious leader. It is also the result of the longstanding stance of the Hawza institutionally.

In 2019, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was engulfed in a second wave of popular protests that were met with the predictable government crackdowns. Sistani came down on the side of the popular protesters which ultimately led to the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s resignation. He rebuked, once again, the political class that has maintained its power and privilege through corruption and their exploitation of the informal sectarian based quota system and their ties to Iran. Sistani’s removed intervention via his Friday sermon siding with the popular protests for dignity and economic opportunity signalled a similar approach to Pope Francis’ populism one that, as he said, “does not give an unfair advantage to current political parties, but gives a real opportunity to change the forces that have ruled the country.”

Their Pastoral Populism Focuses on the Long Game

In their separate yet similar ways, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani have articulated a pastoral populism grounded in their respective religious traditions. Their coming together is all the more consequential because both faith leaders provide models for how religion can be a force in politics and do so in contrast to, not only far right politicians in the West and corrupt authoritarian political elites in the Middle East, but the more reactionary strains within their own religious communities that have traditionally served the powerful. They have offered alternative visions to, respectively, the Catholic Right aligned with conservative far-right politics and Iranian political theocracy based on velayat-e faqih or government via Islamic jurists, both of which are more concerned with politicising and policing social norms or wielding political influence to advance their narrow interests. Their version of populism serves as a rebuttal to the recent variety of far-right populism founded on xenophobia, anti-elitism, crisis thinking and ‘bad manners’  that bombarded us from the likes of populist leaders Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Duterte. They are not merely ‘moderate’ leaders that preach temperance and tolerance but rather a different, more substantial vision.  

Crucially, they do not seek for religion to supplant politics, but rather insist on holding governments to account in pursuit of the common good – a different approach to other modern religious leaders who either attempt to displace the state or co-opt it in service of the religious hierarchies’ narrow interests. Sayed Sistani and Pope Francis both have an intuitive understanding that engaging with politics but not holding political power is the key to their effective advocacy for the masses. Pope Francis, in his second encyclical Laudito Si, subtitled ‘the care for the common good,’ clearly stated that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

Similarly – Sistani views himself as a guide only. His insistence to be remove from the state is all the more significant given the power vacuum that arose after the deposition of Saddam Hussein which Sistani could been filled or becoming an overbearing influence who only advances Shia interests. Instead, Sistani continually insisted that Iraq’s momentous issues be worked through the transitional and political process and pleaded the case for the rule of law, anti-sectarianism and broader Iraqi national identity.  

Through their lived history, their similar view of the role religion should play in politics and their complementary vision of pastoral populism, they have played a role true to their metaphorical chess piece – the bishop. A ‘good bishop’ in chess – is one who has freedom of movement and is thus better able to protect its pawns and can often help win the game. The bishop is also used most effectively in conjunction with other pieces when playing the long game. Their pastoral populism focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 


(*) LYDIA KHALIL is a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and manages the Lowy Institute’s core partnership with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology. She is also currently a research associate at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute and a fellow with the Centre for Resilient & Inclusive Societies. She has professional background in politics, international relations and security has focused on US national security policy, Middle East politics, counterterrorism and intelligence. She was international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where she analysed political and security trends in the Middle East. She also served as a political advisor for the US Department of Defence in Iraq. In Australia, Lydia held fellowships with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Macquarie University, specialising in intelligence, national security and cyber security.

Racist and hateful message saying "Refugees Go Home", painted on a traffic sign with stickers and paint all over in Karlskrona, Sweden on January 13, 2016.

Dr. Mette Wiggen: Racism Is Key to Understanding the Far-right Everywhere

Dr. Wiggen: “Without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, I can’t see how you can understand the development of the far-right anywhere. Many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. To challenge racism and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.”

Interview by F. Zehra Colak

Dr. Mette Wiggen from the University of Leeds studies radical right trends in Scandinavian countries and welfare chauvinism. She has argued that without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, one cannot understand the development of the far-right anywhere. She notes that many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. In this series of interviews on populism, Wiggen observes that “To challenge racism, and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.”

Dr. Wiggen focuses closely on the new racism, extreme-right-wing parties, and their impact on mainstream politics and public opinion concerning immigration and welfare. Her research underscores that while most people do not see immigration as a threat, politicians and the media have tried hard to win political gain from scapegoating immigrants, especially during the pandemic.

According to Dr. Wiggen, the colonial mindset is very much at play in Scandinavia despite a political focus on equality and “state feminism,” which has never included “the Other.” She notes how a “lack of awareness and unconscious bias seems worse in Norway than in the UK.” Referring to the role of ignorance around diversity, sexism, and racism in explaining the reproduction of inequality, Wiggen stresses that right-wing populist views have not necessarily made the representation of Muslim women worse in Western societies. “It has probably got worse for men who have been targeted as anti-feminist and oppressive,” she argued.

The following excerpts from the interview with Dr. Mette Wiggen have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How do you think the radical right has gained a strong foothold in Scandinavia? Do you think the mainstreaming of the far-right is linked to the instrumentalization of immigration issues?

There are many reasons, and it varies from country to country. In Norway and Denmark, where the radical right (RR) has been the strongest and most successful, you need to look at where the parties came from. By 1990, such parties were well established and accepted as part of the democratic party systems. They had also started gaining more than 10 percent in national elections. There was a breakthrough then as they put anti-immigration on the agenda in the late 1980s. In both countries, the forerunners of the established RR parties started as anti-taxation parties protesting the social democratic universal welfare state, high taxation, and the redistribution of wealth.

The parties were libertarian with no focus on immigration. Nor did they have any links to a fascist past, making the threshold of voting for RR parties lower than in countries where they have clear links to Nazism or fascism. This doesn’t mean that the Scandinavian parties didn’t attract voters with neo-Nazi or fascist sentiments. From the 1990s, the mainstream was challenged by the electoral support the parties got, but instead of confronting the anti-immigration ideology, they embraced it. In Sweden, the mainstream has to this day refused to accept the Sweden Democrats (SD) as a legitimate party despite the SD gaining nearly 18 percent in the last elections (they are now polling at 20 percent).

“Scandinavian Solidarity with Migrants Has Always Been Exaggerated”

Scandinavia is considered nearly the strictest in Europe in legislating immigration, with confiscation of refugees’ assets in Denmark, deportation of young Afghans in Norway, and the construction of refugees as a burden on public finances in Sweden. So, what happened to the famed Scandinavian solidarity with and tolerance toward immigrants?

I think Scandinavian solidarity with and tolerance toward migrants has always been exaggerated. But because of the generous universal welfare states run by genuine social democrats, there wasn’t so much protest in the past. With the privatization of the welfare state and welfare retrenchment across the board, neoliberal politicians have turned limited access to welfare and competition around rights to resources into a central political issue. Most people probably believe there is not enough money to go around. They also hear from the top that the costs of including immigrants are too high but nothing about international obligations.

Liberal democracies have never been particularly tolerant toward immigrants and have often portrayed immigrants as “outsiders” as a “problem” and a “burden” rather than focusing on solidarity, international obligations, and the richness migration can bring. In Scandinavia, scapegoating immigrants (and refugees in particular) as a drain on society must be linked to right-wing ideology and neoliberalism. In the past, the universality of the welfare state sheltered those in need more, and as services were universal, there was broad support for them. Most parties on the “left” as well as the right are, in fact, neoliberal now and argue that the countries can’t afford to extend the welfare state to immigrants and refugees.

With the economic crisis in the early 1990s, there has been a massive drive to privatize healthcare, especially in Sweden. With that comes a focus on profit and not tolerance, solidarity, and human rights. The idea that there isn’t enough to go around has become normalized, and most people fear what might come as they worry about what they might lose if “the Other” is entitled to the same support as those with family roots and connections. This development has coincided with an enormous boost to RR parties in Denmark and Norway as they were the first such parties. Now that it has become so normalized, it’s difficult to know the difference between the RR and mainstream parties on immigration. The Danish social democratic party with their anti-immigrant prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, are particularly extreme. The government recently stripped 94 Syrian refugees of their residency permits, claiming Damascus is a safe place to return to. Amnesty International says the decision is appalling and a “reckless violation of Denmark’s duty to provide asylum.”

In your work published after the terror attacks in Utøya and Oslo in 2011, you hold mainstream political parties responsible for not confronting racism, sexism, and ignorance in debates around immigration and integration, rather for reproducing anti-immigrant extreme right-wing rhetoric. How do you explain this reticence among mainstream politicians in Norway to defy right-wing populist views? What might have they done to effectively respond to the far-right?

I think a lot of it has to do with unconscious bias—many politicians and journalists can’t see it. But many do, and it was made very clear by the then PM Jens Stoltenberg that racist anti-immigrant rhetoric had to stop. It didn’t, and the social democrats kept drifting to the right on immigration. Some of the explanations as to why the social democrats weren’t clearer and more supportive of immigration and immigrant might be found in their concern about electoral competition from the right. Denmark becoming stricter on immigration was also an issue; some central Norwegian social democrats said they were concerned about immigrants coming to Norway instead of Denmark if they didn’t follow Denmark’s lead. The strategy didn’t work, and in the 2013 national elections, the far-right Fremskrittpartiet (Progress Party) was invited by the mainstream right to join a national coalition for the first time. The media has a lot to answer for when it comes to anti-immigrant rhetoric and reporting. I’m actually shocked to see how much of the media compare rates of COVID-19 infection with “country-born” against “foreign-born” and how they have created the term “imported infection” as they focus on various immigrant groups’ behavior without adding any analysis of socio-economic factors.

“Most People Don’t See Immigration as a Threat”

In one of your articles, you mention how the populist and nationalist Senterpartiet (Center Party, SP) in Norway is gaining popularity by tapping into the grievances of people suffering from uneven development and without referring to immigration issues. What might explain this rhetorical shift? Do you think the “migration issue” is losing popularity among populists because the current mainstream attitudes toward immigration already reflect right-wing populist views?

I don’t think SP ever was an anti-immigration party, nor are they on the right. They don’t see immigration as a problem in the same way as the RR or the social democrats, who for many years seem to have copied RR immigration policies. I think the “migration issue” is losing popularity, especially among young voters across the board. Still, the RR has toned it down a bit, considering very few refugees have arrived in the last few years. Local municipalities appeal to the government to accept more refugees saying they have more than enough capacity. Most people don’t see immigration as a threat and have other more pressing issues to think about. Still, politicians and the media have tried hard to win political gain from scapegoating immigrants during the pandemic. There are national elections in September 2021, and the electioneering seems to have started.

What are the specific characteristics of the Scandinavian populist right-wing parties compared to the far- or extreme-right populist parties in Europe? How do you explain similarities across the European far-right, especially regarding the “issue ownership” of immigration and Islam?

In Norway and Denmark, the parties have no links to a fascist past (Sweden is a different matter). Still, more answers can be found in the countries’ and the parties’ colonial past and a shared anti-immigrant, nativist ideology and welfare chauvinism. The links are easier to understand, or more obvious, if you look at Rassemblement National (the National Rally) and its forerunner, the Front National, and legacies of colonialism and anti-republicanism in France. French settlers in Algeria—the so-called pieds-noirs (“black feet”) who came back to the south of France after independence—played an important role in the party’s success that was to become the Front National, one of the most influential RR parties in Europe.

In Norway and Denmark, RR parties have also long been accepted as “normal” by the other parties and have worked in local coalitions, even with the social democrats. In Sweden, as in many other countries, a cordon sanitaire was in operation; mainstream parties refused to accept them as legitimate political parties, never mind collaborating with them in coalitions. This has backfired in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats have established themselves as the main opposition party. The SD has long listened to working-class people’s grievances and now poll at 20 percent.

In your analysis of the radical right, you refer to the history of intolerance and inequality targeting ethnic minorities, such as the Sami population in Sweden and Norway, and the culturalization of racism to establish difference. How do you explain the role of racism in understanding the development of the far-right in Scandinavia and why most analyses of the far-right fail to acknowledge its importance?

We have to understand history and colonialism and how that shaped our world and its prevailing ideas. There is an ongoing competition over resources both in Sweden and Norway over the right to continue exploiting and demanding resources on Sami territory. Still, the Sami are gaining support from international organizations. Without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, I can’t see how you can understand the development of the far-right anywhere. Many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. To challenge racism and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.

“Right-wing Populist Views Are Worse for Muslim Men”

Your work looks at how Muslim women have been targeted by Western media and politicians and inaccurately represented as victims of their culture while their voices are significantly overlooked. What reasons do you think lie at the root of this obsession with the so-called emancipation of Muslim women in Western societies? How has the normalization of the right-wing populist views in Scandinavia affected the representation of Muslim women in mainstream public and political discourses?

I think we can understand this best by putting it into a historical context. Many Western feminists are still influenced by colonialism and don’t understand “feminism is not a

Western invention,” as the late scholar Nawal El Saadawi said. Saadawi reminded us that women fighting the patriarchy and capitalism is historical and global.

In Scandinavia, this colonial mindset is very much at play despite a political focus on equality and “state feminism” that goes back to the 1970s, one that never included “the Other.” On the contrary, the lack of awareness and unconscious bias seems worse in Norway than here in the UK. Ignorance around diversity, sexism, and racism ensures the reproduction of inequality. There is also a sense of superiority and arrogance that comes with being “the best country in the world,” as several journalists used to report when UNDP human development reports showed Norway on the top. I don’t think right-wing populist views have made the representation of Muslim women worse. Instead, it has probably got worse for men who have been targeted as anti-feminist and oppressive. In Norway, a survey showed that Muslim women had easier access to the labor market than Muslim men. But there is still an obsession with head coverings—wearing the niqab, and the burqa was banned in Denmark and Norway in 2018.

Black Lives Matters Protest in Stockholm, Sweden on June 3, 2020.

“Young People Need to Be Heard and Taken Seriously”

Different analyses show how the far-right in Europe has tried to capitalize on the Covid-19 pandemic. In contrast, others have argued that the pandemic has exposed the political incompetence of the far-right parties. How have the far-right parties in Scandinavia responded to the pandemic, and what might be the pandemic’s consequences for far-right there?

Radical right parties in Scandinavia have largely supported the governing parties, apart from in Sweden where there was no lockdown and more than 13,400 have died to COVID-19. The Sweden Democrats asked for stricter border controls and targeted immigrant communities and blamed immigrants for spreading the virus in March 2020. The governments in Norway and Denmark took a very different approach and locked down on March 12, 2020. The death rate in Denmark is just over 2,400, and in Norway, only 650 and the governing parties have gained support while the RR is weaker than ever. However, this is not due to political incompetence exposure but more because the governing coalitions have adopted the RR’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies largely across the board.

Your work also focuses on increasing the engagement of young people in politics and society. Why is it important to foster political engagement among youth, and what are the most effective ways to facilitate their active and critical participation in responding to the global challenges that affect our contemporary society?

At the top of my list is the eradication of poverty. There must be access to and funding of education for all, from nurseries to primary and secondary schools, colleges and further education, universities, youth clubs, music, and sports. There must be an end to austerity and welfare retrenchment. Young people also need to be heard and seen and taken seriously. The young have made an enormous contribution to climate change demonstrations, protests to improve women’s safety, and Black Lives Matter marches in the last year. It’s worrying how police treat protesters, especially in the UK at the moment where things are moving in the wrong direction. Freedom of assembly to demonstrate and protest is more important than ever. A new bill the UK government has recently proposed could lead to legislation that will ban protest. That would be detrimental to democracy and young people’s participation in politics and their chances of having their voices heard.

Photo: Matej Kastelic

ECPS Academy Civic Leadership Program (July 5-9, 2021)

Understanding and Responding to Global Challenges in an Age of Populism

Overview 

A new wave of populist politics defined by anti-establishment, nationalist and anti-minority agendas is gaining power around the world. Understanding the drivers and the impact of populist politics on democracy is key to tackling the most critical challenges facing our world today. The ECPS Academy Civic Leadership Program supports the empowerment of future generations by deepening their understanding of global challenges, helping participants to develop constructive and effective responses. The five-day Civic Leadership Program offers young people a dynamic and engaging learning environment with an intellectually challenging program, allowing them to grow as future academic, intellectual, activist and public leaders.

Each day offers interactive lectures, led by world-leading practitioners and experts from varied disciplinary backgrounds. The lectures are complemented by discussions, group interactions, and assignments on selected key issues to upgrade participant knowledge, qualifications and skills. Participants have the opportunity to collaborate with those from different socio-political contexts, developing invaluable cross-cultural skills and a truly global knowledge of our times. This program seeks to contribute to the personal and academic development of each participant and foster social responsibility and awareness among future leaders from all around the world. 

Who should apply?

This unique course is addressed to outstanding candidates interested in gaining a more comprehensive and critical understanding of how current global issues are linked to the rise of populism. A select group of participants will be chosen based on merit, with applications welcomed from students pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees of any discipline, and early career professionals between the ages of 18 and 30. Participants are selected on the basis of a letter of motivation, a CV and a research proposal of between 250 and 500 words. We value the high level of diversity on our courses, welcoming applications from people of all backgrounds. The deadline for submitting applications is June 20, 2021.

Topics covered

  • Populism: an introduction
  • Varieties of populism
  • Populism, democracy, and authoritarianism
  • Populism, nationalism and identity 
  • Populism and religions
  • Populist discourse and digital technology 
  • Digital populism: internet and far-right
  • Gender, race and populism
  • Environment and populism
  • Radicalization and violent extremism 

Projects

Individual project: Participants write an article on a topic of their choice based on one of the themes discussed during the program. They are expected to plan and produce original work that presents arguments in a clear and balanced way drawing on multiple sources. They will be mentored by one of our in-house experts to complete this assignment successfully. The articles will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words and need to be submitted within a month from the end of the program, and selected papers will be considered for publication on ECPS Youth blog.  

Group project: Participants will collaborate in tailored groups of two or three to decide on a societally relevant issue that is addressed in the lectures and explore/design a creative project that involve solutions to tackle with it. Participants are encouraged to draw upon skills and knowledge from their disciplinary backgrounds in developing their projects. Ideas for a group project include but are not limited to creating an infographic or a series of podcasts, making an explainer or a screencast video, social media projects, street interview, public speaking, collaborative writing, engaging with a selected community to address a community-identified need. The projects need to be submitted within two months from the end of the program.

Participant Reflections

To consolidate their intellectual and personal growth, we ask that each participant share their personal reflections on their development, as well as the design and content of the program.

Evaluation Criteria

Meeting the assessment criteria below is required from all participants aiming to successfully complete the program and receive a certificate of attendance in the end. These three evaluation criteria include full attendance, active participation in lectures, successful completion of individual paper assignment and successful completion of group project assignments.

  1. Full attendance and active participation in lectures

Participants are expected to show up in all the lectures and actively participate in the discussions to meet the minimum assessment requirements. In case of failure to attend a lecture without a valid reason, participants will not be considered for assessment. Acceptable reasons for not attending a lecture include 1) serious illness at the time of the lecture (i.e., illness sufficiently serious to warrant a visit to a health professional); 2) grave family or personal emergency.

2. Successful completion of individual paper assignment

Participants are to write a blogpost article on a topic of their choice based on one of the themes discussed during the program. They are expected to produce original work that presents arguments in a clear and balanced way drawing on multiple sources. Participants can request mentorship by one of our in-house experts to complete this assignment successfully. This will be arranged based on the availability of our experts when the request is made.

The articles will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words and need to be submitted within a month from the end of the program. Please make sure that the facts you mention are supported by research and include a primary reference in the form of a hyperlink. You can also use footnotes to provide context and explanation for your article. Selected articles can be published on ECPS website or submitted elsewhere for publication. Each completed article is assigned to one of our in-house experts to be evaluated based on the following criteria: clarity, depth, originality, and relevance.

3. Successful completion of group project assignments

Participants will collaborate in tailored groups of two or three to decide on a societally relevant issue that is addressed in the lectures and explore/design a creative project that involve solutions to tackle with it. Each group will be informed by the coordinators about who they will work with after the end of the program. Groups are encouraged to draw upon skills and knowledge from their disciplinary backgrounds in developing their projects. Ideas for a group project include but are not limited to creating an infographic or a series of podcasts, making an explainer or a screencast video, social media projects, artistic or literary projects, street interview, public speaking, collaborative writing project, engaging with a selected community to address a community-identified need.

For any selected project, two reports are required. One is a project proposal of between (300-500) words specifying the goals and objectives of the project and secondly a final report (1,000-2,000) describing the results and outcomes of the project. The project proposals will be submitted before the project initiation. The completed projects and the final reports need to be submitted within two months from the end of the program. They will be evaluated by a committee made up of three ECPS experts based on the project’s societal impact, relevance, innovation, and content quality.

Learning Outcomes

Educational outcomes of this program for participants’ intellectual, professional and personal development include:

Knowledge: Participants deeply engage with multi-disciplinary issues surrounding populism with a range of experts to build critical knowledge and understanding. They are able to identify populist rhetoric and its impact on democracy, human rights, and values and draw advanced connections between how populism operates in different parts of the world.

Skills: Participants attending this program develop a comprehensive set of skills that are highly valuable to their intellectual and personal growth and empowerment. The training will cultivate participants’ use of basic methodological skills and tools needed for academic research and learning. In addition, working together on a group project will advance their collaborative skills and creativity.

Cross-cultural Competence: Participants develop their cross-cultural competencies, meeting with like-minded individuals from around the world to develop a higher understanding of current world problems. They learn to speak confidently and respectfully on complex and controversial issues, and value contrasting perspectives. As they engage in academic exchange and share their ideas and experiences with others, participants develop empathy, tolerance, curiosity and understanding for each other’s views.

Social/Civic Responsibility: Participants build a sense of civic responsibility and awareness of global challenges as they are taught concrete strategies to deal with the impact of populist politics. They apply critical thinking and media literacy in countering misinformation and learn about how they can foster community engagement and solidarity in fighting against critical global challenges.

Credit

This course is worth 5 ECTS in the European system. If you intend to transfer credit to your home institution, please check the requirements with them before you apply. We will be happy to assist you in any way we can, however please be aware that the decision to transfer credit rests with your home institution.

Certificate of Attendance

Awarded after program to all participants based on the satisfactory participation in, and completion of, the course assignments. Certificates are sent to students only by email.

Fee

ECPS believes that this world-class opportunity should be open to all, regardless of financial background. Therefore, this five-day program is available for just €20.

Program Flow

The program will take place online via Zoom between July 5-9, 2021. There will be two sessions on each day. Please note that this schedule is tentative and may be subject to change depending on the circumstances. 

July 5, 2021

  • Populism: An introduction(13:00-15:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Anthoula Malkopoulou
  • Varieties of populism (18:30-20:30 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Steven M. Van Hauwaert

July 6, 2021

  • Populism, democracy, and authoritarianism (15:00-17:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Tsveta Petrova
  • Populism, nationalism and identity (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou

July 7, 2021

  • Populism and religions (14:00-16:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Jocelyne Cesari
  • Populist discourse and digital technology (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Majid Khosravinik

July 8, 2021

  • Gender, race and populism (13:00-15:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Haley McEwen
  • Digital populism: internet and far-right (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Eviane Leidig 

July 9, 2021

  • Environment and populism (15:00-17:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Kai Bosworth
  • Radicalization and violent extremism (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Daniela Pisoiu

Program Coordinators

This program is coordinated by Dr. F. Zehra Colak in collaboration with ECPS Youth Program members. Submit your application: fzcolak@populismstudies.org

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

In this event, Dr Eviane Leidig will discuss the rise and success of the far-right in India through the lens of Hindu nationalism.

Date And Time: Tue, Apr 6, 2021, 7:00 PM CEST 

This talk will situate 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 organizations 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 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. This talk will shed light on approaching the far right as both global and transnationally connected through a case study of India, while also proposing new ways of conceptualizing far right movements in postcolonial, Global South contexts.

Speaker

Dr Eviane Leidig is a postdoctoral affiliate at the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. Her research currently explores the far right, gender, and online radicalization, recruitment, and propaganda in India and North America. She is a co-founder and co-editor of a new Manchester University Press book series called ‘Global Studies of the Far Right’. In addition to her academic pursuits, she serves as the Head of Policy for the London-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, and is an Associate Fellow at the Global Network on Extremism and Technology. Eviane regularly consults and gives talks for policymakers such as the U.S. State Department, the European Commission, and national and regional intellegience agencies and law enforcement. Her work has appeared in international news outlets such as Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera, BBC, Huffington Post, and Radio Free Europe.

Supporters of (PML-N) are showing their zeal during public gathering meeting regarding general election campaign held at Lyari area in Karachi, Pakistan on June 26, 2018. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

A Quest for Identity: The Case of Religious Populism in Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2021). “A Quest for Identity: The Case of Religious Populism in Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0007

 

Abstract

Since its founding, both civil and military Pakistani governments have used religious populism to consolidate support and legitimize their actions. This has paved the way for religious populism to become a part of the nation’s cultural imagination and identity. During the country’s “infant” or “fragile” democratic phase, religious populism was repeatedly used to consolidate support. Religious parties and groups hold great political sway in the county. Through the use of religious populism, these factions have been allowed to nurture their own “people” who are partisan towards “others.” The weak level of governance, political turmoil, and distrust in institutional capabilities has pushed the public into the arms of religious populists. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja M. Ali Saleem

Introduction

Walk into a public school in Pakistan and ask the pupils, “what is the meaning of Pakistan?” and it’s likely they’ll chant “la ilaha illallah.”[1] This exemplifies the extent to which religion has seeped into the Pakistani imagination. This is not surprising in a nation-state that was founded on the idea of religious difference from India’s Hindu majority—a difference that resulted in the partition of one country into two. Since then, over the period of nearly eight decades, both civil and military governments have used religious populism to consolidate support and legitimize their actions. This has led religious populism to become a part of the nation’s cultural imagination and identity. There has been some evidence of what one can describe as left-wing populism in Pakistan, but it has also been tinged with religion.

Pakistani populism, however, does not have a long list of leaders associated with it, due to several reasons. First, populism is anti-elite by definition and this anti-elite sentiment unites ordinary people behind the leader. But what if different regions of the country define “elite” differently? Should the Pakistanis, in the 1950s and the 1960s, have fought against the Punjabi-Mohajir elite or the Punjabi elite, the feudal elite or the civil-military bureaucratic elite, the West Pakistani elite or the Urdu-speaking elite or the business elite? The fragmented Pakistani society allows for populism but creates lots of hurdles for truly national populism. The polarization of the society— a hallmark of populism—is improbable where divisions in society are multi-dimensional. 

Second, populism is about ordinary people and their struggles. Therefore, if the leader cannot speak the local language, it is difficult (though not impossible) for him or her to become a populist leader. It is challenging to become the true, long-lost, and authentic leader of the masses when one cannot even speak the language of the masses. 

Populism has also been successful in Pakistan because it feeds on an open democratic society. Although populist movements may emerge under dictatorships, they are rare. 

T.J.P members are holding Jinnah Rally on the occasion of Birthday Anniversary of Father of Nation Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Karachi on December 25, 2017. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

The Founding of Pakistan, Its Muslim Identity, and Secularism

Pakistan was carved out of the former British colony of South Asia. The political campaign for independence, the Pakistan movement, gained momentum in the 1940s, giving a voice to South Asia’s Muslim minority—”the people” in this case, who felt underrepresented in the politics of India as compared to “the others,” the Hindu majority (Jalal, 2010). South Asian Muslims are a rich and diverse blend of ethnicities and sects of Islam (Eaton, 2019). Establishing an “other”—Indian Hindus—created a point of convergence for the Muslim minority.

The founding father of the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a secular man, faced a dilemma at the time of independence in 1947. He had created a nation based on a Muslim identity but was not interested in establishing a theocracy. Non-Muslims, especially Hindus and Christians, were welcomed as citizens of the new country. In his first address to the Constituent Assembly in 1947, Jinnah said: 

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples. You are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the state” (Government of Pakistan, 2021)

During the first decade after independence, when Jinnah or his close associates were ruling Pakistan, religious influence was not peremptory. Religious and cultural sensitivities were kept in mind during the selection of the national flag, as the white-coloured portion represents the country’s minorities. This white is set amidst the deep green symbolizing the Muslim majority (Dawn, 2011). The national anthem also does not show a predominant Islamic influence as explained below:

There are three religious references in the anthem. In the opening stanza, there are two such references: the blessed sacred land and the country being the centre of belief and faith. In the final stanza, the poet talks about Pakistan being ‘under the shade of Mighty and Glorious God.’ However, none of the three religious references are specific to Islam. References to the sacredness and blessedness of the national territory, or its being the centre of belief, are a common theme in anthems, and the word used for God is not Allah (the Arabic word for God used in the Quran) but Khuda (a Persian word used initially for Ahura Mazda, the god of Zoroastrianism)” (Saleem, 2017 95)

Jinnah also handpicked Jogendra Nath Mandal, a Dalit[2], who served as the country’s first minister of law and labour but was later forced out of office and relocated to India (Balouch, 2015). The Parsi and Christian communities felt welcomed and played a pivotal role in developing the services sector (Notezai, 2019; Lentin, 2017)

This seemingly pluralistic and secular dream of Pakistan was gradually Islamised. After Jinnah’s death in 1948, the Objective Resolution, a blueprint for the constitution, was introduced which stated that, “sovereignty over the entire universe belongs to Allah Almighty alone” but also included “the state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people” (Ahmad, 2019; Pal, 2010; Yilmaz 2016)

Gradual Increase in Reliance on Religion 

This gradual increase in the government’s reliance on religion was synonymous with the growing political incapacity of Pakistan’s leadership. In fact, it can be argued that it was the incapacity of the leadership that forced the instrumental use of religion. However, it must be clear that during this period, Islam was more of a symbolic influence instead of a source of law. Political infighting and an alliance with the United States (US) gave confidence to General Ayub Khan, encouraging him to impose the first martial law. General Ayub (1958-69) initially did not use Islam to legitimize his hold on power. He was vehemently opposed to the religious right using religion in politics, and during his rule, Jamaat-i-Islami leader Abul A’la Moududi was sentenced to death. However, in the latter part of Ayub’s rule, he changed his tactics. The Ayub administration tried to delegitimize Jinnah’s sister Fatima Jinnah,[3] who fought an election against Ayub Khan to end the military regime. Ayub resorted to orthodox Islamism, claiming women are not allowed to rule in Islam (Ahmed, 2019; New York Time, 1964)

A war with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir facilitated the rise of Islamic populism. India was “otherized” and the narrative of Pakistan was further Islamised and militarized (Kapur & Ganguly, 2012). The need to defend “the people’s” faith and nation became influential in the collective national imagination. The religious spirit from 1965 is evident in the era’s iconic songs, today a part of the nation’s communal memory. Vocabulary such as momin (pious Muslim), marde mujahid (valorous religious warrior), shaheed (martyrs), and ghazi (fighter) were used to glorify the “holy” war (Malik, 2018). However, Ayub—a military bureaucratic authoritarian leader, who was not a practicing Muslim—was never comfortable with religious populism.   

Early Populist Leaders

If today one is asked who the first populist leader in Pakistan was, the most likely answer would be Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. This demonstrates our lack of knowledge about Pakistan’s history, particularly the history of East Pakistan (the territory of the modern country Bangladesh). Consciously or unconsciously, East Pakistan’s role in Pakistan’s history is downplayed or ignored. The first populist leader of Pakistan was Abul Kasem Fazlul Haq, popularly known as A.K. Fazlul Haq or Sher-e-Bangla (the lion of Bengal). Fazlul Haq was elected Prime Minister of Bengal twice and remained the PM for six years (1937-43). He was immensely popular with the masses as he was anti-elite and fought against the Hindu and Muslim landlords.  

Moulana Bhashani was another populist leader from East Pakistan. He was called the “red moulana.” It is hard to find a more fascinating political figure than Moulana Bhashani in the erstwhile united Pakistan. He not only fought the British, the West Pakistani politicians, and the Pakistani military but also his brothers-in-arms, Bengali Awami League leaders H. S. Suhrawardy and Mujibur Rahman. His commitment was only to the poor Bengali peasants that he represented all his life; he never held any government or official position. For his populism, he was called Mazlum Jananeta (leader of the toiling masses).

The heyday for left-wing populism in Pakistan was the late sixties, with Moulana Bhashani and Mujibur Rahman in East Pakistan and Bhutto in West Pakistan all raising anti-elite banners. Both Mujib and Bhutto rejected the constitution and political culture of that time and vowed to create a new country with the help of masses. Both claimed that the “people” were with them and those on the opposite side were opposed to the people. Both were left-wing populists who thought socialism would restore power to the masses for the first time since 1947. They upended the politics of both wings in different ways. Mujib’s populism became a precursor of the Bangladeshi independence movement, while Bhutto’s populism eroded as he began tackling practical socio-economic and governance issues.[4]

Women take keen interest in pictures of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Founder of Peoples Party (PPP) in Hyderabad, Pakistan on April 03, 2011. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

Bhutto’s Left and Right Populism 

Systematic and institutional discrimination faced by East Pakistanis (who were ethnically Bengali) became a flashpoint for civil war[5] (Nada, 1972). Mujib was the face of Bengali nationalism. Civil unrest, the use of brute military force against Bengali civilians, and invasion by India led to the formation of Bangladesh, in 1971. Mujib became its first President. This event generated ontological insecurity in what remained of Pakistan. Pakistanis could not understand how they lost a war and why half of their countrymen and women decided to leave. It was a critical juncture in national history, and it ushered Pakistani politics down the rabbit hole of religious populism.

Bhutto’s slogan, “roti, kapra aur makan” (bread, clothes, and shelter), and his campaign made ordinary people interested in politics. The era of mass politics was not new to East Pakistan, but it was Bhutto who introduced mass politics to West Pakistan. The following is an excerpt which contrasts Bhutto’s style with Mujib’s and shows the contrasts between populism in East and West Pakistan:

“When Bhutto was introduced to politics, he had no personal constituency of his own and did not develop one for as long as he remained in his job as foreign minister… [it was] when he began to tour the country that he developed a personal following. As with Mujib, the size of Bhutto’s following increased very rapidly but, in contrast to Mujib, people were attracted to Bhutto for the novelty of the cause that he had begun to espouse. Bhutto’s type of populism was not a new phenomenon in Third World policies. Very deliberately he had fashioned his style and his idiom after such Third World leaders as Sukarno [Indonesia], Nkrumah [Ghana], Peron [Argentina], and Castro [Cuba]. But for West Pakistan, this populist approach was a new development; until that time, West Pakistani politicians had followed a very low-key approach toward politics, preferring to negotiate among themselves rather than to use popular support to further their aims and ambitions. Bhutto was a new kind of leader. Accordingly, the constituency that he cultivated for himself was new—a constituency was galvanised into action very quickly, but when he left the scene, the constituency still remained. Like Peronism, Bhuttoism was to survive Bhutto” (Dutt, 2000: 351).

After the humiliating defeat in war and Bangladeshi independence, the Pakistani military took a backseat and the first directly elected national assembly chose Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto as Prime Minister. Bhutto and his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had been elected on a populist platform which had elements of both socialism and Islamism. Bhutto introduced the term “Islamic socialism” and claimed that Islam and socialism are compatible. However, he was soon forced to make “compromises” due to the increasing power of the religious right which promulgated religious populism against the “un-Islamic” Bhutto government. The 1973 Constitution made Islam the state religion and declared that not only the President, but the Prime Minister of the country would also be Muslim. 

Bhutto’s popularity slowly began to wane as he became more and more authoritarian. He managed to get rid of elected opposition governments in two provinces. The religious parties, which had never accepted Bhutto’s religious credentials, suffered because of Bhutto’s oppression; envious of Bhutto’s popularity, they gradually ignored their differences and decided to form a united front. Their street power, rioting, and right-wing political collective forced Bhutto to make further concessions such as constitutionally declaring Ahmadis non-Muslims and banning nightclubs and alcohol for Muslims and replacing Sunday with Friday as the weekly holiday (Dawn, 2014). The religious right, and the opposition, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), “otherized” the “corrupt,” “elite,” and “un-Islamic” PPP leadership while positioning themselves as the legitimate reflection of “the pious people.” 

The PNA was a populist and consolidated right-wing political alliance, consisting of nine political parties of the country. It competed in the national election in 1977 with the slogan Nizam-e-Mustafa[6] (system of [Prophet] Muhammad)—i.e., if the PNA won, they would instil Prophet Muhammad’s system of governance. Bhutto was targeted as a “sinner” running a “sinful government.” 

Bhutto won the elections handily but there were allegation of rigging and demonstrations started in the major urban centres. The government and the PNA leadership sat together; just when they were close to an agreement, the military imposed a third martial law on the country (Niazi 1987). Generals not only removed Bhutto from office but also subjected him to a trial that mocked due process. He was executed in 1979 (Schofield 1980)

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was a leader whose populism was an amalgam of left and right populism. He talked about socialism. True to his slogan of roti, kapra, aur makan, his signature policy was the nationalization of the economy. All his life, he was castigated by the right-wing, and they were instrumental in his downfall and murder. However, he also talked about the glory of Islam, otherized “Hindu” India, and promoted pan-Islamic identity. The two highpoints in his prime ministership were the unanimous approval of the 1973 Constitution, which declared Islam as Pakistan’s state religion and had numerous Islamic references, and the convening of the Organization of Islamic Conference’s (OIC) second summit in Lahore in 1974, when he managed to get most leaders of Muslim-majority countries—many of who were destabilizing each other—together on one stage. Was he a left populist or a religious populist? It is difficult to state definitively.

Zia’s Military Coup, Religious Nationalism, and Islamisation

Military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq ruled Pakistan for eleven years (1977-88) and ushered in a phase in which religious nationalism was fully espoused as the state narrative. He instigated a period of Islamization the likes of which Pakistan had never seen before—and hasn’t seen since. He uplifted right-wing Islamist parties to counter democratization and in exchange promised to introduce the Nizam-e-Mustafa (Snellinger, 2018). Left-wing parties, women, and human rights workers protesting the regime were curbed by state security forces and otherization and were exposed to ferocious outbursts of right-wing mobs. Television, radio, press, school syllabi, and other institutions promoted Islamic values and a spirit of jihadism. 

Numerous amendments based on conservative interpretations of Islam were made to the constitution.[7] For instance, the Federal Shariat Court was established. This court could declare any law unconstitutional if it deemed the law un-Islamic (Yilmaz, 2014). In this court, religious clergy served as judges and decided matters in the light of the Quran and Sunnah (Kennedy, 1990). The Soviet-Afghan war next door further added to the narrative of Islamic nationalism. Pakistan’s alliance with the US was termed as a “jihad” to defeat the “godless” Soviets (Lodhi, 2012). The Afghan war also brought petrol-dollars from the Gulf, resulting in the funding of many madrassas where jihadists were trained, creating even more of an audience with an appetite for Islamism (Lodhi, 2012).

Zia’s use of religious nationalism has in many ways shaped contemporary politics and populist rhetoric. However, Zia was not a populist. Although Pakistan’s other two long-term military dictators, Ayub and Musharraf, thought themselves as popular leaders, Zia knew better. He instrumentalized Islam, used the US and Arab support, and plied Pakistan’s military to brutally oppress the opposition—but he never thought he could win elections. The best evidence of this, is the referendum question he drafted in 1984 to get himself another five-year presidential term. The ballot paper asked voters: “Do you endorse the process initiated by the President of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ziaul Haq, for bringing the laws of Pakistan in conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and for the preservation of the ideology of Pakistan, and are you in favour of continuation and further consolidation of that process and for the smooth and orderly transfer of power to the elected representatives of the people?” Citizens could then vote “yes” or “no” (Aziz, 2015). He was not asking people to vote for him. He was asking people to vote for Islamisation, for the preservation of Pakistan’s ideology, and for the ending of martial law and the return of democracy. It would have been difficult even for people who hated Zia to vote “no.”

Pakistan is still grappling with the impacts of Islamic nationalism installed by both Zia and his predecessors. As the country’s institutional fabric, such as the legal system and parliamentary forums, have embraced sharia-inspired ideals, religious populism is now a matter of political success and survival (Aziz, 2015). At a micro level the social fabric of society has also been altered. The region that once perplexed the British due its diversity is increasingly pushing towards a homogeneous society where religion (Sunni Islam) and nationalism are knotted together.

Muslim League-N Chief, Nawaz Sharif awards the ticket of NA-172 constituency to Hafiz Abdul Karim during meeting in Lahore on October 30, 2010. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

Populism after Zia

General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime came to an end when he was killed in an air crash in 1988. After nearly a decade under Zia’s control, the country had the opportunity to hold democratic elections. Misgovernance, corruption, institutional clashes, and poor economic management led to highly unstable conditions that threatened the survival of the fragile democracy. Four elections were held between 1988 to 1999; governmental control alternated between the PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). 

During the “infant” or “fragile” democratic phase, religious populism was repeatedly used by politicians and parties to consolidate support. The PPP was now led by Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the former prime minster Z. A. Bhutto.  Like her father, the young Bhutto relied on reformist populism to galvanise voters. Her slogan, borrowed from her father’s campaign: roti, kapra, makan touched a nerve with the working class and poverty-stricken masses (Sekine, 1992). Bhutto’s lineage as the daughter of the first democratically elected head of state further added to her appeal—in Pakistan, dynastic politics is the norm (Sekine, 1992). Educated at Oxford, Bhutto was viewed as a modernist who had ambitions of developing the country and ending its reliance on Islamic populism (Sekine, 1992).

Her brand of populism was countered by the religious populism of Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N. Sharif was one of the conservative political protégés that Zia had cultivated to retain his power (BBC, 2018). During PML-N’s two terms in office, the party relied heavily on religious populism. In opposition to the PPP, PML-N members frequently “otherized” Bhutto by using Islamist populism. Fatwas were issued questioning the legitimacy of her government; the mullahs felt a woman heading an “Islamic” country was sinful (Azeem, 2020). Attacks such as these forced Bhutto to hide overt markers of femininity—for example, she hid her pregnancy during her first election campaign by wearing loose-fitting clothes(Khan, 2018)

Moving beyond religiously infused, populist sexism, Bhutto was portrayed as an “agent of the West,” placing her in opposition to “the people.” Her position against Zia’s Islamised legacy, criticism of radicalization of youth, promotion of “un-Islamic” programs such as family planning, and her affiliation with the Shia sect of Islam made her a prime target of the right-leaning PML-N and radical religious groups (Azeem, 2020). Eventually, she was forced into a self-imposed exile. After Bhutto’s second government was dissolved, Nawaz Sharif faced no real political opposition; thus, the clientelism between the state and religious factions continued (Javid, 2019; Puri, 2010).  

Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf’s Military Coup

A fourth military-led coup deposed the second Sharif government in 1999. Going into self-imposed exile, the Sharif family sought refuge with long-time ally, the house of Saud. General Pervez Musharraf, like his predecessors from the military, sought control to “stabilize” the country. Unlike Zia, the Musharraf regime did not rely on religious populism. After nearly two decades as a refuge for international Islamist terrorists, Pakistan was under immense pressure to reform. The terrorist attack of 9/11 triggered the American-led “war on terror” in Afghanistan. The changing mood in the White House defined the Musharraf regime’s actions. Pakistan’s status as an ally in the “war on terror” ensured that the cash-starved state could sustain itself on incoming foreign funds[8] (Ibrahim, 2009). The “carrot and stick” model, masterfully employed by the US, ensured that Pakistan complied with its demands in return for a monetary reward. The rekindled Pakistan-US alliance temporarily quashed the use of religious populism within the Pakistani government.

The Musharraf government’s crackdown on terrorist hubs on the Pakistan-Afghan border, school-curriculum reforms, madrasa regulation efforts, economic liberalization, and banning of terrorist outfits (parties, groups, and non-government organizations (NGOs)) were welcomed but were not fully achieved or implemented (Afzal, 2014; Morgan, 2011; Looney, 2008). The noose tightening around the necks of radical groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPL)—after years of direct or indirect support from the state—led them to rebel. The Musharraf tenure ushered in one of the most violent periods in contemporary Pakistani history, where suicide bombings ravaged cities across Pakistan (Looney, 2008). The state’s distance from religious populism was met with violence which brought the “war on terror” home. 

The Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) episode, in 2006, exemplified the state’s struggle to distance itself from radicalism and how the radicals pushed back with the use of violence and religious populism to gain public support. The mosque was serving as a madrassa where hundreds of students were radicalized and sent off to fight in places such as Kashmir and Afghanistan. The government laid siege to the complex and after months of failed attempts, a confrontation between the security forces and mosque residents left several devotees dead, injured, or arrested (Scroggins, 2012). The around-the-clock broadcasting of the event made it a national debate. Non-state factions (radical religious groups) used Lal Masjid as a rallying point. They recruited  volunteer suicide bombers from across the country to attack the “tyrannical” and “puppet of the West” government that was “in cahoots” with the “kafirs[9]” (Scroggins, 2012)

The groups that felt pressure from the government’s crackdown used religious populism to define religious extremists as “the people” while the state and its supporters became the enemy “other.”[10] Local and international terrorist groups such as the Taliban (Pakistan or TLP), al-Qaeda, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and others orchestrated dozens of suicide bomb attacks all over Pakistan’s major cities, killing thousands of people (mostly civilians and security forces) (Scroggins, 2012). Benazir Bhutto, on her return to Pakistan, also became a victim of the raging violence. She was killed in Rawalpindi (a twin city of the capital Islamabad) during a pre-election rally in 2007. It is widely believed that TLP was responsible for her death due to her anti-Mujahideed-e-Islam[11] stance and polices (The Economic Times, 2018).

A gradual shift to democracy during the late 2000s and 2010s brought the PPP and PML-N back to power, respectively. While terrorist attacks had paralysed economic activity and terrified the public, the continued appeal of religious populism provided jihadi groups with a stream of fresh recruits. Within the seemly “non-radicalized” public, the debate of “good” versus “bad” Taliban was common. Middle class and educated individuals were also gravitating towards the Taliban’s cause. Conspiracy theories regarding America, Zionism, Hinduism, etc., combined with years of Islamised content promulgated through media and the education system, caused large factions of the public to sympathise with the Taliban’s fight against the Americans and Pakistan’s “puppet” government (Siddiqui, 2018; Blair, Fair, Malhotra, & Shapiro, 2011).     

The case surrounding Asia Bibi, which spanned nearly two decades, demonstrates the extent to which the prolonged use of populist Islamism by state and non-state actors has shaped the social fabric of Pakistani society. Asia Bibi[12] was falsely accused of blasphemy when a fight between her and her fellow fruit pickers escalated. Asia is a Christian Pakistani. She became the face of the plight of many non-Muslims and non-Sunnis, especially those who were harassed and/or killed by being roped into false blasphemy charges. The circumstantial evidence pointed towards her innocence, yet populist religious factions used their street power and violence to pressure the courts into handing down a death sentence and then prevented it from being revoked. In 2011, the liberal Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer,[13] was gunned down by his own security guard—a state-provided security officer—for publicly supporting Asia Bibi’s predicament and stating that the blasphemy laws should be removed. 

The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, shot Taseer 28 times in a busy market and in broad daylight. Qadri’s arrest and confession was shocking. He was convinced that his actions were “heroic” and safeguarded the country against the ghustakh-e-rasool.[14] Video clips and pictures of him soon surfaced where he was seen smirking and sitting calmly reciting nats[15] and declaring his victory (BBC, 2011). More worrying than his individual behaviour was the reaction of a huge faction of the public. More than 300 lawyers volunteered to act as his defence and rallies raged throughout cities in support of Qadri (BBC, 2011). Sentenced to death by hanging, some of Qadri’s last words to his supporters were, “distribute sweets when they hang me” (BBC, 2011). He is now immortalized as a ghazi and his resting place is a shrine and mosque complex in the vicinity of Islamabad (Pasha, 2016)

Asia, after nearly twenty years, was acquitted of the charges on October 31, 2018 by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. This was a bittersweet victory. This was not only justice delayed but also due safety concerns for Asia Bibi and her family, she had to seek asylum in Canada. Pakistan was no longer safe for her. The news of her release spread through the country like wildfire—a fire that engulfed every city and small village for four days. The destruction of public property, economic lockdown, theft, and vandalism left the country with an economic loss of 260 million PKR, in Punjab alone (Malik, 2018)

The master orchestrator of these protest was the Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TL), a party that gained momentum thanks to its populist Islamist rhetoric of “saving the pride and greatness of the Prophet.” The vigilante group has massive support and has frequently hurt or aspired to kill those they deem as “blasphemers.”[16] The vigilantes have now entered politics and, since 2018, their political party is called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which won a stunning number of votes despite its first-time participation in general elections.   

Imran Khan, addresses a press briefing on April 20, 2016 in Islamabad. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

Religious Populism and Imran Khan

Religious groups’ use of the rhetoric of religious populism has helped them gain a key position in society and politics. The murshid (students/disciples)—or “the people”—of these “sacred” leaders are “defenders” of their faith. They demonstrate their loyalty to the pir (spiritual guide) by going against the misguided “liberals” and puppet governments. With the power of religious conviction, “the people” feel they are unstoppable. Their creation was facilitated by the encouragement and—at the time—tolerant behaviour of the government. The post-9/11 withdrawal of support and disowning of such factions has only led an intensifying of their use of religious populism and an expansion their networks through social media platforms (Anthony & Hussain, 2018; International Centre for Religion and Diplomacy, 2012). Religious populism is now a “must have” for politicians and parties hoping to win support and legitimacy. Recognizing the undeniable need for religious populism and simultaneously the government’s need to reinvent its image in a more moderate light, a new wave of religious populism has taken root in Pakistani politics.     

This new wave of religious populism is now part of mainstream politics—and is represented by Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party.[17] Khan launched PTI in 1996 as a small, personality-driven party run by himself and several of his close friends and family members. However, since the early 2010s, it has been able to amass a huge following. PTI’s has used various streaks of populism, including social-welfare, accountability, self-reliance, national revivalism, and religion. Following the 2018 elections, PTI has gained a majority in the federal parliament and most provincial assemblies. Religious populism is a core rhetoric of PTI and its leaders. Over the years, Khan and his party have overtly embraced Islamist populism; however, this is a more moderate and modest version compared to the radical Islam of orthodox groups and former dictators.  

This “moderate” religious populism is advanced under the guise of “human rights.” The earliest example is the “good” and the “bad” Taliban debate instigated by Khan. PTI voiced its sympathy for the Taliban, who they believed had been “used” by the US during the Soviet era and were now being hunted. Khan believed there were “good” and “bad” Taliban, a common conservative position at the time (Mullah, 2017). The party talked of mediation, conflict resolution, and rehabilitation. Thus, PTI was a rational and pro-peace building party that believed in reforming and integrating the “good” Taliban back into society (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017)

However, the antithesis to Khan’s narrative was the tragic Army Public School (APS) attack in 2014. Nearly 130 innocent kids were ambushed and killed by the Taliban, in the city of Peshawar. Targeting defenceless children generated a consensus that the “good” Taliban was just a myth. But this has not stopped Khan and his team from positioning themselves as “peace loving Muslims” now that US troops are exiting Afghanistan. Under PTI leadership, the country is keen to play a positive role in stabilizing the region. It is again facilitating the integration of the Taliban into the democratic system of Afghanistan on the same premise—that the Taliban is a legitimate political force that needs to be negotiated with rather than handled through force (The Hindu, 2021; Afzal, 2020).   

PTI’s reformist “Naya Pakistan” (New Pakistan) is an Islamist populist’s utopia. Khan’s election campaign of 2018 merged the ideologies of welfare-ism and Islamism: he modelled “New Pakistan” on the early structure of the state of Medina (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). Khan has repeatedly expressed his desire the follow the examples of the four rightly guided caliphs of Islam. In countless speeches, his “struggles” and actions against “the others” are quoted in references to the state of Medina and the period of the first four caliphs. This idealization has garnered PTI immense support in a deeply religious country where Medina and the Prophet Muhammad’s life have unparalleled respect and devotion. In a way, Khan has re-packaged the dream of enforcing Nizam-e-Mustafa, the conservative slogan from the 1970s seeking the enforcement of Sharia laws. Now, under Khan, it more modern and “tolerant”—and in line with Pakistan’s need to revamp its image on “moderate” lines.     

The Islamic populism used by PTI is also civilizational. Khan won the hearts of most Pakistanis when he called out the previous governments for their close ties with the West. He specifically targeted the International Monitory Fund (IMF) and said he would not take a “begging bowl” to the Western nations because it made Pakistan’s government a de facto “puppet” in their hands (Kari, 2019). Ironically, once in power, PTI was forced to take an IMF loan; however, the members were able to maintain their anti-West rhetoric on religious grounds. Through social media, Khan shares “good books” with the youth as highly recommended readings. Most of these books are related to discourses on Islam. Khan feels the youth need to be “re-educated” about their “roots” from a non-Western stance. He evokes extreme pride and sentimentality by using the works of the pan-Islamic national poet, Allam Iqbal, by calling them shahneen.[18] There is also an excessive emphasis on conspiracy theories such as the CIA creating the Taliban and the West’s Machiavellian intentions towards Pakistan (Abbas, 2012).

Khan and the party have been highly un-sympathetic to the plight of factions that fall outside their Sunni-Muslim in-group, “the people.” When the ethnically and religiously distinct Shia Hazara protesters refused to bury their dead after repeated deaths due to targeted terrorism, Khan said their right to protest was the victim’s way of “blackmailing” him (Dawn, 2021). The government also washed its hands from assuming responsibility for an attack by conveniently blaming India for sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan (Dawn, 2021). Khan’s Islamist populism also surfaced when he called the Aurat March’s (Women’ March) feminist slogans a “Western concept” and highly unnecessary in a Muslim society. He said that in Pakistan, women are highly protected and respected—claims that run contrary to statistical evidence on violence against women in the country (Dawn, 2020).    

Khan’s Islamist-infused populism also has a transnational element. His government has extensively collaborated with Turkey by introducing and popularizing TV serials with exceedingly Islamised content. The state’s motivation to transmit Ertugrul Ghazi is the prime example of this transnational, Islam-inspired, civilizationalist populism (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). PTI has repeatedly been proactive in highlighting its support for Muslims worldwide. Khan has felt the “ummah” needs to unite and that Islamophobia needs to be addressed; however, next to nothing is done when the rights of non-Sunnis and non-Muslims are violated in Pakistan on a daily basis (Shams, 2020).

Conclusion               

The various instances and incidents of religious populism in Pakistan have shaped the identity of its people. Since its founding, religious populism has been employed by civil and military governments to consolidate their support and legitimize their actions. As a result, religious populism has become part and parcel of the Pakistani national imagination and identity. 

The plurality that was once the crown of South Asia has now been brushed aside. Today’s mostly homogenous citizens glorify Turkey’s Islamist Erdogan and Muhammad bin Qasim and have disowned freedom fighters who faced down colonial forces such as Rani of Jhansi and Raja Ranjit Singh, labelling them as “infidel” others. 

A void has been created by years of Islamic populism that has erased the collective memory of the Ganga-Gamani[19]identity—that of a pluralistic culture. Disengaged, misled, and misinformed, today’s Pakistanis are Arabized and are now increasingly being Turkified—all at the expense of their South Asian heritage. 

Religious parties and groups hold great political sway in the county. By using religious populism, these factions have been allowed to nurture their own “the people” who are partisan towards “the others.” The weak level of governance, high political turmoil, and distrust in the country’s institutional capabilities have pushed the public into the arms of religious populist groups.

Islamist civilizationism (Yilmaz, 2021) has allowed for “the people” to feel victimized by “the others,” legitimizing their anger, resentment, and hatred. Unlike the Taliban, they do not take up arms against the enemy; rather, they harbour xenophobic and racist ideas towards anyone from the otherized groups or sympathetic to the “other’s” ideals. Today, Islam is Pakistan, and a Muslim a Pakistani. “What is the meaning of Pakistan?” Most would answer, “la ilaha illallah muhammadur rasulullah.”[20]


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Footnotes

[1] During Pakistan’s independence movement, a very popular slogan was “Pakistan ka matlab kiya; la illah illalah,” which means, “What is the meaning of Pakistan; I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah.” The two verses rhyme and as most will realize, the second part of the verse is the first part of the Islamic shahada. This slogan is still very popular.

[2] Dalits are a caste within the Hindu system. Dalits are the most oppressed and marginalized caste and known as the “untouchables.” Their social status historically prevented them for being an integrated and accepted part of mainstream Indian society. The move to elect a Dalit representative in 1947 was a progressive move to dispel centuries of religious caste-based oppression of the subclass.      

[3] Fatima Jinnah played a critical role in the independence movement and was called madr-e-millat (mother of the nation). She was very popular, and Ayub was only able to defeat her because the elections were indirect and state power was used to Ayub’s benefit.

[4] Many populist leaders cannot graduate to become effective managers or administrators. They struggle to govern as governance requires political compromises and logical evidence-based data analysis and decision-making. Donald Trump is the most recent example.

[5] In 1947, Pakistan had two wings that were not geographically contiguous. The east wing is current-day Bangladesh and west wing is current-day Pakistan. The two wings were separated by more than 2000km of Indian territory, and, ethno-linguistically, they were poles apart. The only common factor between the two was the religious identity of Islam. The West Pakistani elite, which dominated the military and bureaucracy, was unwilling to share power with the East’s larger population and accept Bengali language and culture as equal.   

[6] A catchy slogan, devised by the religious parties in the 1970s, that was vague enough to acceptable to Muslims of all hues. Its vagueness made it acceptable to all opposition parties many of whom were against implementation of Sharia laws or Sharia driven laws.

[7] The parliament was forced in 1985 to legalize/approve these changes in lieu of lifting of martial law.

[8] Estimates suggest that Pakistan received some 18 billion USD in military and economic aid from the US for its cooperation in the “War on Terror” from 2002–2011. 

[9] Non-believers, in this case non-Muslims 

[10] This version of religious populism was ferociously dangerous. The conviction of the people on a faith-based model made them ruthless towards the “others—who are judged kafirs and deemed worthy only of death.  

[11] Translation: Warriors of Islam: radical, armed, Islamic militants 

[12] Asia Bibi was a fruit picker form the district of Sheikhupura (some 30 miles outside of Lahore). Bibi and her family were, reportedly, the only Pakistani Christian family in the small village of Ittan Wali. Living as non-Muslims in a small town was not without challenges. After refusing “advice” to convert to Islam, she was accused of blasphemy in 2009. According to various accounts, a fight broke out between Asia and her fellow berry pickers wile harvesting falsa berries (which are harvested in the hottest month of the year). The fight is said to have started over Asia drinking water from the same glass as the Muslim women. After a heated argument, Asia was dismissed from the farm and falsely accused of blasphemy. In 2010, the local district court sentenced her to death under these charges.        

[13] Taseer was an Anglo-Indian (with a Christian mother and a Muslim father). His identity as a Pakistani was not fully accepted by many who felt suspicious of his intentions due to his mixed-race background.     

[14] Someone who commits blasphemy, in this case against the Prophet. 

[15] Poems that praise Prophet Muhammad.

[16] After hearing a speech by TL leader, a young high school student killed his teacher in class on perceived blasphemy charges; then-leader Khadim Rizvi did not deny his role in the tragic incident.     

[17] Pakistan League of Justice.

[18] Shaheen means a hawk. In Iqbal’s poetry they symbolize the potential of Muslim youth. He felt that the Muslim youth were misguided and unaware of Islam’s history and potential. If they embraced their historical roots and worked hard, they could excel in life as the apex creatures—the hawk, which knows no bounds and soars to great heights.  

[19] The merger of Persian and Sanskrit culture that was a hybrid identity of Northern India.

[20] “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”

Dreamcatchers in a breeze in Monument Valley, Utah, USA.  Photo: Jane Rix

Shoshone Nation leader Darren Parry: All decisions should be based on the ‘seventh generation’ principle

Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City, calls for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead.

Interview by Mehmet Soyer & Heidi Hart

Darren Parry is the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, he speaks about his call for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead. The “seventh generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that seeks to ensure a sustainable world seven generations into the future by informing how we make decisions in the present.

Parry also emphasizes the need for Native Americans to be included in civil rights struggles. “Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.… We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion? … Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was (nearly) erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.”

Assessing former US President Donald Trump’s populist policies, Parry has expressed criticism: “(Under) the former president… in my communities we saw rollbacks to protections not only of the land but the wildlife. We also saw weakened environmental regulations. We have also seen the failure of the pandemic response, which has killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today.” On the issue of oil and gas extraction, which in conservative states like Utah tends to be underregulated, Parry notes that Trump deregulated everything. “He thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is—in every case—the extraction industry,” Parry said. He also discussed the pressures on the Ute tribe, which has environmental protection “in its DNA” but also benefits financially from the oil industry.

After a long time serving as the tribal Chairman of the northwestern Shoshone Nation, Parry stepped down last year to run for the US Congress, seeking to advance his political message of accountability, education, and Indigenous land rights. He believes that Native culture can better advance with Congressional representation and is deeply pleased that his friend Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico, now leads the US Department of the Interior. Parry still serves as a council member on the Northwest Shoshone Tribal Council.

Parry grew up in Utah, which has always been home for him. His grandmother was a fierce advocate for her people. Parry says he has tried to continue her work, telling the Shoshone story from the tribe’s perspective, which — after several centuries of dislocation, genocide, and boarding school “re-education”—is seldom heard. He thinks that the more information people have about other communities that do not look like them, the better off that society as a whole will be. Today, Parry lives in Cache Valley, a place that his people have called home for centuries. He says that there is no better place to be.

Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City.

 

The following excerpts from our interview with Darren Parry have been lightly edited.

Mehmet Soyer: Could you tell us about the Shoshone Nation and your culture’s ways of relating to the land?

We [the Shoshone Nation] look at land a little bit differently [than many non-Native communities]. But the relationship that we have with this land that we live on … is something so sacred and special that we call this land our mother—Mother Earth. She has always been the provider of our livelihoods. So, you know, in the mountains, in the streams … we believe the seasons walk around annually. We don’t distinguish ourselves as being superior to the land. If you look at Native ways, we consider ourselves [connected] not only to the land but also with our animal kinfolk, as we like to call them. From that perspective, we are not superior to the animals.

When you see injustice taking place not only with humans but with the Earth, with climate change, and extraction industries, it really hits home to Native Americans because we feel like they [our animal kinfolk] are a part of us. We feel they have a spirit, and they are a living entity. Our human way of thinking is not superior in any way to the values that the Earth and the animal kingdom hold.

At the Bear River Massacre Site [The Bear River Massacre, or the Battle of Bear River or Massacre at Boa Ogoi, took place in present-day Franklin County, Idaho on January 29, 1863], we are doing a lot to tell the story of our people. But how can you tell the story of our people without doing the work to heal the Earth that is there? [For example, by] getting rid of the species that should not be there. So, the work of land restoration is just as important in being able to the story and restore our people’s story and the traditions that we hold. We don’t look at it any differently.

The land, and how we look at the land, and how we are stewards over the land, is really the most important thing to Indigenous communities. We have never felt like we own the land. A lot of people think, well, Native Americans feel like they own the land. It was never our land to own. We were just given stewardship over this land. And so, you know, those differences are really stark in comparison to Western culture today.

Heidi Hart: Populism, in combination with authoritarian government, is on the rise around the world. How do you think populism has affected Indigenous populations in the US?

Well, for one thing, it has just ensured the status quo. The more things change, the more they stay the same—especially in Indigenous communities like ours. And I think populism … has always [been a way for] people … to look at the past, to romanticize the past as “the good old days.” But you know what? The past has never been kind to Indigenous communities. It was often dark. It includes genocide or a complete erasure of people and culture. And, at best, history celebrates assimilation, which is still an erasure of communities. When we talk about that and its effect on our communities, it has just given us less of a seat at the table.

Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark. Because I really celebrate diversity, inclusion, equality, and I try to speak out on those issues as much as I can…. Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.…We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion?

I have never seen Indigenous communities included as part of the four or five things that we always include when we talk about diversity and equality in America today. Those other groups play a prominent role, as they should. I am not saying they shouldn’t at all, but if we really want to be inclusive, then all groups that are marginalized need to be included, including Native American groups. Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was [nearly] erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.

‘We Have Seen Rollbacks to Protections of Land and Wildlife Under Trump Administration’

Mehmet Soyer: So, and what have Native communities experienced during the Trump era that will change approaches to activism in the future?

That is a great question. [Under] the former president… in my communities, we have seen rollbacks to protections of not only the land but the wildlife. We have seen weakened environmental regulations. We have seen the failure in the pandemic response that killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today. So, as I look at that, [I ask] how might the pandemic change the way we go forward? I think our communities need to be much more organized and prepared. And I think we live in a different world today than 150 or 80 years ago. And we need to make sure that we elect politicians that can make a difference. We get in the court system and fight injustices that way. I used to think my way—activism—was the only way.

Let me just quickly explain the way I handle things. My way is gentle. I am not a loud, in-your-face activist carrying signs, marching down the street … In my world, it seems like other leaders have different opinions than me, that [they think the gentle way] is not the way to go about it. You know, it kind of puts them on the defensive…. In the past, I always thought: “well, if they just do it my way, if they are humbler about it to try to effect change, then everything would be okay.” As I have gotten older, I have learned about all of the different ways we tackle problems; [and] when we look at activism; it’s all important.

What the children at Standing Rock did was hugely important. They were loud, but they were respectful in most cases. They had a message, and it resonated. What it did is that it moved the needle a little bit, [but] it did not move it the whole way.… So, people [who] do not carry the big hammer can come in and kind of make a change to all different aspects of activism … I think at the end of the day, we really need to make sure that our activism leads to change. And change means a change in our political leaders and people that are like-minded. And then we can lean on the court system. I hate to [leave it] all, everything that we hold dear, to the courts, but sometimes, in the world that we live in today, we are eventually going to get there anyway. So, it is just really important that we look at all the various ways of doing activism and realize that we all play an important role in bringing about change, wherever that is on that spectrum.

Winter on the Bear River near Brigham City Utah. Photo: Josh Munns

Heidi Hart: In your recent book about the Bear River Massacre in the 19th century, you discuss the complex relationship between your people and white settlers in Utah and Idaho. How has this complexity affected your ability to speak to groups across political differences?

I am not so sure it has affected [me] … I think, over time, I have gotten to the point that my reputation—especially with political leaders that really do not, maybe, have my best interests at heart—means they know they are not going to be hit in the head with a hammer when they meet with me. And, I think that reputation has really helped me to engage with people that I think we can start making differences with.… I could be terrible in every interaction I have with the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day] Saints and hold them accountable at every turn. And they should be held accountable. But my story is always about acknowledging atrocities from the past. You have to acknowledge [that] if there is going to be a reconciliation; however, not remaining there [is important]. It is [about] recognizing the past, but [then asking] how do we move forward together? I think [things improve] when you take that approach with people who believe differently than you do—asking: how can we move together even though we do not agree politically on everything? What can we do to make this world a better place?

So, I think having that mindset has really helped me navigate some of these political waters that we swim in. I have a lot of good Republican friends.… Working together and having them respect me enough to listen to what I have to say; I think it can really make a difference going forward.

‘The Feelings of Trumpists Are Raw and Real’

Mehmet Soyer: So, I am seeing you as a bridge-builder. Since you are a bridge-builder, do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders who are caught in conspiracy thinking?

I get to exercise this [skill] a lot. Melody, my wife, flew to Florida yesterday to see her son and her granddaughter. He is a conspiracy thinker and a Trump guy. He is gonna be talking about Donald Trump 20 years from now. He is a “35-year-old kid” who is sometimes really hard to deal with. But what I have learned over time is … to listen. That is hard to do, especially when you are hearing [farfetched] things. I have come to realize that, as I listen, even though it might be hard, I show a little bit of respect for some of what they are feeling. Their feelings are real; they are raw, and they do not bring it up to just cause trouble. They have certain things in their mind that are problems. I always try to listen in a way that respects what they are saying. As I do that [with my wife’s son], he has been much more willing to hear me. …

When you engage with people like that, you need to make sure [everyone is] looking forward. Because those people always want to look in the past. They are always looking in the rearview mirror. But I think it’s important that we … support new policies that reflect the values of today. We need to prepare [ourselves] for change and diversity. The thing, I think, that is lacking in our society is an education system that trains people for social change. Today I think, we are failing miserably in our education system. And what that means is [we need to ask] how we are training our kids to interact with people that have different views than us.… How can we really do a better job of educating our kids, so they can deal with people that have completely opposite views … in a way that is constructive and a way that we can work together, moving forward?

But we have done a really poor job of teaching our kids the social skills needed to critically think of ways to be able to work together. And then we just need to do a better job investing in people, in education, and training and family, health care, and it is going to probably require a progressive tax that should fall more heavily upon those who benefit the most. So, I think our country has had it backward for a long time if you look at it from the view that I have always looked at it. I am a Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or not. If you believe in a higher power, you have got to come to the same conclusion that the higher power loves and cares about everyone, not just those in power and those who have money.

It is plainly important to me that we spend much more of our effort with [marginalized] communities. [As] my grandmother used to say—we are only as strong in a community as our most vulnerable. Well, what does that mean? If we are going to be a strong community, we need to make sure that we are taking care of the most vulnerable in that community, who are the most marginalized, and those who have never had a seat at the table; remembering that common ground probably does help, and talking with people who do have these raw feelings. However, ideas can seem so strange and scary sometimes.

Heidi Hart: Oil and gas extraction, especially on federal lands, is a thorny issue, and regulation has been very controversial. How has leadership change in the US affected these controversies among Indigenous populations?

That is a loaded question. Because in the last five years, we have seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. We had a president, Trump, who deregulated everything, and he thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is, in every case, the extraction industry.

For me, not getting elected to Congress was really a blessing. I never really thought I would [win], but it was important to me to get the issues that are important to me out there and maybe set an example for Native American youth who might see what I did. [That way, they might] run in the future, [and my example] might make a difference, give them the confidence… [Speaking of] the current administration in place, that victory was really important to so many communities that have been marginalized. It was especially important to our environment. And when we talk about extraction and oil and other things, then not only President Biden being elected, but [also the appointment of] my friend Deb Haaland, a Native American, who was appointed to lead the Department of the Interior. Being in charge of federal lands—one-fifth of the United States is under federal control—she will now lead a department where she can really make a difference going forward. So, I am really heartened by that appointment; [and I read] in the newspaper that she will be making a visit to Utah in April.

When I went out to the Ute Nation in the winter to do a little campaigning and met with tribal leaders, I don’t think there were any young people that really voted for me, even though, generally speaking, tribal nations vote democratic. Because there is a complex story in that area: we see a Native tribe that was relocated to what was thought then [to be] the worst land in the world. But now they find gas and oil under their land. And so here you take an Indigenous population that has never had money, never had any means to sustain themselves … Now they have millions of dollars because of [what] the gas and extraction industries provide. Their DNA is wired to what I talked about earlier—about how we honor the land and how we need to make sure we take care of it. But now you have given a people that has never had anything a real taste of colonization or the Western world in the form of millions of dollars [in royalties].

‘I Am So Heartened With Deb Haaland’s Running the Interior Department’

They walk a tightrope as far as I am concerned because their Indigenous upbringing reminds them of our stewardship of the land, but their economic [resources] and how they take care of their people … go together. So, my message to them was, “look, I do not want to shut down your oil industry tomorrow, but we need to start looking for ways that we can get away from those things…” I mean, it is not a point of contention, that those things need to go away. But we need to make sure that we are replacing them with something sustainable and something that they can make money on for their people and really give them away to get back to who they are, as Native people. So, while I am so heartened with Deb Haaland’s running the Interior Department, we’ve certainly got to do a better job. I think the current administration and Haaland are the perfect fit for what we want to do in America going forward.

People in native Indian clothes performing a traditional dance in front of the world famous Monument valley rock formations in Utah in 2013. Photo: Milan Rademakers

Mehmet Soyer: At a time when the populist right exploits nativism to push their agenda, hurting Indigenous, and minority populations in the process, what can be done to educate people and counter this kind of thinking?

Well, that is a big task. If there was an easy solution, we would have done it already. But we have kind of failed miserably with that…. I think our future leaders really need to reflect our values and how we are looking at things, going forward today, not looking at the past. But I read that [newspaper] article reporting that Haaland is coming to Utah, and there was a sentence that really struck me, and I wrote it down. One of the elected leaders … said [Haaland’s] visit to Utah would allow her to speak with people who live and work on the land and whose voices often go unheard. If you were just to read that quickly or to think, “yes, the Native Americans who have lived on that land whose voices of often gone unheard—those five Indigenous tribes that called Bears Ears their home.” But that is not who they were referring to. They were referring to the ranchers and the locals that have lived there the last 100 years who took the land from the Natives who had stewardship over it.

So, it got me thinking; we have got a big job ahead of us because our elected leaders today are thinking this way. They are not thinking of the Indigenous people that were displaced not very long ago. Well, that is just crazy talk to me—it is looking at the situation in a completely different way than I would look at it…. The task ahead and what we can [achieve] is really overwhelming if you look at it that way. But if you start breaking it down, those elected leaders are good people. [However] if we really [want] social change in America today, locally, we need to re-elect leaders that reflect our values more. I think that is the way you can really make a significant change going forward…. We need to look at it differently … at the people that have lived in America [for] 200 and something years and … at people that have lived here for thousands of years.

I think it is a big thing ahead of us. I am really heartened because, during my campaign, most of my staff were students at Utah State University. So, I am looking at the next generations. If we can activate the youth to really make a big change, even here in Utah, which is ultra-conservative, I think we are not very far away from seeing a huge shift. The people who worked on my campaign … want some change and want to be a part of it. Once we start getting more of what I see on the horizon with leadership, the possibilities are really heartening for me. I think we are going to be able to see some big changes.… I also love old-timers, but you know, here in Utah, they were raised in a different way and a different environment. Their value systems are a little bit different, less inclusive.

Mehmet Soyer: You have tried to reconstruct the narrative between White and Indigenous populations. Can you talk about your efforts in the community to create solidarity?

That is a great question. Look, in our culture, our elders are the most important commodity we have … in a culture that relies on oral history and oral stories. Our elders are so important to carry the stories that teach our children the values that we have today. When you erase a certain segment of that culture through boarding schools [and] assimilation processes—and you are raising a generation that could have grown up in a different way, with different ways of looking at the world—there is distress there. My grandmother had such a big influence on me. I guess what I can say is the way she taught me through stories she had learned. She was one of the very first generations that began writing these stories down and preserving our history and culture. And when you start doing that, we retain that old way of learning things, and we retain those old stories much better because we are not relying on just storytelling per se. The volumes of literature that we have from my grandmother now really speak to generations. They can read her works and get a feeling for the old traditional ways of our people.

‘Native Americans Can Best Balance Culture and Change’

However, knowing that change is inevitable, I have always been one that believes that the most successful Native Americans today are those who can best balance culture and change. That has been my guiding force going forward is honoring the deep, rich [Native American] culture by realizing that we have got to change a little bit going forward. We cannot rely on the ways of the past to be successful in the future. So, everything I have tried to do is honor the past as much as I can with every fiber of my soul. Since I realized that we live in a changing world today, that is why you see me with different groups. It is important to me that they hear from an Indigenous leader, maybe in a new way, different from the way their grandparents would have heard.… We are not going back to the old ways as much as we would want or celebrate that. That ship has sailed, and so [I ask] what can I do as a Native American leader today to prepare the youth to change and succeed with it? And if I had one thing to say, it would be “education.” Education is the key, and so that is always my focus, and my goal is to make sure that our youth are being educated in a way that can help their people going forward to a better way of life, but still respecting, and honoring the old ways.

Shoshone Falls in southern Utah.

Heidi Hart: Thank you so much. As we finish up here, could you say something about “Seventh Generation” thinking?

I wish the Shoshone Nation could take credit for that kind of thinking, even though I am sure we have that thinking [Editor’s note: the “Seventh Generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future]. The Iroquois People and Iroquois leadership do not make any decision without considering its effects … seven generations ahead. I tell that story because I think one of our leaders took that to heart. If all the legislation they proposed considered the effects on seven generations down the road, would we make the same decisions?

I don’t have any oral history or storytelling about that. All I know from a Shoshone perspective is that we have always considered what effect it would have upon the land, our animal kinfolk, and things going forward. So the “seven generations story” really resonates with me, and I think it resonates with a lot of people about how our stewardship is. When you see populism and nativism and things like that, it is about the here and now. To me, the story is never about the past [either]. We can honor the past and look at it as a way to educate ourselves and to use a measuring stick to see where we are going. But the story is always about the future: “What can we do today to make our future better not only for my kids and me but for our grandkids and great-grandkids?” That should be the message.