TurkishMalaise

The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 6, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0012

 

Author Cengiz Aktar argues that Turkey is witnessed a victory of a non-democratic system—and the majority of society supports this transition. The regime consolidates its discriminatory, oppressive, autocratic politics by gaining the support of non-AKP constituents through the discourse of “native and national.” Thus, the situation in Turkey is not a simple deviation from the norm; it is a more complex socio-political conundrum. In other words, the regime represented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not the reason for but the result of society’s mindset which is a reasonable part of the “Turkish malaise.” 

Reviewed by Hafza Girdap

Power holders claim power through different means such as traditions, religions, ideologies, and economic dynamics. And when these leaders consolidate their power, it becomes a necessity for them to keep that power. They want to eliminate even a tiny risk or threat. Drawing on the strongman concept in The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay Professor Cengiz Aktar highlights the impact of the end of Turkey’s European Union accession process, the return of political Islamism, the Gezi Park protests, and the December 2013 corruption investigation. These milestones mark the authoritarian turn in the Turkish regime, triggering threats that resulted in a crackdown on all opposition—not only political actors but also all dissidents regardless of their affiliations.

Laying out Turkey’s historical roots in the Ottoman Empire, and its fluctuating relations with Europe and the West, Aktar investigates the recent Turkish malaise, touching on these ongoing relations. At the end of the book, readers are provided with the insights of two prominent scholars: a sociologist, Nilufer Gole, and a historian, Etienne Copeaux, both of whom Aktar interviews.

Throughout the book, Aktar theorizes on three striking points to summarize the nature of Turkish authoritarianism. The first aspect is the mass support for the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This support differs from historical examples, including the pre-1950, one-party era. Considering the fact that the AKP administration holds 30 percent of total votes, imposing their discourses, ideologies, and even injustices on the rest of society accommodates the regime’s oppressive nature. 

Secondly, the weakness of Turkey’s institutions plays a significant role in Turkish authoritarianism. The most apparent example is the “Turkish-style” presidential system which has almost no checks and balances. Aktra argues that almost all of Turkey’s institutions—judiciary, law enforcement, even Parliament—bow to the strongman and have become like sub-offices of one man. 

At a “book talk” event I attended, Professor Aktar stated that even in Russia, people are protesting Vladimir Putin and his war crimes. In Turkey, the only people standing up to Erdogan are women’s and feminist movements and those unjustly dismissed by emergency decrees following the supposed July 15th coup attempt. Yet these groups have not been sufficiently and efficiently united to make their voices more powerful. 

The last point Professor Aktar mentions is society’s (non)response to past persecutions, pogroms, and genocide. This, I believe, is where Aktar highlights and supports his proposition of a “Turkish malaise.” Aktar has stated that since such crimes against humanity—including the Armenian genocide—have been “swallowed” by the majority of Turkish society, Turkish authoritarianism has been nurtured and strengthened inherently by not only the leader(s) but also the people. Referring to Hannah Arendt’s theory of the masses, Aktar explains this phenomenon as the regime’s legitimacy, which is formed by the majoritarian constituency.  

Furthering his argument on the impact of mass support, Aktar asserts that Turkey is witnessing the victory of a non-democratic system with which a majority of the society agrees. The regime consolidates its discriminatory, oppressive, autocratic politics by gaining the support of non-AKP constituents, too, through the discourse of “native and national (yerli ve milli).” Thus, the situation in Turkey is not a simple deviation from the norm; it is a more complex socio-political conundrum. In other words, the regime represented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not the reason for but the result of society’s mindset, which is a reasonable part of the “Turkish malaise.” 

In addition to the discussion of the relationship between authoritarianism and society’s content, Aktar also explores the de-westernization process—predominantly through the derailment of the EU accession process. As a well-known expert on EU-Turkey relations, Aktar defines this break as missing a golden opportunity for democratization. “Unmooring” from Europe has strengthened Erdogan’s move towards neo-Ottomanism as well as political Islam. In correspondence with feeding Turkish authoritarianism, institutional collapses due to “undemocratization” have been aggravated since the end of the accession process. This could be interpreted as the “last step towards the West,” one of the chapter titles in the book. The collapse of institutions has also aided Erdogan, allowing him to establish a monolithic, Islamist, nationalist discourse that eventually became an authoritarian regime. The most recent manifestations of Turkey’s dictatorial one-man rule are the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention (which provides protections for LGBTQ+ citizens), and the unconstitutional appointment of a regime-friendly president to Bogazici University, arguably Turkey’s finest university. 

Professor Aktar argues the Turkish malaise as linked to the West’s approach and describes this situation as “between misunderstanding and blind detachment, appeasement and complicity, containment and the fear of seeing this large country implode and disintegrate” (p. 66).

As a gender studies scholar, I would also like to touch on the gendered lens on the issue provided by Professor Nilufer Gole. Professor Gole problematizes the implications of two notions in her discussion: “mahrem” (sacred, private) and “meydan” (public). Even though the debate on the return of political Islam has mostly been based on the headscarf (veil) issue, and despite the regime’s oppressive and subjugating attitude towards women, conservative (pious) women have become more active politically and more visible in modern life, which makes them the “agents of change” in both their private and public lives. In other words, the notions of “mahrem” and “meydan” play a significant role in challenging their implications and realms. Gole describes this paradoxical turn as a challenge to patriarchy with preserved pious agency. “Meydan” also refers to the uprising in Gezi Park, in which masses from different segments of Turkish society protested against the Erdogan regime’s oppressive policies. In both referrals, “meydan” represents a resistance against political Islamist oppression. Gole argues that the “soul of contemporary Turkey” cannot be comprehended without “understanding the manifestations of mahrem and meydan which express both the malaise of modernity and its transcendence.” (p. 85)

To conclude, the Turkish malaise can be ascribed to both domestic issues and foreign relations and embodies immensely complicated concerns. Internally, a vicious correlation between the regime’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies entrenched with nationalistic and political Islamist proxies, and society’s belief in a national will and the notion of Turkey as a “blessed nation”—along with their pathetic contentment with the idea of a strongman—diminishes the chances of revitalizing democracy and democratic institutions. Externally, even if the gates are closed for Turkey to march to the West, “transactional” deals are still on the table, and this dilemma worsens the “malaise” for Europe, since relations relating to security issues and geopolitical necessities (e.g. refugee issues, economic interests, etc.) are still important.


The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay by Cengiz Aktar (Transnational Press London, 2021). 99 pp. £14,50 (Paperback), ISBN: 978-1-80135-076-1

"Father traces from haven" - election poster for Shas, featuring Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Rishon Le Zion, Israel on March 7, 2015.

Religious populism in Israel: The case of Shas

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022). “Religious populism in Israel: The case of Shas.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 30, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0011

 

Abstract

Since the 1990s, populism has become increasingly prevalent in Israeli politics. While scholars and commentators have often focused on the populist rhetoric used by Benjamin Netanyahu, his is hardly the only manifestation of populism within Israel. For example, Shas, a right-wing populist party which seeks to represent Sephardic and Haredi interests within Israel, emerged in the 1980s and swiftly became the third largest party in the country, a position it has maintained since the mid 1990s. Shas is unique insofar as it merges religion, populism, and Sephardic and Haredi Jewish identity and culture. Indeed, Shas is not merely a political party, but a religious movement with its own schools and religious network, and it possesses both secular and religious leaders. In this article, we examine the religious populism of Shas and investigate both the manner in which the party constructs Israeli national identity and the rhetoric used by its secular and religious leadership to generate demand for the party’s religious and populist solutions to Israel’s social and economic problems. We show how the party instrumentalizes Sephardic ethnicity and culture and Haredi religious identity, belief, and practice, by first highlighting the relative disadvantages experienced by these communities and positing that Israeli “elites” are the cause of this disadvantaged position. We also show how Shas elevates Sephardic and Haredi identity above all others and claims that the party will restore Sephardic culture to its rightful and privileged place in Israel.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

Introduction

Populism, once rare in Israel, has become “central to Israeli politics” since the 1990s (Ben-Porat et al. 2021: 6). While Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been identified as a populist who uses religion to define Israeli identity (Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Ben-Porat et al. 2021), the emergence of Shas, a populist and ethno-religious movement, proved that religious populist parties could enjoy political success in the country. Shas possesses the typical features of a right-wing populist party: it is anti-elite, constructs an imagined community (“the people”) based on religious and ethnic identification, and consistently “others” and disparages those who fall outside this community. In this article we explore the religious populism of Shas, which rose from obscure beginnings in the mid-1980s, reached its zenith in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when its leader Aryeh Deri became known as the kingmaker of Israeli politics—and finally declined into a junior coalition partner of the dominant Likud party in the 2010s. We focus, in particular, on its ethno-religious cleaving of society and the manner in which the party generates public demand for its populist agenda. To do this we examine the political rhetoric of Shalom Cohen, a rabbi and spiritual leader of Shas, and party chairman Aryeh Deri and show how their emotional rhetoric plays an important role in creating the atmosphere required for their religious populism to succeed.

Relationship Between Zionism, Judaism, and Populism in Israel

The relationship between Judaism and populism is somewhat different than the relationship between other monotheisms and populism: “the link between the Jewish religion and populism in Israel does not require mediation between religion’s universal and populism’s particular claims, since for Jewish orthodoxy there is an absolute correspondence between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people” (Filc, 2016: 167). Indeed, Israel is the only country in which a majority of citizens identify with Judaism. Moreover, within Israel, national identity is often intertwined with “Jewishness,” a notion which played an important role in the country’s creation and subsequent development.

Israel is a product of the 19th century Zionist movement, which removed itself somewhat from Orthodox Judaism and, influenced by European nationalism, sought to create a nation for the Jewish people. Thus Zionism, and by extension Israel, has always possessed a “Romantic nationalist culture with a strong expressivist dimension; that is, a strong emphasis on self-expression and notions such as authenticity,” at least compared to Orthodox Judaism where “the Torah and God’s commandments are imposed externally on the Jew” (Fischern, 2014). 

By the end of the 19th century, religion and a sense of Jewish spirituality played an important role in the Zionist movement, but the movement was always strongly and predominately nationalist (Hassan, 1988). The rise of Zionism was largely a response to growing anti-Semitism in Europe. Theodor Herzl, an Austrian Jewish journalist, responding to the growing darkness in Europe, lobbied for a Jewish homeland in the hills of ancient Jerusalem (Zion), where settlers from Eastern Europe were already settling after feeling unwelcomed in their European homesteads (Berry & Philo, 2006; Hassan, 1988). Shumsky (2018) notes that Herzl’s vision was a homeland with “cultural–national” aspects, or a kind of “non-Jewish” homeland “for Jews” in the ancient heartland. Prota & Filc (2020) admit that, to a degree, Herzl’s dream remains alive in Israel in the form of the detachment between synagogue and state. However, the authors point out that “Zionism could not completely detach itself from its religious roots, as religion was indispensable as a marker of boundaries and a mobilizing force” (Prota & Filc, 2020). The turbulent events that followed the Ottoman Empire’s collapse left a power vacuum in the Arab peninsula that allowed the Zionist movement to take a more aggressive nationalist stance and begin to create a Jewish state. The early political leadership of the Israeli Labour Party propagated a narrative of self-defence, legitimizing the idea that Zionism meant protecting the Jewish nation from hostile foreign forces (Prota & Filc, 2020). The importance of protecting the Jewish nation oriented early Israeli politics toward nationalism; however, Zionism remained attached to Judaism and “continued to be directed by powerful religious structures” (Prota & Filc, 2020; Raz-Krakotzkin, 2000; Ben-Porat, 2000).

Jewish nationalism in its religious forms has often been a powerful political force in Israel (Pinson, 2021; Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020). While Ashkenazi Zionism has proven the most potent religio-cultural political force in Israel, other forms of religious nationalism exist alongside it—and at times play an important role in Israeli political culture. For example, the Sephardim Shomrei Torah / Sephardi Torah Guardians (Shas), formed in 1984, rooted its populism in religious notions of Jewishness rather than in Zionist nationalism. Shas has consistently sought to represent the interests of Haredi and Sephardic Jews in Israel, relatively disadvantaged groups, and to give them a voice within the Knesset. While Shas has never been able to form a majority government, it became a major force within the Knesset in the 1990s, and although its popularity has since declined, it retains several seats in parliament and regularly forms governing coalitions with larger parties.

Campaign signs for the Israeli government “Shas” party head by Arye Deri, depicting Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, prior to the April 2019 elections in Safed, Israel on March 10, 2019. Photo: David Cohen.

 

Shas’ Religious Populism

Founded in 1984 by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shas, from its beginnings, sought to represent the interests of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, who often felt ignored by mainstream political parties (Knesset Official, 2020; Britannica, 2013). The party thus represented the interests of ethnic Middle Eastern and North African Jews of Israel and Jews who settled in rural areas and who belonged to the ultra-Orthodox Haredi sect (Howson, 2015). As Usher (1998, 35) observes, Shas grew quickly from its beginnings as an “obscure religious movement” in 1984 and became by 1998 “Israel’s third largest political force and the most influential religious party in Israeli politics, a party without which neither Labour nor Likud can govern.”

In 1984, in its first election, Shas won four seats in the Knesset. In 1988, it won six seats, followed by ten in 1996 and 17 in 1999. While the rise of Shas effectively concluded in 1999, it continues to exert influence over Israeli politics despite its declining share of the vote, which has been partly due to party infighting and the jailing of its chairman, Aryeh Deri, on corruption charges and his later resignation from the Knesset due to allegations of tax fraud.

In the post-1999 period, Shas settled into the role of a junior coalition partner in Likud- or Labour-led governments, although it refused to join the Bennett-Lapid rotating government in 2021, maintaining its alliance with Likud and entering the opposition. Throughout the 38 years in which Shas has held seats in the Knesset, the party has attempted to restore the power and prestige of Sephardic culture in Israel and to represent the interests of Sephardic and Haredi Jews, who are fewer in number and more likely to be impoverished than Ashkenazi Jews. At the same time, the party has sought to marginalize LGBTQ+ Israelis, and increasingly supports the aggressive policies of Likud toward Palestinians.

The key to Shas’ ongoing success has been its populist exploitation of key ethnic and religious divides within Israel, particularly the rift between different ethnic and religious elements within the Jewish community, and between the dominant Ashkenazi and the relatively disadvantaged Sephardic community (Howson, 2015). Sephardic and Haredi voters—orthodox and non-orthodox—are often drawn to the party because its leaders speak openly of the plight of Middle Eastern Jews in Israel, who often feel like second-class citizens. Shas’ populism is therefore multidimensional insofar as it dichotomizes society along religious and ethnic lines (Yadgar, 2003; Peled, 1998).

Porat and Filc (2020) describe the core of the party’s populism as being “built around three Manichean oppositions between “us and them”: Sephardic religious versus secular Jews, Mizrahim versus Ashkenazim, and Jews versus non-Jews. For Shas, Jewish religious and national belonging are one, and no national existence is possible for Israel outside religion (Porat & Filc, 2020). Like other populist parties, Shas claims society can be divided between “elites” and “the people.” Elites, according to the party, include secular Jews and the Ashkenazi ethnic group and their political, business, and religious (including the ultra-orthodox) representatives, who are alleged to discriminate against the Mizrahi Jews and prevent them from achieving economic advancement (Porat & Filc, 2020; Filc, 2016; Howson, 2015; Yadgar, 2003; Peled, 1998). Thus, what Taguieff (1995: 32-35) might describe as the vertical dimension of Shas’ populism identifies enemy “others” largely within the Israeli Jewish community.

Shas is opposed to the Europeanised idea of secular Zionism that separates the state and religion, rejects the notion of a “neutral state and a pluralistic society,” and advocates for a Judaism-inspired society where norms are defined by, and notions of “common good” built on, Judaism (Filc, 2016: 173). Thus, rather than simply asserting the primacy of ethnic Jewish identity, Shas promotes the idea of “Israelness” based on a “Sephardic ultra-Orthodox worldview” (Filc, 2016: 176). Curiously, unlike the right-wing Zionist parties such as Likud, Shas shows some sympathy toward Arab Israelis (Porat & Filc, 2020; Filc, 2016). Given their shared ethnic roots in the Middle East, it is understandable that Shas leadership—particularly early in the party’s existence—empathized with the Palestinians’ economic disadvantages. For example, while the party has more recently hardened against the idea of a Palestinian state, earlier the party supported statehood for the Palestinians, and argued that Israeli–Palestinian human lives were more important than a piece of land, and therefore did not initially support the idea of settlements (Porat & Filc, 2020; Filc, 2016).

If Shas has, at times, expressed sympathy for the Palestinians, they have shown little empathy for migrant groups in Israel, particularly Africans. Shas directs its rhetorical attacks on migrants who are ethnically and racially different, such as Africans. The party also opposes the admission of Muslim or Christian asylum seekers into Israeli society (Shafir, 2012). Furthermore, in line with Israel’s right-wing nationalist parties, Shas now advocates for the unification of Jerusalem and opposes the idea of religiously and racially “mixed neighbourhoods” (Filc, 2016: 182; Leon, 2015). These changes in Shas compel Leon (2015) to term Shas as an organization that is part of “an ultra-Orthodox stream of Zionism.”

While a “complete” populist party—insofar as it possesses a vertical anti-elite dimension and a horizontal anti-Muslim, anti-secular, anti-African migrant dimension—these categories are ultimately a blend of complex populist religious inclusions and exclusions (Zúquete, 2107). Filc (2009) describes Shas’ “dynamics” of “inclusion and exclusion” by noting that these are “complex”:

Shas’s claim to Mizrahi inclusion is much more radical than Likud’s, and much more challenging of the mainstream Zionist worldview. At the same time, its ultraorthodox interpretation of Jewish religion makes for a much more exclusionary approach toward non-Jews (whether Palestinians or migrant workers). Shas started its activism at the municipal level as a reaction to the exclusion and segregation of Mizrahim within the ultra-orthodox world. Nonetheless, since its inceptions its growth was fuelled by anger at the exclusion and marginalization of Mizrahim in Israeli society as a whole.

Despite its complex nature and inconsistencies Shas has, since the 1984 elections, been able to secure seats in the Israeli parliament, where it has formed coalitions with both Labour and Likud. Throughout the 2010s, Shas consistently supported Netanyahu, including in the 2021 elections when the party, in coalition with United Torah Judaism (UTJ), used its 9 parliamentary seats to aid Likud (France 24, 2021). Its presence in the previous governing coalitions granted it power outside the Sephardic community, where it used its position to lobby for “increasing the influence of the Jewish religious law in the judicial system and across Israeli society, as well as promoting an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle” (ECPS, 2020). The party’s political survival has often hinged on its willingness to make compromises with its coalition partners. This being so, Shas has no concrete economic policy, but sides at times with the left and at other times with the right, promoting neo-liberal reform at one time and welfarism at another (Porat & Filc, 2020). However, the party has always shared a right-wing worldview on cultural issues which draws it toward the similarly conservative Likud. Thus, its anti-immigration policies and conflation of Zionism with Orthodox Judaism has united religious populism with right-wing nationalism in Israel’s parliament (Filc, 2016; Leon, 2015).

Shas leadership uses religio-cultural dichotomization of society, though one deeply rooted in religion, to selectively include or exclude the disparate elements of Israeli society within its core ingroup. Indeed, religion is very important to the party. Shas’ internal structure gives a central role to the synagogue by maintaining a Sephardi rabbi as its spiritual leader. Shas is, thus, not merely a political party but is also involved in spiritual, education, and welfare work. Working mostly in rural and impoverished towns, the Shas network has founded and funded its own education system governed according to a religious education model called the Maayan Hahinuch Hatorani (Wellspring of Torah Education) (Feldman, 2013). The schools are hubs for the grassroots propagation of Sephardi Orthodoxy and provide a counter to the hegemony of the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox in Israel’s religious education landscape (Davis & Robinson, 2012: 71).

These schools are part of an attempt to restore to the Sephardic community feelings of religious and ethnic pride and to challenge the dominance of European Zionism in Israel (Usher, 1998). The party’s electoral success, however, is the result of its ability to address “the very real social problems of inequality and discrimination facing Mizrahi’s in contemporary Israeli society” (Usher, 1998: 34).

Dome of the rock, temple mount and wailing wall at sunset in Jerusalem, Israel in September 2019.

Shas’ Political Discourse and Emotional Manipulation

Shas’ core message—that the Sephardic community’s poor economic and social position within Israel is not accidental but the result of Ashkenazi and secularist repression—is designed to encourage followers to perceive themselves as “victims” of economic injustice in the form of Ashkenazi economic monopolization and to thus evoke feelings of “resentment” within the Israeli Sephardic ultra-Orthodox community (Sarfati, 2009; Kimmerling, 1999). Thus, the Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews are portrayed by Shas’ leaders as the authentic people of Israel but also as an “oppressed” people who must band together to restore Sephardic culture to “its former glory” (Shalev, 2019). Increasingly Shas’ leaders have encouraged their followers to express resentment toward Arabs, Muslims, and Christians in Israel. Shas’ leadership has often used negative emotions to legitimize its construction of outgroups and to demonize internal and external enemies. At the same time, it has instrumentalized positive emotions—sometimes connected to religion and the divine—to justify its construction of an ingroup (“the people”).

Ovadia Yosef, who founded Shas in 1984, acted as the party’s spiritual leader until his death in 2013. As Shas embraced anti-Arab Muslim and anti-African discourses and policies, Yosef’s rhetoric toward Shas’ designated Israeli outgroups hardened. For example, by 2001 Yosef no longer expressed any sympathy for the plight of Palestinians but instead labelled them “evil, bitter enemies of Israel” and preached that “it is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable” (BBC, 2001). In this sermon, Yosef claimed that Arabs are “murderers” and terrorists and implied that they were the source of the ontological insecurity of the Jewish state (BBC, 2001). He relied on religion to justify his dehumanization of Arab Muslims by claiming that “God should strike them with a plague” and “The Lord shall return the Arabs’ deeds on their own heads, waste their seed and exterminate them, devastate them and vanish them from this world” (Haaretz Service, 2010; BBC, 2001).

Later, the Rabbi backtracked from these statements and said these were only directed at terrorists and not all Arabs (Ettinger, 2010). However, his comments have almost certainly contributed to the legitimization of the use of state violence against Palestinians. The Rabbis in the party also use a news media network to spread the idea of an Arab threat to Israel to further instil fear in their followers. Shas’ newspaper editor, Rabbi Moshe Shafir, for example, believes that the integration of Arabs into the Jewish homeland is “a threat to the institution of marriage, to the decent family” (Shafir, 2012). In making this somewhat strange claim, Shafir attempts to frighten his followers into believing that Arabs pose a threat to the Jewish family, increasing the feelings of ontological insecurity felt by many Israelis and legitimizing their anxieties.

Shlomo Benizri, another Shas politician, stated that “Israel is a nation only through the Torah” and a “sacred homeland” where all non-Jews are not welcome (Porat & Filc, 2020). Part of being Jewish, for Shas, though, is following a “correct” religious lifestyle. Thus, as part of their anti-secular stance, many Shas members have directed hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community. An example of this occurred when a gay youth centre in Tel Aviv was attacked by an orthodox mob, leading to the death of two people and injuries to ten others (Meranda, 2009). This incident took place after a Shas member, Nissim Ze’ev, blamed the gay community for “carrying out the self-destruction of Israeli society and the Jewish people” and went as far as labelling homosexuals “a plague as toxic as bird flu” (Meranda, 2009). Ze’ev distanced himself from the violence, saying he never called for “blood” to be spilled, but he also claimed it is Shas’ “duty” to inform Jewish people about the dangers of homosexuality: “It is our duty in any case to warn against this lifestyle. As far as we are concerned, we must not authorize or recognize it, but this has nothing to do with murder. Murder is the most serious and shocking thing. It’s madness, and the murderer must face trial. There are no doubts whatsoever” (Meranda, 2009).

Israeli minister of Internal Affairs, Arye Deri, attends the “Yosef Daat School Dinner” in Safed, Israel on October 19, 2017. Photo: David Cohen.

Aryeh Deri

Aryeh Deri was an obscure Yeshiva student who rose to political prominence and ultimately became “the kingmaker” of Israeli politics in the 1990s, when his party was able to secure 17 seats in the Knesset (David & Robinson, 2009). Deri was born in a Sephardic community in Morocco but was by the age of five living in Israel. In 1984, he became a founding member of Shas and had a decisive impact on the party, ensuring that it remained grounded in Sephardic ethnicity. Howson (2014: 195), for example, notes that “Deri represented a new form of religious orthodoxy: neither the closed isolationism of the ultra-orthodox nor the religious Zionist/nationalist axis concerned with the territorial expansion of the state. Instead, he was a populist who mixed ethnic pride with a wider language of socioeconomic equality and consensus ‘one nation’ politics that resonated outside of the traditional Shas’s votership.” Deri framed the victimization of Shas’ members and followers as the production of the non-Sephardic domination of politics, religion, and the economy in Israel.

Secular Ashkenazi Jews have been targeted by Deri. It’s a group he perceives to be a liability to “Israeliness” due to their lack of religion. Deri appears to believe that secular Ashkenazi Jews have forgone the ways of the Torah and that their powerful position in society has led to the decline of Jewish culture in Israel. The Mizrahi, on the other hand, are portrayed by Deri as the “real” Jews, with an authentic culture and religious understanding of the Torah. For example, in an interview Deri expressed these ideas, saying, “But why should I be ashamed of being Mizrahi? […] Which tradition did they [Secular Ashkenazi] bring here, the ills of American culture?” (Porat & Filc, 2020).

Deri also embodied the idea that due to their authentic understanding of the Torah, Sephardic Jews have been side-lined in Israeli politics and civil society, thus generating a sense of victimhood and resentment in Sephardic Jews. In an interview, Deri claimed “[Secular Ashkenazis] claim that they are Israeliness. They took over Israeliness, they want to be the ones who determine the agenda for being Israeli. They want to decide what an Israeli has to look like, and anyone who does not adhere to their style and standards is not a ‘true’ Israeli; he is a fanatic, a Mizrahi, a fool” (Ben Hayiim, 2002). Deri, in making these statements, claims that the purity of Mizrahi Judaism is the cause of the oppression of Mizrahi people. Deri also claimed, during the peak of the COVID outbreak in Israel, that waywardness from true Jewish values was the cause of the virus and hinted that it was divine punishment: “God is telling us something.” At the time, 70 percent of the country’s cases were detected in Haredim communities (Times of Israel, 2020).

Adapting to the pressures caused by African immigration to Israel, Deri began to target African migrants in his rhetoric and in his support for anti-African legislation. Shas has supported Likud’s efforts to deport African migrants, who are primarily Muslim and Christian rather than Jewish. Deri, as the country’s Interior Minister, has given the group “two options only: voluntary deportation or sitting in prison” (Beaumont, 2018). Africans are thus framed as a security threat, and right-wing Israelis have at times chanted angry slogans toward Africans such as “Infiltrators, get out of our homes” and “Our streets are no longer safe for our children” (Sherwood, 2012). While Deri does not himself use hateful language toward Africans, he has provided channels to “legitimately” express anger towards the group. There are also reports that Deri lied to Israeli citizens, exaggerating the scale of immigration that was occurring (Eldar, 2018). In his defence, Deri claimed he has “compassion toward them [migrants], but I am responsible for the poor of my city. Little Israel can’t include everyone” (Eldar, 2018). Thus, Deri has moved, when speaking of African immigrants, from a discourse emphasizing Sephardic victimhood, to one which calls for the defence of Israel from invaders. Defending his anti-immigrant stance, Deri remarked, “This is the right policy to ease the suffering of residents in south Tel Aviv and other neighbourhoods where the infiltrators reside […] My duty is to return peace and quiet to south Tel Aviv and many neighbourhoods across the country” (Berger, 2017). This frames Tel Aviv as a capital for those who demonstrate “Israeliness” and where intruders are not welcome.

In line with Shas’s softer stance on Arabs and Palestinians, Deri has shown sympathy toward Arabs. For example, in 2013 he visited Abu Ghosh where a vandalized wall read “Arabs out,” which Deri criticized by saying that it was morally equal to “Jews out” (Ynet, 2013). “This is not a phenomenon within religious Zionism or in the Haredi sector,” Deri said of the vandalization, rather “the people at whom this was directed have lived with us for centuries. They even fought in our ranks” (Ynet, 2013). The presence of Palestinian workers has also been justified by Deri, who remarked that “they [the Palestinians] don’t come to live here in Tel Aviv. Palestinians are the ‘poor of your city’—when they have it better, we’ll have it better” (Eldar, 2018). However, at the same time Shas has also expressed anti-Arab sentiments. In 2017, as Interior Minister, Deri made the decision to strip Alaa Raed Ahmad Zayoud, an Arab Israeli, of his citizenship after he want on a rampage with a knife injuring four people (Wilfor, 2018). Bennett (2017) notes that this step of taking away citizenship of non-Jews citizens is a highly problematic trend in Israel and is used by ultra-Zionists in order to “purify” the land of non-Jews.

Having risen to power, the charismatic Deri, once the “kingmaker” of Israeli politics, was embroiled in a corruption scandal for accepting bribes while he was the Interior Minister. After nearly two years in prison, he was released in 2002. Jail, however, did not end his political career. Deri’s party rallied behind him and denied the bribery accusations and later claimed the conviction was part of an Ashkenazi conspiracy targeting Deri because he was a “rising Sephardic star” (Leon, 2011: 102). This victimhood narrative was used to propagate the idea that secularists and Ashkenazis were again persecuting Shas and the Sephardic community. Deri made a comeback to politics in 2013 and, through Shas’ coalition with Likud, secured significant positions in the government for members of his party. However, when the Likud government lost power in the 2021 elections, Deri and Shas elected to enter Knesset as part of the opposition. In 2022, Deri was forced to leave politics after being accused of tax fraud. 

Shalom Cohen

Rabbi Shalom Cohen assumed Shas’ spiritual leadership in 2014 following Ovadia Yosef’s death. Despite this, Ovadia Yosef remains a key figure whose image is often displayed by the party, and Rabbi Cohen does not enjoy the same esteem or popularity as his predecessor (Hoffman, 2022). Rabbi Cohen is known for his unapologetic stance on Modern Orthodox Judaism and secular Israeli Jews (Ettinger, 2014a; Ungar-Sargon, 2014). A Sephardi himself with links to the Iraqi Jewish community, Cohen is nearing his 90s but maintains a hold on the day-to-day running of the Sephardic community’s religious schools and is involved in spiritually guiding Shas (Ettinger, 2014c). Cohen represents a side of Shas cruder in its religious populism, and less diplomatic and more dogmatic in nature. Unlike Deri, who is a seasoned and pragmatic politician, the rabbi is less accepting of deviations from Sephardic Orthodoxy and openly hostile toward certain migrant groups and Arab Muslims.

The most prominent targets of Cohen’s ire have been the Bayit Yehudi party and Naftali Bennett, the present Prime Minster of Israel. Before rising to power in the Knesset, Bennet was a member of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home Party) and the Yamina coalition of far-right parties, both rooted in Modern Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Cohen opposed Yamina and the Jewish Home, comparing the latter to the “tribe of Amalek,” a people the Torah claims were wiped out by the Israelites (Ungar-Sargon, 2014). Rabbi Cohen’s quarrel with Modern Orthodox Judaism, and the political parties associated with the movement, are the product of the movement’s combining Judaism, Zionism, and a program of secular modernization (Eleff &Schacter, 2016; Singer, 1989). This movement is thus antithetical to Haredi Judaism and its rigid approach to the halakha (Jewish law) and culture. This has led Rabbi Cohen to condemn Modern Orthodox Judaism in extremely negative terms and to criticize the political parties with which it is associated. Soon after assuming the position of Shas’ spiritual leader in 2014, Cohen told followers that the “Bayit Yehudi party is going to hell…God wants us to stay away from them. They will pursue their nonsense. We will pursue our holy Torah” (Ungar-Sargon, 2014). This defensive posture is a clear indication of their drawing a line between the culture and beliefs of the “others” and the correct beliefs of the “pure people.”

Activists of different Israeli political parties agitating to vote for the their party by the elections polling station in Holon, Israel on March 23, 2021. Photo: Roman Yanushevsky.

The long-lasting period of Likud-led coalition governments came to an end in 2021. Having lost their position in a government coalition, Shas’ spiritual leader warned all party members to maintain a distance from the government and urged them to believe in a God of “divine providence.” After the 2021 elections the rabbi warned,

Someone who turns [to the government] to get assistance or [to advance] his interests desecrates God’s name and no blessing will come to him […] There is absolutely no need to turn to the government [for assistance], God will ensure that we will not want from anything (Sharon, 2021).

Cohen further warned party members that the new government was anti-Judaic, claiming that it was a government for uprooting religion and Judaism,” and that Shas must be united to topple “this wicked government” and preserve Judaism and its traditions in the Land of Israel, “for the sake of the pure education of the children of Israel and to strengthen the yeshivas” (Sharon, 2021).

After the sermon the attending Shas MPs vowed that they would “not allow those who denounce us to confuse and divide us with tricks, excuses and different explanations, as if their goal is really to take care of those who fear God” (Sharon, 2021).

In addition to defining Shas’s political direction, the rabbi has been quite active in defining for his followers what is and what is not permitted in Judaism. Cohen’s sermons have thus focused on demonizing the lifestyles and ideological approaches embraced by other orthodox Jewish communities, Zionists, and secularists. He has opposed many aspects of modernity, calling upon young men to avoid smartphone use and instead to use that time to study the Torah; he also warned women not to enter higher education because it is not the “way of the Torah” (The Economist, 2015; Ettinger, 2014b). Rabbi Cohen commanded “women students” to “not even think of enrolling in academic studies in any setting whatsoever” (Ettinger, 2014b). Because Shas adheres to an ultra-orthodox doctrine, their use of internet is presumably limited—nor are there any investigations into this aspect of their discourse (Fader, 2017; Campbell, 2011).

Campbell (2011) suggests that “Fears expressed, primarily by ultra-Orthodox groups, shows religious leaders often attempt to constrain Internet use to minimize its potential threat to religious social norms and the structure of authority,” and the author concludes that this area remains under-researched. An opponent of mainstream Israeli Zionism, Cohen questioned the need for an Israeli army, when it was obvious that “it is God almighty who protects Israel” through the prayers of his supporters (Jerusalem Post, 2014).

In 2021, when over 200 Palestinians were killed in the escalating Gaza conflict, the rabbi met UAE’s ambassador to Israel (New Arab, 2021). During this meeting, in line with the orthodox school of Sephardi theology, Rabbi Cohen referred to the unrest around the Al-Aqsa Mosque by saying, “The issue of the Temple Mount isn’t for us. The Arabs are in charge there” (New Arab, 2021). This is an important point: anti-Arab rhetoric is never expressed by Cohen, suggesting his major enemies are within the Jewish faith and community itself. Thus, his populism is primarily concerned with creating a division not between Jewish people and Arabs, but between his Jews who follow the “correct” form of Judaism—a Judaism rooted in Shas’ understanding of Sephardic culture and its belief systems—and Jews who follow the incorrect form of Judaism. At the same time, Shas is a deeply pragmatic party, and has tempered its populism and challenge to Ashkenazi political and economic power by joining forces with Likud and other parties in coalition governments and supporting much of their legislation.

Conclusion

Shas’ religious populism is based upon religious and ethnic classifications of groups, yet it contains strange tensions and contradictions. At times, Shas constructs an ingroup which includes the entire Jewish population of Israel, especially when the party’s officials claim that African immigrants are a threat to Israeli society, or when Ovadia Yosef called upon Israel to destroy the Palestinians (Filc, 2016; BBC, 2001). Most often, however, the party is very specific about which peoples belong within its ingroup, and which must be excluded. The core members of Shas’ ingroup are the Sephardic community, especially economically disadvantaged Sephardic Jews, and members of the Haredi community. Shas claims that this ingroup represents both the oppressed people of Israel, who suffer under the rule of religious and secular Ashkenazi elites, but also the people who practice Judaism in its pure and correct form. Thus, it is these non-Sephardic “elites” who represent, for Shas, the ultimate “other.”

Arabs and Muslims, while not included within the core ingroup, are rarely—at least under the party’s present leadership—demonized by Shas. Moreover, at times Aryeh Deri has expressed empathy for the Arabs, in whom he appears to see a reflection of the Sephardic people’s weak social and economic position within Israel. In a similar way, Rabbi Shalom Cohen’s major quarrel is not with Muslims or Palestinians but with forms of Judaism and Zionism he believes to be antithetical to the “true” Judaism of his own Haredi community.

Shas’ populism is therefore somewhat enigmatic but may be said to possess a vertical dimension in which an ethno-religious Ashkenazi “elite” is said to be economically and socially dominating “the people” (i.e. the Sephardic and Haredi communities), and a horizontal dimension in which misguided Jews who follow incorrect forms of Judaism, secularists, African immigrants, and sometimes Arab Muslims and Palestinians, are portrayed as threats to the “true” Judaism represented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

For Shas, Israel is not merely a nation-state in which many Jewish people live. It is a sacred land which ought to be run according to authentic Jewish laws and customs. Secularism and modern Orthodox Judaism are antithetical, according to Shas, to the “true” Judaism which the party represents—and therefore must be opposed. Moreover, Shas “is not beholden to mainstream ideas of ‘Israeliness’ defined by ‘secular European Zionism,’ but is rather closer to the ‘Sephardic ultra-Orthodox worldview’” (Filc, 2016: 176). Thus, the party’s leaders sometimes express scepticism of national anthems, national armies, and anything which comes out of modern secular nationalism rather than Sephardic Jewish traditions. And Shas’ goal of “Restoring the Crown—of the Torah—to its Ancient Glory” presupposes the destruction of secular nationalism in Israel and its replacement with (Sephardic) Jewish religious nationalism. Ultimately, though, Shas is a pragmatic party happy to work with Likud and other Ashkenazi-dominated Zionist parties in the Knesset and to pass their legislation when in power.

Shas demonstrates a unique case of a well synchronized relationship between a political party and the synagogue, which together have constructed a religious populism. Religion, above all, gives Shas’ leaders the power to evoke dangerous and powerful emotions in their followers. Shas’ leaders attempt to evoke negative feelings in followers by using scriptural references to attack secularists and adherents of modern Orthodox Judaism, portraying them as impure followers of an incorrect religious doctrine antithetical to authentic Judaism. Deri and Cohen portray secular Ashkenazi “elites” as the enemies of the Sephardic community and tell their followers that they are oppressed and kept poor because these “elites” despise their religious views and identity. The Sephardic and Haredi communities are thus encouraged to feel a sense of victimhood and to believe that their enemies are conspiring to keep them impoverished. This sense of victimhood is then further used to legitimize Shas’ rhetoric and policies. Ashkenazi secularists, in particular, are held to be a danger to not merely the Sephardic community but to Israel itself because they do not trust in God; instead, they put their faith in armies and weapons.

Modern Orthodox Judaism, too, according to Rabbi Cohen, is a danger to Israeli society. He claims that the new Naftali Bennett-led Israeli government is attacking Judaism, and that therefore Shas must oppose his evil government at every turn. At the same time, Deri portrays African immigrants—most of whom are Christian or Muslim—as a threat to Israeli society as a whole and demands their eviction from the country. In exaggerating the threat posed by Africans, Deri seeks to create a sense of fear in his followers and to convince them that they face an immigration crisis which has the potential to destroy Israel’s economy. It is important to note that while there is an ethno-religious aspect to Deri’s call for the expulsion of (non-Jewish) Africans from Israel, his primary justification for his anti-immigrant policies is that African immigrants are bad for the Israeli economy and a major source of violent crime. In other words, being non-Jewish is not the primary reason Deri calls for Africans’ expulsion from Israel.

While Shas’ present leadership choose not to demonize Palestinians in their respective discourses, the party’s alliance with Likud and past comments by Rabbi Yosef indicate an underlying hostility to the Palestinian people. Yosef sought to encourage feelings of hate toward Palestinians among his followers in order to justify Israeli military action in Gaza and the West Bank. Rabbi Moshe Shafi, editor of Shas’ newspaper, even claimed that Arab Israelis were somehow a threat to the Jewish family, an attempt to create a sense of fear and panic in supporters which might justify his exclusionary rhetoric. Shas, therefore, at times supports and at other times demonizes Arabs. When demonizing them as intruders or terrorists, Shas’ leaders seek to use the Arab “threat” to create a sense of fear and crisis in their followers; conversely, when showing sympathy for Arabs they seek to use them as yet another example of Ashkenazi secular-nationalist oppression.

Equally, LBGTQ+ Israelis are portrayed by Shas’ leaders as deviants who pose a threat to Israel and the Jewish way of life and must therefore be feared and despised. This language has led indirectly to violence and murder, which demonstrates the power and significance of Shas’ emotional rhetoric and the party’s ability to evoke feelings of fear and rage in their supporters. While Shas demonizes its enemies, it portrays its supporters as a virtuous community that represents the true Judaism and seeks to restore Sephardic pride and power within Israel. In doing so, it attempts to evoke feelings of pride and self-righteousness within its key constituencies, which can be instrumentalized when Shas seeks to mobilize its supporters.

Since its high point in 1999, Shas has consistently failed to increase its share of the vote and struggles to win more than eight or nine seats in the Knesset. Unable to appeal beyond the Sephardic and Haredi communities, it has largely accepted its role as a junior partner in Likud-dominated coalitions or in opposition. Despite this, the party continues to rely on a populist appeal to its key religio-ethnic constituency to galvanize support and maintain its position in the Knesset. And despite another scandal engulfing Deri, it is likely that a large number of his supporters will interpret Deri’s removal from parliament as further proof that Israel’s “elites” are all too eager to persecute Haredi and Sephardic Jews.


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Anti-vaccine activists protest outside Governor Andrew Cuomo's official residence in Albany, New York on June 14, 2020. Photo: Wirestock Creators.

The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic 

Wolf, Maximilian. (2022). “The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. March 9, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0011

 

Paolo Gerbaudo’s Great Recoil presents a timely, wide-ranging and perspicacious, yet focused and detail-attentive summary of the present political conjuncture leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, an incisive prognosis of the political terrain of the years that will follow it and offers a bold new approach to combating the illiberal populist discourse plaguing the West today — while laying the groundwork for the progressive transformations that need to replace it. 

Reviewed by Maximilian Wolf*

The Covid-19 pandemic has not been an easy time to be a populist. Those in power, whether it is Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Boris Johnson in the UK, quickly demonstrated the dangerous insufficiencies of populist governance — from corrupt PPE deals to unsubstantiated accusations against China and the peddling of dangerous conspiracy theories. Those still vying for influence in their respective democracies, meanwhile, were forced to change tactics as lockdown measures proved, overall, popular in most Western countries and new alliances with the ‘anti-vax’ crowd made for some strange bedfellows. 

Today, two years from its onset, the pandemic has ushered in some significant and lasting changes in populist discourse throughout the world; populist popularity has largely stabilized — Johnson and Bolsonaro, though weakened, remain in power, Trump lost his election but still received well over 74 million votes (the second highest tally ever, behind Biden’s 81 million) — but their reputation has, on the whole, been lastingly damaged by record case and death numbers, fiscal mismanagement and alarmist discourse regarding vaccines that has struggled to mobilize more than the most conspiratorial among their followers. For all its damage, Covid seems to have provided democracies with an overdue booster shot of healthy skepticism towards populist politics. 

The flipside of this coin, however, is that global politics (not least since the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces) have remained in a state of prolonged crisis — and crises breed populists. The political landscape, especially in the liberal West where two years of strict distancing measures and curfews were met with the greatest resistance, has been irrevocably altered by Covid-19; unaccustomed to such degrees of political uncertainty, the ground remains rife for the populist seed to sprout. As Dr. Aline Burni noted on a recent panel for ECPS: “The impact of the pandemic [on populism] has not been homogeneous,” adding that prolonged crisis can “create new conditions and open up new discursive opportunities for populists.”

In The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic (Verso, 2021), Paolo Gerbaudo of King’s College London has put forth a perspicacious and timely new take on what this post-Covid political landscape in the West might look like. His “diagnostic of the present” (Gerbaudo, Loc 105)[1] examines the most critical ideological shifts that characterized the ‘populist moment’ of the last decade, and how these currents will shift as we feel the aftershocks of the pandemic. In so doing, he not only introduces an intriguing new vocabulary to elucidate those macroscopic transformations that precipitated the rise of the populist wave of the 2010s but speculates on how the pandemic might — or might not — alter their course in the coming years. 

Gerbaudo’s core contention is that the era of unchallenged hegemony of the neoliberal consensus is over: already weakened and slowed down by successive crises, diminishing growth and growing disillusionment among working class voters throughout the West, the pandemic has brought the centrifugal, expansive tendencies of globalized capitalism to a grinding halt, triggering in its place a centripetal impulse, a reorientation inwards and the return of what he calls a “protective neo-Statism” (Gerbaudo, Loc 101) — Covid as a watershed moment, the birth of a new hegemonic era of endopolitics (Gerbaudo, Loc 179).

The Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant, heretofore unseen emergency measures mobilized in response to it — from closed borders to huge financial interventions as businesses faltered and millions were furloughed, to massive expansions of nation-state powers to control, track and surveil its citizens — constituted the perfect storm for the already embattled exopolitics of Western neoliberalism. Gerbaudo however explicitly affirms that, while Covid provided the “tipping point,” (Gerbaudo, Loc 764) the resonance of such inward-looking, nationalistic, and security-centered discourses has been steadily growing over at least the past decade — one need looks no further than the immensely successful slogan to ‘Take Back Control’ championed by the Brexit campaign years before the pandemic. While the growing salience of ‘illiberal’ and anti-globalization discourse is nothing new, Gerbaudo approaches it from a phenomenological angle, as he defines this era of the ‘Great Recoil’ as one characterized, above all, by a state of “global agoraphobia” (Gerbaudo, Loc 1129). This agoraphobia — the fear of open spaces — was already the driving force behind the endopolitical impulse which found its expression in the global popularity of authoritarian and nativist populist discourse. 

As this agoraphobia is experienced, it manifests itself in the three triadic ‘master signifiers’ that, in Gerbaudo’s view, already anchor and delimit the endopolitics of the Great Recoil: sovereigntyprotection and control (Gerbaudo, Chapters 3, 4 and 5). He dives deep into the origin, genealogy and contemporary inflection of each of the three terms over the course of three chapters, and outlines their relation to the current sociopolitical conjuncture, arguing that, so far, only the populist right has effectively moulded its discourse to match this neo-Statist impulse. 

Whether it is Brexit, Le Pen, Salvini, or Trump: Gerbaudo locates the origin of their recent popularity in their ability to recognize the growing salience of endopolitical (or anti-exopolitical) discourse and articulate it in reference to an excluded “Other” — be it immigrants, the European Union or the ‘cabal.’ In line with the recent ‘affective turn’ in the literature on populism, Gerbaudo thus views populist popularity as in large part determined by their ability to inflect their discourse in relation to the master signifiers that emerge out of collective emotional experiences; in the era of global agoraphobia, the discourse promising to ‘take back control,’ re-establish borders and protect its citizens proved a powerful discursive tool, particularly among working-class voters and those who felt left behind by the liberal exopolitics of the last 50 years. 

Importantly, however, it must be borne in mind that these master signifiers are not a priori reserved for right-wing, exclusionary discourse: populist left actors, like Syriza or Podemos in Europe — and albeit nowhere near as successfully as its counterpart — have also managed to penetrate a largely similar bloc of alienated voters employing a globalization-critical and anti-capitalist discourse surrounding economic and social security and democratic control — in Gerbaudo’s terms, a “socialism that protects” (Gerbaudo, Loc 267). Although the content of their endopolitics differs strongly, both have tapped into the same rising disillusionment with the globalized exopolitics of the neoliberal center while articulating their resistance in different ways. In this view, the populist moment was just the democratic expression of this growing agoraphobia related to the demand for sovereignty, protection, and control, with different populisms simply representing differing ways of inflecting this “neo-statist trinity” of signifiers within the same social context (Gerbaudo, Loc 4203).

For Gerbaudo, this presents an opportunity. Looking to the future, the second half of his book applies its discourse analysis to develop strategic insights for a progressive politics in the neo-statist era of the Great Recoil. The centripetal impulse, cemented by the ‘return to the nation-state’ we have witnessed throughout the pandemic, is here to stay; rather than rejecting national politics out of hand — as the orthodoxy of internationalist progressivism has largely maintained — Gerbaudo’s final chapter aims to re-situate the question of the nation within the progressive discourse of tomorrow. He argues for a “progressive reclaiming” of nationalist terminology as a way to hegemonically combat its capture by the right-wing ethno-nationalist imaginary (Gerbaudo, Loc 3795). Although his notion of a “democratic patriotism” as a way to “overcome the false opposition” between modern cosmopolitanism and a retrograde nationalism remains opaque, Gerbaudo makes a strong and convincing case for a deepening and reinvigoration of democratic processes and the re-articulation of the nation as a “protective structure” as the means of embedding the master signifiers of protection, sovereignty and control at the heart of a progressive discourse suited for the challenges of the post-Covid era (Gerbaudo, Loc 4000).

Overall, Gerbaudo’s Great Recoil presents a timely, wide-ranging and perspicacious, yet focused and detail-attentive summary of the present political conjuncture leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, an incisive prognosis of the political terrain of the years that will follow it and offers a bold new approach to combating the illiberal populist discourse plaguing the West today — while laying the groundwork for the progressive transformations that need to replace it. 


The Great Recoil: Politics after Populism and the Pandemic by Paolo Gerbaudo (Verso, 2021). 288 pp. £13,59 (Hardback), ISBN: 9781788730501 


(*) Maximilian Wolf, MPhil, is an intern at the European Center for Populism Studies. Maximilian was born and raised in Vienna, Austria. After receiving his BA in Politics at the University of Exeter (UK), he completed his MPhil in Political Sociology at St. Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge (UK). His work has focussed on discourse analyses of both right- and left-wing populist phenomena, and an abridged version of his Master’s thesis, entitled Locating the Laclausian Left: Progressive Strategy and the Politics of Anxiety, has been accepted for publication in issue 3/2022 of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Populism (forthcoming). Besides ECPS, Maximilian now works for a governance think-tank in Vienna. Beyond populism, he is passionate about health and fitness, rugby, chess and science fiction. 


[1] Gerbaudo’s book is, at the time of writing, only available in eBook format; the present review will therefore have to rely on Kindle ‘locations’ in place of page numbers.

A young African woman hugging a white northern woman after a protest. Photo: Sabrina Bracher.

Nice White Ladies: The Truth about White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It 

In her book, Jessie Daniels deconstructs whiteness and scrutinizes individuals’ contributions to and relationships with it, making “Nice White Ladies” an excellent work of literature for those who understand that the practice of anti-racism cannot be disentangled from self-work. However much one may already know about the subject matter, Daniels’ confronting, academic, and personal approach will surely provide her readers with fresh insights.    

Reviewed by Shirin Ananda Dias*

In her book “Nice White Ladies,” Jessie Daniels deconstructs white womanhood and details how it is historically and culturally linked to the inter-generational perpetuation of everyday, systemic, and institutional racism by white women in both the United Kingdom (UK) and, most notably, in the United States (US). Both by drawing on existent literature on race, gender, cultural and blackness studies and by giving detailed ethnographic and personal examples, Daniels details how white women – often with good intentions – contribute to the cycle of racism and demonstrates their complicity in the infliction of everyday micro-aggressions on communities of color. 

Although the book is largely a cultural critique, it also serves as a “self-help book” for those seeking to break free from the toxic chains of whiteness, which inflict pain and suffering not only upon BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color), but also upon white women and their families, through generational guilt and self-destructive defense mechanisms transmitted throughout decades. The book’s six chapters take the reader through Daniels’ personal and academic journeys, zeroing in on her experiences with white womanhood and racism throughout her life and academic career. She furthermore provides the reader with alternative constructive modes of ‘being white’ in a diverse and multicultural society.

In the first chapter of the book Daniels places white womanhood in historical context and lays bare, through a cultural and historical lens, how and why white women often feel threatened by and entitled to protection from the ‘other.’ Without vilifying the ‘Karens’ of today’s society, Daniels details how their (sometimes subconscious) feelings of white supremacy, entitlement to protection, and (lethal) power over the ‘other’ are surviving legacies of the colonial period. Within white supremacist society, black men were often lynched to protect white women –the underlying sentiment has survived through generations, resulting in instances of modern-day women weaponizing their white womanhood by using police and law enforcement against BIPOC. Daniels hereby demonstrates and emphasizes how white women’s actions perpetuate colonial cultural legacies to this day, and how they are consequently beneficiaries of colonialism and slavery.

In chapter two, Daniels illustrates how white feminists on both the left and right of the political spectrum tend to perpetrate and exacerbate racial inequalities through their supposedly universal and neutral feminist activism. From the pink pussy hats to the #metoo movement and other movements aiming for women’s liberation and “equal representation, compensation and power in the public sphere as men” (Daniels, 2021: 86), Daniels shows that these movements for women’s rights are far from universally inclusive. On the contrary, these feminist movements tend to engage in gender-only, (neoliberal) feminism that is oblivious to white privilege, race, and institutionalized racism (as well as other relevant intersections). Daniels therefore criticizes so-called liberal feminists on their lack of intersectionality and calls for the inclusion of critical race theory in feminist activism with the objective of the liberation of all women.

In chapter three, “The Shallow Promise of the Wellness Industry,” Daniels shows how women are targeted by all sorts of ‘self-care’ trends – clean eating, skincare products, yoga, mindfulness – which promise fulfillment and inner peace in a capitalist society.  In one sense, these trends are shallow in their failure to deliver true fulfillment; in fact, their intertwinement with the capitalist system ensures that fulfillment is ever out of reach. Daniels, however, focuses on a different source of shallowness: namely, that purveyors of the wellness industry create white-only spaces, and construct a specific normative identity, namely the white-hetero-lady who is in need of care. In creating and orienting itself around this identity, the wellness industry excludes communities of color and obscures the reasons for their struggles. Wellness is portrayed as a product for consumption, instead of something that is contingent upon larger structural issues like systemic racism and poverty.  Daniels also touches upon the wellness industry’s self-help books and criticizes renowned authors such as Brené Brown, for her work’s blindness to whiteness and white-shame, and Eat-Pray-Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, for romanticizing her soul-seeking journey to India without reflecting upon the white privilege that afforded her the means leave everything behind, travel, and ‘find herself.’ 

Chapters four and five discuss identity and kinship. In chapter four, “Love and Theft,” Daniels investigates the psychological and cultural reasons behind certain white women’s appropriation of BIPOC identities. Here Daniels discusses the women like academics Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug. She argues that it is the underlying emptiness that resides in whiteness, and, furthermore, white guilt, which drive white women to appropriate non-white identities, so that they can be seen and heard, or to deal with the psychological trauma of being white. Daniels furthermore details how white women, through ‘blackfishing’ or appropriating indigenous Cherokee identities, become the beneficiaries of policies like affirmative action, whereby their successes rest on the backs of those communities who need those policies most. 

Not all white women deal with whiteness and white guilt in the same way as the Rachel Dolezals of the world. Daniels shows how many white women engage in white saviorism in order to assuage their white guilt. An example she discusses is the adoption of BIPOC children by white families, where an undercurrent of white saviorism can perpetuate microaggressions towards communities of color, with the indirect message being that white mothers are more capable of motherhood. As is furthermore shown in the chapter “Protecting White Families,” white women often engage in practices that benefit white families and disadvantage communities of color, by raising their adopted children in a “color blind”, household, rather than a “color aware” one, thereby implicitly downplaying racism’s existence. One’s own contribution to and participation in cyclical institutionalized racism and racial segregation often goes unnoticed; well-meaning and protective mothers, who accumulate wealth within their white families and shield their children from education in multi-racial settings, which Daniels coins as the “new Jim Crow,” seem unaware of the implications of their actions. In all examples, from white women physically protecting their homes with guns from Black Lives Matter demonstrators to those well-meaning women who accumulate wealth and education for their white families, Daniels emphasizes and illustrates how white families are “one of the most powerful forces of reproducing white supremacy” (Daniels, 2021: 193). 

In the last chapter, “The Lie that is Killing All of Us,” Daniels details, through myriad examples of mental health cases (including her own mother’s), how whiteness not only poses a lethal threat to communities of color, but, even more so, how it threatens white communities. She argues that although white people are the beneficiaries of white supremacy (in that they have, for example, greater access to healthcare than communities of color do), white communities are also plagued by higher rates of depression than communities of color, and increasing addiction, mortality, and suicide rates. Daniels illustrates how nice white ladies suffer under the burden of white guilt. Building on this, Daniels illustrates the impact white guilt has on the individual and collective health of white people and communities. In this vein, Daniels demonstrates how feelings of emptiness – inherent to whiteness – are often the root cause for infliction of harm of others, and for self-destructive behavior. 

In the concluding section, Daniles refers back to previous chapters and provides the reader with detailed methods to develop an alternate, more constructive and justform of whiteness and white womanhood. Jessie Daniels herself strives to be “white without going white, to not take up all the space, to swerve away from the supremacy of whiteness” (Daniels, 2021: 234). The suggested liberators methods include, for example, rethinking social relationships with people who actively participate in the oppression of BIPOC, giving agency to women of color, and being their accomplice in dismantling white supremacy, amongst many other suggestions.

A potential critique of the book is that certain argumentations rather reductionist, such as Daniels’ proclamations that the Kardashians’ cultural appropriation derives from their white guilt, or that the suicide of a white health worker during COVID-19 was motivated by the burden of white survival guilt. This is where Daniels draws hasty conclusions and appears to disregard the complexity of the human psyche despite her background in critical social psychology. Although I concur that there lays trauma in whiteness, not all behavior is necessarily attributable to whiteness and its discontents. 

Despite this criticism, the book does insightfully deconstruct whiteness and scrutinizes individuals’ contributions to and relationships with it, making “Nice White Ladies” an excellent work of literature for those who understand that the work of anti-racism cannot be disentangled from self-work. However much one may already know about the subject matter, Daniels’ confronting, academic, and personal approach will surely provide her readers with fresh insights.  It is a work that I would highly recommend to both academics and laymen seeking to understand the complexities of white womanhood and racism. I would especially recommend the book to white women, as no matter how “woke” one might be, there might be a “Nice White Lady, whether big or small, in all of us.


Jessie Daniels, Nice White Ladies: The Truth about White Supremacy, Our Role in It, and How We Can Help Dismantle It, Seal Press, 2021, 304 pp., $28, ISBN: 9781541675865


(*) Shirin Ananda Dias is an alumna of SOAS university London, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Social Anthropology. Her two main regions of academic interest are the Middle East and South Asia, where she indulges in political anthropology focusing on ethnic and religious nationalism and populism in the broader framework of globalization and contemporary international relations. She is currently enrolled in the MA program “Social and Cultural Anthropology” at the University of Amsterdam where she is finishing writing her master dissertation on the expression of Hindu nationalism in right wing Hindu nationalist Facebook groups during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


PTI Chairman, Imran Khan talking with parents of student who killed in Taliban attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar, Pakistan on December 22, 2014. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Military and Populism: A Global Tour with a Special Emphasis on the Case of Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2022). “Military and Populism: A Global Tour with a Special Emphasis on the Case of Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 1, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0010

 

Abstract

Although populism has become a focus of research in the last decade, there hasn’t been much academic work on how militaries around the world have reacted/acted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to 1970s. Given that populism was largely understood in the context of left-wing politics, with the rise of right-wing populism, the literature on the military and populism needs to be advanced by studying the relationship between right-wing populism and the military. This article aims to address this gap by looking at the right-wing populism case study of Pakistan, where the military has actively participated in the rise of a religious populist leader. To situate the case study within the larger literature of the military and populism, the dynamics and history of military associations with populism and populist leaders are revisited in the article’s first part.

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja M. Ali Saleem

Introduction

Even though a lot has been written about populism and its relationship with numerous institutions of the state, the link between current populism(s) and the military remains mostly unexplored (see for recent exceptions, Yilmaz and Saleem, 2021; Hunter and Vega, 2022). This article addresses that gap, giving a brief overview of the relationship between the military and populism. Populism and left- and right-wing populisms are explained in the first part of this article. In the second part, different relationships between the military and populism are explored. The final part gives a brief historical summary of how the Pakistani military helped Prime Minister Imran Khan’s populist party win elections against all odds in 2018 and has since helped govern the country.

What Is Populism?

Global politics is increasingly divided between “the people” who are galvanized against “the elite” and the “other.” As populist leaders and parties exploit these divisions based on religion, ethnicity, nationality, and other socio-political constructs, societies are becoming are fractured (Moffitt, 2016; Mudde, 2010; Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008; Laclau, 2005). In the past, the concept was understood as something unique to Latin American politics, where left-wing populism predominated from the 1930s to the 1980s (Hawkins, 2010; Weyland, 2001). Even when there were populist leaders in other regions, they were rarely called or recognized as populists.

As populism rose in the twenty-first century, it has often been used as a right-wing narrative; some of the past explanations and theories were no longer useful. During the first two decades of this century, hundreds of articles have been written on how to define populism and attempting to understand what facilitates and maintains it.

The wave of Islamophobia post-September 11, increasing instability in the Middle East, and the resulting migration crises have led to populist ideas filtering into politics. In Europe, the Five Star Movement in Italy has vehemently opposed immigration and has repeatedly expressed its concerns with Islam (Fieschi, 2019; Mosca & Calderoni, 2012; Casertano, 2012). Its right-wing agenda has caught the increasing attention of many: the movement presents itself as the legitimate “volonté générale” of the true and pure Italian “people” against the “intruders.”

In a similar fashion, secular India—the world’s largest democracy—and its multicultural traditional is under increasing threat from the “saffron tide” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Saleem et al, 2022). The BJP government has used the populist ideological approach to divide the country based on religious lines: “the people” are Hindus and “the others” are Muslims and Christians (Hameed, 2020; Hansen, 1999). 

As populism is a thin ideology, it can partake in both left-wing and right-wing ideas. Populist leaders attack the “corrupt elite” from both left and right. Their plans and policies can be a messy blend of left-wing and right-wing—and at times contradictory—ideas. The following section gives a brief overview of left-wing and right-wing populism.

Street posters in commemoration of the General Juan Domingo Peron death in Buenos Aires, Argentina on June 30, 2019. Photo: Alexandr Vorobev.

Left-wing Populism   

Left-wing populism casts the “elites” as “the others” who have illegitimately seized power from “the people.” Left-wing populists want to return power to “the people” and re-balance society (Moffitt, 2016: 12-3). In practice, their policies differ from classical Marxists or socialists. Left-wing populists are closer to the concept of “populist socialism,” a hybrid of five elements: radical nationalism; a radical mood; populism; anti-capitalism; and a moderate form of socialism (Martin, 2012).

Earlier agrarian movements organically faded away in the early twentieth century. It was not until the rise of the left wing in the twentieth century that the term populism was extensively explored. Latin America, in particular, underwent a rapid political transformation and saw the rise of populist governments and dictatorships. A blend of style, ideology, strategy, and discourse was used by populist leaders, such as Júan Peron in Argentina, Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador, and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre in Peru, to gain popularity. With the help of personal charisma combined with the rhetoric of anti-elitism, these leaders amassed a huge amount of public support. Latin American politics was thus known as “populist”—gaining the support of “the people” by harbouring feelings of “popular resentment against the order imposed on society by a…ruling class which is believed to have a monopoly on power, property, breeding, and culture” (Shils, 1956: 100-101).

Left-wing populists gained prominence in twentieth-century Latin America, but they were not limited to the Western hemisphere, and many leaders in Asia and Africa adopted populist rhetoric and policies (Young, 1982). Many populist leaders of that era, such as Kwame Nkrumah, are still revered in their countries today. With the help of personal charisma and anti-elite rhetoric, which was directed at not only local elites but also international elites (Western governments and international companies primarily controlled by the West), these leaders became very popular. Neo-colonialism was regularly arranged by these leaders, and anti-globalization was part of the African and Asian left-wing populist repertoire.

With the fall of the communist bloc in the 1990s, both Marxism and left-wing populism saw a decline in popularity. There was the gradual, widespread acceptance of liberal democracy and neo-liberal economics.

Populism—on the left but especially the right—would return in the first decade of the 21st century. March and Mudde (2005) term this new surge in populism as “social populism,” a doctrine rooted in principles of “correct” and “fair” class politics and that seeks to establish an egalitarian society that is for the “proletarian” and has elements of “anti-elitism.” The “social populist” movement found support following the global financial crisis of 2008 when it emerged along with various other political movements that sought to “fix” the “broken” system (Augustin, 2020: 5-6; Gandesha, 2018). The new wave of left-wing populists is democratic, unlike its twentieth-century predecessors, yet it uses similar ideological strategies, discourses, and style.

Right-wing Populism

At the opposite end of the spectrum, global politics is undergoing a surge in right-wing populism. As opposed to its left-wing form, right-wing populism is rooted in ideas of “the pure,” religious “righteousness,” “nativism,” and a “sacred” right to “native” land (Haynes, 2020; Lobban et al. 2020; Röth, Afonso & Spies, 2017). “The people” increasingly feel it is their right to protect their culture and values from the “others.” These “others” are a wide variety of groups, based on ethnicity, language, race, religion, etc. For instance, in Central Europe, people who believe European civilization is a “Christian civilization” view Muslims as a threat, “outsiders” who are unable and/or unwilling to integrate. Haynes (2020:1) points out, “As Muslims are not capable, so the argument goes, of assimilating to European or American norms, values, and behaviour, then they must be excluded or strongly controlled for the benefit of nativist communities. Right-wing populists in both the USA and Europe pursue this strategy because they see it as chiming well with public opinion at a time of great uncertainty, instability, and insecurity.”

Along with this “Christian” civilizational, right-wing populist ideology—with Muslims as the outsiders—right-wing populists also sometimes engage in anti-Semitism and misogyny, are staunchly anti-immigrant, homophobic, and anti-EU and anti-globalization (Haynes, 2020; Lobban et al. 2020; Röth, Afonso & Spies, 2017). Thus, the discourse is built on a distrust of “outsiders” who are not part of the “true” culture.

Former US President Donald Trump entered the White House with the help of this right-wing populism. Trump’s brand of populism heavily relies on notions of Judeo-Christian—although unlike his running mate, Mike Pence, he did not clearly identify with the dominant and deep-seated emotions in the Bible Belt and beyond. He has constantly supported the idea of a Judeo-Christian civilization and has shown an aversion to “others”—even, paradoxically, including Mexican immigrants who are mostly Christians (Hosey, 2021; Mudde, 2021; Espenshade, 2020). The January 6th attack on the US Capitol has shown Trump’s encouragement of and tolerance for domestic far-right terrorist groups that are part of a radical right in America (Mudde, 2021).              

Beyond Europe and the Western world, right-wing populists have also prospered and even gained power in Asia and Africa. Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has used a right-wing ensemble of Hindu nationalism and populism for over two decades and has essentially altered the social fabric of India (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017: 184; Saleem et al, 2022). During Modi’s first and second tenure as Prime Minister, the Hindutva ideology—and Modi’s populism—engulfed not only the politics, but also the psyche, of Indian society. From revoking the autonomy of Indian-held Kashmir to instigating security forces’ violence against student protestors across India to the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Modi-led BJP has used Hindutva and populism to engulf the brains and bodies of ordinary Hindus (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Saleem et al, 2022). Next door in South Asia, Imran Khan has also used Islamist populism (Shakil and Yilmaz, 2021) —and the power of the military (to be discussed in detail later)—to gain power in Pakistan. He invites people to a new Pakistan that is a modern version of Prophet Muhammad’s state, called the Riyasat-e-Madina.

Beyond ideology and discourse, right-wing populism has also been used in a performative sense as a style and as a strategy. Modi’s use of the sacred saffron colour, Khan’s habit of carrying around prayer beads, Trump holding the Bible before ordering peaceful protesters to be shelled with tear gas, and Erdogan’s habit of crying while reciting the Qur’an are various strategy- and style-based right-wing populist tactics to evoke propitious, favourable emotions in “the people.” 

The divisional lines between right- and left-wing populism are not always clear cut. For instance, the idea of anti-elitism can also be espoused by any populist. Leaders such as Modi and Erdogan have been using their humble beginnings to position themselves as a voice or of the common, working-class people. Thus, Erdogan calling himself a Black Turk (as opposed to an elite White Turk) and Modi referring himself as a chaye wala (tea seller) are symbolic gestures to highlight their working-class roots and deep relationship with an average Turkish or Indian citizen (Sen, 2019).

On the other hand, Mette Frederiksen and her party, the Social Democrats, in Denmark are proponents of left-wing values such as strong welfarism. Yet, in recent years, even when in power, the party has taken an anti-immigration stance which is traditionally a right-wing policy (Al Jazeera, 2019; Nedergaard, 2017). The party justifies its move by rationalizing, “As Social Democrats, we believe that we must help refugees, but we also need to be able to deliver results in Denmark via local authorities and for the citizens. […] We have therefore been tightening asylum rules and increased requirements for immigrants and refugees. And we will continue to pursue a tight and consistent asylum policy, which makes Denmark geared to handling refugee and migratory pressures” (Nedergaard, 2017). 

The Military and Populism

While populism is largely a political ideology, when institutional boundaries are weak, the military can fall prey to populism, too. Some characteristics of populism endear the military to it while others make the military oppose it. Military men and women, being part of a bureaucracy and an institution working under strict rules and regulations, often dislike political manoeuvring and manipulation; they may be drawn to populists who commonly talk in simple, straight language and are not ready to spare those who they think are enemies of the nation. Although populist leaders do make deals and change their opinions based on what is politically feasible (such as Trump’s change of opinion about abortion), they project themselves as straight shooters, not politicians. This apparent dislike for political expediency is also appealing.

However, there are also many points of disagreement between the military and populists. Populists generally oppose wars and foreign interventions, as they take money away from domestic welfare programs. Many populists propose cutting defence budgets to increase domestic welfare spending. Most populist leaders are also anti-science or lack basic scientific knowledge. Trump, Modi, and Khan have said many things that would make a 10th-grader laugh. This makes populist leaders difficult partners for the military, home to the most sophisticated technologies available.

Populist Generals

There are many types of relationships between the military and populism. The most direct would be a coup leader himself becoming a populist. It is uncommon today, but in the 20th century, generals did transform themselves into populists after successful coups to gain legitimization and support. Perhaps the most famous left-wing populist general was the Argentinian Júan Peron, who became the face of socialist populism (Calvo, 2021; Gillespie, 2019). During his two terms in office, Peron was able to amass popular support through welfare and pro-labour policies combined with nationalization (Gillespie, 2019). While in the short term these benefited the Argentinian people, the government was unable to support such measures in the long run when combined with the growing military oligarchy in the country. “Peron used the presidency to maintain support for the military through modernization and promotion projects. […] Perón removed generals when he saw them as troublesome and promoted the generals who supported him instead” (Calvo, 2021). This clientelism between the military elite was used by Peron to prolong his “iron first” populist rule over Argentina (he ruled from 1946-55 and again from 1973-74).

Similarly, in Mexico too, General Lázaro Cárdenas (in power from 1934-40) adopted socialist populist policies that led to major improvements in the economy and also general welfare, as he touted issues such as affirmative action for indigenous groups and women’s rights (Philip, 2000). By mobilizing the rural poor and urban middle class, Cárdenas dominated Mexican politics with socialist ideas, but his military background led his government to assume the posture and course of populist authoritarianism (Philip, 2000).

Nasserist party supporters hold signs and pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser during first anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt on January 25, 2012. Photo: Tom Bert.

Left-wing populism was also adopted by many military coup leaders in Africa, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt (ruled 1956-70), Ben Bella (ruled 1962-65) in Algeria, and Thomas Sankara (ruled 1983-87) in Burkina Faso. Some of these generals “thickened” their populism with nationalism and transnationalism. Nasser was traditionally a left-wing populist leader, yet he used the ideas of pan-Arabism to create not only a national identity for Egypt but for Arabs around the Middle East.

Right-wing populist generals are not uncommon. These populist generals have promoted nativism, militant nationalism, an aggressive stance against immigrants, minorities, and outsiders, and a “my country first” policy. The Greek “regime of the colonels” in the late 1960s and early 1970s was an example of right-wing military leaders employing populism. The regime coined the slogan, “Greece for Christian Greeks,” and its leaders frequently talked about one Greek people and nation. They also talked about a “national renaissance” to resurrect Greece, which was compared to a patient on her deathbed (Couloumbis, 1974; Xydis, 1974).

Military Support for / Opposition to Populists

Most of the time, the military supports or opposes populists but does not directly intervene in a country’s governance. Populists—who want to change the decades-old way of doing politics—usually need or feel the need to have this indirect support. Supporting populists indirectly allows the military to protect its interests, such as regular increases in military expenditures, as well as increase its political power.

The military’s support for left-wing populist leaders primarily comes from the mid-century period in Latin America. During the twentieth century, militaries in numerous countries supported left-wing populists. Brazilian President and dictator Getulio Vargas (1930-45 and 1951-54) came into power supported by the Brazilian military. He adopted a wide array of social and political policies that benefited labour, workers, and women, and the Brazilian military continued to support him even when he disbanded Congress and suspended the constitution (Green, Langland, & Schwarcz, 2019: 321-4).

Some left-wing populists have been opposed by the military. Paz Estenssoro, a left-wing Bolivian leader, who came to power with the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, stayed in power from the 1950s to 1980s. His rhetoric was anti-elitism and targeted the ruling military elite. “In the revolution of April 1952, the worker and peasant masses defeated the oligarchy’s military,” and he established a rule which led to the rapid nationalization of resources (Funke, Schularick & Trebesch, 2020: 85).

Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common. One of the reasons might be the changing nature of the military vis-à-vis society in the decolonized world. Earlier, the military in most developing countries was a modernizing force as it had education, scientific knowledge, and regular interaction with other militaries. Numerous military coups led to land reforms and less power for the religious right. By the end of the 20th century, most militaries in these countries had become status-quo-supporting organizations.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, a right-wing “strongman” populist, has been able to garner support through his “tough” actions against “druggies,” “militants,” “radicals,” etc. (Dizon, 2020). Duterte’s “action” oriented strategy to “crush” the bad guys has led him to use penal populism. His aggressive policies are supported by the military, on whom he has relied heavily for cracking down “undesirables” (Dizon, 2020).

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during 74th Anniversary of Parachutist Infantry Battalion held at Military Village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on November 23, 2019. Photo: Celso Pupo

Another instance of a right-wing populist leader being supported by the military comes from Latin America. In Brazil, conservative, populist President Jair Bolsonaro has appointed military officers to key technocratic, political, and bureaucratic positions. One figure suggests that “individuals with military experience have occupied almost half of all cabinet seats since 2019, including President Jair Bolsonaro himself as well as retired army general and current vice president Hamilton Mourão” (Scharpf, 2020).

Finally, right-wing populists have been opposed by the military in some countries. For nearly eight decades, the modern Turkish Republican was dominated by the Kemalist military elite that advanced a reformist agenda to modernize and secularize the country. After the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, the Kemalist military launched a series of attacks on the AKP. This led to what the AKP called a “digital coup” against them when the Kemalist military questioned the AKP’s nationalism and loyalty as being counter to the constitutional spirit of the country (Elver, 2014). Between 2010 and 2020, the AKP became increasingly populist and used its increasing power to constitutionally limit the Kemalist military elite from interfering.

From this brief survey, it is evident that in developing countries where mass mobilization takes place on populist grounds, the military is likely to get involved directly or indirectly in state affairs due to the power vacuum left by politicians. The armed forces are either part of “the elite” that the populist wave rises against, or they are direct agents of “the people” or supporters of those who claim to represent “the people.”

Case Study of Pakistan

Pakistan is no stranger to military involvement in civilian matters (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; Taj, Shah & Ahmad, 2016; Hussain, 2012). The country witnessed its first military coup in 1958, hardly a decade after its formation in 1947. From the late 1950s to the late 2000s, the country experienced four successful military coups and numerous unsuccessful ones. Pakistanis lived nearly half of those seven decades under military dictatorships (1958-1971, 1977-1988, and 1999-2008). Over the years the military has not only deposed democratically elected leaders but forced them into exile—and in the case of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, organized his execution (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; Taj, Shah & Ahmad, 2016).

Since the last dictatorship, the military has adopted a covert approach regarding its involvement in politics. They have tried to manage Pakistani politics from backstage. The fame, power, and charisma of Imran Khan, a famous sportsman and philanthropist, has allowed the military to browbeat the two most popular parties in the country. With the rise of populism, Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party (see in detail, Yilmaz and Shakil, 2021a; Yilmaz and Shakil, 2021b; Yilmaz and Shakil 2021c) and the military have cooperated repeatedly and projected themselves as the “defenders” or “the voice” of “the people” against the malicious “others.” Imran Khan’s journey to the country’s power corridors is closely tied to his relationship with the military. Khan’s PTI, however, has gone through various stages before becoming fully immersed with the military. Due to the changing dynamics of the relationship, we have divided Khan’s journey into various chronological periods. 

Years of Warm Non-engagement (1996-2001)

The PTI was founded as an anti-elite and anti-corruption party that sought to bring social justice to the disenfranchised people of Pakistan. In its early stages, the party was welfarist and reformist in its ideas. It wanted to make politics “for the people,” as a break from conventional politics which was increasingly dynastic and self-centred. The party’s non-political background meant it had to work from the grassroots to ensure its political presence in a country where family and baradari (tribe or caste) ties play a key role in politics (Shah, 2020; Mushtaq, Ibrahim & Qaleem, 2013; Lancaster, 2003). During its initial years, the PTI was not a fixture on the political landscape other than Khan, its chairman, making headlines for issuing pro-people statements due to this social status as a former Pakistani cricketer. Abbas (2019) correctly notes that in its early years, the PTI was not seen as a political party but rather viewed as an Imran Khan fan club or a social justice movement; its membership was confined to the upper middle class and affluent members of society who wanted to play a proactive role in politics.

The PTI’s pro-establishment stance positioned it close to the military when General Musharraf deposed the sitting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In Khan’s view, elite’s corrupt and incompetent leadership had come to an end, and Musharraf’s progressive ideals would benefit the country. During this period, the relationship between the PTI and the military was cordial. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, a charity founded by Khan, even was donated $500,000 by Musharraf in 2002 (Arab News, 2019).

Pervez Musharraf.

Antagonistic Relationship (2002-10)

The distant yet pleasant relationship between the regime and the PTI took a turn in 2002. Musharraf offered Khan a significant role in politics and a large number of seats in the 2002 national elections but, in turn, Khan had to support a large group of corrupt politicians. To his credit, Khan refused, and the PTI only won one seat in the 2002 military-rigged elections. Musharraf’s embrace of the corrupt and religious parties—including the KP, PTI’s political rival—turned Khan into a bitter rival. Khan also became a fierce critic of the Pakistani military’s role in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. For nearly a decade, Khan increasingly became the face of resistance towards US-led or promoted operations in Pakistan’s rural tribal areas.

Khan’s opposition to the army’s activities and the Musharraf regime led to him being put on house arrest several times (Indurthy, 2004). In 2007, Khan and his party also publicly opposed the regime’s efforts to evacuate a hub of extremists from the Red Mosque in Islamabad (Samiuddin, 2018). Crucially, the PTI chose to remain silent on the issue of extremism being spread by the militants and radicals at the mosque and instead chose to criticize the draconian measures taken by the Musharraf-led government to dislocate the militants from the mosque complex. Later on, Khan was one of the leaders of the movement for the restoration of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, who was unconstitutionally sacked by Musharraf. It was this movement and the murder of Benazir Bhutto that resulted in the fall of Musharraf in 2008-9.

Close Alignment (2011-17)

With Musharraf in exile and The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leading governments at the federal and provincial level, there was little hope for the PTI. Khan’s original supporters were long gone, and the PTI was unable to make a dent in the political arena. Similarly, the military was looking for partners to increase its clout after the undignified ouster of Musharraf. So, it seems that the two most probably decided to strike a deal. There aren’t signed papers but there is enough circumstantial evidence of the PTI’s support for the military and vice versa. The prime piece of evidence is the shift in the PTI’s “other.” While Khan was still passionately leading rallies and pointing out policy issues regarding the war on terror, the overall target of the party’s criticism was not the military but the “Western nations” which, according to Khan, had engulfed the Muslim nations into war (Dawn, 2013). Khan’s support of the Afghan mujahideen and his increasing focus on the “good” Taliban drew international criticism (Boone, 2014).

Gradually, the calls for accountability were targeted at the political elite, leaving the military out of the PTI’s retributive politics. While it’s true that civilian politicians such as the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaries had amassed fortunes by misusing their offices, so, too, had the military elite; generals became multi-millionaires (Siddiqa 2017). Yet PTI’s accountability was partisan: it sought a return of the looted wealth only from the civilian governments. The military supported Khan by providing him allies and ensuring favourable media coverage. Because of political deals and Khan’s alliance with the military, the PTI’s position became hypocritical. Khan spoke about those who were killed by the Western militaries in Afghanistan and refused to condemn the Taliban, who were also involved in killing innocent Afghans. While he drew excessive focus to the police brutality of the PML-N government against various protestors, such as at the Model Town incident in 2014, there was no mention the lives lost due to various military operations in the country’s western regions.

The PTI had always prided itself as a pro-democracy party, yet it did not object to the constitutional amendments that went against the democratic spirit of the country. For example, Khan did not raise an objection to the controversial 21stConstitutional Amendment, which was passed in 2015 (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; The News; 2014). Because of this amendment, the military could set up its own courts that could try civilians if they were deemed “terrorists.”

Muslim League-N President, Nawaz Sharif addresses PML-N workers during meeting in Peshawar, Pakistan on September 16, 2011. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

As the 2018 elections grew closer, Pakistan went through major political developments when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from office after a prolonged court case. It was very difficult to believe that this verdict did not have the military’s support, as Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were major witnesses against the sitting PM. This sent into motion an openly bitter relationship between the military and the PML-N. The latter blamed the military for interfering with politics, as the exiled Sharif made speeches blaming the “aliens” or “deep state” that targeted him and his family through their “proxy,” the PTI (Dawn, 2018). Sharif went on the offensive and called out the military leadership for their constant interference in matters of the state while simultaneously labelling the PTI as the military’s “puppet” government (Dawn, 2020).  

 Support During the Election Campaign and On Election Day (2017-18)

By the end of the PML-N tenure, the party had suffered major setbacks. The PTI was the talk of the town and sought vengeance for the country’s “wronged” people. The PTI attacked the political elite, and its populist rhetoric resonated with the population, which felt failed by successive corrupt governments. The PTI emerged victorious in the National Assembly and in three provincial assemblies.   

The PML-N, after its defeat, accused the PTI of using military support to rig elections to secure its victory.  While the PML-N was a bitter loser, there was some truth in the allegations. For instance, in the July 2018 elections, the Pakistani Army had deployed over 371,000 troops to “secure” polling stations, and the counting of votes was delayed for several hours (Khan, 2018; Panda, 2018). While the presence of the military at voting stations was not new in a country where security has been a prolonged issue, there were worrying reports about the integrity of the election (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018; Khan, 2018). Even before the election, various PML-N candidates issued statements claiming that they were being harassed by security forces and that their campaign headquarters were targeted (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018). The allegations were profound enough that the spokesperson for the military, Major General Asif Ghafoor, had to address them during a press conference, where he brushed the allegations aside (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018; Panda, 2018). 

Following its electoral victory, the PTI revealed a plan to address the nation’s issues in 100 days. While most of the PTI’s campaign promises remain unfulfilled—and the party even reversed some of its positions—it is worth noting that a large number of former Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) or pro-Musharraf/military political members have become part of Khan’s core team (Abbasi, 2018). At least 13 core ministries were handed out to former PML-Q members, or those who had served in an advisory capacity to Musharraf (Abbasi, 2018). 

Support For PM Imran Khan (2018-21)

In office, Imran Khan has been an enthusiastic supporter of the military. A huge change in his previous stance was visible when a court announced a public hanging sentence for Musharraf for disrespecting and violating the constitution between 1999 to 2008 (Geo News 2019). In 2014, Khan himself urged the judiciary to do justice by not allowing Musharraf to escape trial (Ilyas, 2014). Once the 2019 verdict came down, Khan explicitly called the judge “mentally ill” for using such a “harsh” verdict as the Prime Minister felt it insulted the institution of the military (Shahzad, 2019). Khan gave a full three-year extension to the current Army Chief, after his normal three-year tenure ended in 2019, although previously Khan himself (and others) had publicly declared that giving Army Chiefs extensions undermines democracy (Philip 2019; Afzal, 2019). In, 2021 the PTI government passed another bill aimed at supporting the military. Under this new bill, anyone who criticizes the military will be tried under section 500A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC); the accused could face two years of jail time and/or a fine of up to 500,000PKR, or roughly 3,270USD (The News, 2021). 

In addition to supporting legislative changes that bolster the military, Khan has openly talked about a “5th generation warfare” and the opposition’s “seditious” attempts. The government, with the help of the military, has registered numerous cases on major opposition figures and has used an anti-corruption agency to keep opposition leaders terrified and/or in jail. Khan and the military’s top brass have used the populist rhetoric of threats from “within” and “outside” the country to browbeat the political opposition (Butt, 2021; Sareen 2020). Both have synchronized efforts to portray the opposition as friends of India and the “enemy” of Pakistan, ensuring they’re viewed with suspicion while the PTI and military are viewed as the “protectors of the nation.”

Conclusion

This case study demonstrates the partnership between a populist leader and a country’s military leadership that allows the latter to play a covert role in politics. In Pakistan, the military has always been closely tied with politics. It has been deemed a necessary evil that is there to protect the people from the “incompetent political elite” or to defend the country against its many “enemies.” These notions have helped construct an image of the military as a “reliable” political actor who is normally incorruptible. However, with growing concerns in civil society over repeated military regimes, the military apparatus changed its form of involvement in politics. Rather than imposing martial law and becoming a pariah on the international stage, it decided to co-opt a populist party and “help” it form a government. The PTI government now provides the generals with the necessary leverage and cover through its verbal, legal, and legislative power while the military provides Khan and his PTI with political space to run the country even when its performance is pitiful and the opposition is numerically strong. Both get what they want while also maligning the opposition as “traitors” and “enemies of the people.”  

The Pakistani case study is informative. It tells a story that can easily happen elsewhere in the developing world. A military, having staged many successful coups and accustomed to unconstitutional powers, looks to keep or increase its illegal powers against the onslaught of political parties, without imposing martial law. Thus, it decides to back a populist party, which is unable to challenge the control of the established parties on its own. Separately, both the military and the populist party may not succeed, but, using each other, they manage to take control of the government.

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Civilizationist Populism in South Asia: Turning India Saffron

Saleem, Raja M. Ali; Yilmaz, Ihsan & Chacko, Priya. (2022). “Civilizationist Populism in South Asia: Turning India Saffron.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0009

 

Abstract

The 21st century has witnessed a significant shift in how the concept of nationalism is understood. A political marriage between identity politics and populism has resulted in “civilizationism,” a new form of nationalism that entails an emotionally charged division of society into “the people” versus “the Other.” All too often, the divisive discourses and policies associated with civilizationalist populism produce intercommunal conflict and violence. This paper draws on a salient case study, India’s Hindutva movement, to analyze how mainstream populist political parties and grassroots organizations can leverage civilizationist populism in campaigns to mobilize political constituencies. In surveying the various groups within the Hindutva movement and conducting a discourse analysis of their leaders’ statements, the paper shows the central role of sacralized nostalgia, history, and culture in Hindutva populist civilizationism. By analyzing the contours and socio-political implications of civilizationist populism through this case study, the paper contributes to the theoretical understanding of the concept more generally.

By Raja M. Ali Saleem, Ihsan Yılmaz & Priya Chacko*

Introduction

During the 2014 electoral campaign in India, billboards adorned with a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi draped in hues of saffron color read, “I am a Patriot. I am Nationalist. I was born Hindu” (Ghosh, 2013). This narrative and imagery reflect the rise of the so-called “saffron tide” in India (Nag, 2014). The color saffron in Hinduism represents pious renunciation of material concerns (Bhattacharjee, 2017), and the election campaign drew on this motif to portray a period of “purification,” in which orange “fire” would “cleanse” society of its “impurities.” The fulcrum of this development was Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which combine political Hinduism or Hindutva with populist discourses to construct a narrative of a civilizational state that is in “crisis” and requires a “strongman” to lead “the people” back to the glorious Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Kingdom) (Lefèvre, 2020). Modi’s Hindutva populist narrative first took form in his home state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister from 2002 to 2014. However, his comprehensive wins in the 2014 and 2019 general elections have empowered and mainstreamed the Hindutva populist narrative across India.

The civilizationist ideals of India’s right-wing Hindu movement combine the elements of religion, populism, and nationalism in an emotionally charged politics. Various groups and political parties have helped in shaping this distinct Hindutva identity. Civilizationist populism has led to changes in laws to target religious minorities and foster an environment where vigilante groups feel empowered to use violence to express their anger toward “the Other.” As a result, India has experienced a sharp decline in its democratic freedoms and now confronts the rise of “electoral authoritarianism.” The attendant “crackdowns” on civil liberties have seen freedom of expression, assembly, and religion increasingly imperiled (Freedom House, 2021; The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2021).

This paper explores the complex role of nostalgia, aspiration, culture, and history in the emergence and development of civilizationist populism. Methodologically speaking, it adopts a comprehensive case study approach to capture the complex nature of interactions across populism, nostalgia, aspiration, history, culture, and political mobilization. By reviewing Hindutva discourse in India, this paper demonstrates the role of sacralized historical narratives and their emotional appeal in creating a conducive environment for populist civilizationism. We also explore possible links between this discourse and the use of violence by the right-wing groups toward those considered “Other.” India’s selection as a case study is based on news and existing literature that points at the widespread manifestation of the phenomenon from organizational grassroots levels to the government itself. Throughout this paper, the use of sacralized nostalgia, aspiration, history, and culture is explored to make sense of the construction of populist civilizationist. It also highlights the promotion of violence by vigilante groups that draw on Hindutva civilizationist discourses.

The remainder of the paper proceeds as follows. It begins by detailing the extant literature on civilizationist populism to establish a theoretical framework to guide the case study analysis. The paper then discusses the characteristics of Hinduism and elaborates on the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. It details Hindutva ideology, tracing its evolution as a political-religious formation and its reliance on sacred narrative construction. The following section briefly discusses grassroots organizations that exhibit this populist discourse. These organizations mainly belong to the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella term that covers a range of groups attached to India’s militant National Volunteer Organization (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS) —a right-wing, Hindu nationalist volunteer movement—including the Universal Hindu Council (Vishva Hindu Parishad, VHP) and the VHP’s youth organization the Brigade of Hanuman (Bajrang Dal,BD). In the final substantive section, the paper focuses on political parties and their leaders, who have deployed Hindutva discourse to mobilize supporters and voters, sometimes merged with populism and at other times ignoring it. The paper concludes with a short section drawing together the findings and marking out pathways for future research.

Civilizationalist Populism

Culture and religion have taken center stage in the most recent waves of populist discourse worldwide (Elçi, 2021; Yilmaz and Morieson 2021; Brubaker, 2017; Marzouki, McDonnell & Roy, 2016). Civilizationism has been central to this political development. Borrowing heavily from Huntington’s (1993) idea of a “clash of civilizations,” civilizationism derives from the instrumentalization of religion as a central logic in defining collective identity. Civilizationalist populists have used many of the world’s major religions — including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity — to erect a binary where “the opposition between self and the other is not in narrowly national but in broader civilizational terms” (Brubaker, 2017: 1191).

Like all variants of populism, the notion of “the people” is central to civilizationalist populism. In this case, the idea of a sacralized in-group or “virtuous community” aligns closely with the notion of “the true people” central to all populisms. The identity of this sacralized in-group is constructed based on cultural and religious practices. This identity grounding forms the basis for a mobilization of “the people” against both “the corrupt elite” and “the Other” — the antagonist cultural or religious out-group. Assigning foreign or alien status to “the Other” allows civilizationist populists to frame out-group members as sources of anxiety, creating a sense of crisis and victimhood among “the people.” Those who are “otherized” in this way become the targets of attacks. This largely manufactured sense of crisis produces, in turn, the demand for populist leadership and organizations and paves the way for ethno-religious clashes, thereby weakening democracy (Galston, 2018; Lesch, 2020).

How culture, nostalgia, and nationalism are used collectively to construct civilizationist populist binaries of society has not been analyzed. There are, however, studies that show “appeals to religion and culture not only shape populist ideologies but also help mobilize people against other groups and/or the state by generating feelings of belonging, love, passion, fear, anger, and hate, thus shaping the performance of populism” (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 18; See also DeHanas & Shterin, 2018).

It has been speculated that cultural backlash against globalization and multiculturalism plays a crucial role in empowering right-wing populism (Furedi, 2017; Inglehart & Norris, 2016). The transnational interpretation of culture enables populist rhetoric to become civilizationist, thus, overcoming the fixed borders of the nation-state. Firstly, culture is considered the key reservoir of transnational identity connecting various national communities, enabling populists to define the collective self in civilizational terms. Cosmopolitan elites championing multicultural, globalist norms and those non-nationals who adhere to an alien culture or minorities who are said to adhere to different cultural values are thus cast as cultural “outsiders.” Secondly, in civilizationist populism, the national culture is defined not in narrowly national but broader civilizational terms. For example, the Turkish culture is part of a broader Muslim culture based on the Islamic faith. Such a civilizationist interpretation also has some positive implications. For instance, it has allowed Turkish culture to accept otherwise non-national outsiders such as Syrian refugees because Turks and Syrians form part of a broader community, the Islamic ummah. Third, civilizationist populism brings together vertical and horizontal aspects of populism by characterizing the elite both “above” and “external” to the “true people” (Brubaker, 2017). The elite is not only economically and politically dominant but also considered to be culturally alien by embracing other cultures. This allows for a cultural construction of the “in-group” and “out-group” populist identities (de Cesari & Kaya, 2019).

Populism draws on nostalgia to construct an idealized and at times sacralized lost “homeland” or culture that the leader or movement promises to restore. This feature makes populism “a backward-looking reactionary ideology, reflecting a deep sense of nostalgia for the good old days” (Betz & Johnson, 2004: 311). This revisionist, romanticized loss of the imagined “golden age” is further intensified when linked to a globalized or multicultural context (de Cesari & Kaya, 2019; Norris & Inglehart, 2018; Taggart, 2004). Populists, thus, develop a “selective deployment of the national past” to shape this nostalgia in “the people” that challenges the status quo (Kenny, 2017; Yilmaz 2021).

Elçi (2021: 1) claims that populists “instrumentalize nostalgia in order to create their populist heartland, which is a retrospectively constructed utopia based on an abandoned but undead past.” In so doing, populists provide both an explanation (Elçi, 2021; Taş, 2020; Lammers & Baldwin, 2020; Homolar & Scholz, 2019; Steenvoorden & Harteveld, 2017) and a solution for current social ills, thereby empowering themselves to restore “lost” glory. The resort to nostalgia foregrounds a comforting past to make the present reassuring and restore notions of belonging, inclusion and continuity (Homolar & Scholz, 2019: 358). The populist leader provides “the people” with the hope of “ontological security in the present” and the promise of restorative justice in the future (Kinnvall, 2014: 322).

Designed to placate “the people,” this nostalgia forms a culturally homogeneous imagination in which “the Other” is present within—but not part of—the society, and its existence is seen as a hindrance to restoring the lost “glory” of the civilizational past. Duyvendak (2011) has researched this process in the West, where populists leverage resentment over globalization and immigration in extensively nostalgic narratives. He found that “(t)he past is portrayed as a closed and conflict- free whole, carried by citizens who all basically shared the same beliefs, norms and traditions” (Duyvendak (2011: 84). Consequently, “the Other” is not only cast as a hindrance to achieving a return to a utopian past but is a constant reminder of the “loss” of this former civilizational glory.

Types of Populism in India

Populism has been defined in many ways, including as a leader-centered political strategy, an ideology, a political style, and a discursive process or a frame. In the present paper, we draw on the prevalent definition of populism as a “thin-centered ideology” (Mudde, 2004: 544) that takes on its full form when combined with elements of other ideologies, such as nationalism, socialism, or conservatism (Yilmaz & Saleem, 2021; de la Torre, 2019: 7; Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). Religion is one such ideological element used by various contemporary populists — from Presidents Trump and Erdoğan to Prime Ministers Modi and Imran Khan — to “thicken” their populist appeals.

Populism in India has been attached to religion and nationalism but also other ideological elements and markers, like caste, class, ethnicity, and welfarism. Kaustuv Chakrabarti and Kaustuv Kanti Bandyopadhyay (2021) note that populist rhetoric in India usually peaks around elections as politicians seek to mobilize voters.

Jaffrelot and Tillin (2017) identify several strands of populist politics in India. The first is personalized populism, exemplified by Indira Gandhi’s approach in the 1960s. To consolidate her political base and head off opposition from powerful regional leaders within her Congress Party, Gandhi combined welfarism and protectionist economic policies with a highly personalized appeal to the rural poor against the established Congress Party elite whom she accused of holding back progress (Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017). However, once these vaguely leftist populist strategies started failing in the 1970s, Gandhi’s leadership turned authoritarian, culminating in the so-called “emergency period” from 1975 to 1977 when the prime minister ruled by decree under a declared state of emergency.

Jaffrelot and Tillin’s second type is the populism of Prime Minister Modi, which will be discussed in detail later in the article. The third type is welfare populism, prevalent in southern India and based on regional identity politics. Here, along with welfare policies and the free provision of consumer goods, popular leaders like M. G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, both of whom made their mark in regional films, rallied the masses against the Congress Party, dominated by the Hindi-speaking northern part of the country.

Hindutva Populism: Organizations

This section details the various organizations that make up India’s Sangh Parivar (which translates roughly to “Hindutva family”), including the influential RSS. In so doing, we show how Hindutva nationalism has drawn on the ideas of culture, nostalgia, aspiration, and history in propagating its particular form of civilizationalist populism.

Member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Or RSS workers take a part in a route march on January 12, 2020 in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

The RSS was the brainchild of K.B. Hedgewar, a former Congress Party member who formed the organization in Nagpur in 1925 (Andersen & Damle, 2019a). As the non-political face of the Hindutva movement, it was conceived as a militant, revivalist and nationalistic organization to reinforce Hindu identity and buttress military skills among the Hindu population during the late period of British colonial rule. Around the same time, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar established the Hindu Mahasabha (HM), a political party promoting Hindutva. Despite differences with Hedgewar, Savarkar was closely aligned with the RSS, which nevertheless largely stayed out of politics in the period before independence and the 1947 Partition of India. Instead, it focused on cultivating a generation of “proper young Hindus” along the lines of Hindutva ideology, intending to subordinate non-Hindu socio-religious elements in South Asia (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 8). Today, the RSS has an estimated six million swayamsevaks (members) across India (Friedrich, 2020).

In line with Hindutva politics, the RSS did not directly challenge British colonial rule, a position championed by the group’s second leader, M.S. Golwalkar. Thus, other than Savarkar and Hedgewar, RSS leaders seldom found themselves in trouble with the British colonial authorities (Patwardhan, 2014; Andersen & Damle, 2019b: 29–35). However, during the 1940s, under the leadership of Golwalkar, the RSS became heavily influenced by Italian fascism, Nazism, and British-style disciplinary military training (Andersen & Damle, 2019b: 29–35), and the movement became increasingly wedded to the notion of Hindustan as a “civilization in crisis.” In his book, We or Our Nationhood Defined (1939), Golwalkar wrote,

To keep up purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races, the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into a united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by (Patwardhan, 2014).

Golwalkar’s classification of society and worldviews was rooted in a fascist ideology in which the Hindu nation was cast as supreme to all others (Sarkar, 1993).

The RSS has always clashed with Congress due to the latter’s “secular” nature. For instance, for more than fifty years after 1947, the RSS objected to the tricolor national flag of India, based on a design of the Congress Party that includes a green stripe to represent the Muslim population of the country. Instead, the RSS has maintained that the flag should be only saffron-colored, thereby excluding the Muslim element and extolling bharatmatta (or “Mother India”) (Andersen & Damle 2019b, 24–26). Moreover, the RSS maintains its commitment to philanthropy-led activities to chisel “model Hindus” (Chatterji et al. 2020). Still, “a number of volunteers from the RSS have over time graduated into politicians, forming their own political parties and becoming key stakeholders in the government” (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir 2021, 8). The most prominent examples of RSS-groomed politicians are Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi.

The RSS also seeks inspiration from particular strands of ancient Hindu culture to fashion a political Hinduism. Ancient texts, such as the Dharmaśāstras[1] and the Manusmriti,[2] have been hailed as “the basis of the spiritual and divine march of the nation.” The Manusmriti’s author is also hailed as “the first, greatest and the wisest lawgiver of mankind” (Patwardhan, 2014). However, this text has a highly ethnocentric and glorified view of Hindu customs and traditions, one that deeply embeds problematic ideas, such as the caste system, the subordination of women, and xenophobia toward non-Hindus (Sawant, 2020; Shantha, 2020). Sawant (2020) notes that the traces of this cultural ideology are present in the RSS and the BJP. For example, several of their members have defended the ideas of “cleansing” the Bharat (motherland) and expressed support for the caste system (the Indian Constitution forbids discrimination based on caste and outlaws practices associated with “untouchability”), failed to see women outside the role of motherhood, and promoted an environment of forced re-conversion (Andersen & Damle, 2019a; Jha, 2016).

However, Andersen (2018) notes that in the post-Golwalkar period, the RSS has opened itself to non-Hindus so that they might share the Hindutva culture. But this openness is still rooted in discriminatory attitudes deeply embedded in a sense of cultural superiority. For instance, Ramapada Pal, a key preacher in the RSS, argues that “the superiority of the Hindu kingdom” is undeniable (Nair, 2015). The RSS leaders have also argued that “if a Muslim living in India chooses their god before India, then why should he be allowed to live in our country? This country belongs to Hindus first” (Nair, 2015). While their booklet rationalizes this in ultra-nationalist terms:

Non-Hindus must be assimilated with the Hindu way of life. The words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ denote a religious phenomenon, while the word ‘Hindu’ is synonymous with the nation. Even in the United States, it is emphasized that non-Americans should be assimilated into ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture (Andersen & Damle, 2019a).

Thus, the idea of glorified ancient culture, which was the basis of a glorious future, is a key pillar in the RSS’s constructed Hindu nationalism.

As Leidig (2016) notes, this feeling of cultural superiority also exhibits “a nostalgic yearning for a glorified Vedic period – Hinduism’s ‘Golden Age’” that, coupled with the use of historical narratives to paint Muslims as the “tyrant invaders,” legitimizes the RSS’s call for “purification.”

Since 2014, the Sangh Parivar has pushed for “a pro-Hindutva agenda in the name of cultural nationalism” (Leidig, 2016). In this narrative, the “golden age” was a period when Hindus accomplished the greatest scientific and philosophical feats, changing the destiny of humanity (Thapar, 2020; Jain & Lasseter, 2018; Leidig, 2016). Additionally, a mythical martyrdom is fabricated by contorting historical legends to engender a sense of victimhood of “the people” and to vilify “the Other” — primarily the “Muslim invaders.” This process of reshaping history to construct a “golden” civilizational account is coupled with nostalgia that seeks to recreate it. It is in this sense that we argue that the Sangh Parivar has produced a kind of “saffronization” of history in India —namely, where the non-Hindu elements are systematically stripped out in an elaborate attempt at rewriting of Indian history that involves expunging the Muslim elements (Thapar, 2020; Jain & Lasseter, 2018).

Crucially, this narrative pushes the idea that, rather than championing independence for India, Congress’ rule after 1947 was just a continuation of the colonial rule of the Muslim Mughals and then the British Raj. Jawaharlal Nehru is considered a covert Muslim (his grandfather’s apparent conversion from Islam to Hinduism is cast as disingenuous). A fake quote by Nehru is widely shared by the right-wing websites to substantiate this narrative: “By education, I am an Englishman, by views an internationalist, by culture a Muslim and a Hindu only by accident of birth.” This quote was also shared on Twitter by Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s National Information and Technology Department (IT Cell) and a member of the BJP National Executive in 2015 (Malviya, 2015; Factly, 2020).

Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) members perform Shastra Puja ceremony (Weapon Worship) on the occasion of Vijayadashmi Dussehra festival in Beawar. Photo: Sumit Saraswat

The Vishva Hindu Parishad (Universal Hindu Council)

The VHP was formed in 1964 by the RSS’s Golwalkar, S.S. Apte, and Swami Chinmayananda, with the stated aim of protecting and serving Hindu society and Hinduism. The organization sought to bring Hindus worshiping thousands of different gods together on a uniform platform. However, over the years, the group has taken a militant form (Nair, 2009). Its vigilante actions played a central role in the communal violence around the Babri mosque/Ayodhya dispute, discussed below, among other flashpoints between Hindus and Muslims (Nair, 2009; Lochtefeld, 1994). Some contend that the VHP’s activities constitute ethno-religious terrorism (Lefèvre, 2020).

In 1992, kar sevaks (temple volunteers) illegally demolished the Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya in the Indian state of Utter Pradesh (UP), which many Hindus claim was built on top of the Ram Mandir (temple of Rama), a claim that is highly contested.[3] This demolition unleashed communal riots across India in which over 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died (Lefèvre, 2020). The group has also called for the Kashi and Mathura mosques to be handed over so that temples might be built over them, with the aim of righting historical wrongs and “liberating the people” from the oppressive religious subjugation of “invader Muslims” (Singh, 2020; The Wire, 2020). The communal violence triggered by the VHP did not end with the Babri mosque events, and it has mobilized street power in acts of horrific violence, such as the massacres that took place in the state of Gujarat in 2002, which will be discussed further below. It has also become a voice for “Hindu interests” by clashing with human rights groups and protests led by Muslim women against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a legislative move seen as targeting Muslims (The Indian Express, 2020; Mahmood, 2020). The VHP’s intimidation tactics also target Indian Christians, who are terrorized and harassed (Dahat, 2014).

The VHP gains most of its strength from volunteers or sevaks, who are attracted to its use of religious civilizational populism. The VHP’s traditional support base has come from the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP),[4] which has now disavowed the VHP, and other religious groups with mathas and ashrams[5] across India, alongside RSS volunteers (with some overlap in membership across these various groups). In addition, the VHP has a long history of cultivating relationships with sages and sadhus to gain a favorable standing in religious circles (Jha, 2019; Jaffrey & Slater, 2017). This has allowed the VHP to raise its own army of volunteers that can mobilize without any political support.

S.S. Apte, founder and leader of the VHP, has long promoted the idea of Hindu victimhood. He once noted:

The world has been divided into Christian, Islamic and Communist, and all three consider Hindu society as a very fine rich food on which to feast and fatten themselves. It is therefore necessary in this age of competition and conflict to think of and organize the Hindu world to save itself from the evil eyes of all the three (cited in Jha, 2019).

Other than the appeal of this narrative, the political power and funds of the VHP have also led a number of Hindu sadhs to direct their bhakts (followers) toward Hindutva (Friedrich, 2020; Jha, 2019; Frayer & Khan, 2019).

Other than its paramilitary activities, the VHP has played a central role in the surgical excision of non-Hindu elements from Indian culture and its saffronization as well. The Taj Mahal, a UNESCO world heritage site, was taken off the official UP touristic brochure in 2017 due to its historical links to “Muslim invaders”[6] (Khalid, 2017) in the wake of immense pressure from VHP mob protests. Netflix came under fire for promoting “anti-Hindu” sentiments when Leila, a dystopic series,[7] surfaced. VHP called it “propaganda” and full of “lies” that insult the Hindu dharma and pushed for it to be banned (News18, 2020). Even before BJP came into power, the VHP campaign led to the cities of Lodai and Dudai being renamed, to Keshav Nagar (Krishna’s city) and Indraprastha (Indra’s city), respectively; the saffronization of municipalities names continues (Lefèvre, 2020).

The VHP is known to attack Muslim actors in Bollywood (Pandey, 2020). Interfaith marriages of Bollywood celebrities are always a prime target from the VHP and other Sangh Parivar activists. For instance, Hindu Vishwa, a VHP magazine targeted Kareena Kapoor, one of the highest-grossing actresses in India, for her marriage to Safi Ali Khan.[8] Kapoor’s edited face was shown half-covered by a burka, warning the audience about the nefarious intention of Muslim men to marry and convert Hindu women to Islam (Pandey, 2020). Muslim men have been accused of grooming young Hindu women to convert them to Islam through marriage (Pradhan, 2020). This has been labelled as “love jihad” (Pandey, 2020; Asthana, 2021). Kapoor and Khan have also been targeted for naming their son Taimur because his apparent namesake— the ancient Mongol warlord Taimoor, whom Hindu nationalists deem “worse than Hitler” — invaded India as part of his global conquest (Lakshmi, 2016). The couple was attacked again for naming their second child Jahangir (“Jeh”), which links him to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir.

The VHP is the manifestation of Hindutva civilizationism that seeks to recast society in its “golden age” by restoring proper “order” and reclaiming what it claims was “stolen” by non-Hindu invaders. It attacks anyone, and any place, ranging from historical sites, Western pop culture, and Bollywood icons that it feels are not in line with this romanticized Hindu past. It uses populist victimhood and Hindutva nostalgia to legitimize its militancy and aims to re-establish the “superior” Hindu culture.

The Bajrang Dal (Brigade of Hanuman)

The Bajrang Dal (BD) — the “Brigade of Hanuman” — is the youth wing of the VHP and was founded in 1984. The name references the monkey god Hanuman, a companion and aide to Lord Ram in the Hindu epic Ramayana (Friedrich, 2020; Doniger, 2018). In 2018, the CIA categorized the BD as a “militant religious organization” due to its targeting of Christians and Muslims in India (Friedrich, 2020).

The BD primarily recruits men between the ages of 15 and 35. Its proclaimed ideology is “Seva, Suraksha, Sanskar,” which translates into “service, safety, and culture,” although a militant championing of Hindu religion and culture is much more critical to the BD. It has provided VHP, RSS, and BJP with the necessary “muscle” during instances of communal violence (Ahuja, 2019). As a youth group, it is well-placed to infiltrate and disrupt human rights protests, which in India are often led by young people, particularly students. On numerous occasions, BD members have attacked Kashmiri students for the apparent “threat” they pose to “Indian unity” by emphasizing ethnic and religious diversity (Mishra & Jha, 2019). In 2019, a terrorist attack left several Indian soldiers wounded and dead in Pulwama, Indian Kashmir. The BD mobilized soon afterward, attacking and injuring Kashmir students. One activist justified the actions as a means “to teach the students a lesson so that no one can ever dream of doing what had happened in Pulwama” (Mishra & Jha, 2019). Despite their vandalism and vigilantism, over 1,000 BD members have been given military training in recent years. The parent body VHP has justified this by saying, “The main aim of such training camps is to train workers for Rashtra Raksha (National security) which includes women safety, cow protection, temples security and of course protecting Hindus” (Jaiswal, 2019). The youth receive training from RSS-trained personnel or ex-army or police officers (Jaiswal, 2019).

The blend of militant, physical training and deep Hindutva convictions has, for decades, enabled BD youth to incite violent means to “protect” Hindus. For instance, in broad daylight in 1999, Sheikh Rehman, a Muslim trader, was set on fire in the eyes of a crowd of over 400 people after his arms were chopped off by BD (HRW, 1999). In periods when the BJP has been in power at the federal level in India (such as now and in the late 1990s), the BD has been emboldened. It now regularly attacks non-Hindus, targets liberal groups on university campuses for their human rights advocacy, and is a key participant in India’s growing trend of anti-love jihad campaigns (Friedrich, 2020; Ahuja, 2019; Mishra & Jha, 2019; PTI, 2016).

In 1999, Human Rights Watch (1999) interviewed a VHP volunteer. Part of that discussion exemplifies the role of Sangh Parivar as the vehicle of Hindutva:

The VHP is for the promotion of religion, the Bajrang Dal is for the protection of Hindus, and the BJP is for politics. The work systems are different, but the aim is the same. We all want akand bharat: all nations under India. We want what we had before independence, minus the British. We should have a Hindu nation. Other religions can do whatever they want, but they should not insult Hinduism. We also don’t want them to distribute their vote but to give it to the Hindus. Everyone will come together to support against [the] Congress [party].

Hindutva Populism: Parties

Before discussing Hindutva populism, it is crucial to mark out how it differs from Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalism claims that Hindu religious or cultural identity is the primary identity of all Indians. It rejects territorial nationalism and argues that religious minorities must accept Hindu culture if they want to be “true” Indians. Hindu populism, a thin ideology, utilizes Hindu nationalism as the basis of populist politics (Jaffrelot, 2007). Unsurprisingly, while the two are conceptually distinct, there is considerable overlap between them.

Gandhi statue in India. Photo: Arthur Simoes.

Was Mahatma Gandhi a Hindu Populist?

Numerous authors have researched this question and concluded that while Gandhi was one of the most, if not the most, popular leader, he was not a populist. Chakrabarti and Bandyopadhyay (2021) discuss Gandhi’s fight with the British elite and his identification with the ordinary Indian but do not characterize him as a populist. Jaffrelot and Tillin (2017) write about populism in India but do not focus on Gandhi. They start their analysis from the 1960s. Sajjan Kumar (2019) also rejects calling Gandhi a populist, noting that:

a charismatic-popular-populist pitch doesn’t automatically transcend into populism. It requires demagoguery wherein hitherto suppressed but popular desires get articulated by a mesmerizer who emerges as the savior. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were charismatic but not populist as they assumed a guiding role vis-à-vis the people rather than getting subsumed by their worldview. Gandhi didn’t hesitate to withdraw the non-cooperation movement in the aftermath of Chauri Chaura when it gained momentum, and Nehru stood for secularism and scientific rationality in the midst of Partition’s mass frenzy.

Hence, linking Modi’s populism to Gandhi’s Hindu politics is a mistake. Unlike populists in their rhetoric, Gandhi did not consider his enemies “evil,” nor did he present the oppressed masses as wholly innocent or “pure.” Thus, “corruption” to the extent that it appeared in Gandhi’s rhetoric, was not only external but also internal. Moreover, Manichean binaries, a feature of populism worldwide, were not part of Gandhi’s politics (Saleem 2021).

Hindu Nationalism and Hindu Populism

Hindu nationalism started to become popular in the late 19th century. It was a diverse combination of Hindu revivalist movements, such as Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj, which tried to make Hinduism a “modern” religion that more closely resembled the Abrahamic faiths in shape or form. Islam and Christianity were models for Hindu revivalists but also threats since the revivalists feared that Hindus might convert. As the British took small steps toward introducing Indians to Western-style elections, this revivalism was also evolved in Hindu consciousness and Hindu nationalism. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, mentioned earlier, was the first ideologue of Hindu nationalism or Hindutva, and his HM party became the first party to champion it in Indian politics. Yet Savarkar was a nationalist, not a populist. His goal was to unite the majority (the Hindus) against the elite, but he was not “anti-elite” as such, drawing much support from the Hindu upper castes, businessmen, and aristocracy (Visana, 2020; Tharoor, 2018: 40–50). Indeed, the HM had urban, high caste roots, much like the pre-Gandhian Congress (Bapu, 2013: 26–43), and so was not an anti-elite party. Moreover, unlike Congress, it avoided directly confronting the British as Congress did. It refused to participate in both the Civil Disobedience Movement of the 1930s and later the Quit India Movement, demonstrating its pro-British government stance (Gondhalekar & Bhattacharya, 1999).

In sum, the Hindu Mahasabha was a Hindu nationalist party, but populism was not part of the strategy. This difference between right-wing nationalism and right-wing populism is important to keep in mind. Although there is currently overlap and numerous right-wing nationalist parties have become populist, right-wing nationalism and populism are not the same. Almost every right-wing populist is a nationalist, but not every right-wing nationalist is a populist (Saleem, 2021).

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters during a rally in support of BJP candidate Himanta Biswa to file nomination papers ahead of Assam Assembly Elections 2021. in Guwahati, India on March 19, 2021. Photo: Talukdar David.

From the Bhartiya Jana Sangh to the Bharatiya Janata Party

The Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS) was established as a Hindutva party in 1951 by Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Although Mukherjee had left the Congress long before due to ideological disagreements and joined the HM, he was made a cabinet minister by Prime Minister Nehru after independence. However, he continued to differ with Congress, such as its policy of outlawing the RSS. In 1950, the Liaquat–Nehru Pact[9] became the final straw for Mukherjee, who resigned from the cabinet. Later, he left the HM and established the BJS to represent the “interests” of Hindus (Carothers & O’Donohue, 2019; Lahiry, 2005). It graduated to become the primary Hindutva party and won seats at both state and national levels. In 1977, the BJS merged with the Janata Party to oppose Indra Gandhi’s authoritarian practices and emergency proclamation. A large majority of its members later resigned from the Janata Party and formed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980.

One of the major ideologues of the Hindutva movement was Deendeyal Upadhyaya, who was for many years a top leader in the BJS. Upadhyaya developed a humane face for Hindutva, known as “integral humanism.” His philosophy focused on seeing life as a whole and rejecting conflict based on class or caste and between the individual and society. Following Savarkar, he rejected the idea of territorial nationalism. Instead, he argued that nations can succeed only if they follow their own dharma, which is closely aligned with their culture and traditions. Upadhyaya believed India’s failure after independence was because it did not follow its dharma, based on local culture and traditions, which for him were Hindu culture and civilization. This was Hindu nationalism explained in a more humane way, but it was still Hindu nationalism (Tharoor, 2020). Upadhyaya said: “We shall have to concede that our nationality is none other than Hindu nationality… If any outsider comes into this country, he shall have to move in step and adjust himself with Hindu Nationality” (cited in Kulkarni, 2017). However, Upadhyaya, as mentioned, was no populist. He was more of an ideologue, organizer, and Hindu civilizationist. An RSS apparatchik, he was seconded to the BJS and remained part of the party until his death.

There is little evidence to support that BJP went beyond right-wing Hindutva-inspired nationalism to promote populist civilizationist populism. We need look no further than the three-term BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for evidence of this. Vajpayee, who led BJP in the early phase in the 1980s and 1990s, was a Hindutva apologist (Hindustan Times, 2018). And his discourse was often divisive. For example, in a speech in 2002, he drew the common Hindutva populist distinction between “us” and “them” by asserting:

Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger (cited in Varadarajan, 2018).

Yet Vajpayee, a poet and author of many books, was careful in propagating Hindu civilization, and he was not a populist politician. He was respectful even to his opponents, and his speeches were more soft attacks than rants and harangues.

In this early period, Hindutva nationalism was used in a non-populist style. Leading up to the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots in 2002, Vajpayee tried to distance the BJP from the sectarian activities of the Sangh Parivar (Nair, 2009). He even called the “new” Hindutva problematic, noting: “I accept the Hindutva of Swami Vivekananda, but the type of Hindutva being propagated now is wrong, and one should be wary of it” (Varadarajan, 2018). Following the riots in Gujarat, he even tried to force Narendra Modi, then the state’s chief minister, to resign but failed due to pressure from the RSS (Nag, 2015). In 2003, the VHP’s newly elected general secretary, Giriraj Kishore, called Vajpayee a “pseudo-Hindu” because of his outreach to Pakistan, such as in the Lahore Pact[10] signed in 1999 (Nag, 2015).

While the BJS and early BJP centered their policies around Hindutva, it was more in the framework of nationalism than civilizational populism. As Leidig (2020) notes

Hindutva was not truly ‘mainstreamed’ until the election of the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, in 2014. In order to construct a narrative that furthered Hindu insecurity, Modi mobilized his campaign by appealing to recurring themes of a Muslim ‘threat’ to the Hindu majority. The result is that Hindutva has become synonymous with Indian nationalism.

Before the 2002 riots, Modi was a relative unknown outside of Gujarat (Hosen, 2020). Groomed within the RSS system, he rose up the ranks and was appointed chief minister of the state in 2002. Following his back-to-back wins in state elections, he led the BJP in national elections in 2014 and became prime minister, winning a second term in 2019. In gaining a legislative majority in two consecutive general elections, Modi pulled off a feat that no prime minister had achieved since Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s.

Under Modi, the BJP has taken a new direction. There is a transparent element of classic populism with both horizontal and vertical dimensions, but what is unique is the civilizational construction of a new narrative that goes beyond the BJP’s earlier focus on Hindutva nationalism. To love the country and dharma is now a lifestyle that has pushed the saffronization process into all aspects of social and political life. Moreover, as Chacko (2018) discusses, under Modi, the BJP has adopted a new neoliberal chauvinism that calls for India to become a global leader in commerce and technology. This new narrative links Hindutva pride with a call for economic development so that India can attain its prominence in the community of nations that was lost with the “Muslim invaders” in the 16th century —in other words, to “make India great again.”

McDonnell and Caberea (2019) observe that the BJP’s division of the population into what the authors call “the people” and “the others” does not reflect a categorical distinction between Hindus and non-Hindus. Instead, its definition of “the people” is judged on the parameters of how readily one engages with the national culture and its values (basically conservative Hindu culture). Thus, Manohar Lal Khattar, the BJP chief minister of Haryana, said, “Muslims can live here, but in this country, they will have to stop eating beef” (McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019: 493). This nativist element to the BJP’s populism draws on divisive issues that invariably arouse popular sentiments (Ammassari, 2018: 8). While these measures are presented as policy decisions taken to protect people’s interests, they are, in fact, political moves designed to mobilize voters in support of restoring the lost Hindutva civilization that pre-dates the Muslim “invasion” (Ammassari, 2018; Jain & Lasserer, 2018).

The BJP, in line with populist tradition, targets elites (i.e., Congress) and presents itself as a grassroots “people party,” one that transformed a tea seller boy into the leader of the world’s largest democracy. Modi and the party “stress his own underdog background as a chaiwala (tea seller),” positioning him as a “humble yet anointed Hindu leader” (Rao, 2018: 177). However, in a Hindutva fashion, some party posters present him as “sacralized with a halo indicating Hindu symbolism of gods who glow like surya (the sungod)” (Rao, 2018: 177). Apart from the elite, religious minorities are also “otherized” as “internal outsiders” and are usually accused of working with external “outsiders” such as India’s nemesis, Pakistan (Peker, 2019: 31–32). Elites and “internal” outsiders such as opposition leaders also merged as singular targets in BJP attacks (Peker, 2019: 32).

Under Modi, the BJP has become unapologetic and blatant in embracing the RSS. This has helped it openly embrace civilizationism in a program to alter the social fabric of India (Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017: 184). The “clash of civilizations” and superiority of “the people” and their faith is the crux. Yogi Adityanath, often presented as a “poster boy” of Hindutva and the BJP, is a monk turned politician and the current chief minister of UP (Gupta, 2018). He is a long-time Hindutva preacher and political advocate of extreme violent Hindutva. Despite being the chief minister of a state with over 200 million people of different faiths, he has openly used the Hindu Rashtra rhetoric in calling for the establishment of a Hindu polity as he sees it as a “way of life” (Hindustan Times, 2017). Those who do not abide by this way of life will be “taught” a lesson “in the language they understand (violence),” according to the Yogi (Hindustan Times, 2017). In one speech, he assured, “If given a chance, we will install statues of Goddess Gauri, Ganesh and Nandi [Hindu deities] in every mosque” (Hindustan Times, 2017).

In recent years, UP has seen a boom in Hindu religious tourism. This has gone hand in hand with the rising pressure to “reclaim” mosques that were “stolen” from Hindus so that they might be re-established as temples (Sikander, 2020), as mentioned above. These arguments have justified and encouraged the ever-growing vigilantism (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Gupta, 2018). Yogi has even popularized his dog, Kalu, on online platforms as a vegan dog who does not consume meat and abides by the Hindutva code (Hindustan Times, 2019).

Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, is also home to the country’s largest Muslim population, and this has always fueled Hindutva “fear” that demographic shifts will see Muslims eventually outnumber Hindus. A manifestation of this “fear” is the previously mentioned “love jihad” campaigns that demonise interfaith marriage. Adityanath warned the “love jihadists” and said, “I warn those who conceal identity and play with our sisters’ respect. If you don’t mend your ways, your ‘Ram naam satya’ (chant associated with Hindu funerals) journey will begin.” As a result, a law criminalising interfaith marriage was passed in Uttar Pradesh, and the VHP and BD increased targeting and harassment of interfaith couples especially Muslim grooms (Asthana, 2021; Pradhan, 2020). Yogi’s firebrand speeches also have elements of sexism and propagate gender inequality. He once said, “if they [Muslims] take one Hindu girl, we will take 100 Muslims girls […] if they kill one Hindu, there will be 100 that we…” and waited for the crowd to chant “kill” (Crabtree, 2017). The victim narrative is profoundly violent and militant with no respect for religious freedom or even life.

Simultaneously, the two most recent terms of BJP in office have systematically blurred the lines between history and Hindutva fiction in the school curriculum (Jain & Lasseter, 2018). The “culture” is being saffronized as “the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history,” said RSS’ Manmohan Vaidya approving these changes (Jain & Lasseter, 2018). Redefining India has focused on putting forth the “Hindu first” narrative in which Hindus are cast as the rightful and original inhabitants of the land who have been marginalized by invader Muslims and Christians. Unsurprisingly, there is a party-wide commitment to instrumentalizing religion in education. Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Human Resource Development, praised this move, saying: “Our government is the first government to have the courage to even question the existing version of history that is being taught in schools and colleges” (Jain & Lasseter, 2018).

Modi himself has dabbled in the nostalgia of a fictitious Hindu culture at various instances. For example, he has promoted the idea that Ganesh, the deity with an elephant head, reflected ancient Hindu advances in science, demonstrating the apparent plastic surgery skills of the ancient Hindus; Modi even claimed that genetic scientists existed at that time (Rahman, 2014). Modi is on the record saying that the chariot of the Hindu God Rama was the world’s first airplane, while Biplab Deb, the chief minister of Tripura, claimed that ancient Indians created an ancient form of the internet (BBC, 2018; Rahman, 2014).

To restore and “protect” the “golden age” of Hindu culture, Hindutva civilizationist populism has seen the BJP introduce laws, such as the highly controversial National Register of Citizens, which seeks to make India “Hindu by character, by culture.” These moves are cast as benign because the policies offer select persecuted minorities from certain neighboring states pathways to Indian citizenship while deporting Muslims who cannot prove they are not illegal migrants (Human RightsWatch, 2020; McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019: 488). Amit Shah, the main force behind theis legislation, defends the act as follows: “Infiltrators are like termites in the soil of Bengal. A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal” (Al Jazeera, 2018). As the home minister, Shah was behind a controversial set of policies directed at India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir, from 2019 onward that included abolishing Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution —dividing Kashmir and abolishing its special autonomy guaranteed since the 1940s, and making it a union territory governed directly by Delhi—as well as the illegal incarcerations of thousands of Kashmiris, and the world’s most protracted internet blackout ever imposed by a democracy (Dey, 2019). The general trend is union territories graduating to become autonomous Indian states within the Indian Union. Kashmir is the only instance in the 74 years of Indian history of moving in the other direction (PTI, 2019).

In this context, the promise of the BJP as given in the political slogan “sabka saath sabka vikas” (together with all, development for all) seems hollow, showing the clear direction the party has taken by embracing Hindutva civilizationist populism and imagining and imposing conservative Hindu culture as the “real” Indian culture.

Conclusion

In exploring India’s saffronization, this paper has shed much-needed light on ideas that are at times either ignored or not fully explored. First, there is an attempt to distinguish between Hindutva, a political ideology, and the faith of Hinduism. The discourse shows that Hinduism is a highly plural and flexible philosophy compared to the more structured Hindutva. While Hinduism can be traced back thousands of years, Hindutva’s history is less than two centuries. Second, Hindutva or Hindu nationalism is not the same as Hindu populism. Due to Prime Minister Modi’s use of both these political ideologies, many authors incorrectly conflate them. Thus, the use of Hindutva by political actors does not strictly make them religious populists. Nor is India’s civilizational Hindutva populism strictly identarian because while it stands for “a Hindu way of life” and not Hinduism itself, it heavily relies on creating a Hindu identity of “the people,” which excludes other faiths.

This distinction enables the present article to take the long view and explore the development of recent issues while not focusing narrowly on the last two decades of Indian politics. We, thus, look at Hindutva populism within the BJP and other Indian right-wing parties. This investigation reveals the prevalence of Hindutva as a cornerstone of nationalism pre-existed the BJP’s 2014 electoral win under the leadership of Narendra Modi. However, its current civilizationist populism was absent from the earlier discourse, or at least leaders such as Vajpayee kept it away from the party. Thus, the mainstreaming by the Sangh Parivar of Hindutva ideology in BJP politics has deep roots even as civilizational populism only broke through in the last few years. This study is an important contribution to this theoretical chronology of the rise of saffron populism in mainstream Indian politics.

This study also shows that Hindutva is currently a civilizational populist narrative that is the force behind India’s “saffron tide.” At the heart of this populism is not a simple love for one’s nation or one’s culture or religion. There is a clear sense of nostalgia of a glorified bygone era and a populist rhetoric that defines non-Hindus and liberal or secular Hindus as “the Other.” This helps promote a cultural “crisis” where “the true people” are cast as victims of centuries of oppression and overlordship from “invaders” (first the Muslim Mughals, then the Christian Europeans, especially the British), raising the question of ontological security. Sadly, but not surprisingly, there is both an explicit and implicit thread of violence embedded in this populism. Cultural pride and longing for the lost “homeland” rationalizes all problems —from national security to social challenges —in this framework and pins them on “the Other.” The BJP’s position in power and its promotion of this populism through legislation and changes in the school curriculum allow the RSS and the Sang Parivar to implement saffronization on the ground, using violence under cover of laws to “protect victims” (i.e., Hindus).

The saffronization of India started as a Hindutva project, but now it is continuing as Hindutva constructed civilizationist populism. It is embodied by the state and promoted by Hindutva grassroots organizations. Given its appeal, it blurs the lines between fiction and history and supports the constant victimhood of “the people” and vilification of “the Other.” With permanent changes within the state legislation, school curriculum and state structure coupled with emboldening of vigilantism, it is a dangerous trend that threatens to destroy Indian democracy and the Indian polity itself.


(*) Dr. Priya Chacko is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Adelaide where she teaches courses and supervises research on foreign policy and South Asian politics. She previously held positions at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her current research projects focus on the impact of market reform on India’s foreign policy and social policy and the intersection of Hindu nationalism, populism and neoliberalism in Indian politics and policy making. [email protected]adelaide.edu.au

 


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Footnotes

[1] Sanskrit theological texts.

[2] An Indian text dating back to 100 CE, which is a major source of Hindi law (Britannica, 2015).

[3] A number of mosques have been built on old temple sites around the country. Nevertheless, most RSS claims that various mosques ought to be turned over are not rooted in facts but on assumptions based on unreliable historical analysis. For instance, archeological excavations have never been able to find evidence of a temple underneath the hotly contested Babri mosque (Al Jazeera, 2019).

[4] An organization of Hindu religious leaders (sants and sadhus).

[5] These are the Hindu equivalent of Christian monasteries.

[6] The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, at the height of the Mughal empire, as a mausoleum for his queen consort, Mumtaz Mehal. It is also his final resting place. Hindutva supporters have sought to delink Indian history from the Persianate age (1000–1765 CE) in which there emerged a marriage of Sanskrit (Hindu) and Persian (Islamic) cultures that resulted in what some scholars consider a hybrid and quite multicultural Ganga–Jamuni civilization (Eaton, 2019; Akins, 2016). Today, the right-wing in India refutes the notion that a Ganga–Jamuni civilization ever existed, considering it a historical fabrication (Balakrishna, 2021).

[7] The series features an Orwellian or Atwood-styled world in which fundamentalist Hindutva-like norms guide social practice (News18, 2020).

[8] The resentment toward Saif Ali Khan runs deeper because, as the son of the last Nawab of Pataudi, he is seen as carrying the legacy of the “Muslim conquerors.”  It is interesting to note that Khan’s mother is a famous Hindu actress, Sharmila Tagore and his father served India as the captain of the Indian national cricket team. The union between Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and Tagore was not scrutinized like that of Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. This indicates that the intolerance toward interfaith marriage is something of the more recent past, demonstrating the growing power of the Hindutva narrative.

[9] The pact allowed for a peaceful exchange of refugees between India and Pakistan, condemned forced conversions, developed a commission for minorities and allowed for the safeguarding of property lost by migrants during the 1947 Partition (The Indian Express, 2019).

[10] The Lahore Pact is a bilateral agreement between India and Pakistan to curb the use and proliferation of nuclear arms in South Asia and was negotiated as part of a broader move to ease tensions between the two countries (UN, 1999).

People passing by portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on December 28, 2015.

Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey

Demir, Mustafa, (2022). “Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey by Ihsan Yilmaz.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 17, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0008

 

Ihsan Yılmaz’s new book presents a detailed analysis of Turkey’s political and sociological evolution, from the country’s anxious birth as a “fearful nation,” preoccupied and weighed down by historical traumas to the present. Yılmaz’s study provides a detailed account of the polity’s “never-ending” nation-building process and offers keen insights into why this process is intransient. His book highlights the political nature of defining citizens as either “desired,” “tolerated,” or “undesired” and the way this definitional process functions as a tool in hegemonic rivalries between “political tribes” in polities such as Turkey.

Reviewed by Mustafa Demir

Ihsan Yılmaz is Research Professor and Chair of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. In his most recent book Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey, published with Cambridge University Press in 2021, Yılmaz presents a highly detailed analysis of modern Turkish history. Not only does this engaging book provide fresh insights into the emergence and development of modern Turkish political culture, but also a new theoretical framework that incorporates emotions into the sociological analysis in a highly innovative way. Each chapter is arguably worthy of its own book-length treatment, and Yılmaz’s ability to cover much ground in a single monograph is commendable.

The scholarship on Turkey, especially on its emergence and its process of nation-building, provides a fascinating case study for social and political scientists. This is reflected in the vast literature on the case, with thousands of theses, articles, and books written on this very topic. Nevertheless, gaps in our understanding remain. One such gap, I believe, is the incomplete and controversial nature of Turkey’s nation-building project. Contested efforts in this regard have created pronounced political and ideological fault-lines in Turkish society. The nature of Turkey’s political process has kept this historical dynamic intact; it is not merely a research subject but rather an enduring game of political brinkmanship. In this game, those wielding power all too often point to those on the other side as “undesired citizens.” 

Against this backdrop, Yılmaz weaves his own personal story through the narrative in this weighty (in terms of both coverage and impact) book. In so doing, he critically reflects on the emotional aspects of the political decisions and socio-political “transitions” that have roiled his homeland. Yet Yılmaz’s critical reflection gives the book a crucial degree of objectivity, allowing him to transcend his own experience and reach out to (and draw on) other, often divergent, scholarly perspectives on Turkish political developments and decisions. This is well reflected in the book’s diverse bibliography (As those familiar with Turkish academia will know, the field is characterized by sharp divisions—even tribalism—with tribes forming virtual “citation cartels” that prefer to explore contentious social and political developments only through the lenses they feel comfortable with, making no attempt to understand one another).

A New Frame to Analyze Turkish Political History

As mentioned, Yılmaz deftly instrumentalizes his personal story in developing a novel framework to map many of the key socio-political “transitions” in Turkey. The first such transition —to Kemalist secularism — is one Yılmaz encountered when he became “a religiously observant [university student] in a staunchly laicist state that was not comfortable with religious expression in the public sphere.” Yılmaz then frames Turkey’s transition to Erdoğanist Islamism through the lens of his own experience as a university professor teaching students from all segments of Turkish society. As an academic and columnist, Yılmaz wrote many articles in daily newspapers in Turkey criticizing the Islamist AKP government in power after 2003. He was fired from his university position due to growing government pressure in early 2016.

At first glance, Kemalism and Erdoğanism appear antithetical, one staunchly secular, the other avowedly Islamist. However, Yılmaz demonstrates that they are connected by a central element they share — a commitment to Turkish nationalism. Drawing once again upon his personal history, Yılmaz recounts how he awoke only later in life to the exclusive, illiberal, sharp, and destructive nature of Turkish nationalism through his experiences and observations during his years as a university lecturer between 2008 and 2016.

Indeed, Yılmaz’s role as an educator is highly salient since education — or, more precisely, its role in nation-building — is a through-line across the book. In the preface, Yılmaz references another book, Füsun Ustel’s “Makbul Vatandaş” ın Peşinde (In Pursuit of the “Acceptable Citizen”), published in 2004. Ustel’s book focuses on how education was instrumentalized in building a nation in the initial period of the Kemalist Republic of Turkey. As he highlights, Ustel’s book inspired him to tie his story, experiences, observations, and travails to the story of Turkish politics and political history.

Yılmaz builds on Ustel’s insights but takes the matter further, looking not only at education but other sectors such as religion and media. While Ustel’s work focuses more on the Kemalist mission of re-dressing and creating an “acceptable” model of modern citizenship via education, Yılmaz’s work focuses more on the political and hegemonic aspects beyond the early Kemalist mission of modernization. It is also important to highlight that Yılmaz treats the notion of “desirable” as dynamic and in transition. Thus, the definition of “desired citizens” is political and highly changeable. Yılmaz also introduces two new terms, “tolerated” and “undesired” citizens. These additional categories allow him to avoid the trap of dichotomizing, familiar in much Turkish, scholarship and provide a subtle degree of analytical flexibility that opens up space for exploring “gray zones” in between the desirable and the undesirable. Thus, he is able to show how changing political landscapes bring shifts in how these definitions are applied to one kind of Turkish group or another, as observed during the transition from Kemalism to Erdoğanism. Yılmaz also highlights the Erdoğanist attempt to redefine what is a “desired citizen” in Turkey. In doing so, he provides not only fresh insight but a robust new conceptual framework to analyze the uncompleted process of nation-building in Turkey.

A further appeal of the book is its approach to Turkish political history, which appears very close to Erik Zurcher’s. Like Zurcher, Yılmaz does not separate political and historical periods sharply; rather, he focuses on the ‘transitions,’ highlighting how even as the new emerges, it draws heavily on what has gone before. For example, distinct from the established view on modern Turkish political history — which rehearses the idea of a radical break with the past in the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 — Zurcher’s account presents Turkey as always, already in transition, in a continuous process of evolution. Here, elements of the Ottoman past were brought through into the Kemalist Republic, whose core elements were also retained, to a greater or lesser extent, in later transitions to multi-party democracy and through into the present. Similar to this approach, Yılmaz’s account considers Erdoğanism less a radical break than yet another transition in a long historical process of social and political change.

What Sets Yılmaz’s Account Apart?

The book is structured around the concept of citizenship, which, rather than being treated as a legal definition, is taken as a dynamic concept responsive to hegemonic movements within the polity. As the title of the book suggests, creating desired citizens is unthinkable without its obverse: eliminating undesired elements. Thus, the book is equally, if not more, a story of undesired citizens. Again, however, Yılmaz’s frame is not black and white. Creating the Desired Citizen, as mentioned, establishes the category of “tolerated” citizens, alongside desired and undesired ones.

Providing a synopsis of the chapters in this book is difficult as each one is complex and polysemic enough to warrant a book of its own. It seems more productive, then, to conceive of this book in its entirety as a corpus of Turkey’s modern history. Beginning with the ontological insecurities shaping the political culture and guiding the strategic mind of the founding elite in the first chapter, the second traces the roots of these anxieties through history, providing a “thick description” of the historical context in which these anxieties and insecurities were born. The following three chapters examine the core components of Kemalism and its conception of the desired/ideal Turkish citizen, followed by an interrogation of the changing identity of desired and undesired citizens as Kemalism itself changed. The second half of the book then follows this approach in dealing with Erdoğanism—its rise, hegemonic move to power, and attempt to define its own desired, tolerated, and undesired citizens.

In a nutshell, this book presents a detailed analysis of Turkey’s political and sociological evolution, from the country’s anxious birth as a “fearful nation,” preoccupied and weighed down by historical traumas, to the present. Yılmaz’s study provides a detailed account of the polity’s “never-ending” nation-building process and offers keen insights into why this process is intransient. His book highlights the political nature of defining citizens as either “desired,” “tolerated,” or “undesired” and the way this definitional process functions as a tool in hegemonic rivalries between “political tribes” in polities such as Turkey.


Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey by Ihsan Yılmaz, Cambridge University Press, 2021, 250 pp., $80.19 (hardcover), ISBN: ‎978-1108832557

A man takes a picture of a foreign currency exchange board in Kadikoy district in Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish Lira set a new record low rate trading at 16 against the US Dollar on December 18, 2021. Photo: Nelson Antoine.

On the Political Economy of Populism: The Decline of the Turkish Economy under Erdoğan’s Populist-Authoritarian Regime

Ozturk, Ibrahim. (2022). “On the Political Economy of Populism: The Decline of the Turkish Economy under Erdoğan’s Populist-Authoritarian Regime.” Populism & Politics. February 9, 2022. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0008

 

Abstract

Independent of its ideology, beliefs, ideals, strategy or tactics, populism, in the final analysis, is a way of seizing power. Notwithstanding, differences between the different strands carry significant repercussions. One leader who has drawn increasing attention on the crest of the most recent wave of populism is Turkey’s president Erdoğan. It seems that after a short period of progressive and democratic leadership through to 2007, Erdoğan’s fundamental beliefs and personality surfaced, and the entire process was reversed, with devastating consequences for Turkey.

This article intends to show how Erdoğan’s Islamist–nationalist populism has undermined Turkey’s already fragile autonomous institutions and paved the way for reform reversals and incoherent economic policies. Politically, having denied the fact that Turkey’s positive image both in the Western and Islamic world throughout the 2000s was closely tied to the country’s skillful harmonization of democracy, Muslim identity, and economic development in a free-market context, Erdoğan has succeeded in branding Turkey as a nationalist, Islamist, and authoritarian country that makes trouble for its neighbors and is hard to work with. Economically, “Erdoğanism” has triggered Turkey’s current political and economic meltdown, as observed in recent macroeconomic indicators, including rampant inflation, mounting national debt, massive unemployment, deteriorated income distribution, rising poverty, and a profound currency shock.

By Ibrahim Öztürk

Introduction

Whether it adopts a right or left-wing ideology or it is embraced as a belief or a set of ideals, and no matter the strategy or tactics, populism, in the final analysis, is a way of seizing power, and differences between the different strands carry significant repercussions. Many diverse economic, political, and cultural factors have been put forward to explain the rise of populism. At the international level, scholars point to the distortions created by hyper-globalization, the impositions of great powers on smaller nation-states, and the related sovereignty considerations. State repression, corrupt elites, and anxiety over inequality and cultural class consciousness are salient at the domestic level. We could point to the Great Recession between 2008 and 2009—especially how the world’s elites dealt with it—as a more proximate cause of the most recent wave of global populism. How the COVID-19 pandemic, which was still raging at the time of writing (in early 2022), will influence the populist zeitgeist is not yet clear.

One leader who has drawn increasing attention on the crest of the most recent wave of populism is Turkey’s incumbent president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Erdoğan, henceforth). Before coming to office as Turkey’s prime minister and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the early 2000s, he was adamant that he had “developed, changed, and transformed” himself and accordingly revised the strict religious–nationalist ideological worldview he had exhibited as part of the Islamist Millî Görüş (“National View”) movement and as mayor of Istanbul. As the party leader, he stipulated that the AKP’s three goals were to eliminate chronic corruption, eradicate widespread poverty, and complete Turkey’s transition to democracy. During his first term as prime minister (2003–2007), he stuck the progressive reforms agenda of Turkey, set forth by the former coalition governments under the auspices of the international organization. The main pillars of the reforms were to establish a pluralist and democratic state with a particular priority on human rights, the rule of law, and membership in the European Union (EU). As a result, Turkey’s economic performance during the same period was truly remarkable, with gains on almost every development goal comparable to the top performer emerging market economies (EMEs).

However, after a period of progressive and democratic leadership through to 2007, Erdoğan’s fundamental beliefs and personality surfaced, and the entire process was reversed, with devastating consequences for Turkey. The AKP election victory in 2011 was a turning point, but more so after the transition to an executive presidential system in June 2018, when Erdoğan revealed his true authoritarian tendencies. As a result, after almost three and half years, Turkey has become a one-person regime, with increasingly dire implications for the economy, politics, and the broader society.

This article argues that Erdoğan’s religious–nationalist populism has been one of the primary triggers of Turkey’s current political and economic meltdown. Moreover, his populist rhetoric has weakened Turkey’s already fragile autonomous institutions and paved the way for reform reversals and inconsistent (and incoherent) economic policy. Taken together, Erdoğanism has brought a woeful deterioration in macroeconomic indicators, including rampant inflation, mounting national debt, massive unemployment, rising poverty, and a profound currency shock.

None of this failure is surprising. Around the world, populists in government have established a reputation for contesting institutional autonomy, rejecting expertise, the division of labor and science, and disregarding the principles of good governance. More to the point, they are renowned for damaging social cohesion by leveraging societal divisions and fears to get into power and—once they do—for their rampant addiction to staying in office at all costs.

Empirical evidence shows that although populists come to power on a promise to “restore” democracy, return sovereignty to the people, and enhance the welfare of citizens, they are quick to change the rules of the game that brought them to power and obstruct the peaceful transition of power when elections roll around again. In that regard, populism represents a regressive dynamic of history rather than a progressive one.

The remainder of the article is organized as follows. The first section analyzes Erdoğan’s turn from “political outsider” to an incumbent populist demagogue through the lens of the most salient theories of authoritarian populism. The second section details Turkey’s economic performance under successive AKP governments since 2002. The third section analyzes how the AKP’s increasingly populist mode of governance since 2010 has undermined Turkey’s overall macroeconomic outcomes. In particular, it shows how the turn to populism has paralleled the rise of reform fatigue, a turning away from good governance and—ultimately—a consolidation of crony capitalism, and contingent and reckless policy-making. Noting the severe institutional decay in Turkey since 2018 and pandemic-related hits to the economy, the final two sections analyze the impacts of Erdoğan’s reckless populist model, which may well wipe out all of the welfare and human capital gains achieved over the past two decades. The conclusion draws the findings together and offers several lessons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

 

The Rise of Erdoğan, the Populist

Among others, the fragmentation of the global order into multipolarity has been an important trigger of populism worldwide. In the absence of a dominant hegemonic power to enforce common norms, the world finds itself increasingly subject to competing norms, which coexist and challenge one another. That process, obviously, fosters hybrid approaches to global and domestic governance, resulting in a diffusion of pragmatic and often opportunistic responses to growing challenges.[1] However, while hybrid approaches might sometimes help cooperation on crucial economic issues, more often than not, they produce significant technological, political, and security conflicts. The above-mentioned evolving contingency or discretionary approach to governance in crucial areas such as trade, developmental aid, intellectual property rights, public enterprises, currency reform, and environmental protectionism is shaping the nature of the emerging world order.

Against this backdrop, populists have risen to power in EMEs like Brazil, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey, adopting policy responses that seek to address the various crises without triggering default and the subsequent recourse to a large-scale IMF austerity program.

Erdoğan typifies this approach. His rise to power and populist approach in Turkey reflects, in many ways, Robert Barr’s definition of populism. Specifically, Barr defines populism as “a mass movement led by an outsider or maverick seeking to gain or maintain power by using anti-establishment appeals and plebiscitarian linkages.”[2] Moreover, as described by Aytaç and Öniş,[3] the “core characteristics” of populist mobilization are political flexibility, economic pragmatism, and recourse to cultural politics.

 Drawing inspiration from Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of “retrotopia,” Ezgi Elçi[4] has summarized this approach neatly. First, populists exploit nostalgia (i.e., the promise to return to an imaginary past) to construct a “populist heartland,” corresponding to a retrospectively constructed utopia based on an abandoned but undead past. Erdoğan’s constant appeal to Turkey’s “glorious” Ottoman past is crucial here. In this context, whenever a policy choice appears to have failed and no scapegoat is readily available, Erdoğan turns habitually to religious and abstract national concepts. Erdoğan arguably learned this trait in his lengthy career in the Millî Görüş movement, which was adept at blending victim rhetoric with appeals to Turkey’s glorious Islamic past. One such appeal notes that “Instead of being a passive subordinate, follower, obedient to Europe, we [i.e., Turkey] should be the head and leader of the Islamic world.” The assumption here seems to be that the Islamic world is demanding that Turkey take over the leading position of the World of Islam as a “big brother.” Erdoğan’s call presupposes the existence of an appropriate institutionalized mechanism that would facilitate Turkey’s leadership of the Islamic world, which is highly doubtful. Yet, influenced by an image of a glorious past in which Ottoman Turks did, in fact, lead the Muslim world, the Turkish people are unsurprisingly drawn to such populist appeals. Similarly, Erdoğan’s religious aspirations can speak to the widespread desire for economic security via debt relief, as in his recurrent statement that “interest is prohibited (haram) in Islam, and there is nothing to discuss from an economic perspective as interest relies on direct compulsory principles and restrictions. We will implement an interest-free economy.”

Second, populists deploy anti-establishment rhetoric against the power elite. As Mudde has noted, populism is a “thin ideology” that considers society separated into two antagonistic groups, the people versus the elite. Referring to Mudde’s approach, Dani Rodrik defines populism as “an anti-establishment orientation, a claim to speak for the people against the elites, opposition to liberal economics and globalization, and often (but not always) a penchant for authoritarian governance.” Erdoğan’s early status as an “outsider” against the entrenched beneficiaries of the status quo is a constant refrain in his claim to be a voice for the “forgotten” Turkish people, the silent and big majority.

Third, populists emphasize the plebiscitary aspect of elections to create an impression that populist mobilization is nothing less than “the people” rising up to retake their sovereign rights. Populists legitimize themselves by claiming they represent the people’s will against powerful and exclusionary interest-seeking coalitions among the elite.[5]

At a much deeper level, unsolved, long-lasting, and cross-cutting political cleavages within a society also fuel both the demand and supply conditions of populist sentiments. Somer and McCoy define these cleavages as “formative rifts that either emerged or could not be resolved during the formation of nation-states, or, sometimes during fundamental re-formulations of states such as during transitions from communism to capitalism, or authoritarian to democratic regimes.”[6]

On the demand side, it is commonly accepted that populism appears as a backlash to a sense of severe crisis or discontent with present conditions.[7] Key domestic scapegoats include corrupt elites or a comprador bourgeoisie. Yet, in the present era, external factors—namely, globalization and its champions in the global elite—are pinned as key “external enemies” of the people. This concern is not entirely untethered from facts. Many academic studies have shown the adverse impacts of globalization on national economies, including financial instability, trade diversion due to unfair trading rules and competition, distortionary patents, and impacts on wages and labor conditions, mainly for low-skilled workers. Empirical evidence shows that import competition, especially from China after it joined the WTO in 2001, has led to higher unemployment, lower wages, and more governmental transfers in Western countries.[8]

As nation-states fail to manage the mentioned negative repercussions properly, the result is economic instability and the rise of chronic income inequality. Constraints that come through IMF-imposed austerity or belt-tightening programs, hitting the most fragile segments of society the most, is believed to be caused by globalization. Also, on the assumption that large corporations are “too big to fail,” such firms become the priority for bailouts, while the poorer segments of society feel abandoned and alienated. In good times or bad, the perception that self-serving and corrupt local elites successfully align their interests with global capitalism at the expense of the most vulnerable segments of society breeds populism. More often than not, this demand for populist responses to economic problems is expressed through cultural codes, leading to a cultural backlash against multiculturalism, left-wing identity politics, and the like.[9] Populists tend to instrumentalize the above-mentioned external impacts and domestic reactions to legitimize their attacks on supranational institutions, reverse reforms, undermine checks and balances, and weaken local autonomous institutions.

What are the important repercussions of such a populist divide? The first implication is related to the leadership cult of the strong man that leads to authoritarianism.[10] The Encyclopedia Britannica lists features of authoritarian populism, including:

“extreme nationalism, racism, conspiracy mongering, and scapegoating of marginalized groups, each of which serves to consolidate the leader’s power, to distract public attention from the leader’s failures, or to conceal from the people the nature of the leader’s rule or the real causes of economic or social problems.”[11]

In this personalized form of politics, political parties lose their importance, and elections confirm the leader’s authority rather than reflect the voters’ policy preferences.[12]

The second implication is related to the national “economic model” that populists employ, which is typically highly heterodox and explicitly opposed to the “orthodox” way of doing things since this is the approach of the “economic elite.” The focal point of a populist economic program changes depending on the sources of the crisis, such as trade, economic and financial shocks, the migration crisis, and cultural change. It might resemble pro-nationalist and anti-global rhetoric when the program targets the interests of ordinary citizens and the country as a whole through policies such as high growth, income redistribution, public spending, rising trade and tariffs barriers, tax cuts, restrictions on immigration.[13] As Dornbusch and Edwards showed in their early study on the political economy of populism, populists prioritize high growth and income redistribution through highly politicized resource transfers.[14]

We turn to the third implication, the systematic undermining of institutions. Populists’ disdain for autonomous institutions and the discrediting of their role in economic development opens Pandora’s Box. Rather than isolating institutions from interest group lobbying, the subordination of institutions to politics produces economic chaos. Attempts to limit the autonomy of policy-making agencies leave a country vulnerable to further crisis as untested social, economic, and political experiments are deployed to address challenges. In the absence of institutional checks and balances, populists are free to employ heterodox policies that ignore economic efficiency criteria and resource constraints, promoting high growth through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies. The result is a vicious cycle of unstable prices, domestic and external deficits, and an associated accumulation of unsustainable national debt. As is well known, such an approach has led to cycles of boom and bust in many developing countries in Latin America and Asia as well as in Turkey at different conjunctures. The outcome of permanent fiscal and financial crises also triggers currency shocks, exacerbating the scale of the problems.

Moreover, government deficit financing can crowd out private investment and lead to higher inflation. In addition, restrictions on migration in developed countries can hamper workers’ mobility and have a similarly inflationary impact on wages due to the mismatching of labor, skills, and demand. Finally, as the Latin American populist cases clearly show, the longer-term results are stagnation, lower productivity, and loss of competitiveness.

In power, populists increasingly employ more “divisive” rhetoric and policies, creating “enemies” both inside and outside the country to hide their incompetence and legitimize their governance. Populists’ denial of scientific reason and good governance (professionalism, autonomous institutions, expertise, division of labor, delegation, pluralism, participation, transparency, and accountability) results in the total erosion of the country’s material, moral, and human capital stocks. It causes deep fragmentation across societal fault lines and prevents the formation of national coalitions from upgrading the economy through collective action, which is needed for painful and complicated reforms. The incompatible time dimension in unstable societies also makes politicians highly opportunist and short-term oriented at the expense of long-term structural reforms, which bring ex-ante costs and ex-post returns. In taking advantage of circumstances with little regard for principles or the consequences for others, expedient actions of opportunists are guided primarily by self-interested motives. The deadliest harm of this divisive rhetoric materializes in the erosion of social trust and social capital.

To conclude this section of the article, the recent assault of populist regimes on democracy and the market economy shows that they are increasingly distancing themselves from these public goods and becoming more authoritarian, refuting the optimistic view of populism as a “democratic corrective” to “technocratic governance.”

On its face, the populist model champions collective welfare on the economic side and popular sovereignty in the political realm. Yet, in practice, populists can seldom keep their promises, and their mentality and policy toolkits are unable to meet economic and social challenges sustainably. Because of successive political-economic crises, populists are increasingly forced into policy binds that do more harm than good and often substantially harm ordinary people. Therefore, in the long term, populists cannot increase the level of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, or welfare.

How does this theoretical outline speak to Erdoğan’s populist vocation in Turkey? Three implications come to mind. First, he has deployed culture to construct a picture of an imaginary past and a promise to restore “lost glory.” Second, he has exploited secular, religious, and ethnic cleavages to further divide the people. Third, Erdoğan’s right-wing populism has quite opportunistically and pragmatically exploited ordinary Turks’ discontent with the slow pace of economic development, the challenges of globalization, and Turkey’s apparent failure to secure a more autonomous role for itself in the region and the world.

Before and After the 2001 Crisis

Despite receiving just 25% of the vote in the 1994 mayoral election in Istanbul, Erdoğan won, holding the post until 1998. Then, antagonizing the establishment, he was jailed for four months on trumped-up charges of “anti-secular” behavior and subsequently banned from politics. Erdoğan’s experience of “political persecution” at the hands of “an unjust establishment” is central to his political rise. Soon after being released from prison, he and several others in the “modernist wing” of the Millî Görüş founded the AKP in 2001.

The party swept to power in the 2002 elections, and in 2003, after the Constitutional Court overturned the ban on him holding political office (a move that has never been satisfactorily explained), he became a member of parliament and then prime minister. Given the longstanding (and often justified) sense among the country’s pious Muslim population that it was the victim of “persecution” by the secular elite, Erdoğan’s rise to power represented the “voice of the people” moving to the center of Turkish politics. Moreover, his ascension came in the wake of tremendous popular discontent with the deep and successive economic and political crises that roiled Turkey under the rule of the pro-status quo parties throughout the 1990s.

Erdoğan’s good fortune continued in that the painful (and electorally toxic) reforms needed to right-size the economy after the severe crisis of 2001 had already been implemented by the previous government. Thus, although he came to power as an “outsider,” he took over an economy that had already begun to recover significantly and move smoothly. In other words, the comprehensive structural reforms in the post-crisis era, plus the exceptionally supportive overall domestic and global circumstances, helped Erdoğan achieve remarkable economic outcomes during his first term in office (2003–2007). As Spicer has recently noted, “Erdoğan leveraged the economic rebound and a diplomatic pivot to the West to bring about a decade of prosperity. Poverty and unemployment plunged. Inflation that was in triple digits a decade earlier touched 5%, boosting the Turkish lira’s appeal for locals and foreigners.”[15]

However, things started to change during his second term (2007-2011). Even though the economy resumed after a relatively short interruption during the Great Recession and returned to the pre-crisis growth path, there were visible signs of deterioration in the quality of growth, including declines in total factor productivity (TFP) and foreign direct investment (FDI) as well as weaker job creation. As a result, although growth in the third period (2011–2015) was above average, its quality continued to decline, and it quickly moved away from sustainability. Moreover, institutions have been further destabilized through destructive policies and a patchy record of reform over the period. Recent indicators about Erdoğan’s fourth and most recent period in office, after the new executive presidential system was introduced in June 2018. Now we see that Erdoğan is heading toward a kind of “Pyrrhic victory.” Having brought the entire political order to heel by taming institutions, Erdoğan looks likely to reap a bitter harvest, given the damage wreaked in the process.

The Political Legacy

In terms of political tradition, Erdoğan inherited the legacy of the first well-known right-wing populist, Adnan Menderes, who became Turkey’s prime minister in the first free and multiparty elections in 1950. After a decade in power, the popular Menderes was felled in a military coup in early 1960 and then executed by the army a year later. This “martyrdom” of a prime minister beloved in many of the country’s poor rural parts underpinned a longstanding view of a “pure, innocent, and silent majority” against the status quo, at least for a large segment of Turkish society.

That assault on the “will and the sovereignty of people” created an exceptional and lasting political leverage for right-wing politicians to mobilize political support in Turkey. As famously observed by Metin Heper, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) became “the state party” in Turkey, representing its “bureaucratic center” in an apparent “center-periphery” divide.[16] From the 1950s onwards, center-right parties have addressed the tension between the Kemalist elite – the bureaucracy and the military – and ordinary people through religious symbols and emphasizing the country’s secular vs. anti-secular cleavage. A succession of populist right-wing parties, from Menderes’ Democrat Party to the Justice Party of Süleyman Demirel and the Motherland Party of Turgut Özal, have taken up this mantel. The AKP is the last in this long line. In other words, the AKP has leveraged a widespread view in Turkey that the center-right represents the true “will of the people” and the establishment parties’ recurrent and persisting mistakes, especially in the troubled 1990s.[17]

More on the Economic Legacy

As mentioned, persistent economic instability in the 1990s, culminating in a debt and currency crisis in 2001, paved the way for the AKP to come to power in 2002. This was nothing short of an institutional realignment in Turkey, paving the way for a more stable institution order. As Olson showed in his path-breaking book, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities,[18] institutions are shaped by distributional coalitions, the relative power of competing groups, and individuals in society. In that context, institutional reform follows either the collapse of existing political balances or results from new political coalitions favoring comprehensive reforms, mainly to create inclusive intuitions. Unlike distributional coalitions, inclusive institutions effectively delegate activities to professional bureaucrats and autonomous institutions.

Acemoglu and colleagues mention six dimensions in achieving such institutions.[19] The first of these is voice and accountability in selecting government, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a free media. The second is political stability and the absence of violence, particularly politically-motivated violence, including terrorism. The third dimension is government effectiveness in the quality of public services, its independence from political pressures, the quality of policy formulation and implementation, and the government’s commitment to such policies. The fourth dimension is regulatory quality in formulating and implementing sound policies and regulations that permit and promote private sector development. The rule of law is the fifth dimension, mainly in the quality of contract enforcement, property rights, the police, and the courts, as well as the likelihood of crime and violence. The sixth and final dimension is control of corruption so that public power is not exercised for private gain, including both petty and grand forms of corruption, as well as “capture” of the state by elites and private interests.

The 2001 Turkish economic crisis opened up space for the kind of comprehensive economic, political, and social reforms needed to create the conditions for inclusive institutions. The country was assisted in this by support from the IMF and the World Bank alongside the EU, the so-called “double anchors” of reform. The most important institutional reforms included (i) improving the legal system in terms of its efficiency and independence from the executive; (ii) reducing policy uncertainty by restoring the independence of the Turkish Central Bank and other regulatory agencies; (iii) reducing political discretion in economic decisions making; (iv) increasing the overall competitiveness of the economy; and (v) containing corruption.

The most critical autonomous regulatory bodies, which aimed to professionalize the bureaucracy and reduce discretionary government influence, over-regulation, and policy uncertainty, were the Public Procurement Authority, the Banking Regulatory and Supervision Agency, the Energy Market Regulatory Authority, the Telecommunications Authority, the Competition Authority, and the Capital Markets Board.[20]

Reform and Opening, and the Golden Age of Growth (2003–2007)

Erdogan started his political career as a prime minister when a smoothly functioning reform program inside produced quite promising outcomes in a highly supportive global economic conjuncture when the volume of trade and finance of every kind were expanding, and the price of essential commodities was already beginning to surge, positively benefiting Turkey’s trade balance. Domestically, the conditionality imposed by Turkey’s aspiration for full EU membership and the robust structural reforms already accomplished provided a solid anchor for the government..

To his credit, as the leader of a newly elected new government, Erdoğan’s success in bringing conservative, nationalist, and liberal groups into a unified reform coalition was notable. As mentioned before, reform coalitions are essential to consolidate painful and costly reforms that only bear fruit in the long term. Governments with short-term horizons generally avoid such reforms and rely upon more populist promises. With the engine of economic growth on autopilot, the first period of Erdoğan’s government can certainly be described as the golden age of growth in Turkey during his 20-year reign.

Table 1: Turkey’s Growth Performance Compared (GDP, annual, %).

Source: World Bank, “World Development Indicators.” Retrieved from https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators

 

While Turkey’s growth during the first period of his government was slightly lower than its peers, it was well above the country’s historical average. Turkey recorded an overall average growth rate of 6.2% between 2003 and 2008, almost one percentage point lower than the comparison groups in the middle-income countries (MICs). Except for Brazil and Indonesia, other EMEs fared better than Turkey (Table 1, Figure 2). Despite that, growth exceeded the long-run average of 5% per annum in Turkey.[21] Thanks to a relatively cheaper foreign currency, in the first six years, according to the World Bank data classification, overall national GDP, in nominal terms, more than tripled from US$240 billion in 2002 to US$770 billion in 2008, and per-capita GDP from US$3,700 to 10,900 in the same period (Figure 1).

Figure 1: GDP and per-capita GDP in Turkey, 2007–2020.

World Bank, “World Development Indicators.” Retrieved from https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators

 

These achievements also underline a visible convergence with developed countries. For the first time in its modern history, the per capita GDP of Turkey reached more than 25% that of the US and put Turkey into the league of upper MICs. More strikingly, despite that relatively superior growth performance, Turkey’s long-term sticky inflation decreased and stabilized at around 10% annually, at a time when global inflation was also on the rise, reflecting not only high global growth but also continuously rising commodity prices in almost all categories (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Growth performance in Turkey and selected regions/groups.

World Bank, “World Development Indicators.” Retrieved from https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators

 

Figure 3. Growth, inflation, and external deficits in Turkey.

World Bank, “World Development Indicators.” Retrieved from https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators

 

Despite surging current account deficits (CAD), the good news was that Turkey was able to maintain fiscal and financial balance (Figures 4 & 5). Fiscal stability in the public and private sectors (household, corporate side, and the financial system) was also under control. Another unusual but good experiences was that high growth associated with improved income distribution. According to the World Bank estimates, Turkey’s Gini coefficient (an indicator of income inequality and wealth) decreased from 0.43 in 2002 to 0.38 in 2008, a significant improvement.[22] Similarly, poverty rates, measuring the proportion of people with per capita GDP consumption of below US$5.50 per day, also decreased significantly in the same period. The creation of inclusive institutions and the changes in the sources of growth played a decisive role in this improved distributional equity in Turkey.

Figure 4. External deficit in Turkey and similar countries, 1997–2019.

OECD, OECD Economic Outlook, 2021. Statistics and Projections (database) and Main Economic Indicators (database).

 

In that regard, the rise in TFP and significant technological upgrading in the real economy are noteworthy. According to various calculations, TFP growth during 2002–2006 was between 3.1% and 5.2%.[23] Calculations show that 54–68% of Turkish growth in this period came from improvements in TFP. Acemoglu and Ucer’s reverse projection shows that without TFP growth, Turkish GDP would have grown no more than 3% per annum. These achievements were driven by reform bonuses in the post-2001 crisis era, that addressed the EU membership, alignment with global institutions, and the principles of good governance.

To conclude, Erdoğan—who came into power in 2003 promising to alleviate corruption, repression, and poverty—leveraged the economic rebound and a diplomatic pivot to the West to oversee a decade of prosperity.

Figure 5. Financing of the current account deficit (moving total).

OECD, OECD Economic Outlook, 2021. Statistics and Projections (database) and Main Economic Indicators (database)

 

From Reform to Populist Authoritarianism

Over time, Erdoğan’s domestic and global image as a “model reformer and democrat” has shifted markedly towards “the creator of the 21 century populism.” Perhaps this is hardly surprising, since, as Cook notes, “Erdoğan is, after all, the man who declared when he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s that democracy is ‘a vehicle, not a goal,’ implying that one could disembark whenever it suited one’s purposes.”[24] However, on the way to the 2003 elections, Erdoğan promised that he and the co-founders of AKP had abandoned their former political commitment to the Islamist and autarkic and anti-globalist principles of the Millî Görüş and had become true democrats and champions of liberal democracy.

When reminded of his past anti-Western, anti-democracy rhetoric, many critics warned that Erdoğan harbored a secret Islamist agenda when he first assumed power in 2003. Notwithstanding, Erdoğan tried to clarify his earlier remarks  cautiously, noting, “essentially, democracy is a tool for human happiness and well-being.” Later, he went on to legitimize his transformation as “a process of progress through learning.” In a way to further support his pro-democracy change, in one of his speeches at an international conservatism and democracy symposium in 2004, organized by his party, he noted that “top-down social engineering is already passé. Rather than Turkey’s path-dependent tutelary democracy under the gendarmerie of the Turkish élite, a real democracy experience where pluralism, harmony, and tolerance cohabitate, must be established.”[25] He also openly refused to follow religion-centered politics. All these consistent efforts introduced Erdoğan to the international community as a respectable reformist leader, similar to any Western European leader, and opened the door for Turkey’s final membership negotiations with the EU.

However, the following analysis points out how opportunistic and authoritarian Erdoğan is and the total absence of a consistent body of thought in his political and economic policy-making.[26] A fork in the road was reached in 2007 when the reform coalition from different political traditions Erdoğan had successfully assembled began to come apart. Two significant referendums in 2007 and 2010 on constitutional changes put Turkey on a path to institutional chaos, although this was scarcely seen at the time. Rather contradictorily, on the one hand, these reforms improved the quality of democratic representation and judicial standards. On the other, they helped consolidate Erdoğan’s power, allowing him to pivot back to his earlier religious conservatism, which soon showed itself incompatible with modern governance.

Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian turn can also be blamed on the failure of the establishment to react shrewdly to Erdoğan’s transformation. For example, until 2007, the tutelary regime firmly resisted to delegate the required authority to him that the constitution guaranteed to an elected leader. For instance, bureaucratic elites at the top of the system tried to prevent, stop, or manipulate Erdoğan’s appointments to the top-level bureaucracy, such as the Central Bank. The same oligarchic structure turned the presidential election in 2007 into a crisis of insecurity and representation when Erdoğan nominated Abdullah Gül as the ruling party’s candidate for the Turkish presidency, which became vacant that year. The establishment balked at this because Gül’s wife wears a headscarf, which the secular elite see as an affront to the country’s secular values. However, when the AKP took the issue to the country in a snap poll, the party won, and Gül assumed the presidency. The establishment responded in turn, and a case was brought before the Constitutional Court to close the party for “anti-secular activities.” When in 2008, the Court ruled by a slim margin of the justices that the AKP could remain open, the battle lines were laid bare. Still, having barely survived this threat to their political existence, Erdoğan and the AKP seemed to lose their reformist zeal and became a party of the status quo.

In Michael Gunter’s words, “in some ways, Erdoğan’s ongoing struggles and crises remind one of the fevered situations Mao Zedong created during China’s Cultural Revolution in which one erstwhile supporter after another was ‘revealed’ to be an enemy.”[27] Like that, Erdoğan and his close cadre, which found themselves under the threat of death or life wars, seem to have developed a new strategy to change and seize “autonomous institutions and structures completely.” As discussed above, when the doctrines, ideological basins, and mental codes that Erdoğan grew up in are taken into account, it is hardly a surprise that Erdoğan is so skeptical of autonomous institutions, the modern division of labor, and the delegation of authority to professionals.

After the near loss of power in 2007–2008 and experiencing of a devastating global economic crisis  Erdoğan went on to win a decisive victory in the 2011 elections. In a column I wrote for Project Syndicate in June 2011, soon after Erdoğan’s third major election victory, I attempted to explain the root causes of his successes in economic development since 2003.[28] I ended by posing a critical question: how would Erdoğan use his rapidly growing economic and political power? Then, in a post-election ritual that he would become famous for, Erdoğan came out onto the balcony of his party headquarters in Ankara to address the throngs of party supporters below. To the cheering crowds, he promised that “the tyranny of the elites is over.” Continuing, the president asserted: “Turkey turned a new page and will no longer be ruled by criminals whose direction has split from God’s will and the will of the people,” rhetoric that pointed directly to Erdoğan’s emerging brand of Islamist, nationalist populism.

In other words, the time has shown that the “real Erdoğan” shine through; clearly, he was practicing “taqiyya,” a religious term used in Islam that legitimizes concealing one’s true belief to protect oneself from bodily harm or attack, but throughout time has become a deceptive political tactic. The 2011 elections thus saw Erdoğan’s transition from reformer to “inventor of 21st-century populism,” as Soner Çağaptay[29] has put it. In my opinion, Erdoğan deserves such a “compliment” not because he is very creative in this regard. Instead, it is because he has learned lessons from the authoritarian populists who have come before him globally and applied them successfully in Turkey. Given the subsequent inconsistency between his apparent religious devotion and his repressive politics, it is worthwhile asking the extent to which his particular interpretation of Islam is “abetting” his brand of Turkish populism.[30]

Although the AKP once held out the promise of a marriage between the rule of law, democracy, and Islam, the party has betrayed this vocation. Having denied the fact that Turkey’s positive image both in the Western and Islamic world throughout the 2000s was closely tied to the country’s skillful harmonization or amalgamation of democracy, Muslim identity, and economic development in a free-market context, Erdoğan has succeeded in branding Turkey as a nationalist, Islamist, and authoritarian country that makes trouble for its neighbors and is hard to work with. Accordingly, the government has pursued policies that furthered the country’s Islamization at the expense of individual freedoms and rights.   The post-2011 break with the reformist past is arguably best summarized in a speech by Aziz Babuşcu— then chair of the AKP’s Istanbul branch—to a confidentially selected group of community influencers, civil society leaders, religious leaders, bureaucrats, and business people in 2013.[31] Babuşcu’s speech on the intended future course of the Islamicists in power to this “new coalition” of AKP supporters is worth quoting here at length:

Those who supported and cooperated with us [i.e., liberal stakeholders] during the first ten years of government in power will not be our partners in the next ten [i.e., to 2023, the centenary of the Turkish Republic]. That is because the future will be subject to a period of reconstruction, and that era will not be as they [i.e., liberals, modern-secular, Western-oriented people] wish. Considering their ideological stance, we must part ways with our former allies and walk the road much more determinedly and firmly than yesterday. The AKP governments have done a lot on behalf of the ‘great silent majority,’ living in the periphery during the republican era by transforming the regime. Nevertheless, unless these achievements and the next steps are ingrained in the institutional memory of the state, they may not be consolidated deeply as permanent characteristics and might be quickly reversed. Therefore, the AKP must remain in power for a long time… The 2014 local elections will be the ‘fight to the death’ as they will mark the turning point in the struggle between the center [i.e., elites, the oligarchy] and the periphery [the “pure people”). If we can overcome that decisive threshold, achieve success in the next presidential election, enact constitutional reforms, and win a general election, we will be triumphant. However, should we lose even a percentage point of support in the electorate, dire political consequences will ensue for the AKP, which we cannot countenance.

The entire story since 2011 shows how Erdoğan has quite skillfully alienated and scapegoated his “enemies” in the interests of political survival and achieving the above-mentioned long-term targets. Because of deteriorating economic performance, declining per-capita GDP since 2013, systemic corruption scandals, fragile social peace and integration, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in the June 2015 general elections. While a coalition government was undoubtedly possible, Erdoğan rejected this option outright, instead opting to call fresh elections, which were duly scheduled for November.

In the run-up to the November 2015 elections, several high-profile terrorist attacks occurred, contributing to a climate of fear and insecurity, and the general perception was that the government (in the form of the intelligence services) was playing some role in fomenting the chaos. Against this backdrop of insecurity, social anxiety, and uncompromising electoral tactics, it is scarcely surprising that the AKP secured a parliamentary majority in the November poll, allowing it to form a single-party government.

The following year was a true watershed in Turkish history. Late in the evening on July 15, 2016, elements in the Turkish military launched a coup attempt to topple the AKP-led government. Some Western media reports in the period after the coup pandered to conspiracy theorists, likening the event to the infamous Reichstag Fire in 1933, which Adolf Hitler famously used as a pretext to enact emergency rule and exert complete control over Germany.[32] While the comparison is scarcely credible, Erdoğan himself only fueled speculation with his public assertion that the failed putsch was a “gift from God.” He quickly declared a sweeping three-month state of emergency, which for two years was repeatedly renewed, giving him the power to rule the country by decree, effectively bypassing the duly elected parliament. Since then, Erdoğan has purged more than 150,000 public servants through the presidential decrees without due process, put more than 350,000 people in jail (many of whom have been subject to torture), and upended the lives of millions of citizens just to silence the society.

The most significant step in the evolution of Erdoğan’s populism to authoritarianism was abolishing the parliamentary system and replacing it with an executive presidential system in 2018. In arguing for the concentration of executive power in the hands of the presidency —something not even advocated by Turkey’s first president and the “founding father” of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—Erdoğan skillfully blended nationalism and the state’s official ideology with the orthodox interpretation of Islamic religion. Moreover, he claimed that uniting authority in one administrative structure would speed decision-making and allow for better policy-making for the Turkish people.

The AKP put its proposal for an executive to the people in an free but unfair, non-transparent constitutional referendum in April 2017, and the changes were approved by a narrow majority of the voters (51.41%). The shift hammered the last nail into the coffin of the democratic, secular Turkish state. It transformed the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system that concentrated significant powers in the hands of a directly elected president. As a recent European Commission report[33] evaluates,

“the constitutional architecture continued centralizing powers at the level of the Presidency without ensuring a sound and effective separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and the judiciary. In the absence of an effective checks and balances mechanism, the democratic accountability of the executive branch remains limited to elections.”

Erdoğan’s presidential system was sealed at the 2018 elections when he was returned with 52.5% of the vote. However, according to observers, the poll was plagued with serious irregularities and malpractice on the part of the governing parties.

Against this backdrop, Babuşcu’s speech in 2013, mentioned earlier, seems very prescient in laying out the mentality of the AKP’s central authority. The anticipated “period of reconstruction”— effectively underway since the “judicial reform” in 2010 and the AKP’s success in the 2011 general elections—accelerated considerably after 2018. Signs of the post-2018 order were seen during the Gezi Park protests and the massive corruption operations on December 17–25, 2013, after which Erdoğan parted ways with liberals and the AKP’s erstwhile allies in the faith-based Gülen movement.[34] It is also notable that by 2015, the peace process with the Kurds the so-called “Kurdish Spring”—had come to a grinding halt.[35]

Figure 6. Countries with the most authoritarian tendencies.

World Bank, “Worldwide Governance Indicators: 1996-2020.” Retrieved from https://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/; International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), “The Global State of Democracy Indices,” 20021. Retrieved from https://www.idea.int/gsod/sites/default/files/2021-11/the-global-state-of-democracy-2021_0.pdf

 

As Figures 6, 7, and 8 summarize, under his “one-man rule,” Erdoğan’s populism has evolved into full-blown authoritarianism, and Turkey has fallen further into repression and violence. Since the constitutional referendum and 2018 presidential election, in the absence of robust checks and balances, an unaccountable president has controlled all executive authority, set of economic and foreign policy, through his sweeping appointment powers, Erdoğan has already massively expanded executive power, reduced political pluralism, and removed de jure and de facto constraints on political discretion.

According to the World Press Freedom Index report by Reporters Without Borders, Turkey ranks 154 out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, behind even Venezuela, Honduras, Brunei, Bangladesh, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.[36]

Figure 7. Trends in governance quality in Turkey.

World Bank, “Worldwide Governance Indicators: 1996-2020.” Retrieved from https://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/; International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), “The Global State of Democracy Indices,” 20021. Retrieved from https://www.idea.int/gsod/sites/default/files/2021-11/the-global-state-of-democracy-2021_0.pdf

 

Moreover, the Cato Institute’s 2020 Human Freedom Index puts Turkey 125th out of 162 countries for personal freedom. In its Economic Freedom Rankings, Cato notes Turkey has fallen from 67th to 99th since 2008.[37] Additionally, in V-Dem’s 2019 Academic Freedom Index, Turkey ranks 135 out of 144 countries, ranking lower even than China. Finally, the World Justice Project (WJP), in its Rule of Law Index 2020 report, ranks Turkey 107 out of 128 countries, behind Niger, Mexico, Madagascar, Mali, and Kenya.[38]

As a part of his “divide and rule” strategy, Erdoğan’s exclusive and majoritarian-oriented governance has deeply polarized society into two opposing camps and thus jeopardized social peace. As Figure 7-8 show, Turkey has become a hybrid regime and exhibits a dramatic decline in democratic values and governance. As a result, the Freedom House put Turkey in the “not free” category in its most recent report on civil liberties and political rights.

Figure 8. Rule of law and sub-index in Turkey.

OECD, OECD Economic Outlook, 2021. Statistics and Projections (database) and Main Economic Indicators (database)

 

Erdoğan began his career in power in 2004 by organizing an international democracy symposium with a reformist identity and drawing attention to himself. However, after his full-blown authoritarian turn, he has studiously avoided championing democracy on the international stage. Turkey’s populist-authoritarian turn has also had far-reaching consequences for Turkey’s international relations. Relations with the United States have rapidly deteriorated, Turkey’s EU accession negotiations have stalled, and its bilateral relations with several individual EU member states have worsened. For example, Erdoğan failed to attend the summit for democracy organized by US President Joe Biden in February 2021, who declared in his speech opening the summit that “democracy does not happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”[39]

The Economic Consequences of Populism

Fragile Growth

As mentioned, Turkey’s economy performed relatively well in the first period of the AKP government in 2003–2007. Nevertheless, the seeds of later problems were sewn by the government in that period. Indeed, despite its relative success, toward the end of the period, the economy showed signs of overheating. First, growth began to decline from its peak of 9.4% in 2004–2005, falling to 6.9% in 2006, 5% in 2007, and a meager 0.8% in 2008 (Figure 2-3). Second, after stabilizing in the early 2000s, the current account deficit began to rise to unprecedented and unsustainable levels (Figures 3 and 4).

In addition, reform fatigue set in, with the AKP government convinced that it had worked an economic miracle. This perception became entrenched when “home-grown” policy responses to the 2008–09 Great Recession proved highly effective. As a chief economic advisor to a business association in 2008, I was also personally involved in developing Turkey’s response in the form of “emergency proposals” to head off the crisis. Our proposals focused on prioritizing targeted policy interventions and government funding of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), labor training, and employment supports in crucial areas, unlike the Turkish corporate sector and the trade associations, which counseled a rapid austerity program under the auspices of the IMF to attract sufficient liquidity. The “home-grown” proposals we proposed required no additional external resources.

The government — in our view wisely — implemented our proposed measures, although the Turkish economy did see significant falls in economic growth, as did all economies during the crisis. However, the relative success of the short-term emergency measures gave Erdoğan the entirely wrong message and instilled in him a dangerous self-confidence that he could simply “invent unorthodox/heterodox tool kits” superior to mainstream economics at will. The short-term emergency measures we proposed were precisely that—emergency measures. They had to be followed by a subsequent round of more far-reaching microeconomic reforms, which would help Turkey return to a sustainable growth path in the long term, positively decouple from other EMEs, successfully graduate from the middle-income trap (MIT), and therefore, continue its recent convergence to the developed countries. To that end, in 2010, I submitted an additional report on the needed reforms. Nevertheless, rather than implementing the proposed reform measures, Erdoğan took quite the opposite direction.

After 2010, Turkey’s EU accession process ground to a halt, and the country lost one of its critical anchors of economic and institutional reform (the other being the IMF and the WB). This only exacerbated reform fatigue and anerosion of good governance, which had been secured only after long, costly, and painful reforms after the 2001 crisis. Thus, by 2010, an institutional vacuum had opened up.

Instead of institutional reform, Erdoğan’s regime resorted to crony capitalism, AKP-led clientelism, and a renewed commitment to dirigisme and contingency policy-making, undermining the hard-fought establishment of a free and open, transparent, accountable, rule-based, and competitive economy. Seemingly “winning” against all manner of crises after 2007, Erdoğan felt emboldened to double down on his commitment to creating a so-called “native and national” regime. Accordingly, he increased control over the regulatory agencies, impairing their autonomy through several de facto or de jure changes. Figures 6 and 8 summarize the World Bank’s assessment of changes in various dimensions of Turkish economic institutions since 2000. The indices of voice and accountability, government effectiveness, the rule of law, and control of corruption, which all improved during the AKP’s first period, have been drastically reversed, leaving Turkey well behind its EME peers.

In our view, the “root cause” of the economic problem in Turkey is the ever-rising need to finance growth in unsustainable ways, in the absence of structural reforms and transformation of the economy through market-friendly strategies with a long-term vision. Tragically, instead of completing these needed reforms, Erdoğan has reversed what hard-won gains had been achieved, undermining institutional structures and replacing merit-based appointments and professional rationality in public administration with rank clientelism.

What we now see is a vicious cycle of three reinforcing dynamics that threaten to severely cripple the Turkish economy and wipe away all the welfare and income gains of the past few decades:

  1. Unsustainable growth, financed through debt and monetization, which fuels rampant inflation;
  2. Corresponding high rates of interest that crowd-out real private investment and therefore depress TFP in the longer term, and;
  3. An inevitable currency shock that continues to threaten livelihoods and the stability of the entire Turkish economy.

Growth Without Wealth Creation

As discussed before, unlike the so-called “golden age” of growth in the early 2000s, when income distribution improved and poverty levels decreased significantly, the recent Gini Index shows (Figure 9) that inequality has started to rise since 2011 and accelerated since 2013, wiping out the gains made in the previous period. The coefficient now stands at 43, an indictment of the government’s performance (Figure 9). The reversal has been caused by a large number of factors, most of which have been induced by reckless government policy, including slower economic growth, rising unemployment, wage repression (mainly due to emergency measures), a failure to invest in workforce training and skills, an influx of Syrian refugees numbering in the millions, the COVID-19 pandemic, and foreign currency shocks that have driven up prices of everyday commodities and the cost of living of the poorest households. Erdoğan has supported firms’ efforts to suppress collective bargaining through presidential decrees, meaning wages and salaries have not kept up with inflation. The major victims have been construction workers, followed by manufacturing and trade and services workers. Finally, the labor share of national income has fallen from almost 37% in early 2019 to just below 33% as of mid-2021.

Figure 9. Income inequality (selected countries).

Source: OECD Economic Surveys: Turkey 2021.

Quite paradoxically, this strategy of suppressing wages is undermined by the government’s own populism, which is hostage to quite short electoral cycles. Thanks to election pressures, wages have been allowed to chase past inflation losses, leading after some time into a wage-inflation spiral. Still, inflation is winning. While the minimum wage increased by 21.56% in 2021, the official inflation rate reached 36%, and 49% in January 2022 (alternative statistics suggest the real rate is more than twice those). In December 2021, the government announced another minimum wage increase of 50% for 2022. Since minimum wage increases are taken as a reference, a similar increase in the salaries of civil servants and retirees is inevitable under elections pressures. Likewise, general wages other than minimum wages will be subject to a similar alignment. Considering exchange rate effects, production, and inflationary rigidities throughout the economy, and the underlying inflationary spiral already in train, “wage increases for 2022 could also reverse the recent improvement in the current account (forecast to halve to 2.5% of GDP in 2021) and increase in external financing pressures.”[40]

Figure 10. Total external national debt (selected countries).

World Bank, “World Development Indicators.” Retrieved from https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators

 

Ultimately, economic stability in Turkey cannot be achieved without fundamental reforms to address market rigidities and build long-term productive capacity. Due to resource constraints, any level of economic growth above 5% triggers deterioration in the macro-prudential framework, with ballooning external deficits, rising national debt, and foreign exchange shocks. This problem is hardly new. For many decades, governments have failed to address the underlying issues, leading to seemingly endless “boom and bust” cycles, the 2001 crisis being arguably the worst. However, the situation has deteriorated severely since 2018.

First, there has been a marked decline in “greenfield” FDI (Figure 5) and short-term portfolio investments, which have financed Turkey’s growth in the past. FDI flows (excluding real estate), which increased from almost zero in the early 2000s to 3% of GDP during 2006–2007, have fallen precipitously and stood at just US $5.8 billion in 2020, compared with a peak of more than US$19 billion in 2007.

Second, in a way to substitute dried foreign sources, there has been a dramatic expansion in consumer credit, largely substituting long-term investment in fueling growth. The World Bank data shows that during the presidential era, the external national debt has reached almost US450 billion dollars, exceeding 62% of GDP (Figure 10) as of mid-2021. As a result, Turkey’s overall debt to GDP ratio rose from less than 30% in 2006 to above 62% in 2021, a worrying 70 % increase, and thus has become a significant source of instability, triggering currency shocks combined with other instabilities and policy inconsistency.[41]

Furthermore, currency composition and the rate of depreciation of the Turkish Lira vs.  the US dollar are other sources of economic instability and is primarily driven by clientelist public-private partnership model that the AKP has built up as part of its crony capitalism. Meanwhile, the currency share of central government debt has grown from 39% in 2017 to 60 % in October 2021, chiefly driven by the lira depreciation. Finally, a significant part of the corporate foreign debt has been shifted to the public sector, reaching 60% of the total debt as of October 2021, up from 39% in 2017.

Not surprisingly, this level and structure of national debt has put Turkey at the top among its peer developing countries and triggered a severe currency shock. Turkey’s experience in the recent decades shows that multiple large currency devaluations could be ripe for some type of external debt crisis as well. Reflecting that fact, the costs of insuring Turkish debt against credit default (CDS), a financial instrument permitting investors to “swap” or offset their credit risk with that of another investor, nearly tripled to 600 basis points at the end of 2021 (Figure 11). Analyzing a sample of 25 EMEs, a recent report from Wells Fargo puts Turkey amongst the most vulnerable countries that includes Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Turkey, and Venezuela.[42]

Figure 11. Risk premium in Turkey and similar countries.

OECD, OECD Economic Outlook, 2021. Statistics and Projections (database) and Main Economic Indicators (database).

 

The Assault on Autonomous Institutions and the Inflationary Illusion

As discussed above, populist leaders do not favor delegation of responsibilities to professional and autonomous institutions through expertise and merit-based division of labor. Worse still, populists attack and discredit professional and autonomous supervisory or regulation institutions and destabilize them, often using them as scapegoats for poor policy. However, empirical studies show quite the opposite.[43] For instance, central bank independence is indispensable to combat inflation and establish price stability as it helps prevent the kinds of discretionary, arbitrary, and contingent policies populists are known for.

Price stability (or the lack thereof) has been a perennial problem in Turkey. It increased steadily after the 1980 military coup and liberalization measures in the 1980s, reaching 50.7% on average between 1980 and 1989. Then, it spiraled out of control and reached an average of 72% in the 1990s, eventually triggering a severe economic crisis in 2001.[44] From the longer-term perspective, the gist of the problem is that over time, inflation has somehow become “baked in” to Turkish economic management (including to inflate budget coffers), which is reflected in pricing behavior and the overall sense that it is just something that will always be a feature of the Turkish macroeconomic landscape.

This supposedly changed with the post-2001 crisis reforms under the auspices of the IMF and the World Bank. Specifically, the reforms established the needed autonomy for the Central Bank of Turkey (CBRT), made price stability its foremost legal responsibility, and prevented using its reserves as a source of funding for the state treasury. Granting legal independence to the CBRT was a turning point within the state structure as it aimed at the institutionalization of an anti-inflationary approach to macro-economic policy.[45] However, during the presidential era, these hard-won gains have been radically reversed, and the interventions on the autonomous institutions such as the CBRT, the national statistical institute of Turkey (TURKSTAT), the competition board, and the court of auditing (Sayıştay) have been highly disruptive. Finally, the government’s use of inflation as a source of finance and indirect taxation has returned, and, therefore, the situation has spun out of control, with inflation driving the overall macroeconomic fragility. According to TURKSTAT data, since 2018, when the presidential system was inaugurated, consumer inflation climbed from 44% to 92%, whereas food inflation from 55 % to 111%, in cumulative terms.

Besides low TFP and supply-chain challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, inflation in Turkey has been exacerbated by reckless expansionary monetary policies such as credit and money supply expansion. Expanding the money supply to boost growth has once again come to the fore. The stated goal has been to ensure liquidity in the financial system and help firms manage the pandemic-related shock with targeted liquidity facilities. In addition, the primary dealer banks have been allowed to sell domestic debt securities purchased from the Unemployment Insurance Fund to the CBRT for a temporary period. As a result, the supply of money in the narrow category of M1 has increased by 231% in the last three years. This level of monetary expansion stood out among all the EMEs except for Argentina, and, in turn, triggered an exchange rate pass-through effect and uncertainty-driven negative expectations. 

The loosening of monetary policy has left the country as an outlier. For example, the US Federal Reserve is preparing to tighten monetary policy in 2022. Unlike Turkey, the major EMEs like Russia, Brazil, South Africa, Poland, and Mexico have gradually raised policy rates amid inflation pressures. With consumer inflation standing at 36%[46] and producer inflation at 80% at the end of 2021, and further climbed to 49 % and 94 % respectively in January 2022, Turkey’s rates do not even compare to average inflation rates in other (medium or upper) MICs or EMEs, where inflation fluctuates within the 5–7% range annually (Figure 12). Nevertheless, the government and the CBRT continue to hue to an official annual inflation target of 5%, the benchmark set in 2005 but never actually reached. Neither the self-fulfilling prophecies of President Erdoğan, such as his eccentric “interest rate theory,” nor his pliant CBRT or the TURKSTAT, have any credibility.

Figure 12. Inflation in Turkey and similar countries and income groups.

World Bank, “World Development Indicators.” Retrieved from https://databank.worldbank.org/source/world-development-indicators

 

The most traumatic issue is the government’s denial of the proven transmission mechanism between rising inflation, the necessary interest rate adjustment, and the money illusion that comes with the rise in nominal income due to wage adjustment. Among others, lowering policy rates into profoundly negative territory caused foreign exchange (FX) denominated deposits in the banking system to increase to 63% of GDP in December 2021. In that process, foreign investors have been fleeing the Turkish market in all categories.

In turn, administered low interest rates, the increase in the volume of money emissions to partly compensate the FX shortage, and the challenging of subsidized credits through a credit-rationing mechanism to the most favored corrupt insiders have not only seen inflation spiral out of control but also caused demand for FX to increase rather than triggering investments in an environment of increased uncertainty and narrowed decision-making horizons.

In the final analysis, the vicious circle between “deficit and debt driving financing-interest rate-inflation adjustment, and currency schok” reflecting Turkey’s chronic structural problems in its modern history has fully returned. While the credit rating agencies have constantly lowered the country’s credit ratings, some global investment banks have even decided not to share their information notes and investment recommendations regarding the Turkish lira because of its recent “free fall.”

Figure 13. Effective real real exchange rate in Turkey and similar countries.

OECD, OECD Economic Outlook, 2021. Statistics and Projections (database) and Main Economic Indicators (database).

 

As a result, Turkey’s rating on the CPI-based, real effective exchange rate (RER) index reached a historical low of 50 at the end of 2021 (Figure 13). However, as experience confirms, structural problems that prevent trade from growing and deficits closing mean an RER of this level does not guarantee the country’s overall competitiveness will improve.[47] Indeed, as the famed international economist, Rudiger Dornbusch once noted, “currency crises take longer to occur than you might have thought. However, when they do occur, they do so at a very much faster rate than you would have thought possible.”[48]

We can conclude this section by drawing attention to Dani Rodrik’s recent discussion of the role played by heterodox alternative policies in challenging orthodox, conventional policies in economics. He notes that economics is not a science like physics with its “immutable” laws but a set of principles that require constant testing. Thus, “trial and error” and “learning by doing” in economics are often required. However, this does not mean known cause-effect relationships in scientific methods and theoretical consistency can simply be discarded, whereby the field of economy cedes ground to a political mysticism that works on the basis of “let’s just try this and see if it works.” Erdoğan’s so-called heterodox approaches or “experiments” fall under the category of “milking the bull.” [49]

Back to the Middle-income Trap Under Erdoğan’s Authoritarianism

As discussed before, thanks to a favorable set of external economic circumstances until the Great Recession in 2009, many EMEs—including Turkey—achieved unprecedented convergence in terms of their per-capita GDP to developed economies. Nevertheless, the 2008–09 crisis brought new challenges, such as stagnating global finance and trade flows, putting the future course of their development in doubt.

The post-2009 turbulence in EMEs has again returned analysts’ attention to the challenges many developing countries face in escaping the so-called Middle-Income Trap (MIT). Coined by the World Bank in 2006, the term refers to the challenge faced by countries once they reach a certain level of economic development in which their cost-competitiveness in traditional labor-intensive industries begins to deteriorate (as wages rise) without a commensurate improvement in their quality-competitiveness in high-value sectors (such as technology or advanced manufacturing) on a par with the developed countries. The main drivers of the MIT are weak human capital, reliance on low-quality exports, low TFP, urban agglomeration that favors low-tech, labor-intensive production, and poor-quality governance institutions. Getting out of the “trap” requires fundamental reform, but this is difficult due to the aforementioned dilemma in which reform coalitions are hard to sustain since the costs are high in the short term, but the rewards accrue only at the end of a successful transition.[50]

Turkey is a textbook case of a country caught in the MIT. After the aforementioned reforms after the 2001 crisis, the country’s per capita GDP increased from US$4,000 in 2003 to $12,500 in 2013, and the country saw an (albeit modest) income convergence. As a result, it became an upper-MIC.[51] Had Turkey maintained that performance, it likely would have reached the goal of becoming a high-income country with an official target of US$25,000 per capita income by 2023.

This will not happen, reflecting the aforementioned reform fatigue and the post-2011 populist-authoritarian turn. The bitter harvest of Erdoğan’s misguided policies is clear for all to see, with economic indicators regressing to 2003 levels (the year he became prime minister) and human rights and rule-of-law indicators regressing to levels not seen since the 1990s.

Indeed, in 2015, I predicted that Turkey’s growth potential over the upcoming decade would fall to below 4%, pulling Turkey back into its chronic MIT.[52] Indeed, much as I predicted, Turkey’s average annual growth rate declined to 3.2% between 2012 and 2020 (Figure 2-3). Although the MIT literature suggests that such a growth performance would be sufficient for a country like Turkey to escape the trap, the prolonged economic turbulence and currency shocks from 2018 through to the present have clearly wreaked real damage. For example, Turkey’s per capita income, which went up to $12500 in 2013, declined uninterruptedly for the next seven years, falling to $8500 in 2020.

Moreover, currency crises are a staple for MIT countries such as Turkey since the trap implies a heavy dependency on imports and external financing, the accumulation of unsustainable foreign debt, and stagnation in overall macroeconomic indicators. As it has been at many points in its economic history, Turkey is again confronted by the perils and the promise of a weaker currency, with the prospect of an export-led recovery, but only if the policy settings were lined up correctly. As Erduman and colleagues have rightly noted,

“by implementing structural reforms Turkey can benefit from foreign trade by improving local input content of production; improving price stability through restraining the exchange rate pass-through to domestic prices, and better managing financial stability through reducing external financing in the medium term.”[53]

A recent OECD Economic Survey on Turkey makes the same observation: “A package of reforms could lift Turkey’s GDP per capita level by more than 10% over ten years compared to a scenario with no policy changes.”[54]

Pandemic Populism and Further Disruption to the Economy

Against a backdrop of the currency crisis and macroeconomic instability in train since at least 2018, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in late 2019 has dealt a body blow to the already weak Turkish economy. In the context of populism in Turkey and elsewhere, the key issues are the lack of transparency, rationality, and scientific grounding in the government’s approach to the quality and sustainability of its response to the pandemic. Unfortunately, albeit not surprisingly, the AKP government’s pandemic policy, active measures, and support of affected sectors have been inconsistent, incompetent, disrespectful to science and expertise, arbitrary, and driven by ideology and the need to placate cronies.

The fundamental issues can be summarized as follows. First, the timing of both lockdown and normalization decisions has been poor. The government adopted multiple containment measures relatively late (March 11, 2020) to address the pandemic, but they were lifted far too quickly (May 4, 2020). Following the second wave of infections, containment measures were reintroduced in September and tightened again in late-2020. Lockdown measures included mandatory masks in public areas, stay-at-home orders, curfews, closures, or limited hours for retail shops, closing pre-schools, and restricting gatherings. Once again, after a gradual reopening in early March 2021, following the third wave of infections, restrictions were tightened again, and a complete “lockdown” was announced in late-April 2021, extending into May. Finally, the government announced a phased return to normal in mid-May and June 2021.

Second, active policy has been inconsistent and ineffective. Adding insult to injury, the incompetence of the government’s handling (poor governance, severe working conditions for healthcare workers, low wages, the discrediting of scientists and their recommendations) has accelerated an ongoing and severe brain drain from Turkey. By 2020, almost 5,000 medical doctors had left Turkey in cumulative terms and almost 8,000 have resigned due to the mentioned negative factors.[55]

As for the vaccine, the initially favored Chinese vaccine (SINOVAC) was not only ineffective, but there was also an appalling lack of transparency around the costs and how the acquisition and distribution tenders were allocated. Moreover, Turkey’s vaccine drive was both late and showed far too much tolerance for vaccine opponents, with government officials legitimizing resistance to the vaccine in a country where people are already given to conspiracy theories, denying facts, excessive risk-taking. Most egregiously, as he has always done, Erdoğan encouraged supporters to congregate in public settings at the opening ceremonies for new mosques and other high-profile infrastructure projects, as well as funeral gatherings and party congresses, sacrificing public safety for populist mobilization.

Third, and most damaging, there has been a lack of transparency and loss of trust and social integrity. The meager COVID-19-related death rate became a source of controversy in the highly polarized domestic environment and abroad. The sharp discrepancies in the number of COVID-19-related deaths reported by TURKSTAT and the Turkish Health Ministry versus independent accounting have been telling. For instance, in mid-2021, the Ministry of Health announced that the number of COVID-19 infections in Turkey in the 18 months since the first outbreak in March 2020 exceeded 6 million, with 53,000 deaths. However, alternative research has found the actual death toll more than twice the official figures. For example, Onur Başer, a professor at MEF University, told DW Turkey of his findings that the actual number of COVID-19 deaths between March 17, 2020, and August 1, 2021, was closer to 112,000.[56]

There is much anecdotal evidence of political pressure on officials to underreport deaths, and the 2021 death count of 83,000 is likely a significant underestimate.[57] According to a statement by the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), the World Health Organization (WHO) has criticized Turkey for not properly announcing the death toll because of Turkey’s method of reporting coronavirus deaths actually underreports real numbers.[58]

In terms of fiscal support since the pandemic began, the IMF estimated that between January 2020 and April 2021, total support worldwide has risen to nearly US$16 trillion or 19% of world GDP. That amount comprises around US$9.9 trillion in additional spending and foregone revenue and US$6.1 trillion in liquidity support (e.g., for public equity injections, loans, asset purchases, debt assumptions, and state guarantees).[59] Turkey spent below the world average, with support amounting to some 12–13 % of GDP, and the measures were not directed effectively or efficiently. Only 2.5% provided in terms of direct supports, and the rest were mainly in the form of contingent liabilities. Rather strikingly, Erdoğan announced a national donation campaign to provide funds to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The problem regarding the pandemic supports in Turkey is that the country entered the pandemic without completely eradicating the deep wounds of the 2018 economic crisis, which was triggered by domestic and international political tension. The main challenges were the recurrent chronic external deficits, inflation, heavy debt burden, and currency shock. During the pandemic, the measures taken to resume the economy left no more room for maneuvers on monetary and fiscal fronts. Lockdown measures during the first three months of the pandemic led to a significant decrease in labor force participation, and the unemployment rate within the non-agricultural sector increased from 11.8% in January 2018 to 14.7% in September 2020.[60] With awareness of the high amounts of debt accrued, mainly by public enterprises, and the growing rate of bad loans risking bankruptcy, the government announced the most comprehensive debt restructuring package in recent history in October 2020. Although the need for an influx of foreign capital to boost economic growth and credit expansion was obvious, it has not happened for the reasons explained before. The fiscal management and policies presented in detail above caused inflation to skyrocket and the national debt burden to accumulate further; finally, that process resulted in a sharp currency shock.

As Ümit Özlale has noted in a recent article in Foreign Policy, before and during the pandemic, the lion’s share of public resources went to Erdoğan’s cronies.[61] These funds have been dispersed via tax amnesties, direct supports, subsidized credits, or corrupt infrastructure projects. All these events resulted in the deterioration of income distribution and an increase in poverty and hunger. Pandemic statistics convincingly recommend that, in Turkey, populism displayed in both the 2018 economic meltdown and the pandemic environment increased the cost of the crisis compared to non-populist countries.

Conclusion

Turkey’s Erdoğan provides a textbook case of how a populist performs in opposition and in power. This article proposes six lessons.

The first lesson is his successful instrumentalization of populism as a tool of diplomacy in Turkey’s foreign politics. The rise of the multipolar world and the emerging hybrid global conjuncture have allowed him to leverage alternative rules and norms. Even though Turkey is in the European periphery, it has increasingly challenged the supremacy of the liberal rules-based multilateral order and started to undermine its normative foundation. The support by outsiders, such as Russia, China, and some oil-rich regional countries, has also enabled Turkey to maneuver in international geopolitics.

Second, reflecting his distrust of local and global institutions, Erdoğan has adopted an informal deliberation, which occurs through the interaction between strongmen regimes, lacking transparency and accountability. Such a transactional or give-and-take—what he calls a “win-win” approach— foregrounding decision-making pattern through individualized interaction between influential leaders of critical countries weakened multilateral governance institutions outside and created a further democratic deficit inside.

Third, like all other populists, he initially pretended to be a conscientious and reformist leader although offering easy and fast solutions to chronic problems such as poverty, corruption, and repression. However, starting from 2007, he has maneuvered deftly to exploit political opportunities and, even worse, provoked many fault lines, exploited sensitive cultural, religious, and nationalistic touchpoints to “divide and rule.”

Fourth, depending on the situation, he has instrumentalized the deficiencies of mainstream hyper-globalization and created scapegoats and enemies inside and outside to overhaul and transform the existing governance mechanism under the slogan of rejecting an irrelevant “one-size-fits-all” model that comes with liberal globalization. Instead, he promulgated a never-tested bizarre indigenous model, what he prefers to call “native and national model,” symbolizing his former Millî Görüş ideology. He has abandoned the reform agenda and gone away from the EU membership negotiations using such excuses.

Before and after the presidential system, Erdoğan changed and rewrote the rule of the game that brought him to power. In such a hybrid and contingency system, the same rules apply differently to the incumbent administration, “more equal among equals,” and “the others,” by far the great silent majority. Parallel to the rising economic and political challenges inside and outside, Erdoğan’s emphasis has shifted from the sovereignty of the people, which is executed through free and fair elections to a seemingly free but virtually unfair election, if not directly “open vote, secret count.” As the last local elections in Istanbul 2018 showed, Erdoğan is preparing to re-run elections until he wins. Erdoğan uses the well-known appeals of all authoritarians that “enemies are sabotaging the country,” and “we are fighting a new war of liberation,” and therefore, “we cannot leave the country’s fate to the treasonous opposition.” In conclusion, by making it clear that he no longer intends to leave power, Erdoğan has shown that the inevitable end of populism is authoritarianism.

Fifth, besides politics, he has employed unusual policies (i.e., so-called heterodox policies like using extra-budgetary resources and linking high inflation to high interest rates) in economics through paternalism and kleptocracy. That regime allowed Erdoğan and his business oligarchs to become rich and powerful through corrupt activities such as stealing from society but distributing some to the electorate in return for the vote.

Sixth, Erdoğan’s discrediting of science, expertise, and autonomous professional institutions and ignoring resource constraints promoted fast growth through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies and resource transfer to the politically favored segments of the society. The result has been rampant inflation, domestic and external deficits, resulting in unsustainable national debt, leaving Turkey at the top of the list of most fragile countries and triggering a deep currency crisis.

The more Erdoğan’s imperial presidency, which places all power in the hands of a single man, gives priority to emotion over reason, conflict over compromise, and polarization and division over unity, the busier he becomes attacking imaginary enemies, reducing the parliament to a rubber stamp, and leaving an entire state captive to his whims and temper. After 20 years under his rule, Turkey had returned to the same vicious circle it was in at the start of his tenure, when the EU described it as “too big, too poor, and too unstable.”

Rather than having a “strong man,” Turkey should solve its chronic problems by discovering and implementing the right institutional mixture, policies, and culture under credible leadership.

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[45] O. Cevdet Akçay, C. Emre Alper, and Suleyman Ozmucur, “Budget Deficit, Inflation and Debt Sustainability: Evidence from Turkey (1970-2000),” Inflation and Disinflation in Turkey, edited by A. Kibritçioğlu (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2002), 77-96; Daniel Gros, “Financial Aspects of Central Bank Independence and Price Stability: The Case of Turkey,” CEPS, EU-Turkey Working Paper No. 12https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/financial-aspects-central-bank-independence-and-price-stability-case-turkey/; S. B. Şahin, “Central Bank Independence in Turkey: A Neo-Gramscian Analysis,” Cooperation and Conflict, 47:1 (2012), 106–123, https://doi.org/10.1177/
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[52] Ibrahim Öztürk, “Future Course of Turkey between Convergence and the Middle-Income Trap,” in Japanese Studies Conferences in Turkey-II, edited by Selçuk Esenbel and E. Küçükyalçın (Istanbul: Boğaziçi University Press, 2015), 221–251 (in Turkish).

[53] Yasemin Erduman, Okan Eren, and Selçuk Gül, “Import Content of Turkish Production and Exports: A Sectoral Analysis,” Central Bank Review, 20:4 (2020), 155–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cbrev.2020.07.001, at 167.

[54] “OECD Economic Surveys: Turkey 2021,” OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/2cd09ab1-en.

[55] Amerika’nın Sesi,  “TTB’den Sağlıkta İstifalar Nedeniyle Kaos Uyarısı”,

https://www.amerikaninsesi.com/a/ttb-den-saglikta-istifalar-nedeniyle-kaos-uyarisi/6267124.html

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[61] Umit Ozlale, “Turkey’s opposition. Can end the country’s economic crisis,” Foreign Policy, October 27, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/10/27/turkey-erdogan-opposition-end-economic-crisis/.

English Defence League (EDF) stages a rally to protest the "Islamisation" of the UK in Birmingham on April 8, 2017. Photo: Alexandre Rotenberg.

Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0007

 

Lars Erik Berntzen aims to probe the growth of far-right and anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America since 2001 through his book “Liberal roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century” by focusing on a specific context in terms of spatial and temporal meanings. According to his book, through “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” far-right seems to abandon the old, traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. 

Reviewed by Hafza Girdap

Focusing on a specific context in terms of spatial and temporal meanings, Lars Erik Berntzen aims to probe the growth of far-right and anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America since 2001 through his book Liberal roots of Far Right Activism: The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.

The book sheds a light on the shift from a positive approach to an adversary attitude towards Islam and Muslims following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. Highlighting the transnational impact of these incidents, Berntzen delves into anti-Islamic activism conducted by pioneering movements and political parties in Europe, such as Stop Islamization, Defense League, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), Dutch Pin Fortuyn List (LPF) and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV). The author also draws attention to the hypocrisy of far-right politicians and activists who portray themselves as liberals to avoid stigmatization by using certain discourses of human rights as proxies to exploit anti-Islamic agendas. As a very convenient issue, women’s and gender-based rights are claimed by Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (FN), for instance, to “denigrate Muslim men” (Berntzen, 2020: 2). 

Laying out the background of the book, Berntzen states his research questions in the first chapter. The initial purpose is to explore the background of leaders, their official ideology, organizational networks, and the mobilization of sympathizers. In order to conduct such a research, he also presents four steps. First, he focuses on “tracing evolution of anti-Islamic expansion between 2001 and 2017” specifically in Britain, the US, Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Denmark. Subsequently, a frame analysis of eleven anti-Islamic initiatives from Norway, Britain and Germany is raised covering the time period of 2010-2016. His third step in this research is a network analysis of those anti-Islamic initiatives. And finally, the book investigates mobilization of anti-Islamic groups “that were active during the summer of 2016.” 

Berntzen’s overall finding which he shares in the first chapter is that a significant change is observed within the approach of far right towards Islam and Muslims. He explains such a change as a shift from authoritarian and ethnocentric to a modern, liberal, and transnational anti-Islamic activism. In other words, far right takes on a liberal attitude and appearance by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality, animal rights, preservation of Christian and Jewish heritage. However, the author addresses this situation as an ideological duality considering the view of Islam as a threat to Western civilization along with the profiles of anti-Islamic activists and politicians. Hege Storhaug, a Norwegian feminist activist, is given an example of aforesaid hypocrisy since she aligns with Hungarian politician Viktor Orban’s and the Polish Law and Justice Party’s policies which do certainly not prioritize gender equality and gender-based rights. 

As a scholar focusing on identity representations of Muslim immigrant women in Europe and North America, Berntzen’s work stood out to me in terms of drawing on the most influential concepts on identity formation in resettlements of Muslim immigrants: Islamophobia, anti-Islam and anti-Muslim. The way he differentiates these concepts through the social movement theory is also striking since framing and mobilization play an important role in identity politics. As far as I am concerned, Islamophobia represents an irrational, emotional fear; whereas, the author argues, anti-Islam refers to the “shift the theoretical focus from reaction to action, in line with the agency-oriented perspective dominant in social movement analysis” (Berntzen, 2020: 38). At this point, inclusion of liberal positions which portrays Islam as an existential threat to Western civilization and as an ideology not compatible with democratic and progressive issues; anti-Islam justifies and legitimizes transnational mobilization of far-right organizations. Among the most influential discourses of this liberal far-right are women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and their perception in Islamic tradition. Berntzen maps the ideology of anti-Islamic far-right combining with not only the expansion of collective action and networks but also with party politics. While doing so, he draws on both international critical incidents such as 9/11 terror attacks and Prophet Muhammed cartoon crisis and local incidents to demonstrate the anti-Islamic expansion of the far-right in different contexts and circumstances. 

To sum up; Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century scrutinizes anti-Islamic ideology and movements of far-right by diving into distinctive conceptualization of Islamophobia, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam. Claiming it to be an ideological duality, the author of the book highlights that anti-Islamic far right posits a semi-liberal worldview and action towards Islam presenting it to be incompatible with modernity, human rights and liberal issues. In other words, by “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11) far right seems to abandon the old, traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy, seemingly, focuses on more the ideology (Islam) rather than the individuals (identities). As he puts in several parts of the book while explaining why he favors “anti-Islam” concept rather than “anti-Muslim” and “Islamophobia”; this distinction represents the new transnational anti-Islamic movement to be transforming from ethnic based nationalism, oppressive authoritarianism which focuses on Muslims towards a liberal position which promotes equality, justice and democratic values putting an ideological standpoint forward.

 


 Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century, By Lars Erik Berntzen, Routledge, 2020. 228 pp., £27.99 (paperback), ISBN: 9780367224660

 

Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) chant slogans as they protest against the arrest of their leader in Lahore, Pakistan on April 16, 2021. Photo: A.M. Syed

Religious Populism and Vigilantism: The Case of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2022) “Religious Populism and Vigilantism: The Case of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. January 23, 2022. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0001

 

Abstract

Religious populism and radicalism are hardly new to Pakistan. Since its birth in 1947, the country has suffered through an ongoing identity crisis. Under turbulent political conditions, religion has served as a surrogate identity for Pakistan, masking the country’s evident plurality, and over the years has come to dominate politics. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is the latest face of religious extremism merged with populist politics. Nevertheless, its sporadic rise from a national movement defending Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws to a “pious” party is little understood. 

This paper draws on a collection of primary and secondary sources to piece together an account of the party’s evolution that sheds light on its appeal to “the people” and its marginalization and targeting of the “other.” The analysis reveals that the TLP has evolved from a proxy backed by the establishment against the mainstream parties to a full-fledged political force in its own right. Its ability to relate to voters via its pious narrative hinges on exploiting the emotional insecurities of the largely disenfranchised masses. With violence legitimized under the guise of religion, “the people” are afforded a new sense of empowerment. Moreover, the party’s rhetoric has given rise to a vigilante-style mob culture so much so that individuals inspired by this narrative have killed in plain sight without remorse. To make matters worse, the incumbent government of Imran Khan — itself a champion of Islamist rhetoric — has made repeated concessions and efforts to appease the TLP that have only emboldened the party. Today, the TLP poses serious challenges to Pakistan’s long-standing, if fragile, pluralistic social norms and risks tipping the country into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of religous political party Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, speaks to supporters during a protest against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders in Lahore on August 29, 2018. Photo: A.M. Syed.

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Introduction 

Pakistan’s history with populism dates back as early as the 1960s. The first populist was neither a mullah nor a military dictator seeking to legitimize his rule. Fatima Ali Jinnah, the younger sister of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was the first leader to adopt a populist playbook when she ran against the military-led coalition of General Ayub Khan (1958–1969). Jinnah became the face of “real democracy” against the “elite” in the 1965 general elections. The “real democracy” she promised was rooted in a commitment to represent the “people’s will” (Zaheer and Chawla, 2019). However, while largely secular in outlook, General Ayub—in addition to widespread electoral rigging—ran an orthodox Islamist campaign to delegitimize Jinnah’s political ambitions by arguing that Islam prohibits women from serving as head of a state (Ahmed, 2019The New York Times, 1964). Religious orthodoxy blended with military authoritarianism defeated a populist democrat in 1965. In the 1970s, history repeated. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a left-wing populist whose program featured traces of Islamic welfarism, lost the premiership (and his life) to Islamist elements who demandedNizam-e-Mustafa (the system of governance under the Prophet Muhammad) be imposed in Pakistan. 

During the decade-long regime of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978–1988), religious factions were empowered enough to become fixtures in the parliament, judiciary, and the law itself, not to mention the daily lives of Pakistanis (Ahmed & Yilmaz 2021Yilmaz, 2014). This is known as Pakistan’s period of “Islamization” and continues to shape the country’s politics to this very day. Today, it would be unimaginable for leaders like Jinnah or Bhutto to run for office. The public is now more responsive to “pious” populism than to a generic “anti-elitism” that promises an end to corruption. A decades-long strategy of tolerating (and indeed nurturingreligious fanaticism as part of the military-led establishment’s quest for “strategic depth” has created fertile soil for “pious populism” at the grassroots (Meher, 2012). Compared to voices emanating from the remote and “corrupt” political system, the ordinary working-class or rural Pakistani citizen has unquestioning faith in the guidance and direction from the mullah of his or her local mosque. 

In the last three and a half years, growing disillusion with the democratic system has peaked. The party of Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has promised a utopian vision recalling the Riyasat-e-Madina (the early period of rule in the city of Medina under the Prophet Muhammad), through welfare schemes, promoting piousness in society, and an end to corruption. Needless to say, these promises have not materialized (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). With skyrocketing inflation, the PTI walking back many of its promises, and the government proving mostly unable to govern effectively, many citizens have lost hope in the promised political “tsunami.” Against this backdrop, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has evolved from a movement to defend Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws into a populist radical right-wing political party. In less than a decade it is able to challenge the ruling political party and the state apparatus itself, on several occasions.

The instrumentalization of religion that the TLP has proven so adept at is scarcely novel in the Pakistani political firmament. Founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi in August 2015, the TLP has its origins and largest base of support in the Barelvi sect, a broad, Sufi-oriented Islamic revivalist movement with a long history of mobilizing conservative factions in South Asia and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the TLP is unique in the sense that it uses a highly appealing form of religious populism. The leadership provides a “moral” Islamism that seeks to address the issues of “corruption” in politics and society. With a sense of victimhood, it presents itself as the “defender” of faith and nation laced with vigilante-style vindictive rhetoric. Since 2015, the party has rallied thousands on the streets, leading to violent clashes, and loss of life and property. Each event has led to temporary arrests and bans on the party, only for the state to eventually cave into supporters’ demands and release vigilantes and lift sanctions on the party.

Emboldened by its successive victories, the TLP has grown in power. Its followers have become independent vigilantes engaging in cyber-harassment of critics, physically roughing up opposing voices, hurling in-person targeted abuse, and in the most extreme cases lynching people they accuse of blasphemy to death. This ability to mobilize and attack opponents combined with a voluble rhetoric that panders to a “pious” and wronged “true people,” allowed the TLP to score 4.2 percent of the vote (some 2.2 million votes) at the 2018 general elections, putting it in fifth place, although without any seats in Pakistan’s parliament (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020). 

Despite its sporadic rise to power and mushrooming growth, very little scholarly analysis has been published on the TLP. This paper seeks to address this gap in the literature by analyzing the TLP’s religious populism. In doing so, it offers a comprehensive review of how this populist Islamist populist movement has leveraged emotion and religious devotion to mobilize supporters. The first section of the paper provides an overview of the theoretical framework through which religious populism has been understood and the two central features of the phenomenon: the use of pro-violent narratives and vigilantism. This is followed by a discussion on the TLP’s genesis and the group’s evolution since 2015. In this section, statements by TLP leadership and the party’s dynamic relationship with the Pakistani state are reviewed to shed light on the conditions for its growth and its core mobilizing tactics. The closing section offers a set of conclusions about the role of religious populism in promoting vigilantism and sporadic acts of gruesome violence, the path ahead for Pakistan, and the risk that the country will descend into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization. 

 

Members of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are holding protest rally against amending affidavit of Khatam-e-Nabuwat, at M.A Jinnah road on November 12, 2017 in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Religion and Populism 

Loosely characterized as “confrontational, chameleonic, culture-bound and context-dependent” (Arter, 2011: 490), populism has become a worldwide phenomenon that directly challenges liberal democracy. A “thin” ideology, populism “thickens” and adapts by attaching itself to “thicker” cultural and ideological forms (De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017). By its very nature, populism is divisive in that it establishes an antagonistic division between “the people” and “the elite” while promising justice for the former, who are typically cast as “wronged” (Moffitt, 2020De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017Laclau, 2005: 154; Mudde, 2004: 543). It also goes beyond just criticizing “the elite” for their moral or political corruption and accuses the elite of advancing the interests of some favored “Other” at the expense of the “true people.” This “Other” can be defined variously in terms of political beliefs, skin color, gender, religious beliefs, or migration status (DeHanas & Shterin, 2018: 180De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017Zúquete, 2017: 446Moffitt, 2015). Essentially, populists thrive on divisional politics, and their sensationalist antics that “celebrate the low” in politics, ranging from utopian promises to crude language, add to their popularity (Nai, 2022).   

Religious populism is a form of cultural populism whereby embedded cultural forms are used to “thicken” the fundamental division between “the people” and “elites.” In the last two decades, religious rhetoric has become ever more prominent in mainstream politics (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020Peker, 2019Hadiz, 2018Jaffrelot and Tillin, 2017Zúquete, 2017Roy, 2016). In Europe, “civilizational” narratives that emphasize the role of religion in broad identity constructs have increasingly come to dominate the most influential forms of populism (Brubaker, 2017: 1211). This kind of populist rhetoric and narrative mobilization foregrounds civilizational distinctions, especially “religions and their cultural legacies” (think Viktor Orbán’s self-proclaimed mission to defend “European Christianity”), where “the people” and “the other” are distinguished based on religion, ethnicity, cultural norms, and the like. (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). 

In the twenty-first century, cultural populism has become widespread, especially in non-Western parts of the world, such as South Asia and Africa. In many such countries, religion is used by civilisationist populists to “thicken” their ideology, style, and outlook. As Yilmaz & Morieson (2021) note, there is an elective affinity between religious populism (which appeals directly to the faithful at a programmatic or electoral level) and identitarian populism (which draws on religious identity to make chauvinistic claims about the superiority of one culture over another). Specifically, the authors observe that:

“Religious populism encompasses both organised religion’s political and public aspects when they adopt a populist style and/or discourse, and populist political movement/parties/leaders that adopt an explicit religious programme. Identitarian populism is superficially similar to religious populism, but it does not possess a political programme based upon religious teachings, nor does it attempt to force religion upon a society or run a society according to the teachings of a particular religion. Instead, identitarian populism embraces a religion-based classification of peoples, often one aligned to civilisations (Western, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) or nations. It is not, however, religious itself, but is most often wholly secular, and therefore does not call for people to return to the faiths of their ancestors, or even to believe in God” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021: 10).

This framing of the phenomenon of religious populism speaks to the modus operandi of the TLP, which instrumentalizes Islam and uses faith to mold its narrative and style while emphasizing the goal of bringing Nizam-e-Mustafa to Pakistan, thereby reorienting the status quo. 

The Emotional Appeal of Religious Populism: Opening Space for Vigilante Aggression  

Religion is not only a tool for social categorization but also a highly emotive tool in the hands of populists. As Yilmaz & Morieson (2021: 1–10) note: “Similar to many other ideologies/movements, populists too construct narratives that paint the events, in-groups, and outgroups in certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitate strong emotions among the audience.” Such a strategy enables them to cast the ingroup as “good” and the outgroup as “wicked.” Added to this categorization of society is the emotion of fear which creates a crisis for “the people.” For instance, in the United States and across Europe, an emotional backlash against multiculturalism, gender rights, and overall progressive values has bolstered populists who seek to protect “Christian values” (Norris & Inglehart, 2019). 

In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, has also derailed democracy against a backdrop where communal tensions between various religious groups have reached a peak not seen since 1947 (Doffer et al., 2020Gandesha, 2020). In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has merged pre-existing social tensions and fears with Islamism, overturning eight decades of often aggressively imposed secularism (Yilmaz, 2021). Within Pakistan as well, Imran Khan’s populism hinges greatly on emotional appeal. Over the years, his promise of a Riyasat-e-Madina has given hope to “the people” that the country can adopt a model of Islamist welfare combined with economic and political self-sufficiency.      

Both religious and identarian populists use emotions to polarize society, gain merit in the eyes of “the people,” and promote themselves as “the only hope” against a hostile “other.”  (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021Salmela & von Scheve 20172018Brady et al., 2017Graham et al., 2011). Given the nature of religion, its importance in the lives of many, and its divinely ordained distinctions between “good” and “bad” conduct, the way religious or civilizational identities are drawn is often rooted in pre-existing collective feelings “of grievances, resentment, disillusionment, anger, fear, and vindictiveness” (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2022; see also Yilmaz, 2021Bonansinga, 2020). “The people” and their faith (or long-held cultures of worship) are positioned as being at risk from “the other.”

Alongside negative emotions of fear and anxiety, populists also use positive emotions of pride and love of one’s religion and the prospect that one will be rewarded for helping to “make society great again” and for defending one’s faith at all costs (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021Albayrak, 2013). Taggart (2004) uses the term “heartland” as a descriptor for this emotional space where, as he noted in a recent blog post, populists construct “a version of the past that celebrates a hypothetical, uncomplicated and non-political territory of imagination.” The heightened emotional resonance of “heartland” messages has triggered followers of these populists to undertake quite inhumane measures and overlook the increasingly undemocratic digressions of populists in power. Such acts are seen as just in a quest to reinforce the “heartland” for “the people” (Kissas, 2019Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018Pappas, 2016). 

One of the leading examples where Islamist populism has deployed a host of emotions in its mobilization strategy is Turkey. Erdoğan has successfully leveraged long-established fears of “Western enemies” and “internal traitors” that date back well over a century but are cast in a new guise to fit the current political context (Yilmaz, 2021). Since 2010 especially, Erdoğan, his party, and pro-AKP voices have systematically engaged in smear campaigns that transform into institutional oppression and discrimination toward “the other” (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 20212022). For instance, a former ally and spiritual group, the Gülen Movement (GM) and its leader, have been used as a scapegoats for all manner of sins within the AKP, including its rampant corruption and many governance failures since the mid-2000s (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 20212022Watmough, 2020).

Religious populist leaders outside of state institutions have also used emotions to galvanize support along these lines. One of the most prominent cases from Southeast Asia is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI—Front Pembela Islam), which is now formally banned in Indonesia (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021). With the narrative of victimhood inspired by fear of assorted “others” — non-Muslims, “Zionists,” the Western powers, China, and Ahmadis — the group has been encouraged to take matters into its own hands and “defend” Islam and the ummah (Facal, 2019Jahroni, 2004). Its massive appeal in the country has meant that while renaming a movement-driven organization, the FPI has played a key role in electoral lobbying and mainstreaming right-wing narratives. Its power to sway state institutions is visible by the fact that it was behind the introduction of 400 Shariah-inspired laws in the country and has the force behind blasphemy protests in 2016–17  (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021). 

The FPI has been able to replicate its presence online, and even though it remains banned, its cyber “warriors” and various websites remain active (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Moreover, using charged Islamist populist rhetoric, the FPI has inspired a generation of vigilantes in the country who continue to take part in local (and overseas) incidents of aggression toward various “others” to “protect” the Islamic faith. 

However, it must be noted that Indonesia’s democratic institutions, while often brittle, are much stronger than Pakistan’s. The government has succeeded in permanently banning the FPI and maintaining its outlaw status. In contrast, the TLP remains free to operate in a country with already fragile institutions and a population receptive to Islamist narratives. This paper thus looks at Pakistan’s context and understands the group’s working under the populism framework.

 

A regional office of a TLP in lyari. The Signboards are in Urdu and English in Karachi, Pakistan on January 2021.

The Historical Roots and Evolution of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

The Barelvi order was formed in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising in India against the British East India Company. Weakened, the company turned to the British government for assistance, and the conflict expanded into a full-scale war of independence against the British crown. The Indian defeat in 1857-8 led to the formal colonization of India by Britain when the last Mughal King, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed, and a series of “revenge” murders by the British troops was undertaken (Dalrymple, 2008). This ushered in the end of centuries of Muslim leadership of the Subcontinent. 

In the wake of the establishment of the British Raj, a broad-based, Sufi-oriented Sunni Islamic revivalist movement, the Barelvi, emerged to “protect” Islam and restore Muslim “glory” in the region. Over the years, the movement has inspired jihadism against the region’s perceived “others.” For instance, Syed Ahmad Barelvi[1] launched a guerrilla war against the Sikh Empire of Punjab in the early nineteenth century; over two hundred years later, thousands of young men were sent as mujahideen to fight the Afghan war in the 1980s. As a result, Barelvi religious doctrine draws on a deep sense of victimhood that extends back to the colonial past. Over time, the movement has adapted, and its definition of “other. Nevertheless, the centrality of jihadist ideas and the movement’s defining motivation to “protect” Islam against hostile forces have been constants. 

In recent years, Pakistan’s commitment to the US “war on terror” has seen the influence of hardliner Deobandi scholars decline. However, the state’s tolerance of madrassa culture and its cultivation of right-wing radicals continues. Indeed, the Pakistani state has embraced the benefits of pandering to a supposedly “victimized” population by supporting the “softer” Sufi elements in Islam, of which Barelvism is a part. As a result, Barelvi clerics have been placed in important positions, their madrassas have received state funding, and the Barelvi identity, which had been solidified due to exclusion and deprivation, has strengthened through state patronage. For their part, the Barelvis have publicly condemned terrorism and, by all accounts, have consciously avoided inciting political chaos in recent decades. Nevertheless, despite its Sufi roots, the movement hues to very strident positions, seeing the Holy Prophet as a divine being (Noor Mohammadiya) who is omnipresent (Hazir-o-Nazir) and arguing that insults of the Prophet (Namoos-e-Risalat) should be punished by death. Emboldened in this way, the movement has become more assertive and has turned violent of late. 

The origins of the TLP movement are in the Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri), which came into existence after the arrest of Mumtaz Qadri in 2011 on charges of assassinating Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, ostensibly for the latter’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Following Qadri’s trial and execution, the movement renamed itself Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolallah (TLYP), later transforming into the TLP (Sabat, Ahmad, & Qadar, 2020). This movement advocated for Qadri and portrayed him as a hero even after this execution. The movement derives its core support from Barelvi madrassas dotted across the country. 

In the conducive environment for the Barelvis, supporters of Mumtaz Qadri grew in numbers. The movement consolidated at his funeral and later rituals associated with chehlum (the traditional forty days of mourning after death), branding him a martyr of Islam. The movement grew rapidly, affording the largely dispersed Barelvi community a publicly expressed collective identity. Opposition to blasphemy became the central aspect of the movement’s motivation, and where the judicial system was seen as too slow in its prosecution of violators (at times even acquitting them), the TLP applied direct and swift mob justice.

The incumbent government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) did nothing to reprimand this vigilante behavior at the time, especially following Qadri’s hanging. Embroiled in its own corruption scandals and confronting civil unrest led by Imran Khan and his PTI, the government lacked the will and resources to act. In addition, the PML-N, which draws on the tradition of General Zia-ul-Haq’s political Islam in Pakistan, did not wish to alienate its pious supporters by being seen to be heavy-handed against Islamic groups in society. More importantly, the military-led establishment —which had nurtured Sharif and his party in the 1980s as a counter to the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)  — now settled on the Barelvi as a useful counterweight to the PML-N’s growing independence. After returning to the prime ministership for a third term in 2013, Sharif and his party were increasingly asserting their independence from the establishment, driving the latter to seek ways to “break” the party’s political base. To that end, the establishment began to foment rifts between the PML-N and its right-wing supporter base in Punjab, including the Barelvi. Careful political engineering behind the scenes laid the ground for the formation of the TLP. 

Many TLP members are former PLM-N supporters. A 2018 Gallup survey found that 46 percent of those who voted for the TLP in 2018 had voted for PML-N in the 2013 elections. Nawaz and his party keenly felt this loss of support. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, the Punjab exploded in sporadic province-wide protests led by Khadim Rizvi calling for the resignation of the then Minister of Law and Justice, Zahid Hamid, over changes to the wording of the Elections Bill 2017 drafted by the government in the run-up to the elections.  

Specifically, the government had changed the wording of the oath concerning commitment to the finality of Prophet Muhammad from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe.” The TLP cast this “weakening” of the oath’s wording as undermining Pakistan’s Muslim identity and values, which hinge on the belief in the finality of the Prophet. Zahid Hamid’s home was attacked, and TLP vigilantes staged sit-ins until he was forced to resign over the alleged “blasphemy.” Rizvi and his followers blocked all main roads in Islamabad for twenty days, demanding the original wording be restored and the minister’s resignation. Clashes with police injured some 200 and killed four

The TLP remained undeterred, and the protests turned into highly ritualistic public displays of political piety. Day and night, on the orders of Rizvi, the protesters chanted nats (lyrics praising the Prophet Muhammad) and slogans expressing love for the Prophet and hatred for those considered gustakhs (blasphemers). Passions ran so high that protesters armed with simple sticks were recorded tossing their shoes at passing state patrol helicopters while Rizvi hurled all kinds of abuse at the government. Finally, with the PML-N on its knees, the military was called in to “arbitrate.” The TLP was forced to retreat to its stronghold in Lahore (albeit with its demand met), and the government retreated with its tail between its legs. However, it would not be the last time the radicals would best Sharif before the 2018 elections. 

The 2017 events only emboldened the TLP, which now evidently had the establishment’s blessing. As much was proven when a video surfaced of a high-raking army official disbursing money to TLP protesters in 2017. The establishment claimed the funds were used to disburse the protesters by giving them funds to return to their homes. However, many speculated that this was part of the military’s long-run strategy of “strategic depth” — namely, fomenting unrest to keep the elected government on its toes. 

These suspicions were further confirmed when the Supreme Court finally released its judgment on the sit-ins in February 2019. The judgment held that all protesters be tried under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and called upon Pakistan’s electoral commission to scrutinize the TLP’s status as a political party. Interestingly, the court issued a warning to the armed forces to cease meddling in the country’s political affairs, noting: “The Constitution emphatically prohibits members of the Armed Forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction or individual. The Government of Pakistan through the Ministry of Defense and the respective Chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are directed to initiate action against the personnel under their command who are found to have violated their oath.”

By 2018, the TLP had become a household name. It had garnered wide media attention and the sympathies of radical elements in the country. Rizvi’s crude language and earthy charisma proved quite effective. His blunt use of Punjabi jokes and coarse language resonated with the sentiments and approach of the masses. Thus, he could cast himself as “one of them” rather than a phony politician. His speeches went viral on social media, and attendance at the seminary at Multan Road in Lahore blossomed. Like all populists, Rizvi’s rhetoric was unapologetic and provided “simple” solutions. For example, as a “solution” to the problem of Dutch “blasphemers” mocking Islam and the Prophet, he suggested Pakistan attack the Netherlands with nuclear weapons, berating the government for its inaction and its warehousing of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as if they were “firecrackers” (i.e., just for show). 

When quizzed about the party’s economic policy on a popular television show, Rizvi showcased both his political acumen (using the language of people’s everyday experience) and apparent lack of economic expertise (eschewing detailed policy commitments), noting that when the Nizam-e-Mustafa was established, the country would prosper because the government would, like any ordinary household, just live within its means. He explained this by saying that if his government were ever short of resources, everyone would make do for a while without yogurt and instead eat chilies with roti. However, when further pressed for a specific policy, he launched into a classic rant against the state and blamed banks charging interest and a lack of piety among the elite as the source of all problems. 

Enabling a New Vigilante Jihadism

Despite its apparent disconnect with reality, TLP won some 1.8 million votes (National Assembly seats) in Punjab (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020). The same year they also successfully campaigned to remove Atif Mian from the Pakistan Economic Council because he was a member of the Ahmadiyya community. This was the first compromise by the PTI government as it gave into the demands of the TLP. 

At a micro level, more disturbing events occurred even before the elections. Young impressionable children going to TLP mosques and hearing Rizvi’s sermons showed early signs of vigilantism. On January 23, 2018, Sareer Ahmed, a student, killed his school’s principal, who had reprimanded him for skipping classes to attend a TLP sit-in. The boy who showed no remorse after killing his teacher justified his actions in the name of safeguarding the Prophet Muhammad.

In May 2018, PML-N politician and National Assembly Member, Ahsan Iqbal was critically wounded by Abid Hussain,who charged Iqbal with committing blasphemy. It is believed that Iqbal was returning from a meeting with a Christian group when he was shot. In March 2019, Khateeb Hussain, another young student, killed his professor over allegations of blasphemy. The boy did not show any signs of remorse after using a knife to kill his teacher in his classroom. 

On October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the previous conviction of a Christian woman Aasiya Noreen (popularly known as Asia Bibi), accused of blasphemy. The TLP called for the three judges to be killed for the judgment. Mass protests erupted in retaliation, and roads in major cities were blocked as protesters stormed the streets and destroyed public and private property. On November 2, 2018, the new government agreed to put Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List, which barred her from leaving the country in an effort to subdue the protests. To neutralize the growing resistance on November 4, 2018, Rizvi’s Twitter was also suspended at the government’s request. Bibi’s lawyer also left the country fearing his own life. On November 7, Asia Bibi was secretly flown on a military plane out of the country. 

In 2020, a bank manager from the Ahmadiyya faith was shot dead in broad daylight by the bank’s security guard in the town of Khushab in Punjab. What was more disturbing was the guard being taken handcuffed by the police with a smirk on his face as the mob chanted in support of him for heroism. In 2021, the lynching of the Sri Lankan factory manager by a mob in Sialkot was also TLP inspired. The key culprits in the cases expressed pride in their actions. All these attackers were linked with TLP or inspired by their narrative, yet the TLP chief was quick to disassociate himself from them. 

While TLP has served the establishment (and the PTI) as a valuable counterweight to the PML-N, the party’s freelance vigilantism has become an issue. Now that the PTI is firmly in power and towing the establishment line, the state apparatus has again mobilized against the TLP. As mentioned, in 2019, the Supreme Court openly questioned the party status of the TLP and asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to investigate. In reply, the ECP has informed the court that the party had failed to provide the required campaign finance reports for the 2018 elections, blunting the party’s political ambitions. Additionally, there were also rumors of a split between the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his heir apparent, Pir Afzal Rizvi, and the movement began to show cracks. 

However, another “crisis” emerged in the winter of 2020 that opened up a space for the TLP to fall back on its tried and tested strategy of leveraging supposed “threats” to Islam to mobilize supporters in vigilante violence. 

In October 2021, a French history teacher who had brought sketches of the Prophet Muhammad allegedly printed in a 2012 edition of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo into his classroom was decapitated; the assailant was shot dead by French police as they tried to arrest him. In the days that followed the beheading, the same sketches were projected onto the facade of a building in another French city, and people displayed them at protests around the country. The French president Emmanuel Macron criticized Islamists and was accused of inciting Islamophobia. This led to a call within Pakistan to boycott French products. Khadim Hussain Rizvi went a step further, calling on followers to block the Shahrah-e-Faisal, the main road in Karachi, until the government cut all diplomatic ties with France and banned all French products. He even urged the government to announce jihad (Islamic holy war) against France. During this period, his sermons were increasingly hostile toward France, and in one, he declared, “we must eventually die of some disease, be it diabetes or some other ailment […]. It is better to die with the name of the Prophet on our lips […] it does not matter if France perishes if the world perishes or we perish.” 

Rizvi has been adept at using the coarse language of his region to castigate opponents. He has labeled the Supreme Court Chief Justice a “dog,” referred to Prime Minister Imran Khan variously as an “animal,” a “duffer,” a “barking dog,” a “pimp,” and mouthed many anti-Semitic slurs. When confronted with his behavior, he has defended himself by declaring he is merely a cipher of the words and vision of the Prophet Mohammed.  

A large numbers of people gathered to attend funeral prayer of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Chief of TLP, held at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore on on November 21, 2020. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Rizvi’s death in 2020 did not end the movement. His eldest son, Saad Rizvi, who was relatively unknown to the public before taking over the movement’s leadership, has since continued his father’s path. Thus, the death of the elder Rizvi has not derailed the party’s anti-French jihad. On January 3, 2021, he called on the government to expel the French ambassador by February 17, 2021 as per their previous agreement. 

On April 12, 2021, police arrested Saad Rizvi on charges of terrorism. Protests erupted, and a member of the group’s leadership, Syed Zaheerul Hassan Shah, called on supporters to “jam the entire country.” Tensions became so high that the French embassy asked French nationals to leave the country temporarily. Law enforcement agencies tried to clear out TLP supporters from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but at least four policemen were killed in clashes. This proved to be the final straw for the government, which announced it had “reasonable grounds to believe that Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan is engaged in terrorism.” On April 15, 2021, the government banned the TLP under anti-terrorism legislation. Fearing a backlash from the party supporters, the government also temporarily banned social media. Despite the move to outlaw the party, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on national television to call the crackdown on the TLP “regrettable,” thereby showing his sympathy for the group’s criminal acts.

By November 2021, the PTI government appeared to be walking back its hardline approach to the TLP. First, Saad Rizvi’s arrest mobilized unprecedented protest action across the country that the government of Imran Khan struggled to control. Then, at the end of 2021, Saad Rizvi was released from prison. Moreover, many TLP supporters accused of vandalism and violence against police walk free, even as the party prepares to contest the 2023 general elections. Yet, rather than seeing the renewed mobilization of the TLP as a defeat, Imran Khan’s strategy appears to be to placate the movement, pointing to the shared Islamist objectives of his PTI and the TLP.

Illustration by: Khurram Shayzad.

Conclusion

The present article has sought to analyze the foundations on which the TLP has risen to prominence in Pakistan. Our analysis indicates that the group has leveraged the victimhood narrative, jihadism, vindictiveness, and revanchism of the Barelvi sect. While Islamic populism is not new in Pakistan, the TLP is set apart by its ability to ride the populist wave by speaking to the fears and anxieties of the public. In addition, it has mainstreamed radical Islamist and pro-violence ideas. Having evolved from a proxy created by the establishment to a political force in its own right, the TLP poses a serious challenge to the very fabric of Pakistani society through its championing of mass vigilante violence.  

It is clear that the Pakistani establishment has been key to emboldening the TLP through its early support. Now, the TLP has gained so much clout that it appears to have outgrown the state. Moreover, the political environment is ripe for exploitation. Inflation rates keep skyrocketing, the value of the Pakistani rupee has plummeted, and Imran Khan’s promised Islamic welfare state is nowhere to be seen. While Khan employs his own version of Islamist populism to appease the religious sentiments of the masses, there is a growing sense of distrust toward him within the electorate. Only a few years ago, Nawaz Sharif and his PLM-N lost a hefty chunk of their votes to the TLP; the PTI now confronts a similar fate. 

What emerges is a kind of Islamist “bidding war” in which the PTI seems to be losing ground to the TLP. While the former has bolstered religious authorities, funded right-wing groups, and constantly advocated for a boycott of “Western values” (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021), the TLP seems to be constantly outmaneuvering it. Its unchecked and uncensored content is creating a new generation of vindictive jihadists. And unlike the Taliban, this group operates in plain view. Students, shopkeepers, and even family members appear ready to kill in the name of “safeguarding” Islam. Most of these people know that the legal system is too corrupt and slow to prosecute them. 

It is unclear whether a new “crisis” will emerge (or be fabricated) that will allow the TLP an open space for mobilization in the lead-up to the 2023 elections. What is clear is that the playing field of Pakistani politics has shifted decisively in favor of extremism and vigilantism. While the TLP is hardly the first outfit to exploit religion in Pakistan, it is arguably the most threatening to the stability of the social and political order in the country’s 75-year history. 

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[1] Barelvi was a revered figure with origins in the Ahl-e-Hadith factions (another hardline Sunni order). His name is derived from his hometown of Bareli (in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh) and not the Barelvi movement itself.