Specialist in hazmat suits cleaning disinfecting coronavirus cells. Photo: Shutterstock.

Crisis and Populism: The role of crisis management and exploitation

By Vasiliki Tsagkroni

Just within less than two decades, the world has been experiencing an era of constant crises; from the economic crisis that erupted in 2008  that led to the eurozone sovereign-dept crisis, to the EU crisis that followed the UK’s vote to Brexit, to the refugee crisis of 2015 emerging from the confluence of conflicts in the Middle East, to a more recent health crisis of Covid-19 pandemic, and a culmination of democratic back-sliding, raising a debate on a possible ongoing crisis of democracy. The latter has brought populism to the centre of the discussions at an academic level and in the broader societal audience due to the observation that crisis and the rise of populism are intertwined. The existing scholarship on populism has constantly been expanding, reflecting the steady growth of populist actors across the globe; from transforming democracies in Latin America since the early 1990s (Weyland, 2013; Levitsky & Roberts, 2011) to the populist far-right in the early 2000s in Europe (Betz & Immerfall, 1998; Mudde, 2007) and from the newer expressions of inclusionary populism that occurred after the economic crisis of 2008 (Mudde & Rovira Kaltwasser, 2013), to Brexit and Trump and the menace of nationalist populism (Inglehart & Norris, 2016) and the populism in post-communist context (Pirro, 2013).

The emergence of populism has sparked a debate regarding its definition and raised the issue of the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. The latter pinpoints the need to identify populist breakthrough and persistence causal mechanisms in different environments. The multiple and variable explanations of the effect of populism spurred a level of confusion and disagreement among scholars when it comes to comprehending this phenomenon and its impact on democracy, with studies urging deluging effects and others calling for no concerns. However broad the debate is, though, including among other issues of definition, use of the term, strategies of measurement, causes and consequences, a shared thought underlines every discussion: populism has changed politics on a fundamental level.

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

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

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

 

Abstract

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Civilizationism in Israel

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

National Liberal Movement (Likud)’s Civilizational Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Civilizationism in Netanyahu’s Populist Discourse and Policies

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


 

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

 

Abstract

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil  

Introduction 

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

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

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

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

Populist Crises Rooted in Civilisationalism 

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of Erdogan 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of Khan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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


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


 

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

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

 

Abstract

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

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

 

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of Populism in Turkey and Pakistan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theoretical Framework: Populists in Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promises

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

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

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

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

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

Compromises

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

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

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

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

Attacks on Democratic Institutions

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

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

Comparative Analysis of Populists in Turkey and Pakistan

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

Promises 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compromises 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirty Institutionalism 

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

Judiciary

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

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

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

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

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

Media

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civil Society 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion 

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

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

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


 

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


 

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

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


 

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

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

Civilizational Populism Around the World

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieseon, Nicholas. (2022). “Civilizational Populism Around the World.” Populism & Politics.European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 31, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0012

 

Abstract

This article addresses an issue of growing political importance: the global rise of civilizational populism. From Western Europe to India and Pakistan, and from Indonesia to the Americas, populists are increasingly linking national belonging with civilizational identity—and at times to the belief that the world is divided into religion-based civilizations, some of which are doomed to clash with one another. As part of this process, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity have all been commandeered by populist parties and movements, each adept at using the power of religion—in different ways and drawing on different aspects of religion—to define the boundary of concepts such as people, nation, and civilization. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson    

Introduction

The latter part of the 20th century witnessed the decline of autocratic governments and the creation of many new liberal democracies across the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy appeared triumphant; some even began to describe the period as the ‘end of history.’ The phrase, borrowed from Francis Fukuyama (who used it in a complex and rather ambivalent way to describe the victory of capitalism and liberal democracy over its once powerful ideological rivals), described the growing sense that humankind had reached its optimal state, and that liberal democratic values were now almost axiomatic and without rival (Fukuyama, 2006). 

By the mid-2000s, and following a series of political events of historical importance, the euphoria surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union began to dissipate. The attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent and disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the rise of authoritarian China and the growth of extremist movements such as the Islamic State (IS), suggested that history had not ended, and that liberal democracy would continue to face many challenges. Russia’s transformation into a brutal dictatorship under Vladimir Putin, culminating in his expansionist war against Ukraine, signals perhaps a fundamental shift in international relations and a powerful challenge to liberal democracy. Yet the most potent challenge to liberal democracy may be coming from withinrather than from rival ideologies. On the one hand, while Russia and China may appear to represent an ideological challenge to the liberal democratic world, the two regimes require extreme information control and the punishment of dissidents in order to maintain authoritarian non-liberal governance. However, since the mid-2000s there has been a sharp decline in basic freedoms, and a deterioration of democratic institutions, in a significant number of democratic countries around the world (Repucci & Slipowitz, 2021). 

According to Thomas Hobbes, there exists a social contract between the state and its people (or the monarch and their subjects). This contract effectively ensures that a government will guarantee the safety of the people it represents (Gauthier, 1988). Hobbes believed that human actions are driven by rational self-interest, and therefore argued that people would willingly enter into a social contract with the government and other people, on the basis that it was rational for individuals to do so in order to live in a society. In the 21st century, the social contract between citizens and their democratic governments appears to be breaking down. For example, Loke (2020) argues that the United States and other democratic nations have become flawed democracies, in which the intangible yet meaningful bind between the state and its citizens has degraded. This disillusionment with the ‘elite’ or ‘establishment’ has led to a loss of trust in elected officialsand perhaps a loss of belief in the democratic process itself. The degrading of democratic politics, and the rise of an elite which is increasingly removed from the majority of citizens, has created an environment conducive to populism. Indeed, the growth of populism is one of the most significant political developments of the 21st century. Populist leaders, movements, and parties, across the world offer an alternative form of politics, one which promises to liberate ‘the people’ from elite rule and to ‘save’ them from the existential crisis elites have brought upon them through their corrupt misrule. In other words, elite failure and corruption is leading to a backlash in the form of populism. 

Populism is ultimately a product of democratic societies, yet populists frequently violate liberal democratic norms. Indeed, scholars have increasingly regarded populism as a threat to liberal democratic values. Firstly, populism creates a political environment in which the rule of law or the rights of minorities may be discarded if they appear to obstruct the ‘will of the people,’ which populists claim is sacrosanct. Secondly, populism encourages an antagonistic politics in which two groups, ‘the people’ and ‘corrupt elites,’ are pitted against one another in an existential struggle for the nation. Populism thus flourishes on the divisive politics of ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’ and ‘others,’ which deepens socio-political-economic rifts and exploits societal emotional pressure points and vulnerabilities (Yilmaz & Morieson 2021). One particular form of populism, which categorizes people according to their religious identities and asserts the incompatibility of different cultures, has proven especially influential in the 21st century. We call this form of populism ‘civilizational populism.’ 

The rise of civilizational populism throughout the world constitutes one of the key challenges facing liberal democracy in the 21st century. The growth of this political phenomenon not only demonstrates disillusionment with liberal democracy and its failures but suggests that the key lessons of the 20th century have been largely forgotten. Increasingly, the call to reject the negative emotions of ‘revenge, aggression, and retaliation,’ so common in the second half of the 20th century, is diminished. Emotionally charged monologues, too, are replacing dialogue between adversaries—dialogues that often pave the way toward mutual understanding. Ironically, having reached the ‘end of history,’ we witness a worldwide democratic regression symbolized best by the growth of civilizationalism, whether in the form of expansionist civilizational powers such as Russia and China, or in the form of populist civilizationalism. The decay of the liberal democratic order, which just twenty-five years ago seemed all but invincible, haunts the present, and the rise of civilizational populism threatens further harm to our democratic institutions and imperils religious and ethnic minorities the world over.

Civilizations are most often understood to be the “highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of social identity” (Huntington, 1993). Civilizations are often defined by religion, or at least by the religious identity of the majority of its members. For example, in his provocative, often wrongheaded but ultimately influential 1993 essay and subsequent book, Clash of Civilizations, author Samuel Huntington proposed that there at most nine world civilizationsWestern, Latin American, African[1], Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, and Japanese. The reader will notice that many of these civilizations are defined by religion. This is of course not to endorse Huntington’s division of the world into these groups, a notion largely discredited; however, even if scholars do not endorse Huntingtonian civilizationalism, this does not mean that politicians disregard his ideas. Rather, Huntington’s ideas have proven highly influential in the United States and, to an extent, Europe; simultaneously, they reflect the views of large numbers of people across the world, who similarly believe the world can be divided in this manner and that civilizations form coherent blocs of nations whose peoples possess values incompatible with those of other civilizations. 

Civilizational populism posits that democracy ought to be based upon enacting the ‘people’s will,’ yet it adds a new and troubling dimension to populism’s thin ideology: a civilization- based classification of peoples. Religion plays a defining role in delineating the boundaries between these civilizations, and civilizational populism is most often intrinsically bound up with religious identity and practice. As a result, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity are instrumentalized by populists, who use the power of religion to define the boundaries of people, nations, and civilizations. Religion has thus become an importantat times centralaspect of civilizational populist movements across the world. 

There is something especially dangerous about civilizational populism. Populism is often conceived of having two dimensions, one vertical and one horizontal (Taguieff, 1995: 32-35). The vertical dimension divides society between the people at the top and those at the bottom, or between ‘the people’ and ‘the corrupt elite.’ The horizontal dimension divides society between ‘the people’ and ‘others.’ Most often, these ‘others’ are ethnic minorities who appear to threaten the character of the nation or the hegemonic power of the majority group. This kind of populism is thus deeply nationalist, with few if any international or transnational dimensions. Civilizational populism, however, frames the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism within a religio-civilizational context. As a result, civilizational populist leaders, parties, and movements tend to identify ‘the people’ and their enemies with particular religiously-defined civilizations.

Civilizational populism, then, can be a particularly pernicious form of populism. By couching the antagonistic political divisions inherent in populism within a civilizational frame and claiming that people of different civilizations possess incompatible ethical and moral frameworks, civilizational populists attempt to create societies in which religious minorities are viewed as intolerable existential threats. Equally, civilizational populism can be attached to any of the major world religions. In the following section, we examine civilizational populism within the context of the world’s major religions. 

Civilizational Populism In the West

Political leader Geert Wilders of the Dutch center right party PVV defending his plans during a radio interview on September 5, 2012 in the Netherlands.

In a much-cited 2017 article, Rogers Brubaker (2017) observed how populist parties in North-West Europe have increasingly defined “the boundaries of belonging and the semantics of self and other…in civilizational terms.” Brubaker does not claim that populist parties in North-West Europe are anti-nationalist, but rather that they remain nationalist and define national belonging in religio-civilizational terms. Neither does he mean that a Christian revival is underway in Europe or that some kind of pan-European identity is promoted by populists. Rather, he means that European populists are increasingly identifying as Christian in order to define their culture as non-Muslim and by doing so legitimize their anti-Muslim immigration and cultural policies. Thus, rather than perceiving in Christianity a system of ethics and form of religious practice, populists instead use ‘Christianity’ or ‘Judeo-Christianity’ as “sacred code” words “to denote a secular, liberal order distinct from Islam, reflecting the culturalization of Christian religion in Europe” (Vollard, 2013: 94). The Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), the second most popular party in the Netherlands, exemplifies the Christian civilizational populist trend in North-Western Europe. PVV leader Geert Wilders describes Dutch culture as the product of the “Judeo-Christian and Humanist civilization of the West, and Islam as a “totalitarian” political tradition wholly at odds with the liberal humanism of the Judeo-Christian West. 

In 2016, the PVV briefly became the most popular political party, according to polls, in the Netherlands. Perhaps the key reason behind Wilders’ and the PVV’s rise in popularity was the refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, which saw over a million people—mostly Muslims—seek refuge in Europe from a series of wars and conflicts. The PVV capitalized on Dutch fears of a Muslim invasion, and, using incendiary and alarmist language, claimed the Netherlands was on the brink of Islamization and promised to “de-Islamize” the country (Wilders, 2016). The party also promised to ban all Muslim asylum seekers from entering Dutch territory, ban the construction of mosques, ban headscarves at “public functions,” and arrest suspected Islamic radicals (Wilders, 2016). The PVV’s radical programme struck a chord with voters, and though the party failed to win control of the government, they emerged as the second largest party in Dutch Parliament, winning 20 seats (though well behind the VVD, which won 33 seats) (Morieson, 2021: 47). 

2017 saw a second anti-Muslim, Christianidentitarian populist party contest electionsthe Forum for Democracy (Fvd). Party leader Thierry Baudet portrays himself as a lover of European culture and defender of the continent’s Judeo-Christian culture and heritage, which he claims is threatened by the traditional governing parties of the Netherlands and by Islam (Faber, 2018 & Morieson, 2021). 

The PVV lost support during the 2021 election, perhaps because the perceived threat of Muslim invasion via the refugee crisis had not materialized. However, the PVV and FvD won 25 seats between them, a demonstration of the significant power of Christian identitarianism and right-wing populism in the Netherlands. Indeed, though the centre right VVD continues to dominate Dutch politics, after 2021, right-wing Christian identitarian populist parties possessed more seats than at any previous time (Damhuis, 2021).  

While Brubaker described civilizational populism as something endemic to North-West Europe, there is ample evidence which suggests the phenomenon is far more widespread (Kaya, 2021; Kaya & Tecman, 2021). In Central and Eastern Europe, civilizational populism is present in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party. Fidesz has proven to be the most enduring ruling populist party in Europe, and their combination of populism, ethnic nationalism, and Christian civilizationalism has proven especially potent. Fidesz (Fiatal Demokratak Szovetsege — Alliance of Young Democrats) began as a liberal, anti-communist studentled movement in the 1980s and entered formal politics in the early 1990s, when Hungary experienced its first free elections (Ádám & Bozóki, 2016: 132). When Fidesz first won power in 1998, it was under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, who solidified the party’s centre-right, social conservative orientation. During subsequent years in opposition (2002-2010), and following the party’s return to power (2010-), Fidesz has become increasingly nationalist, socially conservative, populist, and illiberal, cementing itself as the dominant political force in Hungary (Ádám & Bozóki, 2016: 130-131; Buzogány, 2017). 

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

The use of Christianity in Fidesz’ populist discourse can be observed in the party’s complex relationship with the European Union and neoliberal economics. Orbán has on numerous occasions attacked the European Union, calling it a threat to “Christian freedom” (Hungary Today, 2019). According to Orbán, Christian freedom means “patriots instead of cosmopolitans, patriotism instead of internationalism, marriage and family instead of promoting same-sex relationships, protection of the children instead of drug liberalization, border protection instead of migration, Hungarian children instead of migrants and Christian culture instead of a multicultural mishmash” (Hungary Today, 2019).

Yet Fidesz’ Christian identity populism is most evident in Orbán’s anti-immigration rhetoric, which is based upon notions of Hungary as a Christian society with Christian values, and Islam as fundamentally incompatible with these values. This became especially evident during the 2015 refugee crisis, during which the Fidesz-led government refused Muslim refugees entry into Hungary (Haraszti, 2015: 39). Moreover, the party has attempted to boost fertility within Hungary through a set of ‘family friendly’ policies in order to create a stable population that does not require immigration to facilitate economic growth (Walker, 2019). According to Orbán, by permitting mass immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, Western powers have “opened the way for the decline of Christian culture and … Islamic expansion” (Boffey, 2018). Fidesz, however, has “prevented the Islamic world from flooding us from the south” (Boffey, 2018). Yet Orbán does not believe that secular political power is enough to stop Islamization. Rather, he says, “Europe’s last hope is Christianity” (Macintyre, 2018). 

Donald Trump, particularly when running for, and in the first year of his term as President of the United States, also used civilizational rhetoric. For example, Haynes (2021) describes Trump as repeating the orientalist tropes of Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilization’s thesis in his rhetoric on the relationship between Islam and ‘Judeo-Christian’ America. Haynes argues that Trump did not follow the path of Presidents Bush and Obama, who stressed that the United States was at war with “terror” and not Islam. Instead, using reckless language, Trump perpetuated the idea of a clash of civilizations between Islam and Judeo-Christianity and failed to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and violent Islamist terrorists. However, Trump showed little interest in actually fighting a ‘clash of civilizations’ as president and dismissed both Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka—two of the most outspoken civilizational nationalists in his administration—within weeks of each other in 2017. On the other hand, a number of the Trump administration’s decisions appear to be concrete manifestations of Trump’s belief that the United States is a Judeo-Christian power incompatible with Islamic civilization. For example, following the mass murder of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in June 2016, a crime committed by a Muslim man, Omar Mateenwho had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, thencandidate Donald Trump spoke at length on the danger posed to the United States by what he called “radical Islam” (Beckwith, 2016). Trump had previously argued that Muslim refugees from wartorn nations in the Middle East threatened America. For example, in a tweet deleted by Twitter following his banning from the social media service, Trump “used clearly existential tones by pronouncing that taking in refugees from Syria (who he assumed to be potential terrorists) would lead to ‘the destruction of civilization as we know it!’ (Hall, 2021). 

Although Trump claimed that America has many “great” Muslim communities, he also attacked Muslim Americans for not reporting “bad” people to authorities, and therefore bringing death and destruction to the United States (Beckwith, 2016). Furthermore, portraying the nightclub shooting as part of a clash of civilizations, he claimed that many of the “radical” Islamic principles Mateen and other people like him hold are “incompatible with Western values and institutions” (Beckwith, 2016). Rather, Trump claimed that “radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American,” and even “enslaves women” and that therefore, he personally refuses “to allow America to become a place where gay people, Christian people, Jewish people are targets of persecution.” 

Once elected President and during an official visit to Poland in 2017, Trump praised the nation’s right-wing populist government, suggesting that their strong anti-immigration, anti-Islam policies served to protect the West. In a speech in Poland which further revealed the civilizationalism inherent in Trump’s conception of world politics, he claimed that “the fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” (Thrush & Hirschfeld Davis, 2017). Historian Stephen Wertheim, writing shortly after this speech, described Trump’s “civilizational framework” as a continuation of Obamaera justification of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while also adding a new element in which America’s “forever wars” were framed as part of a policing of the “enemies of civilization” (Wertheim, 2017). 

Civilizational Populism in Muslim Majority Nations

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

Yilmaz, Morieson, and Demir (2021) observe that “Islamic populist framing may take on nationalist forms, or civilizationalist forms, though often these are found in combination.” In Islamic or Islamist populism, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism are embedded within an Islamic framing. This means that the social and economic justice concerns inherent in Islam can be instrumentalized by Islamic populists in order to serve their anti-elite and xenophobic agendas. Islamic populist parties, though all too rarely examined by scholars, have found a significant amount of electoral success in a number of Muslim majority nations in the 21st century (Hadiz, 2018: 567). Hadiz (2018: 567), for example, has examined Islamic populism in Indonesia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, and observes that for populism to succeed in these countries “cultural idioms associated with Islam are requiredfor the mobilisation of a distinctly ummah-based political identity in contests over power and resources in the present democratic period.”

While Indonesia and Pakistan are home to populist Islamist groups, perhaps the best example of civilizational populism in the broad Islamic world is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. Since 2002, Turkey has been ruled by the AKP, a populist and Islamist party, which has governed in an increasingly authoritarian and repressive manner during their two decades in power. Initially, however, the AKP sought to portray itself as a Muslim democratic party supportive of pluralism, openness, and human rights. The AKP’s decision to portray itself in this manner was prompted by the events surrounding Turkey’s 1997 “postmodern coup,” in which the right-wing Islamic government led by Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was deposed by the Turkish ‘deep state’ and replaced by a secularist military establishment (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The coup, which was intended to greatly diminish the role of Islam in Turkish politics and society, was in many ways a continuation of the Kemalist hegemony the country had experienced since it was established in the 1920s by Kemal Ataturk himself. 

Capitalizing on the Turkish people’s desire to liberate themselves from military tutelage and Kemalist repression, the AKP won power in 2002. The party at first governed as Muslim democrats, insofar as they pushed for greater democratization, initiated a reconciliation process with Kurds and other minority groups, committed to joining the European Union, and even began discussing the possibility of recognizing the Armenian genocide (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). However, between 2007 and 2011, the AKP began to shed its democratic and pluralist imagine and instead sought to capture the state and dominate Turkish politics and society. In this process, the AKP – and particularly its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – alienated many of their allies in political and civil society, while simultaneously incapacitating the threat posed by the Kemalist-dominated judiciary and military.

As the AKP evolved in office, its increasing authoritarianism and Islamism altered its populist discourse. After 2013, in particular, the AKP invested much effort in portraying religious minorities, foreign governments, even entire ‘civilizations’ as enemies of the people and of Islam. The AKP’s new strategy was built on an emotional populist campaign which exploited Turkish people’s ontology, security, and feelings of trauma. The party began to re-engineer Turkish identity in an effort to demonize and dehumanize its enemies. Secularists and liberals, Gülenists, and many ethnic and religious minorities, were now portrayed by the party as threats to Islam and Turkish Sunni Muslims. The AKP also began to emphasize ever more the primacy of Sunni Islam in Turkish culture and identity, as well as the glory of the Ottoman Empire, seat of the Caliphate for centuries. Thus, Erdoğan and the AKP set about creating a divisive and populist ‘us vs them’ politics in Turkey, in which Turkish Sunni Muslims were portrayed as an aggrieved yet innocent people, and the Kemalist secular eliteand almost all other religious and ethnic minoritiesportrayed as threats to the people and their faith. The AKP used deep emotional insecurities to evoke feelings of victimhood in the majority population, who were said to be oppressed by “dark forces.” These imagined “dark forces” range from foreign enemies to domestic foes of the AKP who are alleged to be working with foreigners to destabilize Turkey. Thus, the AKP encourages Turkish Sunni Muslims to feel that they are under constant attack from “non-Turkish Muslims, such as Kurds and Lazes, …and non-Muslims, such as Christians and Jews” (İnce, 2012: 40). These minority groups are now essentially unwanted citizens in Turkey, a group which now includes members of the Gulen movement, journalists, academics, opposition leaders, human rights activists, and political opposition who have been critical of the AKP regime (Yilmaz, 2018). All these groups are now ‘the other’ in Turkey, and, combined with xenophobia towards the West and Jews, all are portrayed by the AKP as internal “traitors” who do the bidding of external “dark forces” trying to “destabilize Turkey” (Yilmaz, 2021).

The existence of this expansive lists of “others, as well as the vast numbers of people who are alleged to be involved in conspiracies to hurt the Turkish people, create a state of constant crisis which feeds emotions that generate demand for populist solutions. Moreover, by encouraging their supporters to feel a sense of trauma and accompanying emotions of loss, “humiliation, vengeance and hatred,” the party is able to “trigger unconscious defence mechanisms which attempt to reverse these emotions” (Yilmaz, 2021: 11). 

The AKP’s emotional exploitation of ‘the people’ is based on three themes: “Islamism, nationalism, and populism,” which are used as merged concepts (Taş, 2020: 2). By merging Islamism, Turkish nationalism, and populist ideation “Erdoğan has thus been presented as the voice of deprived ‘real people’ and their champion of their interest against old ‘elites’,” while at the same time “the party also pursued an Islamist, anti-secular project involving mandatory religious education of the young, and a ‘post-Kemalist neo-Ottomanist outlook in identity politics’ that radically altered Turkey’s sense of itself and elements of its foreign policy” (Yilmaz, 2018: 54–55). The AKP’s Islamist populism has proven very potent and has allowed the party to gradually Islamize Turkey over the two decades of its increasingly authoritarian rule.

Civilizational Populism In India

The India’s Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi offering prayers at the Naguleswaram Temple in Jaffna, Sri Lanka on March 14, 2019.

In Hindumajority India, the nation has begun a process of transformation under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and their guiding political philosophy, Hindutva. Hindutva is a form of Hindu nationalism which posits that India must return to Hindu principles in order to raise the nation to the greatness it experienced in the pre-Muslim period. Under Modi’s leadership, the dominant political narrative shifted from right-wing nationalism to populism while maintaining a reliance on the Hindutva narrative of Hindu victimhood and nostalgia for the lost golden age of Hindu civilization.

Running for Prime Minister, Modi erected billboards containing a picture of himself accompanied by the text: “I am a Patriot. I am Nationalist. I am Born Hindu” (Ghosh, 2013).  During the same period, the BJP called for the building of a society for Hindus and run by Hindus, justifying their agenda through the Hindutva call for the “cleansing” of “impurities” from society. In this narrative of crisis, Modi was the “born Hindu” and “ideal Indian” who would lead the country as a “strongman” and revive the glory of the Hindu rashtra (Hindu kingdom) (Lefèvre, 2020). Because the BJP frame Indian culture and the nation as the product of Hindu civilization, to love India and its culture isaccording to the BJPto either loveor at least respectand obey the rules of Hindu culture. Or as Irfan Ahmad (2017) put it, “Hindutva defined Indianness exclusively in religious terms: an Indian is someone who considers India as their holy land.” This religious exclusivism is reflected in the party’s “abrogation of article 370, the ban on cow slaughter and the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya,” which the BJP claims are necessary acts to revive and protect Hindu culture (Ammassari, 2018: 8). These actions are also framed as attempts to invalidate the “invasion” of India and to purify it in order that Hindu civilization may regain its lost glory (Ammassari, 2018).

The BJP has also pushed for a change in the school curriculum that promotes civilisational populism by restructuring history and cultural identity (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). Post-2014, the Hindutva version of Indian history has increasingly blurred the lines between culture and history, fact and fiction. These changes were justified by RSS’s Manmohan Vaidya, who claimed “the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history” (Jain & Lasseter, 2018). The BJPwritten syllabus uses history to set a “Hindu first” narrative, in which other cultural influences are depicted as products of ‘invader’ Muslim and Christian cultures.

Civilizational Populism In Buddhist Majority Nations

Members of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority walk through a broken road at Shah Porir Deep, at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazer, Bangladesh on September 11, 2017. Photo: Sk Hasan Ali.

The relationship between Buddhism and populism is rarely studied, and yet there are concrete examples of Buddhism being instrumentalized by populist leaders in two majority Buddhist nations: Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In Myanmar, a multi-ethnic country (where no single ethnic group comprises more than 2 percent of the population), religious identity has been heavily politicized. 89 percent of the population identify as Buddhist, and therefore the state has often used Buddhist identity to create a sense of national belonging and nationhood. This is not a recent development, as the “To be Burmese means to be Buddhist!” slogan of the 1940s movement for independence demonstrates (Artinger & Rowand, 2021). However, 11 percent of Myanmar’s citizens are non-Buddhist, and there is a significant Muslim minority. This situation has been exploited by populists who identify Buddhism as a core element of Myanmar’s identity, and thus the identity of ‘the people,’ identification with another faith is inherently threatening to this identity and to political efforts to make the country more homogenous.

While the 2014 return of democracy to Myanmar was widely lauded, it coincided with a period of increasing religious conflict and anti-pluralism, much of which was instigated by nationalist-populist Buddhist groups. Buddhist populist-nationalism in Myanmar is promoted by a number of influential groups, especially Mabatha (MBT or Ma Ba Tha) and the 969 movement. Populism is deeply embedded in the discursive practices of these groups. Mabatha and the 969 movement, for example, claim their political mission is to safeguard “the Buddhist identity of the country” (Fuller, 2018). As part of this mission, they claim that Muslims are an existential threat to the nation’s Buddhist identity and call for the elimination of threats to this Buddhist national core. Mabatha and the 969 movement have become highly influential groups over the past 20 years, and the political landscape of Myanmar has been predominately shaped by the nationalist Buddhist populism espoused by these two groups. Their power extends even into other parties and political movements, and fear of this power no doubt played a role in the Aung San Suu Kyiled democratic government ignoring the ethnic and religious ‘cleansing’ of Rohingya Muslims from parts of the country. 

In the late 1990s, a 40-page booklet authored by a government official named Kyaw Lwin, and titled “969,” appeared and “urged Buddhists to openly display the numbers 969 on their homes, businesses and vehicles” (Moe, 2017). The book did not openly call for violence or discrimination against any particular group, but displaying 969 was intended to be a way for Buddhists business owners and consumers to distinguish themselves from Muslims, who often displayed the number 786, signifying an Islamic prayer: “the Name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful” (Bookbinder, 2013). The booklet insinuated that Muslims were trying to demographically and economically “conquer” the Buddhist population, and that Buddhists must fight back (Frydenlund, 2018; Moe, 2017 & Bookbinder, 2013). This notion spread throughout Myanmar, partly through its adoption by Buddhist education facilities, such as “Buddhist Sunday Schools, volunteer groups, legal clinics, relief campaigns, donation drives, and other community oriented activities” (Thu, 2021: 205). Ashin Wirathu, a monk, became the face of the 969 movement. Wirathu was imprisoned by the military junta for hate speech in 2003 and was released as part of a large group of political prisoners set free in 2012 (Hodal, 2013). Following his release, he campaigned relentlessly on behalf of the 969 movement, and after it was banned, inspired the formation of MBT and later became a party leader. Wiarthu’s activities helped create a wave of Islamophobia in the country, mixing “Buddhist conspiracy theories envisioning an Islamic take-over” and fear of Muslim “terrorists” (Artinger & Rowand, 2021; Frydenlund, 2018 & Bookbinder, 2013). This has led MBT and the 969 movement to become identified by many Buddhists in Myanmar as “protectors” of “the Buddhist identity of the country” (Fuller, 2018).

In MBT discourse, the Buddhist majority are portrayed as victims of violence instigated by ‘others,’ most often Muslims. MBT has used events such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban to create their narrative of a Muslim threat and Buddhist victimhood (Thu, 2021: 208). Myanmar’s Muslim minority are therefore portrayed as enemies and a danger to inherently peaceful Buddhist society. Yilmaz et al. (2021) note that MBT “claim that Muslims are an existential threat to the nation’s Buddhist identity and call for the elimination of threats to this Buddhist national core.” MBT enjoys the support of various politicians in Myanmar, including some pro-democracy politicians, and such is their power that any political party or critical voice contradicting their populist rhetoric is ‘othered’ by MBT’s leadership and accused of being “Muslim sympathisers” (Oppenheim, 2017). For instance, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, National League for Democracy (NLD), perhaps fearful of incurring MBT’s wrath, did not nominate Muslim candidates during the 2015 elections, which led to a “Muslim Free Parliament” (Thu, 2021: 206). It was also Suu Kyi’s government (2016-21) which tolerated MBTled violent rhetoric against Muslims, rhetoric which helped lead to the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya people (BBC, 2018). 

MBT also involves itself in transnational civilizational populism. The ideas of the extremist populist monks have been shared with the radical Sri Lankan Buddhist organization, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Army)the two groups have held joint meetings and conventions (Sirilal, 2014). Ashin Wirathu led this union and presented it as a union required to “defend” Buddhism around the world, saying, “today, Buddhism is in danger. We need hands to be firmly held together if we hear alarm bells ringing” (Sirilal, 2014). On a sperate occasion Wirathu also said that “once we [have] won this battle, we will move on to other Muslim targets,” indicating that there are no geographical limits to his civilisational populism (Hodal, 2013).

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalist populism has also played an important role in both the political sphere and in defining Sri Lankan identity. Unlike ethnically diverse Myanmar, 70 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is Sinhalese Buddhist, making them a powerful majority ethnic group. Tamils are the largest minority, and constitute around 15 percent of the population, while Muslims, Hindus, and Christians together make up less than 13 percent of the population (Department of Census and Statistics, 2012). In Sri Lanka, then, ethnicity and religion have been somewhat bound together. This puts Sinhalese Buddhists in a powerful position and has allowed them to largely determine Sri Lanka’s political agenda and identity.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, sixth President of Sri Lanka is seen at a religious ceremony and baptism in the Gangarama Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka on January 28, 2020.

Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism (SBN) has been the driving force behind populism in Sri Lanka (Jayasinghe, 2021: 178). But the activities and preachers of Buddhist organizations such as Bodu Bala Sēna (BBS) also play a prominent role in pushing anti-Muslim, pro-Buddhist discourses. Unlike other SBN organizations, BBS “is unique for being almost exclusively an anti-Muslim front” and has carried out many violent anti-Muslim campaigns since 2012 (Jayasinghe, 2021: 186). The power of Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism led to stateled, systematic discrimination against the Tamil minoritywho reacted to their oppression by forming the resistance group, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) (Jayasinghe, 2021; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). Tamils were considered “aliens” with no claims in the newly independent Sri Lanka and were frequently denied citizenship or deported to India; others became victims of ethnically motivated killings and were at times prevented from entering higher educationevents that ultimately led to a civil war (Carothers & O’Donohue, 2020). In this context the militant Tamil Tigers, “became active in seeking an independent homeland for the Tamils. The conflict, which ended in 2009, also had a religious dimension as the Tamil population is predominately Hindu and the government is mainly Buddhist. Over two decades of fighting, a number of failed efforts were made to bring peace. This led to thousands of casualties on both sides … and hindered economic development (Shakil, 2021). While the end of thecivil war opened a peace process, populist Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2009, portrayed the war as a victory for SBN (Jayasinghe, 2021: 183). Sri Lankan Prime Minister until 2015, Rajapaksa capitalized on ethnic and religious divisions between Tamils and Sinhalese in his rhetoric but, following the end of the civil war, shifted to the process of ‘othering’ the country’s Muslim minority community (Jayasinghe, 2021; Shakil, 2021; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). 

During his 2009-2015 tenure as Prime Minister, Rajapaksa portrayed himself as fighting for ‘the people’ against Sri Lanka’s elites, who he claimed were corrupt. He promised to improve the country’s economy (Shakil, 2021). At the same time, there was second dimension to his populism, which was rooted in SBN: “During Rajapaksa’s rule, critics of his political style and agenda were portrayed as enemies of the nation or collaborators with the enemy. Sri Lankan society was divided between the patriot (dēshapremi) and the traitor (dēshadrōhi) (Jayasinghe, 2021: 183), with opponents of Rajapaksa portrayed as treasonous enemies. Against this backdrop, “Rajapaksa shied away from criticizing the unlawful activities of SBN groups, including their use of violence against Muslims and other minorities, due to the power and influence of SBN in Sri Lankan politics and society” (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). 

While the war against the Tamil Tigers is over, and even though Tamil people largely do not yet feel entirely welcome in Sri Lanka, SBN discourse has moved from othering Tamils to inciting fear of Muslims and other minorities (Mihlar, 2020). SBN has, since the end of the civil war, become increasingly powerful due to a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment growing since the 9/11 attacks and rise of international jihadism. Muslims are, in the post-9/11, post-civil war environment, perceived as “a security threat” and accused of “extremism” and “intolerance” by the Sri Lankan state (Haniffa, 2021; Mihlar, 2020). Other minority groups have also sought to demonize Muslims, though in different ways. For example, “Tamil anti-Muslim hatred, attacks and violence focus on the group whilst Sinhala/Buddhists target the group and the religion” (Mihlar, 2020).

Rajapaksa, having lost his position as Prime Minister in 2015, returned to political prominence when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother and a former army leader during the civil war, came to power in 2019 (Jayasuriya, 2019). While G. Rajapaksa used populist anti-elitist rhetoric, his main appeal to voters was that he was a former war “hero” and a strongman who had led the country to victory against the Tamil insurgents. But with the civil war receding into memory, the strongman’ instead portrays himself as protecting the nation from Muslim radicals, such as the Muslims responsible for the Easter Bombing (Shakil, 2021). 

The now former Prime Minister G. Rajapaksa, who fled the country after its economic collapse, punished Muslims, banning face veils, conducting arbitrary arrests of alleged radical Muslims, and closing down seminaries. Formally, under the “deradicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” section of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the country banned the wearing of burqas and closed some 1,000 Islamic organizations to supposedly prevent extremism (Haniffa, 2021). This fear is the legal and political manifestation of a belief that Muslims, funded by foreign powers such as the Gulf countries, are attempting to Islamize Sri Lanka (Mihlar, 2020). Whatever government emerges following the 2022 revolution will have to deal with the legacy of religious populism in Sri Lanka and its dividing of citizens into ingroups and outgroups based on religious identification.

Buddhist right-wing populist organizations across Sri Lanka and Myanmar thus share important commonalties. Both are beholden to a crisis narrative aimed at inciting emotions such as fear of non-Buddhists, especially Muslims. This nativist and civilizationalist narrative is based on the notion that there is a growing clash of civilizations between Buddhism and Islam, propagates suspicion and hatred of non-Buddhists, and deems Muslims in particular an alien and existential threat in Buddhist lands. In both Sri Lanka and Myanmar, monks have not only spewed hate speech in monasteries but have also used social media to spread their speeches and legitimize anti-Muslim conspiracies, leading to mob violence targeting mostly Muslim businesses, places of worship, and private property.         

Conclusion

People demonstrate against so-called Islamization, carrying signs with slogans in Rotterdam, The Netherlands on January 20, 2017.

This article shows that the use civilizational rhetoric by populists has become common in many democratic nations and in a variety of political and religious contexts. In each case we have examined in this short article, we find civilizationalist rhetoric incorporating religion, though in two broadly different ways. Populist parties and leaders using civilizational rhetoric may align themselves with religious groups or organizations and may pursue a religious domestic and/or foreign political agenda, as has occurred in TurkeyIndia, and, to a degree, Hungary, among other places. On the other hand, civilizational populists may adopt a religious identity but not pursue a religious agenda nor develop ties with religious organizations. This appears to occur in the more secularized regions of the world, especially in Western Europe and deeply secularized nations such as the Netherlands. 

In either case, populists’ civilizational rhetoric is part of an electoral strategy designed to portray governing elites as responsible for an existential civilizational crisis threatening to destroy the culture and identity of the nation and its people. In much of Western Europe, and to a degree in the United States, immigration (exacerbated by low fertility rates) is the main cause of the civilizational crisis. Governing elites are blamed by civilizational populists in Western nations for encouraging Muslimswho are framed as belonging to a foreign and incompatible civilizationto migrate to the Westand in such numbers that they threaten to destroy the culture and identity of the nation and its supposed Judeo-Christian or Christian tradition.

Outside the West, it is often the presence of religious minority groups, and at times the influx of Western ideas and culture, which is framed as a crisis engulfing the nation. In India, the presence of Muslims is held by the BJP to be an existential threat to the nation, preventing the true ‘people’ from reconstructing the mighty Hindu civilization of ancient times. The Turkish AKP claims that Turkey is the leading nation of the Islamic world and legitimizes its military interventions in places like Syria by claiming it is acting as the protector of Sunni Muslims across the world. At the same time, the AKP alleges that foreigners, non-Sunni Muslims, and especially the Christian West, are involved in a conspiracy to dismember Turkey and destroy Islam, and that the Turkish people must fight against these ‘dark forces’ which threaten their culture, nation, and Islamic civilization. 

It is significant that, despite their use of civilizational rhetoric, the populist parties and leaders we examined remain nationalists. The purpose of civilizational rhetoric among populists, then, is to classify people into ingroups and outgroupsand, ultimately, to determine who belongs to the nation. In other words, civilizational populism appears to be a nationalist phenomenon, and though there are examples of transnationalism civilizational populism, in no case does it threaten the overwhelmingly nationalist character of the populist parties and leaders examined in this article. Civilizational populism, therefore, works best when it can harness the deepest fears of the majority population, particularly the fear of being ‘replaced,’ and thus when it can either exploit or produce a ‘minority-majority complex.’ In an age defined by liquid modernity and the fluid movement of people, money, goods, and ideas throughout the world, and when mass immigrationsometimes the result of waris destabilizing a wide array of societies, civilizational populists possess many opportunities to exploit ontological fears and produce emotions which create demand for their populist solutions. 

Civilizational populist leaders are responsible in part or wholly for a significant amount of violence the world over. The potential for violence is inherent in civilizational populism itself, insofar as it divides society into antagonistic groups, encourages ‘the people’ to believe they are victims of a corrupt elite and to ‘defend’ themselves against the ‘others’ who supposedly threaten their traditions and way of life. This emotional narrative legitimizes violence against ‘others,’ although it does not always lead to overt violence. At times, this narrative may lead to the suppression of religious ‘others,’ including the bans on Islamic dress instituted in Sri Lanka. Civilizational populist narratives have contributed to communal rioting in India, particularly under the leadership of Narendra Modi, and in Sri Lanka under the rule of the Rajapaksas. When civilizational populists become national rulers, they often use the power of the state to destroy their enemies. For example, in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used his authority and influence to compel the state to demonize the Gülen movement due to the group’s alleged involvement in a failed coup and jail and intimidate journalists, academics, and activists who oppose his neo-Ottoman and Islamist ideology. In the worst case we have studied, MBT civilizational populists in Myanmar played a role in provoking and justifying genocidal violence against Muslims in the Rakhine state. 

Civilizational populism is an inherently anti-plural form of politics insofar as it posits that religious minorities pose a threat to ‘the people’most often understood as the majority group but sometimes as the authentic inhabitants of the land, whether they be a majority or a minority. As a result, wherever they gain power and influence, civilizational populists attempt to exclude religious minorities from public life, and at times launch violent attacks against them. 


 

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


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[1] Huntington was apparently unsure whether African civilization existed and suggested that Africa was divided between Islamic and Christian civilization (1996: 47).

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 female academics such as 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 exemplifies 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, Daniels 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 are 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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