PTI Chairman Imran Khan addresses during Inauguration Ceremony of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre on December 29, 2015 in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo: Shutterstock.

The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan

Abstract

Pakistan has a turbulent political history. In the seven decades since its creation, the country has faced four military-led dictatorships and another two decades under indirect military rule. Given this political trend, authoritarianism is not a novel phenomenon in the country. Digital authoritarianism, however, is a relatively new domain of oppression. This paper looks at how a political party in power and the “establishment” (military elite and its civilian collaborators) have been increasing the control of digital mediums as well as weaponizing space. This dual control and usage allow for growing digital authoritarianism. Using the case study of Imran Khan’s government (2018-2022) and its collaboration with the military establishment in enforcing digital authoritarianism, this article uses four levels of an assessment of internet governance in Pakistan (whole network level, sub-network level, proxy level, and user level). In addition, the role of Khan’s political party’s Islamist populist outlook in contributing to authoritarianism is also discussed. A lot of censorship happens around ideas of protecting Islam and Pakistan’s Muslim identity. The review also finds that the establishment uses not only religion but also ultra-nationalism and fears of foreign attacks, primarily by “Hindu” India, as means to closely surveil and curb the rights of citizens which it deems not worthy of trust. Our results find that Pakistan’s digital space is highly oppressive where ideas of religion, ontological insecurity, and nationalism are weaponized to legitimize the state’s growing authoritarianism. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja Ali M. Saleem

Introduction

Digital technologies have had a constant and rapid influence on the way the world operates in the 21st century. These technologies have changed the way individuals connect socially, participate in public debates and political discourse, and organize and mobilize for social change. Many of the upheavals from this century have shown the potential of digital tools to create social change in oppressive regimes, economic crises, occupation, conflict, and displacement. For example, social media has been stressed as a tool for citizen journalism in the contemporary era. Moreover, digital space has allowed new sorts of personal and public connections to emerge during the COVID-19 situation, especially regarding physical distance. 

Despite the interest and optimism in the digital domain providing chances to construct better futures and just societies, the hazards and constraints remain immense. Autocratic governments have used cyberspace to increase their influence. In addition, social media have become breeding grounds for the growing distrust between citizens and state institutions. Even in advanced consolidated democracies, cyberspace has been used to polarize, promoting radical solutions, thus undermining democracy. For instance, in the United States (US) the ascent of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016, the US presidential election campaign was a ‘rebellion’ against the mainstream politics of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The erosion of trust in the established party power structures paved the way for these two “outsiders” to almost take control of the two parties. Social media played a pivotal role in garnering support for these leaders. Social media has been central to the advance of populist right-wing and neo-fascism. Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro and many others could not have won elections without the skillful use of social media in their campaigns. Paradoxically, however, social media is critical to mainstreaming the populist and radical left such as Alexis Tsipras in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. All these leaders are sustained by an active cyberspace where radical ideas were floated and popularized to eventually trickle down to generate real life political outcomes. 

Pakistan is no exception to this global trend of increased politicization of cyberspace. While it remains a country where internet access is unevenly distributed, it is also one of the countries where the internet is comparatively cheap. Its huge population means that despite a small user base, the sheer number of users with access results in millions of users of the internet and allied services. It is speculated that between 2021 and 2022 alone some 22 million new users of the internet emerged in the country and at present only 36.5 percent of its population has access to the facility. While the internet was politically a largely irrelevant place, in recent years it has gained new significance in the country’s politics. The post-pandemic trends given in the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Report 2021 indicate that coronavirus has resulted in an expansion of internet availability and usage where household ownership of mobile connections as well as internet subscriptions has seen unprecedented growth

The PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – Pakistan’s Justice Movement) has used an active online presence to sway young voters, more than half of the country’s population, to secure electoral victory. The military establishment has also increased its presence on the internet and has been constantly engaged in monitoring and harassment of individuals of susceptible loyalty in its eyes. Both these entities combined also use cyberspace to promote their narratives. Between 2018 and early 2022, the PTI led by Imran Khan, in a close relationship with the establishment, used authoritarian tactics, jailed critics on fake cases, pressurized judiciary, passed laws to curtail usage, and increased monitoring of social media. It also used social media to promote majoritarian narratives on issues of critical importance. So, while PTI’s stance today appears democratic and against the military’s role in politics, it still wants the military to interfere and support it as the military did from 2017 to 2021.

Our paper focuses on this politically symbiotic relationship between a political party and the military elite in Pakistan to examine its use and abuse of online space. We try to navigate the landscape by exploring the means through which cyberspace has been reclaimed by these actors and weaponized against political opposition and civil society. The paper also examines how pre-existing socio-political issues such as a weak democratic setup, an interventionist military, populism, and majoritarianism have aided the growing cyber authoritarianism. To carry out our analysis we use a layered approach to explore the levels of authoritarianism. These are rooted in the framework used by Laura H.C. Howells (2020)which looks at four levels: full network, sub-network, proxies, and network nodes. 

Political Context

The Populist Party -PTI  

Established in 1996 by Pakistan’s leading and beloved sportsman, Imran Khan, the PTI has always been a leader-centric party. It was Khan’s charisma that attracted a small group of people to the PTI. There was no clear ideology as both left-wing and right-wing elements find a home in the PTI. Anti-corruption was the sole slogan but there was no solid plan on how to achieve this objective. The PTI was a party that was formed by a person, who belonged to the elite, spending all his adult life outside Pakistan and marrying a very wealthy British aristocrat, who thought people should vote for him because he was a brilliant cricketer and philanthropist. During the 1990s, Pakistan’s economy nosedived as the two leading parties, the PPP and the PMLN, fought with each other. The military, although formally out of politics, played the moderator and kingmaker. In 1999, the military formally took over for the fourth time in Pakistan’s history. General Musharraf was leading an economy moving towards default in the early 2000s when the 9/11 attacks saved his military regime. In response to his prompt support for the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, billions of dollars of aid came to Pakistan. Pakistan became a significant partner of the United States but it also resulted in a colossal cost to the Pakistani economy and society as terrorism increased. The country became a breeding ground for violence and mixed with corrupt leadership, the cause of human development was long forgotten. 

Imran Khan initially supported Musharraf and his coup. He even supported Musharraf’s farcical referendum and tried to negotiate a deal with him to be installed as a Prime Minister. In the early years of the party, Khan’s advocacy for social welfare and his philanthropic activities earned him a modest following. But Musharraf knew Khan was not that popular, so he rejected the deal. Khan was already a critic of Musharraf’s policies, so this became the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Khan, from then onwards, became the most vociferous critic of Musharraf’s support for the war on terror, even supporting the Taliban against Musharraf and the US. Khan’s support for the Taliban resonated with the masses who resented the US’s historical role in Pakistan, Palestine, and the Arab world. The Iraq War further destroyed the sympathy that the US had after 9/11 in some sections of Pakistan’s population. Khan and other PTI leaders used these issues to showcase the inability of the current military and political figures to feel the “pain” of the common citizens. 

In the 2000s and early parts of 2010s, Khan used the growing cable television networks to increase his visibility. A lone man discussing the moral and national implications of American drone attacks on Pakistani soil, a sympathizer of the Taliban (framing them as decolonizers), calling out on corruption and promising social and political change garnered him considerable attention but he still could not become a popular leader. His party was just a small bunch of admirers. Despite his controversial positions on issues and untarnished political background, the PTI never became a significant player in politics until 2011 when the military decided to own him and he dropped his anti-army stance. Two years of strong support from the military resulted in PTI’s first win in the 2013 general elections. The party won its first majority in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) by allying with right-wing political parties in 2013. Other political parties noticed and declared that PTI’s rise was not entirely organic as it gained favorable support from the establishment. Despite its mediocre performance in KP, PTI’s populism combined with religious rhetoric and the strong support of the military and the judiciary, which removed and disqualified PM Nawaz Sharif for life, led it to become the party with the most seats in the National Assembly (NA) in 2018 general elections.

During its three-and-a-half years in power at the federal level, the party enjoyed a close relationship with the military until the relations went bitter in late 2021. During this small period of unison between the civil government and the military, digital authoritarianism increased at all levels. While violence on the streets, rooted in political, ethnic, and religious differences, was nothing new, there was uncommon aggression towards those who opposed the highhandedness of the government or the military or voiced concern in online space. The issue of hundreds of Balochs and Pashtuns, who were abducted and incarcerated by the intelligence agencies without any legal authority, and declared  “missing persons” remained unaddressed by the government and judiciary. Self-censorship and legal laws to curtail cyber freedoms were ensnared at an unprecedented level (discussed below). PTI justified these measures as means of preserving the national security and morality of the youth. Ironically, the same laws that the PTI government framed during its tenure are now being used by the military to harass pro-PTI voices since Khan’s exit from office in April 2022.

Khan’s populism, which instrumentalizes religion, was a big factor in promoting digital authoritarianism during his premiership. Like other populist leaders and their parties, Khan and the PTI believed that no one could legitimately criticize them. All criticism of Khan and the PTI was illegal, biased, and against the nation and so should be stopped and punished by any means possible. This was, of course, the classic justification of authoritarianism. Second, PTI’s vision and campaign slogan was the recreation of the state of Madinah (Riyasat-e-Madina that Prophet Muhammad established in Central Arabia in the seventh century) in Pakistan. This not only attracted people to the PTI but also made PTI and Khan holy figures on a divine mission. Unsurprisingly, in a society like Pakistan where religion is important, those opposed to this divine mission were condemned, subjected to all kinds of hatred, and their rights to speech, expression, and movement were deniable. Hence, both populism and religious-oriented politics, allowed the PTI to execute and justify digital and non-digital authoritarianism.

An important part of the PTI religious populist toolkit is misogyny. Misogyny is common to numerous populist parties and leaders as well as religious conservatives. Whether it is Trump and the Republican Party or Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, misogyny is regularly employed and is popular among the party activists. Khan has promoted numerous misogynistic ideas during his premiership, including linking violence against women to their conduct and dress, and the PTI has vigorously defended his reprehensible statement. He has also made sexist remarks against female politicians of other parties and used sexual innuendos against male opposition figures. In an interview when he was asked, “You were also quoted as saying that the practice of women wearing veils ‘is to stop temptation, not every man has willpower’. You said on increasing vulgarity, will have consequences, and you were accused of rape victim blaming. How do you respond to that?” Imran Khan replied, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men unless they’re robots. I mean it is common sense.” Khan has also spoken regularly against pornography using religious edicts which, unsurprisingly, helps in justifying digital censorship.

The deadly nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism is not limited to Pakistan. In India, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia, one can see similar dynamics. It does not matter whether the country is Muslim-majority or Hindu-majority, rich or poor, long-established democracy or a recent fragile democracy, the nexus between religious populism and digital authoritarianism is popular and successful.

The Authoritarian Institution: Establishment

The “establishment” is a name that has been given to the top brass of the Pakistani military which has a long history of interference, controlling, and shaping Pakistani politics. Out of 75 years of Pakistan’s history, the military has directly ruled the country for 33 years. Even when the military is not ruling directly, it shapes the political landscape informally. The “kingmakers” have misused and abused their position by turning the military from a security force to not only a political entity but also the biggest business conglomerate in Pakistan that sells dairy products, meat, textiles, fertilizers, cement, land, houses, natural gas, oil, etc. The military also has universities, medical and engineering colleges, a sugar mill, and a bank. 

The Pakistani military has not simply imposed repeated periods of dictatorships but with each successive phase of military dictatorships, the social and political fabric of the country has been redefined under authoritarianism. For instance, the early dictators such as Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan were instrumental in stifling the political growth of various forms in Pakistan. Ayub Khan’s policies side-lined the unifying and democratic figure of Fatima Jinnah and normalized the suppression of political forces and election rigging. Combined both Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan’s hijacking of politics and hostility towards the Bengali population led to a civil war which turned into a Bengali massacreby the Pakistan military resulting in the country losing East Pakistan and its transition into the independent state of Bangladesh.

Later, General Zia-ul-Haq also abused his power by not only dissolving assemblies and imposing martial law, but he also hanged former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after a dubious trial. The decade that followed led to the unprecedented integration of military officials into politics and civil bureaucracy. Politically, Zia-ul-Haq experimented with the Islamization of society, mainstreamed religious right-wing into politics, and groomed a new generation of right-wing political parties to counter existing political opposition in society. After Zia-ul-Haq’s death, democracy returned but the military never left politics. It continued to manage politics until, as mentioned earlier, General Pervez Musharraf imposed the fourth martial law in 1999. Much like his predecessors, he disregarded the political, civil, and human rights of the Pakistanis for nearly another decade.

The establishment’s position as the ‘apex’ institution, with no accountability, has culminated in a culture of oppression and violence. The military’s spying agency the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) has unchecked power to surveil citizens and its power has led to countless cases of disappearances and deaths of political activists. Described as working for the ‘national’ interest, over the years, ISI and the military have expanded their ‘security-driven’ narrative to cyberspace. They have been directly involved in shaping policy to support their intrusive and unlawful oppression of citizens. The agency is also responsible for using online space to popularize fear of ‘Jewish’ and ‘Indian’ fake news and threats which it calls “fifth generation warfare”. Overall, the military’s authoritarian attributes and legacy have found themselves replicating in cyberspace. 

While most people know that ISI conducts electronic surveillance and even Prime Minister Imran Khan has acknowledged that his phone may also be compromised, the ISI has no legal authority to establish an extensive, broad range surveillance system and monitor thousands of people. The role of the military can be gauged from the fact that often a retired military general is appointed as Chairman of PTA. The current PTA Chairman is retired Major General Amir Azeem Bajwa. Previously, in the mid-2000s Major General Shahzada Alam Malik was the Chairman of PTA. Furthermore, the military also oversees a major portion of telecom/mobile operations in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan through the Special Communications Organization (SCO), a public sector company under Pakistani military supervision.

When an authoritarian force is combined with an Islamist populist it becomes a breeding ground for gross violations of human rights. This union while short-lived was quite a dark period for democracy in Pakistan. While the PTI is out of power, the legacy of cyber oppression it left behind is now being weaponized against it by the establishment.

Context of Cyber Space in Pakistan 

Under such circumstances to no one’s surprise, Freedom House rates the country as “partly free,” giving it a score of 37 out of 100. Pakistan not only has a low score, but it is also losing ground, particularly after 2018, when it had a score of 43. Since then, it had an election and a government that was generally perceived to have been greatly influenced by the military. The situation is considerably worse with respect to internet freedoms, which are even more restricted. The Freedom House gives it a score of only 26 out of a possible 100 points, and it is classified as “not free.” The score is based on three factors of internet freedom. Pakistan received only 6 points out of a possible 25 points for “obstacles to access,” 13 points out of a possible 35 points for “content limitations,” and 7 points out of a possible 40 points for “violation of user rights.” Once again, one can see the declining trend in action. The figures provided by Freedom House mirror the reality of online and off space in Pakistan. 

The future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall is bleak in Pakistan as new regulations and allied bills have further increased the control of the government on the internet and social media. The military chief, General Qamar Bajwa on 6thSeptember warned the “internal enemies” and declared, “we will have to deal strictly with some internal elements spreading chaos.” General Bajwa further said, “It is a moment of reflection for all of us that some people are being used by anti-state elements. This is called hybrid or fifth-generation war. Its purpose is to make Pakistan’s roots hollow and damage the country’s unity. InshAllah, we will never let these negative objectives succeed.”

On the other hand, while still in power, Khan warned the nation, particularly the youth of the ‘vices’ of the internet and promised to ‘protect them.’ In one of his meetings, he urged for ‘character building’ of the youth and warned against the vices of the cyber world: “Character building is very crucial in the modern tech-savvy era. The proliferation of tech gadgets and 3G/4G internet technology has made all sorts of content available to everyone […] We need to protect our youth, especially kids, from being exposed to immoral and unethical content available online.”

While Khan constantly portrayed the internet as a den of vice and as a national security issue his party has used the space in the most effective way. PTI’s media cell is one of the most organized on the internet and has used the platform to propagate its narratives, troll opposition and critics as well as shaped social media trends (see details in the four levels of analysis section). 

The PTI government and the establishment supported each other in the violation of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression granted by the 1973 Pakistani Constitution. The key internet governance institution in Pakistan is the PTA and it draws most of its powers from the PTA (Re-organization) (Amendment) Act, 2006. The legal framework is designed in such a way that PTA can itself or allow others to monitor, record, and survey all kinds of electronic communications. All kinds of electronic communications come under its purview as it is the regulatory body of the telecommunication sector in Pakistan. There is little transparency or accountability in the process. Thus, PTA has become a means of surveilling and shaping cyberspace. Pressures to curb ‘terrorism’ has led the military to push elected governments to pass laws such as The Fair Trial Act, 2013 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. While on the surface this legislation is to prevent cybercrime, in reality, it enables further documentation and enhances the state’s capability to legally surveil. However, despite its reach, legalized surveillance is only a small part of state surveillance. Civilian and intelligence agencies, working outside the legal sphere, use surveillance of the citizenry for what they call “national interest.” 

The last few years have seen a spike in cyber authoritarianism in Pakistan as both the PTI government and the military have used formal laws as well as illegal powers. Civil and political rights have taken a backseat as increased censorship and authoritarianism have prevailed. People have been abducted with no due process or legal authority because of their online activism or other ‘crimes.’

Four Levels of Analysis Cyber Authoritarianism in Pakistan

The following four level of analysis of cyber authoritarianism was first developed and used by Laura Howells in 2020 for a comparative study of digital authoritarianism in China and Russia.

Full Network Level Governance 

Internet shutdowns in cities, regions, or in the whole country are not uncommon in Pakistan but, despite PTA being the enforcer of these bans, its annual reports give no information about these shutdowns. 

There are three types of full network shutdowns in Pakistan. Most common internet shutdowns are on prominent days in Pakistan’s official calendar. Internet is not available on religious and national holidays as security agencies and the government believes there is a likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. So, almost every year, there is an internet shutdown in specific cities on significant holidays. Second, there are long-term regional shutdowns in areas mired in an insurgency. Areas in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces suffer internet blackouts for weeks or more. The final type of internet shutdown is less related to political protests. These happen for a few hours or a day when the government tries to stifle a political protest. The reason given for the internet shutdown is again a terrorist threat, but the actual reason is more likely political. These short terms shutdowns are mostly done to stop mobilization as opposed to long term shutdowns in Balochistan and KP which are usually disciplinary mechanisms.

Full network internet shutdowns in Pakistan first began in 2005-2006 but became common in Pakistan after 2011. Most often, it is the military intelligence agencies that ask for internet shutdowns as no evidence is asked from them. The actual process is that the ISI, Military Intelligence, or the civilian Intelligence Bureau asks the Ministry of Interior for an internet shutdown due to a viable threat. The National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) in the Ministry then deliberates and usually, it requests the PTA to enforce the shutdown. The PTA then orders the internet service providers and telecom operators to shut down their internet operations. Unfortunately, the decision to shut down the internet is totally bureaucratic and there is no judicial or parliamentary input in it. Even post-facto accountability of the intelligence agencies or the NCMC is absent.

Pakistan is a poor developing country with a huge young population of more than a hundred million. There is a dire need to provide employment to this young population and internet and communication technologies (ICTs) can help. The Pakistani state has launched “Digital Pakistan” to tap young talent. Regular internet shutdowns, however, stifle ICT employment and disrupt communications, resulting in huge losses. The national exchequer lost an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) in 2012 due to internet shutdowns in Pakistan during Eid, and another 500 million rupees in 2012 due to outages during Ashura. 

Sub-Network or Website Level Governance 

Censorship at the website level is widespread in Pakistan. The censorship is done using section 37(2) of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA), 2016. The federal government notified new “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards), Rules 2021” in October 2021. In the 2021 annual report of PTA, following the information given about banned or blocked websites: 

Category Websites blocked
Decency and Morality 903,074
Glory of Islam 77,692
Sectarian & Hate Speech 40,365
Defense of Pakistan 36,820
Proxy 10,219
Contempt of Court 8,673
Defamation/ Impersonation 7,690
Miscellaneous 6,562
Total 1,091,095

Source: PTA 2021

According to PTA 2019 Report, more than 824,000 websites were banned since the PTA’s establishment. If we compare it with 2021 figures, it shows a more than 30 percent increase in the last two years, showing a great expansion in surveillance and punitive action. Religion plays a major role in digital authoritarianism in Pakistan. Islam is used to justify a large number of internet curbs by the government. In the PTA 2021 Report, The highest number of websites banned (903,074 – 82 percent) was because of “Decency and Morality” which is linked to Islam. The second highest number of websites banned (77,692 – 7 percent) was for “Glory of Islam.” The third highest number of websites banned (40,365 – 3.6 percent) were banned for Sectarian/Hate Speech, which is again related to Islam. Hence, around 93 percent of the websites banned are because of religious reasons one way or the other.

Proxy or Corporation Level Governance 

Social media companies and other communication firms, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc. are major sources of information. They are called intermediaries as they host the content of individuals, businesses, groups, etc. Individuals and groups upload content to intermediaries and intermediaries allow it to be viewed by the world without prior screening. These intermediaries can only survive if they have legal immunity, and most countries give legal immunity to these firms.

The young generation does not get their news and information about what’s happenings in the world or in their particular sector from newspapers or cable news, they rely on social media. Therefore, anyone who is concerned about controlling access to information or manipulating information has to manage and rein in intermediaries. Hence, the PTI and the military also made sure to strengthen the PTA to threaten, penalize, and ban the operations of intermediaries. 

In October 2020, the PTI government came up with new restrictive rules, called the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content, 2020, for intermediaries. The justification for these restrictive rules was the proliferation of fake news and the threat to the privacy of ordinary Pakistanis but the reality was quite different. Under these new rules, the government did not remove the legal immunity of the intermediaries, but it tried to force them to accept orders regarding restricting their content based on local laws/culture and providing user data to the government whenever the government deems the content illegal. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies are threatened with closure. Pakistan has a long history of banning intermediaries. For instance, YouTube was banned in Pakistan from September 2012 to early 2016 after it refused to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie “Innocence of Muslims.” More recently, in April 2021, all major social media companies were banned for a few hours because of the protests of Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, a religious militant political party. The PTA also banned and then lifted the ban on TikTok several times in 2021.

The new rules were so restrictive that Dawn, the most respected English newspaper in Pakistan, published a scathing editorial: “That the government is diligently laying the foundation for the large-scale digital surveillance of citizens is deeply unsettling. What is more disturbing is the secrecy with which all of this is being done, with even the tech companies complaining that they have been left in the dark. The clandestine nature of these rules and the key demands of the government to these tech companies suggest that something sinister is at play. That the authorities want citizen data to be stored in Pakistan so that they can access it without going through a legal process speaks volumes for the state’s desperation to monitor citizens’ movements online.”

But the PTI government was not deterred by any national or international criticism. In February 2022, just before its removal, the PTI government came up with another draconian law to restrict digital freedom. It promulgated an ordinance that amended the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) to make online criticism of government authorities, including the military and judiciary, a criminal offense. The offense was made non-bailable, with harsh punishment, increasing the fines and imprisonment up to five years. The courts were also ordered to decide the cases within six months and send monthly reports on proceedings. 

International and national human rights organizations were alarmed and horrified. Nadia Rahman, acting deputy regional director for South Asia at Amnesty International said, “PECA has been used to silence freedom of expression on the pretext of combating ‘fake news,’ cybercrime, and misinformation. This amendment not only violates the Pakistan Constitution but also puts anyone who questions the government or other state institutions at further risk. It particularly endangers journalists, human rights defenders, and political opponents who run the risk of prosecution for merely doing their jobs.” 

Fortunately, this amendment was declared unconstitutional by Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court. The irony is that since its removal from office, it’s the PTI that is protesting and criticizing the military online, resulting in its repression by authorities. Imran Khan and his party leadership should be thanking the Islamabad High Court as they would have been facing even more repression, if the PECA amendment, initiated and defended by them in courts, was still law of the land.

Network-Node or Individual Level Governance 

Pakistan has always been an authoritarian state. During almost all its 75+ years of existence, it was either under martial law or indirect military rule. Years of true civilian rule in Pakistan have been rare. Authoritarian states need surveillance to survive so surveillance has been part and parcel of a Pakistanis’ life. As internet and communication technologies became available and popular in Pakistan, the state also increased its capabilities of electronic surveillance. After 9/11, during the “War on Terror,” US assistance augmented and modernized Pakistan’s surveillance architecture. This was a disastrous development for the people of Pakistan as the authoritarian state traced critical citizens using this new surveillance system and abducted, incarcerated, and tortured them. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, feminists, etc. all suffer at the hands of the authoritarian state. 

Mehvish Ahmad and Rabia Mehmood have detailed the effects of surveillance in their article: “Social media surveillance of critics of state policies has resulted in targeting of groups through infiltration, content monitoring, and interception, and has resulted in enforced disappearances, torture, arrests, interrogations and confiscation of digital devices of those summoned by authorities. More indirect methods to censor dissent have also been taken into use: Pakistan has banned YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and websites run by religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities in part through the use of surveillance technologies that allow them to uncover the details of administrators and moderators. Through this regulation of online spaces, it has allowed some groups— for instance, pro-army propagandists or far-right Islamist extremists active on social media—to enjoy more space than others, effectively allowing the former to violently challenge journalists, political workers, dissidents, and others from rivalling factions.

The PTI populist government, with the encouragement and support of the military, has arrested, jailed, and beaten people for speaking against Imran Khan, the military, or Islam. People have been charged and even sentenced to death for speaking against Islam. In January 2021, an antiterrorism court sentenced three men to death in the first case of cyber blasphemy. The case is under appeal but even an acquittal by superior courts will not save the victims as anyone accused of blasphemy is always under threat in Pakistan. Political criticism was repressed. In June 2019, Waleed Butt, a young leader of the PMLN party, was arrested for posting derogatory content against the judiciary, Imran Khan, and the military.

Journalists are particularly under threat if they criticize the military or Imran Khan. In September 2020, journalist Asad Ali Toor was arrested for using “derogatory language” against the military. After he was released in November, he was attacked at his home by suspected military intelligence agencies in 2021. In September 2020, journalist Bilal Farooqi was arrested (later released) for his social media posts against the military, and a sedition case was filed against journalist Absar Alam for Twitter posts. In April 2021, Absar was shot near his home and the police investigation of the murder attempt led to no arrests. Later, in an official meeting, PTI information minister Fawad Chaudhry denied Absar Alam and Asad Toor are journalists, thereby denying attacks on them are linked to their online writing and YouTube videos. Also in April, Sarmad Sultan, a social media activist went missing and his Twitter account was also taken down temporarily. He was released after outrage and a campaign on social media.

Women journalists critical of the PTI party and government suffered extreme online harassment. Gharidah Farooqi, Benazir Shah, and Asma Shirazi were victims of a targeted campaign led by PTI ministers and officeholders. The misogyny that is common to almost all religious conservatives is also popular in the PTI family. As explained above, Imran Khan himself appears to be a misogynist and this helps in making the PTI particularly offensive towards women. 

Conclusion

While the PTI is no longer in power, its cyber legislation has further enhanced the dominance of the military. In a karmic manner, the laws created and used by the Imran Khan-led government are today being used against pro-PTI voices as arrests based on social media posts are being carried out. Over the years, the institution of the military has gathered unparalleled power. Using religion and a security-driven national narrative, it has maintained its grasp on Pakistani society and politics. These conditions are now being replicated in cyberspace as well. The level of surveillance, blackouts, and control that are exerted by this institution is troubling for not only the future of cyberspace in Pakistan but also the country’s chances of moving towards true democratic ideals.

Military dominance and authoritarianism have been part of Pakistan’s history since the late 1950s. The establishment has a strong tradition of undemocratic, illegal, and unconstitutional behavior. While political parties change, the establishment has remained a constant and has grown in its authoritarian activities. It co-opts civil government to create an environment where fears of immorality and national security justify the introduction of draconian cyber laws, their heavy-handed enforcement. Under a new series of laws between 2018 and 2022, the old frameworks have been revised to make room for more control over cyberspace which has resultantly turned into a highly surveilled and shrinking space for dissenting voices. When faith and national security narratives are used in combination, it convinces the masses of the necessity of authoritarianism. In addition, in a country like Pakistan, the establishment has no checks and balances on it which allows it for extrajudicial measures and activities in cyberspace. In such an environment, many critics have been forced into voluntary self-censorship and self-exile, while those still in Pakistan face grave consequences.

The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism is not unique to Pakistan. As mentioned above, the same dynamics can be seen in India, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia. While the military is an essential and crucial element in the rise of the PTI-led religious populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan, its role is non-existent in India and Malaysia, and in the case of Turkey, the military was initially working against the rise of religious populism. Therefore, one can conclude that religious populism is not dependent on military support.

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. 


 

References

— (2009). C1. Pm Benjamin Netanyahu, Speech to the Un General Assembly, New York, 24 September 2009 (Excerpts). (2010). Journal of Palestine Studies39(2), 208–210. https://doi.org/10.1525/jps.2010.xxxix.2.208

— (2010) C1. Pm Benjamin Netanyahu, Speech to the Un General Assembly, New York, 24 September 2009 (Excerpts). (2010). Journal of Palestine Studies39(2), 208–210. https://doi.org/10.1525/jps.2010.xxxix.2.208

— (2010). “Shas Spiritual Leader: Abbas and Palestinians Should Perish.” Haaretz. August 29, 2010. https://www.haaretz.com/1.5106595

— (2013). “The Flag and the Emblem.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israelhttp://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/aboutisrael/israelat50/pages/the%20flag%20and%20the%20emblem.aspx (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2013). “Shas.” Encyclopedia Britannica. September 13, 2013. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Shas (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2015). “Digital temptations.” The Economist. September 5, 2015. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2015/09/03/digital-temptations (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2015). “Netanyahu Sells French Jews Short.” The New York Times. January 16, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/16/opinion/netanyahu-sells-french-jews-short.html (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2016). “Netanyahu says Israel protective wall of western civilization in Middle East.” EFE. February 16, 2016. https://www.efe.com/efe/english/world/netanyahu-says-israel-protective-wall-of-western-civilization-in-middle-east/50000262-2841545 (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2018). “Jewish nation state: Israel approves controversial bill.” BBC News. July 19, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44881554 (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2019a). “Netanyahu: Archaeology, DNA prove Palestinians not native to Land of Israel.” Jerusalem Post. July 7, 2019. https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/netanyahu-archaeology-dna-prove-palestinians-not-native-to-land-of-israel-594872 (accessed on September 30, 2022

— (2020). “Israel.” ECPS. Last updated 2020. https://www.populismstudies.org/tag/israel/ (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2021). “Israel’s sidelined ultra-Orthodox parties fear new coalition gov’t.” France24. June 17, 2021.  https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210617-israel-s-sidelined-ultra-orthodox-parties-fear-new-coalition-govt (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2021). “UAE ambassador to Israel outrages Arab world with remarks on Jerusalem ‘madness’ following rabbi meeting.” New Arab. June 1, 2021.  https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/uae-ambassador-wishes-israel-strength-after-rabbi-meeting (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2021). “Palestinian statehood would be a ‘terrible mistake’ – Bennett.” Jerusalem Post. September 15, 2021. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/bennett-palestinian-statehood-would-be-a-terrible-mistake-679518 (accessed on September 30, 2022).

— (2022). “City of David.” https://www.cityofdavid.org.il/en/The-Ir-David-Foundation  

— (2022). “Temple Mount Sifting Project.” https://tmsifting.org/en/brief-introduction-to-the-project/ (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Agbaria, A. (2021). “The Nation-State Law, Populist Politics, Colonialism, and Religion in Israel: Linkages and Transformations.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Vol. 56, no. 3, 347-362. 10.1353/ecu.2021.0022  

Amit, Shimon. (2022). “Israel vs. Judah, 2022: The Socio-Political Aspects of Biblical Archaeology in Contemporary Israel.” DAMQATUM – THE CEHAONEWSLETTER. no.17, 30-74 https://www.academia.edu/72009173/Israel_vs_Judah_2022_The_Socio_Political_Aspects_of_Biblical_Archaeology_in_Contemporary_Israel (accessed on September 30, 2022).    

Bagaini, Anna. (2019). “The Origins of Right-Wing Populism in Israel: Peace Process and Collective Identities’ Struggle.” Panel Paper presented at The Populism-Identity https://ecpr.eu/Events/Event/PaperDetails/47201 (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Barton, Greg; Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “Religious and Pro-Violence Populism in Indonesia: The Rise and Fall of a Far-Right Islamist Civilisationist Movement.” Religions 12, 397. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12060397.

Ben-Porat, Guy. (2000). “In a State of Holiness.” Alternatives. 25, 223- 246.10.1177/030437540002500203 

Bennett, M. Andrew. (2017). “Why Stripping Non-Jews of Their Israeli Citizenship Threatens Zionism.” Forward.September 14, 2017.  https://forward.com/opinion/382754/why-stripping-non-jews-of-their-israeli-citizenship-threatens-zionism/ (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Berger, Miriam. (2018). “Israel’s Hugely Controversial ‘Nation-State’ Law, Explained.” Vox. July 31, 2018. https://www.vox.com/world/2018/7/31/17623978/israel-jewish-nation-state-law-bill-explained-apartheid-netanyahu-democracy (accessed on June 16, 2022).

Berger, Robert. (2017). “Israel Moves to Deport 40,000 African Migrants.” Voice of America. November 20, 2017. 
https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/israel-moves-deport-40000-african-migrants (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Berry, Mike & Philo, Greg. (2006). Israel and Palestine: Competing Histories. Pluto Press. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt18fsc8f  

Bard, Mitchell. (2018). “Understanding Israel’s Nation State Law.” Jewish Virtual Libraryhttps://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/understanding-israel-s-nation-state-law#Hebrew  (accessed on June 17, 2022).

Bennett, N. (2017) Facebook. August 25, 2017. https://www.facebook.com/NaftaliBennett/posts/1540328312655498 (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Blackburn, Matthew. (2021) “The persistence of the civic–ethnic binary: competing visions of the nation and civilization in western, Central and Eastern Europe.” National Identities. DOI: 10.1080/14608944.2021.2006169.

Campbell, Heidi. (2011).“Religion and the Internet in the Israeli Orthodox context”. Israel Affairs. Vol. 17, no. 3, 364-383. DOI: 10.1080/13537121.2011.584664

Damqatum. (2021). The CEHAO Newsletter. www.uca.edu.ar/Damqatum (accessed on September 30, 2022).

DellaPergola, Sergio. (2019). “World Jewish Population, 2019.” In: The American Jewish YearBook, Editors Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin, Volume 119. Cham, Switzerland: Springer. https://www.jewishdatabank.org/content/upload/bjdb/2019_World_Jewish_Population_(AJYB,_DellaPergola)_DataBank_Final.pdf

Davis, N. J. & Robinson, R. V. (2012). Claiming society for God: Religious movements and social welfare in Egypt, Israel, Italy, and the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Davis, N. J., and Robinson, R. V. (2009). “Overcoming Movement Obstacles by the Religiously Orthodox: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Shas in Israel, Comunionee Liberazione in Italy, and the Salvation Army in the United States.” American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 114, no.5, 1302-1349. 

Fischer, Sholom. (2014). “Two Orthodox Cultures: ‘Centrist’ Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism.” In: Reconsidering Israel-Diaspora Relations. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi:https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004277076_00

Filc, Dani. (2013). The political Right in Israel. Different faces of Jewish populism. Routledge. 

Filc, Dani. (2009). “Radicalization of inclusion, radicalization of exclusion: The Shas party.” In: The Political Right in Israel. London: Routledge.  

Ghanem, As’ad & Khatib, Ibrahim. (2017). “The Nationalisation of the Israeli Ethnocratic Regime and the Palestinian Minority’s Shrinking Citizenship.” Citizenship Studies. Vol. 21, no. 8, 89–902.

Halbfinger, M. David & Kershner, Isabel. (2018). “Israeli Law Declares the Country the ‘Nation-State of the Jewish People’.” The New York Times. July 19, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/world/middleeast/israel-law-jews-arabic.html (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Hassan, S. Shamir. (1998). “Development of Zionist Ideology.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. Vol. 59, 924–933.www.jstor.org/stable/44147065.

Coakley, John. (2004). “Mobilizing the Past: Nationalist Images of History.” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics. Vol.10, no.1, 531-560.

Desjarlais, Peige. (2013). “Excavating Zion: Archaeology and Nation-making in Palestine/Israel.” Totem: The University of Western Ontario Journal of Anthropology. Vol. 21, no.1. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/totem/vol21/iss1/2

Ferziger, A. S. (2020). “Israelization and Lived Religion: Conflicting Accounts of Contemporary Judaism.” Vol.40, no.3, 403-430. doi: 10.1007/s12397-020-09324-4. 

George, A. (1979). “Making the Desert Bloom: A Myth Examined.” Journal of Palestine Studies. Vol.8, no. 2, 88–100. https://doi.org/10.2307/2536511

Greenberg, Raphael. (2021). “Pompeo in Silwan: Judeo-Christian Nationalism, Kitsch, and Empire in Ancient Jerusalem.” Forum Kritische Archäologie. Vol.10, 55–66. http://www.kritischearchaeologie.de DOI ISSN 2194-346X. 

Greenburg, Raphael. (2009). “Towards an Inclusive Archaeology in Jerusalem: The Case of Silwan/The City of David.” Public Archaeology. Vol. 8, no. 1, 35- 50.

Hasson, Nir. (2016). “Amid UNESCO Flap, Israel Will Sponsor Rightist NGO’s Temple Mount Project.” Haaretz.October 21, 2016. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2016-10-21/ty-article/.premium/after-unesco-flap-israel-to-fund-ngos-temple-mount-project/0000017f-e0a4-d804-ad7f-f1fe75220000  (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Kaya, Ayhan & Tecmen, Ayşe. (2019). “Europe versus Islam? Right-wing Populist Discourse and the Construction of a Civilizational Identity.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs. 17:1, 49-64 DOI:10.1080/15570274.2019.1570759.

Kaya, Ayhan. (2021). “The use of the past by the Alternative for Germany and the Front National: heritage populism, Nostalgia and Jeanne D’Arc.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies. DOI: 10.1080/14782804.2021.1981835.

Leon, Nissim. (2015). “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas Party, and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process.” Middle East Journal.Vol. 69, no. 3, 379–395. www.jstor.org/stable/43698259

Leon, N. (2011). “The Political Use of the Teshuva Cassette Culture in Israel.” Contemporary Jewry. Vol.31, no. 2, 91-106.

Levi, Yonatan & Agmon, Shai. (2021). “Beyond culture and economy: Israel’s security-driven populism.” Contemporary Politics. Vol.26, no.3. 

Lintl, Peter. (2016). “The dynamics of a right-wing coalition: How the failure of the peace process encourages domestic populism inIsrael.” Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik -SWP- DeutschesInstitutfür Internationale Politik und Sicherheit.https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/48905# (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Linklater, Andrew. (2020). “The Return of Discourses of Civilization and Barbarism.” In: The Idea of Civilization and the Making of the Global Order. Bristol: Policy Press Scholarship Online. https://doi.org/10.1332/policypress/9781529213874.003.0002 

Lis, J. (2015). “Netanyahu: ‘Labour Picked a Radical Left, Anti-Zionist List’.” Haaretz,. January 15, 2015 http://www.haaretz.co.il/news/elections/.premium-1.2539874 (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Meranda, Amnon. (2009). “Shas condemns attack on gay center.” Ynet News. February 8, 2009. https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3755455,00.html (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Nathan, Emmanueland & Topolski, Anya eds. (2016). Is There a Judeo-Christian Tradition? A European Perspective. Berlin and Boston: DeGruyter.

Netanyahu, Benjamin. (2015). “PM Netanyahu’s Greeting for Independence Day 2015.” Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic. https://embassies.gov.il/philadelphia/NewsAndEvents/Pages/PM-Netanyahu’s-Greeting-for-Independence-Day-2015-.aspx (accessed on September 30, 2022). 

Netanyahu, Benjamin. (2022). “Secrets Of Statecraft: The Historical Heritage of Bibi Netanyahu.” Hoover Institutionhttps://www.hoover.org/research/secrets-statecraft-historical-heritage-bibi-netanyahu (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Nevo, N. & Verbov, D. (2011). “Hebrew Language in Israel and the Diaspora.” In: Miller, H., Grant, L., Pomson, A. (eds) International Handbook of Jewish Education. International Handbooks of Religion and Education. vol. 5. Springer: Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-0354-4_25

Porat, B. Guy & Filc, Dani. (2020). “Remember to be Jewish: Religious Populism in Israel.” Politics and Religion. 1-24. doi:10.1017/S1755048320000681

Pinson, Halleli. (2021). “Neo Zionist right-wing populist discourse and activism in the Israel education system.” Globalisation, Societies and Education. 
DOI:10.1080/14767724.2021.1872372

Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon. (2000). “Rabin’s Legacy: On Secularism, Nationalism and Orientalism.” In: Contested Memory: Myth, Nationalism and Democracy. Editors:   Grinberg, L. Beersheba.  Humphrey Institute: Ben-Gurion University.

Rogenhofer, M. Julius. & Panievsky, Ayala. (2020). “Antidemocratic populism in power: comparing Erdoğan’s Turkey with Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel.” Democratization. Vol. 27, no. 8, 1394-1412. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135

Saleem, A. M. R. (2022, forthcoming). “Civilizational Populism in Israel.” In: Religion, Populism and Civilisationalism in Asia Pacific.

Sapir, Gideon & Daniel Statman. (2015). “Minority Religions in Israel.” Journal of Law and Religion. 30 (1): 65–79.

Scholz, Susanne. (2022). “The Disneyfication of Shiloh: Biblical Historiography and Archaeology as Methodological Regimes of Military Occupation.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament. Vol. 36, no. 1, 112-137. DOI: 10.1080/09018328.2022.2085904

Shain, Yossi. (2019). “Ha-me’ah ha-Yisraelit: Ha-Yisraelizaziyah shel ha-Yahadut.” Aviv: Yedioth Ahronoth.  

Slabodsky, Santiago. (2014). Decolonial Judaism Triumphal Failures of Barbaric Thinking. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.  

Shafir, Moshe. (2012). “Open Letter.” Yom le Yom http://www.yomleyom.co.il/BRPortal/br/P103.jsp?cat=217358 (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Shalev, Shivanne. (2019). “Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties explained.” Israel Policy Forum. February 21, 2019.  https://israelpolicyforum.org/2019/02/21/israels-ultra-orthodox-parties-explained/ (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Sharon, Jeremy. (2021). “Shas spiritual leader: Boycott Israel’s government.” The Jerusalem Post. June 15, 2021. https://www.google.com/amp/s/m.jpost.com/israel-news/politics-and-diplomacy/shas-spiritual-leader-boycott-israels-government-671084/amp (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Sherwood, Harriet. (2012). “Israelis attack African migrants during protest against refugees.” The Guardian. May 24, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/24/israelis-attack-african-migrants-protest (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Shumsky, Dmitry. 2018. “Theodor Herzl: A Non-Jewish State of Jew.” In: Beyond the Nation-State. New Haven: Yale University Press. https://doi.org/10.12987/9780300241099-004

Silberberga, R. & Agbaria, A. (2021). “Legitimising populist education in Israel: The role of religion.” British Educational Research Journal. Vol. 47, no. 2, 316–331. 

Slabodsky, S. (2014). “Barbaric Paradoxes: Zionism from the Standpoint of the Borderlands.” In: Decolonial Judaism. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. DOI: 10.1057/9781137345837_1

Surkes, Sue. (2017). “Controversial ‘builder’ of Jewish East Jerusalem awarded Israel Prize.” The Times of Israel. March 16, 2017. https://www.timesofisrael.com/builder-of-jewish-east-jerusalem-awarded-israel-prize/ (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Tuastad, Dag. (2003). “Neo-Orientalism and the New Barbarism Thesis: Aspects of Symbolic Violence in the Middle East Conflict(s).” Third World Quarterly. Vol. 24, no. 4, 591–599. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3993426

Ungar-Sargon, Batya. (2014). “Israel’s shas party gets controversial new leader.” Tablet. April 18, 2014. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/israels-shas-party-gets-controversial-new-leader (accessed on September 30, 2022).

Walt, M. S. (1997). “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington Source.” Foreign Policy. No. 106, 176-189. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1149181

Shakil, Kainat & Yilmaz, Ihsan. 82021). “Religion and Populism in the Global South: Islamist Civilisationism of Pakistan’s Imran Khan.” Religions. 12: 777. https:// doi.org/10.3390/rel12090777 

Wilford, Greg. (2017). “Israel has stripped citizenship from an Arab Israeli for the first time ever.” The Independent.August 6, 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-revokes-citizenship-stripped-arab-israeli-alaa-raed-ahmad-zayoud-haifa-kibbutz-gan-shmuel-hadera-interior-minister-aryeh-deri-avraham-elyakim-human-rights-watch-a7879771.html (accessed on September 30, 2022).

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Demir, Mustafa & Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “Religion in Creating Populist Appeal: Islamist Populism and Civilizationism in the Friday Sermons of Turkey’s Diyanet.” Religions. 12: 359. https:// doi.org/10.3390/rel12050359   

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson Nicholas. (2022a). “Religious Populisms in the Asia Pacific.” Religions. 13, no. 9: 802. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13090802

Zúquete, P. Jose. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.22

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.

Manufacturing Civilisational Crises: Instrumentalisation of Anti-Western Conspiracy Theories for Populist Authoritarian Resilience in Turkey and Pakistan

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.


 

References 

— 2010. “Turkey’s Erdogan hails constitutional referendum win.” CNN. September 12, 2010. http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/europe/09/12/turkey.referendum/index.html (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2011). “Cricketer-Turned-Politician Imran Khan Explains His Islamic Beliefs: ‘It Was Not Until Salman Rushdie [Published His] ‘Satanic Verses’ That My Understanding of Islam Began to Develop’.” MEMRI. November 8, 2011. https://www.memri.org/reports/pakistani-cricketer-turned-politician-imran-khan-explains-his-islamic-beliefs-it-was-not (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2012). “Pakistan’s Imran Khan leads protest against US drone strikes.” BBC. October 6, 2012. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-19855642 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2012). “PTI will end corruption in 19 days, terrorism in 90 days: Imran Khan.” The Express Tribune. February 26, 2012. https://tribune.com.pk/story/342104/pti-will-end-corruption-in-19-days-terrorism-in-90-days-imran-khan (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2013). “JI likely to enter alliance with PTI in KP and NA.” Dawn. May 13, 2013. https://www.dawn.com/news/1027124/ji-to-enter-alliance-with-pti-in-kp (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2014). “Turkish PM Erdoğan vows ‘to sterilize’ Gülen movement ‘by boiling or molecularizing’.” Hurriyet Daily News. May 11, 2014. https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-pm-erdogan-vows-to-sterilize-gulen-movement-by-boiling-or-molecularizing-66327 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2016). “FULL TRANSCRIPT: CNN World Exclusive Interview with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” CNN. July 18, 2016. https://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2016/07/18/full-transcript-cnn-world-exclusive-interview-with-turkish-president-recep-tayyip-erdogan/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2017). “’We will rip the heads off traitors’ says Erdogan in coup speech.” MEE. September 6, 2017. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/we-will-rip-heads-traitors-says-erdogan-coup-speech (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2017). “Imran Khan’s promise of change in KP falls flat.” Samaa. September 6, 2017. https://www.samaaenglish.tv/news/1205276/1205276 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2018). “The Road to Naya Pakistan.” PTI.  https://www.pmo.gov.pk/documents/manifesto-pti.pdf (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2019). “View From the Neighbourhood: Imran’s U-turns.” The Indian Express. April 22, 2019. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/imran-khan-pakistan-quetta-suicide-attack-5687348/ https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/855533-original-content-has-value-not-imitation-pm-imran-khan-on-pakistani-films (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2020). “Ex-President of Pakistan Is Indicted on Money Laundering Charges.” The New York Times. September 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/28/world/asia/pakistan-asif-ali-zardari-imran-khan.html (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2020). “After converting Hagia Sophia to mosque, Turkish President Erdogan vows to liberate Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.” OpInida. July 12, 2020. https://www.opindia.com/2020/07/turkey-erdogan-hagia-sophia-mosque-liberate-al-aqsa-jerusalem/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2020). “PM Imran Khan says Aurat March is a result of cultural differences like it’s a bad thing.” Images. March 14. 2020. https://images.dawn.com/news/1184828/pm-imran-khan-says-aurat-march-is-a-result-of-cultural-differences-like-its-a-bad-thing (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2020). “Pakistan being subjected to 5th-generation warfare in ‘massive way’ but we are aware of threats: DG ISPR.” Dawn. December 3, 2020.  https://www.dawn.com/news/1593804/pakistan-being-subjected-to-5th-generation-warfare-in-massive-way-but-we-are-aware-of-threats-dg-ispr (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “PM Imran urges young filmmakers to focus on original content.” MMNews. June 26, 2021. https://mmnews.tv/pm-imran-urges-young-filmmakers-to-focus-on-original-content/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “Original content has value not imitation, PM Imran Khan tells budding filmmakers.” The News. June 26, 2021. https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/855533-original-content-has-value-not-imitation-pm-imran-khan-on-pakistani-films (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021).”PM Imran blames your morals for Pakistan’s economic downfall.” Samaa. November 9, 2021. https://www.samaaenglish.tv/news/2453133/pm-imran-blames-pakistans-morals-for-economic-downfall (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “Submission to the Human Rights Committee 132nd Session (28 June 2021-23 July 2021) For the adoption of the LOIPR of Turkey”. International Association for Human Rights Advocacy Geneva. (IAHRAG).  https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared%20Documents/TUR/INT_CCPR_ICS_TUR_44917_E.pdf (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “Islamophobia has penetrated politics in West, Erdoğan says.” Daily Sabah. https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/islamophobia-has-penetrated-politics-in-west-erdogan-says (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “PM Khan’s 25-year-old vision comes true at SNC launch.” GVS. August 21, 2021. https://www.globalvillagespace.com/pm-khans-25-year-old-vision-comes-true-at-snc-launch/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “Revealed: List of all Pakistanis named in Pandora Papers so far.” Dawn. October 4, 2021. https://www.dawn.com/news/1650077 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021a). “PM Imran announces formation of Rehmatul-lil-Aalameen Authority.” Dawn. October 10, 2021. https://www.dawn.com/news/1651217/pm-imran-announces-formation-of-rehmatul-lil-aalameen-authority (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “PM Calls on Universities to Research ‘Harmful Effects’ Of Western Culture On Pakistan’s Family System.” The Friday Times. November 29, 2021. https://www.thefridaytimes.com/2021/11/29/pm-calls-on-universities-to-research-harmful-effects-of-western-culture-on-pakistans-family-system/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “PM launches SNC to promote unity in diversity.” The Express Tribune. August 16, 2021. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2315867/pm-launches-snc-to-promote-unity-in-diversity (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2021). “Imran Khan Paints Pakistan as Victim of US Ungratefulness.” USNews. September 24, 2021. https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-09-24/imran-khan-paints-pakistan-as-victim-of-us-ungratefulness (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022). “Imran throws ball in the court of ‘neutrals’, judiciary.” The Express Tribune. May 24, 2022. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2358140/imran-throws-ball-in-the-court-of-neutrals-judiciary (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022). “Citing India’s ‘self-respect’, Imran Khan appeals to Pakistan.” The Indian Express. April 9, 2022. https://indianexpress.com/article/pakistan/pakistan-pm-imran-khan-addresses-nation-on-eve-of-no-trust-vote-7860210/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022). “’3 Rats Looting Pakistan for 30 Years’: Imran Khan Targets Opposition at Massive Rally.” NDTV. March 2, 2022. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/three-rats-looting-pakistan-for-last-30-years-imran-khan-targets-opposition-at-islamabad-power-show-2846499 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022a). “’Sorry To Say…’: Imran Khan Says Muslim Nations Didn’t Check Islamophobia.” NDTV. March 22, 2022. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/imran-khan-blames-muslim-countries-for-islamophobia-after-9-11-attacks-2836162 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022b). “’Threat Letter’ From US, Claims Imran Khan, Then Calls It ‘Slip of Tongue’.” NDTV. Macrh 31, 2022. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/threat-letter-from-us-claims-imran-khan-then-calls-it-slip-of-tongue-2855589 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022c). “’Hands Were Tied, Blackmailed’: Imran Khan’s All-Out Attack on Pak Army.” NDTV. June 2, 2022. https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/imran-khan-attacks-pakistans-army-says-his-hands-were-tied-was-blackmailed-3031234 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022). “Erdoğan calls Gezi Park protesters ‘sluts’.” BiaNet. June 1, 2022. News. https://bianet.org/english/politics/262711-erdogan-calls-gezi-park-protesters-sluts 
(accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022). “Erdoğan vows to continue fight against terror.” Hurriyet Daily News. January 30, 2022. https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/erdogan-vows-to-continue-fight-against-terror-171147 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022). “Thousands protest in Pakistan after Prime Minister Imran Khan ousted in no-confidence vote.” ABC News.April 11, 2022. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-11/pakistan-parliament-vote-new-pm-imran-khan-ousted/100981826 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

— (2022). “Pakistan PM lauds UN for International Day to Combat Islamophobia.” Aljazeera. March 16, 2022. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/16/pakistan-pm-lauds-un-for-international-day-to-combat-islamophobia(Accessed 14 August 2022). 

— (2022). “Imran Khan Islamabad Protest Call Against Imported Government | Inflation In Pakistan Breaking News.” Bol News.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeEX7uuxT-k&ab_channel=BOLNews (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Abbas, Hassan. (2021). “PM slams English-medium educational system.” Busines Recorder. August 26, 2021. https://www.brecorder.com/news/40115802/pm-slams-english-medium-educational-system (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Afzal, Madiha. (2018). “Did Pakistan’s Imran Khan win a ‘dirty’ election or a real mandate?” Brookings. July 27, 2018. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/07/27/did-pakistans-imran-khan-win-a-dirty-election-or-a-real-mandate/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Ali, Hassan. (2021). “Imran Khan Faces a Standoff with the Pakistani Military.” The Nation. October 21, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/world/imran-khan-military/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Alvi, Mumtaz and Khan, Sarfaraz. (2022). “Imran Khan again targets ‘neutrals’.” The News. Junee 3, 2022. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/963019-imran-again-targets-neutrals (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Ant, Onur. (2021). “Turkey’s Erdogan Blames Lira Slump on Attacks by ‘Money Barons.” Bloomberg. November 26, 2021.  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-11-26/erdogan-says-turkey-under-attack-by-money-barons-after-pivot (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Aytaç, S. E. & Elçi, E. (2019). “Populism in Turkey.” In: Populism around the world (pp. 89-108). Springer, Cham. 

Baloch, M. Shah. (2022). “Imran Khan claims US threatened him and wants him ousted as Pakistan PM”. The Guardian. March 31, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/31/imran-khan-address-pakistan-faces-no-confidence-vote (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Basit, Abdul. (2022). “Pakistan’s Military Ends Its Experiment with Hybrid Democracy.” Foreign Policy. April 25, 2022. https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/04/25/pakistan-military-imran-khan-hybrid-democracy/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Boone, Jon. (2012). “Imran Khan says Taliban’s ‘holy war’ in Afghanistan is justified by Islamic law.” The Guardian. October 14, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/14/imran-khan-taliban-afghanistan-islam (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Brubaker, R. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilisationism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40:8, 1191-1226.  

Butt, I. Ahsan. (2021). “Imran Khan’s talks with the Pakistan Taliban will not bring peace.” Aljzeera. October 27, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/10/27/imran-khans-talks-with-the-pakistan-taliban-wont-work (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Butler, Daren and Gumrukcu, Tuvan. (2017). “Defiant Erdogan attacks EU, backs restoring death penalty.” Reuters. July 16, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/turkey-security-anniversary-idINKBN1A10E8 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Carol, S. and Hofheinz, L. (2022). “A Content Analysis of the Friday Sermons of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs in Germany (DİTİB).” Politics and Religion, pp.1–24. 

De Cleen, B. & Stavrakakis, Y. (2017). “Distinctions and articulations: A discourse theoretical framework for the study of populism and nationalism.” Javnost-The Public24(4), 301-319. 

De la Torre, C. (2017). “Populism in Latin America.” The Oxford handbook of populism, 195-213. 

Douglass-Williams, C. (2019). The Challenge of Modernizing Islam: Reformers Speak Out and the Obstacles They Face. Encounter Books.

Galito, M. S. (2018). “Populism as a political phenomenon.” JANUS. NET e-journal of International Relations9, 53-69. 

Geybullayeva, Arzu. (2022). “The Gezi protests were led by riffraff and sluts, according to president Erdoğan.” Global Voices. June 4, 2022. https://globalvoices.org/2022/06/04/the-gezi-protests-were-led-by-riffraff-and-sluts-according-to-president-erdogan/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Gibbs, Margot and Politzer, Malia. (2021). “Prime Minister Imran Khan promised ‘new Pakistan’ but members of his inner circle secretly moved millions offshore.” ICIJ. Octobeer 3, 2021. https://www.icij.org/investigations/pandora-papers/pakistan-imran-khan-prime-minister-allies-offshore/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Gümrükçü, B. Selin. (2021). “The Aftermath of the Gezi Park Protests: Rising Populism and Mobilization for Autocracy.” Jadaliyya. June 16, 2021. https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/42978 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Gudavarthy, A. (2021). India after Modi: Populism and the right. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Hashim, Asad. (2021). “Pakistani PM says will not be ‘blackmailed’ into visiting Hazaras.” Aljazeera. October 8, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/8/pakistani-pm-says-will-not-be-blackmailed-into-visiting-hazaras (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Hoodbhoy, Pervez. (2020). “Education: PTI’s plan exposed.” Dawn. July 18, 2020. https://www.dawn.com/news/1569679 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Ilyas, Ferya. (2013). “K-P will stand out from the rest of Pakistan, soon: Imran Khan.” The Express Tribune. September 15, 2013. https://tribune.com.pk/story/604605/k-p-will-stand-out-from-the-rest-of-pakistan-soon-imran-khan (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Iwanek, Krzysztof. (2022). “Imran Khan’s US Conspiracy Theory: A Close Examination.” The Diplomat. April 13, 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/04/imran-khans-us-conspiracy-theory-a-close-examination/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Kaliber, A. & Kaliber, E. (2019). “From de-Europeanisation to anti-Western populism: Turkish foreign policy in flux.” The International Spectator54(4), 1-16. 

Karadeniz, Tulay and Pamuk, Humeyra. (2016). “Turkey’s Erdogan slams West for failure to show solidarity over coup attempt.” Reuters. July 29, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-idUSKCN10912T (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Khaleeli, Homa. (2016). “Imran Khan on the Panama Papers: ‘The coalition of the corrupt help each other’.” The Guardian. April 19, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/apr/19/imran-khan-movement-justice-nawaz-sharif-sadiq-khan-zac-goldsmith-panama-papers (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Khan, D. (2021). “Political economy of uneven state spatiality: Conflict, class, and institutions in the postcolonial state of Pakistan.” Rethinking Marxism33(1), 52-70. 

Khan, Imran. (2022). “Spirit of Riyasat-i-Madina: transforming Pakistan.” The Express Tribune. January 17, 2022. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2339025/spirit-of-riyasat-i-madina-transforming-pakistan (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Khan, F. Omar. (2022). “Pakistan PM calls his political riv.” Times of India. March 22, 2022. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/90364434.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Khan, A. Danyal. (2018). “The Corruption Case That Undid the Sharif Family.” The Wire. September 21, 2018. https://thewire.in/south-asia/the-corruption-case-that-undid-the-sharif-family (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Khan, Aimal. (2014). “Has Imran Khan brought about any ‘tabdeeli’ in K-P?” The Express Tribune. August 4, 2014. https://tribune.com.pk/article/23493/has-imran-khan-brought-about-any-tabdeeli-in-k-p (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Kohn, Sally. (2016). “Nothing Donald Trump Says on Immigration Holds Up.” Time. June 29, 2016. https://time.com/4386240/donald-trump-immigration-arguments/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Kugelman, Michael. (2021). “Imran Khan’s Silence on Uighurs Undercuts His Defense of Muslims Worldwide.” Foreign Policy. January 29, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/29/imran-khan-uighurs-muslims-china/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Lach, Eric. (2019). “Trump’s Dangerous Scapegoating of Immigrants at the State of the Union”. The New Yorkerhttps://www.newyorker.com/news/current/trumps-dangerous-scapegoating-of-immigrants-at-the-state-of-the-union (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Latif, Aamir. (2022). “Pakistan’s opposition party wins crucial by-election.” AA. July 17, 2022. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/pakistans-opposition-party-wins-crucial-by-elections/2639026 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Lesch, W. (2020). “Visible religion and populism: an explosive cocktail.” Religions. 11(8), 401. 

Mansoor, Hasan. (2011). “Imran Khan’s anti-corruption bid draws 100,000 Pakistani.” The Sydney Morning Herald. December 27, 2011. https://www.smh.com.au/world/imran-khans-anticorruption-bid-draws-100000-pakistanis-20111226-1pafu.html (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Marris, Sharon. (2017). “Dutch PM wants apology for Turkish leader Erdogan’s ‘Nazi’ claim.” Sky News. March 12, 2017. https://uk.news.yahoo.com/turkey-dutch-pay-price-nazism-140400753.html?guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAHTqgqapxIyYGfy2fMQxaEwd1sMWL8R9S5Ed0z9MhOTL_LCyNa0m2am_W0O_k9nQJO_o3t0UZ0sVcZQk-4BaHks7n1C75nBRVbBzeiUpDEKWRy0Sk1Ib6aH2hbKMPjZSUnqRk14QKfhkOah907g0gq8LNL2j1I8k9HmYuvhVvdKx&guccounter=2 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

McKirdy, Euan and Alam, A. Handay. (2016). “Turkey’s Erdogan to US: Hand over exiled cleric Gulen.” CNN. August 11, 2016. https://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/11/politics/turkey-us-fethullah-gulen-ultimatum/index.html (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Mudde, C. (2016). “Europe’s populist surge: A long time in the making.” Foreign Affairs95(6), 25-30. 

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

Muzaffar, Maroosha. (2021). “Taliban have broken ‘the shackles of slavery,’ says Pakistan PM Imran Khan.” The Independent. August 17, 2021. https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/south-asia/taliban-pakistan-imran-khan-afghanistan-b1903821.html (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Naya Daur. (2021). “Imran Khan’s Refusal to Visit Hazara Protesters: A Psychological Analysis.” https://www.facebook.com/razaahmadrumi/videos/imran-khans-refusal-to-visit-hazara-protesters-a-psychological-analysis/435095074348010/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Pandey, Nikhil. (2022). “Imran Khan warns to reveal details of ‘conspiracy’ if harassment of PTI workers continues.” WION. July 6, 2022. https://www.wionews.com/south-asia/imran-khan-warns-to-reveal-details-of-conspiracy-if-harassment-of-pti-workers-continues-494842 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Ryo, Emily. (2019). “How ICE enforcement has changed under the Trump administration.” The Conversation. July 29, 2019. https://theconversation.com/how-ice-enforcement-has-changed-under-the-trump-administration-120322 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

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

Seibert, Thomas. (2014). “Erdogan family drawn into corruption probe.” DWhttps://www.dw.com/en/erdogan-family-drawn-into-corruption-probe/a-17344379 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Shams, Shamil. (2016). “Has Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb military operation failed?” DW. January 6, 2016. https://www.dw.com/en/has-pakistans-zarb-e-azb-military-operation-failed/a-19523083 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Shandilya, Aparna. (2021). “Pakistan PM Imran Khan Blames Bhutto & Sharif Families For Destroying Nation & Corruption.” Republic World. December 18, 2021. https://www.republicworld.com/world-news/pakistan-news/pakistan-pm-imran-khan-blames-bhutto-and-sharif-families-for-destroying-nation-and-corruption.html (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Shakil, K., & Yilmaz, I. (2021). “Religion and Populism in the Global South: Islamist Civilisationism of Pakistan’s Imran Khan.” Religions12(9), 777. 

Sharma, Ajay. (2022). “’Pakistan Not Far from Lanka Moment’: Imran Claims Sharif Family ‘mafia’ Looting Country.” Republic World. July 24, 2022. https://www.republicworld.com/world-news/pakistan-news/pakistan-not-far-from-lanka-moment-imran-claims-sharif-family-mafia-looting-country-articleshow.html (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Siddiqa, Ayesha. (2022). “Imran was an experiment that went wrong. Now, Bajwa has to face challenge from within army.” The Print. April 28, 2022. https://theprint.in/the-fineprint/imran-was-an-experiment-that-went-wrong-now-bajwa-has-to-face-challenge-from-within-army/933254/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Smith, L. Hannah; Sage, Adam and Charter, David. (2018). “Turkey blames ‘Jewish lobby’ for economic crisis.” The Sunday Times. May 30, 2018. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/turkey-blames-jewish-lobby-for-economic-crisis-lqrk8t0b7 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Solaker, Gulsen. (2014). “Turkey’s Erdogan calls on U.S. to extradite rival Gulen.” Reuters. April 29, 2014. https://www.reuters.com/article/cnews-us-turkey-erdogan-idCABREA3S0A120140429 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Stanley, B. (2008). “The thin ideology of populism.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 13(1), 95-110, DOI: 10.1080/13569310701822289 

Taguieff, P. A. (1995). “Political science confronts populism: from a conceptual mirage to a real problem.” Telos. (103), 9-43.

Tariq, Soofia. (2021). “Outrage after Pakistan PM Imran Khan blames rape crisis on women”. The Guardian. June 25, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/25/outrage-after-pakistan-pm-imran-khan-blames-crisis-on-women (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Taş, H. (2022). “The chronopolitics of national populism.” Identities. 29(2), 127-145.

Toledo, Camilo. (2022). “Title 42: Controversial Trump-era immigration policy remains in place.” DW. May 24, 2022. https://www.dw.com/en/title-42-controversial-trump-era-immigration-policy-remains-in-place/a-61917371 (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Vinayak, Aakriti. (2021). “Single national curriculum in Pakistan a recipe for disaster.” Vifindia. October 29, 2021. https://www.vifindia.org/2021/october/29/single-national-curriculum-in-pakistan-a-recipe-for-disaster (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Albayrak, Ismail. (2021a). “Religion as an Authoritarian Securitization and Violence Legitimation Tool: The Erdoğanist Diyanet’s Framing of a Religious Movement as an Existential Threat.” Religions. 12(8), 574. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Albayrak, Ismail. (2021b). “Instrumentalization of Religious Conspiracy Theories in Politics of Victimhood: Narrative of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs.” Religions. 12(10), 841. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Erturk, O. Faruk. (2021). “Populism, violence and authoritarian stability: necropolitics in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly42(7), 1524-1543. 

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan and 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)https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0010 

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Shakil, Kainat. (2021a). “The Silence of the Khans: The pragmatism of Islamist populist Imran Khan and his mentor Erdogan in persecuting Muslim minorities”. European Center for Populism Studies. https://www.populismstudies.org/the-silence-of-the-khans-the-pragmatism-of-islamist-populist-imran-khan-and-his-mentor-erdogan-in-persecuting-muslim-minorities/ (accessed on August 14, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Shakil, Kainat. (2021b). “Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS).  https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0006

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Shakil, Kainat. (2021c). “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS)https://doi.org/10.55271/op0004 

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Shipoli, Erdoan. (2022). “Use of Past Collective Traumas, Fear and Conspiracy Theories for Securitisation and Repression of the Opposition: The Turkish Case.” Democratization 29:2, 320-336, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1953992.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2009). “Muslim Democrats in Turkey and Egypt: Participatory Politics as a Catalyst, Insight Turkey.” Vol. 11, No. 2, Apr. 2009, pp. 93-112.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2018). “Islamic populism and creating desirable citizens in Erdoğan’s new Turkey.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 29, no. 4, 52-76.

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). “The AKP’s Authoritarian, Islamist Populism: Carving out a New Turkey.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS)https://doi.org/10.55271/op0005

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2022). Authoritarianism, Informal Law, and Legal Hybridity: The Islamisation of the State in Turkey.Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Zafar, Kashif and Karni, Owais. (2018). “PPP, PML-N looted country by turns: Imran Khan.” The Express Tribune. July 12, 2018. https://tribune.com.pk/story/1755687/ppp-pml-n-looted-country-turns-imran-khan (accessed on August 14, 2022).

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

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.


 

References

— (2012). “PTI will end corruption in 19 days, terrorism in 90 days: Imran Khan.” The Express Tribune. February 26, 2012. https://tribune.com.pk/story/342104/pti-will-end-corruption-in-19-days-terrorism-in-90-days-imran-khan (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2018). “PPP, PMLN broke all records of corruption: Imran Khan.” The News. July 16, 2018. https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/342409-imran-says-he-educates-people-about-problems-inflicted-by-pml-n-ppp (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2018). “The road to naya Pakistan: PTI manifesto 2018.” PTI.  https://pmo.gov.pk/documents/manifesto-pti.pdf (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2018). “Time to dump: Jamaat-e-Islami breaks up with PTI.” Samaa TV.  https://www.samaa.tv/news/2018/05/timely-breakup-jamaat-e-islami-ends-alliance-with-pti/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2019). “Democracy Index 2019. A year of democratic setbacks and popular protest.” Economist Intelligence Unit. (http://country.eiu.com/allcountries.aspx (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2019). “Pakistani PM praises China’s achievement in poverty alleviation.” Xinhua. September 24, 2019. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-09/24/c_138417578.htm (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2019). “Transfer of millions into Gulalai Ismael’s accounts from India detected.” The News. July 17, 2019. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/499497-transfer-of-millions-into-gulalai-ismael-s-accounts-from-india-detected (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2019). “29 Ekim’de uçacak denilen yerli uçak pist yüzü görmedi.” Evrensel. October 28, 2019. https://www.evrensel.net/haber/389745/29-ekimde-ucacak-denilen-yerli-ucak-pist-yuzu-gormedi (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2019a). “Imran’s government, army at loggerheads with judiciary in Pakistan.” Gulf News. December 20, 2019. https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/imrans-government-army-at-loggerheads-with-judiciary-in-pakistan-1.68598734 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2019b). “Takeaways from Imran Khan’s speech at UN General Assembly.” Gulf News. September 28, 2019.  https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/takeaways-from-imran-khans-speech-at-un-general-assembly-1.1569641835080 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2020). “Pakistani journalist and army critic released after being kidnapped in Islamabad.” The Guardian. July 21, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/21/pakistani-journalist-known-for-criticising-military-kidnapped-in-islamabad (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2020). “PPP, PML-N politics over.” The News. May 11, 2020. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/657023-ppp-pml-n-politics-over (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2020). “Imran Khan is damaging Pakistan’s education system far deeper than Zia-ul-Haq did.” The Print. July 25, 2020. https://theprint.in/best-of-theprint-icymi/imran-khan-is-damaging-pakistans-education-system-far-deeper-than-zia-ul-haq-did/467631/  (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2020). “Pakistan PM: Learn ‘Islamic values’ from Turkey’s Ertugrul.” Middle East Monitor (MEM). April 28, 2020. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200428-pakistan-pm-learn-islamic-values-from-turkeys-ertugrul/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2020a). “We have ‘no doubt’ India was behind PSX attack, says PM Imran in NA.” Dawn. June 30, 2020. https://www.dawn.com/news/1566145/pm-imran-khan-speaking-in-na-after-budget-approval (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2020b). “People’s trust in judicial system has been shaken: Imran.” Dawn. May 30, 2020. https://www.dawn.com/news/1560336 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2020). “Cable operators directed to shut down Geo TV or shift to last numbers.” Geo News. March 13, 2020. https://www.geo.tv/latest/277142-cable-operators-directed-to-shut-down-geo-tv-or-shift-it-to-last-numbers (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2021). “Govt to focus on youth’s character building through religious festivals: PM Imran Khan.” Geo TV. November 16, 2021. https://www.geo.tv/latest/382380-govt-to-focus-on-youths-character-building-through-religious-festivals-pm-imran (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2021). “Imran Khan blames westernised culture for breakdown of society.” Bol TV.   https://youtu.be/lDCxGgEVPxY (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2021). “PM Imran warns of consequences of adopting western culture.” Express Tribune. October 11, 2021. https://tribune.com.pk/story/2324256/pm-imran-warns-of-consequences-of-adopting-western-culture (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2021). “Servicemen taking over civilian posts injustice with youth: senator.” Pakistan Today. December 29, 2021. https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2021/12/29/servicemen-taking-over-civilian-posts-injustice-with-youth-senator/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2022). “Taking U-turns imperative for politicians and generals.” Daily Times. July 17, 2022. https://dailytimes.com.pk/967547/taking-u-turns-imperative-for-politicians-and-generals/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2022a). “Imran threatens to ‘reveal everything’ if harassment of PTI workers, journalists continues.” Dawn. July 5, 2022. https://www.dawn.com/news/1698358/imran-threatens-to-reveal-everything-if-harassment-of-pti-workers-journalists-continues (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2022b). “’You are the Mir Jafar I talk about,’ Imran tells PM Shehbaz in Jhelum power show.” Dawn. May 10, 2022. https://www.dawn.com/news/1688985/you-are-the-mir-jafar-i-talk-about-imran-tells-pm-shehbaz-in-jhelum-power-show (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2022). “Imran alleges he is receiving threat calls.” Express Tribune. July 8, 2022.   https://tribune.com.pk/story/2365299/imran-alleges-he-is-receiving-threat-calls (accessed on April 27, 2022).

— (2022). “PTI Nominates Pervaiz Elahi as Punjab Chief Minister Candidate.” Naya DaurThe Friday Times. July 19, 2022. https://www.thefridaytimes.com/2022/07/19/pti-nominates-pervaiz-elahi-as-punjab-chief-minister-candidate/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Ádám, Zoltán, and András Bozóki. (2016). “State and Faith: Right-wing Populism and Nationalized Religion in Hungary.” Intersections EEJSP 2: 98–122. Available online: http://intersections.tk.mta.hu (accessed on April 24, 2022).

Afzal, M. (2019). An inflection point for Pakistan’s democracy. Washington: Brookings.

Ahmed, Ashfaq. (2020). “The Quran learning made mandatory for university students in Punjab.” Gulf News. June 15, 2020, https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/the-quran-learning-made-mandatory-for-university-students-in-punjab-1.72051304 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Albertazzi, Daniele, and Duncan McDonnell. (2007). (eds.) Twenty-first century populism: The spectre of Western European democracy. Springer.

Al Jazeera. (2020, February 14). “Pakistan government’s new social media rules draw criticism.” https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/2/14/pakistan-governments-new-social-media-rules-draw-criticism (accessed on April 27, 2022).

ANI. (2022). “After crying foreign conspiracy, Imran Khan targets judiciary for not probing ‘letter’”. The Print. https://theprint.in/world/after-crying-foreign-conspiracy-imran-khan-targets-judiciary-for-not-probing-letter/920080/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Artinger, Brenna, and Michael Rowand. 2021. When Buddhists Back the Army: Many monks in Myanmar are supporting the military coup. Foreign Policy. February 16. Available online: https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/16/myanmar-rohingya-coup-buddhists-protest/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Asad, Malik and Inamullah Khattak, (2018). “Govt under international pressure after asking 18 INGOs to wind up operations in Pakistan”, Dawn, 9 October 2018, https://www.dawn.com/news/1437893 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Aslam, Wali. (2015). “The political appropriation of casualties in threat construction.” In: Precision-strike technology and international intervention: strategic, legal and moral implications.” ed. Mike Aaronson et al. London: Routledge.

Aytaç, S. Erdem and Ziya Öniş. (2014). “Varieties of populism in a changing global Context: the divergent paths of Erdoğan and Kirchnerismo.” Comparative Politics. 47(1), 41–59.

Baker-Brian, Nicholas J. (2011). Manichaeism: An Ancient Faith Rediscovered. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Batory, Agnes. (2016). “Populists in government? Hungary’s system of national cooperation.” Democratization. 23, no. 2: 283-303.

Bokhari, Farhan. (2019). “Pakistan hikes interest rates to 5-year high after IMF deal.” Nikkei Asian Review. May 21, 2019. https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Pakistan-hikes-interest-rates-to-5-year-high-after-IMF-deal (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Boone, Jon. (2015). “Pakistan shuts down Save the Children offices in Islamabad.” The Guardian. June 12, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/12/pakistan-shuts-down-save-the-children-offices-in-islamabad (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Bokhari, T. (2019). “Breaking the begging bowl.” Dawn. October 14, 2019. https://www.dawn.com/news/1510786/breaking-the-begging-bowl (accessed on April 27, 2022).

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

Bukhari, G. (2018). “Imran Khan wants to create a Medina-like Pakistan, but he is no sentinel of human rights.” The Print. August 25, 2018. https://theprint.in/opinion/imran-khan-wants-to-create-a-medina-like-pakistan-but-he-is-no-sentinel-of-human-rights/104903/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Campbell, Charlie. (2018). “Cricket Hero Imran Khan Led Pakistan’s Team to Victory. As a Politician, He’s Riding a Populist Wave.” Time. July 9, 2018, http://time.com/5324713/imran-khan-pakistan-prime-minister/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Canovan, Margaret. (1999). “Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy.” Political Studies. 47, no. 1: 2-16.

Çapan, Zeynep Gülşah & Zarakol, Ayşe. (2019). Turkey’s ambivalent self: ontological insecurity in ‘Kemalism’ versus ‘Erdoğanism.’ Cambridge Review of International Affairs 32(3), 263-282.

Cap, Piotr. (2018). “We don’t want any immigrants or terrorists here’: The linguistic manufacturing of xenophobia in the post-2015 Poland. Discourse & Society. 29: 380–98.

Castaldo, Antonino. (2018). “Populism and competitive authoritarianism in Turkey.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 18(4), 467-487.

Chatterji, P. Angana; Hansen, Thomas Blom and Jaffrelot, Christophe. (2020). Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Damhuis, K. (2019). “Why Dutch populists are exceptional: A ‘Muslims in the West’ reaction essay.” Brookings.December 4, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/why-dutch-populists-are-exceptional/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

De la Torre, Carlos, and Andrés Ortiz Lemos. (2016). “Populist polarization and the slow death of democracy in Ecuador.” Democratization. 23, no. 2: 221-241.

Demiralp, Seda. (2012). “White Turks, black Turks? Faultlines beyond Islamism versus secularism.” Third World Quarterly. 33, no. 3: 511-524.

Dinçşahin, Şakir. (2012). “A symptomatic analysis of the Justice and Development Party’s populism in Turkey, 2007–2010.” Government and Opposition. 47(4): 618-640.

Ellis-Petersen, Hannah and Baloch, Shah Meer. (2019). “Extreme fear and self-censorship: media freedom under threat in Pakistan.” The Guardian. November 5, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/05/extreme-fear-and-self-censorship-media-in-pakistan-under-attack  (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Erdogan, Recep Tayyip. (2014). “Turkey will fight neo-Ergenekon.” Anatolian News Agency. March 16, 2014. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkey/turkey-will-fight-neo-ergenekon-turkish-pm-erdogan/174321 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Espejo, Paulina Ochoa. (2015). “Power to whom? The people between procedure and populism.” In: The promise and perils of populism: Global perspectives. 59-90.

Farmer, Ben. (2019). “Imran Khan’s Pakistan forced to swallow IMF medicine in return for $6bn bailout.” Telegraph. May 13, 2019. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/05/13/imran-khans-pakistan-forced-swallow-imf-medicine-return-6bn/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Filkins, Dexter. (2013). “Show Trials on the Bosphorus.” New Yorker. August 13, 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/show-trials-on-the-bosphorus (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Findlay, Stephanie & Bokhari, Farhan. (2019). “Imran Khan swallows pride to clinch toughest IMF bailout yet.” Financial Times. May 16, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/10318f10-7677-11e9-bbad-7c18c0ea0201 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Ganguly, S. (2008). “Pakistan After Musharraf: The Burden of History.” Journal of Democracy. 19 (4): 26-31. 

Gençoğlu Onbaşi, Funda. (2016). “Gezi Park protests in Turkey: from ‘enough is enough’ to counter-hegemony?” Turkish Studies. 17(2): 272-294.

Grzymala-Busse, Anna; Kuo, Didi; Fukuyama, Francis and McFaul, Michael. (2020). Global Populisms and Their Challenges. Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. 

Haider, K. and Qayum, K. (2019). “Military-judiciary clash over Musharraf risks plunging Pakistan into crisis. “Business Standard. December 20, 2019. https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/military-judiciary-clash-over-musharraf-risks-plunging-pakistan-into-crisis-119122000200_1.html (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Hassan, S. (2020). “Populism and popularity in Imran Khan’s 2018 election speeches.” In: Politics and Populism across Modes and Media. Edited by Ruth Breeze and Ana María Fernández Vallejo. Bern: Peter Lang AG.

Hawkins, Kirk A. (2016). “Responding to radical populism: Chavismo in Venezuela.” Democratization. 23(2): 242-262.

Heinisch, Reinhard. (2003). “Success in opposition–failure in government: explaining the performance of right-wing populist parties in public office.” West European Politics. 26(3), 91-130.

Iwanek, K. (2022). “Imran Khan’s US Conspiracy Theory: A Close Examination.” The Diplomat. April 13, 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/04/imran-khans-us-conspiracy-theory-a-close-examination/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

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

Jeffries, Stuart. (2011). “Imran Khan: America is destroying Pakistan. We’re using our army to kill our own people with their money.” Guardian. September 18, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/global/2011/sep/18/imran-khan-america-destroying-pakistan (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Judah, Ben. (2018). “Pakistan’s Pivot to Asia.” The Atlantic. October 19, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/imran-khans-pakistan-foreshadows-globalism/573316/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira & Taggart, Paul. (2016). “Dealing with populists in government: a framework for analysis.” Democratization. 23(2): 201-220.

Khan, Imran. (2022). “Chairman PTI Imran Khan’s Exclusive Podcast Jointly Ft. by Junaid Akram, Muzammil Hassan and Talha.” You Tubehttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ftfj55MU-QE (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Khan, Imran. (2011). Pakistan: A Personal History. London et al: Bantam Press.

Khan, S. (2020). “Truth finally triumphs: Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman gets bail after eight months.” The News. November 10, 2020. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/741637-truth-finally-triumphs-mir-shakil-ur-rahman-gets-bail-after-8-months (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Khan, S. (2021). “Pakistan: why is the military taking over civilian posts?” DW. February 5, 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/pakistan-why-is-the-military-taking-over-civilian-posts/a-56473442 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Kirdiş, Esen & Drhimeur, Amina. (2016). “The Rise of Populism? Comparing Incumbent Pro-Islamic Parties in Turkey and Morocco.” Turkish Studies. 17(4): 599–617.

Klasra, Kaswar. (2018). “Pakistan’s austerity drive: Luxury cars first to get the axe under PM Imran Khan.” Al Arabiya. September 14, 2018. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2018/09/14/Pakistan-s-austerity-drive-Luxury-cars-first-to-get-the-axe-under-PM-Imran-Khan  (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Kriesi, H. & Pappas, T. S. (Eds.). (2015). European populism in the shadow of the great recession. Colchester: ECPR Press.

Landau, David. (2018). “Populist Constitutions.” The University of Chicago Law Review. 85(2), 521-544.

Landler, Mark. (2009). “Rising powers challenge U.S. on role in I.M.F.” The New York Times. March 30, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/world/30fund.html (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Levitsky, Steven & Loxton, James. (2013). “Populism and competitive authoritarianism in the Andes.” Democratization. 20(1), 107-136.

Lewis, P.; Barr, C.; Clarke, S.; Voce, A.; Levett, C. and Gutiérrez, P. (2019). “Revealed: The Rise and Rise of Populist Rhetoric.” The Guardian. March 6, 2019. www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2019/mar/06/revealed-the-rise-and-rise-of-populist-rhetoric (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Mahar, A. A. (2021). “Single National Curriculum: A dream of the ignorant, for ignorant.” The Day Springs. November 1, 2021. https://www.thedayspring.com.pk/single-national-curriculum-a-dream-of-the-ignorant-for-ignorant/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Marzouki, Nadia; McDonnell, Duncan and Roy, Olivier. (2016). Saving the people: How populists hijack religion. Oxford University Press. 

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

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2016). The global rise of populism: performance, political style, and representation. Stanford University Press.

Mogul, R. & Saifi, S. (2022). “Imran Khan claims there’s a US conspiracy against him. Why do so many Pakistanis believe him?” CNN. May 27, 2022. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/05/27/asia/pakistan-imran-khan-us-conspiracy-intl-hnk/index.html (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Morieson, Nicholas. (2017). “Are contemporary populist movements hijacking religion?” Journal of religious and Political Practice .3: 88–95. DOI: 10.1080/20566093.2017.1292171

Mudde, Cas. (2017). “An ideational approach.” In: Rovira Kaltwasser, CR ua (Hrsg.). Oxford Handbook on Populism. 27-47. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ostiguy, P.; Panizza, F.; & Moffitt, B. (Eds.). (2020). Populism in Global Perspective: A Performative and Discursive Approach. Routledge.

Pal, A. & Shahzad, A. (2019). “Pakistan top court challenges military over army chief extension.” Reuters. November 26, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-military-idUSKBN1Y010A (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Panizza, F. and Stavrakakis, Y. (2021). “Populism, Hegemony and the Political Construction of ‘The People’: A Discursive Approach.” In: Populism in Global Perspective. A Performative and Discursive Approach. Editors P. Ostiguy, F. Panizza, and B. Moffitt. London: Routledge.

Pappas, T. S. (2014). “Populist democracies: Post-authoritarian Greece and post-communist Hungary.” Government and Opposition49(1), 1-23.

Peker, Efe. (2019). “Religious Populism, Memory, and Violence in India.” New Diversities. 17: 23.

Rehman, Abdul. (2020). “Pakistan’s government and military are crushing dissent on social media.” The Diplomat. March 11, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/pakistans-government-and-military-are-crushing-dissent-on-social-media/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Rehman, Atika. (2018). “You can’t win without electables and money: Imran.” Dawn. July 5, 2018. https://www.dawn.com/news/1418060 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

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

Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2021). “Hinduism, Hindutva and Hindu Populism in India: An Analysis of Party Manifestos of Indian Right-wing Parties.” Religions. 12(10), 803, https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12100803

Sareen, S. (2022). “Imran regime’s drop scene: Climactic or apocalyptic.” ORF Online. March 26, 2022. https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/imran-regimes-drop-scene/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Sayeed, Saad. (2018). “Pakistan tells 18 international NGOs to leave: ActionAid.” Reuters.  October 4, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-ngos/pakistan-tells-18-international-ngos-to-leave-actionaid-idUSKCN1ME1N3 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Selçuk, Orçun. (2016). “Strong presidents and weak institutions: populism in Turkey, Venezuela and Ecuador.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 16(4), 571–589.

Shah, Saeed. (2019). “The middle-class person is dying. Pakistan’s ta push is deflating its leader’s political base.” The Wall Street Journal. October 17, 2019. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-middle-class-person-is-dying-pakistans-tax-push-is-deflating-its-leaders-political-base-11571313603 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Shahid, Kunwar Khuldune. (2017). “The mullah-military takeover of Pakistan.” The Diplomat. December 7, 2017. https://thediplomat.com/2017/12/the-mullah-military-takeover-of-pakistan/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Shakil, K. & Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). “Religion and Populism in the Global South: Islamist Civilisationism of Pakistan’s Imran Khan.” Religions. 12(9), 1-22, doi: 10.3390/rel12090777. 

Shams, Shamil. (2019). “Pakistani PM Imran Khan draws ire over taxes, rising inflation.” DW. July 14, 2019. https://www.dw.com/en/pakistani-pm-imran-khan-draws-ire-over-taxes-rising-inflation/a-49585589 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Scharpf, Adam. (2020). “Dangerous Alliances: Populists and the Military.” 12. 

Stone, R. (2019). “Pakistan hits back at Indian diplomat’s ‘Israel Model’ for Kashmir remark.” TRT World. November 27, 2019. https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/pakistan-hits-back-at-indian-diplomat-s-israel-model-for-kashmir-remark-31730 (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Taggart, Paul. (2000). Populism: Concepts in the social sciences. Philadelphia: Open.

Taggart, P. (2004). “Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 9(3), 269-288.

Tahiroğlu, Merve. (2020). “How Erdoğan Controls Turkey’s Information Space.” Turkeyscope: Insights on Turkish Affairs. 4(5), 1-7.

Taş, H. (2015). “Turkey–from tutelary to delegative democracy.” Third World Quarterly36(4), pp.776-791.

Torwali, Z. (2020). “The Single National Curriculum Is a Device Of Indoctrination And Assimilation.” Naya Daur. November 9, 2020. https://nayadaur.tv/2020/11/the-single-national-curriculum-is-a-device-of-indoctrination-and-assimilation/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Türk, H. Bahadir. (2018). “’Populism as a medium of mass mobilization’: The case of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.” International Area Studies Review. 21, no. 2: 150-168.

Vinayak, A. (2021). “Single National Curriculum in Pakistan- a Recipe for Disaster?” VIF. October 29, 2021. https://www.vifindia.org/2021/october/29/single-national-curriculum-in-pakistan-a-recipe-for-disaster (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Welles, D. (2022). “Pakistan: PM Imran Khan says he accepts court ruling, blames U.S.” Front Line. April 9, 2022.https://frontline.thehindu.com/dispatches/pakistan-pm-imran-khan-says-he-accepts-court-ruling-blames-us/article65396152.ece (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Yabanci, Bilge. (2016). “Populism as the problem child of democracy: the AKP’s enduring appeal and the use of meso-level actors.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 16(4), 691-617.

Yabancı, Bilge. (2019). “Work for the Nation, Obey the State, Praise the Ummah: Turkey’s Government-oriented Youth Organizations in Cultivating a New Nation.” Ethnopolitics. doi: 10.1080/17449057.2019.1676536 

Yilmaz, Ihsan, Demir, Mustafa & Shipoli, Erdoan. (2022). “Securitisation via functional actors and authoritarian resilience: collapse of the Kurdish peace process in Turkey.” Australian Journal of Political Science. 57:1, 1-16, DOI: 10.1080/10361146.2021.2007848

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Erturk, Omer F. (2021). “Populism, violence and authoritarian stability: necropolitics in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 42:7, 1524-1543, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2021.1896965

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Morieson, N. & Demir, M. (2021). “Exploring Religions in Relation to Populism: A Tour around the World.” Religions. 12(5), 301. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2021). “A Quest for Identity: The Case of Religious Populism in Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp000

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021a). “Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan.” European Center for Populism Studies. https://populismstudies.org/imran-khan-from-cricket-batsman-to-populist-captain-tabdeli-of-pakistan/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021b). “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement.” European Center for Populism Studies, https://populismstudies.org/pakistan-tehreek-e-insaf-pakistans-iconic-populist-movement/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021c). “The Silence of the Khans: The pragmatism of Islamist populist Imran Khan and his mentor Erdogan in persecuting Muslim minorities.” European Center for Populism Studies, https://www.populismstudies.org/the-silence-of-the-khans-the-pragmatism-of-islamist-populist-imran-khan-and-his-mentor-erdogan-in-persecuting-muslim-minorities/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shipoli, Erdoan. (2022). “Use of past collective traumas, fear and conspiracy theories for securitization of the opposition and authoritarianisation: the Turkish case.” Democratization. 29:2, 320-336, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1953992

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2018). “Islamic Populism and Creating Desirable Citizens in Erdogan’s New Turkey.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 29 (4): 52-76. https://doi.org/10.1215/10474552-7345451

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

Yilmaz, Zafer. (2017). “The AKP and the spirit of the ‘new’ Turkey: imagined victim, reactionary mood, and resentful sovereign.” Turkish Studies. 18(3), 482-513, DOI:10.1080/14683849.2017.1314763

Zafar, Kashif and Karni, Owais. (2018). “PPP, PML-N looted country by turns: Imran Khan.” The Express Tribune. July 12, 2018. https://tribune.com.pk/story/1755687/1-ppp-pml-n-looted-country-turns-imran-khan (accessed on April 27, 2022).

Zompa, T. (2021). “Imran Khan said ‘absolutely not’ to US. But its troops are in Pakistan, and no one knows why.” The Print. August 30, 2021. https://theprint.in/go-to-pakistan/imran-khan-said-absolutely-not-to-us-but-its-troops-are-in-pakistan-and-no-one-knows-why/724892/ (accessed on April 27, 2022).

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


[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.


References

— (2012). “Census of Population and Housing of Sri Lanka.” Colombo: Department of Census and Statistics. 

— (2018). “How Aung San Suu Kyi Sees the Rohingya Crisis.” BBC. January 25, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42824778 (accessed on July 21, 2022).

— (2019). “Orban: Agreement between two parts of Europe conditional on the West.” Hungary Today. September 30, 2019. https://hungarytoday.hu/orban-christian-freedom-v4-west/ (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Ádám, Zoltan and Bozóki, András. (2016). “State and Faith: Right-Wing Populism and nationalized Religion in Hungary.” Intersections: East European Journal of Society and Politics. 2, no. 1, 98-122.

Ahmad, Irfan. (2017). “Modi’s polarizing populism makes a fiction of a secular, democratic India”. The Conversation.July 12, 2017https://theconversation.com/modis-polarising-populism-makes-a-fiction-of-a-secular-democratic-india-80605 (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Ammassari, Sofia. (2018). “Contemporary Populism in India: Assessing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Ideological Features.” IBEI, Students Papers Series 48.

Artinger, Brenna & Rowand, Michael. (2021). “When Buddhists Back the Army.” Foreign Policy. February 16, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/16/myanmar-rohingya-coup-buddhists-protest/ (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Beckwith, Ryan Teague. (2016). “Read Donald Trump’s Speech on the Orlando Shooting.” Time. June 13, 2016. https://time.com/4367120/orlando-shooting-donald-trump-transcript/ (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Boffey, Daniel. (2018). “Orban claims Hungary is last bastion against ‘Islamisation’ of Europe.” The Guardian. February 18, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/18/orban-claims-hungary-is-last-bastion-against-islamisation-of-europe (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Bookbinder, Alex. (2013). “969: The Strange Numerological Basis for Burma’s Religious Violence.” The Atlantic. April 9, 2013.  https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/04/969-the-strange-numerological-basis-for-burmas-religious-violence/274816/ (accessed on July 21, 2022).

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

Carothers, Thomas & O’Donohue, Andrew. (2020). “Political Polarization in South and Southeast Asia: Old Divisions, New Dangers.” Research Report by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. doi:10.2307/resrep26920. 

Damhuis, Koen. (2021). “Dutch elections: Mark Rutte wins another term but fragmented results mask continuing popularity of the far right.” The Conversation. March 19, 2021. https://theconversation.com/dutch-elections-mark-rutte-wins-another-term-but-fragmented-results-mask-continuing-popularity-of-the-far-right-156993 (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Faber, Sebastiaan. (2018). “Is Dutch Bad Boy Thierry Baudet the New Face of the European Alt-Right?” The Nation. April 5, 2018. https://www.thenation.com/article/world/is-dutch-bad-boy-thierry-baudet-the-new-face-of-the-european-alt-right/ (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Frydenlund, Iselin. (2018). “Buddhist Islamophobia: Actors, Tropes, Contexts.” In: Handbook of Conspiracy Theory and Contemporary Religion. Brill. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004382022_014

Fukuyama, Francis. (2006). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.

Fuller, Paul. (2018). “The Narratives of Ethnocentric Buddhist Identity.” http://researchspace.bathspa.ac.uk/13494/

Gauthier, David. (1988). “Hobbes’s Social Contract.” Noûs 22: 71-82.

Ghosh, Deepshikha. (2013). “Narendra Modi’s ‘Hindu nationalist’ posters should be banned, says Samajwadi Party.” NDTV. July 24, 2013. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/narendra-modis-hindu-nationalist-posters-should-be-banned-says-samajwadi-party-529359 (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Hadiz, Vedi R. (2018). “Imagine All the People? Mobilising Islamic Populism for Right-Wing Politics in Indonesia.” Journal of Contemporary Asia 48: 566–83. 

Hall, Jonny. (2021). “In search of enemies: Donald Trump’s populist foreign policy rhetoric.” Politics. 41:1. 48–63. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0263395720935377.

Haniffa, Farzana. (2021). “What is behind the anti-Muslim measures in Sri Lanka?” Al Jazeera. April 12, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/4/12/what-is-behind-the-anti-muslim-measures-in-sri-lanka (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Haraszti, Miklós. (2015). “Behind Viktor Orbán’s war on refugees in Hungray.” New Perspective Quarterly. 32:4. 37-40.

Haynes, Jeffrey. (2017). “Donald Trump, ‘Judeo-Christian Values’ and the ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ The Review of Faith & International Affairs. 15:3. 66 75. DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2017.1354463.

Hodal, Kate. (2013). “Buddhist monk uses racism and rumours to spread hatred in Burma.” The Guardian. April 18, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/apr/18/buddhist-monk-spreads-hatred-burma (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Huntington, Samuel P. (1993). “The clash of civilizations?” Foreign Affairs. 72, no. 3, 22-49.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster. 

Ince, B. (2012). Citizenship and Identity in Turkey: From Atatürk’s Republic to the Present Day. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Jain, Rupam & Lasseter, Tom. (2018). “By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India.” Reuters. March 6, 2018.  https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/india-modi-culture/ (accessed on July 21, 2022).

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

Kaya, Ayhan & Tecmen, Ayşe. (2019). “Europe versus Islam?: Right-wing Populist Discourse and the Construction of a Civilizational Identity.” The Review of Faith & International Affairs. 17:1. 49-64 DOI:10.1080/15570274.2019.1570759.  

Lefèvre, Corinne. (2020). “Heritage Politics and Policies in Hindu Rashtra.” In: The Hindutva Turn: Authoritarianism and Resistance in India. Edited by Aminah Mohammad-Arif, Jules Naudet and Nicolas Jaoul. SAMAJhttps://doi.org/10.4000/samaj.6728.

Loke, Andras. (2020). “Democracy’s Decline and Erosion of the Social Contract.” GMF.  October 29, 2020. https://www.gmfus.org/news/democracys-decline-and-erosion-social-contract (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Macintyre, James. (2018). “’Christianity is Europe’s last hope against rise of Islam’ claims Hungarian PM.” Christianity Today. February 19, 2019. https://www.christiantoday.com/article/christianity-%09is-%09europes-last-hope-against-rise-of-islam-claims-hungarian-pm/126015.htm (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Mihlar, Farah. (2020). “Islamophobia Anti-Muslim Civil Society or Individuals.” OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Religion/IslamophobiaAntiMuslim/Civil%20Society%20or%20Individuals/FarahMihlar.pdf

Moe, Z. Kyaw. (2019). “A Radically Different Dhamma.” The Irrawaddy. March 9, 2017. https://www.irrawaddy.com/from-the-archive/radically-different-dhamma-2.html (accessed on July 21, 2022).

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

Oppenheim, Marella. (2017). “‘It only takes one terrorist’: the Buddhist monk who reviles Myanmar’s Muslims.” The Guardian. May 12, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/may/12/only-takes-one-terrorist-buddhist-monk-reviles-myanmar-muslims-rohingya-refugees-ashin-wirathu (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Repucci, Sarah & Slipowitz, Amy. (2021). “Freedom in the World 2021 Democracy under Siege.” Freedom Househttps://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2021/democracy-under-siege (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Shakil, Kainat. (2021). “Sri Lanka.” European Centre for Populism Studies. https://www.populismstudies.org/tag/sri-lanka/ (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Sirilal, Ranga. (2014). “Radical Myanmar monk joins hands with Sri Lankan Buddhists.”  Reuters. September 29, 2014. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-sri-lanka-buddhism-myanmar-%09idUSKCN0HO0GD20140929 (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Stephen Wertheim. (2017). “Donald Trump’s Plan to Save Western Civilization.” The New York Times. July 22, 2017https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/22/opinion/sunday/donald-trumps-plan-to-save-western-civilization.html (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Taguieff, Pierre-André. (1995). “Political Science Confronts Populism: From a Conceptual Mirage to a Real Problem.” Telos. 103, 9–43.

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

Thrush, Glenn & Hirschfeld Davis, Julie. (2017). “Trump, in Poland, Asks if West Has the ‘Will to Survive’.” The New York Times. July 6, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/06/world/europe/donald-trump-poland-speech.html(accessed on July 21, 2022).

Thu, Myat. (2021). “Populism in Mynmar.” In: Populism in Asian Democracies: Features, Structures, and Impact. Edited by Sook Jong Lee, Chin-en Wu and Kaustuv Kanti Bandyopadhyay. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Vollard, J. P. Hans. (2013). “Re-emerging Christianity in West European Politics: The Case of the Netherlands.” Politics and Religion. 6, 74–100.

Wilders, Geert. (2016). “Preliminary Election Program PVV 2017-2021.” Geert Wilders Weblog. August 26, 2016.https://www.geertwilders.nl/94-english/2007-preliminary-election-program-pvv-2017-2021 (accessed on July 21, 2022).

Walker, Shaun. (2019). “Viktor Orbán: no tax for Hungarian women with four or more children.” The Guardian. February 10, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/10/viktor-orban-no-tax-for-hungarian-women-with-four-or-more-children (accessed on July 21, 2022).

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021). “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement.” European Center for Populism Studies. February 3, 2021.                  https://www.populismstudies.org/pakistan-tehreek-e-insaf-pakistans-iconic-populist-movement/ (accessed on July 21, 2022).

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

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2018). “Islamic populism and creating desirable citizens in Erdoğan’s new Turkey.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 29, no. 4, 52-76.

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

Zúquete, P.  Jose. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: Oxford Handbooks Online. Edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.22


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

"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.


References

 — (2001). “Rabbi calls for annihilation of Arabs.” BBC. April 10, 2001. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1270038.stm (accessed on March 22, 2022).

— (2010). “Shas Spiritual Leader: Abbas and Palestinians Should Perish.” Haaretz (Haaretz Service). August 29, 2010. https://www.haaretz.com/1.5106595 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

— (2013). “Deri: ‘Arabs out’ is the same as ‘Jews out’.” YNews. June 18, 2013. https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4393944,00.html (accessed on March 23, 2022).

— (2013). “Shas.” Encyclopedia Britannica. September 13, 2013. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Shas (accessed on March 23, 2022).

— (2014). “Shasleader: Israel doesn’t needarmysinceultraOrthodoxprayersprotectit.” The Jerusalem Post. July 24, 2014. http://www.jpost.com/Operation-Protective-Edge/Shas-leader-Israel-doesnt-need-army-since-ultra-Orthodox-prayers-protect-it-368728 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

— (2015). “Digital temptations.” The Economist. September 5, 2015.  https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2015/09/03/digital-temptations (accessed on March 23, 2022).

— (2018). “Jewish nation state: Israel approves controversial bill.” BBC News. July 19, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-44881554 (accessed on March 22, 2022).

— (2020). “‘God is telling us something’: Deri says 70% of Israel’s virus cases are Haredim (Orthodox Jews).” Times of Israel. May 10, 2020 https://www.timesofisrael.com/deri-calls-for-ultra-orthodox-soul-searching-amid-high-virus-infection-rate/ (accessed on March 23, 2022).

— (2021). “UAE ambassador to Israel outrages Arab world with remarks on Jerusalem ‘madness’ following rabbi meeting.” New Arab. June 1, 2021. https://english.alaraby.co.uk/news/uae-ambassador-wishes-israel-strength-after-rabbi-meeting (accessed on March 23, 2022).

— (2021). “Israel’s sidelined ultra-Orthodox parties fear new coalition gov’t.” France24. June 17, 2021. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210617-israel-s-sidelined-ultra-orthodox-parties-fear-new-coalition-govt (accessed on March 23, 2022).

— (2022) “Israel.” ECPS. Last updated February 6, 2022.   https://www.populismstudies.org/tag/israel/ (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Beaumont, Peter. (2018). “Israel to tell African migrants: leave or face indefinite imprisonment.” The Guardian. January 2, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/02/israel-to-tell-african-migrants-leave-or-face-indefinite-imprisonment (accessed on March 22, 2022).

Ben Hayiim, Avishai. (2002). “Interview with Aryeh Deri.” Ynet. www.ynet.co.il/articles/0,7340,L-2099674,00.html (accessed on March 22, 2022).

Ben-Porat, Guy 2000. “In a State of Holiness.” Alternatives. 25, 223- 246. DOI:10.1177/030437540002500203

Bennett, M. Andrew. (2017). “Why Stripping Non-Jews of Their Israeli Citizenship Threatens Zionism.” Forward. September 14, 2017. https://forward.com/opinion/382754/why-stripping-non-jews-of-their-israeli-citizenship-threatens-zionism/ (accessed on March 22, 2022).

Berger, Robert. (2017). “Israel Moves to Deport 40,000 African Migrants.” Voice of America. November 20, 2017.https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/israel-moves-deport-40000-african-migrants (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Berry, Mike and Greg Philo. (2006). Israel and Palestine: Competing Histories. Pluto Press. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt18fsc8f

Campbell, Heidi. (2011). “Religion and the Internet in the Israeli Orthodox context.” Israel Affairs. 17, no. 3, 364-383, DOI: 10.1080/13537121.2011.584664

DellaPergola, Sergio. (2019). “World Jewish Population, 2019.” In: The American Jewish Year Book. Editors Arnold Dashefsky and Ira M. Sheskin, Volume 119. Cham,             Switzerland: Springer.

Davis, N. J., & Robinson, R. V. (2012). Claiming Society for God: Religious movements and social welfare in Egypt, Israel, Italy, and the United States. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Davis, N. J., and Robinson, R. V. 2009. “Overcoming Movement Obstacles by the Religiously Orthodox: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Shas in Israel, Comunione e Liberazione in Italy, and the SalvationArmy in the United States.” American Journal of Sociology, 114, no.5, 1302-1349.

Eldar, Shlomi. (2018). “Is interior minister deceiving Israelis about deportation of migrants?” Al-Monitor. February 9, 2018. https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2018/02/israel-africa-eritrea-south-sudan-palestinians-aryeh-deri.html#ixzz72aIQTqlZ (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Eleff, Zev, and Schacter, J. Jacob. (2016). Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. University of Nebraska Press. www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1d4v0sk  

Ettinger, Yair. (2014a). “Ultra-Orthodox Shas Party Gets a New Spiritual Leader.” Haaretz. April 8, 2014.https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-shas-gets-a-new-spiritual-leader-1.5244493 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Ettinger, Yair. (2014b). “Shas Spiritual Leader: Women Mustn’t Even Think of Higher Education.” Haaretz. June 23, 2014. https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-shas-spiritual-leader-decries-women-s-higher-education-1.5253042 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Ettinger, Yair. (2014c). “Shas party’s new spiritual leader: Deputy religious services minister is ‘crazy’.” Haaretz. April 19, 2014. https://www.haaretz.com/news/national/.premium-1.586340 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Ettinger, Yair. (2010). “Ovadia Yosef Atones to Mubarak After Declaring Palestinians Should Die.” Haaretz. 16 September 16, 2010. https://www.haaretz.com/1.5114146 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Fader, Ayala. (2017). “Ultra-Orthodox Jewish interiority, the Internet, and the crisis of faith.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 7, no. 1, 185-206. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.14318/hau7.1.016 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Feldman, Anat. (2013). “The establishment of a political-educational network in the State of Israel: Maayan Hahinuch Hatorani.” Israel Affairs. 19, no. 3, 526-541, DOI: 10.1080/13537121.2013.799863

Fischer, Sholom. (2014). “Two Orthodox Cultures: ‘Centrist’ Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism.” In: Reconsidering Israel-Diaspora Relations. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004277076_00

Filc, Dani. (2013). The political Right in Israel. Different faces of Jewish populism. Routledge.

Filc, Dani. (2009). “Radicalization of inclusion, radicalization of exclusion: The Shas party.” In: The Political Right in Israel. London: Routledge. 

Ghanem, As’ ad, and Khatib, Ibrahim. (2017). “The Nationalisation of the Israeli Ethnocratic Regime and the Palestinian Minority’s Shrinking Citizenship.” Citizenship Studies. 21, no. 8, 89–902.

Halbfinger, M. David and Kershner, Isabel. (2018). “Israeli Law Declares the Country the ‘Nation-State of the Jewish People’.” The New York Times. July 19, 2018. 2018https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/world/middleeast/israel-law-jews-arabic.html (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Hassan, S. Shamir. (1998). “DEVELOPMENT OF ZIONIST IDEOLOGY.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 59, 924–933. www.jstor.org/stable/44147065  

Hoffman, Gil. (2022). “Kanievsky’s generation of leaders is dying out – analysis.” The Jerusalem Post. March 20, 2022. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/politics-and-diplomacy/article-701819 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Howson, Luke. (2015). “Lessons from Shas about Israel.” Middle East Journal. 69, no. 3, 397–412. www.jstor.org/stable/43698260

Howson, Luke. (2014). The Role of Ultra-OrthodoxPolitical Parties in IsraeliDemocracy. PhD Thesis submitted at University of Liverpool. https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/2006321/1/HowsonLuk_July2014_2002641.pdf

Leon, Nissim. (2015). “Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas Party, and the Arab-Israeli Peace Process.” Middle East Journal. 69, no. 3, 379–395. www.jstor.org/stable/43698259  

Leon, N. (2011). “The Political Use of the Teshuva Cassette Culture in Israel.” Contemporary Jewry 31, no, 2, 91-106.

Levi, Yonatan, and Shai Agmon. (2020). “Beyond culture and economy: Israel’s security-driven populism.” Contemporary Politics 26.

Lintl, Peter. (2016). “The dynamics of a right-wing coalition: How the failure of the peace process encourages domestic populism inIsrael.”. Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – SWP- DeutschesInstitutfür Internationale Politik und Sicherheit. https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/48905#  (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Meranda, Amnon. (2009). “Shas condemns attack on gay center.” Ynet News. February 8, 2009. https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3755455,00.html (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Nathan, Emmanueland Topolski, Anya eds. (2016). Is There a Judeo-Christian Tradition? A European Perspective. Berlin and Boston: DeGruyter.

Peled, Yoav. (1998). “Towards a redefinition of Jewish nationalism in Israel? The enigma of Shas.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21, no. 4, 703-727. DOI: 10.1080/014198798329838

Porat, B. Guy, & Filc, Dani. (2020). “Remember to be Jewish: Religious Populism in Israel.” Politics and Religion. 1-24. doi:10.1017/S1755048320000681

Pinson, Halleli. (2021). “Neo Zionist right-wing populist discourse and activism in the Israel education system.” Globalisation, Societies and Education. DOI: 10.1080/14767724.2021.1872372

Rogenhofer, Julius Maximilian, and Ayala Panievsky. (2020). “Antidemocratic populism in power: Comparing Erdoğan’s Turkey with Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel.” Democratization. 27: 1394–412.

Shafir, Moshe. (2012). “Open Letter.” Yom le Yom. http://www.yomleyom.co.il/BRPortal/br/P103.jsp?cat=217358 (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Shalev, Shivanne. (2019). “Israel’s Ultra-orthodox Parties Explained.” Israel Policy Forum. February 21, 2019. https://israelpolicyforum.org/2019/02/21/israels-ultra-orthodox-parties-explained/ (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Sharon, Jeremy. (2021). “Shas spiritual leader: Boycott Israel’s government.” The Jerusalem Post. June 15, 2021. https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/politics-and-diplomacy/shas-spiritual-leader-boycott-israels-government-671084 (accessed on March 23, 2022).
Sherwood, Harriet. (2012). “Israelis attack African migrants during protest against refugees.” The Guardian. May 24, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/24/israelis-attack-african-migrants-protest (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Shumsky, Dmitry. (2018). “Theodor Herzl: A Non-Jewish State of Jews.” In Beyond the Nation-State. New Haven: Yale University Press. https://doi.org/10.12987/9780300241099-004

Singer, David. (1989). “The New Orthodox Theology.” Modern Judaism. 9, no. 1, 35–54. www.jstor.org/stable/1396432

Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon. (2000). “Rabin’s Legacy: On Secularism, Nationalism and Orientalism.” In: Contested Memory: Myth, Nationalism and Democracy. Editors:   Grinberg, L. Beersheba. Humphrey Institute: Ben-Gurion University.

Ungar-Sargon, Batya. (2014). “Israel’s shas party gets controversial new leader.” Tablet. April 18, 2014. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/israels-shas-party-gets-controversial-new-leader (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Usher, Graham. (1998). “The Enigmas of Shas.” Middle East Report. No. 207. pp. 34-36. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3013167.

Wilford, Greg. (2017). “Israel has stripped citizenship from an Arab Israeli for the first time ever.” The Independent. August 6, 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/israel-revokes-citizenship-stripped-arab-israeli-alaa-raed-ahmad-zayoud-haifa-kibbutz-gan-shmuel-hadera-interior-minister-aryeh-deri-avraham-elyakim-human-rights-watch-a7879771.html (accessed on March 23, 2022).

Yadgar, Yaakov. (2003). “Shas as A Struggle to Create a New Field: A Bourdiean Perspective of an Israeli Phenomenon.” Sociology of Religion. 64, no.2. 223–246.

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

Zúquete, P. Jose. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and                             Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.22

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.

References

 — (2013). “Thousands protest against drone strikes in Peshawar.” Dawn. November 23, 2013. https://www.dawn.com/news/1058051 (accessed on February 25, 2022).

— (2014). “Two bills tabled in NA for changes to Constitution, Army Act.” The News. 4 January 4, 2014. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/10118-two-bills-tabled-in-na-for-changes-to-constitution-army-act (accessed on February 28, 2022).

— (2018). “Nawaz asked to clarify ‘aliens’ statement.” Dawn. May 6, 2018. https://www.dawn.com/news/1405930(accessed on February 25, 2022).

— (2019). ‘‘Anti-immigrant left’ wins election as Danes reject far-right.’ Al Jazeera. June 6, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/6/6/anti-immigrant-left-wins-election-as-danes-reject-far-right (accessed on February 28, 2022).

— (2019). ‘Gen Musharraf’s life in photos.’ Arab News. December 17, 2019. https://www.arabnews.pk/node/1600231/pakistan (accessed on February 25, 2022).

— (2019). “Who played a key role in the conviction of former president Pervez Musharraf?” GeoNews. December 18, 2019.  https://www.geo.tv/latest/262463-who-played-a-key-role-in-the-conviction-of-former-president-musharraf-for-high-treason (accessed on February 28, 2022).

— (2020). “Shoot the Traitors” Discrimination Against Muslims under India’s New Citizenship Policy.” Human Rights Watch. April 9, 2020. https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/04/09/shoot-traitors/discrimination-against-muslims-under-indias-new-citizenship-policy (accessed on February 28, 2022).

— (2020). ‘‘Puppet rule’ must come to an end, says PDM.’ Dawn. November 23, 2020. https://www.dawn.com/news/1591893 (accessed on February 25, 2022).

— (2021). “Critics of Pakistan’s armed forces to face jail time, Rs500,000 fine under new bill.” The News. April 7, 2021. https://www.thenews.com.pk/latest/816293-critics-of-pakistan-armed-forces-to-face-jail-time-rs500000-fine-under-new-bill (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Abbas, Mazhar. (2019). ‘Secret behind Imran’s success.’ The News. July 27, 2019. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/504047-secret-behind-imran-s-success (accessed on February 25, 2022).

Abbasi, Waseem. (2018). ‘New Cabinet, old faces: Majority of ministers, advisers served under Musharraf.’ The News.August 19, 2018. https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/357105-new-cabinet-old-faces-majority-of-ministers-advisers-served-under-musharraf (accessed on February 25, 2022).

Abi-Habib, Maria and Masood, Salman. (2018). ‘Military’s Influence Casts a Shadow Over Pakistan’s Election.’ The New York Times. July 21, 2018.

Afzal, Madiha. (2019). “The curious case of the Pakistani army chief’s extension.” Brookings. December 4, 2019.https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/12/04/the-curious-case-of-the-pakistani-army-chiefs-extension/ (accessed on February 25, 2022).

Albertazzi, Daniele, and Duncan McDonnell. (2008). Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre         of Western European Democracy. Cham: Palgrave.

Amin, Husnul, Qurban, Shafiq and Siddiqa, Maryam. (2020). “The Impact of Abusive Constitutionalism on Democracy in Pakistan.” Global Political Review. V(I), 46-54. doi:10.31703/gpr.2020(V-I).06

Augustin, G. Oscar. (2020). Left-Wing Populism: The Politics of the People. Emerald Publishing Limited: Bingley.

Boone, Jon. (2014). “Imran Khan says Taliban’s ‘holy war’ in Afghanistan is justified by Islamic law.” The Guardian.October 14, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/14/imran-khan-taliban-afghanistan-islam (accessed on February 25, 2022).

Butt, I. Ahsan. (2021). “Has a ‘fifth generation war’ started between India and Pakistan?” Al-Jazeera. January 4, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/1/4/are-india-and-pakistan-in-a-fifth-generation-war (accessed on February 25, 2022).

Calvo, Giancarli (2021). “Unmasking Peronismo: Juan Perón’s Legacy on Argentina.” North Eastern University Political Review. November 13, 2021. https://www.nupoliticalreview.com/2019/11/13/unmasking-peronismo-juan-perons-legacy-on-argentina/ (accessed on February 25, 2022).

Casertano, Stefano. (2012). “Entitled to Fall: Inside Italy’s Downward Spiral.” World Affairs 175(2): 66-73. Accessed April 16, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41639007.

Couloumbis, Theodore A. (1974). “The Greek Junta Phenomenon.” Polity. 6(3), Spring, 1974, pp. 345-374

Dizon, Nikko. (2020). “Duterte and his generals: A shock and awe response to the pandemic.” Rappler. July 21, 2020.https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/in-depth/duterte-shock-and-awe-coronavirus-pandemic-response-generals (accessed on February 25, 2022).

Elver, Hilal. (2014). ‘Turkey’s first ladies and the headscarf controversy.’ Al Jazeera. September 20, 2014. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2014/9/20/turkeys-first-ladies-and-the-headscarf-controversy (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Espenshade, Duncan. (2020). “Populism in American Elections: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.” Foreign Policy Research Institute. June 10, 2020. https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/06/populism-in-american-elections-bernie-sanders-and-donald-trump/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Fieschi, Catherine. (2019). Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism. Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing, 2019. doi:10.2307/j.ctvnjbf2s

Funke, Manuel, Schularick, Moritz and Trebesch, Christoph. (2020). Populist leaders and the economy. Reinhard Selten Institute (RSI), University of Bonn and University of Cologne.  ECONtribute Discussion Paper, No. 036.            

Gandesha, S. (2018). “Understanding Right and Left Populism.” In: Morelock, J. (ed.) Critical Theory and Authoritarian Populism. Pp. 49–70. London: University of Westminster Press.

Gillespie, Patrick. (2019). “In Argentina, Peron’s Legacy Is Whatever You Need It to Be.” Bloomberg. August 9, 2019.https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2019-08-09/argentina-s -politics-are-still-dominated-by-peron (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Green, James N., Victoria Langland, and Lilia Moritz Schwarcz. (2019). The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics. Duke University Press.

Hameed, Usman. (2020). “Footprints of Fascism in India: Implications for Local Muslims.” Pluto Journals. 17(2), 27-46.

Hansen, T. (1999). The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India. PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY: Princeton University Press. Retrieved April 16, 2021 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7s2fq

Hawkins, A, Karik. (2010). Venezuela’s Chavismo and Populism in Comparative Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Haynes, Jeffrey. (2020). “Right-Wing Populism and Religion in Europe and the USA.” Religions. 11 490. doi:10.3390/rel11100490

Hosey, Alex. (2021). “After calling to ‘take down names and kick ass,’ Mo Brooks condemns violence at U.S. Capitol.” OANOW. January 6, 2020. https://oanow.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/after-calling-to-take-down-names-and-kick-ass-mo-brooks-condemns-violence-at-u/article_84a43412-5071-11eb-a4b4-6f8e9014b766.html (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Hunter, Wendy and Diego Vega. (2022). Populism and the military: symbiosis and tension in Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Democratization, 29:2, 337-359, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1956466

Hussain, Ejaz. (2012). “Pakistan: Civil-Military Relations in a Post-Colonial State.” PCD Journal. 4(1) https://media.neliti.com/media/publications/385-EN-pakistan-civil-military-relations-in-a-post-colonial-state.pdf

Ilyas, Ferya. (2014). “Imran says Musharraf should not be allowed to escape trial.” The Express Tribune. January 7, 2014. https://tribune.com.pk/story/655972/imran-says-musharraf-should-not-be-allowed-to-escape-trial (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Indurthy, Rathnam. (2004). “Musharraf’s Regime in Pakistan: The Praetorianism Faces an Uncertain Future.” The Indian Journal of Political Science. 65 (2) 259–282.

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

Khan, A. I. (2018). “Quality of 2018 elections declined compared to 2013: Pildat.” Dawn. August 10, 2018. https://www.dawn.com/news/1426016 (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Laclau, Ernesto. (2005). On Populist Reason. London and New York: Verso.

Lancaster, John. (2003). “Pakistan’s Modern Feudal Lords.” The Washington Post.https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2003/04/08/pakistans-modern-feudal-lords/45b45d57-d74a-4b73-8098-1bdc9490c255/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Lobban, Rosemary, Luyt, Russell, Martin, Sam, Brooks, Ashley, McDermottv Daragh and Zawisza-Riley, Magdalena (2020). “Right-wing populism and safe identities.” NORMA.15:1, 76-93, DOI: 10.1080/18902138.2019.1701795

March, L., Mudde, C. (2005). “What’s Left of the Radical Left? The European Radical Left After 1989: Decline and Mutation.” Comp Eur Polit. 3, 23–49. https://doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.cep.6110052

Martin, Guy. (2012). “The Socialist-Populist Ideology I.” African Political Thought. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 71-84.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Palo Alto: Stanford UP.

Mosca, Lorenzo, and Valeria Calderoni. (2012). “A Year of Social Movements in Italy: From the ‘No TAVs’ to the Five Star Movement.” Italian Politics. 28: 267-85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24433801 (accessed on April 16, 2021).

Mudde, Cas. (2010). “The populist radical right: A pathological normalcy.” West European Politics. 33: 1167–86.

Mudde, Cas. (2021). “What happened in Washington DC is happening around the world.” The Guardian. January 7, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/07/what-happened-in-washington-dc-is-happening-around-the-world (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Mushtaq, Q. A., Ibrahim, M. and Qaleem, M.  (2013). “Dynastic Politics in Pakistan.” International Journal of History and Research (IJHR). 3(4). http://www.tjprc.org/publishpapers/2-42-1375764356-1.Dynastic%20Politics.full.pdf

Nedergaard, Peter. (2017). “The Immigration Policy Turn: The Danish Social Democratic Case.”  Det Samfundsvidenskabelige Fakulte. Maj 25, 2017. https://samf.ku.dk/presse/kronikker-og-debat/the-danish-social-democratic-case/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Panda, Ankit. (2018). “Pakistani Military to Deploy Some 370,000 Troops During July 2018 Elections.” The Diplomat.July 12, 2018. https://thediplomat.com/2018/07/pakistani-military-to-deploy-some-370000-troops-during-july-2018-elections/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Philip, George. (2000). “Populist Possibilities and Political Constraints in Mexico.” Bulletin of Latin American Research.19(2), 207–221. www.jstor.org/stable/3339429

Philip, Snehesh Alex (2019). “Imran Khan had once opposed extension for army chief. Today, he’s given one.” The Print. August 19, 2019. https://theprint.in/world/three-years-ago-imran-khan-opposed-extension-for-army-chief-today-hes-given-one/279245/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Pieper, Oliver. (2020). “Cuba and the US: A love-hate relationship.” DW. July 19, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/cuba-and-the-us-a-love-hate-relationship/a-54230832 (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Rogenhofer, M. Julius and Panievsky, Ayala (2020). “Antidemocratic populism in power: comparing Erdoğan’s Turkey with Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel.” Democratization. 27:8, 1394-1412, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135

Röth, L., Afonso, A., & Spies, D. (2018). “The impact of Populist Radical Right Parties on socio-economic policies.” European Political Science Review. 10(3), 325-350. doi:10.1017/S1755773917000133

Saleem, Raja Ali, Ihsan Yilmaz, and P. Chacko. Civilizationist Populism in South Asia: Turning India Saffron. Populism & Politics. https://www.populismstudies.org/civilizationist-populism-in-south-asia-turning-india-saffron/ (accessed on March 1, 2022).

Samiuddin, Osman. (2018). ‘The Imran Khans I’ve known.’ Cricket Monthly. August 10, 2018.https://www.thecricketmonthly.com/story/1154531/osman-samiuddin–the-imran-khans-i-ve-known (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Sareen, S. (2020). “In Pakistan, it’s mian and maulana vs Imran Khan and military.” The Print. October 6, 2020. https://theprint.in/opinion/in-pakistan-its-mian-and-maulana-vs-imran-khan-and-military/517891/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Scharpf, Adam. (2020). “Dangerous Alliances: Populists and the Military.” GIGA – Focus Latin America. Number 1. ISSN: 1862-3573 https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/12996623-dangerous-alliances-populists-military/(accessed on February 28, 2022).

Sen, Ronojoy. (2019). “From Chaiwala to Chowkidar: Modi’s Election Campaigns Online and Offline.’ EPW Engage E. December 28, 2019. https://www.epw.in/engage/article/chaiwala- chowkidar-modis-election-campaigns-online (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Shah, Maryam. (2020). “Dynastic Politics in Pakistan.” The Daily Times. October 21, 2020. https://dailytimes.com.pk/680344/dynastic-politics-in-pakistan-2/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Shahzad, Asif. (2019). “Pakistan court’s ‘hang him in streets’ rider to Musharraf death sentence sparks fury.” Reuters. December 19, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/pakistan-law-musharraf-idINKBN1YN0H8 (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Shakil, Kainat and Ihsan Yilmaz (2021). “Religion and Populism in the Global South: Islamist Populism of Pakistan’s Imran Khan,” Religions. DOI: 10.3390/rel12090777.

Shils, Edward. (1956). The Torment of Secrecy: The Background and Consequences of American Security Policies.Glencoe: Free Press.

Siddiqa, A. (2017). Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s military economy. Penguin Random House    India.

Taj, Shaista, Shah, Zahir, and Ahmad, Manzoor. (2016). “Civil-Military Relations in Pakistan (1998-2015).” Global Political Review (GPR). DOI: 10.31703/gpr.2016(I-I).08 https://www.gprjournal.com/jadmin/Auther/31rvIolA2LALJouq9hkR/eaxCgcbNmh.pdf

Tomz, Michael, Weeks, Jessica and Yarhi-Milo, Keren. (2018). “Public Opinion and Decisions about Military Force in Democracies.” January 4, 2018. https://www.cambridge.org/core/product/identifier/S0020818319000341/type/journal_article (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Weyland, Kurt, (2001). “Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics.” Comparative Politics. 34(1), 1–22, 14.

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Raja M. Ali Saleem (2021). “Military and Populism: An Introduction,” European Center for Populism Studies, https://www.populismstudies.org/military-and-populism-an-introduction/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan and and Kainat Shakil (2021a). “Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan,” European Center for Populism Studies, https://populismstudies.org/imran-khan-from-cricket-batsman-to-populist-captain-tabdeli-of-pakistan/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan and and Kainat Shakil (2021b). “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement,” European Center for Populism Studies, https://populismstudies.org/pakistan-tehreek-e-insaf-pakistans-iconic-populist-movement/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan and and Shakil, Kainat (2021c). “Transnational Islamist Populism between Pakistan and Turkey: The Case of Dirilis – Ertugrul,” European Center for Populism Studies, https://www.populismstudies.org/transnational-islamist-populism-between-pakistan-and-turkey-the-case-of-dirilis-ertugrul/ (accessed on February 28, 2022).

Young, Crawford. (1982). Ideology and Development in Africa. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the Nation on the occasion of 75th Independence Day from the ramparts of Red Fort, in Delhi on August 15, 2021.

Civilizationist Populism in South Asia: Turning India Saffron

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

 

Abstract

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Civilizationalist Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Types of Populism in India

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

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

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

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

Hindutva Populism: Organizations

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

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

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vishva Hindu Parishad (Universal Hindu Council)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bajrang Dal (Brigade of Hanuman)

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

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

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

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

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

Hindutva Populism: Parties

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

Gandhi statue in India. Photo: Arthur Simoes.

Was Mahatma Gandhi a Hindu Populist?

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

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

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

Hindu Nationalism and Hindu Populism

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

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

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

From the Bhartiya Jana Sangh to the Bharatiya Janata Party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

 


References

Ahmad, Rizwan. 12 October 2018. “Renaming India: Saffronisation of public spaces”. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2018/10/12/renaming-india-saffronisation-of-public-spaces (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Ahuja, Juhi. 2019. “Protecting holy cows: Hindu vigilantism against Muslims in India”. In Vigilantism Against Migrants and Minorites. Editors Tore Bjørgo and Miroslav Mareš. New York: Routledge.

Akins, Harrison. 8 December 2016. “In the country’s current period of high Hindu-Muslim tension, this city might have the answers”. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20161202-indias-model-for-tolerance (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Al Jazeera. 24 September 2018. “BJP chief slammed for calling Bangladeshi migrants ‘termites’”. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/9/24/bjp-chief-slammed-for-calling-bangladeshi-migrants-termites (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Al Jazeera. 9 November 2019. “Timeline: Babri mosque-Ram temple case”. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/9/timeline-babri-mosque-ram-temple-case (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Ammassari, Sofia. 2018. “Contemporary Populism in India: Assessing the Bharatiya JanataParty’s Ideological Features”. IBEI, Students Papers Series 48.

Andersen, Walter and Damle D. Sidhar. 22 June 2019a. “‘RSS is family’ and what to do with non-Hindus: An RSS trainee’s camp notebook”. The Print. https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/rss-is-family-and-what-to-do-with-non-hindus-an-rss-trainees-camp-notebook/253136/

Andersen, Walter and Damle D. Shridhar. 2019b. The Brotherhood In Saffron: The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh And Hindu Revivalism. New Delhi: Penguin Random House India Private Limited

Andersen, Walter. 4 August 2018. “RSS is a lot more diverse than it used to be: Author Walter Andersen”. Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/rss-is-a-lot-more-diverse-than-it-used-to-be-author-walter-andersen/articleshow/65273543.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Asthana, C. N. 17 July 2021. “For India’s Sake, Stop Destroying Communal Harmony With the Bogey of Love Jihad”. The Wire. https://thewire.in/communalism/for-indias-sake-stop-destroying-communal-harmony-with-the-bogey-of-love-jihad (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Balakrishna, Sandeep 2021. The Civilisational Wound and the Cultural Hoax Called Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb”. The Dharma Dispatch. https://www.dharmadispatch.in/culture/the-civilisational-wound-and-the-cultural-hoax-called-ganga-jamuni-tehzeeb (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Bapu, Prabhu. 2013. Hindu Mahasabha in Colonial North India, 1915-1930: Constructing Nation and History. New York: Routledge.

BBC. 18 April 2018. “Minister ridiculed for saying ancient India invented internet.” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-43806078 (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Betz, Hans-Georg, and Johnson, Carol. 2004. “Against the Current – Stemming the Tide: The Nostalgic Ideology of the Contemporary Radical Populist Right”. Journal of Political Ideologies 9, no. 3, 311–27.

Bhattacharjee, Puja. 6 December 2017. “Orange: The color of warmth and comfort”. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/12/06/health/colorscope-orange/index.html (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. 4 February 2015. “Manu-smriti”. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Manu-smriti.

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

Carothers, Thomas, and Andrew O’Donohue, editors. 2019. Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Brookings Institution Press.

Chacko, Priya. 2018. “The Right Turn in India: Authoritarianism, Populism and Neoliberalisation”. Journal of Contemporary Asia. https://doi.org/10.1080/00472336.2018.1446546

Chakrabarti, Kaustuv and Kaustuv K. Bandyopadhyay. 2021. “Populism in Contemporary Indian Politics”. In Populism in Asian Democracies: Features, Structures, and Impacts. Edited by Sook Jong Lee, Chin-en Wu, and Kaustuv Kanti Bandyopadhyay. Brill.

Chatterji, P. Angana, Thomas Blom Hansen, and Christophe Jaffrelot. 2020. Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Crabtree, James. 30 March 2017. “‘If They Kill Even One Hindu, We Will Kill 100!’”. Foreign Policy.https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/30/if-they-kill-even-one-hindu-we-will-kill-100-india-muslims-nationalism-modi/

Dahat, Pavan. 26 November 2014. “Christian forum complains of VHP “pressure”“. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/vhp-pressurized-catholic-diocese-of-bastar-to-allow-saraswatis-picture-in-catholic-schools/article6635828.ece

De Cesari, C., & Kaya, A. (Eds.). 2019. European memory in populism: representations of self and other. Routledge.

De la Torre, Carlos. 2019. “Is left populism the radical democratic answer?”. Irish Journal of Sociology 27: 64–71.

DeHanas, Daniel Nilsson and Marat Shterin. 2018. Religion and the rise of populism, Religion, State and Society, 46:3, 177-185.

Dey, Stela. 5 August 2019. ““Article 370 Root Of Terrorism In Kashmir”: Amit Shah”. NDTV, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/article-370-root-of-terrorism-in-jammu-and-kashmir-amit-shah-in-rajya-sabha-top-quotes-2080731

Doniger, Wendy. 19 July 2018. “Hanuman”. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hanuman.

Duyvendak, Jan W. 2011. The Politics of Home: Belonging and Nostalgia in Western Europe and the United States. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Eaton, M. Richard. 2019. India in the Persianate Age 1000–1765. Penguin Random House.

Elçi, E. 2021. “Politics of Nostalgia and Populism: Evidence from Turkey”. British Journal of Political Science, 1–18.

Factly. 9 June 2020. “FACT CHECK: Did Nehru Call himself ‘Culturally Muslim’ and ‘Hindu by Accident’?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_8hJYkR-6Q&ab_channel=Factly (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Frayer, Lauren and Khan, L. Furkan. 3 May 2019. “The Powerful Group Shaping The Rise Of Hindu Nationalism In India”. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/05/03/706808616/the-powerful-group-shaping-the-rise-of-hindu-nationalism-in-india (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Freedom House. 2021. “India”. https://freedomhouse.org/country/india.

Friedrich, Pieter. 12 March 2020. “Cultural Malware: The rise of India’s RSS”. The Polis Project. https://hindutvawatch.org/cultural-malware-the-rise-of-indias-rss/

Furedi, F. 2017. Populism and the European culture wars: the conflict of values between Hungary and the EU. Routledge.

Galston, W. A. 2018. “The populist challenge to liberal democracy”. Journal of Democracy 29(2), 5–19.

Ghosh, Deepshikha. 24 July 2013. “Narendra Modi’s ‘Hindu nationalist’ posters should be banned, says Samajwadi Party”. NDTV. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/narendra-modis-hindu-nationalist-posters-should-be-banned-says-samajwadi-party-529359 (accessed on February 24, 2022)

Gidron, Noam, and Bart Bonikowski. 2013. “Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda”. Weatherhead Working Paper Series.

Golwarkar, Madhavrao Sadashivrao. 1939. We or Our Nationhood Defined. Nagpur: Bharat Publications.

Gondhalekar, Nandini, and Bhattacharya, Sanjoy. 1999. “The All India Hindu Mahasabha and the End of British Rule in India, 1939–1947”. Social Scientist 27, no. 7/8, 48–74. www.jstor.org/stable/3518013.

Gupta, D. Moushumi. 27 November 2018. “A shrill, hardline Yogi Adityanath is just what BJP needs to promote Hindutva narrative”. The Print. https://theprint.in/politics/a-shrill-hardline-yogi-adityanath-is-just-what-bjp-needs-to-promote-hindutva-narrative/155005/. (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Hindustan Times. 6 April 2017. “Yogi Adityanath says nothing wrong with Hindu Rashtra concept, BJP defends him”. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/up-cm-yogi-adityanath-says-there-s-nothing-wrong-with-hindu-rashtra-concept-bjp-defends-him/story-aJcX0rQV7bpclddfm80P8I.html (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Hindustan Times. 16 August 2018. “Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s complex relationship with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.” The Hindustan Times. August 16, 2018. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/atal-bihari-vajpayee-s-complex-relationship-with-rashtriya-swayamsevak-sangh/story-i4PWTtQzyWnJpojnPQap7O.html (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Hindustan Times. 26 November 2019. “Yogi Adityanath’s pet dog Kalu is an online sensation”. https://www.hindustantimes.com/it-s-viral/yogi-adityanath-s-pet-dog-kalu-is-an-online-sensation/story-ItXlMsWzrIp33Cc66zjL8N.html (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Homolar, A., & Scholz, R. 2019. “The power of Trump-speak: Populist crisis narratives and ontological security”. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 32, no.3, 344–364.

Hosen, Saddam. 2020. “Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of BJP in India: A Critical Review”. IOSR Journal of Humanities And Social Science 25: 55–61.

Human Rights Watch. 1999. “Summary.” https://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/indiachr/christians8-01.htm (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Human Rights Watch. 2003. “Background to the Violence: Gujarat Massacre Report.” Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/reports/2003/india0703/Gujarat-02.htm (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Human Rights Watch. 9 April 2020. “‘Shoot the Traitors’ Discrimination against Muslims under India’s New Citizenship Policy”. https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/04/09/shoot-traitors/discrimination-against-muslims-under-indias-new-citizenship-policy (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Huntington, S. 1993. “The clash of civilizations?”. Foreign Affairs 72, no. 3, 22–49.

Inglehart, Ronald F., and Noris, Pippa. 2016. “Trump, Brexit, and the rise of populism: Economic have-nots and cultural backlash”. HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series. HKS Working Paper No. RWP16-026.

Jaffrelot, Christophe and Louise Tillin. 2017. “Populism in India.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Edited by Cristobal Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Espeho, and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jaffrelot, Christophe. 2007. “Introduction.” In Hindu Nationalism A Reader. Edited by Christophe Jaffrelot. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jaffrey, Sana and Slater, Dan. 2017. “Violence and Regimes in Asia: Capable States and Durable Settlements”. Violence and Regimes in Asia by the Asia Foundation. https://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Essays_on_The_State_of_Conflict_and_Violence_in_Asia.pdf (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Jain, Rupam and Lasseter, Tom. 6 March 2018. “By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India”. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/india-modi-culture/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Jaiswal, Anuja. 20 May 2019. “‘Commando training’ for Bajrang Dal”. Times of India. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/69403130.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Jha, K. Dhirendra. 12 November 2016. “Eighty years on, the RSS women’s wing has not moved beyond seeing the woman as mother”. Scroll India. https://scroll.in/article/821360/eighty-years-on-the-rss-womens-wing-has-not-moved-beyond-seeing-the-woman-as-mother (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Jha, K. Dhirendra. 8 March 2019. “RSS and the akharas”. Fountain Ink. https://fountainink.in/reportage/rss-and-the-akharas (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Kenny, M. 2017. “Back to the populist future?: Understanding nostalgia in contemporary ideological discourse”. Journal of Political Ideologies 22, no.3, 256–273.

Khalid, Saif. 9 October 2017. “Taj Mahal dropped from tourism booklet of Uttar Pradesh”. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/10/9/taj-mahal-dropped-from-tourism-booklet-of-uttar-pradesh (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Kinnvall, Catarina. 2014. The Politics and Ethics of Identity: In Search of Ourselves. Political Psychology 35, 303–304. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12099

Kulkarni, Pavan. 30 October 2017. “Deendayal Upadhyaya, Bigoted ‘Guiding Force’ of a Hindu Rashtra.” The Wire. https://thewire.in/history/deendayal-upadhyaya-guiding-force-hindu-rashtra. (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Kumar, Sajjan. 18 April 2019. “The Limits of Populism.” The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-limits-of-populism/article26867609.ece (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Lahiry, Sutapa. 2005. “Jana Sangh And Bharatiya Janata Party: A Comparative Assessment Of Their Philosophy And Strategy And Their Proximity With The Other Members Of The Sangh Parivar.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 66, no. 4, 831–850.

Lakshmi, Rama. 20 December 2016. “Bollywood stars give their newborn son the controversial name of a brutal Mongol conqueror”. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/12/20/bollywood-stars-give-their-newborn-son-the-controversial-name-of-a-brutal-islamic-conqueror/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Lammers, J., & Baldwin, M. 2020. “Make America gracious again: Collective nostalgia can increase and decrease support for right‐wing populist rhetoric”. European Journal of Social Psychology 50, no.5, 943–954.

Lefèvre, Corinne. 2020. “Heritage Politics and Policies in Hindu Rashtra”. In The Hindutva Turn: Authoritarianism and Resistance in India. Edited by Aminah Mohammad-Arif, Jules Naudet and Nicolas Jaoul. SAMAJ. https://doi.org/10.4000/samaj.6728

Leidig, Eviane. 1 June 2016. “Rewriting history: The ongoing controversy over textbooks in India”. LSE Blogs. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2016/06/01/rewriting-history-the-ongoing-controversy-over-textbooks-in-india/(accessed on February 24, 2022).

Leidig, Eviane. 2020. “Hindutva as a variant of right-wing extremism”. Patterns of Prejudice. DOI: 10.1080/0031322X.2020.1759861

Lesch, W. 2020. “Visible religion and populism: an explosive cocktail”. Religions 11, no. 8, 401.

Lochtefeld, G. James. 1994. “The Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Roots of Hindu Militancy”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 62, 587–602.

Mahmood, Naazir. 1 March 2020. “The Gujarat massacre and after”. The News on Sunday. https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/621744-the-gujarat-massacre-and-after (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Malviya, Amit. 2015. Twitter post. November 14. 10:22 am. https://twitter.com/amitmalviya/status/665399311732183040. (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Marzouki, N., McDonnell, D., and Roy, O. 2016. Saving the people: How populists hijack religion. Oxford University Press.

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

Mishra, Ishita and Jha, Prashant. 2019. “Kashmiri students in Dehradun allege attacks by Bajrang Dal, VHP activists”. Times of India. February 16. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/kashmiri-students-in-doon-allege-attacks-by-bajrang-dal-vhp-activists/articleshow/68015668.cms (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Mudde, C. (2004), The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39: 541-563. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x

Nag, Kingshuk. 2014. The Saffron Tide. New Delhi: Rupa Publications.    

Nag, Kingshuk. 25 December 2015. “How Atal Bihari Vajpayee fought and lost against the RSS”. Scroll India. https://scroll.in/article/777921/how-atal-bihari-vajpayee-fought-and-lost-against-the-rss (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Nair, Padmaja. 2009. “Religious Political Parties and their Welfare Works: Relations between the RSS, the BJP and the VB schools in India”. Religions and Development Working             Program Working Paper 37. University of Birmingham.     

Nair, Rupam Jain. 13 October 2015. “New recruits to Hindu cause hear anti-Muslim message”. Reuters.https://www.reuters.com/article/india-rss-muslims-idINKCN0S700M20151013 (accessed on February 24, 2022).

News18. 6 July 2020. “Vishva Hindu Parishad Writes to Netflix, Warns of Street Agitations.” News18. Last updated July 6, 2020. https://www.news18.com/news/movies/vishva-hindu-parishad-writes-to-netflix-warns-of-street-agitations-2702971.html (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Nikore, Mitali. 15 January 2014. “The populist politics of the Aam Aadmi Party”. LSE Blogs.      https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/southasia/2014/01/15/the-populist-politics-of-the-aam-aadmi-   party/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Norris, Pippa and Inglehart, Ronald F. 2018. “Understanding Brexit: Cultural Resentment Versus Economic Grievances (July 30, 2018). Paper for presentation at the Panel on ‘Populism in Advanced Capitalist Democracies’. At the American Political Science Association’s annual convention, Boston., HKS Working Paper No. RWP18-021,                        https://ssrn.com/abstract=3222901

Pandey, Neelam. 26 September 2020. “For VHP, Bollywood Khans’ Hindu wives, New Year & birthday parties help spread ‘Love Jihad’”. The Print. https://theprint.in/india/for-vhp-bollywood-khans-hindu-wives-new-year-birthday-parties-help-spread-love-jihad/510691/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Patwardhan, Anand. 15 November 2014. “How the Sangh Parivar systematically attacks the very idea of India”. Scroll India. https://scroll.in/article/689584/how-the-sangh-parivar-systematically-attacks-the-very-idea-of-india(accessed on February 24, 2022).

Peker, Efe. 2019. “Religious Populism, Memory, and Violence in India”. New Diversities  Vol. 21, No. 2, 23-26.

Pradhan, Sharat. 14 September 2020. “For Hindutva Gang, and Now UP Police, Each Hindu-Muslim Marriage Must Be Probed for ‘Love Jihad’”. The Print. https://thewire.in/communalism/uttar-pradesh-love-jihad-police-yogi-adityanath-         hindutva-vigilantes (accessed on February 24, 2022).

PTI. 16 February 2016 “VHP, Bajrang Dal protest outside JNU campus”. Mint.             https://www.livemint.com/Politics/uzbOrozPC1JMloZ7Mal4cO/VHP-Bajrang-Dal-protest-outside-JNU-campus.html (accessed on February 24, 2022).

PTI. 17 September 2019. “J&K special status removal significant step toward Akhand Bharat: Amit Shah”. The Hindu.https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/jk-special-status-removal-significant-step-towards-akhand-bharat-amit-shah/article29441410.ece (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Rahman, Maseeh. 28 October 2014. “Indian prime minister claims genetic science existed in ancient times”. The Guardian.             https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/28/indian-prime-minister-genetic-science-existed-ancient-times (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Rao, S. 2018. “Making of Selfie Nationalism: Narendra Modi, the Paradigm Shift to Social Media Governance, and Crisis of Democracy”. Journal of Communication Inquiry 42 (2): 166-183.

Saleem, Raja M. Ali. 2021. Hinduism, Hindutva and Hindu Populism in India: An Analysis of Party Manifestos of Indian Rightwing Parties. Religions. https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/12/10/803.

Sarkar, Sumit. 1993. “The Fascism of the Sangh Parivar”. Economic and Political Weekly 28, no. 5, 163–167. www.jstor.org/stable/4399339.

Sawant, B. P. 16 November 2020. “The Manusmriti and a Divided Nation”. The Print. https://thewire.in/caste/manusmriti-history-discrimination-constitution (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Shantha, Sukanya. 14 June 2020. “As Symbols of Discrimination Fall Worldwide, Meet the Women Who Blackened Manu’s Statue”. The Print. https://thewire.in/rights/kantabai-ahire-sheela-pawar-manu-statue-blackened-protest(accessed on February 24, 2022).

Sikander, Zainab. 5 October 2020. “Babri ruling is BJP’s golden goose. Mathura, Kashi signal to erase India’s Islamic history”. The Print. https://theprint.in/opinion/babri-ruling-is-     bjps-golden-goose-mathura-kashi-signal-to-erase-indias-islamic-history/516347/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Singh, D.K. 8 September 2020. “RSS to go by what ‘samaaj’ thinks on Kashi & Mathura mosques, after seers’ call to remove them”. The Print. https://theprint.in/india/rss-to-go-by-what-samaaj-thinks-on-kashi-mathura-mosques-after-seers-call-to-remove-them/498515/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Steenvoorden, E., & Harteveld, E. 2017. “The appeal of nostalgia: The influence of societal pessimism on support for populist radical right parties”. West European Politics 41, no. 1, 28–52.

Taggart, Paul. 2004. “Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe”. Journal of Political Ideologies 9, no. 3, 269-288. DOI: 10.1080/1356931042000263528

Taş, Hakkı. 2020. “The chronopolitics of national populism”. Identities, 1–19, DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1735160

Thapar, Romila. 27 November 2020. “That Muslims enslaved Hindus for last 1000 yrs is historically unacceptable: Romila Thapar”. The Print. https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/muslims-enslaved-hindus-for-last-1000-yrs-historically-unacceptable-romila-thapar/552564/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Tharoor, Shashi. 2018. Why I am a Hindu. Brunswick, Australia: Scribe Publications.

Tharoor, Shashi. 2020. The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, and What it Means. New Delhi: Aleph Book company.

The Economist Intelligence Unit. 2021. “Democracy Index 2020: In sickness and in health?”.      https://www.eiu.com/n/campaigns/democracy-index-2020/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

The Indian Express. 12 December 2019. “Explained: The Nehru-Liaquat Agreement of 1950, referred to in the CAB debate”. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-what-was-the-nehru-liaquat-agreement-of-1950-referred-to-in-the-cab-debate-6162191/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

The Indian Express. 5 March 2020. “Legal action should be taken against anti-CAA protesters: VHP General Secy”. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/legal-action-should-be-taken-against-anti-caa-protesters-vhp-general-secy-6299627/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

The Wire. 9 September 2020. “Right-Wing Groups Want to ‘Liberate’ Kashi and Mathura Temples; RSS Says Won’t Push”. https://thewire.in/communalism/babri-hindutva-kashi-and-mathura-temples (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Varadarajan, Siddharth. 18 August 2018. “Let Us Not Forget the Glimpse We Got of the Real Vajpayee When the Mask Slipped”. The Wire. https://thewire.in/politics/let-us-not-forget-the-glimpse-we-got-of-the-real-vajpayee-when-the-mask-slipped (accessed on February 24, 2022).

Visana, Vikram. 2020. “Savarkar before Hindutva: Sovereignty, Republicanism, and Populism in India, c.1900–1920”. Modern Intellectual History.

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Saleem, A. M. Raja. 2021. “A Quest for Identity: The Case of Religious Populism in Pakistan”.European Center for Populism Studies. https://www.populismstudies.org/a-quest-for-identity-the-case-of-religious-populism-in-pakistan/ (accessed on February 24, 2022).

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

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


Footnotes

[1] Sanskrit theological texts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Abstract

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

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

By Ibrahim Öztürk

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

 

The Rise of Erdoğan, the Populist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before and After the 2001 Crisis

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

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

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

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

The Political Legacy

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

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

More on the Economic Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

From Reform to Populist Authoritarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 6. Countries with the most authoritarian tendencies.

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

 

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

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

Figure 7. Trends in governance quality in Turkey.

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Economic Consequences of Populism

Fragile Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growth Without Wealth Creation

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

Figure 9. Income inequality (selected countries).

Source: OECD Economic Surveys: Turkey 2021.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 11. Risk premium in Turkey and similar countries.

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

 

The Assault on Autonomous Institutions and the Inflationary Illusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandemic Populism and Further Disruption to the Economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

[1] Ibrahim Öztürk, “Populism and the Rise of Hybrid Governance Models: Saving the Multilateral Cooperation,” Populism & Politics, 8 March 2021, https://www.populismstudies.org/
wp-content/uploads/2021/04/PP-3-4.pdf
; Ibrahim Öztürk, “Populist Attacks on Institutions as a Reaction to the Hyper-globalization,” Populism & Politics, 27 May 2021, https://www.populismstudies.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/27_05_2021_Populism-Politics-Articles-5.pdf.

[2] Robert R. Barr, “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-establishment Politics,” Party Politics, 15:1 (2009), 29–48, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068808097890, at 38.

[3] S. Erdem Aytaç and Ziya Öniş, “Varieties of Populism in a Changing Global Context: The Divergent Paths of Erdogan and Kirchnerismo,” Comparative Politics, 47:1 (2014), 41–59.

[4] Ezgi Elçi, “Politics of Nostalgia and Populism: Evidence from Turkey,” British Journal of Political Science, 27 (2021),1–18, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123420000666.

[5] Kurt Weyland, “Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics,” Comparative Politics 34: 1 (2001), 1–22, https://doi.org/10.2307/422412.

[6] Murat Somer and Jennifer McCoy, “Transformations through Polarizations and Global Threats to Democracy,

The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 681: 1 (2019), 8–22, doi:10.1177/0002716218818058, at 8.

[7] Cas Mudde, “Fighting the System? Populist Radical Right Parties and Party System Change,” Party Politics, 20:2 (2014), 217–226, doi: 10.1177/1354068813519968.

[8] David. H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson, “The China Syndrome: Local Labor Market Effects of Import Competition in the United States,” American Economic Review, 103:6 (2013), 2121–2168, doi: 10.1257/aer.103.6.212; Hedieh Aghelmaleki, Ronald Bachmann, and Joel Stiebale, “The China Shock, Employment Protection, and European jobs,” ILR Review (2021), Advance online publication, 1–21, https://doi.org/10.1177/00197939211052283.

[9] Lubos Pastor and Pietro Veronesi, “Inequality Aversion, Populism, and the Backlash against Globalization,” Chicago Booth Research Paper No. 20-11 (2020), http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3224232.

[10] Richard F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash,” Harvard Kennedy School Working Paper No. RWP16-026 (2016), 1–52.

[11] André Munro, “Populism,” in The Encyclopedia Britannica, May 29, 2020, accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/populism.

[12] Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties; Daron Acemoglu, Georgy Egorov, and Konstantin Sonin, “A Political Theory of Populism,” TheQuarterly Journal of Economics, 128:2 (2013), 771–805, https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjs077.

[13] Rodrik, “Populism and the Economics of Globalization.”

[14] Rudiger Dornbusch and Sebastian Edwards, The Macroeconomics of Populism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[15] Jonathan Spicer, “When Erdogan’s Turkish Economic Miracle Began Failing,” Reuters, July 15, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/when-erdogans-turkish-economic-miracle-began-failing-2021-07-15/.

[16] Metin Heper, “State, Democracy and Bureaucracy in Turkey,” in The State and Public Bureaucracies. A Comparative Perspective, edited by Metin Heper (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1987), 131–145.

[17] S. Erdem Aytaç and Ezgi Elçi, “Populism in Turkey,” in Populism Around the World: A Comparative Perspective edited by Daniel Stockemer (Cham: Springer, 2019), 89–108.

[18] Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984).

[19] Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson, and James A. Robinson, “Institutions as the Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth,” in Handbook of Economic Growth: Volume 1, edited by Philippe Aghion and Steven N. Durlauf (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005), 385-472, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1574-0684(05)01006-3.

[20] Cem Akyürek, “The Turkish Crisis of 2001 – a Classic?” Emerging Markets Finance and Trade 42:1 (2006), 5-32.

[21] Daron Acemoglu and Murat Ucer, “The Ups and Downs of Turkish Growth, 2002-2015: Political Dynamics, the European Union and the Institutional Slide,” NBER Working Paper. No. 21608, October 2015, doi: 10.3386/w21608.

[22] World Bank, “Turkey’s Transitions: Integration, Inclusion, Institutions,” Report No. 90509 – TR, https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/507871468306558336/pdf/90509-v2-REVISED-P133570-PUBLIC-Box393190B.pdf.

[23] World Bank, “Turkey’s Transitions”; Acemoglu and Ucer, “Ups and Downs”; Ozan Bakış, Uğurcan Acar and Gökhan Dilek, “Growth Cycles and Total Factor Productivity in Turkish Economy: 1980-2018,” BETAM Research Brief 20/249, https://betam.bahcesehir.edu.tr/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/ResearchBrief249.pdf.

[24] Steven A. Cook “How Erdogan Made Turkey Authoritarian Again,” The Atlantic, July 21, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/07/how-erdogan-made-turkey-authoritarian-again/492374/.

[25] “Erdoğan: Din üzerinden siyasete karşıyız,” Hurriyet, January 10, 2004, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/
erdogan-din-uzerinden-siyasete-karsiyiz-38556005
(in Turkish).

[26] Zeyneb Çağliyan‐İçener, “The Justice and Development Party’s Conception of Conservative Democracy: Invention or Reinterpretation?” Turkish Studies, 10:4 (2019), 595-612, https://doi.org/10.1080/14683840903384851; Sinem Adar and Günter Seufert, “Turkey’s Presidential System

after Two and a Half Years: An Overview of Institutions and Politics,” SWP Research Paper 2, April 2021, Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, https://www.swp-berlin.org/publications/products/research_papers/2021RP02_Turkey_Presidential_System.pdf.

[27] Michael M. Gunter, “Erdogan’s Train to Authoritarianism,” Sociology of Islam, 8:1 (2020), 127–149, https://doi.org/10.1163/22131418-00801004.

[28] Ibrahim Öztürk, “Erdoğan’s Economic Revolution,” Project Syndicate, June 14, 2011, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/erdo-an-s-economic-revolution

[29] Soner Cagaptay, “The New Sultan And The Crisis Of Modern Turkey,” The International Spectator, 53:4 (2018), 1-15, doi: 10.1080/03932729.2018.1503857.

[30] Ihsan Yilmaz, Mustafa Demir, Nicholas Morieson, “Religion in Creating Populist Appeal: Islamist Populism and Civilizationism in the Friday Sermons of Turkey’s Diyanet.” Religions, 12 (2021), 1–18, https://doi.org/
10.3390/rel12050359
.

[31] “Babuşcu: Gelecek 10 yıl, liberaller gibi eski paydaşlarımızın arzuladığı gibi olmayacak,” T24.com, April 1, 2013, https://t24.com.tr/haber/babuscu-onumuzdeki-10-yil-liberaller-gibi-eski-paydaslarimizin-kabullenecegi-gibi-olmayacak,226892 (in Turkish).

[32] Matthew Karnitschinig, “Erdoğan’s Reichstag Fire,” Politico, 17 June, 2016, https://www.politico.eu/article, https://www.commentary.org/articles/michael-rubin/turkeys-reichstag-fire/ /erdogans-reichstag-fire-turkey-coup-attempt/.

[33] “Key findings of the 2020 Report on Turkey,” European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/
api/files/document/print/en/country_20_1791/COUNTRY_20_1791_EN.pdf
, Brussels, October 6, 2020, 10.

[34] Simon P. Watmough, “The Enduring Politics of State Capture in the Ottoman–Turkish Tradition: ‎Situating the AKP–Gülen Concordat in Historical Perspective,” in Erdoğan’s ‘New’ Turkey: The Attempted Coup D’état and the Acceleration of Political ‎Crisis, edited by Nikos Christofis (London: Routledge, 2020), 94–112.

[35] Nikos Christofis, “The State of the Kurds in Erdoğan’s ‘New’ Turkey,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, 21:3 (2019), 251-259, doi: 10.1080/19448953.2018.1497750

[36] “World Press Freedom Index, 2020,” Reporters Without Borders, accessed February 8, 2022, https://rsf.org/en/
ranking/2020.

[37] Ian Vásquez and Fred McMahon, The Human Freedom Index, 2020: A Global Measurement of Personal, Civil, and Economic Freedom(Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2020), https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/2021-03/human-freedom-index-2020.pdf.

[38] WJP, “World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2020,” The World Justice Project, https://worldjusticeproject.org/
sites/default/files/documents/WJP-ROLI-2020-Online_0.pdf; V-Dem, “Academic Freedom Index (AFi) project,” accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.v-dem.net/academic_freedom.html.

[39] “The Summit for Democracy,” US Department of State, accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.state.gov/summit-for-democracy/.

[40] “Fitch Revises Turkey’s Outlook to Negative; Affirms at ‘BB-,” Fitch Ratings, December 2, 2021, https://www.fitchratings.com/research/sovereigns/fitch-revises-turkey-outlook-to-negative-affirms-at-bb-02-12-2021.

[41] “Domestic credit to private sector (% of GDP) – Turkey,” World Bank, accessed December 23, 2021, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/FS.AST.PRVT.GD.ZS?locations=TR.

[42] “Do Developing Economies Have an External Debt Problem?” Wells Fargo, Special Commentary, May 11, 2021, https://externalcontent.blob.core.windows.net/
pdfs/pdfs/639d9ea3-e896-4c6a-b1e9-633d7625fde2.pdf
, 2–3.

[43] Ana Carolina Garriga and Cesar M. Rodriguez, “More Effective Than We Thought: Central Bank Independence and Inflation in Developing Countries,” Economic Modelling, 85 (2020), 87-105, https://doi.org/10.1016/
j.econmod.2019.05.009.

[44] Ali Ari, Ahmet Yılmaz, Raif Cergibozan, and Yunus

Ozcan, “The Inflation Dynamics of the Turkish

Economy in 1990-2011 Period,” Journal of Financial Research and Studies, 5:9 (2013), 1-16.

[45] O. Cevdet Akçay, C. Emre Alper, and Suleyman Ozmucur, “Budget Deficit, Inflation and Debt Sustainability: Evidence from Turkey (1970-2000),” Inflation and Disinflation in Turkey, edited by A. Kibritçioğlu (Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2002), 77-96; Daniel Gros, “Financial Aspects of Central Bank Independence and Price Stability: The Case of Turkey,” CEPS, EU-Turkey Working Paper No. 12https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/financial-aspects-central-bank-independence-and-price-stability-case-turkey/; S. B. Şahin, “Central Bank Independence in Turkey: A Neo-Gramscian Analysis,” Cooperation and Conflict, 47:1 (2012), 106–123, https://doi.org/10.1177/
0010836711433127.

[46] In contrast, the ENA-Grup, an inflation research company, calculated the annual rate for 2021 at 82.8% https://enagrup.org/?hl=en

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

[48] Cited in Desmond Lachman, “Is Turkey’s Economy on the Brink Due to a Currency Crisis?” American Enterprise Institute (AEI), October 25, 2021, https://www.aei.org/op-eds/is-turkeys-economy-on-the-brink-due-to-a-currency-crisis/.

[49] Dani Rodrik, “Inflation Heresies,” Project Syndicate, January 11, 2022, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/correct-policies-to-fight-inflation-depend-on-context-by-dani-rodrik-2022-01?barrier=accesspaylog.

[50] Ibrahim Öztürk, “The Case of Middle-Income Trap in China and its Institutional Links to the Belt and Road Initiative,” in Firms, Institutions, and the State in East Asia: A Festschrift in Honour of Werner Pascha, edited by Cornelia Storz and Markus Taube (Marburg: Metropolis Verlag, 2020), 391-416.

[51] Jong-Wha Lee “Convergence Success and the Middle-Income Trap,” EBRD Working Paper No. 211 (2018), https://www.ebrd.com/documents/oce/convergence-success-and-the-middleincome-trap.pdf; Martin Raiser, “From Know-Who to know-How: Turkey and the Middle-Income Trap,” Brookings Future Development Blog, February 19, 2015,https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2015/02/19/from-know-who-to-know-how-turkey-and-the-middle-income-trap/.

[52] Ibrahim Öztürk, “Future Course of Turkey between Convergence and the Middle-Income Trap,” in Japanese Studies Conferences in Turkey-II, edited by Selçuk Esenbel and E. Küçükyalçın (Istanbul: Boğaziçi University Press, 2015), 221–251 (in Turkish).

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

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

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

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

[56] Aram Ekin Duran, “Prof. Başer: Covid-19 ölümleri 110 bini aştı,” Deutsche Welle, August 17, 2021, https://www.dw.com/tr/prof-ba%C5%9Fer-covid-19-%C3%B6l%C3%BCmleri-110-bini-a%C5%9Ft%C4%B1/a-58889853 (in Turkish).

[57] “Coronavirus COVID-19 World Map,” Office of the Turkish Presidency of Digital Transformation, accessed February 8, 2022, https://corona.cbddo.gov.tr/Home/
DeathConfirmedRatio
(in Turkish).

[58] Volga Kuşçuoğlu, “Is Turkey Underreporting Coronavirus Deaths? Here is What We Know,” Bianet, May 12, 2020, https://bianet.org/english/health/224140-does-turkey-underreport-coronavirus-deaths-here-is-what-we-know.

[59] IMF, “Turkey: 2021. Article IV Consultation-Press Release,” IMF Staff Country Reports. Volume 2021: Issue 110, https://www.elibrary.imf.org/view/journals/
002/2021/110/002.2021.issue-110-en.xml
.

[60] Adar and Seufert, “Turkey’s Presidential System,” 34; Ayça Tekin-Koru, “COVID-19 and Industrial Production in Turkey,” VOX-EU, May 14, 2020, https://voxeu.org/article/covid-19-and-industrial-production-turkey.

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

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

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

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

 

Abstract

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

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

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

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Introduction 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Religion and Populism 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enabling a New Vigilante Jihadism

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

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

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

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

In 2020, a bank manager from the Ahmadiyya faith was shot dead in broad daylight by the bank’s security guard in the town of Khushab in Punjab. What was more disturbing was the guard being taken handcuffed by the police with a smirk on his face as the mob chante