Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a composer, an author and a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is also part of the Environmental Studies program, as well as in Religious Studies and Agri-ecology program, said in an exclusive interview with the ECPS, when major populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks often collapse extremely fast [as well].
Talking about environmental populism and authoritarianism Professor Michael Mayerfeld Bell, who is also an author and a composer, explains the importance of protecting environment through the philosophy of one of his compositions called “Respiration.” “Whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”
Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a composer, author, and a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is also part of the Environmental Studies program, as well as in Religious Studies and Agroecology program, said in an exclusive interview with the ECPS, that we have to understand knowledge as a social relation in order to understand authoritarian environmental populism.
Stating that environmental populism is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism, Professor Bell gave “brown ecology” in National Socialism as an example. “There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that,” said Bell. He quoted a former executive director of Acres USA, an organic agriculture organization, who claimed we are having a rise of homosexuality in society because of “the use of pesticides.” Bell stated that “So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument.”
Professor Bell stressed the social relations of knowledge behind the seductiveness of arguments like these: that is, how what we take to be relevant and trustworthy knowledge depends upon its relations of identity. He argued that environmentalists often take environmental findings as mere facts, without considering the identity relations in which they are embedded, and thus whether people will trust or pay attention to these findings.
He discussed his own work to reach across such “cultivations” or bubbles of identity through music. Talking about a recent piece titled “Respiration,” which is about both climate change and COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Bell explained that “The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”
The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Mehmet Soyer: I know you from the environmental sociology field, and I had an “Aha” moment while reading your ecological dialogue theory, which holds that each is the seed of the other. In one of your presentations at a conference, you asked why populism is so seductive; we’re in modern liberal society that’s supposed to be done with that kind of thinking, so how would you answer your own questions?
That was a sarcastic comment, of course. But the issue that’s at the heart of populism is the issue of inequality, and modern liberal societies are by no means beyond that. Indeed, the main issue that we need to think about is the basic bargain that those societies are based on. If you want to call it that, [the bargain] was that we would establish equality of political standing and not address material standing. Right, everyone gets to vote … so the promise goes: “Happy now, that you all get to vote?” And we don’t have to worry about anything else. But that’s really [only] half equality, if you like, an equality of inequalities. The claim was that any inequality of material standing, after you had equality of political standing, was your own fault, right? And that’s just not the case. You can’t have one without the other. We need them both; material standing is part of political standing. So we need what I like to call an equality of equalities, or what I call “isodemocracy” (democracy founded on equalities in both political and material standing— democracy in which the concerns of everybody, and every body, are the concerns of everybody). But we don’t have that, and it rightly pisses people off. Now, unfortunately, some people are channeling that populist anger in an authoritarian way. But I understand pissed-off part.
Authoritarian Populism Diverts People from the Real Sources of Their Troubles
Heidi Hart: Right, thank you, that was very succinctly answered. It’s a tough question, but it gets to the core, and, as a follow up, how do you think authoritarian populism, in the face of growing economic inequality, has affected the global green shift? On the one side, we have democratic countries like Germany, who are greening their economies, on the other side, an authoritarian country like China is also attempting to green its economy. Do you see any contradiction here?
Authoritarian populism, it seems, is basically a cruel sham. It diverts people from the real sources of their troubles, and ecological exploitation is surely one of those. But I don’t think I would call China an authoritarian populist country; it’s an authoritarian country. And I don’t see China’s leaders as trying to create an image of an elite that is oppressing the common people, which is the essence of populist thought. It seems to me that Chinese politics is more based upon nationalism. It’s us, China, versus the rest of the world.
In any event, the reality of the challenges that ecological exploitation creates is evidently seen as significant. Enough so that such diverse countries recognize it and are trying to do something about it. Maybe we’ll actually get there.
Heidi Hart: Even in the Democratic Party in the US, the Green New Deal is controversial. What do you think about the Green New Deal? Is it doable, and why has been seen as a “socialist” move?
Because the right is basically trying to undermine it using socio-cultural cues. And this I suppose gets to the question of “what is socialism?” In my view, socialism is just organizing life for social benefit. It’s also the idea that collective benefit leads to individual benefit, as opposed to the capitalist argument, which seems to be that individual benefit somehow leads to collective benefit. “Just trust us, the invisible hand will take care of all that” – which it doesn’t, because of the power differences that the capitalist approach immediately sets up. So, the big scare the right likes to use is the idea that socialism means economic nationalism, or nationalization, collective ownership of the means of production. But I don’t think socialism is defined by a specific economic practice. It’s defined by social goals. It’s a social theory, not merely an economic one.
Achieving those goals may indeed involve nationalization and collective ownership, but that’s a debate that we need to have economic sector by economic sector. How best do we organize our economy, as well as the other aspects of our lives, for collective benefit? They just want to scare us: “Oh, they’re just going to nationalize everything and it’s going to be the Soviet Union or what have you.” Because they’re basically trying to keep the bargain I talked about earlier, which is, “OK, we gave you the right to vote, or at least most of you (we’re trending that back a little bit, but we hope you don’t notice we’re doing that), but yeah, we gave you that, so we don’t need to address the material stuff, do we?” So, they are trying to keep that bad bargain alive through confusing people. And the Green New Deal is a credible effort to confront that bad bargain and make it a fair one.
An Environmental Populist Argument May Turn into An Awful Right-wing Argument
Mehmet Soyer: What do you think about environmental populism? Would it be a solution to ‘save the world’?
Well, I think it’s a question of populism of what? It seems to me that you could have an environmental populism that is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism. A horrible example of that is what scholars sometimes call brown ecology, which was the very strong ecological argument in National Socialism. There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that.
I remember once many years ago, I was at the annual meeting of something called Acres USA. Acres USA is a major organic agriculture organization, doing a lot of work on agroecology. I was in Iowa at the time, and I was doing some ethnographic work, so I thought I probably had to go to this meeting. So, I did, and I listened, as the then-executive director of Acres USA proceeded to explain “why we are having a rise of homosexuality in society: because of the use of pesticides.”
So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument. So, the trouble is that the environment is very much bound up in these ideas of nature.
We have done some of the most beautiful things we have ever done in defense of nature, and some of the most horrible things we have ever done [also] happen in defense of so-called nature. So, to go back to your question, it depends on [which] environmental populism.
Knowledge Is A Social Relationship As Well
Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on that, because one thing I’ve been writing about for this organization is eco-fascism and the temptations of purity culture, which certainly have roots in Heidegger and Nazi Germany. But what about the sort of climate populism that has arisen around figures like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, the more left-wing populist impulse? What are your thoughts about that as a potential to make a difference?
Well, I think populist arguments have a lot of basis in them, if we can just get our facts straight. And I think [Thunberg] is helping us to do that, with the facts that are straight on: there are a lot of moneyed interests who are trying to keep people down and keep them divided, in order to pursue their particular agenda[s]. I think the facts bear that up. Climate change is a real.
Heidi Hart: This actually brings us to our next question. We have been bombarded by fake news about environmental issues such as climate change. Do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders and/or of conspiracy thinking?
Yes, and that is to recognize that knowledge actually is not just about facts. Knowledge is a social relationship as well, [what] I like to call the cultivation of knowledge: understanding the relationship between knowledge and identity. We spend all of our days actually ignoring stuff way more than we pay attention to it. Right now, why are you talking to me here, [when] there are 7 billion other people on this planet? Why aren’t you talking to them? I’m sure they have really interesting things to say. Why did I go to [Mehmet Soyer’s] class, and not some other class? Why did I look at the New York Times today and not the National Review? Why did I watch CNN and not Fox News? There are so many things out there to not pay attention to, but how do you know that those things actually are not relevant and important to your life, if you haven’t looked at them? So, you use your social relations to help guide you in these decisions, what you’re not going to pay attention to. This can be the cultivation of un-knowledge, maybe even more than a cultivation of knowledge. That is to say, then, we have to understand identity relations in what is knowledge. That’s why someone like Greta is so powerful, because she actually is a relatable figure and can help cross social ties and boundaries, if you like, cultivation boundaries, field to field, of knowledge identity that are otherwise in place.
One of the problems, I think, the environmental movement has had is that it’s been heavily guided by wonkish people like me, who sit in offices like this, and on campuses where we think about facts, we think about what’s in the journals and what the other scholars are saying, and we actually identify with that. So, we have identification issues going on there that we probably don’t even pay attention to (“By the way, who have you cited in your article?”). So those relations are very much part of academic life as well, but when we talk to the public, we forget about that, right? And we also don’t listen to the public, and we don’t consider their knowledge as potentially part of our cultivations, because we’ve decided that the people we pay attention to are those with the author-date citations. So, we have to get past of all that. I think the first place is to recognize that when we’re talking about knowledge, we are also talking about social relations.
When Populist Authoritarian Leaders Go, Their Networks Collapse
Mehmet Soyer: Following up on the previous question about fake news, which reminds me of Donald Trump, how much do you think distrust of elites has fed climate skepticism among right-wing populists? And what about the wealthy supporters of leaders like Trump who claim similar ideology?
Well, you know that Trump is addressing people who feel that they have been left out and kept down. And that’s actually most of us. So, now he has a little bit of a rhetorical problem. He was born with a gold spoon in his mouth. And he loves the color gold. You know that as soon as he came into the Oval Office, the first thing he did was to replace the drapes and make them gold colors. The apartment in Trump Tower has gold everywhere. So, what is Trump going to do? He’s going to emphasize ideas that he thinks will resonate with those who feel left out and kept down. He’s going to say, “I’m full of resentment and therefore I resonate with your resentment,” and he’s going to say, “By the way, I don’t need that fancy stuff, I eat hamburgers and French fries.” Also, the way he speaks is basically to divert attention from the fact that he has a degree from an Ivy League university. And he’s been enormously effective at this. It’s very central to the kinds of networks that Trump has built. They’re really built around his personality, right? There are very strong identity relations associated with Trump creat[ing] a vast network of cultivation. But it’s also very fragile. So, when major populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks often collapse extremely fast [as well].
Trump is actually still with us. But I’ve been really quite, or a little, optimistic about the fact that he has largely disappeared in the last few months. He’s been submerged much more than people expected. You know I don’t want to wish for his death, or for anyone’s death, but when he does finally go, as we all will, even more you’ll see the opportunity for really significant re-alignment of those relations of knowledge and identity.
Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on this one, because the personality cult is so powerful, even though it does seem to be fading. Trump adherents are now resisting vaccination and have tended to be climate change deniers as well. What do you see is the relationship between the personality cult and the denial of scientific fact?
Because of this interrelationship between knowledge and identity, and what people are not paying attention to … there are these major bubbles that that separate us. I think what we need to do is find ways to reach out across and burst those bubbles, and we have to burst them from inside our own bubbles, to try to rewrite the ways that we’ve been ignoring each other.
Heidi Hart: That’s beautiful, thank you. Maybe this next question is related: as a fellow musician working in arts and politics, how far do you think the arts can go and bursting these bubbles, or at least fostering environmental awareness, perhaps reaching across political divides?
Absolutely, I think it’s what moves me all the time when I’m onstage, if I’m able to play some music to a diverse audience, and somehow it gets found out: “Did you know he’s a college professor?” So, I think music has very strong opportunities for that. I wouldn’t call it a universal language, but it is one of many ways that we have to lead our lines of identity – what we pay attention to, who we appreciate, who we care for – in different ways.
Whatever You Breathe In, Someone Else Breathes Out
Mehmet Soyer: There is a group called Brave Combo. I don’t know if it’s a local band, or a national band, but they were really active in protesting fracking development in Denton, Texas. They organized a concert and wrote lyrics about the issues. There is intergenerational support for music, so I really believe in art and also the power of the music in these protests.
Right. I do write political songs, and sometimes I sing them at events, but the main group I work with is a group called Graminy, which comes from the Latin word for grass. What we try to do is to merge grassroots traditions with classical traditions. We call it “grass-class.” I think you can probably see that implicit in there is a social point: we want to bring more grass to class, and we want to bring more class to grass.
A recent piece that we did, about a 20-minute piece, is really about climate change and about COVID at the same time. It’s called “Respiration.” The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath. Hopefully we’re in a place where we can talk about these issues without saying, “By the way, I’m a socialist” or, “By the way, I’m a Trumpist.”
Heidi Hart: It’s a challenging thing to do with the arts, I think, because they can be very sticky with ideology and appropriated, as we’ve seen with Trump claiming music in his rallies that goes against the political beliefs of the musicians themselves. But I think it is powerful. I’m currently working with some musicians and sound artists on a climate grief project that is very much connected to breathing, eco-regulation, and co-regulation through rhythm. There are a lot of different ways we can approach these issues that are embodied. If we involve the body, that helps people to relate to each other, too.
Great, and I just want to give a quick shout-out also to an organization here in Wisconsin that I work with a lot. They’re called the Wormfarm Institute, and they work on rural-urban integration or what they sometimes call “rural-urban flow” through the arts. They run this wonderful annual festival they call Fermentation Fest, which is a celebration of fermented foods, which include bread and beer and cheese, but so many other things are fermented, and there’s a sense of aliveness there. Through food we’re able to [create] rural-urban flow, which food is very much a part of, and get to that embodiment that you were just talking about.
Mehmet Soyer: Thank you, Mike, for a great conversation and for joining us today.
Who is Michael Mayerfeld Bell?
Michael M. Bell is an author and scholar, as well as a composer and performing musician. Bell is the author or editor of eleven books, three of which have won national awards. His most recent books are the Cambridge Handbook of Environmental Sociology (Cambridge, 2020; Legun, Keller, Carolan, and Bell, eds.), the 6th edition of An Invitation to Environmental Sociology (Sage, 2020; Bell, Ashwood, Leslie, and Schlachter), and City of the Good: Nature, Religion, and the Ancient Search for What Is Right (Princeton, 2018). He is currently finishing a book on the sociology of heritage, with Jason Orne and Loka Ashwood.
Professor Bell serves on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is Chair and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology, as well as a member of the faculty of the Agroecology Program, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and the Religious Studies Program.
Bell is a prolific composer of classical and grassroots music, as well as environmental and progressive song. He performs regularly on mandolin and banjo with the award-winning “class-grass” band Graminy, and on guitar as a soloist and in the Elm Duo. Discover his composition and performance at his separate music site. Bell is passionate about progressive politics, their challenges and possibilities. He currently serves on the board of the Dane County Democrats.
The highly politicized, Ottomanist themes of Ertugrul Ghazi, a Turkish television drama, are a manifestation of Turkey’s desire to expand its cultural borders. The show depicts Turks as the protagonists dealing with contemporary political issues, “settling” accounts with their enemies as they steadfastly practise the faith of Islam. These ideals facilitates the construction of a transnational populist civilizational cultural identity which surpasses nationalism. The show and its themes have resonated with the Pakistani version of Islamist populism.
During Pakistan’s first reluctant Covid-19 lockdown, in the spring of 2020, the normally chaotic streets went quiet. The relative tranquillity of the outdoors was not replicated indoors. Thousands of Pakistanis, forced to stay home, were glued to their television screens and electronic devices, enthusiastically watching a Turkish TV series: Ertugrul Ghazi (Dirilis: Ertugrul in Turkish and Resurrection: Ertugrul in English) (Shaikh, 2020; Carney, 2018). The program is an international hit, but it has found unprecedented acclaim and fandom in Pakistan, where it is broadcast in the country’s national language (Urdu) by the state-owned Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV). By fall 2020, the show’s Urdu YouTube channel—called TRT Ertugrul by PTV—had received 10 million subscribers; the show also became a regular feature of the “top ten shows” watched on Netflix in Pakistan (Bhutto, 2020; The News, 2020).
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Islamist populist Prime Minister (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b), called the show a “gift” from Turkey that was a token of brotherly exchange between the two countries. He has highlighted the significance of the show for the “Muslim world” because it allows a break from the “Western” content and puts forth “our (the Muslim world’s)” perspectives (Haider, 2020). Khan feels that the medium of films should be used to teach the “aloof” and “West-inspired” younger generations about the Muslim world’s “glorious past,” “triumphs,” and “heroic figures,” so that the “western civilizational hegemony” is “broken” (Haider, 2020). As a counter to “third-hand culture,” Ertugrul Ghazi has gone beyond pop culture to seep into deep fissures with Pakistani society’s imagination and conception of Turkey (Banka, 2020).
The fictional multi-series drama is built around the character of Ertugrul, the father of Osman I (the founder of the Ottoman Empire) and follows Ertugrul’s adventures across Central Asia. The story is a genre of historical fiction that celebrates the “resurrection” of Muslim power in the region during the late 11th century. The series has achieved unprecedented viewership in Pakistan, where the citizens have always felt a close affinity or a sense of “brotherhood” towards Turkey.
Northern India and Pakistan have been heavily shaped by Turkic-Persian culture. Turkish cultural influences in the Indus region—present-day Pakistan—run deep. Five different dynasties hailing from the region of modern-day Turkey and Central Asia, cumulatively known as the Delhi Sultanate, ruled the Indus valley from 1000 to 1556 BC (Avari, 2016). The longstanding connection between the cultures is also visible in the Urdu language. The language was constructed by borrowed vocabulary from the dominant languages within India from the Medieval period (Shaban, 2015). Urdu’s foundational elements include not only Persian, Hindi, and Arabic influences but also Turkish, further proving the transfusion and integration of Turkic elements into the region’s culture (Shaban, 2015).
In contemporary history, the Muslims of South Asia were very deeply involved in efforts to sustain the Ottoman Empire as it reached its twilight during and post-World War I. The Muslims of United India held the Ottoman ruler as the caliph of the Muslim World, and the Ottomans wielded immense religious-cultural power in the region. Thousands of Muslims protested, petitioned, and even enlisted in the British army during WWI with the hopes of negotiating a secure fate for the Ottoman Empire. However, the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) brought an end to these ambitions (Niemeijer, 1972).
During the 20th century, the modern-day nation-states of Turkey and Pakistan maintained cordial ties with one another. To show it supports Turkey—even on the most controversial issues—Pakistan is one of a handful of countries that do not recognize the legitimacy of the Armenian state and deny the Armenian Genocide (Korybko, 2020). Both countries have had numerous high-level state official visits from the other. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, and in particular post-2010, relations between the two countries have only intensified through bilateral trade, military exchanges, diplomatic support, and cultural integration supported by shows such as Ertugrul (Khetran, 2016; Singh & Hickman, 2013; Mushtaq, 2004).
The large audience for the show, in a country already sympathetic to Turkey, makes it a highly useful devise for transmitting the religious populism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political party the Justice and Development Party (AKP). The show is a prime example of the AKP’s soft power, allowing the party to successfully transmit its narrative of “Islamist civilisationalism” (Yilmaz, 2021), rooted in glorification of the Turkic ethnicity and position as the guardians of the Sunni Muslim world, the show blurs the “distinctions between entertainment and official (state-sanctioned) history” (Smith, 2020; Subramanian, 2020; Carney, 2018; Karataş, 2016).
The drama’s highly politicized themes of Ottomanism are a manifestation of Turkey’s desire to expand its cultural borders. The show depicts Turks as the protagonists dealing with contemporary political issues, “settling” accounts with their enemies as they steadfastly practise the faith of Islam (Sunni Islam) (Bhutto, 2020; Emre-Çetin, 2014). These broadcasted ideals facilitate the construction of a transnational populist civilizational cultural identity, where nationalism is surpassed (Brubaker, 2017). This has resonated with the Pakistani version of Islamist populism (Yilmaz & Saleem, 2021). Khan’s ownership of Ertugrul Ghazi as “our” culture exemplifies this notion.
The hallmark of populism is a dichotomous society, home of two homogeneous and antagonistic groups—“the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite” (Mudde, 2004). The show plays on this dichotomy, allowing Pakistani viewers to feel part of the Muslim ummah—a group that has been victimized by the whims and control of the “Western world”; throughout the show, Ertugrul is busy unmasking the nefarious plans of Crusaders, pagans, and internal traitors. The ummah is only salvaged from the brink of misery and oppression due to their strong Islamist ideals that are imbodied in a jihad of nafs (the inner self) and sword (enemies of Islam, both internal and external).
Erdogan and his party have hooked the willing Pakistani audience, a population suffering a perpetual ontological crisis (Bhutto, 2020 & Shaikh, 2020). The vertical and horizontal divides (Taguieff, 1995) within Pakistan are also cemented through the show’s themes. The vertical dimension of Islamic populism divides the “ummah” versus the “others,” such as Western countries, Jews, Indians, Armenians, etc. While the horizontal dimension marks the ummah as the “true people”due to their celestial superiority (Islamism) against the “evil” or “godless” others. Civilizational populism is intertwined with faith within the drama series. Superseding plain nationalism, civilizationism—especially driven by populist actors—is a highly effective emotional instrument of division and can be used to galvanize popular support in the international arena.
Turkey has used its transnational civilizationism to not only expand its relations with Pakistan but also muster support during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. While Pakistan didn’t officially declare its military involvement in the conflict, troops supported the Turkey-backed army in Azerbaijan. The Pakistani government issued sympathetic statements of support for its Azerbaijani “brothers” (Korybko, 2020). Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Pakistan share a transnational relationship that makes them the ummah against the “infidels.”
On the domestic level, Ertugrul Ghazi has made Pakistani and Turkish cultures synonymous. This penetration of civilizational populism is cross-cutting. For now, markets are flooded with fan merchandise, including odd items such Halima Sultan hairpins and Ertugrul themed papads (a snack), with the show’s Turkish cast endorsing brands across Pakistan’s cities. However, there are clear signs of a cultural convergence that are beyond the show and have more permanent features. The long-term cultural ties feature not only telecasting more Islamized Turkish shows such as Yunus Emre but also jointly produced television shows—for example, Lala Turki (Rehman, 2021; Siddique, 2020). This show, a sequel to the show Kurulus: Osman, has been dubbed in Urdu by a YouTube channel and is being consumed with great zeal (The News, 2020). Retail brands are not just limiting themselves to the cast of Ertugrul Ghazi; rather, they are using slogans such as “uniting cultures” and “Muslim heritage” to sell their merchandise in a market where Turkishness is the new fad (Saleem, 2020).
A chowk (market area) has always been named the “Istanbul chowk,” but now its connotation has changed for the citizens of Pakistan. The name of Istanbul reminds them of the Hagia Sophia, that was just “reconquered” by the AKP government, when it was re-converted to a mosque (Yilmaz, 2020). Istanbul chowk now represents the land of the “true” and “fierce” Muslims, the land and progenies of Ertugrul Ghazi (the pious warrior Turk) who took on the world to defend his tribe and religion. The drama series has played a key role in solidifying transnational Islamist populism promulgated by the Erdogan regime. The show’s civilizationalism is now part of Pakistan’s collective narrative, identity, and psyche.
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Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). Creating the Desired Citizens: State, Islam and Ideology in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
 The show is based on the life of the 13th century Sufi mystic. It emphasizes the universal components and yardsticks of Muslimhood.
 Abdur Rahman Peshawari (a South Asian Muslim) had gathered funds and men to aid the flailing Ottoman Empire. Lala Peshawari, as he was known at the time, then set off on a ship; upon reaching Turkey, he fought two battles as part of the Ottoman army. He was killed in a battle and thus is revered as a “Ghazi.” The show will be based off this journey to the Ottoman Empire and his sacrifices for the caliphate.
Dr. Eviane Leidig’s presentation situates the rise and success of the far right in India through the lens of Hindu nationalism. It provides a historical overview of the ideology and types of organisations within this far right landscape, focusing in particular on the global aspects of what is commonly portrayed to be an isolated local phenomenon. This talk then turns to the contemporary dynamics of the Indian far right through the ascent of Narendra Modi, widely viewed to be a populist, charismatic leader who will usher in India’s revival and golden age. The presentation sheds light on the far right as both global and transnationally connected through a case study of India, while also proposing new ways of conceptualising far right movements in postcolonial, Global South contexts.
Viktor Orbán has built an extraordinarily centralized strongman regime, which can be described as “Führer Democracy.” Nowadays, Paul Lendvai argues, even the term “Führer Democracy” is no longer valid for Hungary, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. Soon, all that will be left is “Führer.”
Interview by Alparslan Akkus
In 1989, a 26-year-old law student addressed a protest in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. In his speech, the young Viktor Orbán called for an end to the communist dictatorship, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, and the holding of free elections. Later on, Orbán attended Oxford on a scholarship funded by George Soros, and after turning back to Hungary, he founded the political party FIDESZ or the Alliance of Young Democrats. He was hailed as the future of a new Hungary.
Today, Orbán is Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union. He obsessively attacks George Soros as an enemy of the people and considers China and Turkey as role models. In our interview with Paul Lendvai— a Hungarian-born Austrian journalist who has written extensively on Central and Eastern Europe for more than 60 years—we discussed how Orbán turned into one of the most successful populist autocrats of our times.
Lendvai’s latest book Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (2018, Hurst and Princeton University Press), has been published in English, German, Hungarian, Slovene, and Polish (and later this year in Croatian). It portrays Hungary as an authoritarian system under the rule of Orbán. Exploring the deterioration of the country’s rule of law, the end of the separation of powers, and mass clientelism, Lendvai succeeds in tracing Hungary’s rapid slide toward authoritarianism in his excellent book.
The following excerpts from our interview with Paul Lendvai have been lightly edited for brevity and length.
The term “populist” carries negative connotations in current political culture. However, this may not sound valid for a ruthless authoritarian leader who is often referred to as the “Viktator.” Do you think being defined as a “populist” just serves to shadow Viktor Orbán’s more negative features?
Every politician can be called populist, but basically the question is whether it’s claiming to represent people without really paying attention to the issues and does everything to get or remain in power. There is no question that, in this sense, Orbán is a populist. In the early 1990s, he changed his political line because he realized that he could not get elected with his earlier ideals. He left the center-left position and moved then to center-right, then more and more right, and that is how he seized power in 1998. Then, he lost power in 2002, and following that, he showed his ability as a politician by getting re-elected after eight years in 2010. He is often described as right conservative in the international media. But actually, he is a right-wing populist nationalist. Regardless of the adjectives, his only ideology is to use every means to remain in power.
Do you think Orbán inherited much of his ruthlessness and vengefulness from his father, who is a product of “goulash communism” under Janos Kadar? And if we can speak of a sort of Kadarism creating a populist leader like Orbán, what should we expect for the future generations raised under Orbánism?
As a matter of fact, Orbán was a very rebellious person, and it is something of a personal contradiction that someone who was such a rebel could turn into a kind of authoritarian strongman in politics. He rebelled at school and in the army. And he also rebelled against his father, who was a typical product of Kadarism. His father, Gyözö Orbán, was not only a party member, but he was also allowed to go to Libya as an expert. He is now 81 and has become extremely rich. Orbán has luxurious private residences—one is a little bit like Putin’s palace, although not that huge—but it’s all under the name of his father and his son-in-law. His two brothers are also in business.
But turning back to your question, in terms of education and upbringing, Orbán’s father was very ruthless, beating Viktor up even at the age of 16. Perhaps we need a psychological study to fully understand how he became the person he is today.
Very Skillful Politician and A Very Cynical Person
As you note in your book, today, the country’s president, the speaker of parliament, and the author of Hungary’s 2012 constitution all happen to be Orbán’s friends from Bibo College days—indeed, from the very start of FIDESZ, the Alliance of Young Democrats that Orbán and his friends set up in 1988. How do you emphasize the characteristics of this political brotherhood?
It is something exceedingly rare to see this kind of fraternity in the top leadership of a European country. They were a group of young people who were very committed to their ideals. They started their movement in 1988, and, in effect, the critical party positions have been retained by these 20–25 people or their relatives. It is not only the speaker of the parliament or the president but also many other positions. For instance, the chief justice is the wife of a former European MP who wrote the new constitution. She has now become a member of the Supreme Court for ten years. Following his second electoral victory in 2014, Orbán wanted full power over his party, his government, and the country. Therefore, he broke with his close collaborator, Lajos Simicska, the man who had built up the entire business empire of FIDESZ.
Another feature of Orbán is that he gets rid of people who can be potentially dangerous but never kicks them totally out. For instance, the present president [János Áder] was allegedly planning a plot against Orbán in 2006. He was then “exiled” to Brussels when he was elected as a European MP. When the FIDESZ government had the chance to nominate the president in 2010, he was passed over. Only later did Orbán call him back, and he was given a second chance. In 2017, he was re-elected for another five-year term as president. So, Orbán is very clever in the way he deals with potential adversaries. He has complete control over this tightly knit group, making him the most powerful politician in the European Union (EU).
To what extent Orbán’s “plebeian” roots played a role in transforming once liberal, anti-clerical, and anti-nationalist FIDESZ into an illiberal, clerical, and nationalist–populist party? And how do you assess FIDESZ’s policies toward minorities, especially the Roma people, its antisemitism, particularly against Soros, and its Islamophobia?
Orbán is a very skillful politician and basically a very cynical person. Take the Roma issue as an example. In 2011, when Hungary took over the rotating chairmanship of the EU for six months, Hungary promised to do many things for the Roma people (officially numbering 300,000 in Hungary; in reality, probably over 700,000). In practice, they did nothing. They just appointed a figurehead under their control; he was a profoundly corrupt figure. So, it was very cleverly handled without really doing anything essential.
We can see a similar move by Orbán with respect to the 100,000 strong Jewish community. As to antisemitism, no one has ever heard Orbán utter an anti-Jewish statement or remark in public. The point is not whether he personally is antisemitic or not. What really matters is what his politics are. He rewrote Hungarian history in an entirely new constitution, which the youngsters learn at school from the very beginning. It’s all about whitewashing Hungarian history in contrast to Germany or, to some extent Austria for the last 20 years.
Orbán is also deft at splitting the Jewish community or splitting the political opposition. Orbán is on good terms with a Jewish Hasidic Rabbi, who represents perhaps five or eight percent of the Jewish community in Hungary but has many wealthy supporters in the US. And he has excellent relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. So, if anyone attacks Hungary about antisemitism, then this Rabbi objects to that.
On the other hand, Orbán conducted an antisemitic campaign against the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros, who had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Eastern Europe and Hungary. Still, no one can attack Orbán as an antisemitic; Netanyahu and his Hassidic friends would reject these claims.
Controlling Media and Judiciary Is the First Step Toward Authoritarianism
Drawing necessary lessons from his defeat eight years earlier, Orbán made two bold moves after his triumphant re-election in 2010. First, he took away most of the Constitutional Court’s power, and second, he took over the public and most of the private media. Which one do you see more critical-controlling the judiciary or the media? And do you think that controlling major checks on power is a first step on the way to authoritarianism?
I think they’re both extremely important. The judiciary was the basic steppingstone since they can approve everything [a government does] in contrast to Poland. For instance, the Hungarian centralization of power has always been seen as above board because the Constitutional Court approved most of the measures. FIDESZ started by appointing new judges and bringing the court gradually under their control. It took a certain amount of time, but there is no question that the Constitutional Court of Hungary is no longer a balancing to the executive.
As for the media, the move against the free press and the setting up of his own media, by chance, coincided with Hungary taking over the rotating chairmanship of the EU in 2011. Already after a year in office, it was quite clear internationally that Hungary’s public television and radio had come under government control and the other media outlets were under pressure. In the last years, the media has been subject to near-total pressure by the government. Some 80 percent of the news today is supplied either by government media outlets or by media companies controlled by oligarchs who are very close to Orbán or FIDESZ personally.
Both of these checks are especially important in a democracy and are connected. After all, an independent judiciary is a guarantee of the freedom of the press, and the free press is the guarantee of an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, both of them are under government control in Hungary today. Now the entire justice system will be totally taken over. And, of course, controlling these sectors is the first step toward authoritarianism.
Thinking of Orbán’s building a fence on the border with Serbia to keep out refugees and representing himself as the last protector of Europe, how do you assess the relationship between FIDESZ and the EU? Hard- or soft-Eurosceptic or Europhobic? Could you detail how FIDESZ has turned its anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies into an advantage in its relations with the EU?
These are two different but interconnected questions. Number one is the refugee issue, which was used by Orbán to consolidate his power and was unfortunately met with a high degree of approval by the Hungarian public. As a result of the hate campaigns by the government-controlled media, building a fence on the border and the entire anti-refugee policy was approved. But the situation has also changed in Germany and other EU countries.
And the other point of your question is about the EU’s approach toward Hungary. Ever since 2011, Hungary has been a target in numerous resolutions. But, FIDESZ remained a member of the European People’s Party, the EPP, for almost a decade. It was only in March this year that Orbán has recalled his 11 MPs from the EPP.
But it is a different matter regarding Hungary’s membership as a state in the EU. Once you are a member of the EU, it is tough to discipline a country defying the European principles of human rights and equality. Thus, over the next five or seven years, Hungary is in line to receive a minimum of €18 billion in transfers from the EU budget, plus €7 billion from the COVID-19 reconstruction fund.
Orbán Built Up A Kleptocracy For His Friends And His Family
How do you think corruption and kleptocracy paved the way for Orbán’s Hungary to emerge as a mafia state?
There is a significant difference between other countries and Hungary. For instance, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was elected prime minister four times. But he had become very rich before he seized the top position. In the case of Hungary, Orbán was a politician who first occupied the top political position and only afterward built up a kleptocracy for his friends and his family. There is the famous case of Lörinc Mészáros, a gas fitter in a small village. Mészáros went to the same elementary school as Orbán. And they met again in this small village of 1,800 people, and he became a close friend of Orbán. Then he became mayor of this little town and then the chairman of the local soccer club. He was running a small firm on the edge of bankruptcy. Today, he is the second richest man in Hungary, with assets of €1 billion across 200 different companies. This man has been accused in parliament by the opposition of being a crony of Prime Minister Orbán. Orbán’s spokesman says that the prime minister has nothing to do with business affairs.
Officially Orbán’s assets are tiny—half of a small flat with his wife in Budapest. Actually, it all works differently. For instance, one of his daughters is married to a young entrepreneur. Suddenly, this man, at the age of 32, became the 33rdrichest person in Hungary. So, this is all done in a very clever way. The people don’t get worked up by abstract overall figures. Several studies on the mafia state in Hungary conclude that were there a real change of government system through free elections and the imposition of a functioning system of rule of law, the group of people at the top would end up behind bars.
Orbán’s cabinet contains quite a few women. Yet he is on record saying he considers women to be insufficiently tough or cut out for politics. How do you see the relationship between populism and gender issues?
Until 2018, there was no woman in his cabinet at all. Proportionately, Hungary has the least number of women MPs in Europe. For instance, there are more women even in the Albanian parliament than in Hungary. In 2018, Orbán appointed two attractive young women; one as Minister of Justice and one as Minister for Women’s Affairs. They speak very good English. So, they can sell the government policies much better than their predecessors. But it doesn’t change the fact that the country has very strict anti-lesbian and anti-homosexual laws, prohibiting same-sex marriages or same-sex couples adopting or fostering children, etc. It is a much more restrictive and conservative society in this sense compared to Western Europe, and gender issues so far have not triggered massive protests.
As a journalist who spent several decades reporting on Central Europe for the Die Presse and the Financial Times, do you think Orbán would export his regime to Visegrad Four (V4)?
Yes, definitely. He uses this Visegrad Four group for this purpose. The four countries—Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—emerged in 1990 mainly as a symbolic group. It became only in 2015 under Orbán’s leadership a kind of protest alliance against the influx of refugees. The turning point was the election of the right-wing PiS [Law and Justice Party] in Poland in 2015. There still exists a so-called Hungary–Poland axis for the moment. But there is one major difference between Hungary and Poland in terms of their relations with Russia. Despite the close collaboration between Budapest and Warsaw, one must not forget that the Poles are very suspicious of Russia and vehemently opposed to the Russian interference in the Ukraine. Whereas Orbán has met Putin at least nine times bilaterally in the last eleven years, and they have excellent relations. The network of corruption also connects the two regimes in Hungary and Russia.
And a newcomer as an Orbán ally is Slovenia, the most developed country in Central Europe, which was the first to join the Eurozone and NATO. It has been run for a year now by Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who in 1990 was a courageous anti-communist but has now become an extremely right-wing and corrupt politician, and above all, a very close friend of Orbán.
Biden Administration Knows What Is Going On In Hungary
The Hungarian leader seeks to be a European figure. Orbán was the first European leader to congratulate Donald Trump after his election victory in 2016, and the US didn’t raise any objection to Orbán during the Trump era. The honeymoon is now over because the new administration has a totally different policy toward Hungary. The new Secretary of State [Anthony Blinken] has close ties with Hungary; his mother is Hungarian, his father served as the US ambassador to Hungary between 1994 and 1998. So, this administration knows what is going on in Hungary.
You settle on the term “Führer Democracy” to emphasize the extraordinary centralization of power in Orbán’s hands. Can you please clarify how we should understand the term “Führer Democracy”?
The term “Führer Democracy” was not invented by me but by the moderate Hungarian political scientist Andras Körösenyi. And, it’s a very apt term. It means he is a führer and has a very strong position that cannot be overthrown by peaceful means like elections. As the great Austro-British political scientist Karl Popper said, democracy is based on the principle that bad rulers can be gotten rid of without bloodshed, without violence, by majority vote. But it is no longer possible in Hungary due to the change of the election system, gerrymandering, and the power positions the Orbán regime has built up.
As a matter of fact, even if there were a change of government in 2022, it doesn’t necessarily mean the system will change immediately. Every key position is in the hands of Orbán loyalists. So, the “Führer Democracy” is basically a strongman regime. It is, however, different from China, which is a führer regime but not a democracy. And, unfortunately, nowadays, this “Führer Democracy” term is no longer valid for Hungary either, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. So, in the end, only “führer” will remain. For the moment, the term seems to stick because there is the pretense of a democracy.
Orban Might Resort to Strong-arm Methods
The last chapter of your book is entitled “The End of the Regime Cannot Be Foreseen.” With Orbán as the dominant central power against the two major opposition parties—the post-Communists and the far-right party, Jobbik, which seem unable to unite against the government—how do you predict the future of Hungary?
No regime lasts forever, but you have to take into account several things in addition to the basis of the system like the army, the secret police, the prosecutor’s office, the judiciary, the media, the Constitutional Court, the election system, and so on. In addition to this, Orbán is only 58 years old. I raised eyebrows in Hungary very recently when I said in an interview for US media that he could lead the country for 20 more years. I mean, if you look at Joe Biden, for instance, he is 78 years old.
But you can’t predict anything. Everything is possible in politics. for instance, A combination of economic and social crises could arise. Orbán has no real advisers. Like every strongman, he is also intoxicated by power. If there were to emerge a real strong opposition threatening his power in the elections, then Orbán would take off his gloves and become a naked strongman. We are not yet there, but in the last year or so, state control has been tightened in the cultural and educational fields. Traveling abroad is free, but the state of emergency resulting from the epidemic helps him consolidate the power and tighten his grip. We don’t know what the results will be of the epidemic and the economic downturn. There will be unpredictable consequences. And the EU, despite everything, might tighten the rules. In that sense, everything is possible.
But on the present assumptions, I am rather pessimistic that anything major, dramatic will happen in the foreseeable future. The lack of a real united opposition allows him, for the moment, to do whatever he likes. Actually, Orbán is a very clever political operator. Thus, he pre-empted the right extremist party, Jobbik, through his strict refugee policy, by demagogy, and by helping the most impoverished working families through public works, by cheating, and by corrupting Jobbik MPs as he did with the socialist party.
The big question is whether the opposition parties can ever combine forces. If all the opposition parties were to join forces, they could theoretically win the elections. I don’t exclude the possibility that the opposition could threaten Orbán’s power in future elections. He might then resort to strong-arm methods. For the moment, however, the opinion polls don’t show a dramatic change.
Who Is Paul Lendvai?
Paul Lendvai was born in 1929 in Budapest to Jewish parents. He worked as a journalist but was arrested and jailed in 1953 and banned from the media until the Hungarian uprising. In 1957, he sought political asylum in Austria. He was the Vienna correspondent for The Financial Times for 20 years, covering Eastern Europe. He subsequently worked as editor-in-chief of the Austrian state television, again covering Eastern Europe, and director of Radio Austria International, the shortwave broadcasting service. Lendvai is the author of 18 books published in 10 languages.
Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City, calls for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead.
In an exclusive interview with ECPS Prof. John Pratt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand argued that in Western democracies populist leaders who gain power usually have short political lives. Prof. Pratt underlined that the reason for this was populist leaders were quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. He added that the best example was former US President Donald Trump but stressed that the situation in non-Western societies was different. Because democratic institutions were not as strong as in the US, the populist leaders were staying in power for long periods of time.
This commentary considers problems of privilege in climate anxiety and grief, asking which humans have left the deepest marks in planetary history, in the sense of the Anthropocene or “human age,” and who will suffer most as a result.
By Heidi Hart
If far-right populism favors only certain people, in the sense of “Herrenvolk democracy” or populism for the white and preferably wealthy, does the climate-active left risk exclusionary thinking as well? When discussing the Anthropocene, an often contested but still useful term for the human age on earth, which humans’ traces in the geologic record hold most weight? Who has done the most to add untenable amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, and who will suffer most as a result? What about thinking beyond the human, to grieve endangered and already lost species? And whose voices are heard most loudly, asking these questions?
The realities of climate collapse can feel overwhelming, even for those not yet directly affected. I recently came up against a blind spot in my own work, curating a climate grief project involving mostly white women, when I read a thoughtful essay on the “whiteness of climate anxiety.” Sarah Jaquette Ray (2021) asks an even more pressing question than in my list above: “is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get ‘back to normal,’ to the comforts of their privilege?” She notes that ecoanxiety (a term the American Psychological Association defines as “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017) can lead to “eugenic thinking” (Wilson, 2018) and other explicitly racist aspects of ecofascism.
This sounds like a dramatic leap, especially for well-meaning environmentalists who may have delighted in Covid-era news of quieting oceans, goats meandering down Welsh streets, or dolphins swimming in Venice canals, however, false many of those reports (Daly, 2020) and who now bemoan the return of carbon-emitting, human-driven machines to the roads, seas, and skies. This seems like an innocent and even virtuous outlook. But when I hear casual comments about “the planet telling us to go away,” I now hear a dangerous implication there, too, one that I have felt myself in fantasies of green growth overtaking highways and the windows of suburban homes. If humans are a part of nature, too, we need to repair and adapt without simply imagining our own demise – or worse, that of those who lack the resources to make art about their fear and grief.
Anxiety about impending floods and wildfires is easier to bear when you can afford to move away. The pang of having to give up transatlantic flights, red meat, or the Instagram excesses of fast fashion is hardly the pain of losing one’s home with nowhere to go, or of having to keep working in dangerous conditions while others enjoy remote work, in a pandemic that is also tied to climate crisis through habitat loss. From this perspective, even grief for lost species, performed in contemplative, virtual art experiences such as Parallel Effect’s Vigil for the Smooth Handfish (2020) begins to feel like something of a luxury. So does the pleasure of watching dystopian films and TV series, designed by corporate media that “gauge the sociopolitical moment and hope to capture audiences who are now sensitized to dangers without taking things so far as to alienate audiences or the conservatives” (Kaplan, 2016: 12).
When confronted with the problem of art as luxury, I have to step back and remember the motivation for my own curatorial project. During a fall 2020 workshop at the Sixty-Eight Art Institute in Copenhagen, I was faced with the choice between holding onto hope for a return to planetary “normalcy” and accepting that climate collapse is already happening. Even the conceptual move of acceptance led to an embodied reaction (panic, heaviness, confusion about where to turn my attention) and a need for help in the process of grief. I recalled the practice of music thanatology, or improvising harp music in response to a dying human body, and I wondered what would happen if that practice were extended to the collective grief for the world as we humans know it.
Six months later, the project is developing into an international constellation of public events, audiovisual art, and “extinction theatre.” The goal is not to wallow in despair (another critique of “collapsology”) but to face loss – not only of endangered species but also of our own innocence and environmentally costly comforts – in order to move forward into new ideas for the future. As Roy Scranton (2015) puts it, in his influential book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “as biological and cultural diversity is threatened across the world by capitalist monoculture and mass extinction, we must build arks: not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom” (109). Our Climate Thanatology project is an ark of sorts, a holding place for a moment of realization: we are losing the planet we know, and everyone will be affected, as all have been by the pandemic.
Humans and other species are inextricably linked in the “biocultural phenomenon” of extinction (Rose et al., 2017: 5). But because not all will be harmed in the same way, the situation calls for change, too, in individual choices and in institutional power structures. But how to move toward change, a change based on climate justice, not only for endangered plants and animals but for the humans suffering as well? Part of our project is to learn from Shoshone tribal leader Darren Parry (interviewed here last month) to better understand collective grief from the perspective of a descendant of massacre survivors in the American West. Learning how generational grief and restoration can occur, not only in families but also in the land itself, can help us better imagine the long-term process of coming to terms with a damaged planet, and our complicity in that.
We are also questioning “who counts as a witness” (Nixon, 2011: 16) in places struck by climate trauma. Because most of our work takes place in Scandinavia, we are well aware of the uncomfortably hot summers that are quickly becoming a “new normal” (Steinthorsdottir, 2019), but we have not arrived here after fleeing war, fire, drought, or flood. Seeing our arts constellation as a tool and not as an end in itself is helpful. As we prepare for public programs in Copenhagen, learning from refugee communities will be a part of our project, with awareness that they have their own criticality and imaginative work to contribute.
One of our events is a Lost Species Walk in Assistens Kirkegård, the historic welfare cemetery in a part of the city now chafing at “ghetto” status (Achiume, 2020). Participating in a parallel walk through the Refugee Voices Tours project will help us to see the city as an ecosystem that complicates Copenhagen’s “greenest city” reputation and that includes grief over lost homelands. We do not want to be “extractive” as many public programs are, in borrowing from other cultures for their own use, however inclusive they proport to be (Costanza-Chock, 2020: 89). We want to learn what we are missing.
Our collective is also learning from other climate grief projects as they do their own reckonings with privilege. For example, the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project recently hosted a video presentation on their process of understanding terms like “extinction” … “in terms of violence [and] its use in white and Euro-centric discourses to invisibilize, justify and even promote colonial acts” (Mitchell, 2020). As I work to develop a curatorial methodology, I am also learning from museum workers who critique nationalist and exclusionary practices in order to “drop the usual contrast between a supposedly sealed ‘inside’ and a critical ‘outside’” in exhibition spaces (Bayer et al., 2021: 24).
If the Anthropocene has become a “loaded term for the end to the dream/nightmare of a hyper-separated nature” (Rose et al., 2017: 5), this demise is also an opportunity. Naming a geologic age after ourselves risks human hubris, certainly, but it also allows for critical distance. When that space opens up, it is no surprise if grief enters. To see consumer and corporate excesses and their costs to others (human or not) can be painful. I recently came across these lines in a new book on waste published in Denmark (Frantzen, 2021), quoting the poet Inger Christensen (translation mine):
Now we turn on the light. Somewhere we use up
long-concentrated plankton. Humans
consuming a million summers a day.
Clear seeing, however difficult, can lead to clarity in action, too. We can’t get those “million summers” back, but we can grieve the loss and imagine a more responsible future that puts care before consumption and community, for humans and other species, before post-human dreams.
Bayer, Natalie; Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski and Sternfeld, Nora. (2021). Curating as Anti-Racist Practice. Espoo, Finland and Vienna: Aalto ARTS Books/University of Applied Arts Vienna.
Costanza-Chock, Sasha. (2020). Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Frantzen, Mikkel Krause. (2021). Klodens Fald. Copenhagen: Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology Publications.
Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rose, Deborah; van Dooren, Thom and Chrulew, Matthew. (2017). Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.
Professor John Pratt: “I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously. But, I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.”
Interview by Selcuk Gultasli
In an exclusive interview with ECPS Prof. John Pratt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand argued that in Western democracies populist leaders who gain power usually have short political lives. Prof. Pratt underlined that the reason for this was populist leaders were quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. He added that the best example was former US President Donald Trump but stressed that the situation in non-Western societies was different. Because democratic institutions were not as strong as in the US, the populist leaders were staying in power for long periods of time.
Despite the rise of populism and populist leaders worldwide, Prof. Pratt sounded optimistic about the future of Western democracies. Stressing that democracies have largely held firm, he argued that populist leaders were ‘ignorant clowns.’ ‘I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists, often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns,’ said Pratt.
The following are the excerpts from the interview:
Thank you very much Professor Pratt for the interview, my first question is, how do you define penal populism and how popular is it in different countries, and what lies behind it?
Well, let’s take that one step at a time and, first, I think I would define penal populism by first defining what populism is:what it means to me. It refers to the moods and sentiments and voices of distinct and significant sections of the public that feel that they’ve been ignored by governments. They feel there are more favored and less deserving groups. They’ve been left behind or disenfranchised in some way by government policy. These significant sections of the public does speak out against the machinery of government which they judge of being complicit in conspiracies against the worthy members of society that they see themselves as being.
And if you take that on to penal populism, then that refers to the way in which criminals and prisoners are thought to be favored at the expense of crime victims, in particular, and the law abiding public in general. It feeds on expressions of anger, disenchantment and disillusionment with what it sees as the insidious workings of the criminal justice establishment. That is to say senior officials, ministers of Justice and corrections department judges, academics, members of the police and parole boards. It holds these members of the establishment responsible for a much too liberal criminal justice policy which has put ordinary people at risk of crime.
And so, remind me again the second question.
Populist Politics Is a Different Phenomenon From Penal Populism
How popular is it in different countries. And what lies behind it?
Well, I think it’s been particularly popular or virulent in the Anglo American world. Not so much in the other European countries, although they haven’t been free from it, but certainly I think it’s been most strongly experienced in the Anglo American world. It is no coincidence that it’s been in those countries that the conditions necessary for penal populism have been strongest and its effects are being seen with the dramatic rises of imprisonment in most of the Anglo American countries.
What lies behind it, well, I think it emerges out of the neoliberal restructuring that began to take place in these societies during the early 1980s and onwards which produced significant benefits for many in terms of access to wealth and freedom to choose how they spend the money through lower taxes and so on, but which, at the same time left as I’ve said already, a lot of people behind. A lot of people didn’t share the benefits and they only experienced anxiety and uncertainty as the world around them seem to be changing very rapidly due to this restructuring and they struggled to find a legitimate place for themselves in it. How did they then turn their attention to crime and worry about crime in an era when crime itself has been rapidly declining? Well part of that restructuring has involved deregulation of the mass media and privatization of the media.
Up to the mid 1980s in most countries, the TV was terrestrial and consisted of access to just a few channels. With deregulation, with technological development, it’s opened up to a massive 24/7 television network, a lot of those channels are news programs competing with each other. What’s the best way to attract an audience and buy advertising, because they don’t receive funding from the state? Well it’s concentrating on crime and it’s the same to do with the way in which the newspapers have become much more tabloid entity feeding on sensational stories rather than the kind of authoritative statements of government policy that used to find in the broadsheet press.
Social media takes public discourse further away again from control by government and allows all manner of opinions to be expressed, but mostly to do with crime and fear of crime, and you know that’s a very strong theme of talkback radio. So that combination of factors swirling around together with neoliberal restructuring let loose in conjunction with growing distrust of central government and in career politicians and what they can achieve: all these lead to this phenomenon that I’ve referred to as “penal populism.”
Right and what gave birth to penal populism, you already answered this question. Does each populist government has penal populism?
Well, I don’t think it does. Because I think our penal populism, for the most part, as I said, it’s been concentrated primarily in the developed world in the Anglo American society, but now you are getting the rise of populist politics right across Western society. That’s a different phenomenon from penal populism and, in some ways, it uses the same mechanisms that made penal populism more powerful relying on common sense, anecdotes, and downright lies.
If you look at the Scandinavian countries, the Nordic countries, you find right across quite strong populist parties. But, the emphasis is not so much on crime, it’s on fear of immigrants and what they might do to those societies. Populist parties have become very powerful in that region by wanting to keep those Nordic countries as they are with their very strong welfare states, a strongly protective state, for what they see as authentic citizens of those countries. That doesn’t include the wave of immigrants that are headed towards that region over the last 10 years or so, both legal and illegal immigrants.
Populist Politicians Are Quickly Shown Up to be Fraudulent and Full of Empty Rhetoric
After the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 Turkish President has imprisoned tens of thousands of people with flimsy evidence and sacked hundreds of thousands, without any meaningful objection mechanism, how long can a leader use penal populism, to consolidate his power?
It’s a difficult question to answer, and I wish I could give you a definitive answer to that. I think if you look outside of Turkey, you see, in the Western democracies, politicians who try to use populism to gain political power tend to have quite short political lives. Because, they are quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. One of the best examples of that is Donald Trump in the US. Fortunately for American citizens and the rest of the world, the democratic processes were held up against all the efforts he made to undermine them. So there you have very strong tradition of democracy and it takes a much more astute, more intelligent and more clever politician than Trump to undermine it. In Turkey, I think, it is rather different because you haven’t got such a strong tradition of democracy. Your democratic institutions of government are not so firmly embedded and it allows the current president to disregard what we in the West would see as absolutely central elements of the rule of law.
How long, he will last in in power, I can’t give you a prediction. In populism, I think, wherever it takes root usually has a finite life. It may be shorter in some societies, longer in the others.
Professor, why does penal populism decreases when populism increases?
Again, I’m looking primarily at the Anglo American world where those countries that most strongly experienced penal populism and what I’ve argued in some of the work I published is that penal populism was used by neo liberal governments to essentially maintain the status quo, and that is to say, they didn’t think de-structuring programs that neo liberal governments were pursuing despite all the inequalities and divisions that it created.
Having penal populism, as part of the program of government performed a very useful function, because it told the general public that: Look your enemies are criminals and law breakers or people who are putting you at risk. We are prepared to use really extraordinary measures. So look how much we’re taking care of you against those who pose the greatest risk to your well being. So it was a way of maintaining social cohesion and allowing the status quo of neo liberal governments to be pursued. Now, it decreases when populist politics become stronger. Because there comes a point when penal populism wasn’t able to fulfill that function, it wasn’t able to maintain the status quo that neo liberal politicians had hoped for.
And I think there are two reasons for that. First of all, was the 2008 global financial crisis which increased social disadvantage and inequalities and allowed a minority to become even richer, so that those inequalities became more and more glaringly obvious and thereafter as well, it was followed by the high levels of immigration, particularly from the Middle East to the West or South to the North, East to the West. And those who had already been left behind in the Anglo American world, seem to feel threatened even more by immigration. Not only did it seem to be endangering the jobs or their prospects of getting a job, but it seemed to be an endangering on all left to cling to, like national identity.
Because immigrants were bringing different traditions, different cultural values with them into these societies. So,populist politics which are using and exaggerating many of the tactics associated with penal populism was no longer interested in maintaining the status quo. Its appeal to its supporters like Trump supporters, for example, was that you know we’re going to change things, we’re going to have a revolution. We’re going to make America great again by turning the clock back to some sort of dream time or the 1950s when America was ruled principally by white men. With the Brexit campaign in Britain, we want to stop all this collusion with foreign people in Europe, because Britain can make it on its own; sort of replaying themes from Second World War and the days of empire and all the rest of it.
Populist politics in those societies have arisen out of the failure of penal populism to maintian the function that was expected of it. That is, the failure of penal populism, to maintain social cohesion and, which would then have allowed the neo liberal program of government to continue. After the 2008 crash and growth of immigration, populist politics says no, we don’t want to maintain the status quo, we want to dramatically change. And, the way to do that is to trust on strongmen leaders who know best, who know better than the experts, who know better than career politicians and civil servants and bureaucrats people like Trump and (Boris) Johnson in Britain.
In your works, you have quoted Francis Fukuyama. You know he’s famous for the argument that human race has reached at the end of history, and we would witness the universalization of western liberal democracy. However,liberalism seems to lose ground to populism. What went wrong?
Well, I am sure that Fukuyama himself with that knowledge was being wildly over optimistic when making that comment. It was certainly not the end of history, it was the start of a new chapter in history characterized not by the tradition of social democratic post-war governments. “The end of history” that he was talking about i.e. the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain already coincided with the growth of neo liberal program of governments. Economic and social restructuring that occurred witnessed a lot of people became winners and enjoyed things they could never previously have dreamed of, but many people who got left behind felt embittered and trapped.
Trapped in what we call in New Zealand: Modern societies’ bargain basement. They had no way out of it for the $2 stores. Outside the $2 stores, they could see all the winners or in these casino economies that’s been created, all the winners gliding up the escalator of success, but they were stuck in the bargain basement.
That was what went wrong with Fukuyama’s prediction. It wasn’t the end of history at all and the continuance of Social Democratic policy came to an end. It was the beginning of neoliberal governments which caused great social divisions.I’ve come home to roost in all kinds of ways in the last few years in western societies.
Things Successful Against Covid–19 Are Antithetical to Populism
Professor, you argue that Covid-19 pandemic has turned into an antidote against populism. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?
It is remarkable in some ways, given all the damage that Covid-19 has done to individuals and societies. But at the same time, I do believe it does act as an antidote to populism and that’s because all the things that have been successful against Covid-19 are at the same time antithetical to populism.
I’ve argued in papers, I’ve written, that the most successful ways to control the virus have been ways which simultaneously contradict and undermine populism. For example, it’s been the way in which science and expertise have come to the fore again and being able to convince governments that they know best.
It’s also been strong central government, but accountable government, who are able to tell the truth to the citizens. Whether it’s bad news or good news they’re conveying to them. They’re not afraid of the truth, unlike populist politicians like Trump or Johnson who feel that they have to tell good news all the time that’s the only way in which they can keep the public on their side. But in New Zealand, we’ve had a very strong central government, which has been absolutely straight with the population, the whole time. So, two things that are anethema to populism: science and expertise. They know more about the virus and how to cure and control it, than the ‘the strongman’ leaders who say ‘I’m a magician. I know best.’ No, you do not know best. People don’t want their snake oil cures. They’d much rather believe in or hear what science and expertise have to offer, and then you got strong democratically accountable government which is able to win the trust of the public.
At the same time, people have been very anxious to find out about the virus and what risks it carries. Many of course turn to social media and listen to all the conspiracy theories i.e. that it is unleashed deliberately by China or it’s a plot by the democrats to undermine Trump and so on. But, most people have turned back to state broadcasting organizations and the BBC, for example, has been enormously popular because it tells people the truth. People trust it much more than social media. Something very similar has happened in New Zealand which has had great success in controlling the virus.
For example, Radio New Zealand’s audience increased dramatically with its news broadcast so people turning back to the state broadcasting because that’s where the truth is. At the same time, I think, despite all the damage that Covid-19 has done to societies it’s actually helped to develop social cohesion, at least in some societies.
One of the reasons why New Zealand has been so successful is because of the very strong social cohesion that exists in this society due to willingness to support the government in the fight to control the virus.
In societies where there has been success against the virus we see very strong compliance with things like wearing a mask, social distancing and so on. And, at the same time, the social cohesion has meant that people are not so distressful or antagonistic towards strangers.
In many ways the homelessness problem is being tackled by governments in many societies, because they recognize if you’re going to control the virus then it’s not a question of dividing societies, you have to unite them and all have to be helped and cured and protected from the virus. If you leave some people out then it’s likely they’re going to spread the virus. Social cohesion have also lead to all kinds of volunteer groups helping the poor and disadvantaged to a much greater extent than before. Then the virus itself is being defeated, but at the same time, this is a different kind of politics and a different kind of social action.
But I get some other examples from this part of the world as well. In our election last October (2020), which was a triumph for the Labour Party and Prime Minister Jacinda Arden because of the successful way she has managed to control the virus and keep New Zealanders safe through these strategies that I’ve just told you about. Meanwhile, the right-wing populist party in this country, New Zealand First, disappeared from Parliament.
There have been similar types of state elections in Australia as well, another success story against the virus where you get the triumph of mainstream political parties and right-wing populist parties have been largely defeated.
Penal Populism Is Essentially Used to Undermine Human Rights
Professor it has been witnessed in many countries, for example in France, that many new criminal statutes have been accepted for their impact on public opinion rather than the actual effectiveness at reducing crime? How do populistsinstrumentalize legislation for the sake of penal populist objectives?
Well, I think, when they do that, it galvanizes public opinion against particular groups in society who may or may not be dangerous, usually, in a not very big way. In so doing, the strategy of penal populism is essentially used to undermine human rights.
Instead of protecting the rights of individuals, caught up in the criminal justice process, penal populism argues that it’s the rights of the public to protection that government should take care of. So, they try to redefine what constitutes human rights and there’s usually as well, a very large bill to pay for these kinds of policies. Because they nearly always involve increases in imprisonment with very damaging economic and social effects and by starting these campaigns, they intensify division between particular sections of the society.
What kind of risks and threats emerge through the politicization of criminal justice because of populist punitive ‘law and order’ tactics in an attempt to gain support from the public?
I think, as I’ve said, they relate to the erosion of human rights, which have been a feature of Western society, particularly in that post-war era from 1945 through to the early 1980s. One of the ways in which Western societies distinguished themselves from other social formations was to say “well look, we have the rule of law here.”
If individuals get into difficulties or in trouble here, then we protect their human rights, and that is what makes us world – at least that is what we used to say. Now, it strikes me that one of the dangers penal populism present is the way in which it erodes that understanding of human rights and tries to substitute a new understanding based around public protection by using measures that involve variously retrospective legislation or hybrid legislation or changing rules of evidence to make convictions easy.
These kinds of strategies that fundamentally undermine the rule of law and allow for initiatives that were previously thought to have no place in democratic world. I’ll give you an example. We have public protection orders in New Zealand which mean that if sex offenders coming to the end of a finite prison term are still judged to be a serious risk to the public. The Court can order that they must be detained in prison at the end of this sentence indefinitely. They don’t call it ‘prison’, because this is the West and we don’t lock people up arbitrarily when they haven’t committed a crime. It’s called ‘civil detention’, but essentially they stay in prison.
Once Populists Come to Power, It is Shown to be Nothing More Than Ignorant Malevolent Clowns
Penal populism gives way to harsher mechanisms for social control to address the public’s demand to be tough on crime. How do you assess ties between penal populism and authoritarianism?
Well, I think those who are associated with it, and promote it as strategies, usually say that “We’re doing this, to protect democracy. We are the defenders of democracy against these criminals, law breakers, terrorists who pose such a risk to us.” And, at the same time, they’re very coy with the language they use. I just gave you the example, the way in which post-prison detention in New Zealand isn’t actually called ‘prison,’ it’s called ‘civil detention’ to give it some sort of legitimacy. Whereas in authoritarianism, I would guess, they just don’t bother to pretend they are defending democracy at all. Democracy, in the eyes of authoritarian leaders would seem to be a dangerous exercise all together and it’s much better to have strongman leaders like Trump and do away with democracy, all together. Because, people make the wrong choices, or the wrong people vote. They are more likely to try to involve the military to prop up the rule because they got no particular interest in pretending that they’re defending democracy. So, that is the distinction, I would make between them.
All right Professor, my last question: When one talks about penal populism, it is the name of the Philippines’s Duterte that first comes to mind. However, he is not only the one in the world, could you please make a short list of penal populists or law and order populists around the world?
I don’t know how good my geography is and I don’t have knowledge of all the world’s leaders. I mean my knowledge of the world is confined in the mainly to Western Europe and some of the Asian countries. Rather than giving you a list of leaders who have relied on penal populism, to maintain their power, I would give you governments or countries where you’ve had triumph of social democracy against populism and we’ve had that in New Zealand you’ve had that in a number of Western countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia.
I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously, but I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.
Trump is the best example of that. But, we’ve had other examples. I think, in Italy, the collapse of the populist government is another example of the way in which leaders who rise to power on a populist wave of support quickly get found out and come undone. In Austria, something similar happened. So, I think there should be hope around the world. I think Covid-19, despite everything it’s done and the damages caused, one of its biggest casualties will prove to be populism.
All right, Professor. Thank you so much for your time.
Who is John Pratt?
John Pratt is a Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His fields of research are comparative penology and the history and sociology of punishment. He has published in eleven languages. He is currently undertaking research on the relationship between risk, populism and criminal justice.
The pastoral populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings.
By Lydia Khalil*
In 2015, Pope Francis delivered his Easter message in the midst of the global effort to reclaim territory from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a proxy war in the region and the height of the refugee crisis. In his address in St Peters Square, he prayed for “all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence” and that the “international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding.” His prayers were not answered in 2015 as the international community did turn away from the suffering in Syria. Yet, his commitment to the region did not wane; he made multiple pastoral visits to the Middle East since and a pastoral visit to Iraq, becoming the first pope to do so. The papal visit to Iraq in the midst of pandemic and ongoing instability was done at great risk but it was heralded as a successful and significant emissarial mission to bear witness to the suffering and advocate for the rights and safety of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority and advance interreligious cooperation.
Amid the footage of joyful celebration welcoming Pope Francis to Iraq, emerged a playful Twitter post by historian Vefa Erginbas. He posted a picture of the Pontiff’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani showing the two leaders dressed in respective black and white robes sitting opposite each other in Sistani’s sparse home and posed the question – “What are they talking about? Wrong answers only…” Among the many quips was one that stood out –“How are neither of us chess pieces?” If global politics is, like its often described, a chess game, then the playful remark on their contrasting robes, was an appropriate metaphor for the role that Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani – the black and white bishops – have played in reorienting politics to address the needs of masses and promote a new kind of populism – a pastoral populism.
The meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis is likely to be the only direct encounter between the two. Sayed Sistani is 90 years old and does not leave his home. The Pope is in his 80s and unlikely to return to Iraq. But even this one meeting was a consequential move, in that it revealed that they are working concurrently to promote a version of populism rooted in the morality of their respective faith traditions that focuses on the needs of the masses. There are 1.2 billion Catholics and Shia make up almost 200 million of the Muslim faithful. Through their moral and spiritual leadership, they have signalled to their followers and exhorted politicians in government, not only to lead, but to care and administer. As the statement issued by Sistani’s office on the meeting signalled, the encounter between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis was to “urge the concerned parties – especially those with great powers – to prioritize reason and wisdom and not to promote their self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity.”
Pope Francis’ Relationship to Populism
To fully appreciate the significance of their meeting and their complimentary notions of pastoral populism, it helps to understand the background that each of them brought to the board. When the Jesuit Pope took the name Francis, he went in a conspicuously different direction than his predecessor. He aligned himself with the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, which emphasises mercy for the sinner, administering to the poor, protection of nature and eschewing power and political status. Vatican commentator and author, John L Allen, observed that in taking his name, the Pope wedded the institutional church with the charismatic, populist tradition of St Francis of Assisi whereas previously they had been distinct spheres of the Catholic tradition. Like his namesake, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the world to ‘hear the cry of the poor’ and the suffering; to put the common good and human dignity before disposable consumerist and utilitarian tendencies that dominate our post-capitalist systems. He has placed pastoral care above theological professionalism and has stood down criticism for doing so from the conservative, right flank of the Catholic church while rebuilding the Catholic church in his image.
In harkening St Francis and through his latest encyclical – Fratelli Tutti – which he completed a few months before his Iraq sojourn and published on the saint’s feast day – Pope Francis uses that opportunity to outline an alternative pastoral populism which focuses on fraternity and pastoral style of leadership. Dr. Anna Rowlands, a professor of religion at Durham University, and one of the panellists who presented the Fratelli Tutti encyclical, makes a compelling point about the Pope’s relationship to populism and how he provides a convincing rebuttal to the forces of violent nationalism and xenophobia that often accompanies it. “He gets populism. He gets what is the drive toward it and he rescues the notion of what it means to be ‘a people’ from the hands of the [far right] populists…” The Pope has done this by identifying the insecurity and fear that drives support for far-right populists while offering an alternative framework with which to address that insecurity and fear.
Sayed Sistani’s Expansive and Pastoral Type of Populism
Sayed Sistani has symbolised and advanced a similarly expansive and pastoral type of populism within Shiism and within Middle East. The cleric, who has rented the same, sparse home in old Najaf, has also voiced the needs of the poor and marginalised and has consistently provided a counter narrative to sectarianism by encouraging temperance and unity amid Iraq’s ongoing tumultuous political transition.
In his analysis of Sistani’s role in Iraq’s early transition to democracy, Babak Rahimi, a specialist in medieval and modern Islamic history, writes that within his Shiite Quietist tradition, Sistani could have remained completely aloof from politics while still retaining his credibility and authority. Instead, as Rahimi argues, during a time of “perceived moral decadence, political corruption, great injustice, or foreign occupation, he can become more active in political affairs by engaging in activities such as consultation, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred norms in public life.” Sistani did this time and again over the past two decades. He insisted that Iraq’s post Baathist constitution be ratified by popular vote. He urged Iraqis to vote in elections despite a deep disenchantment with the political class. He called on Iraqis to combat the Islamic State through popular militias when the state security forces fell apart in the face of the onslaught. And he rebuked many of those forces when they became Iranian proxies and perpetrated sectarian violence.
Though Sistani’s profile in the Western world has increased after the US invasion of Iraq, the lay person could be forgiven for not knowing the true extent of his religious standing and influence. Because the fraught history and ongoing political tensions between the United States and Iran, Shi’ism in the Western imagination is most associated with the Iranian theocracy and their militant enforcers the IRGC and other Iranian backed militias throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and indeed Iraq.
Yet Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most revered and influential leaders in the Muslim world and he and his allies have a theological position on the role of religion in government that stands in contrast to the Iranian ayatollahs who established velayet-e faqih – rule by Islamic jurists – after the fall of the Shah of Iran. Sistani, who claims lineage from Prophet Muhammad and is a link in a long chain of clerics dating back to the Safavid dynasty, has arguably more religious credentials and moral authority than Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Even though we hear more about Iranian regional manoeuvres and their influence over the Shia Crescent, Sistani’s followers are by no means limited to Iraq. They span millions over the Shia world as his foundation sponsors seminaries and social programs in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As important as he is to Iraq, his influence expands much wider; millions of Shia Muslims around the world turn to Sistani for daily guidance on how to live their lives.
Sistani Offers an Alternative Vision of the Role of Religion
The 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath may have eliminated a geostrategic counterweight to Iran through the removal of Saddam Hussein and provided the opportunity for Iranian influence in Iraq. However, it had the opposite effect when it came to religious influence within Shia Islam between Qom and Najaf. Under Saddam’s rule, Sistani remained under house arrest and his influence stifled. The removal of Saddam Hussein meant that the Najafi cleric had more space to promote his own interpretation of the role of religion in governance counter to the Iran’s vision that both religious and political authority be enacted in the same body. Sistani offers a viable alternative vision of the role of religion to governance among the Shia faithful.
In contrast to the Iranian clerics, Sistani’s authority does not come from his position as an authoritarian jurist. Rather, as leader of the Hawza in Najaf, Sistani represents the ‘quietest’ school of Shia politics and acts instead as a moral authority that does not necessarily seek to endow himself with political power. Even though Sistani and the Hawza rejects the Iranian model of velayet-e faqih and eschews a role in politics, has had to, reluctantly perhaps, fashion some role for himself during Iraq’s tumultuous political transition. Iraqi authorities remain beholden to him and his influence and he has used this influence to robustly defend the interests of the Shia Muslim community by holding political authorities to account and has done so in contrast to Iranian-backed Iraqi parties by pushing back against, instead of inflaming, sectarian tendencies.
Like Pope Francis’ unanswered prayers for international intervention to stem the human suffering in Syria, on sectarianism, Sistani has not been entirely successful. Despite his calls for unity after the 2006 al-Askari Shrine bombing, his exhortation could not contain the civil war that followed. However, he remains a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s political transition and healing from civil war. Sayed Sistani has, repeatedly, served as the last bulwark, in Iraq’s descent into sectarianism and civil conflict. As Iraq has lurched from crisis to crisis, and corrupt government to inept government, Sistani has played an important and unifying role. And he has done so with an eye of protecting the interests of the masses – particularly his Shia faithful – but while also linking the Shia struggle with a comprehensive vision for human dignity and solidarity across sects. This is not only the result of Sistani as an individual religious leader. It is also the result of the longstanding stance of the Hawza institutionally.
In 2019, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was engulfed in a second wave of popular protests that were met with the predictable government crackdowns. Sistani came down on the side of the popular protesters which ultimately led to the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s resignation. He rebuked, once again, the political class that has maintained its power and privilege through corruption and their exploitation of the informal sectarian based quota system and their ties to Iran. Sistani’s removed intervention via his Friday sermon siding with the popular protests for dignity and economic opportunity signalled a similar approach to Pope Francis’ populism one that, as he said, “does not give an unfair advantage to current political parties, but gives a real opportunity to change the forces that have ruled the country.”
Their Pastoral Populism Focuses on the Long Game
In their separate yet similar ways, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani have articulated a pastoral populism grounded in their respective religious traditions. Their coming together is all the more consequential because both faith leaders provide models for how religion can be a force in politics and do so in contrast to, not only far right politicians in the West and corrupt authoritarian political elites in the Middle East, but the more reactionary strains within their own religious communities that have traditionally served the powerful. They have offered alternative visions to, respectively, the Catholic Right aligned with conservative far-right politics and Iranian political theocracy based on velayat-e faqih or government via Islamic jurists, both of which are more concerned with politicising and policing social norms or wielding political influence to advance their narrow interests. Their version of populism serves as a rebuttal to the recent variety of far-right populism founded on xenophobia, anti-elitism, crisis thinking and ‘bad manners’ that bombarded us from the likes of populist leaders Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Duterte. They are not merely ‘moderate’ leaders that preach temperance and tolerance but rather a different, more substantial vision.
Crucially, they do not seek for religion to supplant politics, but rather insist on holding governments to account in pursuit of the common good – a different approach to other modern religious leaders who either attempt to displace the state or co-opt it in service of the religious hierarchies’ narrow interests. Sayed Sistani and Pope Francis both have an intuitive understanding that engaging with politics but not holding political power is the key to their effective advocacy for the masses. Pope Francis, in his second encyclical Laudito Si, subtitled ‘the care for the common good,’ clearly stated that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”
Similarly – Sistani views himself as a guide only. His insistence to be remove from the state is all the more significant given the power vacuum that arose after the deposition of Saddam Hussein which Sistani could been filled or becoming an overbearing influence who only advances Shia interests. Instead, Sistani continually insisted that Iraq’s momentous issues be worked through the transitional and political process and pleaded the case for the rule of law, anti-sectarianism and broader Iraqi national identity.
Through their lived history, their similar view of the role religion should play in politics and their complementary vision of pastoral populism, they have played a role true to their metaphorical chess piece – the bishop. A ‘good bishop’ in chess – is one who has freedom of movement and is thus better able to protect its pawns and can often help win the game. The bishop is also used most effectively in conjunction with other pieces when playing the long game. Their pastoral populism focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings.
(*) LYDIA KHALIL is a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and manages the Lowy Institute’s core partnership with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology. She is also currently a research associate at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute and a fellow with the Centre for Resilient & Inclusive Societies. She has professional background in politics, international relations and security has focused on US national security policy, Middle East politics, counterterrorism and intelligence. She was international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where she analysed political and security trends in the Middle East. She also served as a political advisor for the US Department of Defence in Iraq. In Australia, Lydia held fellowships with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Macquarie University, specialising in intelligence, national security and cyber security.