Iranian woman standing in middle of Iranian protests for equal rights for women. Burning headscarves in protest against the government. Illustration: Digital Asset Art.

Mahsa Amini: Women’s bodily autonomy in the context of Islamism and far-right populism

Both Islamism and far-right populism claim power and control over women’s bodies by imposing rules around the hijab. In Iran, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear a hijab despite personal preferences. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces. This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose.

By Hafza Girdap

Debates around women’s bodies, particularly those of Muslim women, have grown globally in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death under the custody of Iran’s morality police after being detained for ‘improper’ hijab-wearing. For a better understanding of control over women’s bodily autonomy, the concepts of political Islam and far-right populism need to be examined.

The term political Islam, otherwise known as Islamism, ontologically implies resistance against secular and Western systems of governing. Criticizing secular ideologies, political Islam aims to establish a political system based on Islamic doctrines in addition to creating a unified religious identity for the whole of society. In the Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, Shahram Akbarzadeh argues that “much like other -isms, Islamism imposes a normative framework on society in a blatant attempt to make society fit into its mould” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 1). Being a reactionary movement, which aims to shape society and the state through the agency of religion, political Islam manifests itself as challenging both previous governments and the West. Akbarzadeh cites Mohammad Ayyoob to explain the incentives behind this challenge: “Political Islam gained increasing support as ‘governing elites failed to deliver on their promises of economic progress, political participation, and personal dignity to expectant populations emerging from colonial bondage,” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 2).

Besides denouncing their regime, Islamists also stand up to the West through the medium of “anti-Americanism”. They claim that all their political opponents are failures because they “deviate” from the divine path. The concerning facet in this approach is the blurry definition of this so-called divine path. In other words, Islamism or political Islam acts as an empty signifier that can be filled with subjective interpretations of Islam. To be more precise, an Islamist leader who claims to be representing divine “sovereignty” can legitimize his practices through a religious discourse that cannot be denied by society since it may appear as resisting divinity.

Akbarzadeh touches on this hypocritical aspect of political Islam; On one hand, actors who hold an Islamist position reject others’ interpretation of religious doctrine on the basis that it is not divine, but on the other hand, these same actors interpret Islam according to their personal interests, like gaining more power. In this case, political Islam deliberately serves to oppress discourse on economy, morality, and authority. According to Akbarzadeh (2012), “the combination of the exclusive claim on divine truth and the capture of political power” gives the authorities a legitimate right which can be hazardous for the society since this power “can easily manifest as acts of violence.”

While Akbarzadeh’s definition of Islamism identifies it with resistance, Esposito adopts the concept of “resurgence” while discussing political Islam. In this lens, it is the combination of “resentment over political and social injustices” and “issues of identity” which merges faith and politics in order to establish an “Islamic revival” (Esposito, 1997). This resistance approach, which strengthens itself with exasperation and revolt against both domestic and Western ideologies, helps governments pave the way for “enhancing their legitimacy and to mobilize popular support for programs and policies” (Esposito, 1997).

However, the state is not the sole actor to reap benefits from Islamism. Social movements and companies that affiliate themselves with Islamic identities also generate opportunities to establish new businesses, such as hospitals, banks, and schools, and work to accommodate their associates in these organizations. The most pertinent point Esposito raises in his article questions “whose Islam” is this and “what Islam” is. The answer concerns the idea of power, which we can find in the hazardous mixture proposed by Akbarzadeh. As such, the compulsory hijab in Iran implemented by the country’s Islamist regime and its enforcement through the support of society can be understood by the aforementioned definitions and discussions of political Islam.

On the other hand, the hijab ban, or alternatively the adverseness against wearing hijab in public places in some European countries such as France, can be seen as representing another disregard of women’s bodily autonomy. In this context, far-right populism and Islamophobia have had a significant role in shaping public discourses against the hijab. As a result, it is necessary to shed light on the seemingly discordant approach in the far-right discourse on the subject. By “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11), the far-right, for this issue, appears to abandon its traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude and move towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy focuses on presenting a liberal attitude and liberal optics by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality” (Girdap, 2022). The framing of the discussion surrounding the hijab in France and similar environments needs to be understood in the context outlined above. In addition to this, we must take into consideration the issues of racism and radicalization in Europe in terms of Islamophobia and gendered racism.

Crystal Fleming, in her book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, describes France “not only as a racialized social system but also as a racist society for at least three reasons. First, racial bias is embedded within the nation’s institutions… Second, racial categories and stereotypes are prevalent in everyday life…. Finally, present-day inequalities are related to historical racial categories and openly racist practices rooted in colonialism and slavery” (2017: 8-9). Far-right populist discourses frame Muslims as inferior and second-class citizens through a colonialist ideology entrenched in the country’s system and society. This structural frame impacts Muslim women to a greater extent as their religious identities are more visible and claims over gender equality are more easily conducted through the hijab debate.

In conclusion, reflected in Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and discourse around women’s bodily autonomy, political Islam (Islamism) on the one hand, far-right populism on the other both claim power and control over women’s bodies using hijab as a proxy. In Iran, through compulsory hijab, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear hijab despite personal preferences, no matter what. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces.  This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose. 


References

Akbarzadeh, Shahram. (2012). Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Esposito, John L. (1997). “Claiming the Center: Political Islam in Transition.” Harvard International Review, vol. 19, no. 2.

Fleming, Crystal M. (2017). Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

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

Hirschkind, Charles. (1997). “What Is Political Islam?” Middle East Report, no. 205.

Then-presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva walks among supporters on Augusta Street at São Paulo on the eve of the Brazillian election on October 1, 2022. Photo: Yuri Murakami.

Culture wars in a fragmented Brazil, a guide to understanding what happened in Brazilian election

First of November brought Lula’s reelection as President. He won but did not win. The results leave the country in the same polarization and without any chance of reconciliation. Brazil is a country without communicating vessels. If the social situation will not escalate into civil war and Lula da Silva takes office within the (minimum) regular functioning of institutions, Brazilian democracy will enter its most decisive chapter since the end of the dictatorship. However, the challenge is Herculean because what is at stake, from now on, is to save democracy from its most terrible ghosts.  

By João Ferreira Dias*

Francis Fukuyama (2018) discussed how resentment became the wood for the fireworks of populist radical right parties amid the rise of identity politics. While the left abandoned the material struggle for better work conditions, adopting the so-called woke post-material agenda, focusing on the specific feelings of oppression felt by the minorities groups, the right followed the same path, moving from a liberal market agenda – based on the demand for “less state” in the market – to a nativist agenda (Zúquete, 2018) based on the intersection of whiteness (race), nationalist, religious moral and the resentment of being left behind from rural areas and an urban working class that experienced a gradual loss of earnings. The combination of those elements was crucial for Brexit and Trump’s election (Mondon & Winter, 2019). 

So, the struggle between a globalist left and a nativist right frame what is called “culture wars.” The concept borrowed from the German dispute between Bismarck and the Catholic Church in the 19th century (kulturkampf) is related to a dispute about nonnegotiable conceptions embodied in cultural and moral spheres such as abortion, sexual rights, racism, and the place of religion in daily politics, educational and public affairs (Hunter, 1992). This has all to do with the Brazilian political situation and the last two presidential elections. 

Two Brazil and Country of the Future (That Never Came)

Stefan Zweig once called Brazil “the country of the future.” Alongside racial equality – there named racial democracy – that future never came. Brazil remains a promise, part of a fulfilled growth in the BRICS promise. This is not due to capitalism as a global exploitation system (Christian, 2019). Brazil is a country that does not know or trust each other, a country of deep contrasts, barely connected by the nationalism of Vargas’ authoritarian regime, the development impetus of President Kubitschek and the modern and integrative vision of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. 

Despite Cardoso’s efforts, Brazil remained a giant with clay feet, with a significant part of its population remaining in a fragile situation, like those described in Jorge Amado’s novels. The dispossessed that Collor de Mello tried to galvanize against the “marajás” (maharajas) returned through Lula da Silva, electing a president who linked the workers’ struggle to business guarantees and was caught up in the corruption plot, a reality endemic in Brazil. 

The zeitgeist, populism, was essential in 2018’s Brazilian elections (Reno, 2020; Tamaki & Fuks, 2020). Brazil elects a compulsorily retired military man, nostalgic for the military dictatorship, whose hero, Brilhante Ustra, was the greatest torturer of that period. The President’s name is Jair Messias (meaning Messiah) Bolsonaro, a federal deputy for Rio de Janeiro between 1991 and 2018, with no relevant political work, famous for sleeping during Senate debates. His discourse of hatred of Northeasterners – a collective figure that in the popular imagination represents laziness – blacks, homosexuals, the arts and culture, and the left, combined with a campaign of disinformation and fake news (Maranhão Filhos et. al., 2018). like never experienced, was essential for his election. Still, as a candidate and then as President, Bolsonaro divided the country like never before. Under the guise of the fight against corruption, which he managed to portray as an “invention” of Lula da Silva’s party, were wrapped up post-material issues that formed the culture warswhich determined not only his election but the election of Donald Trump, from which the Bolsonaro team (essentially commanded by the latter’s sons) drew inspiration. Thus, a Christian moral wave, especially evangelical, swept the country against abortion, “gender ideology,” and “cultural Marxism.” The struggle between a progressive, black activist, feminist, LGBT+ country and a country linked to white supremacy, the heritage of the colonels, historical racial privileges, and a conservative morality gained centrality (Stefanoni, 2018).

The Evangelical Factor 

Streets of favela Vidigal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 30, 2015. Photo: Donatas Dabravolskas.

Culture wars have been the core of Brazilian politics since 2018. To understand what is at stake, one needs to understand the role of religion in Brazilian society and the combination of evangelical spiritual combat (Da Silva, 2007) alongside white medium-class supremacy/privileges. 

The abolishment of slavery in Brazil in 1888 did not solve any structural problems in Brazilian society, remaining a place of coloniality (Quijano, 1997). The Constitution of 1824, in the advent of the republican era, was erected in an intellectual atmosphere of biological and cultural racism; disposing of that African heritage thus presents a danger to social development, contaminating from bottom to top. Therefore, taking advance of the scientific perspective of the time, the marginalization and persecution of African descendants and their cultures were established via the law. We can still see it in Law nº 6.001 of 1973 concerning the native status, typified as a minor that may be emancipated. The decades of 1930 and 1940 were intense in religious persecution against Afro-Brazilian religions, with the Catholic Church taking a position, defending a circumstance of spiritual combat against them, from 1950 to 1970 (Ferreira Dias, 2019). 

Meanwhile, in 1960, Canadian pastor Robert McAlister arrived in Rio de Janeiro and founded the New Life Church, the first neo-evangelical church in Brazil. His target was the low classes from the favelas. However, he realized that Afro-Brazilian religions were deeply disseminated among them. Contrary to the Catholic church, which defended the illusion of those religions and their “fake gods” and entities, McAlister adopted a different and effective strategy. While recognizing their power, he places the source of their strength in the Devil. Thus, their god (Orisha, Vodun, Inkice) and their entities are no longer a delusion of primitive thought but the manifestation of the Devil, evil forces that must be fought. 

From there to today, spiritual combat gained visibility and increased severely. In some locations in Brazil, the adherence to these neo-evangelical churches is 100 per cent. Pastors became powerful and wealthy via the theology of prosperity, which advocated that whatever is given to the church and the pastor will be doubled (Gabatz, 2013). They bought television channels and newspapers; they created a chain of power from local communities to the Parliament. The most preeminent of these Churches is the Universal of Bishop Edir Macedo. With time, they created an Altar Gladiators army devoted to fighting Afro-Brazilian religions and practitioners. Religious terrorism became part of daily life in Brazil, with the support of relevant politicians (Santos, 2012). 

Culture wars against the globalist left, classified as cultural Marxist, reached their apogee with Bolsonaro’s candidacy in 2018, with his evangelical agenda against minorities’ rights, universities, democracy, and the rule of law (Ferreira Dias, 2020). 

Lulas Reelection and What Comes Next 

First of November brought Lula’s reelection as President. He won but did not win. The results leave the country in the same polarization and without any chance of reconciliation. It is a country without communicating vessels. The Senate remains strongly Bolsonarist. São Paulo elects, and Rio de Janeiro re-elects, governors of the same tendency, with Haddad, Lula’s potential successor losing in São Paulo territory and running out of political capital for the future. 

Despite Lula’s victory in court, the narrative of the president-bandit prevails among the white, evangelical, and middle-class electorate. Suspicions of corruption, militia formation and human rights violations in the Bolsonaro do not demobilize his highly-regimented electorate. Once again, Brazil is an adapted copy of the US. Even though Lula has the support of moderate evangelicals and much of the economic and business elite, a fact that makes any fantasy of Venezuelization of the country (which never occurred) impossible, the truth is that the cultural battle against the so-called “cultural Marxism” in favor of an evangelical hyper moral and class rights alienates the Bolsonarist electorate, which survives well without Bolsonaro, since he is an ancient historical and social product that has always been alive in Brazil. 

Predictably, the pro-Bolsonaro popular militia is taking the streets, claiming electoral fraud, and asking the army to take control of the country. Meanwhile, some of the world’s top leaders have rushed to recognize Lula’s victory, signaling that he is the desired interlocutor. The same happened with figures close to Bolsonaro, such as the governor of São Paulo. The transition is underway peacefully after Bolsonaro realized that he would not have desired civilian support nor from the military. The Head of the Civil House, Ciro Nogueira, the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes (great ideologue of neoliberalism in Bolsonaro’s government) and Geraldo Alckmin, Lula’s Vice President and man of the center-right, have started the transition process. Democratic institutions seem stable and secure. 

Nevertheless, Brazilian democracy will enter its most decisive chapter since the end of the dictatorship. Lula will need to (i) establish agreements that allow him to govern, which seems possible with the enlargement of his political platform, (ii) be impolite, (iii) purge the party of corruption, (iv) find mechanisms to combat poverty and violence, (v) restore the rights of minorities that have been suspended, without making this his cultural agenda, (vi) correct the social and state asymmetries in the best possible way, aiming at a continuous process of balance and approximation of the country, (vii) prepare the succession by encouraging the other parties to find democratic and qualified cadres that guarantee a healthy political alternation without a populist and cultural war approach. The challenge is Herculean because what is at stake, from now on, is to save democracy from its most terrible ghosts. 


 

(*) João Ferreira Dias is a researcher at the Centre for International Studies – ISCTE, Lisbon, in the Research Group Institutions, Governance and International Relations. He is conducting research on culture wars, politics of identity and fundamental rights. PhD in African Studies (2016). PhD candidate in International Studies (2021-). Columnist. https://linktr.ee/joaoferreiradias


 

References

Christian, Michelle. (2019). “A global critical race and racism framework: Racial entanglements and deep and malleable whiteness.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5.2: 169-185.

Da Silva, Vagner Gonçalves. (2007). “Neopentecostalismo e religiões afro-brasileiras: Significados do ataque aos símbolos da herança religiosa africana no Brasil contemporâneo.” Mana, 13: 207-236.

De Albuquerque Maranhão Filho, Eduardo Meinberg; Coelho, Fernanda Marina Feitosa & Dias, Tainah Biela. (2018). “Fake news acima de tudo, fake news acima de todos: Bolsonaro e o ‘kit gay’, ‘ideologia de gênero’ e fim da ‘família tradicional’.” Correlatio, 17.2: 65-90.

Ferreira Dias, João. (2020). “O Messias já chegou e livrará “as pessoas de bem” dos corruptos: messianismo político e legitimação popular, os casos Bolsonaro e André Ventura.” Polis, 2.2: 49-60.

Ferreira Dias, João. (2019). “’Chuta que é macumba’: o percurso histórico-legal da perseguição às religiões afro-brasileiras.” Sankofa. Revista de História da África e de Estudos da Diáspora Africana, 22: 39-62.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2018). Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

GABATZ, Celso. (2013). “Manifestações religiosas contemporâneas: os desafios e as implicações da teologia da prosperidade no Brasil.” Revista Semina,12.1: s.p. 

Hunter, James Davison. (1992). Culture wars: The struggle to control the family, art, education, law, and politics in America. Avalon Publishing.

Mondon, Aurelien & Winter, Aaron. (2019). “Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working class in the United Kingdom and the United States.” Identities, 26.5: 510-528. 

Quijano, Aníbal. (1997). “Coloniality of power in Latin America.” Anuario Mariateguiano, 9.9: 113-121. 

Renno, Lucio R. (2020). “The Bolsonaro voter: issue positions and vote choice in the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections.” Latin American Politics and Society, 62.4: 1-23.

Santos, Milene Cristina. (2012). O proselitismo religioso entre a liberdade de expressão e o discurso de ódio: a” guerra santa” do neopentecostalismo contra as religiões afro-brasileiras. MA Thesis. Universidade de Brasília. 

Stefanoni, Pablo. (2018). “Biblia, buey y bala… recargados: Jair Bolsonaro, la ola conservadora en Brasil y América Latina.” Nueva Sociedad, 278: 4-11.

Tamaki, Eduardo Ryo & Fuks, Mario (2020). “Populism in Brazil’s 2018 general elections: An analysis of Bolsonaro’s campaign speeches.” Lua Nova: Revista de Cultura e Política, 109: 103-127.

Zúquete, José Pedro. (2018). The identitarians: The movement against globalism and Islam in Europe. University of Notre Dame Press. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud party. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Civilizational populist Netanyahu’s election victory and rise of Religious Zionist Party in Israel

Netanyahu and Likud return to power as Israeli voters usher in perhaps the most right-wing government in the nation’s history. The government will be dominated by parties of the center-right and far-right including Likud, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Religious Zionist Party. Even if the new coalition government collapses within the next year or two, it would not cause a reversal of any of the long-term trends in Israeli politics. Rather, the further decline of the Israeli left and the continued rise of right-wing populism and religious nationalism seem all but inevitable as the population grows more religious over time.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

In one of the most consequential elections in Israel’s history, Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud return to power as Israeli voters usher in perhaps the most right-wing government in the nation’s history. 

While the previous government was made up of parties from across the political spectrum, the new government will be dominated by centre-right and far-right parties, including Likud, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Religious Zionist Party. The right-wing bloc led by right-wing civilizational populist Netanyahu (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022a) is expected to win 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament, with Likud winning more than 30 seats and Shas and United Torah Judaism together winning a further 20 seats (Parker & Rubin, 2022). The right-wing populist, ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party also had a particularly good election result. Indeed, if party leader Aryeh Dery was worried that it might lose voters to the Religious Zionist Party (RZP), he was entirely incorrect, as his party won at least 8 seats and got back into the governing coalition (Haaretz, 2022).

Much of the post-election media commentary has focused, perhaps surprisingly, not on the return of Netanyahu but on the rapid rise of the Religious Zionist Party, which emerged as the third largest party in the Knesset, winning as many as 15 seats. What, then, is the Religious Zionist Party? The Religious Zionist Party is a far-right, religious nationalist group created in 2021 when three parties, the Betzalel Smotrich-led National Union/Revival Party, the Itamar Ben-Gvir-led Jewish Power party, and the far smaller Noam party, “formally headed by Avi Maoz but whose real leader was Rabbi Zvi Tao,” merged to form a single party (Hermann, 2022). It must also be said that Netanyahu played an important role in creating the RZP. Desirous of new coalition partners, Netanyahu is said to have personally convinced Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to join forces and form a party capable of winning enough votes to receive representation in the Knesset (Hermann, 2022). Netanyahu’s plan paid off in the November 2022 Israeli elections when the RZP helped propel Netanyahu back into the Prime Minister’s office. 

Itamar Ben Gvir, speaking in election conference at Ale Zahav in Samaria/Isreal on September 9, 2019. Photo: Barak Shacked.

Some commentators have speculated that the RZP’s rise, while seemingly advantageous to Netanyahu, could pose long-term problems for both his government and Israel. RZP leaders – particularly Itamar Ben-Gvir, have a history of political extremism, which may cause alarm among Israel’s allies, including the United States. Equally, it is not yet known whether Netanyahu’s coalition can remain intact without Likud agreeing to some of RZP’s more extreme demands, some of which may prove unpopular with the broader Israeli public. For example, Bezalel Smotrich, a self-described ‘proud homophobe’, wholly represents these extremisms. Among other things, he co-founded an NGO which initiates legal action against Arab construction activities in the West Bank and Israel; told developers in Israel that they should not sell their property to non-Jews; suggested that Arab and Jewish women ought to be separated in different maternity facilities; and expressed regret that Ben Gurion did not expel the entire Arab population from Israel (Gilholy, 2022).

The other key RZP leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has “described Israeli-Arabs as enemies of both Jews and the Israeli state,” once belonged to the now banned violent extreme-right Kach Party, and has “advocated the expulsion of Arab-Israelis who ‘are not loyal’ to the state” (Gilholy, 2022). Additionally, his party supports the deportation of “Arab extremists” regardless of citizenship, including Party Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh and the Neturei Karta Jewish antizionist sect, and calls for the annexation of the West Bank by Israel (Gilholy, 2022). The RZP furthermore calls for greater government support for Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, including the “authorization of 70 West Bank outposts, which it calls ‘young communities’, either as new settlements or as neighborhoods of existing ones” (Gilholy, 2022). While Netanyahu is no stranger to controversy, even he might be concerned about the extremism of the RZP, a party Likud now relies upon to hold government. 

What, then, do these election results tell us about Israeli politics and society, and the direction they are heading? Perhaps the first key takeaway from the result is that it conforms to the long-term pattern of Israeli politics in which right-wing parties grow stronger over time, while the left has become progressively weaker. Much of the growth of right-wing power in Israel is due to the success of Likud, the largest right-wing party, and its growing domination of Israeli politics since 1977 when it defeated the ruling Labor Party for the first time (Porat & Filc, 2022). Since the 2000s, Likud has rarely been out of government, and Netanyahu has proven himself to be his generation’s most successful Israeli politician, transforming the Israeli political landscape and reducing the once powerful Israeli Left into a shadow of itself. Yet Likud is not the only right-wing party to have experienced great electoral successes at the expense of left-wing parties. The minority Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews of Israel, neglected by Labor and often living in economic hardship, have increasingly turned away from Labor and toward right-wing religious parties which are dedicated to increasing Sephardi and Mizrahi representation in Israeli politics and society, such as the right-wing populist Shas (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022b). 

The election results also indicate that right-wing populism remains a powerful force in Israel. Since its populist turn in the 1990s under the leadership of Netanyahu, Likud has used a populist-nationalist discourse through which Israeli society finds itself divided between ‘the people’ (understood as Jewish people who have faced two millennia or more of persecution and now have a homeland they must defend at all costs), ‘elites’ (left-wing parties, academics, activists, and journalists who oppose Likud’s right-wing populism and in doing so allegedly weaken Israel), and ‘dangerous others’ (especially Arab Muslims, whom Netanyahu portrays as intruders in the land of Israel) (Prota & Filc, 2020; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022c). 

Likud’s key coalition partner Shas is another example of the rise of right-wing populism in Israel. However, Shas divides Israeli society somewhat more narrowly than Likud, finding a divide between the corrupt secular ‘elites,’ ‘dangerous others’ in which they include LGBTQ+ Israelis, and the virtuous ‘people’ of Israel the party claims to represent. This final group is comprised of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, who are portrayed by Shas’ leaders as the authentic people of Israel, and as an “oppressed” people who – with Shas’ help – will one day restore Sephardic culture to “its former glory” (Shalev, 2019).

Another important lesson we might take away from the election result is recognizing the growing influence of religious parties in Israel. It is interesting to observe how, unlike Western Europe and North America, Israelis are growing more – not less – religious. This is reflected in “Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness,” which “points to a conflation of religion with the national vision” (Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020: 1395). Thus, in Netanyahu’s Israel, “religious language and symbols accentuate fears and shape demands for action, to protect the nation and its borders…consequently, more and more leaders, not only in the Likud, adopt religious tropes and symbols to demonstrate loyalty and garner support” (Porat & Filc, 2022: 74). According to Netanyahu, the secular parties of the left are “detached elites not committed to Jewish nationality and to the Jewish State” and should therefore be considered traitorous and illegitimate (Porat & Filc, 2022). 

Furthermore, the rise of religious populist and religious nationalist parties, including United Torah Judaism, The Jewish Home, Noam, Shas, and now the Religious Zionist Party, indicates a growing desire among many Israelis for a non-secular Israel in which Jewish belief and practice dominate while other religions are marginalized. Part of the reason for the rise of religious parties is the nation’s changing demographics. Once dominated by secular European Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom survived the horrors of the Holocaust, today’s Israel has an ever-increasing Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population which rarely votes for left-wing parties. By 2040, it is predicted that one in four Israelis will be Haredi, largely due to the exceptionally large number of children produced by the majority of Haredi Jewish families (Maltz, 2022). As the number of Haredi Jews increases, it is likely that the right-wing religious parties they typically support will increase their share of Knesset seats and become more significant political actors in Israel. 

Finally, the election results suggest that there will be no return to the ‘peace process,’ nor will there be a Palestinian state in the near future. This, perhaps, hardly bears writing. Indeed, the election results signal a crushing defeat for the Israeli Left and for Israelis who desire a secular state, peace with the Palestinians, and a viable Palestinian state. 

At the same time, this does not mean that the new government has a stable coalition. Rather, there is good reason to think that, should the more extreme RZP demands not be met by the Likud-led government, Ben-Gvir may quit the government, forcing Netanyahu to find another coalition partner or face fresh elections. Yet even if the new government were to collapse within the next year or two, it would not cause a reversal of any of the long-term trends in Israeli politics identified in this article. Rather, the further decline of the Israeli Left and the continued rise of right-wing populism and religious nationalism seem all but inevitable as the population grows more religious over time and increasingly hostile towards non-Jewish people living in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. 


 

References

Gilholy, Georgia L. (2022). “Who are Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and why are they so controversial?” The Jewish Chronicle. November 2, 2022. https://www.thejc.com/news/israel/who-are-itamar-ben-gvir-and-bezalel-smotrich-and-why-are-they-so-controversial-2IHXvSOfGUAzqJqqclk170 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Hermann, Tamar. (2022). “The Religions Zionist Sector at Bay.” Religions, 13, no. 2: 178. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13020178

Maltz, Judy. (2022). “Nearly One in Four Jews Will Be ultra-Orthodox by 2040, New Study Says.” Haaretz. May 3, 2002. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/2022-05-03/ty-article/.premium/nearly-one-in-four-jews-will-be-ultra-orthodox-by-2040-new-study-says/00000180-98a2-dab4-a187-9babda7e0000 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Rabinowitz, Aaron. (2022). “Shas relives days of glory: UTJ sticks with its base.” Haaretz. November 3, 2022. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/2022-11-03/ty-article/.premium/shas-relives-days-of-glory-utj-sticks-with-its-base/00000184-39fe-dfd0-a9a7-3dfeee910000 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Parker, Claire & Rubin, Shira. (2022). “Israeli results show a Netanyahu comeback powered by the far right.” The Washington Post. November 2, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/02/israel-election-results-netanyahu-coalition/ (accessed on November 3, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022a). “Civilizational Populism: Definition, Literature, Theory, and Practice.” Religions, 13, no. 11: 1026. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13111026

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

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

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

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

Shalev, Shivanne. (2019). “Israel’s Ultra-orthodox Parties Explained.” Israel Policy Forum. February 21, 2019. https://israelpolicyforum.org/2019/02/21/israels-ultra-orthodox-parties-explained/ (accessed on November 3, 2022).

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva participates in meetings with women during his pre-candidacy for the presidency of the Brazil in São Paulo on October 3, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

Lula is back! Third time lucky or will his return lead to the revival of Bolsonaro?

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro to win the 2022 Brazilian elections by a margin of just 0.8 percent. However, he has a huge task ahead of him and it is still unknown how he plans to go about confronting key challenges facing the country. What is certain is that to succeed he is required to recognise and respond to the conservative, nationalist and anti-elite narratives that still dominate public political debate in Brazil. 

By Nicole McLean*

On Sunday 30th October, former President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), defeated far-right incumbent President, Jair Bolsonaro, to win the 2022 Brazilian elections by a margin of just 0.8 percent. It was a tight race, with Lula one stride ahead receiving 50.9 percent of votes and Bolsonaro close behind with 49.1 percent. Despite the socialist’s victory, Lula’s third term in office will no doubt be his toughest. It will be extremely difficult to govern a country that is completely divided. 

Twelve years has passed since Lula last held the presidency. During this time, the country’s greatest corruption scandal came to light under his party, the Workers’ Party (PT), giving birth to a fierce wave of right-wing populism, nationalism, and ultra-conservatism. 

Lula’s strategy was to create a ‘frente ampla’ – a vast front of support. He managed to bring together previous rivals from all sides of politics to overcome Bolsonaro. In perhaps his most tactical move, Lula secured former Governor of São Paulo and former leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Geraldo Alckmin, as his Vice President. This shocked many because Alckmin was a strong critic of Lula and the PT during the investigations into the sprawling corruption allegations. Despite all the lengths that the opposition parties went to in order to topple the Far Right, Lula only managed to win by the tightest of margins. Bolsonarism is far from over. 

Bolsonarism Has Spread Across Brazil Despite Lula’s Victory

In the first round of the elections on 2nd October, Bolsonaro’s party, the Liberal Party (PL), elected 99 deputies from across Brazil. This is almost double the 52 deputies elected to his party in 2018 and can be attributed to the growth in nationalism, social conservatism and, particularly, Evangelicalism. 

The federal deputy to receive the most votes (over 1.4 million) in all of Brazil was the highly conservative and religious 26-year-old Nikolas Ferreira from the state of Minas Gerais. The most voted female federal deputy was conservative and nationalist Carla Zambelli, who was re-elected in São Paulo receiving 12 times more votes than she did in 2018. Both Ferreira and Zambelli were elected to the PL party and are fierce advocates of Bolsonaro, using their various social media accounts as media vehicles to disseminate pro-Bolsonaro propaganda (McLean, 2022). They received immense public support at the polls for their role as political propagandists promoting Bolsonaro, more so than for their own policy ideas. 

The state of São Paulo even elected a Carioca (person from Rio de Janeiro) as Governor, Tarcísio de Freitas who is a conservative neoliberal, over the progressive candidate, Fernando Haddad. Economic freedom and social conservatism are clearly valued more than place of origin in the state that is home to South America’s largest metropolis. To ensure the Far Right does not return to power, Lula needs to listen and respond to conservative views.   

Lula Must Address Concerns of Conservatives to Overcome Far Right

If Lula fails to address the concerns of conservatives, Bolsonaro could revive his political career in four years’ time.Bolsonaristas (supporters of Bolsonaro) are for the most part ultra-conservative and are primarily concerned with the family and traditional values. Lula needs to find ways to portray his party’s progressivism that do not alienate and marginalise conservatives. There must be space in the public sphere for multiple voices and opinions along the political spectrum that are debated in a constructive manner. Otherwise, segments of society risk experiencing social marginalisation, particularly when traditional values are no longer reflected in elite discourse (Gidron & Hall, 2019: 7). 

In 2018, Bolsonaro was elected on an anti-corruption and anti-elite agenda. The far-right President’s anti-elitism targeted the cultural establishment including the media, arts, and education institutions. His dissent was expressed through a discourse of us, “the good citizens,” versus them, “the corrupt elite,” and was populist in nature. The separation of society into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, where good rivals against evil, is a typical trait of populism (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017: 6). What Brazil urgently needs now is to unite as one, and not be divided into two separate camps, to overcome the severe polarisation that plagues society. 

Another feature of Bolsonarism is nationalism. Certain views of deforestation in the Amazon are a good representation of this. Silvia Nobre Waiãpi, an indigenous woman, ex-army officer and proud supporter of Bolsonaro, was elected federal deputy in the northern state of Amapá for the PL party. She believes that efforts to curb deforestation in the Amazon prevent inhabitants from cultivating and making money off their land. To Silvia, these efforts are North American ideals that are intended to keep people poor. She calls for freedom to make economic profit off the land. 

During the previous PT governments, between 2004 and 2012, deforestation declined in the Amazon and law enforcement was central to reducing illegal logging (Tacconi et al., 2019). These were efforts to half climate change and were supported by the Amazon Fund, to which foreign countries make performance-based payments to the Brazilian government for reducing deforestation. Under the Bolsonaro government, the idea of what the Amazon needed protecting from changed from deforestation to international interference. Addressing these nationalist views, focusing specifically on the people living in the Amazon as well as on property and land rights, should be front and centre of Lula’s mission to stop illegal deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.

Lula has a huge task ahead of him and it is still unknown how he plans to go about confronting these challenges. What is certain is that to succeed he is required to recognise and respond to the conservative, nationalist and anti-elite values of the Brazilian public. 


 

(*) Dr Nicole McLean holds a joint-PhD from The University of Melbourne (Faculty of Arts) and University of São Paulo (Faculty of Law). Her thesis analysed the major protest movements of the Brazilian New Right and their impact on the formation of different right-wing publics. As such, Dr McLean’s interdisciplinary study covered the fields of political science, anthropology, sociology, social media and law. McLean is the author of the book entitled Protest Movements as Media Vehicles of the Brazilian New Right which was published in 2022. 


 

References 

Gidron, N. & Hall, P. (2019). “Populism as a Problem of Social Integration.” Comparative Political Studies, 53 (7), 1027–1059. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414019879947

McLean, N. (2022). Protest Movements as Media Vehicles of the Brazilian New Right. Palgrave Studies in Populisms. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-4379-9  

Mudde, C. & Kaltwasser, C., R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 

Tacconi, L., Rodrigues, R. J., Maryudi, A. (2019). “Law enforcement and deforestation: Lessons for Indonesia from Brazil.” Forest Policy and Economics108 (101943), 1389–9341. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2019.05.029

Illegal deforestation to make land for agriculture and cattle pasture in Para, Brazil.

A pivotal election: Reversing Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental legacy?

The policies of far-right populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, who claimed that environmental protection “suffocates” the economy, have decimated large swaths of rainforest that serves as a key carbon sink and a haven for biodiversity. On Sunday, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won enough votes to defeat Bolsonaro. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said in a victory speech. He pledged to unite the country and restore the regulatory agencies needed to protect the rainforest and Indigenous lands. However, even if these efforts are successful, the Amazon rainforest’s return to health will take far longer. 

By Heidi Hart

Photographer Sebastião Salgado, known for his sweeping black-and-white images of Earth’s plains, mountains, ice sheets, and sites of environmental destruction, recently spoke out about the presidential election in Brazil. Citing far-right president Jair Bolsonaro’s “brutal” policies against the environment (and Brazil’s own people, with staggering numbers of Covid-19 deaths), Salgado noted that “[t]he government has massively destroyed the Amazon rainforest, without respecting indigenous communities and other minorities” (The Limited Times, 2022). Salgado himself, together with his wife Lelia, have been actively reforesting degraded land in Aimores in Brazil for the past 20 years. Restoring 2.7 million trees and 293 varieties of plant species in 555 acres as part of the Instituto Terra project, the couple and over 70 employees offer hope in a country where Bolsonaro’s policies have decimated large swaths of rainforest that serves as a key carbon sink and a haven for biodiversity. 

That hope became a larger reality on Sunday, as former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won enough votes to defeat Bolsonaro, who (as of this writing) has not yet conceded. “Let’s fight for zero deforestation,” Lula said in a victory speech. “Brazil is ready to resume its leading role in the fight against the climate crisis, protecting all our biomes, especially the Amazon forest,” (Lula, Twitter, 2022).

Brazil’s elected President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva and former President Bolsonaro participated in the debate over Brazil in São Paulo on October 16, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

In the close runoff election, police blockades in Lula-supporting northeastern parts of Brazil led to fears of voter suppression, but a tense Sunday yielded to jubilant celebrations in the streets. Despite a prison term for corruption (later annulled), Lula will return to office and has pledged to unite the country and restore the regulatory agencies needed to protect the rainforest and Indigenous lands. During his previous terms, Amazon deforestation fell by 43.7 percent (2003-2006) and 52.3 percent (2006-2010), while under Bolsonaro, the rate of deforestation increased by 72 percent in favor of “Amazon development serving as a key policy plank” (Freedman, 2022). 

Deforestation in Brazil is nothing new. In the western area of Rondônia, for example, the rate of clearing has been especially rapid: “4,200 square kilometers cleared by 1978; 30,000 by 1988; and 53,300 by 1998” and by 2003, “an estimated 67,764 square kilometers of rainforest—an area larger than the state of West Virginia” (NASA Earth Observatory, 2009). Sounding alarms about the large-scale efforts to push back the rainforest using legal and illegal roads, encroachment by small farmers, and eventually large cattle operations, Brazil’s National Policy on Climate Change founded in 2009 was an attempt to place checks on this rampant destruction. But policy and practice diverged: deforestation rose 215 percent in 2014-15, while official government reports at the Paris climate talks in 2015 placed that rate at only 16 percent (Redy, 2016: 4).  

Enter Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right populist leader who has claimed that environmental protection “suffocates” the economy. Even before he took office in January 2019, Brazil reneged on its offer to host the 25th United Nations Conference of the Parties on climate change in November 2018 (Viscidi and Graham, 2019). By 2020, resulting from changes to the Brazilian Forest Code in 2012 and further loosening of environmental enforcement after Bolsonaro’s rise to power, deforestation in the Amazon rose to the highest rate in a decade, to 182 percent above the climate target established by the National Policy on Climate Change in 2009 (Anderson, 2021: 144). 

In the first half of 2022, the rate of “slashing and burning to raze the jungle” rose 11 percent beyond the past year’s record to a record high of “4,000 square kilometers (1,540 square miles)” (Freitas, 2022). This rate of destruction not only depletes biodiversity and carbon-absorbing tree cover but also raises the risk of wildfires during the dry season, with respiratory threats as a result, and increases the spread of disease due to habitat loss, releasing of pathogens, and favorable conditions for mosquitoes (Kaminsky, 2020). 

In a still fiercely divided country, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to reverse the trend of deforestation, massive fires, and attacks on Indigenous communities, but during the election season he performed poorly (not surprisingly) in logging and palm oil regions such as Roraima (Cowie, Costa, and Prado, 2022). Brazil still faces economic crisis and related social stresses after its mismanaged Covid response, and as Bolsonaro’s party still rules Congress, its support of the cattle industry will make policy reversals difficult (Jones, 2022). How effective Lula’s presidency will be in restoring what has become, in some areas, a carbon source rather than a sink – a tipping point that has ripple effects in accelerating global heating (Knutson, 2021) – is still an open question. 

As climate policy advocate Christiana Figueres has noted, “We have brought our natural world to several perilous brinks from which it may not be able to recover on its own. It is like an elastic band that stretches and contracts normally but if stretched too far will snap” (Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, 2020: 72-73).

At this point in the inexorable global heating trajectory, adaptation, and mitigation, at least, are still possible. In his 2017 handbook for ameliorative climate strategies, Drawdown (referring to bringing carbon back to Earth, with more optimism for “reversing” global warming than sounds workable today), Paul Hawken describes several ways humans can help to restore some level of tropical forest health. These include “mosaic” restoration, which combines forest and agricultural land; releasing land from “non-forest use” to “let a young forest rise up on its own, following a course of natural regeneration and succession,” with protective strategies to mitigate fire risk; and the more aggressive approach of removing invasive plant species and planting native seedlings in their place (Hawken, 2017: 115-116). 

Though governmental policy is crucial to these practices, especially in fraught countries like Brazil, where regulatory agencies have been weakened under Bolsonaro, Hawken notes that “[r]estoration cannot be done in the halls of power alone” and requires local, collaborative efforts (116). Reforestation projects such as Sebastião Salgado’s will continue to make a difference. At the same time, the next several years will be a crucial period for Lula’s administration to listen to Indigenous communities while enforcing environmental policies to block illegal logging and to regulate commercial farming and mining. Even if these efforts are successful, the Amazon rainforest’s return to health will take far longer. 


References

Anderson, Liana. (2021). “The Brazilian Amazon deforestation rate in 2020 is the greatest of the decade.” In: Nature Ecology & Evolution, Vol. 5, February 2021, 144-145.

Figueres, Christiana and Rivett-Carnac, Tom. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage. 

Hawken, Paul. (Ed.) (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin. 

Kaminsky, Valéria; Ellwanger, Joel Henrique; Kulmann-Leal, Bruna and Valverde, Jacqueline. (2020). “Beyond diversity loss and climate change: Impacts of Amazon deforestation on infectious diseases and public health.” In: Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 92 (1), DOI 10.1590/0001-3765202020191375.

Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson is greeted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on October 20, 2022. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

The losers are winning in Sweden thanks to the Sweden Democrats

The 2022 election results from Sweden testify to the fact that the far-right has reached governmental power. The Tidö agreement conveys several illiberal policy recommendations. It seems futile to suggest that the small Liberal party in the government will stop the realization of these policies. The immediate future looks indeed bleak both for Swedish and international politics.

By Anders Hellström*

On October 17, 2022, Ulf Kristersson, party leader of Moderaterna, became Sweden’s Prime Minister. He will lead a coalition government, which apart from his own party consists of the Christian Democratic party and the LiberalsThe losers (in terms of electoral support) can govern thanks to the support of the Sweden Democrats (SD), founded in 1989 by members of the white Aryan movement, the far-right music industry, and neo-Nazism. In this commentary, I will present three arguments behind why this government took office: 1. Crisis framing; 2. Credibility; and 3. Original versus copy.

From Pariah to Mainstream Party

This rather remarkable journey from the murky shadows of the far right as a pariah party to now become a kingmaker in Swedish politics can thus be understood as sign of populist normalcy, according to Cas Mudde (2019). In short, the mainstream has become extreme.

In 2010, the SD crossed the parliamentary threshold, and its members were seated in the Swedish parliament. Since then, the party’s support has continued to increase. After the 2022 elections, the SD has become kingmaker in Swedish politics. The process of normalization has gone on for decades and is clearly not a new phenomenon, when the SD is now the largest opposition party. What were refuted as extremist views on immigration yesterday have become accepted as mainstream ideas today –common-sense knowledge shared by much of the public, by respectable mainstream politicians, and by editorial writers.

According to Mudde (2019), despite their many differences and failure to communicate a joint common message, the populist parties and movements could be seen before as normal pathologies and normal counter-reactions. Following Mudde’s genealogy of the development of far-right parties in Europe, the advent of the current wave follows from the eruption of three crises that the far-right parties, electorally, have profited from (ibid: 20). These are the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Great Recession of 2008, and the refugee crisis of 2015.

The Swedish National Elections of 2022

Let us begin by returning to the national elections Sweden held on September 11 of this year.

According to the editors on a volume about the mainstream right and the populist wave, Tim Bale and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2021:11) explained that the mainstream right — although divided between liberals, conservatives, and Christian democrats — hold two main attributes in common: 1. all inequalities in society are natural; and 2. defending existing norms and values is intrinsic to a liberal democratic society. 

Moderaterna (19.1 percent of the vote, down 0.74 percent from the last election) adheres to liberal economic policies and usually rallies against high taxes and — in their view — too much public spending. Additionally, the party also espouses conservative values of national defence and the family. Their emphasis in the election campaign was centred on “law and order” — frequently associated with immigration — and investments in nuclear energy. The Christian Democratic party (5.34 percent of the vote, down 0.98 percent) has, traditionally, focused on social welfare. The third party in the government coalition, Liberalerna (4.61 percent of the vote, down 0.88 percent), is internally split between a fraction propagating for high levels of foreign aid (similar to the Christian Democrats), protecting the right to asylum, and generally progressive ideas against a faction who wants to replace the Social Democrats at any costs. The latter fraction won. 

Bale & Kaltwasser (2021: 1) begin their book on the mainstream right in crisis by noting that Social Democracy is in decline, while the populist radical right has gained a massive amount of electoral support, especially following the refugee crisis of 2015. While the second assertion is at least partly right (I will return to this later), the first statement does not apply to the Swedish national elections of 2022. The Social Democrats became by far the largest party, with 30.33 percent of all electoral votes (up 2.07 percent from the 2018 elections). 

This is confusing. How is it possible that the losing parties are now going to run the country? The answer lies in the results from the far-right party, the Sweden Democrats (SD) who won 20.54% of the vote (up 3.01%) — fewer votes than the Social Democrats but more than Moderaterna. The SD will not take part in the government but is part of Kristersson’s winning team and supports him as the new prime minister.

In the negotiations, the SD was successful at having their own policies elevated into governmental policies (specifically through the Tidö agreement) without having assigned seats in the new government. For instance, foreign aid will decrease, there will no longer be a special department devoted to environmental issues, the quota of refugees to Sweden will decrease from 6400 annually to 900, repatriation programs for immigrants will be encouraged, family re-unification will become harder, and a wage demand will be introduced to limit labour migration. Immigrants also risk expulsion if they misbehave and do not live up to Swedish norms. All these proposals can be found in the election manifesto of the SD and will now become official governmental policies. 

Jimmie Åkesson is Happy

SD Leader Jimmie Åkesson is happy. He should be. He appears to have attained a golden seat: not being part of the government but having achieved almost all his party’s political goals without having to take full responsibility for the consequences. The party can remain a radical underdog; at the same time, it can have most of its policies implemented by other parties. Jimmie Åkesson leads, but Ulf Kristersson will be ultimately responsible. 

How did this happen? Of course, we cannot foretell the results yet without resorting to speculation. But we can look at what has happened in other countries. Not being part of the government has been detrimental to the Danish People’s Party (currently 3 percent at the polls). Being part of the government has been detrimental to Italy’s Matteo Salvini (party leader of the League), who was deputy minister and interior minister; his party won only 8.9 percent in recent parliamentary elections, clearly beaten by the newly elected prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, whose party Brothers of Italy won approximately 25 percent of the votes. Salvini was in the previous Italian government, whereas Meloni was not. What we learn from this, is that it can be good or bad for a far-right party to be in the government.

Reasons for the Electoral Outcome

We do not know what will happen in the future in terms of electoral support for the SD. But I will now present three reasons for why the SD has continued to gain electoral support.

First: The political agenda centred around gang violence and fuel prices. Even if the crime rate in many categories has declined according to statistics presented by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, the number of murders has increased significantly. More policemen and tougher stances on law and order have been suggested by almost all the parties. If it was depicted as extreme to link this development to immigration and integration ten years ago, it is seen as rather mainstream today. This emphasis on law and order — rather than on the climate crisis, the Coronavirus pandemic, NATO, or the illegitimate Russian invasion of Ukraine– has most benefitted the SD. 

Second: When Ulf Kristersson says that the SD was right and warns the Swedish people of the lethal consequences of a generous immigration policy, he also says that a vote for the SD is a credible option. And though other parties now mimic his tone, why should voters prefer the copy over the original? 

Three: As mentioned before, all parties present in the new coalition government experienced electoral losses in 2022. Ulf Kristersson, for instance, could have focused on more traditional mainstream right views, like the economy, but he did not. Instead, he continuously linked deplorable murder rates with immigration. When Ulf Kristersson barks, Jimmie Åkesson gains votes. 

Hope on the Horizon

It is easy and perhaps also understandable to become puzzled and dispirited about the recent political developments in Sweden. But I would say that there are several reasons to hope

First, a lot of things have changed. Sweden does not look the same today as it did in the past. Society is dynamic and this requires continuous reflection, as well as reconceptualization of the analytical instruments and categories needed for studying contemporary European societies. What became apparent– not least with the refugee crisis of 2015– was the rise of both progressive and regressive forces (Bevelander & Hellström 2019), which cling on to meta narratives of both nostalgia and hope (Norocel et. al 2020). 

This isn’t the first-time events have changed values. The resistance to value changes in post-Industrial societies, as a result of the 1968 student protests, was labelled by Ignazi (1992) as the “silent counter-revolution,” which he associated with the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen and la novelle droite (the new right) in France in the early 1970s.[1]

Second, the crisis, which dominated the electoral campaign in 2022, was based on law and order and the link between criminality and immigration. This link became normal to voters. The climate crisis has attracted massive global attention. In an election campaign, there is only space for one crisis at a time. This brings forward an important lesson: there are several latent crises that might or might not erupt as the crisis in a future election. Empirically, there are many examples of latent movements in Swedish society that want to help refugees to integrate into their new home country (Bevelander & Hellström, 2019). There are examples of countries hostile to immigrants—like Poland—that have become more accepting towards refugees from Ukraine. Additionally, there are today many more companies who would like to invest in fossil-free fuel. According to Margaret Canovan (2005), across history, the “people” has been used as an authority in reserve– “an authority to be drawn on in an emergency…” (ibid: 20).

Third, does the new immigration policy mean a veritable paradigm shift in Swedish politics? The end of Swedish exceptionalism? Maybe – but maybe not. The new policies still need to live up to signed international treaties, such as the Paris agreement and respect the universal and individual right to seek asylum.

The 2022 election results from Sweden testify to the fact that the far-right has reached governmental power. The Tidö agreement conveys several illiberal policy recommendations. It seems futile to suggest that the small Liberal party (which, at the time of writing faces expulsion from the liberal group in the European parliament due to collaboration with the SD) in the government will stop the realization of these policies. The immediate future looks indeed bleak both for Swedish and international politics. What is important to remember is that the future is not set in stone, though. A deeper investigation of progressive elements in civil society shows that there are several emancipatory initiatives and potential latent crises that might pop up and become the crisis in future elections.


 

(*) Anders Hellström is an associate professor in political science and a senior lecturer in IMER. He is an affiliated member of the research institute Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM) at Malmö University. His research interests include discourse theory and representation of migration, populism, and nationalism. He has published widely in academic journals, such as Government and Opposition, Journal of International Migration and Integration, and Ethnicities. His most recent article is “Populism as Mythology of the People: Anti-Immigration Claims in the Swedish Socially Conservative Online Newspaper Samtiden from 2016 to 2019” (forthcoming 2022) and will be made available to open access. His most recent monograph is Trust Us: Reproducing the Nation and the Scandinavian Nationalist parties. His most recent anthology is Nostalgia and Hope: Intersections between Politics of Culture, Welfare, and Migration in Europe together with Ov. Cristian Norocel and Martin Bak-Jørgensen.



References

Bale, Tim. & Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira. (eds). (2021). Riding the Populist Wave: Europé’s mainstream right in crisis.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapters

Bevelander, Pieter & Hellström, Anders. (2019). “Pro- And Anti-Migrant Mobilizations in Polarized Sweden.” In: Rea, A., Martinello, M, Mazzola, A. and Meuleman, B. (eds.) The refugee reception crisis in Europe: Polarized Opinions and Mobilizations. Bruxelles: Éditions de l´Université de Bruxelles (available open access). 

Canovan, Margaret. (2005). The People. Cambridge: Polity.

Ignazi, Pierro. (1992). “The Silent counter-revolution: Hypotheses on the emergence of extreme right-wing parties in Europe.” European Journal of Political Research 22. 

Mudde, Cas. (2019). The Far Right Today

Norocel, Ov Cristian; Hellström, Anders & Bak Jørgensen, Martin. (2020). Nostalgia and Hope: Intersections between Politics of Culture, Welfare, and Migration. Cham: Springer (available open access).


[1] Bale and Kaltwasser (2021) provide further elaboration on the silent-counter revolution and the various manifestations of both reactions and counter reactions to this in different countries.

Remains of one of world's largest Joshua Tree forests after the Dome Fire in California's Mojave National Preserve. Blackened stumps and dead trees.

Unlearning the Anthropocene: Readings for Human Humility

Seeking the ways of keeping the world less cruel, if no less dangerous, in the critical decades ahead, Dr. Heidi Hart’s commentary considers books by Annie Dillard, Joanna Zylinska, Timothy Beal, and others in light of the climate crisis and populist fears in a changing world. 

By Heidi Hart

In the late 1990s, before terms like “Anthropocene” and “climate crisis” had become part of everyday vocabulary, I heard American writer Annie Dillard read from her book For the Time Being in manuscript form. This generously ecumenical cycle of prose fragments startled me: here was a writer describing humanity from the perspective of geologic time. The book had equally startling humor, too, even when facing grim facts: “Many of us will be among the dead then. Will we know or care, we who once owned the still bones under the quick ones, we who spin inside the planet with our heels in the air? The living might well seem foolishly self-important to us, and overexcited” (Dillard, 2000: 49). From the excavation of clay soldiers in China to a neonatal hospital ward, from the Qur’an to Kabbalah, Dillard’s incisive vision refuses to reduce human specificity and mystery, while at the same time acknowledging that all of this, too, will pass. 

I return to this book in the burning summer of 2022, having fled the megadrought in the American West and watching in pain as war, water and food scarcity, fires, and floods threaten humans and many other species, and as populist fears continue to drive exclusionary thinking as resources contract across the world. Dillard’s take on humans’ brief, creative, and destructive reign on Earth comes as a welcome contrast to much Anthropocene writing of the past ten years, with all its wrangling over terminology and worry over how we humans perceive ourselves. 

Two more recent books respond to the Anthropocene in bracing and generous terms that remind me of Dillard’s, but from very different perspectives. Joanna Zylinska, a photomedia artist and professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, published a slim but powerful book in 2018 titled The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Noting existing theoretical variations on the word “Anthropocene” (“the Anthrobscene, the Capitolocene, the Chthulucene, the Eurocene, the Plantationocene, and the Technocene,” to name a few [Zylinska, 2018: 5]), this author tests Kate Raworth’s term “Manthropocene” to signal the problem of mostly male climate science panels, Silicon Valley bro-culture neoliberalism, the cult of scientific genius, and Elon Musk-style “planetary messianism” (Zylinska, 2018: 15). 

The End of Man is not the kind of “man-bashing” rant stereotyped in far-right circles but rather an effort to understand how the Anthropocene idea became entangled in gender and race norms that exclude “others.” This occurs either by focusing so much on humankind that other species become tokenized, fetishized, or simply sidelined, or by taking White male cultural norms for granted to the point that even educated thinkers can block movement out of the status quo, if not directly feeding populist fears of the White establishment being “replaced.” Zylinska draws on a key concept developed by science fiction writer Stanisław Lem (perhaps best known for inspiring – and resenting – Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris): the idea of “encystment,” in which “a civilization …  threatened with the loss of control over its own homeostasis … will construct ‘a world within a world,’ an autonomous reality” (Zylinska, 2018: 31, citing her translation of Lem, 2013) that sounds much like what current political commentators would call a “bubble.”

Progressive and regressive “cysts” are not mutually exclusive, however. Just as concerns about organic food and wellness culture can spill from left to right on the political spectrum, sometimes veering into conspiracy or “conspirituality”thinking, the wish to conserve a healthy planet can also feed xenophobic populism and even ecofascism. Zylinska puts it this way: “[t]he progressive politics of degrowth on the planetary scale in the face of the Anthropocene finds, perhaps too easily, its ugly twin in the localized discourses of information and matter overload: cyberterrorism, multiculturalism, immigration flood, the refugee crisis” (Zylinska, 2018: 32). 

As an antidote to Anthropocen/tric end-times thinking that panics over White patriarchal structures at risk of collapse, Zylinska proposes what she calls a “counterapocalypse,” an alternative vision that includes both human-nonhuman “relationality” (a common thread in much feminist environmental writing) and “precarity” (drawing on Anna Tsing’s example of mushroom pickers and others who live without “the promise of stability” [Tsing, 2015: 2] outside privileged capitalist structures). This is not a romantic or naïve approach to “Nature” but an ethical re-orientation that accepts that humans are already “invaded” by the world (Zylinska, 2018: 56).

As Tsing notes, “Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves” (Tsing, 2015: 20). How different from the fear-based populist stance of barricading or “encycsting” oneself, as war and climate disaster send refugees fleeing for survival, and as other species need habitat protection and restoration as well. Tsing’s idea of the “encounter” recalls Annie Dillard’s recurring sections with that title in For the Time Being, in which she traces, without sentimentality, a shared cigarette and language misunderstanding with a Palestinian van driver, or a moment in the desert when “two humans stand side by side to look at a crab … Who are we people?” (Dillard, 2000: 112). Openness to the “other” is key to adapting to a burning world, where collective solutions must come before rigid or fear-based individualism.    

But what if “we people” don’t actually survive the next century or centuries on a damaged planet trying to return to its own homeostasis?  What if we are one more casualty of biodiversity loss? The Malthusian temptations of a “world without us” may seem grimly appealing (and they do drive some strains of ecofascism), but ultimately humans may not have a choice. The world may well go on, long after we are gone. How to imagine such a future without falling prey to populist fantasies of “other” people going first, or to simple depression that leaves no energy for creativity and care?  

Pointing out that many ages have suffered from apocalyptic anxieties, Annie Dillard finds that fear of death is difficult enough for the human individual, not to mention the whole species. She asks, “Are we ready to think of all humanity as a living tree, carrying on splendidly without us?” (Dillard, 2000: 119). Extending this question to the planet at large, in a posthumanist sense, I keep returning to the word “splendidly.” The image of a thriving ecosystem that may or may not include humans as we currently know ourselves is unsettling but relieving, too. If the image loses its ecofascist utopian edge (of any remaining people looking White and heterosexual in a “pristine” landscape), it reminds me that every day we have on Earth is still worth savoring.

A newly released book takes this view, not from a feminist but from a critical religious-studies perspective. Timothy Beal’s When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene argues for appreciation and “deep adaptation” over depression or overly optimistic, profit-driven climate fixes. The book is grounded in biblical thought but seeks to outgrow the “denial of death” that is also “denial of the body” (Beal, 2022: 68) and the exclusions that come from Christian populism (Beal, 2022: 37). Noting that the word “apocalypse” implies “unmasking” (102), Beal calls for honest grief that yields both anger (at White supremacist systems that harm both people and planet) and hope. 

Learning from Indigenous and other traditions that resist what Beal calls “the dominionist strain” of the Anthropocene (Beal, 2022: 122) also helps to encourage respectful relationship with the Earth and the vulnerability to recognize our own small place in it. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass, which bridges Indigenous knowledge and academic botany, has become a touchstone for ecologists and general readers alike, as a guide to seeing other species as subjectivities in their own right. “In the indigenous view,” Kimmerer writes, “humans are viewed as somewhat lesser beings in the democracy of species. We are referred to as the younger brothers of Creation, so like younger brothers we must learn from our elders” (Kimmerer, 2013: 346). Throughout When Time Is Short, Timothy Beal uses the word “creatureliness” to describe this re-orientation. Like all creatures, we humans exist on Earth for a short time, enmeshed with others and more or less vulnerable to forces beyond our control. Knowing the limits of a lifetime makes that life more precious, as conventional wisdom goes, and there is truth in this. 

Annie Dillard meditates repeatedly on sand, not only in the cinematic desert but also in the “micrometeorite dust” that “can bury you, if you wait,” in the detritus of locust swarms and spider legs, in the rising of the New York City streets (Dillard, 2000: 122-123). If she were writing about rising seas now, about deserts growing where seas used to be, about the floods that carry off small children in Kentucky and the wildfires burning from Yosemite to southern France, she would be as sad and anxious as most other humans. But I sense that she would also note the balance of the fight for what remains and the strange, generous acceptance that comes sometimes at the deathbed. She would note the beauty of a chance encounter with another creature in the woods or on the road. This is how to keep the world less cruel, if no less dangerous, in the critical decades ahead. 


References

Beal, Timothy. (2022). When Time Is Short: Finding Our Way in the Anthropocene. Boston: Beacon Press.

Dillard, Annie. (2000). For the Time Being. New York: Vintage. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.

Lem, Stanisław. (2013). Technologiae. Translated by Joanna Zylinska. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Zylinska, Joanna. (2018). The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Vladimir Putin's portrait. Illustration: Tpyxa_Illustartion.

Monster in the Sovereign Myth: Putin’s Russia and the Image of Leviathan

For those fleeing missiles and tanks in Ukraine, one despot’s emergency is the oppression of another sovereign state. In Putin’s increasingly isolated view, Russia is not whole without Ukraine – whether that Russia appears in a nineteenth-century tsarist or a twentieth-century Soviet fantasy… The monster in the despot’s mind, even one that seems less and less in touch with reality, can wreak real havoc in the world. Putin is no longer the shadowy dictator behind serial poisonings of those who oppose him, no longer the face on the wall behind a power-hungry mayor in a movie; his campaign of wholesale destruction has come within twelve miles of the Polish border.  

By Heidi Hart 

In the 2014 Russian film Leviathan, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, a car mechanic named Kolya faces a string of misfortunes that echoes the tribulations of Job: the local mayor is after his house and land, his wife sleeps with the Moscow attorney trying to help him, her body is found on the rocks by the seashore, and he is imprisoned for her murder. In the end (the spoiler is important here), the mayor takes over Kolya’s property to build a lavish church for his friend the priest, who tells his congregation to “trust in God” in the final scene. My short summary doesn’t do justice to the film’s long moments of grim beauty: sweeps of barren land and power lines and sea, a rainy windshield reminiscent of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2011 Once Upon a Time in Anatoliaand a whale skeleton that somehow companions Kolya’s despondent son on the beach. 

The whale is emblematic of the film’s Leviathan title, standing for the immense sea creature God tells Job that he will never comprehend, in the poetic climax of the biblical text. Amid several other films with the same title in the past 35 years (including a sci-fi horror movie and a docu-fantasia on the US fishing industry), this one plays on the frightening mystery of unknowable life in the ocean, but in a more allegorical way. The forces at work in – and against – Kolya’s life are centered not in the sea but in the office of the mayor, who harangues the Moscow lawyer in front of a portrait of Putin. This small man’s oversized ambition, to expropriate a citizen’s home for his own project in the pocket of the church (though he claims it’s to be used for electrical infrastructure), is as senseless as Putin’s brutal attack on Ukraine, all in the service of a narcissistic, nationalist myth. 

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat has pointed out, strongman figures have several traits in common, despite individual forms of “charisma” that attract populist sentiment: they “channel nostalgia” while imagining a grandiose nationalist future; they share “paranoia” and “narcissism”; they “need intellectuals to rewrite the schoolbooks to support their nationalist historiography”; and they rely on “toxic, arrogant masculinity … they let their bodies become kind of emblems of national strength.” In the office scene in Leviathan, the mayor uses Putin’s portrait to make himself seem larger and to legitimize his own arrogant project. Putin looms behind him, more threateningly if one sees the movie in 2022, as bombs explode in schools and homes and hospitals across Ukraine in present time. The elusive monster lives.

The word “leviathan” has not always sounded menacing in a political context. In his 1651 treatise Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes used the biblical image to stand for a more benign form of sovereignty: a social contract in which individuals trust in a despot who knows best and acts for the common good. The book’s frontispiece image shows an oversized human figure with scales for skin, representing the multiplicity of individuals in the social contract. This idealistic notion has of course failed to hold up amid the power grabs and barbaric wars of the past century, and it seems even more out of touch today. Political philosophers who have brought Hobbes’ idea into debate with modern history include Carl Schmitt, whose 1938 The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes was a form of reckoning with his sense of betrayal in the Nazi party – and an effort to detach the leviathan image from its own mythology, seeing it instead, via Hobbes, as a “machinic antimonster” (Wainwright and Mann, 2018: 14). This text’s anti-Semitic, anti-democratic strain works against the pluralism Hobbes’ own text attempts to allow, favoring instead an idea of nationalist homogeneity. 

The political philosopher Giorgio Agamben (among many others) has engaged with Hobbes and Schmitt in showing what happens when sovereignty insists on a permanent “state of exception,” as occurred after September 11, 2001 in the United States. “The declaration of the state of exception has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government” (Agamben, 2005: 14). In the Afghanistan and Iraq war decades, with amplified state powers encroaching on civil rights at home, the US became an example of sovereign power far exceeding Hobbes’ beneficent ideal. In comparison with the current era of growing populist nationalism around the world, however, even George W. Bush’s falsely justified “Operation Iraqi Freedom” seems (also falsely) benign. Walter Benjamin’s 1921 insight that a “state of exception” or “emergency” can be the norm continues to haunt political philosophy today: “The tradition of the oppressed classes teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is the rule. We must attain to a concept of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about the real state of emergency” (Benjamin, 1969: 258). 

A scene from the movie “Leviathan”: The mayor harangues the Moscow lawyer in front of a portrait of Putin.

For those fleeing missiles and tanks in Ukraine, one despot’s emergency is the oppression of another sovereign state. In Putin’s increasingly isolated view, Russia is not whole without Ukraine – whether that Russia appears in a nineteenth-century tsarist or a twentieth-century Soviet fantasy. Waking the “leviathan” of an idealized Mother Russia baffles many in Moscow (at least those with access to factual news), as much as those in Europe and the US, watching our own leaders walk the precarious line between military aid and outright intervention. The monster in the despot’s mind, even one that seems less and less in touch with reality, can wreak real havoc in the world. Putin is no longer the shadowy dictator behind serial poisonings of those who oppose him, no longer the face on the wall behind a power-hungry mayor in a movie; his campaign of wholesale destruction has, as of this writing, come within twelve miles of the Polish border.  

This dictator has caught the world off guard. Even in a recent, research-based novel postulating how the next world war might unfold in 2034, China is the aggressor against Taiwan, baiting a US warship and launching a conflict between a future form of NATO and a China-Russia-Iran alliance, in a time when today’s brands of populist nationalism seem to have dissolved. The worst thing Russia does is destroy undersea internet cables, along with some sharks in the wrong place at the wrong time. When I reviewed this book last month, I took issue with its fleeting references to climate crisis, sensing that the heavy wars to come will be more local, as water and food and breathable air become dangerously scarce. I also felt the authors placed too much nostalgic value on the epic-movie, “good, clean war” of tanks, fighter jets, and a common enemy (Hart, 2022). Now, seeing these machines in live and horrifying footage makes me think history is cyclical in a more literal than just ideological way. I did not see this coming, though I worried about Putin’s posturing and “de-nazification” propaganda. Even if the US is, for once, on the right side of this conflict, that’s cold comfort as the news of bombings and civilian deaths grinds on, and as the nuclear threat (that old Cold War leviathan) raises its head, however vaguely, in anti-NATO rhetoric.

Putin’s invasion is especially sinister in a world just wobbling out of a pandemic and amid a climate threat that this conflict only exposes and increases, with oil production ramping up to meet the resulting energy crisis. Developed countries’ fossil-fuels addiction has become painfully clear. What forms of leviathan will rise up next to haunt, torment, or maybe even aid us humans and the many other species now at risk? A 2018 book addressing this question, before history’s latest turn made it far messier, is in fact titled Climate Leviathan. The authors trace their term through Hobbes and Schmitt, Benjamin and Agamben, to posit three possible models for climate-crisis response: “Capitalist Leviathan,” or technocratic adaptation in the neoliberal vein; “Climate Mao,” or large-scale Communist-style efforts to reduce emissions; “Climate Behemoth,” or reactionary resistance, Trump-style, to enforcing regulation or reduction of carbon profits; and “Climate X,” or environmental organizing efforts in the form of “mass boycott, divestment, strike, blockade, reciprocity” (Wainwright and Mann, 2018: 182). 

Though they could not have foreseen today’s monstrous show of “sovereign” power, Climate Leviathan’s authors place their own bets on “Climate X,” which can apply to anti-strongman uprisings as well. If the sheer number of protesters risking the streets in Moscow and St. Petersburg, not to mention bottom-up resistance in Ukraine, is any indication, there is a chance that activism may have some effect. The “village consciousness” or collective, wandering narrator in Ukrainian literature, as in Nikolai Gogol’s equally disturbing and hilarious stories (for all his tug-of-war between Russian and Ukrainian nationalisms), gives me hope. Films like Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan remind me what’s at stake, though, and that the persecuted underdog does not always win, or even survive. The end of the current news-ticker and satellite-image movie that I cannot bear to see is a dictator glorying in his stolen edifice and asking for the people’s trust.


References

Agamben, Giorgio. (2005). State of Exception. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (1969). Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt and translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Wainwright, Joel and Geoff Mann. (2018). Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. London: Verso.

Demonstrators protest against corona regulations in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on August 1, 2020. Photo: Berit Kessler.

Hearts, Trees, Hymns, and Hate: Populist Mixed Messages

The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too. In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did. 

By Heidi Hart

On a gusty afternoon in Berlin, police vans lined up near the Neptune Fountain. A small crowd gathered, enthusiastically hugging without masks. Some came in costume, as a prince in a fuzzy cape covered with hearts or as an inflatable Super Mario. Others carried Berlin Haupstadt flags, a green-and-white flag proclaiming parental care, or flags emblazoned with the Coronavirus emblem, a heart at its center, and the words “FREEDOM PARADE.” Everyone in the group seemed to know each other, except for a man in a facemask wearing a placard saying “#vollständig immunisiert” (“completely immunized”) who moved silently through the group of performative huggers. 

Demonstrations against Covid-19 measures have continued throughout Germany since 2020, with several hundred protesters and counter-protesters in cities from Düsseldorf to Freiburg the first weekend in February (Die Zeit, 2022). In Berlin, the gathering of hearts and hugs began with a group on the fountain steps singing “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that originated in William Wilberforce’s moment of conscience against the slave trade in the late 18th century (Apted and Metaxas, 2007). The hymn has been taken up by congregations and musicians all over the political spectrum, but it sounded especially at odds with what became, more and more clearly, a forum for populist rage. 

Protest against Covid-19 measures in Berlin. Photo: Heidi Hart.

The protest’s first speaker thanked the police and warned that violence is never a solution, as some Berlin Covid-measures protests have indeed turned violent this past year (Associated Press, 2021). Still using a polite voice, the speaker made a point of stating that social distance requirements were “only because of the police” and that facemasks “do not actually work.” The second speaker took a completely different tone, her voice growing hoarse as she shouted into the microphone that “this is a war like any other war,” that “these dangerous Corona-measures are harming society,” and that “they are no different from Stalinism or fascism” (translations mine). 

On the fringes of the main crowd with their peace-and-love imagery belying their angry agenda, black-clad nationalists with German flags carried their own implicit message. The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too (Källgren, 2022). In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did. 

The conflation of “Stalinism” and “fascism” with reference to Covid measures is common in the US, too, and clearly shows a lack of understanding about political terms, not to mention history. Hannah Arendt found links between the two forms of political oppression in her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism, noting the difference between the terror-and-control mindset of totalitarianism and autocratic regimes that pursue political power without employing “crackpots and fools” (Arendt, 1951: 416). But Communist thinking and fascist thinking are still profoundly different, with the latter raising a far uglier head in the current global turn toward populist nationalism. Complicating this picture even further is the co-opting of historical imagery out of context, particularly in the US.

Recently in the state of Utah, in a county known for its Latter-day Saint conservatism, a local government meeting shocked a local journalist and rippled into social media by displaying a Pine Tree flag. This flag, with origins as protest against the British monarchy during the American Revolution, included a phrase by John Locke, “An Appeal to Heaven.” The idea is that, as Locke applied biblical conflicts to his own time, the highest authority is not an earthly king but “the supreme judge of all men” (Locke, 1690, Chapter 3 Sect. 20-21). This motto and the pine tree image have become part of the iconography of Christian nationalism in the US, appearing at the January 6 insurrection and even flying in the Arizona state house as of January 2022.

Like the appropriation of “Amazing Grace” in the Berlin protest, the use of Revolutionary War imagery in the context of anti-vaccine, anti-mask local government meetings is not neutral. Ideology is “sticky” and attaches easily to images and songs (Kramer, 2012) that have their own sensory power, dragging cultural associations along with them. Just as Hitler’s propaganda machine took up Beethoven’s music as a nationalist soundtrack, ignoring the composer’s own commitment to French Revolutionary values and later repudiation of Napoleon (Lee, 2018), nationalist groups today co-opt cultural materials out of context and attach their own meanings to them. 

Material elements of religion have a particular charisma that can be especially tempting to plug into political rhetoric, on the spectrum from pagan nativism to Christian hymns and salvation stories used by populist groups (see Zúquete, 2017). The Pine Tree flag calls up associations not only with a far-right version of Revolutionary War history but also, for Christians generally, images of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and for Latter-day Saints, the Tree of Life seen in a dream in their Book of Mormon scriptures. Cultivating these associations makes far-right adherents feel at home in their imagery, however far it has traveled from its sources. 

Adapting and re-contextualizing familiar material is of course how human culture works, from novel-to-film treatments to mythology re-imagined in video games. The field of adaptation studies is well established, examining processes of media transformation as creative in themselves and even dialogic between source and adapted material (Bruhn, 2013). Ethical concerns arise, though, when a song, motto, or image is appropriated with cultural disrespect or in the service of harmful political movements (music in advertising is of course another, but related, subject). A number of well-known musicians have sued or censured Donald Trump for using their songs in his rallies, for example (Solender, 2020). 

But sometimes the mixing of cultural media, even when messy, can lead to critical thinking and care rather than lockstep ideology. In contrast to the mixed messaging at the Berlin anti-Covid-measures protest, a recent performance at the city’s Komische Oper combined iconic German and Turkish poetry and song with the intention to explore questions of migration and vulnerability, not to push a particular agenda. This production, Üçüncü mevki – Im Wagen dritter Klasse(“In the Third-class Car”), set poetry by Nazim Hikmet and Turkish popular songs in motion with texts by Bertolt Brecht and other 20th-century German poets. A Turkish-German dialogue in a train car, with the actors sometimes speaking both languages simultaneously, formed a backdrop to the musicians and singers all wearing white onstage. 

The “we are all migrants” idea, and the blending of Brecht’s words about wartime mourning with the voicing of hüzün, a particular sensation of sadness in Turkish culture, did not quite work, as they come from different backgrounds. Still, that uneasy fit made for an important conversation with my Brecht-scholar friend who attended the performance with me. He reacted with his own sense of melancholy about the loss of the German Hausmusik tradition, in which friends and neighbors gather and sing along with music they all know. We watched as many in the audience rose, sang, and danced with the Turkish songs performed onstage, celebrating café favorites like Tarkan’s “Şımarık” (“Kiss Kiss”). 

In a time when Turkey, too, is threatened with ongoing anti-democratic populism, the singing of popular (and of course there is a difference) songs in Berlin was cathartic in the best sense, especially in an opera house usually offering Eurocentric fare. The mood onstage and in the audience was genuinely joyful, not exaggerated like the hugging at the Neptune Fountain protest. No one shouted into a microphone. The mood was one of welcome, not fear, even though we all wore masks.  

References

Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Harvest Books.

Bruhn, Jørgen. (2013). “Dialogising Adaptation Studies: From One-way Transport to Dialogic Two-way Process.” In Bruhn et al., Eds., Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions.  Bloomsbury Academic, 69-88.

Locke, John. (1690). Second Treatise of Government. Digitized Version, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm.

Kramer, Lawrence. (2012). Keynote address, Ideology in Words and Music conference, Word and Music Association Forum, Stockholm University. 

Zúquete, Jose Pedro. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: Kaltwasser et al., Eds., The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Oxford University Press.  DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.22.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the extreme right Spanish party VOX at an election rally in Casetellon, Spain in October 2019. Photo: Aitor Serra Martin.

Populism and Islamophobia in Spain: from Podemos to Vox

Podemos boasts “inclusive populism in terms of minorities and vulnerable groups” in which we include Islam and Arab-Islamic immigration in Spain. In contrast, the links between Islamophobia and the Spanish far-right are more explicit. However, Vox’s electoral success is a response to its marked opposition to the Catalan secessionist movement, rather than other key factors seen in the discourse of the radical right-wing in other European countries, such as immigration, economic decline, and political distrust. The party has also used opposition to feminism, abortion, gay marriage, multiculturalismillegal immigration, and Muslim immigration as campaign slogans.

By Alfonso Corral*

The 2011 Indignados Movement (also known as 15M), which sought to put an end to the crisis of Spain’s two-party system (Socialist Party and Popular Party) and revitalise democracy, was gradually diluted in favour of extreme left-wing populism. In this sense, Podemos has set itself up as the guarantor of these ideals. One only has to read their website to be aware of their ideology: anti-elitism (against banks, large corporations and big fortunes), ecological transition, revolution in the care economy, eradication of structural chauvinism, reversal of Spain’s rural depopulation, improved social rights (decent and stable work, sufficient pensions, affordable housing, quality public health care), and increased public investment in innovation and employment. 

It should be remembered that the first electoral results of Podemos correspond to the European elections of 2014, in the year it was founded, when the party led by Pablo Iglesias was the fourth most popular alternative, securing 8 percent of the vote. Since then, Podemos has made progress in almost all the elections in which it has participated, often in conjunction with other similar parties (it has formed alliances with communist and regionalist groups, for example), to the point of winning mayoral seats and pacts in Spain’s autonomous governments, (Font, Graziano & Tsakatika, 2021). However, its greatest triumph was undoubtedly in 2019 when it became part of the current Spanish government in coalition with the Socialist Party presided over by Pedro Sánchez. 

The gradual entrenchment of Podemos brought with it the confirmation of another socio-political phenomenon: the strengthening of Vox, in other words, extreme right-wing populism. It is true that Vox was founded in 2013, a year earlier than Podemos, but it should be noted that its influence was somewhat marginal during its first five years of life. The turning point for the party led by Santiago Abascal came in the 2018 regional elections in Andalusia, when they managed to gain their very first foothold in a regional parliament. A year later, Abascal’s party established itself in the national parliament in both of the general elections held while in April they won 24 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies (10.3 percent of the votes), in the November rerun they managed to win 52 seats (15.2 percent of the votes). These latest results ratified Vox as the third political force in Spain, behind only the Socialist Party and the Popular Party (Castro Martínez & Mo Groba, 2020; Lava Santos, 2021).  

In the document 100 measures for a living Spain (2018), Vox elucidates what could well be its ideological basis. Its political programme aims to provide solutions to the challenges that most concern Spanish society: “The unity of Spain, the destruction of the middle class, high taxes, the security of our borders, and the curtailment of freedoms.” According to Turnbull-Dugarte (2019), Vox’s electoral success is a response to its marked opposition to the Catalan secessionist movement, rather than other key factors seen in the discourse of the radical right-wing in other European countries, such as immigration, economic decline, and political distrust. However, the party has also used opposition to feminism, abortion, gay marriage, multiculturalism, illegal immigration, and Muslim immigration as campaign slogans. Nevertheless, Abascal’s party exalts a certain ethnic nationalism and an ostensible anti-globalism, hence its Euroscepticism and its rejection of immigration, especially from Arab-Islamic countries, as well as large technological corporations and other global players that interfere in domestic affairs (Ferreira, 2019; Rydgren, 2017; Akkerman, 2018; Zúquete, 2017). And in Spain itself, along with Catalan independence, Vox is self-affirming in its antagonism towards ETA terrorism, communism, and the left in general (Vázquez Barrio, 2021). 

In terms of populism being coupled with Islamophobia, as we have suggested, in the case of Vox this is more apparent than for Podemos. However, Martín Corrales (2004) considers that the Islamophilia of the Spanish left offers a paradox: in their educational and good-natured campaign in favour of tolerance and solidarity with regard to certain causes (Amazigh, Kurdish, Sahrawi and Palestinian peoples, etc.), these parties rarely mention the religion practised by the parties involved. In his opinion, this discursive logic “conceals many ambiguities and more than a few ideological traps.” Indeed, this is where their silence on other controversial issues such as the arrival of illegal immigrants, the management of the unaccompanied minors, Islamism, the issue of headscarves and jihadism comes in. All of this results in a kind of latent Islamophobia, aligned according to Gil-Benumeya (2018) around three main issues: international politics, secularism, and liberal feminism. In any case, Podemos boasts “inclusive populism in terms of minorities and vulnerable groups” (Alonso-Muñoz & Casero-Ripollés, 2021), in which we include Islam and Arab-Islamic immigration in Spain. 

In contrast, the links between Islamophobia and the Spanish far-right are more explicit. To demonstrate this, we need only look back at the findings of one of our studies that explored the production of Vox’s main Twitter account in January 2021, coinciding with the pre-campaign for the Catalan parliamentary elections held in February of that year. Among the 118 tweets and retweets dealing with issues linked to Islam or migration, the hashtag #StopIslamisation (#StopIslamisation) appeared 29 times. This word cloud shows the recurrent use of other terms associated with Islam (mosque, Islamist, fundamentalist…), with migration (menas or unaccompanied migrant minors…), with the negative aspects of immigration (illegal, mafias, invasion, security…), with geography (Catalonia, Spain…), with institutions and ideologies (government, separatism, left…), and finally with populism (neighbourhoods, ours, streets, culprits…). 

Reading some of these tweets is even more revealing. In particular, it is worth looking at these three messages posted by the Vox account between January 11-18, 2021, which link to three news items in the newspapers El MundoLa Razón and ABC. Firstly: “The jihadists arrested in Barcelona arrived in Spain by patera via Almeria and were ready to attack. The government allows potential terrorists to enter our country illegally every day. It shall be held responsible for what happens.” Secondly: “Daesh orders attacks on churches and police in Spain: the infiltration of jihadists in the pateras has increased the risk of attacks. Only VOX has demanded the application of National Security law in the face of the migratory invasion. The rest of the parties opposed it.” Finally: “They introduce Islam into schools in Catalonia. But they don’t let you choose Spanish as a vehicular language [as opposed to Catalan, for teaching purposes]. Let’s be clear, separatism is Hispanophobia and submission to Islam”.

If these samples are not enough, we can also examine one of the videos produced by Vox to attract voters, which first appeared in a retweet to the account of Ignacio Garriga, the Vox candidate in Catalonia. We are talking about a highly accusatory and anti-Islamic document constructed using an Arabic melody, the classic Allahu Akbar, news headlines and stills full of Islamic motifs (veils, beards, nicabs, mosques, imams, djellabas, etc.), arrests, and the August 2017 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. It can be deduced that through this piece they wanted to show that Islam and immigration of Arab-Islamic origin are a problem that must be eradicated in Catalonia. In fact, at the end of the video, they display the image of the billboard that Vox installed in front of the mosque in Palafrugell (Girona), topped with this slogan: “Separatism takes us to the Islamic Republic of Catalonia.” In this campaign, Vox modified the Catalan pro-independence flag, changing the original star for a crescent moon. 

In response to this rhetoric, Twitter temporarily blocked the official Vox account. This happened only one day after the first use of #StopIslamisation, on January 28, 2021. However, it should be remembered that, through these messages, Vox’s influence in Catalonia grew to make it the fourth largest political force in the region. In this respect, it seems timely to prepare for the upcoming national elections. Will Islam and Muslim groups be one of the key issues in the candidates’ debates?

(*) Alfonso Corral is a lecturer at Instituto de Humanismo y Sociedad, Universidad San Jorge (USJ), Spain. He received his Ph.D. in communication at the USJ in 2017. In 2018, he received the Extraordinary Doctorate Prize. He performs his work in the group migrations, interculturality and human development (MIDH). His areas of study are communication and Arab-Islamic World, Islamophobia, media discourses about immigration and immigrant integration. Dr. Corral is currently working on populism and Islamophobia on Twitter.

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