Demonstrators hold placards in support of Syrian refugees during a protest in Istanbul on July 27, 2019 against Turkish government's refugee policies. Photo: Huseyin Aldemir.

The populist zeitgeist in Turkey: A Cornelian dilemma ahead

Increasingly, Turkey is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment because of a rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties and regardless of political or ideological roots, people have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility.

By Fatih Karakus*

Turkey, hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world with around 4 million, is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, a result of the last decade’s rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political party leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties across the spectrum. However, the parties differ in their target groups. 

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu announced that he will make sure that Syrian refugees will be repatriated if his party wins elections. In a more critical tone, the CHP mayor of Bolu municipality, Tanju Ozcan, declared that they will charge non-Turkish citizens ten times higher than ordinary residents to encourage them to leave their city, stating that “this hospitage has lingered too long.” 

In a similar vein, the leader of far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli also voiced his concerns over the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees, arguing for “safely sending back” all the refugees. Another nationalist party, the Iyi (Good) Party, also defends anti-immigrant policies. Its leader Meral Aksener promised to send 4 million refugees back to their countries if she was elected. 

However, none of these parties has defended repatriation as fervently as the leader of the newly established Zafer (Victory) Party, ex-academic Umit Ozdag. He incited violence against refugees (including recent Afghan immigrants) in both open and subtle ways. To this end, he even posted a photo of a corner store run by an Afghan refugee which resulted in the owner changing the store’s name to avoid potential attacks. As an example of a textbook definition of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric, Ozdag alleged once that Syrian refugees will be instrumentalized in the upcoming civil war. Zafer Party, through its ideology, rhetoric, and activities, resembles Germany’s anti-immigrant AfD(Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) Party and France’s RN (Rassemblement national – National Rally).   

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also kept a populist agenda but used a more religious tone. While its partner MHP and the opposition parties (except for the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party – HDP) maintain similar stances on immigration policies, AKP’s populism has targeted non-Muslims, including Turkish citizens such as Armenians, Jews, etc. Erdogan, on many occasions, has also instrumentalized Syrian refugees against the European Union (EU) by threatening to open the borders to Europe. In many cases, Erdogan proved that his stance on immigration is not an indication of humanitarian concerns, but a practical one.

At this point, we should note that citizens from each voter base, regardless of political or ideological roots, have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility. As far as the economic and employment-related anti-immigrant sentiments are concerned, there are studies supporting the claims of increased unemployment that is associated with increased immigrant flow in Turkey (Isiksal et al., 2020; Ceritoglu et al., 2017). When it comes to cultural incompatibility, Turkish citizens are perpetuating a widespread argument, which is also the case for the West (Huntington, 1996; Mondon & Winter, 2020) and accepted as “cultural racism” by many (Fanon, 1967; Bonilla-Silva, 2014), a subtle replacement of biological racism (Parker, 2018). Cultural incompatibility is especially raised against the Afghan refugees who fled from the Taliban regime and voiced mostly by secular and Kemalist circles based on their fears of Islamic extremism. 

Again, we should note here that while criticizing Europe and the United States for Islamophobia and Xenophobia, Turkey is no better in its approach towards immigration and foreign nationals. Greece’s recent pushbacks and violence against refugees, as reported by Amnesty International, have been criticized by all political parties including the ruling AKP and its opposition. On the other hand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Syrian refugees are being forced to sign “Voluntary Return Forms” by Turkish officials. 

Based on the economic variables, current figures of refugees hosted, potential for other waves of immigration within and across the regions, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiments among voters, we may project a similar agenda between major political parties during the upcoming presidential election campaigns. Even Erdogan’s AKP may change its tone towards refugees as well as Europe. As implied in the title, Turkish voters will probably have to choose between similar options that will all lead to problematic results in immigration policy. What makes it even worse is the lack of institutional and economic leverage that can benefit refugees as they struggle against the rising anger about their very existence in Turkey. The looming tension and pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment are causing refugees to be on tenterhooks. Policy makers and practitioners in the field should be hypervigilant about waves of immigrants at Turkish borders on the chance that Turkey decides to send them back to their home countries. 


 

 (*) Fatih Karakus is a doctoral student at the Criminology Program, the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University. He is researching the impacts of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric on the sense of belonging and integration of Muslim newcomer communities and the ways to build resilience. Previously, Karakus worked for the Turkish National Police Istanbul State Security Department as the Chief of Social Movements Bureau and Political Parties Bureau. He also served as the Chief of Bureaus at Immigration (Foreigners) Division at Diyarbakir Police Department and directed the in-take procedures of Syrian Refugees fleeing from ISIS threat.


 

References

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2014). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of

racial inequality in America. (4th ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ceritoglu, E.; Yunculer, H. B. G.; Torun, H. & Tumen, S. (2017). “The impact of Syrian refugees on natives’ labor market outcomes in Turkey: Evidence from a quasi-experimental design.” IZA Journal of Labor Policy. 6(5), 1-28. 

Fanon, F. (1967). Toward the African revolution. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Huntington, S. P. (1996). The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Isiksal, H., Isiksal, A. Z., Apeji, Y. (2020). “The impact of Syrian refugees on the Turkish labor market.” International Journal of Operations Management. 1(1), 27-34.

Mondon, A., & Winter, A. (2020). Reactionary democracy: How racism and the populist far right became mainstream.Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Parker, C. S. (2018). “The radical right in the United States of America.” In: J. Rydgren (Ed), The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right (pp.738-769). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Reclaim Australia Rally against Islam in Australia held in Newcastle CBD leading to multiple arrests in Newcastle, Australia in 2016. Photo: Man Down Media

Islamophobia and the pandemic: How these two salient public issues have invigorated the contemporary Australian far-right

The anti-Islam groups have played a significant role in the trajectory of far-right activity in Australia. However, the way these groups operate signifies a shift away from traditional far-right tactics. By casting themselves as part of a populist defence against a threatening Islam they have sought to legitimate their ‘supposedly righteous action’. Thus, they have been able to connect with mainstream concerns, bringing these groups and their ideologies closer to the Australian public. Since these groups have tended to attack Muslims under the guise of liberal ideals and the ‘protection’ of Australia, they experienced a level of success in escaping being written off for being too extreme.

By Chloe Smith*

Far-right activities are influenced by prevalent mainstream discourse in society. This article will analyse how two highly salient contemporary public issues —Islamophobia and the COVID-19 pandemic —have functioned as catalysts for the evolution and visibility of far-right actors and groups.[1] Two distinct and arguably crucial phases of growth in the Australian far-right over the past decade are identified.[2] The first occurred in the mid-2010s when a number of anti-Islam groups and movements formed in response to widespread Islamophobia. The second phase encompasses the current surge in far-right activity and cohesiveness due to the COVID-19 global health crisis. 

The Australian far-right is quite disparate and has often been described as difficult to categorise because of the complexity and diversity demonstrated in its ideologies and organisation (The Australia Institute, 2021). Nevertheless, far-right groups and members in Australia share some fundamental ideological commitments[3] while tending to be, as Dr. Mario Peucker (2021) notes, in ‘fierce disagreement and competition with each other’. Consequently, the two aforementioned public issues are interesting to study because they have evidently triggered renewed far-right activity in Australia and have created a point of ideological convergence between traditionally disparate and contentious actors. 

Public discourse about Islam and Muslims in the mid-2010s (and more recently about the impacts of the pandemic) have also offered windows of opportunity for the far-right in Australia to connect with people and narratives in the mainstream. The global and domestic rise of populism has been a crucial factor in mainstreaming far-right narratives over the last decade. Populist politicians in Australia like Pauline Hanson[4] have demonstrated a capacity to popularise far-right ideas that were once discredited as ‘naive, taboo, backward, unscientific, isolationist or unethical’ (Fenton-Smith, 2020). 

This article employs the definition of populism as a ‘style’. Defining populism in this way is best suited to the Australian context, because of its ability to capture the range of political leaders, movements, and parties who use populism in the nation (Moffitt, 2020).[5] Moffitt writes that populism as a style encompasses appeals to ‘the people’ and the dichotomous division of society into ‘the people’ and ‘the Other’ (usually a racial or racialised minority) as well as claiming to be distinct from (or in total opposition to) the ‘establishment’ or ‘elite’ (Moffitt and Tormey, 2014). Importantly, this view of populism specifies the ways in which appeals are stylised via the performance of crisis, breakdown and threat, attempting to elicit emotions among the public (mostly anger and fear) that can be used to construct binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). The weaponisation of heightened public emotions (e.g., fear of Muslims and distrust of the government) by populist politicians helps create and fuel the type of polarisation in society that bolsters far-right ideologies (McNeil-Wilson et.al, 2019).

This article will study each of these public issues in turn and demonstrate how members of the far-right are able to become more visible during these times because their objectives intersect with widespread anxieties and populist politics (‘us’ versus ‘them’, anti-establishment sentiment, and the purposeful elicitation of crisis).

The Formation of Anti-Islam Groups

In the first phase of growth identified in this article (the mid-2010s), many new anti-Islam groups formed in Australia. This was a time when the mainstream discourse was heavily invested in perpetuating fear about Islam and Muslims in Australia.[6] This discourse was intensified by national and overseas developments, including the increased securitisation of Muslim communities, the rise of ISIS, and domestic developments such as the 2014 Sydney Martin Place Siege,[7] an event that was immediately followed by the creation of new far-right groups in Victoria and New South Wales (Peucker and Smith, 2019). Pauline Hanson, Australia’s best-known populist politician,[8] has exploited these fears about terrorism, extremism and threats to dominant Australian culture as a way to spread the ‘rhetorical tropes’ of the global far-right and legitimise broader exclusionary politics (McSwiney and Cottle, 2017 & Fenton-Smith, 2020). For instance, during the height of anti-Islam activity, she claimed, ‘We will be living under sharia law and treated as second-class citizens with second-class rights’ if Islam is allowed to spread (Fenton-Smith, 2020). This statement was an extension of her party’s anti-Islam and anti-Muslim policies that revolved around an ‘absolute opposition to any more mosques, Sharia law, halal certification and Muslim refugees’ (Akbarzadeh 2016).

The perpetuation of Islamophobia in Australian mainstream discourse peaked with the opportunistic formation of new far-right groups such as Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front, Rise Up Australia, Stop the Mosque in Bendigo and Aussie Angels against Shariah, which all define themselves in terms of explicit anti-Islam and anti-Muslim ideas and objectives, and disseminate narratives that position Islam and Muslims as a threat to the culture and/or safety of Australians (Peucker and Smith, 2019). For these groups, Muslim immigration and increasing visibility in Australian public life function as a metonym for broader cultural and demographic change (Pertwee, 2020). These groups hold much more extensive (and radical) ideological views, including opposition to immigration and multiculturalism and cultural and racial superiority. However, they have cunningly leveraged mainstream discourse about the rise of ISIS and the widespread vilification of Muslims to justify and legitimise their rhetoric (Lewis et.al, 2017). Even though the overwhelming majority of Australians have no direct experience with the types of physical harm that extremist groups like ISIS perpetuate, these far-right groups have gained traction because of global and domestic fears about terrorism, extremism and foreign fighters[9](Lewis et.al, 2017).

The anti-Islam groups formed in this period have played a significant role in the trajectory of far-right activity in Australia. The way these groups operate signifies a shift away from traditional far-right tactics to what Kristy Campion describes as a ‘more concerned citizen persona’ that is achieved via a reframing of stated objectives. Thus, by casting themselves as part of a populist defence against a threatening Islam, these groups have sought to legitimate their ‘supposedly righteous action’ (Campion, 2019). In other words, because they have mobilised around a salient public issue, the far-right has been able to connect with mainstream concerns, bringing these groups and their ideologies closer to the Australian public. Finally, because these groups have tended to attack Muslims under the guise of liberal ideals and the ‘protection’[10] of Australia, they experienced a level of success in escaping being written off for being too extreme (AMAN, 2021). 

This phase is defined by the construction of Muslims as the racialised ‘Other’.[11] However, anti-establishment messaging played an equally important role during this phase of mobilisation. The Australian far-right has used populism to attack the government, claiming that they allowed the interests of minority and religious groups to override the interests of the majority (‘the people’) (Lewis et.al, 2017). Because of this framing, these groups were able to convey anti-establishment ideas without being dismissed as anti-democratic (Rydgren, 2005). Although intense hostility towards those ‘above’ has become a more defining feature of the far-right in recent years, these anti-Islam groups were sowing seeds of distrust through their insistence that Australia’s national interests are being diminished by international treaties about refugees and immigration (Lewis et.al, 2017).

The formation and then dismantling and splintering[12] of these anti-Islam groups has played an instrumental role in the contemporary landscape of the Australian far-right. The recent CARR-Hedayah Radical Right Counter-Narratives (RRCN) project report highlighted the movement of members of anti-Islam protest movements to more extreme ‘fight clubs’ and neo-Nazi cells (Allchorn, 2021). The report also noted the radicalisation of narratives from the populist anti-Muslim rhetoric described in this article to more explicitly white supremacist and chauvinist narratives witnessed in recent years. One demonstration of the evolution of these groups can be seen in the 2017 formation of the Lads Society, from members of the disbanded anti-Islam protest group the United Patriots Front (UPF) (Allchorn, 2021). Although the UFP’s discourse was centred around the supposed threat that Islam and Muslims posed to Australian society, the CARR-Hedayah report noted that the Lads Society expressed a more overtly white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology. In 2020 the Nationalist Socialist Network formed as an offshoot of the Lads Society (led by former UFP and Lads Society member Tom Sewell) and incorporates known members of the far-right group, Antipodean Resistance), promoting explicitly racial supremacist, anti-democratic and antisemitic ideas. (Besser and Whalan, 2021 & Allchorn, 2021). 

The study of these formal groups is important. However, it is also important to reiterate that the Australian far-right has characteristically diverse and disparate, particularly between these periods of mobilisation. A recent assessment of the structure explains that in Australia (even more so than the United States and Europe), far-right organisation is increasingly based on the leaderless resistance model, a framework of small, disparate cells and a large number of ‘loosely connected individuals, online communities and connections that occasionally spill into the offline world’[13] (Grossman et.al, 2021). These highly networked, interconnected cells and individuals include populist politicians, alternative news representatives, and international movements (Gregoire, 2021). The discussion that follows will examine how the far-right have mobilised around the COVID-19 pandemic. It seeks to offer clear evidence of an evolution of the far-right from the formal groups of the mid-2010s to a more connected framework of small groups and leaderless networks. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The preceding discussion identified widespread Islamophobia as having created a conducive environment for far-right activity. Similarly, a range of disparate far-right ideas, groups and supporters have come together during the pandemic and attached themselves to fears and hostilities expressed in the mainstream. Civil agitation combined with dissatisfaction with government measures has ‘elicited a keen reaction by the Australian far-right’, with actors demonstrating a willingness to take these anti-establishment sentiments and exploit them to promote their own political agendas (Jones, 2021).

Australia’s intelligence organisation ASIO assessed that ‘COVID-19 restrictions are being exploited by extreme right-wing narratives that paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing’ and further that the pandemic has ‘reinforced an extreme right-wing belief in the inevitability of societal collapse and a “race war”’ (Christodoulou, 2020). The far-right have opportunistically exploited government measures (such as closing borders and enforcing isolation) to support narratives that promote ethnic segregation and extreme immigration restrictions (Khalil and Roose, 2020). This is a fascinating and complex period of mobilisation and demonstrates a noticeable expansion from a predominant focus on the nativist-constructed ‘other’ (Muslims, people of African descent, and those of Asian appearance)[14] to also incorporating attacks on ‘The System’. Dr. Mario Peucker’s recent work (2021) details this shift clearly, noting that these new far-right narratives encompass attacks on the global elite, agencies and sources of information such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, as well as national ‘tentacles’ including the Australian government and the political elite, mainstream media and universities.

Populist politics have been re-energised by the circumstances of the pandemic and have mirrored the far-right in combining nativism with attacks on the government and ‘system’. An example is Hanson’s recent claims that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese laboratory and then ‘unleashed’ on the world (Sengul, 2021). She has also exploited the pandemic to further her populist rejection of the ‘elite’, attacking international organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the United Nations, claiming they are ‘corrupt globalist bureaucracies’ that are using the pandemic to‘squeeze more money from “struggling Australians” (Sengul, 2020). In addition, the promotion of distrust towards the national government has been evident in Hanson’s condemnation of introduced measures to counter the pandemic (e.g., lockdowns and social distancing laws) (Sengul, 2020). Political contemporaries have similarly been pushing similar ideas. For instance, the One Nation Party’s NSW leader Mark Latham claims that ‘our country’ has become ‘a dictatorship of the health bureaucrats’ (Sengul, 2020). 

During the pandemic, conspiracy theories have been a vital ideological and discursive tool. Different conspiracy theories have been recycled that convey antisemitic tropes of a global Jewish cabal running the world (Peucker, 2021) or promoting distrust and hatred towards Muslims and people of Asian descent (Macklin, 2020). The far-right has also been observed strategically expanding their narratives online, and consequently merging with existing conspiracy theorists and their subscribers in a way they had not before – such as QAnon, ‘anti-vaxxers’, anti-5G activists, and ‘sovereign citizens’, a broad membership that proclaim independence from state laws and regulations (Khalil and Roose, 2020). This expansion of narratives was demonstrated by the far-right Australian Protectionist Party—a group established on standard far-right ideologies of anti-immigration and white supremacy. A recent study found that the APP held one of the most active Australian Gab[15] accounts. Recent activity on this platform found that the group was combining its established ideological narratives with other QAnon, anti-vaccination and pandemic-related conspiracy theories, including the idea that global elites are supposedly seeking to annihilate large parts of the global population and that vaccines contain microchips (Guerin et.al, 2021).

Recent anti-lockdown protests in various Australian cities have also resulted in different groups in society intersecting. Although there are many ties between the protests and the far-right, senior research fellow in extremist Joshua Roose explains that these protests have attracted people from a broad section of society (Knaus and McGowan, 2020). Widespread fear, the impacts of long-term precariousness to income and business, and distrust in the government and medical industry have resulted in significant overlap between frustrated citizens, conspiracy theorists and far-right actors (Knaus and McGowan, 2020). This overlap is not accidental. For example, the Australian chapter of the Proud Boys became more active during the pandemic and engaged in anti-lockdown protests and vigilante-style activism against left-wing opponents[16] (Allchorn, 2021). Leaders of the Nationalist Socialist Network[17] have also been reported as being in attendance and attempting to recruit new members at a recent anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne  (Kelly, 2021).

There is also evidence of extremist far-right members using anti-lockdown protest groups to mobilise an online community[18] and gradually introduce more radical ideas. For example, known far-right actor Harrison McLean used an alias to run an anti-lockdown and ‘freedom’ group on the encrypted messenger app Telegram, gaining more than 2,000 followers and attracting hundreds of people to street protests (McGowan, 2021). The activities of this group may seem to revolve around democratic concerns about lockdowns and freedom rights. However, this group—and others like it[19]—operate in a space where conspiracy theories, anti-establishment messaging, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Sinophobia and other expressions of racism are readily shared (McGowan, 2021).[20]

Conclusion

This article tracked the ways in which salient public issues have granted the Australian far-right opportunities to become more cohesive in its activity, mobilise a broader audience, and converge with mainstream narratives and populist politics. Islamophobic and anti-Muslim discourses continue to be a significant component of far-right ideology. However, they are not the primary source of mobilisation, as witnessed in the mid-2010s. With the passing of time, research has been able to identify the impacts of this period of mobilisation, notably the splintering of these groups into more extreme cells and the normalisation of racial supremacist—and (to a lesser degree) anti-establishment—narratives. 

This article was written during the second salient public issue identified, the COVID-19 pandemic. It and the heightened anti-government and anti-establishment rhetoric around it, continues to unfold. The longer-term consequences of this period of far-right activity and increased interaction with the mainstream public will become more apparent with time and the intensified focus on the Australian far-right. 


 

(*) Chloe Smith recently attained a Master of Islamic Studies from Charles Sturt University, Australia. She also holds a bachelor of counterterrorism, security and intelligence from Edith Cowan University. Chloe’s research interests include radicalisation and extremism studies, Islamophobia, and populism.


 

References

— (2020). Mapping Networks and Narratives of Online Right-Wing Extremists in New South Wales. Macquarie University. https://zenodo.org/record/4071472#.YUhXAi2w1QI

— (2021). “Submission and Proposals in Relation to the Online Safety Bill (Exposure Draft).” Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (AMAN). https://www.communications.gov.au/sites/default/files/submissions/osb-australian-muslim-advocacy-network.pdf (accessed on July 23, 2021).

— (2021). “Hate Beyond Borders: The Internationalisation of White Supremacy.” Anti-Defamation League (ADL). https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/hate-beyond-borders-the-internationalization-of-white-supremacy (accessed on July 23, 2021).

— (2021). “The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism with De Anne Aly MP.” The Australia Institute. Webinar Transcript.February 10, 2021. https://australiainstitute.org.au/post/the-rise-of-right-wing-extremism-with-dr-anne-aly-mp/ (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Akbarzadeh, Shahram. (2016). The Muslim Question in Australia: Islamophobia and Muslim Alienation.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 36, no 3: 323–33. https://doi.org/10.1080/13602004.2016.1212493

Allchorn, William. (2021). “Australian Radical Right Narratives and Counter-Narratives in an Age of Terrorism.” Hedayah Centre. April 13, 2021, https://www.hedayahcenter.org/media-center/latest-news/blog-post-australian-radical-right-narratives-and-counter-narratives-in-an-age-of-terror/ (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Allchorn, William. (2021). Australian Radical Right Narratives and Counter-Narratives in an Age of Terrorism. CARR-Hedayah Radical Right Counter Narratives Project. https://www.hedayahcenter.org/resources/reports_and_publications/australia_radical_right_cve_narratives/ (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Besser, Linton & Whalan, Roscoe. “Neo-Nazi Groups Banned in Canada and Europe Set Sights on Australia.” ABC News. Last updated March 29, 2021. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-28/banned-neo-nazi-groups-set-sights-on-australia/100030072 (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Bogle, Ariel & Zhang, Albert. (2021). “Australia’s Lockdown Demonstrations Show How Quickly Local Protests Can Go Global.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Last updated August 10, 2021. https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-lockdown-demonstrations-show-how-quickly-local-protests-can-go-global/ (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Campion, Kristy. (2019). “A lunatic fringe? The persistence of right wing extremism in Australia.” Perspectives on Terrorism. Vol. 13, no. 2: 2-20. https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/binaries/content/assets/customsites/perspectives-on-terrorism/2019/issue-2/campion.pdf (accessed on September 20, 2021).

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Dorling, Philip. (2017). “The American far-right origins of Pauline Hanson’s views on Islam.” The Australia Institutehttps://australiainstitute.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/P317-Far-right-American-origins-of-One-Nations-views-on-Islam.pdf (accessed on September 20, 2021).

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Fenton-Smith, Ben. (2020). “The (Re)Birth of Far-Right Populism in Australia: The appeal of Pauline Hanson’s Persuasive Definitions.” In: Discursive Approaches to Populism Across Disciplines. Edited by Michael Kranert. London: Palgrave Macmillian.

Guerin, Cecile; Peucker, Mario; Fisher, Thomas J. & Davey, Jacob. (2021). “A Snapshot of Far-Right activity on GAB in Australia.” Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies. May 19, 2021. https://www.isdglobal.org/isd-publications/a-snapshot-of-far-right-activity-on-gab-in-australia/ (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Gregoire, Paul. (2019). “Exposing the Far-Right in Australia: An Interview with the White Rose Society.” Sydney Criminal Lawyers (blog). June 13, 2019. https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/exposing-the-far-right-in-australia-an-interview-with-the-white-rose-society/ (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Grossman, Michele; Duckworth, Mark; Khalil, Lydia; Roose, Joshua & Peucker, Mario (2021). “Inquiry into Extremist Movements and Radicalism in Australia.” Australia: CRIS, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Intelligence_and_Security/ExtremistMovements

Khalil, Lydia & Roose, Joshua (2020). “Countering extremism and conspiracies in a global pandemic.” ABC Religion & Ethics. Last updated September 11, 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/religion/countering-extremism-and-conspiracies-in-a-pandemic/12656734 (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Knaus, Christopher & McGowan, Michael. (2020). “Who’s Behind Australia’s Anti-Lockdown Protests? The German Conspiracy Group Driving Marches.” The Guardian. Last updated July 27, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jul/27/who-behind-australia-anti-covid-lockdown-protest-march-rallies-sydney-melbourne-far-right-and-german-conspiracy-groups-driving-protests (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Jones, Callum. (2021). “Conspiracy Theories and the Australian Far-Right.” Monash University. February 4, 2021. https://lens.monash.edu/@politics-society/2021/02/04/1382797/conspiracy-theories-and-the-australian-far-right (accessed on September 20, 2021).

Kelly, Cait. (2021). “How Neo-Nazis are Using Anti-Lockdown Protests to Recruit New Members.” The New Daily. August 27, 2021. https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/national/2021/08/26/neo-nazi-anti-lockdown-recruit/ (accessed on September 20, 2021).

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Footnotes

 

[1] The ‘far-right’ is applied in this analysis as an umbrella term that captures a range of populist political, radical and extremist ideas, narratives and actors.

[2] Dr Mario Peucker, referenced in this paper, has also identified these two periods of mobilisation as highly salient. He views the public debates (first around Islam/Muslims and then the pandemic) as providing new discursive opportunities for the far-right. 

[3] Similar to international groups, the Australian far-right mobilise around anti-Muslim, populist, ethno-nationalist, white supremacist and chauvinist narratives (Allchorn, 2021).

[4] Pauline Hanson is a good case study because of her strongly populist style – however the Australian political system is recognised as housing a number of controversial, populist figures that have current or former ties to the major parties (Dorling, 2020).  Ben Moffitt (2017) describes populism being diffused into mainstream discourse, because the nation is an ‘accepting home of populist, populist style, discourse and issues.

[5] Other well-established definitions of populism such as the ‘ideational’ and ‘strategic’ approach are more limited in their ability to describe the widespread presentation of populism in Australian politics. These definitions are recognised to be more accurate at describing populist parties like those in Europe (using the ‘ideational’ approach) or populist leadership prominent in Latin America (using the ‘strategic’ approach) (Moffitt, 2017). 

[6] The far-right has proven to be adept at mobilizing around a range of public fears and resentments, and this has been most noticeable in different nativist, exclusionary discourses towards ethnic and culturally defined ‘Others’ in recent history (Peucker, 2021). For instance, prior to the widespread targeting of Muslims in the 1990s, there was a growth in far-right political parties, social movements and groups that formed around anti-Asian immigration narratives, correlating with higher levels of immigration from Asian countries at the time Macquarie University, 2020). More recently, people of African descent have also been targeted because of media-led moral panics around ‘crime gangs’ (Peucker, 2021).  Far-right hostility towards Islam and Muslims in Australia (and globally) is recognised to be a distinct topic of research because of the prolonged nature, institutionalisation and normalisation in public discourse, and the unique opportunities it has afforded the contemporary far-right to grow Poynting and Briskman, 2018). 

[7] A hostage situation by a self-styled Islamic State supporter that gained a huge amount of media and political attention (Macquarie University, 2020). 

[8] Pauline Hanson re-emerged in 2016 after a long break from politics, re-energized by the global rise of populism, and a political environment that was becoming increasingly more tolerant of the xenophobia that is characteristic of her politics. Hanson’s populist style is also characterised by her claims that she speaks on behalf of the ‘everyday’ Australian, her unsophisticated and transgressive ’plain speak’, and using this style of communication to prove she is unlike other politicians (Fenton-Smith, 2020).  Hanson is a highly visible fringe politician – it was recently recorded that she has 340,000 followers on Facebook, which is the second highest following of any Australian political leader after the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Sengul, 2021).

[9] Australia’s media organisations have heavily influenced the public perception of fear and distrust towards Muslims. For instance, One Path Media observed five Australian media outlets during 2017 and found 3,000 news articles linking Islam or Muslims with words like ‘terrorism’, ‘radicalism’ and ’violence’ (Esposito and Iner, 2018). 

[10] For instance far-right groups and politicians stoked fears of an ‘Islamisation’ of society, a collection of conspiracy narratives that claim the visible manifestations of Islam (e.g., headscarves, halal products and mosques) are a threat to dominant Australian culture and the physical security of Australians (e.g., from terrorism) (Akbarzadeh, 2016). 

[11] As Laura Cervi (2020) explains, racialisation entails ‘ascribing sets of characteristics viewed as inherent to members of a group because of their physical or cultural traits. Islamophobia has emerged as ‘racial’ because it amalgamates all Muslims into one group and ascribes a set of characteristics supposedly associated with Muslims to the entire Muslim population’. 

[12] These groups are noted to have splintered into different, often more extreme, groups. For instance, in 2015 alone, Reclaim Australia formed then splintered into the United Patriots Front, which in turn splintered into the True Blue Crew. Similarly, the Australian Defence League (founded in 2009) later splintered into the Sons of Odin and also remained strongly anti-Muslim during this time (Macquarie University, 2020). 

[13] The authors of this report note exceptions to this model, such as the aforementioned National Socialist Network.

[14] This is not to suggest that racialised minorities and non-white groups have become less of a focus for the far-right. For example, the pandemic has been used to reinforce anti-Chinese, anti-Muslim, and broader anti-Asian agitations. (Peucker, 2021). 

[15] Gab is an alternative social networking platform with a reputation for hosting the far-right and being permissive of far-right content. 

[16] Far-right extremist researcher Dr Kaz Ross noted that the Proud Boys have become increasingly active during 2020 – growing in members on their encrypted channel on the Telegram app, and becoming more brazen in their protesting at anti-lockdown rallies (with some members being pepper-sprayed, arrested and fined at a particular event) (Ross, 2020). 

[17] In his detailed analysis of Australian far-right groups and networks, William Allchorn (2021) recorded the Nationalist Socialist Network to have a combined platform followership of 3,231 users. They have also gained some notoriety for offline activities including camping, burning crosses and Nazi symbology (Besser and Whalan, 2021).

[18] The globalization of violent white supremacy has been accelerated by social networking sites like Twitter, Gab, Minds, Telegram and message boards like 8chan, 4chan and Reddit, which have created an echo chamber where racist and anti-Semitic ideologies are seen, repeated and reinforced by like-minded people (‘Hate Beyond Borders’, 2021). 

[19] Such as the Telegram Account ‘Australia Awakens,’ which describes itself as a channel ‘designed especially for your friends who are either on the fence or questioning the mainstream narrative’ about the pandemic. On the surface this may imply the activity on this channel is relatively benign, the content shared (memes, videos and posts) is often exclusionary, extreme, and racist (Sparrow, 2021).

[20] There are indications that these protests and groups have connected themselves to a global movement and agenda; recent anti-lockdown protests were not only branded as an opposition to Australia’s pandemic restrictions, they were also presented as a ‘World Wide Rally for Freedom’ (Bogle and Zhang, 2021). 

Caricature of Italian politicians Beppe Grillo, Matteo Renzi and Matteo Salvini in carnival parade of floats and masks, on January 2018 in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy. Photo: Kokophotos.

Prof. Pappas: We need creative leaders with realistic agendas against populism

Professor Takis Pappas: “I think that exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.”

Interview by Erdem Kaya   

Challenging ahistorical definitions Professor Takis Pappas, who is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement”(PACE), views modern populism as a phenomenon emerging against political liberalism in the post-war Europe and the Americas. Pappas referring to a minimalist definition of democracy takes modern populism simply as “illiberal democracy” which stands as an unstable category between liberalism and autocracy. Pappas designed a causal model based on a detailed comparative analysis of prominent cases to develop a theoretical explanation of modern populism. In his perspective, in order to counter populist politics, we need creative leaders with realistic agendas as well as the adaptation of liberal institutions to present-day political realities of the democratic world. 

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

Your research underlines the necessity of the clarification of the basic concepts and exposes the conceptual and methodological errors in populism literature. To begin with, how do you outline the common problems within the growing literature on populism?

The literature on populism has grown fast but also in a haphazard way. As a result, the concept of populism is being stretched to a breaking point. It was several decades ago that Margaret Canovan, among others, warned that, the more flexible this concept would become, the more tempted political scientists and others would be to label “populist” anything that doesn’t fit into previously established categories. This is what has actually happened. Today, “populism” is everywhere and almost everything is “populist.” 

This highly problematic situation has two main causes: On the one hand, there is in the generic literature of populism a tremendous lack of empirical knowledge about the cases classified as populist and, on the other hand, there is by now a very large number of attributes, or features, that are commonly attributed to populism while in reality they are quite common in other political phenomena, as well. 

What is, therefore, necessary in order to get out of such an impasse and be able to make useful and meaningful theoretical propositions, is to first focus on the core properties that are unique to the concept “populism” and, second, to acquire detailed historical and political knowledge of the cases that fit the definition of the concept and, therefore, ought to be classified as populist.

Populism Is Time- and Space-specific

Your argument specifies the concept of populism focusing on post-war Europe and the Americas as a spatiotemporal realm instead of searching for a timeless, one-size-fits-all definition. Can you please unpack your approach and explain the rationale behind it?

Populism, like all other political phenomena, is time- and space-specific. Think about “democracy” and how this concept applies in three different spatiotemporal settings: ancient Greece, 19th century Europe, and our own times in still early 21st century. The concept is the same but the ways it materializes across historical eras and places is entirely different. The same happens if you try to compare the populism of, say, the Gracchi brothers in the late Roman republic, the 17th century Levellers in England, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In more than one senses, all three are expressions of a generic populism. So what? To study them comparatively is as meaningless as studying together ancient Greek democracy and, say, Germany’s post-war and contemporary democracy! 

What my work brings into focus, instead, is modern-day populism. More specifically, my interest in populism stems from, and addresses, a real historical and political puzzle, namely, the transformation of post-war liberal democracies into populist ones. I ask why, and how, certain societies with a previous liberal tradition may allow into power populist leaders who subsequently establish illiberal democratic regimes. Obviously, my work finds empirical resonance precisely in those countries in which liberalism became established, however feebly, in the aftermath of World War II. With no exception, those countries are to be found either in Europe or in the Americas.

Modern Populism Is Synonymous to Illiberal Democracy

Your definition of modern populism as “illiberal democracy” and “the rejection of liberal democracy” is quite straightforward. Modern populism is still democratic and not autocratic though it is clearly against the liberal canon. But you also take populism as an unstable category in the liberalism-autocracy spectrum. When does a populist party cross the Rubicon and cease to be democratic in this spectrum? Should we then drop the title of populism for nondemocratic autocracies, such as the Orbán government in Hungary?

My theoretical work hinges on just two pairs of clearly defined opposites: democracy vs. nondemocracy and liberalism vs. illiberalism. Now, if you agree with me that modern populism is synonymous to illiberal democracy, then we end up with only three basic political systems, or regimes: liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, and autocracy. In this view, populism stands midway between democratic liberalism and the rejection of democratic pluralism. Which way it will go eventually depends on a large variety of reasons including structural and agentic factors, external crises, and other conjunctural events. 

Telling when a party passes from one type to another is easy when we have clear and easily operationalized definitions of the basic political systems. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for instance, which was conceived as a populist force under the leadership of Hugo Chávez has in more recent years transformed into an authoritarian party under its current leader Nicolás Maduro. Quite the opposite is, for instance, the case of Greece’s PASOK—a classic populist party that in more recent years (and amidst the financial crisis that befell on that country in the early 2010s) recast itself as a liberal force. There are many other similar cases.

In your recently published book, Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis you argue that extraordinary or charismatic leadership plays a prominent role in the populist emergence. What does it take to be a successful populist leader in the first place?

Indeed, I know no case of successful populism that is not being led by a leader with charismatic qualities. To put it in a nutshell: No charisma, no successful populism. In contrast to ordinary, non-charismatic leaders whose rule is rather impersonal and procedural, charismatics display two different characteristics—the personal nature of their authority and the radicalism of the political goals they seek to achieve. Accordingly, I understand, and define, political charisma as a distinct type of legitimate leadership that is personal and aims at the radical transformation of an established institutional order. Under this definition, charismatic leaders are not identified as such by their electoral success, which would make for a tautological analysis, nor by any physical or personal characteristics, such as physical height, oratorial skills and the like. 

My definition of charisma requires leaders combining two characteristics: full personal authority and radical political aims. Come to think of it, this type of authority is both extraordinary and rare. For, in the reality of ordinary politics, most parliamentary democracies are ruled by collective decision-making processes in the pursuit of moderate and piecemeal reforms, not radical change. But then, when I looked at my cases of populism, I realized that, with no single exception, all had emerged out of extraordinary leadership action. Most typically, the charismatic populists have had founded their own parties (or, as in the case of Trump, taken full control over existing ones) and, by exercising full control over the party organizations, used them as their means to radically change liberal democratic systems into illiberal ones. 

Populist and Nativist Parties Constitute Different Classes

In your studies, you argue that nativism is often conflated or inaccurately identified with populism. What is the difference between nativism and populism

This question of yours takes us back to the quest for empirical data. Try to compare factually, for instance, Denmark’s Progress Party and Hungary’s Fidesz. Both parties are often classified as “populist.” But what makes them similar? The question is apparently rhetorical for the differences far exceed any similarities those parties may have. Simple comparison of the cases easily reveals that populist and nativist parties constitute different classes which should not be kept analytically separate. Populist parties depend on charismatic leaders, tend to develop in flawed liberal democracies and, when in office, pursue comprehensive illiberal political agendas. In contrast, nativist parties are mostly led by ordinary (non-charismatic) leaders, grow particularly strong in Europe’s most politically advanced and economically strong liberal democracies, aim at specific policies rather than entire political system overhauls, and, interestingly enough, have never won power singlehandedly. There are several other differences between populist and nativist parties, which I have presented in booksarticles but also in simple infographic form.

Your research on the theoretical and comparative study of populism fills a critical gap in the literature. What do you think is the main challenge in theorizing populism?

The real challenge is to understand what causes populism and how it then afflicts our liberal democratic systems. There are several gaps in our knowledge which my work tries to fill in logical order. You see, to establish causality, we need to do meticulous empirical research on the significant cases of populist occurrence. But to do so, we must previously have selected the cases carefully and organized them into coherent classificatory system. But this is a far from easy task, especially when our definitions are unclear and ambiguous. 

Everything Begins with a Charismatic Leader

You developed a causal model for the theoretical explanation of the populist emergence. How does your causal model work?

Yes, I have developed a model including the causal chain of populism informed by the detailed comparative analysis of significant cases over long periods of time. It is based on the interplay of three factors: political structures, individual agency, and the activation of micro- and meso-mechanisms that are absolutely necessary to produce the populist outcome. Everything begins with a charismatic leader who emerges against major crises of democratic legitimacy, often involving the collapse of entire party systems. That leader then is able to activate a chain of mechanisms including the politicization of resentment, the forging of “the people” as an inclusive social category, and active social mobilization against established constitutional legality. It is interesting to see how similarly this model works in ostensibly dissimilar countries with strong populism such as Italy and Venezuela or the United States and Hungary.

There is also the political significance element you refer to. You do not choose Japan or Australia as negative cases where populism has not turned into a major political force though these are liberal democracies. What makes Brazil and Spain negative cases and different from Japan and Australia?

Japan and Australia (which, not unimportantly, are island nations) are solid liberal democracies with no populism worthy of serious consideration. But Spain and Brazil present an altogether different but very interesting puzzle. Given the strong populism in other countries in their respective neighborhoods (Italy and Greece in Southern Europe, Argentina in Latin America) why did populism come so late in Spain and Brazil? Remember that the Spanish PODEMOS was founded as late as 2014 and had never had the success of contemporary populist parties in Greece or Italy. As of Brazil, it remained paradoxically free of populism at least until the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in the presidency of this country. In my book, I dedicate separate chapters in each of these two countries trying to address this paradox. 

The historical phenomenon of modern populism in your perspective excludes the varieties of populism in non-Western parts of the world where liberal democracy has not turned into an overall political tradition. There are flawed but functioning democracies such as South Africa, India, Mongolia, South Korea that are outside Europe and the Americas but definitely meet Przeworski’s minimalist definition. Do you see a possibility to extend the comparative study of populism to include the non-Western cases where there is a steady progress towards liberal democracy

My research focus is, indeed, on western-type democracies that have already experienced modern liberalism but made a switch from liberal democracy to populism. My interest does not extend, therefore, to states which, even if they allow elections, lack any liberal tradition. Russia and Turkey are such representative cases. Also here belong the various pre-liberal faulty democracies examined by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 essay on the rise of illiberal democracies. With the exception of South Korea, the other cases that you mention would belong in this group of non-western and non-liberal countries along with the cases mentioned by Zakaria including Belarus and Kazakhstan, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, the Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority and Haiti. 

Liberal Democracy Needs to Remodel Itself

Liberal democracy in the post-war period has spread and gained global acceptance under the US hegemony. So, in a similar way, how do you think a possible unraveling of democracy in the US would affect of the fate of liberal democracy in the Western world?

Unsurprisingly, populism tends to grow strong where liberal democracy becomes weak or inefficient. After decades of continuous self-advancement and expansion, liberal democracy has reached a point at which it needs to remodel itself. Institutions need both to be respected and become more congruous with new social realities, including identity politics; politicians must find new ways for achieving consensus on critical issues rather than serving polarized policies; and markets also have to become more controlled by benevolent states intent to fend off inequalities. Populist leaders, like Trump and his political kin, thrive precisely in environments of institutional inefficacy, political polarization, and economic inequality. In such situations, liberal democracy may indeed unravel, as it happened in the US under Trump’s presidency. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was during his presidency that some of the biggest countries in the world—including India, Brazil, Turkey—saw their electoral democracies deteriorate and even turn to authoritarianism.

And, as my last question, I am wondering how you would define the best way to counter populist politics. Do you think “liberal mind” or liberal democracy the only antidote to modern populism?

Populism is not inevitable, of course. But nor has liberal democracy been carved in history’s marble. In fact, history has never ended and is full of surprising twists. I believe that today we are living through an era in which democratic states reconsider whether they want to stay liberal or take an illiberal path without abolishing their democratic semblance. I also believe that the liberal states are reconsidering their “liberalism.” Immigration has posed to them a real challenge, which is how to stay liberal while also accommodating within their national borders (and their societies, their economies, and their politics) significant numbers of illiberal others. In short, the real question is: What are the limits of liberalism? Or, put in another way: How much of illiberalism are liberal states able to bear? In all those cases, it would be naïve to say that the “liberal mind” or some liberal ethos would be sufficient to counter the foes of liberalism. I think, instead, that, exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.

Who is Takis Pappas?

Takis Pappas is a trained political scientist with a Ph.D. from Yale University and an expert on populism, democracy, and political leadership. Currently, he is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement” (PACE). Having extensively published on populism in English and Greek, Pappas is a frequent keynote speaker at many academic and non-academic events, and a regular op-ed contributor in Kathimerini, Greece’s major newspaper.

Pappas has authored five books, the last of which is Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2019) and coedited two. He has also authored Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (Palgrave 2014; also translated in Greek), and co-edited European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015). 

His articles have appeared in American Behavioral Scientist, Comparative Political Studies, Constellations, Government and Opposition, Journal of Democracy, Party Politics, West European Politics, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia among others. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a virtual interview from Moscow with news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) on June 5, 2021, addressed a number of pressing issues. Photo: Nick Raille.

The Contours of Populism in Russia: An Elite Strategy to Preserve the Status Quo

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West applies unproblematically in Russia. Being different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues.

By Ilkhom Khalimzoda

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West (Western Europe and North America) applies unproblematically in Russia. Although Russia has a very long history of populism dating back to the Narodniki of the late 19th century, the renewed focus in the West means that populism in Russia is again in the spotlight. This renewed attention requires a clear idea of what Russian populism is and how it manifests through the political system.

Minayeva (2017: 130) has described the differences between populism in the West and Russia as follows:

For Europe and the United States, populism is a technological component of liberal democracy, which at the present stage is more competently used by opposition parties. In Russia, populism does not entail a change of political elites while maintaining the political system but is a way of preserving the existing state of affairs. The current President of the Russian Federation decided the issue of countering the Populist movement, effectively leading it as the leader of the country.

Of course, scholars have long recognized distinct regional forms and manifestations of populism. We can now turn to unpack that idea in more detail.

How Should We Understand Populism?

As is well understood, populism remains a contested concept in political communication research and is studied heavily in political manifestos and the mass media (Engesser et al., 2017: 1109). For some, populism is a political style or logic, and for others, it is an ideology, discourse, or a strategy of governance (Burrett, 2020). In sum, there is no broad consensus concerning the conceptual definition of populism, which is inherited chiefly from the democracies, because— as noted above— it is described as a component of liberal democracy that is most skilfully used by opposition parties (Minayeva, 2017). One scholar has even described it as a “slippery slope” that escapes precise definition (Ylä-Anttila, 2019). Nevertheless, there is a core of at least five key elements that comprise populist communication. Thus, populist discourse manifests in advocacy for the people, attacking elites, ostracizing others, invoking the heartland (Engesser et al., 2017: 1111), and making unfeasible promises to the electorate (Kynev, 2017).

The Contours of Populism in Russia

Populism manifests itself differently depending on contextual conditions (Priester, 2007). Its appearance may also change depending on the needs of the actors (right- or left-wing) and the political system (democratic or authoritarian). For example, in Western Europe, it is opposition parties that adopt populist rhetoric the most, while in Central European countries like Hungary and Poland, populists have acquired sufficient support to gain power and govern. Naturally, populism differs in Russia. Populism is undoubtedly used both by the establishment and the opposition. Indeed, Mamonova (2018) speaks of “populism in power” in Russia, “where governmental leaders use populist rhetoric and practices to gain popular support and maintain their positions.”

In Russia, populists spread their message through party press, mainstream mass media, and also more recently, through digital platforms. The most intensified media visibility of the populists is seen close to election time. In his investigation on electoral populism, Kynev (2017) has found that both the ruling party and oppositional actors adopt populism in practice. For example, he notes that mediatized public discourse—or, indeed, any political demand that enters the public domain—forms part of the ruling class’ populism. The opposition, however, promises more legislative achievements, such as raising salaries and pensions or ensuring prices remain low and stable, neither of which, needless to say, are ever implemented. Readers can find plenty of case studies in Kynev’s work.

Populism in the Russian Media

In a recent paper, Burrett (2020) examines the Russian media from 2000 to 2020 to analyze whether the label “populist” is appropriately applied in the case of President Vladimir Putin. The study uncovered a range of different political communication strategies used by the president during his 20 years in power. For example, Putin’s first term in office covered the war in Chechnya and the discourse around that, as well as his initial attempts to paint himself as an anti-elite president, ready to fight for the country against a corrupt elite. However, according to the study, once he became the core of the new Russian elite, he changed his rhetoric to position himself against the global elite. In all this, his control over the media has allowed these shifting (and somewhat contradictory) messages to be disseminated to large audiences in Russia. Overall, Burrett finds that Putin can be described as populist in discursive terms only since he has consistently deployed some aspects of populism while avoiding others.

Populism and Popular Culture

In a chapter titled “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet,” Vera Zvereva (2020) has analyzed in depth the way populist messages have been crafted strategically for maximum impact with Russian audiences. She notes how in Russia, “political messages are often … expressed in the language of popular culture.” As a result, populists translate “complicated ideas—i.e. the workings of modern social systems—into simple categories that are clear to everyone, while its arguments are often based on the ‘politics of fear’.” She further points out that populist messages are often overly “simplified, black-and-white constructions around ‘the people, their ‘enemies’ and the ‘dangers’ they bring are borrowed from the genres of popular culture, with noble heroes and innocent victims, scheming enemies and evil powers” (Zvereva 2020: 236).

Populists Love Affairs

As many scholars have noted, a central element of populism today displayed in the media is the idea of the virtuous “heartland” set against the villainous Other (immigrants, globalists, liberals, etc.). Russia is no exception. In their recent edited volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism, Tumbler and Waisbord (2021) bring together several chapters that show how anti-immigrant disinformation has a long history across the globe and how a diverse network of actors pushes anti-immigrant disinformation, bolstering and promoting anti-immigrant attitudes among the wider public. This sort of disinformation is strongly associated with the ideology of exclusion and nativist supremacy that underpins right-wing populism and far-right extremism. The modus operandi is to spread fake, incomplete, or manipulative information on given topics through social and mass media. In this regard, scholars stated that “anti-immigrant disinformation is part of a culture war in which an ecosystem of actors (far-right, alt-right, populist, and conservative) reinforces a common opposition to a pluralist worldview” (Culloty & Suiter, 2021: 10).

Also, on the Russian media sphere, among others, political actors like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the Liberal Democratic Party) have normalized anti-immigrant disinformation, blending populist and nationalist rhetoric, often in cahoots with sympathetic media outlets. Another very intriguing example is a Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (now in prison), who released YouTube videos describing himself as a “certified nationalist” and advancing thinly veiled xenophobic ideas (Luxmoore, 2021). Although he has retreated from his ultra-nationalist stance in recent years, it is still interesting to observe how populism is an appealing strategy.

Conclusion

As we can see, different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse (Zamiatin, 2018) when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues. As Zvereva (2020: 234) puts it, “the state authorities try to present politics as either too complicated for ‘ordinary people, or as a battleground of malevolent forces, or a stage for eccentric individuals. This strategy helps to marginalize the political voices of the opposition and exclude the very possibility of critical public discussion of domestic and foreign policy issues.”


 

References

Burrett, T. (2020). “Charting Putin’s Shifting Populism in the Russian Media from 2000 to 2020.” Politics and Governance. Vol 8, No 1 (2020): Leadership, Populism and Power. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i1.2565

Culloty, E.; Suiter, J. (2021). “Anti-immigration disinformation.” In: T. Howard and W. Silvio (Eds.). The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Engesser, S.; Ernst, N.; Esser, F. & Büchel, F. (2017). “Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology.” Information, Communication & Society. 20:8, pp.1109–1126, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697

Kynev, A. (2017). “Elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah [Electoral-populism-in-Russian-elections].” Вестник общественного мнения. No. 1–2 (124). P.65–84. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Luxmoore, M. (2021). “Navalny’s Failure To Renounce His Nationalist Past May Be Straining His Support.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Libertyhttps://www.rferl.org/a/navalny-failure-to-renounce-nationalist-past-support/31122014.html(accessed on September 1, 2021).

Mamonova, N. (2018). “Vladimir Putin and the Rural Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Russia.” Open Democracyhttps://www.opendemocracy.net/en/vladimir-putin-and-rural-roots-of-authoritarian-populism-in-russia/ (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Minayeva, A.V. (2017). “Russian Populism: Political Reality or Perspective? [ROSSIYSKIY POPULIZM: POLITICHESKAYA REALNOST’ ILI PERSPEKTIVA?” Вестник Пермского университета. ПОЛИТОЛОГИЯ. 2017. NO 4. https://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/rossiyskiy-populizm-politicheskaya-realnost-ili-perspektiva/viewer (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Priester, K. (2007). Populismus: Historische und aktuelle Erscheinungsformen. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus.

Scoones, Ian; Edelman, Marc; M. Borras Jr. Saturnino; Hall, Ruth; Wolford, Wendy & White, Ben. (2018). “Emancipatory rural politics: confronting authoritarian populism.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. 45:1, 1–20, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2017.1339693

Tumber, Howard, and Silvio Waisbord, (Eds.). (2021) The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Ylä-Anttila, T. (2019). “Populismista, eli meistä ja muista.” Media & Viestintä. 42(2). Noudettu osoitteesta https://journal.fi/mediaviestinta/article/view/83377.

Zamiatin, Alexandr. (2018). “Depolitizatsiia: kak nas otluchali ot politiki.” Colta. July 3. https://www.colta.ru/articles/society/18498 (accessed on September 3, 2021).

Zvereva, V. (2019). “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet.” In: M. Wijermars, & K. Lehtisaari (Eds.). Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere. (pp. 225–247). Routledge. BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429437205-12

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes.

Dog Whistles vs. Slide Whistles: Humor as Weapon and Resistance

Today’s satirical landscape has become more complicated than the past decade’s pattern of journalistic provocations, physical attacks, and right-wing reactions. Katrine Fangen finds that: “Even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes.”

By Heidi Hart

At a recent demonstration by the anti-immigrant populist group SIAN (Stop the Islamisation of Norway) in Norway, painfully close to the ten-year anniversary of the far-right terror attacks in Oslo (Gjelsvik, 2021), a small far-right contingent voiced their vitriol through loudspeakers in front of Stortinget, the capitol city’s parliament building. Several hundred counter-protesters met them with chants, drums, a jazz trumpet, cowbells, an electric guitar, and (thanks to my son, Evan Hart, who has lived in Norway since 2016) a slide whistle. “It was a bit chaotic, but that was the point,” he said, recalling our talks about rhythmic disturbance as a way to interrupt lockstep behavior in far-right demos.

The syncopated chants “Vi er alle antifascister” (“We are all antifascists”) and “Ingen rasister i våre gater” (“No racists in our streets”) worked against any marchlike beats coming from the SIAN speakers. Off-kilter, improvisational noisemaking, along with homemade banners and Pride flags, certainly helped deflate SIAN’s racist, populist posturing – however protected by free speech concerns in Norway – and humor helped as well. I even caught a duck call whistle in the sound clips my son recorded. 

Humor in the form of satirical cartoons has long been a flashpoint in European immigration debates. In Denmark, the Netherlands, and France over the past 15 years, cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed have incited violent reactions, not only as caricatures but also as insults to a religion that is “iconoclastic” in that it “does not permit God to be anthropomorphized … and prizes textual scripture instead” (Taub, 2015). Attacks on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and on several sites in Copenhagen (related to another cartoonist, Lars Vilks) from 2010 to 2015, along with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, fed far-right populist reactions throughout Europe, from Pegida and the AfD party in Germany to SIAN and many online splinter groups; a 2014 study predicted this development, showing that particular, controversial events lead to spikes in anti-Muslim sentiment, which has not grown in a single, steady curve.  

Today’s satirical landscape has become more complicated than the past decade’s pattern of journalistic provocations, physical attacks, and right-wing reactions. Katrine Fangen, who has studied anti-Muslim views expressed in social media, finds that: “Even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes” (Fangen, 2021).  

Fangen has also noted the use of emojis to “camouflage” anti-Muslim and misogynistic views (“Gendered Images,”2021). Though far-right fanzines used similar tactics in the 1990s, she points out, the ease of viral spread on the internet has attracted far wider audiences, using humor as a seemingly harmless gateway to mainstreaming racial stereotypes and stoking fears that Muslims are “taking over” countries like Germany or Norway, failing to see that most immigrants are fleeing extremist governments in their own countries. 

In the memesphere, the American webcomic StoneToss has attracted controversy for its Holocaust-denial dog whistlesand other semi-coded references to white supremacist, homophobic, and misogynist thinking. On sites like Reddit (often politically problematic in its own right), critics have parsed racist, sexist tropes veiled in “edgy humor.” One reaction among leftist groups has been to appropriate and “remix” StoneToss comics (Gilmour, 2021), with what my son calls “layers of irony” that may escape not only less sophisticated populists but even older progressives like me. The “antifastonetoss” page includes completed remixes, blank-thought-bubble templates, and test runs for community feedback. Subreddit links and critiques of source StoneToss comics abound, as do comments that, under their clever snark, show real concern for the damage hateful content can do, and that offer what might incite a Gen Z eyeroll if I say this: kindness, as in “Trans people are biblically accurate angels.” 

Another surprising site of weaponized, white supremacist humor is the ostensibly “friendship is magic” world of My Little Pony. For the past decade or so, young men calling themselves “Bronies” have associated themselves with the toy-inspired cartoon series for various reasons, one of which is an incel-driven need to bond with other straight, white men who feel socially and/or sexually outcast. What could be, and is in some cases, ironic or escapist enjoyment of characters like Rainbow Dash and their sparkly adventures has morphed into a whole memeverse of trolling and counter-trolling, coded vocabulary, and some explicitly violent content, such as “a My Little Pony character presiding over three lynchings and one beheading of cartoons drawn to represent various marginalized groups” (Tiffany, 2020). Over the past several years, a virtual civil war has erupted over the “4chan ethos” of archiving everything, leading to some censorship of violent images but not of racist messages (Tiffany, 2020).

On the other side of the political divide, in the post-Trump, pandemic-exhausted, heatwave-traumatized US, humor still has its place as a site of coping and resistance, as in plague memes referring to anti-vaxxers or “Disaster Girl” memessatirizing climate crisis deniers. The point in both cases is not to incite hate for particular groups but to point out the costs of disinformation in a disarming way. Perhaps a small percentage of hoax theorists will find themselves laughing and, who knows, even reconsider their stances on “personal freedom” or (to use a strangely misappropriated word) “research.” Perhaps a SIAN hanger-on in Oslo last week noticed that his or her cowbell-clanging foes were having much more fun marching down Karl Johans Gate than those shouting racist rhetoric through loudspeakers. I’d choose the “anti-fascist slide whistle” any day.


(*) This essay follows up on the 23.06.21 interview with Anne Gjelsvik and on several commentaries on music in protest and in far-right populism. Thanks to Evan Hart for audio clips and internet culture insights.

Women protest the decision taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw the country from the Istanbul Convention in Kadıkoy/Istanbul, Turkey on March 20, 2021. Photo: Gokce Atik.

Right-wing populism, political Islam, and the Istanbul Convention

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

By Hafza Girdap

An “obsession with gender and sexuality” has been a common feature of contemporary right-wing populism. This manifests in various discourses that “conjure up the heteronormative nuclear family as the model of social organization, attack reproductive rights, question sex education, criticize a so-called ‘gender ideology,’ reject same-sex marriage and seek to re-install biologically understood binary gender differences” (Dietze & Roth, 2020: 7). The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, has been a recent target of right-wing populists, ironically enough in Turkey, where the convention was opened for signature and thus gets its name. 

Women in Turkey have always found it challenging to protect themselves from violence and discrimination at the hands of the social, institutional, and structural actors due to the poor implementation of the existing national laws. Particularly within the last two decades, Turkey has seen a drastic increase in cases of domestic violence and femicide, according to the civic platform “Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz” (“We Will Stop Femicide”), which has been documenting and publishing the monthly and annual number of femicide cases since 2013. In 2020, when pro-government voices in Turkey carried out a vigorous campaign against the Istanbul Convention, the Kadin platform reported 300 cases of femicide, a higher number than usual due to pandemic-related stay-at-home orders (130 femicide cases have been detected so far in 2021). 

As is common in European right-wing populist discourses, the campaign against the Istanbul Convention in Turkey was built on religious (Islamist) themes and protecting the traditional family unit.  Although it was the same Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that hastily ratified the Convention in 2011, the authoritarian turn of the government after 2013 has significantly eroded the hype for European Union membership in Turkey. Hence, when the Convention finally became law in 2014, it lacked the government support to be properly implemented. Still, the human rights organizations saw the Convention as progress and pushed for its proper implementation to combat gender-based violence and domestic violence. 

As Eren Keskin, the Human Rights Association (IHD) co-chair, mentions, “until 2005, violence against women was not even a ‘chapter title’ in the Turkish Penal Code.” The title of the section regulating violence against women in the law was ‘general morality and crimes against family.’ So, a woman was just an ‘element’ of ‘morality and family’.” Keskin also highlights that the law was amended in 2005 only because of the struggle of women and the “winds” favoring the European Union at the time. Consequently, violence against women were brought into the penal code as “sexual assault crimes.” However, even if the written law has changed, it cannot be said that there has been a significant change in practice and understanding. In other words, language, discourse, and mentality matter greatly in the proper understanding and implementation of laws. 

On July 1, 2021, the day when Turkey officially exited the Istanbul Convention, people came together to protest this decision in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Okan Ozdemir.

Understandably, women’s rights groups that have been fighting for the full implementation of the Istanbul Convention were shocked and frustrated when Erdogan declared Turkey would withdraw from the Convention in a late-night presidential decree on March 20, 2021. Protests erupted in many cities of the country, demanding the government retract the decision. Journalists, legal professionals, academics, politicians, human rights defenders have declared their deep concerns in various ways, including articles, social media campaigns, TV shows, and artworks. On the other hand, there has been considerable support for the withdrawal decision among right-wing voters, who nonetheless appear to have little or no knowledge about the actual content of the Convention. So, what exactly makes this international treaty a target of right-wing populist anti-gender propaganda?

The Istanbul Convention is described as “a landmark treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” by the Council of Europe (CoE). It is “the most far-reaching international legal instrument to set out binding obligations to prevent and combat violence against women,” which has been ratified by 34 member states of the COE and signed by a further 12 (pending ratification). However, simply by its feature of being an international treaty, it has come under the nativist and nationalist radar of the AKP government, which has increasingly returned to its anti-Western and anti-secular Islamist roots since 2011. Indeed, one of the first steps of the AKP government regarding women’s issues was renaming the “Ministry of Women and Family” into the “Ministry of Family and Social Policy.” By doing so, women’s policy became restricted to families matters and the traditional role of women as mothers and wives. 

Along with this official change, the discourse of the party and Erdogan himself supported the restriction of women’s roles. President Erdogan explicitly declared that “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature. Our religion regards motherhood very highly. Feminists do not understand that; they reject motherhood.” In its attempt to expand its Islamist political base by tapping on the valued social symbols of family, children, and religion, the Turkish government manipulated some specific articles in the Istanbul Convention, which went in line with the party discourse and religious elites’ confirmation. The Turkish society, which is mostly conservative, has been tightly tied to religious and traditional discourse with a pro-family approach. In other words, as Eslen-Ziya purports, the “AKP government adopted populist discourses involving Islamist elements of nationalism and conservatism” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4).

So, is the Istanbul Convention actually a threat against the family concept as claimed by the Erdogan regime? All articles related to family issues in the Convention are entirely aimed at combating domestic violence. The first article explains the purpose of the Convention to “protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence.” This is followed by the second article that emphasizes legal implementation: “Parties are encouraged to apply this Convention to all victims of domestic violence. Parties shall pay particular attention to women victims of gender-based violence in implementing the provisions of this Convention.” 

In this vein, Article 52 advises the parties to take “necessary legislative or other measures” to restrain the perpetrators of violence from the victims, which was put into practice in the Turkish Penal Code with Law No. 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence Against Women. As repeated throughout the text, the Istanbul Convention focuses on protecting all family members from domestic violence without dictating any particular notion of the family. However, this ambiguity and inclusiveness in its language make the Convention a target of the populist claims of undermining the “God-sanctioned” heteronormative family by giving room for the normalization of other “deviant” forms of family. As Kuhar and Pajnik note, “In the zero-sum logic typical of populist discourse, the more homosexuality (and, by virtue, ‘gender ideology’ as an empty signifier for anything, from gender studies to sexual education, to reproductive rights) is presented as normal, the more children, traditional families and the nation are threatened and under attack” (Kuhar & Pajnik, 2020: 178).

The terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the specific articles of the Convention have been claimed to promote and encourage homosexuality and LGBTQ+ identities. In Article 3, gender is defined as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Following that is Article 4 that guarantees to protect the rights of victims “without discrimination on any ground such as sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status, or other status.” 

Another point of concern raised by the opponents of the Convention is the education and teaching materials requirement in Article 14, which calls the governments to educate their people on “equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity…in formal curricula and at all levels of education.” A common obsession with the term gender and its academic studies can already be observed in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention with the same arguments and removed the accreditation from gender studies MA programs in Hungarian universities in 2018. 

Despite the frequent expressions of concern and criticism from the international community, the populist authoritarian leaders have insisted on their anti-women and anti-gender campaigns. Turkey did not target gender studies and academic programs directly, unlike Hungary. However, it consolidated its dominance in the university administrations and the civil society with an attempt to counteract the liberal Western gender studies discourse and replace it with a conservative or Islamist one. This is clearly seen in the mixed messages on the withdrawal decision sent by KADEM (the Women and Democracy Association), co-founded by Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye Erdogan. While initially expressing support for the Convention during the ongoing campaign against it, the organization did not join the major women’s rights groups to protest the decision once it was made official in March 2021. Instead, they blamed the Convention for creating societal tension and commended the decision to withdraw. As an unofficial mouthpiece of the government on the issues of women and gender, KADEM “serves to institutionalize pro-government, right-wing populist gender ideology” and plays a role as an agency to supporting “policies through protecting family as an institution and embracing gendered roles (women as mothers and wives and men as bread winners and head of the households) where patriarchal order is protected” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4–5).

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

References

Dietze, Gabriele & Roth, Julia. (2020). “Introduction.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.

Eslen-Ziya, Hande. (2020). “Right-wing populism in New Turkey: Leading to all new grounds for troll science in gender theory.” HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies. 76(3):1-9. DOI:10.4102/hts.v76i3.6005 

Kuhar, Roman & Pajnik, Mojca. (2020). “Populist Mobilizations in Re-traditionalized Society: Anti-Gender Campaigning in Slovenia.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.

Group of people protesting and giving slogans in a rally. Photo: Jacob Lund.

Resentment and populism: A philosophical inquiry

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

By Luca Mancin

Anger, resentment, and rancor characterize the present. As hate speech, violence, and discrimination—which are a natural consequence of discontent, distrust, and disillusionment—invade our societies, politics seemingly mirrors such behaviors. After the 2008 financial and economic crisis, several social groups manifested their dissatisfaction and intolerance toward the “system” and “powers that be.” Consider, for instance, movements as the Indignados (a Spanish anti-austerity movement), the Gilets Jaunes (a protest movement for economic justice in France), and the V-Day protestors (an Italian political and civic initiative to “clean up” the parliament). They are forms of protest that claim general and generic changes but are animated by the desire for revenge against those in power and therefore held responsible for the their current malaise.

Such groups’ quest for revenge reflects an elite legitimacy crisis that stems from experts’ (purported) failure to guarantee social well-being and security. For instance, the challenges faced by virologists and scientists in getting a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic (at least in the beginning) have heightened the risk that messages that epistemic elites are useless and that the costs of their existence outweigh the benefits will become more entrenched and widespread.

Thus, social frustration, originating from socio-political and socio-economic problems, has been channeled by the populist parties, which feed and sharpen social polarization. Populist parties exploit discontent stemming from a perceived elites’ failure, and they find fertile ground in times of crisis. Such tendencies increase tribalism among ordinary citizens and the political establishment and originate from social resentment. Therefore, it is essential to understand the political importance of social resentment and investigate it from a philosophical perspective.

Resentment and Populism

I decided—among several alternative interpretations—to focus on the resentment dimension of populism by adopting the ideational approach, which considers populism a thin-centered ideology. Consequently, following Mudde (2004: 543), I define populism as: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

I believe such a definition helps better define the polarization and dichotomy that populism entails and the tribalism it promotes. Indeed, I consider social and collective resentment a crucial factor in the development of populism. Current democratic societies feature internal contrasts and tensions, and social opposition and the search for culprits to blame for unsatisfactory circumstances are widespread. Besides, as a recent report from the Nordic think tank Timbro (2019) shows, in times of crisis, populism gains ground —from 2008, the year of the global financial crisis, to 2018, voter support for authoritarian populists in Europe expanded significantly. Tonello et al. (2016) suggest the most recent wave of populism in Europe has emerged from voters’ desire to communicate a clear “rejection” of incumbent governments (deemed unable to cope with the challenge to the economic crisis).

The research and statistical surveys conducted by Algan et al. (2017, 2019) stress how three types of crisis—political, economic, and cultural– stimulate the rise of populist forces. The political crisis manifests itself in the form of distrust of national and international political institutions. In particular, the data show a sharped relationship between voting in favor of anti-system forces and citizens’ distrust of institutions. The economic crisis, one of the triggers of political resentment, is instead produced by the economic upheavals that have resulted in income erosion and unemployment. Statistics confirm the relationship between the economic crisis and the success of populism. Here, according to the authors, a 1 percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate leads to an average increase of 2–3 percentage points in favor of anti-system parties. Finally, the component of mistrust also returns in the cultural crisis because the unfulfilled promises have caused broad disillusionment to spread among the citizens.

Consequently, it is plausible to consider resentment as a cause of populism. According to Foa et al. (2019), the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election were political events driven by resentment. The article’s data show social cleavages that create a socio-political identikit of pro-Leave voters or Trump’s electors. What such people had in common was deep anger toward the political establishment and social resentment toward elites (the European Union in the Brexit case, and the Democratic Party in Trump’s).

Mudde’s definition of populism allows us to highlight the importance of resentment in populism’s origins. After all, populism is an ideology (albeit a thin-centered one) and so evokes a vision of how the world is and how it should be. Being thin-centered reflects “the empty heart of populism that gives it both weakness and potential ubiquity” (Taggart, 2004: 275). It is, therefore, an incomplete and chameleonic theoretical approach because the terms “people” and “elite” are in turn shaped on other ideologies, representing empty categories fillable in different ways depending on the context. Such a solution allows populist politics to stir up the crowd’s anger toward ever new and diverse scapegoats. For this reason, it is now opportune to focus our attention on resentment—particularly on its philosophical dimension—to better understand current social problematics.

A Philosophical Genealogy of Resentment

Resentment (or ressentiment) is defined as the indignation that an individual feels toward someone or something due to behavior considered harmful or unfair. Such a feeling is a combination of resentment, hatred, envy, humiliation, and helplessness. The resentful person hatches hatred and anger in an almost pathological way, envies the goods and qualities of others, suffers from his weakness and inadequacy.

Concerning the aim of the commentary, it is worth focusing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1994) conception of resentment, exposed in his On the Genealogy of Morality (first published in 1887). The work in question theorizes how the “good”—that is, noble and strong individuals—have defined themselves as such, arrogating the right to forge their values ​​and emphasizing their peculiar superiority. Thus, the crucial contrast for the entire Nietzschean moral theory emerges—between knights and priests and between nobles and slaves. The former are physically thriving and the latter utterly powerless. As a result, the “bad” harbor a certain degree of resentment, which in turn feeds a desire for revenge over the nobles and the brave. The men of resentment, thirsting for revenge despite wearing the clothes of judges, are guided by the “ascetic priest” and are the enemies of life because they desire another world; in so doing, they demean their will to power. Nietzsche describes men of ressentiment, worn out by envy and prey to frustration, as follows: “These worm-eaten physiological casualties are all men of ressentiment, a whole, vibrating realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in its eruptions against the happy, and likewise in masquerades of revenge and pretexts for revenge” (1994: 91).

Nevertheless, it is essential to consider Max Scheler’s reworking of the Nietzschean ressentiment. Indeed, it provides the best theoretical basis for making the transition from personal resentment to social resentment. Scheler understands ressentiment as the ethos of the bourgeoisie. To occur, resentment requires “repression,” the failure to vent negative emotions. The origin of resentment consists in the repression of hatred, hostility, and aggression in stifling their outburst. Generally, the Schelerian ressentiment involves powerlessness and passivity but also a diminishing of others’ success and Schadenfreude. Scheler (1912: 4) describes this sentiment as a: “…self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.”

Therefore, ressentiment is a reaction whose natural consequence is the impulse to revenge. However, it manifests itself only and exclusively when the feelings of hatred, rancor, envy are not followed by a moral overcoming (as forgiveness can be) nor by a physical overcoming (violence or threat, for example). The ground of resentment is especially limited to those who find themselves in conditions of servitude or domination, unable to rebel against such harassment. Such a condition is identifiable as “existential envy,” the bitterness deriving from the fact that one person cannot be similar to another. Thus, it is apparent that Schelerian ressentiment is always the result of the confrontation between the self and the other that is not disciplined but instead results in a self-conviction of weakness and ineptitude.

A constant reciprocal competition emerges here, as men compare themselves with others to obtain feedback on their value. Such a dynamic conducts us to the “mimetic theory” developed by the French anthropologist René Girard. Mimesis is defined as the desire of an individual to be like the other. According to mimetic theory, the model is both admired/imitated and envied/hated because it always occupies the place one would like for oneself. A triangular relationship then emerges between subject, model, and object, in which both the subject and the model desire the same object, but the latter almost loses its importance in light of the conflict between the two parties. Therefore, resentment for Girard is the feeling that the imitator feels toward the model he wants to imitate, which constitutes the impediment to taking possession of the object on which both focus their desires.

Existential envy and social mimicry, which are based on comparison and competition with others, are essential theoretical presuppositions for the analysis of social and collective resentment, which is currently widespread in populist and political rhetoric. Understanding the philosophical origins of resentment allows us to read contemporary political life through the lens of an emotive dichotomy between people and the elite.

The Cultural Politics of Resentment

The phenomena of existential envy and social mimicry on a collective level feature liberal democracy because citizens tend to look at those who enjoy greater power and wealth with rancor and anger. Moreover, resentment is a natural component of democracy precisely because it stimulates and fuels reactions in the face of any injustice and inequality. However, resentment is often added to the envy of inequalities, dictated by the belief that they have suffered harm. Crisis and uncertainty exacerbate such a provision. This happened after the Great Recession of 2008, as was the case following the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. And it is happening today with the Covid-19 pandemic underway.

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

What Nietzsche, Scheler, and Girard describe is expressed today in populist rhetoric. Marlia Banning (2006) defines such behavior as the “political culture of resentment.” Her meaning here is that this rhetoric aims to divert attention from socio-economic issues such as job loss, underemployment, and growing economic insecurity. The political culture of resentment is a “smoke machine” that diverts attention and public discussion from the changes taking place in society toward minority or immigrant groups. In this way, the ressentiment conveys insecurity, fear, and anger against an indeterminate “Other.”

Besides, according to Banning, the political culture of resentment favors the development of identity politics, or rather an identity alliance necessary to cement a group that shares a series of values, diverting attention from material difficulties and socio-economic changes. In this way, a “politics of division” is created, which increases polarization and bias within society. Attitudes of tribalism are sufficiently heightened that all critical thinking fails—it is enough to be part of the so-called “other” to become the target of insults and political attacks.

Populist rhetoric, thus, manages to manipulate and exploit the resentment of citizens and direct it against a common enemy by satisfying the thirst for social revenge by identifying a scapegoat for this purpose. Society needs to channel the resentment and suppressed anger of its citizens toward an external enemy, as Girard illustrated in The Scapegoat (1986) and James Frazer did in The Golden Bough (1890). Today this “Other” is often represented as a threat to the individual mass and can take on different features—the establishment, the financial elite, or migrants—and is an essential element of the rhetoric typical of the populist style. The populist political forces leverage the resentment that arises against the elites in conditions of fear and uncertainty when security expectations are disregarded. By doing so, populisms channel citizens’ anger by obtaining voters’ support and cementing the sense of value-ideological belonging.

The examples of Brexit and Trump I gave above are crucial in describing the practical developments of the phenomena of social resentment. The Leavers have directed their discontent toward the European Union, convinced by politicians that the problem was external to Great Britain (as with the issue of migrants). Trump, for his part, has incited with his tweets to protest against the alleged electoral fraud, thus channeling the discontent that snaked online toward the center of American power par excellence, in a plastic and material representation of the contrast between the people and the elite.

After all, Nietzsche was clear about it: every sufferer looks for the cause of his affliction, convinced that there must be someone responsible for his suffering. The problem is not the pain itself but the origin of the pain. If you suffer, then someone must be the cause. In On the Genealogy of Morality, the ascetic priest cares for and ministers to the sick flock. Similarly, today, the politician must heal the resentment of citizens. As Nietzsche (1994: 93) wrote, “the priest is the direction-changer of ressentiment.” Today the populist leader does the same, directing the resentment of the “pure people” against “the corrupt elite.”

References

Timbro (2019). “Authoritarian Populism Index.” https://populismindex.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/TAP2019C.pdf (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Banning, M. E. (2006). “The Politics of Resentment.” JAC. 26(1/2): 67–101

Foa, Roberto Stefan & Wilmot, Jonathan. (2019). “The West Has a Resentment Epidemic.” Foreign Policy. September 18, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/18/the-west-has-a-resentment-epidemic-populism/ (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Frazer, James George. (1890). The Golden Bough.

Girard, R. (1986). The Scapegoat. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press

Nietzsche, Fredrick. (1994), On the Genealogy of Morality [1887]. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Mudde, Cas. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4): 541–563

Scheler, Max (1912). Ressentimenthttps://hscif.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Max-Scheler-Ressentiment.pdf (accessed on July 5, 2021).

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

Tonello, F. & Morini, M. (2016). “Alternanze di governo e grandi coalizioni nell’Unione europea. 2008–2015.” In: Urbinati, N. (edited by). Democrazie in transizione. Milan, Feltrinelli

CarlosDeLaTorre

Professor Carlos de la Torre: Populism is here to stay

“When populists included [others] it was under the condition of surrendering to the leader conceived as the embodiment of the will and aspirations of the people. Populist inclusion, therefore, needs to be differentiated from democratization as a long-lasting process based on the expansion of rights, the respect for pluralism, the right to dissent, and freedoms of expression and association. Populists did not create institutions and practices based on respect for civil rights. Those who did not accept the wisdom of the leader were branded as enemies, dissent became treason, and populist polarization transformed political rivals into enemies that need to be contained,” says Professor Carlos de la Torre.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Professor Carlos de la Torre, who is director of Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida, believes populism is here to stay. Prof. De La Torre, whose new book Global Populisms will be published soon, argues that the task of citizens, students, and scholars is to understand populism’s complexities without demonizing it. He underlines that we need to understand why these parties mobilize citizens: “Populists rightly criticize the deficits of participation and representation of real existing democracies. Populists often point to problems and issues that other politicians overlook.” Yet he warns about the solutions populists present: “If populists are right in some of their criticism on the malfunctioning of democracy, their solutions are problematic.”

The following are excerpts from the interview. 

Do the policy makers and intellectuals in the North have anything to learn from the experiences of Latin America? Can you please elaborate?

The surge of populism studies in English has unfortunately relegated the Global South to a few marginal footnotes. Most scholars compare Europe and the US, and do not pay attention to the rich bibliography on populism written about Latin America and other regions of the Global South and published in English. For instance, most introductory volumes do not even mention the pioneering work of Gino Germani on populism and fascism. Even when scholars compare the North and the Global South, the categories that they use are derived from European experiences that are posed as the universal norm.

For instance, Cas Mudde’s concept of populism that was developed to explain right-wing extremist parties located on the fringes of the political system is used as the matrix that supposedly allows comparisons between the West and the rest. Yet his categories do not travel well to explain cases worldwide. As an example, Mudde does not consider that the leader is central to his definition of populism. His assertion makes sense if the object of his study is small extremist right-wing European political parties. But in other regions, populism revolves around powerful leaders. In Europe, successful populist mass-based parties like the National Rally, Syriza, or Podemos are leader-centric. 

The bibliography on the Global South might give answers to what to expect from populists in power, and how to better resist them. After all, in Latin America, populists got to power before [they did] in Europe and the US. 

Populism is based on interactions between two antagonistic camps. Populist attempt to be the centre of the social order and the media tends to obsessively focus on the leader allowing him or her to dominate the news cycle. When the opposition felt that all democratic channels were closed, they called the military to solve civilian problems. These irresponsible and undemocratic acts play into the hands of the populist that presents herself as a victim and the avatar of democracy. Not all populists will have the same effects on democratic institutions. 

People as Ethnic, Political, or Social Constructions

How do you compare and contrast Latin American populism with European populism? Do we find more similarities or more differences when it comes to these forms of populism?

To distinguish types of populism, it is important to analyse how they define “the people” and its enemies. The people could be constructed with ethnic or political criteria, and as a plural population or as a unitary actor. Ethnic constructs could be exclusionary, as when the enemies of the people are minority populations such as Muslims and non-whites in Europe and the US. “The people” as constructed by Donald Trump for example faces ethnic and religious enemies such as Mexicans and Muslims. He launched his presidential candidacy from Trump Tower in New York City asserting, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some I assume, are good people.” He expanded his racist platform by calling Muslims terrorists and promising to monitor Muslims within the US and banning those who want to enter this country.

Differently from Trump’s racist view of the people as white and its enemies as cultural, religious, and ethnic “others” fundamentally different and dangerous to the true white-Christian, and heterosexual people, Evo Morales and his political party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS – Movement Toward Socialism), successfully used inclusive ethno-populist appeals. Given the fluidity of race and ethnic relations in Bolivia, they were able to create an inclusionary ethnic party grounded in indigenous organizations and social movements. The MAS and Morales were successful because they also incorporated non-indigenous organizations and candidates. The term indigenous was politicized to include all Bolivians who defended national sovereignty and natural resources from neoliberal elites. It was an embracive category that signified a claim to post-colonial justice, and for a broader political project of nationalism, self-determination, and democratization. Morales’ enemies were the neoliberal political and economic elites that served the interests of multinational corporations, supranational institutions like the IMF, and US imperialism.

Left-wing populists tend to construct the people with political and socioeconomic criteria as those excluded by neoliberal elites. Hugo Chávez framed the political arena so that he did not face political rivals, but instead an oligarchy that he defined as the political enemy of the people, “those self-serving elites who work against the homeland.” Left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe like Syriza and Podemos similarly construct the category of the people as the majorities in their nations who are excluded by neoliberal policies imposed by supranational organizations like the IMF or the Troika.

Democrats imagine the people as a plurality of actors with different views and proposals. By constructing the people as plural, democrats face rivals that have legitimate institutional and normative spaces. Populists like Donald Trump or Hugo Chávez on the contrary claim that they and only they represent the “true people.” Chávez boasted, “This is not about Hugo Chávez; this is about a ‘people.’ I represent, plainly, the voice and the heart of millions.” On another occasion he commanded, “I demand absolute loyalty to me. I am not an individual; I am the people.” Even though Chávez’s political and socioeconomic construction of the people was inclusionary, his view of the people-as-one was anti-pluralist, and in the end, antidemocratic because he attempted to become its only voice. 

When ethnic or religious views of the people are combined with constructs of “the people” as one, populism becomes exclusionary and antidemocratic. Under these conditions, populism can be a threat to the basic values of modernity such as a pluralistic, critical, and inclusive civil society. Because ethnic and religious enemies are seen as a threat to the purity and morality of the true and rightful people, they might need to be confined or expelled. Therefore, ethnic constructions of the people in the most extreme cases could lead to ethnic cleansing. Political and socioeconomic constructions of “the people” can lead to inclusionary policies. Yet when “the people” is viewed as one, as Chávez did, his populism was inclusionary and antidemocratic because he assumed that the part of the people that he embodied was the only authentic group. 

Light Populism versus Full-blown Populism

Populist not only differ on how they construct the people and on the right and left axis: light and full-blown populism should be differentiated. By light populism, I refer to political parties and politicians that occasionally use populist tropes and discourses, but that do not aim to rupture existing institutions. Under this criterion, Bernie Sanders, who did not break with the Democratic Party creating a third party in 2016 or 2020, is a light populist. Full-blown populists aim to rupture existing institutions by polarizing society and the polity into two camps of enemies and constructing a leader as the symbol of all the demands for change and renewal. Light populists are almost indistinguishable from other politicians in contemporary democracies that appeal to trust in their personas and use the mass media to bypass traditional parties. Full-blown populists often use democratic institutional mechanisms and mass mobilization to try to bring change. When seeking power, full-blown populists appeal to constituencies that the elites despise or ignore. They use discourses and performances to shock and disturb the limits of the permissible and to confront conventions. 

Despite their different constructs of who is “the people” and dissimilar politicizations of grievances and emotions, populists do similar things when in power. Populists aim to rupture exclusionary institutional systems to give power back to the people. They face enemies, not democratic rivals. They appeal to reason and emotion to reduce the complexities of politics to the struggle between two antagonistic camps. Regardless of its potential inclusionary promise, the pars pro totodynamic of populism is inherently autocratic because a part of the population claims to be its whole and pretends to rule in the name of all. A leader is constructed as the true voice and the only representative of the “real people.” Some populist leaders are represented as the saviours of their people. Other leaders become avatars of patriotism and claim to know how to make things right for their people. 

What can we learn from Latin American populism to explain its relationship with democracy worldwide?

Populism forces scholars to define what they mean by democracy not only as an analytical term, but also as a normative ideal. Whereas critics argue that it is a danger to democracy, populists claim to embody democratic ideals. Whereas some argue that populism is an anomaly of malfunctioning institutions, for others it is a permanent possibility in democratic politics. Three approaches about the relationship between populism and democracy can be differentiated: populism is democratizing; populism leads to autocracy; and populism is a sui-generis combination of inclusion and autocracy

i) Populism Is Democratizing

For scholars that understand democracy as policies that mitigate structural inequalities, the record of populism for democratization is positive. The sociologist Carlos Vilas argues that from the 1930s to the 1960s, populism in Latin America led to its fundamental democratization. During the first two terms of Juan Perón [Argentina] from 1946 to 1955, the percentage of voters surged from 18 percent of the population in 1946 to 50 percent in 1955, and women voted for the first time in the 1952 elections. The share of wages in the National Gross Domestic Product increased from 37 percent in 1946 to 47 percent in 1955. Similarly, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand (2001-2006) materially improved [the lives of] the poor by creating health programs, giving debt relief to rural cultivators, and introducing a loan system for low-income university students. Poverty fell and he led the political involvement of the informal sector, the rural poor, urban middle classes, and the northern small business and landowners. 

Populist material, political, and cultural inclusion was not accompanied by the respect for pluralism and dissent. Perón for example expropriated critical newspapers. His government created a chain of radio stations and newspapers and produced movies and other propaganda materials. Perón dominated the labour movement by displacing and jailing communist, socialist, and anarchist leaders, and by promoting cronies to the leadership of the powerful national labour confederation CGT.

When populists included it was under the condition of surrendering to the leader conceived of as the embodiment of the will and aspirations of the people. Populist inclusion, therefore, needs to be differentiated from democratization as a long-lasting process based on the expansion of rights, the respect for pluralism, the right to dissent, and freedoms of expression, and association. Populists did not create institutions and practices based on respect for civil rights. Those who did not accept the wisdom of the leader were branded as enemies, dissent became treason, and populist polarization transformed political rivals into enemies that need to be contained. 

Despite the historical record of populist power being at best ambiguous for democracy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe view left-wing populism as a normatively desirable democratizing alternative to stopping the xenophobic and racist populist right. Populism, Laclau argues, entails the renaissance of politics. It is a revolt against technocratic reasoning, the surrendering of national sovereignty to supranational institutions, and of the popular will to neoliberal political elites. With the global rise of neoliberalism, understood as a rational and scientific mode of governance, public debate on the political economy was closed and replaced by the imposition of the criteria of experts. When all parties accepted neoliberalism and the rule of technocrats, politics was reduced to an administrative enterprise. Contrary to social democrats that embraced neoliberalism, the populist right used nationalist and xenophobic arguments to challenge globalization and the surrendering of national sovereignty. To stop right-wing variants, the left must construct popular democratic subjects.

Laclau’s normative defence of populism is problematic because he relies on Carl Schmitt’s view of the political as the struggle between friend and enemy. Under these constructs, it is difficult to imagine democratic adversaries who have legitimate institutional spaces. Enemies, as in Schmitt’s view, might need to be manufactured and contained. Moreover, the historical record of left populists in power in Latin America does not support views of populism as democratizing tout court. The leftist governments of Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Ernesto and Cristina Kichner, and Rafael Correa were inclusionary. When the prices of commodities were high, for example, they reduced poverty. Yet their governments entered into war against the media, attempted to control civil society, and attacked freedoms of expression, association, and the inviolability of the individual. 

ii) Populism Leads to Autocracy

A second group of scholars argue that populism in power leads to authoritarianism. Kurt Weyland differentiates two routes by which populists erode democracy. The first is that when populists close all democratic institutional channels to the opposition, they provoke the most reactionary sectors to plot military coups. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the history of Latin America oscillated between populists in power being ousted by military coups. 

After the third wave of democratization, when the international community accepted elections as the only tool to name and remove presidents, coups became too costly. Nowadays, populism, Weyland argues, is leading to slow processes of democratic erosion. The systematic yet incremental confrontations between populist presidents with the media and with critical organizations of civil society, the instrumental use of laws to punish critics and to favour cronies, and the concentration of power in the presidency leads to what Guillermo O’Donnell conceptualizes as the slow death of democracy—or to competitive authoritarian regimes. 

iii) Populism Is a Sui-generis Combination of Inclusion and Autocracy 

For a third group of scholars, populism in democratizing contexts and when citizens were not incorporated into political parties is a unique mix of inclusion and autocracy. Populism in Latin America was simultaneously inclusionary and anti-pluralist. Populists’ democratic credentials were grounded in the premise that legitimacy lies in winning free elections. In the 1930s and 1940s, Juan Perón in Argentina and José María Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador fought against electoral fraud and expanded the franchise. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa used elections to displace traditional neoliberal elites and to build new hegemonic blocks. Yet elections under populism are plebiscitarian, and rivals are turned into enemies. Populist inclusion is based on the condition of surrendering one’s will to the leader who claims to be the embodiment of the people and the nation.

If global populist trends continue, what sort of a world will we be inhabiting in 20-30 years?

I don’t know. But what we learned after Trump was voted out of office in 2020, and his attempts to stay in power at all costs, is that populism is here to stay. Our task as citizens, students, and scholars is to understand its complexities without demonizing it. We have to comprehend why these parties mobilize citizens without using stereotypes that label followers as irrational. 

Populists rightly criticize the deficits of participation and representation of real existing democracies. Populists often point to problems and issues that other politicians overlook. They, for instance, politicize anger at socioeconomic and political exclusions. If populists are right in some of their criticism on the malfunctions of democracy, their solutions are problematic. Populism can lead to processes of democratic disfigurement when the complexities of modern society are reduced to the struggle between two antagonistic camps, and when one part of the population claims to represent the population as a whole. Under these conditions, opponents do not have institutional or normative spaces to articulate dissent, becoming the hideous oligarchy or the anti-national other. The populist critique needs to be taken seriously, yet we have to interrogate whether their solutions will actually return power to the people or will lead to what Nadia Urbinati calls “the disfigurement of democracy.”

***

Who is Carlos de la Torre?

Carlos de la Torre is Director of the UF Center for Latin American Studies. He has a Ph.D. from the New School for Social Research. He was a fellow at the Simon Guggenheim Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. His areas of interest are populism, democratization, and authoritarianism, as well as racism and citizenship in the Americas.

His most recent books are The Routledge Handbook of Global Populism (Routlege, 2019); Populisms a Quick Immersion(Tibidabo Editions, 2019); De Velasco a Correa: Insurreciones, populismo y elecciones en Ecuador (Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, 2015); The Promise and Perils of Populism (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015); Latin American Populism of the Twenty-First Century, co-edited with Cynthia Arnson, (The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2013); and Populist Seduction in Latin America (Ohio University Press, second edition 2010).

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an Advisor to Protect Democracy.

Professor Ben-Ghiat: Any society can be susceptible to strongman figures if it’s the right time

Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat: “The most successful of authoritarian rulers are the ones who know how to play on that ‘we.’ And they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that ‘we.’ Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits… 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people… Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up…”

Interview by Merve Reyhan Kayikci

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and a commentator on fascism, authoritarian leaders and propaganda and the threats they pose to democracies, said that any society can be susceptible to an authoritarian strongman figure if it’s the right time. “It’s very important to see the warning signs in the beginning and stop these people in their tracks,” she warned.

Giving an interview to Sweden-based Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), Prof. Ben-Ghiat talked about her latest book, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” the rising authoritarianism around the world, the link between masculinity and authoritarianism and how to stop the “strongmen.”Stating that the most successful of authoritarian rulers are the ones who know how to play on that “we” Ben-Ghiat said that “they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that ‘we.’ Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits… 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people… Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up…”

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

In the book you begin by describing how there is a strong link between masculinity and authoritarianism. What are some aspects of masculinity that make an authoritarian leader and draw the support of people?

There are many types of masculinity in the world, but the strongman is an authoritarian leader who not only damages or destroys democracy but uses this kind of toxic, arrogant masculinity as a tool of rule. So some of them, like Mussolini and Putin, will use their bodies, they strip their shirts off, and so they let their bodies become kind of emblems of national strength. And they also use threats. Their strength is also threatening. This is a kind of masculinity that’s about domination, possession of others, and it connects to a worldview where these leaders have a proprietary conception of power and the state so that they seize businesses, as Erdgan does in Turkey and Putin in Russia. So this is a kind of masculinity, and the reason I use arrogance is that there is nothing that shouldn’t be theirs.

Ultimately, Authoritarian Governments Are Very Destructive and Unstable

Do you think in some societies people are more drawn to a father figure, a savior, than in other societies?

One of the ways these leaders find popular appeal is that they correspond to ancient archetypes of male figures, such as the protector or the father figure and also the savior. One common theme is that they all say they are going to save the nation. Only they have unique qualities, and this is where their charisma can come in or their personality cult. Only they can save the nation. On the one hand, they project themselves forward in time, where they say, “I’m going to make things great in the future.” They often pose as modernizers where they’re building highways and airports. But they also channel nostalgia, where they say, so it’s not “Make the nation great again,” as Donald Trump would say, it’s not “Make the nation great,” it’s “Make it great again.” So the nostalgia for a world that used to be better, for a lost empire, is very important. Mussolini had the Roman Empire, Erdogan has his fantasy of reviving the Ottoman Empire. … They attract people by playing into fantasies of grandeur and power.

One of the things my research taught me is that any society can be susceptible to this strongman figure if it’s the right time. The right time is sometimes after a defeat … or a time where there has been a lot of social change that includes gender emancipation or racial equity, and white males in the European and American context often feel threatened.

In the book you mention that most strongmen have anger issues. Could you elaborate on that? 

Historically people have seen authoritarians as crazy, starting with Hitler. People said he was a ranting fool and crazy. I was astounded doing my research at how similar the personalities of authoritarian leaders were. They each have their own quirks and not exactly the same, but they all have paranoia, narcissism, they all are very aggressive, and they like to humiliate others. This leads to certain styles of governance that are very dysfunctional and full of turmoil. So they create inner sanctums around themselves with family members — like Erdogan — because they’re corrupt and need people to keep their secrets. But everybody else is humiliated and fired and re-hired. So their governments are not stable at all. Their personalities are impulsive and they think they are God sometimes and that they’re infallible. They make snap decisions which are not good for policy making. Ultimately, their governments are very destructive and unstable, even though the myth of authoritarians is that these are take-charge men who will bring peace and stability.

Their personalities are full of turmoil, but dismissing them as crazy is shortsighted because they’re opportunists who are extremely skilled at managing people. They know how to connect with people. Erdogan cries a lot and shows a lot of emotion. Not only are they highly aggressive, they have got this politics of emotion that makes people feel included. So all of this does not add up to somebody who’s crazy. It adds up to somebody who’s very skilled and very savvy, actually.

Authoritarian States Need Intellectual Legitimacy

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister arrives for a meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium on Dec. 13, 2019. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

When the political situation in Turkey turned for the worse, one of the first groups to be targeted were academics who were critical of the government. What is the fixation with academia and academics for authoritarians and populists? 

Authoritarian states need intellectual legitimacy because they are thug states, mafia states. Violence is their everyday behavior. On the one hand they need intellectuals to write their propaganda, to be their spokespeople, to do nationalist research. They need intellectuals to rewrite the schoolbooks to support their nationalist historiography. On the other hand strongmen disappear people, but they also disappear fields of knowledge that conflict with their goals. While they promote certain things, they also ban other things and threaten people to not work on those topics.

In Hungary Orbán banned gender studies overnight. That was a prelude to his anti-trans policies. So sometimes universities are the first place where the recasting of knowledge and propaganda shows itself. … In authoritarian regimes academics become political people, the government sees them as political people, and then sometimes they become enemies of the state. Erdogan has jailed and detained so many academics, and he is threatened by certain kinds of research.

At a broader level, authoritarians are always threatened by fact-based knowledge. The facts are their enemy. Propaganda means that you have to create an alternate reality that your believers will follow, and research based on science and scientific method becomes the enemy.

What about international support? Did the EU support the stability of Erdogan’s regime for the sake of the migration deal? 

Erdogan is a good example of benefitting, that the EU has not been standing up for democracy. They shouldn’t be funding Erdogan, who has locked so many people up and is so corrupt. So what is the EU standing up for? There are groups of foreign enablers because authoritarians, in all areas of their policies, depend on foreign capital and goodwill. Erdogan is just the latest who is doing all these infrastructure improvements with foreign money and foreign debt. If financial institutions were guided more by morality, they could easily retract these foreign lending practices and make them dependent on democratic actions.

These are leaders who care only about money and power, so the West not only does not use its power to change the behavior of autocrats, they help them. The same could be said for international financial institutions and law firms that help autocrats store their money in offshore tax havens.

The anti-globalism of authoritarians is fake because they are the biggest globalists of all. They are dependent on international infrastructure coming from democracies and also foreign autocracies to keep in power. A few years ago Erdogan had five different American PR firms working for him to support his interests in Washington. He and Trump were quite close.

What do you think Western democracies could have done differently to prevent what is happening in Turkey today?

It is very important to see the warning signs at the beginning and stop these people in their tracks at the start and let them know that the EU is not going to fund them anymore or make treaties for migration, and really flex the muscle of democracy and open society and use that. These are men who see any weakness or gentility towards themselves as weakness. They’re always testing the boundaries. … Violations of international law are a test, so the first time there’s a violation, we need to strike very hard. All of these guys in power now have been there for a long time, so it’s too late to retrain them, but we don’t do what we could do. These men only listen to force, and if the EU and democracies don’t show that, then we’re not going to get results.

Authoritarians Like to Believe They Have Divine Guidance

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

 

Can we say that authoritarianism is in part the result of democracy failing to fulfil its promises?

To some extent, absolutely. Authoritarians have managed to make people feel included and give them a sense of community. They have been better at that with rallies and chants which may seem superficial but are part of a political culture. Liberal democracy has never been as skilled at that. Authoritarian leaders are able to make an emotional connection. Liberal democracy has been about reason and not raw emotion. This goes back to the figure of the leader who cries in public like Erdogan and who has this charisma that’s constructed. 

Once they’re in power, there are huge resources devoted to their personality cults. But people connect with them, and one of the reasons I want to concentrate on leaders is because they are so important for the success of these dynamics. For example, on the personality cult it’s fascinating that the rules of personality cults actually haven’t changed for a hundred years, even though today we have social media and back then there were news reels. So the leader needs to be an everyman who can connect with anyone. At the same time they have to be superman, they have to be men above all other men. They need to be someone who’s all powerful and can get away with things. They like to believe they have divine guidance. It’s the same all over the world and says something about human psychology that we seem to need this in our leaders.

In recent years gender-based violence has increased and even become more visible in Turkey. Would it be right to assume that there is a correlation between rising authoritarianism and the vulnerability of women?

Women have been the targets of authoritarians as much as lawyers, judges, journalists and the critical opposition. They have traditionally been an enemy, even in situations where the state ideology preaches equality, like in communism, you know, Joseph Stalin took away abortion rights. Most authoritarians have ambitions to re-found the family. And this is where the father figure comes in. Authoritarians fear demographic change, so women become pawns and tools of larger social demographic political schemes. If authoritarians are expansionists like the former fascists, then women have to produce babies. Women’s bodies and rights become legislated.

When you have a leader who models through his person disrespect for women or even hatred for women and a kind of violent aggressive personality, then this is reflected throughout society, and it’s often backed up with policies. It’s a little-known fact that Trump, who is a serial sexual assaulter who became president, partly decriminalized domestic violence in the US in 2018. Physical violence was still domestic violence, but all other kinds of abuse — emotional, psychological — were no longer considered domestic violence so women couldn’t get help from the authorities. This leaves them more vulnerable.

Gaddafi was a real revolutionary in the beginning and believed in women’s rights. He hugely bettered the legal status and the employment status of women in Libyan society. Women had the right to work and own their own property. But he fostered a culture of sexual assault and violence as his hold over the country strengthened.

Accountability Is Key

Do you think it is possible to recover from an authoritarian period? After countries are ruled by authoritarianism, is it possible for them to return to liberal democracy, or will they always have some sort of political instability?

If you don’t hold people accountable and you don’t have a mechanism for testimonials to come out for people, like in the former East Germany, when they made public the Stasi files and people could go and see their own file on themselves. This was very empowering to people and created for many decades a lot of stability in Germany. But Germany versus Italy is an interesting case because Italy did not go through an aggressive de-fascism. So the fascists went underground, but it was not rooted out. It was not made to be as taboo in the culture as in Germany. After Franco in Spain you were not allowed to talk about it, so there was democracy but no accountability. There’s always a lot of fear around revenge, retribution, vendetta, and so sometimes in transitional eras sometimes even the people who are on the side of the victims can be afraid to let the energies of the victimized find the full expression. Accountability is key.

What do you think of the use of the “us” and “them” dichotomy? Such as the use of anti-Semitic, anti-migrant and anti-West narratives.

Authoritarians create a community of the included through excluding others. All the community building rituals like rallies, are built on the active exclusion of some so that others feel included. There can be various enemies who are demonized. Sometimes these are Jews, other times these are illegal immigrants, or George Soros, who kind of is everything. He’s a very convenient symbol of many things. But this is the essential dynamic that appeals to very primitive and powerful feelings in people, to feel one with a community and to feel superior. Nazism and fascism because it was so racially oriented made a woman who was deemed an Aryan superior to a man who was not Aryan. So when people ask why women so often support these leaders, it’s because they have status if they are in the included community over men. 

In the US, for example, a white woman who loves Trump felt superior to a non-white man. So it plays with gender hierarchies and is a very powerful thing. The most successful of these rulers are the ones who know how to play on that “we.” And they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that “we.” Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits. That is very interesting to me as a clue to this very insecure and prideful personality who gets pleasure out of humiliating and ruining others. 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people. They make it too tiring so you can’t survive and you’re harassed. So you self-censor, and that’s their ultimate goal.

Authoritarians Need to Be Shamed and Outed

Autocrats like Erdogan and Orban who use pseudo democratic institutions are not necessarily less repressive than their institution-free counterparts. Armenian people protested Erdogan in New York City on October 10, 2020. Sign reads “Erdogan is Hitler, Stop Genocide”.

 

In Turkey people like to say geography is one’s fate. Is authoritarianism a “fate” for some countries?

I find this fatalistic. Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up. … In fact the suffering of the past can make people much more determined to have freedom. The opposite being a place like the United States, which has never had a national dictatorship or foreign occupation, and so people did not see the warning signs of what Trump represented. … They don’t have the history at all and can be complacent, and this is also a problem.

What can we do to safeguard our democracies? Especially, people who are still living in free democratic countries, what can they do for its continuity and also to protect those in vulnerable and dangerous situations?

I think going back to pressuring the EU, pressuring financial and legal institutions and all the enablers of authoritarianism. We don’t have enough journalism articles devoted to them. They need to be shamed and outed, and that is one thing that would have a practical effect, making these authoritarians pariahs, so that US law firms and PR firms won’t take their cases on, so that Erdogan won’t have five different companies to convey his propaganda to US politicians.

The kind of work the SCF does in defense of human rights is important because a lot of that means publicizing the stories of the victims. This is why I included a lot of unpleasant material in the book because today we have the far-right all over the world who openly say, for example, “Pinochet did nothing wrong.” This erases the history of what he did do, so that’s why although it’s not nice to write about the torture, it’s very important. So in real time when Erdogan is beating up people and they come out of prison and they have the marks of what they have suffered, it’s important to show that because this is the kind of evidence they try to cover up.

Who is Ruth Ben-Ghiat?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an Advisor to Protect Democracy. She writes frequently for CNN and other media outlets on threats to democracy around the world. As author or editor of six books, she brings historical perspective to her analyses of current events. Her insight into the authoritarian playbook has made her an expert source for television, radio, podcasts, and online events around the globe. She is also a historical consultant for film and television productions. 

Ben-Ghiat’s work has been supported by Fulbright, Guggenheim, and other fellowships. Her books Fascist Modernities and Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema detail what happens to societies when authoritarian governments take hold, and explore the appeal of strongmen to collaborators and followers. Growing up in Pacific Palisades, California, where many intellectuals who fled Nazism resettled, sparked her interest in the subject. Her latest book, the #1 Amazon bestseller Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020), examines how illiberal leaders use corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo to stay in power, and how resistance to them has unfolded over a century. She also publishes Lucid, a newsletter about abuses of power and how to counter them.

Demonstration of Uighurs against China politics of repression in Brussels, Belgium on July 26, 2020. Photo: Arnaud Brian.

The Silence of the Khans: The pragmatism of Islamist populist Imran Khan and his mentor Erdogan in persecuting Muslim minorities

Erdogan and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of the “Muslim Other” within their own countries and silence over the Uighur genocide in China earn them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

When pressed on why he is outspoken against Islamophobia in the West but silent about the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in western China, the Islamist populist prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, responded: “I concentrate on what is happening on my border.”

Following in the footsteps of Turkey’s authoritarian (Islamist) populist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Imran Khan has emerged as among the most prominent faces of religious populism in the (Sunni) Muslim-majority world. “There is so much debate about moderate and radical Islam, but there is only one Islam,” declared Imran Khan in 2019. This echoed the tone adopted several years earlier (in 2017) by Erdogan, who asserted “there is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam, and that’s it.” The idea of “one Islam” or “Islam is Islam” is part of a populist process of “Islamizing Islam.” This comes in the wake of the leadership gap that opened up with the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia as the Sunni Muslim hegemon. Thus, in neo-Ottoman fashion, Turkey seeks to fill this gap, with Pakistan acting as its aide to address its “ontological insecurities” (Yilmaz, 2021). In highlighting Islam in this way, both Erdogan and Khan define “the people” or “the pious” against an antagonistic “Other,” which includes the West, non-Muslims, liberals, and usually non-Sunni groups (Gursoy, 2019; Yilmaz, 2018; Mudde, 2017; Moffit, 2016; White, 2013).

Erdogan and Khan Have Instrumentalized Religion

Other than their political instrumentalization, the sheer size of these two countries’ populations makes this phenomenon a concern worth exploring. Turkey’s population is 82 million, while Pakistan’s is even greater at 217 million people. Moreover, over the last decade, both Erdogan and Khan have increasingly instrumentalized religion to galvanize electoral support and gain diplomatic sway with (Sunni) Muslim-majority countries under this populist framework. 

While Turkey and Pakistan are two very culturally and ethnically different societies, they share a long historical political affiliation that dates back well into the late medieval period. South Asia was ruled by the Mamluk (slave) rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, who were ethnically Turkic (Eaton, 2019). After the Ottomans achieved the status of the Muslim Caliphate, all leaders in South Asia —from emperors to princely state rajas —sought royal endorsement from Constantinople, which usually came in the form of an adorned robe from the Caliph himself (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). This political link built a healthy network of trade between the regions that also led to the exchange of soldiers, resources, literature, art, and other labor that infused the Ottoman Turkish elements in the Mughal court and smaller sultanates in united India (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). Despite being over 3,000 kilometers away, the profound connection between the two regions was felt when the Khilafat Movement in British India, initially led by both Muslims and Hindus, tried to oppose the Treaty of Sèvres to preserve the Ottoman caliphate (Niemeijer, 1972). This centuries-old pan-Islamic connection is now undergoing an Islamist populist transformation that seeks to redefine Islam under Turkish and Pakistani leadership.

We argue that this “reengineering” is, in fact, a pragmatic political maneuver of both leaders to consolidate their power within their respective countries and overseas. It is a convenient tool that is used when needed and shelved when it is politically expedient. Thus, both leaders have used (or expediently avoided) Islamist populist rhetoric, policy, and programmatic interventions depending on the context and the audience. 

Once the definitional boundaries are constructed, anti-Western and liberal rhetoric is put into place to create a “crises” situation in which Muslims are presented as being under attack from “moral” degradation or simply victims of Western imperialism and Islamophobia. This “crisis” is portrayed as a transnational issue when it extends to Muslim victimhood, especially on the issue of Islamophobia. Both leaders have highlighted their concern over discrimination, killings, and terrorist attacks targeting Muslims in Western countries and the plight of Muslims in conflicts that target them, such as the Gaza conflict, the Kashmir dispute, and Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan.

In June 2021, when a Canadian white supremacist killed a family of four Pakistani Canadians in a racially motivated Islamophobic attack, Prime Minister Khan termed it a “terror” attack. In 2020, following the gruesome killing of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth in France, the state introduced harsh measures to regulate and monitor Muslims. Khan’s furious reaction on this occasion targeted the state and not the victim of the attack, while Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods even as he publicly insulted the French head of state, saying, “What is the problem that the individual called Macron has with Islam and with Muslims? […] Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” 

In addition to creating a sense of moral panic, both these Islamist populists have blamed “outside forces” or “dark forces” for supposedly carrying out attacks on the respective countries to undermine and destabilize them. This extends “the Muslim victimhood narrative” (Yilmaz, 2021) further and accentuates the economic and security failures of “hypocrites” within and “enemies” outside as well.

When the Shia Hazara community in Pakistan was targeted as part of sectarian terrorism, the blame for orchestrating the attacks was shifted to India, which was accused of seeking to undermine Pakistan’s stability. While visiting the victims’ family, Khan said, “no doubt what happened was part of a bigger game” and showed his determination to bridge the Sunni-Shia gap. He continued, “my mission is not only to unite the whole country but the entire Muslim ummah. To end this divide, we have tried to remove differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” In a similar manner, President Erdogan has also warned the Turkish nation of the “the sneaky plans of the dark forces” who are blamed for a wide variety of issues such as the devaluation of the currency, organizing anti-AKP protests, the 2016 failed coup attempt, and the like (Yilmaz & Erturk, 2021; Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). 

With crises both tangible and intangible in place, Khan and Erdogan have not shied away from presenting themselves as the “strongmen” that their nations and the ummah need. In an unapologetic manner, both have justified various undemocratic measures as necessary to confront the extraordinary challenges facing the nation. Khan reminded the nation to vote for him because “visionary leaders do not make popular decisions; they make the right decisions” — his way of justifying his anti-Western stance along with anti-corruption policies. Erdogan has also felt the need to remind the citizens that “every country needs a strong leader in order to progress.”

On various occasions, both leaders have called for cooperation among the ummah to counter Islamophobia and other pressing issues. In 2020, Erdogan called on the Muslim world to undertake joint action to defend the interests of the ummah: “As Muslims, we should exchange our views more frequently […] many areas of our geography of fraternity are subject to blood, tears and instability […] We will never harm our brothers […] those, who become troubled with the rise of Islam, attack our religion.” on multiple occasions since his 2018 electoral victory, Khan has advocated for Muslim brotherhood in international forums. In an open letter to leaders of Muslim-majority countries in late 2020, he expressed his concerns and urged Muslim leaders to “act collectively to counter growing Islamophobia in non-Muslim states.

To put words into action, both leaders have taken specific measures at home and overseas to mobilize “the pious ummah.” Given Turkey’s better governance structures and institutional capacity and nearly two decades of AKP rule, the country has taken more concrete measures. Specifically, a network of state organizations, such as the “Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and its European extension DITIB, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and humanitarian NGOs with close ties to AKP officials” Erdogan has been able to transmit this narrative of Islamist populism among the Turkish diaspora and other Muslim communities. In a sense, the Turkish state has created through these organizations a support network endorsed by disenfranchised Muslim communities in the West while university exchange programs, mosque sermons, knowledge-production, and media (both entertainment and news) have highlighted Islamophobia and discussed anti-Western and anti-imperialism.

While Khan has not funded programs of such scale, he has used his speeches at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the World Economic Forum (WEF), and the United Nations (UN) to address the Pakistani diaspora in America and other Muslim communities. For example, during COVID-19, when Khan visited Sri Lanka, he helped local Muslims by negotiating with the government to ensure they would receive ground burials (as is the Islamic tradition) rather than being cremated like the rest of the Sri Lankan population. For this, he was hailed a hero by the Sri Lankan Muslim community. At the same time, Khan has imported Turkish entertainment media to Pakistan with shows such as Dirilis: Ertugrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), Kurulus: Osman (Establishment: Osman), Payitaht: Abdulhamid (The Last Emperor), and Yunus Emre: Aşkın Yolculuğu (Yunus Emre: The Journey of Love) which have neo-Ottoman and anti-Western themes and subtexts and call for unification of the ummah.

Their Call For Action Not Based On Human Rights

Cooperation also extends beyond these soft power links to the realm of hard power, with distinctive jihadist undertones. The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is a prime example. Not only did neighboring Turkey lend support to “fellow Muslim” Azerbaijan but also Pakistan. Moreover, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has also seen these two partners within the ummah take a leading role in negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government. “Efforts” like this taken on behalf of the Muslim ummah are no doubt why Erdogan and Khan are consistently found to be among the most influential Muslim leaders in the world in various rankings.

Despite the global recognition among many Muslim circles worldwide, the use of Islamist populism by both Khan and Erdogan is selective, making it pragmatic. Two distinct features of both populist governments show that the call for action is not based on human rights; rather, it is a convenient instrumentalization of religion for political gain.

Firstly, Turkey and Pakistan both have ethnic and sectarian rifts. Under the AKP leadership, since the fallout of the Kurdish opening, not only has the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) been vilified as a terrorist group but the AKP’s political opposition has faced increasing harassment and charges of aiding and abetting “terrorism” (Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Yilmaz et al., 2020; Yilmaz et al., 2021). Another community, the Alevis, has also been increasingly targeted on sectarian lines. Even though most Kurds and Alevis are Muslims, these minorities in a Sunni-majority country are often persecuted on ethnic and sectarian lines.

In Pakistan as well, the sectarian rifts between Shias and Sunnis are deepening, and other than condemning targeted attacks on Shia minorities in Pakistan, the PTI government has done little to uproot the anti-Shia sentiments of variousclerics in the country. Moreover, ethnic tensions between the state and the Pashtun and Baloch communities have seen little effort at conflict resolution. Instead, the state chooses to ignore the rifts and at times sanctions police- or military-led action against Pashtun or Baloch rights activities (Yousaf, 2019).

It is clear that both Pakistan and Turkey have constructed a particular ideology that casts the ummah as majority Sunni and favors the major ethnic group in power. Thus, despite their repeated call for “social justice” and “equity” for victimized Muslims abroad, they have been persecuting Muslims within their own borders.

Secondly, both leaders have been highly selective in their cherry-picking of “Muslim causes.” Thus, they often speak about the conflict in Palestine, the Rohingya genocide, and the Indian government’s restrictions in Kashmir while avoiding discussion of the Uighurs (or Uyghurs), a Muslim population in China, who are subjected to genocide by the Chinese government. Given the deep investment and strategic ties between China, Turkey, and Pakistan, both leaders have chosen to remain silent about this “Muslim” issue. When confronted about this selective silence, the PTI government and Imran Khan have called the issue “an internal matter” and a “non-issue” or simply dismissed it and called China “a great friend of Pakistan.”

Erdogan’s and Khan’s Use of Islamist Populism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

Ankara has also maintained a similarly muted approach towards the issue by preventing the opposition from bringing the issue up and ignoring international efforts to impose sanctions or even condemn the Chinese suppression of the Uighurs (Erdemir & Kowalski, 2020; Shams, 2020). The Uighur majority of Xinjiang is connected with Pakistan through the territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit–Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas). In addition, Turkey shares a cultural bond with the Uighurs through their common Turkic roots. Yet, both leaders continue their silence over the issue. While Erdogan and Khan have both condemned France, America, and other Western and non-Muslim countries for discriminating against Muslims or attacking them, this deafening silence by these two “most influential” leaders of the ummah reveals their selective approach and use of populist Islamism. 

Erdogan’s and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of “the Muslim Other” within their countries and silence over the Uighur genocide earns them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders. Moreover, both Erdogan and Khan are co-opting and pursuing a pan-Islamist brotherhood for the Sunni Muslim world. This synchronized populist agenda risks further deepening political divides — not to mention sectarian and ethnic conflict — within both countries.

At the same time, by positioning themselves as the leaders of the ummah, Khan and Erdogan risk homogenizing the Muslim faith under the Sunni archetype, which would repudiate the plurality of the faith and its various schools of thought. Moreover, isolating the Uighurs in exchange for “hush money” from China is a dangerous precedent being set by Turkey and Pakistan. Moreover, it goes to show how readily economic interests trump morality even for those who traditionally claim to “stand up” for the marginalized and disadvantaged. Finally, the transnational nature of the selective Islamism of these allied populist leaders means their project will have a broader impact that transcends Turkish and Pakistani geographical borders with as yet unknown consequences.


References

Avari, B. (2016). Islamic Civilization in South Asia: A History of Muslim Power and Presence. New York: Routledge.

Eaton, M. Richard. (1992). India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765. Allen Lane: Penguin History. 

Gürsoy, Yaprak. (2019). “Moving Beyond European and Latin American Typologies: The Peculiarities of AKP’s Populism in Turkey.” Journal of Contemporary Asia

Khan, Imran. (2020). “Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Special Interview with Hamza Ali Abbasi.” Hum News. December 5, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2gFbFH0IdA

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.  

Mudde, Cas. (2017). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4), 2004, 541– 563. 

Niemeijer, A. (1972). The Khilafat Movement in India 1919-1924. The Hague: Brill.

White, Jenny. (2013). Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). Creating the desired citizens: State, Islam and ideology in Turkey. Cambridge University Press.

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “A Systematic Literature Review of Populism, Religion and Emotions.” Religions. 12 272. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040272

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Erturk, Faruk. (2021). “Populism, violence and authoritarian stability: necropolitics in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 10.1080/01436597.2021.1896965 

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Bashirov, Galib. (2018). “The AKP after 15 years: emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey.”  Third World Quarterly. 39(9), 1812-1830, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1447371

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Caman, Mehmet Efe & Bashirov, Galib. (2020). “How an Islamist Party Managed to Legitimate Its Authoritarianisation in the Eyes of the Secularist Opposition: The Case of Turkey.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2019.1679772.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Shipoli, Erdoan & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Authoritarian Resilience through Securitisation: An Islamist Populist Party’s Co-optation of a Secularist Far-Right Party.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1891412 

Yousaf, F. (2019). “Pakistan’s ‘Tribal’ Pashtuns, Their ‘Violent’ Representation, and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.” SAGE Open. doi:10.1177/2158244019829546