EatingWorld

Eating and Environmental Consciousness

The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject.” Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

By Heidi Hart

“Western consumers should put aside their reservations about eating crickets,” states a recent Economist commentary, “and give plant-based burgers, 3d-printed steaks and vat-grown artificial tuna a try” (Pascual, 2021). What is happening here? Consumers in privileged countries have taken dietary luxuries for granted for several generations, eating beef and buying wild-caught fish at the supermarket, choosing to go gluten-free or vegan for health or political reasons, abiding by religious food traditions and taboos. Now, simply finding what you want to eat is not so simple after all.  

Covid-era food shortages, with familiar items missing from grocery shelves in wealthy countries, are only part of the story. Long-term droughts, locust invasions, and lingering shortages from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west African countries complicate the picture (Burgeon, 2021). The current megadrought in the western US, one painful side-effect of global warming, is straining farms and ranches beyond their already environmentally costly water use for irrigation (Nelson, 2021).

Climate leaders Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (2020: 16) have envisioned two scenarios for Earth’s livability in 2050, depending on the level of global warming in the next several decades. In once scenario, air pollution is endemic, droughts and famines commonplace, and food production unpredictable. “Disasters and wars rage, choking off trade routes,” they predict in this scenario. “In some places, the inability to gain access to such basics as wheat, rice, or sorghum has led to economic collapse and civil unrest more quickly than even the most pessimistic experts had previously imagined.” 

In the alternate scenario, which seems painfully far-fetched after the recent disappointments of COP26, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac (2020: 26) imagine emissions halved every decade until 2050, keeping global warming at the 1.5-degree threshold. In this case, industrial agriculture has given way to regenerative farming, which involves “mixing perennial crops, sustainable grazing, and improved crop-rotation on large-scale farms.” Food shopping has shifted from large commercial centers to small, local markets and co-op purchasing groups. Meat and dairy products have all but disappeared. “We’ve come to realize,” the authors continue, “by growing our own, that food is expensive because it should be expensive – it takes valuable resources to grow it, after all. Water. Soil. Sweat. Time.”

However idealistic this scenario sounds, it does reflect present concerns about food deserts, in which poorer city dwellers do not have access to fresh produce and other healthful options, and about farming practices that deplete rather than nourish the soil. 

Environmentalists have long spoken out against genetically modified foods and pesticide-heavy industrial agriculture. Proposed solutions include organic and no-till farming, which regenerates the soil with minerals, as well as  “multistrata agroforestry,” which creates vertical plant layers and horizontal “blankets” of crops to mimic forest biodiversity (Hawken, 2017: 46-47). Dietary changes by individual consumers, such as avoiding environmentally costly beef consumption, can make a difference as well. 

These solutions come with their own problems, however. The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject,” as environmental philosopher Timothy Morton described it in 2013. Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

Regenerative farming may not be enough in areas without sufficient water. Consumer food choice may become a luxury even for those who have never had to worry about finding the ingredients they need in a short errand to the market. For those who have already suffered from food insecurity, indoor “vertical” farms and 3-D printed meat (Pascual, 2021) may still be far out of reach. Privileged proponents of “full stomach” environmentalism may come closer to understanding their “empty stomach”-driven counterparts (Guha, 2006 in Nixon; 2011: 5), but this is a long process, and the planet is warming and drying and flooding more quickly than human empathy may be able to catch up. 

Two results of this profound environmental stress have already begun to show: on the one hand, increased rigidity around food choices among those wealthy enough to choose (dietary “purity culture” that crosses political lines and spills into Covid vaccine debates as well); and on the other hand, deeper engagement with food sources that takes Indigenous values as a guide. Creating community gardens based on historical practices in the Ute (Utah, US) tribe is one example; growing only as much as each community needs and working from a shared economy allows the tribe to “go from an experience of exploitation to one of authentically living with each other” (Braidan Weeks, in Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67-68).

“As a human being who cannot photosynthesize,” writes US Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, “I must struggle to participate in the Honorable Harvest” (2013: 180). What she means by this term is the ecologizing mindset that treats plants as beings in their own right, that honors the animal killed for meat, that does not take more than one’s share. “Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures,” she notes, “but it’s hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume” (Kimmerer, 2013: 179). 

Learning limits and humility is difficult for humans used to consumption-based economies. Paradoxically, though, Indigenous gift economies have fostered a sense of abundance and community reciprocity, rather than scarcity and individualism. Kimmerer (2013: 29) recalls an experience at a market in the Andes, where the transition “from private goods to shared wealth” created a sense of gratitude and, with a meal in every basket exchanged, “justice” as well.

The deep community work required to shift collective mindsets may seem impossible, but with droughts and supply chain breakdowns already occurring, it may soon become essential for survival. The alternative is a future of pandemic-style hoarding and water wars. Smarter farming, access to birth control, education for women, and local food co-ops (see Hawken, 2017) may help ease the strain of feeding a crowded, warming planet. At the local level, learning to share rather than hoard one’s groceries is a good start.  

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee and Brooke Larsen, Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

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

Guha, Ramachandra. (2006). How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

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

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

COP26A

Grief, Rage, and Courage at COP26

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius”. With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment.

By Heidi Hart

Observing the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) from a virtual distance has created a fractured impression. The official program website shows a swirling green and purple Earth, with links to live-streamed press conferences, speeches, and the #TogetherForOurPlanet Twitter feed. This Earth looks clean and healthy, as if such an ideal were an easy goal to reach. Meanwhile, mounds of trash fill the outskirts of the conference city Glasgow, amid a garbage-collectors’ strike that makes human “throwaway society” all too clear (Gross, 2021).

News reports showed internal fault-lines even before the conference began. In the pre-conference summit in Italy, G20 leaders from the wealthy countries “collectively responsible for around 80 percent of current greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide” largely failed to come together, though they did agree to cuts in methane leaks and in coal financing overseas (Economist, 2021). Protests on the outskirts of the main Glasgow conference and around the world have included thousands of young people, who insist that carbon reduction pledges fall woefully short of the profound value shifts and decolonializing efforts that must occur in order to avoid unlivable conditions for humans and countless other species (Pruitt-Young, 2021). 

COP26’s makeup of 30,000 delegates consisted mainly of political and business leaders, who worked to draft a document that, before the delayed end of the conference, reflected disappointment in wealthy countries’ failure to reach earlier goals of financial reparation to their poorer, more climate-stressed neighbors, as well as “rage” at ongoing resistance to urgent carbon-cutting measures (New York Times, 2021). The final document created a new “Glasgow Climate Pact” that includes accelerated carbon-reduction plans, efforts to support poorer countries in adaptation measures, and worldwide infrastructure for a carbon market, but extends the target year for emissions cut to 2030, rather than the 2025 date set in the 2015 Paris agreement – “[n]ot the stuff of triumph, but not a trainwreck, either” (Economist, 2021).   

Speeches included several long, populist ramblings (by India’s prime minister Narenda Modi, for example, who did conclude with a concrete pledge to “reach net-zero emissions by 2070” [Economist, 2021]), but some voices from marginalized communities also found a place to be heard. Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, named the climate-change-induced drought leading to failed harvests and starvation in her country, where she has seen children crying by a dried-up river after walking twelve miles to reach it with their mother. “As we sit comfortably here in Glasgow,” she called for an opening of hearts and a moment of silence for those suffering and dying in poorer countries affected most painfully by global warming (see the complete video here). As Mary Annaïse Heglar has noted, “Climate grief is not an illness to cure. It is a condition we will have to live with.” Grief can lead to courage (Marvel, 2018), if not the easy optimism some may expect from a global climate conference. 

The first week of climate talks ended with a focus on agriculture and land use, with somewhat vague pledges to increase international “dialogue” on the commodities that lead to deforestation (beef and palm oil, for example) and to promote “innovation” in sustainable farming, without the concrete goals or attention to biodiversity that protesters demanded (Economist, 2021). The second week began with discussions about adaptation to the inevitable droughts, floods, and famines that will result even in the best-case scenario of the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and about “loss-and-damage” efforts in which wealthier countries compensate poorer ones for the damage their carbon emissions will continue to cause. These discussions have been largely disappointing for developing nations (Sengupta, 2021).

On November 10, a draft of COP26’s “cover decisions” outlined stronger pledges than in the Paris agreement to reduce emissions (and, unlike that document, actually uses the phrase “fossil fuels” [Economist, 2021]), but without mentioning specific dates or enforcement measures, and without offering developing countries the financial assistance they need to help with decarbonizing efforts. One dramatic and encouraging turn of events occurred that day, when China and the US announced a long list of future joint measures to reduce emissions in concrete ways, from research and alternative energy policies to methane reduction and bans on illegal deforestation (Economist, 2021). Critics have noted, however, that China’s methane efforts are only are their own terms, and the joint list is still not enough to curb global warming already out of control (NPR, 2021). 

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius” (New York Times, 2021). With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment (Watson, 2016). The “PR event” that Thunberg calls COP26 has failed to address deeper issues of “colonialism and beyond” that cost poorer countries as their wealthy counterparts show unwillingness to sacrifice fossil-fueled industrial comforts (Campbell, 2021). 

Thousands of people taking part in a demonstration against climate change in Glasgow city centre during UN COP26 climate conference on November 6, 2021. Photo: Bruno Mameli

Alongside the official meetings in Glasgow, a large-scale “counter summit” took place, drawing on indigenous and other “frontline” communities. This alternative conference also included progressive lawmakers and landworkers, along with representatives from trade unions, social justice organizations, and faith groups (Lakhani, 2021). On the design level, the summit’s website applies COP26’s signature purple background but with emergency- and heat-signaling orange as well. Images of humans attached to rising plant spores offer a sense of hope from the ground up. 

Discussion topics at this People’s Summit for Climate Justice included carbon pricing, the impact of British mining in Brazil, trauma and resilience among activists, environmental warfare in Kurdistan, and energy transitions in Latin America. The program offered virtual as well as in-person participation and translation services, to be as globally inclusive as possible. While this conference may not have been as optimistic as its official counterpart (with headlines such as “Landmark Agreements at COP26 Put Nails in Coal’s Coffin” celebrating cutbacks in large banks’ support of fossil fuels), it has taken a more local, grassroots approach that does not shy away from painful questions of colonialism, racism, and “slow violence” (see Nixon, 2011). 

Where to go from here? For all its limitations, the very fact of US-Chinese cooperation is a large and unexpected step. Financial commitments to decarbonization and reparations may materialize at least in time to keep warming below the truly catastrophic 2.7-degree increase the world is headed toward today (Chestney, 2021). Elsewhere in the world, many communities feeling the stresses of global warming still find themselves left out, however, from deforested Indigenous zones in Brazil to rural areas in France with out-of-reach gas prices, where residents feel very far away from the “green energy transition” discussed in Paris (Cohen, 2021).

Historian Andreas Malm takes a boldly Leninist approach to current climate debates, seeing the need for a revolution that actually challenges capitalism. Though Malm might be accused of “cosplaying revolution while the planet burns,” one reviewer of his new book White Skin, Black Fuel finds his attitude to be one of “tragic realism,” a historically informed climate grief that calls for courage, too (Tooze, 2021). Malm and his collective call for direct and even destructive action to dismantle new carbon-emitting machines, pipelines, and even the homes of the planet’s most damaging capitalists (see Malm et al., 2021). But this radical approach is not the only possible solution to a climate crisis that leaves no safe place on Earth (Peach, 2019).

Indigenous and other frontline leaders, like those who participated in the COP26 counter-conference, are bringing generations-deep wisdom to the crisis at hand. As Ute Indian Tribe (Utah, US) representative Braidan Weeks has put it, “Creating a sustainable future means empowering communities to take care of themselves and reassess that value of always having to produce. Why do you need five hundred pounds of tomatoes? You don’t. My community needs a hundred pounds of tomatoes and we do that by growing and sharing it together” (Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67). Traditional controlled-burn practices to reduce the impact of wildfires (Sommer, 2020), international support of the Water Protectorsorganizing to stop the Dakota Pipeline in the US, and land-rights movements from the Arctic to Latin America are only a few of the efforts inspired by communities who have long put circular economies over ideologies of endless growth.  

On a smaller scale, individuals can still make a difference in choosing how to consume (or not), how to travel (or not), and how to recreate responsibly in natural areas. Developing an attitude of care that does not avoid grief or even rage is a good place to start, to cultivate the courage needed for protecting Earthly futures. For those of us lacking the youthful energy of activists like Greta Thunberg and Elizabeth Wathuti, the example of an older climate educator in Sweden is inspiring: 73-year-old Gitte H.D. has just released a “climate rap” that demonstrates how people of any age can feel and act for climate care. There’s still time to learn and change. Enjoy her video here, with the kind of concrete advice large climate conferences often fail to deliver. 

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee & Larsen, Brooke. Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Malm, Andreas & the Zetkin Collective. (2021). White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. London: Verso Books. 

Hundreds of immigrants had to wait at the border between Greece and FYROM waiting for the right time to continue their journey from unguarded passages on September 24, 2015 in Idomeni, Greece. Photo: Ververidis Vasilis.

Ethnographic Reflexivity: Why listening to individuals matters in an age of populistic cacophony

Populism and migration studies should be a vital voice to people and should include individual narratives and multi-perspectival methodologies into work instead of limiting themselves with the meta-narrative discussions and frameworks. Until then it can produce multi-perspectival, grounded narratives that develop a certain critique before populism.

By Dilek Karal

In a book club or let it be an intellectual cafe of castaway academics, one of us said: “How weird is that we all are KHK[i]people…” KHK was the abbreviation for governmental decrees that cost more than a hundred and fifty thousand people their jobs and more in Turkey… Among them were bureaucrats, state officials, journalists, teachers, and us: a group of academics trying to survive in different countries rounded in a Zoom meeting discussing “ethics.” 

Another meaning of KHK –that you could not find any international report or local dictionary was that– the labeled, scapegoat, the unwanted… one step further: terrorist. All times’ usual suspects, persona non grata. Its effect grew in your gut and your surroundings after you got it like an epidemic. If you become a KHK person, you get scapegoated, isolated, have to explain yourself, or keep your silence to have a second chance out of humiliating, pejorative legal mechanisms. 

All of us paused and thought over the memories of the past 6 years that drastically changed our lives after the controversial coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Not all of us had the KHK but some of us were still unwanted ones of the state since we either were families with people, the state found dangerous or we were dangerous because of our opposing positions or views to government. This was a scene beyond overarching holistic discourses and populistic cacophonies. Life experiences and stories of real individuals, where their life is directly affected by any populistic discourse or action. Like it happened to me and my colleagues.

The problematic aspect of generalist or data-centered perspectives in social science is that when a bad happens to thousands of people, you get the feeling that a personal story is of non-significance. Just a thing, among other things. All the pain, social isolation, curfew, fear become unfortunate “normal” as if it does not count. Overall, the immigrants in this personal example are just numbers in totalistic data-centric perspective of today’s migration studies, however, as being one of them, I can personally tell beyond data or any dictionaries. This personal example reminded me of the two major problematic perspectives that we encounter in today’s populism studies: responding to generalist and data-centric claims of populists with generalizations. Second, limited space is given to populism in ethnographic studies.

Taking anti-immigrant discourse as a departing point example, I suggest digging into reflexive ethnographies more to make human narratives more vivid and distancing migration research (or any kind of social research) from highly populistic and politicized discussions on migration today. In this short introductory discussion, I claim that populism studies to be a vital voice to people, should and must include individual narratives and multi-perspectival methodologies into work instead of limiting themselves within the meta-narrative discussions and frameworks. Until then it can produce multi-perspectival, grounded narratives that develop a certain critique before populism.

Populism vs. Individual

Defined as a “thin-centered ideology and rather a discursive frame” (Mudde, 2007), populism is a meta-discourse between discourse and ideology playing in with the “antagonism between people and elites against the backdrop of popular sovereignty” (Aslanidis, 2015: 88). As Frank (2017) pointed out earlier, as individuals evanesce from the public space, populism speaks for the masses. “The defining claim of populism emerges from the democratic necessity and impossibility of the people speaking in their name. Populism emerges as an event by exploiting this tension between the authorized representation of public authority and the enactment of popular power that proceeds without authorization” (Frank, 2017: 631). That is how populism stands against the individualization of discourse. 

Anti-elitism, people centrism, popular sovereignty stands as the core dynamics of populism (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012) along with xenophobia and anti-immigrant discourse. However, the populistic perspective considers people, the nation as a collective or as if an organism that moves in tandem. That is why we encounter much of a terminology “our nation”, “others”, “elites” as if there are groups of people carrying fictitious banners of their group. Similarly, immigrants are the modern scapegoats for populist leaders. They are considered as the perfect other of populist vision of the nation. However, immigrant as a general term is more generalized in the hands of populists where they are counted as long as they are considered as a nation of immigrants.  

There is no space in populistic policies for the individual. The only individual at the center is their “charismatic leader” in the Weberian sense. As once philosopher Carl Jung used to define Hitler: You cannot speak to Hitler, such an initiation is alike speaking to a whole nation. Rather than an individual with weaknesses, psychological problems, or clumsiness, populistic leaders are perfectionated personalities as “nation” in their terms.[ii]

Possibility of an Ethnographic Reflexive Critique towards Populism

As expected, populism did not find a large resonance in ethnographic studies or anthropology though it is largely handled as a topic of political science or more generalist frameworks. The growing political wave was “anathema to anything and everything anthropological thought has ever represented” (Bangstad, 2017). While ethnographic studies centered upon individual experience as a core starting point to evaluate social, populism and alike ideologies are mostly seen as topics of the more holistic kind not suitable for ethnographic studies. Similarly, Mazzarella (2021) names populism as an awkward topic to discuss for anthropologists, criticizing the ethnographic and anthropological studies’ distancing themselves from political or popular topics. 

In this regard, anti-immigration discourse is overall highly populist where individuals’ stories dissolve from the scene while answering populists’ holistic claims. For example, when a populist leader calls immigrants a burden on the economy, we are trying to prove that they are not. However, within this dichotomic thinking, we are underestimating the humanitarian value of individual for just being a human being, even this individual is a person who cannot make any contribution to the economy. Think about immigrants who are elderly, living with disabilities, or just children. I insist that instead of defending immigrants via generalizing data before any populist policy, we should propose the value of the individual through developing more of an individualistic discourse both in populism and migration studies.

I claim that reflexive ethnographies can present alternative research methodologies both for the study of immigration and anti-immigrant populistic discourses. Ethnographic reflexivity, on the other hand, is mainly the researcher’s positioning herself as a part of research and adding her insights, observations, distance or closeness to the narration of the research and analysis. While “postmodern individual is structuring itself via language, that is narrative” (Neyzi, 1999: 3), we should seek new frameworks to develop a critique of populistic meta-narratives, epic and didactic stories that consider people as long as they belong to a group with clear boundaries such as a nation. 

Reflexivity values ethnographies though the critique of the categorical and national character of migration research claiming perspectival, political and performative nature of categories are lacking to describe migration phenomenon (Dahinden, Fischer & Menet, 2015: 31-33). Alike reflexive methodologies can develop objective and realistic research that inherently facilitates a critique towards populism: irrational populistic cacophonies vs. human narrative and experience.

Contrary to dichotomic thinking present in sociology, in search of a more social constructivist way, autoethnography also functions as a passage “by definition operates as a bridge, connecting autobiography and ethnography in order to study the intersection of self and others, self and culture” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 446). Researching of the self through autoethnographies, qualitative researchers develop introspection via “diaries, journals, freewriting, field notes and narratives of his or her lived experiences, thoughts and feelings, and then using these as data” (Ellis, 1991 as cited in Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). Through a reconstruction of experiences, reflections and memories, the researcher became both the subject and the object of research (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). I argue that reflexive ethnography can fully integrate reflexivity without abandoning its claims to develop valid knowledge of social reality before populistic claims (Davies, 1999: Preface). Autoethnography provides us means to deconstruct the dichotomy between the researcher and the researched. In this regard, “Author’s own experiences emotions and meanings become data for exploration” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). 

This type of knowledge is omnipresent in multiple mechanisms of migration policies however, has it given value in social science apart from ethnographers or sociologists? As Fischer (2017) claims “anthropology has to “reinvent itself as a vital public voice, activating society and supporting values of the social good for the contemporary worlds emergent around us.” That sound critique can be reversed and directed towards any studies around popular topics including but not limited to populism studies while “all the apparently informal sayings, doings, and feelings that in fact become decisive for formal political outcomes, especially in populist times” (Das, 2006; Gutmann, 2002; Spencer, 2007 in Mazzarella, 2021: 54). If so, why do not we activate the power of the individual as an agent who produces multiple, vivid discourses instead of assigning individual a presupposed subaltern, subordinate, pathetic role in politics and research?[iii]

References

Aslanidis, P. (2015). “Is Populism an Ideology? A Refutation and a New Perspective.” Political Studies. 64 (1_suppl):88-104. doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12224

Bangstad, S. (2017). “Academic freedom in an age of populism.” Anthropology News. Feb. 13.

Dahinden, J.; Fischer, C. & Menet, J. (2020). “Knowledge production, reflexivity, and the use of categories in migration studies: tackling challenges in the field.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2020.1752926Das 2006

Davies, C. A. (1999). Reflexive Ethnography: A guide to researching selves

and others. Routledge: London and NY.

Ellingson, L. L., & Ellis, C. (2008). “Autoethnography as constructionist project.” In: J. A. Holstein & J. F. Gubrium (Eds.), Handbook of constructionist research. (pp. 445-465). New York: Guilford.

Frank, J. (2017). “Populism and praxis.” In: Rovira Kaltwasser et al. The Oxford Handbook of Populism. pp. 629–643.

Mazzarella, W. (2021). “The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 48:45–60. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011412.

Mouffe C. (2018). For a Left Populism. London: Verso.

Mudde C. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Mudde, C. & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2012). (eds). Populism in Europe and Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy. 

Neyzi, L. (1999). İstanbul’da Hatırlamak ve Unutmak: Birey, Bellek, Aidiyet. Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları: İstanbul.


[i] After the controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the government in Turkey, using emergency decrees, dismissed more than 152,000 civil servants, including academics, teachers, police officers, health

workers, judges and prosecutors. Turkish government has taken more than 150,000 people into custody during the state of emergency and arrested more than 78,000 on terrorism-related charges, 50,000 of whom are still in jail (European Commission, 2019). 155,560 people are still currently under investigation due to their alleged links to the coup attempt (Hurriyet Daily News, 2019). (Information retrieved form the report: Political Persecution and Intersections of Violence against Women in Turkey by Hand in Hand for Women).

[ii] For a detailed discussion on totalitarian leadership and its reflections among public please see Arendt, H. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Viking Press

[iii] For a detailed discussion of subordinated individual please see Spivak, G.C. (1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In: Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. London: Macmillan.

A dying stalker in jacket and gloves in damaged gas mask with filter reaching out his hand to camera on destructed apocalyptic wasteland city background.

“Ruin Porn,” the Populist Apocalypse, and Art as Antidote

This commentary considers several populist frameworks for apocalyptic thinking in Europe and the US, in historical and environmental perspective, with reflection on art forms that counter right-wing “ruin value.”

By Heidi Hart

Teaching American undergraduates in Berlin in the early 2010s, I asked my students to create short documentary films in places that held particular historical interest for them. Many of them chose dystopian remnants of the former East Germany, from an empty-windowed primary school to the famous Spreepark with its silent Ferris wheel and tumbledown dinosaur parts. Following the Abandoned Berlin website, these young students on the cusp of the Instagram age were already sensitized to dystopian films and graphic novels, though the totalitarian resurgences and up-close climate crises of our current decade were yet to come. Ruins seemed fun then; Berlin’s gentrification had not yet transformed all the peeling, shell-pocked back courtyards of now trendy neighborhoods. 

Ten years later, ruins have become pathologically fun (I think of the selfie-driven tourism around Chernobyl) and at the same time painfully foreboding. Abandoned office buildings during the Covid-19 lockdown, with dead, ghostly potted plants, became a harbinger of an upended labor market amid rapidly intensifying climate disasters, from monster floods and megadroughts to heatwaves in unlikely places,  as capitalism’s costs have become apparent on a planetary scale. The “new weird” genre of film and fiction, in which strange life forms might overtake an abandoned swimming pool (as in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation), now seems too close to home to be merely entertaining. 

Especially for climate educators, artists, and activists, ruins are more than Instagrammable tourist destinations or spine-tingling movie scenes. They are all too real, as in the loss of giant redwood trees to California wildfires, the flooding of a temple complex in Thailand, or the exposure of archaeological sites as a dam-built reservoir recedes to record low levelsin Utah. The climate crisis has made “the fragility of our collective cultural enterprise” all too clear, as “[p]apyrus rots, paper burns, museums get sacked, hard drives crash” (Scranton, 2015: 100), not to mention whole towns charred to chimney-stumps by a wildfire. 

For some populist groups, however, ruins and apocalyptic thinking hold a different and dangerous power. Instead of a sense of weirdness or “wrongness” (Fisher, 2016: 13) that might lead to critical re-evaluation of human industrial comforts, ruins in the right-wing populist or eco-fascist imagination can signal pleasure in a world without humans at all – or at least without those white supremacists would like to see gone. 

Two elderly German men, one wearing the armband signifying blindness, the other his helper, sitting on a crate amid the rubble during Battle of Berlin in May 1945. Photo: Yevgeny Khaldei – Everett Collection.

This take on what is now called “ruin porn” is not new. “Ruinenwert” or “ruin value” was “one of Hitler’s favorite concepts … actually foreseeing the future ruins that would symbolize the greatness of the Third Reich, even after the demise of the empire” (Horvat, 2021: 88-89). Going back further in German culture, ruins were a key focal point in much Romantic art (see Pinto, 2016); the aristocratic gardens designed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe just outside Weimar include “sham ruins” to evoke the melancholy of time’s passing.   

Well aware of this history, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer in 1934 to design a Greek-inspired proto-ruin for the Zeppelinfeld rallying ground (Horvat, 2021: 88). Speer provided Hitler with “a science fiction drawing that depicted the Zeppelin Field after the Götterdämmerung – or ‘after the Apocalypse’ – overgrown with ivy and with its column fallen” (Horvat, 2021: 89) according to the National Socialist “law of ruins” (Speer, 1970: 56). More recent architectural projects in Germany (the renovation of Frankfurt’s Old Town, for example) have raised specters of Nazism not only in their valorizing of an ideal “Heimat” but also in the far-right populist views of the designers and their political supporters (Moore, 2018). 

The idea of a violent collapse of civilization (or at least the democratic version) has also regained traction among far-right groups in Germany. The case of Franco A., a soldier posing as a Syrian refugee and caught retrieving a loaded weapon from an airport bathroom in 2017, exposed a complex network of military and police personnel planning attacks on individuals and on the German government. Their goal: an unspecified date of armed insurrection that would send German democracy up in flames (Bennhold et al., 2021). 

Author Dirk Laabs has traced the spread of this far-reaching movement in a recent book that reads “like a cancer diagnosis,” describing secret meetings, weapons stashes, and contact with the AfD party, as groups with names like Uniter and Nordkreuz have  attempted to cause “Germany to fall like a house of cards on ‘Day X’” (Hemicker, 2021, translation mine). Members have ranged from elite soldiers to one of Angela Merkel’s former security officers. Though assassination plots and an attempt to storm the Reichstag in August 2020, fueled partly by anger at Covid restrictions, have mostly failed, the threat of “spontaneous” attacks remains (see Laabs, 2021). 

In addition to end-times ideologies in Europe, eco-fascist fascinations with human ruins left behind, and widespread far-right interest in the Middle Ages (often for racist reasons, imagining a “threat from the East” [S.N., 2017]), apocalyptic notions appeal strongly to many Trump supporters in the US. Building on post-9/11 wishful thinking for a conflagration in Israel that would bring about the Second Coming of Christ (as popularized in the Left Behind fiction series [see Gribben, 2004]), an ideology of Trump’s inciting chaos to accelerate the end of the world has gained traction even among those who dislike his personality (Lecaque, 2019). 

Though Trump himself is hardly a religious figure, “his lack of apparent belief in anything has freed him up to seek out and uniquely cater to whatever group would show the most allegiance” (Morris, 2020). Stacking his staff with Christian fundamentalists, inciting reactionary thinking in his rally rhetoric as well as actual chaos on the world stage, Trump appears (even after his 2020 loss) to revel in teetering at the edge of the end times. The January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington evoked a Götterdämmerung atmosphere, amid economic crisis and a global pandemic. What ruins of American democracy would be left behind? 

As Amir Ahmadi Arian pointed out as early as 2017, anti-Trump apocalyptic thinking is equally dangerous. The Spiegel’s post-election cover image of Trump as an open-mouthed meteor hurtling toward Earth is one example of “push[ing] Trump so far down the ladder of evil that he ultimately ceased to be a human, and became endowed with magical destructive forces” (Arian, 2017). The risk in demonization is turning one’s enemy into a god and taking pleasure (however guiltily) in watching the world burn. 

A doll in a gas mask in abandoned city of Pripyat in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in February 2016. Photo: Ondrej Bucek

Some antidotes to enjoying the threat of destruction (or commodifying it, in the case of Chernobyl tourism) include rhetorical “prose” instead of “poetry,” as Arian suggests, as well as clear-eyed and compassionate approaches to images of loss, toxicity, and decay. A helpful model is Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconic film Stalker (1978-79), filmed in the literal ruins of a “factory and two hydroelectric plants” outside Tallinn, Estonia (Riley, 2017: 21). In the film, the “stalker” or guide leads a writer and professor into this toxic landscape (which may well have led to the director’s early death from cancer), imagined as a mysterious “Zone” where wishes can come true. It is actually a liminal space between the “remnants of a ruined civilization” and “imminent human catastrophe” (Tarkovsky, Jr., Schlegel and Schirmer, 2018: 164), where humans must come up against their limits.

This Cold War-era film, with its dripping tunnels and overgrown train tracks, may call up contemporary associations with Chernobyl, but its slowness avoids the quick thrills of “dark tourism” that trivializes places where humans and whole habitats have died. It also counters eco-fascist celebrations of “empty” landscapes. The film works as a deeply phenomenological meditation on industrial waste, but with as much attention to human pain and care as it gives to human arrogance. 

Films and artworks like Stalker that approach ruins with critical curiosity recall Jacques Derrida’s term “hauntology,”coined in a 1993 corrective to triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not wanting to throw Marx out with the Cold War bathwater, Derrida re-imagined the 19th-century philosopher’s thinking as a “spectre” (as in Marx’s own words about the “spectre of Communism” haunting Europe) countering neoliberal fantasies of endless growth (Salmon, 2021, Derrida, 2006). 

In the wake and waste of these fantasies, grass and water surface: “Stalker’s visual landscape represents a natural world that industrialization is incapable of industrializing, a landscape that modernization can no longer modernize” (Riley, 2017: 22). In the moment when the Stalker lies down in that grass to feel it fully, however, the film overcomes any illusion of natural “purity” restored after humans have gone. 

Still, even critical contemplation of human-made ruins can be a luxury. For Indigenous communities whose worlds have already ended, ruins are not just artifacts or aesthetic reminders of human fallibility. In 2020, the Indigenous Action group in the US released Rethinking the Apocalypse: An Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto. This document refuses White end-times ideology by acknowledging cycles of death and rebirth that include human-made climate crisis. 

From a post-apocalyptic perspective that carries genocide, stolen and poisoned sacred lands, forced education and mass graves of Native children, the end of the capitalist-industrial world may mean a rebirth of more grounded values – but not in the ecofascist sense of removing humans perceived as “other.” The manifesto includes this passage, as much invocation as provocation, with a different take on “ghosts” from Derrida’s:

As Indigenous anti-futurists, we are the consequence of the history of the colonizer’s future. We are the consequence of their war against Mother Earth. We will not allow the specter of the colonizer, the ghosts of the past to haunt the ruins of this world. We are the actualization of our prophecies.

This is the re-emergence of the world of cycles.

This is our ceremony.

Between silent skies. The world breathes again and the fever subsides.

The land is quiet. Waiting for us to listen.” (Indigenous Action, 2020).

Likewise, as slave histories are rising up amid fear and backlash in the American education system, Black artists are finding powerful ways to expose their own inherited ruins. Choreographer Mayfield Brooks’ 2021 Whale Fall takes its title from the bodies of whales that fall to ruin and feed smaller creatures on the ocean floor, as a way to embody grief and regeneration through movement and sound in a bare-bones theatre. Brooks describes the piece not only as a vehicle for processing the generational trauma of slavery but also as a response to experiencing Covid; “I just felt like my body was decomposing” (Kourlas/Brooks, 2021). This slow, solitary piece ends with a trio of Black women in a ritual of nourishment after grief. 

Making art with or from ruins is not new for artists from marginalized communities. Beverly Buchanan’s 1981 Marsh Ruins is a humbler, more historically embedded land installation than ephemeral works by Andy Goldsworthy or monumental constructions by Robert Smithson. In a tidal area on the Georgia coast, Buchanan constructed mounds of tabby (“a concrete made from lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash,” once used to build slave quarters (Art Papers, 2020) that serve as carriers of collective memory. Her work responds to literal tabby ruins in the area, including the remains of a former slave hospital that inspired the artist to create a container for “loss and unknowability – affirming the incompleteness of the historical record – while also evoking strength and endurance” (Groom, 2020: 51).

Having grown up in a privileged relationship to ruins (exploring a skeletal castle near my childhood school in Germany or visiting Native American sites in the American desert), I am learning to see these remnants with more attention to histories of power and loss. I try to take to heart Beverly Buchanan’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward tourism, making her own mock signs to direct people to her “roadside attraction” Marsh Ruins (Groom, 2020: 14). I will not be visiting Chernobyl, for all its overgrown mystique.

I am also more aware of my own tendencies to romanticize natural spaces that humans have apparently left behind, and to wish to hold memory in place – of the American mountain town where I lived before “resort” development, or the 19thcentury foundations exposed as drought dries up the local reservoir. After all, as Caitlin Desilvey has noted, “With each act of preservation, the vulnerable object becomes (a little bit of) us, and its unmaking threatens to unmake our identities as well” (2017: 13). This threat to identity can be an opportunity for more humility, for knowledge of our human limits in a world we’ve damaged beyond our own control. 

References

Berardini, Andrew. Ed. (2021). Sirenomelia: Emilija Škarnulytė. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (2006). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Desilvey, Caitlin. (2017). Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Fisher, Mark. (2016). The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books. 

Gribben, Crawford. (2004). “Rapture Fictions and the Changing Evangelical Condition.” Literature and Theology18(1), 77–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23925696

Groom, Amelia. (2020). Beverley Buchanan: Marsh Ruins. Boston, MA: Afterall Books/MIT Press. 

Horvat, Srećko. (2021). After the Apocalypse. Cambridge, UK:  Polity Press.

Laabs, Dirk. (2021). Staatsfeinde in Uniform. Wie militante Rechte unsere Institutionen unterwandern. Berlin: Econ Verlag.

Pinto, J. A. (2016). “Speaking Ruins: Travelers’ Perceptions of Ancient Rome.” SiteLINES: A Journal of Place11(2), 3–5.http://www.jstor.org/stable/24889511

Riley, John. (2017). “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.” Journal of Film and Video. 69(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.69.1.0018

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Speer, Albert. (1970). Inside the Third Reich. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London:  Trafalgar Square. 

VanderMeer, Jeff. (2014). Annihilation. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

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.

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.

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. 

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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

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Photo: ubisoft.com

Eivor the Trickster: Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and the popularization of tricksters, anti-fascist neo-paganism, and Scandinavian mythology

ABSTRACT: In the latest installment of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, developer Ubisoft brings its acclaimed series to Viking-era England and casts Eivor as the protagonist. She is a fierce Viking whose saga is shaped by the player’s choices throughout the game. In this commentary, we argue that by choosing to focus on Scandinavian mythology, emphasizing the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki, and giving Eivor similar trickster qualities as the main character in Valhalla, Ubisoft popularizes a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism while also popularizing traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a “trickster spirit” in one of the game’s arcs.

By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir

How do we define a trickster, let alone a popular one? We know tricksters are found across cultures and traditions: Myrddin the Wizard, Nasreddin the Scholar, and Sun Wu Kong, the wise and victorious Stone Monkey. All of these figures have shared characteristics, such as being able to transform both their identities, whether understood as metaphorical or physical, and “the society’s norms” (Wiget, 1990: 86). In addition, they are “timeless, universal,” and “disrupt all orders of things, including the analytic categories of academics” (Wiget, 1994: 95).

In the latest update to its beloved series, entitled “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” we find Ubisoft placing tricksters at the forefront of the game’s narrative. By taking its latest game to Viking-era England, it also benefits from the richness of Scandinavian mythology and its trickster characters. While AC Valhalla is not the first game to take advantage of Scandinavian folklore (Skyrim also comes to mind), it could be the first such game to make the trickster the central character of the game.

In AC Valhalla, the player shapes the story of Eivor, a fierce Viking warrior with a warm heart, throughout the game. As the game uses Scandinavian lore as a backdrop, Odin (known in Scandinavian mythology as the All-Father) and Loki (a trickster and companion of Odin, known for his cunning mind and transformations), also make an appearance. The game, as a whole, emphasizes the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki. Perhaps most importantly, the game gives Eivor similar trickster qualities, such as a cunning mind, ambiguity in terms of gender and loyalty, and the ability to communicate with the divine. Furthermore, by casting none other than Einar Selvik—the famous Norwegian musician—as Bragi (the game’s bard and companion of Eivor) and having him sing most of the songs heard in the game, Ubisoft popularizes a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism. At the same time, it popularizes traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a ‘trickster spirit’ in one of the game’s arcs.

In the Glowecestrescire arc of the game, Eivor finds herself participating in a Gaelic festival called Samhain. During the festival, Eivor puts on an animal skull (symbolically representing her transformation into animal form) and goes from door to door, telling riddles, and receiving gifts from the hosts. While the Samhain festival later transformed into Halloween (Simpson & Weiner, 1989), what is important for us here is that Eivor is called a “trickster spirit” in this part of the game.

While this is undoubtedly the highlight of Eivor’s tricksterism in the game in the literal sense, many allusions are scattered throughout this latest installment in the franchise. First of all, the player is given the option of choosing Eivor’s gender, as we are told that we cannot ascertain the character’s gender from historical records. In this sense, Eivor is similar to Loki, the Nordic trickster, who ‘has the ability to change his shape and sex’ (Encyclopedia Britannica, Loki). Similarly, while we have observed the aforementioned metaphorical transformation of Eivor (by donning the Samhain mask) during the Glowecestrescire arc, we find out that Basim, a legendary assassin in the game, is an incarnation of Loki.

Thor fighting Loki on a beach in Anyer, Banten, Indonesia. Photo: Ari Wid

There are other similarities that connect Eivor to Loki, the traditional trickster of Norse sagas. Loki is a ‘companion of [the] great gods Odin and Thor’ (Britannica), and Odin is always seen at the side of Eivor throughout the game, giving her advice or commenting on her actions. At the same time, Loki is also “the enemy of the gods,” causing “difficulty for them and himself” (Britannica). Not surprisingly, Eivor also eventually challenges the Norse god Odin, even fighting him as part of a boss fight toward the end of the game. This contradictory character of Loki is also reflected in other aspects of Eivor in the game, based on player choice and game design. While Eivor can choose to spare or slay her enemies throughout the game, she regularly finds herself in the position to raid monasteries and settlements, which is a central mechanism in the game that allows players to develop their own settlements with the materials gained through raiding.

Through these intentional similarities, Ubisoft popularizes Norse mythology, and the traditional trickster character Loki, as part of Scandinavian and Germanic culture, through the game’s protagonist Eivor. This process of popularizing traditional cultural elements is called “cultural populism” (or one aspect of it) in Cultural Studies. Jagers and Walgrave (2007) hold that populism is a discursive practice. For Barr (2009), populism is a well-devised strategy. For yet others, it is a kind of performance, and within the realm of International Relations, it is a type of political strategy (Moffit, 2017). On the other hand, cultural populism, as mentioned above, is the “infusion of popular cultural elements into ‘serious’ works of art” (McGuigan, 1992: 3). In our case, cultural populism can be understood as the popularization of traditional cultural and mythological elements through the popular medium of gaming.

Cultural populism also has a negative connotation, as it can be criticized as a means of trivializing art or cheapening the quality of entertainment (e.g., TV films versus arthouse cinema, airport paperbacks versus “serious” literature). While this kind of populism does not mobilize the masses, it can still affect the consumer in more subtle ways. For example, it can trivialize the complexity of characters, turning them into caricatures, or water down traditional stories with shallow characterizations, under the assumption that consumers cannot handle the complexity of the original material.

By featuring Einar Selvik, the Norwegian musician known for his anti-fascist stance and neo-pagan music, Ubisoft’s latest game also popularizes neo-paganism. This is underscored by the inclusion of many other pagan elements throughout the game, such as the pagan festivals of Ostara, Samhain, and the Yule Festival, among others. This links with other cultural elements of the game. Norse cultural elements are also utilized extensively by proponents of neo-paganism, with Thor, Odin, and other Norse deities of particular importance. Although the game does not explicitly promote neo-paganism, it features pagan elements heavily, thus popularizing the pagan aspects of Norse mythology and culture.

Thus, through Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Ubisoft takes us back to Viking-era England. Players are able to control Eivor as a trickster character, a Viking leader, and a problem solver, whose actions depend on each player’s choices. In this commentary, we have argued that by choosing to focus on Scandinavian mythology, emphasizing the trickster aspects of Odin and Loki, and giving Eivor similar trickster qualities as the main character in Valhalla, Ubisoft contributes to the rising popularity of a type of anti-fascist neo-paganism, while also popularizing traditional trickster characters (such as Loki) in the person of Eivor, called a “trickster spirit” in one of the game’s arcs.

As explicated above, in the virtual space of gaming, participants not only observe and are exposed to stories but also are given opportunities to live in and be part of the cultural elements and narratives in a fashion that is remarkably close to real-life experience, if not more. This encourages participants to engage emotionally with the epic elements of said culture. Thus, in general, the realm of gaming and interactive entertainment is open to the soft power, even sharp power, activities of third parties. This certainly is not a new thing, as the prominent example of the US army sponsoring video games for new recruits shows (Jacques, 2009).

Whether video games such as the Call of Duty series have been used to securitize certain groups or communities is an open question, which can be investigated as the topic of another commentary. For now, we can at least rest assured that Ubisoft is aware of this phenomenon, as they include a disclaimer at the start of each entry in their franchise: “Inspired by historical events and characters, this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various beliefs, sexual orientations, and gender identities.” As Burns rightly points out, this is necessary given the sensitivity of the topics that the series has been exploring from the beginning (Burns, 2012).

(*) OMER SENER holds a PhD in Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism. His research interests include tricksters, cultural populism, video games, Asian American (Japanese, Korean and Chinese) literature, comparative literature, and creative writing.

References

— (n.d.). “Loki.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Loki

Barr, Robert R. (2009). “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-Establishment Politics.” Party Politics. 15(1), 29–48

Burns, Matthew Seiji. (2002). ‘Assassin’s Creed, Multiculturalism, and How to Talk About Things.” https://matthewseiji.com/notes/2012/8/17/assassins-creed-multiculturalism-and-how-to-talk-about-thing.html (accessed on June 4, 2012). 

Jagers, J., & Walgrave, S. (2007). “Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties’ discourse in Belgium.” European Journal of Political Research. Vol. 46 (3), pp. 319–345. 

Jacques, John. (2009). “US Army has Spent $32.8m on America’s Army.” Game Rant. December 10, 2009. https://gamerant.com/army-spent-328m-americas-army-game/ (accessed on June 4, 2012).

McGuigan, J., & Mcguigan, D.J. (1992). Cultural Populism (1st ed.). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203413609

Moffit, Benjamin. (2017). “Transnational Populism? Representative Claims, Media and The Difficulty of Constructing A Transnational ‘People’.” Javnost: The Public. 24(4), 409–425. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13183222.2017.1330086

Simpson, John & Weiner, Edmund. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary (second ed.). London: Oxford University Press

Wiget, Andrew. (1994). Dictionary of Native American literature. Garland.


[1] This commentary includes spoilers about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, particularly regarding the identity of the protagonist and the ending of the game.