A concert of Norwegian band Wardruna at Cathedral Cave, Kirkehelleren on Sanna Island during Traenafestival that is a music festival taking place on the small island of Traena in Norway on July 8, 2017. Photo: Melanie Lemahieu

Music and the Far-Right Trance

By Heidi Hart

On a cold-soaked January night in Berlin, less than a week after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, I stood with several thousand counter-protesters on the west side of the Brandenburg Gate. On the other side, a smaller group of PEGIDA demonstrators had gathered with German flags and nationalist signs. Armed police held a line under the iconic pillars. Anger at the rise of xenophobic populism, which in turn had been fueled by the Paris attack, was palpable in all the bodies around me. The crowd chanted, “Nationalismus ‘raus aus den Köpfen,” a plea to unplug internalized nationalism. Loudspeakers pounded Turkish rap from a nearby truck. As the chant grew more synchronized and the crowd pressed closer to the barricade, I understood in a kinetic way what I had been researching in my doctoral work, on the power of rhythm to entrain the body politic, synching heart and breath rate to a march beat. 

In a famous scene in Günter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, the main character disrupts the rhythm of a Nazi march by beating a waltz on his drum, and then breaking into a syncopated foxtrot.[i] The spell of crowd manipulation breaks, if only for a short, chaotic time. Likewise, as the chanting fell off kilter in Berlin that January night, our voices syncopated by the nearby rap, I was relieved. Though my hopes for an inclusive Germany lined up with the beliefs of others around me, we could easily be swept into a pulsing trance state and lose our criticality. This embodied experience comes to mind as I track the ongoing use of music in far-right recruitment in Europe, where rapid-fire rhythms and pagan fascinations have proven dangerously effective in giving young people a sense of atavistic destiny and rhythmic accord with groups that operate as much on fear as they proclaim faux-tribal grit.

By summer 2016, nearly a hundred far-right musical events had taken place in Germany in that year alone (Staudenmaier, 2016), and have continued, most notably in the former East. Though some of these events take the form of festivals attracting large numbers of neo-Nazis, also from the U.S. (Engel & Denne, 2020) many do not come off as stadium-style rock concerts but appropriate the “high-culture” term Liederabend (Staudenmaier, 2016), traditionally a classical recital with voice and piano. Now in popular singer-songwriter format, these intimate settings allow young people who might not identify as hard-line racists to become convinced of the dangers of migration and “Islamification” in their local towns. Associating the tradition of Schubert songs with notions of nationalist superiority also echoes the Nazi co-opting of German classical music, which Thomas Mann diagnosed as collective sickness in his 1947 novel Doktor Faustus. This all-too-familiar melding of musical intimacy with far-right ideology sounds alarms for a generation raised after decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or reckoning with the past, in Germany. “Never forget” risks becoming, as some of my Trump-supporting students in the U.S. have glibly put it, “Hitler wasn’t so bad.”

The German Linke (Left) party has described fascist-flavored music as a “gateway drug,” (Staudenmaier, 2016) recalling the words of Hanns Eisler, one of Brecht’s musical collaborators during the Nazi era, who warned of music’s capacity to serve as a socio-political “narcotic” (Shams, 2019). As neo-Nazis jolt their bodies in time with hate-rock’s machine-gun beat, they are not operating in the rebel-against-everything world of punk’s rapid rhythms, but rather training their senses in rage against particular, marginalized groups. Heavy metal and its many subgenres have sometimes aligned with racist ideology over the past forty years, encouraging kinetic immersion in violent theatrics, though bands such as Rammstein have denied the white-supremacist leanings some of their fans espouse (Braun, 2019). As musicologist Lawrence Kramer has pointed out, ideology is “sticky” and can adhere to many kinds of music, because musical “meaning” is mainly associative and sound is experienced in a directly physical way[ii] (Reybrouck & Eerola, 2017).

Some bands do not attract right-wing fans just through guttural singing or harsh, precise rhythms that some might consider “Teutonic” (Herbst, 2019). Sturmwehr and Unbeliebte Jungs take pride in their overtly racist lyrics (Shams, 2019); the far-right AfD party in Germany has used such bands to recruit like-minded adherents (Corte & Edwards, 2008) and though the party has found such efforts more difficult in the past several years (Mischke, 2019) “community spread” continues to occur in gaming communities and on dark web platforms as well (Kamenetz, 2019). In 2019 police shut down several white-power concerts in Thuringia due to banned songs being performed (Shams, 2019), but “hatecore” continues to draw young people, some of whom do commit hate crimes as their commitment to white supremacy grows.  

More recently, neofolk and “Vikingarock” bands have gained large followings in Scandinavia and beyond, thanks in part to the Netflix series Vikings and The Last Kingdom. Because of the unavoidable history of Nazism’s Norse fascinations, these bands tend to disavow the fascist ideology their music tends to attract, but that disavowal can be fuzzy. Ultima Thule in Sweden, active since the 1980s, cannot avoid associations with the Nazi use of the same name for an imaginary Aryan homeland (Crane, 2019). They have brought their Viking-inflected mashup of folk, punk, and rock to numerous skinhead concerts, and, with a focus on national pride in their lyrics, are commonly known as a “white power” band.[iii]In a country where the now-defunct New Democracy party (like the AfD in Germany) included white power music in its youth recruitment (Corte & Edwards, 2008), and where the equally xenophobic Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson has been known to party with Ultima Thule (Radio Sweden, 2015), the band’s statements denying a racist agenda while valorizing national “roots” (Ultima Thule, 2007) remain problematic.

On the other hand, the Norwegian neofolk band Wardruna has set out to take back Viking-era instruments and imagery from the far right. Known in the blogosphere as “antifascist neofolk,” (ANZUS, 2018) Wardruna’s music (part of the soundtrack for Vikings) includes not only hard-driving hits like “Helvegen,” about the journey to the Norse land of the dead, but also unplugged “skald” or bard songs with simple string instruments, and songs using Celtic musical modes. Still, the lines can blur when calling up pagan mysteries once celebrated in Nazi torch parades and propaganda films. One of Wardruna’s members, who has since left the group, did have far-right leanings in his former black-metal days (ANZUS, 2018), and like the current Netflix nature-cult trend (the Danish series Equinox as an example of mood-TV that makes pagan rites seem equally dangerous and attractive), Viking-associated music can still draw fans who want to picture themselves like the costumed “shaman” who joined the U.S. Capitol insurrection.

Some antidotes to far-right “stickiness” include satire, however brutal, as in the Swedish film Midsommar (as critical of American tourism as it is of neo-pagan pretensions), and even farcical humor, as in the Monty Python-style series Norsemen. In Germany, music counters music, often in the form of rap, as in songs by Japanese-German Blumio (Kuniyoshi Fumio), whose “Hey Mr. Nazi” is too catchy to sound pedantic about racist stereotyping. The pop group Misuk takes up antifascist texts by Bertolt Brecht and reimagines them for the 21st century, giving them a playful ease that appeals to younger listeners. The German Netflix series Dark draws on pagan tropes, but with a philosophical grain and chilling soundtrack that show the danger of immersion in primordial caves. 

In the literary world, Sarah Moss’ 2019 novel Ghost Wall shows where uncritical neo-paganism can lead: an anthropologist involves his family in a Stone Age role-play fantasy that becomes all too real when his daughter discovers she is meant to be a human sacrifice. Though the book begins with what some reviewers have called an “incantatory” prologue (Hagy, 2019) the story itself works against this trance-inducing language, to show what can happen when human bodies get caught up in drumming, chanting, and torch-bearing. Luckily in this case, the spell breaks as the narrator refuses to join in the chant, “no longer afraid or ashamed.”[iv]

Note: This commentary draws on my previous research on antifascist music in Germany and the narcotic effects it works to interrupt, as well as on my recent work on music in dark- ecological art and film. 

 


References

[i] Grass, Günter. (1997). Die Blechtrommel (1959), Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. 151-156

[ii] Kramer, Lawrence. (2018). The Hum of the World: A Philosophy of Listening. University of California Press. 115-116.

[iii] Pred, Allan. (2019). Even in Sweden: Racisms, Racialized Spaces, and the Popular Geographical Imagination. University of California Press. 219. See also Teitelbaum, Benjamin R. (2017). Lions of the North: Sounds of the New Nordic Radical Nationalism. Oxford University Press. 

[iv] Moss, Sarah. (2019). Ghost Wall. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 124. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, August 20, 2019.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud and the uncertain fate of Israel’s democracy

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. We commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, we probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published by the authors in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.

By Ayala Panievsky* & Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

Ever since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, its governments have proudly adopted the self-characterisation as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. Israel’s close relationship with the United States leverages this presumption. Even Israel’s decades-long occupation of almost 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has not erased its image as the international community’s strongest ally in a dangerous region. Israel is considered closer to meeting the criteria of liberal democracy than either Turkey or India. Yet, its democratic institutions confront an intensifying onslaught by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister for over a decade.[1] In this commentary we explore the economic, nationalist and media dimensions of Netanyahu’s right-wing populist strategy and explain what makes it different – but also similar to – the one used by his populist counterparts.

Netanyahu, famous for his fierce advocacy of a “free market”, shares Erdogan and Modi’s neoliberal agenda. Following the liberalisation of Israel’s economy during the 1980s, Netanyahu’s reforms as Minister of Treasury in the early 2000sdismantled what was once a social-democratic welfare state. Combining deregulation, tax reductions and privatisation of public services, Netanyahu – like Erdogan and Modi – undermined rights-based welfare services and took an axe to public sector pay.[2] Netanyahu framed his neoliberal agenda as a revenge against the “elites”: Public sector employees, workers’ unions and the welfare state were portrayed as incompetent and corrupt burdens on Israel’s economy and as part of the anti-patriotic left, which favours the enemies of the state over the “people”. During the 2015 elections his Likud Party aired television ads showcasing a fictional support group meeting where unionists, broadcasters and Hamas terrorists comfort one another. When Netanyahu enters the frame, the slogan “It is Us or Them” – the prime motto of divisive populism – appears (Ynet News, 17 March 2015).

Alongside the privatised economy within the borders of Israel, Netanyahu helped establish a de facto welfare state within the Jewish settlements inside the occupied West Bank.[3] Settler organisations are generously supported by the government and integrated into the public education system as well as Israel’s Defence Forces. Netanyahu’s exceptional support for these groups nurtures a clientelist system, shielding settlers from the unpleasant consequences of his government’s economic policies. A similar compensation mechanism also protects another one of Netanyahu’s longstanding political allies – the orthodox community. 

As Covid-19 poses new economic challenges for Israel, Netanyahu faced persistent and heated demonstrations across the country, which alleged corruption and criticised his handling of the health emergency. Under intense public pressure, Netanyahu has granted limited governmental support for Israeli citizens who suffer from recurring lockdowns. His worldview, however, has remained fiercely neoliberal: When asked in a televised interview why his government chose not to better compensate Israelis for their financial losses, Netanyahu proudly cited Milton Friedman to suggest that greater governmental support would endanger the economy (Davar, 22 March 2020).

Voting in Israel tends to prioritise issues of national security and identity above the economy. Like the AKP and the BJP, the Likud uses inclusion within the “people” to nurture support among disadvantaged Jewish voters.[4] This form of symbolic representation is underpinned by resentment towards the “enemies of the people”, defined broadly to includeminorities, political opponents and democratic institutions. The language used by Netanyahu to justify his politics has both religious and nationalistic overtones, with the former often masking the latter.[5] While Erdogan self-identifies as a leader of the Islamic world, Netanyahu presents himself as speaking on behalf of the “Jewish people” (Haaretz, 12 February 2015). This conflation of Israel’s government with Jewishness disregards that the vast majority of the Jewish people neither live nor vote in Israel and that 25 percent of Israel’s citizens are non-Jewish – mostly Israeli Arabs. Jewish citizens also risk exclusion from the “real people” – if they oppose Netanyahu’s government.

The hotly contested intersections of religion, ethnicity and nationhood in Israel[6] and the bleeding conflict with the Palestinians enable Netanyahu to exclude Arab citizens from Israeli society, labelling them “collaborators” of the Palestinians – a “Trojan horse” with double loyalties. Netanyahu’s ethnoreligious sectarianism appeared in Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law,[7] which formally elevates Jewish collective rights over those of Israeli Arabs. If it is not struck down by the supreme court, this Nation State Law will “legitimise the use of Jewishness as a criterion to discriminate against the Arabs and prefer Jews in labour, housing, education and culture”,[8] thereby making religious minorities in Israel de facto second-class citizens. Netanyahu’s Likud invoked this Nation State Law to push-back against the alleged “liberal supremacy” of individual rights that are defended by an “elitist liberal minority” against the “people” (SWP Comment, October 2018). 

Such discourses question the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s political opponents on the left, who – albeit Jewish – are condemned for siding with non-Jewish minorities, including Israeli Arabs and African asylum seekers. Netanyahu associates the Israeli left with hostile forces who supposedly conspire against Israel, using left-wing activists as their pawns. Thus, as Levi and Agmon note, contemporary right-wing populism in Israel does not merely exclude minorities, it uses minorities to exclude the left from the “real people.”[9]

Netanyahu’s assault on the “enemies of the people” encompasses large swathes of Israel’s mainstream media. Like Modi, Netanyahu leverages social media to bypass journalists, blaming them for deceiving the public, siding with Israel’s enemies and plotting to take him down (The New York Times, 9 August 2017). Netanyahu’s 2019 election campaign targeted high-profile journalists, asking the public to vote against them (Haaretz, 20 January 2019). Netanyahu’s true rival and, thus, the “people’s” rival, was the press. Beyond this inciteful rhetoric, Netanyahu – like Erdogan and Modi –used executive power to intimidate journalists, capture state-owned media and weaken private news outlets.[10]Implementing this strategy entailed a variant of Erdogan’s media-capture strategy, namely the cultivation of alternative, loyalist media outlets.[11] Israel’s only free daily “Israel Today” is often referred to by its nickname “Bibiton” (Netanyahu’s newspaper). Netanyahu’s attempts to gain favourable media coverage have also entangled him in two corruption scandals, in which he sought to trade regulatory benefits for positive news coverage (The Times of Israel, 16 May 2019).

Yet, while Netanyahu defames broadcasters for allegedly ‘employing fans of terrorists’ and ‘persecuting Israel’s soldiers’, he has not followed Erdogan and Modi in arresting journalists or forcing television blackouts. Such acts are, as yet, considered inconceivable in the Israeli context. Earlier this year, when the Likud shared a video that called for the arrest of one of Netanyahu’s greatest critics, the investigative journalist Raviv Druker – public turmoil erupted, and Netanyahu was pressured to take down and renounce the video (The Times of Israel, 11 June 2020). This incident demonstrates that albeit weakened, certain democratic institutions – including the press – still constrain Netanyahu’s populist agenda. 

Nonetheless, Israel has faced several worrying developments: First, as Netanyahu’s supporters target the supreme court as the next “enemy of the people”, the checks-and-balances that currently restrict Netanyahu may dwindle. A recent investigative report documents how Netanyahu’s supporters were encouraged to dig dirt on family members of judges in Netanyahu’s own court cases (Haaretz, 25 December 2020)

Second, Israel is heading towards its fourth national election next year. The previous three cycles ended with a tie between the pro- and anti- Netanyahu blocs. Ultimately, Netanyahu and his main centre-left contender Benny Gantz formed a joint government under the premise of delivering “unity” in face of Covid-19. Now, the main contender to Netanyahu’s rule is, for the first time, likely to be another right-wing party led by Gideon Saar – a former Likud politician. He, too, has been labelled a “lefty” by Netanyahu’s supporters, demonstrating how fluid the boundaries of “the real people” have become. Although the Israeli people have suffered greatly from Netanyahu’s neoliberal policies and his powerful incitement against “elites” and minorities, they are likely to grant Netanyahu another term in office. If Netanyahu does win the 2021 election, the coming years are likely to showcase an amplified version of his existing populist playbook. The inertia of Israel’s democratic institutions will determine whether this period will bring Israel closer to India and Turkey or spell a recovery from a decade of divisive populism and democratic backsliding. 


(*) Ayala Panievsky is a Gates-Cambridge Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her work explores the ever-changing relationship between media and politics in contemporary democracies, and in particular, the encounter between mainstream media and political extremism in the age of social media and big data.


References

[1] Mordechay, Nadiv, and Yaniv Roznai. (2017). “A Jewish and (Declining) Democratic State? Constitutional Retrogression in Israel.” Maryland Law Review. 77, no. 1: 244–270.

[2] Filc, Dani. (2010). The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism. Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 7. New York: Routledge.

[3] Gutwein, Daniel. (2017). “The Settlements and the Relationship Between Privatization and the Occupation Normalizing Occupation.” In: Normalizing Occupation: The Politics of Everyday Life in the West Bank Settlements. Edited by Ariel Handel, Marco Allegra and Erez Maggor, 21–33. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[4] Filc, Dani. (2010). The Political Right in Israel: Different Faces of Jewish Populism. Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict 7. New York: Routledge.

[5] Talshir, Gayil. (2018). “Populist Rightwing Ideological Exposition: Netanyahu’s Regime as a Case in Point.” Advances in Applied Sociology. 8, no. 04: 329–349.

[6] Wallach, Yair. (2016). “Jewish Nationalism: On the (Im)Possibility of Muslim Jews.” In: The Routledge Handbook of Muslim-Jewish Relations. Edited by Josef Meri. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315675787.

[7] — (2018). Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People https://knesset.gov.il/laws/special/eng/BasicLawNationState.pdf

[8] Gutwien, Daniel. (2017). “The Settlements and the Relationship Between Privatization and the Occupation Normalizing Occupation.” In: Normalizing Occupation: The Politics of Everyday Life in the West Bank Settlements. Edited by Ariel Handel, Marco Allegra and Erez Maggor, 21–33. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[9] Levi, Yonatan and Shai Agmon. (2020). “Beyond Culture and Economy: Israel’s Security-Driven Populism, Contemporary Politics.” Contemporary Politics. DOI: 10.1080/13569775.2020.1864163 

[10] Peri, Yoram. (2004). Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[11] Pfeffer, Anshel. (2018). Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. London: Hurst & Company.

Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi addressing the 25th Foundation Day of the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences at Bengaluru via video conferencing in New Delhi on June 01, 2020.

How Hindutva threatens the world’s largest democracy

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. I commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In the next step, I probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with the processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published by the author(s) in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

Compared to the other statesmen in this series, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is a relative newcomer to national politics. The former chief minister of Gujarat secured an absolute majority in India’s 2014 general election and has since solidified his premiership with a landslide election win in 2019 (The Guardian, May 16, 2014; BBC News, May 23, 2019). Despite this democratic show of force, Modi – like Erdogan and Netanyahu – built a resonant brand of right-wing populism that severely imperils the world’s largest democracy. I argue that this political strategy resembles Erdogan’s populist playbook in a number of important respects. Let us distinguish between three constitutive parts: Neoliberal economic policy, religious polarisation and media-capture.

India’s economy successfully opened to the world in 1991, under the auspices of the social-democratic Congress Party. Despite the Congress Party’s liberal record, Modi used his own reputation for reforms in Gujarat to undermine the Congress Party and to present himself as India’s ‘development man’. His Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) positioned itself as the country’s ‘most reform-minded party’.[i] In line with Erdogan’s neoliberal playbook, Modi weakened labour unions[ii] and endorsed public-private-partnerships[iii]. Following the mantra of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, the BJP substituted formal welfare services with new insurance schemes and digitally-enabled cash transfers that play into the development narrative. Modi frames poor, newly urbanized and middle-class Hindus as the pure, deserving “people”, threatened by a secular, anti-national elite. This liberal elite is deemed corrupt for monopolising power and preventing development while pandering to minority groups.[iv] The promise of development of the “people” also allows Modi to challenge institutional and civil society initiatives that oppose his deregulatory agenda. 

In addition to Modi’s neoliberal development vision, the BJP embodies Hindutva, a belief system that deems Hinduism superior to the culture and beliefs of India’s minority groups. Hindutva manifests in animosity towards Muslims[v] and was used by Modi’s supporters to justify attacks on Muslim places of worship, delegitimize inter-faith marriages and endorse campaigns to convert Muslim and Christian families “back” to Hinduism”.[vi]

Deep divisions between Muslims and Hindus trace back to India and Pakistan’s partition in 1947 and continue to manifest – amongst other things – in struggles over the slaughter of cows[vii] (a holy animal in Hinduism) and control over the region of Jammu and Kashmir. In light of such deep social divisions, the ethnoreligious homogeneity propagated by Modi threatens to undermine the delicate accommodation between casts, ethnicities and religious groups that sits at the heart of India’s democratic compromise culture. When Modi demands that opposition politicians “stop writing ‘love letters to Pakistan’”[viii], these assertions nurture a majoritarian conception of the “people”. Funding cuts for minority development programs further alienate religious minority groups[ix]. Similarly, a civil society campaign titled “Love Jihad” – tacitly endorsed by BJP grandees – manufactured a resonant imagination of ‘sexually rapacious Muslim youth converting Hindu women to Islam’.[x]

At this stage, it is worth clarifying that the blanket securitization of Indian Muslims and Modi’s tacit endorsement of vigilante violence against them is more sweeping than Erdogan’s crackdown on dissidents and political opponents. For Erdogan, religious rhetoric is primarily a source of legitimation through the definition of an AKP-supporting “people”. The “enemy of the people” is defined in socio-political, not explicitly religious terms. Modi, in turn, deems both Muslim minorities and their elite backers external to the “people”.[xi] Confrontations between the government and India’s minority populations reached new heights in 2019, when Modi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, detained thousands of Muslim Kashmiris and imposed a strict curfew (The Telegraph, October 31, 2019). In a region already prone to sectarian violence, Modi’s inclusion of vulnerable religious minorities within the “enemies of the people” imperils both liberal democracy and human wellbeing. 

Modi’s populist infusion of patriotism and nationalism with religion offers his supporters a meta-morality and a source of identity, from which the “enemies of the people” can be distinguished based on their minority status and their willingness to accommodate religious minorities.[xii] A similar unwillingness to tolerate difference or criticism emerges from Modi’s relationship with the fourth estate.

At first sight, Modi’s relationship with the Indian media landscape diverges from Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists and online media. In ham-fisted attempts to control the information flow, Erdogan sought to remove internet and cellular access for Gezi protesters in 2013, cut access to Twitter and YouTube in 2014 – after corruption allegations surfaced against him – and blocked Wikipedia following charges of voter fraud in Turkey’s 2017 referendum. In stark contrast to this censorship spree, Modi’s 2014 election campaign was marked by an unprecedented level of digital competence: Modi’s campaign included a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, profiles on Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram, a mobile phone app as well as 3D holograms that appeared simultaneously across different locations.[xiii] This digital strategy culminated in Modi becoming the ‘world’s most-followed leader on social media’ in 2017. 

Beyond these differences in digital competence, Modi shares Erdogan’s scorn for impartial media outlets, as fora for democratic mediation and accountability. Following criticism of Modi for ‘inaction, complicity, and even giving direction to’ large-scale violence and the killing of over 3000 Muslims in Gujarat, Modi began attacking elite media figures and traditional media outlets as corrupt ‘paid news’, one BJP minister denouncing these English-language media outlets as ‘presstitutes’.[xiv] In manner characteristic for populist leaders across the globe, the BJP asserted that the “people” would recognise their own truths against those of the secular elite.[xv] Adding deeds to discourse, Modi implemented a 24-hour blackout of NDTV – a news channel that had frequently criticised his administration – in 2016.[xvi] Journalists now face growing intimidation, repression and arrest for reporting in Kashmir or on the spread of Covid-19 in India (The Wire, June 16, 2020; Al Jazeera, March 18, 2020; Democracy Now! , October 1, 2020)

Despite being in power for only a fraction of Erdogan’s tenure, Modi’s attack on accountability institutions is catching up to Erdogan’s monopolisation of political power in Turkey. The combination of neoliberal developmentalism, religious sectarianism and media capture allowed Modi to pair-back central pillars of India’s democracy – including its accommodation between ethnicities and religions and the fourth estate. By contrasting a pure Hindu “people” with a “corrupt elite” and its unpatriotic Muslim allies,[xvii] Modi created an uneven political playing field that severely disadvantages political opponents: Within a single five-year term, his BJP undermined state institutions including the Supreme Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Electoral Commission.[xviii] In his current, second term Modi continues to entrench his position as a national “saviour”.[xix] If Hindutva and Modi-like developmentalism remain hegemonic, India risks becoming an authoritarian one-party state. 

Rererences

[i] Kaur, Ravinder. “Good Times, Brought to You by Brand Modi.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 323–330. doi:10.1177/1527476415575492.

[ii] Harriss, John. “Hindu Nationalism in Action: The Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian Politics.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 38, no. 4. (2016). doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1089826

[iii] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication. 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.

[iv] Ibid. 

[v] Palshikar, Suhas. “The BJP and Hindu Nationalism: Centrist Politics and Majoritarian Impulses.” South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. 38, no. 4 (2015): 719–735. doi:10.1080/00856401.2015.1089460

[vi] Ibid., 728-729.

[vii] Chacko, Priya. “The Right Turn in India: Authoritarianism, Populism and Neoliberalisation.” Journal of Contemporary Asia. 48, no. 4 (2018): 541–565. doi:10.1080/00472336.2018.1446546

[viii] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication. 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Singh, Gurharpal. “Hindu Nationalism in Power: Making Sense of Modi and the BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance Government, 2014–19.” Sikh Formations. 15, no. 3–4 (2019): 314–331. doi:10.1080/17448727.2019.1630220

[xii] Kinnvall, Catarina. “Populism, Ontological Insecurity and Hindutva: Modi and the Masculinization of Indian Politics.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs. 32, no. 3 (2019): 283-302.

[xiii] Pal, Joyojeet. “Banalities Turned Viral: Narendra Modi and the Political Tweet.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 378-387. doi.org/10.1177/1527476415573956.

[xiv] Sinha, Subir. “Fragile Hegemony: Modi, Social Media and Competitive Electoral Populism in India.” International Journal of Communication 11, no. 2017 (2018): 4158–4180.

[xv] Ohm, Britta. “Organizing Popular Discourse with and Against the Media: Notes on the Making of Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Leaders-without-Alternative.” Television & New Media. 16, no. 4 (2015): 370–377. doi:10.1177/1527476415575906.

[xvi] Govil, Nitin , and Anirban KapilBaishya . “The Bully in the Pulpit: Autocracy, Digital Social Media, and Right-Wing Populist Technoculture.” Communication, Culture and Critique. 11, no. 1 (2018): 67–84. doi:10.1093/ccc/tcx001.

[xvii] Chacko, Priya. “The Right Turn in India: Authoritarianism, Populism and Neoliberalisation.” Journal of Contemporary Asia. 48, no. 4 (2018): 541–565. doi:10.1080/00472336.2018.1446546

[xviii] Singh, Gurharpal. “Hindu Nationalism in Power: Making Sense of Modi and the BJP-Led National Democratic Alliance Government, 2014–19.” Sikh Formations. 15, no. 3–4 (2019): 314–331. doi:10.1080/17448727.2019.1630220

[xix] Ibid.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey, a perfect storm of anti-democratic​ populism?

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. I commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, I probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These commentaries are based on research published in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135.

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer

Turkey suffered a spectacular fall from grace in the global democratic imagination. Once celebrated as a ‘model for political learning’[1] and the Middle East’s ‘only Muslim Democracy’[2], Turkey has become a ‘U.S.-style executive presidency – minus the Supreme Court and Congress’ (ECFR, April 8, 2017) and ‘the biggest jailer of journalists in the world’ (Amnesty International, 2017). Of course, Turkey is not the only country to have recently experienced democratic backsliding. Yet, the Turkish case differs from the more familiar instances of populism witnessed in Europe and the Americas. The populist playbook employed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offers a partial blueprint for the antidemocratic populist strategies employed by other right-wing populists. This populist strategy combines neoliberal economic policies, religious polarisation and media capture. Let us begin with a glance at the country’s democratic legacy.

Even before Erdogan’s tenure at the helm of Turkish politics, democracy in Turkey was plagued by top-down, autocratic tendencies, manifest in four military coups between 1960 and 2000. Elected in 2002, Erdogan’s centre-right Justice and Development Party (AKP) presented itself as a moderately Islamist alternative to the secular Kemalism of the Republican People’s Party (CHP). Invoking alignment with the European Union (EU) and the prospect of eventual accession, the AKP promised to improve individual freedoms, reduce the military’s role in government and better recognise Kurdish language and culture. These noble ambitions notwithstanding, the AKP repeatedly clashed with secularist political establishment, committed to upholding Mustafa Kemal’s prohibition on virtually all public manifestations of religion. 

Promising to defend democracy against the alleged coup-plotters, Erdogan used the state of emergency to undermine democratic institutions by cleansing them of alleged ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’.

Civilians demonstrated near the Ataturk Culture Center (AKM) building during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey on June 08, 2013.

For instance, the AKP’s 2007 appointment of President Abdullah Gul, whose wife publicly wears hijab, triggered a constitutional crisis and an investigation of the AKP for violating the principle of laicism. From 2008, the Ergenekon trials sought to combat the role of the deep state (the military, bureaucracy and secret service) in government affairs. At the same time, lawsuits against bureaucrats, NGOs, civil society and journalists evidenced the AKP’s willingness to rescind civil liberties to reaffirm its own power. Following a series of resonant electoral victories, the AKP increasingly weakened national institutions staffed overwhelmingly by Kemalist rivals. Erdogan’s violent crackdown on peaceful protesters at Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park in 2013 showcased this distaste for all political opposition to a global audience.

A Populist Strategy to Monopolise Political Power 

Less than three years after the Gezi protests, the failed coup attempt of July 2016 ushered in a fundamental change for democracy in Turkey[3]. Promising to defend democracy against the alleged coup-plotters, Erdogan used the state of emergency to undermine democratic institutions by cleansing them of alleged ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitors’. The measures enacted after the 2016 coup attempt are part of a multi-pronged populist strategy to monopolise political power in Turkey. Its antidemocratic effect is compounded by harsh repression of elected Kurdish politicians, civil society groups and minority populations. While highly significant, the Kurdish issue is too large and complex to be satisfactorily analysed in this series. 

In the economic realm, Erdogan employs a variant of neoliberal clientelism. Despite promoting a series of business-friendly policies – such as the privatisation of public land,  and the weakening of labour unions – the AKP receives the majority of its votes from economically disadvantaged sections of society[4]. These voters are kept onside using Islamic charity networks who distribute benefits and services in the AKP’s name[5]. At the same time, clientelism reached new levels under Erdogan. Kickbacks from AKP-friendly enterprises constitute a major source of donations for party affiliated organisations[6]. The same enterprises benefited from lucrative public-private partnership construction contracts with AKP controlled municipalities. The catastrophic tenure of Berat Albayrak (Erdogan’s son-in-law) as Minister of Finance and Treasury (July 2018 until November 2020) and the military drone contracts awarded to Selcuk Bayraktar (his other son-in-law) exemplify a political system that places loyalty above competence (Al Monitor, September 11, 2019)

In this economic order, citizen loyalty for democratic institutions is undermined as jobs and benefits cease to be a matter of rights or merit but are tied to membership of an AKP supporting “people”[7]. Thus, after the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan used the state of emergency to disown the “enemies of the people”. His government appropriated over one thousand schools, companies and hospitals owned by members of the Fethullah Gulen-affiliated Hizmet Movement allegedly behind the attempted coup. It also sold seized businesses, such as the Koza-Ipek Conglomerate, to AKP loyalists. Thus, by combining business friendly liberalisation, clientelism and expropriation the AKP increasingly monopolises the Turkish economy. 

Supporters of Turkish President Erdogan follow his speech during an election campaign rally of Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul on June 17, 2018.

Diyanet Used to Supress Dissent 

From 2011 onwards, Erdogan increasingly used the Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, to entrench AKP narratives in mosques, religious and educational institutions[8]. In addition to imposing its own religious interpretations and mobilising religious segments of society in support of Erdogan, the AKP used Diyanet to supress dissent against the regime[9]. This conscious politicization of an avowedly non-partisan state body entrenched distinctions drawn by Erdogan and the AKP between the religious “people” and their secular “enemies”. The exclusive definition of the “people” around Islamic institutions and AKP support allowed Erdogan to privilege conservative values and traditional family structures[10]. Women contemplating abortion, single mothers and other “non-traditional” family units face discrimination and are labelled unpatriotic.

The July 2016 coup attempt inspired a new level of religious polarisation, in which the “enemies of the people” were extended to include Muslims supportive of- or allegedly affiliated with Fethullah Gulen. Ten-thousands of, so called, “Gulenists”, were dismissed from their jobs, arrested and/or detained as alleged ‘terrorists’ and members of a criminal ‘cult’ (The New Yorker, October 10, 2016). Erdogan’s self-characterisation as the leader of the faithful disavows large swathes of Turkish society, who are either secular, non-Muslim or critical of Erdogan’s regime. 

Beyond this highly instrumental approach to religion, the AKP’s relationship with Turkey’s mass media is characterised by its willingness to arrest journalists for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda[11]. From early into his tenure, then-Prime Minister Erdogan painted mainstream media moguls like Aydin Dogan as the tools of “deep-state”, an elitist faction scheming to undermine the “people’s will”. More recently, Dogan Media Company – once the owner of major newspapers and television channels – was left no option but to sell its media outlets to Demiroren Holding a conglomerate with close ties to the President Erdodan (New York Times, 21 March 2018). Olay TV, another independent news channel, was forced to close due to government pressure (Ahval, December 26, 2020).

Looking back, Erdogan’s attack on democracy amounts to a “perfect storm” – in which clientelism, religious messaging and media capture combine into an antidemocratic populist strategy.

Turkish riot police bloc protesters as they surround the headquarters of a Ipek Media Group linked to a Erdogan regime critic, enforcing a court order to seize the media outlets, in Istanbul October 28, 2015.

Fourth Pillar of Democracy Was Undermined 

In addition to undermining mainstream and critical media outlets, the AKP now controls the messaging of the public broadcaster TRT and the state-run Anadolu news agency, thereby further side-lining critical and opposition voices[12]. Pro-Erdogan businesspeople are encouraged to fund media outlets, publishing houses and creative agencies filled with uncritical government supporters. Invasive laws and media blackouts nurture a culture of overt- and self-censorship among journalists[13]. During the state of emergency declared in 2016, this fourth pillar of democracy was comprehensively undermined. Large-scale media censorship, widespread arrests of journalists and the closure of additional media outlets sparked an exodus of critical journalists out of the country[14]. Independent voices were framed as illegitimate plotters against the “people”. This latest stage of Erdogan’s populist media-capture strategy undermines the principle of accountability of the ruler to the ruled, as to have any practical significance voters need accurate, verifiable information about the government.

Looking back, Erdogan’s attack on democracy amounts to a “perfect storm” – in which clientelism, religious messaging and media capture combine into an antidemocratic populist strategy. Key figures in Turkey’s democratic opposition – including Selahattin Demirtas the Kurdish leader of the progressive pro-minority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – are imprisoned and defamed as terrorists. 

As the next part of this series will suggest, Turkey’s democratic decay is emblematic of a wider trend affecting democracies across different religions, cultures and geographies. Despite its severe democratic decay, Turkey is still deemed an indispensable partner by many within the EU and a key NATO ally. This picture is complicated by military escalations with its long-term rival Greece (ECFR, March 13, 2020), its meddling in the Libyan civil war, its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles and Erdogan’s continued assault on international institutions – including the European Court of Human Rights (Al Monitor, December 23, 2020; Politico, December 10, 2020)

The collapse of the 2016 EU-Turkey Joint Statement on migration in March 2020 exposes another key vulnerability for Turkey’s democratic partners. Having effectively abandoned Turkey’s prospects for EU accession in 2005, Europeans have surrendered a key means of encouraging Turkey’s democratisation. The failure of democracy in Turkey does not bode well for a world in which democratic values are increasingly questioned. 


References

1) Çavdar, Gamze. “Islamist New Thinking in Turkey: A Model for Political Learning?” Political Science Quaterly. 121, no. 3 (2006): 477-497. Crossref.

[2] Lewis, Bernard. “Why Turkey Is the Only Muslim Democracy.” Middle East Quarterly. March 1, 1994. https://dev.meforum.org/216/why-turkey-is-the-only-muslim-democracy .

[3] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

[4] Bozkurt, Umut. “Neoliberalism with a Human Face: Making Sense of the Justice and Development Party’s Neoliberal Populism in Turkey.” Science & Society. 77, no. 3 (2013): 372–396. Crossref.

[5] Cosar, Simten and Metin Yegenoglu, “The Neoliberal Restructuring of Turkey’s Social Security System.” Monthly Review. April 1, 2009. https://monthlyreview.org/2009/04/01/the-neoliberal-restructuring-of-turkeys-social-security-system/

[6] Özdemir, Yonca. “Turkey’s Justice and Development Party: An Utmost Case of Neoliberal Populism.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the European Consortium for Political Research, Montreal, August 26–29, 2015.

[7] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

[8] Öztürk, Ahmet Erdi. “Turkey’s Diyanet Under AKP Rule: From Protector to Imposer of State Ideology?” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. 16, no. 4 (2016): 619–635. Crossref.

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Yilmaz, Zafer. “Strengthening the Family Policies in Turkey: Managing the Social Question and Armoring Conservative–Neoliberal Populism.” Turkish Studies. 16, no. 3 (2015): 371–390. Crossref.

[11] Yilmaz, Gözde. “Europeanisation or De-Europeanisation? Media Freedom in Turkey (1999–2015).” South European Society and Politics. 21, no. 1 (2016): 147–161. Crossref.

[12] Esen, Berk , and Sebnem Gumuscu . “Rising Competitive Authoritarianism in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 37, no. 9 (2016): 1581–1606. Crossref.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rogenhofer, Julius M. “Antidemocratic Populism in Turkey After the July 2016 Coup Attempt.” Populism. 1, no. 2 (2018): 116–145. Crossref.

Elementary school kids in a classroom raising their hands.

Challenging far-right in education through culturally relevant pedagogy

Recognizing the political nature of education and teaching is important for teachers. It allows them to understand how their decisions impact the development of their students as democratic citizens. Teachers must themselves hone the tools necessary to become critical pedagogues.

By F. Zehra Colak & Erkan Toguslu 

The idea and practice of neutrality – that is, not expressing views or avoiding political discussions – in the Western education system is seen as self-evident and rarely questioned. However, education has always been shaped by the socio-cultural realities and political ideologies of the day. Political ideas about how a society should be organized have informed school textbooks, educational policies, and teacher trainings, affecting not only what is taught but also what is not taught in schools. 

Following the post 1980’s resurgence of far-right parties and populism in European politics, a right-wing ethnocentric worldview has gained prominence in political and administrative institutions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such political growth has also led to populist views gaining ground in European educational systems, too. Despite this, there has been little research into the potential effects of the far right’s effect on education in Europe, although recent research has identified how the far right aims to impact educational policy and acts as an educational actor. 

In Italy, this is exemplified by the far-right League Party’s plan to diminish university attendance rates among high-schoolers, limiting their exposure to leftist views at universities. League also demanded an academic book be removedfrom the reading list of a course at the University of Bologna. Similar actions have been observed across Germany, where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is asking for the re-design of history subjects, simultaneously advocating for teaching students about their German roots while engaging in acts that downplay the history of the Holocaust. In France, educational policy is not one of the main populist strategies of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party National Rally, although the party supports patriotic moral education and teaching national history as a defence against multiculturalism. The populist discourse and practices employed by National Rally impact the strategies and policies of centre-right parties in councils and in the parliament. The councils run by Le Pen’s party ban school canteens from serving pork-free menus, discriminating against Muslim and Jewish students. On French university campuses, Collectif Marianne, Assas Patriote, and Action française étudiante work to advance the cause of far-right ideologies, primarily through university councils. 

The increasing political influence of the European far-right also impacts the discourses and actions of parties in power. In northern Belgium, Flanders, the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (NVA) party has pressed a proposal to establish a Flemish Canon, which will be taught to pupils at schools, as well as newcomers. The canon is described as follows: “In order to promote the sense of identity of the younger generation, we are following the example of the Netherlands in drawing up a Flemish canon, a list of anchor points from our Flemish culture and history, which characterize Flanders as a European nation.” Turkey is another example of how populists in power impact the educational agenda. In Turkey, Darwin’s theory of evolution has been removed from the biology textbooks used in high schools. This decision was based on the argument that the theory is controversial and difficult to comprehend. 

The aforementioned far-right strategies focus on a monolithic understanding of society, showcasing the far right’s refusal to accept multicultural identities and cosmopolitanism. The strategy of imposing a national identity and moral code through the education system is crystalized in the debate over students from immigrant backgrounds. The far right views these students as the main problem in schools. They are emblematic of decadence, illiteracy, and violence. Given the power of education in reaching and influencing large groups and shaping society, it’s not surprising that different political actors and forces, including the contemporary far right, aim to instil their social and political values into educational institutions. At a time when teachers and students are displaying authoritarian tendencies, how best to push against the harmful far-right narratives seeking to shatter the values of democracy in European education? There is undoubtedly more than one answer to this question. We will, however, focus on one pedagogical approach that could be adopted in schools to curb the harmful effects of populist rhetoric. That approach is culturally relevant pedagogy.

Gloria Ladson-Billings is an American pedagogical theorist who, after a decade teaching in American public schools, wondered why Black students were less successful than their white peers. While getting her Ph.D. in curriculum and teacher education, her research revealed how Black students were viewed as deficient and deviant by teachers, administrators, and students and treated as problematic. In order to challenge this “deficiency” narrative, she began to ask questions about teachers and their classrooms, which eventually led to the development of culturally relevant pedagogy in the 1990s.

Based on her research with successful teachers of African American students, Ladson-Billings advocates a focus on students’ academic success, cultural competence, and socio-political or critical consciousness. The first component might seem obvious for educational institutions typically characterized by their commitment to ensuring the academic success of their students. However, Ladson-Billings centralizes student learning and stresses the role of teachers in engaging students to develop tools for critical thinking. As part of this process, teachers must have high expectations for their students. It is only when students are learning that they can have the desired academic outcomes and succeed on examinations. 

The second tenet, cultural competence, refers to the recognition that students show up in school with their own culture, language, norms, and ideas, all of which can impact a student’s learning experiences. Given the increasingly diversifying cultural make-up of many industrialized societies, schools are increasingly populated by more multiracial and multi-ethnic students. However, the far right’s emphasis on the distinctive culture, values, and identity of the national group risks marginalizing students from minority backgrounds while prioritizing the culture and interests of the majority group. Moreover, exclusionary national identities are often reinforced by polarizing narratives that frame immigrants – especially those from Africa and the Middle East – as a threat to the Western way of life. 

In response to these populist discourses, teachers need to work on empowering all students, offering them the tools to examine critically their own position in society. Recognizing and valuing the knowledge and experiences of students of different genders, faiths, cultures, languages, socioeconomic statuses, and abilities is critical to support positive identity development and facilitating access to different cultures. By being mindful of who they are teaching and what the students’ specific needs are, teachers can help all students to cultivate multicultural competencies. In other words, teachers should utilize students’ cultural backgrounds as a critical learning resource that can help them make sense of an increasingly globalized world.  

The third and perhaps most important component of culturally relevant pedagogy is the development of students’ socio-political or critical consciousness in this hyper-polarized political climate. The goal of this tenet is to help students to develop the necessary skills to question social inequities in society and to not just consume knowledge, but to be critical of it. This approach has certain similarities with citizenship education, which stresses helping youth develop the tools to recognize and solve problems in society and promotes the democratic values of freedom and non-discrimination. While this aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is vital to the development of students’ skills as democratic citizens, it is often ignored in schools due to the “neutrality” narrative that dismisses discussions about political issues in classrooms. 

This aspect of culturally relevant pedagogy is not about teachers pushing their own political agendas in the classroom. If they’re not able to ask complex questions about societal issues, students are denied the space to expose anti-democratic and populist narratives and form their own counter-narratives informed by critical reasoning. Avoiding or suppressing conversations about controversial topics could actually create more room for authoritarian views to gain popularity among students. Alternatively, encouraging students to elaborate on ideas and issues that they find meaningful or that affect their everyday realities could support their understanding and critical awareness of their social context and position within it. 

Recognizing the political nature of education and teaching is important for teachers. It allows them to understand how their decisions impact the development of their students as democratic citizens. Teachers must themselves hone the tools necessary to become critical pedagogues. This can be achieved by the transformation of teacher training programs. In fact, teachers should be taught that “one of the most effective ways to affect democracy is through the classroom.” By teaching their students the tools to think critically, teachers prepare them to understand their role and position in multicultural societies and to assess the implications of the far right’s growing influence on democratic values, such as equity, freedom, and justice.