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.

White Mushroom. Photo: Stephan Morris

Witnessing Beyond the Human*

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

By Heidi Hart

“The poetry ancestors scattered to all parts of the world.

Each family of trees, animals, winds, stones needed a poet.”

  • Joy Harjo

As populist movements gain traction, their environmental rhetoric tends to fall into two camps: unchecked extractivism for human use and distrust of scientific expertise on the one hand (McCarthy, 2019), and ecofascist fantasies of a “pristine” world without humans (particularly immigrants) on the other (Lubarda, 2020). What links these seemingly contradictory positions is a focus on people, the key element in the term “populism.” 

In academic and artistic circles, meanwhile, efforts to de-center the human, in terms of entanglement with other species, build on older models of witnessing to create a sense of truthfulness. Whether these efforts can actually prove persuasive remains an open question, but the work of imagining non-human subjectivities may leak far enough into popular media to reach even those who distrust climate science. This paper describes projects building on the “poetry of witness” tradition and their related popular manifestations, to argue that multispecies thinking can be adapted into mainstream media and cross ideological divides. 

The wax figure of Bertolt Brecht – opening of the waxworks “Madame Tussauds”, Unter den Linden, Berlin on July 10, 2008.

Background: Human Witnessing in Words

During Nazi-era exile in Denmark, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht responded to his times with sharp-witted ballads and elegies that mixed reportage with biblical rhythms of mourning (Greenstein, 2010: 70). In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish-Romanian poet Paul Celan bore witness to the reverberations of genocide by re-enacting folksong rhythms in his poetry – and at the same time breaking down the German language that had been used in the service of unspeakable brutality (Franklin, 2020).

From the Spanish Civil War through the Vietnam era, American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote what is now called “documentary poetry” to collect and distill traces of “the first century of world wars” (Huber, 2018). In our own time, Terrance Hayes and others have borne witness to the grief, anger, and activism rising from the death of George Floyd (Hayes, 2020). Though the “poetry of witness” tradition has suffered from white privilege and over-personalization in the US, shifting attention from “atrocities at home and abroad” (Hernández, 2021), it has been a key measure of literary trustworthiness, especially in the “post-truth” Trump era. 

Why poetry? As environmental writer Andri Snær Magnason points out, poetry allows humans to “scale up” language to meet a crisis, since we cannot amplify it the way we can numbers (Magnason, 2021). How can poetry, then, best rise to meet our present crisis on a planetary scale? How to address wildfire, mass extinction, monster hurricanes, ice loss, floods, and ocean acidification, to name just a few of the threats that seem overwhelming today? 

A more pressing question might be, how trustworthy is a human poet anyway, when humans – though with varying privileges and complicities in the carbon-industrial complex – have been the agents of a once healthy planet’s demise? Poetic efforts toward de-centering the human “I” to make room for other species’ presences, can foster complex and generous truth-telling. When spread into popular (if not populist) media, they can do at least some of the work of “transcending human-centered exceptionalism” (Demos, 2016: 19).

Build A Bear Lion King display in Arrowhead mall in Glendale, Arizona, USA on July 29, 2019. Photo: E. Murphy.

Making Room for Other Species

In his book The Media Ecosystem, Antonio López describes a process of decolonizing what he calls media “monoculture,” in which Disney monopolizes “magic” (López, 2012: 9) and TV “teaches us what is normal by showing us that common people are middle class, white suburbanites” (57). Metaphorically applying principles of regenerative agriculture and even Bill McKibben’s “media equivalent of the farmer’s market” (143) can aid in disrupting a hegemonic media landscape, as can learning about Indigenous practices of community ritual and collaboration. 

Likewise, a literary geography of well-educated humans writing testimonials of their time on Earth can be a form of “monocropping,” too, not only in shutting out less privileged voices but also in assuming that only human perspectives count. Looking to older sources than Disneyfied talking animals, López points out that “[t]races of our ancient past can be found in how children are allowed to play as if animals, plants, or spirits can talk to them” (9). He cites Hayao Miyazaki’s films as a strong example of “respectful tales of nature spirits” and “ecological allegories of connection” (9). He also describes do-it-yourself, collage-like punk aesthetics as ways of being “more than a witness” in making “something participatory and real” (29)

Even for environmentally engaged writers and artists, stepping aside to listen to other species does require some DIY resourcefulness – and most of all humility, as humans are just beginning to understand how an octopus, a fungus, or a forest experiences the world. Philosopher Vinciane Despret’s attempts to understand animal subjectivity often take the form of questions, as in her alphabet-structured book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (2016), because the answers are still piecemeal and contingent. 

Donna Haraway, known for her influential thinking on multispecies entanglements, cautions against essentializing groups of animals, humans included. This point is a helpful antidote to right-wing, populist thinking that privileges humans over all other species, either by promoting unchecked growth or by wishing humankind away from an imagined, pristine “Nature.” “Individual critters matter,” Haraway writes; “they are mortal and fleshly knottings, not ultimate units of being” (Haraway, 2008: 88)

Because human understanding of nonhuman subjectivity is so difficult, “stories built through layered and disparate practices of being and knowing” (Tsing, 2015: 159) may be the best approach. This can take time and many false starts. Even clumsy reckoning with other species’ perspectives can yield a strange, new insight: “[t]he way selves relate is not necessarily akin to the ways in which words relate to each other in that system we call language” (Kohn, 2013: 100)

Photo: Dora Zett

Risking Interspecies Poetics

For all the difficulty and even impossibility of meeting other species in words, poets have tried for centuries to do exactly this. Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century meditation on his cat, “Jubilate Agno,” written at great length while in a London asylum, is equal parts biblical cadence and playful invention. The descriptive poem, in which an animal or plant is treated from a distance (and often given quasi-totemic power in a moment of personal realization), has continued to be the most accessible mode of human-nonhuman literary encounter. 

In the time of mass extinction combined with pandemic lockdown, the elegiac mode for mourning lost species has taken on new digital dimensions. The Vigil for the Smooth Handfish project, presented by the Parallel Effect for Lost Species Day in November 2020, was a scheduled online event that featured an animated image of a now-extinct fish that did appear to have hands, along with original poems and songs. The overall goal was to encourage participants to slow down, take time for a contemplative experience amid the confusions of the COVID year, and allow grief even for a small fish most people had never heard of to open a “space for a digital congregation, to contemplate loss, grief, the parameters of care, the interconnectedness of conservation and radical hope, and ‘collaborative survival’” (Parallel Effect, 2020). 

Another literary mode of approaching other species is the persona poem, in which the speaker takes on the “voice” of another creature or entity. Not surprisingly, this style of poetry is popular for schoolchildren, as in an Arizona writing program that includes “Poems by Pets” (Grunberger, n.d.), though the fictional mode of “zoopoetics” can be traced through the works of Kafka and into science fiction such as Octavia Butler’s Clay Ark (Magnone, 2016). Contemporary poets seeking contact with other species’ subjectivities tend to avoid speaking directly in nonhuman voices, knowing the ethical problems of presuming that “speech” (see Appadurai, 1988: 17, 20).

American Navajo (Diné) poet Tacy Atsitty’s speaker-persona slips obliquely in and out of nonhuman attributes, imagining what a cow needs, licking salt, and needing to be reminded “how I am human” (Atsitty, 2018: 25, 71). Turkish poet Ece Temelkuran takes another sidelong approach, in a collection titled “Meadow: The Explorer Encounters the Virtues in the Shapes of Animals” (2010). The poet’s impulse is to wriggle as closely as possible to her mysterious subjects (“I removed/ my eyes, thrust them under the earth,” 32) but she realizes that, in the case of a black swan, “She is none of the stories made up about her” (37).

Some poets test these limits, taking multispecies witnessing as a challenge. On one end of the risk spectrum, Brazilian poet Sérgio Madeiros keeps his words on the page but saturates them “in animist epistemologies that disperse divinity and personhood across a broad spectrum of beings,” such as a soldier in dialogue with a tapir “also identified as an old woman and a cannibal soul,” creating a “pluriverse” informed by Indigenous storytelling, Zen poetry, and avant-garde aesthetics, in an effort to resist human exceptionalism (McNee, 2017)

On the other end of the risk spectrum, multispecies researcher Eben Kirksey has experimented with biopoetic storytelling, in collaboration with chytrid fungi that reproduce with zoospores. Offering “death back to life, by offering bits of stuff to them – bait, like baby hair, pollen, or hemp,” this “composition without a composer or conductor” allows for decentralized creativity in a “cascade of reactions” (Kirksey, 2019). If this approach seems too lab-intensive, too biologically invasive, or too problematic in light of chytrids’ role in Central and South American frog extinctions (Platt, 2021) to work as trustworthy witnessing, there is a middle ground, a poetics of voice that allows nonhuman voices to be heard as well.

Two hooded crows are fighting on the summer lawn. Photo: Oleg Elkov.

US Poet Laureate and jazz musician Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation) writes in playful relationship with other species, notably the crow. In an intertitle section of her 2015 book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, she writes, “Humans in this world fall too easily to war, are quick to take offense, and claim ownership. ‘What drama,’ said crow, dodging traffic as he wrestled a piece of road kill,” (Harjo, 2015: 24)

In her 2010 album Red Dream, Trail Beyond Tears, Harjo sings with a crow. The song “Urban Crow Dance” emerged after “a crow followed me to the studio the first session,” the poet recalls (Harjo, 2010). With an underlying drone, syncopated percussion, flute, and the crow’s own voice, Harjo speak-sings, “C’mon, crow!  Dance!” She counts out the dance beat, lets her voice recede, and banters with the bird “(“Be that way, then!”), imitating his call as the song ends. Somehow this interaction sounds as respectful as it is awkward, with two voices meeting in equal, playful author-ity. Harjo’s Native heritage, with generations of human-animal storytelling, gives her the credibility to take this risk. 

Recording and interacting with animal voices (as in the many jazz responses to whale song [e.g. Rothenberg and Saarimaki, 2015]) is of course nothing new. Bernie Krause’s Great Animal Orchestra project has led not only to the pleasures of multispecies listening but also to groundbreaking research on biophony, leading to the “acoustic niche hypothesis” (Krause, 2016) in which different creatures adjust their frequencies to create individual sonic territories and adapt to other species’ soundworlds. Moths jam bats’ echolocation signals, for example, and in return bats “have managed to figure out what the moths are doing and have adjusted their echoing signal from a loud ping to a soft whisper” in order to “creep up on their prey, drawing to within a wing’s length without being detected” (Krause, 2012: 97).

Scientific discoveries aside, though, the widespread practice of field recording risks artistic extractivism or what Dylan Robinson has called “hungry listening” (Robinson, 2020). From Indigenous perspectives, sound collection can be a form of consumption, of wanting to claim and fix sensory material in place. Likewise, relying only on human emotions as a channel for understanding non-human experience can risk shallow empathy rather than real engagement, as in the controversial work of Peter Wolhlleben, whose Secret Life of Trees has reached a wide audience by describing botanical “emotions” while sidestepping scientific forestry research and practice (Kingsland, 2018).

Poetry and other art forms that include nonhuman voices are most generous when they allow for the unexpected, for the awkward pause or caw, for a moment of being “beside ourselves” as humans (Kirksey, 2019). An attitude of “guest listening” and of witnessing through conversation rather than monologue (Robinson, 2020: 53, 70-71) can open a space for other species to be at once surprising and less “other” – simply themselves. 

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). Photo: Vladimir Wrangel.

More-than-human Witnessing in Popular Media

While poets, artists, and environmental humanities scholars have been finding ways to imagine nonhuman subjectivities, scientific researchers with communicative gifts have entered this stream, too. Suzanne Simard, a silviculturalist or forest scientist, has succeeded where Wohlleben’s project, however popular, has fallen short. Her new book Finding the Mother Tree draws on decades of research into ectomycorrhizal fungi that form communicative networks under the visible forest, an idea that has gone viral in human parlance as the “wood wide web.” Though Simard still uses anthropomorphic terms like “matriarch,” her clear and compelling writing helps general readers understand how trees pass information from generation to generation, adapting “energy flow” to changing conditions (Simard, 2021; Slaght, 2021).

In a similar, reciprocal flow between research and art, Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest uses visual poetry to reach a wide human audience in New York’s Madison Square Park. A grove of giant, leafless Atlantic white cedar trees, earlier slated for clearing in New Jersey, has taken up residence in a public space. The towering, lifeless trees speak for themselves witnesses to ecological vulnerability, as actual “ghost forests” appear more and more frequently in US coastal areas (Smith, 2021)

Less charismatic species, such as kelp or mushrooms, have also gained in mainstream awareness – and not only because of their nutritional or psychedelic potential. The 2019 Kelp Congress in northern Norway attracted not only artists and researchers but practically the whole town of Svolvær as well, as citizens marched in a ceremony honoring the kelp that had saved several villagers from a Nazi assault on their town – by providing smelly but effective cover for several days (Johannessen, 2019). Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s scholarly book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) may have a daunting title, but it laid the groundwork for such popular projects as Louie Schwartzberg’s 2019 film Fantastic Fungi and widespread at-home mushroom cultivation as a “new pandemic hobby” (Matei, 2021)

As for the charismatic whales, elephants, and household pets treated as subjects of popular books and TV shows on “how animals think” or “how animals communicate,” this is nothing new; nature documentaries have been reaching mainstream audiences for decades. What climate crisis and the looming sixth mass extinction have added to the picture is a dual sense of urgency and intimacy. 

The 2020 Oscar-winning film My Octopus Teacher is a human act of witnessing, but one that shows new possibilities of interspecies connection in a rapidly warming ocean environment. Though filmmaker Craig Foster edited the project heavily to create a narrative arc about his own healing from depression through a “love story” with another creature (Thiyagarajan, 2020), the film has reached a far wider audience than scholarly or poetic efforts to come close to a nonhuman “other.” Perhaps such projects can shift even a populist imagination away from either a “people only” or a “world without people” ideology.  

Conclusion

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

Works that include other species’ sounds are difficult to present without coming across as precious or extractivist. Still, this can be done with playfulness and openness to chance, as in Joy Harjo’s jazz-inflected “Urban Crow Dance.” As artist and activist Olafur Eliasson has put it, “The fastest way to make a populist into a humanist is to listen,” in an artistic experience that encourages openness and empathy (Lauter, 2021). This applies to more-than-human empathy as well. 

As I have considered a range of works that de-center human author-ity to make room for other species, I am well aware of the imaginative leap such works require. To return to the Kelp Congress in Norway in 2019, one helpful guide for researchers and artists was a speculative philosophy text by Emanuele Coccia, “The Cosmic Garden”:

“Imagine you have no eyes. There are no colors in front of you. No forms. No patterns. No outlines. The world is not a variety of bodies and intensities of light. It is a unique body with different degrees of penetrability.

Imagine you have no ears. There are no noises, no music, no calls, no language you can understand. Everything is but a silent excitement of matter,” (Coccia, 2019: 17).

The text goes on to ask the reader to imagine having no legs, no arms, no hands, no “movement organs” (Coccia, 2019: 18), only a penetrable and penetrating presence in a fluid world. These words, which do not pretend to “be” an entity like giant kelp but rather press toward imagining its experience, allow the gap between us to remain. This humility in witness, knowing how far the writer is from really knowing how it is to be a plant, is what makes the text trustworthy.

The distance between humans and nonhumans, however inspiring moments of unexpected connection (the crow following Joy Harjo to the recording studio, for example), is no reason for despair. As climate-aware writers and artists test the limits of interspecies poetics, it is helpful to remember “the animal dimension in my own speaking” and even writing (Abram, 2010: 168) as the body leans forward to think through a phrase, and as the voice grows quieter or louder to make an urgent point. 

A beyond-human poem, or a book or film or even viral video, can be a kind of kin, too (Robinson, 2020: 95), expanding beyond what populist rhetoric (either human-focused or anti-human) counts as valuable. These varied forms of witnessing in human language, even in the effort to move beyond it, create a system of reaching relations, like tentacles spreading to touch, if not completely comprehend, the pluriverse in which we live. 

(*) This article is adapted from a paper presented at the 2021 conference Trust Me! Truthfulness and Truth Claims Across Media, Linnaeus University, Sweden. 


References

Abram, David. (2010). Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Appadurai, Arjun. (1988). “Introduction: Place and Voice in Anthropological Theory.” Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 3, No. 1: 16–20.

Atsitty, Tacey M. (2018). Rain Scald: Poems. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Bilodeau, Chantal. (2015). Sila: A Play. Vancouver, B.C.: Talonbooks.

Chaudry, Una & Hughes, Holly. Eds. (2014). Animal Acts: Performing Species Today. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 

Coccia, Emanuele. (2018). “The cosmic garden.” In J. Andermann, L. Blackmore, & D. Morell, Editors, Natura: Environmental aesthetics after landscape.17-29. Zurich: Diaphanes.

Demos, T.J. (2016). Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Despret, Vinciane. (2016). What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? Translated by Brett Buchanan. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Greenstein, Edward L. (2010). “Lamentation and Lament in the Hebrew Bible.” In: K. Weisman, Editor. Oxford Handbook of the Elegy. 67-84. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Harjo, Joy. (2015). Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Kirksey, Eben. “Molecular Intra-Actions: Storytelling with Chytrids.” Keynote address, Multispecies Storytelling in Intermedial Practices conference, Linnaeus University, Sweden, 23.01.19. 

Krause, Bernie. (2012). The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.

López, Antonio. (2012). The Media Ecosystem: What Ecology Can Teach Us About Responsible Media Practice. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions.

Moe, Aaron M. (2014). Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

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EmergingMarkets

Populist attacks on institutions as a reaction to the hyper-globalization

This article explores the discrediting and decommissioning of the institutional foundations of the economy by populist leaders and its impact on economic performance in major emerging market economies (EMEs). One situation that justified these attacks that also attracts public support in recent years is argued to be the devastating effects of the global economic and financial crisis on developing countries (DCs) in general.

By Ibrahim Ozturk 

During the heyday of globalization, since the 1980s, the major emerging market economies (EMEs) not only increased their share of the global gross domestic product (GDP) in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) but also achieved a remarkable “convergence” (Lee, 2018; Lee, 2013) in terms of per capita GDP to that of the average developed country. Their share increased steadily from 36 percent in 1980 to 58 percent in 2016 (OECD, 2018). However, recent challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis have eroded optimism for the continued convergence. 

Around the world, economic problems are attributed to the excesses of globalization. In a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic or the 2008 economic crash, citizens of nation states might view their plight as being like a small boat sailing through a rough storm; whatever measures they take on the boat will not save them. These perceptions have helped various populist parties ascend to power or become coalition partners all over the world in the recent years. Although different economic, political, cultural, and security concerns shape populism across the right-left political spectrum, in this article, we will explore populism in selected EMEs without making a right-left distinction. We’ll look at the BRICS (BrazilRussiaIndiaChinaSouth Africa) countries and the MINTA (MexicoIndonesia, Nigeria, TurkeyArgentina) countries, all known as both middle income and populist countries—and all candidates to fall into the “middle income trap” (Kyle & Gultchin, 2018). As the main argument of this article, our sample set shows that populism and institutional erosion coexist, with the former causing the second. 

After summarizing the major repercussions of hyper globalization on developing countries (DCs) and looking at the domestic political reaction to this process, the third section will focus on the attacks made by populists on institutions, including the visible erosion of governance indicators in the sample country groups. The last part summarizes the main conclusions. 

Impact of Globalism on National Economies

The failure of DCs to manage the challenges posed by the rising “multiplex world,” a term recently coined by Acharya (2017), prepared the ground for populism and allowed populist parties to make electoral gains not only in DCs but also in several developed ones. As Rodrik (2018) puts it, to the extent that radical globalization works against ordinary households at the micro-level and violates the independence, autonomy, and sovereignty of nation-states at the macro-level, it fosters feelings against openness, globalization, and also large regional agreements. However, objective and speculative factors in the rising objections should be adequately addressed. 

First, as the Great Recession of 2008-2010 showed, because of their weak institutional governance, democratic check and balances, and excessive dependence on external markets, (particularly in finance), DCs cannot isolate themselves from the contagious effects of an erratic crisis in major capitalist countries. In addition to the ongoing harsh global competition, the economic recession of 2008 and subsequent fiscal crises have led to mass unemployment and distorted income distribution; together, they increased the perception of economic insecurity in DCs. 

Second, there are also perceptions that large companies or international organizations use free trade and unconstrained financial and fiscal agreements to constrain national governments in legislating socially desirable policies against their perceived interests. For instance, austerity programs implemented after 2008 worked against the most fragile segments of society, those living on a low and fixed income. 

Third, new technological shifts of the fourth industrial revolution like automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, cyberspace, big-data, and cloud technology have created downward pressure on the wages of low-skilled workers in non-export and import-competing industries. Capital mobility, which allows businesses and entrepreneurs to move to different countries where factor prices are lower and income and corporate tax are more competitive, creates downward pressure on the wage level of the less skilled labour force and kills local employment capacity. Overall, under excessive globalization and turbulences, income distribution skews in favour of large company owners and highly skilled workers, mainly in the export industries (Li, Hou, & Wu, 2017; WEF, 2017).

Fourth, given these factors, governments in DCs face the challenge of managing the distribution of the cost and benefits of national growth through an appropriate mix of taxes, safety nets, and subsidized public delivery of social services (health, education, low-cost housing) (Gill & Krahas, 2015). For instance, by considering the adverse impact of the pandemic on the poorest segment of society, which could trigger social unrest, the IMF, as the lender of last resort, called on governments to close the income gap between the richest and poorest by taxing wealthy businesspeople and spending more on the poor (The Guardian, April 1, 2021). However, contrary to those expectations, as Krugman (2008) has noted, neither governments nor the “winners” (i.e., entrepreneurs, companies) from free trade compensate the “losers.” The worst is that, as mentioned before, capital mobility or the fear for the so-called “capital flight” would undermine the existing premature efforts for the taxation of wealthy business globally to close existing income gap (Piketty, 2018; Piketty & Goldhammer, 2014). Rather the contrary, as recent experiences under pandemic have shown, the super-rich increased their wealth in many developed and developing countries (Financial Time, May 14, 2021), whereas the most vulnerable segments of the society have received quite unequal and inadequate support. This is because, on the one hand, the capital has various lobbying opportunities to soak up Covid cash; on the other hand, the businessman is “stateless” and therefore triggers the fear of abandoning the country because of more favourable tax privileges and financial supports elsewhere.

DCs have limited capacity to take advantage of the favourable global economic conjuncture and give back their gains before they are consolidated during the crisis. Additionally, they are exposed to the new problems mentioned above. While significant aspects of the negative repercussions are attributable to uncontrolled globalization, national governments are not entirely exempt from responsibility. As a result, the failure of DCs to properly manage globalization causes massive alienation and feelings of abandonment amongst the “silent majority,” preparing the ground for the exaggeration, falsification, and exploitation of problems and, therefore, manipulation of the electorate by populist politicians.

Populism as an Internal Reaction

As Luiz (2016) puts it, intensifying tension between the insiders or winners (the status quo) and the outsiders or losers of globalization determines the course of populism. Mudde (2004, 2007, 2013) and Müller (2016) underline the anti-elitist and anti-globalization characteristics of populist rhetoric. Some authors like Mouffe (2018) and Kaltwasser (2019) interpret populism as a reformist opportunity for democratic correction against the status quo and elites, and therefore, they present it as a member of the democratic club (Canovan,  2005). 

Mouffe supports populism because of its potential contribution to “radical democracy” through the mobilization of excluded sectors of society against the status quo. Following the same line of analysis, Jansen (2011, 82) contends that “a political project is populist when it is a sustained, large-scale project that mobilizes ordinary, marginalized social sectors into publicly visible and contentious political action, while articulating an anti-elite, nationalistic message that valorises ordinary people. It is therefore difficult to imagine democratic politics without populism. The dominance of a predominantly anti-populist logic may reduce politics to an administrative enterprise with over-proportionate input from colleges of experts and technocrats.” 

By looking at empirical data, it is necessary to question the ultimate goals of populists and to analyse where populist policies will go, regardless of their intentions, because of the “built-in mechanisms” they contain. Populism should be judged by its attitude when it consolidates its power and to changes through free and fair elections, rather than its idealistic and romanticized rhetoric before it comes to power and its actions during its initial years of inexperience (Lewis et al., 2019).

Rosanvallon (2006) argues that populism might take the form of a political expression in which the democratic project allows itself to be eliminated by a non-democratic ideology. With its orientation to make democracy less pluralistic (in political rights) and more inclusive (in the realm of social rights), contemporary populism is a fusion of nationalism (with its notion of the unified people) and authoritarianism (with its lack of tolerance for any alternative discourses). This suggests that populism is not just anti-elitist; it is anti-pluralist—and herein lies its profoundly undemocratic character (Weyland, 2020; Mueller, 2015). 

To sum up Norris and Inglehart’s (2019: 445) words, populism is an authoritarian philosophy and style of governance, in which “legitimacy flows from popular sovereignty and vox-populi, superseding minority rights, constitutional checks-and-balances, and decision-making by elected representatives.” Moreover, populists’ “divide and rule” strategy scapegoats marginalized groups, which serves to consolidate the leader’s power, to distract public attention from his failures, or to conceal from the people the nature of his rule or the real causes of economic or social problems (Munro, 2021).  In the context of this paper, populism is accompanied with stereotyping and stigmatizing “enemies of the nation”—other nations, international organizations, capitalists, or minorities. 

What are the effects of populism on economic development? 

The ultimate task in economic development is to achieve an inclusive, productivity-oriented and sustainable growth. Other main objectives include the generation of satisfactory income through employment creation and the prevention of erosion in the overall wage level without sacrificing macroeconomic stability. The question to ask here is, What are the available ideological and economic policy tools at the disposal of populists to manage external conditions and the resulting domestic imbalances properly? What is the capacity of populist governments to ensure sustainable, inclusive, and productive growth vis-a-vis hyper globalization?

Rodrik (2017, 2018) defines economic populism as “anti-establishment orientation, a claim to speak for the people against the elites, opposition to liberal economics and globalization (anti-foreign capital and companies), and often (but not always) an affinity for authoritarian governance.” With a similar approach, several economists who are also interested in economic populism (see Houle & Kenny, 2018; Dornbusch & Edwards, 1991; Kaufman & Stallings, 1991; Sachs, 1989) describe it as an “irresponsible approach” through redistribution of wealth and government spending. One critical issue is the pressure of “short-termism,” which is efforts by populists to meet short-term expectations they create. It is incompatible with the needed time dimension of structural reforms, which are costly initially but fruitful in the long run. The economic policy populists tend to follow is characterized by an initial period of massive spending financed by foreign debt and followed by a second period marked by hyperinflation and the implementation of harsh economic adjustments. 

Moreover, quite understandably, populist leaders focus on redistribution policies to improve the living standards of the so-called “silent and pure majority” against the “comprador bourgeoisie” or “corrupt elite.” However, as Pareto-optimality implies, when there are no effective external and domestic compensation mechanisms to make one better off without making someone else worse-off, populism relies on different bargaining strategies, sometimes even coercive policies, via highly politicized resource transfers across social classes. As will be discussed below, the excessive short-termism of populists also ignores inter-generational accounting principles and does not allow circumstances for the needed consensus and reform coalitions that increase productivity through technological transformation and upgrading human capital—and therefore achieving high-quality growth. 

Taken together, populism has problems with the principles of good governance, such as pluralism, participation, accountability, and transparency for market-based economic development. 

Populism, the Market, and Institutions

In the context of hyper globalization, the motivation of populists to discredit institutions reflects a lopsided view—that these institutions serve the elites, oligarchs, and international interests rather than the citizens. However, this approach does not fully capture the meaning, existence, evolution, and the role of institutions in economic development. As Polanyi (1944), North and Thomas (1973), and North (1997) showed quite succinctly, there is no development without robust institutional design defining the rules of the game. Markets are not God-given, but they are “designed” with the help of institutions. 

As North (1990: 3) contends, “institutions are the rules of the game in a society or, more formally, are the humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction. In consequence, they structure incentives in human exchange, whether political, social, or economic.” More recently, Rodrik et al. (2004), Acemoglu et al. (2005), and Acemoglu and Robinson (2012) showed that societies with more flaws tend to have much “worse economic institutions” than those that don’t. This takes us to the role of politics in the design of institutors. As Dore (1986) showed in Japan’s economic development, and more recently, as Wen (2016) proposes quite assertively for the Chinese economic transition“market creation” needs political coordination and capacity to set proper priorities and reach a workable compromise among the major stakeholders. 

To start with, by denying institutional check and balances (i.e., the separation of the legislature, executive, and judiciary) and the autonomy of several key institutions such as the central bank, statistical institutes, court of auditors, and competition board, in the name of sovereignty and people’s self-determination via elections, populists take a strong anti-institutional stance. This stems from their belief that unelected national or supranational institutions serve the interests of the corrupt elite, global companies, and developed countries at the expense of the pure people. Reflecting the same position, populists also oppose the oversight of international anchors over their governance. They go further and also discredit science and scientific evidence/findings as untrustful and declare “folk wisdom” as more valuable. 

Such denials of science, professionalism, expertise, and institutions means that populists underestimate the importance of contemporary governance, which strives to bring solutions to conflicts of interest through different institutional designs and innovations that can alleviate problems of collective action and participation. Given the fact that political parties lose importance and elections serve the leader’s authority when populists are in charge, populist opposition to the autonomous institutions in favour of popular sovereignty cannot be easily interpreted as an indication of a “democratic corrective” or a process of “creative destruction” for better outcomes (Peruzzotti, 2017; Edwards, 2010). 

However, autonomous institutions, based on professionalism, expertise, and division of labour, play a crucial role in fulfilling citizens’ collective demands through pre-determined and agreed-upon rules and delegation mechanisms such as free and fair elections (Bezes & Le Lidec, 2016). Several uncertainties that come with the weakening of autonomous institutions, and reliance upon ad-hoc rules, arbitrariness, and irregularity, include the lack of predictability and short-sighted decision-making which result in lower investment, misallocation of resources, and finally, lower growth (Acemoglu et al., 2013; Helpman, 2008; Kartik & Sideras, 2006; Rodrik, 2000 & 2012; Yıldırım & Gökalp, 2016). 

A striking example of this is the attempt to limit central bank autonomy, which, most of the time, results in the loss of price stability as politicians run expansionary macroeconomic policies to fuel short-term growth at the expense of fiscal and monetary discipline (Edwards, S. 2010; Learner, 2019). The suggestion is that the autonomous but accountable and transparent institutions have the most credibility within modern governments—and therefore, governments should avoid interventions in fundamental institutions, such as the judiciary or Central Bank as well data monitoring agencies, like public statistical institutions that are empowered to produce scientific, impartial, and reliable data. 

Table 1 shows how authoritarian populist governments undermine the quality of institutions. It summarizes the broader categories of governance (composed of political participation, rule of law (ROL), stability of democratic institutions, political and social integration, socioeconomic development, monetary and fiscal stability, private property, welfare regime, economic performance, and sustainability) in BRICS and MINTA country groups. Numbers in red highlight an alarming situation and underline an obvious institutional erosion in all these countries, but particularly in Russia, Nigeria, Turkey, and China. 

Considering the high level of arbitrariness and one-man rule in populist governments, rule of law evolves as the most crucial parameter for institutional robustness. Therefore, the ROL criteria given in Table 1 is supported by a further sub-set of measures in Table 2. The World Justice Project (WJP)’s ROL index in 126 countries consists of the following aspects: constraints on government powers, absence of corruption, open government, fundamental rights, order and security, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, and criminal justice. This index shows similar results for upper middle-income countries (UMI) as of 2020. There is no single country over $12,535 per-capita GDP with an average WJP score below 0,50. UMI countries exhibit dramatically lower score in the ROL index and appear to be the most probable candidates to remain stuck in the middle-income trap. 

Conclusion

Populism signifies a significant deviation from institutionalized governance due to its reliance on a leadership cult of the strong man. Populism has developed partly as a reactionary movement to undisciplined globalization and the destructive impacts this has had on national and local economies. Globalization transmits its adverse impacts onto national economies through several linked threads such as trade diversion, unfair import and superior export competition, erosion of employment and income, distortionary patents, and financial instabilities. Additionally, there are perceptions that also foster the rise of populism—specifically that local bourgeois or “self-serving, corrupt elites” have successfully aligned their interests with global capitalism at the expense of the most vulnerable segments of society. For instance, constraints such as austerity or belt-tightening programs caused by the global economic crisis prevented governments from supporting the most fragile members of society. On the contrary, big companies were given priority and were rescued during the crisis, because they were “too big to fail.” Poorer segments of society felt abandoned and alienated. The result has been the rise of chronic income inequality (Pastor & Veronesi, 2020).

Populists instrumentalize these external impacts and domestic reactions to legitimize their distrust in supranational institutions, which urge national governments to further checks and balances and reforms and strengthen local autonomous institutions. Populists also fear that elites can capture autonomous institutions and therefore discredit their role in economic development. 

However, this road leads to low productivity and slow and unstable growth. The divisive rhetoric populists use to seize power causes deep fragmentations across societal fault lines and prevents the formation of national coalitions, which are needed to upgrade the economy through collective action and participation as well as sometimes painful and complicated reforms. Relatedly, the incompatible time dimension in unstable societies also makes politicians highly oriented toward short-term fixes; therefore, long-term structural reforms, with high ex-ante cost but ex-post return, are ignored.

In the absence of institutional checks and balances and reforms and efficiency pursuits, populists give priority to high growth and income redistribution through highly politicized resource transfers. Ignorant of economic efficiency criteria and high growth through expansionary monetary and fiscal policies, populist governments end up with unstable prices, domestic as well as external deficit, and permanent fiscal and financial crises such as currency shocks. 

Populists come to power by exploiting global and national grievances and also offer various favours to voters; the process results in worse economic outcomes, which pushes populist leaders to employ even more “divisive” rhetoric and policies through creating “enemies” both inside and outside the country in an effort to hide their incompetence and legitimize their governance. These findings should negate the optimistic view of populism as a democratic corrective against the status quo. The recent assault of populist regimes on democracy and the market economy shows that they are increasingly distancing themselves from democracy and the market economy to become even more authoritarian.


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Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ali Erbas, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) is seen during a public rally in Istanbul on the second anniversary of failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The Islamist Populism, Anti-Westernism and Civilizationism of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs

In Turkey under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Friday sermons of Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Mustafa Demir & Nicholas Morieson

Over the past two decades, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has cemented itself as the country’s hegemonic ruling party by appealing to the conservative Muslim majority of the country. Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proven exceptionally adept at uniting Islamism and populism, fusing the two into a powerful and pervasive political force with which he has established a stranglehold over Turkish politics and society while exporting this ideology abroad via its transnational apparatuses and networks (Yilmaz, 2021a). Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) controls all mosques (more than 90,000) in Turkey, many thousands in the West, and employs imams for these mosques. It has become one of the powerful instruments in propagating the AKP’s Islamist populism and anti-Western civilizationism.

The AKP did not begin its rule as an authoritarian party. Initially, the party—though populist in orientation—promised a more liberal and inclusive society. Throughout the 2002–2008 period, Erdogan called for Turkey to join the European Union and enacted a series of reforms that sought to eliminate the secular authoritarian tutelage of the Kemalist institutions. However, after 2008, and when the European Union refused in practice to accept Turkish entry into the organization and with increasing economic problems, the AKP began a slide into right-wing nationalism colored by Islamism.

Here, Islamism is understood as a politicized version of the religion of Islam, a counter-hegemonic paradigm, which “refers to turning religion into an ideology and an instrumental use of Islam in politics […] by individuals, groups and organisations in order to pursue political objectives” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 104). It is also important to note that “Islamism is not a coherent ideology – it focuses on identity politics rather than ideas and an appeal to emotions rather than intellect” (Yilmaz, 2021b: 105). Thus, this Islamist ideology relying on antagonistic binaries where the Islamists are constructed as the true and only legitimate representatives of the pure people against the corrupt elite and their international supporters is inherently populist (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 5; Laclau, 2006; Wojczewski, 2020; Katsambekis, 2020).

The 2013 Gezi Park anti-government protests—in which mostly secular young people in cosmopolitan Istanbul protested against the AKP’s increasing authoritarianism and corruption—shifted the party further toward the right, as it sought alliances with conservative, religious elements in Turkish society. The failed 2016 coup d’état, a somewhat mysterious event, appears to have convinced Erdogan to abandon any pretense of liberal democracy and to embrace authoritarian religious populism instead.

The AKP’s turn toward authoritarian religious populism has proven largely successful. Erdogan remains a popular political figure, and—having purged the military, bureaucracy, and the universities of so-called undesirable citizens (especially secularists, leftists, and Gulenists)— the AKP now controls Turkey’s most important and influential institutions (Yilmaz, 2021b: 203-220). Through this power, the party has re-shaped Turkish identity in ways that suit the ruling regime. Fusing their populist ideology, which emphasizes the battle between “elites” and “the people” with Islamism, the AKP created a new type of Turkish nationalism in which “the people” and the state are identified with orthodox Sunni Islam. Adding this religio-civilizational element to their populism, the AKP gained the ability to portray Turkey’s domestic political battles and antagonisms as part of a wider cosmic religious war between Islam and its enemies, especially the “Judeo-Christian” West. The internal or domestic enemies, especially secular “elites” and Gulenists, were thus branded enemies of Islam who posed an existential threat to Turkey and – more broadly – the entire ummah (Yilmaz, Shipoli & Demir, 2021).

The AKP has tried to re-shape Turkish national identity through a variety of means. The party’s ability to set a national curriculum, dominate the media (traditional and new), and direct Turkey’s religious authority – the Diyanet – is highly important. The Kemalists established the Diyanet following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in an attempt to bring Islam under greater government control. The Kemalist regime was a secularizing force in Turkey and often hostile toward religion and Islamic bodies. The Diyanet was thus created to help secularize Turkey and was intended to reduce the power of Islamic authorities and increase the power of the secular state.

Under Kemalist hegemony, the Diyanet was a promoter of sovereignty, national unity, and freedom, and it glorified the founding father of Turkey. It was restructured under the AKP regime to build the “new Milli [national]” (Mutluer, 2018) citizens the AKP desires. When the Islamist AKP came to power in 2002, instead of eliminating this institute, they ironically captured and widened its capacity boosting it financially and employing it to create an Islamist–populist appeal.

Thus, the Diyanet’s importance rapidly increased after the election of the AKP in 2002, particularly after the party’s turn toward Islamist populism in the 2010s. The AKP increased the religious directorate’s budget and encouraged the body to have a more socially and politically active role. Erdogan appears to have decided that the Diyanet was an ideal vehicle through which he could communicate and disseminate his religious populist rhetoric and ultimately increase his party’s political power.

Seeing the Diyanet’s potential in this way paved the way for the elevation of the President of the Diyanet (Başkan) from directorate to permanent undersecretary (Müsteşar), and the protocol ranking of the Diyanet director’s hierarchy being elevated from 51st to 10th under the AKP. This can be considered both symbolically and practically one of the greatest prerogatives given to the society’s conservative segments. This new status of the Diyanet and its increased budget allowed the organization to establish radio and television channels. The Diyanet’s mandate was expanded to provide religious services outside mosques, from foreign policy (Özturk, 2021) to prisons, retirement homes, and women’s shelters and families (Adak, 2020). Also, the Diyanet generates the Friday sermon, which all mosques in Turkey deliver in its exact form.

Weekly Friday prayers have been considered theoretically by both Kemalists and Islamists as a very important tool to control Turkish citizens’ perspective about Islam and to construct “good citizens.” Friday as a day and Friday prayers as a ritual has a significant place in Muslim religious life. Mid-day prayer on Friday was replaced by Friday prayer, and the sermons are an inseparable aspect of this weekly prayer. Thus, a proper Friday prayer necessitates delivering the sermon. Today in Turkey, in all mosques, it is estimated that more than 15 million male citizens (women are not provided space for Friday sermons) participate in weekly Friday prayers as the audience of Friday sermons. To put this number into perspective, when including adult female relations, the number of attendees equates to roughly 30-40 million voters or around 50 percent of the entire electorate. Friday sermons continue to have a special religious status among Muslims, and attendees are forbidden to speak among themselves during the delivery of sermons.

It is not surprising, then, that as the AKP shifted from liberalism to authoritarian Islamist populism, Diyanet’s Friday sermons reflected this change. Sermons began to echo, in particular, Erdogan’s Islamist–populist narratives. For example, the Diyanet began to stress the oneness of the ummah and the notion that Turkish Muslims were victims of ever hostile Western powers. For example, one sermon asserted that “One of the most important duties of Muslims is to be one voice against unbelief and to be united before the oppressor. However, it is possible to achieve this by basing not on each other’s sect, legitimacy, race, language, geography, and ideology, but Islam’s understanding of oneness and unity. The road to unity, amity, and peace; the way to know the friend and the enemy; make the ummah smile, not the others [the Western powers] passes from here” (April 8, 2016).

Reflecting the AKP’s assertion that Turkey is the “guardian of the ummah,” Diyanet sermons began to frame Turkey as the hope of the Muslim world and indeed of all oppressed peoples. One sermon read: “Just as in the past, today, too, our nation will continue to be the remedy for the remediless people, be there for those people who have nobody by their side, and be the hope and safe haven for the victimized and the refugees” (October 11, 2019).

Diyanet sermons, particularly after the AKP’s slide into Islamist populism after 2013, have increasingly used religio-civilizationalist rhetoric and framed contemporary events within a larger, almost cosmic religious war between Islam and the West.

Following the Turkish Armed Forces’ offensive into Syria in October 2019, one sermon invoked Islamic principles to justify this operation. The sermon claimed: “…. believers never consent to the violation of the values ​​of which the religion of Islam regards as sacred and untouchable, such as the occupation of homelands and homes. They do not hesitate to launch an honorable struggle to correct the deteriorating balances, to establish an environment of peace, and to ensure justice.”

Another sermon, which coincided with Turkey’s military operations in Afrin, portrayed Turkey and the Islamic ummahas a single entity and the target of external attacks. It urged unity among Muslims to prevent further attacks: “In recent years, we have been passing through the circle of testing both as the ummah of Islam and within our nation […] By threatening our unity and vitality, the hopes of the Islamic ummah are actually being consumed” (January 26, 2018).

It is also important to note that the Diyanet has embraced victimhood rhetoric in its sermons, portraying Muslims as victims of the West, which they accuse of opening “holes of fire in the Islamic territory.” Without naming the exact enemy, the sermons often claim that all Muslims have been victimized by “certain” enemies, enemies who even today are conspiring against Muslims, their religion, their unity, and their hopes. References to these unnamed enemies are kept obscure, and therefore are open to loading in parallel with the changing context, especially in horizontal and vertical dimensions.

In a majority of passive and hostility-loaded sentences in Friday sermons, the hidden subject refers to the enemy(ies) of Muslims as Judeo-Christian Western civilization. For example, the sermon delivered on Friday, January 26, 2018,reads: “We have been going through certain trials as a nation and as the Islamic ummah in the recent years. Those who want to weaken us and to pit Muslims against Muslims are coming at us with the weapons of sedition, terror, and treachery. They are trying to pull our country into the pits of fire they have opened in all corners of the Islamic geographyOur independence and future are targeted through various tricks and plots, plans, and traps. They are trying to drive the Islamic ummah to despair by threatening our unity and peace.”

The Friday sermon dated October 4, 2014 reads as follows: “By looking at the conditions the believers live in, it should be known how the power centers [i.e., the West] gather strength through the blood of the believers and how the brotherhood of faith that makes believers closer to each other is attacked and damaged and turned into fighting, violence, and hostility [between Muslims].” Another sermon dated October 11, 2019 echoes many of these earlier themes: “Unfortunately, the world today was turned into a place full of dark and evil traps. Those who claimed to bring so-called independence to some places have rather invaded those places […]. Those who plan to dig pits of fire all around the Islamic world have used weapons of sedition, terrorism, and betrayal to cause brothers to hit one another. Using various plots, plans, tricks, and traps, they have targeted our existence and future survival, as well as our freedom and future. They have attempted to bring us, our noble nation, to have been the flagbearer of the Muslim ummah for hundreds of years to our knees.”

This rhetoric, which closely echoes Erdogan’s religio-civilizationalism—namely, his contention that the ummah is involved in a defensive religious battle against non-believers— assists the AKP in two ways. First, it creates demand for populism by activating emotions of fear and anger. The AKP has instrumentalized Friday sermons to help construct a populist narrative that serves the party’s agenda. Through Diyanet sermons, the majority population of Turkey (i.e., Sunni Muslim Turks) is presented with statements and fatwa that evoke negative emotions and play on their sense of victimhood, their feelings of being part of an ummah oppressed by Western powers. The AKP uses this fear of and anger toward the West via the Diyanet to create a sense of permanent crisis and a belief that only the AKP can defend Muslims from a mighty opposition made up of non-Muslim powers who hate and wish to harm the ummah.

The Diyanet’s sermons serve the AKP’s religio-civilizationist populist division of society. Friday sermons have increasingly supported the AKP’s attempts – largely successful – to construct populist binaries based on religio-civilization identification. The sermons promote the notion that “we” (Sunni Muslim Turks) are the ummah, while secularists, non-Muslims, Gulenists, and certain other groups are implacable enemies of the ummah. This binary can then be used to mobilize “the people” to support the authoritarian Islamist–populist regime, which purports itself to be fighting on the people’s behalf against a non-Muslim civilizational enemy.

The AKP is hardly alone in using religion to aid its populist agenda and constructing antagonistic binaries and the sense of crisis upon which populism relies. Indeed, like other religious populist parties and movements, Erdogan’s AKP couches the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism within a religio-civilizational frame. By this, we mean that the typically populist vertical division between “the people” and “elites” and horizontal division between “the people” and “others” is framed by a larger religio-civilizational concern or within a belief that religion-based civilizations are doomed to clash. In Erdogan’s Turkey, the Diyanet’s Friday sermons frequently employ vertical populist antagonistic binaries to legitimize the AKP’s fight against the secular Kemalist “elite,” who are charged with being insufficiently Islamic. At the same time, horizontal binaries are employed in sermons to justify Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule and his harsh measures against dissidents, who are branded enemies of Islam and “the people.”

The AKP’s ability to instrumentalize the Diyanet has played an important role in the party’s increasing domination of Turkey’s political and social life. The Diyanet’s Friday sermons have assisted the AKP in fundamentally altering notions of how an ideal citizen of Turkey should appear and behave. Under AKP rule, the ideal Turkish citizen is an Islamist and a nationalist, albeit one with neo-Ottoman aspirations for Turkey. Moreover, the AKP’s ideal citizen believes that Turkey is at the forefront of a clash of civilizations and must therefore act as a defender of Muslims worldwide while also remaining vigilant at home where anti-Muslim actors—secularists, liberals, Gulenists—continue to threaten “the people.”


References

Adak, Sevgi. (2020). “Expansion of the Diyanet and the Politics of Family in Turkey under AKP Rule.” Turkish Studies. 22:2, 200-221, DOI: 10.1080/14683849.2020.1813579. 

Katsambekis, Giorgos. (2020). “Constructing ‘the people’ of populism: A critique of the ideational approach from a discursive perspective.” Journal of Political Ideologies. doi:10.1080/13569317.2020.1844372.

Laclau, Ernesto. (2006). “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics.” Critical Inquiry. 32: 646–80. 

Mutluer, Nil. (2018). “Diyanet’s Role in Building the ’Yeni (New) Milli’ in the AKP Era.” European Journal of Turkish Studies. https://doi.org/10.4000/ejts.5953https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337811594_Diyanet%27s_Role_in_Building_the_%27Yeni_New_Milli%27_in_the_AKP_Era_httpsjournalsopeneditionorgejts5953langde(accessed on May 16, 2021).

Ozturk, Ahmet Erdi. (2021). Religion, Identity and Power: Turkey and the Balkans in the Twenty-First Century.Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wojczewski, Thorsten. (2020). “‘Enemies of the people’: Populism and the politics of (in)security.” European Journal of International Security. 5: 5–24, doi:10.1017/eis.2019.23.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Morieson, Nicholas & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Exploring Religions in Relation to Populism: A Tour around the World.” Religions. 12: 301. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/rel12050301 

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

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, 2nd Edition, 170-187. London and New York: Routledge.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Parade Tauhid or Parade of Tawheed, muslim marched from central stadium to the central city of Jakarta and back. Muhammad Riziq Shihab was giving oration in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17 2015. Photo: Riana Ambarsari

Populism, Violence, and Vigilantism in Indonesia: Rizieq Shihab and His Far-Right Islamist Populism

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab has been one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia since the late 1990s. As a radical Islamist scholar with links to Saudi Arabia, Shihab has spent the last three decades as an anti-state voice of the “pious Muslim majority” in Indonesia. He claims to position himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.” In 2020 Shihab was arrested for holding large public gatherings, as part of his ‘moral revolution’ campaign, in the middle of pandemic lockdowns. However, his radical Salafist message continues to inspire thousands to action.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab—more commonly known as Habib Rizieq—is one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia. He has been a permanent fixture in Indonesian popular culture since the late 1990s but drew international media coverage in late 2016 and early 2017, where he spearheaded mass protests intended to derail the election campaign of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic-Chinese, Christian governor of Jakarta. Billed as “Protests to defend the Qur’an,” they were more widely known as the “2/12 protests” because the largest of the protests, which saw over 500,000 people flood the center of the national capital, was held on 2 December 2016.

In 2020, Shihab again made headlines when he was arrested for holding large public gatherings, as part of his “moral revolution” campaign, in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. As a radical Islamist scholar with links to Saudi Arabia, Shihab has spent the last three decades as an anti-state voice of the “pious Muslim majority” in Indonesia. He claims to position himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.”

The Roots of Shihab’s Islamist Ideology

One of the most important political developments of the twentieth century for Muslim majority populations across the world was the fall of the Ottoman Empire (Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The decline of this vast empire, as with other great empires, occurred incrementally. It entered a nearly two-century-long twilight phase before it was broken up following its decisive defeat in the First World War (Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The majority of Sunni Muslims across the world traditionally saw the Ottoman Empire as representing a modern continuation of the Muslim caliphate, which started with the leadership of Prophet Muhammad.

When the symbolic figurehead of the Sunni Muslim world suddenly ceased to exist, the gap was soon fulfilled by the relatively new leadership of the Saud family who became the rulers of modern-day Saudi Arabia (Dillon, 2009; Gubbay, 2000; Lewis, 1980). The kingdom had itself been part of the Ottoman Empire. Saudi Arabia hosts two of the holiest cities in the Islamic faith, Mecca and Medina, to which Muslim pilgrims pay annual visits in the form of Haj or umrah.

Saudi Arabia’s symbolic significance derives from it being the home of the two holy cities and custodian of the Kabah. While the Ottomans were, like the Saudis, followers of Sunni Islam, they adhered to the teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa. Thus, the Ottomans followed the Hanafi school of thought, and in approaching the Qur’an, the sunnah and the hadithsought to understand Islam using the methods of ijma (consensus) and qiyas (deduction from analogy) (Baer, Makdisi, and Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). This idea of interpretation using deduction and consensus has made the Hanafi school more flexible and open to adaptation to the changing times than the Hanbali school followed in Saudi Arabia.

In addition to the Hanafi influence, the societies of the Ottoman Empire were also influenced by thousands of Sufi teachers, writers, and mystics (Baer, Makdisi, & Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). The Sufi approach to Islam believes in establishing a direct connection between the higher power and the individual and does not solely rely on sacred texts and religious rituals to build this connection (Baer, Makdisi, & Shryock, 2009; Gawrych, 1983). Hanafi approaches to interpretation and the influences of Sufi thought and practice combined to make the religious culture of the Ottoman Empire generally open and tolerant. There were a great variety of sects and Islamic traditions welcomed in the empire. Still, there were also many opportunities for non-Muslims to play important functional roles, not just in society but also in administrative affairs.

In contrast with Ottoman society’s pluralistic and flexible practices, the Al Saud dynasty took a narrower and more rigid approach as followers of the literalist new school of Sunni thought established by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In the eighteenth century, Muhammad bin Saud, the founder of the Al Saud dynasty, joined forces with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The former accepted the latter’s ideology and approach to religious life in exchange for al-Wahhab’s endorsement of the legitimacy of the Al Saud leadership. The Wahhabi movement, or Salafi school of thought, is markedly more stringent than the schools of thought that came before it as it was formed as a “reformist” movement to “purify” Islam from what is thought of as “additional” rituals (Dillon, 2009).

Over the years, Salafi hardliners have propagated the idea that it is only through their legalistic approach that true adherence to the Islamic ideal of monotheistic worship is possible. The Salafi take a negative and, at times, hostile attitude and behavior toward the various sub-sects of Sunni Islam and toward Shia Muslims and non-Muslims (Dillon, 2009). Since the mid-twentieth century, Saudi Arabia has been able to spread its brand of Islam through its petrodollar wealth generated from the fossil fuel industry. Leveraging the cultural capital of its guardianship of the sacred sites and drawing liberally on its financial capital to disseminate its ideology by financing various educational organizations, Saudi Arabia has tried to influence Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Egypt to accept Arab culture and Salafi Wahabism as being essential to authentic expressions of Islam.

In this endeavor, education represents an essential vehicle for propagation. Funding of madrasa (religious schools) and even universities—such as the International Islamic Universities—through the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and sponsoring scholarships for students from Muslim countries to gain religious education at King Saud University constitute key elements of Saudi influence (Junior, 2017; Ghoshal, 2010).

In observing the presence of Saudi influence in Asia, Ghoshal (2010) comments, “this process of homogenization and regimentation—a process I would like to call the ‘Arabization’ of Islam—puts greater emphasis on rituals and codes of conduct than on substance, through the Wahhabi and Salafi creeds, a rigidly puritanical branch of Islam exported from, and subsidized by, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” As a result, in Asia, Muslim-majority countries have witnessed growing radicalization since the 1980s. Various leaders trained at Saudi-funded and affiliated institutions have continued to spread the hardline narrative of Wahhabism (Freeman, Ellena & Kator-Mubarez, 2021; Benjamin, 2016).

Indonesia

Indonesia’s Salafist Protégé

As one of the most well-known faces of the far-right in Indonesia, Muhammad Rizieq Shihab positions himself as a “righteous” and “fearless” leader who is dedicated to defending Islam—the faith of “the people.” In this quest, he formed the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) in 1998 (Jahroni, 2004). Shihab has used his knowledge of sharia law to declare himself the “grand imam” of Indonesia, dressed in symbolic white—a “pure” color in Islam—with either a green turban (reflecting the color of the shrine of Muhammad) or white turban to symbolize the “purity” and “truth” of his message. While assuming an anti-state approach, Shihab has nevertheless acted as a lobbyist for mainstream right-wing populist parties by swaying voters their way.

In the typical manner of a populist leader, Shihab seeks a direct connection with “the people.” Not only does he use his fluent Arabic and standard religious rhetoric to incite intense emotions in the crowd, but he also draws upon his origin story of “humble beginnings” to relate to his audience. The wearing of plain clothes, the use of “crude” or simplistic language, and the cracking of jokes at rallies while talking about the “evils” that plague the Muslims of the world are his populist hallmarks (Maulia, 2020). Like other populist leaders, Shihab channels the “common person” persona to successfully position himself against the “corrupt elite” with the underlying assumption that “the elite” cannot relate to, and thus do not care about, “the people” (Yilmaz, 2021a; McDonnell & Ondelli, 2020; Nai & Coma, 2019). When Narendra Modi, for example, takes pride in his humble beginnings as a chai wala (tea stall owner) or when Recep Tayyip Erdogan calls himself a “Black Turk” (Yilmaz, 2021b) to relate with the conservative and historically disenfranchised Muslims of small Anatolian towns, both are relating to the “common people” by identifying themselves as being an approachable and relatable leader in contrast to “the elite” and “corrupt” who do not speak, dress, behave and at times look the same way as “the people.”

Rizieq Shihab lost his father as a child and was raised in modest circumstances by his widowed young mother. He gained his school degree at the Salafist Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Islam dan Bahasa Arab (LIPIA), which is one of a chain of Islamic schools funded by Saudi Arabia in Indonesia (Varagur, 2020). At LIPIA, Shihab was exposed to “true Islamic teachings” mixed with state curriculum guidelines. Varagur’s (2020) investigation into Saudi influence in Indonesia revealed that LIPIA uses a blended curriculum employing Wahhabi ideology and the social ideas of “Muslim Brotherhood-oriented political thinkers.” Consequently, LIPIA produces both Salafi teachers and Islamist social leaders. Like Shihab, many other figures have emerged from this milieu as Islamist leaders occupying prominent roles in domestic politics, such as Hidayat Nur Wahid, the leader of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), aligned with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Varagur, 2020).

Being well-versed in Arabic texts and Salafi teaching, it was not hard for Shihab to earn a scholarship at the King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, where he continued his studies of sharia and Islam. Following his studies, he spent some time teaching in Saudi Arabia and later in Indonesia at Salafi educational institutes (Jahroni, 2004). As a popular preacher in the field of tableeg (spreading the religion), Shihab was a fixture in various Jakarta suburbs at Majelis Ta’lim (religious lectures) (Rijal, 2020; Woodward, 2012). Via these gatherings, Shihab built his social capital with the locals as a spiritual mentor who was imparting the “right” version of Islam to them. His involvement in Majelis Ta’lim was one of his first opportunities to interact with people outside the school setting to whom he could preach Salafism.

Given the conditions on Java, a densely populated island with wide disparities in wealth and endemic urban poverty, the Islamic ideals of equity and justice preached by popular figures like Shihab have great appeal for the disenfranchised. Yilmaz, Morieson, and Demir (2021) have pointed out that the use of “social justice” by populist Islamist leaders to call out the failure of government is an important theme. Using this notion, Shihab entered Jakarta’s politics with one foot in the door with the help of popular Islamic preaching in the 1990s. He made effective use of Salafi idealism to address what conventional and “Western” forms of democracy had failed to deliver for the Indonesian people.

Post-Suharto, as Indonesia returned to democracy in 1998, a plethora of new religious and conservative parties seized the opportunity to campaign and participate in elections. This led to a rise in religious groups forming parties and registering them, including the FPI (Hadiz, 2016). As a counter to growing student-led civil unrest against the regime, right-wing parties were also promoted by the state to counter the protesters on the streets (Hadiz, 2016: 154). With democratic freedoms and encouragement by the state, Indonesia soon saw a marked rise in right-wing parties, of which the FPI was one.

Before 1998, Shihab had a limited audience for his religious lectures. But new political freedoms gave him a chance to use FPI as a populist Islamist party to spread its Salafism to a much wider audience. FPI preaching drew heavily on Salafi romanticization of jihad, which “tend[s] to emphasize the military exploits of the Salaf (the early generations of Muslims) to give their violence an even more immediate divine imperative” (Hamid & Dar, 2016). As a result, FPI, under the leadership of Shihab, carried out frequent acts of vigilantism under the banner of a “moral jihad” against “the Other” (Woodward, 2012; Jahroni, 2004).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Shihab’s Call for Vigilantism

Who constitutes this “Other,” one might ask? From Shihab’s perspective, “the Other” is not only limited to the political elite of the country. He has constantly categorized liberal Muslims, non-Muslims, and Western countries as “enemies.” They are seen as being antagonists of the faith, and their actions are said to constantly endanger Islam at home and across the world. Firmly believing in the call for action, Shihab has called out his followers to pick up arms against “the others.” Thus, a core part of FPI’s activities has been vigilantism.

Hardline Islamism has been used to spew hatred to those who are seen as the “outsiders.” Shihab has used his “anti-establishment agenda” to incite people to take up arms (Mietzner, 2018). His narrative hinges on inciting “fear” among his followers. Given the correlated nature of faith and identity, when the followers perceive a threat to their faith, they feel an ontological crisis looming above their heads. Using this vulnerability by inciting fear and feelings of victimhood as part of the oppressed Muslim ummah, the “faithful” are guided to solutions. In Shihab’s case, the narrative is that Indonesian politicians are either mere puppets of the Western powers or are simply incompetent. Thus, to save oneself in this life and the life after, the believer must take action. Since the formation of FPI in 1998, numerous members have been arrested and charged with spreading terror by vandalism (Facal, 2019; Ricklefs, 2012; Jahroni, 2004).

By placing the Qur’an (in line with Wahabi thinking) above the state and the democratically elected government, the FPI has urged its militia members to continue their actions against “the Other” on the ground that it is necessary to bring sharia to Indonesia (Mietzner, 2018; Hadiz, 2016: 112; Wilson, 2015). Hadiz (2016: 112) argues that “[The FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.” Shihab has raised a private army of volunteers. The Islamic Defenders Front Militia/Front Pembela Islam or Laskar Pembela Islam (LPI) is the militant wing of Shihab’s group, which puts its ideology into action. They are unlike terrorist groups in the sense that they do not use sophisticated weapons to terrorize citizens at various “hot spots” such as nightclubs. However, they believe in the same ideology that “un-Islamic” behavior is threatening Islam and the future of the ummah, and thus action needs to be taken.

Over the years, Shihab has been able to design and organize the LPI militia in a highly systematic manner, with individuals leading paramilitary cells of various sizes just like an army. These are volunteer citizens who dress in paramilitary garb and use their sticks, batons, and shouts of “Allahu Akbar” to terrorize and attack those seen as “Other.” The members of the LPI are called “Jundi.” Jundi fighters are organized into ranks, with superior officers responsible for anywhere between 25 and 25,000 vigilantes (Jahroni, 2004). Within this militia, the overarching leader is the Imam Besar (“grand imam”)—namely, Shihab himself—who is the “spiritual guide” for all the actions of the vigilantes (Jahroni, 2004).

The LPI is also known to welcome non-militia members of FPI, such as the volunteers, while purging “hotspots” in the city (Facal, 2019). Sito (2019: 191) notes how Shihab has legitimized violence as the answer to problems faced by Muslims as he “stated that such businesses [i.e., hotspots of vice] ensure only social deviance which are the product of Western secularism (sekularisme), pluralism (pluralisme), and liberalism (liberalisme), shortened as “sepilis.” The acronym is a homophone of syphilis, which is intended to mock and draw an equivalency between sexually transmitted diseases and Western culture and capitalism, pegged as the culprit of the economic crisis in 1997 and 1998. Accordingly, over the years, the FPI has claimed that such vigilantism is an expected outcome of upholding the Muslim duty to “promote good and prevent evil.”

The militant activities of the FPI have been highly visible ever since its inception. In 1998 various members of its groups were involved in a clash between the ethnic Chinese residents of Ketapang that lead to the death of over a dozen of ethnically Chinese Indonesian Catholics (Bouma, Ling & Pratt, 2009). Attacks on nightspots, bars, clubs, and suspected LGBTQ+ events have become a hallmark of the group. While the group was banned recently due to its terror sprees, its activities have been able to continue because of the support it has received from law enforcement agencies.

While Indonesia might seem like a peaceful country on the surface, it has long been struggling with reactionary religious forces. In election campaigns, radical Islamism has become an important factor, and public perceptions about modesty, norms, and values are primarily driven by those claiming to act in the name of Islam. Within this context, Shihab has been able to build an alliance with the state security forces (including the police), who are also proactive in their crackdowns on “deviant” groups such as the LGBTQ+ and Ahmadiyya communities. The FPI has been known to carry out the “dirty work” by attacking these groups and, at times, acting as informants about their activities for the police. This symbiotic relationship has allowed both these groups to benefit (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016).

The group targets “the Other” to ensure “the purity” of religion remains intact for “the people.” The police get to work to covertly appease politicians, who feel pressure to persecute “deviant” groups who “defy” religion. For its part, the members of the FPI have the opportunity to channel negative feelings—instilled through the preaching of Islamist populist leaders such as Shihab via a trauma-inducing narrative—into a physical manifestation of rage against “the Other” (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016).

Due to the intensity of the violence associated with LPI activities, the group’s leaders and street militia members have been repeatedly arrested and imprisoned for threatening the country’s unity and law and order. Rizieq Shihab has twice served time for hate speech inciting LPI members to attack tourist spots or target non-Muslim and Ahmadiyya groups and villages (Jahroni, 2004: 218). While some politicians initially valued the LPI and FPI as useful counters to civil rights protests, these vigilantes have become harder to control and have used their street power to challenge the state (Facal, 2019; Juoro, 2019: 28; Mietzner, 2018; Hookway, 2017).

While Shihab’s Salafist call for jihad has not resulted in the FPI becoming a true violent extremist group in Indonesia, it has seen its members turn to transnational populist jihad. Shihab has convinced his followers that they are not only Indonesian citizens but also part of the global ummah of Muslims and, thus, have a collective obligation to pursue global jihad against “the Western lobby” and “the Zionists” (Nuryanti, 2021; Mietzner, 2018; Hadiz, 2016).

Shihab effectively uses victimhood narratives anchored to nationalism and a faith-based identity that transcends geographical bounds. In this way, the Salafi training that thousands receive in Indonesia makes them prone to become part of the global jihad effort (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019). This has become a very dangerous idea as today the world is more connected than ever, and jihadist groups rely upon these ideas to recruit young people (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019). In Shihab’s speeches, the “evils” and “cruelty” of the Zionists against the Palestinians is a re-occurring theme that not only talks about the plight of the Palestinians but also politicizes it an attack on every Muslim and the Islamic faith itself. There are clear indications that many have passed through the ranks of the FPI to go on to violent extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS ([email protected], 2021; Idris, 2018: 9).

Members of The Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) rally in front of Indonesia election supervisory agency (Bawaslu) in Jakarta on May 10, 2019.

The FPI a Surrogate Welfare System

The FPI is not merely a vigilante group. The organization has established extensive networks of humanitarian aid providing relief in cases of natural disasters and assistance to the urban/suburban poor of Jakarta (Singh, 2020; Facal, 2019; Sheany, 2018). Services include education and ration packets for the poor. Shihab himself was groomed for his role in a welfarist madrasa setting, winning scholarships as he progressed from one stage of his education to the next.

Keeping this model in view, Shihab has helped the FPI develop many religious schools where children gain an Islamic education and some Arabic training as well. These schools are usually built in impoverished areas where the state has failed to reach out and address the most pressing needs of the people (Facal, 2019). The schools established by Shihab and the FPI leadership follow Salafi Wahabi teaching, which is reflected in gender segregation, strict adherence to dress codes, and other “sharia principles” (Facal, 2019). When public schools are too far from local villages or suburban homes, the proximity of the FPI madrasa gives those who would not otherwise be able to afford it a chance to educate their children. However, these seemingly altruistic establishments are places where young minds are shaped and influenced by the ideology propagated by Shihab and the FPI at large.

Aid work has been a rich field of opportunity for the FPI to extend its influence and build its credibility. Shihab’s popularity and his Saudi connections along with local supporters have allowed the FPI to establish grassroots networks of volunteers to carry out aid work that ranges from evacuating residents from flood-stricken areas to rebuilding homes, such as after the 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in the Indonesian province of Aceh. Much of the humanitarian work was not done by the military nor the state in the immediate aftermath or long-term recovery (Sheany, 2018). One report noted that in mid-February 2004, only the TNI (the Indonesian armed forces), the Mujahedeen Council, and the FPI were the only ones actively involved in the region: “One should note that at the time the volunteers who had been working in the immediate period were already exhausted. Thus, the [aforementioned parties] seem to be the ones who work when nobody else wants to. Whereas at the initial stages, it really was not [the military] who managed the corpses’ evacuation and took care of the sick and injured” (East West Center, 2005: 33). Thus, it is clear that over time, the FPI has created a synergetic relationship at the grassroots within members and communities by providing welfare services (Hookway, 2017).

When the state fails to cope with pressing social and economic issues, populist actors can effectively use dissent and direct it at political leadership. Since the FPI has been seen carrying out “altruistic” actions in the most vulnerable communities, it can draw support from there and establish its stronghold in the vacuum left by a weak state. Thus, Shihab’s rhetoric has repeatedly talked about how the ulama are targeted by an “amoral” government. Therefore, the state’s refusal to “repent” for its sins leaves “the people” with no choice but to carry out its own jihad to guarantee its welfare both in this world and the hereafter (Maulia, 2020; Lembaga Survei Indonesia & Wahid Institute, 2016). With a loyal support base of followers, Shihab’s self-proclaimed mission of establishing a “caliphate” or a Daulah Islam is strengthened where “the people” can practice their true faith (Salafism) “freely.” The political “elite” and “minorities” are accorded little or no room in this idolized caliphate (Campbell, 2017; Hookway, 2017).

More than 200,000 Muslim protesters has descended on Jakarta to demand the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok, be arrested for insulting Islam on November 4, 2016.

Shihab’s Targeting of Ahok in Political Lobbying

After Shihab’s first arrest leading to jail time in 2003, he stepped back and restyled himself, becoming a member of the FPI’s board. In 2013, he declared himself the “grand imam” of the organization. He took a less active role in leading protests but remained, as always, the face of the organization. The anti-Ahok protests showcased his charisma and power, reminding many of why the FPI remained a potential threat to the political elite of Indonesia.

Even before the protests broke out in 2016, signs of the potentially significant political power of the FPI and other right-wing political players were present. Stoking “fear” and using the rhetoric of hate while attributing the markers of moral superiority and victimhood to “the pure people,” groups and leaders such as Shihab have been able to influence the writing and implementation of legislation in key areas, particular at the local level. Hookway (2017) has noted how the FPI has been able to develop social capital through its “morally driven” vigilantism and community-based activities: “In recent years, lobbying groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) have helped introduce more than 400 Shariah-inspired laws, including those that penalize adultery, force women to wear headscarves and restrict them from going out at night” (Hookway, 2017). Sharia-inspired legislation has been passed in FPI strongholds, where its presence has been deeply entrenched with the community (Hookway, 2017).

In terms of mainstream politics, the FPI on its own never possessed a voter bank large enough to win a significant place in the parliament. With Shihab’s Islamist political rhetoric, however, right-wing politicians saw a ready resource for mobilizing support on the street in the form of the FPI. Shihab has long been active in mainstream politics, and the plethora of banners and posters in communities where the FPI is deeply attached showcases support for the leader and his allies. The FPI has supported the populist politician Prabowo Subianto since 2014, and this relationship only grew in intensity following the Ahok protests in 2016.

Ahok was the Christian-Chinese deputy governor and righthand man to Joko Widodo (Jokowi) when he was governor of Jakarta. When Widodo became president, Ahok replaced him as governor. Ahok’s very positive public image made him a well-liked figure, and after the 2014 victory of Jokowi, it was speculated that Ahok would be his running mate in the 2019 elections and even a possible presidential candidate for the 2024 general elections (Mietzner, 2018: 270). But before the formal announcement of Jokowi’s running mate in 2016, Ahok became embroiled in a religious scandal that targeted his religious and ethnic background. He was accused of committing blasphemy when he criticized his opponents for their politicized misuse of Quranic verses against him (Nuryanti, 2021; Amal, 2020; Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018).

A heavily edited campaign video in which Ahok made critical comments alongside discussion of the Qur’an surfaced in 2016, and he became an instant target of attack. He was charged with blasphemy, found guilty, and sent to jail, meaning he can never hold public office again (Nuryanti, 2021). While Jokowi is a pluralist, he remained largely silent and distant during Ahok’s trial and, at the end in 2019, chose a conservative Muslim running mate in the form of Ma’aruf Amin, the chair of the influential Ulama Council of Indonesia (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, MUI) (Yilmaz, 2020).

After the viral spread of the Ahok video, the MUI issued a fatwa urging the government to look into the matter as they responded to public sentiment that Ahok had committed blasphemy and harmed the sentiments of the majority of Indonesian Muslims (Nuryanti, 2021; Amal, 2020; Mietzner, 2018). Ahok’s public apology following the video’s surfacing and blasphemy accusations did little to satisfy the hardliners who were now able to not only attract conservative masses but even moderate Muslims (Nuryanti, 2021).

The Action to Defend Islam (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations were country-wide protests and sit-ins by the FPI and other right-wing parties and organizations that called for Ahok’s resignation as the governor and immediate prosecution (Fealy, 2016). Ethnic Chinese business people and other members of the elite were a constant target of the FPI even before the Ahok video surfaced. The xenophobic line of attack taken by Islamist populists like Shihab had turned this group into “the Other,” based on differences of faith and ethnicity. Given Indonesia’s past, Shihab had instilled fear in the electorate by claiming that were national leaders selected from among the ethnic Chinese community, communism would be re-imposed in Indonesia (Seto, 2019).

Even as early as 1999, the FPI had printed banners and hung them across university campuses warning students, “Alert! Zionism and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Shihab was able to forge strong alliances with opposition parties and right-wing groups as the FPI became the face of the anti-Ahok movement. By making the issue about “defending Islam,” he was able to evoke deep emotion among crowds. Shihab began to describe himself as “the Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims,” proclaiming a theologically grounded authority to voice the people’s desire for a devout life and the removal of Islam’s enemies (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774). Shihab’s religious populism has thus deployed Islam as a tool to further his agenda and place in the political arena, mobilizing millions to march in support of the movement (Fealy, 2016; Hutton, 2018).

Rizieq Shihab’s loud proclamations that the people had been “hurt” and that religion was “insulted” cast him as a defender of Islam in the eyes of many who supported the marches. In 2017, Ahok, once popular and riding high, lost his re-election bid and subsequently served time in prison. The FPI actively supported a rival candidate for governor of Jakarta. While the protests were able to create an “asymmetric multi-class alliance” between the FPI, religious groups, and the opposition, they failed to secure a majority in the 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections. Nevertheless, the current mood points to the likelihood that the same alliance will come together to contest the 2024 general elections as well (Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Shihab Imprisonment and the Future of Salafism in Indonesia

Joko Widodo was able to safeguard his political position by distancing himself from the Ahok in 2017 and staying largely silent on the protest movement. Nevertheless, following Ahok’s loss in the gubernatorial elections, the government began to move against the FPI leadership. Seeing the tide turn, Shihab left Indonesia, ostensibly on a short umrah pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. However, he remained in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia when it became clear that the Indonesian police were seeking him in connection with pornography charges.

During his extended sojourn in Saudi Arabia, Shihab remained active online, connecting with “the people” and constantly spewing hatred and spreading conspiracies under the banner of “defending Islam.” During this time, he did not refrain from portraying the government in power as “the enemy” of “the faithful.” The charges against Shihab were subsequently dropped, and he returned home, espousing a mission to lead a “moral revolution” across Indonesia. Political analysts quickly and loudly concluded that this was simply Shihab’s latest Islamist populist tactic to gain momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020).

Taking an anti-Jokowi Islamist stance amidst the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, Shihab was given a “hero’s welcome” on his return home after nearly two years exiled in Saudi Arabia. The mass gatherings that resulted were troubling for the government because of their risk as super-spreader events. Moreover, they were politically troublesome, feeding into a general sense of despondency triggered by the economic effects of the pandemic. Indonesia was hit hard as its economy suffered greatly due to the fall-off in international tourism and periodic lockdowns (Singh, 2020). In the context of growing discontent directed toward the government, the return of the “grand imam” who promised a better future for the country and afterlife has been a worrying and unwelcome development (FR24, 2020).

Shihab made himself an increasingly large target for government prosecution. He loudly refused to get tested at a government facility for COVID-19 and continued to promote large gatherings of supporters and evoked extreme emotions busing his trademark blend of street humor, political rhetoric, and Islamist hate speech demonizing others. The day before his anticipated arrest, six young members of the FPI were shot dead in a violent confrontation with the police (Aqil, 2020). The government claimed that the victims were armed terrorists trying to destabilize the country’s law and order. Shihab was arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was banned as various members and key leaders were found to be involved in inciting violence (Kelemen, 2021).

Shihab voluntarily handed himself over to the authorities. In the eyes of his followers, this casts him as a martyr and the government as “tyrannical.” In custody in March 2021, he refused to participate in his trial (held remotely by video link), signaling non-compliance by reciting verses from the Qur’an whenever the court sought to question or otherwise engage with him, and his behavior delayed the trial. Since being sentenced, the Indonesian government has refused to disclose his location for fear of drawing large crowds of protesters and supporters (detikNews, 2021).

Conclusion

While Shihab’s immediate future hangs in the balance, there is certainty regarding Islamist populism in Indonesia. Shihab is not the only populist political actor in the country who has used Islamism to build a following. It is still unclear how the disbanded FPI leadership will regroup around the 2024 elections. The sudden ban, the shooting deaths of supporters, and the use of COVID-19 lockdown legislation to arrest Shihab have only served to cast him as a holy martyr in the eyes of his followers.

At the same time, the efficacy of exploiting religious sentiment to generate fear has compounded the power of populist Islamism in Indonesian life. Shihab’s radical Salafist message continues to inspire thousands to action. The FPI may be outlawed, but tens of thousands of FPI activists can regroup under new banners or join or form similar groups. Even behind bars, evidence of Shihab’s political power is displayed by the fact that his location is kept secret due to fear of protests and riots outside the jail. Shihab’s courtroom theatrics involving the recitation of the Qur’an to delay his trial while displaying his “heroic piety” show the enduring power and efficacy of Islamist populism in Indonesia.


(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. 

The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. 

He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.


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Nai, Alessandro & Martínez, Ferran. (2019). “The personality of populists: provocateurs, charismatic leaders, or drunken dinner guests?” West European Politics. 42(7), 1337-1367.

Nuryanti, Sri. (2021). “Populism in Indonesia: Learning from the 212 Movement in Responseto the Blasphemy Case against Ahok in Jakarta.” In: Populism in Asian Democracies. Sook Jong Lee, Chinen Wu and Kaustuv Kanti Bandyopadhyay. Boston: Brill.

Rijal, Syamsul. (2019). “Performing Arab Saints and Marketing the Prophet: Habaib and Islamic Markets in Contemporary Indonesia.” Archipel, 189-213.

Seto, A. (2019). “Islamist buzzers: Message flooding, offline outreach, and astroturfing.” Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies. 12(2), 187-208.

Singh, Bilveer. (2020). “What Does Rizieq Shihab’s Return Mean for Indonesian Politics?.” The Diplomat. December 4, 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/what-does-rizieq-shihabs-return-mean-for-indonesian-politics/ (accessed on April 30, 2021). 

Varagur, Krithika. (2020). “How Saudi Arabia’s religious project transformed Indonesia.” The Guardian. April 16, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/apr/16/how-saudi-arabia-religious-project-transformed-indonesia-islam (accessed on April 29, 2021).

Vergani, M.; Iqbal, M.; Ilbahar, E.; Barton, G. (2020). “The 3 Ps of radicalisation: push, pull and personal. A systematic scoping review of the scientific evidence about radicalisation into violent extremism.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.43(10), 854.

Wilson, Ian. (2015). The Politics of Protection Rackets in Post-New Order Indonesia: Coercive Capital, Authority and Street Politics. London: Routledge. 

Woodward, M.; Yahya, M.; Rohmaniyah, I. et al. (2014). “The Islamic Defenders Front: Demonization, Violence and the State in Indonesia.” Contemporary Islam. 8, 153–171.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2020). “Indonesia Country Profile of Populism.” European Center for Populism Studieshttps://populismstudies.org/tag/indonesia/ (accessed on April 29, 2021).

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Morieson, Nicholas & Demir, Mustafa. (2021). “Exploring Religions in    Relation to Populism: A Tour around the World.” Religions. 12(5): 301.

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). “Erdogan’s Political Journey: From Victimised Muslim Democrat to Authoritarian, Islamist Populist.” European Center for Populism Studieshttps://www.populismstudies.org/erdogans-political-journey-from-victimised-muslim-democrat-to-authoritarian-islamist-populist (accessed on April 29, 2021).

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Climate activists joining 16-year-old Swedish Greta Thunberg for school strike against climate change in Stockholm, Sweden on April 12, 2019. Photo: Per Grunditz

Snowflake Resistance: Protecting the Paris Agreement Against Populism

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this commentary will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation by illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions, as well as resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance within the framework of climate activism.

By Iysha Arun

Informally referred to as “snowflakes” by populists and the far-right, youth have been leading a proactive resistance against populist attempts to undermine democracy and discredit formal institutions. The impact of the so-called snowflakes may, at first sight, be seen as minor; however, their mounting influence should be seen as the beginning of a new era in understanding civil-society engagement with politics. Succinctly put by Wiliscroft-Ferris (2017), “snowflakes can become blizzards, and blizzards often become avalanches.” 

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this short discussion will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation, specifically through illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions. The paper will also explore resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance to populism, specifically within the framework of climate activism.

The United Nations (UN) was established post World War II and modelled after its forerunner, the League of Nations. The UN is a reflection of globalisation, upholding the idyllic vision of prevention war and “to keep peace throughout the world” (UN, 2020). Although initially maintaining this peace was perceived through traditional understandings of war, the climate struggle has highlighted the possibilities for new understandings of war.

Referred to as a “catalyst for conflict” (UN, 2020), the disruptive scope of our current climate emergency is vast, from increased global food and water insecurities and allergy and health risks, (Cho, 2019), to mass displacement (IDMC, 2019). In a moving speech delivered at the Climate Action Summit (2019), Secretary-General Guterres summarized the crisis: “Our warming earth is issuing a chilling cry: ‘Stop.’ If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardize life itself.”

Faced with such a crisis, the UN acted swiftly, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (effective since 1994) established the Paris Agreement of 2016. Binding to all its signatories, the Paris Agreement undertakes strategic decisions to combat climate change, with the commitment to “hold warming well below 2 °C in global mean temperature (GMT), relative to pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 °C” (Vicedo-Cabrera et al, 2018). Such policy and global unity are necessary to prevent the catastrophic possibilities of runaway climate change.

However, the prospective success of the Paris Agreement is being curtailed by the rise of nationalist populist leaders from around the world. Under President Donald Trump, the US formally withdrew from the Agreement in 2017; in 2013, British populist Nigel Farage warned the European parliament, “We may have made one of the biggest and most stupid collective mistakes in history by getting so worried about global warming” (Todd & Parker, 2019); and in 2016, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy denied human impact on the climate, claiming, “you have to be arrogant like man to think that it is we who have changed the climate” (Goulard, 2016; Reuters, 2016). These are just a few examples of a concerning global trend.

In Come the Snowflakes, an Intersectional and Intergenerational Resistance

Set to re-write the narrative, climate change activists have been at the forefront of climate politics, taking to the streets and organizing school strikes and virtual protests (Bugden, 2020). Following the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, reminded that youth involvement has the potential to “demand actions over and beyond the general population” (Draxler, 2020)

Climate disasters have had a disproportionate impact on poorer citizens and Black and brown populations. In the US especially , this illustrates the intersection of race and class, as John Magrath, a researcher at Oxfam, emphasises that ethnic minorities “tend to live in the more marginal areas, exposed areas, that seem to be seeing more climate changes and are more susceptible to climate impacts because they have got less, and get less from governments.… It is a characteristic of all the studies that I have seen, that the ethnic communities are the people who suffer most from climate impacts and are the most vulnerable” (Baird, 2008)

Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, has further reiterated the relevance of race and class in the lived experiences of the victims of the climate crisis, emphasising the people least responsible for climate change are likely to be amongst the first impacted: “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are often highly vulnerable to climate change” (Friends of the Earth, 2020)

Youth have therefore narrowed in on intersectionality as a critical transformative element for the climate advocacy movements. Climate justice is also an issue of racial justice and economic justice. Through unifying racial justice and economic justice within a framework for environmental justice, the youth engaging with climate movements are shifting the way climate change activists engage in the political realm. When looking at increased youth voter participating in the 2020 US elections, it’s possible this played a major role in voting Trump out of office. And, as Bullard summarizes, “there’s a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there’s a lot of energy that’s stored in young people … when you put the two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success” (Draxler, 2020). Professor Bullard highlights how older generations now play a role in “mentoring, assisting, and supporting” as well as lobbying and voting, “standing with, not in front of, youth.”

Consequently, intersectional and intergenerational climate activism has not just re-written the United States’ engagement with the climate issue in domestic politics, but with Joe Biden in office and returning the US to the Paris Agreement just hours after becoming president, this form of hybrid-activism may just have saved our global institutions for peace.


References

— (2016). “France’s Sarkozy says population bigger threat than climate change.” Reuters. September 16, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/cnews-us-france-politics-sarkozy-climate-idCAKCN11L2UD (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2017). “Climate change adaptation: our position.” Friends of the Earth. November 27, 2017. https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/policy-positions/climate-change-adaptation-our-position#:~:text=The%20Intergovernmental%20Panel%20on%20Climate,members%20of%20society%20can%20benefit (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2019). Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019. IDMChttps://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2019/  (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2019). “Remarks at 2019 Climate Action Summit.” United Nations Secretary-General. September 23, 2019. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2019-09-23/remarks-2019-climate-action-summit#:~:text=Our%20warming%20earth%20is%20issuing,rising%20and%20oceans%20are%20acidifying (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2020). Climate Change Exacerbates Existing Conflict Risks, Likely to Create New Ones, Assistant Secretary-General Warns Security Council. United Nations. July 24, 2020. https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14260.doc.htm (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Baird, Rachel. (2008). “Briefing: The Impact of Climate Change on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.” Minority Rights Group International. https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/old-site-downloads/download-524-The-Impact-of-Climate-Change-on-Minorities-and-Indigenous-Peoples.pdf (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Bugden, Dylan. (2020). “Does Climate Protest Work? Partisanship, Protest, and Sentiment Pools.” Socius : Sociological Research for a Dynamic World6https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120925949

Cho, Renee. (2019). “How Climate Change Impacts the Economy.” State of the Planet. June 20, 2019.https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/06/20/climate-change-economy-impacts/ (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Draxler, Breanna. (2020). “The Power of Inclusive, Intergenerational Climate Activism.” YES! September 21, 2020. https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2020/09/21/intergenerational-climate-activism (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Goulard, Hortense. (2016). “Nicolas Sarkozy says climate change not caused by man.” Politico. September 14, 2016. https://www.politico.eu/article/nicolas-sarkozy-says-climate-change-not-caused-by-man-cop-21/ (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Todd, Eloise & Parker, Laura. (2019). “Facing up to climate change means facing down the European far right.” The Independent. May 14, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-party-farage-european-elections-climate-change-far-right-eu-a8912821.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Vicedo-Cabrera, A. et al. (2018). “Temperature-related mortality impacts under and beyond Paris Agreement climate change scenarios.” Climatic Change150(3), 391–402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2274-3

Williscroft-Ferris, Lee. (2017). “Sustained Intersectional Resistance Can Defeat The Rise Of Right-Wing Populism.”HuffPost UK. January 24, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/lee-williscroftferris/intersectional-feminism_b_14343214.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM" demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

The Islamic Defenders Front: The Face of Indonesia’s Far-Right Islamism

This commentary uses a case study of Indonesia’s Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) to explore crucial questions regarding the nature of populism in Indonesia. Some see the recent ban of the FPI by the administration of President Joko Widodo as a decisive clash between technocratic governance and right-wing Islamist populism. But while the banning of the FPI represents a significant move against Islamist populism, it will not necessarily weaken it in the longer run. Nevertheless, in a political environment largely devoid of competing forms of conviction politics, the campaigns for the 2024 presidential and parliamentary elections will continue to see Islamist populism playing a significant role.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

Jokowi’s Ban of FPI: A Glimpse of Autorotation Paranoia?

Having been re-elected in April 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (widely known as “Jokowi”) had just settled into his second five-year term when the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact. Like the rest of the world, Indonesia saw adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic that crippled key industries such as tourism (Kelemen, 2021; Mietzner, 2020a). Jokowi’s government, like many others around the world, was seen as ill-prepared for the challenge, and the business-focused leader has been criticized for his mishandling of the virus. Within this context of uncertainty and resentment toward elected officials, Indonesia witnessed the return of one of its most outspoken Islamist populist leaders in November of 2020.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab had led the Islamic Defenders Front or Front Pembela Islam (FPI) since its formation in 1998 as its chairman and later as its “grand imam.” The return of Shihab from self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia drew fresh attention to the populist right-wing opposition force when Jokowi’s government was struggling. Shihab exploited this with his call for a “moral revolution” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). This “moral revolution” was just the latest form of anti-government “political jihad” by the FPI as it advanced a familiar claim to be fighting for the Muslims of Indonesia to free the ummah from un-Islamic and “corrupt leaders” (Kelemen, 2021; FR24 News, 2020). The FPI has a history of attacking Jokowi with anti-government and anti-elite rhetoric loaded with religious connotations. Such rhetoric casts Shihab as the representative of the “pious people” (e.g., observant Muslims) and the president and state officials a “sinister” and “morally corrupt” elite.

 

Parade Tauhid or Parade of Tawheed, muslim marched from central stadium to the central city of Jakarta and back. Habib Riziq Shihab was giving oration in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 17 2015. Photo: Riana Ambarsari

Shihab’s call for a moral revolution commenced when huge crowds at the airport met him after returning from a two-year-old self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. Subsequently, the FPI spread the word on its moral revolution through multiple mass rallies across the country. Many political analysts interpreted this as the beginning of an Islamist populist campaign attempting to build momentum ahead of the 2024 general elections (Singh, 2020). In a time of pandemic, it was easy for the FPI to sell its religious populism by arguing that the people’s suffering stemmed from unjust and un-caring rulers who did not want to correct their ways and “repent.” Thus, it is “up to the people” to bring about a “moral revolution” by leading more pious lives and adhering to religious principles more strictly.

As the FPI doubled down on its trademark rhetorical refrain, calling for the imposition of sharia law in Indonesia (Maulia, 2020), the government issued increasingly severe warnings against holding mass rallies and gatherings in the context of the worsening pandemic. It also asked Shihab and his team to regularly submit to tests for the virus, all of which were denied. Yet, even with meager rates of testing, multiple positive cases were reported among rally-goers(Singh, 2020). Shihab was finally arrested for violating COVID-19 regulations, and the FPI was formally banned. Tensions peaked when six FPI members were shot dead in a police encounter in which they were described as a “threat” to the nation’s security and peace (Maulia, 2020; Singh, 2020).

While the FPI was hardly without blame, many observers have argued that Jokowi has used COVID-19 regulations and the alleged encounter to eliminate a growing anti-government political movement. This has reinforced the perception that the Jokowi administration is increasingly showing authoritarian tendencies (Kelemen, 2021; Parameswaran, 2021).

Is Populism New to Indonesian Politics?

Populist rhetoric is not new to Indonesian politics. The anti-colonial struggle against the Dutch led by the nation’s founding father, Sukarno, was inherently populist (Chalmers, 2019; Roosa, 2014). Given that the Dutch had exploited the Indonesian population and land for two centuries, it is hardly surprising that left-wing nationalist ideals were widely popular and that Sukarno is still remembered as a national hero, despite his later autocratic period of “guided democracy.”

Sukarno’s left-leaning “Old Order” government was followed in Indonesia by the anti-Communist “New Order” military-backed authoritarian regime of President Suharto. The previously little-known general emerged as a successor to Sukarno in the wake of a military takeover in October 1965 and subsequently bloody anti-Communist pogrom. In May 1998, after more than three decades in power, Suharto was forced to resign as his legitimacy faltered in the turbulence of the East Asian financial crisis. Calls for reform were led in part by the daughter of the very man whose power he had usurped, Megawati Sukarnoputri. She went on to become the first female leader of the country (Ziv, 2001).

For years, Megawati built her profile as a reformist leader channeling sympathy and respect for her larger-than-life late father. Much of her populism was based on a vague “anti-elitism” and “anti-corruption” agenda built around the promise of reformasi and returning power to “the people.” In the eyes of many, Megawati’s position enabled her to become “the face of the people” who felt increasingly oppressed through the 36-year-long military-backed dictatorship (Ziv, 2001).

The post-Suharto reformasi era not only opened the way for pro-democracy forces to participate in politics; it also saw a flood of right-wing religious parties. In the 1999 general elections, 48 new political parties took part in the democratic process, out of which 20 went on to formally contest the elections based on claims of being “Islamic” (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 434). Thus, from the beginning of this post-Suharto democratic period, right-wing populist parties have been a prominent element in the politics of Indonesia which is proud of its inclusive and open democracy (Tehusijarana, 2020).

President Joko Widodo campaigned in Banjarmasin Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan on March 27, 2019. Photo: Iman Satria

What was the FPI’s Populist Appeal?

Despite opportunities for political participation, Islamist parties have tended to underperform in general elections and fail to become significant partners in government. Since 2014, radical Islamist parties have tended to align with opposition forces led by Prabowo Subianto (Adiwilaga, Mustofa & Rahman, 2019: 435). In such a landscape, the FPI forged a close alliance with Prabowo as their right-wing and anti-Jokowi stances coincided. Jokowi himself has led Indonesia with his own mild variant of populism. He is framed as a champion of the “common man” and as a down-to-earth, solutions-orientated politician—a low-key “man of action.” Jokowi’s administration merges “technocratic” and somewhat left-wing solutions as well as capitalist economic models with welfare-ism. This “technocratic populism” has seen him elected president twice (Yilmaz, 2020; Roosa, 2014).

In politics, the FPI played a catalytic role in gathering votes for the parties its forms alliances with (de Haan, 2020; Hookway, 2017). The group’s core narrative of Islamist populism aids its case. Led by Shihab, a cleric with solid links to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Salafi conservatism, the FPI leadership claims to be the embodiment of the volonté générale (the general will) (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Shihab and the FPI have maintained that an open political jihad against the government is essential since the democratically elected government is merely working in the interests of the “Western” and “Zionist” lobbies (Meitzner 2020; Peterson, 2020). Not only are the elected officials in the ranks of “the elite and corrupt,” they are, allegedly, advocates of powers working against Indonesia and Islam. The solution that Indonesia needs is to implement sharia laws (in accordance with orthodox and rigid Salafi interpretations) and act against all un-Islamic actors in the country (Amal, 2020).

While Indonesia is a Muslim majority country, it is a highly diverse society not just in terms of faiths and ethnicities but also within the majority Sunni community. It is home to a small but economically influential ethnic Chinese community, composed mainly of non-Muslims (Christians, Buddhists, Confucians, and the non-religious). Over the years, the FPI has targeted the Chinese by evoking the “communist threat” (Seto, 2019). FPI posters have frequently warned people about the “evils” and “threats” from the “traitors within.” One FPI poster reads, “Attention! Zionism, and Communism penetrate all aspects of life!” (Seto, 2019). Not only has the FPI targeted those well outside the Muslim community, but they have also targeted the marginal Ahmadiyya community in Indonesia, whose members, although living in most respects as Muslims, are condemned as being murtad (apostates). The FPI targets Ahmadiyya villages and incites violence (Amal, 2020: 585; Budiari, 2016; Woodward, 2014).

Protester waving Indonesian flag and Habib Rizieq Shihab picture during President Election Protest in front of Constitutional Court in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 24, 2020.

The political jihad championed by the FPI draws upon many of the same elements of Salafi ideology as exploited by violent jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda. Still, it largely confines its actions to inflammatory, hateful rhetoric and the largely symbolic violence of mob intimidation. Before being disbanded, the FPI marshaled para-military vigilante groups across the country to “save” the Muslim faith from the “evils” of the “enemies of the faith” (Amal, 2020; Fossati & Mietzner, 2019; Mietzner, 2018). The highly organized militant branch of the FPI has been involved in ethnic-religious rioting, and its members have used force to close down “hot spots” such as nightclubs and parties that it considers “sinful.” Various members of the organization have been arrested over charges of Islamist vigilantism. Hadiz (2016: 112) notes, “[the FPI is] believed to be involved in criminal activity, including racketeering, even as they ardently oppose the presence of ‘dens of vice’ such as nightclubs, pubs and massage parlours.”

The notorious activities of the FPI have earned it a prominent media profile and helped ensure that its call for “saving Islam” has been heard far and wide, earning the group a stable and sizable followership. Selling a narrative of victimhood, FPI imams and other leaders have ensured that their followers are kept constantly anxious about threats to their faith and way of life, and thus incentivized to hate “the Other” and at times manifest that hatred and insecurity in acts of intimidation, symbolic violence and hate speech toward out-group members (Peterson, 2020). As Mietzner (2020b: 425) has observed, Indonesian far-right populists hoodwink “pious believers” into believing they “are victimised, in Indonesia and elsewhere, by non-Muslim or otherwise sinful forces, mostly in the West but also, increasingly, China. For the Indonesian context, this means that devout Muslims are kept away from power through an inter-connected conspiracy by non-Muslim countries and Indonesian elites.”

This narrative reached a strident crescendo in late 2016. The FPI gained unprecedented approval ratings and became a powerful force in Indonesian politics during the so-called “Action to Defend Islam” (Aksi Bela Islam) demonstrations. These country-wide protests were led by the FPI and various other right-wing political groups and parties against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (widely known by his nickname “Ahok”), the ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta (Fealy, 2016). The nationwide protests climaxed with a call for Ahok to be prosecuted on charges of blasphemy, based on statements in a heavily edited video from the campaign hustings in which the governor had criticized the use of Islam as a campaign tool against Indonesian minorities. The xenophobic strain of criticism directed at “the Other”—in this case, the Indonesian Chinese and Christian community—was designed to mobilize the “pious people” against an otherized non-Muslim minority (Seto, 2019; Fealy, 2016). The anti-Ahok movement was framed as “defending Islam” by the FPI. The movement’s head, Shihab, moved to assume the mantle of leader of the Islamist populists by calling himself the “Great Leader of Indonesian Muslims” who would defend the faith by clashing with the authoritarian state, which was attacked for being both pro-Ahok and pluralistic (Fossati & Mietzner, 2019: 774).

At the same time, the influential, conservative Council of Indonesian Ulama (Majelis Ulama Indonesia – MUI) issued a fatwa declaring Ahok to be a blasphemer. Eventually, the FPI-led protests resulted in Ahok losing his governorship and serving two years in jail following blasphemy trials that ended his political career (Nuryanti, 2021). Subsequently, the FPI-supported opposition candidate won the governorship of Jakarta. In the run-up to the April 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, the FPI became a formidable force supporting Prabowo. Even though this alliance failed in the elections continued to pose a threat to Jokowi and his government (Nuryanti, 2021; Adiwilaga, Mustofa, & Rahman, 2019).

The mass action ‘’Jogja Bergerak untuk Keadilan dan HAM” demands the release of Rizieq Shihab and the investigation of the shooting case of the FPI army in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on December 18, 2020. Photo: Hariyanto Surbakti

Is FPI the End of Islamist Populism in Indonesia?

Populist religious organizations in Indonesia such as the FPI exploit religious populism to gain the sympathies of “the people.” For the FPI, this was enabled by two decades of engagement with vulnerable communities at the grassroots level. The FPI has enhanced its reputation by providing voluntary-based welfare services in disaster-struck and poverty-stricken regions and neighborhoods by providing schooling, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid (Hookway, 2017).

This had helped FPI to position itself as a protagonist when the state was seen to have failed its citizens, thus becoming the ungiving and heartless antagonist. In contrast, the FPI became the altruistic and pious benevolent giver. Even after its ban, the FPI continues to court the support of a wide range of sympathizers. And despite the legal action he faces, Shihab’s populist influence has not diminished. This is evidenced by the fact that he is currently being imprisoned in an undisclosed location due to fears he could become the focus of protests and rioting. Thus, even behind bars, Shihab continues to effectively use Islamist populist rhetoric (detikNews, 2021). In an act of defiance against the “tyranny” of the amoral state, he refused to participate in an online trial in March 2021. Rather than responding to questioning in court, he engaged in theatrical non-corporation by constantly reciting verses from the Qur’an (detikNews, 2021).

The FPI might be one of the most notorious actors in Indonesian politics, but it is not the only right-wing Islamist group using populism. Prabowo has a strong alliance with various right-wing populist parties. The FPI’s culture of charismatic authority and considerable social capital means a high probability of the group being reborn in a new guise. Therefore, banning the FPI has done nothing to eliminate the threat posed by Islamist populism, particularly as the continuing COVID-19 pandemic is bound to result in long-lasting impacts on already marginalized groups in Indonesia. Given high levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a myriad of post-pandemic economic and social uncertainties, Islamist populist groups are bound to play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 general elections.


(*) GREG BARTON is one of Australia’s leading scholars of both modern Indonesia and of terrorism and countering violent extremism. For more than 25 years he has undertaken extensive research on Indonesia politics and society, especially of the role of Islam as both a constructive and a disruptive force. He has been active in the inter-faith dialogue initiatives and has a deep commitment to building understanding of Islam and Muslim society. The central axis of his research interests is the way in which religious thought, individual believers and religious communities respond to modernity and to the modern nation state. He also has a strong interest in international relations and comparative international politics. Since 2004 he has made a comparative study of progressive Islamic movements in Indonesia and Turkey. He also has a general interest in security studies and human security and a particular interest in countering violent extremism. He continues to research the offshoots of Jemaah Islamiyah and related radical Islamist movements in Southeast Asia. He is frequently interviewed by the Australian and international electronic and print media on Islam, Islamic and Islamist movements around the world and on Indonesia and the politics of the Muslim world.


References

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— (2021). “The moment when the ex-head of FPI walked out but could not leave the room at Bareskrim.” detikNews. March 19, 2021. https://news.detik.com/berita/d-5500041/momen-eks-ketum-fpi-walkout-tapi-tak-bisa-keluar-ruangan-di-bareskrim (accessed on April 30, 2021).

Adiwilaga, Rendy; Mustabsyirotul, Mustofa, U. and Ridha, Rahman, R. (2019). “Quo Vadis Islamic Populism? An Electoral Strategy.” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies. 13(4), 432–453. 

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NMR6

NMR: A Nordic neo-Nazi organization with aims of establishing totalitarian rule across Scandinavia

Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) rests on this century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism. Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR which aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state, has become the primary force of white power in Sweden and other Nordic countries. 

By Bulent Kenes

Since the recent re-emergence of radical right-wing ideas across Europe (Mudde, 2007: 1), increasing numbers of security authorities warn of increased threats from the radical nationalist milieu. Terrorist attacks by radical nationalist lone wolves have been carried out in Christchurch (New Zealand), Poway and El Paso (USA), Baerum (Norway), and Halle (Germany), along with other attacks, have created a sense of urgency around this growing threat. In August 2019, the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) warned of an increased threat from violent right-wing extremists (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020). According to Säpo, extreme right-wing organisations are the second biggest threat to Sweden after Islamist terrorism (Swedish Security Service, 2018). This warning brought attention to the most dominant extremist actor in Sweden, the national socialist Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7).

Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Sweden has had organized Nazi movements since 1924, when the Furugård brothers founded the first Nazi party (Lööw, 2004). During the interwar period, and until the end of World War II (WWII), various Swedish Nazi organizations developed in accordance with their conflicting attitudes toward the German Nazi party. According to Helene Lööw (1999), this led to a state of constant fragmentation of the Swedish Nazi movement, which partly explains why there was never a strong united movement during that time period. In the wake of WWII, the Swedish Nazi movement might have faded away but for the Nordic National Party (Nordiska rikspartiet, NRP), which was founded in 1956. NRP became the institution that restructured the ideas, experiences, and aims of the pre-war and wartime Nazi movements to create contemporary Nazi movements, generally in the form of subcultural groups and parties (Lööw, 1999; 2004; 2015).

By the end of the 1970s, the NRP had adopted right-wing populist ideas. This led to a portion of the movement taking a less radical position on the white race and focusing instead on a culturally racist view aimed at criticizing immigration policy and immigrants. When the group split, a new organization emerged, called Keep Sweden Swedish (Bevara Sverige Svenskt, BSS) (Lööw, 1999). This created more polarization within the milieu and contributed to the construction of two fractions: one that remained faithful to the Nazi ideology and another that looked for support by addressing immigration issues. During the 1980s and 1990s, the right-wing movement was formed through both parliamentary aspirations and more violent revolutionary logic, as well as formal and informal groups, parties, and subcultural milieus (Lööw, 2015). 

From the early 1990s onwards, older national socialist organizations such as NRP, the New Swedish Movement (Nysvenska Rörelsen), and Sweden’s Nationalist Federation (Sveriges Nationella Förbund) started dissolving and were ultimately replaced by smaller underground groups and networks such as Vitt Arisk Motstånd (White Aryan Resistance, VAM), Nationalist Alliance (Nationella Alliansen), Aryan Brotherhood (Ariska Brödraskapet), and Combat 18 (Lööw, 1995). These groups differed from the NRP, which had roots back to the Swedish National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nationalsocialistiska abetarepartiet) of the 1930s (Kølvraa, 2019). Despite the dissolution of the NRP, during the 1980s it became the link between interwar National Socialism and a new generation of activists influenced by British and American White Power movements (Lundström, 2016; Hirvonen, 2013).

The Founders of NMR Came from Three Nazi Groups

Historically, Sweden has long been a global epicentre for White Supremacist activism and “intellectualism,” fuelled by an once world-leading White Power music industry in the 1990s (Teitelbaum & Lundström, 2017) and an extensive publishing industry (Lööw, 1999). With the recent rise in the visibility of extreme and openly violent groups and activities, Sweden offers a particularly interesting window into the media the media strategies and practices of violent extremists within liberal democracies—and why we should take this media seriously (Askanius, 2021a).

During the 1990s, the Nazi movement reconstructed itself and developed new exchange forums by adapting to the Internet and social media—moves that benefited a movement that struggled to gain visibility in more traditional public forums (Lööw, 2015). To attract members and sympathizers, the movement has used public demonstrations and local town rallies but also an intensified presence on social media (Kaati, 2017). By the beginning of 2010—and until 2013—there was small but significant growth in the Nazi movement’s followers, activities, and visibility. Two Nazi parties dominated the scene: The Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) and the NMR. Since 2015, the NMR, the only party remaining, has been the main hub for Nordic Nazi ideas (Lööw, 2015).

Klas Lund.

The founders of NMR came from three Nazi groups—VAM, the newspaper Folktribunen (The People’s Tribune), and the National Youth (Mattsson, 2018). The establishment of the NMR (then known as the Swedish Resistance Movement, or the Svensk motståndsrörelsen, SMR) was announced in the third issue of the Folktribunen in December 1997. The Nazi network Nordland, which has since closed down, was also included under the SMR (Harne, 2002)Folktribunen’s editor-in-chief, and one of NMR’s founders, was Klas Lund, who headed the organization for 18 years, between 1997 and 2015 (Ravndal, 2019). From 1997 to 2002, the Folktribunen was SMR’s communication channel, a place to communicate the organization’s positions and activities (Mattsson, 2018).

Apart from his lengthy leadership term, Lund’s played a role a series of dramatic events that preceded NMR’s establishment. Lund began his activist career as a militant skinhead, a form of militancy the NMR normally distances itself from because in an effort to emphasize political struggle over subcultural practices. In 1986, when Lund was 18 years old, he and a group of fellow skinheads beat and kicked to death a young man who had allegedly attempted to stop them from harassing young immigrants at a beach in southern Stockholm. Lund and two other skinheads were convicted of murder and received eight-year prison sentences. Lund’s sentence was later reduced to four years, and he was released after only two years (Ravndal, 2019). When he served his sentence, he became a leading figure in VAM which took its name from the American organization White Aryan Resistance, a group that carried out robberies and hoped to fund a “white revolution” (Hjälte & Kenny, 2011).  (Expo, 2019).

Lund and his associates carried out several bank robberies to finance their activities and to prepare for an armed revolution. In this endeavour, Lund’s VAM was inspired by another American group, The Order (Brüder Schweigen). While amateurish, VAM was certainly violent (Hjälte & Kenny,2011); however, one of these robberies landed the perpetrators in prison (Lööw, 2009; Strømmen, 2017) again. While in prison, Lund had plenty of time to contemplate the means that would be most effective at generating a revolutionary outcome. He arrived at the conclusion that terrorism carried out by loosely organized leaderless networks might not be so effective. Rather, a strong hierarchical organization with the long-term ambition of radicalizing people through steadfast propaganda and street activism was a better alternative. These thoughts were further developed in Folktribunen, which Lund created after his second release from prison (Ravndal, 2019). 

Folktribunen included material on Corneliu Codreanu, the founder and charismatic leader of the Iron Guard, an ultra-nationalist and violently antisemitic organization established in Romania in 1927. During the interwar period, Codreanu ran the violent underground fascist terrorist group, St. Michael’s Legionnaires—better known as the Iron Guard. As a Christian fanatic, Codreanu hated democracy and dreamed of a nation ruled by an elite—a country like a religious sect. The new society required a “new man,” and the Iron Guard would take the lead in the revolution. Codreanu’s organization was guilty of political assassinations and pogroms against, above all, Jews. Codreanu was imprisoned and executed in 1938 after his organization responded to his prison sentence with more assassinations (Poohl, 2014). 

In 1995, a group of young people in Bromma, an upscale Stockholm suburb, founded an organization called Independent Young Nationalists (Oberoende Unga Nationalister) (Poohl, 2014). At the time, racist skinheads and white power music dominated the Swedish extreme right. As Daniel Poohl of the Swedish anti-extremist magazine Expo writes, the young ultranationalists from Bromma wanted to be something different. They didn’t allow drugs. They didn’t welcome skinhead hooligans. They wanted to be more serious (Strømmen, 2017). In 1997, Erik Hägglund was chosen to lead the organization, which had already changed its name to National Youth (Nationell Ungdom). Hägglund had previously been active in a fascist group called Riksfronten and under his leadership, Nationell Ungdom quickly radicalized. Ideas on “democratic nationalism” were replaced by revolutionary racism (Poohl, 2014; Expo/Svartvitt, 1999).

Out of Folktribunen, the new organization SMR was born. It was meant to be an elitist organization, with a strong focus on loyalty, discipline, and courage. The ethos was: “Weaklings and cowards have no place with us. No one shall avoid his manly duties.” Nationell Ungdom was to continue as the youth organization of the SMR (Poohl, 2014). This strategic shift has been overlooked by several observers who portray SMR as terrorists (Gudmundson, 2008). One reason could be that SMR does not reject extreme measures, including terrorism, in some distant future. A key element of their strategy is thus to use propaganda to prepare themselves and the Nordic people for a future racial war that is, in their minds, inevitable (SRM, 2009).

The extreme right-wing propaganda changed character over time; in 2009, the SMR launched an online campaign against paedophiles and rapists (Lööw, 2015: 66). At the same time, SMR members practised a sort of low-scale psychological warfare, where subtle threats were used to scare or silence their enemies. They also actively prepared for and sought out violent confrontations with the police and political opponents (Ravndal, 2018).

In 2003, the organization started publishing a new magazine, Nationelt Motstånd (National Resistance). Cooperation with Norwegian neo-Nazis led to a Norwegian branch of the organization, called Nasjonal Ungdom, being established the same year (Kragh & Lindberg, 2003; Expo, 2003). However, the Norwegian group faltered within a couple of years. In an article in Nationelt Motstånd, Klas Lund made it clear that the organization did not seek to recruit “as many as possible,” but rather wanted to build “an inner core of fanatic activists who can increasingly bring the national message out to the masses” (Poohl, 2014). Since 2003, the SMR has developed as an openly National Socialist organization following an “elitist” approach to membership. In addition to a traditional antisemitic focus, the organization based its ideology on openly racist anti-immigrant views (Strømmen, 2017).  

In 2016, the organisation changed its name to NMR and declared, together with associate organisations in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, that now addresses matters concerning all of Scandinavia—specifically protecting the Aryan race (Mattson, 2018).

In its current shape, NMR rests on an almost century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism (Lööw, 2015).Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR has become the primary force of white power in Sweden (Mattsson, 2018). However, “white power” is not a term that the NMR uses to denote their movement—that is a term used by their enemies. Therefore, representatives of the NMR categorically claim in interviews that they do not belong to any “white power world” nor are they “Nazis” (Öberg, 2016). 

The relatively civil discourse in NMR’s cultural productions also aims to seed elements of neo-Nazi ideology into the more acceptable anti-immigration rhetoric successfully used in the public domain by right-wing populist parties (Krzyżanowski, 2020). Thus, NMR have become co-producers of what Krzyżanowski (2020: 505) has dubbed “borderline discourse,” which merges uncivil (hate speech, antisemitism, and unmitigated racism) with civil discourse borrowed from the ideas of right-wing populism. In a sense, neo-Nazi groups today, and extremist actors more generally, dovetail on a broader cultural trend of an increasing symbiosis of popular media, political punditry, and persuasion. Part of this hybridity is about the convergence of the mainstream and extreme at the level of actual content on the platform (Askanius, 2021a).

NMR Aims to Overthrow the Democratic Order in the Nordic Region 

NMR’s own cultural productions are also characterised by hybridity and a play with genre conventions. A convergence of popular culture and entertainment with political and news discourse is apparent. At the level of content and aesthetics, the extreme blends with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. These strategies continue the long history of “political mash-up” in protest movements’ media practices (Askanius, 2013) and of fascist movements aestheticizing politics (Ekman, 2014). To illustrate how neo-Nazis attempt to package their ideology in ways that shield it from immediate public condemnation, Kølvraa (2019) describes how NMR replaced swastikas and World War II imagery with symbols from Norse paganism and Viking iconography to make the ideology more palatable in a Swedish and wider Nordic context. The tactic served to construct a two-faced dynamic to Nazism, where a seemingly civil, respectable, and serious side masked a violent and uncivil side, much like the dissonance we see in NMR’s communication strategies seeking to normalise neo-Nazi discourse in Sweden (Askanius, 2021a).

Thus, the cultural expressions of NMR reinforce a value system that harmonises with the neo-Nazi programme. In their attempts to create a new and distinctly Nordic “Nazism light,” entertainment and culture work as key vehicles in conveying the story of “white genocide” and the impending race wars in a persuasive and entertaining manner (Askanius, 2021a). In this sense, NMR adopted some of the same normalisation strategies that seem to have worked for more mainstream far-right populist parties across Europe: re-packaging, softening rhetoric, and getting rid of or toning down overt hate speech and symbols associated with traditional fascism (Wodak, 2013).  Therefore, to understand its contemporary reality, NMR’s Nazism must be recognized as something more than simply brutality, genocide, destruction, and war (Darwish, 2018: 4).

In Sweden, recent years have seen the National Socialist right mount public demonstrations and other “offline” activities with increasing numbers. Whereas earlier it was often noted that the extreme right secured media attention and impact through violence (Kimmel, 2007), and that such organizations usually preferred the relative anonymity of online propaganda (Askanius & Mylonas, 2015: 58); now the NMR’s membership—and their willingness to demonstrate in public—is increasing. Indeed, recent years saw a noticeable rise in activities (Eastman, 2017), and a third of active members in 2015 were new recruits (Kølvraa, 2019). At one march in Stockholm, in November 2016, some reports counted 600 NMR participants (Pasha-Robinson, 2016). As such, the NMR and its online media outlet Nordfront.se are today the central National Socialist voice on the Swedish extreme right—and possibly the dominant platform for such ideas in Scandinavia as a whole (Laclau, 2005, 1990).

As a neo-Nazi organization, NMR aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020; Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In October 2014, Lund declared that a parliamentary branch of the movement would be formed, although this did not mean that the (then) SMR would become less radical. Nor did it mean that the SMR had transformed into a democratic party. Choosing to operate within the parliamentary system does not necessarily mean accepting it (Lööw, 2020: 86). The NMR has not entered the national level of government, but they entered several local governments around Sweden from 2014-2018 (Skoglund, 2017; Thomsen, 2018). The organization also made an attempt at a parliamentary breakthrough; however, it only received several municipal mandates after being added to Sweden Democrats’ (SD) lists. Despite this, the 2018 election saw an increase in both the NMR’s level of activity and their visibility in the Swedish political discourse (Blomberg & Stier, 2019).

After the 2018 election, the breakaway organization Nordic Strength (Nordisk styrka) was formed in August 2019, partly as a reaction to the failed parliamentary initiative (Lodenius, 2020: 129). Leading NMR activists, including Klas Lund, founded Nordic Strength (Askanius, 2021a), which is a distinctly elite organization, a return to the form of organization that was dominant before the NMR was created—that is, a group that does not accept everyone as a member (Lööw, 2020: 85). The purpose of Nordic Strength is stated as: “To create a new generation of strong and conscious Nordic people, and our ambition to create a strong and combative ideology, culture, community and organization.” Nordic Strength is also present in Norway and Denmark (Forwald, 2019).

NMR As a Fully-fledged National Socialist Organization

The NMR explicitly rejects democratic rule and envisions a more authoritarian system, headed by strong and competent National Socialist “senators” (Lund, 2010). It also promotes a racist and antisemitic doctrine. This is a neo-Nazi organization aimed at establishing a national revolution and totalitarian rule (Mattson & Johansson, 2018). While many emergent neo-fascist organizations across Europe distance themselves from National Socialism, the NMR remains a fully-fledged national socialist organization. Race theory is thus an inherent part of their ideology—and the alleged international Jewish elite remains their main enemy (Ravndal, 2018).

National Socialist and racist groups are sometimes introduced under the broader term “right-wing extremists.” National socialism’s main ideological components are nationalism, racism, “xenophobia,” a strong state, and anti-democratic notions (Lööw, 2020: 87-88). Although NMR can be characterized as a National Socialist organization, it did not use this label during its early years, for strategic reasons, and referred to its activists as “patriots.” In 2006, however, the NMR leadership decided to “come out of the closet” and be open about their National Socialist foundations. Behind this toxic ideology lay deeper ideas such as anti-modernism, anti-liberalism, collectivism, communitarianism, and the idea that people’s identities and meanings are closely tied to the territories, peoples, and cultures to which they naturally “belong” (Ravndal, 2019). 

Meanwhile, in addition to Adolf Hitler, the NMR cites the Danish Nazi ideologue Povl Riis-Knudsen as an important source of inspiration. Biological racism is the explicit foundation of the party’s policy. Conspiracy theories and antisemitism are also central to their ideology. NMR praises Hitler and Nazi Germany but believes that their own ideology is a “new policy for a new era.” It agitates against the democratic state, immigration, and multiculturalism, as well as against “Zionism” and “globalism” (a code for Jews), capitalism, communism, feminism, and the LGBTQ movement. One of the party’s explicit goals is to deport “the majority of all those who are not ethnic northern Europeans or of closely related peoples” from the Nordic countries. NMR also directs propaganda against trade unions, whose members they want to attract as sympathizers (Expo, 2019).

Since NMR believes that the Nordic peoples are racially and ethnically related (Ravndal, 2018), it has merged the core National Socialist values with a political strategy of a united Nordic region under authoritarian leadership, all in an effort to conserve the Nordic race and culture (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). The concept of “ethnopluralism” is sometimes used to describe this idea—that people of different ethnic and territorial backgrounds should co-exist separately rather than being mixed, in order to preserve their unique qualities and collective identities (Ravndal, 2019). It seeks to preserve national identities by repatriating all or most people of foreign descent. Finally, they seek to replace the European Union—which they see as a liberal/capitalist/globalist/technocratic threat to the authentic European identity—with an autonomous European geopolitical alliance. Notably, this alliance should be detached from the current economic, cultural, and military grip of the US, and perhaps seek alliances with Russia (Ravndal, 2019).

Reinventing Vikings For Nordic Consumption

Besides an obsession with Jews and Muslims, religion does not occupy much space in the ideological view of the NMR. The party does not claim to support religious freedom in their political manifesto. They also draw on pagan myths and symbols in some of their propaganda—specifically, on Norse mythology. For example, their main symbol is constituted by an overlay of the Tiwaz/Tyr rune, named after the warrior god Tyr, and the Yngvi/Ing rune, named after the Yngling lineage, the oldest known Scandinavian dynasty (Ravndal, 2019). However, in much of the NMR’s more recent cultural productions, the Vikings have gone soft (Askanius, 2021a). At the core of this practice, through which boundaries are increasingly blurred, is an aspiration to make uncivil discourse and ideology appear more civil and the spectacular more mundane—and to tell the story of a new “sanitised version of Nazism that would normalise the Hitler state in the minds of contemporaries” (Blee, 2007: 15). Vikings are no novelty in the National Socialist imagination. They were extensively present in Third Reich propaganda (Lauridsen, 1995). The image of the Viking serves as the lynchpin of a distinctly Nordic reiteration of National Socialist ideology as articulated by NMR (Kølvraa, 2019).

Christoffer Kølvraa argues that the Viking becomes an “empty signifier”(Laclau, 1996), serving three distinct purposes in the construction of a cultural imaginary suitable for a Nordic National Socialism. First, it serves to signify the National Socialist idea of a “Nordic race” and, in that sense, implicitly links this ideology to a specifically Nordic historical-cultural space. Second, it serves to differentiate the pan-Nordic racial project of the NMR from a wider European far-right populist agenda of defending European Christian civilization. Third, it serves to symbolize a classic National Socialist body ideal of hyper-masculinity and homo-social community in a distinctly Nordic code (Kølvraa, 2019).

Perhaps the most obvious function of Viking heritage in the cultural imagination of the NMR is simply as a way of making National Socialism less of a “German” ideology and reorientating it towards a Nordic cultural-historical context. Indeed, the NMR certainly addresses its audience as modern-day Vikings (Kølvraa, 2019). The Nordfront.se site sees it as a core task to keep the audience updated on “all things Viking.” It offers lists of events with Viking or mediaeval themes, including Viking markets, re-enactments of Viking battles, and upcoming Viking rituals, festivals, and commemorative dates (Holmqvist, 2017; Editorial, 2017).

At the textual level, Viking heritage is often only alluded to in passing, such as when it is claimed: “Our forefathers knew the secret of the blood. They understood it so well, both regarding animals and people, that they did what they could to prevent mixing the Nordic-Germanic (Aryan) race with the other races of the earth” (Söderman, 2007). The NMR also distances itself from the far and populist right by adopting a severely critical attitude towards Christianity (Gardell, 2014: 131).) The popularity of notions of “Christian Europe” can be linked to the fact that it easily supports the construction of a violent antagonism towards Islam or a “clash” between Islam and European/western civilization. Furthermore, the NMR indulges itself at times by imagining the danger of what has been called “Eurabia”: the supposed grand strategy behind a Muslim takeover of the European continent (Carr, 2006). However, as a rule, the organization rejects the valorisation of Christian values and heritage. In fact, in most cases, the NMR’s attitude toward Christianity is to view it as a foreign, southern, and ultimately Jewish idea, unduly and forcibly imposed on their Viking ancestors with vast, ever-present detrimental consequences (Söderman, 2008).

“The religion of the Norse or German gods and associated forms of paganism are particularly popular among skinheads, precisely because of their violent, warrior ethos. Skinzines, and especially the Blood & Honour magazine, frequently point out that Odinism is a religion of warriors, whereas despised Christianity is presented in Nietzschean terms as a religion of slaves” (Pollard, 2016: 409). NMR rejects Christianity, which is considered “a kind of spiritual AIDS that has destroyed our natural immunity to non-biological thinking (Lodenius, 2020). It is a contagious mental illness that must be fought by all means” (Nationalsocialismen, 2011). With regard to the NMR’s view of religious freedom, all religions must adapt to National Socialism and must not run counter to its ideology and thus religious practice should be relegated to the private sphere (Redaktionen, 2016).

According to Kølvraa (2019), even when the Vikings are used as a means to mark religious difference, they function more as an empty signifier than as an actual counterpoint or alternative. It is not about becoming Vikings but about establishing a cultural imaginary in which National Socialism is linked, juxtaposed, and repackaged in Viking iconography for Nordic consumption. Viking heritage is central to the cultural imaginary of these modern Scandinavian National Socialists due to its ability to link the internal elements of their communal ideal: an ideal of a pure Nordic racial community undisturbed by foreign influences, Christian weakness, and degenerate modernity; a community shaped by an embedded hyper-masculinity lived out in homosocial interactions saturated with struggle, aggression, and the will to supremacy (Kølvraa, 2019).

NMR has used propaganda and direct action to “awaken” the people and prepare them for the upcoming “race war.” This is in line with the general National Socialist emphasis on action rather than on intellectualism (Ravndal, 2019). In many ways, NMR and the alt-right share the same destructive narrative. Common messages from both feature racial separatism, ethnopluralism, and conspiratorial notions of an impending societal collapse, stoking fears that “the people” and “culture” are about to be exterminated by external enemies. The external enemy is embodied by overseas immigration, which is supposedly orchestrated by an “elite” consisting of politicians, the media, and globalists (Jews). Not infrequently, antisemitic conspiracy theories also occur in connection with this notion. NMR actors also consider themselves to be waging “a cultural war” in order to preserve Swedish identity (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 8). NMR is anti-democratic and rejects global humanitarian rights. The party believes violence is necessary and legitimate to achieve its goals. In such a case, “racial traitors” and people of the “wrong race” will be exterminated, brought to justice, or deported (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20).

NMR has hopes to start a revolution through an extra-parliamentary struggle. They are opposed to the ruling government but do not engage in elections (Ravndal, 2019: 11-12). On NMR’s official website, Nordfront, the party claims a National Socialist stance in the “Nine Points” that make up their policy (Hellenstierna, 2019). These points are essential to their struggle and will be dictate the changes they make when they supposedly seize power from “the hostile forces that now rule the Nordic peoples” (Nordfront Policy A, 2015). The nine points include: 

  • Immediately stopping mass immigration;
  • As soon as possible, initiating the repatriation of the majority of all non-Northern Europeans or closely related peoples; 
  • By all means available, seek to regain power from “the global Zionist elite which economically and militarily occupy most of our world”; 
  • Jointly with the other Nordic countries create a Nordic self-sufficient state with a common defence force, common currency and central bank, and common horizontal laws and regulations. This also means immediate withdrawal from the European Union and any similar hostile associations; 
  • The media should be owned by citizens of the new Nordic region. Foreign as well as domestic media acting against people in a hostile manner will be prohibited; and
  • A public tribunal must be established with the aim of examining the difficult cases of treason (Redaktionen Nordfront, 2015).

NMR’s primary goal is to overthrow the Scandinavian democracies and create a Nazi state under NMR leadership. Three core themes in NMR’s ideology are, 1) the competition between the races; 2) antisemitism, with Jewish conspiracies at the centre (Immigration to Sweden and other Nordic countries will not be the main problem for NMR, but a by-product of the Jewish conspiracy); and 3) gender roles: for the battle ahead, men and women must have their strict gender roles. Men are supposed to be warriors and provide physical protection while women are supposed to stay home and reproduce and raise children. Less strict gender roles have resulted in “mixed races” and thus the “end of the race.” Feminist and LGBTQ movements are, therefore, not accepted and often threatened by NMR (Blomgren, 2020; Mattsson, 2018; Ranstorp, Ahlin, & Normark, 2020).

In NMR’s ideological narrative, thus, the central problem at the core of the conflict is construed as mass immigration and multiculturalism, spearheaded by Zionism and a feminised, degenerated Western culture. This problem poses a threat to a community—an “us,” meaning the white race, true Swedes, and the Nordic people—by a perpetrator, a “them” consisting of caricatured enemies including “racial strangers,” Jews, enemies of the people, or alternatively, Sweden-haters, which includes politicians, journalists, certain public intellectuals, feminists, and so forth. Against this backdrop, NMR proposes a “final solution”— namely, the deportation of all “racial strangers” and a race war, with the end result being Sweden as “white sanctuary,” enforced by a future pan-Nordic state founded on national socialism (Askanius, 2021a).

Moreover, the NMR propagates the superiority of the white race, fights for the “survival of the Nordic race,” and wants to bring about a revolution through an armed takeover (Edsenius & Jönsson, 2018). The party wants democracy to be “replaced by an elitist government with a strong leader at the top” (TT, 2017). In connection with this, parties must be abolished and citizenship in Sweden must be based on racial biology. A racial biology institute will “racially assess” the population of individuals born after 1975 and those who do not belong to the Aryan race will be forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin. Those born before 1975 could lose their citizenship if they were “convicted of anti-popular activities.” NMR’s leaders estimate that approximately 2 million “racial strangers” in Sweden would be sent back to their countries of origin, as well as another million people from the other Nordic countries (Lodenius, 2020).

According to the NMR, the entire survival and existence of the “white race” is at stake due to low birth rates combined with mass immigration of non-whites in “a low-intensity war of extermination against whites.” The Nordic countries are portrayed as occupied and the survival of the people a battle for life and death in a race war. The very image of the enemy being painted is dark and dystopian and is often described in dehumanizing terms as the “System.” The System includes the government and authorities, while politicians are referred to as “criminals.” The System has a vicious plan against the “people,” who are brainwashed and repressed by constant reprisals from the government and authorities. The System’s repression of NMR is enormous. NMR repeatedly uses enemy terms such as “racial stranger,” “criminal,” “traitor,” etc. NMR often weaves together a conspiratorial worldview of a “Jewish-controlled” elite of “globalists,” “big banks,” and “capitalists” who oppose and oppress the “people” (Lodenius, 2020).

NMR wants to establish a “people’s court” that will “try the difficult cases of treason” (Redaktionen, 2015). “Traitors” will be brought before the people’s court and hung from lampposts. NMR also advocates the reintroduction of the death penalty to be imposed for serious crimes (Lodenius, 2020). Media must be banned if they go against NMR’s ideals. NMR’s idea of ​​freedom of expression is to tear up laws against incitement against ethnic groups and instead ban “anti-popular propaganda” which includes media that spreads “subversive and anti-popular messages” (Redaktionen, 2018a).

NMR Views World Through Prism of Antisemitism

The NMR’s worldview is based on antisemitic conspiracy theories, including that Jews promote immigration, egalitarianism, and racial mixing in order to destroy the white race (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20). According to this world view, no political achievements have any real value until the alleged Jewish world conspiracy is crushed. While the rest of the far-right is inspired by new ideological influences, the NMR has chosen to stick to its Nazi convictions and Hitler’s principles, including all the elements of antisemitism. The party claims it wants to “take back power over our country from the globalists who rule us.” “Globalists” is one of many code words for the alleged Jewish international conspiracy (Poohl, 2018). 

Antisemitism is at the heart of the National Socialist ideology. Without antisemitism, National Socialism does not exist. According to Nazis, the notion of history is a struggle between Jews and “Aryans.” National Socialists often use terms such as “Jewish mentality” and “spiritual Jews.” These terms were synonymous with the Nazis’ political enemies, who were considered poisoned by the “Jewish mentality and morality” and who “sold their souls to the Jews” (Lööw, 2020: 89). Jews are at the top of the NMR’s enemy list; Nazis hate Jews more than they hate Muslims—they believe Jews invented the Muslims (Pascalidou, 2017). 

Although the NMR is concerned with challenges posed by growing Muslim populations in Europe, they always make sure to remind themselves and others that the real cause of this “Muslim invasion” is the Jews, who have deliberately masterminded it in order to weaken the European peoples and nations for their own benefit (Lund, 2004). According to NMR, “the tentacles of Zionism” are everywhere, seen in a culture war which seeks to “destroy the indigenous European cultures and replace them with Americanized anti-culture” (Lund, 2008).

Nevertheless, NMR has recently changed its rhetoric and started use some indirect or coded words. In that rhetoric, individuals who are said to represent the imagined Jewish power are transformed into traitors. The previous terms, like “racial traitors” and “Jewish lackeys,” have been replaced simply with “traitors” (Lööw, 2019). NMR sees “our people” as being betrayed and replaced through marriage and migration—and sees these as conscious strategies to replace the “Nordic race” with a new people. According to this conspiracy theory, Europe’s population will be replaced through the migration of Muslims, which is actually a Jewish plot (Lööw, 2020). Immigration to Sweden and the Nordic countries is by-product of the Jewish conspiracy—a conspiracy that is manifested in the form of, among other things, socialism, capitalism, and humanism (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 46). According to the NMR,  Jews are even behind recent terrorist attacks—and the police are supposedly “Zionist slaves” (Pascalidou, 2017).

The NMR also practises Holocaust denialism. In connection with memorial days linked to the Holocaust, NMR has organized demonstrations and various actions, in an effort to burden these dates with a different meaning (Lööw, 2020: 93). Nordfront’s editor-in-chief Fredrik Vejdelands denied the Holocaust during his closing speech in the Göta Court of Appeal (Redaktionen, 2015).

In accordance with the NMR’s worldview, Israel is the centre of a Zionist world power that exercises a destructive influence on much of the world, including Sweden. According to the NMR, Israel can be seen as the exact opposite of a National Socialist state: unnaturally created through mass immigration; built on a national, historical and religious lie and economic parasitism; a centre for espionage and global organized crime; etc. According to the NMR, Israel is, in practice, an extremist nationalist military base under the control of “international financial Judaism,” and, as such, it poses a threat to the rest of humanity. Naturally, the NMR sympathizes with the Palestinians and their struggle for a free Palestinian state (Editorial, 2012). With a focus on historical revisionism about the Holocaust (Lööw, 2019), NMR’s antisemitism is so strong that they congratulated radical Islamist HAMAS in 2006, just because the organisation stated in its statutes that it wants to destroy Israel (Redaktionen, 2006).

Hierarchically Organized with Militant and Fanatic Members

NMR’s May 1 demonstrations in Ludvika and Kungälv on May 1, 2019.

NMR is hierarchically organized and militant (Ravndal, 2018). Its colours are green, white and black. Its main symbol is the tyrruna, which was used Nazi Germany during WWII (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020). NMR’s model was inspired by the Romanian Iron Guard and has become a collection of fanatics (Poohl, 2014). 

The organization is divided into so-called “nests” (nästen, a term borrowed from the Iron Guard), each with its own leadership and structure (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden is divided into seven nests, and they are controlled by operational chiefs directly handling the local activist groups—named fighting groups—each with no more than ten members. One nest can have several combat groups (Expo, 2020; Mattson & Johansson, 2018). In addition, there is a national council (Riksrådet) as well as a Nordic council (Nordenrådet) comprising members from the various national branches (Ravndal, 2019).  

According to its Handbook for Activists, the NMR is “not a democratic organization where individuals gain positions of responsibility through elections or majority rule. Instead, it is a strictly hierarchically structured organization where all positions of responsibility are filled according to competence, loyalty and willingness to sacrifice” (Bjørgo, 2018). For the people who are part of the combat groups, NMR requires “regular activism, physical training and demonstration of willingness to sacrifice, and that members must be public with who they are” (Lindberg, 2019).

At the top of the hierarchy is the leader of the entire organization, currently Simon Lindberg. Besides these top positions, there are several other prestigious positions, such as operational leader, parliamentary leader, media spokesperson, editor-in-chief, news editor, head of radio broadcasting etc (Ravndal, 2019). Because the NMR envisions an actual take-over of the government, it needs a hierarchical organization on stand-by for when this critical moment arrives (Ravndal, 2019).

Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR underwent a reorganisation under new leadership and changed its name from the SMR to the NMR, following the establishment of associated divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark. NMR refers to this period as the “‘coming out party’ of national socialism” in Scandinavia and to Sweden as the new administrative centre and power hub of a future pan-Nordic state (Askanius, 2021a). Thus, NMR has shifted from being a closed subcultural group to trying to reach a wider audience. The organization has moved away from its subcultural roots and developed into movement focused more on political outreach (Mattson & Johansson, 2018).

The NMR has three levels of membership and strict criteria for joining. Full membership is restricted to activists willing to be publicly associated with the organization; affiliates are formal members whose involvement is on a more voluntary basis; supporting members provide financial support only and may remain anonymous. To become a full member, one has to dedicate him/herself fully to the organization and its day-to-day struggle (Ravndal, 2019). NMR recruits, educates, and trains activists in a hierarchical system, with the hope that violence and advocacy will create a spiritual and physical elite (Expo, 2020). Members practice martial arts in order to stay healthy, build confidence, and prepare physically and mentally for any type of threat (Holm, 2005). 

Some NMR members have a military past (Sveriges Radio, 2014) while others arm themselves with weapons when they move outdoors (Nerikes Allehanda, 2014). According to former NMR leader Lund, activists should be prepared to use force. “The practice of martial arts fulfils several tasks, it helps to maintain discipline within the organization while it [provides] physical education … It creates a powerful cadre of members who grow powerful and aggressive … This is necessary to create a fighting organization” (Poohl, 2014). 

On the other hand, external activities constitute the groups’ interaction with the public, and their primary function is to convey the group’s political message to larger audiences, sometimes but not always through spectacular and creative stunts, or through shocking behaviour. By tracing these actions, one can see that the NMR creates a pattern in which the same types of activity are repeated over and over again (Ravndal, 2019). The members are secular and do not engage in religion per se (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020). Members at the highest level of activism are the ones that create the so-called “combat groups” (Mattsson, 2018).

As an “elite” organisation, the NMR has never aspired to fast growth but rather has been careful about recruiting what it sees as the “right” kind of person, meaning those who are fully dedicated, action oriented, and never question the organization’s radical stances. Thus, NMR members are expected to embrace everything the organization stands for, including conspiracy theories about Jewish elites and homosexuality being an unnatural and confused state of mind. This form of militancy borders on fanaticism, i.e., on an uncritical ideological devotion. In fact, NMR activists proudly present themselves as fanatics in the vein of prominent National Socialists from the Third Reich, such as SS troops (Ravndal, 2019). 

NMR members are provided with detailed routines and instructions for how to live life as a member. Each activity is given points according to an incomprehensible logic. The points must then be reported to the superior and become an effective control mechanism for the group’s management. There are rules for how members should address each other depending on rank, instructions for who should sit where during lectures, how to present a case during a meeting, and how to eat, sleep, and march (Poohl, 2014). Tattoos on the hands and head, piercings, alcohol and drug abuse, or mental illness are not accepted. There is also a strict duty of confidentiality within the organization and all information that is not public is classified. Revealing this type of information counts as a “betrayal” (Lodenius, 2020).

In terms of clothing and lifestyle, members are encouraged not to wear flashy or expensive clothes but rather clothes that signal their political views. They are also encouraged to wear comfortable clothes appropriate for street fighting. NMR’s code of honour requires members to keep silent about the organization’s inner life, to remain loyal and humble, to show good camaraderie, to be disciplined and truthful, and to exercise and be prepared for fighting (Lund, 2010).

While the Swedish NMR branch currently claims a few hundred members, there are fewer than a hundred members in Finland—and fewer than 50 in Norway (Ravndal, 2019). In recent years, NMR has tried to attract more supporters and for a while, more people joined each new demonstration. However, the trend has reversed recently. In 2018, 350 people gathered at a Nazi demonstration in Ludvika. At the same time, 140 people marched in Boden—around 500 people in total. In 2019, similar marches only featured around 400 people in total (Poohl et al, 2019). According to Lööw (2015), NMR remains a relatively small organization, with estimates suggesting it has fewer than 1000 members.

An alleged coup attempt led to a split in the NMR in 2019. Former leader Lund left NMR and started a new group, Nordic Strength, which demands a higher degree of radicalism and fanaticism. More hard-line activists believe that NMR has become less radical during recent years, in attempts to broaden and attract more members. Before the 2018 elections, NMR described its ambition to become a popular movement. After the fiasco of the election, dissatisfaction has simmered in parts of the party, a group often described as NMR’s “spearhead” or “core activists” (Fröjd, 2019). 

Though Nordic Strength appears to be a somewhat more radical organization (Leman, 2018; Fröjd, 2019), so far, it has not made any major imprints. Although Nordic Strength can carry out individual acts of violence, the organization is actually restrained, as they have an aging leadership, a small number of members, and limited financial resources (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481). 

As with other far-right extremist organisations, NMR is more attractive to men and boys. The ideological background is conservative and against equality, gender equality and liberalism, thereby making it harder for women and girls to identify with the organisation (Kimmel 2007; Ekman 2014). NMR members also tend to have similar backgrounds. Some had parents who drank, others had parents who fought at home (Pascalidou, 2017).

The organization was built on the idea of the trinity of people, family, and the homeland. It is based on the heterosexual core family, and if the core family is threatened, so is the future of the motherland (Blomgren, 2020). According to the NMR and other National Socialists, man and woman have different biological and spiritual conditions. These pre-given conditions form the basis for a division of society into a male and a female sphere. The man and the woman must complement but not replace each other. NMR members see women as wives and mothers (Lööw, 2020: 96). 

NMR is against feminism and for strong traditional gender roles that idealize the woman’s role, including giving birth, raising children and taking care of household chores (Lodenius, 2020). At the same time, they are very strongly against homosexuality—or the “homosexual lobby,” as they call itNMR members have participated in violent protests aimed at Pride parades, where NMR members hold up banners with messages such as, “Crush the gay lobby” (Lodenius, 2020).

NMR’s International Links

The leadership within NMR has been inspired by various international and ideological role models. SMR/NMR’s founder Lund was previously the leader of the VAM, which was inspired by the American neo-Nazi organization White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and Robert Mathews, the founder of the white power group The Order. Richard Scutari of The Order (Bruders Schweigen) was also linked to NMR via Esa Henrik Holappa, the founder of the Finnish Resistance Movement (FRM) (Redaktionen, 2011). 

Other NMR leaders have also had close contact with American role models. Magnus Söderman was a member of the Aryan Nations under the leadership of its founder Richard Butler (Redaktionen, 2009). The Aryan Resistance Movement leader David Lane also knew Söderman, who worked to translate and disseminate Lane’s ideas. According to his own statement, Söderman also lived with The Order in the US (Söderman, 2007a). NMR/SMR was also inspired by William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance and author of the books The Turner Diaries and Hunter (Lodenius, 2020).

Over the years, SMR/NMR have developed extensive international connections outside the Nordic region. On the website patriot.nu, in 2002, SMR linked to its foreign organizations: the National Alliance, the German NPD, the Russian National Unity, and the Italian Forza Nuova (Lodenius, 2020). A very active exchange is taking place, including study visits to Germany and Hungary and participation in National Socialist demonstrations. For example, the NMR regularly participates in the annual Lukov March in Bulgaria, along with other foreign National Socialists. In 2013, information was published that members of the SMR had undergone paramilitary training with a Nazi group in Hungary (Holmberg, 2017). NMR has developed particularly good relations with the German Die Dritte Weg, the Italian Casa Pound, the Hungarian Legio Hungaria, the Greek Golden Dawn, and the American Patriot Front. 

In March 2015, the NMR participated in the far-right “International Conservative Forum” in St. Petersburg, which was organized by the Russian party Rodina (Motherland) (Vergara, 2015). On behalf of the NMR, Peter Jusztin participated, and, after the conference, the NMR visited one of the headquarters of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), in a suburb of St. Petersburg (Redaktionen, 2015b). Stanislav Vorobjev, the leader of RIM, visited the NMR during their Nordic Days and donated money to the NMR (Redaktionen, 2015c). The paramilitary branch of the RIM, Partizan, organized a training camp for right-wing extremists and, alongside groups from all over the world, NMR members Viktor Melin and Anton Thulin received eleven days of training in August 2016 (Wiman et al, 2017). In April 2020, RIM was branded as a terrorist organization by the US State Department (Kasurinen, 2020). 

The connections between NMR and the RIM go back to 2012, when Vorobjev handed out diplomas to Nordfrontemployees Robert Eklund and Henrik Pihlström for “their objective and correct description of the political situation in Russia in the Swedish media” (Redaktionen, 2012). In October 2016, RIM donated an unknown amount of money to the NMR, and the contacts were described at the end of that year by Simon Lindberg as “good” (Expo. 2019). 

The importance of NMR’s non-Nordic contacts is clear—NMR’s program is also published in English and Russian (Lodenius, 2020). In addition, NMR has a presence on Russian social media, with a significant number of followers (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 9). There is also an extensive digital exchange between the NMR and representatives of the American alt-right. This exchange seems to be primarily individual-based and not formalized. For NMR, the exchange offers an arena for new potential sympathizers abroad and creates opportunities to reach a new audience in Sweden (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481).

A Pan-Nordic Utopia: A Nordic Nation for Nordic People

Nationalist groups, in particular those with a militant or revolutionary outlook, usually emerge within nation-states (Ravndal, 2019); despite this, NMR seeks to expand its presence in other Nordic countries to establish a “Nordic nation for Nordic people” (Ravndal, 2019: 12). This goal is not new. Swedish National Socialist parties of the 1930s were also expansionist and intended to include all groups they defined as “Aryan.” The motherland was to be conquered by the workers, who were to be mobilized for the national idea and become part of the national community. 

NMR’s party program is permeated by the idea of a united Nordic region (Lööw, 2020: 92). In 2008, a branch of NMR was founded in Finland, while a renewed Norwegian branch was established in 2011. In 2013, a Danish-language site, nordfront.dk, was established, and an attempt was made to set up an NMR branch in Denmark, via Henrik Jarsbo (Lindberg, 2013). An Icelandic web site, nordurvigi.is, exist and does contain some general information about the organization (Strømmen, 2017).

Following the establishment of sister divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, the SMR changed its name to the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR). However, the organization has yet to mobilize nearly as many dedicated activists in the other Nordic countries as it has in Sweden (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden remains the country with most dedicated and active members (Ravndal, 2018: 15-16). Sweden is a special case in Scandinavia, at least in terms of the country’s historical experience of WWII and its subsequent attitude toward National Socialist ideas and symbols. While both Denmark and Norway endured German occupation, Sweden managed to avoid occupation by remaining neutral. This meant that Sweden did not experience the same post-war legal trials of Nationalist Socialist sympathizers that Demark and Norway did (Fangen, 1998).

Indeed, in Denmark and Norway a strong collective memory of national resistance was established; anyone designated as a “Nazi” was effectively excluded from the national community (Bryld & Warring, 1998). Finland also undertook a legal purge of sorts as the Finnish-Soviet armistice of 1944 required Helsinki to dismantle all fascist organizations. Here again, Sweden never went through the same post-WWII legal purge against Nazi sympathisers (Ravndal, 2018). Thus, in Sweden, the lack of memory of national resistance against Nazi Germany has meant that the extreme right is more prone to identify itself as National Socialist and to use the symbols and iconography of the Third Reich (Fangen, 1998). Sweden thus has a larger and better-organized national socialist movement than the other Nordic countries (Ravndal, 2018). 

Moreover, youth unemployment rates have been considerably higher in Sweden than in Denmark and Norway. Sweden has also received far more immigrants than the other Nordic countries and has experienced more problems related to segregated suburbs and crimes allegedly committed by people of immigrant backgrounds. In combination, these two conditions may have fuelled grievances among segments of the Swedish population that can be exploited by the extreme right to recruit new followers (Ravndal, 2018). In fact, the most successful far-right populist party in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (SD), has undeniable roots in the neo-fascist milieux (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010)—unlike its equivalent in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) (Meret, 2011).

Nevertheless, in Sweden, too, National Socialists must attempt to package or frame their ideology in ways that might shield it from immediate public condemnation (Kølvraa, 2019). Since the Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) was dissolved in May 2015, the NMR has been the most important neo-Nazi organization in Sweden. The Norwegian and Finnish branches of the organization are also central parts of the neo-Nazi environment in those countries. The NMR fights, in the words of its former leader Klas Lund, for “a Nordic national socialist republic including the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and optionally the Baltic states” (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to antisemitism, “Nordic-ness” is something that binds the Nordic countries together and is central to NMR’s ideology (Lööw, 2020: 86). The party hopes to preserve the Nordic people as they are today, ensuring that the Nordic racial type remains dominant in the Nordic gene pool (Nordiska Motståndsrörelsens, 2015).

Norway

In 2003, former members of the Norwegian skinhead group Boot Boys became sworn members of the NMR’s first Norwegian branch. Shortly thereafter, a Norwegian version of the NMR’s website, Patriot.nu, was launched, and the first issue of the Norwegian version of the NMR’s publication Nasjonal Motstand was published. However, finding dedicated activists in Norway proved harder than in Sweden. The timing may also have been unfortunate. The Norwegian militant movement had receded considerably following the murder of Benjamin Hermansen in 2001 by two Boot Boys members. Another complicating factor was that leading figurers within the Norwegian branch had to serve prison sentences for various criminal activities, including a bank robbery. Thus, after a couple of years of activities, the first Norwegian branch of NMR largely ceased to be active (Ravndal, 2019).

It took several years before a second attempt was made to re-establish the NMR’s Norwegian branch. In 2010, Haakon Forwald, mostly known as a former member of the Swedish black metal band Dissection (Lindberg, 2014), joined the Swedish branch as NMR’s only Norwegian member. This followed several attempts to reach out to the defunct Norwegian branch. Forwald was soon promoted to leader of a resurrected Norwegian branch and given the task of rebuilding it. Later that year, a Norwegian version of NMR’s website, Nordfront, went online, mainly containing articles from the Swedish site translated into Norwegian. However, slowly but surely, activism reports began appearing on the Norwegian website as well, usually about night-time sticker raids (Ravndal, 2019). 

Save its first years, the resurrected Norwegian branch was involved in few public activities, especially. This pattern changed post-2016, and Norwegian activists started carrying out more public activities (Martinsen et al, 2017). However, NMR’s Norwegian membership is much smaller than the Swedish and Finnish divisions. The Norwegian NMR also appears to be largely dependent on its Swedish mother organization. More Swedish than Norwegian activists have been involved in the few public events NMR has organized in Norway (Ravndal, 2018). Still, NMR has grown, however slightly, and counts several “nests” in Norway (Lindberg, 2014).

Finland

The Finnish Resistance Movement (Suomen vastarintaliike, SVL) was founded in 2008 by Esa Henrik Holappa (Hietikko, 2016b) following approval by the NMR (Wiman & Svensson, 2018). It immediately became the most militant Finnish Nazi organization. From its inception in 2008 until Holappa stepped down in 2012, he served as the official leader of the SVL and was one of the few members who operated openly under his own name (Strømmen, 2017). 

Holappa’s decision to establish a Finnish branch of NMR was highly influenced by the American veteran activist Richard Scutari, who is currently serving a 60-year prison sentence for his involvement in the American terrorist organization The Order, and was pen pals with Holappa. At the age of 17, Holappa started writing letters to Scutari. Holappa and Magnus Söderman—another of Scutari’s pen pals—have published their correspondences as a tribute to Scutari. (Söderman & Holappa, 2011). The book shows how Scutari put Holappa and Söderman in contact with each other, and how he advised Holappa to establish a Finnish version of NMR under the auspices of Söderman and the larger NMR (Ravndal, 2019). 

When Holappa landed in trouble for crimes related to hate speech in 2008, he became increasingly convinced that he would be convicted. When his American neo-Nazi contacts heard about his problems, they encouraged him to travel to the US. In August 2008, he followed their recommendation (Strømmen, 2017). Holappa left the SVL in 2012 and has been considered by the NMR as a traitor and oath breaker (Ravndal, 2019).

During its early phase, SVL tried to keep a low profile; this changed after a stabbing at the city library in Jyväskylä in January 2013 (Lodenius, 2020). SVL members were involved in several violent attacks in the 2010s, including several assaults on leftist politicians, and the stabbing of a security guard at a book launch event in 2013 (the book was about the Finnish extreme right) (Hietikko, 2016). In 2014, the SVL also latched onto news about a multi-ethnic, suburban gang assaulting other youth in Helsinki and organized vigilantes to patrol the city. These vigilante marches have continued sporadically throughout the country. SVL and its activists were real threats to those it sees as political opponents or unwelcome in the country—or to outsiders who just happen to be in the wrong place or have the “wrong opinions.” Most violent crimes attributed to SVL members have fallen into the category of street violence (Strømmen, 2017).

SVL has several features worrying to the authorities: good organizational skills, a long-term approach to developing its activities, and an ideology that embraces violence. Like the NMR, the SVL is strictly hierarchical, with clear manuals for its activism and group structure. It is working to build a subculture through social activities intended to draw in new members, including lectures, martial arts training, sports events, forest walks, and outdoor survival training (Strømmen, 2017).

Following the refugee crisis in 2015, there had been a surge of interest in racist and xenophobic organizations in Finland. To exploit the situation and boost recruitment, SVL attempted to soften its image. Members began to call themselves nationalists and patriots; part of their work was carried out under the banner of Suomalaisapu, or Finnish Aid (Strømmen, 2017). At the same time, SVL has tried to be the gathering umbrella for various National Socialist (Hietikko, 2016a),right-wing extremist, and nationalist and racist groups in Finland. An example is the “612” nationalist torchlight procession, arranged December 6 (or “6/12”), which is the Finnish Independence Day. Despite the group’s efforts to become the umbrella for all extreme right organizations in Finland, the SVL has had little success achieving this goal (Strømmen, 2017).

Moreover, there were strong internal contradictions between the old Nazi line and those who advocate for neo-fascism (Hietikko, 2016a). Ideological differences between the NMR and SVL also exist and occasionally cause friction. While the Swedish branch is representative of an old-fashioned Hitlerian variant of neo-Nazism, the Finnish branch is more diverse. Some members support a “Third Positionneo-fascism and have contacts with the Italian movement Casa Pound (Strømmen, 2017).

Considering these schisms, SVL member Mika Ranta decided to form a separate vigilante group. Ranta is a self-declared neo-Nazi who has been convicted of violent crimes. He chose to call his organization Soldiers of Odin (SOO) (Rosendahl & Forsell, 2016). Despite some differences, SOO is modelled on the SVL, and Ranta sought SVL’s permission to from SOO. Lately, the SVL and SOO have openly referenced each other (Strømmen, 2017).

While Finnish authorities have kept the SVL under close watch for years, pressure to take legal action against the group began to mount in late 2016 after one of its members assaulted and seriously injured a passer-by in Helsinki. The victim died a week later. Although the assailant was ultimately found guilty of aggravated assault with a racist motive instead of homicide, Finland’s National Police Board sued the SVL in March 2017, on the grounds that the group contravened Finnish association law. The SVL was forbidden to operate in Finland, but the verdict did not cover every single association registered as members of the NMR. The group’s charity organization, Suomalaisapu (Finn Aid), remains active and its party project, Kansan Yhtenäisyys (The People’s Unity), was left similarly untouched by the ban (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020).

The ban came into effect at the end of November 2018. At the end of 2019, Finnish law enforcement agencies also conducted an investigation into information that the SVL continued its activity under the pseudonym Kohti vaputta! (Towards Freedom!) (Teivainen, 2019). Kohti Vapautta! has arranged street activism, training sessions and other similar activities. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court of Finland issued a ban on the SVL on September 22, 2020. The historic decision follows the case that had been ongoing for several years. The Court decreed that the SVL and Pohjoinen Perinne ry (Northern Tradition), a registered association facilitating the group’s activities, were to be disbanded as they contravene Finnish association law. The verdict brought a close to nearly three years of legal deliberations and represents the first time since 1977 that an extreme right-wing group has been disbanded in Finland by court order (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020). 

Denmark & Iceland

Since 2007, the SMR/NMR has developed its contacts with the Danish National Socialist Movement (DNSB). In the same year, NMR representatives participated in a DNSB demonstration in Kolding in memory of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, where participants attacked counter-protesters. In 2013, Henrik Jarsbo, a former member of the DNSP (Lindberg, 2013), attempted to found a Danish branch of SMR/NMR, and Nordfront.dk was launched in July of the same year (Lodenius, 2020). Despite the website becoming the most developed of the non-Swedish Nordfront sites, the Danish NMR-branch soon became inactive (Ravndal, 2019); in 2016, the website was shut down (Kimmel, 2007: 206). Other groups with similar profiles are currently active in Denmark, most notably Denmark’s National Front (Ravndal, 2018).

In 2017, after consulting with NMR, a new organizational structure was formed in Denmark and divided into three nests. The new leader of the Danish NMR was Martin Durvad. The organization is better known as Nordfront. In the autumn of 2019, a coordinated action was taken against 84 Jewish cemeteries, which were desecrated with green paint. One of Nordfront’s members was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the act. The Danish NMR has about 50 members, with around 20 “hardcore” activists. Tommy Olsen assumed leadership after Forwald left to join Klas Lund’s Nordic Strength in 2019 (Lodenius, 2020; Nordisk Styrke, 2019).

Since 2017, NMR also has a branch and a website, nordurvigi.is, in Iceland. Led by Ríkharður Leó Magnússon, NMR Iceland held its first demonstration in Reykjavik in September 2019.

NMR Is Pro-violence and Uncompromising 

NMR is pro-violence and uncompromising (Lodenius, 2020). In addition to spreading their political agenda, NMR members have used different kinds of violence, threats, and harassment to hinder individuals from participating in political debates and meetings (Swedish Security Service, 2018). While the NMR claims to resort to violence only in self-defence, both its national socialist ideology and its blood-stained history say otherwise (Stormark, 2017). Moreover,according to the organization’s Handbook for Activists, “The NMR is not pacifist. We are aware that we can only win through physical struggle and that ideas and beautiful ideals mean nothing and can never blossom if these ideas lack aggressive fanatical champions” (Delin & Carlsson, 2017; Lodenius, 2020: 115). 

SMR/NMR’s former ideologue, Magnus Söderman, also highlighted David Lane’s clarification in his book Revolution: “You adults know very well that war is the only answer. ZOG’s (a term for Jews) henchmen will not voluntarily relinquish power. … because, they know that we will execute them for breaking the highest law of nature” (Söderman, 2007). It is not a secret that the NMR is willing to use physical force to achieve a racially pure Nordic nation. The group makes no effort to distance itself from the use of violence. Instead, its members actively speak and write about the race war that, in their minds, is inevitable. Thus, NMR has been specialising in pushing the limits of democracy and the rule of law through harassment, threats, and violence against opponents and the police (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). 

In order to analyse the contents and the various attacks perpetuated by the NMR, it is important to define NMR as a terrorist organization. It is a militant group with a hierarchical structure of nests, some of which consist of “combat groups” (Ravndal, 2019: 23). The groups use militaristic ways of training (Hellenstierna, 2019). Violent confrontation is something the activists train for regularly—for example in the form of single combat, where the winner is whoever is able to strike a deadly blow with a replica knife. But this is not just a game (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In Finland, one person who expressed opposition to the NMR was brutally assaulted and died a week later of complications that, to all appearances, resulted from the attack (Yle, 2016).

To date, the NMR—which is still a legal organization in Sweden—is generally not dangerous, assuming you don’t oppose them. However, should you be tempted to confront them, stand in their way, or refuse to let yourself be harassed, you are no longer safe. During several of the NMR’s demonstrations, there have been violent clashes between NMR activists and the police. One of these examples is a demonstration that occurred outside of a Book Fair in Gothenburg in 2017. NMR has also repeatedly clashed with civilians. They actively seek out these violent engagements to foster and attract internal group cohesion (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018).  

Politicians that step out of line and criticize the movement are quickly confronted by the NMR’s members. These intimidation tactics have also consisted of NMR activists following politicians to their parked cars. Council workers and opponents of the movement have also received subtle threats such as “Nice house you got there…” Some have also found stickers on their front doors or on the streetlamps outside their homes. These stickers feature a gallows with the slogan, “Reserved for traitors of the people.” By using such methods, the NMR spreads fear and gains influence far beyond its extremely limited public support (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).

From time to time, NMR members have been involved in illegal activities, including violent attacks using weapons such as knives and explosives. Such activities are dismissed by the NMR leadership as something these activists have carried out on their own initiative. Interestingly, after some of these illegal actions, the NMR receives “exclusive” interviews from members of the self-titled “action groups” that claim to be behind them. One could speculate that the existence of such clandestine “action groups” may serve as a tool for the NMR to carry out illegal activities without compromising the organization (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).

Between the 2014 and 2018 elections, NMR perpetrated high levels of violence across Scandinavia. As mentioned, in Finland, a young man was beaten to death by NMR members. The Swedish branch of NMR also displayed violent tendencies. In 2013, approximately 30 NMR members attacked an anti-racist demonstration in Kärrtorp Stockholm (Vergara, 2013). During 2016 and 2017 several members of NMR were convicted of bombings in Gothenburg. In the north of Sweden, in Umeå, the Jewish association had to close down due to threats and harassment (Expo NMR, 2019)

Despite its denials, NMR has been part of a Swedish far right that produced more right-wing terrorism and violence (RTV) between 1990 and 2015 than Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined. Zooming in on the Nordic countries, the RTV dataset covers 141 events. The most frequently targeted victims are immigrants (70 events), leftists (38 events), and homosexuals (9 events). Other target groups include government representatives, police, Muslims, Jews, Gypsies/Roma, the homeless, and media institutions (Ravndal, 2018). Moreover, Expo has identified 111 people who for the first time participated in NMR activism in 2017. Of these, 64 already have a background in the racial ideological environment (Dalsbro et al, 2018). Expo has also mapped 159 of the most active members of the NMR and, in 2015 alone, just over a quarter were convicted of violent or gun crimes (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016). If all crimes are included, one-third (33 percent) were convicted or prosecuted for some form of crime. In total, more than half (56 percent) of the activists have been convicted of some form of crime. In almost a quarter of the cases, the penalty was imprisonment, which indicates that they were serious crimes. For a period, the NMR sold knives emblazoned with the slogan, “The struggle requires more than just words” (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016; Pascalidou, 2017).

In 2018, Swedish Radio also mapped 178 people who were judged to be the most active in NMR (Lodenius, 2020) and at least 90 of them were convicted of crimes—and about one in four were convicted of violent crimes such as murder, assault, or violent riot (Jönsson, 2018). The year before, the Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet newspapers examined 84 NMR members, and the results showed that 58 of them were convicted of crimes (Folkö & Leman, 2019). According to another investigation, of NMR’s approximately 160 Swedish members, several have been convicted of crimes, including bombings, aggravated weapons offenses, aggravated violent crimes, and incitement against ethnic groups (Wierup, 2020).

The same pattern is evident in NMR’s leadership. Its first leader, Klas Lund, was convicted of murder in 1987, and for aggravated robbery in the early 1990s (Lodenius, 2020). Since September 2015, the NMR has been led by Simon Lindberg, who was convicted of vandalism, threats, and aiding and abetting assault. Lindberg is joined by a leadership group that includes Emil Hagberg, Fredrik Vejdeland and Per Öberg. While Vejdeland has been convicted of hate speech-related crimes, Hagberg was also convicted on weapons-related charges and for rioting (Baas, 2015).

With regard to any terrorist threats from NMR, the Security Police (Säpo) stated that NMR has a large capacity for violence. Säpo also stated that “our assessment is that this is an organization that has the ability to commit serious crimes that could be classified as a terrorist attack” (Jönsson, 2018a). Since NMR has violent tendencies, it has been classified by Säpo as the second biggest threat in Sweden after Islamist terrorism. Säpo and The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) use the term White Power to describe groups like NMR (Blomgren, 2020). 

As previously mentioned, in 2019, several core members of NMR decided to leave and create Nordic Strength (NS) which is considered to be more violent. However, there has been no evidence of an escalation of violence since the split (Expo Annual Report, 2019).

Another Battlefield for the NMR: the Media, Internet & Social Media 

In 2000, SMR/NMR established a web portal called patriot.nu (Vejdeland, 2012) which provided various magazines, an online store with publications and white power music, and more. In the early 2000s, the SMR also printed newspapers Folktribunen and Nationellt Motstand . With the development of social media, SMR’s propaganda strategy and range of channels changed. The most influential online magazine Nordfront, NMR’s digital communication channel (Vejdeland, 2012), was started in 2011. Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR launched a number of new media and produced extensive online content in a strategic move running up to the general elections in September 2018 (Askanius, 2021a). 

The NMR also established its own publishing house and bookstore, originally called Nationellt Motstånd förlag, but later changing its name to Nordfront förlag. Based in the small rural village of Grängesberg, it sells various National Socialist and antisemitic literature via its online bookstore, including a Swedish translation of The Turner Diaries, plus books by Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, and a collection of letters written by Richard Scutari, member of the US white supremacist terrorist group The Order. (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to Nordfront, NMR produces a whole battery of different radio and web TV initiatives (Sundkvist, 2017).

NMR has developed its presence on the Internet and greatly increased its involvement on social media (Blomberg & Stier, 2019); today, the organization has almost 20 different podcasts and TV channels. The purpose of this has been to reach out politically to normalize the organization and to project its reputation internationally. Through such outreach, NMR hopes to create closer relationships within the Nordic region and make contact with like-minded people across the world (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). In order to normalise National Socialism, NMR increasingly seeks to appeal to an audience beyond their own core members. Part of this strategy involves a shift in the tone of their online content—from militant propaganda to softer, less orchestrated and rehearsed political rhetoric packaged and presented in the form of infotainment and cultural content (Askanius, 2021a). 

Nevertheless, images of violence and violent rhetoric have always been an intrinsic part of NMR’s propaganda and key to telling the story of being at war with both Swedish “traitors” and “racial strangers.” Increasingly, however, NMR’s media narratives are saturated by other, less explicitly political and militant registers in which violence, violent rhetoric, and openly racist hate speech reside in the background to give way to “lighter,” more civil discourse—and seemingly more harmless forms of propaganda. This is particularly present and potent in NMR’s cultural productions and online entertainment, which includes, for example, television and talk shows, music videos, memes, poems, and podcasts intended to amuse and entertain (Askanius, 2021b).

In the online universe, NMR mixes the extreme with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. In this manner, NMR seeks to soften, trivialise, and normalise neo-Nazi discourse using the power and appeal of culture and entertainment (Askanius, 2021). Discourse in these spaces represents what Blee (2007: 15) has referred to as “a sanitized version of Nazism.” NMR’s content has been polished and tailored to dodge allegations of illegal hate speech, and its shows are carefully edited to avoid being censored and removed (Askanius, 2019). However, images of violent confrontations between police and activists, street fights, hate speech, rallies, uniformed men marching in line, combat training, white-pride music, and beatings of “racial strangers” to the sound of the Waffen SS Choir are also present in the growing repertoire of online media produced by and for the NMR (Expo, 2018, 2020; Mattsson, 2018).

The use of extremist discourse, which characterizes the online conversations between members and sympathizers, comprises narratives about personal experiences, rumours of criminal refugees (often accused of rape), or claims that refugees “do not belong here.” These conversations “construct them as others” (Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017). These discursive strategies do not merely justify and legitimatize the exclusion of or racism toward these “others,” but create a sense of “we-ness” and identity among members and sympathizers as well as the movement they represent (Blomberg & Stier, 2019; Campbell, 2006; Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017; Wodak & Reisigl, 2015).

With Simon Lindberg as leader of the NMR, the organization has developed its propaganda network and massively developed its various media channels on social media. In a very short time, 19 Swedish-language podcasts and web TV channels were created alongside Radio Nordfront, Radio Regeringen, the English-language Nordic Frontier, the activist podcast More Than Words (Saxlind, 2018), Ledarperspektiv (ideological focus), Radio LudvikaRadio Kungälv. Some of the TV content includes Studio NordfrontStudio Bothnia, Studio Kungälv, Studio Skåne, NTV Live and Norwegian Frontlinjen and Finnish Studio 204 (Lindberg, 2018). According to Lindberg, the ambition is to create more radio and TV broadcasts that will be broadcast around the clock (Lodenius, 2020), creating a “Nordic unity mindset.” This initiative aims to eventually broadcast in all the Nordic languages ​​(Nordisk Radio, …)

The NMR’s website appears to have a considerable readership—between 300,000 and 400,000 unique visitors per month. To compensate for their lack of numbers, one important tactic is therefore to carry out spectacular stunts to draw the public eye, often aiming at national media coverage, and then spreading footage and videos from these stunts through the internet and social media, allowing NMR to reach an even larger audience (Ravndal, 2019).

Conclusion

The 2018 general election results in Sweden have shown that the NMR should not be exaggerated, despite concerns about it as a neo-Nazi extremist violent organisation. The organization is still relatively small. Despite its small size, one shouldn’t ignore the threats the NMR poses. The party’s major investment before the 2018 election resulted in only 2,106 votes in the parliamentary election (0.03%). The result was a great disappointment for the NMR; following this failure, the party’s seems to have hosted fewer events and engaged in fewer physical activities. Whether this is a temporary decline or not is difficult to assess, but according to the NMR’s strategic plan, the organization is investing in increasing its local influence, its geographical spread, the number of political seats at all levels, and its channels on social media and international contacts (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). According to observers, there is a low probability that NMR as an organization will develop in a more violent direction. Nevertheless, Sweden is currently following Finland’s footsteps and started a government investigation regarding a potential ban of the organisation (Regeringskansliet, 2019; Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 480; Directive, 2019: 39).


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Secretary of Northern League, Matteo Salvini, and PVV leader, Geert Wilders, after the closing press conference of the first ENF congress at the MiCo center in Milano on January 29, 2016. Photo: Marco Aprile

Prof. Bertjan Verbeek: Populist foreign policy weakens soft power

Discussing the impact of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) on the countrys foreign policy, Professor Verbeek highlighted his observation that the reputation and soft power of the Netherlands in international diplomacy weakened. Dutch diplomats had to rescue the image of the country and Dutch economic interests abroad.

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Bertjan Verbeek of Radboud University in the Netherlands argues that—depending on how they define the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”—various populist parties may approach international politics differently.

According to Verbeek, a left-wing populist party often defines the “pure people” in terms of class. Class is not a national concept; in principle, it is a transnational concept. So, a left-wing populist party would look upon the “pure people” as the working class globally, and the “corrupt elite” may well be then policymakers within international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. On the other hand, Professor Verbeek underlines that for right-wing populist parties, the “pure people” is the native population of the country, whereas the “corrupt elite” is the national elite that ignores the interest of the “pure people.” Thus, right-wing populists judge foreign policy in terms of what it brings to the “pure people” within the nation.

The following excerpts from our interview with Bertjan Verbeek have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your work has drawn on Cas Mudde’s notion of populism as a “thin-centered ideology.” Could you clarify how you understand populism in these terms?

First of all, the work I have written is co-authored with my colleague Andrej Zaslove at Radboud University. He is more the populist expert, and I am the foreign policy expert. We feel a focus on thin-centered ideology is important because there is so much debate on what populism actually is. And there are many ways of approaching and defining it. They all have their merits, but we see value in drawing a distinction between those who are really populists and those who use populist strategies for other purposes.

For instance, mainstream parties can adopt populist tactics and strategies because they want to fish in the same pond as the populists. So, we feel that it is difficult to tell whether an actor is a genuine populist or whether he or she is just using populist rhetoric. If you focus on populism as a strategy or as a style—which are two different alternative definitions of populism— you risk confusing the people who imitate the populists and those who really are.

So, that is why we preferred Cas Mudde’s suggestion of populism as “thin ideology” because it makes clear, first of all, what populism is really about. Populists see the world as the “pure people” against the “corrupt elite.” That is the core of all populist thought. The basis of that is ultimately a notion of the sovereignty of the people, which may result in proposals that relate to what we might call “direct democracy.” In such cases, the people are given more say in politics in whatever form. That is the core of the populist ideology.

But, as we all know, it is not enough for a political party to emphasize the notion of “the people.” You need to have additional ideas about what you want to do in a society policy-wise. This is where the idea of thin ideology comes from—these parties usually borrow from other ideologies to have a more or less coherent and efficient way to link their perceptions of society with what they want to accomplish in terms of policy. They might borrow from the left; they might borrow from the right. They might borrow, as we argued elsewhere, from more regional notions or liberal notions.

So, depending on where they borrow from, a populist party or organization or movement is more or less left- or right-wing. However, the core is always the notion of the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” More importantly, populist parties can differ on actually who constitutes the “pure people” or the “corrupt elite.” Beyond this, they can differ in terms of the kind of thick ideology they borrow from to develop a comprehensive vision that presents a whole variety of potential populist positions.

You argue that research on populism has focused more on domestic politics, thus neglecting the links between populism and foreign policy. In what ways does populism influence the foreign policies of states and affect relations between states?

There are several dimensions to the question. The first concerns how they define the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” Populist parties—let’s focus on parties for the moment—may have a different idea of what international politics looks like. So, if you are a left-wing populist, you often define the “pure people” in terms of class. And class is not a national concept, in principle—it is a transnational concept. Thus, they would view the “pure people” as the global working class or the global poor. And the “corrupt elite” are—in the perspective of a left-wing populist—typically international organizations or their representatives like the IMF or the World Bank. This is a different kind of perspective to the more nationalist or nativist populist party that would say the “pure people” is the native population of the country, and the “corrupt elite” is the national elite that ignores the interest of the former. This party would judge foreign policy in terms of what it brings to the native population. That is the first dimension in which populist parties might differ vis-à-vis what international politics is about in the first place.

The second important element is the position of power or influence of a political party or a movement. Some populists are outside the parliament. They mobilize people in the streets and put pressure on the government. Some are in the parliament but not in government, so they can have some influence. Some are an official part of the government or even dominate a government like Fidesz, the ruling party in Hungary. Other parties are not formally part of the government, like the Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV). The PVV is a nationalist, right-wing populist political party in the Netherlands that formally supported the Dutch government between 2010 and 2012 but did not hold cabinet seats.

In contrast, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) is a right-wing political party in Denmark that has been in government for many years. Nevertheless, while outside the cabinet, the PVV still negotiated a formal agreement with the governmental parties on policy. That agreement gives them more impact on formulating policies in general and hence also on foreign policy. The second dimension is the relative power position of the political party in the system and how close it is to governing.

The third potential element is how the rest of the world views a robust populist movement or a solid populist party. What do international and transnational actors think? How do they react? This is ultimately what global politics is about. So, my colleagues and I investigated the impact of the Dutch PVV on the country’s foreign policy. One of the most interesting points was that the reputation of the Netherlands in international diplomacy weakened when the PVV was supporting the coalition government between 2010 and 2012. This is curious since the foreign minister was not from the PVV (because the PVV did not join the cabinet). Yet Dutch diplomats were still concerned. The soft power of the Netherlands suffered from this reputational loss. Dutch diplomats then had to rescue the Netherlands’ image somehow and protect Dutch economic interests abroad. The case shows the impact of this third dimension — how other countries or international players view a populist party’s role in the system — can affect a country’s reputation and its soft power. This is true even when the party is not strictly in the government.

Brexit May Intensify Scottish Nationalism and Separatism

Brexit suporters, brexiteers, in central London holding banners campaigning to leave the EU on January 15, 2019.

You argue the rise of populism in Europe in the early 1990s coincided with three major international transformations—the end of the Cold War, the advent of globalization, and the intensification of the European integration process. How do you relate the success of populist movements within this international context?

Well, again, in very different ways… But first, I think it is a good question because I feel like this has been one of the most neglected elements in the study of populism. At the end of the Cold War, the ideological balance of power between left-wing and right-wing in many European countries—both West European and Central and Eastern European—ended. When communism died as an ideological enemy, domestic political systems became ripe for ideological realignment. In many countries, there were specific political parties that had been in power for a long time, partly based on the idea that “Well, you have to choose us because if you don’t elect us, then the communists will come to power.” The Christian Democratic parties often played this game, but not only them. The room for electoral volatility increased a lot because people became less attached to the dominant political parties.

The most disturbing effect of Brexit is that it has bolstered, not quieted, English nationalism. Brexit may thus also have indirect unintended consequences—namely, fueling further Scottish nationalism and thus separatism.

In addition, the established parties—particularly the Social Democrats—had no ideological alternative to appeal to voters. Indeed, in a way, neoliberalism captured the field ideologically and in terms of political discourse. The end of the Cold War, in this sense, created the possibility for a new politics.

Now, in different countries, that void was filled with different types of parties, and in some countries, it was populist parties that stepped into the breach. Some of them—for example, regional populist parties like the Lega Nord (a right-wing, federalist, populist, and conservative political party in Italy) or the Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium, originally the Vlaams Blok (a Flemish nationalist right-wing populist political party. It dissolved after a trial in 2004 condemned the party for racism and was reconstituted as the Vlaams Belang). The VB had already been engaged with European integration, not necessarily in a negative way.

As the Lega Nord did in northern Italy and VB in Flanders, they were also mobilizing masses, saying that Europe is an advantage because we can use it to promote the regional aspect central to our brand. So, the European Union’s (EU) importance was significant for some populist parties because they saw an opportunity to strengthen their regional position vis-à-vis the mainstream parties. Later that changed because of migration and the perceived adverse effects of European integration. Populist parties often took a much more negative attitude toward Brussels, but that has not always been the case. So that is how the EU comes in. But we should also interpret the role of the EU in the context of globalization.

Neoliberalism has become increasingly dominant on a global scale. European integration, just like any other regional integration scheme in the world, has served partly as a kind of protection from the effects of globalization by creating a bigger common market. And globalization has produced winners and losers. The EU, to a certain extent, protected some of the losers and maybe promoted some of the winners. The critical point is that some of the losers felt that the EU was not protecting them. Thus, the EU created its own perceived losers and winners through its integration scheme. So, in very different ways in different countries, globalization and European integration have provided grist to the mill for both left-wing and right-wing populist parties, who can cast these dynamics as threats rather than opportunities.

The fourth and final dimension is how the end of the Cold War changed matters in Eastern Europe. Populism in Eastern Europe has been driven by a failure to reckon with the role that politicians and parties played during and immediately after the collapse of communist regimes. Sometimes, like in Hungary, it relates to events that happened after the end of World War I in terms of loss of territory and prestige. That is a different type of populism, and sometimes we miss the point that it is more complicated than just anti-immigration. It taps into something much more profound. It relates as well to the end of the Cold War, which opened the possibilities for new parties and the possibility of pursuing a foreign policy that reflects less the current circumstances than the international politics of Europe in the 20th Century.

What is your take on the role of populist forces in the Brexit process?

Well, I’ve always been a little bit in doubt about whether or not to call UKIP (the UK Independence Party, a Eurosceptic, right-wing political party in the United Kingdom) a populist party. It seems more like a single-issue movement driven by a mission to correct a single historical mistake — namely, Britain’s entry into the European Community in the 1970s. At the same time, though, it is clear that the UKIP and later the Brexit Party have clear populist elements. They claim to represent the “pure people”—the citizens of Great Britain—and they perceive the presence of an apparent “corrupt elite,” the so-called Eurocrats. And they started with typical populist notions of trying to give the “pure people” a direct say in politics.

So, yes, I accept that we could call UKIP populist. But we cannot understand their success without looking into the less-than-politically-astute actions of then Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party, who deliberately took a gamble in putting this before the English public. His bet was that whatever he had negotiated with the EU to improve Britain’s position in the EU would see the British people back him unreservedly so that the internal critics within his Conservative Party would be silenced. Instead, he harvested a rejection of the very idea of Britain’s membership.

Even seeing UKIP as a populist party, we cannot understand its success without that strategic error or miscalculation of the Conservative Party and its leader. But, in the end, Brexit is still not over. The negotiations are over, but its implementation is still ongoing, as is often the case with international agreements. I find the most curious effect of Brexit—which drew most of its support in England outside of London and the southeast—is that it seems to have boosted, rather than quieted, English nationalism. Brexit may thus also have indirect unintended consequences—namely, fueling further Scottish nationalism and thus separatism.

A right-wing populist party considers diplomats to be representatives of the national elite, wasting resources on cocktail parties and global jet setting, forgetting what ordinary people want in foreign policy. So, populists seek to bypass the diplomats and engage in more direct foreign policies—strong leader to strong leader—rather than through complicated multilateral diplomatic engagements.

Do you think there is a populist foreign policy? How shall we understand the foreign policy outlook of different populist parties based on the demarcation–integration cleavage?

Well, what my colleague Andrej Zaslove and I tried to do was first to establish how the various populist parties define “pure people” versus the “corrupt elites.” Next, if we know what type of thick ideology they draw on to complete their political program, we felt it should be possible to make some tentative predictions about what different populist parties might put forward in foreign policy.

If you are a real left-wing populist party that has a global outlook in which class contradictions are central, then you would favor foreign policies that are distributive on a global scale and that are somehow directed at opening up and gaining more influence over international institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO. You would link up with transnational movements that seek to open up such international institutions, make them more pluralistic and inclusive. So, that is what we would expect from a left-wing populist party.

Meanwhile, we would expect a more right-wing populist party to see the “pure people” as a kind of national element, maybe even a nativist one. Arguably, representatives of the national elite in foreign policy would be the diplomats who are—from their perspective—mainly engaged in cocktail parties and jet setting, forgetting what ordinary people want in foreign policy. So, we would expect populists to bypass the diplomats and engage in more direct foreign policies—strong leader to strong leader—rather than through complicated multilateral diplomatic engagements.

Moreover, we would expect populists to protect the “pure people” through their foreign policies by spending less on development assistance and transfers in the EU. Because they are likely to be particularly critical about migration, we would expect them to toughen up migration policies or engage in anti-migration policies in general. So, in that sense, we believe that we can formulate expectations about those foreign policies, but again—as I indicated before—whether they materialize much depends on the relative strength of such parties or individuals in their respective political systems.

All politics, in the end, is about compromising unless you enjoy an absolute majority like Fidesz in Hungary. The latter may be the best case to observe populist foreign policy. Hungary under Viktor Orbán clearly displays populist foreign policies—keeping out migrants, not complying with EU external policy (such as vis-à-vis Russia), or ignoring attempts to create European solidarity regarding Covid-19 vaccinations. All in all, they pursue a much more unilateral foreign policy. So, I guess that comes, reasonably, close to a populist foreign policy.

How do you make a distinction between the often-conflated concepts of populism and nationalism? How does a populist foreign policy differ from a nationalist foreign policy?

Well, we attempted to tackle this conceptual problem at some point. We are not sure whether we succeeded at that. The problem is the notion of nationalism. That is a complicated concept in the first place. One idea of nationalism suggests a common identity related to a shared past, present, and future. This identity is usually connected to a particular territory. The nation embracing the identity usually asks for and might be prepared to strive for some degree of autonomy or even full-blown independence.

Sometimes nationalism and populism may overlap. In foreign policy, nationalism is usually linked to promoting the nation’s interests abroad or protecting it from foreign interests (say, by subsidizing exports rather than opening up to the free market or by trying to conduct one’s own monetary policies despite fiscal and economic globalization). There are other things we can think of that might constitute some kind of nationalist foreign policy. If that is done by a country representing one nation, forming one sovereign state, then this notion of nationalism is unrelated to populism. This will also be the case if the sovereign state pursuing a nationalist foreign policy represents several nations within the state that somehow have built an inclusive set of institutions.

The populist element will only come if the nation is not considered an inclusive entity —namely, a situation in which some groups would not be considered part of the “pure people” that the sovereign state is supposed to represent in its foreign policies. In that sense, populist nationalism is much more internally divisive, rather than uniting the entire country behind the idea of the nation.

How do you explain the influence of populist foreign policies on multilateralism and global governance?

In the first lesson, a teacher of international relations would tell you that you should not just focus exclusively on the domestic side because any country with similar national interests would act similarly. For instance, Italy is a country that has very few natural resources. It depends on gas and oil from so many countries. For this reason, Italy often pursues unilateral foreign policies, sometimes deviating from the EU line. So, Italy strikes its own deals—like energy deals with Russia, Iran, and Libya—in the national interest, not because it is a populist thing to do.

It is a thing that may be any government would do given the dependency of this country on energy sources. Therefore, we need to be careful in that sense to explain everything based on party politics. After all, party politics is just one aspect of a more extensive system.

Trumpism Is a Product of a Divided Society

A Tea Party rally at the Federal Building, Los Angeles, CA on September 12, 2009. Photo: Joseph Sohm

The Trump administration pursued a populist foreign policy dubbed “America First,” as the president put it. Donald Trump’s unilateralist foreign policy constrained multilateralism in the WTO (among other intergovernmental organizations) and created the impression that a wave of neo-mercantilism against free trade was in the offing. What do you think about the implications of the mercantilist tendencies of populist parties or leaders in power? And do you believe populist parties may trigger a process in which global trade becomes fragmented along neo-mercantilist lines in the near future?

I am going to take a very long road to answer this question. I may, at first, underestimate the importance of Trump’s personal style and his individual actions also in foreign policy. Having said that, though, I still feel that the success of Trump, being elected in 2016, can only be because a minority, but still, a sizable group of Americans voted for him. In that sense, Trumpism is also the product of a society that it is divided, of a society where at least some people have a clear notion of what we may call populism. I mean, Trump’s success heavily depended also on the organizational strength of the populist Tea Party for a long time.

The Tea Party was populist, I would say, in at least one important way. One wing of the Tea Party represented the traditional fear of an overweening federal government. So, it is about limiting the federal government based on the “pure people.” The “pure people,” of course, are the gun owners who consider bearing arms a legitimate way to protect themselves from government overreach.

Moreover, there is a potent populist sentiment that is traditionally very well organized within the Republican Party. On the one hand, I think that this thin ideology is pretty much unique for the United States. Of course, there are populist elements of style, some of them copycat behaviors, particularly the way Trump engaged in political debate in the first place—namely, the divisiveness that is part of his style. But I find the fundamental idea of the “pure people” very peculiar to the United States. I don’t think that is easily exportable to other countries, even though we may see everywhere little Trumps but not backed up in the same way or so forcefully by that type of populist organization.

The Conflict Over Global Trade Is Likely to Continue

The second element is that the United States is in relative decline. China is growing faster. India is growing faster. Foreign producers outcompete many American economic sectors. In that sense, no matter whether we have a Democratic or a Republican president, they will never be able to ensure global free trade on solely American terms. However, as we have often claimed, there will always be protectionist elements, neo-mercantilist elements in American foreign policy, if only to secure certain vital voters every two years in the midterms and their presidential elections. This mechanism will not readily disappear.

Trump has made a difference as Joe Biden will make a difference. But they have different styles. They have different interest groups to protect or to cater to. Within those boundaries, I think there will be a little bit less neo-mercantilism because Biden is slightly more open. He is engaging with the world, and he wants the United States to play a significant role. He wants the damaged reputation of the United States to improve. But I don’t expect him to be a complete free trader. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party of protectionism more than the Republicans.

It will mean that the United States will still play a very active protectionist role in international trade. We should not forget that the American reluctance to engage in multilateral agreements has been there maybe even since Clinton, but certainly since Bush and Obama. So, the United States has always had a kind of preferred strategy to strike bilateral deals with states before engaging in multilateral deals on the same subject because the bilateral approach strengthens their hand. First, having concluded the bilateral agreement, then going to the WTO for multilateral agreement— helps ensure the multilateral deal is closer to US interests.

That would, in general, of course, be an improvement in terms of more free trade. That is true, too. But that approach to global trade has been there under four presidents already, which will only continue, given the rise of China and India. After all, China and India —and Brazil for that matter— want to have more say in global trade and global finance, and the United States is getting weaker economically.

Gradually, but slowly, we will have to compromise if these countries want to stay in the same institutional framework. We know that if China is unhappy with the prevailing international arrangements, it is prepared to start its own international institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And Washington will probably find out that if they don’t compromise, or at least open up in a way to China’s interests, then China will work its way around the United States. So, briefly speaking, I don’t expect the United States to suddenly return to being the hegemon that it may have been in the past and magnanimous toward the rest of the world. In that sense, conflicts over global trade and global finance are likely to continue.

Professor Bertjan Verbeek

Who Is Bertjan Verbeek?

Bertjan Verbeek is a professor of international relations at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He is an expert in the influence of populism on foreign policy, the role of international organizations during crises, and the learning ability of governments during and after crises. He is currently undertaking an international comparative study on crisis decision-making in foreign policy. He argues that, despite the populist radical right’s popularity among political scientists, little scholarship has focused on its influence on foreign policy. For Verbeek, this lack of study is due, in part, to a general lack of attention to the role of political parties in foreign policy, both in comparative politics and international relations.

People hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against Donald Trump's environmental policy at conference attended by Trump climate advisor Myron Ebell in Brussels, Belgium on Feb. 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Prof. Michael M. Bell: We have to understand knowledge as a social relation to understand authoritarian environmental populism

Talking about environmental populism and authoritarianism Professor Michael Mayerfeld Bell, who is also an author and a composer, explains the importance of protecting environment through the philosophy of one of his compositions called “Respiration.”  “Whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”

Interview by Mehmet Soyer & Heidi Hart 

Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a composer, author, and a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is also part of the Environmental Studies program, as well as in Religious Studies and Agroecology program, said in an exclusive interview with the ECPS, that we have to understand knowledge as a social relation in order to understand authoritarian environmental populism.

Stating that environmental populism is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism, Professor Bell gave “brown ecology” in National Socialism as an example. “There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that,” said Bell. He quoted a former executive director of Acres USA, an organic agriculture organization, who claimed we are having a rise of homosexuality in society because of “the use of pesticides.” Bell stated that “So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument.”

Professor Bell stressed the social relations of knowledge behind the seductiveness of arguments like these: that is, how what we take to be relevant and trustworthy knowledge depends upon its relations of identity. He argued that environmentalists often take environmental findings as mere facts, without considering the identity relations in which they are embedded, and thus whether people will trust or pay attention to these findings.   

He discussed his own work to reach across such “cultivations” or bubbles of identity through music. Talking about a recent piece titled “Respiration,” which is about both climate change and COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Bell explained that “The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”

The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Mehmet Soyer: I know you from the environmental sociology field, and I had an “Aha” moment while reading your ecological dialogue theory, which holds that each is the seed of the other. In one of your presentations at a conference, you asked why populism is so seductive; we’re in modern liberal society that’s supposed to be done with that kind of thinking, so how would you answer your own questions?

That was a sarcastic comment, of course. But the issue that’s at the heart of populism is the issue of inequality, and modern liberal societies are by no means beyond that. Indeed, the main issue that we need to think about is the basic bargain that those societies are based on. If you want to call it that, [the bargain] was that we would establish equality of political standing and not address material standing. Right, everyone gets to vote … so the promise goes: “Happy now, that you all get to vote?” And we don’t have to worry about anything else. But that’s really [only] half equality, if you like, an equality of inequalities. The claim was that any inequality of material standing, after you had equality of political standing, was your own fault, right? And that’s just not the case. You can’t have one without the other. We need them both; material standing is part of political standing. So we need what I like to call an equality of equalities, or what I call “isodemocracy” (democracy founded on equalities in both political and material standing— democracy in which the concerns of everybody, and every body, are the concerns of everybody). But we don’t have that, and it rightly pisses people off. Now, unfortunately, some people are channeling that populist anger in an authoritarian way. But I understand pissed-off part.

Count On Us Women’s March 2020: Reporter asking protesters about their Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler comparison sign in Washington D.C. on October 17, 2020. Photo: Julian Leshay

Authoritarian Populism Diverts People from the Real Sources of Their Troubles

Heidi Hart: Right, thank you, that was very succinctly answered. It’s a tough question, but it gets to the core, and, as a follow up, how do you think authoritarian populism, in the face of growing economic inequality, has affected the global green shift? On the one side, we have democratic countries like Germany, who are greening their economies, on the other side, an authoritarian country like China is also attempting to green its economy. Do you see any contradiction here?

Authoritarian populism, it seems, is basically a cruel sham. It diverts people from the real sources of their troubles, and ecological exploitation is surely one of those. But I don’t think I would call China an authoritarian populist country; it’s an authoritarian country. And I don’t see China’s leaders as trying to create an image of an elite that is oppressing the common people, which is the essence of populist thought. It seems to me that Chinese politics is more based upon nationalism. It’s us, China, versus the rest of the world.

In any event, the reality of the challenges that ecological exploitation creates is evidently seen as significant. Enough so that such diverse countries recognize it and are trying to do something about it. Maybe we’ll actually get there.

Heidi Hart: Even in the Democratic Party in the US, the Green New Deal is controversial. What do you think about the Green New Deal? Is it doable, and why has been seen as a “socialist” move?

Because the right is basically trying to undermine it using socio-cultural cues. And this I suppose gets to the question of “what is socialism?” In my view, socialism is just organizing life for social benefit. It’s also the idea that collective benefit leads to individual benefit, as opposed to the capitalist argument, which seems to be that individual benefit somehow leads to collective benefit. “Just trust us, the invisible hand will take care of all that” – which it doesn’t, because of the power differences that the capitalist approach immediately sets up. So, the big scare the right likes to use is the idea that socialism means economic nationalism, or nationalization, collective ownership of the means of production. But I don’t think socialism is defined by a specific economic practice. It’s defined by social goals. It’s a social theory, not merely an economic one.

Achieving those goals may indeed involve nationalization and collective ownership, but that’s a debate that we need to have economic sector by economic sector. How best do we organize our economy, as well as the other aspects of our lives, for collective benefit? They just want to scare us: “Oh, they’re just going to nationalize everything and it’s going to be the Soviet Union or what have you.” Because they’re basically trying to keep the bargain I talked about earlier, which is, “OK, we gave you the right to vote, or at least most of you (we’re trending that back a little bit, but we hope you don’t notice we’re doing that), but yeah, we gave you that, so we don’t need to address the material stuff, do we?” So, they are trying to keep that bad bargain alive through confusing people. And the Green New Deal is a credible effort to confront that bad bargain and make it a fair one.

The Kehlsteinhaus (also known as the Eagle’s Nest) on top of the Kehlstein at 1.834m is the formerly Hitler’s home and southern headquarters in Berchtesgad, Germany.

An Environmental Populist Argument May Turn into An Awful Right-wing Argument

Mehmet Soyer: What do you think about environmental populism? Would it be a solution to ‘save the world’?

Well, I think it’s a question of populism of what? It seems to me that you could have an environmental populism that is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism. A horrible example of that is what scholars sometimes call brown ecology, which was the very strong ecological argument in National Socialism. There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that.

I remember once many years ago, I was at the annual meeting of something called Acres USA. Acres USA is a major organic agriculture organization, doing a lot of work on agroecology. I was in Iowa at the time, and I was doing some ethnographic work, so I thought I probably had to go to this meeting. So, I did, and I listened, as the then-executive director of Acres USA proceeded to explain “why we are having a rise of homosexuality in society: because of the use of pesticides.”

So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument. So, the trouble is that the environment is very much bound up in these ideas of nature.

We have done some of the most beautiful things we have ever done in defense of nature, and some of the most horrible things we have ever done [also] happen in defense of so-called nature. So, to go back to your question, it depends on [which] environmental populism.

Knowledge Is A Social Relationship As Well

Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on that, because one thing I’ve been writing about for this organization is eco-fascism and the temptations of purity culture, which certainly have roots in Heidegger and Nazi Germany. But what about the sort of climate populism that has arisen around figures like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, the more left-wing populist impulse? What are your thoughts about that as a potential to make a difference?

Well, I think populist arguments have a lot of basis in them, if we can just get our facts straight. And I think [Thunberg] is helping us to do that, with the facts that are straight on: there are a lot of moneyed interests who are trying to keep people down and keep them divided, in order to pursue their particular agenda[s]. I think the facts bear that up. Climate change is a real.

Heidi Hart: This actually brings us to our next question. We have been bombarded by fake news about environmental issues such as climate change. Do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders and/or of conspiracy thinking?

Yes, and that is to recognize that knowledge actually is not just about facts. Knowledge is a social relationship as well, [what] I like to call the cultivation of knowledge: understanding the relationship between knowledge and identity. We spend all of our days actually ignoring stuff way more than we pay attention to it. Right now, why are you talking to me here, [when] there are 7 billion other people on this planet? Why aren’t you talking to them? I’m sure they have really interesting things to say. Why did I go to [Mehmet Soyer’s] class, and not some other class? Why did I look at the New York Times today and not the National Review? Why did I watch CNN and not Fox News?  There are so many things out there to not pay attention to, but how do you know that those things actually are not relevant and important to your life, if you haven’t looked at them? So, you use your social relations to help guide you in these decisions, what you’re not going to pay attention to. This can be the cultivation of un-knowledge, maybe even more than a cultivation of knowledge. That is to say, then, we have to understand identity relations in what is knowledge. That’s why someone like Greta is so powerful, because she actually is a relatable figure and can help cross social ties and boundaries, if you like, cultivation boundaries, field to field, of knowledge identity that are otherwise in place.

One of the problems, I think, the environmental movement has had is that it’s been heavily guided by wonkish people like me, who sit in offices like this, and on campuses where we think about facts, we think about what’s in the journals and what the other scholars are saying, and we actually identify with that. So, we have identification issues going on there that we probably don’t even pay attention to (“By the way, who have you cited in your article?”). So those relations are very much part of academic life as well, but when we talk to the public, we forget about that, right? And we also don’t listen to the public, and we don’t consider their knowledge as potentially part of our cultivations, because we’ve decided that the people we pay attention to are those with the author-date citations. So, we have to get past of all that. I think the first place is to recognize that when we’re talking about knowledge, we are also talking about social relations.

When Populist Authoritarian Leaders Go, Their Networks Collapse

Mehmet Soyer: Following up on the previous question about fake news, which reminds me of Donald Trump, how much do you think distrust of elites has fed climate skepticism among right-wing populists? And what about the wealthy supporters of leaders like Trump who claim similar ideology?

Well, you know that Trump is addressing people who feel that they have been left out and kept down. And that’s actually most of us. So, now he has a little bit of a rhetorical problem. He was born with a gold spoon in his mouth. And he loves the color gold. You know that as soon as he came into the Oval Office, the first thing he did was to replace the drapes and make them gold colors. The apartment in Trump Tower has gold everywhere. So, what is Trump going to do? He’s going to emphasize ideas that he thinks will resonate with those who feel left out and kept down. He’s going to say, “I’m full of resentment and therefore I resonate with your resentment,” and he’s going to say, “By the way, I don’t need that fancy stuff, I eat hamburgers and French fries.” Also, the way he speaks is basically to divert attention from the fact that he has a degree from an Ivy League university. And he’s been enormously effective at this. It’s very central to the kinds of networks that Trump has built. They’re really built around his personality, right? There are very strong identity relations associated with Trump creat[ing] a vast network of cultivation. But it’s also very fragile. So, when major populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks often collapse extremely fast [as well].

Trump is actually still with us. But I’ve been really quite, or a little, optimistic about the fact that he has largely disappeared in the last few months. He’s been submerged much more than people expected. You know I don’t want to wish for his death, or for anyone’s death, but when he does finally go, as we all will, even more you’ll see the opportunity for really significant re-alignment of those relations of knowledge and identity.

Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on this one, because the personality cult is so powerful, even though it does seem to be fading. Trump adherents are now resisting vaccination and have tended to be climate change deniers as well. What do you see is the relationship between the personality cult and the denial of scientific fact?

Because of this interrelationship between knowledge and identity, and what people are not paying attention to … there are these major bubbles that that separate us. I think what we need to do is find ways to reach out across and burst those bubbles, and we have to burst them from inside our own bubbles, to try to rewrite the ways that we’ve been ignoring each other.

Heidi Hart: That’s beautiful, thank you. Maybe this next question is related: as a fellow musician working in arts and politics, how far do you think the arts can go and bursting these bubbles, or at least fostering environmental awareness, perhaps reaching across political divides?

Absolutely, I think it’s what moves me all the time when I’m onstage, if I’m able to play some music to a diverse audience, and somehow it gets found out: “Did you know he’s a college professor?” So, I think music has very strong opportunities for that. I wouldn’t call it a universal language, but it is one of many ways that we have to lead our lines of identity – what we pay attention to, who we appreciate, who we care for – in different ways.

Whatever You Breathe In, Someone Else Breathes Out

Mehmet Soyer: There is a group called Brave Combo. I don’t know if it’s a local band, or a national band, but they were really active in protesting fracking development in Denton, Texas. They organized a concert and wrote lyrics about the issues. There is intergenerational support for music, so I really believe in art and also the power of the music in these protests.

Right. I do write political songs, and sometimes I sing them at events, but the main group I work with is a group called Graminy, which comes from the Latin word for grass. What we try to do is to merge grassroots traditions with classical traditions. We call it “grass-class.” I think you can probably see that implicit in there is a social point: we want to bring more grass to class, and we want to bring more class to grass.

A recent piece that we did, about a 20-minute piece, is really about climate change and about COVID at the same time. It’s called “Respiration.” The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath. Hopefully we’re in a place where we can talk about these issues without saying, “By the way, I’m a socialist” or, “By the way, I’m a Trumpist.”

Heidi Hart: It’s a challenging thing to do with the arts, I think, because they can be very sticky with ideology and appropriated, as we’ve seen with Trump claiming music in his rallies that goes against the political beliefs of the musicians themselves. But I think it is powerful. I’m currently working with some musicians and sound artists on a climate grief project that is very much connected to breathing, eco-regulation, and co-regulation through rhythm. There are a lot of different ways we can approach these issues that are embodied. If we involve the body, that helps people to relate to each other, too.

Great, and I just want to give a quick shout-out also to an organization here in Wisconsin that I work with a lot. They’re called the Wormfarm Institute, and they work on rural-urban integration or what they sometimes call “rural-urban flow” through the arts. They run this wonderful annual festival they call Fermentation Fest, which is a celebration of fermented foods, which include bread and beer and cheese, but so many other things are fermented, and there’s a sense of aliveness there. Through food we’re able to [create] rural-urban flow, which food is very much a part of, and get to that embodiment that you were just talking about.

Mehmet Soyer: Thank you, Mike, for a great conversation and for joining us today.

Who is Michael Mayerfeld Bell?

Michael M. Bell is an author and scholar, as well as a composer and performing musician. Bell is the author or editor of eleven books, three of which have won national awards. His most recent books are the Cambridge Handbook of Environmental Sociology (Cambridge, 2020; Legun, Keller, Carolan, and Bell, eds.), the 6th edition of An Invitation to Environmental Sociology (Sage, 2020; Bell, Ashwood, Leslie, and Schlachter), and City of the Good: Nature, Religion, and the Ancient Search for What Is Right (Princeton, 2018). He is currently finishing a book on the sociology of heritage, with Jason Orne and Loka Ashwood.

Professor Bell serves on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is Chair and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology, as well as a member of the faculty of the Agroecology Program, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and the Religious Studies Program.

Bell is a prolific composer of classical and grassroots music, as well as environmental and progressive song. He performs regularly on mandolin and banjo with the award-winning “class-grass” band Graminy, and on guitar as a soloist and in the Elm Duo. Discover his composition and performance at his separate music site. Bell is passionate about progressive politics, their challenges and possibilities. He currently serves on the board of the Dane County Democrats.