Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia span one of the longest continuously inhabited regions of the world. Centuries of cultural infusion have ensured these societies are highly heterogeneous. As plural polities, they are ripe for the kind of freedoms that liberal democracy can guarantee. However, despite having multi-party electoral systems, these countries have recently been negatively influenced by populist authoritarian political leaders, parties and movements. Our panelists have explored in their most recent report published by the ECPS the unique nexus between faith and populism in five Asian countries and offer an insight into how cyberspace and offline politics have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which socio-political events are taking place.
The report focuses on the role of religious populism in digital space as a catalyst for undemocratic politics in these five Asian countries they have selected as their case studies. The focus on the West Asian and South Asian cases was an opportunity to examine authoritarian religious populists in power, whereas the East Asian countries showcased powerful authoritarian religious populist forces outside parliament. The situational analysis from five countries indicates that religion’s role in digital authoritarianism is quite evident, adding to the layer of nationalism. Most of the leaders in power use religious justifications for curbs on the internet. This evident “religious populism” seems to be a major driver of policy changes that are limiting civil liberties in the name of “the people.” In the end, the reasons for restricting digital space are not purely religious but draw on religious themes with populist language in a mixed and hybrid fashion.
(11:00-11:05) Welcome speech on the behalf of ECPS by Simon Watmough
(11:05-11:15) Introduction of the report by Ihsan Yilmaz
(11:15-11:25) Cyberspace, authoritarianism, and religious populism by Mahmoud Pargoo
(11:25-11:35) Indian Case by Raja M. Ali Saleem
(11:35-11:45) Indonesian Case by Idznursham Ismail
Ihsan Yilmaz is Research Professor and Chair at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He is also a Visiting Research Associate of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, The University of Oxford, and a Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow at the ECPS. Yilmaz has conducted research on religion and politics; authoritarianism; digital authoritarianism; populism in Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia and beside of other research subjects.
Raja M. Ali Saleem is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than 20 years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.
Mahmoud Pargoo is a research fellow at Deakin University (Melbourne) and a visiting fellow at the AI-enabled Processes (AIP) Research Centre, Macquarie University in Sydney.Mahmoud is the author of Secularization of Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran(Routledge, 2021) and lead-author of Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
Syaza Shukri is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among her recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy.
Idznursham Ismail, the founder of stratsea.com, possesses a master’s degree in Strategic Studies and a First-Class Honours in Biological Sciences from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Nanyang Technological University (NTU), respectively. After his stint as a Research Analyst at the Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR, RSIS), he resided in Indonesia for numerous years, gaining experience in organizations such as The Jakarta Post, the Wahid Foundation, and PAKAR. He specializes in security-related issues, particularly terrorism and unconventional weapons. His current research includes non-traditional security themes such as public health.
Kainat Shakil is a non-resident Research Associate at the ECPS. Her research explores populism from the perspectives of religion, emotions, and gender. The regional focus of her work is mainly Pakistan and demographically Muslim-majority countries. Previously, she was a researcher at The Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy at NetSol (BIPP)— a Pakistan-based think-tank— where her work focused on reviewing public policies from a people-centric perspective. Before working as a full-time researcher, she was an Erasmus research scholar at Middlesex University London and the recipient of the US State Department’s cultural scholarship, Global UGRAD.
Lars Erik Berntzen aims to probe the growth of far-right and anti-Islamic twist in Western Europe and North America since 2001 through his book “Liberal roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century” by focusing on a specific context in terms of spatial and temporal meanings. According to his book, through “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” far-right seems to abandon the old, traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy.
The book sheds a light on the shift from a positive approach to an adversary attitude towards Islam and Muslims following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. Highlighting the transnational impact of these incidents, Berntzen delves into anti-Islamic activism conducted by pioneering movements and political parties in Europe, such as Stop Islamization, Defense League, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA), Dutch Pin Fortuyn List (LPF) and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV). The author also draws attention to the hypocrisy of far-right politicians and activists who portray themselves as liberals to avoid stigmatization by using certain discourses of human rights as proxies to exploit anti-Islamic agendas. As a very convenient issue, women’s and gender-based rights are claimed by Marine Le Pen of the National Rally (FN), for instance, to “denigrate Muslim men” (Berntzen, 2020: 2).
Laying out the background of the book, Berntzen states his research questions in the first chapter. The initial purpose is to explore the background of leaders, their official ideology, organizational networks, and the mobilization of sympathizers. In order to conduct such a research, he also presents four steps. First, he focuses on “tracing evolution of anti-Islamic expansion between 2001 and 2017” specifically in Britain, the US, Netherlands, Germany, Norway and Denmark. Subsequently, a frame analysis of eleven anti-Islamic initiatives from Norway, Britain and Germany is raised covering the time period of 2010-2016. His third step in this research is a network analysis of those anti-Islamic initiatives. And finally, the book investigates mobilization of anti-Islamic groups “that were active during the summer of 2016.”
Berntzen’s overall finding which he shares in the first chapter is that a significant change is observed within the approach of far right towards Islam and Muslims. He explains such a change as a shift from authoritarian and ethnocentric to a modern, liberal, and transnational anti-Islamic activism. In other words, far right takes on a liberal attitude and appearance by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality, animal rights, preservation of Christian and Jewish heritage. However, the author addresses this situation as an ideological duality considering the view of Islam as a threat to Western civilization along with the profiles of anti-Islamic activists and politicians. Hege Storhaug, a Norwegian feminist activist, is given an example of aforesaid hypocrisy since she aligns with Hungarian politician Viktor Orban’s and the Polish Law and Justice Party’s policies which do certainly not prioritize gender equality and gender-based rights.
As a scholar focusing on identity representations of Muslim immigrant women in Europe and North America, Berntzen’s work stood out to me in terms of drawing on the most influential concepts on identity formation in resettlements of Muslim immigrants: Islamophobia, anti-Islam and anti-Muslim. The way he differentiates these concepts through the social movement theory is also striking since framing and mobilization play an important role in identity politics. As far as I am concerned, Islamophobia represents an irrational, emotional fear; whereas, the author argues, anti-Islam refers to the “shift the theoretical focus from reaction to action, in line with the agency-oriented perspective dominant in social movement analysis” (Berntzen, 2020: 38). At this point, inclusion of liberal positions which portrays Islam as an existential threat to Western civilization and as an ideology not compatible with democratic and progressive issues; anti-Islam justifies and legitimizes transnational mobilization of far-right organizations. Among the most influential discourses of this liberal far-right are women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and their perception in Islamic tradition. Berntzen maps the ideology of anti-Islamic far-right combining with not only the expansion of collective action and networks but also with party politics. While doing so, he draws on both international critical incidents such as 9/11 terror attacks and Prophet Muhammed cartoon crisis and local incidents to demonstrate the anti-Islamic expansion of the far-right in different contexts and circumstances.
To sum up; Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century scrutinizes anti-Islamic ideology and movements of far-right by diving into distinctive conceptualization of Islamophobia, anti-Muslim and anti-Islam. Claiming it to be an ideological duality, the author of the book highlights that anti-Islamic far right posits a semi-liberal worldview and action towards Islam presenting it to be incompatible with modernity, human rights and liberal issues. In other words, by “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11) far right seems to abandon the old, traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy, seemingly, focuses on more the ideology (Islam) rather than the individuals (identities). As he puts in several parts of the book while explaining why he favors “anti-Islam” concept rather than “anti-Muslim” and “Islamophobia”; this distinction represents the new transnational anti-Islamic movement to be transforming from ethnic based nationalism, oppressive authoritarianism which focuses on Muslims towards a liberal position which promotes equality, justice and democratic values putting an ideological standpoint forward.
Liberal Roots of Far Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century, By Lars Erik Berntzen, Routledge, 2020. 228 pp., £27.99 (paperback), ISBN: 9780367224660
Religious populism and radicalism are hardly new to Pakistan. Since its birth in 1947, the country has suffered through an ongoing identity crisis. Under turbulent political conditions, religion has served as a surrogate identity for Pakistan, masking the country’s evident plurality, and over the years has come to dominate politics. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is the latest face of religious extremism merged with populist politics. Nevertheless, its sporadic rise from a national movement defending Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws to a “pious” party is little understood.
This paper draws on a collection of primary and secondary sources to piece together an account of the party’s evolution that sheds light on its appeal to “the people” and its marginalization and targeting of the “other.” The analysis reveals that the TLP has evolved from a proxy backed by the establishment against the mainstream parties to a full-fledged political force in its own right. Its ability to relate to voters via its pious narrative hinges on exploiting the emotional insecurities of the largely disenfranchised masses. With violence legitimized under the guise of religion, “the people” are afforded a new sense of empowerment. Moreover, the party’s rhetoric has given rise to a vigilante-style mob culture so much so that individuals inspired by this narrative have killed in plain sight without remorse. To make matters worse, the incumbent government of Imran Khan — itself a champion of Islamist rhetoric — has made repeated concessions and efforts to appease the TLP that have only emboldened the party. Today, the TLP poses serious challenges to Pakistan’s long-standing, if fragile, pluralistic social norms and risks tipping the country into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of religous political party Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, speaks to supporters during a protest against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders in Lahore on August 29, 2018. Photo: A.M. Syed.
Pakistan’s history with populism dates back as early as the 1960s. The first populist was neither a mullah nor a military dictator seeking to legitimize his rule. Fatima Ali Jinnah, the younger sister of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was the first leader to adopt a populist playbook when she ran against the military-led coalition of General Ayub Khan (1958–1969). Jinnah became the face of “real democracy” against the “elite” in the 1965 general elections. The “real democracy” she promised was rooted in a commitment to represent the “people’s will” (Zaheer and Chawla, 2019). However, while largely secular in outlook, General Ayub—in addition to widespread electoral rigging—ran an orthodox Islamist campaign to delegitimize Jinnah’s political ambitions by arguing that Islam prohibits women from serving as head of a state (Ahmed, 2019; The New York Times, 1964). Religious orthodoxy blended with military authoritarianism defeated a populist democrat in 1965. In the 1970s, history repeated. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a left-wing populist whose program featured traces of Islamic welfarism, lost the premiership (and his life) to Islamist elements who demandedNizam-e-Mustafa(the system of governance under the Prophet Muhammad) be imposed in Pakistan.
During the decade-long regime of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978–1988), religious factions were empowered enough to become fixtures in the parliament, judiciary, and the law itself, not to mention the daily lives of Pakistanis (Ahmed & Yilmaz 2021; Yilmaz, 2014). This is known as Pakistan’s period of “Islamization” and continues to shape the country’s politics to this very day. Today, it would be unimaginable for leaders like Jinnah or Bhutto to run for office. The public is now more responsive to “pious” populism than to a generic “anti-elitism” that promises an end to corruption. A decades-long strategy of tolerating (and indeed nurturing) religious fanaticism as part of the military-led establishment’s quest for “strategic depth” has created fertile soil for “pious populism” at the grassroots (Meher, 2012). Compared to voices emanating from the remote and “corrupt” political system, the ordinary working-class or rural Pakistani citizen has unquestioning faith in the guidance and direction from the mullah of his or her local mosque.
In the last three and a half years, growing disillusion with the democratic system has peaked. The party of Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has promised a utopian vision recalling the Riyasat-e-Madina (the early period of rule in the city of Medina under the Prophet Muhammad), through welfare schemes, promoting piousness in society, and an end to corruption. Needless to say, these promises have not materialized (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). With skyrocketing inflation, the PTI walking back many of its promises, and the government proving mostly unable to govern effectively, many citizens have lost hope in the promised political “tsunami.” Against this backdrop, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has evolved from a movement to defend Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws into a populist radical right-wing political party. In less than a decade it is able to challenge the ruling political party and the state apparatus itself, on several occasions.
The instrumentalization of religion that the TLP has proven so adept at is scarcely novel in the Pakistani political firmament. Founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi in August 2015, the TLP has its origins and largest base of support in the Barelvi sect, a broad, Sufi-oriented Islamic revivalist movement with a long history of mobilizing conservative factions in South Asia and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the TLP is unique in the sense that it uses a highly appealing form of religious populism. The leadership provides a “moral” Islamism that seeks to address the issues of “corruption” in politics and society. With a sense of victimhood, it presents itself as the “defender” of faith and nation laced with vigilante-style vindictive rhetoric. Since 2015, the party has rallied thousands on the streets, leading to violent clashes, and loss of life and property. Each event has led to temporary arrests and bans on the party, only for the state to eventually cave into supporters’ demands and release vigilantes and lift sanctions on the party.
Emboldened by its successive victories, the TLP has grown in power. Its followers have become independent vigilantes engaging in cyber-harassment of critics, physically roughing up opposing voices, hurling in-person targeted abuse, and in the most extreme cases lynching people they accuse of blasphemy to death. This ability to mobilize and attack opponents combined with a voluble rhetoric that panders to a “pious” and wronged “true people,” allowed the TLP to score 4.2 percent of the vote (some 2.2 million votes) at the 2018 general elections, putting it in fifth place, although without any seats in Pakistan’s parliament (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020).
Despite its sporadic rise to power and mushrooming growth, very little scholarly analysis has been published on the TLP. This paper seeks to address this gap in the literature by analyzing the TLP’s religious populism. In doing so, it offers a comprehensive review of how this populist Islamist populist movement has leveraged emotion and religious devotion to mobilize supporters. The first section of the paper provides an overview of the theoretical framework through which religious populism has been understood and the two central features of the phenomenon: the use of pro-violent narratives and vigilantism. This is followed by a discussion on the TLP’s genesis and the group’s evolution since 2015. In this section, statements by TLP leadership and the party’s dynamic relationship with the Pakistani state are reviewed to shed light on the conditions for its growth and its core mobilizing tactics. The closing section offers a set of conclusions about the role of religious populism in promoting vigilantism and sporadic acts of gruesome violence, the path ahead for Pakistan, and the risk that the country will descend into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization.
Members of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are holding protest rally against amending affidavit of Khatam-e-Nabuwat, at M.A Jinnah road on November 12, 2017 in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.
Religion and Populism
Loosely characterized as “confrontational, chameleonic, culture-bound and context-dependent” (Arter, 2011: 490), populism has become a worldwide phenomenon that directly challenges liberal democracy. A “thin” ideology, populism “thickens” and adapts by attaching itself to “thicker” cultural and ideological forms (De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017). By its very nature, populism is divisive in that it establishes an antagonistic division between “the people” and “the elite” while promising justice for the former, who are typically cast as “wronged” (Moffitt, 2020; De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017; Laclau, 2005: 154; Mudde, 2004: 543). It also goes beyond just criticizing “the elite” for their moral or political corruption and accuses the elite of advancing the interests of some favored “Other” at the expense of the “true people.” This “Other” can be defined variously in terms of political beliefs, skin color, gender, religious beliefs, or migration status (DeHanas & Shterin, 2018: 180; De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017; Zúquete, 2017: 446; Moffitt, 2015). Essentially, populists thrive on divisional politics, and their sensationalist antics that “celebrate the low” in politics, ranging from utopian promises to crude language, add to their popularity (Nai, 2022).
Religious populism is a form of cultural populism whereby embedded cultural forms are used to “thicken” the fundamental division between “the people” and “elites.” In the last two decades, religious rhetoric has become ever more prominent in mainstream politics (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020; Peker, 2019; Hadiz, 2018; Jaffrelot and Tillin, 2017; Zúquete, 2017; Roy, 2016). In Europe, “civilizational” narratives that emphasize the role of religion in broad identity constructs have increasingly come to dominate the most influential forms of populism (Brubaker, 2017: 1211). This kind of populist rhetoric and narrative mobilization foregrounds civilizational distinctions, especially “religions and their cultural legacies” (think Viktor Orbán’s self-proclaimed mission to defend “European Christianity”), where “the people” and “the other” are distinguished based on religion, ethnicity, cultural norms, and the like. (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021).
In the twenty-first century, cultural populism has become widespread, especially in non-Western parts of the world, such as South Asia and Africa. In many such countries, religion is used by civilisationist populists to “thicken” their ideology, style, and outlook. As Yilmaz & Morieson (2021) note, there is an elective affinity between religious populism (which appeals directly to the faithful at a programmatic or electoral level) and identitarian populism (which draws on religious identity to make chauvinistic claims about the superiority of one culture over another). Specifically, the authors observe that:
“Religious populism encompasses both organised religion’s political and public aspects when they adopt a populist style and/or discourse, and populist political movement/parties/leaders that adopt an explicit religious programme. Identitarian populism is superficially similar to religious populism, but it does not possess a political programme based upon religious teachings, nor does it attempt to force religion upon a society or run a society according to the teachings of a particular religion. Instead, identitarian populism embraces a religion-based classification of peoples, often one aligned to civilisations (Western, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) or nations. It is not, however, religious itself, but is most often wholly secular, and therefore does not call for people to return to the faiths of their ancestors, or even to believe in God” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021: 10).
This framing of the phenomenon of religious populism speaks to the modus operandi of the TLP, which instrumentalizes Islam and uses faith to mold its narrative and style while emphasizing the goal of bringing Nizam-e-Mustafa to Pakistan, thereby reorienting the status quo.
The Emotional Appeal of Religious Populism: Opening Space for Vigilante Aggression
Religion is not only a tool for social categorization but also a highly emotive tool in the hands of populists. As Yilmaz & Morieson (2021: 1–10) note: “Similar to many other ideologies/movements, populists too construct narratives that paint the events, in-groups, and outgroups in certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitate strong emotions among the audience.” Such a strategy enables them to cast the ingroup as “good” and the outgroup as “wicked.” Added to this categorization of society is the emotion of fear which creates a crisis for “the people.” For instance, in the United States and across Europe, an emotional backlash against multiculturalism, gender rights, and overall progressive values has bolstered populists who seek to protect “Christian values” (Norris & Inglehart, 2019).
In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, has also derailed democracy against a backdrop where communal tensions between various religious groups have reached a peak not seen since 1947 (Doffer et al., 2020; Gandesha, 2020). In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has merged pre-existing social tensions and fears with Islamism, overturning eight decades of often aggressively imposed secularism (Yilmaz, 2021). Within Pakistan as well, Imran Khan’s populism hinges greatly on emotional appeal. Over the years, his promise of a Riyasat-e-Madina has given hope to “the people” that the country can adopt a model of Islamist welfare combined with economic and political self-sufficiency.
Both religious and identarian populists use emotions to polarize society, gain merit in the eyes of “the people,” and promote themselves as “the only hope” against a hostile “other.” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Salmela & von Scheve 2017; 2018; Brady et al., 2017; Graham et al., 2011). Given the nature of religion, its importance in the lives of many, and its divinely ordained distinctions between “good” and “bad” conduct, the way religious or civilizational identities are drawn is often rooted in pre-existing collective feelings “of grievances, resentment, disillusionment, anger, fear, and vindictiveness” (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2022; see also Yilmaz, 2021; Bonansinga, 2020). “The people” and their faith (or long-held cultures of worship) are positioned as being at risk from “the other.”
One of the leading examples where Islamist populism has deployed a host of emotions in its mobilization strategy is Turkey. Erdoğan has successfully leveraged long-established fears of “Western enemies” and “internal traitors” that date back well over a century but are cast in a new guise to fit the current political context (Yilmaz, 2021). Since 2010 especially, Erdoğan, his party, and pro-AKP voices have systematically engaged in smear campaigns that transform into institutional oppression and discrimination toward “the other” (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2021, 2022). For instance, a former ally and spiritual group, the Gülen Movement (GM) and its leader, have been used as a scapegoats for all manner of sins within the AKP, including its rampant corruption and many governance failures since the mid-2000s (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2021; 2022; Watmough, 2020).
Religious populist leaders outside of state institutions have also used emotions to galvanize support along these lines. One of the most prominent cases from Southeast Asia is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI—Front Pembela Islam), which is now formally banned in Indonesia (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021). With the narrative of victimhood inspired by fear of assorted “others” — non-Muslims, “Zionists,” the Western powers, China, and Ahmadis — the group has been encouraged to take matters into its own hands and “defend” Islam and the ummah (Facal, 2019; Jahroni, 2004). Its massive appeal in the country has meant that while renaming a movement-driven organization, the FPI has played a key role in electoral lobbying and mainstreaming right-wing narratives. Its power to sway state institutions is visible by the fact that it was behind the introduction of 400 Shariah-inspired laws in the country and has the force behind blasphemy protests in 2016–17 (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021).
The FPI has been able to replicate its presence online, and even though it remains banned, its cyber “warriors” and various websites remain active (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Moreover, using charged Islamist populist rhetoric, the FPI has inspired a generation of vigilantes in the country who continue to take part in local (and overseas) incidents of aggression toward various “others” to “protect” the Islamic faith.
However, it must be noted that Indonesia’s democratic institutions, while often brittle, are much stronger than Pakistan’s. The government has succeeded in permanently banning the FPI and maintaining its outlaw status. In contrast, the TLP remains free to operate in a country with already fragile institutions and a population receptive to Islamist narratives. This paper thus looks at Pakistan’s context and understands the group’s working under the populism framework.
A regional office of a TLP in lyari. The Signboards are in Urdu and English in Karachi, Pakistan on January 2021.
The Historical Roots and Evolution of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan
The Barelvi order was formed in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising in India against the British East India Company. Weakened, the company turned to the British government for assistance, and the conflict expanded into a full-scale war of independence against the British crown. The Indian defeat in 1857-8 led to the formal colonization of India by Britain when the last Mughal King, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed, and a series of “revenge” murders by the British troops was undertaken (Dalrymple, 2008). This ushered in the end of centuries of Muslim leadership of the Subcontinent.
In the wake of the establishment of the British Raj, a broad-based, Sufi-oriented Sunni Islamic revivalist movement, the Barelvi, emerged to “protect” Islam and restore Muslim “glory” in the region. Over the years, the movement has inspired jihadism against the region’s perceived “others.” For instance, Syed Ahmad Barelvi launched a guerrilla war against the Sikh Empire of Punjab in the early nineteenth century; over two hundred years later, thousands of young men were sent as mujahideen to fight the Afghan war in the 1980s. As a result, Barelvi religious doctrine draws on a deep sense of victimhood that extends back to the colonial past. Over time, the movement has adapted, and its definition of “other. Nevertheless, the centrality of jihadist ideas and the movement’s defining motivation to “protect” Islam against hostile forces have been constants.
In recent years, Pakistan’s commitment to the US “war on terror” has seen the influence of hardliner Deobandi scholars decline. However, the state’s tolerance of madrassa culture and its cultivation of right-wing radicals continues. Indeed, the Pakistani state has embraced the benefits of pandering to a supposedly “victimized” population by supporting the “softer” Sufi elements in Islam, of which Barelvism is a part. As a result, Barelvi clerics have been placed in important positions, their madrassas have received state funding, and the Barelvi identity, which had been solidified due to exclusion and deprivation, has strengthened through state patronage. For their part, the Barelvis have publicly condemned terrorism and, by all accounts, have consciously avoided inciting political chaos in recent decades. Nevertheless, despite its Sufi roots, the movement hues to very strident positions, seeing the Holy Prophet as a divine being (Noor Mohammadiya) who is omnipresent (Hazir-o-Nazir) and arguing that insults of the Prophet (Namoos-e-Risalat) should be punished by death. Emboldened in this way, the movement has become more assertive and has turned violent of late.
The origins of the TLP movement are in the Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri), which came into existence after the arrest of Mumtaz Qadri in 2011 on charges of assassinating Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, ostensibly for the latter’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Following Qadri’s trial and execution, the movement renamed itself Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolallah (TLYP), later transforming into the TLP (Sabat, Ahmad, & Qadar, 2020). This movement advocated for Qadri and portrayed him as a hero even after this execution. The movement derives its core support from Barelvi madrassas dotted across the country.
In the conducive environment for the Barelvis, supporters of Mumtaz Qadri grew in numbers. The movement consolidated at his funeral and later rituals associated with chehlum (the traditional forty days of mourning after death), branding him a martyr of Islam. The movement grew rapidly, affording the largely dispersed Barelvi community a publicly expressed collective identity. Opposition to blasphemy became the central aspect of the movement’s motivation, and where the judicial system was seen as too slow in its prosecution of violators (at times even acquitting them), the TLP applied direct and swift mob justice.
The incumbent government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) did nothing to reprimand this vigilante behavior at the time, especially following Qadri’s hanging. Embroiled in its own corruption scandals and confronting civil unrest led by Imran Khan and his PTI, the government lacked the will and resources to act. In addition, the PML-N, which draws on the tradition of General Zia-ul-Haq’s political Islam in Pakistan, did not wish to alienate its pious supporters by being seen to be heavy-handed against Islamic groups in society. More importantly, the military-led establishment —which had nurtured Sharif and his party in the 1980s as a counter to the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — now settled on the Barelvi as a useful counterweight to the PML-N’s growing independence. After returning to the prime ministership for a third term in 2013, Sharif and his party were increasingly asserting their independence from the establishment, driving the latter to seek ways to “break” the party’s political base. To that end, the establishment began to foment rifts between the PML-N and its right-wing supporter base in Punjab, including the Barelvi. Careful political engineering behind the scenes laid the ground for the formation of the TLP.
Many TLP members are former PLM-N supporters. A 2018 Gallup survey found that 46 percent of those who voted for the TLP in 2018 had voted for PML-N in the 2013 elections. Nawaz and his party keenly felt this loss of support. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, the Punjab exploded in sporadic province-wide protests led by Khadim Rizvi calling for the resignation of the then Minister of Law and Justice, Zahid Hamid, over changes to the wording of the Elections Bill 2017 drafted by the government in the run-up to the elections.
Specifically, the government had changed the wording of the oath concerning commitment to the finality of Prophet Muhammad from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe.” The TLP cast this “weakening” of the oath’s wording as undermining Pakistan’s Muslim identity and values, which hinge on the belief in the finality of the Prophet. Zahid Hamid’s home was attacked, and TLP vigilantes staged sit-ins until he was forced to resign over the alleged “blasphemy.” Rizvi and his followers blocked all main roads in Islamabad for twenty days, demanding the original wording be restored and the minister’s resignation. Clashes with police injured some 200 and killed four.
The TLP remained undeterred, and the protests turned into highly ritualistic public displays of political piety. Day and night, on the orders of Rizvi, the protesters chanted nats (lyrics praising the Prophet Muhammad) and slogans expressing love for the Prophet and hatred for those considered gustakhs (blasphemers). Passions ran so high that protesters armed with simple sticks were recorded tossing their shoes at passing state patrol helicopters while Rizvi hurled all kinds of abuse at the government. Finally, with the PML-N on its knees, the military was called in to “arbitrate.” The TLP was forced to retreat to its stronghold in Lahore (albeit with its demand met), and the government retreated with its tail between its legs. However, it would not be the last time the radicals would best Sharif before the 2018 elections.
The 2017 events only emboldened the TLP, which now evidently had the establishment’s blessing. As much was proven when a video surfaced of a high-raking army official disbursing money to TLP protesters in 2017. The establishment claimed the funds were used to disburse the protesters by giving them funds to return to their homes. However, many speculated that this was part of the military’s long-run strategy of “strategic depth” — namely, fomenting unrest to keep the elected government on its toes.
These suspicions were further confirmed when the Supreme Court finally released its judgment on the sit-ins in February 2019. The judgment held that all protesters be tried under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and called upon Pakistan’s electoral commission to scrutinize the TLP’s status as a political party. Interestingly, the court issued a warning to the armed forces to cease meddling in the country’s political affairs, noting: “The Constitution emphatically prohibits members of the Armed Forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction or individual. The Government of Pakistan through the Ministry of Defense and the respective Chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are directed to initiate action against the personnel under their command who are found to have violated their oath.”
By 2018, the TLP had become a household name. It had garnered wide media attention and the sympathies of radical elements in the country. Rizvi’s crude language and earthy charisma proved quite effective. His blunt use of Punjabi jokes and coarse language resonated with the sentiments and approach of the masses. Thus, he could cast himself as “one of them” rather than a phony politician. His speeches went viral on social media, and attendance at the seminary at Multan Road in Lahore blossomed. Like all populists, Rizvi’s rhetoric was unapologetic and provided “simple” solutions. For example, as a “solution” to the problem of Dutch “blasphemers” mocking Islam and the Prophet, he suggested Pakistan attack the Netherlands with nuclear weapons, berating the government for its inaction and its warehousing of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as if they were “firecrackers” (i.e., just for show).
When quizzed about the party’s economic policy on a popular television show, Rizvi showcased both his political acumen (using the language of people’s everyday experience) and apparent lack of economic expertise (eschewing detailed policy commitments), noting that when the Nizam-e-Mustafa was established, the country would prosper because the government would, like any ordinary household, just live within its means. He explained this by saying that if his government were ever short of resources, everyone would make do for a while without yogurt and instead eat chilies with roti. However, when further pressed for a specific policy, he launched into a classic rant against the state and blamed banks charging interest and a lack of piety among the elite as the source of all problems.
Enabling a New Vigilante Jihadism
Despite its apparent disconnect with reality, TLP won some 1.8 million votes (National Assembly seats) in Punjab (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020). The same year they also successfully campaigned to remove Atif Mian from the Pakistan Economic Council because he was a member of the Ahmadiyya community. This was the first compromise by the PTI government as it gave into the demands of the TLP.
At a micro level, more disturbing events occurred even before the elections. Young impressionable children going to TLP mosques and hearing Rizvi’s sermons showed early signs of vigilantism. On January 23, 2018, Sareer Ahmed, a student, killed his school’s principal, who had reprimanded him for skipping classes to attend a TLP sit-in. The boy who showed no remorse after killing his teacher justified his actions in the name of safeguarding the Prophet Muhammad.
In May 2018, PML-N politician and National Assembly Member, Ahsan Iqbal was critically wounded by Abid Hussain,who charged Iqbal with committing blasphemy. It is believed that Iqbal was returning from a meeting with a Christian group when he was shot. In March 2019, Khateeb Hussain, another young student, killed his professor over allegations of blasphemy. The boy did not show any signs of remorse after using a knife to kill his teacher in his classroom.
On October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the previous conviction of a Christian woman Aasiya Noreen (popularly known as Asia Bibi), accused of blasphemy. The TLP called for the three judges to be killed for the judgment. Mass protests erupted in retaliation, and roads in major cities were blocked as protesters stormed the streets and destroyed public and private property. On November 2, 2018, the new government agreed to put Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List, which barred her from leaving the country in an effort to subdue the protests. To neutralize the growing resistance on November 4, 2018, Rizvi’s Twitter was also suspended at the government’s request. Bibi’s lawyer also left the country fearing his own life. On November 7, Asia Bibi was secretly flown on a military plane out of the country.
In 2020, a bank manager from the Ahmadiyya faith was shot dead in broad daylight by the bank’s security guard in the town of Khushab in Punjab. What was more disturbing was the guard being taken handcuffed by the police with a smirk on his face as the mob chanted in support of him for heroism. In 2021, the lynching of the Sri Lankan factory manager by a mob in Sialkot was also TLP inspired. The key culprits in the cases expressed pride in their actions. All these attackers were linked with TLP or inspired by their narrative, yet the TLP chief was quick to disassociate himself from them.
While TLP has served the establishment (and the PTI) as a valuable counterweight to the PML-N, the party’s freelance vigilantism has become an issue. Now that the PTI is firmly in power and towing the establishment line, the state apparatus has again mobilized against the TLP. As mentioned, in 2019, the Supreme Court openly questioned the party status of the TLP and asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to investigate. In reply, the ECP has informed the court that the party had failed to provide the required campaign finance reports for the 2018 elections, blunting the party’s political ambitions. Additionally, there were also rumors of a split between the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his heir apparent, Pir Afzal Rizvi, and the movement began to show cracks.
However, another “crisis” emerged in the winter of 2020 that opened up a space for the TLP to fall back on its tried and tested strategy of leveraging supposed “threats” to Islam to mobilize supporters in vigilante violence.
In October 2021, a French history teacher who had brought sketches of the Prophet Muhammad allegedly printed in a 2012 edition of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo into his classroom was decapitated; the assailant was shot dead by French police as they tried to arrest him. In the days that followed the beheading, the same sketches were projected onto the facade of a building in another French city, and people displayed them at protests around the country. The French president Emmanuel Macron criticized Islamists and was accused of inciting Islamophobia. This led to a call within Pakistan to boycott French products. Khadim Hussain Rizvi went a step further, calling on followers to block the Shahrah-e-Faisal, the main road in Karachi, until the government cut all diplomatic ties with France and banned all French products. He even urged the government to announce jihad(Islamic holy war) against France. During this period, his sermons were increasingly hostile toward France, and in one, he declared, “we must eventually die of some disease, be it diabetes or some other ailment […]. It is better to die with the name of the Prophet on our lips […] it does not matter if France perishes if the world perishes or we perish.”
Rizvi has been adept at using the coarse language of his region to castigate opponents. He has labeled the Supreme Court Chief Justice a “dog,” referred to Prime Minister Imran Khan variously as an “animal,” a “duffer,” a “barking dog,” a “pimp,” and mouthed many anti-Semitic slurs. When confronted with his behavior, he has defended himself by declaring he is merely a cipher of the words and vision of the Prophet Mohammed.
A large numbers of people gathered to attend funeral prayer of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Chief of TLP, held at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore on on November 21, 2020. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.
Rizvi’s death in 2020 did not end the movement. His eldest son, Saad Rizvi, who was relatively unknown to the public before taking over the movement’s leadership, has since continued his father’s path. Thus, the death of the elder Rizvi has not derailed the party’s anti-French jihad. On January 3, 2021, he called on the government to expel the French ambassador by February 17, 2021 as per their previous agreement.
On April 12, 2021, police arrested Saad Rizvi on charges of terrorism. Protests erupted, and a member of the group’s leadership, Syed Zaheerul Hassan Shah, called on supporters to “jam the entire country.” Tensions became so high that the French embassy asked French nationals to leave the country temporarily. Law enforcement agencies tried to clear out TLP supporters from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but at least four policemen were killed in clashes. This proved to be the final straw for the government, which announced it had “reasonable grounds to believe that Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan is engaged in terrorism.” On April 15, 2021, the government banned the TLP under anti-terrorism legislation. Fearing a backlash from the party supporters, the government also temporarily banned social media. Despite the move to outlaw the party, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on national television to call the crackdown on the TLP “regrettable,” thereby showing his sympathy for the group’s criminal acts.
By November 2021, the PTI government appeared to be walking back its hardline approach to the TLP. First, Saad Rizvi’s arrest mobilized unprecedented protest action across the country that the government of Imran Khan struggled to control. Then, at the end of 2021, Saad Rizvi was released from prison. Moreover, many TLP supporters accused of vandalism and violence against police walk free, even as the party prepares to contest the 2023 general elections. Yet, rather than seeing the renewed mobilization of the TLP as a defeat, Imran Khan’s strategy appears to be to placate the movement, pointing to the shared Islamist objectives of his PTI and the TLP.
Illustration by: Khurram Shayzad.
The present article has sought to analyze the foundations on which the TLP has risen to prominence in Pakistan. Our analysis indicates that the group has leveraged the victimhood narrative, jihadism, vindictiveness, and revanchism of the Barelvi sect. While Islamic populism is not new in Pakistan, the TLP is set apart by its ability to ride the populist wave by speaking to the fears and anxieties of the public. In addition, it has mainstreamed radical Islamist and pro-violence ideas. Having evolved from a proxy created by the establishment to a political force in its own right, the TLP poses a serious challenge to the very fabric of Pakistani society through its championing of mass vigilante violence.
It is clear that the Pakistani establishment has been key to emboldening the TLP through its early support. Now, the TLP has gained so much clout that it appears to have outgrown the state. Moreover, the political environment is ripe for exploitation. Inflation rates keep skyrocketing, the value of the Pakistani rupee has plummeted, and Imran Khan’s promised Islamic welfare state is nowhere to be seen. While Khan employs his own version of Islamist populism to appease the religious sentiments of the masses, there is a growing sense of distrust toward him within the electorate. Only a few years ago, Nawaz Sharif and his PLM-N lost a hefty chunk of their votes to the TLP; the PTI now confronts a similar fate.
What emerges is a kind of Islamist “bidding war” in which the PTI seems to be losing ground to the TLP. While the former has bolstered religious authorities, funded right-wing groups, and constantly advocated for a boycott of “Western values” (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021), the TLP seems to be constantly outmaneuvering it. Its unchecked and uncensored content is creating a new generation of vindictive jihadists. And unlike the Taliban, this group operates in plain view. Students, shopkeepers, and even family members appear ready to kill in the name of “safeguarding” Islam. Most of these people know that the legal system is too corrupt and slow to prosecute them.
It is unclear whether a new “crisis” will emerge (or be fabricated) that will allow the TLP an open space for mobilization in the lead-up to the 2023 elections. What is clear is that the playing field of Pakistani politics has shifted decisively in favor of extremism and vigilantism. While the TLP is hardly the first outfit to exploit religion in Pakistan, it is arguably the most threatening to the stability of the social and political order in the country’s 75-year history.
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 Barelvi was a revered figure with origins in the Ahl-e-Hadith factions (another hardline Sunni order). His name is derived from his hometown of Bareli (in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh) and not the Barelvi movement itself.
I am honored to be writing this foreword for the first research report of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). This newly-founded, Brussels-based independent research organization investigates and analyzes the various manifestations of populism and the challenges posed by its increasing spread across the world.
The world has been suffering from the fatal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. This horrible and costly experience has reminded us that we really do live in a global village in every sense. A contagion that emerged in a wet market in one part of the world spread in a matter of months to all four corners of the earth and turned rapidly into a global pandemic. As of January 17, 2022, almost 329 million people have been infected, and over 5.5 million people from every walk of life and continent have died. It is evident that problems emerging in far-flung places have the potential to affect us all in ways we could scarcely imagine.
At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the rise and spread of the most recent wave of global populism carry many of the same characteristics and pose, in the view of many, no less a global threat than COVID-19. Alongside renewed racism, rising authoritarianism, and ongoing oppression, exclusion, mass persecution, extremism and radicalization, bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and climate change denial, populism has come to reinforce the sense that the world confronts a new age of severe global crisis that threatens to spiral out of control and which no country or region on earth can hope to avoid.
After all, who could possibly argue that the poisonous mixture of populism and religious bigotry we see today on the streets of Lahore does not affect the feelings and security perceptions of the people walking peacefully through the streets of Amsterdam? And who among us can ignore the fact that the anti-Islamic discourses and exclusionary populist narratives expressed from the comfortable rostrums of splendid buildings in European capitals have no impact on the Egyptian youths who watch TV in their lounge rooms and are mobilized by feelings of hate and enmity? Against this backdrop, we can readily see that opposing extremisms fuel each other and create fertile ground for a vicious cycle of worsening extremism that threatens to engulf the planet.
If we agree that the physical, offline world is a global village, it is no stretch to argue that the online world is a global town hall. And in this online global town hall, conspiracy theories, extreme emotions, and destructive discourses spread much faster than in the offline global village. So, the ECPS has decided to examine authoritarian religious populists and to research the dangerous nexus between faith and populism in cyberspace and, of course, its fatal effects in the offline world. I am sure that this report, as an impressive product of comprehensive research across five different Asian countries, will help us to understand the role of digital space in Asian democracies, especially concerning religious populism.
Being aware of the fact that the global rise of populism can lead to democratic decay, the spread of authoritarianism worldwide, and threats to global peace, security, and stability, I want to thank the scholars who have poured their efforts into preparing this report. I also sincerely hope that this report will fill a crucial gap in this research field and become a valuable resource for scholars and practitioners alike.
Dr. Bulent Kenes
ECPS Executive Director
4. Executive Summary
Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia span one of the longest continuously inhabited regions of the world. Centuries of cultural infusion have ensured these societies are highly heterogeneous. As plural polities, they are ripe for the kind of freedoms that liberal democracy can guarantee. However, despite having multi-party electoral systems, these countries have recently moved toward populist authoritarianism. Populism —once considered a distinctively Latin American problem that only seldom reared its head in other parts of the world— has now found a home in almost every corner of the planet. Moreover, it has latched on to religion, which, as history reminds us, has an unparalleled power to mobilize crowds. This report explores the unique nexus between faith and populism in our era and offers an insight into how cyberspace and offline politics have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which socio-political events are taking place. The report focuses, in particular, on the role of religious populism in digital space as a catalyst for undemocratic politics in the five Asian countries we have selected as our case studies.
The focus on the West Asian and South Asian cases is an opportunity to examine authoritarian religious populists in power, whereas the East Asian countries showcase powerful authoritarian religious populist forces outside parliament. This report compares internet governance in each of these countries under three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. These are the digital toolkits that authorities use to govern digital space. Our case selection and research focus have allowed us to undertake a comparative analysis of different types of online restrictions in these countries that constrain space foropposition and democratic voices while simultaneously making room for authoritarian religious populist narratives to arise and flourish.
The report finds that surveillance, censorship, disinformation campaigns, internet shutdowns, and cyber-attacks—along with targeted arrests and violence spreading from digital space—are common features of digital authoritarianism. In each case, it is also found that religious populist forces co-opt political actors in their control of cyberspace. The situational analysis from five countries indicates that religion’s role in digital authoritarianism is quite evident, adding to the layer of nationalism. Most of the leaders in power use religious justifications for curbs on the internet. Religious leaders support these laws as a means to restrict “moral ills” such as blasphemy, pornography, and the like. This evident “religious populism” seems to be a major driver of policy changes that are limiting civil liberties in the name of “the people.” In the end, the reasons for restricting digital space are not purely religious but draw on religious themes with populist language in a mixed and hybrid fashion. Some common themes found in all the case studies shed light on the role of digital space in shaping politics and society offline and vice versa.
The key findings of our survey are as follows:
The future of (especially) fragile democracies is highly intertwined with digital space.
There is an undeniable nexus between faith and populism which offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined.
Religion and politics have merged in these five countries to shape cyber governance.
The cyber governance policies of populist rulers mirror their undemocratic, repressive, populist, and authoritarian policies offline. As a result, populist authoritarianism in the non-digital world has increasingly come to colonize cyberspace, and events online are more and more playing a role in shaping politics offline.
“Morality” is a common theme used to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws and the active monopolization of cyberspace by government actors.
Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment, hurling abuse without physically seeing the consequences or experiencing the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on their victims.
Over 60 percent of the world’s population has access to the internet, with some 4.66 billion active users in January 2021. While there is a global divide in access to the internet related to income disparities and unequal human development, the overall growth remains staggering. The largest share of the planet’s internet users, nearly 52 percent, reside in Asia, with its dense population and steady increasing uptake of digital communication technology. Moreover, the widespread availability of cell phone technology and the rapid development of the mobile internet has meant that digital platforms are a well-integrated part of daily life. In 2009, less than 1 percent of internet traffic was generated by mobile phones compared to 50 percent in 2020. Internet use is forecast to grow again in 2022 and beyond. It is, thus, not surprising that governments are keen to adopt digital technologies such as high-speed internet, smartphones, social media, and artificial intelligence (AI) as part of their governance strategies. As a result, political processes—including in the region’s democracies—are becoming highly intertwined with digital space.
At the dawn of the internet age, the global community shared a sense of optimism about the prospects for a bright digital future. Indeed, the web was often spoken about as an agent for democratization. Cheap and ready access to the internet was hailed by scholars as an inherently democratizing development that would ensure the widest possible dissemination of information to the people. The internet was supposed to facilitate the creation and expression of ideas and political views by ordinary citizens in a media ecosystem dominated by powerful corporate or state-controlled television, radio, and print media. Indeed, many democratic theorists cast the world wide web as a virtual Habermasian “public sphere” promising a global “society engaged in critical public debate.” The online network society was expected to serve as a forum for the formation of public opinions, like the coffee houses of Vienna (in Habermas’ original theory), in which all citizens would have equal access to influence public debate. Several mass protests in the late 2000s and early 2010s that were mostly organized and facilitated by digital social media further boosted this techno-optimism in developing countries. The Arab Spring, in which Twitter featured prominently as a mobilizing tool, saw the fall of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.
This optimism over the increase in cyber activity and access to the internet came in the wake of the “third wave” of global democratization that began in the 1970s and peaked after the end of the Cold War. However, the first decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a significant “democratic retrenchment” worldwide and the rise of an unprecedented wave of populist governments on virtually every continent. Unlike in the past, this new wave of populism has affected longstanding democracies once thought immune. For instance, America and India, the world’s two most populous democracies, have seen populist leaders rise within the democratic system. Moreover, despite unprecedented democratization since the mid-2000s, Pakistan and Turkey, countries with a history of military interventions, have chosen populist Islamist leaders.
Over the years, the populist wave has not only expanded but diversified as well. There are at least three broad categories of populism today. The most familiar is anti-establishment, where the “political elite” and other groups are demonized as part of the populist narrative. Socioeconomic populism is a center-left outlook featured in movements such as the Wall Street Protests and the leadership of political leaders such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. The last and most widespread category is cultural populism, which pictures elements within society and outside the country as “the enemy” of the “pure people.”
Along the spectrum of cultural pluralism, religious populism is prominent and has been championed by leaders around the world since the early 2000s. While most major religions of the world have been politicized by populist leaders and religious movements, there is distinctiveness in how they manifest. When Islam is politicized and deployed as Islamism by populist leaders, it manifests not only as a way to distinguish “the pious people” from “the corrupt secular elite” but also wields a religious symbolism and style wherein followers are encouraged to adopt explicit religious morals and “traditional” lifestyles in everyday life. These populists are nevertheless adept at leveraging technology and have been at the forefront of political messaging in digital space. As early as the 2000s, political parties in Muslim-majority countries were exhibiting a greater online presence compared to those in non-Muslim countries. Given that democracy is in a precarious state across the Muslim world, introducing draconian measures is not difficult for such governments, even on digital platforms.
In non-Western, non-Muslim-majority countries, identarian populism, another form of religious populism, has arisen. It uses religion to demarcate a civilizational division between “the people” and “the Other.” Arguably the most pernicious example here is India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has long espoused a highly exclusivist and chauvinistic Hindutva politics, which declares Hindus to be “the true people” and non-Hindus by implication as “Other.” Despite its moralistic overtones, the BJP has shown little interest in moral reform but still champions a Hindutva construction of society as the epitome of “civilization.”
Consequently, in a world where democracy appears “in retreat,” the early digital optimism has given way among analysts and intellectuals to a kind of digital pessimism, or at the very least skepticism. While at one end, individual citizens can use social media and digital technology to stay informed and engage in online and offline activism, there is a growing concern that authoritarian (and democratic) governments can use digital tools to assert their control over this space. Extensive digital capabilities—especially AI and Big Data—are increasingly being utilized by governments to exert control over their citizens. Indeed, some observers are talking about the spread of full-blown digital authoritarianism —namely, “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to survey, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.” In response to the rise of digital activism, authoritarian regimes—not just populist ones— have been fast to catch up and adapt, launching their own digital countermeasures of repression. Governments have been observed employing advanced digital technologies to undermine democracy in various ways, including surveillance, censorship, disinformation, cyber-attacks and hacking, internet shutdowns, and targeted arrests.
Against this backdrop, the present report contributes to our understanding of how emerging digital technologies affect, enable and undermine democracy, human rights, freedom, and the electoral process. While scholarship on the topic is in its infancy, the focus has generally been on Western democracies. Despite the scale of internet usage in Asia, this part of the world— and the Global South more generally— has been largely excluded from such studies. Thus, studies focusing on non-Western countries that have witnessed democratic backsliding under the rule or influence of authoritarian religious populists are sorely needed. In all the cases analyzed in the present report, digital platforms have been used intensely by governments and dissidents and can reveal much about the contested role of digital technology and the future of democracy.
States implement multi-layered and complex measures to manipulate the use of and access to cyberspace by people residing in their territory and to restrict online freedoms. The key measures in the toolkit of digital authoritarianism are:
Censorship includes “restrictions on what information can be publicized or viewed on the Internet.” Examples of internet censorship are blocking undesirable content, apps, and social media and passing laws that allow the removal of certain forms of content. Some countries have created so-called “sovereign internets,” facilitated by technology. Think of the “Great Firewall” of China and Russia’s Roskomnadzor, which enforces data localization, and Iran’s National Information Network (also called the Halal Internet).
Disinformation campaigns involve the spread of large volumes of false content by state-owned and regime-friendly media against the opposition. This can include social media manipulation through “cyber warriors” using bots and cyber-trolls. Examples include Iran’s so-called “cyber battalions” linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG). Disinformation campaigns also involve the manipulation of elections, including voter engineering and influencing voter behaviors and outcomes by micro-targeting propaganda and individualized campaigns using AI and Big Data capabilities. The creation of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” in elections can also undermine meaningful exchanges of ideas in electoral debates.
Cyber-attacks and hacking. Cyber-attacks include any “attempt to gain unauthorized access to a computer, computing system or computer network with the intent to cause damage. Cyber-attacks aim to disable, disrupt, destroy or control computer systems or to alter, block, delete, manipulate or steal the data held within these systems.” Such attacks often target opposition groups’ data centers, networks, social media accounts, and computer systems to undermine their public image and spy on their campaigns. There are reports that the Iranian government has been proactively gathering intelligence on Iran’s opposition by hacking applications, even secure ones like Telegram, which uses sophisticated symmetric encryption.
Internet shutdowns. “An Internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of Internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, often to exert control over the flow of information.” Short of complete shutdowns, governments can disrupt the internet and other electronic communications through rolling blackouts or selected blocking/filtering of the internet and social media.
Targeted arrests and violence occur when “a large group of abusers collectively attacks a target through a barrage of threats, slurs, insults, and other abusive tactics.” There are many reports of influential digital activists and actors being physically assaulted, arrested, and sentenced to jail.
Surveillance. In the digital realm, this usually takes the form of software that is specifically “marketed for or that can be used (with or without the authorization of the business) to detect, monitor, intercept, collect, exploit, interpret, preserve, protect, transmit, and/or retain sensitive data, identifying information, or communications concerning individuals or groups.” Today, this includes facial recognition technology (FRT), video surveillance, and so-called smart policing, monitoring communications and social media, tapping mobile phones, monitoring locations, using spyware, intercepting networks, biometric identification, and text/data mining.
There are several frameworks for monitoring and measuring restrictions on freedom on the internet. One of the earliest frameworks to investigate and analyze internet filtering and surveillance practices was developed by The OpenNet Initiative (ONI). Initially, the ONI focused on measuring internet filtering under four main categories: pervasive filtering, substantial filtering, selective filtering, and suspected filtering. Further elaborating the index, ONI distinguished filtering based on its locus—namely, whether blocking is conducted centrally and infrastructurally (at the level of the underlying internet architecture) or decentralized (at the level of ISPs). In their later work, ONI researchers studied how governments “shape, limit, and control the Internet.” Unlike the first-generation controls, which often focused on denial of access, the second generation utilized a repertoire of manipulation techniques to normalize and legalize control. These techniques included “distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, targeted malware, surveillance at key points of the Internet’s infrastructure, take-down notices, and stringent terms-of-usage policies.”
A more detailed categorization, which is partly based on previous work by ONI, is used by Freedom House in its annual Freedom on the Net reports. Here, three areas are covered: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The current report follows Freedom House’s framework, which offers a comprehensive conceptual apparatus to investigate modern manipulations of the internet. The table in the Appendix provides a brief explanation of each category of violations of internet freedom based on the Freedom on the Net 2021 report.
Governments can erect several types of obstacles to restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections. This includes making the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons. Governments can also exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure to restrict connectivity or impose legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers. Finally, national regulatory bodies can impose controls on service providers such that digital technology fails to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner.
The state can block or filter internet content—or compel service providers to do so. As well, state or non-state actors often employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content. Often, restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process. Limits can also be self-imposed, such as when online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship. There are also examples where online sources of information are controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest or where economic, regulatory, or other constraints exist that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online. Finally, the online information landscape may lack diversity and reliability such that conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues.
The constitution or other laws of a country may fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and may be enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence. Violations also occur when laws exist that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those protected under international human rights standards. In some countries, individuals are penalized for online activities, or the government restricts anonymous communication or encryption. Another concern is state surveillance of internet activities, which infringes on users’ right to privacy, and the monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies, which also infringe the right to privacy. In serious cases, individuals are subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or other actors concerning their online activities. Finally, the websites of government and private entities, service providers, or individual users may be subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack.
India’s current prime minister and leader of the BJP, Narendra Damodardas Modi, worked at a tea stall in his childhood and rose to become the leader of one of the world’s largest democracies. His first taste of politics came during his meteoric rise within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindutva social movement linked to the BJP. In launching his election campaign in 2013, Modi emphasized social mobility and progress for a “new India.” An end to corruption, dynastic politics, and socioeconomic gulfs seemed tantalizingly close when he was elected as prime minister in 2014.
However, after nearly two consecutive terms, Modi’s promised “new India” has yet to materialize, while there has seen a drastic decline in democratic freedoms, mainly due to right-wing policies. According to the Freedom House Index, freedom for Indian citizens declined for a third straight year in 2020–21. With a ranking of 67, India has been downgraded from “Free” to “Partly Free” status. Ripples of deteriorating democracy are also felt in cyberspace. Nearly 58 percent of India’s population has access to the internet, and this is rising fast. The total number of internet users in India rose from 795.18 million at the end of December 2020 to 825.3 million at the end of March 2021. As the following discussion shows, despite widespread internet access and India’s positive track record of democracy, today internet freedom in India is severely compromised.
In 2014, Modi declared, “I dream of a Digital India where access to information knows no barriers,” a far cry from where the country stands today. During its second term (2019—present), the BJP government has increasingly resorted to full internet shutdowns. The most prominent example was the full shutdown in the Jammu and Kashmir state in 2019. The only Muslim-majority state in India before its autonomy was taken away that same year, Jammu and Kashmir’s internet was totally blocked for almost five months. Even when restored, only 2G or 3G service was available in most places, making the opening only partial. The 4G internet service was only available after more than a year. Another service block in 2019 came during the protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), which was widely seen as targeting Muslims. Largely organized by civil society concerned over the discriminatory nature of the law, the protests soon spread all over India. Lasting well into 2020, many parts of the country saw massive internet shutdowns at the peak of the protests. As Figure 1 shows, India has recently had the largest number of internet shutdowns globally. Inspired by the federal government, the state authorities in India have also started using network curbs. In October 2021, in the state of Rajasthan, the districts of Jaipur, Bikaner, and Dhausa closed mobile network services and cell phone access to curb cheating in regional examinations. The country lost $2.8 billion in 2020 due to internet shutdowns.
The Indian government frequently uses Section 69A of the IT Act 2000 to block websites. The 2009 blocking rules published by the Indian government are themselves vague and allow the government to withhold information on which sites are actually being blocked. There has also been a marked increase in the number of blocked websites. Some 633 websites were banned in 2016, rising to 9,849 in 2020. Investigative journalists have revealed that most blocked websites belong to human rights groups, separatist movements, feminist platforms, NGOs, and even sites linked to United Nations agencies. The government justifies most blocks on the grounds of “national security.”
The year 2020 was quite testing for India. In addition to the burden of COVID-19 and the continued economic downturn and massive unemployment, there was the Indo-China border clash, all of which presented the BJP government with a range of social and political issues to address. The government responded by cracking down in cyberspace. Between January and October 2020 alone, India blocked 100 websites, 1,364 online domains, and 157 Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Due to the extensive blockade of content, the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) has surged. Only 3.28 percent of Indian internet users used a VPN in 2020. In the first two quarters of 2021, 25.27 percent of users used one.In October 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs recommended that the government ban VPNs in India. No action has been taken as yet.
India has one of the largest number of Facebook users globally, the third-largest Twitter population, and is the world’s largest market for WhatsApp. Under the government’s 2021 information technology rules, issued under the IT Act 2000, social media platforms are required to remove content identified as “illegal” by the government within three days, provide access to user information for law enforcement officials. The rules also extend the data retention period to 180 days and increase the penalties for non-compliance for the global platforms, putting end-to-end encryption in India at risk. These rules have been presented as necessary to protect individuals’ privacy, stop terrorism, riots, and breakdowns of law and order. Yet, the regulations give the government greater control over social media.
Since the law came into effect, firms have been obliged to share a monthly report with the government. These briefs showcase the amount of content removed. The first three months of published data revealed that Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and others removed a staggering 110.88 million posts. While content that is sexual or graphic in nature makes up a hefty chunk of the requested take-downs, there is also the question of what constitutes “terrorism” and “hate speech,” which the government frequently requests be removed from social media sites. Despite the tradition of rule of law in India, mob lynching of minorities triggered by misinformation via social media continues as well.
When India was struck by the Delta variant of COVID-19 in 2021, posts on social media that were critical of Prime Minister Modi’s handling of the virus were removed from these platforms because of the pressure from the government. Deemed “false statements,” these were posts from opposition leaders and concerned citizens over the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Online streaming services have yet to face legal reproach by the BJP government, yet the government has supported the RSS (and the broader Sangh Parivar Hindu nationalist movement, of which it is a part) in their protests against these services. The group targeted Netflix and Amazon Prime for offending Hindu religious sensibilities. The government has also done little to prevent harassment of producers and movie stars by Sangh Parivar attackers, who have bullied them in person and online.
Digital surveillance measures ranging from targeted to mass surveillance have been normalized in India. Events such as the Mumbai attacks of 2008 have justified these measures as necessary for “security.” Thus, the Central Monitoring System (CMS), an ambitious surveillance system that monitors text messages, social media engagement, and phone calls on landlines and cell phones, among other communications, was launched after 2008. Under the law, citizens targeted by it are not obliged to be informed whether their data has been intercepted. There are reports that the CMS has become a mass surveillance tool by the state without valid legal and constitutional authority. In addition, Indian police in several states have routinized the use of fingerprinting and FRT to stop and screen people on flimsy pretexts, turning vital public spaces into privacy-violating zones. The CMS and the FRT have frequently been used to profile and target protesters. These tools have been extensively used in the conflict-ridden zone of Jammu and Kashmir and for profiling people based on race, religion, and profession (among other factors) without legal permission.
Under such close monitoring, it is not surprising that journalists and social media activists continue to be arrested under terror or treason charges. Independent right-wing organizations, such as those of the Sangh Parivar, use these laws to file reports regularly against those opposing the government online. Legally speaking, right-wing factions act as “partisan supporters” reporting these incidents. Since 2016, India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has slid from 133 to 142 in 2021. Moreover, India is seen as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job.
Along with the CMS, India has been using other ways to snoop and surveil its citizens. In July 2021, India was also caught up in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Pegasus is Israeli software that has purportedly been used to spy on terrorists and marketed exclusively to governments. However, like many other governments worldwide, the Modi government has bought this spyware and secretly used it to spy on anyone considered a political threat. The Supreme Court of India has ordered an inquiry into the matter as of October 2021.
Thousands of protesters from various Islamic organizations rallied in front of the Indonesian Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on November 4, 2016. Photo: Dani Daniar.
Indonesia’s recent surge in attacks on minority religions has been instigated mainly by right-wing Islamist movements who have enjoyed much greater freedom after the sudden collapse of the New Order regime in 1998. After a period of democratic flourishing in the 2000s, Indonesia has recently been in a steady state of democratic decline, as highlighted by its 2017–2021 scores by Freedom House. Further complicating the matter, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has deliberately side-lined democratic norms in the interests of building a modern economy, which he and his supporters contend is a prerequisite for the future consolidation of democracy. The government’s reduced tolerance of criticism and discriminatory regulations against minorities has been an unfortunate consequence. Combined, both elements have led to increased abuses of religious freedom. Interestingly, Indonesia’s level of discrimination against religious and social minorities has seemingly remained unchanged since 1998. There are also signs of an increased Islamization with a rise in the visibility of Islamic gatherings, modest clothing, Muslim-only residential compounds, and Shariah-compliant banks.
Given shrinking public space, minorities have resorted to going online. Social movements such as those supporting LGBTQ+ or women’s rights have sought refuge on cyber platforms. While online communities enable like-minded individuals to interact, there are still limitations as the Indonesian government censored, regulated, and controlled the internet. Though Indonesia’s internet governance laws (see Table 1.0 in the Appendix) have been described to be well-intended, censorship regulations have created controversies. This highlights the presence of a specific moral compass being used by the government imposed on its citizens. Additionally, their loose definitional parameters also facilitate their instrumentalization by the government.
The Indonesian government has resorted to internet shutdowns to manage riots. In 2019 alone, there were three reported cases: one protesting the 2019 presidential election results, a successionist riot in Papua in reaction to the arrest and racist treatment of Papuan students in East Java, and a second similar riot in Papua triggered by racism toward Papuan students in Wamena. Of the three riots, the internet shutdown was the longest in the second riot spanning a two-week period from August 21 to September 4. While the Jakarta State Administrative Court ruled that the internet shutdowns in Papua and West Papua in 2019 violated the law, the Constitutional Court ruled otherwise on October 27, 2021. In April 2021, internet access in West Papua was disrupted on three separate occasions coinciding with events related to Papuan successionist movements. These coincidental disruptions were blamed on a damaged sea cable in the area.
Indonesia continued its tactic of banning websites deemed inappropriate, including those that purportedly promote religious extremism, pornography, entertainment streaming websites, and websites promoting content piracy. This practice of selective blocking started in 2008 when the government attempted to prevent its citizens from accessing an anti-Islamic film, Fitna. In 2018 alone, nearly 3,000 websites disseminating extremist ideologies were blocked, and about 9,500 other sites were under review. Based on Google’s recent “Content Removal Transparency Report,” Indonesia submitted the largest amount of requests from January to June 2021 on all of Google’s platforms, including YouTube, Google Search, and Blogger. While the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology is responsible for blocking sites found inappropriate, ministry officials do not assess the sites requested for review. Instead, agencies like the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) are responsible for the assessments. One potential issue is how such assessments are made and what happens when agencies disagree. Additionally, repeated blocking of popular websites has driven Indonesians to become au fait with countermeasures such as VPNs. In 2019, Indonesia had the most extensive VPN usage in the world. In addition to website blocking, the government banned homosexual emojis in 2016, citing its potential for public unrest.
Indonesia recently passed an internet bill that mandates online service providers to remove or block content on their platforms when requested by the government. According to Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, the law is essential to address disinformation and the destabilizing effects of “fake news.” Under the new rules, service providers must also register with the government by the end of 2022 to obtain the licenses required to operate. This is not the government’s first attempt. Indonesia threatened to ban Blackberry (a handset maker) in 2011 and Telegram (a messaging service) in 2017 on security grounds. These mandatory registrations and the threat that licenses will be withdrawn enable the government to exert control over multinational companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. In complying with Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, these companies are required to ensure that their platforms do not contain or facilitate the distribution of prohibited content. Unfortunately, as with other censorship laws, defining what is prohibited is problematic due to its broad definition.
One of Indonesia’s cyber laws, known as UU ITE, severely threatens civil liberties. This law, passed in 2008, has been used more frequently by Jokowi’s administration than previous administrations in response to the growing polarization on social media and to counter accusations against it such as corruption and misconduct. In November 2020, it was reported that since 2016, more than 300 criminal cases had been brought under UU ITE. The key issue with the law is its broad definitions. Though its stated purpose is to safeguard the populace against immorality through its criminalization under Article 27(1) of UU ITE, what is deemed immoral is not clearly defined, leaving it open to manipulation. Similarly, in this article and Article 27(3), “transmission” of immoral content is open to interpretation, thus, enabling even private consensual sharing of “immoral” content to be considered an offense. Not only has the government leveraged UU ITE, but also the police, government officials, and business people who form the three largest cohorts to make use of the legislation to pursue their interests.
In Indonesia, cyber harassment is a common way to target “the Other.” The weak legal framework for combating cyberbullying emboldens trolls such as the Muslim Cyber Army, which has a history of harassment and intimidation of individuals deemed to have insulted Islam. Numerous members of this group who go by a multitude of aliases were arrested for crimes such as spreading false reports and inciting racial and religious discrimination. In such an atmosphere, LGBTQ+, non-Muslims, Ahmadis, and other marginalized groups commonly self-censor.
Protester with mask strolling through he street filled with Malaysia flags in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on April 12, 2012. Photo: Soong Kim Huei.
For six decades under the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, Malaysia functioned as a hybrid regime. In 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defeated Barisan Nasional in the general elections, and for the first time, Malaysia experienced a peaceful transition in government. The contested Anti-Fake News Act in December 2019 was also repealed as part of the reform promised by the new government. Unfortunately, the PH experiment lasted for a mere 22 months before a soft coup by the Malay Muslim establishment. Since then, Malaysia has dropped in the rankings on various measures of democratic freedoms. The overly broad, colonial-era Sedition Act remains in place. The change in government and the COVID-19 pandemic actively prevented private media from covering events. However, Malaysians enjoy greater freedom online than they do offline. It is also worth noting that despite the 2020 soft coup, the Perikatan Nasional government has maintained a relatively open space for dissent online.
Returning to the prime ministership in 2018, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad—introducing his new agenda—promised no internet censorship under Section 3(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (hereafter the CMA). However, over the years, there has been an increase in laws that govern cyberspace (see Table 1.0 in Appendix for detailed laws).
The Malaysian government has yet, to completely shut down the internet. The closest the government was accused of affecting the entire network was in 2012 when mobile phone usage was disrupted during a rally. Officially slow internet speed was blamed for the disruption. Another reason given in 2016 was that the government was more focused on providing greater coverage across the country than on increasing the internet speed. In general, Malaysia suffers from a relatively low mobile internet speed, which was 31.34 Mbps on average in September 2021 (the global average was 63.15 Mbps). Slow internet connections were exacerbated during the lockdown period in 2020 and 2021 as more people went online. The government remains committed to improving this by introducing 5G technology in Malaysia in 2023.
The Malaysian government has actively blocked thousands of web pages that fit the definition of the “offensive” contained in the CMA Act 1998. As of April 2021, 18 websites were confirmed blocked in the country, whereas many others face anomalies, ranging from pornography to websites that criticized Islam. From 2018 until 2020, 2,921 pornographic websites were blocked, while 4,277 pornographic websites were blocked from 2015 until 2016. Most of the banned websites included terrorist-backed platforms, gambling sites, and the like, which infringe the Muslim ethos of the country. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocks websites when it receives complaints and applications from government ministries and agencies. This means that the MCMC may abuse its power against the opposition. For example, during the general election in 2018, the MCMC ordered 11 internet service providers to block three websites of Malaysiakini, a popular online news portal known for its neutrality (and thus not being a proxy for the government), on live updates of the election results for fear it could affect “national stability, public order and harmony, and economic stability.”
Compared to the other case studies, the Malaysian government has been less restrictive toward social media companies. In 2018, 97.3 percent of internet users owned a Facebook account, making it the most popular social networking site, whereas 98.1 percent of users preferred WhatsApp as a communication channel. At the same time, the MCMC had requested social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to take down content violating local social and cultural norms. For Twitter, 275 legal demands were made to remove or withhold content from 2012 until 2020.Interestingly, out of the total, 153 requests, or 55.6 percent, were made from July through to December 2020, a huge spike compared to previous years. The same trend is observed with Facebook posts with 376 items of content restricted between January and June 2020, more than double the previous count at 163 from July until December 2019. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for the government to clamp down on critics under the guise of combating fake news. This is done through the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No.2) Ordinance 2021, which was enforced throughout the Emergency Ordinance period from January until July 2021.
The government has also prosecuted online news portals. The latest major case would be the Federal Court’s finding in February 2021 that the online news portal Malaysiakini is liable for contempt of court over five readers’ comments that the court alleged “clearly meant that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice and compromised its integrity.” This goes beyond proxies to individual users as well. The 2012 amendment to the Evidence Act 1950 enables enforcement of Section 114A against social media organizations, online forums, news webpages, or even public places that provide wifi, all of which may be liable to legal action from an online user’s action. Although Malaysiakini was fined an exorbitant RM500,000—beyond the RM200,000 sought by the prosecution—they were able to crowdsource the fund within a few hours after the judgment.
Prosecution and harassment of users are the most common methods for the Malaysian government to control the internet. In 2020, six journalists from Al Jazeera were investigated for alleged sedition, defamation, and transmitting offensive for airing a critical documentary. Al Jazeera’s staff were faced with abuse and death threats for allegedly sullying Malaysia’s image. Similarly, a Bangladeshi national, Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, was arrested and later deported for criticizing the government’s treatment of undocumented migrants in an interview. Individuals are commonly charged and prosecuted under Section 233 of the CMA 1998 or the Sedition Act 1948. Fahmi Reza, a well-known graphic designer, has been investigated at least nine times by the police for his satirical artworks criticizing the government. Even a 17-year-old, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, who exposed a male teacher on TikTok for allegedly making a rape joke in class, was served with a defamation suit and called on by the police to make a statement apologizing for “breaching the peace.” Ain also faced cyberbullying. During the pandemic, civil servants were barred from sharing online comments critical of the government.
In 2020, the Department of Community Communication (J-KOM) was awarded a budget of RM40 million. The opposition accuses J-KOM of being the government’s propaganda machine and of funding “cyber troopers” who are paid to create positive content for the government and ruthlessly criticize the opposition. It is also true that bots flood social media, spread disinformation, and engender further social polarization at the behest of the state.
In this environment, self-censorship is common in Malaysia. To make matters worse, the MCMC released a statement in January 2021 reminding internet users not to post anything offensive involving the “3Rs”: royalty, religion, or race.
Supporters of the religious political party, chant slogans during a protest following the Supreme Court decision on Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi, in Lahore on November 02, 2018. Photo: A. M. Syed.
The decolonization of British India in 1947 and its subsequent division into two countries, India and Pakistan, was a highly traumatic event that took millions of lives. In the over seven decades since, Pakistan’s politics has been very turbulent, with long periods of military-led dictatorships and hybrid regimes interspersed with a few short periods of democracy. The 2018 general elections brought a new party to power, but the military remains the most potent political force, and while this remains the case, the prospects of true democratization in Pakistan remain thin. After more than three years in power, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has largely failed, and misgovernance and corruption have increased. In a populist fashion, the last three years have seen increased curbs both in and out of cyberspace by the government as it seeks to consolidate its position in office.
The digital footprint of Pakistani citizens has drastically increased in the last decade, with cheap cellular and internet packages becoming available. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), 98 percent of households own a mobile phone. In addition, there was a 17 percent growth in internet usage in just one year, with 90.1 million users recorded in October 2020. Despite this development, the future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall, is bleak in Pakistan due to the ever-increasing rules that control cyberspace. Unsurprisingly, the military establishment, backing the PTI government, has warned the public about “internal enemies” carrying out “fifth-generation warfare” online to justify the curbs.
Pakistan has a high rate of internet outages. Blackouts on social media and the internet are not uncommon in Pakistan. Since 2005, the state has used blackouts to restrict information from the public. There are three types of shutdowns. First, there are regular internet shutdowns on specific dates, primarily religious and national holidays, as the government argues that there is a greater likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. Second, there are regional shutdowns in areas where there is insurgency or threat of insurgency, such as border areas close to Afghanistan (merged districts, formally known as the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) and areas in Balochistan. Finally, there are local internet shutdowns, usually for a few hours when the government perceives a threat of terrorism or communal violence. Such shutdowns usually happen at times of protest. In 2012 alone, an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) were lost due to internet outages during Eid (a religious festival), and another 500 million rupees were lost during curbs designed to discourage Ashura processions, a Shia religious practice. Despite these mammoth losses, such blackouts are justified as necessary for “security.”
Long-term shutdowns are usually disciplinary mechanisms. Areas experiencing extended shutdowns are usually the ones where those that the state treats as “Other” tend to reside. Nevertheless, the latest annual report from the PTA has no information about the internet shutdowns.
The censorship of websites is one of PTA’s key activities. A hefty chunk of the blocked content is done so based on “indecency” such as pornographic websites and content that threatens Islam or the state. The exact number of websites blocked is unclear as PTA reports give contradictory numbers. They vary between 824,000 URLs to 418,139 URLs.This banning trend has escalated in the last four to five years.
In August 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting published a report called “Anti-State Trends,” which highlighted websites and trends from June 2019 to August 2021 it considered “anti-state.” The report accused separatist movements, political opposition, critical Tweets, and India of colluding with separatists in waging a “fifth-generation warfare” against Pakistan. In reality, these movements are less “anti-state” and more critical of the present government. There are trends of blocking the websites lending support to these factions.
PTA is armed with legislation to ban the operations and content of intermediaries such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and many more. It usually forces these companies to remove materials and restrict their content based on local laws and sensibilities. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies can be blocked.
One of the most famous episodes of this kind of censorship was when YouTube was banned in Pakistan in September 2012 after refusing to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie, “Innocence of Muslims.” The ban continued for more than three years. During this time, the National Assembly passed a non-binding but unanimous resolution to lift the ban, and courts also ordered negotiations, but the ban was not lifted till 2016. More recently, TikTok has been a target of repeated bans because of its potential to “corrupt” and “misguide” the youth due to its dance dub mashes, pro-LGBTQ+ content, etc. In addition, it has become a routine matter to suspend messaging applications on social media during times of protests or huge processions. The big social media intermediaries, such as Facebook and Twitter, are not completely banned nowadays, but they continue to be banned for very short periods as a “security measure.” For instance, in April 2021, a major social media blockage was put in place when the militant religious organization Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) carried out protests in Punjab.
On the pretext of stopping fake news and criminal activity, the PTI government enforced the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content in 2020. This highly problematic regulation compelled the Asia Internet Coalition to write an open letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan to condemn the measure and its consequences. These regulations demand that big tech firms open a local office in Pakistan, mandate storing Pakistani users’ data within the country and oblige companies to remove content when ordered. The near future will indicate the degree to which this law has been instrumentalized.
Over the years, Pakistan has earned the title of a “surveillance state.” The “war on terror” alliance with the United States allowed Pakistan to enhance its surveillance capabilities with modern standards. As a result, a mass surveillance network has been built in Pakistan since 2005, with the government obtaining technology from both local and foreign surveillance companies, such as Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8, and Utimaco, to use against its citizens. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, and feminists, among others, now suffer at the hands of this well-designed apparatus.
Through content monitoring and interception, social media have led to cases of enforced disappearances and harassment of journalists and human rights activists who have used platforms, such as Twitter or YouTube, to challenge state narratives and criticize the state. In addition to the “establishment” (i.e., the nexus of politicians and the military), the PTI’s online followers are known for harassing anyone from opposition leaders to journalists critical of PTI facing cyberbullying at their hand. These insults are highly derogatory, and chauvinistic sexism is rampantly used to target women victims. In addition, those who oppose the army, take a positive stance vis-à-vis India or show “liberal” tendencies also encounter similar hostility in online space. Despite the explicit abuse, to date, there are no records of actions taken to curb this bullying under cybercrime laws.
Turkish pro government supporters gather in Taksim Square, Istanbul/Turkey on July 19, 2016 after a controversial coup attempt. Photo: John Wreford.
A glimmer of hope was visible for democracy in the 2000s when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) defied the odds by defeating the Kemalist hegemony in Turkish politics.With peace-building processes to reconcile with historically marginalized communities, reforms to improve human rights, and a commitment to join the European Union (EU), the odds of democratization seemed promising when the AKP came to power.
However, after 2010, the AKP has taken an increasingly authoritarian path. The narrative of the ruling government instils fear and insecurity to legitimize growing authoritarianism. These changes that increasingly curb dissent, criticism, and muffle debate are present both on and offline. Since 2016, 150,348 individuals have been dismissed from office, with 500,650 being criminally investigated, with 96,885 arrested, while 3,003 educational institutions and facilities closed, 6,021 academics have been driven out of their jobs, 4,463 legal professionals such as judges and prosecutors have been terminated, 319 journalists arrested, and 189 media outlets completely closed. In addition to massive crackdowns, it is common for the state to use military custody, and various people have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured, both inside and outside the country, without reasonable evidence in many cases.
By 2020, cyberspace had become an essential space of resistance in Turkey. Between 78 and 82.6 percent of the total population uses the internet. In addition, some 54 million people, 64 percent of the total population, use various forms of social media, with the average time spent on the internet per day averaging 7 hours and 57 minutes in 2021. Turkey’s digital realm is thus a highly contested political space. It is, thus, not surprising that the digital realm has been meticulously regulated and increasingly surveilled by the AKP government through various measures.
The Gezi protests in 2013 marked the beginning of internet closures to curb the ability of civil society and activists to organize in Turkey. The aftermath led then Prime Minister (now President) Erdoğan to label Twitter the “worst menace to society.” What followed was a marked increase in internet governance. Internet blackouts are one of the many ways of controlling the space, and the newly formed Telecommunication Technologies Authority (BTK) looks over these procedures. While the government insisted that internet curbs are in place to combat “terrorism,” there was also a political motivation behind some of these.
The Turkish government’s internet shutdowns peaked between 2015 and 2017. The eastern regions faced the major brunt of internet and cellular shutdown during this period. During high-risk security incidents, such as the 2015 Suruç suicide bombing and the 2016 Atatürk Airport bombing, localized internet and cell phone blocks were put in place. With the government’s growing authoritarian approach, digital anti-terrorism laws are increasingly used to persecute marginalized groups such as the Kurds. Most shutdowns have occurred in the southeast, where Kurdish resistance is firmly grounded. One example was the 2016 landline and internet closure in 11 cities in the region with 6 million citizens devoid of access following the arrests of the mayor and co-mayor of Diyarbakir, which led to protests. Additionally, these internet shutdowns cost millions of dollars to the Turkish economy. Even though internet shutdowns have decreased from six in 2016 to only one in 2020, the cost is still high, at US$51 million in 2020.
The political climate in Turkey has given birth to many “threats” manufactured by the AKP government, such as “FETOists” following 2016, demonizing youth activism during Istanbul’s Bogazici University events of 2021 or the Gezi protests along with pre-existing hostilities toward minorities.
Human rights organisations have reported that the right to privacy online and offline in Turkey has been increasingly under threat. In April 2014, Turkey passed a new law that expanded the surveillance powers of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) that was given sweeping powers to amass private data, documents, and personal information in all forms without a court order. Working in tandem, the BTK and the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) have targeted pornographic websites, weblinks belonging to armed groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and since 2016 have targeted sympathizers of the Gülen movement, and LGBTQ+ and pro-Kurdish voices.
In addition to the lack of transparency, since the website owners do not always receive clear reasons for blocks, they cannot appeal the decision. Without accountability, mere suspicion and precaution are considered sufficient reasons to block a website. From just four websites being blocked in 2006, the number jumped up to 1,014 in 2008 when Law No. 5651 was initially introduced, a dramatic annual rise was visible in 2013, 2014, and 2015 with respective annual blocks of 19,715, 36,287, 27,812, which coincided with the Gezi protests, the corruption exposés and a wave of terrorism in Turkey. From 113,137 websites blocked in October 2016, the number more than doubled in three years to 288,310 in December 2019. Similarly, 450,000 domains, 140,000 URLs, and 42,000 Tweets have been banned in Turkey during 2020. While this pace of blockage has slowed down, the laws in place still play a key role in regular surveillance of websites that are taken down in thousands on an annual basis. Even information platforms such as Wikipedia faced a ban in Turkey when Ankara’s 1st Criminal Court found that certain articles linked Turkey to “terrorist organizations.” The court demanded that relevant articles be edited before the website could function again in Turkey. The ban was lifted in 2020.
Social media intermediaries in Turkey have faced various types of restrictions. It was reported that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook were all temporarily blocked or throttled in 2016 until they agreed to remove “objectionable” content. Even as early as 2014, the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) was mobilized to urge Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to remove critical information that was impacting the AKP’s chances in the future local elections. While Facebook was quick to comply, Twitter and YouTube were blocked nationally for several hours before they eventually complied. Twitter’s 2019 Transparency Report revealed that in the first half of the year, the Turkish government made 350 information requests on 596 accounts as well as 6,073 removal requests on 8,993 accounts with a 5 percent compliance rate. Turkey had the highest number of legal demands for removals. Facebook’s 2019 Transparency Report also reveals that the government made 2,060 legal requests and 2,537 user information requests; Facebook was compliant with 73 percent of requests.
In addition to social media, the search engine Google has since complied with the thousands of content removal requests by the Turkish state, which peaked in 2016. The government has further cemented its hold on these entities by allowing them incentives to open data centers in Turkey that are obliged to follow Turkish laws under Decree-Law No. 678. Moreover, over-the-top media services (OTTs), such as Netflix, PuhuTV, and BluTV, are now regulated by BTK, and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issues mandatory licenses to OTTs before they can stream content in the country. In October 2020, Law No. 7253 with harsher requirements for social media companies was introduced. The impact of this new law is still to be seen.
While keeping pressure on social media, the Turkish government has also kept the prosecuting individuals for their internet activity open. Particularly after the 2016 coup attempt, many people faced the government’s wrath. Six months after the coup, the Ministry of Interior stated that more than 10,000 individuals were investigated, 3,710 faced some legal action, and 1,656 people were arrested for their online activity. More recently, in the two months between mid-January and mid-March 2018, 6,342 social media accounts were investigated, and 2,177 individuals were subjected to legal action. Another report states that, between 2013 and 2018, there were more than 20,000 cases against citizens because of their social media activity. They are sometimes indicted under “terrorism” under Article 314(2) on association with an armed organization and Article 147(5), which concern crimes associated with terrorist organizations and aims.
Essentially limiting space for AKP opposing voices has left a void for healthy debate, and pro-AKP voices tend to dominate physical and digital space. In a blunt move during May 2020, Turkey’s Directorate of Communications warned Turkish citizens that even liking or sharing a post could lead to trouble. Journalists, scholars, opposition leaders, and civil society leaders who are critical of the government are more likely to face prosecution. A large number of arrests has a chilling effect and has given rise to self-censorship. Law No. 7253 not only asserts control over social media companies, it also makes individuals using social media ever more vulnerable to the legal system as “the legal or natural person who facilitates its users to create, view, and share content such as text, image, sound, or location to enable social interaction” are open to scrutiny.
While the AKP is also blocking users from digital space, there is also a parallel attempt to leave AKP trolls quite ungoverned as they indulge in cyberbullying. Academics, journalists, and artists who have criticized AKP have found themselves attacked under a culture of “digital culture of lynching and censorship” by the AKP army of trolls. A significant number of trolls are graduates of pro-AKP Imam Hatip schools. It has been reported that these individuals receive regular payments, and there are also traces that pro-AKP networks further provide benefits to successful trolls, which include entities such as TRT and Turkcell. In addition, AKP has used bots to boost its presence in the digital space, leading to its narrative overrepresentation on online platforms. It was revealed that on a daily average, some 26.7 percent of the top ten trends of Twitter were made by fake accounts or bot trolls. In the same year, the highest impact of these accounts led them to constitute 47.5 percent of the top five Twitter trends.
Religious leaders and movements wield influence, leading to pressure on governments in how they govern digital space. These curbs are justified in civilizational terms, drawing on various themes, including morality, religion, nationalism, and the like. Consequently, many rationales are provided on religious–nationalist lines for cyber governance.
In Indonesia, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) has attempted to facilitate self-censorship on two occasions. In 2017, the MUI issued Fatwa No. 24 of 2017 to guide Muslim interactions online, prohibiting the spread of hoaxes. Previously, in 2016, the MUI’s branch in Central Sulawesi prohibited married Muslim women from uploading their photos online. It was believed that such acts could “have negative impacts on the individual and their families.” These groups also drive movements that claim to make one a better Muslim with trending hashtags such as #antiselfie, #indonesiatanpapacaran (literal meaning: Indonesia without dating)—this movement advocates singles marrying without courting in advance—as well as #hijrah and #akhwatbercadar (meaning, veiled Muslim ladies).
While highly diverse culturally, Malaysia has a Malay Muslim majority. Since Mahathir’s first term as prime minister, Islam has been institutionalized within the state apparatus. Consequently, the administration of cyberspace involves justification that has Islamism logic. The MCMC has been deliberating censoring Netflix shows with themes of nudity, sex scenes, and LGBTQ+ content on the platform. Politicians and the government also condemn fake news and justify internet curbs, especially through self-censorship. The ministry deems “fake news” as “fitna” (slander). A religious term is thus instrumentalized to target opposition and critical groups.
In Pakistan, the narrative has become dense in terms of justifying cyber security. In addition to claims that online spaces promote “fifth-generation warfare” against the country by foreigners, religious justifications are being used for cyber governance. The 2020 law has excessively focused on preserving “decency and morality” and promoting “Islamic culture” as opposed to “Western rock and roll” culture. Thus, around 95 percent of the websites banned in 2019 were because of religious reasons.
The Erdoğan regime has always focused on raising a “pious youth” as part of its ideological program. Typically adopting religious connotations in his language, Erdoğan has repeatedly delegitimized public demonstrations against the government, from the Gezi protests in 2013 to those at Bogazici University in 2021, arguing these are Western ploys to bring down the country. Using the same rhetoric that Western values are “corrupting” the youth, AKP trolls have targeted LGBTQ+ communities online. While it has never been illegal to be gay in secular Turkey, the AKP has requested that TikTok’s local moderation ban LGBTQ+ content. “Cleaning up social media” platforms of “questionable” advertisements from Twitter, Pinterest, and the Turkish PeriscopeCo are quite common. This prevents LGBTQ+ and other opposition forces from generating advertisement-driven revenue from the platforms that support them. The anti-queer “moral” jihad also saw Netflix pressured to cancel a Turkish series with an LGBTQ+ storyline.
In 2011, the government ran a “Safe Use of the Internet” campaign, which mandates that organizations offering public internet access (e.g., libraries, cafes) use a Turkish-built filter called the “family filter.” Essentially designed to block foreign and domestic sites containing adult content, the law was positioned to safeguard young children from age-inappropriate content. By 2017, the BTK had blocked some 1.5 million websites in areas such as cafes and refuses to share a list of the websites it blocks.
Interestingly, religious leaders and popular figures that hold power to sway public opinion have a paradoxical stance toward the internet. In countries where they warn against the “evils” of cyberspace, they use the same space to communicate their messages to followers. Of course, each country differs in this regard, yet overall, these religious figures seem to hew close to the line of populist governments and find justifications for the authorities’ authoritarianism.
Religious leaders in Malaysia have usually not taken any firm position regarding restricting online freedom. Instead, they encourage self-censorship to avoid invoking the wrath of God. The highest order of muftis via fatwas have permitted social media usage, but it is deemed prohibited when the platforms are used for actions such as calling someone a bad name, insulting and degrading others, betraying and lying, slander, and malicious gossip. In a less centralized manner in 2014, two muftis, in vain, urged the National Fatwa Council, the country’s highest Islamic authority, to release a fatwa prohibiting conversation through social media or messaging apps between unmarried men and women.
In India, beyond religious leaders, Bollywood celebrities have also played a key role in adopting the Hindutva ideology and defending the BJP’s questionable actions. The most prominent of them is Kangana Ranaut. An active Twitter user with millions of followers, she has been suspended on the platform in the past for Islamophobic Tweets. However, since 2014, Ranaut has actively defended the BJP’s politics. Recently she declared that “India got freedom in 2014” (since Modi’s victory) rather than 1947. India’s vast entertainment industry, which influences millions of Indian citizens, has many pro-BJP voices both in front of and behind the camera, which give full support to the BJP, whereas those who question them face a massive backlash from RSS-affiliated online trolls.
In Pakistan, the religious political parties have never done well, politically never managing to gain more than 10 percent seats in general elections. However, religious movements such as TLP that advocate for severe blasphemy punishments and right-wing clerics such as Maulana Tariq Jamel, Farhat Hashmi, and late Dr. Israr Ahmed have millions of followers on their social media. Ironically while they use these platforms actively, these individuals have repeatedly warned against the “dangers” of “Western technology” and have expressed concern over “anti-Islamic” sentiments of “misguided” liberal youth and Westerns.
Internet governance is also justified by pro-government religious institutions and scholars in Turkey. During the last two decades, Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the centralized religious authority, has provided faith-based explanations to back Erdoğan’s moral crusade against the “external” and “internal” enemies. For example, in 2016, the “Social Media and the Family in the Context of Privacy” forum was held to guide Turks on building strong Muslim families, including the rights and responsibilities of each member to avoid the dangers of social media. The President of Diyanet at the time, Mehmet Gormez, directly targeted social media in his opening speech. More recently, Diyanet has published a booklet, “Social Media Ethics,” which advocates for stronger control of the realm and the use of Islam as a yardstick. Ali Erbas, the current president, often uses his bully pulpit to promote pro-AKP stances. His inflammatory comments on LGBTQ+ youth “spreading HIV” became a polarized Twitter debate. Erbas has also used his Twitter to participate in AKP-led political campaigns highlighting Islamophobia. In 2021, a Twitter post targeting Islam by far-right Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders led top AKP leaders and Erdoğan himself to criticize the Dutch firebrand, and Ali Erbas was also found following the trend of condemning Wilders.
Beyond Diyanet, a host of pro-AKP Islamic scholars have echoed similar narratives. These figures include a close AKP circle of individuals such as Nihat Hatipoglu, a TV show host, and Hayrettin Karaman, a columnist, both Islamic scholars. They use these mediums to sow the idea that social media is full of misinformation targeting Turkish national interests, and it harbors the ability to mislead youth. Karaman has gone as far as publishing a highly emotive poem in his column that warns readers of the dangerous pull of capitalism and immorality of social media, while Hatipoglu has issued a so-called “tele-fatwa” warning of ethical ways of exchanging messages between unmarried women and men.
Faith being a highly emotive subject, once instrumentalized, it seems to hold power over millions. Our case studies show that populists have a nuanced approach that creates a moral or religious crisis. Consequently, they justify their authoritarianism as means to “save” “the people.” These real-life realities are echoed online and, for many, lead to serious consequences such as losing personal safety and possible legal prosecution.
There is no blasphemy law in India, but hate speech is punishable under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. However, rather than formal punishment targeting minorities (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, Sikhs), it is common for the BJP and its pundits to encourage or overlook the questionable acts of the pro-Hindutva “cyber volunteers.” In the country, 87.4 percent of fake news spreads via social media, which sometimes results in communal rioting or targeting harassment and killing of individuals accused of consuming beef known as “cow lynching.” Most events of mob killing by BJP representatives have been dismissed or have led to blatant victims blaming who “asked for it” because of their “hurtful” actions.
In other regions, explicit blasphemy laws are in place that permit curbs on freedoms online. In Indonesia, blasphemy is covered by Articles 156 and 156(a) of KUHP (criminal code) and in the 1965 Presidential Decree (No. 1/PNPS/1965) on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religions. As outlined in Article 156(a), those “who purposely express their views or commit an act that principally disseminates hatred, misuse or defame a religion recognized in Indonesia,” face a maximum of five years imprisonment. When an online video of Jakarta’s Governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), a Chinese Christian, discussing Qur’anic verse surfaced during his election campaign in 2016, Ahok was charged and later sentenced to 20 months in prison for insulting Islam. It led to the end of his political career. In 2021, an Indonesian Christian preacher landed in hot water after uploading a video stating that he was the “26th Prophet,” while in Europe, Interpol’s assistance was sought to extradite and trial him. Unfortunately, this encouraged some clerics to demand the “head” of the accused. Additionally, the pornography law has been used to target the LGBTQ+ community. Due to the loose definition, the law aids in identifying “suspects” and sometimes leads to public humiliation such as being strip-searched, photographed, and forced to march naked into police vehicles.
Malaysia also has strict laws on blasphemy. Under the law, Sunni Islam is recognized, with Shiites, Ahmadis, and those from al-Arqam being “deviant.” There is evidence of groups spreading sectarian hatred. One such example is Gerakan Banteras Syiah, with more than 25,000 followers. The government has also suspended a Tamil-language daily for mistakenly printing an image of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette under the law. More commonly, the laws have been instrumentalized to target the LGBTQ+ community. There has been some discussion steered by the minister of religious affairs to regulate LGBTQ+ activity online, yet nothing has come out of it. There is no law against simply watching porn online in Malaysia, but the MCMC is active in blocking the websites, and in 2013, two persons who were charged for posting pornographic images of themselves on their blog were charged and tried.
Similarly, the colonial-era blasphemy law enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution is misused by right-wing clerics and movements both off and online. These groups have mainly targeted minorities and democratic voices. It is common for people to face imprisonment and, in the worst cases, be issued death sentences if their internet posts or cell phone messages show “questionable” remarks about Islam. While governments and political parties have stayed away from making anti- or pro-comments, the grassroots clerics and their movements have used cyberspace to pressure the state judiciary to target these individuals by running online campaigns.
While Turkey remains secular via its constitution, blasphemy charges have been made possible under a 2016 amendment to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). While no specific religion is mentioned in the legislation, it is usually used to “defend” Islam. For example, under the amended article, the pianist Fazil Say was tried and sentenced to a jail term for tweeting his skepticism over Islamic values, while actress Berna Lacin was charged with blasphemy for contesting capital punishment in a Tweet in 2018 (she was acquitted after two years). Also, two journalists were each handed two-year sentences for reprinting the Charlie Hebdo sketches satirizing Islam under the law in 2016. In 2020, Enver Aysever, a journalist, was arrested and charged for mocking clergy and their attitude during the COVID-19 pandemic. Astonishingly, people who shared the video of “Bella Ciao” being played in an Izmir mosque were also warned to take off the posts or otherwise face charges by Izmir’s Chief Public Prosecutor.
The countries that display direct targeting of minorities are mainly confined to India and Turkey. In the former, the hurried abrogation of Articles 35a and 370, in August 2019 from the constitution of India, the region of Kashmir administered by India, has witnessed one of the world’s worst forms of suppression of freedoms, lasting 213 days. The region alone accounts for 90 percent of internet shutdowns in the country. The curbs are justified as means of primitively controlling jihadist activity in Kashmir. Despite the crippling impact on tourism, healthcare, education, and the overall economy, the curbs continue. Between January 2012 and March 2021, there were 518 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world so far. In Turkey, the internet shutdown that explicitly targets a region is based on ethnicity rather than religious conflict. Due to the prolonged conflict with the Kurdish community, the regions with Kurdish resistance pockets, as mentioned above, have faced the largest brunt of internet blackouts. However, like India, these are explained as measures to curb “terrorism,” whereas it is rooted in an ideological conflict between the Turkish state and the right of the Kurdish people to exist freely.
Change is a hallmark of the twenty-first century. Once considered a Latin American issue or a rarity, the most recent wave of populism has resulted in a drastic global political transformation so much so that it looms large in two of the world’s largest democracies (the United States and India). Impressively, if worryingly, it has latched on to religion which has the power to mobilize crowds and cloud judgment regarding the capabilities of populists in power. This report has brought to light a unique aspect of this nexus between faith and populism, and it offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which events are taking place.
Religion and politics merge in each country to shape cyber governance. For most countries, the last two decades have been dominated by the introduction and rapid adoption of digital technology. Thus, there is still debate about where laws should and should not intervene. The wading of religion into politics in context, it has to be said, usually begins with the right intentions—to regulate cyberspace in the interest of citizens. However, over the years, both politicians and political movements have used relatively lax legal frameworks to their partisan advantage.
Nevertheless, partisan entities have exploited the law in an instrumentalized fashion to curb opposition, exert control, and use the space for growth in popularity. Most populist governments’ cyber governance politics mirror their offline undemocratic policies. For stakeholders outside the ambit of power, cyberspace allows them a medium of connection to spread their ideology. Ironically there is a love-hate relationship with social media. Most of these leaders organize and communicate with their followers using digital media, yet, at the same time, constantly warn against the “ills” of such platforms. Essentially, morality has been a common theme used by all stakeholders to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws. Moral panics about digital space simply juice up widespread anxieties and catalyze populist appeal while simultaneously acting as a curtain for their undemocratic actions.
Mirroring and interconnectedness of cybers and offline spaces in quite evident. Firstly, it is noteworthy that populists understand the value of digital space. Thus, in most cases, we notice an active monopolization of the realm that uses both religious and security-driven justifications to limit space for opposition and civil society and at the same time reclaim that space for themselves and their allies. With total control over an alternative space, populists replicate offline socio-politics there. Essentially, this sees populist authoritarianism migrate to the digital realm and also plays some role in shaping offline events such as the case of cow lynching in India or Tweets leading to trials under blasphemy laws in Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
The future of democracies is highly intertwined with digital space. The narrative that plays a part in bringing a movement to life or aiding political victory is determined in this realm to a great degree. While the overall picture of free digital space seems precarious in the near future, on the other hand, the individual differences in each case study offer some hope that a move toward democracy might lead to a reconsideration of digital authoritarianism. However, the degree of social damage they are causing is hard to determine. Today Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment where they can hurl abuse without even physically seeing any consequences or feeling the victim’s plight.
IHSAN YILMAZ is Research Professor and Chair at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He is also a Visiting Research Associate of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, The University of Oxford, and a Non-Resident Senior Scholar at the European Center for Populism Studies (Brussels). He has conducted research on religion and politics; authoritarianism; digital authoritarianism; populism (Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, India); securitization; “sharp power”; nation-building; citizenship; Islamism; ethnic-religious-political minorities and their securitization (Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia); Muslim minorities (Australia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA); Islam-state-society relations in the majority and minority contexts; Turkish politics; Turkish diasporas (the UK, Australia, the USA); transnationalism; and intergroup contact (Australia). Professor Yilmaz was a professor of political science at Istanbul Fatih University (2008–2016). He was a lecturer in law, social sciences, and politics at SOAS, University of London (2001–2008), and was a fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford (1999–2001). He is the author of Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
RAJA M. ALI SALEEM is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than 20 years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. In 2020, he was a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.
MAHMOUD PARGOO is a research fellow at Deakin University (Melbourne) and a visiting fellow at the AI-enabled Processes (AIP) Research Centre, Macquarie University in Sydney.Mahmoud is the author of Secularization of Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Routledge, 2021) and lead-author of Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
SYAZA SHUKRI is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among her recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy. She is also currently working on a book chapter on Islamist populism in Malaysia since 2018. She has degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (where she graduated summa cum laude), the London School of Economics and Political Science, and International Islamic University Malaysia. She can be reached at [email protected].
IDZNURSHAM ISMAIL, the founder of stratsea.com, possesses a Master in Strategic Studies and a First Class Honours in Biological Sciences from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Nanyang Technological University (NTU), respectively. After his stint as a Research Analyst at the Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR, RSIS), he resided in Indonesia for numerous years, gaining experience in organizations such as The Jakarta Post, the Wahid Foundation, and PAKAR. He specializes in security-related issues, particularly terrorism and unconventional weapons. His current research includes non-traditional security themes such as public health.
KAINAT SHAKIL is a non-resident Research Associate at the European Center for Populism Studies. Her research explores populism from the perspectives of religion, emotions, and gender. The regional focus of her work is mainly Pakistan and demographically Muslim-majority countries. Previously, she was a researcher at The Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy at NetSol (BIPP)— a Pakistan-based think-tank— where her work focused on reviewing public policies from a people-centric perspective. A large part of her work was qualitative research mapping to understand the public’s perceptions, feelings, reactions, and engagement with government policies and vice versa. Shakil also develops interactive cultural, historical, and political curricula for middle school pupils with a focus on inclusivity. Before working as a full-time researcher, she was an Erasmus research scholar at Middlesex University London and the recipient of the US State Department’s cultural scholarship, Global UGRAD.
 Bert Fraussen & Darren Halpin, “How do interest groups legitimate their policy advocacy? Reconsidering linkage and internal democracy in times of digital disruption,” Public Admin 96, (2018): 23–35; Paul Nemitz, “Constitutional democracy and technology in the age of artificial intelligence,” Royal Society, (2018).; Philip N. Howard, “Deep Democracy, Thin Citizenship: The Impact of Digital Media in Political Campaign Strategy,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 597, no. 1 (2005).; Robert M Entman & Nikki Usher, “Framing in a Fractured Democracy: Impacts of Digital Technology on Ideology, Power and Cascading Network Activation,” Journal of Communication 68, no. 2 (2018).
 Jerry Berman & Daniel J. Weitzner, “Technology and Democracy,” Social Research 64, no. 3, (1997).
Robert Faris and Bruce Etling, “Madison and the Smart Mob: The Promise and Limitations of the Internet for Democracy,” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. 32, no. 2, (2008).
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 Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright, “The digital dictators: how technology strengthens autocracy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020; Farid Shirazi, “The Contribution of ICT to Freedom and Democracy: An Empirical Analysis of Archival Data on the Middle East,” The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries 35 (2008).; Clay Shirky, “The political power of social media: Technology, the public sphere, and political change,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011; Felix Tusa, “How social media can shape a protest movement: The cases of Egypt in 2011 and Iran in 2009,” Arab Media and Society, 17 (2013).; Marko Papic & Sean Noonan, “Social media as a tool for protest,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, 3 (2011). Kamil Demirhan, “Social media effects on the Gezi Park movement in Turkey: Politics under hashtags,” in Social media in politics (Springer, 2014).; Olu Jenzen, Itir Erhart, Hande Eslen-Ziya, Umut Korkut, Aidan McGarry, “The symbol of social media in contemporary protest: Twitter and the Gezi Park movement,” Convergence 27 (2021).
 Anita Gurumurthy & Deepti Bharthur, “Democracy and the Algorithmic Turn,” International Journal of Human Rights 39 (2018): 40–41; Karl Manheim & Lyric Kaplan “Artificial Intelligence: Risks to Privacy and Democracy,” (2019). Robin Jeffrey & Assa Doron, “Mobile-izing: Democracy, Organization and India’s First ‘Mass Mobile Phone’ Elections,” The Journal of Asian Studies 71, no. 1 (2012): 63–80.; Sasha Issenberg, “How President Obama’s Campaign Used Big Data to Rally Individual Voters,” Technology Review 116, no. 1 (2012): 38–49, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.technologyreview.com/2012/12/19/114510/how-obamas-team-used-big-data-to-rally-voters/.
 Steven Feldstein, The global expansion of AI surveillance. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2019); Steven Feldstein. “When It Comes to Digital Authoritarianism, China is a Challenge—But Not the Only Challenge,” War on the Rocks (2020).
 Jay Mazoomdaar & Ritu Sarin, “India tops list of websites blocked, its telcos filter the most,” The Indian Express, April 25, 2018, accessed November 15, https://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-tops-list-of-websites-blocked-its-telcos-filter-the-most-netsweeper-5150620/
 Regina Mihindukulasuriya, “These are the apps and websites Modi govt blocked in 2020,” The Print, March 18, 2021, accessed November 15, https://theprint.in/india/governance/these-are-the-apps-and-websites-modi-govt-blocked-in-2020/623337/
 Sangeeta Mahapatra, “Digital Surveillance and the Threat to Civil Liberties in India,” GIGA, May 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.giga-hamburg.de/en/publications/24697659-digital-surveillance-threat-civil-liberties-india/.
 Saiful Mujani & R. William Liddle, “Indonesia: Jokowi Sidelines Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 32, no. 4 (2021): 72–86.
 Nathanael Gratias Sumaktoyo, “A Price for Democracy? Religious Legislation and Religious Discrimination in Post-Soeharto Indonesia.,” Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 56, no. 1 (2020).
 Stanley Widianto, “Bound by Culture and Religion, Indonesia is Paranoid about LGBT rights, but We Won’t be Silenced,” The Guardian, February 26, 2016, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/feb/26/bound-by-culture-and-religion-indonesia-is-paranoid-about-lgbt-rights-but-we-wont-be-silenced
 Martin James Moloney, “An Exploratory Study of the Usage of Banned Social Networking Site “Reddit” in Indonesia,” WACANA Jurnal Ilmiah Ilmu Komunikasi 18, no. 2 (2019): 181–190.
 Saiful Mujani & R. William Liddle, “Indonesia: Jokowi Sidelines Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 32, no. 4 (2021): 72–86.
 Ahsan I. Butt, “Has a ‘fifth generation war’ started between India and Pakistan?,” Al Jazeera January 4, 2021, accessed November 15, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/1/4/are-india-and-pakistan-in-a-fifth-generation-war.
 “Fethullahist Terror Organisation or FETO” is a derogatory term invented by the Erdogan regime to securitize and label the Gulen Movement after gigantic December 17/25, 2013 graft scandal, see in detail Ihsan Yilmaz and Erdoan Shipoli, “Use of Past Collective Traumas, Fear and Conspiracy Theories for Securitisation and Repression of the Opposition: The Turkish Case,” Democratization, doi: 10.1080/13510347.2021.1953992.
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 Julius M. Rogenhofer and Ayala Panievsky, “Antidemocratic populism in power: comparing Erdoğan’s Turkey with Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel,” Democratization 27, no. 8 (2020): 1394-1412, DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135
 Bilge Yesil, Efe Kerem Sözeri & Emad Khazraee, “Turkey’s Internet Policy After the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance,” Internet Policy Observatory March 1, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://repository.upenn.edu/internetpolicyobservatory/22.
 Freedom House, “Turkey,” accessed November 15, 2021, https://freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-net/2020); Fevzi Doruk Ergun, “National Security vs. Online Rights and Freedoms in Turkey: Moving Beyond the Dichotomy,” Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM) April 3, 2018, accessed November 15, 2021, https://edam.org.tr/en/national-security-vs-online-rights-and-freedoms-in-turkey-moving-beyond-the-dichotomy/.
 Maeve Shearlaw, “Turkish journalists face abuse and threats online as trolls step up attacks,” The Guardian November 1, 2016, accessed November 15 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/turkish-journalists-face-abuse-threats-online-trolls-attacks.
 Bilge Yelis, Efe Kerem Sözeri & Emad Khazraee, “Turkey’s Internet Policy After the Coup Attempt: The Emergence of a Distributed Network of Online Suppression and Surveillance,” Internet Policy Observatory. March 1, 2017, accessed November 15, 2021, https://repository.upenn.edu/internetpolicyobservatory/22.
 Simge Andı, S. Erdem Aytaç & Ali Çarkoğlu, “Internet and social media use and political knowledge: Evidence from Turkey,” Mediterranean Politics 25, no. 5 (2020): 579–599, DOI: 10.1080/13629395.2019.1635816.
 M. Syed Al-Zaman, “Social Media Fake News in India,” Asian Journal for Public Opinion Research 9, no. 1 (2021): 25–47, accessed November 15, 2021, https://doi.org/10.15206/ajpor.2021.9.1.
 Mohammed Sinan Siyech and Akanksha Narain, “Beef-Related Violence in India: An Expression of Islamophobia,” Islamophobia Studies Journal 4, no. 2 (2018): 181–94, https://doi.org/10.13169/islastudj.4.2.0181.
The Icelandic writer Sjón is known for surreal tales on topics as diverse as “whaling, alchemy and the history of cinema” (Anderson, 2022), as well as for his opera libretti and collaborations with Björk. In his introduction to the 2017 anthology Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland, he writes that the subject of philosophy was not introduced for university students there until 1971. “In place of philosophy, the Icelanders had poetry and tales … Debates on the interaction of body and soul, for example, could be conducted through the medium of verses or stories about birds” (Mitsios, 2017: X). As a novelist, Sjón finds inspiration in the creatures outside his fisherman’s cottage, as he imagines a fox that multiplies into four of itself or a man transformed into a butterfly.
But Sjón’s work is not just whimsical. In his recent novel Red Milk, he confronts two painful discoveries: that his grandfather was a spy for the Germans in World War II, and that a neo-Nazi movement took root in Iceland in the 1950s. In an afterword to the book, he acknowledges that his previous novels dealing with the Nazi period and its aftermath (The Whispering Muse and CoDex1962) took an “ironic” and even “flippant” approach to characters’ “obsession with Nordic culture to inflate their own sense of importance in the world” (Sjón, 2021: 141). He also recalls an episode in his childhood when, perhaps as a way to push against the painful, silent story in his family, he found himself drawing swastikas.
Though Red Milk does not tell Sjón’s grandfather’s story but imagines a semi-fictional young man who gets caught up in toxic nationalism after the war, it is haunted by the writer’s own grappling with history. Gunnar, an ordinary child growing up in the war years, is later found dead on a train in England, with a swastika on a paper found in his pocket. In order to tell this tale with both critical distance and narrative intimacy, Sjón changes positions. The novel begins with the train scene and moves backwards into Gunnar’s childhood, described in third-person past tense. As Gunnar grows up and acts on his right-wing fascinations, he does so in the book’s middle section, written as letters – so that the main character’s “I” is clearly separate from the narrator’s.
Sjón’s magic-realist bent only shows in glimmers in this brief, dark book. In one striking scene, Gunnar the child overhears his father sobbing over his radio through a closed door. But instead of simply including this scene in the trajectory of a boy’s life on the edge of Reykjavik, Sjón slips it forward, as a dying memory. One moment Gunnar is describing a birch stick that his father kept, ostensibly to remember his own father’s beatings, and the next, “now that death has freed the grandson’s body from its incurable disease and Gunnar is slumped lifeless on a seat in a train compartment in a siding at Cheltenham Spa Station … his brain is still working” (Sjón, 2021: 16). This passage reads less like writerly sleight-of-hand than like the actual mystery of consciousness, with one last pang of conscience, too: what Gunnar recalls last is this exchange with his sister, when overhearing their father’s sobs: “Daddy’s looking at the birch.” “No, you idiot; Daddy’s frightened of Hitler” (17).
Gunnar is not just an “idiot” in thrall to the local German teacher and cycling enthusiast, however. He is ordinary in the same sense Hannah Arendt described in her 1963 reports on the Eichmann trial, using the “banality of evil” term that became controversial for downplaying the “demonic” or “monstrous” aspects of Nazism (Kirsch and Galchen, 2013). Showing how easily average citizens can become agents of evil is Sjón’s project as well, however painful it may be to “look for what I have in common with my characters” (Sjón, 2021: 143). At the same time, his “clinical” strategy in shifting narrative positions and beginning with Gunnar’s death (“It is easier to deal with a dead Nazi than a living one” [Ibid.]), offsets too much sympathy. The anti-Muslim and antisemitic passages in Gunnar’s letters would be even more difficult to read if spoken in dialogue or overheard in his third-person head.
The neo-Nazi group that Gunnar joins in the decade after the war is based on Sjón’s research, which also turned up the group’s wide-reaching supporters, including “Savitri Devi, George Lincoln Rockwell, Colin Jordan, and Göran Asser Oredsson – the very people who laid the foundation for the international network of far-right movements as we know it today” (Sjón, 202: 142). Gunnar is based on “one of the main actors” in this group, “who died from cancer at a young age while fanatically working on the foundation of their World Union of National Socialists” (Ibid.). His fictional letters show him to be as uncomfortably human as he is fanatical, writing humorous, simple notes to his mentally disabled brother and then rhapsodizing to Oredsson that “We, the Icelandic Nationalists, greet you with arms raised high and palms outstretched …” (76) before complaining, “Nothing is being done to safeguard our Icelandic cultural heritage” (79).
Much of Gunnar’s language in his letters (at least in English translation) sounds like current xenophobic, populist rhetoric in Europe and the US. Even phrases like “criminal hordes” (80) are not surprising in the age of Trumpian crudity, though some 21st-century right-wing groups have attempted to show a veneer of respectability (Silman, 2016). What is most frightening about Sjón’s novel is how mainstream many of Gunnar’s epistolary opinions have become (Feffer, 2019; Miller-Idriss, 2022). Though this character and his cohort may be “under the spell of Hitlerism, racism, and white supremacy” (Sjón, 2021: 142), they are not “special” (145) in that many ordinary people (including most of my neighbors in the American West) continue to find themselves hooked by xenophobic news propaganda, conspiracy theories, and resistance to public health measures, often linking this with far-right ideology.
Like the “negative example” of Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s play, which used a mercenary character from the Thirty Years War to speak to 1930s Germany, Gunnar Kampen is a cautionary figure for our time. The danger in good storytelling, though, is that even a bad example can become appealing (as has often been a problem in Mother Courage stagings, for all Brecht’s efforts at distancing effects). Narrative itself is not a saving strategy in times of fascist threats; even Eichmann was an “avid storyteller,” as Hannah Arendt discovered, for all of his clichés (Norberg, 2013). At its best, Red Milk evokes a sense of threat through its slips in time and striking images, as in this moment in Gunnar’s childhood, on a car trip to Raudavatn or “Red Water”: “Halfway between the west end of Reykjavik and their destination, this unintelligible word finally conjured up a picture in his mind: A glass, brimming with red milk” (Sjón, 2021: 21). Beware the conjuring.
Mitsios, Helen (Ed.) (2017). Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland. University of Minnesota Press. Sjón. (2021). Red Milk. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Allegory is as tricky an art form as satire. The 2021 film Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, attempts both in its treatment of impending planetary crisis. McKay’s production company’s name, Hyperobject Industries, apparently refers to eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s term from his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, which posits that global warming is a force too immense and strange to be easily graspable. Since 2013, that “hyperobject” has come all too close to home for humans faced with record heat waves, wildfires, monster storms, and floods, even in the most unlikely places. If the recent COP26 Summit on climate change is any indication of the future, governmental inertia will continue to prevent the broad, deep changes necessary to unhook wealthy nations from dependence on fossil fuels. The planet may well be as doomed as Don’t Look Up declares it is, though from a different (hence the allegory) threat.
Photo: From Netflix
The film’s chirpy aesthetic (retro 1960s titles, upbeat dance music, onscreen memes) belies its serious theme, announcing satire as if this were not obvious enough. In the not-too-distant future, a couple of scrappy astronomers from an average state university (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet on a collision course with Earth. When they finally get the attention of the Trump-blonde-style US President (Meryl Streep), she and her wisecracking Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) dismiss the crisis until a steamier political scandal calls for a distraction. The astronomers appear on a shallow Fox News-ish talk show, and, predictably, DiCaprio’s character is rewarded with “sexy” status while Lawrence’s explosion of grief and anger leads to a cascade of “crazy lady” memes. President Orlean stages an aircraft-carrier press announcement, à la George W. Bush, of a Pentagon-backed plan to nuke the comet before it strikes.
When that mission fails, enter a slightly spacey Steve Jobs type (Mark Rylance), who – without bothering with the inconveniences of peer review – breezes in and excites Madame President with a whole new plan to mine the comet for valuable resources before exploding it. Randall Mindy, DiCaprio’s character, wins brief fame and a fling with “Fox blonde” talk-show host Brie Eventee (Cate Blanchett). Meanwhile, the disenchanted Ph.D. candidate who discovered the comet in the first place, Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), drifts into the baggy counterculture world of Yule (Dune star Timothée Chalamet). As the comet speeds ever closer, threatening tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, an already split USA breaks into irreparable halves, with “Just look up!” memes battling “Don’t look up!” rallies featuring the President in a MAGA-style baseball cap. Distrust of science and faith in the quick tech fix meet in a populist frenzy. When the mine-and-explode plan fails, too, last concerts- and dinners-on-Earth ensue. I won’t give the ending all away, but it does send bits of phones and photographs drifting into the cosmos. The film’s post-credit epilogue is a darkly comic take on billionaire space tourism (enough said here as well).
Maybe it’s just my age as a too-earnest Gen Xer, but the film’s meme-based satire and too-obvious allegory trivialize a genuinely terrifying future, instead of destabilizing comfortable assumptions, as satire does when it works well. As an example, Daniel Dencik’s 2013 Expedition to the End of the Worldworks as almost-mockumentary about a group of researchers and artists sailing to Greenland to witness its melting ice. Like Don’t Look Up, it features soundtrack music suddenly interrupted, but in an oddly uncomfortable, not gimmicky, way. Random conversations about spiders and microbes unsettle black-and-white ideas of what humans can know about threatened ecosystems. Genre ambiguity (is this satire or not?) fosters curious criticality in viewers, instead of cementing already entrenched political differences, as Don’t Look Up does in its heavy-handed treatment of American populism.
Another example of humor used effectively in environmental film is Benedict Erlingsson’s Woman at War(also 2013). This film features an Icelandic eco-warrior who also happens to be a choir director, leading her community in songs about national pride and thus complicating the environmental/populist binary. A band of musicians (who may or may not be visible to her) pops up on hillsides, in her flat, and at the airport, echoing Icelandic outdoor music practices and adding an element of estrangement as well. The protagonist’s difficult decision to adopt an orphan in Ukraine complicates the drama further, showing the challenges activists face in caring for the planet and its human occupants. Ultimately the film’s surprise, humor, and ambiguity foster energy rather than despair in the face of climate crisis.
Don’t Look Up is one of many films imagining an impact event on Earth. Most do not relate to climate change directly but hold implications for the current planetary crisis. Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) imagines deadly microbes deposited by a meteorite in Greenland’s ice, which now, in real life, is thawing at a rapid pace and releasing long-dormant and potentially dangerous bacterial archives. Lars von Trier’s rhapsodic disaster film Melancholia(2011) juxtaposes a rogue planet’s impending impact with the beauty, cruelty, and banality of life on a wealthy family’s estate; the film’s feverish slowness, set to orchestral music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, foreshadows the strangeness of time’s passing in our current age of pandemic and collapsing ecosystems. More recently, Alex Garland’s Annihilation(2018) alters Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same title by framing interspecies genetic mutations in the eerie “Area X” as the result of a meteor strike. Though VanderMeer did not set out to write a climate-crisis novel (Woodbury, 2016), his “new weird” Southern Reach trilogy reflects dark ecology anxieties and aesthetics. None of these films is satirical, and none takes on the political divides that Don’t Look Up sends up, but all three show how planetary dread is easier to narrate and digest if it concerns a crisis humans have not caused.
This distinction brings us, naturally, to the film often mentioned as a forerunner of Don’t Look Up: Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1964 Dr. Strangelove. That film, with its subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is also satire about impending planetary doom, but it works in a far more terrifying way than Don’t Look Up, for three important reasons. First, it brings seriousness and humor into such close contact (lines like “You can’t fight in here! It’s the War Room!” amid heavy discussions of US military policy against pre-emptive strikes) that viewers need to bring their own critical curiosity to the giant table in the Pentagon. Second, war film conventions in the B-52 scenes (profile close-ups, relentless repetition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) make the pilot’s gung-ho cowboy bravado all the more painful to watch today, as it comes close to truth in this age of endless wars and the populist-militarist January 6 insurrection. Third, Dr. Strangelove does not imagine a random object from space colliding with Earth; human arrogance is what unleashes the ultimate nuclear disaster, via one rogue pre-emptive strike that automatically triggers the Soviet “Doomsday Machine.”
Photo: From Netflix.
Watching Dr. Strangelove again for the first time in ten years, now that human-caused climate crisis is pressingly upon us, I found the ending more moving than I’d remembered. The soundtrack’s counterpoint in the final scene (mushroom cloud after blinding mushroom cloud, to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” in Vera Lynn’s warm voice) served its painfully satirical purpose, unlike the glib ending of Don’t Look Up, with Earthly debris scattering in space to the tune of Bon Iver’s breathy pop song “Second Nature.” In both cases, music is meant to work against the images onscreen, as has become a film convention since its first uses as a distancing technique (Adorno and Eisler, 1947), but to very different effects. I would rather feel the shock and sadness of humans’ destruction of our home than be mildly entertained by an imaginary comet and political caricatures. Too much is at stake in this age of ideological and environmental menace for satire to fall short.
Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. (1947/2010). Composing for the Films. Continuum.
Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press.
Despite their ostensible opposition to one another, extreme right-wing, anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups like “Sharia for Europe” share a common dynamic of “reciprocal populism.” This emerges when antagonistic actors embedded in the same social context draw on similar themes and images in performing a populist political style based on symbolic action. Through this contestation, each casts the other as the principal threat to the survival of a morally “pure” community. While the focus is on the opposition between right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups, “reciprocal populism” is best understood not as a binary process but rather as co-evolution among multiple actors who forge coalitions and display a range of tactics and strategies in their ongoing performance of populism.
In this commentary, I briefly analyze two extremist groups in Europe that have been feeding one other by drawing on the same themes and images in the pursuit of their agendas: right-wing, anti-Islam movements and the radical Islamist outfit “Sharia for Europe.” Despite their apparent ideological opposition, these two networks have exhibited what Eatwell (2014) calls “reflexive hybridity,” which describes the phenomenon whereby contesting groups borrow intentionally from each other as they battle it out in the public sphere. While these extreme movements are very heterogonous and would not necessarily define themselves as “populist” in terms of ideology (instead adopting labels such as “religious” or “patriotic”), the symbols, discourses, and narratives they evince reflect a certain populist political style and performance.
Both the anti-Islam movements and the “Sharia for Europe” groups are committed to a pure understanding of authentic community, expressed variously in national, cultural, or religious terms. Both groups charge that an immoral cosmopolitan “global” elite threatens the “pure” community’s way of life, requiring defensive action “before it is too late.” This reflects the central premise of ideational approaches to populism, which claim that the central feature of the phenomenon is a moral division between the “pure” people and a corrupt elite (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017). In this school of thought, populists will delineate the concrete referent for the “pure” people in various ways, be it a particular social stratum (“the workers” or the “hardworking middle class”), “the nation,” or a specific ethnic group. Whatever referent is selected, the result is an idealized conception of the “pure” community (Taggart, 2004).
In short, the approach of populists toward the moral construction of a “pure” people set against a “corrupt” elite involves a high degree of idealization and the cooptation of imagery and symbolism that can be deployed flexibly and often strategically in an ongoing process of discursive construction. When opposing groups are pitted against one another in a public sphere characterized by plural media and information affluence, dynamic reciprocal interaction emerges, the result of which is a form of mutual radicalization. The present analysis explores this dynamic as it has emerged between anti-Islam and Islamist groups in Europe in recent decades. Specifically, it analyzes the symbols and narratives underpinning the production of populist performativity across such groups.
Theoretically, the analysis draws on Roger Eatwell’s (2006) notion of “cumulative extremism,” which refers to the escalation of violence between two antagonistic groups—in his research as in the analysis here, militant Islamists and groups opposed to Islam. Drawing on this idea, we adopt the term “reciprocal populism” to explain how opposing movements reinforce each other’s populist discourse and style through sustained interaction. These styles and discourses are reinforced through socially embeddedinterconnectedness — namely, the mechanisms and micro-processes of reciprocal exchanges between groups embedded in a shared social environment. More specifically, they take the form of embodied social practices both online and offline, targeting the opposing group through propaganda.
The extremist group “Stop Islamization” was founded in Denmark in 2005 by the far-right politician Anders Gravers Pedersen. It soon morphed into a transnational network in various countries under the label “Stop the Islamisation of Europe” (SIOE). The SIOE organized the so-called “Counter-Jihad” summit and many other international conferences to mobilize members from across Europe. Some of the most infamous right-wing, anti-immigrant movements in Europe of recent years feature in the SIOE network, including many groups under the banner of the so-called Identarian Movement, Germany’s far-right anti-migrant Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), and the neo-Nazi organization Vigrid, as well as the so-called Pro-Cologne Movement (which was rebadged as the Pro-Germany Citizen’s Movement), Pax Europa, the Cities against Islamization (CAI) initiative, and the “Casuals United” protest group in the UK, which later rebadged itself as the “Pie and Mash Squad.” All these groups have identified Islam and the supposed threat from the spread of shariʿa law as pressing problems for Europe. They are also linked to other far-right organizations and parties across the continent and beyond.
A woman holds a placard reading “Muslims will destroy the crusade and estabilish the Islamic State!” outside the Regents Park Mosque in London, UK on 24 January 2014.
As a response to the activities of the SIOE network, a highly diffuse and non-hierarchical Salafī jihadi network made up of various individual preachers as well as militant groups and organizations has sprung up with the explicit goal of spreading and promoting the imposition of shariʿa law in Europe. Transnational outfits like Al-Muhajirun, Islam4UK, and Sharia for Europe have connected with local groups like Forsane Alizza in France, Einladung zum Paradies (Invitation to Paradise, EZP) and Millatu Ibrahim in Germany, and Profetens Ummah in Norway, to promote the Islamicization of Europe.
Both sets of identity-based movements organize and participate in rallies and demonstrations and seek to persuade public opinion against the other through propaganda in the public sphere. Alongside this “spectacle” mobilization and “street populism,” both sets of networks share common features that belie their strident opposition to one another. First, they are, for the most part, transnational in their aims and their reach. Second, they bring together diverse people from all walks of life, many of whom do not share the same primary ideology and whose opinions on various issues may differ. Third, they hone in on an evident vision of moral community, dividing the world into a “pure” people under threat from an “enemy” Other, and then mobilize into protest action based on such a division.
Spectacle Activism and Street Populism
One way to gain analytical purchase on populism is to examine its discursive manifestations — namely, the narratives, discourses, and symbols that populist actors and movements use to challenge the “corrupt” elite or antagonist Other in the name of the “pure” people. Here, we can usefully draw on Benjamin Moffitt’s understanding of populism as a “stylised milieu of contemporary politics” and a public performance designed to mobilize the people, typically against a backdrop of manufactured crisis (Moffitt, 2016). The street performance of extremist actors can be viewed as a salient example of such stylized populist mobilization. In Moffitt’s schema, populist performance breaks into several elements — the “performer” (i.e., the populist leader or movement), the “audience” (voters or the population at large), and the “stage,” comprising both traditional (print, radio, TV) and new media (the internet and social media). Understanding performative populism in this way allows us to see how the reciprocal populism of the far-right anti-Islam and Sharia for Europe movements has emerged and consolidated over the last decade.
Both sides value public clashes as a central aspect of their populist performance, with mutual contestation in public space serving as propaganda to mobilize supporters. For example, Salafī preachers have organized street activities called da’wa in various European cities, where copies of the Qu’ran are distributed, and Islamic preachers give strident sermons on busy street corners to large groups, partly to provoke a negative response. This often results in clashes with both the police and far-right militants, which are then badged as public displays of resistance to an oppressive state (represented by policy) or bigoted citizenry (the far-right thugs). The Islamists upload photos and videos from these clashes as evidence of their bravery, assertiveness, and resistance to those social forces seeking to “oppress Islam.” Black clothing and flags feature prominently, as does militant attire. One prominent propaganda video features a Salafist leader dressed in a djellaba (traditional North African robe), army jacket, and a turban announcing the group’s intention to attack and demolish the Atomium, a landmark monument in Brussels built for the 1958 World Fair, as a symbolic act of resistance.
The far-right, anti-Islam groups are equally adept at using this kind of public clash as a symbolic performance. For example, Les Identitaires (formerly Bloc Identitaire) — a French anti-migrant, nativist, and anti-Muslim movement — has deployed propaganda and public performance techniques to rally support and create a narrative of crisis around the supposed challenge of Islam in Europe. The group, founded in 2002 in Nice, has since become active across Europe and engages symbolically in various social debates by organizing street demonstrations. They target primarily young people to promote anti-migration and anti-Islam ideas. Its founding members have links with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (Rassemblement national). Its members occupied the rooftop of a mosque in Poitiers in 2012. It regularly references totemic historical events and symbols to gain visibility and recruit impressionable people, especially the young. They distribute so-called “identity soup” (“La soupe au cochon”) containing pork meat (which both Muslims and Jews are forbidden to eat) in various cities in France and Belgium in collaboration with the Antwerpse Solidariteit group, which is close to the far-right Vlaams Belang in Belgium. Other very provocative public actions by the network have included very public consumption of non-halal food products in Muslim-populated areas, members dressed in pig costumes occupying a halal fast-food restaurant, broadcasting the call to prayer in Montluçon, a small town in central France in the middle of the night using a loudspeaker to protest plans to open a mosque there, and defacing a street sign in Brussels to read “Sharia Street” to denounce the apparent Islamization of the city.
In the UK, the English Defense League (EDL) has presented a master class of public propaganda techniques designed to perform symbolic opposition to Islam and to galvanize anti-Islam movements. The EDL was established in 2009 in the English town of Luton with the stated aim of “protecting” non-Muslims from radical Islam (Goodwin et al., 2016). The EDL has organized demonstrations in areas with large Muslim populations and draws heavily on classic Christian iconography — particularly the crucifix and the imagery of the crusaders of the middle ages — in its flags and banners. This kind of visual antagonism through the heavy use of Crusader imagery actually bolsters the radical Islamist mobilization because it highlights the Islamist propaganda that Western countries (especially the United States) have been waging a modern-day crusade against Muslim lands, especially since the First Gulf War in the 1990s. Thus, we see cumulative extremism at work in its purest form, with the EDL and Islamist groups pointing to the salience of the Crusader image in public demonstrations and propaganda campaigns. Both sides — the anti-Islam extremists and the Islamists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda and Salafist groups in Europe — can thus point to the Crusader images as emblematic of an ongoing conflict between the Islamic East and the Christian West that is playing out on the streets of Europe today. In this way, opposing networks paradoxically settle on the same techniques and symbolism in their campaigns of populist mobilization, each pitting an “enemy” Other against the “pure” community they are seeking to defend.
The role of women is another crucial symbolic resource in the mobilization of both networks. Pro-shariʿa groups deploy a narrative based on the apparent decadence of Western societies in which women are supposedly exploited as objects of sexual desire and their role in the traditional family undermined. Fully covered Muslim women feature prominently carrying banners and voicing slogans in the public demonstrations sponsored by Islamist groups. In opposition to this image, anti-shariʿa movements emphasize the supposed subordination of women in Islam and use the sexual liberation of women in Western societies as a central symbol of propaganda. For example, the EDL makes extensive use of Angel imagery during its demonstrations, with these icons depicted in a highly sensual way. Indeed, the overt sexuality in the EDL portrayal of women in demonstrations is designed to contrast with how women participate fully covered in the Salafī extremist milieu. Again, in a classic example of “reciprocal populism,” both sides point explicitly to the way women are publicly depicted by the other as evidence of their opponents’ “moral degradation.”
Despite their ostensible opposition to one another, extreme right-wing, anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups like “Sharia for Europe” share a common dynamic of “reciprocal populism.” This emerges when antagonistic actors embedded in the same social context draw on similar themes and images in performing a populist political style based on symbolic action. Through this contestation, each casts the other as the principal threat to the survival of a morally “pure” community. While the focus is on the opposition between right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups, “reciprocal populism” is best understood not as a binary process but rather as co-evolution among multiple actors who forge coalitions and display a range of tactics and strategies in their ongoing performance of populism.
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This article is an attempt to critically assess the utilization of internet platforms by right-wing populists. Analysing both primary and secondary sources, the author identifies several propaganda methods used by populists in digital venues to trigger insecurities in their target audience. Nativism and xenophobia are at the forefront of these propaganda methods. The increasing use of internet algorithms and artificial intelligence is also brought to the readers’ attention as abetting the spread of fake news and hate speech. The author concludes by drawing attention to initiatives and mechanisms that social media platforms should use to limit the damaging effects of such digital populist rhetoric.
“Populism often asks the right questions but provides the wrong answer” (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017: 118).
Populism is defined as a stark social and political divide between the common people and the corrupt elite. The author of The Global Rise of Populism, Benjamin Moffit writes that populist leaders aim to represent the unified “will of people,” hence arguing that populism “is generally misused especially in a European context” (Moffitt, 2016: 101-102). Accordingly, populism is embraced both by left-wing and right-wing political parties, as well as other extremist groups along the political spectrum. Even though populist leaders seem—at least superficially—to have the well-being of their citizens at heart, with time, idiosyncratic politicians tend to corrupt the popular spirit and seek to realize their own goals by labelling themselves as the natural or sole representative of the true people.
Propaganda methods and mass media have always been used to spread new ideas, thoughts, and doctrines. A well-known example is the Nazi regime in Germany, which used propaganda through different sources of media to influence the German population. Today, digital media works as a modernized platform to disseminate all kinds of extremist propaganda nationally and internationally. This article will examine primarily the historical background of populism and the rise of far-right movements, as it is necessary to trace the origin of radicalized currents on today’s digital media. According to Anton Jäger, US populism scholar, “in its original form, populism was not racist; it was truly for and by the people” (Maly, 2018: 5). As evident by contemporary populist parties, this is no longer the case, as racist policies tend to dominate. Therefore, the primary focus of this article will examine how today’s populist voices use digital media—especially social media—as tools to spread racist messages globally.
We begin with the definition of populism. Jan-Werner Müller clarifies that: “[Populism is] a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but ultimately fictional—people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. […] Populists claim that they, and only they, represent the people” (2016: 19–20). In this view, populist leaders offer an idealized vision to the voting public with a claim that they represent the only true “voice of the people.”
Presenting themselves as political saviours by satisfying the needs of the population, populist leaders expand their sway among a greater share of the electorate to boost their political power. Populist politicians often use strong emotional appeals, including public discontent, to stir support (Hafner-Burton et al., 2017). Precisely because right-wing politicians trigger the public’s insecurities, highlighting the lack of national and personal security (mass immigration, for example), they steadily cultivate citizen appeal. As Ico Maly emphasizes: “Populism is nowadays being used [as] a synonym for demagogues, racism, authoritarianism and nationalism. The concept has therefore become a euphemism for far more radical ideological positions” (2018:6).
The article Right-Wing Extremists’ Persistent Online Presence: History and Contemporary Trends emphasizes a notable classification, when it comes to the right-wing actors: “we conceptualize Western right-wing extremism (RWE) as a racially, ethnically, and/or sexually defined nationalism, which is typically framed in terms of white power and/or white identity (i.e., the in-group) that is grounded in xenophobic and exclusionary understandings of the perceived threats posed by some combination of non-whites, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, members of the LGBTQI+ community, and feminists (i.e., the out-group(s))” (Conway, 2019). It is common for populist politicians to make use of nationalistic notions to create a picture of the in-group, an image that will be radically developed and internalized by right-wing extremist groups. Subsequently, they must exclude individuals who don’t meet the in-group’s criteria.
The reasons for the increase in (far-right) populism and the radicalization of the political firmament in many democracies across the world is due to a complex set of factors. Undoubtedly, however, the central cause, on a global level, has been the intersection of a crisis of democracy (Fitzi, 2019) and a more fundamental crisis of governance (Yuval-Davis, 2012). Overall, the “depletion of the welfare state, the deregulation of the markets and the deconstruction of political culture” (Fitzi, 2019: 7) have proved fertile ground for the expansion of populism. Even if populism was first notable in the Americas, these factors have also caused an increase in European populism.
Since the end of the 1990s, a rolling set of global crises, including terrorism, climate change, financial crises, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic, have undermined citizen trust in “territorial governmentality and juridical control of nation-state bounded governance,” and heightened the sense of a world spinning out of control (Vieten, 2020: 4). Populists can readily step into the breach in such a context, with promises of a return to a golden past and a restoration of “law and order.” A notable example of such an approach is Donald Trump’s declaration to the United States on winning the 2016 election: “I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon […] come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored” (Taylor, 2016).
Given that populist appeals manifest across the political spectrum, it is worth asking how populism has dovetailed in Europe with the return of the extreme right. For Inglehart and Norris (2016), populist tendencies in Europe increased due to cultural factors, such as the spread of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. With globalization, mobility increased, motivating people to freely choose and even abandon their national identities in favour of the “global supermarket” and of cosmopolitan identities (Flew & Iosifidis, 2019: 9). Thus, right-wing populists and their voters fear that their distinctive national cultures or identities may be destroyed. These cultural concerns expand and spread widely into society via the extensive use of social media. According to Iosifidis, globalization plays an important role in the rise of far-right movements. The new-social media spreads both the cosmopolitan and nationalistic views (ibid).
The more globalization was emphasized the more the nationalist borders and boundaries were materialized in social media discussions. Economic nationalism was one response in a globalizing yet increasingly unequal economic world. Inglehart and Norris, as well as others such as Judis (2016), have constructed populism as an economic reaction against rising inequalities. But beyond the economy, the ideologies broadcasted on social media created unconfirmed biases on many grounds, especially since the users of social media became the mass consumers of ideology. These included far-right arguments propagating the rationales for exclusivist policies.
One of the main characteristics of far-right actors is their tendency to advocate for “exclusionist populism” and “their ethno-nationalist notion of citizenship, reflected in the slogan ‘own people first” (Betz, 1994; Rydgren, 2005, as cited in Muis; Immerzeel, 2017: 2). Limiting migration, introducing nativist policies (favouring one’s own language, traditions, and culture) are just a few strategies advanced by far-right politics. This exclusivity can be seen in the nativist claim that “states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (the nation) and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) threaten homogeneous nation-states” (Mudde, 2007; Muis & Immerzeel, 2017, as cited in Muis; Immerzeel, 2017: 2). In most of cases, nationalist convictions are followed by racism and an ethnocentric and xenophobic vision leading to anti-immigration propaganda. Right-wing groups often prefer strong leaders, who reflect “the will of the people” by “stressing themes like law and order and traditional values” (Inglehart & Norris, 2016, as cited in Muis & Immerzeel, 2017: 2-3).
Summarizing, global frustrations with political establishments, concerns about immigration, economic insecurities, growing inequality in wealth distribution, and the dilution of “national identity, have brought about a broader concern that globalization is associated with a shift of power to transnational elites” (Flew & Iosifidis, 2019: 2). This explains why voters, especially European ones, are now attracted to populist leaders who promise security, an ethno-centric identity, and democracy. The fact that nine far-right parties have formed a new bloc in the European Parliament, called Identity and Democracy (ID), highlights this aspect (BBC News, 2019).
Digital media has played a significant role in the rise of populism, often facilitating the circulation of far-right propaganda. Accordingly, I’ll next focus on the background of far-right extremism in media. A special consideration will be given to how far-right actors have mobilized across various platforms, particularly in Europe.
Populism in the Digital Age: Social Media as a New Far-right Platform
Before populist politicians speak in the name of the people, they must build a large audience. According to Professor of Government Kurt Weyland, it is firstly important to attract the citizens’ attention. For many citizens, their first impression of a populist movement is formed by the personalistic leaders. By managing politics in opportunistic ways, rather than following a strict program, populist leaders attract followers (Weyland, 2021). Secondly, the media contributes to the construction or destruction and distribution of the populist voice (Maly, 2018: 9).
To understand populism in the digital age, it is necessary to take the socio-technical assemblage, consisting of human and non-human players, into account (Maly, 2018: 17). Non-human players can be defined as the algorithmic functions of digital media. Maly, a professor of politics, goes one step further by subcategorizing these functions as “algorithmic activism.” He highlights the importance of this type of activism, most widely used by politicians: “this type of activism contributes to spreading the message of a politician or movement by interacting with the post to trigger the algorithms of the medium so that it boosts the popularity rankings of this message and its messenger” (Maly, 2018: 10). This algorithmic activism accomplishes a crucial function for a populist, who effectively spreads his or her message with the help of social media. Indeed, contemporary populism boosted by social media algorithms exploit both the public sphere and disrupts individual realities (Maly, 2018). An example of how such contemporary populism measures impact individual realities in the spread of hate-speech online; individuals who would usually not express hate speech in public feel like they have a comfortable and normalised online platform to do so.
International Security professor Maura Conway considers the beginning of far-right extremism on digital media to be the mid-1990s when the World Wide Web developed. This introduced the first cases of internet-afforded hate, initiated and promoted by humans (Conway, 2019: 4). Since then, existing far-right movements have replaced offline based ego-centric, xenophobic, nationalistic, and racist propaganda by voicing them online. Therefore, “the development of information and communication technologies” as well as the alleviation of European borders are considered the “new enablers” permitting far-right groups to “connect and cooperate” (Whine, 2012: 317).
However, populism scholars are not only concerned about online hate speech but also about disinformation and radicalization. The US and other countries have undergone a series of attacks that can be connected to online disinformation and radicalization. Conway lists different incidents, including the terrorist attack on March 15, 2019, in Christchurch New Zealand, which she cites as the pioneer of such “mainstreaming” of disinformation and online radicalization. She emphasizes that the mosque attack, in which 51 people died, was peculiarly internet-centric, as it involved the distribution of a pre-planned online manifesto and a Facebook Live video stream. Other examples include the Poway synagogue attack on April 2019, the El Paso Walmart shooting in August 2019, the Halle shootings in October 2019, and a series of similar attacks, which only heightened attention on right-wing and their use of the internet to mobilize and radicalize (Conway, 2019: 12-13).
Accordingly, as research shows, many organized hate groups have also developed websites and forums. Some of these, such as those established by various Ku Klux Klan (KKK) branches, function as quasi “news” sites for a more general audience, while others offer more group-specific information (history, mission, events, etc.) (Conway, 2019: 4). Importantly, forums have also “acted as an essential medium for RWEs to air their grievances, bond, and form a collective identity by othering their ‘common enemies’” (Conway, 2019: 4-5).
In addition to playing a key role in facilitating the spread of hate speech, social media is also connected to the rapid circulation of “Fake News” (Wardle, 2017). When talking about “Fake News,” it is necessary to refer to Hannah Arendt, who emphasized in 1953 that the individual could become subject of the totalitarian state and be unable to distinguish between fact and fiction. The flattening of online news, between more traditional sites, social media, and “news” from RWE sites, has made it difficult for social media users to differentiate between fact and fiction, and has helped RWE spread hate and nationalism, galvanize supporters, and attract new ones.
Twitter is considered a vanguard platform when it comes to polarizing fake news and hate speech in political discourses. Particularly, the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is known for its digital activism using the “hashjacking” strategy. Twitter “hashtags” were designed to create a “virtual community of interested listeners” when directing users to a particular topic. They also facilitate communication and engage debates surrounding specific hashtags. Although this can contribute to open and democratic discussion about a range of topics, extremists have exploited the hashtag to infiltrate their views into moderate discussions (Berger, 2016; Graham, 2015, as cited in Ahmed; Pisoiu, 2020). “Hashjacking,” hijacking a hashtag, uses someone else’s hashtag to promote one’s own social media activity (Darius & Stephany, 2019). Research by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society showed that the Far-right AfD supporters hijacked rising hashtags in 2020, including #FlattenTheCurve or #CoronaVirusDE (Fox, 2020). Most of the right-wing politicians use both their own party hashtags as well as the hashjacking method to strategically target opponent campaigns and to effectively polarize political discourse. As a result of their digital political communication strategy, they succeed not only online but also in elections (Darius & Stephany, 2019).
When it comes to data about the identified numbers of right-wing extremist accounts, the Twitter application programming interface (API) counts around 175 EU-wide profiles, mainly centred on neo-Nazi and white supremacist topics (Ahmed & Pisoiu, 2020). The field of interest of European-based accounts is centred on topics like antisemitism (holocaust denial, “Jewish world conspiracy,” etc.); defending European culture, identity, and race; and “white genocide.” In the European context, the high rate of activity of Spanish far-right populist accounts stands out, while the electoral success in 2019 of the Spanish far-right party Vox is a testament to their efforts (ibid). The increasing number of refugees and immigrants has contributed even more to digital polarization.
The rise of right-wing populist parties and activists is very concerning, as they not only induce radical activities but also contribute to the formation of narcissistic populations and introverted communities. By creating a self-centred in-group, out-group members are expected to be excluded socially, as well as politically. Moreover, besides the increasing number of asylum seekers, migrants, and “classical” refugees (those who fear persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group), it is predicted that within the next decades, most countries will also have to face different classes of refugees, specifically “climate refugees” (Tetsuji, 2021). Although immigration is common in every modern society, it is also often followed by xenophobic tendencies. With the arrival of social media 2.0 (simplified technology to allow its users to create, share, collaborate and communicate easily) and the uncontrolled spread of fake news, the formation of xenophobic communities and anti-immigration policies became unavoidable and inevitable.
To limit the damaging effects of digital media, Wu (2016) suggests using Facebook, among others, as a “public benefit corporation.” To put it in another way, online platforms would aim to support their users’ activity to advantage for the online community and avoid harmful activities. Meanwhile Napoli and Caplan (2017) favour modified frameworks that reflect “the hybrid nature of social media platforms—content producers, but also investors in platforms’ to create connectivity, called ‘information utilities’” (Flew & Iosifidis, 2019: 24). By relying on the users’ sense of social responsibility, social media platforms would create an information exchange space, as a common good for the internet community. However, these proposals are utopic visions, as they rely on the idealized version of internet users, who aim to use digital media only for the well-being of global internet users.
An initiative taken by the European Commission along with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Microsoft produced relevant outcomes: introducing a “Code of Conduct on Countering Illegal Hate Speech Online” (May 31, 2016) and developing “a series of Europe-wide commitments to combat the spread of ‘illegal hate speech’ via the internet” (Conway, 2019: 16-17).
Furthermore, Twitter’s reaction to violence and hateful conduct achieved meaningful results including the removal from the platform of far-right political group accounts including the American Nazi Party, the League of the South, and Britain First (Kuchler, 2017). However, even though accounts from the far-right group Britain First, such as Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen, were suspended, it didn’t take long until they reopened new accounts. Many white nationalist groups also tend to create fake accounts. Recent examples are fake profiles linked to Identity Evropa, an identarian movement which anonymously pushed violent rhetoric related to ongoing protests in multiple states across the US (Collins, Zadrozny & Saliba, 2020). The fact that Twitter does not investigate users’ real identity to protect its users’ privacy, consequently, limits the monitoring of far-right activism and therefore is still in need of improvement.
The exposure to a diversity of ideologies on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, can open opportunities for dialogue. Even though the rise of right-wing populists cannot be prevented, digital media efforts, such as the project of the European Commission, can create significant barriers for right-wing activists on digital media. The rise of online far-right activism has been experienced across the world, and it is the responsibility of digital platforms to prevent such activities from taking place, ensuring all their consumers a safe experience.
This article confirms that populist far-right parties and movements can mobilize and organize on social media. Populism in its original form was meant to be “from the people and for the people.” Since right-wing populist leaders have become more influential, the term “populism” is now laden with negative connotations.
While globalization is meant to create a more international and multicultural reality, far-right extremists are feeling threatened and use xenophobic propaganda to urge ethno-centric radicalization. Far-right digital media users, especially neo-Nazi and antisemitic groups, use digital media and algorithms to widen their sphere of influence while spreading (internet) hate. Their motives are the defence of in-group culture, identity, and race; “white genocide” is cited as one of their main motivations.
Ultimately, the digital medium has contributed to the global spread of disinformation, hate-speech, propaganda, and radicalization, and it is increasingly difficult for digital platforms to monitor fringe extremist websites and activity. Due to the immensity of the World Wide Web, it will only grow more difficult to track and avoid radical activities, which multiply daily. It shall be, thus, the responsibility of both the citizen to critically evaluate digital data and of the digital platform owners to safeguard their platforms from online extremism.
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Alana Lentin’s book Why Race Still Matters offers key insights on how racism is denied and why naming racism is seen as offensive based on cases in politics and media across US and Australia. These cases, Lentin clearly explains, underlie the systemic redefinition of racism to serve white agendas and make it challenging to bring racial literacy into public discourse.
“How to be both free and situated; how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?” Toni Morrison asks this question in her essay called “Home,” published in 1997. More than two decades after Morrison, Alana Lentin, a race critical scholar, partly answers this question as she calls on her readers to be race-cognizant while defying its terms of reference: “How do we explain race and oppose the dehumanization and discrimination committed in its name if we do not speak about it?” This is the key question that Lentin thoroughly engages with in Why Race Still Matters.* Her main argument draws on the view that dismantling racism and unpacking its impact can only be possible by speaking about it as leaving racism out of the conversation harms those exposed to it. Most importantly, she does this at a time when there is increasing backlash against academic studies of race, gender, post-colonialism, and scholars working in these fields are being targeted by right-wing governments across and beyond western Europe (Colak & Toguslu, 2021).
Drawing on the work of influential scholars like Stuart Hall, Lentin defines racism as “a technology for the management of human difference” which produces, reproduces, and sustains white supremacy at various levels (p. 5). Her work underlines how approaching racism as a pathology fails to acknowledge the role of institutions, structures, processes, and practices in upholding a racially categorized view of the world. More and better racial literacy pedagogy among public, Lentin rightly argues, can challenge such individualized notions of racism and normalize conversations about (institutional) whiteness. Racial literacy “emphasizes the relationship between race and power … [and] constantly interrogates the dynamic relationship among race, class, geography, gender, and other explanatory variables” (Guinier, 2004: 114–15, as cited in Lentin, 2020: 11). Nevertheless, western educational systems fail to acknowledge the importance of racial literacy as they attempt at practicing neutrality and color-blindness that reproduces Eurocentric notions of race. This, Lentin underlines, deprives us from acquiring the tools that we need to counter pseudoscience racial ideas and myths (e.g., White genocide) that are taking a strong hold on social media and in the public sphere.
How can then an anti-racist discourse challenges the recent resurgence of ‘race realists’ and their false premises of racial science beyond proposing that race is a social construct? This is an especially relevant question that offers valuable insights to move beyond the limited explanatory frameworks that are currently adopted by anti-racist scholars and activists.
As noted by Lentin, “antiracists are very good at denying the biological facticity of race, but not very good at explaining what is social about race” (p. 31). Entering an insightful dialogue with scholars of race, Lentin discusses various critiques of social constructionist approach, which emphasizes that race needs to be discussed within the political context that reproduces it along with ideas about how it can be dismantled. Still, Lentin shows how race is present in medical practice, biomedical research, and genetics as can be seen in associations of certain diseases such as sickle cell anemia with the Black people despite obvious evidence to the contrary. At the same time, Lentin recognizes the ways racialization processes unequally impact on groups, requiring specific forms of treatment. In other words, race is not biology, but racial rule has biological effect due to persistence of white supremacy, colonization, and structural inequities. Increasing control of migration along racial lines and discriminatory policies that reproduce race by western governments exemplify nativist racialized body politics that construct ‘Others’ as out of place, which is also noted by scholars of far right and nationalism (Wodak, 2021).
Why Race Still Matters offers key insights on how racism is denied and why naming racism is seen as offensive based on cases in politics and media across US and Australia. These cases, Lentin clearly explains, underlie the systemic redefinition of racism to serve white agendas and make it challenging to bring racial literacy into public discourse. As such, “the question of who can control the definition of racism has grown in importance almost as a function of the lack of control that many racialized people have over the determination of their life course” (p. 58). Lentin critically engages with the historical roots of racism in Europe, showing that the commitment to racial equality was mainly associated with critiquing antisemitism and did not imply rejection of racism against colonized peoples. The current understanding of racism in Europe still relies strongly on the associations made between Holocaust and racism, leading therefore to the rejection of racism as a system of power and domination that explains ongoing anti-blackness, Islamophobia, and the criminalization of immigrants. Such common views of racism in public, Lentin suggests, are informed, and shaped by a group of academics who psychologize race and equate racism to individual attitudes while presenting critical race studies as unempirical and unscientific.
“Why do you always make it about race?” This, Lentin explains, is a question asked not only by the right but also by ‘the white left,’ to criticize the centralization of race, gender, and sexuality in making sense of complex political questions. However, refusing “to see race is to choose simplicity and ignore the layers of power in and resultant complicity required in dealing with what race continues to do” (p. 96). Exposing the ignorance among the ‘white left’ about the challenges of antiracists, Lentin underlies the little-understood diversity of the antiracism movement. By construction of racism as a concern of ‘aloof cosmopolitan urban elites’ and racialization of working classes as white, the question of how racialized power structures function at the intersection of class, gender, and nationality is overlooked. Lentin’s thoughtful engagement with issues around anti-racism movement and identity politics drawing on discussions around contemporary Islamophobia and ongoing settler domination of Indigenous lands provides unique insights into ongoing academic and media debates. Particularly noteworthy in this discussion is her emphasis on how demands by racialized groups of people are treated as “victimhood performances” by those in power who then call themselves “victims” struggling with such demands.
One of the interesting contributions in Lentin’s Why Race Still Matters relates to the question of how antisemitism and Islamophobia feed off one another as two forms of racism. While antisemitism is politically instrumentalized in the name of defending Jews from Muslims and anti-Zionists, Islamophobia is often seen invalid. Lentin underlies, for instance, the adoption of “Judeo-Christianity” by the right to construct Muslims and Islam in opposition to European values while concealing Christianity’s own antisemitism. At the same time, rising antisemitism in Hungary, for instance, and the attacks against the well-known Jewish philanthropist George Soros are often accompanied by anti-refugee and anti-Muslim racism. Still, “antisemitism is excused if opposition to Muslims and support for Israel are present” (p. 145), as shown by various vignettes discussed in the book. She furthermore engages deeply with questions around ‘Cultural Marxism,’ internal struggles within Jewish communities, and the persistence of antisemitism in different forms such as reduction of “the Jews” to a homogenous identity. Lentin’s insights on how European states declared their commitment to fight Judeophobia after Holocaust while continuing racial colonization abroad and exploitation of migrants at home are particularly insightful.
The conclusion offers a powerful summary of contemporary debates on racism by outlining differences among race realists (i.e., racists), race-critical anti-racists who are fighting racism, and those who remain silent about race as a way of challenging it. Lentin addresses this silent group when she argues that “talking in euphemisms or pretending that race belongs to the past” will not make race matter less (p. 172). Engaging with the root causes of why race is a difficult subject to study and talk about, she particularly underlies the role of white fragility, methodological whiteness, epistemic Eurocentrism and institutional racism, all of which contribute to the lack of racial literacy among public. For instance, an epistemically racist positivist stance argues that race cannot be understood objectively by those who experience it while imposing certain boundaries around what counts as (superior) knowledge. While calling on its readers to be attentive to race as a tool of analysis, the book ends with a hopeful message noting critical conversations that are taking place and being attended by white people engaged in challenging racial hierarchy.
Overall, this is a valuable contribution and resource for scholars and students of race studies interested in a critical, engaging, and deeply informative analysis of historical and contemporary academic and public debates on race and racism.
(*) Why Race Still Matters, by Alana Lentin, Polity Press, 2020. 184 pp., €17.00 (paperback), ISBN: 9781509535712
Colak, F. Z. & Toguslu, E. (2021). “France’s attack on academics is an attempt to silence debate on race.” ECPS. https://www.populismstudies.org/frances-attack-on-academics-is-an-attempt-to-silence-debate-on-race/
Guinier, L. (2004). “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma.” Journal of American History. 91(1): 92–118.
Morrison, T. (1997). “Home.” In: The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain. Edited by Wahneema Lubiano. 3–12. New York: Pantheon Books.
Wodak, R. (2021). The politics of fear: The shameless normalization of far-right discourse. London: SAGE.
Right-wing populism does not need staged violence to attract new recruits. Online rabbit-holes and the “smart branding” of a new “hipster image” in place of skinhead aesthetics were more than enough to set Generation Identity in motion. The world is still not safe for young people – not because of immigrants, but because of genuinely dangerous and far less graspable forces. This commentary reviews the 2021 German-Czech film Je Suis Karl, about far-right agitation and radicalization among young people.
“Just crossed the border!” squeals a middle-aged Frenchwoman in a car, in English, filming herself. She and her German husband have just smuggled a Libyan refugee out of Hungary; his face jumps into the screen from under a blanket. This jittery, found-footage effect carries over into the next scene, as the couple’s teenage daughter returns home to Berlin from visiting her grandparents in Paris. The family, with two young sons they call “the Bonsai,” have a comfortable, bourgeois life that seems a bit smug in their “multikulti” do-gooding and cooking with fresh herbs.
After the father Alex (Milan Peschel) accepts a package delivered for an elderly neighbor, tragedy strikes as a bomb inside the box decimates half of the apartment building. Outside in the street, Alex struggles to stand up in the falling ash and cradles a dead blackbird in his hand. A pulsing soundtrack follows emergency vehicles onto the scene. Alex’s wife and sons have been killed in the explosion.
Filmed partly around Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, Je suis Karl(2021) recalls the protests and counter-protests there in 2015-16, when I lived in that area and passed rows of police vans every Monday night to lead a Quaker vigil for nonviolence and inclusion. After the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, tensions were high all over Germany, as the populist PEGIDA organization drew supporters who feared the “Islamification” of Europe. My community’s own do-gooder impulses felt small in response to the rising wave of nationalist fervor, especially in the former East Germany (Jegic, 2018).
Je suis Karl also recalls the “Je suis Charlie” slogan popularized – and polarized in right-wing circles – after the 2015 attack. As the film’s plot unfolds, Maxi (Luna Wedler), Alex’s daughter who has survived the bombing, finds herself recruited by a confident young man involved in a pan-European youth group armed with pamphlets, YouTube videos, concerts, and conferences that stoke young people’s socio-political anxieties. Maxi’s father has identified the courier of the explosive package as having a “dark beard,” unintentionally feeding the xenophobic biases of groups like the film’s fictional Re/Generation Europe, based on the “hipster” far-right group Generation Identity in Germany.
The truth turns out to be even more twisted, when group leader Karl (Jannis Niewöhner) reveals that Re/Generation planted the bomb to stir up anti-immigrant fears. Because this is genuinely multicultural Berlin, however, public reaction has been more compassionate than enraged. At a conference in Prague, where Karl seduces Maxi to win her over more completely to the cause, plans emerge for more staged violence.
Karl plots his own shooting in France, amid campaign events for a far-right female candidate who comes across as a younger version of currently embattled Marine Le Pen. Named Odile (like the “evil twin” ballerina in Swan Lake), this seemingly fun and engaging young woman draws Maxi into her circle of approval and influence, with a campaign slogan that reads simply “POUR” (“FOR”).
After the shooting, the feel-good, ostensibly female-friendly, rhetorically upside-down appeal of Re/Generation Europe (their pamphlet includes language about “protecting diversity”) explodes into openly racist attacks in the streets. Maxi escapes with her father and his refugee rescue Yusuf (Aziz Dyab), who have tracked her down and cradle her in an underground tunnel while Yusuf sings soothingly in Arabic.
As several reviewers have noted, the film’s plot is contrived and Maxi’s conversion not entirely convincing (Van Hoeij, 2021; Kenigsberg, 2021). German director Christian Schwochow’s efforts to frame a tale of right-wing infatuation is strategically similar if ideologically opposite to the left-wing teenage drama Wir sind die Welle(We Are the Wave, 2019), in its treatment of rising political zeal amid hormonal surges and generational resentments. In that case, students who feel their comfortably liberal parents are not doing enough to counter environmental and racial issues take things into their own increasingly radical hands.
While this youthful phenomenon is nothing new, right-wing populism does not need staged violence to attract new recruits. Online rabbit-holes and the “smart branding” of a new “hipster image” in place of skinhead aesthetics (Somaskanda, 2017) were more than enough to set Generation Identity in motion, though the movement’s various iterations have faced de-platforming and outright bans in the past four years (Hume, Langston, and Bennett, 2021). Conceived before the Covid-19 pandemic, Je suis Karl seems even more contrived today, when anti-vaccine sentiment has joined with far-right ideology seemingly overnight, especially in German-speaking countries (Morris, 2021).
Photo taken from Netflix.
What Je suis Karl does convey effectively, aside from plot, is a material sense of dread in an uncertain world. The film includes several overt visual references to the German series Dark (2017-20): dead birds falling from the sky, and a feathery black mask that Maxi wears, recalling the pattern over young people’s burned eyes in that complex time-travel series. Particularly striking moments occur when Maxi’s father Alex keeps trying to answer his cell phone and sees instead the dead bird, over and over, in his hand, or when he buries the bird in a flowerpot under the bonsai that recalls his dead sons’ joint nickname.
Just as Dark is not only about time and missing children (its sidelong theme is environmental-existential dread), Je suis Karl is also, by unavoidable default, about the malaise and anxiety facing those coming of age in a time of climate crisis and seemingly unbridgeable political divides – even before the pandemic threw school and social life into numbing disarray. Recurring visual motifs like the dead bird might seem heavy handed, but the film’s cinematography treats those moments with equal parts jitter and blur, creating a palpably unsettling quality.
The sound of dripping water in the tunnel in the film’s final scene recalls similar aesthetics in Andrei Tarkovsky’s sensually rich work, for example in the toxic chemical plant where he filmed Stalker (1979) near Tallinn, Estonia. This final sound, more than Yusuf’s singing, undermines what would otherwise be an easy or sentimental ending. The world is still not safe for young people – not because of immigrants, but because of genuinely dangerous and far less graspable forces.
Je suis Karl is now available for streaming on Netflix.