PTI Chairman Imran Khan addresses during Inauguration Ceremony of Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre on December 29, 2015 in Peshawar, Pakistan. Photo: Shutterstock.

The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja Ali M. (2022). “The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 2, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0016

 

Abstract

Pakistan’s democracy has a turbulent political history. In the seven decades since its creation, the country has faced four military-led dictatorships and another two decades under indirect military rule. Given this political trend, authoritarianism is not a novel phenomenon in the country. Digital authoritarianism, however, is a relatively new domain of oppression. This paper looks at how a political party in power and the “establishment” (military elite and its civilian collaborators) have been increasingly controlling digital mediums as well as weaponizing cyberspace. This dual control and usage allow for growing digital authoritarianism.

Using the case study of Islamist civilizational populist Imran Khan’s government (2018-2022) and its collaboration with the military establishment in enforcing digital authoritarianism, this article provides a four levels of assessment of internet governance in Pakistan: 1. whole network level, 2. sub-network level, 3. proxy level, and 4. user level. In addition, the role of Khan’s political party’s Islamist civilizational populist outlook in contributing to authoritarianism is also discussed. A lot of censorship happens around the ideas of protecting Islam and Pakistan’s Muslim identity. Thus, Pakistan’s digital space is oppressive where ideas of religion, ontological insecurity, and nationalism are weaponized to legitimize the state’s growing authoritarianism.  

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Raja Ali M. Saleem

Introduction

Digital technologies have had a constant and rapid influence on the way the world operates in the 21st century. These technologies have changed the way individuals connect socially, participate in public debates and political discourse, and organize and mobilize for social change (Brown, Guskin, & Mitchell, 2012). Many of the upheavals from this century have shown the potential of digital tools to create social change in oppressive regimes, economic crises, occupation, conflict, and displacement. For example, social media has been stressed as a tool for citizen journalism in the contemporary era. Moreover, digital space has allowed new sorts of personal and public connections to emerge during the COVID-19 situation, especially regarding physical distance.

Despite the interest and optimism in the digital domain providing chances to construct better futures and just societies, the hazards and constraints remain immense (Al-Ali, 2020). Autocratic governments have used cyberspace to increase their influence. In addition, social media have become breeding grounds for the growing distrust between citizens and state institutions. Even in advanced consolidated democracies, cyberspace has been used to polarize, promoting radical solutions, thus undermining democracy. For instance, in the United States (US) the ascent of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in 2016, the US presidential election campaign was a ‘rebellion’ against the mainstream politics of both the Democratic and Republican parties. The erosion of trust in the established party power structures paved the way for these two “outsiders” to almost take control of the two parties. Social media played a pivotal role in garnering support for these leaders. Social media has been central to the advance of populist right-wing and neo-fascism. Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, and many others could not have won elections without the skillful use of social media in their campaigns. Paradoxically, however, social media is critical to mainstreaming the populist and radical left such as Alexis Tsipras in Greece, Bernie Sanders in the US, and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. All these leaders are sustained by an active cyberspace where radical ideas were floated and popularized to eventually trickle down to generate real life political outcomes.

Pakistan is no exception to this global trend of increased politicization of cyberspace. While it remains a country where internet access is unevenly distributed, it is also one of the countries where the internet is comparatively cheap (Baluch and Musyani, 2020). Its huge population means that despite a small user base, the sheer number of users with access results in millions of users of the internet and allied services. It is speculated that between 2021 and 2022 alone some 22 million new users of the internet emerged in the country and at present only 36.5 percent of its population has access to the facility (Digital, 2022). While the internet was politically a largely irrelevant place, in recent years it has gained new significance in the country’s politics. The post-pandemic trends given in the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) Report 2021 indicate that coronavirus has resulted in an expansion of internet availability and usage where household ownership of mobile connections as well as internet subscriptions has seen unprecedented growth (PTA, 2021).

Imran Khan’s party, the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – Pakistan’s Justice Movement), has used an active online presence to sway young voters, more than half of the country’s population, to secure electoral victory (Jahangir, 2020). The military establishment has also increased its presence on the internet and has been constantly engaged in monitoring and harassment of individuals of susceptible loyalty in its eyes (Rehman, 2020). Both these entities combined also use cyberspace to promote their narratives. Between 2018 and early 2022, the PTI led by Imran Khan (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021), in a close relationship with the establishment, used authoritarian tactics, jailed critics on fake cases, pressurized judiciary, passed laws to curtail usage, and increased monitoring of social media (PTA, 2021: 13). It also used social media to promote majoritarian civilizational populist narratives on issues of critical importance. So, while PTI’s stance today appears democratic and against the military’s role in politics, it still wants the military to interfere and support it as the military did from 2017 to 2021 (Zehra, 2022).

Our paper focuses on this politically symbiotic relationship between a political party and the military elite in Pakistan to examine its use and abuse of online space. We try to navigate the landscape by exploring the means through which cyberspace has been reclaimed by these actors and weaponized against political opposition and civil society. The paper also examines how pre-existing socio-political issues such as a weak democratic setup, an interventionist military, civilizational populism, and majoritarianism have aided the growing cyber authoritarianism. To carry out our analysis we use a layered approach to explore the levels of authoritarianism. These are rooted in the framework used by (Howard, et al., 2011) which looks at four levels: full network, sub-network, proxies, and network nodes.

Political Context

Imran Khan, addresses a press briefing on April 20, 2016 in Islamabad. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

The Civilizational Populist Party – Imran Khan’s PTI 

‘Civilizational populism’ is “a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022b). Established in 1996 by Pakistan’s leading and beloved sportsman, Imran Khan (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a), the PTI (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b) is an Islamist civilizational populist party.

Initially there was no clear ideology of the party as both left-wing and right-wing elements found a home in the PTI. Anti-corruption was the sole slogan but there was no solid plan on how to achieve this objective. The PTI was a party that was formed by a person, who belonged to the elite, spending all his adult life outside Pakistan, and marrying a very wealthy British aristocrat, who thought people should vote for him because he was a brilliant cricketer and philanthropist (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). During the 1990s, Pakistan’s economy nosedived as the two leading parties, the PPP and the PMLN, fought with each other. The military, although formally out of politics, played the moderator and kingmaker. In 1999, the military formally took over for the fourth time in Pakistan’s history. General Musharraf was leading an economy moving towards default in the early 2000s when the 9/11 attacks saved his military regime. In response to his prompt support for the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, billions of dollars of aid came to Pakistan. Pakistan became a significant partner of the United States, but it also resulted in a colossal cost to the Pakistani economy and society as terrorism increased. The country became a breeding ground for violence and mixed with corrupt leadership, the cause of human development was long forgotten.

Imran Khan initially supported Musharraf and his coup. He even supported Musharraf’s farcical referendum and tried to negotiate a deal with him to be installed as a Prime Minister. In the early years of the party, Khan’s advocacy for social welfare and his philanthropic activities earned him a modest following. But Musharraf knew Khan was not that popular, so he rejected the deal. Khan was already a critic of Musharraf’s policies, so this became the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Khan, from then onwards, became the most vociferous critic of Musharraf’s support for the war on terror, even supporting the Taliban against Musharraf and the US (Findlay, 2021). Khan’s support for the Taliban resonated with the masses who resented the US’s historical role in Pakistan, Palestine, and the Arab world. The Iraq War further destroyed the sympathy that the US had after 9/11 in some sections of Pakistan’s population. Khan and other PTI leaders used these issues to showcase the inability of the current military and political figures to feel the “pain” of the common citizens.

In the 2000s and early parts of 2010s, Khan used the growing cable television networks to increase his visibility. A lone man discussing the moral and national implications of American drone attacks on Pakistani soil, a sympathizer of the Taliban (framing them as decolonizers), calling out on corruption and promising social and political change garnered him considerable attention but he still could not become a popular leader (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). His party was just a small bunch of admirers. Despite his controversial positions on issues and untarnished political background, the PTI never became a significant player in politics until 2011 when the military decided to collaborate with him, and he dropped his anti-army stance (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b; Yilmaz & Saleem, 2022). Two years of strong support from the military resulted in PTI’s first win in the 2013 general elections. The party won its first majority in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) by allying with right-wing political parties in 2013. Other political parties noticed and declared that PTI’s rise was not entirely organic as it gained favorable support from the establishment. Despite its mediocre performance in KP, PTI’s Islamist populism (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b) combined with religious rhetoric and the strong support of the military and the judiciary, which removed and disqualified PM Nawaz Sharif for life, led it to become the party with the most seats in the National Assembly (NA) in 2018 general elections.

During its three-and-a-half years in power at the federal level, the party enjoyed a close relationship with the military until the relations went bitter in late 2021. During this small period of close collaboration of the civil government and the military, digital authoritarianism increased at all levels. While violence on the streets, rooted in political, ethnic, and religious differences, was nothing new, there was uncommon aggression towards those who opposed the highhandedness of the government or the military or voiced concern in online space. The issue of hundreds of Balochs and Pashtuns, who were abducted and incarcerated by the intelligence agencies without any legal authority and declared “missing persons” remained unaddressed by the government and judiciary. Self-censorship and legal laws to curtail cyber freedoms were ensnared at an unprecedented level (discussed below). PTI justified these measures as means of preserving the national security and morality of the youth. Ironically, the same laws that the PTI government framed during its tenure are now being used by the military to harass pro-PTI voices since Khan’s exit from office in April 2022 (Naseer, 2022).

Khan’s civilizational populism, which instrumentalizes religion, was a big factor in promoting digital authoritarianism during his premiership. Like other populist leaders and their parties, Khan and the PTI believed that no one could legitimately criticize them. All criticism of Khan and the PTI was illegal, biased, and against the nation and so should be stopped and punished by any means possible. This was, of course, the classic justification of authoritarian populism. Second, PTI’s vision and campaign slogan was the recreation of the state of Madinah (Riyasat-e-Madina that Prophet Muhammad established in Central Arabia in the seventh century) in Pakistan. This not only attracted people to the PTI but also made PTI and Khan holy figures on a divine mission. Unsurprisingly, in a society like Pakistan where religion is important, those opposed to this divine mission were condemned, subjected to all kinds of hatred, and their rights to speech, expression, and movement were deniable. Hence, both populism and religious-oriented politics, allowed the PTI to execute and justify digital and non-digital authoritarianism.

An important part of the PTI civilizational populist toolkit is misogyny. Misogyny is common to numerous populist parties and leaders as well as religious conservatives. Whether it is Trump and the Republican Party or Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), misogyny is regularly employed and is popular among the party activists. Khan has promoted numerous misogynistic ideas during his premiership, including linking violence against women to their conduct and dress, and the PTI has vigorously defended his reprehensible statement. He has also made sexist remarks against female politicians of other parties and used sexual innuendos against male opposition figures (The Express Tribune, 2022). In an interview when he was asked, “You were also quoted as saying that the practice of women wearing veils ‘is to stop temptation, not every man has willpower’ (Daily Pakistan, 2021). You said on increasing vulgarity, will have consequences, and you were accused of rape victim blaming. How do you respond to that?” Imran Khan replied, “If a woman is wearing very few clothes, it will have an impact on the men unless they’re robots. I mean it is common sense.” Khan has also spoken regularly against pornography using religious edicts which, unsurprisingly, helps in justifying digital censorship (Daily Pakistan, 2021).

The deadly nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism is not limited to Pakistan (now see in detail Yilmaz et al., 2022). In India, Turkey, Indonesia, and Malaysia, one can see similar dynamics. It does not matter whether the country is Muslim-majority or Hindu-majority, rich or poor, long-established democracy or a recent fragile democracy, the nexus between religious populism and digital authoritarianism is popular and successful (Yilmaz et al., 2022).

Guard of Honor Battalion of the Pakistan Army, during the official ceremony at the Aiwan-e-Sadr Presidential Palace of the President of Pakistan in Islamabad on November 3, 2015. Photo: Mirko Kuzmanovic.

The Authoritarian Institution: Establishment

The “establishment” is a name that has been given to the top brass of the Pakistani military which has a long history of interference, controlling, and shaping Pakistani politics. Out of 75 years of Pakistan’s history, the military has directly ruled the country for 33 years. Even when the military is not ruling directly, it shapes the political landscape informally. The “kingmakers” have misused and abused their position by turning the military from a security force to not only a political entity but also the biggest business conglomerate in Pakistan that sells dairy products, meat, textiles, fertilizers, cement, land, houses, natural gas, oil, etc. The military also has universities, medical and engineering colleges, a sugar mill, and a bank.

The Pakistani military has not simply imposed repeated periods of dictatorships but with each successive phase of military dictatorships, the social and political fabric of the country has been redefined under authoritarianism. For instance, the early dictators such as Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan were instrumental in stifling the political growth of various forms in Pakistan. Ayub Khan’s policies side-lined the unifying and democratic figure of Fatima Jinnah and normalized the suppression of political forces and election rigging. Combined both Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan’s hijacking of politics and hostility towards the Bengali population led to a civil war which turned into a Bengali massacre by the Pakistan military resulting in the country losing East Pakistan and its transition into the independent state of Bangladesh.

Later, General Zia-ul-Haq also abused his power by not only dissolving assemblies and imposing martial law, but he also hanged former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto after a dubious trial. The decade that followed led to the unprecedented integration of military officials into politics and civil bureaucracy. Politically, Zia-ul-Haq experimented with the Islamization of society, mainstreamed religious right-wing into politics, and groomed a new generation of right-wing political parties to counter existing political opposition in society. After Zia-ul-Haq’s death, democracy returned but the military never left politics. It continued to manage politics until, as mentioned earlier, General Pervez Musharraf imposed the fourth martial law in 1999. Much like his predecessors, he disregarded the political, civil, and human rights of the Pakistanis for nearly another decade.

The establishment’s position as the ‘apex’ institution, with no accountability, has culminated in a culture of oppression and violence. The military’s spying agency the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) has unchecked power to surveil citizens and its power has led to countless cases of disappearances and deaths of political activists. Described as working for the ‘national’ interest, over the years, ISI and the military have expanded their ‘security-driven’ narrative to cyberspace. They have been directly involved in shaping policy to support their intrusive and unlawful oppression of citizens. The agency is also responsible for using online space to popularize fear of ‘Jewish’ and ‘Indian’ fake news and threats which it calls “fifth generation warfare”. Overall, the military’s authoritarian attributes and legacy have found themselves replicating in cyberspace.

While most people know that ISI conducts electronic surveillance and even Prime Minister Imran Khan has acknowledged that his phone may also be compromised, the ISI has no legal authority to establish an extensive, broad range surveillance system and monitor thousands of people. The role of the military can be gauged from the fact that often a retired military general is appointed as Chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). The current PTA Chairman is retired Major General Amir Azeem Bajwa. Previously, in the mid-2000s Major General Shahzada Alam Malik was the Chairman of PTA (PTA 2021). Furthermore, the military also oversees a major portion of telecom/mobile operations in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan through the Special Communications Organization (SCO), a public sector company under Pakistani military supervision (PTA, 2019: 21).

When an authoritarian force is combined with an Islamist civilizational populist it becomes a breeding ground for gross violations of human rights. This union while short-lived was quite a dark period for democracy in Pakistan. While the PTI is out of power, the legacy of digital authoritarianism and cyber oppression it left behind is now being weaponized against it by the very the establishment the PTI worked with while in power.

Context of Cyber Space in Pakistan

Photo: Aleksandar Malivuk.

 

Under such circumstances to no one’s surprise, Freedom House rates the country as “partly free,” giving it a score of 37 out of 100 (Freedom House, 2021). Pakistan not only has a low score, but it is also losing ground, particularly after 2018, when it had a score of 43. Since then, it had an election and a government that was generally perceived to have been greatly influenced by the military. The situation is considerably worse with respect to internet freedoms, which are even more restricted. The Freedom House gives it a score of only 26 out of a possible 100 points, and it is classified as “not free.” (Freedom House, 2021). The score is based on three factors of internet freedom. Pakistan received only 6 points out of a possible 25 points for “obstacles to access,” 13 points out of a possible 35 points for “content limitations,” and 7 points out of a possible 40 points for “violation of user rights.” Once again, one can see the declining trend in action (Freedom House, 2021). The figures provided by Freedom House mirror the reality of online and off space in Pakistan.

The future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall is bleak in Pakistan as new regulations and allied bills have further increased the control of the government on the internet and social media. The military chief, General Qamar Bajwa warned the “internal enemies” and declared, “we will have to deal strictly with some internal elements spreading chaos.” General Bajwa further said:  “It is a moment of reflection for all of us that some people are being used by anti-state elements. This is called hybrid or fifth-generation war. Its purpose is to make Pakistan’s roots hollow and damage the country’s unity. InshAllah, we will never let these negative objectives succeed.” (Dawn, 2021).

On the other hand, while still in power, Khan warned the nation, particularly the youth of the ‘vices’ of the internet and promised to ‘protect them.’ In one of his meetings, he urged for ‘character building’ of the youth and warned against the vices of the cyber world “Character building is very crucial in the modern tech-savvy era. The proliferation of tech gadgets and 3G/4G internet technology has made all sorts of content available to everyone […] We need to protect our youth, especially kids, from being exposed to immoral and unethical content available online.” (Jamal, 2021).

While Imran Khan constantly portrayed the internet as a den of vice and as a national security issue (Geo News, 2022) his party has used the space in the most effective way. PTI’s media cell is one of the most organized on the internet and has used the platform to propagate its narratives, troll opposition and critics as well as shaped social media trends (Khalid, 2022; see details in the four levels of analysis section below).

The PTI government and the establishment supported each other in the violation of the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression granted by the 1973 Pakistani Constitution. The key internet governance institution in Pakistan is the PTA and it draws most of its powers from the PTA (Re-organization) (Amendment) Act, 2006. The legal framework is designed in such a way that PTA can itself or allow others to monitor, record, and survey all kinds of electronic communications. All kinds of electronic communications come under its purview as it is the regulatory body of the telecommunication sector in Pakistan. There is little transparency or accountability in the process. Thus, PTA has become a means of surveilling and shaping cyberspace. Pressures to curb ‘terrorism’ has led the military to push elected governments to pass laws such as The Fair Trial Act, 2013 and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. While on the surface this legislation is to prevent cybercrime, in reality, it enables further documentation and enhances the state’s capability to legally surveil. However, despite its reach, legalized surveillance is only a small part of state surveillance. Civilian and intelligence agencies, working outside the legal sphere, use surveillance of the citizenry for what they call “national interest.”

The last few years have seen a spike in cyber authoritarianism in Pakistan as both the PTI government and the military have used formal laws as well as illegal powers. Civil and political rights have taken a backseat as increased censorship and authoritarianism have prevailed. People have been abducted with no due process or legal authority because of their online activism or other ‘crimes.’

Four Levels of Analysis of Digital Authoritarianism in Pakistan

The following four level of analysis of digital authoritarianism was first developed and used by (Howard, et al., 2011).

Full Network Level Governance

Internet shutdowns in cities, regions, or in the whole country are not uncommon in Pakistan but, despite PTA being the enforcer of these bans, its annual reports give no information about these shutdowns.

There are three types of full network shutdowns in Pakistan. Most common internet shutdowns are on prominent days in Pakistan’s official calendar. Internet is not available on religious and national holidays as security agencies and the government believes there is a likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. So, almost every year, there is an internet shutdown in specific cities on significant holidays. Second, there are long-term regional shutdowns in areas mired in an insurgency. Areas in Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces suffer internet blackouts for weeks or more. The final type of internet shutdown is less related to political protests. These happen for a few hours or a day when the government tries to stifle a political protest. The reason given for the internet shutdown is again a terrorist threat, but the actual reason is more likely political. These short terms shutdowns are mostly done to stop mobilization as opposed to long term shutdowns in Balochistan and KP which are usually disciplinary mechanisms.

Full network internet shutdowns in Pakistan first began in 2005-2006 but became common in Pakistan after 2011. Most often, it is the military intelligence agencies that ask for internet shutdowns as no evidence is asked from them. The actual process is that the ISI, Military Intelligence, or the civilian Intelligence Bureau asks the Ministry of Interior for an internet shutdown due to a viable threat. The National Crisis Management Cell (NCMC) in the Ministry then deliberates and usually, it requests the PTA to enforce the shutdown. The PTA then orders the internet service providers and telecom operators to shut down their internet operations. Unfortunately, the decision to shut down the internet is totally bureaucratic and there is no judicial or parliamentary input in it. Even post-facto accountability of the intelligence agencies or the NCMC is absent.

Pakistan is a poor developing country with a huge young population of more than a hundred million. There is a dire need to provide employment to this young population and internet and communication technologies (ICTs) can help. The Pakistani state has launched “Digital Pakistan” to tap young talent. Regular internet shutdowns, however, stifle ICT employment and disrupt communications, resulting in huge losses. The national exchequer lost an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) in 2012 due to internet shutdowns in Pakistan during Eid, and another 500 million rupees in 2012 due to outages during Ashura (Wagner, 2018).

Sub-Network or Website Level Governance

Censorship at the website level is widespread in Pakistan. The censorship is done using section 37(2) of the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act (PECA), 2016. The federal government notified new “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight, and Safeguards), Rules 2021” in October 2021. In the 2021 annual report of PTA, following the information given about banned or blocked websites:

Category

Websites blocked

Decency and Morality

903,074

Glory of Islam

77,692

Sectarian & Hate Speech

40,365

Defense of Pakistan

36,820

Proxy

10,219

Contempt of Court

8,673

Defamation/ Impersonation

7,690

Miscellaneous

6,562

Total

1,091,095

Source: PTA 2021

According to PTA 2019 Report, more than 824,000 websites were banned since the PTA’s establishment. If we compare it with 2021 figures, it shows a more than 30 percent increase in the last two years, showing a great expansion in surveillance and punitive action (PTA 2019). Religion plays a major role in digital authoritarianism in Pakistan. Islam is used to justify a large number of internet curbs by the government. In the PTA 2021 Report, the highest number of websites banned (903,074 – 82 percent) was because of “Decency and Morality” which is linked to Islam. The second highest number of websites banned (77,692 – 7 percent) was for “Glory of Islam.” The third highest number of websites banned (40,365 – 3.6 percent) were banned for Sectarian/Hate Speech, which is again related to Islam. Hence, around 93 percent of the websites banned are because of religious reasons one way or the other.

Proxy or Corporation Level Governance

Social media companies and other communication firms, like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, etc. are major sources of information. They are called intermediaries as they host the content of individuals, businesses, groups, etc. Individuals and groups upload content to intermediaries and intermediaries allow it to be viewed by the world without prior screening. These intermediaries can only survive if they have legal immunity, and most countries give legal immunity to these firms.

The young generation does not get their news and information about what’s happenings in the world or in their particular sector from newspapers or cable news, they rely on social media. Therefore, anyone who is concerned about controlling access to information or manipulating information must manage and rein in intermediaries. Hence, the PTI and the military also made sure to strengthen the PTA to threaten, penalize, and ban the operations of intermediaries.

In October 2020, the PTI government came up with new restrictive rules, called the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content, 2020, for intermediaries. The justification for these restrictive rules was the proliferation of fake news and the threat to the privacy of ordinary Pakistanis but the reality was quite different. Under these new rules, the government did not remove the legal immunity of the intermediaries, but it tried to force them to accept orders regarding restricting their content based on local laws/culture and providing user data to the government whenever the government deems the content illegal. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies are threatened with closure. Pakistan has a long history of banning intermediaries. For instance, YouTube was banned in Pakistan from September 2012 to early 2016 after it refused to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie “Innocence of Muslims.” More recently, in April 2021, all major social media companies were banned for a few hours because of the protests of Tehreek-e Labbaik Pakistan, a religious militant political party. The PTA also banned and then lifted the ban on TikTok several times in 2021.

The new rules were so restrictive that Dawn, the most respected English newspaper in Pakistan, published a scathing editorial: “That the government is diligently laying the foundation for the large-scale digital surveillance of citizens is deeply unsettling. What is more disturbing is the secrecy with which all of this is being done, with even the tech companies complaining that they have been left in the dark. The clandestine nature of these rules and the key demands of the government to these tech companies suggest that something sinister is at play. That the authorities want citizen data to be stored in Pakistan so that they can access it without going through a legal process speaks volumes for the state’s desperation to monitor citizens’ movements online.” (Dawn, 2020).

But the PTI government was not deterred by any national or international criticism. In February 2022, just before its removal, the PTI government came up with another draconian law to restrict digital freedom. It promulgated an ordinance that amended the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) to make online criticism of government authorities, including the military and judiciary, a criminal offense. The offense was made non-bailable, with harsh punishment, increasing the fines and imprisonment up to five years. The courts were also ordered to decide the cases within six months and send monthly reports on proceedings.

Later, this amendment was declared unconstitutional by Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court. The irony is that since its removal from office, it’s the PTI that is protesting and criticizing the military online, resulting in its repression by authorities. Imran Khan and his party leadership should be thanking the Islamabad High Court as they would have been facing even more repression, if the PECA amendment, initiated and defended by them in courts, was still law of the land.

Photo: Shutterstock.

 

Network-Node or Individual Level Governance

Years of true civilian rule in Pakistan have been rare. Authoritarian states need surveillance to survive so surveillance has been part and parcel of a Pakistanis’ life. As internet and communication technologies became available and popular in Pakistan, the state also increased its capabilities of electronic surveillance. After 9/11, during the “War on Terror,” US assistance augmented and modernized Pakistan’s surveillance architecture. This was a disastrous development for the people of Pakistan as the authoritarian state traced critical citizens using this new surveillance system and abducted, incarcerated, and tortured them. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, feminists, etc. all suffer at the hands of the authoritarian state.

Mehvish Ahmad and Rabia Mehmood have detailed the effects of surveillance: “Social media surveillance of critics of state policies has resulted in targeting of groups through infiltration, content monitoring, and interception, and has resulted in enforced disappearances, torture, arrests, interrogations, and confiscation of digital devices of those summoned by authorities. More indirect methods to censor dissent have also been taken into use: Pakistan has banned YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and websites run by religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities in part using surveillance technologies that allow them to uncover the details of administrators and moderators. Through this regulation of online spaces, it has allowed some groups— for instance, pro-army propagandists or far-right Islamist extremists active on social media—to enjoy more space than others, effectively allowing the former to violently challenge journalists, political workers, dissidents, and others from rivalling factions.” (Ahmad & Mehmood, 2017).

The PTI populist government, with the encouragement and support of the military, has arrested, jailed, and beaten people for speaking against Imran Khan, the military, or Islam. People have been charged and even sentenced to death for speaking against Islam. In January 2021, an antiterrorism court sentenced three men to death in the first case of cyber blasphemy (Asad, 2021). The case is under appeal but even an acquittal by superior courts will not save the victims as anyone accused of blasphemy is always under threat in Pakistan. Political criticism was repressed. In June 2019, Waleed Butt, a young leader of the PMLN party, was arrested for posting derogatory content against the judiciary, Imran Khan, and the military.

Journalists are particularly under threat if they criticize the military or Imran Khan. In September 2020, journalist Asad Ali Toor was arrested for using “derogatory language” against the military. After he was released in November, he was attacked at his home by suspected military intelligence agencies in 2021. In September 2020, journalist Bilal Farooqi was arrested (later released) for his social media posts against the military, and a sedition case was filed against journalist Absar Alam for Twitter posts. In April 2021, Absar was shot near his home and the police investigation of the murder attempt led to no arrests. Later, in an official meeting, PTI information minister Fawad Chaudhry denied Absar Alam and Asad Toor are journalists, thereby denying attacks on them are linked to their online writing and YouTube videos. Also in April, Sarmad Sultan, a social media activist went missing and his Twitter account was also taken down temporarily. He was released after outrage and a campaign on social media.

Women journalists critical of the PTI party and government suffered extreme online harassment. Gharidah Farooqi, Benazir Shah, and Asma Shirazi were victims of a targeted campaign led by PTI ministers and officeholders. As explained above, Imran Khan himself appears to be a misogynist and this helps in making the PTI particularly offensive towards women.

Conclusion

While the PTI is no longer in power, its cyberspace legislation has further enhanced the dominance of the military. In a karmic manner, the digital authoritarian laws legitimized by Islamist civilizational populism and created & used by the Imran Khan’s PTI government are today being used against pro-PTI voices as arrests based on social media posts are being carried out.

Military dominance and authoritarianism have been part of Pakistan’s history since the late 1950s. The establishment has a strong tradition of undemocratic, illegal, and unconstitutional behavior. While political parties change, the establishment has remained a constant and has grown in its authoritarian activities. It co-opts civil government to create an environment where fears of immorality and national security justify the introduction of draconian cyber laws, their heavy-handed enforcement. However, over the recent years, the military has gathered unparalleled power. Using religion and a security-driven national narrative, it has maintained its grasp on Pakistani society and politics. These conditions are now being replicated in cyberspace as well. The level of surveillance, blackouts, and control that are exerted by this institution is troubling for not only the future of cyberspace in Pakistan but also the country’s chances of moving towards true democratic ideals.

Under a new series of laws between 2018 and 2022, the old frameworks have been revised to make room for more control over cyberspace which has resultantly turned into a highly surveilled and shrinking space for dissenting voices. When faith and national security narratives are used in combination, it convinces the masses of the necessity of authoritarianism. In addition, in a country like Pakistan, the establishment has no checks and balances on it which allows it for extrajudicial measures and activities in cyberspace. In such an environment, many critics have been forced into voluntary self-censorship and self-exile, while those still in Pakistan face grave consequences.

The nexus of religious populism and digital authoritarianism is not unique to Pakistan. As mentioned above, the same dynamics can be seen elsewhere such as India, Malaysia, Turkey, and Indonesia. While the military is an essential and crucial element in the rise of the PTI-led civilizational populism and digital authoritarianism in Pakistan, its role is non-existent in India and Malaysia, and in the case of Turkey, the military was initially working against the rise of religious populism. Therefore, one can conclude that civilizational populism is not dependent on military support.


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Al-Ali, N. (2020). “Covid-19 and feminism in the Global South: Challenges, initiatives and dilemmas.” European Journal of Women’s Studies, 27(4), 333-347.

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Howard, Philip N.; Agarwal, Sheetal D. & Hussain, Muzammil M. (2011). “The Dictators’ Digital Dilemma: When Do States Disconnect Their Digital Networks?” Issues in Technology Innovation. Number 13. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/10_dictators_digital_network.pdf (accessed November 24, 2022).

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Khan, S. A. (2021). “Internet and Social Media Blackouts Are Hurting Businesses in        Pakistan.” The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2021/05/internet-and-social-media-blackouts-are-hurting-businesses-in-pakistan/ (accessed November 24, 2022).

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Shakil, K. & Yilmaz, I. (2021). “Religion and Populism in the Global South: Islamist Civilisationism of Pakistan’s Imran Khan.” Religions12(9), 777. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12090777

Wagner, Ben. (2018). “Understanding Internet Shutdowns: A Case Study from Pakistan.” International Journal of Communication. 12: 3917–3938.

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022a). “Civilizational Populism: Definition, Literature, Theory, and Practice.” Religions 2022, 13, 1026. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13111026

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022b). “Civilizational Populism Around the World.” Populism & Politics.European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 31, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0012

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja Ali. (2022). “Military and Populism: A Global Tour with a Special Emphasis on the Case of Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 1, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0010

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021a). “Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan.” ECPS Leader Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/lp0006

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2021b). “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf: Pakistan’s Iconic Populist Movement.” ECPS Party Profiles. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS)https://doi.org/10.55271/op0004 

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Saleem, Raja Ali; Pargoo, Mahmoud; Shukri, Syaza & Idznursham, Ismail. (2022). “Religious Populism, Cyberspace and Digital Authoritarianism in Asia: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Turkey.” Think Tank Report. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS, Brussels).  https://doi.org/10.55271/rp0001

Zehra, Ailia. (2022). “PTI’s Anti-Army Tirade Has Nothing to Do With Civilian Supremacy.” Friday Times. April 15, 2022. https://www.thefridaytimes.com/2022/04/15/ptis-anti-army-tirade-has-nothing-to-do-with-civilian-supremacy/ (accessed November 24, 2022).

Iranian woman standing in middle of Iranian protests for equal rights for women. Burning headscarves in protest against the government. Illustration: Digital Asset Art.

Mahsa Amini: Women’s bodily autonomy in the context of Islamism and far-right populism

Both Islamism and far-right populism claim power and control over women’s bodies by imposing rules around the hijab. In Iran, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear a hijab despite personal preferences. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces. This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose.

By Hafza Girdap

Debates around women’s bodies, particularly those of Muslim women, have grown globally in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death under the custody of Iran’s morality police after being detained for ‘improper’ hijab-wearing. For a better understanding of control over women’s bodily autonomy, the concepts of political Islam and far-right populism need to be examined.

The term political Islam, otherwise known as Islamism, ontologically implies resistance against secular and Western systems of governing. Criticizing secular ideologies, political Islam aims to establish a political system based on Islamic doctrines in addition to creating a unified religious identity for the whole of society. In the Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, Shahram Akbarzadeh argues that “much like other -isms, Islamism imposes a normative framework on society in a blatant attempt to make society fit into its mould” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 1). Being a reactionary movement, which aims to shape society and the state through the agency of religion, political Islam manifests itself as challenging both previous governments and the West. Akbarzadeh cites Mohammad Ayyoob to explain the incentives behind this challenge: “Political Islam gained increasing support as ‘governing elites failed to deliver on their promises of economic progress, political participation, and personal dignity to expectant populations emerging from colonial bondage,” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 2).

Besides denouncing their regime, Islamists also stand up to the West through the medium of “anti-Americanism”. They claim that all their political opponents are failures because they “deviate” from the divine path. The concerning facet in this approach is the blurry definition of this so-called divine path. In other words, Islamism or political Islam acts as an empty signifier that can be filled with subjective interpretations of Islam. To be more precise, an Islamist leader who claims to be representing divine “sovereignty” can legitimize his practices through a religious discourse that cannot be denied by society since it may appear as resisting divinity.

Akbarzadeh touches on this hypocritical aspect of political Islam; On one hand, actors who hold an Islamist position reject others’ interpretation of religious doctrine on the basis that it is not divine, but on the other hand, these same actors interpret Islam according to their personal interests, like gaining more power. In this case, political Islam deliberately serves to oppress discourse on economy, morality, and authority. According to Akbarzadeh (2012), “the combination of the exclusive claim on divine truth and the capture of political power” gives the authorities a legitimate right which can be hazardous for the society since this power “can easily manifest as acts of violence.”

While Akbarzadeh’s definition of Islamism identifies it with resistance, Esposito adopts the concept of “resurgence” while discussing political Islam. In this lens, it is the combination of “resentment over political and social injustices” and “issues of identity” which merges faith and politics in order to establish an “Islamic revival” (Esposito, 1997). This resistance approach, which strengthens itself with exasperation and revolt against both domestic and Western ideologies, helps governments pave the way for “enhancing their legitimacy and to mobilize popular support for programs and policies” (Esposito, 1997).

However, the state is not the sole actor to reap benefits from Islamism. Social movements and companies that affiliate themselves with Islamic identities also generate opportunities to establish new businesses, such as hospitals, banks, and schools, and work to accommodate their associates in these organizations. The most pertinent point Esposito raises in his article questions “whose Islam” is this and “what Islam” is. The answer concerns the idea of power, which we can find in the hazardous mixture proposed by Akbarzadeh. As such, the compulsory hijab in Iran implemented by the country’s Islamist regime and its enforcement through the support of society can be understood by the aforementioned definitions and discussions of political Islam.

On the other hand, the hijab ban, or alternatively the adverseness against wearing hijab in public places in some European countries such as France, can be seen as representing another disregard of women’s bodily autonomy. In this context, far-right populism and Islamophobia have had a significant role in shaping public discourses against the hijab. As a result, it is necessary to shed light on the seemingly discordant approach in the far-right discourse on the subject. By “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11), the far-right, for this issue, appears to abandon its traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude and move towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy focuses on presenting a liberal attitude and liberal optics 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” (Girdap, 2022). The framing of the discussion surrounding the hijab in France and similar environments needs to be understood in the context outlined above. In addition to this, we must take into consideration the issues of racism and radicalization in Europe in terms of Islamophobia and gendered racism.

Crystal Fleming, in her book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, describes France “not only as a racialized social system but also as a racist society for at least three reasons. First, racial bias is embedded within the nation’s institutions… Second, racial categories and stereotypes are prevalent in everyday life…. Finally, present-day inequalities are related to historical racial categories and openly racist practices rooted in colonialism and slavery” (2017: 8-9). Far-right populist discourses frame Muslims as inferior and second-class citizens through a colonialist ideology entrenched in the country’s system and society. This structural frame impacts Muslim women to a greater extent as their religious identities are more visible and claims over gender equality are more easily conducted through the hijab debate.

In conclusion, reflected in Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and discourse around women’s bodily autonomy, political Islam (Islamism) on the one hand, far-right populism on the other both claim power and control over women’s bodies using hijab as a proxy. In Iran, through compulsory hijab, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear hijab despite personal preferences, no matter what. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces.  This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose. 


References

Akbarzadeh, Shahram. (2012). Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Esposito, John L. (1997). “Claiming the Center: Political Islam in Transition.” Harvard International Review, vol. 19, no. 2.

Fleming, Crystal M. (2017). Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0007

Hirschkind, Charles. (1997). “What Is Political Islam?” Middle East Report, no. 205.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud party. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Civilizational populist Netanyahu’s election victory and rise of Religious Zionist Party in Israel

Netanyahu and Likud return to power as Israeli voters usher in perhaps the most right-wing government in the nation’s history. The government will be dominated by parties of the center-right and far-right including Likud, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Religious Zionist Party. Even if the new coalition government collapses within the next year or two, it would not cause a reversal of any of the long-term trends in Israeli politics. Rather, the further decline of the Israeli left and the continued rise of right-wing populism and religious nationalism seem all but inevitable as the population grows more religious over time.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

In one of the most consequential elections in Israel’s history, Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud return to power as Israeli voters usher in perhaps the most right-wing government in the nation’s history. 

While the previous government was made up of parties from across the political spectrum, the new government will be dominated by centre-right and far-right parties, including Likud, the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the Religious Zionist Party. The right-wing bloc led by right-wing civilizational populist Netanyahu (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022a) is expected to win 65 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament, with Likud winning more than 30 seats and Shas and United Torah Judaism together winning a further 20 seats (Parker & Rubin, 2022). The right-wing populist, ultra-Orthodox Sephardi Shas party also had a particularly good election result. Indeed, if party leader Aryeh Dery was worried that it might lose voters to the Religious Zionist Party (RZP), he was entirely incorrect, as his party won at least 8 seats and got back into the governing coalition (Haaretz, 2022).

Much of the post-election media commentary has focused, perhaps surprisingly, not on the return of Netanyahu but on the rapid rise of the Religious Zionist Party, which emerged as the third largest party in the Knesset, winning as many as 15 seats. What, then, is the Religious Zionist Party? The Religious Zionist Party is a far-right, religious nationalist group created in 2021 when three parties, the Betzalel Smotrich-led National Union/Revival Party, the Itamar Ben-Gvir-led Jewish Power party, and the far smaller Noam party, “formally headed by Avi Maoz but whose real leader was Rabbi Zvi Tao,” merged to form a single party (Hermann, 2022). It must also be said that Netanyahu played an important role in creating the RZP. Desirous of new coalition partners, Netanyahu is said to have personally convinced Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to join forces and form a party capable of winning enough votes to receive representation in the Knesset (Hermann, 2022). Netanyahu’s plan paid off in the November 2022 Israeli elections when the RZP helped propel Netanyahu back into the Prime Minister’s office. 

Itamar Ben Gvir, speaking in election conference at Ale Zahav in Samaria/Isreal on September 9, 2019. Photo: Barak Shacked.

Some commentators have speculated that the RZP’s rise, while seemingly advantageous to Netanyahu, could pose long-term problems for both his government and Israel. RZP leaders – particularly Itamar Ben-Gvir, have a history of political extremism, which may cause alarm among Israel’s allies, including the United States. Equally, it is not yet known whether Netanyahu’s coalition can remain intact without Likud agreeing to some of RZP’s more extreme demands, some of which may prove unpopular with the broader Israeli public. For example, Bezalel Smotrich, a self-described ‘proud homophobe’, wholly represents these extremisms. Among other things, he co-founded an NGO which initiates legal action against Arab construction activities in the West Bank and Israel; told developers in Israel that they should not sell their property to non-Jews; suggested that Arab and Jewish women ought to be separated in different maternity facilities; and expressed regret that Ben Gurion did not expel the entire Arab population from Israel (Gilholy, 2022).

The other key RZP leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has “described Israeli-Arabs as enemies of both Jews and the Israeli state,” once belonged to the now banned violent extreme-right Kach Party, and has “advocated the expulsion of Arab-Israelis who ‘are not loyal’ to the state” (Gilholy, 2022). Additionally, his party supports the deportation of “Arab extremists” regardless of citizenship, including Party Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh and the Neturei Karta Jewish antizionist sect, and calls for the annexation of the West Bank by Israel (Gilholy, 2022). The RZP furthermore calls for greater government support for Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories, including the “authorization of 70 West Bank outposts, which it calls ‘young communities’, either as new settlements or as neighborhoods of existing ones” (Gilholy, 2022). While Netanyahu is no stranger to controversy, even he might be concerned about the extremism of the RZP, a party Likud now relies upon to hold government. 

What, then, do these election results tell us about Israeli politics and society, and the direction they are heading? Perhaps the first key takeaway from the result is that it conforms to the long-term pattern of Israeli politics in which right-wing parties grow stronger over time, while the left has become progressively weaker. Much of the growth of right-wing power in Israel is due to the success of Likud, the largest right-wing party, and its growing domination of Israeli politics since 1977 when it defeated the ruling Labor Party for the first time (Porat & Filc, 2022). Since the 2000s, Likud has rarely been out of government, and Netanyahu has proven himself to be his generation’s most successful Israeli politician, transforming the Israeli political landscape and reducing the once powerful Israeli Left into a shadow of itself. Yet Likud is not the only right-wing party to have experienced great electoral successes at the expense of left-wing parties. The minority Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews of Israel, neglected by Labor and often living in economic hardship, have increasingly turned away from Labor and toward right-wing religious parties which are dedicated to increasing Sephardi and Mizrahi representation in Israeli politics and society, such as the right-wing populist Shas (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2022b). 

The election results also indicate that right-wing populism remains a powerful force in Israel. Since its populist turn in the 1990s under the leadership of Netanyahu, Likud has used a populist-nationalist discourse through which Israeli society finds itself divided between ‘the people’ (understood as Jewish people who have faced two millennia or more of persecution and now have a homeland they must defend at all costs), ‘elites’ (left-wing parties, academics, activists, and journalists who oppose Likud’s right-wing populism and in doing so allegedly weaken Israel), and ‘dangerous others’ (especially Arab Muslims, whom Netanyahu portrays as intruders in the land of Israel) (Prota & Filc, 2020; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022c). 

Likud’s key coalition partner Shas is another example of the rise of right-wing populism in Israel. However, Shas divides Israeli society somewhat more narrowly than Likud, finding a divide between the corrupt secular ‘elites,’ ‘dangerous others’ in which they include LGBTQ+ Israelis, and the virtuous ‘people’ of Israel the party claims to represent. This final group is comprised of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, who are portrayed by Shas’ leaders as the authentic people of Israel, and as an “oppressed” people who – with Shas’ help – will one day restore Sephardic culture to “its former glory” (Shalev, 2019).

Another important lesson we might take away from the election result is recognizing the growing influence of religious parties in Israel. It is interesting to observe how, unlike Western Europe and North America, Israelis are growing more – not less – religious. This is reflected in “Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness,” which “points to a conflation of religion with the national vision” (Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020: 1395). Thus, in Netanyahu’s Israel, “religious language and symbols accentuate fears and shape demands for action, to protect the nation and its borders…consequently, more and more leaders, not only in the Likud, adopt religious tropes and symbols to demonstrate loyalty and garner support” (Porat & Filc, 2022: 74). According to Netanyahu, the secular parties of the left are “detached elites not committed to Jewish nationality and to the Jewish State” and should therefore be considered traitorous and illegitimate (Porat & Filc, 2022). 

Furthermore, the rise of religious populist and religious nationalist parties, including United Torah Judaism, The Jewish Home, Noam, Shas, and now the Religious Zionist Party, indicates a growing desire among many Israelis for a non-secular Israel in which Jewish belief and practice dominate while other religions are marginalized. Part of the reason for the rise of religious parties is the nation’s changing demographics. Once dominated by secular European Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom survived the horrors of the Holocaust, today’s Israel has an ever-increasing Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population which rarely votes for left-wing parties. By 2040, it is predicted that one in four Israelis will be Haredi, largely due to the exceptionally large number of children produced by the majority of Haredi Jewish families (Maltz, 2022). As the number of Haredi Jews increases, it is likely that the right-wing religious parties they typically support will increase their share of Knesset seats and become more significant political actors in Israel. 

Finally, the election results suggest that there will be no return to the ‘peace process,’ nor will there be a Palestinian state in the near future. This, perhaps, hardly bears writing. Indeed, the election results signal a crushing defeat for the Israeli Left and for Israelis who desire a secular state, peace with the Palestinians, and a viable Palestinian state. 

At the same time, this does not mean that the new government has a stable coalition. Rather, there is good reason to think that, should the more extreme RZP demands not be met by the Likud-led government, Ben-Gvir may quit the government, forcing Netanyahu to find another coalition partner or face fresh elections. Yet even if the new government were to collapse within the next year or two, it would not cause a reversal of any of the long-term trends in Israeli politics identified in this article. Rather, the further decline of the Israeli Left and the continued rise of right-wing populism and religious nationalism seem all but inevitable as the population grows more religious over time and increasingly hostile towards non-Jewish people living in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. 


 

References

Gilholy, Georgia L. (2022). “Who are Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and why are they so controversial?” The Jewish Chronicle. November 2, 2022. https://www.thejc.com/news/israel/who-are-itamar-ben-gvir-and-bezalel-smotrich-and-why-are-they-so-controversial-2IHXvSOfGUAzqJqqclk170 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Hermann, Tamar. (2022). “The Religions Zionist Sector at Bay.” Religions, 13, no. 2: 178. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13020178

Maltz, Judy. (2022). “Nearly One in Four Jews Will Be ultra-Orthodox by 2040, New Study Says.” Haaretz. May 3, 2002. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/2022-05-03/ty-article/.premium/nearly-one-in-four-jews-will-be-ultra-orthodox-by-2040-new-study-says/00000180-98a2-dab4-a187-9babda7e0000 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Rabinowitz, Aaron. (2022). “Shas relives days of glory: UTJ sticks with its base.” Haaretz. November 3, 2022. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/elections/2022-11-03/ty-article/.premium/shas-relives-days-of-glory-utj-sticks-with-its-base/00000184-39fe-dfd0-a9a7-3dfeee910000 (accessed on November 2, 2022).

Parker, Claire & Rubin, Shira. (2022). “Israeli results show a Netanyahu comeback powered by the far right.” The Washington Post. November 2, 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/11/02/israel-election-results-netanyahu-coalition/ (accessed on November 3, 2022).

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022a). “Civilizational Populism: Definition, Literature, Theory, and Practice.” Religions, 13, no. 11: 1026. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel13111026

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022b). “Religious populism in Israel: The case of Shas.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 30, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0011

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022c). “Nationalism, Religion, and Archaeology: The Civilizational Populism of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 10, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0015

Porat, B. Guy & Filc, Dani. (2020). “Remember to be Jewish: Religious Populism in Israel.” Politics and Religion. 1-24. doi:10.1017/S1755048320000681

Rogenhofer, M. Julius. & Panievsky, Ayala. (2020). “Antidemocratic populism in power: comparing Erdoğan’s Turkey with Modi’s India and Netanyahu’s Israel.” Democratization.  Vol. 27, no. 8, 1394-1412. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135 

Shalev, Shivanne. (2019). “Israel’s Ultra-orthodox Parties Explained.” Israel Policy Forum. February 21, 2019. https://israelpolicyforum.org/2019/02/21/israels-ultra-orthodox-parties-explained/ (accessed on November 3, 2022).

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva participates in meetings with women during his pre-candidacy for the presidency of the Brazil in São Paulo on October 3, 2022. Photo: Isaac Fontana.

Lula is back! Third time lucky or will his return lead to the revival of Bolsonaro?

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva defeated far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro to win the 2022 Brazilian elections by a margin of just 0.8 percent. However, he has a huge task ahead of him and it is still unknown how he plans to go about confronting key challenges facing the country. What is certain is that to succeed he is required to recognise and respond to the conservative, nationalist and anti-elite narratives that still dominate public political debate in Brazil. 

By Nicole McLean*

On Sunday 30th October, former President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), defeated far-right incumbent President, Jair Bolsonaro, to win the 2022 Brazilian elections by a margin of just 0.8 percent. It was a tight race, with Lula one stride ahead receiving 50.9 percent of votes and Bolsonaro close behind with 49.1 percent. Despite the socialist’s victory, Lula’s third term in office will no doubt be his toughest. It will be extremely difficult to govern a country that is completely divided. 

Twelve years has passed since Lula last held the presidency. During this time, the country’s greatest corruption scandal came to light under his party, the Workers’ Party (PT), giving birth to a fierce wave of right-wing populism, nationalism, and ultra-conservatism. 

Lula’s strategy was to create a ‘frente ampla’ – a vast front of support. He managed to bring together previous rivals from all sides of politics to overcome Bolsonaro. In perhaps his most tactical move, Lula secured former Governor of São Paulo and former leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB), Geraldo Alckmin, as his Vice President. This shocked many because Alckmin was a strong critic of Lula and the PT during the investigations into the sprawling corruption allegations. Despite all the lengths that the opposition parties went to in order to topple the Far Right, Lula only managed to win by the tightest of margins. Bolsonarism is far from over. 

Bolsonarism Has Spread Across Brazil Despite Lula’s Victory

In the first round of the elections on 2nd October, Bolsonaro’s party, the Liberal Party (PL), elected 99 deputies from across Brazil. This is almost double the 52 deputies elected to his party in 2018 and can be attributed to the growth in nationalism, social conservatism and, particularly, Evangelicalism. 

The federal deputy to receive the most votes (over 1.4 million) in all of Brazil was the highly conservative and religious 26-year-old Nikolas Ferreira from the state of Minas Gerais. The most voted female federal deputy was conservative and nationalist Carla Zambelli, who was re-elected in São Paulo receiving 12 times more votes than she did in 2018. Both Ferreira and Zambelli were elected to the PL party and are fierce advocates of Bolsonaro, using their various social media accounts as media vehicles to disseminate pro-Bolsonaro propaganda (McLean, 2022). They received immense public support at the polls for their role as political propagandists promoting Bolsonaro, more so than for their own policy ideas. 

The state of São Paulo even elected a Carioca (person from Rio de Janeiro) as Governor, Tarcísio de Freitas who is a conservative neoliberal, over the progressive candidate, Fernando Haddad. Economic freedom and social conservatism are clearly valued more than place of origin in the state that is home to South America’s largest metropolis. To ensure the Far Right does not return to power, Lula needs to listen and respond to conservative views.   

Lula Must Address Concerns of Conservatives to Overcome Far Right

If Lula fails to address the concerns of conservatives, Bolsonaro could revive his political career in four years’ time.Bolsonaristas (supporters of Bolsonaro) are for the most part ultra-conservative and are primarily concerned with the family and traditional values. Lula needs to find ways to portray his party’s progressivism that do not alienate and marginalise conservatives. There must be space in the public sphere for multiple voices and opinions along the political spectrum that are debated in a constructive manner. Otherwise, segments of society risk experiencing social marginalisation, particularly when traditional values are no longer reflected in elite discourse (Gidron & Hall, 2019: 7). 

In 2018, Bolsonaro was elected on an anti-corruption and anti-elite agenda. The far-right President’s anti-elitism targeted the cultural establishment including the media, arts, and education institutions. His dissent was expressed through a discourse of us, “the good citizens,” versus them, “the corrupt elite,” and was populist in nature. The separation of society into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, where good rivals against evil, is a typical trait of populism (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017: 6). What Brazil urgently needs now is to unite as one, and not be divided into two separate camps, to overcome the severe polarisation that plagues society. 

Another feature of Bolsonarism is nationalism. Certain views of deforestation in the Amazon are a good representation of this. Silvia Nobre Waiãpi, an indigenous woman, ex-army officer and proud supporter of Bolsonaro, was elected federal deputy in the northern state of Amapá for the PL party. She believes that efforts to curb deforestation in the Amazon prevent inhabitants from cultivating and making money off their land. To Silvia, these efforts are North American ideals that are intended to keep people poor. She calls for freedom to make economic profit off the land. 

During the previous PT governments, between 2004 and 2012, deforestation declined in the Amazon and law enforcement was central to reducing illegal logging (Tacconi et al., 2019). These were efforts to half climate change and were supported by the Amazon Fund, to which foreign countries make performance-based payments to the Brazilian government for reducing deforestation. Under the Bolsonaro government, the idea of what the Amazon needed protecting from changed from deforestation to international interference. Addressing these nationalist views, focusing specifically on the people living in the Amazon as well as on property and land rights, should be front and centre of Lula’s mission to stop illegal deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.

Lula has a huge task ahead of him and it is still unknown how he plans to go about confronting these challenges. What is certain is that to succeed he is required to recognise and respond to the conservative, nationalist and anti-elite values of the Brazilian public. 


 

(*) Dr Nicole McLean holds a joint-PhD from The University of Melbourne (Faculty of Arts) and University of São Paulo (Faculty of Law). Her thesis analysed the major protest movements of the Brazilian New Right and their impact on the formation of different right-wing publics. As such, Dr McLean’s interdisciplinary study covered the fields of political science, anthropology, sociology, social media and law. McLean is the author of the book entitled Protest Movements as Media Vehicles of the Brazilian New Right which was published in 2022. 


 

References 

Gidron, N. & Hall, P. (2019). “Populism as a Problem of Social Integration.” Comparative Political Studies, 53 (7), 1027–1059. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414019879947

McLean, N. (2022). Protest Movements as Media Vehicles of the Brazilian New Right. Palgrave Studies in Populisms. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-4379-9  

Mudde, C. & Kaltwasser, C., R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 

Tacconi, L., Rodrigues, R. J., Maryudi, A. (2019). “Law enforcement and deforestation: Lessons for Indonesia from Brazil.” Forest Policy and Economics108 (101943), 1389–9341. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2019.05.029

Sweden's Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson is greeted by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen prior to a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on October 20, 2022. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

The losers are winning in Sweden thanks to the Sweden Democrats

The 2022 election results from Sweden testify to the fact that the far-right has reached governmental power. The Tidö agreement conveys several illiberal policy recommendations. It seems futile to suggest that the small Liberal party in the government will stop the realization of these policies. The immediate future looks indeed bleak both for Swedish and international politics.

By Anders Hellström*

On October 17, 2022, Ulf Kristersson, party leader of Moderaterna, became Sweden’s Prime Minister. He will lead a coalition government, which apart from his own party consists of the Christian Democratic party and the LiberalsThe losers (in terms of electoral support) can govern thanks to the support of the Sweden Democrats (SD), founded in 1989 by members of the white Aryan movement, the far-right music industry, and neo-Nazism. In this commentary, I will present three arguments behind why this government took office: 1. Crisis framing; 2. Credibility; and 3. Original versus copy.

From Pariah to Mainstream Party

This rather remarkable journey from the murky shadows of the far right as a pariah party to now become a kingmaker in Swedish politics can thus be understood as sign of populist normalcy, according to Cas Mudde (2019). In short, the mainstream has become extreme.

In 2010, the SD crossed the parliamentary threshold, and its members were seated in the Swedish parliament. Since then, the party’s support has continued to increase. After the 2022 elections, the SD has become kingmaker in Swedish politics. The process of normalization has gone on for decades and is clearly not a new phenomenon, when the SD is now the largest opposition party. What were refuted as extremist views on immigration yesterday have become accepted as mainstream ideas today –common-sense knowledge shared by much of the public, by respectable mainstream politicians, and by editorial writers.

According to Mudde (2019), despite their many differences and failure to communicate a joint common message, the populist parties and movements could be seen before as normal pathologies and normal counter-reactions. Following Mudde’s genealogy of the development of far-right parties in Europe, the advent of the current wave follows from the eruption of three crises that the far-right parties, electorally, have profited from (ibid: 20). These are the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Great Recession of 2008, and the refugee crisis of 2015.

The Swedish National Elections of 2022

Let us begin by returning to the national elections Sweden held on September 11 of this year.

According to the editors on a volume about the mainstream right and the populist wave, Tim Bale and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2021:11) explained that the mainstream right — although divided between liberals, conservatives, and Christian democrats — hold two main attributes in common: 1. all inequalities in society are natural; and 2. defending existing norms and values is intrinsic to a liberal democratic society. 

Moderaterna (19.1 percent of the vote, down 0.74 percent from the last election) adheres to liberal economic policies and usually rallies against high taxes and — in their view — too much public spending. Additionally, the party also espouses conservative values of national defence and the family. Their emphasis in the election campaign was centred on “law and order” — frequently associated with immigration — and investments in nuclear energy. The Christian Democratic party (5.34 percent of the vote, down 0.98 percent) has, traditionally, focused on social welfare. The third party in the government coalition, Liberalerna (4.61 percent of the vote, down 0.88 percent), is internally split between a fraction propagating for high levels of foreign aid (similar to the Christian Democrats), protecting the right to asylum, and generally progressive ideas against a faction who wants to replace the Social Democrats at any costs. The latter fraction won. 

Bale & Kaltwasser (2021: 1) begin their book on the mainstream right in crisis by noting that Social Democracy is in decline, while the populist radical right has gained a massive amount of electoral support, especially following the refugee crisis of 2015. While the second assertion is at least partly right (I will return to this later), the first statement does not apply to the Swedish national elections of 2022. The Social Democrats became by far the largest party, with 30.33 percent of all electoral votes (up 2.07 percent from the 2018 elections). 

This is confusing. How is it possible that the losing parties are now going to run the country? The answer lies in the results from the far-right party, the Sweden Democrats (SD) who won 20.54% of the vote (up 3.01%) — fewer votes than the Social Democrats but more than Moderaterna. The SD will not take part in the government but is part of Kristersson’s winning team and supports him as the new prime minister.

In the negotiations, the SD was successful at having their own policies elevated into governmental policies (specifically through the Tidö agreement) without having assigned seats in the new government. For instance, foreign aid will decrease, there will no longer be a special department devoted to environmental issues, the quota of refugees to Sweden will decrease from 6400 annually to 900, repatriation programs for immigrants will be encouraged, family re-unification will become harder, and a wage demand will be introduced to limit labour migration. Immigrants also risk expulsion if they misbehave and do not live up to Swedish norms. All these proposals can be found in the election manifesto of the SD and will now become official governmental policies. 

Jimmie Åkesson is Happy

SD Leader Jimmie Åkesson is happy. He should be. He appears to have attained a golden seat: not being part of the government but having achieved almost all his party’s political goals without having to take full responsibility for the consequences. The party can remain a radical underdog; at the same time, it can have most of its policies implemented by other parties. Jimmie Åkesson leads, but Ulf Kristersson will be ultimately responsible. 

How did this happen? Of course, we cannot foretell the results yet without resorting to speculation. But we can look at what has happened in other countries. Not being part of the government has been detrimental to the Danish People’s Party (currently 3 percent at the polls). Being part of the government has been detrimental to Italy’s Matteo Salvini (party leader of the League), who was deputy minister and interior minister; his party won only 8.9 percent in recent parliamentary elections, clearly beaten by the newly elected prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, whose party Brothers of Italy won approximately 25 percent of the votes. Salvini was in the previous Italian government, whereas Meloni was not. What we learn from this, is that it can be good or bad for a far-right party to be in the government.

Reasons for the Electoral Outcome

We do not know what will happen in the future in terms of electoral support for the SD. But I will now present three reasons for why the SD has continued to gain electoral support.

First: The political agenda centred around gang violence and fuel prices. Even if the crime rate in many categories has declined according to statistics presented by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, the number of murders has increased significantly. More policemen and tougher stances on law and order have been suggested by almost all the parties. If it was depicted as extreme to link this development to immigration and integration ten years ago, it is seen as rather mainstream today. This emphasis on law and order — rather than on the climate crisis, the Coronavirus pandemic, NATO, or the illegitimate Russian invasion of Ukraine– has most benefitted the SD. 

Second: When Ulf Kristersson says that the SD was right and warns the Swedish people of the lethal consequences of a generous immigration policy, he also says that a vote for the SD is a credible option. And though other parties now mimic his tone, why should voters prefer the copy over the original? 

Three: As mentioned before, all parties present in the new coalition government experienced electoral losses in 2022. Ulf Kristersson, for instance, could have focused on more traditional mainstream right views, like the economy, but he did not. Instead, he continuously linked deplorable murder rates with immigration. When Ulf Kristersson barks, Jimmie Åkesson gains votes. 

Hope on the Horizon

It is easy and perhaps also understandable to become puzzled and dispirited about the recent political developments in Sweden. But I would say that there are several reasons to hope

First, a lot of things have changed. Sweden does not look the same today as it did in the past. Society is dynamic and this requires continuous reflection, as well as reconceptualization of the analytical instruments and categories needed for studying contemporary European societies. What became apparent– not least with the refugee crisis of 2015– was the rise of both progressive and regressive forces (Bevelander & Hellström 2019), which cling on to meta narratives of both nostalgia and hope (Norocel et. al 2020). 

This isn’t the first-time events have changed values. The resistance to value changes in post-Industrial societies, as a result of the 1968 student protests, was labelled by Ignazi (1992) as the “silent counter-revolution,” which he associated with the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen and la novelle droite (the new right) in France in the early 1970s.[1]

Second, the crisis, which dominated the electoral campaign in 2022, was based on law and order and the link between criminality and immigration. This link became normal to voters. The climate crisis has attracted massive global attention. In an election campaign, there is only space for one crisis at a time. This brings forward an important lesson: there are several latent crises that might or might not erupt as the crisis in a future election. Empirically, there are many examples of latent movements in Swedish society that want to help refugees to integrate into their new home country (Bevelander & Hellström, 2019). There are examples of countries hostile to immigrants—like Poland—that have become more accepting towards refugees from Ukraine. Additionally, there are today many more companies who would like to invest in fossil-free fuel. According to Margaret Canovan (2005), across history, the “people” has been used as an authority in reserve– “an authority to be drawn on in an emergency…” (ibid: 20).

Third, does the new immigration policy mean a veritable paradigm shift in Swedish politics? The end of Swedish exceptionalism? Maybe – but maybe not. The new policies still need to live up to signed international treaties, such as the Paris agreement and respect the universal and individual right to seek asylum.

The 2022 election results from Sweden testify to the fact that the far-right has reached governmental power. The Tidö agreement conveys several illiberal policy recommendations. It seems futile to suggest that the small Liberal party (which, at the time of writing faces expulsion from the liberal group in the European parliament due to collaboration with the SD) in the government will stop the realization of these policies. The immediate future looks indeed bleak both for Swedish and international politics. What is important to remember is that the future is not set in stone, though. A deeper investigation of progressive elements in civil society shows that there are several emancipatory initiatives and potential latent crises that might pop up and become the crisis in future elections.


 

(*) Anders Hellström is an associate professor in political science and a senior lecturer in IMER. He is an affiliated member of the research institute Malmö Institute for Studies of Migration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM) at Malmö University. His research interests include discourse theory and representation of migration, populism, and nationalism. He has published widely in academic journals, such as Government and Opposition, Journal of International Migration and Integration, and Ethnicities. His most recent article is “Populism as Mythology of the People: Anti-Immigration Claims in the Swedish Socially Conservative Online Newspaper Samtiden from 2016 to 2019” (forthcoming 2022) and will be made available to open access. His most recent monograph is Trust Us: Reproducing the Nation and the Scandinavian Nationalist parties. His most recent anthology is Nostalgia and Hope: Intersections between Politics of Culture, Welfare, and Migration in Europe together with Ov. Cristian Norocel and Martin Bak-Jørgensen.



References

Bale, Tim. & Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira. (eds). (2021). Riding the Populist Wave: Europé’s mainstream right in crisis.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Chapters

Bevelander, Pieter & Hellström, Anders. (2019). “Pro- And Anti-Migrant Mobilizations in Polarized Sweden.” In: Rea, A., Martinello, M, Mazzola, A. and Meuleman, B. (eds.) The refugee reception crisis in Europe: Polarized Opinions and Mobilizations. Bruxelles: Éditions de l´Université de Bruxelles (available open access). 

Canovan, Margaret. (2005). The People. Cambridge: Polity.

Ignazi, Pierro. (1992). “The Silent counter-revolution: Hypotheses on the emergence of extreme right-wing parties in Europe.” European Journal of Political Research 22. 

Mudde, Cas. (2019). The Far Right Today

Norocel, Ov Cristian; Hellström, Anders & Bak Jørgensen, Martin. (2020). Nostalgia and Hope: Intersections between Politics of Culture, Welfare, and Migration. Cham: Springer (available open access).


[1] Bale and Kaltwasser (2021) provide further elaboration on the silent-counter revolution and the various manifestations of both reactions and counter reactions to this in different countries.

Archaeologists uncover remnants of the old city in Jerusalem. Photo: Noel Powell.

Nationalism, Religion, and Archaeology: The Civilizational Populism of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2022). “Nationalism, Religion, and Archaeology: The Civilizational Populism of Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). October 10, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0015

 

Abstract

This paper examines civilizational populism in Israel and focuses on the largest and most powerful party in Israel since the 1980s, National Liberal Movement (Likud), and its most significant leader of the past twenty years, the populist politician Benjamin Netanyahu. We show how Netanyahu incorporates ‘civilizationism’ into his populist discourses by, first, using the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and at times his own political decisions. Second, through his portrayal of the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization through its barbarism. Equally, this paper shows how Netanyahu argues that Israel is akin to protective wall that protects Western Civilization from the Islamist barbarians who wish to destroy it, and therefore on this basis calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against “the forces of barbarism.”

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

Introduction

This paper examines civilizational populism in Israel and focuses on the country’s largest and most powerful party since the 1980s, the National Liberal Movement (Likud), and its most significant leader of the past twenty years, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is widely regarded as a populist and, since becoming party chairman in 1993, to have moved Likud toward right-wing populism. This move toward right-wing populism has proven electorally successful for Likud, although it has proven deleterious for many Israelis and Palestinians. 

Civilizationism posits that the peoples of the world can be divided into ‘civilizations.’ When civilizationism is mixed with populism, the result is a set of ideas that defines the self and other not primarily in national terms but in civilizational terms (Brubaker, 2017). Civilizational populism—a growing force in domestic and international politics the world over (Kaya, 2019; Brubaker, 2017; Barton, Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Blackburn, 2021; Kaya & Tecman, 2019; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021; Yilmaz, Demir & Morieson, 2021; Kaya)—might therefore be understood “as a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022).

Civilizational populism defines populism’s key signifiers (‘the people,’ ‘elites,’ and ‘dangerous others’) first by categorizing all people via civilizational identity. Secondly, civilizational populism describes ‘the people’ as authentic and morally good insofar as the civilization to which they belong is superior and the product of superior moral values — derived chiefly from religion. Civilizational populism describes ‘others’ within the same society as inauthentic and morally ‘bad’ because they belong to a foreign civilization with inferior values, and which is the product of an inferior religion. Equally, civilizationism mixed with populism permits populists to describe ‘elites’ as morally bad actors who have betrayed and abandoned the values and culture of their own civilization. 

This paper shows how Netanyahu incorporates civilizationism into his populist discourses by, first, using the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and, at times, his own political decisions. He also mixes civilizationism and populism through his portrayal of the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization through its barbarism. This paper shows how Netanyahu argues that Israel is akin to protective wall that protects Western Civilization from the Islamist barbarians and calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against the forces of barbarism. This idea is discussed by Slabodsky (2014: 153-56) who analyses the text of Old Land/New Land and shows how Jews are traditionally positioned as a civilizing force or ‘buffer’ between the West and oriental subjects of the East. According to Slabodsky (2014), this core belief –of Orientals as symbols of barbarianism– has been retained and has only been reframed and reintroduced in the post 9/11 context. 

These narratives assist Netanyahu in his populist division of Israeli society into three antagonistic groups: ‘the people,’ the ‘elite,’ and ‘others.’ These ‘others’ are non-civilized Arab-Muslims who desire the destruction of both the Jewish people and Western civilization; ‘elites’ are left-wing parties and liberal Jews who Netanyahu portrays as abandoning Jewish culture and helping Arabs destroy civilization; ‘the people’ are all the Jewish people, who are authentic and morally good: authentic because their ancestors were the first people of the land, and morally good because they are civilized Jews. The paper begins with an overview of Israel’s history, which is followed by a discussion on civilizationism in Israel and, following this, an examination of the use of civilizationism within the populist rhetoric of Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. 

Civilizationism in Israel

Does Israel belong to Western civilization? Samuel P. Huntington (1996) was uncharacteristically silent about Israel and did not identify a specific Jewish civilization among the world civilizations he described in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In his critique of Huntington’s book, realist scholar of international relations, Stephen Walt, remarked that it is difficult to place, from Huntington’s civilizational approach, Israel within ‘Western civilization.’ According to Walt (1997: 186), “Israel is not a member of the West (at least not by Huntington’s criteria) and is probably becoming less ‘Western’ as religious fundamentalism becomes more salient and as the Sephardic population becomes more influential. A ‘civilizational’ approach to US foreign policy can justify close ties with Europeans (as the common descendants of Western Christendom) but not Israelis.” This has not prevented political actors from classifying Israel and the Jewish people as Western. Many European and North American civilizational populist parties appear to claim if not the Jewish people, then at least the Jewish scriptures to be part of ‘Judeo-Christian civilization’ (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022; Brubaker, 2017). 

Israelis walk next an Israeli election billboard of Likud Party showing US President Donald Trump shaking hands with Likud chairman and Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Beth Shemesh, Israel on September 8, 2019. Photo: Gil Cohen Magen.

 

The Trump Administration, for example, emphasized America’s closeness to Israel, and appeared to regard the country as part of a broader Judeo-Christian civilization which required defending from Islam (Haynes, 2021). The notion that Western civilization encompasses Israel is at times, reflected in the words of Israel’s leaders. Following the 2015 murder of four Jews in a Paris kosher supermarket, and the mass murder of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists by an Islamist group, Netanyahu called upon Europeans to “wake up” and act to defend “our common civilization” (The New York Times, 2015). Linking the murder of cartoonists in France with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu said, “Israel stands with Europe; Europe must stand with Israel” (The New York Times, 2015). Netanyahu’s claims that Israel is part of the West make sense insofar as Israel was partly a creation of the Western powers and populated largely by European Jews. One cannot be conclusive about where a civilization begins and ends. In the case of Israel, the nation is at once a product of Western civilization but also the product of the Nazi Holocaust, a genocide perpetrated by Europeans who believed Jews threatened Aryan civilization. Some ambiguity about Israel’s civilizational classification is thus unavoidable, although it is arguably foolish if not dangerous to classify nations in this manner. 

There are considerable links between the state of Israel and conceptions of Jewish civilization, both ancient and modern. According to Israeli politician and academic Yossi Shain (2019; Ferziger, 2020) “Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has gradually situated itself as the most important factor in all areas of worldwide Jewish life… The nation of Israel and Jewish civilization are defined today more than ever through the political, military, and cultural power of the sovereign Jewish state.” At the same time, Israel’s legitimacy lies, in part, on its claim to be the modern manifestation of the ancient Jewish civilization that existed — and indeed pre-dates– the coming of Arabs and Islam to the Land of Israel. While Israel was founded as a modern, European-style secular nationalist nation-state, its leaders also sought to connect Jewish people –who spoke many different languages– with their ancient past by making Modern Hebrew the official language of Israel and teaching it to all schoolchildren (Nevo & Verbov, 2011). In addition to Hebrew, another cultural feature that has been part of Israeli civilizationism is the preference given to the Jewish calendar over the Gregorian calendar. Israel’s Declaration of Independence (1948) was composed by Jews who had spent most of their life in Europe and living under the Gregorian calendar, yet the document shows clear indications of favouring the use of the Jewish calendar as a marker of identity politics (Saleem, 2022 forthcoming). 

Israel is a product of the 19th century Zionist movement, which removed itself somewhat from Orthodox Judaism and, influenced by European nationalism, sought to create a nation for the Jewish people. Zionism –and by extension Israel– has always possessed a “Romantic nationalist culture with a strong expressivist dimension; that is, a strong emphasis on self-expression and notions such as authenticity,” at least compared to Orthodox Judaism where “the Torah and God’s commandments are imposed externally on the Jew” (Fischern, 2014).  Jewish nationalism in its Zionist and neo-Zionist forms has often been a powerful political force in Israel, especially in the shape of right-wing populist discourse (Pinson, 2021; Rogenhofer & Ayala Panievsky, 2020). The Declaration of Independence of 1948 serves as evidence for the presence of civilizational elements in Zionism. Saleem (2022, forthcoming) notes that “The references to the Jewish religion can be found all over the document. The word ‘Jews’ has been mentioned five times while the word ‘Jewish’ has been mentioned nineteen times in the one-page declaration. Israel is used twenty-seven times and the combination ‘Eretz-Israel’ twelve times.” Thus, while the Israeli state might appear rooted in the modern principles of the nation-state, its core is surprisingly religious. Agbaria (2021: 360), for example, argues that “Israeli policies, as evident in the Nation-State Law, are driven by a lure of religious imagery that obscures the boundaries between the State of Israel, as a recognized political entity, and the Land of Israel, as a religious ideal that awaits materialization.” 

Furthermore, because the legitimacy of Israel rests on the history of Jewish people in the land, political groups have instrumentalized archaeology to ‘prove’ that Jewish civilization in the region predates all others. For example, Israeli archaeologist Raphael Greenberg claims that “in order to answer the continuing demands of mainly politics actors,” Israeli “archaeologists have given up many of their best practices” (Reuters, 2010). Greenberg claims that the Ir David foundation, which encourages Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories, is funding archaeological digs intended to find ‘evidence’ of prior Jewish settlement and thus to define those areas as belonging to the state of Israel (Reuters, 2010). The desire to ‘prove’ that Jewish civilization predates Arab civilization in Israel, and thus legitimize the Jewish state via a connection between modern Israel and ancient Jewish civilization, is so important to Netanyahu that he gleefully tweeted to his followers the results of Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) tests which he claims prove that the Palestinians are relative newcomers to the region compared with Jews (Jerusalem Post, 2019).

National Liberal Movement (Likud)’s Civilizational Populism

Populism has long been present in Israel but has been part of mainstream politics since the 1990s (Ben-Porat et al., 2021: 6). The mainstreaming of populism is largely the product of the right-wing populist Likud party’s rise to power — and in particular of its leader and former Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud was formed in 1973 by Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon. The party drew support from several other right-wing parties and eventually formed a coalition which pushed the once dominant Labor Party from government and into opposition in 1977 (Porat & Filc, 2022). According to Porat and Filc (2022), Likud was initially a nationalist — though not illiberal — party that sought greater inclusion of the Mizrahim within Israeli society, a group marginalized by Labor. The support of Mizrahi Jews enabled Likud to defeat the once hegemonic Labor and to establish themselves as the new ruling party (Porat & Filc, 2022). 

Over time, Likud transformed into a right-wing populist party which, far from calling for equal rights for Arabs and non-Jews, sought their exclusion from society. This change was crystalized by the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as party chairman in 1993. Under Netanyahu’s leadership, the Likud-led, right-wing coalition gained traction with voters through its conservative nationalist rhetoric and policies and through its promotion of economic neo-liberalism supported by a ‘strong man image’ perpetuated through political authoritarianism (ECPS, 2020; Filc, 2009). In 1996, Netanyahu became Prime Minister by using populist right-wing “rhetoric dominated by ethnic nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-elite sentiment against the academia, the media, and the country’s left-wing parties” (ECPS, 2020; also see Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Bagaini, 2019: 6). His religious nationalism marked a break from the secularism of the Labor period in Israeli politics. 

During its terms in power in the 2000s and 2010s, Likud has often relied on populist nationalism, the party has attempted to divide society between ‘the people’ — Jews who were historically persecuted and who must now defend their homeland –and ‘others’– intruders in the land of the Jews, and who are often responsible for terrorist attacks and other forms of anti-Jewish violence (ECPS, 2020; Prota & Filc, 2020). By 2015, the idea that ‘Netanyahu is good for the Jews’ had become a powerful re-election tool for Likud, and the notion that Muslim Arabs — who were portrayed by Likud as ‘infiltrators’ and a ‘Trojan Horse’ — might be expelled became mainstream (Ghanem & Khatib, 2017). Likud’s discourse encouraged the growth of nativism in Israeli society and, correspondingly, their own populist discourse became more nativist. 

Rogenhofer and Panievsky (2020), who explored the authoritarian populism of Netanyahu, Modi, and Erdogan in a comparative analysis, observe that “Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness all point to a conflation of religion with the national vision” (Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020: 1395). As a result, “religious language and symbols accentuate fears and shape demands for action, to protect the nation and its borders…consequently, more and more leaders, not only in the Likud, adopt religious tropes and symbols to demonstrate loyalty and garner support” (Porat & Filc, 2022: 74). At the same time, opposition parties and critics of Likud and Netanyahu were portrayed by the party “as detached elites not committed to Jewish nationality and to the Jewish State” (Porat & Filc, 2022). 

Levi and Agmon (2021) note that during the peak of Netanyahu’s tenure ‘otherization’ of Jewish parities or individuals who did not agree with the ruling government was severe. Left-wing parties have been ‘othered’ by Likud and transformed into enemies of the state and Jewish faith (Levi & Agmon, 2021). For example, during the 2015 election campaign, Netanyahu accused the center-left political opposition of picking a “list of radical left, anti-Zionist candidates” (Lis, 2015). Likud’s official Spokesperson, Erez Tadmor, went a step further and labelled left-wing opposition as “pampered, thankless spoilt kids who were born to the right families in the right neighborhoods […] don’t have ‘infiltrators’ [migrants] in their neighborhoods, no one throws stones or Molotov cocktails at them. Their children don’t serve in Golani or Givati [IDF military brigades] … They milk the state in every way possible and appoint one another to all key positions” (Levi & Agmon, 2021: 299). 

Levi and Agmon (2021) also note that this otherisation went beyond politics and muffled critical media groups. Newspapers that were critical of the regime were labelled as ‘Auto-antisemitic’ or self-haters accused of spreading hatred towards Judaism. Bennette (2017) observed that a news outlet was bullied by a state minister for being critical of the regime using this very framework: “In 2017, Secretary of Education Naftali Bennett (The Jewish Home) accused Haaretz, Israel’s leading left-wing newspaper, of pathological self-hatred. ‘Auto-antisemitism’, explained Bennett, ‘is a socio-psychological phenomenon in which a Jew develops obsessive hostility and disdain for the Jewish tradition’.” In a sense, Likud has carried out “the monopolisation of patriotism” (Levi and Agmon, 2021) where another party is aggressively ‘otherized’ as it can never work for the good of the country’s people. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel visits the Synagogue of Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 28, 2018.

 

In 2018, Netanyahu made certain that ethnoreligious nationalism would dominate Israeli politics through the Nation State Law. The Nation State Law effectively destroyed the secular state envisioned by early Zionism and made Israel a “Jewish Nation State of the Jewish people” (Halbfinger & Kershner, 2018). It mandated that Jerusalem be recognized as the “complete and united…capital of Israel” and claims the “development of Jewish settlement” is of great “national value,” language that led to escalating violence between Palestinians and Israelis(BBC News, 2018). The passage of the bill also contradicted the spirit of the state’s foundation, which promised equality for all, by downgrading Arabic from an official language to a language with “special status” and leaving Hebrew as the only official language of Israel (Halbfinger & Kershner, 2018). Combined, these measures emphasize how Likud has often relied on religion to define Israeli identity and the identity of Israel’s enemies. 

Israel’s school system also perpetuates civilizationism. Traditionally, there were four types of schooling systems, which ranged from secular to religious schools of Jewish and non-Jewish community members. Under former Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, major changes were made to add elements of “Jewish culture” to the curriculum of secular schools (Silberberga & Agbaria, 2021). Silberberga and Agbaria (2021: 321) note this development, “shows that the escalating efforts to advance a particularistic hyper-ethnonationalist ideology in the Israeli education system, and a complete segregation between Jews and Palestinians in the school system, have eroded liberal and democratic sensibilities among Jewish youth.” This new emphasis on ‘cultural’ education is visible in increased funding spent on ‘cultural’ programs: “19.2% of the ministry’s annual budget to fund external education programmes, was spent in favor of Jewish culture education programmes. This is in sharp contrast to the NIS 10 million (1.1% of the budget) spent on science and technology programmes, or the mere NIS 1.5 million (0.15% of the budget) for democracy and shared society programmes” (Silberberga & Agbaria, 2021: 325). 

Silberberga and Agabaria, (2021: 326) noted that the mandatory Social Studies for grade one to six, “lack any direct reference to the existence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and students are not exposed to any alternative or multi-layered narrative about Israel’s holy sites. Moreover, the religious approach to the Third Temple disregards the existence of the State of Israel and instead uses the biblical term ‘the Land of Israel’.” Silberberga and Agbaria (2021: 326) describe the “emphasis on religious ideals in populist politics of education” as “a strategic move towards enclosing the national identity of the Jewish majority within what are purely religious boundaries,” and therefore as an attack on religious pluralism and secularism in Israel. 

Netanyahu and Likud lost control of the government following the 2021 legislative election, and the new government was a coalition between right-wing and centrist parties (including the secularist Yesh Atid party and conservative nationalist Yamina) and which established a rotation government. Thus, while Netanyahu was no longer Prime Minister, Israel remained government by largely right-wing forces which continued Netanyahu’s demonization of Arabs and Muslims. For example, Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina coalition who served as Prime Minister between 13 June 2021 and 30 June 2022, is regarded as more right-wing and nationalist than Netanyahu, and has stated the establishment of a Palestinian state would be a “terrible mistake” (Jerusalem Post, 2021). 

Civilizationism in Netanyahu’s Populist Discourse and Policies

Netanyahu’s civilizational populism has two major components. First, he uses the notion that Jewish civilization predates all others in the region to establish the legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hegemony of Jewish culture within Israel, and, at times, his own political decisions. Second, he describes the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric bloc that, far from being a civilization, threatens Western civilization. Israel, he argues, is a protective wall that defends Western civilization from Muslim barbarians who wish to destroy it; on this basis, Netanyahu calls for Europeans and North Americans to support Israel in its battle for civilization and against the forces of barbarism. Combined, these narratives assist Netanyahu in his populist division of Israeli society into three antagonistic groups: ‘the people,’ the ‘elite,’ and ‘others.’ 

In Netanyahu’s discourse, ‘others’ are non-civilized Arab-Muslims who wish to destroy the Jewish people and Western civilization; ‘elites’ are left-wing parties and liberal Jews who Netanyahu portrays as abandoning Jewish culture and helping Arabs destroy civilization; ‘the People’ are all Jewish people, who are authentic and morally good — authentic because their ancestors were the first people of the land, and morally good because they are civilized Jews. 

Archaeological site close to City of David in Jerusalem, Israel.

 

Archaeology has long been an instrument through which Israeli political actors have sought to legitimize the nation and, in some cases, Jewish settlement in Palestinian territories (Greenberg, 2007; 2009; 2021; Desjarlais, 2013). Desjarlais, for example, argues that “archaeological practice in Palestine/Israel is part of a spatial and temporal project that serves to produce a continuous link between the ancient Israelite past and the modern Israeli   nation-state, justifying the creation of the Israeli state by reference to the past and through familiar frontier myths.” Saleem (2022, forthcoming) notes that Jews have not been a majority in the region since 70 CE when the Second Temple was destroyed. He adds that even before Muslims populated the region of present-day Israel, many other civilizations — such as the Byzantines, Roma, and Persians–left their mark before the Muslims conquered the lands in seventh century. The last rulers in the area were the Ottomans, who lost the territories following their defeat in the First World War. Before the Zionist nationalist movement took power, the territory was under British control; this period is called the Mandate period. This snapshot of history suggests that the region has been home to various cultures over the centuries. 

Archaeological practice in Israel, then, brings together two key civilizational narratives: first, that the Jewish people uniquely and solely belong to the Land of Israel due to an ancestral and cultural connection to ancient Jewish civilization; and second, the frontier narrative that asserts that Jewish people brought civilization to Israel, which was in a state of barbarism before their arrival. Desjarlais (2013) describes the case of Silwan (Wadi Hilwe), which was gradually transformed into an archaeology park, the ‘City of David,’ with multiple sites declared archaeologically significant. Under the guise of archaeology, villagers from the Wadi Hilwe and Bustan neighborhoods were forcefully evacuated and harassed; children were even arrested (Desjarlais, 2013). The gradual influx of tourists after the conversion to an archaeological park led authorities to use the Kidron Valley of Silwan as a dump for waste. This region was declared unclean and filthy and was largely populated by Palestinians. Using this as a pretext, Israeli authorities have justified the land-grabbing practices: “The irony of the imagery this neglect, and waste dumping create–that of an unhygienic town strewn with trash heaps–is that Israel uses the very wasteland it creates to justify its land acquisition.” 

The ‘City of David’ site is run by the Ir David Foundation, known as Elad in Hebrew, which also finances archaeological excavations across the Old City of Jerusalem. Elad wishes to uncover proof of ancient Jewish civilization in Jerusalem through projects, including the disputed ‘City of David’ archaeological park and the Temple Mount Sifting Project (The Times of Israel, 2017; The Palestinian Chronicle, 2016). The purpose of these project is to establish the Temple Mount area as a historically Jewish area and to deny any connection between Palestinians and the Old City of Jerusalem. The identification of the Silwan (Wadi Hilwe) site as the ‘City of David’ appears to be politically motivated. Greenberg (2009: 37), for example, observes that ‘City of David’ was “rarely employed in the literature; excavators generally preferred ‘Ophel,’ another biblical term that appears to refer to the northernmost part of the spur.” Rather, there has been, according to Greenberg (2009: 38), a deliberate sanctification of the site, a “secular and political sanctification, and as such its character and content are open to reinterpretation to a far greater extent than is the case with holy places proper, where the authority for the validation of historical claims is embedded in a chain of command that resists academic scrutiny.” It is interesting to note that Ir David’s website insists that “when David Be’eri (David’le) first visited the City of David in the mid-1980’s, the city was in such a state of disrepair and neglect that the former excavations that had once been conducted were once again concealed beneath garbage and waste” (Ir David, n.d.).  […] Ir David spins a narrative of the redemption of the uncultivated frontier as justification for the confiscation of Palestinian land and the expansion of Jewish settlements” (Desjarlais, 2013: 13).  

It is not merely the Israeli right but also Christian Zionists who have developed an interest in Biblical archaeology. Indeed, the two have worked together to ‘uncover’ historical sites which ‘prove’ the continuous and ancient occupation of Israel by Judeo-Christian peoples. Scholz (2022), for example, describes how the Tel Shiloh site has been a contested ground for right-wing Christian and Jewish archaeology– who believe the site is the first capital of Israel and proof of the inerrant truth of the Bible and resident Palestinian. In 2017, a team of right-wing evangelical Christian archaeologists from the United States also took part in the excavations; these archaeologists have questionable educational qualifications and clearly lack objectivity (Scholz, 2022: 129). Despite the excavations, the group has not published any findings, yet they are content to endorse Israel’s position that Jewish settlement occurred prior to all others in the region: “I can say with 100 percent certainty that there were Israelites in Shiloh because of the many indicators we have,” Dr. Stripling told Breaking Israel News (Scholz, 2022: 132). “The pottery shows that they were there when the Bible says they were there” (Scholz, 2022: 132). Scholz (2022) suggests that excavations such as these are designed to legitimize Israeli occupation and writes that “Stripling’s apologetic Christian-Zionist convictions have direct geopolitical and religious implications in the militarily occupied West Bank because they align smoothly with the interests of the settler community of Shiloh.” Scholz (2022: 134) explains that this is a mutually beneficial archaeological union. While Israel finds grounds to solidify its civilizational convictions and agendas in the region, the right-wing Christian conservatives, “could not have found more fertile ground than at Tel Shiloh, although another settler-managed site in East Jerusalem, the City of David, seems also to receive considerable Christian tourism support. Whenever the goal is to prove the literal historicity of the Hebrew Bible with archaeology and historical fervor, the Christian right is already there.”

One of the Ir David Foundations projects involves sifting soil on the sensitive Temple Mount area sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths. According to the Temple Mount Sifting Project website, the project “is under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University and is funded by private donors through the Israel Archaeology Foundation. The sifting activity operated during the years 2005-2017 at the Emek Tzurim national park with the cooperation and funding of the Ir-David foundation. In June 2019 the sifting facility moved to the Masu’ot Lookout with generous support from American Friends of Beit Orot” (Temple Mount Sifting Project, 2022). While the project may do good work in uncovering the ancient and medieval history of the area, the involvement of the Ir David Foundation is a sign that the project may be used to create an impression of continuous Jewish presence in the area and portray Palestinians as inauthentic residents. 

In 2016, when funds for the project began to run out, then Prime Minister Netanyahu intervened and used taxpayers’ money to continue the project (Hasson, 2016). When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was critical of the project for politicizing the historical record and essentially Judaizing the Temple Mount, Netanyahu used the occasion to defend the project and, in what he called a “crushing response” to the United Nations body’s denial of Jewish history, announced that his government would fund the project to ensure that its work continued (Hasson, 2016). In this way, Netanyahu and his government were using the Ir David Foundation to promote the narrative that the Temple Mount belongs to the Jewish people and that Arabs and others are mere newcomers who have no rights to the area. 

An outstanding feature about the Ir David Foundation is its demographical composition. Since the 1960s, all excavation work in the region of Jerusalem has been exclusively carried out by Israeli archaeologists; virtually no Palestinians have been part of these explorations (Greenberg, 2009: 44). This is quite interesting as the most adversely impacted people by these explorations are the Palestinians, who are often displaced as a result of the excavations and are not part of the development projects (Greenberg, 2009). The Foundation’s work is quite pivotal for the populist civilizational agendas of the Israeli right. For example, Amit (2022: 44) observes how “on November 17, 2013, Naftali Bennett, Economic Minister and leader of The Jewish Home Party that represents the religious right-wing and the settlers, gave an interview to CNN. When asked about the settlements in the occupied territories, he waved an ancient coin and told Christiane Amanpour: “this coin, which says ‘Freedom of Zion’ in Hebrew, was used by Jews 2,000 years ago in the state of Israel, in what you call occupied. One cannot occupy his own home’.” 

Another means of ‘rediscovering’ Israel’s ‘true’ Jewish past has been linked with renaming places (Desjarlais, 2013). For the first project, many Palestinian villages that were occupied or evacuated over the years have been given Hebrew names (Desjarlais, 2013). This process is claimed to be ‘scientific’ as it returns the ‘original’ names to said places. In addition, the state plants gardens or forested areas to discourage the return of Palestinians who fled their villages during periods of war or turmoil. By introducing a vegetative cover to some of the abandoned villages, it’s impossible for Palestinians to return (Desjarlais, 2013). 

Civilizationism is also used to legitimize Netanyahu’s political actions by portraying Islam as a non-civilization bent on destroying the Jewish people and European civilization. This takes the form of a ‘frontier’ narrative, in which Israel is described as a barbarous land which the Jewish people tamed and turned into a paradise. One cannot deny the economic and scientific achievements of the Israeli people. However, the frontier myth denies the existence of Palestinian history in the region and portrays them as an uncivilized people squatting on Jewish land (Desjarlais, 2013). According to Desjarlais (2013), “Like other nationalist movements, the Israeli national narrative seeks to construct a shared history (although only for its Jewish population), develop a myth of origin that traces the roots of the modern nation to noble forbearers, and describe the development of the nation’s history in terms of a ‘golden age’ and a ‘dark age’ when the nation was ruled by foreigners.” Put simply, the national myth of Israel involves claims that the establishment of the State of Israel made the desert bloom (George, 1979).

It is also interesting to contrast Netanyahu’s responses when it comes to endorsing or distancing Israel from the West. In cases where countries or institutions support him, as mentioned above, he describes Israel as part of Western civilization. For example, in a 2016 press conference in Berlin with then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netanyahu called Israel “the protective wall of Western civilization” (EFE, 2016). By defending itself from Islamic radicals, Netanyahu suggests, Israel is also defending Western values in a region in which they are threatened by barbarism and primitivism. In another example, the appalling murder of four French Jews in a Kosher supermarket in Paris prompted Netanyahu to first demand that the French and moreover the European Union “wake up” to the threat of Islamist terrorism and act to protect “our common civilization” (The New York Times, 2015). However, at the same time he also, as political economist and commentator Bernard Avishai points out, called on Jews to “self-segregate: affirm, in principle, the liberal values of the West, but deny that they ever worked well enough for diaspora Jews; insist that we fight for our freedoms from our own ground” (The New York Times, 2015). 

In a 2022 interview, Netanyahu claimed “there is a constant battle between the forces of modernity and the forces of medievalism. That’s what we face today in the Middle East facing militant Islam. Facing militant Islam is only not only Israel, but many of our Arab neighbors will understand that their future also could be compromised and endangered and crushed by these forces that hark back to a very dark past. So, I would say that you can continue to move the arc forward… if you have the necessary will and power to protect civilization and to nurture it, but it could easily be wiped away by larger forces” (Netanyahu, 2022). In the same interview, he praised Winston Churchill, saying “Churchill’s worldview as I see it, was not simply that he was belonging to the British empire, was a 19th century example of a patriot of the British empire. I think it was more than that. I think… he had a civilizational view,” (Netanyahu, 2022).

The notion that Israel represents civilization in a battle against barbarism is a hallmark, according to Tuastad (2003) and Linklater (2020), of neo-Orientalism and neo-barbarism, discourses which became mainstream in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. Yet the ‘civilizational portrayal’ of Israel as an ‘outpost’ of Western civilization is often “embraced by Israel’s detractors and supporters alike” Slabodsky (2014: 147). For example, Zionism as a project sought to give the Jewish people a homeland but used the European colonial model as the basis of a Jewish state. Thus, nineteenth and early twentieth century style European colonialism in the form of Zionism “was applied in its extreme in the 1940s and since at least the 1970s has reinforced systemic patterns of domination and ultimately naturalized the Jewish state as a Western outpost against barbarism” (Slabodsky, 2014: 146). In constructing their own European-style state, Slabodsky (2014: 157) argues, the Zionists were seeking to overcome their status as barbarians within Western civilization by becoming members of a “civilized nation among civilized nations” like “any other Western people.” In doing so, Slabodsky (2014) suggests, they inadvertently replicated the barbaric-civilized dichotomy within Israel, turning the Palestinians into barbarians and themselves into civilized Westerners. Netanyahu and his party have been effective at using this added layer of hostility to shape the narrative surrounding the role of Jews in civilizing the region as opposed to Arabs who are constantly shown as barbaric and culturally negligent.

Conclusion

Netanyahu’s civilizational populist discourse involves the division of Israel into three categories: ‘the people,’ or the Jewish people who belong to Israel; ‘elites,’ or Labor and the center-left parties who are immoral insofar as they refuse to defend Jewish hegemony in Israel; and ‘dangerous others,’ or the Arab Muslims who are barbaric and hateful and seek to destroy not merely Israel but Western civilization. In order to ‘prove’ that the Jewish people alone belong to Israel and to legitimize their political actions, Netanyahu and Likud politicize archaeology and use questionable archaeological methods to prove that Jewish civilization existed before all others in Israel. By weaponizing archaeology, Likud and Netanyahu have been able to both legitimize Jewish cultural hegemony in Israel but also defend the exclusion of Arab Muslims from society by demonstrating that they are relative newcomers to the region and therefore have no legitimate claim to exist in Israel. 

Equally, by portraying the Arab-Muslim world as an antisemitic and barbaric anti-civilization, Netanyahu is able to portray Israel as not merely a successful outpost of Western civilization in a barbaric region but a protective wall which prevents Muslims barbarians from infiltrating the West and destroying civilization. Yet, as we have seen, there are times when Netanyahu does not describe Israel as part of the West but rather as a unique culture and civilization which was rejected by the West and must therefore rely on itself for defense. Either way, Netanyahu always portrays Israel as fighting for civilization and against the barbarism represented by Arab Muslims.  

The rise of Likud since the late 1970s and emergence of Netanyahu as the most powerful and influential politician of his generation has had a lasting and powerful effect on Israel and on the Palestinians. Likud has successfully ended the hegemony of the Israeli left and Labor Party and paved the way for an Israel that is increasingly de-secularized and right-wing and which perceives Arabs and Muslims as dangerous enemies of civilization. The manifestation of the ‘clash of civilizations’ in domestic politics has had devastating outcomes. Walt (1999) cautioned that this political outlook is a “self-fulfilling prophecy” which leads to conflict because “the more we believe it and make it the basis for action, the more likely it is to come true.” In Israel’s case, Likud’s use of populist civilizations has helped bind the country to a turbulent and conflict-ridden future. 


 

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Manufacturing Civilisational Crises: Instrumentalisation of Anti-Western Conspiracy Theories for Populist Authoritarian Resilience in Turkey and Pakistan

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2022). “Manufacturing Civilisational Crises: Instrumentalisation of Anti-Western Conspiracy Theories for Populist Authoritarian Resilience in Turkey and Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 15, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0014

 

Abstract

This paper looks at the importance of ‘crisis events’ used by leaders employing populist civilisational populism in Muslim democracies. While populism is widely acknowledged and studied, various aspects remain unexplored. One feature is how populists make use of a crisis. While populists do benefit from social and political rifts, this paper goes a step further and argues that civilisationalist populists create imaginary and exaggerated ‘crises’ to sustain and prolong their relevance/position in power as well as justify their undemocratic actions. Using the case studies of Turkey (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and Pakistan (Imran Khan) allows for a comparison to be drawn between two different leaders seeking to maintain power by using their position to either create civilizationalist crises or to frame ordinary crises as civilisational. The findings highlight that despite different political scenarios and outcomes, both these populist leaders gained political support by creating crises. We find that in most cases, populists exaggerate pre-existing insecurities and events to their benefit. The overblown claims and conspiratorial scenarios aid populists in creating a niche for their narratives by reaffirming their populist categorisation of societies. At the same time, the findings bring forth the troubling issues of the social-political cost of these Islamist civilisationalist populists.  

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil  

Introduction 

William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy Macbeth showcases not only a man with a guilty conscious but also an ambitious woman in the form of Lady Macbeth. Wife to a lord of the realm, Lady Macbeth seeks means to increase the family’s social and political influence. Upon hearing the prophecy of the Wayward Sisters, she forces her husband to seize the throne. Her persuasion leads Macbeth to a short-lived reign, but it ends tragically for all involved. 

While Lady Macbeth is often symbolized as a bad wife and a manipulative embodiment of allegedly feminine vice, she is also a Machiavellian politician. Throughout the play she uses carefully crafted words to evoke Lord Macbeth’s emotions and makes tantalizing promises. Her central convictions hinge on greed for power but to convince her husband, she creates a crisis and promises a solution to it. Lady Macbeth is thus very similar to some populists in power today who prey on anger and fear while promising solutions to what ails ‘the people.’

In this paper, we aim to discuss not a classic English tragedy but rather the tragic Islamist populist political trajectories of leading politicians in two countries. Turkey and Pakistan are both victims of populism, and we argue that these countries have seen Lady Macbeth manifest in the form of religious populist leaders. These figures have constantly used populism in the political sphere—and have, in fact, also used politics to enhance their populism. They’ve maintained their longevity and relevance in politics through constant polarisation and by creating fear and sowing suspicion toward ‘the others.’ They give ‘the people’ hope of justice, morality, and change. They’ve tried to carve out a permanent place for populism in politics.     

In recent years, both Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Imran Khan in Pakistan have made headlines for the wrong reasons. Erdogan, the once hopeful Muslim democrat, has turned into a populist authoritarian with hard-line religious ideas challenging the secular democratic constitutional system of Turkey, Turkey’s pro-Western posture and alliances (Yilmaz, 2022). Khan has moved from social tabloids to frontline news with his Islamist-populist blend of politics that feeds on the ontological insecurities of Pakistanis. While both leaders operate in quite different contexts, they share striking similarities beyond their shared populist Islamism.

Populist Crises Rooted in Civilisationalism 

Populism tends to act as a magnet for various societal ideas and emotions. It can attach itself to a wide spectrum of social and political ideologies, ranging from far left to far right (Elchardus & Spruyt, 2014; Stanley, 2008). Populism’s “thinness” (Taguieff, 1995: 32–35) allows for it to attract many perspectives and makes it highly adaptable (De la Torre, 2017; Galito, 2018; Mudde, 2016). Within this quality of mutation, populism attracts issues, themes, and ideas which are ‘flash points’ or triggering in nature. 

Populists can attract mass attention by steering debates on contested issues and, especially, by making emotional appeals to base feelings like fear (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021). Both positive and negative emotions are used by populists to shape their ideas and to appeal to the masses. While non-populists also use emotions in politics, what makes populists different is their intensive use of emotions, especially by discursively dividing society into two antagonistic camps where dangerous ‘others’ have been assaulting the existence of ‘the people,’ who are always ‘pure’ and ‘right’ by default. Populists claim to represent the people and try to rally and mobilise them against ‘the other.’ Who constitutes ‘the people’ and who is ‘the other’ varies by context. 

While populism has largely been studied as a Manichean struggle between the virtuous people, the corrupt elite, and dangerous others within national borders, populism’s transnational and foreign policy implications fall under a civilisational rubric that is mostly drawn along religious lines (Brubaker, 2017). In some cases, populist political leaders use right-wing ideas to promote the idea of a civilisation in danger (Gudavarthy, 2021; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021). This civilisational populist discourse emphasises the importance of antagonistic civilisational differences in global politics and often explains the world in terms of a Huntingtonian ‘clash of civilisations,’ positing that ‘our’ civilisation is threatened by an enemy civilisation or by people from that civilisation who live within ‘our’ national or transnational/diasporic communities (Brubaker, 2017; Lesch, 2020; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Saleem et al. 2022).

Manufacturing ‘crises’ is central to civilisationalist populism. Crises help create a story of an ideal ‘homeland’ or ‘heartland’ which is either lost, dreamed of, or threatened. This is not only limited to a land but extends to way of life, culture, religion and civilisation that can be framed as under existential threat by dangerous others. These then define the parameters of ‘the people’ and ‘the others.’ The otherization process then hinges on profiling ‘the others’ as either threats to the pure people or a hinderance to achieving the promised society that the pure people deserve.

Erdogan and Khan merge Islamist populism with civilisationalism, allowing them to constantly manufacture and instrumentalise civilisationalist ‘crises.’ Their use of religion adds a further layer of emotional resonance in their efforts to mobilize the masses. Both leaders have been able to retain relevance in politics by using either real or constructed Islamist civilisationalist populist crises. When a crisis is real, they skilfully manage to frame it as a civilisational populist issue regardless of its real reasons and roots. Thus, a typical devaluation of the country’s currency because of economic factors could be explained as an existential civilisational attack against the country by the Christian Western crusaders, imperialists, or the ‘interest lobby’ (a.k.a. Jews) that despise the people’s religion, Islam. 

The Case of Erdogan 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, Turkey on August 30, 2014. Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı.

Of the two leaders, Erdogan has been widely studied and acknowledged as a populist politician. His long tenure (over two decades) and Turkey’s closeness to Europe has put him on the radar of political scientists for some time (Yilmaz, 2018; Aytaç & Elçi, 2019; Kaliber & Kaliber, 2019; Yilmaz, 2021a; Tas, 2022). Erdogan and his political party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), came to power with an anti-establishment and pro-development agenda (Yilmaz, 2009; 2021a; 2012b). While hailing from a long line of Islamist parties banned by the Kemalist state apparatus, the AKP was a reformed Islamist party which posed as Muslim democrat (Yilmaz, 2009). This came with the promise of joining the European Union (EU), democratising Turkish politics (Yilmaz, 2009), and a move to resolve many ethnic-religious rifts left wide open by Kemalist leadership (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022). The AKP’s first two tenures were dedicated to accomplishing these goals but, due to their complex nature and the party’s failure of nuanced skills, this led to opposite results. By the end of 2010, the party found itself losing popular support (Yilmaz, 2021b). Even when the AKP was a democratising force during its first term, these Kemalist bureaucrats tried to maintain their tutelage over elected politicians and vehemently resisted the pro-EU reforms. 

In response to this, the AKP supported some judicial trials that were “seen by many domestic and international democratic individuals, as well as observers, experts, and institutions such as the EU, as a chance to get rid of Turkey’s notorious deep-state or, to put it more directly, the Kemalist tutelage led by the military” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 199). However, it turned out that these trials were motivated also by “an undemocratic power struggle within the state, where the AKP and some Gülenists were trying to replace the Kemalists” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 199). During these trials, Erdogan and the AKP used observant Muslim citizens’ legitimate grievances against the past undemocratic aggressively secularist practices to frame the Kemalist bureaucracy as ‘the enemies’ of the predominantly Muslim people. 

The AKP used this populist frame to advance a reform package via the 2010 judicial referendum. Under these reforms, the military and judiciary—which were still dominated by the Kemalists—became handpicked by the government. Erdogan called this referendum a “milestone for democracy” and cast it as an issue of the political will of the people versus a power tussle between the AKP and the former Kemalist regime (CNN, 2010). Upon victory, he again framed the whole event as a national crisis—but the nation had ‘won’ and was ‘moving forward,’ as he explained: Yes, to freedom. Yes, to rule of law. No to the law of the rulers. The tutelage of the coup regime is over” (CNN, 2010).

After consolidating his power as a result of the referendum and especially after winning 50 per cent of the vote in the 2011 election, Erdogan’s and his “AKP’s reformist and democratising agenda became steadily weakened. Erdogan was re-elected as prime minister, but thereafter he began to react to political challenges in an increasingly demagogic and autocratic manner” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 199).

As an example, take the Gezi Park protests—a peaceful grassroots movement initiated against the AKP’s corruption and habit of gentrifying or developing public spaces (Gümrükçü, 2016). The government’s harsh response resulted in police brutality against the peaceful protestors, causing several injuries and fatalities. Erdogan employed his civilisationalist populist framing during these protests and accused the protestors of being the puppets of imperialists and the interest lobby. To convince their supporters that their values, religion, beliefs and Muslim civilisation were under attack, Erdogan, the AKP and their media spread disinformation, fake stories and anti-Western conspiracy theories. Erdogan labelled the protestors as “deviant youths” and “tramps” who desecrated a mosque and peed on a practicing Muslim woman who sported a headscarf (Geybullayeva, 2022). Thus, in the eyes of his supporters (40-45 percent of the voters), he successfully turned the event into a moral, religious and civilisational crisis for ‘the people,’ and the alleged desecration was an emotionally triggering aspect of this struggle. Nearly a decade after the protests, Erdogan still uses them as means to discredit protests against the AKP’s growing authoritarianism. He mainly does this by showcasing opposition as a threat to social order and disrespectful of the religious sentiments of Muslims, as he said during the ninth anniversary of the event in June 2022: “We are on the ninth anniversary of the events called the Gezi events, which went down in our history as a document of betrayal, shame and vandalism […] They are corrupt, they are sluts, they know nothing about a holy mosque […] We know who was behind the Gezi events where public buildings, police vehicles, ambulances, businesses, civilian cars, municipal buses, streets and parks were burned down” (BIA News Desk, 2022).

Over time, the Gulen Movement has become one of the AKP’s most prominent examples of civilisationalist rhetoric. As a former ally, this faith-based social and educational movement faced souring relations with the AKP. In late 2013, during the dispute, Erdogan and his close allies were being investigated over corruption (Seibert, 2014). Several leaked audio tapes of the AKP’s top leadership revealed the party’s appetite for corruption and nepotism. The AKP turned this self-created political crisis into a civilisational crisis. It accused the Movement’s members of working with Western countries and Israel against Islam and the Muslim world, as specifically represented by Turkey and the AKP. Then, the AKP started “purging” those suspected of being Gülenists from the police and bureaucracy; these “members” were framed as spies, security threats, and even traitors. Erdogan actively framed the Movement as a parallel structure within the state—one which allegedly worked against the country’s national interests. This framing justified the government’s ‘witch hunt’ against the Gulen Movement—an action that Erdogan defended by saying, “In order to sterilize this dirty water that contaminated the milk, we will either boil or molecularize it” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2014). 

In a 2014 interview, he expressed this idea further. The Gulen Movement was a security threat (Solaker, 2014). Erdogan explained: “These elements [Gulen Movement] which threaten the national security of Turkey cannot be allowed to exist in other countries because what they do to us here, they might do against their host.”

The AKP justifies its hard-line approach towards opposition by framing them as threats to the nation and ‘ummah.’ This trend has accelerated since 2016, as the AKP has taken a clear turn towards populist authoritarianism. Its core ideology is rooted in Islamist civilisationalism, where Turkey is viewed as a nation under threat from ‘enemies’ within and outside. Using the trauma of the past and merging it with present insecurities has allowed the AKP to manipulate events in its favour, allowing it to undertake undemocratic practices and frame them as necessary steps to ‘save’ a country under constant ‘threat.’

A failed coup attempt in July 2016 gave Erdogan the power to enforce a Presidential system, grossly violate human rights of his critics, instrumentalise institutions to echo his populism, and stifle political opposition (IAHRAG, 2021). All of this had been made possible by exploiting or stoking anxiety, fear, anger, deprivation, and insecurity. The Gülen Movement has been overtly blamed for the events of 2016. A civil movement has been transformed into a “terrorist organization” via the power of narrative. In a July 2016 interview Erdogan gave with CNN right after the turmoil, he expresses his certainty that Gülen is a terrorist (CNN, 2016).

On another occasion, Erdogan compared the movement with terrorist organisations and armed groups: “Those who follow the Pennsylvania-based charlatan [Gulen] who sold his soul to the devil, or Daesh, which shed Muslim blood, or the PKK that also has shed blood for 30 years to divide the country and the nation, will all lose in the end” (McKirdy & Alam, 2016). Following the July 2016 ‘attempted coup,’ the Gulen Movement has formally been listed as the “Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETO),” and its activities were outlawed, assets were seized and redistributed, and its members and alleged members were arrested. At the first anniversary of the event in 2017, Erdogan publicly promised: “We will rip the heads off of these traitors [Gulen Movement]” (MEE, 2017). 

As Turkey’s prospects for EU membership faded, the AKP’s leadership used the growing resentment over this issue—as well as past fear and distrust towards the West—to increasingly portray ‘external enemies’ as responsible for domestic problems. These countries were increasingly portrayed as hosts for “FETOists”—and this wasn’t just an insult to Turkey but a threat to democracy everywhere: The attitude of many countries and their officials over the coup attempt in Turkey is shameful in the name of democracy (Karadeniz & Pamuk, 2016).  

Over the last decade, Erdogan has been quite willing to exploit Islamophobia to extend his narrative about Western countries antagonizing Muslims. While Islamophobia has undoubtedly increased post-9/11, as a populist Islamist, Erdogan has used its existence to prove the narrative that Western nations are the enemies of the East. He’s done this in a Huntingtonian fashion, openly accusing the West of “playing games with the Islamic world.” (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; Douglass-Williams, 2019). On many occasions, Erdogan has behaved undiplomatically to Western counterparts. He has called the Dutch government “fascists” and accused them of “Nazism” when AKP members were refused the opportunity to hold rallies with expat Turks (Marris, 2017). Erdogan has consistently framed the West as lacking empathy for Muslims: “This virus [Islamophobia] is spreading very quickly in countries that have been portrayed as cradles of democracy and freedom for years” (Daily Sabah, 2021).   

Moreover, Erdogan has repeatedly blamed “international lobbies” and “foreign powers” for the fall in value of the Turkish Lira’s value (Smith, Sage & Charter, 2018). He called such forces the “global barons of politics and money” who were allegedly derailing Turkey’s progress: “We’ll not give up our new economic program no matter what they do […] They are trying to create a dark scenario using foreign-exchange levels” (Ant, 2021).

As the 2023 elections near, Erdogan has been busy urging the masses to “continue fighting” and “working” for the country’s “purification” from various threats. He added at an event, “We will not give an opportunity to those who want to strangle us with other traps that our country has repeatedly fallen into. Those whose politics consist of lies are not good for this nation” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2022).

At the same times, promises of hope for deliverance from the various ‘crises’ are also transnational. Erdogan has been highly passionate about the Palestinian cause and has promised deliverance to the ummah (OpInida, 2020). At the same time, his growing Islamist policies are also justified as a means of elevating the status of the “victimized” ummah. In 2020, at the reconversion of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan’s comments reflected this promised deliverance: “The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the footsteps of the will of Muslims across the world to come… the resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the reignition of the fire of hope of Muslims and all oppressed, wrong, downtrodden and exploited” (OpInida, 2020).  

What Erdogan thrives on is discord and insecurities that are pre-existing in Turkish society and felt amongst the ummah. The craft of the populist is attaching these vulnerabilities to various populist civilisationalist ideas and instrumentalizing them into ‘crises’ that benefit them. For example, each year on the anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt, the events have been relived and the narrative of looming threats to Turkey is reinforced. Over the years, the list of ‘others’ continues to grow, encapsulating not just national but transnational ‘threats.’ These layers of crises are added to the AKP’s narrative (Carol & Hofheinz, 2022; Yilmaz, 2021a; Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2021A; 2021b; Yilmaz & Erturk, 2021). The sense of a looming crisis justifies the AKP’s undemocratic actions and it sows deep divisions within a society shaped, in part, by Islamist civilisationalist populism.

The Case of Khan

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan addresses to his supporters during public gathering held on December 11, 2012 in Lodheran, Pakistan.

Imran Khan has also centred his politics around crises which have evolved and intensified over his political career. Like Erdogan, Khan has used pre-existing fissures in society—including anti-West sentiments, Pakistan’s ontological crises, and distrust towards the political elite and various state institutions—to create a collage of crises that have kept him at the centre of mainstream politics.   

After retiring from international men’s cricket, Khan took to politics. In his initial years, very few took Khan seriously; many dismissed him as an idealist (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). His narratives were focused on human development, which were backed by his history of philanthropic work in Pakistan. He was a beloved celebrity, but it was not until the 2010s when he started gaining political clout. Khan’s rise to political prominence is directly linked with the creation of several crises (and supported by military backing) (Yilmaz & Saleem, 2022). After almost a decade in the limelight of Pakistani politics, Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has shown an ability to survive without the backing of the establishment thanks to populist-created crises. Since April 2022, relations between the party and establishment have soured, resulting in Khan’s ouster from office (Basit, 2022). Khan has relied on major crises to remain relevant in politics and has even challenged the longstanding hegemony of the establishment (Alvi & Khan, 2022). 

It’s useful to look at the evolution and various forms of these political and social crises. Khan gained political prominence for opposing the West’s “War on Terror,” in the early 2000s—a stance widely broadcast on Western media. Khan was critical of Pakistan’s alliance with the US (Khan, 2021), and he led anti-drone attack rallies in the affected areas of Western Pakistan. Khan’s characterisation has been clear throughout: he primarily portrays the West as untrustworthy, exploitative, and self-serving which results in exploitation of Muslims, including Pakistanis (Afzal, 2018; BBC, 2012). This misplaced sympathy with the Taliban earned Khan the title of ‘Taliban Khan’ in the international press. Khan declared the Taliban “holy warriors” and found merit in their cause (Butt, 2021; Boone, 2012). It was this sentiment that led Khan to call the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, in 2021, an attempt to dismantle Western influence in the region by “breaking the chains of slavery” (Muzaffar, 2021). But his narratives only gained widespread attention in Pakistan when the military establishment was out of power and needed a civil partner to counter mainstream political parties (Siddiqa, 2022; Basit, 2022). 

In early 2010s, Khan rose to prominence due to his direct attacks on corrupt mainstream political parties. Khan’s narrative was that of ‘tabdeli’ (change) which he compared to a “tsunami” bringing much needed change to Pakistani politics (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021b). Khan rose to prominence during a politically precarious time: the same dynastic-led political parties were winning elections despite a range of corruption charges blemishing their records. Khan and the PTI offered a much-needed alternative. Between 2013 and 2018 (from the PTI winning its first majority in a province to winning a nationwide majority in the 2018 general elections), Khan created a populist-styled political crisis. In this crisis, ‘the people’ were being robbed of their communal wealth and right to be heard by “looters” (mainstream politicians). Khan explained the “dire” situation in the following way: “When one party was kicked out on charges of corruption, the second took over and they made the rounds of corruption […] people were forced to choose one among these two as they had no other choice” (Zafar & Karni, 2018).

Voters found themselves with a choice to avert this political crisis by choosing the PTI over “rats,” “mafia,” and “traitors” (terms used by Khan to label political opposition) (Khan, 2022; NDTV, 2022; Sharma, 2022). This crisis was not imaginary: the Bhutto-Zardari and Sharif families had been implicated in several corruption cases (The New York Times, 2020; Khan, 2018). When the Panama Papers leak contained the names of several of these political families, it gave Khan legitimacy in the eyes of the public (Khaleeli, 2016). Khan promised populist reforms to end corruption in less than 100 days, direct citizen communication with the government, social welfare for all, and improved economic performance (PTI, 2018). In 2011, before PTI’s first major victory, Khan promised deliverance for the “wronged people”: “Once we are in power, we’ll end corruption in 90 days. My party has zero tolerance for corruption and corrupt people” (Mansoor, 2011). 

The promises kept getting flashier, such as in 2012, with Khan promising, “PTI will come to power along with policies to address all problems.” He even said his government would only need 19 days to end corruption and 90 days to end terrorism (The Express Tribune, 2012). While in office following the 2013 general elections, the PTI found itself in charge of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. After this victory, Khan told Pakistanis to “wait and see” the elevated status of the province by the end of his term (Ilyas, 2013). However, the party’s performance in the province to improve public facilities, eradicate terrorism, and end corruption remained unfulfilled. In direct contradiction of his electoral promises, Khan forged a comfortable alliance with the ‘corrupt’ and ultra-right Jamaat-e-Islami (Samaa, 2017; Shams, 2016; Dawn, 2013; Khan, 2014). 

With the 2018 elections approaching, and PTI suffering from a problematic performance in KP, the party launched its 2018 election campaign by stoking layered crises and with a pronounced religious connotation. The core crisis of corruption was now linked with the moral degradation of society. Khan blamed the latter on Pakistanis turning their backs on Islam. He promised to end corruption and all other problems faced by country by following a model of Riyasat e Medina (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). In Khan’s words: “Over the last 75 years of Pakistan’s history, our country has suffered from elite capture, where powerful and crooked politicians, cartels and mafias have become accustomed to being above the law in order to protect their privileges gained through a corrupt system” (Khan, 2022).  

He presented the Riyasat e Medina model as a solution to the multifaceted problems facing Pakistan: “In Islamic civilization, the manifestation of our spiritual principles happened in the Prophet’s (SAW) Madina. Besides many other important principles, there were five very important guiding principles upon which the state of Madina was built. These principles are unity, justice and rule of law leading to meritocracy, a strong moral and ethical foundation, inclusion of all humans in progress and prosperity, and finally, the quest for knowledge” (Khan, 2022). 

By 2018, the crisis was not only political but spiritual. Khan mainstreamed the idea that the Muslim ummah (and especially in Pakistan) had been “left behind” due to their waywardness from Islamic governance and social morality. The following abstract from an interview showcases Khan’s framing of the crises in populist Islamist fashion: 

“At the moment, the worst advertisement[s] for Islam are the Muslim countries with their selective Islam, especially where the religion is used to deprive people of their rights. In fact, a society that obeys the fundamentals of Islam must be a liberal one. If our Westernized class started to study Islam, not only would it be able to help our society fight sectarianism and extremism, but it will also make them realize what a progressive religion Islam is. They will also be able to help the Western world by articulating Islamic concepts” (MEMRI, 2011).

Such rhetoric combined with constant narratives of corruption and the support of the establishment, landed PTI in power. However, soon after taking office, the party found itself taking ‘U-turns’ on many fronts (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021c). From going to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout package to relying on “electable” candidates to the win the 2018 elections, Khan and PTI repeatedly contradicted their promises. Things were made worse thanks to growing economic pressures on the already fragile economy during and after the global Coronavirus pandemic. 

Amidst all these problems, the Riyasat e Medina model was thickened. Despite being highly dependent on Western financial institutions and aid, Khan continued to promise to be independent from the West. His pre-election speeches before 2018 showcased the layers of crisis narrative he’d constructed, including Pakistan’s “slavery to the West” enabled by the corrupt elite leadership. He promised a foreign policy free of US influence, no IMF packages and the promise of a Riyasat-e-Medina (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). Even though Khan went to the IMF—despite promising that Pakistan would no longer take the “begging bowl” to the West—he maintained his anti-Western rhetoric (The Indian Express, 2019). He constantly blamed the US for spreading terrorism in Pakistan and the socio-economic ramifications of the ‘War on Terror.’ At one forum he irritably said: “From this platform, I want them all to know, the country that suffered the most, apart from Afghanistan, was Pakistan when we joined the US War on Terror after 9/11” (USNews, 2021).

The second, more prominent layer of this “Western induced” crisis that emerged during the early phase of Khan’s tenure was the moral dimension of “Western influence.” To explain away rising child abuse and assault against women, Khan chose to blame the “porn culture” which in his view was “imported” from the West (Tariq, 2021; Images, 2020). The idea of a moral panic is rooted in the misgiving of the Pakistani nation towards the West and Western culture. Khan capitalised on these sentiments by bringing them to the heart of political debates. He explained his convictions in an interview: “In the 1980s our economy was better than [that of] India and Bangladesh, but slowly they left us behind. And it happened because our moralities waned, and this decline started from the elites of our society. […] I always advise my youth to study the life of our Holy Prophet (PBUH) and understand how he ruled the Arab world. […] In your life, you will always have to choose between two paths. There will be a tougher path, which appears difficult, and the other will be the shortcut, which everyone else will opt for” (Samaa, 2021). 

This construction of a moral crisis aided Khan and was used to explain a lot of domestic issues and their ad-hoc solutions. For instance, when Pakistani women marched on the streets to express their anger over the state’s inability to protect them, Khan dismissed them as “misguided” or “Western influenced” (Images, 2020).  

This crisis was linked with the ‘intentions’ of the West and non-Muslim countries. Khan and the military (when working in unison) mainstreamed the idea of Pakistan facing “fifth generation warfare.” According to Khan, the PTI, and the establishment, Pakistan is being attacked by an “unseen” enemy via an information war. From accusation against India to accusations about the “Jewish lobby,” the information war became a major source of anxiety and concern about “outside threats,” which were blamed for issues ranging from running “misinformation campaigns” and “sponsoring” terrorists in Pakistan (Dawn, 2020). The military’s top brass endorsed this narrative. 

To pass on this “credible” information, the PTI and military media, Inter-Services Public Relation (ISPR), collaborated for the promotion of “truth.” This ranged from importing content from Muslim countries such as Turkey and televising pan-Islamist shows, to sponsoring content developers to showcase a ‘positive’ Pakistan (MMNews, 2021). At one such event, Khan urged young people to not rely on Hollywood for inspiration and focus on creating “original content.” He said: “I have seen the inception of Pakistan’s film industry [….] we started copying Indian films after some years. […]” He continued to push for the need of “original content” which he explained as: “If we want to project a soft image of Pakistan, then we need to promote [the country’s true identity]” (The News, 2021).

Another PTI intervention meant to tackle the moral crisis was to curb Western influence from universities by ensuring Islamist (Islamic) studies are taught at all levels of tertiary education and to introduce a mandatory course on the life of the Prophet (Hoodbhoy, 2021). In Khan’s words, he regrets Western influences and wants to counter them with such measures: “The English-medium [system of private British-inspired or run schools] evolved in such a way that there was less emphasis on education and more emphasis on creating ‘desi vilayati’ (local foreigners). The attitudes and mental slavery of another culture were absorbed” (Abbas, 2021). He further linked abuse and disrespect of women to perpetuation of Western morals, which could be countered by rooting moral society in the right life of Prophet Muhammad: “When I was growing up, nobody could have thought that acts like this would happen [in Pakistan]. I have been to the entire world; the respect for women I saw while growing up existed in Muslim countries but not in the West. A big reason for the destruction we’re seeing is that our children are not being brought up properly.”

This moral crisis became a permanent fixture of Khan’s interviews and debates. By 2021, Khan ensured that a department was created from scratch called the National Rahmatul-lil-Alameen Wa Khatam an-Nabiyyin Authority (Dawn, 2021a). This government institution is tasked with morally revamping Pakistan’s youth, and it has encouraged higher education institutes to research the “harmful effects” of the West on Pakistan and to study the life of Prophet Mohammad (The Friday Times, 2021). 

In addition to using different crises to gain support at home, Khan, like Erdogan, has presented himself as the ‘saviour’ of the ummah. His selection of the ‘cases’ he chooses to showcase is telling of his sincerity with the ummah (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). While he considers the genocide of Uighurs in China, also Muslims, an “internal matter” of China, Khan is proactive in calling out Israel’s occupation of Palestine, the global wave of Islamophobia, and issues like Kashmir (Kugelman, 2021). When Shia Hazaras were gunned down during a sectarian killing in Quetta, Khan delayed visiting the community and even called the grieving protestors “blackmailers” who were simply demanding justice for their killed kin (Hashim, 2021; Naya Daur, 2021). Thus, his advocacy for Muslims has always been selective and fed the narrative of civilizationalist populist crises. Islamophobia’s presence, especially in the post-9/11 environment, is undeniable. However, Khan has used the existence of oppression of or discrimination against Muslims to craft a collective identity of victimhood. He has positioned himself as the advocate of these Muslims (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a). 

In a firebrand speech in 2022, he proclaimed Muslim leaders’ lack of interest disappointing, as he positioned himself as the voice of the ummah: “This Islamophobia kept growing and the reason was—I am sorry to say—we the Muslim countries did not do anything to check this wrong narrative. How can any religion have anything to do with terrorism? How was Islam equated with terrorism? And once that happens, how does a man in the Western country differentiate between a moderate Muslim and a radical Muslim? How can he differentiate? Hence this man walks into a mosque and shoots everyone [New Zealand’s Christchurch shooting].  […] Unfortunately, what should have been done, but wasn’t…the heads of Muslim countries should have taken a stand on this. But a lot of heads of states said that they were moderates” (NDTV, 2022a).

This statement was linked to the development that Khan-led delegations ensured the United Nations General Assembly approved the resolution to assign March 15 as the International Day to Combat Islamophobia (Aljazeera, 2022). Following this decision, Khan congratulated the ummah: “Today, the UN has finally recognised the grave challenge confronting the world: Islamophobia, respect for religious symbols and practices, and curtailing systematic hate speech and discrimination against Muslims. The next challenge is to ensure implementation of this landmark resolution” (Aljazeera, 2022). 

Khan’s anti-Western rhetoric and civilisationalist crises peaked in April 2022. After a turbulent three years in office, with a vote of no confidence, the National Assembly forced Khan out of office. This event took place after Khan had been head-on with the establishment over the selection of the new head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) (Ali, 2021). Gradually, by April 2022, the PTI’s relations with the establishment had soured, the joint opposition had gained momentum, and the party’s performance was being questioned by many due to skyrocketing inflation. As Khan’s grip on power was loosening, he used the biggest crisis of all to stay in office. While it did not help him stay in office, it has ensured that he remains a relevant political force in the country. His narratives ensured PTI’s comfortable victory in the Punjab by elections of 2022 (Latif, 2022). 

In April 2022, when all attempts to revoke his disqualification failed, Khan took to hosting online, in person, and televised transmissions. In each of these highly watched and attended gatherings and recordings, he parroted a similar story. He argued that the vote of non-confidence was a “sazish” (conspiracy) against Pakistan by a “foreign country” (Iwanek, 2022). In the initial period, Khan talked about the existence of a letter sent to the foreign office and claimed that due to his “noncompromising” attitude, the foreign powers wanted him out and allied with the opposition to get rid of him. This crisis was turned into a national security issue and a question of people’s “self-respect” and right to “self-determination” (Bol News, 2022; The Indian Express, 2022). Khan used the ideas of honour, nationalism, and even an Islamist clash of civilisations to build this narrative. While blaming the US for the vote of no confidence, Khan told people: “I am telling my nation today that this is our status. We are a nation of 220 million and another country—and they are not giving any reason—[is issuing threats]” (NDTV, 2022b). He stirred anger, betrayal, and anxiety in his audiences. Just as he had mobilised the masses in 2013 and 2018, Khan continued to use crises to gain massive support (ABC News, 2022). 

The ongoing crisis in Pakistan combines the previous ones. It links the untrusty West with the corrupt Pakistani politicians in a conspiracy against the ‘will of the people.’ It is a manifestation of the ‘threats’ that Khan has been talking about for years—threats to both the country and Islam. The US has been named as the country trying to “interfere” with domestic politics (Baloch, 2022). Using Islamism, Khan labelled the opposition as Mir Jafars and Mir Sadiqs (both men aided the British in annexing parts of India by betraying their Sultan/Nawab). At one of his recent rallies, he lashed out: “Everyone will remember how you devastated the country through foreign conspiracy. Who were Mir Jafar and Mir Sadiq? These were the people who made their countrymen slaves of the British.” 

He added: “I am here today because […] we got a message from another country. For a free country, a message like this is [not only] against its prime minister but is also against the country [itself].” He linked the “corrupt parties” with this alleged conspiracy: “…they [the opposition] parties had links with them.” He continued: “The most disturbing thing is that they [foreign forces] have links with the people through whom the conspiracy [the vote of no confidence] happened. They are stooges, and stooges means loyal slaves.”

These narratives have been a key to Khan remaining in popular favour despite questionable performance since 2013. Using pre-existing flashpoints and discontent, he’s drawn many Pakistanis to his online and offline appearances. This mammoth support is due to the civilisational ‘threat’ faced by Pakistan and has enabled Khan to question the military, which is seen as a traditional defender of the country. Since April 2022, he has actively blamed the military for not supporting him and remaining “neutral” as foreign countries act against Pakistan’s welfare (The Express Tribune, 2022).

Conclusion 

Much like Lady Macbeth, Erdogan and Khan have used the power of narrative mixed with emotions to shape their countries’ political trajectories in their favour. Erdogan and Khan, while operating independently, share hallmark characteristics of Islamist populist civilisationalism. Both abuse historic, political, and economic rifts in society to emotionally charge the masses; they do this by either manufacturing a civilisationalist crisis or framing an existing crisis in a civilisational populist style. Both populists rely on anti-Western conspiracy theories and dangerous sentiments of hate, anger, moral panic, anxiety, injustice, victimhood, and disappointment to highlight various aspects of their crises. Their manufactured crises are not entirely doom and gloom, as they offer hope and resolution in the form of the populists and their parties as the leaders, saviours and protectors of the ummah against ‘the Crusader West’ that is ‘hostile’ to Islam and Muslims. 

As the cases demonstrate, both leaders take pride in tackling the problems. However, their tackling of ‘the problems’ is quite selective and superficial. Thus, the crises create an illusion that the populists will deliver a better tomorrow or guarantee justice to the wronged. In reality, they are widening society’s insecurities and divisions. Erdogan in the last twenty years has divided Turkish society on religious and political lines, which is as oppressive as the Kemalist re-construction of a secular society. Khan has capitalized on pre-existing Sunni majority conservatism and distrust of non-Muslim countries. This has earned him political victories, but the social fabric of Pakistan—always volatile and discriminatory towards the marginalized—is as fractured as ever. Today, people in Pakistan have lost trust in the state’s key institutions, and a segment feels at ease contributing all negative things to ‘Western conspiracies.’ We find that these populists are not original creators of these crises but opportunistic users. Crises—real or imagined and manufactured—are instrumentalized for political purposes. This enables these populists to blur the lines between fiction and reality, as they try to turn situations in their favour.


Acknowledgements: This research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant, DP220100829, Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


 

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Turkish Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Van province of Turkey as holding a holy Quran on April 14, 2015.

Islamist Populists in Power: Promises, Compromises and Attacks on Democratic Institutions

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Ahmed, Zahid; Bashirov, Galib; Morieson, Nicholas & Shakil, Kainat. (2022). “Islamist Populists in Power: Promises, Compromises and Attacks on Democratic Institutions.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). August 7, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0013

 

Abstract

This paper comparatively examines the ruling religious populist governments in Turkey and Pakistan through a theoretical framework that focuses on populists’ promises, their compromises, and their attacks on democratic institutions. Through our three-legged framework, we examine how these religious populists behave in power and how strategic necessities, the realities of governing, and structural constraints shape their policies. Similar to the other populists in other parts of the world, before coming to power, Islamist populists make sweeping promises to the people and quick fixes to major problems of the country—most famously, quick and substantial economic development. While they may want to retain their uncompromising style and lofty goals, the realities of governing force populists to make serious compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ and on their values once they are in power. Finally, like other authoritarian politicians, Islamist populists attack formal institutions of democracy such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society; they politicize them, evacuate them, and eventually capture them from within.

Keywords: Religion, populism, Islamism, authoritarianism, populists in power, democratic backsliding, Turkey, Pakistan

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Zahid S. Ahmed*, Galib Bashirov**, Nicholas Morieson & Kainat Shakil

Introduction

The rise of political populism among ruling elites in different parts of the world—but especially in Asia, Europe, and the United States—has raised questions about the durability and resilience of democracy as a political order. This experience is especially relevant to Pakistan and Turkey, as both countries have a contentious history between religion, democracy, and authoritarianism via military rule. More importantly, Islamist populist actors have captured political power in both countries: Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Imran Khan in Pakistan. This begs the question: How do Islamist populist leaders behave in power? This research will examine the practices of Islamist populists in power to reveal the main patterns of their behaviour—and the implications for democratic institutions.

This paper has three aims. First, it attempts to comprehend the main features of the ruling Islamist populist governments in the Muslim world by comparing populist actors in Turkey and Pakistan. The rise of populism in Turkey and Pakistan is a sign of a broader phenomenon where populist actors have been threatening democratic institutions and norms via populist discourses. However, comparative studies of populisms in the Muslim world are almost absent in the literature. Moreover, the relationship between Islamism and populism is relatively understudied (Hadiz, 2018; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). Scholars have described populists in Europe as ‘hijacking’ religion or as secular actors that instrumentalize religion to win and keep power (Marzouki et al., 2016; Morieson, 2017). In Islamic majority nations, something similar yet more complex appears to be taking place. Indeed, as this paper shows, Islamist populists in Pakistan and Turkey draw upon Islam when they make promises to defend their respective nations from foreign forces ‘seeking to destroy the nation’ and its people and when they promise to rejuvenate their nations via a return to Islamic values and ways of life. They also, at times, portray themselves as ‘holy’ Islamic figures with the power to ‘save’ their peoples from their religious enemies. However, as the paper shows, they are also willing to compromise their Islamic values to remain in government. 

We present a theoretical framework that examines Islamist populists in power, focusing on their promises, their compromises, and their attacks on democratic institutions. Our framework allows for an examination of how populists behave in power as well as how strategic necessities, the realities of governing, and structural constraints shape their policies. We show that similar to the other populists, Islamist populists make sweeping promises—before coming to power—involving giving power to the people, quick fixes to major problems, and of widespread economic development. These promises, the paper shows, are designed to provoke an emotional response in voters and to elicit feelings of fear of cultural disintegration and anger toward ‘elites’ but also nostalgia for a past golden age and hope for a better future. However, while they may want to retain their uncompromising style and lofty goals, the realities of governing forces populists to make serious compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ and on their values. Finally, populists attack formal institutions of democracy such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society; they politicize them, evacuate them, and eventually capture them from within.

This study provides a fresh analysis on the impacts of Islamist populism on democracy in the Muslim world. This study will provide a systematic analysis focusing on populists’ promises, rejection of compromise, and authoritarianism vis-à-vis their use of socio-cultural elements. In doing so, it will also demonstrate how the Islamist populist governments in Pakistan and Turkey have manoeuvred around principles of democracy and political accountability—sometimes subtly, sometimes openly—to dilute its safeguards and erode democratic institutions. 

In what follows, we first document the rise of populism in Turkey and Pakistan. Then we introduce our conceptual framework based on the populists’ promises, compromises, and attacks on democratic institutions. Following this, we comparatively examine the Turkish and Pakistani cases by applying this framework. The final section summarizes our findings.

Rise of Populism in Turkey and Pakistan

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

In this article, we follow the performative-relational approach to populism that has been developed by Ostiguy et al. (2020). This approach incorporates socio-cultural and style elements and focuses on performances, discourses, and speech acts. The performative-relational approach combines theatre, representation, embodiment, and making the marginal visible (Ostiguy et. al. 2020). In particular, it examines how the leader embodies the people and their demands through certain performances such as language, clothing, bodily image, and other socio-cultural references. The leader’s style generally challenges socio-cultural standards of ‘proper behaviour,’ hence low politics (Ostiguy et. al, 2020), and is characterised by “bad manners” (Moffitt, 2016). The bad (subversive) manners find resonance in the populists’ dirty institutionality when they are in power. The dirty institutionality refers to personalism, decisionism, rule-erosion, and antagonism.

Since at least 2011, Turkey has undergone a dual process of democratic backsliding amid the emergence of a new, authoritarian regime under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, Turkey’s overall democracy score dropped from 5.73 in 2011 to 4.09 in 2019 (The Economist, 2019). Turkey’s political system has been transformed into a presidential system that has given most executive and legislativefunctions to President Erdogan, eliminating the principle of separation of powers as well most checks and balances on executive authority (Tas, 2015). In addition, an important component of the ruling-AKP’s political strategy has been populism (Yilmaz, 2018). In Turkey, the AKP government’s adherence to populism has been well documented by several scholars (Aytaç and Öniş, 2014; Taş, 2020; Baykan, 2021). 

Erdogan depicted himself as the man of the people, the son of a modest migrant family in Istanbul, and a devout Muslim educated in an Imam and Preacher School. In his own self mythology, he “knows the streets of city,” has devoted his life to working for Islamist political organisations and has suffered for his political ideas. In the Erdoganist narrative, the Kemalists and Westernised people are cast as evil elites (Beyaz Türkler, or White Turks) who are out of touch with the ‘real,’ authentic values of ‘the people,’ and they are charged by Erdogan with historical horrors against simple people—all committed in the name of Westernisation (Çapan and Zarakol, 2019: 276). In this narrative, the White Turks are framed as responsible for anything that goes wrong in the country (Yılmaz, 2017: 499). 

Erdogan’s charismatic leadership played an important role in enabling the AKP to increase its popularity and remain in power (Turk, 2018). He presented himself as the “voice of deprived ‘real people’ and the champion of their interests against the old elites” (Dincsahin, 2012). He also increased his popularity with the working class through such populist acts as having his hair “cut in the poor neighbourhood where he grew up,” which helped to show that his “newly acquired power has not changed him” (Kirdiş and Drhimeur, 2016: 606). Erdogan’s peculiar populist style carried important similarities with Hugo Chavez and Rafael Correa’s in Venezuela and Ecuador, respectively (Selcuk, 2016). Castaldo (2018), on the other hand, claims that Erdogan’s populism has allowed him to acquire unchecked control over state institutions and use this power against the opposition.

The AKP has been particularly successful in harnessing the negative emotions of the Turkish public. Yilmaz, for example, notes that negative emotions such as fear have been the dominant constitutive components of modern Turkish nationhood and among the deep conviction of Turkey’s nation-builders, who attempted to create a homogenous nation of desired citizens by assimilating or eliminating ethnic, religious, and political minorities (Yilmaz, 2021a). Yilmaz argues that the AKP draws upon “fear, anger, rage, desire to own the homeland forever,” a “need for a smile,” a desire to “sacrifice blood for the country, and desire to enjoy freedom of the God-worshipping nation,” along with feelings of “victimhood, resentment and siege mentalities” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 3) in order to build its political power and support for Erdogan’s rule.

Erdogan’s populism also carried an anti-institutionalist attitude. He opposed horizontal accountability structures such as the judiciary and the Constitutional Court and blamed them for the ills of society. Erdogan asserted the moral and normative supremacy of the national will (Yabanci, 2016; Selcuk, 2016), and, acting as if he was the embodiment of the national will, he vilified his critics such as Kurdish nationalists and Gulenists, as traitors and the “enemies of the state” (Gencoglu-Onbasi, 2016).

In Pakistan, Imran Khan “rose to power on a classic populist platform” by presenting his party as the non-corrupt alternative to Pakistan’s two biggest political parties of the era, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) (Afzal, 2019: 1). With anti-Western and pro-Taliban rhetoric, Khan’s populism has been labelled both left wing and right wing. For example, his pro-poor social welfare policies draw from the left, and so, too, does his foreign policy, which aims at reducing dependence on the West (Yilmaz, 2020). Based on an assessment of the 2018 elections that brought Khan into power in Pakistan, Shah describes Pakistan as having a “pseudo-democratic façade covering the reality of continued military tutelage” (2019: 128). There continues to be criticism of Khan’s populism as not being pure because of the military backing during and after the 2018 elections. This is mainly because military dictators directly ruled the country for nearly three decades, and the military continues to sustain its influence in domestic politics (Ganguly, 2009), as well as the fact that the Khan government has been close to the military leadership (Afzal, 2019). 

There are many examples which show how the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government benefited military leadership. This includes the much-criticized case of the current army chief’s extension in 2019 (Afzal, 2019). In addition, there are numerous examples of former military generals taking up civilian jobs. For example, a retired brigadier was declared the head of the National Database and Registration Authority (Pakistan Today, 2021). In 2019, a former three-star general was appointed to head the newly established China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority, a former air marshal to head Pakistan International Airlines, and a two-star general to head the country’s space agency. Citing these and many more examples, critics of the PTI government call it a “puppet” of Pakistan’s army (Khan, 2021). 

Imran Khan, whilst in office, was certainly supported by the military; however, this does not contradict his populist character. In fact, military establishments have historically supported right-wing populists in other countries, including Brazil and Mexico (Scharpf, 2020; Yilmaz and Saleem, 2021). Imran Khan is another example of a military establishment deciding to support a populist party in a win-win situation, in which the military establishment maintains its unconstitutional power vis-à-vis civilian authorities, and the populist party gains necessary political power in a highly fragmented political environment. 

Since the start of his political career, Khan has targeted the opposition parties—the PML-N and PPP—as the corrupt elites (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2022; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021a; 2021b). Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) has also targeted other political parties/leadership as friends of the West and India. One key aspect of Khan’s populism is antagonism towards the global powers and the West, especially the US. Like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Khan consistently emphasizes an anti-imperialist discourse in his speeches and statements. Pakistan, according to Khan, has always been subservient to foreigners: first the British and then the Americans. At the heart of Khan’s rhetoric is an emphasis on Pakistan’s sovereignty—the idea that Pakistan should be an independent nation unaffected by foreign influence (Aslam, 2015). 

Khan emphasized the concept of “Islamic socialism” to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Pakistani Muslim population. As such, Khan’s “most fervent new supporters were the poor and working class of Karachi” (Judah, 2018). His emphasis on “Islamic socialism” helped him to dismiss the policies implemented by former Pakistani politicians and elites. For Khan, “the corrupt political elite is trying to protect itself. We have hit rock bottom. The poor are getting poorer, and a tiny number of people are getting richer” (Campbell, 2018). Benefitting from rampant anti-Westernism in Pakistan, Khan has also advocated for the revival of Islamic values. This has been reflected through his infatuation with the Muslim-era under the Ottoman Empire as well as broadcasting a famous Turkish soap opera, Dirilis Ertugrul (English: Resurrection Ertugrul), which airs with Urdu dubbing on Pakistan Television (MEM, 2020). 

Besides using religion in domestic politics, Khan’s foreign policy is also inspired by Islamic identity. Khan associated himself with historical religious figures with references to the Ottoman Empire and the state of Medina dating back to the era of Prophet Muhammad (Bukhari, 2018). Taggart (2004) believes that this kind of association with religious figures also helps bolster support in the populist religious “heartland.” 

Other issues that were prominent in the PTI’s agenda were linked to the ‘War on Terror’ and how that had brought both losses and shame to Pakistan (Aslam, 2015). For Imran Khan, ‘puppet governments’ in Pakistan received US aid which, in turn, destroyed the country (Jeffries, 2011). In contrast, Khan has portrayed the PTI as a party with ‘pure’ intentions for the country and an antagonistic stance toward the ‘West.’ For example, before being elected to office, Khan promised that he would not, unlike past governments, take the “begging bowl” to the International Monitory Fund (IMF) (Bokhari, 2019). In addition, during the US’ Afghanistan withdrawal, Khan made clear that Pakistan would “absolutely not” allow its airbases to be used by the US (Zompa, 2021).

Populism is becoming increasingly influential in the Muslim world, particularly in Muslim democracies. Turkey and Pakistan were, for some time, considered as model democracies in the Muslim world. However, as the AKP experience showed, when combined with populism, Muslim democracies may falter. It appears that Pakistan is following a similar trajectory with Imran Khan increasingly using populist rhetoric to erode democratic institutions. Comparing these two cases makes sense—not only because of such similarities between them, but also because the insights gained from this exercise can be applied to other cases in the Muslim world, such as Malaysia, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Morocco.  

Theoretical Framework: Populists in Power

Hugo Chavez is seen during his last campaign for presidency. Photo: Luis Arismendi

Between 1990 and 2018, the number of populists in power around the world has increased a remarkable fivefold, from four to 20. This includes countries not only in Latin America and in Eastern and Central Europe—where populism has traditionally been most prevalent—but also in Asia and Western Europe. (Kyle and Gultchin, 2018). There is a new and growing literature on populists in power, thanks to the increasing electoral success of populist parties and leaders in the Western world. The literature in Europe has mainly focused on populist political parties, since the European political system is mainly dominated by political parties (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2007, 2015; Kriesi and Pappas, 2015; Pappas, 2014, 2019; Enyedi and Whitefield, 2021; Schwörer, 2021).

Whether these parties are successful at fulfilling their promises remains unknown. However, there is no doubt that they can sustain their respective governments in power, sometimes over long periods. Albertazzi and McDonnell (2007, 2015) investigated Lega Nord in Italy and PDL in Switzerland in this respect. Both parties were junior coalition members in broader conservative-ruling coalition governments for several years. These otherwise marginal right-wing parties have become acceptable partners for mainstream parties in government. The authors’ findings contradict the abovementioned consensus and reveal that these populist parties are neither inevitably episodic nor are they destined to failure in government. They can introduce key policies in line with their core ideologies and election promises. They can focus on the issues that their supporters care about. They may also increase their votes once in government and learn from their previous experiences and mistakes in power. 

Nonetheless, these parties face a peculiar dilemma in power: they may need to let go of their flashy, uncompromising style and learn how to make compromises in politics. Moreover, choosing to participate in government alongside other parties requires them to field suitable candidates for bureaucratic positions in the government, a resource that they may not have.

The literature shows that populists in power, as in the case of Rafael Correa in Ecuador (De la Torre and Ortiz, 2016) “can act strategically and consistently to both head off and undermine possible opposition.” Correa has been able to co-opt political actors by bringing them into the regime and by establishing an informal alliance with a great part of the business community. He also attacked social movement organizations and political activists and has been at war against privately owned media and created state-owned media outlets that are sympathetic to the government and its populist discourse. Correa also kept alive the populist myth of the people confronting powerful elites by constantly campaigning, establishing a ‘permanent campaign.’ Correa’s project was also built on the notions of national sovereignty, critiques of US imperialism, and attempts to create alternative supranational Latin American institutions without US influence.

Correa is continuing a rich vein of Latin American populism of which Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is the most recent prominent example. Originally, ‘Chavismo’ was a democratic response to widespread failures of democratic governance such as corruption and inequality. As Hawkins (2016) argues, Chavez’s populism was “unusually intense and consistent.” Similar to Correa, Chavez’s populism was consistent in that it manifested high levels of populism from Chavez’s first days as a democratic politician until his death as an autocrat. He consistently followed an aggressive foreign policy against US imperialism in Latin America and led the ALBA initiative that brought together leftist, populist Latin American governments—such as Correa’s—for this purpose. 

Traveling across the Atlantic, Batory (2016) argues that in contrast to populist right-wing parties in Western Europe, Fidesz was the major, mainstream centre-right alternative party in Hungary for two decades. This is similar to the mainstream centre-right phenomenon in Turkey. During the 2000s, Fidesz refashioned itself into a vote-winning machine based on its claim to be champion of the common people’s interests against foreign interests. After gaining a majority in the government in 2010, Fidesz single-handedly adopted a new constitution and electoral law that curtailed the power of the independent judiciary, media, and civil society organizations. Fidesz utilized now-well-known populist narratives that portrayed the country’s external enemies as conspiring with domestic forces wanting to pull the country back to a discredited, dark past. The party identified elitism and liberalism as its ‘other.’ 

These cases show that populists can remain popular in government without moderating their rhetoric or falling apart, and in fact, they might well own too many issues to diffuse or mimic their appeal. 

For this comparative analysis of populist governments in power in Turkey and Pakistan, we present a theoretical framework focusing on their Promises, their Compromises, and their Attacks on Democratic Institutions. Our framework fits the performative-relational approach toward populism. The three-dimensional analysis promises an intellectually rigorous framework for this study. 

Promises

To examine how populists behave in power and what makes that behaviour distinctive, we start with looking at their promises during election campaigns. ‘Promise of fullness’ is an important component of populist performance (Ostiguy et al., 2021). Populist performance promises to remove obstacles that prevent the community from redemption. While making promises is a normal trait of electoral politics, populist promises are different due to populists’ rejection of any limits on their claims to embody the will of the people (Espejo, 2015: 61), the contradictory character of their promises, and populists’ propensity to make grandiose promises characterized by quick fixes to major issues. 

An important ‘promise’ that populists make involves bringing ‘democracy,’ i.e. ‘power to the people.’ They favour ‘direct democracy’ and promise to put ‘the people’ in power, at the expense of technocrats and the political establishment. They promise a better world through action by the sovereign people—and that they can deliver on this promise, because they belong to the people (rather than the establishment). This usually means getting things done through majoritarianism. In making this claim, populists overlook the fact that it is not quite possible for ‘we, the people’ to combine diverse interests and opinions into a coherent collective will. Despite populist leaders’ claims to the contrary, divisions remain within societies in terms of opinions, interests, and aspirations. 

Populist promises are also characterized by bombastic rhetoric and grandiosity that often sounds too good to be true. Nonetheless, whether it’s promises of sweeping economic development or quick fixes to major problems, populists catch voters’ attention—and in some cases, their votes. For example, when Hugo Chavez came to power in Venezuela in 1998, he promised to eradicate corruption and tackle the country’s pressing economic problems, including poverty and social inequality. By 2015, Venezuela was languishing in one of the biggest economic crises in Latin American history.

Religion-based, civilisational identity politics is often an element in populist promises and discourses (Yilmaz, Morieson, Demir, 2021; Brubaker, 2017). For example, European right-wing populists often claim that Muslim immigration places Judeo-Christian values under threat from migrants who fail to assimilate (Morieson, 2021; Cap, 2018; Zúquete, 2017; Ádám and Bozóki, 2016; Baker-Brian, 2011). Simultaneously, populists also promise a solution to the ‘crises’ if they are voted into power, insofar as they promise to rejuvenate their respective nations by returning to the Judeo-Christian tradition that made it great (Yilmaz, Morieson, Demir, 2021; Damhuis, 2019). 

This trend of promising to restore the homeland to its lost glory while ‘otherizing’ segments of society is found outside the West, too. The ‘saffron tide’ in India and East Asia has seen local politicians instrumentalize Hinduism and Buddhism (Artinger and Rowand, 2021; Jayasinghe, 2021; Chatterji et al., 2020; McDonnell and Cabrera, 2019; Peker, 2019). In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, for the last two terms, created an antagonistic environment for non-Hindus and most of its discriminatory policies—from ‘love jihad’ to citizenship laws—are justified by claims that they are part of the revival of the great and ancient Hindu kingdoms (Saleem, Yilmaz and Chacko, 2021; Saleem, 2021). Muslim democracies have also seen an increase in populist politicians using religiously driven crises and promises (Yilmaz, 2021a; Yilmaz, Morieson, Demir, 2021; Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021c).

Compromises

Populist leaders demand transparency; they denounce backroom deals, shady compromises, complicated procedures, secret treaties, and technicalities that only experts can understand. They abhor pragmatic party politics and its compromises. These issues tap into a deep vein of public disillusionment with the political establishment. Moreover, the polarising and divisive nature of populist appeals prevent negotiations and compromise among contending political actors (Panizza and Stavrakakis, 2021). Moreover, populism presents a Manichean outlook, in which there are only friends and foes. Opponents are not simply people with different priorities and values; they are evil. Populism’s black-and-white views and uncompromising stance inevitably leads to a polarised society, and its majoritarian attitude denies legitimacy to opponents’ views, weakening the rights of minorities.

Consistency would require that populists continue this uncompromising stance once ensconced in power. However, once in power, populists are bound by the same structural limitations and necessities that affect all mainstream parties. This means that they must negotiate with other parties, groups, and countries in an increasingly interdependent environment. Once in power, populists pursue pragmatic, opportunistic policies that go against their promises of radical change, and they make compromises with the domestic and international actors that they previously criticized. 

Populists also do not abstain from making compromises to their ‘enemies’ once they are in power. Populism is a thin ideology that divides society into two opposing camps, the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’ (Mudde, 2017). Populists create enemies in their discourses during election cycles. Despite their idealistic claims otherwise, populists are political actors who pursue power. Once in power, their main goal is to stay in power, which requires them to make pragmatic decisions, including compromises. In this context, populists make ‘friends’ or ‘allies’ from some of their previously declared ‘enemies’ for the sake of gaining political favours.

Research on populism also point at populists’ pragmatic and opportunistic approach to political issues and concepts once they are in power. Populists in power have a similar incentive structure to all other politicians. As such, they strive to stay in power as much as possible. To do so, they are willing to ignore their earlier promises and make compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ if they consider this to be necessary. In order to generate an illusion of consistency for their followers, populists in power usually implement non-radical policies and try to masque them with radical rhetoric. 

Attacks on Democratic Institutions

As mentioned above, the populist leader’s style generally challenges socio-cultural standards of ‘proper behaviour,’ (Ostiguy et. al 2021) hence low politics and is characterised by “bad manners” (Moffitt, 2016). The bad (subversive) manners of the populist finds resonance in their “dirty institutionality” when they are in power. The dirty institutionality refers to personalism, decisionism, rule-erosion, and antagonism (Panizza et al, 2020). Levitsky and Loxton (2013) argue that populism—the election of a personalistic outsider who mobilizes voters with an anti-establishment appeal—is a major catalyst for the emergence of competitive authoritarianism. Lacking experience with representative democratic institutions, possessing an electoral mandate to destroy the existing elite, and facing institutions of horizontal accountability controlled by that elite, populists have an incentive to launch plebiscitary attacks on institutions of horizontal accountability. Where they succeed, weak democracies almost invariably slide into competitive authoritarianism. Thus, populists in power invariably attack democratic institutions. As a recent report by Grzymala-Busse et al. (2020: 1) mentioned, “Populists undermine formal institutions such as the courts, legislatures, and regulatory agencies as creations of the ‘corrupt elite.’ As winners of democratic elections, they fail to constrain themselves and instead hollow out and politicize formal institutions of liberal democracy.”

In this article, we will focus on three sets of institutions that populists most famously attack: the judiciary (the Constitution, regulatory agencies, laws, judges, lawyers), the media, (media organizations, journalists, the internet, social media), and civil society (NGOs, INGOs, trade unions). Our discussion will focus specifically on how Erdogan and Khan attacked, captured, and/or dismantled these institutions. In our discussion, we will examine how specifically the populismof these actors informed their actions and led to their eventual success at corrupting these institutions. In particular, we will discuss populists’ politicization, capture, and hollowing out of the institutions. 

Comparative Analysis of Populists in Turkey and Pakistan

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

Promises 

A notorious trope of populist discourse is the promise of ‘direct democracy,’ with populists framed as direct representatives of ‘the people.’ In Turkey, Erdogan is notorious for constantly articulating such statements contrasting himself and his party to the Kemalists, which he considers the elitist, anti-religious group. During various election cycles, Erdogan referred to himself and supporters as ‘Black Turks’ (who were wronged by the elites, by the ‘White Turks’ who tend to be Kemalist and secular). The trope of the Black Turk is well-worn ground for Erdogan, a staple of his self-branding as the great outsider who is removed from the politics of 20th century one-party rule and corruption. He has continuously invoked victimhood narratives that hail the conservative Turks (his base) as the real people who historically suffered under the Kemalist secularist regime (Demiralp, 2012; Yilmaz, 2021). The general notion is that conservative Turks in Turkey have historically been victimized by the Kemalist elites. 

In his bid to promote Turkey as a ‘great power,’ and—more importantly—himself as a great leader, Erdogan also criticized the structure of the UN Security Council that is composed of five major powers (the US, Russia, China, France, and the UK) for failing to represent the oppressed people of the world, including (and, again, most importantly) Muslims. He has famously declared, on countless occasions, that “the world is greater than five” (in reference to the five members of the UNSC). He has also exclaimed that “the world is greater than five; it is certainly greater than one [referring to the US].”

Moreover, sweeping, lofty promises have been the staple of Erdogan’s—and the AKP’s—election campaigns. On numerous occasions since 2010, Erdogan and the AKP promised to make Turkey one of top 10 economies in the world. Erdogan and the AKP also made promises of producing national cars, airplanes, and jet fighters—even falsely declaring on several occasions that they have already been produced. In the 2011 parliamentary election cycle, the AKP put adverts in many cities that declared “Our National Airplane is in the Air.” The AKP made further announcements about the “National Airplane,” this time called the TRJET, in the 2015 election cycle, claiming that it will be in air by late 2019. However, no step has been taken even to make a factory yet (Evrensel, 2019). 

In Pakistan, Khan has often claimed that as a Western educated and famous cricketer, he could have easily chosen to live a life of luxury but instead chose to serve the people. He promised to live a “simple life” after becoming the prime minister and has portrayed himself as living simply by selling his luxury cars (Klasra, 2018). Equally, he presents himself as a common citizen who wears simple non-Western clothing and is connected to the lower segments of society. 

Promises of quick fixes and sweeping economic development have been a standard part of Khan’s discourse. His big promise has been to build a New Pakistan (Naya Pakistan), which has several components: fixing the status quo of destructive politics, never seeking compromises for the sake of power, never compromising on the principles of justice and change, building an Islamic welfare state, and entrenching the rule of law (PTI, 2018: 6-7). The constant references to Riyasat-e-Madina demonstrate a religion-based populist approach through which Khan has been promoting the idea of a “sacred” Islamic welfare system to address the grievances of people failed by the previous “corrupt” rulers (Hassan, 2020; Yilmaz, Morieson and Demir, 2021). While speaking in favour of tax reforms by his government, he stated, “All successful societies are run by people making money [and] paying taxes and those being spent on health and education; that is the state of Medina” (Dawn, 2020a). Another dimension of Khan’s Islamist promises features a ‘moral’ society. Over the course of his premiership, he emphasised the “moral corruption” of youth under alleged Western influences. For instance, talking about rising sex crimes in the country, Khan blamed Hollywood: “I gradually realised that we have scholarship to determine where [do these crimes stem from]. They come from Hollywood, then move to Bollywood and the same culture is later adopted by our people” (Express Tribune, 2021).

In another controversial interview Khan blamed the West for spreading the trend of divorce and open sexuality, which he termed a danger to Pakistani youth and society: “When I was 18, I went to Britain for the first time; it wasn’t the society it has now become. It was the beginning of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I saw it with my own eyes as the immorality increased. First with adult films that started spreading widely. It started appearing in the media. What happened with that? There was a direct impact on the family system (Bol TV, 2021).

As part of his promised Riyasat-e-Madina, he promised the nation a pious youth inspired by the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad that would counter these “Western” influences (Geo TV, 2021).

Khan also promised to end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days once he came to power (The Express Tribune, 2012). Additionally, he would bring “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The News, 2020). On several occasions, he blamed former ruling parties for taking turns for corruption (Zafar and Karni, 2018). Referring to them during the election campaign of 2018, Khan said, “the self-proclaimed kings go abroad and buy palaces and expensive properties. They siphon funds from here, and their kids sit abroad on billions in businesses” (The News, 2018). Since his ousting from office following a non-confidence vote, Khan has increasingly linked the PPP- and PML-N-led coalition with the historical figures of Mir Jaffar and Mir Saddique[1] (Dawn, 2022a). In one of the many addresses, where he used the term “boot polisher” to describe the current Prime Minister, Khan said: “Have some shame, Shehbaz Sharif. You are the Mir Jafar that I talk about” (Dawn, 2022a).

He has promised ‘the people’ that he would hold the ‘imported government’ accountable for acting as “stooges” for “foreign” governments (Express Tribune, 2022; Iwanek, 2022). Khan’s rationale behind losing power rests on an explanation in which he blames internal “traitors” and “Western forces,” who he claims are the civilizational enemies of the Muslim population of Pakistan—and by extension, himself. He has promised revenge against “the traitors” as he continues to pressure for fresh elections, saying: “I’m giving this imported government six days to declare new elections. Otherwise, I will re-enter Islamabad with 2 million people” (Mogul & Saifi, 2022).

Since his removal from office, Khan has been making new promises to hold the corrupt accountable, rid Pakistan of “foreign influences,” and to improve the lives of the common people. 

Compromises 

Once in power, populists pursue pragmatic, opportunistic policies that go against their promises of radical change. They make compromises to the domestic and international establishment and institutions that they initially criticized. One of the most obvious cases of compromise by the AKP and Erdogan was their alliance with one of the Kemalist establishment parties, the Turkish nationalist MHP, after 2015. For over a decade—since 2002—the MHP was one of the fiercest critics of the AKP and Erdogan. The tacit alliance between the AKP and MHP emerged following the June 2015 elections, in which AKP lost its majority in parliament for the first time. The alliance was made official in 2018 as the “People’s Alliance” to support Erdogan’s election as president of Turkey. This was in stark contrast to the 2014 presidential elections, when the MHP supported the opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, together with the Kemalist CHP. The AKP’s alliance with the MHP is a major U-turn for Erdogan and the party and constitutes a major compromise.

Another one of Erdogan’s major U-turns happened in regard to the Ergenekon trials. Started in 2008, the trials included high-profile Kemalist military officials, opposition lawmakers, and members of Kemalist civil society associations who were alleged to have conspired against the ruling AKP by plotting a military coup. Despite serious irregularities regarding the legal proceedings of the case, Erdogan, who once called himself the “prosecutor” of the trials, and the AKP government fervently supported the trials, as they were aimed at Kemalist establishment figures who had long dominated Turkish politics. Nonetheless, Erdogan changed his stance on Ergenekon after his implicit alliance with the faith-based Gulen Movement, which was fully supportive of the problematic legal cases, faltered in late 2013. Not only did Erdogan dismiss the original Ergenekon trials, but he also claimed that it the Gulen Movement became the “neo-Ergenekon” after 2014 (Filkins, 2013; Erdogan, 2014).

In a similar vein, Erdogan’s other major U-turn and compromise happened in relation to Israel, as exemplified by the case of the Gaza Flotilla Raid. In 2010, Israel stopped ships from breaking the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip and delivering aid to Gaza. The Turkish-owned ship Mavi Marmara was caught in a military operation that resulted in the deaths of ten Turkish activists. This raid led to a diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey that lasted six years. In the wake of the raid, Erdogan asserted that Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara was a casus belli (an act that justifies a war). Rather than making a war against Israel, in 2016, he signed a deal that restored full ambassador-level relations with Israel. In the wake of the agreement, Erdogan this time blamed the organizers of the Gaza freedom flotilla, who criticized the agreement between the two countries. 

In Pakistan, Imran Khan has also contradicted his own positions. This has been most visible in relation to his opposition to the Mullahs and how he has dealt with them in politics (Khan, 2011: 53). Despite his clear anti-Mullah stance, Khan decided to form an alliance with the biggest and oldest Islamist party in Pakistan, Jamat-e-Islami, to form a provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that lasted for five years, from 2013-18 (Samaa TV, 2018). During the popular dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad in 2014, he formed an alliance with another religious party called the Pakistan Awami Tehreek, led by a cleric, Dr. Tahir ul Qadri (Shahid, 2017). His government led the Islamization of education and curricula: in June 2020, the Punjab government made Quran learning compulsory for university students (Ahmed, 2020).

In Khan’s anti-Western rhetoric, a significant focus is on how the West does not understand Islam and how this leads to Islamophobia in the West (Gulf News, 2019b). He has repeatedly spoken about the oppressed Muslims of Jammu, Kashmir, and Palestine. The Khan government has compared the Modi government’s measures in Jammu and Kashmir to the Israeli brutalities against Palestinians (Stone, 2019). As Khan has spoken for the ummah, including Muslims in majority-Muslim and other states, it has come as a surprise that he has completely avoided the issue of the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang, China (Wescott, 2019). This is another compromise that Khan has made for his survival by instead applauding China for a poverty alleviation program. He’s even suggested Pakistan can draw lessons from China (Xinhua, 2019).

Aligned with the party’s anti-Western/American agenda was the promise that a Khan-government would not beg the IMF for loans. He once said, “I would rather die than go with a begging bowl to the IMF” (Findlay and Bokhari, 2019). The realities of running the government, however, were tougher than expected—especially the country’s dire financial situation. This forced the Khan government to return to the IMF for more loans to address the emergent challenge of balancing payments (Farmer, 2019; Landler, 2009). 

Other key ingredients of Khan’s populist rhetoric were taxing the rich to give concessions to the lower classes and to bring the corrupt to justice. However, the IMF deal has basically meant more taxes for everyone, including the poor (Bokhari, 2019). The situation under Khan—following the IMF loans—is not any different, as the middle-class is mainly paying the price of taxation reforms (Shah, 2019). In addition, the local businesses have demonstrated against increased sales taxes as part of the IMF deal (Shams, 2019).

A major compromise for Khan’s PTI was visible in its preference for electable politicians leading up to the 2018 elections. Desperate for a victory in the elections, Imran Khan offered seats to experienced politicians with former ruling-party affiliations—including from the parties that Khan claimed had looted the country. A federal minister in Khan’s cabinet, Fawad Chaudhry, was a spokesperson for the previous pro-Western Musharraf government and a minister in the left-wing PPP government of Yousaf Raza Gillani (Zaman, 2018). Other prominent names in the PTI government include Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Sheikh Rasheed, both of whom had long political careers in the PPP and right-wing PML-N, respectively. 

Khan spoke about reversing his stance on this issue during the election campaign: “You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians” (Rehman, 2018). After the vote of no confidence during the Punjab byelections, PTI is once again making alliances with groups the party once deemed ‘corrupt.’ For example, Khan formally criticized the Elahi brothers and their party due to their comfortable alliance with the military regime in the early 2000s. However, in 2022, to secure their influence in the province of Punjab, the PTI nominated Pervaiz Elahi as its candidate for the seat of Chief Minister of Punjab (Naya Daur, 2022). This was a clear contradiction of PTI’s call to eliminate corrupt politicians and shows their newfound acceptance of members of the former regime once labelled “pro-West” by Khan (Sareen, 2022). 

Dirty Institutionalism 

Once they are in power, populists attack formal institutions of democracy such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society; they politicize them, evacuate them, and eventually capture them from within. This process has been apparent both in Turkey and Pakistan, with the former completing the erosion of institutions and the latter being at the early stages. Simultaneously, populists also build or support institutions which back them. 

Judiciary

In Turkey, the attacks on democratic institutions go back to the early 2000s, when the AKP came to power. During its first decade in power, the AKP worked to undermine political institutions—most importantly the judiciary, which it hoped to capture from within. For Erdogan, the judiciary was a key institution controlled by Kemalists; it needed to be eliminated and captured due to the Kemalist opposition to Islamist politics in Turkey. Indeed, the AKP faced a major closure case in 2008, which further underlined the threat represented by institutions of horizontal accountability. Collaborating with the Gulenists, Erdogan and the AKP assaulted this crucial branch of state administration with a judicial reform submitted to a popular referendum in 2010. Only two out of 26 amendments stimulated an intense debate, since they were meant to restructure the constitutional court and the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), enlarging their ranks and setting new selection procedures. 

These amendments would put the judiciary under Erdogan’s control, since the AKP could pack both organs with loyalists. The amendments were voted on in parliament by the AKP majority and then submitted to a nationwide referendum. Erdogan employed a populist, anti-establishment appeal, which divided society between ‘the people’ supporting the reform and ‘the elite’ opposing it. He presented the reform as a new tool to empower the nation and to hold secularists accountable. He depicted the opposition as a “coalition of evil,” which could not agree on any issue except the fight against the amendments that would make ‘the people’ stronger. The referendum result was a success for the AKP, allowing it to pass the necessary amendments to capture the HSYK, a key institution of the judiciary. Erdogan also changed the constitution to switch the governing system from parliamentary to a strong presidential system without credible checks and balances. 

In Pakistan, the PTI government and Imran Khan attacked the judiciary with similar populist tropes. The Khan government confronted the judiciary on behalf of the military, which was behind Khan’s success in the last elections. A federal minister from the PTI criticized the judiciary over a death sentence awarded to former Army chief and President General Pervez Musharaf in a treason case (Gulf News, 2019a). Fawad Chaudhry, a federal minister, said, “You pushed the institution [army] against the wall. It is an honour-based institution. If you keep doing this, won’t they react?” (Haider and Qayum, 2019). As is clear from the remarks, it was a direct threat to the judiciary. 

In another case, the Supreme Court of Pakistan blocked the extension of the current army chief for which approval was granted by the PTI government and Khan (Pal and Shahzad, 2019). Khan stated, “The confidence of the people in the country’s judicial system has been shaken and now they are looking towards the PTI government for improvement in the system” (Dawn, 2020b). In April 2022, when the Supreme Court of Pakistan stood by the Assembly’s vote of no-confidence, Khan showed his clear discontent with the judiciary. He said: “I was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision, but I want to make it clear that I respect the Supreme Court and Pakistan’s judiciary.” He continued to weave a conspiracy, blaming the courts as on the side of the “imported” government, adding: “There is a conspiracy from abroad. This is a very serious allegation … that a foreign country conspired to topple an entire government” (Welle, 2022).

Since April 2022 he has attacked the judiciary and called upon citizens to observe the alleged “foreign conspiracy” he claims ended his time as Prime Minister (ANI, 2022).

Media

The Erdogan regime appointed trustees to Zaman daily in Istanbul on March 4, 2016. A protester chaining hands during freedom of the press protest in front of the Zaman daily.

 

The media was perhaps Erdogan’s most important preoccupation. Erdogan attacked secular, opposition media institutions at virtually every opportunity since he came to power in 2002. He blamed the opposition media for attacking the national will and national values and for being indecent and vulgar. To capture the media, the AKP pursued an elaborate scheme whereby politically connected businesses were supported through the state budget and favourable tenders; these businesses then purchased existing media conglomerates and put them under the AKP and Erdogan’s service. 

A key example is the Dogan Media group’s eventual capture by a pro-AKP businessperson. For decades, Dogan was the most important player in Turkish media and provided secularist coverage. Dogan media became the key pillar of opposition to the AKP government in the early 2000s. Infuriated by Dogan’s opposition, Erdogan started a campaign against his businesses through tax evasion cases and constant bureaucratic harassment, which eventually forced Dogan to sell his media conglomerate. In cases where the opposition media organization was not willing to be sold, Erdogan simply shut it down, arrested the journalists and the owners, and destroyed the organization entirely. Here, the most prominent cases are the Gulen-affiliated media organizations and Ipek media (which was also connected to Gulen) that were taken over by the government and then completely shut down.

In later years, Erdogan completely colonised the remaining TV and print media outlets; now, with few exceptions, they are firmly under his control. These media outlets “continuously reinforce Erdogan’s worldview and self-projected image as an embattled leader moulding Turkey into a global power” (Tahiroğlu, 2020: 2).

Khan’s rise to power as a populist was attributed to the media’s coverage of his famous sit-in. Many private TV channels provided live coverage of the PTI dharna (sit-in) in 2014. Therefore, many were shocked to see how his government curtailed media freedom. Through various restrictions, such as censorship, the PTI government showed that it was against any criticism of its policies and actions. Through the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), the PTI government also issued a directive stopping TV news from sharing their personal views, which was declared a punishable offence (Ellis-Petersen and Baloch, 2019). PEMRA and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) have also been blamed for following the government’s agenda in targeting certain media houses: for example, Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman, the head of the biggest media group in Pakistan, the Jang Group, was arrested by NAB on corruption charges in March 2020. Following the arrest, PEMRA directed local cable operators to shutdown Geo TV (Geo News, 2020).

Imran Khan’s time in office saw a rise in efforts to control all forms of the media, including print, electronic, and social, especially through the newly formed Pakistan Media Regulatory Authority. This desire was reflected in his remarks on local media at the World Economic Forum where he said that the Pakistani media is “free” and “vibrant” but also “crosses the line” often (Mahbubani, 2020). Since the Khan government was criticized through social media, it approved a bill in February 2020—”the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020”—to control social media. Many believed the bill was used to “stifle dissent and free speech.” The language of the bill was ambiguous, as the new social media restrictions aim to also prevent the live streaming of content on “terrorism, extremism, hate speech, defamation, fake news, incitement to violence and national security” (Al Jazeera, 2020). Local journalists and human rights groups have criticized such reforms. A journalist based in Islamabad argued that the international community needs to “force Pakistan’s hybrid civil-military regime to stop this continued crushing of normal free speech in the country” (Rehman, 2020). In July 2020, a prominent journalist and critic of the military and the government, Matiullah Jan, was kidnapped in broad daylight but later released. Jan blamed the security and intelligence agencies for his kidnapping (The Guardian, 2020). 

Ironically, once out of office Khan’s attitude towards media oppression has changed. Various pro-PTI advocates on social media have been unconstitutionally arrested and abducted by the state due to critical remarks they made regarding the military (Dawn, 2022b). The very laws that the PTI put into place are now being used against its supporters, to whom Khan is dismissive (Daily Times, 2022). In addition, he remarked that social media was the carrier of truth and urged his supporters to follow his social media accounts for current and direct news from the party and himself (Khan, 2022). 

Civil Society 

It is well-known that, especially since the Gezi Protests of 2013, Erdogan has constantly attacked civil society organizations that represent non-AKP interests, particularly those who oppose his rule or those packed by people who dislike Islamism. These have included prominent secularist organizations such as Ataturkist Thought Association, Association for the Support of Contemporary Living, and various socialist organizations and labour unions. 

During his first 10 years in power, Erdogan verbally attacked these organizations for being elitist, anti-people, anti-Muslim, and against the national will. After the mysterious coup attempt in 2016, he intensified his crackdown against the liberal and leftist journalists, such as Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Şahin Alpay, Mümtazer Türkone and Nazlı Ilıcak, Ahmet Şık, Can Dündar, Kadri Gürsel, and Osman Kavala. With the Gezi Park trial, he managed to get many more liberal and leftists dissidents imprisoned (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022: 326).

When he could not manage to co-opt the pro-Kurdish HDP, he got hundreds of HDP members imprisoned (Yilmaz, Demir, Shipoli, 2022). Almost all mayors of Kurdish municipalities were suspended and replaced with Erdogan loyalists. Hundreds of pro-Kurdish civil society organisations have been declared terrorists and shut down (Yilmaz and Shipoli, 2022: 329). After the mysterious coup attempt, about 150,000 people were detained and more than half a million people have been prosecuted on terrorism charges. Universities, private schools, thousands of civil society institutions, hundreds of media outlets, including TV stations, newspapers, news agencies, and radio stations were either shut down or turned into Erdogan’s mouthpieces (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021: 1531-1532)

Moreover, Erdogan established his own so-called civil society organizations to propagate his views and raise a new generation loyal to him and his party. AKP-controlled religious and CS organizations such as TURGEV and Ensar started to work together with state institutions, such as the Ministry of Education and Diyanet, to provide religious and educational services funded by public resources (Yabanci, 2019).

In Pakistan, the Imran Khan government expanded attacks against civil society organizations. Channelling anger over the US’s bin Laden operation in 2011, attacks on both local and international NGOs intensified, as local intelligence believed the Save the Children NGO provided intelligence to the US (Boone, 2015). There are new regulations and security checks which have already forced several international organizations to shut down their operations in Pakistan. Under the Khan government, such measures expanded, as a notice was issued to 18 international organizations, including ActionAid in October 2018, to leave Pakistan (Sayeed, 2018). The Ministry of the Interior said such prominent international NGOs posed a threat to national security and were “anti-state agents” (Asad and Khattak, 2018). The government also expanded such restrictions to target members of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil society movement critical of the army’s role in the ‘War on Terror.’ A case was also lodged by the Federal Investigation Authority against Gulalai Ismail, a prominent member from a local NGO, Aware Girls, for allegedly receiving millions from India. It was claimed that her organization was involved in suspicious activities (The News, 2019).

The PTI also actively supported Islamist agendas. These involved mandating religious studies (Islamic studies) at all levels of tertiary education, mandating Quran and Hadith learning classes in educational institutions, and introducing special moral development courses for undergraduates based on the life of Prophet Muhammad (Geo TV, 2021; Hoodbhoy, 2020). One of the most extensive centralized curriculum development initiatives spearheaded under the PTI government was the Single National Curriculum (SNC), which was highly controversial due to perceptions that it was indoctrinating students with the PTI’s ideals (Mahar, 2021; Vinayak, 2021; Torwali, 2020).

Conclusion 

As the cases of Fidesz in Hungary, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela showed, populists can remain in power through strategic manoeuvring. Taking their examples as a basis, this paper compared the ruling populist governments in Turkey and Pakistan. We showed that in Turkey and Pakistan, the ruling governments followed populist political performance that divide society into the ‘pure, Muslim people’ and the ‘corrupt, anti-Muslim others’ (also sometimes frames as ‘the elite’). Religion, therefore, is important to populists in Turkey and Pakistan and plays an important role in portraying the leader as a sacred figure capable of ‘saving’ the nation and eliciting emotions in the voting public. In particular, Erdogan and Khan are adept at portraying the political opposition as enemies of Islam and at making promises that link religion and national rejuvenation. However, the paper shows that even these religion-based promises may be disregarded when populists in Turkey and Pakistan need to make compromises to maintain power. This suggests that retaining power and deepening their control over the nation is more important to them than following through on their promises to defend Islam and make their respective nations ‘great’ by returning to Islamic values and ways of life. 

We devised a three-dimensional framework to comparatively examine these ruling religious populists. Our framework focused on populists’ promises, their compromises, and their attacks on democratic institutions. This allowed an examination of how Islamist populists behave in power and how strategic necessities, the realities of governing, and structural constraints shape their policies. We argued that populists make sweeping promises of power to the people and quick fixes to major problems of the country—most famously sweeping economic development—before coming to power. While they may want to retain their uncompromising style and lofty goals, the realities of governing force populists to make serious compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ and on their values once they are in power. Finally, populists attack formal institutions of democracy such as the judiciary, the media, and civil society; they politicize them, evacuate them, and eventually capture them from within. This study provided a fresh analysis on the impacts of populism on democracy in the Muslim world. 

Our findings confirm three aspects of populists in power. First, religious populists in power have a similar incentive structure to all other politicians. As such, they strive to stay in power as much as possible. To do so, they are willing to ignore their earlier promises and make compromises to their designated ‘enemies’ if they consider this to be necessary. Therefore, the uncompromising attitudes that populists usually convey may not reflect their actual behaviour when in power. As such, it is important to examine political opportunity structures surrounding populist politicians in order to understand their behaviour. Second, populists’ ideological stances tend to be shallow and pragmatic. Based on the necessities of power, their ideological enemies may become friends and vice versa. This means that populists’ ideologies are secondary to their pursuit of power. Third, religious populists, like many others, tend to undermine democratic institutions and eventually either capture or dismantle them. This emanates not only from their ideological stances but also the strategic preference to rule through illiberalism. 


 

Acknowledgements: This research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant, DP220100829, Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


 

(*) Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute. His research focuses on peace and security in South Asia and the Middle East. His work examines the impacts of sectarianism and violent extremism on domestic, regional, and global peace and security. He is also engaged in research and educational projects on countering violent extremism. As a Pakistani citizen, Dr Ahmed brings a much-needed citizen’s perspective to research on the country. He also brings rich grassroots level experience in the development sector in Asia to his research.

(**) Dr Galib Bashirov is a research associate at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. He was a lecturer at Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations. He finished his PhD in international relations in the same department. Bashirov’s research areas include state-society relations in Azerbaijan and Turkey and the United States’ foreign policy in Central Asia.


 

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[1] These are two historical figures who betrayed their local Nawabs/Sultans to gain the favor of the British during colonization. Both played a key role in securing British victories over two key Muslim-held territories in India during different time periods. 

Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is seen with his wife and family in the Gangarama Temple at for religious ceremony and baptism in Colombo, Sri Lanka on January 28, 2020.

Civilizational Populism Around the World

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieseon, Nicholas. (2022). “Civilizational Populism Around the World.” Populism & Politics.European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). July 31, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0012

 

Abstract

This article addresses an issue of growing political importance: the global rise of civilizational populism. From Western Europe to India and Pakistan, and from Indonesia to the Americas, populists are increasingly linking national belonging with civilizational identity—and at times to the belief that the world is divided into religion-based civilizations, some of which are doomed to clash with one another. As part of this process, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity have all been commandeered by populist parties and movements, each adept at using the power of religion—in different ways and drawing on different aspects of religion—to define the boundary of concepts such as people, nation, and civilization. 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson    

Introduction

The latter part of the 20th century witnessed the decline of autocratic governments and the creation of many new liberal democracies across the world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy appeared triumphant; some even began to describe the period as the ‘end of history.’ The phrase, borrowed from Francis Fukuyama (who used it in a complex and rather ambivalent way to describe the victory of capitalism and liberal democracy over its once powerful ideological rivals), described the growing sense that humankind had reached its optimal state, and that liberal democratic values were now almost axiomatic and without rival (Fukuyama, 2006). 

By the mid-2000s, and following a series of political events of historical importance, the euphoria surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union began to dissipate. The attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent and disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the rise of authoritarian China and the growth of extremist movements such as the Islamic State (IS), suggested that history had not ended, and that liberal democracy would continue to face many challenges. Russia’s transformation into a brutal dictatorship under Vladimir Putin, culminating in his expansionist war against Ukraine, signals perhaps a fundamental shift in international relations and a powerful challenge to liberal democracy. Yet the most potent challenge to liberal democracy may be coming from withinrather than from rival ideologies. On the one hand, while Russia and China may appear to represent an ideological challenge to the liberal democratic world, the two regimes require extreme information control and the punishment of dissidents in order to maintain authoritarian non-liberal governance. However, since the mid-2000s there has been a sharp decline in basic freedoms, and a deterioration of democratic institutions, in a significant number of democratic countries around the world (Repucci & Slipowitz, 2021). 

According to Thomas Hobbes, there exists a social contract between the state and its people (or the monarch and their subjects). This contract effectively ensures that a government will guarantee the safety of the people it represents (Gauthier, 1988). Hobbes believed that human actions are driven by rational self-interest, and therefore argued that people would willingly enter into a social contract with the government and other people, on the basis that it was rational for individuals to do so in order to live in a society. In the 21st century, the social contract between citizens and their democratic governments appears to be breaking down. For example, Loke (2020) argues that the United States and other democratic nations have become flawed democracies, in which the intangible yet meaningful bind between the state and its citizens has degraded. This disillusionment with the ‘elite’ or ‘establishment’ has led to a loss of trust in elected officialsand perhaps a loss of belief in the democratic process itself. The degrading of democratic politics, and the rise of an elite which is increasingly removed from the majority of citizens, has created an environment conducive to populism. Indeed, the growth of populism is one of the most significant political developments of the 21st century. Populist leaders, movements, and parties, across the world offer an alternative form of politics, one which promises to liberate ‘the people’ from elite rule and to ‘save’ them from the existential crisis elites have brought upon them through their corrupt misrule. In other words, elite failure and corruption is leading to a backlash in the form of populism. 

Populism is ultimately a product of democratic societies, yet populists frequently violate liberal democratic norms. Indeed, scholars have increasingly regarded populism as a threat to liberal democratic values. Firstly, populism creates a political environment in which the rule of law or the rights of minorities may be discarded if they appear to obstruct the ‘will of the people,’ which populists claim is sacrosanct. Secondly, populism encourages an antagonistic politics in which two groups, ‘the people’ and ‘corrupt elites,’ are pitted against one another in an existential struggle for the nation. Populism thus flourishes on the divisive politics of ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’ and ‘others,’ which deepens socio-political-economic rifts and exploits societal emotional pressure points and vulnerabilities (Yilmaz & Morieson 2021). One particular form of populism, which categorizes people according to their religious identities and asserts the incompatibility of different cultures, has proven especially influential in the 21st century. We call this form of populism ‘civilizational populism.’ 

The rise of civilizational populism throughout the world constitutes one of the key challenges facing liberal democracy in the 21st century. The growth of this political phenomenon not only demonstrates disillusionment with liberal democracy and its failures but suggests that the key lessons of the 20th century have been largely forgotten. Increasingly, the call to reject the negative emotions of ‘revenge, aggression, and retaliation,’ so common in the second half of the 20th century, is diminished. Emotionally charged monologues, too, are replacing dialogue between adversaries—dialogues that often pave the way toward mutual understanding. Ironically, having reached the ‘end of history,’ we witness a worldwide democratic regression symbolized best by the growth of civilizationalism, whether in the form of expansionist civilizational powers such as Russia and China, or in the form of populist civilizationalism. The decay of the liberal democratic order, which just twenty-five years ago seemed all but invincible, haunts the present, and the rise of civilizational populism threatens further harm to our democratic institutions and imperils religious and ethnic minorities the world over.

Civilizations are most often understood to be the “highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of social identity” (Huntington, 1993). Civilizations are often defined by religion, or at least by the religious identity of the majority of its members. For example, in his provocative, often wrongheaded but ultimately influential 1993 essay and subsequent book, Clash of Civilizations, author Samuel Huntington proposed that there at most nine world civilizationsWestern, Latin American, African[1], Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist, and Japanese. The reader will notice that many of these civilizations are defined by religion. This is of course not to endorse Huntington’s division of the world into these groups, a notion largely discredited; however, even if scholars do not endorse Huntingtonian civilizationalism, this does not mean that politicians disregard his ideas. Rather, Huntington’s ideas have proven highly influential in the United States and, to an extent, Europe; simultaneously, they reflect the views of large numbers of people across the world, who similarly believe the world can be divided in this manner and that civilizations form coherent blocs of nations whose peoples possess values incompatible with those of other civilizations. 

Civilizational populism posits that democracy ought to be based upon enacting the ‘people’s will,’ yet it adds a new and troubling dimension to populism’s thin ideology: a civilization- based classification of peoples. Religion plays a defining role in delineating the boundaries between these civilizations, and civilizational populism is most often intrinsically bound up with religious identity and practice. As a result, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity are instrumentalized by populists, who use the power of religion to define the boundaries of people, nations, and civilizations. Religion has thus become an importantat times centralaspect of civilizational populist movements across the world. 

There is something especially dangerous about civilizational populism. Populism is often conceived of having two dimensions, one vertical and one horizontal (Taguieff, 1995: 32-35). The vertical dimension divides society between the people at the top and those at the bottom, or between ‘the people’ and ‘the corrupt elite.’ The horizontal dimension divides society between ‘the people’ and ‘others.’ Most often, these ‘others’ are ethnic minorities who appear to threaten the character of the nation or the hegemonic power of the majority group. This kind of populism is thus deeply nationalist, with few if any international or transnational dimensions. Civilizational populism, however, frames the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism within a religio-civilizational context. As a result, civilizational populist leaders, parties, and movements tend to identify ‘the people’ and their enemies with particular religiously-defined civilizations.

Civilizational populism, then, can be a particularly pernicious form of populism. By couching the antagonistic political divisions inherent in populism within a civilizational frame and claiming that people of different civilizations possess incompatible ethical and moral frameworks, civilizational populists attempt to create societies in which religious minorities are viewed as intolerable existential threats. Equally, civilizational populism can be attached to any of the major world religions. In the following section, we examine civilizational populism within the context of the world’s major religions. 

Civilizational Populism In the West

Political leader Geert Wilders of the Dutch center right party PVV defending his plans during a radio interview on September 5, 2012 in the Netherlands.

In a much-cited 2017 article, Rogers Brubaker (2017) observed how populist parties in North-West Europe have increasingly defined “the boundaries of belonging and the semantics of self and other…in civilizational terms.” Brubaker does not claim that populist parties in North-West Europe are anti-nationalist, but rather that they remain nationalist and define national belonging in religio-civilizational terms. Neither does he mean that a Christian revival is underway in Europe or that some kind of pan-European identity is promoted by populists. Rather, he means that European populists are increasingly identifying as Christian in order to define their culture as non-Muslim and by doing so legitimize their anti-Muslim immigration and cultural policies. Thus, rather than perceiving in Christianity a system of ethics and form of religious practice, populists instead use ‘Christianity’ or ‘Judeo-Christianity’ as “sacred code” words “to denote a secular, liberal order distinct from Islam, reflecting the culturalization of Christian religion in Europe” (Vollard, 2013: 94). The Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), the second most popular party in the Netherlands, exemplifies the Christian civilizational populist trend in North-Western Europe. PVV leader Geert Wilders describes Dutch culture as the product of the “Judeo-Christian and Humanist civilization of the West, and Islam as a “totalitarian” political tradition wholly at odds with the liberal humanism of the Judeo-Christian West. 

In 2016, the PVV briefly became the most popular political party, according to polls, in the Netherlands. Perhaps the key reason behind Wilders’ and the PVV’s rise in popularity was the refugee crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, which saw over a million people—mostly Muslims—seek refuge in Europe from a series of wars and conflicts. The PVV capitalized on Dutch fears of a Muslim invasion, and, using incendiary and alarmist language, claimed the Netherlands was on the brink of Islamization and promised to “de-Islamize” the country (Wilders, 2016). The party also promised to ban all Muslim asylum seekers from entering Dutch territory, ban the construction of mosques, ban headscarves at “public functions,” and arrest suspected Islamic radicals (Wilders, 2016). The PVV’s radical programme struck a chord with voters, and though the party failed to win control of the government, they emerged as the second largest party in Dutch Parliament, winning 20 seats (though well behind the VVD, which won 33 seats) (Morieson, 2021: 47). 

2017 saw a second anti-Muslim, Christianidentitarian populist party contest electionsthe Forum for Democracy (Fvd). Party leader Thierry Baudet portrays himself as a lover of European culture and defender of the continent’s Judeo-Christian culture and heritage, which he claims is threatened by the traditional governing parties of the Netherlands and by Islam (Faber, 2018 & Morieson, 2021). 

The PVV lost support during the 2021 election, perhaps because the perceived threat of Muslim invasion via the refugee crisis had not materialized. However, the PVV and FvD won 25 seats between them, a demonstration of the significant power of Christian identitarianism and right-wing populism in the Netherlands. Indeed, though the centre right VVD continues to dominate Dutch politics, after 2021, right-wing Christian identitarian populist parties possessed more seats than at any previous time (Damhuis, 2021).  

While Brubaker described civilizational populism as something endemic to North-West Europe, there is ample evidence which suggests the phenomenon is far more widespread (Kaya, 2021; Kaya & Tecman, 2021). In Central and Eastern Europe, civilizational populism is present in Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party. Fidesz has proven to be the most enduring ruling populist party in Europe, and their combination of populism, ethnic nationalism, and Christian civilizationalism has proven especially potent. Fidesz (Fiatal Demokratak Szovetsege — Alliance of Young Democrats) began as a liberal, anti-communist studentled movement in the 1980s and entered formal politics in the early 1990s, when Hungary experienced its first free elections (Ádám & Bozóki, 2016: 132). When Fidesz first won power in 1998, it was under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, who solidified the party’s centre-right, social conservative orientation. During subsequent years in opposition (2002-2010), and following the party’s return to power (2010-), Fidesz has become increasingly nationalist, socially conservative, populist, and illiberal, cementing itself as the dominant political force in Hungary (Ádám & Bozóki, 2016: 130-131; Buzogány, 2017). 

Anti Immigration poster from Viktor Orban government in the streets of Budapest during the 2018 general elections campaign.

The use of Christianity in Fidesz’ populist discourse can be observed in the party’s complex relationship with the European Union and neoliberal economics. Orbán has on numerous occasions attacked the European Union, calling it a threat to “Christian freedom” (Hungary Today, 2019). According to Orbán, Christian freedom means “patriots instead of cosmopolitans, patriotism instead of internationalism, marriage and family instead of promoting same-sex relationships, protection of the children instead of drug liberalization, border protection instead of migration, Hungarian children instead of migrants and Christian culture instead of a multicultural mishmash” (Hungary Today, 2019).

Yet Fidesz’ Christian identity populism is most evident in Orbán’s anti-immigration rhetoric, which is based upon notions of Hungary as a Christian society with Christian values, and Islam as fundamentally incompatible with these values. This became especially evident during the 2015 refugee crisis, during which the Fidesz-led government refused Muslim refugees entry into Hungary (Haraszti, 2015: 39). Moreover, the party has attempted to boost fertility within Hungary through a set of ‘family friendly’ policies in order to create a stable population that does not require immigration to facilitate economic growth (Walker, 2019). According to Orbán, by permitting mass immigration from the Middle East and North Africa, Western powers have “opened the way for the decline of Christian culture and … Islamic expansion” (Boffey, 2018). Fidesz, however, has “prevented the Islamic world from flooding us from the south” (Boffey, 2018). Yet Orbán does not believe that secular political power is enough to stop Islamization. Rather, he says, “Europe’s last hope is Christianity” (Macintyre, 2018). 

Donald Trump, particularly when running for, and in the first year of his term as President of the United States, also used civilizational rhetoric. For example, Haynes (2021) describes Trump as repeating the orientalist tropes of Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilization’s thesis in his rhetoric on the relationship between Islam and ‘Judeo-Christian’ America. Haynes argues that Trump did not follow the path of Presidents Bush and Obama, who stressed that the United States was at war with “terror” and not Islam. Instead, using reckless language, Trump perpetuated the idea of a clash of civilizations between Islam and Judeo-Christianity and failed to distinguish between ordinary Muslims and violent Islamist terrorists. However, Trump showed little interest in actually fighting a ‘clash of civilizations’ as president and dismissed both Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka—two of the most outspoken civilizational nationalists in his administration—within weeks of each other in 2017. On the other hand, a number of the Trump administration’s decisions appear to be concrete manifestations of Trump’s belief that the United States is a Judeo-Christian power incompatible with Islamic civilization. For example, following the mass murder of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida in June 2016, a crime committed by a Muslim man, Omar Mateenwho had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, thencandidate Donald Trump spoke at length on the danger posed to the United States by what he called “radical Islam” (Beckwith, 2016). Trump had previously argued that Muslim refugees from wartorn nations in the Middle East threatened America. For example, in a tweet deleted by Twitter following his banning from the social media service, Trump “used clearly existential tones by pronouncing that taking in refugees from Syria (who he assumed to be potential terrorists) would lead to ‘the destruction of civilization as we know it!’ (Hall, 2021). 

Although Trump claimed that America has many “great” Muslim communities, he also attacked Muslim Americans for not reporting “bad” people to authorities, and therefore bringing death and destruction to the United States (Beckwith, 2016). Furthermore, portraying the nightclub shooting as part of a clash of civilizations, he claimed that many of the “radical” Islamic principles Mateen and other people like him hold are “incompatible with Western values and institutions” (Beckwith, 2016). Rather, Trump claimed that “radical Islam is anti-woman, anti-gay and anti-American,” and even “enslaves women” and that therefore, he personally refuses “to allow America to become a place where gay people, Christian people, Jewish people are targets of persecution.” 

Once elected President and during an official visit to Poland in 2017, Trump praised the nation’s right-wing populist government, suggesting that their strong anti-immigration, anti-Islam policies served to protect the West. In a speech in Poland which further revealed the civilizationalism inherent in Trump’s conception of world politics, he claimed that “the fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” (Thrush & Hirschfeld Davis, 2017). Historian Stephen Wertheim, writing shortly after this speech, described Trump’s “civilizational framework” as a continuation of Obamaera justification of America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while also adding a new element in which America’s “forever wars” were framed as part of a policing of the “enemies of civilization” (Wertheim, 2017). 

Civilizational Populism in Muslim Majority Nations

Erdogan supporters gather in Takism square after an attempted coup d’etat in Istanbul, Turkey on July 19, 2016. Photo: John Wreford

Yilmaz, Morieson, and Demir (2021) observe that “Islamic populist framing may take on nationalist forms, or civilizationalist forms, though often these are found in combination.” In Islamic or Islamist populism, the vertical and horizontal dimensions of populism are embedded within an Islamic framing. This means that the social and economic justice concerns inherent in Islam can be instrumentalized by Islamic populists in order to serve their anti-elite and xenophobic agendas. Islamic populist parties, though all too rarely examined by scholars, have found a significant amount of electoral success in a number of Muslim majority nations in the 21st century (Hadiz, 2018: 567). Hadiz (2018: 567), for example, has examined Islamic populism in Indonesia, Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey, and observes that for populism to succeed in these countries “cultural idioms associated with Islam are requiredfor the mobilisation of a distinctly ummah-based political identity in contests over power and resources in the present democratic period.”

While Indonesia and Pakistan are home to populist Islamist groups, perhaps the best example of civilizational populism in the broad Islamic world is the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey. Since 2002, Turkey has been ruled by the AKP, a populist and Islamist party, which has governed in an increasingly authoritarian and repressive manner during their two decades in power. Initially, however, the AKP sought to portray itself as a Muslim democratic party supportive of pluralism, openness, and human rights. The AKP’s decision to portray itself in this manner was prompted by the events surrounding Turkey’s 1997 “postmodern coup,” in which the right-wing Islamic government led by Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan was deposed by the Turkish ‘deep state’ and replaced by a secularist military establishment (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The coup, which was intended to greatly diminish the role of Islam in Turkish politics and society, was in many ways a continuation of the Kemalist hegemony the country had experienced since it was established in the 1920s by Kemal Ataturk himself. 

Capitalizing on the Turkish people’s desire to liberate themselves from military tutelage and Kemalist repression, the AKP won power in 2002. The party at first governed as Muslim democrats, insofar as they pushed for greater democratization, initiated a reconciliation process with Kurds and other minority groups, committed to joining the European Union, and even began discussing the possibility of recognizing the Armenian genocide (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). However, between 2007 and 2011, the AKP began to shed its democratic and pluralist imagine and instead sought to capture the state and dominate Turkish politics and society. In this process, the AKP – and particularly its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – alienated many of their allies in political and civil society, while simultaneously incapacitating the threat posed by the Kemalist-dominated judiciary and military.

As the AKP evolved in office, its increasing authoritarianism and Islamism altered its populist discourse. After 2013, in particular, the AKP invested much effort in portraying religious minorities, foreign governments, even entire ‘civilizations’ as enemies of the people and of Islam. The AKP’s new strategy was built on an emotional populist campaign which exploited Turkish people’s ontology, security, and feelings of trauma. The party began to re-engineer Turkish identity in an effort to demonize and dehumanize its enemies. Secularists and liberals, Gülenists, and many ethnic and religious minorities, were now portrayed by the party as threats to Islam and Turkish Sunni Muslims. The AKP also began to emphasize ever more the primacy of Sunni Islam in Turkish culture and identity, as well as the glory of the Ottoman Empire, seat of the Caliphate for centuries. Thus, Erdoğan and the AKP set about creating a divisive and populist ‘us vs them’ politics in Turkey, in which Turkish Sunni Muslims were portrayed as an aggrieved yet innocent people, and the Kemalist secular eliteand almost all other religious and ethnic minoritiesportrayed as threats to the people and their faith. The AKP used deep emotional insecurities to evoke feelings of victimhood in the majority population, who were said to be oppressed by “dark forces.” These imagined “dark forces” range from foreign enemies to domestic foes of the AKP who are alleged to be working with foreigners to destabilize Turkey. Thus, the AKP encourages Turkish Sunni Muslims to feel that they are under constant attack from “non-Turkish Muslims, such as Kurds and Lazes, …and non-Muslims, such as Christians and Jews” (İnce, 2012: 40). These minority groups are now essentially unwanted citizens in Turkey, a group which now includes members of the Gulen movement, journalists, academics, opposition leaders, human rights activists, and political opposition who have been critical of the AKP regime (Yilmaz, 2018). All these groups are now ‘the other’ in Turkey, and, combined with xenophobia towards the West and Jews, all are portrayed by the AKP as internal “traitors” who do the bidding of external “dark forces” trying to “destabilize Turkey” (Yilmaz, 2021).

The existence of this expansive lists of “others, as well as the vast numbers of people who are alleged to be involved in conspiracies to hurt the Turkish people, create a state of constant crisis which feeds emotions that generate demand for populist solutions. Moreover, by encouraging their supporters to feel a sense of trauma and accompanying emotions of loss, “humiliation, vengeance and hatred,” the party is able to “trigger unconscious defence mechanisms which attempt to reverse these emotions” (Yilmaz, 2021: 11). 

The AKP’s emotional exploitation of ‘the people’ is based on three themes: “Islamism, nationalism, and populism,” which are used as merged concepts (Taş, 2020: 2). By merging Islamism, Turkish nationalism, and populist ideation “Erdoğan has thus been presented as the voice of deprived ‘real people’ and their champion of their interest against old ‘elites’,” while at the same time “the party also pursued an Islamist, anti-secular project involving mandatory religious education of the young, and a ‘post-Kemalist neo-Ottomanist outlook in identity politics’ that radically altered Turkey’s sense of itself and elements of its foreign policy” (Yilmaz, 2018: 54–55). The AKP’s Islamist populism has proven very potent and has allowed the party to gradually Islamize Turkey over the two decades of its increasingly authoritarian rule.

Civilizational Populism In India

The India’s Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi offering prayers at the Naguleswaram Temple in Jaffna, Sri Lanka on March 14, 2019.

In Hindumajority India, the nation has begun a process of transformation under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and their guiding political philosophy, Hindutva. Hindutva is a form of Hindu nationalism which posits that India must return to Hindu principles in order to raise the nation to the greatness it experienced in the pre-Muslim period. Under Modi’s leadership, the dominant political narrative shifted from right-wing nationalism to populism while maintaining a reliance on the Hindutva narrative of Hindu victimhood and nostalgia for the lost golden age of Hindu civilization.

Running for Prime Minister, Modi erected billboards containing a picture of himself accompanied by the text: “I am a Patriot. I am Nationalist. I am Born Hindu” (Ghosh, 2013).  During the same period, the BJP called for the building of a society for Hindus and run by Hindus, justifying their agenda through the Hindutva call for the “cleansing” of “impurities” from society. In this narrative of crisis, Modi was the “born Hindu” and “ideal Indian” who would lead the country as a “strongman” and revive the glory of the Hindu rashtra (Hindu kingdom) (Lefèvre, 2020). Because the BJP frame Indian culture and the nation as the product of Hindu civilization, to love India and its culture isaccording to the BJPto either loveor at least respectand obey the rules of Hindu culture. Or as Irfan Ahmad (2017) put it, “Hindutva defined Indianness exclusively in religious terms: an Indian is someone who considers India as their holy land.” This religious exclusivism is reflected in the party’s “abrogation of article 370, the ban on cow slaughter and the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya,” which the BJP claims are necessary acts to revive and protect Hindu culture (Ammassari, 2018: 8). These actions are also framed as attempts to invalidate the “invasion” of India and to purify it in order that Hindu civilization may regain its lost glory (Ammassari, 2018).

The BJP has also pushed for a change in the school curriculum that promotes civilisational populism by restructuring history and cultural identity (Yilmaz & Shakil, 2021). Post-2014, the Hindutva version of Indian history has increasingly blurred the lines between culture and history, fact and fiction. These changes were justified by RSS’s Manmohan Vaidya, who claimed “the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history” (Jain & Lasseter, 2018). The BJPwritten syllabus uses history to set a “Hindu first” narrative, in which other cultural influences are depicted as products of ‘invader’ Muslim and Christian cultures.

Civilizational Populism In Buddhist Majority Nations

Members of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority walk through a broken road at Shah Porir Deep, at Teknaf in Cox’s Bazer, Bangladesh on September 11, 2017. Photo: Sk Hasan Ali.

The relationship between Buddhism and populism is rarely studied, and yet there are concrete examples of Buddhism being instrumentalized by populist leaders in two majority Buddhist nations: Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In Myanmar, a multi-ethnic country (where no single ethnic group comprises more than 2 percent of the population), religious identity has been heavily politicized. 89 percent of the population identify as Buddhist, and therefore the state has often used Buddhist identity to create a sense of national belonging and nationhood. This is not a recent development, as the “To be Burmese means to be Buddhist!” slogan of the 1940s movement for independence demonstrates (Artinger & Rowand, 2021). However, 11 percent of Myanmar’s citizens are non-Buddhist, and there is a significant Muslim minority. This situation has been exploited by populists who identify Buddhism as a core element of Myanmar’s identity, and thus the identity of ‘the people,’ identification with another faith is inherently threatening to this identity and to political efforts to make the country more homogenous.

While the 2014 return of democracy to Myanmar was widely lauded, it coincided with a period of increasing religious conflict and anti-pluralism, much of which was instigated by nationalist-populist Buddhist groups. Buddhist populist-nationalism in Myanmar is promoted by a number of influential groups, especially Mabatha (MBT or Ma Ba Tha) and the 969 movement. Populism is deeply embedded in the discursive practices of these groups. Mabatha and the 969 movement, for example, claim their political mission is to safeguard “the Buddhist identity of the country” (Fuller, 2018). As part of this mission, they claim that Muslims are an existential threat to the nation’s Buddhist identity and call for the elimination of threats to this Buddhist national core. Mabatha and the 969 movement have become highly influential groups over the past 20 years, and the political landscape of Myanmar has been predominately shaped by the nationalist Buddhist populism espoused by these two groups. Their power extends even into other parties and political movements, and fear of this power no doubt played a role in the Aung San Suu Kyiled democratic government ignoring the ethnic and religious ‘cleansing’ of Rohingya Muslims from parts of the country. 

In the late 1990s, a 40-page booklet authored by a government official named Kyaw Lwin, and titled “969,” appeared and “urged Buddhists to openly display the numbers 969 on their homes, businesses and vehicles” (Moe, 2017). The book did not openly call for violence or discrimination against any particular group, but displaying 969 was intended to be a way for Buddhists business owners and consumers to distinguish themselves from Muslims, who often displayed the number 786, signifying an Islamic prayer: “the Name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful” (Bookbinder, 2013). The booklet insinuated that Muslims were trying to demographically and economically “conquer” the Buddhist population, and that Buddhists must fight back (Frydenlund, 2018; Moe, 2017 & Bookbinder, 2013). This notion spread throughout Myanmar, partly through its adoption by Buddhist education facilities, such as “Buddhist Sunday Schools, volunteer groups, legal clinics, relief campaigns, donation drives, and other community oriented activities” (Thu, 2021: 205). Ashin Wirathu, a monk, became the face of the 969 movement. Wirathu was imprisoned by the military junta for hate speech in 2003 and was released as part of a large group of political prisoners set free in 2012 (Hodal, 2013). Following his release, he campaigned relentlessly on behalf of the 969 movement, and after it was banned, inspired the formation of MBT and later became a party leader. Wiarthu’s activities helped create a wave of Islamophobia in the country, mixing “Buddhist conspiracy theories envisioning an Islamic take-over” and fear of Muslim “terrorists” (Artinger & Rowand, 2021; Frydenlund, 2018 & Bookbinder, 2013). This has led MBT and the 969 movement to become identified by many Buddhists in Myanmar as “protectors” of “the Buddhist identity of the country” (Fuller, 2018).

In MBT discourse, the Buddhist majority are portrayed as victims of violence instigated by ‘others,’ most often Muslims. MBT has used events such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban to create their narrative of a Muslim threat and Buddhist victimhood (Thu, 2021: 208). Myanmar’s Muslim minority are therefore portrayed as enemies and a danger to inherently peaceful Buddhist society. Yilmaz et al. (2021) note that MBT “claim that Muslims are an existential threat to the nation’s Buddhist identity and call for the elimination of threats to this Buddhist national core.” MBT enjoys the support of various politicians in Myanmar, including some pro-democracy politicians, and such is their power that any political party or critical voice contradicting their populist rhetoric is ‘othered’ by MBT’s leadership and accused of being “Muslim sympathisers” (Oppenheim, 2017). For instance, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, National League for Democracy (NLD), perhaps fearful of incurring MBT’s wrath, did not nominate Muslim candidates during the 2015 elections, which led to a “Muslim Free Parliament” (Thu, 2021: 206). It was also Suu Kyi’s government (2016-21) which tolerated MBTled violent rhetoric against Muslims, rhetoric which helped lead to the 2017 genocide of the Rohingya people (BBC, 2018). 

MBT also involves itself in transnational civilizational populism. The ideas of the extremist populist monks have been shared with the radical Sri Lankan Buddhist organization, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Army)the two groups have held joint meetings and conventions (Sirilal, 2014). Ashin Wirathu led this union and presented it as a union required to “defend” Buddhism around the world, saying, “today, Buddhism is in danger. We need hands to be firmly held together if we hear alarm bells ringing” (Sirilal, 2014). On a sperate occasion Wirathu also said that “once we [have] won this battle, we will move on to other Muslim targets,” indicating that there are no geographical limits to his civilisational populism (Hodal, 2013).

In Sri Lanka, Buddhist nationalist populism has also played an important role in both the political sphere and in defining Sri Lankan identity. Unlike ethnically diverse Myanmar, 70 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is Sinhalese Buddhist, making them a powerful majority ethnic group. Tamils are the largest minority, and constitute around 15 percent of the population, while Muslims, Hindus, and Christians together make up less than 13 percent of the population (Department of Census and Statistics, 2012). In Sri Lanka, then, ethnicity and religion have been somewhat bound together. This puts Sinhalese Buddhists in a powerful position and has allowed them to largely determine Sri Lanka’s political agenda and identity.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, sixth President of Sri Lanka is seen at a religious ceremony and baptism in the Gangarama Temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka on January 28, 2020.

Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism (SBN) has been the driving force behind populism in Sri Lanka (Jayasinghe, 2021: 178). But the activities and preachers of Buddhist organizations such as Bodu Bala Sēna (BBS) also play a prominent role in pushing anti-Muslim, pro-Buddhist discourses. Unlike other SBN organizations, BBS “is unique for being almost exclusively an anti-Muslim front” and has carried out many violent anti-Muslim campaigns since 2012 (Jayasinghe, 2021: 186). The power of Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism led to stateled, systematic discrimination against the Tamil minoritywho reacted to their oppression by forming the resistance group, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) (Jayasinghe, 2021; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). Tamils were considered “aliens” with no claims in the newly independent Sri Lanka and were frequently denied citizenship or deported to India; others became victims of ethnically motivated killings and were at times prevented from entering higher educationevents that ultimately led to a civil war (Carothers & O’Donohue, 2020). In this context the militant Tamil Tigers, “became active in seeking an independent homeland for the Tamils. The conflict, which ended in 2009, also had a religious dimension as the Tamil population is predominately Hindu and the government is mainly Buddhist. Over two decades of fighting, a number of failed efforts were made to bring peace. This led to thousands of casualties on both sides … and hindered economic development (Shakil, 2021). While the end of thecivil war opened a peace process, populist Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2009, portrayed the war as a victory for SBN (Jayasinghe, 2021: 183). Sri Lankan Prime Minister until 2015, Rajapaksa capitalized on ethnic and religious divisions between Tamils and Sinhalese in his rhetoric but, following the end of the civil war, shifted to the process of ‘othering’ the country’s Muslim minority community (Jayasinghe, 2021; Shakil, 2021; Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). 

During his 2009-2015 tenure as Prime Minister, Rajapaksa portrayed himself as fighting for ‘the people’ against Sri Lanka’s elites, who he claimed were corrupt. He promised to improve the country’s economy (Shakil, 2021). At the same time, there was second dimension to his populism, which was rooted in SBN: “During Rajapaksa’s rule, critics of his political style and agenda were portrayed as enemies of the nation or collaborators with the enemy. Sri Lankan society was divided between the patriot (dēshapremi) and the traitor (dēshadrōhi) (Jayasinghe, 2021: 183), with opponents of Rajapaksa portrayed as treasonous enemies. Against this backdrop, “Rajapaksa shied away from criticizing the unlawful activities of SBN groups, including their use of violence against Muslims and other minorities, due to the power and influence of SBN in Sri Lankan politics and society” (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). 

While the war against the Tamil Tigers is over, and even though Tamil people largely do not yet feel entirely welcome in Sri Lanka, SBN discourse has moved from othering Tamils to inciting fear of Muslims and other minorities (Mihlar, 2020). SBN has, since the end of the civil war, become increasingly powerful due to a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment growing since the 9/11 attacks and rise of international jihadism. Muslims are, in the post-9/11, post-civil war environment, perceived as “a security threat” and accused of “extremism” and “intolerance” by the Sri Lankan state (Haniffa, 2021; Mihlar, 2020). Other minority groups have also sought to demonize Muslims, though in different ways. For example, “Tamil anti-Muslim hatred, attacks and violence focus on the group whilst Sinhala/Buddhists target the group and the religion” (Mihlar, 2020).

Rajapaksa, having lost his position as Prime Minister in 2015, returned to political prominence when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother and a former army leader during the civil war, came to power in 2019 (Jayasuriya, 2019). While G. Rajapaksa used populist anti-elitist rhetoric, his main appeal to voters was that he was a former war “hero” and a strongman who had led the country to victory against the Tamil insurgents. But with the civil war receding into memory, the strongman’ instead portrays himself as protecting the nation from Muslim radicals, such as the Muslims responsible for the Easter Bombing (Shakil, 2021). 

The now former Prime Minister G. Rajapaksa, who fled the country after its economic collapse, punished Muslims, banning face veils, conducting arbitrary arrests of alleged radical Muslims, and closing down seminaries. Formally, under the “deradicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” section of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the country banned the wearing of burqas and closed some 1,000 Islamic organizations to supposedly prevent extremism (Haniffa, 2021). This fear is the legal and political manifestation of a belief that Muslims, funded by foreign powers such as the Gulf countries, are attempting to Islamize Sri Lanka (Mihlar, 2020). Whatever government emerges following the 2022 revolution will have to deal with the legacy of religious populism in Sri Lanka and its dividing of citizens into ingroups and outgroups based on religious identification.

Buddhist right-wing populist organizations across Sri Lanka and Myanmar thus share important commonalties. Both are beholden to a crisis narrative aimed at inciting emotions such as fear of non-Buddhists, especially Muslims. This nativist and civilizationalist narrative is based on the notion that there is a growing clash of civilizations between Buddhism and Islam, propagates suspicion and hatred of non-Buddhists, and deems Muslims in particular an alien and existential threat in Buddhist lands. In both Sri Lanka and Myanmar, monks have not only spewed hate speech in monasteries but have also used social media to spread their speeches and legitimize anti-Muslim conspiracies, leading to mob violence targeting mostly Muslim businesses, places of worship, and private property.         

Conclusion

People demonstrate against so-called Islamization, carrying signs with slogans in Rotterdam, The Netherlands on January 20, 2017.

This article shows that the use civilizational rhetoric by populists has become common in many democratic nations and in a variety of political and religious contexts. In each case we have examined in this short article, we find civilizationalist rhetoric incorporating religion, though in two broadly different ways. Populist parties and leaders using civilizational rhetoric may align themselves with religious groups or organizations and may pursue a religious domestic and/or foreign political agenda, as has occurred in TurkeyIndia, and, to a degree, Hungary, among other places. On the other hand, civilizational populists may adopt a religious identity but not pursue a religious agenda nor develop ties with religious organizations. This appears to occur in the more secularized regions of the world, especially in Western Europe and deeply secularized nations such as the Netherlands. 

In either case, populists’ civilizational rhetoric is part of an electoral strategy designed to portray governing elites as responsible for an existential civilizational crisis threatening to destroy the culture and identity of the nation and its people. In much of Western Europe, and to a degree in the United States, immigration (exacerbated by low fertility rates) is the main cause of the civilizational crisis. Governing elites are blamed by civilizational populists in Western nations for encouraging Muslimswho are framed as belonging to a foreign and incompatible civilizationto migrate to the Westand in such numbers that they threaten to destroy the culture and identity of the nation and its supposed Judeo-Christian or Christian tradition.

Outside the West, it is often the presence of religious minority groups, and at times the influx of Western ideas and culture, which is framed as a crisis engulfing the nation. In India, the presence of Muslims is held by the BJP to be an existential threat to the nation, preventing the true ‘people’ from reconstructing the mighty Hindu civilization of ancient times. The Turkish AKP claims that Turkey is the leading nation of the Islamic world and legitimizes its military interventions in places like Syria by claiming it is acting as the protector of Sunni Muslims across the world. At the same time, the AKP alleges that foreigners, non-Sunni Muslims, and especially the Christian West, are involved in a conspiracy to dismember Turkey and destroy Islam, and that the Turkish people must fight against these ‘dark forces’ which threaten their culture, nation, and Islamic civilization. 

It is significant that, despite their use of civilizational rhetoric, the populist parties and leaders we examined remain nationalists. The purpose of civilizational rhetoric among populists, then, is to classify people into ingroups and outgroupsand, ultimately, to determine who belongs to the nation. In other words, civilizational populism appears to be a nationalist phenomenon, and though there are examples of transnationalism civilizational populism, in no case does it threaten the overwhelmingly nationalist character of the populist parties and leaders examined in this article. Civilizational populism, therefore, works best when it can harness the deepest fears of the majority population, particularly the fear of being ‘replaced,’ and thus when it can either exploit or produce a ‘minority-majority complex.’ In an age defined by liquid modernity and the fluid movement of people, money, goods, and ideas throughout the world, and when mass immigrationsometimes the result of waris destabilizing a wide array of societies, civilizational populists possess many opportunities to exploit ontological fears and produce emotions which create demand for their populist solutions. 

Civilizational populist leaders are responsible in part or wholly for a significant amount of violence the world over. The potential for violence is inherent in civilizational populism itself, insofar as it divides society into antagonistic groups, encourages ‘the people’ to believe they are victims of a corrupt elite and to ‘defend’ themselves against the ‘others’ who supposedly threaten their traditions and way of life. This emotional narrative legitimizes violence against ‘others,’ although it does not always lead to overt violence. At times, this narrative may lead to the suppression of religious ‘others,’ including the bans on Islamic dress instituted in Sri Lanka. Civilizational populist narratives have contributed to communal rioting in India, particularly under the leadership of Narendra Modi, and in Sri Lanka under the rule of the Rajapaksas. When civilizational populists become national rulers, they often use the power of the state to destroy their enemies. For example, in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has used his authority and influence to compel the state to demonize the Gülen movement due to the group’s alleged involvement in a failed coup and jail and intimidate journalists, academics, and activists who oppose his neo-Ottoman and Islamist ideology. In the worst case we have studied, MBT civilizational populists in Myanmar played a role in provoking and justifying genocidal violence against Muslims in the Rakhine state. 

Civilizational populism is an inherently anti-plural form of politics insofar as it posits that religious minorities pose a threat to ‘the people’most often understood as the majority group but sometimes as the authentic inhabitants of the land, whether they be a majority or a minority. As a result, wherever they gain power and influence, civilizational populists attempt to exclude religious minorities from public life, and at times launch violent attacks against them. 


 

Acknowledgements: This research has been funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Grant, DP220100829, Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation.


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TurkishMalaise

The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay

Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 6, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0012

 

Author Cengiz Aktar argues that Turkey is witnessed a victory of a non-democratic system—and the majority of society supports this transition. The regime consolidates its discriminatory, oppressive, autocratic politics by gaining the support of non-AKP constituents through the discourse of “native and national.” Thus, the situation in Turkey is not a simple deviation from the norm; it is a more complex socio-political conundrum. In other words, the regime represented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not the reason for but the result of society’s mindset which is a reasonable part of the “Turkish malaise.” 

Reviewed by Hafza Girdap

Power holders claim power through different means such as traditions, religions, ideologies, and economic dynamics. And when these leaders consolidate their power, it becomes a necessity for them to keep that power. They want to eliminate even a tiny risk or threat. Drawing on the strongman concept in The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay Professor Cengiz Aktar highlights the impact of the end of Turkey’s European Union accession process, the return of political Islamism, the Gezi Park protests, and the December 2013 corruption investigation. These milestones mark the authoritarian turn in the Turkish regime, triggering threats that resulted in a crackdown on all opposition—not only political actors but also all dissidents regardless of their affiliations.

Laying out Turkey’s historical roots in the Ottoman Empire, and its fluctuating relations with Europe and the West, Aktar investigates the recent Turkish malaise, touching on these ongoing relations. At the end of the book, readers are provided with the insights of two prominent scholars: a sociologist, Nilufer Gole, and a historian, Etienne Copeaux, both of whom Aktar interviews.

Throughout the book, Aktar theorizes on three striking points to summarize the nature of Turkish authoritarianism. The first aspect is the mass support for the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This support differs from historical examples, including the pre-1950, one-party era. Considering the fact that the AKP administration holds 30 percent of total votes, imposing their discourses, ideologies, and even injustices on the rest of society accommodates the regime’s oppressive nature. 

Secondly, the weakness of Turkey’s institutions plays a significant role in Turkish authoritarianism. The most apparent example is the “Turkish-style” presidential system which has almost no checks and balances. Aktra argues that almost all of Turkey’s institutions—judiciary, law enforcement, even Parliament—bow to the strongman and have become like sub-offices of one man. 

At a “book talk” event I attended, Professor Aktar stated that even in Russia, people are protesting Vladimir Putin and his war crimes. In Turkey, the only people standing up to Erdogan are women’s and feminist movements and those unjustly dismissed by emergency decrees following the supposed July 15th coup attempt. Yet these groups have not been sufficiently and efficiently united to make their voices more powerful. 

The last point Professor Aktar mentions is society’s (non)response to past persecutions, pogroms, and genocide. This, I believe, is where Aktar highlights and supports his proposition of a “Turkish malaise.” Aktar has stated that since such crimes against humanity—including the Armenian genocide—have been “swallowed” by the majority of Turkish society, Turkish authoritarianism has been nurtured and strengthened inherently by not only the leader(s) but also the people. Referring to Hannah Arendt’s theory of the masses, Aktar explains this phenomenon as the regime’s legitimacy, which is formed by the majoritarian constituency.  

Furthering his argument on the impact of mass support, Aktar asserts that Turkey is witnessing the victory of a non-democratic system with which a majority of the society agrees. The regime consolidates its discriminatory, oppressive, autocratic politics by gaining the support of non-AKP constituents, too, through the discourse of “native and national (yerli ve milli).” Thus, the situation in Turkey is not a simple deviation from the norm; it is a more complex socio-political conundrum. In other words, the regime represented by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not the reason for but the result of society’s mindset, which is a reasonable part of the “Turkish malaise.” 

In addition to the discussion of the relationship between authoritarianism and society’s content, Aktar also explores the de-westernization process—predominantly through the derailment of the EU accession process. As a well-known expert on EU-Turkey relations, Aktar defines this break as missing a golden opportunity for democratization. “Unmooring” from Europe has strengthened Erdogan’s move towards neo-Ottomanism as well as political Islam. In correspondence with feeding Turkish authoritarianism, institutional collapses due to “undemocratization” have been aggravated since the end of the accession process. This could be interpreted as the “last step towards the West,” one of the chapter titles in the book. The collapse of institutions has also aided Erdogan, allowing him to establish a monolithic, Islamist, nationalist discourse that eventually became an authoritarian regime. The most recent manifestations of Turkey’s dictatorial one-man rule are the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque, the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention (which provides protections for LGBTQ+ citizens), and the unconstitutional appointment of a regime-friendly president to Bogazici University, arguably Turkey’s finest university. 

Professor Aktar argues the Turkish malaise as linked to the West’s approach and describes this situation as “between misunderstanding and blind detachment, appeasement and complicity, containment and the fear of seeing this large country implode and disintegrate” (p. 66).

As a gender studies scholar, I would also like to touch on the gendered lens on the issue provided by Professor Nilufer Gole. Professor Gole problematizes the implications of two notions in her discussion: “mahrem” (sacred, private) and “meydan” (public). Even though the debate on the return of political Islam has mostly been based on the headscarf (veil) issue, and despite the regime’s oppressive and subjugating attitude towards women, conservative (pious) women have become more active politically and more visible in modern life, which makes them the “agents of change” in both their private and public lives. In other words, the notions of “mahrem” and “meydan” play a significant role in challenging their implications and realms. Gole describes this paradoxical turn as a challenge to patriarchy with preserved pious agency. “Meydan” also refers to the uprising in Gezi Park, in which masses from different segments of Turkish society protested against the Erdogan regime’s oppressive policies. In both referrals, “meydan” represents a resistance against political Islamist oppression. Gole argues that the “soul of contemporary Turkey” cannot be comprehended without “understanding the manifestations of mahrem and meydan which express both the malaise of modernity and its transcendence.” (p. 85)

To conclude, the Turkish malaise can be ascribed to both domestic issues and foreign relations and embodies immensely complicated concerns. Internally, a vicious correlation between the regime’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies entrenched with nationalistic and political Islamist proxies, and society’s belief in a national will and the notion of Turkey as a “blessed nation”—along with their pathetic contentment with the idea of a strongman—diminishes the chances of revitalizing democracy and democratic institutions. Externally, even if the gates are closed for Turkey to march to the West, “transactional” deals are still on the table, and this dilemma worsens the “malaise” for Europe, since relations relating to security issues and geopolitical necessities (e.g. refugee issues, economic interests, etc.) are still important.


The Turkish Malaise – A Critical Essay by Cengiz Aktar (Transnational Press London, 2021). 99 pp. £14,50 (Paperback), ISBN: 978-1-80135-076-1