Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an Advisor to Protect Democracy.

Professor Ben-Ghiat: Any society can be susceptible to strongman figures if it’s the right time

Professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat: “The most successful of authoritarian rulers are the ones who know how to play on that ‘we.’ And they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that ‘we.’ Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits… 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people… Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up…”

Interview by Merve Reyhan Kayikci

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University and a commentator on fascism, authoritarian leaders and propaganda and the threats they pose to democracies, said that any society can be susceptible to an authoritarian strongman figure if it’s the right time. “It’s very important to see the warning signs in the beginning and stop these people in their tracks,” she warned.

Giving an interview to Sweden-based Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), Prof. Ben-Ghiat talked about her latest book, “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” the rising authoritarianism around the world, the link between masculinity and authoritarianism and how to stop the “strongmen.”Stating that the most successful of authoritarian rulers are the ones who know how to play on that “we” Ben-Ghiat said that “they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that ‘we.’ Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In (Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits… 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people… Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up…”

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

In the book you begin by describing how there is a strong link between masculinity and authoritarianism. What are some aspects of masculinity that make an authoritarian leader and draw the support of people?

There are many types of masculinity in the world, but the strongman is an authoritarian leader who not only damages or destroys democracy but uses this kind of toxic, arrogant masculinity as a tool of rule. So some of them, like Mussolini and Putin, will use their bodies, they strip their shirts off, and so they let their bodies become kind of emblems of national strength. And they also use threats. Their strength is also threatening. This is a kind of masculinity that’s about domination, possession of others, and it connects to a worldview where these leaders have a proprietary conception of power and the state so that they seize businesses, as Erdgan does in Turkey and Putin in Russia. So this is a kind of masculinity, and the reason I use arrogance is that there is nothing that shouldn’t be theirs.

Ultimately, Authoritarian Governments Are Very Destructive and Unstable

Do you think in some societies people are more drawn to a father figure, a savior, than in other societies?

One of the ways these leaders find popular appeal is that they correspond to ancient archetypes of male figures, such as the protector or the father figure and also the savior. One common theme is that they all say they are going to save the nation. Only they have unique qualities, and this is where their charisma can come in or their personality cult. Only they can save the nation. On the one hand, they project themselves forward in time, where they say, “I’m going to make things great in the future.” They often pose as modernizers where they’re building highways and airports. But they also channel nostalgia, where they say, so it’s not “Make the nation great again,” as Donald Trump would say, it’s not “Make the nation great,” it’s “Make it great again.” So the nostalgia for a world that used to be better, for a lost empire, is very important. Mussolini had the Roman Empire, Erdogan has his fantasy of reviving the Ottoman Empire. … They attract people by playing into fantasies of grandeur and power.

One of the things my research taught me is that any society can be susceptible to this strongman figure if it’s the right time. The right time is sometimes after a defeat … or a time where there has been a lot of social change that includes gender emancipation or racial equity, and white males in the European and American context often feel threatened.

In the book you mention that most strongmen have anger issues. Could you elaborate on that? 

Historically people have seen authoritarians as crazy, starting with Hitler. People said he was a ranting fool and crazy. I was astounded doing my research at how similar the personalities of authoritarian leaders were. They each have their own quirks and not exactly the same, but they all have paranoia, narcissism, they all are very aggressive, and they like to humiliate others. This leads to certain styles of governance that are very dysfunctional and full of turmoil. So they create inner sanctums around themselves with family members — like Erdogan — because they’re corrupt and need people to keep their secrets. But everybody else is humiliated and fired and re-hired. So their governments are not stable at all. Their personalities are impulsive and they think they are God sometimes and that they’re infallible. They make snap decisions which are not good for policy making. Ultimately, their governments are very destructive and unstable, even though the myth of authoritarians is that these are take-charge men who will bring peace and stability.

Their personalities are full of turmoil, but dismissing them as crazy is shortsighted because they’re opportunists who are extremely skilled at managing people. They know how to connect with people. Erdogan cries a lot and shows a lot of emotion. Not only are they highly aggressive, they have got this politics of emotion that makes people feel included. So all of this does not add up to somebody who’s crazy. It adds up to somebody who’s very skilled and very savvy, actually.

Authoritarian States Need Intellectual Legitimacy

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister arrives for a meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels, Belgium on Dec. 13, 2019. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

When the political situation in Turkey turned for the worse, one of the first groups to be targeted were academics who were critical of the government. What is the fixation with academia and academics for authoritarians and populists? 

Authoritarian states need intellectual legitimacy because they are thug states, mafia states. Violence is their everyday behavior. On the one hand they need intellectuals to write their propaganda, to be their spokespeople, to do nationalist research. They need intellectuals to rewrite the schoolbooks to support their nationalist historiography. On the other hand strongmen disappear people, but they also disappear fields of knowledge that conflict with their goals. While they promote certain things, they also ban other things and threaten people to not work on those topics.

In Hungary Orbán banned gender studies overnight. That was a prelude to his anti-trans policies. So sometimes universities are the first place where the recasting of knowledge and propaganda shows itself. … In authoritarian regimes academics become political people, the government sees them as political people, and then sometimes they become enemies of the state. Erdogan has jailed and detained so many academics, and he is threatened by certain kinds of research.

At a broader level, authoritarians are always threatened by fact-based knowledge. The facts are their enemy. Propaganda means that you have to create an alternate reality that your believers will follow, and research based on science and scientific method becomes the enemy.

What about international support? Did the EU support the stability of Erdogan’s regime for the sake of the migration deal? 

Erdogan is a good example of benefitting, that the EU has not been standing up for democracy. They shouldn’t be funding Erdogan, who has locked so many people up and is so corrupt. So what is the EU standing up for? There are groups of foreign enablers because authoritarians, in all areas of their policies, depend on foreign capital and goodwill. Erdogan is just the latest who is doing all these infrastructure improvements with foreign money and foreign debt. If financial institutions were guided more by morality, they could easily retract these foreign lending practices and make them dependent on democratic actions.

These are leaders who care only about money and power, so the West not only does not use its power to change the behavior of autocrats, they help them. The same could be said for international financial institutions and law firms that help autocrats store their money in offshore tax havens.

The anti-globalism of authoritarians is fake because they are the biggest globalists of all. They are dependent on international infrastructure coming from democracies and also foreign autocracies to keep in power. A few years ago Erdogan had five different American PR firms working for him to support his interests in Washington. He and Trump were quite close.

What do you think Western democracies could have done differently to prevent what is happening in Turkey today?

It is very important to see the warning signs at the beginning and stop these people in their tracks at the start and let them know that the EU is not going to fund them anymore or make treaties for migration, and really flex the muscle of democracy and open society and use that. These are men who see any weakness or gentility towards themselves as weakness. They’re always testing the boundaries. … Violations of international law are a test, so the first time there’s a violation, we need to strike very hard. All of these guys in power now have been there for a long time, so it’s too late to retrain them, but we don’t do what we could do. These men only listen to force, and if the EU and democracies don’t show that, then we’re not going to get results.

Authoritarians Like to Believe They Have Divine Guidance

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

 

Can we say that authoritarianism is in part the result of democracy failing to fulfil its promises?

To some extent, absolutely. Authoritarians have managed to make people feel included and give them a sense of community. They have been better at that with rallies and chants which may seem superficial but are part of a political culture. Liberal democracy has never been as skilled at that. Authoritarian leaders are able to make an emotional connection. Liberal democracy has been about reason and not raw emotion. This goes back to the figure of the leader who cries in public like Erdogan and who has this charisma that’s constructed. 

Once they’re in power, there are huge resources devoted to their personality cults. But people connect with them, and one of the reasons I want to concentrate on leaders is because they are so important for the success of these dynamics. For example, on the personality cult it’s fascinating that the rules of personality cults actually haven’t changed for a hundred years, even though today we have social media and back then there were news reels. So the leader needs to be an everyman who can connect with anyone. At the same time they have to be superman, they have to be men above all other men. They need to be someone who’s all powerful and can get away with things. They like to believe they have divine guidance. It’s the same all over the world and says something about human psychology that we seem to need this in our leaders.

In recent years gender-based violence has increased and even become more visible in Turkey. Would it be right to assume that there is a correlation between rising authoritarianism and the vulnerability of women?

Women have been the targets of authoritarians as much as lawyers, judges, journalists and the critical opposition. They have traditionally been an enemy, even in situations where the state ideology preaches equality, like in communism, you know, Joseph Stalin took away abortion rights. Most authoritarians have ambitions to re-found the family. And this is where the father figure comes in. Authoritarians fear demographic change, so women become pawns and tools of larger social demographic political schemes. If authoritarians are expansionists like the former fascists, then women have to produce babies. Women’s bodies and rights become legislated.

When you have a leader who models through his person disrespect for women or even hatred for women and a kind of violent aggressive personality, then this is reflected throughout society, and it’s often backed up with policies. It’s a little-known fact that Trump, who is a serial sexual assaulter who became president, partly decriminalized domestic violence in the US in 2018. Physical violence was still domestic violence, but all other kinds of abuse — emotional, psychological — were no longer considered domestic violence so women couldn’t get help from the authorities. This leaves them more vulnerable.

Gaddafi was a real revolutionary in the beginning and believed in women’s rights. He hugely bettered the legal status and the employment status of women in Libyan society. Women had the right to work and own their own property. But he fostered a culture of sexual assault and violence as his hold over the country strengthened.

Accountability Is Key

Do you think it is possible to recover from an authoritarian period? After countries are ruled by authoritarianism, is it possible for them to return to liberal democracy, or will they always have some sort of political instability?

If you don’t hold people accountable and you don’t have a mechanism for testimonials to come out for people, like in the former East Germany, when they made public the Stasi files and people could go and see their own file on themselves. This was very empowering to people and created for many decades a lot of stability in Germany. But Germany versus Italy is an interesting case because Italy did not go through an aggressive de-fascism. So the fascists went underground, but it was not rooted out. It was not made to be as taboo in the culture as in Germany. After Franco in Spain you were not allowed to talk about it, so there was democracy but no accountability. There’s always a lot of fear around revenge, retribution, vendetta, and so sometimes in transitional eras sometimes even the people who are on the side of the victims can be afraid to let the energies of the victimized find the full expression. Accountability is key.

What do you think of the use of the “us” and “them” dichotomy? Such as the use of anti-Semitic, anti-migrant and anti-West narratives.

Authoritarians create a community of the included through excluding others. All the community building rituals like rallies, are built on the active exclusion of some so that others feel included. There can be various enemies who are demonized. Sometimes these are Jews, other times these are illegal immigrants, or George Soros, who kind of is everything. He’s a very convenient symbol of many things. But this is the essential dynamic that appeals to very primitive and powerful feelings in people, to feel one with a community and to feel superior. Nazism and fascism because it was so racially oriented made a woman who was deemed an Aryan superior to a man who was not Aryan. So when people ask why women so often support these leaders, it’s because they have status if they are in the included community over men. 

In the US, for example, a white woman who loves Trump felt superior to a non-white man. So it plays with gender hierarchies and is a very powerful thing. The most successful of these rulers are the ones who know how to play on that “we.” And they make themselves personally the embodiment of the nation of that “we.” Often they say, if you attack me, you’re attacking the whole nation. In Erdogan’s case, anyone who is against his government is a terrorist. Erdogan is a typical authoritarian personality with all of his insult suits. That is very interesting to me as a clue to this very insecure and prideful personality who gets pleasure out of humiliating and ruining others. 21st century authoritarians use the law and lawsuits to financially and psychologically exhaust people. They make it too tiring so you can’t survive and you’re harassed. So you self-censor, and that’s their ultimate goal.

Authoritarians Need to Be Shamed and Outed

Autocrats like Erdogan and Orban who use pseudo democratic institutions are not necessarily less repressive than their institution-free counterparts. Armenian people protested Erdogan in New York City on October 10, 2020. Sign reads “Erdogan is Hitler, Stop Genocide”.

 

In Turkey people like to say geography is one’s fate. Is authoritarianism a “fate” for some countries?

I find this fatalistic. Authoritarians want people to be so resigned and hopeless and feeling that it’s their destiny to be in political situations without agency and rights that they give up. … In fact the suffering of the past can make people much more determined to have freedom. The opposite being a place like the United States, which has never had a national dictatorship or foreign occupation, and so people did not see the warning signs of what Trump represented. … They don’t have the history at all and can be complacent, and this is also a problem.

What can we do to safeguard our democracies? Especially, people who are still living in free democratic countries, what can they do for its continuity and also to protect those in vulnerable and dangerous situations?

I think going back to pressuring the EU, pressuring financial and legal institutions and all the enablers of authoritarianism. We don’t have enough journalism articles devoted to them. They need to be shamed and outed, and that is one thing that would have a practical effect, making these authoritarians pariahs, so that US law firms and PR firms won’t take their cases on, so that Erdogan won’t have five different companies to convey his propaganda to US politicians.

The kind of work the SCF does in defense of human rights is important because a lot of that means publicizing the stories of the victims. This is why I included a lot of unpleasant material in the book because today we have the far-right all over the world who openly say, for example, “Pinochet did nothing wrong.” This erases the history of what he did do, so that’s why although it’s not nice to write about the torture, it’s very important. So in real time when Erdogan is beating up people and they come out of prison and they have the marks of what they have suffered, it’s important to show that because this is the kind of evidence they try to cover up.

Who is Ruth Ben-Ghiat?

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University and an Advisor to Protect Democracy. She writes frequently for CNN and other media outlets on threats to democracy around the world. As author or editor of six books, she brings historical perspective to her analyses of current events. Her insight into the authoritarian playbook has made her an expert source for television, radio, podcasts, and online events around the globe. She is also a historical consultant for film and television productions. 

Ben-Ghiat’s work has been supported by Fulbright, Guggenheim, and other fellowships. Her books Fascist Modernities and Italian Fascism’s Empire Cinema detail what happens to societies when authoritarian governments take hold, and explore the appeal of strongmen to collaborators and followers. Growing up in Pacific Palisades, California, where many intellectuals who fled Nazism resettled, sparked her interest in the subject. Her latest book, the #1 Amazon bestseller Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present (Norton, 2020), examines how illiberal leaders use corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo to stay in power, and how resistance to them has unfolded over a century. She also publishes Lucid, a newsletter about abuses of power and how to counter them.

Demonstration of Uighurs against China politics of repression in Brussels, Belgium on July 26, 2020. Photo: Arnaud Brian.

The Silence of the Khans: The pragmatism of Islamist populist Imran Khan and his mentor Erdogan in persecuting Muslim minorities

Erdogan and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of the “Muslim Other” within their own countries and silence over the Uighur genocide in China earn them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

When pressed on why he is outspoken against Islamophobia in the West but silent about the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in western China, the Islamist populist prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, responded: “I concentrate on what is happening on my border.”

Following in the footsteps of Turkey’s authoritarian (Islamist) populist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Imran Khan has emerged as among the most prominent faces of religious populism in the (Sunni) Muslim-majority world. “There is so much debate about moderate and radical Islam, but there is only one Islam,” declared Imran Khan in 2019. This echoed the tone adopted several years earlier (in 2017) by Erdogan, who asserted “there is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam, and that’s it.” The idea of “one Islam” or “Islam is Islam” is part of a populist process of “Islamizing Islam.” This comes in the wake of the leadership gap that opened up with the withdrawal of Saudi Arabia as the Sunni Muslim hegemon. Thus, in neo-Ottoman fashion, Turkey seeks to fill this gap, with Pakistan acting as its aide to address its “ontological insecurities” (Yilmaz, 2021). In highlighting Islam in this way, both Erdogan and Khan define “the people” or “the pious” against an antagonistic “Other,” which includes the West, non-Muslims, liberals, and usually non-Sunni groups (Gursoy, 2019; Yilmaz, 2018; Mudde, 2017; Moffit, 2016; White, 2013).

Erdogan and Khan Have Instrumentalized Religion

Other than their political instrumentalization, the sheer size of these two countries’ populations makes this phenomenon a concern worth exploring. Turkey’s population is 82 million, while Pakistan’s is even greater at 217 million people. Moreover, over the last decade, both Erdogan and Khan have increasingly instrumentalized religion to galvanize electoral support and gain diplomatic sway with (Sunni) Muslim-majority countries under this populist framework. 

While Turkey and Pakistan are two very culturally and ethnically different societies, they share a long historical political affiliation that dates back well into the late medieval period. South Asia was ruled by the Mamluk (slave) rulers of the Delhi Sultanate, who were ethnically Turkic (Eaton, 2019). After the Ottomans achieved the status of the Muslim Caliphate, all leaders in South Asia —from emperors to princely state rajas —sought royal endorsement from Constantinople, which usually came in the form of an adorned robe from the Caliph himself (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). This political link built a healthy network of trade between the regions that also led to the exchange of soldiers, resources, literature, art, and other labor that infused the Ottoman Turkish elements in the Mughal court and smaller sultanates in united India (Eaton, 2019; Avari, 2016). Despite being over 3,000 kilometers away, the profound connection between the two regions was felt when the Khilafat Movement in British India, initially led by both Muslims and Hindus, tried to oppose the Treaty of Sèvres to preserve the Ottoman caliphate (Niemeijer, 1972). This centuries-old pan-Islamic connection is now undergoing an Islamist populist transformation that seeks to redefine Islam under Turkish and Pakistani leadership.

We argue that this “reengineering” is, in fact, a pragmatic political maneuver of both leaders to consolidate their power within their respective countries and overseas. It is a convenient tool that is used when needed and shelved when it is politically expedient. Thus, both leaders have used (or expediently avoided) Islamist populist rhetoric, policy, and programmatic interventions depending on the context and the audience. 

Once the definitional boundaries are constructed, anti-Western and liberal rhetoric is put into place to create a “crises” situation in which Muslims are presented as being under attack from “moral” degradation or simply victims of Western imperialism and Islamophobia. This “crisis” is portrayed as a transnational issue when it extends to Muslim victimhood, especially on the issue of Islamophobia. Both leaders have highlighted their concern over discrimination, killings, and terrorist attacks targeting Muslims in Western countries and the plight of Muslims in conflicts that target them, such as the Gaza conflict, the Kashmir dispute, and Rohingya ethnic cleansing.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan.

In June 2021, when a Canadian white supremacist killed a family of four Pakistani Canadians in a racially motivated Islamophobic attack, Prime Minister Khan termed it a “terror” attack. In 2020, following the gruesome killing of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth in France, the state introduced harsh measures to regulate and monitor Muslims. Khan’s furious reaction on this occasion targeted the state and not the victim of the attack, while Erdogan called for a boycott of French goods even as he publicly insulted the French head of state, saying, “What is the problem that the individual called Macron has with Islam and with Muslims? […] Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” 

In addition to creating a sense of moral panic, both these Islamist populists have blamed “outside forces” or “dark forces” for supposedly carrying out attacks on the respective countries to undermine and destabilize them. This extends “the Muslim victimhood narrative” (Yilmaz, 2021) further and accentuates the economic and security failures of “hypocrites” within and “enemies” outside as well.

When the Shia Hazara community in Pakistan was targeted as part of sectarian terrorism, the blame for orchestrating the attacks was shifted to India, which was accused of seeking to undermine Pakistan’s stability. While visiting the victims’ family, Khan said, “no doubt what happened was part of a bigger game” and showed his determination to bridge the Sunni-Shia gap. He continued, “my mission is not only to unite the whole country but the entire Muslim ummah. To end this divide, we have tried to remove differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran.” In a similar manner, President Erdogan has also warned the Turkish nation of the “the sneaky plans of the dark forces” who are blamed for a wide variety of issues such as the devaluation of the currency, organizing anti-AKP protests, the 2016 failed coup attempt, and the like (Yilmaz & Erturk, 2021; Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). 

With crises both tangible and intangible in place, Khan and Erdogan have not shied away from presenting themselves as the “strongmen” that their nations and the ummah need. In an unapologetic manner, both have justified various undemocratic measures as necessary to confront the extraordinary challenges facing the nation. Khan reminded the nation to vote for him because “visionary leaders do not make popular decisions; they make the right decisions” — his way of justifying his anti-Western stance along with anti-corruption policies. Erdogan has also felt the need to remind the citizens that “every country needs a strong leader in order to progress.”

On various occasions, both leaders have called for cooperation among the ummah to counter Islamophobia and other pressing issues. In 2020, Erdogan called on the Muslim world to undertake joint action to defend the interests of the ummah: “As Muslims, we should exchange our views more frequently […] many areas of our geography of fraternity are subject to blood, tears and instability […] We will never harm our brothers […] those, who become troubled with the rise of Islam, attack our religion.” on multiple occasions since his 2018 electoral victory, Khan has advocated for Muslim brotherhood in international forums. In an open letter to leaders of Muslim-majority countries in late 2020, he expressed his concerns and urged Muslim leaders to “act collectively to counter growing Islamophobia in non-Muslim states.

To put words into action, both leaders have taken specific measures at home and overseas to mobilize “the pious ummah.” Given Turkey’s better governance structures and institutional capacity and nearly two decades of AKP rule, the country has taken more concrete measures. Specifically, a network of state organizations, such as the “Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and its European extension DITIB, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), and humanitarian NGOs with close ties to AKP officials” Erdogan has been able to transmit this narrative of Islamist populism among the Turkish diaspora and other Muslim communities. In a sense, the Turkish state has created through these organizations a support network endorsed by disenfranchised Muslim communities in the West while university exchange programs, mosque sermons, knowledge-production, and media (both entertainment and news) have highlighted Islamophobia and discussed anti-Western and anti-imperialism.

While Khan has not funded programs of such scale, he has used his speeches at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the World Economic Forum (WEF), and the United Nations (UN) to address the Pakistani diaspora in America and other Muslim communities. For example, during COVID-19, when Khan visited Sri Lanka, he helped local Muslims by negotiating with the government to ensure they would receive ground burials (as is the Islamic tradition) rather than being cremated like the rest of the Sri Lankan population. For this, he was hailed a hero by the Sri Lankan Muslim community. At the same time, Khan has imported Turkish entertainment media to Pakistan with shows such as Dirilis: Ertugrul (Resurrection: Ertugrul), Kurulus: Osman (Establishment: Osman), Payitaht: Abdulhamid (The Last Emperor), and Yunus Emre: Aşkın Yolculuğu (Yunus Emre: The Journey of Love) which have neo-Ottoman and anti-Western themes and subtexts and call for unification of the ummah.

Their Call For Action Not Based On Human Rights

Cooperation also extends beyond these soft power links to the realm of hard power, with distinctive jihadist undertones. The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh is a prime example. Not only did neighboring Turkey lend support to “fellow Muslim” Azerbaijan but also Pakistan. Moreover, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan has also seen these two partners within the ummah take a leading role in negotiations with the Taliban and the Afghan government. “Efforts” like this taken on behalf of the Muslim ummah are no doubt why Erdogan and Khan are consistently found to be among the most influential Muslim leaders in the world in various rankings.

Despite the global recognition among many Muslim circles worldwide, the use of Islamist populism by both Khan and Erdogan is selective, making it pragmatic. Two distinct features of both populist governments show that the call for action is not based on human rights; rather, it is a convenient instrumentalization of religion for political gain.

Firstly, Turkey and Pakistan both have ethnic and sectarian rifts. Under the AKP leadership, since the fallout of the Kurdish opening, not only has the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) been vilified as a terrorist group but the AKP’s political opposition has faced increasing harassment and charges of aiding and abetting “terrorism” (Yilmaz, 2018; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Yilmaz et al., 2020; Yilmaz et al., 2021). Another community, the Alevis, has also been increasingly targeted on sectarian lines. Even though most Kurds and Alevis are Muslims, these minorities in a Sunni-majority country are often persecuted on ethnic and sectarian lines.

In Pakistan as well, the sectarian rifts between Shias and Sunnis are deepening, and other than condemning targeted attacks on Shia minorities in Pakistan, the PTI government has done little to uproot the anti-Shia sentiments of variousclerics in the country. Moreover, ethnic tensions between the state and the Pashtun and Baloch communities have seen little effort at conflict resolution. Instead, the state chooses to ignore the rifts and at times sanctions police- or military-led action against Pashtun or Baloch rights activities (Yousaf, 2019).

It is clear that both Pakistan and Turkey have constructed a particular ideology that casts the ummah as majority Sunni and favors the major ethnic group in power. Thus, despite their repeated call for “social justice” and “equity” for victimized Muslims abroad, they have been persecuting Muslims within their own borders.

Secondly, both leaders have been highly selective in their cherry-picking of “Muslim causes.” Thus, they often speak about the conflict in Palestine, the Rohingya genocide, and the Indian government’s restrictions in Kashmir while avoiding discussion of the Uighurs (or Uyghurs), a Muslim population in China, who are subjected to genocide by the Chinese government. Given the deep investment and strategic ties between China, Turkey, and Pakistan, both leaders have chosen to remain silent about this “Muslim” issue. When confronted about this selective silence, the PTI government and Imran Khan have called the issue “an internal matter” and a “non-issue” or simply dismissed it and called China “a great friend of Pakistan.”

Erdogan’s and Khan’s Use of Islamist Populism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

Ankara has also maintained a similarly muted approach towards the issue by preventing the opposition from bringing the issue up and ignoring international efforts to impose sanctions or even condemn the Chinese suppression of the Uighurs (Erdemir & Kowalski, 2020; Shams, 2020). The Uighur majority of Xinjiang is connected with Pakistan through the territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit–Baltistan (formerly known as the Northern Areas). In addition, Turkey shares a cultural bond with the Uighurs through their common Turkic roots. Yet, both leaders continue their silence over the issue. While Erdogan and Khan have both condemned France, America, and other Western and non-Muslim countries for discriminating against Muslims or attacking them, this deafening silence by these two “most influential” leaders of the ummah reveals their selective approach and use of populist Islamism. 

Erdogan’s and Khan’s use of Islamist populism lays bare a highly pragmatic approach to addressing Muslim issues, rather than one motivated by Islamic social justice or humanitarianism. Their stances are designed to evoke emotions and justify their existence as populists while expanding their transnational populist appeal among other Muslim-majority nations. Yet their treatment of “the Muslim Other” within their countries and silence over the Uighur genocide earns them the title of pragmatic Islamist leaders. Moreover, both Erdogan and Khan are co-opting and pursuing a pan-Islamist brotherhood for the Sunni Muslim world. This synchronized populist agenda risks further deepening political divides — not to mention sectarian and ethnic conflict — within both countries.

At the same time, by positioning themselves as the leaders of the ummah, Khan and Erdogan risk homogenizing the Muslim faith under the Sunni archetype, which would repudiate the plurality of the faith and its various schools of thought. Moreover, isolating the Uighurs in exchange for “hush money” from China is a dangerous precedent being set by Turkey and Pakistan. Moreover, it goes to show how readily economic interests trump morality even for those who traditionally claim to “stand up” for the marginalized and disadvantaged. Finally, the transnational nature of the selective Islamism of these allied populist leaders means their project will have a broader impact that transcends Turkish and Pakistani geographical borders with as yet unknown consequences.


References

Avari, B. (2016). Islamic Civilization in South Asia: A History of Muslim Power and Presence. New York: Routledge.

Eaton, M. Richard. (1992). India in the Persianate Age 1000-1765. Allen Lane: Penguin History. 

Gürsoy, Yaprak. (2019). “Moving Beyond European and Latin American Typologies: The Peculiarities of AKP’s Populism in Turkey.” Journal of Contemporary Asia

Khan, Imran. (2020). “Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Special Interview with Hamza Ali Abbasi.” Hum News. December 5, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2gFbFH0IdA

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2016). The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.  

Mudde, Cas. (2017). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4), 2004, 541– 563. 

Niemeijer, A. (1972). The Khilafat Movement in India 1919-1924. The Hague: Brill.

White, Jenny. (2013). Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). Creating the desired citizens: State, Islam and ideology in Turkey. Cambridge University Press.

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “A Systematic Literature Review of Populism, Religion and Emotions.” Religions. 12 272. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12040272

Yilmaz, Ihsan and Erturk, Faruk. (2021). “Populism, violence and authoritarian stability: necropolitics in Turkey.” Third World Quarterly. 10.1080/01436597.2021.1896965 

Yilmaz, Ihsan & Bashirov, Galib. (2018). “The AKP after 15 years: emergence of Erdoganism in Turkey.”  Third World Quarterly. 39(9), 1812-1830, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2018.1447371

Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2018). “Islamic Populism and Creating Desirable Citizens in Erdogan’s New Turkey.” Mediterranean Quarterly. 29:4, 52-76.

Yilmaz, Ihsan; Caman, Mehmet Efe & Bashirov, Galib. (2020). “How an Islamist Party Managed to Legitimate Its Authoritarianisation in the Eyes of the Secularist Opposition: The Case of Turkey.” Democratization. DOI: 10.1080/13510347.2019.1679772.

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

Yousaf, F. (2019). “Pakistan’s ‘Tribal’ Pashtuns, Their ‘Violent’ Representation, and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.” SAGE Open. doi:10.1177/2158244019829546

Photo: ubisoft.com

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

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

By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz, Mustafa Demir & Nicholas Morieson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

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

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

The Roots of Shihab’s Islamist Ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indonesia

Indonesia’s Salafist Protégé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shihab’s Call for Vigilantism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FPI a Surrogate Welfare System

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

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

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

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

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

Shihab’s Targeting of Ahok in Political Lobbying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shihab Imprisonment and the Future of Salafism in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

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

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


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

What Went Wrong in Turkey?

The volume titled Islamism, Populism, and Turkish Foreign Policy, edited by Burak Bilgehan Ozpek and Bill Park (Routledge, 2019), reveals that Islamism and populism have long united forces in Turkey to mobilize the masses from the periphery to the center to capture the state “by” the support of the people, but neither “for” nor “with” them. 

Reviewed by Mustafa Demir

What went wrong in Turkey? This was the question in the minds of the contributors who embarked on the intellectual journey that gave birth to Islamism, Populism, and Turkish Foreign Policy. As an observer of Turkish politics, I welcome this work, not only as a contribution to the literature but also as an effort, concordant with intellectual and scholarly responsibility, to critically contextualize and record another important shift in the life of modern Turkey, one that has been dubbed the “Islamist populist turn” in Turkish history (Yilmaz, 2021).

The book is a collection of articles first published in a special issue of Turkish Studies dealing with Islamism and populism in Turkey and its impact on Turkey’s foreign policy. It consists of six comprehensive articles in which the concepts of Islamism and populism serve as connective tissues. 

The book begins with an editorial introduction by Bill Park. He provides a concise contextual background from which the AKP has emerged as a force of democratization and discusses how “a decade and a half later” the AKP has completed its “domination of Turkey’s political life” as an authoritarian regime. Park also explains how the AKP regime masterfully mobilized the “hitherto alienated masses” and captured the secular Turkish state with their help. He highlights how the expected “consolidation of democracy” as an end product of the AKP era has been superseded by the current reality of “centralisation of power, growing authoritarianism… and a purge of all kinds of political opposition.” Park also briefly points out the shift in the country’s foreign policy from a Western-oriented emerging soft power in its region to an aggressive, revisionist actor with worsening relations with the West that reflect the country’s internal shift towards authoritarianism. Following this quick depiction of Turkey’s internal and external picture, Park presents the central question that ties all six articles together: “What went wrong [in Turkey]?” 

Burak Bilgehan Ozpek and Nebehat Tanriverdi-Yasar highlight the tension between democracy and secularism in Turkey and explain how the AKP regime has exploited this tension to craft its Islamist populist appeal against the country’s secular establishment. They also discuss how the EU membership process has been instrumentalized/weaponized and used in the marginalization of the Kemalist military and institutions and their depiction as the “internal” enemy of the “real” people of the country. Finally, the authors highlight that all attempts to destroy the Kemalist system are justified in the eyes of the “real” people of the country. 

Birol Baskan’s article is also a significant contribution that details the Islamist foreign policy perspective of the AKP. He places the worldview and policies of Turkey’s former foreign minister and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu under the microscope to lay out what an Islamist foreign policy perspective looks like. Baskan details how a “civilizationist–populism” came to be adopted in forging foreign relations and how — seen through this lens — the world can be reduced to one unified Muslim civilization versus the rest. He also rightly argues that this understanding has shaped “neo-Ottomanism” and informed Turkish foreign policy decisions during the Arab uprisings. Indeed, the author notes how artificially demarcated borders and the impact of the Arab uprisings brought forth a millennial opportunity to remedy historical “problems” to create a culturally, politically, and economically integrated region. This understanding also reflects a major departure from Kemalist foreign policy towards the region. 

Another article by Mustafa Serdar Palabiyik focuses on post-2010 Turkey. It looks at how the current regime politicizes history to create populist binaries. Here, the Kemalists and their precursors are portrayed as internal collaborators of the Western powers, “the enemy” of the “real” people in Turkey. In this narrative, Kemalists and their historical precursors are cast as the scapegoats for all the losses and defeats the Porte faced before its demise. This revised history has been crucial in the justification of current foreign policies since the regime and its elite are presented as the vanguard of an Ottoman revival. 

Mustafa A. Sezal and Ihsan Sezal’s contribution is a critical attempt to analyze the role of Islamist ideology in the AKP. This chapter explains in detail how Islamism as an ideology has empowered the AKP ruling elite and provided them with “efficient” tools to alienate the Kemalist establishment, coding them as a foreign element and presenting them as an enemy of and threat to the “real” people of the country. This chapter argues that Islamism has been the central dynamic shaping the AKP’s worldview from the outset. The authors contend that Islamism has been the core principle of the AKP and has been applied to both its internal and external relations. However, I think this conclusion does a disservice to many former members of the party—like Reha Camuroglu, Ertugrul Gunay, Yasar Yakis, and many others—who waged a genuinely heroic struggle to democratize the country within AKP ranks during its first two terms (2002–2010). All departed the party following its anti-democratic turn and once its authoritarian tendencies became salient after 2010. 

Neatly complementing the Sezals’ discussion, Menderes Cinar’s article highlights the transformation of the AKP from a moderate democratic Islamic party to a more populist party with a civilizationist outlook and growing anti-democratic tendencies and practices. I suggest that Cinar’s article be read alongside that of Mustafa Sezal and Ihsan Sezal. Cinar highlights how “the AKP’s nativist practices have aimed at redefining as a Muslim nation by using a civilizational discourse” (p. 8). He also argues that the AKP’s ideology was “unformed” when it was established, after which the party gradually developed a populist authoritarian character. 

However, alternatively, I would suggest that when the party first came to power, it was a rather motley coalition of different segments.  Only gradually did the Islamist partner come to dominate the other parts, either through cooptation or purges. Thus, it would be beneficial to highlight the internal changes within the party that saw it transform within a decade from a coalition of reformist progressive liberals and former Islamists (who claimed they had become “pro-European conservative democrats”) to an anti-Western, revisionist, and populist Islamist political party. 

This point of mine is also endorsed by Park in the introduction. Park says that none of the contributions “in this volume draw attention to the change in the AKP after it assumed power” (p. 5). However, I think this point requires further attention because overlooking transformation within political parties is not specific to the chapters in this volume. It is an understudied topic in Turkey and the AKP era overall. And it requires further research to produce a more complete and nuanced view of the topic.

Turkish academia has long assumed that political parties are “fixed units” that carry certain ideologies. This oversight is a real problem not only for Turkey in the AKP era but in general. For example, without discussing the transformation within the CHP over time, it would be difficult to properly understand the party’s shifting foreign and domestic/security policies towards ethnic and religious minorities and practicing Muslims. It would also do a disservice to the reformist, progressive liberals—like Canan Kaftancioglu, Sezgin Tanrikulu, Ahmet Unal Cevikoz, and many others—who have been championing progressive reformist politics within the party’s ranks in recent years. 

The final chapter has been written by Mustafa Kutlay and Huseyin Emrah Karaoguz. It focuses on the economic aspects of recent AKP rule. Although the article seems to stay out of the frame of Islamism and populism, it provides an important account of the lack of “bureaucratic autonomy” in Turkey and an important discussion of the political economy of Turkey’s populist present. Here, the arbitrary authoritarian interference by political forces in the economic sphere (mirroring political interference in civil spheres) is seen as the central driver of Turkey’s recent economic turmoil. The authors contend that this interference—especially in the allocation of funds and resources— “in the formulation and implementation of R&D policies” stems mainly from the regime’s “populist motivations” (p. 123).

Islamism has long served as a sub-strata political ideology in Turkey. Attempts to surface it were retarded by secular state forces up until the end of the 20th century (for further details, see Cizre and Cinar, 2003). However, managed to find a crack in the surface, rising to inundate and subsume the socio-political spectrum in Turkey in the last decade.    

By addressing Islamism and populism, the edited volume offers an account of the rise of authoritarianism in Turkey as well. However, instead of dealing with these two terms as separate phenomena, it would have been beneficial to underline the interconnectedness of the authoritarian turn and the rise of Islamist populism under the AKP regime in Turkey. Certainly, some of the articles discuss these notions together. However, given the conceptual discussion on the links between Islamism and populism is relatively shallow, it would have helped to provide a stronger theoretical frame to structure the chapters.

In general, this book reveals that Islamism and populism have been constants in modern Turkey and have been deployed to bring the masses from the periphery to the center (Mardin, 1973) and capture the state and its institutions “by” mobilizing the support of the people, albeit neither “for” nor “with” them. However, neither in the book nor in my observations of Turkish politics in general—and the AKP era in particular—is it clear whether the Turkish populists have combined their “thin-centered” populist ideology with Islamism or if the Islamists in Turkey have used populism as a vehicle and strategy to “conquer” the secular state. This seems to be the “chicken and egg” question of scholarship on populism —namely, whether it best understood as an ideology (Mudde, 2004) or a strategy (Barr, 2009; Moffit, 2017).


References

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

Cizre, U. & Menderes Cinar. (2003). “Turkey 2002: Kemalism, Islamism, and Politics in the Light of the February 28 Process.” South Atlantic Quarterly. 102(2-3): 309–332.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-102-2-3-309.

Yilmaz, I. (2021). “Islamist Populism, Islamist Fatwas, State Transnationalism and Turkey”s Diaspora.” In Akbarzadeh, S (ed), Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Routledge, Abingdon, Eng., pp.170-187, doi: 10.4324/9780429425165-14. 

Mardin, Ş. (1973). “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?” Daedalus, vol. 102, no. 1, pp. 169-190.

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

Mudde, C. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4), 541–563.

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

Populist International (II) – Geert Wilders, an Agent of Anti-Islam Populist International Alliance

Geert Wilders’ populism is based on Islamophobia. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. 

By Mustafa Demir & Omer Shener 

Looking through the lens of global populism, the relationship between the Dutch right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders and like-minded political figures in the Western world is striking. Wilders’ efforts to reach out to like-minded groups and leaders go beyond courtesy visits. Through such efforts, Wilders attempts to construct an international front built on the common ground of anti-Islamic ‘concerns’. These ‘concerns’ are overhyped, with the aim of constructing an international, if not a transnational, front to challenge the Western world’s long-standing liberal norms of:

“Wake up, Christians of Tennessee! Islam is at your gate! Do not make the mistake which Europe made. Do not allow Islam to gain a foothold here… My friends, fortunately, not all politicians are irresponsible. Here, in Tennessee, brave politicians want to pass legislation which gives the state the power to declare organizations as terrorist groups and allowing material supporters of terrorism to be prosecuted. I applaud them for that. They are true heroes.”

This is how the Netherlands’ right-wing populist Geert Wilders addressed a crowd gathered in Cornerstone Church in Tennessee in May 2011. If, as Arditi (2007) suggests, populism is ‘the awkward dinner guest’ who, after drinking far too much, asks ‘inappropriate questions’, then Wilders’ populist dinner table discourse has been all about hype, defamation, and demonization.

Five years later, in July 2016, Wilders was in the US again, this time having been invited to Cleveland by US Senator Bill Ketron to attend the Republican National Convention. Wilders was in a state about Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president, expressing his excitement with the following words“I wish we had political leaders like this in the Netherlands who defend their own country… and forget the rest.”

In another gathering, Wilders addressed the crowd as followsIn America you see the same happening as in the Netherlands. The hard-working people, what they call the blue-collar workers here, no longer feel represented by the political elite. That people no longer want the policy of open borders, immigration and Islamization.”

On the other hand, his host, Senator Ketron, responded to Wilders’ critics and ‘justified’ extending an invitation to Wilders by saying: “He just wants to take his country back like Mr. Trump and supporters want to take our country back. If you wanna come here and assimilate and live by our laws is his position as well as mine.” 

Wilders’ populist outreach is not limited to the US. In 2013, the Q Society of Australia, a far-right anti-Islamic organization, organized a speaking tour with Wilders. In Melbourne, amid protests, Wilders spoke to the rally, warning Australians about Islam as follows: “I am here to warn Australia about the true nature of Islam. It is not just a religion as many people mistakenly think; it is primarily a dangerous totalitarian ideology… If we do not oppose Islam, we will lose everything: our freedom, our identity, our democracy, our rule of law, and all our liberties… Yes, my friends, there is hope. But only if we outgrow our fears and dare speak the truth… The future freedom of Australia, the liberties of your children – they depend on you. The ANZAC spirit helped keep Europe free in the past; the ANZAC spirit will keep you free in the future. Be as brave as your fathers, and you will survive.

This very same society organized a conference titled “Islam and Liberty” in Melbourne in 2014. The purpose of the conference, according to the Q Society’s spokesperson, was to bring “together many people who are concerned about the march of Islam into many western democracies, and how it changes the laws and values of western democracies… You get segregation when you get Muslims coming in, because their core belief is that Muslims are better people than non-Muslims… We’re keen to have integrated societies, but we think it’s important to have integration, not segregation.”

On the first day of the conference, Wilders was welcomed in a pre-recorded message in which he cheered a new anti-Islam party, the Australian Liberty Alliance. He spoke as follows: “Like you, good people in Europe, America and Canada have had enough of politicians who don’t share our values and foolishly declare that all cultures are equal and who lack courage to speak the truth and say that Islam is the biggest threat to freedom today. You too will soon have the opportunity to turn the tide in Australia.”

In 2015, Wilders visited Australia again to launch the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), a new anti-Islamic right-wing populist party led by Debbie Robinson, former president of the Q Society in Australia. Speaking to the media in Perth, he urged Australians to be vigilant about migration from Muslim countries with the following words: “You will have millions of people coming to Australia, like we do in Europe, and you will not be able to handle it…You should be a sovereign country that closes your borders to those kinds of immigrants.”

Praising the ALA and the potential ‘protector role’ it will play for Australia, Wilders told the media: “If you read their manifesto it is clear that they are the freedom fighters of Australia… They have none of the political correctness that so many of the leaders in the world have today… and [they want] Australia to stand firm and stay Australian without the appeasement and giving in to multiculturalism, I think it will have a lot of support.”

Deciphering Wilders’ points made during the press conference, Calla Wahlquist of The Guardian newspaper explains that: “‘Those kinds of immigrants’ are Muslims. Opposing Islam is the central tenet of Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which has been leading the polls in the Netherlands since August. It is also the key policy of the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), the new party that Wilders flew to Australia to launch.”

Wilders’ populist appeal is, of course, not limited to Australia. He is actively engaged in the politics of European countries and has been forging closer ties with like-minded populists across the globe. He does not shy away from showing up at right-wing populist rallies all over the Western world. In March 2015, Wilders was invited to a gathering of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) organized by FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and addressed the rally with similar anti-Islamic rhetoric. 

To recap, Wilders’ populism is based on an Islamophobic worldview. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. Returning to our earlier discussion of populism as ‘the awkward dinner guest’, despite the discomfort, this gauche visitor can, in fact, help uncover underlying problems in society (Moffitt, 2010).

Populism can be a positive force, one that demonstrates the shortcomings of the system and challenges the status quo. However, it can also hinder the proper functioning of the democratic system if it violates the principles of democracy and human rights. In the same way, populism can also be a force for good if it can ‘identify otherwise overlooked political problems’ and become the voice of minorities and ‘marginalized groups’ (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). However, as discussed above, Wilders’ rhetoric does the opposite: it turns minorities and marginalized groups into scapegoats.

References

Arditi, Benjamin. (2007). Politics on the Edge of Liberalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gidron, Noam & Bonikowski, Bart. (2013). Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda. Working Paper Series, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2010). “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Populism as the Awkward Dinner Guest of Democracy.” Connected Globe, Conflicting Worlds: Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Melbourne.

Jair Bolsonaro during participation in the Unica Forum 2018 in Sao Paulo, Brazil in June 18, 2018. Photo: Marcelo Chello

Jair Bolsonaro: Far-Right Firebrand and Cheerleader for Dictatorship

Jair Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. His caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Trump in his use of such platforms. He is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” — however, his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

By Simon P. Watmough

Introduction

On September 6, 2018, the then 64-year-old presidential contender Jair Bolsonaro was campaigning in the city of Juiz de Fora in Brazil’s southern state of Minas Gerais, about 189 km from Rio de Janeiro. The city —a stronghold of the left-wing Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party, PT)— nevertheless drew a massive crowd of supporters for the right-wing populist Congressman ahead of the first round of Brazil’s presidential election, set for October 7. According to some reports, some 30,000 supporters lined the streets (D. Phillips, 2019).

Videos—later shared widely on social media—captured the extraordinary scenes that followed. Dressed casually in his signature yellow and green t-shirt bearing the slogan “Meu Partido e Brasil” (“My party is Brazil”), the former army captain can be seen being carried aloft the shoulders of a mass of supporters moving along Juiz de Fora’s central plaza. He is smiling and waving jubilantly to crowds of well-wishers. Suddenly Bolsonaro grimaces in agony, clutching his abdomen. An assailant in the crowd has plunged a knife deep into his stomach, seriously wounding the far-right firebrand.

By all accounts, the attack nearly killed Bolsonaro, who was rushed to a local hospital having lost as much as two liters of blood. Internal injuries meant he was fitted with a colostomy bag, which was only removed well into his first month in office, in January 2019. Indeed, his injuries and hospitalization kept him largely off the trail for the duration of the campaign. Despite this, Bolsonaro came in first place in the October 7 first round, taking 46 percent in a crowded field of 13 candidates. He went on to win the second round on October 28, taking 55 percent of the votes cast against the PT candidate Fernando Haddad (Londoño & Darlington, 2018).

The stabbing “unwittingly boosted his TV exposure, just as his social media campaign took off” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95). Indeed, Bolsonaro drew adeptly on platforms like Facebook and Instagram to post images of himself in his hospital bed in surgical gowns receiving treatment to still-fresh wounds and in various stages of recovery. These bear a strong resemblance to Silvio Berlusconi’s parading of his bloody face and head wounds after being struck with a blunt instrument by a man at a campaign rally in Milan in April 2009 (Winward, 2009).

In this way, the attack formed a crucial backdrop to Bolsonaro’s campaign and eventual victory. Beyond the sympathy it garnered him, it seemed to reinforce two central aspects of his campaign. First, it made him a direct victim of the country’s disorder (thus reinforcing his claim to be one with ordinary Brazilians fed up with violent crime). Second— in surviving the attack—he bolstered his “tough guy” credentials, proving his uncompromising manhood and the “legendary” status he claims as his mantle.

Entering office as Brazil’s 38th president on January 1, 2019, Bolsonaro ushered in a new era in Brazilian politics, the contours of which are still falling into place. Before Bolsonaro’s victory, “Brazilian presidential elections … [were] marked by a virtual duopoly, with the left-leaning PT and the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) as the predictable finalists” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). In presidential elections between 1994 and 2018, the two parties had consistently taken 70–90 percent of the vote between them. His victory thus marked a break in the relative stability of Brazil’s party system and the so-called “Nova República” (“New Republic”) that emerged when the army restored civilian rule in 1985 after 21 years of military rule (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93).

Hidden in Plain Sight

The thrice-married Bolsonaro was born in 1955 in Sao Paulo state to a large, lower-middle-class Catholic family. Neither strictly an insider nor a clear outsider, his rise was instead “hidden in plain sight” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 80). His backstory—a contentious but rather undistinguished military and congressional career—and controversial statements mark him out as distinctive. Yet, he is often compared to other strongmen — most famously as the “Tropical Trump” (Weizenmann, 2019) — or the earlier Latin American populists like Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Brazil’s own Fernando Collor de Mello. There is something to these comparisons, although arguably his most obvious likeness is President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).

Bolsonaro began his career as a military cadet, serving 15 years in the army, much of it as a paratrooper. His military experience and identity as a former soldier are central to his political style and his approach to government. It may be fair to say that his military identity is the most salient aspect of his political brand, the foundation on which all else is built. His authoritarian leanings were evident even during his time in the army. Toward the end of his career, at the dawn of the Nova República, he began to court controversy. In 1986, he landed his first blow against the new democratic regime, going public with a series of critiques that the new civilian leadership was undermining the military. In an article published in Veja, a popular Brazilian tabloid, he lambasted the inability of elected elites to ensure adequate pay and conditions for ordinary soldiers (Polimédio, 2018). In 1987, he was arrested and drummed out of the military when it became clear he had sketched plans to bomb military installations to bring attention to the poor pay and conditions (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 12). He was found guilty by a military tribunal but was released soon afterward on appeal.

Almost immediately after the Veja controversy, Bolsonaro entered politics. From 1989 to 1991, he was a city councilor in Rio de Janeiro. Then he entered national politics in 1991. He won a seat representing Rio de Janeiro in the Chamber of Deputies, which he held for the next 27 years. During his time in Congress, he achieved little legislatively, and what moves he did make were concerned with improving the military pay and conditions (Polimédio, 2018). He was an inveterate party-switcher. Between his election to the National Congress in 1991 and his move to the presidential field in 2018, he changed parties seven times (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).

In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” was “the way out for Brazil”. Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship”

President Jair Bolsonaro takes part in the Brazilian Army Day celebration at the headquarters of the Brazilian Army Command in Sao Paulo, Brazil in April 18, 2019. Photo: BW Press.

 

“I am in favor of dictatorship”

Bolsonaro has become notorious for his incendiary comments on women and minority rights, and his misogynistic and homophobic views are well-known. He infamously harassed one female Congresswoman, saying she “was ‘too ugly’ to be raped, claimed some black people were not ‘even good for procreation,’ and said he would rather one of his four sons ‘die in an accident’ than be gay” (Child, 2019). He has also described the conception of his fifth child — a daughter — as “a moment of weakness” (Brum, 2018).

However, it is arguably his open support for military rule and his yearning for a return to the period of military dictatorship that have most alarmed Brazilians. In a 1993 speech in Congress, Bolsonaro bemoaned Brazil’s “responsible democracy,” claimed to be “in favor of dictatorship,” and argued that “Fujimorization” (using the army to prorogue Congress and the courts to rule by decree as Peru’s President Fujimori had done) was “the way out for Brazil” (Brooke, 1993). Six years later, he reiterated his desire to stage a coup and “shut down Congress if he ever became president … Let’s go straight to dictatorship” (Weizenmann, 2019). He is on record publicly stating that the military dictatorship “should have killed more people” and that “You can’t change anything in this country with voting and elections” (Polimédio, 2018). Bolsonaro has long taken the view that the 1964 coup that felled Brazil’s post-WWII democracy was righteous and that the period of military dictatorship that ensued (1964 –1985) was “a glorious era” for Brazil, one “in which law and order prevailed” (Lichterbach, 2019).

His abhorrent views were cast into sharp relief in 2016 during the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (see below). A Congressman at the time, he voted to impeach Rousseff — who as a young leftist had been arrested and tortured by the military — and “dedicated his vote ‘to the memory of colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra’… one of the most sadistic torturers and murderers in the military dictatorship” (Brum, 2018). Many Bolsonaro supporters — including his own children — posted on social media wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan “Ustra lives!” (ibid.)

“Populism as Parody”: Visual Self-Representation and Political Style

Bolsonaro’s caustic views and “macho swagger” have been amplified by his social media presence and distinctive approach to self-representation. He is without a doubt Brazil’s first “social media president,” echoing in many ways Donald Trump in his use of such platforms—especially Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube—to reach the Brazilian people directly, unmediated by traditional channels (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). His campaign “relied heavily on political microtargeting via social media —and focused especially on professionalising a ‘fake news’ industry. In a country in which 70 percent of the population is functionally illiterate… the effect of fake news disseminated via WhatsApp has been perverse” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 95).

As Evangelista and Bruno (2019: 17) note, this social media campaigning exacerbated “political feelings [already] present in the political debate.” Facebook/WhatsApp and YouTube especially allowed him to steadily expand his support over time as his message went viral: “Social media was essential … to generate unexpected exposure to messages through viral and targeted dissemination of contents. Memes, emojis, and images were at the center of the discursive battle to build pro-Bolsonaro interpretive frameworks” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 10).

Bolsonaro’s distinctive mode of visual self-representation on social media stands out even among populist leaders worldwide. Mendonça and Caetano (2020) have argued persuasively that Bolsonaro deliberately curates his image on social media—especially Instagram—to emphasize simultaneous “eccentricity and ordinariness which makes his demeanor, his body, and his appropriation of institutional power function as a series of parodies” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 3). This chimes as well with Brum’s analysis of him as an “anti-president” who uses caricature and disdainful mockery to simultaneously emulate and disarm his opposition (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).

Mendonça and Caetano (2020: 12) note that Bolsonaro’s “visual aesthetic combines a sense of being of the people while at the same time projecting an understanding of himself as a charismatic exceptionality.” In this way, the authors argue, Bolsonaro has sought to make a parody of the office to simultaneously appropriate its symbolic power while crafting an image of being an outsider and “close to the people” via ordinary—almost hokey—images, including an Instagram post of him preparing breakfast with “ordinary bread rolls with sweetened condensed milk, poured directly from the can” (Mendonça & Caetano, 2020: 14).

Bolsonaro’s ubiquitous social media presence and campaigning proved wildly successful. He retains fanatical support across Brazil. His fan base, which refers to him as “O Mito” (“The Legend”), skews heavily male and young. Indeed, one enterprising Brazilian company sought to cash in on his notoriety and has named one of its energy drinks — “Bolsomito” —after him (D. Phillips, 2018). His largest single support base is Brazil’s rapidly growing Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal community, which makes up around a quarter of the country. The rise of Brazil’s Evangelicals has occurred against the backdrop of a much broader shift in social values over the last 30 years, especially around the question of law and order: “Today, more Brazilians are in favor of legalizing capital punishment, lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, and life without parole for individuals who commit heinous crimes” (Polimédio, 2018).

Bolsonaro was also supported during the campaign by a small — but highly vocal — coterie of popular social movements, whose demonstrations and protests were amplified by social media as well as the mainstream press. These groups include Movimento Brasil Livre (the Free Brazil Movement) and the Vem pra Rua (Come to the Street) movement (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 2). Eventually, Bolsonaro was able to unite the three strands of the right in Brazil — “the nostalgia right, who yearn for the security of the military dictatorship,” the religious right, primarily Brazil’s large and vocal Evangelical community, and the “liberal right [that is] always railing about the hypertrophy of the Brazilian state” (Child, 2019).

A toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system.

Millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest against the government of Dilma Rousseff and ask for her impeachment in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 13, 2016. Photo: Alf Ribeiro.

A Perfect Storm: The Four Winds of Crisis Ushering in Bolsonaro’s Rise

As is generally understood, populist leaders mobilize support “from the perception of crises, breakdown or threat” (Moffitt & Tormey, 2014: 391–392). Bolsonaro’s rise is no different and must be understood against the backdrop of a broad-based set of crises that began in 2013, which Uri Friedman of The Atlantic has referred to as “the slow implosion of Brazil” (Friedman, 2016). Hunter and Power (2019) describe this systemic collapse as a “perfect storm” of four distinct but overlapping crises: an economic crisis, a crisis of law and order, a corruption crisis, and a political legitimation crisis.

Brazil’s post-2013 economic woes underlie everything else. Between 2000 and 2012, Brazil was among the fastest-growing major economies on earth, growing at an average rate of 5 percent per annum. Moreover, under the government of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva of the PT, which came to power in 2003, growth was widely dispersed—arguably for the first time in Brazilian history. Millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty as Lula’s administration diverted swelling government coffers into cash payments for low-income households, most notably via the Bolsa Familia program, the world’s largest cash transfer program (Gazola Hellmann, 2015). But in 2014, the boom turned to bust as Brazil was plunged into the deepest recession in its history (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72)

At the same time, Brazil’s violent crime rate—always high—skyrocketed, driving citizens in the major cities to despair. Gun violence is a particular problem, and seven of the world’s top 20 most violent cities are in Brazil. With over 68,000 homicides per year, Brazil has a murder rate that is over four times the global average (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 93; Child, 2019). Indeed, one public opinion study found that violence—a social problem typically seen as best-handled by right-wing parties—was the most salient concern for Brazilian voters ahead of the 2018 elections (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 94).

Then, shortly after the economic crisis began to bite, Brazil was consumed by a corruption scandal on a scale that dwarfed anything before. Indeed, the “Lava Jato” (“Carwash”) investigations launched by federal prosecutors in early 2014 became the most extensive (and expensive) anti-corruption drive ever seen (Child, 2019) and seemed to capture almost the entire political class in its net. As Hunter and Power (2019: 73) note, between 2014 and 2018, the Carwash investigations “produced nearly one-thousand arrest warrants and 125 … guilty verdicts falling on politicians and private businesspeople alike. Although the investigation ensnared politicians from fourteen different political parties … the most important names were linked to the PT.”

These several crises fueled a fourth strand—namely, a toxic partisan-political crisis that engulfed the administration of Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, and threatened to discredit and delegitimize the entire political system. The partisan crisis reflected the two emerging trends in Brazilian politics—namely, rising antipathy to the PT (known as “antipetismo”)—due to its perceived culpability in the country’s many crises—and growing nostalgia for the “order” and “clean government” of the military dictatorship (Hunter & Power, 2019: 72). As president, Rousseff was caught up in the corruption scandal, and in 2016 she was impeached and removed from office. Crucially, her predecessor and PT standard-bearer Lula —who had decided to again run as the PT candidate — was also implicated; in April 2018, he was imprisoned on corruption charges, making him ineligible for president (Iglesias, 2019).

The political environment, especially after Rousseff’s impeachment, grew toxic, leading to unprecedented declines in public support, not only for the PT government but for the system as a whole. A 2017 Ipsos survey found that 94 percent of Brazilians lack faith in the political elite (cited in Polimédio, 2018). Moreover, a 2018 Latinobarometer survey found that among 18 Latin American governments in 2017–18, Brazil’s recorded the lowest levels of public trust (cited in Hunter & Power, 2019: 74).

The 2018 Elections

As Weizenmann (2019) argues, “Any one of these… crises could have produced extremist demagoguery on their own. Taken together, dire economic circumstances, rising violence, and political delegitimization” opened up the perfect opportunity for a candidate like Bolsonaro. His campaign—announced in June 2018—very skillfully navigated the collapse in the established system. In so doing, Bolsonaro pushed a message perfectly crafted for the moment—a focus on “law and order,” strong leadership,” and being an “outsider” driving a total restructuring of the system.

Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan was “Brazil first, God above all” — a clear nod to the Evangelical section of his base. He enjoyed several high-profile endorsements, including from the world-famous former Brazilian footballer Ronaldinho, now retired (Savarese, 2018). It came despite his controversial campaign tactics, such as when he vowed to end the so-called “concessions” to native Brazilians and former slaves, known in Brazil as “Quilombolas” (The Independent, 2019).

A crucial turning point in the campaign came at the end of August 2018 when Lula was jailed and disqualified from the race, which essentially cleared Bolsonaro’s path. Lula had been “the front-runner in the polls until being disqualified” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 69). The PT hastily put Fernando Haddad up as an alternative candidate. While he remains beloved in Brazil and his personal brand went some way to overcoming the antipetismo sweeping the country after 2014, Lula’s continued sway failed to translate into support for Haddad. The October 7 first round indicated just how successful Bolsonaro would be with Lula out of the picture; he took 46 percent of the vote and moved decisively into the second round (Cowie & Child, 2018).

Simultaneously, elections were held for Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress. Support for Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (SLP) surged — the party won 52 seats in the 513-seat chamber, up from just one in 2014 (Hunter & Power, 2019; Weizenmann, 2019). In a highly fragmented party system, this gave the SLP the plurality of the popular vote. Crucially, the 2018 congressional elections also saw a sharp increase in support for parties within the so-called “Bancada da bala” (“Bullet faction”), the loose congressional caucus committed to the arms industry, and a more militarist approach to law and order and public security. Their share rose from 35 to 61 seats in Brazil’s lower house, with 15 Senators in the caucus elected, including Flavio Bolsonaro from Rio de Janeiro state: “Members want to legalize the arming of citizens and make the shooting down of bandits by the military and police exempt from punishment,” (Milz, 2018).

Overall, Bolsonaro benefited from the coalescing of the so-called “triple B” coalition, made up of “bulls” (i.e., agribusiness), “bullets” (the gun lobby), and “bibles” (Pentecostals). Underpinning all was a focus on Bolsonaro’s military credentials, his willingness to “shake up the system” and his fanning of the center-right obsession with the apparent spread of “cultural Marxism”—an amorphous ideology supposedly endorsing political correctness, multiculturalism, and feminism—throughout Brazilian society (Savarese, 2020).

Finally, against a backdrop of antipetismo and Bolsonaro’s promises to reform “the country’s broken pension system, reductions to the size of government, limits on social benefits, and a restructuring of the country’s taxation system” (Weizenmann, 2019), corporate Brazil came on board. In the end, “Brazil’s business community—at first dubious about the candidate’s purported free-market conversion… swung behind him when faced with the binary choice between Bolsonaro and the return of the statist PT” (Hunter & Power, 2019: 70).

The most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general.

President of Brazil Jair Messias Bolsonaro with ministers, governor and senator as well as authorities at the Military Police Soldiers Graduation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on December 18, 2020. Photo: Jorge Hely Veiga

A Government of Soldiers and Culture Warriors

Brazil’s cabinet picks reflected all the campaign themes and the “triple B” coalition that underpinned it. His ministerial appointments fall into three main categories—namely, technocrats, culture warriors, and military men (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96). On the first, Bolsonaro was compelled to overcome a sense that he was ill-prepared for office, especially to handle Brazil’s fractured economy. He had assuaged much of this on the trail by promising to appoint specialists and technocrats where needed (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 96; Polimédio, 2018). His two key picks as “super ministers” — Paulo Guedes as economy minister and Sergio Moro as justice minister — reflected this drive.

Bolsonaro’s appointment of Moro—the lead judge in the Operation Carwash investigations— as his justice minister surprised many and seemed to cement the connection between Brazil’s corruption crisis and Bolsonaro’s win. However, this was shattered in mid-2019 when claims arose that Moro had shown a clear bias in the case against Lula. The investigative journalism newsmagazine, The Intercept, leaked messages purporting to show that Moro had collaborated with the prosecutors (a claim he denies) to ensure Lula’s conviction and disqualification from the 2018 campaign (Araújo & Prior, 2020: 3; Fishman et al., 2019).

Within a year, Moro had resigned his post, accusing Bolsonaro of political interference in police investigations at both federal and state levels. He left office in late April 2020 (McGeever, 2020). Moro’s allegations indicated the president had fired several police chiefs to head off investigations into his son’s alleged corruption. The Attorney-General then opened an investigation (Brito & Paraguassu, 2020). Indeed, for a politician supposedly a paragon of anti-corruption, Bolsonaro has himself become increasingly tarred with the corruption brush. His son, Flavio, has proved problematic (to say the least) dogged by allegations of misappropriating funds (and worse) from the beginning (Milz, 2019a).

Bolsonaro has also appointed prominent religious figures to his cabinet, notably Damares Alves (Women’s Affairs) and Milton Ribeiro (Education), both Evangelical pastors. Alves, who has been in the cabinet since the beginning, has courted controversy for her remarks about gender norms, women’s rights, and Brazil’s annual carnival season. On her election, she made headlines with the slogan, “it’s a new era in Brazil —boys wear blue, and girls wear pink” (Deutsche Welle, 2019a).

Ribeiro —who was appointed in July 2020 after the previous education ministers were forced to resign on account of scandal and corruption — has also caused issues with his focus on religion in schools and continuing Bolsonaro’s strategy of stripping the education system of leftists and “cultural Marxism.” Religious groups welcomed the move, saying, “the education ministry is key to boosting Christian values in Brazil,” and casting aside what they contend is leftist influence in the schools (Savarese, 2020).

Arguably most alarming is Bolsonaro’s penchant for stocking his administration with military men. Indeed, his cabinet has the largest share of former (and even serving) military appointees since the end of the dictatorship. His running mate and now vice president, Hamilton Mourão, is a retired four-star general. By September 2019, Bolsonaro had appointed seven serving or former military officers to the government (Hunter & Power, 2019: 82), excluding Mourão. In early 2020, he capped off a cabinet of soldiers by appointing four-star army general and current army chief of staff Walter Souza Braga Netto as his presidential chief of staff. Braga’s appointment took the total number serving, including Mourão, to ten (Deutsche Welle, 2020a). While warnings of a potential coup have been repeatedly swatted back, the fact that military figures so dominate the government has alarmed many (Romero et al., 2020).

Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent.

Thousands of activists unite in protest for democracy and racial equality and against the Bolsonaro government in São Paulo, Brazil on June 07, 2020. Photo: Alf Ribeiro

The First Year: Protests, Paralysis, and Pensions

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro had promised “a conservative revolution.” Central to this was his promise to liberalize gun laws, which in Brazil are quite restrictive. Despite this, the country is plagued by terrible gun violence, arguably the most visible aspect of rampant criminality. In his first week in office, Bolsonaro moved on the gun issue—a presidential decree on January 14, 2019, expanded the number of firearms Brazilians could legally own and promised to remove “open carry” restrictions further on in the term (Marcello & Stargardter, 2019). Many of his early moves had the ring of empty symbolism — for example, in the first week, the new administration purged the federal government of so-called “leftist” public servants, who were simply legitimate appointees from previous administrations (The Independent, 2019).

The president and his inner circle stand accused of playing up divisions in the government and society as a kind of “symbolic politics” to bolster their political support: “In this regard, some commentators stress that Bolsonaro and his sons have choreographed certain movements. All the political confusion portrayed since the beginning… shows a pattern of rehearsed sketches to demonstrate cohesion around the conservative values they defend” (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 97).The purpose here is three-fold: to mobilize the base, bolster the Bolsonaro’s “anti-system and transgressive credentials,” and distract commentators from the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the government (ibid.).

Bolsonaro ended the first 100 days in office the least popular president since the return to democracy in the 1980s. In his first weeks in office, some 64 percent of Brazilians told pollsters they trusted him to “perform well or very well,” but by April 2019, this had fallen to just 35 percent, with the numbers saying they distrusted him outright, rising from 30 percent to 44 percent (Chagas-Bastos, 2019: 98). These numbers reflect the key points of social resistance to Bolsonaro’s new administration, which erupted in widespread protest in his first few months in office. Indeed, they began in the campaign, with the nationwide #EleNao (“Not Him”) demonstrations dogging his campaign in 2018. Protests highlighted his anti-LGBT and anti-women attacks and his treatment of indigenous people. Brazil’s April 2019 Carnival seasons saw a slew of floats and parade groups mocking and protesting the president. In particular, there was a pointed response to Alves’ gender assertions, with female carnival-goers dressed in blue and men in pink (Deutsche Welle, 2019a). In the Rio Carnival of 2020, Evangelical Christians hit back with promises to “bring Jesus” to revelers (D. Phillips, 2020).

While he had promised “a conservative revolution,” Bolsonaro’s progress was plodding. He refused to play by the traditional political rules, shunning the country’s long-standing political culture of horse-trading for policy wins. Ironically, a similar approach brought down the country’s last populist leader Fernando Collor de Mello, in the mid-1990s (Panizza, 2000). Like Trump, Bolsonaro appears to believe that he can achieve policy wins by dint of sheer personality and his diffuse and vocal support among his support base.

The 2019 Amazon wildfires drew the world’s attention and calls for concerted international action, most notably from French President Emmanuel Macron. Bolsonaro burned a vast swathe of his political capital attacking foreign leaders’ attempts to address the issue, with France’s president and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany coming in for intense criticism. In August 2019, after a G7 meeting that promised a “rescue fund” for the Amazon forest, Bolsonaro lashed out, asserting sovereigntist claims, accusing Macron and the G7 of neo-imperialism (T. Phillips, 2019).

Toward the end of 2019, Bolsonaro scored a victory with the passing of pension reform. Brazil’s pension system had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, and without some changes, it threatened to blow up the federal deficit. Fixing the problem had been a central plank of Bolsonaro’s campaign. After much wrangling in Congress and a June 2019 general strike opposing Bolsonaro’s plans to right-size the pension system, reform passed in October 2019. The win did not appear, however, to staunch his bleeding popular support. By late 2019, his approval ratings had fallen to 31 percent—down from 49 percent when he was elected in October 2018 (Milz, 2019b).

The experience of dealing with an uncompromising Congress has clearly affected the maverick politician, by all accounts has been infuriated by the congressional argy-bargy involved in prosecuting his agenda. At the end of the year, the notorious party-switcher announced he was forming a new party, the Aliança pelo Brasil (Alliance for Brazil). It was also announced that his son Flavio—a senator from Rio de Janeiro who ran on the SLP ticket—would take a senior leadership role in the new party. “The party platform ‘recognizes God’s place in the life, history and soul of the Brazilian people,’ is anti-abortion, rejects ‘socialism and communism,’ and supports the right to possess firearms” (Deutsche Welle, 2019b).

Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the pandemic crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll.

People wait in a big line to receive food donations for lunch in a downtown street during a severe economic crisis caused by COVID-19 pandemic in Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 2, 2020. Photo: Nelson Antoine

The Second Year: COVID-19, Policy Failure, and an Electoral Rebuke

After the October 2019 pension reform victory, Bolsonaro’s fortunes might have looked up. However, in early 2020 the COVID-19 crisis hit, dominating Bolsonaro’s second year in office. The crisis has struck Brazil particularly hard and has only been exacerbated by the Bolsonaro administration’s failure to adequately address the public health emergency and coordinate a response among Brazil’s state and municipal governments. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has politicized the crisis and used it as an opportunity to burnish his populist credentials. He even emulated Trump’s dosing with hydroxychloroquine, which he has called “a miracle cure” (Eisele, 2020). Furthermore, just as Trump did, Bolsonaro self-represented his own infection with COVID-19—which occurred after months downplaying its virology and impact—as part of his “real man” macho image. In so doing, in March of 2019, he referenced his September 2018 stabbing, telling his large social media following that if I am “able to survive being stabbed, then a “little flu” was unlikely to kill [me]” (Eisele, 2020).

Brazil, a federation of 26 states and one federal territory, has devolved responsibility for health and public health. This has played into Bolsonaro’s hands, allowing him to play up “local elites” who stand in the way: “The 65-year-old has repeatedly and harshly criticized the virus-related restrictions to everyday life — some of which have since been relaxed — imposed by states and municipal governments… [In July 2020], he vetoed a law passed by Congress on nationwide regulations concerning the wearing of face masks in public” (Eisele, 2020).

The mismanagement of the virus and the response to the economic circumstances have also taken a toll. In local elections held across the country in November 2020, Bolsonaro-backed parties lost ground, as did the main opposition PT. Moreover, in a “direct rebuke to Bolsonaro, voters in Belo Horizonte, the sixth-largest city, re-elected mayor Alexandre Kalil, who took tough quarantine and social distancing steps that were criticized directly by the president” (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). The established center-right and conservative parties saw a return to electoral fortune after their poor showing in the 2018 congressional elections. Bolsonaro’s former party, the SLP, failed to take top place in a single election (Deutsche Welle, 2020b). His Aliança pelo Brasil did not stand candidates, as the party had formed too late to gather the necessary signatures to register as an official electoral party (Ying, 2020).

Conclusion

After just over two years in power, the very worst predictions about Bolsonaro’s presidency have not materialized. Certainly, the military has so far remained firmly in the barracks and has swatted back calls for intervention in politics (Romero et al., 2020). None of this should be taken as a call to celebrate. Indeed, it is really down to a fortuitous mix of incompetence on the part of the administration — most evident in the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — and the checks and balances in Brazil’s federal system. Bolsonaro’s own stubborn refusal to play by established rules and establish a governing congressional coalition is also a key factor, meaning his agenda has largely stalled in the legislature. Thus, like Trump in his first term in office, institutional inertia has managed to blunt and slow the worst effects of Bolsonaro’s radical agenda.

Nevertheless, much damage is being done to the fabric of Brazilian society. As The New York Times recently noted: “The upheaval in Brazil is leading investors to rush for the exits. Capital flight is reaching levels unseen since the 1990s. The World Bank expects the economy to contract 8 percent this year. Car production, a once-thriving pillar of the economy, has plummeted to its lowest level since the 1950s” (Romero et al., 2020). However, Bolsonaro continues to enjoy widespread — if minority — support in the electorate, as this brief has detailed at length. Moreover, his new party, Aliança pelo Brasil, is an as-yet untested legislative vehicle and could well do very well at the next general election scheduled for October 2022. Much depends, of course, on Brazil’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the trajectory of further reform efforts.

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Thousands of people turn out for the anti racism - anti-Donald Trump and Nigel Farage rally through central London on March 18, 2017. Photo: John Gomez

Populists International (I) — Populists Hand in Hand: Farage and Trump

How Does International Cooperation Work Between Populists? 

The last decade has seen a rise in cooperation between xenophobic right-wing populists, both in Europe and internationally. Elsewhere, we’ve seen the rise of anti-Western populists from majority Muslim countries and left-wing Latin American populist leaders. My hope with this commentary series is to begin a fruitful discussion about this cooperation. I will start by examining the stunning cooperation between British right-wing populist Nigel Farage and former US President Donald Trump, the populist held power in a country long viewed as the beacon of democracy.  

By Mustafa Demir

The relationship between former US President Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and hard Eurosceptic, went beyond the limits of a mere friendship to become an international cooperation, if not a coalition. As such, it is relevant to international populism studies. The two supported the other’s political campaigns and gave statements and interviews promoting one another’s political agendas. They even physically appeared at each other’s election rallies as “guests of honour.” They readily endorsed the other as a fellow “man of the people.” 

Farage routinely commented or posted on social media in support of Trump. Shortly after Britain voted to leave the European Union (EU), Farage appeared at a Trump campaign rally in Jackson, Mississippi in August 2016. He was introduced to the crowd – by Trump – as “the man behind Brexit.” Addressing the pro-Trump crow, Farage stated that, “I wouldn’t vote for Hilary Clinton if you paid me.”

He continued as follows: “[UKIP] made 23 June our Independence Day when we smashed the Establishment… If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals.”

Farage also used this opportunity to lambast Prime Minister David Cameron and former US President Barack Obama for backing the “Remain” campaign. He drew parallels between the US elections and the Brexit referendum, and he urged “the ordinary people” of the US to “stand up to the establishment and take back control with a ‘people’s army.’” 

He successfully appealed to the emotions of the crowd, saying: “I come to you from the United Kingdom with a message of hope and a message of optimism. If the little people, if the real people, if the ordinary decent people are prepared to stand up and fight for what they believe in, we can overcome the big banks, we can overcome the multinationals – and we did it…[You, the Americans, have a] fantastic opportunity with November’s election. And you’ll do it by doing what we did for Brexit in Britain. We had our own people’s army or ordinary citizens… If you want change, you better get your walking boots on, you better get out there campaigning; and, remember, anything is possible if enough decent people are prepared to stand up against the establishment.”

Daniel Bates of the Evening Standard noted that Farage’s appearance was an historical moment, in the sense that it was the “first time a British politician has ever addressed a Republican Presidential rally.” 

Farage also appeared in the most recent election campaign. He appeared in Arizona in November 2020. Marina Hyde, of the Guardian, broke the news with the title “Behold Trump’s pre-election secret weapon: Nigel Farage, ‘king of Europe.’” She was quoting Trump, who welcomed Farage to the state with the moniker, “the king of Europe.” Farage responded by calling Trump, “the single most resilient and bravest person I have ever met in my life.” 

Of course, this “favour” was not one sided. Trump came Farage’s aid during the Brexit campaign. When former President Obama visited London in April 2016, his comment on the upcoming Brexit referendum – and its possible negative consequences for Britain – upset Farage, who called it a “monstrous interference” in British politics. It was: “…A monstrous interference, I’d rather he stayed in Washington, frankly, if that’s what he’s going to do. You wouldn’t expect the British Prime Minister to intervene in your presidential election, you wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to endorse one candidate or another. Perhaps he’s another one of those people who doesn’t understand what [the EU] is.

Despite this, Farage always welcomed Trump’s support for the campaign. And despite his supposed reservations about foreign interference in elections, he did not hesitate to take the stage in Jackson, where he urged the American people not to vote for Hilary Clinton. Farage reacted to the possibility of Obama’s sharing his opinion supporting the “remain” campaign and said,

After assuming power in January 2017, less than seven months after the Brexit referendum, Trump repeatedly commented on British politics. For example, he did not hesitate to criticize former PM Theresa May’s Brexit plan. In July 2018, speaking to the Sun, Trump said, “I would have done it much differently… I actually told Theresa May how to do it, but she didn’t listen to me.”

During May’s visit to the White House in January 2017, Trump claimed Brexit was a “blessing for the world” and a “beautiful, beautiful thing.”

Trump was ecstatic about Brexit. The “Leave” campaign echoed his own populist themes and showed the sea-change that was happening in Western politics and the increasing popularity of anti-establishment candidates. Brexit was undeniably a warning sign that populism and nationalism were gaining momentum. It was not an isolated accident, but a groundswell that would redefine political paradigms.

Despite his support for Brexit, Trump has always been a highly unpopular figure in the UK. In contrast, Farage seems highly popular with Trump’s far right supporters. The US media saw Farage’s 2020 appearance in Arizona as “yesterday’s man” who was “forced to travel abroad to seek a spotlight.” Farage’s influence in the UK has waned since Brexit. 

Farage has also not hesitated to join far-right, pro-Trump, conspiracy-spreading radio programmes and gave interviews supporting Trump’s narratives and policies. Among many others, some of the conspiracies he spread included the lie that Obama is a Muslim plotting against the US and that Trump’s impeachment was a “Jewish coup.” In some of these interviews, Farage repeatedly discussed a supposed plot by bankers and “globalists” to impose a world government, a conspiracy theory strongly linked to antisemitism.

Similarly, during and after the Brexit campaign, he hosted Trump on his radio show on LBC radio. LBC is a respected radio station providing platforms to different segments of society. In October 2019, Trump joined Farage’s programme and commented positively on the performance of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the process of Brexit while criticising Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, and then opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Although Trump has never been popular in the UK, the fact that he joined the conversation in support of his good friend Farage is worth highlighting. It should also be noted that the LBC has announced Farage stepping down “with immediate effect” in June 2020, following a radio show in which he compared Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to the Taliban. 

When it comes to cooperation between these two populists, Gideon Rachman underlines the link between the Brexit referendum and the election of Trump. Rachman marks with bold letters that both these incidents “will forever be linked in history. The two events took place within a few months of each other. Both were populist revolts that appealed to similar constituencies.” 

Supporting Rachman’s view, Laetitia Langlois (2018: 16) rightly argues that: “The pro-Brexit and the pro-Trump votes rest on the same dynamics: they are both angry votes against the elite, against immigration, against globalisation. It is no surprise then that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are so close: as the embodiments of the rage against the system and the two populist voices in the anglosphere, they had common ideas, common targets and common objectives.”

Trump and Farage view the concerns of their constituents as basically the same. Speaking at the Jackson rally, with Farage at his side, Trump said: “They voted to break away from rule by large corporations and media executives who believe in a world without borders…They voted to reclaim control over immigration, over their economy, over their government…. Working people and the great people of the UK took control of their destiny.”

As a final note, Trump spoke to his supporters while seeing himself out of the White House and off Florida. He said, “we will be back in some form.” After his acquittal in his  2nd impeachment trial, on 13th of February, 2021, Trump released a press statement, celebrating his acquittal. He said: “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun. In the months ahead I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people.”

If he manages to make a come-back, there is no doubt that he would not leave his good friend Nigel jobless. Thus, it is not surprising to see Farage celebrating Trump’s acquittal, as evidenced by the following Tweet:

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

Erdogan’s Political Journey: From Victimised Muslim Democrat to Authoritarian, Islamist Populist

With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled.

By Ihsan Yilmaz

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a controversial figure, one who has frequently appeared in international media due to his brusque remarks and increasingly authoritarian practises, both abroad and domestically. During his premiership and subsequent presidency, he successfully changed Turkey’s political fabric and is now aiming to influence international politics in unprecedented ways. Erdogan’s journey, from mayor of Istanbul to prospective leader of the Muslim world, has been facilitated by exploiting existing power structures – or dismantling them, if they don’t serve his needs. All the while, he’s retained his charisma as an influential Islamist leader working in the best interests of “the people” and the “ummah.” By using populist strategies and manipulating democratic institutions, Erdogan is increasingly a populist authoritarian. 

Since his National View (Milli Gorus) years in 1970s and 80s under the mentorship of Islamist Necmettin Erbakan, Erdogan’s worldview and narrative had always had populist elements that constructed him and practicing Muslim Turks as the real and morally superior owners of Turkey but they had been victims of the Kemalist elite that oppressed them and denied their general will. However, Erdogan’s populism has been intensified after he consolidated his power in early 2010s and its anti-Westernist conspiratorial content has increased. 

A recent study (Lewis et al. 2019) published in The Guardian shows that Erdogan is the only right-wing leader labelled ‘very populist.’ Based on the extent to which their speeches have populist ideas, each populist leader under study was given an average populism score. The speeches were graded on a 0-2 scale, ranging from not populist to very populist.According to the study, the average populism score across all 40 countries has doubled from 0.2 in the early 2000s to around 0.4 in 2019. Erdogan was ‘somewhat populist’ between 2007-2014. However, between the years of 2014-2018, he was ‘very populist’ with a score of 1.5 out of 2.0. Only Hugo Chavez (1.9) and Nicolas Maduro (1.6) received higher score than Erdogan while Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi had a score of only 0.8. 

The Republic of Turkey was built in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire. The events that followed the First World War cost Turkey an empire, a monarchy, caliphate, and the majority of its lands, save for the Anatolian heartland. This has caused immense trauma, anxiety and insecurity among the ruling elite. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dreamed of reviving a republic from the ashes of empire. Defeated at the hands of the European powers, Ataturk and several followers were convinced that “reinventing” the nation and its “ideal citizens” in the mould of the European civilisation would provide the foundation for a modern, secular republic. For 80 years, Kemalism promoted a nationalist homogenising narrative hinging on the national reconstruction of a Turkey detached from its Ottoman past and rebuilt according to a secular blueprint. However, detaching the Turkish people from their Ottoman roots has proved unsuccessful; and Kemalism succeeded only in marginalizing and victimising all ethnic, religious and political minority groups that didn’t fit the prototype of the Kemalists’ desired citizen, Homo LASTus – Laicist, Ataturkist, Sunni, and Turkish (Yilmaz, 2021).

More than eight decades of repression and denial of the Ottoman past and heterogeneous fabric of society gave room to a resentful counter narrative to rise. While Homo LASTus isolated non-Muslims and non-Turkish groups, it is the conservative Sunni majority who have given birth to an Islamist populist voice. The man voicing their anxieties, discontent, grievances, insecurities, fears and future hopes is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose populism has shapeshifted – from centre-right to far-right (Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). His early coalition and representation of resentful liberals, democrats, Muslim and non-Muslim groups, ethnic minorities and civil society organizations that were marginalized and even demonised under Kemalism has gradually transformed to a narrow core of vindictive conservative Sunni, Islamist, ultra-Turkish nationalists. 

Through his long political career, Erdogan has always had the benefit of positioning himself as a man of the people due his humble beginnings. This has set him apart from the political and military “elite” (Lowen, 2017; BBC, 2002). The fairy tale-esque nature of his childhood story – the upward mobility of a poor boy raised in a poor and angry urban setting at the margins of Istanbul’s more prosperous and Westernised areas becoming the leader of Turkey (Cagaptay, 2017) – inspired his voters. Some even see him as the chosen “sultan” or “caliph” for a “New” Turkey – and possibly even for the Muslim world; others rightly criticize his populist and autocratic tendencies (Lowen, 2017). Yet when closely observed, Erdogan’s political ideology is mostly that of the shape-shifter; he ensures his political survival at all costs – even if those costs are damaging the institutional fabric of the country and widening deep rifts in a multi-ethnic and religious society (Genc, 2019).

There have been many studies published on the Erdogan and AKP’s recent populism (e.g. Selçuk 2016; Yabancı 2016; Kirdiş and Drhiemur 2016; Özpek and Yaşar 2018; Yilmaz 2018; Castaldo 2018; Özçetin 2019; Sawae 2020; Taş 2020; Yilmaz 2021). As such, this profile will not discuss the Erdogan’s populism in detail, leaving it to the other excellent studies to do so. Instead, this will focus on the emotional aspects of Erdogan’s populism – including Ottoman nostalgia, anxiety, hate, antagonism, victimhood, and resentment – and how they are used to mobilize voters. 

During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party, which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution.

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

 

The Shape-Shifter: Islamism and Young Erdogan

To understand his politics and personality, one must start with Erdogan’s childhood. Born in the poor Istanbul neighbourhood of Kasimpasa, most of his early life was spent in Rize province, in Turkey’s Black Sea region(Lowen,2017). Raised in a working-class family, Erdogan was sent to a religiously-oriented Imam Hatip school by his father, a ferry captain (Genc, 2019). It is unclear if he ever received a university degree from Marmara University due to ambiguity surrounding the issue (BBC, 2016). Nevertheless, his years at the Imam Hatip greatly impacted him. He studied the Quran, the life of the Prophet, and Muslim teachings. He also spent a considerable amount of time improving his Quran recitation, which earned the praise of his friends (Genc, 2019; BBC, 2002).

During his teen years, Erdogan encountered politics through Islamist nationalist, anti-Western and anti-Semitic parties. He joined the youth wing of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi – MSP), which was a succession of Erbakan’s previous party, the National Order Party (Milli Nizam Partisi – MNP) that was banned in 1971 for violating the secular values enshrined in the Turkish constitution (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015). Erbakan was a prominent voice against the secular ideology of Kemalism, which had isolated many Muslim Turks. As an adolescent, Erdogan was exposed to the manifesto of Erbakan’s Milli Gorus which based its Islamist ideology around severing the Turkish nation from secularism, Westernism and Capitalism. Milli Gorus was also sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and harshly critical of Zionism. Milli Gorus’s ideology was civilizationalist and pan-Islamic and urged the nation to cut its ties with Europe and align with Muslim-majority countries (Sahin & Dogantekin, 2019)

Erdogan spent considerable time within the MSP’s youth group and gained recognition when he organized a boxing match during the visit of the Afghan mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The profound influence of religion on Erdogan’s early life was evident when he turned down a spot on an Istanbul city soccer team because the city had a ban on the Islamic beard at that time (Genc, 2019).

After a second ban, Erbakan re-founded his party yet again, this time named the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi – RP). Erdogan’s commitment to the party earned him a spot as the party’s provincial head in Istanbul. He possessed the art of amassing a huge number of volunteers to hand out flyers and hang posters, displaying his leadership and organizing skills. Most of his time was occupied in political work, and he was soon known for his great oratory skills with emotive mobilizational power. He delivered emotional and resentful speeches decrying “the evil new world order” and supporting “Muslim brothers” across borders that resonated with the victimhood mood of the conservative sections of society (Genc, 2019)

Erdogan’s earlier political affiliations helped him not only identify with Islamist populism but also see its value in Turkish society. Kemalists had for years suppressed a chain of Sunni Islamist parties as part of their secular agenda, only breeding further resentment. To attach populism with a divinely sanctioned ideology – Islam in this case – was a viable opportunity. Thus, Erdogan did not shy away from using public sentiments and emotions towards religious oppression to gain prominence for himself. 

Rising to prominence in 1994, Erdogan was elected mayor of Istanbul. In 1998, the Welfare Party was closed down for violating the tenets of Kemalism. Erdogan became a vocal critic of the government and was arrested for reading a poem that the state claimed, “incited violence.” While the arrest was the highlight of his tenure, his agenda was public focused, including improving traffic congestion, dealing with water shortages, and controlling pollution. He remained more pragmatic than Islamist (BBC, 2002).

At the same time, there were hints of religiously motivated actions taken during this period. First, he symbolically limited the use and sale of alcohol (Ozbilgin, 2013). The step was taken under the guise of “public safety,” appealing to both religious voters and concerned citizens. He also rebelled by not asking his wife to uncover her head and instead avoided bringing her to official functions and government spaces – covered women were barred from entering public offices and educational institutes as part of the Kemalist ideology to secularize Turkey (BBC, 2002)

His blend of public works and subtle moves to please Islamist groups made him popular. When asked about why he’d developed such a good reputation, Erdogan responded, “I am Istanbul’s imam” (Genc, 2019). His statement reflected two major things about his populism. Firstly, as early as the 1990s, his confidence in himself as “the chosen one” was not rooted in democratic measures and values; rather, it was always attached to a “divine” element. The word imam[1] gave him an air of Islamist populism. Secondly, his smirky response shows belief in the idea that Islam and liberal democracies can be merged for the welfare of “the people.” Thus, positioning himself as a “Muslim Democrat” – one who is able to tolerate non-Muslims and yet at the same time be “Muslim enough” allowed him to amass great public support. 

His “imamet” of the city came to an abrupt end when his recitation of a controversial Islamo-nationalist and militarist poem landed him in jail for four months (he was sentenced to ten). The poem featured the lines, “the mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…” Due to its clear Islamist references, the poem was considered unconstitutional (Genc, 2019). His jail time added to his victimhood and populist popularity; he was viewed as “bold” in the face of the victimising evil Kemalist elite and not afraid of the Kemalist regime that had for decades muffled freedom of expression and religious affiliation. Erdogan established himself as the antithesis to the status quo, another populist hallmark. 

For Erdogan, the ultimate aim has always been power, and everything could be instrumentalized to achieve this. He signalled this in the 1990s when, as mayor of Istanbul, he said, “…democracy can’t be an objective but an only an instrument… democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.” 

Erdogan, following his imprisonment, found himself without a party. Increasingly, the public viewed him as pious and courageous; his humble beginnings added to his credibility as a leader of the “people.” Moreover, his reformist attitude and promising improvements during his tenure as mayor of Istanbul earned him a voter base across large sections of society, especially the conservative segments across the rural landscape of Anatolia.

To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.”

The ceremony of Third Bosphorus bridge was attended by then Turkish President Abdullah Gul and then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 29, 2013 in Istanbul. Photo: Sadik Gulec

 

Rebellious Erdogan with Moderate Views

While he had been able to connect with the discontent conservative masses, to survive the secular military and judiciary – and also to attract a large voter base of non-Sunnis, non-Muslims, and non-Turks – Erdogan rebranded himself. He moderated his views, especially on the west, to appeal to voters in national elections (Yilmaz, 2009). This was the first example of his pragmatic, populist shape-shifting. He issued statements that were more populous than religious, claiming, “We don’t need bearded men who are good Quran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019)

The prohibition of Welfare Party in 1998 paved the way for the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP), which was also banned in 2001. The dissolution of the Virtue Party led to the birth of two conservative parties. One of them was the Justice and Development Party (AKP), under the leadership of Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arınc. Erdogan was also a major figure in its founding, although he was technically still banned from politics. He described his role in the party, very much the opposite of what it is today, as part of a group of leaders: “a cadre will run the party, and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” His role, in his words, was that of an “orchestra chief.” He declared, the “age of me-centred politics is over” (Genc, 2019).

The other party to rise from the Virtue Party’s ashes was the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP), which over the years, despite being a right-wing party, has taken an anti-Erdogan stance. During AKP’s first election, it was nearly banned, which resulted in Gul running as the party’s main candidate, since Erdogan was still technically banned from contesting elections because of his conviction for reciting the poem. Eventually, through a by-election and verdict from the judiciary, Gul stepped down as prime minister in 2003; Erdogan assumed office. 

He was ushered in as the beginning of the era of Muslim Democrats (Yilmaz, 2009). It was a model hailed by many as a blueprint for success for the Muslim world. Its proponents claimed it brought “the best of both worlds,” combining a hint of religion with liberal democratic values. 

But the party never truly embraced the image. Instead, this was a survival move for the AKP and Erdogan, who were able to win votes on a broad spectrum of anti-Kemalist sentiments and among those hoping for a truly democratic Turkey. This appeal to the latter groups was the populist side of Erdogan’s Islamist politics. 

Erdogan’s first tenure as prime minister was marked by impressive economic growth for the country and a quest to bridge the gap with Europe. Erdogan boasted, “When we first came to government… our relations with some of the countries in our region were almost non-existent… [now] we have friendly relations with most of our neighbouring countries… we have relations in [the] political, economic, social, cultural, commercial, military areas with many of the countries in the region” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Playing the role of a pro-Western conservative, he insisted on Turkey’s presence in NATO and in a bid to secure membership of the European Union (EU) (Söylemez, 2012; Genc, 2011)

To retain his “democratic” image – necessary to survive in a country where the Kemalist military still maintained power – Erdogan needed broad voter support and to appease Turkey’s European allies. As such, his first two terms in office were focused on making Turkey a “true democracy.” He launched a “democratic war” against the Kemalist elite and the country’s system of military tutelage. It is now clear that these were more of a means to an end, as most populists consolidate ideologies to gain support as a way of easing into power. 

Erdogan often tried to have it both ways. The Turkish government offered to launch a joint fact-finding mission, with Armenia, into the genocide that took place at the end of World War I; however, the government refused to actually admit the genocide took place. At an intentional forum, Erdogan plainly explained, “Diasporas in some countries lobbying for resolutions in the parliaments of other countries is like an extrajudicial… it’s an extrajudicial execution because there is no fact-based process here. So, this is something that Turkey cannot accept… we told our friends, but we still do not have a response,” (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007).

As Erdogan’s second national election approached, there were nationwide protests about fears that he and the AKP planned to change Turkey’s constitution (de Bendern, 2007; BBC, 2007). Erdogan’s populist theatrics garnered public political support and centred around the hope that “new Turkey” would be part of the EU and an economic power. 

Populists often use the media and the political bully pulpit to become public fixtures, deepening their connection with the people. It makes them more human and relatable. In the midst of the on-going countrywide protests, Erdogan apparently “fainted” inside his car, which led to a mass panic and a dramatic rescue attempt. The episode added to Erdogan’s narrative as a “wronged man” who was being betrayed despite doing all he could for the people and the country (Genc, 2019; Dincsahin 2012)

In 2008, an attempt to close the AKP again failed, although it led to the party’s funding being limited. However, Erdogan’s relatively moderate first term had resonated with voters: in 2007, he linked his party’s win to the ethos of Turkey’s democratic and secular values. By electing him, the country had passed the test: “The Turkish Republic is a democratic, secular social state governed by the rule of law, and throughout this process this year, Turkey has gone through an important test of democracy and come out stronger than before from these elections,” Erdogan stated (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). 

By the end of his second term, it was clear that Erdogan was gifted at fully utilizing the rifts in Turkish society to gain a popular mandate. He had made “the people” those who were disenfranchised by the Kemalists, positioning himself as a humble outsider – as compared to the Kemalist elite who were the others. He would use his experience to address the country’s core issues through democratic means. Economic growth, better diplomatic ties, and a bid to join the EU established him as the “leader” of a people failed by the Kemalist Homo LASTus project.  

After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology. This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the EU membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Kursat Bayhan

 

The Authoritarian Populist Surfaces

Erdogan’s worldview has always contained populist elements, dating back to his National View (Milli Gorus) years in the 1970s and 80s. In the National View narratives, practicing Muslims were framed as the real owners of the homeland (“the people”) but had been victims of the pro-Western and secularist Kemalists (the “evil elite”) that oppressed them. However, with the economy slowing down in 2009, Erdogan’s populism intensified and soon became the core feature of his narrative (Dinçşahin 2012; Yilmaz and Bashirov 2018). After the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, his populist side was bolstered by his recently revival of Islamist ideology (Onbaşı 2016). This included strong anti-Western rhetoric full of conspiracy theories instead of pursuing pro-democratic reforms to gain the European Union membership, he started following a populist transactionalist agenda with the West and recalibrated Turkey’s relations with the West as of civilisational competition and even antagonism (Bashirov and Yilmaz, 2020).

This also has roots in Erbakan’s National View Islamism and the totalitarian ideology of Erdogan’s more influential role model, Necip Fazil Kisakurek, which included a strong religio-moral component and claimed that “the people” they represented did not only refer to those who were exploited, excluded, oppressed, and victimised but also to practicing Muslims who were constructed as morally superior (Tugal 2002)

He is an Islamist; however, different from other Islamists. He developed an Islamist populist style to further appeal to the grievances, resentfulness and hopes of the conservative Turkish Sunni masses that were victimised by the “evil” Kemalist elite who were the pawns of the West. In this narrative, he constructed himself as the only genuine representative of the people and their general will.

Public Enemies

After spending a considerable amount of time wearing the guise of a Muslim Democrat, Erdogan made a final shape-shift, gradually exposing his populist autocratic style of rule in the aftermath of the 2011 elections (Turkish Weekly, 2011). He used trials such as Sledgehammer (Balyoz) and Ergenekon to increasingly target the military and position himself and the AKP as the voice of democracy against the “corrupt” military. The Kemalist military was public enemy number one. Through populist “otherizing,” Erdogan continued to eliminate his greatest opponents and further polarize support in his direction. His actions were justified: they were bringing justice to the Turkish people who had, for generations, been wronged by the elite and corrupt military.

The Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations, which occurred between 2008 – 2011, gave more legitimacy to Erdogan. High-ranking military generals were put on trial and, as a consequence of the 2010 Constitutional Referendum, a number of Kemalist judiciary members were replaced. This led to a weakening of institutional checks on the AKP from the Kemalist factions. This was one of the first examples of Erdogan undermining democratic institutions by using populist divisiveness to consolidate his position. He justified it as in the best interest of the people.  

Erdogan’s commitment to democracy was gradually side-lined for populism, and then Erdogan re-introduced Islamism to the picture. As part of this transformation, the “black Turks” – conservative Muslims who had been oppressed by the Kemalist “white Turks” – were position as “the people” and the Kemalists, non-Muslims, non-Sunnis, and non-Turks were the “other” (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Erdogan and the AKP used the classic populist card of segregating the “pure” people and the “corrupt” elite. He was the people’s man – their voice.

Islamism was at the heart of Erdogan’s populist agenda. Erdogan lifted the rules of banning women from wearing headscarves in public offices and departments. This was celebrated, as it gave women the autonomy to choose what they wanted. However, it was not done to give women democratic rights, but to consolidate Erdogan’s status as a “good Muslim” who stood up for the historically oppressed group. Increasingly, he expressed more conservative views regarding women; for instance, three years later, he publicly claimed, “no Muslim family should consider birth control or family planning… we will multiply our descendants,” (BBC, 2020). 

Moreover, during his third term, Erdogan imposed hefty taxes and restrictions on alcohol sales (Ozbilgin, 2013). The tax meant that Turkish Airline stopped serving drinks on domestic flights; stores could no longer sell alcoholic beverages between 10 pm to 6 am. Lastly, stores selling alcohol had to be at least 100 meters from places of worship or educational institutes. Violators were to face mammoth fines. Brushing away criticism, Erdogan defended his actions: “There are such regulations everywhere in the world. The youth of a nation should be protected from bad habits,” (Ozbilgin, 2013). As Erdogan consolidated his power, he used Islamism to change the social fabric, divide society, and legitimize his decisions through “pure” religious motivations. 

Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power.

Crowd protesting in Gezi parki, Taksim, istanbul on May 31 2013.

Erdogan also gradually and successfully turned the media and civil society into “public enemy number one.” The Gezi Protests, in 2013, allowed Erdogan to “otherize” anyone who questioned the government’s policies. Of people gathered in Gezi, he said: “Are the people only those at Gezi Park? Aren’t those who came to meet us at Istanbul airport people, too? Those who are gathered now in Ankara; aren’t they people, too?” Erdogan called on the protesters to face off in local elections the next year. “Instead of [occupying] Gezi Park or Kugulu Park [in Ankara], there are seven months [until the elections]. Be patient and let’s face off at the ballot box.”

The protests allowed Erdogan to play on the existential insecurity of Turkish voters. He played up conspiracies that Western or outside powers were trying to destabilize the country. This again played on the public’s collective paranoia, which dated back to the Treaty of Sèvres, when the allied forces divided the defeated Ottoman Empire. This lingering trauma is deeply rooted within many Turkish people. 

The Gezi Protests sprang up in the wake of a government plan to build a shopping mall and mosque on the site of Gezi Park, a public area in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. At issue was Erdogan’s clientelism: he was increasingly running the country by buying the patronage of various individuals. A vast majority of “welfare” projects were centred around privatizing public sectors, and this led to the rise of a new bourgeoisie who profited from the neo-liberal reforms. They were naturally loyal to Erdogan’s patronage (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018; Lowen, 2017)

The Gezi Protests erupted after nearly three years of “welfare” being used a guise to hand out contracts to Erdogan-friendly businessmen. The development of the park symbolized the frustrations of marginalized groups: public space was being privatized, to benefit Erdogan and his allies. The peaceful protests were met with state violence; 11 people were killed due to police brutality (Lowen, 2017). Erdogan “otherized” the protestors and their sympathizers, defining their support as “terrorism propaganda” or “insulting” the country’s leadership. He also attacked the media supporting the protestors and criticizing the government. In a statement, he said, “There is no difference between a terrorist holding a gun or a bomb and those who use their pen and position to serve their aims” (Lowen, 2017).

Erdogan successfully framed civil society and critical media as “enemies” of the people. They were “terrorists” being supported by “foreign forces” who were allegedly envious of the “progress” Turkey had made during the AKP’s first decade in power. All the while, he effectively dismissed any opposition as “propaganda.” 

In December 2013, a series of police investigations revealed corruption involving high-level AKP elite, including Erdogan’s son Bilal and three cabinet ministers. The regime refused to let the investigations proceed: Erdogan characterized them as a “judicial coup” carried out by members of the Gulen Movement and initiated a comprehensive crackdown against the Movement. The police officers in charge of the investigation were arrested. The prosecutors on the case were replaced, and the cases were subsequently closed. In the following months, the regime seized Gulen Movement-affiliated media organisations, appointing trustees and turning them into pro-AKP mouthpieces. They seized other Gulen Movement organisations and businesses, effectively usurping thousands of private properties (Day, 2016).

The Gulenists became yet another “enemy.” Erdogan alleged members of the Movement were wiretapping himself and other Turkish officials, endangering the state (The Guardian, 2014). Mass arrests of police, civil servants, and members of the judiciary followed. Erdogan accused Gulen of establishing a “parallel structure” within the state. Erdogan pledged that he would “go into their lairs” and bring an end to the parallel structure (Butler, 2014).

Amidst this backdrop, in 2015, Erdogan was elected President. He presented himself as the “man who holds Turkey together” amidst constant threats and crises (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020). Many of these conflicts and crises were of Erdogan’s making. 

The 2016 coup attempt was to become the magnum opus of Erdogan’s populism. He called it a “blessing in disguise.” Without evidence, Erdogan blamed the coup on Gulenists. He was targeting Gulen when he said, “I have a message for Pennsylvania (referring to Gulen)… you have engaged in enough treason against this nation. If you dare, come back to your country.” Following the coup attempt, any opposition to Erdogan and his party was opposition to Turkey, a country surrounded by “enemies” inside and out (Flinks, 2016)

The purge following the failed coup attempt was merciless. The remaining opposition was crushed. It is estimated that more than 150,000 public servants were deposed from their former jobs, and thousands more were arrested (BBC, 2020).

In the wake of the failed coup, a 2017 referendum abolished the office of Prime Minister, replacing it with an executive presidency. It gave President Erdogan the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). Erdogan had successfully “otherized” all potential opponents – Kemalist institutions, civil society organizations, and the media. These “others” were a threat to the very survival of Turkey – a thread made crystal clear during the failed coup attempt. Using populism rooted in anti-Western sentiment, pro-Islamist ideology, Turkish nationalism, and conspiracy theories, Erdogan suppressed dissent, broke institutional checks and balances, and established a “new elite” who were a loyal support base in the private sector for himself and his party. He was even able to co-opt the secularist and nationalist opposition parties (Yilmaz, Caman and Bashirov, 2020; Yilmaz, Shipoli and Demir, 2021). Under such circumstance, the referendum was always bound to pass. 

As President, Erdogan has become more belligerent, especially towards the West. The man who wanted to build bridges between the West, Middle East, and Turkey has been in constant spats with Western countries. Erdogan has been constantly creating and managing international crises, while at the same time fighting off the “terrorist threat” facing Turkey from Kurdish militias (Tol, 2020).

No credible opposition remains. With Kemalists drawn out of power, religious propaganda in his hand, and the creation of multiple “enemies,” he has a comfortable hegemony over Turkish politics. Religion is used to run his “security state” and shore up support. Since disbanding thousands of schools and educational institutes linked to the Gulen Movement, Erdogan has turned them into Islamist schools. The Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) is also used as a tool. His handpicked Islamic scholars have issued a fatwa to support the Erdogan regime’s actions following the coup. 

The views of his most adamant supporters are reflected in a comment by one supporter who expressed his feeling for President Erdogan before the 2017 referendum: “He speaks our language, gets aggressive like we do – and tells the world what we want to say” (Lowen, 2017). He has become the embodiment of “the people”: they see themselves reflected in his words and actions. 

Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war.

Supporters wait for the arrival of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a referendum rally in Istanbul on April 8, 2017. Photo: Thomas Koch

 

Leader of the Ummah

Modern Turkey still basks in the glorious history of its long Ottoman past. The collapse of the Empire as a result of Treaty of Sèvres led to the formation of the modern-day republic. Erdogan has harnessed the resentment, grievances, trauma, anxieties, fears, insecurity and siege mentality that still exist over the partition of the Empire, occupation of Turkey by the Western powers, the imposition of westernising and secularising Kemalism and its victimisations.

Thus, a wave of Ottoman restorative nostalgia is visible in Erdogan’s domestic and foreign policy. Within Turkey, he has used the education system, media, and scheduling of public holidays to shape the common narrative: that Turkish Sunni Muslims should take pride in their Ottoman heritage. Through these gestures, he seeks to restore the country to its former “glory,” embedding the idea of “greatness” in Turks. Organizations such as TURGEV and Ensar are collaborations with the Diyanet to facilitate the construction of this narrative (Yabanci, 2019)

Moreover, Erdogan has not only banned critical content from the media. He has successfully replaced it with more “Islamist” or pro-Ottoman oriented content, such as the global hit “Diriliş: Ertugrul,” a fictional tale inspired by the alleged founder of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s support is visible for such shows when he visits their sets with his family members and “gifts” the show to fellow “brother Muslims” countries for free, in good faith, so that “young minds” can be exposed to a “counter” to Western influence (Banka, 2020)

Erdogan has used religion as a cudgel, to continue dividing society and consolidating his support. His ideology is perhaps best reflected in his speech after Hagia Sophia was controversially reconverted to a mosque, in 2020: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream the same about the Republic of Turkey … We tear up those scenarios of those who want to siege our country politically, economically, militarily by realizing a much large vision … To those who are surprised by Turkey … rising again like a giant who woke up from its century old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!’” (Global Village Space, 2020).

Media and educational institutions are broadcasting Erdoganist ideology overseas. Turkey has given the broadcasting rights of Ottoman-based fiction shows to Azerbaijan and Pakistan. At the same time, the Diyanet has been active in its engagement with the Turkish diaspora as well non-Turkish Muslim minorities living in the West. Erdogan has used a nexus of religious and civilizational animosity between the West and the Muslim world, claiming that the Christian West is bent on the latter’s destruction. A glimpse of this Islamist civilisationist populism was visible when he called out America and Western allies for their lack of support in the Syria war: “The West sided with terrorists, and all of them attacked us. These include NATO countries, as well as European Union countries. Weren’t you against terrorism? Since when you have been acting with them?” (Jones, 2019)

His rhetoric was as strong as ever when he called the French people “sponsors of terrorism” and their head of state “retarded” in the aftermath of a crackdown on radical Muslims following the murder of a schoolteacher by a Muslim youth (Mishra, 2020). He strained relations with Germany after issuing highly insensitive remarks calling out the “fascists” who “will never destroy Turkey’s honour” and asking Turks to “defy the grandchildren of Nazis” (Lowen, 2017). Not shying away from championing his “Islamist cause,” he has lent his sympathies to the Egypt based pan-Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and is known to showcase their four-finger salute called the “rabaa” (BBC, 2020)

In addition to lending verbal support to causes such as Palestine and Kashmir, the Turkish military has become involved in conflicts in various Muslim-majority countries such as Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan. It held joint exercises with Azerbaijan just before its conflict with Armenians in the Nagorno-Karabakh (BBC, 2020). Turkey has sent “peacekeeping troops” to Qatar, Somalia, and Afghanistan, further expanding its role in the Muslim world (Tol, 2020). While Erdogan harbours Sunni Muslim views, he has also urged the Muslim world to unite. 

At home and overseas, Islamist Erdogan is the Muslim leader who is the “real” one, representing the authentic values of “the people” or “ummah” – but mainly Sunni Muslims (Çapan & Zarakol, 2019). Erdogan’s version of Islam excludes not only non-Muslims, but also Alevis (Yilmaz and Barry, 2020). The “white Turks” at home are the domestic enemies, while externally, the Western and Zionist “lobbies” are out to cripple the Muslim world (Erdemir & Lechner, 2018; Yılmaz Z. 2017). Erdogan is the voice of the deprived “real” people, their champion against the interests of the “others.”

Ironically, his anti-Western stance and goodwill towards the ummah are circumstantial. Once, Erdogan pledged to seek justice for the Palestinians and has expressed antisemitic views; yet, the softening towards Israel by the Gulf countries has led Erdogan to also take a softer stance: he does not have a problem with the nation itself, but only “the top level.” He said, “It is impossible for us to accept Israel’s Palestine policies. Their merciless acts there are unacceptable.” However, he further elaborated, “If there were no issues at the top level, our ties could have been very different … We would like to bring our ties to a better point,” (Aljazeera, 2020)

While Erdogan has been critical of Western countries, exploiting the religio-cultural divides, he has been busy cultivating closer ties to countries such as Russia and China (despite China oppressing and detaining millions of Uighurs in an obvious attempt of genocide). Russia is an Orthodox Christian majority state, and China is a hybrid-communist state without an official religion (Tol, 2020). Thus, it is evident that religion is a means to an end, an effort to gain influence at home and abroad. It has worked: Erdogan increasingly presents himself abroad as the presumptive heir of the Muslim Ummah. 

He expounded on this in a speech he gave at the World Muslim Minorities summit in 2018: “Differences should not be an obstacle to love and brotherhood… Just like the direction of the Qibla — the direction that a Muslim takes when praying — is the same, the hearts of all Muslims are also same despite them being in different locations around the world … Today, attacks on Muslims and refugees have become commonplace in many states that practice democracy and law… Muslim women are being harassed on streets, at workplaces just because they wear headscarves. The Western world wants to defend its own ideology and way of life through anti-Islamism.”

While the Kemalists were embarrassed of their heritage, Erdogan has embraced Turkey’s Ottoman past. His narratives provide pride and hope to “the people.” He has promised them glory through nostalgic references and used a pan-Islamic populism that is transnational in nature to extend Turkey’s influence in Muslim countries. Erdogan has placed himself at the heart of dreams of the caliphate’s revival. He is the Islamist populist Muslim leader of an increasingly autocratic, populist and necropolitical republic that encourages its citizens to sacrifice their lives for the nation, state, religion and its leader (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021).

Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.”

The pictures of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk are seen at the building in Istanbul on February 14, 2014. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

 

Conclusion 

The republic is facing its first reconstruction. While Ataturk was the founding father of the Republic, today Erdogan has become the father of New Turkey. Having reconstructed the republic, he now seeks to influence the broader Muslim world (Genc, 2019)

His populism can be summed up as the “Erdoganist ideology” or “Erdoganism” (Yilmaz and Bashirov, 2018) and has helped him craft a new national identity based on “Islamism, majoritarianism, Muslim nationalism, authoritarianism, patrimonialism, personalism, [the] personality cult of Erdogan, Ottomanist restorative nostalgia, Islamist myth-making, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, victimhood, Islamist populism, civilizationism, anti-Westernism, resentfulness, vindictiveness, and anti-Western conspiracy theories to support and legitimize his position in power” (Yilmaz, 2021). In other words, he constructed all the tools to craft an Islamist populist political stage on which to rise. 

Beginning his journey in the midst of conservative and Islamist political parties, Erdogan understood that his early survival in politics depended on his ability to pose as a “democrat”; thus, he modelled himself and the AKP as “Muslim Democrat.” The only “others” were the corrupt, Western, and elite Kemalists. Thus, the first stage of his political life was supported by a heterogeneous “people” who were Kurds, non-Muslims, and conservatives along with those let-down by eight decades of Kemalist rule. By his third term in office, Kemalist institutions had been diminished, laying the groundwork the emergence of an autocratic leader. 

The second transitional phase in Erdogan’s political career came when he was faced with increasing homegrown opposition and rejection by the EU. Feeling insufficient, exposed, vulnerable, and attacked, Erdogan was successful in launching a series of attacks on any opposition. These were supported by conspiracy theories. Erdogan made Turkey a “vulnerable state,” attacked by conspirators, parallel structures, and devious foreign influence; only he, the strongman, could “save” Turkey restore its glory, dormant for 100 years. To consolidate power, changes in the constitution were introduced in the name of “security”; those defined as the “people” narrowed, driven by ultra-nationalism and Islamism. All the while, Erdogan assumed the position of a strong leader and guide for a great nation that was under attack from all sides. 

Erdoganism now means a highly autocratic and Islamized populism charged with radical ideas, such as promises of a “great” Turkey or a “new Turkey.” Erdogan, the “leader” or “hope” of the Muslim world is the sole figure at the movement’s centre. Erdogan has created the space for his ideology by preying on the populace’s “insecurities, anxieties, fears, victimhood, anger, emotions, resentfulness, vindictiveness, siege mentality, anti-Western sentiments, conspiracy theories, militarism, jihadism, glorification of martyrdom, Muslim nationalism and ummatizm.” Erdogan has become once “the people” – his success is theirs, and vice versa (Yilmaz, 2021).

Erdogan’s intervention in the media and educational spheres mean Turkish youth are exposed to his narrative. Thus, not only has he been able to galvanize support from an existing voter bank; he has also been creating a “loyal army” of supporters who believe in the ideals of their leader and identify with an imagined Ottoman Islamist identity that instils in them a “duty” to spread Islam in the public sphere, establish ties with “brother” Muslim and Turkic peoples, and defend the “oppressed” Muslim world against the “anti-Muslim lobby” (namely, the West and Israel) and not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for this cause (Yilmaz, 2021).

With “the people” on his side, Erdogan has changed the very fabric of Turkish society. Turkey has been changing from an oppressive Kemalist state to an aggressive autocratic and vindictive Islamist state. All opposition is securitised and deemed “the enemy,” state institutions spread Erdoganism’s populist narratives, and democratic checks and balances have been successfully dismantled. All this has been done in the name of “the people.” After nearly two decades, Erdogan remains at the centre of it all. 

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[1] The word imam symbioses someone as a leader or model for Muslims