Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2022). “Military and Populism: A Global Tour with a Special Emphasis on the Case of Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). March 1, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0010
Although populism has become a focus of research in the last decade, there hasn’t been much academic work on how militaries around the world have reacted/acted to the rise of populist leaders. There is some timeworn research on the relationship of militaries in Latin America with various left-wing populist governments and leaders from the 1930s to 1970s. Given that populism was largely understood in the context of left-wing politics, with the rise of right-wing populism, the literature on the military and populism needs to be advanced by studying the relationship between right-wing populism and the military. This article aims to address this gap by looking at the right-wing populism case study of Pakistan, where the military has actively participated in the rise of a religious populist leader. To situate the case study within the larger literature of the military and populism, the dynamics and history of military associations with populism and populist leaders are revisited in the article’s first part.
Even though a lot has been written about populism and its relationship with numerous institutions of the state, the link between current populism(s) and the military remains mostly unexplored (see for recent exceptions, Yilmaz and Saleem, 2021; Hunter and Vega, 2022). This article addresses that gap, giving a brief overview of the relationship between the military and populism. Populism and left- and right-wing populisms are explained in the first part of this article. In the second part, different relationships between the military and populism are explored. The final part gives a brief historical summary of how the Pakistani military helped Prime Minister Imran Khan’s populist party win elections against all odds in 2018 and has since helped govern the country.
What Is Populism?
Global politics is increasingly divided between “the people” who are galvanized against “the elite” and the “other.” As populist leaders and parties exploit these divisions based on religion, ethnicity, nationality, and other socio-political constructs, societies are becoming are fractured (Moffitt, 2016; Mudde, 2010; Albertazzi & McDonnell, 2008; Laclau, 2005). In the past, the concept was understood as something unique to Latin American politics, where left-wing populism predominated from the 1930s to the 1980s (Hawkins, 2010; Weyland, 2001). Even when there were populist leaders in other regions, they were rarely called or recognized as populists.
As populism rose in the twenty-first century, it has often been used as a right-wing narrative; some of the past explanations and theories were no longer useful. During the first two decades of this century, hundreds of articles have been written on how to define populism and attempting to understand what facilitates and maintains it.
The wave of Islamophobia post-September 11, increasing instability in the Middle East, and the resulting migration crises have led to populist ideas filtering into politics. In Europe, the Five Star Movement in Italy has vehemently opposed immigration and has repeatedly expressed its concerns with Islam (Fieschi, 2019; Mosca & Calderoni, 2012; Casertano, 2012). Its right-wing agenda has caught the increasing attention of many: the movement presents itself as the legitimate “volonté générale” of the true and pure Italian “people” against the “intruders.”
In a similar fashion, secular India—the world’s largest democracy—and its multicultural traditional is under increasing threat from the “saffron tide” of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (Saleem et al, 2022). The BJP government has used the populist ideological approach to divide the country based on religious lines: “the people” are Hindus and “the others” are Muslims and Christians (Hameed, 2020; Hansen, 1999).
As populism is a thin ideology, it can partake in both left-wing and right-wing ideas. Populist leaders attack the “corrupt elite” from both left and right. Their plans and policies can be a messy blend of left-wing and right-wing—and at times contradictory—ideas. The following section gives a brief overview of left-wing and right-wing populism.
Left-wing populism casts the “elites” as “the others” who have illegitimately seized power from “the people.” Left-wing populists want to return power to “the people” and re-balance society (Moffitt, 2016: 12-3). In practice, their policies differ from classical Marxists or socialists. Left-wing populists are closer to the concept of “populist socialism,” a hybrid of five elements: radical nationalism; a radical mood; populism; anti-capitalism; and a moderate form of socialism (Martin, 2012).
Earlier agrarian movements organically faded away in the early twentieth century. It was not until the rise of the left wing in the twentieth century that the term populism was extensively explored. Latin America, in particular, underwent a rapid political transformation and saw the rise of populist governments and dictatorships. A blend of style, ideology, strategy, and discourse was used by populist leaders, such as Júan Peron in Argentina, Velasco Ibarra in Ecuador, and Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre in Peru, to gain popularity. With the help of personal charisma combined with the rhetoric of anti-elitism, these leaders amassed a huge amount of public support. Latin American politics was thus known as “populist”—gaining the support of “the people” by harbouring feelings of “popular resentment against the order imposed on society by a…ruling class which is believed to have a monopoly on power, property, breeding, and culture” (Shils, 1956: 100-101).
Left-wing populists gained prominence in twentieth-century Latin America, but they were not limited to the Western hemisphere, and many leaders in Asia and Africa adopted populist rhetoric and policies (Young, 1982). Many populist leaders of that era, such as Kwame Nkrumah, are still revered in their countries today. With the help of personal charisma and anti-elite rhetoric, which was directed at not only local elites but also international elites (Western governments and international companies primarily controlled by the West), these leaders became very popular. Neo-colonialism was regularly arranged by these leaders, and anti-globalization was part of the African and Asian left-wing populist repertoire.
With the fall of the communist bloc in the 1990s, both Marxism and left-wing populism saw a decline in popularity. There was the gradual, widespread acceptance of liberal democracy and neo-liberal economics.
Populism—on the left but especially the right—would return in the first decade of the 21st century. March and Mudde (2005) term this new surge in populism as “social populism,” a doctrine rooted in principles of “correct” and “fair” class politics and that seeks to establish an egalitarian society that is for the “proletarian” and has elements of “anti-elitism.” The “social populist” movement found support following the global financial crisis of 2008 when it emerged along with various other political movements that sought to “fix” the “broken” system (Augustin, 2020: 5-6; Gandesha, 2018). The new wave of left-wing populists is democratic, unlike its twentieth-century predecessors, yet it uses similar ideological strategies, discourses, and style.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, global politics is undergoing a surge in right-wing populism. As opposed to its left-wing form, right-wing populism is rooted in ideas of “the pure,” religious “righteousness,” “nativism,” and a “sacred” right to “native” land (Haynes, 2020; Lobban et al. 2020; Röth, Afonso & Spies, 2017). “The people” increasingly feel it is their right to protect their culture and values from the “others.” These “others” are a wide variety of groups, based on ethnicity, language, race, religion, etc. For instance, in Central Europe, people who believe European civilization is a “Christian civilization” view Muslims as a threat, “outsiders” who are unable and/or unwilling to integrate. Haynes (2020:1) points out, “As Muslims are not capable, so the argument goes, of assimilating to European or American norms, values, and behaviour, then they must be excluded or strongly controlled for the benefit of nativist communities. Right-wing populists in both the USA and Europe pursue this strategy because they see it as chiming well with public opinion at a time of great uncertainty, instability, and insecurity.”
Along with this “Christian” civilizational, right-wing populist ideology—with Muslims as the outsiders—right-wing populists also sometimes engage in anti-Semitism and misogyny, are staunchly anti-immigrant, homophobic, and anti-EU and anti-globalization (Haynes, 2020; Lobban et al. 2020; Röth, Afonso & Spies, 2017). Thus, the discourse is built on a distrust of “outsiders” who are not part of the “true” culture.
Former US President Donald Trump entered the White House with the help of this right-wing populism. Trump’s brand of populism heavily relies on notions of Judeo-Christian—although unlike his running mate, Mike Pence, he did not clearly identify with the dominant and deep-seated emotions in the Bible Belt and beyond. He has constantly supported the idea of a Judeo-Christian civilization and has shown an aversion to “others”—even, paradoxically, including Mexican immigrants who are mostly Christians (Hosey, 2021; Mudde, 2021; Espenshade, 2020). The January 6th attack on the US Capitol has shown Trump’s encouragement of and tolerance for domestic far-right terrorist groups that are part of a radical right in America (Mudde, 2021).
Beyond Europe and the Western world, right-wing populists have also prospered and even gained power in Asia and Africa. Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has used a right-wing ensemble of Hindu nationalism and populism for over two decades and has essentially altered the social fabric of India (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017: 184; Saleem et al, 2022). During Modi’s first and second tenure as Prime Minister, the Hindutva ideology—and Modi’s populism—engulfed not only the politics, but also the psyche, of Indian society. From revoking the autonomy of Indian-held Kashmir to instigating security forces’ violence against student protestors across India to the Citizenship Amendment Act, the Modi-led BJP has used Hindutva and populism to engulf the brains and bodies of ordinary Hindus (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Saleem et al, 2022). Next door in South Asia, Imran Khan has also used Islamist populism (Shakil and Yilmaz, 2021) —and the power of the military (to be discussed in detail later)—to gain power in Pakistan. He invites people to a new Pakistan that is a modern version of Prophet Muhammad’s state, called the Riyasat-e-Madina.
Beyond ideology and discourse, right-wing populism has also been used in a performative sense as a style and as a strategy. Modi’s use of the sacred saffron colour, Khan’s habit of carrying around prayer beads, Trump holding the Bible before ordering peaceful protesters to be shelled with tear gas, and Erdogan’s habit of crying while reciting the Qur’an are various strategy- and style-based right-wing populist tactics to evoke propitious, favourable emotions in “the people.”
The divisional lines between right- and left-wing populism are not always clear cut. For instance, the idea of anti-elitism can also be espoused by any populist. Leaders such as Modi and Erdogan have been using their humble beginnings to position themselves as a voice or of the common, working-class people. Thus, Erdogan calling himself a Black Turk (as opposed to an elite White Turk) and Modi referring himself as a chaye wala (tea seller) are symbolic gestures to highlight their working-class roots and deep relationship with an average Turkish or Indian citizen (Sen, 2019).
On the other hand, Mette Frederiksen and her party, the Social Democrats, in Denmark are proponents of left-wing values such as strong welfarism. Yet, in recent years, even when in power, the party has taken an anti-immigration stance which is traditionally a right-wing policy (Al Jazeera, 2019; Nedergaard, 2017). The party justifies its move by rationalizing, “As Social Democrats, we believe that we must help refugees, but we also need to be able to deliver results in Denmark via local authorities and for the citizens. […] We have therefore been tightening asylum rules and increased requirements for immigrants and refugees. And we will continue to pursue a tight and consistent asylum policy, which makes Denmark geared to handling refugee and migratory pressures” (Nedergaard, 2017).
The Military and Populism
While populism is largely a political ideology, when institutional boundaries are weak, the military can fall prey to populism, too. Some characteristics of populism endear the military to it while others make the military oppose it. Military men and women, being part of a bureaucracy and an institution working under strict rules and regulations, often dislike political manoeuvring and manipulation; they may be drawn to populists who commonly talk in simple, straight language and are not ready to spare those who they think are enemies of the nation. Although populist leaders do make deals and change their opinions based on what is politically feasible (such as Trump’s change of opinion about abortion), they project themselves as straight shooters, not politicians. This apparent dislike for political expediency is also appealing.
However, there are also many points of disagreement between the military and populists. Populists generally oppose wars and foreign interventions, as they take money away from domestic welfare programs. Many populists propose cutting defence budgets to increase domestic welfare spending. Most populist leaders are also anti-science or lack basic scientific knowledge. Trump, Modi, and Khan have said many things that would make a 10th-grader laugh. This makes populist leaders difficult partners for the military, home to the most sophisticated technologies available.
There are many types of relationships between the military and populism. The most direct would be a coup leader himself becoming a populist. It is uncommon today, but in the 20th century, generals did transform themselves into populists after successful coups to gain legitimization and support. Perhaps the most famous left-wing populist general was the Argentinian Júan Peron, who became the face of socialist populism (Calvo, 2021; Gillespie, 2019). During his two terms in office, Peron was able to amass popular support through welfare and pro-labour policies combined with nationalization (Gillespie, 2019). While in the short term these benefited the Argentinian people, the government was unable to support such measures in the long run when combined with the growing military oligarchy in the country. “Peron used the presidency to maintain support for the military through modernization and promotion projects. […] Perón removed generals when he saw them as troublesome and promoted the generals who supported him instead” (Calvo, 2021). This clientelism between the military elite was used by Peron to prolong his “iron first” populist rule over Argentina (he ruled from 1946-55 and again from 1973-74).
Similarly, in Mexico too, General Lázaro Cárdenas (in power from 1934-40) adopted socialist populist policies that led to major improvements in the economy and also general welfare, as he touted issues such as affirmative action for indigenous groups and women’s rights (Philip, 2000). By mobilizing the rural poor and urban middle class, Cárdenas dominated Mexican politics with socialist ideas, but his military background led his government to assume the posture and course of populist authoritarianism (Philip, 2000).
Left-wing populism was also adopted by many military coup leaders in Africa, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt (ruled 1956-70), Ben Bella (ruled 1962-65) in Algeria, and Thomas Sankara (ruled 1983-87) in Burkina Faso. Some of these generals “thickened” their populism with nationalism and transnationalism. Nasser was traditionally a left-wing populist leader, yet he used the ideas of pan-Arabism to create not only a national identity for Egypt but for Arabs around the Middle East.
Right-wing populist generals are not uncommon. These populist generals have promoted nativism, militant nationalism, an aggressive stance against immigrants, minorities, and outsiders, and a “my country first” policy. The Greek “regime of the colonels” in the late 1960s and early 1970s was an example of right-wing military leaders employing populism. The regime coined the slogan, “Greece for Christian Greeks,” and its leaders frequently talked about one Greek people and nation. They also talked about a “national renaissance” to resurrect Greece, which was compared to a patient on her deathbed (Couloumbis, 1974; Xydis, 1974).
Military Support for / Opposition to Populists
Most of the time, the military supports or opposes populists but does not directly intervene in a country’s governance. Populists—who want to change the decades-old way of doing politics—usually need or feel the need to have this indirect support. Supporting populists indirectly allows the military to protect its interests, such as regular increases in military expenditures, as well as increase its political power.
The military’s support for left-wing populist leaders primarily comes from the mid-century period in Latin America. During the twentieth century, militaries in numerous countries supported left-wing populists. Brazilian President and dictator Getulio Vargas (1930-45 and 1951-54) came into power supported by the Brazilian military. He adopted a wide array of social and political policies that benefited labour, workers, and women, and the Brazilian military continued to support him even when he disbanded Congress and suspended the constitution (Green, Langland, & Schwarcz, 2019: 321-4).
Some left-wing populists have been opposed by the military. Paz Estenssoro, a left-wing Bolivian leader, who came to power with the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement, stayed in power from the 1950s to 1980s. His rhetoric was anti-elitism and targeted the ruling military elite. “In the revolution of April 1952, the worker and peasant masses defeated the oligarchy’s military,” and he established a rule which led to the rapid nationalization of resources (Funke, Schularick & Trebesch, 2020: 85).
Militaries supporting right-wing populism have become more common. One of the reasons might be the changing nature of the military vis-à-vis society in the decolonized world. Earlier, the military in most developing countries was a modernizing force as it had education, scientific knowledge, and regular interaction with other militaries. Numerous military coups led to land reforms and less power for the religious right. By the end of the 20th century, most militaries in these countries had become status-quo-supporting organizations.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, a right-wing “strongman” populist, has been able to garner support through his “tough” actions against “druggies,” “militants,” “radicals,” etc. (Dizon, 2020). Duterte’s “action” oriented strategy to “crush” the bad guys has led him to use penal populism. His aggressive policies are supported by the military, on whom he has relied heavily for cracking down “undesirables” (Dizon, 2020).
Another instance of a right-wing populist leader being supported by the military comes from Latin America. In Brazil, conservative, populist President Jair Bolsonaro has appointed military officers to key technocratic, political, and bureaucratic positions. One figure suggests that “individuals with military experience have occupied almost half of all cabinet seats since 2019, including President Jair Bolsonaro himself as well as retired army general and current vice president Hamilton Mourão” (Scharpf, 2020).
Finally, right-wing populists have been opposed by the military in some countries. For nearly eight decades, the modern Turkish Republican was dominated by the Kemalist military elite that advanced a reformist agenda to modernize and secularize the country. After the right-wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, the Kemalist military launched a series of attacks on the AKP. This led to what the AKP called a “digital coup” against them when the Kemalist military questioned the AKP’s nationalism and loyalty as being counter to the constitutional spirit of the country (Elver, 2014). Between 2010 and 2020, the AKP became increasingly populist and used its increasing power to constitutionally limit the Kemalist military elite from interfering.
From this brief survey, it is evident that in developing countries where mass mobilization takes place on populist grounds, the military is likely to get involved directly or indirectly in state affairs due to the power vacuum left by politicians. The armed forces are either part of “the elite” that the populist wave rises against, or they are direct agents of “the people” or supporters of those who claim to represent “the people.”
Case Study of Pakistan
Pakistan is no stranger to military involvement in civilian matters (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; Taj, Shah & Ahmad, 2016; Hussain, 2012). The country witnessed its first military coup in 1958, hardly a decade after its formation in 1947. From the late 1950s to the late 2000s, the country experienced four successful military coups and numerous unsuccessful ones. Pakistanis lived nearly half of those seven decades under military dictatorships (1958-1971, 1977-1988, and 1999-2008). Over the years the military has not only deposed democratically elected leaders but forced them into exile—and in the case of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, organized his execution (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; Taj, Shah & Ahmad, 2016).
Since the last dictatorship, the military has adopted a covert approach regarding its involvement in politics. They have tried to manage Pakistani politics from backstage. The fame, power, and charisma of Imran Khan, a famous sportsman and philanthropist, has allowed the military to browbeat the two most popular parties in the country. With the rise of populism, Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party (see in detail, Yilmaz and Shakil, 2021a; Yilmaz and Shakil, 2021b; Yilmaz and Shakil 2021c) and the military have cooperated repeatedly and projected themselves as the “defenders” or “the voice” of “the people” against the malicious “others.” Imran Khan’s journey to the country’s power corridors is closely tied to his relationship with the military. Khan’s PTI, however, has gone through various stages before becoming fully immersed with the military. Due to the changing dynamics of the relationship, we have divided Khan’s journey into various chronological periods.
Years of Warm Non-engagement (1996-2001)
The PTI was founded as an anti-elite and anti-corruption party that sought to bring social justice to the disenfranchised people of Pakistan. In its early stages, the party was welfarist and reformist in its ideas. It wanted to make politics “for the people,” as a break from conventional politics which was increasingly dynastic and self-centred. The party’s non-political background meant it had to work from the grassroots to ensure its political presence in a country where family and baradari (tribe or caste) ties play a key role in politics (Shah, 2020; Mushtaq, Ibrahim & Qaleem, 2013; Lancaster, 2003). During its initial years, the PTI was not a fixture on the political landscape other than Khan, its chairman, making headlines for issuing pro-people statements due to this social status as a former Pakistani cricketer. Abbas (2019) correctly notes that in its early years, the PTI was not seen as a political party but rather viewed as an Imran Khan fan club or a social justice movement; its membership was confined to the upper middle class and affluent members of society who wanted to play a proactive role in politics.
The PTI’s pro-establishment stance positioned it close to the military when General Musharraf deposed the sitting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In Khan’s view, elite’s corrupt and incompetent leadership had come to an end, and Musharraf’s progressive ideals would benefit the country. During this period, the relationship between the PTI and the military was cordial. Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, a charity founded by Khan, even was donated $500,000 by Musharraf in 2002 (Arab News, 2019).
Antagonistic Relationship (2002-10)
The distant yet pleasant relationship between the regime and the PTI took a turn in 2002. Musharraf offered Khan a significant role in politics and a large number of seats in the 2002 national elections but, in turn, Khan had to support a large group of corrupt politicians. To his credit, Khan refused, and the PTI only won one seat in the 2002 military-rigged elections. Musharraf’s embrace of the corrupt and religious parties—including the KP, PTI’s political rival—turned Khan into a bitter rival. Khan also became a fierce critic of the Pakistani military’s role in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan. For nearly a decade, Khan increasingly became the face of resistance towards US-led or promoted operations in Pakistan’s rural tribal areas.
Khan’s opposition to the army’s activities and the Musharraf regime led to him being put on house arrest several times (Indurthy, 2004). In 2007, Khan and his party also publicly opposed the regime’s efforts to evacuate a hub of extremists from the Red Mosque in Islamabad (Samiuddin, 2018). Crucially, the PTI chose to remain silent on the issue of extremism being spread by the militants and radicals at the mosque and instead chose to criticize the draconian measures taken by the Musharraf-led government to dislocate the militants from the mosque complex. Later on, Khan was one of the leaders of the movement for the restoration of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, who was unconstitutionally sacked by Musharraf. It was this movement and the murder of Benazir Bhutto that resulted in the fall of Musharraf in 2008-9.
Close Alignment (2011-17)
With Musharraf in exile and The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leading governments at the federal and provincial level, there was little hope for the PTI. Khan’s original supporters were long gone, and the PTI was unable to make a dent in the political arena. Similarly, the military was looking for partners to increase its clout after the undignified ouster of Musharraf. So, it seems that the two most probably decided to strike a deal. There aren’t signed papers but there is enough circumstantial evidence of the PTI’s support for the military and vice versa. The prime piece of evidence is the shift in the PTI’s “other.” While Khan was still passionately leading rallies and pointing out policy issues regarding the war on terror, the overall target of the party’s criticism was not the military but the “Western nations” which, according to Khan, had engulfed the Muslim nations into war (Dawn, 2013). Khan’s support of the Afghan mujahideen and his increasing focus on the “good” Taliban drew international criticism (Boone, 2014).
Gradually, the calls for accountability were targeted at the political elite, leaving the military out of the PTI’s retributive politics. While it’s true that civilian politicians such as the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaries had amassed fortunes by misusing their offices, so, too, had the military elite; generals became multi-millionaires (Siddiqa 2017). Yet PTI’s accountability was partisan: it sought a return of the looted wealth only from the civilian governments. The military supported Khan by providing him allies and ensuring favourable media coverage. Because of political deals and Khan’s alliance with the military, the PTI’s position became hypocritical. Khan spoke about those who were killed by the Western militaries in Afghanistan and refused to condemn the Taliban, who were also involved in killing innocent Afghans. While he drew excessive focus to the police brutality of the PML-N government against various protestors, such as at the Model Town incident in 2014, there was no mention the lives lost due to various military operations in the country’s western regions.
The PTI had always prided itself as a pro-democracy party, yet it did not object to the constitutional amendments that went against the democratic spirit of the country. For example, Khan did not raise an objection to the controversial 21stConstitutional Amendment, which was passed in 2015 (Amin, Qurban & Siddiqa, 2020; The News; 2014). Because of this amendment, the military could set up its own courts that could try civilians if they were deemed “terrorists.”
As the 2018 elections grew closer, Pakistan went through major political developments when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from office after a prolonged court case. It was very difficult to believe that this verdict did not have the military’s support, as Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were major witnesses against the sitting PM. This sent into motion an openly bitter relationship between the military and the PML-N. The latter blamed the military for interfering with politics, as the exiled Sharif made speeches blaming the “aliens” or “deep state” that targeted him and his family through their “proxy,” the PTI (Dawn, 2018). Sharif went on the offensive and called out the military leadership for their constant interference in matters of the state while simultaneously labelling the PTI as the military’s “puppet” government (Dawn, 2020).
Support During the Election Campaign and On Election Day (2017-18)
By the end of the PML-N tenure, the party had suffered major setbacks. The PTI was the talk of the town and sought vengeance for the country’s “wronged” people. The PTI attacked the political elite, and its populist rhetoric resonated with the population, which felt failed by successive corrupt governments. The PTI emerged victorious in the National Assembly and in three provincial assemblies.
The PML-N, after its defeat, accused the PTI of using military support to rig elections to secure its victory. While the PML-N was a bitter loser, there was some truth in the allegations. For instance, in the July 2018 elections, the Pakistani Army had deployed over 371,000 troops to “secure” polling stations, and the counting of votes was delayed for several hours (Khan, 2018; Panda, 2018). While the presence of the military at voting stations was not new in a country where security has been a prolonged issue, there were worrying reports about the integrity of the election (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018; Khan, 2018). Even before the election, various PML-N candidates issued statements claiming that they were being harassed by security forces and that their campaign headquarters were targeted (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018). The allegations were profound enough that the spokesperson for the military, Major General Asif Ghafoor, had to address them during a press conference, where he brushed the allegations aside (Abi-Habib & Masood, 2018; Panda, 2018).
Following its electoral victory, the PTI revealed a plan to address the nation’s issues in 100 days. While most of the PTI’s campaign promises remain unfulfilled—and the party even reversed some of its positions—it is worth noting that a large number of former Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) or pro-Musharraf/military political members have become part of Khan’s core team (Abbasi, 2018). At least 13 core ministries were handed out to former PML-Q members, or those who had served in an advisory capacity to Musharraf (Abbasi, 2018).
Support For PM Imran Khan (2018-21)
In office, Imran Khan has been an enthusiastic supporter of the military. A huge change in his previous stance was visible when a court announced a public hanging sentence for Musharraf for disrespecting and violating the constitution between 1999 to 2008 (Geo News 2019). In 2014, Khan himself urged the judiciary to do justice by not allowing Musharraf to escape trial (Ilyas, 2014). Once the 2019 verdict came down, Khan explicitly called the judge “mentally ill” for using such a “harsh” verdict as the Prime Minister felt it insulted the institution of the military (Shahzad, 2019). Khan gave a full three-year extension to the current Army Chief, after his normal three-year tenure ended in 2019, although previously Khan himself (and others) had publicly declared that giving Army Chiefs extensions undermines democracy (Philip 2019; Afzal, 2019). In, 2021 the PTI government passed another bill aimed at supporting the military. Under this new bill, anyone who criticizes the military will be tried under section 500A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC); the accused could face two years of jail time and/or a fine of up to 500,000PKR, or roughly 3,270USD (The News, 2021).
In addition to supporting legislative changes that bolster the military, Khan has openly talked about a “5th generation warfare” and the opposition’s “seditious” attempts. The government, with the help of the military, has registered numerous cases on major opposition figures and has used an anti-corruption agency to keep opposition leaders terrified and/or in jail. Khan and the military’s top brass have used the populist rhetoric of threats from “within” and “outside” the country to browbeat the political opposition (Butt, 2021; Sareen 2020). Both have synchronized efforts to portray the opposition as friends of India and the “enemy” of Pakistan, ensuring they’re viewed with suspicion while the PTI and military are viewed as the “protectors of the nation.”
This case study demonstrates the partnership between a populist leader and a country’s military leadership that allows the latter to play a covert role in politics. In Pakistan, the military has always been closely tied with politics. It has been deemed a necessary evil that is there to protect the people from the “incompetent political elite” or to defend the country against its many “enemies.” These notions have helped construct an image of the military as a “reliable” political actor who is normally incorruptible. However, with growing concerns in civil society over repeated military regimes, the military apparatus changed its form of involvement in politics. Rather than imposing martial law and becoming a pariah on the international stage, it decided to co-opt a populist party and “help” it form a government. The PTI government now provides the generals with the necessary leverage and cover through its verbal, legal, and legislative power while the military provides Khan and his PTI with political space to run the country even when its performance is pitiful and the opposition is numerically strong. Both get what they want while also maligning the opposition as “traitors” and “enemies of the people.”
The Pakistani case study is informative. It tells a story that can easily happen elsewhere in the developing world. A military, having staged many successful coups and accustomed to unconstitutional powers, looks to keep or increase its illegal powers against the onslaught of political parties, without imposing martial law. Thus, it decides to back a populist party, which is unable to challenge the control of the established parties on its own. Separately, both the military and the populist party may not succeed, but, using each other, they manage to take control of the government.
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The 21st century has witnessed a significant shift in how the concept of nationalism is understood. A political marriage between identity politics and populism has resulted in “civilizationism,” a new form of nationalism that entails an emotionally charged division of society into “the people” versus “the Other.” All too often, the divisive discourses and policies associated with civilizationalist populism produce intercommunal conflict and violence. This paper draws on a salient case study, India’s Hindutva movement, to analyze how mainstream populist political parties and grassroots organizations can leverage civilizationist populism in campaigns to mobilize political constituencies. In surveying the various groups within the Hindutva movement and conducting a discourse analysis of their leaders’ statements, the paper shows the central role of sacralized nostalgia, history, and culture in Hindutva populist civilizationism. By analyzing the contours and socio-political implications of civilizationist populism through this case study, the paper contributes to the theoretical understanding of the concept more generally.
During the 2014 electoral campaign in India, billboards adorned with a picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi draped in hues of saffron color read, “I am a Patriot. I am Nationalist. I was born Hindu” (Ghosh, 2013). This narrative and imagery reflect the rise of the so-called “saffron tide” in India (Nag, 2014). The color saffron in Hinduism represents pious renunciation of material concerns (Bhattacharjee, 2017), and the election campaign drew on this motif to portray a period of “purification,” in which orange “fire” would “cleanse” society of its “impurities.” The fulcrum of this development was Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which combine political Hinduism or Hindutva with populist discourses to construct a narrative of a civilizational state that is in “crisis” and requires a “strongman” to lead “the people” back to the glorious Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Kingdom) (Lefèvre, 2020). Modi’s Hindutva populist narrative first took form in his home state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister from 2002 to 2014. However, his comprehensive wins in the 2014 and 2019 general elections have empowered and mainstreamed the Hindutva populist narrative across India.
The civilizationist ideals of India’s right-wing Hindu movement combine the elements of religion, populism, and nationalism in an emotionally charged politics. Various groups and political parties have helped in shaping this distinct Hindutva identity. Civilizationist populism has led to changes in laws to target religious minorities and foster an environment where vigilante groups feel empowered to use violence to express their anger toward “the Other.” As a result, India has experienced a sharp decline in its democratic freedoms and now confronts the rise of “electoral authoritarianism.” The attendant “crackdowns” on civil liberties have seen freedom of expression, assembly, and religion increasingly imperiled (Freedom House, 2021; The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2021).
This paper explores the complex role of nostalgia, aspiration, culture, and history in the emergence and development of civilizationist populism. Methodologically speaking, it adopts a comprehensive case study approach to capture the complex nature of interactions across populism, nostalgia, aspiration, history, culture, and political mobilization. By reviewing Hindutva discourse in India, this paper demonstrates the role of sacralized historical narratives and their emotional appeal in creating a conducive environment for populist civilizationism. We also explore possible links between this discourse and the use of violence by the right-wing groups toward those considered “Other.” India’s selection as a case study is based on news and existing literature that points at the widespread manifestation of the phenomenon from organizational grassroots levels to the government itself. Throughout this paper, the use of sacralized nostalgia, aspiration, history, and culture is explored to make sense of the construction of populist civilizationist. It also highlights the promotion of violence by vigilante groups that draw on Hindutva civilizationist discourses.
The remainder of the paper proceeds as follows. It begins by detailing the extant literature on civilizationist populism to establish a theoretical framework to guide the case study analysis. The paper then discusses the characteristics of Hinduism and elaborates on the distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. It details Hindutva ideology, tracing its evolution as a political-religious formation and its reliance on sacred narrative construction. The following section briefly discusses grassroots organizations that exhibit this populist discourse. These organizations mainly belong to the Sangh Parivar, an umbrella term that covers a range of groups attached to India’s militant National Volunteer Organization (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS) —a right-wing, Hindu nationalist volunteer movement—including the Universal Hindu Council (Vishva Hindu Parishad, VHP) and the VHP’s youth organization the Brigade of Hanuman (Bajrang Dal,BD). In the final substantive section, the paper focuses on political parties and their leaders, who have deployed Hindutva discourse to mobilize supporters and voters, sometimes merged with populism and at other times ignoring it. The paper concludes with a short section drawing together the findings and marking out pathways for future research.
Culture and religion have taken center stage in the most recent waves of populist discourse worldwide (Elçi, 2021; Yilmaz and Morieson 2021; Brubaker, 2017; Marzouki, McDonnell & Roy, 2016). Civilizationism has been central to this political development. Borrowing heavily from Huntington’s (1993) idea of a “clash of civilizations,” civilizationism derives from the instrumentalization of religion as a central logic in defining collective identity. Civilizationalist populists have used many of the world’s major religions — including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity — to erect a binary where “the opposition between self and the other is not in narrowly national but in broader civilizational terms” (Brubaker, 2017: 1191).
Like all variants of populism, the notion of “the people” is central to civilizationalist populism. In this case, the idea of a sacralized in-group or “virtuous community” aligns closely with the notion of “the true people” central to all populisms. The identity of this sacralized in-group is constructed based on cultural and religious practices. This identity grounding forms the basis for a mobilization of “the people” against both “the corrupt elite” and “the Other” — the antagonist cultural or religious out-group. Assigning foreign or alien status to “the Other” allows civilizationist populists to frame out-group members as sources of anxiety, creating a sense of crisis and victimhood among “the people.” Those who are “otherized” in this way become the targets of attacks. This largely manufactured sense of crisis produces, in turn, the demand for populist leadership and organizations and paves the way for ethno-religious clashes, thereby weakening democracy (Galston, 2018; Lesch, 2020).
How culture, nostalgia, and nationalism are used collectively to construct civilizationist populist binaries of society has not been analyzed. There are, however, studies that show “appeals to religion and culture not only shape populist ideologies but also help mobilize people against other groups and/or the state by generating feelings of belonging, love, passion, fear, anger, and hate, thus shaping the performance of populism” (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 18; See also DeHanas & Shterin, 2018).
It has been speculated that cultural backlash against globalization and multiculturalism plays a crucial role in empowering right-wing populism (Furedi, 2017; Inglehart & Norris, 2016). The transnational interpretation of culture enables populist rhetoric to become civilizationist, thus, overcoming the fixed borders of the nation-state. Firstly, culture is considered the key reservoir of transnational identity connecting various national communities, enabling populists to define the collective self in civilizational terms. Cosmopolitan elites championing multicultural, globalist norms and those non-nationals who adhere to an alien culture or minorities who are said to adhere to different cultural values are thus cast as cultural “outsiders.” Secondly, in civilizationist populism, the national culture is defined not in narrowly national but broader civilizational terms. For example, the Turkish culture is part of a broader Muslim culture based on the Islamic faith. Such a civilizationist interpretation also has some positive implications. For instance, it has allowed Turkish culture to accept otherwise non-national outsiders such as Syrian refugees because Turks and Syrians form part of a broader community, the Islamic ummah. Third, civilizationist populism brings together vertical and horizontal aspects of populism by characterizing the elite both “above” and “external” to the “true people” (Brubaker, 2017). The elite is not only economically and politically dominant but also considered to be culturally alien by embracing other cultures. This allows for a cultural construction of the “in-group” and “out-group” populist identities (de Cesari & Kaya, 2019).
Populism draws on nostalgia to construct an idealized and at times sacralized lost “homeland” or culture that the leader or movement promises to restore. This feature makes populism “a backward-looking reactionary ideology, reflecting a deep sense of nostalgia for the good old days” (Betz & Johnson, 2004: 311). This revisionist, romanticized loss of the imagined “golden age” is further intensified when linked to a globalized or multicultural context (de Cesari & Kaya, 2019; Norris & Inglehart, 2018; Taggart, 2004). Populists, thus, develop a “selective deployment of the national past” to shape this nostalgia in “the people” that challenges the status quo (Kenny, 2017; Yilmaz 2021).
Elçi (2021: 1) claims that populists “instrumentalize nostalgia in order to create their populist heartland, which is a retrospectively constructed utopia based on an abandoned but undead past.” In so doing, populists provide both an explanation (Elçi, 2021; Taş, 2020; Lammers & Baldwin, 2020; Homolar & Scholz, 2019; Steenvoorden & Harteveld, 2017) and a solution for current social ills, thereby empowering themselves to restore “lost” glory. The resort to nostalgia foregrounds a comforting past to make the present reassuring and restore notions of belonging, inclusion and continuity (Homolar & Scholz, 2019: 358). The populist leader provides “the people” with the hope of “ontological security in the present” and the promise of restorative justice in the future (Kinnvall, 2014: 322).
Designed to placate “the people,” this nostalgia forms a culturally homogeneous imagination in which “the Other” is present within—but not part of—the society, and its existence is seen as a hindrance to restoring the lost “glory” of the civilizational past. Duyvendak (2011) has researched this process in the West, where populists leverage resentment over globalization and immigration in extensively nostalgic narratives. He found that “(t)he past is portrayed as a closed and conflict- free whole, carried by citizens who all basically shared the same beliefs, norms and traditions” (Duyvendak (2011: 84). Consequently, “the Other” is not only cast as a hindrance to achieving a return to a utopian past but is a constant reminder of the “loss” of this former civilizational glory.
Types of Populism in India
Populism has been defined in many ways, including as a leader-centered political strategy, an ideology, a political style, and a discursive process or a frame. In the present paper, we draw on the prevalent definition of populism as a “thin-centered ideology” (Mudde, 2004: 544) that takes on its full form when combined with elements of other ideologies, such as nationalism, socialism, or conservatism (Yilmaz & Saleem, 2021; de la Torre, 2019: 7; Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). Religion is one such ideological element used by various contemporary populists — from Presidents Trump and Erdoğan to Prime Ministers Modi and Imran Khan — to “thicken” their populist appeals.
Populism in India has been attached to religion and nationalism but also other ideological elements and markers, like caste, class, ethnicity, and welfarism. Kaustuv Chakrabarti and Kaustuv Kanti Bandyopadhyay (2021) note that populist rhetoric in India usually peaks around elections as politicians seek to mobilize voters.
Jaffrelot and Tillin (2017) identify several strands of populist politics in India. The first is personalized populism, exemplified by Indira Gandhi’s approach in the 1960s. To consolidate her political base and head off opposition from powerful regional leaders within her Congress Party, Gandhi combined welfarism and protectionist economic policies with a highly personalized appeal to the rural poor against the established Congress Party elite whom she accused of holding back progress (Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017). However, once these vaguely leftist populist strategies started failing in the 1970s, Gandhi’s leadership turned authoritarian, culminating in the so-called “emergency period” from 1975 to 1977 when the prime minister ruled by decree under a declared state of emergency.
Jaffrelot and Tillin’s second type is the populism of Prime Minister Modi, which will be discussed in detail later in the article. The third type is welfare populism, prevalent in southern India and based on regional identity politics. Here, along with welfare policies and the free provision of consumer goods, popular leaders like M. G. Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and N.T. Rama Rao in Andhra Pradesh, both of whom made their mark in regional films, rallied the masses against the Congress Party, dominated by the Hindi-speaking northern part of the country.
Hindutva Populism: Organizations
This section details the various organizations that make up India’s Sangh Parivar (which translates roughly to “Hindutva family”), including the influential RSS. In so doing, we show how Hindutva nationalism has drawn on the ideas of culture, nostalgia, aspiration, and history in propagating its particular form of civilizationalist populism.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
The RSS was the brainchild of K.B. Hedgewar, a former Congress Party member who formed the organization in Nagpur in 1925 (Andersen & Damle, 2019a). As the non-political face of the Hindutva movement, it was conceived as a militant, revivalist and nationalistic organization to reinforce Hindu identity and buttress military skills among the Hindu population during the late period of British colonial rule. Around the same time, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar established the Hindu Mahasabha (HM), a political party promoting Hindutva. Despite differences with Hedgewar, Savarkar was closely aligned with the RSS, which nevertheless largely stayed out of politics in the period before independence and the 1947 Partition of India. Instead, it focused on cultivating a generation of “proper young Hindus” along the lines of Hindutva ideology, intending to subordinate non-Hindu socio-religious elements in South Asia (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021: 8). Today, the RSS has an estimated six million swayamsevaks (members) across India (Friedrich, 2020).
In line with Hindutva politics, the RSS did not directly challenge British colonial rule, a position championed by the group’s second leader, M.S. Golwalkar. Thus, other than Savarkar and Hedgewar, RSS leaders seldom found themselves in trouble with the British colonial authorities (Patwardhan, 2014; Andersen & Damle, 2019b: 29–35). However, during the 1940s, under the leadership of Golwalkar, the RSS became heavily influenced by Italian fascism, Nazism, and British-style disciplinary military training (Andersen & Damle, 2019b: 29–35), and the movement became increasingly wedded to the notion of Hindustan as a “civilization in crisis.” In his book, We orOur Nationhood Defined (1939), Golwalkar wrote,
To keep up purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the Semitic races, the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into a united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by (Patwardhan, 2014).
Golwalkar’s classification of society and worldviews was rooted in a fascist ideology in which the Hindu nation was cast as supreme to all others (Sarkar, 1993).
The RSS has always clashed with Congress due to the latter’s “secular” nature. For instance, for more than fifty years after 1947, the RSS objected to the tricolor national flag of India, based on a design of the Congress Party that includes a green stripe to represent the Muslim population of the country. Instead, the RSS has maintained that the flag should be only saffron-colored, thereby excluding the Muslim element and extolling bharatmatta (or “Mother India”) (Andersen & Damle 2019b, 24–26). Moreover, the RSS maintains its commitment to philanthropy-led activities to chisel “model Hindus” (Chatterji et al. 2020). Still, “a number of volunteers from the RSS have over time graduated into politicians, forming their own political parties and becoming key stakeholders in the government” (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir 2021, 8). The most prominent examples of RSS-groomed politicians are Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi.
The RSS also seeks inspiration from particular strands of ancient Hindu culture to fashion a political Hinduism. Ancient texts, such as the Dharmaśāstras and the Manusmriti, have been hailed as “the basis of the spiritual and divine march of the nation.” The Manusmriti’s author is also hailed as “the first, greatest and the wisest lawgiver of mankind” (Patwardhan, 2014). However, this text has a highly ethnocentric and glorified view of Hindu customs and traditions, one that deeply embeds problematic ideas, such as the caste system, the subordination of women, and xenophobia toward non-Hindus (Sawant, 2020; Shantha, 2020). Sawant (2020) notes that the traces of this cultural ideology are present in the RSS and the BJP. For example, several of their members have defended the ideas of “cleansing” the Bharat (motherland) and expressed support for the caste system (the Indian Constitution forbids discrimination based on caste and outlaws practices associated with “untouchability”), failed to see women outside the role of motherhood, and promoted an environment of forced re-conversion (Andersen & Damle, 2019a; Jha, 2016).
However, Andersen (2018) notes that in the post-Golwalkar period, the RSS has opened itself to non-Hindus so that they might share the Hindutva culture. But this openness is still rooted in discriminatory attitudes deeply embedded in a sense of cultural superiority. For instance, Ramapada Pal, a key preacher in the RSS, argues that “the superiority of the Hindu kingdom” is undeniable (Nair, 2015). The RSS leaders have also argued that “if a Muslim living in India chooses their god before India, then why should he be allowed to live in our country? This country belongs to Hindus first” (Nair, 2015). While their booklet rationalizes this in ultra-nationalist terms:
Non-Hindus must be assimilated with the Hindu way of life. The words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Christian’ denote a religious phenomenon, while the word ‘Hindu’ is synonymous with the nation. Even in the United States, it is emphasized that non-Americans should be assimilated into ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture (Andersen & Damle, 2019a).
Thus, the idea of glorified ancient culture, which was the basis of a glorious future, is a key pillar in the RSS’s constructed Hindu nationalism.
As Leidig (2016) notes, this feeling of cultural superiority also exhibits “a nostalgic yearning for a glorified Vedic period – Hinduism’s ‘Golden Age’” that, coupled with the use of historical narratives to paint Muslims as the “tyrant invaders,” legitimizes the RSS’s call for “purification.”
Since 2014, the Sangh Parivar has pushed for “a pro-Hindutva agenda in the name of cultural nationalism” (Leidig, 2016). In this narrative, the “golden age” was a period when Hindus accomplished the greatest scientific and philosophical feats, changing the destiny of humanity (Thapar, 2020; Jain & Lasseter, 2018; Leidig, 2016). Additionally, a mythical martyrdom is fabricated by contorting historical legends to engender a sense of victimhood of “the people” and to vilify “the Other” — primarily the “Muslim invaders.” This process of reshaping history to construct a “golden” civilizational account is coupled with nostalgia that seeks to recreate it. It is in this sense that we argue that the Sangh Parivar has produced a kind of “saffronization” of history in India —namely, where the non-Hindu elements are systematically stripped out in an elaborate attempt at rewriting of Indian history that involves expunging the Muslim elements (Thapar, 2020; Jain & Lasseter, 2018).
Crucially, this narrative pushes the idea that, rather than championing independence for India, Congress’ rule after 1947 was just a continuation of the colonial rule of the Muslim Mughals and then the British Raj. Jawaharlal Nehru is considered a covert Muslim (his grandfather’s apparent conversion from Islam to Hinduism is cast as disingenuous). A fake quote by Nehru is widely shared by the right-wing websites to substantiate this narrative: “By education, I am an Englishman, by views an internationalist, by culture a Muslim and a Hindu only by accident of birth.” This quote was also shared on Twitter by Amit Malviya, head of the BJP’s National Information and Technology Department (IT Cell) and a member of the BJP National Executive in 2015 (Malviya, 2015; Factly, 2020).
The Vishva Hindu Parishad (Universal Hindu Council)
The VHP was formed in 1964 by the RSS’s Golwalkar, S.S. Apte, and Swami Chinmayananda, with the stated aim of protecting and serving Hindu society and Hinduism. The organization sought to bring Hindus worshiping thousands of different gods together on a uniform platform. However, over the years, the group has taken a militant form (Nair, 2009). Its vigilante actions played a central role in the communal violence around the Babri mosque/Ayodhya dispute, discussed below, among other flashpoints between Hindus and Muslims (Nair, 2009; Lochtefeld, 1994). Some contend that the VHP’s activities constitute ethno-religious terrorism (Lefèvre, 2020).
In 1992, kar sevaks (temple volunteers) illegally demolished the Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya in the Indian state of Utter Pradesh (UP), which many Hindus claim was built on top of the Ram Mandir (temple of Rama), a claim that is highly contested. This demolition unleashed communal riots across India in which over 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, died (Lefèvre, 2020). The group has also called for the Kashi and Mathura mosques to be handed over so that temples might be built over them, with the aim of righting historical wrongs and “liberating the people” from the oppressive religious subjugation of “invader Muslims” (Singh, 2020; The Wire, 2020). The communal violence triggered by the VHP did not end with the Babri mosque events, and it has mobilized street power in acts of horrific violence, such as the massacres that took place in the state of Gujarat in 2002, which will be discussed further below. It has also become a voice for “Hindu interests” by clashing with human rights groups and protests led by Muslim women against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a legislative move seen as targeting Muslims (The Indian Express, 2020; Mahmood, 2020). The VHP’s intimidation tactics also target Indian Christians, who are terrorized and harassed (Dahat, 2014).
The VHP gains most of its strength from volunteers or sevaks, who are attracted to its use of religious civilizational populism. The VHP’s traditional support base has come from the Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad (ABAP), which has now disavowed the VHP, and other religious groups with mathas and ashrams across India, alongside RSS volunteers (with some overlap in membership across these various groups). In addition, the VHP has a long history of cultivating relationships with sages and sadhus to gain a favorable standing in religious circles (Jha, 2019; Jaffrey & Slater, 2017). This has allowed the VHP to raise its own army of volunteers that can mobilize without any political support.
S.S. Apte, founder and leader of the VHP, has long promoted the idea of Hindu victimhood. He once noted:
The world has been divided into Christian, Islamic and Communist, and all three consider Hindu society as a very fine rich food on which to feast and fatten themselves. It is therefore necessary in this age of competition and conflict to think of and organize the Hindu world to save itself from the evil eyes of all the three (cited in Jha, 2019).
Other than the appeal of this narrative, the political power and funds of the VHP have also led a number of Hindu sadhs to direct their bhakts (followers) toward Hindutva (Friedrich, 2020; Jha, 2019; Frayer & Khan, 2019).
Other than its paramilitary activities, the VHP has played a central role in the surgical excision of non-Hindu elements from Indian culture and its saffronization as well. The Taj Mahal, a UNESCO world heritage site, was taken off the official UP touristic brochure in 2017 due to its historical links to “Muslim invaders” (Khalid, 2017) in the wake of immense pressure from VHP mob protests. Netflix came under fire for promoting “anti-Hindu” sentiments when Leila, a dystopic series, surfaced. VHP called it “propaganda” and full of “lies” that insult the Hindu dharma and pushed for it to be banned (News18, 2020). Even before BJP came into power, the VHP campaign led to the cities of Lodai and Dudai being renamed, to Keshav Nagar (Krishna’s city) and Indraprastha (Indra’s city), respectively; the saffronization of municipalities names continues (Lefèvre, 2020).
The VHP is known to attack Muslim actors in Bollywood (Pandey, 2020). Interfaith marriages of Bollywood celebrities are always a prime target from the VHP and other Sangh Parivar activists. For instance, Hindu Vishwa, a VHP magazine targeted Kareena Kapoor, one of the highest-grossing actresses in India, for her marriage to Safi Ali Khan. Kapoor’s edited face was shown half-covered by a burka, warning the audience about the nefarious intention of Muslim men to marry and convert Hindu women to Islam (Pandey, 2020). Muslim men have been accused of grooming young Hindu women to convert them to Islam through marriage (Pradhan, 2020). This has been labelled as “love jihad” (Pandey, 2020; Asthana, 2021). Kapoor and Khan have also been targeted for naming their son Taimur because his apparent namesake— the ancient Mongol warlord Taimoor, whom Hindu nationalists deem “worse than Hitler” — invaded India as part of his global conquest (Lakshmi, 2016). The couple was attacked again for naming their second child Jahangir (“Jeh”), which links him to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir.
The VHP is the manifestation of Hindutva civilizationism that seeks to recast society in its “golden age” by restoring proper “order” and reclaiming what it claims was “stolen” by non-Hindu invaders. It attacks anyone, and any place, ranging from historical sites, Western pop culture, and Bollywood icons that it feels are not in line with this romanticized Hindu past. It uses populist victimhood and Hindutva nostalgia to legitimize its militancy and aims to re-establish the “superior” Hindu culture.
The Bajrang Dal (Brigade of Hanuman)
The Bajrang Dal (BD) — the “Brigade of Hanuman” — is the youth wing of the VHP and was founded in 1984. The name references the monkey god Hanuman, a companion and aide to Lord Ram in the Hindu epic Ramayana (Friedrich, 2020; Doniger, 2018). In 2018, the CIA categorized the BD as a “militant religious organization” due to its targeting of Christians and Muslims in India (Friedrich, 2020).
The BD primarily recruits men between the ages of 15 and 35. Its proclaimed ideology is “Seva, Suraksha, Sanskar,” which translates into “service, safety, and culture,” although a militant championing of Hindu religion and culture is much more critical to the BD. It has provided VHP, RSS, and BJP with the necessary “muscle” during instances of communal violence (Ahuja, 2019). As a youth group, it is well-placed to infiltrate and disrupt human rights protests, which in India are often led by young people, particularly students. On numerous occasions, BD members have attacked Kashmiri students for the apparent “threat” they pose to “Indian unity” by emphasizing ethnic and religious diversity (Mishra & Jha, 2019). In 2019, a terrorist attack left several Indian soldiers wounded and dead in Pulwama, Indian Kashmir. The BD mobilized soon afterward, attacking and injuring Kashmir students. One activist justified the actions as a means “to teach the students a lesson so that no one can ever dream of doing what had happened in Pulwama” (Mishra & Jha, 2019). Despite their vandalism and vigilantism, over 1,000 BD members have been given military training in recent years. The parent body VHP has justified this by saying, “The main aim of such training camps is to train workers for Rashtra Raksha (National security) which includes women safety, cow protection, temples security and of course protecting Hindus” (Jaiswal, 2019). The youth receive training from RSS-trained personnel or ex-army or police officers (Jaiswal, 2019).
The blend of militant, physical training and deep Hindutva convictions has, for decades, enabled BD youth to incite violent means to “protect” Hindus. For instance, in broad daylight in 1999, Sheikh Rehman, a Muslim trader, was set on fire in the eyes of a crowd of over 400 people after his arms were chopped off by BD (HRW, 1999). In periods when the BJP has been in power at the federal level in India (such as now and in the late 1990s), the BD has been emboldened. It now regularly attacks non-Hindus, targets liberal groups on university campuses for their human rights advocacy, and is a key participant in India’s growing trend of anti-love jihad campaigns (Friedrich, 2020; Ahuja, 2019; Mishra & Jha, 2019; PTI, 2016).
In 1999, Human Rights Watch (1999) interviewed a VHP volunteer. Part of that discussion exemplifies the role of Sangh Parivar as the vehicle of Hindutva:
The VHP is for the promotion of religion, the Bajrang Dal is for the protection of Hindus, and the BJP is for politics. The work systems are different, but the aim is the same. We all want akand bharat: all nations under India. We want what we had before independence, minus the British. We should have a Hindu nation. Other religions can do whatever they want, but they should not insult Hinduism. We also don’t want them to distribute their vote but to give it to the Hindus. Everyone will come together to support against [the] Congress [party].
Hindutva Populism: Parties
Before discussing Hindutva populism, it is crucial to mark out how it differs from Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalism claims that Hindu religious or cultural identity is the primary identity of all Indians. It rejects territorial nationalism and argues that religious minorities must accept Hindu culture if they want to be “true” Indians. Hindu populism, a thin ideology, utilizes Hindu nationalism as the basis of populist politics (Jaffrelot, 2007). Unsurprisingly, while the two are conceptually distinct, there is considerable overlap between them.
Was Mahatma Gandhi a Hindu Populist?
Numerous authors have researched this question and concluded that while Gandhi was one of the most, if not the most, popular leader, he was not a populist. Chakrabarti and Bandyopadhyay (2021) discuss Gandhi’s fight with the British elite and his identification with the ordinary Indian but do not characterize him as a populist. Jaffrelot and Tillin (2017) write about populism in India but do not focus on Gandhi. They start their analysis from the 1960s. Sajjan Kumar (2019) also rejects calling Gandhi a populist, noting that:
a charismatic-popular-populist pitch doesn’t automatically transcend into populism. It requires demagoguery wherein hitherto suppressed but popular desires get articulated by a mesmerizer who emerges as the savior. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were charismatic but not populist as they assumed a guiding role vis-à-vis the people rather than getting subsumed by their worldview. Gandhi didn’t hesitate to withdraw the non-cooperation movement in the aftermath of Chauri Chaura when it gained momentum, and Nehru stood for secularism and scientific rationality in the midst of Partition’s mass frenzy.
Hence, linking Modi’s populism to Gandhi’s Hindu politics is a mistake. Unlike populists in their rhetoric, Gandhi did not consider his enemies “evil,” nor did he present the oppressed masses as wholly innocent or “pure.” Thus, “corruption” to the extent that it appeared in Gandhi’s rhetoric, was not only external but also internal. Moreover, Manichean binaries, a feature of populism worldwide, were not part of Gandhi’s politics (Saleem 2021).
Hindu Nationalism and Hindu Populism
Hindu nationalism started to become popular in the late 19th century. It was a diverse combination of Hindu revivalist movements, such as Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj, which tried to make Hinduism a “modern” religion that more closely resembled the Abrahamic faiths in shape or form. Islam and Christianity were models for Hindu revivalists but also threats since the revivalists feared that Hindus might convert. As the British took small steps toward introducing Indians to Western-style elections, this revivalism was also evolved in Hindu consciousness and Hindu nationalism. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, mentioned earlier, was the first ideologue of Hindu nationalism or Hindutva, and his HM party became the first party to champion it in Indian politics. Yet Savarkar was a nationalist, not a populist. His goal was to unite the majority (the Hindus) against the elite, but he was not “anti-elite” as such, drawing much support from the Hindu upper castes, businessmen, and aristocracy (Visana, 2020; Tharoor, 2018: 40–50). Indeed, the HM had urban, high caste roots, much like the pre-Gandhian Congress (Bapu, 2013: 26–43), and so was not an anti-elite party. Moreover, unlike Congress, it avoided directly confronting the British as Congress did. It refused to participate in both the Civil Disobedience Movement of the 1930s and later the Quit India Movement, demonstrating its pro-British government stance (Gondhalekar & Bhattacharya, 1999).
In sum, the Hindu Mahasabha was a Hindu nationalist party, but populism was not part of the strategy. This difference between right-wing nationalism and right-wing populism is important to keep in mind. Although there is currently overlap and numerous right-wing nationalist parties have become populist, right-wing nationalism and populism are not the same. Almost every right-wing populist is a nationalist, but not every right-wing nationalist is a populist (Saleem, 2021).
From the Bhartiya Jana Sangh to the Bharatiya Janata Party
The Bhartiya Jana Sangh (BJS) was established as a Hindutva party in 1951 by Syama Prasad Mukherjee. Although Mukherjee had left the Congress long before due to ideological disagreements and joined the HM, he was made a cabinet minister by Prime Minister Nehru after independence. However, he continued to differ with Congress, such as its policy of outlawing the RSS. In 1950, the Liaquat–Nehru Pact became the final straw for Mukherjee, who resigned from the cabinet. Later, he left the HM and established the BJS to represent the “interests” of Hindus (Carothers & O’Donohue, 2019; Lahiry, 2005). It graduated to become the primary Hindutva party and won seats at both state and national levels. In 1977, the BJS merged with the Janata Party to oppose Indra Gandhi’s authoritarian practices and emergency proclamation. A large majority of its members later resigned from the Janata Party and formed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980.
One of the major ideologues of the Hindutva movement was Deendeyal Upadhyaya, who was for many years a top leader in the BJS. Upadhyaya developed a humane face for Hindutva, known as “integral humanism.” His philosophy focused on seeing life as a whole and rejecting conflict based on class or caste and between the individual and society. Following Savarkar, he rejected the idea of territorial nationalism. Instead, he argued that nations can succeed only if they follow their own dharma, which is closely aligned with their culture and traditions. Upadhyaya believed India’s failure after independence was because it did not follow its dharma, based on local culture and traditions, which for him were Hindu culture and civilization. This was Hindu nationalism explained in a more humane way, but it was still Hindu nationalism (Tharoor, 2020). Upadhyaya said: “We shall have to concede that our nationality is none other than Hindu nationality… If any outsider comes into this country, he shall have to move in step and adjust himself with Hindu Nationality” (cited in Kulkarni, 2017). However, Upadhyaya, as mentioned, was no populist. He was more of an ideologue, organizer, and Hindu civilizationist. An RSS apparatchik, he was seconded to the BJS and remained part of the party until his death.
There is little evidence to support that BJP went beyond right-wing Hindutva-inspired nationalism to promote populist civilizationist populism. We need look no further than the three-term BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for evidence of this. Vajpayee, who led BJP in the early phase in the 1980s and 1990s, was a Hindutva apologist (Hindustan Times, 2018). And his discourse was often divisive. For example, in a speech in 2002, he drew the common Hindutva populist distinction between “us” and “them” by asserting:
Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger (cited in Varadarajan, 2018).
Yet Vajpayee, a poet and author of many books, was careful in propagating Hindu civilization, and he was not a populist politician. He was respectful even to his opponents, and his speeches were more soft attacks than rants and harangues.
In this early period, Hindutva nationalism was used in a non-populist style. Leading up to the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots in 2002, Vajpayee tried to distance the BJP from the sectarian activities of the Sangh Parivar (Nair, 2009). He even called the “new” Hindutva problematic, noting: “I accept the Hindutva of Swami Vivekananda, but the type of Hindutva being propagated now is wrong, and one should be wary of it” (Varadarajan, 2018). Following the riots in Gujarat, he even tried to force Narendra Modi, then the state’s chief minister, to resign but failed due to pressure from the RSS (Nag, 2015). In 2003, the VHP’s newly elected general secretary, Giriraj Kishore, called Vajpayee a “pseudo-Hindu” because of his outreach to Pakistan, such as in the Lahore Pact signed in 1999 (Nag, 2015).
While the BJS and early BJP centered their policies around Hindutva, it was more in the framework of nationalism than civilizational populism. As Leidig (2020) notes
Hindutva was not truly ‘mainstreamed’ until the election of the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, in 2014. In order to construct a narrative that furthered Hindu insecurity, Modi mobilized his campaign by appealing to recurring themes of a Muslim ‘threat’ to the Hindu majority. The result is that Hindutva has become synonymous with Indian nationalism.
Before the 2002 riots, Modi was a relative unknown outside of Gujarat (Hosen, 2020). Groomed within the RSS system, he rose up the ranks and was appointed chief minister of the state in 2002. Following his back-to-back wins in state elections, he led the BJP in national elections in 2014 and became prime minister, winning a second term in 2019. In gaining a legislative majority in two consecutive general elections, Modi pulled off a feat that no prime minister had achieved since Indira Gandhi in the early 1970s.
Under Modi, the BJP has taken a new direction. There is a transparent element of classic populism with both horizontal and vertical dimensions, but what is unique is the civilizational construction of a new narrative that goes beyond the BJP’s earlier focus on Hindutva nationalism. To love the country and dharma is now a lifestyle that has pushed the saffronization process into all aspects of social and political life. Moreover, as Chacko (2018) discusses, under Modi, the BJP has adopted a new neoliberal chauvinism that calls for India to become a global leader in commerce and technology. This new narrative links Hindutva pride with a call for economic development so that India can attain its prominence in the community of nations that was lost with the “Muslim invaders” in the 16th century —in other words, to “make India great again.”
McDonnell and Caberea (2019) observe that the BJP’s division of the population into what the authors call “the people” and “the others” does not reflect a categorical distinction between Hindus and non-Hindus. Instead, its definition of “the people” is judged on the parameters of how readily one engages with the national culture and its values (basically conservative Hindu culture). Thus, Manohar Lal Khattar, the BJP chief minister of Haryana, said, “Muslims can live here, but in this country, they will have to stop eating beef” (McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019: 493). This nativist element to the BJP’s populism draws on divisive issues that invariably arouse popular sentiments (Ammassari, 2018: 8). While these measures are presented as policy decisions taken to protect people’s interests, they are, in fact, political moves designed to mobilize voters in support of restoring the lost Hindutva civilization that pre-dates the Muslim “invasion” (Ammassari, 2018; Jain & Lasserer, 2018).
The BJP, in line with populist tradition, targets elites (i.e., Congress) and presents itself as a grassroots “people party,” one that transformed a tea seller boy into the leader of the world’s largest democracy. Modi and the party “stress his own underdog background as a chaiwala (tea seller),” positioning him as a “humble yet anointed Hindu leader” (Rao, 2018: 177). However, in a Hindutva fashion, some party posters present him as “sacralized with a halo indicating Hindu symbolism of gods who glow like surya (the sungod)” (Rao, 2018: 177). Apart from the elite, religious minorities are also “otherized” as “internal outsiders” and are usually accused of working with external “outsiders” such as India’s nemesis, Pakistan (Peker, 2019: 31–32). Elites and “internal” outsiders such as opposition leaders also merged as singular targets in BJP attacks (Peker, 2019: 32).
Under Modi, the BJP has become unapologetic and blatant in embracing the RSS. This has helped it openly embrace civilizationism in a program to alter the social fabric of India (Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017: 184). The “clash of civilizations” and superiority of “the people” and their faith is the crux. Yogi Adityanath, often presented as a “poster boy” of Hindutva and the BJP, is a monk turned politician and the current chief minister of UP (Gupta, 2018). He is a long-time Hindutva preacher and political advocate of extreme violent Hindutva. Despite being the chief minister of a state with over 200 million people of different faiths, he has openly used the Hindu Rashtra rhetoric in calling for the establishment of a Hindu polity as he sees it as a “way of life” (Hindustan Times, 2017). Those who do not abide by this way of life will be “taught” a lesson “in the language they understand (violence),” according to the Yogi (Hindustan Times, 2017). In one speech, he assured, “If given a chance, we will install statues of Goddess Gauri, Ganesh and Nandi [Hindu deities] in every mosque” (Hindustan Times, 2017).
In recent years, UP has seen a boom in Hindu religious tourism. This has gone hand in hand with the rising pressure to “reclaim” mosques that were “stolen” from Hindus so that they might be re-established as temples (Sikander, 2020), as mentioned above. These arguments have justified and encouraged the ever-growing vigilantism (Human Rights Watch, 2020; Gupta, 2018). Yogi has even popularized his dog, Kalu, on online platforms as a vegan dog who does not consume meat and abides by the Hindutva code (Hindustan Times, 2019).
Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, is also home to the country’s largest Muslim population, and this has always fueled Hindutva “fear” that demographic shifts will see Muslims eventually outnumber Hindus. A manifestation of this “fear” is the previously mentioned “love jihad” campaigns that demonise interfaith marriage. Adityanath warned the “love jihadists” and said, “I warn those who conceal identity and play with our sisters’ respect. If you don’t mend your ways, your ‘Ram naam satya’ (chant associated with Hindu funerals) journey will begin.” As a result, a law criminalising interfaith marriage was passed in Uttar Pradesh, and the VHP and BD increased targeting and harassment of interfaith couples especially Muslim grooms (Asthana, 2021; Pradhan, 2020). Yogi’s firebrand speeches also have elements of sexism and propagate gender inequality. He once said, “if they [Muslims] take one Hindu girl, we will take 100 Muslims girls […] if they kill one Hindu, there will be 100 that we…” and waited for the crowd to chant “kill” (Crabtree, 2017). The victim narrative is profoundly violent and militant with no respect for religious freedom or even life.
Simultaneously, the two most recent terms of BJP in office have systematically blurred the lines between history and Hindutva fiction in the school curriculum (Jain & Lasseter, 2018). The “culture” is being saffronized as “the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history,” said RSS’ Manmohan Vaidya approving these changes (Jain & Lasseter, 2018). Redefining India has focused on putting forth the “Hindu first” narrative in which Hindus are cast as the rightful and original inhabitants of the land who have been marginalized by invader Muslims and Christians. Unsurprisingly, there is a party-wide commitment to instrumentalizing religion in education. Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Human Resource Development, praised this move, saying: “Our government is the first government to have the courage to even question the existing version of history that is being taught in schools and colleges” (Jain & Lasseter, 2018).
Modi himself has dabbled in the nostalgia of a fictitious Hindu culture at various instances. For example, he has promoted the idea that Ganesh, the deity with an elephant head, reflected ancient Hindu advances in science, demonstrating the apparent plastic surgery skills of the ancient Hindus; Modi even claimed that genetic scientists existed at that time (Rahman, 2014). Modi is on the record saying that the chariot of the Hindu God Rama was the world’s first airplane, while Biplab Deb, the chief minister of Tripura, claimed that ancient Indians created an ancient form of the internet (BBC, 2018; Rahman, 2014).
To restore and “protect” the “golden age” of Hindu culture, Hindutva civilizationist populism has seen the BJP introduce laws, such as the highly controversial National Register of Citizens, which seeks to make India “Hindu by character, by culture.” These moves are cast as benign because the policies offer select persecuted minorities from certain neighboring states pathways to Indian citizenship while deporting Muslims who cannot prove they are not illegal migrants (Human RightsWatch, 2020; McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019: 488). Amit Shah, the main force behind theis legislation, defends the act as follows: “Infiltrators are like termites in the soil of Bengal. A Bharatiya Janata Party government will pick up infiltrators one by one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal” (Al Jazeera, 2018). As the home minister, Shah was behind a controversial set of policies directed at India’s only Muslim-majority state, Kashmir, from 2019 onward that included abolishing Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution —dividing Kashmir and abolishing its special autonomy guaranteed since the 1940s, and making it a union territory governed directly by Delhi—as well as the illegal incarcerations of thousands of Kashmiris, and the world’s most protracted internet blackout ever imposed by a democracy (Dey, 2019). The general trend is union territories graduating to become autonomous Indian states within the Indian Union. Kashmir is the only instance in the 74 years of Indian history of moving in the other direction (PTI, 2019).
In this context, the promise of the BJP as given in the political slogan “sabka saath sabka vikas” (together with all, development for all) seems hollow, showing the clear direction the party has taken by embracing Hindutva civilizationist populism and imagining and imposing conservative Hindu culture as the “real” Indian culture.
In exploring India’s saffronization, this paper has shed much-needed light on ideas that are at times either ignored or not fully explored. First, there is an attempt to distinguish between Hindutva, a political ideology, and the faith of Hinduism. The discourse shows that Hinduism is a highly plural and flexible philosophy compared to the more structured Hindutva. While Hinduism can be traced back thousands of years, Hindutva’s history is less than two centuries. Second, Hindutva or Hindu nationalism is not the same as Hindu populism. Due to Prime Minister Modi’s use of both these political ideologies, many authors incorrectly conflate them. Thus, the use of Hindutva by political actors does not strictly make them religious populists. Nor is India’s civilizational Hindutva populism strictly identarian because while it stands for “a Hindu way of life” and not Hinduism itself, it heavily relies on creating a Hindu identity of “the people,” which excludes other faiths.
This distinction enables the present article to take the long view and explore the development of recent issues while not focusing narrowly on the last two decades of Indian politics. We, thus, look at Hindutva populism within the BJP and other Indian right-wing parties. This investigation reveals the prevalence of Hindutva as a cornerstone of nationalism pre-existed the BJP’s 2014 electoral win under the leadership of Narendra Modi. However, its current civilizationist populism was absent from the earlier discourse, or at least leaders such as Vajpayee kept it away from the party. Thus, the mainstreaming by the Sangh Parivar of Hindutva ideology in BJP politics has deep roots even as civilizational populism only broke through in the last few years. This study is an important contribution to this theoretical chronology of the rise of saffron populism in mainstream Indian politics.
This study also shows that Hindutva is currently a civilizational populist narrative that is the force behind India’s “saffron tide.” At the heart of this populism is not a simple love for one’s nation or one’s culture or religion. There is a clear sense of nostalgia of a glorified bygone era and a populist rhetoric that defines non-Hindus and liberal or secular Hindus as “the Other.” This helps promote a cultural “crisis” where “the true people” are cast as victims of centuries of oppression and overlordship from “invaders” (first the Muslim Mughals, then the Christian Europeans, especially the British), raising the question of ontological security. Sadly, but not surprisingly, there is both an explicit and implicit thread of violence embedded in this populism. Cultural pride and longing for the lost “homeland” rationalizes all problems —from national security to social challenges —in this framework and pins them on “the Other.” The BJP’s position in power and its promotion of this populism through legislation and changes in the school curriculum allow the RSS and the Sang Parivar to implement saffronization on the ground, using violence under cover of laws to “protect victims” (i.e., Hindus).
The saffronization of India started as a Hindutva project, but now it is continuing as Hindutva constructed civilizationist populism. It is embodied by the state and promoted by Hindutva grassroots organizations. Given its appeal, it blurs the lines between fiction and history and supports the constant victimhood of “the people” and vilification of “the Other.” With permanent changes within the state legislation, school curriculum and state structure coupled with emboldening of vigilantism, it is a dangerous trend that threatens to destroy Indian democracy and the Indian polity itself.
(*) Dr. Priya Chacko is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Adelaide where she teaches courses and supervises research on foreign policy and South Asian politics. She previously held positions at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Her current research projects focus on the impact of market reform on India’s foreign policy and social policy and the intersection of Hindu nationalism, populism and neoliberalism in Indian politics and policy making. firstname.lastname@example.org
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 An Indian text dating back to 100 CE, which is a major source of Hindi law (Britannica, 2015).
 A number of mosques have been built on old temple sites around the country. Nevertheless, most RSS claims that various mosques ought to be turned over are not rooted in facts but on assumptions based on unreliable historical analysis. For instance, archeological excavations have never been able to find evidence of a temple underneath the hotly contested Babri mosque (Al Jazeera, 2019).
 An organization of Hindu religious leaders (sants and sadhus).
 These are the Hindu equivalent of Christian monasteries.
 The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, at the height of the Mughal empire, as a mausoleum for his queen consort, Mumtaz Mehal. It is also his final resting place. Hindutva supporters have sought to delink Indian history from the Persianate age (1000–1765 CE) in which there emerged a marriage of Sanskrit (Hindu) and Persian (Islamic) cultures that resulted in what some scholars consider a hybrid and quite multicultural Ganga–Jamuni civilization (Eaton, 2019; Akins, 2016). Today, the right-wing in India refutes the notion that a Ganga–Jamuni civilization ever existed, considering it a historical fabrication (Balakrishna, 2021).
 The series features an Orwellian or Atwood-styled world in which fundamentalist Hindutva-like norms guide social practice (News18, 2020).
 The resentment toward Saif Ali Khan runs deeper because, as the son of the last Nawab of Pataudi, he is seen as carrying the legacy of the “Muslim conquerors.” It is interesting to note that Khan’s mother is a famous Hindu actress, Sharmila Tagore and his father served India as the captain of the Indian national cricket team. The union between Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and Tagore was not scrutinized like that of Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. This indicates that the intolerance toward interfaith marriage is something of the more recent past, demonstrating the growing power of the Hindutva narrative.
 The pact allowed for a peaceful exchange of refugees between India and Pakistan, condemned forced conversions, developed a commission for minorities and allowed for the safeguarding of property lost by migrants during the 1947 Partition (The Indian Express, 2019).
 The Lahore Pact is a bilateral agreement between India and Pakistan to curb the use and proliferation of nuclear arms in South Asia and was negotiated as part of a broader move to ease tensions between the two countries (UN, 1999).
Demir, Mustafa, (2022). “Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey by Ihsan Yilmaz.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). February 17, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0008
Ihsan Yılmaz’s new book presents a detailed analysis of Turkey’s political and sociological evolution, from the country’s anxious birth as a “fearful nation,” preoccupied and weighed down by historical traumas to the present. Yılmaz’s study provides a detailed account of the polity’s “never-ending” nation-building process and offers keen insights into why this process is intransient. His book highlights the political nature of defining citizens as either “desired,” “tolerated,” or “undesired” and the way this definitional process functions as a tool in hegemonic rivalries between “political tribes” in polities such as Turkey.
Ihsan Yılmaz is Research Professor and Chair of Islamic Studies and Intercultural Dialogue at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation. In his most recent book Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in Turkey, published with Cambridge University Press in 2021, Yılmaz presents a highly detailed analysis of modern Turkish history. Not only does this engaging book provide fresh insights into the emergence and development of modern Turkish political culture, but also a new theoretical framework that incorporates emotions into the sociological analysis in a highly innovative way. Each chapter is arguably worthy of its own book-length treatment, and Yılmaz’s ability to cover much ground in a single monograph is commendable.
The scholarship on Turkey, especially on its emergence and its process of nation-building, provides a fascinating case study for social and political scientists. This is reflected in the vast literature on the case, with thousands of theses, articles, and books written on this very topic. Nevertheless, gaps in our understanding remain. One such gap, I believe, is the incomplete and controversial nature of Turkey’s nation-building project. Contested efforts in this regard have created pronounced political and ideological fault-lines in Turkish society. The nature of Turkey’s political process has kept this historical dynamic intact; it is not merely a research subject but rather an enduring game of political brinkmanship. In this game, those wielding power all too often point to those on the other side as “undesired citizens.”
Against this backdrop, Yılmaz weaves his own personal story through the narrative in this weighty (in terms of both coverage and impact) book. In so doing, he critically reflects on the emotional aspects of the political decisions and socio-political “transitions” that have roiled his homeland. Yet Yılmaz’s critical reflection gives the book a crucial degree of objectivity, allowing him to transcend his own experience and reach out to (and draw on) other, often divergent, scholarly perspectives on Turkish political developments and decisions. This is well reflected in the book’s diverse bibliography (As those familiar with Turkish academia will know, the field is characterized by sharp divisions—even tribalism—with tribes forming virtual “citation cartels” that prefer to explore contentious social and political developments only through the lenses they feel comfortable with, making no attempt to understand one another).
A New Frame to Analyze Turkish Political History
As mentioned, Yılmaz deftly instrumentalizes his personal story in developing a novel framework to map many of the key socio-political “transitions” in Turkey. The first such transition —to Kemalist secularism — is one Yılmaz encountered when he became “a religiously observant [university student] in a staunchly laicist state that was not comfortable with religious expression in the public sphere.” Yılmaz then frames Turkey’s transition to Erdoğanist Islamism through the lens of his own experience as a university professor teaching students from all segments of Turkish society. As an academic and columnist, Yılmaz wrote many articles in daily newspapers in Turkey criticizing the Islamist AKP government in power after 2003. He was fired from his university position due to growing government pressure in early 2016.
At first glance, Kemalism and Erdoğanism appear antithetical, one staunchly secular, the other avowedly Islamist. However, Yılmaz demonstrates that they are connected by a central element they share — a commitment to Turkish nationalism. Drawing once again upon his personal history, Yılmaz recounts how he awoke only later in life to the exclusive, illiberal, sharp, and destructive nature of Turkish nationalism through his experiences and observations during his years as a university lecturer between 2008 and 2016.
Indeed, Yılmaz’s role as an educator is highly salient since education — or, more precisely, its role in nation-building — is a through-line across the book. In the preface, Yılmaz references another book, Füsun Ustel’s “Makbul Vatandaş” ın Peşinde (In Pursuit of the “Acceptable Citizen”), published in 2004. Ustel’s book focuses on how education was instrumentalized in building a nation in the initial period of the Kemalist Republic of Turkey. As he highlights, Ustel’s book inspired him to tie his story, experiences, observations, and travails to the story of Turkish politics and political history.
Yılmaz builds on Ustel’s insights but takes the matter further, looking not only at education but other sectors such as religion and media. While Ustel’s work focuses more on the Kemalist mission of re-dressing and creating an “acceptable” model of modern citizenship via education, Yılmaz’s work focuses more on the political and hegemonic aspects beyond the early Kemalist mission of modernization. It is also important to highlight that Yılmaz treats the notion of “desirable” as dynamic and in transition. Thus, the definition of “desired citizens” is political and highly changeable. Yılmaz also introduces two new terms, “tolerated” and “undesired” citizens. These additional categories allow him to avoid the trap of dichotomizing, familiar in much Turkish, scholarship and provide a subtle degree of analytical flexibility that opens up space for exploring “gray zones” in between the desirable and the undesirable. Thus, he is able to show how changing political landscapes bring shifts in how these definitions are applied to one kind of Turkish group or another, as observed during the transition from Kemalism to Erdoğanism. Yılmaz also highlights the Erdoğanist attempt to redefine what is a “desired citizen” in Turkey. In doing so, he provides not only fresh insight but a robust new conceptual framework to analyze the uncompleted process of nation-building in Turkey.
A further appeal of the book is its approach to Turkish political history, which appears very close to Erik Zurcher’s. Like Zurcher, Yılmaz does not separate political and historical periods sharply; rather, he focuses on the ‘transitions,’ highlighting how even as the new emerges, it draws heavily on what has gone before. For example, distinct from the established view on modern Turkish political history — which rehearses the idea of a radical break with the past in the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 — Zurcher’s account presents Turkey as always, already in transition, in a continuous process of evolution. Here, elements of the Ottoman past were brought through into the Kemalist Republic, whose core elements were also retained, to a greater or lesser extent, in later transitions to multi-party democracy and through into the present. Similar to this approach, Yılmaz’s account considers Erdoğanism less a radical break than yet another transition in a long historical process of social and political change.
What Sets Yılmaz’s Account Apart?
The book is structured around the concept of citizenship, which, rather than being treated as a legal definition, is taken as a dynamic concept responsive to hegemonic movements within the polity. As the title of the book suggests, creating desired citizens is unthinkable without its obverse: eliminating undesired elements. Thus, the book is equally, if not more, a story of undesired citizens. Again, however, Yılmaz’s frame is not black and white. Creating the Desired Citizen, as mentioned, establishes the category of “tolerated” citizens, alongside desired and undesired ones.
Providing a synopsis of the chapters in this book is difficult as each one is complex and polysemic enough to warrant a book of its own. It seems more productive, then, to conceive of this book in its entirety as a corpus of Turkey’s modern history. Beginning with the ontological insecurities shaping the political culture and guiding the strategic mind of the founding elite in the first chapter, the second traces the roots of these anxieties through history, providing a “thick description” of the historical context in which these anxieties and insecurities were born. The following three chapters examine the core components of Kemalism and its conception of the desired/ideal Turkish citizen, followed by an interrogation of the changing identity of desired and undesired citizens as Kemalism itself changed. The second half of the book then follows this approach in dealing with Erdoğanism—its rise, hegemonic move to power, and attempt to define its own desired, tolerated, and undesired citizens.
In a nutshell, this book presents a detailed analysis of Turkey’s political and sociological evolution, from the country’s anxious birth as a “fearful nation,” preoccupied and weighed down by historical traumas, to the present. Yılmaz’s study provides a detailed account of the polity’s “never-ending” nation-building process and offers keen insights into why this process is intransient. His book highlights the political nature of defining citizens as either “desired,” “tolerated,” or “undesired” and the way this definitional process functions as a tool in hegemonic rivalries between “political tribes” in polities such as Turkey.
Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State, and Islam in TurkeybyIhsan Yılmaz, Cambridge University Press, 2021, 250 pp., $80.19 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1108832557
Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia span one of the longest continuously inhabited regions of the world. Centuries of cultural infusion have ensured these societies are highly heterogeneous. As plural polities, they are ripe for the kind of freedoms that liberal democracy can guarantee. However, despite having multi-party electoral systems, these countries have recently been negatively influenced by populist authoritarian political leaders, parties and movements. Our panelists have explored in their most recent report published by the ECPS the unique nexus between faith and populism in five Asian countries and offer an insight into how cyberspace and offline politics have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which socio-political events are taking place.
The report focuses on the role of religious populism in digital space as a catalyst for undemocratic politics in these five Asian countries they have selected as their case studies. The focus on the West Asian and South Asian cases was an opportunity to examine authoritarian religious populists in power, whereas the East Asian countries showcased powerful authoritarian religious populist forces outside parliament. The situational analysis from five countries indicates that religion’s role in digital authoritarianism is quite evident, adding to the layer of nationalism. Most of the leaders in power use religious justifications for curbs on the internet. This evident “religious populism” seems to be a major driver of policy changes that are limiting civil liberties in the name of “the people.” In the end, the reasons for restricting digital space are not purely religious but draw on religious themes with populist language in a mixed and hybrid fashion.
(11:00-11:05) Welcome speech on the behalf of ECPS by Simon Watmough
(11:05-11:15) Introduction of the report by Ihsan Yilmaz
(11:15-11:25) Cyberspace, authoritarianism, and religious populism by Mahmoud Pargoo
(11:25-11:35) Indian Case by Raja M. Ali Saleem
(11:35-11:45) Indonesian Case by Idznursham Ismail
Ihsan Yilmaz is Research Professor and Chair at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He is also a Visiting Research Associate of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, The University of Oxford, and a Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow at the ECPS. Yilmaz has conducted research on religion and politics; authoritarianism; digital authoritarianism; populism in Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia and beside of other research subjects.
Raja M. Ali Saleem is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than 20 years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.
Mahmoud Pargoo is a research fellow at Deakin University (Melbourne) and a visiting fellow at the AI-enabled Processes (AIP) Research Centre, Macquarie University in Sydney.Mahmoud is the author of Secularization of Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran(Routledge, 2021) and lead-author of Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
Syaza Shukri is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among her recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy.
Idznursham Ismail, the founder of stratsea.com, possesses a master’s degree in Strategic Studies and a First-Class Honours in Biological Sciences from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Nanyang Technological University (NTU), respectively. After his stint as a Research Analyst at the Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR, RSIS), he resided in Indonesia for numerous years, gaining experience in organizations such as The Jakarta Post, the Wahid Foundation, and PAKAR. He specializes in security-related issues, particularly terrorism and unconventional weapons. His current research includes non-traditional security themes such as public health.
Kainat Shakil is a non-resident Research Associate at the ECPS. Her research explores populism from the perspectives of religion, emotions, and gender. The regional focus of her work is mainly Pakistan and demographically Muslim-majority countries. Previously, she was a researcher at The Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy at NetSol (BIPP)— a Pakistan-based think-tank— where her work focused on reviewing public policies from a people-centric perspective. Before working as a full-time researcher, she was an Erasmus research scholar at Middlesex University London and the recipient of the US State Department’s cultural scholarship, Global UGRAD.
Yilmaz, Ihsan & Shakil, Kainat. (2022) “Religious Populism and Vigilantism: The Case of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan.” Populism & Politics. January 23, 2022. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0001
Religious populism and radicalism are hardly new to Pakistan. Since its birth in 1947, the country has suffered through an ongoing identity crisis. Under turbulent political conditions, religion has served as a surrogate identity for Pakistan, masking the country’s evident plurality, and over the years has come to dominate politics. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is the latest face of religious extremism merged with populist politics. Nevertheless, its sporadic rise from a national movement defending Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws to a “pious” party is little understood.
This paper draws on a collection of primary and secondary sources to piece together an account of the party’s evolution that sheds light on its appeal to “the people” and its marginalization and targeting of the “other.” The analysis reveals that the TLP has evolved from a proxy backed by the establishment against the mainstream parties to a full-fledged political force in its own right. Its ability to relate to voters via its pious narrative hinges on exploiting the emotional insecurities of the largely disenfranchised masses. With violence legitimized under the guise of religion, “the people” are afforded a new sense of empowerment. Moreover, the party’s rhetoric has given rise to a vigilante-style mob culture so much so that individuals inspired by this narrative have killed in plain sight without remorse. To make matters worse, the incumbent government of Imran Khan — itself a champion of Islamist rhetoric — has made repeated concessions and efforts to appease the TLP that have only emboldened the party. Today, the TLP poses serious challenges to Pakistan’s long-standing, if fragile, pluralistic social norms and risks tipping the country into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization.
Pakistan’s history with populism dates back as early as the 1960s. The first populist was neither a mullah nor a military dictator seeking to legitimize his rule. Fatima Ali Jinnah, the younger sister of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, was the first leader to adopt a populist playbook when she ran against the military-led coalition of General Ayub Khan (1958–1969). Jinnah became the face of “real democracy” against the “elite” in the 1965 general elections. The “real democracy” she promised was rooted in a commitment to represent the “people’s will” (Zaheer and Chawla, 2019). However, while largely secular in outlook, General Ayub—in addition to widespread electoral rigging—ran an orthodox Islamist campaign to delegitimize Jinnah’s political ambitions by arguing that Islam prohibits women from serving as head of a state (Ahmed, 2019; The New York Times, 1964). Religious orthodoxy blended with military authoritarianism defeated a populist democrat in 1965. In the 1970s, history repeated. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a left-wing populist whose program featured traces of Islamic welfarism, lost the premiership (and his life) to Islamist elements who demandedNizam-e-Mustafa(the system of governance under the Prophet Muhammad) be imposed in Pakistan.
During the decade-long regime of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978–1988), religious factions were empowered enough to become fixtures in the parliament, judiciary, and the law itself, not to mention the daily lives of Pakistanis (Ahmed & Yilmaz 2021; Yilmaz, 2014). This is known as Pakistan’s period of “Islamization” and continues to shape the country’s politics to this very day. Today, it would be unimaginable for leaders like Jinnah or Bhutto to run for office. The public is now more responsive to “pious” populism than to a generic “anti-elitism” that promises an end to corruption. A decades-long strategy of tolerating (and indeed nurturing) religious fanaticism as part of the military-led establishment’s quest for “strategic depth” has created fertile soil for “pious populism” at the grassroots (Meher, 2012). Compared to voices emanating from the remote and “corrupt” political system, the ordinary working-class or rural Pakistani citizen has unquestioning faith in the guidance and direction from the mullah of his or her local mosque.
In the last three and a half years, growing disillusion with the democratic system has peaked. The party of Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has promised a utopian vision recalling the Riyasat-e-Madina (the early period of rule in the city of Medina under the Prophet Muhammad), through welfare schemes, promoting piousness in society, and an end to corruption. Needless to say, these promises have not materialized (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). With skyrocketing inflation, the PTI walking back many of its promises, and the government proving mostly unable to govern effectively, many citizens have lost hope in the promised political “tsunami.” Against this backdrop, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has evolved from a movement to defend Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws into a populist radical right-wing political party. In less than a decade it is able to challenge the ruling political party and the state apparatus itself, on several occasions.
The instrumentalization of religion that the TLP has proven so adept at is scarcely novel in the Pakistani political firmament. Founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi in August 2015, the TLP has its origins and largest base of support in the Barelvi sect, a broad, Sufi-oriented Islamic revivalist movement with a long history of mobilizing conservative factions in South Asia and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the TLP is unique in the sense that it uses a highly appealing form of religious populism. The leadership provides a “moral” Islamism that seeks to address the issues of “corruption” in politics and society. With a sense of victimhood, it presents itself as the “defender” of faith and nation laced with vigilante-style vindictive rhetoric. Since 2015, the party has rallied thousands on the streets, leading to violent clashes, and loss of life and property. Each event has led to temporary arrests and bans on the party, only for the state to eventually cave into supporters’ demands and release vigilantes and lift sanctions on the party.
Emboldened by its successive victories, the TLP has grown in power. Its followers have become independent vigilantes engaging in cyber-harassment of critics, physically roughing up opposing voices, hurling in-person targeted abuse, and in the most extreme cases lynching people they accuse of blasphemy to death. This ability to mobilize and attack opponents combined with a voluble rhetoric that panders to a “pious” and wronged “true people,” allowed the TLP to score 4.2 percent of the vote (some 2.2 million votes) at the 2018 general elections, putting it in fifth place, although without any seats in Pakistan’s parliament (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020).
Despite its sporadic rise to power and mushrooming growth, very little scholarly analysis has been published on the TLP. This paper seeks to address this gap in the literature by analyzing the TLP’s religious populism. In doing so, it offers a comprehensive review of how this populist Islamist populist movement has leveraged emotion and religious devotion to mobilize supporters. The first section of the paper provides an overview of the theoretical framework through which religious populism has been understood and the two central features of the phenomenon: the use of pro-violent narratives and vigilantism. This is followed by a discussion on the TLP’s genesis and the group’s evolution since 2015. In this section, statements by TLP leadership and the party’s dynamic relationship with the Pakistani state are reviewed to shed light on the conditions for its growth and its core mobilizing tactics. The closing section offers a set of conclusions about the role of religious populism in promoting vigilantism and sporadic acts of gruesome violence, the path ahead for Pakistan, and the risk that the country will descend into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization.
Religion and Populism
Loosely characterized as “confrontational, chameleonic, culture-bound and context-dependent” (Arter, 2011: 490), populism has become a worldwide phenomenon that directly challenges liberal democracy. A “thin” ideology, populism “thickens” and adapts by attaching itself to “thicker” cultural and ideological forms (De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017). By its very nature, populism is divisive in that it establishes an antagonistic division between “the people” and “the elite” while promising justice for the former, who are typically cast as “wronged” (Moffitt, 2020; De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017; Laclau, 2005: 154; Mudde, 2004: 543). It also goes beyond just criticizing “the elite” for their moral or political corruption and accuses the elite of advancing the interests of some favored “Other” at the expense of the “true people.” This “Other” can be defined variously in terms of political beliefs, skin color, gender, religious beliefs, or migration status (DeHanas & Shterin, 2018: 180; De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017; Zúquete, 2017: 446; Moffitt, 2015). Essentially, populists thrive on divisional politics, and their sensationalist antics that “celebrate the low” in politics, ranging from utopian promises to crude language, add to their popularity (Nai, 2022).
Religious populism is a form of cultural populism whereby embedded cultural forms are used to “thicken” the fundamental division between “the people” and “elites.” In the last two decades, religious rhetoric has become ever more prominent in mainstream politics (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020; Peker, 2019; Hadiz, 2018; Jaffrelot and Tillin, 2017; Zúquete, 2017; Roy, 2016). In Europe, “civilizational” narratives that emphasize the role of religion in broad identity constructs have increasingly come to dominate the most influential forms of populism (Brubaker, 2017: 1211). This kind of populist rhetoric and narrative mobilization foregrounds civilizational distinctions, especially “religions and their cultural legacies” (think Viktor Orbán’s self-proclaimed mission to defend “European Christianity”), where “the people” and “the other” are distinguished based on religion, ethnicity, cultural norms, and the like. (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021).
In the twenty-first century, cultural populism has become widespread, especially in non-Western parts of the world, such as South Asia and Africa. In many such countries, religion is used by civilisationist populists to “thicken” their ideology, style, and outlook. As Yilmaz & Morieson (2021) note, there is an elective affinity between religious populism (which appeals directly to the faithful at a programmatic or electoral level) and identitarian populism (which draws on religious identity to make chauvinistic claims about the superiority of one culture over another). Specifically, the authors observe that:
“Religious populism encompasses both organised religion’s political and public aspects when they adopt a populist style and/or discourse, and populist political movement/parties/leaders that adopt an explicit religious programme. Identitarian populism is superficially similar to religious populism, but it does not possess a political programme based upon religious teachings, nor does it attempt to force religion upon a society or run a society according to the teachings of a particular religion. Instead, identitarian populism embraces a religion-based classification of peoples, often one aligned to civilisations (Western, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) or nations. It is not, however, religious itself, but is most often wholly secular, and therefore does not call for people to return to the faiths of their ancestors, or even to believe in God” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021: 10).
This framing of the phenomenon of religious populism speaks to the modus operandi of the TLP, which instrumentalizes Islam and uses faith to mold its narrative and style while emphasizing the goal of bringing Nizam-e-Mustafa to Pakistan, thereby reorienting the status quo.
The Emotional Appeal of Religious Populism: Opening Space for Vigilante Aggression
Religion is not only a tool for social categorization but also a highly emotive tool in the hands of populists. As Yilmaz & Morieson (2021: 1–10) note: “Similar to many other ideologies/movements, populists too construct narratives that paint the events, in-groups, and outgroups in certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitate strong emotions among the audience.” Such a strategy enables them to cast the ingroup as “good” and the outgroup as “wicked.” Added to this categorization of society is the emotion of fear which creates a crisis for “the people.” For instance, in the United States and across Europe, an emotional backlash against multiculturalism, gender rights, and overall progressive values has bolstered populists who seek to protect “Christian values” (Norris & Inglehart, 2019).
In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, has also derailed democracy against a backdrop where communal tensions between various religious groups have reached a peak not seen since 1947 (Doffer et al., 2020; Gandesha, 2020). In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has merged pre-existing social tensions and fears with Islamism, overturning eight decades of often aggressively imposed secularism (Yilmaz, 2021). Within Pakistan as well, Imran Khan’s populism hinges greatly on emotional appeal. Over the years, his promise of a Riyasat-e-Madina has given hope to “the people” that the country can adopt a model of Islamist welfare combined with economic and political self-sufficiency.
Both religious and identarian populists use emotions to polarize society, gain merit in the eyes of “the people,” and promote themselves as “the only hope” against a hostile “other.” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021; Salmela & von Scheve 2017; 2018; Brady et al., 2017; Graham et al., 2011). Given the nature of religion, its importance in the lives of many, and its divinely ordained distinctions between “good” and “bad” conduct, the way religious or civilizational identities are drawn is often rooted in pre-existing collective feelings “of grievances, resentment, disillusionment, anger, fear, and vindictiveness” (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2022; see also Yilmaz, 2021; Bonansinga, 2020). “The people” and their faith (or long-held cultures of worship) are positioned as being at risk from “the other.”
One of the leading examples where Islamist populism has deployed a host of emotions in its mobilization strategy is Turkey. Erdoğan has successfully leveraged long-established fears of “Western enemies” and “internal traitors” that date back well over a century but are cast in a new guise to fit the current political context (Yilmaz, 2021). Since 2010 especially, Erdoğan, his party, and pro-AKP voices have systematically engaged in smear campaigns that transform into institutional oppression and discrimination toward “the other” (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2021, 2022). For instance, a former ally and spiritual group, the Gülen Movement (GM) and its leader, have been used as a scapegoats for all manner of sins within the AKP, including its rampant corruption and many governance failures since the mid-2000s (Yilmaz & Albayrak, 2021; 2022; Watmough, 2020).
Religious populist leaders outside of state institutions have also used emotions to galvanize support along these lines. One of the most prominent cases from Southeast Asia is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI—Front Pembela Islam), which is now formally banned in Indonesia (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021). With the narrative of victimhood inspired by fear of assorted “others” — non-Muslims, “Zionists,” the Western powers, China, and Ahmadis — the group has been encouraged to take matters into its own hands and “defend” Islam and the ummah (Facal, 2019; Jahroni, 2004). Its massive appeal in the country has meant that while renaming a movement-driven organization, the FPI has played a key role in electoral lobbying and mainstreaming right-wing narratives. Its power to sway state institutions is visible by the fact that it was behind the introduction of 400 Shariah-inspired laws in the country and has the force behind blasphemy protests in 2016–17 (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021).
The FPI has been able to replicate its presence online, and even though it remains banned, its cyber “warriors” and various websites remain active (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Moreover, using charged Islamist populist rhetoric, the FPI has inspired a generation of vigilantes in the country who continue to take part in local (and overseas) incidents of aggression toward various “others” to “protect” the Islamic faith.
However, it must be noted that Indonesia’s democratic institutions, while often brittle, are much stronger than Pakistan’s. The government has succeeded in permanently banning the FPI and maintaining its outlaw status. In contrast, the TLP remains free to operate in a country with already fragile institutions and a population receptive to Islamist narratives. This paper thus looks at Pakistan’s context and understands the group’s working under the populism framework.
The Historical Roots and Evolution of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan
The Barelvi order was formed in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising in India against the British East India Company. Weakened, the company turned to the British government for assistance, and the conflict expanded into a full-scale war of independence against the British crown. The Indian defeat in 1857-8 led to the formal colonization of India by Britain when the last Mughal King, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed, and a series of “revenge” murders by the British troops was undertaken (Dalrymple, 2008). This ushered in the end of centuries of Muslim leadership of the Subcontinent.
In the wake of the establishment of the British Raj, a broad-based, Sufi-oriented Sunni Islamic revivalist movement, the Barelvi, emerged to “protect” Islam and restore Muslim “glory” in the region. Over the years, the movement has inspired jihadism against the region’s perceived “others.” For instance, Syed Ahmad Barelvi launched a guerrilla war against the Sikh Empire of Punjab in the early nineteenth century; over two hundred years later, thousands of young men were sent as mujahideen to fight the Afghan war in the 1980s. As a result, Barelvi religious doctrine draws on a deep sense of victimhood that extends back to the colonial past. Over time, the movement has adapted, and its definition of “other. Nevertheless, the centrality of jihadist ideas and the movement’s defining motivation to “protect” Islam against hostile forces have been constants.
In recent years, Pakistan’s commitment to the US “war on terror” has seen the influence of hardliner Deobandi scholars decline. However, the state’s tolerance of madrassa culture and its cultivation of right-wing radicals continues. Indeed, the Pakistani state has embraced the benefits of pandering to a supposedly “victimized” population by supporting the “softer” Sufi elements in Islam, of which Barelvism is a part. As a result, Barelvi clerics have been placed in important positions, their madrassas have received state funding, and the Barelvi identity, which had been solidified due to exclusion and deprivation, has strengthened through state patronage. For their part, the Barelvis have publicly condemned terrorism and, by all accounts, have consciously avoided inciting political chaos in recent decades. Nevertheless, despite its Sufi roots, the movement hues to very strident positions, seeing the Holy Prophet as a divine being (Noor Mohammadiya) who is omnipresent (Hazir-o-Nazir) and arguing that insults of the Prophet (Namoos-e-Risalat) should be punished by death. Emboldened in this way, the movement has become more assertive and has turned violent of late.
The origins of the TLP movement are in the Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri), which came into existence after the arrest of Mumtaz Qadri in 2011 on charges of assassinating Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, ostensibly for the latter’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Following Qadri’s trial and execution, the movement renamed itself Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolallah (TLYP), later transforming into the TLP (Sabat, Ahmad, & Qadar, 2020). This movement advocated for Qadri and portrayed him as a hero even after this execution. The movement derives its core support from Barelvi madrassas dotted across the country.
In the conducive environment for the Barelvis, supporters of Mumtaz Qadri grew in numbers. The movement consolidated at his funeral and later rituals associated with chehlum (the traditional forty days of mourning after death), branding him a martyr of Islam. The movement grew rapidly, affording the largely dispersed Barelvi community a publicly expressed collective identity. Opposition to blasphemy became the central aspect of the movement’s motivation, and where the judicial system was seen as too slow in its prosecution of violators (at times even acquitting them), the TLP applied direct and swift mob justice.
The incumbent government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) did nothing to reprimand this vigilante behavior at the time, especially following Qadri’s hanging. Embroiled in its own corruption scandals and confronting civil unrest led by Imran Khan and his PTI, the government lacked the will and resources to act. In addition, the PML-N, which draws on the tradition of General Zia-ul-Haq’s political Islam in Pakistan, did not wish to alienate its pious supporters by being seen to be heavy-handed against Islamic groups in society. More importantly, the military-led establishment —which had nurtured Sharif and his party in the 1980s as a counter to the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — now settled on the Barelvi as a useful counterweight to the PML-N’s growing independence. After returning to the prime ministership for a third term in 2013, Sharif and his party were increasingly asserting their independence from the establishment, driving the latter to seek ways to “break” the party’s political base. To that end, the establishment began to foment rifts between the PML-N and its right-wing supporter base in Punjab, including the Barelvi. Careful political engineering behind the scenes laid the ground for the formation of the TLP.
Many TLP members are former PLM-N supporters. A 2018 Gallup survey found that 46 percent of those who voted for the TLP in 2018 had voted for PML-N in the 2013 elections. Nawaz and his party keenly felt this loss of support. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, the Punjab exploded in sporadic province-wide protests led by Khadim Rizvi calling for the resignation of the then Minister of Law and Justice, Zahid Hamid, over changes to the wording of the Elections Bill 2017 drafted by the government in the run-up to the elections.
Specifically, the government had changed the wording of the oath concerning commitment to the finality of Prophet Muhammad from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe.” The TLP cast this “weakening” of the oath’s wording as undermining Pakistan’s Muslim identity and values, which hinge on the belief in the finality of the Prophet. Zahid Hamid’s home was attacked, and TLP vigilantes staged sit-ins until he was forced to resign over the alleged “blasphemy.” Rizvi and his followers blocked all main roads in Islamabad for twenty days, demanding the original wording be restored and the minister’s resignation. Clashes with police injured some 200 and killed four.
The TLP remained undeterred, and the protests turned into highly ritualistic public displays of political piety. Day and night, on the orders of Rizvi, the protesters chanted nats (lyrics praising the Prophet Muhammad) and slogans expressing love for the Prophet and hatred for those considered gustakhs (blasphemers). Passions ran so high that protesters armed with simple sticks were recorded tossing their shoes at passing state patrol helicopters while Rizvi hurled all kinds of abuse at the government. Finally, with the PML-N on its knees, the military was called in to “arbitrate.” The TLP was forced to retreat to its stronghold in Lahore (albeit with its demand met), and the government retreated with its tail between its legs. However, it would not be the last time the radicals would best Sharif before the 2018 elections.
The 2017 events only emboldened the TLP, which now evidently had the establishment’s blessing. As much was proven when a video surfaced of a high-raking army official disbursing money to TLP protesters in 2017. The establishment claimed the funds were used to disburse the protesters by giving them funds to return to their homes. However, many speculated that this was part of the military’s long-run strategy of “strategic depth” — namely, fomenting unrest to keep the elected government on its toes.
These suspicions were further confirmed when the Supreme Court finally released its judgment on the sit-ins in February 2019. The judgment held that all protesters be tried under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and called upon Pakistan’s electoral commission to scrutinize the TLP’s status as a political party. Interestingly, the court issued a warning to the armed forces to cease meddling in the country’s political affairs, noting: “The Constitution emphatically prohibits members of the Armed Forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction or individual. The Government of Pakistan through the Ministry of Defense and the respective Chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are directed to initiate action against the personnel under their command who are found to have violated their oath.”
By 2018, the TLP had become a household name. It had garnered wide media attention and the sympathies of radical elements in the country. Rizvi’s crude language and earthy charisma proved quite effective. His blunt use of Punjabi jokes and coarse language resonated with the sentiments and approach of the masses. Thus, he could cast himself as “one of them” rather than a phony politician. His speeches went viral on social media, and attendance at the seminary at Multan Road in Lahore blossomed. Like all populists, Rizvi’s rhetoric was unapologetic and provided “simple” solutions. For example, as a “solution” to the problem of Dutch “blasphemers” mocking Islam and the Prophet, he suggested Pakistan attack the Netherlands with nuclear weapons, berating the government for its inaction and its warehousing of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as if they were “firecrackers” (i.e., just for show).
When quizzed about the party’s economic policy on a popular television show, Rizvi showcased both his political acumen (using the language of people’s everyday experience) and apparent lack of economic expertise (eschewing detailed policy commitments), noting that when the Nizam-e-Mustafa was established, the country would prosper because the government would, like any ordinary household, just live within its means. He explained this by saying that if his government were ever short of resources, everyone would make do for a while without yogurt and instead eat chilies with roti. However, when further pressed for a specific policy, he launched into a classic rant against the state and blamed banks charging interest and a lack of piety among the elite as the source of all problems.
Enabling a New Vigilante Jihadism
Despite its apparent disconnect with reality, TLP won some 1.8 million votes (National Assembly seats) in Punjab (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020). The same year they also successfully campaigned to remove Atif Mian from the Pakistan Economic Council because he was a member of the Ahmadiyya community. This was the first compromise by the PTI government as it gave into the demands of the TLP.
At a micro level, more disturbing events occurred even before the elections. Young impressionable children going to TLP mosques and hearing Rizvi’s sermons showed early signs of vigilantism. On January 23, 2018, Sareer Ahmed, a student, killed his school’s principal, who had reprimanded him for skipping classes to attend a TLP sit-in. The boy who showed no remorse after killing his teacher justified his actions in the name of safeguarding the Prophet Muhammad.
In May 2018, PML-N politician and National Assembly Member, Ahsan Iqbal was critically wounded by Abid Hussain,who charged Iqbal with committing blasphemy. It is believed that Iqbal was returning from a meeting with a Christian group when he was shot. In March 2019, Khateeb Hussain, another young student, killed his professor over allegations of blasphemy. The boy did not show any signs of remorse after using a knife to kill his teacher in his classroom.
On October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the previous conviction of a Christian woman Aasiya Noreen (popularly known as Asia Bibi), accused of blasphemy. The TLP called for the three judges to be killed for the judgment. Mass protests erupted in retaliation, and roads in major cities were blocked as protesters stormed the streets and destroyed public and private property. On November 2, 2018, the new government agreed to put Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List, which barred her from leaving the country in an effort to subdue the protests. To neutralize the growing resistance on November 4, 2018, Rizvi’s Twitter was also suspended at the government’s request. Bibi’s lawyer also left the country fearing his own life. On November 7, Asia Bibi was secretly flown on a military plane out of the country.
In 2020, a bank manager from the Ahmadiyya faith was shot dead in broad daylight by the bank’s security guard in the town of Khushab in Punjab. What was more disturbing was the guard being taken handcuffed by the police with a smirk on his face as the mob chanted in support of him for heroism. In 2021, the lynching of the Sri Lankan factory manager by a mob in Sialkot was also TLP inspired. The key culprits in the cases expressed pride in their actions. All these attackers were linked with TLP or inspired by their narrative, yet the TLP chief was quick to disassociate himself from them.
While TLP has served the establishment (and the PTI) as a valuable counterweight to the PML-N, the party’s freelance vigilantism has become an issue. Now that the PTI is firmly in power and towing the establishment line, the state apparatus has again mobilized against the TLP. As mentioned, in 2019, the Supreme Court openly questioned the party status of the TLP and asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to investigate. In reply, the ECP has informed the court that the party had failed to provide the required campaign finance reports for the 2018 elections, blunting the party’s political ambitions. Additionally, there were also rumors of a split between the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his heir apparent, Pir Afzal Rizvi, and the movement began to show cracks.
However, another “crisis” emerged in the winter of 2020 that opened up a space for the TLP to fall back on its tried and tested strategy of leveraging supposed “threats” to Islam to mobilize supporters in vigilante violence.
In October 2021, a French history teacher who had brought sketches of the Prophet Muhammad allegedly printed in a 2012 edition of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo into his classroom was decapitated; the assailant was shot dead by French police as they tried to arrest him. In the days that followed the beheading, the same sketches were projected onto the facade of a building in another French city, and people displayed them at protests around the country. The French president Emmanuel Macron criticized Islamists and was accused of inciting Islamophobia. This led to a call within Pakistan to boycott French products. Khadim Hussain Rizvi went a step further, calling on followers to block the Shahrah-e-Faisal, the main road in Karachi, until the government cut all diplomatic ties with France and banned all French products. He even urged the government to announce jihad(Islamic holy war) against France. During this period, his sermons were increasingly hostile toward France, and in one, he declared, “we must eventually die of some disease, be it diabetes or some other ailment […]. It is better to die with the name of the Prophet on our lips […] it does not matter if France perishes if the world perishes or we perish.”
Rizvi has been adept at using the coarse language of his region to castigate opponents. He has labeled the Supreme Court Chief Justice a “dog,” referred to Prime Minister Imran Khan variously as an “animal,” a “duffer,” a “barking dog,” a “pimp,” and mouthed many anti-Semitic slurs. When confronted with his behavior, he has defended himself by declaring he is merely a cipher of the words and vision of the Prophet Mohammed.
Rizvi’s death in 2020 did not end the movement. His eldest son, Saad Rizvi, who was relatively unknown to the public before taking over the movement’s leadership, has since continued his father’s path. Thus, the death of the elder Rizvi has not derailed the party’s anti-French jihad. On January 3, 2021, he called on the government to expel the French ambassador by February 17, 2021 as per their previous agreement.
On April 12, 2021, police arrested Saad Rizvi on charges of terrorism. Protests erupted, and a member of the group’s leadership, Syed Zaheerul Hassan Shah, called on supporters to “jam the entire country.” Tensions became so high that the French embassy asked French nationals to leave the country temporarily. Law enforcement agencies tried to clear out TLP supporters from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but at least four policemen were killed in clashes. This proved to be the final straw for the government, which announced it had “reasonable grounds to believe that Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan is engaged in terrorism.” On April 15, 2021, the government banned the TLP under anti-terrorism legislation. Fearing a backlash from the party supporters, the government also temporarily banned social media. Despite the move to outlaw the party, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on national television to call the crackdown on the TLP “regrettable,” thereby showing his sympathy for the group’s criminal acts.
By November 2021, the PTI government appeared to be walking back its hardline approach to the TLP. First, Saad Rizvi’s arrest mobilized unprecedented protest action across the country that the government of Imran Khan struggled to control. Then, at the end of 2021, Saad Rizvi was released from prison. Moreover, many TLP supporters accused of vandalism and violence against police walk free, even as the party prepares to contest the 2023 general elections. Yet, rather than seeing the renewed mobilization of the TLP as a defeat, Imran Khan’s strategy appears to be to placate the movement, pointing to the shared Islamist objectives of his PTI and the TLP.
The present article has sought to analyze the foundations on which the TLP has risen to prominence in Pakistan. Our analysis indicates that the group has leveraged the victimhood narrative, jihadism, vindictiveness, and revanchism of the Barelvi sect. While Islamic populism is not new in Pakistan, the TLP is set apart by its ability to ride the populist wave by speaking to the fears and anxieties of the public. In addition, it has mainstreamed radical Islamist and pro-violence ideas. Having evolved from a proxy created by the establishment to a political force in its own right, the TLP poses a serious challenge to the very fabric of Pakistani society through its championing of mass vigilante violence.
It is clear that the Pakistani establishment has been key to emboldening the TLP through its early support. Now, the TLP has gained so much clout that it appears to have outgrown the state. Moreover, the political environment is ripe for exploitation. Inflation rates keep skyrocketing, the value of the Pakistani rupee has plummeted, and Imran Khan’s promised Islamic welfare state is nowhere to be seen. While Khan employs his own version of Islamist populism to appease the religious sentiments of the masses, there is a growing sense of distrust toward him within the electorate. Only a few years ago, Nawaz Sharif and his PLM-N lost a hefty chunk of their votes to the TLP; the PTI now confronts a similar fate.
What emerges is a kind of Islamist “bidding war” in which the PTI seems to be losing ground to the TLP. While the former has bolstered religious authorities, funded right-wing groups, and constantly advocated for a boycott of “Western values” (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021), the TLP seems to be constantly outmaneuvering it. Its unchecked and uncensored content is creating a new generation of vindictive jihadists. And unlike the Taliban, this group operates in plain view. Students, shopkeepers, and even family members appear ready to kill in the name of “safeguarding” Islam. Most of these people know that the legal system is too corrupt and slow to prosecute them.
It is unclear whether a new “crisis” will emerge (or be fabricated) that will allow the TLP an open space for mobilization in the lead-up to the 2023 elections. What is clear is that the playing field of Pakistani politics has shifted decisively in favor of extremism and vigilantism. While the TLP is hardly the first outfit to exploit religion in Pakistan, it is arguably the most threatening to the stability of the social and political order in the country’s 75-year history.
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 Barelvi was a revered figure with origins in the Ahl-e-Hadith factions (another hardline Sunni order). His name is derived from his hometown of Bareli (in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh) and not the Barelvi movement itself.
I am honored to be writing this foreword for the first research report of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). This newly-founded, Brussels-based independent research organization investigates and analyzes the various manifestations of populism and the challenges posed by its increasing spread across the world.
The world has been suffering from the fatal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last two years. This horrible and costly experience has reminded us that we really do live in a global village in every sense. A contagion that emerged in a wet market in one part of the world spread in a matter of months to all four corners of the earth and turned rapidly into a global pandemic. As of January 17, 2022, almost 329 million people have been infected, and over 5.5 million people from every walk of life and continent have died. It is evident that problems emerging in far-flung places have the potential to affect us all in ways we could scarcely imagine.
At the risk of stretching the metaphor, the rise and spread of the most recent wave of global populism carry many of the same characteristics and pose, in the view of many, no less a global threat than COVID-19. Alongside renewed racism, rising authoritarianism, and ongoing oppression, exclusion, mass persecution, extremism and radicalization, bigotry, fanaticism, xenophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and climate change denial, populism has come to reinforce the sense that the world confronts a new age of severe global crisis that threatens to spiral out of control and which no country or region on earth can hope to avoid.
After all, who could possibly argue that the poisonous mixture of populism and religious bigotry we see today on the streets of Lahore does not affect the feelings and security perceptions of the people walking peacefully through the streets of Amsterdam? And who among us can ignore the fact that the anti-Islamic discourses and exclusionary populist narratives expressed from the comfortable rostrums of splendid buildings in European capitals have no impact on the Egyptian youths who watch TV in their lounge rooms and are mobilized by feelings of hate and enmity? Against this backdrop, we can readily see that opposing extremisms fuel each other and create fertile ground for a vicious cycle of worsening extremism that threatens to engulf the planet.
If we agree that the physical, offline world is a global village, it is no stretch to argue that the online world is a global town hall. And in this online global town hall, conspiracy theories, extreme emotions, and destructive discourses spread much faster than in the offline global village. So, the ECPS has decided to examine authoritarian religious populists and to research the dangerous nexus between faith and populism in cyberspace and, of course, its fatal effects in the offline world. I am sure that this report, as an impressive product of comprehensive research across five different Asian countries, will help us to understand the role of digital space in Asian democracies, especially concerning religious populism.
Being aware of the fact that the global rise of populism can lead to democratic decay, the spread of authoritarianism worldwide, and threats to global peace, security, and stability, I want to thank the scholars who have poured their efforts into preparing this report. I also sincerely hope that this report will fill a crucial gap in this research field and become a valuable resource for scholars and practitioners alike.
Dr. Bulent Kenes
ECPS Executive Director
4. Executive Summary
Turkey, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia span one of the longest continuously inhabited regions of the world. Centuries of cultural infusion have ensured these societies are highly heterogeneous. As plural polities, they are ripe for the kind of freedoms that liberal democracy can guarantee. However, despite having multi-party electoral systems, these countries have recently moved toward populist authoritarianism. Populism —once considered a distinctively Latin American problem that only seldom reared its head in other parts of the world— has now found a home in almost every corner of the planet. Moreover, it has latched on to religion, which, as history reminds us, has an unparalleled power to mobilize crowds. This report explores the unique nexus between faith and populism in our era and offers an insight into how cyberspace and offline politics have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which socio-political events are taking place. The report focuses, in particular, on the role of religious populism in digital space as a catalyst for undemocratic politics in the five Asian countries we have selected as our case studies.
The focus on the West Asian and South Asian cases is an opportunity to examine authoritarian religious populists in power, whereas the East Asian countries showcase powerful authoritarian religious populist forces outside parliament. This report compares internet governance in each of these countries under three categories: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. These are the digital toolkits that authorities use to govern digital space. Our case selection and research focus have allowed us to undertake a comparative analysis of different types of online restrictions in these countries that constrain space foropposition and democratic voices while simultaneously making room for authoritarian religious populist narratives to arise and flourish.
The report finds that surveillance, censorship, disinformation campaigns, internet shutdowns, and cyber-attacks—along with targeted arrests and violence spreading from digital space—are common features of digital authoritarianism. In each case, it is also found that religious populist forces co-opt political actors in their control of cyberspace. The situational analysis from five countries indicates that religion’s role in digital authoritarianism is quite evident, adding to the layer of nationalism. Most of the leaders in power use religious justifications for curbs on the internet. Religious leaders support these laws as a means to restrict “moral ills” such as blasphemy, pornography, and the like. This evident “religious populism” seems to be a major driver of policy changes that are limiting civil liberties in the name of “the people.” In the end, the reasons for restricting digital space are not purely religious but draw on religious themes with populist language in a mixed and hybrid fashion. Some common themes found in all the case studies shed light on the role of digital space in shaping politics and society offline and vice versa.
The key findings of our survey are as follows:
The future of (especially) fragile democracies is highly intertwined with digital space.
There is an undeniable nexus between faith and populism which offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined.
Religion and politics have merged in these five countries to shape cyber governance.
The cyber governance policies of populist rulers mirror their undemocratic, repressive, populist, and authoritarian policies offline. As a result, populist authoritarianism in the non-digital world has increasingly come to colonize cyberspace, and events online are more and more playing a role in shaping politics offline.
“Morality” is a common theme used to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws and the active monopolization of cyberspace by government actors.
Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment, hurling abuse without physically seeing the consequences or experiencing the emotional and psychological damage inflicted on their victims.
Over 60 percent of the world’s population has access to the internet, with some 4.66 billion active users in January 2021. While there is a global divide in access to the internet related to income disparities and unequal human development, the overall growth remains staggering. The largest share of the planet’s internet users, nearly 52 percent, reside in Asia, with its dense population and steady increasing uptake of digital communication technology. Moreover, the widespread availability of cell phone technology and the rapid development of the mobile internet has meant that digital platforms are a well-integrated part of daily life. In 2009, less than 1 percent of internet traffic was generated by mobile phones compared to 50 percent in 2020. Internet use is forecast to grow again in 2022 and beyond. It is, thus, not surprising that governments are keen to adopt digital technologies such as high-speed internet, smartphones, social media, and artificial intelligence (AI) as part of their governance strategies. As a result, political processes—including in the region’s democracies—are becoming highly intertwined with digital space.
At the dawn of the internet age, the global community shared a sense of optimism about the prospects for a bright digital future. Indeed, the web was often spoken about as an agent for democratization. Cheap and ready access to the internet was hailed by scholars as an inherently democratizing development that would ensure the widest possible dissemination of information to the people. The internet was supposed to facilitate the creation and expression of ideas and political views by ordinary citizens in a media ecosystem dominated by powerful corporate or state-controlled television, radio, and print media. Indeed, many democratic theorists cast the world wide web as a virtual Habermasian “public sphere” promising a global “society engaged in critical public debate.” The online network society was expected to serve as a forum for the formation of public opinions, like the coffee houses of Vienna (in Habermas’ original theory), in which all citizens would have equal access to influence public debate. Several mass protests in the late 2000s and early 2010s that were mostly organized and facilitated by digital social media further boosted this techno-optimism in developing countries. The Arab Spring, in which Twitter featured prominently as a mobilizing tool, saw the fall of dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.
This optimism over the increase in cyber activity and access to the internet came in the wake of the “third wave” of global democratization that began in the 1970s and peaked after the end of the Cold War. However, the first decades of the twenty-first century have witnessed a significant “democratic retrenchment” worldwide and the rise of an unprecedented wave of populist governments on virtually every continent. Unlike in the past, this new wave of populism has affected longstanding democracies once thought immune. For instance, America and India, the world’s two most populous democracies, have seen populist leaders rise within the democratic system. Moreover, despite unprecedented democratization since the mid-2000s, Pakistan and Turkey, countries with a history of military interventions, have chosen populist Islamist leaders.
Over the years, the populist wave has not only expanded but diversified as well. There are at least three broad categories of populism today. The most familiar is anti-establishment, where the “political elite” and other groups are demonized as part of the populist narrative. Socioeconomic populism is a center-left outlook featured in movements such as the Wall Street Protests and the leadership of political leaders such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. The last and most widespread category is cultural populism, which pictures elements within society and outside the country as “the enemy” of the “pure people.”
Along the spectrum of cultural pluralism, religious populism is prominent and has been championed by leaders around the world since the early 2000s. While most major religions of the world have been politicized by populist leaders and religious movements, there is distinctiveness in how they manifest. When Islam is politicized and deployed as Islamism by populist leaders, it manifests not only as a way to distinguish “the pious people” from “the corrupt secular elite” but also wields a religious symbolism and style wherein followers are encouraged to adopt explicit religious morals and “traditional” lifestyles in everyday life. These populists are nevertheless adept at leveraging technology and have been at the forefront of political messaging in digital space. As early as the 2000s, political parties in Muslim-majority countries were exhibiting a greater online presence compared to those in non-Muslim countries. Given that democracy is in a precarious state across the Muslim world, introducing draconian measures is not difficult for such governments, even on digital platforms.
In non-Western, non-Muslim-majority countries, identarian populism, another form of religious populism, has arisen. It uses religion to demarcate a civilizational division between “the people” and “the Other.” Arguably the most pernicious example here is India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has long espoused a highly exclusivist and chauvinistic Hindutva politics, which declares Hindus to be “the true people” and non-Hindus by implication as “Other.” Despite its moralistic overtones, the BJP has shown little interest in moral reform but still champions a Hindutva construction of society as the epitome of “civilization.”
Consequently, in a world where democracy appears “in retreat,” the early digital optimism has given way among analysts and intellectuals to a kind of digital pessimism, or at the very least skepticism. While at one end, individual citizens can use social media and digital technology to stay informed and engage in online and offline activism, there is a growing concern that authoritarian (and democratic) governments can use digital tools to assert their control over this space. Extensive digital capabilities—especially AI and Big Data—are increasingly being utilized by governments to exert control over their citizens. Indeed, some observers are talking about the spread of full-blown digital authoritarianism —namely, “the use of digital information technology by authoritarian regimes to survey, repress, and manipulate domestic and foreign populations.” In response to the rise of digital activism, authoritarian regimes—not just populist ones— have been fast to catch up and adapt, launching their own digital countermeasures of repression. Governments have been observed employing advanced digital technologies to undermine democracy in various ways, including surveillance, censorship, disinformation, cyber-attacks and hacking, internet shutdowns, and targeted arrests.
Against this backdrop, the present report contributes to our understanding of how emerging digital technologies affect, enable and undermine democracy, human rights, freedom, and the electoral process. While scholarship on the topic is in its infancy, the focus has generally been on Western democracies. Despite the scale of internet usage in Asia, this part of the world— and the Global South more generally— has been largely excluded from such studies. Thus, studies focusing on non-Western countries that have witnessed democratic backsliding under the rule or influence of authoritarian religious populists are sorely needed. In all the cases analyzed in the present report, digital platforms have been used intensely by governments and dissidents and can reveal much about the contested role of digital technology and the future of democracy.
States implement multi-layered and complex measures to manipulate the use of and access to cyberspace by people residing in their territory and to restrict online freedoms. The key measures in the toolkit of digital authoritarianism are:
Censorship includes “restrictions on what information can be publicized or viewed on the Internet.” Examples of internet censorship are blocking undesirable content, apps, and social media and passing laws that allow the removal of certain forms of content. Some countries have created so-called “sovereign internets,” facilitated by technology. Think of the “Great Firewall” of China and Russia’s Roskomnadzor, which enforces data localization, and Iran’s National Information Network (also called the Halal Internet).
Disinformation campaigns involve the spread of large volumes of false content by state-owned and regime-friendly media against the opposition. This can include social media manipulation through “cyber warriors” using bots and cyber-trolls. Examples include Iran’s so-called “cyber battalions” linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG). Disinformation campaigns also involve the manipulation of elections, including voter engineering and influencing voter behaviors and outcomes by micro-targeting propaganda and individualized campaigns using AI and Big Data capabilities. The creation of “filter bubbles” and “echo chambers” in elections can also undermine meaningful exchanges of ideas in electoral debates.
Cyber-attacks and hacking. Cyber-attacks include any “attempt to gain unauthorized access to a computer, computing system or computer network with the intent to cause damage. Cyber-attacks aim to disable, disrupt, destroy or control computer systems or to alter, block, delete, manipulate or steal the data held within these systems.” Such attacks often target opposition groups’ data centers, networks, social media accounts, and computer systems to undermine their public image and spy on their campaigns. There are reports that the Iranian government has been proactively gathering intelligence on Iran’s opposition by hacking applications, even secure ones like Telegram, which uses sophisticated symmetric encryption.
Internet shutdowns. “An Internet shutdown is an intentional disruption of Internet-based communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unavailable, for a specific population, location, or mode of access, often to exert control over the flow of information.” Short of complete shutdowns, governments can disrupt the internet and other electronic communications through rolling blackouts or selected blocking/filtering of the internet and social media.
Targeted arrests and violence occur when “a large group of abusers collectively attacks a target through a barrage of threats, slurs, insults, and other abusive tactics.” There are many reports of influential digital activists and actors being physically assaulted, arrested, and sentenced to jail.
Surveillance. In the digital realm, this usually takes the form of software that is specifically “marketed for or that can be used (with or without the authorization of the business) to detect, monitor, intercept, collect, exploit, interpret, preserve, protect, transmit, and/or retain sensitive data, identifying information, or communications concerning individuals or groups.” Today, this includes facial recognition technology (FRT), video surveillance, and so-called smart policing, monitoring communications and social media, tapping mobile phones, monitoring locations, using spyware, intercepting networks, biometric identification, and text/data mining.
There are several frameworks for monitoring and measuring restrictions on freedom on the internet. One of the earliest frameworks to investigate and analyze internet filtering and surveillance practices was developed by The OpenNet Initiative (ONI). Initially, the ONI focused on measuring internet filtering under four main categories: pervasive filtering, substantial filtering, selective filtering, and suspected filtering. Further elaborating the index, ONI distinguished filtering based on its locus—namely, whether blocking is conducted centrally and infrastructurally (at the level of the underlying internet architecture) or decentralized (at the level of ISPs). In their later work, ONI researchers studied how governments “shape, limit, and control the Internet.” Unlike the first-generation controls, which often focused on denial of access, the second generation utilized a repertoire of manipulation techniques to normalize and legalize control. These techniques included “distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, targeted malware, surveillance at key points of the Internet’s infrastructure, take-down notices, and stringent terms-of-usage policies.”
A more detailed categorization, which is partly based on previous work by ONI, is used by Freedom House in its annual Freedom on the Net reports. Here, three areas are covered: obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. The current report follows Freedom House’s framework, which offers a comprehensive conceptual apparatus to investigate modern manipulations of the internet. The table in the Appendix provides a brief explanation of each category of violations of internet freedom based on the Freedom on the Net 2021 report.
Governments can erect several types of obstacles to restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections. This includes making the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons. Governments can also exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure to restrict connectivity or impose legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers. Finally, national regulatory bodies can impose controls on service providers such that digital technology fails to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner.
The state can block or filter internet content—or compel service providers to do so. As well, state or non-state actors often employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content. Often, restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process. Limits can also be self-imposed, such as when online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship. There are also examples where online sources of information are controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest or where economic, regulatory, or other constraints exist that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online. Finally, the online information landscape may lack diversity and reliability such that conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues.
The constitution or other laws of a country may fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and may be enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence. Violations also occur when laws exist that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those protected under international human rights standards. In some countries, individuals are penalized for online activities, or the government restricts anonymous communication or encryption. Another concern is state surveillance of internet activities, which infringes on users’ right to privacy, and the monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies, which also infringe the right to privacy. In serious cases, individuals are subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or other actors concerning their online activities. Finally, the websites of government and private entities, service providers, or individual users may be subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack.
India’s current prime minister and leader of the BJP, Narendra Damodardas Modi, worked at a tea stall in his childhood and rose to become the leader of one of the world’s largest democracies. His first taste of politics came during his meteoric rise within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindutva social movement linked to the BJP. In launching his election campaign in 2013, Modi emphasized social mobility and progress for a “new India.” An end to corruption, dynastic politics, and socioeconomic gulfs seemed tantalizingly close when he was elected as prime minister in 2014.
However, after nearly two consecutive terms, Modi’s promised “new India” has yet to materialize, while there has seen a drastic decline in democratic freedoms, mainly due to right-wing policies. According to the Freedom House Index, freedom for Indian citizens declined for a third straight year in 2020–21. With a ranking of 67, India has been downgraded from “Free” to “Partly Free” status. Ripples of deteriorating democracy are also felt in cyberspace. Nearly 58 percent of India’s population has access to the internet, and this is rising fast. The total number of internet users in India rose from 795.18 million at the end of December 2020 to 825.3 million at the end of March 2021. As the following discussion shows, despite widespread internet access and India’s positive track record of democracy, today internet freedom in India is severely compromised.
In 2014, Modi declared, “I dream of a Digital India where access to information knows no barriers,” a far cry from where the country stands today. During its second term (2019—present), the BJP government has increasingly resorted to full internet shutdowns. The most prominent example was the full shutdown in the Jammu and Kashmir state in 2019. The only Muslim-majority state in India before its autonomy was taken away that same year, Jammu and Kashmir’s internet was totally blocked for almost five months. Even when restored, only 2G or 3G service was available in most places, making the opening only partial. The 4G internet service was only available after more than a year. Another service block in 2019 came during the protests against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), which was widely seen as targeting Muslims. Largely organized by civil society concerned over the discriminatory nature of the law, the protests soon spread all over India. Lasting well into 2020, many parts of the country saw massive internet shutdowns at the peak of the protests. As Figure 1 shows, India has recently had the largest number of internet shutdowns globally. Inspired by the federal government, the state authorities in India have also started using network curbs. In October 2021, in the state of Rajasthan, the districts of Jaipur, Bikaner, and Dhausa closed mobile network services and cell phone access to curb cheating in regional examinations. The country lost $2.8 billion in 2020 due to internet shutdowns.
The Indian government frequently uses Section 69A of the IT Act 2000 to block websites. The 2009 blocking rules published by the Indian government are themselves vague and allow the government to withhold information on which sites are actually being blocked. There has also been a marked increase in the number of blocked websites. Some 633 websites were banned in 2016, rising to 9,849 in 2020. Investigative journalists have revealed that most blocked websites belong to human rights groups, separatist movements, feminist platforms, NGOs, and even sites linked to United Nations agencies. The government justifies most blocks on the grounds of “national security.”
The year 2020 was quite testing for India. In addition to the burden of COVID-19 and the continued economic downturn and massive unemployment, there was the Indo-China border clash, all of which presented the BJP government with a range of social and political issues to address. The government responded by cracking down in cyberspace. Between January and October 2020 alone, India blocked 100 websites, 1,364 online domains, and 157 Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. Due to the extensive blockade of content, the use of Virtual Private Network (VPN) has surged. Only 3.28 percent of Indian internet users used a VPN in 2020. In the first two quarters of 2021, 25.27 percent of users used one.In October 2021, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs recommended that the government ban VPNs in India. No action has been taken as yet.
India has one of the largest number of Facebook users globally, the third-largest Twitter population, and is the world’s largest market for WhatsApp. Under the government’s 2021 information technology rules, issued under the IT Act 2000, social media platforms are required to remove content identified as “illegal” by the government within three days, provide access to user information for law enforcement officials. The rules also extend the data retention period to 180 days and increase the penalties for non-compliance for the global platforms, putting end-to-end encryption in India at risk. These rules have been presented as necessary to protect individuals’ privacy, stop terrorism, riots, and breakdowns of law and order. Yet, the regulations give the government greater control over social media.
Since the law came into effect, firms have been obliged to share a monthly report with the government. These briefs showcase the amount of content removed. The first three months of published data revealed that Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and others removed a staggering 110.88 million posts. While content that is sexual or graphic in nature makes up a hefty chunk of the requested take-downs, there is also the question of what constitutes “terrorism” and “hate speech,” which the government frequently requests be removed from social media sites. Despite the tradition of rule of law in India, mob lynching of minorities triggered by misinformation via social media continues as well.
When India was struck by the Delta variant of COVID-19 in 2021, posts on social media that were critical of Prime Minister Modi’s handling of the virus were removed from these platforms because of the pressure from the government. Deemed “false statements,” these were posts from opposition leaders and concerned citizens over the mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.
Online streaming services have yet to face legal reproach by the BJP government, yet the government has supported the RSS (and the broader Sangh Parivar Hindu nationalist movement, of which it is a part) in their protests against these services. The group targeted Netflix and Amazon Prime for offending Hindu religious sensibilities. The government has also done little to prevent harassment of producers and movie stars by Sangh Parivar attackers, who have bullied them in person and online.
Digital surveillance measures ranging from targeted to mass surveillance have been normalized in India. Events such as the Mumbai attacks of 2008 have justified these measures as necessary for “security.” Thus, the Central Monitoring System (CMS), an ambitious surveillance system that monitors text messages, social media engagement, and phone calls on landlines and cell phones, among other communications, was launched after 2008. Under the law, citizens targeted by it are not obliged to be informed whether their data has been intercepted. There are reports that the CMS has become a mass surveillance tool by the state without valid legal and constitutional authority. In addition, Indian police in several states have routinized the use of fingerprinting and FRT to stop and screen people on flimsy pretexts, turning vital public spaces into privacy-violating zones. The CMS and the FRT have frequently been used to profile and target protesters. These tools have been extensively used in the conflict-ridden zone of Jammu and Kashmir and for profiling people based on race, religion, and profession (among other factors) without legal permission.
Under such close monitoring, it is not surprising that journalists and social media activists continue to be arrested under terror or treason charges. Independent right-wing organizations, such as those of the Sangh Parivar, use these laws to file reports regularly against those opposing the government online. Legally speaking, right-wing factions act as “partisan supporters” reporting these incidents. Since 2016, India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has slid from 133 to 142 in 2021. Moreover, India is seen as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job.
Along with the CMS, India has been using other ways to snoop and surveil its citizens. In July 2021, India was also caught up in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Pegasus is Israeli software that has purportedly been used to spy on terrorists and marketed exclusively to governments. However, like many other governments worldwide, the Modi government has bought this spyware and secretly used it to spy on anyone considered a political threat. The Supreme Court of India has ordered an inquiry into the matter as of October 2021.
Indonesia’s recent surge in attacks on minority religions has been instigated mainly by right-wing Islamist movements who have enjoyed much greater freedom after the sudden collapse of the New Order regime in 1998. After a period of democratic flourishing in the 2000s, Indonesia has recently been in a steady state of democratic decline, as highlighted by its 2017–2021 scores by Freedom House. Further complicating the matter, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has deliberately side-lined democratic norms in the interests of building a modern economy, which he and his supporters contend is a prerequisite for the future consolidation of democracy. The government’s reduced tolerance of criticism and discriminatory regulations against minorities has been an unfortunate consequence. Combined, both elements have led to increased abuses of religious freedom. Interestingly, Indonesia’s level of discrimination against religious and social minorities has seemingly remained unchanged since 1998. There are also signs of an increased Islamization with a rise in the visibility of Islamic gatherings, modest clothing, Muslim-only residential compounds, and Shariah-compliant banks.
Given shrinking public space, minorities have resorted to going online. Social movements such as those supporting LGBTQ+ or women’s rights have sought refuge on cyber platforms. While online communities enable like-minded individuals to interact, there are still limitations as the Indonesian government censored, regulated, and controlled the internet. Though Indonesia’s internet governance laws (see Table 1.0 in the Appendix) have been described to be well-intended, censorship regulations have created controversies. This highlights the presence of a specific moral compass being used by the government imposed on its citizens. Additionally, their loose definitional parameters also facilitate their instrumentalization by the government.
The Indonesian government has resorted to internet shutdowns to manage riots. In 2019 alone, there were three reported cases: one protesting the 2019 presidential election results, a successionist riot in Papua in reaction to the arrest and racist treatment of Papuan students in East Java, and a second similar riot in Papua triggered by racism toward Papuan students in Wamena. Of the three riots, the internet shutdown was the longest in the second riot spanning a two-week period from August 21 to September 4. While the Jakarta State Administrative Court ruled that the internet shutdowns in Papua and West Papua in 2019 violated the law, the Constitutional Court ruled otherwise on October 27, 2021. In April 2021, internet access in West Papua was disrupted on three separate occasions coinciding with events related to Papuan successionist movements. These coincidental disruptions were blamed on a damaged sea cable in the area.
Indonesia continued its tactic of banning websites deemed inappropriate, including those that purportedly promote religious extremism, pornography, entertainment streaming websites, and websites promoting content piracy. This practice of selective blocking started in 2008 when the government attempted to prevent its citizens from accessing an anti-Islamic film, Fitna. In 2018 alone, nearly 3,000 websites disseminating extremist ideologies were blocked, and about 9,500 other sites were under review. Based on Google’s recent “Content Removal Transparency Report,” Indonesia submitted the largest amount of requests from January to June 2021 on all of Google’s platforms, including YouTube, Google Search, and Blogger. While the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology is responsible for blocking sites found inappropriate, ministry officials do not assess the sites requested for review. Instead, agencies like the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) are responsible for the assessments. One potential issue is how such assessments are made and what happens when agencies disagree. Additionally, repeated blocking of popular websites has driven Indonesians to become au fait with countermeasures such as VPNs. In 2019, Indonesia had the most extensive VPN usage in the world. In addition to website blocking, the government banned homosexual emojis in 2016, citing its potential for public unrest.
Indonesia recently passed an internet bill that mandates online service providers to remove or block content on their platforms when requested by the government. According to Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, the law is essential to address disinformation and the destabilizing effects of “fake news.” Under the new rules, service providers must also register with the government by the end of 2022 to obtain the licenses required to operate. This is not the government’s first attempt. Indonesia threatened to ban Blackberry (a handset maker) in 2011 and Telegram (a messaging service) in 2017 on security grounds. These mandatory registrations and the threat that licenses will be withdrawn enable the government to exert control over multinational companies such as Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. In complying with Ministerial Regulation 5/2020, these companies are required to ensure that their platforms do not contain or facilitate the distribution of prohibited content. Unfortunately, as with other censorship laws, defining what is prohibited is problematic due to its broad definition.
One of Indonesia’s cyber laws, known as UU ITE, severely threatens civil liberties. This law, passed in 2008, has been used more frequently by Jokowi’s administration than previous administrations in response to the growing polarization on social media and to counter accusations against it such as corruption and misconduct. In November 2020, it was reported that since 2016, more than 300 criminal cases had been brought under UU ITE. The key issue with the law is its broad definitions. Though its stated purpose is to safeguard the populace against immorality through its criminalization under Article 27(1) of UU ITE, what is deemed immoral is not clearly defined, leaving it open to manipulation. Similarly, in this article and Article 27(3), “transmission” of immoral content is open to interpretation, thus, enabling even private consensual sharing of “immoral” content to be considered an offense. Not only has the government leveraged UU ITE, but also the police, government officials, and business people who form the three largest cohorts to make use of the legislation to pursue their interests.
In Indonesia, cyber harassment is a common way to target “the Other.” The weak legal framework for combating cyberbullying emboldens trolls such as the Muslim Cyber Army, which has a history of harassment and intimidation of individuals deemed to have insulted Islam. Numerous members of this group who go by a multitude of aliases were arrested for crimes such as spreading false reports and inciting racial and religious discrimination. In such an atmosphere, LGBTQ+, non-Muslims, Ahmadis, and other marginalized groups commonly self-censor.
For six decades under the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, Malaysia functioned as a hybrid regime. In 2018, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition defeated Barisan Nasional in the general elections, and for the first time, Malaysia experienced a peaceful transition in government. The contested Anti-Fake News Act in December 2019 was also repealed as part of the reform promised by the new government. Unfortunately, the PH experiment lasted for a mere 22 months before a soft coup by the Malay Muslim establishment. Since then, Malaysia has dropped in the rankings on various measures of democratic freedoms. The overly broad, colonial-era Sedition Act remains in place. The change in government and the COVID-19 pandemic actively prevented private media from covering events. However, Malaysians enjoy greater freedom online than they do offline. It is also worth noting that despite the 2020 soft coup, the Perikatan Nasional government has maintained a relatively open space for dissent online.
Returning to the prime ministership in 2018, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad—introducing his new agenda—promised no internet censorship under Section 3(3) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (hereafter the CMA). However, over the years, there has been an increase in laws that govern cyberspace (see Table 1.0 in Appendix for detailed laws).
The Malaysian government has yet, to completely shut down the internet. The closest the government was accused of affecting the entire network was in 2012 when mobile phone usage was disrupted during a rally. Officially slow internet speed was blamed for the disruption. Another reason given in 2016 was that the government was more focused on providing greater coverage across the country than on increasing the internet speed. In general, Malaysia suffers from a relatively low mobile internet speed, which was 31.34 Mbps on average in September 2021 (the global average was 63.15 Mbps). Slow internet connections were exacerbated during the lockdown period in 2020 and 2021 as more people went online. The government remains committed to improving this by introducing 5G technology in Malaysia in 2023.
The Malaysian government has actively blocked thousands of web pages that fit the definition of the “offensive” contained in the CMA Act 1998. As of April 2021, 18 websites were confirmed blocked in the country, whereas many others face anomalies, ranging from pornography to websites that criticized Islam. From 2018 until 2020, 2,921 pornographic websites were blocked, while 4,277 pornographic websites were blocked from 2015 until 2016. Most of the banned websites included terrorist-backed platforms, gambling sites, and the like, which infringe the Muslim ethos of the country. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) blocks websites when it receives complaints and applications from government ministries and agencies. This means that the MCMC may abuse its power against the opposition. For example, during the general election in 2018, the MCMC ordered 11 internet service providers to block three websites of Malaysiakini, a popular online news portal known for its neutrality (and thus not being a proxy for the government), on live updates of the election results for fear it could affect “national stability, public order and harmony, and economic stability.”
Compared to the other case studies, the Malaysian government has been less restrictive toward social media companies. In 2018, 97.3 percent of internet users owned a Facebook account, making it the most popular social networking site, whereas 98.1 percent of users preferred WhatsApp as a communication channel. At the same time, the MCMC had requested social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to take down content violating local social and cultural norms. For Twitter, 275 legal demands were made to remove or withhold content from 2012 until 2020.Interestingly, out of the total, 153 requests, or 55.6 percent, were made from July through to December 2020, a huge spike compared to previous years. The same trend is observed with Facebook posts with 376 items of content restricted between January and June 2020, more than double the previous count at 163 from July until December 2019. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for the government to clamp down on critics under the guise of combating fake news. This is done through the Emergency (Essential Powers) (No.2) Ordinance 2021, which was enforced throughout the Emergency Ordinance period from January until July 2021.
The government has also prosecuted online news portals. The latest major case would be the Federal Court’s finding in February 2021 that the online news portal Malaysiakini is liable for contempt of court over five readers’ comments that the court alleged “clearly meant that the judiciary committed wrongdoings, is involved in corruption, does not uphold justice and compromised its integrity.” This goes beyond proxies to individual users as well. The 2012 amendment to the Evidence Act 1950 enables enforcement of Section 114A against social media organizations, online forums, news webpages, or even public places that provide wifi, all of which may be liable to legal action from an online user’s action. Although Malaysiakini was fined an exorbitant RM500,000—beyond the RM200,000 sought by the prosecution—they were able to crowdsource the fund within a few hours after the judgment.
Prosecution and harassment of users are the most common methods for the Malaysian government to control the internet. In 2020, six journalists from Al Jazeera were investigated for alleged sedition, defamation, and transmitting offensive for airing a critical documentary. Al Jazeera’s staff were faced with abuse and death threats for allegedly sullying Malaysia’s image. Similarly, a Bangladeshi national, Mohamad Rayhan Kabir, was arrested and later deported for criticizing the government’s treatment of undocumented migrants in an interview. Individuals are commonly charged and prosecuted under Section 233 of the CMA 1998 or the Sedition Act 1948. Fahmi Reza, a well-known graphic designer, has been investigated at least nine times by the police for his satirical artworks criticizing the government. Even a 17-year-old, Ain Husniza Saiful Nizam, who exposed a male teacher on TikTok for allegedly making a rape joke in class, was served with a defamation suit and called on by the police to make a statement apologizing for “breaching the peace.” Ain also faced cyberbullying. During the pandemic, civil servants were barred from sharing online comments critical of the government.
In 2020, the Department of Community Communication (J-KOM) was awarded a budget of RM40 million. The opposition accuses J-KOM of being the government’s propaganda machine and of funding “cyber troopers” who are paid to create positive content for the government and ruthlessly criticize the opposition. It is also true that bots flood social media, spread disinformation, and engender further social polarization at the behest of the state.
In this environment, self-censorship is common in Malaysia. To make matters worse, the MCMC released a statement in January 2021 reminding internet users not to post anything offensive involving the “3Rs”: royalty, religion, or race.
The decolonization of British India in 1947 and its subsequent division into two countries, India and Pakistan, was a highly traumatic event that took millions of lives. In the over seven decades since, Pakistan’s politics has been very turbulent, with long periods of military-led dictatorships and hybrid regimes interspersed with a few short periods of democracy. The 2018 general elections brought a new party to power, but the military remains the most potent political force, and while this remains the case, the prospects of true democratization in Pakistan remain thin. After more than three years in power, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government has largely failed, and misgovernance and corruption have increased. In a populist fashion, the last three years have seen increased curbs both in and out of cyberspace by the government as it seeks to consolidate its position in office.
The digital footprint of Pakistani citizens has drastically increased in the last decade, with cheap cellular and internet packages becoming available. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), 98 percent of households own a mobile phone. In addition, there was a 17 percent growth in internet usage in just one year, with 90.1 million users recorded in October 2020. Despite this development, the future of internet freedoms, and freedom overall, is bleak in Pakistan due to the ever-increasing rules that control cyberspace. Unsurprisingly, the military establishment, backing the PTI government, has warned the public about “internal enemies” carrying out “fifth-generation warfare” online to justify the curbs.
Pakistan has a high rate of internet outages. Blackouts on social media and the internet are not uncommon in Pakistan. Since 2005, the state has used blackouts to restrict information from the public. There are three types of shutdowns. First, there are regular internet shutdowns on specific dates, primarily religious and national holidays, as the government argues that there is a greater likelihood of terrorism on these occasions. Second, there are regional shutdowns in areas where there is insurgency or threat of insurgency, such as border areas close to Afghanistan (merged districts, formally known as the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) and areas in Balochistan. Finally, there are local internet shutdowns, usually for a few hours when the government perceives a threat of terrorism or communal violence. Such shutdowns usually happen at times of protest. In 2012 alone, an estimated 507 million Pakistani rupees ($49 million) were lost due to internet outages during Eid (a religious festival), and another 500 million rupees were lost during curbs designed to discourage Ashura processions, a Shia religious practice. Despite these mammoth losses, such blackouts are justified as necessary for “security.”
Long-term shutdowns are usually disciplinary mechanisms. Areas experiencing extended shutdowns are usually the ones where those that the state treats as “Other” tend to reside. Nevertheless, the latest annual report from the PTA has no information about the internet shutdowns.
The censorship of websites is one of PTA’s key activities. A hefty chunk of the blocked content is done so based on “indecency” such as pornographic websites and content that threatens Islam or the state. The exact number of websites blocked is unclear as PTA reports give contradictory numbers. They vary between 824,000 URLs to 418,139 URLs.This banning trend has escalated in the last four to five years.
In August 2021, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting published a report called “Anti-State Trends,” which highlighted websites and trends from June 2019 to August 2021 it considered “anti-state.” The report accused separatist movements, political opposition, critical Tweets, and India of colluding with separatists in waging a “fifth-generation warfare” against Pakistan. In reality, these movements are less “anti-state” and more critical of the present government. There are trends of blocking the websites lending support to these factions.
PTA is armed with legislation to ban the operations and content of intermediaries such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and many more. It usually forces these companies to remove materials and restrict their content based on local laws and sensibilities. If these requests are denied, then the operations of these companies can be blocked.
One of the most famous episodes of this kind of censorship was when YouTube was banned in Pakistan in September 2012 after refusing to take down a crude anti-Islam inflammatory movie, “Innocence of Muslims.” The ban continued for more than three years. During this time, the National Assembly passed a non-binding but unanimous resolution to lift the ban, and courts also ordered negotiations, but the ban was not lifted till 2016. More recently, TikTok has been a target of repeated bans because of its potential to “corrupt” and “misguide” the youth due to its dance dub mashes, pro-LGBTQ+ content, etc. In addition, it has become a routine matter to suspend messaging applications on social media during times of protests or huge processions. The big social media intermediaries, such as Facebook and Twitter, are not completely banned nowadays, but they continue to be banned for very short periods as a “security measure.” For instance, in April 2021, a major social media blockage was put in place when the militant religious organization Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) carried out protests in Punjab.
On the pretext of stopping fake news and criminal activity, the PTI government enforced the Rules for Removal of Unlawful Online Content in 2020. This highly problematic regulation compelled the Asia Internet Coalition to write an open letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan to condemn the measure and its consequences. These regulations demand that big tech firms open a local office in Pakistan, mandate storing Pakistani users’ data within the country and oblige companies to remove content when ordered. The near future will indicate the degree to which this law has been instrumentalized.
Over the years, Pakistan has earned the title of a “surveillance state.” The “war on terror” alliance with the United States allowed Pakistan to enhance its surveillance capabilities with modern standards. As a result, a mass surveillance network has been built in Pakistan since 2005, with the government obtaining technology from both local and foreign surveillance companies, such as Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8, and Utimaco, to use against its citizens. Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities, journalists, human rights activists, and feminists, among others, now suffer at the hands of this well-designed apparatus.
Through content monitoring and interception, social media have led to cases of enforced disappearances and harassment of journalists and human rights activists who have used platforms, such as Twitter or YouTube, to challenge state narratives and criticize the state. In addition to the “establishment” (i.e., the nexus of politicians and the military), the PTI’s online followers are known for harassing anyone from opposition leaders to journalists critical of PTI facing cyberbullying at their hand. These insults are highly derogatory, and chauvinistic sexism is rampantly used to target women victims. In addition, those who oppose the army, take a positive stance vis-à-vis India or show “liberal” tendencies also encounter similar hostility in online space. Despite the explicit abuse, to date, there are no records of actions taken to curb this bullying under cybercrime laws.
A glimmer of hope was visible for democracy in the 2000s when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) defied the odds by defeating the Kemalist hegemony in Turkish politics.With peace-building processes to reconcile with historically marginalized communities, reforms to improve human rights, and a commitment to join the European Union (EU), the odds of democratization seemed promising when the AKP came to power.
However, after 2010, the AKP has taken an increasingly authoritarian path. The narrative of the ruling government instils fear and insecurity to legitimize growing authoritarianism. These changes that increasingly curb dissent, criticism, and muffle debate are present both on and offline. Since 2016, 150,348 individuals have been dismissed from office, with 500,650 being criminally investigated, with 96,885 arrested, while 3,003 educational institutions and facilities closed, 6,021 academics have been driven out of their jobs, 4,463 legal professionals such as judges and prosecutors have been terminated, 319 journalists arrested, and 189 media outlets completely closed. In addition to massive crackdowns, it is common for the state to use military custody, and various people have been arbitrarily arrested and tortured, both inside and outside the country, without reasonable evidence in many cases.
By 2020, cyberspace had become an essential space of resistance in Turkey. Between 78 and 82.6 percent of the total population uses the internet. In addition, some 54 million people, 64 percent of the total population, use various forms of social media, with the average time spent on the internet per day averaging 7 hours and 57 minutes in 2021. Turkey’s digital realm is thus a highly contested political space. It is, thus, not surprising that the digital realm has been meticulously regulated and increasingly surveilled by the AKP government through various measures.
The Gezi protests in 2013 marked the beginning of internet closures to curb the ability of civil society and activists to organize in Turkey. The aftermath led then Prime Minister (now President) Erdoğan to label Twitter the “worst menace to society.” What followed was a marked increase in internet governance. Internet blackouts are one of the many ways of controlling the space, and the newly formed Telecommunication Technologies Authority (BTK) looks over these procedures. While the government insisted that internet curbs are in place to combat “terrorism,” there was also a political motivation behind some of these.
The Turkish government’s internet shutdowns peaked between 2015 and 2017. The eastern regions faced the major brunt of internet and cellular shutdown during this period. During high-risk security incidents, such as the 2015 Suruç suicide bombing and the 2016 Atatürk Airport bombing, localized internet and cell phone blocks were put in place. With the government’s growing authoritarian approach, digital anti-terrorism laws are increasingly used to persecute marginalized groups such as the Kurds. Most shutdowns have occurred in the southeast, where Kurdish resistance is firmly grounded. One example was the 2016 landline and internet closure in 11 cities in the region with 6 million citizens devoid of access following the arrests of the mayor and co-mayor of Diyarbakir, which led to protests. Additionally, these internet shutdowns cost millions of dollars to the Turkish economy. Even though internet shutdowns have decreased from six in 2016 to only one in 2020, the cost is still high, at US$51 million in 2020.
The political climate in Turkey has given birth to many “threats” manufactured by the AKP government, such as “FETOists” following 2016, demonizing youth activism during Istanbul’s Bogazici University events of 2021 or the Gezi protests along with pre-existing hostilities toward minorities.
Human rights organisations have reported that the right to privacy online and offline in Turkey has been increasingly under threat. In April 2014, Turkey passed a new law that expanded the surveillance powers of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) that was given sweeping powers to amass private data, documents, and personal information in all forms without a court order. Working in tandem, the BTK and the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) have targeted pornographic websites, weblinks belonging to armed groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and since 2016 have targeted sympathizers of the Gülen movement, and LGBTQ+ and pro-Kurdish voices.
In addition to the lack of transparency, since the website owners do not always receive clear reasons for blocks, they cannot appeal the decision. Without accountability, mere suspicion and precaution are considered sufficient reasons to block a website. From just four websites being blocked in 2006, the number jumped up to 1,014 in 2008 when Law No. 5651 was initially introduced, a dramatic annual rise was visible in 2013, 2014, and 2015 with respective annual blocks of 19,715, 36,287, 27,812, which coincided with the Gezi protests, the corruption exposés and a wave of terrorism in Turkey. From 113,137 websites blocked in October 2016, the number more than doubled in three years to 288,310 in December 2019. Similarly, 450,000 domains, 140,000 URLs, and 42,000 Tweets have been banned in Turkey during 2020. While this pace of blockage has slowed down, the laws in place still play a key role in regular surveillance of websites that are taken down in thousands on an annual basis. Even information platforms such as Wikipedia faced a ban in Turkey when Ankara’s 1st Criminal Court found that certain articles linked Turkey to “terrorist organizations.” The court demanded that relevant articles be edited before the website could function again in Turkey. The ban was lifted in 2020.
Social media intermediaries in Turkey have faced various types of restrictions. It was reported that YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook were all temporarily blocked or throttled in 2016 until they agreed to remove “objectionable” content. Even as early as 2014, the Telecommunications Directorate (TİB) was mobilized to urge Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to remove critical information that was impacting the AKP’s chances in the future local elections. While Facebook was quick to comply, Twitter and YouTube were blocked nationally for several hours before they eventually complied. Twitter’s 2019 Transparency Report revealed that in the first half of the year, the Turkish government made 350 information requests on 596 accounts as well as 6,073 removal requests on 8,993 accounts with a 5 percent compliance rate. Turkey had the highest number of legal demands for removals. Facebook’s 2019 Transparency Report also reveals that the government made 2,060 legal requests and 2,537 user information requests; Facebook was compliant with 73 percent of requests.
In addition to social media, the search engine Google has since complied with the thousands of content removal requests by the Turkish state, which peaked in 2016. The government has further cemented its hold on these entities by allowing them incentives to open data centers in Turkey that are obliged to follow Turkish laws under Decree-Law No. 678. Moreover, over-the-top media services (OTTs), such as Netflix, PuhuTV, and BluTV, are now regulated by BTK, and the Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issues mandatory licenses to OTTs before they can stream content in the country. In October 2020, Law No. 7253 with harsher requirements for social media companies was introduced. The impact of this new law is still to be seen.
While keeping pressure on social media, the Turkish government has also kept the prosecuting individuals for their internet activity open. Particularly after the 2016 coup attempt, many people faced the government’s wrath. Six months after the coup, the Ministry of Interior stated that more than 10,000 individuals were investigated, 3,710 faced some legal action, and 1,656 people were arrested for their online activity. More recently, in the two months between mid-January and mid-March 2018, 6,342 social media accounts were investigated, and 2,177 individuals were subjected to legal action. Another report states that, between 2013 and 2018, there were more than 20,000 cases against citizens because of their social media activity. They are sometimes indicted under “terrorism” under Article 314(2) on association with an armed organization and Article 147(5), which concern crimes associated with terrorist organizations and aims.
Essentially limiting space for AKP opposing voices has left a void for healthy debate, and pro-AKP voices tend to dominate physical and digital space. In a blunt move during May 2020, Turkey’s Directorate of Communications warned Turkish citizens that even liking or sharing a post could lead to trouble. Journalists, scholars, opposition leaders, and civil society leaders who are critical of the government are more likely to face prosecution. A large number of arrests has a chilling effect and has given rise to self-censorship. Law No. 7253 not only asserts control over social media companies, it also makes individuals using social media ever more vulnerable to the legal system as “the legal or natural person who facilitates its users to create, view, and share content such as text, image, sound, or location to enable social interaction” are open to scrutiny.
While the AKP is also blocking users from digital space, there is also a parallel attempt to leave AKP trolls quite ungoverned as they indulge in cyberbullying. Academics, journalists, and artists who have criticized AKP have found themselves attacked under a culture of “digital culture of lynching and censorship” by the AKP army of trolls. A significant number of trolls are graduates of pro-AKP Imam Hatip schools. It has been reported that these individuals receive regular payments, and there are also traces that pro-AKP networks further provide benefits to successful trolls, which include entities such as TRT and Turkcell. In addition, AKP has used bots to boost its presence in the digital space, leading to its narrative overrepresentation on online platforms. It was revealed that on a daily average, some 26.7 percent of the top ten trends of Twitter were made by fake accounts or bot trolls. In the same year, the highest impact of these accounts led them to constitute 47.5 percent of the top five Twitter trends.
Religious leaders and movements wield influence, leading to pressure on governments in how they govern digital space. These curbs are justified in civilizational terms, drawing on various themes, including morality, religion, nationalism, and the like. Consequently, many rationales are provided on religious–nationalist lines for cyber governance.
In Indonesia, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) has attempted to facilitate self-censorship on two occasions. In 2017, the MUI issued Fatwa No. 24 of 2017 to guide Muslim interactions online, prohibiting the spread of hoaxes. Previously, in 2016, the MUI’s branch in Central Sulawesi prohibited married Muslim women from uploading their photos online. It was believed that such acts could “have negative impacts on the individual and their families.” These groups also drive movements that claim to make one a better Muslim with trending hashtags such as #antiselfie, #indonesiatanpapacaran (literal meaning: Indonesia without dating)—this movement advocates singles marrying without courting in advance—as well as #hijrah and #akhwatbercadar (meaning, veiled Muslim ladies).
While highly diverse culturally, Malaysia has a Malay Muslim majority. Since Mahathir’s first term as prime minister, Islam has been institutionalized within the state apparatus. Consequently, the administration of cyberspace involves justification that has Islamism logic. The MCMC has been deliberating censoring Netflix shows with themes of nudity, sex scenes, and LGBTQ+ content on the platform. Politicians and the government also condemn fake news and justify internet curbs, especially through self-censorship. The ministry deems “fake news” as “fitna” (slander). A religious term is thus instrumentalized to target opposition and critical groups.
In Pakistan, the narrative has become dense in terms of justifying cyber security. In addition to claims that online spaces promote “fifth-generation warfare” against the country by foreigners, religious justifications are being used for cyber governance. The 2020 law has excessively focused on preserving “decency and morality” and promoting “Islamic culture” as opposed to “Western rock and roll” culture. Thus, around 95 percent of the websites banned in 2019 were because of religious reasons.
The Erdoğan regime has always focused on raising a “pious youth” as part of its ideological program. Typically adopting religious connotations in his language, Erdoğan has repeatedly delegitimized public demonstrations against the government, from the Gezi protests in 2013 to those at Bogazici University in 2021, arguing these are Western ploys to bring down the country. Using the same rhetoric that Western values are “corrupting” the youth, AKP trolls have targeted LGBTQ+ communities online. While it has never been illegal to be gay in secular Turkey, the AKP has requested that TikTok’s local moderation ban LGBTQ+ content. “Cleaning up social media” platforms of “questionable” advertisements from Twitter, Pinterest, and the Turkish PeriscopeCo are quite common. This prevents LGBTQ+ and other opposition forces from generating advertisement-driven revenue from the platforms that support them. The anti-queer “moral” jihad also saw Netflix pressured to cancel a Turkish series with an LGBTQ+ storyline.
In 2011, the government ran a “Safe Use of the Internet” campaign, which mandates that organizations offering public internet access (e.g., libraries, cafes) use a Turkish-built filter called the “family filter.” Essentially designed to block foreign and domestic sites containing adult content, the law was positioned to safeguard young children from age-inappropriate content. By 2017, the BTK had blocked some 1.5 million websites in areas such as cafes and refuses to share a list of the websites it blocks.
Interestingly, religious leaders and popular figures that hold power to sway public opinion have a paradoxical stance toward the internet. In countries where they warn against the “evils” of cyberspace, they use the same space to communicate their messages to followers. Of course, each country differs in this regard, yet overall, these religious figures seem to hew close to the line of populist governments and find justifications for the authorities’ authoritarianism.
Religious leaders in Malaysia have usually not taken any firm position regarding restricting online freedom. Instead, they encourage self-censorship to avoid invoking the wrath of God. The highest order of muftis via fatwas have permitted social media usage, but it is deemed prohibited when the platforms are used for actions such as calling someone a bad name, insulting and degrading others, betraying and lying, slander, and malicious gossip. In a less centralized manner in 2014, two muftis, in vain, urged the National Fatwa Council, the country’s highest Islamic authority, to release a fatwa prohibiting conversation through social media or messaging apps between unmarried men and women.
In India, beyond religious leaders, Bollywood celebrities have also played a key role in adopting the Hindutva ideology and defending the BJP’s questionable actions. The most prominent of them is Kangana Ranaut. An active Twitter user with millions of followers, she has been suspended on the platform in the past for Islamophobic Tweets. However, since 2014, Ranaut has actively defended the BJP’s politics. Recently she declared that “India got freedom in 2014” (since Modi’s victory) rather than 1947. India’s vast entertainment industry, which influences millions of Indian citizens, has many pro-BJP voices both in front of and behind the camera, which give full support to the BJP, whereas those who question them face a massive backlash from RSS-affiliated online trolls.
In Pakistan, the religious political parties have never done well, politically never managing to gain more than 10 percent seats in general elections. However, religious movements such as TLP that advocate for severe blasphemy punishments and right-wing clerics such as Maulana Tariq Jamel, Farhat Hashmi, and late Dr. Israr Ahmed have millions of followers on their social media. Ironically while they use these platforms actively, these individuals have repeatedly warned against the “dangers” of “Western technology” and have expressed concern over “anti-Islamic” sentiments of “misguided” liberal youth and Westerns.
Internet governance is also justified by pro-government religious institutions and scholars in Turkey. During the last two decades, Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the centralized religious authority, has provided faith-based explanations to back Erdoğan’s moral crusade against the “external” and “internal” enemies. For example, in 2016, the “Social Media and the Family in the Context of Privacy” forum was held to guide Turks on building strong Muslim families, including the rights and responsibilities of each member to avoid the dangers of social media. The President of Diyanet at the time, Mehmet Gormez, directly targeted social media in his opening speech. More recently, Diyanet has published a booklet, “Social Media Ethics,” which advocates for stronger control of the realm and the use of Islam as a yardstick. Ali Erbas, the current president, often uses his bully pulpit to promote pro-AKP stances. His inflammatory comments on LGBTQ+ youth “spreading HIV” became a polarized Twitter debate. Erbas has also used his Twitter to participate in AKP-led political campaigns highlighting Islamophobia. In 2021, a Twitter post targeting Islam by far-right Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders led top AKP leaders and Erdoğan himself to criticize the Dutch firebrand, and Ali Erbas was also found following the trend of condemning Wilders.
Beyond Diyanet, a host of pro-AKP Islamic scholars have echoed similar narratives. These figures include a close AKP circle of individuals such as Nihat Hatipoglu, a TV show host, and Hayrettin Karaman, a columnist, both Islamic scholars. They use these mediums to sow the idea that social media is full of misinformation targeting Turkish national interests, and it harbors the ability to mislead youth. Karaman has gone as far as publishing a highly emotive poem in his column that warns readers of the dangerous pull of capitalism and immorality of social media, while Hatipoglu has issued a so-called “tele-fatwa” warning of ethical ways of exchanging messages between unmarried women and men.
Faith being a highly emotive subject, once instrumentalized, it seems to hold power over millions. Our case studies show that populists have a nuanced approach that creates a moral or religious crisis. Consequently, they justify their authoritarianism as means to “save” “the people.” These real-life realities are echoed online and, for many, lead to serious consequences such as losing personal safety and possible legal prosecution.
There is no blasphemy law in India, but hate speech is punishable under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. However, rather than formal punishment targeting minorities (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, Sikhs), it is common for the BJP and its pundits to encourage or overlook the questionable acts of the pro-Hindutva “cyber volunteers.” In the country, 87.4 percent of fake news spreads via social media, which sometimes results in communal rioting or targeting harassment and killing of individuals accused of consuming beef known as “cow lynching.” Most events of mob killing by BJP representatives have been dismissed or have led to blatant victims blaming who “asked for it” because of their “hurtful” actions.
In other regions, explicit blasphemy laws are in place that permit curbs on freedoms online. In Indonesia, blasphemy is covered by Articles 156 and 156(a) of KUHP (criminal code) and in the 1965 Presidential Decree (No. 1/PNPS/1965) on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religions. As outlined in Article 156(a), those “who purposely express their views or commit an act that principally disseminates hatred, misuse or defame a religion recognized in Indonesia,” face a maximum of five years imprisonment. When an online video of Jakarta’s Governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), a Chinese Christian, discussing Qur’anic verse surfaced during his election campaign in 2016, Ahok was charged and later sentenced to 20 months in prison for insulting Islam. It led to the end of his political career. In 2021, an Indonesian Christian preacher landed in hot water after uploading a video stating that he was the “26th Prophet,” while in Europe, Interpol’s assistance was sought to extradite and trial him. Unfortunately, this encouraged some clerics to demand the “head” of the accused. Additionally, the pornography law has been used to target the LGBTQ+ community. Due to the loose definition, the law aids in identifying “suspects” and sometimes leads to public humiliation such as being strip-searched, photographed, and forced to march naked into police vehicles.
Malaysia also has strict laws on blasphemy. Under the law, Sunni Islam is recognized, with Shiites, Ahmadis, and those from al-Arqam being “deviant.” There is evidence of groups spreading sectarian hatred. One such example is Gerakan Banteras Syiah, with more than 25,000 followers. The government has also suspended a Tamil-language daily for mistakenly printing an image of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette under the law. More commonly, the laws have been instrumentalized to target the LGBTQ+ community. There has been some discussion steered by the minister of religious affairs to regulate LGBTQ+ activity online, yet nothing has come out of it. There is no law against simply watching porn online in Malaysia, but the MCMC is active in blocking the websites, and in 2013, two persons who were charged for posting pornographic images of themselves on their blog were charged and tried.
Similarly, the colonial-era blasphemy law enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution is misused by right-wing clerics and movements both off and online. These groups have mainly targeted minorities and democratic voices. It is common for people to face imprisonment and, in the worst cases, be issued death sentences if their internet posts or cell phone messages show “questionable” remarks about Islam. While governments and political parties have stayed away from making anti- or pro-comments, the grassroots clerics and their movements have used cyberspace to pressure the state judiciary to target these individuals by running online campaigns.
While Turkey remains secular via its constitution, blasphemy charges have been made possible under a 2016 amendment to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK). While no specific religion is mentioned in the legislation, it is usually used to “defend” Islam. For example, under the amended article, the pianist Fazil Say was tried and sentenced to a jail term for tweeting his skepticism over Islamic values, while actress Berna Lacin was charged with blasphemy for contesting capital punishment in a Tweet in 2018 (she was acquitted after two years). Also, two journalists were each handed two-year sentences for reprinting the Charlie Hebdo sketches satirizing Islam under the law in 2016. In 2020, Enver Aysever, a journalist, was arrested and charged for mocking clergy and their attitude during the COVID-19 pandemic. Astonishingly, people who shared the video of “Bella Ciao” being played in an Izmir mosque were also warned to take off the posts or otherwise face charges by Izmir’s Chief Public Prosecutor.
The countries that display direct targeting of minorities are mainly confined to India and Turkey. In the former, the hurried abrogation of Articles 35a and 370, in August 2019 from the constitution of India, the region of Kashmir administered by India, has witnessed one of the world’s worst forms of suppression of freedoms, lasting 213 days. The region alone accounts for 90 percent of internet shutdowns in the country. The curbs are justified as means of primitively controlling jihadist activity in Kashmir. Despite the crippling impact on tourism, healthcare, education, and the overall economy, the curbs continue. Between January 2012 and March 2021, there were 518 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world so far. In Turkey, the internet shutdown that explicitly targets a region is based on ethnicity rather than religious conflict. Due to the prolonged conflict with the Kurdish community, the regions with Kurdish resistance pockets, as mentioned above, have faced the largest brunt of internet blackouts. However, like India, these are explained as measures to curb “terrorism,” whereas it is rooted in an ideological conflict between the Turkish state and the right of the Kurdish people to exist freely.
Change is a hallmark of the twenty-first century. Once considered a Latin American issue or a rarity, the most recent wave of populism has resulted in a drastic global political transformation so much so that it looms large in two of the world’s largest democracies (the United States and India). Impressively, if worryingly, it has latched on to religion which has the power to mobilize crowds and cloud judgment regarding the capabilities of populists in power. This report has brought to light a unique aspect of this nexus between faith and populism, and it offers an insight into how cyberspace and politics offline have become highly intertwined to create a hyper-reality in which events are taking place.
Religion and politics merge in each country to shape cyber governance. For most countries, the last two decades have been dominated by the introduction and rapid adoption of digital technology. Thus, there is still debate about where laws should and should not intervene. The wading of religion into politics in context, it has to be said, usually begins with the right intentions—to regulate cyberspace in the interest of citizens. However, over the years, both politicians and political movements have used relatively lax legal frameworks to their partisan advantage.
Nevertheless, partisan entities have exploited the law in an instrumentalized fashion to curb opposition, exert control, and use the space for growth in popularity. Most populist governments’ cyber governance politics mirror their offline undemocratic policies. For stakeholders outside the ambit of power, cyberspace allows them a medium of connection to spread their ideology. Ironically there is a love-hate relationship with social media. Most of these leaders organize and communicate with their followers using digital media, yet, at the same time, constantly warn against the “ills” of such platforms. Essentially, morality has been a common theme used by all stakeholders to justify the need for increasingly draconian digital laws. Moral panics about digital space simply juice up widespread anxieties and catalyze populist appeal while simultaneously acting as a curtain for their undemocratic actions.
Mirroring and interconnectedness of cybers and offline spaces in quite evident. Firstly, it is noteworthy that populists understand the value of digital space. Thus, in most cases, we notice an active monopolization of the realm that uses both religious and security-driven justifications to limit space for opposition and civil society and at the same time reclaim that space for themselves and their allies. With total control over an alternative space, populists replicate offline socio-politics there. Essentially, this sees populist authoritarianism migrate to the digital realm and also plays some role in shaping offline events such as the case of cow lynching in India or Tweets leading to trials under blasphemy laws in Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
The future of democracies is highly intertwined with digital space. The narrative that plays a part in bringing a movement to life or aiding political victory is determined in this realm to a great degree. While the overall picture of free digital space seems precarious in the near future, on the other hand, the individual differences in each case study offer some hope that a move toward democracy might lead to a reconsideration of digital authoritarianism. However, the degree of social damage they are causing is hard to determine. Today Islamist and Hindutva trolls feel an unprecedented sense of cyber empowerment where they can hurl abuse without even physically seeing any consequences or feeling the victim’s plight.
IHSAN YILMAZ is Research Professor and Chair at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI), Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He is also a Visiting Research Associate of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, The University of Oxford, and a Non-Resident Senior Scholar at the European Center for Populism Studies (Brussels). He has conducted research on religion and politics; authoritarianism; digital authoritarianism; populism (Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, India); securitization; “sharp power”; nation-building; citizenship; Islamism; ethnic-religious-political minorities and their securitization (Middle East, Pakistan, Indonesia); Muslim minorities (Australia, Turkey, the UK, and the USA); Islam-state-society relations in the majority and minority contexts; Turkish politics; Turkish diasporas (the UK, Australia, the USA); transnationalism; and intergroup contact (Australia). Professor Yilmaz was a professor of political science at Istanbul Fatih University (2008–2016). He was a lecturer in law, social sciences, and politics at SOAS, University of London (2001–2008), and was a fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford (1999–2001). He is the author of Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
RAJA M. ALI SALEEM is an Associate Professor (Public Policy) at the Centre for Public Policy and Governance at Forman Christian College in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a former civil servant and has more than 20 years of diverse experience in government and academia. His research focuses on religious nationalism, the relationship between church and state, the politics of Muslim-majority countries, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, local governments, public financial management, the role of the military in politics, and democratic consolidation. In 2020, he was a Fellow of Wolfson College, University of Oxford. His first book, State, Nationalism, and Islamization: Historical Analysis of Turkey and Pakistan, was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2017.
MAHMOUD PARGOO is a research fellow at Deakin University (Melbourne) and a visiting fellow at the AI-enabled Processes (AIP) Research Centre, Macquarie University in Sydney.Mahmoud is the author of Secularization of Islam in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Routledge, 2021) and lead-author of Presidential Elections in Iran: Islamic Idealism since the Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2021).
SYAZA SHUKRI is an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia. Her area of specialization is in comparative politics, specifically in democratization and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Her current research interests include populism, identity politics, inter-ethnic relations, political Islam, geopolitics, and gender studies, specifically in Muslim-majority contexts. Among her recent works is “Populism and Muslim Democracies,” published in Asian Politics & Policy. She is also currently working on a book chapter on Islamist populism in Malaysia since 2018. She has degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (where she graduated summa cum laude), the London School of Economics and Political Science, and International Islamic University Malaysia. She can be reached at email@example.com.
IDZNURSHAM ISMAIL, the founder of stratsea.com, possesses a Master in Strategic Studies and a First Class Honours in Biological Sciences from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Nanyang Technological University (NTU), respectively. After his stint as a Research Analyst at the Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR, RSIS), he resided in Indonesia for numerous years, gaining experience in organizations such as The Jakarta Post, the Wahid Foundation, and PAKAR. He specializes in security-related issues, particularly terrorism and unconventional weapons. His current research includes non-traditional security themes such as public health.
KAINAT SHAKIL is a non-resident Research Associate at the European Center for Populism Studies. Her research explores populism from the perspectives of religion, emotions, and gender. The regional focus of her work is mainly Pakistan and demographically Muslim-majority countries. Previously, she was a researcher at The Shahid Javed Burki Institute of Public Policy at NetSol (BIPP)— a Pakistan-based think-tank— where her work focused on reviewing public policies from a people-centric perspective. A large part of her work was qualitative research mapping to understand the public’s perceptions, feelings, reactions, and engagement with government policies and vice versa. Shakil also develops interactive cultural, historical, and political curricula for middle school pupils with a focus on inclusivity. Before working as a full-time researcher, she was an Erasmus research scholar at Middlesex University London and the recipient of the US State Department’s cultural scholarship, Global UGRAD.
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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…”
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
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
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
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 Cinemadetail 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.
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.
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).
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 Kashmirdispute, and Rohingya ethnic cleansing.
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, Erdogancalled 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.”
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.
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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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
 This commentary includes spoilers about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, particularly regarding the identity of the protagonist and the ending of the game.
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.”
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 geography. Our 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.”
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