Then-presidential candidate Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva walks among supporters on Augusta Street at São Paulo on the eve of the Brazillian election on October 1, 2022. Photo: Yuri Murakami.

Culture wars in a fragmented Brazil, a guide to understanding what happened in Brazilian election

First of November brought Lula’s reelection as President. He won but did not win. The results leave the country in the same polarization and without any chance of reconciliation. Brazil is a country without communicating vessels. If the social situation will not escalate into civil war and Lula da Silva takes office within the (minimum) regular functioning of institutions, Brazilian democracy will enter its most decisive chapter since the end of the dictatorship. However, the challenge is Herculean because what is at stake, from now on, is to save democracy from its most terrible ghosts.  

By João Ferreira Dias*

Francis Fukuyama (2018) discussed how resentment became the wood for the fireworks of populist radical right parties amid the rise of identity politics. While the left abandoned the material struggle for better work conditions, adopting the so-called woke post-material agenda, focusing on the specific feelings of oppression felt by the minorities groups, the right followed the same path, moving from a liberal market agenda – based on the demand for “less state” in the market – to a nativist agenda (Zúquete, 2018) based on the intersection of whiteness (race), nationalist, religious moral and the resentment of being left behind from rural areas and an urban working class that experienced a gradual loss of earnings. The combination of those elements was crucial for Brexit and Trump’s election (Mondon & Winter, 2019). 

So, the struggle between a globalist left and a nativist right frame what is called “culture wars.” The concept borrowed from the German dispute between Bismarck and the Catholic Church in the 19th century (kulturkampf) is related to a dispute about nonnegotiable conceptions embodied in cultural and moral spheres such as abortion, sexual rights, racism, and the place of religion in daily politics, educational and public affairs (Hunter, 1992). This has all to do with the Brazilian political situation and the last two presidential elections. 

Two Brazil and Country of the Future (That Never Came)

Stefan Zweig once called Brazil “the country of the future.” Alongside racial equality – there named racial democracy – that future never came. Brazil remains a promise, part of a fulfilled growth in the BRICS promise. This is not due to capitalism as a global exploitation system (Christian, 2019). Brazil is a country that does not know or trust each other, a country of deep contrasts, barely connected by the nationalism of Vargas’ authoritarian regime, the development impetus of President Kubitschek and the modern and integrative vision of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. 

Despite Cardoso’s efforts, Brazil remained a giant with clay feet, with a significant part of its population remaining in a fragile situation, like those described in Jorge Amado’s novels. The dispossessed that Collor de Mello tried to galvanize against the “marajás” (maharajas) returned through Lula da Silva, electing a president who linked the workers’ struggle to business guarantees and was caught up in the corruption plot, a reality endemic in Brazil. 

The zeitgeist, populism, was essential in 2018’s Brazilian elections (Reno, 2020; Tamaki & Fuks, 2020). Brazil elects a compulsorily retired military man, nostalgic for the military dictatorship, whose hero, Brilhante Ustra, was the greatest torturer of that period. The President’s name is Jair Messias (meaning Messiah) Bolsonaro, a federal deputy for Rio de Janeiro between 1991 and 2018, with no relevant political work, famous for sleeping during Senate debates. His discourse of hatred of Northeasterners – a collective figure that in the popular imagination represents laziness – blacks, homosexuals, the arts and culture, and the left, combined with a campaign of disinformation and fake news (Maranhão Filhos et. al., 2018). like never experienced, was essential for his election. Still, as a candidate and then as President, Bolsonaro divided the country like never before. Under the guise of the fight against corruption, which he managed to portray as an “invention” of Lula da Silva’s party, were wrapped up post-material issues that formed the culture warswhich determined not only his election but the election of Donald Trump, from which the Bolsonaro team (essentially commanded by the latter’s sons) drew inspiration. Thus, a Christian moral wave, especially evangelical, swept the country against abortion, “gender ideology,” and “cultural Marxism.” The struggle between a progressive, black activist, feminist, LGBT+ country and a country linked to white supremacy, the heritage of the colonels, historical racial privileges, and a conservative morality gained centrality (Stefanoni, 2018).

The Evangelical Factor 

Streets of favela Vidigal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 30, 2015. Photo: Donatas Dabravolskas.

Culture wars have been the core of Brazilian politics since 2018. To understand what is at stake, one needs to understand the role of religion in Brazilian society and the combination of evangelical spiritual combat (Da Silva, 2007) alongside white medium-class supremacy/privileges. 

The abolishment of slavery in Brazil in 1888 did not solve any structural problems in Brazilian society, remaining a place of coloniality (Quijano, 1997). The Constitution of 1824, in the advent of the republican era, was erected in an intellectual atmosphere of biological and cultural racism; disposing of that African heritage thus presents a danger to social development, contaminating from bottom to top. Therefore, taking advance of the scientific perspective of the time, the marginalization and persecution of African descendants and their cultures were established via the law. We can still see it in Law nº 6.001 of 1973 concerning the native status, typified as a minor that may be emancipated. The decades of 1930 and 1940 were intense in religious persecution against Afro-Brazilian religions, with the Catholic Church taking a position, defending a circumstance of spiritual combat against them, from 1950 to 1970 (Ferreira Dias, 2019). 

Meanwhile, in 1960, Canadian pastor Robert McAlister arrived in Rio de Janeiro and founded the New Life Church, the first neo-evangelical church in Brazil. His target was the low classes from the favelas. However, he realized that Afro-Brazilian religions were deeply disseminated among them. Contrary to the Catholic church, which defended the illusion of those religions and their “fake gods” and entities, McAlister adopted a different and effective strategy. While recognizing their power, he places the source of their strength in the Devil. Thus, their god (Orisha, Vodun, Inkice) and their entities are no longer a delusion of primitive thought but the manifestation of the Devil, evil forces that must be fought. 

From there to today, spiritual combat gained visibility and increased severely. In some locations in Brazil, the adherence to these neo-evangelical churches is 100 per cent. Pastors became powerful and wealthy via the theology of prosperity, which advocated that whatever is given to the church and the pastor will be doubled (Gabatz, 2013). They bought television channels and newspapers; they created a chain of power from local communities to the Parliament. The most preeminent of these Churches is the Universal of Bishop Edir Macedo. With time, they created an Altar Gladiators army devoted to fighting Afro-Brazilian religions and practitioners. Religious terrorism became part of daily life in Brazil, with the support of relevant politicians (Santos, 2012). 

Culture wars against the globalist left, classified as cultural Marxist, reached their apogee with Bolsonaro’s candidacy in 2018, with his evangelical agenda against minorities’ rights, universities, democracy, and the rule of law (Ferreira Dias, 2020). 

Lulas Reelection and What Comes Next 

First of November brought Lula’s reelection as President. He won but did not win. The results leave the country in the same polarization and without any chance of reconciliation. It is a country without communicating vessels. The Senate remains strongly Bolsonarist. São Paulo elects, and Rio de Janeiro re-elects, governors of the same tendency, with Haddad, Lula’s potential successor losing in São Paulo territory and running out of political capital for the future. 

Despite Lula’s victory in court, the narrative of the president-bandit prevails among the white, evangelical, and middle-class electorate. Suspicions of corruption, militia formation and human rights violations in the Bolsonaro do not demobilize his highly-regimented electorate. Once again, Brazil is an adapted copy of the US. Even though Lula has the support of moderate evangelicals and much of the economic and business elite, a fact that makes any fantasy of Venezuelization of the country (which never occurred) impossible, the truth is that the cultural battle against the so-called “cultural Marxism” in favor of an evangelical hyper moral and class rights alienates the Bolsonarist electorate, which survives well without Bolsonaro, since he is an ancient historical and social product that has always been alive in Brazil. 

Predictably, the pro-Bolsonaro popular militia is taking the streets, claiming electoral fraud, and asking the army to take control of the country. Meanwhile, some of the world’s top leaders have rushed to recognize Lula’s victory, signaling that he is the desired interlocutor. The same happened with figures close to Bolsonaro, such as the governor of São Paulo. The transition is underway peacefully after Bolsonaro realized that he would not have desired civilian support nor from the military. The Head of the Civil House, Ciro Nogueira, the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes (great ideologue of neoliberalism in Bolsonaro’s government) and Geraldo Alckmin, Lula’s Vice President and man of the center-right, have started the transition process. Democratic institutions seem stable and secure. 

Nevertheless, Brazilian democracy will enter its most decisive chapter since the end of the dictatorship. Lula will need to (i) establish agreements that allow him to govern, which seems possible with the enlargement of his political platform, (ii) be impolite, (iii) purge the party of corruption, (iv) find mechanisms to combat poverty and violence, (v) restore the rights of minorities that have been suspended, without making this his cultural agenda, (vi) correct the social and state asymmetries in the best possible way, aiming at a continuous process of balance and approximation of the country, (vii) prepare the succession by encouraging the other parties to find democratic and qualified cadres that guarantee a healthy political alternation without a populist and cultural war approach. The challenge is Herculean because what is at stake, from now on, is to save democracy from its most terrible ghosts. 


 

(*) João Ferreira Dias is a researcher at the Centre for International Studies – ISCTE, Lisbon, in the Research Group Institutions, Governance and International Relations. He is conducting research on culture wars, politics of identity and fundamental rights. PhD in African Studies (2016). PhD candidate in International Studies (2021-). Columnist. https://linktr.ee/joaoferreiradias


 

References

Christian, Michelle. (2019). “A global critical race and racism framework: Racial entanglements and deep and malleable whiteness.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5.2: 169-185.

Da Silva, Vagner Gonçalves. (2007). “Neopentecostalismo e religiões afro-brasileiras: Significados do ataque aos símbolos da herança religiosa africana no Brasil contemporâneo.” Mana, 13: 207-236.

De Albuquerque Maranhão Filho, Eduardo Meinberg; Coelho, Fernanda Marina Feitosa & Dias, Tainah Biela. (2018). “Fake news acima de tudo, fake news acima de todos: Bolsonaro e o ‘kit gay’, ‘ideologia de gênero’ e fim da ‘família tradicional’.” Correlatio, 17.2: 65-90.

Ferreira Dias, João. (2020). “O Messias já chegou e livrará “as pessoas de bem” dos corruptos: messianismo político e legitimação popular, os casos Bolsonaro e André Ventura.” Polis, 2.2: 49-60.

Ferreira Dias, João. (2019). “’Chuta que é macumba’: o percurso histórico-legal da perseguição às religiões afro-brasileiras.” Sankofa. Revista de História da África e de Estudos da Diáspora Africana, 22: 39-62.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2018). Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

GABATZ, Celso. (2013). “Manifestações religiosas contemporâneas: os desafios e as implicações da teologia da prosperidade no Brasil.” Revista Semina,12.1: s.p. 

Hunter, James Davison. (1992). Culture wars: The struggle to control the family, art, education, law, and politics in America. Avalon Publishing.

Mondon, Aurelien & Winter, Aaron. (2019). “Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working class in the United Kingdom and the United States.” Identities, 26.5: 510-528. 

Quijano, Aníbal. (1997). “Coloniality of power in Latin America.” Anuario Mariateguiano, 9.9: 113-121. 

Renno, Lucio R. (2020). “The Bolsonaro voter: issue positions and vote choice in the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections.” Latin American Politics and Society, 62.4: 1-23.

Santos, Milene Cristina. (2012). O proselitismo religioso entre a liberdade de expressão e o discurso de ódio: a” guerra santa” do neopentecostalismo contra as religiões afro-brasileiras. MA Thesis. Universidade de Brasília. 

Stefanoni, Pablo. (2018). “Biblia, buey y bala… recargados: Jair Bolsonaro, la ola conservadora en Brasil y América Latina.” Nueva Sociedad, 278: 4-11.

Tamaki, Eduardo Ryo & Fuks, Mario (2020). “Populism in Brazil’s 2018 general elections: An analysis of Bolsonaro’s campaign speeches.” Lua Nova: Revista de Cultura e Política, 109: 103-127.

Zúquete, José Pedro. (2018). The identitarians: The movement against globalism and Islam in Europe. University of Notre Dame Press. 

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

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

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A man chanting songs with a dummy cow in the background during the Golden Jubilee
celebration of VHP - a Hindu nationalist organization on December 20, 2014 in Kolkata, India. Photo: Arindam Banerjee.

How has Hindutva populism blurred the line between caste and religion in Indian democracy?

Traditionally, caste and religion have been the two most prominent cleavages in India. Before 2014, upper-caste people used to identify strongly with the ideology of Hindu nationalism. However, the rise of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) and the socio-political mobilization of lower caste people happened during the same period, post-2014, and both received massive public support. It is no longer possible to separate populism from caste, religion, and democracy. Therefore, as Rahul Mukherji noted, Indian democracy is more about populism rather than welfare.

By Saurabh Raj*

One of the historic grounds in the world’s largest democracy and the traditional host of the Jay Prakash (JP) movement[1]—Gandhi maidan, Patna (state capital of Bihar, India)—was full of saffron flags and caps during the 2019 parliamentary elections. A 23-year-old young man who was holding a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flag and had a locket of the Hindu lord Krishna around his neck was shouting, “Modi-Modi-Modi & Jai Shri Ram.”[2] India’s prime minister and the most popular leader Narendra Modi was just about to come on stage. This young man looked impossibly excited to see Modi for the first time. The name of this young boy was Rakesh Yadav (his first name has been changed). Yadav belonged to the “Yadav caste”—socially and politically one of the most influential and historically disadvantaged[3] castes in Bihar. 

Being a Yadav and cheering for Modi tells a lot about the shift happening in the socio-political landscape in India: this caste used to be traditional voters for their caste group leader, like Lalu Yadav. Any political scientist would have been surprised to see that many youths like Rakesh Yadav from the Yadav caste would have shifted their political leaning towards Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from the Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD). Like any curious and politically active citizen, I asked Rakesh Yadav, “Why are you here? I mean shouldn’t you be at Tejasvi Yadav’s (the son of Lalu Yadav) rally?” He bluntly told me, “Bhaiya jaat-paat bahut dekh liye, ab desh aur dharam dekhna hai”—I am done with caste politics and now it’s time to focus on my religion.

His prompt answer was a surprise: caste has always been an integral part of the Indian political system, and most of the voters used to prefer only voting for their caste leaders. Nevertheless, Narendra Modi’s populist Hindutva[4] nationalism changed the caste calculus in Bihar to some extent; religion has become a wider political plank. One could not imagine that a Yadav would vote against Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party Rashtriya Janta Dal. Also, if someone would vote, she/he couldn’t afford to be vocal about this before 2014. 

Narendra Modi’s populist style of leadership has changed the socio-political equations in the world’s largest democracy. The line of caste has been blurred, and “caste populism” has been taken over by “Hindu nationalist populism,” at least with respect to electoral behaviour. This is one of the biggest shifts in Indian democracy we have witnessed. Before 2014, especially in North Indian states, caste played a primary role in voting behaviour; this has changed (Verniers, 2022). This article attempts to understand this shift and its implications for democracy in India, specifically through the lens of populism. The first part will discuss layers of populism, giving examples from the caste system to understand Hindu populism. In the second part, I will discuss caste populism and my focus will be specifically on the Yadav community. The third part will explain the rise of Hindu populism and its implications for Indian democracy. I will end by looking at the contemporary impact on democracy of these two cleavages.

Indian Democracy and Populism

Caste and religion are the two most prominent cleavages in Indian democracy. There are six main religions, around 3000 castes, and more than 25,000 sub-castes in India (BBC News, 2019). These groups were united under the same roof post-independence, in 1947; democracy was described as “perhaps the only mechanism to hold India together” (Mehta, 2017). Nonetheless, these cleavages have often influenced Indian democracy. The question of the rights of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (the lowest and the historically disadvantaged groups) was settled right after independence: they were granted reservation as a constitutional right. But the concerns of historically disadvantaged classes/castes—also known as Other Backward Classes, or OBCs[5]—and religious minorities were left unaddressed, as their demands for reservation were unfulfilled. Due to such diverse pluralism and these unaddressed concerns, populism has played a crucial factor in maintaining the existing social frictions in Indian democracy. Political parties, caste leaders, and religious groups are used as tools to mobilize one group against another. 

After the 1970s, historically disadvantaged class leaders started mobilizing and demanding their rights, and Yogendra Yadav called this “the second democratic upsurge” (Yadav, 1996). During this period, democracy had taken social root, and many unheard communities started speaking out. Nonetheless, community leaders also made it a battle between the “forward caste vs historically disadvantaged castes.” The Hindu-Muslim fight had already been an integral part of democracy. Therefore, it is difficult to separate the element of “populism” from caste, religion, and democracy. According to Rahul Mukherji, Indian democracy is more about populism rather than welfare (Mukherji, 2014). The author argues that post-independence policies cater to the electoral voter bank instead of promoting the equitable welfare of the masses.

Caste Populism and the Socio-political Rise of Yadav

The Mandal commission movement (a movement to demand reservation in government jobs for historically disadvantaged caste groups) was largely led by the Yadav community in Uttar Pradesh (UP) & Bihar during the 1980s. Leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav mobilized the historically disadvantaged classes (OBCs). After the successful implementation of the B.P. Mandal recommendations, (27 percent of central and state government jobs should be reserved for OBCs), the Yadav community suddenly emerged as a hero among the OBCs and lower caste people. In one of the largest states in India, Bihar, Yadav is the largest caste, with more than 14 percent of the population. 

Lalu Yadav founded Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) in 1997. RJD is an entirely Yadav caste-dominated political party, most prominent in Bihar. He mobilized Yadav, Muslims, and some other castes and formed a formidable equation to win elections.[6] He raised a popular slogan against upper caste people: “bhoora baal saaf karo” (Removing the Brown Hair)—a Hindi slogan referring to acting against upper castes[7]—to win elections. His populist rhetoric separated society into two separate groups: “the forward caste vs the historically disadvantaged caste.” His populist style of campaigning helped in the mobilization of the historically disadvantaged castes. He became the first OBC chief minister in Bihar, and the socio-political structure changed irrevocably. “When a caste captures the space in the political space as ‘samaj (society)’ is mobilized by a political party, rather than weakening the democratic process, it actually strengthens and deepens it” (Michelutti, 2020), and this is exactly what happened in Bihar. 

After becoming the Chief Minister of Bihar, Yadav gave special attention to the Yadav community and used democracy as a tool in their socio-economic uplift. The Yadav were given preference in government jobs. There used to be special wards for Yadavs in public hospitals, where they received free treatments. A caste that had been unheard of and unrepresented in Indian democracy since independence suddenly started ruling one of the largest states in India.

This would’ve been impossible without the Yadav’s electoral alliance with Muslims, forged during the 1990s. This was an important shift that changed the socio-political landscape of democracy in India. 

The political rise of Yadav also influenced other castes as well. Many lower castes started speaking out, and beliefs in Indian democracy deepened as the ‘elite capture’ of political spaces started disseminating and trickling down to the masses. Ram Vilas Paswan founded a Scheduled caste-dominated political party—Lok Janshakti Party—in 2002, and Nitish Kumar founded Janta Dal United—largely a Kurmi-based[8] party—in 2003. The power dynamics shifted from upper-caste people to historically disadvantaged castes.

Local people throwing flowers on Volunteers of Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) during march past in Vasundhara, Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh on October 19, 2018.

 

Hindu Nationalism and the New Caste Calculus

The Ram Temple movement[9] was a game-changer for India’s politics. This movement is partly responsible for the rise of both the BJP and Hindu nationalism. In a 1991 manifesto, the BJP promised to construct the Ram Temple to restore a symbolic righting of historical wrongs and to end the long and unhappy chapter of the supposed Muslim suppression of Hindus. Since the Ram Temple was highly sensitive, with a strong religious and emotional meaning, even non-BJP parties like the Indian National Congress, Samajwadi Party, and Bahujan Samajwadi Party, did not openly oppose the idea of constructing the temple on controversial land—even though many of those parties relied on Muslim electoral support (Rashid, 2021). Between 1989 to 1991, during the Ram Temple movement, the BJP saw the biggest jump in its vote share: it increased its stake 1.8 times, winning 20.1 percent of the vote nationally (Kishore, 2019). This made the BJP a national player in Indian politics and mainstreamed the sentiment of Hindu nationalism.

Nevertheless, despite its significant rise, the BJP was known as the party of Brahman and Bania (the upper and privileged caste groups of the Hindu community). Hindu nationalism was viewed as an upper-caste movement. The rise of Hindu nationalism and the socio-political mobilization of lower caste people happened mostly in the last decade (Jaffrelot, 2002). During the parliamentary elections in 2014, the BJP successfully mobilized non-Yadav historically disadvantaged groups’ votes in their favour, all while running on the plank of Hindutva. Under the umbrella of Hindutva, Narendra Modi played the ‘politics of presence’ card to attract other castes, many of whom felt unrepresented during the wave of caste populism. According to KM Panikkar, “many social groups earlier unaware of this political change suddenly realized their strengths…that even they can also come to power” (Mehta, 2017).

The image of Modi as a chaiwala (tea seller) who could become the Prime Minister resonated with the lower strata of society; he was their voice as opposed to the elite Congress which was caught in several scams in 2014. Many ‘backward’ castes like Kurmi, Koeri, Kushwaha, etc. could not get a share in power in the state or central governments. BJP tapped this unfulfilled desire and mobilized these castes against Yadav in the UP. The Lokniti-CSDS survey data suggests that this new social engineering of Hindu nationalism has worked quite well. BJP bagged over 40 percent of the OBC votes in the 2019 parliamentary election (Banerjee, 2018). BJP mobilized these castes against Yadav and Muslims, specifically on the plank of Hinduism, and united a more extensive section of castes under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism. For instance, the BJP’s main promise in 2014 was employment and everyone’s social and economic development (“Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas”). However, in 2019 the BJP’s main electoral agendas were aggressive nationalism (as there was high tension between India and Pakistan)[10], the construction of the Ram Temple, and the abrogation of article 370.[11] As per the study, Modi’s speeches focused on aggressive national security, and the vote share of the BJP increased by 4.6 percentage points in the home constituencies of soldiers killed in the India and Pakistan violence (Arya & Bhatiya, 2021). 

Hindus have rarely, if ever, been so united post-independence. This unity also influenced the Yadav community to some extent. Data from the Trivedi Political Centre, Ashoka University, suggests that the BJP-NDA alliance has more than 50 Yadav MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in their camp, which is around 23 percent of the total MLAs in the Bihar state assembly (Nissa, 2020). The major takeaway from this data is that Hindu nationalist populism has blurred the line of caste populism, and a large section of the population has started identifying more with religion than caste. I believe the Narendra Modi-led BJP understood the new aspirations of these social groups earlier than other opposition political parties. As many opposition parties, including the Indian National Congress, are seen as pro-Muslim parties, Modi establishes this narrative among the majority of Hindus in his electoral speeches (Rao, 2018). Therefore, they are able to form new social identities under the umbrella of Hindu nationalism.

New Power Dynamics and a Majoritarian Democracy

This new caste calculus has directly influenced the nature of Indian democracy, and I believe now all political parties want to dock with “the majoritarian horse” and mobilize Hindus against others. For instance, while all political parties used to appease Muslims for their votes, Muslims are now mostly ignored. This is also reflected in the Modi government’s policies like CAA-NRC[12], the abolition of article 370, etc. Recently, the Samajwadi Party leader and a very well know Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav said, “Lord Krishna comes in his dreams every night and tells that he will set up Ram Rajya (the rule of Lord Ram) in Uttar Pradesh” (Press Trust of India, 2022). By using the names of Lord Krishna and Ram together, even he is also trying to fuse Yadav and the entire Hindu community together for the coming UP state assembly election. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also started visiting temples across the country and claimed that he is a Kashmiri Brahmin (The Economic Times, 2018).

Changes in socio-political power relations and the expansion of democracy across the castes and communities have penetrated the Indian political imagination and have “begun to corrode the authority of the social order” (Khilnani, 1999). There should not be any debate in saying that democracy has changed the fate of many lower castes in India. Many unheard voices have been heard and shared in state power. But this current form of Hindutva nationalism’s populist politics has overshadowed other cleavages within Indian democracy like Muslims, Tribals, etc. Hindus have mobilized and have also started voicing their unheard historical pain[13] and grief against the imposition of “secular India” on them.

Nevertheless, what about those who have been left behind because of this democratic upsurge? What about the largest minority of the world’s largest democracy—a group currently living under fear and threat? If democracy is perhaps the only tool to hold India together, then why is it failing to provide a safe environment to other minorities like Muslims, Tribals, and women? I don’t know what the solution is. I am not sure whether there is a need for another democratic upsurge or not, but I firmly believe that the solution lies in democracy itself. As in the words of PB Mehta, “When we praise or blame democracy, we are often like the person looking for his lost key under the lamp post—not because he has lost it there, but because it is bright there.”

 


(*) Saurabh Raj is a student of M.A. in Public Policy & Governance at Azim Premji University, India. He was also a participant in ECPS Civic Leadership Program, in 2021. His area of interest is party politics, far-right populism, and electoral & democratic reforms. He has also work experience in political and democratic reforms for more than five years.


 

References 

— (2018). “’My gotra is Dattatreya, I am a Kashmiri Brahmin’: Rahul Gandhi in Pushkar.” The Economic Times.November 27, 2018. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/rahul-gandhis-gotra-is-dattatreya-he-is-kashmiri-brahmin-priest/articleshow/66820708.cms?from=mdr (accessed on October 6, 2022).

— (2019). “What is India’s caste system?” BBC News. June 19, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-35650616 (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Arya, Y. & Bhatiya, A. Y. (2021). “The Salience of Political Messages: Evidence from Soldier Deaths in India.” SSRN Electronic Journalhttps://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3955198

Banerjee, A. (2018). “BJP goes all out for 41% OBC votes in 2019.” India Today. June 19, 2018. https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/bjp-goes-all-out-for-41-obc-votes-in-2019-1263850-2018-06-19 (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Desk, O. W. (2022). “Hindutva: The Growth of Violent Hindu Nationalism.” Outlook India. February 3, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/hindutva-the-growth-of-violent-hindu-nationalism/217969 (accessed on October 6, 2022).

Jaffrelot, C. (2002). India’s Silent Revolution (ed.). Columbia University Press.

Khilnani, S. (1999). The Idea of India (1st Ppbk Ed, 1999 ed.). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kishore, R. (2019). “How the temple movement helped BJP.” Hindustan Times. November 15, 2019. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/how-temple-movement-helped-bjp/story-VXQd0EgOAwvY4RStFndbVN.html (accessed on October 12, 2022).

Mehta, P. B. (2017). Burden Of Democracy. India Penguin.

Michelutti, L. (2020). The Vernacularisation of Democracy. Taylor & Francis.

Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, R. C. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Mukherji, R. (2014). Political Economy of Reforms in India: Oxford India Short Introductions (Oxford India Short Introductions Series) (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

Nissa, B. A. V. G. U. (2020). “What does the caste profile of MLAs in Bihar tell us about politics?” Hindustan Times.November 16, 2020. https://www.hindustantimes.com/bihar-election/what-does-caste-profile-of-mlas-in-bihar-tell-us-about-politics/story-OgMg2zkzFAWwdP9qQs2klK.html (accessed on September 16, 2022).

Rao, P. V., Jr. (2018). “How BJP & Congress play politics over Muslims.” The Asian Age. July 17, 2018. https://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/170718/how-bjp-congress-play-politics-over-muslims.html (accessed on October 6, 2022).

Verniers, G. (2022). “Role Of Caste in Elections.” Outlook India. February 3, 2022. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/role-of-caste-in-elections/295807 (accessed on October 6, 2022)

Yadav, L. P. (2019). Gopalganj to Raisina Road (Hindi Edition). Rupa Publications India.

Yadav, Y. (1996). “Reconfiguration in Indian Politics-State Assembly Elections, 1993-95.” In: Economic and Political Weekly: Vol. Vol. 31 (Issue Issue No. 2-3). 


Footnotes

[1] The JP (Jay Prakash) movement was against Emergency and the Indira Gandhi-led Congress government in 1975-77. It was the first nation-wide movement against the Indian National Congress post-independence.

[2] Lord Sri Ram is a mythological Hindu God, and the slogan “Jay Shri Ram” has become a war cry of the BJP against Muslims.

[3] I will be using “historically disadvantaged groups” to refer to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in this piece- 

[4] A modern political ideology that advocates for Hindu supremacy and seeks to transform India into a Hindu nation (Outlook India, 2022). 

[5] The Indian Constitution categorizes three classes in India – Forward/Upper caste, Other Backward Caste and Scheduled Caste and Tribes

[6] Electoral alliances between Muslims (17%) and Yadav (14%).

[7] BhooRa Baal represents four upper castes of Bihar – Bhumihar (Bhoo), Rajput(Ra), Brahman(Baa), and Lala(L).

[8] Kurmi is also one of the influteinal castes in Bihar after Yadav and they also belong to the historically disadvantaged class

[9] Ram is Hindu mythological god and Hindus believe that Ayoydhya was his birthplace, where Babri Mosque was built. Hindutva supporters demolished Babri Mosque in 1992. The case about Ram Temple eventually went to the Supreme Court of India. Recently, Hindus won the case, and the Ram Temple construction got a green light to proceed.

[10] A terrorist attack on an army convoy in Pulwama (Kashmir) in 2019 just a few months before the parliamentary elections of 2019. In response, the Modi government launched counter airstrikes in Balakot (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir). 

[11] The 1954 presidential order constituted a founding legal document for Jammu and Kashmir (as it was a disputed land between India and Pakistan at that moment); Article 370 and 35A protected the exclusive law—such as the bar on outsiders buying property and women marrying non-Kashmiris losing their property rights—of the State. The Modi Government revoked this in 2019.

[12]  CAA stands for Citizenship (Amendment) Act (2019) that was passed in Parliament on December 11, 2019. The Modi government amended the Citizenship law to grant citizenship to religious minorities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh but not Muslims (Press Information Bureau, 2019).

[13] The narrative of the politics of Muslims’ appeasement. BJP claims that Congress was/is a pro-Muslim party. Hence, Hindus’ concerns were ignored by the Congress governments in the name of secularism. 

"Father traces from haven" - election poster for Shas, featuring Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in Rishon Le Zion, Israel on March 7, 2015.

Religious populism in Israel: The case of Shas

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

 

Abstract

Since the 1990s, populism has become increasingly prevalent in Israeli politics. While scholars and commentators have often focused on the populist rhetoric used by Benjamin Netanyahu, his is hardly the only manifestation of populism within Israel. For example, Shas, a right-wing populist party which seeks to represent Sephardic and Haredi interests within Israel, emerged in the 1980s and swiftly became the third largest party in the country, a position it has maintained since the mid 1990s. Shas is unique insofar as it merges religion, populism, and Sephardic and Haredi Jewish identity and culture. Indeed, Shas is not merely a political party, but a religious movement with its own schools and religious network, and it possesses both secular and religious leaders. In this article, we examine the religious populism of Shas and investigate both the manner in which the party constructs Israeli national identity and the rhetoric used by its secular and religious leadership to generate demand for the party’s religious and populist solutions to Israel’s social and economic problems. We show how the party instrumentalizes Sephardic ethnicity and culture and Haredi religious identity, belief, and practice, by first highlighting the relative disadvantages experienced by these communities and positing that Israeli “elites” are the cause of this disadvantaged position. We also show how Shas elevates Sephardic and Haredi identity above all others and claims that the party will restore Sephardic culture to its rightful and privileged place in Israel.

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Nicholas Morieson

Introduction

Populism, once rare in Israel, has become “central to Israeli politics” since the 1990s (Ben-Porat et al. 2021: 6). While Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been identified as a populist who uses religion to define Israeli identity (Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020; Ben-Porat et al. 2021), the emergence of Shas, a populist and ethno-religious movement, proved that religious populist parties could enjoy political success in the country. Shas possesses the typical features of a right-wing populist party: it is anti-elite, constructs an imagined community (“the people”) based on religious and ethnic identification, and consistently “others” and disparages those who fall outside this community. In this article we explore the religious populism of Shas, which rose from obscure beginnings in the mid-1980s, reached its zenith in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when its leader Aryeh Deri became known as the kingmaker of Israeli politics—and finally declined into a junior coalition partner of the dominant Likud party in the 2010s. We focus, in particular, on its ethno-religious cleaving of society and the manner in which the party generates public demand for its populist agenda. To do this we examine the political rhetoric of Shalom Cohen, a rabbi and spiritual leader of Shas, and party chairman Aryeh Deri and show how their emotional rhetoric plays an important role in creating the atmosphere required for their religious populism to succeed.

Relationship Between Zionism, Judaism, and Populism in Israel

The relationship between Judaism and populism is somewhat different than the relationship between other monotheisms and populism: “the link between the Jewish religion and populism in Israel does not require mediation between religion’s universal and populism’s particular claims, since for Jewish orthodoxy there is an absolute correspondence between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people” (Filc, 2016: 167). Indeed, Israel is the only country in which a majority of citizens identify with Judaism. Moreover, within Israel, national identity is often intertwined with “Jewishness,” a notion which played an important role in the country’s creation and subsequent development.

Israel is a product of the 19th century Zionist movement, which removed itself somewhat from Orthodox Judaism and, influenced by European nationalism, sought to create a nation for the Jewish people. Thus Zionism, and by extension Israel, has always possessed a “Romantic nationalist culture with a strong expressivist dimension; that is, a strong emphasis on self-expression and notions such as authenticity,” at least compared to Orthodox Judaism where “the Torah and God’s commandments are imposed externally on the Jew” (Fischern, 2014). 

By the end of the 19th century, religion and a sense of Jewish spirituality played an important role in the Zionist movement, but the movement was always strongly and predominately nationalist (Hassan, 1988). The rise of Zionism was largely a response to growing anti-Semitism in Europe. Theodor Herzl, an Austrian Jewish journalist, responding to the growing darkness in Europe, lobbied for a Jewish homeland in the hills of ancient Jerusalem (Zion), where settlers from Eastern Europe were already settling after feeling unwelcomed in their European homesteads (Berry & Philo, 2006; Hassan, 1988). Shumsky (2018) notes that Herzl’s vision was a homeland with “cultural–national” aspects, or a kind of “non-Jewish” homeland “for Jews” in the ancient heartland. Prota & Filc (2020) admit that, to a degree, Herzl’s dream remains alive in Israel in the form of the detachment between synagogue and state. However, the authors point out that “Zionism could not completely detach itself from its religious roots, as religion was indispensable as a marker of boundaries and a mobilizing force” (Prota & Filc, 2020). The turbulent events that followed the Ottoman Empire’s collapse left a power vacuum in the Arab peninsula that allowed the Zionist movement to take a more aggressive nationalist stance and begin to create a Jewish state. The early political leadership of the Israeli Labour Party propagated a narrative of self-defence, legitimizing the idea that Zionism meant protecting the Jewish nation from hostile foreign forces (Prota & Filc, 2020). The importance of protecting the Jewish nation oriented early Israeli politics toward nationalism; however, Zionism remained attached to Judaism and “continued to be directed by powerful religious structures” (Prota & Filc, 2020; Raz-Krakotzkin, 2000; Ben-Porat, 2000).

Jewish nationalism in its religious forms has often been a powerful political force in Israel (Pinson, 2021; Rogenhofer & Panievsky, 2020). While Ashkenazi Zionism has proven the most potent religio-cultural political force in Israel, other forms of religious nationalism exist alongside it—and at times play an important role in Israeli political culture. For example, the Sephardim Shomrei Torah / Sephardi Torah Guardians (Shas), formed in 1984, rooted its populism in religious notions of Jewishness rather than in Zionist nationalism. Shas has consistently sought to represent the interests of Haredi and Sephardic Jews in Israel, relatively disadvantaged groups, and to give them a voice within the Knesset. While Shas has never been able to form a majority government, it became a major force within the Knesset in the 1990s, and although its popularity has since declined, it retains several seats in parliament and regularly forms governing coalitions with larger parties.

Campaign signs for the Israeli government “Shas” party head by Arye Deri, depicting Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, prior to the April 2019 elections in Safed, Israel on March 10, 2019. Photo: David Cohen.

 

Shas’ Religious Populism

Founded in 1984 by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shas, from its beginnings, sought to represent the interests of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, who often felt ignored by mainstream political parties (Knesset Official, 2020; Britannica, 2013). The party thus represented the interests of ethnic Middle Eastern and North African Jews of Israel and Jews who settled in rural areas and who belonged to the ultra-Orthodox Haredi sect (Howson, 2015). As Usher (1998, 35) observes, Shas grew quickly from its beginnings as an “obscure religious movement” in 1984 and became by 1998 “Israel’s third largest political force and the most influential religious party in Israeli politics, a party without which neither Labour nor Likud can govern.”

In 1984, in its first election, Shas won four seats in the Knesset. In 1988, it won six seats, followed by ten in 1996 and 17 in 1999. While the rise of Shas effectively concluded in 1999, it continues to exert influence over Israeli politics despite its declining share of the vote, which has been partly due to party infighting and the jailing of its chairman, Aryeh Deri, on corruption charges and his later resignation from the Knesset due to allegations of tax fraud.

In the post-1999 period, Shas settled into the role of a junior coalition partner in Likud- or Labour-led governments, although it refused to join the Bennett-Lapid rotating government in 2021, maintaining its alliance with Likud and entering the opposition. Throughout the 38 years in which Shas has held seats in the Knesset, the party has attempted to restore the power and prestige of Sephardic culture in Israel and to represent the interests of Sephardic and Haredi Jews, who are fewer in number and more likely to be impoverished than Ashkenazi Jews. At the same time, the party has sought to marginalize LGBTQ+ Israelis, and increasingly supports the aggressive policies of Likud toward Palestinians.

The key to Shas’ ongoing success has been its populist exploitation of key ethnic and religious divides within Israel, particularly the rift between different ethnic and religious elements within the Jewish community, and between the dominant Ashkenazi and the relatively disadvantaged Sephardic community (Howson, 2015). Sephardic and Haredi voters—orthodox and non-orthodox—are often drawn to the party because its leaders speak openly of the plight of Middle Eastern Jews in Israel, who often feel like second-class citizens. Shas’ populism is therefore multidimensional insofar as it dichotomizes society along religious and ethnic lines (Yadgar, 2003; Peled, 1998).

Porat and Filc (2020) describe the core of the party’s populism as being “built around three Manichean oppositions between “us and them”: Sephardic religious versus secular Jews, Mizrahim versus Ashkenazim, and Jews versus non-Jews. For Shas, Jewish religious and national belonging are one, and no national existence is possible for Israel outside religion (Porat & Filc, 2020). Like other populist parties, Shas claims society can be divided between “elites” and “the people.” Elites, according to the party, include secular Jews and the Ashkenazi ethnic group and their political, business, and religious (including the ultra-orthodox) representatives, who are alleged to discriminate against the Mizrahi Jews and prevent them from achieving economic advancement (Porat & Filc, 2020; Filc, 2016; Howson, 2015; Yadgar, 2003; Peled, 1998). Thus, what Taguieff (1995: 32-35) might describe as the vertical dimension of Shas’ populism identifies enemy “others” largely within the Israeli Jewish community.

Shas is opposed to the Europeanised idea of secular Zionism that separates the state and religion, rejects the notion of a “neutral state and a pluralistic society,” and advocates for a Judaism-inspired society where norms are defined by, and notions of “common good” built on, Judaism (Filc, 2016: 173). Thus, rather than simply asserting the primacy of ethnic Jewish identity, Shas promotes the idea of “Israelness” based on a “Sephardic ultra-Orthodox worldview” (Filc, 2016: 176). Curiously, unlike the right-wing Zionist parties such as Likud, Shas shows some sympathy toward Arab Israelis (Porat & Filc, 2020; Filc, 2016). Given their shared ethnic roots in the Middle East, it is understandable that Shas leadership—particularly early in the party’s existence—empathized with the Palestinians’ economic disadvantages. For example, while the party has more recently hardened against the idea of a Palestinian state, earlier the party supported statehood for the Palestinians, and argued that Israeli–Palestinian human lives were more important than a piece of land, and therefore did not initially support the idea of settlements (Porat & Filc, 2020; Filc, 2016).

If Shas has, at times, expressed sympathy for the Palestinians, they have shown little empathy for migrant groups in Israel, particularly Africans. Shas directs its rhetorical attacks on migrants who are ethnically and racially different, such as Africans. The party also opposes the admission of Muslim or Christian asylum seekers into Israeli society (Shafir, 2012). Furthermore, in line with Israel’s right-wing nationalist parties, Shas now advocates for the unification of Jerusalem and opposes the idea of religiously and racially “mixed neighbourhoods” (Filc, 2016: 182; Leon, 2015). These changes in Shas compel Leon (2015) to term Shas as an organization that is part of “an ultra-Orthodox stream of Zionism.”

While a “complete” populist party—insofar as it possesses a vertical anti-elite dimension and a horizontal anti-Muslim, anti-secular, anti-African migrant dimension—these categories are ultimately a blend of complex populist religious inclusions and exclusions (Zúquete, 2107). Filc (2009) describes Shas’ “dynamics” of “inclusion and exclusion” by noting that these are “complex”:

Shas’s claim to Mizrahi inclusion is much more radical than Likud’s, and much more challenging of the mainstream Zionist worldview. At the same time, its ultraorthodox interpretation of Jewish religion makes for a much more exclusionary approach toward non-Jews (whether Palestinians or migrant workers). Shas started its activism at the municipal level as a reaction to the exclusion and segregation of Mizrahim within the ultra-orthodox world. Nonetheless, since its inceptions its growth was fuelled by anger at the exclusion and marginalization of Mizrahim in Israeli society as a whole.

Despite its complex nature and inconsistencies Shas has, since the 1984 elections, been able to secure seats in the Israeli parliament, where it has formed coalitions with both Labour and Likud. Throughout the 2010s, Shas consistently supported Netanyahu, including in the 2021 elections when the party, in coalition with United Torah Judaism (UTJ), used its 9 parliamentary seats to aid Likud (France 24, 2021). Its presence in the previous governing coalitions granted it power outside the Sephardic community, where it used its position to lobby for “increasing the influence of the Jewish religious law in the judicial system and across Israeli society, as well as promoting an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle” (ECPS, 2020). The party’s political survival has often hinged on its willingness to make compromises with its coalition partners. This being so, Shas has no concrete economic policy, but sides at times with the left and at other times with the right, promoting neo-liberal reform at one time and welfarism at another (Porat & Filc, 2020). However, the party has always shared a right-wing worldview on cultural issues which draws it toward the similarly conservative Likud. Thus, its anti-immigration policies and conflation of Zionism with Orthodox Judaism has united religious populism with right-wing nationalism in Israel’s parliament (Filc, 2016; Leon, 2015).

Shas leadership uses religio-cultural dichotomization of society, though one deeply rooted in religion, to selectively include or exclude the disparate elements of Israeli society within its core ingroup. Indeed, religion is very important to the party. Shas’ internal structure gives a central role to the synagogue by maintaining a Sephardi rabbi as its spiritual leader. Shas is, thus, not merely a political party but is also involved in spiritual, education, and welfare work. Working mostly in rural and impoverished towns, the Shas network has founded and funded its own education system governed according to a religious education model called the Maayan Hahinuch Hatorani (Wellspring of Torah Education) (Feldman, 2013). The schools are hubs for the grassroots propagation of Sephardi Orthodoxy and provide a counter to the hegemony of the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox in Israel’s religious education landscape (Davis & Robinson, 2012: 71).

These schools are part of an attempt to restore to the Sephardic community feelings of religious and ethnic pride and to challenge the dominance of European Zionism in Israel (Usher, 1998). The party’s electoral success, however, is the result of its ability to address “the very real social problems of inequality and discrimination facing Mizrahi’s in contemporary Israeli society” (Usher, 1998: 34).

Dome of the rock, temple mount and wailing wall at sunset in Jerusalem, Israel in September 2019.

Shas’ Political Discourse and Emotional Manipulation

Shas’ core message—that the Sephardic community’s poor economic and social position within Israel is not accidental but the result of Ashkenazi and secularist repression—is designed to encourage followers to perceive themselves as “victims” of economic injustice in the form of Ashkenazi economic monopolization and to thus evoke feelings of “resentment” within the Israeli Sephardic ultra-Orthodox community (Sarfati, 2009; Kimmerling, 1999). Thus, the Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews are portrayed by Shas’ leaders as the authentic people of Israel but also as an “oppressed” people who must band together to restore Sephardic culture to “its former glory” (Shalev, 2019). Increasingly Shas’ leaders have encouraged their followers to express resentment toward Arabs, Muslims, and Christians in Israel. Shas’ leadership has often used negative emotions to legitimize its construction of outgroups and to demonize internal and external enemies. At the same time, it has instrumentalized positive emotions—sometimes connected to religion and the divine—to justify its construction of an ingroup (“the people”).

Ovadia Yosef, who founded Shas in 1984, acted as the party’s spiritual leader until his death in 2013. As Shas embraced anti-Arab Muslim and anti-African discourses and policies, Yosef’s rhetoric toward Shas’ designated Israeli outgroups hardened. For example, by 2001 Yosef no longer expressed any sympathy for the plight of Palestinians but instead labelled them “evil, bitter enemies of Israel” and preached that “it is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable” (BBC, 2001). In this sermon, Yosef claimed that Arabs are “murderers” and terrorists and implied that they were the source of the ontological insecurity of the Jewish state (BBC, 2001). He relied on religion to justify his dehumanization of Arab Muslims by claiming that “God should strike them with a plague” and “The Lord shall return the Arabs’ deeds on their own heads, waste their seed and exterminate them, devastate them and vanish them from this world” (Haaretz Service, 2010; BBC, 2001).

Later, the Rabbi backtracked from these statements and said these were only directed at terrorists and not all Arabs (Ettinger, 2010). However, his comments have almost certainly contributed to the legitimization of the use of state violence against Palestinians. The Rabbis in the party also use a news media network to spread the idea of an Arab threat to Israel to further instil fear in their followers. Shas’ newspaper editor, Rabbi Moshe Shafir, for example, believes that the integration of Arabs into the Jewish homeland is “a threat to the institution of marriage, to the decent family” (Shafir, 2012). In making this somewhat strange claim, Shafir attempts to frighten his followers into believing that Arabs pose a threat to the Jewish family, increasing the feelings of ontological insecurity felt by many Israelis and legitimizing their anxieties.

Shlomo Benizri, another Shas politician, stated that “Israel is a nation only through the Torah” and a “sacred homeland” where all non-Jews are not welcome (Porat & Filc, 2020). Part of being Jewish, for Shas, though, is following a “correct” religious lifestyle. Thus, as part of their anti-secular stance, many Shas members have directed hatred towards the LGBTQ+ community. An example of this occurred when a gay youth centre in Tel Aviv was attacked by an orthodox mob, leading to the death of two people and injuries to ten others (Meranda, 2009). This incident took place after a Shas member, Nissim Ze’ev, blamed the gay community for “carrying out the self-destruction of Israeli society and the Jewish people” and went as far as labelling homosexuals “a plague as toxic as bird flu” (Meranda, 2009). Ze’ev distanced himself from the violence, saying he never called for “blood” to be spilled, but he also claimed it is Shas’ “duty” to inform Jewish people about the dangers of homosexuality: “It is our duty in any case to warn against this lifestyle. As far as we are concerned, we must not authorize or recognize it, but this has nothing to do with murder. Murder is the most serious and shocking thing. It’s madness, and the murderer must face trial. There are no doubts whatsoever” (Meranda, 2009).

Israeli minister of Internal Affairs, Arye Deri, attends the “Yosef Daat School Dinner” in Safed, Israel on October 19, 2017. Photo: David Cohen.

Aryeh Deri

Aryeh Deri was an obscure Yeshiva student who rose to political prominence and ultimately became “the kingmaker” of Israeli politics in the 1990s, when his party was able to secure 17 seats in the Knesset (David & Robinson, 2009). Deri was born in a Sephardic community in Morocco but was by the age of five living in Israel. In 1984, he became a founding member of Shas and had a decisive impact on the party, ensuring that it remained grounded in Sephardic ethnicity. Howson (2014: 195), for example, notes that “Deri represented a new form of religious orthodoxy: neither the closed isolationism of the ultra-orthodox nor the religious Zionist/nationalist axis concerned with the territorial expansion of the state. Instead, he was a populist who mixed ethnic pride with a wider language of socioeconomic equality and consensus ‘one nation’ politics that resonated outside of the traditional Shas’s votership.” Deri framed the victimization of Shas’ members and followers as the production of the non-Sephardic domination of politics, religion, and the economy in Israel.

Secular Ashkenazi Jews have been targeted by Deri. It’s a group he perceives to be a liability to “Israeliness” due to their lack of religion. Deri appears to believe that secular Ashkenazi Jews have forgone the ways of the Torah and that their powerful position in society has led to the decline of Jewish culture in Israel. The Mizrahi, on the other hand, are portrayed by Deri as the “real” Jews, with an authentic culture and religious understanding of the Torah. For example, in an interview Deri expressed these ideas, saying, “But why should I be ashamed of being Mizrahi? […] Which tradition did they [Secular Ashkenazi] bring here, the ills of American culture?” (Porat & Filc, 2020).

Deri also embodied the idea that due to their authentic understanding of the Torah, Sephardic Jews have been side-lined in Israeli politics and civil society, thus generating a sense of victimhood and resentment in Sephardic Jews. In an interview, Deri claimed “[Secular Ashkenazis] claim that they are Israeliness. They took over Israeliness, they want to be the ones who determine the agenda for being Israeli. They want to decide what an Israeli has to look like, and anyone who does not adhere to their style and standards is not a ‘true’ Israeli; he is a fanatic, a Mizrahi, a fool” (Ben Hayiim, 2002). Deri, in making these statements, claims that the purity of Mizrahi Judaism is the cause of the oppression of Mizrahi people. Deri also claimed, during the peak of the COVID outbreak in Israel, that waywardness from true Jewish values was the cause of the virus and hinted that it was divine punishment: “God is telling us something.” At the time, 70 percent of the country’s cases were detected in Haredim communities (Times of Israel, 2020).

Adapting to the pressures caused by African immigration to Israel, Deri began to target African migrants in his rhetoric and in his support for anti-African legislation. Shas has supported Likud’s efforts to deport African migrants, who are primarily Muslim and Christian rather than Jewish. Deri, as the country’s Interior Minister, has given the group “two options only: voluntary deportation or sitting in prison” (Beaumont, 2018). Africans are thus framed as a security threat, and right-wing Israelis have at times chanted angry slogans toward Africans such as “Infiltrators, get out of our homes” and “Our streets are no longer safe for our children” (Sherwood, 2012). While Deri does not himself use hateful language toward Africans, he has provided channels to “legitimately” express anger towards the group. There are also reports that Deri lied to Israeli citizens, exaggerating the scale of immigration that was occurring (Eldar, 2018). In his defence, Deri claimed he has “compassion toward them [migrants], but I am responsible for the poor of my city. Little Israel can’t include everyone” (Eldar, 2018). Thus, Deri has moved, when speaking of African immigrants, from a discourse emphasizing Sephardic victimhood, to one which calls for the defence of Israel from invaders. Defending his anti-immigrant stance, Deri remarked, “This is the right policy to ease the suffering of residents in south Tel Aviv and other neighbourhoods where the infiltrators reside […] My duty is to return peace and quiet to south Tel Aviv and many neighbourhoods across the country” (Berger, 2017). This frames Tel Aviv as a capital for those who demonstrate “Israeliness” and where intruders are not welcome.

In line with Shas’s softer stance on Arabs and Palestinians, Deri has shown sympathy toward Arabs. For example, in 2013 he visited Abu Ghosh where a vandalized wall read “Arabs out,” which Deri criticized by saying that it was morally equal to “Jews out” (Ynet, 2013). “This is not a phenomenon within religious Zionism or in the Haredi sector,” Deri said of the vandalization, rather “the people at whom this was directed have lived with us for centuries. They even fought in our ranks” (Ynet, 2013). The presence of Palestinian workers has also been justified by Deri, who remarked that “they [the Palestinians] don’t come to live here in Tel Aviv. Palestinians are the ‘poor of your city’—when they have it better, we’ll have it better” (Eldar, 2018). However, at the same time Shas has also expressed anti-Arab sentiments. In 2017, as Interior Minister, Deri made the decision to strip Alaa Raed Ahmad Zayoud, an Arab Israeli, of his citizenship after he want on a rampage with a knife injuring four people (Wilfor, 2018). Bennett (2017) notes that this step of taking away citizenship of non-Jews citizens is a highly problematic trend in Israel and is used by ultra-Zionists in order to “purify” the land of non-Jews.

Having risen to power, the charismatic Deri, once the “kingmaker” of Israeli politics, was embroiled in a corruption scandal for accepting bribes while he was the Interior Minister. After nearly two years in prison, he was released in 2002. Jail, however, did not end his political career. Deri’s party rallied behind him and denied the bribery accusations and later claimed the conviction was part of an Ashkenazi conspiracy targeting Deri because he was a “rising Sephardic star” (Leon, 2011: 102). This victimhood narrative was used to propagate the idea that secularists and Ashkenazis were again persecuting Shas and the Sephardic community. Deri made a comeback to politics in 2013 and, through Shas’ coalition with Likud, secured significant positions in the government for members of his party. However, when the Likud government lost power in the 2021 elections, Deri and Shas elected to enter Knesset as part of the opposition. In 2022, Deri was forced to leave politics after being accused of tax fraud. 

Shalom Cohen

Rabbi Shalom Cohen assumed Shas’ spiritual leadership in 2014 following Ovadia Yosef’s death. Despite this, Ovadia Yosef remains a key figure whose image is often displayed by the party, and Rabbi Cohen does not enjoy the same esteem or popularity as his predecessor (Hoffman, 2022). Rabbi Cohen is known for his unapologetic stance on Modern Orthodox Judaism and secular Israeli Jews (Ettinger, 2014a; Ungar-Sargon, 2014). A Sephardi himself with links to the Iraqi Jewish community, Cohen is nearing his 90s but maintains a hold on the day-to-day running of the Sephardic community’s religious schools and is involved in spiritually guiding Shas (Ettinger, 2014c). Cohen represents a side of Shas cruder in its religious populism, and less diplomatic and more dogmatic in nature. Unlike Deri, who is a seasoned and pragmatic politician, the rabbi is less accepting of deviations from Sephardic Orthodoxy and openly hostile toward certain migrant groups and Arab Muslims.

The most prominent targets of Cohen’s ire have been the Bayit Yehudi party and Naftali Bennett, the present Prime Minster of Israel. Before rising to power in the Knesset, Bennet was a member of the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home Party) and the Yamina coalition of far-right parties, both rooted in Modern Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Cohen opposed Yamina and the Jewish Home, comparing the latter to the “tribe of Amalek,” a people the Torah claims were wiped out by the Israelites (Ungar-Sargon, 2014). Rabbi Cohen’s quarrel with Modern Orthodox Judaism, and the political parties associated with the movement, are the product of the movement’s combining Judaism, Zionism, and a program of secular modernization (Eleff &Schacter, 2016; Singer, 1989). This movement is thus antithetical to Haredi Judaism and its rigid approach to the halakha (Jewish law) and culture. This has led Rabbi Cohen to condemn Modern Orthodox Judaism in extremely negative terms and to criticize the political parties with which it is associated. Soon after assuming the position of Shas’ spiritual leader in 2014, Cohen told followers that the “Bayit Yehudi party is going to hell…God wants us to stay away from them. They will pursue their nonsense. We will pursue our holy Torah” (Ungar-Sargon, 2014). This defensive posture is a clear indication of their drawing a line between the culture and beliefs of the “others” and the correct beliefs of the “pure people.”

Activists of different Israeli political parties agitating to vote for the their party by the elections polling station in Holon, Israel on March 23, 2021. Photo: Roman Yanushevsky.

The long-lasting period of Likud-led coalition governments came to an end in 2021. Having lost their position in a government coalition, Shas’ spiritual leader warned all party members to maintain a distance from the government and urged them to believe in a God of “divine providence.” After the 2021 elections the rabbi warned,

Someone who turns [to the government] to get assistance or [to advance] his interests desecrates God’s name and no blessing will come to him […] There is absolutely no need to turn to the government [for assistance], God will ensure that we will not want from anything (Sharon, 2021).

Cohen further warned party members that the new government was anti-Judaic, claiming that it was a government for uprooting religion and Judaism,” and that Shas must be united to topple “this wicked government” and preserve Judaism and its traditions in the Land of Israel, “for the sake of the pure education of the children of Israel and to strengthen the yeshivas” (Sharon, 2021).

After the sermon the attending Shas MPs vowed that they would “not allow those who denounce us to confuse and divide us with tricks, excuses and different explanations, as if their goal is really to take care of those who fear God” (Sharon, 2021).

In addition to defining Shas’s political direction, the rabbi has been quite active in defining for his followers what is and what is not permitted in Judaism. Cohen’s sermons have thus focused on demonizing the lifestyles and ideological approaches embraced by other orthodox Jewish communities, Zionists, and secularists. He has opposed many aspects of modernity, calling upon young men to avoid smartphone use and instead to use that time to study the Torah; he also warned women not to enter higher education because it is not the “way of the Torah” (The Economist, 2015; Ettinger, 2014b). Rabbi Cohen commanded “women students” to “not even think of enrolling in academic studies in any setting whatsoever” (Ettinger, 2014b). Because Shas adheres to an ultra-orthodox doctrine, their use of internet is presumably limited—nor are there any investigations into this aspect of their discourse (Fader, 2017; Campbell, 2011).

Campbell (2011) suggests that “Fears expressed, primarily by ultra-Orthodox groups, shows religious leaders often attempt to constrain Internet use to minimize its potential threat to religious social norms and the structure of authority,” and the author concludes that this area remains under-researched. An opponent of mainstream Israeli Zionism, Cohen questioned the need for an Israeli army, when it was obvious that “it is God almighty who protects Israel” through the prayers of his supporters (Jerusalem Post, 2014).

In 2021, when over 200 Palestinians were killed in the escalating Gaza conflict, the rabbi met UAE’s ambassador to Israel (New Arab, 2021). During this meeting, in line with the orthodox school of Sephardi theology, Rabbi Cohen referred to the unrest around the Al-Aqsa Mosque by saying, “The issue of the Temple Mount isn’t for us. The Arabs are in charge there” (New Arab, 2021). This is an important point: anti-Arab rhetoric is never expressed by Cohen, suggesting his major enemies are within the Jewish faith and community itself. Thus, his populism is primarily concerned with creating a division not between Jewish people and Arabs, but between his Jews who follow the “correct” form of Judaism—a Judaism rooted in Shas’ understanding of Sephardic culture and its belief systems—and Jews who follow the incorrect form of Judaism. At the same time, Shas is a deeply pragmatic party, and has tempered its populism and challenge to Ashkenazi political and economic power by joining forces with Likud and other parties in coalition governments and supporting much of their legislation.

Conclusion

Shas’ religious populism is based upon religious and ethnic classifications of groups, yet it contains strange tensions and contradictions. At times, Shas constructs an ingroup which includes the entire Jewish population of Israel, especially when the party’s officials claim that African immigrants are a threat to Israeli society, or when Ovadia Yosef called upon Israel to destroy the Palestinians (Filc, 2016; BBC, 2001). Most often, however, the party is very specific about which peoples belong within its ingroup, and which must be excluded. The core members of Shas’ ingroup are the Sephardic community, especially economically disadvantaged Sephardic Jews, and members of the Haredi community. Shas claims that this ingroup represents both the oppressed people of Israel, who suffer under the rule of religious and secular Ashkenazi elites, but also the people who practice Judaism in its pure and correct form. Thus, it is these non-Sephardic “elites” who represent, for Shas, the ultimate “other.”

Arabs and Muslims, while not included within the core ingroup, are rarely—at least under the party’s present leadership—demonized by Shas. Moreover, at times Aryeh Deri has expressed empathy for the Arabs, in whom he appears to see a reflection of the Sephardic people’s weak social and economic position within Israel. In a similar way, Rabbi Shalom Cohen’s major quarrel is not with Muslims or Palestinians but with forms of Judaism and Zionism he believes to be antithetical to the “true” Judaism of his own Haredi community.

Shas’ populism is therefore somewhat enigmatic but may be said to possess a vertical dimension in which an ethno-religious Ashkenazi “elite” is said to be economically and socially dominating “the people” (i.e. the Sephardic and Haredi communities), and a horizontal dimension in which misguided Jews who follow incorrect forms of Judaism, secularists, African immigrants, and sometimes Arab Muslims and Palestinians, are portrayed as threats to the “true” Judaism represented by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

For Shas, Israel is not merely a nation-state in which many Jewish people live. It is a sacred land which ought to be run according to authentic Jewish laws and customs. Secularism and modern Orthodox Judaism are antithetical, according to Shas, to the “true” Judaism which the party represents—and therefore must be opposed. Moreover, Shas “is not beholden to mainstream ideas of ‘Israeliness’ defined by ‘secular European Zionism,’ but is rather closer to the ‘Sephardic ultra-Orthodox worldview’” (Filc, 2016: 176). Thus, the party’s leaders sometimes express scepticism of national anthems, national armies, and anything which comes out of modern secular nationalism rather than Sephardic Jewish traditions. And Shas’ goal of “Restoring the Crown—of the Torah—to its Ancient Glory” presupposes the destruction of secular nationalism in Israel and its replacement with (Sephardic) Jewish religious nationalism. Ultimately, though, Shas is a pragmatic party happy to work with Likud and other Ashkenazi-dominated Zionist parties in the Knesset and to pass their legislation when in power.

Shas demonstrates a unique case of a well synchronized relationship between a political party and the synagogue, which together have constructed a religious populism. Religion, above all, gives Shas’ leaders the power to evoke dangerous and powerful emotions in their followers. Shas’ leaders attempt to evoke negative feelings in followers by using scriptural references to attack secularists and adherents of modern Orthodox Judaism, portraying them as impure followers of an incorrect religious doctrine antithetical to authentic Judaism. Deri and Cohen portray secular Ashkenazi “elites” as the enemies of the Sephardic community and tell their followers that they are oppressed and kept poor because these “elites” despise their religious views and identity. The Sephardic and Haredi communities are thus encouraged to feel a sense of victimhood and to believe that their enemies are conspiring to keep them impoverished. This sense of victimhood is then further used to legitimize Shas’ rhetoric and policies. Ashkenazi secularists, in particular, are held to be a danger to not merely the Sephardic community but to Israel itself because they do not trust in God; instead, they put their faith in armies and weapons.

Modern Orthodox Judaism, too, according to Rabbi Cohen, is a danger to Israeli society. He claims that the new Naftali Bennett-led Israeli government is attacking Judaism, and that therefore Shas must oppose his evil government at every turn. At the same time, Deri portrays African immigrants—most of whom are Christian or Muslim—as a threat to Israeli society as a whole and demands their eviction from the country. In exaggerating the threat posed by Africans, Deri seeks to create a sense of fear in his followers and to convince them that they face an immigration crisis which has the potential to destroy Israel’s economy. It is important to note that while there is an ethno-religious aspect to Deri’s call for the expulsion of (non-Jewish) Africans from Israel, his primary justification for his anti-immigrant policies is that African immigrants are bad for the Israeli economy and a major source of violent crime. In other words, being non-Jewish is not the primary reason Deri calls for Africans’ expulsion from Israel.

While Shas’ present leadership choose not to demonize Palestinians in their respective discourses, the party’s alliance with Likud and past comments by Rabbi Yosef indicate an underlying hostility to the Palestinian people. Yosef sought to encourage feelings of hate toward Palestinians among his followers in order to justify Israeli military action in Gaza and the West Bank. Rabbi Moshe Shafi, editor of Shas’ newspaper, even claimed that Arab Israelis were somehow a threat to the Jewish family, an attempt to create a sense of fear and panic in supporters which might justify his exclusionary rhetoric. Shas, therefore, at times supports and at other times demonizes Arabs. When demonizing them as intruders or terrorists, Shas’ leaders seek to use the Arab “threat” to create a sense of fear and crisis in their followers; conversely, when showing sympathy for Arabs they seek to use them as yet another example of Ashkenazi secular-nationalist oppression.

Equally, LBGTQ+ Israelis are portrayed by Shas’ leaders as deviants who pose a threat to Israel and the Jewish way of life and must therefore be feared and despised. This language has led indirectly to violence and murder, which demonstrates the power and significance of Shas’ emotional rhetoric and the party’s ability to evoke feelings of fear and rage in their supporters. While Shas demonizes its enemies, it portrays its supporters as a virtuous community that represents the true Judaism and seeks to restore Sephardic pride and power within Israel. In doing so, it attempts to evoke feelings of pride and self-righteousness within its key constituencies, which can be instrumentalized when Shas seeks to mobilize its supporters.

Since its high point in 1999, Shas has consistently failed to increase its share of the vote and struggles to win more than eight or nine seats in the Knesset. Unable to appeal beyond the Sephardic and Haredi communities, it has largely accepted its role as a junior partner in Likud-dominated coalitions or in opposition. Despite this, the party continues to rely on a populist appeal to its key religio-ethnic constituency to galvanize support and maintain its position in the Knesset. And despite another scandal engulfing Deri, it is likely that a large number of his supporters will interpret Deri’s removal from parliament as further proof that Israel’s “elites” are all too eager to persecute Haredi and Sephardic Jews.


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Demonstrators protest against corona regulations in front of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany on August 1, 2020. Photo: Berit Kessler.

Hearts, Trees, Hymns, and Hate: Populist Mixed Messages

The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too. In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did. 

By Heidi Hart

On a gusty afternoon in Berlin, police vans lined up near the Neptune Fountain. A small crowd gathered, enthusiastically hugging without masks. Some came in costume, as a prince in a fuzzy cape covered with hearts or as an inflatable Super Mario. Others carried Berlin Haupstadt flags, a green-and-white flag proclaiming parental care, or flags emblazoned with the Coronavirus emblem, a heart at its center, and the words “FREEDOM PARADE.” Everyone in the group seemed to know each other, except for a man in a facemask wearing a placard saying “#vollständig immunisiert” (“completely immunized”) who moved silently through the group of performative huggers. 

Demonstrations against Covid-19 measures have continued throughout Germany since 2020, with several hundred protesters and counter-protesters in cities from Düsseldorf to Freiburg the first weekend in February (Die Zeit, 2022). In Berlin, the gathering of hearts and hugs began with a group on the fountain steps singing “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that originated in William Wilberforce’s moment of conscience against the slave trade in the late 18th century (Apted and Metaxas, 2007). The hymn has been taken up by congregations and musicians all over the political spectrum, but it sounded especially at odds with what became, more and more clearly, a forum for populist rage. 

Protest against Covid-19 measures in Berlin. Photo: Heidi Hart.

The protest’s first speaker thanked the police and warned that violence is never a solution, as some Berlin Covid-measures protests have indeed turned violent this past year (Associated Press, 2021). Still using a polite voice, the speaker made a point of stating that social distance requirements were “only because of the police” and that facemasks “do not actually work.” The second speaker took a completely different tone, her voice growing hoarse as she shouted into the microphone that “this is a war like any other war,” that “these dangerous Corona-measures are harming society,” and that “they are no different from Stalinism or fascism” (translations mine). 

On the fringes of the main crowd with their peace-and-love imagery belying their angry agenda, black-clad nationalists with German flags carried their own implicit message. The coincidence of far-right and anti-vaccine/mask protest cultures has been common in Germany, often erupting in racist rhetoric, too (Källgren, 2022). In Berlin, onlookers approached from Alexanderplatz, some obviously confused by the collision of hearts, hugs, and an amplified voice that quickly reached a screaming pitch. Anyone familiar with the sound of Hitler’s speeches would have shuddered, as I did. 

The conflation of “Stalinism” and “fascism” with reference to Covid measures is common in the US, too, and clearly shows a lack of understanding about political terms, not to mention history. Hannah Arendt found links between the two forms of political oppression in her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism, noting the difference between the terror-and-control mindset of totalitarianism and autocratic regimes that pursue political power without employing “crackpots and fools” (Arendt, 1951: 416). But Communist thinking and fascist thinking are still profoundly different, with the latter raising a far uglier head in the current global turn toward populist nationalism. Complicating this picture even further is the co-opting of historical imagery out of context, particularly in the US.

Recently in the state of Utah, in a county known for its Latter-day Saint conservatism, a local government meeting shocked a local journalist and rippled into social media by displaying a Pine Tree flag. This flag, with origins as protest against the British monarchy during the American Revolution, included a phrase by John Locke, “An Appeal to Heaven.” The idea is that, as Locke applied biblical conflicts to his own time, the highest authority is not an earthly king but “the supreme judge of all men” (Locke, 1690, Chapter 3 Sect. 20-21). This motto and the pine tree image have become part of the iconography of Christian nationalism in the US, appearing at the January 6 insurrection and even flying in the Arizona state house as of January 2022.

Like the appropriation of “Amazing Grace” in the Berlin protest, the use of Revolutionary War imagery in the context of anti-vaccine, anti-mask local government meetings is not neutral. Ideology is “sticky” and attaches easily to images and songs (Kramer, 2012) that have their own sensory power, dragging cultural associations along with them. Just as Hitler’s propaganda machine took up Beethoven’s music as a nationalist soundtrack, ignoring the composer’s own commitment to French Revolutionary values and later repudiation of Napoleon (Lee, 2018), nationalist groups today co-opt cultural materials out of context and attach their own meanings to them. 

Material elements of religion have a particular charisma that can be especially tempting to plug into political rhetoric, on the spectrum from pagan nativism to Christian hymns and salvation stories used by populist groups (see Zúquete, 2017). The Pine Tree flag calls up associations not only with a far-right version of Revolutionary War history but also, for Christians generally, images of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and for Latter-day Saints, the Tree of Life seen in a dream in their Book of Mormon scriptures. Cultivating these associations makes far-right adherents feel at home in their imagery, however far it has traveled from its sources. 

Adapting and re-contextualizing familiar material is of course how human culture works, from novel-to-film treatments to mythology re-imagined in video games. The field of adaptation studies is well established, examining processes of media transformation as creative in themselves and even dialogic between source and adapted material (Bruhn, 2013). Ethical concerns arise, though, when a song, motto, or image is appropriated with cultural disrespect or in the service of harmful political movements (music in advertising is of course another, but related, subject). A number of well-known musicians have sued or censured Donald Trump for using their songs in his rallies, for example (Solender, 2020). 

But sometimes the mixing of cultural media, even when messy, can lead to critical thinking and care rather than lockstep ideology. In contrast to the mixed messaging at the Berlin anti-Covid-measures protest, a recent performance at the city’s Komische Oper combined iconic German and Turkish poetry and song with the intention to explore questions of migration and vulnerability, not to push a particular agenda. This production, Üçüncü mevki – Im Wagen dritter Klasse(“In the Third-class Car”), set poetry by Nazim Hikmet and Turkish popular songs in motion with texts by Bertolt Brecht and other 20th-century German poets. A Turkish-German dialogue in a train car, with the actors sometimes speaking both languages simultaneously, formed a backdrop to the musicians and singers all wearing white onstage. 

The “we are all migrants” idea, and the blending of Brecht’s words about wartime mourning with the voicing of hüzün, a particular sensation of sadness in Turkish culture, did not quite work, as they come from different backgrounds. Still, that uneasy fit made for an important conversation with my Brecht-scholar friend who attended the performance with me. He reacted with his own sense of melancholy about the loss of the German Hausmusik tradition, in which friends and neighbors gather and sing along with music they all know. We watched as many in the audience rose, sang, and danced with the Turkish songs performed onstage, celebrating café favorites like Tarkan’s “Şımarık” (“Kiss Kiss”). 

In a time when Turkey, too, is threatened with ongoing anti-democratic populism, the singing of popular (and of course there is a difference) songs in Berlin was cathartic in the best sense, especially in an opera house usually offering Eurocentric fare. The mood onstage and in the audience was genuinely joyful, not exaggerated like the hugging at the Neptune Fountain protest. No one shouted into a microphone. The mood was one of welcome, not fear, even though we all wore masks.  

References

Arendt, Hannah. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism. Harcourt Harvest Books.

Bruhn, Jørgen. (2013). “Dialogising Adaptation Studies: From One-way Transport to Dialogic Two-way Process.” In Bruhn et al., Eds., Adaptation Studies: New Challenges, New Directions.  Bloomsbury Academic, 69-88.

Locke, John. (1690). Second Treatise of Government. Digitized Version, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/7370/7370-h/7370-h.htm.

Kramer, Lawrence. (2012). Keynote address, Ideology in Words and Music conference, Word and Music Association Forum, Stockholm University. 

Zúquete, Jose Pedro. (2017). “Populism and Religion.” In: Kaltwasser et al., Eds., The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Oxford University Press.  DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198803560.013.22.

Santiago Abascal, leader of the extreme right Spanish party VOX at an election rally in Casetellon, Spain in October 2019. Photo: Aitor Serra Martin.

Populism and Islamophobia in Spain: from Podemos to Vox

Podemos boasts “inclusive populism in terms of minorities and vulnerable groups” in which we include Islam and Arab-Islamic immigration in Spain. In contrast, the links between Islamophobia and the Spanish far-right are more explicit. However, Vox’s electoral success is a response to its marked opposition to the Catalan secessionist movement, rather than other key factors seen in the discourse of the radical right-wing in other European countries, such as immigration, economic decline, and political distrust. The party has also used opposition to feminism, abortion, gay marriage, multiculturalismillegal immigration, and Muslim immigration as campaign slogans.

By Alfonso Corral*

The 2011 Indignados Movement (also known as 15M), which sought to put an end to the crisis of Spain’s two-party system (Socialist Party and Popular Party) and revitalise democracy, was gradually diluted in favour of extreme left-wing populism. In this sense, Podemos has set itself up as the guarantor of these ideals. One only has to read their website to be aware of their ideology: anti-elitism (against banks, large corporations and big fortunes), ecological transition, revolution in the care economy, eradication of structural chauvinism, reversal of Spain’s rural depopulation, improved social rights (decent and stable work, sufficient pensions, affordable housing, quality public health care), and increased public investment in innovation and employment. 

It should be remembered that the first electoral results of Podemos correspond to the European elections of 2014, in the year it was founded, when the party led by Pablo Iglesias was the fourth most popular alternative, securing 8 percent of the vote. Since then, Podemos has made progress in almost all the elections in which it has participated, often in conjunction with other similar parties (it has formed alliances with communist and regionalist groups, for example), to the point of winning mayoral seats and pacts in Spain’s autonomous governments, (Font, Graziano & Tsakatika, 2021). However, its greatest triumph was undoubtedly in 2019 when it became part of the current Spanish government in coalition with the Socialist Party presided over by Pedro Sánchez. 

The gradual entrenchment of Podemos brought with it the confirmation of another socio-political phenomenon: the strengthening of Vox, in other words, extreme right-wing populism. It is true that Vox was founded in 2013, a year earlier than Podemos, but it should be noted that its influence was somewhat marginal during its first five years of life. The turning point for the party led by Santiago Abascal came in the 2018 regional elections in Andalusia, when they managed to gain their very first foothold in a regional parliament. A year later, Abascal’s party established itself in the national parliament in both of the general elections held while in April they won 24 of the 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies (10.3 percent of the votes), in the November rerun they managed to win 52 seats (15.2 percent of the votes). These latest results ratified Vox as the third political force in Spain, behind only the Socialist Party and the Popular Party (Castro Martínez & Mo Groba, 2020; Lava Santos, 2021).  

In the document 100 measures for a living Spain (2018), Vox elucidates what could well be its ideological basis. Its political programme aims to provide solutions to the challenges that most concern Spanish society: “The unity of Spain, the destruction of the middle class, high taxes, the security of our borders, and the curtailment of freedoms.” According to Turnbull-Dugarte (2019), Vox’s electoral success is a response to its marked opposition to the Catalan secessionist movement, rather than other key factors seen in the discourse of the radical right-wing in other European countries, such as immigration, economic decline, and political distrust. However, the party has also used opposition to feminism, abortion, gay marriage, multiculturalism, illegal immigration, and Muslim immigration as campaign slogans. Nevertheless, Abascal’s party exalts a certain ethnic nationalism and an ostensible anti-globalism, hence its Euroscepticism and its rejection of immigration, especially from Arab-Islamic countries, as well as large technological corporations and other global players that interfere in domestic affairs (Ferreira, 2019; Rydgren, 2017; Akkerman, 2018; Zúquete, 2017). And in Spain itself, along with Catalan independence, Vox is self-affirming in its antagonism towards ETA terrorism, communism, and the left in general (Vázquez Barrio, 2021). 

In terms of populism being coupled with Islamophobia, as we have suggested, in the case of Vox this is more apparent than for Podemos. However, Martín Corrales (2004) considers that the Islamophilia of the Spanish left offers a paradox: in their educational and good-natured campaign in favour of tolerance and solidarity with regard to certain causes (Amazigh, Kurdish, Sahrawi and Palestinian peoples, etc.), these parties rarely mention the religion practised by the parties involved. In his opinion, this discursive logic “conceals many ambiguities and more than a few ideological traps.” Indeed, this is where their silence on other controversial issues such as the arrival of illegal immigrants, the management of the unaccompanied minors, Islamism, the issue of headscarves and jihadism comes in. All of this results in a kind of latent Islamophobia, aligned according to Gil-Benumeya (2018) around three main issues: international politics, secularism, and liberal feminism. In any case, Podemos boasts “inclusive populism in terms of minorities and vulnerable groups” (Alonso-Muñoz & Casero-Ripollés, 2021), in which we include Islam and Arab-Islamic immigration in Spain. 

In contrast, the links between Islamophobia and the Spanish far-right are more explicit. To demonstrate this, we need only look back at the findings of one of our studies that explored the production of Vox’s main Twitter account in January 2021, coinciding with the pre-campaign for the Catalan parliamentary elections held in February of that year. Among the 118 tweets and retweets dealing with issues linked to Islam or migration, the hashtag #StopIslamisation (#StopIslamisation) appeared 29 times. This word cloud shows the recurrent use of other terms associated with Islam (mosque, Islamist, fundamentalist…), with migration (menas or unaccompanied migrant minors…), with the negative aspects of immigration (illegal, mafias, invasion, security…), with geography (Catalonia, Spain…), with institutions and ideologies (government, separatism, left…), and finally with populism (neighbourhoods, ours, streets, culprits…). 

Reading some of these tweets is even more revealing. In particular, it is worth looking at these three messages posted by the Vox account between January 11-18, 2021, which link to three news items in the newspapers El MundoLa Razón and ABC. Firstly: “The jihadists arrested in Barcelona arrived in Spain by patera via Almeria and were ready to attack. The government allows potential terrorists to enter our country illegally every day. It shall be held responsible for what happens.” Secondly: “Daesh orders attacks on churches and police in Spain: the infiltration of jihadists in the pateras has increased the risk of attacks. Only VOX has demanded the application of National Security law in the face of the migratory invasion. The rest of the parties opposed it.” Finally: “They introduce Islam into schools in Catalonia. But they don’t let you choose Spanish as a vehicular language [as opposed to Catalan, for teaching purposes]. Let’s be clear, separatism is Hispanophobia and submission to Islam”.

If these samples are not enough, we can also examine one of the videos produced by Vox to attract voters, which first appeared in a retweet to the account of Ignacio Garriga, the Vox candidate in Catalonia. We are talking about a highly accusatory and anti-Islamic document constructed using an Arabic melody, the classic Allahu Akbar, news headlines and stills full of Islamic motifs (veils, beards, nicabs, mosques, imams, djellabas, etc.), arrests, and the August 2017 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. It can be deduced that through this piece they wanted to show that Islam and immigration of Arab-Islamic origin are a problem that must be eradicated in Catalonia. In fact, at the end of the video, they display the image of the billboard that Vox installed in front of the mosque in Palafrugell (Girona), topped with this slogan: “Separatism takes us to the Islamic Republic of Catalonia.” In this campaign, Vox modified the Catalan pro-independence flag, changing the original star for a crescent moon. 

In response to this rhetoric, Twitter temporarily blocked the official Vox account. This happened only one day after the first use of #StopIslamisation, on January 28, 2021. However, it should be remembered that, through these messages, Vox’s influence in Catalonia grew to make it the fourth largest political force in the region. In this respect, it seems timely to prepare for the upcoming national elections. Will Islam and Muslim groups be one of the key issues in the candidates’ debates?

(*) Alfonso Corral is a lecturer at Instituto de Humanismo y Sociedad, Universidad San Jorge (USJ), Spain. He received his Ph.D. in communication at the USJ in 2017. In 2018, he received the Extraordinary Doctorate Prize. He performs his work in the group migrations, interculturality and human development (MIDH). His areas of study are communication and Arab-Islamic World, Islamophobia, media discourses about immigration and immigrant integration. Dr. Corral is currently working on populism and Islamophobia on Twitter.

References

Akkerman, T. (2018). “Partidos de extrema derecha y políticas de inmigración en la UE” [Far-right parties and immigration policies in the EU]. In: J. Arango, R. Mahía, D. Moya and E. Sánchez-Montijano (eds.). Inmigración y Asilo, en el Centro de la Arena Política. Anuario CIDOB de la Inmigración 2018. Barcelona: CIDOB. 48-62.

Alonso-Muñoz, Laura & Casero-Ripollés, Andreu. (2021): “¿Buscando al culpable? La estrategia discursiva en Twitter de los actores políticos populistas europeos en tiempos de crisis” [Looking for the Guilty? The Discursive Strategy on Twitter of the European Populist Political Actors in Times of Crisis]. Cultura, Lenguaje y Representación, 26, 29-45.

Castro Martínez, Paloma and Mo Groba, Diego. (2020). “El issue de la inmigración en los votantes de VOX en las elecciones generales de noviembre de 2019” [The issue of immigration for VOX voters in the November 2019 general elections]. RIPS: Revista de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociológicas, 19(1), 39-58.

Ferreira, Carles. (2019). “Vox como representante de la derecha radical en España: Un estudio sobre su ideología” [Vox as a representative of the radical right in Spain: A study of its ideology]. Revista Española de Ciencia Política, 51, 73-98.

Font, Nuria, Graziano, Paolo and Tsakatika, Myrto. (2021). “Varieties of Inclusionary Populism? SYRIZA, Podemos and the Five Star Movement.” Government and Opposition, 56, 163-183. 

Gil-Benumeya, Daniel. (2018). “Viejas políticas y nuevos racismos. La izquierda frente a la islamofobia” [Old politics and new racisms. The Left facing Islamophobia]. Revista de Estudios Internacionales Mediterráneos, 24, 49-70.

Lava Santos, David. (2021). “Estrategias populistas y temáticas en Twitter. Estudio comparativo de la campaña electoral en las elecciones catalanas de 2021” [Populist and thematic strategies on Twitter. Comparative study of the electoral campaign in the Catalan elections of 2021]. Revista Más Poder Local, 44, 54-80. 

Martín Corrales, Eloy. (2004). “Maurofobia/islamofobia y maurofilia/islamofilia en la España del siglo XXI” [Maurophobia/Islamophobia and Maurophilia/Islamophilia in Spain in the 21st century]. Revista CIDOB d’Afers Internacionals, 66–67, 39-51.

Rydgren, Jens. (2017). “Radical right-wing parties in Europe. What’s populism got to do with it?” Journal of Language and Politics, 16(4), 485-496.

Turnbull-Dugarte, Stuart J. (2019). “Explaining the end of Spanish exceptionalism and electoral support for Vox.” Research and Politics, 6(2), 1-8.

Vázquez Barrio, Tamara. (2021). “Populism in the 2019 general elections. Analysis of the speeches by the three right-wing candidates on Twitter.” Communication & Society, 34(1), 123-141.

Zúquete, José Pedro. (2017). “The European extreme-right and Islam: New directions?” In: C. Mudde (ed.). The Populist Radical Right: A Reader. London: Routledge. 103-123.

Supporters of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) chant slogans as they protest against the arrest of their leader in Lahore, Pakistan on April 16, 2021. Photo: A.M. Syed

Religious Populism and Vigilantism: The Case of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

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

 

Abstract

Religious populism and radicalism are hardly new to Pakistan. Since its birth in 1947, the country has suffered through an ongoing identity crisis. Under turbulent political conditions, religion has served as a surrogate identity for Pakistan, masking the country’s evident plurality, and over the years has come to dominate politics. Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is the latest face of religious extremism merged with populist politics. Nevertheless, its sporadic rise from a national movement defending Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws to a “pious” party is little understood. 

This paper draws on a collection of primary and secondary sources to piece together an account of the party’s evolution that sheds light on its appeal to “the people” and its marginalization and targeting of the “other.” The analysis reveals that the TLP has evolved from a proxy backed by the establishment against the mainstream parties to a full-fledged political force in its own right. Its ability to relate to voters via its pious narrative hinges on exploiting the emotional insecurities of the largely disenfranchised masses. With violence legitimized under the guise of religion, “the people” are afforded a new sense of empowerment. Moreover, the party’s rhetoric has given rise to a vigilante-style mob culture so much so that individuals inspired by this narrative have killed in plain sight without remorse. To make matters worse, the incumbent government of Imran Khan — itself a champion of Islamist rhetoric — has made repeated concessions and efforts to appease the TLP that have only emboldened the party. Today, the TLP poses serious challenges to Pakistan’s long-standing, if fragile, pluralistic social norms and risks tipping the country into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, head of religous political party Tehreek Labaik Pakistan, speaks to supporters during a protest against the Dutch politician Geert Wilders in Lahore on August 29, 2018. Photo: A.M. Syed.

 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Introduction 

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, 2019The 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 2021Yilmaz, 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 nurturingreligious fanaticism as part of the military-led establishment’s quest for “strategic depth” has created fertile soil for “pious populism” at the grassroots (Meher, 2012). Compared to voices emanating from the remote and “corrupt” political system, the ordinary working-class or rural Pakistani citizen has unquestioning faith in the guidance and direction from the mullah of his or her local mosque. 

In the last three and a half years, growing disillusion with the democratic system has peaked. The party of Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), has promised a utopian vision recalling the Riyasat-e-Madina (the early period of rule in the city of Medina under the Prophet Muhammad), through welfare schemes, promoting piousness in society, and an end to corruption. Needless to say, these promises have not materialized (Shakil & Yilmaz, 2021). With skyrocketing inflation, the PTI walking back many of its promises, and the government proving mostly unable to govern effectively, many citizens have lost hope in the promised political “tsunami.” Against this backdrop, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has evolved from a movement to defend Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws into a populist radical right-wing political party. In less than a decade it is able to challenge the ruling political party and the state apparatus itself, on several occasions.

The instrumentalization of religion that the TLP has proven so adept at is scarcely novel in the Pakistani political firmament. Founded by Khadim Hussain Rizvi in August 2015, the TLP has its origins and largest base of support in the Barelvi sect, a broad, Sufi-oriented Islamic revivalist movement with a long history of mobilizing conservative factions in South Asia and Pakistan. Nevertheless, the TLP is unique in the sense that it uses a highly appealing form of religious populism. The leadership provides a “moral” Islamism that seeks to address the issues of “corruption” in politics and society. With a sense of victimhood, it presents itself as the “defender” of faith and nation laced with vigilante-style vindictive rhetoric. Since 2015, the party has rallied thousands on the streets, leading to violent clashes, and loss of life and property. Each event has led to temporary arrests and bans on the party, only for the state to eventually cave into supporters’ demands and release vigilantes and lift sanctions on the party.

Emboldened by its successive victories, the TLP has grown in power. Its followers have become independent vigilantes engaging in cyber-harassment of critics, physically roughing up opposing voices, hurling in-person targeted abuse, and in the most extreme cases lynching people they accuse of blasphemy to death. This ability to mobilize and attack opponents combined with a voluble rhetoric that panders to a “pious” and wronged “true people,” allowed the TLP to score 4.2 percent of the vote (some 2.2 million votes) at the 2018 general elections, putting it in fifth place, although without any seats in Pakistan’s parliament (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020). 

Despite its sporadic rise to power and mushrooming growth, very little scholarly analysis has been published on the TLP. This paper seeks to address this gap in the literature by analyzing the TLP’s religious populism. In doing so, it offers a comprehensive review of how this populist Islamist populist movement has leveraged emotion and religious devotion to mobilize supporters. The first section of the paper provides an overview of the theoretical framework through which religious populism has been understood and the two central features of the phenomenon: the use of pro-violent narratives and vigilantism. This is followed by a discussion on the TLP’s genesis and the group’s evolution since 2015. In this section, statements by TLP leadership and the party’s dynamic relationship with the Pakistani state are reviewed to shed light on the conditions for its growth and its core mobilizing tactics. The closing section offers a set of conclusions about the role of religious populism in promoting vigilantism and sporadic acts of gruesome violence, the path ahead for Pakistan, and the risk that the country will descend into an even deadlier cycle of political radicalization. 

 

Members of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) are holding protest rally against amending affidavit of Khatam-e-Nabuwat, at M.A Jinnah road on November 12, 2017 in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Religion and Populism 

Loosely characterized as “confrontational, chameleonic, culture-bound and context-dependent” (Arter, 2011: 490), populism has become a worldwide phenomenon that directly challenges liberal democracy. A “thin” ideology, populism “thickens” and adapts by attaching itself to “thicker” cultural and ideological forms (De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017). By its very nature, populism is divisive in that it establishes an antagonistic division between “the people” and “the elite” while promising justice for the former, who are typically cast as “wronged” (Moffitt, 2020De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017Laclau, 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: 180De Cleen & Stavrakakis, 2017Zúquete, 2017: 446Moffitt, 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, 2020Peker, 2019Hadiz, 2018Jaffrelot and Tillin, 2017Zúquete, 2017Roy, 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., 2020Gandesha, 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, 2021Salmela & von Scheve 20172018Brady et al., 2017Graham 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, 2021Bonansinga, 2020). “The people” and their faith (or long-held cultures of worship) are positioned as being at risk from “the other.”

Alongside negative emotions of fear and anxiety, populists also use positive emotions of pride and love of one’s religion and the prospect that one will be rewarded for helping to “make society great again” and for defending one’s faith at all costs (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2021Albayrak, 2013). Taggart (2004) uses the term “heartland” as a descriptor for this emotional space where, as he noted in a recent blog post, populists construct “a version of the past that celebrates a hypothetical, uncomplicated and non-political territory of imagination.” The heightened emotional resonance of “heartland” messages has triggered followers of these populists to undertake quite inhumane measures and overlook the increasingly undemocratic digressions of populists in power. Such acts are seen as just in a quest to reinforce the “heartland” for “the people” (Kissas, 2019Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018Pappas, 2016). 

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, 20212022). 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, 20212022Watmough, 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, 2019Jahroni, 2004). Its massive appeal in the country has meant that while renaming a movement-driven organization, the FPI has played a key role in electoral lobbying and mainstreaming right-wing narratives. Its power to sway state institutions is visible by the fact that it was behind the introduction of 400 Shariah-inspired laws in the country and has the force behind blasphemy protests in 2016–17  (Barton, Yilmaz, & Morieson, 2021). 

The FPI has been able to replicate its presence online, and even though it remains banned, its cyber “warriors” and various websites remain active (Yilmaz & Barton, 2021). Moreover, using charged Islamist populist rhetoric, the FPI has inspired a generation of vigilantes in the country who continue to take part in local (and overseas) incidents of aggression toward various “others” to “protect” the Islamic faith. 

However, it must be noted that Indonesia’s democratic institutions, while often brittle, are much stronger than Pakistan’s. The government has succeeded in permanently banning the FPI and maintaining its outlaw status. In contrast, the TLP remains free to operate in a country with already fragile institutions and a population receptive to Islamist narratives. This paper thus looks at Pakistan’s context and understands the group’s working under the populism framework.

 

A regional office of a TLP in lyari. The Signboards are in Urdu and English in Karachi, Pakistan on January 2021.

The Historical Roots and Evolution of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan

The Barelvi order was formed in the aftermath of the 1857 uprising in India against the British East India Company. Weakened, the company turned to the British government for assistance, and the conflict expanded into a full-scale war of independence against the British crown. The Indian defeat in 1857-8 led to the formal colonization of India by Britain when the last Mughal King, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was deposed, and a series of “revenge” murders by the British troops was undertaken (Dalrymple, 2008). This ushered in the end of centuries of Muslim leadership of the Subcontinent. 

In the wake of the establishment of the British Raj, a broad-based, Sufi-oriented Sunni Islamic revivalist movement, the Barelvi, emerged to “protect” Islam and restore Muslim “glory” in the region. Over the years, the movement has inspired jihadism against the region’s perceived “others.” For instance, Syed Ahmad Barelvi[1] launched a guerrilla war against the Sikh Empire of Punjab in the early nineteenth century; over two hundred years later, thousands of young men were sent as mujahideen to fight the Afghan war in the 1980s. As a result, Barelvi religious doctrine draws on a deep sense of victimhood that extends back to the colonial past. Over time, the movement has adapted, and its definition of “other. Nevertheless, the centrality of jihadist ideas and the movement’s defining motivation to “protect” Islam against hostile forces have been constants. 

In recent years, Pakistan’s commitment to the US “war on terror” has seen the influence of hardliner Deobandi scholars decline. However, the state’s tolerance of madrassa culture and its cultivation of right-wing radicals continues. Indeed, the Pakistani state has embraced the benefits of pandering to a supposedly “victimized” population by supporting the “softer” Sufi elements in Islam, of which Barelvism is a part. As a result, Barelvi clerics have been placed in important positions, their madrassas have received state funding, and the Barelvi identity, which had been solidified due to exclusion and deprivation, has strengthened through state patronage. For their part, the Barelvis have publicly condemned terrorism and, by all accounts, have consciously avoided inciting political chaos in recent decades. Nevertheless, despite its Sufi roots, the movement hues to very strident positions, seeing the Holy Prophet as a divine being (Noor Mohammadiya) who is omnipresent (Hazir-o-Nazir) and arguing that insults of the Prophet (Namoos-e-Risalat) should be punished by death. Emboldened in this way, the movement has become more assertive and has turned violent of late. 

The origins of the TLP movement are in the Tehreek Rihai Mumtaz Qadri (Movement to Free Mumtaz Qadri), which came into existence after the arrest of Mumtaz Qadri in 2011 on charges of assassinating Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, ostensibly for the latter’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Following Qadri’s trial and execution, the movement renamed itself Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasoolallah (TLYP), later transforming into the TLP (Sabat, Ahmad, & Qadar, 2020). This movement advocated for Qadri and portrayed him as a hero even after this execution. The movement derives its core support from Barelvi madrassas dotted across the country. 

In the conducive environment for the Barelvis, supporters of Mumtaz Qadri grew in numbers. The movement consolidated at his funeral and later rituals associated with chehlum (the traditional forty days of mourning after death), branding him a martyr of Islam. The movement grew rapidly, affording the largely dispersed Barelvi community a publicly expressed collective identity. Opposition to blasphemy became the central aspect of the movement’s motivation, and where the judicial system was seen as too slow in its prosecution of violators (at times even acquitting them), the TLP applied direct and swift mob justice.

The incumbent government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) did nothing to reprimand this vigilante behavior at the time, especially following Qadri’s hanging. Embroiled in its own corruption scandals and confronting civil unrest led by Imran Khan and his PTI, the government lacked the will and resources to act. In addition, the PML-N, which draws on the tradition of General Zia-ul-Haq’s political Islam in Pakistan, did not wish to alienate its pious supporters by being seen to be heavy-handed against Islamic groups in society. More importantly, the military-led establishment —which had nurtured Sharif and his party in the 1980s as a counter to the left-leaning Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)  — now settled on the Barelvi as a useful counterweight to the PML-N’s growing independence. After returning to the prime ministership for a third term in 2013, Sharif and his party were increasingly asserting their independence from the establishment, driving the latter to seek ways to “break” the party’s political base. To that end, the establishment began to foment rifts between the PML-N and its right-wing supporter base in Punjab, including the Barelvi. Careful political engineering behind the scenes laid the ground for the formation of the TLP. 

Many TLP members are former PLM-N supporters. A 2018 Gallup survey found that 46 percent of those who voted for the TLP in 2018 had voted for PML-N in the 2013 elections. Nawaz and his party keenly felt this loss of support. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, the Punjab exploded in sporadic province-wide protests led by Khadim Rizvi calling for the resignation of the then Minister of Law and Justice, Zahid Hamid, over changes to the wording of the Elections Bill 2017 drafted by the government in the run-up to the elections.  

Specifically, the government had changed the wording of the oath concerning commitment to the finality of Prophet Muhammad from “I solemnly swear” to “I believe.” The TLP cast this “weakening” of the oath’s wording as undermining Pakistan’s Muslim identity and values, which hinge on the belief in the finality of the Prophet. Zahid Hamid’s home was attacked, and TLP vigilantes staged sit-ins until he was forced to resign over the alleged “blasphemy.” Rizvi and his followers blocked all main roads in Islamabad for twenty days, demanding the original wording be restored and the minister’s resignation. Clashes with police injured some 200 and killed four

The TLP remained undeterred, and the protests turned into highly ritualistic public displays of political piety. Day and night, on the orders of Rizvi, the protesters chanted nats (lyrics praising the Prophet Muhammad) and slogans expressing love for the Prophet and hatred for those considered gustakhs (blasphemers). Passions ran so high that protesters armed with simple sticks were recorded tossing their shoes at passing state patrol helicopters while Rizvi hurled all kinds of abuse at the government. Finally, with the PML-N on its knees, the military was called in to “arbitrate.” The TLP was forced to retreat to its stronghold in Lahore (albeit with its demand met), and the government retreated with its tail between its legs. However, it would not be the last time the radicals would best Sharif before the 2018 elections. 

The 2017 events only emboldened the TLP, which now evidently had the establishment’s blessing. As much was proven when a video surfaced of a high-raking army official disbursing money to TLP protesters in 2017. The establishment claimed the funds were used to disburse the protesters by giving them funds to return to their homes. However, many speculated that this was part of the military’s long-run strategy of “strategic depth” — namely, fomenting unrest to keep the elected government on its toes. 

These suspicions were further confirmed when the Supreme Court finally released its judgment on the sit-ins in February 2019. The judgment held that all protesters be tried under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, and called upon Pakistan’s electoral commission to scrutinize the TLP’s status as a political party. Interestingly, the court issued a warning to the armed forces to cease meddling in the country’s political affairs, noting: “The Constitution emphatically prohibits members of the Armed Forces from engaging in any kind of political activity, which includes supporting a political party, faction or individual. The Government of Pakistan through the Ministry of Defense and the respective Chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force are directed to initiate action against the personnel under their command who are found to have violated their oath.”

By 2018, the TLP had become a household name. It had garnered wide media attention and the sympathies of radical elements in the country. Rizvi’s crude language and earthy charisma proved quite effective. His blunt use of Punjabi jokes and coarse language resonated with the sentiments and approach of the masses. Thus, he could cast himself as “one of them” rather than a phony politician. His speeches went viral on social media, and attendance at the seminary at Multan Road in Lahore blossomed. Like all populists, Rizvi’s rhetoric was unapologetic and provided “simple” solutions. For example, as a “solution” to the problem of Dutch “blasphemers” mocking Islam and the Prophet, he suggested Pakistan attack the Netherlands with nuclear weapons, berating the government for its inaction and its warehousing of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal as if they were “firecrackers” (i.e., just for show). 

When quizzed about the party’s economic policy on a popular television show, Rizvi showcased both his political acumen (using the language of people’s everyday experience) and apparent lack of economic expertise (eschewing detailed policy commitments), noting that when the Nizam-e-Mustafa was established, the country would prosper because the government would, like any ordinary household, just live within its means. He explained this by saying that if his government were ever short of resources, everyone would make do for a while without yogurt and instead eat chilies with roti. However, when further pressed for a specific policy, he launched into a classic rant against the state and blamed banks charging interest and a lack of piety among the elite as the source of all problems. 

Enabling a New Vigilante Jihadism

Despite its apparent disconnect with reality, TLP won some 1.8 million votes (National Assembly seats) in Punjab (Sabat, Shoaib & Qadar, 2020). The same year they also successfully campaigned to remove Atif Mian from the Pakistan Economic Council because he was a member of the Ahmadiyya community. This was the first compromise by the PTI government as it gave into the demands of the TLP. 

At a micro level, more disturbing events occurred even before the elections. Young impressionable children going to TLP mosques and hearing Rizvi’s sermons showed early signs of vigilantism. On January 23, 2018, Sareer Ahmed, a student, killed his school’s principal, who had reprimanded him for skipping classes to attend a TLP sit-in. The boy who showed no remorse after killing his teacher justified his actions in the name of safeguarding the Prophet Muhammad.

In May 2018, PML-N politician and National Assembly Member, Ahsan Iqbal was critically wounded by Abid Hussain,who charged Iqbal with committing blasphemy. It is believed that Iqbal was returning from a meeting with a Christian group when he was shot. In March 2019, Khateeb Hussain, another young student, killed his professor over allegations of blasphemy. The boy did not show any signs of remorse after using a knife to kill his teacher in his classroom. 

On October 31, 2018, the Supreme Court overturned the previous conviction of a Christian woman Aasiya Noreen (popularly known as Asia Bibi), accused of blasphemy. The TLP called for the three judges to be killed for the judgment. Mass protests erupted in retaliation, and roads in major cities were blocked as protesters stormed the streets and destroyed public and private property. On November 2, 2018, the new government agreed to put Asia Bibi’s name on the Exit Control List, which barred her from leaving the country in an effort to subdue the protests. To neutralize the growing resistance on November 4, 2018, Rizvi’s Twitter was also suspended at the government’s request. Bibi’s lawyer also left the country fearing his own life. On November 7, Asia Bibi was secretly flown on a military plane out of the country. 

In 2020, a bank manager from the Ahmadiyya faith was shot dead in broad daylight by the bank’s security guard in the town of Khushab in Punjab. What was more disturbing was the guard being taken handcuffed by the police with a smirk on his face as the mob chanted in support of him for heroism. In 2021, the lynching of the Sri Lankan factory manager by a mob in Sialkot was also TLP inspired. The key culprits in the cases expressed pride in their actions. All these attackers were linked with TLP or inspired by their narrative, yet the TLP chief was quick to disassociate himself from them. 

While TLP has served the establishment (and the PTI) as a valuable counterweight to the PML-N, the party’s freelance vigilantism has become an issue. Now that the PTI is firmly in power and towing the establishment line, the state apparatus has again mobilized against the TLP. As mentioned, in 2019, the Supreme Court openly questioned the party status of the TLP and asked the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to investigate. In reply, the ECP has informed the court that the party had failed to provide the required campaign finance reports for the 2018 elections, blunting the party’s political ambitions. Additionally, there were also rumors of a split between the late Khadim Hussain Rizvi and his heir apparent, Pir Afzal Rizvi, and the movement began to show cracks. 

However, another “crisis” emerged in the winter of 2020 that opened up a space for the TLP to fall back on its tried and tested strategy of leveraging supposed “threats” to Islam to mobilize supporters in vigilante violence. 

In October 2021, a French history teacher who had brought sketches of the Prophet Muhammad allegedly printed in a 2012 edition of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo into his classroom was decapitated; the assailant was shot dead by French police as they tried to arrest him. In the days that followed the beheading, the same sketches were projected onto the facade of a building in another French city, and people displayed them at protests around the country. The French president Emmanuel Macron criticized Islamists and was accused of inciting Islamophobia. This led to a call within Pakistan to boycott French products. Khadim Hussain Rizvi went a step further, calling on followers to block the Shahrah-e-Faisal, the main road in Karachi, until the government cut all diplomatic ties with France and banned all French products. He even urged the government to announce jihad (Islamic holy war) against France. During this period, his sermons were increasingly hostile toward France, and in one, he declared, “we must eventually die of some disease, be it diabetes or some other ailment […]. It is better to die with the name of the Prophet on our lips […] it does not matter if France perishes if the world perishes or we perish.” 

Rizvi has been adept at using the coarse language of his region to castigate opponents. He has labeled the Supreme Court Chief Justice a “dog,” referred to Prime Minister Imran Khan variously as an “animal,” a “duffer,” a “barking dog,” a “pimp,” and mouthed many anti-Semitic slurs. When confronted with his behavior, he has defended himself by declaring he is merely a cipher of the words and vision of the Prophet Mohammed.  

A large numbers of people gathered to attend funeral prayer of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, Chief of TLP, held at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore on on November 21, 2020. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan.

Rizvi’s death in 2020 did not end the movement. His eldest son, Saad Rizvi, who was relatively unknown to the public before taking over the movement’s leadership, has since continued his father’s path. Thus, the death of the elder Rizvi has not derailed the party’s anti-French jihad. On January 3, 2021, he called on the government to expel the French ambassador by February 17, 2021 as per their previous agreement. 

On April 12, 2021, police arrested Saad Rizvi on charges of terrorism. Protests erupted, and a member of the group’s leadership, Syed Zaheerul Hassan Shah, called on supporters to “jam the entire country.” Tensions became so high that the French embassy asked French nationals to leave the country temporarily. Law enforcement agencies tried to clear out TLP supporters from Islamabad and Rawalpindi, but at least four policemen were killed in clashes. This proved to be the final straw for the government, which announced it had “reasonable grounds to believe that Tehreek Labbaik Pakistan is engaged in terrorism.” On April 15, 2021, the government banned the TLP under anti-terrorism legislation. Fearing a backlash from the party supporters, the government also temporarily banned social media. Despite the move to outlaw the party, Prime Minister Imran Khan appeared on national television to call the crackdown on the TLP “regrettable,” thereby showing his sympathy for the group’s criminal acts.

By November 2021, the PTI government appeared to be walking back its hardline approach to the TLP. First, Saad Rizvi’s arrest mobilized unprecedented protest action across the country that the government of Imran Khan struggled to control. Then, at the end of 2021, Saad Rizvi was released from prison. Moreover, many TLP supporters accused of vandalism and violence against police walk free, even as the party prepares to contest the 2023 general elections. Yet, rather than seeing the renewed mobilization of the TLP as a defeat, Imran Khan’s strategy appears to be to placate the movement, pointing to the shared Islamist objectives of his PTI and the TLP.

Illustration by: Khurram Shayzad.

Conclusion

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. 

References

Ahmed, Zahid Shahab Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021). “Islamists and the Incremental Islamisation of Pakistan: The Case of Women’s Rights.” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. 59: 275–95.

Albayrak, Ismail. (2013). “The Other” Among Us: The Perception of Khārijī and Ibāḍī Islam in the Muslim Exegetical Traditions.” Ankara Üniversitesi İlahiyat Fakültesi Dergisi. 54:1, 35-63.

Arter, David. (2011). Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigration Parties in Western Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barton, Greg; Yilmaz, Ihsan & Morieson, Nicholas. (2021). “Religious and Pro-Violence Populism in Indonesia: The Rise and Fall of a Far-Right Islamist Civilisationist Movement.” Religions. 12, no. 6: 397.

Bonansinga, D. (2020). “Who thinks, feels. The relationship btw emotions, politics and populism.” Partecipazione e conflitto. 13, no.1, 83-106.

Brady, W. et al., (2017). “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks.” Proceedings of the NAS. 114, no.28, 7313-7318.

Brubaker, Rogers. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism: The European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40: 1191–226. 

Dalrymple, William. (2008). The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857. Bloomsbury Publishing. 

De Cleen, Benjamin & Stavrakakis, Yannis (2017). “Distinctions and Articulations: A Discourse Theoretical Framework for the Study of Populism and Nationalism.” Javnost: The Public. 24: 301–19.

DeHanas, Daniel Nilsson & Shterin, Marat (2018). “Religion and the rise of populism.” Religion State & Society. 46: 177–85.

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[1] 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. 

RedMilk1

Red Milk: A Cautionary Tale

Hart, Heidi. (2021). “Red Milk: A Cautionary Tale.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies. January 20, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0006

 

This piece reviews Sjón’s novel Red Milk, now available in English translation. The book depicts a young man’s absorption into a neo-Nazi group in Iceland in the 1950s. 

By Heidi Hart

The Icelandic writer Sjón is known for surreal tales on topics as diverse as “whaling, alchemy and the history of cinema” (Anderson, 2022), as well as for his opera libretti and collaborations with Björk. In his introduction to the 2017 anthology Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland, he writes that the subject of philosophy was not introduced for university students there until 1971. “In place of philosophy, the Icelanders had poetry and tales … Debates on the interaction of body and soul, for example, could be conducted through the medium of verses or stories about birds” (Mitsios, 2017: X). As a novelist, Sjón finds inspiration in the creatures outside his fisherman’s cottage, as he imagines a fox that multiplies into four of itself or a man transformed into a butterfly. 

But Sjón’s work is not just whimsical. In his recent novel Red Milk, he confronts two painful discoveries: that his grandfather was a spy for the Germans in World War II, and that a neo-Nazi movement took root in Iceland in the 1950s. In an afterword to the book, he acknowledges that his previous novels dealing with the Nazi period and its aftermath (The Whispering Muse and CoDex 1962) took an “ironic” and even “flippant” approach to characters’ “obsession with Nordic culture to inflate their own sense of importance in the world” (Sjón, 2021: 141). He also recalls an episode in his childhood when, perhaps as a way to push against the painful, silent story in his family, he found himself drawing swastikas. 

Though Red Milk does not tell Sjón’s grandfather’s story but imagines a semi-fictional young man who gets caught up in toxic nationalism after the war, it is haunted by the writer’s own grappling with history. Gunnar, an ordinary child growing up in the war years, is later found dead on a train in England, with a swastika on a paper found in his pocket. In order to tell this tale with both critical distance and narrative intimacy, Sjón changes positions. The novel begins with the train scene and moves backwards into Gunnar’s childhood, described in third-person past tense. As Gunnar grows up and acts on his right-wing fascinations, he does so in the book’s middle section, written as letters – so that the main character’s “I” is clearly separate from the narrator’s. 

Sjón’s magic-realist bent only shows in glimmers in this brief, dark book. In one striking scene, Gunnar the child overhears his father sobbing over his radio through a closed door. But instead of simply including this scene in the trajectory of a boy’s life on the edge of Reykjavik, Sjón slips it forward, as a dying memory. One moment Gunnar is describing a birch stick that his father kept, ostensibly to remember his own father’s beatings, and the next, “now that death has freed the grandson’s body from its incurable disease and Gunnar is slumped lifeless on a seat in a train compartment in a siding at Cheltenham Spa Station … his brain is still working” (Sjón, 2021: 16). This passage reads less like writerly sleight-of-hand than like the actual mystery of consciousness, with one last pang of conscience, too: what Gunnar recalls last is this exchange with his sister, when overhearing their father’s sobs: “Daddy’s looking at the birch.” “No, you idiot; Daddy’s frightened of Hitler” (17). 

Gunnar is not just an “idiot” in thrall to the local German teacher and cycling enthusiast, however. He is ordinary in the same sense Hannah Arendt described in her 1963 reports on the Eichmann trial, using the “banality of evil” term that became controversial for downplaying the “demonic” or “monstrous” aspects of Nazism (Kirsch and Galchen, 2013). Showing how easily average citizens can become agents of evil is Sjón’s project as well, however painful it may be to “look for what I have in common with my characters” (Sjón, 2021: 143). At the same time, his “clinical” strategy in shifting narrative positions and beginning with Gunnar’s death (“It is easier to deal with a dead Nazi than a living one” [Ibid.]), offsets too much sympathy. The anti-Muslim and antisemitic passages in Gunnar’s letters would be even more difficult to read if spoken in dialogue or overheard in his third-person head. 

The neo-Nazi group that Gunnar joins in the decade after the war is based on Sjón’s research, which also turned up the group’s wide-reaching supporters, including “Savitri Devi, George Lincoln Rockwell, Colin Jordan, and Göran Asser Oredsson – the very people who laid the foundation for the international network of far-right movements as we know it today” (Sjón, 202: 142). Gunnar is based on “one of the main actors” in this group, “who died from cancer at a young age while fanatically working on the foundation of their World Union of National Socialists” (Ibid.). His fictional letters show him to be as uncomfortably human as he is fanatical, writing humorous, simple notes to his mentally disabled brother and then rhapsodizing to Oredsson that “We, the Icelandic Nationalists, greet you with arms raised high and palms outstretched …” (76) before complaining, “Nothing is being done to safeguard our Icelandic cultural heritage” (79).

Much of Gunnar’s language in his letters (at least in English translation) sounds like current xenophobic, populist rhetoric in Europe and the US. Even phrases like “criminal hordes” (80) are not surprising in the age of Trumpian crudity, though some 21st-century right-wing groups have attempted to show a veneer of respectability (Silman, 2016). What is most frightening about Sjón’s novel is how mainstream many of Gunnar’s epistolary opinions have become (Feffer, 2019; Miller-Idriss, 2022). Though this character and his cohort may be “under the spell of Hitlerism, racism, and white supremacy” (Sjón, 2021: 142), they are not “special” (145) in that many ordinary people (including most of my neighbors in the American West) continue to find themselves hooked by xenophobic news propaganda, conspiracy theories, and resistance to public health measures, often linking this with far-right ideology. 

Like the “negative example” of Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s play, which used a mercenary character from the Thirty Years War to speak to 1930s Germany, Gunnar Kampen is a cautionary figure for our time. The danger in good storytelling, though, is that even a bad example can become appealing (as has often been a problem in Mother Courage stagings, for all Brecht’s efforts at distancing effects). Narrative itself is not a saving strategy in times of fascist threats; even Eichmann was an “avid storyteller,” as Hannah Arendt discovered, for all of his clichés (Norberg, 2013). At its best, Red Milk evokes a sense of threat through its slips in time and striking images, as in this moment in Gunnar’s childhood, on a car trip to Raudavatn or “Red Water”: “Halfway between the west end of Reykjavik and their destination, this unintelligible word finally conjured up a picture in his mind: A glass, brimming with red milk” (Sjón, 2021: 21). Beware the conjuring. 

References

Mitsios, Helen (Ed.) (2017). Out of the Blue: New Short Fiction from Iceland. University of Minnesota Press. Sjón. (2021). Red Milk. Translated by Victoria Cribb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

English Defence League (EDF) stages a rally in Birmingham on April 8th, 2017 to protest the "Islamisation" of the UK amongst other issues. UK is suffering divisions between locals and foreigners. Photo: Alexandre Rotenberg.

Reciprocal populism: The interaction of right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups in Europe

Despite their ostensible opposition to one another, extreme right-wing, anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups like “Sharia for Europe” share a common dynamic of “reciprocal populism.” This emerges when antagonistic actors embedded in the same social context draw on similar themes and images in performing a populist political style based on symbolic action. Through this contestation, each casts the other as the principal threat to the survival of a morally “pure” community. While the focus is on the opposition between right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups, “reciprocal populism” is best understood not as a binary process but rather as co-evolution among multiple actors who forge coalitions and display a range of tactics and strategies in their ongoing performance of populism.

By Erkan Toguslu

In this commentary, I briefly analyze two extremist groups in Europe that have been feeding one other by drawing on the same themes and images in the pursuit of their agendas: right-wing, anti-Islam movements and the radical Islamist outfit “Sharia for Europe.” Despite their apparent ideological opposition, these two networks have exhibited what Eatwell (2014) calls “reflexive hybridity,” which describes the phenomenon whereby contesting groups borrow intentionally from each other as they battle it out in the public sphere. While these extreme movements are very heterogonous and would not necessarily define themselves as “populist” in terms of ideology (instead adopting labels such as “religious” or “patriotic”), the symbols, discourses, and narratives they evince reflect a certain populist political style and performance.

Both the anti-Islam movements and the “Sharia for Europe” groups are committed to a pure understanding of authentic community, expressed variously in national, cultural, or religious terms. Both groups charge that an immoral cosmopolitan “global” elite threatens the “pure” community’s way of life, requiring defensive action “before it is too late.” This reflects the central premise of ideational approaches to populism, which claim that the central feature of the phenomenon is a moral division between the “pure” people and a corrupt elite (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017). In this school of thought, populists will delineate the concrete referent for the “pure” people in various ways, be it a particular social stratum (“the workers” or the “hardworking middle class”), “the nation,” or a specific ethnic group. Whatever referent is selected, the result is an idealized conception of the “pure” community (Taggart, 2004).

In short, the approach of populists toward the moral construction of a “pure” people set against a “corrupt” elite involves a high degree of idealization and the cooptation of imagery and symbolism that can be deployed flexibly and often strategically in an ongoing process of discursive construction. When opposing groups are pitted against one another in a public sphere characterized by plural media and information affluence, dynamic reciprocal interaction emerges, the result of which is a form of mutual radicalization. The present analysis explores this dynamic as it has emerged between anti-Islam and Islamist groups in Europe in recent decades. Specifically, it analyzes the symbols and narratives underpinning the production of populist performativity across such groups.

Theoretically, the analysis draws on Roger Eatwell’s (2006) notion of “cumulative extremism,” which refers to the escalation of violence between two antagonistic groups—in his research as in the analysis here, militant Islamists and groups opposed to Islam. Drawing on this idea, we adopt the term “reciprocal populism” to explain how opposing movements reinforce each other’s populist discourse and style through sustained interaction. These styles and discourses are reinforced through socially embedded interconnectedness — namely, the mechanisms and micro-processes of reciprocal exchanges between groups embedded in a shared social environment. More specifically, they take the form of embodied social practices both online and offline, targeting the opposing group through propaganda.

The extremist group “Stop Islamization” was founded in Denmark in 2005 by the far-right politician Anders Gravers Pedersen. It soon morphed into a transnational network in various countries under the label “Stop the Islamisation of Europe” (SIOE). The SIOE organized the so-called “Counter-Jihad” summit and many other international conferences to mobilize members from across Europe. Some of the most infamous right-wing, anti-immigrant movements in Europe of recent years feature in the SIOE network, including many groups under the banner of the so-called Identarian Movement, Germany’s far-right anti-migrant Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), and the neo-Nazi organization Vigrid, as well as the so-called Pro-Cologne Movement (which was rebadged as the Pro-Germany Citizen’s Movement), Pax Europa, the Cities against Islamization (CAI) initiative, and the “Casuals United” protest group in the UK, which later rebadged itself as the “Pie and Mash Squad.” All these groups have identified Islam and the supposed threat from the spread of shariʿa law as pressing problems for Europe. They are also linked to other far-right organizations and parties across the continent and beyond.

A woman holds a placard reading “Muslims will destroy the crusade and estabilish the Islamic State!” outside the Regents Park Mosque in London, UK on 24 January 2014.

As a response to the activities of the SIOE network, a highly diffuse and non-hierarchical Salafī jihadi network made up of various individual preachers as well as militant groups and organizations has sprung up with the explicit goal of spreading and promoting the imposition of shariʿa law in Europe. Transnational outfits like Al-Muhajirun, Islam4UK, and Sharia for Europe have connected with local groups like Forsane Alizza in France, Einladung zum Paradies (Invitation to Paradise, EZP) and Millatu Ibrahim in Germany, and Profetens Ummah in Norway, to promote the Islamicization of Europe.

Both sets of identity-based movements organize and participate in rallies and demonstrations and seek to persuade public opinion against the other through propaganda in the public sphere. Alongside this “spectacle” mobilization and “street populism,” both sets of networks share common features that belie their strident opposition to one another. First, they are, for the most part, transnational in their aims and their reach. Second, they bring together diverse people from all walks of life, many of whom do not share the same primary ideology and whose opinions on various issues may differ. Third, they hone in on an evident vision of moral community, dividing the world into a “pure” people under threat from an “enemy” Other, and then mobilize into protest action based on such a division.

Spectacle Activism and Street Populism

One way to gain analytical purchase on populism is to examine its discursive manifestations — namely, the narratives, discourses, and symbols that populist actors and movements use to challenge the “corrupt” elite or antagonist Other in the name of the “pure” people. Here, we can usefully draw on Benjamin Moffitt’s understanding of populism as a “stylised milieu of contemporary politics” and a public performance designed to mobilize the people, typically against a backdrop of manufactured crisis (Moffitt, 2016). The street performance of extremist actors can be viewed as a salient example of such stylized populist mobilization. In Moffitt’s schema, populist performance breaks into several elements — the “performer” (i.e., the populist leader or movement), the “audience” (voters or the population at large), and the “stage,” comprising both traditional (print, radio, TV) and new media (the internet and social media). Understanding performative populism in this way allows us to see how the reciprocal populism of the far-right anti-Islam and Sharia for Europe movements has emerged and consolidated over the last decade.

Both sides value public clashes as a central aspect of their populist performance, with mutual contestation in public space serving as propaganda to mobilize supporters. For example, Salafī preachers have organized street activities called da’wa in various European cities, where copies of the Qu’ran are distributed, and Islamic preachers give strident sermons on busy street corners to large groups, partly to provoke a negative response. This often results in clashes with both the police and far-right militants, which are then badged as public displays of resistance to an oppressive state (represented by policy) or bigoted citizenry (the far-right thugs). The Islamists upload photos and videos from these clashes as evidence of their bravery, assertiveness, and resistance to those social forces seeking to “oppress Islam.” Black clothing and flags feature prominently, as does militant attire. One prominent propaganda video features a Salafist leader dressed in a djellaba (traditional North African robe), army jacket, and a turban announcing the group’s intention to attack and demolish the Atomium, a landmark monument in Brussels built for the 1958 World Fair, as a symbolic act of resistance.

The far-right, anti-Islam groups are equally adept at using this kind of public clash as a symbolic performance. For example, Les Identitaires (formerly Bloc Identitaire) — a French anti-migrant, nativist, and anti-Muslim movement — has deployed propaganda and public performance techniques to rally support and create a narrative of crisis around the supposed challenge of Islam in Europe. The group, founded in 2002 in Nice, has since become active across Europe and engages symbolically in various social debates by organizing street demonstrations. They target primarily young people to promote anti-migration and anti-Islam ideas. Its founding members have links with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (Rassemblement national). Its members occupied the rooftop of a mosque in Poitiers in 2012. It regularly references totemic historical events and symbols to gain visibility and recruit impressionable people, especially the young. They distribute so-called “identity soup” (“La soupe au cochon”) containing pork meat (which both Muslims and Jews are forbidden to eat) in various cities in France and Belgium in collaboration with the Antwerpse Solidariteit group, which is close to the far-right Vlaams Belang in Belgium. Other very provocative public actions by the network have included very public consumption of non-halal food products in Muslim-populated areas, members dressed in pig costumes occupying a halal fast-food restaurant, broadcasting the call to prayer in Montluçon, a small town in central France in the middle of the night using a loudspeaker to protest plans to open a mosque there, and defacing a street sign in Brussels to read “Sharia Street” to denounce the apparent Islamization of the city.

In the UK, the English Defense League (EDL) has presented a master class of public propaganda techniques designed to perform symbolic opposition to Islam and to galvanize anti-Islam movements. The EDL was established in 2009 in the English town of Luton with the stated aim of “protecting” non-Muslims from radical Islam (Goodwin et al., 2016). The EDL has organized demonstrations in areas with large Muslim populations and draws heavily on classic Christian iconography — particularly the crucifix and the imagery of the crusaders of the middle ages — in its flags and banners. This kind of visual antagonism through the heavy use of Crusader imagery actually bolsters the radical Islamist mobilization because it highlights the Islamist propaganda that Western countries (especially the United States) have been waging a modern-day crusade against Muslim lands, especially since the First Gulf War in the 1990s. Thus, we see cumulative extremism at work in its purest form, with the EDL and Islamist groups pointing to the salience of the Crusader image in public demonstrations and propaganda campaigns. Both sides — the anti-Islam extremists and the Islamists such as ISIS and Al Qaeda and Salafist groups in Europe — can thus point to the Crusader images as emblematic of an ongoing conflict between the Islamic East and the Christian West that is playing out on the streets of Europe today. In this way, opposing networks paradoxically settle on the same techniques and symbolism in their campaigns of populist mobilization, each pitting an “enemy” Other against the “pure” community they are seeking to defend.

The role of women is another crucial symbolic resource in the mobilization of both networks. Pro-shariʿa groups deploy a narrative based on the apparent decadence of Western societies in which women are supposedly exploited as objects of sexual desire and their role in the traditional family undermined. Fully covered Muslim women feature prominently carrying banners and voicing slogans in the public demonstrations sponsored by Islamist groups. In opposition to this image, anti-shariʿa movements emphasize the supposed subordination of women in Islam and use the sexual liberation of women in Western societies as a central symbol of propaganda. For example, the EDL makes extensive use of Angel imagery during its demonstrations, with these icons depicted in a highly sensual way. Indeed, the overt sexuality in the EDL portrayal of women in demonstrations is designed to contrast with how women participate fully covered in the Salafī extremist milieu. Again, in a classic example of “reciprocal populism,” both sides point explicitly to the way women are publicly depicted by the other as evidence of their opponents’ “moral degradation.”

Despite their ostensible opposition to one another, extreme right-wing, anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups like “Sharia for Europe” share a common dynamic of “reciprocal populism.” This emerges when antagonistic actors embedded in the same social context draw on similar themes and images in performing a populist political style based on symbolic action. Through this contestation, each casts the other as the principal threat to the survival of a morally “pure” community. While the focus is on the opposition between right-wing anti-Islam movements and radical Islamist groups, “reciprocal populism” is best understood not as a binary process but rather as co-evolution among multiple actors who forge coalitions and display a range of tactics and strategies in their ongoing performance of populism.

References

Eatwell, R. (2006). “Community Cohesion and Cumulative Extremism in Contemporary Britain.” The Political Quarterly. 77(2), 204–216.

Eatwell R. (2014) The Nature of ‘Generic Fascism’: Complexity and Reflexive Hybridity. In: Pinto A.C., Kallis A. (eds) Rethinking Fascism and Dictatorship in Europe. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137384416_4.

Goodwin, M. J., Cutts, D. & Janta-Lipinski, L. (2016). “Economic Losers, Protestors, Islamophobes or Xenophobes? Predicting Public Support for a Counter-Jihad Movement.” Political Studies. 64(1), 4–26. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.12159

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

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

Taggart, P. (2004). “Populism and Representative Politics in Contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 9(3), 269–288. https://doi.org/10.1080/1356931042000263528

Man surrounded by crowd holding a banner with the message about racism in a peaceful protest against racism and US police brutality in Palma de Mallorca, Spain on June 07 2020.

Why Race Still Matters?

Colak, F.Zehra. (2021). “Why Race Still Matters?” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 20, 2021. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0005

 

Alana Lentin’s book Why Race Still Matters offers key insights on how racism is denied and why naming racism is seen as offensive based on cases in politics and media across US and Australia. These cases, Lentin clearly explains, underlie the systemic redefinition of racism to serve white agendas and make it challenging to bring racial literacy into public discourse.

Reviewed by F. Zehra Colak

“How to be both free and situated; how to convert a racist house into a race-specific yet nonracist home. How to enunciate race while depriving it of its lethal cling?” Toni Morrison asks this question in her essay called “Home,” published in 1997. More than two decades after Morrison, Alana Lentin, a race critical scholar, partly answers this question as she calls on her readers to be race-cognizant while defying its terms of reference: “How do we explain race and oppose the dehumanization and discrimination committed in its name if we do not speak about it?” This is the key question that Lentin thoroughly engages with in Why Race Still Matters.* Her main argument draws on the view that dismantling racism and unpacking its impact can only be possible by speaking about it as leaving racism out of the conversation harms those exposed to it. Most importantly, she does this at a time when there is increasing backlash against academic studies of race, gender, post-colonialism, and scholars working in these fields are being targeted by right-wing governments across and beyond western Europe (Colak & Toguslu, 2021). 

Drawing on the work of influential scholars like Stuart Hall, Lentin defines racism as “a technology for the management of human difference” which produces, reproduces, and sustains white supremacy at various levels (p. 5). Her work underlines how approaching racism as a pathology fails to acknowledge the role of institutions, structures, processes, and practices in upholding a racially categorized view of the world. More and better racial literacy pedagogy among public, Lentin rightly argues, can challenge such individualized notions of racism and normalize conversations about (institutional) whiteness. Racial literacy “emphasizes the relationship between race and power … [and] constantly interrogates the dynamic relationship among race, class, geography, gender, and other explanatory variables” (Guinier, 2004: 114–15, as cited in Lentin, 2020: 11). Nevertheless, western educational systems fail to acknowledge the importance of racial literacy as they attempt at practicing neutrality and color-blindness that reproduces Eurocentric notions of race. This, Lentin underlines, deprives us from acquiring the tools that we need to counter pseudoscience racial ideas and myths (e.g., White genocide) that are taking a strong hold on social media and in the public sphere.  

How can then an anti-racist discourse challenges the recent resurgence of ‘race realists’ and their false premises of racial science beyond proposing that race is a social construct? This is an especially relevant question that offers valuable insights to move beyond the limited explanatory frameworks that are currently adopted by anti-racist scholars and activists. 

As noted by Lentin, “antiracists are very good at denying the biological facticity of race, but not very good at explaining what is social about race” (p. 31). Entering an insightful dialogue with scholars of race, Lentin discusses various critiques of social constructionist approach, which emphasizes that race needs to be discussed within the political context that reproduces it along with ideas about how it can be dismantled. Still, Lentin shows how race is present in medical practice, biomedical research, and genetics as can be seen in associations of certain diseases such as sickle cell anemia with the Black people despite obvious evidence to the contrary. At the same time, Lentin recognizes the ways racialization processes unequally impact on groups, requiring specific forms of treatment. In other words, race is not biology, but racial rule has biological effect due to persistence of white supremacy, colonization, and structural inequities. Increasing control of migration along racial lines and discriminatory policies that reproduce race by western governments exemplify nativist racialized body politics that construct ‘Others’ as out of place, which is also noted by scholars of far right and nationalism (Wodak, 2021).

Why Race Still Matters offers key insights on how racism is denied and why naming racism is seen as offensive based on cases in politics and media across US and Australia. These cases, Lentin clearly explains, underlie the systemic redefinition of racism to serve white agendas and make it challenging to bring racial literacy into public discourse. As such, “the question of who can control the definition of racism has grown in importance almost as a function of the lack of control that many racialized people have over the determination of their life course” (p. 58). Lentin critically engages with the historical roots of racism in Europe, showing that the commitment to racial equality was mainly associated with critiquing antisemitism and did not imply rejection of racism against colonized peoples. The current understanding of racism in Europe still relies strongly on the associations made between Holocaust and racism, leading therefore to the rejection of racism as a system of power and domination that explains ongoing anti-blackness, Islamophobia, and the criminalization of immigrants. Such common views of racism in public, Lentin suggests, are informed, and shaped by a group of academics who psychologize race and equate racism to individual attitudes while presenting critical race studies as unempirical and unscientific. 

“Why do you always make it about race?” This, Lentin explains, is a question asked not only by the right but also by ‘the white left,’ to criticize the centralization of race, gender, and sexuality in making sense of complex political questions. However, refusing “to see race is to choose simplicity and ignore the layers of power in and resultant complicity required in dealing with what race continues to do” (p. 96). Exposing the ignorance among the ‘white left’ about the challenges of antiracists, Lentin underlies the little-understood diversity of the antiracism movement. By construction of racism as a concern of ‘aloof cosmopolitan urban elites’ and racialization of working classes as white, the question of how racialized power structures function at the intersection of class, gender, and nationality is overlooked. Lentin’s thoughtful engagement with issues around anti-racism movement and identity politics drawing on discussions around contemporary Islamophobia and ongoing settler domination of Indigenous lands provides unique insights into ongoing academic and media debates. Particularly noteworthy in this discussion is her emphasis on how demands by racialized groups of people are treated as “victimhood performances” by those in power who then call themselves “victims” struggling with such demands. 

One of the interesting contributions in Lentin’s Why Race Still Matters relates to the question of how antisemitism and Islamophobia feed off one another as two forms of racism. While antisemitism is politically instrumentalized in the name of defending Jews from Muslims and anti-Zionists, Islamophobia is often seen invalid. Lentin underlies, for instance, the adoption of “Judeo-Christianity” by the right to construct Muslims and Islam in opposition to European values while concealing Christianity’s own antisemitism. At the same time, rising antisemitism in Hungary, for instance, and the attacks against the well-known Jewish philanthropist George Soros are often accompanied by anti-refugee and anti-Muslim racism. Still, “antisemitism is excused if opposition to Muslims and support for Israel are present” (p. 145), as shown by various vignettes discussed in the book. She furthermore engages deeply with questions around ‘Cultural Marxism,’ internal struggles within Jewish communities, and the persistence of antisemitism in different forms such as reduction of “the Jews” to a homogenous identity. Lentin’s insights on how European states declared their commitment to fight Judeophobia after Holocaust while continuing racial colonization abroad and exploitation of migrants at home are particularly insightful.

The conclusion offers a powerful summary of contemporary debates on racism by outlining differences among race realists (i.e., racists), race-critical anti-racists who are fighting racism, and those who remain silent about race as a way of challenging it. Lentin addresses this silent group when she argues that “talking in euphemisms or pretending that race belongs to the past” will not make race matter less (p. 172). Engaging with the root causes of why race is a difficult subject to study and talk about, she particularly underlies the role of white fragility, methodological whiteness, epistemic Eurocentrism and institutional racism, all of which contribute to the lack of racial literacy among public. For instance, an epistemically racist positivist stance argues that race cannot be understood objectively by those who experience it while imposing certain boundaries around what counts as (superior) knowledge. While calling on its readers to be attentive to race as a tool of analysis, the book ends with a hopeful message noting critical conversations that are taking place and being attended by white people engaged in challenging racial hierarchy. 

Overall, this is a valuable contribution and resource for scholars and students of race studies interested in a critical, engaging, and deeply informative analysis of historical and contemporary academic and public debates on race and racism. 


(*) Why Race Still Matters, by Alana Lentin, Polity Press, 2020. 184 pp., €17.00 (paperback), ISBN: 9781509535712


References 

Colak, F. Z. & Toguslu, E. (2021). “France’s attack on academics is an attempt to silence debate on race.” ECPS. https://www.populismstudies.org/frances-attack-on-academics-is-an-attempt-to-silence-debate-on-race/

Guinier, L. (2004). “From Racial Liberalism to Racial Literacy: Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Divergence Dilemma.” Journal of American History. 91(1): 92­­–118.

Morrison, T. (1997). “Home.” In: The House that Race Built: Black Americans, U.S. Terrain. Edited by Wahneema Lubiano. 3–12. New York: Pantheon Books.

Wodak, R. (2021). The politics of fear: The shameless normalization of far-right discourse. London: SAGE.