According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 129th out of 146 countries surveyed. This ranking takes into account factors such as women’s participation in the workforce, access to education and healthcare, involvement in politics, and the prevalence of femicide within the nation. The deliberate targeting of the Istanbul Convention underscores how populist and authoritarian leaders adeptly utilize gender-related discourse to create stigmatization, eventually leading to state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and oppression.
The parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey were held in May 2023, representing a pivotal moment amid concerns of a democracy in decline, eroding rule of law, and a worsening state of gender equality. On May 14, 2023, President Erdogan secured 49.52 percent of the vote, while his opposition rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu received 44.88 percent. The subsequent runoff election saw Erdogan’s share increase to 52.18 percent, with Kilicdaroglu holding 47.82 percent. The electoral process was marred by numerous controversies, including allegations of interference, leading Turkey to depart from its international legal commitments.
During the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections, the ruling AKP secured 268 seats out of the 600 available in the assembly. Leading the People’s Alliance, the AKP and its coalition partners captured 322 seats in total. Meanwhile, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) under Kilicdaroglu obtained 169 seats, further reinforced by an additional 212 lawmakers from its Nation Alliance coalition. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP), running as the Green Left Party (YSP) due to a court closure case, managed to secure 61 seats. While not formally aligned with Kilicdaroglu’s alliance, the HDP strongly opposes Erdogan and provided unwavering support to the CHP leader.
With this background of Turkey’s 2023 elections and the ongoing democratic regression in mind, it is important to underscore the gender-related aspects and consequences of this situation. Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks elucidate: “Aspiring autocrats and patriarchal authoritarians have good reason to fear women’s political participation: when women participate in mass movements, those movements are both more likely to succeed and more likely to lead to more egalitarian democracy. In other words, fully free, politically active women are a threat to authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning leaders—and so those leaders have a strategic reason to be sexist.”
Rasim Ozgur Donmez and Fazilet Ahu Ozmen emphasize in their book that “the Turkish Republic has been rooted in hegemonic masculinity,” where hegemonic masculinity denotes the patriarchal dominance of the mainstream class or ethnic group, as well as the dominance of men over women. Against this backdrop, a critical analysis of the results of the recent pivotal election reveals that the Green Left Party holds the highest proportion of gender representation, boasting 48 percent female deputies among its total seats. Among the 600 parliamentary members, 50 female members were elected from the AKP, 30 from the CHP, 30 from the Green Left Party, 6 from the İYİ Party, 4 from the MHP, and 1 from the TİP, making up slightly over 20 percent of the total with a collective of 121 women MPs.
Nilden Bayazıt, the General Director of the Ben Seçerim (I Elect) Women’s Platform, interprets these results as a reflection of the fact that “political parties generally do not prioritize women’s inclusion in their candidate lists.” Berrin Sönmez, the Spokesperson of the EŞİK platform (Women’s Platform for Equality), concurs, stating that “in a period focused on elections and alliance negotiations that concern women’s rights and lives, candidate lists should have unequivocally favored equal representation.”
Didem Unal, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, underscores that “AKP’s election campaign demonstrated that anti-genderism was a useful rhetorical tool for the party to reinforce populist antagonisms juxtaposing ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ ‘Anti-genderism’ here denotes an ideological and strategic opposition to a broad spectrum of feminist principles and socio-political reforms and a construction of fears and anxieties around gender in the name of protecting ‘national values’.”
In light of these ideas, it becomes evident that not only the discourses during political campaigns but also the more prolonged language and strategies employed by the AKP have set the groundwork for the state’s transition towards increasingly authoritarian actions and policies, alongside perpetuating gender-based inequalities and injustices. The oscillation between prohibition and subsequent allowance of headscarves in public positions serves as an illustration of how Turkey’s political history, marked by its gendered nature, is further highlighted by a security-oriented perspective. This perspective manifests through matters linked to women, attributing distinct significance and connotations to their roles, status, and lived experiences.
Amidst the gender-focused discussions and measures of the current conservative ruling party deeply rooted in Islamic principles, the AKP, the decision to lift the ban on headscarves arrived after years of restrictions imposed on their use within state institutions. Nonetheless, the gender-related policies implemented by the party did not result in a genuine expansion of freedoms and rights for women. Instead, these policies exposed persistent patriarchal frameworks within the party’s leadership, projecting the archetypal conservative woman as primarily a mother, homemaker, and caregiver. Consequently, the removal of the ban essentially became insignificant in terms of advancing women’s rights.
Following a September 2010 referendum that curtailed the authority of both the judiciary and the military, while concurrently augmenting President Erdogan’s influence in judge appointments, Turkey has increasingly steered towards an authoritarian form of governance. At present, the Turkish government is employing an Islamist narrative to consolidate its backing among the predominantly conservative populace—comprising the majority of voters—by fomenting public discontent against progressive movements linked to Westernization and democratization. Over the past decade, opposition to women’s perspectives, notably those aligned with feminism, has undergone a pronounced surge. Women’s societal roles have gravitated towards more traditional paradigms, with the government deeply enmeshed in shaping personal choices and behaviors. Significantly, areas such as family size, abortion rights, public displays of female laughter, and even childbirth methods have come under state control, frequently in collaboration with influential figures, including male religious leaders. These discussions have persistently framed women’s roles within the context of traditional and Islamist ideologies. Manifestly, a substantial segment of Turkey’s populace endorses this approach, believing that the country as a notable regional power is countering Western imperialism while upholding Islamic conservatism.
The ruling party and government have consistently disregarded calls for the implementation of gender quotas in the political sphere, and their efforts to address gender-related disparities and discrimination, particularly concerning sexual orientation, have proven insufficient. This ultimately culminated in Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention in 2021. As the influence of the AKP government solidified, individuals with diverse ideologies and political stances found themselves subjected to various forms of organized and societal aggression.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 129th out of 146 countries surveyed. This ranking takes into account factors such as women’s participation in the workforce, access to education and healthcare, involvement in politics, and the prevalence of femicide within the nation. The deliberate targeting of the Istanbul Convention underscores how populist and authoritarian leaders adeptly utilize gender-related discourse to create stigmatization, eventually leading to state-sanctioned discrimination, violence, and oppression.
In 2022, 334 women lost their lives due to femicide in Turkey, and in 2021, the number was 280. The significant rise in femicide cases is largely attributed to the issue of impunity. This underscores the critical impact of the mindsets, language, and discourses employed by state representatives on women’s tangible engagement in politics and decision-making roles within society. This extends to encompass the actual implementation of laws and actions that influence women’s participation and status.
 Dönmez, & Özmen, F. A. (2013). Gendered identities criticizing patriarchy in Turkey. Lexington Books.
The intertwined dynamics of the ‘patriarchal trifecta’—forced marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), and so-called honor killings—create a symbiotic relationship, reinforcing each other’s harmful effects. For example, a woman compelled into a marriage against her will not only faces the trauma of forced marriage itself but also a heightened vulnerability to marital abuse due to a lack of communal and societal safeguards. Similarly, a woman subjected to FGM, whether in her youth or later in life, faces an increased likelihood of being coerced into an arranged marriage against her wishes. Her limited social agency and societal constraints make it difficult for her to resist such pressure.
As researchers, especially on topics related to gender studies and cultural analysis, we must constantly decide the degree to which our investigations will inform and/or transform the world we are studying. Considering this, I have decided to investigate issues surrounding Kurdish women which are both personally and professionally important to me.
My research, which is connected to my Marie Curie Fellowship and ongoing, looks at the status of women in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), or what could equally be defined as Southern Kurdistan or Bashur. The more specific focus of my exploration, connected to this issue of women in the KRI, investigates how gender equality and gender-based violence (GBV) – such as honor killings, female genital mutilation (FGM), and marital or familial violence – form an intertwined relationship. Which is not just true for the KRI, but everywhere in the world. As these specific assaults on women, seem to go hand-in-hand with places that lack institutional protections and structural barriers to lessen their occurrence.
As part of my postdoctoral fellowship research, I have begun exploring what I deem to be the ‘patriarchal trifecta’ of forced marriages, FGM, and so-called honor killings – which should more accurately be called “misogynistic murder,” but for the purposes of this topic I will utilize the commonly accepted term. It seems this trifecta forms a symbiotic relationship, in which they reinforce one another.
So, for instance, a woman who is forced into a marriage against her will, is more likely to also lack the communal or societal protections to ensure that she is then not abused by her husband, so in some of these situations there is a correlation, if not an outright causation – which is up to us as scholars to seek out.
Moreover, a woman who experiences FGM either in her youth or later years is also disproportionately likely to be forced into an arranged marriage against her will and lack the social agency or societal flexibility to refuse. Likewise, in the case of honor killings, a woman who is murdered by her father or brothers, is also more likely to both have had FGM carried out on her or be in a situation where she is likely to be placed into arranged or forced marriage.
I believe understanding this trifecta of oppression against women globally, but in particular in the KRI regarding women, is of utmost and critical importance. My research thus far aims to do that, and by its full completion, will hopefully have achieved this goal.
To this point, my literature review and interviews I have conducted so far paint a picture on the topic which is nuanced and contains both positive developments and work that still needs to be done. For instance, it is important when analyzing the state of women in the KRI, to understand it in the context of the region historically, and at the present time. Often times, I believe researchers, particularly in or from the West, arrive in “exotic” new environments, and expect that all of the cultural norms they are used to are universal.
These presumptions then also usually fuel the foreign NGOs and institutions that have considerable funding but tie those resources to the quote “natives” fixing their outdated ways of living. So, while these drives to increase human rights globally can have positive gains, they can also begin to resemble the colonial ethnographies of the past, where Europeans showed up to observe and then speak for those they observed, while critiquing from a place of privilege.
In my case, as a woman from the KRI, I am not investigating a foreign place that I do not understand, but my own community, and I am able to do so with the understanding of the many overlapping cultural complexities that inform these phenomena. For instance, my early investigations have shown the role that religion, tribe, political persuasion, and rural versus urban geography can play in these issues. In this, there seems to be a discrepancy in the prevalence of this trifecta, based on if the individuals live in the main urban centers of the KRI – Hewler (Erbil) and Slemani (Sulaymaniyah) or if they derive from a village or smaller city.
I am also looking at the role that faith plays and if there is a difference in how religious a woman’s family is. This in turn, is connected to the role that upbringing can sometimes be fate, so I investigate how much formal education a woman has had and if she is allowed to work outside of the home. As again, there seem to be certain factors that begin to appear so frequently together, that they appear to form the words of a song. And what my research on these issues has shown me thus far is revealing. But as with any research, each ‘answer’ only begets another question.
For example, it seems that the constraints of religious conservatism are blunted by women gaining access to formal education, but is this really a case that more open-minded families are likely to allow their daughters to get education in the first place? Or is economic class connected, as wealth seems to have a similar progressive effect, and wealthy families are also more likely to allow their daughters to seek formal education? The tangled web of causality it seems is never fully discovered and I acknowledge that no research is ever fully complete – but blocks built atop one another.
You also cannot study women’s equality in the KRI, without looking into the governmental policies there. So, for example, there have certainly been some gains for women in the KRI based on laws passed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since their de facto autonomy was established in 2003. These gains are particularly present when compared to the rest of Iraq, which has actually been backsliding on women’s rights, since Baathism ended. Which is ironic, as Saddam’s rule was particularly brutal and oppressive for Kurds and especially women, but overall, the Arab women of Iraq, have seen their personal freedoms decrease in many ways under the new less-secular post-Saddam regimes.
In contrast, the KRG governing the KRI for instance, has made some legal gains and set in place protections on the recommendation of the UN and other world bodies, for several reasons. The most generous answer would be that it is because they are the right thing to do and the majority of men in society are ready for such progress. And the strategic or perhaps cynical answer would be that they are the prescriptions demanded from the international bodies that I mentioned earlier, who give their resources to the KRI and then uphold the place as a quote beacon of women’s rights in the Middle East.
The geopolitical motivation for upholding the KRI in this way, also serves Western interests as it can potentially justify Western intervention in other places, who still do not guarantee their women full freedoms. But that is more an aside and would be a research study in itself.
However, my research thus far also displays worrying trends. For instance, the other side of this beacon of equality argument, is that the KRI still features cases of women desperately self-immolating and far too many honor killings or presumed honor killings which can often be reported as suspected suicides. The methods of violence deployed against women, either from their husbands, scorned men wishing to marry them, or their fathers or brothers to protect the family’s name before the community, often are brutal methods of shooting, suffocation, or stabbing. You also have cases of suspicious burning, which are reported as suicides, but often could be murders set up to appear as such.
What my research so far also displays to me, is that this gender-based violence, and these honor killings are based on a range of personal beliefs from the men committing the violence. For instance, I am interested in the views of men who hear of honor killings and whether they agree that it can ever be justified. Because a man might say he theoretically does not agree with a stranger being honor killed but would support such a reality if their sister carried out certain sexual acts, which they deem to be an attack on their entire family’s dignity.
Also, the views of women on the periphery are crucial, so I look at the views of women on honor killings, and whether they become accomplices, as you can sometimes see in the case of mothers or aunts, who fail to push back against the issue, or lack the freedom and protections to ally with the victims of it.
In the same way that historically a colonized people would always have members of the population who would collaborate with their oppressors, in the case of gender this is also a possibility. That is of course not to blame women, because those who lack structural power, will often do what they deem necessary for short term survival.
This trifecta is also upheld by a combination of variables, including beliefs that are justified as “tradition” or “our culture”, as if denying women their full rights is in itself an act of cultural preservation. This dishonest claim can be particularly potent, because Kurds historically have had their language and cultural rights banned by repressive states, so by packaging patriarchal control as inherent to “Kurdishness,” it makes freeing these women a betrayal against an identity that many men are proud of and trying to preserve.
Of course, there are other variables as well. Such as social class and economics. It seems that since poverty does not allow for many material comforts, people will seek out to at least own and hold on to their family “reputation” and “good name.” Again, like with the argument that it is cultural, since even men in the KRI who own relatively very little, take solace in the fact that they supposedly possess some invisible “honor.” As a result, it can be difficult to ask a rural impoverished family of men who own nothing, to give up the only thing of value that they believe they possess.
There are also philosophical questions at the heart of these issues. Such as the idea of “freedom” and importance of “love.” Both concepts can be complicated and overlapping. For instance, many men in the KRI will agree with that idea that Kurds should be free from occupation by the Iraqi State, and even get angry with the idea of the Baghdad government mistreating women. But some of those same men will then defend Kurdish wives being occupied inside of their own home, or Kurdish sisters having their dating life being policed by their brothers. This is why the idea and Kurdish slogan of Jin, Jiyan, Azadi (Women, Life, Freedom) in neighboring Iran and Rojhilat (Eastern Kurdistan) I believe has been so potent of a concept, is it addresses this paradox.
And to the idea of love, my research is also interested in whether women who enter arranged or forced marriages loved their husbands at the time of marriage or love them now. Although this may seem like a basic idea, I feel it is fundamental. Because if you remove the idea of love from these marriages, then they often become either desperate economic arrangements to survive, or agreements between fathers and perhaps even mothers, to essentially barter off their daughters. In some ways, the perception or idea of freedom is also tied to the issue of FGM as well. As some of the reasoning behind FGM can be the belief of men that a woman without FGM would be overly lustful and that she cannot handle the responsibility of such freedom.
As you can see, there are many variables to consider with such a large topic. But it is my hope that by the completion of my fellowship research, that I will have a fuller picture of how all these issues tie together in the KRI. With the hope being that there may also be some universal issues that would be applicable to the outside world as well. Because women cannot have life and freedom – jiyan and azadi – if they are preventing from controlling their own bodies or romantic lives.
(*) Dr Shilan Fuad Hussain is currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow and a consultant on gender related issues and society. Previously, she was a Visiting Fellow at the WashingtonKurdish Institute and a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. Alongside her research in Middle Eastern and Kurdish Studies, she is an interdisciplinary academic and works on a variety of topics such as cultural production, gender-related issues and society, gender empowerment. Her current work sits at the intersection of sociology and cultural analysis, and its symbiotic relevance to modern society.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s populist ideology, anchored in the notion that he embodies the genuine and morally upright voice of the Jewish people in Israel, fuels his resolve to confront institutions that hinder his government’s agenda. From his perspective, entities such as the judiciary that intervene and obstruct the realization of the people’s will become subjects of his critique and endeavors to undermine their autonomy. While his recent declaration of a “pause” on judicial reform may be momentary, it implies that he could recommence his endeavors to restrict judicial independence in the future.
On March 27, 2023, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel made an announcement stating that the government would temporarily halt its plans to reform the country’s judiciary. This decision came after a series of escalating anger and protests against the proposed reforms, which have been widely criticized as an attack on the principles of the separation of powers and the rule of law.
The proposed legislation, which was introduced by the Likud Party in January 2023, aimed to grant greater control over the judiciary to politicians in the Israeli parliament, known as the Knesset. If implemented, this legislation would have allowed a majority in the Knesset to overturn decisions made by the Supreme Court on constitutional matters. Additionally, it sought to increase the government’s authority in appointing judges, thus undermining the independence of the judiciary.
Netanyahu and Yariv Levin, the Deputy Leader of Likud and the Justice Minister, defended the proposed judiciary reforms, arguing that increased government control over the judiciary is necessary because Israeli judges allegedly disregard the will of the people and obstruct the legislative efforts of elected officials. Levin further asserted that the judiciary is undemocratic, stating, “We go to the polls and vote, choose, but time after time, people who we didn’t elect decide for us.” In essence, Levin believes that Israeli judges wield excessive power, and Likud’s objective is to curtail this power and restore it to the hands of “the people.” They argue that the judiciary’s perceived overreach interferes with the democratic process, where elected officials should have the authority to make decisions on behalf of the citizens.
If Likud’s plan to diminish the power of the judiciary is unpopular with voters and has engendered a backlash in the form of mass protests and claims that Netanyahu is tearing up the very fabric of Israel’s constitution and pushing Israel toward “civil war”, why is Netanyahu so adamant that the legislation should, at least in some form, be passed? Some commentators have suggested that Netanyahu’s primary motivation is self-preservation, and a desire to avoid being convicted on corruption charges based on claims he accepted bribes and participated in other forms of criminal conduct. There is likely some truth to this claim. Indeed, Likud has already passed a law preventing the judiciary from declaring Prime Ministers unfit for office. However, Netanyahu is far from the only populist who has sought to diminish the power of the judiciary and centralize power around himself. Indeed, following an election victory, and to cement themselves in power and continue to present themselves as fighting ‘elites’ despite themselves being in government, populists often seek to attack the independence of state institutions, which they accuse of thwarting the will of ‘the people.’
The far-left populist government in Venezuela has also moved to eliminate judicial independence in the name of pursuing a socialist revolution that would ultimately give power to ‘the people’. Hugo Chavez began the process of stacking the Supreme Court with supporters of his regime and suspending unsympathetic judges, a trend continued by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, whose policies, according to an Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have left “the independence of the justice system …considerably undermined.” Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch, Venezuelan “judicial authorities have participated or been complicit in …abuses”, including “extrajudicial executions and short-term forced disappearances”, crimes enabled by the “lack of judicial independence”.
Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, the concept of a truly independent judiciary has been elusive. However, under the leadership of populist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), attempts to diminish the already limited independence of the judiciary have become more pronounced.
One significant event that provided an opportunity for Erdogan and the AKP to assert control over the judiciary was the mysterious coup attempt in 2016, which targeted their government. Taking advantage of the situation, the AKP took steps to remove judges who were perceived as unsympathetic to their agenda. Approximately 4,000 judges who were believed to be aligned with anti-AKP factions within Turkish society were dismissed from their positions following the coup attempt. Simultaneously, the AKP utilized its power to appoint judges who were supportive of the party. This led to a significant influx of pro-AKP judges, with approximately 9,323 new judges and prosecutors recruited between the failed coup and the end of 2020, leading to a bizarre situation in which “at least 45% of Turkey’s roughly 21,000 judges and prosecutors have three years of experience or less”.
This trend has raised concerns about the independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary. These actions have further eroded the separation of powers and the checks and balances necessary for a functioning democracy. The rapid appointment of inexperienced judges has fuelled scepticism about their ability to uphold the rule of law and ensure fair and impartial judicial proceedings.
The AKP has since used its control over the judiciary to abuse the judicial system, using it to persecute opponents, often accusing them of terrorism. Indeed, the decline of judicial independence in Turkey has led, according to a Council of Europe Commissioner of Human Rights report, to “unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law, such as the presumption of innocence, no punishment without crime and non-retroactivity of offences, or not being judged for the same facts again.” The Turkish government defended its actions by claiming that the people removed from the judiciary and those otherwise persecuted “are affiliated with FETO, a terrorist organisation that has infiltrated the civil service over the years”, suggesting that the government was merely protecting the Turkish people from criminal wrongdoers.
The attacks on judicial independence in Turkey continue to this day and are perpetrated not merely by the AKP, but also by its allies. For example, in March 2023, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli – whose party is a junior member of the coalition government led by the AKP, attacked Turkey’s constitutional court for ruling that the government’s freezing of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s bank accounts was unconstitutional. Bahçeli responded to the decision by calling the court “the backyard of the separatist terrorist organization” and claiming it “is not the court of the Turkish nation” insofar as its decision failed to represent the desires of the Turkish people.
Of course, it is not only populist governments that seek to diminish or eliminate judicial independence. Autocratic regimes of various ideologies often desire control over the courts, while even liberal democracies that emphasize the separation of powers may encounter challenges with governments attempting to influence the judiciary.
A notable example is the United States, where the Supreme Court has long been a political battleground between Republicans and Democrats. The Court has become a focal point for key cultural and social debates, including issues like affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and abortion. During election campaigns, both political parties pledge to appoint justices who align with their party’s ideology, effectively undermining the independence of the judiciary and turning the Supreme Court into a politicized institution.
In many other countries, governments attempt to “pack” the courts with judges who align with their political agenda or take steps to weaken the independence of the judiciary. These actions occur in both autocratic and democratic contexts, reflecting a broader trend where governments seek to consolidate power and influence over key institutions, including the judiciary.
Such attempts to undermine judicial independence have far-reaching implications for the rule of law, the protection of individual rights, and the overall health of democratic systems. They raise concerns about the impartiality of court decisions and the potential for politicization of justice.
However, while many different kinds of governments may seek to diminish the independence of the judiciary, populists differ from non-populists in two important ways. First, populists often argue against judicial independence by asserting that a powerful and independent judiciary can hinder the “will of the people.” Populists generally believe that democracy does not solely rely on the right to vote or the protection of minority rights and dissenting voices. Instead, they argue that the majority group, which they perceive as the authentic and morally virtuous people, should hold all power. This can take the form of direct democracy, where decisions are made through plebiscites and referenda, or through a political party and a single leader who claims to understand the will of the people. Populists view judges as an undemocratic group that should be entirely stripped of power if they intervene to strike down government legislation. Populists tend to view judges as obstructing the populist agenda and impeding their ability to enact policies that align with their vision of the “people’s will.” They often criticize judges for being detached from popular sentiment and accuse them of imposing their own biases and ideologies on the legislative process. Populists also argue that the judiciary should not possess the authority to overturn decisions made by elected officials, as they consider it an affront to the principle of majority rule.
Second, once populists have succeeded in winning an election, and especially after winning successive elections, they may find it difficult to portray themselves as fighting against a governing ‘elite’ in the name of ‘the people.’ After winning elections and governing for a significant duration, populists can find it challenging to maintain the image of being outsiders fighting against a governing “elite” on behalf of the people. As they become part of the establishment themselves, it becomes necessary for them to identify new “elites” to position themselves against in order to sustain their populist rhetoric and maintain their appeal as champions of the people.
In this context, the judiciary often becomes a target for populists. Judges, who typically uphold the principles of separation of powers, judicial independence, and the rule of law, are likely to resist populist attempts to bypass legal procedures and override constitutional protections. Being highly educated professionals with a commitment to legal principles, judges may not align with populist parties or support their legislative agenda. Populists and their supporters often perceive judges as part of a cultural “elite” that they view as immoral and disloyal to the ordinary people.
This portrayal of the judiciary as an enemy of the people serves the populist narrative by allowing them to position themselves as the defenders of the “real people” against an alleged “corrupt elite.” By framing the judiciary as part of the elite and presenting themselves as the voices of the people, populists can maintain their outsider status and continue their fight to reclaim power on behalf of their supporters.
For Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister having served in the position for fifteen years, and who is the most significant politician of his generation, the fight to reform Israel’s judiciary – despite its dangers to Israel and the popularity of the Likud led government – thus serves an important purpose. It is no longer easy for Netanyahu to present himself as a populist outsider, having marginalized all left-wing opposition – which Netanyahu and Likud have long portrayed as too sympathetic and indulgent towards the Palestinians – and having served as Prime Minister for almost the entirety of the post-2009 period.
Pursuing judicial reform helps Netanyahu present himself as a populist fighter struggling against Israel’s unelected ‘elites’ in the name of the people, whom he seeks to protect from outside and internal forces that seek to destroy the Jewish state. Moreover, Likud’s decision to empower religious courts while attacking the independence of the secular courts is a demonstration of their commitment to de-secularizing Israel, and in a sense to create an alternative system of justice to the ‘elite’ dominated secular judiciary. It is also the logical outcome of his populist ideology and belief that he represents the voice of the authentic and morally good Jewish people of Israel. That rigid populist logic demands that Netanyahu attack bodies and institutions that impede his government’s agenda and which, by doing so, also prevents the people from exercising their will. Thus, Netanyahu’s ‘pause’ on judicial reform may prove to be just that, a pause before he again attempts to diminish judicial independence and the ability of judges to thwart the will of ‘the people’.
The saying often goes that history repeats itself. However, this is not entirely accurate. It’s people who repeat history. Not necessarily because they fail to learn from it, but rather because they refuse to learn history’s important lessons. And if too many people fail to learn from past mistakes, it will only have negative consequences for society. That is why we, as an intelligent species, need to be able to spread awareness about conduits of racism and hatred across Europe. But how can this be achieved? Through learning more about the theory and practice of preventive justice, there are several things a country can do.
ByMaureen van der Kris*
Only a few years ago, during the refugee crisis of the 2010s, it looked a lot like Muslims were the Jews of the twenty-first century. Islamophobia reached new highs due to terrorist attacks from ISIS, which also sparked hate crimes against innocent Muslims fleeing from ISIS (vander Taelen, 2016), as well as inciting hostility and tensions towards Muslims living around the world. Then COVID hit, and hate crimes seemed to be redirected at the East Asian community (Aziz, 2020). In 2023, the new generation is witnessing what their predecessors before them had lived through: blatant antisemitism is retaking the spotlight (Simsek, 2022).
The saying often goes that history repeats itself. However, this is not entirely accurate. It’s people who repeat history. Not necessarily because they fail to learn from it, but rather because they refuse to learn history’s important lessons. And if too many people fail to learn from past mistakes, it will only have negative consequences for society. That is why we, as an intelligent species, need to be able to spread awareness about conduits of racism and hatred across Europe. But how can this be achieved?
Through learning more about the theory and practice of preventive justice, there are several things a country can do. Measures of preventive justice are imperative to make sure populism cannot gain momentum and take over the political and legal structures across Europe as it did in the 1940s. This essay will explain how preventive justice can help us establish a risk-averse society and what these terms mean.
What is preventive justice and how does it work?
In most cases, preventive justice is simply a concept. It entails calculating the risks of harm, before any harm has occurred and taking measures against the would-be perpetrators (Ashworth et al., 2013). It establishes a system that can make people accountable, and thus prevent potential corruption and any other crime that can violate democratic values. Elements of preventive justice exist within criminal law. Many modern criminal law systems are centered around judging and punishing criminal acts and incorporate some preventive measures. For instance, for certain crimes, a crime attempt would be as illegal as committing a crime. These crimes vary across Europe, but the consensus is if the nature of the crime is severe, even an attempt will be punished more severely compared with other criminal attempts (Kelk & de Jong, 2019).
The criminalization of an attempt to commit certain crimes can be considered a function of preventive justice. This simplified version explains how preventive justice works in the criminal law system, but how does it help a democratic society? It is argued here that it can help in many ways -but these need to incorporate the political and criminal justice system to produce practical solutions. One of these problems is the supposedly thin line between freedom of speech and discrimination.
Pulling the reins on democracy
The line between freedom of speech and discrimination is not very thin at all. For far-right populists, the line doesn’t exist at all, and they promote that their discriminatory ideas can only be seen as freedom of speech. This freedom of speech, they argue, has to be protected at all costs (Pennacchia, 2020). The hypocrisy of that statement will not be discussed here, but it is relevant to note the way it has led to cases of domestic terrorism. In France, for example, a Kurdish community center in Paris was attacked by an active shooter just before Christmas. It was reported that this incident was resulted in three civilian deaths, and the attacker had formerly been charged with a hate crime in the previous year (NPR, 2022). It seems that he felt safe enough to repeat his actions in the current political climate of France and is an example of the danger and progression of hate speech cloaked as ‘free’ speech.
These incidents could have largely been prevented by limiting what constitutes as freedom of speech. One may claim that this is the opposite of preserving a democratic society. Still, history has proven time and time again that having no limits on certain democratic principles will result in populists using those exact principles for their benefit and to undemocratic ends, as seen in the case of the rise of Hitler. Due to the lack of limitations on unacceptable speech, Hitler had the freedom to use his hatred for Jewish people as a campaign point (Wilde, 2020).
Although hate speech and hate crimes were regulated more strictly after WWII (i.e. by Germany banning the Nazi flag), there are still discussions about the line between freedom of speech and discrimination. Technically, the criminalization of specific insults is a good start. However, the burden of defining what counts as a discriminatory remark, an insult, falls on the judges. Judges could be very strict when handling lawsuits, as they have been during the Wilders trial in the Netherlands. The Wilders trial concerned a statement made by Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders during a rally in the 2010s. Wilders asked his supporters if they wanted “more or fewer Moroccans” in the country, to which they responded by cheering “less, less, less!” The Moroccan community, in response, sued Wilders for his discriminatory remarks and racist mobilization. The Dutch supreme court responded by charging Wilders with spreading hate. However, the court also stipulated that hate speech had no associated intent to act (Wilders v. Plaintiffs, 2009).
The result of the hearing disillusioned some people in the Moroccan community, as Wilders’ specific statements were not considered when judging the case. Some contended that Wilders’ party should have been abolished after that statement. Ethically, one can request a more severe punishment after such incidences of racism. Legally speaking, it is much more complicated.
Preventive justice in the courtroom
In most Western countries, judges can only punish a suspect according to the material principle of legality. In many EU countries, this has been defined as the Nulla poena sine lege principle, or “no punishment without law.” It means a political party cannot be declared illegal and abolished for maintaining an ideology harmful to a democratic society without legal codes. It also means that a judge cannot declare that a statement constitutes an illegal insult when the verdict is riddled with violations of aspects of the legality principle. One of these aspects is prohibiting an overly extensive interpretation by a judge. For example, if the suspect has discursively targeted a person of color, this can be interpreted as an illegal insult under ideal circumstances, but the suspect cannot be charged with a hate crime. This would be different if the suspect used a racial slur to insult the person of color (de Hullu, 2021).
Laws that prevent hate crimes and the strict interpretation of these laws in accordance with the legality principle can work very well. But there are also cases in which laws have an adverse effect stemming from discriminatory policies, which should be illegal. Take the Dutch surcharge, for example. This so-called libertarian policy is aimed to combat fraud committed by people not legally entitled to childcare allowance. However, the policy culminated in a nationwide scandal. It used a self-learning algorithm to identify fraud and, in the meantime, asked inspectors to have much stricter and limiting judgement on childcare allowance specifically for individuals with a foreign last name. Following the outrage, the Dutch government resigned in 2021. However, from 2018 onwards, people have been suffering due to the racist nature of the Dutch surcharge policy (NOS, 2020).
The law does not exist in a vacuum. Democratic practices and a working legal system depend on society, political accountability, and social support. Here I want to add to my discussion the kinds of social context that can help create a safe space for all and a flourishing civil society.
Living in a ‘risk-averse society’
According to German sociologist Ulrich Beck, a risk-averse society can be described as a society in which legal systems actively try to prevent the risk of certain crimes being committed (Beck, 2003). So, a risk-averse society supports the ideals of preventive justice. Preventive justice can establish the socio-legal infrastructure of a risk-averse society and vice-versa. Some speculate that preventive justice can establish foundations for a risk-averse society. Yet a risk-averse society might undermine democratic values (Barone, 2022).
This would only be true if preventive justice is rooted in unrealistic fears and undemocratic practices. Like the two faces of the Janus or a fire that can both cook or burn, the concepts and ideals of preventive justice or risk-averse society can yield either positive or negative results depending on if they are in the hands of well-intentioned or selfish people. The dilemma of what counts as liberty, if it has limits, if so, how to develop policies that protect freedoms without violating principles of democracy remains a big question, which motivates us to do more theoretical and practical discussions about how to establish a safe space to realize the ideals of preventive justice and a risk-averse society.
In an age where war crimes and injustice make us question the degree to which our civilization has actually evolved, the question is not whether we want to be risk-averse; we do not have a choice. This is strikingly clear when we acknowledge that nuclear power has become a staple of everyday discussions in newspapers, making us believe the doomsday is coming. The choice that falls upon us all is between whether we want to live in a society where the freedom to say whatever we want risks supporting the rise of far-right populism and encouraging hate and even violence. To keep our democracies afloat, we must invest in forming risk-averse spaces and use preventive justice to our advantage. Only then can we fight populism effectively on a more significant level and prevent the atrocities from history being repeated.
(*) Maureen van der Kris is studying Law at Utrecht University (UU) in the Netherlands. She is in the second year of her bachelor’s degree and at the very start of her legal career. Before joining ECPS, she wrote articles for the members’ magazine of Ad Informandum, the student association for criminal law at UU. Her main interests are women’s rights and preventive justice, while her favorite university subjects are international- and criminal law. As she has been personally confronted with various criminal offences during her childhood. Her goal is to become a criminal judge. She aspires to work at the Dutch supreme court or the ICC one day.
Yilmaz, Ihsan & Saleem, Raja M. Ali. (2022). “Hindutva civilizational populist BJP’s enforcement of digital authoritarianism in India.” Populism & Politics (P&P). European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). December 8, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0017
The largest democracy in the world is now moving towards authoritarianism under the Hindutva civilizational populist prime minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rule. This article focuses on digital rights in India that have seen a sharp decline in recent years. It explores the transformation of the internet and social media, from a relatively open and liberal space to a restricted one. This survey of India’s digital landscape finds that the rise of civilizational populist Modi and his eight years long rule have led to an upsurge in digital surveillance and control and has fostered an environment of online harassment and bullying for those who are critical of the BJP’s views and politics. The article uses a four-level framework (Full Network, Sub-Network, Proxies, and Network Nodes) to explore digital authoritarianism by the BJP government. At each of these levels, the Hindutva populist government has closed avenues of open discussion and exchange of views by enforcing new rules and regulations.
The rise of populism has slowly hijacked the digital space as a medium for forming a strong relationship with public opinion. This practice is not particular to authoritarian states or democratic ones as these boundaries are increasingly being blurred by attempts to control and influence the digital space by all governments, irrespective of their ideology or types. Over the decade, the relationship between digital space and politics has evolved from a one-dimensional relation where one endangers or compliments the other to an interplay of different social, political, and economic forces determining the outcome. This essay aims to understand this interplay by focusing on the case study of India analyzing the nature of right-wing populist digital authoritarianism. The inquiry is also useful in understanding how formal and informal changes to cyberspace enable a system where authoritarianism is maintained by the creation of an ecosystem that supports its political survival. Narendra Modi’s eight years rule provides an opportunity to study not only the formal tools of cyber authoritarianism but its justification – a toxic nexus of populism and religion.
Human civilization entered the twenty-first century with a promise of a democratic, liberal global space where digital technologies were seen as tools that would ensure people-centric governance, improve access via e-governance, and foster connections with the citizens (Shirky, 2011). After two decades, the hopes and optimism regarding democratic development, based on the availability and easy access of digital technologies to all, have been dashed to the ground. The increase in the use of digital technologies has been accompanied by concerns regarding the misuse and manipulation of digital tools in the political space, specifically after incidents such as the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. In 2019, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey among 979 technology experts asking them about the impact of the use of technology on citizens, civil society groups, democracy, and democratic representation. Nearly half of the respondents (49 percent) said that the use of technology will mostly weaken core aspects of democracy as the misuse of digital technology to manipulate and weaponize facts will affect people’s trust in institutions and each other, impacting their views about integrity and value of democratic processes and institutions (Anderson & Rainie, 2020).
According to Freedom House’s The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism Report, during 2017-18, 26 of the 65 countries assessed experienced a deterioration in internet freedom. Reductions in half of these countries were related to a rise in disinformation, censorship, technical attacks, and arrests of government critics in the lead-up to elections. Governments in 18 countries have increased state surveillance since June 2017. They have often avoided independent oversight and weakened encryption to gain unrestricted access to data. Thirteen countries have also blocked at least one social media or communication platform due to political and security reasons. There has also been a rise in governments manipulating social media content with pro-government commentators, bots, or trolls manipulating online discussions and content in 32 out of 65 countries.
These alarming figures from cyberspace are in line with political realities. With growing social and economic pressures democracies around the world are struggling to remain true to their fundamental principles. Populism in its various forms is on the rise and authoritarian and illiberal practices are no longer limited to ‘fragile’ and weak democracies. Western Europe, Europe in general, the United Kingdom (UK), and the United States (US) are facing a multitude of challenges on these fronts. India, the world’s largest democracy was a symbol of progression and promise when its founding fathers, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr. Ambedkar, framed the construction in a secular and democratic spirit. However, India, like many other countries, is on a dangerous trajectory with its leading party, the BJP, exhibiting clear hallmarks of authoritarianism. This reality is replicated in cyberspace as well.
In this study, digital authoritarianism in India is explored using a four-level framework: Full Network, Sub-Network, Proxies, and Network Nodes. This framework is based on the research done by (Howard et al., 2011).
India’s Political Landscape
Cyberspace usually mirrors the realities of the physical world. Those who are powerful in the physical world tend to dominate the virtual world too. The once celebrated status of India’s democracy is now tarnished as its large, diverse population is under constant psychological and physical threat. In Freedom House’s 2021 Democracy Under Siege report, the country has dropped from “Free” to “Partly Free” status for the first time primarily due to legal and vigilante violence against people’s right to freedom of speech and expression, escalating violence and prejudiced policies against Indian Muslims. India’s score on the Freedom of the World index, measuring civil and political liberties, dropped from 71 to 67 (Freedom House, 2021). In 2022, India’s score dropped further and declined for the fourth consecutive year to 66 (Freedom House, 2022a). While the Indian government decried the report and termed it biased, the Freedom House was not the only organization to document the decline in democratic rights in India (Scroll, 2021). According to the 5th Annual Democracy Report by the V-Dem Institute, India has been downgraded to the status of electoral autocracy (2021). This deterioration has primarily been enabled by the popularity of the right-wing Hindutva.
While it seemingly looks attached to Hinduism, it is more of a political derivative which is roughly equivalent to Islamism. Hindutva, as mobilized by populists, is quite different from the actual faith of Hinduism itself. Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world and its followers term their devotion as Sanatana Dharma (translated as eternal order, way, or duty) rather than classifying to a strict Hindu identity. Even traditions, behaviors, and identities that are linked with a Hindu identity such as karma (causality of good actions/ideas leading to good and bad leading to bad consequences), samsara (cycle of life, death, and rebirth usually referring to the seven cycles until the final stage of release), veganism, cow-worship, idol worship, etc are not the key features of what it means to be a Hindu. There are no parameters set by the faith itself or even by the government of India that make a person Hindu on the bases of customs and traditions being practiced, rather the definition of a Hindu citizen by the government of India is one who is born of Hindu parents or who does not identify with other local religions such as Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrian, etc. This makes Hinduism both a pluralist and fluid religion, more so in comparison to the Abrahamic faiths since it is not exclusive and has a centuries-old history of inclusively embracing the edicts and principles of other religions from a higher, holistic perspective (Saleem, 2021). Hindutva, on the other hand, is an exclusive and closed ideology.
The advent of Hindutva comes from V.D Savarkar who wrote a book in the early 1920s, titled Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? which defines a Hindu as someone “who considers India to be his motherland (matrbhumi), the land of his ancestors (pitrbhumi), and his holy land (punya bhumi)” (Tharoor, 2018). Savarkar claimed that Hindus as the rightful and hereditary owners of the land, thus excluding Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. and degrading them to the status of outsiders and enemies. This transition occurred over time under the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hundred years old religio-militant organization and its various affiliated bodies called the Sangh Parivar which was focused on the revival of the old “Hindu” traditions and encouraging people to adopt the Hindutva way of life. The RSS also builds a successful cultural identity of the group making its members long for a lost glorified Hindu age which came to an end due to “tyrant invaders” such as the Muslims and British.
The Hindutva Civilizational Populism
Harnessing the multi-layered insecurities, the Modi-led BJP has rooted its politics in Hindutva-driven populism. BJP’s populism is based on Hindutva and embraces not only the Hindus of India but also those living in other countries. It also draws its symbols, heroes, villains, culture, holy books, etc. from ancient Hindu civilization. Therefore, one can argue that BJP’s populism is not national but civilizational. ‘Civilizational populism’ is “a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people” (Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022a; Yilmaz & Morieson, 2022b).
Under Modi’s rule, India is becoming highly discriminatory and at times violent towards “the others.” This hostility is manifested in formal authoritarianism enabled by the instrumentalization of state institutions. In this part of the article, the civilizational Hindutva populism propagated by the BJP is explained.
Narendra Modi’s success in India has a lot with his Hindutva populist leadership and BJP’s expertise in digital media. Modi is a classic populist as he divides the nation into two groups of pure and impure people and claims that the pure people have been victims for centuries as impure people have used their innocence, purity, and good nature to subjugate them. He presents himself as someone that will make the pure people “Vishwaguru” (teacher, guru, or mentor of the world). The distinguishing feature of the pure group of people is Hinduism; impure people are non-Hindus, primarily Muslims (Yilmaz, Morieson & Demir, 2021). This deadly nexus of religion and populism is peculiar to Modi. Hindutva leadership, under various parties (Hindu Mahasabha, Bharatiya Jan Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party, etc.) had been gradually gaining ground since the 1950s but populism was not part of its repertoire until Modi emerged on the political scene (Saleem, 2021).
Modi won his first election in his home state Gujarat in 2002 after an anti-Muslim pogrom. Although the Indian Supreme Court acquitted Modi of all charges, there is widespread evidence of Modi’s acts of omission, if not commission, in allowing the pogrom to continue (Jaffrelot, 2003; Ghassem-Fachandi, 2012; Nussbaum, 2009). In November 2022, Amit Shah, the current Home Minister of India, Modi’s right hand man for more than two decades and co-accused in the Gujarat pogrom, gave further evidence of a planned massacre by saying in a public rally, “They tried to create a problem for Narendra Bhai [Modi] but he taught them such a lesson that they have not dared to do anything till 2022” and “But after they were taught a lesson in 2002, these elements left that path (of violence). They refrained from indulging in violence from 2002 till 2022. The BJP has established permanent peace in Gujarat by taking strict action against those who used to indulge in communal violence.” Since Muslims were the primary victims of the 2002 pogrom, it was obvious Amit Shah was referring to Muslims (Hindu Bureau, 2022). The old anti-Muslim message was given a populist twist by Modi in 2010-11 when he started concerted efforts to become the Prime Minister of India. Fortunately, for him, India had already experienced a digital revolution and was ready for a new kind of campaign.
Other political parties were no match to BJP’s successful digital campaign in 2014. Since then, during elections and at other points of political significance, the BJP has used digital alternatives along with the mainstream media (Schroeder, 2018). With extensive outreach, large funding, and little to stop them from airing controversial views, the party has gained significant clout on social media. This clout allows Modi to cultivate Hindutva populism which legitimizes the authoritarian actions of the state and creates a loyal supporter base that is not bothered about the rapidly deteriorating state of democracy and human rights. Gaining a favorable supporter base in cyberspace is important for the BJP as, according to data by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the total number of internet subscribers in India has risen to 825.30 million while broadband subscribers are 778 million at the end of March 2021 (TRAI, 2021).
The BJP leadership has a long history of hate speeches and propaganda against religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians. This is now practiced on social media too. Social media contributes 87.4 percent of the fake news spread in India, with mainstream media only contributing 12.6 percent, producing around seven times more fake news compared to mainstream media (Al Zaman, 2021). The BJP constantly portrays minorities as enemies of the Hindu nation and casts doubts about their loyalty. When such narratives are mainstreamed, they become “truths” and legitimize the government’s questionable actions such as the passage of laws restricting inter-faith marriage or citizenship that target Muslims and poor Indians with threats of deportation.
Similarly, News Laundry reported on the telegram network of Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader, and his ‘Hindu Ecosystem’ network that creates propaganda material and manufactures trends across social media platforms to whip up communal hatred and bigotry, and support for Hindutva (2021). The network began with Mishra tweeting the link to a membership form to join the team. The group was joined mostly by upper-caste Hindu men, growing to around 20,000 members. Mishra asked the members to subscribe to Organizer and Panchjanya, house journals of the RSS boosting the reach of the supremacist group. The Hindu Ecosystem picks up a theme to trend on Twitter each week, ready with mass propaganda and a bunch of fake news with bad aesthetics, to put the Hindutva ideology, along with a bunch of tweets that only had to be copy-pasted by the members to start a campaign. The group has been growing exponentially since then, with over 30,000 members working in a coordinated way to incite communal hatred, complete with readily shareable images, videos, and forwards to tap into the hate-network effect (Thakur & Meghnad, 2021).
The Hindutva populist message of hatred, oppression, and discrimination embraced and mainstreamed by the BJP has also found its way into the hearts of millions of people. Exposed to these ideas many segments of the public mirror the state’s overt aggression towards “the others” within the cyber realm. There are many instances where things go beyond cyberbullying leading to actual physical attacks taking place due to the spread of news on social networking sites. In India, hate speech, false news, and misinformation shared on social media have been linked to increased violence and hatred towards non-Hindu religious groups. Specifically, WhatsApp users among a section of rural and urban upper- and middle-class Hindu men are predisposed both to believe populist disinformation and to share misinformation about “othered” and “impure” groups in face-to-face and WhatsApp networks. This discrimination culminates in the form of widespread, simmering distrust, hatred, contempt, and suspicion towards Muslims, Dalits, and non-Dalit Hindu dissenting citizens (Banaji & Bhat, 2020).
An example of such social media-led violence can be found in incidents of lynching of Muslims and Dalits that are fueled by rumors spread on social media. Since 2015, there have been more than a hundred instances of lynching, targeting individuals from the discriminated groups (Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis) based on allegations of cow slaughter, cow trafficking, and cattle theft leading to further instances of extreme mob violence and lynching that have resulted in death and trauma. Although these victims are targeted for different reasons, these incidents have in common mobs of vigilantes who use peer-to-peer messaging applications such as WhatsApp to spread lies about the victims and use misinformation to mobilize, defend, and in some cases to document and circulate images of their violence (Banaji & Bhat, 2020).
There is a “thematic alignment” between those who propagate and believe in conspiracy theories and populists. Both do not believe in mainstream media or the government and are paranoid – afraid of minorities, refugees, and other groups plotting against them. Their basic assumption is that the government and media are in cahoots to deceive the majority group, who are the victims (Krasodomski-Jones, 2019). Unsurprisingly, one sees conspiracy theories promoted by the Hindutva against Muslims. During the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories became viral on social media blaming Muslims for the spread of the novel Coronavirus in India. As reported by The Guardian, Mehboob Ali from Harewali was beaten mercilessly by a Hindu mob after a conspiracy theory became viral nationwide that linked the spread of the COVID-19 virus in India to a Tablighi Jamaat gathering in New Delhi. Hundreds of Tablighi Jamaat members were arrested all over India and remained in jail for months before being declared innocent by courts. There was also a concentration of attacks on Muslims in Karnataka state after an audio clip began to be shared widely over WhatsApp, urging people not to allow Muslim fruit and vegetable sellers into their areas, claiming they were spreading the virus through their produce. The hatred reached such a level that some hospitals denied treatment to Muslim Covid-19 patients (Pisharody, 2020).
Similarly, there have been incidents of lynchings and beatings of Muslims after allegations of ‘love jihad’, whereby Muslims are accused of luring/grooming Hindu women to deceitfully convert them to Islam, spread on social media. This conspiracy has been referenced in more than 2000 tweets on social media prompted by Hindu nationalists, fueling violence and unrest since 2013, resulting in the killing of 62 people and forced displacement of over 50,000 Muslims in the northern Indian town of Muzaffarnagar (Dotto & Swinnen, 2021).
The scope and themes of discussion in this Indian, anti-Muslim network hijack global conversations as well. As the conflict in Israel and Palestine broke out, thousands of anti-Islam and pro-Israel messages flooded Indian social media, using the conflict as a vehicle to promote Islamophobia. On May 12, 2021, an open call was launched on social media to get the anti-Muslim #UnitedAgainstJehad trending, accompanied by graphics with detailed instructions to retweet at least 40 times, alleging that radical Islamic Jihadis were much more dangerous than any pandemic. In a few hours, the likes and shares poured in and by May 13, the hashtag had already appeared over 11,000 times, producing nearly 70,000 interactions on Twitter (Dotto & Swinnen, 2021).
This core support base for Modi and the party aids in creating an environment where authoritarianism inspires vigilantism and supports the extreme formal measures of the state. Cyberspace populated by pro-Hindutva advocates and shaped by the BJP narratives is a highly oppressive place for “the others.” Actual incidents are animated and inspired by Twitter trends and viral videos (Mirchandani, 2018)
Digital Authoritarianism in India
Despite widespread internet access, internet freedom in India, however, remains compromised. According to Democracy Watchdog by Freedom House, internet freedom in India declined for four consecutive years until 2021. The internet freedom score improved slightly from 49 to 51 in 2022 but India is still designated as ‘Partly-Free’ (Freedom House, 2022b). During the last five years, the Indian government regularly shut down the internet to suppress protests the Citizenship Amendment Act, scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir state, Farm laws, and targeted critical voices with spyware. It also pressured international social media platforms to remove content that was critical of the government’s Hindu nationalist/populist agenda (Freedom House, 2021). This signals an increasing effort on part of the government to regulate the digital space and limit, block, and penalize those who question or oppose the party.
Sahana Udupa (2018) argues that the Hindu nationalist BJP was the first major political party to have a social media campaign strategy. During the 2014 national election campaign, the BJP used numerous new mobilization tactics on social media that were not seen before. The branding on social and print media projected Modi as a “populist messiah of New India.” His complicity in the 2002 Gujarat massacre was downplayed. After winning the elections, the BJP established an IT cell that is the envy of other parties. Amit Shah, the then BJP President, claimed in 2018, that “it is through social media that we have to form governments at the state and national levels, by making messages going viral” (Basu, 2019).
Swati Chaturvedi (2016), in her book “I am a Troll: Inside the Secret World of the BJP’s Digital Army” gives useful insights into the workings of the social media cell of the BJP led by Arvind Gupta, the same BJP official who was responsible for leading BJP’s 2014 election campaign. The cell runs from BJP’s headquarters located at 11 Ashoka Road in New Delhi and comprises members who ensure that certain hashtags, decided by the head, are made to trend on social media on a particular day. Each day has a different tweet agenda that is sent out to a large network of social media workers across India, mostly standard PR containing tweeting routine addresses by PM Modi, Amit Shah, and BJP Chief Ministers or creating the BJP or Modi-related trend topics. Over the years, the BJP has built a reservoir of thousands of dormant Twitter accounts to be used when needed for synchronized tweeting, along with bots controlled by the party’s central IT cell which tweet out identical messages simultaneously.
The following section explores India’s digital authoritarianism using the four-level framework.
Full Network Level Governance
Full network governance refers to a complete internet shutdown or substantial degrading of the internet (e.g. from 4G to 2G or 3G) in a region. Between 2014 and November 2022, there were 680 government-imposed internet shutdowns across India, resulting in the highest number of internet blocks in the world. In 2021, there were 101 forced internet shutdowns in India. This is a significant increase from only six and 14 shutdowns in 2014 and 2015 respectively (Internet Shutdowns, 2022). The worst example of an internet shutdown in India was the internet shutdown in Kashmir, for almost a year, after the stripping of its special status on August 5, 2019. This was done ostensibly to end violence, militancy, and online extremism in the region, however, according to most observers, it was clearly done to stifle criticism and dissent against the highly unpopular decision. Internet shutdown was imposed despite objections from human rights organizations, civil society, political parties, and even retired security officials (Shah, 2020). The shutdown continued despite concerns raised by many residents on the additional challenges it posed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sub-Network or Website Level Governance
When it comes to Sub-network level governance, the government has introduced a panoply of digital surveillance measures, normalizing the shift from targeted surveillance to mass surveillance (Mahapatra, 2021). This has been justified on the account of rising terrorism in India, especially after the Mumbai attacks of 2008. The most recent development in this realm has been the induction of a Central Monitoring System (CMS). The CMS is a surveillance system that monitors most of electronic and other communications, including phone calls on landlines and cell phones, text messages, and social media engagement. It was primarily introduced post the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, after which a need was felt for a greater coordinator between law enforcement and security agencies. This system puts the privacy of the public at risk as a person will not know if and when their data has been intercepted and when turned into a mass surveillance practice. Large groups of people will have their data intercepted without a valid reason (Internet Freedom Foundation, 2020).
Other than CMS, in the past few years, police have routinized the use of fingerprint and facial recognition technology (FRT) to stop and screen people on grounds of suspicion, without any evidence. Such digital surveillance enables dragnet surveillance, which makes everyone a suspect. Secondly, it also leads to datafication of individuals, turning the identity and activity of human beings into quantifiable data for governance and business purposes (Mahapatra, 2021).
The next level of analysis is the sub-network level where websites and webpages are banned by governments. In India, websites are blocked by the central government, under Section 69A of the IT Act and the 2009 Blocking Rules, which allows the reasons for the ban to be kept confidential too. There has also been an upsurge in the number of websites blocked. A total of 6096 websites were blocked in 2021. This is low as compared to the 9849 websites banned in 2020 but considerably higher than to 633 websites banned in 2016. (Qureshi, 2022). It is worth noting that censorship and digital surveillance in India are not only limited to blaming and censoring Muslims. During the Farmer Protests, hundreds of Indian Twitter accounts that voiced support for the farmers were suspended as India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology directed the company to take down accounts that had used “incendiary” hashtags during the January 26 violence, raising questions about the neutrality of Twitter when it comes to free speech in India (Rej, 2021).
Proxy or Corporation Level Governance
The next level of analysis is proxies and corporations, especially social media websites or intermediaries, all while keeping in mind India’s powerful position as having the third-largest Twitter users in the world (behind the US and Japan), the largest number of Facebook users in the world, and largest WhatsApp market in the world (Buchholz, 2021). Such a big consumer base puts India in a dominant position in the international market, forcing intermediaries to accept its advice even if it goes against their rules and individual privacy.
Under the recent restrictive Information Technology Rules 2021, social media platforms’ freedom to operate and immunity from prosecution (because of what someone has written or posted on their websites) have been greatly reduced. Social media intermediaries are now required to remove content identified as illegal by the government within three days. They are also required to provide user information to law enforcement officials. For this, they need to increase their data retention period to 180 days, increasing the costs of noncompliance for these global firms, thereby putting end-to-end encryption at risk.
Pal (2021) elaborates that the intermediaries are required to appoint three officers: a) a Chief Compliance Officer who shall be responsible for compliance with the Information Technology Act and the rules framed there under, b) a Nodal Contact Person who shall be responsible for communication with law enforcement agencies, and c) a Resident Grievance Officer who shall be responsible for the grievance redressal mechanism. All these officers are required to be residents of India. Another obligation cast upon these intermediaries is to enable the identification of the ‘first originator’ of any information on their platform. Simply put, this means that an intermediary, like Facebook or Twitter, would be open for liability if a third-party user posts unlawful content on their platforms (The Wire, 2021; Pal, 2021).
Apart from endangering the privacy of users, these rules directly put the users’ freedom of expression at risk. These rules also restrict companies’ discretion in moderating their own platforms and create new possibilities for government surveillance of citizens, threatening the idea of free and open internet (Rodriguez & Schmon, 2021). The 2021 Rules also require all intermediaries to remove restricted content within 36 hours of knowing of its existence by a court order or notification from a government agency, with noncompliance resulting in penal consequences (Rodriguez & Schmon, 2021).
The manifestation of this law can be seen in the following examples. During the COVID-19 crisis in 2021, the Indian government made an emergency order to censor tweets criticizing the government for its negligence and inefficiency in combating the virus. This specifically referred to a tweet from a politician in West Bengal holding Prime Minister Modi directly responsible for Coronavirus deaths, and from an actor criticizing PM Modi for holding political rallies while the virus raged, raising concerns about the government`s obsession with political supremacy and censorship during a public health crisis (BBC, 2021). Such requests by the government to block content on Twitter peaked in the aftermath of the revoking of Articles 35A and 370, related to Kashmir, as already discussed, with Modi’s government issuing its highest-ever number of monthly blocking orders to Twitter, with all of the censorship requests aimed at Kashmir-related content. On August 11 and August 12, 2020, Twitter was asked to take down eight accounts, including some Pakistani and Kashmir-based accounts claiming that they were “circulating fake news” and that the language used was a “clear indication” that they were either being run by the ISI or the Pakistan Army” (Srivas, 2020). The tensions also escalated due to the recent mass protest movement by farmers against three farm laws that renewed criticism of Modi’s regime, to which the government responded with hundreds of takedown orders to Twitter. The platform initially resisted, but later complied with many of the requests and blocked some 500 accounts permanently (Christopher & Ahmad, 2021).
Twitter and other intermediaries have faced increasing pressure, many call it intimidation, from the Indian government to comply. In a November 2022 article, Time magazine called it “Twitter’s India problem.” There have been raids, court cases, and the threat of arrests. Twitter has tried to walk a thin line in India. It has increased its compliance but has also tried not to become too servile. Since the implementation of new rules, it has deferred to Indian government “requests” for the removal of posts, blocking of accounts, revealing user information, etc. According to Twitter’s transparency report, it complied with only 9.1 percent of requests to remove the content in the six months before the new rules came into force. Since then, Twitter has compiled with 19.5 percent of requests, more than double the previous percentage. During the same period, Twitter became much more amenable to revealing user data. It complied with almost ten times as many government requests for private information. However, Twitter has also tried to remain independent by filing a lawsuit in July 2022 against the demand of the government to remove 39 tweets and accounts (Perrigo, 2022). In 2022, the Indian government has also come up with a new Digital Personal Data Protection Bill that further increased the government’s power on the transfer of data and virtual communications (Saran, 2022).
Network-Node or Individual Level Governance
Coming to individual-level internet governance in India, the primary targets are journalists and social media activists resulting in arrests under terror or treason charges. India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has decreased from the 133rd position in 2016 to the 142nd position in 2021 and the 150th position in 2022 (The Quint, 2022). India is among the countries categorized as “bad” for journalism and is considered one of the most dangerous countries for journalists (Kaushik, 2021). In July 2021, India was engulfed in the Pegasus spyware scandal. Pegasus is a spyware, made by an Israeli company, that was used to spy on journalists, political opponents, foreign leaders, military officials, etc. It was sold only to governments to supposedly control terrorism and other illegal activities. However, Modi’s government, like many other governments, bought this spyware to spy on anyone it considered a threat (Basak, 2022).
Journalists, particularly Muslim journalists, are under consistent threat of arrest and courts have provided constitutional protection in a few cases. National and state governments regularly file cases against Journalist Rana Ayyub for disturbing communal harmony when she exposes BJP’s Hindutva cadres’ excesses. In June 2022, Delhi state police arrested Zubair, owner of Alt News, a prominent fact-checking website, over a four-years old post. Siddique Kappan was arrested in October 2020 when he was trying to cover a murder and rape case. After struggling through lower courts for two years, he was granted bail by the Supreme Court of India but before this verdict, the state filed another lawsuit, and he is still in jail (Freedom on the Net, 2022; Mamta, 2022). In March 2022, three Kashmiri students remained in jail for five months under sedition charges for allegedly sending anti-India WhatsApp messages after Pakistan’s victory in a cricket match. They have been granted bail, but their future remains precarious as the case is still to be decided (Jaiswal, 2022).
The article analyzed and examined the law, rules, and regulations which the BJP government uses to control cyberspace. This was carried out by using the four levels of network analysis. In India surveillance, blockage, censorship, and legal actions for cyber activities are all regulated under legal frameworks that have been tailored to support the BJP’s undemocratic transgressions. The article focused on analyzing the multifaceted and layered populist usage of cyberspace by the BJP in India and its impact on their Hindu base as well as on “the others.” We find that civilizational authoritarian populism in India has spread like wildfire which makes it quite a volatile society both offline as well as online. Both these spaces intersect and influence each other. The once democratic and plural country has transformed into a breeding ground for extremism, repression, and violence.
Targeting religious minorities has now become the most dominant theme on Indian social media. As discussed, the virtual hate, propagated by the BJP, eventually transcends into real life in instances of violence targeting these groups. The state-led cyber oppression emboldens many to not only embrace these narratives online but also to be violent against “the others.” This violence or vigilantism is not limited to online harassment but frequently results in the death of the intended targeted communities.
Overall, our analysis has shown that civilizational populist digital authoritarianism in India has recently become more prominent. Since Modi’s ascend, India has experienced a decline in internet freedom and has also lost its status as a vibrant democracy. Modi has built a strong digital presence around the country in four main ways:
The BJP has established a top-down, organized social media presence model, controlled by the BJP IT Cell in New Delhi. The IT Cell commands thousands of paid and unpaid volunteers and bots who share posts and tweets. These posts/tweets follow specific themes that are decided by the party leaders and involve targeting political opponents, harassing religious minorities, and spreading propaganda and fake news.
The BJP government has introduced a set of rules and regulations to increase its digital oversight which augments its control over social media networks and coerces the latter into complying with the government’s narrative if they are to thrive in India. Some recent developments in this regard include the introduction of the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and the new rules Information Technology Rules, 2021.
As India has one the largest number of social media users in the world, the BJP government enjoys preferential treatment from social media platforms that have a history of giving in to BJP’s concerns and removing content that is undesirable to the BJP.
As a spillover of the BJP authoritarianism, the Hindutva voter base has also accepted and enacted the state’s populist authoritarianism in both online and physical space.
Emerging from these factors, the digital landscape in India has become increasingly intolerant.
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Both Islamism and far-right populism claim power and control over women’s bodies by imposing rules around the hijab. In Iran, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear a hijab despite personal preferences. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces. This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose.
Debates around women’s bodies, particularly those of Muslim women, have grown globally in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s death under the custody of Iran’s morality police after being detained for ‘improper’ hijab-wearing. For a better understanding of control over women’s bodily autonomy, the concepts of political Islam and far-right populism need to be examined.
The term political Islam, otherwise known as Islamism, ontologically implies resistance against secular and Western systems of governing. Criticizing secular ideologies, political Islam aims to establish a political system based on Islamic doctrines in addition to creating a unified religious identity for the whole of society. In the Routledge Handbook of Political Islam, Shahram Akbarzadeh argues that “much like other -isms, Islamism imposes a normative framework on society in a blatant attempt to make society fit into its mould” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 1). Being a reactionary movement, which aims to shape society and the state through the agency of religion, political Islam manifests itself as challenging both previous governments and the West. Akbarzadeh cites Mohammad Ayyoob to explain the incentives behind this challenge: “Political Islam gained increasing support as ‘governing elites failed to deliver on their promises of economic progress, political participation, and personal dignity to expectant populations emerging from colonial bondage,” (Akbarzadeh, 2012: 2).
Besides denouncing their regime, Islamists also stand up to the West through the medium of “anti-Americanism”. They claim that all their political opponents are failures because they “deviate” from the divine path. The concerning facet in this approach is the blurry definition of this so-called divine path. In other words, Islamism or political Islam acts as an empty signifier that can be filled with subjective interpretations of Islam. To be more precise, an Islamist leader who claims to be representing divine “sovereignty” can legitimize his practices through a religious discourse that cannot be denied by society since it may appear as resisting divinity.
Akbarzadeh touches on this hypocritical aspect of political Islam; On one hand, actors who hold an Islamist position reject others’ interpretation of religious doctrine on the basis that it is not divine, but on the other hand, these same actors interpret Islam according to their personal interests, like gaining more power. In this case, political Islam deliberately serves to oppress discourse on economy, morality, and authority. According to Akbarzadeh (2012), “the combination of the exclusive claim on divine truth and the capture of political power” gives the authorities a legitimate right which can be hazardous for the society since this power “can easily manifest as acts of violence.”
While Akbarzadeh’s definition of Islamism identifies it with resistance, Esposito adopts the concept of “resurgence” while discussing political Islam. In this lens, it is the combination of “resentment over political and social injustices” and “issues of identity” which merges faith and politics in order to establish an “Islamic revival” (Esposito, 1997). This resistance approach, which strengthens itself with exasperation and revolt against both domestic and Western ideologies, helps governments pave the way for “enhancing their legitimacy and to mobilize popular support for programs and policies” (Esposito, 1997).
However, the state is not the sole actor to reap benefits from Islamism. Social movements and companies that affiliate themselves with Islamic identities also generate opportunities to establish new businesses, such as hospitals, banks, and schools, and work to accommodate their associates in these organizations. The most pertinent point Esposito raises in his article questions “whose Islam” is this and “what Islam” is. The answer concerns the idea of power, which we can find in the hazardous mixture proposed by Akbarzadeh. As such, the compulsory hijab in Iran implemented by the country’s Islamist regime and its enforcement through the support of society can be understood by the aforementioned definitions and discussions of political Islam.
On the other hand, the hijab ban, or alternatively the adverseness against wearing hijab in public places in some European countries such as France, can be seen as representing another disregard of women’s bodily autonomy. In this context, far-right populism and Islamophobia have had a significant role in shaping public discourses against the hijab. As a result, it is necessary to shed light on the seemingly discordant approach in the far-right discourse on the subject. By “framing Islam as a homogenous, totalitarian ideology which threatens Western civilization” (Berntzen, 2021: 11), the far-right, for this issue, appears to abandon its traditional, radical, authoritarian attitude and move towards a more liberal, modern, rights-based strategy. Such a strategy focuses on presenting a liberal attitude and liberal optics by a “transformation as a partial decoupling between authoritarianism and the radical right through an adoption of liberal positions on many issues” such as free speech, democracy, gender equality” (Girdap, 2022). The framing of the discussion surrounding the hijab in France and similar environments needs to be understood in the context outlined above. In addition to this, we must take into consideration the issues of racism and radicalization in Europe in terms of Islamophobia and gendered racism.
Crystal Fleming, in her book Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France, describes France “not only as a racialized social system but also as a racist society for at least three reasons. First, racial bias is embedded within the nation’s institutions… Second, racial categories and stereotypes are prevalent in everyday life…. Finally, present-day inequalities are related to historical racial categories and openly racist practices rooted in colonialism and slavery” (2017: 8-9). Far-right populist discourses frame Muslims as inferior and second-class citizens through a colonialist ideology entrenched in the country’s system and society. This structural frame impacts Muslim women to a greater extent as their religious identities are more visible and claims over gender equality are more easily conducted through the hijab debate.
In conclusion, reflected in Mahsa Amini’s tragic death and discourse around women’s bodily autonomy, political Islam (Islamism) on the one hand, far-right populism on the other both claim power and control over women’s bodies using hijab as a proxy. In Iran, through compulsory hijab, women are expected to submit to the regime’s despotism and wear hijab despite personal preferences, no matter what. However, in France, under the guise of liberal values, far-right populists are advocating for a ban on hijabs and other religious symbols in public spaces. This antagonism towards the hijab is postured as saving Muslim women from the patriarchy and religious oppression, yet it still robs women of a right to choose.
Akbarzadeh, Shahram. (2012). Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Esposito, John L. (1997). “Claiming the Center: Political Islam in Transition.” Harvard International Review, vol. 19, no. 2.
Fleming, Crystal M. (2017). Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Girdap, Hafza. (2022). “Liberal Roots of Far-Right Activism – The Anti-Islamic Movement in the 21st Century.” ECPS Book Reviews. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). January 24, 2022. https://doi.org/10.55271/br0007
Hirschkind, Charles. (1997). “What Is Political Islam?” Middle East Report, no. 205.