TsvetaPetrova

Populism, Democracy and Authoritarianism by Dr. Tsveta Petrova

Over the past decade, a number of European populist parties have become increasingly competitive in key votes, and in Eastern Europe, these parties have not only come to power but also remained in office in consecutive elections. This session looks at both the supply and the demand side of the rise and the resilience of populism in the post-communist world and considers both the political and civic embeddedness of populism in the region.

AnthoulaMalkopoulou

Introduction to Populism by Dr. Anthoula Malkopoulou

This session introduces the concept of populism by discussing what it is and how it relates to other key political ideologies. It is divided into three parts. First, it presents various definitions, approaches and theories of populism. The second part discusses the connection of populism to nationalism, socialism and liberalism. In the third part, we contemplate the relation of populism to democracy. For more information about the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) visit: https://www.populismstudies.org/​ Follow on Social Media https://twitter.com/populismstudies

White nationalists and counter protesters clash in during a rally that turned violent resulting in the death of one and multiple injuries in Charlottesville, VA on August 12, 2017. Photo: Kim Kelley-Wagner.

Homegrown Hate – Why White Nationalists and Militant Islamists are Waging War Against the United States by Sara Kamali

Dr. Sara Kamali’s book illustrates why strategies to countering extremism are not effective and how they lead to the surveillance of entire Muslim communities, uncovering the complex ways such measures and policies reinforce the injustice and oppression of minority groups.

By F. Zehra Colak

In her timely book Homegrown Hate (University of California Press, 272 pg.), Sara Kamali scrutinizes the identity of White nationalists and militant Islamists, examines their grievances, hatreds, and the acts of terrorism, and lastly asks how these threats can be addressed. Drawing on in-depth interviews with key figures, as well as other primary and secondary source documents, Kamali shows how, despite differences in their motivations and goals, both White nationalists and militant Islamists share a narrative of victimhood, a shattered sense of belonging and alienation, and a perception of self-righteousness while instrumentalizing their theologies to express their disenfranchisement through violence. 

Homegrown Hate is a book of four parts. The first focuses on the beliefs, worldviews and ideologies of White nationalists and militant Islamists, offering a rich outline of their historical backgrounds, organizational structures, and shared methods. Kamali details how The Fourteen Words serves as a mission statement for all White nationalists, defining their supremacist beliefs and honing their identities and political aims while perpetuating the need for militancy to prevent the so-called racial annihilation of Whites by people of colour. The book offers an insightful glimpse into the complex and overlapping stories, anti-government sentiments, and strongly interwoven affiliations of White militant nationalists as well as the most impactful ideologies shaping White nationalist discourse, including Christian IdentityCreativity, and Wotanism. The book then offers a comprehensive overview of the political strategies and the complex and intersecting connections and theologies of prominent militant Islamist organizations, including al-Qa’ida and Islamic State (Dã’ish), which share a political desire to establish a global caliphate. Key terminology and concepts (e.g., jãhiliyya) exploited by militant Islamists to determine who is deserving of loyalty and disavowal and to justify their war as God’s command are well described.  

In the book’s second part, Kamali investigates White nationalist and militant Islamist grievances against the United States. The notion of White genocide is endorsed by the former to justify a narrative of victimhood and displacement and to support a call for a racial holy war, RAHOWA. The chapter sheds light on the role of demographic changes, economic shifts, and gun rights in understanding the grievances of White nationalists and delves further into how antisemitism, antiglobalism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and Queerphobia manifest and intersect within the White nationalist discourse. Interestingly, the role of women in upholding the norms of White nationalism is not sufficiently explored, although women have been key figures in designing a White supremacist system and promoting far-right groups like QAnon. 

In her analysis of the layered grievances of militant Islamists, Kamali shows how such narratives are rooted in a specific interpretation of Islam, US foreign policy, the Crusades, and colonialism to justify the need for self-preservation, defence against oppression, and the establishment of a global caliphate. Kamali addresses how the rhetoric adopted by many American presidents has contributed to the image of the US as a “Crusader” in alliance with Zionists, fuelling militant Islamist propaganda. Such propaganda claims that the US and its pro-Zionist allies aim to eradicate Islam and dominate Muslim-majority nations. The book acknowledges that while some of the grievances of militant Islamists regarding American foreign policy could be legitimate, their adopted methods to address such injustices are undemocratic. 

The third part of the book explores the legitimization of holy wars (e.g., RAHOWA and jihad) by White nationalists and militant Islamists who distort interpretations of traditional scriptures and theological concepts to fulfil their political ambitions. Kamali illustrates how White nationalists consider racial war essential to stopping White genocide and to establishing a White ethnostate in line with the aims of Fourteen Words. In the same vein, militant Islamists portray the West as a threat to Islam and propose holy war against all who they perceive as non-Muslim to establish a global caliphate. While many White nationalists imagine a White and Christian America inspired by the Founding Fathers’ divine vision and the sacred US constitution, militant Islamists envision a future where the US is part of a global caliphate. 

Kamali also illuminates how both movements utilize apocalyptic and violent eschatological visions to justify their terrorism. These grand narratives about the End Times, Kamali argues, offer a sense of belonging and meaning to members of both groups, who believe they play a central role in establishing God’s kingdom through fighting against evil. She explains the role of the internet in bolstering such narratives legitimizing violence and amplifying the voices of militant Islamists and White nationalists. Social media platforms, for instance, are often used to recruit followers and cultivate a sense of community feeding off a narrative of victimhood and hatred towards the “Other.” Questioning the myth of the “lone wolf,” the book highlights the key role of (virtual) communities, transnational ideological connections, and complex psychosocial and political dynamics in explaining the violent actions of an individual. 

In the conclusion, Kamali proposes a new approach to counterterrorism by critiquing the current counter-terrorism strategies as bolstering Islamophobia and failing to recognize White nationalism as a legitimate security threat. The framework, named holistic justice, is founded on principles of anti-oppression and empathy and aims at rectifying the systemic inequities (e.g., structural Islamophobia, institutionalized White privilege) underlying the current counterterrorism approaches. This approach, Kamali explains, holds White liberals accountable for using their privilege to enact institutional change and calls on Muslim Americans to organize at a grassroots level and build solidarity with minority groups. While Kamali’s holistic justice framework aims at rectifying systemic inequities, the role of empathy in bringing about structural change is not sufficiently explored. Although intergroup empathy might contribute to the formation of critical consciousness, encouraging individuals to reflect on their histories and privileges, it is not clear whether empathy is seen as a pre-condition for mobilizing for systemic change or an outcome of anti-oppression work. 

The book illustrates why strategies to countering extremism are not effective and how they lead to the surveillance of entire Muslim communities, uncovering the complex ways such measures and policies reinforce the injustice and oppression of minority groups. The lack of a federal statute criminalizing domestic terrorism, for instance, works to the benefit of militant White nationalists who cannot be prosecuted as terrorists on a national level unlike militant Islamists. Although racial disparities and injustices targeting people of colour are recognized in the book, the question of how systemic racism impacts the psychosocial circumstances of already vulnerable people who are driven to militancy remains insufficiently addressed.

Overall, Homegrown Hate is a valuable up-to-date resource not only for scholars and policymakers but for anyone who is looking to gain an in-depth understanding of current security threats and political violence facing the United States and many other countries around the world. The range and breadth of the complex layers of White nationalism and militant Islamism scrutinized are beyond comparison. The book is a significant contribution to the field—deeply informative and written in an engaging manner.

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes.

Dog Whistles vs. Slide Whistles: Humor as Weapon and Resistance

Today’s satirical landscape has become more complicated than the past decade’s pattern of journalistic provocations, physical attacks, and right-wing reactions. Katrine Fangen finds that: “Even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes.”

By Heidi Hart

At a recent demonstration by the anti-immigrant populist group SIAN (Stop the Islamisation of Norway) in Norway, painfully close to the ten-year anniversary of the far-right terror attacks in Oslo (Gjelsvik, 2021), a small far-right contingent voiced their vitriol through loudspeakers in front of Stortinget, the capitol city’s parliament building. Several hundred counter-protesters met them with chants, drums, a jazz trumpet, cowbells, an electric guitar, and (thanks to my son, Evan Hart, who has lived in Norway since 2016) a slide whistle. “It was a bit chaotic, but that was the point,” he said, recalling our talks about rhythmic disturbance as a way to interrupt lockstep behavior in far-right demos.

The syncopated chants “Vi er alle antifascister” (“We are all antifascists”) and “Ingen rasister i våre gater” (“No racists in our streets”) worked against any marchlike beats coming from the SIAN speakers. Off-kilter, improvisational noisemaking, along with homemade banners and Pride flags, certainly helped deflate SIAN’s racist, populist posturing – however protected by free speech concerns in Norway – and humor helped as well. I even caught a duck call whistle in the sound clips my son recorded. 

Humor in the form of satirical cartoons has long been a flashpoint in European immigration debates. In Denmark, the Netherlands, and France over the past 15 years, cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed have incited violent reactions, not only as caricatures but also as insults to a religion that is “iconoclastic” in that it “does not permit God to be anthropomorphized … and prizes textual scripture instead” (Taub, 2015). Attacks on Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and on several sites in Copenhagen (related to another cartoonist, Lars Vilks) from 2010 to 2015, along with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, fed far-right populist reactions throughout Europe, from Pegida and the AfD party in Germany to SIAN and many online splinter groups; a 2014 study predicted this development, showing that particular, controversial events lead to spikes in anti-Muslim sentiment, which has not grown in a single, steady curve.  

Today’s satirical landscape has become more complicated than the past decade’s pattern of journalistic provocations, physical attacks, and right-wing reactions. Katrine Fangen, who has studied anti-Muslim views expressed in social media, finds that: “Even in Facebook groups with more than 10,000 members, periodically one will find comments that openly support violence against Muslims. These comments are often presented as jokes, in order to protect the persons posting them from potentially being accused of violating laws on hate crimes” (Fangen, 2021).  

Fangen has also noted the use of emojis to “camouflage” anti-Muslim and misogynistic views (“Gendered Images,”2021). Though far-right fanzines used similar tactics in the 1990s, she points out, the ease of viral spread on the internet has attracted far wider audiences, using humor as a seemingly harmless gateway to mainstreaming racial stereotypes and stoking fears that Muslims are “taking over” countries like Germany or Norway, failing to see that most immigrants are fleeing extremist governments in their own countries. 

In the memesphere, the American webcomic StoneToss has attracted controversy for its Holocaust-denial dog whistlesand other semi-coded references to white supremacist, homophobic, and misogynist thinking. On sites like Reddit (often politically problematic in its own right), critics have parsed racist, sexist tropes veiled in “edgy humor.” One reaction among leftist groups has been to appropriate and “remix” StoneToss comics (Gilmour, 2021), with what my son calls “layers of irony” that may escape not only less sophisticated populists but even older progressives like me. The “antifastonetoss” page includes completed remixes, blank-thought-bubble templates, and test runs for community feedback. Subreddit links and critiques of source StoneToss comics abound, as do comments that, under their clever snark, show real concern for the damage hateful content can do, and that offer what might incite a Gen Z eyeroll if I say this: kindness, as in “Trans people are biblically accurate angels.” 

Another surprising site of weaponized, white supremacist humor is the ostensibly “friendship is magic” world of My Little Pony. For the past decade or so, young men calling themselves “Bronies” have associated themselves with the toy-inspired cartoon series for various reasons, one of which is an incel-driven need to bond with other straight, white men who feel socially and/or sexually outcast. What could be, and is in some cases, ironic or escapist enjoyment of characters like Rainbow Dash and their sparkly adventures has morphed into a whole memeverse of trolling and counter-trolling, coded vocabulary, and some explicitly violent content, such as “a My Little Pony character presiding over three lynchings and one beheading of cartoons drawn to represent various marginalized groups” (Tiffany, 2020). Over the past several years, a virtual civil war has erupted over the “4chan ethos” of archiving everything, leading to some censorship of violent images but not of racist messages (Tiffany, 2020).

On the other side of the political divide, in the post-Trump, pandemic-exhausted, heatwave-traumatized US, humor still has its place as a site of coping and resistance, as in plague memes referring to anti-vaxxers or “Disaster Girl” memessatirizing climate crisis deniers. The point in both cases is not to incite hate for particular groups but to point out the costs of disinformation in a disarming way. Perhaps a small percentage of hoax theorists will find themselves laughing and, who knows, even reconsider their stances on “personal freedom” or (to use a strangely misappropriated word) “research.” Perhaps a SIAN hanger-on in Oslo last week noticed that his or her cowbell-clanging foes were having much more fun marching down Karl Johans Gate than those shouting racist rhetoric through loudspeakers. I’d choose the “anti-fascist slide whistle” any day.


(*) This essay follows up on the 23.06.21 interview with Anne Gjelsvik and on several commentaries on music in protest and in far-right populism. Thanks to Evan Hart for audio clips and internet culture insights.

Women protest the decision taken by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to withdraw the country from the Istanbul Convention in Kadıkoy/Istanbul, Turkey on March 20, 2021. Photo: Gokce Atik.

Right-wing populism, political Islam, and the Istanbul Convention

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

By Hafza Girdap

An “obsession with gender and sexuality” has been a common feature of contemporary right-wing populism. This manifests in various discourses that “conjure up the heteronormative nuclear family as the model of social organization, attack reproductive rights, question sex education, criticize a so-called ‘gender ideology,’ reject same-sex marriage and seek to re-install biologically understood binary gender differences” (Dietze & Roth, 2020: 7). The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, has been a recent target of right-wing populists, ironically enough in Turkey, where the convention was opened for signature and thus gets its name. 

Women in Turkey have always found it challenging to protect themselves from violence and discrimination at the hands of the social, institutional, and structural actors due to the poor implementation of the existing national laws. Particularly within the last two decades, Turkey has seen a drastic increase in cases of domestic violence and femicide, according to the civic platform “Kadin Cinayetlerini Durduracagiz” (“We Will Stop Femicide”), which has been documenting and publishing the monthly and annual number of femicide cases since 2013. In 2020, when pro-government voices in Turkey carried out a vigorous campaign against the Istanbul Convention, the Kadin platform reported 300 cases of femicide, a higher number than usual due to pandemic-related stay-at-home orders (130 femicide cases have been detected so far in 2021). 

As is common in European right-wing populist discourses, the campaign against the Istanbul Convention in Turkey was built on religious (Islamist) themes and protecting the traditional family unit.  Although it was the same Justice and Development Party (AKP) government under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that hastily ratified the Convention in 2011, the authoritarian turn of the government after 2013 has significantly eroded the hype for European Union membership in Turkey. Hence, when the Convention finally became law in 2014, it lacked the government support to be properly implemented. Still, the human rights organizations saw the Convention as progress and pushed for its proper implementation to combat gender-based violence and domestic violence. 

As Eren Keskin, the Human Rights Association (IHD) co-chair, mentions, “until 2005, violence against women was not even a ‘chapter title’ in the Turkish Penal Code.” The title of the section regulating violence against women in the law was ‘general morality and crimes against family.’ So, a woman was just an ‘element’ of ‘morality and family’.” Keskin also highlights that the law was amended in 2005 only because of the struggle of women and the “winds” favoring the European Union at the time. Consequently, violence against women were brought into the penal code as “sexual assault crimes.” However, even if the written law has changed, it cannot be said that there has been a significant change in practice and understanding. In other words, language, discourse, and mentality matter greatly in the proper understanding and implementation of laws. 

On July 1, 2021, the day when Turkey officially exited the Istanbul Convention, people came together to protest this decision in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Okan Ozdemir.

Understandably, women’s rights groups that have been fighting for the full implementation of the Istanbul Convention were shocked and frustrated when Erdogan declared Turkey would withdraw from the Convention in a late-night presidential decree on March 20, 2021. Protests erupted in many cities of the country, demanding the government retract the decision. Journalists, legal professionals, academics, politicians, human rights defenders have declared their deep concerns in various ways, including articles, social media campaigns, TV shows, and artworks. On the other hand, there has been considerable support for the withdrawal decision among right-wing voters, who nonetheless appear to have little or no knowledge about the actual content of the Convention. So, what exactly makes this international treaty a target of right-wing populist anti-gender propaganda?

The Istanbul Convention is described as “a landmark treaty on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence” by the Council of Europe (CoE). It is “the most far-reaching international legal instrument to set out binding obligations to prevent and combat violence against women,” which has been ratified by 34 member states of the COE and signed by a further 12 (pending ratification). However, simply by its feature of being an international treaty, it has come under the nativist and nationalist radar of the AKP government, which has increasingly returned to its anti-Western and anti-secular Islamist roots since 2011. Indeed, one of the first steps of the AKP government regarding women’s issues was renaming the “Ministry of Women and Family” into the “Ministry of Family and Social Policy.” By doing so, women’s policy became restricted to families matters and the traditional role of women as mothers and wives. 

Along with this official change, the discourse of the party and Erdogan himself supported the restriction of women’s roles. President Erdogan explicitly declared that “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing. It is against nature. Our religion regards motherhood very highly. Feminists do not understand that; they reject motherhood.” In its attempt to expand its Islamist political base by tapping on the valued social symbols of family, children, and religion, the Turkish government manipulated some specific articles in the Istanbul Convention, which went in line with the party discourse and religious elites’ confirmation. The Turkish society, which is mostly conservative, has been tightly tied to religious and traditional discourse with a pro-family approach. In other words, as Eslen-Ziya purports, the “AKP government adopted populist discourses involving Islamist elements of nationalism and conservatism” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4).

So, is the Istanbul Convention actually a threat against the family concept as claimed by the Erdogan regime? All articles related to family issues in the Convention are entirely aimed at combating domestic violence. The first article explains the purpose of the Convention to “protect women against all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence.” This is followed by the second article that emphasizes legal implementation: “Parties are encouraged to apply this Convention to all victims of domestic violence. Parties shall pay particular attention to women victims of gender-based violence in implementing the provisions of this Convention.” 

In this vein, Article 52 advises the parties to take “necessary legislative or other measures” to restrain the perpetrators of violence from the victims, which was put into practice in the Turkish Penal Code with Law No. 6284 to Protect Family and Prevent Violence Against Women. As repeated throughout the text, the Istanbul Convention focuses on protecting all family members from domestic violence without dictating any particular notion of the family. However, this ambiguity and inclusiveness in its language make the Convention a target of the populist claims of undermining the “God-sanctioned” heteronormative family by giving room for the normalization of other “deviant” forms of family. As Kuhar and Pajnik note, “In the zero-sum logic typical of populist discourse, the more homosexuality (and, by virtue, ‘gender ideology’ as an empty signifier for anything, from gender studies to sexual education, to reproductive rights) is presented as normal, the more children, traditional families and the nation are threatened and under attack” (Kuhar & Pajnik, 2020: 178).

The terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the specific articles of the Convention have been claimed to promote and encourage homosexuality and LGBTQ+ identities. In Article 3, gender is defined as “the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Following that is Article 4 that guarantees to protect the rights of victims “without discrimination on any ground such as sex, gender, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, state of health, disability, marital status, migrant or refugee status, or other status.” 

Another point of concern raised by the opponents of the Convention is the education and teaching materials requirement in Article 14, which calls the governments to educate their people on “equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity…in formal curricula and at all levels of education.” A common obsession with the term gender and its academic studies can already be observed in Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention with the same arguments and removed the accreditation from gender studies MA programs in Hungarian universities in 2018. 

Despite the frequent expressions of concern and criticism from the international community, the populist authoritarian leaders have insisted on their anti-women and anti-gender campaigns. Turkey did not target gender studies and academic programs directly, unlike Hungary. However, it consolidated its dominance in the university administrations and the civil society with an attempt to counteract the liberal Western gender studies discourse and replace it with a conservative or Islamist one. This is clearly seen in the mixed messages on the withdrawal decision sent by KADEM (the Women and Democracy Association), co-founded by Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye Erdogan. While initially expressing support for the Convention during the ongoing campaign against it, the organization did not join the major women’s rights groups to protest the decision once it was made official in March 2021. Instead, they blamed the Convention for creating societal tension and commended the decision to withdraw. As an unofficial mouthpiece of the government on the issues of women and gender, KADEM “serves to institutionalize pro-government, right-wing populist gender ideology” and plays a role as an agency to supporting “policies through protecting family as an institution and embracing gendered roles (women as mothers and wives and men as bread winners and head of the households) where patriarchal order is protected” (Eslen-Ziya, 2020: 4–5).

In the environment of rising right-wing populism, women in Turkey and across Europe are worried about losing their hard-earned legal rights and protections under the guise of saving the nation from foreign encroachment. The targeting of the Istanbul Convention clearly indicates how populist leaders effectively and intensely use the discourse of gender in the construction of an antagonist “Other.” In demonizing this “Other,” populist leaders seek to benefit from the chaotic atmosphere to consolidate more power for themselves.

References

Dietze, Gabriele & Roth, Julia. (2020). “Introduction.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.

Eslen-Ziya, Hande. (2020). “Right-wing populism in New Turkey: Leading to all new grounds for troll science in gender theory.” HTS Teologiese Studies/ Theological Studies. 76(3):1-9. DOI:10.4102/hts.v76i3.6005 

Kuhar, Roman & Pajnik, Mojca. (2020). “Populist Mobilizations in Re-traditionalized Society: Anti-Gender Campaigning in Slovenia.” In: Right-Wing Populism and Gender: European Perspectives and Beyond, edited by Gabriele Dietze and Julia Roth.

Group of people protesting and giving slogans in a rally. Photo: Jacob Lund.

Resentment and populism: A philosophical inquiry

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

By Luca Mancin

Anger, resentment, and rancor characterize the present. As hate speech, violence, and discrimination—which are a natural consequence of discontent, distrust, and disillusionment—invade our societies, politics seemingly mirrors such behaviors. After the 2008 financial and economic crisis, several social groups manifested their dissatisfaction and intolerance toward the “system” and “powers that be.” Consider, for instance, movements as the Indignados (a Spanish anti-austerity movement), the Gilets Jaunes (a protest movement for economic justice in France), and the V-Day protestors (an Italian political and civic initiative to “clean up” the parliament). They are forms of protest that claim general and generic changes but are animated by the desire for revenge against those in power and therefore held responsible for the their current malaise.

Such groups’ quest for revenge reflects an elite legitimacy crisis that stems from experts’ (purported) failure to guarantee social well-being and security. For instance, the challenges faced by virologists and scientists in getting a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic (at least in the beginning) have heightened the risk that messages that epistemic elites are useless and that the costs of their existence outweigh the benefits will become more entrenched and widespread.

Thus, social frustration, originating from socio-political and socio-economic problems, has been channeled by the populist parties, which feed and sharpen social polarization. Populist parties exploit discontent stemming from a perceived elites’ failure, and they find fertile ground in times of crisis. Such tendencies increase tribalism among ordinary citizens and the political establishment and originate from social resentment. Therefore, it is essential to understand the political importance of social resentment and investigate it from a philosophical perspective.

Resentment and Populism

I decided—among several alternative interpretations—to focus on the resentment dimension of populism by adopting the ideational approach, which considers populism a thin-centered ideology. Consequently, following Mudde (2004: 543), I define populism as: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

I believe such a definition helps better define the polarization and dichotomy that populism entails and the tribalism it promotes. Indeed, I consider social and collective resentment a crucial factor in the development of populism. Current democratic societies feature internal contrasts and tensions, and social opposition and the search for culprits to blame for unsatisfactory circumstances are widespread. Besides, as a recent report from the Nordic think tank Timbro (2019) shows, in times of crisis, populism gains ground —from 2008, the year of the global financial crisis, to 2018, voter support for authoritarian populists in Europe expanded significantly. Tonello et al. (2016) suggest the most recent wave of populism in Europe has emerged from voters’ desire to communicate a clear “rejection” of incumbent governments (deemed unable to cope with the challenge to the economic crisis).

The research and statistical surveys conducted by Algan et al. (2017, 2019) stress how three types of crisis—political, economic, and cultural– stimulate the rise of populist forces. The political crisis manifests itself in the form of distrust of national and international political institutions. In particular, the data show a sharped relationship between voting in favor of anti-system forces and citizens’ distrust of institutions. The economic crisis, one of the triggers of political resentment, is instead produced by the economic upheavals that have resulted in income erosion and unemployment. Statistics confirm the relationship between the economic crisis and the success of populism. Here, according to the authors, a 1 percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate leads to an average increase of 2–3 percentage points in favor of anti-system parties. Finally, the component of mistrust also returns in the cultural crisis because the unfulfilled promises have caused broad disillusionment to spread among the citizens.

Consequently, it is plausible to consider resentment as a cause of populism. According to Foa et al. (2019), the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election were political events driven by resentment. The article’s data show social cleavages that create a socio-political identikit of pro-Leave voters or Trump’s electors. What such people had in common was deep anger toward the political establishment and social resentment toward elites (the European Union in the Brexit case, and the Democratic Party in Trump’s).

Mudde’s definition of populism allows us to highlight the importance of resentment in populism’s origins. After all, populism is an ideology (albeit a thin-centered one) and so evokes a vision of how the world is and how it should be. Being thin-centered reflects “the empty heart of populism that gives it both weakness and potential ubiquity” (Taggart, 2004: 275). It is, therefore, an incomplete and chameleonic theoretical approach because the terms “people” and “elite” are in turn shaped on other ideologies, representing empty categories fillable in different ways depending on the context. Such a solution allows populist politics to stir up the crowd’s anger toward ever new and diverse scapegoats. For this reason, it is now opportune to focus our attention on resentment—particularly on its philosophical dimension—to better understand current social problematics.

A Philosophical Genealogy of Resentment

Resentment (or ressentiment) is defined as the indignation that an individual feels toward someone or something due to behavior considered harmful or unfair. Such a feeling is a combination of resentment, hatred, envy, humiliation, and helplessness. The resentful person hatches hatred and anger in an almost pathological way, envies the goods and qualities of others, suffers from his weakness and inadequacy.

Concerning the aim of the commentary, it is worth focusing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1994) conception of resentment, exposed in his On the Genealogy of Morality (first published in 1887). The work in question theorizes how the “good”—that is, noble and strong individuals—have defined themselves as such, arrogating the right to forge their values ​​and emphasizing their peculiar superiority. Thus, the crucial contrast for the entire Nietzschean moral theory emerges—between knights and priests and between nobles and slaves. The former are physically thriving and the latter utterly powerless. As a result, the “bad” harbor a certain degree of resentment, which in turn feeds a desire for revenge over the nobles and the brave. The men of resentment, thirsting for revenge despite wearing the clothes of judges, are guided by the “ascetic priest” and are the enemies of life because they desire another world; in so doing, they demean their will to power. Nietzsche describes men of ressentiment, worn out by envy and prey to frustration, as follows: “These worm-eaten physiological casualties are all men of ressentiment, a whole, vibrating realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in its eruptions against the happy, and likewise in masquerades of revenge and pretexts for revenge” (1994: 91).

Nevertheless, it is essential to consider Max Scheler’s reworking of the Nietzschean ressentiment. Indeed, it provides the best theoretical basis for making the transition from personal resentment to social resentment. Scheler understands ressentiment as the ethos of the bourgeoisie. To occur, resentment requires “repression,” the failure to vent negative emotions. The origin of resentment consists in the repression of hatred, hostility, and aggression in stifling their outburst. Generally, the Schelerian ressentiment involves powerlessness and passivity but also a diminishing of others’ success and Schadenfreude. Scheler (1912: 4) describes this sentiment as a: “…self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.”

Therefore, ressentiment is a reaction whose natural consequence is the impulse to revenge. However, it manifests itself only and exclusively when the feelings of hatred, rancor, envy are not followed by a moral overcoming (as forgiveness can be) nor by a physical overcoming (violence or threat, for example). The ground of resentment is especially limited to those who find themselves in conditions of servitude or domination, unable to rebel against such harassment. Such a condition is identifiable as “existential envy,” the bitterness deriving from the fact that one person cannot be similar to another. Thus, it is apparent that Schelerian ressentiment is always the result of the confrontation between the self and the other that is not disciplined but instead results in a self-conviction of weakness and ineptitude.

A constant reciprocal competition emerges here, as men compare themselves with others to obtain feedback on their value. Such a dynamic conducts us to the “mimetic theory” developed by the French anthropologist René Girard. Mimesis is defined as the desire of an individual to be like the other. According to mimetic theory, the model is both admired/imitated and envied/hated because it always occupies the place one would like for oneself. A triangular relationship then emerges between subject, model, and object, in which both the subject and the model desire the same object, but the latter almost loses its importance in light of the conflict between the two parties. Therefore, resentment for Girard is the feeling that the imitator feels toward the model he wants to imitate, which constitutes the impediment to taking possession of the object on which both focus their desires.

Existential envy and social mimicry, which are based on comparison and competition with others, are essential theoretical presuppositions for the analysis of social and collective resentment, which is currently widespread in populist and political rhetoric. Understanding the philosophical origins of resentment allows us to read contemporary political life through the lens of an emotive dichotomy between people and the elite.

The Cultural Politics of Resentment

The phenomena of existential envy and social mimicry on a collective level feature liberal democracy because citizens tend to look at those who enjoy greater power and wealth with rancor and anger. Moreover, resentment is a natural component of democracy precisely because it stimulates and fuels reactions in the face of any injustice and inequality. However, resentment is often added to the envy of inequalities, dictated by the belief that they have suffered harm. Crisis and uncertainty exacerbate such a provision. This happened after the Great Recession of 2008, as was the case following the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. And it is happening today with the Covid-19 pandemic underway.

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

What Nietzsche, Scheler, and Girard describe is expressed today in populist rhetoric. Marlia Banning (2006) defines such behavior as the “political culture of resentment.” Her meaning here is that this rhetoric aims to divert attention from socio-economic issues such as job loss, underemployment, and growing economic insecurity. The political culture of resentment is a “smoke machine” that diverts attention and public discussion from the changes taking place in society toward minority or immigrant groups. In this way, the ressentiment conveys insecurity, fear, and anger against an indeterminate “Other.”

Besides, according to Banning, the political culture of resentment favors the development of identity politics, or rather an identity alliance necessary to cement a group that shares a series of values, diverting attention from material difficulties and socio-economic changes. In this way, a “politics of division” is created, which increases polarization and bias within society. Attitudes of tribalism are sufficiently heightened that all critical thinking fails—it is enough to be part of the so-called “other” to become the target of insults and political attacks.

Populist rhetoric, thus, manages to manipulate and exploit the resentment of citizens and direct it against a common enemy by satisfying the thirst for social revenge by identifying a scapegoat for this purpose. Society needs to channel the resentment and suppressed anger of its citizens toward an external enemy, as Girard illustrated in The Scapegoat (1986) and James Frazer did in The Golden Bough (1890). Today this “Other” is often represented as a threat to the individual mass and can take on different features—the establishment, the financial elite, or migrants—and is an essential element of the rhetoric typical of the populist style. The populist political forces leverage the resentment that arises against the elites in conditions of fear and uncertainty when security expectations are disregarded. By doing so, populisms channel citizens’ anger by obtaining voters’ support and cementing the sense of value-ideological belonging.

The examples of Brexit and Trump I gave above are crucial in describing the practical developments of the phenomena of social resentment. The Leavers have directed their discontent toward the European Union, convinced by politicians that the problem was external to Great Britain (as with the issue of migrants). Trump, for his part, has incited with his tweets to protest against the alleged electoral fraud, thus channeling the discontent that snaked online toward the center of American power par excellence, in a plastic and material representation of the contrast between the people and the elite.

After all, Nietzsche was clear about it: every sufferer looks for the cause of his affliction, convinced that there must be someone responsible for his suffering. The problem is not the pain itself but the origin of the pain. If you suffer, then someone must be the cause. In On the Genealogy of Morality, the ascetic priest cares for and ministers to the sick flock. Similarly, today, the politician must heal the resentment of citizens. As Nietzsche (1994: 93) wrote, “the priest is the direction-changer of ressentiment.” Today the populist leader does the same, directing the resentment of the “pure people” against “the corrupt elite.”

References

Timbro (2019). “Authoritarian Populism Index.” https://populismindex.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/TAP2019C.pdf (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Banning, M. E. (2006). “The Politics of Resentment.” JAC. 26(1/2): 67–101

Foa, Roberto Stefan & Wilmot, Jonathan. (2019). “The West Has a Resentment Epidemic.” Foreign Policy. September 18, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/18/the-west-has-a-resentment-epidemic-populism/ (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Frazer, James George. (1890). The Golden Bough.

Girard, R. (1986). The Scapegoat. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press

Nietzsche, Fredrick. (1994), On the Genealogy of Morality [1887]. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

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

Scheler, Max (1912). Ressentimenthttps://hscif.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Max-Scheler-Ressentiment.pdf (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Taggart, Paul. (2004). “Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 9(3): 269–288

Tonello, F. & Morini, M. (2016). “Alternanze di governo e grandi coalizioni nell’Unione europea. 2008–2015.” In: Urbinati, N. (edited by). Democrazie in transizione. Milan, Feltrinelli

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

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

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

Interview by Merve Reyhan Kayikci

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

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

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

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

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

Ultimately, Authoritarian Governments Are Very Destructive and Unstable

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarian States Need Intellectual Legitimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarians Like to Believe They Have Divine Guidance

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accountability Is Key

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarians Need to Be Shamed and Outed

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Ruth Ben-Ghiat?

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

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

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

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

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

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

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

Erdogan and Khan Have Instrumentalized Religion

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

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

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

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

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their Call For Action Not Based On Human Rights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erdogan’s and Khan’s Use of Islamist Populism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Siarhei Liudkevich.

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

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

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


References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Matej Kastelic

Civic Leadership Program: Understanding and Responding to Global Challenges in an Age of Populism (July 5-9, 2021)

Overview 

A new wave of populist politics defined by anti-establishment, nationalist and anti-minority agendas is gaining power around the world. Understanding the drivers and the impact of populist politics on democracy is key to tackling the most critical challenges facing our world today. The ECPS Academy Civic Leadership Program supports the empowerment of future generations by deepening their understanding of global challenges, helping participants to develop constructive and effective responses. The five-day Civic Leadership Program offers young people a dynamic and engaging learning environment with an intellectually challenging program, allowing them to grow as future academic, intellectual, activist and public leaders.

Each day offers interactive lectures, led by world-leading practitioners and experts from varied disciplinary backgrounds. The lectures are complemented by discussions, group interactions, and assignments on selected key issues to upgrade participant knowledge, qualifications and skills. Participants have the opportunity to collaborate with those from different socio-political contexts, developing invaluable cross-cultural skills and a truly global knowledge of our times. This program seeks to contribute to the personal and academic development of each participant and foster social responsibility and awareness among future leaders from all around the world. 

Who should apply?

This unique course is addressed to outstanding candidates interested in gaining a more comprehensive and critical understanding of how current global issues are linked to the rise of populism. A select group of participants will be chosen based on merit, with applications welcomed from students pursuing bachelor’s and master’s degrees of any discipline, and early career professionals between the ages of 18 and 30. Participants are selected on the basis of a letter of motivation, a CV and a research proposal of between 250 and 500 words. We value the high level of diversity on our courses, welcoming applications from people of all backgrounds. The deadline for submitting applications is June 20, 2021.

Topics covered

Projects

Individual project: Participants write an article on a topic of their choice based on one of the themes discussed during the program. They are expected to plan and produce original work that presents arguments in a clear and balanced way drawing on multiple sources. They will be mentored by one of our in-house experts to complete this assignment successfully. The articles will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words and need to be submitted within a month from the end of the program, and selected papers will be considered for publication on ECPS Youth blog.  

Group project: Participants will collaborate in tailored groups of two or three to decide on a societally relevant issue that is addressed in the lectures and explore/design a creative project that involve solutions to tackle with it. Participants are encouraged to draw upon skills and knowledge from their disciplinary backgrounds in developing their projects. Ideas for a group project include but are not limited to creating an infographic or a series of podcasts, making an explainer or a screencast video, social media projects, street interview, public speaking, collaborative writing, engaging with a selected community to address a community-identified need. The projects need to be submitted within two months from the end of the program.

Participant Reflections

To consolidate their intellectual and personal growth, we ask that each participant share their personal reflections on their development, as well as the design and content of the program.

Evaluation Criteria

Meeting the assessment criteria below is required from all participants aiming to successfully complete the program and receive a certificate of attendance in the end. These three evaluation criteria include full attendance, active participation in lectures, successful completion of individual paper assignment and successful completion of group project assignments.

  1. Full attendance and active participation in lectures 

Participants are expected to show up in all the lectures and actively participate in the discussions to meet the minimum assessment requirements. In case of failure to attend a lecture without a valid reason, participants will not be considered for assessment. Acceptable reasons for not attending a lecture include 1) serious illness at the time of the lecture (i.e., illness sufficiently serious to warrant a visit to a health professional); 2) grave family or personal emergency.

2. Successful completion of individual paper assignment 

Participants are to write a blogpost article on a topic of their choice based on one of the themes discussed during the program. They are expected to produce original work that presents arguments in a clear and balanced way drawing on multiple sources. Participants can request mentorship by one of our in-house experts to complete this assignment successfully. This will be arranged based on the availability of our experts when the request is made.

The articles will be between 2,000 and 3,000 words and need to be submitted within a month from the end of the program. Please make sure that the facts you mention are supported by research and include a primary reference in the form of a hyperlink. You can also use footnotes to provide context and explanation for your article. Selected articles can be published on ECPS website or submitted elsewhere for publication. Each completed article is assigned to one of our in-house experts to be evaluated based on the following criteria: clarity, depth, originality, and relevance.

3. Successful completion of group project assignments 

Participants will collaborate in tailored groups of two or three to decide on a societally relevant issue that is addressed in the lectures and explore/design a creative project that involve solutions to tackle with it. Each group will be informed by the coordinators about who they will work with after the end of the program. Groups are encouraged to draw upon skills and knowledge from their disciplinary backgrounds in developing their projects. Ideas for a group project include but are not limited to creating an infographic or a series of podcasts, making an explainer or a screencast video, social media projects, artistic or literary projects, street interview, public speaking, collaborative writing project, engaging with a selected community to address a community-identified need.

For any selected project, two reports are required. One is a project proposal of between (300-500) words specifying the goals and objectives of the project and secondly a final report (1,000-2,000) describing the results and outcomes of the project. The project proposals will be submitted before the project initiation. The completed projects and the final reports need to be submitted within two months from the end of the program. They will be evaluated by a committee made up of three ECPS experts based on the project’s societal impact, relevance, innovation, and content quality.

Learning Outcomes

Educational outcomes of this program for participants’ intellectual, professional and personal development include:

Knowledge: Participants deeply engage with multi-disciplinary issues surrounding populism with a range of experts to build critical knowledge and understanding. They are able to identify populist rhetoric and its impact on democracy, human rights, and values and draw advanced connections between how populism operates in different parts of the world.

Skills: Participants attending this program develop a comprehensive set of skills that are highly valuable to their intellectual and personal growth and empowerment. The training will cultivate participants’ use of basic methodological skills and tools needed for academic research and learning. In addition, working together on a group project will advance their collaborative skills and creativity.

Cross-cultural Competence: Participants develop their cross-cultural competencies, meeting with like-minded individuals from around the world to develop a higher understanding of current world problems. They learn to speak confidently and respectfully on complex and controversial issues, and value contrasting perspectives. As they engage in academic exchange and share their ideas and experiences with others, participants develop empathy, tolerance, curiosity and understanding for each other’s views.

Social/Civic Responsibility: Participants build a sense of civic responsibility and awareness of global challenges as they are taught concrete strategies to deal with the impact of populist politics. They apply critical thinking and media literacy in countering misinformation and learn about how they can foster community engagement and solidarity in fighting against critical global challenges.

Credit

This course is worth 5 ECTS in the European system. If you intend to transfer credit to your home institution, please check the requirements with them before you apply. We will be happy to assist you in any way we can, however please be aware that the decision to transfer credit rests with your home institution.

Certificate of Attendance

Awarded after program to all participants based on the satisfactory participation in, and completion of, the course assignments. Certificates are sent to students only by email.

Fee

ECPS believes that this world-class opportunity should be open to all, regardless of financial background. Therefore, this five-day program is available for just €20.

Program Flow

The program will take place online via Zoom between July 5-9, 2021. There will be two sessions on each day. Please note that this schedule is tentative and may be subject to change depending on the circumstances. 

July 5, 2021 

  • Populism: An introduction(13:00-15:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Anthoula Malkopoulou
  • Varieties of populism (18:30-20:30 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Steven M. Van Hauwaert

July 6, 2021

  • Populism, democracy, and authoritarianism (15:00-17:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Tsveta Petrova
  • Populism, nationalism and identity (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou

July 7, 2021

  • Populism and religions (14:00-16:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Jocelyne Cesari
  • Populist discourse and digital technology (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Majid Khosravinik

July 8, 2021

  • Gender, race and populism (13:00-15:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Haley McEwen
  • Digital populism: internet and far-right (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Eviane Leidig 

July 9, 2021

  • Environment and populism (15:00-17:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Kai Bosworth
  • Radicalization and violent extremism (18:00-20:00 PM CET). Speaker: Dr. Daniela Pisoiu

Program Coordinators

This program is coordinated by Dr. F. Zehra Colak in collaboration with ECPS Youth Program members. Submit your application: [email protected]

Photo: ubisoft.com

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

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

By Omer Sener* & Mustafa Demir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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