Caricature of The Five Star Movement in carnival parade of floats and masks, made of paper-pulp in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy in January 2018.

Institutionalized Populism: The “Strange Case” of the Italian Five Star Movement

The Five Star Movement (M5S) is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.

By Amedeo Varriale*

Italy’s Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) has long been considered a left-wing populist formation. This is mainly because its original agenda was dedicated to addressing five themes (the so-called “five stars”) that were the preserve of the 20th century’s post-materialist left-wing parties and movements—public watersustainable transport,sustainable developmenttechnology, and environmentalism. They are typical issues of the post-1968 New Left (Tarchi, 2015: 337).

The New Left encompassed various European parties that gradually abandoned their original radically authoritarian, Marxist, statist positions to embrace contemporary issues such as environmentalism, feminism, and globalization (Damiani, 2016: 13). We know that these left-wing establishment parties[1] adopt a more liberal and libertarian outlook than the anti-systemic extreme left.[2] Today, the Dutch Socialist Party, the M5S, La France Insoumise, SYRIZA, and PODEMOS flirt with populism rather than with Marxist–Leninism and are no longer necessarily inspired by the old Soviet (or even Chinese) model (Moffit, 2020: 55–70). Today, some contemporary left-wing parties may very well be fully populist, given they adopt a particularistic form of politics that involves people-centric appeals and unmediated forms of communication. In this way, they go beyond the clientelist, formalist, and territorial politics of the traditional social-democratic mass parties.

The Five Star Movement, one of the youngest children of the reformist and progressive New Left (which some scholars like Luke March associate with the “radical left”[3]), is a perfect example. It gained serious popularity, not by using outdated Marxist tropes but by embracing left-wing populism[4] and mobilizing disenchanted voters in a period of widespread social malaise. This form of populism, quite different from the significantly more anti-migrant and socially conservative right-wing variant, is an ideology that combines left-wing politics and populist rhetoric and themes. The rhetoric of left-wing populism often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the establishment, and speaking for the “common people” (Ibid). While themes like anti-capitalism, social justice, pacifism, and anti-globalization are very much relevant to these populists, class struggle and class society, as well as socialist theory, are not as important as they are to traditional left-wing parties (Ibid). The case of the Five Star Movement, which will be analyzed in the following paragraphs, is very much a demonstration of this.

Suppose we follow Cas Mudde’s (2004: 543) lead and treat populism as an ideology that considers society as two homogeneous and antagonistic groups (“the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite”) and holds that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. In that case, the Five Star Movement is a left-populist party. The raison d’être of the party ever since its first protests (the V’Day protests in 2007) has been to pressure professional political elites to step down in order to take politics back to the people (Tarchi, 2015). Their first offensives were against the Italian establishment, which they saw as untrustworthy and detrimental to the commonwealth (Tarchi, 2015).

Populists of the left purport to give a voice to the silent majority—the ordinary men and women who (according to the populists) are being let down by career politicians, bureaucrats, corporate bankers, the media, and the European techno-managerial establishment in Brussels and Strasbourg that has usurped governing power. Unlike the populist right, the grillini (a term used by Italian pundits to refer to supporters of the M5S’s “guarantor” Beppe Grillo) do not openly argue that Italian ethnic and cultural identity is under threat by a wave of immigration perpetrated by financial corporations (or “liberal elites” conspiring to create a new order based on multiculturalism and cheap labor). Instead, the grillini propagate the left-wing populist narrative that social democracy has failed—in no longer representing its old electoral base and betraying its egalitarian principles (Gandesha, 2018).

Moreover, Grillo has openly called for the left to abandon the concept of class struggle in favor of a so-called caste struggle (Tarchi, 2015: 351; Zazzara, 2019: 110). To some degree, this is a defensible approach, at least according to proponents of left–populism like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (Moffit, 2020: 65). For some time, high-ranking M5S members like Alessandro Di Battista and Grillo himself have justified their attacks on elites by arguing that “the caste” has steadily impoverished Italians (Ci hanno impoveriti). The leadership argues that only the M5S (the so-called “true democrats”) can “open up parliament like a can of tuna” to restore to power everyday citizens with ordinary qualities such as common sense (Tarchi, 2015). This is in line with their call for direct democracy, a feature that, alongside anti-elitism, is central to understanding the true ethos of the party.

Beppe Grillo speaks during a public meeting of the 5 Star Movement in Florence, Italy on March 8, 2009. Photo: Giacomo Morini.

Ideology and Discourse

The French political scientist Guy Hermet (2000: 80) long ago observed that populism’s capacity to capitalize electorally on cultural, financial, and political crises and its futurist, quasi-utopian, and millenarian features make it palatable to left- as well as right-wing forms (Tarchi, 2015: 374). Hermet’s vision has been borne out by the Five Star Movement, which has deftly navigated Italy’s post-2009 recession and post-2015 refugee crises in recent years. Beyond established thinkers like Hermet, newer commentators like Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008) advance the idea that populism can indeed be left-oriented.[5] In fact, popular sovereignty in the past has very much been a theme of focus adaptable to the republicanism and commitment to democratic principles of the center-left (Tarchi, 2015: 373).

Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement cannot be treated as a classic left-wing party and has never been particularly committed to liberal republicanism. Yet its overt focus on the majoritarian aspects of democracy (linked to what Peter Mair defined as the popular pillar of democracy[6]) and commitment to the nation’s sovereignty and the volonté générale of Italian citizens falls in line with the definition of left-wing populism provided above. For example, expanding the welfare state—a typical left-wing policy—and the so-called Reddito di Cittadinanza (a kind of universal basic income scheme) were “signature policies” that the M5S took to the 2018 elections (Mancini, 2020).

The overt hostility toward elites embedded within the M5S ideology saw Grillo and his circle try (and fail) to introduce a “recall” procedure[7] and referendums without a quorum (i.e., against privatization of water, nuclear energy, and the Euro) into the Italian system (Tarchi, 2015: 341; Adnkronos, 2014). However, they were successful in reducing parliamentary salaries and the number of MPs (Brunetti, 2019). Another great success was blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has intervened militarily in Yemen and thus been party to severe breaches of international human rights laws (according to the United Nations, a child under the age of five dies every ten minutes in Yemen). Such policies reflect a blending of the polymorphous ideology of populism and the zealously egalitarian and pacifist values of the New Left.

In order to understand the discourse and ideology of the “strange political animal”[8] that is the M5S, we must first look at the background of its founders—Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio.[9] Grillo, an ex-comedian, is well-known for his passionate tirades against the establishment (i.e., the leftist Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia or Forward Italy). Casaleggio was a wealthy entrepreneur from the technology sector who invested in the revolutionary “Gaia project”—inspired by the 1995 essay “The Californian Ideology” written by the media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron—that seeks to dismantle parliamentary, representative systems to bring democratic processes online (Musso and Maccaferri, 2018). It is for this reason (among others) that Chris Bickerton (2018) has spoken about the Five Star Movement as a “techno–populist” party. Grillo has never hidden his admiration for the internet and has gone so far as to point out that the web is a collective good and a necessary one since “even prostitutes do their business online, without the inefficient and unfair mediation of pimps (Tempi, 2013). In addition, both founders expressed convictions that the web reflects the values of the egalitarian left (it is apparently “Franciscan, anti-capitalist”) and that “online, ideas and sharing ideas are worth more than money” (Natale and Ballatore, 2014: 10; Grillo and Casaleggio, 2011: 9).

The M5S web portal “Rousseau” (directly inspired by the French thinker’s ideas of the volonté générale, civic nationalism, and direct democracy) is central to party organization. Through the portal, party members (not just MPs) choose what candidates to field for important local, municipal, regional, and national elections (Stockman and Scalia, 2019). Time and time again, the press and committed constitutionalists have criticized the party’s “digital primary” process for its lack of transparency, as explained in the book by a veteran of Italian journalism Bruno Vespa (2018). In conversation with someone intricately linked to the movement, Vespa underlines how—contrary to the conventional wisdom—decision-making within the movement is not at all bottom-up but is instead quite top-down. Ideas other than those of Grillo and Casaleggio are readily dismissed (Vespa, 2018). This has sometimes resulted in members being expelled, including Federico Pizzarotti, the former mayor of Parma, and Giovanni Favia, an M5S politician from the Emilia-Romagna region (who revealed to journalists that there is no democracy in the M5S as Casaleggio manages every single programmatical aspect), and many others.[10]

Grillo’s agenda, especially on immigration, has often conflicted with that of the activists who are in theory able to use “Rousseau” to advance proposals and policy ideas. For instance, when two Five Star MPs (Maurizio Buccarella and Andrea Cioffi) proposed decriminalizing illegal immigration, Grillo reprimanded them, saying that it was not in the electoral program, although the majority of the members had voted in favor. Rather than implement the members’ decision, Grillo has since ignored or avoided discussing it in public (Parodi, 2019). Nonetheless, the M5S cannot exactly be considered pro-immigrant either. Grillo has always been skeptical of multiculturalism, as numerous posts on his blog make clear: “Citizenship for those born in Italy to parents born elsewhere makes no sense” (Grillo, 2012). It is clear given their positioning in parliament—abstaining on votes that would make access to Italian citizenship easier for immigrants—that Grillo’s party supports ius sanguinis (citizenship inherited through parents) to the current policy of iusoli(citizenship by birth) (Tarchi, 2015: 344).

It is also true that Grillo’s partisan leanings are ambiguous—he has never declared himself right-wing and did once attempt to become a candidate for the center-left (but in practice neoliberal) Democratic Party. Moreover, he often reiterates his passion for leftist egalitarian principles. He once stated that “Everyone counts, regardless of their social position. I want a single mother with four children to be able to become mayor of a city…” (Tarchi, 2015: 342). Interestingly, this ambiguity has led pundits to question whether the Five Star’s success among older, disenchanted center-right voters is merely a direct result of his and Luigi Di Maio’s (former M5S leader, deputy prime minister, and current Italian foreign minister) rants against pro-immigrant NGOs (rather than migrants themselves). Both Grillo and Di Maio have been given to localist, folkloristic, identitarian discursive–performative devices that sometimes resonate well with the populist right (Damilano, 2020).

Grillo is known to begin some of his semi-ironic public addresses by pointing to the audience and shouting “Italians!” Here, perhaps, observers have drawn a false equivalence with Mussolini’s nationalistic populism (Scanzi, 2013). Nonetheless, Di Maio has accused Grillo of being too centrist and has openly expressed his sympathy for national–conservative values of economicterritorial, and popular sovereignty. Di Maio has said that “the term sovereignty is found in the very first article of the Italian Constitution… Sovereignty means… defending the interests of Italians. If this is a crime, then arrest us all [the M5S] because this is what we have started doing.”[11]

Commentators like Fabio Bordignon and Luigi Ceccarini (2019: 167) are perhaps correct in defining these left-wing populists as “multi-ideological” (rather than “post-ideological”). Grillo (2013) has stated in his blog that he is “proudly populist” and has always wanted the M5S—which is supposed to be an “idea, not an ideology”—to function as a big-tent party (Tarchi, 2015: 339). For Grillo, the M5S is a political force to mobilize the young and the old, the wealthy and the poor, and both private and public sector workers. The big-tent approach comes from the goal of fundamentally destabilizing representative democracy by forcing it to abandon programmatic parties in favor of partyless democracy,which all forms of populism promote to some degree (Mair, 2002). Grillo insists on “a state without parties governed by citizens directly, for a limited amount of time and as a civic service” (Tarchi, 2015: 339).

Setting aside the fact that the M5S is polymorphous and is understood to have many currents within it, we can argue (taking Grillo’s words at face value) that his organization is “neither left-wing nor right-wing—it is a movement of Italians” (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2013). In any case, a close look inspection of the M5S shows it seeks to mobilize the angry, the frustrated, and the disenchanted—those Italians who nurture a profound distrust for mainstream politics. Nevertheless, the core message of the party hues close to the ethos of the left—namely, foregrounding environmental issues and harshly criticizing the economic and political power of the big industrial groups (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2013: 432).

Supporters of Five Stars Movement in Naples rally with Italian flag and political symbol of the movement in Napoli, Campania, Italy on May 30, 2018. Photo: Antonio Balasco.

Organizational Structure

The Five Star Movement has not been a fully institutionalized party for long (the party first entered parliament in 2013 and was in opposition before June 2018). For this reason, the organizational structure is skeletal and deliberately so (Sun, 2019: 33). At the top, of course, we find the “Guarantor” of the party, Beppe Grillo, known to have strong links with the Casaleggio family and its company, Casaleggio Associati. His role is to set the tone and preserve the dynamic, protest-movement-like nature of the organization (as dictated in its party manifesto[12]) as well as to decide “who’s in and who’s out” (Tarchi, 2015: 359). In other words, Grillo—alongside Casaleggio, the movement’s chief ideologue, and his apprentice Di Maio (who quit as leader in early 2020[13]), both technically below Grillo in the M5S hierarchy—have set the political agenda.

Yet, it is inaccurate to view the M5S strictly as a hierarchical, top-down, leaderist party. Indeed, Bordignon and Ceccarini (2013: 438) have referred to it as a stratarchical organization because power is effectively dispersed through the ranks. Since those ranks are often in open disagreement with each other, there is a tendency toward internecine conflict. It is unclear whether the Members’ Assembly (“Assemblea Degli Iscritti”)—an advisory board of mostly parliamentary members that meets annually—is below Grillo and the party head (who is a political and legal frontman) vis-à-vis administrative decision-making and policy proposals (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163).

What is certain is that the Committee of Trustees (“Comitato di Garanzia”) has the power to supervise applications for membership and policy proposals. In 2018, the committee comprised Vito Crimi (who replaced Di Maio as “political head” in 2020), Roberta Lombardi, and Giovanni Cancellieri. It shares some power on important decisions with the Board of Arbitrators (“Collegio dei Probiviri”) (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). The board’s task to monitor members’ compliance with party rules and take disciplinary action if needed (as when two MP’s were expelled for giving unapproved interviews on state television while under the M5S banner) (Tgcom24, 2021). The role of treasurer is essential, as it oversees internal and external financial resources (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 162–163). Di Maio has held the role previously, but somewhere in the summer of 2020, the position went to the MP Sergio Battelli, who took on the delicate task of managing the EU’s Recovery Fund in Italy (Zapperi, 2020).

To be clear, the majority of these roles have been assigned to party members through internal (albeit relatively non-transparent) procedures of direct democracy. While direct democracy is essentially unconstitutional in Italy, the fact that Grillo himself owns the party logo and that the “Rousseau” platform (used for political purposes even as the party has access to public funds) is entirely in the hands of a private commercial firm like Casaleggio Associati casts some doubt on the bottom-up, spontaneous, protest-like image of the party that Five Star politicians like to portray (Biondo, 2019).

Five Star activists and grassroots members do not really appear to be entitled to all this liberty of self-expression (as much as Grillo claims) because if ever activists cease to “toe the party line,” they risk expulsion (or worse). More than once, Casaleggio’s son Davide—who inherited all the property of the Rousseau Association after his father’s death—has threatened to sue his own MPs and take complete charge of the platform if they fail to pay their membership dues on time (Lombardo, 2020).

A large demonstration was held by the 5 Star Movement against the privileges of politics in Rome, Italy on February 15, 2020. Photo: Gennaro Leonardi.

Domestic Policy

The domestic policy of the Five Star Movement has been relatively straightforward. It advances partially redistributive and quasi-socialist economic policy to reduce socioeconomic inequality in Italy. Recent studies conducted by Ruth-Lovell (2019), Doyle (2019), and Hawkins (2019) show that governing populists of both the left and the right have committed to reducing the gap between the very rich and the poor and are more likely to do this with a welfarist approach rather than via tax relief (Moffit, 2020: 52–54). The aforementioned Reddito di Cittadinanzareally a policy of welfare chauvinism(in both its positive and negative aspects)—has been the M5S’s way of presenting itself as a pro-social and pro-working-class party committed to an essentially leftist agenda (Brancaccio and Fruncillo, 2019: 129–158).

Political opponents from both the left and the right have attacked these welfarist policies as too costly and poorly implemented. Nevertheless, the Five Star Movement has continued to operate as a populist force in government. Certainly, the party has steadily institutionalized itself and has had to back away from some “binding” commitments (e.g., holding a referendum on the Euro, opposition to the single market, and the promise not to ally with old rivals, like the national populist[14] Lega party and the Democrats). Still, the party has managed to implement a series of its 2018 election pledges to spec (Di Maio, 2020). For example, M5S MPs successfully maneuvered to rescind the dysfunctional Fornero Law (a labor-market reform from 2011 aimed at reducing youth unemployment), scrapped the “golden pensions scheme” for MPs, and introduced harsh measures to combat public corruption (known as the spazzacorotti or “bribe destroyer” law) and a new decree to combat climate change. The M5S has worked hard to reduce the cost of the Italian state and limit the privileges of the political class (Di Maio, 2020). A referendum pushed forward by the Five Star Movement in conjunction with some other parties legislated a drastic reduction in the number of Italian MPs in September 2020. The move has been viewed favorably across the political spectrum and by most voters in Italy. In sum, the M5S has managed to shift the parliamentary demographic of the country. The arrival of grillini MPs into both of Italy’s chambers (the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate) after 2013 has produced a significant increase in the degree to which ordinary Italians feel involved and engaged in official political processes (Rapisarda, 2018).

Citizens who had never considered a political career nor had any involvement whatsoever with public administration—including former doctors and surgeons, tradesmen, volunteers from the private sector, primary sector workers, and teachers (among others)—have nonetheless begun to work in state institutions for the very first time (Agenzia Italia, 2019). The new civic consciousness and engagement of the “ordinary Italian” have been viewed as part of a great season of change in the history of Italian democracy (Ibid). Moreover, the number of young women in parliament has increased markedly, and commentators on the progressive left and more liberal right consider this a significant step forward for the country (Ibid).

The coalitions that the M5S has joined have also produced a marked turn in Italian policy toward the EU, often in a positive direction. To begin, the M5S—and its coalition partner and fellow populist outfit Lega—were the first parties in many years to openly confront Brussels over its uncompromising and often hostile approach to budgetary matters (Moschella and Rhodes, 2020: 4–5). Thus, the Troika had a hard-time taming Italy’s populists, in contrast with the position it had in conflicts with the Greek state in the past. Indeed, the Italian populists have aggressively defended a spending program that included both an expansion of welfare and a generalized cut of taxation—against the much-defended austerity approach of the European Commission (Politi2018). Of course, an expansive budgetary approach is what led Italians to vote for radically populist and Euroskeptic parties in the first place.

Most pundits will argue that the most controversial aspect of the Five Star Movement’s domestic policy has been its tough line on immigration and security (the latter actually unrelated to migrants). Most M5S MPs voted to save Matteo Salvini (the deputy prime minister and off-and-on ally of the movement) from prosecution after he repeatedly refused to allow a rescue ship full of migrants to enter Italian ports in breach of international humanitarian laws (Reuters, 2021). Another controversy arose around a publicity stunt led by Salvini and the justice minister (from the M5S). In a classic example of “penal populism (a term coined to describe the use of crime in populist propaganda[15]) the two were in attendance for the cameras when the narco-terrorist Cesare Battisti—who had just been extradited from Brazil—landed back on Italian territory.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio attended a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers at the European Council building in Brussels, Belgium on September 21, 2020. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

Foreign Policy

The Five Star Movement’s foreign policy has always been somewhat contentious. From the outset, the grillini have rhetorically advocated for a re-alignment—or at least a reconsideration of aspects of Italy’s classic foreign policy orientation. Thus, the party has challenged Atlanticism, Europhilia/Europeanism, military interventionism—including peace-keeping operations —as well as large-scale multi-national capitalist projects (such as the EU-funded Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline or TAP)—in favor of a politically different direction. A big part of the Five Star Movement’s agenda has involved tilting Italy’s foreign policy axis toward China and, to a lesser degree Russia (Coratella, 2020). This “Euro-critical” approach—usually accompanied by mild anti-Americanism—comes directly from within the more socialist currents of the M5S, especially those led by the rabble-rouser Di Battista and the more institutionalist but no less ideologically driven Roberto Fico, the current president of the Chamber of Deputies.

Long before their first experience in government (which continues to this day), the Five Star had always exhibited a thinly veiled hostility toward neoliberal Western powers. This has included the German and French governments (in the latter case, by sending party representatives to meet the leaders of the insurrectionist “Gilet Jaunes” or “Yellow Vests” to express their sympathy), but also the United States before Trump. Grillo, Di Battista, and other leading figures in the organization have never really hidden their affinity for the developing world and certain “rogue states” (Tarchi, 2015: 352). So much so that in government, the Five Star Movement refused to recognize Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as president (Binelli, 2019). The party’s support for withdrawing Italian troops from Afghanistan is another example of a deep skepticism toward globalism and a quasi-isolationist weltanschauung typical of populists of both the left and the right (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 12).

The Five Star Movement’s uncompromising opposition to Italy’s adoption of the new European Stability Mechanism (ESM), its constant critiques of NATO’s defensive strategy (an approach reminiscent of the old Italian communist left of Enrico Berlinguer), its position against EU sanctions on Russia, and its desire to reform the statute of the European Central Bank (ECB) all align neatly with the party’s populist ideology. The more ideological populists are usually highly critical of the mainstream media and high finance “castes” (Panebianco, 2020).

The early Five Star Movement in opposition (2009–2018) was undoubtedly a lot more Euroskeptic than the current one, which had to evolve politically once confronted with real institutional power. Governing the third-largest EU member state has inevitably meant making compromises with other parties once demonized (especially the Democratic Party) and shelving some of their more bizarre and radical policies. These include initiatives such as ceasing negotiations over the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), MP selection by lottery, and scrapping Article 67 of the Italian Constitution, which exempts MPs from any “vincolo di mandato”—the obligation to act strictly according to the voters’ mandate.

Five Star MPs (with some exceptions) are now more cautious in pointing the finger at the EU as the perpetrator of Italy’s evils (namely, low growth and high unemployment). Still, they remain critical of most of their old enemies and have continued to antagonize them subtly. For example, the agreements of former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte—known in Italy as “the people’s lawyer”—with China over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were frowned upon in Washington (Nelli Feroci, 2019: 10).

Furthermore, allegations have surfaced that Five Star’s political operations have been financed by Venezuela’s authoritarian government, which has worried the other parties they worked with in parliament to get bills passed (Bozza, 2020). Rhetoric and bizarre proposals aside, in its three years as part of governing coalitions, the Five Star Movement has never entirely severed ties with Italy’s foreign allies nor seriously damaged or impeded progress in diplomatic and economic relations. In fact, in commenting on the foreign policy of the populist coalition (of which the M5S was supposedly a senior partner), the former Italian diplomat Ferdinando Nelli Feroci (2019: 11) has pointed out that “despite uncertainty and ambiguity,” the populists have “pursued a line of relative, albeit often hesitant continuity.”

Five Star Movement office in the downtown in Ginosa, Italy on July 19, 2019. Photo: Diego Fiore.

Transnational Alliances

Even if there are ideological similarities that can be drawn with other movements or anti-establishment parties like the Pirate Party in Germany or the Gilet Jaunes, there has been no substantial political agreement between the Five Star and such political forces apart from limited political flirtation and informal communication (during the early days). The Five Star Movement (along with UKIP) formed the Euroskeptic Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in 2014 after a vote on the “Rousseau” platform (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). Unsurprisingly, because Grillo initially wanted to present the party in international as well as national politics as anti-establishment and radically reformist, he pointedly excluded the option of joining the somewhat ideologically similar but more moderate Greens/EFA (Ibid).

Once the M5S joined the EFDD, it was clear that Grillo’s political marriage to Nigel Farage and like-minded people was one of convenience (Ibid). Belonging to one group or another in the European Parliament usually signifies something deeper than just ideological affinity and is always somewhat functional to long-term strategic objectives at the domestic level. At least, this appeared to be the case for the Five Star Movement. It and UKIP were distant on the environment, domestic economic policy, and many aspects of foreign policy. However, they surely agreed on the fact that elites have abandoned the “losers of globalization” and that Brussels is a bully that prevents nation-states from making their own monetary decisions and controlling their own borders (Ibid). Both parties saw themselves as representing the “Europe of the people” rather than of the big banks (Michieli and Luxardo, 2016: 1–14).

Either way, the Five Star Movement (and apparently UKIP as well) treated EU alliances as secondary to what occurred in the national arena (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48). By 2020, M5S had already broken away from EFDD and was left with just 14 MEPs[16] (Bresolin, 2020). Other members of EFDD relied on the movement because even if they voted differently on certain motions regarding the environment and relations with foreign superpowers (albeit similarly on EU integration issues), they still needed a big party from a large member state like Italy to avoid problems related to funding and finances, and voting rights in executive positions.[17]

Bressanelli and De Candia (2018) report on recent research that the Five Star Movement is only moderately Euroskeptic. This soft Euroscepticism results in the Five Star voting like the European left-wing GUE/NGL and G/EFA on issues that do not explicitly involve more EU integration or direct democracy. At the end of the day, the movement did not really fit the EFDD due to its staunch anti-globalism, anti-immigration policy, and skepticism toward issues related to the environment or state intervention. A keen eye would notice that M5S and UKIP voted the same way less than half the time and are on different ends of the spectrum despite a shared populist style of communication (Bressanelli and De Candia, 2018: 25–48).

The “Rousseau” base voted overwhelmingly in favor in another vote on whether to join Guy Verhofstadt’s center-left ALDE. However, the existing ALDE membership decided it was a dangerous move that would risk a split by those group members more hostile and skeptical toward the Five Star Movement (Ibid). Verhofstadt himself feared the alliance might damage his image.

By 2017, many realized that Grillo’s strategy of moving away from the UKIP hardliners and the rest of the EFDD had some political logic. With the 2018 general elections approaching and a very weakened center-left after Matteo Renzi’s departure, the M5S wanted to project itself as an institutionally responsible party ready to lead the nation and to capture the majority of moderates and center-left voters disenchanted with the Italian Democratic Party (Ibid). If the M5S wanted to have a shot at becoming Italy’s leading party following Renzi’s exit from politics, it had no choice but to assure wealthy Italian families, national corporate and political elites, and international financial markets that it was not an “extremist” group and did not intend to leave the Eurozone. To some extent, this strategy paid off —M5S took 32 percent of the vote and emerged as the leading Italian party in competition with the center-right, although it had to ally with Lega to form a government.

From Opposition to Power: A Five-Starred Future?

In mid-2021, the Five Star Movement was polling between 16–17 percent and was lagging behind the right-wing parties (Lega and Brothers of Italy) and the center-left Democratic Party (Termometro Politico, 2021). This is undoubtedly disappointing for a party that saw significant electoral gains off the back of the 2008–2009 financial crisis and the refugee/immigration crisis of 2015 to become the leading party by 2018 (Bulli and Soare, 2018).

Having spent the last few months of 2020 in the lost cause of saving Conte (who used to present himself as a Eurosceptic populist before his purported switch to being a staunch Europhile anti-populist), the grillini are really struggling with their political identity (Di Niro, 2021; The Submarine, 2020). Defending Conte until the end and then supporting the candidacy of former ECB head Mario Draghi as prime minister cost Grillo, Crimi, and Di Maio their parliamentary majority, with many MPs fleeing the party (Cuzzocrea, 2021). Also, the “pure heart” populist Di Battista publicly distanced himself from the party that he had helped build, showcasing his disdain for what is largely seen as a technocratic executive serving with the support of a center-right–center-left political coalition (Pucciarelli, 2021). This “grand coalition” was created to help Italy overcome the Covid–19 crisis and includes characters as distinct from each other as Enrico Letta and Matteo Salvini.

The Five Star’s identity had almost always been taboo for its semi-centralized leadership, which must constantly appease the infighting among distinct ideological currents and personalities within. Recently this ideological divide had become too obvious to deny. In December last year, 22 EU-critical Five Star representatives from the Chamber of Deputies voted against a motion on the new ESM or abstained (Il Fatto Quotidiano, 2020). Even more M5S Senators appeared happy to take the political risks of pitting themselves against party chair Di Maio by voting in favor (Ibid).

The party is highly factionalized. The first is the institutionalist faction (or centrist faction) made up of MPs who follow Di Maio and Fico — the former more centrist and moderate, the latter openly progressive–leftist —in strategy. Both cabinet ministers want M5S to remain a party open to almost any kind of alliance to stay in power. The second is the “rebel hearts” who prefer to follow Di Battista’s guidance on policy and approach. This radical-left-wing populist faction has always been committed to anti-capitalism and hardline, anti-political (sometimes Manichean) principles. Di Battista and his followers are obviously less keen on broad alliances. Then there is the futuristic techno–populist factioncomprised of traditional M5S activists who rally behind Casaleggio and Grillo on the party’s blog to bring about a digital revolution that involves direct democracy at the national level. One of the oldest factions, its members maintain a cordial yet ambiguous relation with Di Maio’s wing mainly because they know they are forced to work within institutions if they want to change them. The fourth grouping is the environmentalist faction which does not have a true reference point or political figure within the party but oscillates between Grillo’s futuristic techno-populists and Di Battista’s populist-left.

Alessandro Di Battista conference with his supporters during M5S event in Imola, Italy on October 17, 2015. Photo: Benny Marty.

Last, but not least, there is a minority that feels better represented by Conte and went out of its way to convince moderates from other opposition parties to vote to save his second prime ministership. We would possibly call this the loyalist faction as it comprises all those who believe Conte is the only one that can lead the movement in a fully Europeanist and responsible direction. These loyalists believe Conte did his best in administrating Italy during the Covid era by cooperating with European allies like the Germans and the French. This faction is careful to behave institutionally (probably even more so than Di Maio and Fico’s) and follow the Italian constitution to the letter. In fact, after some experience in government (initially alongside Lega), Conte’s men evolved away from the anti-politics approach of the past and came around to the idea that it is impossible to rid Italy of the establishment altogether. They now realize that the vast array of checks and balances introduced into the Italian political system after the Second World War mean that political actors are inexorably drawn into the establishment.

It bears noting that the institutionalization of the M5S has meant it has shed many of those right-wing, anti-establishment voters that contributed to its success in the highly volatile general election of 2013. Back then, Grillo’s team could rely on its anti-establishment appeal, which later manifested in Gianluigi Paragone’s[18] now-defunct Italexit–No Europe for Italy party that gave a direction and meaning to the M5S’s more nationalist proposals. Even if Paragone claims to lean socialist,[19] in and out of parliament, he has focused a lot on issues concerning territorial (e.g., anti-immigration) and economic (e.g., Italy’s disputes with the European Commission on the budget) sovereignty that are seen as the preserve of the political right.

For a party that has worked very hard to appear honest, hard-working, law-abiding, and a vehicle for reform to bring ordinary people into the political sphere, the M5S has had to make painful choices. The party was famously committed to eschewing all political alliances with other forces, refused to participate in mainstream media or television talk shows (as they feared being scapegoated), declined to recognize the legitimacy and importance of parliament, failed to address the inefficiency of the horizontal and decentralized[20] online platforms (occasionally mediated in a more authoritative, top-down manner by Grillo), and refused to admit that even an anti-establishment populist party can be susceptible to corruption and mismanagement (Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171).

All these aspects are manifest in the problems faced by Five Star mayors and local councils in Rome and Turin[21](Bordignon and Ceccarini, 2019: 149–171). Above all, the backtracking on commitments and promises has seen the M5S become a party of government and a quasi-institutionalized organization. The political understanding that led to coalitions with Lega and the Democratic Party and ongoing parliamentary representation since 2013 has eroded the rebellious “anti-politics” quality of the early Five Star Movement. The result has been electoral poison in a country where elections have become highly volatile and with an electorate increasingly populated by non-voters who no longer identify with mainstream politics (Corbetta and Gualmini, 2013).

With Conte gone and following its many ideological and programmatic about-faces, the left-wing populists of the Five Star Movement are now on the verge of collapse. After changing course vis-à-vis sanctions on Russia, failing to deliver an EU referendum, changing its position on mandatory vaccines (this was one of Grillo’s favorite rallying cries), and completely abandoning its opposition to the TAP, there is a sense voter do not trust the party. The party’s fate appears to dovetail with that of populists in government (of both the left and right) in many parts of the world, thanks to the challenges associated with managing the Covid-19 crisis (Zangana, 2020).

On the right, Donald Trump lost the pivotal 2020 election, and Salvini — while back in government —is hamstrung in pushing his Eurosceptic agenda with Draghi in charge. On the other side of the Alps, Marine Le Pen (although ahead in polls) will struggle against Emmanuel Macron, who has reinvented himself as a civic nationalist who is “tough” on Islamists. Across the Atlantic, Jair Bolsonaro’s “machismo” stance on the virus has radicalized his own supporters and damaged his credibility with moderate conservative voters. He is now viewed as a full-blown authoritarian abroad and is widely blamed for more than 300,000 Covid-19 related deaths in Brazil.

On the left, the picture is not looking so bright either. The Five Star Movement, which was actually one of the most popular left-leaning populist forces worldwide (perhaps even more than Pablo Iglesias’s PODEMOS in Spain), has now become a pale imitation of the neoliberal Democratic Party and has lost more of its support in less than two years as a result. SYRIZA, the original and arguably most successful left-populist government in resisting EU edicts, are now out of government in Greece and have lost most of their “propulsive force” (a term used by Enrico Berlinguer to describe the Soviet Union’s downward spiral). Notwithstanding the effects of the pandemic, left-wing populists will most likely try to revive themselves as early as 2022, given the European Commission’s poor handling of the vaccine rollout offers a political lifeline that can be capitalized on at the ballot box.

Attacks on Big Pharma—at which the Five Star Movement excelled in the early days—are as effective when launched from the radical left as from the right. The European populist-left, unlike the center-left, is starting to understand that progressivism, environmentalism, and LGBTQ+ rights are not the only issues to be taken into consideration during agenda-setting. The public zeitgeist teaches us that much ground is being cleared for the right on socioeconomic issues, which is disadvantaging the left. Suppose the Five Star Movement were to return to being the unrelentless force that undermined the very legitimacy of the Italian neoliberal status quo. In that case, it will be because it will have returned to its roots as a credible big-tent party for the working classes, as the electorally more successful populists on the right (e.g., Chega!, Vox, Rassemblement National, and Fidesz) are. The “losers of globalization” are today no less disenchanted with mainstream politics than they were after the infamous collapse of Lehman Brothers, which for some remains an open wound (Stephens, 2018).

Conclusion

The M5S is one of those populist parties that is often misunderstood. Throughout the years, the media, independent journalists, and bloggers—as well as well-known academics and commentators—have struggled to define this “strange political creature.” Some have labeled it a polymorphous “hybrid-party” and others a “movement-party.” The mistake most analysts make when discussing the M5S is that they somehow forget the party’s left-wing origins.

Some accuse the movement of pandering to the anti-immigrant “far-right” due to its short-lived coalition experiment with Salvini. Others like Bickerton focus too much on its “techno–populist” media-savvy, treating it primarily as a vehicle for a digital revolution. Instead, one must attempt to understand the Five Star Movement in its entirety and for what it really is—namely, a legacy of the New Left and an institutionalized populist-left party. The Greek intellectual Takis S. Pappas reminds us that populists tend to march toward institutions and can remain entrenched inside for extended periods as they seek to remake them (Pappas, 2019: 74).

Grillo has managed to bring an initially disorganized mass of his followers (who all held differing beliefs yet with a common anti-establishment denominator) together by mobilizing them online and giving a political flavor to anti-political protest. This protest was against pro-austerity center-right and center-left forces that dominated Italy’s bipolar system. However, there is no doubt that the majority of Five Star Movement activists, supporters, and parliamentarians—even when identifying as “post-ideological”—have views that fit much more readily with the left than the right. Their commitment to expanding welfare, technological innovation, migrant integration, environmental protection, civil liberties, and half-hearted (but still crucial) anti-capitalist crusades are certainly not those of the populist right. National populists of the right are instead mainly concerned with defending a nation’s borders, the traditional family, and ethno-cultural identity and tend to favor Atlanticism. For this reason, in assessing the ideology, discourse, and policies of the Five Star Movement, we must treat it as a case of left-wing populism or “social-populism.”

Even today, while being an active part of liberal Italian institutions, most of the policies they push forward are considered too radical and too leftist by neoliberal actors on the right and left (such as Forza Italia and the Democratic Party). The M5S clearly opted for a strategy of political compromise to retain its grip on power and maintain its parliamentary majority so as to ensure its influence over domestic policy (especially when it comes to the handling of EU funds). Yet, there is reason to believe that the scholar Marco Tarchi was right about the movement. Grillo’s creation is potentially a case of the purest forms of populism in Europe (Tarchi 2015: 333).

Not only have they upended Italy’s bipolar party system, but they have shepherded scores of ordinary people with no prior political experience into parliament and other state institutions. Their populist style and communication (always present to some degree since Benito Mussolini and Guglielmo Giannini) are now embedded within the democratic system and process. Evidence of this can be found in many anti-political television programs like “Piazzapulita” (“clean slate”), “Dritto e Rovescio” (“obverse and reverse”), and the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano (“the daily fact”). The latter is openly sympathetic to the Five Star cause. In addition, examples of systemic populism manifest in the series of organized rhetorical attacks, threats, and brawls in parliament launched by Grillo’s MPs.

Only time will tell whether the Five Star Movement will disappear from the political scene (after Casaleggio’s death, Di Battista’s departure, and the betrayal of some of their core principles and constituencies, things are looking difficult for Grillo’s people). However, what is certain is that the legacy endures. The M5S has demonstrated the kind of impact that populists who institutionalize themselves can have. The Five Star’s presence in institutions has culminated in a drastic cut in the number of MPs (as well as their salaries), something virtually unprecedented in a large Western democracy. This sets a precedent that some may see as a curtailing of democracy. Instead, it should be understood part and parcel of Italy’s apparently functional “populist democracy.”


(*) AMEDEO VARRIALE is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London, UK. He earned a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Politics and International Relations from Kingston University in 2016 and has a Master of Arts from the University of Westminster. His research interests include contemporary populism and nationalism. He is currently participating in a ‘go-to textbook’ project funded by the University of Toronto, where his next publication, “English Nationalism: An Anatomy,” will be available shortly. Varriale has a keen interest in public policy and has been an active voice—through scholarship and journalism—in British public debates over freedom of speech, individual rights, and national identity.


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Sun, C. (2019). Populist Parties in Italy – comparing and contrasting the Five Star Movement and the Northern League. LUISS — Department of Political Science.

Tarchi, M. (2015). Italia Populista: Dal qualunquismo a Beppe Grillo. 2nd ed. Bologna, Italia: Il Mulino.

Vespa, B. (2018). Rivoluzione. Milano, Italia: Mondadori.

Zangana, Azad. (2020). “Has Covid-19 killed off populism in Europe?” Schroders. September 28, 2020. https://www.schroders.com/en/insights/economics/has-covid-19-killed-off-populism-in-europe/ (accessed on May 28, 2021).

Zapperi, C. (2020). “Sergio Battelli, il rocker M5S con la terza media che vigilerà sul Recovery Fund.” Corriere Della Sera. August 8, 2020. https://www.corriere.it/politica/20_agosto_08/battelli-rocker-m5s-la-terza-media-che-gestira-recovery-fund-34b98078-d949-11ea-89ec-853d2bb5ced9.shtml (accessed on May 27, 2021).

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Footnotes


[1] Those are usually populist parties that oppose neoliberal mainstream mass parties and some of the institutions those actors operate in but are not against democratic principles and necessarily opposed to checks and balances. See Damiani (2016: 13) and works by Schedler (1996) and Abedi (2004).

[2] According to Damiani (2016: 13, 15) radical left parties are somewhat more moderate than extreme left parties given the former (unlike the latter) do not explicitly want to dismantle the democracy per se and have decided to abandon authoritarian and totalitarian objectives. The extreme left is revolutionary not reformist and wishes to overcome the bourgeoise, capitalistic and liberal-democratic system altogether.

[3] See March’s paper “Contemporary Far Left Parties in Europe: From Marxism to the Mainstream?” published by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Institute in November 2008.

[4] A complete definition can be found on the website of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). See https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/left-wing-populism/.

[5] See the introduction to Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy (2008) by Albertazzi and McDonnell.

[6] In his chapter in Democracies and the Populist Challenge (2008), co-edited by Mény and Surel, Mair explains that liberal democracy is composed of “two pillars” (the constitutional and the popular), which he juxtaposes in his analysis.

[7] A “recall” is a procedure by which voters from a constituency can legally remove an elected official before her term comes to an end. A small number of countries including the United States have adopted this system. In Italy, it remains unconstitutional. 

[8] Chiara Corbetta and Elisabetta Gualmini used this phrase in their 2013 book on Grillo’s politics to describe the Five Star Movement.

[9] Gianroberto Casaleggio, the movement’s leading idealogue, passed away in 2016. The digital war machine of the movement (not just the blog but the “Rousseau” platform) then passed to his son, Davide Casaleggio.

[10] Favia admitted as much in an interview broadcast on the TV program “Piazzapulita” in September 2012. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oah6vq4QHPY (in Italian). 

[11] Di Maio made this statement on 30 July 2018 whilst commenting on the proposal by the governing coalition to appoint Marcello Foa as president of RAI (the Italian state broadcaster). For the full statement, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ug2FjaPNJ0 (in Italian).

[12] This agreement, among other things, asserts that the Five Star Movement is not a party and not meant to function as one.

[13] Di Maio resigned as political head on 22 January 2020 but remains one of the movement’s leading cabinet ministers.

[14] Eatwell and Goodwin deploy the term in their 2018 book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy to define parties opposed to mass immigration, globalised capitalism, and supra-national institutions like the European Union. Lega is certainly a right-wing party. However—as Mudde (2007) and others have noted—it is hard to label it as “radical/extreme right” (in Elisabeth Carter’s sense of the word) because of its relatively liberal positions on the role of the state, the individual, society, the market economy and commitments to anti-fascism, regionalism and localism. This locates Lega in contradistinction to the “palingenetic form of populist ultra-nationalism” (Griffin, 1995) of the neo-fascists located further on the right.

[15] See, for example, Pratt’s Penal Populism (2006) and Anastasia and Anselmi’s chapter “Penal populism in the multi-populist context of Italy” in Multiple Populisms: Italy as Democracy’s Mirror (2020) edited by Paul Blokker and Manuel Anselmi.

[16] By 2021, the number of MEPs had fallen to ten after some defections to the Greens.

[17] Parties that are not able to form a large EU party grouping end up as non-attached members and have no voting rights in the Conference of Presidents, a key executive organ in the European Parliament.

[18] Paragone was expelled from the party in December 2019 due to his arguments with the leadership and other MPs over their increasingly Europhile turn. He accused the party of having abandoned its manifesto commitments.

[19] In November 2019, Paragone said as much on the TV program “Piazzapulita” while still an M5S MP. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_iqx7ijLo2A (in Italian).

[20] Bordignon (2013) and Ceccarini (2013) have adopted this terminology in relation to M5S’s online platform and party activities.

[21] Five Star mayors Chiara Appendino (Turin) and Virginia Raggi (Rome) have been investigated for alleged misconduct in office.

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

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

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Greg Barton*

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

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

The Roots of Shihab’s Islamist Ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indonesia

Indonesia’s Salafist Protégé

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shihab’s Call for Vigilantism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The FPI a Surrogate Welfare System

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

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

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

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

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

Shihab’s Targeting of Ahok in Political Lobbying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shihab Imprisonment and the Future of Salafism in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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


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

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

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


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NMR6

NMR: A Nordic neo-Nazi organization with aims of establishing totalitarian rule across Scandinavia

Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) rests on this century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism. Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR which aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state, has become the primary force of white power in Sweden and other Nordic countries. 

By Bulent Kenes

Since the recent re-emergence of radical right-wing ideas across Europe (Mudde, 2007: 1), increasing numbers of security authorities warn of increased threats from the radical nationalist milieu. Terrorist attacks by radical nationalist lone wolves have been carried out in Christchurch (New Zealand), Poway and El Paso (USA), Baerum (Norway), and Halle (Germany), along with other attacks, have created a sense of urgency around this growing threat. In August 2019, the Swedish Security Service (Säpo) warned of an increased threat from violent right-wing extremists (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020). According to Säpo, extreme right-wing organisations are the second biggest threat to Sweden after Islamist terrorism (Swedish Security Service, 2018). This warning brought attention to the most dominant extremist actor in Sweden, the national socialist Nordic Resistance Movement (Nordiska motståndsrörelsen, NMR) (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7).

Right-wing extremism and national socialism (Nazism) are not a new phenomenon in Sweden. White supremacists or neo-Nazis have a long history in the country. Sweden has had organized Nazi movements since 1924, when the Furugård brothers founded the first Nazi party (Lööw, 2004). During the interwar period, and until the end of World War II (WWII), various Swedish Nazi organizations developed in accordance with their conflicting attitudes toward the German Nazi party. According to Helene Lööw (1999), this led to a state of constant fragmentation of the Swedish Nazi movement, which partly explains why there was never a strong united movement during that time period. In the wake of WWII, the Swedish Nazi movement might have faded away but for the Nordic National Party (Nordiska rikspartiet, NRP), which was founded in 1956. NRP became the institution that restructured the ideas, experiences, and aims of the pre-war and wartime Nazi movements to create contemporary Nazi movements, generally in the form of subcultural groups and parties (Lööw, 1999; 2004; 2015).

By the end of the 1970s, the NRP had adopted right-wing populist ideas. This led to a portion of the movement taking a less radical position on the white race and focusing instead on a culturally racist view aimed at criticizing immigration policy and immigrants. When the group split, a new organization emerged, called Keep Sweden Swedish (Bevara Sverige Svenskt, BSS) (Lööw, 1999). This created more polarization within the milieu and contributed to the construction of two fractions: one that remained faithful to the Nazi ideology and another that looked for support by addressing immigration issues. During the 1980s and 1990s, the right-wing movement was formed through both parliamentary aspirations and more violent revolutionary logic, as well as formal and informal groups, parties, and subcultural milieus (Lööw, 2015). 

From the early 1990s onwards, older national socialist organizations such as NRP, the New Swedish Movement (Nysvenska Rörelsen), and Sweden’s Nationalist Federation (Sveriges Nationella Förbund) started dissolving and were ultimately replaced by smaller underground groups and networks such as Vitt Arisk Motstånd (White Aryan Resistance, VAM), Nationalist Alliance (Nationella Alliansen), Aryan Brotherhood (Ariska Brödraskapet), and Combat 18 (Lööw, 1995). These groups differed from the NRP, which had roots back to the Swedish National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nationalsocialistiska abetarepartiet) of the 1930s (Kølvraa, 2019). Despite the dissolution of the NRP, during the 1980s it became the link between interwar National Socialism and a new generation of activists influenced by British and American White Power movements (Lundström, 2016; Hirvonen, 2013).

The Founders of NMR Came from Three Nazi Groups

Historically, Sweden has long been a global epicentre for White Supremacist activism and “intellectualism,” fuelled by an once world-leading White Power music industry in the 1990s (Teitelbaum & Lundström, 2017) and an extensive publishing industry (Lööw, 1999). With the recent rise in the visibility of extreme and openly violent groups and activities, Sweden offers a particularly interesting window into the media the media strategies and practices of violent extremists within liberal democracies—and why we should take this media seriously (Askanius, 2021a).

During the 1990s, the Nazi movement reconstructed itself and developed new exchange forums by adapting to the Internet and social media—moves that benefited a movement that struggled to gain visibility in more traditional public forums (Lööw, 2015). To attract members and sympathizers, the movement has used public demonstrations and local town rallies but also an intensified presence on social media (Kaati, 2017). By the beginning of 2010—and until 2013—there was small but significant growth in the Nazi movement’s followers, activities, and visibility. Two Nazi parties dominated the scene: The Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) and the NMR. Since 2015, the NMR, the only party remaining, has been the main hub for Nordic Nazi ideas (Lööw, 2015).

Klas Lund.

The founders of NMR came from three Nazi groups—VAM, the newspaper Folktribunen (The People’s Tribune), and the National Youth (Mattsson, 2018). The establishment of the NMR (then known as the Swedish Resistance Movement, or the Svensk motståndsrörelsen, SMR) was announced in the third issue of the Folktribunen in December 1997. The Nazi network Nordland, which has since closed down, was also included under the SMR (Harne, 2002)Folktribunen’s editor-in-chief, and one of NMR’s founders, was Klas Lund, who headed the organization for 18 years, between 1997 and 2015 (Ravndal, 2019). From 1997 to 2002, the Folktribunen was SMR’s communication channel, a place to communicate the organization’s positions and activities (Mattsson, 2018).

Apart from his lengthy leadership term, Lund’s played a role a series of dramatic events that preceded NMR’s establishment. Lund began his activist career as a militant skinhead, a form of militancy the NMR normally distances itself from because in an effort to emphasize political struggle over subcultural practices. In 1986, when Lund was 18 years old, he and a group of fellow skinheads beat and kicked to death a young man who had allegedly attempted to stop them from harassing young immigrants at a beach in southern Stockholm. Lund and two other skinheads were convicted of murder and received eight-year prison sentences. Lund’s sentence was later reduced to four years, and he was released after only two years (Ravndal, 2019). When he served his sentence, he became a leading figure in VAM which took its name from the American organization White Aryan Resistance, a group that carried out robberies and hoped to fund a “white revolution” (Hjälte & Kenny, 2011).  (Expo, 2019).

Lund and his associates carried out several bank robberies to finance their activities and to prepare for an armed revolution. In this endeavour, Lund’s VAM was inspired by another American group, The Order (Brüder Schweigen). While amateurish, VAM was certainly violent (Hjälte & Kenny,2011); however, one of these robberies landed the perpetrators in prison (Lööw, 2009; Strømmen, 2017) again. While in prison, Lund had plenty of time to contemplate the means that would be most effective at generating a revolutionary outcome. He arrived at the conclusion that terrorism carried out by loosely organized leaderless networks might not be so effective. Rather, a strong hierarchical organization with the long-term ambition of radicalizing people through steadfast propaganda and street activism was a better alternative. These thoughts were further developed in Folktribunen, which Lund created after his second release from prison (Ravndal, 2019). 

Folktribunen included material on Corneliu Codreanu, the founder and charismatic leader of the Iron Guard, an ultra-nationalist and violently antisemitic organization established in Romania in 1927. During the interwar period, Codreanu ran the violent underground fascist terrorist group, St. Michael’s Legionnaires—better known as the Iron Guard. As a Christian fanatic, Codreanu hated democracy and dreamed of a nation ruled by an elite—a country like a religious sect. The new society required a “new man,” and the Iron Guard would take the lead in the revolution. Codreanu’s organization was guilty of political assassinations and pogroms against, above all, Jews. Codreanu was imprisoned and executed in 1938 after his organization responded to his prison sentence with more assassinations (Poohl, 2014). 

In 1995, a group of young people in Bromma, an upscale Stockholm suburb, founded an organization called Independent Young Nationalists (Oberoende Unga Nationalister) (Poohl, 2014). At the time, racist skinheads and white power music dominated the Swedish extreme right. As Daniel Poohl of the Swedish anti-extremist magazine Expo writes, the young ultranationalists from Bromma wanted to be something different. They didn’t allow drugs. They didn’t welcome skinhead hooligans. They wanted to be more serious (Strømmen, 2017). In 1997, Erik Hägglund was chosen to lead the organization, which had already changed its name to National Youth (Nationell Ungdom). Hägglund had previously been active in a fascist group called Riksfronten and under his leadership, Nationell Ungdom quickly radicalized. Ideas on “democratic nationalism” were replaced by revolutionary racism (Poohl, 2014; Expo/Svartvitt, 1999).

Out of Folktribunen, the new organization SMR was born. It was meant to be an elitist organization, with a strong focus on loyalty, discipline, and courage. The ethos was: “Weaklings and cowards have no place with us. No one shall avoid his manly duties.” Nationell Ungdom was to continue as the youth organization of the SMR (Poohl, 2014). This strategic shift has been overlooked by several observers who portray SMR as terrorists (Gudmundson, 2008). One reason could be that SMR does not reject extreme measures, including terrorism, in some distant future. A key element of their strategy is thus to use propaganda to prepare themselves and the Nordic people for a future racial war that is, in their minds, inevitable (SRM, 2009).

The extreme right-wing propaganda changed character over time; in 2009, the SMR launched an online campaign against paedophiles and rapists (Lööw, 2015: 66). At the same time, SMR members practised a sort of low-scale psychological warfare, where subtle threats were used to scare or silence their enemies. They also actively prepared for and sought out violent confrontations with the police and political opponents (Ravndal, 2018).

In 2003, the organization started publishing a new magazine, Nationelt Motstånd (National Resistance). Cooperation with Norwegian neo-Nazis led to a Norwegian branch of the organization, called Nasjonal Ungdom, being established the same year (Kragh & Lindberg, 2003; Expo, 2003). However, the Norwegian group faltered within a couple of years. In an article in Nationelt Motstånd, Klas Lund made it clear that the organization did not seek to recruit “as many as possible,” but rather wanted to build “an inner core of fanatic activists who can increasingly bring the national message out to the masses” (Poohl, 2014). Since 2003, the SMR has developed as an openly National Socialist organization following an “elitist” approach to membership. In addition to a traditional antisemitic focus, the organization based its ideology on openly racist anti-immigrant views (Strømmen, 2017).  

In 2016, the organisation changed its name to NMR and declared, together with associate organisations in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, that now addresses matters concerning all of Scandinavia—specifically protecting the Aryan race (Mattson, 2018).

In its current shape, NMR rests on an almost century-long history of Swedish Nazi and Neonazi activism (Lööw, 2015).Including racism, antisemitism, anti-immigration, and anti-globalisation stances with violent tendencies, NMR has become the primary force of white power in Sweden (Mattsson, 2018). However, “white power” is not a term that the NMR uses to denote their movement—that is a term used by their enemies. Therefore, representatives of the NMR categorically claim in interviews that they do not belong to any “white power world” nor are they “Nazis” (Öberg, 2016). 

The relatively civil discourse in NMR’s cultural productions also aims to seed elements of neo-Nazi ideology into the more acceptable anti-immigration rhetoric successfully used in the public domain by right-wing populist parties (Krzyżanowski, 2020). Thus, NMR have become co-producers of what Krzyżanowski (2020: 505) has dubbed “borderline discourse,” which merges uncivil (hate speech, antisemitism, and unmitigated racism) with civil discourse borrowed from the ideas of right-wing populism. In a sense, neo-Nazi groups today, and extremist actors more generally, dovetail on a broader cultural trend of an increasing symbiosis of popular media, political punditry, and persuasion. Part of this hybridity is about the convergence of the mainstream and extreme at the level of actual content on the platform (Askanius, 2021a).

NMR Aims to Overthrow the Democratic Order in the Nordic Region 

NMR’s own cultural productions are also characterised by hybridity and a play with genre conventions. A convergence of popular culture and entertainment with political and news discourse is apparent. At the level of content and aesthetics, the extreme blends with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. These strategies continue the long history of “political mash-up” in protest movements’ media practices (Askanius, 2013) and of fascist movements aestheticizing politics (Ekman, 2014). To illustrate how neo-Nazis attempt to package their ideology in ways that shield it from immediate public condemnation, Kølvraa (2019) describes how NMR replaced swastikas and World War II imagery with symbols from Norse paganism and Viking iconography to make the ideology more palatable in a Swedish and wider Nordic context. The tactic served to construct a two-faced dynamic to Nazism, where a seemingly civil, respectable, and serious side masked a violent and uncivil side, much like the dissonance we see in NMR’s communication strategies seeking to normalise neo-Nazi discourse in Sweden (Askanius, 2021a).

Thus, the cultural expressions of NMR reinforce a value system that harmonises with the neo-Nazi programme. In their attempts to create a new and distinctly Nordic “Nazism light,” entertainment and culture work as key vehicles in conveying the story of “white genocide” and the impending race wars in a persuasive and entertaining manner (Askanius, 2021a). In this sense, NMR adopted some of the same normalisation strategies that seem to have worked for more mainstream far-right populist parties across Europe: re-packaging, softening rhetoric, and getting rid of or toning down overt hate speech and symbols associated with traditional fascism (Wodak, 2013).  Therefore, to understand its contemporary reality, NMR’s Nazism must be recognized as something more than simply brutality, genocide, destruction, and war (Darwish, 2018: 4).

In Sweden, recent years have seen the National Socialist right mount public demonstrations and other “offline” activities with increasing numbers. Whereas earlier it was often noted that the extreme right secured media attention and impact through violence (Kimmel, 2007), and that such organizations usually preferred the relative anonymity of online propaganda (Askanius & Mylonas, 2015: 58); now the NMR’s membership—and their willingness to demonstrate in public—is increasing. Indeed, recent years saw a noticeable rise in activities (Eastman, 2017), and a third of active members in 2015 were new recruits (Kølvraa, 2019). At one march in Stockholm, in November 2016, some reports counted 600 NMR participants (Pasha-Robinson, 2016). As such, the NMR and its online media outlet Nordfront.se are today the central National Socialist voice on the Swedish extreme right—and possibly the dominant platform for such ideas in Scandinavia as a whole (Laclau, 2005, 1990).

As a neo-Nazi organization, NMR aims to overthrow the democratic order in the Nordic region and establish a national socialist state (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020; Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In October 2014, Lund declared that a parliamentary branch of the movement would be formed, although this did not mean that the (then) SMR would become less radical. Nor did it mean that the SMR had transformed into a democratic party. Choosing to operate within the parliamentary system does not necessarily mean accepting it (Lööw, 2020: 86). The NMR has not entered the national level of government, but they entered several local governments around Sweden from 2014-2018 (Skoglund, 2017; Thomsen, 2018). The organization also made an attempt at a parliamentary breakthrough; however, it only received several municipal mandates after being added to Sweden Democrats’ (SD) lists. Despite this, the 2018 election saw an increase in both the NMR’s level of activity and their visibility in the Swedish political discourse (Blomberg & Stier, 2019).

After the 2018 election, the breakaway organization Nordic Strength (Nordisk styrka) was formed in August 2019, partly as a reaction to the failed parliamentary initiative (Lodenius, 2020: 129). Leading NMR activists, including Klas Lund, founded Nordic Strength (Askanius, 2021a), which is a distinctly elite organization, a return to the form of organization that was dominant before the NMR was created—that is, a group that does not accept everyone as a member (Lööw, 2020: 85). The purpose of Nordic Strength is stated as: “To create a new generation of strong and conscious Nordic people, and our ambition to create a strong and combative ideology, culture, community and organization.” Nordic Strength is also present in Norway and Denmark (Forwald, 2019).

NMR As a Fully-fledged National Socialist Organization

The NMR explicitly rejects democratic rule and envisions a more authoritarian system, headed by strong and competent National Socialist “senators” (Lund, 2010). It also promotes a racist and antisemitic doctrine. This is a neo-Nazi organization aimed at establishing a national revolution and totalitarian rule (Mattson & Johansson, 2018). While many emergent neo-fascist organizations across Europe distance themselves from National Socialism, the NMR remains a fully-fledged national socialist organization. Race theory is thus an inherent part of their ideology—and the alleged international Jewish elite remains their main enemy (Ravndal, 2018).

National Socialist and racist groups are sometimes introduced under the broader term “right-wing extremists.” National socialism’s main ideological components are nationalism, racism, “xenophobia,” a strong state, and anti-democratic notions (Lööw, 2020: 87-88). Although NMR can be characterized as a National Socialist organization, it did not use this label during its early years, for strategic reasons, and referred to its activists as “patriots.” In 2006, however, the NMR leadership decided to “come out of the closet” and be open about their National Socialist foundations. Behind this toxic ideology lay deeper ideas such as anti-modernism, anti-liberalism, collectivism, communitarianism, and the idea that people’s identities and meanings are closely tied to the territories, peoples, and cultures to which they naturally “belong” (Ravndal, 2019). 

Meanwhile, in addition to Adolf Hitler, the NMR cites the Danish Nazi ideologue Povl Riis-Knudsen as an important source of inspiration. Biological racism is the explicit foundation of the party’s policy. Conspiracy theories and antisemitism are also central to their ideology. NMR praises Hitler and Nazi Germany but believes that their own ideology is a “new policy for a new era.” It agitates against the democratic state, immigration, and multiculturalism, as well as against “Zionism” and “globalism” (a code for Jews), capitalism, communism, feminism, and the LGBTQ movement. One of the party’s explicit goals is to deport “the majority of all those who are not ethnic northern Europeans or of closely related peoples” from the Nordic countries. NMR also directs propaganda against trade unions, whose members they want to attract as sympathizers (Expo, 2019).

Since NMR believes that the Nordic peoples are racially and ethnically related (Ravndal, 2018), it has merged the core National Socialist values with a political strategy of a united Nordic region under authoritarian leadership, all in an effort to conserve the Nordic race and culture (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). The concept of “ethnopluralism” is sometimes used to describe this idea—that people of different ethnic and territorial backgrounds should co-exist separately rather than being mixed, in order to preserve their unique qualities and collective identities (Ravndal, 2019). It seeks to preserve national identities by repatriating all or most people of foreign descent. Finally, they seek to replace the European Union—which they see as a liberal/capitalist/globalist/technocratic threat to the authentic European identity—with an autonomous European geopolitical alliance. Notably, this alliance should be detached from the current economic, cultural, and military grip of the US, and perhaps seek alliances with Russia (Ravndal, 2019).

Reinventing Vikings For Nordic Consumption

Besides an obsession with Jews and Muslims, religion does not occupy much space in the ideological view of the NMR. The party does not claim to support religious freedom in their political manifesto. They also draw on pagan myths and symbols in some of their propaganda—specifically, on Norse mythology. For example, their main symbol is constituted by an overlay of the Tiwaz/Tyr rune, named after the warrior god Tyr, and the Yngvi/Ing rune, named after the Yngling lineage, the oldest known Scandinavian dynasty (Ravndal, 2019). However, in much of the NMR’s more recent cultural productions, the Vikings have gone soft (Askanius, 2021a). At the core of this practice, through which boundaries are increasingly blurred, is an aspiration to make uncivil discourse and ideology appear more civil and the spectacular more mundane—and to tell the story of a new “sanitised version of Nazism that would normalise the Hitler state in the minds of contemporaries” (Blee, 2007: 15). Vikings are no novelty in the National Socialist imagination. They were extensively present in Third Reich propaganda (Lauridsen, 1995). The image of the Viking serves as the lynchpin of a distinctly Nordic reiteration of National Socialist ideology as articulated by NMR (Kølvraa, 2019).

Christoffer Kølvraa argues that the Viking becomes an “empty signifier”(Laclau, 1996), serving three distinct purposes in the construction of a cultural imaginary suitable for a Nordic National Socialism. First, it serves to signify the National Socialist idea of a “Nordic race” and, in that sense, implicitly links this ideology to a specifically Nordic historical-cultural space. Second, it serves to differentiate the pan-Nordic racial project of the NMR from a wider European far-right populist agenda of defending European Christian civilization. Third, it serves to symbolize a classic National Socialist body ideal of hyper-masculinity and homo-social community in a distinctly Nordic code (Kølvraa, 2019).

Perhaps the most obvious function of Viking heritage in the cultural imagination of the NMR is simply as a way of making National Socialism less of a “German” ideology and reorientating it towards a Nordic cultural-historical context. Indeed, the NMR certainly addresses its audience as modern-day Vikings (Kølvraa, 2019). The Nordfront.se site sees it as a core task to keep the audience updated on “all things Viking.” It offers lists of events with Viking or mediaeval themes, including Viking markets, re-enactments of Viking battles, and upcoming Viking rituals, festivals, and commemorative dates (Holmqvist, 2017; Editorial, 2017).

At the textual level, Viking heritage is often only alluded to in passing, such as when it is claimed: “Our forefathers knew the secret of the blood. They understood it so well, both regarding animals and people, that they did what they could to prevent mixing the Nordic-Germanic (Aryan) race with the other races of the earth” (Söderman, 2007). The NMR also distances itself from the far and populist right by adopting a severely critical attitude towards Christianity (Gardell, 2014: 131).) The popularity of notions of “Christian Europe” can be linked to the fact that it easily supports the construction of a violent antagonism towards Islam or a “clash” between Islam and European/western civilization. Furthermore, the NMR indulges itself at times by imagining the danger of what has been called “Eurabia”: the supposed grand strategy behind a Muslim takeover of the European continent (Carr, 2006). However, as a rule, the organization rejects the valorisation of Christian values and heritage. In fact, in most cases, the NMR’s attitude toward Christianity is to view it as a foreign, southern, and ultimately Jewish idea, unduly and forcibly imposed on their Viking ancestors with vast, ever-present detrimental consequences (Söderman, 2008).

“The religion of the Norse or German gods and associated forms of paganism are particularly popular among skinheads, precisely because of their violent, warrior ethos. Skinzines, and especially the Blood & Honour magazine, frequently point out that Odinism is a religion of warriors, whereas despised Christianity is presented in Nietzschean terms as a religion of slaves” (Pollard, 2016: 409). NMR rejects Christianity, which is considered “a kind of spiritual AIDS that has destroyed our natural immunity to non-biological thinking (Lodenius, 2020). It is a contagious mental illness that must be fought by all means” (Nationalsocialismen, 2011). With regard to the NMR’s view of religious freedom, all religions must adapt to National Socialism and must not run counter to its ideology and thus religious practice should be relegated to the private sphere (Redaktionen, 2016).

According to Kølvraa (2019), even when the Vikings are used as a means to mark religious difference, they function more as an empty signifier than as an actual counterpoint or alternative. It is not about becoming Vikings but about establishing a cultural imaginary in which National Socialism is linked, juxtaposed, and repackaged in Viking iconography for Nordic consumption. Viking heritage is central to the cultural imaginary of these modern Scandinavian National Socialists due to its ability to link the internal elements of their communal ideal: an ideal of a pure Nordic racial community undisturbed by foreign influences, Christian weakness, and degenerate modernity; a community shaped by an embedded hyper-masculinity lived out in homosocial interactions saturated with struggle, aggression, and the will to supremacy (Kølvraa, 2019).

NMR has used propaganda and direct action to “awaken” the people and prepare them for the upcoming “race war.” This is in line with the general National Socialist emphasis on action rather than on intellectualism (Ravndal, 2019). In many ways, NMR and the alt-right share the same destructive narrative. Common messages from both feature racial separatism, ethnopluralism, and conspiratorial notions of an impending societal collapse, stoking fears that “the people” and “culture” are about to be exterminated by external enemies. The external enemy is embodied by overseas immigration, which is supposedly orchestrated by an “elite” consisting of politicians, the media, and globalists (Jews). Not infrequently, antisemitic conspiracy theories also occur in connection with this notion. NMR actors also consider themselves to be waging “a cultural war” in order to preserve Swedish identity (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 8). NMR is anti-democratic and rejects global humanitarian rights. The party believes violence is necessary and legitimate to achieve its goals. In such a case, “racial traitors” and people of the “wrong race” will be exterminated, brought to justice, or deported (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20).

NMR has hopes to start a revolution through an extra-parliamentary struggle. They are opposed to the ruling government but do not engage in elections (Ravndal, 2019: 11-12). On NMR’s official website, Nordfront, the party claims a National Socialist stance in the “Nine Points” that make up their policy (Hellenstierna, 2019). These points are essential to their struggle and will be dictate the changes they make when they supposedly seize power from “the hostile forces that now rule the Nordic peoples” (Nordfront Policy A, 2015). The nine points include: 

  • Immediately stopping mass immigration;
  • As soon as possible, initiating the repatriation of the majority of all non-Northern Europeans or closely related peoples; 
  • By all means available, seek to regain power from “the global Zionist elite which economically and militarily occupy most of our world”; 
  • Jointly with the other Nordic countries create a Nordic self-sufficient state with a common defence force, common currency and central bank, and common horizontal laws and regulations. This also means immediate withdrawal from the European Union and any similar hostile associations; 
  • The media should be owned by citizens of the new Nordic region. Foreign as well as domestic media acting against people in a hostile manner will be prohibited; and
  • A public tribunal must be established with the aim of examining the difficult cases of treason (Redaktionen Nordfront, 2015).

NMR’s primary goal is to overthrow the Scandinavian democracies and create a Nazi state under NMR leadership. Three core themes in NMR’s ideology are, 1) the competition between the races; 2) antisemitism, with Jewish conspiracies at the centre (Immigration to Sweden and other Nordic countries will not be the main problem for NMR, but a by-product of the Jewish conspiracy); and 3) gender roles: for the battle ahead, men and women must have their strict gender roles. Men are supposed to be warriors and provide physical protection while women are supposed to stay home and reproduce and raise children. Less strict gender roles have resulted in “mixed races” and thus the “end of the race.” Feminist and LGBTQ movements are, therefore, not accepted and often threatened by NMR (Blomgren, 2020; Mattsson, 2018; Ranstorp, Ahlin, & Normark, 2020).

In NMR’s ideological narrative, thus, the central problem at the core of the conflict is construed as mass immigration and multiculturalism, spearheaded by Zionism and a feminised, degenerated Western culture. This problem poses a threat to a community—an “us,” meaning the white race, true Swedes, and the Nordic people—by a perpetrator, a “them” consisting of caricatured enemies including “racial strangers,” Jews, enemies of the people, or alternatively, Sweden-haters, which includes politicians, journalists, certain public intellectuals, feminists, and so forth. Against this backdrop, NMR proposes a “final solution”— namely, the deportation of all “racial strangers” and a race war, with the end result being Sweden as “white sanctuary,” enforced by a future pan-Nordic state founded on national socialism (Askanius, 2021a).

Moreover, the NMR propagates the superiority of the white race, fights for the “survival of the Nordic race,” and wants to bring about a revolution through an armed takeover (Edsenius & Jönsson, 2018). The party wants democracy to be “replaced by an elitist government with a strong leader at the top” (TT, 2017). In connection with this, parties must be abolished and citizenship in Sweden must be based on racial biology. A racial biology institute will “racially assess” the population of individuals born after 1975 and those who do not belong to the Aryan race will be forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin. Those born before 1975 could lose their citizenship if they were “convicted of anti-popular activities.” NMR’s leaders estimate that approximately 2 million “racial strangers” in Sweden would be sent back to their countries of origin, as well as another million people from the other Nordic countries (Lodenius, 2020).

According to the NMR, the entire survival and existence of the “white race” is at stake due to low birth rates combined with mass immigration of non-whites in “a low-intensity war of extermination against whites.” The Nordic countries are portrayed as occupied and the survival of the people a battle for life and death in a race war. The very image of the enemy being painted is dark and dystopian and is often described in dehumanizing terms as the “System.” The System includes the government and authorities, while politicians are referred to as “criminals.” The System has a vicious plan against the “people,” who are brainwashed and repressed by constant reprisals from the government and authorities. The System’s repression of NMR is enormous. NMR repeatedly uses enemy terms such as “racial stranger,” “criminal,” “traitor,” etc. NMR often weaves together a conspiratorial worldview of a “Jewish-controlled” elite of “globalists,” “big banks,” and “capitalists” who oppose and oppress the “people” (Lodenius, 2020).

NMR wants to establish a “people’s court” that will “try the difficult cases of treason” (Redaktionen, 2015). “Traitors” will be brought before the people’s court and hung from lampposts. NMR also advocates the reintroduction of the death penalty to be imposed for serious crimes (Lodenius, 2020). Media must be banned if they go against NMR’s ideals. NMR’s idea of ​​freedom of expression is to tear up laws against incitement against ethnic groups and instead ban “anti-popular propaganda” which includes media that spreads “subversive and anti-popular messages” (Redaktionen, 2018a).

NMR Views World Through Prism of Antisemitism

The NMR’s worldview is based on antisemitic conspiracy theories, including that Jews promote immigration, egalitarianism, and racial mixing in order to destroy the white race (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 20). According to this world view, no political achievements have any real value until the alleged Jewish world conspiracy is crushed. While the rest of the far-right is inspired by new ideological influences, the NMR has chosen to stick to its Nazi convictions and Hitler’s principles, including all the elements of antisemitism. The party claims it wants to “take back power over our country from the globalists who rule us.” “Globalists” is one of many code words for the alleged Jewish international conspiracy (Poohl, 2018). 

Antisemitism is at the heart of the National Socialist ideology. Without antisemitism, National Socialism does not exist. According to Nazis, the notion of history is a struggle between Jews and “Aryans.” National Socialists often use terms such as “Jewish mentality” and “spiritual Jews.” These terms were synonymous with the Nazis’ political enemies, who were considered poisoned by the “Jewish mentality and morality” and who “sold their souls to the Jews” (Lööw, 2020: 89). Jews are at the top of the NMR’s enemy list; Nazis hate Jews more than they hate Muslims—they believe Jews invented the Muslims (Pascalidou, 2017). 

Although the NMR is concerned with challenges posed by growing Muslim populations in Europe, they always make sure to remind themselves and others that the real cause of this “Muslim invasion” is the Jews, who have deliberately masterminded it in order to weaken the European peoples and nations for their own benefit (Lund, 2004). According to NMR, “the tentacles of Zionism” are everywhere, seen in a culture war which seeks to “destroy the indigenous European cultures and replace them with Americanized anti-culture” (Lund, 2008).

Nevertheless, NMR has recently changed its rhetoric and started use some indirect or coded words. In that rhetoric, individuals who are said to represent the imagined Jewish power are transformed into traitors. The previous terms, like “racial traitors” and “Jewish lackeys,” have been replaced simply with “traitors” (Lööw, 2019). NMR sees “our people” as being betrayed and replaced through marriage and migration—and sees these as conscious strategies to replace the “Nordic race” with a new people. According to this conspiracy theory, Europe’s population will be replaced through the migration of Muslims, which is actually a Jewish plot (Lööw, 2020). Immigration to Sweden and the Nordic countries is by-product of the Jewish conspiracy—a conspiracy that is manifested in the form of, among other things, socialism, capitalism, and humanism (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 46). According to the NMR,  Jews are even behind recent terrorist attacks—and the police are supposedly “Zionist slaves” (Pascalidou, 2017).

The NMR also practises Holocaust denialism. In connection with memorial days linked to the Holocaust, NMR has organized demonstrations and various actions, in an effort to burden these dates with a different meaning (Lööw, 2020: 93). Nordfront’s editor-in-chief Fredrik Vejdelands denied the Holocaust during his closing speech in the Göta Court of Appeal (Redaktionen, 2015).

In accordance with the NMR’s worldview, Israel is the centre of a Zionist world power that exercises a destructive influence on much of the world, including Sweden. According to the NMR, Israel can be seen as the exact opposite of a National Socialist state: unnaturally created through mass immigration; built on a national, historical and religious lie and economic parasitism; a centre for espionage and global organized crime; etc. According to the NMR, Israel is, in practice, an extremist nationalist military base under the control of “international financial Judaism,” and, as such, it poses a threat to the rest of humanity. Naturally, the NMR sympathizes with the Palestinians and their struggle for a free Palestinian state (Editorial, 2012). With a focus on historical revisionism about the Holocaust (Lööw, 2019), NMR’s antisemitism is so strong that they congratulated radical Islamist HAMAS in 2006, just because the organisation stated in its statutes that it wants to destroy Israel (Redaktionen, 2006).

Hierarchically Organized with Militant and Fanatic Members

NMR’s May 1 demonstrations in Ludvika and Kungälv on May 1, 2019.

NMR is hierarchically organized and militant (Ravndal, 2018). Its colours are green, white and black. Its main symbol is the tyrruna, which was used Nazi Germany during WWII (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020). NMR’s model was inspired by the Romanian Iron Guard and has become a collection of fanatics (Poohl, 2014). 

The organization is divided into so-called “nests” (nästen, a term borrowed from the Iron Guard), each with its own leadership and structure (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden is divided into seven nests, and they are controlled by operational chiefs directly handling the local activist groups—named fighting groups—each with no more than ten members. One nest can have several combat groups (Expo, 2020; Mattson & Johansson, 2018). In addition, there is a national council (Riksrådet) as well as a Nordic council (Nordenrådet) comprising members from the various national branches (Ravndal, 2019).  

According to its Handbook for Activists, the NMR is “not a democratic organization where individuals gain positions of responsibility through elections or majority rule. Instead, it is a strictly hierarchically structured organization where all positions of responsibility are filled according to competence, loyalty and willingness to sacrifice” (Bjørgo, 2018). For the people who are part of the combat groups, NMR requires “regular activism, physical training and demonstration of willingness to sacrifice, and that members must be public with who they are” (Lindberg, 2019).

At the top of the hierarchy is the leader of the entire organization, currently Simon Lindberg. Besides these top positions, there are several other prestigious positions, such as operational leader, parliamentary leader, media spokesperson, editor-in-chief, news editor, head of radio broadcasting etc (Ravndal, 2019). Because the NMR envisions an actual take-over of the government, it needs a hierarchical organization on stand-by for when this critical moment arrives (Ravndal, 2019).

Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR underwent a reorganisation under new leadership and changed its name from the SMR to the NMR, following the establishment of associated divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark. NMR refers to this period as the “‘coming out party’ of national socialism” in Scandinavia and to Sweden as the new administrative centre and power hub of a future pan-Nordic state (Askanius, 2021a). Thus, NMR has shifted from being a closed subcultural group to trying to reach a wider audience. The organization has moved away from its subcultural roots and developed into movement focused more on political outreach (Mattson & Johansson, 2018).

The NMR has three levels of membership and strict criteria for joining. Full membership is restricted to activists willing to be publicly associated with the organization; affiliates are formal members whose involvement is on a more voluntary basis; supporting members provide financial support only and may remain anonymous. To become a full member, one has to dedicate him/herself fully to the organization and its day-to-day struggle (Ravndal, 2019). NMR recruits, educates, and trains activists in a hierarchical system, with the hope that violence and advocacy will create a spiritual and physical elite (Expo, 2020). Members practice martial arts in order to stay healthy, build confidence, and prepare physically and mentally for any type of threat (Holm, 2005). 

Some NMR members have a military past (Sveriges Radio, 2014) while others arm themselves with weapons when they move outdoors (Nerikes Allehanda, 2014). According to former NMR leader Lund, activists should be prepared to use force. “The practice of martial arts fulfils several tasks, it helps to maintain discipline within the organization while it [provides] physical education … It creates a powerful cadre of members who grow powerful and aggressive … This is necessary to create a fighting organization” (Poohl, 2014). 

On the other hand, external activities constitute the groups’ interaction with the public, and their primary function is to convey the group’s political message to larger audiences, sometimes but not always through spectacular and creative stunts, or through shocking behaviour. By tracing these actions, one can see that the NMR creates a pattern in which the same types of activity are repeated over and over again (Ravndal, 2019). The members are secular and do not engage in religion per se (Expo, 2020; Blomgren, 2020). Members at the highest level of activism are the ones that create the so-called “combat groups” (Mattsson, 2018).

As an “elite” organisation, the NMR has never aspired to fast growth but rather has been careful about recruiting what it sees as the “right” kind of person, meaning those who are fully dedicated, action oriented, and never question the organization’s radical stances. Thus, NMR members are expected to embrace everything the organization stands for, including conspiracy theories about Jewish elites and homosexuality being an unnatural and confused state of mind. This form of militancy borders on fanaticism, i.e., on an uncritical ideological devotion. In fact, NMR activists proudly present themselves as fanatics in the vein of prominent National Socialists from the Third Reich, such as SS troops (Ravndal, 2019). 

NMR members are provided with detailed routines and instructions for how to live life as a member. Each activity is given points according to an incomprehensible logic. The points must then be reported to the superior and become an effective control mechanism for the group’s management. There are rules for how members should address each other depending on rank, instructions for who should sit where during lectures, how to present a case during a meeting, and how to eat, sleep, and march (Poohl, 2014). Tattoos on the hands and head, piercings, alcohol and drug abuse, or mental illness are not accepted. There is also a strict duty of confidentiality within the organization and all information that is not public is classified. Revealing this type of information counts as a “betrayal” (Lodenius, 2020).

In terms of clothing and lifestyle, members are encouraged not to wear flashy or expensive clothes but rather clothes that signal their political views. They are also encouraged to wear comfortable clothes appropriate for street fighting. NMR’s code of honour requires members to keep silent about the organization’s inner life, to remain loyal and humble, to show good camaraderie, to be disciplined and truthful, and to exercise and be prepared for fighting (Lund, 2010).

While the Swedish NMR branch currently claims a few hundred members, there are fewer than a hundred members in Finland—and fewer than 50 in Norway (Ravndal, 2019). In recent years, NMR has tried to attract more supporters and for a while, more people joined each new demonstration. However, the trend has reversed recently. In 2018, 350 people gathered at a Nazi demonstration in Ludvika. At the same time, 140 people marched in Boden—around 500 people in total. In 2019, similar marches only featured around 400 people in total (Poohl et al, 2019). According to Lööw (2015), NMR remains a relatively small organization, with estimates suggesting it has fewer than 1000 members.

An alleged coup attempt led to a split in the NMR in 2019. Former leader Lund left NMR and started a new group, Nordic Strength, which demands a higher degree of radicalism and fanaticism. More hard-line activists believe that NMR has become less radical during recent years, in attempts to broaden and attract more members. Before the 2018 elections, NMR described its ambition to become a popular movement. After the fiasco of the election, dissatisfaction has simmered in parts of the party, a group often described as NMR’s “spearhead” or “core activists” (Fröjd, 2019). 

Though Nordic Strength appears to be a somewhat more radical organization (Leman, 2018; Fröjd, 2019), so far, it has not made any major imprints. Although Nordic Strength can carry out individual acts of violence, the organization is actually restrained, as they have an aging leadership, a small number of members, and limited financial resources (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481). 

As with other far-right extremist organisations, NMR is more attractive to men and boys. The ideological background is conservative and against equality, gender equality and liberalism, thereby making it harder for women and girls to identify with the organisation (Kimmel 2007; Ekman 2014). NMR members also tend to have similar backgrounds. Some had parents who drank, others had parents who fought at home (Pascalidou, 2017).

The organization was built on the idea of the trinity of people, family, and the homeland. It is based on the heterosexual core family, and if the core family is threatened, so is the future of the motherland (Blomgren, 2020). According to the NMR and other National Socialists, man and woman have different biological and spiritual conditions. These pre-given conditions form the basis for a division of society into a male and a female sphere. The man and the woman must complement but not replace each other. NMR members see women as wives and mothers (Lööw, 2020: 96). 

NMR is against feminism and for strong traditional gender roles that idealize the woman’s role, including giving birth, raising children and taking care of household chores (Lodenius, 2020). At the same time, they are very strongly against homosexuality—or the “homosexual lobby,” as they call itNMR members have participated in violent protests aimed at Pride parades, where NMR members hold up banners with messages such as, “Crush the gay lobby” (Lodenius, 2020).

NMR’s International Links

The leadership within NMR has been inspired by various international and ideological role models. SMR/NMR’s founder Lund was previously the leader of the VAM, which was inspired by the American neo-Nazi organization White Aryan Resistance (WAR) and Robert Mathews, the founder of the white power group The Order. Richard Scutari of The Order (Bruders Schweigen) was also linked to NMR via Esa Henrik Holappa, the founder of the Finnish Resistance Movement (FRM) (Redaktionen, 2011). 

Other NMR leaders have also had close contact with American role models. Magnus Söderman was a member of the Aryan Nations under the leadership of its founder Richard Butler (Redaktionen, 2009). The Aryan Resistance Movement leader David Lane also knew Söderman, who worked to translate and disseminate Lane’s ideas. According to his own statement, Söderman also lived with The Order in the US (Söderman, 2007a). NMR/SMR was also inspired by William Pierce, leader of the National Alliance and author of the books The Turner Diaries and Hunter (Lodenius, 2020).

Over the years, SMR/NMR have developed extensive international connections outside the Nordic region. On the website patriot.nu, in 2002, SMR linked to its foreign organizations: the National Alliance, the German NPD, the Russian National Unity, and the Italian Forza Nuova (Lodenius, 2020). A very active exchange is taking place, including study visits to Germany and Hungary and participation in National Socialist demonstrations. For example, the NMR regularly participates in the annual Lukov March in Bulgaria, along with other foreign National Socialists. In 2013, information was published that members of the SMR had undergone paramilitary training with a Nazi group in Hungary (Holmberg, 2017). NMR has developed particularly good relations with the German Die Dritte Weg, the Italian Casa Pound, the Hungarian Legio Hungaria, the Greek Golden Dawn, and the American Patriot Front. 

In March 2015, the NMR participated in the far-right “International Conservative Forum” in St. Petersburg, which was organized by the Russian party Rodina (Motherland) (Vergara, 2015). On behalf of the NMR, Peter Jusztin participated, and, after the conference, the NMR visited one of the headquarters of the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM), in a suburb of St. Petersburg (Redaktionen, 2015b). Stanislav Vorobjev, the leader of RIM, visited the NMR during their Nordic Days and donated money to the NMR (Redaktionen, 2015c). The paramilitary branch of the RIM, Partizan, organized a training camp for right-wing extremists and, alongside groups from all over the world, NMR members Viktor Melin and Anton Thulin received eleven days of training in August 2016 (Wiman et al, 2017). In April 2020, RIM was branded as a terrorist organization by the US State Department (Kasurinen, 2020). 

The connections between NMR and the RIM go back to 2012, when Vorobjev handed out diplomas to Nordfrontemployees Robert Eklund and Henrik Pihlström for “their objective and correct description of the political situation in Russia in the Swedish media” (Redaktionen, 2012). In October 2016, RIM donated an unknown amount of money to the NMR, and the contacts were described at the end of that year by Simon Lindberg as “good” (Expo. 2019). 

The importance of NMR’s non-Nordic contacts is clear—NMR’s program is also published in English and Russian (Lodenius, 2020). In addition, NMR has a presence on Russian social media, with a significant number of followers (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 9). There is also an extensive digital exchange between the NMR and representatives of the American alt-right. This exchange seems to be primarily individual-based and not formalized. For NMR, the exchange offers an arena for new potential sympathizers abroad and creates opportunities to reach a new audience in Sweden (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 481).

A Pan-Nordic Utopia: A Nordic Nation for Nordic People

Nationalist groups, in particular those with a militant or revolutionary outlook, usually emerge within nation-states (Ravndal, 2019); despite this, NMR seeks to expand its presence in other Nordic countries to establish a “Nordic nation for Nordic people” (Ravndal, 2019: 12). This goal is not new. Swedish National Socialist parties of the 1930s were also expansionist and intended to include all groups they defined as “Aryan.” The motherland was to be conquered by the workers, who were to be mobilized for the national idea and become part of the national community. 

NMR’s party program is permeated by the idea of a united Nordic region (Lööw, 2020: 92). In 2008, a branch of NMR was founded in Finland, while a renewed Norwegian branch was established in 2011. In 2013, a Danish-language site, nordfront.dk, was established, and an attempt was made to set up an NMR branch in Denmark, via Henrik Jarsbo (Lindberg, 2013). An Icelandic web site, nordurvigi.is, exist and does contain some general information about the organization (Strømmen, 2017).

Following the establishment of sister divisions in Norway, Finland, and Denmark, the SMR changed its name to the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR). However, the organization has yet to mobilize nearly as many dedicated activists in the other Nordic countries as it has in Sweden (Ravndal, 2018). Sweden remains the country with most dedicated and active members (Ravndal, 2018: 15-16). Sweden is a special case in Scandinavia, at least in terms of the country’s historical experience of WWII and its subsequent attitude toward National Socialist ideas and symbols. While both Denmark and Norway endured German occupation, Sweden managed to avoid occupation by remaining neutral. This meant that Sweden did not experience the same post-war legal trials of Nationalist Socialist sympathizers that Demark and Norway did (Fangen, 1998).

Indeed, in Denmark and Norway a strong collective memory of national resistance was established; anyone designated as a “Nazi” was effectively excluded from the national community (Bryld & Warring, 1998). Finland also undertook a legal purge of sorts as the Finnish-Soviet armistice of 1944 required Helsinki to dismantle all fascist organizations. Here again, Sweden never went through the same post-WWII legal purge against Nazi sympathisers (Ravndal, 2018). Thus, in Sweden, the lack of memory of national resistance against Nazi Germany has meant that the extreme right is more prone to identify itself as National Socialist and to use the symbols and iconography of the Third Reich (Fangen, 1998). Sweden thus has a larger and better-organized national socialist movement than the other Nordic countries (Ravndal, 2018). 

Moreover, youth unemployment rates have been considerably higher in Sweden than in Denmark and Norway. Sweden has also received far more immigrants than the other Nordic countries and has experienced more problems related to segregated suburbs and crimes allegedly committed by people of immigrant backgrounds. In combination, these two conditions may have fuelled grievances among segments of the Swedish population that can be exploited by the extreme right to recruit new followers (Ravndal, 2018). In fact, the most successful far-right populist party in Sweden, the Sweden Democrats (SD), has undeniable roots in the neo-fascist milieux (Hellström & Nilsson, 2010)—unlike its equivalent in Denmark, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) (Meret, 2011).

Nevertheless, in Sweden, too, National Socialists must attempt to package or frame their ideology in ways that might shield it from immediate public condemnation (Kølvraa, 2019). Since the Party of the Swedes (Svenskarnas parti) was dissolved in May 2015, the NMR has been the most important neo-Nazi organization in Sweden. The Norwegian and Finnish branches of the organization are also central parts of the neo-Nazi environment in those countries. The NMR fights, in the words of its former leader Klas Lund, for “a Nordic national socialist republic including the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and optionally the Baltic states” (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to antisemitism, “Nordic-ness” is something that binds the Nordic countries together and is central to NMR’s ideology (Lööw, 2020: 86). The party hopes to preserve the Nordic people as they are today, ensuring that the Nordic racial type remains dominant in the Nordic gene pool (Nordiska Motståndsrörelsens, 2015).

Norway

In 2003, former members of the Norwegian skinhead group Boot Boys became sworn members of the NMR’s first Norwegian branch. Shortly thereafter, a Norwegian version of the NMR’s website, Patriot.nu, was launched, and the first issue of the Norwegian version of the NMR’s publication Nasjonal Motstand was published. However, finding dedicated activists in Norway proved harder than in Sweden. The timing may also have been unfortunate. The Norwegian militant movement had receded considerably following the murder of Benjamin Hermansen in 2001 by two Boot Boys members. Another complicating factor was that leading figurers within the Norwegian branch had to serve prison sentences for various criminal activities, including a bank robbery. Thus, after a couple of years of activities, the first Norwegian branch of NMR largely ceased to be active (Ravndal, 2019).

It took several years before a second attempt was made to re-establish the NMR’s Norwegian branch. In 2010, Haakon Forwald, mostly known as a former member of the Swedish black metal band Dissection (Lindberg, 2014), joined the Swedish branch as NMR’s only Norwegian member. This followed several attempts to reach out to the defunct Norwegian branch. Forwald was soon promoted to leader of a resurrected Norwegian branch and given the task of rebuilding it. Later that year, a Norwegian version of NMR’s website, Nordfront, went online, mainly containing articles from the Swedish site translated into Norwegian. However, slowly but surely, activism reports began appearing on the Norwegian website as well, usually about night-time sticker raids (Ravndal, 2019). 

Save its first years, the resurrected Norwegian branch was involved in few public activities, especially. This pattern changed post-2016, and Norwegian activists started carrying out more public activities (Martinsen et al, 2017). However, NMR’s Norwegian membership is much smaller than the Swedish and Finnish divisions. The Norwegian NMR also appears to be largely dependent on its Swedish mother organization. More Swedish than Norwegian activists have been involved in the few public events NMR has organized in Norway (Ravndal, 2018). Still, NMR has grown, however slightly, and counts several “nests” in Norway (Lindberg, 2014).

Finland

The Finnish Resistance Movement (Suomen vastarintaliike, SVL) was founded in 2008 by Esa Henrik Holappa (Hietikko, 2016b) following approval by the NMR (Wiman & Svensson, 2018). It immediately became the most militant Finnish Nazi organization. From its inception in 2008 until Holappa stepped down in 2012, he served as the official leader of the SVL and was one of the few members who operated openly under his own name (Strømmen, 2017). 

Holappa’s decision to establish a Finnish branch of NMR was highly influenced by the American veteran activist Richard Scutari, who is currently serving a 60-year prison sentence for his involvement in the American terrorist organization The Order, and was pen pals with Holappa. At the age of 17, Holappa started writing letters to Scutari. Holappa and Magnus Söderman—another of Scutari’s pen pals—have published their correspondences as a tribute to Scutari. (Söderman & Holappa, 2011). The book shows how Scutari put Holappa and Söderman in contact with each other, and how he advised Holappa to establish a Finnish version of NMR under the auspices of Söderman and the larger NMR (Ravndal, 2019). 

When Holappa landed in trouble for crimes related to hate speech in 2008, he became increasingly convinced that he would be convicted. When his American neo-Nazi contacts heard about his problems, they encouraged him to travel to the US. In August 2008, he followed their recommendation (Strømmen, 2017). Holappa left the SVL in 2012 and has been considered by the NMR as a traitor and oath breaker (Ravndal, 2019).

During its early phase, SVL tried to keep a low profile; this changed after a stabbing at the city library in Jyväskylä in January 2013 (Lodenius, 2020). SVL members were involved in several violent attacks in the 2010s, including several assaults on leftist politicians, and the stabbing of a security guard at a book launch event in 2013 (the book was about the Finnish extreme right) (Hietikko, 2016). In 2014, the SVL also latched onto news about a multi-ethnic, suburban gang assaulting other youth in Helsinki and organized vigilantes to patrol the city. These vigilante marches have continued sporadically throughout the country. SVL and its activists were real threats to those it sees as political opponents or unwelcome in the country—or to outsiders who just happen to be in the wrong place or have the “wrong opinions.” Most violent crimes attributed to SVL members have fallen into the category of street violence (Strømmen, 2017).

SVL has several features worrying to the authorities: good organizational skills, a long-term approach to developing its activities, and an ideology that embraces violence. Like the NMR, the SVL is strictly hierarchical, with clear manuals for its activism and group structure. It is working to build a subculture through social activities intended to draw in new members, including lectures, martial arts training, sports events, forest walks, and outdoor survival training (Strømmen, 2017).

Following the refugee crisis in 2015, there had been a surge of interest in racist and xenophobic organizations in Finland. To exploit the situation and boost recruitment, SVL attempted to soften its image. Members began to call themselves nationalists and patriots; part of their work was carried out under the banner of Suomalaisapu, or Finnish Aid (Strømmen, 2017). At the same time, SVL has tried to be the gathering umbrella for various National Socialist (Hietikko, 2016a),right-wing extremist, and nationalist and racist groups in Finland. An example is the “612” nationalist torchlight procession, arranged December 6 (or “6/12”), which is the Finnish Independence Day. Despite the group’s efforts to become the umbrella for all extreme right organizations in Finland, the SVL has had little success achieving this goal (Strømmen, 2017).

Moreover, there were strong internal contradictions between the old Nazi line and those who advocate for neo-fascism (Hietikko, 2016a). Ideological differences between the NMR and SVL also exist and occasionally cause friction. While the Swedish branch is representative of an old-fashioned Hitlerian variant of neo-Nazism, the Finnish branch is more diverse. Some members support a “Third Positionneo-fascism and have contacts with the Italian movement Casa Pound (Strømmen, 2017).

Considering these schisms, SVL member Mika Ranta decided to form a separate vigilante group. Ranta is a self-declared neo-Nazi who has been convicted of violent crimes. He chose to call his organization Soldiers of Odin (SOO) (Rosendahl & Forsell, 2016). Despite some differences, SOO is modelled on the SVL, and Ranta sought SVL’s permission to from SOO. Lately, the SVL and SOO have openly referenced each other (Strømmen, 2017).

While Finnish authorities have kept the SVL under close watch for years, pressure to take legal action against the group began to mount in late 2016 after one of its members assaulted and seriously injured a passer-by in Helsinki. The victim died a week later. Although the assailant was ultimately found guilty of aggravated assault with a racist motive instead of homicide, Finland’s National Police Board sued the SVL in March 2017, on the grounds that the group contravened Finnish association law. The SVL was forbidden to operate in Finland, but the verdict did not cover every single association registered as members of the NMR. The group’s charity organization, Suomalaisapu (Finn Aid), remains active and its party project, Kansan Yhtenäisyys (The People’s Unity), was left similarly untouched by the ban (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020).

The ban came into effect at the end of November 2018. At the end of 2019, Finnish law enforcement agencies also conducted an investigation into information that the SVL continued its activity under the pseudonym Kohti vaputta! (Towards Freedom!) (Teivainen, 2019). Kohti Vapautta! has arranged street activism, training sessions and other similar activities. 

Eventually, the Supreme Court of Finland issued a ban on the SVL on September 22, 2020. The historic decision follows the case that had been ongoing for several years. The Court decreed that the SVL and Pohjoinen Perinne ry (Northern Tradition), a registered association facilitating the group’s activities, were to be disbanded as they contravene Finnish association law. The verdict brought a close to nearly three years of legal deliberations and represents the first time since 1977 that an extreme right-wing group has been disbanded in Finland by court order (Sallamaa & Kotonen, 2020). 

Denmark & Iceland

Since 2007, the SMR/NMR has developed its contacts with the Danish National Socialist Movement (DNSB). In the same year, NMR representatives participated in a DNSB demonstration in Kolding in memory of Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, where participants attacked counter-protesters. In 2013, Henrik Jarsbo, a former member of the DNSP (Lindberg, 2013), attempted to found a Danish branch of SMR/NMR, and Nordfront.dk was launched in July of the same year (Lodenius, 2020). Despite the website becoming the most developed of the non-Swedish Nordfront sites, the Danish NMR-branch soon became inactive (Ravndal, 2019); in 2016, the website was shut down (Kimmel, 2007: 206). Other groups with similar profiles are currently active in Denmark, most notably Denmark’s National Front (Ravndal, 2018).

In 2017, after consulting with NMR, a new organizational structure was formed in Denmark and divided into three nests. The new leader of the Danish NMR was Martin Durvad. The organization is better known as Nordfront. In the autumn of 2019, a coordinated action was taken against 84 Jewish cemeteries, which were desecrated with green paint. One of Nordfront’s members was arrested on suspicion of involvement in the act. The Danish NMR has about 50 members, with around 20 “hardcore” activists. Tommy Olsen assumed leadership after Forwald left to join Klas Lund’s Nordic Strength in 2019 (Lodenius, 2020; Nordisk Styrke, 2019).

Since 2017, NMR also has a branch and a website, nordurvigi.is, in Iceland. Led by Ríkharður Leó Magnússon, NMR Iceland held its first demonstration in Reykjavik in September 2019.

NMR Is Pro-violence and Uncompromising 

NMR is pro-violence and uncompromising (Lodenius, 2020). In addition to spreading their political agenda, NMR members have used different kinds of violence, threats, and harassment to hinder individuals from participating in political debates and meetings (Swedish Security Service, 2018). While the NMR claims to resort to violence only in self-defence, both its national socialist ideology and its blood-stained history say otherwise (Stormark, 2017). Moreover,according to the organization’s Handbook for Activists, “The NMR is not pacifist. We are aware that we can only win through physical struggle and that ideas and beautiful ideals mean nothing and can never blossom if these ideas lack aggressive fanatical champions” (Delin & Carlsson, 2017; Lodenius, 2020: 115). 

SMR/NMR’s former ideologue, Magnus Söderman, also highlighted David Lane’s clarification in his book Revolution: “You adults know very well that war is the only answer. ZOG’s (a term for Jews) henchmen will not voluntarily relinquish power. … because, they know that we will execute them for breaking the highest law of nature” (Söderman, 2007). It is not a secret that the NMR is willing to use physical force to achieve a racially pure Nordic nation. The group makes no effort to distance itself from the use of violence. Instead, its members actively speak and write about the race war that, in their minds, is inevitable. Thus, NMR has been specialising in pushing the limits of democracy and the rule of law through harassment, threats, and violence against opponents and the police (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). 

In order to analyse the contents and the various attacks perpetuated by the NMR, it is important to define NMR as a terrorist organization. It is a militant group with a hierarchical structure of nests, some of which consist of “combat groups” (Ravndal, 2019: 23). The groups use militaristic ways of training (Hellenstierna, 2019). Violent confrontation is something the activists train for regularly—for example in the form of single combat, where the winner is whoever is able to strike a deadly blow with a replica knife. But this is not just a game (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018). In Finland, one person who expressed opposition to the NMR was brutally assaulted and died a week later of complications that, to all appearances, resulted from the attack (Yle, 2016).

To date, the NMR—which is still a legal organization in Sweden—is generally not dangerous, assuming you don’t oppose them. However, should you be tempted to confront them, stand in their way, or refuse to let yourself be harassed, you are no longer safe. During several of the NMR’s demonstrations, there have been violent clashes between NMR activists and the police. One of these examples is a demonstration that occurred outside of a Book Fair in Gothenburg in 2017. NMR has also repeatedly clashed with civilians. They actively seek out these violent engagements to foster and attract internal group cohesion (Bjørgo & Ravndal, 2018).  

Politicians that step out of line and criticize the movement are quickly confronted by the NMR’s members. These intimidation tactics have also consisted of NMR activists following politicians to their parked cars. Council workers and opponents of the movement have also received subtle threats such as “Nice house you got there…” Some have also found stickers on their front doors or on the streetlamps outside their homes. These stickers feature a gallows with the slogan, “Reserved for traitors of the people.” By using such methods, the NMR spreads fear and gains influence far beyond its extremely limited public support (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).

From time to time, NMR members have been involved in illegal activities, including violent attacks using weapons such as knives and explosives. Such activities are dismissed by the NMR leadership as something these activists have carried out on their own initiative. Interestingly, after some of these illegal actions, the NMR receives “exclusive” interviews from members of the self-titled “action groups” that claim to be behind them. One could speculate that the existence of such clandestine “action groups” may serve as a tool for the NMR to carry out illegal activities without compromising the organization (Bjørgo, Ravndal, 2017).

Between the 2014 and 2018 elections, NMR perpetrated high levels of violence across Scandinavia. As mentioned, in Finland, a young man was beaten to death by NMR members. The Swedish branch of NMR also displayed violent tendencies. In 2013, approximately 30 NMR members attacked an anti-racist demonstration in Kärrtorp Stockholm (Vergara, 2013). During 2016 and 2017 several members of NMR were convicted of bombings in Gothenburg. In the north of Sweden, in Umeå, the Jewish association had to close down due to threats and harassment (Expo NMR, 2019)

Despite its denials, NMR has been part of a Swedish far right that produced more right-wing terrorism and violence (RTV) between 1990 and 2015 than Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined. Zooming in on the Nordic countries, the RTV dataset covers 141 events. The most frequently targeted victims are immigrants (70 events), leftists (38 events), and homosexuals (9 events). Other target groups include government representatives, police, Muslims, Jews, Gypsies/Roma, the homeless, and media institutions (Ravndal, 2018). Moreover, Expo has identified 111 people who for the first time participated in NMR activism in 2017. Of these, 64 already have a background in the racial ideological environment (Dalsbro et al, 2018). Expo has also mapped 159 of the most active members of the NMR and, in 2015 alone, just over a quarter were convicted of violent or gun crimes (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016). If all crimes are included, one-third (33 percent) were convicted or prosecuted for some form of crime. In total, more than half (56 percent) of the activists have been convicted of some form of crime. In almost a quarter of the cases, the penalty was imprisonment, which indicates that they were serious crimes. For a period, the NMR sold knives emblazoned with the slogan, “The struggle requires more than just words” (Dalsbro & Färnbo, 2016; Pascalidou, 2017).

In 2018, Swedish Radio also mapped 178 people who were judged to be the most active in NMR (Lodenius, 2020) and at least 90 of them were convicted of crimes—and about one in four were convicted of violent crimes such as murder, assault, or violent riot (Jönsson, 2018). The year before, the Aftonbladet and Svenska Dagbladet newspapers examined 84 NMR members, and the results showed that 58 of them were convicted of crimes (Folkö & Leman, 2019). According to another investigation, of NMR’s approximately 160 Swedish members, several have been convicted of crimes, including bombings, aggravated weapons offenses, aggravated violent crimes, and incitement against ethnic groups (Wierup, 2020).

The same pattern is evident in NMR’s leadership. Its first leader, Klas Lund, was convicted of murder in 1987, and for aggravated robbery in the early 1990s (Lodenius, 2020). Since September 2015, the NMR has been led by Simon Lindberg, who was convicted of vandalism, threats, and aiding and abetting assault. Lindberg is joined by a leadership group that includes Emil Hagberg, Fredrik Vejdeland and Per Öberg. While Vejdeland has been convicted of hate speech-related crimes, Hagberg was also convicted on weapons-related charges and for rioting (Baas, 2015).

With regard to any terrorist threats from NMR, the Security Police (Säpo) stated that NMR has a large capacity for violence. Säpo also stated that “our assessment is that this is an organization that has the ability to commit serious crimes that could be classified as a terrorist attack” (Jönsson, 2018a). Since NMR has violent tendencies, it has been classified by Säpo as the second biggest threat in Sweden after Islamist terrorism. Säpo and The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) use the term White Power to describe groups like NMR (Blomgren, 2020). 

As previously mentioned, in 2019, several core members of NMR decided to leave and create Nordic Strength (NS) which is considered to be more violent. However, there has been no evidence of an escalation of violence since the split (Expo Annual Report, 2019).

Another Battlefield for the NMR: the Media, Internet & Social Media 

In 2000, SMR/NMR established a web portal called patriot.nu (Vejdeland, 2012) which provided various magazines, an online store with publications and white power music, and more. In the early 2000s, the SMR also printed newspapers Folktribunen and Nationellt Motstand . With the development of social media, SMR’s propaganda strategy and range of channels changed. The most influential online magazine Nordfront, NMR’s digital communication channel (Vejdeland, 2012), was started in 2011. Between October 2016 and December 2018, NMR launched a number of new media and produced extensive online content in a strategic move running up to the general elections in September 2018 (Askanius, 2021a). 

The NMR also established its own publishing house and bookstore, originally called Nationellt Motstånd förlag, but later changing its name to Nordfront förlag. Based in the small rural village of Grängesberg, it sells various National Socialist and antisemitic literature via its online bookstore, including a Swedish translation of The Turner Diaries, plus books by Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels, and a collection of letters written by Richard Scutari, member of the US white supremacist terrorist group The Order. (Strømmen, 2017). In addition to Nordfront, NMR produces a whole battery of different radio and web TV initiatives (Sundkvist, 2017).

NMR has developed its presence on the Internet and greatly increased its involvement on social media (Blomberg & Stier, 2019); today, the organization has almost 20 different podcasts and TV channels. The purpose of this has been to reach out politically to normalize the organization and to project its reputation internationally. Through such outreach, NMR hopes to create closer relationships within the Nordic region and make contact with like-minded people across the world (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). In order to normalise National Socialism, NMR increasingly seeks to appeal to an audience beyond their own core members. Part of this strategy involves a shift in the tone of their online content—from militant propaganda to softer, less orchestrated and rehearsed political rhetoric packaged and presented in the form of infotainment and cultural content (Askanius, 2021a). 

Nevertheless, images of violence and violent rhetoric have always been an intrinsic part of NMR’s propaganda and key to telling the story of being at war with both Swedish “traitors” and “racial strangers.” Increasingly, however, NMR’s media narratives are saturated by other, less explicitly political and militant registers in which violence, violent rhetoric, and openly racist hate speech reside in the background to give way to “lighter,” more civil discourse—and seemingly more harmless forms of propaganda. This is particularly present and potent in NMR’s cultural productions and online entertainment, which includes, for example, television and talk shows, music videos, memes, poems, and podcasts intended to amuse and entertain (Askanius, 2021b).

In the online universe, NMR mixes the extreme with the mainstream, the mundane and ordinary with the spectacular and provocative, and the serious with the silly. In this manner, NMR seeks to soften, trivialise, and normalise neo-Nazi discourse using the power and appeal of culture and entertainment (Askanius, 2021). Discourse in these spaces represents what Blee (2007: 15) has referred to as “a sanitized version of Nazism.” NMR’s content has been polished and tailored to dodge allegations of illegal hate speech, and its shows are carefully edited to avoid being censored and removed (Askanius, 2019). However, images of violent confrontations between police and activists, street fights, hate speech, rallies, uniformed men marching in line, combat training, white-pride music, and beatings of “racial strangers” to the sound of the Waffen SS Choir are also present in the growing repertoire of online media produced by and for the NMR (Expo, 2018, 2020; Mattsson, 2018).

The use of extremist discourse, which characterizes the online conversations between members and sympathizers, comprises narratives about personal experiences, rumours of criminal refugees (often accused of rape), or claims that refugees “do not belong here.” These conversations “construct them as others” (Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017). These discursive strategies do not merely justify and legitimatize the exclusion of or racism toward these “others,” but create a sense of “we-ness” and identity among members and sympathizers as well as the movement they represent (Blomberg & Stier, 2019; Campbell, 2006; Ekman, 2018; Kreis, 2017; Wodak & Reisigl, 2015).

With Simon Lindberg as leader of the NMR, the organization has developed its propaganda network and massively developed its various media channels on social media. In a very short time, 19 Swedish-language podcasts and web TV channels were created alongside Radio Nordfront, Radio Regeringen, the English-language Nordic Frontier, the activist podcast More Than Words (Saxlind, 2018), Ledarperspektiv (ideological focus), Radio LudvikaRadio Kungälv. Some of the TV content includes Studio NordfrontStudio Bothnia, Studio Kungälv, Studio Skåne, NTV Live and Norwegian Frontlinjen and Finnish Studio 204 (Lindberg, 2018). According to Lindberg, the ambition is to create more radio and TV broadcasts that will be broadcast around the clock (Lodenius, 2020), creating a “Nordic unity mindset.” This initiative aims to eventually broadcast in all the Nordic languages ​​(Nordisk Radio, …)

The NMR’s website appears to have a considerable readership—between 300,000 and 400,000 unique visitors per month. To compensate for their lack of numbers, one important tactic is therefore to carry out spectacular stunts to draw the public eye, often aiming at national media coverage, and then spreading footage and videos from these stunts through the internet and social media, allowing NMR to reach an even larger audience (Ravndal, 2019).

Conclusion

The 2018 general election results in Sweden have shown that the NMR should not be exaggerated, despite concerns about it as a neo-Nazi extremist violent organisation. The organization is still relatively small. Despite its small size, one shouldn’t ignore the threats the NMR poses. The party’s major investment before the 2018 election resulted in only 2,106 votes in the parliamentary election (0.03%). The result was a great disappointment for the NMR; following this failure, the party’s seems to have hosted fewer events and engaged in fewer physical activities. Whether this is a temporary decline or not is difficult to assess, but according to the NMR’s strategic plan, the organization is investing in increasing its local influence, its geographical spread, the number of political seats at all levels, and its channels on social media and international contacts (Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 7). According to observers, there is a low probability that NMR as an organization will develop in a more violent direction. Nevertheless, Sweden is currently following Finland’s footsteps and started a government investigation regarding a potential ban of the organisation (Regeringskansliet, 2019; Ranstorp & Ahlin, 2020: 480; Directive, 2019: 39).


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QAnon Shaman, Jake Angeli is seen as roaming  near the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection which was initiated by Former US President Donald Trump in Washington D.C.. Photo: Johnny Silvercloud

QAnon: A Conspiracy Cult or Quasi-Religion of Modern Times?

As with ISIL, QAnon’s ideology proliferates through easily-shareable digital content espousing grievances and injustices by “evil oppressors.” To perhaps a greater degree than any comparable movement, QAnon is a product of the social media era which created a perfect storm for it to spread. It was QAnon’s spread onto the mainstream social media platforms—and from there onto the streets—that made this phenomenon into a global concern. Social media platforms, again, aided and abetted QAnon growth by driving vulnerable audiences to their content.

By Bulent Kenes

The US was shocked by images of a man in a horned headdress roaming the US Capitol during the January 6, 2021 insurrection. These frightening images feature the “QAnon Shaman”—or “Q Shaman”—the online persona of Jacob Anthony Chansley, from Arizona (he also goes by Jake Angeli). Chansley is a known super spreader of conspiracy theories (Tollefson, 2021; Giannotta, 2021). Both on the Mall and inside the Capitol, countless signs and banners were seen promoting QAnon, whose acolytes believe that former US President Donald Trump has been working to dismantle an occult society of cannibalistic paedophiles. At the base of the Washington Monument, Chansley was seen assuring people, “We got ’em right where we want ’em! We got ’em by the balls, baby, and we’re not lettin’ go!” (Mogelson, 2021).

Many of the January 6 rioters subscribed to QAnon (Jankowicz, 2021), which is an umbrella term for a baroque set of (Bracewell, 2021) eclectic super-conspiracy theories essentially rooted in populism (Smedt & Rupar, 2020). The QAnon movement emerged from the primordial swamp of the internet on the message board 4chan in October 2017 and has aimed to trigger the resentments of the “everyman.” Its series of confusing claims resemble the conspiracy legends of the past, but the power of online social media has given platforms to members of “Q” to share, promote, and connect (Smedt & Rupar, 2020; Wong 2020). 

QAnon alleges without evidence that the world is controlled by a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who are abducting, abusing, and ritualistically murdering children by the thousands. This global child trafficking ring counts among its members powerful elites like Pope Francis and Ellen DeGeneres, as well as many prominent members of the Democratic Party like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Trump also plays a leading role in the QAnon mythos as a secret-agent/warrior/messiah figure. Recruited by top military generals to run for president in 2016, Trump has been working tirelessly behind the scenes ever since to defeat this Satanist cabal. What gives the QAnon movement its unmistakable populist tinge is the role it proscribes for its supporters in the apocalyptic confrontation between Trump and the paedophilic cabal (Bracewell, 2021). QAnon supporters believed, in the leadup to the 2020 election, that there would soon be mass arrests, and members of the cabal would be brought to justice (Beckett, 2020).

The QAnon narrative includes centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes, like the belief that the cabal is harvesting blood from abused children. QAnon’s followers, who also believe there is a “deep state” effort to annihilate Trump, have peddled baseless theories surrounding mass shootings and elections and have falsely claimed that 5G cellular networks are spreading the coronavirus. Experts call these extreme, baseless claims “an incitement to violence” (Beckett, 2020;Vazquez, 2020; Liptak, 2020), since QAnon believers—who have not brought a single child abuser closer to justice—have radicalized people into committing crimes and taking dangerous or violent actions (Beckett, 2020) (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

The movement has been linked to several violent acts since 2018, with QAnon supporters arrested for threatening politicians, breaking into the residence of the Canadian prime minister, an armed standoff near the Hoover dam, a kidnapping plot, two kidnappings, and at least one murder (Beckett, 2020). The FBI named QAnon a domestic terrorism threat in 2019 (Jankowicz, 2021) and the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point described it as a “novel challenge to public security” (Beckett, 2020). That threat nevertheless continued to grow (Jankowicz, 2021). 

Like many others, David Lawrence and Gregory Davis (2020) also argue that QAnon is no longer just a conspiracy theory. As it stands today, QAnon is a decentralised, grand, and multifaceted phenomenon—a political movement and a quasi-religion. Marc-André Argention (2021) agrees that over the past four years, QAnon has evolved into an extremist religio-political ideology and a “hyper-real religion” (Argentino, 2020a). This hyper-real religion is based on the premise that pop culture shapes and creates actual reality, with examples including, but not limited to Heaven’s Gate (Hafford, 2017), Church of All Worlds (Caw.com, 2021), Jediism (Lavelle, 2020), etc. Adrienne LaFrance (2020) is also among those who argue that QAnon represents the birth of a new religion. LaFrance underscores this argument by highlighting the apocalyptic tendencies found in QAnon; its clear-cut dualism between the forces of good and evil; the study and analysis of Qdrops as sacred texts; and the divine mystery of Q. 

According to Argentino, QAnon, as a movement is in a constant state of mutation and clearly blurs the boundaries between popular culture and everyday life. What this means is that technology and the marketplace of ideas have inverted the traditional relationship between the purveyors of religion and the consumers of religion. Some might argue that a hyper-real religion isn’t a “real” religion because it’s invented. QAnon is blatantly invented: it openly uses works of popular culture, media, entertainment, American evangelicalism, and conspiracy theories at its basis. Belief in QAnon reflects a created hyper-real world based on such theories (Argentino, 2020a). This situation is defined by Jules Evans(2021) as “conspirituality,” which refers to the overlap between New Age/wellness culture and far-right conspiracy culture like QAnon. 

Joseph Uscinski argues that QAnon’s ideation resembles a cult. What Q has done is to galvanize people around a set of ideas and weaponize them in a way that observers haven’t normally seen (Brooks et al., 2020, 25:44–27:46): Q’s followers act more like a virtual cult, largely adoring and believing whatever disinformation the conspiracy community spins up (Murphy, 2020). Conspiracies themselves may not be new, but the internet has enabled fringe thinkers to “find their people;” and “the power of the social web” allows groups to spread from “a niche or regionally-specific cult to a global movement” (Brooks et al., 2020, 31:30–31:51).

A satanic priest.

Paul Thomas (2020) sees many similarities between QAnon claims and prior rumour panics that employed satanic rhetoric. Thus, QAnon does not portray perceived political adversaries as merely having a difference of opinion, but as being downright evil. For example, in an Aug. 10, 2018 post, Q stated, “Many in Power Worship the Devil.” On Aug. 26, 2020, Q posted an image suggesting that the 2020 Democratic National Convention logo resembled a Satanic Baphomet pentagram, which incorporates a goat’s head and a five-pointed star. Accompanying text asserts that one party—the Republican party—discusses God while the other party—the Democratic party—discusses darkness. Such dialogue rises beyond the level of us versus them. Instead, QAnon elevates the conspiracy to a matter of cosmic good versus monstrous evil. Through that process, Qanon followers may see themselves as would-be monster-killers ready to use violence to remove evil (Thomas, 2020). While the religiously charged demonization of globalists dovetails with QAnon, religious maximalism has also gone mainstream. Under Trump, Republicans throughout the country have consistently situated American politics in the context of an eternal, cosmic struggle between good and evil. In doing so, they have rendered constitutional principles of representation, pluralism, and the separation of powers less inviolable (Mogelson, 2021).

Argentino writes in an article about the presence of a QAnon church operating out of the Omega Kingdom Ministry (OKM)—which is an existing model of neo-charismatic home churches as an offshoot of evangelical Protestant Christianity—and where QAnon conspiracy theories are reinterpreted through the Bible. In turn, QAnon conspiracy theories serve as a lens to interpret the Bible itself. The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube. OKM provides formalized religious indoctrination into QAnon (Argentino, 2020b).

Many of the people most prone to believing conspiracy theories see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces. They share a hatred of mainstream elites. That helps explain why cycles of populism and conspiracy thinking seem to rise and fall together. But QAnon is different. It may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement (LaFrance, 2020). The QAnon narrative is also inflected with shades of millenarianism: the battle between Good and Evil will end when the messianic President overthrows the Satanists, ushering in a new period of global prosperity. The role of orthodox QAnon influencers is to guide less well-informed adherents in much the same way as scholars interpret sacred texts for religious movements (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

Of course, QAnon also deserves to be studied for its various populists aspects. First of all, QAnon offers comfort in an uncertain and unprecedented age as the movement crowdsources answers to the inexplicable. It becomes the master narrative capable of simply explaining various complex events and providing solace for modern problems: a pandemic, economic uncertainty, political polarization, war, child abuse, etc. (Argentino, 2020a). Secondly, QAnon has an anti-establishment ideology rooted in a quasi-apocalyptic desire to destroy the existing, corrupt world and usher in a promised golden age (Argentino, 2021). Thirdly, it has a worldview characterized by a binary approach through a sharp distinction between the realms of “good” and “evil”. Fourth, QAnon has an anti-science stance and unreasonable character. At its heart, QAnon is non-falsifiable. Belief in QAnon as the source of truth is a matter of faith rather than proof. Furthermore, by considering QAnon as a hyper-real religion, it becomes possible to frame how QAnon has found resonance not only within the American electoral system, but with populists around the globe. This is especially important in the context of framing the global response to the pandemic and public health. Last but not least, there’s an increasing overlap between QAnon and the far-right/patriot movements (Argentino, 2020a).

With anxious people around the world trying to make sense of the killer pandemic, QAnon conspiracies have found an enthusiastic audience. QAnon, as a “superconspiracy,” is extendible, adaptable, flexible and resilient to takedown; and capable of merging numerous pre-existing subconspiracies, with new theories flourishing and older tropes finding a new lease of life under its rubric.

 

Social media campaign for coronavirus plus fake news and total disorientation in society. Photo: Iryna Budanova

QAnon As Both Fertile Mother and Brainchild of Conspiracy Theories

It is a widely accepted idea that conspiracy theories are born during times of turmoil and uncertainty. Fuelled by hysteria and unfounded claims of nefarious plots involving corruption and immorality practiced by unfeeling, immoral libertines, conspiracy theories emphasize the power that small cults of anti-human elites have upon the stability and established moral practices of a society (Kline, 2017). Conspiracy theories have been constant throughout history and existed since time immemorial, regardless of nationality, age, race, ethnicity, or any other marker of identity (Beene & Greer, 2021), but 21st-century technological advancements have provided a powerful infrastructure for connecting conspiracy-minded individuals on a global scale (Smedt & Rupar, 2020). Conspiracies tell a powerful story about the “zeitgeist” of a particular moment and of the deep uncertainties and anxieties of those who believe them, even if that story isn’t true (Brotherton, 2016; Butter, 2020, Uscinski, 2019)

Robert Brotherton (2013) defines conspiracy theories through several characteristics. First, conspiracy theories are unverified claims at odds with the mainstream consensus, and they grow and thrive because of their opposition to consensus (Brotherton, 2013: 10). Second, they are sensationalistic—of all the conspiracies throughout history, those that gain the most notoriety most often surround disasters, pandemics, terrorist attacks, celebrity deaths, political figures, plane crashes, and aliens (Brotherton, 2013: 10–11). Third, conspiracy theories assume everything is intentional, nothing is coincidental, and the world is divided into “good… struggling against evil” (Brotherton, 2013: 11). Fourth, those adhering to conspiracy theories have low standards of evidence. Lastly, conspiracy theories are epistemically self-insulating “against questioning or correction” (Brotherton, 2013, 12). Therefore, the most successful conspiracy theories morph and evolve in order to stay relevant for followers (Beene & Greer, 2021).

With anxious people around the world trying to make sense of the killer Covid-19 pandemic, QAnon conspiracies have found an enthusiastic audience hungry for the promise of salvation from tyranny at the end of a struggle dubbed “The Storm” (Farivar, 2020). While disinformation expert Joan Donovan describes QAnon as “a densely networked conspiracy theory that is extendible, adaptable, flexible and resilient to takedown” (Manjoo, 2020), several researchers argue that it is a “superconspiracy,” capable of merging numerous pre-existing subconspiracies, with new theories flourishing and older tropes finding a new lease of life under its rubric (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

During the volatile 2016 US presidential campaign, a flurry of conspiracy theories erupted, aimed at demonizing the candidates. One of the most outrageous conspiracy theories—involving child sex trafficking, ritual murder, and cannibalism—is examined to reveal its archetypal elements and relevancy to hard-wired taboos shared by all of humanity(Kline, 2017; Farivar, 2020). The anarchical group’s birth, and its continued seepage into mainstream American life, comes on the coattails of the Russian disinformation campaign that targeted US elections in 2016. ​While the Russian campaign had an apparent objective—to influence voters to elect Trump—QAnon is decentralized, having no clear objective aside from its popular slogan, “Question everything.” However, there’s no evidence that any of what QAnon claims is factual. ​Followers make unfounded claims and then amplify them with doctored or out-of-context evidence posted on social media to support the allegations. These theories have been further elevated through high-profile figures and organizations (Murphy, 2020).

QAnon has its roots in previously established conspiracy theories, some relatively new and some millennia old (Wong, 2020). The most recent precursor of QAnon is the “Pizzagate” theory that emerged ahead of the 2016 Presidential election, which alleged that Democratic politicians were trafficking children for use in paedophilic rituals (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Right-wing news outlets and influencers promoted the baseless idea of Pizzagate, which believes that references to a popular Washington DC pizza restaurant, Comet Ping Pong, in the stolen emails of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta were actually a secret code for a child trafficking ring (Wong, 2020). The theory touched off serious harassment of the restaurant and its employees, culminating in December 2016, when a 28-year-old man named Edgar Maddison Welch, having driven from North Carolina to Washington, DC, fired an assault rifle inside Comet in a bid to rescue the children he thought were locked away there. No one was hurt. Welch was sentenced to four years in prison (Breland, 2019).

There are many threads of the QAnon narrative, all as far-fetched and evidence-free as the rest, including subplots that focus on John F Kennedy Jr. being alive (he isn’t), the Rothschild family controlling all the banks (they don’t), and children being sold through the website of the furniture retailer Wayfair (they aren’t) (Wong, 2020). The frantic, independent theorising of QAnon followers has proved capable of rolling any event into its grand narrative, from the momentous—such as the JFK assassination or the sinking of the Titanic—to the seemingly insignificant, such as the mispricing of items on the retail site Wayfair or a “hidden symbol” in a frame of a Disney film. This gives QAnon a certain fluidity: in some cases, adherents of the broader ideology might choose to emphasise certain aspects and minimise others as part of a calculated effort to maximise its appeal (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Therefore, it is not illogical to say that QAnon, like other conspiracy theories, is fundamentally a form of political propaganda to mobilize people (Tollefson, 2021).

However, the most striking part of the QAnon conspiracy theory is, perhaps, the fact that its followers believe that Trump is waging a secret battle against the cabal of devil-worshipping cannibal paedophiles (O’Donnell, 2020) and its “deep state” collaborators to expose the malefactors and send them all to Guantánamo Bay (Wong, 2020). Media scholars Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner (2020) argue that the claims about the existence of a “deep state” have a long history in America (Bodner, 2021: 144), as it has antecedents in influential 20th century political conspiracy thinking found in places like the John Birch Society, even if the term itself is not native to the US (Bodner, 2021: 145).

Ryan Gingeras (2019), who minutely details the term’s history, finds it first emerging in Turkey to explain the disparity between the apparent government and the relationship and influence of organizations within the state, the armed forces, and organized crime, each of which act as forms of parallel government. Turkey’s long history of coups, civil wars, and extrajudicial killings of political enemies makes the “deep state” a common way for Turks to understand their government and history. After 2000, the term is widely used in academic literature to discuss not only Turkey but other Middle Eastern countries (Bodner, 2021: 145). 

In the eyes of QAnon followers, the “deep state” actors in the US context are Democrats, especially those left over from the Obama administration (Bodner, 2021: 144). The concept has also been partially shaped and nurtured into a more precise form of official political conspiracy theory by Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to former President Trump. Published under a pen name, the term was introduced on Bannon’s website Breitbart News a month after Trump’s election (Virgil, 2016) and heavily promoted ever since (Bodner, 2021: 145). A public poll in March 2018 showed that 37 percent of respondents had heard of the “deep state” (Bodner, 2021: 146).

The utility of the “deep state” hypothesis to Trump is clear, since it is an absent and voiceless enemy that excuses any and all of his failures. For the last 12 years, Alex Jones—and since 2017, QAnon—have spent their time recycling and recontextualizing several traditional right-wing conspiracy traditions to repopulate the “deep state” with the correct kind of enemies. Democrats are an obvious choice. For wealthy businesspeople, they have substituted George Soros, amorphous “elites,” and Hollywood celebrities (Bodner, 2021: 146) QAnon has also amplified the rare appearance of a conspiracy category called “the benevolent conspiracy,” arguing that Trump and a surprising gang of allies are conspiring from within the government to bring down the “deep state” (Bergmann 2018: 52). If Trump won in November 2020, QAnon would be vindicated in their beliefs and said this is what God had mandated, reinforcing the belief that they were right. Since Trump lost, it was attributed to the “deep state” Luciferian cabal (Argentino, 2020a).

For many QAnon believers, the naturally-occurring chemical compound adrenochrome, produced by the oxidisation of adrenaline, is at the heart of the conspiracy. It is a potent drug/elixir of youth harvested by the cabal from the adrenal glands of children, who are tortured to intensify the drug’s effects (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). A cabal of elites didn’t just harvest children’s blood: they consumed the flesh itself. As proof, conspiracy theorists pointed to a website that falsely claimed that Raven Chan—Mark Zuckerberg’s sister-in-law—was involved with a fake restaurant called the Cannibal Club. Although the story has since been debunked, it’s alive and well on social media (Evans, 2020). Adrenochrome is real—it has hallucinogenic compounds—but everything else about this narrative is fiction. The origin of this concept is easily linked to Hunter S. Thompson’s novels Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972) and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973). Thompson’s character “Dr. Gonzo” says adrenochrome has to come from “the adrenaline glands from a living human body.” That the bodies are children is a QAnon addition (Bodner, 2021: 158)

The use of exotic drugs by dangerous deviants is a traditional element in several previous legends and conspiracy theories about endangered children (Brunvand, 2001). However, QAnon shifted the focus from enemies within to enemies above—namely, members of the “deep state.” Thus, QAnon has weaponized fears over Satanism and child harm and shoehorned them into conspiracy thinking associated with the “deep state” (Bodner, 2021: 163). The essential problem is that this conspiracy theory’s central narrative subverts legitimate concerns about child trafficking and child abuse with fantastical misinformation and anti-Semitic tropes, fostering dangerous anger in the process. It also risks obscuring genuine child abuse and hampering legitimate efforts to better child welfare (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

Conspiracy theories and populism both employ a binary worldview that divides societies between corrupt or evil elites and the pure or unknowing people, a framework that contextualises fears and hardships by personifying them into an identifiable enemy (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Gregory Stanton (2020), the founder of the Genocide Watch, says many people are perplexed at how any rational person could fall for such an irrational conspiracy theory. But modern social science shows that people in groups don’t always think rationally. They respond to fear and terror. They blame their misfortunes on scapegoats. They support narcissistic demagogues they hope will rescue them (Stanton, 2020).

Photo: Axel Bueckert

What Does “Q” Stand For, or, Who Is “Q”? 

On October 28, 2017, the anonymous user now widely referred to as “Q” appeared for the first time (LaFrance, 2020; Lawrence & Davis, 2020) on the message board 4chan. In a thread called “Calm Before the Storm” and in subsequent posts, Q established his legend as a government insider with top (Q-level) security clearance (Martineau, 2017; Bodner, 2021: 147) who knew the truth about a secret struggle for power involving Trump, the “deep state” (Winter, 2019), Robert Mueller, the Clintons, paedophile rings, and other elements. Since then, Q has continued to drop “breadcrumbs” on 4chan and 8chan, fostering a “QAnon” community devoted to decoding “Q”s messages and understanding the real truth about everything (Wong, 2018).

Anonymous internet posters claiming to be high-level government officials are not entirely uncommon: in recent years, other so-called “anons” have emerged with claims that they were revealing secrets from inside the FBI or CIA. But “Q” is the first such figure to have achieved such a broad audience and real-world political influence. This is largely due to the activism of three dedicated conspiracy theorists—Pamphlet Anon or Coleman Rogers, BaruchtheScribe or Paul Furber, and YouTuber Tracy Diaz—who latched onto Q’s posts in the early days and translated them into a digestible narrative for mainstream social media networks. The three built and shepherded the Q-community by expanding it to more accessible platforms like YouTube and Reddit and finding homes for the community when various sites shut them down, like Reddit and 8chan eventually did (Zadrozny & Collins, 2018; Bodner, 2021: 149).  

These activists worked to develop a mythology and culture around QAnon and cultivated an audience for it on mainstream social media platforms. (Zadrozny & Collins, 2018). According to Julia Carrie Wong (2020), QAnon might have faded away as well, were it not for the dedicated work of these three conspiracy theorists. Despite being de-platformed from numerous social media venues, there exists an entire QAnon media ecosystem, with enormous amounts of video content, memes, e-books, chatrooms, and more, all designed to snare the interest of potential recruits, then draw them “down the rabbit hole” and into QAnon’s alternate reality (Wong, 2020)—all allegedly leading to a “Great Awakening” (Wong, 2020a). 

“Q” has been communicating Trump’s plans to all brave patriots with ears via encoded online messages known as “Qdrops.” When the time is right, Q will give the signal and the people will rise up and join Trump in one final Armageddon-like showdown against the forces of darkness—an event that QAnon adherents call “the Storm” (Bracewell, 2021).

 “Q” first attracted attention with a wild premonition: Former Secretary of State and Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton would soon be arrested, and riots would ensue. The prediction, needless to say, proved false, as did many others that followed, including the forecast of mass indictments of other Democrats. But that did not stop Q from continuing to post about Trump’s “secret war” against a deep state cabal of paedophiles, with his “Qdrops” parsed and amplified by a growing ecosystem of believers (Farivar, 2020).

Despite rampant speculation, no one has unravelled the mystery person behind Q. Outside QAnon circles, few take him as a real insider. Many experts believe more than one person may have been behind the Q account over the years (Farivar, 2020). Until July 2020, QAnon supporters believed that “Q” was a high-ranking Trump administration official, or maybe even Trump himself. But now, a good portion of QAnon believers have become convinced that Q is none other than JFK Jr, even though he died in a plane crash more than 20 years ago. (Sommer, 2018).

July 2018 was a rough month for QAnon followers. After making a post on July 4th, Q didn’t leave any clues for 20 days, marking the longest gap between Q hints since the scheme began. Around the middle of July, the anonymous poster, who was soon dubbed “Ranon,” posited that Kennedy hadn’t actually died in a plane crash. Instead, he’d faked his death to avoid the supposed deep-state cabal and teamed up with Trump to kick off a decades-long strategy. While Trump laid the groundwork for his presidential bid, Kennedy had become Q. In late July 2018, “Q” returned to posting and denounced “R,” its newfound rival for impressionable Trump supporters. Still, the Kennedy theory persists among a segment of QAnon believers (Sommer, 2018).

“Q”s posts are cryptic and elliptical. They often consist of a long string of leading questions designed to guide readers toward discovering the “truth” for themselves through “research”. Despite “Q” having consistently made predictions that have failed to come to pass, true believers tend to simply adapt their narratives to account for inconsistencies. For close followers of QAnon, the posts (or “drops”) contain “crumbs” of intelligence that they “bake” into “proofs.” For “bakers,” QAnon is both a fun hobby and a deadly serious calling. There are subcultures within QAnon for people who approach studying Qdrops in a manner similar to Bible study (Wong, 2020). Like medieval scholars engaged in interpretation of metaphysical texts, readers have constructed elaborate illuminated manuscripts and narrative compilations (Tuters, 2020).Moreover, those who subscribe to Qdrops are presented with elaborate productions of evidence in order to substantiate QAnon’s claims, including source citation and other academic techniques (Argentino, 2020a).

Commenting that the Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are thriving religious movements indigenous to America, Adrienne LaFrance talks about the possibility of QAnon becoming another. “It already has more adherents by far than either of those two denominations had in the first decades of their existence. People are expressing their faith through devoted study of Qdrops as instalments of a foundational text, through the development of Q-worshipping groups, and through sweeping expressions of gratitude for what Q has brought to their lives. Does it matter that we do not know who Q is? The divine is always a mystery. Among the people of QAnon, faith remains absolute. True believers describe a feeling of rebirth, an irreversible arousal to existential knowledge. They are certain that a Great Awakening is coming,” (LaFrance, 2020).

There are around 5,000 posts attributed to Q in an online archive. Q’s posts are purposefully cryptic in order to protect his cover—or, alternatively, to employ the common stereotype of the commercial fortune teller’s trick: to make a statement as broadly applicable across any number of possibilitiesQ’s posts cryptically refer to a dizzying array of current events and various conspiracy theories (Bodner, 2021: 147). In analysing the Qdrops, Paul Thomas (2020) has noted a discourse of evil woven throughout Q’s messages. Peppering the Qdrops are claims like “many in our government worship Satan.” According to Anons, Trump is engaged in a battle of cosmic significance between the “children of light” and the “children of darkness” (Thomas, 2020).

The QAnon universe is sprawling and deep, with layer upon layer of context, acronyms, characters, and shorthand to learn. The “castle” is the White House. “Crumbs” are clues. CBTS stands for “calm before the storm,” and WWG1WGA stands for “Where we go one, we go all,” which has become an expression of solidarity among Q followers. There is also a “Q clock,” which refers to a calendar some factions of Q supporters use to try to decode supposed clues based on time stamps of Qdrops and Trump tweets (LaFrance, 2020). QAnon supporters have likened Qdrops to Hansel and Gretel-like breadcrumbs (Murphy, 2020). 

Trump supporters and some QAnon followers march around the SC State House in protest of Joe Biden (D) wining the 2020 presidential election in Columbia, South Carolina, November 7, 2020. Photo: Crush Rush

Who Are QAnon Adherents?

For the first two and a half years of its existence, QAnon attracted a devoted but relatively small coterie of followers. However, in the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced millions of people to hunker down at home and made the internet their almost exclusive connection to the outside world, QAnon’s popularity exploded (Bracewell, 2021).QAnon does not possess a physical location, but with its infrastructure, literature, growing body of adherents, and great deal of merchandising QAnon is now much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. As Adrienne LaFrance (2020) underlined, it is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. The group harnesses paranoia to create fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging, and they are demonstrating the ability to produce, share, and tie together worldviews that distort and shatter reality, creating an environment that resembles the birth of new religion (Smedt & Rupar, 2020) and political ideology (Argentino, 2020c).

It’s impossible to know the number of QAnon adherents with any precision, but the ranks are growing. While Q has hopped from one fringe imageboard to another, his followers have thrived on mainstream platforms: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Telegram. On any given day, even in the first half of 2020, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people posted about QAnon on Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, according to Argentino, who says that it would be a mistake to dismiss them as “lunatics with tin foil hats living in their parents’ basement” (Farivar, 2020).

QAnon has gained traction as a political force, especially in the Republican party. 97 congressional candidates embraced QAnon during the 2020 election cycle—including two who won. In total, 89 of the candidates were Republicans, two were Democrats, one was a Libertarian, one was a member of the Independent Party of Delaware, and four were independents (Kaplan, 2020). It is not a secret that QAnon is most popular among older Republicans and evangelical Christians. Other followers appear to have come to QAnon from New Age spiritual movements, from more traditional conspiracy theory communities, or from the far right. Since adulation for Trump is a prerequisite, it is almost exclusively a conservative movement, though the #SaveTheChildren campaign is helping it make inroads among non-Trump supporters (Wong, 2020).

However, QAnon has developed beyond its roots in the intensely hyper-partisan and US-centric right, moving from a niche far-right interest that Lawrence and Davis (2020) have termed “orthodox QAnon” into a broader, less uniform type they call “eclectic QAnon.” This development has enabled the theory to gain supporters from across the political spectrum and of diverse backgrounds.

QAnon nearly reached the main stage of the Republican Party at Trump’s July 31, 2018 rally in Tampa, Florida, where signs reading “We are Q” and “Q” appeared near the front of the crowd during his speech. Four months later, Vice President Pence posted—and then deleted—a photo on Twitter with a law enforcement officer wearing a QAnon patch on his uniform. And in July 2019, the White House invited a QAnon supporter to a “social media summit” (Murphy, 2020).An NPR/Ipsos poll conducted in fall 2020 found that nearly a quarter of Republicans believed the outlandish core claim of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Therefore, Francis Fukuyama (2021) argued that the Republican Party is no longer a party based on ideas or policies but something more akin to a cult. Uscinski also said most QAnon followers are Trump supporting evangelicals who are predisposed to believe a pro-Trump, anti-liberal narrative (Wong, 2018).

With a brand ambassador like the “QAnon shaman,” it’s easy to dismiss QAnon followers as deranged, troubled, and isolated. But that is not the case, according to Brent Giannotta (2021). Most QAnon followers lead largely mainstream lives. A survey by the American Enterprise Institute found that 27 percent of white evangelicals nationwide believe in QAnon. That percentage is higher than any other faith group surveyed, and more than double the support for QAnon beliefs among Black Protestants, Hispanic Catholics and non-Christians (Colarossi, 2021). Flags seen at the Jan. 6 insurrection read, “Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president.” Making the jump from religious devotion to conspiracy theories requires an animating emotion—namely, anger (Giannotta, 2021).

For all the focus on QAnon on the “supply side,” the “demand side” is an even greater concern. As the journalist Charlie Warzel stresses, “Millions of Americans are actively courting conspiracies and violent, radical ideologies in order to make sense of a world they don’t trust” (Goldgeier & Jentleson, 2021). More than one in three (39%) Americans believe in the existence of a so-called “deep state” which was working to undermine President Trump – another tenet of QAnon (Ipsos, 2020). Also, as many as one-third of Republicans believe QAnon to be “mostly true” (Rothschild, 2020), and almost half (47%) of Americans say they have heard of QAnon, as of September 2020 (Mitchell et al., 2020).

Since QAnon expanded onto YouTube and Facebook, the movement has seen its ranks swollen by Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). White Boomers overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016, and they have also become enthusiastic transmitters of conspiracy theories via social media (Binder 2018; Bodner, 2021: 150). Many of QAnon’s supporters are middle-aged whites, many with stable jobs and businesses (Giannotta, 2021). Though academic research would suggest that conspiracy theories are for “losers,” QAnon has thrived. After all, the community propagating the QAnon conspiracies was on the winning side of the 2016 US presidential election (Argentino, 2020c).

According to QAnon adherents, the eventual destruction of the global cabal can be accomplished only with the support of patriots who search for meaning in clues posted by Q, who requires followers to reject mainstream institutions, ignore government officials, battle apostates, and despise the press (LaFrance, 2020). A large number of Q supporters believe in—and are increasingly vocal about—demons as active forces in American life and politics. Trump’s alleged battle against the “deep state” here adopts cosmic meaning, as not only the US government but undocumented immigrants and Black and LGBTQ people are cast as agents of demonic forces (Greenwood, 2020). In this regard, QAnon has many overlaps with spiritual warfare and its practitioners. It uses similar ideas of religious revival and donning the “armour of God” against unseen foes (O’Donnell, 2020).

People display Qanon messages on cardboards during a rally in Bucharest, Romania on Aug. 10, 2020. Photo: M. Moira

Women of the Movement: Pastel QAnon

In parallel to the findings of Daniel Halpern and his colleagues, who argue women and people with politically right-leaning views are more likely to share conspiracy theories (Halpern et al., 2019), QAnon has gained popularity among women (Butler, 2020). According to numerous reports, a significant number of QAnon followers are women introduced to QAnon ideology through images, videos, and stories shared by some of the most popular beauty, lifestyle, and parenting influencers on social media (Breland, 2020; Butler, 2020; Flora, 2020; Kelly, 2020; Tiffany, 2020). These women are using warm and colourful images to spread QAnon theories through health and wellness communities and by infiltrating legitimate charitable campaigns against child trafficking. Argentino names this as “Pastel QAnon,” which exists in adjacent lifestyle, health, and fitness communities and softens the traditionally raw QAnon narratives to spread the conspiracies to new audiences (Argentino, 2020).

It is not surprising that QAnon’s message would resonate in virtual spaces to which millions of women turn every day for advice on how to optimize the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families. Mothers, upon whom a disproportionate share of the burdens of pandemic-era child-rearing have fallen, are trying to keep their children safe and healthy. The QAnon movement ministers to their anxiety by providing them a window into an alternative reality in which the Coronavirus is a hoax and the “real” threat to their children is the deep-state cabal (Seitz and Swenson, 2020). As one QAnon adherent at a “Freedom for the Children” rally in London put it, “Saving our children is far more important than a fake pandemic” (Kelly, 2020; Bracewell, 2021). So sprawling is the QAnon universe that it seems to be able to adapt to prey on the specific fears of subgroups. In the case of mothers, of course, that’s kids. So, some members used moms’ groups to organize in-person rallies against child trafficking and what they believed was rampant paedophilia under the #saveourchildren QAnon hashtag. Many moms who shared these ideas didn’t know that they were part of a broader conspiracy theory (Butler, 2020).

Many female QAnon believers are “lifestyle influencers, including mommy pages, fitness pages, diet pages, and “alternative healing” accounts. “These influencers provide an aesthetic and branding to their entire pages, and they, in turn, apply this to QAnon content, softening the messages, videos and traditional imagery that would be associated with QAnon narratives,” Argentino wrote. QAnon influencers—some with substantial followings—post images of quotes with baby-pink and sky-blue palettes that read:“#whereareallthechildren,” “COVID is over,” and “child sex trafficking is not a conspiracy theory.” Several posts from users speak of the journey down the “rabbit hole,” the so-called “great awakening,” and being “red-pilled,” a reference from The Matrix which conspiracy theorists use to describe “sudden enlightenment” (Gillespie, 2020). The enormously affecting idea that thousands of children are being kept captive in dungeons and tunnel networks across the world has drawn in many who might otherwise have rejected the heavily pro-Trump and narrow political narratives of QAnon (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

According to Lydia Khalil, research fellow at Deakin University, there is a history within the wellness community which has been anti-establishment and very sceptical of big pharma; the QAnon conspiracies tend to feed into this. Adding to this, QAnon has also co-opted certain sayings or hashtags that will resonate with the community. #TheGreatAwakening is one of the group’s main hashtags and followers often talk about “waking up to the truth,” which are common phrases in new age spirituality practices such as yoga and meditation (Aubrey, 2020). Therefore, some influencers have even felt compelled to speak out against the QAnon movement. Seane Corn, a yoga teacher with 108,000 followers, wrote on Instagram that “QAnon’s agenda is to use manipulative means to recruit folks who are rightfully scared, angry and disillusioned with the state of our nation” (Gillespie, 2020).

Pandemic Accelerates and Widens QAnon’s Reach   

The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to many conspiracy theories, including the idea that the pandemic is part of a plan imposed by world elites to vaccinate most of the world’s population (Labbe et al., 2020). The pandemic has created an environment of uncertainty, distrust, fear, and powerlessness, and QAnon has successfully taken advantage of this atmosphere by expanding the scope of the conspiracy theory and using it to spread misinformation and fake news about an already complex and unsolved public health crisis. QAnon supporters have also managed to garner support for the antivaccine movement and anti-lockdown protests. In this regard, COVID-19 has become a vital part of the QAnon movement itself (MDI, 2020; Wong, 2020) and a boon for the movement in terms of new members (Argentino, 2020c). QAnon has grown louder by attaching itself to scepticism about the pandemic and fears over 5G and vaccination (Aubrey, 2020), as well as to theories that the coronavirus was engineered to earn money for vaccine makers (Tollefson, 2021).

In his long-winded “drop” on July 31, 2020, Q ranted that the coronavirus pandemic was partly designed to help “shelter” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden from appearing in public and participating in debates and to “eliminate” or delay Trump rallies (Farivar, 2020). A simple narrative explained that Trump was using the lockdown, especially travel restrictions, to prevent Satanic elites from escaping overseas before he could arrest them; and the stay-at-home orders would protect citizens during mass military actions (Mantyla, 2020). In other variations, the lockdowns provided cover for more complex military operations against the child traffickers (Bodner, 2021: 156).

The number of QAnon Facebook group members has jumped 800 percent to 1.7 million while Twitter accounts that post on QAnon related hashtags have increased 85 percent to 400,000 during the pandemic (Farivar, 2020). As the pandemic took hold, QAnon became a hotbed for medical misinformation. Analyses by Gallagher, the social media researcher, and the New York Times demonstrated how QAnon groups fuelled the viral spread of “Plandemic,” a 26-minute video chock full of dangerously false information about Covid-19 and vaccines. Facebook’s algorithms appear to have detected this synergy between the QAnon and anti-vaccine communities (Wong, 2020a).

According to Kiera Butler (2020), it all started with a trickle of odd posts when lockdowns began in March 2020. First, came the questions about social distancing measures; then there were posts with pseudoscientific “research” about how masks make coronavirus worse and social distancing can weaken the immune system. In May, Plandemic appeared and after that, the trickle of memes became a torrent (Butler, 2020). The exponential growth of QAnon has dovetailed with a boom of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, which include claims that 5G radiation is the cause of the health crisis and/or that a potential vaccine will contain a microchip to track populations. This is at least in part due to the efforts of Q, who has repeatedly suggested that measures to control the pandemic were part of a plot to subvert the US election. QAnon followers have variously speculated that the virus is either entirely fabricated or a deep state bioweapon to allow for election rigging, scuppering Trump’s “Plan” and allowing the cabal to tighten their totalitarian grip; prominent figures in the fight against COVID-19, such as Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci, have been widely condemned as members of the cabal (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

In fact, during the pandemic, most of Q’s posts proved derivative, reinforcing standard conspiracy thinking about the virus. Unlike the supposed insider information that early Q drops pretended to offer, pandemic-era Q presents no secret or privileged information (Bodner, 2021: 151-152). Seema Yasmin, a Stanford physician and expert on health misinformation, says conspiracies thrive in the absence of clear and consistent guidance from leaders. As the pandemic wore on, the Trump administration continued to contradict itself, sending mixed messaging on testing, schools, masks, and social distancing—not to mention the possible vaccine. Parents were left to their own devices, relying on incomplete information to keep their families safe. She said, “Charlatans are plugging those knowledge gaps. They’re saying completely false things with a sense of authority,” (Butler, 2020). QAnon is a significant force during the pandemic because of its reach into the very heart of the Trump Administration and the GOP (Bodner, 2021: 144).

Former US President Donald Trump at rally in support of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who is the Republican candidate for governor in Topeka Kansas, USA on October 6, 2018. Photo: Mark Reinstein

QAnon’s Ties With Trump As Conspiracist-in-Chief

The QAnon conspiracy gained adherents throughout the US as the 2020 presidential and congressional campaigns heated up. Trump—who proved himself to be conspiracist-in-chief (Evans, 2020)—is revered among the conspiracy’s followers, who believe he was recruited to help eliminate the criminal conspiracy they allege is gripping the world’s power structures. Trump has repeatedly retweeted messages from accounts that promote QAnon while more than a dozen Republican candidates running for Congress have embraced some of its tenets (Farivar, 2020). Before he was banned, he amplified tweets from supporters of QAnon at least 185 times (Kaplan, 2021), including more than 90 times following the start of the pandemic (Argentino, 2020c).

Trump associates—such as his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, campaign manager Brad Pascale, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and son Donald Trump Jr.—have all amplified QAnon content as well. Trump’s son Eric Trump promoted QAnon on Instagram when plugging the president’s controversial rally that was held in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Argentino, 2020c) on June 20, 2020. He deleted the image relatively quickly, but not before screenshots spread across the Facebook Q-sphere. “So Eric Trump posted a pic with a ‘Q’ in the imagery,” an administrator of one of the larger QAnon groups wrote. “The pic has been taken down but the message was received!” (Wong, 2020a).

Although he never endorsed QAnon, Donald Trump repeatedly refused to condemn the conspiracy theory and once praised its followers for their support (Tollefson, 2021). He claimed that all he knows about the movement is that “they are very much against paedophilia” and that he agrees with that sentiment (Vazquez, 2020). Trump’s refusal to denounce QAnon throughout his term further strengthened the movement, whose members, unsurprisingly, helped push the president’s false allegations of a “rigged election.” Activists from across Trump’s base—who all bought into that disinformation narrative—arrived en masse at the US Capitol on January 6 with the express goal of overturning the democratic process, causing mayhem, and shaking the country to its core (Jankowicz, 2021).

During a town hall meeting, Trump also tried to separate himself from his retweet of a conspiracy theory from an account linked to QAnon, which baselessly claimed that former Vice President Joe Biden orchestrated the killings of Seal Team Six to cover up the fake death of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. “I know nothing about it,” Trump claimed. “That was a retweet—that was an opinion of somebody. And that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there. People can decide for themselves” (Vazquez, 2020).

He also refused to condemn the group in August 2020 and went so far as to embrace their support. “I don’t know much about the movement other than I understand they like me very much, which I appreciate,” Trump said (Liptak, 2020). “I have heard that it’s gaining in popularity,” Trump added, suggesting QAnon followers approved of how he’d handled social unrest in places such as Portland, Oregon. “I’ve heard these are people that love our country and they just don’t like seeing it.” Trump has also defended his decision to endorse Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia, despite her history of promoting QAnon theories and making racist and anti-Semitic remarks (Vazquez, 2020).

On August 19, 2020, at a White House press briefing, asked if he believed the crux of the theory, described by a reporter as the belief that he “is secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of paedophiles and cannibals,” Trump said: “Well, I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” He went on, “If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there. And we are, actually, we’re saving the world from a radical left philosophy that will destroy this country and, when this country is gone, the rest of the world will follow” (Liptak, 2020; Wong, 2020).

One debate in the conspiracy-theory research community is whether Trump has pushed more people into QAnon, or whether he just emboldened those who already believed. It’s been a lesson in modern populism: a world leader amplified once-obscure conspiracy theories, with each tweet and retweet strengthening their ideas and emboldening their supporters (Tollefson, 2021). Moreover, much of what is shared in QAnon groups on Facebook is a mix of pro-Trump political speech and pro-Trump political misinformation. Memes, videos and posts are often bigoted and disconnected from reality, but not all that different from the content that is shared in non-QAnon, pro-Trump Facebook groups (Wong, 2020a).

Demonstrators thank America and QAnon for the help and support in Berlin, Germany on August 29, 2020.

Global QAnon As an American Export 

Conventional thinking about far-right extremism often frames it as a domestic problem within nation-states. But such groups and movements, including QAnon, are transnational, sharing ideas and tactics across borders (Miller-Idriss & Koehler, 2021). QAnon has spread all over the world (MDI, 2020). Despite this, its growth in Europe and other parts of the world has gone mostly unnoticed. QAnon narratives are feeding on local contexts and attracting followers—both through popular local misinformation websites but also celebrities and politicians who are spreading the Q gospel. During the last two years, many new QAnon websites, pages, groups, and accounts appeared in the UK, France, Italy, and Germany, and quickly amassed large numbers of followers. They have also been shared within uniquely local groups, including pro-Yellow Vests groups in France and long-standing far-right conspiracy groups in Germany (Labbe et al., 2020).  

Although QAnon has spread to Europe, Latin America, and Australia—where it appears to be catching on among certain far-right movements (Wong, 2020)—every fourth QAnon tweet still originates in the US (Rupar & Smedt, 2021; Farivar, 2020). Fuelled by worldwide anxiety over the pandemic, QAnon has gone global, with adherents popping up in at least 71 countries (Farivar, 2020). In August 2020, Argentino identified QAnon’s presence in almost every country in Europe other than Estonia, Montenegro, and Albania. On August 22, 2020, as many as 200 street rallies were held across the US, Canada, and other countries under the inoffensive slogan of QAnon, “Save Our Children.” QAnon narratives have also inspired a series of street demonstrations across the UK, which have been held in 17 cities and towns. Whilst most have been small, some have attracted hundreds of people, and QAnon is becoming an important component in the wider, conspiracy theory-driven, anti-lockdown movement (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

The earliest explicitly QAnon Facebook group was identified in the UK in June 2018, roughly eight months after the first Q drop. However, QAnon remained an exceedingly niche interest in the UK for the first two and a half years of its existence. This was to change with the onset of the pandemic. On August 22, 2020, several hundred protesters marched to Buckingham Palace, where a section of the crowd angrily chanted “paedophiles” outside the gates; a clip quickly went viral, receiving 3 million views in a matter of days. What many commentators missed in the moment was the QAnon iconography in the crowd (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). QAnon is particularly well suited for adoption by right-wing reactionaries, who present themselves as chivalrous “protectors” of the nation and the family. However, QAnon has yet to spread wholesale into the British radical and far right, currently featuring as one of a myriad of fragmented concerns. But, its potent blend of anti-elitism and exploitation of deep-seated fears, combined with the growth of anti-COVID-19 conspiracy theories, means there is room for far-right converts and opportunists to take up its mantle and spread the theory further (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

Along with British influencer Martin Geddes, the European QAnon influencer who has had the greatest impact on the movement, both in the USA and internationally, is Janet Ossebaard, the Dutch producer of the viral documentary, “Fall of the Cabal.” Having described the Pizzagate theory of mass-scale child abuse by Democratic politicians in the US, she then listed what she claimed were similar examples of elite Satanic abuse networks in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and the UK. This linking of QAnon themes to older European reference points is a key element to packaging QAnon for an international audience (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

In Germany, which has the world’s second-highest number of QAnon believers (Wittig, 2020), QAnon has formed a distinct identity through its adoption by the Reichsburger movement, an existing far-right conspiracy theory that denies the legitimacy of the modern German state (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). When about 40,000 demonstrators gathered in Berlin on August 22, 2020 to protest Germany’s coronavirus lockdown restrictions, a small group broke off from this larger demonstration and approached the Reichstag. These far-right agitators attempted to storm the building. Inevitably, Germans saw shadows of this event in the January attack on the US Capitol (Miller-Idriss & Koehler, 2021). 

Nevertheless, perhaps the most vivid examples of the conflicting political interpretations of QAnon is visible in its manifestations in the former Yugoslav republics. Pro-QAnon groups can be found in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia. The largest QAnon Facebook group in the region is called QAnon Balkan which, as its name suggests, aims to unify the peoples of the region in support of the theory. Yet there are other Facebook groups which reflect national concerns rather than regional unity. Much of the discussion in the largest Serbia-specific QAnon group, for example, is fiercely nationalistic, with group members frequently expressing the desires to reassert Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). 

QAnon: One of the Evil Products of Social Media

As with ISIL, QAnon’s ideology proliferates through easily-shareable digital content espousing grievances and injustices by “evil oppressors” (Giannotta, 2021). To perhaps a greater degree than any comparable movement, QAnon is a product of the social media era (Lawrence & Davis, 2020) which created a perfect storm for it to spread (Jankowicz, 2021). However, without the anonymity provided by 4Chan and 8Chan, Q could not have kept up the charade of their assumed identity, nor could they have found a more receptive audience than the users of those platforms. Host to a legion of bored, alienated, and predominantly far-right users, the /pol/ forum of 4chan was almost uniquely suited to birth an ideology that conspiracy theories, a promise of violent retribution against a liberal elite and, importantly, the encouragement of the audience to participate by conducting “research” of their own. Q’s reach would have remained fringe, however, if it was limited to 4chan and 8chan (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

It was QAnon’s spread onto the mainstream social media platforms—and from there onto the streets—that made this phenomenon into a global concern (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Social media platforms aided and abetted QAnon growth by driving vulnerable audiences to their content. For instance, Facebook was not merely providing a platform to QAnon groups; its powerful algorithms are actively recommending them to users. Facebook’s own internal research in 2016 found that 64 percent of all extremist group “joins” are due to their recommendation tools (Horwitz & Seetharaman, 2020). The digital architecture of Facebook groups is particularly well-suited to QAnon’s collaborative construction of an alternative body of knowledge. The platform has created a ready-made digital pathway from public pages to public groups to private groups and, finally, secret groups that mirrors the process of “falling down the rabbit hole or taking the red pill” (Wong, 2020a). Recommendation algorithms on platforms prioritize engagement over truth, meaning that a search for natural health remedies, for instance, could lead users, in only a few clicks, to far more dangerous content (Jankowicz, 2021).

On the other hand, QAnon followers, some of whom spent 6 hour per day poring over Q’s messages for clues to the conspiracy puzzle (Brooks et al., 2020), have used a wide range of online tactics to achieve virality and garner mainstream media coverage, including making “documentaries” full of misinformation, hijacking trending hashtags with QAnon messaging, showing up at rallies with Q signs, or running for elected office. A very potent iteration of this tactic emerged in summer 2020 with the #SaveTheChildren or #SaveOurChildren campaign (Wong, 2020). 

The hashtags, which had previously been used by anti-child-trafficking NGOs, has been flooded with emotive content by QAnon adherents hinting at the broader QAnon narrative. Hundreds of real-life “Save Our Children” protests have been organized on Facebook in communities across the US (and around the world). These small rallies are in turn driving local news coverage by outlets who don’t realize that by publishing news designed to “raise awareness” about child trafficking, they are encouraging their readers or viewers to head to the internet, where a search for “save our children” could send them straight down the QAnon rabbit hole (Wong, 2020). 

Even prior to the explosion of interest in conspiracy theories as the pandemic struck, QAnon had become a visible and viral presence online. Prominent promoters of the theory had gathered hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and YouTube, while QAnon Facebook groups had grown to tens of thousands of members (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Most of the QAnon profiles tap into the same sources of information: Trump tweets, YouTube disinformation videos, and each other’s tweets. It forms a mutually reinforcing confirmation bias—the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information that confirms prior beliefs or values (Rupar & Smedt, 2021).

Since the movement’s earliest days, YouTube has played an essential role in the dissemination of QAnon narratives. In fact, it has been the gateway by which it first spread into the mainstream. Just one week after the first 4chan posts by Q, a YouTuber named Tracy Diaz produced a video summarising the emerging narrative from Q, bringing it to the attention of the wider conspiracy theorist community for the first time. Over the next few years, a huge community of QAnon interpreters emerged on YouTube, developing vast audiences for videos in which they dissect Q’s posts and analyse the news cycle through the lens of QAnon. A spate of documentaries that promoted aspects of the QAnon narrative, such as “Fall of the Cabal”, “Out of Shadows,” and “Plandemic” were also posted on YouTube. These videos received millions of views (Lawrence & Davis, 2020) while YouTube and other social media companies faced pressure over whether they would be banning QAnon-related activity. 

Eventually, in August 2020, Twitter removed a false claim about coronavirus death statistics that Trump had retweeted. And Facebook said that it would ban any pages, groups, and Instagram accounts representing QAnon (Vazquez, 2020).While Facebook has policies banning hate speech, incitement to violence, and other types of content that it considers undesirable on a family-and advertiser-friendly platform, QAnon does not fit neatly into any single category. The anticipated purge by Facebook never came. Instead, QAnon groups on Facebook have continued to grow at a considerable pace. With more than 3 million aggregate followers and members, the groups and pages play a critical role in disseminating Q’s messages to a broader audience (Wong, 2020a). 

While QAnon thrives on Facebook, another social media site took timely and decisive action against it. Nearly two years ago, Reddit carried out a site-wide purge of QAnon—and made it stick (Wong, 2020a). In the wake of the Capitol insurrection, Twitter banned Trump, disconnecting him from his nearly 89 million followers, and took down more than 70,000 accounts linked to disinformation about campaign fraud and conspiracy theories. Facebook and YouTube have also suspended Trump’s accounts. These actions have stifled the online conversation. An entire section tied to QAnon on Twitter disappeared overnight (Tollefson, 2021). 

From August to November 30, 2020, Facebook removed about 3,000 Pages, 9,800 groups, 420 events, 16,200 Facebook profiles, and 25,000 Instagram accounts for “violating its policy against QAnon.” Since then, the company continued to enforce this policy. As of January 12, 2021, Facebook had removed about 3,300 Pages, 10,500 groups, 510 events, 18,300 Facebook profiles, and 27,300 Instagram accounts for “violating its policy against QAnon” (Facebook, 2021). Twitter also suspended 70,000 accounts that share QAnon content at scale (BBC, 2021). Social media platforms’ crackdown on QAnon disrupted the movement’s ability to spread radical messages, but it won’t stop the group completely (Argentino, 2020).

Following the announcement that YouTube would remove “conspiracy theory content used to justify real-world violence,” many of the most prominent QAnon channels were removed, including the X22 Report, PrayingMedic, and others. Many of those users had already set up backup channels on largely unmoderated video platforms such as BitChute, the owner of which has expressed support for conspiracy theories and welcomed its proponents onto their platform. Yet none of the alt-tech sites can begin to match the audience sizes that YouTube can offer, and as such this move represents a significant blow to both the channel owners and the movement as a whole (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

After having their content restricted, QAnon supporters abandoned the big platforms and migrated to 4chan, a more permissive message board. When 4chan’s moderation teams started tempering incendiary comments, QAnon followers moved to a new platform, 8chan (now called 8kun). These conspiracy theorists can still communicate with one another through ordinary email or on encrypted channels such as Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp (Fukuyama et al., 2021). Some groups changed their names, substituting “17” for “Q” (the 17th letter of the alphabet); others shared links to back-up accounts on alternative social media platforms with looser rules (Wong, 2020a; Jankowicz, 2021).

QAnon has further fragmented into communities on Telegram, Parler, MeWe and Gab. These alternative social media platforms are not as effective for promoting content or merchandise, which will impact grifters who were profiting from QAnon, as well as limit the reach of proselytizers. But the ban will push those already convinced by QAnon onto platforms where they will interact with more extreme content they may not have found on Facebook. This will radicalize some individuals more than they already are or will accelerate the process for others who may have already been on this path (Argentino, 2020). 

Experts doubt the disciplinary measures will banish the movement. Banning QAnon followers from Facebook and Twitter would also reinforce their belief that they’re engaged in an information war against media elites and others in the deep state (Farivar, 2020). A Textgain analysis of 50,000 QAnon tweets posted from December 2020 – January 2021 showed toxicity had almost doubled, including 750 tweets inciting political violence and 500 inciting violence against Jewish people (Rupar & Smedt, 2021).

Meyer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), founder of the international banking family. Ca. 1790. Photo: Everett Collection

QAnon Is Inherently Anti-Semitic

A strong anti-Semitism has run through QAnon since the beginning—and is only growing more pronounced (Sales, 2020). QAnon draws together anti-Semitism, sexual excess, homophobia, and race-baiting in a modern-day moral panic (Evans, 2020). Whilst some followers may be conscious anti-Semites, others may be ignorantly regurgitating tropes they are unaware are racist; still others are simply turning a blind eye, denying charges of anti-Semitism as a mainstream media smear. Regardless, QAnon is promulgating an ancient form of prejudice and has the potential to radicalise converts towards Jew hatred (Lawrence & Davis, 2020).

According to Gregory Stanton, who published a piece titled “QAnon is a Nazi cult, rebranded,” QAnon is the latest version of “the conspiracy ‘revealed’ in the most influential anti-Jewish pamphlet of all time: Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (Sales, 2020), a fictional document first published in Russia in the early 1900s (Thomas, 2020). The fabricated document purports to expose a Jewish plot to control the world including infiltrating the media and political parties to brainwash and enslave populations and was used throughout the 20th century to justify anti-Semitism (Wong, 2020; Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Examining past rhetoric targeting Jews reveals how such a discourse lubricates the machinery of violence—Hitler called the Protocols “immensely instructive” (Thomas, 2020).

Stanton (2020) also says QAnon’s conspiracy theory is a rebranded version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The cabal supposedly held the American Presidency under the Clintons and Obama, nearly took power again in 2016, and lurks in a “Deep State” financed by Jews, including George Soros, and in Jews who control the media. They want to disarm citizens and defund the police. They promote abortion, transgender rights, and homosexuality. They want open borders so brown illegal aliens can invade America and mongrelize the white race. According to Stanton, the world has seen QAnon before. It was called Nazism. “In QAnon, Nazism wants a comeback,” he said.

Q has identified “puppet masters” at the centre of the international cabal: the Rothschild family and Soros. They have long been common targets for anti-Semitism, with the first smeared as sinister, sometimes supernatural global financiers for 200 years. Q has directly tapped into this toxic legacy, for example erroneously alleging that Rothschild has a controlling interest in every nation’s central bank (Lawrence & Davis, 2020). Both the Rothschild family members and Soros were condemned, slandered, and blamed for supposedly trying to take control of the world and profiting from it because they are both wealthy and Jewish. QAnon supporters have continued to use this method of implicating them. In fact, this appears to be the most commonly used anti-Semitic dog whistle (MDI, 2020).

One general claim often used by QAnon supporters is that the Rothschild family and Soros are deeply involved in the “evil Project of billionaires” and are “exploiters of the pandemic” who own the COVID-19 “patents” that were supposedly used to manufacture the disease. In one video in particular, posted in French on Facebook, Soros is referred to as the “evil creature.” Both the Rothschilds and Soros have also been condemned for their links to one another and to other large organizations. One particularly prominent example involves the World Health Organization (WHO), which is framed as a vehicle for global elites to exert control and ultimately perpetrate a global hoax supported and run by Bill Gates. QAnon supporters also frequently name the Rothschild family members and George Soros as founders and continuous funders of the WHO (MDI, 2020).

QAnon also has its roots in much older anti-Semitic conspiracy theories centring on the vulnerability of children. These are neither new nor distinctly American. The QAnon conspiracy about adrenochrome is a modern remix of the age-old anti-Semitic blood libel (Wong, 2020). In the Middle Ages, this was driven by a fear of Jewish magicians kidnapping and stabbing Christian children for evil rituals. The blood produced from these rites was rumoured to be ritually consumed as drink or mixed into matzo. It was a demonic fantasy and not based in any reality. It is noteworthy that QAnon claims about child abduction and blood consumption are linked to prominent Jewish figures (Thomas, 2020). “Hurting children is one of the worst things you can say someone is doing. It’s an easy way to demonize your enemy,” says Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California-Davis (Breland, 2019).

Some of QAnon’s supporters are surely aware that they are targeting Jews. But, according to Sales (2020), the ideas of harvesting children’s blood and controlling the world through a secret cabal are anti-Semitic, even if the growing numbers of QAnon adherents don’t realize it or don’t directly refer to Jews. These ideas are so old and established that they function as codes for anti-Semitism and obviate the need to mention Jews directly. These ideas act as dog whistles for neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites; they have the effect of propagating anti-Semitism regardless of their original intent (Sales, 2020).

Many of those within the QAnon movement have utilised this anti-Semitic dog whistling. In other words, QAnon supporters are repeatedly referencing certain people, terms, and narratives that may appear vague and harmless without context, but which actually signal a more insidious form of hate speech against all Jewish people. ­­­Specifically, dog whistling is being used as a tactic within the QAnon movement to denounce prominent Jewish public figures and global Jewry in ways that are all too familiar. Jews are being implicated in the spread and creation of Covid-19, as they have been blamed for many diseases throughout history (MDI, 2020). 

A rally goer representing QAnon has their “Q” sign taken away from them by security during the “Make America Great Again” rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA on August 2, 2018. Photo: Brandon Stivers

Conclusion: Why Does QAnon Matter?

First of all, there is a threat of violence. For those who truly believe that powerful figures are holding children hostage in order to exploit them sexually or for their blood, taking action to stop the abuse can seem like a moral imperative. While most QAnon followers will not engage in violence, many already have—or have attempted to—which is why the FBI has identified the movement as a potential domestic terror threat (Wong, 2020). The FBI has already described “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists,” as a growing threat. It lists a number of arrests, including some that haven’t been publicized, related to violent incidents motivated by fringe beliefs. An FBI document specifically mentions QAnon (Winter, 2019).

The FBI acknowledges that conspiracy theory-driven violence is not new—but also says it’s gotten worse with advances in technology combined with an increasingly partisan political landscape. “The advent of the Internet and social media has enabled promoters of conspiracy theories to produce and share greater volumes of material via online platforms that larger audiences of consumers can quickly and easily access,” the document says (Winter, 2019). Indeed, there have been numerous incidents of real-world violence linked to QAnon, and in May 2019, the FBI identified QAnon as a potential domestic terrorism threat in an intelligence bulletin. The bulletin stated the online narratives were determining the targets of harassment and violence for the small subset of individuals who crossed over into real-world action (Wong, 2020a)which can have serious consequences for the targets (Wong, 2020).

What’s more, extremist groups like QAnon endanger democracy primarily when they leave the periphery of the Internet and enter the mainstream. This happens when their voices are either picked up by the media or amplified by a platform (Fukuyama et al., 2021). From the point of view of someone who believes the QAnon conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party elite are behind a vast paedophile ring threatening innocent children, perhaps January 6th really did seem to be an act of patriotism. Samuel Johnson famously claimed that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel,” but as Zacek (2021) underlines and as is so often true, the reality is undoubtedly far more complex.

References

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— (2020). QAnon and The Growing Conspiracy Theory Trend On Social Media. Media Diversity Institute (MDI). June 2020. https://www.media-diversity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/QAnonFinalReport.pdf (accessed on February 28, 2021).

— (2021). “Twitter suspends 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon.” BBC. January 12, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-55638558 (accessed on February 28, 2021).

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Armed protesters, including Boogaloo Boys, on the lawn of the Michigan capitol, denying the results of the recent election before the inauguration of Joe Biden in Lansing, Michigan, US on January 17, 2021. Photo:  Lester Graham

Boogaloo Bois: Violent Anti-Establishment Extremists in Festive Hawaiian Shirts

As a pro-Second Amendment movement, the Boogaloo Boys are easily recognizable because of their Hawaiian-themed Aloha shirts and masks along with their semiautomatic weapons. Having the basic characteristics of anti-establishment far-right populists and seeing the outbreak of violence as something like a party, typically accelerationist Boogaloo Boys use these Hawaiian shirts to hide their intention to trigger a civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt establishment in the US.

By Bulent Kenes

Through 2021, white supremacists and far-right extremists will remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States (US), where political and ideological divisions fall cleanly along racial lines (Newkirk II, 2019) according to a document prepared by the US Department of Homeland Security in 2020. However, former US President Donald Trump regularly downplayed this threat during his term (Sands, 2020). Many experts already associate rising far-right extremism with the rise of Trump. Hate crimes, anti-Semitism, and the number of hate groups have risen sharply since Trump’s campaign began in 2015. The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) (2020) also observed that these groups have been encouraged by Trump’s tweets about “liberating” states. Despite its resurgence under Trump, the problem of far-right extremism in the US is not new, and its history dates back to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after the Civil War. 

In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, the US experienced the greatest risk of serious civil unrest and violent revolt since 1860, when 11 states refused to accept Abraham Lincoln’s election as president and eventually seceded from the Union. American citizens have already been armed to the teeth, with record firearms sales during the coronavirus pandemic, especially among first-time gun buyers (Brigety II, 2020). Thousands of these gun owners showed up during the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, that resulted in five deaths. The crowd falsely claimed the incumbent Trump had won the election and that then President-elect Joe Biden “stole” it through widespread voter fraud. Right-wing protests were also slated to occur at state capitols the weekend of January 17, and the “Boogaloo Boys” (a.k.a. Boogaloo Bois) were among those either planning the protests or planning to attend (SPLC, 2021).

The Boogaloo Boys were also among the most visible participants at state capitol protests after January 6, and specifically in Richmond, Virginia, on January 18. As a pro-Second Amendment movement, the Boogaloo Boys are easily recognizable because of their Hawaiian-themed Aloha shirts and masks along with their semiautomatic weapons. The shirts are a reference to “big luau,” which is an adaptation of the word “boogaloo” (SPLC, 2021). Aloha philosophy is associated with the Native Hawaiian spirit of love, compassion, and mercy – ironic, considering the shirts being worn by Boogalooers at violent demonstrations (Jones, 2021) intended to trigger a civil war to overthrow what they regard as a corrupt establishment (Hinton, 2021).

Despite the occasional adoption by luxury designers, the Aloha shirt is more commonly associated with midlife crises. An article in The New York Times once described the Hawaiian shirt as a “signifier of the style-challenged tourist” (Tudela, 2016). In his book “The Aloha Shirt: Spirit of the Islands,” Dale Hope wrote about its “humorous, garish or tacky” associations. However, Scot Nakagawa, a senior fellow at ChangeLab, explained that lurid style is a long-held tradition of insurgent white nationalism. The KKK also made use of costumes and mythic rituals as they practiced extreme violence against African-Americans. More modern examples of clothing used by extremist subcultures include the Ben Sherman or Fred Perry shirts, Doc Marten boots, and suspenders worn by neo-Fascist groups from the punk era into 1990s Britain. In addition to identifying members of the groups, wearing these items served as a recruiting tool. Doing so may be an attempt to bait the less informed into assuming the group means no real harm – that they are, really, a goofy bunch of boys despite their military-grade weaponry (Pemberton, 2020).

Having the basic characteristics of anti-establishment far-right populists and seeing the outbreak of violence as something like a party (Giglio, 2020), the Boogaloo Boys use Hawaiian shirts to hide their intentions (Delgado, 2020). The result of an analysis of over 100 million social media comments has confirmed how the “boogaloo meme,” “a joke for some, acts as a violent meme that circulates instructions for a violent, viral insurgency for others.” According to the researchers, it is like turning off the transponders on 9/11 to enable the extremists to hide in plain sight, disappearing into the clutter of innocent messages (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

This interpretation is shared by Patrick Blanchfield of the Brooklyn Institute. He, and other experts on white nationalist extremism in the US, have stressed that such in-jokes are a longstanding practice of extremist movements born out of online message boards like 4chan and Reddit and, in the case of the Boogaloo Bois, Facebook. Joshua Citarella, a researcher of extremist behaviours on the internet, says this kind of Boogaloo imagery appeared to be “100 percent” co-opted by, among Gen Z, white nationalist groups who wanted not just a confrontation with the establishment, but also a full-fledged race war (Beckett, 2020). However, while a number of empty symbols have been appropriated by groups defined by white nationalist and anti-government ideologies – including Pepe the Frog, the “OK” hand sign, and a purple pigeon emoji – the Aloha shirt represents the first-time extremists have laid claim to a piece of clothing with largely benign associations (Pemberton, 2020).

The term "boogaloo" once represented a fusion of people and cultures, but now refers to an uprising against the establishment, overthrowing democracy, civil war – and even in some quarters, a race war. Boogaloo is no longer about music, but about menace – a word coined by black and brown people now used by some who envision a country without them.

The far-right extremists began referring to an impending civil war using the word “boogaloo,” a joking reference to “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a 1984 sequel movie.

No Longer About Music And Dance, But About Menace

The story of the term “boogaloo” is also interesting. The movement was first noticed by extremism researchers in 2019, when fringe groups ranging from gun rights and militia movements to white supremacists began referring to an impending civil war using the word “boogaloo,” a joking (Patches, 2014) reference to “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo,” a 1984 sequel movie (Zadrozny, 2020; SPLC, 2021) about breakdancing teens battling to save their local community centre from corrupt politicians and corporate development. Sam Firstenberg, the Israel-born movie director of the cult classic explained that the “Electric Boogaloo” began as a meme on the internet. “In the last 10 years or so, it became equal with the word ‘sequel,’” Firstenberg said, in conjunction with the second civil war the Boogaloo movement aspires to create. “Civil War 2: Electric Boogaloo” began popping up on message boards (Abramovitch, 2020).

According to Allam (2020), the movie, which received poorly by critics, became a cult classic. The title has evolved into a meme in a sarcastic way to describe any unwanted sequel. In 1965, the word “boogaloo” emerged as a mash-up of black and Latin American influences. Some 50 years later, the word is still part of American pop culture, but now with a very different meaning. The word once represented a fusion of people and cultures, but now refers to an uprising against the establishment, overthrowing democracy, civil war – and even in some quarters, a race war. Boogaloo is no longer about music, but about menace – a word coined by black and brown people now used by some who envision a country without them (Allam, 2020).

The Boogaloo Boys also use other similar-sounding derivations of the word, including “boog,” “boojahideen,” “big igloo,” “blue igloo,” and “big luau” to avoid crackdowns and automated content flags imposed by social media sites to limit or ban Boogaloo-related content (Timberg et al., 2020). Intensified efforts by social media companies to restrict Boogaloo content have caused adherents to use terms even further detached from the original word such as “spicy fiesta” to refer to the movement (Barton, 2020). The Boogaloo movement has created logos and other imagery incorporating igloo snow huts and Hawaiian prints based on these derivations (Charter, 2020; Woodward, 2020). The Boogaloo Boys sometimes carry black-and-white versions of the American flag, with a middle stripe replaced with a stripe of red tropical print and the stars replaced with an igloo. The stripes sometimes list the names of people killed by the police, including Eric Garner, Vicki Weaver, Robert LaVoy Finicum, Breonna Taylor, and Duncan Lemp (Barton, 2020).

The Boogaloo Boys sometimes carry black-and-white versions of the American flag, with a middle stripe replaced with a stripe of red tropical print and the stars replaced with an igloo.

 

Boogaloo memes and ideas have been circulating since the 2010s; however, in the past couple of years, the movement’s adherents have been more visible at rallies and events (SPLC, 2021). The Boogaloo movement exploded into the mainstream after it came to light that Sgt. Steven Carrillo, who on May 29, 2020 used the cover of the George Floyd protests to gun down one federal officer and injure another in Oakland, California, claims allegiance to the group. Carrillo later scrawled the word “Boog” in his own blood on the hood of a stolen vehicle during a June 6 gun battle with police in Santa Cruz County that also claimed the life of a sheriff’s deputy (Abramovitch, 2020).

It is now obvious that the term “boogaloo” has been used to describe an uprising against a supposedly tyrannical or left-wing government, often in response to a perceived threat of widespread gun confiscation. For many, the word “boogaloo” is used jokingly or ironically, but for others, the boogaloo memes are shared alongside violent text and images, seemingly to incite an eventual confrontation. The ambiguity of the term “boogaloo” works to cloak extremist organizing in the open. “Like a virus hiding from the immune system, the use of comical-meme language permits the network to organize violence secretly behind a mirage of inside jokes and plausible deniability,” stated a report by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI (Zadrozny, 2020). Goldenberg and Finkelstein (2020) say this ambiguity is a key feature of the problem. Alex Newhouse, digital research lead at Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, says “It is very difficult to know if the ‘boogaloo boi’ you see standing in the middle of the street at a protest is there in solidarity or to incite violence” (Pineda, 2020).

While many still use the boogaloo meme jokingly, an increasing number of people employ the phrase in hopes of inciting the expected apocalyptic confrontation with law enforcement and government officials or to provoke ethnic warfare. Pemberton (2020) noted that it’s not uncommon to see heavily armed white men toting military-grade gear on American streets; however, the addition of the Hawaiian shirt is a new twist. The tactics the Boogaloo Boys have used to gain media attention have been honed over the course of decades, by extremist groups from the KKK to the “alt-right”: wear distinctive, lurid outfits; give your ideology a weird name; and use bizarre terms that journalists could reveal and decode for their readers. As an example, boogaloo supporters often call themselves the “Boojahideen,” a tribute to Afghanistan’s Mujahideen, who fought a guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation of their country (Beckett, 2020).

The Boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan where the meme was often accompanied by references to “racewar” and “dotr” (“day of the rope,” a neo-Nazi reference to a fantasy involving murdering what the posters view to be “race traitors”) (Zadrozny, 2020; ADL, 2019). By 2019, its culture had disseminated across social media into a mix of online groups and chat servers where users shared libertarian political memes. In recent times, this all began to manifest in real life, as users from the groups emerged at protests. The Boogaloo movement – which unites a wide variety of extremist and fringe movements, subcultures, andpeople (ADL, 2020a), some of whom have attempted to associate with Black Lives Matter and others with neo-Nazism (Crawford, 2020) – is the latest example of a mass of memes escaping from 4chan to become a real-life radical movement. As nationwide unrest intensified at the start of the summer of 2020, many Boogaloo adherents interpreted this as a cue to realize their main fantasy: armed revolt against the US government (Beran, 2020).

Part meme, part subculture, the Boogaloo Boys is a mash-up of anti-government apocalyptic screed, Second Amendment evangelism, and dark-humoured satire (Weiner, 2020). Relying heavily on humour makes their messaging more accessible and appealing, while also allowing them to underplay the more disturbing content as jest. This use of humour does not diminish the violence associated with Boogalooers’ expressed intent. While some Boogalooers try to frame their support for an armed rebellion only as a defensive measure against state-sponsored aggression, others embrace the notion of a full-scale civil war. To this end, members believe that civilians need to be armed with firearms and explosives to maintain the balance of power between the people and the state. As a decentralized movement that organizes largely online but whose presence has increasingly been felt in the real world, the Boogaloo Boys is a group favoured by the militia, gun rights, and anarcho-capitalist movements (ADL, 2020a).

It is not a secret that the connection of Boogaloo members and the US military is deep and many Boogalooers are active-duty service members or military veterans. Supremacists who believe whites are under attack in America and therefore seek to establish a whites-only nation where non-whites do not have basic civil rights – have found new members and support in the US military. 

Boogaloo supporters often call themselves the “Boojahideen” as a tribute to Afghanistan’s Mujahideen.

Inspired By “The Turner Diaries”

The unrest related to pandemic restrictions appears to have significantly boosted the profile of the Boogaloo movement. The conspiracy theory that the US government is using the pandemic to restrict American citizens’ freedoms has been exacerbated far-right calls for a civil war. Some Boogaloo supporters also believe that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have helped raise awareness of their civil war narrative amongst wider populations (Crawford, 2020). Thus, Boogalooers have started articulating how COVID-19 could accelerate and enable the second civil war (ISD, 2020). As hardcore “accelerationists,” the Boogaloo Boys promote violence to speed up the collapse of society, and often seek to exploit moments of political or civil unrest, including widespread protests (Owen, 2020). 

“Accelerationism” is mainly based on William Luther Pierce’s 1978 novel “The Turner Diaries,” which is known as “the bible of the racist right” and a novelized blueprint for a white revolution (ADL, 2019) that would instigate a race war and bring about the federal government’s collapse (Valasik & Reid, 2020). The novel depicts the violent overthrow of the government of the US, nuclear conflagration, race war and the ultimate extermination of non-whites and “undesirable racial elements among the remaining white population” (Sarna, 2021). The widespread and extremely violent conflagration is also often called the “boogaloo” by its adherents (Inglis, 2021). Since publication, “The Turner Diaries” has inspired numerous violent acts, including the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Three years later, one of the attackers who murdered a black man in Jasper, Texas on June 7, 1998, also cited “The Turner Diaries” as his inspiration (Berger, 2016). 

The novel also features a secret group conspiring to create a “new world order.” This idea has taken numerous forms over the decades, from more anti-government beliefs about secret government conspiracies to race-based beliefs suggesting Jewish or minority-based cabals seeking to oppress, control, or replace the white race (Texas Department of Public Safety, 2020). These conspiracy theories are often adopted by groups with a more mainstream aesthetic and less overtly racist aims than their original creators. For instance, the term “white genocide” has given way to “the great replacement” to describe the idea that white people are being systematically replaced by non-whites in Western countries. This makes extreme ideas more palatable for a mainstream audience. Miller (2020) says the Boogaloo Boys have undergone a similar sanitation process.

On the other hand, according to Goldenberg and Finkelstein (2020), memes such as the boogaloo appear as either cryptic jargon or recreational subcultures to both web users and security experts and, thus, seem an unlikely source for large-scale national security risks. “But it is precisely this unfamiliarity that should signal profound concern: Facing a similarly alien subculture of enthusiasts, national security pundits, the US Military, and intelligence and defence agencies, were entirely caught off guard at the rapid mobilization of ISIS and creation of the caliphate. Foreign fighters from all corners of the world—having little  knowledge of ISIS ideologies, religion, or cause—were quickly recruited from flash to bang through savvy social media outreach,” write the authors. They add: “According to our research, boogaloo enthusiasts, who refer to themselves as the ‘Boojahideen’ may have stolen a page from the ISIS’ playbook” (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

Moreover, Brenton Tarrant’s “The Great Replacement” manifesto is the latest in a line of theories inspiring acts of domestic terrorism. In fact, prior to Tarrant’s manifesto, French author Renaud Camus released his 2012 book “Le Grand Remplacement,” arguing that immigrants are replacing European whites (Williams, 2017). These theories share a common theme of blending anti-government sentiments with racial bias to create dystopian images designed to inspire fear and violent acts (Berger, 2016). According to Amy Cooter of Vanderbilt University, some far-right groups have adopted “accelerationism” as “the idea that inducing chaos, provoking law enforcement, and promoting political tension will hasten the collapse of Western government, making room for them to establish a whites-only country” (Valasik & Reid, 2020). Therefore, the Boogaloo Boys have made police brutality one of their central issues (Owen, 2020).

Accelerationist Boogalooers, who infiltrate protests as a tactic, hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle, more and more people join the fray.

Conservative people from the far right movement, Proud Boys, and Boogaloo Boys join for a “Back the Blue” rally in Portland, Oregon/US on August 22, 2020. Photo: Robert P. Alvarez.

Accelerationist Boogalooers Infiltrate Protests As A Tactic 

Accelerationist Boogalooers, who infiltrate protests as a tactic (Beeman, 2020), hope to set off a series of chain reactions, with violence fomenting violence, and in the ensuing cycle, more and more people join the fray. When confronted with extremes, so the theory goes, those in the middle will be forced off the fence and go to the side of the white supremacists. If violence can be increased sufficiently, the system will run out of lackeys and collapse, and the race war will commence (Byman, 2020). Accelerationists also take a nod from a Neo-Nazi, James Mason, who came into his ideas as a teenager in the 1960s and published a newsletter, Seige, from 1980 to 1986. Mason believed, “that only the full collapse of American democracy and society will bring conditions sufficient to bring order through Nazism” (Beeman, 2020). For accelerationism to succeed, traditional politics must fail. Dialogue, compromise, and steady progress are its enemies (Byman, 2020).

Despite the Boogaloo Boys creating a considerable sensation in recent times, no one has yet emerged as a “boogaloo” leader or a boogaloo spokesperson, and it’s far from clear how many people consider themselves affiliated with “boogaloo” ideology. As of April 2020, more than 100 “boogaloo” groups on Facebook had a total of more than 72,000 members, according to a report released by the Tech Transparency Project (2020). However, some of those users might be double-counted as members of multiple groups (Beckett, 2020). Nevertheless, it is a fact that the “boogaloo” boasts tens of thousands of social media users, exhibits a complex division of labour, evolves well-developed channels to innovate and distribute violent propaganda, deploys a complex communication network on extremist, mainstream, and dark web communities, and articulates a hybrid structure between lone-wolf and cell-like organization (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). 

On January 20, 2020, thousands descended on Richmond, Virginia, for the Virginia Citizens Defence League’s annual Lobby Day. As participants of the rally, the Boogaloo Boys donned Pepe the Frog iconography as well as patches evocative of the American flag emblazoned with an igloo in place of the 50 stars. Some Boogaloo members wore a skull balaclava, which is considered the face of 21st-century fascism. A participant boastfully declared on the Facebook page, “Some of the guys we were with aren’t exactly out of the military yet, so they had to keep their faces covered” (Goldenberg & Finkelstein, 2020). It is not a secret that the connection of Boogaloo members and the US military is deep and many Boogalooers are active-duty service members or military veterans (Beran, 2020). White nationalists – people who believe whites are under attack in America and therefore seek to establish a whites-only nation where non-whites do not have basic civil rights – have found new members and support in the US military (Inglis, 2021).

Military service has, traditionally, been a vehicle for marginalized individuals to make citizenship claims as a result of their military service (Burk, 1995). Yet extremist movements that run counter to integration and inclusion have also been attracted to military service – for a different reason. The links between the US military and white nationalists date back to the 1990s, with many believers seeing military service as an opportunity to hone their fighting skills and recruit others to their movements, particularly after serving (Belew, 2014). However, most Americans don’t know much about the level of white nationalism in the military (Spindel et al., 2020), while many do not view it as a serious problem. In particular, self-identified conservatives and those who hold highly favourable views toward the military are less likely to view white nationalism in the military as a serious problem (Ralston et al., 2020).

In 2017 and 2019, two Military Times polls found that about a fifth of respondents reported seeing signs of white nationalism or racist ideology within the armed forces (Shane, 2017, 2019). Nearly 42 percent of non-white troops said they have personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military, versus about 18 percent of white service members (Shane, 2017). This figure jumped significantly in a 2020 poll, when 36 percent of participants reported seeing evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military (Shane, 2020). The 2019 survey additionally found that about 35 percent saw the problem of white nationalism as a significant threat to the country (Shane, 2019). 

Civilian leaders and the general public have reason to be concerned if the military becomes a fertile recruitment ground for violent and extremist groups (Holthouse, 2006; Levinson, 2019). White nationalists with military service have committed mass acts of deadly violence after leaving the military (Ralston et al., 2020). The issue of extremists in the ranks gained national attention in 2019 after the arrest of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Hasson, a former active-duty Marine and Army guardsman, who was plotting a mass murder of political and media figures (Shane, 2019).

The problem of white supremacy isn’t just limited to the military. “With their enormous power, department-issued weapons and access to sensitive information police departments have also become attractive recruiting grounds for white supremacist groups,” says Vida Johnson, a law professor at Georgetown University (Inglis, 2021).

Since 2019, at least 31 people affiliated with the Boogaloo movement have been charged with crimes, including those who killed two security and law enforcement officers in California in May and June 2020 (Beckett, 2020a), a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer (Brigety II, 2020; Thompson & Fischer, 2021), incidents related to the George Floyd protests, and the storming of the US Capitol building. All of the Boogaloo Boys arrested were white (Perper & Sheth, 2020). While the number of active and former military members is believed to be small when compared to the overall size of the movement, extremism researcher Kathleen Belew has stated that their participation “is not a problem we should take lightly” due to the threat that they could “dramatically escalate the impact of fringe activism, pass on explosives expertise, [or share] urban warfare expertise” (Owen, 2020a).

There are mainly two wings of the Boogaloo movement. One side is made up of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whose plan for destroying the government is to start a race war or white revolution. The other side is characterised as radically libertarian – notably, men carrying weapons and wearing Hawaiian shirts.

Armed protestors including Boogalooers arrive to support Donald Trumps baseless claims of election fraud in Lansing, Michigan, US on January 17, 2021. Photo: Lester Graham

Some Boogaloo Boys Are Explicit White Nationalists And Neo-Nazis 

The Boogaloo Boys is a loosely affiliated far-right movement that includes a variety of extremist factions and political views. According to Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Business, there are always racialized and eugenic sub-themes in groups like the Boogaloo Boys. “It’s about who should live,” he said (Beckett, 2020). “You have everyone from neo-Nazis and white nationalists to libertarians,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the SPLC. What unites them is their interest in having complete access to firearms, the belief that the country is heading towards a civil war (Jones, 2021), and that mass civil conflict of this kind is the only way for the country to correct its path. 

These anti-government beliefs have found support beyond the movement’s racist roots, making it adaptable and easily spread (SPLC, 2021). Boogaloo Boys urge people to rise up against the government, which they see as tyrannical and essentially irredeemable (Jones, 2021). TTP’s analysis also found that some members’ profiles include white supremacist content, including images of Adolf Hitler, despite other group members rejecting white supremacist ideology (Mathias, 2020). J. J. MacNab of George Washington University believes participants were radicalized elsewhere prior to donning a Hawaiian shirt. She claims the Boogaloo movement “isn’t really a movement. It’s a dress code, it’s a way of talking, it’s jargon” (MacNab, 2020).

The Boogaloo culture operates as a diffuse movement rather than a traditional group organizational structure, with a single leader presiding (SPLC, 2021). According to Alex Newhouse of Middlebury Institute’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, there are mainly two wings of the Boogaloo movement. One side is made up of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, whose plan for destroying the government is to start a race war or white revolution. The other side is characterized as radically libertarian – notably, men carrying weapons and wearing Hawaiian shirts (Pineda, 2020Beran, 2020). While the white supremacist side veers into overt racism and makes no secret their desire for violence (Owen, 2020) the libertarian side takes offense at the “white supremacist” label (Pineda, 2020). Pineda argues that the group’s original members had ties to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, while many newer members are libertarian.

There’s no question that some Boogaloo Boys are explicit white nationalists and neo-Nazis who use the term “boogaloo” as a synonym for the coming race war. But there’s real disagreement, even among experts, about whether the Boogaloo movement as a whole should be described as “white supremacist.” Some members of the Boogaloo Boys even denouncewhite supremacists, saying they want to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter while other members make racist and anti-Semitic comments and mocked moderators for trying to be politically correct. However, numerous experts say that lip service from some Boogaloo supporters about wanting to be a multi-racial movement should not be taken seriously(Beckett, 2020a; SPLC, 2021). 

At the protests after George Floyd’s death, Boogaloo Boys were a conspicuous presence. Despite the members being overwhelmingly white, the movement has often presented itself as a race-blind. The Boogaloo meme itself emerged concurrently in white power online spaces in the early 2010s, today the term is regularly deployed by white nationalists and neo-Nazis who want to see society descend into chaos so that they can build a new fascist state (Miller, 2020). It is true that Boogaloo Boys participated in the rallies, and a few even supposedly sported Black Lives Matter (BLM) patches and rainbow flag patches, in alleged support of the BLM movement and LGBTQ rights. However, it’s unclear how much of this support is genuine, and how much is simple political opportunism as the movement attempts to muddy ideological boundaries in order to triage their image and draw in more adherents (SPLC, 2021)  

Despite this ideological messiness, it is telling that most of the movement’s “martyrs” are white men and women killed at the hands of law enforcement. It was also a white man, Duncan Lemp, who first galvanized the movement – not the deaths of the thousands of Black people killed by police (SPLC, 2021). It is only white men who the Boogaloo Boys view as deserving of liberty and autonomy; their deaths at the hands of the state are evidence of tyranny and injustice, while the deaths of black people largely are not. Viewed from this perspective, the Boogaloo Bois’ effort to join the BLM protests reads as nothing more than political opportunism (Miller, 2020). The only place Boogaloo and BLM activists seem to overlap is in their anger toward law enforcement, but the source of their grievances, proposed remedies, and visions for the future are completely distinct (SPLC, 2021). One way to capture the complex dynamics of “Boogaloo” ideology is to label it as a broad anti-government movement that is full of white power activists, believes Belew. Like the militia movement of the 1990s, not everyone who participates in “Boogaloo” events or groups is necessarily a white power activist, she added. (Beckett, 2020a).

As part of a larger anti-establishment extremist movement in the US, the Boogaloo Boys includes militia and “patriot” organizations such as the Oathkeepers and the Three Percenters, whose adherents have been implicated in bombings, murders and armed standoffs with federal law enforcement. Moreover, similar to other right-leaning extremist movements, the members of the movement are the product of an unhappy generation of young white men (SPLC, 2021)who compare their lot in life with that of men in previous decades and see their prospects diminishing. And with a mix of ignorance and simplicity, they view their discontent through the most distorted lens imaginable: internet memes (Beran, 2020). Therefore, like other most visible right-wing populist (RWP) social movements, the Boogaloo movement also prioritizes appealing to young male supporters (DeCook, 2018). Such appeals resonate with nationalist ideologies that emphasize traditional patriarchal gender relations and hostility to feminism and stand in opposition to the liberal, pluralist values purportedly advanced by “the elite” (Bornschier and Kriesi, 2012).

Working-class And Low‐income Groups Form The Core

On the other hand, class remains one of the most striking indicators of support. Working‐class and low‐income groups have formed the core of the Boogaloo movement (Bornschier and Kriesi, 2012). However, according to Beran (2020),Boogaloo Boys certainly do not face the economic disadvantages of the most marginalized groups in the US, but like the alt-right, they are unhappy enough to form their own radical identity politics of collective grievances. Lower educational achievement is also associated with an affinity for the movement (Gidron and Hall, 2017). Indeed, Boogalooers often use anti‐intellectualism as a tool, clumping elites and the educated together and encouraging a rejection of the “experts” (Merkley, 2020). What these men share is years of marginalization and a hatred of the present state of society (Beran, 2020).

It is not so abnormal for Boogaloo Boys to see the current federal government as illegitimate, while remaining deeply “patriotic.” They revere the Constitution and see themselves as the true descendants of America’s founding fathers. In their view, current US lawmakers are the equivalent of occupying British forces during the Revolutionary War. Among the “boogaloo” merchandise for sale online are images of George Washington armed with a modern, AR-15-style rifle (Beckett, 2020a). The Boogaloo Boys are entirely opposed to firearm regulations (SPLC, 2021).

“It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” Trump tweeted on May 30, 2020. “Don’t lay the blame on others!” During Trump’s administration, the Department of Homeland Security claimed the Boogaloo movement was not right wing – a claim disputed by experts. Trump’s unwillingness to name and shame far-right groups publicly is not harmless (Bertnard, 2020).While some anarchists have embraced “Boogaloo” rhetoric, these are primarily “right-wing anarchists,” who believe in “unfettered capitalism” – not left-wing anarchists, says Mark Pitcavage of the ADL (Beckett, 2020a). Newhouse also says the Boogaloo movement is a far-right movement. The Guardian has reported that experts on extremism concur that the Boogaloo movement is right wing. Daryl Johnson, a former DHS analyst, believed the DHS’ claim that the Boogaloo movement is not right wing, was “playing politics” (Beckett, 2020). 

A clear sign that the Boogaloo Boys are right wing is their decision to show up with guns to guard private businesses, first during demonstrations against public health shutdown restrictions, and later during the protests over Floyd’s killing. Showing up with guns to protect big corporations from property damage is not something that most left-wing protesters would do (Beckett, 2020a). Thus, the claim that the Boogaloo Boys is not a right-wing movement does not reflect reality.

The white supremacist and far-right extremist upsurge in the last half-decade has been repeatedly linked to the intensely racist, misogynist, and queerphobic culture that characterised /pol/ boards on 8chan and 4chan. The boogaloo meme is also popular on the TikTok video sharing application.

Social Media (Facebook): Boogalooers’ Fertile Habitat

The Boogaloo Boys, which stemmed from memes in social media pro-gun groups, have organized through Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube (Pineda, 2020). However, the true birthplace of the movement is 4chan’s /k/ section (Evans & Wilson, 2020), which is ostensibly devoted to the ownership and purchase of weapons, from knives to fighter jets. Half-serious posts about how certain weapons might be employed in “the boogaloo” evolved over time. Like many memes on 4chan, each new version was more cryptic than the last, a means to express insider knowledge and in-group status (Beran, 2020). 

One example of this is how “Boogaloo,” itself a euphemism, has been further disguised with the use of soundalike terms like “big luau” and “big igloo.” The term “icehouse” is yet another synonym for the term, descended from the “Big Igloo” variation (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Even the co-option of Hawaiian imagery and igloos is inherently cynical and meaningless. There is no connection to the group’s ideology outside of the linguistic resemblance of the word “boogaloo” to “igloo” or “luau.” But this co-option fits the ethos of online spaces perfectly, with a niche group celebrating its anti-government views by draping them in colourful jokes and nonsense that can be endlessly remixed and reinterpreted (Beran, 2020). 

The white supremacist and far-right extremist upsurge in the last half-decade has been repeatedly linked to the intensely racist, misogynist, and queerphobic culture that characterised /pol/ boards on 8chan and 4chan. The boogaloo meme is also popular on the TikTok video sharing application, where the #Boogaloo hashtag had over two million views as of June 2020 (Owen, 2020b). 

Some of the most active Boogaloo communities were on Discord, a chat program popular among online gamers (Bertnard, 2020). However, following media coverage – which included screenshots of a Discord server where members of the military were sharing their expertise – Discord shut down the server and deleted the accounts of its members. The community created and migrated to a subreddit after their removal from Discord, but Reddit banned the subreddit shortly afterward (Rodriguez, 2020). The website Tree of Liberty, which described itself as the “press platform” for the Boogaloo movement, was also taken offline by its cloud hosting provider on January 12, 2021 (Mac & Haskins, 2020). A Twitter spokesperson said that Twitter views Boogaloo content as free expression and does not ban accounts solely for their use of the term, but that they had banned numerous accounts that used the term for violating other policies.

The Boogaloo Boys have used social media to strategise, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass.

The Boogaloo movement originally grew from the weapons discussion section (“/k/”) of the anarchic anonymous message board 4chan.

4chan Birthed Boogalooers, Facebook Helped To Grow 

Though 4chan birthed the Boogaloo Boys, above all, it is Facebook that has helped the group grow (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Researchers have repeatedly drawn attention to Facebook’s role in radicalizing extremist actors, and the consequences of allowing extremists to organize freely on the platform, to little practical avail. Research by the TTP showed that there were at least 125 Facebook groups devoted to the Boogaloo movement on April 22, 2020. The real number has since increased significantly, although determining an exact number is all but impossible due to the rapid evolution of the subculture (Evans & Wilson, 2020). Online extremists have used Facebook to plan and organize for a militant uprising in the US as they cast coronavirus lockdowns as a sign of rising government suppression (Pineda, 2020). NCRI researchers, who analysed more than 100 million social media posts and comments, found that through the use of memes extremists have pushed anti-government and anti-law enforcement messages across social media platforms. They have also organized online communities with tens of thousands of members, some of whom have assembled at real-world events (Zadrozny, 2020). Facebook management has long understood its role in promoting extremism but have elected not to act for fear of alienating conservative sensibilities, especially in the US (Evans & Wilson, 2020). 

The Boogaloo Boys have used social media to “strategize, share instructions for explosives and 3-D printed firearms, distribute illegal firearm modifications, and siphon users into encrypted messaging boards en mass,” according to the NCRI report. The report also notes how the boogaloo concept has been monetized, through merchandise advertised through Facebook and Instagram ads, and marketed to current and former members of the military (Zadrozny, 2020). A range of boogaloo-related phrases emerged as the term became more popular in social media, including: “showing up for the boogaloo,” “when the boogaloo hits,” “being boogaloo ready” and “bring on the boogaloo.” Boogaloo-related hashtags have surfaced, including #boogaloo2020, #BigIgloo, #boojahideen, and #boogaloobois. The boogaloo meme soon spread from angry gun-rights activists to the militia movement and survivalists. The Telegram channel, “Boogaloo: How to Survive,” claims to show “how to survive in a post-society world through understanding the psychology of violence, attaining resources, and organizing to accomplish post society tasks” (ADL, 2019).

On public Facebook pages, Boogalooers circulate satirical posts about the overthrow of government, painting the Boogaloo as a viral online phenomenon rather than a real-world threat. But communications of boogaloo supporters in private Facebook groups accessed by TTP tell a different story: extremists exchanging detailed information and tactics on how to organize and execute a revolt against American authorities. This activity is occurring without any apparent intervention by Facebook. TTP found 125 Facebook groups devoted to the “boogaloo.” In several private boogaloo Facebook groups, members discussed tactical strategies, combat medicine, and various types of weapons, including how to develop explosives and the merits of using flame throwers (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). One group even shared a document detailing how to disrupt US government supply lines and discussing the possible need to assassinate government officials (Mathias, 2020). Some Boogalooers see the public health lockdowns and other directives by states and cities across the country as a violation of their rights, and they’re aiming to harness public frustration at such measures to rally and attract new followers to their cause (Tech Transparency Project, 2020).

A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found that “COVID-19 is being used to advance calls for the ‘boogaloo,’” and that two boogaloo-related Facebook groups have seen large spikes in engagement. One of the groups, Big Igloo Bois, saw an 88 percent jump in interactions in March 2020, according to the study (ISD, 2020). Moreover, Trump’s tweets about liberating Virginia, Michigan, and Minnesota appear to have energized some elements of the Boogaloo movementAmong the most popular boogaloo-themed pages on Facebook is Thicc Boog Line, a boogaloo clothing brand that has attracted nearly 30,000 followers since its October 2019 founding (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). 

Despite many warnings from reporters and civil society organizations and employing 350 people on staff devoted to stopping people and organizations from using its platform to plot or engage in violence (Mathias, 2020), Facebook failed to remove the violent content proliferating on Boogaloo-related groups for months – enough time for the disjointed movement to congeal, organize, and grow its ranks (SPLC, 2021). Eventually, on May 1, 2020, Facebook and Instagram both updated their “violence and incitement” policy to ban the use of the term Boogaloo and related words when they occur alongside images or statements depicting or urging armed violence (Evans & Wilson, 2020; Pineda, 2020) and designated a network of “Boogaloo” groups as a dangerous organization similar to the ISIS (Beckett, 2020a). 

However, at the same time, research suggests that this policy has done virtually nothing to curb either the growth of the Boogaloo movement or reduce the violence of its rhetoric. Facebook remains a hospitable place for would-be insurrectionists, and it buried evidence that its platform facilitates the growth of extremism, due to a fear that combatting this would be seen as anti-conservative bias. But every day, tens of thousands of heavily armed people log on to repeat their hope for an American civil war (Evans & Wilson, 2020).

According to researchers, the Facebook groups were particularly dangerous, because they were helping to build local connections between nascent domestic extremists. The company removed 220 Facebook accounts, 95 Instagram accounts, 28 pages, and 106 groups as parts of the Boogaloo-affiliated network “after there were already bodies.” Some experts said it was too late: the scattered men drawn to the idea of being soldiers in an insurgency against the American government had already connected with each other directly (Beckett, 2021). In the wake of Facebook’s targeted takedown, Boogalooers have encouraged each other to avoid using old nicknames originally used to bypass censorship, phrases like “luau,” “igloo,” or “boog,” in favour of new ones, like “fiesta” (ADL, 2020b).

After Facebook started to de-platform Boogaloo adherents on June 30, 2020, amidst a boycott in which companies including Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Volkswagen announced they would no longer advertise on the platform due to “the hate speech and misinformation that persists on Facebook” (Menn, 2020; Collins & Zadrozny, 2020), many Boogalooers retreated to other social media platforms. However, some took an alternative path: rebranding their movement on Facebook using the names of prominent media companies. As part of this rebranding effort, Boogalooers on Facebook started to share memes and posts referring to the boogaloo as “NBC,” “Fox News,” and “Vice.” Yet no nickname has been adopted as widely as “CNN,” which has boogaloo supporters referring to themselves as “CNN bois” and using #CNN to refer to the Boogaloo itself (ADL, 2020b).

Boogalooers believe that emmeshing their cause with a popular brand will make it more difficult for Facebook to remove their content. While Facebook has already removed several of these pages, this latest episode illustrates how quickly the Boogaloo movement is able to adapt and demonstrates the need for continued monitoring to stem the spread of its violent messageApparently, Boogalooers are better positioned than more formalized groups to adapt to new conditions, because the movement is focused on a concept, not a centralized organization. The name of the group is secondary (ADL, 2020b).

Right-wing activist Duncan Lemp’s death helped solidify the nascent Boogaloo movement into a defined online subculture and galvanized their anti-police stance.

Violence: Boogalooers Target Police As Most Accessible Symbol Of Government

As Mudde (2021) notes, far-right extremism has generally been ignored in the US despite the DHS warning that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan might be particular targets for recruitment by extremist groups (DHS, 2009). The report sparked a conservative backlash, which accused the Obama administration of unfairly targeting conservatives and veterans. The situation has gotten worse since. In their effort to create an all-white country, the far-right extremists, including the Boogaloo Boys, often instigate violent confrontations that target racial and religious minorities (Spindel et al., 2020). Especially since 2018, far-right extremists have conducted more lethal attacks than any other domestic extremist movement (DHS, 2020). A CSIS report stated that the right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the US in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020 (Bertnard, 2020; Weiner, 2020).

As was expected, the military and police departments have been infiltrated and compromised by far-right sympathizers. Nearly one in five defendants in Capitol storming cases have served in the military (Mudde, 2021). In parallel, Boogalooers also generate and share memes glorifying the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany, and jittery graphics that borrow from the aesthetics of Atomwaffen and other overtly white supremacist accelerationist groups (Green, 2020). The war in Ukraine has attracted hundreds of foreign fighters with ties to the far-right who use the battlefield as a networking space. That includes dozens of Americans, some of whom have come home with new contacts and fighting experience. Outside Ukraine, white supremacist training camps exist in Poland, Bulgaria, and even the UK, and many white supremacist organizations operate transnationally (Weiner, 2020).

Boogalooers consider the police, which is the most accessible symbol of the government at public gatherings (Jones, 2021), an arm of the state that is enforcing “tyrannical” laws and directives. They foment this anti-law enforcement sentiment with references to past violent incidents as evidence of the government’s willingness to kill people who oppose its laws (ADL, 2020a). They refer to police as “soup bois” because federal agencies sometimes are referred to as “alphabet soup” due to their varied acronyms (Dazio, 2020). Boogaloo Facebook groups regularly featured jokes about men filling their lawn sprinklers with gasoline to light the police on fire (Beckett, 2021). One meme, posted in April 2020, showed a person in a helicopter shooting down at feral pigs on the ground with the caption “pig hunting: now.” The next image, captioned “pig hunting: boogaloo,” showed the same person shooting at cops (Miller, 2020). “If you look at their online spaces, their rhetoric is extremely violent,” SPLC’s Miller said. “A lot of it is kind of under this veneer of irony and humour, but there’s something very real to all of it,” (Jones, 2021).

Boogalooers have used the Files function in Facebook groups to upload dozens of planning documents, including military manuals, CIA handbooks, and instructions on how to reuse N95 facemasks, among other material. The most concerning document is one entitled Yeetalonians, a reference to the Boogaloo. At over 133 pages, the document provides an in-depth look at preparing for the Boogaloo and offers advice on what weapons should be used, what propaganda to distribute, and how to psychologically win over civilians to the cause. The document mentions “target selection,” noting that assassinations of figureheads are “overrated” but “some people have to go.” It discusses how to disrupt US government supply lines, noting that “national guard depots, police stations and factories that produce munitions are all very solid targets,” (Tech Transparency Project, 2020). According to the TTP report, the group engages in national-level coordination, as state and local chapters are where users share tactical information and survival tips, ranging from topographic map access to instructions for evading authorities (Mathias, 2020).

An assessment dated June 15, 2020, predicted that “violent adherents of the boogaloo ideology likely reside in the National Capital Region, and others may be willing to travel far distances to incite civil unrest or conduct violence encouraged in online forums associated with the movement.” It also noted that “while it identifies Washington D.C. as an attractive target, the Boogaloo ideology is not restricted to a specific region and those who wish to cause division are routinely using peaceful protests as means of cover” (Bertnard, 2020). 

Right-wing activist Duncan Lemp’s death helped solidify the nascent Boogaloo movement into a defined online subculture and galvanized their anti-police stance (SPLC, 2021). Police carrying out a search warrant shot and killed the 21-year-old Lemp during a SWAT raid in March 2020. Lemp’s family said he was killed while he was asleep in his bedroom. Groups honouring Lemp popped up in far-right internet spaces (Miller, 2020). In March 2020, a Missouri man (Timothy Wilson, 36) with ties to neo-Nazis was shot and killed when FBI agents tried to arrest him. Wilson told an undercover FBI agent that his goal was “to kick-start a revolution” and referred to his plans as “operation boogaloo” (Pineda, 2020). In May 2020, three Boogaloo members were arrested on terrorism-related charges in what federal prosecutors say was a conspiracy to spark violence during protests in Las Vegas over reopening businesses and Floyd’s death. Authorities allege the three white men filled gas cans and made Molotov cocktails in glass bottles and were headed to a BLM protest (Komenda, 2020).

During the riots in May 2020, after Floyd’s death, FBI agents got a tip that two members of the Boogaloo Boys had armed themselves. The suspects were talking about killing police officers and attacking a National Guard armoury to steal heavy weapons. The FBI deployed an undercover informant who posed as a member of Hamas and offered to help the suspects obtain explosives and training. After the suspects started talking about a plot to attack a courthouse, agents arrested them (Rotella, 2021). These cases show that, among others, violent instigators affiliated with the Boogaloo movement have hijacked peaceful protests and demonstrations across the country, (Pineda, 2020) for their own purposes (Valasik & Reid, 2020).

Far-right extremism is no longer solely dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence. The Boogaloo movement, in a divided, destabilised post-coronavirus landscape, could possibly contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities.

Anti-Mask Rally at the Ohio Statehouse – Boogaloo Boy infiltrates the counter-protest in Columbus, Ohio/US on July 18. 2020. Photo: Dan Fleckner.

Conclusion

The Boogaloo movement is part of a broader rise in far-right extremism in the US, as was predicted in the early years of the Obama presidency. US law enforcement agencies and the military have faced criticism for doing too little to monitor and prevent the radicalization of American citizens by violent white supremacists and other domestic right-wing extremists (Beckett, 2021) such as the Boogaloo Boys (or Bois). 

The pandemic has also been a fertile ground for far-right messaging, opening new platforms to radical activists and extremist movements. Violent extremists across the ideological spectrum have exploited the pandemic to take advantage of people who are at their most vulnerable, desperate, and available—relegated to their homes with little to distract them aside from surfing the Web. The dearth of large public gatherings and crowds moved the terrorism battlefield inside and online. But with an anti-government message designed for online virality, twenty-first-century extremists and accelerationists were especially well positioned to profit from this shift (Weiner, 2020). 

As Crawford (2020) underlined, while it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of this trend, it is possible to sell some elements of far-right ideology, like the Boogaloo, to more mainstream audiences. Shifting those people away from these ideas may be as difficult as tackling the virus itself (Crawford, 2020). And the evidence so far suggests that the movement has succeeded in spreading its message – a message that can, as the recent arrests of Boogaloo movement adherents show, all too easily turn into real life threats (Weiner, 2020). While adapting themselves to the times, as Hinton (2021) noted, far-right extremism is no longer solely dependent on Trump and will remain a threat regardless of his public prominence. The Boogaloo movement, in a divided, destabilized post-coronavirus landscape, could possibly contribute to widespread violence in the streets of American cities

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

Jair Bolsonaro: Far-Right Firebrand and Cheerleader for Dictatorship

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

By Simon P. Watmough

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden in Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

 

“I am in favor of dictatorship”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2018 Elections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Government of Soldiers and Culture Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Year: Protests, Paralysis, and Pensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Photo: Mustafa Kirazli

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

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

By Ihsan Yilmaz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

 

The Shape-Shifter: Islamism and Young Erdogan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rebellious Erdogan with Moderate Views

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Photo: Kursat Bayhan

 

The Authoritarian Populist Surfaces

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

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

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

Public Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leader of the Ummah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Conclusion 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan. Photo: Awais Khan

Imran Khan: From Cricket Batsman to Populist Captain Tabdeli of Pakistan

Imran Khan is not the first to use populism to wield power in Pakistan. Religious leaders, political figures, and military generals have used faith and the promise of a better life to gain support or legitimize their actions. The uniqueness of Khan’s populism lies in the fact that he has been able to condense a host of diverse ideologies into a coherent populist narrative that has endeared him to “the people.” 

By Ihsan Yilmaz & Kainat Shakil

Imran Khan’s journey to the corridors of parliament is unique for a country like Pakistan. Most political personalities in Pakistan have risen from the landed elites (the jagirdars), a small group of business tycoons, or the military – the latter, dictators turned “democrats.” 

Pakistan’s first democratic, pseudo-populist leader, the iconic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was a member of the landed elite in Sindh; his grandfather and father were both active in the politics of British India. Following Bhutto’s execution, leaders from his party, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were family members, including his daughter Benazir Bhutto, his son-in-law Asif Ali Zardari, and currently, his grandson, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. 

The other major leadership during the country’s intermittent democratic periods have emerged from the Sharif family. With a background in the steel industry, the brothers Shahbaz and Nawaz Sharif rose to power in the 1980s, promoted by the dictator Zia ul Haqas as a right-wing counter to the left-leaning PPP. The Sharifs rose to power from the heartland of Punjab; today, the second generation of Sharifs is guided by Mariam Nawaz and Hamza Shahbaz, the faces of the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N). 

Amidst this backdrop, smaller parties have also horse-traded, generally relying on fraternity, kinships, wealth, and religion to amass support. 

Imran Khan’s immediate family did not come from an elite business or agrarian background. Rather, he was raised in an upper-middle-class family with an engineer father and a homemaker mother. He did not pursue politics as a career until his late 40s; before politics, played international cricket. To understand Khan’s political personality, one must thoroughly understand his public image before his political career began.  

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

The Iconic Sportsperson  

It is notable that many populist leaders portray themselves as a political “outsider,” thus promising a fresh start. Khan is also considered an outsider. An iconic cricketer, Khan dominated the cricketing world in the 1980s and 1990s. He was an Oxford-educated, anglicized Pakistani sportsman who spent most of his time overseas. Even before he became a national hero in 1992, Khan was a well-liked figure in Pakistan, due to his boyish charm and sportsmanship.

He became a hero while captain of Pakistan’s national cricket team. Under his captaincy, Pakistan won its first and only Cricket World Cup in 1992 after a hotly contested match against England. Cricket is one of the most watched and followed sports in Pakistan and holds a deep national significance. To millions of Pakistanis, Khan was the leader who led the nation to the much-awaited victory. The victory is cemented in the collective memory of Pakistanis as a miracle made possibly by Khan’s leadership. The Prime Minster and his party members have repeatedly used the victory to reaffirm the people’s faith in the “Captain’s” capabilities.      

To gain legitimacy as a political leader, Khan extensively changed his personal outlook, from that of a Westernized cricketer to an Islamized philanthropic politician. In 1988, Khan published an autobiographical account of his life in Imran Khan: An All-Rounder View. Revised in 1993, this was an account of his cricketing career. He also discussed coming to terms with his Muslim heritage and identity after spending considerable time in Western institutions. Khan put out another title in 1989, Imran Khan’s Cricket Skills. This book was meant for fans of the sport, to be used as a guide for honing their cricket skills. Using his celebrity status, Khan published a travelogue, Indus Journey: A Personal View of Pakistan in 1990. After admitting that he had come to terms with his identity, in his travelogue, Khan crossed the country and relived his memories of visiting key settlements and remains along the Indus River, showcasing Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage[2]

Three years later, in 1993, Khan published Warrior Race: A Journey Through the Land of the Tribal Pathans. The books dug even deeper into his heritage. The progression of his books shows that during the last years of his cricket career, he increasingly identified with his Pakistani and Muslim identity, shunning his westernized influences. His increasing interest and concern for Pakistan was visible in the considerable amount of time he began spending on philanthropy. Khan established the first cancer hospital in Pakistan, Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, in 1994. There was a personal side to this act, as Khan’s mother had succumbed to cancer which inspired him build the hospital. 

The hospital now has branches in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi (under construction). They provide world class free healthcare to oncology patients who could otherwise not afford treatment. Khan’s charitable work also led him to establish a not-for-profit educational institute, Namal. 

He accomplished these mega projects with tremendous support and faith from the public. He ran unparalleled cross-cultural campaigns to raise funds. The fundraisers were high-profile events; Princess Diana of Wales even attended one, while at the grassroots level, children called “Tigers” collected funds for the cause.  

The “reformed” image of an anglicized schoolboy become Pakistan’s hero philanthropist helped start Khan’s political career: Khan launched his political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI),[3] in 1996. PTI was a small, personality-driven party, run by Khan and several of his close friends and family members. The party catered to the population with a promise of reformist ideals – to deliver “justice” to “the people.” 

Khan needed to cut his ties with this “Western” past. He needed to move from national hero to Islamic philanthropist. Starting his sentences with “Bismillah,” thanking god for his blessings, and using rhetoric claiming he’d fallen “victim” to the “colonial” ways before finding the “true path” helped connect him to many Pakistanis.

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to public meeting held at Shahi Bagh in Peshawar, Pakistan on May 27, 2015. Photo: Awais Khan

The Beginning of a Political Career

In his most recent publication, Pakistan: A Personal History, published in 2011, Khan largely focused on his struggles with the PTI. He repeatedly and aggressively asserts his “Muslimness” in this book, a shift that coincides with his changing political ideology. Khan aligned himself with the populist religious sentiments of the conservative populace, a necessity for gaining political support.  

Khan was married to Jemima Goldsmith from 1995 to 2004. Goldsmith comes from a well-known Jewish family from Britain; this was a huge problem for Khan’s public image in Pakistan, where anti-Semitism and Zionist conspiracy theories are common (Aafreedi, 2019). It was unclear during the period if Goldsmith accepted Islam or not, another scandalous issue for Khan. He was also frequently photographed at niche, elite parties, where alcohol was the norm.[4]There were alleged affairs with models and socialites, further tarnishing his image. To make matters worse, Sita White, an American heiress, claimed Khan was the father of her daughter born out of wedlock (a claim disputed by Khan)[5] (Irish Times, 1997)

Khan needed to cut his ties with this “Western” past. He needed to move from national hero to Islamic philanthropist. Starting his sentences with “Bismillah,” thanking god for his blessings, and using rhetoric claiming he’d fallen “victim” to the “colonial” ways before finding the “true path” helped connect him to many Pakistanis, who feel defying the “Western” way of life is a test of one’s Muslimness. 

Khan was offered positions in the government of dictator General Zia ul Haq in 1988 and later in a caretaker government in 1993; he declined both (Mir, 2018). His decision to stay as an “outsider” further bolstered his claims as a political leader not chasing money or power but seeking to fight for the people

Amidst this backdrop, Khan and the PTI competed in their first general elections in 1997. Their symbol was the cricket bat, despite Khan focusing more on his humanitarian work inspired by key Muslim figures such as Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Though the party lost handily, Khan stayed in the public eye. He was critical of the PML-N government and the military status quo under Pervez Musharraf. Khan’s message was simple: “end corruption, clear out the political mafias” (The Guardian, 2008). He again declined invitations and pressure to join the pro-Musharraf alliance led by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-Q), once more maintaining his status as an outsider (Mir, 2018)

It was during this time that Khan became a fixture on the evening shows on several newly formed private television channels. He used this platform to voice his concerns for what he called “the people’s issues.” 

The PTI won their first seat in the National Assembly in 2002. Post-9/11, Pakistan was engulfed in the war on terror. Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan made it a close ally of the US and the Bush administration. On Pakistan’s western front, a porous border, wild terrain, a lack of governance, and the presence of local radical factions allowed for fleeing Taliban members to seek shelter. Over the next decade, Pakistan was seriously impacted by the war in Afghanistan. Public and military buildings – including markets, shrines, and schools – were targeted by  suicide bombers; radicalism surged, and so did the military’s involvement in various operations in an attempt to drive out the radicals. The US used drones to target various radical and Taliban leaders, killing large numbers of civilians and destroying property. The region saw an influx of refugees from Afghanistan and scores of internally displaced people, too. 

It was during this time that Khan became a fixture on the evening shows on several newly formed private television channels. He used this platform to voice his concerns for what he called “the people’s issues.” He railed against the government for not aiding internally displaced citizens and for becoming so dependent on the US, it wouldn’t object to the drone strikes on sovereign Pakistani soil. Educated, middle-class Pakistanis responded to his humanitarian narrative: “Are these people not humans? These humans have names. Drone attacks are a violation of human rights” (Chowdhry & Houreld, 2012).  

Khan took an openly critical view of the situation, and one of his interviews sums up his stance: “We (Pakistan and the CIA and USA), created these militant groups to fight the Soviets… Jihadis were heroes then……. the US packs up and leaves Afghanistan… And we were left with these groups…. Pakistan again joins the US (post 9/11) in the war on terror and now we are required to go after these groups as terrorists… so, Pakistan took a real battering in this” (Press Trust of India, 2019)

Opposition to government and US involvement continued throughout this period. These views were in line with public sentiment, as most conservatives opposed the US and civil society felt cornered under the autocratic, military-led government. Another humanitarian issue, popular in war torn areas and amongst civil society groups, concerned missing persons[6]. Khan also took up the mantle for this cause, specifically missing persons from Balochistan. Once more, the government was seen as negligent and too beholden to the US (Mir, 2018)

Khan was the politician who brought these issues to light while the PPP and PML-N stayed silent on matters regarding, for instance, the right to a free trial and other civil liberties and safeties. Khan was “brave” and “outspoken,” a man who spoke for “justice” by standing up to the US. After winning his first seat in the National Assembly, Khan continued his crusade against US influence and “puppet politicians” as he spent most of his time in office acting as a lone opposition voice on terrorism-related issues and civilian rights. By the end of the Musharraf regime, Khan had staged several protests – such as hunger strikes – for the restoration of unconstitutionally dismissed judges and actively took part in an alliance along with other major parties and civil society members to call for new and fair elections in 2008 (Inskeep, 2008; Walsh 2007)

Khan’s increasing anti-West rhetoric also coincided with his divorce from Goldsmith in 2004. The former cricketer, who once frequently wore Western clothes, now appeared increasingly in the Pakistani-styled kurta and shalwar and was no longer married to a “Jewish foreigner.” He increasingly raised “Muslim” issues and characterized the American war in Afghanistan and its impacts on Pakistan as a “West versus Islam” issue, a highly popular narrative with the general public. He became the face of the protests surrounding issue of desecrating the Quran at Guantanamo Bay in 2005. Khan exclaimed, “This is what the US is doing… desecrating the Quran” (Rajghatta, 2005). His comments greatly undermined Musharraf, causing mass civil unrest in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which led to 16 people killed in rioting in Afghanistan (The Week, 2020). As part of his opposition to Pakistan’s involvement in the war on terror, he also led protests to blockade food and army supplies from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at the Peshawar highway, en route to Afghanistan (Express Tribune, 2011). All of this was viewed as “heroic” in the eyes of many Pakistanis who did not approve of their country’s involvement in the American’s Afghan war.       

Khan refused to partake in the 2008 elections, which he felt were not free and fair. Questioning the electoral credibility of the country’s democratic system added a new dimension to his populism. Before the elections he said, “Across the spectrum, from the right to the left, [Pakistanis] want Musharraf to go…. The U.S. administration must be getting this information. In Pakistan, according to all the polls, [U.S. officials] are backing someone who is deeply unpopular in the country” (Inskeep, 2008). He expressed deep resentment towards the regime.  Soon, Musharraf resigned, and a PPP-led government came to power while Khan remained outside politics until his party participated again in the 2013 elections, where they had their most successful campaign ever, winning a majority of seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. 

Remodelling the Kaptan[7]  

Khan rapidly rebranded from 2008-2013. His new, populist, Islamized brand was spread on private media channels and on social media platforms such as Facebook.

He increasingly asserted that his decision to enter politics was for “the people” and not for fame, money, or power – in contrast to the “corrupt elite” politicians who were in power. Khan also asserted he felt the “pain” of the masses and sought inspiration from the work of pan-Islamist philosophers and freedom movement political leaders, to finally realize the Pakistan that Muhammad Ali Jinnah had envisioned. Since his autobiography’s publication in 2011, Khan used the examples of Prophet Mohammed and the first four Muslim Caliphs to highlight his aspirations to deliver good governance on the “Islamic model.” 

By the early 2010s, Imran Khan had shunned his western ways and aligned with populist issues concerning religion and governance. He said, “I call them [‘Westernized’ Pakistanis] coconuts: brown on the outside, white on the inside, looking at Pakistan through a westernised lens” (Walsh, 2011). Before the 2013 elections, he leaned into anti-American rhetoric, anti-corruption slogans, and quick fixes to the people’s problems – and he spread this message at huge rallies called jalsas, hosted across the country. 

While Khan had become more “Muslim,” his outlook and rhetoric balanced this newfound religiosity with a host of liberal ideologies. While using references to Islam and anti-corruption slogans, he was also able to masterfully use crude, common, and at times bold language to challenge the status quo, which resonated with the masses.     

While Khan had become more “Muslim,” his outlook and rhetoric balanced this newfound religiosity with a host of liberal ideologies. On most issues, he remained vague – the biggest example of this being his conviction about the “good” and “bad” Taliban. Khan has repeatedly asserted that the Taliban were created by the US as a counter to the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s; abandoned by the US, these groups – originally called the Mujahideen – turned against their former allies, resulting in the 9/11 attacks (Afzal, 2019; Mullah, 2017). Khan sought a peaceful resolution to the conflict and blamed the Pakistani and American governments for using controversial measures. To liberal factions, his call for meditation and rehabilitation was appealing, as military intervention had only made matters worse. At the same time, anti-West rhetoric was popular in conservative groups and his sympathy for the group, which Khan believed was justified by Islam, earned him the trust of extremist factions which previously saw him as part of Zionist conspiracy theories (Boone, 2012).

Khan saw cosmic justice or karma in the Taliban’s “freedom fight” against the “outsiders”; with full confidence, Khan asserted, “It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad …The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad” (Boone, 2012; Dawn; 2012). Khan supported the ultra-right-wing coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and opposed operations against radical militants in the tribal areas. He also protested madrassa reforms. Together, these stances earned him the moniker, “Taliban Khan” in international media – and favourable reception at home in both conservative and liberal circles (Pataudi, 2012; Guardian, 2005).  

Corruption and governance were frequent features in Khan’s vocabulary. The PPP’s leader, Asif Ali Zardari, was known for rampant corruption during his wife’s last two tenures as prime minister. This supported Khan when he called out the “corrupt elite.” The PTI leader soon attacked PML-N leaders, such as Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, questioning their development programs in Punjab – and in particularly Lahore, the province’s capital and the hometown stronghold of the Sharifs. These programs were accused of focusing on infrastructure and beautification, ignoring the rampant poverty. Khan cast himself as an outsider and promised to fix the “people’s” problems. He wouldn’t fill his pockets with “blood money.” Khan’s views can be summed up in an interview: 

“I have been critical of the generals in the past. I told them they are selling our blood for dollars…But this is not martial rule.[8] It’s up to our corrupt government to take responsibility… We [him and the PTI] would go back to the people(Walsh, 2011).

Media and social media brought Khan unapparelled fame, as his populist rhetoric was well received by the masses who yearned for change and relief. PTI jalsas were a unique occurrence and designed to create an intimate connection between “the leader” and “the people.” PTI might have been the political party with many faces, but Imran Khan was the face of these gatherings. 

Paradoxically, Khan’s image successfully attracted members of the middle class to his gatherings. These events were like much loved melas[9]. Unlike other political rallies, they featured dancing – with women free to partake – and musical performance by leading Pakistani bands and singers. Particularly attracting urban younger and more “modern” citizens,[10] these rallies – headlined by fiery speeches by Khan – were a mainstay of social mediatabdeli was a trending hashtag. The huge fan following that Imran Khan amassed led his followers to be called youthias (youngsters), or more commonly insafyans (justice seeks). By the early 2010s, Khan’s populism was an amalgamation of piecemeal ideologies rooted in Islamism, anti-Westernism, anti-elitism, calls for public reforms, and a desire to give “power” to the people. Together, he was seeking change – or what he called tabdeli. Thousands had gathered at the PTI’s Lahore gathering in 2011, making Khan a formidable contender by the 2013 general elections. 

The PR rebranding had paid: had transformed from a Western captain to an Islamized kaptan (Urdu word for captain). These mass gathering were called tsunamis – a symbol for the revolutionary change that Imran Khan would bring; using his “bat” he would “knock out” the wicked and corrupt and lead the country to the “people’s victory” and “glory.” 

This image was not accidental: it was crafted in the speeches Khan delivered. While using references to Islam and anti-corruption slogans, he was also able to masterfully use crude, common, and at times bold language to challenge the status quo, which resonated with the masses. He was considered bold for calling out the state’s pattern of taking a “begging bowl” to the IMF or US. At the same time, he crudely yet hysterically poked fun at Zardari and the Sharifs on the basis of their appearances or policy decisions, evoking deep emotions through his charisma combined with a “common” style (Kari, 2019).        

Khan became a pop cultural icon. Clothing lines designed women’s clothing such as kurtas and scarfs with Khan’s faces on them; kids and women painted their faces with the colour of PTI flags for the rallies (Dawn 2015). Fan carried or wore pop-art posters and badges. Wearing an Imran Khan themed item was a political statement against the status quo. Khan’s online army of insafyans was busy sharing video featuring his rallies and quotes, as well as memes comparing him to the country’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Mufti, 2016).

Polls showed that 68 percent saw Khan as the favoured leader in the county. During this period, Khan’s “official account got around 100,000 hits daily and a Facebook account [received] 500,000 [hits]” (Mufti, 2016). The virtual space worked in his favour; given his background as a sports star, he knew how to optimize his public presence and earned the title “Facebook Khan” (Gulzar, 2018). Khan was a national populist phenomenon who captivated conventional and social media.     

Social media followers still rave when Khan’s official account posts his workout pictures, which make him seem active, hard-working, and glamorous compared to his counterpart Nawaz Sharif, known for his gluttonous indulgences. Khan’s social media army is highly intolerant of any opposition directed at their leader; they have been known to be abusive towards various factions of society, a sign of how deeply they believe in Khan and his message. Some call them “blind followers” (Mehdi, 2013). The supporters’ sentiments have been adopted by Khan’s increasingly autocratic populism. He has openly targeted his critics by calling them agents of “India’s fascist government”; since taking power, he has simply used regulatory authorities to muffle dissent or criticism directed towards him or the party.                

From Pakistan’s Last Hope to “U-Turn” Khan 

Imran Khan successfully framed the election as a choice between corrupt politicians and an honest man who already had money and fame but was willing to risk it all because he felt the nation’s pain and wanted to restore Pakistan to greatness.

Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman, Imran Khan addresses to his supporters during public gathering held on December 11, 2012 in Lodheran. Photo: Asianet-Pakistan

 

Mainstream Opposition (2013-2018) 

Before 2013, Khan announced that his party would hold internal by-elections to prove they were different from the mainstream parties, which remain feudalistic and hereditary. This further strengthened his image as a populist outsider who was willing to diverge from business as usual. However, this was merely a distraction from the criticism that was mounting when PTI welcomed “electable” politicians – defectors from the mainstream political parties (Mufti, 2016).Khan’s experience made him understand the need for electable politicians. Khan argued: “You contest elections to win. You don’t contest elections to be a good boy. I want to win. I am fighting elections in Pakistan, not Europe. I can’t import European politicians” (Rehman 2018). In a party statement, PTI said: “The nation must strengthen the hands of Imran Khan since he is the only politician who can steer the country out of the prevailing crisis” (Sadaqat, 2017). Thus, anyone critical of the party’s leader was a supporter of the corrupt elites – or, worse, an unpatriotic citizen who did not want to make Pakistan a better place. “True people” were those who supported PTI; the rest were naïve or traitors and following the “old ways”; they weren’t ready for the change that would build a “New Pakistan.”           

Two major developments occurred when Imran Khan secured his tenure in the 2013 elections. Firstly, PTI formed a provincial government in KPK province by aligning with the ultra-right Jamaat-e-Islmai (JI). Khan pledged to reform KPK over the next five years. The party implemented new policies, include welfare reforms, a reformist agenda for public office, an effort to improve technology, and calls for justice. All of this was in line with Khan’s promises for a naya[11]Pakistan (Daudzai, 2018).  

The technocratic solutions in KPK, made to directly benefit the people, were placed in sharp contrast to the infrastructure-led developments made in Punjab, the stronghold of the Sharif brothers and the ruling party. He mocked the PML-N leaders as jangla-Sharifs with their jangla bus project;[12] While Khan’s policies benefitted the people, the PML-N was accused of using development projects to support their steel business by pocketing public funds (Daily Motion, 2017). PTI’s tree planting drive in KPK also earned Khan great support, as he became a rare politician who was concerned about climate change in a country where the leaders never pay attention to it (Gishkori, 2020).  

Unfortunately for Khan and the PTI, it was soon clear that his populist agenda was not easily translatable into effective policies. While KPK was the model for PTI’s policies, the technocratic reforms brought little development for the common people, as governance – especially at the local level – remained incapacitated, making it impossible to implement policies (Daudzai, 2018).

Moreover, Khan had pressed for “peaceful” resolutions to the insurgent violence in the province; yet during the PTI’s tenure, two military operations were carried out – Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad. Further, to appease the JI faction of their coalition, Khan turned a blind eye to the Islamization of school curriculums in the province; rather than rehabilitation and deradicalization – a PTI promise – public education was Islamized, with Quran classes made compulsory in schools (Abbasi, 2017; Dawn, 2014)

Ironically, Khan – who had opposed the Lahore transit project launched by Shahbaz Sharif – developed his very own metrobus project in Peshawar, KPK’s capital. He carefully marketed it as holistic, transparent, cost effective, and for the people; in reality, the project was behind schedule and over budget (Khan, 2019). And after having railed against corruption, Khan’s “tree tsunami” project was embroiled in a corruption scandal (Gishkori, 2020)

To divert attention from PTI’s failure to deliver on its promises, Khan used his time in office to attack PML-N’s leadership. It was an effort to gain anti-establishment support. Khan’s magnetic presence in the media allowed him to shift attention elsewhere. His crafty oratory, frank mannerisms, and fiery speeches made him the man to “save” Pakistan from the PML-N’s corrupt leadership. 

Khan successfully framed the election as a choice between corrupt politicians and an honest man who already had money and fame but was willing to risk it all because he felt the nation’s pain and wanted to restore Pakistan to greatness (Yousaf, 2015; Dailymotion, 2016).

His skills were highlighted when the 2014 “Azadi March” was launched. It featured scores of political rallies across the country, and PTI joined hands with the right-wing religious party, Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), which was spearheaded by Dr. Tahir-ul-Qadri for a mass sit-in in Islamabad. The mission of the march was to “unmask corruption,” but Khan famously said, “This [the Azadi March] is beyond it [election rigging campaign]… the Pakistani people are not sheep that can be herded; we must empower people” (Dailymotion, 2014).

The usual jalsas were attended by thousands. They were no longer just for the middle class, but the working class, too. Khan gained support for his naya Pakistan agenda. His plan merged three key elements: Islamism, conspiracies, and a promise for welfare reforms. The country was seeing price hikes of basic commodities despite huge foreign investments being made by China. Khan merged the ideologies of welfare-ism and Islamism when he promised that naya Pakistan would be modelled on the state of Medina, from the times of Prophet Mohammad. Khan promised to end corruption in 19 days and terrorism in 90 days, and a key feature of this promise hinged on bringing “back every single penny of the looted money from the corrupt political leaders” (The News, 2020). 

Khan introduced a highly ambitious 100-day agenda which promised to bring back looted wealth and to implement welfare policies and governance for the people (Pakistan Today, 2018). His party has presented him as the “struggling hero” who sleeps on the ground or in a container, in the cold, just like the ordinary people. The party has also emphasized his struggle to bring power to the Pakistani people and to guide them in the light of the Qur’an and best Islamic practices, to eliminate the injustices and corruption of the political elite and foreign powers (Dailymotion, 2014).

The release of the Panama Papers further aided Khan’s cause of driving out “corrupt politicians,” when the names of Nawaz Sharif and his family members surfaced in money embezzlement cases. Khan promised vengeance and liberation from the “blood sucking” politicians, a message that especially resonated with young voters. One of his speeches summarized his tone: “Nawaz Sharif! Nawaz Sharif you shall be held accountable! You all shall be held accountable! Nawaz Sharif you will be the first one held accountable and after that each and every one shall be accounted for!” (YouTube, 2016). The crowd chanted, “Go Nawaz Go,” in support of Khan – the chant became the number one trending hashtag in Pakistan. 

In addition to the mass rallies, Khan pushed court cases against Nawaz Sharif and his family members; this led to the former being disqualified from office. During a “Thanksgiving” jalsa[13] Khan started his speech by thanking Allah and congratulating the masses on their first “victory.” He claimed this was only the beginning of the country’s journey to greatness (Khan, 2016). Like most populists, Khan promised deliverance without clear plans, yet the pro-public sentiment of his statements earned considerable support among the disaffected populace.  

By 2018, Khan had transformed into a kaptan by promising a Muslim welfare state where all the corrupt sinners would be jailed and Pakistan would no longer be a beggar or a puppet of America. Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification was his trophy, which he flaunted to the public ahead of the 2018 elections.

Imran Khan previously criticized politicians as “ribbon cutters” who used ceremonies for PR purposes; however, since assuming office, he has attended countless ceremonies of projects that have been launched at the planning level but have not yet been fulfilled. Faced with constant U-turns, Khan has also used a blend of conspiracy theories and misuse of state institutions to distract from the shortcomings of his leadership and government. 

Imran Khan, addresses a press briefing on April 20, 2016 in Islamabad. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

 

Leadership (2018-Present)

Since assuming office as prime minister, Khan has done something of a U-turn. Since coming to power, the PTI has been unable to deliver on any of its promises, other than building a special task force to recover looted national wealth (Dawn, 2021). Promises of shelter, social welfare, youth job creation, access to quality education, and other ideals have been left on the drawing board or halted (Dawn, 2021). For instance, the promise to end corruption in the first 100 days vanished

Imran Khan previously criticized politicians as “ribbon cutters” who used ceremonies for PR purposes; however, since assuming office, he has attended countless ceremonies of projects that have been launched at the planning level but have not yet been fulfilled (Qayum, 2020)

To gain clout, Khan has successfully renamed welfare programs for PR purposes; for example, the Benazir Income Support Program’s (BISP) elements have been merged and branded with the Ehsas Welfare Program; and health cards that were launched during the last government are now rebranded as the Sehat Suhalat Program (Shat Suhalat, 2021; Junaidi, 2016). Such rebranding is a common practice in Pakistan. Khan promised to end Pakistan’s “brain drain” by inviting technocrats from overseas to “fix” the country, and so far, it has ended in a disaster, as Tania Aidrus, who was leading the digital Pakistan initiative, has resigned, and Zafar Mirza, the advisor on heath, did the same. Khan’s failure to deliver has meant that his promise to attract foreign investment from expat Pakistanis has failed to materialize (Khan, 2020). 

Not only has Imran Khan been unable to instil change, but under his leadership, a lot of backtracking from promises has been made. Two examples include Dr. Atif Mian being dismissed from the Economic Advisory Council (EAC) based on his religious identification with the Ahmadi school of thought,[14] and Khan taking “the begging bowl” to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after years of severe criticism of the IMF (Farmer, 2020; Dawn, 2020). 

Faced with constant U-turns, Khan has used a blend of conspiracy theories and misuse of state institutions to distract from the shortcomings of his leadership and government. Since coming into government, he has used the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to attack opposition media such as the Jang Group and subsidiaries such as Geo Channel (Ellis-Petersen & Baloch, 2019). Under the Khan government, any anti-state or government content seen on social media is portrayed as an “outside” attack, intended to alter the perspectives of Pakistani citizens (Butt, 2021)

Moreover, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has, throughout PTI’s tenure, targeted various PML-N leaders on suspicion and accusations of corruption. While there are credible accusations of corruption, PTI has mostly escaped scrutiny despite similar allegations (Farooq, 2020; Shar; 2019, Zubair, 2019). In addition to PEMRA, Khan’s government has created tighter rules for social media regulation under the Citizens Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules, 2020; these acts grant the government a permit to ask Google, YouTube, and other sites to ban or block content they consider unfit (Chabba, 2020).

Khan has also been directly confrontational towards the judiciary. In 2007, he went on a hunger strike to support the judiciary, and in 2017, he praised them for their “just” decision to dismiss Nawaz Sharif from office; during his tenure, he has pressured the judiciary on two occasions. Khan and the PTI used parliament to overrule the judiciary, extending the service tenure of the Chief of Army Staff. He also challenged the death sentence handed out to dictator Pervez Musharraf.Referencing Musharraf’s death sentence, Khan said, “People’s trust in judicial system has been shaken” (Dawn, 2020)

Khan’s tenure has seen increasing inflation and unemployment, in addition to the already dire economic conditions. The opposition parties have formed a coalition to challenge his office. Khan has called this opposition anti-state and enemies of the state; he’s called them “Indian” agents and members of foreign plots against Pakistan. This populist rhetoric resonates with Pakistanis who have been using conspiracy theories for decades to externalize the nation’s failures. Thus, it has now become a fight between the “state” and its “people.” Imran Khan has publicly called Nawaz Sharif a traitor, and Khan’s government has banned media from airing Sharif’s speeches due to “seditious” content (Dawn, 2020). 

Khan and PTI have also deflected attention by externalizing blame. He uses the “honest man” strategy, positioning himself as the one humble man the people can trust. He believes that he had an “unfair” start because the system is so corrupt and damaged that he cannot deliver his promises with 100 days. He admits his failures and has pled with the people to give him time; he promises he will deliver only if they have “faith in him” (Khawar, 2020). Simultaneously, he has also externalized blamed, pointing the finger at India for allegedly sponsoring terrorism in the country and lobbying against Pakistan in the global arena. These are highly sensitive nerve endings amongst the public, who feel touched by Khan’s humbleness while also feeling sorry for his plight. All the while, they believe his claims; a majority of Pakistanis view India as a malicious actor.

Imran Khan has used the state apparatus to launch witch hunts against political rivals and silence opposition. This is dangerous in a country where, historically, the separation of power between the judiciary, parliament, the state bureaucracy, and security forces are muddled.

Enthusiastic Youth going towards the venue Minar-e-Pakistan to attend Imran Khan’s political rally on October 30, 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo: Jahanzaib Naiyyer

 

Khan’s Populism and its Consequences  

Imran Khan is not the first to use populism to wield power in Pakistan. Religious leaders, political figures, and military generals have used faith and the promise of a better life to gain support or legitimize their actions. The uniqueness of Khan’s populism lies in the fact that he has been able to condense a host of diverse ideologies into a coherent populist narrative that has endeared him to “the people.” 

An example of this is the Single National Curriculum Plan (SNCP), which aims to bring equity to the education system by having a single curriculum for public and private schools. In a country where quality education is a privilege few enjoy, SNCP is a symbol of equity and the promise of justice in naya Pakistan. At the same time, its highly Islamized aspects – including teaching Quranic verses and the life and sayings of the Prophet (from a Sunni interpretation) – appease the religious sentiments of the populace. SNCP also represents a move away from “Westernized” education to a more indigenous model. PTI advertises SNCP as true to the values and norms of Pakistani culture (in reality, Sunni Islamic culture). Thus, in one policy proposal, Khan combines anti-Western and anti-elitism with Islamism and reform.

In three years, Khan has used the state apparatus to launch witch hunts against political rivals and silence opposition. This is dangerous in a country where, historically, the separation of power between the judiciary, parliament, the state bureaucracy, and security forces are muddled. Khan has again merged various ideologies such as anti-corruption, anti-elitism, conspiracies, and a quest to make Pakistan a “just Islamic state” modelled on Medina to justify his vindictive, autocratic behaviour. 

These choices have set up a choice between the “people” – that is, those pure ones on the right (religious) side – and those who oppose the people. This latter group includes traitors and Indian spies, members of the elite, or those brainwashed by Western sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The “otherization” of critics and those who do not identify with Khan’s narrative leaves little room for pluralism.                   

Khan’s merged ideologies and populist rhetoric are primarily defined by Islamism as a way of viewing the world and an agent of change to answer all social issues. His supporters are overwhelmingly young (again, a majority of Pakistanis are under 30), which makes his support worrying. His tenure has promoted Quranic education, Muslim victimization, a wave of pan-Islamism, and fear of the “West” and non-Muslims. For these policies, and radicalizing the country’s youth, Khan has been named amongst “The Muslim 500” (The News, 2020). When a number of Shia and ethnically Hazara were massacred in 2021, Khan blamed India for “sponsoring terrorism,” even though his policies have done little to ensure that interfaith harmony is promoted in an already radicalized society. 

Captaincy of the country has led Khan to make many compromises or U-turns; his image as a political “outsider” or miracle worker are no longer valid; he has struggled to turn populist dreams into the reality of a naya Pakistan. To cover his shortcomings, like other populist leaders, he has misused power and deflected blame to imagined external threats. He also doubled down on his populism, “otherized” internal critics, and tried to construct their criticism as illegitimate. Moreover, by codifying populism into educational policy and spreading conspiracy theories, Khan’s tenure is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Pakistan’s social fabric.

References 

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— (2005). “When you speak out, people react.” The Guardian. Aug. 31, 2005. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2005/aug/31/cricket.pakistan (accessed on January 1, 2021).

— (2011). “Imran Khan to protest against drone strikes.” Express Tribune. April 7, 2011. https://tribune.com.pk/story/144916/imran-khan-to-protest-against-drone-strikes (accessed on January 1, 2021).   

— (2012). “Khan, Taliban and the Crackpot Science.” Dawn. Nov. 2, 2012. https://www.dawn.com/news/760981/khan-taliban-and-the-crackpot-science (accessed on January 1, 2021).

— (2014). “Wazirabad scuffle.” Dawn. Oct. 3, 2014. https://www.dawn.com/news/1135800/ (accessed on December 27, 2020).    

— (2015). “Siyasat and style: The story behind Imran’s kurta and Altaf Bhai’s aviators.” Dawn. May 29, 2015. https://www.dawn.com/news/1181520 (accessed on January 1, 2021).

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Footnotes

[1] Tabdeli is an Urdu work that is used to describe reform and change. This word has become synonymous with Imran Khan.    

[2] The Indus River is the largest river system in Pakistan. Historically, cities and settlements, from north to south, have developed along the river. Thus, it holds immense cultural significance.   

[3] Pakistan Movement for Justice  

[4] In Pakistan possessing and drinking alcohol is a punishable offense.   

[5] In Pakistan sex outside marriage is a punishable offence. The Hudood Ordinances, at the time, consisted of Zina (extramarital) Ordinance, which before 2006, could hand jail sentences of up to 10 years along with stoning to death for the adulterer and a public whipping of 100 lashes for a fornicator. 

[6] In Pakistan ‘missing persons’ are people who have gone missing by being abducted or killed by state intuitions. These occurrences have also been called the ‘enforced disappearances.’   

[7] Captain 

[8] Talking about the central PPP Government and PML-N Punjab government

[9] Funfairs where locals celebrate with family and friends. They were once a common occurrence in Pakistan, but the wave of suicide bombings severely limited or hampered these once frequent occurrences where dance and music were common.   

[10] It is noteworthy that Pakistan has one of the youngest populations around the world. People under the age of 30 make up over 64% of the total population.  

[11] New Pakistan 

[12] Jangla-Sharif refers to the Metro Bus project in Lahore. PML-N had heavily invested in infrastructure projects during their two terms in Punjab.   

[13] After the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif Khan gathered his supports in a ‘Thanksgiving’ rally as they were ridded off ‘kind of corrupt.’    

[14] Ahmadis are a subsect of Muslims who have been declared non-Muslims in Pakistan; they are a highly persecuted group who face discrimination and even loss of life due to their religious affiliation. Extremist right-wing groups consider them wajib-ul-qatal (eligible to kill).   

Supporters of ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) wave party flags during an election rally in Istanbul on June 3, 2015.

The AKP’s Authoritarian, Islamist Populism: Carving out a New Turkey

The global tide of populism will leave a profound mark on Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) success during the past two decades, has hinged on Islamist authoritarian populism and been driven by its long-time leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “New Turkey” is now a reality. The AKP has been successful at dismantling the Kemalist ideals – ironically, perhaps, by using similarly repressing techniques, such as cracking down on civil liberties and democratic rights.

By Ihsan Yilmaz

The Survival of Islamic Parties in Turkey

The Republic of Turkey was born in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a symbol of power in the Muslim world for over six centuries. The decay and eventual collapse of the Ottomans following the First World War left the former Ottoman populace facing an identity crisis. With the monarchy disbanded, Turkey embarked on a transformative journey –a new republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is credited with moulding the country in his image. The “Kemalist” ideology hinges on six pillars: republicanism, nationalism, statism, populism, laicism, and reformism, all standing in sharp contrast with traditional Ottoman Muslim culture (Los Angeles Times, 1991)

For approximately eight decades, Kemalism prevailed as the state’s main narrative, with its intense focus on a homogeneous nation rooted in Turkish identity and disassociated from its Ottoman past. However, since the core of Ottoman rule was religion – the Ottoman Empire was the last remnant of the “caliphate” – the new Republic isolated a large number of conservative citizens. The focus on nationalism also isolated a significant number of non-Sunni Muslims, non-Muslims, and non-Turks. 

The leaders of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) initially positioned itself as a populist party that voiced the anxieties and grievances of the populace by not only representing the conservative factions but also a number of individuals/groups who felt rejected by Kemalist principles.

Yet, during its two decades in power, the AKP has increasingly identified with the “black Turks,” those who felt excluded by the politics of the “white Turks.” However, this has merely isolated the “white Turks.” Power, in contemporary Turkey, now rests with religiously “pure” Sunni-Turks predominantly from Anatolia. This populace embraces their “glorious” Ottoman past and seeks vengeance for decades of being wronged by Western powers and the “white Turks,” who are held up as representatives of Western ideals.  These “black Turks” – deeply religious, predominantly Anatolian Sunni Muslims – are “the people.”   

The AKP has been successful at manoeuvring its way into power by tapping into the population’s latent anxiety, paranoia, resentment, a sense of victimhood. The party has further divided Turkey between “the people” and “the other.” Increasingly, it uses the same tactics to defend its autocratic tendencies (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The AKP’s populism has gradually eroded Kemalist nationalism, birthing a new institutionalized narrative for Turkish citizenry – a “New Turkey” (Yilmaz, Caman & Bashirov, 2020). The AKP has constructed this counter ideology using autocratic populism legitimized by Islamist nationalism (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).

Late Islamist populist politician Necmettin Erbakan.

The AKP is the first successful modern Islamist party to complete its term in power, in Turkey. Formed in 2001, the party comes from a line of members who have either been directly involved with or influenced by a series of right-wing ideologies, primarily from Necmettin Erbakan and his political parties. Erbakan’s Milli Gorus (National View) had, since the 1970s, given a generation of Turkish politicians a right-wing, pan-Islamic inspiration and direction. Milli Gorus focused on calling Muslims to save Islam from becoming lost in Western values, thus calling Muslim “brothers” to unite in their efforts against the quote “Zionist” lobby. Erbakan, throughout his life, was a vocal critic of the West and “Zionists.” He was known for his anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic statements: 

All Infidel nations are one Zionist entity”; “Jews want to rule from Morocco to Indonesia”; “The Zionists worked for 5,767 years to build a world order in which all money and power depend on Jews”; “The US dollar is Zionist money”; “The Jewish ‘bacteria’ must be diagnosed for a cure to be found”; “Zionists initiated the Crusades”; “Jews founded Protestantism and the Capitalist order”; “Bush attacked Iraq to build Greater Israel, so Jesus can return” (Vielhaber, 2012).

Traditionally, the highly secularized military had kept major Islamist parties at bay, while the majority of the public had been “secularized” by  the ideals of Kemalism. Yet, eight decades of crafting a new identity amongst a highly diverse and somewhat religious populace had created fissures in the society. 

Founding members of the AKP, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gul and Bulent Arinc, were raised on such rhetoric. They would eventually belong to the Virtue Party (Fazilet Partisi – FP). The FP was banned for violations against the constitution, which protected the Kemalist ideology. The disbanded members of the FP formed two separate parties – the AKP and the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi – SP) (Koni, Rosli, & Zin, 2015)

Traditionally, the highly secularized military had kept major Islamist parties at bay, while the majority of the public had been “secularized” by  the ideals of Kemalism. Yet, eight decades of crafting a new identity amongst a highly diverse and somewhat religious populace had created fissures in the society. Not only did Sunni Muslim factions feel marginalized, but so too did Kurds (15-20 percent of the country’s population) and Alevi (10-15 percent of the population). These groups were institutionally discriminated against or denied recognition, all in an effort to form a singular Turkish identity. This would be an ideal citizen, the secularized Sunni Turk (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017)

Widespread discrimination created resentment against the Kemalist governments. The AKP found an opportunity in this growing discontentment. It emerged as a “Muslim Democrat” party that would represent the discontented Sunni conservatives and historically marginalized ethnic and religious factions. In 2001, the AKP broke away from the Milli Gorus doctrine and positioned itself as a centre-right party. It was for the people and an answer to the rifts within society. 

While the AKP took a more reformist agenda with younger leaders from the former party, SP was led by Erbakan and a group of older Sunni Muslim men who stood by their hard-line views rooted in Milli Gorus. The AKP craftily separated itself as a reformed religiously “moderate” democratic party that offered an alternative to the status quo – the promise of liberalized Islamic democracy. One of Erdogan’s statement shows how he viewed the new party: “We don’t need bearded men who are good Koran reciters; we need people who do their job properly” (Genc, 2019).

The February 28, 1997, came down hard on Islamists and other non-Kemalist parties. The AKP’s earliest version used this oppression to position itself as a better alterative compared to the “secular elite” led by the military establishment. It became the voice of “the people”: Erdogan promised the party was dedicated to the welfare of the people rather than any ideology or personal agendas. “A cadre will run the party,” he said, “and decisions won’t be taken under the shadow of one leader…” 

His role was that of an “orchestra chief,” in his own words. The “age of me-centred politics is over,” he insisted (Genc, 2019). The AKP cautiously stepped into the corridors of power in 2002, winning 34.28 percent of the vote and defeating the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi – CHP). The military took a “wait and see” approach to the AKP; as a Turkish diplomat in 2002 said: “Erdogan knows what will happen if he oversteps a line.” 

Tip of the Iceberg: Two Sides of the AKP  

The performance of the AKP during its initial years hinged on making Turkey a prosperous nation – it was what their reformist agenda promised. They needed to make the economy strong, improve public welfare, and make Turkey a “bridge” between East and West. However, over the years this promise disintegrated and the AKP evolved into a populist authoritarian party. 

In 2007, to secure a second term in office, the AKP showed an early sign of its populism. Under Kemalist principles, to modernize and secularize society, women were barred from wearing a headscarf in public offices and educational institutions. The AKP predominantly represented Muslims; the potential first lady wore a headscarf. This was a point of contention –a clash of two ideologies, between the Kemalists and the AKP. As the AKP sought to reverse this ban, they were met by harsh criticism from the military, a digital campaign called “a digital coup”, and massive “Republican Rallies” in major cities calling out the increasing role of Islam in the supposedly secular fabric of Turkish society. 

In a bid to stop the AKP, a trial was launched by the military to keep the party in check. The trial did not lead to the AKP being banned, but severely limited the party’s funding. However, this fed into the AKP narrative of the corrupt elite and military trying to interfere in the democratic process.

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

 

In a bid to stop the AKP, a trial was launched by the military to keep the party in check. The trial did not lead to the AKP being banned, but severely limited the party’s funding. However, this fed into the AKP narrative of the corrupt elite and military trying to interfere in the democratic process. It very successfully played to the victimhood and fear of its conservative voter base, which had felt always coerced by the “westernized” military trying to impose “un-Islamic” principles on them. It also played the “humanitarian” card, where it defended freedom to practice one’s religion. As Hayrünnisa Gül explained, “There are not more headscarves than before; the headscarf-clad women have begun to be more active and as a result of this, more visible in social life” (Elver, 2014). The AKP won a second term with even more votes than in 2002. 

The AKP’s second term saw the infamous Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials. These were the AKP’s first moves to ensure that the Kemalist institutions could no longer threaten the party. The trials targeted Kemalist military generals and their accomplices, who were accused of plotting a coup against “the people.” During these trials, the AKP successfully used anti-Kemalist media propaganda and the anxieties of the Turkish people who had been denied freedoms by the “elite and military.” They needed the judiciary to “set an example” of those who tried to interfere with democracy. 

The trials were the preamble to the AKP’s 2010 Constitutional Referendum, which proposed a number of amendments to the Turkish constitution. In the build-up to the vote, the AKP increasingly positioned Kemalist institutions, like the military and judiciary, as the “enemy of the people” through Sledgehammer and Ergenekon. The 2010 referendum limited the military’s power and also paved way for more political control over the judiciary. It also financially benefitted the pseudo-capitalist AKP by allowing businesspeople with tax debts to go overseas (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017; Şahin & Hayirali, 2010). Essentiality, “the others” were defeated in favour of “the people.” The vote, to conservatives, represented that the “White Turks” had been dealt with – a reward for the former’s decades of suffering and humiliation during the Kemalist era. 

There was a marked change in the AKP’s posture following 2010. In early 2013, the Gezi Park protesters were brutally dealt with, and, to deflect criticism, the AKP painted them as “enemies” of the people. After this point, any opposition directed towards the AKP was “otherized” through a host of conspiracy theories playing on fear and paranoia. The Gezi Park protests, which began as a movement against the government’s plans to convert the public park in Istanbul’s Taksim Square into real-estate development, were peaceful – until riot police arrived and brutalized the protestors (Julia, 2018).

Civilians were visiting the Gezi Park and Taksim Square during Gezi Park protests at night. Photo: Ipek Morel

 

These peaceful protests were a symbol of resistance against the AKP’s clientelism, Islamism, and increasing autocratic tendencies. The riot police’s intervention led to many arrests and the deaths of 11 individuals. In the party’s defence, Erdogan emphasized that the protestors were Western sponsored liberal “terrorists,” who opposed development. He said, “we need to be courageous,” in defence of the riot police’s actions. Thus, civil society was deemed pro-Western, foreign-sponsored “terrorism” – in stark opposition to the “black Turks,” who were pious, pure, and dedicated to the party and state. The two – party and state – had become entwined, as the AKP was the flagship of faith and hope for security and prosperity (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017).                

The AKP’s first two terms were marked by several welfare-centric policies and public works that were promoted by the government, which helped it maintain the people’s confidence. This period saw a huge flux of neo-liberal reforms – including privatizing the public sector, which promised improved service delivery, and infrastructure development. These reforms drastically improved the country’s socio-economic standing in less than a decade. 

While these measures temporally improved conditions, in reality, they were – and are – being used as means to an end by the AKP. The party has currently plunged the country into an economic crisis, with inflation rates touching 12 percent and the Turkish lira drastically reduced against the US dollar. The crisis has only been made worse by the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown (BBC, 2020).      

Crony capitalism obscured by welfare-ism and neo-liberal reforms has placed AKP loyalists in various businesses, reinforcing a strong support (and donor) base for the party. The AKP uses state institutions as revenue collection bodies. Privatization and public procurement offices reward loyalists and punish opposition-owned or aligned businesses (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). Recklessly seeking financing for mega infrastructure projects has increased the public debt, yet the showcase projects have appealed to the general public. AKP supporters often espouse the view, “Sure, he may be stealing, but look at the new airports, hospitals, roads and bridges!” (Bilici, 2020). In other words, through such public investments, corruption is made socially acceptable. Thus, the AKP has successfully made visible changes to show that it has been doing something for the people, all while rewarding its loyalists and punishing opposition groups within the business and media communities. 

The AKP’s corruption was widely exposed for the first time in the December 2013 corruption and bribery scandal. In a leaked phone call between Erdogan and his son Bilal, they discussed how the father was not pleased with a bribe of USD 10 million being offered by Sıtkı Ayan, a fossil fuel company owner. Erdogan, who was then Prime Minister, urged his son, “Others can bring it, so why can’t he, huh? Who do they think is? But they are falling now, they’ll fall on our laps, don’t worry!” (Bilici, 2020). This bribe won Ayan and his petro-company a bid to construct a natural gas pipeline connecting Iran and Turkmenistan to Europe; in addition to winning the contract, the company was granted a huge state subsidy excepting it from various taxes (Bilici, 2020). A clear pattern is visible where the Treasury guarantees various loyal businesspersons when they try to access European banks for growth and investment (Bilici, 2020).  

A few months earlier, the AKP launched an attack on another civil society group: it labelled a pluralistic Islamic organization, known internationally as the Gulen Movement, as an enemy of the people. This attack was done to deflect attention from the government’s corruption, shifting the public’s attention. It was an autocratic move disguised as populism. Those who took up further investigations were soon purged by the AKP government. As the AKP gained more power, the identity of the “other” was constantly shifting – from Kemalists and “White Turks” to Gulenists, all of whom were used as scapegoats to divert attention from AKP corruption and to eliminate future opposition. 

Following the corruption probe, thousands of police officers, judges, and prosecutors were purged from their jobs – allegedly for “spying” on the government. Gulenists were accused of having erected a parallel structure within the state, undermining the AKP’s “pure” efforts. The government claimed members of this parallel structure had fabricated the corruption scandal. A potential critic was once more silenced through autocratic means. 

Another example of the AKP using populism to further its position in power revolves around its shattered hopes to join the European Union (EU). During its first two terms, the AKP faced pressure to meet EU membership requirements. To do so, the AKP not only needed to show that Turkey was financially prosperous – at that time, the country was on the road to achieving it – but it also had to comply with liberal democratic values. Its “Muslim Democrat” image was useful – it potentially offered a successful hybrid of Islam and liberal democratic values (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017). However, post-2013, the AKP’s increasing autocratic tendencies and the EU’s disinterest in Turkish accession have ensured that the AKP is not shy about its Islamist autocratic behaviours.  

Alongside creating a new bourgeoise to support itself, the AKP has also silenced freedom of the press by dismantling critical media and redistributing its “bounties” to pro-AKP media figures. This creates an environment where the AKP’s autocracy goes unchallenged, and the cover for it are fear and conspiracy-driven narratives that justify the AKP’s strict actions.

The AKP government appointed trustees to Zaman Media Group in Istanbul on March 4, 2016.

 

To hide its crony capitalism, the AKP has not only targeted civil society but also punished several media entities who have proved critical of the government. A prominent example is the Ipek Media Group, a media house which was even charged in court for “causing terrorism.” The media house was brutally raided, with police breaking windows and firing tear gas. The result of the charges led to a trial and subsequently the company was stripped of a significant number of subsidiaries that were given to public officials and its operation was handed out to designated “loyal” AKP trustees. The 2016 coup attempt led to the total shutdown of Ipek Media Group and forced the family to flee overseas, as members of the family were sentenced to as many as 79 years in prison for allegedly being members of a “terrorist group” (Bilici, 2020)

Thus, alongside creating a new bourgeoise to support itself, the AKP has also silenced freedom of the press by dismantling critical media and redistributing its “bounties” to pro-AKP media figures. This creates an environment where the AKP’s autocracy goes unchallenged, and the cover for it are fear and conspiracy-driven narratives that justify the AKP’s strict actions.

The autocratic tendencies have spread to the international sphere, too. In the spirit of liberal democracy, the AKP during its first term offered to launch a joint investigation with Armenia, a “fact finding” regarding the genocide which Turkey has denied for decades. The Ottoman genocide of the Armenian population has always been a controversial topic in Turkey; the previous Kemalist regimes and governments refused to recognize it. Armenia refused the AKP’s offer and demanded outright recognition (Council on Foreign Relations, 2007). Over the next decade, as Turkey’s EU hopes faded, the AKP used the Turkey-Armenia rivalry to gather populist support at home.

Increasingly, the AKP has blended its autocracy with Islamism and pro-Turk nationalism, which is carried out through penal populism. In a trickledown of the post-2013 events, the AKP has promulgated an image of “being tough on crime” by criminalizing the ever-expanding category of “others.”

The party has also practiced “trans-populism.” In 2020, the AKP involved itself in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia (BBC, 2020). In a proxy-war facilitated by Azerbaijan, Turkey emerged as a “strong” Muslim nation, militarily boosting its neo-Ottoman claims at home and allowing the AKP to distract the Turkish people from the country’s dire economic situation. By claiming a victory for “the pure people” and the “ummah,” the AKP bolstered its Islamist image and justified its foreign interventions.  

Increasingly, the AKP has blended its autocracy with Islamism and pro-Turk nationalism, which is carried out through penal populism. In a trickledown of the post-2013 events, the AKP has promulgated an image of “being tough on crime” by criminalizing the ever-expanding category of “others.” For example, in 2015, the AKP strained relations with the Kurds by dismantling a truce with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); the party needed a new antagonist to divert attention for the party’s own failures (Karadeniz, 2015; Smith, 2005). Erdogan justified his government’s actions by positioning pro-Kurdish factions in the society as a threat: “It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood” (Karadeniz, 2015). The end of the truce meant that domestic terrorism rose in the country, creating the need for a party that was “tough.” Of course, the AKP fit the bill. 

The Kurds – specifically the PKK – had already been side-lined under previous Kemalist governments. Even speaking Kurdish can land a person in jail in Turkey. But the AKP drummed up a security conflict to make the populace feel threatened and insecure, ensuring that people desired a “strongman” party to once again lead them out of this “crisis” (Karadeniz, 2015)

The AKP’s use of penal populism is not limited to Kurdish separatist groups. To curb opposition political parties, the AKP has craftily extended this “threat” to encompass not just “terrorist” Kurdish separatists but also any party that is sympathetic to the ethnic group. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) routinely secured a significant number of votes in local elections, helped mediate the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, and, in the 2015 parliamentary elections, briefly became the third largest party in the country. Following the 2016 coup attempt, the HDP has been widely persecuted by the AKP based on allegations of “ties” to the PKK (Yilmaz, Barton & Barry, 2017; Karadeniz, 2015)

The AKP has successfully used security crises as a pretext to use state institutions of law and order to persecute potential political opposition. After the HDP’s decision to defy Erdogan and enter the next election, Erdogan started the re-certification of the HDP, saying, “I visited 5 cities, the mayors of which were members of HDP. None of those mayors came to welcome me. Because they had orders from the mountains. They are commanded by the mountains. They have no will of their own.”[1]

Here he is referring to the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK’s headquarters are, implying that the HDP mayors – who underwent security checks and clearances by Turkish judicial institutions and intelligence agencies before the elections and were democratically elected – were terrorists. 

The AKP’s shift from pluralist to right-wing Islam is a way of legitimizing the AKP’s position as it plays on the trauma and victimhood many Turks have experienced since the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Hagia Sophia was converted into the mosque by the Erdogan regime in Turkey on July 10, 2020. After that, several groups have celebrated the decision in front of Hagia Sophia. Photo: Ugur Ferhat Baloglu

 

In a similar vein, the AKP had promised to return properties seized from various minority groups, including the Holy Cross Armenian Cathedral on Akdamar Isle in Van Lake and the re-opening of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church in Diyarbakir. These promises became a token of good faith. Erdogan even said, “The times when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religion, ethnic origin, or different way of life are over” (Sheklian, 2018; Arsu, 2011). However, when faced with a severe economic crisis and other policy failures, the AKP instead chose to rely on Islamic populism to solidify its support. In 2020, the two iconic Istanbul churches were converted from museums to mosques, the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Serhan, 2020). 

Hagia Sophia’s first congregational prayers after its reconversion were led by Erdogan himself and Ali Erbas, the head of Diyanet (the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs). Erbas said, “The reopening of Hagia Sophia… is the return of a sacred place, which had embraced believers for five centuries, to its original function.” This conveniently denied the church’s rich past tracing back to Byzantium (Dawn, 2020).

This shift from pluralist to right-wing Islam is a way of legitimizing the AKP’s position as it plays on the trauma and victimhood many Turks have experienced since the end of the Ottoman Empire. In this instance, the AKP promises retributive justice for the wronged “Black Turks” by restoring what is rightfully theirs.     

After more than a decade in power, the AKP lost its Parliamentary majority in 2015. However, it maintained significant control through the presidential office, which Erdogan had assumed. To undo the effects of the 2015 elections, a number of “disasters” took place, always orchestrated by the “enemies” of the Turkish people. Erdogan called an early election due to PKK terrorism and the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorists (Cornell, et al, 2015). Following the July 2016 coup attempt, the AKP was able to consolidate nearly all political and legal power in its hands. 

What actually happened during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, is still murky. Whatever happened, it was the distraction the AKP needed to deflect attention from its increasing autocracy and other policy failures. Fethullah Gulen, once viewed as an AKP ally, had been public enemy number one since the fallout after the 2013 corruption and bribery scandal. The AKP accused Gulen and his followers of orchestrating the failed 2016 coup. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, supporters of Gulen were purged from their jobs; many were arrested or forced to flee the country (BBC, 2020)

What actually happened during the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, is still murky. Whatever happened, it was the distraction the AKP needed to deflect attention from its increasing autocracy. In the aftermath of the coup attempt, supporters of Gulen were purged from their jobs; many were arrested or forced to flee the country. Within a year, the AKP obtained absolute power through a constitutional referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one.

A military coup attempt plunged Turkey into a long night of violence and intrigue on July 16, 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey.

 

Within a year, the AKP obtained absolute power through the 2017 Constitutional Referendum, which changed Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This change gave Erdogan – now president – the power to directly appoint top public officials, intervene in the legal system, and impose a state of emergency (BBC, 2020). The AKP had successfully used populism to prey on the populace’s fears and insecurities. The party had also succeeded at labelling all opposition – Kemalists, Gulenists, civil society, political parties, and the media – as threats to the country. Thus, the government justified the highly inhumane and undemocratic arrests carried out following the failed coup. 

As part of this purge, the AKP seized media companies and educational centres. The party understood these institutions posed a threat to its populism. The organizations were shuttered or became AKP mouth pieces. Post-July 2016, the AKP took over or closed down all educational institutions associated with the Gulen Movement. The institutes taken over have been given to pro-AKP NGOs or the Diyanet (the Directorate of Religious Affairs) (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). The AKP government also used it ties with certain countries to extradite Gulen employees living abroad, close foreign Gulen-affiliated school, and re-open the schools under control of loyal NGOs or other organizations (Aljazeera, 2016).

The AKP has effectively used terror to sow multiple conspiracy theories to delegitimize the “others.” Not only has the government accused Gulen of masterminding the coup attempt, but it also claims the Gulen Movement is funded by the United States and bent on destroying Turkey. 

Excuses like this create an external enemy while also covering up AKP failures. For instance, the former Finance Minister explained why the Turkish currency was so devalued by blaming, without any evidence, foreign conspirators: “Some countries are in [on] this scheme, as well as financial institutions and the interest rate lobby. These include some Muslim countries, too. I will not name names here, I am only drawing the framework” (Hurriyet Daily News, 2018). Thus, America and the “Jewish lobby,” along with its Gulf allies and Saudi Arabia, are the biggest “enemies.” 

This myth is further legitimized in the public view when it is linked to the Treaty of Sèvres, which partitioned Ottoman territories among European powers (this was followed three years later by the Treaty of Lausanne, which created the Republic of Turkey, but also disconnected it from its Muslim past). Thus, capitalizing on this past trauma, the AKP has incited fear of “outside conspiracies” that seek to destabilize the country. The country hides behind these conspiracies while also using them to solidify its base. 

According to the AKP’s narrative, reinforced through its nearly total control of the media and the Diyanet, “New Turkey” is destined for greatness. Erdogan, in recent years, has vowed “not to make the same mistakes again” in reference to facing “defeat” at the hands of the Western-Jewish lobby. In one of his speeches, he made this explicit: “World War I was designed as a fight to grab and share in Ottoman lands. In an era when the world order is shaken at the foundations, we will frustrate those who dream of doing the same about the Republic of Turkey… We tear up the scenarios of those who want to besiege our country politically, economically, and militarily … To those who are surprised by Turkey’s rising again, like a giant who woke up from its century-old sleep, we say: ‘it is not over yet!” (Global Village Space, 2020).

The AKP has crafted a “New Turkey,”  a country populated by paranoid, insecure, vengeful, and conservative Muslims. As opposed to the stigma attached to traditional ways of life under Kemalism, the AKP’s “New Turkey” has created space for the Sunni Muslim citizen to fully embrace his or her religious heritage.