Over the past three decades, religion has re-emerged as a key factor in domestic and international politics. One especially visible aspect of the religious revival in public life is its prominence in populist rhetoric. Even in supposedly secular societies, religious identity plays an important role in populist discourse. Religious people who are drawn to the fundamentalist manifestations of their religions find themselves sometimes drawn to populism. They discover that their populism is not in tension with their religious beliefs and practices. Because religious and identitarian populism are worldwide phenomena, it may be helpful to take a brief tour of world religions, to comprehend the many different ways in which religion and populism intersect within the world’s great faiths: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.
To the surprise of many scholars, religion has re-emerged over the past three decades to become a key factor in domestic and international politics (Grzymala-Busse, 2012). One especially visible aspect of the religious revival in public life is its prominence in populist rhetoric. Even in supposedly secular Western Europe, religious identity plays an important role in populist discourse. What, then, is the relationship between religion and populism, and how has it manifested across the world and in different societies?
There are two different major dimensions to the religion-populism relationship. First, populism sometimes resembles religion, or at least fundamentalist interpretations of religion, insofar as of true believers if they follow a particular leader or party or participate in a particular movement. And like religious fundamentalists, populists often view the world through the prism of a Manichean antagonistic struggle between “the people,” who are good, and “elites” and “others” who are evil (Mudde 2004: 543; Zúquete 2017: 446).
Yet, populism is not a replacement for religion; instead, it is compatible with certain forms of religion, particularly religions which possess near absolute notions of good and evil. It should not be surprising, then, that Muslims and Christians who are drawn to the fundamentalist manifestations of their religions find themselves sometimes drawn to populism, and that their populism is not necessarily in tension with their religious beliefs and practices.
Populists may also have a functional relationship with religion. They may themselves be members of a religious group, church, or organization and may possess a political agenda based on or heavily influenced by religious texts and doctrines. We may call this group “religious populists.”
“Identitarian populists” reject religious government but use religion to identify “the people” and their enemies according to a religio-civilizational classification of peoples. There is inevitably some overlap between the forms of populist, and the boundary between them is often ambiguous.
The difference between the two, however, is significant. Religious populism encompasses both organised religion’s political and public aspects as expressed through a populist style and/or discourse, and populist political movements/parties/leaders that adopt an explicit religious programme. Identitarian populism, however, does not possess a political programme based upon religious teachings, nor does it attempt to force religion upon a society or run a society according to the teachings of a particular religion. Instead, it embraces a religion-based classification of peoples, often one aligned to civilizations (Western, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) It is not, then, religious itself, but often wholly secular.
What religious and identitarian populists share is civilisationalism—or a religion-based classification of world civilisations. Yet whether populists possess a genuinely religious agenda, or merely use religion to define national and civilizational identity, it is becoming clear that religion, in its various forms, is providing fertile ground not only for the construction of a receptive audience—“the pure people” of the populist imagination —but also provides relevant and highly valuable materials which help populists create “us” versus “them” dichotomies and at perpetuating these divisive binaries (Jaffrelot & Tillin, 2017; Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018).
Because religious and identitarian populism are worldwide phenomena, it may be helpful to take a brief tour of world religions, in order to begin to comprehend the many different ways in which religion and populism intersect within the world’s great faiths: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Buddhism.
The democratic Muslim majority world is home to a number of powerful religious populist movements. Several of these movements have achieved significant electoral success, especially in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan. These movements are mostly Islamist in nature, and therefore combine “material and cultural understandings of religion,” ultimately forming “a multivalent religio-moral populism—a potentially explosive articulation of different class interests and religious cravings” (Tugal 2002: 86). Because Islamism is itself attached to Islamic ideas of justice (both economic and social), it can be easily combined with the thin ideology of populism, which is itself based upon the notion that corrupt elites are acting unjustly towards “the people” and must be removed from power.
Perhaps the most significant Islamist populist party in the contemporary world is Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP has led Turkey since 2002, replacing secular rule with a new programme, incorporating “Islamism, nationalism, and populism” and substantially blurring the boundaries between each (Taş, 2020: 2). While the AKP maintains a populist conception of society in which Erdogan is presented as “the voice of victimised ‘real people’ and the champion of their interests against old ‘elites’,” the party also pursues an Islamist, anti-secular project involving the Islamist religious education of the young. The AKP has a post-Kemalist, “Islamist civilisationist”(Yilmaz, 2021) outlook that has radically altered Turkey’s sense of itself, as well as elements of its foreign policy (Yilmaz, 2018: 54–55).
A similar religio-civilizational conception of the world can be found in Christian populist movements. However, we must be careful to distinguish between two broad types of Christian populism. In Greece, for example, we see evidence of a genuinely religious populism in the “populist character” (Stavrakakis 2004: 260) of the political discourse used by the Church of Greece and, especially in the rhetoric of the late Archbishop Christodoulos (Paraskevaidis). The very political Archbishop’s discourse was “organized according to an antagonistic schema,” and divided society into two categories: the “good” people who belonged to the Greek church, and the evil atheistic, secularizing, and modernizing forces of the government and its supporters (Stavrakakis 2004. 261–62).
In the United States, where religion has long had a powerful influence over domestic politics, religious populism played a role in the ideology of the Tea Party movement. A “convergence of libertarianism and fundamentalist religion” (Montgomery, 2012: 180–81), the Tea Party movement claimed that the American Constitution, “which restricts the powers of government… [was] divinely inspired.” Americans who called for “big government” were branded by Tea Party activists as not merely un-American, but un-Christian (Montgomery 2012: 180–81).
The generally secular orientation of Western politics, however, often precludes genuine religious populism. Instead, more common is Christian identity populism. The best example of Christian identitarian populism in Western Europe might be the Netherland’s Party for Freedom. A nominally secular, liberal party supportive of gay rights and women’s rights, the Party for Freedom is also a deeply anti-Muslim party which conceives of Dutch culture as the exclusive product of “Judeo-Christianity and Humanism.” This religio-civilizational conception of the Netherlands automatically excludes Muslims, who the party faults for being too conservative, undemocratic, and political.
A similar yet different Christian identitarian populism exists in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. For example, Viktor Orbán’s ruling party, the populist Fidesz, also practices a religio-civilizational categorization of peoples, in which Hungary is defined as a Christian yet also secular society, and in which Muslims are demonized as belonging to a hostile foreign civilization. Yet, Fidesz is fundamentally illiberal and seeks to use Christian identity to protect traditional sexual mores and gender relationships from secular progressive forces, which are attempting to introduce gay rights, transgender rights, and multiculturalism.
Populism and Judaism have a complex relationship, partly due to the role of Israel as a somewhat exclusive Jewish homeland but also because “the link between the Jewish religion and populism in Israel does not require mediation between religion’s universal and populism’s particular claims, since for Jewish orthodoxy there is an absolute correspondence between Judaism as a religion and the Jewish people” (Filc, 2016: 167).The most concrete example of a Jewish populist movement is the Israeli party Shas. Shas’ ideology divides Israeli society between “the people,” who are “all the Jews of Israel” and includes “the Ashkenazim and Sephardim” (Filc, 2016: 176), and others, especially Arabs, African asylum seekers, and secular “elites.” The party opposes secular notions of the necessity of separating the “public sphere and individual religion” and rejects the “neutral state and a pluralistic society” (Filc, 2016: 173). Instead, Shas claims the state must “define and build a common good” based upon Jewish theological understandings of these notions (Filc, 2016: 173).
Beyond the monotheistic faiths, populism is increasingly attached to Hinduism in India and Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In India, Narendra Modi’s populist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) openly uses a Hindu nationalist narrative—in which India is a Hindu civilization wounded by Muslim and British invaders—to shape its domestic politics and elements of its foreign policy. The BJP has won control of the government several times under Modi’s leadership, having successfully adapted the philosophy of Hindutva to a populist-nationalist framework, in which Hindus are identified as “the people” and secular nationalists (such as the former governing party, the Indian National Congress) are demonised as “elites” beholden to dangerous foreign ideologies (including secularism) (McDonnell & Cabrera, 2019: 488–90).
In Sri Lanka, populism has been employed since the 1990s by Sinhalese Buddhist political leaders in order to construct and, when necessary, mobilize “the people”—that is, Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lankans—and to define Sri Lanka’s national identity. Political leaders such as former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa tailored their rhetoric to typical populist binaries (ie., the people vs. the elites or us vs. them) to appeal to the majority Sinhalese Buddhists (Stokke, 1998; Devotta & Stone, 2008). Moreover, as part of this populist rhetoric, they frequently referred to minority groups—particularly Tamils and Muslims—as threats to the people of Sri Lanka and the nation’s Buddhist and Sinhalese identity. They did this “in order to win the rewards of power” (Jayasinghe, 2021: 178). Buddhist organizations such as Bodubalasēna (BBS, Buddhist Power Army) play an important role in supporting populist politicians in Sri Lanka and frequently claim that minorities, and specifically Muslim Sri Lankans, pose a threat to national unity and the country’s authentic Buddhist identity (Sarjoon et al., 2016).
It may be tempting to view the rise of different religious populist movements, in both secular and religious societies, as ultimate proof of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations thesis. Yet, despite the emphasis placed on religion and civilization by all these movements, few could be called transnational or international, and all are deeply nationalist in orientation. Therefore, we might conclude that religious and identitarian populists use religion primarily as a framing devise, a tool with which they can divide people within a single nation between “the pure people” and their enemies, the ruling elite and “others.” We may also surmise that religion and religious identity remain powerful forces, even in the secular West—forces which can elicit deep and sometimes violent emotions. The power of religion to engender feelings of rage in people, when they sense something sacred being profaned, may be especially useful to populists, who must create a sense of national crisis to generate the demand for populism among the public.
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