Over the past three decades, religion has become a key component of right-wing populist discourses the world over. Populist movements and leaders in nations as diverse as the Netherlands, Hungary, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and the US have increasingly practiced a discourse in which national identity is partly defined in religio-civilizational terms. The rise of religious populism has also involved the elicitation and exploitation of emotions by populists. Indeed, the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.
Over the past three decades, religion has become a key component of right-wing populist discourses across the world. Populist movements and leaders in nations as diverse as the Netherlands, Hungary, Turkey, India, Pakistan, and the United States have increasingly practiced a discourse in which national identity is partly defined in religio-civilizational terms. The rise of religious populism—which is primarily a right-wing phenomenon—has also involved the elicitation and exploitation of emotions by populists. Indeed, the addition of religion has made populism a formidable force capable of producing a range of emotions among segments of the public, thereby increasing the demand for populism.
Examples of this religio-civilizational discourse are surprisingly common and warrant more attention from scholars, journalists, and political analysts. For example, Geert Wilders, leader of the Netherlands’ third largest political party, the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), is a prominent exponent of this discourse (Brubaker, 2017). According to Wilders, Dutch culture and identity are the product of, and inextricably linked to, Western Civilization’s “Judeo-Christian and humanist” character. In the copious tweets and articles that appear on his website, Wilders argues that Muslims pose an existential threat to the Netherlands and must be expelled from Dutch society. Moreover, Islam should not be tolerated in the Netherlands because, he alleges, it is antithetical and inherently hostile to the core Judeo-Christian principles that produced the secular culture of contemporary Europe.
In Hungary, religio-civilizational notions of identity are an important part of the discourse practiced by the ruling right-wing populist party Fidesz, and especially its leader and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Though Hungary is not an especially religious nation, Orbán describes Christianity as one of the core elements of Hungarian identity and culture and the key ingredient without which the nation would collapse. Much like Wilders, Orbán conceives of the world as divided into different civilizations and Islamic and Christian civilizations as mighty opposites doomed to clash. Yet where Wilders embraces Christian identity politics to defend secularism, Orbán uses Christian identity to defend social conservatism—and traditional conceptions of gender and sexuality—from secularism.
Religious populism is hardly endemic in Europe and may indeed be more prevalent outside the West. For example, Hindu Nationalism is a core element of the political program of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian Peoples’ Party, BJP). India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, in which Muslims are alleged to be a foreign and hostile element within Hindu civilization. In Turkey, the ruling populist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has dramatically altered Turkish citizens’ sense of national and civilizational identity through its neo-Ottoman discourse, which posits that Turkish Muslims are at the vanguard of the ummah (the global community of Muslims) (Yilmaz, 2021a). Moreover, AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses his considerable rhetorical skill, political acumen, and even unofficial Islamic legal opinions (fatwas) (Yilmaz, 2021b) to convince Turkish citizens that the Judeo-Christian West is at war with the ummah and that he alone stands against the existential threat to Muslims globally.
From these examples, we may learn two important things. First, religious populism is a global phenomenon (see in detail Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). Second, it is a versatile set of ideas that people of any of the major religious traditions can use just as secular and non-religious people do. Yet why should religion, in an age of secularization, become such an important component of populist politics the world over? What is it about religion that populists find so useful?
Populism and Emotions
To understand why populists have increasingly used religious-sounding rhetoric, we must first consider how populist movements and leaders produce public demand for their political agendas. Populist discourse is centered on separating society “into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’,” and ensuring that politics is a representation of “the will of the people.” Beyond this binary, populist discourses often seek to create or exploit antagonisms in two different directions: vertically, or between the people at the top of society (elites) and those at the bottom (“the people”); and horizontally, or between “the pure people” and their class, ethnic, or religious internal and external enemies.
For a populist party or leader to achieve an electoral breakthrough and sustained political success, they must successfully construct these antagonistic groups, and moreover, create a sense of an impending crisis brought on by elites and “others” that threatens to engulf and destroy “the people.” To create this necessary sense of crisis (Moffitt, 2015), populists must elicit and exploit emotions from the general public, which help construct antagonistic relationships and create demand for populist solutions.
Emotions such as fear and rage must be elicited and harnessed and ultimately directed toward the groups and individuals allegedly responsible for creating the crisis in the first place: ruling elites and internal and external enemy groups. Populists must then portray themselves as patriotic champions of the people, who will “save” the nation and its people by overthrowing elites and defeating foreign and internal threats from “others,” and establishing a new form of democratic governance in which the will of the people is obeyed.
Emotions, therefore, are essential to populists. Not because populism relies more on eliciting emotion than all other forms of politics, but because populism cannot succeed without evoking particular emotions among a large section of the general public, especially feelings of anger toward elites and fear of “others,” but also at certain times nostalgia for a happier time now past, and love for one’s homeland.
Religious Populism and Emotions
To elicit emotions that create demand for populism, populists produce narratives that paint events, in-groups, and out-groups in a certain light (such as harmful vs. beneficial) that precipitates strong emotions in their desired audience (Brady et al., 2017). Salmela and von Scheve suggest that populists have fared incredibly well in recent decades due to their ability to capitalize on the negative emotions produced in response to the rise of neoliberal capitalism, which they claim “humiliates” ordinary people. Right-wing populists, they claim, exploit the “repressed shame that transforms fear and insecurity into anger, resentment, and hatred against perceived ‘enemies’ of the precarious self” (Salmela and von Scheve, 2018: 434).
Populists can instrumentalize religion in a variety of ways. Religion can help sacralize “the people” by tying them to an existing religious tradition. Religion can also be used to perpetuate an “us vs. them” mentality—the religion of “the people” can be framed positively, while the religion (or lack of religion) of “others” can be demonized as an existential threat to ‘us.’ For example, Christian identitarian populists in Western Europe frame Muslim immigration to Europe as an existential threat to the West’s (Judeo-)Christian culture and identity. By framing Muslim immigrants as dangerous, they provoke a fear response in the public that can easily be turned into anger against Muslims, but also toward the government elites who permit Muslims to immigrate to Europe. At the same time, populist parties such as the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) and French National Rally (Rassemblement national, RN) exploit deep feelings of nostalgia and love for one’s country by framing themselves as national and civilizational saviors, who alone can restore their nation’s greatness (Morieson, 2021).
Most of all, however, what religion offers populists is the ability to couch the typically populist horizontal (the people vs. others) and vertical (the people vs. elites) antagonisms within a religio-civilizational frame to create a narrative of elite failure and civilizational crisis. Examples of religious populists employing an emotion-based appeal to the people are not challenging to find. In Turkey, the Islamist AKP has always been adept at exploiting the emotions of the Turkish people and transforming them into demand for the party’s populist solutions. Mahir Unal, a senior Turkish politician in the populist-Islamist AKP, confessed that his party’s mobilizational strategy was “emotional vampirism,” by which he meant that the AKP “sucked and exploited all emotions in the society” (Yilmaz, 2021a: 136). Indeed, the AKP has established itself as the ruling party by exploiting several emotions felt deeply by large segments of the public, especially fear, anger, rage, a desire to sacrifice oneself for one’s homeland, and nostalgia—in this case, a deep restorative nostalgia for the glorious and dominant Ottoman Empire (Yilmaz, 2021a).
The AKP has been highly skilled at couching the traditional populist vertical and horizontal antagonisms within a larger Islamist and neo-Ottomanist frame. For example, “the people” of Turkey are conceived by the party as part of a global Islamic community—the ummah. Thus, secular elites in Turkey are portrayed by the party as not merely corrupt but anti-Muslim enemies of the global ummah. Likewise, non-Muslims and non-orthodox Muslims are portrayed as threats to the ummah who must be overcome, and for this purpose, lives must be sacrificed if needed (Yilmaz and Erturk, 2021). Indeed, Erdogan’s discourse frames Turkey’s social problems within a larger problem of clashing civilizations, and particularly within a battle between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam. By framing the corruption of the previous secular regime, Turkey’s disputes with the European Union, and the country’s internal ethnic and religious struggles, within a broader “clash of civilizations” in which the ummah is under constant threat from enemy forces, the AKP has been able to create a sense of permanent crisis and turn subsequent emotions of fear and anger into support for their Islamist populist agenda (Yilmaz, 2021a).
By couching populism’s typical vertical and horizontal antagonisms within a religio-civilizational frame, populists have at times successfully convinced segments of their broader publics that their identity, nation, and civilization are threatened by both the rulers of their country, but also internal and external enemies belonging to other civilizations. Given how frequently right-wing populists movements and parties throughout the world instrumentalize religion, we must begin to consider the power emotions related to religion play in creating demand for populism and sustaining populist government.
Brady, William J.; Wills, Julian A.; Jost, John T.; Tucker, Joshua A. and van Bavel, Jay J. (2017). “Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks.” Proceedings of the NAS. 114: 7313–18
Brubaker, Rogers. (2017). “Between nationalism and civilizationism: The European populist moment in comparative perspective.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 40: 1191–226.
Moffitt, Benjamin. (2015). “How to Perform Crisis: A Model for Understanding the Key Role of Crisis in Contemporary Populism.” Government and Opposition. 50: 189–217.
Salmela, Mikko, and von Scheve, Christian. (2018). “Emotional dynamics of right- and left-wing political populism.” Humanity & Society. 42: 434–54.
Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021a). Creating the Desired Citizen: Ideology, State and Islam in Turkey. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Yilmaz, Ihsan. (2021b). “Islamist Populism in Turkey, Islamist Fatwas, and State Transnationalism.” In: Shahram Akbarzadeh (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Political Islam. 2nd Edition. 170-187. London and New York: Routledge, 2021.