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The Global Nexus of Political Religion and Populism: Comparative Lessons from the Middle East

Session X-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
The political science literature typically attributes illiberal politics to “transitional” or “electoral” democracies and authoritarian regimes situated in the former communist East, Muslim-majority Middle East, or global South more broadly. These regimes have long been juxtaposed to a West where liberal or pluralist democracy was thought to have been not only consolidated, but a defining feature of governance. Yet, in the past decade, right-wing populists have drawn on religious symbolism to achieve and, in many cases, to consolidate power in every region of the world. Posing a major challenge to democracy at the global scale, the cross-cutting salience of religiously inflected populism nevertheless offers an opportunity to engage in inquiry which transcends the East-West, North-South, Muslim-Christian templates that have typically structured comparative political analysis. This panel thus seeks to (i) build on the insights from the well-developed secondary literature on political religion in Middle Eastern contexts, and (ii) channel the paper contributors’ rich, primary research on Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Tunisia to shed light on the worldwide rise of right-wing populism and the global illiberal turn. The overarching goal of the panel is to generate empirical and theoretical insights for cross-regional conceptualization of an increasingly universal challenge.
Political Science
  • There is a burgeoning literature on how elected populists undermine democracy by eroding political, civil and legal accountability mechanisms. By conducting a comparative study of Turkey and Israel, this article aims to illustrate one specific tool utilized by authoritarian populists, namely fomenting violent conflict after electoral setbacks. This strategy aims to divide the opposition along ethnic/religious cleavages and maintain the incumbents’ grip on power. When the AKP could not win an outright majority after the June 2015 elections, Erdogan ended the Kurdish peace process and engineered repeat elections in the midst of heightened nationalist fervor and renewed conflict with the PKK. These elections gave AKP a parliamentary majority and marked the beginning of its alliance with the ultra-nationalists. Following Israel’s March 2021 elections, Netanyahu increased state repression on Palestinians, which led to interethnic violence and renewed confrontation with Hamas. The violence threw a wrench into coalition-building efforts between ideologically and ethnically diverse opposition parties. The comparison of Israel and Turkey as two countries with different majority religions and ethnic compositions shows that authoritarian populist strategies are not a parochial but a global phenomenon. Yet, the paper explains that the outcomes of these strategies are shaped by differing institutional and political contexts.
  • Populism is often defined as anti-pluralism: glorification of the organically conceived “people” vis-a-vis inauthentic elites and minorities. Recently, anti-pluralist populists employing the idiom of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu, among other, nationalism(s) have gained power around the world. Right-wing/religious populist ascendance thus challenges the analytical categories around which much comparative political inquiry is organized. A longstanding assumption, after all, has been that pluralist democracy is to be found in the global West/North whereas Eastern/Southern states are more likely to be home to “illiberal” or “authoritarian” leaders and regimes. This paper argues that the cross-cutting salience of right-wing, populist anti-pluralism thus presents a productive site for cross-case and cross-regional analysis which, in addition to elucidating an outstanding real-world challenge, can help us to dismantle latent Eurocentrism/Orientalism in our analytical categories. Towards this end, the paper first proposes an analytical-descriptive framework to map populist anti-pluralism in party programs, electoral campaigns, public statements and policies. It next shows how the same heuristic can be used to capture pluralistic, counter-frames articulated by rival leaders and parties in any given state. Third, the framework is applied to comparatively study critical junctures in the careers of Erdogan in Turkey and Trump in the United States. Using process-tracing to reconstruct key inflection points when populist anti-pluralism has prevailed (or failed), the paper identifies necessary and sufficient causal mechanisms which drive populist ascendance (or defeat). The empirical insight to emerge from the analysis is that right-wing populists' ability to consolidate power depends on their capacity to thwart pluralist oppositional coalitions which draw moderates from across political camps in resistance to populist provocations. Theoretically, moreover, the paper's framework supports this panel’s timely call for a research program on global right-wing populisms which transcends—-like the phenomenon of populism itself—-the Eurocentric/Orientalist assumptions that have long inflected key concepts in comparative politics like pluralism, democracy, and authoritarianism.
  • Over the last years, the so-called ‘third wave of autocratization’ has seized many democracies across the globe (Lührmann and Lindberg 2019). In this third wave, ‘autocratization’ has proceeded gradually over several election cycles with the support of large electoral majorities. Svolik (2019) and others highlight that autocratization through elections is more likely in fragmented and politically polarized societies. In polarized societies, even voters who in principle value democratic principles are more willing to sacrifice these principles for the sake of electoral victories of politicians and parties who champion their interests (Svolik 2019). Partisanship is rarely based on ideology, but on the strong and affective social identification of the electorate with the party (Iyengar et al. 2012). Over its 20 years of rule, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey has been able to build a loyal and relatively stable constituency. This paper argues that although the control of media and the expectation of materialistic rewards in return for loyalty have certainly played a major role in the AKP’s continuous electoral wins, AKP partisanship often goes beyond that. It has entailed the notion of belonging to a moral community. This community is largely tied together through conservative values, but also through the economic interests and the conviction of being part of a power bloc. The conception of a moral, value-based community assumes unnegotiable and overall accepted community values which are defined and re-defined by the party. This approach helps include those who are socialised in these values or have successfully adopted them, and exclude those who are considered to be outside the “moral”, “authentic” community. While religious rhetoric and symbols replace clear ideological conceptions, and are necessary identifiers to reinforce social identity, at the same time it also undermines religion. The paper applies social identity theory. It focuses on the question how partizsanship and social identity have merged with the notion of a moral community. It also addresses the question how the in-group identity has been affected by economic downturn and political decline and analyses the long-term effects on political competition in Turkey and beyond.
  • Democracy is in crisis. Increasing number of elected officials seek aggrandizement and prolonged power at the expense of democratic rules. From Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Victor Orban in Hungary and to Donald Trump in the US, aspiring autocrats have abused their executive power to unlevel the playing field. Although they are at the forefront of this concerted effort, autocrats rarely act alone. They rise on the back of their political parties. The BJP in India, Fidesz in Hungary, the AKP in Turkey, and the GOP in the US, for instance, provided the cadres, resources, manpower, and organizational capacity essential to electoral victories and political battles after the elections. So, what role do parties play in democracy’s current crisis? Parties played a critical role in this process. Rather than being the victims of their environments (Berman 1997), they defined, articulated, and aggregated interests, signaled what is important to their constituency, and shaped their worldviews (Iversen 1994). While some have chosen polarization, majoritarianism, and power maximization, others have chosen pluralism, compromise, and mutual tolerance. Why? In this paper, relying on 113 interviews with mid and high level leaders of three Islamist parties, the AKP, Ennahda, and the Muslim Brotherhood, I argue that the answer lies in intra-party dynamics. Political parties are no monoliths; they are a grand coalition of factions. Each faction has distinct political preferences, and all factions strive for dominance within the party organization. Access to organizational resources determine the fate of factional alliances. Those who control collective and selective incentives in the party organization also dominate the party, and its political trajectory. Depending on an autocrat’s ability to build and sustain a dominant alliance by co-opting other factions, a party may follow different trajectories. Neither personalist accounts nor group level explanations help us decipher the role parties play in democratic crises. A refined understanding of when a political party becomes an enabler of or an ultimate check on democratic backsliding requires a study of intra-party dynamics.
  • This paper discusses the wider significance of Turkey’s recent transition to authoritarianism with respect to Islamist political theses' emergent affinity with the religious populist governance models. As Erdogan regime has continued to enjoy wide support of both erstwhile and current Islamists, this paper will probe whether this embrace represents a corresponding shift in the trajectory of Muslim governance models. Through an analysis of Turkey’s democratic breakdown, it lays out a narrative of gradual build-up of autocracy beginning with the earliest days of Erdoğan’s tenure. Given the success record of Erdoğan’s global bid for Muslim leadership, it inquires whether Turkey has come to serve as an authoritarian model of religious populism at the expense of the idea of an Islamic democracy for the Muslim-majority world. Resisting the ideological analyses that reduce Turkey’s de-democratization to AKP’s so-called Islamist ideology, the paper argues that Erdoğan’s bid for Muslim leadership and patronage of Islamists may still leave more lasting effects on Islamism’s trajectory and its relationship with democracy. Islamists’ preference for strong religious populist leaders in contradistinction with their longstanding declared principles of Islamic good governance may have illustrated the use of democratic means to create a decisively authoritarian state instead of providing a democratic model for the Muslim world, as Turkey under the AKP was once promoted. The paper will further engage with the normative literature on Islamic good governance to address whether the Turkish case has revealed not just the practical limitations of the theory, but also the shortcomings of the theoretical construct itself: have theories of Islamic democracy carried the underpinnings of a decidedly authoritarian regime that seamlessly aligned with Muslim populist regimes under conservative or ex-Islamist politicians, even while they failed to build their own Islamic states?