Populism is a way of framing political ideas that can be filled with a verity of ideologies (C. Mudde in Current History, 2014). These ideologies can come from the left or the right. Populism in itself is not a distinct ideology. It is a performative political style.
No matter where it’s coming from, it is manifested through a particular set of animated gestures, images, tones and symbols (B. Moffitt, The Global Rise of Populism, 2016). At the core of it is a narrative containing two main ‘villains’: The ‘elites’ and ‘the other’. Elites are described as being corrupt. And ‘the other’ is demonised as being a threat to the beliefs and values of the ‘majority’.
Populists begin by glorifying the ‘besieged’ polity as noble. They then begin to frame the polity’s civilisation as ‘sacred’. Therefore, the mission to eradicate threats, in this context, becomes a sacred cause. The far-right parties in Europe want to protect Europe’s Christian identity from Muslim intruders. They see Muslim immigration to European countries as an invasion.
Read: Populism and Pakistan
Yet, these far-right groups are largely secular. They do not propose the creation of a Christian theocracy. Instead, they understand modern European civilisation as the outcome of its illustrious Christian past. They frame the Muslim immigrant as ‘the other’ who has arrived from a lesser civilisation. So, according to far-right populists in Europe, the Muslim other — tolerated and facilitated by a political elite — starts to undermine the Christian values that aided European civilisations to become ‘great’.
Populists are great hijackers of ideas, stealing from the left and right. There’s nothing original or deep about them. Take, for instance, the recently ousted Pakistani PM Imran Khan
Ironically, most far-right outfits in Europe that espouse such notions are largely critical of conventional Christian institutions. They see them as being too conservative towards modern European values. Far-right outfits are not overtly religious at all — even though their fiery populist rhetoric frames their cause as a sacred undertaking to protect the civilisational role of Christianity in shaping European societies.
Thus, European far-right populists adopt Christianity not as a theocratic-political doctrine, but as an identity marker to differentiate themselves from Muslims (Saving The People, ed. O. Roy, 2016). It is therefore naive to understand issues such as Islamophobia as a tussle between Christianity and Islam. Neither is it a clash between modernity and anti-modernity, as such.
The actions of some Islamist extremists, and the manner in which these were framed by popular media, made Muslim migrants in the West a community that could be easily moulded into a feared ‘other’ by populists. If one takes out the Muslim migrants from the equation, the core narrative of far-right populists will lose its sting.
Muslims in this regard have become ‘the other’ in India as well. Hindu nationalism is challenging the old, ‘secular’ political elite by claiming that this elite was serving Muslim interests to maintain its political hegemony, and that it was repressing values, beliefs and memories of a Hindu civilisation that was thriving before being invaded and dismantled by Muslim invaders.
Here too, the populist Hindu nationalists are not necessarily devout and pious. And when they are, then the actions in this respect are largely performative rather than doctrinal. That’s why, today, a harmless Hindu ritual and the act of emotionally or physically assaulting a Muslim, may carry similar performative connotations. For example, a militant Hindu nationalist mob attacking a Muslim can be conceived by the attackers as a sacred ritual.
Same is the case in Pakistan. The researcher Muhammad Amir Rana has conducted several interviews of young Islamist militants who were arrested and put in rehabilitation programmes. Almost all of them were told by their ‘handlers’ that self-sacrifice was a means to create an Islamic state/caliphate that would wipe out poverty, corruption and immorality, and provide justice. This idea was programmed into them to create a ‘self’ in relation to an opposite or ‘the other’. The other in this respect were heretics and infidels who were conspiring to destroy Islam.
When an Islamist suicide bomber explodes him/herself in public, or when extremists desecrate Ahmadiyya graves, or a mob attacks an alleged blasphemer, each one of these believe they are undertaking a sacred ritual that is not that different from the harmless ones. But Islamist militants are not populists. They have dogmatic doctrines or are deeply indoctrinated.
Not so, the populists. Populists are great hijackers of ideas. There’s nothing original or deep about them. Everything remains on the surface. Take, for instance, the recently ousted Pakistani PM Imran Khan. He unabashedly steals ideas from the left and the right. His core constituency, which is not so attuned to history, perceives these ideas as being entirely new. Everything he says or claims to have done, becomes ‘for the first time in the history of Pakistan.’
But being a populist, it wasn’t enough for Khan to frame his ‘struggle’ (against ‘corrupt elites’) as a noble cause. It needed to be manifested as a sacred conviction. So, from 2014 onwards, he increasingly began to lace his speeches with allusions of him fighting for justice and morality by treading a path laid out by Islam’s sacred texts and personalities. He then began to explain this undertaking as a ‘jihad’.
Editorial: Grandiose rhetoric
These were/are pure populist manoeuvres and entirely performative. Once the cause transformed into becoming a ‘jihad’, it not only required rhetoric culled from Islamist evangelists and then put in the context of a ‘political struggle’, but it also needed performed piety — carrying prayer beads, being constantly photographed while saying obligatory Muslim prayers, embracing famous preachers, etc.
And since ‘jihad’ in the popular imagination is often perceived to be something aggressive and manly, Khan poses as an outspoken and fearless saviour of not only the people of Pakistan, but also of the ‘ummah’.
Yet, by all accounts, he is not very religious. He’s not secular either. But this is how populists are. They are basically nothing. They are great performers who can draw devotion from a great many people — especially those who are struggling to formulate a political identity for themselves. There are no shortcuts to this. But populists provide them shortcuts.
Khan is a curious mixture of an Islamist and a brawler. But both of these attributes mainly reside on the surface and in his rhetoric. The only aim one can say that is lingering underneath the surface is an inexhaustible ambition to be constantly admired and, of course, rule as a North Korean premier does. Conjuring lots of adulation, but zero opposition.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 5th, 2022