Accounting for the Rise of Populism
by Isobel Ingham-Barrow
When discussing populism and the far-right, it is not unusual to picture the violence of the horrifying terrorist attack in Christchurch earlier this year and the associated manifesto, or rowdy protests led by organisations such as the EDL, or even the angry diatribes of far-right speakers such as Tommy Robinson. However, in order to understand the motivating forces behind this phenomenon, we must take a much more holistic and critical approach. In my humble opinion, there are three concepts that must be acknowledged if we are to approach any kind of strategy to address rising populist sentiments and political developments across Europe and the West. These concepts are the Islamophobia Industry; perceptions of collective threat; and moral panic.
In illustrating this framework for understanding the rise of populism, this article focusses on the example of Islamophobia in the UK. However, the structures and processes at play can be readily witnessed if applied to populist discourse across the Western context and regarding a wide range of socio-political issues, including rising rates of homophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, sexism, and hostility to environmental activism, to name but a few.
The Islamophobia Industry
Populist movements across the West should not be seen as isolated nor coincidental uprisings. In reality there are concerted and highly organised transnational structures propelling and sustaining their growth and development. One such structure can be found within the example of the Islamophobia Industry. The Islamophobia Industry is a term coined by Nathan Lean to describe a global network of funding bodies, think-tanks, politicians and political parties, media outlets and spokespeople, and grassroots organisations that are driven by an anti-Muslim and anti-Islam impetus in order to fulfil a largely neoconservative agenda.
By way of example, investigations have revealed that UK think-tanks such as the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), whilst being notoriously protective of their funding base, receive funding from US organisations such as the Abstraction Fund, which is presided over by Nina Rosenwald (who is lovingly referred to as “the sugar-mama of anti-Muslim hate”). Rosenwald also happens to be the founder and director of the right-wing Gatestone Institute and since 2000 has contributed around $3 million to finance other organisations all serving the purpose of fanning “the flames of Islamophobia.” These organisations include the Center for Security Policy, Project Ijtihad, the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, the Middle East Forum, the Clarion Fund, Commentary Magazine and the Hudson Institute.
HJS itself is promotes a staunchly neoconservative position on foreign policy, encouragement of military interventionism in the MENA region, rejection of multiculturalism, and portrayal of Muslims and Islam as antithetical to the neoliberal values of Western democracies. Perhaps its anti-Muslim ethos is best characterised by the statements of senior figures, such as Associate Director, Douglas Murray, and Director, Alan Mendoza. As but one example, Murray made a speech in 2006 during which he announced that, “Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition.” Once again demonstrating the transnational and interconnected nature of the relationships between anti-Muslim movements, Douglas Murray has also participated in anti-Muslim conferences organised by the David Horowitz Freedom Center in the US, alongside other prominent anti-Muslim figures Robert Spencer, Frank Gaffney, and Melanie Phillips.
The messages of such think-tanks are then reinforced and further perpetuated by a series of public commentators. These commentators include ‘reformed’ or ‘moderate’ Muslim validators (such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ed Husain, Maajid Nawaz, Sara Khan, Raheem Kassam, and Fiyaz Mughal); media personas and columnists (including Katie Hopkins, Melanie Phillips, Andrew Norfolk, and Andrew Gilligan); and media outlets (such as Brietbart News, Rebel Media, the Daily Mail, and the Sun).
These narratives are then given further impetus and seeming credibility by politicians and political parties (notable figures in the UK context include Michael Gove and Nigel Farage), who adopt such rhetoric to further their own political ideologies. The Trojan Horse ‘scandal’ is a prime example of the permeation of anti-Muslim agendas into political policy making. The ‘Trojan Horse Affair’ has since come to be understood by many observers as “a lurid figment of the neo-Conservative imagination… an anti-Muslim ideological concoction, driven by Michael Gove, backed by David Cameron’s Downing Street, and aided and abetted by a group of well-placed media henchmen. It is also an episode which has done enormous harm to community relations, unfairly wrecked the career of teachers and, above all, set back the life chances of thousands of mainly Muslim Birmingham students, whose school careers have been gravely disrupted.”
Meanwhile, buried within the current UK Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson’s comments describing Muslim women as “letter-boxes” and “bank robbers” is the reported realisation of his relationship with Steve Bannon, the renowned populist provocateur and mastermind behind Donald Trump’s election as the President of the United States. Once again, the transnational nature of populist politics should not be overlooked nor underestimated.
The most overt aspect of this process is perhaps the grassroots mobilisation that forms the basis of the populist voice amongst the masses. Grassroots movements in the UK loosely centre around groups such as the EDL, Britain First, Pegida UK, and the Football Lads’ Alliance. While membership amongst these groups is often fluid and overlapping, their strongest presence can arguably be felt across social media platforms, where anonymity and a lack of primary legislation creates a space for hate-filled content to flourish amongst many thousands of group members and twitter followers. While there is frequently no definable organisational structure to these groups, some centre on figureheads such as Tommy Robinson, who is the founder of both the EDL and Pegida UK. Tommy Robinson himself bridges the divide between grassroots agitator and aspiring politician and has become a master at playing the role of the everyman’s underdog who is standing up for the rights of the oppressed and forgotten classes; in other words, the populist hero.
Perceptions of Collective Threat
Whilst structures such as the Islamophobia Network explain how populist and anti-Muslim sentiments are maintained and capitalised on within national movements, it does not fully explain why ordinary people become attracted to such a narrative. To understand this, we must examine the pivotal socio-political and economic issues that are being used (and some might argue, manipulated) to galvanise support behind populist paradigms. These socio-political and economic triggers need to be investigated within the context of perceptions of collective threat.
Between 2007 and the three years of political turmoil that have followed the result of the EU referendum in June 2016, the UK has seen socio-economic and political upheavals arguably even more tumultuous than the Thatcher era of the 1980s. We must be mindful of the impact of this period on the public consciousness, particularly in light of events ranging from the 2008 financial crisis, austerity, the naivety of political elites and the expenses scandal, the emergence of da’ish, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, to name but a few examples. The tumultuous nature of this time period has frequently been capitalised upon by far-right ideologues to fuel perceptions of the collective threat to the ‘natural bearers’ of national identity. Such fears are then exploited to encourage feelings of hostility and prejudice amongst the masses. After all, the crux of populism itself is the notion that the concerns and welfare of ordinary people has been neglected by corrupt and incompetent political elites. Exploiting fear (regardless of the validity of these fears) is an effective way to galvanise national sentiments around this populist agenda.
There are various types of real and imagined threats or socio-political ‘slights’ that have been manipulated by populist rhetoric in the promotion of a need for radical political change:
Firstly, there are physical threats, such as the ways in which Muslim men are portrayed in popular discourse as being uniquely prone to physical and sexual violence.
Perceived threats may also be economic; the idea that immigrants and refugees are a burden on the state, ‘stealing our jobs’, and diverting the capacity of public services away from the ‘naturally and innately deserving’.
Political power is also often seen to be under threat, with proponents of the Islamophobia Industry propagating narratives of a ‘creeping Shariah’, through which Muslims are surreptitiously attempting to impose Shariah Law on Western societies either through nefarious entryism or overt force and subversion.
The threat of Muslims to national security is also frequently raised as an issue of threats to the national existence. The now infamous “War on Terror” and the securitisation of Muslim identities is a perfect example of how a dichotomy has been created between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a perceived battle for ‘our’ very existence.
Finally, perceived threats may be symbolic and largely arise from a perceived threat to the dominant national worldview. This may arise as a consequence of perceived differences between morals, values, standards, beliefs, practices, and attitudes. These differences are often used as evidence of a threat to the national sense of identity and accepted system of values and customs. This is a recurring theme amongst populist narratives, with a heavy focus on the perception that Western and European culture is in a state of decline due to infiltration by Muslims who seek to destroy Western identities and values.
The consequences of perceptions of threat manifest in diverse ways on both the psychological and individual level, as well as on the wider sociological level. One such manifestation of these perceived threats is the construction of negative stereotypes. Such stereotypes allow a target group (in this case, Muslims) to be demonised and dehumanised in order to justify prejudicial and discriminatory policies, practices, and attitudes directed towards them. Stereotypes also often allow the causes of overwhelmingly complex situations and social ills to be reduced to the product of one root cause. Within the populist paradigm, this cause is largely presented as the inadequacy of political elites to deal with minority communities (and Muslims in particular) who are degrading ‘our’ society and causing the rightful heirs of national identity to suffer in the face of the liberalism and political correctness.
The construction of designated enemies as the guilt bearers for all societal calamities requires an incitement of moral panic. Through the spreading of moral panic, individuals or groups emerge as a pre-defined threat to societal values, norms, identities, security, and interests. This moral panic is then disseminated and maintained by the repeated promotion of stereotypical, stylised, and distorted representations within mainstream media. These representations are subsequently amplified and given credence by politicians and public figures. The ultimate result is pressure upon policymakers to devise policies specifically designed to curtail the freedoms of those deemed to be the source of social-ills.
According to Robin Richardson, the features of moral panics include eight stages: 
The construction of folk devils who become the metaphorical embodiment of evil and deviancy from societal values.
Criticism of those who are accused of not understanding, appreciating or admitting the threats that society faces, in particular, officials, religious figures, activists, the ‘bleeding hearts and do-gooders’, and academics in their apparent ivory towers.
The connecting of a series of unrelated threats, with the implication that they are all symptomatic of the same underlying problem.
The creation of a dichotomy between ‘us’ vs ‘them’ and the assertion that there are no shared interests, values, or commonalities between the two.
A strengthened sense of moral indignation being attributed to the dominant group (the idealised ‘us’ vs a demonised ‘them’).
Media exaggeration, sensationalism, and distortion.
A pervasive sense of an almost apocalyptic ‘slippery slope’ and the idea that cultural and societal change is out of control.
A culminating call for restrictions, punitive laws, and the curtailment of the suspect community’s civil liberties and freedoms.
It is not difficult to see where the populist narratives of media outlets such as the Daily Mail and the Sun contribute towards this trajectory in their discussions of Muslims. Nor can one ignore the roles of an array of high-profile UK politicians (many of whom how hold prominent positions in the Cabinet) play in fuelling this path towards overwhelming populist outrage.
However, beyond accounting for the rise of populist movements, we must also examine the consequences of these developments. And in particular, we must assess the eighth stage in Robinson’s depiction of moral panics; calls for the development and implementation of policies directly targeting the suspected enemies of society.
UK politics has entered an unprecedented time which has left many political observers floundering and questioning how we can turn back the clock on the wave of populist sentiment and divisiveness that has engulfed political discourse. Already, we have witnessed institutionally racist and Islamophobic policies overwhelm counter-terror strategies in the form of PREVENT and Schedule 7. We continue to suffer from racially disproportionate uses of stop and search procedures that often create wedges between communities and the police forces attempting to protect them. The current Conservative Government continues to implement a policy of disengagement from mainstream representative Muslim organisations in preference for a handpicked few, such as Tell MAMA, who loyally and dutifully follow government agendas, but which have virtually no support nor relevance for the communities they claim to represent. Meanwhile, the latest proposed integration strategy is infused with the language of countering violent extremism; talk of the thus-far ill defined ‘British Values’ and an evidentiary basis that has been roundly and irrefutably condemned.
Moreover, the consequences of these policies are unlikely to be rectified as long as our political representatives continue to pander to populist agendas that are orchestrated and maintained by the efforts of a transnational group of professional political manipulators and fuelled by media distortions that are specifically designed to draw upon and further stoke the fears of the masses.
However, there is little use in fantasising about a sudden reversal of populist sentiment through logical and reasoned arguments alone. We currently reside in a post-truth era which is driven by emotional realities, characterised by fake-news, and premised upon a belief that (in the now infamous words of Michael Gove) the people have “had enough of experts”. Therefore, this situation must be addressed through targeted interventions in the field of individual policy development. These interventions must include legislative changes, government led initiatives, and industry led initiatives if they are to have an impact in reversing a currently toxic atmosphere of hostility and mistrust.
The first step and frequently most effective measure in tackling societal problems is legislative change. In the UK context, there are several areas in need of urgent redress:
With 21 negative references to Muslims for every single neutral or positive reference in mainstream UK newspapers and no protection under the current regulator against group discrimination, there is a dire need to fully implement the Royal Charter on press regulation and the the commencement of the second part of the Leveson Inquiry in order to address the current levels of media manipulation that fuel populist agendas.
Considering the repeated demonstration of institutional racism embedded within many aspects of counter-terror policies and practices, it is imperative that the Government commits to independently reviewing all counter-terror legislation enacted since 2000 with a view to curbing the current encroachment of counter-terror policies on the civil liberties of minority communities and Muslims specifically.
Legislation protecting against religiously motivated hate crime and the ways in which it is implemented is also in need of review. Current disparities between the protections afforded for racially motivated hatred and religiously motivated hatred leave Muslims particularly vulnerable to abuse as they do not classify as a race. As such, they frequently have little recourse to verbal assaults, thus leaving space for populist abuse to freely target Muslim communities.
There is currently a dearth of primary legislation to deal with social media offences. Considering the perpetuation of far-right groups and media outlets in online spaces, it is essential that the Government works with social media companies to protect free speech while developing an efficient strategy to tackle online hate speech.
There is also a need for government and industry led initiatives designed to tackle issues such as employment discrimination; increase the presence of normalised and positive portrayals of minority communities in broadcasting; fully investigate inequalities within the criminal justice system; encourage greater diversity in the sphere of politics; and implement educational programs intended to decolonise education, prepare children for life in a pluralistic society, and tackle bullying based on race, religion, disability or sexuality.
However, for the above recommendations to have any chance of success, they must also be accompanied by a level of political accountability. We are in need of brave political representatives that are willing to take ownership of previous political failings. For example, politicians who are willing to acknowledge the impact of austerity on our national services; or that the reason for a lack of jobs is not because of immigrants, but because of an economic downturn for which banks were arguably not held appropriately accountable for; and the reason for high levels of knife crime is not due to the innate criminal nature of minority communities, but due to cuts in police funding.
Furthermore, it is the responsibility of all citizens to actively engage with the political process in order to ensure that their political representatives are indeed being held accountable. The act of voting is but the first and most basic level of democracy. However, real change can only occur through active involvement with political parties and communicating with local councillors and members of parliament, as well as actively campaigning and physically standing for election. While it is possible to feel disillusionment at the current state of politics, it is not enough to simply disengage. If we wish to fix it, the only way is through engagement.
Isobel Ingham-Barrow’s PhD research focusses on the impacts of Islamophobia on British Muslim masculinities. Other research interests include gender, postcolonialism, populism, ethnicity, and identity. She currently serves as Head of Policy at Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND), a community funded NGO which seeks to empower British Muslims to be actively engaged in politics and media and to tackle Islamophobia.
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