Religion ‘becoming political tool in right wing populist Europe’

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Barçın Yinanç – ISTANBUL

Religion becoming political tool in right wing populist Europe

Islam replaced communism as the “other” in terms of ideology, and as a result Europe is becoming more Christian because of the growing hatred against any kind of Islam, Professor Ayhan Kaya has said. Europe is becoming more Christian culturally, not religiously, according to Kaya, who defines the Islamophobes voting for right-wing populist parties as “Christian atheists.”

Your book “Populism and Heritage in Europe” and “European Memory in Populism,” which you have co-edited with Chiara De Cesari from the University of Amsterdam are out. Tell us, who should read these books?

Those who really want to understand, without any judgement, the reasons behind the rise of right-wing populist rhetoric and why some people are becoming affiliated with this rhetoric should read them.

What should we understand of populism?

Populist leaders have common denominators. They have a Manichean world, dividing everything in two: Good or bad; the believers and the unbelievers. It is either “you are one of us or against us.”

They try to underline their similarities with individuals of everyday life to give the message “I am one of you.” But their communication strategies try to underline the extraordinariness of their characters.

They are explicitly against all kinds of institutions. According to them institutions are barriers between them and people.

They all live in crisis. Their concern is not to have a cohesive policy, all their concern is to sustain their power.

Can we say that religion and migration are used as tools to polarize especially in the context of European populist leaders?

Europe on average is becoming more Islamophobic. I explain in the book extensively that Islamophobia is not something new. It goes back to the 1970’s, to the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and to OPEC countries cutting down oil exports to Europe.

European states and their societies started to blame Middle Eastern countries for this crisis and the hatred is later extended to immigrants coming from the Middle East.

This is a very interesting turning point in history because those days the Cold War was in a way coming to an end because of the rapprochement between two ideologies; between communism and capitalism.

In the 1970’s, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, comprising countries from the two hostile blocs, was emerging. There were efforts towards nuclear disarmaments. So, hostilities were starting to decrease between the two blocs.

As a result, the 1970’s was decisive in the sense that in the imagery of European people, the USSR and communism were becoming less and less the other. The USSR was replaced by the Middle East as the other in terms of geography, and communism was replaced by Islam in terms of the ideology.

Since then the Middle East and Islam became the real problem for Europe. If Islam becomes your signifier in terms of your identity-building process, then you are also bound to become more and more Christian.

But interestingly; what is really fascinating which is something I discuss in the book is this: the number of church goers are becoming less and less in Europe. So, Europe is becoming more Christian because of the growing hatred against any kind of Islam.

The difference here is that Europe is culturally becoming more Christian but not religiously. Civilization is being reduced to religion. Those who become Islamophobic among the right-wing populist party supporters are not actually religiously Christian.

They are not the practicing pious type.

On the contrary they are atheists, agnostic or secular people, who are afraid of Islam portrayed at the moment in Europe. They are really afraid of caliphates invading their countries and Islamizing their countries.

These people are in search of their communities. Right-wing populist rhetoric provides them with a nest, a shield with a kind of sense of community protecting them against the outside forces.

I tend to define such people as Christian atheists. In the interviews I conducted in 2005 during the street fights in Paris, those North African Muslim-origin youngsters defined themselves as Muslim atheists. So, religion becomes a political instrument. Religion becomes less about religion but more about politics.

In my current book on radicalization, I will use the notion of Christian atheists more.

Would you then say that people are becoming more radicalized?

I think we have a problem with the term radicalization.

As political scientists we try to show, what is invisible behind what is visible.

Today when we talk about radicalization the first thing that comes to our mind is Islam. But people may become radicalized because of certain social-economic political problems. They realize that the current nation-states are not delivering answers to their needs. We as individuals try to understand the root causes, radical literally means something about the roots. Radicalization is a philosophical process actually. We try to understand what’s going on in this world.

So, we should be more careful when using the term radicalism with fundamentalism, with extremism, with populism, with all these different terms. Radicals in the 19th century were the democrats fighting against the royal powers, fighting against the dictators. In the 1960’s radicals were the youth against patriarchal authority.

Even as academics, we also lose the nuances and somehow surrender ourselves to the populist zeitgeist of making everything so blunt, without any depth.
In the 1970’s, the European Community at the time had set up a working group called, TREVI to understand the root causes of terrorism, radicalism, extremism violence etc. These are all very different terms which were not used interchangeably back then. Today they are used interchangeably which is complete non-sense.

What is your reaction to the fact that a member of the European Commission has the newly created portfolio of “Protecting our European Way of Life.”

The new European Commission was expected to do something to respond to the growing right-wing populism in all the European countries. One of the subtitles of my book is “Lost in Diversity and Unity.” A number of people in Europe are fed up with the diversity discourse. Remember that the motto of the European Union for many decades was unity in diversity. It does not appeal to everyone. It might appeal cosmopolitan people with middle-class background, but it does not appeal to everyone equally. On the contrary, it disturbs some people.

So, the commission wanted to appeal to them without making them even more Eurosceptic. But I think they did the wrong thing. As someone working on refugees, Islam, Islamophobia etc. I reckon that their presumption is that one of the main challenges for Europe today is Islam. So, this is read as such by all the other Muslim-origin people. Together with those in the Balkans, there are around 20 million Muslim-origin people living in European countries. They might have come up with a strategy to appeal to the populist masses, but then they have the risk of alienating some other citizens of Europe with Muslim backgrounds.

That is why the debate will be there for us to be discussed.

*Ayhan Kaya is a professor of politics and the Jean Monnet chair of European politics of interculturalism at the Department of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University.

He gives courses on Europe and migration, cultural diversity in Europe, and Islam and the West.

He received the European Research Council Advanced Grant in 2018 for his project titled “Nativism, Islamophobism and Islamism in the Age of Populism: Culturalisation and Religionization of What is Social, Economic and Political in Europe.” The project will last for five years between 2019 and 2024.


Kaya’s areas of interest includes ethnicity and the global order, politics of cultural diversity and international migration.


One the recent books he edited together with Murat Erdoğan is called “Turkey’s History of Migration: Migration to Turkey from the 14th to 21st century.”

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