Reinforcing the “Global Islam” Enemy: Western populism’s influence in the Iranian protests

Western populism is influencing the events in Iran and thus reinforcing a “global Islam” as the enemy. The definition of populism is complex as it is not fixed; it shifts and adapts according to the region in which it arises. Thus, it is difficult to specify a homogenous definition of Western populism, but as Cas Mudde writes, “the key enemy has become Islam.” What links Western populism is the distinct “us” versus “them” of the Islamic population.

The current government in Iran is theocratic. This theocratic state was a result of what can be considered a populist uprising, also known as the Islamic revolution of 1979. The elements of populist tactics are seen in the call for a referendum to decide the fate of the Dynasty previously in power, or to call for the establishment of an Islamic Republic government, the mobilization and protests by primarily the population’s youth. Though the protests that Iran is currently facing seem to be influenced by the prominent “us” versus “them” discourse of Western populism.

The protests began as reacting to economic problems, though this does not deter from the fact that the protests show prominent Western influence. Mudde distinguishes populism as the corrupt elite versus the pure people. This is a rhetoric that has taken hold by the protesters. Recently, the Islamic republic in Iran caused an internet blackout in what prominent human rights activists are calling a means to control the mobilization of the people. It has also been claimed to be a tool to isolate Iran and the events from the rest of the world in the face of intense violence. This discourse is populist in nature, as it features the corrupt elite versus the pure people. As the government is an Islamic theocracy, this narrative of the corrupt elite paints corrupt as Islam against the people. It portrays this system of governance as violent, against the people, and representative of an archaic people.

This notion that Islamic culture is archaic is used to ‘other’ Muslims minorities in Western populism. It is also being used to mobilize the people against the theocratic regime in Iran. It can be seen in the discourse surrounding the #whitewednesday movement, where women challenge the mandatory wearing of the hijab. Masih Alinejad, founder of the #whitewednesday, is very active on social media platforms and is very critical of the Iranian government. As she has been exiled, the internet gives her access to critique and challenge the Iranian government, a trait that has become increasingly important within populism – to deter from the fake news by controlled media outlets. This critique is reliant on the hijab as a signifier of the oppression of women. This #whitewednesday movement illustrates this Othering of the theocratic corrupt government in repressing the pure people. It is a way for Alinejad to “[give] a voice to voiceless people.” It is playing into the idea that the Islamic government is oppressive, thus feeding into this Western populist narrative of the Islamic Other.

This is not to say that these women are rejecting Islam or that these women should not be critical of their own autonomy. What this movement shows is that it is greatly influenced by populism; critiquing and challenging the authority of an Islamic theocratic regime, thus consciously or unconsciously challenging and reinforcing the Islamic Other. There is significant lack of discussion around the voices of women who do not oppose the mandatory wearing of the hijab. This then shows the influence of Western populism, as the hijab has been a physical identifier of the Islamic Other. Therefore, a lack of focus on the desire does not fit into this dichotomy of the western “us” versus “them” narrative.

It is this challenge of Islamic authority that rose to power through populist means, being challenged by Western populist discourse, such as the notion of archaic Islamic culture oppressing the people, that allows for the Othering of Islam in an Islamic state. This in turn reinforces a global Islamic enemy.

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