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Civilizational Populism: Definition, Literature, Theory, and Practice

journal contribution
posted on 2023-02-08, 10:41 authored by Ihsan YilmazIhsan Yilmaz, N Morieson
The purpose of this article is to clarify the concept of ‘civilizational populism’ and work towards a concise but operational definition. To do this, the article examines how populists across the world, and in a variety of different religious, geographic, and political contexts, incorporate and instrumentalize notions of ‘civilization’ into their discourses. The article observes that although a number of scholars have described a civilization turn among populists, there is currently no concrete definition of civilization populism, a concept which requires greater clarity. The article also observes that, while scholars have often found populists in Europe incorporating notions of civilization and ‘the clash of civilizations’ into the discourses, populists in non-Western environments also appear to have also incorporated notions of civilization into their discourses, yet these are rarely studied. The first part of the article begins by discussing the concept of ‘civilizationism’, a political discourse which emphasizes the civilizational aspect of social and especially national identity. Following this, the article discusses populism and describes how populism itself cannot succeed unless it adheres to a wider political programme or broader set of ideas, and without the engendering or exploiting of a ‘crisis’ which threatens ‘the people’. The article then examines the existing literature on the civilization turn evident among populists. The second part of the article builds on the previous section by discussing the relationship between civilizationism and populism worldwide. To do this, the paper examines civilizational populism in three key nations representing three of the world’s major faiths, and three different geographical regions: Turkey, India, and Myanmar. The paper makes three findings. First, while scholars have generally examined civilizational identity in European and North American right-wing populist rhetoric, we find it occurring in a wider range of geographies and religious contexts. Second, civilizationism when incorporated into populism gives content to the key signifiers: ‘the pure people’, ‘the corrupt elite’, and ‘dangerous ‘others’. In each case studied in this article, populists use a civilization based classification of peoples to draw boundaries around ‘the people’, ‘elites’ and ‘others’, and declare that ‘the people’ are ‘pure’ and ‘good’ because they belong to a civilization which is itself pure and good, and authentic insofar as they belong to the civilization which created the nation and culture which populists claim to be defending. Conversely, civilizational populists describe elites as having betrayed ‘the people’ by abandoning the religion and/or values and culture that shaped and were shaped by their civilization. Equally, civilizational populists describe religious minorities as ‘dangerous’ others who are morally bad insofar as they belong to a foreign civilization, and therefore to a different religion and/or culture with different values which are antithetical to those of ‘our’ civilization. Third, civilizational populist rhetoric is effective insofar as populists’ can, by adding a civilizational element to the vertical and horizontal dimensions of their populism, claim a civilizational crisis is occurring. Finally, based on the case studies, the paper defines civilizational populism as a group of ideas that together considers that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people, and society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ who collaborate with the dangerous others belonging to other civilizations that are hostile and present a clear and present danger to the civilization and way of life of the pure people.






Article number

ARTN 1026




Basel, Switzerland







Publication classification

C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal