Why the world should be worried about the rise of strongman politics


Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Back in 2016, The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman advanced the view in a commentary for The Economist that the “strongman” style of leadership was gravitating from east to west, and growing stronger. “Across the world – from Russia to China and from India to Egypt – macho leadership is back in fashion,” Rachman wrote.

In light of subsequent developments around the world, he understated the “macho” phenomenon, driven by rising populism and growing mistrust of democratic systems.

That commentary was published before Donald Trump prevailed in the US presidential election and turned upside-down assumptions about how an American president might behave.

Whether we like it or not, the most powerful country in the world – until now, an exemplar of Western liberal democracies and global stabiliser in times of stress – is ruled by an autocrat who pays little attention to democratic norms.

Spread of authoritarianism

In his lecture delivered just a day after Trump appeared to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side over America’s intelligence agencies on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections, Barack Obama drew attention to the new authoritarianism.

Without referring directly to Trump, Obama issued his most pointed criticism yet of the nativist and populist policies adopted by his successor on issues like immigration, protectionism and climate change.

The politics of fear and resentment … is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I’m simply stating the facts. Look around – strongman politics are on the ascendant.

Trump, therefore, is not an aberration. He is part of a strengthening authoritarian trend more or less across the globe.




Read more:
A growing mistrust in democracy is causing extremism and strongman politics to flourish


In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has given way to the entrenchment of dictatorships in places like Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has reasserted his grip on power with Russian and Iranian help; and in Egypt, where strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continues to curtail press freedom and incarcerate political rivals.

In Europe, the rise of an authoritarian right in places like Hungary, Austria and now Italy are also part of this trend. In Italy, the bombastic Silvio Berlusconi proved to be a forerunner of what is happening now.

In China, Xi Jinping’s “new era” is another example of a strongman overriding democratic constraints, with term limits on his leadership having recently been removed.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte is using his war on drugs for broader authoritarian purposes in the manner of a mob boss.

In Thailand, the army shows little inclination to yield power it seized in a military coup in 2014, even if there was public clamour for a return to civilian rule (which there is not).

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is continuing to strengthen his hold on the country, expanding the powers of the presidency and locking up political rivals and journalistic critics. As a result, Turkey’s secular and political foundations are being undermined.

In Brazil, 40% of those polled by Vanderbilt University a few years back said they would support a military coup to bring order to their country, riven by crime and corruption.

And in Saudi Arabia, a young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has detained the country’s leading businessmen and extorted billions from them in return for their freedom. This took place without censure from the West.

The death of truth

Meanwhile, genuine liberal democrats are in retreat as a populist tide laps at their doors.

In Britain, Theresa May is hanging onto power by a thread against a revanchist threat from the right.

In France, Emmanuel Macron is battling to transform his welfare-burdened country against fierce resistance from left and right.




Read more:
Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth


In Germany, Angela Merkel, the most admirable of Western liberal democratic leaders, is just holding on against anti-immigration forces on the right.

In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, the leaders of the established centre-right and centre-left parties, are similarly under pressure from nativist forces on the far right.

What Australia and these other countries lack is a Trump, but anything is possible in an emerging strongman era, including the improbable – such as the emergence of a reality TV star as leader of the free world.

In a recent Lowy Institute opinion survey only 52% of younger Australians aged 18-29 years believed that democracy was preferable to other alternative forms of government.

In all of this, among the casualties is the truth, and particularly the truth. All politicians bend the truth to a certain extent, but there is no recent example in a Western democracy of a political leader who lies as persistently as Trump.

Like the character Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Trump lives in his own make-believe reality TV world where facts, it seems, are immaterial.




Read more:
Trump, Putin and the new international order


Inconvenient information can be dismissed as “fake news”, and those who persist in reporting such inconvenient truths portrayed as “enemies of the people”.

This is the sort of rhetoric that resides in totalitarian states, where the media is expected to function as an arm of a dictatorship, or failing that, journalists are simply disappeared.

In Putin’s Russia, journalist critics of the regime do so at their peril.

In his lecture in South Africa, Obama dwelled at length on the corruption of political discourse in the modern era, including a basic disrespect for the facts.

People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in the growth of state-sponsored propaganda. We see it in internet fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. It used to be that if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.

In the digital era, it had been assumed technology would make it easier to hold political leaders to account, but in some respects the reverse is proving to be the case, as Ian Bremmer, author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, wrote in a recent contribution to Time.

A decade ago, it appeared that a revolution in information and communications technologies would empower the individual at the expense of the state. Western leaders believed social networks would create ‘people power,’ enabling political upheavals like the Arab Spring. But the world’s autocrats drew a different lesson. They saw an opportunity for government to try to become the dominant player in how information is shared and how the state can use data to tighten political control.

In his conclusion, Bremmer has this sobering observation:

The ConversationPerhaps the most worrying element of the strongman’s rise is the message it sends. The systems that powered the Cold War’s winners now look much less appealing than they did a generation ago. Why emulate the US or European political systems, with all the checks and balances that prevent even the most determined leaders from taking on chronic problems, when one determined leader can offer a credible shortcut to greater security and national pride? As long as that rings true, the greatest threat may be the strongmen yet to come.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

MALAYSIA: COURT SET TO RULE ON USE OF ‘ALLAH’ AMONG NON-MUSLIMS


Judges to determine whether Malaysians of other faiths can use the Arabic word.

MUMBAI, India, July 6 (Compass direct News) – With the Kuala Lumpur High Court in Malaysia scheduled to determine the legality of the word “Allah” in non-Muslim literature tomorrow, what is at stake goes beyond the sanctioned name for God among non-Muslims in the majority-Muslim nation.

Such a limit on free speech in Malaysia is especially biting for Muslim converts to Christianity; already the Malaysian government does not recognize their conversions and marriages and still considers their offspring to be legally Muslim. With non-Muslims increasingly feeling the sting of discrimination and Muslim elites feeling a need to assert a national Islamic identity, the skirmish over “Allah” is clearly part of a greater cultural war.

Malaysian authorities and Malaysia’s Roman Catholic Church have continued to lock horns over use of the word “Allah” in the Malay-language edition of the Herald, the church’s newspaper, as they await the ruling. The newspaper had been allowed to use the term until a final court decision, but the Kuala Lumpur High Court on May 30 overturned that brief reprieve.

The Catholic newspaper has provided a panoply of historical uses of “Allah” among Christians in Malaysia. The Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of the Herald, quotes examples from a Malay-Latin dictionary dated 1631, and the Dutch-Malay Dictionary of 1650 lists “Allah” as the vernacular translation for God.

“This is testified by the fact that we have a Malay-Latin Dictionary printed in 1631, in which the word ‘Allah’ is cited,” Andrew said. “To have a word in a dictionary means that that particular word has already been in use in the community prior to the dictionary. The word for ‘God’ in Latin is ‘Deus’ and in Malay, it is ‘Allah.’ Upon the arrival of the Dutch…a Dutch-Malay Dictionary was produced in 1650 where the word for ‘God’ in Dutch was ‘Godt,’ and in Malay, ‘Allah.’”

According to church sources, the Malay term for “God,” Tuhan, came into vogue only after deadly May 13, 1969 communal riots as part of a national unity campaign.

Andrew noted that “Allah” is an Arabic term derived from the same roots as the Hebrew Elohim, and that the word pre-dates Muhammad, Islam’s prophet. Besides ignoring history, Andrew says, the government also conveniently ignores its universal use among Christians in the Middle East.

“Since the status quo remains, we will not use the word ‘Allah’ in our publication” until the court says otherwise, Andrew said. “In fact we have not been using it since our January edition.”

Since 1970, the government of Malaysia has consistently championed Islam as a parallel source of identity and nationalism among the politically dominant Malay-Muslim majority. Dress codes, cultural norms and the Malay language underwent a rapid Islamization in tandem with discriminative actions against minority groups.

Christians were particularly hard-hit by the effort in the name of national unity. Licences are rarely issued for church buildings in the capital city, Kuala Lumpur. New evangelical congregations had to meet at either hotels or warehouses for their Sunday services while Islamic semiotics and terminologies swamped the intellectual and official discourse. Conversion of Christians to Islam were particularly trumpeted by the media.

These efforts have largely failed. Local churches continued to grow, and the number of secret Muslim converts to Christianity began to rise.

At the same time, pandemic corruption and political authoritarianism have gradually led to a sense of disenchantment with political Islam among many. This erosion in Malay-Islam dominance has led to political bankruptcy, as evidenced by disastrous results for the ruling coalition during March 2008 general elections.

Given these political realities, Malay elites believe they can ill afford to be seen as soft on minority “encroachment,” and observers say this need to ingratiate Islamists lies at the root of the tussle over non-Muslim use of the word “Allah.” Officially, however, the government says only that use of the word among non-Muslims could create “confusion” among Muslims.

The Herald has a circulation of 13,000 and an estimated readership of 50,000. The newspaper is sold in Catholic churches and is not available from newsstands.

Malaysia’s population is about 60 percent Muslim, 19 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. About 6 percent are Hindu, with 2.6 percent of the population adhering to Confucianism, Taoism and other traditional Chinese religions.

Arabicization of Malay Language

The debate over “Allah” follows an effort by the government to promote the Arabicization of the Malay language at the expense of Sanskrit and Malay terms. When a Malaysian student has to refer to a pig in an essay or test, the required term is the Arabic khinzir.

Other Malay terms such as pokok (tree) and bunga (flower), long used to refer to loan principal and interest respectively, have been expunged from school texts in favor of the Arabic kaedah (base) and faedah (benefit).

Some sources indicate that the Arabicization of the Malay language, however, has come with unintended consequences, such as making Christian mission work and translation easier. Since the Malay vocabulary has its limitations, Christians can use time-tested Arabic-derived terms to provide meaningful context.

For a long time, the only Malay Bible available in Malaysia was the Indonesian “Al Kitab,” which, included the word “Allah.” As Bahasa Malaysia (official name of the Malay language in Malaysia) and Bahasa Indonesia are very similar, the “Al Kitab” can be easily understood by a native speaker of Malay. As a result, the “Al Kitab” was viewed as an unwelcome missionary tool by Malaysian authorities. Its legal status was heatedly contested behind closed doors during the 1981-2003 reign of then-Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad.

Significant Christian indigenous populations in East Malaysia use Bahasa Malaysia as a language of wider communication. The Malay-language content of the Herald reportedly serves just that need: using the national language with universal terms across a multi-lingual Babel of tribal Catholic communities in East Malaysia.

Report from Compass Direct News