Escaping Ethnocentrism: The Radical Right in the Middle East and Africa

Until recently, radical right movements, which are often single-issue parties, were marginalized as a political group. Yet socio-economic conditions, especially those due to European Union expansion and mass immigration, provided radical right politicians the opportunity to increase both their visibility and popularity. Britain voting to leave the European Union in June 2016 and the power-sharing agreement with the Freedom Party in Austria in 2017 were but the most recent achievements of populist radical right activism in Europe. The U.S. Presidential election in November 2016, similarly provided another political opportunity for radical right groups such as the Alt Right and its transnational networks. It is clear that Europe and North America are no longer immune from the seductions of radical right movements.

Radical right ideology, Jens Rydgren contends, is typically driven by an emphasis on ethno-nationalism; a return to ‘traditional values’ of the past; and ethnic, religious, cultural homogeneity. In addition, most radical right movements tend to be populist, which manifests itself in accusations against out of touch elites and corrupt or self-serving leadership. Familiar claims include the idea that global interests can only be pursued at the expense of national gains, and that the special interests of elites are prioritized over the interests of the population at large.

While nationalism, discriminatory exclusion, illiberalism, xenophobia, and political monism are key features of European radical right parties, the American version appears to differ from its European counterparts in a number of crucial ways. First, given the nature of voting procedures in the United States, radical right populism rarely produces viable or politically influential groupings. Second, contrary to populist radical right parties in Europe, those in the United States are emphatically anti-statist. Third, American radical-right populism is strongly influenced by religious ideas – far more so than in Europe.

While activists and academics from around the world are much concerned with the meaning and impact of radical right forces, scholarship on the radical right, in fact, suffers from ethnocentrism. A vast majority of research focuses on the radical right in Europe and the US, and there has been a comparative dearth of studies into the Western style radical right in relation to non-Western contexts. In particular, radical right parties and movements in the Middle East and Africa (except for Israel and South Africa) are massively understudied.

European nationalism, up to the 20th century at least, as Walter Laqueur argued, appeared to be a liberal and democratic movement, ‘humanitarian in object and preaching.’ Nationalism in the Middle East, by contrast, occurred in something of a vacuum; that is, without the cognate phenomena of liberalism, self-determination, and minority rights. Without this tempering, nationalism in the Middle East more frequently shows antipathy to foreign influences and is in practice more exclusionary too. The nation-state concept in Western Europe and North America stems from the conditions and ideas that arose with the historical development of democratic ideals associated with the Enlightenment. From central government down to individual liberties, the same ideological values were politically absent from the Middle East. Even in the widely-used example of contemporary Turkey, transplanting Western liberal nationalism has largely failed.

Pan-nationalist movements in the Middle East have espoused a newer form of nationalism, one similar to what Hannah Arendt described as ‘tribal nationalism’. While Pan-Arabism, Pan-Iranism, and Pan-Turkism were imperialistic and chauvinistic in nature, political parties and movements affiliated with such movements did not necessarily develop a radical right ideology. For instance, the Arab Socialist Union under Nasser’s Egypt was an effort to unite a variety of parties with different political ideologies. But the Pan-Iranist Party, with its anti-communist and ultra-nationalist platform, reveals striking similarities to Western constructions of the radical right.

Moreover, the rise of fascism in interwar Europe was an inspirational source for variety of ultranationalist movements and parties that emerged in the Middle East and Africa. Take the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), founded in 1932 by Antun Sa’adih, who had a specific mission: to lead the Lebanese people to their destiny. A defining principle for the party is the militant protection of Syrian identity. Next door in 1936, inspired by Spanish Falange, Pierre Gemayel established Al-Kataeb Party, which identifies and promotes a culturally Phoenician Lebanon. By contrast, inspired by German National Socialism the Ossewabrandwag and National Socialist Workers Party (SUMKA) emerged in South Africa and Iran, respectively, after the defeat of the Axis in 1945.

Recent scholarships on the Middle East refers to culture, religion, and statehood as three contested pillars of nationalism in the region. Yet each of these competing narratives “imagines”, to borrow from Benedict Anderson, a nation differently. Thus, nationalism in the Middle East has been a tenacious zone among rival “imagined communities”.

In the context of the Muslim world, populism designed to attract voters whose loyalty is dependent on a national, religious political identity – as represented by various groups small and large. Vedi Hadiz contends “the vehicles of contemporary Islamic populism can be embodied in mass organizations, paramilitary groups, through demagoguery, or even terrorist cells.” In the context of Africa, on the other hand, populism is typically less defined by institutionalized identities, political or otherwise. The political landscape in the latter region has for generations been dominated by presidential, executive-led systems, rather than by a heritage of party identity and loyalty. Yet as in other, non-Western contexts, scholarship on the radical right remains heavily Euro-Anglo-centric. Applying frameworks such as radical right ideology and strategies of populism should, to become fully comparative globally, be furthered by greater in-depth study of movements and parties outside Europe and the United States.

Dr. Eliot Assoudeh is the Head of Outreach and a Senior Fellow at CARR, and he is an adjunct professor of political science at University of Nevada Reno. See his profile at:

© Eliot Assoudeh. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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