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

Until recent times, movements of the radical right, often characterized as parties focusing on a single issue, were on the fringes of political discourse. However, socio-economic shifts, notably those resulting from the expansion of the European Union and large-scale immigration, have given politicians of the radical right opportunities to gain both visibility and support. Notable examples include the UK’s decision to exit the European Union in June 2016 and Austria’s coalition government formation with the Freedom Party in 2017, highlighting the influence of populist radical right activism in Europe. Similarly, the 2016 U.S. Presidential election marked a significant moment for radical right entities like the Alt Right, showcasing their expanding transnational networks. This illustrates that neither Europe nor North America are shielded from the appeal of radical right movements.

According to Jens Rydgren, radical right ideologies are predominantly shaped by ethno-nationalism, a longing for the restoration of ‘traditional values’, and the pursuit of ethnic, religious, and cultural uniformity. Additionally, these movements usually embrace populism, criticizing elites as detached and leadership as corrupt or self-serving. Common assertions include the belief that global interests compromise national benefits and that elite priorities overshadow the general populace’s needs.

While European radical right parties often embody nationalism, exclusion, authoritarianism, xenophobia, and political singularity, the American variant shows significant differences. Firstly, the U.S. electoral system rarely allows radical right populism to form significant or politically influential groups. Secondly, unlike their European counterparts, U.S. movements are distinctly anti-government. Thirdly, American radical-right populism is deeply rooted in religious ideologies, more so than in Europe.

The global scholarly and activist communities are keenly interested in the implications of radical right forces, yet research into the phenomenon tends to be ethnocentric. The bulk of studies concentrates on the radical right in Europe and the U.S., with scant attention paid to its manifestations in non-Western contexts, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, excluding Israel and South Africa.

Historically, European nationalism up to the 20th century, as discussed by Walter Laqueur, was seen as a movement inclined towards liberalism and democracy. In contrast, Middle Eastern nationalism emerged without the associated concepts of liberalism, self-determination, and minority rights, often displaying hostility towards external influences and a tendency towards exclusion. The concept of the nation-state in Western Europe and North America, influenced by Enlightenment-era democratic ideals, contrasts starkly with Middle Eastern perspectives, where Western liberal nationalism has struggled to take root, as seen in Turkey.

Pan-nationalist ideologies in the Middle East, reminiscent of what Hannah Arendt described as ‘tribal nationalism’, have fostered a distinct nationalism. Despite the imperialistic and chauvinistic nature of Pan-Arabism, Pan-Iranism, and Pan-Turkism, not all affiliated political entities adopted a radical right ideology. For example, Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union in Egypt aimed to amalgamate diverse political ideologies. However, the Pan-Iranist Party’s anti-communist and ultra-nationalist stance closely mirrors the radical right in the West.

Fascism’s rise in Europe between the wars inspired numerous ultranationalist movements in the Middle East and Africa. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) established in 1932 by Antun Sa’adih, the Al-Kataeb Party founded in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel in Lebanon, and other groups in South Africa and Iran post-1945, draw from European radical right ideologies.

Recent studies on the Middle East highlight the contested nature of culture, religion, and statehood as pillars of nationalism, each envisioning a nation differently. In the Muslim world, populism seeks to appeal to voters through a national, religious political identity, manifested in various forms including mass organizations and terrorist cells. Conversely, African populism is less tied to institutional identities, with political dynamics often dominated by presidential systems rather than party loyalty. Despite this, the study of the radical right remains predominantly focused on the Euro-American context, suggesting a need for more comprehensive comparative research on movements and parties in non-Western regions.

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