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How trauma and violence can increase right-wing support and racism

by Abhranil Hazra

In the West, we often view increasing far-right support as a result of ignorance, or racism. However, in the Global South, it points to how trauma and violence against marginalised communities.

Far too often when we analyse historical trauma in its relationship to politics, we assume that marginalised groups are natural supporters of the Left or Liberal causes. This is likely because their trauma is so great, we think that they would lean on social justice campaigns as a collective way to alleviate it. But what if they turn to far-right movements and political parties instead?  

When we look into the psychology of people supporting politics in the traditional left and right binary, often the same studies tend to pop up. They assert that people who support right wing parties have lower cognitive abilities and prefer ordered, rigid hierarchies. Individuals who identify as left leaning are cited as having more developed cognitive abilities and the desire to trust a variety of sources for information.1  

So, what image pops up on your mind when reading this? A wealthy senior citizen of Anglo-Saxon descent watching Sky News After Dark? Perhaps on the other side, a young woman of colour reading her favourite Junkee Magazine? Unfortunately, such dichotomies are far too simplistic and Western-centric when analysing the behaviour of nationalism in the world today. The Global South however provides us with an eye opener. Marginalised communities can also become a force and a strong voting base for nationalist movements around the world.  

For example, the Mizrahi Jews in Israel are an ethnic group who fled the Middle East following anti-Semitic backlash in the 1950s.2 3 However, their expectations of liberation were largely met with disillusionment.4 Instead, they faced increasing racial discrimination from the European Ashkenazim Jewish population, which had primary control over Israeli institutions.5    

From 1950-70, Israel had a policy of tracking Mizrahi children and placing them in vocational schools while Ashkenazim children would enrol in regular high schools. 6 7 This was a process that continued the decades of historical segregation between the two ethnic groups.6 7 It was often justified by the ideological belief that Mizrahi children should not be sent to institutions of abstract learning because they were inferior to their Ashkenazim counterparts.7 While the policy has since ceased, the segregation of Mizrahi and Ashkenazim children continues to this day.6 7 

Many Mizrahi Jewish activists have highlighted how their culture has been completely wiped out and replaced with European Ashkenazim culture.7 So why don’t they vote or rally behind progressive movements for their rights? How did this marginalised minority end up supporting the Right-wing Likud party, which is part of the Ashkenazim establishment?7 

The answer lies sadly in the failure of the Israeli Left bloc, which largely built the Ashkenazim privileges into the Israeli state.6 Rather than take a stand against the racism and white supremacy permeating Israel’s politics, they perpetuated it.6 8 9 In Left-wing circles, both Zionist and Non-Zionist, many regard the Mizrahi people as primitive and unable to grasp the European ideals advocated by Marx and Hegel. 9 But it is the institutional racism fostered by the Ashkenazim-dominated Left bloc which pushed the Mizrahi toward the military and the right side of politics.8 According to Israeli sociologist Professor Orna Sasson-Levy, the military was the pathway for economic stability for many Mizrahi Jews. 8 Current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-establishment rhetoric finds fertile ground amongst the working-class Mizrahi base and he continues to play into the resentment shared by them.10 

In a recent example of this, Prime Minister Netanyahu labelled the people organising protests against his corruption as “anarchists” and “treasonous”.10 He also accused the protestors of being led by the so-called Ashkenazim liberal elite.10 What can be classified as a kind of right-wing populism is in fact a form of resistance practiced by the Mizrahi communities against what they call a liberal Ashkenazim elite, who persecuted and harmed them in the 1950s.  

A similar phenomenon is taking place in India, where Hindu Bangladeshi refugees are fleeing to. The Hindu Nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has been appealing to the Namasudras, a low-caste refugee community. They want support for the elections in the Indian state of West Bengal.11 12 In their latest manifesto, they promised socio-economic empowerment for the community. However, their main trump card has been the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act which has been opposed and slammed as anti-Muslim.12 15 

To many Hindu Bangladeshi refugees, the BJP’s promises of citizenship represent a ticket to safety and freedom from persecution. This sentiment, which was previously championed by the now near-extinct Left wing Communist Party in the state of West Bengal, has been the cornerstone of Narendra Modi’s campaign. 11 13 In a 2014 rally, he promised to give citizenship to Hindu Bangladeshi refugees.13 16 This effort has been met with a major improvement in the BJP’s fortune in the State of West Bengal and they are banking on it for this year’s upcoming election too.11 12 

The reason for their success can be observed as two-fold. Bangladeshi Hindus have faced strong discrimination in Bangladesh, where the migration of Hindus out of the country has remained steady but growing.13 14 Migration occurred in waves after British India was divided into India and Pakistan, which led to bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims as well as the largest global migration ever seen.13 Approximately 6 million Hindus fled then East Pakistan for safety in India whilst 1.5 million Muslims fled to Bangladesh.14 

However, this climate continued after partition where Hindus continued to migrate. In 1965, East Pakistan passed the Vested Property Act, which allowed the state to seize land from anyone deemed an ‘enemy of the state. 13 14 In a 1997 study, Professor Abdul Barkat found that 40% of the seized land belonged to Hindus, resulting in a weaker financial position. 13 This only increased in the 1971 Independence War in Bangladesh where the Pakistani Army attacked Hindus.13. 14 In Bangladesh’s history, right wing Islamists parties like Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jamaat-E-Islami are notorious for their anti-Hindu violence.13 14  

It is this legacy which has led many to flee to India and allowed Modi to appeal to them for support. Unfortunately, it has also manifested anti-Muslim prejudice and sentiment in a country with rising Hindu Nationalism. 11 13  

The common theme observed from those supporting right wing parties is that of fear. In the Western context, this is often misinterpreted as ignorance or racism that needs to be addressed by society. However, in the Global South, it points to how trauma and violence against marginalised communities can often result in increased right-wing support and racism. If a shared sense of identity is perceived as being attacked, it can be shaped by dark and traumatic histories that need to be acknowledged. It is important to realise how these stories and their nuances show that politics is more complicated than it seems.  

  1. Rosenburg, Paul. 2014. “Secrets Of The Right-Wing Brain: New Study Proves It — Conservatives See A Different, Hostile World”. Salon. https://www.salon.com/2014/07/29/secrets_of_the_right_wing_brain_new_study_proves_it_conservatives_see_a_different_hostile_world/.  
  1. Van Hiel, A., De keersmaecker, J., Onraet, E., Haesevoets, T., Roets, A., & Fontaine, J. R. J. (2019). The relationship between emotional abilities and right-wing and prejudiced attitudes. Emotion, 19(5), 917–922. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000497 
  1.  Irenstein, Toby. 2020. “Don’t Forget The Other Mideast Refugees: Mizrahi Jews”. Algemeiner.Com. https://www.algemeiner.com/2020/12/07/dont-forget-the-other-mideast-refugees-mizrahi-jews/ 
  1. “Israel Marks Exodus Of Jews From Arab Countries”. 2015. Timesofisrael.Com. https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-marks-exodus-of-jews-from-arab-countries/.  
  1. Mehager, Tom. 2016. “Mizrahi Or Ashkenazi Jews: Israel’s Regime Of Separation”. Middle East Eye. https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/mizrahi-or-ashkenazi-jews-israels-regime-separation
  1. Mehager, Tom. 2015. “Why Mizrahim Don’t Vote For The Left – +972 Magazine”. +972 Magazine. https://www.972mag.com/why-mizrahis-dont-vote-for-the-left/
  1. Gibraltar, Cafe. 2013. “Mizrahi Culture Was Suppressed, Ashkenazi Culture Is Simply Forgotten – +972 Magazine”. +972 Magazine. https://www.972mag.com/mizrahi-culture-was-suppressed-ashkenazi-culture-is-simply-forgotten/70035/.  
  1. Mehanger, Tom. 2020. “Yes, Mizrahim Support The Right. But Not For The Reasons You Think”. +972 Magazine. https://www.972mag.com/mizrahim-right-wing-ashkenazi-supremacy/.  
  1. Cahlili, Ron. 2013. “‘How Can This Monkey Be Talking About An Ideology That Developed In Europe?’ – +972 Magazine”. +972 Magazine. https://www.972mag.com/how-can-this-monkey-be-talking-about-an-ideology-that-developed-in-europe/69465/
  1. Noy, Orly. 2020. “How Likud’s Ashkenazi Elite Became The Patron Saints Of The Mizrahim”. +972 Magazine. https://www.972mag.com/likud-ashkenazi-elite-mizrahim-netanyahu/.  
  1. Daniyal, Shoaib. 2017. “Why Hindu Immigrants From Bangladesh Are A Key Component Of The BJP’S West Bengal Expansion Strategy”. Scroll.In. https://scroll.in/article/845354/why-hindu-immigrants-from-bangladesh-are-a-key-component-of-the-bjps-west-bengal-expansion-strategy
  1. “Nadda Launches ‘Lokkho Sonar Bangla’ Crowdsourcing Campaign”. 2021. Telegraphindia.Com. https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/nadda-launches-lokkho-sonar-bangla-crowdsourcing-campaign/cid/1807791.  
  1. Daniyal, Shoaib. 2016. “Cross-Border Agonies: Dhaka’s Middle-Class Hindus Lead A Dual Life Straddling Two Countries”. Scroll.In. https://scroll.in/article/801326/cross-border-agonies-dhakas-middle-class-hindus-lead-a-dual-life-straddling-two-countries.  
  1. Ashraf, Ajaz. 2017. “Interview: Hindus In Bangladesh Have Faced Ethnic Cleansing Since 1947”. Scroll.In. https://scroll.in/article/847725/interview-hindus-in-bangladesh-have-faced-ethnic-cleansing-since-1947.  
  1. “Citizenship Amendment Bill: India’s New ‘Anti-Muslim’ Law Explained”. 2019. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-50670393.  
  1. “Bangladeshi Infiltrators Must Go Back, Refugees Welcome, Says Narendra Modi”. 2014. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/india/politics/bangladeshi-infiltrators-must-go-back-refugees-welcome-say-narendra-modi/