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Religious Populisms in the Asia Pacific

Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Melbourne, VIC 3217, Australia
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Religions 2022, 13(9), 802;
Received: 28 July 2022 / Revised: 20 August 2022 / Accepted: 26 August 2022 / Published: 30 August 2022
(This article belongs to the Section Religions and Health/Psychology/Social Sciences)


Most of the literature on religion’s relationship with populism is Eurocentric and has so far focused on European populist party discourses and, to a degree, on the United States, in particular, on the Christian identity populism of the Tea Party and the Trump movement within the Republican Party. However, across the Asia-Pacific region, religion has become an important component of populist discourses. It has been instrumentalised by populists in many nations in the region, including some of the most populous countries in the world, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan. Moreover, the relationship between religions other than Christianity and populism has all too rarely been studied, except for Turkey. This paper therefore surveys the Asia-Pacific region to comprehend how populists in the region incorporate religion into their discourses and the impact religious populism has on Asia-Pacific societies. It asks two questions: “What role does religion play in populist discourses?” and “How has religion’s incorporation into populist discourse impacted society?” To answer these questions, the paper examines four nations which have recently been ruled by governments espousing, to different degrees and in different ways, religious populism: India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka. By choosing these nations, we can examine the relationship between populism and Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and between religion and populism within a variety of religious, ethnic, and political contexts. The paper argues that religion is instrumentalised in populist discourses across the Asia-Pacific region in a variety of ways. First, religion is used to construct ingroups and outgroups, which serve a populist narrative in which the religion of the ingroup is superior yet threatened by the religion(s) of the outgroup(s). Second, religion is used to empower religious authorities, which support populist parties and movements. Third, religion is instrumentalised by populists in order to frame themselves, and in particular their leader, as a sacred or holy figure. The paper also argues that religion’s incorporation into populist discourse has impacted society by legitimising authoritarianism, increasing religious divisions, and justifying the oppression of religious minorities. The paper concludes by noting some differences between populists in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.

1. Introduction

The rise of populism in the 21st century has impacted societies across the world and in every inhabited continent. There are different definitions of populism, however, populism is most commonly defined as a set of ideas which “considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’ and/or dangerous others, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (Mudde 2004, p. 543) who are considered to be “pure” and “good” and the authentic people of the land (Mudde 2017). Beyond this vertical “people vs elite” dimension, populism may contain a horizontal dimension in which “the pure people” can be distinguished from morally “evil” and dangerous “others” within the same society (Mudde 2017). Populism’s key concepts and signifiers, then, are “the people”, “the corrupt elite”, and “others”. Yet, because populism lacks sophistication and depth, it must be understood not as a complete ideology but either as a loose set of ideas or a “thin ideology” which must be adhered to a wider political programme, set of ideas, or “thicker” ideology (De la Torre 2019, p. 7). Populism itself cannot define the boundaries of “the people”, “elites”, and “others”. Instead, other ideas and thicker ideologies must be combined with populism to construct “the people” and their enemies. This includes right-wing or left-wing ideologies, but religion and forms of enthoreligious nationalism may also provide populism with a “thick” ideology and a set of moral and often political ideas to which it can be adhered and which it requires to become politically successful.
The notion that religion could provide populism with the content it requires to become electorally successful was largely unexamined before the 2010s. However, since the growth of Christian or Judeo-Christian identity populism in Europe and its appearance in the pre-election rhetoric of Donald Trump in 2016, religion’s role in populist rhetoric and policy around the world has become an increasingly fertile area of scholarship. At the same time, the focus of much of the scholarship remains on the West and on Christian identity populism, apart from Turkey, where the religious populism of the Justice and Development Party and its leader, Recep Erdogan, has been much discussed by (Yilmaz 2018; Yilmaz et al. 2021a, 2021b; Yilmaz 2021). There is also some scholarship on religious populism in India, which focuses on the rhetoric and policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his governing BJP (McDonnell and Cabrera 2019; Yilmaz et al. 2021b; Saleem 2021). Yet, religious populism is surprisingly common across democratic Asia-Pacific, and can be found in societies as different as Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Equally, religions other than Christianity have either been commandeered by populists or religious leaders themselves have willingly adopted a populist discourse/style or integrated themselves into populist movements throughout Asia. Throughout the West, populists “paint immigrants as outsiders against the ‘true people’ of the native land” and claim that Muslim immigrants, in particular, possess religion-derived values incompatible with their own Christian or Judeo-Christian societies (Swain 2022; Morieson 2021; Yilmaz and Morieson 2021; Marzouki and McDonnell 2016). However, most Asia-Pacific nations do not experience mass immigration from non-Asia-Pacific societies (with exceptions including Turkey), and in many cases, immigration restrictionism is uncontroversial in mainstream politics and society. Therefore, it is unlikely that immigrant groups are a focal point of populist discourses involving religion and national belonging, although this may sometimes be the case. Little literature, however, on these religious populisms exists (Yilmaz et al. 2021b), and there is a lack of literature comparing religious populisms across the region.
This is unfortunate, because it is not difficult to find examples of religion being incorporated into populism throughout the region and of religious populism having a powerful impact—and often an overall negative impact—on society. In Indonesia, the Islamic Defenders Front, a now banned group, combined Islamism and populism to create a potent movement capable of bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest government inaction against alleged “blasphemers” (Barton et al. 2021). In Malaysia, the ruling UMNO uses populist rhetoric incorporating religion to both bind ethnic Malay Muslims together into a powerful voting bloc and also categorise non-Muslims as unwelcome others who threaten “the people” of Malaysia (Munro-Kua 1996; Welsh 2018; Halim and Azhari 2020).
In India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combines religion and populism in an especially explicit manner and incorporates Hindu Nationalism into its political agenda (Saleem 2021; McDonnell and Cabrera 2019). The party and its leader, Narendra Modi, claim they are reviving the glory of the ancient Hindu kingdoms and argue that this act is in the interest of the authentic Hindu people of India (McDonnell and Cabrera 2019). The party also claims that Muslim and secular influences in India are a threat to their Hindu revival project and ought to be diminished or removed for Hindu culture—and the authentic Hindu people of India—to thrive (Saleem 2021; McDonnell and Cabrera 2019). The BJP is supported by various religious leaders or yogi and by groups that have violently attacked Muslims (Hindustan Times 2017).
In Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa brothers—who dominated the nation’s politics for a considerable portion of the 2000s and 2010s—embraced both populism and Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism (Jayasinghe 2020). The result has been an increase in religious division in Sri Lanka, and ultimately the economic destruction of the nation and the removal of the Rajapaskas from power. In Pakistan, religion has long been an important component of national politics and identity, and has been instrumentalised by both military and civilian leaders. Under the consequential rule of former Prime Minister Imran Khan (2018–2022), populism was combined with religious rhetoric. Khan and the party he founded, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), sought to portray Khan as a messianic figure who uniquely understood the wants of the people and would lead Pakistan to glory by transforming the nation into an Islamic paradise modelled on the early Islamic state of Medina. The PTI attacks Pakistan’s political elite, calls for power to be returned to the people, and objects to “Western interference” in the country’ politics (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021a, 2021d). “The people”, in PTI’s conception, are the Pakistanis wronged by elites and foreign powers and who deserve justice. Moreover, Imran Khan, the PTI claims, is “the captain” who will sweep corrupt dynastic politics away and return the stolen wealth from the “Swiss banks to the people” (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021a, 2021d). Khan’s rule, like that of other Islamist leaders in Pakistan, did not lead to a utopian society but rather to deepening divisions between the majority Sunni Muslims and religious minorities and the continuation of military dominance and authoritarianism.
This article is intended as a starting point for further scholarly investigations into non-Christian religious populism in the Asia-Pacific region, a much under-studied area. In the following section, we investigate and compare religious populism in four nations in the Asia-Pacific region: Malaysia, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka. Each of these nations has recently had or has had a religious populist ruling party or leaders who use populist rhetoric incorporating religion. Our study asks two questions: “What role does religion play in populist discourses?” and “How has religion’s incorporation into populist discourse impacted society?” By choosing these nations, we can examine the relationship between populism and Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and between religion and populism within a variety of religious, ethnic, and political contexts and at the highest level of government. Furthermore, the two questions we ask are designed to help us compare the key elements and impacts of religious populism in each nation and, in this way, initiate further scholarly recognition and examination of religious populism in the Asia-Pacific region. Most importantly, it allows us to move beyond Eurocentric discussions of populism and the relationship between religion and populism, and to comprehend the ways in which Asia-Pacific populism instrumentalises religion to create politically and electorally successful populisms.

2. Religious Populism in Pakistan

The election victory of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 2018 brought a new form of religious populism to Pakistan. While Pakistan was created as a nation for Muslim people in the former British India (Jalal 2011), it was not yet an explicitly Islamic state. Pakistan’s founder and first leader, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, “presented a patently secular idea of nation-building without mentioning the word ‘secular’” (Ahmad 2010). In the 1970s and 1980s, under the leadership of General Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan underwent a top-down process of Islamisation and de-secularisation (Shah et al. 2016). Since this time, Islam has often been instrumentalised by Pakistan’s politicians, and has proven a useful tool both for the military and civilian leaders who have used it to legitimise their rule and political behaviour.
In the figure of Imran Khan, a former champion cricketer and captain of the Pakistan national cricket team, Pakistan saw the rise of an explicitly Islamist-populist movement. Following an electoral breakthrough in 2013, and securing a majority in the 2018 general elections, Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or Pakistan Movement for Justice—a party he founded in 1996—has become the most electorally successful populist and Islamist party in the nation. Khan and the PTI won government in a similar way to other populist parties; namely, by attacking the nation’s political elite and calling for power to be returned to the people. He described elites as “agents of the West” who went with a “begging bowl” to Western-dominated international institutions and, in doing so, turned the people of Pakistan into “slaves” (Kari 2019). Khan also decried “Western interference” in the country’s politics (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021a, 2021d). Furthermore, Khan and his party argued that the Pakistani people have been wronged by elites and foreign powers and deserve justice, which he would deliver once in power (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021a, 2021d). As part of his typically anti-elite populist rhetoric, Khan promised to act as the nation’s captain and sweep away corrupt politicians, and return to the people their stolen wealth and rightful power (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021a, 2021d). Much of this language is typical of all populists. However, Khan adds an important religious element to his populist rhetoric. For example, he argues for Pakistan to be transformed into an utopian state based on the historical city-state of Medina of the Prophet Muhammed, calls for women to dress modestly to prevent rape, sends domestic violence bills for approval by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), has encouraged parliament to Islamise the school syllabus under the Single National Curriculum, and in addition to funding and sheltering right-wing madrasas his party, its key Ministers have an apologist attitude towards the Taliban (Afzal 2019, 2021; Yilmaz and Shakil 2021a, 2021d; Hoodboy 2020). Additionally, Khan has promised that in his new Islamised Pakistan there would be welfare, better education, more jobs, improved health care, and even houses built for the poor, promises that have proven impossible to fulfil (Shaukat 2021).
Khan’s overall political message involved claims that he and his party represent the interests of the authentic Sunni Muslim people of Pakistan and that these interests were threatened by “elites” and religious minorities and secularists within Pakistan, and that only Khan himself and the PTI would defend the pious Muslim people from their enemies. Thus, religious identity and practice, for Khan and the PTI, determine, to a significant degree, whether one belongs to Pakistan (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021d). In Khan’s imagined Pakistan, it is only Sunni Muslims who entirely belong to the country and who may be included among the “good” and “pious” Muslim people. As a result, during his period as Prime Minister, many members of civil society, such as liberals, secularists, women’s rights activists, and journalists critical of the government, were “othered” and framed in his and his party’s rhetoric as enemies of “the people” and Islam (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021d). At the same time, the PTI claimed that Western media was leading young Pakistani Muslims astray and turning them away from their religion, and Prime Minister Khan himself promoted Islamic media, including Turkish historical dramas such as Dirilis: Ertuğrul (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021d; The Express Tribune 2021).
Beyond instrumentalising religion to demonise elites and religious minorities (including secularists) and portray them as a threatening presence in Pakistan which only he and his party can overcome, Khan and the PTI also used religion to portray Khan himself as a religious or “holy” figure worthy of respect. Khan, for example, speaks much about Osman the Great as part of an effort to identify himself with the founder of the Ottoman state and often compares his own Islamist agenda to the political model and social examples provided by the Prophet and his companions ( News Network 2018). He furthermore promises the creation of a “New Pakistan” modelled on the idealised and romanticised state of Medina (Bukhari 2018).
While his period as Prime Minister lasted only four years, at the conclusion of which he was forced out of power following a no-confidence vote in Pakistan’s parliament and replaced by a technocrat, Shehbaz Sharif (Hadid 2022), Khan had an impact on Pakistani politics and society. During his time in power, he and the PTI impacted Pakistan by presiding over a rise in sexual crimes against women, crimes that Khan acknowledged but chose to blame on “the misuse of mobile phones” (The Express Tribune 2021). According to Khan, to combat the growth of sexual crimes, Pakistanis “need to educate our children about the supreme qualities of Seerat-e-Nabi (PBUH)” (The Express Tribune 2021). Khan’s religious populism appears also to have led to a worsening of relations with the West and India, both of which were demonised in his rhetoric, improving relations with China, and to a new foreign policy based on links with other Islamic countries (Huseynov 2021). For example, Khan has sought closer relations with Turkey, another nation led by a populist Islamist party (Yilmaz 2021; Yilmaz and Shakil 2021b). At the same time, Khan sought to blame India for an attack on the minority Shia Hazara community in Pakistan, claiming that “no doubt what happened was part of a bigger game” (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021b), and later making an attempt to present himself as a powerful Islamic leader, remarking that his “mission is not only to unite the whole country but the entire Muslim ummah” (Shahid 2021).
Thus, while the PTI was removed from power in 2022, their period in government was consequential and led to a number of important developments in domestic and foreign policy. Overall, though, the period of Khan’s leadership of Pakistan led toward the Islamisation of Pakistani society and to the increased demonisation of religious minorities and secularists. The diminishing pluralism and tolerance is reflected in Freedom House’s lowering Pakistan’s Global Freedom Status during Khan’s period as Prime Minister (Freedom House 2017, 2022).

3. Religious Populism in Malaysia

Malaysia is home to a complex form of populism that incorporates nationalist ethnic elements and Sunni Islam. Malaysia has been home to a diverse population, both in terms of religion and ethnicity, since winning independence from Britain. However, the politically dominant group within Malaysia—the majority ethnic Malays (or Bumiputera)—is in an economically disadvantaged position compared to Chinese and Indian Malays. Malaysian governments have long attempted to increase the socio-economic status of the Bumiputera, most of whom are Muslim. This has taken place through a variety of means, including the penalising of high-achieving minority groups by reducing their ability to attend university and work in government bureaucracy, increasing tensions between ethnic groups in the country (Guan 2005; Sowell 2004). Yet, despite affirmative action, Chinese Malays remain wealthier than “Bumiputera or Malaysian Indians; e.g., in 2014, 60% of the top 1% income group was Chinese, who were over-represented: 2.2% of Chinese are located in the top 1% income group, compared to 0.5% of Bumiputeras and 0.8% of Indians (benchmark 1%)” (Khalid and Yang 2019, p. 24).
Perhaps because of these factors, religious and ethnic populism have increasingly become a part of twenty-first century politics in Malaysia. It is hardly surprising, then, that religious populism is successful in Malaysia, a country in which Muslim Malays are forbidden from changing their religion in which, according to the Constitution, and regardless of their ethnicity, Malays must be Muslim to be legally Malay, and in which there are significant differences in wealth between ethnic and religious groups. If Malays are legally bound to be Muslim, it is not difficult for populists to portray non-Muslims as illegitimate citizens and threats to Muslims’ economic success. Indeed, populists and other political actors have had ample opportunities to exploit divisions within Malay society, allowing populists to frame Chinese success as part of a conspiracy by Chinese businessmen and other minorities to oppress Bumiputera. Equally, the many divisions within Malay society have led political parties to attempt to create a united front among Bumiputera Muslims in order to both prevent the nation from fragmenting into smaller groups and to construct a large voter base which will elect a majority government. The most powerful party in Malaysia has long been the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the leading member of the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN). The UMNO does not permit ethnic Chinese, Indians, or other non-Bumiputera to become voting members, and portrays itself as a party of and for the Bumiputera. At times, UMNO leaders, Malaysia’s including longest serving (by a considerable margin) Prime Minister Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, have used populist tactics including claiming that Chinese and Indian wealth is illegitimate, and creating means by which it can be transferred to the Bumiputera populism (Shah 2019). For example, the BN government legislated the creation of the Internal Security Act (ISA), with which it executed “discriminatory, pro-Malay social and economic policies” (Juego 2018).
Despite being in power throughout most of Malaysia’s existence as an independent nation, UMNO’s leaders often claim to be fighting against corruption at the highest levels, including in government, bureaucracy, and business. Bizarrely, this meant Mahathir was often presented as an anti-establishment politician despite being Prime Minister for 24 years. Later, when he left the UMNO and became leader of Pakatan Harapan (PH), Mahathir presented himself as a national saviour who would sweep away corruption and the elites who allowed it to flourish at the highest levels of government (Reeves 2018; Vasagar 2018).
Equally, BN and its leader, Mahathir, presided over the Islamization of Malaysia throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and over much of the increasing democratisation which occurred during the 21st century (Beng 2006). Mahathir’s statement, “We are all Muslims. We are all oppressed. We are all being humiliated”, sums up his transnational Islamic political rhetoric (Berger and van Ham 2010, p. 20). Democratisation meant more political parties and competition in Malay politics. However, it has also led to increasing populist rhetoric and appeals to ethnic and religious solidarity among political parties. An astonishing corruption scandal involving UMNO Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was accused and later found guilty of misappropriating vast sums of money, created an opportunity for a new coalition of parties to finally topple the ruling BN government. In 2018, the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which was a less ethnic-Malay and Islamic-centred movement than BN, won elections on the back of an anti-corruption campaign. The PH campaigned successfully against an “out of touch elite” who they claimed had failed the people, and promised multiculturalism and an end to corruption (Zaharia 2020; Azhari and Halim 2019). Despite the promise of a more pluralist government PH represented in its acceptance of Chinese into the party and claims that it was a political outsider representative of the Malay people’s interests rather than elite interests, it was led by Mahathir, who was installed as Prime Minister following the election victory.
In response to the change of government, a new coalition of parties was formed under the name Perikatan Nasional (National Alliance), including UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). The joining together of these two parties was a sign that they were serious about presenting a united Muslim Malay front against all other religious and ethnic groups, and using this front to return to power. Mahathir, in response, began to present himself more and more as an Islamist and ethnic Malay politician. For example, Mahathir attended the Malay Dignity Congress in 2019, which was also attended by PAS leader Hadi Awang, and during which one delegate claimed that “Malaysia belongs to the Malays” (Teoh 2019). In addition, under PH rule, Malaysia hosted the 2019 Kuala Lumpur Summit in close collaboration with Turkey, hosting Muslim leaders in a discussion of issues such as the persecution of Muslims around the world and Islamophobia. The purpose of this meeting was to challenge the power of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), dominated by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, and to create an alternative transnational Islamic body. Unsurprisingly, the OIC refused to participate in the 2019 summit and pressured Pakistan out of the summit despite the country’s initial enthusiasm (Dawn 2019).
At the same time, while in opposition, the UMNO deepened their portrayal of ethnic Malay Muslims as sacred people native to the land by joining forces with PAS and their Islamist firebrand leader Hadi Awang. Awang, as leader of PAS, claimed that his party represented the interests of the authentic people of Malaysia and that “it is forbidden” for Malay Muslims “to be together with enemies of the religion and the ummah” (Malaysiakini 2021). Hadi also claimed that PH leaders “set up a government which was not only liberal but also dared to challenge the position of Islam and the Royalty” (Free Malaysia Today 2021). PAS seeks to re-establish Malaysia as a sharia state, condemns “immoralities” such as dance and music, polices women’s clothing by calling for modesty, and calls for sharia-based capital punishment (Hussin 2018). The party considers its members and supporters “the pious people” and non-members “infidels” and maintains strong connections with global Islamist groups which call for an “Islamic awakening of the ummah (Hussin 2018). The organisation’s charity work means it has grassroots involvement in disadvantaged communities that feel marginalised and “victimised” by the elite and multiculturalists such as the PH (Liow 2016).
Now in a political alliance, PAS and UMNO were a formidable political force, commanding a huge share of the majority Malay Muslim vote. When Mahathir resigned as Prime Minister in 2020, PH entered a period of crisis. Anwar Ibrahim, the controversial presumptive heir, was side-lined in a battle for the position of Prime Minister, leading to a massive loss of support for the party. As this occurred, BN-UMNO regained the support of many people who had lost faith in the party due to its corruption. Together with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), the party co-founded the Perikatan Nasional coalition, which won government in 2020.
The populist, ethnic nationalist, and Islamist rhetoric of UMNO and its allies, including PAS, proved irresistible to Malay Muslim voters, who had quickly grown tired of the chaos of PH’s rule. The result is that the Malay political establishment is back in power if it was ever truly out of power during PH’s rule. Populist discourses are thus evident in Malaysian politics and have been used by ruling parties over several decades to exploit existing friction between the country’s ethnic and religious groups. Most often, populist discourse in Malaysia attempts to exploit divisions between supposed elites and a virtuous yet suffering “people” and between ethnic Malay Muslims and Chinese and Indian non-Muslims. Malay Muslims are thus encouraged to feel victimised by “elites” and “others” and to turn toward political parties that will “save” them—giving them a sense of hope—from elite corruption and Chinese and Indian economic domination. Yet, there is also a growing Islamist element in Malaysian populism. Increasingly, Malaysian politicians have encouraged identification with the global ummah, although this does not mean they reject ethnic Malay nationalism. Rather, they combine Malay ethnicity and Islam into a single Malay identity which excludes Indians and Chinese non-Muslims, groups that are increasingly choosing to emigrate from Malaysia to countries in which they are less likely to experience discrimination.

4. Religious Populism in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a very religiously and ethnically diverse nation; 74.9 percent of the population is ethnic Sinhalese, while Tamils and Moors make up 15.3 and 9.3 percent, respectively. Around 70 percent of the population is Buddhist, but there are also Hindu (12.6 percent), Muslim (9.7 percent), and Christian (7.4 percent) minorities (Jayasinghe 2021, p. 179). Sinhalese Buddhists, however, are the dominant group in Sri Lankan politics and society.
The Mahāvamsa (Great Chronicle), an ancient sacred text composed in the 6th C.E., is a “part-mythological narrative ‘written to legitimize, cement and propagate the Buddhist association with Sri Lanka’” and which continues to shape Sri Lankan’s perceptions of their own national identity (Jayasinghe 2021, p. 180). While the text is obviously old, it became newly significant during and after the colonial period (Seneviratne 1999). Sri Lanka’s Buddhists reacted to the exposure to nationalism during the colonial period by formulating a religio-nationalism based partly on the Mahāvamsa—which “confers on the imagined Sinhala community exclusive rights to inhabit the island (Seneviratne 1999, p. 21)—and European-style nationalism. In the Mahāvamsa, the victorious Sinhala Buddhist King Dutthagamani is assured by Buddhist monks that there will be no “karmic consequences” to his use of deadly violence against opponents who were killed in their thousands because they ”were nonbelievers who are therefore nonhuman” (Seneviratne 1999, p. 21). In this way, the text rejects key Buddhist ideas such as “tolerance, nonviolence, and pluralism” and instead establishes the right of Sinhalese Buddhists to rule Sri Lanka and use violence to maintain their power over minorities (Seneviratne 1999, p. 21). Furthermore, by combining the narrative tradition rooted in the Mahāvamsa with the British colonial classification of races, many contemporary Sri Lankans have come to conceive of Sinhalese Buddhists as the “original” or “real” inhabitants of the land, and to perceive Arab Moors and Tamil Indians as “outsiders” (Jayasinghe 2021; Shakil 2021; Mihlar 2020).
After the Second World War, and with European colonial powers finding themselves in retreat, the burgeoning independence movement fought a long struggle against British colonialism, which, in 1948, led to the creation of an independent Dominion of Ceylon. It was during this period that “electoral politics in the island state quickly became a fierce contest of appeals to ethnicity”, leading to the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism (SBN) and the domination of the Sinhalese over other ethnic groups (Jayasinghe 2021, p. 180). Early post-independence political discourse thus presented a national vision which enabled the otherizing of non-Sinhalese and non-Buddhists. SBN is therefore not a religious movement in itself, but rather an ethnonationalist movement which incorporates religion and includes Buddhist monks among its supporters.
The power of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism led to the state-led systematic discrimination of the Tamil minorities, who reacted by forming the resistance group the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) (Jayasinghe 2021). Tamils were considered “aliens” with no claims in the newly independent Sri Lanka and were frequently denied citizenship, deported to India, became victims of ethnically motivated killings, and were, at times, prevented from entering higher education—events that led to a civil war (Carothers and O’Donohue 2020). In this context, the militant Tamil Tigers “became active in seeking an independent homeland for the Tamils”. The conflict, which ended in 2009, also had a religious dimension as the Tamil population is predominately Hindu, and the government is mainly Buddhist. Over two decades of fighting, a few failed efforts were made to bring peace. This led to thousands of casualties on both sides … and hindered economic development (Shakil 2021). While the end of a civil war opened a peace process, in 2009, populist Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa portrayed the war as a victory for SBN (Jayasinghe 2021, p. 183). As Sri Lankan Prime Minister until 2015, Rajapaksa capitalised on ethnic and religious divisions between Tamils and Sinhalese in his rhetoric. However, following the end of the civil war, shifted to process of otherising the country’s Muslim minority community (Jayasinghe 2021; Shakil 2021; Yilmaz et al. 2021b; Mihlar 2020).
As Prime Minister (2009–2015), Mahinda Rajapaksa portrayed himself as a man of “the people” who fought for them and against Sri Lankan elites and who would improve the national economy (Shakil 2021). At the same time, there was a second dimension to his populism, which was rooted in SBN: “During Rajapaksa’s rule, critics of his political style and agenda were portrayed as enemies of the nation (SBN) or collaborators with the enemy. Sri Lankan society was divided between the “patriot” (dēshapremi) and the “traitor” (dēshadrōhi) (Jayasinghe 2021, p. 183), with opponents of Rajapaksa portrayed as treasonous enemies. Rajapaksa refused to criticise “the unlawful activities of SBN groups, including violence against Muslims and other minorities, due to the power and influence of SBN in Sri Lankan politics and society” (Yilmaz et al. 2021b).
Rajapaksa therefore drew on an SBN-influenced ethno-religious classification of peoples to define the key signifiers of populism in the Sri Lankan context. “The people” were classified as Sinhalese Buddhists; elites were traitors who turned away from the religion and culture of “the people”, while Muslims, Tamils, and other ethnic and religious minorities were portrayed in SBN narratives as dangerous others who sought to take power from Sri Lanka’s authentic ruling group: Sinhalese Buddhists.
Post-war SBN discourse has moved on from demonising Tamils and has more recently incited hatred of Muslims (Mihlar 2020). Portrayed as “a security threat” guilty of “extremism” and “intolerance”, SBN rhetoric relies increasingly upon Muslims to provide an enemy “other” from whom they can “save” the Buddhist people of Sri Lanka (Haniffa 2021; Mihlar 2020). These developments demonstrate how the core of populism remains relatively empty and contains only the signifiers “the people”, “corrupt elites”, and “others”, signifiers which require content drawn from other ideologies or sets of ideas. In the case of Sri Lanka, SBN provides a framework which can be adhered to by populism to produce a coherent populist discourse that frames religious and ethnic minorities as “dangerous others” who must be overcome in order for the country to flourish.
Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the position of Prime Minister in 2015. However, he returned to political significance when his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, came to power in 2019 (Jayasuriya 2019). G. Rajapaksa sought to position himself as a “strongman” protecting Sri Lanka from evil Muslims, such as those responsible for the Easter Bombing (Shakil 2021). Indeed, the Easter Sunday Bombings, which killed 340 people, left many Sri Lankans horrified and desperate for government action to prevent another mass murder (DeVotta 2018, 2019). National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), a local right-wing Islamist group, and Islamic State (IS), were blamed for the attacks, but the bombings gave the government and Buddhist movements impetus to demonise all Muslims (BBC 2020). In response to the bombings, G. Rajapaksa punished Muslims by banning face veils, arresting alleged radical Muslims, and closing seminaries suspected of producing radicals. The “Deradicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” section of the Prevention of Terrorism Act gave the government the ability to prevent women from wearing burqas and to close roughly 1000 Islamic organisations (Haniffa 2021). Additionally, SBNs began to claim that Muslim groups were funded by foreign Islamic nations and were together trying to Islamise Sri Lanka (Mihlar 2020; Barakat 2019). During the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslims were both blamed for outbreaks by the government, but also suffered more COVID cases than other religious communities (Mihlar 2020).
At the same time, the Rajapaskas permitted extremist Buddhist groups to operate within the country, some of which used violence against Muslims. The BoduBalaSēna/Buddhist Power Army (BBS), for example, is a right-wing Buddhist organisation which co-operated with the state to reproduce anti-Muslim discourse, and which supports and often spearheads legislative measures that target Muslims. BBS “is unique for being almost exclusively an anti-Muslim front” and does not target Hindus and Tamils with violence, unlike the SBN (Jayasinghe 2021, p. 186). It incites violence toward Muslims and has done so since its formation in 2012. Yilmaz et al. (2021b) note, “Such is the power of these nationalist and anti-Muslim groups that the government of Sri Lanka frequently ignores their violent actions, much as the governments of Myanmar have ignored Buddhist violence against minorities”. While BBS and BMT not only share similar populist ideologies, they also enjoy the same level of support from their respective states. While BBS is primarily anti-Muslim, it is also known to attack and criticise Christians in Sri Lanka (UNHRC 2014).
The BBS was formed by a group of hard-line Buddhist monks who, unlike the identarian populist SBN, are a primarily religious populist organisation. Silva (2016) notes that most of the “credibility” of the BBS is the result of their ability to spread rumours and capitalise on scandals involving Muslims in the country. BBS accuse Muslims of trying to Islamise Sri Lanka, and they have used political ill will and merged it with rumours and conspiracies to draw support from Buddhists. Silva (2016) notes that the BBS not only frames Muslims as an “ethnic other” but creates a “moral panic” around Muslims. This panic is key in creating demand among Sri Lanka’s Buddhists for religious populism, where the right-wing monks are given power to protect Buddhism from the threat of Islam. Since 2012, the group has expanded its membership and held its first national convention in 2019 (Reuters 2019).
BBS leader Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara and his fellow monks portray themselves as saving the religion and culture of “the people”, or the Buddhist people of Sri Lanka. They demand protection for Buddhists in the country who are “disadvantaged”, they claim, by undue favours allegedly given to Muslims (Reuters 2019). For example, BBS monks have called out the presence of birth control measures, such as vasectomy and tubal ligation, in state-funded hospitals (Amarasuriya 2015), in a way linked to the sterilisation of the “the people” myths. It takes up “causes” such as protesting and, at times, rioting to address the poor treatment of the Sri Lankan Buddhist diaspora working in the Gulf and other countries (Hume 2014). DeVotta (2018) notes that there are unfounded fears of Muslims secretly sterilising “the people” to gain a “demographical advantage” for domination. BBS also takes “direct action” by not only protesting but by attacking popular tourist bars to gain attention for their “cause” (Hume 2014).
Over time, the BBS has developed into a country-wide network that “advocates” for Sinhalese Buddhist “rights” and commits sporadic outbursts of violence (Reed 2021). BBS leader Gnanasara defends his organisation’s aggressive advocacy, saying, “This is a government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race” (Al Maeena 2013). Its activism is enshrined in its “Maharagama Declaration” (Daily FT 2013). This ten-point declaration promotes the use of a Sinhala civilian police force to counter Muslim “extremists”, a ban on halal certification, the encouragement of monks to promote Sinhala-Buddhists, calls for state protection for Sinhala-owned businesses, and the promotion of action to protect the “Sinhala race” (Daily FT 2013).
BBS justifies its behaviour by claiming that the group is merely “demanding justice” for the wronged Buddhist people of Sri Lanka. Gunaratna (2018) notes that since 2012, Sinhala Muslim riots have become a common occurrence and that BBS monks are a key driving force behind the increasing communal violence. He observes that the organisation has mainstreamed and legitimised pre-existing communal rifts and that though “its propaganda campaign, BBS, falsely showcased to the public that it had tacit governmental support to legitimise its cause” (Gunaratna 2018, p. 2). Having taken these steps, “BBS then turned to engage the masses by holding a series of public rallies”, thus taking advantage of its considerable street power (Gunaratna 2018, p. 2). The government of Sri Lanka, which depends on the votes of the majority and support from the monks, tends to not press charges against the BBS rioters. In 2017, Buddhist vigilantes who targeted mosques and Muslim-owned businesses with petrol-bombs have never been arrested or tried by police (Gunaratna 2018). Gnanasara himself, after being convicted in separate cases for inciting violence and hatred, was pardoned by the now former President Maithripala Sirisena (Reuters 2019).
Following the economic collapse of the nation, in which the Rajapaksa government’s incompetence and the COVID-19 pandemic led the country to default on its debt, the Prime Minister was forced to flee the country. Whether Sri Lanka will move away from Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and populist rhetoric claiming that Muslims are attempting to destroy the good and pious Buddhist “people” of the country or toward pluralism and a more tolerant society remains unknown.

5. Religious Populism in India

Since 2014, India has been ruled by the Hindu Nationalist and populist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its leader and Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. The BJP claims India is the contemporary manifestation of an ancient Hindu culture long held down by the Muslims, the British, and, more recently, by secularist elites. Guided by the Hindu Nationalist philosophy, Hindutva, the BJP portrays itself as fighting against elites and foreign—mostly Muslim—external and internal enemies in the name of the people. Drawing on feelings of historical humiliation and anger towards elites and, particularly, Muslims, among India’s Hindu majority, the BJP portrays itself as the voice and instrument of the authentic Hindu people of India and claims that it will return India to the greatness of the ancient Hindu period.
Hindutva, an anti-colonial, nationalist ideology, emerged in the 1920s and was largely defined by activist and Indian politician Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Hinduism and Hindutva are distinct, a point made by Savarkar himself, who declared “Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva” (Devare 2013, pp. 195–96). Hindutva thus, according to Savarkar, incorporates Hinduism the religion but also encompasses the Hindu people themselves, the land of India, and the cultural practices which Savarkar ultimately identifies as the markers of Hindu civilization. For example, Savarkar claimed that the “failure to distinguish between Hindutva and Hinduism has given rise to much misunderstanding and mutual suspicion between some of those sister communities that have inherited this inestimable and common treasure of our Hindu civilization… It is enough to point out that Hindutva is not identical with what is vaguely indicated by the term Hinduism. By an “ism” it is generally meant a theory or a code, more or less based on a spiritual or religious dogma or system. But when we attempt to investigate into the essential significance of Hindutva, we do not primarily—and certainly not mainly—concern ourselves with any particular theocratic or religious dogma or creed…” (Savarkar 2021, sec. 31). Moreover, Savarkar argued that “Hindus are bound together not only by the tie of the love we bear to a common fatherland and by the common blood that courses through our veins and keeps our hearts throbbing and our affections warm, but also by the tie of the common homage we pay to our great civilization—our Hindu culture’” (Savakar 2009, pp. 94–95).
Savakar thus does not quite go as far as to remove Hinduism from Hindutva—obviously, Hinduism defines the key boundaries of Hindu culture and civilization—but he does make religious belief and practice merely a component of his wider ethnoreligious nationalist, anti-colonial political ideology.
Leidig (2020) notes that while the late 1990s and 2000s saw the rise of conservative right-wing politicians, “Hindutva was not truly ‘mainstreamed’ until the election victory of the BJP and current prime minister, Narendra Modi. To construct a narrative that furthered Hindu insecurity, Modi mobilized his campaign by appealing to recurring themes of a Muslim ‘threat’ to the Hindu majority. The result is that Hindutva has become synonymous with Indian nationalism”. It was under Modi’s leadership that the dominant political narrative turned from right-wing nationalist to populist while maintaining a reliance on the Hindutva narrative of Hindu victimhood and nostalgia for the lost golden age of Hindu civilization.
Narendra Modi rose to prominence after winning an election in the state of Gujarat in 2002. Growing in stature despite many controversies attached to his leadership, he became Indian Prime Minister in 2014. He unapologetically and openly embraced Hindutva ideology and brought it to the centre stage of BJP politics. For example, he refused to nominate any Muslim BJP candidates in the Gujarat elections in 2012, appeared to care little about the violence propagated by SP members in communal riots, and refused to wear clothes given by Muslim leaders to demonstrate his Hindu-ness (Jaffrelot 2016; Chakrabortty 2014).
The Modi-led BJP uses typical classic populism insofar as it attacks elites, in this case, the Indian National Congress party, which ruled India throughout much of the post-independence period (Jaffrelot and Tillin 2017, p. 184). The lynchpin of Modi’s political discourse is religious populism, inspired by Hindutva. For example, in 2014, Modi erected billboards featuring a picture of himself tinted with saffron, “I am a Patriot. I am Nationalist. I am Born Hindu” (Ghosh 2013). This wording and imagery of the electoral campaign was the beginning of what is termed as the “saffron tide” that has since desecularised India (Bhattacharjee 2017; Nag 2014). As part of this saffron tide and subsequent desecularisation, the BJP called for the building of a society for Hindus and run by Hindus, justifying their agenda through the Hindutva call for the “cleansing” of “impurities” from society. In this narrative of crisis, Modi was the “born Hindu” and “ideal Indian” who would lead the country as a “strongman” and revive the glory of the Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Kingdom) (Lefèvre 2020).
However, under the BJP’s classification of peoples and religions, McDonnell and Cabrera (2019) observe that “the people” and the “others” are not always categorised as Hindus and non-Hindus, respectively. Rather, Indian citizens are also judged according to the degree to which they love the Indian nation and its culture. This idea is embodied in the words of Manohar Lal Khattar, the BJP chief minister of Haryana, who explained that “Muslims can live here, but in this country, they will have to stop eating beef” (McDonnell and Cabrera 2019, p. 493). Of course, because the BJP frames Indian culture and the nation as the product of Hindu civilization, to love India and its culture is—according to the BJP—to either love or at least respect and obey the rules of Hindu culture. Or, as Irfan Ahmad (2017) puts it, “Hindutva defined Indianness exclusively in religious terms: an Indian is someone who considers India as their holy land”. The BJP’s populism is not, therefore, entirely pro-Hinduism or anti-Muslim, but rather the embodiment of the civilizationalist Hindutva ideals transmitted into the party. This civilisationalism is reflected in the party’s “abrogation of article 370, the ban on cow slaughter and the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya”, which the BJP claims are necessary acts to revive and protect Hindu culture (Ammassari 2018, p. 8). These actions are also framed as attempts to invalidate the “invasion” of India and to purify it in order that Hindu civilization may regain its lost glory (Ammassari 2018; Jain and Lasseter 2018).
The BJP frames itself as the voice of the people, and accordingly attacks “elites” such as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who they call “a shahzada (princeling) of the Delhi Sultanate” (Peker 2019, p. 32). At the same time, the party portrays its leader Modi as a true man of the people, making much of his blue-collar job as chaiwala (tea stall boy) and his simple Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS—a Hindutva organisation) background, and largely represents him as a “humble yet anointed Hindu leader” (Peker 2019, p. 32). From the clothes Modi chooses to wear to his routines of yoga and visiting temples, his actions are carefully “choreographed” to create a “Zen” or “woke” tolerant face of Hindutva and to portray Muslims as intolerant fanatics and terrorists (Lakshmi 2020). At the same time, the BJP often presents Modi as a religious figure, “sacralised with a halo indicating Hindu symbolism of gods who glow like surya (the sungod)” to consolidate his position as “the leader” for “the people” (Peker 2019, p. 32). Chacko (2018) notes that even the call for neo-liberal reforms to boost the economy is framed by religious Hindutva populism rather than simple nationalism. In Modi’s calls for neo-liberal reforms in India, he stresses the importance of regaining the lost Hindu homeland and of overcoming the hurdles placed in front of this goal by elites, internal non-Hindu enemies, and external antagonists such as Pakistan.
The BJP’s religious populism has had a large impact on Indian society. Since assuming power, the BJP has legislated to “safeguard” Hindu culture, framing Hindu people as victims and encouraging them, at times, to act with vindictiveness to revive the “lost homeland” of Hindu civilization. Where once the party had quietly mobilised SP members to attack minorities, increasingly the BJP government has simply created legislation which oppresses minorities and empowers Hindu nationalists. For example, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) targets Bengali Muslims, who were mostly displaced after the Pakistani civil war in the early 1970s and leaves them potentially stateless (Amnesty International 2021; Sharma 2020). In 2019, the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35a stripped India-held Kashmir of its special status and led to the forceful unification of the region with India. Kashmir’s parliament has been suspended, with massive lockdowns in place in the region since 5 August 2019, communication blackouts, civil liberties suspended—including the right to congregate for prayers—countless arbitrary arrests, and the killings of “suspected terrorists” (Human Rights Watch 2020a, 2020b, 2020c). Aggression towards “others” is deeply embedded in the BJP’s actions in Kashmir. For example, BJP law maker, Vikram Saini, remarked that the abrogation of the special status of Kashmir allowed for Muslim party workers to “go and marry fair-skinned Kashmiri girls”, treating Muslim women as if they were the spoils of war (Siddiqui 2018).
Equally, under BJP rule, there has been an overall tolerant attitude toward vigilantes that attack people suspected of butchering cows. This has led to an increase in “cow/beef lynching”, a phenomenon which generally targets Muslims (Human Rights Watch 2019). India’s relationship with Pakistan has also soured under Modi’s leadership, reaching a new low in which highly toxic commentary is present on both sides, and which has prevented diplomatic and civil society-led efforts to normalise the relationship (Pandey 2019). All these actions have been justified as defensive measures taken to preserve Hindu culture and revive Hindu civilisation, deepening social divides along civilisational lines. Like contemporary populists in Turkey and Pakistan, India’s BJP has also pushed for a change in the school curriculum that promotes civilisational populism by restructuring history and cultural identity (Yilmaz and Shakil 2021a, 2021b, 2021c; Yilmaz 2021). Post-2014, the Hindutva version of Indian history has increasingly blurred the lines between culture and history and fact and fiction. These changes were justified by RSS’s Manmohan Vaidya, who claimed “the true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history” (Jain and Lasseter 2018). The BJP’s written syllabus uses history to set a “Hindu first” narrative, in which other cultural influences are depicted as products of invader Muslim and Christian cultures. Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Human Resource Development, claims these changes are courageous, saying, “Our government is the first government to have the courage to even question the existing version of history that is being taught in schools and colleges” (Jain and Lasseter 2018). This fictional narrative of history is also promoted outside the classroom. Modi himself has claimed that all scientific interventions can be traced back to Vedic India. In this regard, he has claimed that the appearance of Ganesh, the deity with a boy’s body and an elephant head, was the result of plastic surgery, and further suggested that ancient Hindus were possibly highly skilled genetic scientists (Rahman 2014). Adding to this glorification of Vedic India, Modi has used the Hindu epic of Mahabharat to claim that the chariot of the Hindu God Rama was in fact the world’s first aeroplane, and other BJP leaders, such as Biplab Deb, Chief Minister of Tripura, have attributed the invention of the internet to ancient Indians (Rahman 2014).
The actions of the BJP have thus contributed to increasing violence against Muslims and other religious minorities, to a false version of history being taught in schools, and ultimately to the desecularisation of India and the creation of a new Indian identity based narrowly on identification with Hinduism.

6. Conclusions

Based on this brief survey, it is possible to conclude that religious populism is present throughout the Asia-Pacific region and that populists who incorporate religion into their discourses often occupy positions of high office and have become Prime Ministers and Presidents.
It is also possible to surmise that Asian populists are arguably more effective and politically successful and more violent and dangerous than European populists. Yet, they receive far less scholarly attention than their European and American counterparts due to Eurocentric bias in the extent of scholarship but also because Asia-Pacific populists rarely “oppose trade or immigration, or regional organisation” or do anything likely to upset major powers or political elites beyond their own nations (Swain 2022). This is unfortunate, because like European populists, Asia-Pacific populists frame themselves in their rhetoric as political outsiders who come from “the people”, and represent their interests, while also claiming that “elites” in government, bureaucracy, academia, and the media, are corrupt and despise “the people”. Equally, like European populists, Asia-Pacific populists use religion as a tool to define ingroups and outgroups, to legitimise their rule, and to justify attacks on minority religious groups. Moreover, like European populists, Asia-Pacific region populists have had a deleterious impact on democracy, pluralism, and, at times, the rule of law.
Important differences between populists in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region can be identified based on this examination. European populists run on explicit anti-immigrant platforms and claim that non-Christian immigrants present the gravest threat to the people and their Christian or Judeo-Christian culture and identity. In the Asia-Pacific region, where mass immigration is rare, anti-immigrant language plays a vastly less important role in religious populism. Instead, Asia-Pacific religious populists target religious minority populations and sometimes ethnic minorities, and portray them as dangerous internal enemies who threaten the rightful hegemony of “the people” or of the majority ethnoreligious group. Indeed, religious populists in the Asia-Pacific region frequently portray minority groups as obstacles to national redemption or flourishing, and they are sometimes working with foreign nations to prevent their nation from becoming “great”.
It is important to recognise, however, that religion is often one element in populist discourse, which, in the cases we have studied in this paper, is based upon wider ethno-religious nationalist conceptions of society. For example, in the case of the BJP in India, populism adheres to a wide Hindutva programme which incorporates and is defined by religion (Hinduism), but also claims that India is a holy land that belongs to Hindus of the Indian race, and that Hindu culture is wider than what is considered to belong to the Hindu religion. In each case we studied, however, religion plays a key role in defining the boundary between “us” and “them”, and between “the people” and their enemies: “elites” and “others”. Indeed, in each case, religion is combined with ethnic-based nationalism where it helps to define the key signifiers of populism: “the people”, “corrupt elites”, and “others”.
This study is but a preliminary examination of religious populism in the broad Asia-Pacific region and of nations in which religious populists have won government within the past decade. More scholarship on religious populism in the Asia-Pacific region and, indeed, beyond the West, is thus to be welcomed.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, I.Y. and N.M.; methodology, I.Y. and N.M.; formal analysis, I.Y. and N.M.; investigation, I.Y. and N.M.; writing—original draft preparation, N.M.; writing—review and editing, I.Y. and N.M. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research was funded by Australian Research Council grant number DP220100829 (Religious Populism, Emotions and Political Mobilisation, Discovery Project).

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Yilmaz, I.; Morieson, N. Religious Populisms in the Asia Pacific. Religions 2022, 13, 802.

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