Messianic Leadership across the World

An international workshop on comparative study of autocratic leaders as savior figures.

A bible and a red baseball caps with "Make America Great Again" in writing.
Photo: Unsplash

Note: Deadline for sending abstracts have been extended to March 1, 2021.

This is a three day international workshop which will explore contemporary autocratic leadership across the globe with a particular focus on its Messianic dimensions.

Authoritarian rule is on the rise all over the globe. Leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been ruling their countries almost for two decades, gradually consolidating their power through tightly woven personality cults. Recently, similar phenomena have emerged in other parts of the globe. Donald Trump in the USA, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil, Rodrigo Duterte in Philippines are among the more successful and visible of aspiring autocrats from a longer list.

Making sense of this new wave of authoritarian regimes is one of the most central questions facing political research. Much has been written on common structural patterns and institutional elements, particularly under the analytical approach of “competitive authoritarianism”. Much less has been done, however, to analyze and frame the discursive and performative elements of this new wave of leadership in a comparative perspective.

Erdoğan aspires to be the caliph of Muslims, Trump has been supported by evangelical groups as the “anointed of God” and Modi’s image relies heavily on Hindu myths. These leaders have not only bypassed and undermined formal democratic procedures while relying on electoral success and popular support, but also they drew significantly on alternative traditional discourses to bolster the legitimacy of their unconventional rule.

As such these figures have a Messianic element to their rule; they set themselves up as savior figures and promise communal salvation in the face of present crises or imagined apocalyptic scenarios. Underlying these different versions of Messianic politics are discernible alternative temporalities (cyclical, restorative or simply reactionary) that challenge or marginalize progressive temporalities we have come to associate with liberal democratic politics.

Call for papers

We invite scholars working on various local contexts from diverse disciplinary backgrounds to present their work on these Messianic elements underlying new authoritarianisms.

Empirical, analytical or conceptual papers addressing following questions or adjacent problems are most welcome:

  • What kind of role do indigenous, alternative or esoteric traditions play in fostering and reinforcing, or, alternatively, undermining and subverting authoritarian rule?
  • How is personal rule legitimized in the face of democratic demands for participatory politics beyond invoking states of emergency or exception? How are extant institutions and procedures criticized, harnessed or reshaped in the service of personal rule?
  • What kind of exceptional (even superhuman) qualities and agencies are associated with these leaders? And how are these leaders expected to display these? What happens if they cannot? How are the gaps between the ideal and the real managed in discourse?
  • How is a “personal” relationship created between an autocratic leader and the population, such that they become followers? What necessary form does such interaction take, by what media, and for what specific purpose?
  • How can we understand charisma and charismatic leadership through these new leadership styles? Further, how can we rethink the Weberian typology of bureaucratic, traditional and charismatic authorities in this new context?
  • How can we rethink populism through a Messianic framework?
  • What kind of temporalities (revivalist, cyclical, apocalyptic, eschatological etc.) can be discerned and identified underlying these authoritarian regimes? What kind of alternative histories and futures are imagined and constructed?

Logistics and Format

Depending on the progression of the pandemic and the individual situation of the participants, the workshop will be partially or completely online through Zoom. Travel and accommodation costs for participants who can travel will be covered by the organizers.

Selected participants will be expected to submit their working papers two weeks in advance to be circulated among the attendants. Over two days and several successive sessions (2-3 papers per panel) each participant will have 20 minutes to present their work for questions and discussion. Selected papers from the workshop will be invited to contribute to a journal special issue.

How to apply

Kindly send a short bio and an abstract of 300 words to before March 1, 2021. Graduate students are welcome to apply.


For those who would like to audit the workshop, further information about how to register will be announced in late February 2021 after the workshop program is finalized.


Alp Eren Topal

This workshop is a part of the project “Messianic Conceptions of Politics and Authoritarianism in Turkey 1850-2015”.

Published Dec. 15, 2020 12:13 PM - Last modified Dec. 8, 2021 10:30 AM