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Messianic Conceptions of Politics and Authoritarianism in Turkey 1850-2015 (completed)

This project aimed to trace how Messianic conceptions of time and politics informed authoritarian leadership and legitimation practices in Turkey.

Three portaits in frames. Alevi, Bektasilik and Ataturk. Illustration.


Charismatic political leaders typically claim to not only represent, but to embody some divine will that thrusts leadership upon them. Those who are against them are against the will of God, and more recently, the will of the people. Understanding how these concepts are put to use are important for understanding the global rise of authoritarian rule and how authoritarian rulers draw on religious or secular traditions to bolster their legitimacy beyond the confines of liberal democratic procedures.

About the project

The project set up to first demonstrate empirically the longevity of messianic concepts of political leadership in the Turkish context from the early nineteenth century until today.

Second, the project looked at how such concepts are tied to the various alternative ways the past, the present and the future are represented and imagined politically.

Employing a conceptual historical approach this project was a genealogy of the authoritarian turn in Turkish politics and followed the Islamic and secular political theologies both of which imagine the leader as a saviour figure ruling a country in a state of crisis and exception.

The use of the word Messianism

The project used the word Messianism to define this authoritarian concept of leadership, because besides the obvious saviour image of the ruler and attending concepts, the project focused on religious and secular temporalities that are implied by, or built into, such concepts.


1. September 2019–31. August 2021


Messianic Leadership across the World

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

Time and place: May 19, 2021–May 21, 2021, University of Oslo, Faculty of Humanities.

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.

Published Mar. 11, 2020 10:46 AM - Last modified May 12, 2022 12:12 PM